Over at Knowledge Ecology, Adam has a nice post up on object-oriented ontology and ecology. In comments I’ve noticed that the old debate between substance versus process and substance versus relations has emerged yet again. One respondent writes “OOO looks like a substance ontology!” So as to forestall any confusion over this, OOO not only looks like a substance ontology, it is a substance ontology! OOO is committed to the independent existence of substances. However, what is a substance? In The Democracy of Objects, I argue that substances are dynamic systems. In other words, I see no contradiction between substance and process precisely because I hold that substances are processes and processes are substances. This is precisely why I spend so much time writing about entropy and negentropy. The fact that my cat’s body is a collection of processes doesn’t undermine the fact that my cat is also a substance. Why someone would see a contradiction here or necessity of choosing is beyond me. The best I’ve ever gotten from the process-relational crowd is that language is important and that it is egregeous, for some reason, to talk about things or substances. At any rate, returning to the issue of entropy, every substance faces the problem of how to continue itself throughout the course of time lest it dissolve into entropy or a plurality of other objects. Substances evolve, change, develop in all sorts of ways and can even become different substances. In other words, they are not inert clods.
What OOO does insist on, however, is that objects or substances are external to their relations. Objects can enter into their relations, but they can just as easily pass out of relations. Every object enjoys a minimal independence from the relational field it happens to inhabit. And this is precisely what I’ll never understand about so many ecological theorists who defend relational internalism. In my view, if ecology has taught us anything, it has taught us not so much the importance of relations, but to be attentive to the independence of entities from their relations.
Ecology, in its best moments, in its practice, when it isn’t reflecting on its practice in a distorted way, draws our attention to what happens in networks of relations when either new substances are introduced into existing networks of relations as in the case of the introduction of cane toads into Australia, and what happens when existing substances are subtracted from networks of relations as in the case of bees disappearing in the United States. These introductions and subtractions are only possible if substances are, in principle, detachable from relations or if, as Deleuze liked to say, relations are external to their terms. Without this externality of substances from their relations, ecology would have nothing to investigate because ecosystems where everything is internally related wouldn’t undergo changes.
I get the sense that the place where so many ecologically minded thinkers go wrong is in a confusion of the difference between normative claims they would like to make and descriptive analysis of existing ecosystems. Many ecologists, it seems, want to argue that ecosystems are “delicate and harmoniously balanced systems that we shouldn’t interfere with.” They deplore– as I do –things like the introduction of cane toads into Australia. However, the thesis that there are better and worse ecosystems, that it is possible to disrupt ecosystems in disastrous ways and that we shouldn’t do so is a normative claim, not an ontological claim about what ecosystems are actually like. These normative claims wouldn’t arise at all were it not the case that every order is contingent, that relations between entities can be broken apart and modified in all sorts of ways, thereby necessitating attentiveness to different types of systems and the effects introducing and subtracting substances has on these systems. This is a very simple point and I’m endlessly surprised that so many ecologically minded thinkers don’t recognize the contradiction between their practice and theory.