600px_SpiderWebIt seems that one of the standard criticisms recently emerging in response to OOO is that 1) it is apolitical, and 2) it is an apologetics for neoliberalism. I confess that I find both criticisms to be deeply perplexing and am unsure what to make of them. I am unsure of whether or not I’ve ever claimed that OOO is apolitical. If I have, then I was speaking sloppily. What I have consistently emphasized is that questions of ontology and questions of politics are distinct. This is exactly what we would expect from a realist ontology. Insofar as realist ontologies reject correlationism or the thesis that objects can only ever be thought in their relation to a subject and that subjects can only ever be thought in relation to objects, it follows that the being of beings is an issue that is independent of politics. Were the being of beings always bound up with the political, we would not have a realism, but rather a correlationism. Why? Because beings would necessarily be bound up with the human.

However, and I think this is a key point, the claim that questions of ontology are distinct from questions of politics is not equivalent to a rejection of politics. All the claim that ontology and politics are distinct entails is that ontological questions are not to be decided on political grounds. That’s all. Nothing more. In this regard, I take myself to be claiming nothing different than what Badiou claims. As Badiou argues in the Manifesto for Philosophy, it is a disaster for philosophy whenever philosophy is sutured to one of its four conditions: love, politics, science, and art. Badiou does not advocate a particular ontology on political grounds. The questions of ontology are internal to ontology. Yet in affirming this autonomy, he is clearly not rejecting the political, as can be seen in his copius contributions to political philosophy.

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I find the charge that somehow OOO is an apologetics for neoliberal capitalism even more perplexing. The weak argument here seems to be that if you are not making neoliberal capitalism the focus of your inquiry, then you are an apologist for neoliberal capitalism. I take it that this criticism amounts to the complaint that you’re not talking about what I want you to talk about. The more robust criticism seems to be that because OOO advocates a position where objects are autonomous and independent entities that enter into networked relations with one another, OOO is merely a reflection of neoliberal capitalist ideology. The reasoning here seems to be as follows: Neoliberal capitalist ideology is premised on the idea of free and sovereign individuals pursuing their own self-interests. Moreover, in The New Spirit of Capitalism, Eve Chiapello and Luc Boltanski argue that networks are the new form of post-Fordist capitalism. Therefore, if an ontology advocates the existence of autonomous and independent objects and speaks of networks, it must be a fetishized version of neoliberal capitalism.

I think that there are a couple of significant problems with this line of argument. First, in its comparison of objects as theorized by OOO and individuals as conceived by neoliberalism, this line of argument proceeds by sleight of hand, conflating a folk ontological concept of objects with the ontology of objects proposed by variants of OOO. When Margaret Thatcher makes the notorious claim that society does not exist, what she was claiming is that there are only sovereign and autonomous human individuals that make themselves. In other words, Thatcher and other apologists of neoliberal ideology argue that human individuals move within a completely free space, such that there is no difference in capacity or opportunity between George Bush born into a privileged family and the war refugee in Afghanistan. As a consequence, the failure of the refugee to accomplish all that Bush accomplishes is a result of his moral qualities– lack of initiative, ambition, hard work, etc –and has nothing to do with his social relations.

There are two significant ways in which OOO–at least in my formulation –fails to fit this model. First, a great deal of the originality of OOO lies in the mereology it proposes (I’m indebted to Nathan Gale for introducing me to the discipline of mereology). As defined by the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, “Mereology (from the Greek μερος, ‘part’) is the theory of parthood relations: of the relations of part to whole and the relations of part to part within a whole.” The problem with the charge of neoliberalism is that it implicitly advances its argument based on a folk ontological concept of objects, where objects are defined as those familiar entities of day to day experience like chairs, rocks, human individuals, and so on. Working from the premise that these are the sole objects advocated by OOO, it then rightfully points out that there are all sorts of systems and relations that exceed these well-defined individuals. While OOO certainly endorses the thesis that things like human individuals, chairs, and rocks are objects, these sorts of objects are not the exclusive domain of objects. Objects both contain other objects and are contained by other objects, and objects exist at a wide variety of scales ranging from the subatomic to the galactic. In addition to human individuals, the onticologist is committed to the thesis that cities are objects, nations are objects, neighborhoods are objects, corporations are objects, factories are objects, markets are objects, etc. These are objects that contain human individuals, but which are also independent of human individuals and function according to their own logic. It is precisely this move that the Thatcherites deny.

