Over at Immanence Ivakhiv responds to my last couple of post on relations. I’ll try to keep my response brief as I feel we’ve reached an impasse and that the same arguments are being made over and over again. Ivakhiv writes:

In his previous email, Levi defends objects and substances on political grounds:

Now what follows, in relation to this noble [ethical/political] concern, if you’re an ontological relationist? Well, you certainly can’t theorize any movement beyond oppression or domination. Why? Think it through. Because the object that shifts relations is an entirely different object [my emphasis – ai]. Thereby nothing has been liberated. Rather, we’ve simply gotten a new object. This doesn’t seem too reassuring. What is needed is objects that are mobile and nomadic, objects that enter into relations, while always remaining irreducible to their relations. That, I believe, is what OOO articulates.

But, in itself, how new and different is this? Hasn’t our society institutionalized the presumption that people are, first and foremost, individuals, though they may link up into groups, societies, cultures, corporations, and the like, and that objects are distinct objects (belonging to those people) first and participate in ecological processes only secondarily (if at all)? I know that Levi’s onticological variant is a highly nuanced and new version of it, but doesn’t this independent-objects-entering-into-relations model practically define the modern Western philosophical tradition?

It appears that Ivakhiv is here advancing a variant of the argument that OOO is simply a variant of neoliberal ideology, arguing that societies are composed entirely of individuals. Here OOO’s thesis would be that of Thatcher where “society does not exist”. Three points here. First, the thesis that a philosophical claim embodies the modern Western philosophical tradition is not an argument against that position. Ivakhiv seems to be working on the premise that somehow this is objectionable. However, second, what Ivakhiv says here isn’t even true. Modern philosophical thought has tended to dissolve the category of substance altogether. The concept of substance is one that goes all the way back to antiquity. In particular, it is the cornerstone, for example, of Aristotle’s thought.

But neither of these points are the important points. Third, what Ivakhiv says here would be true if OOO argued that only mid-level objects such as persons and rocks were the only substances that exist in the universe, but here Ivakhiv misses one of the core pillars of object-oriented thought. Here I have in mind OOO’s claims about mereology. I’m surprised that Adrian forgets these claims, as we’ve discussed them on a number of occasions. To repeat, OOO argues 1) that substances exist at all levels of scale ranging from the very large to the very small, 2) that objects are composed of other objects, and 3) that all objects are independent of one another.

read on!

In the passage quoted above Adrian speaks of individuals entering into groups, societies, cultures, corporations, and the like, giving the impression that groups, societies, cultures, and corporations are merely these collections of individuals. Yet how is it that Adrian, after all this time and all these discussions, misses the crucial point that for OOO groups, societies, and corporations (I don’t like the concept of culture) are objects, substances, or individuals? As substances or objects, this entails that entities like corporations and groups are independent agents in their own right that are irreducible to individual persons. I cannot say that I’ve seen such a position anywhere articulated in the history of philosophy. And it is precisely because there are these objects at distinct levels of scale that we can have struggles between objects at different levels of scale as well as among objects at the same level of scale, e.g., workers can struggle against the corporation for which they work.

Once again, Ivakhiv protests that his relationism has been turned into a strawman. As Ivakhiv writes:

As for Levi’s description of the process-relational position – that “the object that shifts relations is an entirely different object – why should this be the case? Let’s think about it. If objects are defined by their relations, and if all are processes of one kind or another, as a process-relational view would hold, then what happens to an object that shifts relations? Well, it all depends on how it shifts which relations. One cannot speak of relations as if they are all the same. The equivalent, for an objectologist, would be to claim that all objects are identical. Neither claim is a fair characterization of the other position, and it would be helpful if both sides refrained from claiming it about the opposing side. If objects are particular kinds of relational processes -– the kinds that maintain certain formal properties over time (and over multiple sets of relational “shifts”) –- then objects do not become “completely different objects” unless and until those formal properties change or disintegrate in fundamental ways. They can still change some of their relations without fundamentally altering the overall set of relational processes that (self-)constitute them.

