Ethics


In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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After the hectic week I’ve had I’m not firing on all cylinders this evening so hopefully I’ll be somewhat coherent here, but I wanted to draw attention to Peter Gratton’s interview with Paul Ennis where he heavily discusses speculative realism. Already Ennis’s post has generated a lot of discussion (here, here, here, here, and Complete Lies well thought out remarks here). Without repeating Harman’s own remarks, I wanted to zero in on a particular passage in Ennis’s interview. Ennis remarks,

Hegel, and I think Meillassoux quotes him on this, said we cannot sneak up on the ‘thing itself’ to see what it is really like or put differently consciousness cannot get around itself to know the really real (the correlationist circle in Meillassoux’s terms). Hegel has a wonderful solution to this problem in the Phenomenology of Spirit. He simply says that discussions of the ‘in itself’ is something that is only ‘really’ happening for consciousness so when it comes down to it the ‘in itself’ is ‘really’ a feature of thinking and so, technically, there is no in itself object out there to be understood. The ‘in itself’ is not something consciousness is unfamiliar with – it is something that belongs to thought itself…

I more or less agree with Harman’s analysis to the effect that this thesis expresses the quintessence of what OOO opposes. However, approaching Ennis’s remarks from another angle, I also think it is suggestive of the wrong sort of question. In other words– and here I’m not trying to single out Ennis by any means –we have to ask if Hegel is a wonderful solution to a particular problem, what is the problem and question to which this solution responds? And here I think there can be no doubt, the problem to which Hegel’s “solution” responds is the epistemological problem of how it is possible to know the thing-in-itself.

However, it is precisely here, among other sites, that Hegel and OOO parts ways. While it is certainly true that there are variants of speculative realism that are almost entirely concerned with questions of epistemology (Brassier comes to mind), when OOO defends realism what’s at stake is not epistemology but ontology. In other words, it’s of crucial importance to an understanding of OOO that we distinguish between epistemological realism and ontological realism. Epistemological realism is a thesis about knowledge to the effect that objects out there in the world are “really like” our representations of them or that there is a correspondence between intellect and thing. Ontological realism is the thesis that objects are independent of human culture, language, cognition, and perception, that they would be what they are regardless of whether we regard them through any of these agencies, and that they exist in their own right rather than simply being constructions of humans. For OOO the question and problem is not that of how we know entities or the in-itself, and this because all objects already withdraw from any relation they enter into such that they are in excess of these relations.

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Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

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A number of interesting discussions have arisen in relation to questions of flat ethics. Over at Critical Animal, Scu has a post up which I have not yet been able to go through in any detail. In relation to Adrian Ivikhiv’s post on objects, politics, and relations, the mysterious Anxiousmodernman writes:

At the risk of being stubborn, or sounding like a broken record, I’m going to maintain that these ethico-political questions do not have answers that are deduced from ontology. Although an ontology will no doubt inform political commitments, I am still not seeing a rigorous connection.

OOO is emerging, for me, as the correct metaphysical position. However, the dynamics of political, ecological, or economic situations seem to be (necessarily) relational in the sense you describe. The models of the different sciences (economics, biology) and even the “models” of the theological positions you describe might be closer to our notion of politics than a world full of objects. I say this even though I believe the world is full of objects. But are the relations real? I think that relational assemblages tend to constitute new objects. I still see discrete entities as real, not the flesh or the flux.

I am open to the possibility, however, that ideas of flesh and flux might be more consequential for politics, but that is because, to repeat, I have difficulty with a rigorously-deduced connection between metaphysics and politics.

At the risk of generating another bizarre blog war similar to the one Nick Srnicek encountered when he suggested that politics and ontology are distinct, here I think AMM is right to point out that ethics cannot be deduced from ontology. At most, ontology can serve a critical function with respect to ethical and political theories, examining the ontological presuppositions these theories make and revealing their untenability. This, for example, is what I’ve been trying to do with the concept of the human as it functions in Modernist ethical theories by calling into question the thesis that there’s any being or entity that corresponds to the human.

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I started to write this post in response to Paul Ennis’ recent remarks about correlationism and the ethico-politico place of animals, but it quickly turned into a diary of its own so I’ll post it here. Ennis writes:

One argument was that anti-correlationism has a deflationary effect on the special status usually assigned to humans by continental thinkers such as Hegel and Heidegger. The anti-correltionist stance shows that such a status is a fabrication or at least not as evident as usually portrayed. This is one way to open up the critical animal debate.

