In a recent post over at An Un-canny Ontology, Nate argues the object-oriented ontology must necessarily confront the figure of the zombie.

Because of this need to place all things on an equal playing field, Object-Oriented philosophy and ontology (hereto referred to as OOP/OOO) is forced to deal with its own creature.

Where, according to Nate, postmodernism encountered the figure of the cyborg, object-oriented philosophy necessarily finds the figure of the zombie at the center of its meditations. As Nate puts it,

Zombies are the uncanny kernel of the Real, they are not the object which leaves a remainder, they ARE the remainder. Zombies are Das Ding, the Thing, human qua object. And because of this, OOP/OOO must deal with the zombie much in the same way Postmodernism (especially in Haraway and Lyotard) had to deal with the cyborg. However, instead of talking about how humanity will have become, OOP/OOO will have to talk about in what ways humanity is not unique – how we are all zombies. They must take up the zombie as a human representative since only in the zombie do we find the human as it “really” exists, without any obfuscation.

First, the zombie IS – of this there can be no mistake. The zombie is just as real as the computer in front of me. For OOP/OOO all objects are as real as all other objects. Second, the zombie exists as pure desire, it moves with a single purpose and without known agency. And finally, every zombie is the same. A zombie biker is no more or less threatening than a zombie baker or zombie dog. But essentially the zombie is an empty desire, an object with no name except pure existence. Why do they hunger for brains? Who knows. Will they ever stop looking for brains? No. And in a world where all objects are on the same level playing field, stripped away of our agency as subjects, we find ourselves in an awkward position, as non-human humans alive in a world of networks and alliances. We are all zombies. And the only question that remains in a this philosophy that deals with fidelity and allegiance is, “Who will survive and what will be left of them?”

While I am extremely interested in the figure of the zombie as a cultural symptom, I confess that I am deeply perplexed by Nate’s meditation on zombies in relation to object-oriented ontology. How did I or Graham for that matter, ever give the impression the object-oriented ontology sees humans are zombies? First, I think there is some confusion here as to just what flat ontology entails. Flat ontology is not the thesis that all beings are on equal footing– which would be a normative thesis –but that insofar as a being makes a difference it is. Nonetheless, among beings there are all sorts of inequalities. Deleuze articulates this point nicely in Difference and Repetition:

The words ‘everything is equal’ may therefore resound joyfully, on condition that they are said of that which is not equally in this equal, univocal Being: equal being is immediately present in everything, without mediation or intermediary, even though things reside unequally in this equal being. (37)

If something makes a difference then it is, but the degree to which a being makes a difference on other beings can range from nil to perhaps infinity. A being in some remote corner of the universe busily plods away making its difference in being itself, but insofar as this entity is unrelated to other entities, the difference this entity makes is rather sleight. It is thus necessary to distinguish between making a difference simpliciter and making a difference in relation to other entities. Insofar as an entity is, it necessarily makes a difference simpliciter, even if that entity is unrelated to any other entity. To be is to simply be this difference in the way that it is. By contrast, what we’re generally interested in when speaking of differences are those relational differences or the difference that one thing produces in another thing. In this latter case, not all differences are equally relevant as they range from rather minor differences that make little impact on other entities, to the extensive differences that tend to make up the object of investigation.

read on!

There are a few things flat ontology is strategically designed to target. On the one hand, flat ontology targets forms of “vertical being” where some element makes a difference on another element without the element acted upon, in turn, making a difference on it. This formulation is indequate, but goes some of the way towards articulating what I’m trying to get at. Platonic forms are an example of vertical being. Platonic forms enact all their difference on the world of appearances, but the world of appearances makes no difference to the forms. The relation here is unilateral. Eternal and unchanging, the forms are, as it were, sterile insofar as there is nothing that could change or affect the forms. Certain theistic conceptions of God exemplify the structure of vertical being in that God exercises all the difference without anything else producing a difference in God. In my view, Kant’s epistemology has the structure of vertical being in that the categories of the understanding, the forms of intuition, and the Ideas of reason exercise their difference without the matter of intuition producing any difference in these structures. They plod along as they always did, unchanging and beyond all change. Likewise, some versions of structural linguistics are organized in this way as well. In the distinction between langue and parole, langue exercises all its difference on parole without parole being able to make any difference to langue. Similarly, in gene-centric biological theories have the structure of vertical being in the sense that the genes are treated as exercising all the difference, without anything else exercising difference on the genes.

