Another lively discussion has begun to unfold surrounding OOO and politics over at Bogost’s blog, with David Rylance writing monster comments that I have a hard time getting through in one setting (David, start a blog!). Here I wanted to focus on two remarks Ian makes in his post, as I think they get to the heart of what interests me about OOO in relation to politics. Ian writes:

…the consequence of realism is that the world isn’t particularly concerned with us. As such, it’s wrong to construe realism as an imperative in the first place. Rather, it must be cast as an invitation: if things exist in multitudes, then perhaps it might be interesting and productive to consider them.

In this connection, we might ask why it might be interesting and productive to consider this multitude of things. I don’t think there is one answer to this question, but I do believe that political concerns are among the answers. Ian goes on to write that,

when Nick Montfort and I suggested the platform studies approach, one of our motivations was that of curiosity. The systems underlying digital media artifacts seemed often to be overlooked. What insights might we derive if we acknowledged them and paid them greater attention? The results were interesting on multiple registers: historical, material, aesthetic, cultural, economic, and even political.

Here I think that Ian gets at something really important. While Ian probably wouldn’t put it this way himself, one conclusion I think we can draw from Ian’s observations about curiosity is that we don’t know the boundaries of the political. I sometimes get the sense that upon first hearing about OOO people take the critique of correlationism and the decentralization to be a call to exclude the human and the cultural altogether. At the level of “meta-ontology”, however, I think something quite different is going on.

read on!

When I refer to “meta-ontology” I am evoking a second-order observation of the distinctions around which an ontology is organized. In this connection, it will be recalled that the concept of distinction, drawn from Spencer-Brown, argues that it is only possible to indicate something by first drawing a distinction. In other words, distinction precedes indication. The image in the upper right is an example of a distinction or what Spencer-Brown calls a “form”. The “sideways L” is the mark of distinction. What falls under the mark, “a”, can now be indicated as a consequence of the drawing of the distinction. Each distinction has its marked and its unmarked side, where the unmarked side is everything that is ignored once the distinction is made and the marked side is what is indicated once the distinction is drawn.

Where first-order ontology merely draws distinctions and proceeds to make indications based on these distinctions, meta-ontology observes how particular ontologies observe, or rather examines the operative distinctions in particular ontological discourses. When we hear the term “object” or tendency is to first think what is opposed to objects or what stands over against objects, subjects. In much of our inherited discourse on ontology (Whitehead, I think, is a notable exception), the subject falls under the marked space of distinction. This, I think, is also true of other variants of SR such as we find in Meillassoux and Brassier, where the question is the epistemological one of how to get out of the subject to touch the real. Within the framework of this traditional ontology, the discourse is such that insofar as culture and subject fall under the marked side of the distinction, all others to the human and the cultural are analyzed in terms of human and culture.

Perhaps at the most fundamental level, OOO consists in a redrawing of distinctions such that objects fall in the marked space of the distinction. In placing objects in the marked space of the distinction, this move does not amount to an exclusion of the human or culture. Rather, humans and the many systems that make up culture are themselves instances of objects. In other words, OOO does not amount to a rejection of the human, but rather a rejection of the thesis that there are two distinct domains of being that are always related to one another: the subject and the object. No, for OOO humans are themselves objects. Through making this move what OOO accomplishes is the strange idea of a “subjectless object”, or an object that just is what it is without any reference to the gaze of any other object required in order to be. However, in treating objects as the marked space of the distinction, it turns out that humans and cultural objects are among the objects that OOO is more than capable of investigating. In other words, unlike some of the scientistic materialisms, OOO is not arguing that only natural objects are “really real”, but rather opens the way to the investigation of these sorts of objects and their translations as well.

