Nights of labour has a VERY INTERESTING POST up drawing on object-oriented ontology and onticology to theorize social and political change. One of the interesting features of object-oriented ontology and onticology is that while it argues that objects are independent of their relations such that they are not constituted by their relations, this thesis, far from drawing our attention to relations actually encourages us to attend even more closely to relations. The points– at least for me –is not that objects cannot enter into relations, but these relations, as DeLanda argues in a New Philosophy of Society are external to objects. Put differently, each object, in principle, is detachable or separable from its relations. As a consequence, objects cannot be said to be their relations.
However, while it’s the case that objects aren’t constituted by their relations, it does not follow from this that relations have no effect on objects. The exo-relations an object enters into with other objects have a profound effect on its exo-relations. If I spend a lot of time in the sun, I become tan. If I spend a lot of time inside, I become pale. If I drink a lot and eat a lot of fast food, I gain weight. Writing leads to different forms of thinking by virtue of properties unique to writing as a medium (the medium is the message, says McLuhan). The internet leads to new forms of philosophy. Etc., etc., etc.. Paradoxically, the thesis that objects are independent of their relations leads us to attend even more closely to relations. Yet here the emphasis is on the manner in which relations are mobile, shifting, nomadic, and change. Rather than a holistic system in which everything is internally related to everything else in a sort of fixed crystalline structure (or, at least, a structure that only unfolds diachronously according to a synchronously structured system), we instead get fleeting and temporary structures where actors or objects can depart from different regimes of relations and thereby come to manifest very different qualities.
In many respects, my way to object-oriented ontology arose through an impasse I had encountered as a consequence of relationism. As a reformed Zizeko-Badiousian (here and here, pdf)– and I still am very influenced by these thinkers and value their work –I had increasingly come to feel that interpretation of cultural artifacts, the Act, the Event, and truth-procedures were inadequate for producing change. As Scott Barnett has nicely put it, social and political theory seems pervaded by “missing masses”.
Increasingly I came to ask myself what these missing masses might be, but also how concepts like the Subject, Event, Act, and truth-procedure could come to look like solutions. Here I was following a sort of Deleuzian methodology, asking myself what problem these concepts respond to or how such concepts might appear to be a solution. The answer that I arrived at is that these problems were responding to the problem of internal relations. If the social field is composed of internal relations, then the question became one of how it is possible to find a point within the social that isn’t already overdetermined by these relations. Hence talk of the Void and the Subject (in Zizek’s sense) as points of freedom in a field already synchronously structured by a set of internal relations. The problem is that these solutions seem to turn attention away from analysis of that social field, focusing on the nature of the Act and the declaration of a truth alone.
But what if it’s the case that relations aren’t internal in this way? What if this was a fiction from the very beginning? What if instead the social field is composed of independent actors that move in and out of relations, where relations are constantly reconfiguring themselves, where there is far more freedom than we ever expected. If that’s the case, then suddenly the nature of the question changes significantly. Rather than asking how to escape from a holistic field of interdependent relations, we now ask why any set of relations manages to persist at all (this comes as a surprise insofar as objects are external to their relations). We begin to engage in the world of cartography, analyzing the regimes of attraction that bring about rather stable configurations of actors. And through this cartography we begin to local weak links, points of passage, points where change is possible, through the severance of certain relations or the introduction of other actors that might modify the network as a whole. Most importantly, we direct our attention not to a subject, but to the organization of situations. In this way we avoid forms of abstraction that are so focused on Act and Subject that they ignore regimes of attraction playing a constraining role on how actors can manifest themselves. We learn something of the world and perhaps, through that knowledge, acquire the means to change it.