So in response to a previous post, a lot of folks gave me grief about the following passage:
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.
In response to these remarks, I was told that 1) of course no one has the naive belief that everything is text (what a relief! of course, the question is whether this belief registers itself in theoretical practice), and 2) that, in fact, these things are all the rage in the world of theory. I’m well aware that there is a tradition of theorists that don’t fit this mold, and perpetually refer to many of these theorists in my own work. Theorists that come to mind are figures such as Haraway, Stengers, Latour, Kittler, Ong, McLuhan, Elizabeth Grosz, Jane Bennett, Stacy Alaimo, Karen Barad, Kevin Sharpe, Jennifer Andersen et al, Cathy Davidson, Braudel, DeLanda, Pickering, etc. They exist.
The point is not that they don’t exist, but that these forms of theory, I think, have been rather marginal in the academy; especially philosophy. In discussing these things, I’m not making some claim to being absolutely original or to be originating something full cloth. I’m more than happy to play some small role in bringing attention to these things; things that I believe to be neglected. I think, for example, that the new materialist feminists predate OOO/SR by 5-10 years, have many points of overlap with OOO, and have not nearly gotten the attention that they deserve. I think Latour and Stengers are almost entirely invisible in the world of philosophy conferences and departments; and I think that there are systematic reasons for this pertaining to the history of continental theory coming out of German idealism, the linguistic turn, and phenomenology. In German idealism you get a focus on spirit and the transcendental structure of mind. In the linguistic turn, you get a focus on how signifiers and signs inform our relation to reality (for example, Lacan’s famous observation that the difference between the men’s room and lady’s room results from the signifier in “The Agency of the Letter”, and Barthes’ claim that language is a primary modeling system in The Fashion System). In phenomenology you get a focus on the lived experience of the cogito, Dasein, or lived body and how it “constitutes” (Husserl’s language, not mine) the objects of its intentions.
In each instance we get a focus on the differences that humans are contributing, with a relative indifference to the differences that non-humans contribute. Material entities, as Alaimo observes in Bodily Natures, are treated as blank screens for human intentions, language, concepts, signs. The metaphor of the screen is here important, for a screen is that which contains no difference of its own beyond being a smooth and white surface, and is therefore susceptible to whatever we might wish to project upon it with a camera. This has been the dominant mode of theorizing that I’ve encountered in the last decade in my discipline of philosophy (and I have a fair background in rhetoric and literary theory as well). Phenomenology and the linguistic turn, I think, are the dominant positions represented at SPEP, for example, the main professional conference for continental philosophy (though thankfully things are beginning to change). When it is said that something is “dominant”, the claim is not that nothing different from it exists, but merely that a certain style of theorizing enjoys hegemony among that population. In media studies, I think, the situation is better. I think it’s better in geography as well. It depends on what population of theorists we’re looking at (a point entailed, incidentally, by my thesis that signifiers are material entities that must travel throughout populations).
The point is not to get rid of these modes of analysis. I believe they’ve made tremendous contributions that ought to be preserved and continued (I say as much in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects). My instinct is never to abolish or extinguish, but to integrate and see how we can have both. And. And. And. The point is that theories are frames, windows, and like all windows, they bring some things into relief and obscure other things. I can only see what is in the window and not what is outside of the window. If my theoretical practice is focused on accounting for norms and the role that norms play in binding us together, then it’s likely that I’ll ignore the role that lab equipment plays or that the real properties of rice play in binding people together in particular ways. If I spend my time interpreting cultural artifacts like movies, comic books, and clothing styles, it’s likely I’ll have a hard time seeing the importance of roads, rivers, and fiber optic cables. If I’m focused on narratives and the stories we tell, then I’ll probably have a difficult time discerning the material effects of Hurricane Katrina on the people of New Orleans. If I focus on the critique of ideology, then I’ll probably have a difficult time seeing the power that arrangements of things exercise over us. If I focus on systems of categorization in say the discourse of mental health as in the case of Foucault’s Order of Things when talking about the human sciences, then it’s likely I’ll be blind to material realities pertaining to mentality.
Theories have a cost because they always require distinctions and every distinction implies a blind spot or a thing that falls out of visibility. My desire is not to abolish critiques of ideology, analyses of signs and texts, analyses of lived experience, narrative, discursivity, etc., but to practice a sort of theoretical humility akin to what Laruelle describes under the title of “non-philosophy”. I call this alethetics. Rather than claiming to be the one framework that gets at the real, alethetics moves between different frames and windows; now discussing the way narrative informs our relation to the world, now the way our systems of categorization influence lives and nonhumans, now looking at lived experience as Sarah Ahmed does, now at the physical properties of fiber optic cables, the bubonic plague bacteria, etc. Paraphrasing Latour in the open to We Have Never Been Modern, “is it our fault [the STS theorists] that the ozone hole is simultaneously a narrative, semiotic, produced, and real?”
