An interesting discussion surrounding flat ontology and flat ethics has been brewing amidst the Bennett reading group. Scu posts some questions here, Adrian follows up, and then Scu clarifies his position here. Unfortunately I have not been able to follow the Bennett reading group as closely as I would like because of writing The Democracy of Objects which I regret given that Bennett is so close to my own heart and project. Indeed, I think my time would have been better spent last week catching up with these discussions than getting embroiled in the normativity debates as I increasingly get the feeling that the theoretical references in the normativity debates are so wide of one another that it’s difficult to have any discussion at all. In connection to the normativity debates, I worry would have to acquaint myself deeply with a pretty vast literature on these matters and likewise for my interlocutors, for much of a discussion to take place, and I get the sense that such a foray into that literature would have diminishing returns on my end. My worry with those orientations focused on normativity in the deontological sense is that they risk never end up getting off the ground. For example, while normativity broadly construed (i.e., in the non-deontological sense) is everywhere at work in Marx’s thought, my feeling is that a focus on deontology as a preliminary to the sort of analysis Marx carries out in Capital would have the effect of preventing Capital from ever being written. That is, you never get to the hard analytic work of the world in these sorts of projects because you have a conception of the preliminary as a necessity for methodological rigor that holds such projects in a constant state of deferral.

But I digress. For me one of the most difficult questions arising from the post-humanism that arises from flat ontology is the question of how it requires us to rethink the nature of the ethical and political. When we reject the centrality of the human within being, treating the human and social as two system-references among others rather than the ground of all others, what consequences follow for how we think the ethical and political? There are a couple of options we can follow here. One would be to recognize that ethical claims are inherently object or system-specific. Here we get the sort of humanism that Scu worries about as following from flat ontology. The idea here would be something like the thesis that we have recognized the contingency of the human way of relating to the world (i.e., that other objects are organized in very different ways and therefore relate to the world in very different ways), but we are, at the end of the day, human and must therefore treat all other entities according to our own organization.

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From a systems perspective, however, I don’t think this conclusion follows. The reason for this can already be seen in my remarks above. The systems perspective, while deeply resonant in certain respects with Kantian correlationism, emphasizes not the way in which we are trapped within the closure of whatever particular system we happen to be, but rather the contingency of any particular organization. The point here is two-fold. On the one hand, the environment is always more complex than any system. There is never a one-to-one correspondence between events in the environment and events in a system. On the other hand, no system, once it reaches a particular point of complexity, can relate every element it produces to every other element it produces. Rather, the manner in which elements internal to a system or object are related is always constrained or organized in a particular way. When these two points are taken together, we get the contingency of systems. That is, we recognize the manner in which systems could have related their internal elements and relations to an environment differently, and thus how any particular organization is contingent and involves risk. Through second-order observation or the observation of how other systems relate to the environment, we recognize the contingency of our own organization and way of relating to the world.

Right now I’m working up a section of The Democracy of Objects that deals with temporalized structure. In my view, Luhmann’s Social Systems is one of the best kept secrets of the last twenty years of philosophy, and it’s a scandal that it’s not more widely read as it’s an embarrassment of riches. One of my aims in The Democracy of Objects is to show how object-oriented ontology can handle and integrate a number of dearly held insights from other theoretical orientations, while moving beyond some of their hegemonizing tendencies. Luhmann is very helpful here. Is Derridean deconstruction dear to your heart, Luhmann’s your man as he deals heavily with paradoxes of self-referentiality, temporality, and second order observation (check out his essay “Deconstruction as Second-Order Observation” in Theories of Distinction). Big fan of Lacanian psychoanalysis? Theories of autopoietic closure and structural coupling give you the ground ontology for understanding what Lacan is getting at.

