285321130_2c4c7d3ebb_mI have really enjoyed the appearance of media and technology studies folk, psychologists, sociologists, ecologists, critical animal studies theorists, anthropologists, rhetoricians, and all the rest as discussions surrounding Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology have intensified online in the last few months. I think this suggests that there is something highly productive in Object-Oriented approaches for these other lines of inquiry. Given that I think one of the roles of philosophy is to think the present or to provide conceptual tools that help us to better think the present and comprehend our time, I find this to be a heartening sign. Responding to remarks I made in another post, Scu of the blog criticalanimalstudies writes:

It seems to me this rejection of anthropocentrism is also the starting point for critical animal studies (And I should add I find Bryant’s formulation elegant. Philosophy can always use more elegant formulations.), even if (most) CAS heads in some very different directions than (most) SR after this rejection of anthropocentric ontology. I think one of the ways to understand this difference is by examining another common opposition that Bryant posits for SR:

On the other hand, I think all of those in the speculative realist camp are deeply exhausted by styles of philosophy that begin from the standpoint of critique (in the Kantian sense), the phenomenological analysis of experience, hermeneutics, and textual analysis. There’s a sense that these approaches to philosophy, as powerful and valuable as they are, have exhausted their possibilities and are standing in the way of engaging with the sorts of questions demanded by our contemporary moment. For example, its difficult to imagine something less relevant than phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis to the sorts of issues posed by the ecological crisis. Ecology just requires a very different set of conceptual tools. Moreover, we are living in the midst of one of the most remarkable periods in scientific and mathematical development and invention, yet we have a group of philosophers continuing to pretend that the Greeks said it all and that philosophy largely ended at the beginning of the 19th century. It is also simply bizarre to think that these developments are adequately thematized through the resources of textual analysis or semiotics. We need to become a bit more pre-critical again, I think, to adequately discuss these sorts of issues.

I am, in many ways, very sympathetic to this argument. In many ways also in strong agreement (this odd obsession with Greek as origin, and origin as the authentic and true seems relatively useless to me). But if we replace ecology with the systematic exploitation of animals (and of course, recognizing that the exploitation there is deeply implicated in the present ecological crisis), I doubt highly that “phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, or deconstructive textual analysis” have exhausted themselves in changing the status of the animal. Not only have phenomenological moments with nonhuman animals been crucial for many people changing their views regarding animal exploitation, but it seems that humanism and speciesism are strongly powerful in maintaining the systematic exploitation of animals. If we are to change things, I feel that confronting how this humanism and speciesism is maintained from their roots to their present formulation is a necessary move, which means critique is a necessary tool for CAS. This critical element needs to be centered not just on political and philosophical texts, but also on present media and scientific texts. At the same time, I agree we need to pay more attention to some of the present movements in current scientific discourses. Indeed, CAS is also interesting as a philosophical movement because of its strong interest in things like current evolutionary discourses, primatology, cognitive ethology, etc. (And indeed, one of the few major continental philosophers that seemed to be particularly interested in these things was Derrida).

One of the criticisms I have often heard of SR is that it is a vulgar positivism and scientism. At least, this is the sort of criticism others are telling me in email that they’re hearing from their professors and colleagues. “Why,” the criticism runs, “would you want to bother with that naive and vulgar positivism?” No doubt this impression arises from the term “realism” itself, which is so often assumed to denote a world independent of all social and mental “contamination”. Given how hard thinkers have struggled for the last two hundred years to reveal the role that cognition, language, signs, power, and the social play in structuring reality, realism, as understood in this way, cannot but appear to be a sort of regression.

read on!

However, it seems to me that Object-Oriented Realism differs markedly from this sort of realism. A sense of this can already be found in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern. In this text, Latour is at pains to problematize the two-world model that undergirds modernity. As Latour writes,

The hypothesis of this essay is that the word ‘modern’ designates two sets of entirely different practicesx which must remain distinct if they are to remain effective, but have recently begun to be confused. The first set of practices, by ‘translation’, creates mixtures between entirely new types of beings, hybrids of nature and culture. The second, by ‘purification’ creates two entirely distinct ontological zones: that of human beings on the one hand; that of nonhumans on the other. (10 – 11)

Both traditional realism and anti-realism share this model of purification as their root assumption. Thus the traditional realist strives to purify the world of the human so as to “reach the things themselves” as they are independent of the human. In its extreme forms it attempts to reduce the human to the mechanics of this purified world. Likewise, the anti-realist emphasizes the dimension of the human in the form of mind, language, the social, or power, either denying a world independent of correlation altogether or emphasizing that such a world can never be known or touched.

