In yesterday’s post I discussed hetergeneous compositions as one of the key concepts of flat ontology. In many respects, this is one of the reasons that many of the object-oriented ontologists are hesitant, or outrightly hostile, to the appellation of “materialism”. Graham rejects the term altogether. Bogost and I are fairly willing to embrace the appellation with qualification. I’m not sure where Morton stands here. If there’s hesitation over this term, this is because materialisms tend to endorse the ontological priority of one type of entity over all others– for example, indivisible atoms as conceived by Lucretius –whereas the heterontology of flat ontology argues for the existence of a plurality of different types of entities ranging from atoms to fennel to institutions, signs, works, artistic artifacts and so on. OOO doesn’t wish to restrict the variety of entities we find in the world, treating all other entities as derivative of some foundational sort of entity such as atoms or language or intentions of a transcendental subject, but rather to expand the domain of what counts as an entity, a genuinely real being, and to think of interactions among these entities in a composition.
Ian Bogost underlines this point with his invention of the Latour Litanizer as a tool for generating heterogeneous lists of entities. Bogost’s Latour Litanizer draws on Wikipedia to generate random lists of entities. Of the Litanizer, Bogost writes:
In these lists we find people, places, organizations, ideas, fictions, groups, media, durations, and even other lists. By divorcing the author and reader from the selection process, the litanizer amplifies both the variety of types of units that exist and variety of alliances between them. The diversity and density of tiny ontology seeps out from these litanies, both individually and (especially) when taken together (Alien Phenomenology)
The value that Ian seems to discern in Latour’s lists lies in the manner in which it reminds us of “the diversity and density” of being. There’s thus a way in which Latour litanies function somewhat like Husserl’s transcendental epoche or, in a very different vein, Descartes’ radical doubt. Husserl’s epoche invites us to suspend believe in the independent existence of entities in the world so as to focus solely on how entities are given in sense-bestowing intentionality (the property of being conscious of something and the how of that consciousness). Likewise, Descartes’ radical doubt invites us to doubt everything so as to determine that of which we can be truly certain. Like a fantastic and bizarre work of fiction such as Ben Marcus’s sublime and inscrutable Age of Wire and String, the Latour Litanizer confronts us with bizarre assemblages of entities reminding us of the strangeness of being.
Here, for perhaps the first time in the history of philosophy, we have a non-human technology (which is, of course, bound up with humans) doing genuine philosophical work. By removing the theorist from the production of the list, our ontological prejudices or preferences, which focus on particular types of entities are suspended, and we are confronted with the disturbing density and variety of being. I hit the “generate” button and am rewarded with the following:
Achatinella abbreviata, Artificial immune system, Veselin Duho, Gampopa, Ubexy
I hit the button again and am confronted with the following impossible set:
Nice to Be Around (Maureen McGovern album), United States government role in civil aviation, Harald Nilsen, Winslow-Turner Carriage House, Ayapanopsis luteynii, Ragnar Larsen, Ptarmigan Island
Never before has thought been provoked or disturbed by such bewildering arrays of entities. Never before has philosophy been disturbed by such diversity.
The point here is not to suggest that all these elements belong together, to suggest that they can form a stable or consistent composition. No, the point is to force ourselves to confront the bewildering diversity of what exists. Us philosophers, us theorists, have a rather nasty habit of referring to things like “the object”, “the subject”, “matter”, etc. There are those, often of a Hegelian bent, that see the example as beneath the splendor of philosophical thought, as a failure to achieve “the concept”. However, the truth of the matter is that “the concept” is always, in its practical deployment, a disguised example. Adopting a pretentious rhetoric of the pure concept independent of all empirical or particularist contamination, the theorist claims to be thinking the “as such” of “the object”, “the subject”, “matter”, etc., claiming to get at that which is common to all objects, all subjects, all matter, and so on. Yet, lurking within the latent text of the theorist’s manifest text is always a privileged example of “the object”, “the subject”, “matter as such” that comes to serve as the prototype of all objects, subjects, and matter. The Latour Litanizer spells the ruin of this covert deployment of a prototype by confronting us with a heterontology.
Along these lines, Peter Gratton and I were yesterday discussing what we both see as a shortcoming of contemporary French social and political theory. Wouldn’t it be nice, we wondered, to see the disappearance of terms like “the subject” (Badiou, Zizek), “the event” and so on, instead returning to Sartre’s talk of groups, collectives, solidarities, groups in fusion, seriality, and subject-groups in the Critique of Dialectical Reason? Certain concepts inhibit thought and cause more problems than they solve. When Badiou evokes the concept of the subject, he, no doubt, wishes to evoke “the subject of history”. For example, the proletariat. The problem here is two-fold: First, the term nontheless draws thought ineluctably to individuals, drawing it away from the thinking of collectives. Second, talk of the subject tends to render the internal challenges of forming collectives, of forming consistent compositions that manage to exist in the world for a time opaque and invisible. Such practical challenges become entirely invisible.
