I just noticed that Vitale has another post up on flat ontology and ethics. I’ve been writing all day and am worn out, so I’ll just make a couple of quick points. First, Vitale writes:
And so yes, OOO is about flat ontology. And let’s face it, flat ontology and immanence are all the rage. But who cares? Or rather, why is that the rage? The point I was making in the segment that Levi quoted is that the original desire for ‘flatness’ in ontology comes from, genealogically speaking, Nietzsche’s call for a ‘this worldly’ philosophy, and finds more distant precursors in Spinoza and the Roman Stoics. Deleuze then shows how this essentially ethical project can be tied to ontology in a wide variety of ways. But even for Deleuze, I think the impetus is primarily ethical. While Deleuze does ontology, he is not fundamentally an ontologist. For him, it seems to me, at least, ethics comes before ontology.
For me the devil is in the details. When Vitale argues that “ethics comes before ontology”, what exactly does he mean? Does he mean that we must be motivated in some way to engage in inquiry of any sort at all? If that’s all he means, then we really have no disagreement. Everything we do, I think, has some motivation behind it. Those motivations can be love, ethics, politics, simple curiosity, a joy at solving riddles (think of all those people who love solving encryptions and crossword puzzles, not to mention all the gamers), pleasure, and so on. I might grumble at Vitale’s suggestion that all philosophy refers back to politics and ethics, but I don’t disagree with the thesis that all of our actions are motivated in some way or another.
And here I’m compelled to ask with respect to what system-reference ethics precedes ontology? Or, in less falutin language, for whom does ethics precede ontology? This is, after all, a rather generalizing claim and therefore constitutes a sort of pragmatic contradiction between Vitale’s comments elsewhere about points of view and generalizing claims. I see no reason, for example, that many philosophers can’t simply be motivated by sheer curiousity and wonder in their philosophical pursuits. Certainly this is the case with many scientists. And indeed, we often wish these scientists would consider the ethical because sometimes their discoveries have dire consequences for the rest of us. Perhaps scientists ought to relate to their work in such a way that ethics precedes their science. But it in no way follows that ethics is the motive of their work. Why would we make this claim in philosophy?
The worry I have is that formulations like “ethics precedes ontology” tend towards claims to the effect that ethical and political considerations determine whether ontological claims are true. That’s an entirely different can of worms and one that I believe is all too common in continental circles. This latter formulation is a bit like saying the internet isn’t real because it was originally designed to be a military communication system in the event of a nuclear war. This is a variant of what is known as the genetic fallacy. Few people, I doubt, would make that sort of claim, though you sometimes hear people saying things like this. An example of greater concern in philosophy would be the rejection of claims about the world based on an alleged politics or ethics that position either leads to or originates from. You hear this sort of criticism addressed to, for example, Latour. It is said that Latour is a neoliberal apologist and then this provides subsequent ground for rejecting his actor-network theory.
Likewise, it is sometimes said that Luhmann is “conservative” and this is used for rejecting his social systems theory. Luhmann gets charged with this because he argues that systems are operationally closed such that no system can dominate, control, or steer another system. If one system cannot steer or control another system, then this is so because each system relates to the world through its own distinctions rather than the distinctions of the system attempting to do the steering or controlling. Luhmann argues that contemporary society is functionally differentiated into subsystems such as the political system, the legal system, the economic system, etc. Each one of these systems is operationally closed and functions only according to its own distinctions. For example, the economic system responds to irritations from the political system not politically, but economically. To make matters worse, Luhmann argues that persons aren’t even a part of society, but belong to the environment of society, i.e., they’re outside the social system. Taken as an aggregrate, we can see why these claims would lead to the charge that Luhmann is “conservative”. On the one hand, he’s excluded human agents from the domain of social change (social systems aren’t changed by human agents, according to Luhmann, but by, well, society). On the other hand, he’s argued that one system cannot steer or control another system. Well! Imagine how this resonates in the ears of a Marxist. If what Luhmann says is true, he’s just shown that there’s not a political solution to capitalism precisely because economics is operationally closed and cannot create system states according to political distinctions. This then leads to the rejection of Luhmann’s theory of society tout court. But as the old adage goes, wishing doesn’t make it so. The proper response to a theory like Luhmann’s is not to reject it because it fails to meet the criteria of our political wishes, but to determine how these realities— if they are realities –force us to rethink what emancipatory politics is and how it is possible.
