One of the most controversial theses of object-oriented philosophy is the claim that objects are withdrawn from all relation. No doubt, this claim has caused particular consternation among those who are politically inclined, for it is difficult to see how there can be anything like a coherent politics that isn’t concerned with relations. Putting it crudely, when we raise political questions we are raising questions of relations. OWS, for example, is raising questions about relations between the 99% and unjust privilege enjoyed by banks and corporations. Striking workers are asking questions about their relation to the products of their labor, the surplus-values they work with, the machines they work on, etc. Environmental activists are exploring relations between the natural environment and industry. Everywhere the political is a question of relations and a question of what sort of relations are just and right. Moreover, in the ontological register, it is not clear what it might mean to claim that objects are withdrawn from all relations. One might argue that I only ever encounter my object as a “sensual object”, and never encounter the real cat, and that therefore I share no direct relation to my cat. Yet in order for me to encounter my cat as a sensual object, my cat must affect me in some way, and an affection is a real relation. No affection, no direct encounter with a real cat, no experience of a sensual cat. Nothing about suggesting that my cat directly affects me need lead to the conclusion that somehow I have a full and complete representation of my cat. All it entails is that my cat must touch or interact with me in some way for me to have this experience of a sensual cat. As a consequence, whatever else withdrawal might mean, it certainly does not seem coherent to treat it as severance from all relations.
These points are not nitpicking asides. The suggestion that objects are withdrawn from all relations has led to a dismissal of relational politics on the ground that objects are independent of relations. When people rightly raise concern about such a thesis, their position is characterized as a facile view that relations are leftists and that anti-relationism is conservative (i.e., their position is characterized as bowing to a matter of taste or a flavor: “If you’re a leftist you’re a relationist”), and they are given the counter-example of Burke versus the Jacobins. Within this framework, Burke the conservative opponent of the French Revolution, was a relationist that held that all of society is organically related in a natural order (e.g., the aristocrats have a natural place, the peasants a natural place, etc). By contrast, the Jacobins are characterized as anti-relationists insofar as they held that society could be reconfigured and that it is possible to break with the existing order.
But again, it’s not clear what a non-relational politics could possibly be. Take an example of small politics that occurred here in Collin County the year before I moved here: the revocation of liquor laws prohibiting the sale of wine and beer at grocery stores and restaurants. Here, minimally, we’re talking about a relation between human bodies, wine, beer, grocery stores, and restaurants. More broadly, we’re also talking about relations between different groups. These relations consisted of certain religious groups imposing their will on those from other religious groups that do not see drinking as an issue as well as the secular. Understanding the political dispute in this case requires understanding the relations between a variety of different entities and groups. It’s not clear how we can even begin understanding the political dispute– and a dispute is itself a relation –without understanding relations among these different entities.
The sleight of hand involved in the example of the Burkeans and the Jacobins lies in using a single term, relation, to describe two positions, rather than distinguishing between two very different political ontologies of relation. Within the framework of onticology, I distinguish between two different types of relation: internal relations and external relations. We can call these two different ontologies of relation “internalism” and “externalism” respectively. An internalist such as Burke holds that society holistically forms a whole in which every element is internally related to every other, such that these places are natural and such that the parts that occupy these places cannot rightfully exist apart from those places without disrupting society in unjust and destructive ways. Such was the position of Plato in The Republic where each person has a proper function within society and where injustice consists in not acting according to that function. Likewise, it was the position of the right Hegelians that saw society as an organic whole.
By contrast, the externalist certainly recognizes that there are all sorts of relations, but holds that these relations are contingent and capable of being severed and reorganized differently. As Deleuze puts it, “relations are external to their terms”. Here any particular social order is contingent and capable of being otherwise. Lucretius articulates this point nicely in the first book of De Rerum Natura. There he writes:
Whatever exists you will always find connected to these two things, or as by-products of them; connected meaning that the quality can never be subtracted from its object no more than weight from stone, or heat from fire, wetness from water. On the other hand, slavery, riches, freedom, poverty, war, peace, and so on, transitory things whose comings and goings do not alter substance– these, and quite properly, we call by-products. (Humphries trans., 33)
Lucretius’s point is that qualities such as slavery, riches, freedom, etc., are contingent and external and are therefore capable of being otherwise. Where a thinker such as Aristotle strives to argue that slaves and women are naturally inferior and therefore enjoy the social position appropriate to them, Lucretius argues that these positions are the result of a contingent social order. Where the wealthy person strives to argue that there is something in his genes that naturally insures his social position, Lucretius argues that it was a contingent social order that put him in this place. These relations are external, not internal.
In two sentences Lucretius articulates the thesis that has been common to all leftist thought for the last two thousand years: relations are external to their terms. Thus, for example, when someone like Foucault strives to show that madness is “constructed”, his point is not to reduce human beings to relations and to claim that they cannot exist independent of their relations. Rather, when Foucault tries to show how madness or certain concepts of criminality are constructed, his aim is to demonstrate the contingency of the categories that we use. Following Ian Hacking in The Social Construction of What?, he is not referring to objects (the human beings that are classified under these categories), but rather the categories that are used to classify these human beings. Likewise, when Judith Butler attempts to show how gender is performatively constructed, she is not trying to demonstrate that sexed bodies are nothing but relations, but rather to demonstrate the contingency of gender categories.
Within the framework of onticology, Butler and Foucault are exploring the mechanisms of a larger-scale object– a particular social system –and how it sorts, manages, and seeks to control smaller-scale objects such as human beings. At the core of their analysis– which, in my “terraism” I refer to as “cartography” –is the thesis that these smaller-scale entities, humans, are “withdrawn” from the larger-scale entities that seek to use them for the reproduction of their own existence. In Adorno’s terms, the category is always non-identical to what falls under it. And in demonstrating the contingency of these sorting and structuring mechanisms, what thinkers such as Foucault, Butler, and Marx above all show is the possibility of other ways of relating. Their point is never to say that we are ineluctably trapped in these relations– though it can be damned hard to escape them –but that these relations aren’t “natural”, they aren’t internal, they don’t have to be this way.
In this regard, there can be no legitimate criticism of a politics for being “relational”. First, because politics and ethics are necessarily relational. There’s just no coherent way of talking about politics or ethics without talking about relations because it’s always the relations that pose the political and ethical problems. Second, because the issue is not whether or not relations are involved, but rather what kind of relations are involved. The key question is always “are the relations internal or external?”
In a subsequent post I’ll discuss some of the implications of flat ontology and immanence for political thought.