Over at Vitale’s blog Networkologies, I just noticed this post on SR and politics. Vitale writes:
To what extent do we still need, or continually need, to queer philosophy? Let me be clear on what I mean by this. To what extent do we still need, or continually need, to work against the normative tendency of philosophy to be a predominantly white, male, heterosexual, middle-to-upper middle class discipline [for more on the term ‘queer’ in this sense, see the PPS below]? Why is or has this been the case? What are the implications, and even philosophical implications, of this?
Let’s even look at the Speculative Realist movement, or the bloggers associated with it. Am I the only one who is ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ (more on my use of these terms below)? Is there anyone who doesn’t get white privilege on a regular basis? Even though I’m Sicilian-American, I get white privilege on a continual basis. Are there any women who regularly blog on philosophy, speculative realism (I can only think of Nina Powers, and yet she doesn’t really deal with issues related to speculative realism that much . . .)? And let me be clear about this: I don’t think its a sin to be born a man, or to be hetero, or to have whitish skin. But I do think its important that if you get a certain type of social privilege, you fight against it. And that means, I think, trying to dissect the way this produces epistemological privilege of various sorts. So, I do think that if the speculative realist movement is predominantly white, male, hetero, we need to not only ask ourselves why this might be, but how it impacts our thought, and what we can do about this.
First, let me note that I find Vitale’s concerns here to be admirable. Second, let me pointedly note that Vitale knows next to nothing about the sexual preferences or backgrounds of the various figures in the SR movement (assuming it can even be called a movement). I also have to add that to the same degree that philosophical thought needs to be vigilant in examining whatever race, class, or gender assumptions might haunt its discourse, the same holds true of political thought. The rise of capitalism, and communicative capitalism in particular, has been accompanied by a crisis of identity. This crisis of identity is deeply connected to the rise of wage labor. As Marx noted in the Communist Manifesto, with capitalism all that is solid melts into air such that traditions and communities are perpetually dissolved. Part of the reason for this lies in the manner in which the money-form functions. One of the interesting features of money is that it creates a common measure allowing for all things, no matter how heterogeneous, to be exchanged. This is true of identities as well. Because labor is also a commodity and because all commodities are now equivalent by virtue of the money-form, predicates of identity are no longer fixed predicates belonging to human beings, but are no all more or less equivalent. This, in turn, leads to a crisis of identity insofar as “every person” is equivalent to being no person.
What we get as a result of this shift is a desperate search for identity within the framework of liberal logics. This pursuit of identity can take many forms such as religious fundamentalism, ultra-nationalism, psychological diagnoses (“I’m bi-polar!”), and the various forms of progressive identity politics we encounter within the contemporary social sphere. The premise of this sort of identity politics is that we are not real unless we can ground ourselves in a particular identity. And here the mad pursuit of identity, the overwhelming desire to label or subsume ourselves under a particular identity, can be seen as a symptom of how contemporary capital functions. The problem is that this symptom, like all symptoms, obfuscates or veils the social relations that generate the symptom. The point here is not that we shouldn’t concern ourselves with questions of identity, but that we should raise questions about how this particular form of politics might very well function to perpetuate the very structure that generates these crises in the first place.
Vitale’s remarks mirror remarks I’ve seen addressed to OOO in other settings. “What does OOO have to say about race, class, and gender?” I confess that I find such questions a bit irritating, not because I think we shouldn’t be concerned with these things, but because I think they’re conflating different levels and areas of inquiry. We find a similar line of criticism over at Archive Fire, building on Vitale’s criticisms. Michael writes:
I want to briefly address his specific question with regards to ‘queering speculative realism’.
Overall, I believe we will begin to see a lot more diversity creep into the general thrust of Speculative Realism (SR) when it begins to get picked up by artists, radicals and other non-institutional intellectuals. That is to say, the issue of queering and engendering diversity is more a problem with institutionalized intellectuality as such than with SR specifically. Academia in general is still very much a white-boys club. The issues of privilege, access and univocality – and even aesthetic-ideological preference and distinctions – are deep class issues at the heart of Western society and deeply embedded within our institutional education systems. And I don’t think we can expect SR to diversify and become overtly political if it remains entangled in the academic/blogging/philosophy assemblage.
