Response to Naught Thought
by Adam Robbert
Ben Woodward over at Naught Thought has THIS timely post concerning the rather fuzzy distinctions that are emerging at the intersections of process philosophy (PP), object-oriented ontology (OOO), and speculative realism/materialism (SR/SM). I see Woodward requesting a response with two fronts: first, for greater clarity and formalization amongst process philosophers. Second, a greater distinction between OOO and other branches of SR/SM. I can help with the first question, and less so with the second- I am too unfamiliar with the SR/SM territory to comment, save for my one reading of Meillassoux (sorry Ben!). As far as Meillassoux goes, I know there are folks out there who see many similarities between his work and the PP framework (particularly in Whitehead), hopefully a more able person can address these issues.
Moving along to the first part of the question, Woodward begins with the following charge:
One of the rhetorical disadvantages to philosophies of process, or dispositions, or becoming (or however else you want to couch them) is that there’s a fuzziness that there doesn’t seem to be an urge to clarify. Part of this is the fact that these philosophies are non-common sensical and are therefore ontologically fuzzy – one cannot pick up a flow of time, or becoming itself like one can grasp an object.
What Woodward is looking for, as I read him, is the quite sensible call to an increased clarity amidst the collision of several, perhaps historically less related, traditions of philosophy. These would include PP, OOO, SR/SM, but also various strands of pragmatism, pluralism, and perhaps the vibrant materialism of Jane Bennett. First, a quick qualification. In my own recent writings I have in fact been arguing for an object-oriented approach to ecology (which is at the center of my philosophical musings) and not a process-relational one. Does this make me an object-oriented philosopher? Indeed, by most qualifications, it does. Nevertheless, I am happy to respond to Woodward’s request, as I have many affinities with process philosophy, and, as I shall argue, I am still unconvinced that sufficient distinctions have been made between OOO and PP.
In this regard, Whitehead remains simultaneously the most central and underread figure at the intersection of the OOO and PP debate- Woodward, I’m sure you’ve already studied him, but, being that Whitehead is a central figure in this discussion, I would like to say that I don’t find him “fuzzy” in any way. Quite the contrary, I find his exposition to be, at times, so dense and explicit that I might make the opposite claim- he could stand to be a little more fuzzy. Nevertheless, I find Woodward’s call to discussion helpful insofar as there are numerous distinctions between the OOO camp and the process relational camp that, once clarified, seem to draw them perilously close together (to the dismay of both groups perhaps- save the pluralists who always strike me as remarkably amphibious in their capacities to hold multiple ontologies).
Harman, as readers of his work well know, will reject the possibility of process philosophy and OOO being commensurable- at the end of the day you are either one or the other. Fine. Yet, when we crack open Harman’s “quadruple object” we find, within each irreducible object, a manifold of scurrying, dynamic processes, which constitute the “substance” of each object (I don’t currently have the text at hand, so unfortunately I cannot add any citations). Likewise, for Levy Bryant, whom has recently reiterated his position on the question of “substance” from the OOO perspective writes: “In The Democracy of Objects, I argue that substances are dynamic systems. In other words, I see no contradiction between substance and process precisely because I hold that substances are processes and processes are substances.” Thus in both Harman and Bryant we find rather dynamic notions of the withdrawal of the real object (Harman) and the description of substance as a dynamic system (Bryant). Furthermore, in the works of Tim Morton, we find similar passages, such as the following:
Life-forms are liquid: positing them as separate is like putting a stick in a river and saying, “This is river stage x” (Quine). Queer ecology requires a vocabulary envisioning this liquid life. I propose that life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment (“Queer Ecology,” pp. 275-276).
Thus, rather clearly, we find descriptive phrases from 3/4 of the OOO theorists that would seem to position them as “process philosophers.” We of course know this is not what they are claiming. So what is the difference between an object-oriented philosopher and process-philosopher? There are of course differences in the background traditions- pragmatism/radical empiricism for the PP camp and Heidegger and other phenomenologists in the OOO camp (at least for Harman). Rather than focusing on these divergent histories (which have their own complex instances of overlap), I’ll just mention a few philosophical positions that each group argues, that, as we shall see, are really rather close.
