Adrian Ivakhiv has an interesting post up defending ontology relationism and its importance for ecological thought. Adrian writes:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.

A couple of points. First, there’s an issue about philosophical vocabulary here. It is difficult to have these discussions if one doesn’t attend to the precise content of concepts. In the passages that I’ve bold-faced above Adrian characterizes object-oriented philosophy in terms of stability over change and process. Here I take it that Adrian is playing on ordinary language usages of the term “object”. However, it’s important to attend to how terms are actually used. Certainly we would end up with some very strange criticisms of Hegel if we took “Spirit” to signify ghosts, demons, and poltergeists; likewise, we would have a very difficult time understanding Heidegger if we understood “Dasein” in its ordinary language sense of the term as “existence”, and finally it would be very difficult to follow Whitehead if we took his term “organism” too literally. In this case of object-oriented ontology this point is important because if we don’t attend to what OOO purports to have discovered about the being of objects we’re bound to misconstrue its claims. Thus, for example, in the second paragraph cited above, Adrian talks about the thing at the center of our perception. The problem here is that in both my variant of OOO, onticology, and Harman’s variant of OOO, ontography, it is argued that you can’t perceive an object. The object is not what is perceived or what is at the center of attention.

read on!

For Harman this is because all objects withdraw from one another. A consequence of this– and hopefully I’m not misconstruing Harman’s position –the object is never what is perceived. In my onticology this is because the proper being of an object is virtual. As a consequence, objects are never identical to any of their actualizations or local manifestations. Indeed, for me, following Bhasker, one of the key “sins” of philosophy from roughly the 18th century of philosophy on is that of actualism or the conflation of beings or objects with their actualized properties in perception. Bhaskar has convincingly shown that epistemological actualism leads to all sorts of destructive deadlocks within philosophy. Under this account, objects are thought as generative mechanisms, as powers or capacities to produce differences, not as what they generate. This is why I argue that objects are essentially split.

There are similar problems with the opposition between stability and process. In the case of my onticology, objects are four-dimensional space-time worms. That is to say, they are processes. In this respect, they are not fixed and abiding entities like atomistic billiard balls, but are rather ongoing events. They develop, they change, they evolve, and some of these processes are irreversible, whereas others are not. Nonetheless, there is an endo-relational structure within these processes– the substantiality of the object –that constitutes the identity and unity of the object over the course of its life. Here, I think, I am not so far from Whitehead’s process ontology. While I don’t accept Whitehead’s thesis that objects are a concresence of prehensions to everything else in the universe, I do share his thesis that there is an endo-relational structure to objects that constitutes their identity. If the former thesis is to be rejected as incoherent, then this is because where everything is its relations to everything else in the universe there is nothing to relate and we get a hall of mirrors that reflects nothing. As Harman occasionally puts it, we get a game of hot potato where the potato completely disappears.

Moving on to the issue of relationism, the point is not to reject relations, but to understand that relations are external to their terms. Indeed, in an earlier draft of the Democracy of Objects the first sentence of the introduction read “what is the relation between relations and relata”. Relata, of course, refer to objects. As I’ve tried to argue, relations are external to their terms or objects. Thus its not a question of rejecting relations, but rather of understanding that the being of objects is not exhausted by the exo-relations into which they enter. Where we argue that objects are their relations we fall into a variant of actualism that makes it impossible to explain how networks or assemblages actually function. And here I don’t think Adrian’s proposal does the work that he would like it to do. Adrian writes:

When Harman or Bryant suggest that relationalism is incoherent, I presume that they mean one that makes no distinctions between different kinds of relations — different in speed, scope, intensity, direction, etc. That would be like an object-oriented ontology that made no distinctions between different kinds of objects. If entities are, as relationalists claim, constituted by their internal and external relations, the important thing is to determine what kinds of relations these are, how they mesh together (into what kinds of assemblages and networks, meshworks and hierarchies, etc.), what kinds of orders or patterns these constitute, and — crucially for politics and for ethics — what kinds of openings for action and change they make available for those, like us, who are implicated within them, and what kinds of openings are enabled or foreclosed for others by our actions.

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While I am certainly all for examining meshworks, assemblages, networks, heirarchies, patterns, and speeds, the problem still remains: If there is not something in excess of the local manifestations of entities at a particular time within a particular configuration of relations (actualism) then we are at a loss to explain how anything new emerges. For this you need something anterior to relations. Consequently, I would argue, adopting an “ahypothetical” style of argument drawn from Aristotle, that Adrian’s position implicitly assumes what object-oriented philosophers are explicitly arguing: that there is an excess of entity over relation.

Adrian worries that an object-oriented ontology will lead us to ignore relations and networks, becoming blind to how capitalism functions and to ecological networks. However, I think the case is precisely the opposite. With the relationist I’m primarily interested in understanding the functioning of networks and assemblages. My difference is that I don’t begin from the premise that objects are there relations. In the case of ecophilosophy, I think this theoretical difference is crucial to good ecological practice. Our ecological questions always revolve around questions of what happens when new objects are introduced into an existing collective assemblage of objects. How does the introduction of cane toads change things in Australia? What happens to Australian ecosystems with the introduction of this new actor? What happens to the environment with the introduction of fluorocarbons? And in what amounts? The point is that we need an ontology where terms are external to their relations to understand and track these changes. Not only do we get the introduction of new objects (cane toads, fluorocarbons, etc), but objects within the existing and established collective begin to display new powers or behave in different ways. Here it’s necessary to think in terms of exo-relations rather than treating all objects as endo-relational networks that are nothing more than their relations to everything else.

With respect to his analysis of capitalism and commodities I think Adrian just gets it wrong. Adrian writes:

Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it.

If anything, the situation is precisely the reverse. With the emergence of commodity capitalism we have not become focused on objects, but rather objects have increasingly evaporated altogether, becoming replaced by process and relation. This is because the commodity relation is one where the object gets reduced to nothing more than its exchange-value or an abstract value that renders all things that differ– up to and including human beings and all human values –equivalent and exchangeable. In this regard, it is no accident that we get the emergence of postmodernism where masks are no longer treated as masking anything and where being is conceived as a precession of constantly mutating and schizophrenic simulacra. As Marx put it, all that is solid melts into air. Likewise, in the domain of politics we get the emergence of the politics of identity where the question is one of desperately striving to fix some sort of identity precisely because all identity has evaporated in the exchange relation and the ubiquitous equivalence established by the money relation that renders all things the same. What has happened here, then, is that all use-values disappear in the exchange-relation becoming entirely invisible. OOO is more than capable of analyzing the relational networks that generate this phenomena. Part of its critical edge, however, lies in rejecting the move that would reduce entities to these relational networks. And it is precisely because it argues for an excess of entity over these relations that it promises a means of responding to these networks.

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