I sometimes get the sense that when I make remarks about flat ontology and collectives of human and nonhuman actors the points I’m making are so simple, so vulgar, so obvious that others are often confused as to what I might even be referring to. Ghost, for example, remarks,
I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s grateful for all the time you’ve spent explaining this stuff. I’m beginning to get a handle on it, but as you describe the differences between a flat ontology analysis and something Zizek might do, for instance, I realise I need to see this ontology in action. A detailed flat ontology analysis might dissipate the feeling for me that the old nature/binary is still there, but now together in a new container.
No doubt I’ve exacerbated the problem because I’ve developed a somewhat abstract vocabulary with mysterious expressions like “there are no differences that do not make a difference”, “there is no transportation without translation”, and “nothing is either reducible or irreducible to anything else”, all situated in terms like “objectiles”, “actors”, “exo-relations”, “endo-relations”, “attractors”, “phase spaces”, “endo-consistency”, and so on. Faced with this infantry of terms and expressions, it’s difficult to determine what I might be getting at. A good deal of this has been my fault as I seldom give very elaborate examples to develop my claims. Hopefully I can rectify some of this today through the question “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”
If crossing the Rubicon was significant, then this was because there was a long-standing Roman law that forbid any Roman legion from crossing the Rubicon. In crossing the Rubicon on January 10th, 49 B.C.E., Caesar underwent what Deleuze and Guattari call an incorporeal transformation. In other words, nothing had changed in Caesar’s body, in his corporeality, but nonetheless he was completely transformed. He had shifted from being a Roman general at this point, to being a renegade at war with Rome. Moreover, this incorporeal transformation was irreversible.
However, it is important to note that despite the fact that we are all familiar with the expression “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” or simply “Crossing the Rubicon” to signify an irreversible, incorporeal transformation or a historical event, it is worth noting that it was not Caesar who crossed the Rubicon. Had it simply been Caesar that crossed the Rubicon, there would have been no issue. Rather, the issue was not that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, but that Caesar crossed the Rubicon with a Roman legion. It was this that threw Rome into a civil war. At the outset, therefore, we should say that the incorporeal transformation that took place and plunged Rome into a civil war was a multiplicity, and a paradoxical multiplicity at that. Employing Bogost’s vocabulary we can, on the one hand, treat this event as a unit in its own right, but it was also a unit composed of all sorts of other units.
We can “blackbox” this unit, closing up its interior complexity, and reducing it to the event or object “Caesar crossed the Rubicon”, or we can open up this blackbox and let all of the other units come swarming out like so many spiders fleeing from their egg sack. When we open up the blackbox of the “crossing the Rubicon” unit, out scurry horses, soldiers, their equipment, officers, Caesar, women, carts, donkeys, supply lines, children, cooks, bits of clothing, the river, its temperature, the weather conditions, the terrain, and so on. In other words, something that looked very simple, like an atomic unit, now is seen to be composed of all sorts of actors or objectiles. And this is where my question emerges. If I am able to ask “how did Caesar cross the Rubicon?”, then this is because this unit, this event, is a multiplicity composed of a multiplicity of actors. Seen in this light, the question becomes that of how these actors come to conspire together in this event.
The most obvious answer, of course, is that Caesar gave the order for this band of soldiers to cross the Rubicon. And this would not be wrong. He certainly did. Under this construal, our question might become “why did the soldiers obey?” Here we might become Althusserians, speaking of ideological interpellation, arguing that the soldiers recognized themselves in the hail, thereby becoming ideological subjects. This would not be wrong as well. However, there would still be additional problems here. Generals cannot occupy themselves with every little detail involved in the execution of an order. So how is it that the General’s speech act gets translated through a series of mediations to the officers and the soldiers and the relation of the soldiers to the horses, and the relations of the legion to the supply lines, the cooks, the women, the children, etc.? In other words, such an account gives us only a very small portion of what is going on. Moreover, it does not capture the manner in which the horses and soldiers must be fed, the soldiers must maintain their equipment, and so on and so forth. Finally horses, equipment, soldiers, officers, carts, swords, armor, supply lines, and so on are not simply docile bodies that jump to action like a television changes channel when a button is pushed. No. No body is ever a perfectly formed content, but rather there is always an element of friction whenever putting-in-form takes place. It takes quite a bit of work to hold a multiplicity together, as anyone who has ever done administrative work knows all too well.
