Over at Networkologies Vitale has a post up discussing his network ethics. I won’t get into Vitale’s network ethics here, but I did want to make a few remarks about his characterization of flat ontology. Vitale writes:

In his recent reply to my post on SR and Politics, I argue that Levi’s argument that the pressure on SR and OOO to talk about race over frogs is misguided is itself problematic. But I don’t say WHY I think this is the case.

At first it might seem obvious: people are more important than frogs, and racism radically effects people’s lives. Of course, I just assumed that people are more important than frogs. But with OOO and SR, this seemingly simple anthopocentric gesture becomes problematic. If OOO works to put all objects on the same level, why are people more important than frogs? Isn’t this precisely the sort of thinking we’re working to get rid of? Isn’t the whole point of the Latour litanies that its important to view neoplatonism and flowers as being on fundamentally the same ontological level?

Of course, then the question becomes why. Why is it so important to us to make ontology and flat? Why do we want so badly to move beyond our Cartesian and Kantian heritage? Ok, we want to secularize our philosophy, get rid of the residual religiosity in us. Or at least, that would SEEM to be the reason. Ultimately, Deleuze’s desire for a flat ontology is that he follows on Nietzsche’s desire for a non-otherwordly philosophy. And values. The push for a this worldly philosophy was originally supposed to be about ethics, right? I wonder, is that still why a flat ontology and lack of transcendence is important to us all?

I think Vitale somewhat misses the point of the example of the biologist protesting that OOO doesn’t discuss frogs in my last post. The point is not that frogs and people are of equal concerns to ethical thought. In fact, the point is not about ethics at all. The point is that there are distinct domains and levels of inquiry that have their own degree of specificity. This is why I situated the point about frogs in the context of a discussion of what ontology investigates.

Flat ontology is not a normative or ethical claim. When flat ontology places objects on equal footing the point is not that all beings are to be treated equally in the political or ethical sense, but rather that there is no one being that overdetermines all the rest. Flat ontology and flat ethics are two very different things. In fact, I’m not entirely sure a flat ethics can even exist. For me, the ethical implications of OOO are still unclear and there’s a massive amount of work to be done. Somewhere in Process and Reality (if someone can find the reference, please, please, please give me the page number!) Whitehead observes that all life lives from death. Insofar as living objects are “dissapative systems” that function “far from equilibrium”, they require inputs of energy from other sources to maintain a particular local manifestation. And this necessarily involves the death of other things.

read on!

This point can be illustrated with reference to germs. In Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond raises the sublime question is of what disease is from a germs point of view (197 – 200). What, Diamond asks, are we to make of all the horrible things about disease when we consider it from the point of view of germs? And from a germs point of view, all those unfortunate things that accompany diseases like embarrassing genital sores, coughing, sneezing, vomiting, etc., are convenient ways for the germs to get themselves reproduced by being transmitted to others. Examples like this, I think, show why flat ethics in the vulgar sense of “treating everything as equally ‘important'” (what’s the system-reference of “important” here?) can’t work. There’s really no making peace with germs. Adrian articulates this point nicely in a discussion with Scu. As Adrian writes:

I wonder, though, if Bennett’s conatus defense couldn’t be seen as a way of acknowledging that ethics is different from ontology, and that therefore even a “flat” ontology does not necessitate a “flat” ethics. Ontology describes the world; ethics assist us in acting in it. Even if humans and other entities are all entities of a certain, comparable kind — or, to use DeLanda’s flat ontology as an example, even if all things are morphogenetic processes which, for all their differences, follow the same kinds of form-generating principles — acting amidst them always involves our own placement within and between them.

