more from Adrian I.

April 9, 2010

Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence (I have to keep distinguishing him from Adrian Johnston, because I confused the two once before in a web context) RESPONDS AGAIN TO ME AND LEVI, and it’s a nice, substantial response.

I still disagree with much of it, but let me focus on just one point:

“The spectre of this ‘flux’ is one that Graham raises again (he has done it before) when he refers to the ‘free-for-all wonderland of relationality where a thing is nothing more than its relations.’ He continues:'”you can’t just replace a cane toad with some other creature and get the same results.’ Of course, I completely agree with him that you would get different results from the importation of cane toads to Australia than from the importation of rabbits to Australia, or of blue jeans to China, or of nuclear weapons from Russia to Kyrgystan. That’s because cane toads are a different set of relations than all these other things. I see no reason why a relational account cannot recognize such differences. Just as objects are not all the same, neither are relations all the same. Some relations come in more stable bundles than others, and if we wish to call those ‘objects,’ that’s a semantic choice and a matter of relative emphasis (between stasis and openness, being and becoming, etc.).”

The part I disagree with, of course, is this: “That’s because cane toads are a different set of relations than all these other things.”

There are at least two problems with this claims, as I see it.

1. This does not distinguish, as one must, between two sorts of relations in which the cane toad is involved. I’m not speaking of the famous “internal” and “external” relations, but of what I have somewhat whimsically called the “domestic” and “foreign” relations of an object.

For example… The cane toad is obviously dependent on the relations of its bodily organs. Disconnect all of its organs from the others, and the cane toad is not a living cane toad anymore. The cane toad is to some extent dependent on its pieces to be what it is. But note in passing that even this is not entirely the case. You can remove or replace any number of atoms in the cane toad without changing it. You could quite possibly even do a bizarre medical experiment and replace its heart with an artificial heart, and if done expertly this might have no discernible impact on the cane toad at all. However, it is true that you cannot remove all the relations of which a thing is composed and still have it be there. These are what I call the “domestic” relations of an object, and some people make the mistake of saying that because these are necessary, things must be defined as relational.

But that is not the case. From the fact that the cane toad cannot exist without a certain sort of relation between its pieces, it does not follow that the cane toad is relationally defined with respect to the outer world. The same cane toad could be moved to Japan or Italy and still be the same. Sure, different nutrients in the different places might soon change it, but that’s a more complicated and derivative problem. The point is that, in principle, the cane toad is able to enter Australia because it’s already a cane toad. It can be shuffled around between different contexts and within certain limits still remain the seem creature despite its shifting foreign relations.

Almost constantly, relationism is defended by observing that anything with various parts must already be relational. This misses the difference between the two kinds of relations: there is asymmetry between them. The object itself is a sort of firewall blocking the two forms of relations from one another.

2. Remembering the sentence with which I disagree: “That’s because cane toads are a different set of relations than all these other things.”

But this is insufficiently precise. Surely Adrian doesn’t want to claim that the cane toad is a set of all its relations? If Mars were five inches further along in its course than it currently is, would the cane toad be a different cane toad than it is now? Some philosophers go that far (I think Whitehead does, despite his “negative prehensions” alibi). But I think that position can easily be attacked, and won’t attack it unless Adrian proclaims it as his real position. Otherwise, though, he has to invent some sort of criterion for why some sorts of relations enter into the “set” known as cane toad, and others don’t. He also has to explain why not all the relations in the world go into the cane toad set, but only some of them. Something has to be the unifier, no matter how often this is called “naive.” You can go for the empiricist “bundle of qualities” solution, but then you’re just letting human custom or habit serve as the bundler, which frankly I think I still the trap that Badiou never escaped (due to his insufficient sympathy for/familiarity with phenomenology). Whenever you’re talking about sets in this way, you’re soon headed for a dead end where it has to be a human who does the bundling of diversity into unity.

What Adrian seems to be missing (just as Shaviro keeps missing it) is that OOO already perfectly allows for change, process, and flux. It is simply trying to restore the balance that was lost by the already extreme swing toward relational ontology. All correlationism is a subspecies of relationism, since it states that there are two poles of reality (subject and world) and that these two are co-originary. A few of these authors, such as Badiou and Heidegger, also invoke a non-exhaustible term outside the correlate (Sein, inconsistent multiplicity), but that’s just their realist alibi so they won’t look like Berkeley.

Relations require relata. This is not some reactionary fossil of a principle that has long since been overcome by cutting-edge thinkers (as some people try to present it). It’s simply the only coherent way to think about relations. The character of those relata remains philosophically up for grabs, but you can’t get a philosophy to work in which everything is just a big relational system. Monism is the ultimate outcome of all such philosophies, even when halfhearted models of quasi-individuality are attempted as stopgaps.

And this is why OOO will ultimately become more popular than it currently is– people will start to see that you can’t make sense of much of anything if you don’t leave some room for individuals at the basis of your ontology.


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