In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

read on!

Returning to Fabio’s remarks, I think the question is what acts in any assemblage. Of course Fabio is right: We want to change the world, we want to improve the world, and we want to improve our own lives. Nothing about OOO denies this or stipulates that this is an aim that should be abolished. However, what OOO does call into question perhaps is how we think about these ethical and political issues, what agents or actors are relevant to these questions, and what it means to act. Bennett brings these issues into beautiful relief.

Let’s take three popular examples of ethical or normative thought as a contrast to what OOO might suggest at the ethical and political level: Kantian deontological ethical thought, Mill’s utilitarian thought, and Badiou’s ethics of truth-procedures. Kant enjoins us to act only according to the maxim that we can at the same time will as a universal law. Mill tells us actions are good insofar as they produce the greatest amount of happiness (in both quantity and quality) for the greatest number of people. And Badiou speaks of ethical action as that action that reconfigures the elements composing a situation based on the declaration of an event. For example, when the French sans papier declare that “if you live here you’re from here”, they make a declaration that exceeds the counting-mechanisms structuring the situation– the legal and ethnic structure of France –calling for a thorough reconfiguration of that situation.

In all cases, however, agency is more or less restricted to the domain of humans. Humans are the only agents, and the domain of the ethical and the political pertains only to humans. Kant will go so far as to say that in applying the categorical imperative we must exclude all considerations of circumstance, context, and pathology (affects, inclinations, bodily needs and desires, etc). For Badiou, by contrast, politics and ethics will exclusively be the domain of subjects and subjects only exist in relation to the human. And while Mill will certainly make room for things, these things will only be worthy of consideration in terms of either impediments to human action or affordances of human action (i.e., tools, technologies).

Now it is not difficult to recognize that implicit in these three ethical positions– and I don’t pretend to have done them justice here in a mere blog post –is a sharp distinction between the domain of the human on the one hand and the natural on the other hand. The domain of the human is conceived as that of intentional and will directed activity– Badiou’s thought constitutes yet another intervention into debates surrounding questions of structure (social constraint) and agency –while the entities that populate nature are thought as passive beings without aims or intentions that humans either a) form into tools for their own use and aims, b) impede human aims in some way or other, or c) function as screens for human concepts and values as in Marx’s treatment of commodities in the first volume of Capital.

Indeed, while Marx makes room for material nature, this material nature is entirely passive, functioning as an inert matter in the Aristotlean sense that receives the imprint of human activity by being transformed into use-values— tools and means of various sorts; in this respect nothing in Marx really contracts the opening line of reasoning in Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics pertaining to the difference between relative and absolute ends —exchange-values, and later in Baudrillard’s far reaching For A Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, sign-values. For Marx, in other words, to analyze objects is to analyze not the objects themselves, but rather objects as vehicles for human intentions at either the human level (how we use them for our own individual aims) or at the social level (how they take on value). Material objects are mere screens for human intentions and agencies. Consequently, if we begin with this premise pertaining to matter— that it is merely a passive stuff that at best reactively behaves in mechanistic relations of cause and effect and at worst is just a medium (media) to receive human form –we will believe ourselves justified in excluding nonhuman beings from the domain of our ethical and political theorizations because objects are here thought of as mere reflections of human intentions anyway.

In short, what is implicit in the reigning ethical and political philosophy of our time is the premise of what Adorno, in Negative Dialectics (and I owe this connection to Bennett), might have referred to as an identity of concept and object. The implicit premise is that nonhuman actors can be reduced to their status as vehicles for human intentions and conceptualizations. What is prohibited is the thesis that nonhuman objects are actors in their own right. And this because nonhuman objects are mere passive matters waiting to receive their imprint from humans. What Heidegger referred to as the thought of being in terms of “enframing” and “standing-reserve” very much remains at the core of our ethical and political thought like the glasses that now sit astride my nose; viz., as so close that we have difficulty even discerning it.