As Latour observes, the modernist stance offers us three strategies– naturalization, socialization, and deconstruction –which are always to be kept strictly separate from one another. If one adopts the semiological approach of deconstruction, then, the story runs, we must drop socialization and naturalization as we are restricted to texts and the play of signifiers. If one adopts the stance of naturalization as in the case of evolutionary psychology or neurology, then we must drop socialization and deconstruction, as it is genes and wiring that are explanatory. If one adopts the stance of socialization as do the Marxists and Foucaultians, perhaps, then we must drop naturalization and deconstruction as it is social relations that are ultimately explanatory.

By contrast, Object-Oriented Realism attempts to deploy all of these strategies at once, and to do so it deploys the concept of “object” or “actor” (terms that are used synonymously). If it is led in this direction, then this is because it recognizes that networks are hybrids of all these elements. An actor or an object is thus an all purpose word that refers equally to humans, signs, physical objects, literary characters, and all the rest. It is a motley realism that places all of these agencies on equal ontological footing. Latour illustrates this difference in a series of criticisms he imagines addressed to him from those falling into one of the three camps of naturalization, socialization, and deconstruction. Thus,

…the critics imagine that we are talking about science and technology. Since these are marginal topics, or at best manifestations of pure instrumental and calculating thought, people who are interested in politics or in souls feel justified in paying no attention. Yet this research does not deal with nature or knowledge, with things-in-themselves, but with the way all these things are tied to our collectives and to subjects. We are talking not about instrumental thought but about the very substance of our societies. (3 – 4)

In other words, the stance of socialization is truncated or inadequate because it ignores the manner in which nonhuman actors in our collectives– technology, natural objects, resources, etc. –are the very fabric of the social; that the social cannot maintain itself or be formed at all without these actors and that these actors are not simple “vehicles” of concepts, signifiers, or power. The evaporation of Lake Tanganyika in East Africa is not simply a discourse, the vehicle of signifiers, an object categorized by mind, but acts on other objects to create very different social relations.

When this is observed, another critic chimes in:

‘But then surely you’re talking about politics? You’re simply reducing scientific truth to mere political interests, and technical efficiency to mere strategical manoeuvres?’ Here is the second misunderstanding. If the facts do not occupy the simultaneously marginal and sacred place our worship has reserved for them, then it seems that they are immediately reduced to pure local contingency and sterile machinations. Yet science studies are talking not about social contexts and interests of power, but about their involvement with collectives and objects. (4)

As Latour will say a bit further on, “[t]he ozone hole is too social and too narrated to be truly natural; the strategy of industrial firms and heads of state is too full of chemical reactions to be reduced to power and interest; the discourse of the ecosphere is too real and too social to boil down to meaning effects. Is it our fault if the networks are simultaneously real, like nature, narrated, like discourse, and collective, like society” (6)? Finally, another critic pipes up,

‘But if you are not talking about things-in-themselves or about humans-among-themselves, then you must be talking just about discourse, representation, language, texts, rhetorics.’ This is the third misunderstanding. It is true that those who bracket off the external referent– the nature of things — and the speaker –the pragmatic or social context –can talk only about meaning effects and language games. Yet when MacKenzie examines the evolution of inertial guidance systems, he is talking about arrangements that can kill us all… When I describe Pasteur’s domestication of microbes, I am mobilizing nineteenth-century society, not just the semiotics of a great man’s texts; when I describe the invention-discovery of brain peptides, I am really talking about the peptides themselves, not simply their representation in Professor Guillemin’s labortory. Yet rhetoric, textual strategies, writing, staging, semiotics– all these are really at stake, but in a new form that has a simultaneous impact on the nature of things and on the social context, while it is not reducible to the one or the other. (5)

When I criticize hermeneutics, deconstruction, phenomenology, or semiotics, this is not in the name of consigning them to the dustbin of history, but of rejecting the hegemonic role one or the other of these positions plays in the analysis of our world. It is not that we should cease doing phenomenology, deconstruction, semiotics, or hermeneutics, but that we should cease believing that all other actors can be reduced to one or the other of the actors or objects privileged by these various orientations. In short, it is about tracking the differences produced by each of these types of actors and how these actors enter into networks or assemblages with one another forming a particular type of network.