ultra-quick response to Immanence

April 10, 2010

Busy day today with the conference, and two more busy days coming up. I just wanted to link to ADRIAN IVAKHIV’S LATEST REPLY, and make three brief comments.

“Graham Harman explains his objections to relational ontologies, arguing that they fail to make a distinction between the ‘two sorts of relations’ in which an entity is involved. These are not ‘the famous “internal” and “external” relations,’ but are what he ‘somewhat whimsically’ calles the ‘domestic’ and ‘foreign’ relations of an object. (I like this distinction, though I’m not sure how it’s different from internal and external relations.)”

They’re different because, in my model, both domestic and foreign are external relations. The internal relations of a thing are relations by which it is constituted. But even if I am causally/mereologically dependent on my bodily organs, my relations with them are not internal relations. The reason is that, once I arise, I am ontologically independent of my organs even if not causally so. I can’t do justice to this theme typing on a table at a dark café, but later perhaps.

“But if we are concerned to make sense of a particular entity, we should stick with the relations that define it, and neither the cane toad nor Mars bears much relevance to the other. ”

It depends on what you mean by “making sense of.” For methodological purposes, it can be very useful to do what Latour does and focus on what a given entity, a cane toad or anything else, transforms, modifies, perturbs, or creates. But the cane toad must be there in order to be able to have any such effects. And given that the cane toad might exist in any number of possible contexts, it makes no sense to reduce it to its current such contexts. In short, I think actor-network theory doesn’t do as well with counterfactual situations as it does with current ones. (Ironically, Latour is well aware of this when he interviews Michel Serres, where he explores repeatedly the theme of “other possible Serres” who might have had different careers.)

“My general point here is that the environment of an entity does matter. An organism and its environment mutually shape each other…”

And my point is that they mutually shape each other. If you push relationism too far, then there is no “each other” at all, because all that exists is the relational system making up organism and environment. OOO is able to account for that system by saying that it forms a new object. But this does not mean that cane toad and Australia melt together into a whole without remainder. You have to be able to account for the excess in both the toad and in Australia, neither of which is exhaustively deployed in their relation. Nor are they exhaustively deployed in their relations with all other entities. You can’t find the cane toad by summing up all the effects it currently has and receives from all other entities. Otherwise, you leave no ontological space for counterfactuals.

Relationism had a lot of cutting-edge power when the alternative was crusty old-fashioned substances and natural kinds. But I think that battle is already won, and we live in a relationized world when we read most recent philosophers. My claim is that relationism has therefore lost its subversive power, and has settled in as the new dogma. To oppose that dogma, we need a better theory of the excess outside all relational contexts. And I don’t think we succeed when we try that with the plasma, the real in the last instance, inconsistent multiplicity, a real-traumatic kernel, or a virtual. The real is already carved into districts, and they are not exhausted by their relations or their effects.

Furthermore, I think Adrian makes too much of the difference between objects and individuals. I was using them as synonyms, for the sheer purpose of linguistic variety. His statement that he would rather be called an individual than an object presupposes, in my opinion, a sense of “mere object” that is simply not the way I use the term. To say that humans are objects, in OOO, does not mean that they have no more ethical dignity than a piece of wood. But that added dignity is not something that needs to be built into philosophy in the form of the old-fashioned dualism (swept away by Latour) between human subjects and physical objects.


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