Book of the Day: Relational Reality

* Book: Spretnak, C. Relational Reality: New discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World Topsham: Green Horizon Books, 2011

What is the book about?


“Ms. Spretnak’s eighth book, Relational Reality: New Discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World was published in 2011. Noting that our hypermodern societies, currently possess only a kindergarten understanding of the deeply relational nature of reality, she illuminates the coherence of numerous recent discoveries that are moving the relational worldview from the margins into the mainstream. The central realization, with myriad manifestations, is that all entities in this world, including humans, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity who are both composed of and nested within contextual networks of creative, dynamic interrelationships. Nothing exists outside of those relationships. She presents newly created relational approaches that are already transforming the way we educate our children, attend to our health, green our communities, and rethink economic activity. New analysis of the crises of modernity and bountiful new solutions are the result.”


“Relational Reality reveals the coherence among numerous surprising discoveries of the interrelated nature of reality. These discoveries have resulted in a new perspective that has been emerging gradually for the past several decades but has gained momentum and is now transforming every mainstream field of human endeavor. All our basic assumptions (built on the old idea that everything in the physical world is essentially separate and functions mechanistically) are being reconsidered. No longer a marginal perspective, the Relational Shift is based on the realization that all entities in this world, including humans, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity who are both composed of and nested within networks of creative, dynamic interrelationships. Nothing exists outside of those relationships. As we try to grasp the interrelated nature of reality, emergent relational approaches are already transforming the way we educate our children, attend to our health, green our communities, and rethink economic activity. New analyses of the crises of modernity and abundant new solutions are the result.”

Here are some excerpts, by Charlene Spretnak:

“Our hypermodern societies currently possess only a kindergarten-level understanding of the deeply relational nature of reality. It may seem unlikely that such advanced cultures could have missed “the way the world works,” but it was simply a matter of habit. Our cultural tendency has been to perceive the physical worlds as an aggregate of separate entities. We noticed some relationships between and among things, of course, but those seemed of marginal significance compared to what things are made of and how they function. The failure to notice that reality is inherently dynamic and interrelated at all levels – including substance and functioning – has caused a vast range of suffering: our medical system designed treatments as if our bodies were biomachines with independently functioning parts; our education systems regarded students as essentially isolate units into which learning can be implanted; our psychologists authoritatively conveyed to patients the Freudian notion that separating from core family relationships is the key to healthy maturation; and our workplaces and dwellings were designed with no inkling of the relationship between human health and natural light. Moreover, our communities have become fragmented and alienating, as the focus of modern life has largely contracted to the sphere of the Individual Consumer, a disintegration that has not been countered by support for the social fabric. Even more tragically, the entire planet is now imperilled by climate destabilization and ecological degradation, resulting from the modern assumption that highly advanced societies could throw toxic substances “away” somewhere and could exude staggeringly unnatural levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into our atmosphere without ill effect… ” (Spretnak, C. Relational Reality: New discoveries of Interrelatedness That Are Transforming the Modern World Topsham: Green Horizon Books p. 1-2)

The relational shift and the effect on our children

“Of all the areas being revitalized by the Relational Shift, the education of our children may well be the most poignant. While the relational perspective is, as yet, more influential in the academic disciplines at universities than it is in elementary and secondary schools, this is a moment of tremendous potential for reshaping the educational experience of young children starting out on their journey from kindergarten to high school graduation – and beyond. For the first time in the modern era, they are increasingly likely to be taught not the misleading mechanistic worldview but, rather, a coherent presentation of the relational nature of reality, a study of the fundamental relationships of the physical world and the cultures of the human family.

An organic progression would begin for very young children with a focus on the internal relationships that allow their own bodies to work so well (that is, a version for 5- and 6-year olds of the recent discoveries in relational physiology that reveal how creative and smart our internal bodymind relationships are).

This would lead to a focus on the relationships between their bodies and the sun, the weather, and water and subsequently to relationships between oxygen and breathing, between sunlight and photosynthesis for plants, between bees and pollination, and between juveniles and their parents in all animal and human families. From the early years of elementary education the children would enter into an understanding that the various areas of study are specific ways of grasping the relationships that constitute the world. They would learn about relationships among numbers (arithmetic); relationships among letters and words (reading, writing, and storytelling); relationships among the sun, the Earth, the moon, and the other planets (science); relationships among people who constitute a culture (social studies), and so on.

As the children mature, through high school, their understanding of the dynamic, creative relationships that constitute life becomes increasingly advanced, in areas such as literature, mathematics, science, history, art, music, social studies and political science (what used to be called civics). These would no longer be viewed as isolated fields, from which students readily disengage. They would comprise ways for students to grasp the relationships in which they themselves exist. In each area, understanding one level of relational analysis opens students’ eyes to the presence of further levels and developments.

