I’m pleased to see that OOO is beginning to get some attention in Germany, if this review of the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Symposium is any indication (Graham has a partial translation here). I wanted, however, to draw attention to this particular passage in the author’s review. Manfred writes:
Die Philosophie, so Bogost, solle dem einundzwanzigsten Jahrhundert einen »neuen Geschmack postkontinentaler Philosophie« bieten. Man ahnt die Faszination, wenn man nur die Abstracts der Tagungsbeiträge vom 23. April liest. Jüngere weiße amerikanische Männer geben sich der Lust hin, Objekte zu benennen, eine flapsige Sprache zu pflegen und sich zu amüsieren. Endlich ein Tritt vors Schienbein der alten abstrakten Philosophie! Typisch amerikanisch.
This is the second time now that I’ve encountered these sorts of remarks: “Typical white males sitting around talking about objects in dirty ways!” Translation: We’re not really talking about important things like politics, the social, and the agency of the subject. We’re just a bunch of guys that like gadgets and who, because of our privilege, want to sit around talking about objects and toys!
But you see, that gets everything wrong and shows, I think, just how far we have to go in overcoming the correlationist hegemony that dominates continental and analytic thought. The point is that talk about objects is entirely relevant to questions of politics, the social, and subjectivity. One of the major things that drew me to speculative realism and object-oriented ontology was that I came to increasingly feel that continental social and political thought was dominated by a whole set of “missing masses”. In my little neck of social and political thought, all analysis was directed at the signifier, discourses, ideology, power-structures, and narrative and how these form and structure human relations. Yet increasingly I got the feeling that while these things are all real and important, something fundamental was missing in how we talk about social and political issues, that critiques of ideology, narratives, power structures, discourses, and regimes of signification were not enough.
These missing masses– and here I refer readers to Barnett’s excellent review of Graham work –are nonhuman objects. Nonhuman objects aren’t simply outside the domain of human relations, but rather are resonators, agents, that bring humans together and divide them in particular ways. They are elements in an infrastructure that organizes human life in particular ways. Manfred was able to write his post on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium because the internet exists, thereby allowing him to relate to this event that took place across the ocean. It’s unlikely that most people living in Afghanistan would be able to write such a post precisely because they don’t have internet access. Part of the reason for many of the conflicts in regions of Africa has to do with scarcity of water due to climate change, that in turn impacts agriculture and fishing, bringing about struggles over scarce resources.
Over at Critical Animal, Scu proposes a fascinating, exemplary, object-oriented analysis of the impact of food production on general production. Scu writes:
The dissertation is basically divided into two sections. The first section is dedicated to understanding the way that raising and slaughtering of other animals have changed our mode of production. I want to be precise here, the argument isn’t how a different mode of production has given rise to different slaughtering and raising methods, but actually the opposite argument. The way we have killed animals and raised animals has greatly shifted our modes of production. The first obvious way occurs with the invention of the assembly line at the Chicago stockyards (and of course, not just an assembly line, but everything that made Chicago possible. This involved the raise of trains, the invention of refrigerator cars, monocultural agriculture, disciplinary techniques of worker management, new accounting methods, barbed wire, vertical monopolies, feedlots and early genetic manipulations of animals, new advertising techniques, etc). So, the assembly line was birthed through a whole ecology of interactions that centered around and mutually interdependent with Chicago and the packers. In this case, the argument is against a sort of historical accident (though of course, it could have happened otherwise). But that it required a certain disavowal of the animal, a certain biopolitics, that really allowed for these new modes of production (‘the machine’, as Marx puts it) to develop.
The next major change obviously culminates in the 1970s with the birth of what we call factory farming. This of course brings in all sorts of biocapital changes in the mode of production. In this case the question of eugenics being rooted so strongly in the animal sciences, and the development of certain reproductive technologies really rises out of animal sciences. But what occurs is a certain molecular or genetic primitive accumulation, and again what begins with animals is now beginning to spread elsewhere.
