soccer_momIn developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.

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Onticology thus opens up a domain where it becomes possible to speak of material objects without reducing them to relations in a correlate between mind and world, and in this way departs from the various idealisms that predominate during the last century. It rejects anything like the notion of a “fundamental ontology” as understood by Heidegger where humans are placed at the center of being or where any object is implicitly understood as being correlated with some variant of the human in the form of history, tradition, language, signs, social forces, economy, mind, or whatever else one might like to put on the human side of the correlation. Ontology is not the investigation of being qua human, nor being qua language, society, history, social forces, and so on. Ontology is the investigation of being qua being. Humans, language, societies, history, social forces, signs, power, and all the rest are counted within being, but are not at the center of being and posses no privileged or exemplary place within being such that all ontological questioning must first proceed on the basis of this relation.

Instead, what we get in a flat ontology are imbroglios of objects on a flat plane where objects vie with one another in a variety of ways. Where a vertical ontology might treat the human as something that is, as it were, outside the world by virtue of a special transcendence that marks its discontinuity with nature, flat ontology sees humans as caught in imbroglios with other objects that never cease to surprise us and such that we are unable to determine where our agency beings or ends or whether agency comes from nonhuman objects or from ourselves. The factory, for example, is not simply the result of mute matter formed in the image of the engineers mind for social purposes like producing aircraft for war, but is itself a nonhuman object that introduces unanticipated agencies and affordances into the world far afield from the intentions of its designers. During WWII the factory is designed to produce aircraft, tanks, and a variety of other devices of war, but as women come to operate the factory as gears in the war machine, the factory also becomes a site of emancipation, introducing a new set of social relations that pave the way for the women’s movement in the next two decades. Climate change owes a great deal to the emission of greenhouse gases, but it mobilizes a set of objects or actors that are nonhuman, that generate new storm and weather patterns, that wreck havoc on farming and fishing, the unleash new and strange microbes, and so on.

These are imbroglios, where humans and nonhumans are bound up with one another in complex networks without any particular actor or object standing above the rest. And this, in the end, is what immanence or flat ontology means: a single world characterized by imbroglios, where no actor or object stands outside the others. Perhaps there are gods and spirits, but if there are then they do not stand apart from being or outside of the world, but are caught in imbroglios like all other objects. Like the strange gods of Epicurus and Lucretius, the gods would here exist but are constrained in their ability to act in the same way as any other entity. Zeus too would need an Archemedian lever to move the world.

In my own work with object-oriented ontology I have been particularly keen to reconceptualize social and cultural theory in terms of onticology. Philosophical movements have a bad habit of going too far in the opposite direction, throwing out the valuable insights of previous traditions in their zeal to correct the excesses of these traditions. The last century was characterized by profound advances in our understanding of social phenomena. These advances should not be thrown out. However, what is required is a reformulation of social phenomena in terms consistent with onticology.

Just as all other objects find themselves caught up in imbroglios with other objects, this requires first that signs, for example, are caught up in imbroglios with non-semiotic objects rather than circulating throughout the world in a smooth space without resistance or encounters with density. If I have been attracted to the concept of memes, then this is because the concept of memes approaches this dimension of imbroglios with respect to signs. Many of us played the game of “telephone” in grade school. In the game of telephone one person whispers a message in the ear of the person next to them, which the next person then whispers to the person next to them. By the time the message gets to the end of the line it has been thoroughly transformed. What the concept of meme captures so nicely in a way too often overlooked by semiotic and hermeneutic approaches is the transmission of messages through a medium and the manner in which the medium (the technology of transmission), as McLuhan observed, transforms the message. Just as it is impossible to use a cell phone in those regions of the planet– say Antarctica –where there are no cell phone towers, the semiotic domain of the social is dependent on all sorts of mechanisms of transmission and exchange. Often the hermeneutic disciplines overlook the manner in which signs must be propagated to function. More importantly, the hermeneutic disciplines often end up working with idealizations of signs– signs carefully purified and distilled by the researcher, distinguished from noise –thereby losing attentiveness to the manner in which signs vary and change in being transmitted.

On the other hand, if signs are to be rendered consistent with onticology, then it follows that they too must be treated as objects or actors. A sign is not simply about something. Indeed, it is worth asking, as strange as it might sound, whether signs represent anything at all. Signs are not simply about something, but are something. They are actors or objects in their own right. Take the category of “Soccer Moms” that appeared as a crucial voting block during the 2004 United States presidential elections. Suddenly every on the news we began hearing about the political concerns of soccer moms and nascar dads.

