While reading Christian Thorne’s excellent essay “To the Political Ontologists” in Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside (Joshua Johnson, ed), I found myself thinking once again what on odd idea “political ontology” is. As Thorne beautifully puts it,
The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a combustion engine or a mtabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame– a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno –shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what conceivable sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposas? For if fire is not just a political good, but is in fact the very stuff of existence, the world’s primal and universal substance, then it need be neither produced nor safeguarded. (97)
The problem is this: Ontology is about what is, about what it means to be, how things are, and what types of things– in the broadest terms possible –are. At its best, it makes no claims about what ought to be. Rather, ontology is concerned with the being of beings in their pure beingness (how’s that for a sentence!). By contrast, politics is a machine that evaluates how things ought to be and develops strategies and techniques for attempting to bring this selection and arrangement of being into existence. If, building on Thorne’s example, our ontology says “all is fire”, that ontology has nothing to say about what sorts of fires we ought to promote. It doesn’t tell us whether we ought to prefer neoliberal fires or anarchist fires, but just argues that both of these forms of being are fire and gives an account of how fire comes to take the form of one or the other of these conf(lag)igurations.
We need something different than ontology to determine what sorts of being and organization are to be desired. We need normative machines. Knowledge of the being of being alone no more tells us what sorts of things ought to exist than chemistry tells us what sorts of compounds ought to be produced or how the compounds that do exist ought to be put to use. Chemistry tells us that uranium exists and why it behaves as it does, but it says nothing about whether we ought to use this substance to make nuclear weapons, nuclear power plants, etc. This is how it is with ontology. This is also why we should never evoke a political or ethical reason to critique an ontological claim. Don’t like nuclear weapons? That’s fine. I don’t either. But my belief that nuclear weapons are morally wrong has nothing to do with whether or not uranium behaves in these ways under these conditions. Don’t like evolutionary psychology? I think it’s ridiculous as well. However, pointing to the noxious political consequences that follow from it at the level of social policy has nothing to do with whether it’s true. If you want to debunk evolutionary psychology and sociobiology you have to show that it is mistaken in its description of human beings or that it is methodologically flawed, not bitch about its political consequences. Fortunately, there’s plenty of evidence that shows this is the case. I wince and gag whenever I see my Marxist brothers and sisters denounce this or that science on political grounds. Do we really want to go the way of Lysenkoism again?
Some people seem to think it’s scandalous to suggest that ontology ought not have a politics. Somehow this is seen either as denigrating politics or as suggesting something even more horrible; that neoliberalism exists! However, pointing out that there’s a branch of philosophy that investigates the being of being does not mean that there isn’t also another branch of philosophy called political theory that investigates how social worlds ought to be. It’s unclear why pointing out that some questions aren’t relevant in some domains would somehow amount to a denigration of that domain. No one would ever dream of getting upset by the literary theorist pointing out that the chemistry of ink is irrelevant to the literariness of literature, so it’s not particularly clear why anyone would get upset about it being pointed out that the question of whether or not something ought to be is irrelevant to whether it is… Unless, somehow, that person is making the mistaken inference that saying something is amounts to saying that it is necessary and can’t be otherwise. As for the scandal of ontology saying something like neoliberalism exists, I always find myself wondering what activists and political theorists are so worked up about if neoliberalism is not. If neoliberalism is not, then wouldn’t there be no problem? Isn’t the whole problem that it is?
Does any of this amount to the claim that theories of being aren’t pervaded by politics? Of course not. Theorists have all sorts of ethical and political commitments and assumptions and this can pervade and bias their work in all sorts of ways. Just as the Cold War can lead to an intensification of research in mathematics for the purpose of decrypting encoded messages and quantum mechanics for the sake of building “better” bombs, political and ethical concerns can motivate research in this or that area of ontology. However, if the mathematics undertaken as a result of that political motivations are true, they are true regardless of the politics. A Soviet socialist can put that mathematics to work every bit as much as a capitalist American. If, as in so much of the social sciences, the person’s ethical and political biases lead them to unconsciously fudge the data, then those “findings” are false. Good critique shows these things at work in inquiry and help us to jettison these faulty positions.
If ontology itself does not prescribe a particular politics then why should we care about ontology? We should care about ontology for the same reason that Cold War politicians aiming to create better nuclear bombs cared about quantum mechanics. Truth and how it is with being matters. You can’t build a very good bomb without knowing about plutonium, how it behaves under various circumstances, the dangers it poses when handled, how to get it to its destination, what sort of materials to use when putting together a delivery device, and so on. Likewise, you can’t have a very effective revolution without understanding the source and cause of our social problems, how power manages to so effectively perpetuate itself and resist entropic decay, etc., etc., etc. Just as a general needs to think about geography, weather conditions, the layout of roads and rivers, supply lines, the munitions of the other army, communication channels, and so on, and not just victory and battle, the would-be revolutionary needs to think about how the world is put together, why it stays together in that particular way across time and geography, and where the weak points are in those assemblages. These are questions related to ontology. We’ve gotten very good at denouncing, I think, but for the moment I think we would be far better served by plumbing these ontological issues.