An old chestnut has it that if you are pissing everyone off you must be doing something right. This is especially the case if the charges against a position are themselves completely contradictory or diametrically opposed. In recent dust-ups surrounding my onticology and Harman’s object-oriented ontography, this has certainly been the case. On the one hand, there are the endless anti-realist critiques of onticology charging it with falling it into a sort of naive realism and naturalism, to the detriment of mind, culture, signs, and all the rest. Again and again you hear the charge that the human and all these formations are being banished and ignored. Of course, this criticism is baffling as Harman’s thesis is not that the natural world is the “really real” world and that we must exclude the human to get to it, but rather that the withdrawal of objects is not unique to human-object relations but holds for all inter-ontic or inter-object relations. In other words, there’s a very real sense in which Harman’s position can be read as a radicalization of Kant’s thesis about the unknowability of the thing-in-itself, holding that it is a general ontological proper of all relations among objects and not simply of human-object relations. The situation is similar in my case as well. My principle of translation has it that there is no transporation of a difference from one object to another object without a translation or a transformation of that difference by the second object. These sorts of processes of translation are what I’m principally interested in understanding. Since the human and cultural phenomena are counted among the field of real objects producing differences, there’s nothing in my account that excludes the human. I merely make the claim that the human isn’t included in all inter-object relations. Yet still, somehow, I get situated as a naturalist and a reductive materialist.
However, if this were not comic enough, from the other end I get the charge of rejecting naturalism and materialism, thereby falling into a sort of humanism. Thus, in a couple of truly obnoxious posts written by John (not to be confused with the great John Cogburn who has been sadly absent of late), ire is expressed because I am alleged to reject neurology, quantum mechanics, and relativity theory (here and here). Needless to say, I suspect I won’t be posting any further comments from John as I don’t particularly care for sarcastic assholes, especially those who remark, from the outset, that my project will not hold up under scrutiny. There’s little possibility of dialog with a person who dismisses you from the beginning. At any rate, John charges me with claiming that all things are real, seeming to miss the point that my thesis is not that everything is real, but that if something makes differences it is real. From John’s end of the spectrum I am thus accused of some sort of wild and wooly postmodern idealism where everything goes.
In the meantime, Glen, in a set of criticisms I don’t really understand as they seem to be making many of the very points onticology and ontography makes, charges object-oriented ontology with being profoundly humanist, despite the fact that everywhere speculative realism strives to dethrone the centrality of the human. Elsewhere, in a post also characterized by a rather obnoxious tone, he charges speculative realists with being entirely too pre-occupied with responding to Kant and not doing enough to develop an ontology. This is a curious claim given that I’ve written literally hundreds of pages on this blog alone developing the details of onticology, and there are literally thousands of pages worth of speculative realist writing developing various realist ontologies. The only time Kant ever seems to become a focus is in discussions with anti-realists, which comes as no surprise. Barring that, I think the speculative realists are by and large simply working through the details of their various ontologies. Even more ironic is the fact that this charge is made in the context of other charges where object-oriented ontology has been accused of not attending to Kant enough (usually accompanied by a number of lengthy posts explaining Kant to the poor speculative realists that just don’t get it).