A naive epistemological reading would treat the categories of “soccer mom” and “nascar dad” as representations of mothers that have children that play soccer and fathers that go to soccer games. Onticology has a rather different perspective. “Soccer Mom” and “Nascar Dad” (note the square quotes) are not representations of populations consisting of mothers who have children that play soccer and fathers that attend nascar events, but are objects in their own right. To put this point somewhat differently, a huge number of women who have children that play soccer have existed for quite some time. These women were and are all actors. However, in the 2004 election a new actor appeared on the scene: Soccer Moms. The category of Soccer Moms is a different actor than all these mothers that have children that play soccer. It is a distinct actor or object in its own right. If this “meme” is a distinct category, then this is because it is suddenly an entity that suddenly the media, politicians, and even those mothers who have children that play soccer must contend with. Where mothers that have children that play soccer are a multiplicity of different actors, “Soccer Mom” is a unified actor that “blackboxes” this multiplicity.

How, then, are we to understand the relationship between the multiplicity of mothers that have children that play soccer and this new entity, “The Soccer Mom”. Here it becomes necessary to rethink the relationship of representation. Rather than treating a statistical category of “The Soccer Mom” as a sign that represents something for someone, instead we should think of the phenomenon of representation in political terms. In this connection, my thesis is that the phenomenon of political representation potentially reveals more about how signs function than the model of epistemological representation. Where epistemological representation raises the question of adequation between the representation and the represented, political representation raises the question of how it is possible for one person’s or group’s (the represented) to speak through another (the representative).

The merit of the category of political representation is that it preserves the sense in which both the represented and the representative are distinct actors. In other words, ontological reality is granted to both sides of the relation, such that there can be struggle and conflict between the represented and the representative. In this respect, the representative can have aims and functions very different from that of his representated. From the standpoint of the represented the aim is to capture the voice of the representative for their own aims. Since the category of the represented is itself heterogeneous composed of a variety of different competing actors, there is struggle among the represented as well. Likewise, the representative often acts on behalf of aims different from those that he represents, as can be discerned with those politicians that belong to the political group known as The Family. In order for the representative to successfully execute his aims, he must enlist the consent of the represented, he must convince them that he actually represents them, even when he is operating in a clandestine fashion at odds with their aims.

The situation is very similar in the case of signs. The sign is an actor in its own right that can take on a life of its own quite different from that which it purports to represent. The search for the Fountain of Youth can mobilize an entire army of other actors even though it refers to something that it doesn’t exist. The category of The Soccer Mom enlists the consent of mothers that have children that play soccer either through their silence in relation to the category or through their identification with the category. In other words, paradoxically, where the category presents itself as a representation of mothers that have children that play soccer, mothers that have children that play soccer can begin to form themselves in the image of The Soccer Mom through an identification with this category. Likewise, other mothers that have children that play soccer can contest the legitimacy of this new actor, decrying it as a spurious generalization or seeking to enlist it for their own ends. Thus, during the 2004 election, The Soccer Mom was generally presented as a group of women primarily concerned with issues pertaining to national security, terrorism, family values, and so on. In other words, the category was tailor fit to a rightwing agenda. In contesting The Soccer Mom, we can imagine groups of women getting together on the internet to form a group called “Soccer Mom’s for John Kerry”. In moments like this we encounter a disparity among actors or the fact that there are different actors at work in the relation between signs and what they purport to represent.

lhc-580x377It will be objected that while the onticological theory of the sign– only outlined here –works well for reflexive signs pertaining to humans that can take up a stance with respect to the sign that purports to represent them, it makes no sense to speak of signs seeking to enlist other actors in the case of natural objects and nonhuman actors. What sense, one will object, does it make to suggest that quantum mechanics must enlist nonhuman actors to secure its position as a representative given that nonhuman actors are indifferent to the signs that we might affix them with. But even in the case of particle theory it is necessary to enlist other actors to establish the solidity of the sign. Just look at the debates surrounding grand unified theories (GUTs) in quantum mechanics. Entire armies of actors in the form of scientists, materials, engineers, and particles are currently being enlisted in the case of the Haldron Super-Collider to determine whether or not the Higgs Boson particle responsible for gravity actually exists. Will this represented actually speak when called upon? We do not yet know. If it does not, the strength of the “standard theory” will have been diminished as it will have been unable to establish the alliance it needs in order to establish itself as a legitimate representative. Like groups of the represented in social life that are always clamoring and filled with diverse voices, nature too is a rumble with all sorts of dissident voices at odds with its purported representatives.