A number of interesting discussions have arisen in relation to questions of flat ethics. Over at Critical Animal, Scu has a post up which I have not yet been able to go through in any detail. In relation to Adrian Ivikhiv’s post on objects, politics, and relations, the mysterious Anxiousmodernman writes:

At the risk of being stubborn, or sounding like a broken record, I’m going to maintain that these ethico-political questions do not have answers that are deduced from ontology. Although an ontology will no doubt inform political commitments, I am still not seeing a rigorous connection.

OOO is emerging, for me, as the correct metaphysical position. However, the dynamics of political, ecological, or economic situations seem to be (necessarily) relational in the sense you describe. The models of the different sciences (economics, biology) and even the “models” of the theological positions you describe might be closer to our notion of politics than a world full of objects. I say this even though I believe the world is full of objects. But are the relations real? I think that relational assemblages tend to constitute new objects. I still see discrete entities as real, not the flesh or the flux.

I am open to the possibility, however, that ideas of flesh and flux might be more consequential for politics, but that is because, to repeat, I have difficulty with a rigorously-deduced connection between metaphysics and politics.

At the risk of generating another bizarre blog war similar to the one Nick Srnicek encountered when he suggested that politics and ontology are distinct, here I think AMM is right to point out that ethics cannot be deduced from ontology. At most, ontology can serve a critical function with respect to ethical and political theories, examining the ontological presuppositions these theories make and revealing their untenability. This, for example, is what I’ve been trying to do with the concept of the human as it functions in Modernist ethical theories by calling into question the thesis that there’s any being or entity that corresponds to the human.

read on!

I also think AMM is right to point out that the domain of ethics is concerned centrally with relations among objects, not objects taken in isolation. Thus, even within Modernist ethical theories centered on the primacy of the human, the issue is one about the relation of the self to others. For some reason etymologies are bouncing about in my head this evening. The term “ethics” comes from the Greek ἦθος, which has connotations of “character”, “habit”, and “custom”. Both habit and custom are relational concepts through and through. Habit refers to spatio-temporal relations built up in the adventure of a system. Here concepts like “structural coupling” from autopoietic theory are extremely useful. Similarly, custom is relational in the sense that it refers to relations among diverse actors in a particular collective. In many respects, I think, the term “character” has become degraded or worn with time. Where today we tend to think of character almost exclusively as a moral or ethical property, character should probably be thought as “power” (in the sense of “capacity” or “ability”, or what a thing can do), or “nature” (in the sense of the “nature of a thing”, not in the sense of φύσις). In this respect, ἦθος is closely bound up with the Greek concept of arete or “excellence” (ἀρετή), which would later become the Latin virtus, which, importantly, has connotations of power (in the sense of capacity or ability) and strength. Again, it is sad how degraded the concept of virtue has become worn or degraded. The key point not to be missed with respect to the Greek concept of ἀρετή is that ἀρετή is not an exclusively human property. All entities, for the Greeks, have their “ἀρετή“, and in many respects this ἀρετή constitutes the proper being of an entity. Thus, for example, the ἀρετή of a hawk is its keen eyesight, its sharp talons, its ability to fly swiftly, and so on. The ἀρετή of a tree might be its sturdiness, the manner in which it reaches to the heavens, its ability to resist heavy winds, and so on. The Greeks, it would seem, were Deleuzian ethologists well before Deleuze, defining entities in terms of their powers, capacities, or excellencies, rather than qualities.

I can’t recall whether I came across this in Heidegger’s Nietzsche books or in Lacan’s Ethics of Psychoanalysis, but I have also read that the Greek ἦθος is closely related to οικος and οικοςνομος (from whence we get the modern word “economy”). οικος refers to the hearth and home, whereas νομος pertains to management or organization. Now what’s interesting here is that if this connection holds up, then what we see is something like the point that AMM is making: that “ethics” (better yet ἠθολογία, or ethology?) is primarily a domain of thought concerned with relations among entities, for οικος and οικοςνομος are primarily relational networks. In this connection I am always struck by the opening two paragraphs of Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, so strange in their assertions and foreign to our modern sensibilities. There Aristotle writes:

Every art and every inquiry, and similarly every action and pursuit, is thought to aim at some good; and for this reason the good has rightly been declared to be that at which all things aim. But a certain difference is found among ends; some are activities, others are products apart from the activities that produce them. Where there are ends apart from the actions, it is the nature of the products to be better than the activities. Now, as there are many actions, arts, and sciences, their ends also are many; the end of the medical art is health, that of shipbuilding a vessel, that of strategy victory, that of economics wealth. But where such arts fall under a single capacity- as bridle-making and the other arts concerned with the equipment of horses fall under the art of riding, and this and every military action under strategy, in the same way other arts fall under yet others- in all of these the ends of the master arts are to be preferred to all the subordinate ends; for it is for the sake of the former that the latter are pursued. It makes no difference whether the activities themselves are the ends of the actions, or something else apart from the activities, as in the case of the sciences just mentioned.

