In response to my last post, Mark Crosby writes:

As you may know, John Protevi has a pair of translations up for two sections from Gilbert Simondon’s L’INDIVIDU ET SA GENESE PHYSICO-BIOLOGIQUE. These may be more useful for thinking the determinism and indetermism of object individuations than the more abstract theses of Goedel. For example:

“Indeterminism is not only tied to measure; it also comes from the fact that physical reality has topologically imbricated layers of magnitude, which nonetheless each has its own becoming, its particular chronology… a system reacts on itself not only in the sense of the principle of entropy … but also in modifying its own structure across time… Determinism and indeterminism are only limit-cases, because there is a becoming of systems: this becoming is that of their individuation: there exists a reactivity of systems in relation to themselves”.

This is what many of us mean by saying that it’s ‘relations all the way down’.

In response to this, I’m first led to wonder what people believe objects are such that they contrast relations to them in this way. Let’s recall that for Aristotle every substance can be analyzed in terms of four arche: The material cause, the formal cause, the final cause, and the efficient cause. Here we should focus on the formal cause. The form or structure of an object is one of the defining features of substance. However, forms are nothing if not structures and structures are nothing if not containing determinate relations. Someday someone will have to analyze the rhetoric of objects as it functions in process oriented and relational ontologies. In a number of discussions here on the web I have seen objects characterized by critics as static and reified, as being incapable of process or becoming, as being eternal, etc. This strikes me as an exceedingly odd characterization of objects and suggests that we are not really thinking about the being of objects but rather are using the term “object” as a sort of straw man whipping boy to embody all the things we believe to be bad, bad, bad.

Somewhere in Prince of Networks Harman remarks that every object can simultaneously be viewed as a collection of other objects and as a set of relations. This is because, as Harman argues in Tool-Being, the withrawn being of objects consists in a structure of notes. Structures are networks of internal relations among singularities or elements.

Given this, can the object-oriented ontologist embrace the thesis that it is “relations all the way down”? I don’t think so, because I believe such a claim is deeply misleading. Object-oriented ontologists distinguish between two types of relations. Graham distinguishes between domestic relations and foreign relations. I distinguish between endo-relations and exo-relations. These concepts are, I believe, more or less the same. Domestic relations and endo-relations are relations that make up the internal structure of an object. There is no object or substance without domestic or endo-relations. Destroy these relations and you destroy the object. In Aristotlean terms, they are the form of the object. Foreign relations and exo-relations are relations an object enters into with other objects.

What is crucial for OOO is that objects be detachable from their exo-relations or foreign relations. There are two reasons for this. First, objects must be capable of being detached from their foreign or exo-relations such that they can break with existing exo-relations and enter into new exo-relations. If we argue that objects are their exo-relations, then we are at a loss to explain how change takes place and why it takes place. This is why object-oriented ontologists argue that, in principle, objects are independent of their exo-relations. To be sure, all the objects we ever encounter are related in some way or another. But that’s not the point. The point is that the condition under which it is possible for relations to shift and change requires the existence of autonomous substances as a matter of metaphysical principles. Do the exo-relations an object enters into make a difference to that object? Absolutely. This is the whole point of my distinction between virtual proper being and local manifestation. However, the fact that objects take on new qualities or local manifestations when they enter into new exo-relations (think about what happens when water is related to a pot and heat) does not entitle us to claim that the substantiality of the object consists in these relations.

Second, as Harman has compellingly argued, if objects are their exo-relations to other objects, we get what Graham calls a game of hot potato or a hall of mirrors. Insofar as every object 1) is treated as related to every other object (an extravagant and untenable ontological thesis), and 2) every object is treated as being its relations, being becomes a featureless lump without any difference. Substance is necessary to properly account for the diversity of the world.

In many respects, I think Bogost does the best job of explaining just why the concept of autonomous substances is so important. In Unit Operations Bogost distinguishes between systems and units. A good example of a system would be Saussure’s concept of language as a set of negatively, differentially, and internally related elements such that no element exists independent of any other. Each element is subordinated to a law or structure and has no being apart from that law or structure. By contrast, units are discrete substances or entities that can enter into different relations with one another.

What Bogost wants to emphasize is how meanings and effects are produced as a result of units (objects) constantly being reconfigured. Think of Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 version of Romeo and Juliet. Luhrmann produces something new as a result of bringing distinct units into relation with one another. On the one hand, we have the unit of Shakespeare’s play. On the other hand, we have the unit of contemporary L.A. gang rivalries. And each of these units, of course, contains all sorts of sub-units or sub-objects that can themselves be reconfigured in new exo-relations with other units. Bogost wants to capture the way in which units can pass in and out of exo-relations, producing new effects and meanings as a result of these mobile and changing configurations. A whole new form of criticism emerges here that can range promiscuously between the world of the semiotic and the nonhuman.

When we claim that its relations all the way down, it is precisely this sense of mobile and fleeting configuration among units or objects that’s lost in thought. Indeed, while many relationists claim to distinguish between internal and original relations, we instead perpetually see the privileging of holistic interrelationships over mobile and nomadic substances within these forms of thought. What we thus get is a prison-house of relations where no mobility is possible. It is precisely for this reason that we must champion substance and vigorously defend the autonomy of substances or units.

This might sound like a strange thing for an ecological thinker such as myself to argue. However, it is my belief that ecology doesn’t understand the premises of its own practices. Ecology rightly notes the importance of exo-relations within eco-systems. However, it goes too far in suggesting that objects within these eco-systems are their exo-relations. If we look at the actual theoretical and worldly practices of ecotheorist we note that they are extremely attentive to the play of nomadic and autonomous substances. What obsesses the ecologically inclined thinker is the differences made by the appearance of a new substance within an existing set of exo-relations in an eco-system. For example, the appearance of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. Yet attentiveness to these sorts of issues entails, metaphysically, the primacy of autonomous substances or units over local and temporary systems.