Object-Oriented Philosophy and Networkological Relationalism

by Christopher Vitale (crossposted at Networkologies)

In a recent blog post, Graham Harman responds to Adrian over at Immanence‘s critique of aspects of Object-Oriented Ontology (for more on OOO, see Graham’s paper “On Vicarious Causation” here). And since Adrian is presenting a relationalist critique of OOO, it hits me as worth saying something about this, because the networkological approach I’m working on developing (the book manuscript for “Networkologies: A Manifesto” is about 85% done!) is nothing if not a form of relationalism.

Deconstructing OOO?

It seems to me that what Adrian is trying to do is to deconstruct the notion of object at work in OOO. That is, when does something get to count as an object, and what sort of changes make it a different object, and at what point?

This old-school Derridian style approach hits me as quite a worthwhile endeavor with any philosophy, whether you support it or don’t. That is, after Derrida, we should always ask these sorts of questions, and if we dismiss these sorts of issues and still decide to support a given theory, we need to answer why.

I think there are other figures that present similar issues for philosophy. After Freud and Nietzsche’s critique of the activity of philosophizing, can we really say we are contemporary unless we problematize why it might be that we support the theories we do? That is, do we have an understanding of our own philosophical activity, not only as that of the production of theory, but also as personal symptom?

And taking Zizek at his word when he argues that Marx invented the symptom, let us also reference the name(s) of Hegel/Marx here. That is, after Hegel/Marx’s critique of the truths produced by philosophy as symptoms of the historico-social context of the philosopher, isn’t it necessary for us to at least deal with the manner in which our own work could be seen as a social symptom?

I think that after the ‘turns’ within philosophy which go by the names Nietzsche/Freud and Hegel/Marx, we miss some of the manner in which philosophy has become self-reflexive in new ways in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries if we ignore these critiques. But in addition to the psychological and social symptom approaches, there is a third manner in which philosophy became self-reflexive at around this time, namely, the famed ‘linguistic turn’ of the mid-twentieth century.

I think that to be a philosopher working today, that is, to be a contemporary philosopher, one needs to speak to these three critiques of the philosophizing activity (personal symptom, social symptom, linguistic mediation) represented by the names Nietzsche/Freud, Hegel/Marx, and, for lack of a better term, ‘deconstruction’. This doesn’t mean that a philosopher needs to agree with any of these three critiques, rather, they need to address them, even if to eviscerate them. For more on this approach in relation to phenomenology, and Heidegger in particular, see my blog conversation with Paul Ennis here.)

As someone who spends a lot of time teaching the concept of ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism’ to my students, this notion of reflexivity is key. Then again, I don’t want to suggest that there’s any sort of teleological necessity to this. I think any movement eventually will become reflexive in this manner, usually as it begins to enter into a process of transforming into something else . . .

I’m also curious, however: beyond these three, are there other essential ‘critiques of philosophy’ in the process of ‘coming to reflexivity’ that a philosophy needs to address these days to be truly contemporary?

And so, I think its good that Adrian is working to deconstruct OOO. Furthermore, I hope that in my own work, which is coming finally to articulation, that I work to answer my own relation to these three critiques of the philosophizing activity!

All the Hairs On Your Head Are Numbered . . .

But back to Adrian and Graham. As a thorough-going relationalist, I think we need to go ‘all the way’, so to speak, with relation if we are to be able to address Graham’s answers to Adrian. Adrian asks: at what point do I start/stop/change being this object? And Graham argues back that:

A thorough relational definition would mean that I am completely defined by all of my relations. The difference between important and unimportant vanishes. The tiniest fluctuations in my relational connections turns me into a different person, whether it’s a 5-centimeter shift in my physical position, three hairs falling from my head, a major religious conversion, the death of all my friends in a tragic accident, or a severe brain injury that permanently takes away all my memories. A “thorough” relational definition of things puts all these fluctuations on the same footing, and I happen to think that that’s one of the big drawbacks of the relationist position. It’s an extremist position, which people adopt only because they are mentally fighting another extremist position– one that I do not hold.

I don’t think a thorough relational approach runs into this problem. That is, yes, you necessarily ARE a different entity (I hesitate to use the word ‘object’ here), in a sense, even if one of your molecules changes. In some sense, I cease to be the ‘me’ I was when one hair falls off of my head.