Are you heavily indebted to structural modes of analysis. Here again you’ll find the means for articulating the functioning of structure. And so on. Luhmann makes a number of important contributions to our understanding of structure, overcoming many of the problems that haunt structuralist and post-structuralist thought. First, he maintains the distinction between system and environment, restricting structure to system, and thereby side-stepping the imperialism of structure we tend to encounter among structuralists like Levi-Strauss. We now get an outside to structure, the insight that structure is purely system-specific, and are therefore able to account for the contingency of structure, how structure can change and evolve, how structure embodies risk, and the limits of structure. Second, Luhmann unfolds the manner in which structure is a temporal issue pertaining to how systems maintain or reproduce themselves across time (in the case of autopoietic systems, this wouldn’t hold for allopoietic systems I don’t think). In other words, because the events that constitute systems disappear as soon as they appear, the central issue for autopoietic systems is that of how subsequent events are produced allowing the system to be reproduced from moment to moment. This is the problem of structure and it can be seen that this problem is primarily a problem of entropy, of how to handle system entropy, and of how entropy can be warded off within systems.

At any rate, as I go back through Luhmann’s discussions of system, environment, structure, and time, in Luhmann’s Social Systems, I came across the following passage in chapter 5 of Social Systems entitled “System and Environment”. Luhmann writes,

Every system must reckon with other systems in its environment. Depending on the depth with which the environment can be perceived, more systems and more different kinds of systems appear in it. If the system from which we begin has the capacity to understand, it can distinguish the systems in its environment from their environment [second-order observation]. It thereby dissolves the basic given unities of its environment into relations [sic.]. Then the environment appears to the system as differentiated into various system/environment perspectives, which reciprocally overlap and altogether represent the unity of the environment.

To cope with such discoveries, the system can develop strategies of aggregation. It can combine and order the systems in its environment according to their own differentiation schemata. Perhaps the simplest instance is differentiation according to whether a system is dealing with a system in its environment that is of the same type as itself, or with a system of another kind. To every human being, for example, other human beings clearly stand out in the environment. There are accompanying tendencies to overestimate the domain of what is similar in the environment, perhaps to reduce everything that is unknown to the model of “persons.” Social systems also develop such tendencies and such preferences for an environment of similars. Thus organizations prefer to deal with organizations, and they often treat other sectors of their environment (perhaps their clients) as if they were an organization, as if they kept records, made decisions, had to react to complaints, and so forth. In brief, if the differentiation schemata similar/dissimilar is chosen for the environment, certain consequences can be anticipated. (187 – 188)

What we get here is a sort of Luhmannian gloss on the Lacanian imaginary (specular relations). My three year old daughter, for example, does not “observe” the environment in terms of rocks, flowers, tables, etc. No, my daughter uses the similar/dissimilar schema to relate to her environment, situating all other entities in terms of family units and as persons. There are papa rocks and mamma rocks, papa flowers, mamma flowers, and baby flowers, grandma tables and daddy tables, and so on.

Here I think we get to the basic ethical problem that flat ontology opens and the question of what a flat ethics might look like. I’m of the mind that even within an object-oriented ontology, ethics must nonetheless be the domain of the relational or, as Morton might put it, the ecological. However, this relational domain of the ethical must be a strange kind of relation, insofar as it must be a relation to the non-relational and a non-relation to the relational. In other words, the ground of the ethical would be that moment where relations to the non-relational are no longer governed by the similar/dissimilar schema, but where the contingency of ones own system/environment comes to be recognized and perception of a plurality of system/environment distinctions inhabiting the environment of a system comes to be discerned. In this respect, flat ontology would recommend something similar to the ethics of difference Lacan suggests at the end of The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis. As Lacan writes there,

The analyst’s desire is not a pure desire. It is a desire to obtain absolute difference, a desire which intervenes when, confronted with the primary signifier, the subject is, for the first time, in a position to subject himself to it. There only may the signification of a limitless love emerge, because it is outside the limits of the law, where alone it may live. (276)

The question here is one of how we can welcome the non-relational or, as Morton has put it, the strange stranger that withdraws even as it approaches. Alternatively, it is a question of, as Derrida has put it, how we can “eat well” or of what it means to eat well. Likewise, we might think of those dark passages in Whitehead’s Process and Reality where he points out that all life lives from death. Here the question would be of what it means to live well from death. The condition for this is first open in recognizing the contingency of our own system-references, or own system/environment distinction, and in therefore opening a crack where difference might emerge.

