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.