In response to the recent discussion surrounding objects and relations, I read Chris Vitale making the following remark:
First some background. When Adrian states “Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real,” I think he hits a key point – we see objects because capitalism has taught us to do so. Then again, I’d also argue, with Whitehead (and hence I don’t doubt Adrian would agree), that there is also the reifying apects of language, but also embodiment and taking up a particular perspective within spacetime. Reification is part of what it means to exist at a particular spacetime location, and I think that thought requires that we figure out ways to get around how this enables yet also warps our larger relation to the world. Capitalism, and paranoid politics in general, I think, are merely echo of this much deeper set of problems, even if they do much more damage.
I see this sort of “argument” as a categorical discussion ender. Indeed, in Difference and Givenness, one of my key aims was to shift discussions of Deleuze away from this style of “argument”. At that time it was not at all uncommon to hear Deleuzians “argue” against other thinkers with denunciations to the effect that they are “state thinkers”, “animated by molar desires”, or that they “remain tied to the moral image of thought”. Yet these are not arguments, nor do they respond to the substance of positions. I wanted to show that Deleuze had actual arguments and compelling reasons for both the rejection of thinkers like Kant and Hegel and for his own positions. Name-calling and normative judgment is not an instance of such reasons.
This aside, there are a couple of serious problems with Vitale’s charges against object-oriented ontology. First, if Vitale is striving to situate himself within a Marxist framework I would suggest that he needs to spend a bit more time with Marx’s actual writings. Few things are more patently absurd than the suggestion that somehow capitalism leads to the primacy of objects over relations. In fact, the opposite is the case. Everywhere we turn when examining the dynamics of capitalism we, in fact, observe the erasure of objects in terms of relations. We see this above all in the logic of exchange-values, but we see it also in popular ideology– especially business manuals –which are replete with metaphors of networks, relationality, etc., etc., etc. Were the sort of pseudo-ideological critique Vitale is attempting to advance an accurate portrayal of the current moment, we would expect the last one hundred years of discourse to be dominated by tropes pertaining to objects. In fact, we’ve seen exactly the opposite, where objects have all but disappeared, being replaced instead by tropes pertaining to relations and extreme relationism.
However, as a reading of Marx this is simply ridiculous. Everywhere Marx shows an extreme attentiveness to objects of all sorts, whether they be new resources, weather events that disrupt existing relations of production, new forms of machinery and tools, new entities like money that suddenly emerge on the scene, and so on. For Marx, unlike Hegel, the motto is always that relations are external to their terms. And if relations are external to their terms, then there must be terms for these relations to be external to. And the name for these terms is objects. Yet this is precisely what subtractive object-oriented ontology says. It begins from the premise that objects are external to their terms. I have yet to hear any of the relationists address this point (and confess that after charges like the one quoted above I’m not particularly interested in what arguments they might have available to address this point). The reason subtractive object-oriented ontology rejects the claims of relationism is that relationism inevitably argues that relations are internal to their terms, or that terms are nothing but their relations. And were I prone to denouncing positions on normative grounds rather than through philosophical argumentation, I would say that I can think of few positions that are more reactionary than this sort of relational internalism. For if this is the case, it is impossible for any group of actors to ever challenge the system to which they belong because they are constituted by their relations to that system. Apparently certain American thinkers missed the arguments the French of ’68 waged against the Hegelians or never understood the stakes behind that argument.
Aside from these issues of how the dynamics of capitalism and Marx are to be understood, I find it ironic that Vitale begins by linking to my post on dialogue and then proceeds to accuse me of being a dupe of capitalist or neoliberal ideology. This is hardly a way of initiating a dialogue. “Hey, I want to talk to you about philosophical issues pertaining to objects and relations, and by the way your ontology is, in reality, based on false consciousness or an ideological misrecognition despite the fact that you’ve spent all this time with Marxist thought.” Um yeah. How are you to enter into discussion with anyone who begins from the premise that you’re the dupe of ideology and that your entire ontology is based on a series of distortions that arise from how you’ve been tricked by the dynamics of capitalism into believing in objects.
No, this is an effective discussion ender that destroys any possibility of dialogue because it does not begin by granting respect to the position it disagrees with. And here, when I encounter this sort of argument, I’m inclined to agree with Meillassoux’s critique of the hermeneutics of suspicion:
The other method of disqualification used by modern realism is a more fundamental one: it brings out the implicit logic of the ‘Rich Elsewhere’, which consists in replacing the discussion with the correlationist with an exposition of his motivations (my emphasis). We no longer examine what he says (my emphasis), we examine why he says what he says. It is the well-known logic of suspicion that we find in Marx, with the notion of ideology, or in Freud, with precisely the notion of resistance. The realist fights every form of idealism by discovering the hidden reasons behind these discourses– reasons that do not concern the content (my emphasis) of philosophies, but the shameful motivations of their supporters: class-interest, libido, etc. In this way, the realist explains in advance why his theories must be refused by those who are unable to see the truth for such and such objective reasons. Hence he will neutralise any refutation as an already-described symptom of social or psychological resistance, unconscious resistance which is, according to the realist, often unavoidable. But what is interesting, from my own point of view, is that this well-known strategy of suspicion can be understood as the necessary result of an inability to rationally refute the insipid and implacable argument of the correlationist (my emphasis). (Collapse III, 423 – 4)
Replace “correlationism” with “subtractive object-oriented ontology” and “realism” with “relationism”, and you have, in a nutshell, Vitale’s strategy of “argumentation” against subtractive object-oriented ontology. He proceeds by attributing shameful motives to the object-oriented ontologists, accusing us of both stupidity (we’re duped) and of defending neo-liberal orthodoxy (we’re perpetuating capitalism), while nowhere addressing the philosophical content of our claims. Indeed, this absence of any serious engagement with the philosophical content of the object-oriented ontologist’s philosophical claims can be seen, above all, in the fact that he ends up blathering on about Whitehead’s eternal objects when none of us have ever defended these entities and when none of us make the claim that objects are eternal. I take these sorts of remarks as discussion enders and indicators that one has no rational argument in defense of their position. Perhaps I am over-reacting here, but I just don’t take kindly to being accused of the brutal exploitation of workers everywhere, the production of war across the globe, and the utter degradation of the environment that is part and parcel of capitalism. And that is exactly what one is suggesting when they make such a charge.