Surely the shaping of a child’s consciousness would be enhanced by learning from the very beginning that she or he exists as an inherent part of more richly complex relationships – physical and mental, organic and cultural, creative and open-ended – than anyone could ever map. Along the way, children would also be taught the relational keys to happiness, resilience, responsibility, and what Edith Cobb called “compassionate intelligence.” By that Cobb meant a “generous worldview and process of understanding” involving a sense of relational identity that transcends a narrow focus on the self and that benefits from “humility as the creative tool.” She observed that a child’s development is ‘regulated by the meanings of nature imparted to him by the culture of his particular period in history.”

In modern Western culture she noted that a very young child “perceives preverbally the logic of relationships that are overlooked in later, more formally fixed and intellectualized systems of knowledge.” Cobb made that observation long before the relational critique of modernity illuminated the problem: the relational aspect of reality is not simply “overlooked” but brusquely shoved aside by the inculcation of a mechanistic worldview into the minds of children once they enter modern schooling.

The exciting potential in K-12 education today is not only that we might finally get it right in terms of accurately bringing our mechanistic knowledge systems up to date with the myriad recent discoveries in science about the deeply relational nature of the physical world. The relational orientation, in fact, contains all the best of several recently proposed educational reforms, including a focus on getting our children more interested in math and science so they will not be shut out of 21st-century jobs – but this overarching approach offers much more.

For our children to come of age securely situated in the understanding of organic and cultural interconnectedness might, just might, rescue them from the contagion of narcissism, aimlessness, and alienation that plagues so many of our young adults. It might well give them back their birth right as human organisms fully engaged with the embodied, embedded, organic interconnections needed to be healthy and to thrive, no longer isolate units of “coolness” and consumption but linked in their very cells with the dynamics of the entire Earth community.”

Andre Ling has the following critique, i.e. “Objects are Real”:

‘I must admit I get a bit frustrated by statements like ‘everything is interconnected’ or, more specifically this: ” the realization that all entities in this world, including humans, are thoroughly relational beings of great complexity who are both composed of and nested within networks of creative, dynamic interrelationships. Nothing exists outside of those relationships.” There has been a vibrant ongoing philosophical debate online about the relational vs. object-oriented approaches to philosophy. The relationalists believe that all entities can be reduced to their relationships. Reality is then a giant tangle of relations and entities are entangled clusters of these relations; the points where multiple relations converge into a dense nucleus. Key philosophical influences here include Deleuze (used by both camps), Whitehead and William James and some leading lights here are Brian Massumi and Erin Manning. Those in the object-oriented camp insist that objects cannot be reduced to their relations to other objects. Rather it is objects that enter into relationships with each other. There is a consensus in both camps in the understanding of reality as ecological (prompting Stengers, for example, to propose the term ‘ecosophy’ as an alternative to philosophy) but the critical gap is in the autonomous, irreducible status the object-oriented philosophers give to objects (which include both physical objects and ideas). If objects can enter into and exit various relationships without themselves undergoing change then surely they cannot be reduced to those relationships. Objects also enjoy a certain degree autonomy from their parts: if you cut off my leg I am still me. Furthermore, objects are understood to have withdrawn powers/capacities, which is precisely what enables them to introduce novelty, to be available to different kinds of uses and, indeed, what makes any kind of change possible at all: if all entities were already fully deployed as bundles of entirely external relationships, the universe would resemble a grid-lock with no possibility of change/movement. OOO-ers hold that it is the inner reality of objects – the fact that they are never fully deployed or expressed through their relationships with other entities, that opens up possibilities for change, movement and novelty. Furthermore, a fully relational ontology is most probably also necessarily one that depends on what OOO-ers call ontotheology: the belief that everything, ultimately, can be reduced to one, the source, the ground of being, God – a kind of singular universal relational web, with everything else (entities) being a kind of transitory or surface appearance/expression of that underlying reality. OO philosophy challenges this kind of thinking which is often a source of heated debate amongst both camps. OOO holds that there is no fundamental ground of being; there are just myriad kinds of objects, a kind of epic list of things that populate the cosmos, entering into and exiting their relationships with each other, being created, being destroyed, transforming and being transformed by each other. This in no way means that the relationships are not important, or even a central question (which is why I am so obsessed with Stengers’ ideas of ‘ecology of practices’, ‘ecosophy’ and ‘cosmopolitics’) and matter of concern for us in the contemporary period. The hegemonic patterns of relationships that have been established amongst the myriad entities that populate our world can be characterised as structural injustices, as capitalism, as a direct threat to continued human survival. Our practices, our world-views, our institutions, the way we relate to each other and the other entities around us are sick. However, to write-off entities as mere epiphenomena, secondary to relationships, with no autonomy (ontological, physical or otherwise) of their own, seems to be a bit of a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

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