Returning to Ian’s post, when Bogost talks about how their curiosity about platforms generated many surprising insights in the domain of the aesthetic, historical, material, economic, and political, I think he is also implicitly pointing to a shortcoming of digital media studies and the broader domain of cultural, social, and political theory. Where the subject and culture falls into the marked space of distinction– as is often implicit in cultural, social, and political theory –we get the operation of a sub-distinction where the marked space of the distinction is content. In other words, what these discourses tend to indicate is content in the form of concepts, narratives, signs, signifiers, language, and discourses.

When distinctions are drawn in this way, it follows that the analysis of cultural artifacts consists in the analysis of one or more of these elements. When we analyze that video game, Grand Theft Auto for example, we are to analyze the stories and signs that appear on the screen. Likewise with nearly all cultural theory. Analysis consists in approaching the world as a text to be decoded. The problem with this mode of analysis is that everything in the unmarked space of the distinction becomes invisible. Returning to the example of Grand Theft Auto, the way the game is programmed, how it is put together, the hardware that runs the game, the production teams that produce it, and many other things completely fall off the map. And here it goes without saying that there is no map that is identical to its territory (otherwise maps would be useless). The problem with the hegemony of this way of drawing distinctions is that we cease even noticing that there’s a difference between map and territory. And part of this is because distinctions withdraw in their use. Paraphrasing Lewis Carroll, you can observe your distinctions (i.e., engage in second-order observation) or use your distinctions (i.e., make indications based on your distinctions), but you can’t use your distinctions and observe your distinctions. These distinctions, however, have become so sedimented in contemporary cultural, social, and political theory that they’ve become all but invisible.

The point of OOO is not that we should reject modes of observation that place content in the marked space of the distinction. A distinction is a way of translating the world and, as Harman says, objects relate to other objects through translations. The point, in “applications” of OOO to questions of the cultural, the social, and the political, is not to exclude the distinctions we have available for making indications, but to broaden and expand the distinctions we have available for making indications. If you read Bogost’s Unit Operations, Persuasive Games, and Racing the Beam coauthored with Montfort, you’ll note that he doesn’t just talk about the details of how an Atari game platform is put together and how it works, but also that he has very nice content based analyses of cultural artifacts. It’s not an either/or. The either/or falls, rather, on the side of discourses that place the subject in the marked space of their distinction, excluding all sorts of other modes of analysis as a consequence (Spencer-Brown talks about how certain structures and relations inevitably follow from distinctions that don’t “re-enter” themselves and recognize their own contingency).

Returning to my thesis that we don’t know the boundaries of the political, my point is that we don’t know whether the political resides exclusively in the domain of content, or whether it extends beyond the domain of content to all sorts of nonhuman actors and technologies that can’t be reduced to matters of content or signs. I think this is part of what Ian is getting at with his point about curiosity and the value of investigating things that initially seem completely unrelated to the political and social like how platforms are put together (many cultural theorists would respond to such an investigation with glazed eyes, wondering what the point is). Today, over in Harman’s kingdom, there is a link about how cell phones might be related to colony collapse among bees. This, I think, drives my point home. Where only content falls in the marked space of our distinctions in cultural, social, and political theory, things like cell phones, cell phone towers, and bees become invisible. Here cell phones are treated as mere carriers of content, not as being of interest in their own right. Yet for collectives such as our own to survive, we need fellows like bees to pollinate our plants so as to produce food to sustain our population. Everyone will, I think, concede that we should recognize the importance of bees, but this rather misses the point. The point is not whether we should recognize the importance of bees, but whether we have a form of theory and of theoretical practice that draws distinctions in ways that encourage us to direct our analysis to nonhuman actants such as platforms, bees, and cell phone towers. As a veteran of many a cultural theory conference, I would say that with few exceptions the answer is no and that the negation of the unmarked space of discourses directed to content is so thorough that it doesn’t even recognize that there’s an unmarked space. In many respects, I think this partially accounts for Ian’s irritation with discourses driven by the political. They mark content above all else, excluding the rest, making his work even more difficult. I would reframe Ian’s ire, saying that the issue isn’t whether or not discourse should be political, but whether or not our discourse allows us to pose good political questions.