when relations make a difference

Levi Bryant has a couple good recent posts on this and I want to draw in Steven Shaviro's fantastic recent SLSA talk (I wasn't there but it's a great read). These conversations interest me greatly in that they focus on relations and thought, two principle issues for an object-oriented rhetoric.

I'll start with Bryant and particularly the second post that follows upon a comment I made to the first. As I've said here many times, when OOO begins with the premise that relations are not necessary for objects, this sparks real interest for me in relations: if this is the case, then what are relations and what do they do? I don't want to get too far into Bryant's critique of Karen Barad or other OOO critiques of DeLanda, which seem analogous to me. I will just say that I understand the reasoning behind saying that an object has to exceed its relations. I.e., we are more than the sum of our parts; we are more than our history makes us. Whether or not these are positions that either Barad or DeLanda would hold, I will leave for others to discuss. 

But here's the point I was discussing with Levi (and I believe he agrees with me, at least with what I said in my comment). When one looks at the different varieties of OOO, there is a common recognition of two kinds of relations: internal and external. Objects are always composed of other objects. That is, within any object there are other objects that are in relation to one another. Even those these relations occur under a condition of withdrawal, those object relations are necessary in order for the object they compose to exist. For example, a piece of paper is an object composed of other objects in relation to one another. If I burn that paper to ash, those relations are destroyed and the paper no longer exists. Other relations are external and not necessary. For example, I might just set the paper on the desk. The paper is in relation to the desk but not in a way that creates a new object or destroys the piece of paper.   

Here's a more interesting example though. I can write on the paper or fold it into a origami crane (well, not me, but someone could). Perhaps then we might say that the paper enters into relations with other objects in order to compose a new object. In such relations we can say the paper still exists although it might be transformed in a way that shapes its identity. That is, once I've folded the paper into a crane it may no longer be serviceable for running through my printer. Once I've printed on the page, I can't reprint on the same page. In some respects the paper is still the same object. In other words, the history of an object's external relations are not the sum of its being, but that history can impact that being without wholly transforming the object into something unrelated. 

For me, all of this comes down to asking which differences make a difference? That is, some object relations are internal and necessary for an object's being. Some are external and lack the strength to alter the object. Some are external and so strong as to destroy the object by breaking upon those necessary, internal relations. And finally some external relations can affect an object without destroying it. Figuring out which differences are which is a matter of research and experimentation. 

Now let me turn to Steve Shaviro's post. First of all, I think this is a great point:

The upshot of this is that we need to stop congratulating ourselves upon the breadth and subtlety of our consciousness and self-consciousness. We ought to recognize, instead, that "thought" is a much humbler, and much more common, phenomenon than we usually assume. Thought — or sentience, or experientiality — happens in many ways and on many levels. It is not just a matter of concepts, or computation, or cognition. It includes all of these, but also extends beneath them, or behind them. Thought doesn't require rational understanding, or a cogito. It doesn't even require a brain — as recent studies of brainless organisms like trees, slime molds, and bacteria have clearly shown.

I think this is a key point in my work on a minimal rhetoric, which considers rhetorical relations that do not rely upon symbolic action or human-style thinking. At least from Shaviro's perspective, on this point, his (and Whitehead's) positions on prehension have a lot in common with OOO. However he goes on to say that "the really important difference between Whitehead and OOO has to do, not so much with whether and how we prioritize relations, as it does with the ontological status of this humbler form of thought that they both espouse." In doing so, he makes an interesting turn in this conversation about relations. He notes, as I have in the past, that for OOO thought is the product of external relations, but he continues, "Thought, for Harman as for the phenomenologists, is always necessarily intentional. To think means to think about something, and therefore to relate to something — and indeed to correlate with something." I can see his point here, as well as the point he makes further on about what this implies for the dreaming subject. So for Shaviro the key point of difference is not over the role of relations but over the role of psyche:  "If ontological equality means anything, it means that all entities in the universe, without exception, are sentient or experiential."

In short, can we understand some minimal psychic experience as existing without relations as an integral ontological quality? This is the argument for panpsychism. What does this mean for Shaviro? He writes,

I maintain that the more primordial modes of thought — or of sentience, or experience, or "feeling" — can be something before they are about something, before they establish anything like a correlation with things outside of themselves. Such modes of thought are not solipsistic, because they do not refer back to themselves any more than they refer to other things. They are "vague" and indistinct, as Whitehead says, but for this very reason they are no more self-contained than they are outwardly referential.

I find this idea very interesting as well. Part of what has to happen here is that one separates thinking from consciousness. That is, thought can occur without awareness or perception. I don't think it is so hard for us to imagine unconscious thoughts, right? I suppose I have tended to think about this in more Deleuzian terms as the virtual-potential of thought. I also think I've been writing about this recently and taking up (and modifying) Massumi's use of expression. I don't know if I agree with Shaviro's reading of Harman, but I do agree that it is a problem to define thinking as always being "about" something else. That's certainly not what I mean when I have explored the idea of thought as the product of relations. 

Maybe some good analogies for this minimal thought/expressivity would be a tuneless humming or cell phone radiation or thermodynamic entropy. What I am trying to sum up with these analogies is an unconscious activity produced perhaps from internal relations. I think it makes sense that there has to be some nonrelational characteristic of objects that makes relations and relational thought possible. I also would suggest that characteristic or "mode" (the term Shaviro employs) are less useful for me than machine or operation (or some other word that encapsulates noun and verb). Finally I would want to include something like "quasi-causal:" a suggestion that these operations do  So when I turn back to the research question of which differences make a difference in relations, one way I might frame that is to ask which differences activate this minimal cognitive, expressive, rhetorical quasi-causal machine?

Anyway, I think that's enough for now.