thingsBenoît of Idios raises questions as to whether Caesar crossing the Rubicon was the best choice of examples for illustrating object-oriented ontology. In the course of his post, he makes a couple of casual remarks that I believe are worth responding to. Benoît writes,

I’m not sure if a dissection of “Caesar crossing the Rubicon” was the best example to use, as I still don’t grasp the particular value OOP/SR brings to the table when all of the modes of analysis above are possible without dissolving the Kantian limit on epistemology(or, why they are obvious).

Another way to put this would be to say that a particular difference (say, language) could make most of the difference (because honestly, I’ve never heard anyone defend that a certain difference makes ALL the difference, at least in my experience of the Continental tradition), and I’d still get all the same toys.

What am I missing?

First, I think Benoît somewhat misunderstands my aim in “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” That post was not designed to present a concrete object-oriented analysis, and therefore it comes as no surprise that it is rather uninteresting as a piece of analysis. If you’re looking for a good object-oriented analysis read Latour’s Pasteurization of France or Science in Action, Boltanski and Chiapello’s New Spirit of Capitalism, or Bogost’s Unit Operations. What “How Did Caesar Cross the Rubicon?” aimed to do was simply draw attention to the role that other other actors or objects play in a situation, beyond minds, signifiers, social structures, and so on. I think such simple illustrations are important because, by and large, we have been educated in an environment so pervaded by the primacy of the signifier that it’s often difficult for us to imagine anything else in the world of theory. I know this was certainly the case for me back in my orthodox Lacanian days. I was so accustomed to viewing the world in terms of texts and signifiers, that I was really unable to even imagine any other type of analysis. The only alternative I could see was phenomenology. In both cases, however, we have a subordinating mode of analysis. In the linguistic idealisms we get the subordination of objects to the signifier and texts, whereas in phenomenology we get the subordination of objects to intentionality. What is impossible, in these frameworks, is for nonhuman objects to surprise us or make any contribution of their own.

read on!

Benoît, criticizing what I call the hegemonic fallacy, remarks that he’s never heard anyone defend the position that there is one difference that makes all the difference. He’s right, you won’t find a single thinker in all of the history of philosophy claiming that there is one difference that makes all of the difference. However, like many fallacies, the hegemonic fallacies occurs not in the positions people defend, but in how they proceed in practice. While no reasonable person would make the claim that there is one difference that makes all the difference, there are a number of thinkers that nonetheless behave as if there were a type of difference that makes all the difference.

Here it is worthwhile to recall Zizek’s analysis of ideology at the beginning of The Sublime Object of Ideology. There he remarks that we all know very well that money is just paper, that it contains no intrinsic value, etc., but we still behave towards money as if it were some mystical substance. Zizek’s point is that ideology isn’t to be located in our “propositional attitudes” or conscious thoughts, but rather at the level of practice. And at the level of practice we everywhere see the hegemonic fallacy at work, with only few exceptions. The obvious example, of course, is Derrida where analysis only ever unfolds at the level of language and texts. Language and texts become the only differences that make a difference. In Lacan and Zizek we see something similar: it is all the signifier all the time. Yes, yes, of course there is the Real and the Imaginary, no need to remind me. Nonetheless, the Real and the Imaginary are always subordinated to the signifier. With the possible exception of Jean-Luc Marion, phenomenology does not fair much better, for within the phenomenological framework it is not objects that are analyzed, but our intentions of objects. Intentionality becomes the difference that makes all the difference. With few exceptions, it strikes me as completely uncontroversial that the last century of philosophy was the century of meaning. Everywhere we find a form of thought that restricts analysis to the analysis of meaning whether through the signifier, language, texts, intentionality, social forces, discursivity, power, history, and so on. Gadamer, Derrida, Lacan, Lyotard, Foucault, Bourdieu, Heidegger, Kristeva, Merleau-Ponty, Irigaray, Badiou, Ranciere, Laclau, Sartre, Husserl, Habermas, Adorno, Benjamin, etc., etc., etc. It’s all meaning all the time with few exceptions such as Deleuze and Guattari, Serres, Latour, and Stengers.