The issue is similar with the recently fashionable turn to talk about the Event and Act. There is something messianic in this sort of talk, indicative of a yearning for a non-contaminated pure and free point within assemblages that somehow detaches or subtracts itself the messiness of the world and therefore attains an Archimedean point free of ideology. Again, the problem here is that it draws our attention away from the nuts and bolts of situations, how these compositions are structured and organized. Instead we fetishize an “evental declaration” or a Bartleby-like act and say to hell with any concrete analysis or understanding of situations. We sure as hell don’t engage in the sort of careful historical analysis that Marx develops in Capital or that Diamond develops in Guns, Germs, and Steel, or that Foucault develops in his later work.
What we need, by contrast, as a practice based on what Bogost, in Alien Phenomenology, refers to as an exploded view. We’re all familiar with exploded view schematics. Whenever you get a new piece of furniture from, say, Ikea, you get an exploded view schematic of the furniture that you’re to put together in the form of a diagram that shows how all the parts fit together. Exploded view schematics show how things are put together. And in knowing something about how things are put together you also learn both where the weak parts of that composition lie and what points need to be strengthened.
One crucial point to note is that exploded view schematics are absolutely specific. They don’t speak in generalities like “capitalism” or “racism” or “sexism” or “grills”, but rather of how this particular composition is put together. Like the Latour Litanizer, they thus draw us out of the scholars study where we speak like ignorant boobs about “capitalism” so that we might see how this capitalism is organized in, say, the city of Chicago. Peter Hallward’s exemplary Damning the Flood is an exemplary case of an exploded view of how capitalism function in Haiti. And because Hallward takes the time to map the Haiti situation in an exploded view diagram, we also become capable of what nodes within this assemblage need to be engaged and targeted. We don’t run around talking like apes saying “if you live here you’re from here!” (a nice sentiment, but what practical work does it do?), but instead target the nuts and bolts themselves in ways that allow us to really work to insure that if you do indeed live here it is guaranteed that you’re from here.
This brings me back to my talk about collectives with Gratton last night. As anyone who has ever done administrative work, organized a conference, or who has worked with others who share roughly analogous theoretical commitments in the work of movement building knows, collectives are hard work. The joke that’s been floated about for the last year is that forming collectives is like herding cats.
Collectives are assemblages of diverse actors, all milling about in different directions. These assemblages don’t simply consist of humans. No, they involve resources, materials, material infrastructures like power lines, buildings, staplers, paper, roads, etc. In this connection, a conversation during lunch yesterday made my jaw drop. Within the context of a heated debate about Levi-Strauss’s focus on the semiotic, on the domain of sense (and no, pointing out that he refers to nonsense is irrelevant to this point as nonsense is still a signifying determination in this structuralist model, i.e., a point about how language functions and generates sense), I remarked that when you look at live-time maps of internet traffic in the United States you notice that internet traffic comes almost entirely from the major cities and the coasts. In short, these maps also show us the distribution of internet infrastructure throughout the country. To this one of my dear friends remarked sarcastically “yeah, that’s the problem”. Well yes, I’m afraid, in part it is the problem. This exploded view map of internet infrastructure also maps on to political distributions in the United States. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels note that one of the key contradictions in the capitalism of their time is the opposition between the city and the countryside, industry and agriculture. This exploded view schematic teaches us much the same thing, showing us how particular forms of politics map on to particular forms of infrastructure. The absence of readily available internet technologies creates a structure in which the people of rural regions only encounter those who share their own views. The only access is to people in church, at school, in the workplace such as it is, the local bar, etc.
Am I suggesting that making wi-fii freely available to all and that providing the infrastructure where this freely available wi-fii is a reality and not just an abstraction suddenly solves all our political problems? No. These technologies are only a component in a complex assemblage. However, just as having a child completely transforms your previous patterns of life, generating all sorts of deterritorializations, the introduction of such infrastructure surely introduces all sorts of new deterritorializations in such a context. The point is that these actors in a collective are not a matter of ideology, the signifier, norms, etc., and that so long as we focus almost exclusively on these things, these other actors become invisible to us. Are they imbricated with norms, signifiers, ideologies, and so on? Yes. The garlic in your pasta is imbricated with tomatoes, oregano, wine, etc., etc., etc. But these other actors introduce their own specific differences that deserve their own mode of analysis.
The advantage of thinking in terms of collectives and composition is that we focus on the work involved in producing solidarity and alliances… Solidarities and alliances that aren’t just solidarities and alliances between human beings, but where we also have to think about very concrete and basic things like how persons struggling for similar things despite the fact of being separated by hundreds of miles can communicate, interact, and coordinate despite this distance so that something of a collective entity can iterate itself or reproduce itself through time. All of this becomes invisible with baboon talk about events, truth-procedures, acts, and subjects.