The RMMLA in Albuquerque New Mexico has been fantastic this year. Of the many panels I’ve attended, there’s been discussions of OOO on each, which lots of terrific discussion after the sessions. In the responses to my paper (forthcoming, I believe, in the next issue of Speculations) I noticed that there was a strong tendency towards exclusionary binary thinking. I can’t go into too much detail at the moment as I’m heading out to meet Bogost, Morton and others soon, but one of the targets of my paper was forms of social and political analysis that focus on ideology, signifiers, representation, norms, and so on. In short, I was critizing the tendency of Continental social and political theory to privilege anything that has to do with text and meaning. In my experience, a number of my fellow Continentalists are not even aware that they are doing this, and have a hard time thinking about factors that don’t fall into the domain of the textual and meaning. I suspect this has something to do, as Ian argued in his talk and the brilliant forthcoming Alien Phenomenology, with the fact that we academics p in the humanities primarily deal with text and therefore come to experience texts, meaning, arguments, concepts, ideas, and so on as the only things that are real or important.
In some of the responses to my talk, I got the sense that others thought I’m dismissing texts, meanings, concepts, etc altogether. This, I think, misses the basic idea of flat ontology. Flat ontology is not an attempt to limit the types of entities we can appeal to explain things, but to Expand the types of entities we appeal to to explain things. The point is not to reject signs, texts, meanings, norms, and so on, but to make room for a discussion of the role played by other entities as well.
Flat ontology thus invites cultural theorists to think in terms of compositions. According to dictionary.com, a composition is,
1. the act of combining parts or elements to form a whole.
2. the resulting state or product.
3. manner of being composed; structure: This painting has an orderly composition.
4. makeup; constitution: His moral composition was impeccable.
5. an aggregate material formed from two or more substances: a composition of silver and tin.
In short, compositions are about mixtures of heterogeneous materials. The problem with so much contemporary social and political theory, it lacks this dimension of heterogeneous composition. For example, signifiers or ideology are treated as the sole glue that holds the social together. If you press the theorist, of course, they will concede that technologies, infrastructure like roads and power lines, availability of resources, weather patterns that influence harvest, etc, play a role. The problem, however, is that this acknowledgment does not appear in their theoretical practice.
To illustrate what I’m getting at, we might talk about race relations in the United States. It is notable that race relations are also reflected geographically in how populations of blacks and whites are distributed in terms of where they live. Statistically you find African-Americans concentrated in the cities, whereas you find whites in the suburbs. It wasn’t, however, always this way. If one wasn’t a farmer then he lived in the city, regardless of whether the person was white or black. What changed?
Theorists like Homi Bhabha or Spivake would tell us a story about the play of differance in the signifier generating discrete, oppositional identities and this is indeed part of the story. Here the signifier is the agency that accounts for these racial oppositions and therefore the most important target of critique. However, this story about the play of the signifier doesn’t give any insight as to why this statistical geographical distribution began to unfold at precisely this point in history.
For my part, I believe the refrigerator played an important role in generating new racial relations in the United States. Why? Prior to the refrigerator people faced the problem of the perishability of food. This necessitated living close to local markets so that you could go daily to get food. Unless you were a largely self-sufficient farmer, you therefore, by necessity, had to live in the cities if you were an office worker or industrial worker. With the advent of the refrigerator it became possible to buy perishable food for a week or more, thereby allowing for the birth of the suburbs. No doubt, racist ideologies played an important role in white flight, but notice that racism also begins to take on new forms and content as a result of these new geographical distributions.
I am not, of course, suggesting that this analysis is exhaustive or that the refrigerator is the cause of racism. The point of this example is to draw attention to the sort of complex interplays flat ontology wants to talk about and analyze. OOO wants to be capable of simultaneously engage in the sorts of analyses that theorists while Bhabha, Spivak, and Zizek engage in while also talking about technologies, resources, weather, biology, etc. OOO theorists think like cooks. Just as it would be absurd to say that the garlic causes the pasta sauce, it is absurd to suggest that it is the ideology or signifier causes racism. Garlic is a component in a composition that also includes the cook, temperatures, herbs, tomatoes, the stirring of the sauce, etc, all interacting with one another. Racism is a composition that involves signifiers, geographical distributions, infrastructure and how it restricts and enables access, technologies, persons, institutions, etc. We need a theory rich enough to think heterogeneous compositions in action that doesn’t produce counter-productive myopia arising from privileging one component of a composition to the detriment of a variety of other components. This means that we must become truly multi-disciplinary, learning about economics, geography, semiotics, history, technology, linguistics, etc. This is, to be sure, a lot of work, but it’s payoff is that it allows us to discern those key nodes and actors in networks where the introduction of new actants can have a profound impact on the composition as a whole. Critique and decoding is not enough. Sometimes simply building a road or making wi-fii universally available for free can initiate sequences of becoming that profoundly transform social relations.
Time to run.