A lot of people ask what the political dimension of OOO might be. I don’t have an answer to that not because I believe OOO and politics are mutually exclusive, but because I think it’s egregious to speak on behalf of struggling people. The best philosophers can do is create weaponized concepts that might be taken up by others and deployed in their own projects. It is not for the philosopher to be telling the artist, activist, scientist, etc., what they should be doing. Just as the Lacanian analyst is an advocate of the analysand’s desire, creating a space in which the analysand might articulate her desire– the analyst does not give advice, harbor fantasies of what the analysand should be, etc –political articulation should arise immanently from within collectives themselves. Intellectuals should not play the role of a “vanguard voice” telling the people what they “really” should be concerned about. I suppose this is the influence of Ranciere on me.
I do think, however, that OOO can problematize our current political thought and open new avenues of political engagement and theorization. As it stands, cultural studies is dominated by a focus on the discursive. We hear endless talk about signs, signifiers, “positions” or positionality, narratives, discourses, ideology, etc. Basically we see the world as a fetishized text to be decoded and debunked. None of this should, of course, be abandoned, but I do think we’re encountering its limitations.
In the few years I’ve been writing on these issues, I’ve been surprised to discover just how hard it is to get people to sense that there is a non-discursive power of things; a form of power that is not about signs, ideology (as text), beliefs, positions, narratives, and so on. It’s as if these things aren’t on the radar for most social and political theorists. I get the sense that the reason for this has something to do with what Heidegger diagnosed in his analysis of the ready-to-hand. Heidegger argues that when the ready-to-hand is working it becomes invisible. We don’t notice it. It recedes into the background. Us academics live in worlds that work pretty well as far as material infrastructure goes. We are, for the most part, in a world where things work: food is available, electricity and water function, we have shelter, etc. As a consequence, all this disappears from view and we instead focus on cultural texts because often this is a place where things aren’t working.
Perhaps I’m a bit more attuned to these things because of things about my background. Around the age of 16 I went through a couple of months where I was homeless. Homelessness is not fun. In order to eat I had to work. In order to work I had to wear a uniform, be clean, and have some way of getting to work. But in order to get to work, have a clean uniform, and a clean body, I had to have money. And in order to have money, I had to work. During this period, existence itself was a form of contradiction and power. I was trapped in a very limiting physical network that severely structured my possibilities of movement and action. While all of this contained elements of discursivity, it was literally the things themselves that were exercising power here. Everything became a broken hammer.
I have no desire to abandon critiques of ideology and continue to practice them myself. However, discursive critique can only take us so far. It’s possible to wipe away the ideological mystifications, reveal the obfuscations, etc., and still have unjust social hierarchy remain intact. This is because there is also a power of things that structure action and social possibilities. It’s this power of things– what I call “gravity” –that I’m trying to draw attention to in my work. Such an attentiveness to the gravity of things requires that we cease speaking in generalities. Our thought needs to become geographical in a very literal sense. We need to know how this city is arranged, how the roads are organized, the fiber optic cables, water, food, education, train lines, foods produced and their qualities, etc. We need to take seriously the properties of rice because the way in which rice grows has tremendous consequences for the form labor takes in a particular social assemblage. Urbanists, design theorists, certain media theorists, materialist historians, and geographers have been doing these things for years. We need to listen to them more. Again, this is not a call to abandon discursive critique. It still has its place and has made significant contributions. But we do need to broaden our horizons and begin to see a world as if the hammers were broken.