Reflecting on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, one of the moments that I’m less than pleased with was an exchange with one of the members of the audience who was defending the analysis and critique of ideology. If I’m bothered by this exchange it’s because I cut the participant off mid-sentence without allowing him to fully articulate his point. This was rather rude on my part and for that I apologize.

So what was at issue in this discussion? In my paper, “Being is Flat”, one of the key points I sought to make is that social and political thought has focused entirely too much on content, fetishistically revolving around beliefs, ideologies, signs, narratives, and discourses found in groups. My thesis is that if social and political analysis focuses on ideologies, narratives, signs, signifiers, discourses, beliefs, etc., in its analysis of why social formations are organized as they are, it is doomed to go astray. Following Latour, I thus propose that the concept of society should be replaced by that of collectives. A society is composed entirely of humans, human relations, and human phenomena such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. A collective, by contrast, includes all of these things when it is a collective involving humans, but also includes nonhuman objects like technologies, resources, roads, cane toads, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. The concept of society should be abandoned, I believe, in favor of the concept of collectives. And if this is the case, then there is no such thing as human relations that do not also include all sorts of nonhuman actors. Moreover, these nonhuman actors are not simply passive resources that people use as tools (a form of overmining with respect to objects), but rather introduce all sorts of differences that deeply influence what sorts of associations between humans come to exist.

Latour underlines this point nicely in Reassembling the Social. Latour writes:

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small? Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, signs posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. (77)

Latour tirelessly emphasizes that mechanisms of organization that pass through morality, symbols, and signs are incredibly weak and are very difficult to maintain. To be sure, they make their contributions, yet it is odd that entire schools of social and political thought seem to attribute these actants or objects an iron clad omnipotence and place their eggs in the basket of producing social change through a critique of this order of “morality” and signs. By contrast, the speed bump out there in the world is a real physical constraint. As Latour emphasize, the speed bump is an actant or object entangled with semiotic actants, but it is far from being a mere vehicle or carrier of these actants. Your car slows down whether you like it or not when you pass over that speed bump.

read on!

The example that led to the remarks on the part of my interlocutor revolved around bridge overpasses built too low in a city for public buses to pass underneath. Suppose we are presented with a public beach and wonder why the population that enjoys this beach is primarily composed of middle class and wealthy people. An ideological analysis might focus on the beliefs that middle class, wealthy, and poor people have and how these beliefs function to regulate certain social relations. An object-oriented analysis would not discount these sorts of semiotic objects or actants in this assemblage– in Deleuze-speak, that which belongs to the plane of expression –but would point out that the bridge overpasses are too low for the public transit to pass through and that therefore the movement of people from the poor portion of town are deeply constrained in their possibilities of movement. Carl DiSalvo tells me that this famous example from sociology turns out to be false, but the theoretical point, I believe, still holds. What we have here is a set of nonhuman actants or objects significantly organizing human associations.

It was in relation to this example that the audience member– sadly I didn’t get to meet him after the talks –posed his question. His thesis was that while the bridges are certainly physical constraints on the sorts of associations possible between humans, it is ideology that accounts for why the bridges are low. It is here that I rudely cut him off, and for a very simple reason. While there are, no doubt, instances where ideology dictates these sorts of design decisions, this thesis assumes that this particular sorting of human bodies between the wealthy and poor was already operative when the bridges were built. In this way, the audience member hoped to reduce the bridges to a vehicle of ideological content or beliefs. But what this misses is that in just as many other instances these sorts of design decisions took place in situations where such distributions did not yet exist. The sorting of human bodies, under these circumstances, is an unintended consequence, an aleatory result of a prior organization, not the cause of the design decision.

And here I’m tempted to suggest that ideology and belief follows rather than precedes forms of association among humans. In other words, an ideology is a retroactive rationalization of certain human social relations, not the cause of these social relations. But if this is the case, then ideological analysis is really beside the point. It’s like limiting one’s discussion of a cappuccino to the foam, entirely ignoring the java. An important point here is that if one wishes to understand cappuccino, we cannot restrict ourselves to the java, but must also understand the foam as well. In other words, we must think the entanglement of these agencies. The problem, however, with so much contemporary social and political analysis is that it focuses on the foam alone.

If one doesn’t like the example of low bridges, we could just as easily talk about rice production in China between the 14th and 18th centuries as described by Braudel in his magnificent Capitalism and Civilization. What difference, we can ask, does the production of rice rather than other grains like wheat, barley, rye, etc., make to a collective involving humans? Quite a bit. The advantage of producing rice compared to these other grains is that you get three or four harvests a year. Consequently, rice buffers a collective against famines that are common with the poor harvests and blights of other grains. The drawback is that rice planting and harvesting is labor intensive, back breaking work. You literally spend hours every day planting the rice and harvesting the rice. This nonhuman object or actant thus organizes humans in particular ways. Labor becomes much more collective and is unable to devote itself to the cultivation of other food sources such as livestock. It’s not by mistake that the highlands went largely uncultivated during this time period. On the one hand, rice was abundant and readily available, diminishing the need to cultivate the highlands for other foods and livestock. On the other hand, people were collectively engaged in the cultivation of rice. Do Chinese ideologies of collective relations precede this sort of production or do they follow from it? It is the latter that is likely.

Too much social and political analysis focuses all too much on the dimension of content to the detriment of everything else. This can readily be discerned in the work of the early Frankfurt school theorists. It can be discerned in the social and political theorists arising out of Althusser and Lacan, and how they think the political. It is pervasive throughout deconstructive thought and literary theory. And in this these forms of theory implicitly say that social relations are as they are because of what people believe, because of the “moral” dimension, because of the semiotic, ignoring the affordances and constraints engendered by all sorts of non-semiotic and non-signifying relations that characterize human relations to nonhuman actors. In many respects I believe this is an occupational hazard of theorists coming from the humanities. We deal primarily with texts and like the proverbial donkey that believes God is an omnipotent donkey, we come to believe that the world is written in signifiers and that societies are structured primarily by beliefs. But what we miss in all this is the difference that fiber optic cables or a humble paved road can make.

Our social and political theory needs a theoretical apparatus capable of thinking the entanglements of all of these sorts of actors or objects without treating nonhuman objects such as technologies, rocks, resources, plants, cows, etc., as mere vehicles or carriers of significations. What we need is a theory such as Deleuze and Guattari’s Helmslevian “semiotic” organized around machinic assemblages (arrangements of nonhuman actants and the differences they produce) and the plane of expression (all that belongs to the domain of the semiotic or what I call “content”). And above all, what we must think is how these different actants are entangled with one another in sticky networks. Zizek approached this point when he noticed, in The Sublime Object of Ideology, that it is not what people believe that matters, so much as what they do. But having broached the blight of ideological analysis he simply repeated the textualist gesture of treating signifiers as the principle of “doing”, treating our relationship to money as a fetish based on a misrecognition, rather than exploring this sub-textual domain of entangled objects and how they afford and constrain action, up to and including money. It is precisely this move that is to be avoided and here the first regime of recommended medicine is Bourdieu’s Pascalian Meditations, followed by a healthy dose of Latour’s Science in Action and Marx’s “Working Day” in Capital, coupled with the diligent study of Braudel’s Capitalism and Civilization.