In response to my last post, Alex Reid of Digital Digs posts a great comment summarizing what is at stake in the external/internal relations debate.  Alex writes:

I think I get what you’re saying here Levi. Here is where the experimental/investigative project begins. Some relations are internal and necessary for a given object’s persistence. Other relations are external. These relations may affect an object or even destroy an object, but they can never be necessary for defining the object. In part, this is the principle of redundant causation, right?

Let me use a chicken for example. It could be free-range or in a cage; it’s still a chicken. It could break a wing; it’s still a chicken. It gets slaughtered. Now it’s a dead chicken. Is that a different object now? It gets prepared for cooking and roasted. Is that a different object? It gets eaten. At some point it ceases to be a chicken.

Objects are not immortal. At some point they cease to exist and their component parts become reorganized into other relations and objects. In a few billion years, the sun will likely expand and all the objects on the Earth will be reduced to atomic particles. I recognize that part of Harman’s complaint with DeLanda is the notion that assemblage theory suggests that objects are purely the product of historical relations. I agree that objects exceed their relations, become more than those relations in a non-deterministic way. Some relations are more important than others to whether an object is transformed.

As such, I wonder if the underlying question here is “what differences make a difference?” If we can agree that external relations can transform objects (as when the fire burns the cotton in Harman’s common example), then the question becomes how often do those transformations take place. In a process-becoming perspective the mutations are ongoing such that all relations become internalized. In an object-oriented perspective, transformations are less common and must be uncovered rather than assumed.

Alex gets right to the core of the question:  what differences or relations make a difference and what type of difference do they make?  The problem with the internalist position that claims that entities or objects do not precede they relations or have any independence from their relations, that claim that objects are their relations (see the previous post), is that they render us completely unable to think this question.  If it is true that no entity or “relata” precedes its relations, is that we are left unable to think what difference the subtraction or addition of a relation makes to the entity in question.  The situation is far worse in the case of Whitehead’s ontology, where it is said that every entity in the universe shares a perfectly definite “prehension” (relation) to every other entity in the universe and that each entity is but a bundle of the way in which it prehends other entities.  Whitehead says that he wants to think the conditions under which novelty are possible, but it is difficult to see how there could every be any novelty in his ontology for the very simple and basic reason that there can never be any new encounters for entities.  Why can’t there be any new encounters between entities?  There can be no new encounters between entities because entities are already related to all other entities that exist in the universe.  Where an entity is already related to all other entities that exist, there can be no question of a new encounter.

read on!

All of these issues are very abstract, so let’s take a concrete example to illustrate the point.  Let’s take my beloved cat Tasha.  If I take Barad’s thesis that “relata (entities) do not precede their relations”, I find that my relationship to my cat is very peculiar.  It is my cat Tasha that I love and to whom I have duties and obligations as the human she has chosen to domesticate.  Yet if it is true that Tasha (a relata) does not precede her relations, what am I to do when her relations change?  Suppose I go on a trip for a few days and forget to feed her (something that I would never do given that I am her dutiful servant).  Here Tasha’s relations have changed.  Where before she had food (she was related to food), now she doesn’t have food.  Yet if I take Barad’s thesis that relata do not precede relations seriously, this should be of no concern to me because insofar as Tasha, a relata, is her relations, and insofar as her relations have changed, she is no longer Tasha because her being as relata consists entirely of her relations.  I should therefore have no concern for this being because it is an entirely new being by virtue of being a relata that emerged from a new set of relations.  This is a rather peculiar conclusion, but one that follows ineluctably from the thesis that relata do not precede relations.

The situation is even more strange in a Whiteheadian universe or ontology.  Because Tasha already shares a perfectly definite prehension or relation to every other entity that exists in the universe, it is impossible for Tasha to ever go hungry.  The reason for this is that Tasha necessarily, according to this ontology, shares a relation to food and is therefore always already related to food.  Therefore, if we take Whiteheadian ontology at its word, we are left with the conclusion that it is impossible for plants to be modified by heating, people to be without shelter, poverty to take place, creatures to go hungry, etc.  Indeed, Tasha would necessarily already have every feline disease that a cat can possibly have because she is already related to every microbe and virus that exists.  Again, this is a very peculiar set of conclusions.

The idea that a relation can make a difference only makes sense where we begin from the premise that substances, entities, machines, or objects possess some minimal autonomy from whatever relations they currently possess to other entities.  “Minimal autonomy” means that entities can be separated from some relations and enter into new relations.  Tasha’s being consists, in part, of an essential frailty where she can be separated from relations to other things like the food she needs to sustain herself, the temperature range in which her body can function, the oxygen she needs to sustain herself, the barometric pressure she needs to sustain herself, etc.  Likewise, part of her being consists in the capacity to undergo new encounters or relations.  She can encounter microbes that significantly transform her body’s ability to function.  She can be taken to the Andes and encounter altitudes with different barometric pressures and concentrations of air that change how she functions.  She can encounter various foods that either give her a luxurious coat and lots of energy or that leave her depleted and waxen.  She can encounter people that treat her well or poorly.  These are all relations that significantly change her qualities and powers of acting.  Yet these changes, either through subtraction or addition, are only possible if Tasha has some minimal being independent of whatever relations she happens to entertain.

Thinkers like Whitehead are sometimes celebrated because it is alleged that by virtue of their relationism, holism, and internalism they enable us to think “ecologically”.  Yet as I argued in a prior post building on some remarks made by Harman, what a text says its trying to do and what it actually does can be quite at odds with one another.  Far from enabling us to think the difference that a relation makes, forms of thought such as we encounter in Whitehead actually inhibit our ability to think the difference that relations contribute.  This is because such orientations of thought treat relation as always already there.  If you want to think the difference relations make, you need to turn to OOO (or in my case, machine-oriented ontology), where the ontology in question is acutely aware that relations can always be subtracted or added, thereby opening way to an investigation of what difference the subtraction and addition of relations makes.  Paradoxically, it is the defense of autonomous substances that allows us to think the importance of relations.  And here, in a closely related vein, we should look less at how ecologists theorize being, and more at their actual practice.  At the level of their theories of being they tend to argue that everything is internally related.  But at the level of their practice we see them proceeding as good object-oriented ontologists, presupposing that entities can break with their relations and enter into new relations, and attending to what differences these additions and subtractions make.  What happens, they wonder, when portions of the ocean encounter large algae blooms as a result of fertilizers running into the water?  This is a question about what happens when a new relation takes place.

It was these sorts of considerations that motivated my thesis that objects or machines are divided between their virtual proper being and their local manifestations.  I’ll concede this much to Whitehead:  we need to get beyond subject/predicate thinking that treats entities as a bundle of qualities (predicates) inhering in a substance.  Instead, I propose that we treat entities as a collection of powers or capacities rather than qualities.  Entities are what they’re capable of doing, not whatever qualities they happen to embody at a particular point in time.  A quality is not something an entity has, but is the way in which an entity actualizes a power under particular conditions (in a particular set of relations).  The ball is not red, but does red in response to particular wavelengths of light.  The scope of what an entity can do (its powers) is always broader than whatever qualities it happens to actualize at a particular point in time.  Such a framework, I hope, encourages us to attend to the relations an entity enters into and how these relations affect its doings or the actualization of its powers.