In concrete situations, things get tangled. If I had to decide between saving a drowning baby and saving a drowning ant (don’t philosophers just love these kinds of unlikely scenarios?), the choice for me would be an easy one (save the kid, not the bug). Like Bennett, I’ll admit that that’s because I feel for the infant: I understand its cries, its looks, and what those looks mean to human adults. I like ants, and am fascinated by their societies, but I don’t have the same feel for them. My understanding of them, furthermore (which I guess means my ‘ontology’) tells me their moment-to-moment decisions may not have as much intensity as a human’s, if only because their genetics and nervous system don’t provide as wide a berth for decision-making, emotional responsiveness, etc., as that of a growing human child. Whether this means they are worth less than an average human or not I’m not sure. The question seems to me too abstract (though the fact that there are more of them than us seems somehow relevant in the equation). This isn’t utilitarianism; it’s more like deontology, where the duty I have toward an ant is different than the duty to a fellow human.

If, on the other hand, I had to decide between delivering a non-fatal electric shock to a chimpanzee and delivering the same electric shock to a human whom I had just witnessed torturing that chimpanzee (an even less likely scenario, at least with my being at the switch), the choice would also be fairly easy for me: save the chimp from more torture, let the human get a bit of his own medicine. I suspect that Bennett, even with her mildly pro-human conatus, might act the same under the circumstances (as, I’m more sure, would Scu). The decision isn’t based so much on an ontology (though that factors in) as it is on the ethical demands of the situation, which includes my feeling for that situation — its beauty or horror, its potential for bringing about certain ethical ends (extending solidarity with the chimp, teaching the human a lesson, etc.), and so on.

As Timothy Morton emphasizes in The Ecological Thought, “nature” is not a warm, fuzzy, and harmonious place. Right now, at this very moment, it is likely that there’s a black hole in a galaxy somewhere devouring a solar system that contains rich ecosystems. Here on this planet we have animals devouring each other every day. As critters evolve they actually destroy themselves by becoming too successful. For example, early strains of syphillus were a bit like the body builder who overdoes it and ends up looking like some freak of nature. Three hundred years ago, syphillus had developed transmission delivery systems that created painful and hideous sores all over the recipient’s body. While more sores, from the germ’s point of view, would offer more channels for delivery to other hosts, these highly visible sores diminished incidences of inter-personal contact, diminishing the ability of these strains of syphillus to transmit themselves. The success of syphillus here undermined its continued existence. As a result, syphillus had to get with the program and evolve far more subtle and less visible means of transmission. Nature isn’t nice, nor harmonious. These are the sorts of questions that need to be taken seriously if we decide to broaden the domain of ethics beyond the human.

Setting aside questions of flat ethics, flat ontology, is just the thesis that there isn’t one single being– the human –that is at the heart of all being. Another way of saying this is to say that there isn’t a reference to the human hidden in all beings. A helpful way of thinking about what flat ontology is opposing and trying to get at is to think flat ontology in terms of the relationship between a film projector and a cinema screen. The film projector projects images on the screen. Here the screen itself is treated as largely irrelevant, as contributing next to nothing, and it is the images on the screen that are treated as most relevant.

What we have here is a sort of allegory for correlationism. The human mind, culture, or language is the projector, the images are phenomena or the domain of lived experience, and the screen is the thing-in-itself. Here it is worth noting that the charge against correlationism is not that it is Berkeleyian or subjective idealism. Berkeley argues that esse est percipi or that to be is to be perceived. Sometimes you will hear correlationists protest, “But we are realists! We believe there are things-in-themselves! We don’t believe that perception makes beings be!” Indeed, there is a screen or the thing-in-itself here. No one is disputing that. Within the framework of OOO, at any rate, what is being objected to is the manner in which all beings are shackled to the hegemony of one being, the projector.

It is sometimes argued that Kant’s revolution sided with Plato’s cave over the escape from the cave (Nietzsche). In arguing that knowledge is restricted to appearances or phenomena, Kant refused any escape from the cave to true being beyond appearances. I am convinced that something like the allegory of cinema presented above inhabits the unconscious of much contemporary theory. Yet this schema has systematic effects on how inquiry is conducted. Insofar as we begin with the premise that the lion share of difference comes from the projector, that the screen contributes very little in the way of significant differences, and that the images are what is important, our theoretical practice is such that we are led to focus exclusively on discursive and semiotic phenomena in the world. That is, we treat all entities as if they were mere vehicles or carriers of human projections (through signs, signifiers, texts, and concepts), ignoring whatever non-semiotic and non-discursive differences objects might contribute. We treat objects as mere screens that serve no other function beyond receiving human projections.

