The Externality of Relations

Levi and others in the OOO blog world have been discussing relations again, this time mainly in reference to Karen Barad’s statement that “relata do not precede their relations.”  This is another one of those philosophical discussions that, for me, makes a difference to the work that I do, though not necessarily in the sense that the philosophers take it.

In order for my concept of work and the analyses that follow from it to (for lack of a better word) work, I have to be able to look at the work that is done by every being involved in a given set of relations.  No being can be reduced to or subsumed by any other because they all contribute important differences that make a difference.  For me, this means that I do not recognize a difference between “internal” and “external” relations.  Rather I would say that all relations are external. There are two reasons for this. First, where does one draw the line between internal and external? How does one decide whether a given relation is essential to an entity’s being or when it is not? Most would probably agree that the relationship between myself and the cells that make up my body are essential to my being, but I shed cells all the time without dying. Clearly, if you removed my heart and didn’t replace it with some adequate substitute, then I would cease to exist (or, at least, my existence would be radically changed – I would die). But if you remove my big toe, I would perhaps be in a lot of pain, but I would not die, and my being would not be radically altered. Does that mean that the relation between myself and my heart is internal whereas the relation between myself and my toe is external? Similarly, most people would probably agree that my relationship to my books is external. But if you cut me off from accessing my books or any others, would I continue to be the same Jeremy that I am now? I would venture to say not, and I’m not willing to attempt the experiment. So what constitutes my being, and where is the line between internal and external drawn – it seems to me that such a line would always be arbitrary.

The second reason I claim that all relations are external is that, by suggesting that certain relations are internal, those relations and the beings that compose them ultimately get subsumed by the totality of the being for whom they are internal. For example, if the relationship between myself and the cells that compose my body are internal, then my totality subsumes them such that they become merely functional units with no agency or capacity for difference of their own. If I am to account for all of the work that is done by all of the entities involved in an assemblage, then I have to recognize that those beings have an existence independent of myself as a totality. Instead of seeing myself as encompassing of the other beings that compose me, I view myself as working alongside those beings. I am, thus, only one part of the assemblage that is myself. I certainly play an active role in my own composition (the way I choose to exercise, the foods I choose to eat, the places I choose to live, the media I choose to consume, etc.), but I am by no means the only – or even the most important – active participant in this assemblage. Any being is, therefore, only one part of what composes its own existence, and the being of the others who compose it cannot be reduced to it. Existence is always co-existence. This, as I understand it, is the meaning behind Bryant’s “strange mereology” of which I was originally skeptical, but which I have now fully embraced for this very reason.

Going back to the issue of relata and their relations, it doesn’t make sense to me to say, as Levi suggests (rightly or wrongly) Barad (and Whitehead) does, that everything is related to everything else in the universe. It may be true in the broadest sense – that because we are all part of the same Universe, that we all came from the same Big Bang, then we are always already connected to one another – but I agree with Alex Reid in saying that the vast majority of those relations would be so tenuous as to make little, if any, difference to me. Am I related to a star in a galaxy billions of light years away? If so, then it doesn’t make much of a difference, and, therefore, is not worth considering. What makes a difference are those relations that are relatively more concrete – the relation between myself and the cells in my body, between me and my books, between me and my family, me and my friends, etc. – and the work that is done by all of those involved to compose and recompose those relations over time.

There is, however, another way to take Barad’s statement about relata and their relations, and, though I have only read one short article by her, I suspect that this is closer to her meaning. It’s not that everything is always already connected to everything else as Levi claims. Rather, it’s that the powers (to borrow Levi’s term) of a being are only ever actualized in relation to other beings. The redness of the cup is only actualized in relation to a certain kind of ambient light and the perceptive gaze of a sentient being. The cat is satiated in relation to the presence of food or hungry (and eventually dead) in relation to its absence. These powers are what makes a difference, but do they exist as part of the being of one individual in the relationship, withdrawn, and waiting to be actualized, or do they exist only in the relation between two or more beings? If the latter then relata cannot precede their relations because the relata are what they are in any given moment only by way of some relation. The relata themselves are only potential that is actualized in the process of relating to other relata (and relata, in the end, are only relatively more concrete sets of relations).

I don’t know where all of this places me on the OOO-PRO spectrum. It’s really not that important to me. Being an anthropologist and not a philosopher, I have the luxury of not having to take sides, and instead use what I need for whatever work I’m doing.

William James’s Object-Oriented Ontology?

Excerpts from A Pluralistic Universe:

“Pragmatically interpreted, pluralism or the doctrine that [the universe] is many means only that the sundry parts of reality may be externally related.  Everything you can think of, however vast or inclusive, has on the pluralistic view a genuinely “external” environment of some sort or amount.  Things are “with” one another in many ways, but nothing includes everything, or dominates over everything.  The word “and” trails along after every sentence.  Something always escapes.  “Ever not quite” has to be said of the best attempts made anywhere in the universe at attaining all-inclusiveness.  The pluralistic world is thus more likea fedral repulic than an empire or kingdom.  However much may be collected, however much may report itself as present at any effective centre of consciousness or action, something else is self-governed and absent and unreduced to unity.

“Monism on the other hand, insists that when you come down to reality as such, to the reality of realities, everything is present to everything else in one vast instantaneous co-implicated completeness – nothing can in any sense, functional or substantial, be really absent from anything else, all things interpenetrate and telescope together in the great total conflux.

“The difference I try to describe amounts, you see, to nothing more than the difference between… the each-form and the all-form of reality.  Pluralism lets things really exist in the each-form or distributively.  Monism thinks that the all-form or collective-unit form is the only form that is rational.  The all-form allows no taking up and dropping of connexions, for in the all the parts are essentially and eternally co-implicated by intermediary things, with a thing with which it has no immediate or essential connexion.  It is thus at all times in many possible connexions which are not necessarily actualized at the moment.

“If the each-form be the eternal form of reality no less than it is the form of temporal appearance, we still have a coherent world, and not an incarnate incoherence, as is charged by so many absolutists.  Our “multiverse” still makes a “universe”; for every part, tho it may not be in actual or immediate connexion, is nevertheless in some possible or mediated connexion, with every other part however remote, through the fact that each part hangs together with its very next neighbors in inextricable interfusion.  The type of union, it is true, is different here from the monistic type of alleinheit. It is not a universal co-implication, or integration of all things durcheinander.  It is what I call the strung-along type, the type of continuity, contiguity, or concatenation.  If you prefer Greek words, you may call it the synechistic type.  At all events, you see that it forms a definitely conceivable alternative to the through-and-through unity of all things at once, which is the type opposed by monism. … The recognition of this fact of coalescence of next with next in concrete experience, so that all the insulating cuts we make there are artificial products of the conceptualizing faculty, is what distinguishes the empiricism which I call “radical,” from the bugaboo empiricism of the traditional rationalist critics, which (rightly or wrongly) is accused of chopping up experience into atomistic sensations, incapable of union with one another until a purely intellectual principle has swooped down upon them from on high and folded them in its own conjunctive categories.”

I realize this is not exactly OOO, but upon reading it I heard some familiar tones with the debates of OOO versus Process-Relational Ontologies (PROs) – in particular, regarding overmining and undermining, lava lamp ontologies, and the idea of withdrawal.  Also, understand that I am not advocating OOO in this instance, just pointing to some literature that seems to agree with it.  I’m posting more out of interest and addition to discussion than out of any particular agenda.