I would like to take Ivakhiv at his word, but unfortunately he just doesn’t consistently execute this view. Speaking of Paris, for example, he says, for example, that,

This is where problems arise, and I think it’s why Chris can argue that there is no “real Paris” behind the “infinite number of potentially incompossible graspings layered on the spacetime location of Paris.” There is still the spacetime location of Paris, and there are all those graspings. But what’s real may be something that withdraws in the very sense that OOO-ists claim the objects withdraw. For Chris, things withdraw precisely because they are not objects, but relational processes that perpetually withdraw from our graspings (with the “our” being not just humans but everything). For OOO things withdraw because they are objects. So Chris prefers not to say that “Paris” withdraws, but this doesn’t mean that the reality (the graspings, the relational processes) doesn’t withdraw; it does. For OOO, on the other hand, it’s Paris, or umbrellas, or baseball games, or whatever else, that withdraw.

He then goes on to remark that,

Chris’s post is, incidentally, much richer than I could summarize here. Just to pick up one piece that’s worth reiterating, Chris writes:

“Its all images, all perspectives, all graspings, all the way down. But there is no ’correct’ underneath at any given spacetime location – even spacetime is a grasping of the universe by itself by means of its constituents. The boundaries between semiotics and ontology break down in this sort of generalized, radicalized epistemology, to the point at which the very distinctions between these become one of aspect rather than firm distinction.”

So basically here Ivakhiv reiterates the very thesis that OOO is objecting to. While OOO certainly has no problem with the thesis that all objects have a point-of-view of or on other objects, there are very serious problems with the idea that objects are points of view that other objects have on them. There are four problems in particular with this thesis:

First, as I argued to Chris a while back, this thesis leads to the conclusions that Jews, for example, just are how they are perceived by Nazis. If you argue that objects just are how they are perceived, thought, or experienced by another object, then you are inexorably led to this sort of conclusion. Vitale took this observation very personally (he muddled the whole discussion by trying to turn it into a discussion about his political beliefs, rather than what follows from his ontological claims), but I am not here making about Vitale’s personal beliefs, but about a conclusion that is logically entailed by this sort of perspectivism. In this connection, you either hold that entities have some sort of existence independent of how they are grasped by other entities, or you are led to these sorts of conclusions.

How can Vitale and Ivakhiv arguing against the Anti-Semite when they advocate this sort of perspectivism? They’re already committed to the thesis that objects just are how they are grasped by other objects. They might point out that there are a plurality of perspectives on objects. However, here they violate the principles of their own ontology because if it is perspectives that individuate entities, they cannot say that there is more than one perspective on the same entity precisely because there is no entity upon which there could be more than one perspective. Chris likes to throw around the word “paradox” when talking about OOO (I’m not sure the word means what he thinks it means), but here I think we encounter a paradox that more or less spells the ruin of this sort of hyper-perspectivism.

Second, if everything is the result of a perspective, how are we to understand a perspective acting on us? Let’s take the example of Matthew Shepard or Proposition 8 in California (prior, thank God, to being overturned by the Supreme Court). What it Matthew Shepard’s perspective that beat the daylights out of him with a pistol, tied him to a fence, and left him to die in the hot Wyoming sun? Was it the perspective of gay couples that prevented them from getting married in California? I can see how a perspective opens objects to the world in particular ways, but it’s very difficult for me to understand how a perspective can act. Yet if perspectives make objects what they are, then this seems like precisely the sort of conclusion that we’re led to. Here we seem led to the odd conclusion that it is not Mckinney and Henderson who should have been arrested (indeed, they did not even exist as they were products of Shepard’s perspective), but rather that Shepard’s death was a result of suicide as it was his perspective that killed him! In order to avoid these sorts of paradoxes, we need an account of substance that is independent of perspective and that is an actor in its own right.

Third, this sort of perspectivism renders objects purely passive. All the agency is placed in the object that has a perspective on other objects, and the object that “receives” the perspective is just a passive formation of the perspective. In this case, the only real agents are those that have perspectives such that objects that are on the receiving end of the perspective are just apparitions of that perspective. Once again, to avoid this problem you need a concept of substance that acknowledges that objects are irreducible to perspective.

Finally fourth, and most importantly, talk of perspective seems to always be conducted from a first person (and human) point-of-view. Whenever Chris, for example, speaks of perspectives he evokes the example of the difference between how a biologist experiences frogs and how his eight year old nephew experiences frogs. In other words, it’s always a matter of how humans perceive something else. Apart from the fact that this way of talking confuses the issue of how humans categorize things with the being of things, the question is never raised of the ontological status of the perceiver. In other words, if all is perspective, doesn’t Chris’s existence dissolve because neutrinos don’t perceive Chris as Chris, but rather pass right through him indifferently. Is Chris prepared too claim that he doesn’t exist because neutrinos don’t have a point of view on him? If not, then why do humans get to be genuine substances such that they are not constituted by a point of view, whereas everything else is denied this autonomy?

