One of my worries about the new turn towards realism is that it will end up washing away all of the valuable social critiques that arose out of Marxist thought, the early Frankfurt school, structuralist, post-structuralist, feminist, queer, and race theory. In particular, I worry that situating these discussions abstractly as debates between monolithic positions of “realism” and “anti-realism”, deeply risks ignoring the ontological specificity of the field out of which social constructivist positions arose and the political and ethical considerations that have motivated these positions. It also, I believe, risks glossing over unique ontological features of humans and social systems, oddly shifting away from a “realist” position (i.e., one would think that realism is particularly attentive to the genuine ontological features of entities). When I hear questions at conferences about where the place of feminism, post-colonial theory, and queer theory is in OOO responded to with the claim that “maybe we need to stop worrying about these things”, I find myself deeply disturbed. I find myself disturbed because 1) I think variants of OOO are capable of addressing these issues in a satisfying way (I try to outline such a model in chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, though perhaps my account remains too abstract or too much at the level of “pure theory”), and 2) because I think we can’t ignore these issues. The forms of oppression that arise from essentialist conceptions of human “types” continue to have very real consequences for human lives as well as play a key role in perpetuating capitalist systems of exploitation that both cause misery for billions of people and are destroying the planet. If SR simply turns away from these things out of a zeal for defeating anti-realism, then it has little to offer for concrete struggles around the world.
Nonetheless, for me, at least, there were very real political and ethical reasons for turning to a realist/materialist position. It wasn’t because I had suddenly abandoned the lessons I had learned during my anti-realist days from theorists such as Lacan, Zizek, Butler, Foucault, Adorno, Derrida, Baudrillard, etc., it was because I increasingly began to experience the limits of these positions with respect to the problems we face today. Encountering the limits of something is quite different from rejecting that thing. To reject something is to banish it entirely from ones theoretical edifice as in the case of the theory of the humors was banished as an explanation of sickness, or phlogiston was banished as an explanation for why things burn. Encountering the limits of something, by contrast, entails that one retains the theoretical advances of that thing, while also recognizing that there are a broad body of things this theory does not explain. In such a moment one recognizes that their ontology needs to be expanded to cover entirely new domains that exceed those of the field of investigation in the previous domain. This is the moment where one recognizes that a new discipline needs to be forged (and no I’m not making the pretentious claim that I’m forging a new discipline). This is what happened with me and anti-realism. It wasn’t that I had somehow come to reject Adorno’s reflections on the culture industry, Foucault’s analysis of epistemes in the social sciences, Butler’s reflections on the construction of gender, post-structuralist accounts of the construction of race, Marx’s critique of commodity-fetishism, etc. No, as I make clear in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects, I continue to endorse these accounts as I always did. Indeed, one of the reasons I chose Luhmann’s account of the autopoiesis of objects was that it was the most radical account of constructivism I was familiar with and was therefore capable of integrating these lines of argument.
Rather, what I discovered was that the Lacanian axiom I had advocated for so many years– that “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” (Seminar XX) –was limited in its ability to respond to the problems that were of importance to me. Marx was an adequate theoretical framework for thinking the dynamics of global capital. Thinkers like Zizek and Adorno were adequate for thinking ideology. Thinkers like Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari (though I think D&G are realists) were adequate for thinking desire. Thinkers like Foucault were adequate for thinking about how institutions and scientific discourses in the social sciences discursively and through power produce subjects. Thinkers like Baudrillard and Bourdieu were adequate for explaining why certain objects take on cultural value. Thinkers like Butler were adequate for thinking the social construction of gender. Etc.
Yet none of these things were adequate for thinking problems like climate change, the impact of technologies on the world, or the impact of geography on social formations. (Tim, if you’re listening this is my explanation of why I think realism, materiality, and networks are philosophically important. Perhaps we’re just asking very different questions?). If you’re going to think seriously about things like climate change, for example, discussions of lived experience or how “the universe is the flower of rhetoric” will not do. You need to take seriously real properties of greenhouse gases, the earth’s albedo, methane gases released from garbage dumps, cow farts, diets, the flight of people to the suburbs and what this entails as a result of car travel, fluctuations in the sun’s output, ocean temperatures, etc. Analyses of lived experience or the social construction of objects are thoroughly inadequate for responding to these things. At some point you need to hang your hat on the peg and recognize that you’re not just talking about discourses or signifiers. Yes, yes, you want to talk about discourses, texts, and signifiers too. Yes, yes, you want to talk about lived experience too. But this is not enough. You need to take into account the mind, language, and sign independence of these beings as well. There’s no way around this. At least, I don’t think there’s any way around this.
I want to have my social constructivism and have my realism too. In fact, I want to go so far in my realism that I even count social constructions as real. They are all too real for those who live with their negative effects and like an ecosystem they regulate the possibilities of lives, our ability to respond to pressing problems like climate change, and the lives of countless nonhuman beings. However, recognizing that a theoretical framework is limited and that more theoretical work needs to be done broaching different domains of analysis does not leave the original theory unchanged. In The Democracy of Objects (sorry to plug my latest book so much in this post), I claim that I’m able to integrate the findings of Zizek. In Tim’s post, a participant who describes me as a psychotic because I treat words like things, says that I can’t really integrate Zizek unless I embrace his Hegelianism. Apparently this reader forgets that 1) Freud describes the psychotic as revealing on the surface the truth of the unconscious, and 2) forgets that in his final teaching Lacan described himself as a psychotic and praised Joyce for finding a non-Oedipal solution in the case of his own psychosis. I’d say I’m in good company, especially for those who have understood the argument of Anti-Oedipus (which Lacan, incidentally, praised)! Finally, I would argue that this reader seems not to understand the difference between the letter and the signifier in Lacan. Based on over 15 years of engagement with Lacanian theory both in the clinic and in the letter of the text, working, in both the clinic and with the theory, with some of the most eminent Lacanian theorists alive today, I’d be more than happy to go toe to toe with him if he’d like a more detailed debate.