We might also ask how it is possible for the simple act of crossing the Rubicon to become an event. Presumably Caesar’s army had crossed many rivers, but very few of these crossings were incorporeal transformations in the sense that crossing the Rubicon was an incorporeal transformation. Here, again, we might fall back on discursivity, examining Roman law, its oppositions, its structures, and how these come to be intertwined with a geography, rendering an event in the sense of an incorporeal transformation to become possible. Again, this analysis wouldn’t be mistaken either.
Finally, we have the engineering problem. How does a legion with its supply lines get across the river? Was there a reason the army chose this particular site rather than another? Did the weather conditions on January 10th play a role? What role did the mountainous territory play? In the event of crossing the Rubicon, a whole swarm of differences play a role in the production of the event. We get everything from the biological bodies of the soldiers and horses, the weather conditions, the fitness of the supply lines, the relationship between the foot and a stirrup, the geography of the shores, signs, legal systems, the circulation of orders from Caesar to his officers to the troops, and so on. While some of these differences play a larger role than others, we cannot say that one of these differences makes the event the event that it was. Rather, when we open our blackbox we have to look at how these differences related together, conspired together, to produce the particular event that took place.
The key point to note is that only a subset of these differences are human. We of course have signs, Roman law, ideological interpellation, orders, and so on. But we also have all sorts of nonhuman actors ranging from the types of equipment used, the river, the weather, the horses, the carts, the terrain, and so on. In transporting the human order, all sorts of mediations or translations must take place among these competing media. Now one might respond, “yes!, yes! this is all obvious!” I said as much at the beginning of this post. However, look at how much opening up the black box expands our various strategic possibilities of engagement. Suppose you’re another Roman general plotting to take Caesar on. The discursivist will focus, perhaps, on undermining the ideological identifications the soldiers maintain with Caesar. And that’s not a bad strategy. However, in drawing attention to terrain, supply lines, etc., new possibilities for engagement emerge. We can cut off supply lines. We can lure the legion into a bottleneck where they can be easily dispatched. If we’re really ruthless we can poison their water, and so on. The point is that these other non-signifying difference make a difference.
I have often suggested that social theorists try their hand at SimCity. The reason for this is that SimCity teaches the importance of a road– yes, a single road! –in the subsequent way in which the city comes to organize itself. Like a cell undergoing cell division, the absence or presence of a single road can have a profound impact on how the social system comes to organize itself. A poorly placed road that generates too much traffic suddenly rewards you with angry citizens screaming about deadlock and long drive times, as well as a decrease in productivity that generates all sorts of tax problems. A poorly placed electric plant generates shortages throughout the city, shutting down factories and homes, and spews pollution throughout a residential district leading to heightened sickness that puts a strain on the healthcare system. And so on and so on. The point is not that roads and power-plants are the “true” explainers. They are elements or units in a network, not the ground of the network. The point, however, is that the differences introduced by these sorts of things are non-discursive differences that nonetheless have very real discursive effects. In drawing attention to how networks are actually put together, in refusing to restrict oneself simply to discursive differences, our possibilities of action are increased. As aleatorist once put it to me, the reason protest movements don’t produce any effects anymore is that they don’t shut down highways. Shutting down a highway is not itself a discursive difference, but shut one down and I suspect you’ll encounter very profound discursive effects. What we need is a mode of analysis that simultaneously recognizes the importance of meaning, the signifier, law, and so on, while also thinking these nondiscursive differences qua nondiscursive differences. This is what object-oriented ontology is striving to think at a very abstract level. If programmers, ecologists, critical animal theorists, media and technology studies theorists, etc., are excited about it, then it is because they daily face “engineering” problems that simply can’t be thematized in terms of meaning-effects, the play of the signifier, ideology, and so on.