I've been meaning to write up some thoughts on the events in NYC last week, but it's been such a hectic few days that I haven't gotten around to it. But I'm determined to do it now, even if there are other things that I probably ought to be doing.
The events I attended were the OOOIII symposium with Levi Bryant, Graham Harman, Tim Morton and others (you can see videos of the day's panels here), and the panel discussion with Levi Bryant, Jane Bennett, and Graham Harman. I have to say that, although the OOOIII symposium was the "main event," the panel with Jane Bennett actually turned out to be the most interesting session for me. I think this is because the discussion was more political and practical on Thursday night, whereas the OOOIII symposium was more outright philosophical, and somewhat abstract. Jane, Levi, and Graham clearly disagree on many aspects of their realism, and I found myself disagreeing and agreeing with each of them at different points in the discussion. However, there is certainly a great deal of political potential in the OOO position.
Two issues came up during various talks that I'd like to address briefly. The first is the issue of freedom. During the Q&A session on Wednesday night, Levi said that we desire freedom. Graham disagreed, and cited his experience with writing as an example: he can't begin writing just from a blank slate - he needs certain constraints in place first. In other words, in his writing he desires constraints and not freedom. Ultimately the two agreed that we desire both freedom and constraint. This brought to mind a distinction I've been wrestling with for a while now between two different kinds of freedom - "Freedom from" and "Freedom to." "Freedom from" means to be without constraint - to be unimpeded - whereas "Freedom to" means an ability to achieve something. To be completely "Free from" means to have no constraints or limitations imposed from outside. I would argue that such a pure state never truly exists, but even if it did, I don't think it would be desirable at all. It would require being so isolated from the social world that you would be unable to do anything productive. It's questionable in my mind if someone with pure "Freedom from" would be able to survive.
"Freedom to" requires a degree of "Freedom from," but is more like the concept of agency suggested by Latour. For Latour, a being has agency only in relation to other beings. Various beings (actants in his parlance) must form an association or alliance for agency to be possible. "Freedom to" means that a person has the ability to do something - to educate themselves, to choose the life they want, and so on. But "Freedom to" requires us to enter into relationships with others, and these relationships imply constraints, but it's through these constraints and "Freedom to" that we are able to fully express our agency. For example, a person who has spent their life in poverty lacks a certain "Freedom to" because she cannot afford the means to be able to do those things. She cannot send her children to the best schools, she cannot buy healthy food, she cannot choose where she wants to live, and so on. This is where social welfare programs come in - they provide people with a certain degree of "Freedom to." Many conservatives are obsessed with the idea of "Freedom from," and see social welfare as a problem - as an unreasonable constraint or impediment. Liberals, on the other hand, believe more in "Freedom to," and therefore encourage social welfare programs.
Going back to the discussion with Levi and Graham, I believe what we desire is "Freedom to," and that's what Graham gets from the constraints he seeks when writing. It's only through "Freedom to" that we are able to fully express our agency, but it's a delicate balance. However, I believe that this is an important distinction, and if we were to make it more often it may help to clear up some of the political confusion in which we find ourselves.
The second issue I wanted to bring up was that of potential. During the first day, Harman was asked to explain his position on the idea of potential. Following Latour, he dismissed the idea saying that we should pay attention to things as they are and not things as they could be. An acorn is not a tree, and we should not try to reduce the existence of an acorn to the potential to become a tree. I agree that we should not reduce one thing to another, but I think there is an important dimension of the idea of potential that is lost if we discard it completely. That is, the potential of an object indicates the difficulty involved in transforming one thing into another. An acorn is not a tree, but it can, with only a little intervention, become an oak tree. It cannot, without a great deal of intervention, become a unicorn. What's more, it cannot, without intervention, become a maple tree. An acorn can easily become only a very specific oak tree, within a very specific variety of oaks (white, pin, etc.). This is the acorn's potential.
In other words, it indicates a starting point, and the materials we have to work with. An acorn contains the materials to become an oak - it does not contain the materials to become a unicorn. In social terms, while we may not be able to say that Capitalism is potential Socialism, we can say that it contains a certain potential to become Socialism. That is, there is a certain distance between Capitalism and Socialism, and that distance may be greater or lesser than other social forms. Feudal Japanese society also contained a certain potential to become Socialism, but I suspect that the distance and the amount of work that would need to be done to cross that distance is greater. This concept of the distance between two forms, and the work that needs to be done is what I think is lost when we abandon the idea of potential.