Setting that silliness aside, this respondent doesn’t seem to recognize that integration doesn’t entail sublation of all elements of a theoretical edifice. Theoretical changes, even where they don’t reject all elements of the previous theoretical edifice, do not leave that previous theoretical edifice unchanged. Things need to be reworked in light of the new additions. Other claims need to be abandoned. New elements need to be introduced into the previous theory. The previous theory, while not rejected, is not the same as it was before. And this is how it is with Zizek’s Hegelianism. I believe that I can integrate the framework of Lacanian theory of the subject, desire, and jouissance within a Luhmannian framework of sociological autopoietic theory, but this is a far cry from endorsing the claim that there is an identity of substance and subject. No, the whole point of the realist move with respect to problems like climate change was that we can no longer claim that signifying articulations are the structuring agency of all being. We can no longer say that “reality is a synthesis of the imaginary and the symbolic” (Lacan, Television). No, reality has to become something closer to the Lacanian real, and the Hegelian real is something that evades all dialectical sublation, even the fraught, contradictory, Goedelian, and open sublation that Zizek advocates. At best Zizek gives us a nuanced version of commodity fetishism. But there’s more to heaven and earth than commodity fetishism. In this framework, all sorts of things, following Guattari, would have to be included in the Lacanian framework that tend to be ignored: the literal architecture of the institution where the clinic is practiced, the relations between the people that are there, the sort of work that is done by “patients” and “analysts”, the media used, artistic practices, economics, the material sociological setting of the neighborhood, etc., etc., etc. In addition to the signifier, we would have to attend to the role these things play.
To recognize the limits of a theory is also to recognize the limitations of a theory or the domain to which it is limited. Whitehead famously said that the shortcomings of a theory are not generally the result of outright false claims or logically incoherent arguments, but rather overstatement. A philosophy or theory discovers something that is true of the world and the next thing you know, like an obsessional man whose partner has told him that something “works” for him or her, he repeatedly tries to do the same thing over and over again in the bedroom making it unbearable. Recognizing the limitations of a theory thus means recognizing the domain to which it is limited, the domain where it “works”, but also being open to the domain beyond this where other theoretical tools are needed. Over time the social constructivists became like the obsessional man in the bedroom. In their meditations on social construction they had found something true and real, but the next thing you knew they were trying to apply this discovery everywhere and always, ignoring everything else. Suddenly everything was socially constructed and there was nothing outside of social construction. And, of course, as we all know, what began as something valuable and pleasurable, becomes in these circumstances something painful and destructive.
Ian Hacking, I think, provides us with the means of retaining the truth of social constructivism while also recognizing its limits. In The Social Construction of What? Hacking distinguishes between interactive and non-interactive concepts. His thesis is that the social constructivists are speaking of interactive concepts when they speak of social construction. What, then, is an interactive concept or category? An interactive category is a category in which the people named by the category can be affected by the category. When a person is diagnosed by a family practitioner as an alcoholic, that category is not simply a description but rather 1) the person so defined can adopt behaviors and thoughts in accord with the category, and 2) the category can change their social relations. The person defined by the doctor as an alcoholic might, for example, begin to draw on cultural narratives about what alcoholics are like– for example, the film Leaving Las Vegas –and begin to enact those behaviors where they didn’t before. Likewise, the person’s social relations can change as in the case where the doctor’s diagnosis has legal ramifications, leading them to be forced into some form of treatment or even sent to an institution. Here’s it’s worth remembering that these sorts of categories aren’t simply a personal affair, but rather are a collective affair.
The point is that unlike rocks, persons and social systems interact with the categories that befall them. They take up attitudes and behaviors with respect to these categories. It is in this sense that people and social institutions are formed or constructed by signifiers and concepts. A media report that says the economy is bad is not simply a description of the economy, but becomes a call to action upon economic institutions, governments, and individual people regardless of whether its true. By contrast, rocks adopt no attitude or behavior with respect to the way we categorize them. They go on behaving rockishly just as they always did before. The important point is that these categorizations are not simply a matter of us adopting an attitude pro or con with respect to how we individually have been categorized. Rather, these categories function independent of us, socially, even where we think they’re bullshit. Herman Cain might think that racial categorizations are bullshit and that we’re all free neoliberal subjects, but the social system still codes him in ways to which he must respond. Even where he doesn’t adopt an attitude towards these things, the effect of these signifying structures still has a causal impact on him that delimit possibilities for him, that situate him socially in such a way, and that contribute to his life experiences and how he develops.
My point is that if we’re true realists– and hopefully materialists! –we should be attentive to the properties of different types of systems. We should recognize those systems that have capacities of reflexivity or of taking up attitudes towards ways in which they are described and those systems that do not have these characteristics. And given this we should heartily embrace theories of social constructivism, recognizing that categorizations and signifying structures have a real impact on the operations of reflexive systems leading them to develop in particular way. It does not have to be an either/or where we’re forced to choose between lived experience and semiosis or the real effect of cow farts on climate. Rather, it should be a both/and where we recognize that for certain types of systems descriptions have real constructive effects and for other types of systems descriptions do not. We should be able to have our Baudrillardian analysis of the system of objects as commodities imbued with symbolic value and our realism too.