My gripe with declarations that ethics/politics precedes ontology (or whatever else) is that often they lead to very lazy thinking. If you want to reject Luhmann then you don’t denounce him for the politics you believe follows from his position (that has nothing to do with what society is), but rather you do the hard work of determining whether or not he’s provided an adequate account of society. Just as an is cannot determine an ought, and ought cannot determine an is. It works both ways. The problem is that everywhere we see people making arguments where oughts purport to determine what is. Second, if it cannot be shown that Luhmann or Latour’s theory of society is inadequate, then you go about doing the work of determining how we must rethink our political and ethical thought in light of these realities.
Chris goes on to write that:
Now, I realize that this is not at all what Levi had in mind: “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.” Ok, the point FOR YOU, Levi, isn’t about ethics at all. I must say, Levi, it really is annoying to me when you argue ex cathedra when speaking for OOO, or say I or others ‘don’t understand’ when we see things differently. I mean, you can say whatever you want, but don’t you, as the proverb (!) goes, ‘win more flies with honey than with vinegar’?
Such a form of arguing seems to imply that there’s a right and a wrong way to see these things. Now I can understand the desire to at least try to ‘get right’ what someone is trying to say before disagreeing with it. But I think its often subtly implied that there’s a right way, and its the OOO way, and those who have a different opinion simply just don’t understand it yet.
I’m sorry that Chris has problems with the way I argue, but the fact remains that when I evoke the term “flat ontology” that has a specific meaning. Chris’s remarks about flat ontology and suggestion that I was proposing to treat frogs and persons exactly the same with respect to ethics and politics reflects that he does not understand what I am claiming when I deploy the concept of flat ontology. It is therefore incumbent upon me to clarify what this term means. As for Chris’s remarks about right and wrong ways of saying, I can only plead that I’m a philosopher and that as a philosopher I believe that there are things that are true and that there are things that are false. When I defend onticology I am not merely defending a “point of view” but a description I believe to be true of the world. That’s just par for the course in these discussions. I have no problem with Vitale having different questions and interests. That’s fine. But that doesn’t entail, I think, that all models of the world are equally valid or true.
If Vitale has a different account of what flat ontology is, I’m all ears. However, I was under the impression that were were discussing a concept that I coined and have developed. When I make observations about Vitale misunderstanding flat ontology, I am not making claims about Deleuze’s concept of immanence or DeLanda’s concept of flat ontology, but a specific set of philosophical claims I have made. When Vitale evoked the concept of flat ontology in the context of SR, I concluded that he must be referring to me, because I am the only person in the SR movement that has deployed and developed this concept. I know Bogost is sympathetic to it, but I’m not even sure Harman endorses it. He has, after all, expressed reservations about it in the past. In this connection, flat ontology is kinda my thang.
Back to ethics. I think that the only reason for having a flat ontology over any other is ethical. And I don’t think you can separate ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics – yes, for practical purposes they may be distinct, but each implies the other when it comes down to it.
But this gets straight to the point of what I began with this post. Flat ontology has nothing to do with whatever ethical or political commitments one might have, or with what sort of world one might strive for. Flat ontology is a matter of how the world is. And if the claims of flat ontology are true, they are true whether or not we think positive or negative ethical consequences follow from these claims and even whether or not humans exist to make evaluations of such things. Suggesting otherwise is a bit like suggesting that the BP oil spill is not continuing because we don’t like the ethical or political consequences that follow from these things. Could it be that certain political and ethical motivations were involved in my inquiry into being and conclusion that being is “flat”. Sure. Do these political and ethical motivations have anything to do with whether being is flat. Absolutely not. This is part and parcel of what it means to be a realist. What being is is not dependent on you or me. We don’t make being be what it is through our concepts, signs, discourses, narratives, ethical, or political commitments. Finally, could I be mistaken about whether or not being is “flat”? Sure. But if you wish to demonstrate this you need to make an argument that pertains to the nature of being, not your ethical and political commitments. Apples and oranges. I believe that I’ve made copius arguments in favor of my positions.