Rather than restricting the question of the ethico-politico implications of non-correlationist thought to questions of the ethical and political status of animals, I’d like to situate the question (I don’t have any answers here, so all this is exploratory) within the framework of the ethico-politico status of nonhumans in general. Here the issue isn’t one of excluding the human, but of asking how the domain of value might be extended beyond the human, without humans being at the center, or all questions of value pertaining to nonhumans being questions about the relationship of humans to nonhumans. In other words, the litmus test of whether or not something fits the bill of a non-correlationationist ethico-politico theory revolves around whether that domain of value would continue to be a domain of value even if humans cease to exist. That seems to be a pretty tall order or very difficult to think, though Lingis has certain proposed on such ethical system that meets this litmus test in his book The Imperative.

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Jacob Russell, who for me is a model of both what the artist and the activist should be, this friend of mine whose hands and lips have become life giving, loamy mulch borne of compost, making inhuman adventures and other becoming that can be scarcely understood– one of these days I’ll live up to that model of my gray, bearded friend, to this strange vital energy and affect, in more than writing and will enact what he somehow manages to live all the way down to the fiber of “insignificant” acts such as his cooking and gardening like a strange sort of animated fractal –is reminded of a poem he wrote in response to my recent post on the possibility of an “inhuman” or maybe better yet, “a-human”, or perhaps “poly-actant” ethics and politics I’m very gropingly trying to think and articulate (Lingis– nods to Harman –is going to be crucial here). At any rate, a toast to my inhuman Philadelphia virtual mentor from afar. Here’s the poem (where the poem, coming from poeisis, is among the only artforms that ever existed and is, sadly and ominously, perhaps a dying praxis: This does not bode well for the future of collective existence):

We cannot begin without taking leave
He said when he turned us away
Fire leapt from his tongue

Instead, we gathered the names, leaving the animals
Speechless in the forest brakes, the river’s course.
Only now do we understand the nature of our loss

We cannot begin without taking leave
They were more than we could bear, these words.
They grew fruitful and multiplied

We hung them on every bough.
There were not enough trees to hold them.
They fell to the earth like leaves

We cannot begin without taking leave
Our lips are dry with trying
Our fingers sign what we cannot say

How can we leave
What was never ours to begin with?
How can we ever return what we found
in their burning, silent eyes?

Like Nothing in the World

The world is filled with gods
They are like nothing else in the world
This is how you know they are gods

The gods did not make the world
The gods were made by the world
They are more helpless then they have ever been

I asked them if they were once
Like the gods of our storied past
But they did not answer

Their tongues were made of stone
And their teeth of wool
They neither sing nor speak

I found them one day searching
For change, but my pockets were empty
Everything now must remain as it was

Only the world changes
As stars withdraw to the beginning of time
As we found ourselves at the edge of the forest

Following the animals over the plains
Listening to their lies, their endless
Stories of gods who will not let them be

And here’s the link.

For some time now I’ve felt both ashamed and haunted by a request to participate in The Inhumanities/Speculative Heresy cross-blog event. As announced over at The Inhumanities:

While speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?

Now if I have felt both ashamed and haunted by this invitation, then this is because, in response to this event, I failed miserably, failing to participate. However, in a number of respects, this failure to participate alludes to a far more symptomatic point in my own philosophical project revolving around the questions of ethics. If I did not see fit to participate in this event, then this is because I sensed in these questions the magnitude of the questions that face object-oriented ontology in relations to the questions proposed above. For the speculative realist turn, while presenting itself essentially as a militant epistemological and ontological intervention in the field of contemporary philosophy, above all raises the question of how ethics and politics must be rethought in light of the speculative turn. In light of the manner in which object-oriented ontology and flat ontology transforms our understanding of the place of the human within the chaosmos, massive transformations are called for within the problematic fields of both ethics and political theory.

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octopusWhenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).

From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.

Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.

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In response to one of my posts over at Deontologistics, Traxus writes:

latour and social constructivism is a tricky issue. he’s not technically a social constructivist, but his metaphysics is anti-normative. if everything is a product of forces (without additional predicate), then no ‘kind’ of force can be superior to any other. any justification for why a given constellation of forces is right in a given case would have not have recourse to metaphysical arguments. in terms of his metaphysics only force decides (naturalism might be superior to theism because it has stronger relations to different types of forces, but this can’t be determined in advance).

i see the OOO-osphere as reacting to the nietzscheanism inherent in this view by asserting objects over relations as the fundamentally real units.

oh, and badiou’s antiphilosophers aren’t necessarily sophists. for badiou they’re essentially religious — they assert a founding ahistorical, moral intuition — for latour it would be the importance of ‘democracy.’ like foucault, latour engages in genealogical (of a kind) critiques of knowledge in the form of case studies, with one rather ironic foray into systematic philosophy with ‘irreductions.’