But the question I think really comes down to naming. That is, while I am certainly a different mass of atoms when I lose one hair, I am certainly the same biological entity, and I retain my identity. For identity, as Hegel showed, is simply sameness within difference over time. But who gets to determine the essence which remains, and differentiate it from the inessential? A name is an attempt to determine precisely this. For example, a green plant ceases to be green when it wilts and turns green, but it remains a plant. If I say, “oh look at that plant over there”, this statement works if I point to either the living green or brown wilted plant, but ceases to work if I say, “look at that green thing” and the thing has now turned brown. Our choice of noun determines exactly what we determine as the essence in question, that which creates/describes the identity in difference, and therefore separates the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

I use ‘creates/describes’ here carefully, for those who use language naively would argue for the first, while us wiley philosophy types would usually go for some version of the second which contains and supersedes the first . . .

Back to Speculative Realism (but not OFM)

Now, my guess would be that the OOO response to this set of issues is the following: ‘Look, we’ve read our Meillassoux, and we’ve gone beyond his critique of correlationism. The whole point of OOO, and speculative realism in general, is that we can talk about the world again, the world of objects, independent of subjects! If the tree falls in the woods without a human to hear it, of course it makes a sound! Science and the real world are back, get with the program. OOO is simply the most developed way to understand how the world works. Subjects are just particular types of objects. Get with the program, don’t drag us back to these old-fashioned issues!”

Now, I could be wrong about this. But having read Prince of Networks and Graham’s “Vicarious Causation” essay, as well as lots of Levi Bryant‘s posts (and I realize his approach has some crucial differences), this would at least be my guess. Of course, with a little affectionate hyperbole thrown in!

But I still find myself wondering sometimes, and perhaps I just haven’t read the right OOO work yet, what exactly makes a subject different from other types of objects? If we’re going to make a philosophy centered on objects, a notion I’m very sympathetic to, and which I find very exciting, then the special object called a subject, it seems to me, shifts from something simply given (as assumed by so many prior philosophies), into a problem. How does OOO deal with the problem of the subject? Perhaps I just haven’t read the right OOO text, in which case, please send me in the right direction!

Absolutizing the Correlation

While I’m not sure exactly how OOO would deal with these issues, I can say how the networkological approach, a form of hyper-relationism, would deal with this. As Meillassoux (I still need to look up how to spell his name every time I use it!) argues, in today’s world, there are two ways around correlationism. One way is to argue, as he does, that ancestral statements and notions like these show us that science is real, beyond human correlation, and to put our faith in these facts of science, even if they fall outside of correlation. Not wanting to simply surrender philosophy to a simple scientism, Meillassoux calls instead for a type of realism which is still speculative, hence, his development of his principle of factiality, etc.

But Meillassoux has to fend off another approach in the process, one he attributes to Hegel, which he calls ‘speculative idealism’. He identifies this with absolutizing the correlation. That is, rather than work around the human correlation, to argue that everything in the world is, in differing degrees, a subject. Namely, all objects are subjects, and that its just a matter of degree. This avoids the conflict between correlationalism and the paradox of the arche-fossil/ancestrality.

For Meillassoux, this approach is idealist, and since Hegel clearly indicates a dead-end in philosophy, we can easily reject this path. That said, I’m not sure that absolutizing the correlation needs to be idealist in the sense of ‘old fashioned metaphysics’ OFM.

A Relationalist Approach

According to the networkological approach, whether or not you remain the same person or not depends on the perspective from which that question is asked. That is, even if a hair has fallen out of Graham’s head, I still deal with him as the same person, because according to my perspective on him, I’ve chosen his ‘Graham-ness’, rather than his hairness, as what’s worth paying attention to.

But what of non-human actors? What of, say, atoms? If we follow Whitehead, we see the manner in which we can ‘absolutize the correlation’ without resorting to metaphysics. Each atom represents a perspective on the world, even if it is not conscious of this fact. For in fact, any given atom ranks in degrees of relevance everything else in the world around it at any given location in spacetime. It doesn’t have to ‘think’ to do this, the universe ‘does it for’ the atom by means of things like distance and material constitution. That is, distant objects will generally be able to impact an atom less than ones which are close by, just as non-photosensitive entities will be unaffected by light, close or far, as opposed to photosensitive ones. Nature does the computations of relevance for us, for in fact, it is a giant computer for doing precisely that.

It is in this sense that every entity in all existence has a perceptive on the universe, and in many senses it is nothing more than the concretization of the entire universe in all space and time from that perspective. This is the Leibnizian notion of the universe as fractal hologram, one which Whitehead adopts as his own.

