Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Immanent Response to Relations

Adrian at Immanence has made a careful response to Graham and my posts on relationality. I duplicate his response to my points below.
Moving on to Paul's post: Having some familiarity with the kinds of relational and processual holists he is describing -- Goddess thealogians, Gaian pantheists, Neo-Pagans and New Paradigm thinkers, et al. -- I can sympathize with his conundrum, which he expresses poignantly and, in the following passage, evocatively:

"It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves."

What surprises me about this -- though I'm guessing that Paul's frustration arises out of a very specific and personal academic trajectory, so I don't mean to be hard on him here -- is that he would have expected detailed explanations of "precisely how things relate to one another" from theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists, and not from the many social scientific and humanistic accounts of such relations -- detailed post-constructivist (or co-constructive, material-discursive) analyses of a tremendous array of socio-technical-political-ecological ensembles, all of which draw on relational and processual theories in nuanced and empirically oriented ways to make sense of real-world processes and events.

Adrian is appropriately sensitive to where my frustrations emerge from here, although I certainly don’t mind being called on these issues or the kind of hard questions that he generates. My main answer to the question of why ‘theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists’ ought to be doing this complex mereological and metaphysical work is quite simply that many/most of them don’t need to be. However, I do have a more substantial argument, that, in religious terms – basically in terms of long-term survival and growth and applicability of religions beyond a local level – there will be a need for some members of a religion to do this. Once a religion starts to deploy a set of concepts at a suitable level of complexity, there is a need or responsibility, and I recognise this may be contentious, for further systematization. That is, a particular kind of philosophical work ought or needs to be done, at some point in a religion's development, if it is developing its models and concepts of reality beyond a certain point and if it is committed to growth/survival.

To begin listing names here is probably unnecessary, and I've named many of them here on this blog before; but a casual look through the leading theoretically sophisticated journals in human geography, anthropology, science and technology studies, environmental history, and a host of other fields, should be enough to indicate what I mean. What one finds in that literature is reference to thinkers like Latour, Foucault, Haraway, Deleuze, Guattari, Harvey, Lefebvre, Massey, Law, Stengers, Massumi, Thrift, Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, Connolly, and others, all of whom can be reasonably considered "relational" thinkers. What one doesn't find (yet) in the vast majority of that literature is any reference to object-oriented ontology. While Harman, Bryant, et al. may begin to infiltrate that literature over time -- and more power to them -- comparing them to Goddess thealogians as a source for "explaining precisely how things relate to one another" seems like comparing apples with tulips.

I recognise the value of many of these theorists of the relational and the processual. Moreover, I think it is of value for any systematic religious thinkers – whether Pagan, New Age or otherwise – to draw upon and adapt their theories in order to aid in the articulation of their own positions. My main point would be, though, that some of these figures provide better conceptual resources for some of these religions than others. For example, my suspicion is that Object Oriented Ontology will provide better resources for Goddess feminism than some others. However, to be honest, I have now moved some distance from the thealogical commitments and I am working on the metaphysics for the sake of my own intellectual curiosity.

Paul's question “have you ever actually seen a relation?” could be answered with the rejoinder, “Have you ever actually heard an object? Smelled or tasted one?” Seeing is a relation. Is it possible to see anything outside of a relation? Failing to recognize that the thing you see is something that you see seems to me a fairly serious error.

I will hold my hands up to this one and simply acknowledge that the question has a largely pedagogical and rhetorical function. The question prompts further reflection and opens up a number of interesting avenues of enquiry; although it was the product of a certain grumpiness with regard to some overly vague account of relations in a first year philosophy class.

Adrian continues with some very useful commentary which I can't quickly do justice to:
This is not to suggest that we cannot say anything about things in themselves; it's just that relations are fundamental. There's the relation between myself and the words I'm typing on the screen in front of me, but each of these is already a manifold of relations -- relations which include my nervous system, fingers tapping a set of plastic keys, the English language, computers and electrical cables spanning the world, people sitting in front of some of those computers who read the same books as I and ponder similar topics, and so on. The fact that each of these is something specific -- my nervous system, the English language, a particular keyboard and monitor (and a particular model of keyboard and monitor) -- doesn't mean that it's not a product of a series of (specific) relations unfolding in time, coming together in specific ways, coming apart in others, and working together for a while as long as conditions allow it.

The same sort of thing can be said of the impact of the La Garita Caldera volcanic eruption 28 million years ago, or of the damming of a lake by a family of beavers. The volcano, the eruption, the dam: what is each of them apart from the forces that move through them, except the singularity, the signness, that we observe and name as such? The "volcano" is our name for something, it is not the name nor the perception that a flock of geese or a stream of lava have of that same "object," though they may perceive and reckon with something that overlaps with our "volcano." The "objects" of the world are our objects; other subjects have their own objects, with the two categories slipping over into each other in every moment, and no wishful thinking will eliminate all that subjectivity and chiasmic interperceptivity from a world that is bursting with it.

What exactly is gained by calling these things "objects" that isn't already there when we call them by their (everyday, human-given) names and recognize their temporary, processual, and at the same time very specific nature? The latter is what Latour tries to do when he makes sense of the (planned but never built) Aramis transportation system in Paris or the pasteurization of France; it's what Haraway does with cyborgs and primatologists, what Cronon does with Chicago and White with the Columbia River, Tsing with Indonesian rainforests and Whatmore with global wildlife networks, Helmreich with microbial oceans, Protevi with the Columbine massacre and Hurricane Katrina, and DeLanda with the last thousand years of germs, languages, and cities. It's what I tried to do with the red rocks of Sedona and green hills of Glastonbury (and with some of the same thealogians and eco-Gaians that Paul got frustrated with). These studies aren't definitive, but unless one puts an object in its context, one doesn't know the object; and when one does, that object becomes a meeting-point of so many other processes and flows. It's still a point, and I appreciate OOO's question, which seems to be something like "but what is the invisible underside of that point?" Or "once you've delineated all the processes and flows that make up a point, what's left over?" Their answer is different depending on the theorist, but what they all seem to insist is that it isn't "nothing." That's interesting to me, and if their ontologies tell us something important that's missing from the accounts we get from relational (and other extant) theories, then they'll have gained their place at the table of useful tools for understanding the world.

But maybe the point, for a philosopher, is that all of those empirical studies of real-world phenomena are based on one or another kind of philosophical hodgepodge (as most are), and that the task of producing a pure and perfect ontology still lies ahead of us. Since that's not really my game, perhaps it's unfair for me to be critiquing it. I would like object-oriented ontology to be part of the game I'm playing, part of the palette of ideas I can bring to the task (in my case) of theorizing the intersection of cultural and environmental changes as these occur in the world today. I hope its tools will be useful for that. But I don't see any reason to ditch the relational ones that have already been well honed.

Swift response is that I have no wish to throw the relations out of the window, it just seems to me that the contexts in the above examples can be considered objects too. This, though, warrants far more work.

I also apologise to Adrian, as I had forgotten just how much work he had done on the Pagan, New Age and other ecospiritualites (particularly Glastonbury, which is on my doorstep).

1 comment:

ai said...

Thanks for your response, Paul - I appreciate your comments (and no need to apologize). More philosophical thoughtfulness could never hurt any religion, I agree.