When, in The Pasteurization of France, Latour introduces the notion of “actants”, he takes a step towards calling into question this opposition. Latour observes that,

[w]e do not know who are the agents who make up our world. We must begin with this uncertainty if we are to understand how, little by little, the agents defined one another, summoning other agents and attributing to them intentions and strategies… When we speak of men, societies, culture, and objects, there are everywhere crowds of other agents that act, pursue aims unknown to us, and use us to prosper. We may inspect pure water, milk, hands, curtains, sputum, the air we breathe, and see nothing suspect, but millions of other individuals are moving around that we cannot see.

…There are not only “social” relations, relations between man and man. Society is not made up just of men, for everywhere microbes intervene and act. We are in the presence not just of an Eskimo and an anthropologist, a father and his child, a midwife and her client, a prostitute and her client, a pilgrim and his God, not forgetting Mohammed his prophet. In all these relations, these one-on-one confrontations, these duels, these contracts, other agents are present, acting, exchanging their contracgts, imposing their aims, and redefining the social bond in different way. Cholera is no respecter of Mecca, but it enters the intestine of the hadji; the gas bacillus has nothing against the woman in childbirth, but it requires that she die. In the midst of so-called “social” relations, they both form alliances that complicate those relations in a terrible way.

I am not using the word “agent” in any metaphorical or ironical sense but in the semiotic sense [sic.]. Indeed, the social link is made up, according to the Pasteurians, of those who bring men together and those who bring the microbes together. We cannot form society with the social alone. We have to add the action of microbes. We cannot understand anything about Pasteurism if we do not realize that it has reorganized society in a different way. It is not that there is a science done in the laboratory, on the one hand, and a society made up of groups, classes, interests, and laws, on the other. The issue is at once much more simple and much more difficult. To make up society with only social connections, omitting the invisibles, is to end up with general corruption, a perverse deviation of good human intentions. In order to act effectively between men– that is, to go to Mecca, to survive in the Congo, to bring fine, healthy children to birth, to get manly regiments –we have to “make room” for microbes… (35 – 36)

What we witness here, in an almost imperceptible gesture that passes so quickly it’s almost missed under the first reading, is Latour extending agency beyond the domain of the human to the nonhuman. In this case, with respect to microbes. In treating nonhuman entities as agents or actants, Latour is refusing that move that would reduce objects to mere matters waiting to receive human imprint in processes of production, the formation into human tools, or as vehicles for human conceptualizations, values, or signs. To be sure, as we will learn in Irreductions, published with The Pasteurization of France, humans attempt to subordinate nonhuman objects to human values, signs, conceptualizations, use as tools, and means of energy and subsistence, but Latour beautifully practices the nonidentity of concept and object, emphasizing the manner in which objects perpetually surprise us and act in aleatory ways that could not have been anticipated by our use of these objects.

In short, objects act. And in reducing objects to their use-value, their exchange-value, or their sign-value we not only miss the manner in which objects act, but we foreclose our ability to see the action of objects in the social milieu. We miss the manner in which objects are not merely passive but are active agents in their own right. Society is not a relation of human to human, but a relation of human to nonhuman and of nonhuman to nonhuman. And not only do objects act in the sense that they often impede and surprise us in our will to master them, unleashing tendencies from within their volcanic core that thwarts our will to master them, but they also act in ways that transform our agency. As Bennett remarks, for example, omega-3 fatty acids transform the very nature of my affectivity, enhancing concentration, decreasing aggressivity, and thwarting depression– was it me or the acids and how would this change my formulation of Mill’s greatest happiness principle or Kant’s categorical imperative? –but also in entering into relations with other objects, say my computer, my very intentions and aims shift. My relation to the computer and the internet, for example, generates all sorts of new ends and interests. Was it me or the computer? The question can’t be answered.