Clearly my thoughts are not fully developed here. These are only intuitions or general directions for thinking the ethical. However, two things come to mind in connection to these thoughts. First, in relation to Marxism, I think we need something like an “eco-Marxism”. Marx speaks of humans as the only being whose species-being consists in giving form to matter. As a consequence, the world, for Marx, functions according to the similar/dissimilar schema, insofar as all of the world becomes a sort of tapestry that takes on form according the activity of human labor. Not only, I think, is this a highly inaccurate view of species other than the human, but it leads to a sort of political view where the sole question is one of human emancipation through unleashing the forces of production. Here “nature” gets the short end of the stick as it is merely a reserve of matter (in the Aristotlean sense of that which passively receives form) laying in wait for human formation. Eco-Marxism would not only raise the question of the emancipation of nonhuman objects, but would also take into account the bi-laterality of human-nonhuman-object relations such that humans don’t merely give form to nonhuman-object relations. Rather than a unilateral relation between human labor and nonhuman objects functioning as passive matters for humans to imbue with form, a flat ethics and politics would also be attentive to the manner in which nonhuman objects also give form to humans and social relations. As such, it would reject the thesis that human arrangements are merely a matter of social (i.e., human) relations.

Second, I recently had the opportunity to watch the harrowing HBO documentary Gasland which deals with the impact of natural gas drilling. If you have On Demand capabilities, I highly recommend watching this documentary. Otherwise, get it through Netflix once it’s available. This is a must see documentary. In many respects, I believe this documentary brings home the question of a flat ethics of the relation to the non-relational. The issue here isn’t simply the tremendous impact natural gas drilling is having on humans living in these areas through the pollution of water resources and the emission of toxic neurotoxins and cancer causing gases, but also the question of the impact of other systems or objects in the environment of human environments that have nothing to do directly with human survival and human interests. Not only is natural gas “drilling” having a substantial impact on human lives by destroying the resources like water and air upon which they depend, but it is also destroying all sorts of “natural” entities not directly related to human survival.

Here I always think back to the character of Ann Clayborn in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sublime Mars Trilogy. In those novels Clayborn is a sort of ultra-environmentalist whose zeal for preserving Mars in its original, pre-human state borders on the nihilistic insofar as she attributes a higher dignity to the rocks, dust, and environment of Mars than to the flourishing of humans on the planet Mars. She is, for example, crushed by the terraforming of Mars that involves unleashing aquifers across the surface of the planet, heating up the atmosphere, planting plants and releasing organisms, etc. Clayborn attributes dignity and rights to the planet itself, refusing to treat the planet as a mere passive matter to be formed in whatever way humans might like. While I don’t think we wish to go as far as Clayborn, her character nonetheless raises an important point. To what degree to nonhuman actants have dignity and rights all their own? And if they do, from whence does this dignity and these rights to persist in their conatus arise? Are they simply projections we make upon nonhuman actants? Or is there a more robust and ontological sense in which they have rights and must be included in our deliberations about how we relate to the world? The uncanny question that emerges when you watch Gasland is the question of what gives us the right, what entitles us to destroy these streams, these ancient rock formations, these fields, these migratory patterns, and so on. You find yourself– or rather I found myself –filled with the sense that we do something deeply wrong when we destroy these things in this way, or when we grant no “voice”, no place in our deliberations, to these nonhuman actors. And in wondering this, it seems that I’m attributing a dignity to these things that isn’t merely a matter of my projections, my cognitions, but which belongs to these things themselves. How could such a curious thing be possible?

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