When the term “realism” is evoked it often leads to associations with the distinction between nature and culture, the natural and the social, objects and language, the objective and the subjective, world and mind. Under this two-world model, reality is placed on the side of nature, the natural, objects, the objective, and world, whereas meaning, representation, values, and significations are placed on the side of the cultural, the social, language, the subjective, and mind. The natural, it is said, is the domain of the is, whereas the cultural is the domain of the ought. Such is the modernist constitution, so beautifully analyzed by Latour in We Have Never Been Modern, Pandora’s Hope, and The Politics of Nature. Based on this modernist constitution, a matrix of philosophical possibilities emerges. The obvious question, of course, is that of how mind is able to relate to world. If these two houses are so fundamentally different, one containing meaning and normativity, the other composed of senseless objects and causal relations, how do the two come together? Predictably, we get those who strive to reduce the one house to the other. Thus we get the naturalists or vulgar realists who attempt to show how all cultural phenomena are really natural phenomena (think sociobiology), while on the other hand we get the vulgar idealists who attempt to reduce everything to the second house or the world of meaning, intentionality, mind, the social, signification, normativity, and all the rest. And, of course, we get a million variants of intermediary positions that, like Epicurean wisdom, want a little natural indulgence here, a little cultural indulgence there.
When the object-oriented ontologist proudly adopts the term “realism”, it is immediately concluded that she is placing everything in the basket of nature, excluding the domain of culture, mind, signification, meaning, and all the rest. Hence charges of “naive realism”. To make matters worse, it is concluded that insofar as it is nature that the onticologist and ontographer are siding with, the human is being excluded, foreclosed, or disavowed in the name of natural phenomena. However, what this reading misses is that onticology is a flat ontology. What the onticologist asserts is not that there are two worlds, the real natural world and the ideal mental world of meaning, but that there is only one level: reality. Onticology thus draws a transversal line across the distinction between mind and world, culture and nature. Culture is not other than reality or the real, but is an element of the real. Since onticology begins with the hypothesis, wishing to know where it will go, that there is no difference that does not make a difference, it proves impossible to exclude the human. Why? Because humans make a difference. What onticology objects to is not the thesis that humans are elements in the real, but the thesis that every relation is a human-world relation.
When I suggest that correlationist approaches that privilege the human-world relation are not particular apt for thinking contemporary phenomena like the new technology, the ecological crisis, economy, and so on, I am open to the charge that all of these examples involve the human. “Given that the human is involved in all these phenomena,” the criticism runs, “wouldn’t the human-world relation be more than suited to the investigation of these phenomena?” Yet this thesis is only possible if one begins with the premise that there are two houses: the world of the human and the world of the natural or real. The object-oriented thesis is not that humans aren’t elements in these phenomena, but that these phenomena can’t properly be understood at the level of discourse, texts, normativity, meaning, intentionality, the signifier, power, or whatever else one might like to place in the culture basket. Yet with that said, discourse, texts, normmativity, meaning, intentionality, signifiers, and power are involved in all these phenomena as well. In other words, my sales pitch is that you get to keep, to quote Jack Nicholson as the Joker in the earlier Batman, all of the wonderful toys your anti-realism has invented, but you gain a whole new set of toys in addition to this. And the toys you get, I contend, solve a lot of problems your anti-realism has obsessively worked over.
The difference I propose is subtle. It is the difference between humans at the center of all relations and humans as elements in a network. In the former construal, the human overdetermines and conditions all other relations. In the latter, humans play a role in relations. The former requires us to analyze the contribution made by the human in conditioning every other relation, whereas the latter says that occasionally we must examine the role the human plays in a decentralized network in which it makes a contribution.
Let’s back up and draw an analogy to ecosystems. What is an ecosystem? Wikipedia tells me (and I know I’ll catch hell for citing Wikipedia here) that
Central to the ecosystem concept is the idea that living organisms interact with every other element in their local environment. Eugene Odum, a founder of ecology, stated: “Any unit that includes all of the organisms (ie: the “community”) in a given area interacting with the physical environment so that a flow of energy leads to clearly defined trophic structure, biotic diversity, and material cycles (ie: exchange of materials between living and nonliving parts) within the system is an ecosystem.”
In an ecosystem you have the interdependence of organisms on one another, but also this interdependent system of organisms and their relation to the environment in terms of light, temperature, flows of water, gravity, the gas composition of air and all the rest. Each ecosystem is absolutely unique and forms an irreplaceable system. We can generalize over the structure of these systems, but they are local logoi, rather than generalizable laws. The life emergent around deep ocean volcanic vents is enough to illustrate this point.
Now suppose the anti-realist equivalent of an ecologist comes along and proposes the radical “Copernican” thesis that “all ecosystems are necessarily correlates of photosynthesis-world relations”. Here the thesis would be that all processes in the ecosystem must be related to photosynthesis. On the one hand, this correlationist would be grossly mistaken as deep ocean vents do not involve photosynthesis at all as they are too deep to receive sunlight. Rather, the organisms of these ecosystems function through “chemosynthesis”. On the other hand, this generalization would have a withering effect on ecological analysis because while the photosynthesis of plants is a crucial feature of our most familiar ecosystems, this correlation would have the detrimental effect of leading us to ignore the role that weather patterns play, bacteriological processes play, soil composition, temperatures, gravity, and so on. Photosynthesis is a crucial element of many of these processes, but if we are to understand to organized complexity of these systems we must not give it a hegemonic role in these systems but understand it as an element.
Now let’s take the analogy home. In many of the systems we’re interested in as cultural, social, and political theorists, the human plays an essential role. But if we restrict our analysis to the human, the cultural, signification, meaning, minds, normativity, and intentionality, we will seriously distort the sorts of systems we’re examining. Technology and economics, for example, is certainly bound up with discourses, human intentions, significations, and power, but it is also organized around physical processes and forms of organization that have little to do with these elements. Here, I think, is something that distinguishes my own thought from Graham’s. In a lot of ways, Graham is far more inhuman than me. After all, he is a creature of the Iowa planes, the Middle Eastern sands, and was bit by a rabid dog. In many respects, Graham’s adventures are adventure of becoming-animal and becoming-desert. Take him seriously when he talks about the interaction between cotton and fire. Graham is a creature of cotton and fire, who’s quite monstrous for this reason. He’s a rabid realist, becoming-steppe, becoming-dog, becoming-fire. I’ve always had a great love of feral animals, and have collected them over the course of my life. However, me, I’m primarily interested in good social theory. Yet I believe that in order to produce good social theory, social theory that really offers us real potentials for change, we must pass through a sort of becoming-steppe where we are actors in a network, rather than sovereigns overlooking a field of play where we organize all the soldiers on the board.
Hopefully someone will recognize the joke and intimate reference in the images in this post.