Things, relations among things, relations

by Carl Dyke

There’s a really interesting discussion of David Graeber’s recent book Debt going on at Jacobin, including an original review by Mike Beggs, a reply defending Graeber by J.W. Mason, and Beggs’ riposte. The discussion is terrific on the merits and the ways Mike and Josh agree and disagree about how to specify their objects add up to a brief and pithy education on issues in modern economic theory. But it seems to me that they’ve kind of missed an antecedent point that would help clarify the discussion significantly, that being the distinction between object-oriented ontology and relation-oriented ontology.

Are they talking about things, are they talking about relations among things, or are they talking about relations? It seems to me that they’re trying to talk about relations, but because they don’t understand this to be the ground of their work they keep getting sucked into talking about relations among things. What’s the difference? Well, if you’re really working in a relation-based ontology, there are no such things as things. Or to put that another way, things ARE relations that for a certain kind of utilitarian cognitive convenience we’ve just settled at a particular scale and moment. You can find this sort of thinking threaded throughout intellectual history, but for modern economics the central figure is Marx – who neither Mike nor Josh quite understand this way, as N. Pepperell tells us is characteristic of even some of the best Marx scholarship.

Anyway, the problem with object-orientation, thinking through things and ‘their’ relations, is that to get things to stay things you have to pin them down to particular scales and moments, and then treat their dynamics as contingently supplemental rather than constitutive. (Or you can treat the dynamics as separate ‘things’, which is quite common and super weird.) In this sense, there is nothing more abstract and Platonic than a real, concrete, actually-existing thing. Both Mike and Josh feel to me like they kinda understand this, but they don’t have a language of relation-orientation that makes it clear. (Neither did Marx, hence repeated pointers, e.g. about reification, that seem quite cryptic if your orientation is objective.) So they can’t fully appreciate each others’ argument because each thinks the other is talking about things when in fact they’re talking about relations. And therefore they keep trying to teach each other to at least think in terms of relations among things, rather than getting on with thinking through how to talk about relations. This disconnect happens all the time; it’s one of the ordinary ways we misunderstand each other.

I’ve got journals to read so I’m going to have to leave this thought sketchy here. If it seems interesting, maybe we can work on it more in the comments.

13 Comments to “Things, relations among things, relations”

  1. Just peeking in to say this is an excellent way of putting it: “the problem with object-orientation, thinking through things and ‘their’ relations, is that to get things to stay things you have to pin them down to particular scales and moments, and then treat their dynamics as contingently supplemental rather than constitutive”. It’s a maddeningly difficult point to convey, as people often think they “have it”, but are actually still maintaining the background dichotomy that “thingliness” is natural, “material”, substratum, to which contingent social attributes then come to be attached. The idea that the disenchanted thingliness /is/ the contingent social attribute – the point that is central for Marx as a critical appropriator of the “Enlightenment” – is very easy to miss and, once missed, a great deal of what motivates Marx’s analysis, a great deal of why specific “moves” are made in his exposition, just becomes incomprehensible.

  2. Okay, I admit it: I don’t get it. What’s wrong with talking about relations among things? If you and I agree that I owe you a chicken, then a relation is established to be sure, but it’s a directional relation among two specific people relative to some specific third thing. If I give you my word or an IOU or a token acknowledging my debt, we both recognize that the acknowledgment isn’t the same thing as the chicken for which it stands. Now another relationship has been established, between the token and that which it betokens in the debt relationship between you and me. But the token is a thing too, even if it is a symbolic thing whose meaning is contingent on our mutual agreement to let it stand for the chicken. If I repay my debt by giving you a chicken, then that particular debt relationship is dissolved. That’s because the relationships among those same three participants in the relationship — you, me, and the chicken — have been altered. But dissolving the debt relation doesn’t dissolve you, me, and the chicken. It’s like if the cat got off the mat: the relationship of “on-topness” is dissolved, but there’s still the cat and the mat.