As I remarked in a previous post, in order for observation to take place, it is necessary to draw a distinction. Every distinction has a marked space and an unmarked space. The marked space then becomes the domain in which indications or observations are made. I draw a circle on a piece of paper and now I can indicate what’s inside that circle. Here the unmarked space falls into the background and becomes invisible. And, of course, we here need to bear in mind that the distinction that allows indications or observations to take place is itself invisible to the observer that employs the distinction. Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll, you can eat your food or you can speak to your food, but you can’t eat your food and speak to your food. Likewise, you can use your distinctions or you can observe your distinctions (in which case you need a new distinction to indicate the prior distinction), but you can’t use your distinctions and observe your distinctions. This is why distinctions become invisible or unconscious in their use. Like Lacanian fantasy, they withdraw into the background, creating a reality effect that makes the indicated appear self-evident and a property of the world rather than an effect of the distinction that enables the distinction in the first place.

The distinction that today governs so much contemporary theory revolves around the semiotic, meaning, the discursive, and the normative. The marked space of this distinction is everything that pertains to the signifier, meaning, signs, discursivity, and normativity. The distinction underlying much contemporary theory guides us to indicate phenomena pertaining to meaning, signifiers, signs, discursivity, and norms. Everything else falls into the unmarked space, and thereby becomes invisible. One might object that contemporary theory talks about objects all the time. However, the question here resides in how contemporary theory talks about objects. And the answer is that contemporary theory talks about objects as vehicles for norms, meanings, values, signifiers, signs, and concepts. Here we might recall the closing scenes of Being John Malkovich. When John Malkovich finally goes through the tunnel that magically allows people to enter his mind and experience being him for a few moments, he has the disturbing experience of hearing everyone that addresses him as saying “Malkovich! Malkovich! Malkovich!” and appearing as variations of him.

Being John Malkovich is an exemplary investigation of the nature of second-order observation (a long running theme in Charlie Kaufman’s literature). On the one hand, the other people that enter Malkovich’s mind become second-order observers, encountering the manner in which another object (Malkovich) experiences the world. On the other hand, when Malkovich enters his own mind, when the distinction by which he observes the world re-enters the distinction, he encounters the ultimately tautologous and self-referential nature of the distinction that allows him to make indications in the world. In this regard, perhaps the reason OOO and SR has generated such a ruckus in some circles is that it carrying out what Spencer-Brown calls a “cross” from the marked to the unmarked, the marked space of contemporary theory simultaneously becomes unmarked and its contingency and self-referentiality come into view. What OOO and SR propose is that we observe within a different marked state.

In his post on network ethics, Vitale proposes many reasons as to why one might be interested in a flat ontology. He speaks of overcoming God and religion, overcoming our Cartesian and Kantian heritage, etc. For me, none of these reasons come to mind. Rather, my reasons for being interested in flat ontology are far more anthropocentric. It is my view that we cannot truly understand human societies and political structures so long as the marked space of theory consists entirely of norms, signifiers, meanings, and signs. So long as we are doomed to focus on these alone, we are also doomed to pose the wrong sorts of questions when analyzing the social field and strategizing political action. What I wish to draw attention to by carrying out a “cross” over the boundary of the distinction between meaning/non-meaning is the role played by nonhuman objects in human collectives.