You’re a humanist! You’re an anti-humanist! You’re a naturalist! You’re a culturalist! You’re too focused on Kant! You don’t focus on Kant enough! What a curious chorus of conflicting charges! If, I think, object-oriented ontology– and here I would include not only Graham’s ontology and my own ontology, but thinkers as diverse as Whitehead, Latour, and Ian Bogost under the umbrella of object-oriented ontology –is particularly prone to this strange array of conflicting criticisms, then this is because there is something in object-oriented ontology that fundamentally crosses the circuits– or dare I say units? –of traditional philosophical frameworks. As Zizek describes it in the series forward to MIT’s Short Circuit series,
A short circuit occurs when there is a faulty connection in the network– faulty, of course, from the stanpoint of the network’s smooth functioning. Is not the shock of short-circuiting, therefore, one of the best metaphors for a critical reading? Is not one of the most effective critical procedures to cross wires that do not usually touch: to take a major classic (text, author, notion), and read it in a short-circuiting way, through the lens of a “minor” author, text, or conceptual apparatus (“minor” should be understood here in Deleuze’s sense: not “of lesser quality,” but marginalized, disavowed by the hegemonic ideology, or dealing with a “lower,” less dignified topic)? If the minor reference is well chosen, such a procedure can lead to insights which completely shatter and undermine our common perceptions. This is what Marx, among others, did with philosophy and religion (short-circuiting philosophical speculation through the lens of political economy, that is to say, economic speculation); this is what Freud and Nietzsche did with morality (short-circuiting the highest ethical notions through the simplest lens of the unconscious libidinal economy. What such a reading achieves is not a simple “desublimation,” a reduction of the higher intellectual content to its lower economic or libidinal cause; the aim of such an approach is, rather, the inherent decentering of the interpreted text, which brings to light its “unthought,” its disavowed presuppositions and consequences. (The Parallax View, IX)
While onticology is not occupied with the activity of critical reading but with ontology– which isn’t to say its opposed to critical reading or sees it as without value –nonetheless, it does seem to me that my onticology, Harman’s ontography, Bogost’s unit analysis, Latour’s actor-network-theory, and Whitehead’s philosophy of organisms are all critical activities of short-circuiting that reveal disavowed and unconscious dimensions of ontology and epistemology as they have hitherto been practiced. While object-oriented ontology or (OOO!) refuses the centrality of the human or the thesis that the human in some variant is included in all relations, perhaps its more disquieting move is to refuse the division of the world in two: the real and the human. Latour represents this beautifully in a diagram in We Have Never Been Modern:
In the upper portion of the diagram we have the “old constitution” of modernity, where the world is purified into two absolutely distinct domains: non-human nature and the human world of mind and culture. The narrative of modernity has it that all those barbaric pre-moderns endlessly confused these two domains, treating signs, norms, culture as natural, and the nonhuman world as natural. The project of modernity thus becomes one of purification, where these two worlds are carefully separated from one another, and placed in their proper boxes. Based on this modernist narrative, we get, of course, a host of positions. We get those who, like the anti-realists, reject the possibility of any direct relation to the nonhuman, seeking to show how the human or cultural side of the modernist culturalist constitution overdetermines our relation to the nonhuman. This would be your variants of idealism, social constructivism, deconstruction, etc. When a Heideggerian or a Derridean tells you that the divide between nature and culture is meaningless, what they’re really saying is that the relation falls on the side of the human in all cases. Then, of course, we get the naturalists that place everything on the side of the natural. This would be your sociobiologists, for example, who seek to explain all cultural and human phenomena in terms of things like genes, biological adaptations, neurology, physics, etc. Both sides, however, maintain the divide, if only as something against which to contrast their own position like the tain of a mirror.
Given that the modernist constitution is the unconscious of contemporary thought and philosophy, it thus comes as no surprise that object-oriented ontology receives such a conflicting array of criticisms, for what it refuses is this way of parsing up the world. A flat ontology is not an ontology that delivers us at last to the nature side of the modernist constitution, finally abolishing all these fetishistic confusions that beset those so-called “barbaric pre-modern savages”, but rather is an ontology that places all objects on equal footing. This, then, would be the bottom portion of Latour’s diagram where we no longer have two worlds carefully partitioned from one another, but rather we have a network of very diverse actors ranging from the human to signs to discourses to institutions to quarks to suns to, yes, cotton and fire interacting with one another on a flat plane. In We Have Never Been Modern Latour presents a very nice list comparing and contrasting his nonmodern position from the worlds of modernism, premodernism, and postmodernism:
From The Moderns
What is retained
Long networks, size, experimentation, relative universals, final separation between objective nature and free society.
What is rejected
Separation between nature and society, clandenstineness of the practices of mediation, external Great divide, critical denunciation, universality, rationality
From the Premoderns
What is retained
non-separability of things and signs, transcendence without a contrary, multiplication of nonhumans, temporality by intensity
What is rejected
obligation always to link the social and natural orders, scapegoating mechanisms, ethnocentrism, territory, limits on scale
From the Postmoderns
What is retained
multiple times, constructivism, reflexivity, denaturalization
What is rejected
belief in modernism, critical deconstruction, ironic reflexivity, anachronism.