  3. Hi ktismatics – without presupposing that Carl’s answer to your question would be the same as mine, I would respond that whether there is anything “wrong” with speaking this way, depends entirely on what you’re trying to talk about. For most purposes, speaking as though there are objects that are “in themselves” independent from relations, which then come contingently into relations with one another – relations which, while they exist, add a further layer of properties to the objects that participate in them but that, when they dissolve, leave those objects with whatever properties the objects possess intrinsically. For most everyday purposes – and even most scientific or academic ones – there’s no harm, no foul, in speaking this way.

    Where things become a bit more problematic is when we start thinking about the relationship between our beliefs and practices, and the beliefs and practices of other historical periods – whether periods in the past, or periods in our potential futures. Here comes the part that’s a bit difficult to express, because the most common way people hear it is to think you’re engaging in a sort of idiotic cultural relativism – sort of sawing off the analytic branch on which you’re also trying to crouch – rather than trying to understand how it is that capitalist societies render intuitive certain kinds of perception and thought, and therefore ground your use of those very same kinds of perception and thought.

    So… Let’s say we want to criticise a sort of “Enlightenment” discourse that looks around at other historical periods, constantly pointing out that their emperors have no clothes: that these other times and places are attributing special magical powers to people, places, things, etc., and we do not believe these powers really exist; we believe these powers are social constructs – things that arise from human beliefs and practices, and are then read off onto a world that does not intrinsically possess the attributes ascribed to it. This sort of Enlightenment critique relies on the sensibility you’ve described above: it relies on the notion that there are things that, in and of themselves, are not embedded in any necessary network of social relations – they are, instead, “disenchanted” objects, a sort of material substratum, to which social relations are extrinsically and contingently added. Other times did not fully recognise this; we do. Therefore we see more clearly than other times into the intrinsic nature of materiality – and human sociality. We understand the standpoint of our critique to be grounded in this sort of special revelation into the intrinsic “in itself” nature of material reality.

    One way to criticise this sort of “Enlightenment” critique would be to adopt a sort of radical historical or cultural relativism: to debunk or dismiss the notion that there is a disenchanted material reality bound only contingently by social relations – to declare that this is nothing more than the peculiar, self-flattering, conceit of a particular cultural group, no more valid than any other mystical belief about nature. At least as early as the Theses on Feuerbach, however, Marx rejects this kind of declarative, debunking critique that just dismisses what it wants to criticise by labelling it the contingent product of human belief. Among other problems, this kind of debunking dismissal tacitly implies that it’s intrinsically a problem for us to deploy an idea if it can be shown that the idea originates from a “merely” human source. It implies that, although the targets of our critique were wrong in asserting they have access to special revelation, special revelation is nevertheless what is required, if we want to make claims about nature and society. At the very least, as Marx says, this line of reasoning creates the problem of “who educates the educators” – the problem of what sort of standpoint is possible, if we want to critically /appropriate/, rather than dismissively debunk, what we set out to criticise.

    For Marx, a better approach involves a couple of steps. First, he wants to explain why certain understandings of nature, society, materiality and other categories become popularly accessible and intuitive in a certain historical context. This enables him to explain why we might have access to these concepts, without his having to assert that other times had their benighted superstitions, while us – well, we see with the stark clarity of god’s own gaze… He thinks he can explain why it’s so much more intuitive for us to think in terms of disenchanted material objects that then come into contingent and transient relations with one another – and that he can do this in ways that cast some light on why not all other human societies find this an equally intuitive way of thinking. For Marx, the answer has to do with the historically-specific creation of one aspect of our shared social practices in which we regularly enact a world of objects spiralling constantly in and out of contingent external relations. This historically-specific form of practical experience, for Marx, primes us to be open to the possibility that there could be a disenchanted material world that is not “in itself” intrinsically bound up in determinate social relations. So primed, we can then cast about to see how well this vision of the material and social worlds might apply to other contexts. In this way, Marx can try to tease out some of the historical relationship between the emergence of capitalism, the development of modern forms of science, and the preoccupations of modern philosophy.

