Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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It is likely that my treatment of the Real will receive the most objection from Lacanians. For object-oriented ontology the term “Real” doesn’t quite work in this context. In having one category for the Real that is opposed to the Symbolic and the Imaginary I risk giving the impression that the Symbolic and the Imaginary are not themselves real. However, for object-oriented ontology, at least in my formulation, this is not the case. Hopefully readers will keep this caveat in mind. Moreover, as Zizek has taught us, we can group the three categories together like a Venn diagram. Thus we can have an real-imaginary and a real-symbolic. These conjunctions are a lot closer to object-oriented ontology which, in my formulation (and in certain moments of Harman’s), treat symbolic entities, images, texts, etc., as objects in their own right that are genuine actors in the world. Honestly, however, it would be better to have a word other than “the Real” for this category as I’m here using it.

Setting all this aside, let the Real contain technology, resources, climate, environment, animals, infrastructure (such as road, signs, telephone lines, satellites, etc), modes of production, human bodies, stars, quarks, planets, gadgets, cars, iPhones, fiber optic cables, dominant forms of computer programming, game engines, solar flares, meteors, diseases, grain harvests, etc., etc., etc.. In other words, I am here treating the real as containing all the actors or objects Latour refers to as “nonhuman actors”.

At this point, let it be recalled that for Lacan the Borromean knots are separate and self-contained spheres that are completely independent of one another, but are intertwined with one another or tied to each other. So too is it the case with my Borromean knots here, where, in order to think collectives (my word, following Latour, designed to replace the word “society”) it is necessary to think the intertwining of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic as they are used here. In other words, it is my view that we need an ontology robust enough to think these networks and their imbrications that doesn’t restrict us to analysis of one sphere to the detriment of the others.

For the last couple of years I have tried to draw attention to what I believe is a deleterious trend in Continental social and political theory. Occasionally I have referred to this as a focus on the “discursive”, on other occasions I have referred to it as a focus on the semiotic. In all instances, what I’ve been referring to is a focus on the Imaginary and the Symbolic to the exclusion of the “Real” (as I am using the terms here). In other words, the Imaginary and the Symbolic have been the privileged site of emancipatory critique in Continental social and political thought. I am, of course, making a generalization here. Certainly you get theorists that don’t fit this model. Clearly many of the technology theorists wouldn’t fit this model as they focus heavily on the role that technology plays in informing our social relations. The same would be the case with many environmental philosophers, as they are forced to discuss a Real that cannot be reduced to text, sign, or images to be decoded and critiqued. Also, a number of Marxists outside of French Marxist circles would not fit this model as they engage heavily with the impact of technology, factories, infrastructure, and economy that cannot be reduced to texts, ideology, or cultural artifacts to be decoded and critiqued. In these instances we might very well get the reverse problem where the domain of the real and certain elements of the symbolic (economy) are focused on while ignoring the domain of the Imaginary and the Symbolic as I’ve used the terms here. In short, I am talking about dominant trends, not absolutes. And I concede that my sense that these are dominant trends could be, in part, accidents of my own background, steeped as it is in French structuralist and post-structuralist thought, and German critical theory. No one these days has a panoptic view of the world of theory.

There are two reasons, I think, for this trend. The first good, the second not so good. First the good reasons. I think we are living in a historical moment– especially in first tier countries –where the exploitive nature of the system of capital has largely become invisible or disguised despite its insidious tendrils spread all throughout social life and the innumerable symptoms it generates, and where this form of life has come to seem natural. Here a passage from Jameson on Adorno, Marcuse, and Horkheimer comes to mind (I can’t recall which text this was in). There Jameson talks about how many of the early German Critical Theorists had lived “between two times”. In a very real sense they witnessed the rise of industrialization (after a fashion… yes I know they were on the tail end) and of mass consumer culture. They lived between two worlds. Most of us today have not lived through something comparable so the social system comes to seem obvious and natural, without alternative. This gave them a special critical perspective. In a lot of respects, however, the nature of the current social system just seems obvious today and for that reason appears just.

In this respect, ideology critique at all levels makes a lot of sense. Two necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for change are an awareness that current social organization is both unjust and that this form of social organization is contingent or not inevitable. Without the first people will not be motivated to change these conditions. Without the second people will believe that it is impossible to change these conditions. One of the major reasons that I began emphasizing the concept of networks or assemblages rather than systems or structures, is that I believe the latter concepts have a tendency to convince us that change is impossible by defining beings in social systems as purely a product of their relations, thereby undermining all possibility of agency. Network or assemblage theory recognizes that entities enter into relation while refusing to treat entities as consisting nothing but these relations. Thus it is able to make room for the discoveries of systems analysis and structural analysis while avoiding the theoretical pessimism that tends to issue from these ontologized models. At any rate, one of the genuine contributions ideology critique, cultural critique, etc., makes to empancipatory politics lies in this disclosure of how certain forms of social organization are oppressive and contingent.

