Over at The Pinocchio Theory, Steven has a post up discussing processes and powers. I confess that I’m a bit surprised by Shaviro’s remarks. He writes:
But I think that Whitehead lines up with Bergson and Simondon and Deleuze, and against Harman and OOO, in that all these “process” thinkers seek to account for how things come into existence, and how they endure; whereas OOO just seems to me to assume that its objects are already there.
I’m not sure where he gets this idea. I’ve written extensively both here and in The Democracy of Objects (which Steven’s read) on the emergence of objects, not to mention the processual nature of objects, their substantiality as consisting in powers, the manner in which they perpetually contend with the problem of entropy, the role that relations play in how they actualizes themselves in local manifestations, how objects evolve and develop, and so on and so forth. Indeed, I think one of the great ironies I find in the thought of the process-relational philosophers is that they use the words “process” and “relation” quite a bit, but generally, I find, say very little that’s concrete about process and relation! In other words, there’s a strange way in which they relate, at the level of the signifier, to the terms “process” and “relation” as substances! By contrast, we find rich discussions of the dynamics of both process and relation among the object-oriented ontologists.
We get a lot of lectures about Whitehead explaining Whitehead to us, but I think this misses the point that our differences with Whitehead are not failures to understand him (cf. my post on transference), but because of genuine disagreements with Whitehead. For me, there are three basic points of divergence. First, I believe that Whitehead is a complete non-starter so long as his account of God is not severed from his thought and his thought isn’t thoroughly severed from process theology. Following Donald Sherburne, I think that Whitehead’s account of God is incoherent and at odds with the ontological foundations of his own philosophy. Any engagement of Whitehead that doesn’t sever it from his concept of God and substantially modify his ontology is, I believe, a priori to be excluded.
Second, it is my view that Whitehead undermines objects by treating “actual occasions” as the ontological foundation of being. For me the minimal units of being consist of what Whitehead would call “societies”. In my view, the structure of objects or their status as dynamic systems is irreducible, and cannot be seen as mere aggregates of actual occasions. To this I add that I believe Whitehead’s account of actual occasions is incoherent or leads to a view of being as magic. If each absolute occasion is an absolutely instantaneous novelty and atom that issues from nothing else, then actual occasions are creations ex nihilo. That’s magic.
Finally third, and most importantly, I do not accept the Whiteheadian thesis that each actual occasion is related to everything else, nor that actual occasions are bundles of relations. To be a substance is to have the capacity to exist independently of other things. Relations can be severed. I acknowledge, of course, that this can lead to substantial transformations in the qualities of substances– this point is at the foundation of all my meditations on local manifestations and lends precision to the difference relations make; which is a precision we don’t find in the promiscuity of relations advocated by the Whiteheadians –but that doesn’t change the fact that substances can be separated from their relations. Were this not possible, where substances cannot be severed from their relations, no movement would be possible, no change would be possible, the point of experiment in the sciences would be incoherent (insofar as scientific experiment separates entities from relations so as to see how they behave when perturbed under controlled conditions), etc.
I can see how the idea that everything is related to everything else is spiritually comforting, but I believe ontologizing relation in this way simply doesn’t gel with the nature of the world in which we live. In the domain of politics, political struggle often arises precisely because subsets of the social system are invisible to the powerful and privileged or lack levers and forms of agency that allow them to control their life. It is here an absence of relation that instigates political struggles. Moreover, were everything internally related, it’s difficult to see how, in a case like the American, French, Haitian, or Russian revolution subsets of the population could have broken with the ruling order to form a new set of social relations. Here it’s notable that organicism (the doctrine that everything is internally related) has always been the preferred ontology of conservatives such as the Plato of the Republic or Edmund Burke. If everything were internally related, it’s impossible to see how ecosystems could fall into ecological crises as a result of the introduction of new foreign elements or the subtraction (extinction) of domestic elements. If everything were related it’s impossible to see how the controlled settings of experiment could be produced.
The whole problem with Whiteheadianism is that it gives itself, ready made, what be constructed or built. It starts from the premise that everything is related, and thereby undermines the most interesting ontological insight and questions. That insight is the insight that how things are related is contingent (other assemblages are always possible). That question is how the relations that do exist, the de facto relations, come to be built. This is why Whiteheadianism never has anything specific to say about relations or processes because, ironically, it’s foreclosed the dimension of building. Am I a process philosopher? Sure. I argue that objects are processes and processes are objects. Yet all of my work is focused on the precise nature of what processes are and how relations come to be forged. Above all, I’m interested in how relations can be broken so that we might be able to form a more just and equitable society than the one we find ourselves in today.