    So Marx claims that there is a “humble” practical origin for insights that otherwise tend to hoist themselves on stilts and claim to derive from the sheer force of the sober rational mind: the origins of certain kinds of high-fallutin’ ontological claims about what Nature is like in and for itself, can be shown to have a crass, mundane origin in everyday forms of social practice to which most people have some day-to-day exposure. Knowing this, we can show that we come by our concepts and beliefs about nature and society pretty much the same way other societies have: our concepts have contingent social and historical origins and are, in Marx’s analysis, accidental byproducts of forms practice that are not deliberately oriented to enacting a specific system if beliefs, but simply suggest the possibility that there might exist a world of material objects whose movements are governed by statistical laws that are not deliberately generated by human actors, but that can be discovered by them. (I’m abbreviating hugely, hoping it gets across the kind of argument being made, but not assuming I’m adequately spelling out the steps in that argument).

    Okay, so now that Marx thinks he has a historical account of the practical basis for generating these ideas, does he then dismiss them as “mere” human constructs? No. Instead, he suggests that, whatever the origin of a concept or practice, its creation generates possibilities that we can potentially appropriate – some of which may well justify the continued application and further development of the original set of concepts, because of the further possibilities opened up by them. So this specific constellation of contingent beliefs about the material world, human society, etc., has opened up enormous potentials manifested in the natural sciences, in social movements attuned to the contingency of social relations, etc.: these potentials are “keepers”, for Marx – he doesn’t want to debunk them; he just wants to ground them in an understanding of why they should arise in our historical moment.

    But why bother with this kind of grounding, if Marx is happy keeping and extending the insights that have arisen? What is gained by recognising the historical contingency? Here the issue is that, where people don’t recognise the contingent origins – where, for example, they treat certain concepts as “self-evident truths” because they can’t work out how they have arisen from human practices – people tend to naturalise current social institutions, or at least to unjustifiably narrow their sense of the types of social transformation that are possible. Marx’s primary target were political economists – as well as Hegelian philosophers – who thought that the existence of lawlike regularities in our economy (or in other aspects of our social life, such as demography), meant that there was an underlying “rationality” or at least intrinsic “naturalness” about these dimensions of our social life. This tended then – as it still does now – to lead social actors to treat significant dimensions of their own social practice as a kind of necessary “environment” to which their own practices have to adapt, rather than as a contingent dimension of social life they could potentially transform. Keeping in view how our own collective practices generate a range of unintended consequences – including characteristic forms of perception and thought, beliefs and ideals – makes it easier to keep in view the potential for social transformation.

    But if all you’re after in the immediate term is trading some chickens then, no, there’s no reason it’s wrong to think in terms of things and relations…

  4. Thanks, N, I think I”m getting it. I’ve not read Graeber’s book, but it seems that he and his discussants are trying to pin down what money meant to the people who started using it. There were people and chickens — well maybe not chickens, but birds — and relations among them before there was money. But claiming to understand the interrelationships among people, chickens, debt, exchange, and money across diverse cultures 5,000 years ago? This is to arrogate a god’s eye view on cultural practices from an imaginary stance outside of historical time. One can make abstractions across cultures, but it’s another matter entirely to claim that these abstractions constitute the invariant essence underlying diverse actual practices. Conversely, we can talk about the price of a chicken in the market today as if price were a material feature of the chicken itself rather than an abstraction from human social relations imposed on the chicken. People from other cultures might infer that we regard the prices of things as magical powers possessed by commodities. Still, there the chicken sits, dead and plucked in the meat section of the grocery, and I’m going to have to come up with the scratch if I want to take it home with me today.

    A similar argument is playing itself out in language. Is there a universal grammar around which all actual languages, present and past and future, are built? Or is the universal grammar an abstract construct imposed after the fact, deployed as a tool for describing invariants across diverse linguistic practices? Even if we agree that the universal grammar is a modern abstraction, this doesn’t mean that the things people find to talk about — you, me, birds — have no material reality outside of the languages used to talk about them, or that birds are different sorts of creatures when talked about by Urdu-speakers or by Swedish-speakers.

