Over at Immanence, Ivakhiv has written a thoughtful post outlining why he is a relationist. Ivkakhiv writes,

Our social ecologies work the same way, with “blowback” to social injustice arriving in the form of terrorism and other forms of political violence. If, as I’ve argued before, it’s better to think in threes than in twos — with our material ecologies (“nature”) and social ecologies (“culture”) supplemented and filled in with mental or perceptual ecologies, the actual interactive dynamics out of which the material and the social, or the “objective” and the “subjective,” continually emerge — then what is blowback in the perceptual dimension?

That’s easy: it’s guilt, bad dreams, and the other affective undercurrents that plague our “unconscious.” These are our responses to the eyes of the world (human and nonhuman). It’s what makes us feel that things aren’t right. It’s the traumatic kernel of the Real, which Lacan (and, somewhat differently, Buddhism) place at the origin of the self, but which in a collective sense is coming back to haunt us globally. (I’ve made the case for a psychoanalytically inspired ecologization of Fredric Jameson’s political symptomatology of culture here and here.)

We misperceive the nature of the world for the same reasons that we misperceive the nature of the self. Every social (and linguistic) order interpellates its members somewhat differently, but, over the course of humanity’s long history, most such orders have incorporated into that process some sense of responsibility to more-than-human entities or processes. In whatever way they were conceived — as spirits or divinities, or in terms of synthetic narrative or conceptual metaphors (life-force, the Way, the path, the four directions, etc.) — these have generally borne a crucial connection to what we now understand as ecology. Modern western capitalism has fragmented these relations, setting us up individually in relation to the products of a seemingly limitless marketplace, but leaving us collectively ecologically rudderless. So even if scientists, the empirical authorities of the day, tell us we’re fouling our habitat, we haven’t really figured out how to respond to that, at least not at the global levels where many of the symptoms occur.

This is why I’ve argued (for instance, in response to the object-oriented philosophers) that it’s the relational that humans, especially westerners, need to come to terms with, rather than the objectal. Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real, and at projecting value into those objects so that they serve the needs of us individuals, even if they never quite manage to do that (which is, of course, the point). The effects of our actions, on the other hand, are systemic, relational effects, and we won’t understand them unless we come to a better understanding of how systems and relational ecologies work and of how we are thoroughly embedded within them.

At the same time, it’s the objects that haunt us: the refuse swirling around in the middle of the Pacific, the mountains of excreted e-waste, the stuff we send down our chutes, out our drains, off to the incinerator, the river, the ocean, the atmosphere — the black holes, out of sight and out of mind, from which we hope they never emerge. But when they do re-emerge, in our fantasies and nightmares, we tend to reify them as the Thing, a demon, a Host:

Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).

There’s much more in Ivakhiv’s post– as well as a number of links –so check it out here.

At the risk of repeating a lot of points I’ve made in these discussions before, for me one of my central ontological aims is to think relations. One of the questions that repeats itself throughout “The Ontic Principle: Outline of an Object-Oriented Philosophy” is the question “what is the relation between relation and relata”. Relata, of course, are objects. In answering this question, I’ve had to develop a number of concepts specifically devoted what happens when objects enter into relations with one another. Here the focus is not so much on objects, per se, but on what happens when objects enter into relations with one another.

read on!

Three of these concepts are regime of attraction, virtual proper being, and local manifestation. Regimes of attraction are fields of relations in which objects find themselves enmeshed. Regimes of attraction are what many might call “context” or “environment”. Why, then, do I not merely refer to regimes of attractions as “fields of relations”, environment, or context? Hopefully it will be noticed that the term “attraction” is a dynamic word. It refers to activities, things that happen, interactions; dare I say, processes. Nearly all of chapter 5 of The Democracy of Objects is devoted to a discussion of these regimes of attraction, drawing heavily on developmental systems theory (again, a process-oriented branch of biology).

The concept of regime of attraction is designed to draw attention to how objects are affected by other objects in their environment, or rather, by how relations to other objects affect objects. It is a concept designed to draw attention to environment or ecology. In regimes of attraction there are all sorts of interdependencies, hierarchies, interactions, and so on. There are unidirectional and bidirectional causalities, dependencies, etc. And with each event that takes place in a regime of attraction, relations among entities are changed and reconfigured. If I choose the term “regime of attraction” rather than “environment” or “context”, then this is because I wish to draw attention to the dynamic nature of these interactions. Often we talk of the environment or a context as if environment and context are like rooms or containers in which something happens to exist. And just as rooms and containers are often relatively sedentary and unchanging, we treat the environment and a context as if it were a fixed and sedentary think, unchanging, without movement. By contrast, it is my hope that the concept of regime of attraction, with its more dynamic connotations, draws attention to how things are perpetually in a state of movement and interaction, bringing about all sorts of endless changes in one another.

Recently birds have been falling out of the sky and dying (here and here). One approach might simply look to the individual birds, striving to see whether or not there’s been some internal change in them that is leading to these bizarre and disturbing happenings. The concept of regimes of attraction invites us to look at these events “holistically”, examining the relationship of these birds to their broader environment, changes in that environment, and what changes they might have produced in the birds leading to their death. That is, the concept of regime of attraction invites us to think about these events ecologically and relationally.

