Constitutional Contingency

We The People

Buried in Levi Bryant’s brilliant posts at Larval Subjects is this gem from a discussion of Whiteheadian flaws:

It starts from the premise that everything is related, and thereby undermines the most interesting ontological insight and questions. That insight is the insight that how things are related is contingent (other assemblages are always possible). That question is how the relations that do exist, the de facto relations, come to be built (Bryant, Process Philosophy and OOO, 2011).

What Bryant implicitly critiques is, I think, one of the most common mistakes committed in post-Kantian philosophy writ large: namely, the confusion of relation with contingency. According to Bryant, one of the primary problems of Whiteheadian thought is its insistence on universal interrelationship, whereby the ability of objects to exist independent of relations is impossibilized. Indeed, any substantial movement, or movement of substances, is arrested by such a view–be it the rhizometric allowance of exit points in theoretical investigations or literal object-oriented motility–because ubiquitous relation precipitates arborescence, to complete the Deleuzean turn of phrase. Put bluntly, if an object cannot extricate itself nor be extricated from its relations, its motion becomes unidirectional in the sense of being vertical and orthogonal, with relations stacked hierarchically on top of one another like floors in a skyscraper, all leading to teleological climax.

One could argue that an overwhelming interconnectedness of this sort implies that movement in one part of the network shifts the entire sphere, amounting to a waltz of objects. If the dance is made endless, however, then the positionality of an object is not only relative to all others, but its beingness is predicated upon the continuance of relations within the network, itself. An object-oriented correlationism, if you will, through which the identity of objects is exhausted by the totality of their relations, if not specific interactions. If, on the other hand, the loci of relation for an object is contingent upon a severable assemblage, then objects, even when trapped by the spatiotemporal excess of hyperobjects, cannot be exhausted by any relation or system of relations, are ontologically free to roam from one assemblage to the next, and, consequently, retain agency.

So-called “constitutional conservatives,” i.e. strict constructionists who happen to be running for office, epitomize the difference between the totalizing logic of hyperrelationaiity and the democratic drive behind contingency. For a constitutional conservative, like Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch, interpretation of the United States Constitution, ratified in 1788, is monolithic and inelastic, as is the document itself. Governmental norms and structures are hyperrelational consequences of the original text, a vertical manifestation of other objects–predominantly people–coming into contact with words and meanings that predate and ground their being, and any form of being, as they are modulated by the hyperobjects of American nationalism and jurisprudence.

Consequently, for strict constructionists, admission of non-originalist applications of Constitutional theory would undermine American being, national and individual alike, by collapsing purportedly eternal constitutional norms into the inherent finitude of the text as both object and ideational apparatus, ultimately giving lie to the subsumption of all experience, object-oriented or anthropocentric, within an imagined founders’ intent. Any wonder, then, that House Speaker Paul Ryan, master of austerity, is hostile to contingent affirmation of the political breath of minorities suffering foreclosure because of econophysical credit schemes, whose nomadic traversal of class barriers shows that constitutional first principles can, and perhaps must, be amended to encompass mutating temporal assemblages and the constant shuffling of objects between one network and the next?

No, no. Conservatives aren’t having any of that. They have to keep people things in their rightful, Right-leaning places.

Crashing Paul

I just revisited the critically acclaimed film Crash (2004), in which racial tensions are unveiled as contingently operational. Racism animated in one location redounds throughout society as an eternal recurrence, prompting one act of violence after another. In the scene above, Jean Cabot, wife of local district attorney Rick Cabot, shouts derogatory racial stereotypes about Hispanic locksmith Daniel Ruiz, who is replacing the Cabots’ home locks following an armed robbery to which they were subjected earlier in the night. Jean is later cared for by her Hispanic housekeeper after falling down the stairs, a fall spurred by the sublimation of material difference beneath Jean’s anger at “them.” It is noteworthy that Jean’s narrative climax–her literal crash–involves a flight of stairs, something found in homes that her hired help could never afford.

Yet, the film’s gloss on “historically sedimented inequalities” (to borrow Hsuan Hsu’s critical phrase) privatizes the politics of race by subsuming identity formation within interpersonal ethics. Racism, the film tells us, is a personal choice. Eliminating racism is as simple as changing a few hearts and minds. While pervasive, this attitude fails to account for the material difference between different racial groups, as race is co-constitued with class, sex, gender, and other identity borders. For example, African-American youth are nearly 55 times as likely as white youth to be incarcerated for a first-time drug offense, a stark expression of white legal privilege. After labeling the Los Angeles Policei Department a “racist institution,” though, Crash portrays black criminality as a character defect, albeit one that whites too quickly presume. Structural and discursive racism are normalized. Minority impoverishment, maybe the leading cause of so-called “criminal” behavior, is dehistoricized, even mythologized.

Erasing racial coding lactifies prevailing power dynamics and race’s eventuality. Racism is instantiated as an immediate occurrence, with no unfolding past or future trajectory. More importantly, situating racism solely within social dyads obscures the possibilization of communal struggle against modern-day apartheid. Consider the following selection from the Apostle Paul:

But this I say, brethren, the time is short, so that from now on even those who have wives should be as though they had none, those who weep as though they did not weep, those who rejoice as though they did not rejoice, those who buy as though they did not possess, and those who use this world as not missing it. For the form of this world is passing away (1 Cor. 7:29-31).

