[Update: The title of this post has been changed because apparently the term “value” attracts every spam outlet under the sun, leading to a few hundred links to bargain sites. Yikes!]
Over at Hyper Tiling Fabio has an excellent post up relating his impressions of Dundee. I confess that I’m extremely sad that I was unable to attend the conference. So it goes. A couple of remark in Fabio’s post caught my eye. Fabio writes:
Objects – this term, of course, has been powerfully (and almost single-handedly) thrown back into philosophical language by the work of Graham Harman and its creative synthesis of Latour/Husserl/Heidegger that goes under the name of –precisely– object-oriented Philosophy. I confess to have mixed feelings about Harman’s project, for if I (like many others) have been seduced by his —rhetorically vibrant— exhortations regarding the need for philosophy to break out of its correlationist constraints (the well known ‘fire-cotton’ rhetoric), and by his vigorous and fresh way of philosophizing, I remain (shame on me!) a relationist at heart, finding Latour’s hybrid actors more seductive entities than Harman’s vacuum-sealed objects.
I’m interested in hearing Fabio say more as to just what he means when he calls himself a relationist. Nothing about OOO prevents one from speaking about relations and from analyzing relations. What OOO rejects is the thesis that objects are their relations. There is a vast difference between the claim that there are only relations, and the claim that there are objects and the relations objects enter into. The former is ontological relationism, the latter is what OOO claims (at least in my formulation, though I think Harman and I are on the same page here). What OOO rejects is the thesis that all relations are internal relations. It has no problem with external relations.
In my view– and I draw this argument from Harman –if ontological relationism is right then we might as well throw in the towel because it is impossible to explain how change can occur. In order for change to take place it’s necessary that something be introduced into collectives that isn’t simply a function of relations in that collective. If entities are nothing but their relations then their being is exhausted by their relations and any activity on the part of elements in a collective are simply a function of the collective and reproduce the collective.
Despite the irritation I recently expressed at the return of the category of the subject in recent Continental political theory, Zizek and Badiou both have a point. The reason Badiou is so interested in subtraction and that Zizek is so interested in a Lacanian subject that evades any signifier and the concept of a pure act is that both 1) treat the structure of situations as relational and therefore 2) recognize that change is impossible within situations if we are left with nothing but these relations. The difference between OOO and Badiou and Zizek on these points is that where Badiou and Zizek treat the subject alone as the privileged site detached from the relational structure of situations, whereas OOO works from the premise that all objects are in excess of any relations they enter into and therefore have the power to act at odds to those relational networks. At any rate, relationism, to my thinking, ultimately leads to the impossibility of any change. Without this minimal excess of object over relation it’s impossible to explain change.
Fabio goes on to ask:
One of my main questions (and of others I have had occasion to talk with) regarding OOP is the simple question: ‘what next’? What avenues of evolution can OOP have except from an increasingly refined metaphysics based on middle-sized dry goods? (and, a more cynical critic than I am could add ‘and if the answer is “none” how does this “continental metaphysics” really differ from its analytic cousin, except with respect to its witty and metaphorical language?’).
First, with regard to Fabio’s allusion to “middle-sized goods” I confess that such remarks always irritate me. OOO asserts the existing of objects at all levels of scale from the infinitely small to the extremely large (like galaxies and galactic clusters, etc). Contrary to Fabio’s claim, it does not privilege “middle sized objects”. What it refuses is the thesis that the really small objects are the really real objects and that other objects like rocks, birds, stars, and galaxies are not real. That’s it.
Setting this irritation aside, I think Fabio asks an important question when he asks “what’s next”. Here I’m not sure whether Graham and I are on the same page, but I will say that I think a large part of the value of OOO lies in allowing us to find a way beyond a rut that Continental theory– in particular Continental social and political theory –finds itself in. For the past few decades, Continental social and political theory has found itself dominated almost entirely by the primacy of signifiers, signs, discourses, and texts in explaining social structures. OOO does not discount these actants, but it refuses that gesture that holds that all questions must be posed entirely in those terms. In this way OOO significantly expands the resources of analysis open to social and political theorists, allowing for all sorts of new actants to come in to play in our analyses. My prediction is that not only will this open up all sorts of highly original and new forms of analysis outside of philosophy, but it will open a way beyond certain deadlocks that have haunted contemporary Continental social and political philosophy. It will also allow for the development of new strategies of resistance and change. Bad ontology is doomed to generate bad practice because it will lead us to ask the wrong sorts of questions or encounter insoluble problems where there really aren’t problems. There’s been a lot of bad ontology in the last few decades.
Things get really interesting when Fabio relates Hallward’s questions for OOO. Fabio writes:
I look forward to this, especially after having silently agreed with the pointed critical observations made by Hallward after Harman’s talk: how does the object-oriented metaphysical understanding of withdrawn objects cope with all those properties which an ‘object’ acquires when seen as an integral cog in the capitalist system? Is the ’substance’ of an object really left untouched when —for example— its market value oscillates? In what way is a water bottle an ‘object’ in the same way as a company share is an ‘object’?
I have no idea how Harman might have responded to these questions, but it does not seem to me that OOO has a particularly difficult time responding to these sorts of questions. Here questions of mereology or part-whole relations are of crucial importance. First, it is notable that the proper Marxist answer to this question is no the properties of an object do not change with fluctuations in market value. Recall that Marx distinguishes between value, use-value, and exchange-value. Use-value is dependent on the properties of the object itself. The use-value of an object remain exactly as they were despite changes in the exchange-value of the object. It is perplexing that anyone would suggest otherwise.
However, second, and more importantly, we have to ask what sorts of things values (in the Marxist sense) are. Are values objects or are they properties of objects? And the obvious answer here is that values are not themselves objects, but are rather properties of objects. Value, in the Marxist sense, is one way in which a particular type of object actualizes itself in its properties. But what type of object is this object that actualizes itself in properties such as value? The answer to this question is that value is a property of capitalist societies. In other words, we have the object, capitalist societies, and then properties of this object, value. And as I’ve argued repeatedly in my discussions of attractors and phase spaces, properties of objects are things that continuously oscillate as a function of their own internal structure and the relations they enter into with other objects.
If considerations of mereology are so important here, then this is because it’s vital to recognize both that a capitalist society (or a feudal society, etc) is itself an object, but that it is also composed of other objects that themselves independent objects. Capitalist society, for example, enlists human bodies (which it transforms into workers), technologies, and natural resources to form itself as an object. Yet these elements that enter into the multiple composition of the society are themselves objects that have their own autonomy and independence. As a consequence, ever object struggles with the objects that make it up, attempting to reduce them to what it strives to make them for the sake of reproducing itself in time and space. And if it’s so crucial to always keep the multi-stratified nature of objects before one’s mind, then this is because these sub-multiples belong to a multiple are the site where change can take place in a higher order multiple like a society.