nez3Alex, over at the always provocative and thoughtful Splintering Bone to Ashes (damn it Alex, write more!), has written an excellent post continuing the debate over the relationship between politics and ontology. Criticizing implicit normative presuppositions in ontological thought, Alex writes,

I cannot but find the true implications of this for the political to have been safely “bracketed”, to have been separated so far from the political field as to be of little importance. It would seem that if Speculative Realism not only de-couples the world from the human but also necessarily and as a consequence removes all hierarchies between layers and scales, then politics as such is deeply problematised. The current blog discourse seems to hold that this new metaphysics might be deployed as a kind of analytical conceptual technology, in the service of political aims or projects. But this seems to have failed to learn the proper lesson- for surely such political praxes are themselves justified in terms of a system of norms, at the very least a theory of “the good”. It seems as if many writers would want to use the descriptive powers of flat ontologies or network/assemblage theories (of the kind proffered by De Landa and Latour) in the service of pre-existing political orientations. To do so would simply be to fall into a sort of double-think. For each political praxis is itself justified by a theory of what is good, each of which can be genealogically traced to a prior philosophical or religious system, each of which are crucially undermined by the very notion of an ontology without preference.

From this Alex concludes,

Two options seem available. Firstly we think ‘pragmatically’, deploy flat ontological analyses as a mere technological appendage to serve pre-existing political vectors, but this seems to be somewhat paradoxical for it entails a hidden claim that the ontological has no baring upon the political—but this indicates the technological potentials of the philosophy are null and void. Alternatively we might think the other formulation: if being gives us no ability to prefer this over that, then we cannot do so (or seek some other form of validation). But to seek other validation is to inevitably rest upon some other problematic ground (all the different kinds of situated-chauvinism from racial-tribalism to humanism or vitalism). To take SR seriously is to hold to a radical nihilism, and it is in this respect that Ray Brassier comes closest to unravelling the full consequences (in spite of his own apparent gestures towards the continued validity of collective politics, perhaps another example of doublethink?). Either SR has no impact on politics, or destroys politics (and its reliance upon the situated-chauvinistic) altogether. It seems intrinsically a-political. In making of philosophy a science, we can no longer draw political claims from it, or rather perhaps, only a rigorous (though absolutely whimsical) anti-politics where it as good to eliminate the human race as to institute globalised communism. In this sense a kind of political hyperchaos might be thought, or perhaps an anti-phenomenological/inhuman ur-nihilistic existentialism.

read the rest here.

dali33At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I find it difficult to see how the thesis that ontology implies no particular politics is identical to the thesis that we must embrace a radical nihilism such as the sort described by Brassier. Arguing from the Ontic Principle, the relevant question is do values make a difference? If values make a difference, then my ontology requires me to admit the existence of values as real. That is, values would be among the entities that belong to my ontology.

read on!

Now, the relevant question then becomes that of what sort of entities are values and in what way do they exist and make differences? As Alex rightly notes, my Ontological Principle commits me to a flat ontology where no entities are privileged above others, where entities exist at all sorts exist, and where entities exist at all different levels of scale and duration. As a result, it follows from both the Ontic Principle and the Ontological Principle that values cannot exist in the sense described by Kant’s categorical imperative, Plato’s Forms, or decreed by an eternal God from all time. If this is the case, then it is because it would imply the existence of beings that act without, in turn, being acted upon. It might turn out that God exists, that something like Forms exist, or that principles such as the categorical imperative exist; however, my ontology would hold that these entities not only act but are also acted upon and partially produced by that upon which they act.

All of this aside, while a flat ontology excludes the existence of transcendent entities that are not themselves acted upon but which simply tranport their differences to other entities and events, nothing in my ontology prevents the production, genesis, or emergence of entities such as values or norms. The only caveat is that values and norms must be created or produced, they must result from a genesis, rather than falling from the sky fully formed.

It might be objected that construction, genesis, or production annul the reality of something. However, I fail to see why this would be the case. A house is no less a real object because it is the result of a construction. Likewise, a species is no less real because it is the result of evolution. Evolutionary theory overturns the old model of species where we have eternal forms known as species that somehow engender individuals of that species, but it provides another account of species resulting from the slow accumulation and selection of individual differences. It would be odd to claim that somehow species are less real for this reason.

Likewise in the case of values. Values of both the leftist and the rightist sort are both real insofar as they make a difference on a number of other entities, but they are also the result of a genesis. It seems to me that this was one of the core things that Marx was trying to think. That is, Marx does not begin with a normative framework that he then hoists on the social as a way of measuring whether social formations live up to that particular frame (after the fashion of Plato using the Republic as a model for measuring the whether or not existing cities live up to the Republic). Indeed, this is one of the major motives behind Marx’s critique of utopian socialism, which begins with an ideal, abstract, and transcendent model of what society ought to be. Rather, Marx’s historical writings in texts such as Grundrisse and Capital are designed to account for the emergence or genesis of values as factors in how social agents and societies understand themselves and seek to form themselves. For example, how, during the late Renaissance and the early Enlightenment, do conceptions such as the individual, rights, and progress come into existence? These values themselves become actors in social networks, participating in processes of deliberation and engagement for those who adopt them. That is, they are differences, among other differences, that make a difference.

