So many questions are poorly posed because we fail to think relationally. Yeah, yeah, I know that over the years us new realists (largely between OOO theorists and Whiteheadians) have had vicious and heated debates. “Gasp! Is Levi now doing an about face and saying things are relational after all?!?” No. In my view, those debates failed to understand the issue. The question was never whether or not there are relations, nor whether or not relations are important. No, the question was whether or not entities can be reduced to their relations. OOO theorists such as myself argued– for a variety of epistemological, ontological, political, and ethical reasons –that entities can be severed from their relations and enter into new relations. In other words, OOO argues that entities enjoy some minimal autonomy and independence from the relations to other entities they currently enjoy. Whiteheadians, by contrast, argue that entities are their relations, such that there is no being of an entity in excess of its relations to other entities. By analogy, you could say that one side was composed of Deleuzians who hold that relations are external to their terms (entities), such that they can shift, change, and be severed, while on the other side you have the Right Hegelians who hold that all relations are internal such that there is no being of beings in excess of that totality of relations. Externalism versus internalism. That was the issue.
I have no wish to rehearse that tiring debate– which at points came to resemble theological meditations on just how many angels can fit on the head of a pin –but rather to point out that within the OOO framework, relations are a key issue. Indeed, from one vantage, I would say that my central question is “what is the relation between relations and relata (entities)?” What obsesses me is not objects, but ecologies. To think ecologically is to think relationally. However, I believe that if you are to understand ecologies you have to begin from the premise that entities are external to their relations, such that sometimes they are subtracted from an ecology, sometimes they are added to an ecology, and something the relations between entities in an ecology change. All of these cases lead to substantial changes in the ecology. In the world of nature, these changes wrought by entities being added or subtracted from a particular ecosystem are what ecologists study. Ecological practice— not to be confused with the self-reflexive moment of how ecology superficially theorizes or represents what it is doing –is incredibly sensitive to the fragility of ecosystems and the contingency of relations. Their practice is much more interesting than their theory.
Okay, so the debate between agency and structure. You get a failure to think relationally when you go on and on about agents, as if they were little sovereigns that exist in a vacuum or void, unrelated to anything else. There is both a left and a right version of this in the political sphere. The right version, of course, consists in the thesis that there are only individuals and that society can be reduced to individuals. Margaret Thatcher: “society doesn’t exist, there are only individuals and families”. This allows Thatcher and other conservatives to conveniently ignore anything like material conditions or social forces, pretending that we’re all self-made men that pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps. The conservative can then morally condemn, for example, the poor person, he can treat the poor person as suffering from a moral failing and lack of will because, gosh darn it, he just didn’t try. “La la la! Sociological or material conditions had nothing to do with it! No ecology here folks, move along, move along!” Leftwing agentism and non-relationism is identical. Where the rightwinger wants to morally condemn the poor person and minorities, the liberal (the sad excuse for leftism in the United States) wants to morally condemn businesses and politicians. Like the conservative, the execrable liberal forgets ecology. In his superficial mind, politicians and businesses act in a vacuum. Consequently, if they do horrible things, the lame liberal says, then this is because they’re morally horrible people– they’re “greedy” for example — who are just psychopaths. While it’s true that there are many morally horrible capitalists and politicians, the problem with this whole theory is that it forgets that businesses and politicians too act within an ecology or in relation to other things and the decisions aren’t entirely up to them.
I’ll, of course, take the lame, weenie liberal over the conservative any day, but the problem with them is that they seem to think that if we just scolded capitalists and politicians enough and morally edified them, they’d change their wicked ways. In other words, they fail to recognize that it is the anonymous system, the ecology, that’s the issue, not so much the individuals. If there’s a splendor to game theory– and believe me, that splendor does reside in its idiotic theory of human nature and motives (maximizing self-interest) –then it lies in the fact that game theory conceives deliberation or reasoning as a dyadic relation between an agent and another agent, not something that resides in an isolated agent apart from everything else in the world. In other words, game theory implicitly says that decisions do not arise from agents simpliciter, but from the network as a whole (i.e., the results are “anonymous”). Lacan understood this as well in his discourse theory. The core of Lacanian discourse theory lies in the thesis that a discourse is a dyadic relation between a speaker and an addressee, not something that’s defined by a “subject-matter” like biology. Thus, for example, when Lacan says the discourse of the hysteric is the only discourse that produces knowledge, he’s not saying that only hysterics produce knowledge. Rather, he’s saying that in the hysterics relation to another, s/he provokes that other in such a way that he begins talking and generates knowledge. It is the relation between the two that produces the knowledge– the challenge to established bodies of knowledge –not a subject in isolation gazing on the world. Ecology.
The point here isn’t that agency doesn’t exist. That’d be stupid. The point is that agents exercise their agency in a world or an ecology, and within that world sometimes it’s impossible to make a move at all and sometimes the only moves are bad moves. Chess is a good example. Sometimes your pawn is pinned down in such a way that it can’t move forward at all. Tough luck. At other times you find yourself in a situation where your only real choice is to sacrifice your rook to save your king. Tough luck. Rooks and pawns are agents, they have choices, but those choices are constrained by the broader relations they entertain to other pieces on the board. Those relations are, of course, perpetually change so there are fluctuations in the material possibility space of any piece’s agency at any given point in time. This is what it means to talk about “social forces”. Social forces aren’t some enigmatic, magical, and mysterious thing as Latour polemically likes to suggest. Rather, social forces are constraints on agency that don’t emerge from any particular agent, but from the ecology of agents at a particular point in time. Failure to understand this entails a failure to understand why agents make such “horrible” decisions and to fall back on a moral stance that they’re either just lazy or greedy. Failure to understand that ecology, in its turn, leads to piss poor political strategy because one believes a scolding is sufficient to change things (individualist or agentist thinking), rather than understanding that it’s the network of anonymous ecological relations that more or less necessitates the decision. While it might be hard for some to bear, the banker on Wall Street is no less making decisions in an ecology of bankers that exceed him, than all of us other dopes. He does what he does not so much because he’s a greedy bastard– though there are plenty of those –but because if he doesn’t the other banker will and his bank will either go under or he’ll lose his job. Like the decision to sacrifice your rook to save your king, the banker makes the bad decision to save his skin. The question then is one of how to effectively intervene in that ecology to disrupt the network of tendencies that lead to this exploitation, instability, and oppression.