A very interesting discussion is shaping up between Harman and Shaviro concerning the ontological status of objects and relations in Whitehead. Shaviro’s latest post defending Whitehead can be found here. At the outset, it’s worth emphasizing that Whitehead is essential reading for OOO. Whitehead is perhaps the greatest realist and object-oriented philosopher of the last century. In many respects, Whitehead is the most resolutely anti-idealist thinker in the last two hundred years. Unlike those poor cowardly souls that advance arguments to the effect that the distinction between idealism and realism is meaningless (translation: they’ve sided with idealism), or that seek to escape idealism by deconstructing the self-transparency of the subject while still treating everything in terms of the signifier, power, signs, etc., Whitehead resolutely speaks of the objects themselves without conflating the ontological and the epistemological register, leaving the reader with no doubt that he’s perfectly happy to speak of the being of beings that have no relation to the human whatsoever. As Harman has recently noted, this is the litmus test of whether or not one is an idealist:
Stated differently, you can’t say: “I’m not an idealist. I believe the human subject is a passive recipient of the world, not its constitutor,” or “Human and world are co-produced,” or “world produces the human.”
Why does the human need to be involved all of these cases?
Even worse is when the game is played of replacing the human with falsely neutral-sounding terms such as “subject”, “thought”, “Ereignis,” or any equivalent thereof.
If people always have to be involved in any situation being discussed in your philosophy, then you’re an idealist. The problem is that it’s become such a reflexive assumption that the human must be one ingredient in any situation under discussion that people immediately scream “positivism!” as soon as you start talking about inanimate relations. So much contemporary continental philosophy has been built as nothing but a firewall against the natural sciences, and unfortunately Husserl (a truly great philosopher) is one of the worst violators on this front.
If you find yourself immediately talking about language, signs, subjects, co-constitution, power, the nature of inquiry, etc., then you are an idealist. There is no ambiguity here. The implicit thesis in all these moves that the being of being cannot be even entertained independent of the human. Whitehead passes this litmus test with flying colors. For Whitehead humans are one being among many others, one event among many others. All philosophical questions do not revolve around the human. Nor is there any conflation of questions of access in Whitehead with questions of ontology. The question of how we have access to such and such a being, say a rose, is irrelevant to the question of what constitutes the being of beings. I find myself utterly baffled as to why philosophers seem to have such a difficult time distinguishing these two issues. They should know better. Everyone who teaches ethics knows how to debunk the students claim that values are purely subjective and whatever beliefs a person possesses within minutes. In other words, everyone who teaches ethics knows that the question of what values are, how we deliberate about right and wrong, etc., is independent of the question of our access to values and norms. Yet oddly this same simple insight isn’t carried over into the realm of ontology.
Despite the problems with the many idealisms currently regnant in philosophy, perhaps these positions are excusable on the grounds that the motives behind these positions are in the right place. If we distinguish philosophies not by the claims they make or the positions they endorse, but in the Nietzschean fashion of distinguishing them by the desires that animate them, I think we might get a sense of why there is so often an uneasiness in relation to realism. Every philosophy, in addition to advocating a position, also seems to be animated by a desire or a set of desires. Perhaps it would be possible to write an entire history of philosophy from the perspective of desire and the desires that animate various shapes or forms of thought. And if realism seems to generate so much uneasiness, I suspect this is because one senses that the desire animating so many realisms is the desire to police and subjugate. Just as one might be uneasy with Kant as a result of his metaphors and analogies comparing reason to a tribunal and a judge, in his treatment of reason in terms of a court room (what desire is suggested by this?), there are a number of realisms that seem geared at policing the thought of others, correcting, mastering, and controlling. This would be especially the case with scientistic and reductive realisms that we find so often in philosophy. Here we should not look simply at the propositional content of these positions, with how well formed their arguments are, with whether or not the conclusions follow from the premises, and so on. We should also look at the general tone and character of the prose or rhetoric through which the philosophy is articulated, its voice, the preponderance of negations and negatives, the frequency of accusations, and so on. This rhetorical dimension, deeply connected to desire, is every bit as important in evaluating a philosophy, I would argue, and speaks to the presence of a surplus-jouissance animating the thought of a thinker that functions as the real aim of this thought.
This highly antagonistic and disciplinarian jouissance often bleeds through on every page of realist works by scientistic realists, eliminative realists, certain versions of atheistic materialism, and so on, such that one senses almost instinctively that something is deeply amiss in the text or thought of a particular philosopher, that there is a very dangerous desire at work in this thought, and that the position is to be rejected on general principle. In other words, argument is not the sole criteria by which a philosophy should be evaluated. Often a position will embody compelling arguments, but, like the persuasiveness of Freidmannian economics, these arguments will only be persuasive and compelling by virtue of gross simplifications, generalizations, caricatures, etc., that function as means to the satisfaction of another desire not directly stated in the text. Or maybe a better analogy would be that of the sadistic boss or teacher. The reason that it is so difficult to protest the injustice of a sadistic boss or teacher is that they are able to cite all sorts of compelling reasons for their behavior based on the policies of the company or their educational institution. All their actions are consistent with these policies and regulations. Nonetheless, it is more than evident that the way in which they execute these policies have very different motives than the policies themselves. If Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom is such an important moral treatise, then this is because, through its hyperbole, it discloses the manner in which the moral law can function for the sake of the most horrific jouissance while nonetheless being consistent with that law.
