Sunday, 11 April 2010

Relations, Objects and Pendulum Swings

There is an interesting debate going on between Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, Graham Harman and Levi Bryant. This is my third attempt to write a response to this exchange. It has been difficult largely because the debate goes to the heart of my thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology, and also because there is considerable overlap between Adrian’s interests and my own. My ecological philosophising is probably a little more nuanced by gender and religious issues than Adrian’s, but I suspect we share a great deal. Significantly, though, I seem to have shifted on the topic of relationism in the last year or two. While I would in the past have been firmly located in the metaphysical camp of those who Graham characterises in Prince of Networks as concerned with a ‘primal unified womb of becoming’ (in addition to Heraclitean flux, relational networks and Whiteheadian processes), I have become increasingly unhappy with this stance. I’ll endeavour to elucidate with some context as it may help clarify my current position.

My main published work, Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy, was a slightly revised version of my doctoral thesis, and it was this that set the agenda for much of my early and rather undeveloped metaphysical speculations. Briefly put, the work was a philosophical reading and elaboration of the largely implicit metaphysical worldview of Goddess feminism. This religious movement grew out of second wave feminism during the 1970s and was a largely grass-roots phenomenon, the product of women (and some men) who were disillusioned with or repelled by patriarchal and mainstream religiosity and were interested in exploring and/or creating alternative pro-female and/or feminist modes of religion and spirituality. The movement gave rise to a disparate number of religious collectives, ideas and practices, entailed a syncretistic appropriation of goddess myths, narratives and symbols from across the world and history, incorporated and formed alliances with contemporary paganism and slowly articulated models of deity that were severely at odds with the monotheistic norm. My concern was with the nature of these models of deity and their ultimate coherence in metaphysical terms. More specifically, while recognising that the Goddess movement was rather suspicious and critical of the intellectualism of the academy (and particularly philosophy), I was interested in systematising and constructively elucidating the reality claims being developed within the movement. These reality-claims were intriguing, to me at least, specifically because they were formed from a synthesis of contemporary science (ecology, Gaia theory, chaos theory), religious models of relationality and becoming and a range of feminist political and ethical commitments. It was an attractive cocktail of ideas and values, and one that I had considerable sympathy with. The thesis ended up being a half-way house between a work of analytic philosophy of religion and a form of constructive thealogy, although it also produced what I hoped might be some useful resources for feminist metaphysics

The major limitation of the work was that, while it was possible to demarcate many of the beliefs and claims of the movement in a broadly coherent fashion, many of the details clearly needed to be worked through with greater rigour than was possible within the remit of a doctoral thesis. It was one thing to identify and stretch out some analogies between the organicism in Gaia theory and that of the cosmos as a pantheistic unity, or else establish some plausible links between the nature of ecological networks, chaotic systems and processes of flux. It was quite another to specify how they might work or fit together in the details. I was always aware of this oversight, but I was also quite confident that I was doing something exciting, innovative and original. Becoming rather than being, chaos and complexity, ecological networks, process thought, it all seemed challenging to the analytical philosophy that I was most familiar with, and also relevant to the future too. Except, that is, post-completion, somewhat distanced from the main Goddess feminist orientation of the thesis, I came to realise that I wanted to get the metaphysics to work; and I was painfully aware that this wouldn’t be easy. There followed several years in an academic post at a teaching-led university and a hiatus from the kind of systematic speculation and analysis needed to move this metaphysical project forwards. My thinking, in this regard, simply stalled.

Fast forward then to the summer of 2009 when I discovered speculative realism and object oriented ontology and also enjoyed some much needed time for thinking and research. What did I know at this point? Basically, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the kinds of relationism and relationality that had been alluded to in my previous research. Frankly, I was confronted with a relationality that lacked content and specificity. While one may boldly lay claim on the pervasiveness of relational networks (often, for many of the people I was reading, misleadingly reduced to the soundbite: “everything is connected”), many of those relations just do not seem to make a difference, or rather a significant difference, to the way the world operates. Now one may of course play the chaos theoretical card at this juncture and point towards the Lorenz “butterfly effect”. But again, the very fact that small perturbations in a suitably complex system can have long range and large scale unpredictable effects, does not permit an anything goes attitude to the contents and/or causal processes of the world. The moon does not turn to cheese at the drop of a hat. My movements typing this blog entry do not impact on the tides of a chlorine ocean on a planet seventy three light years away.

I should state that I am not pushing this view on Adrian, or indeed process relational philosophers who can offer more nuanced accounts of relationships at different ontological scales. Indeed, Adrian notes very clearly in one of his recent entries that “all relations aren’t the same.” I am simply venting my frustration at those religious and other advocates of relationism who do, maximally, come close to treating relationality in the aforementioned anything goes, or all relations are cosmically significant, manner; or else, minimally, gloss over or ignore the problems of explaining precisely how things relate to one another. 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. There certainly remain many elements of my earlier engagement with feminist philosophy, paganism and process metaphysics that I want and aim to take forwards, but the vagueness of some relational rhetoric has made me rather grumpy of late. [Indeed I seem to have extended a Humean scepticism about causes into the realm of relations and networks; as I asked one student recently: “have you ever actually seen a relation?”]

Usefully, though, Object Oriented Ontology seems to have cut through some of my problems, permitting the articulation of a position that coheres and converges more comfortably with my intuitions and current stock of conceptual resources than the alternatives. First, one engages with and speculatively theorises the objects of the world. These objects are never wholly knowable, but, nonetheless, exhibit an autonomy that makes sense of our encounters with and experiences of them. Second, one theorises the relations. Objects are not hermetically sealed, although much of the interesting stuff takes place inside them. But the relations that arise between them are always moderated/mediated through a third party. This democratised, vicarious community of objects, within which all objects possess a significant sense of autonomy and identity, just seems a more productive avenue of enquiry to me than the ‘relations all the way down’ or ‘transitory stabilities’ approaches. If this is indeed a penduluum swing away from relationism, I seem to be riding it - although I would contend that I have good reasons for doing so.

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