What is important in all of this is to understand that the disavowal of the animal is not ancillary or even produced by these modes of production, but rather the disavowal of the animal is constitutive to these modes.
What Scu is attempting to show, I believe, is how a certain way of relating to nonhumans generates a whole set of human relations and phenomena.
With figures like Habermas and Rawls we get a lot of talk about norms governing social relations in social and political theory. With figures like Zizek, we get a lot of talk about ideology and the signifier. With figures like Derrida we get a lot of talk about discourses pertaining to presence or ontotheology. With figures like Foucault we get a lot of talk about regimes of the visible and the speakable. With figures like Badiou we get a lot of talk about truth-procedures. In all of these cases the focus is on the discursive, the signifier, meaning, text, narrative, discourse, and so on. What we don’t get is much talk about nonhuman objects qua nonhuman objects and the role they play in human collectives as invisible infrastructures that bring people together in particular ways and divide them in particular ways.
The point here is not that of discounting or rejecting narrative, discourse, signifiers, ideologies, etc. This is why I’m constantly referring to metaphors of cooking. These things are ingredients in collectives. But like all recipes, there are other ingredients as well. OOO seeks to formulate an ontology rich enough to treat things like signifiers and signs as genuine actors in the world, while also taking into account these other nonhuman actors such as the inorganic, technologies, the organic, and so on. This requires a different sort of analysis that thinks in terms of entanglement rather than conditioning.
In The Democracy of Objects I use the analogy of a film projector to characterize correlationism. In a film you have the projector, the screen, and the images that appear on the screen. The projector is society, the subject, or language. The screen is the nonhuman world. The images are the cultural/subjective projections that humans project on the world. Within correlationism objects are treated as blank screens that contribute no differences of their own beyond functioning as smooth surfaces for culture to project its images. The job of the social and political critic is then conceived as revealing how the images that appear on the screen are really our own ideological mystifications/productions, rather than real being. This is the sort of analysis, I believe, we need to get away from if we’re to account for the missing masses that play a role in organizing society as it is organized. While it is certainly true that the evaporation of lakes in regions of Africa get entangled with significations, ideologies, religious beliefs, etc., that evaporation cannot itself be reduced to significations. We need a mode of analysis rich enough to make room for these actors in terms of their own differences, the differences that they contribute to the “cinema” of phenomena, rather than reducing them to vehicles for significations.
From this two things follow: First, critique is not enough. Revealing the manner in which cultural artifacts are embodiments of some sort of covert ideology that keeps us in the grips of neoliberalism and capitalism is simply not enough. We need to attend to the infrastructures that, independent of any ideology, contribute to maintaining the organization of society in a particular way. Second, persuading others, organizing, protesting, etc., is not enough. We need to make concrete and real proposals about changes in infrastructure to provide people with alternative ways of living. Sometimes it is far more revolutionary to dig a well, lay a road, start a co-op, or render wi-fi readily available then it is to engage in protest or debate. These new nonhuman actants can render alternative possibilities of living and forming collectives available to people where they are not available and can have the effect of eroding repressive ideologies. Missionaries have understood this for centuries. And, no doubt, a good deal of the paranoia found among aging Christian fundamentalists arises from witnessing their children disavowing their values and premises about how society should be organized as a result of a view of the broader world they get from television and the internet (i.e., nonhuman actors having a profound effect on how human actors think).
An analysis of these things and the development of social and political strategies that take them into account requires us to overcome our knee-jerk reaction of treating everything as a correlation or like a text to be decoded. Moreover, we need to overcome our jouissance in revealing a dirty ideological secret behind every belief and cultural artifact. Instead, we need to think a bit more like carpenters, examining how others have put things together, what materials and equipment they used, how they maintain these compositions, where these compositions encounter self-defeating and painful bottlenecks, and what other compositions might be possible. These considerations arise from far more than a de-politicized desire to talk about objects. They arise from a desire to see how our social worlds are truly composed and how they might be changed.