I suspect that this is what is sensed by many idealists. If there is one persistent theme I’ve noticed among the many anti-realists I’ve tussled with, it’s that there seems to be a strong desire to underline that we don’t know things or that we cannot know things a priori. Despite the fact that no contemporary realist any stripe has claimed that we can know things a priori, there seems to be this persistent belief that somehow the realist is claiming that we know things in this way. Again, this probably goes back to the adolescent, pathological tendency of anti-realists to conflate ontological and epistemological issues as if they were the same. The anti-realist will contest a claim about the nature of being on the grounds of phenomena like quantum entanglement, appearing to be oblivious to the fact that phenomena like quantum entanglement simply raise issues of individuation (i.e., whether the two particles are in fact one entity or whether they are two entities that communicate through some form of information exchange of which we are not aware). They seem to find something profound in this mystery and devastating to knowledge in a way that is equivalent to suggesting that somehow the fact that I do not know what my friend Graham is currently doing in Cairo but can only speculate about what he is doing undermines the real existence of Graham. The problem is that they throw out the baby with the bathwater. Rather than formulating more adequate, more interesting, more affirmative and joyous realisms they instead throw out realism altogether and fall into the murky domain of correlationism as a defense against this desire they sense but which they can’t quite put their finger on. Like vapid and cowardly United States democrats that allow the right to frame all the arguments, they allow scientistic realists to frame the nature of the argument, accept the terms in which they frame the argument, and then react to the scientistic realists position by conceding them everything.
At any rate, ranting aside, what makes the discussion between Harman and Shaviro so interesting, is that it revolves entirely around the realist question or ontological issue of the relation between relations and relata. Are objects composed entirely of their relations? Are objects entirely independent of their relations? Is there yet another position? This is the issue or the question being posed. Harman, of course, argues that objects are entirely independent of their relations. Thinkers like Hegel and some of the structuralists argue, by contrast, that all relations are internal relations such that every entity is a reflection of the totality of which it is a part and has no being apart from that totality. Shaviro, like myself, seems to argue for a middle position. Objects have an autonomy or independence from their relations, yet the relations an object enters into play a crucial role in the characteristics an object comes to exemplify. Note, this debate unfolds entirely within a realist framework and, arguably, an object-oriented framework. In other words, relationism is an available position within object-oriented ontology. Thus, for example, Graham has categorized Whitehead, Latour, and myself as relationist object-oriented ontologists in the past.
I very much appreciate Harman’s arguments against internal relationism and have subsequently used them myself in my own work. I am not, however, convinced by his reading of Whitehead. The issue here, however, is complex. And I am not sure that Whitehead’s work admits of a single interpretation of this issue. The whole question boils down to whether, for Whitehead, objects are external to their terms, or whether relations are internal to their terms. In other words, is Whitehead similar to Hegel in holding that objects are nothing independent of their relations, that their being is their relations, or is Whitehead closer to someone like James who holds that both objects and relations are external to their terms? What is the relation between relation and relata? This apparently abstract question has profound consequences at the level of our understanding of nature, our ethics, and our politics. In short, it is not an idle question.
Evidence for the Jamesian reading of Whitehead (that would place Whitehead’s ontology in much greater proximity to Harman’s ontology than he thinks) can be found in chapter 2 of Process and Reality. At the outset, Whitehead writes,
‘Actual entities’– also termed ‘actual occasions’ –are the final real things of which the world is made up. There is no going behind actual entities to find anything more real. They differ among themselves: God is an actual entity, and so is the most trivial puff of existence in far-off empty space… The final facts are, all alike, actual entities… (18)
Here Whitehead seems to meet at least part of Harman’s requirements. Whitehead’s universe is composed entirely of actual entities or discrete objects. Unlike Spinozism or Deleuze’s one-all, actual occasions or objects are what make up the world. Thus, while we don’t find here a withdrawn object as in the case of Harman’s ontology, we nonetheless find a world composed of objects. The problem emerges in the remainder of the passage just cited. Whitehead goes on to say “…these actual entities are drops of experience, complex and interdependent” (ibid, my emphasis). It is this interdependency clause, I think, that raises red flags for Harman. Should we take this interdependency to be of the Hegelian sort, claiming, in effect, that an object is its relations or its interdependencies? Or, under a more charitable object-oriented reading, should we conclude that Whitehead is merely pointing out that objects or actual occasions draw on other objects or actual occasions to continue their ongoing autopoiesis. I, for example, am interdependent with the world in which I exist by virtue of the fact that I draw food from this world, oxygen, cannot exist at the bottom of the ocean where the water pressure is 2000 psi’s or in outer space, and so on, but nonetheless I cannot be reduced to these relations. While I would certainly die if I were to somehow dive to the hadalpelagic zone of the ocean, I would still remain this object that is now dead. My death would be a change in the qualities my being as this particular object actualizes, not a change in my being as this object. Is Whitehead making a claim like this? It is difficult to say as Whitehead also says that every actual occasion or object maintains a definite relation with every other entity in the entire universe. The issue is whether in maintaining this relation, the entity is these relations.