But why go to all this trouble, especially given that things get so messy under this new constitution? The answer to this question, I think, lies in a certain deadlock we find in the domain of theory. On the side of the humanists we find an exclusive focus on meaning, whether in the form of texts, signifiers, signs, social forces, lived experience, history, and so on, to the detriment of anything else. While this largely Continental orientation of thought has given us tremendously powerful interpretive tools that are not to be dismissed only reworked, it nonetheless has increasingly become a form of self-absorbed navel gazing relevant only to others in the know. Similarly, those who choose the nature side of the modernist constitution teach us fantastic things about biology, physics, chemistry, etc., but seem to have little insight into the revolutions in linguistics, semiotics, historical analysis, ethnography, textual analysis, etc. As such, they all too often end up naturalizing what is not natural. What is needed is a form of thought, an ontology, that can fluidly work across these domains without reducing the one to the other or treating them as belonging to entirely distinct domains. As Paul Ennis so nicely put it recently,
This is the clearest expression of that which intuitively draws me toward the speculative realist crowd. Academically this is a necessary step in transposing us into a (genuinely) post-Continental intellectual atmosphere.
Flat ontology gives back to nature (‘naive’ realism) its position without leaving behind culture (human-all-too-human). It does so by tracing a line not between or across them, but around them: they both belong and contribute to reality. Is this not an ontology that lets us see the world anew?
Ecotheorist and philosopher Adrian Ivakhiv gets to the nub of the issue in his recent interview over at anotherheideggerblog. Asked whether he thinks Continental philosophy and ecology are natural allies, he remarks,
But conceived more strictly – with ‘environmentalism’ being the mainstream environmental movement of the last 40 years, and continental philosophy being the left branch (so to speak) of academic philosophy – I do think that the two could be natural allies, though this hasn’t always been seen as such. The so-called nature wars of the 1990s, emanating from the “science wars” and the fallout from Bill Cronon’s cultural constructivist argument about wilderness that appeared in the New York Times Magazine, showed that there was a lot of resentment among environmental academics (and some non-academics) toward their cultural and political theory brethren for the ways the latter seem to get caught up in self-important intellectual navel-gazing, e.g., terminological innovation based on the latest fads from France, and so on, rather than providing useful ways of resolving real-world problems, which were rightly thought of as reaching a point of some urgency. Fortunately, I think that moment has passed, partly because the sort of “high social constructivism” that was so prominent then has dissipated somewhat (with all manner of post-constructivist things arising in social and cultural theory, and now in continental philosophy, as with the “speculative realists”), and partly because of some political realignments in the US, the opening up of a more promising frontier for environmentalism.
I’m more skeptical with respect to Adrian’s thesis that “high social constructivism” is beginning to dissipate, but his point is apropos. If Continental theory and eco-thought have not been natural allies, then this is because Continental thought has focused almost exclusively on the domain of meaning, the cultural, and the social for the last one hundred years. Indeed, it has gone so far in this direction, that it has rendered it extremely difficult to discuss anything outside of meaning, texts, signs, power, and social forces; so much so that one suspects that these things outside of the domain of meaning don’t even exist for many Continental thinkers. What is needed is an ontology that straddles, as Paul Ennis puts it, both nature and culture; but this is accomplished not through treating the natural as a social construction, but rather through treating the cultural as a dimension of the real. If the necessity of this move is needed, simply listen to the sorts of problems eco-theorists, media theorists, technology theorists, feminists, artificial intelligence designers, neurologists, and so on are working with. Note the manner in which they all take meaning, texts, discourses, etc., seriously while also constantly grumbling over the inadequacy of these human centered approaches for their own work. The chorus of conflicting charges from within philosophy strikes me as a sign that object-oriented ontology is hitting a nerve, while the enthusiasm for object-oriented thought among ecologists, critical animal theorists, artists, media and technology theorists, feminists, queer theorists, AI folk and so on suggests to me that a useful set of tools are being developed that help to navigate the way out of what initially appears to be a dead end. As always, look to those that are working on something other than philosophy and philosophical texts to determine what needs to be thought.