As Katharine Sarah Moody argues, Paul highlights in these verses the antagonism between those who cleave to the pre-existing social order and those who actualize social obligation by suspending Christianity’s “Big Other,” namely the basis of identity and social obligation in legal regulation. In Christ, social obligation is no longer based on covenantal genealogy, but radicalized love for one’s brethren, no matter what socioeconomic, biological, or material differences may stand in the way–recall Paul’s letter to the Galatians, verse 3:28, which states, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Paul introduces a new universalism indifferent to socio-symbolic difference (other than Christian/non-Christian). Moody refers to this as a “second birth” and “second death” mirroring that of Christ (whose birth and death parallel the creation and fall of Adam in Christian narrativity). We are born into subjectivity; we may renounce the ideological field within which subjectivity is politicized as identity struggle. What Paul leaves us with, then, is an avenue for articulating the particular within the universal. A narrow reading of Paul would contend that the apostle calls for the complete disintegration of identity, much more identity politics. I hold, in contrast, that Paul’s call is multiplanar. Rather than forsake identity formation entirely (a spatiotemporal impossibility), Paul asks us to abandon the naturalized succession of historical status and, instead, locate identity politics within an irreducible movement toward sociopolitical emancipation. Paul tasks us with de-crystallizing guilt toward the past–whether in the form of black missions or white burdens–and, in Fanonian terms, finding ourselves in a world where we have one right alone: demanding human behavior from the Other.


What A Mesh


Timothy Morton’s ecological theory is meshy. Literally, actually. For Morton, mesh explains the interconnectedness of all living and non-living beings. infinite both in number of connections and scale of differentiation. He states:

The ecological thought does, indeed, consist in the ramifications of the truly wonderful fact of the mesh. All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings. We know even more now about how life forms have shaped the Earth (think of oil, of oxygen–the first climate change cataclysm). We drive around using crushed dinosaur parts. Iron is mostly a by-product of bacterial metabolism. So is oxygen. Mountains can be made of shells and fossilized bacteria. Death and the mesh go together in another sense, too, because natural selection implies extinction (Morton, The Ecological Thought, 2010).

At first glance, this idea doesn’t seem to jive with object-oriented studies, which holds that all objects exist independent of other objects and possess agency, or the capacity to move in and out of relations (and assemblages of relations). If all objects are interconnected, however,  they lack agency and, instead, remain ensnared within a totalizing relational determination. Independence of preordained–so noted because absolute relationality implicates relations, themselves, in a clown walk of codependence–relational assemblages is impossibilized, precipitating the stacking of relations on top of one another to forge illusive teleological regimes. So, does that mean the concept must be discarded, since that Tim is an OOO’er?

Not necessarily. He just needs to clean up his mesh. Rather than defining it in hyperrelational terms that undermine objects themselves, Morton should, in my view, define the mesh topologically, as the sum total of all relations extant in a given spatiotemporal frame. In this way, the mesh complements Morton’s hyperobjects thesis, completing the object-oriented turn of the ecological thought. Hyperobjects are characterized by an ambiguous mereology, in that they cannot be locally manifested because of their massive distribution. In other words, manifestations of a hyperobject–for example, Earth–have achieved escape velocity for the objects they pertain. Hyperobjects remain fully objectal, however, despite their size, a point that is sometimes missed. Even though hyperobjects occupy a higher dimensional space than “smaller” objects to which they adhere, they are fully agential beings, capable of entering into and departing relations. Operationalizing the mesh as the summation of all objects, on the other hand, would undermine objects, turning the mesh into an ultimate hyperobject from which all other entities could never, even in theory, be severed. In effect, the mesh would become a single substance, an objectal form, with other objects being defined in terms of alienation from this ideal. Put simply, the mesh would be God, auscultating itself through the becoming-other of its constituent parts.

Instead, the mesh can be understood relationally, as the aggregate of all encounters between objects in a given assemblage. Just as a hyperobject can be parsed in terms of parts and wholes, so can the mesh. Thus, the mesh can be adapted to describe objects relating in various scales. If capitalism is a fictive hyperobject for Western economic entities, then the mesh encapsulates all commodified relations occurring within a capitalist framework in a given temporal frame. Like hyperobjects, the mesh can be scaled up or down, depending on the entities in question. Importantly, the mesh is not, itself, a relation, but a fictive entity bounded by prehension (if all relations are translations, then relations comprising the mesh are always already ‘sensual’, in the phenomenological sense of being ‘intentional’ deployed by Graham Harman). The key, here, is in the uncanniness of the mesh that parrots hyperobjectal incertitude, the inherent unfamiliarity of even the most familiar objects, or what Morton calls ‘strange strangers’. Meshed entities exist coexistentially, yet contingently, meaning that no matter how close they appear to one another, objects cannot achieve a speed great enough to outrun their finitude. Accordingly, when objects seemingly should be on a march toward intimacy through repetition of relations, the absence of each other’s being is made more and more present, the gulf of becoming–indeed, awareness of the lack of total interdependence–widened. Repetition of the withdrawn essential chasm births both reverence and horror, rendering the mesh a field of relational anxiety, within which objects are neither reducible to signification nor instrumentality, but expose processes of projection as an objectal withdrawal masquerading as a structurally individuated subjectivity.

Put a bit poetically, existence in the mesh implicates the contingent affirmation of an unseen Other refracted through the looking glass, instead of an enduringly entangled binary of self and not-self on either side of a prismatic plane. That said, relations within the mesh seek not the colorful space opened on the other side of the rabbit hole, but, in contrast, a fuller experience of descent, simply out of love for the act of falling.