  5. Hi ktismatics – I have to confess that, although I’ve read the Jacobin exchange, I haven’t yet read the Graeber either, so I’m in no position to comment on whether I’d endorse the various defences or criticisms of it – although I’ll confess to being reflexively sceptical of anything that attempts to typologise 5000 years of economic history, and historical work I did myself once upon a time, looking into differences between what I’d feel comfortable calling “capitalism”, and other sorts of large-scale historical systems of trade, doesn’t make me immediately sympathetic to the way Graeber’s argument is being summarised, whether by his critics or his friends… But this is all unfair prejudice until I can read the book…

    But all of this is by way of saying that the sorts of issues I was writing about – and the things you’re discussing above – are probably pretty tangential to any debate over the worthiness of Graeber’s argument. My rough impression of the Jacobin debate was that Mike Beggs and J.W. Mason were basically applying very different standards of measurement to Graeber’s book: Beggs looks at it, and asks “Is this the best sort of critical political economy we can do?” – and decides that, no, it’s far from the best, and applies a critical social/economic historian’s eye to showing some of the places the historical argument seems to fall down or at least be weaker that other available social/economic histories.

    Mason looks at the book, and asks, “Would this work be useful in communicating certain concepts to a lay audience and/or my upcoming undergraduate course?” – and concludes that, yes, it’s a pretty decent first pass for people who may not be familiar with the more specialised debates. He then can’t work out why Beggs is so critical (and, to my eye, is a bit tendentious in selective and misleading quotations from Beggs’ original piece – but I haven’t read their Crooked Timber exchange, and obviously wasn’t a fly on the wall in their backchannel interactions, so maybe what to seem me to be misrepresentations or misreadings of Beggs’ statements are a bit less wilful than they look from this distance…).

    In terms of the underlying question of “what is money”: I think it’s both accurate to say that certain kinds of economic theory do act as though an “economy” is fundamentally a vast system of barter – and to criticise this position as missing the fundamentally different qualitative character generated by things like credit (which Mason emphasises); and to say (as Beggs suggests) that capitalism is a fairly complex object, which Marx at least wants to analyse as a complex system, whose component parts interact in complex and mutually determining ways – meaning that, at least in principle, it may not make sense to say that any one aspect – say, credit – is more “central” than anything else – “centrality” may change depending on what immediate questions we’re trying to answer and, in any event, what’s most striking about Marx’s analysis is how multifaceted he shows an apparently simple category like “money” to be, even in the very early chapters of _Capital_ – let alone the complexity that comes into the analysis when he moves on to other categories. (Not trying to speak for Beggs here – I don’t want to force his argument into my own… – but just translating some of what he was saying into my own shorthand.)

    Mason somehow hears this as Beggs giving away too much to economic orthodoxy. This seems unfair to me, at least based on the texts in this exchange. Again, perhaps there’s something going on in the broader discussion that provides a better anchor for this sort of critique. Myself, I like the way Marx takes a “simple” category like money, and essentially deconstructs it, drawing from that one taken-for-granted term a range of different sorts of social practices and strategic orientations for social actors, which carry very different implications for the sort of collective life we’re trying to live – and yet these different constellations of practice co-exist, in complex tension, in capitalist societies. I think both Mason and Beggs are drawing attention to this fact – but coming at the issue from slightly different directions, one driven by a desire to correct a blindness to credit and its impacts in mainstream economic theory, and one driven by a historical eye to how different dimensions of our social practices may come more to the fore in different circumstances within capitalist history. But it may be that neither Mason nor Beggs would be particularly happy with this drive-by sense of the discussion. 🙂

  6. I’m loving this discussion! Thank you both. In lieu of contribution for the moment here are some quotes on point I’ve pulled from the Dada Voles page. I may have a thing to say about the thinginess of chickens later if I have any brain left after introducing my world history sections to mobiles.