Harman objects to Whitehead on the grounds that he argues that actual occasions are “concrescences” of prehensions. “Concrescence” refers to the way in which prehensions are synthesized. “Prehension” refers to what is “concresced” in this process of synthesis. If, then, every object is the product of the way in which it prehends other objects, it would seem that indeed Harman is right to criticize Whitehead for reducing objects or actual occasions to their prehensions. However, when we read further in chapter 2 we find that the situation is more complicated than this. Whitehead writes:
…two descriptions are required for an actual entity: (a) one which is analytical of its potentiality for ‘objectification’ in the becoming of other actual entities, and (b) another which is analytical of the process which constitutes the process which constitutes its own becoming.
The term ‘objectification’ refers to the particular mode in which the potentiality of one actual entity is realized in another actual entity. (23)
Within the framework of my onticology, what Whitehead is here referring to falls under what I call “translation”. Translation is the process by which one entity draws on the differences of another entity to produce a new phase state within itself. Thus, for example, the plant translates sunlight into sugars. In Whitehead’s language, the plant “objectifies” sunlight in its own being by transforming it into sugars. My account of endo-consistency and attractors belongs to the process dimension of these sorts of relations. Whitehead goes on to remark that,
…how an entity becomes constitutes what that actual entity is; so that the two descriptions of an actual entity are not independent. Its ‘being’ is constituted by its ‘becoming.’ This is the principle of process. (ibid.)
Again, I am in agreement with Whitehead. My objects are processes or events, not static and fixed entities. They are to be conceived as something like an autopoietic system that maintains itself across time. Thus, if I am led to claim that objects are incorporeal or immaterial, then this is not because they are not embodied in matter, but because matter courses in and out of them without the object becoming another object.
Finally Whitehead goes on to remark that,
…the first analysis of an actual entity, into its most concrete elements, discloses it to be a concrescence of prehensions, which have originated in its process of becoming. All further analysis is an analysis of prehensions. Analysis in terms of prehensions is termed ‘division.’
…every prehension consists of three factors: (a) the ‘subject’ which is prehending, namely the actual entity in which the prehension is a concrete element; (b) the ‘datum’ which is prehended; (c) the ‘subjective form’ which is how that subject prehends that datum. (ibid.)
The initial paragraph seems to support Harman’s reading insofar as prehensions are information-relations to other objects or actual occasions. However, when we read further it appears that the issue is far more complicated. We have to exercise care when Whitehead here refers to “subjects”. Whitehead is not talking about humans or animals. Humans and animals are subjects, but then so are rocks, atoms, quarks, stars, and, in the beautiful example Shaviro gives in Without Criteria, so is Cleopatra’s Needle. In other words, any object is, for Whitehead, a subject. Within the language of onticology, actual occasions or objects understood as subjects are objects viewed from the angle of their unity and endo-consistency as a system.
Here I find myself wondering whether Harman’s critique of Harman doesn’t revolve around an issue of naming. Whitehead makes the unfortunate move of describing objects as a concrescence of prehensions. But he also distinguishes between (a) the prehension as a datum (information), (b) the entity from which the prehension issues, (c) the object or actual occasion as a subject or unity, and (d) the manner in which the actual occasion processes this datum according to its own internal endo-consistency. Had Whitehead formulated distinct terms for all these dimensions of the process of concrescence, would there really be a debate between Harman and Whitehead. In evoking (c) and (d), Whitehead strikes me as carefully distinguishing the object qua object from its relations. Qua subject or autopoietic system, the object is distinct from any of the “data” that happens to come its way. In other words, there would be a dimension of all objects independent of their relations. Qua exo-relations or inter-ontic relations, the object would grasp other objects through a particular difference that the object transforms or translates as a result of its own endo-relational process. In this respect, Whitehead’s actual occasions would fulfill Harman’s independence criteria insofar as the object qua endo-relational autopoietic system would be irreducible to its relations to other entities. The real debate here would not be a debate between the externality of relations and the internality of relations insofar as both Harman and Whitehead would endorse the externality of relations. The real debate would perhaps be around the withdrawal of objects from one another or just how that withdrawal is to be conceived.