For some time now I’ve felt both ashamed and haunted by a request to participate in The Inhumanities/Speculative Heresy cross-blog event. As announced over at The Inhumanities:
While speculative realism has critiqued anthropocentrism in ontology, and critical animal studies has critiqued anthropocentrism in ethics, there has yet to be many productive connections made between the two. With each offering the other important insights, the question to be asked is, what is the relation between ethics and ontology? Does a realist ontology require the suspension of any ethical imperatives? Can ethics and norms be grounded in something real? Are nonhuman actors capable of ethical relations?
Now if I have felt both ashamed and haunted by this invitation, then this is because, in response to this event, I failed miserably, failing to participate. However, in a number of respects, this failure to participate alludes to a far more symptomatic point in my own philosophical project revolving around the questions of ethics. If I did not see fit to participate in this event, then this is because I sensed in these questions the magnitude of the questions that face object-oriented ontology in relations to the questions proposed above. For the speculative realist turn, while presenting itself essentially as a militant epistemological and ontological intervention in the field of contemporary philosophy, above all raises the question of how ethics and politics must be rethought in light of the speculative turn. In light of the manner in which object-oriented ontology and flat ontology transforms our understanding of the place of the human within the chaosmos, massive transformations are called for within the problematic fields of both ethics and political theory.
It was this anxiety and trembling that was recalled to me with Nikki’s questions today about Latour and trials of strength. At present I am, at this point, no closer to articulating a coherent theoretical response to the questions raised by The Inhumanities. However, what is at issue here is not, at this moment, the formulation of a coherent theoretical response, but rather a posing of the question or the adequate posing of the problem which must subsequently guide ethical and political inquiry. It is not until the nature of the problem is adequately posed that the question of ethics and politics in the wake of object-oriented ontology will be capable of being adequately posed and a corresponding theory formulated. And a large part of the issue here will be the question of what an anti-correlationist ethics and politics might look like. Can we go so far, onticology will ask, as to even formulate an anti-correlationist ethics and politics? Will philosophy finally, at last, become capable of rescuing even ethics, aesthetics, and politics from their exclusive restriction to the domain of the human? Will, in other words, it become possible to think nonhuman actors as genuine actors without reducing them to props in dramas of human interest and without portraying ourselves as gracious sovereigns that wave our hands in acts of dispensation deigning to concern ourselves with animals, rocks, planets, elements, etc., such that we “rescue” them from their reduction to our consumptions? Will, in short, will we be able to get over ourselves and our own self-inflated sense of our place in the world and being? Even for the Marxists among us, among whom I count myself by virtue of the fact that Marxism, hands down, has the most accurate characterization of our historical moment, we will have to ask ourselves do we have the fortitude to formulate the possibility of a communism of human and nonhuman beings, or will we remain in the rut of human emancipation alone, pretending that the human, even in the face of Althusser’s protestations of a process without a subject, is nonetheless the exclusive domain of a modernist human emancipation? When will we be able to finally concede that we do not know even what we ourselves are and that the very fact of our relations calls into question the univocal determination of our essence. When will we finally be capable of moving beyond the Philosophical Manuscripts to Capital… And beyond?
Here, as always, the question is not one of excluding the human or denigrating the human. Rather, the issue is one of ousting the human from its occupation of the center, from its point of privilege, from its alleged exclusive right to legislate the domain of value. If flat ontology means anything, it does not mean the exclusion of the human and cultural, but rather the militant overturning of any theological pretension to treat humans as the Lord, center, or master of being. Humans are among being, not at the top of being. And against reactionary mentalities that would ask “why would I be interested in a philosophy that isn’t centered in the human”, flat ontology and object-oriented ontology responds that your conception of yourself is a narcissistic illusion, that you cannot even begin to understand what you are qua human, subject, cultural subject, and valuing being so long as you refuse this wound to your narcissism and encounter your amongness rather than lordship within being. Spinoza will proclaim that we don’t know what a body can do, and to this we object-oriented ontologists will add that we don’t even know what a human is. So far all we have are flattering mirrors borne of defense formations.