So this is the easy OOO thesis where questions of politics and ethics are concerned: Any account of ethical and political thought that fails to take nonhuman actants into account, any account of ethical thought that reduces nonhuman objects to mere use-values, exchange-values, and sign-values, is bound to be barbarous, truncated, and inadequate because it ignores a crucial dimension of the social relation: the nonhuman actors and the differences they introduce into human relations. If we don’t pay attention to the role played by the absence of, for example, fiber optic cables in the midwest and the west, we’re bound to miss all sorts of important questions as to why certain forms of human-human relations are not changing. We will scratch our heads as to why our demystifying critiques have failed because we’ve ignored structures of production and organization in these regions and why they tend to perpetuate certain human-human relations. Consequently, if you’re genuinely serious about not simply analyzing things but actually changing them, you cannot rest content with demystifying critiques that focus on use-value, exchange-value, and sign-value alone, but must extend your analysis to all those other social actors like roads, communications technologies, technologies of production, weather patterns, lakes, etc., etc., etc., etc.. And, you need to bear in mind the manner in which questions of human flourishing are never just questions of humans, but are also questions of how we live with these nonhuman actors that sustain us and inhibit us, making our lives either a living hell or more than tolerable. We need to think about the levees in New Orleans as actants in their own right and the difference they introduced into human-human relations for the citizens of New Orleans. We need to think about livestock and deforestation as the largest contributor to climate change, and how our diet composed of readily available meat not only functions to enslave large portions of the human population in abject misery (thereby generating all sorts of war and crime in the process) but also how this type of food enters into alienating assemblages with our own bodies having all sorts of impacts on our affective and physical states, but also on our social relations (what becomes of social relations when we don’t cook and dine together; are these the sorts of relations we want?).

The hard question of OOO and similar strains of thought like Latour’s and Bennett’s is that of what Isabella Stengers referred to as “cosmopolitics”. This is the set of issues that I can’t quite get my head around. As Bennett points out with her own thought and as holds equally, I believe, for OOO and related veins of thought, these ontologies point at conceptions of distributed agency where agency can no longer be located in one actant or actor such as the sovereign subject, but where they are distributed across a heterogeneous composition of multiple agents both affording and constraining one another, vying with one another and assisting one another, such that responsibility can no longer be located in one agency like Adam naming all the plants and animals in his mythical garden. We get something like Sartre’s subject-groups but where these subject-groups are no longer composed simply of human subjects, but where they include nonhuman actants as well. But if we extend agency to nonhuman actants, are we led to the conclusion that these nonhuman agents both have ethical and political rights and responsibilities?

Everything seems to point in this direction. When weighing interests, under this conception of agency, it is not enough to take into account the interests of human agencies (and we’re not sure what human agents are anymore anyway since they are never simply sovereigns that impose their intentions on “passive matters), but we must take into account the interests of nonhuman agents as well. What is their say? What are their interests? How do we discern them? Isn’t it just us attributing or projecting human interests on these nonhumans? I don’t know. It’s the hard question. But here we need to take a page from the character of Ann Clayborne in Kim Stanley Robinson’s sublime Mars Trilogy. The horror of Ann’s character, the supreme “inhuman ethics” that she manages to muster such that she herself becomes unthinkable under all concepts pertaining to the human and what we understand of the human, is the manner in which she treats the planet of Mars itself as an actant on par with all the human colonists that would reduce the planet to a passive matter to be formed in the image of human aims, daring to thing that perhaps we have no right to treat the planet in this way. In Kim Stanley Robinson’s trilogy, Mars is every bit as much a character as the other characters in the novel and every bit as much an actant as these other actants. In her “becoming-Mars” is Ann’s character a psychopath that has failed to understand key questions and issues of ethical and political agency, affording this “dead” planet an agency and therefore rights in a fit of madness constituting a category mistake taken to absurd extremes, or does her character simultaneously carry out a specious (pardon the pun) auto-critique of key ethical and political presuppositions of our thought and point the way towards a non-anthropocentric ethic and politics that conceives humans among other beings rather as sovereigns that dictate the being of other passive matters. By the third novel this seems to be the direction she’s moving in.