Anyone who has followed this blog for a while has probably come to realize that many of the positions I argue against are positions I formally held. In other words, often, in my criticisms, I am working through my own positions and trying to expand them through a sort of quasi-dialectical gesture that both integrates elements of the position I held and moves beyond it. My hope, then, is that my criticism not be taken in the spirit of rejection, But rather of placing a theoretical apparatus in its proper context and recognizing the limitations of that theoretical tool.
With this caveat in mind, if we turn to the domain of critical theory broadly construed (ie, as referring to social and political theory), then it seems to me that we’re faced with a plurality of theoretical monisms that lead to an inability to explain how change is possible. By “theoretical monism” I mean any critical theory that is more or less organized around some conceptual master-signifier or concept that functions as the ground of everything else. That master-term might be the signifier, sign, power, economics, etc. The problem is that when you have one term functioning as the ground of everything else, it’s no longer clear what produces change within a system.
Take the example of Lacanianism. As The Democracy of objects will make clear, I very much remain a Lacanian. However, for a long time I was just a Lacanian. By being “just a Lacanian” I mean that I believed that Lacanian theory provides us with a general theory of the social. Such a thesis might appear surprising to many who perhaps association psychoanalysis with psychology (ie, a discourse about individual minds), however we must remember that for Lacan, like Hume, psychology is, strictly speaking, impossible because the subject is constituted in the field of the Other. In other words, no social, no subject. Consequently, as Freud will argue in Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, the ego is essentially constituted inter-subjectively, and psychoanalysis is every bit as much a theory of the social as it is a theory of the subject. Indeed, Lacan’s theory can be read as a theory of the clinical setting as opposed to a theory of mind (a point he endlessly repeats in his seminar).
As “just a Lacanian” I believed, above all, that the signifier structures reality. As Lacan puts it in Seminar XX, “the universe is the flower of rhetoric.”. Impressed by the structural linguistics I had read and work by Lacan such as “The Instance of the Letter”, I came to understand all of reality as structured by the symbolic. First you have the pre-symbolic real (what Lacan and Lacanians often call the “mythological real”), which is understood to be undifferentiated and without structure, and then you have the signifier that comes to structure of reality. What makes a men’s room a men’s room and the ladies room the ladies room? The signifier “man” and “woman”. What makes the ten o’clock train the ten o’clock train? The signifier “ten o’clock train”, not the material train itself. What constitutes the difference between blue and green (note some cultures classify shades of green as blue and vice versa)? The signifiers “blue” and “green” coupled with their differential relations.
In short, the signifier precedes the thing and structures it. There is a pre-symbolic reality, but because we can only relate to the world through the symbolic (all our cognition is linguistically structured) we can know nothing about it. Moreover, because language is transubjective rather than based on individual intentions, the social precedes the subject and reality. As a consequence, question of the political must necessarily be a question of the symbolic because the symbolic, as that which precedes and conditions reality, would necessarily structure social relations, assigning people positions and so on. To act politically would thus be to act on the symbolic. Q.E.D.
There’s a lot that’s right about the Lacanian position, and much here that I still hold, but the problem is that if it is language alone that structures reality it’s difficult to see where change comes from at all. Where is the alterity that allows change to take place? To be sure, there is the Lacanian subject and the Real. The Lacanian subject is that void that always slips away from any signifying chain (there is no signifier that can pin it down and each signifier reproduces it, ie, it’s radically withdrawn). The Lacanian Real consists of formal that no language can handle and that therefore prevents any totalization of the symbolic (each form of neurosis is organized, for example, around such a formal aporia or Real). But while the Lacanian subject and Real open the promising possibility of a scrambling of any totality and possible escape, their very formality leaves specific struggle underdetermined. Paraphrasing Deleuze, these concepts are too baggy to capture the real.
And so it went. I could give formal conditions for change, quasi-transcendental conditions for the possibility of change, but I was unable to give any account of the specific conditions of struggle and why they ought to take one specific form rather than another in a specific context. This, I’ve come to believe, is a result of the theoretical monism of the Lacanian framework. However, what if, instead of placing ourselves with the straight jacket of Lacan or Foucault or Marx or Deleuze and Guattari or Latour, etc, we instead tried to think Lacan and Marx and Foucault and Deleuze and Guattari and Latour, etc? “Wait”, someone will say, “isn’t this what Zizek is doing or Deleuze and Guattari are doing or Badiou is doing?”. Sure, that’s what they say they’re trying to do, but they’re not doing it. Deleuze and Guattari fair the best here, but in the case of Zizek it’s still the signifier that has primacy. In Badiou economics and nonhumans disappear altogether.
This is what flat ontology is trying to do. I hate that I’m repeating myself so much these days but it’s a point that needs to be repeated again and again. The point of flat ontology is not to reduce everything to the same. Flat ontology rejects every hegemon. The point of flat ontology is to think interactions among heterogenous components: technologies, animals, minerals, vampires, corporations, capital, humans, works of art, speeches, video footage, corporations, salamanders, etc.
Look at what happens when you adopt this pluralistic realism: because you have introduced heterogeneity into your framework, refusing any hegemon, you now get tensions among different fields that become occasions for various forms of collective invention. You get singularities. Take the example of the feminist movement in the sixties. Twenty to thirty years ago you had three fields interacting with one another. You had the symbolic codifying the place of men and women, micro-powers with their filiments stretching everwhere structure subjectivity and male and female desire, and the economic-military complex of the factory. Because of the draft and the war effort women enter the factory. Suddenly they encounter a contradiction between how the symbolic and micro-power structures the world. New individuations take place. “Girls can do it too!”
The men come back from the war and kick women out of their jobs. But at the level of the symbolic and micro-power, change and invention is already afoot. Newborn children witness fraught relations between husbands and wives– women bitter, perhaps, at the loss of their professional and economic freedom, men suffering from war trauma and still living in the symbolic and power structures of the pre-war period. Among daughters and sons a new space of possibility glimmers on the horizon. Meanwhile, there is unparalleled economic prosperity due to Keynesian economics, allowing for a loosening of existing power and symbolic relations. Twenty years later a space of invention and creation explodes, like a germinating plant, as these children come of age and form groups to invent new collectives. The outcome is not determined but an occasion is opened where a new regime becomes possible.
Wars, factories, signifiers, weapons, economics, universities, all play a role in occasioning this new group-subject. Occasioning is not causing. Rather, occasioning is catalytic, drawing together a complex field of relations where a group and invention might come to be and where praxis is self-directing. What opportunities do we miss as amresult of theoretical hegemony or monism which renders vision of other actors invisible? Flat ontology strives to overcome missed opportunities.