In less words, we can’t expect SR to treat the symptom without its adherents (for lack of a better word) first, or also attacking the root causes of a much larger dis-ease at the core of their disciplines. SR will simply perpetuate the problems existent within the institutions that SR thinkers and bloggers are entangled with. Again, diversity will come when SR is ‘contaminated’ from outside the academy and taken up by non-philosophical modes of intellectuality.
All I can do is sigh with respect to comments like these. On the one hand, we have Vitale suggesting that SR is heterosexist, masculinist, classist, and subtly racist because it hasn’t made issues of gender, sex, class, and race the central focus of its work, while on the other hand we have Michael suggesting that SR is an ivory tower discourse because it’s been developed by, well, philosophers. With respect to Michael’s remarks, I think this is more a personal issue for him (he’s hinted at such things quite a few times in discussions with him), rather than something that reflects reality. First, Michael should reflect that many of us enjoy relatively insignificant and marginalized positions within the academy. I, for example, am a professor at a two year school where I have neither graduate students nor students majoring in philosophy. I am not tenured but work on contract with the possibility of my position being terminated at any time for any reason. I teach only intro level courses. Moreover, if Michael would actually bother to read my blog he would discover that one of its most long running themes is a critique of the academy. Finally, if I find Michael’s remarks particularly egregious and insulting, then this is because OOO is among the most open philosophical movements that’s ever existed. On the one hand, OOO has generated a large inter-disciplinary interest from people both inside and outside the academy. Not only has OOO drawn interest from rhetoricians, anthropologists, media theorists, literary theorists, biologists, and even a handful of physicists, it has also drawn the interest of artists, activists, feminists, and so on. In the forthcoming collection edited by Ian Bogost and I, Object-Oriented Ontology, there will be an article by the performance artist and feminist Katheryn Behar, as well as contributions from media theorists, literary theorists, technology theorists and others. On the other hand, through the medium of blogs, we have opened the doors to the participation of anyone who comes along, regardless of whether they are in academia or not. On this blog alone there are regular interactions between computer programmers, office workers, poets, environmentalists, novelists, comedians, and a host of others outside the academy. Michael can go fuck himself with his suggestion that somehow we’re trapped within the ivory tower walls of the academy, ignoring anyone who is outside the academy or from another discipline. I, at least, interact with such people every day. Perhaps Michael should read this interview to see where I stand on these issues. Perhaps Michael should open his eyes to see what’s occurring right in front of them.
Returning to the more substantial issues Vitale raises, I think, as I already said, that he is conflating different levels of analysis. Ontology deals with being at its highest level of abstraction. It is interested in what is common to all objects, without making reference to any object in particular. It has sometimes been suggested that SR and OOO are thereby returning to the pre-critical tradition of unbridled speculation, but I don’t think this is the case. At least, I don’t think this is the case with OOO. OOO does not tell us what objects exist, nor does think, like Descartes, Leibniz, or Spinoza, that we can deduce the existence of any particular object. All OOO argues is that if something is an object, it must have these very general properties.
Now, rephrasing Vitale’s questions somewhat, OOO could be charged with not paying sufficient attention to frogs. The biologist might come along and say “you just aren’t paying sufficient attention to frogs!” To the biologist I can only respond that I can’t do everything at once, and I feel inclined to respond to Vitale in a similar way. It is my ardent hope that OOO creates projects for other people, but at the moment I am working on what I’m working on. Vitale goes on to write that
Epistemology and ontology, the current focus of speculative realism, aren’t enough. We need a politics and an ethics from this movement, yes? Does SR have something to say about race, gender, sexuality, or global capitalism? Something that comes from a particularly SR approach to the world? It’s my sense that unless philosophy develops all these sides of itself, it isn’t complete. Must philosophy be complete this way? My sense is that it should be. I’m not sure if my own work does this, but I think it is a challenge to myself that I need to make sure I at least work to fulfill.