This brings me to my second point. First, I find it odd that because one theorizes networks and because contemporary neoliberal capitalism is organized around networks, somehow this amounts to advocating neoliberal capitalism. In claiming that objects are autonomous and independent, it is not being claimed that objects are free and sovereign. At least not within the framework of my ontology. Developmental biologists have a very interesting concept pertaining to cell development known as “pluripotency“. Pluripotency is the neutrality of stem cells, such that they are able to develop into any sort of other cells (nerve cells, bone cells, muscle cells, liver cells, tissue cells, etc). The concept of pluripotency also refers to the arrow of time and network relations. On the one hand, once a stem cell has become a bone cell it cannot be converted back. In the language of my ontology, it has actualized an irreversible phase state. On the other hand, the phase state that the pluripotent stem cell comes to actualize is a function of the network relations it entertains to other cells in its neighborhood. There is a sense in which all objects are pluripotent in the sense that the properties they actualize in their phase space are a function of the relations they enter into with other objects. Here we get all the resources we might like for the analysis of social structures and forces, as well as their dynamics. In other words, right here we have the resources for demolishing the central thesis of neoliberal ideology or the myth of the sovereign, autonomous, and self-defining individual.

Sometimes I get the sense that people don’t really read Marx, but maybe I just get this impression because I read Marx differently. I can certainly understand why people wouldn’t want to read Marx. Capital is an often boring, mind-numbing book that gives little guidance to the reader as to where it is going. The style of the book tries to mirror the dialectical relations of its content or what it is discussing. Nonetheless, if I find the charge that because an ontology talks about networks and because neoliberal capitalism is organized around networks that ontology must be an apology for neoliberal ideology so strange, then this is because such a thesis strikes me as so contrary to the spirit of Marx. When I view online political discussions among the so-called “radicals”, the implicit thesis seems to be that one must be for or against capitalism. In other words, the view seems to be that you are to begin with a prior set of normative commitments (being against), and then proceed from there. While Marx was certainly “against” capitalism, this is not how he proceeded in his theoretical practice. Rather Marx too various material phases of capitalism production as our historical given, and sought to determine what emanicipatory potentials were being generated out of these historical circumstances. This just is what it means to be a historical materialist. The historical materialist does not begin with an ahistorical and a priori set of normative commitments, but tracks the way in which the normative, the alternative, the emancipatory, arises out of the organization of that particular historical situation. This is why, as I remarked in my last post, Marx was able to see the factory as both a site of alienation and oppression and a space productive of new revolutionary potentials. This is why Marx was simultaneously able to see the bourgeois as both a force of revolutionary transformation overturning all tradition and a major reactionary force to be overcome. To discuss networks is not to endorse neoliberal capitalism, but is to think the present of the present precisely so that it might become possible to discover something beyond that present.

Do I believe that OOO has political implications? Of course I do. With Badiou who formulates an ontology that is militantly anti-relational (his multiplicities qua multiplicities are independent of any relations), OOO argues that objects are independent of their relations. This is not, of course, equivalent to the claim that objects do not enter into relations. It is simply to claim that the relations an object entertains with another object do not constitute its being. Where political ontology is concerned, I am convinced that emancipatory change is impossible without a radically nominalistic ontology of this sort. If objects are their relations, then they are so thoroughly constituted by their relations that, like the fly trapped in the spiders web, the more we struggle the more enmeshed we become in this web of relations. Only where objects can be detached from their relations, only where objects can separate from their relations, is it possible to envision the emergence of new forms of order or organization that depart from established regimes. However, in believing that an object-oriented approach to ontology has significant political implications insofar as it allows us to develop superior forms of strategic social analysis than those that have characterized the dominant trend of neo-Gramscianism of the last few decades and by showing the conditions under which change is possible, I do not hold that these attractive political implications should be grounds for accepting or rejecting OOO. This would be an instance of the logical fallacy of wishful thinking, where we allow our desire for what we wish to be the case to trump what is the case. OOO should be accepted or rejected on ontological grounds, not on the grounds of pre-decided political commitments.