If, then, there is some end of the things we do, which we desire for its own sake (everything else being desired for the sake of this), and if we do not choose everything for the sake of something else (for at that rate the process would go on to infinity, so that our desire would be empty and vain), clearly this must be the good and the chief good. Will not the knowledge of it, then, have a great influence on life? Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what is right? If so, we must try, in outline at least, to determine what it is, and of which of the sciences or capacities it is the object. It would seem to belong to the most authoritative art and that which is most truly the master art. And politics appears to be of this nature; for it is this that ordains which of the sciences should be studied in a state, and which each class of citizens should learn and up to what point they should learn them; and we see even the most highly esteemed of capacities to fall under this, e.g. strategy, economics, rhetoric; now, since politics uses the rest of the sciences, and since, again, it legislates as to what we are to do and what we are to abstain from, the end of this science must include those of the others, so that this end must be the good for man [my emphasis]. For even if the end is the same for a single man and for a state, that of the state seems at all events something greater and more complete whether to attain or to preserve; though it is worth while to attain the end merely for one man, it is finer and more godlike to attain it for a nation or for city-states. These, then, are the ends at which our inquiry aims, since it is political science, in one sense of that term.

What could Aristotle possibly mean in claiming that political science, of all things, is the highest science and that it is the true subject of ethics? Clearly the issue here can’t be one of rules or principles by which we judge. Rather, the focal point of ethics, far from judging right and wrong and distributing blame, would be a question of the πόλις or flourishing social relations. But here everything spins on what it is that belongs to the social and of what the social is. For Aristotle, in a decision that will determine the destiny of subsequent ethical thought despite all these worn coins that inhabit discussions today, the social is “οικος” of the social and its “οικοςνομος” (to be thought in terms similar to Freud’s “libidinal economy” rather than trade) is the citizen and the πόλις consists of relations among citizens. And here, we must not forget, as Rancière reminds us in Disagreement, the term “citizen” is not equivalent to human. Literally entire classes of humans are excluded from the domain of the ethical and the political within the Aristotlean schema.

Yet all of this presupposes that the social consists primarily of human relations. In Reassembling the Social, Latour calls into question not only the concept of the social, but significantly expands the domain of the social, effecting a tremendous shift in how all of these issues in the domain of politics and ethics must be thought. As Latour writes early on,

…it is possible to remain faithful to the original intuitions of the social sciences by redifining sociology not as the ‘science of the social’, but as the tracing of associations. In this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social. (5)

The social, Latour goes on to say “…has to be much wider than what is usually called by that name, yet strictly limited to the tracing of new associations and to the designing of their assemblages. This is the reason why I am going to define the social not as a special domain, a specific realm, or a particular sort of thing, but only as a very peculiar movement of re-association and reassembling (7).” Clarifying what is distinct in approaches that think in terms of a sociology of relations, Latour will write:

Whereas, in the first approach, every activity– law, science, technology, religion, organization, politics, management, etc. –could be related to and explained by the same social aggregates behind all of them, in the second version of sociology there exists nothing behind those activities even though they might be linked in a way that does produce a society– or doesn’t produce one. (8)

Latour contends that traditional sociology confuses what is to be explained with what explains. It begins from the premise of some special substance called “the social” that then explains everything else. Yet for Latour, it is precisely this special substance, the social, that is to be explained, not the reverse. And this social is to be explained through that which is not social.

Now what makes Latour’s concept of the social as this movement of associating, re-associating, and assembling, is that it is not restricted to the human. The non-social actors or actants out of which the social is composed are, for Latour, both human and nonhuman. “Actant is a term… covering both humans and nonhumans; an actor is any entity that modifies another entity in a trial; of actors it can only be said that they act…” (Politics of Nature, 237). Unlike Aristotle that held the social was only composed of citizens, and later liberal and neo-liberal thought that sees the social as composed of humans or subjects, Latour’s social is a pluriverse composed of everything from persons to cathode tubes to genetically engineered agricultural seeds to various tools to weather events to roads to technologies to remote gamma ray bursts that might happen to hit the planet and so on and so on. Far from being a distinct domain (νομος) in opposition to the natural (φύσις), there is just the world. It is all φύσις if you like, or all νομος if you like, or perhaps, better yet, there is only “φύσιςνομος“.

However here, the important caveat is that this conception of the social does not amount to a “humanization” of the natural, but rather an expansion of the social beyond the human. There will be associations that involve both humans and nonhumans. And there will be associations that involve only nonhumans. What there will never be are associations that consist of humans alone. And here Latour’s argument revolves around the observation that human relations could not sustain themselves for a single instant without associations with nonhuman actors. As such, the human is always and everywhere bound up with the nonhuman. We have already seen that for the Greeks the concept of ἀρετή or excellence is far broader than the human, applying to any entity whatsoever. All entities have their excellencies or powers. It could be said that one of the key questions of ethics (the domain of the relational), would be that of “inter-aretic” relations or how to maximize powers of acting and being within collectives of heterogeneous entities. Lots of inter-ontic relations turn out badly for all entities involved. Just as the concept of ἀρετή turns out to be broader than the concept of the human, under Latour’s model, the concept of the social turns out to be broader than the human, involving associations between nonhumans and associations between nonhumans and humans. At the meta-ethical level I don’t know if this gets us any further in questions of what a flat ethics might look like, but minimally it implies that one move to be made consists in treating every actant involved in a collective as a citizen. The question then becomes that of what it means for nonhuman citizens to “speak”. Speech here no longer denotes primarily breath (though these familiar and pre-philosophical connotations of speech will be included). Rather now “speech”, as a philosophical concept, begins to converge with act or the capacity to generate differences in interactions with other actants. Yet what then becomes the core questions of ethics?