Here, in relation to OOO, I think Vitale is failing to recognize that these ontological and epistemological issues are important to questions of politics and ethics. Let’s take the issue of operational closure and second-order observation that I’ve been writing about so much lately. All objects are operationally closed and only relate to other objects through there own distinctions. As Spencer-Brown famously said, in order for any indication to be made whatsoever, there must first be a distinction made by the system that engages in the indication. For example, this morning I woke up and noticed that it was raining. This is an information event that took place within me, selecting particular system-states within my cognitive system (e.g., that I don’t need to water my garden, that I need to dress a bit warmer, that if I go out I shouldn’t forget my umbrella, etc.). However, for this event to function as information, there had to be a prior distinction at work in my cognitive system such as the distinction between precipitation and non-precipitation. The world does not provide this distinction, but rather this distinction arises from the system that makes these indications. Every distinction is such that it has a marked and an unmarked state. You draw a circle on a piece of paper and now you can indicate everything that is within that circle. The unmarked state is everything else outside that marked state.
Now three important consequences follow from this thesis. First, we can now recognize that every system that relates to other objects necessarily contains blind spots. Because every distinction necessarily contains an unmarked space, we can now note that every system or object can only see what it can see (as a consequence of its distinctions), that no system can see what it cannot see, and that every system is such that it cannot see that it cannot see this (viz., that its blind spot is invisible to itself). Second, insofar as we now recognize that objects relate to the world through the distinctions that they draw, we also come to see that these distinctions are contingent or capable of being otherwise. The systems in the environment of another system draw their system/environment distinctions differently. As a consequence, there are very different marked/unmarked spaces that populate other systems. Third, because we now recognize that distinctions are contingent, that other systems can and do draw distinctions differently, we can now begin to engage in second-order observation of systems.
Second-order observation is simultaneously a very simple concept and, in many respects, a very difficult concept. Returning to the concept of distinction, first-order observation consists merely in indicating something based on a distinction that has already been drawn. For example, when I noted that it was raining this morning I was engaged in first-order observation. The important point here is that in first-order observation the distinction that renders the indication withdraws into the background. The distinction is used without being reflected upon. In noting that it is raining, I don’t notice that this indication is only possible on the basis of a distinction between precipitation and non-precipitation that is drawn by my cognitive system, not the world. As a consequence, first-order observation generates a sort of transcendental illusion where in the indicated states take on the appearance of being identical to the world itself rather than effects of the system that drew the distinction. And because the distinction that enabled the indication in the first place withdraws into the background, first-order observations create the sense that all systems relate to the same world in the same way. Where first-order observation indicates a state of the world, second-order observation indicates the distinctions that another system draws in observing the world. Here the observer is not observing the [withdrawn] world, but rather is observing how other observers observe. And when we talk about observing how other observers observe, what we’re talking about is observing the distinctions that other objects use to make indications.
Now all of this might seem far afield from Vitale’s initial concerns about the need to “queer speculative realism”, but in fact these considerations go straight to the core of what he wants. For what the theory of withdrawn objects, distinction, and second-order observation allows is a critique of hegemonic distinctions within the social field through the disclosure that these distinctions are contingent. In other words, these theoretical resources allow us to both diagnose the reality effect that first-order observation generates as a consequence of the withdrawal of the distinction that allows for the indication and provides us with the means of showing how these distinctions are capable of being otherwise. And here the most profound consequence is that second-order observation does not simply lead to the rather trite conclusion that other systems observe differently as a result of being structured by different distinctions. No, the profound consequence is that second-order observation allows us to begin observing differently by coming to draw other distinctions that generate very different indications.
To illustrate this point, let us take the example of Ed Norton’s character in American History X. Norton’s character begins as a virulent skin head white supramecist. The distinction(s) that govern Norton’s experience of the world treat “white” as the marked state of the space that he has cleaved, and measure all events in the world in terms of whether or not they exemplify white or deviate from it (I’m simplifying here, as there is an entire slew of distinctions in the marked space that govern this way of thinking). Now, in Norton’s transition from his virulent racism to his post-racist state of cognition, what we get is not a simple repression of how he feels, but a thorough redrawing of the distinctions that regulate his relation to the world. Through his experience of white supremacists and African-Americans in prison, Norton does not simply repress his racist impulses and act differently, those racist impulses are, in effect, gone. The distinctions regulating his relationship to the world are redrawn and are effectively gone. Here we encounter one of the profound characteristics of psychic systems and social systems: The distinctions that regulate indications in these systems are not fixed, but rather can themselves be restructured by various information events that take place within the system. In the case of Norton’s character, this revelation of the contingency of the distinctions that led him to prison in the first place occurred as a result of things not being where he expected them to be. He discovered, for example, that the other white supremacist in prison were all talk and inconsistent in their actions. They would, for example, sell drugs to other ethnic groups. Yet it was only non-white groups, Norton’s character had thought, that sold drugs. And what is a white supremacist doing conducting business with other ethnic groups anyway. Likewise, while working in the laundry with an African-American man he discovered that they shared a similar love of basketball and gained valuable insights about maintaining relationships with women while in prison.