Ivakhiv wishes to protest that relations are far more complex than is suggested by how they are portrayed by OOO, yet in his endorsement of Chris’s claims about Paris I think he shows his true colors. The only way to escape the sorts of problems outlined above is to make a place for substance within ones ontology. In the comments section of one of my posts, Adrian writes:

Who are the relationists that make no distinction between internal and external relations? You mention Hallward, and if he denies the existence of water (as a specific set of relations and properties found in specific forms, etc.), which I doubt he does, would be one. But relationists, if they actually study existing relational processes, should be able to distinguish between internal and external relations for the kinds of relational processes (“objects”) that have a clear boundary between the two, as well as between all other kinds of relations for relational processes that might not. Some “objects,” such as artificially (humanly) manufactured objects, lend themselves better than other objects (bacteria, electrical currents, and the like) to such simple distinctions.

I’m glad to see that Ivakhiv draws a distinction between internal and external relations, but I do not believe this is a distinction he’s entitled to within the framework of a relational ontology. If Ivakhiv argues that certain relations are external to beings, then he is conceding the existence of substance for all substance is is that which is irreducible to the relations that it enters into. A consistent relationism is necessarily a relationism that holds that all relations are internal to their terms. Again, I think a number of these debates arise on the relationist end from treating the concept of objects in terms of ordinary language connotations of the word “object”. For example, throughout Adrian’s posts we see him obsessively returning to characterizations of objects as “stable”, “indestructible”, “opposed to process”, etc. Why, I’m led to wonder, are these the first associations that come to mind when one thinks of substance. Any reader of Aristotle’s Physics, for example, knows very well that objects undergo all sorts of processes, that they can be destroyed, that they are haunted by all sorts of instabilities, and so on? Who’s flogging the strawman here?

Two points to close. First, it seems to me that Adrian’s recent post (and others) is characterized by a high degree of what Freud called “kettle logic”. Presented in Jokes and their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud’s discussion of kettle logic relates the story of a man who returns a damaged kettle arguing 1) the kettle was undamaged when he returned it, 2) that the kettle already had a hole in it when he borrowed it, and 3) that he never borrowed it at all. Adrian’s post reads in this way. He begins the post by arguing a) that OOO just repeats the basic framework of modern metaphysics, b) that OOO is really a process-ontology and therefore doing nothing different than what his process-relational metaphysics is doing, and c) that really these differences are just differences in the use of language. This is the second or third post that’s had this sort of structure and I find it quite remarkable that the argument is all over the place in this way.

Second, I realize that in my arguments above I have used highly charged examples (Anti-Semitism, the hate crime against Matthew Shepard, and the unjust law of Proposition 8). I hope that Adrian or Chris, should they respond to this post, will approach these examples in the spirit they are intended. Ontologies have real world consequences. Examples such as this, I believe, while rhetorically imprudent help to clearly bring out these consequences and implications. Arguing with the choice of examples, denouncing the fact that they were evoked, and protesting that they don’t advocate these sorts of beliefs is irrelevant to whether or not these sorts of conclusions follow as a matter of course from a particular ontological claim. I realize that both Chris and Adrian are good guys and that they aren’t homophobes or Anti-Semites. But the point isn’t about their personal beliefs. It’s about what follows ontologically from the sort of perspectivism they seem to be advocating.

What I’m engaging in here is basic deductive reasoning. One of the things you can do with any theoretical model is deduce consequences that would follow from it in particular cases. This, for example, is what scientists do when devising experiments. They ask what particular events the theory entails and then create circumstances to see whether or not these events do indeed occur under these conditions. This is exactly what I’m doing here with relational-perspectivism. I’m asking “given this theory, what consequences follow.” In my view, the striking and charged examples are particularly salient in underlining these consequences. I, of course, know that neither Adrian nor Chris advocate any of these ideologies. Given that the question then becomes that of what ontological resources they can must to argue against these consequences. In my view a straight perspectivism can’t deny these consequences and the only way to get out of these problematic claims is through endorsing the existence of substances that can’t be reduced to perspectives.

Advertisements