Harman is primarily concerned with “undermining” and “overmining” the identity of objects through reductionism or holism, a charge he makes against reductionists, holists, and relationists. For Harman, “relationism” reduces an object to its contexts, flows, or networks. This, I think, is his main charge against the PP camp. Sounds great. Yet, in William Connolly’s A World of Becoming we find a similar notion being raised through what he calls “individualism” and “holism” (p. 32), two paths he is seeking not to tread. On this path Connolly is influenced by William James’ A Pluralistic Universe (p. 33). Therefore, it seems that Connolly, who is surely a philosopher of “becoming,” is arguing the same as Harman- though from a process point of view. Entities cannot be undermined or overmined in Harman and Connolly’s view (Connolly calls his position “connectionist” though I’m throwing him in with the PP camp). Similarly, Matt Segall has, on several occasions, posited that Whitehead himself does not in fact reduce any entities to their relations. Drawing primarily on Whitehead’s concept of the “subject-superject” as indicative of a kind of withdrawal in Whitehead, Segall suggests that a process-relational view does not overmine entities (Steven Shaviro perhaps also agrees with this reading of Whitehead). Thus from both the PP and OOO points of view, we find irreducible entities, engaged in multi-tiered sets of interactions. In other words, we find objects. Further, and in the other direction, we find, in both PP and OOO, all kinds of dynamic flows, processes, evolutionary currents and interrelations. Whats going on here then? Have the differences been overstated? I have a thought on this question. Actually, Marshall McLuhan has a thought, and it might help us out.
Recall that for McLuhan the “tetrad” is composed of four simultaneous actions. Each medium “enhances,” “reverses into,” “retrieves,” and “obsolseces” other forms of media (or, if you follow Levi Bryant’s expanded tetrad- which I do- this applies to all object-object relations, and not just human made objects). We’ll skip an in depth examination of the tetrad and instead focus on one of its elements- the reversal. For McLuhan, all media, when pushed to their limits, reverse into their opposite. For example, the satellite expands human media into space, extending the human sense of sight (as in GPS satellites), but, simultaneously, this medium effects its own reversal in that the satellite also implodes the size of the planet into a more observable domain, thereby retrieving “ecology” and obsolescing “nature” (Laws of Media, p. 151).
For McLuhan, this notion of simultaneity in the tetrad means that each of the four aspects of media are occurring at the same time, not in linear sequence, though each element can be abstracted from the fuller complex by means of an open-ended encounter with an observer. My sense is, then, that “processes” and “objects” are like McLuhan’s tetrads. Each object is simultaneously substance and process, with each one reversing into the other depending on specific encounters with other objects. Though at each point of encounter, all objects are integral insofar as they are irreducible to both smaller individual entities, and larger ongoing flows of interaction. For example, cells are irreducible objects insofar as we encounter them as cells, however, for the virus, the cell is a collective of organelles, proteins, and electrical processes. The cell is both object and process, individual and collective. I’m thinking through this position in light of one of Woodward’s later comments in his post, where he writes:
Furthermore, for quite a few theorists, it’s comfortable to reside in the middle ground or way station of materialism because it allows one to work with vitalism, dynamism, becoming etc without any attempt at explaining formalization, persistence, or any other occurrence which seems at odds with process, flow, power, and so on.
It may very well be the case that “formalization, persistence, or any other occurrence” are not at all at odds with “process, flow, power, and so on,” if we accept something like McLuhan’s tetrad in our ontology. Thus the “middle ground” is perhaps more aptly called a “multiple ground.” Perhaps this tetrad reading of the OOO-PP dispute is useful, or perhaps I am being too easy, and, as Woodward rightly points out, I am using process as an escape hatch for argument. I don’t think this to be the case, but I am happy to debate the point further.