Let me hasten to add, since these discussions seem to inevitably bring out the binary thinkers, that the point of object-oriented ontology is not to reject meaning, the signifier, texts, intentions, power, social forces, and all the rest. Not at all. These things will not go unchanged as a result of their encounter of object-oriented ontology, but they certainly will not be dismissed. Rather the point is to dethrone the hegemony of these approaches, approaches which treat all other things as subordinated to these things. In this connection, I cannot but recall a certain exchange during the so-called “realism wars” where, when discussing evolutionary theory, neurology, relativity theory and quantum mechanics, my anti-realist interlocutor asked me how I knew these things were true. This was a jaw dropping question that was incredibly revealing about the true inner essence of anti-realism. For what my interlocutor revealed in this moment– and it was a question that came up repeatedly from a number of anti-realists –was that ultimately the anti-realist does not believe these things. In other words, if the anti-realist takes it as dogmatic to speak of the implications of evolutionary theory and neurology, recognizing it as our best working hypothesis, if they think this is off-limits because it cannot pass their critical test, then they have revealed that their real belief, conscious or unconscious, is that natural science should everywhere and always be excluded from philosophy. Whatever other conclusion is possible when encountering such a question? And isn’t this the case when they reject the analysis of technology (in any other form than Luddite Heideggerian or Adorno-esque terms), ecology, non-human objects, and so on? Isn’t the true posture of anti-realism profoundly defensive insofar as it is more a means of maintain mastery and hegemony than truly carrying out critique?

Benoît contends that nothing I say in my Caesar post is at odds with Kant. I’m not so sure. First let me say that these debates have never really been about Kant. If Kant has been a particular focus of critique, then this is because he was the first to take the reflexive turn. However, it’s not as if there are all sorts of Kantians running about in the world of philosophy. Rather, the real issue is neo-Kantianism, understood as forms of thought that take the Kantian turn of arguing that the world conforms to the human. This neo-Kantian turn can be Derridean where the world is argued to conform to the signifier and texts, it can be phenomenological where the world conforms to structures of intentionality, etc. This move is pervasive throughout all of Continental thought today.

Kant is particularly important because he’s really the first that rendered philosophy self-reflexive (though Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, and Hume also made important moves in this direction through their reflection on our mental faculties in knowing). Where, prior to Kant, philosophers talked directly about objects, Kant’s move was to argue that we must first analyze mind prior to any analysis of the world. We can plug in whatever we like for the reflexive move: “we must first analyze language”, “we must first analyze power”, “we must first analyze our bodies”, “we must first analyze our place in history”, etc., etc., etc. Structurally these moves are the same. The point is not that the Kantian or neo-Kantian can’t talk about all the sorts of things I talk about in my Caesar post. The point is that they don’t. And if they don’t, then this is because the self-reflexive turn has the unhappy effect of leading to a myopic and unhealthy focus on mind, meaning, language, texts, power, social forces, and so on to the detriment of other objects. In my view, this negligence of other objects has profound and far-reaching noxious consequences for a whole host questions in philosophy. Suppose it’s the case that the self-reflexive move is ultimately irrefutable– and I’m not particularly interested in refuting the self-reflexive move so much as, following Whitehead, simply abandoning it –speculative realism would have still done a great service to philosophy in having drawn attention to these other objects and diminishing, just a little, this obsessive and narcissistic focus on the human and meaning. Suddenly all sorts of other fields of inquiry would become available for investigation.

Yet I don’t think the issue is simply that self-reflexive modes of analysis tend, in practice, to systematically foreclose other objects of investigation and inquiry. Rather, in my view, self-reflexive modes of analysis tend to systematically distort the phenomena they wish to understand. I tried to make this point in my post on Caesar, as well as my post “Aleatory Shifting Goals“. Self-reflexive analysis tends to treat the most important differences and the differences that are “the real players” as coming from the self-reflexive medium (mind, language, text, social forces, etc). Inevitably it is an asymmetrical relation where all activity is placed on one side of the equation– for example, mind –and where the other side of the equation just functions as “input” or “matter” that is subordinated to form imposed by the active agency of mind, language, or signifier, or power, or social forces, and so on. Inevitably it portrays the world as an undifferentiated milieu that can only take on form from some active agency such as mind. This is an ancient conception going all the way back to the book of Genesis where God supplements the fundament through a putting-into-form. Activity only ever comes from one side of the equation. Just read Lee Braver’s Thing of the World if you doubt that this is a deep and abiding axiom of self-reflexive thought.

What self-reflexive approaches cannot abide is an ontology where the agency of difference cannot be localized in any one or predominant agency. In other words, self-reflexive analysis cannot abide multiplicities where the final phenomena is the result of a complex interaction of differences without one presiding over the putting-into-form, and where the actors in these multiplicities are heterogeneous, consisting of a variety of different objects ranging from the human to signs to technology to physical objects to animals and so on. Unfortunately, for self-reflexive thought, the world consists of these sorts of multiplicities.