Distinctions predelineate possibilities out there in the world and therefore share an essential relationship to time. What Norton’s character discovered was that these predelineated possibilities did not match up with the information-events he was receiving. This played a role in the reconfiguration of the distinctions governing how he made indications. No longer did the marked space of his distinction consist of “white”, but it had now shifted over to “human”, with the white supremacists subsequently falling on the other side of this distinction by virtue of failing to recognize common humanity. A new set of distinctions had evolved within his cognitive system. Experience, such as I just described with Ed Norton’s character, is one way in which this reconfiguration of distinctions can take place, second-order observation that reveals the contingency of distinctions is another way in which this can take place.
However, not everything is a matter of system-specific distinctions and the indications they render possible. Although all objects are operationally closed, they can enter into relations of structural coupling with one another. As Maturana and Varela describe it, structural coupling consists of recurrent interactions between operationally closed systems” (The Tree of Life, 88). This relation is depicted in the diagram to the left, where you have to objects continuously perturbing one another. Here each object transforms the perturbations of the other object into information through their own distinctions, yet the two systems have become coupled to one another in relations of feedback. These relations can be symmetrical (bi-directional) or asymmetrical (uni-directional), yet in either case, one system has become coupled to another as a source of irritation for the production of events within itself.
With the concept of structural coupling we get the beginning of a theory of material constraints within object-oriented ontology. For example, working from the premise that every distinction has a marked and unmarked state, we can devote special attention to uni-directional structural couplings within a social system, where one system in the environment of another system is dependent on that other system as a source of irritations, whereas the system that functions as the source of these irritations is entirely blind to that system as a result of the system belonging to the unmarked state of the system. All of this is very abstract, I realize, but what I’m describing here is the position of the subaltern as analyzed by Spivak. Resituated in terms object-oriented ontology, the subaltern is a system in the environment of another system that nonetheless belongs to the unmarked space of that system within which it is entangled. Like Ellison’s invisible man, the subaltern finds itself in an excruciating position by virtue of simultaneously being dependent upon the hegemonic or dominating system for certain perturbations (and these perturbations can be very concrete such as the need for food, certain government functions, money, etc), while also being invisible to this system. Like Joseph K. in The Castle, the subaltern is simultaneously excluded from the other system and everywhere entangled in it. Here subalterns can be excluded minorities, classes, animals, and many other things besides. And perhaps one of the most excruciating things about the subaltern relation is that it prevents the subaltern from actualizing other local manifestations or forms of life that would be possible in different material relations.
The concept of structural coupling allows us to begin the analysis of these dependency relations and how they are structured. Here all sorts of possibilities for political engagement arise. For example, we can thematize ways to perturb the hegemonic or dominating system in such a way that distinctions come to be redrawn such that the subaltern is no longer in the unmarked or invisible place of the hegemonic system’s distinctions. This strategy has been at the root of American identity politics for the last few decades and is something like the politics of the part-of-no-part described by Ranciere. And in a Marxist vein, we could here imagine strategies for provoking the hegemonic system in American politics to redraw its distinctions such that class differences are no longer possible. Alternatively, we can devise strategies for overturning hegemonic systems altogether so as to produce entirely new material relations.
I realize that Chris is not, of course, accusing all us speculative realists of being heterosexist, sexist, classist, and white supremacists. My point to Chris is that the resources for thinking these things are already there in OOO if he uses a little imagination and actually puts these concepts to work concretely. Such a work is a collective work, for a variety of people, not for one particular person alone.