    “We shall, of course, not take the trouble to enlighten our wise philosophers by explaining to them that the ‘liberation’ of man is not advanced a single step by reducing philosophy, theology, substance and all the trash to ‘self-consciousness’ and by liberating man from the domination of these phrases, which have never held him in thrall. Nor will we explain to them that it is only possible to achieve real liberation in the real world and by employing real means, that slavery cannot be abolished without the steam-engine and the mule and spinning-jenny, serfdom cannot be abolished without improved agriculture, and that, in general, people cannot be liberated as long as they are unable to obtain food and drink, housing and clothing in adequate quality and quantity. ‘Liberation’ is an historical and not a mental act, and it is brought about by historical conditions, the development of industry, commerce, agriculture, the conditions of intercourse….” Marx, The German Ideology.

    “But in order fully to understand the immediate submission that the state order elicits, it is necessary to break with the intellectualism of the neo-Kantian tradition to acknowledge that cognitive structures are not forms of consciousness but dispositions of the body. That the obedience we grant to the injunctions of the state cannot be understood either as mechanical submission to an external force or as conscious consent to an order (in the double sense of the term). The social world is riddled with calls to order that function as such only for those who are predisposed to heed them as they awaken deeply buried corporeal dispositions, outside the channels of consciousness and calculation. It is this doxic submission of the dominated to the structures of a social order of which their mental structures are the product that Marxism cannot understand insofar as it remains trapped in the intellectualist tradition of the philosophy of consciousness. In the notion of false consciousness that it invokes to account for the effects of symbolic domination, the superfluous term is ‘consciousness’. And to speak of ‘ideologies’ is to locate in the realm of ‘representations’ — liable to be transformed through this intellectual conversion called ‘awakening of consciousness’ — what in fact belongs to the order of belief, that is, to the level of the most profound corporeal dispositions. Submission to the established order is the product of the agreement between, on the one hand, the cognitive structures inscribed in bodies by both collective history (phylogenesis) and individual history (ontogenesis) and, on the other, the objective structures of the world to which these cognitive structures are applied.” — Pierre Bourdieu, Practical Reason, “Rethinking the State: Genesis and Structure of the Bureaucratic Field,” 54-5.

    “Philosophers of very diverse stripes propose that philosophy shall take its start from one or another state of mind in which no man, least of all a beginner in philosophy, actually is. One proposes that you shall begin by doubting everything, and says that there is only one thing that you cannot doubt, as if doubting were ‘as easy as lying’. Another proposes that we should begin by observing ‘the first impressions of sense’, forgetting that our very percepts are the results of cognitive elaboration. But in truth, there is but one state of mind from which you can ’set out’, namely, the very state of mind in which you actually find yourself at the time you do ’set out’ — a state in which you are laden with an immense mass of cognition already formed, of which you cannot divest yourself if you would; and who knows whether, if you could, you would not have made all knowledge impossible to yourself? Do you call it doubting to write down on a piece of paper that you doubt? If so, doubt has nothing to do with any serious business. But do not make believe; if pedantry has not eaten all the reality out of you, recognize, as you must, that there is much that you do not doubt, in the least. Now that which you do not at all doubt, you must and do regard as infallible, absolute truth. Here breaks in Mr. Make Believe: ‘What! Do you mean to say that one is to believe what is not true, or that what a man does not doubt is ipso facto true’? No, but unless he can make a thing white and black at once, he has to regard what he does not doubt as absolutely true.”

    Peirce, “What Pragmatism Is” (1905).

  7. Synchronously, Alex Reid begins his recent comment at Larval Subjects with an object-oriented meditation on the chicken:

    “I think I get what you’re saying here Levi. Here is where the experimental/investigative project begins. Some relations are internal and necessary for a given object’s persistence. Other relations are external. These relations may affect an object or even destroy an object, but they can never be necessary for defining the object. In part, this is the principle of redundant causation, right? Let me use a chicken for example. It could be free-range or in a cage; it’s still a chicken. It could break a wing; it’s still a chicken. It gets slaughtered. Now it’s a dead chicken. Is that a different object now? It gets prepared for cooking and roasted. Is that a different object? It gets eaten. At some point it ceases to be a chicken.”

  8. It’s not a chicken, it’s a commodity. It’s not a chicken, it’s a status-bearing gift. It’s not a chicken, it’s a resource sink. It’s not a chicken, it’s a pet. It’s not a chicken, it’s dinner. It’s not a chicken, it’s a delivery system for dna. It’s not a chicken, it’s biomass. It’s not a chicken, it’s an image of the divine. It’s not a chicken, it’s an assemblage of particles and forces. Your turn!