As I have often said in the past on this blog, texts and speech-acts are not simply about something, but are also real events that make a difference in the world. While we can certainly evoke texts and speech-acts in terms of their truth, the referential truth of a text or speech-act is an issue that is independent of the difference that a text or speech-act as a material event makes on other objects in the world. I would certainly be committed to the thesis that it is ontologically false that there is anything like inalienable rights, instead arguing that rights are things that must be produced and reproduced among actors. However, the evocation of rights, their inscription, their declaration, produces real differences in the world regardless of whether they exist as transcendent entities. Of course, the paradoxical consequence of this thesis is that I have to grant being to fictions, insofar as fictions make a difference. In other words, the being/non-being couplet does not map on to the true/false couplet in my ontology. At some point I will have to address this complicated issue.

[UPDATE]: Alex over at Splintering Bone to Ashes responds:

I am uncertain that Levi has banished the threat of nihilism yet- for whilst the teeming network or assemblage universe is filled with all kinds of components or actors, amongst them norms and values, just as there are planets, nematode worms, jokes and computer operating systems, our only recourse in terms of a selection principle seems to be the contingent set of normative assemblages acting upon us, enunciating us. Descriptively this is certainly highly satisfactory, and a useful way to think sociology perhaps. But equally it dissolves everything to the level of a cold-vitalism, or an amoral machinism (or perhaps even an a-political politics) wherein even life itself or machinic efficiency cannot be preferred over inert death or stasis or sclerosis (because the very norm of life or efficiency has been reduced to the ontological status of merely another actor within the network). I would be perfectly happy to agree to this outcome, a purely descriptive naturalism bereft of prejudice. What is capable of domination predominates over that which is incapable, and it is neither good nor bad (or possibly it is either/both, dependant on the point of view invested in the judging subject as side-effect of pre-personalising norm-objects). Though effectiveness itself is not ‘good’ it will lead to predominance within a system, (though even the claim that to be is better than to not be is unsupportable) and one implication of this is that the very status of ‘fiction’ and ‘truth’ become dislodged from their usual significations- is there not also the considerable danger of a rampaging relativism here?

I will not respond to the first charge yet, except to suggest that the idea of an assemblage as opposed to structure preserves the possibility of agency among actors by affirming the existence of actors that can’t be treated as mere effects or vehicles of anything else. This follows from what I have called “The Principle of Irreduction” and “Latour’s Principle”, where the former claims that nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else (i.e., it’s a principle of labor or work involved in drawing relations between objects) whereas the latter holds that there is no transportation without translation. In other words, nothing such as language or the “social” is ever smoothly transported to another object without that object resisting and contributing its own difference. One of my major aims, in other words, has been to preserve the agency of all manner of objects.

The charge of relativism is pretty serious and is something I will have to work through in the future as it is certainly a looming spectre. However, as I remarked to my dear friend Melanie the other day, sometimes I think what I’m trying to articulate is the very simple thesis that trees are real, that neurology is real, without reducing it to mere social constructions or linguistic formations or results that always involve the mediation of a priori concepts. However, in asserting this sort of realism, I also want to preserve the best insights from theory inflected with the discoveries of the various social sciences in the last one hundred years. That is, I also want to acknowledge the reality of these things as well; or, as Alex aptly puts it, I want to have my cake and eat it too. Part of such a theory requires the adoption of Latour’s thesis where it is claimed that the social does not explain, but must be explained. That is, the problem with socially inflected theory is that it has treated the social as a sort of substance or causal mechanism that explains other things or is the ground of other things. Latour’s revolution lies in showing how far from the social being a ground of explanation, the social is instead a remarkable fact that must be given a genetic account. On the other hand, a theory that does not reduce beings to mere social constructions or vehicles of the linguistic requires an account of objects or actors that contribute there own difference to social differences, while nonetheless being irreducible to the social. Narratives about how global warming is a perfectly natural phenomenon having nothing to do with the human but rather pertaining to natural cycles make a real difference in the world and thus are, by the lights of my ontology, real. However, human carbon emissions and weather fluctuations are actors as well that contribute their own differences. One of the great things about ecological movements has been to show how non-human actors speak whether we like it or not, and how our technology has a life of its own that far exceeds our attentions or its status as something merely used by humans as in the case of classical tools. One crucial question must be that while true/false does not correspond to being/non-being, what, nonetheless, is the place of truth as something real (here perhaps in the Lacanian-Badiouian sense). A tangled web to unweave.