In a number of posts, but most recently in my response to Reid, I have distinguished, following Latour, between societies and collectives. Society is a modernist concept premised on the strict separation of nature and culture. Here the argument runs that society is exclusively the domain of signs, meanings, signifiers, and norms, while nature is exclusively the domain of causality. The conclusion modernists draw from this distinction is that whenever we analyze society we must stick strictly to the analysis of meanings, norms, and signs, while whenever we analyze nature we must stick strictly to the analysis of causality. A collective is a very different thing than a society. Where a society is composed solely of humans and human phenomena like meaning, a collective both includes human and human phenomena, but also includes nonhuman objects qua nonhuman objects. Here the qua is important. In saying that collectives include nonhuman objects qua nonhuman objects, I am saying that these objects are included as something more than mere vehicles for human projections of meaning.

Reid mischaracterized my account of collectives, claiming that I am arguing that there is no difference between nature and culture. However, clearly this conclusion can’t follow because in this articulation culture wins and all objects become vehicles for cultural significations. The thesis rather is quite different. As Latour likes to put it, nonhuman objects are the medium in which human associations become possible in the first place. The point here is so trite that I’m almost embarrassed to make it. Years ago when I first started blogging over at blogger, I had a bit of code on my blog that provided me with a map of the world and that created a red dot indicating the location of every person who came to visit Larval Subjects. It was a neat program and I was sad to give it up when I came over to wordpress. What was interesting about these maps was that the dots concentrated on the coasts of the United States, regions of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, England, and western Europe. India, China, Russia, Eastern Europe, South and Central America, and Africa were almost entirely blank.

This example gets straight to the core of what flat ontology is trying to address. How are we to account for this distribution of visits? No doubt, language plays a role here. This blog is written in English. That language difference already becomes a selective mechanism as to who does and does not visit the blog. In the case of China, of course, political institutions play a role. Larval Subjects was actually banned in China. However, language and politics alone can’t account for these distributions. For example, it doesn’t explain why the interior regions of the United States were almost entirely blank. In addition to language and politics, we also have the role played by infrastructure. That is, there is the role played by the availability of computers, internet connections, whether wireless and cable internet connections, etc., are available, and so on. All of these things are nonhuman actors that can’t simply be reduced to cultural significations along the lines that Barthes analyzes the fashion system.

Now why is this important? If we return to the hegemonic distinction of contemporary theory between meaning/non-meaning where meaning functions as the marked state, we note that when theory is conducted in terms of this distinction, things like internet cable connections, availability of water, whether or not there are roads, altitudes, etc. fall completely into the background and become invisible. They don’t even appear. We say, for example, that our primary task is to debunk ideology where ideology is understood as cultural texts and narratives that structure how humans think about the world. But things like whether or not an area has internet cable connections are political questions because internet cable connections preside over how people can connect with one another, what collectives they can form, and what narratives they have access to. Compare the exposure of a teenager living in a sparsely populated, small, tight knit community to a critique of ideology and to internet web access and ask which is more likely to bring about change in how that teenager thinks about the world and relates to others. The connection qua connection (i.e., not the content that we have access to when connected) makes a difference and we need to have these sorts of things on the radar. I am not making the claim that we should adopt the concept of collectives so as to recognize the importance of the internet. I give the example of cable internet connections only as a readily familiar example. The point is that these sorts of things aren’t on our radar at all and we need the conceptual means of bringing them into view.

I think object-oriented ontology goes a long way towards accomplishing this. First, OOO de-sutures objects in such a way that they aren’t treated as always having a subject-reference. The first thing we tend to think when we hear the word “object” is “subject”. Object, it is said, is that which stands over and against a subject. OOO says no, there are just objects, even the subject is an object. And in this way OOO begins to untangle our constant reference of every entity back to the subject. Second, OOO tries to ask what difference objects contribute qua objects, rather than as vehicles for human meanings and projections. Finally, third, OOO opens the way to thinking relations between nonhuman objects that don’t involve the human in any way. And in carrying out these three tasks OOO hopefully begins to shift the marked space of contemporary theory to a broader and more encompassing marked space that generates all sorts of new possibilities of inquiry and practice.