plato2In one way or another, all variants of vertical ontology follow the classical schema of the form/matter distinction. Form is treated as the active principle capable of contributing difference, whereas matter is treated as the passive principle capable of receiving difference. If the matter contributes anything of its own, it is a contamination of the purity of the form or a perversion of form. If, for example, Plato places dianoia below episteme, then this is because dianoia as used in mathematical reasoning relies on drawn diagrams or figures as props for its thought. Since it is impossible to draw a perfect circle, say, the diagram contaminates the perfect form of the circle by introducing imperfections into our thought of the circle. A pure thinking or episteme would dispense with the diagram altogether, instead arriving at a direct intellectual intuition of the form of the circle itself. Across more than twenty centuries Saussure repeats this Platonic gesture in his own way, seeing speech or parole as something that must be bracketed as it contaminates the purity of langue.

In opposition to this sort of unilateral causation, flat ontology wishes to think imbroglios of difference. Where vertical ontology places all agency on the side of the form, an imbroglio is a tangle of different actors each contributing differences in the production of the result. On the one hand, onticology holds that ontologically this is the “way things are”. We live in a world of tangled difference. The distinctiveness of a wine grape lies not in the genes of that grape alone, but in the other plants growing in the soil, the weather and light conditions under which it grows, the insects, how it is cultivated, how it is fermented, and so on. On the other hand, onticology arises from a sort of theoretical schizophrenia that arises from reading too much, from exploring science and technology studies, rhetoric, biology, Marxist thought, media studies, deconstruction, phenomenology, semiotics, sociology, anthropology, psychoanalysis, etc., and finding it impossible to choose. In this situation a disquiet begins to emerge. Recognizing a merit to all of these various approaches, the suspicion arises that they are not opposed theoretical stances, but rather microscopes that isolate a particular type of difference for investigation, bracketing the other differences. To choose one of these positions would be dogmatic in the sense that it would confuse a theoretical exigency– the necessity of bracketing certain differences for the sake of inquiry –with an ontological truth: that these differences are the only difference that make a difference.

What onticology wants is a multi-faceted form of analysis capable of recognizing the role played by a variety of different differences, rather than unilateral modes of analysis that treat only one sort of difference as making a difference and actively denying all the other differences. What onticology takes away with its left hand it always gives back with its right. The onticologist, for example, will say “no, objects are not mere signs, but signs are certainly interesting objects.” The onticologist recognizes that we can never capture all the differences that play a role in a phenomena, that inquiry requires a bracketing of certain differences as well as a hierarchialization of differences in terms of their relative degree of contribution, but also believes that it is good to have, lurking in the back of one’s mind, this bramble of differences underlying any phenomena so as to avoid reifying ones theoretical concepts.

If onticology has been particularly hostile to correlationism and treats human actors as one object among other objects, then this is because correlationism tends to stack the deck on the side of the subject as the active agent, thereby rendering all sorts of other differences invisible. But in treating humans as one object among other objects, it is in no way suggested that this object is the same as all others, that it has no specific properties, or that it is a mere zombie without agency. One could only arrive at this conclusion on the assumption that agency requires complete independence from imbroglios and complete transcendence with respect to our relation to other objects. But where has anyone ever experienced this? Moreover, if there is no difference that does not make a difference, how could human actors or objects fail to contribute differences of their own? Perhaps the better question would be not whether or not we are agents, but under what conditions we manage to attain agency.