Why is it that all the interesting and fun things happen when I’m drowning in grading? In response to Nina’s recent post raising questions about the recent realist turn and focus on ontology in continental thought there have been a flurry of responses. Nick was quick to throw in his two cents with three posts on the relationship between politics and ontology over at Speculative Heresy (here, here, and here), arguing that ontology is completely independent of politics such that it is precisely for this reason that ontology forces us to do politics. Over at Planomenology, Reid chimes in, arguing against Nick’s thesis, attempting to show how politics and ontology cannot be separated. Over at Naught Thought, Ben analyzes the political uses and misuses of references to the natural and the unnatural. Meanwhile, on her facebook page, Nina writes with some amusement that,
…at just how many responses a cryptic, no-names-involved paragraph can generate. But now feels she has to respond to everyone. This could take some time.
To which I respond writing that,
I didn’t take it personally or see it as an attack. I do, however, wonder if you aren’t running together object-oriented versions of SR with Brassier’s eliminative materialist versions of SR. As far as my own positions go, I’m pretty much on board with some synthesis of Marx, Sartre, and Badiou where politics is concerned. My gripe with much … Read MoreContinental political theory is that it’s far too focused on the discursive and semiotic as the sole site of the political (Zizek’s critiques of ideology, for example), ignoring the economic, technological, and material. This is one of the reasons I’m interested in objects.
I have to get back to grading, but I wanted to make a couple of points about Nick’s line of argument, separating the political from the ontological. In his first post responding to Nina Nick writes:
I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.
As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:
1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
2. politics is a human-centered realm
3. therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics
Since (1) is true by definition, and (3) is the conclusion from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics.
Here I find that my position is much closer to Reid’s over at Planomenology than to Nick’s. Where Reid argues that ontology can’t be evacuated of politics, Nick sees a sharp division between the political and the ontological. While I do not agree with Reid’s thesis, presented in comments over at Speculative Heresy, that everything is political, I also find it difficult to understand how politics can be outside of being. In other words, I think that Nick’s position is implausible on simple mereological grounds.
In short, I think Nick overstates his case. Let’s take a look at Nick’s argument to see why. Nick’s first premise is that a realist ontology is, by definition, independent of humans. Clearly Nick cannot literally mean what he says here as only humans (so far as we know) produce ontologies. Therefore Nick must mean that reality or the real is independent of humans. It is precisely here that I find myself balking at Nick’s thesis. Why? Because humans, everything humans do, and everything humans produce, are also part of reality. But if this is the case, what could it possibly mean to say that by definition reality is independent of humans? The more accurate thesis, in my view, is that it is not the case that all beings are dependent on humans. There are beings that cannot exist without the existence of humans such as language, cities, contracts, norms, the France, etc., and then there are beings that share no dependency relation with humans such as the sun, the Milky Way, Amazonian rain forests, or zebras galloping across African steppes.
Ontology is interested in all these entities and their being. It seems to me that Nick’s thesis can only get off the ground if he is implicitly or covertly equating being with nature and treating nature as something outside the human. However, from an ontological perspective and even a realist perspective I don’t see how this position can be coherently sustained. Yet if this is the case, then Nick’s conclusion that ontology must be separated from politics cannot follow because insofar as humans and human artifacts, activities, and products are a part of reality, and insofar as politics is a human activity, it follows that politics is necessarily a part of reality or the real.
In his attempt to completely separate politics and ontology, I suspect what Nick is really targeting is, taking a page from Badiou’s Manifesto for Philosophy, the suture of being to politics. As defined by Merriam-Webster:
Main Entry: 1su·ture
Etymology: Middle English, from Anglo-French & Latin; Anglo-French, from Latin sutura seam, suture, from sutus, past participle of suere to sew — more at sew
Date: 15th century
1 a : a strand or fiber used to sew parts of the living body; also : a stitch made with a suture b : the act or process of sewing with sutures
2 a : a uniting of parts b : the seam or seamlike line along which two things or parts are sewed or united
3 a : the line of union in an immovable articulation (as between the bones of the skull); also : such an articulation b : a furrow at the junction of adjacent bodily parts; especially : a line of dehiscence (as on a fruit)
As I look at the various versions of Speculative Realism, they all seem united in rejecting various sutures of being to something else. To speak of a “suture” in philosophy is to speak of treating one being or type of being as conditional for all other beings. In this respect, an ontological suture holds that one being or type of being makes all other beings the beings that they are. The prime example of an ontological suture is the subject as it functions in German idealism. Here one type of being– the subject or mind –makes all other beings what they are such that we are prohibited from knowing anything of the nature of these beings independent of the subject or even whether or not beings independent of the subject exist in this way. A close second and third to the ontological suture of being to the subject would be the suture of being to language or being to society. In this connection we talk about how language constructs beings or how society constructs beings. The thesis, then, is that these beings would not be what they are without language or society.
Somewhere or other Zizek defines metaphysics (in the pejorative sense) as any operation that takes one dimension of reality and elevates it to a condition for all other beings in reality. Thus, for example, if Nietzsche remains within the field of metaphysics then this is because he makes all other beings conditional upon force or the will to power. I hesitate to use the word “metaphysics” in its pejorative sense because metaphysics is not, for me, a dirty word or something to be abandoned. I think one of the major blind alleys of Continental thought in the last century was to equate metaphysics with ontotheology or philosophies of presence. The real move should have been to develop a metaphysics that wasn’t premised on presence and that was not ontotheological. That aside, if this pejorative sense of metaphysics is accepted, then it is clear that these ontological sutures, far from being anti-metaphysical are all too metaphysical in their suture of being to one being or type of being such as the subject, language, or the social.
And it is this, I think, that Nick is getting at when he suggests that ontology and politics must be separated. The point here is that if we suture being to politics, then we are making the claim that the being of all beings is conditional upon politics. Put otherwise, we are claiming that it is politics that makes beings what they are. But this is absurd. While the sun certainly enters into political compositions within being, the sun is what it is regardless of whether or not politics is. Presumably the sun was over 5 billion years ago when our solar system accreted. Humans have existed for only about 200,000 years. Suggesting that the sun is dependent on humans leads to a whole list of absurdities. However, in our eagerness to avoid these sorts of absurdities I think it is a mistake to run headlong in the opposite direction, making the claim that somehow politics is outside of being. Humans belong to the real like anything else. And human activities and products belong to the real. What is to be avoided is not questions of the ontological status of the political, but rather the suture of being to the political as its condition.