But to ears trained on the seductive siren song of rule based ethics, on the “somnolerific” drug of judgment, all of these questions, whether from the speculative realists and their Quixotic Lauruellian spider web spinning, or from the object-oriented ontologists, will resonate as strange and bizarre, for, based on the fact/value distinction that guides the destiny of all Modernist thought, it will prove impossible to see or discern what relevance ontology and epistemology could possibly have to questions of ethics, politics, and aesthetics. And here I evoke the word ethics intentionally, rather than morality, to distinguish the nature of these questions from all rule based moralities that issue from web spinners that apparently never separated from their mothers and fathers, yearning as they do for a system of commands and rules that might render the opacity of the world navigable. No, here ethics should be read philologically and homonymously, resonating like the strings of a cello with connotations of hexis, economy, and the household. But hexes, economy, and the oikos must be liberated from their human centeredness, being given ontological signification, where humans are both housed among being and within being without being at the top of being.
If the questions raised by the speculative realists and the object-oriented ontologists are destined to resonate so strangely in the ears of the normo-maniacs, then this is because the axiomatic that governs the normo-maniac discourse whether in its untilitarian or deontological formulation is nothing less than the endless bleating of the sheep on its way to the slaughter-house about the constitutive gap and distinction between the domain of facts and values. In short, the normo-maniac will find the idea that ontology or questions about what is could have any bearing on questions of normativity or ethics. Of course, the normo-maniacs never understood ethics to begin with, but only echoing commandments transformed into a formalistic command of parental commandment. But setting aside the pleasures of ad hominem attacks on these sad and irrelevant souls, what is always missed among the normo-maniacs is the point that this fact/value distinction, so foundational for all discourses since the Enlightenment up to and including the nihilistic materialists, is always based on an implicit ontological thesis. That is, this distinction can only get off the ground when it is taken as axiomatic and without a rigorous concept, that there is a univocal determination of the category of the human, or alternatively the “subject” (the new mantra of crypto-humanism and the new theology), that is the sole domain of value or the normative, carefully separable from the indifferent (i.e., “valueless”) domain of facts.
But what object-oriented ontology, departing from the Enlightenment separation of nature and culture, calls so deeply into question is whether it is possible to localize a site for such a category. Here, above all, it is necessary to follow the indications of Latour’s most radical thesis: every new relation is a new object. Now this thesis requires careful philosophical scrutiny and critique. Despite the valiant effort of Harman to crown Latour with the crown of philosopher– a philosopher, no less, capable of sustaining us for the next 100 years –we suspect that Latour the philosopher is more Harman’s creation than the work of Latour. This is a compliment to Harman’s creativity and humility. Moreover, Harman himself senses that perhaps there is something problematic in this thesis and that it is necessary to distinguish between those relations that are genuinely “object-generative” and those relations, as the tradition would say, that are merely “external”.
Nonetheless, in the radicality of this thesis a new space is opened for ethical, political, and aesthetic deliberation for we can no longer be sure of what we are saying when we refer to the human. And if this is the case, then it is because we do not yet know whether, and the conditions under which, a relation forms a new entity. But if this is the case, the beguiling, univocal distinction between the domain of facts and the domain of values completely collapses as it is no longer possible to refer to a single category that could be separated from the in-different domain of the natural. Is a human with a hammer still a human? Or is it something else? What of a human with a computer? What of a human with fossil fuels? What of a human with birth control? What about humans that sustain themselves on genetically engineered beakless chickens? It is necessary to here take a page from Donna Haraway.
The point is that the smooth divisions that would allow us to distinguish domains of facts and values now, with Latour’s thesis, break down. And as a consequence, the domain of the axiological finds that it overflows the dikes and dams that previously, though illusorily, hemmed it in to an ideological space where some alleged entity called the human was able to decree all value. Yet all of this must be rigorously posed, articulated, at the ontological level to even begin formulating these axiological questions.