The concepts of virtual proper being and local manifestations refer to the two dimensions of objects and are designed to assist us in tracking these changes produced as a result of an object’s interactions in a regime of attraction. Virtual proper being refers to the powers or potentialities of an object. Power is not something an object possesses over something else, but is a capacity possessed on the part of an object. Alternatively, these powers of an object can be referred to as “affects”. This is how I refer to them in “The Ontic Principle“. Following Deleuze’s analysis of affect, affect is not merely “feeling” or “emotion”, but is the capacity of an object to act or do. By contrast, local manifestation refers to the qualities or properties an object comes to embody when situated in a regime of attraction.

If the local manifestations of an object are local, then this is because they are dependent on the local or currently reigning relations in which an object is situated. If I walk outside without a coat on today, my skin begins to prickle like a raw chicken pulled from the fridge. This prickling of my skin is a local manifestation. It is dependent on a specific and local field of relations or interactions or the regime of attraction in which my body currently exists. That regime of attraction has to do with the temperature of the air outside, which, in turn, has to do with all sorts of global weather patterns and the current tilt of the earth leading to the occurrence of winter. My skin prickles in this way because of the regime of attraction in which I currently exist as I stand outside. These are manifestations insofar as they are qualities or properties that my body currently actualizes. In their turn, this local manifestation is dependent on affects. It is not simply that my body is affected in a particular way by the temperature, but rather that my body already has certain capacities or abilities that enables it to be affected in this way. Jakob Johann von Uexküll was a great cartographer of this domain of affects or modes of translation.

The concepts of local manifestation and regime of attraction are very tightly linked. One of the reasons ecological thought is important, one of the reasons we’re interested in regimes of attraction, is that we’re interested in determining or understanding how changes in regimes of attraction lead to changes in local manifestations. For example, we might be interested in the rising prevalence of intersex fish as a result of rising estrogen levels in American lakes and rivers as a result of human waste. Here we have local manifestations (intersex fish) produced as a result of changes in a particular regime of attraction.

One of the reasons I’m so insistent on the ontological primacy of objects (relata), despite being so deeply interested in relations is that it is important to mark, ontologically, that objects move. In moving, objects both enter into and create new regimes of attraction, generating new local manifestations. For instance, estrogen levels increase in American lakes and rivers. Here we have the introduction of new objects within a particular regime of attraction changing that regime of attraction. None of this, I believe, can be properly or well understood if we place objects under erasure. Robert gave a nice example of this earlier today when he wrote:

Individuals in a process are akin to Phantom traffic jams. If the movement of cars is the flow of process, then the object that is the phantom traffic jam emerges and is generated from the same flow. The minor disturbances and perturbations of the cars can create an pseudo individual from the process. But this is still a primordial flow, before, during and after.

However, the argument that OOO puts forward is that the experience of that phantom traffic jam complexity cannot be explained by process alone. Perhaps the individuals are always separated off by interfaces, accidentally born from contingent configurations of discrete objects. In turn, there is a hidden unity to the phantom traffic jam that impacts on its parts and on other objects.

Robert’s point, I think, is that if we want to understand the process, we also need to understand the actions of the objects involved in that process. In the case of traffic jams or traffic congestion, for example, the congestion can be caused by one driver far ahead driving five miles below the speed limit. This minor perturbation has an aggregative affect that ripples throughout the other cars leading to a new emergent pattern, the traffic jam.

Here I cannot resist pointing out something to Ivakhiv in his reading of Marx. Ivakhiv says “commodity capitalism does a very good job convincing us that objects are real.” Here I would suggest that Ivakhiv needs to go back and reread the first three chapters of Marx’s Capital. Marx never, for a single second, suggests that objects are unreal. Indeed, the reality of objects is the foundation of his distinction between use-values and exchange-values. For Marx commodity fetishism consists not in believing that objects are real, but in believing that the value of an object is an intrinsic feature of that object. We believe, for example, that the value of gold is a mysterious property of the gold itself. By contrast, Marx argues that gold takes on value as a result of the labor that goes into the production of gold. If commodity fetishism is a fetishism, then this is because it fails to see how this value arises from labor.

As I’ve quoted many times before, Graham argues that objects can simultaneously be conceived as substances in their own right and as complexes of relations among other objects. This is because objects, in their turn, contain other objects that are, in their turn, independent substances. Such is the case with commodities. Commodities take on the status of being commodities by virtue of belonging to larger scale objects: economies. In other words, their exchange-value arises from being elements in this larger scale object. The tragedy here is that we get a short-circuit between objects at two different levels: objects as use-values that we require to survive and flourish and objects as elements or parts of larger-scale objects in an economy. As a result of this, we often find ourselves pursuing use-values in such a way that we further alienate ourselves both in our labor, but also in our very capacity to live and flourish by functioning as input for this larger scale object. Enough for now.