At the outset, I suppose I should confess that I have an almost visceral suspicion of philosophical and political discourses that make normativity their central focus. On the one hand, I associate this sort of focus with neoliberal and conservative discourses that obfuscate social issues by portraying them as issues of “values” and rights. There seems to be a way in which the moment we begin talking about values and normativity, discussion and politics gets detached from the structure of concrete situations, rendering all of that invisible. This has even been enshrined in the whole distinction between the “is” and the “ought”. Insofar as the “is” is completely separated from the “ought”, normative discourses see themselves as entitled to ignore the “is” altogether. As a Marxist and a historical materialist, I simply think this is the wrong way to go. Moreover, contrary to those who seem to believe that neoliberalism is a discourse where self-interest is the only deciding factor and that Marxism is an axiological discourse independent of self-interest, I can’t help but see that Marx’s arguments are based on interests. What Marx shows is that our self-interest lies with the collectivity. This is why, for example, we join unions, pay taxes, form institutions to protect ourselves, and so on.

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Over at Deontologistics Pete has written a lengthy and excellent post about the relation between Latour and neo-liberalism. Before jumping to some of Pete’s actual portrayal of Latour, I think it’s first worthwhile to point out that OOO and Latour are not equivalent. This conflation of distinct philosophical positions was one of the causes of the recent dust-up concerning neo-liberalism. OOO is a genus, Latour, onticology, Graham Harman, Ian Bogost, Stengers, Whitehead, and Leibniz are all species falling under that genus. Just as there are vast differences between Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel within German Idealism, or between Derrida, Lyotard, Lacan, Deleuze, and Foucault within post-structuralism, there are significant differences among these positions within OOO. If one is going to write a post on Latour, write a post on Latour. It is dishonest, however, to elide all of these positions into a single shared position.

I cannot address all of Pete’s lengthy post– and I really would like to go through it point by point because there’s so much great stuff there and I do think it’s written in a general spirit of inquiry and questioning –but I would like to zero in on one set of issues in particular. Here my thought revolves more around a query than any defined issue on this position. For Pete the possibility of a politics– and much else besides –relies on the ability to ground normative grounds. It is on this issue, in particular, that Pete grounds his critique of Latour with respect to politics. Pete begins by remarking that,

it seems that there are two crucial features of Latour’s work with relevance to the current issue. I will address these as features of Latour’s work as it is not always clear to me to what extent these are directly adopted or transmuted in their uptake by OOO. These features are as follows:-

1) The collapse of the distinction between might and right. We might also call this the reduction of normative force to causal force, although this characterisation might later be problematised.

2) The non-modernist elision of the distinction between nature and culture. This is meant to be opposed to modernist separation between these two domains.

Pete is somewhat correct in his claim that Latour collapses the distinction between might and right insofar as Latour, in Irreductions describes relations among actors in terms of “trials of strength”, but I believe he is mistaken in the suggestion that Latour collapses normative force into causal force. For Latour we are to evaluate relations among entities in terms of force, but it in no way follows from this that causal force is the only sort of force that exists. As Latour writes in the introduction of Irreductions,

To follow this argument, we should not decide a priori what the state of forces will be beforehand or what will count as a force. If the word “force” appears too mechaical or too bellicose, then we can talk of weakness. It is because we ignore what will resist and what will not resist that we have to touch and crumble, grope, caress, and bend, without knowing when what we touch will yield, strengthen, weaken, or uncoil like a spring. But since we all play with different fields of forces and weakness, we do not know the state of force, and this ignorance may be the only thing we have in common. (159)

A few pages later, Latour writes, “What is a force? Who is it? What is it capable of? Is it a subject, text, object, energy, or thing? How many forces are there? Who is strong and who is weak? Is this a battle? Is this a game? Is this a market? All of these questions are defined and deformed only in further trials” (1.1.7). And in referring to trials, Latour is referring to how we come to know different entities: “A shape is the front of a trial of strength that de-forms, trans-forms, in-forms or per-forms it. Of course, once a form is stable, it no longer appears to be a trial of strength” (1.1.6).

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