Ivakhiv defends relationism

May 4, 2010

In response to my Bennett post of earlier this evening, IVAKHIV POSTS HERE

“Let’s think for a minute: At what point do I, or did I, become an object? When an egg was fertilized by a sperm in my mother’s body? Or when I emerged from that body at birth? The latter would be a reasonable starting point, since the bodily separation is a defining moment, both physically and (usually) culturally. But surely I couldn’t exist for long on my own after that. Or was it when I learned to take my place within society as such and such a person, distinguished from others through the Lacanian mirror stage and over the course of a long socialization? But again, Lacan’s point is that this ‘I’ is thoroughly relationally defined.”

Two quick points in response to this:

1. Thoroughly relationally defined? I don’t think people always take seriously enough just how extreme that is. 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. And that leads me to the second point.

2. “At what point do I, or did I, become an object?” There’s no easy answer to this unless you believe that you are a soul and think that you know at what moment the soul begins. But the wish to avoid such a position is no excuse for going to the opposite extreme and saying that you’re just a bundle of relations.

More importantly, this complaint assumes that the object-oriented approach is married to the idea that I am the same object across a whole lifetime.

In other words, the two extreme positions seem to be either: (a) I am an enduring substance across the whole of my life, or (b) I am dying every instant and being replaced by a similar but nonidentical being in each instant.

I have my own theory, still too raw to argue here, and that theory is that the same person is most likely a multiple but countable number of objects across a lifetime. In other words, I suspect that a life proceeds in jumps, that there are key moments in a life that amount to jumps, and that these are irreversible turning points in which I fuse with some other object(s) to become a different object than I was before.

I’d rather not get into it yet until it’s a bit more polished. I just wanted to point out that the choice shouldn’t be between “no change at all” and “constant change,” which is the choice as usually presented to us.

After reading Gibbon, it would be somewhat silly to say that there’s an enduring Rome-essence from Romulus to the fall of Constantinople. But it would be equally silly to claim that the hiccup of a Roman donkey in 134 B.C. changes the city’s relational totality just like the assassination of Caesar or the split of the Empire in two. What a good historian does is identify turning points, distinguishing them from minor points; and of course historians argue about these things, so exact epistemological criteria are difficult to provide. But it seems obvious to me that any ontology needs to distinguish between relations that change things and relations that change nothing. The fact that the task is difficult is not an excuse to adopt an extremist position. There’s no point denying that unsolved problems are problems; problems are for working on, not for defining arbitrarily out of existence.

Stated differently, I’m not sure why a non-relational ontology is interpreted to mean that relations don’t matter. Of course they matter. Hiroshima comes into relation with an atomic bomb, and much is changed thereby. The problem with relational ontologies is that Hiroshima ends up just as affected by butterflies and grains of dust as by the atomic bomb.

I think Adrian and I both know where we stand on this question right now, and I would propose a cease fire to this friendly shooting war. It would work better in print, perhaps, or after a certain amount of additional time has passed.


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