on pendulum swings

April 9, 2010

Adrian Ivakhiv is probably second only to Pete Wolfendale on the list of people I’m most behind in responding to in the blogosphere.

In a post of April 6, he tried to make sense of the object-oriented turn as follows:

“The general answer others might give, I imagine, goes something like this: it’s a move away from X (subjectivity, perception, phenomenology, correlationism, Kantianism, relationism, or whatever else) and back to the actual real THINGS that make up the world. (That of course sounds, unintentionally I’m sure, a lot like Husserl’s ‘Back to the things themselves!’ The difference is that here it’s the actual things, not our perceptions of those things. But I’m not willing to concede that we can purify the world of our perceptions.) While I can’t pinpoint where I’ve heard this, it’s still made to sound too much like a swing of the pendulum from one side (subjectivity, relationality) to the other (objects). And I dislike that both because I’m tired of swings of the pendulum, when what we need is more integrated accounts of how all these things (objectivity and subjectivity, etc.) work together…”

I’d say that I have three separate issues with this passage.

1. “But I’m not willing to concede that we can purify the world of our perceptions.” OOO is by no means claiming that we can “purify” the world of our perceptions. This would imply that we are attempting to do an “objective” or “view from nowhere” philosophy. The usual reaction to such attempts is to make everything holistic and perspective-based, or a “view from everywhere” philosophy. What OOO claims is that view from nowhere and views from everywhere are both views, and that’s what is wrong with them. Of course we can’t perceive a thing without perceiving it. But this doesn’t mean (despite the correlationist dogma that still prevails) that it’s “nonsense” to talk about things and their interactions outside of being perceived.

2. I don’t agree with the trope that OOO is stuck in a fruitless pendulum swing from subjects to objects while Adrian does the work of integrating the two. In another recent post (which I can’t find at the moment) he makes a familiar point about how individual objects are nothing more than abstractions made by humans from a prior process or flux. Whatever the merits of that claim, it is obviously not an integration of the two sides– it’s a simple subordination of indviduals to processes. By contrast, OOO offers several ways of talking about both continuum and individual simultaneously without reducing one to the other. In my model this happens because if objects themselves are discrete and disconnected, their interiors are not. In Levi’s version it happens because objects are discrete (though not disconnected) and there’s a virtuality that is not made of chunks (if I’m understanding Levi’s position correctly.)

On a related note, Adrian says (in the same post):


“Of course, the importation of cane toads into Australia is not simply the entry of an ‘object’ into an existing ecosystem. It is part of a whose series of processes (colonialism, imperialism, etc.), which brought not just cane toads, but people, languages, weapons, sciences, and much else, and which triggered changes through the relational systems that made up the continent. My argument is that focusing on the object – the cane toad – may blur the outlines of the processes that are responsible for their introduction. But there’s nothing mutually exclusive about understanding both cane toads (in and for themselves) and the other processes that brought them to Australia. An actor-network perspective, for instance, is pretty good at looking at how the ‘cane toad-Australia’ network got built and at the role that the cane toads themselves played in this. That’s the kind of account I’m after.”

But from the fact that the introduction of the cane toad (I’m not directly familiar with case) was made possible and sustained by “colonialism, imperialism, people, languages, weapons, sciences, and much else” it does not follow that we enter a free-for-all wonderland of relationality where a thing is nothing more than its relations. Remember, you can’t just replace a cane toad with some other creature and get the same results. Nor do all processes in the neighborhood affect the cane toad: whether the first cane toad arrived on January 11 or January 13 is quite possibly unimportant, and the same goes for minute fluctuations in temperature around the time of its being introduced, and certainly goes for events in distant space that can safely be held to have no effect at all on the toad’s progress. It is purely arbitrary to say that all minute processes encountered by an object are then retained in that object’s very constitution. Some do, most don’t.

OOO is not a metaphysics of natural kinds. It’s simply a metaphysics that faces up to the unworkable aspects of relationism. (Incidentally, some people claim they don’t know what I’m talking about when I talk about relationism. My answer is: read Whitehead and Latour, the best of the bunch.)

3. Finally, I don’t even see that much of a problem with pendulum swings in intellectual history. The problem is trench wars, not pendulum swings.

A pendulum swing is when an intellectual fashion suddenly reverses. This is only natural, and is not merely a matter of fashion. Any intellectual position is bound to be an exaggeration. An intellectual current can really only support a certain number of basic permutations, and once those are used up, the only way out is to flip back to the other side and try to recover the inevitable truths in the side that had been repressed.

A possible example… “Everything is socially constructed” has been one of the central dogmas both of continental philosophy and of political leftism for quite a long time. Those alliances are purely contingent, however. At the time of the French Revolution, you’d have found the exact opposite: with conservatives like Edmund Burke defending the social construction of culture and radicals like the Jacobins defending a truth-in-itself. Now it’s the opposite, and it’s conservatives who like to oppose nature to culture.

It looks to me like we’re about to flip on this point, and both continental philosophy and the political left are going to experience a surge of interest in recovering essence, nature, etc. Why– just because they want to follow the next big superficial fashion? No, because the 1960’s/1970’s mine of constructivizing everything is more or less exhausted, and it’s time to try the other side of the street. Truth is not primarily a matter of accurate content. The truth runs deeper than any specifically formulable content we can come up with, and this is why the truth probably needs to be approached in serpentine fashion, winding to one side and then the other over history.

So, I think pendulum swings are healthy, and fortunate are they who live at a time of the pendulum’s greatest movement.

What is unhealthy, by contrast, are trench wars. These are the stalemated situations in which the two opposite sides are banally familiar, no progress is made, and the two sides simply fire poison gas at each other without gaining more than a few inches. To escape trench warfare you have to do it the way it was done in WWI: come up with a new tactic, whether armored vehicles or shock troops. The fight between the two basic camps in the philosophy of mind is one case that is beginning to feel like an irresolvable trench war. But there are others.

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