I’m still swamped with grading and will be so for another week, so I haven’t had much time to follow the blogs. With that in mind, I’m just now coming across Ivakhiv’s and Harman’s exchange pertaining to relations and objects. I have to say that I find this debate extremely gratifying because it seems to mark a new stage in the thought of the speculative realists. With the exception of Harman’s work (and perhaps Grant’s), early speculative realism devoted itself largely to the refutation of correlationism. Although Harman’s work often directed arguments against philosophies of access, it has largely been devoted to the development of a full-blown ontology as far back as Tool-Being. Among other things, the debate between the subtractive object-oriented ontologists and the relationist object-oriented ontologists is particularly interesting because it is deployed purely within the realm of ontology. In other words, it is no longer a debate between realists and anti-realists, but between two competing realist theories of existence. As such, it suggests discussion is moving past debates about whether epistemology is First Philosophy or whether ontology is First Philosophy… At least for a few.

As I’ve often remarked on this blog, I have the highest admiration and sympathy for Ivakhiv’s work. This admiration is not simply an admiration for his ontology, but also for his devotion to ecology and his ecological ethics. Nonetheless, I confess that I find his relationism and critiques of subtractive object-oriented ontology baffling. And if I find this critique baffling, then this is because Adrian seems to hold that subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects relations altogether, such that it holds that we should ignore relations among objects. Minimally, given Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics, which possesses the subtitle “Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things”, this is a very perplexing assertion, for when Graham evokes the term “carpentry”, he is referring precisely to relations among objects. Where Tool-Being analyzed the subtraction or withdrawal of objects from all relations as a primitive ontological fact, Guerrilla Metaphysics examines relations that obtain among beings. So the first point here is that subtractive object-oriented ontology does not reject relations.

read on!

The debate, I believe, among the subtractive object-oriented ontologists lies not in whether the world is composed entirely of objects or relations, but rather in the precise ontological status of relations as they relate to objects. For the subtractive object-oriented ontologists I think the issue can be summed up bluntly with a single question:

Is it possible for all objects in the universe to be somehow destroyed, such that only one object remains?

If you hold that this final object would immediately puff out of existence with the destruction of all other objects, then you are an ontological relationist. If, by contrast, you hold that this Last Object would remain, even if very poor in qualities, then you have sided with the subtractive-object oriented ontologists.

Now initially this sort of counter-factual question might appear prosaic and irrelevant, for we do not live in a universe where only one object exists, but rather a universe populated by an infinity of objects. Consequently, one might counter with the claim that such a question is merely a question of science fiction. However, how this question is answered has profound ontological consequences for universes populated by many objects. For the subtractive object-oriented ontologists, the issue is not whether or not there are relations, but whether objects can be detached from relations. And here I defer to Harman’s distinction between domestic relations and foreign relations. As Harman is careful to note, domestic and foreign relations differ from the traditional distinction between internal and external relations. Where internal and external relations traditionally refer to relations an object has to other objects in the world, such that the former refers to relations to other objects from which the object cannot be detached and the latter refers to relations with other objects from which the object can be detached, domestic relations refer to the internal structure or composition of an object, while foreign relations refer to an objects relation to other objects.

The debate for subtractive object-oriented ontologists is not with whether objects enter into foreign relations with other objects. They do. And in my own work, one of the prime targets of inquiry is what happens when objects enter into foreign relations with other objects. Put otherwise, I am keenly interested in the relation between domestic relations and foreign relations. The debate, rather, is whether all foreign relations are internal relations. If all foreign relations are internal relations, then objects puff out of existence when they are detached these relations. They cannot sustain themselves in existence apart from these relations. This is precisely what constitutes their relations as internal. By contrast, subtractive object-oriented ontology maintains that all foreign relations are external relations. This entails that within certain limits (destruction being that limit), all objects can be detached from their foreign relations to other objects.

Now the importance of this thesis revolves around the issue of change. Within the framework of my onticology, it is of vital importance to maintain that foreign relations are external relations because this distinction allows us to analyze the production of qualities or local manifestations as a result of objects becoming entangled with one another in foreign relations. The thesis is that when objects enter into new foreign relations, new qualities are produced. The virtual proper being of objects, which consists of their powers or capacities and their domestic relations, is the condition for these qualities. But these qualities are only awoken in local manifestations as a consequence of entering into foreign relations with other objects. Here I don’t think Graham and I are so far apart, for what I call a “local manifestation” correlates very closely with what Graham calls a “sensuous object”, where sensuous objects are apparitions of objects that emerge when one real object relates to another object.

Without this distinction between objects in their virtual proper being and local manifestations, or real objects and sensuous objects, we inevitably reduce objects to their qualities, and fall back into either a sort of noxious essentialism (subtractive OOO does advocate the existence of essences, but of a very different sort), or the thesis that objects are instantaneous points in space and time without any enduring being beneath their changing qualities. One of the major theoretical pay-offs of the distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestations or between real objects and sensuous objects, is that it introduces the counter-factual into our ontological meditations, making us attentive to how changes in foreign relations also generate changes in local manifestations or sensuous objects. As a function of the foreign relations an object enters into, qualities erupt volcanically, producing new qualities. In this way we avoid reducing objects to their actuality (their local manifestation or sensuous being), and instead begin to wonder how objects would behave were they to enter into new foreign relations.

Accordingly, we can distinguish between endo-qualities, exo-qualities, and local essences. Endo-qualities are real qualities of an object that emerge in the object as a consequence of its domestic relations, whether or not it is related to any other entity. Exo-qualities are qualities or local manifestations that emerge in an object as a result of foreign relations it enters into with other objects. Here, with exo-qualities, we get the prodigious domain of what he calls “translation”, for with the entanglement of objects in foreign relations we get a weaving of the differences of objects, of the powers of objects, that can’t be localized in any object. The blue of my beloved coffee mug, for example, is a weaving together of the molecular composition of the mug, photons of light, and my particular visual apparatus. It is only the entanglement of these different objects that produces this particular qualities, such that the quality, while entirely real, cannot be said to reside in any one of these objects alone. Finally, local essences refer to qualities that emerge as a function of structured entanglements of objects in a particular local arrangement. If these essences must be referred to as local, then this is precisely because they are dependent on highly specific entanglements of objects that don’t exist in other situations. If, nonetheless, these local manifestations are still essences, then this is because within these entanglements these qualitative productions are real and inevitable local manifestations.

The key point not to be missed, however, with the concepts of local essence and exo-qualities, is that these qualitative manifestations are not inevitable. Arrangements or entanglements of objects can be changed generating new local essences and exo-qualities. Yet so long as an excess of objects over their local manifestations is not granted, I don’t see how these sorts of changes can be accounted for. We fall back into the position of what Roy Bhaskar calls “actualism”, where objects are reduced to their local manifestations or status as sensuous object, containing no hidden reserve that would erupt differently with new entanglements. And that way lies the spectre of theoretical pessimism.