Second, the less than nice motivation for this shift in focus to the domain of the Imaginary and Symbolic is, I think, more an occupational hazard than anything else. Here I take a page from the work of Bourdieu. In my view, because of the nature of our work or labor, there’s a tendency among academics to treat texts, narratives, ideologies, images, and cultural artifacts as the “really real”. As Bourdieu shows so well in his analysis of academia, each human practice has a tendency to interpret the world and all other human practices in terms of its own practice and the primary media with which it deals. Since those of us in the social sciences and humanities tend to deal with talk and texts, we naturally end up treating texts and talk as what is really real, ignoring the rest. There is nothing wrong with bracketing other domains of the world for the sake of analysis. The problem emerges when this bracketing is rendered “metaphysical” such that the theorist makes the additional leap of more or less denying all the rest. This leap can be implicit or unconscious, detectable only in the sorts of arguments one gives against other modes of analysis when rejecting those modes of analysis (e.g., charges of “technological determinism”), or it can be quite explicit as in the case of linguistic and semiotic idealists. When theory begins to function in this way I think it leads to a distorted view of collectives and bad political practices.

Having outlined what I believe to be the perfectly legitimate and value contributions of theory focused on the discursive and semiotic, it is now worthwhile to explain just why I think it’s necessary to include the category of the “Real” as I’ve construed it here in our social and political analyses. In this connection, I think we face a situation very similar to the one Braudel describes with respect to the Enlightenment. In his analysis of the development of capitalism from the 14th century to the 18th century Braudal asks “why, despite the fact that the idea were there (among Enlightenment thinkers like Hume, Spinoza, Rousseau, Voltaire, etc.), was change so slow to come? Why given that alternative models of governance were now available in the domain of political theory, and given that compelling critiques of reigning institutional structures had been put forward, were social relations so slow to change?” To answer this question Braudal argues that we have to shift from the domain of the discursive or ideational, the domain of norms, ideologies, texts, beliefs, etc., and look at what he calls material history. His thesis is that it is the domain of material history that inhibits change.

When Braudel refers to material history he is referring to the nuts and bolts of a society and how these nuts and bolts tend to perpetuate certain forms of social relations and social structure even when the discursive level has changed. These nuts and bolts refer to very concrete things that are not ideational or textual in character. They are things like the availability of resources, the type of food produced, how it is produced, and its susceptibility to climate shifts (here the “Little Ice Age” played a huge role in European development on a variety of levels), the nature of existing technology and how far developed that technology is, the presence or absence of trade routes and roads, the nature of cities, and so on. These sorts of things present human actors in social systems with a sort of forced choice, where their only option is to follow the logic of the system. The analysis of these sorts of actors requires social and political theorists to unlearn certain habits of thought– e.g. the tendency to immediately textualize everything and seek to understand it at the level of content –and develop new interpretive lenses that draw our attention to humble entities that initially seem rather boring and irrelevant if we’re immediately prone to raise questions of norms, discursivity, ideology, and the rest. For example, we need to begin analyzing things like the availability of resources, how certain economic structures lock people into particular ways of life, whether or not alternative resources are available (as in the case of energy), where infrastructure like good and cheap communications technologies are readily available, how urban and suburban life tends to lock people into particular structures as a matter of necessity, and so on.

The point is not that we should reject normative analysis, discursive analysis, cultural critique, and so on, but that if we don’t understand how things are actually put together at the nuts and bolts level of collectives we’ll have a very difficult time devising effective strategies for changing these structures. The reason for this is simple: We’ll have carried out the compelling ideological critique showing how such structures are contingent and exploitive, causing all sorts of suffering, and we’ll have carried out the normative critique showing how these social structures are unjust and theorizing abstractly what a just alternative might look like, but the material infrastructure will continue to hum along just as it did before, it’s ideological support system perhaps weakened, but with people still being locked into that structure exactly as they were before.

The biggest issue facing those of us searching for the means of emancipatory change is, I think, that of how human agents can act on collective structures. OOO shows that collective structures are emergent objects governed by their own patterns or laws quite independent of the wishes and intentions of human agents. It recognizes that collectives cannot exist without humans as a substrate, while nonetheless holding that the powers and functioning of these structures is quite independent of the persons that inhabit them. The good news is that unlike certain readings or appropriations of Althusser where persons are just effects of structure, OOO shows that persons are themselves autonomous agents independent of these collectives (while nonetheless being embroiled in them in a variety of ways). The really difficult question– a question I think all of us are more or less asking without realizing it –is that of how one object (persons or groups of persons) can act on another object (collective structures with their own autonomous functioning) so as to fundamentally transform that structure. Here, I think, we get a point where Harman’s questions about causation and his theory of vicarious causation converge with some pretty urgent questions at the heart of contemporary social and political theory. In other words, there are forms of engagement on the part of human persons that more or less leave collective structures intact as they were before, and hopefully forms of engagement that can cause a fundamental mutation and transformation of collective structures. If these latter forms of engagement are to be made possible all the resources of the Real, the Imaginary, and the Symbolic as I’ve outlined them here must be mobilized and thought in their imbrication with one another, avoiding the pitfalls of a partial and one-sided analysis that leaves the other elements of collective structure largely intact as it was before. To do this I think we need to overcome some bad theoretical habits that have come to dominate political theory, thought, and training. If I’ve sided with object-oriented ontology then this is because, in part, I believe it provides the resources for doing this.