The result is that every entity in the universe, even a single atom, is impacted/influenced by the world in regard to its perspective upon the universe. Deleuze, following Whitehead, calls this perception. For according to Deleuze (see for example, the commentaries on Bergson in Cinema I), all matter perceives, is affected, takes action, and yes, thinks! As a good Spinozist, Deleuze believes that mind and matter interpenetrate at all levels. And as a good Bergsonist, Deleuze believes that atoms are images bombarded by other images, and that there aren’t really objects, just images, refractions of the whole of the universe at different perspectives and points of view.

For Deleuze, each atom receives images of the world around it, and reflects or refracts these images. Thus, even if I see a reflection of my face in the mirror, both the reflection and my real face are images, if differently. One is an imprint of another. But they are both equally as real.

Is Graham still Graham if he loses a hair? To me, yes. To an atom perceiving him? I’d say he was never either. He may cause that atom to receive a vibration, but he never was nor ever will be Graham. That’s simply not what’s on that atom’s ‘mind’, so to speak . . .

Every atom, thus, carves the world into zones of relevance, each atom has an umwelt in the sense intended by Jakob von Uexkull. And not just atoms. Every entity has its own umwelt, so to speak. That is, each electron in that atom, each proton in that atom, each grouping that atom is in, each quark, up and down at all levels of scale. Its networks, all the way up and all the way down. This is why I feel that networks provide the mechanism whereby a contemporary, relationalist speculative realism can be constructed. More on that soon (once I get my final papers graded, the manuscript will hopefully be done in a month)!

Of course, at the quantum level, things get funky, because precise localization in spacetime gets blurred, shall we say. But for anything that takes up positions in the world, there is a constantly moving umwelt whereby it ‘perceives’ the world.

And yet, there is no ding-an-sich to hold it all together. This is what it means, for me at least, to absolutize the correlation. And done this way, there is nothing idealist about this. It is all science, all the way down. For me, this is realism, hardcore realism, even if it does require speculation to make it function. It is speculative realism, and far from idealism. For anyone studying quantum physics, the imputation of qualities that resemble human subjectivity to aspects of the microphysical world is nothing new. Why should we consider that evidence of idealism? Whitehead is one clear example for me of a figure who is at once rigorously scientifically realist, yet provides a way to ‘absolutize the correlation’.

Relationalism as Speculative Realism

But what about subjects? The atom doesn’t have much in the way of choice (ok, quantum fluctuations do exist, but they don’t really have much of an impact here) in how it relates to Graham, whereas I, as a subject, can decide, at least partially, what I consider relevant in recognizing him. That is, an atom has a restricted repertoire in its ability to perceive the world. But because of our highly developed embodied cognitive apparatus, humans have more freedom to choose which filters and schemas we use to comprehend the world around us. Is that a ‘plant’ or a ‘green’ I see?

Without a brain, an atom can’t make that decision. This is not to say that an atom doesn’t have mind. Rather, it doesn’t have complex enough matter, for a mind like humans have is simply what happens to any matter which is as intricately constructed, as well as situated in a dynamic, metastable energetic system, as is the human brain. I’m sure that when we get to the point at which we create machines that are as complex (not merely complicated, but complex) as the human mind – and computers aren’t even close  – they too, I believe, will have mind in the manner we do. Mind is simply part of what matter does, and the more complex the aggregate of matter, the more complex the aggregate of mind, for these are, to quote Spinoza, simply two different aspects of the same. And to continue the Spinozism for a moment, the more complex the society of the matter, and the more distributed its architecture (the more ‘democratic’ our objects, so to speak!), the more freedom there is. Freedom, for example, to decide whether or not I see a ‘plant’ or a ‘green’ . . .

So, in conclusion, I’m not sure exactly how OOO would answer the ‘hair on the head’ conundrum, but I’ve tried to present above some of how a speculatively realist relationalism would deal with this issue. Now I’m curious what others think!

My sense is that while there are some crucial differences between OOO and the networkological form of relationalism, but that when it comes down to it, OOO and relationalism are actually allied on many of the biggest issues facing us today . . .

(PS – I always hope that everyone involved takes this in the spirit of good fun and debate! Its always so hard to tell over internet, but I for one love a good debate and see it as great fun, and its what I like to do over beers when amongst friends. So, please take all of the above, even when critical, in the spirit of debate and comraderie! Even when there are differences in the SR cosa nostra, there still is enough of a shared set of things we are against that still lends a unity, and excitement, to this fascinating movement-in-process.)

(PPS – and yes, that’s a shot of the ‘hairy ball theorum’ at the start of the post. Couldn’t find anything that went with numbering the hairs on the head, but this came close as a nice ‘geek reference’ substitute . . .)


~ by chris on May 5, 2010.

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