Perhaps “relation” is the wrong word for what is thought in ecological ontology. There’s something too ghostly, too incorporeal, about relations. Everything in the entire cosmos could be still and there would still be relations. Things would be to the left or right or one another, so many miles or light years apart, larger and smaller, and so on. Yet ecology, above all, thinks beings in interaction and becoming. While interaction is a form of relation, the concept of interaction captures a certain fleshiness of how beings hang together in ecologies that risks being lost with the signifier “relation”.
Beings in ecologies interact. This is a mundane and obvious observation, yet maybe one we don’t often pause to think through. First, even at a distance, there is always a materiality of interactions. Every interaction requires flesh. There are no incorporeal or ghostly interactions. Two entities at a distance might interact. Indeed, ecology often and primarily thinks interactions between beings at a distance. The novelty of its thought consists in showing or tracing how two entities that appear to be unrelated– say frogs and cars –in fact affect one another in an assemblage. Their interaction is not, of course, an immediate one. It is not a direct touching. Rather, there is a fleshy or material mediator that passes between them, surmounting time and distance: the car’s carbon emissions.
Even symbolic and linguistic interactions require flesh to occur. They require an atmosphere, for no sound can travel in a vacuum, or electro-magnetic signals, paper, smoke, or any number of other mediums. With ghostly relations, nothing passes between; but in interactions there’s always a material passage. And because interactions not only unfold in time but require time, nothing is ever immediate in ecologies. Nothing– so far as we know at present –can occur faster than the speed of light. We’re all familiar with the letter that arrives too late. The lateness of a letter is the mark of its flesh, its materiality. Letters must travel, whether they be conveyed by speech, on paper, or electronically. They require time to proliferate through the ecosystem of a society like the circles produced in a pond after the throw of a stone. In another register, it could be that unexpected tragedies are now approaching us as a result of flesh currently traveling our way. Who knows whether a gamma ray burst that occurred thousands of years isn’t currently making a journey to meet our planet?
Ghostly relations change nothing in the entity they relate. The entity remains exactly as it was before whether it is to the left or right of another entity, whether it is this close or that far, whether it is larger or smaller. With interactions it is entirely different. Entities affect and are affected by one another in their interactions. Bald eagles interacted with scientists and farmers through DDT, causing shells to thin and reproductive rates to go down. In turn, all sorts of plants and animals are affected positively and negatively as a result of the absence of these birds. Perhaps other populations of organisms grow because they’re no longer prey for a particular predator. This growth, in its turn, affects a whole host of other organisms. Ripples proliferating throughout the water of an assemblage involving birds, plants, rodents, farmers, crops, scientists, chemical formulas, factories, and a host of other entities.
In interactions we encounter a certain plasticity of entities. No entity is exactly what it seems to be at a particular point in time, for every being is sustained in its qualities by a certain field of relations. Even something as solid as a rock or a lump of lead is sustained in its qualitative being by a field of interactions. Change the pressure to which the rock is subject and it becomes molten or folds in new ways or its grain is transformed. That lump of lead on Venus becomes molten and evaporates. Permanence is a function of a relatively stable interactive field. Change the sendings of flesh that populate that field and the entity will undergo a qualitative change. Even the color of entities is the result of interactive fields. Entities display the colors they display as a result of the wavelengths of light their surfaces interact with. Color is an event, not a fixed feature in entities. Look carefully. Contemplate a colored object as lighting conditions change. You will witness the color change. There’s a reason Monet painted his lily pads and hay stacks in series of paintings. He sought to paint the event of these lily pads and hay stacks, their becoming. It’s not that these beings appeared to change color. They really did change color. Entities then are teeming with powers, with capacities, that we scarcely know for we only encounter them when they are unleashed as a result of an interaction. And it goes without saying that while many of these interactions will leave entities unchanged as they will merely actualize a property or action, others will transform the very powers of the being as in the fictional case of Seth Brundle being spliced with a fly.
Often entities interact with one another not only occasionally or as a one time event, but in relations of feedback. One entity sends flesh to another leading it to actualize itself in a particular way. The receiving entity, in its turn, sends flesh to the sending entity, leading it to actualize itself in a particular way. Like stars orbiting each other in a binary star system, the two send matter back and forth to one another in an endless cycle and in doing so both undergo a co-evolution and form a system in which their respective actualizations are relatively stable and enduring. This is what is called “negative feedback”. We can think social assemblages along these lines. We wonder, why is it so difficult to change social assemblages even when they are so oppressive and painful? This is because there are dense fields of negative feedback interactions that more or less maintaining the pattern of the social assemblage. We seek to intervene, to disrupt and change those patterns, and interactions occur to erase the trace of our action, maintaining the patterns of the assemblage as they were before. These feedback mechanisms occur at all sorts of levels. There are the noisy feedback mechanisms of police and military that discipline those events that disrupt the social assemblage. There are the subjectivizations that form persons, creating dispositions to behave, think, and feel in particular ways– despite the intentions of those subjects –that maintain the ecology of the social assemblage. This is what Bourdieu called habitus. The person might avow, for example, feminism at the level of their conscious thought, but their bodily dispositions indicate the functioning of patriarchy at a sub-personal level. There are the ways in which forms of life are locked into an ecology of energy, labor, and technology that makes it very difficult to live otherwise. There are media outlets that perpetually reinforce reigning ideologies. Sometimes there’s just the distractions of things like social media and entertainment that perpetually distract, drawing attention away from intolerable circumstances. We should not work from the premise that ecology inherently denotes something positive. All ecology denotes is an ontology of interacting entities in fields of dependency, where some interactions and the stabilities they produce might be desirable, whereas others are quite horrific.