Levi on “Theoretical Monism” and Social Theory

The site is becoming much more link dump than actual depository of ideas, which I’ll try to rectify. In the meantime, I’d like to post Levi Bryant’s most recent post since I think he gives one of the better examples I’ve seen of an explanation of what an object-oriented explanation of social change looks like. You can read it here.

The difference Levi draws between theoretical monism and pluralism (which I may have to borrow), correctly captures the bricolage quality that should overcome a lot of the pitfalls of closed structures (reductive? hegemonic? hierarchical?) that rely on a singular, static master concept for their explanation. This is one of the common threads in Latour’s critique of the “sociology of the social”, Whitehead’s “fallacy of misplaced concreteness”, Parsons’ critique of Positivism/Idealism, and Marx’s critique of Political Economy. In each case, we have a conceptual agent that does all the work in the order of things without itself being explained.* We may as well have recourse to “God”. Flat Ontology’s position that all entities are agents in reality activates material and immaterial conditions to create an action situation that is active in the truest sense. Instead of an instance of action between subject and an object, we have an interaction of multiple agents that initiates a variety of processes that are identified by their significance to the observer.

For example, in the process of making coffee this morning, depending on what we want to know we can study the brewing process as:

1) The process of water working its way through the beans
2) The process of the machine heating water and expelling it through beans into a carafe that it keeps warm
3) The process of my pouring water to set up the machine and powering it as a moment between my waking up and getting in the shower
4)The process of me conducting a ritual that symbolically and chemically prepares me for my work process.

In each case, the certain features of the overall process come to the fore or go into relief depending on the significance to the observer. This feature of the event is due to the its arising through the interaction of multiple material and immaterial entities. Our explanation is a means of capturing the event through a paying attention to certain entities that tell us what we want to know. The excluded factors do not become inactive, they simply fall into the background.

This form of explanation, and theory of how it comes about, is superior insofar as it accounts for the explanatory power of our different understandings of events through different disciplines, while capturing the fact that our explanations are always partial, something is always missing in the final equation. In addition, it provides a way for overcoming this gulf in explanation through multiplying the significant agents in one’s own frame of reference or by combining multiple frames (interdisciplinary research?). With regard to this, Levi combines the idea of separating ourselves from master-concepts with utilizing multiple frameworks or authors. This synthesis should enlarge the frame of reference both in massiveness of scale and diversity of entities in play. Something that, I think, gives as satisfying of an explanation as you would get in a “totalizing theory”, but in a way that generates further expansion rather than coming across as reductionist.

More significant for me is that presenting reality as active has the potential for shifting our disposition towards our situations for action. This is something I see working itself out in Whitehead’s work. Seeing the universe as process is not only more adequate to reality but, in being so, draws us to treat entities surrounding us differently. Thinking of the world as active process seems to bring along with it a greater concern with others (though not necessarily positive) that is generated by widening the scope of our situations and removing the “object-ness” of objects. We tend to treat animate things much more carefully than the inanimate. . . sometimes.

I’m excited to see where Levi et.al.’s new project on ontology and political philosophy is going. These recent discussions point in some promising directions for OOO and social theory that take advantage of a lot of the positions we’re untangling ourselves from.

*Reading Marx traditionally yields the same result, I think. Reference to the Substructure/Superstructure, or “the material conditions of production” as ultimate misses the rationale for the extensive discussions of Capital. Marx goes into so much detail not to emphasize the material “in toto” but the particular material and social practices that generate Capital as a process, not an ideology, etc.

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~ by Michael L. Thomas on November 24, 2010.

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