What we need– or what I want –is something like the Lacanian Borromean Knot. Here the Imaginary would be the way in which one entity encounters another entity. For example, the way in which mantis shrimps encounter the world about them or the way in which people of another culture encounter the world around them. Each machine or object (the two are synonyms for me), encounters the world around it in a particular way. Each discipline encounters the world around it in a particular way and is blind to other aspects of the world. There are as many phenomenologies and transcendental structures of cognition as there are types of machines. There’s even a transcendental aesthetic, analytic, and dialectic for flowers. The symbolic would be the way in which entities capable of language signify the world through narratives, signifiers, signs, texts, etc. Who knows whether this is restricted to humans? As I’ve increasingly argued, I believe aliens live among us. They go by names like “corporation”, “army”, “government”, “institution”, etc. These beings, I believe, are irreducible to humans (the influence of Niklas Luhmann on me), and perhaps have their own symbolics. Just as we don’t know the language of dolphins, we don’t know the languages of these entities. They have their own symbolic. And perhaps likewise with bees, dolphins, octopi, and birds. Finally, the real is the dimension of irreducibility of a think to how it is perceived by another being (imaginary), or symbolized by another entity. It is the irreducible difference that a road has to affect us, for example, despite being created by us.
The important caveat is 1) that there is no one borromean knot or RSI, and that 2) all three orders don’t need to be present for there to be being at work. The orders can become unglued, and in many instances some of the orders aren’t present at all. For example, I suspect that the order of the symbolic isn’t operative for bacteria (though the symbolic is at work for us when we talk about bacteria), though the order of the real and imaginary is at work for bacteria. How we work with bacteria in the symbolic, of course, does not undermine the real of bacteria or their ability to contribute differences irreducible to knowledge, signification, or belief. What’s important is that we practice something like what Bogost has call “alien phenomenology”, thinking the experiential world of nonhumans and others, and refusing to privilege one point of view on the universe.
If I get worked up about these issues, then this is because I think they’ve created serious lacuna in our political theory and practice. Suppose I focus on norms, for example. Great, I’ve developed a theory of norms and how they contribute to the social fabric. Yet while Kant claims that “ought implies can”, I’m not so sure. You’ve shown that something is unjust or that this would be the reasonable way to proceed. But at the real-material level people are caught in sticky networks that suck them into life in particular ways. They ought, for example, to drive an electric car, but what if it’s not available where they are or what if they can’t afford it? Well they should do whatever they can to get it? But what of their other obligations such as eating, sheltering themselves, taking care of their children, paying their medical bills, etc? It would be so nice if we just had mistaken beliefs or failed to recognize the right norms. Things would be so easy then. But there’s life, there’s the power of things. Sometimes the issues aren’t ones of ideology– and yes, of course, I recognize that ideology is probably involved in making electric cars expensive and hard to obtain, but not for them always –sometimes they’re simply issues of the power of things. And if we treat things as blank screens we’ll have difficulty seeing this and we’ll miss out on other opportunities for engagement.
Long ago I used to keep track of my blog. I had a map that showed me where all my visits were coming from about the world. I noticed that the interior portions of the United States were largely dark with no visits and that the coasts and cities had a high volume of traffic. Given that my blog talks about all sorts of things ranging from weather patterns to beavers to mantis shrimps to octopi (I get all these random visits from folks searching for these things), it followed that the absence of traffic from these regions of the country couldn’t be explained in terms of a lack of interest in French and continental philosophy (yes, I recognize that there are also cultural reasons folks from these reasons might shy away from such things). What then was it? I think the answer must be that there’s a lack easy and inexpensive internet access from these portions of the country. Notice also that these regions of the country are also the most conservative regions of the country.
Could there be a relation between lack of access and conservatism? I am not suggesting that lack of access is the cause of conservatism and fundamentalism. Clearly there’s a whole history in these regions and an entire set of institutions that exercise a particular inertia. I’m saying that if the only voices you hear are those in your immediate community, how much opportunity is there to think and imagine otherwise? You’re only exposed to the orthodoxy of your community and their sanctions. I am also not saying that if you give people the internet they’ll suddenly become radical leftists. Minimally, however, they’ll have a vector of deterritorialization that allows them to escape the constraints of their local social field.
All of this begs the question of who critique is for. If it can’t get to the audience that you want to change, what’s it actually doing? Who’s it addressed to? Sometimes you get the sense that the practice of radical political philosophy and critical theory is a bit like the Underpants Gnomes depicted in South Park:
The Underpants Gnomes have a plan for success: collect underwear —>; ? —->; profit. This is like our critical theorists: debunk/decipher —>; ? —->; revolution! The problem is the question mark. We’re never quite sure what’s supposed to come between collecting the underwear and profit, between debunking and revolution. This suggests an additional form of political engagement. Sometimes the more radical gesture is not to debunk and critique, but to find ways to lay fiber optic cables, roads, plumbing, etc. How, for example, can a people rise up and overturn their fundamentalist dictators if they’re suffering from typhoid and cholera as a result of bad plumbing and waste disposal? How can people overturn capitalism when they have to support families and need places to live and have no alternative? Perhaps, at this point, we need a little less critique and a little more analysis of the things that are keeping people in place, the sticky networks or regimes of attraction. Perhaps we need a little more carpentry. This has real theoretical consequences. For example, we can imagine someone writing about sovereignty, believing they’re making a blow against nationalism by critiquing Schmitt and by discussing Agamben, all the while ignoring media of communication or paths of relation between geographically diverse people as if these things were irrelevant to nationalism occurring. Ever read Anderson on print culture and nationalism? Such a person should. Yet they seem to believe nationalism is merely an incorporeal belief that requires no discussion of material channels or media. They thereby deny themselves of all sorts of modes of intervention, hitching everything on psychology, attachment, and identification. Well done!