  9. And again, there’s nothing wrong with Alex pinning the object down to chicken if that’s what he wants to talk about. For most everyday uses no harm no fowl, paraphrasing NP. But specifying objects like ‘chickens’ is always a choice about a scale to be talking about and a sort of relationality to be attentive to, and losing track of this has some characteristic downsides as we keep saying.

    Marx’s most famous contribution to this is probably the C-M-C’, M-C-M’ discussion to which NP alludes. His point is that both systems consist of commodities and money, which both look like self-explanatory ‘things’. But the order they’re in is world-historically transformative, taking us from an economy oriented to the production and exchange of goods using money as the mechanism, to an economy oriented to the accumulation of money using goods as the mechanism. I.e., the transition from subsistence economies with trade tacked on to capitalism. So capitalism transforms the conditions of human life just by changing the relationship between money and goods. And in doing so, it also transforms money and goods, which are thereby shown never to have been objective essences.

  10. A commodity, a gift, a pet, etc. etc. — it’s still the chicken that’s the commodity, not a Slinky; still a chicken, not a bouquet of roses as gift; still a chicken, not a dog as pet. And it’s me buying the commodity from the grocer, you receiving the gift from the secret admirer, the human who has the pet. Things in relation, just like the cat on the mat.

  11. In his book Narratives and Narrators, Gregory Curry proposes to abandon the categorical term “narrative.” We might agree that a Turgenev short story is a narrative. But what about a parable, the purpose of which is to teach a general lesson? Or a character study? How about a mathematical physics paper? Rather than setting a threshold for what is or is not a narrative, Currie proposes to adopt a variable called “narrativity.” Pointedly, Curry doesn’t operationalize his variable or propose a quantitative scale, but he does explore a number of possible dimensions of narrativity, including “causally related sequences of event tokens, distinguished by their involvement with particular objects and agents,” changes in these particulars and their interactions over time, thematic unity, the possibility of alternative outcomes other than the one that transpires.

    Maybe the same move should be done with the categorical term “object.” I guess we can’t call the variable “objectivity,” but maybe something like “objectness” would do. Objectness might focus on the relative stability of internal relations and forces over time, and on the relative stability of the boundary or membrane or interface separating internal from external. Related to recent discussions here at Dead Voles (“taste like chicken”), Deacon went to great pains to characterize different sorts of entities high in objectness, attaining their relative degree of stability and separation from their environments by what he terms homeodynamics, morphodynamics, and teleodynamics.

  12. “So capitalism transforms the conditions of human life just by changing the relationship between money and goods. And in doing so, it also transforms money and goods, which are thereby shown never to have been objective essences.”

    I don’t doubt that changing the external relations into which something enters can also change the thing itself. Even a free-range all-natural chicken is a GMO, altered significantly from the primal ur-chicken through generations of selective breeding by humans. Regarding objective essences, Levi says this in a comment on his current post:

    “If its possible for the nature of the relation to change, it follows that entities have a being that cannot be reduced to their relations. Without that minimal autonomy such changes in relation would not be possible.”

    I don’t see how that follows at all. And maybe it’s the reification into immutable essences that motivated the original critique in your post. In the long run there is no withdrawn immutable essence to things, to processes, to relations between things and processes. But hey, I can see you’re busy; I’ll let you go.

  13. Yeah, I think we’re tracking here as I also don’t see how Levi’s point follows at all. Or rather I do see, but only if the object-premise is smuggled back in as the object-conclusion.

    We also agree I think that things are quite regularly, even normally things. This being Peirce’s point. In his Hegelian way Marx thought of things as moments in larger fields and sequences of relations. Fully tangible, definitely thingy, but always becoming in a way that too-hasty objectification always hides. And of course the scales and scopes of becoming vary quite a bit, so the ‘galaxy’ moment has a significantly more robust thinginess than the ‘middle-aged Carl’ moment.

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