Gerry Canavan has written a generous and gracious follow up to my last post. Gerry writes:

Sorry, that was glib to the point of unfairness.

My problem with the post I linked is the difference between the claim in the first version that we must “think unilaterally” to the far weaker claim in the second post (which I hadn’t seen before now) that your project “merely tries to draw attention to the role played by nonhumans in the development and construction of humans and their societies.”

I see that you now describe the first version as “strategic hyperbole” –asking, “how else do you draw attention to an important point?” — but I would suggest first that this hyperbole is perhaps not as successful a strategy as you might have hoped. The assertion of object-oriented unilaterality, and the call for an ontology that is literally flat as opposed to simply flatter, is a poor advertisement for your ideas insofar as it distorts reality in the inverse direction.

You actually speak in terms of strategy quite a bit in that “Context Matters” post: strategies to draw attention to, or draw attention away, various propositions. That’s also how I read the demand that we “think unilaterally” in the first post: “Cultivating this sensibility requires, paradoxically enough, first surrendering bilateralization for a time and thinking unilaterally.” But this “for a time” seems to significantly undercut what I understand to be the central claims of OOO, which (I thought) was about ontology and not about rhetoric. Are we to pretend to believe in the unilateral determinative capacity of objects “for a time” to make a point — or are we to actually believe in it? And to the extent that it is the second — which I do accede to some extent, certainly, though never unilaterally — why then should we be so eager to abandon concepts like (to take your list) mind, intentionality, language, and power? Surely such things “play a role in the development of humans and their society” as well!

I honestly don’t know of many people working in the humanities today who would deny the importance of (to again take your list) geography, technology, animals, plants, weather, and microbes. I know the object of critique but I don’t recognize the critique as being a fair one. Consequently I just don’t see the urgency of “thinking unilaterally” when (as you seem to concede) it produces a picture that is just as distorted as the straw-philosopher of pure reason at whom you want to take aim.

I know you all have been talking and arguing about this for a while so I’m sure the answers to these objections seem obvious. But I haven’t been convinced. I’ll certainly read the book before commenting again — which (you may remember) is precisely what I was encouraging my readers to do.

Sorry again for being rude.

I see Gerry’s point about rhetoric, but I also don’t think anyone can say everything at once. It could be that the difference in what we see has to do with our respective backgrounds. Gerry comes from, for example, a heavily Marxist background and ecologica thoughtl. I don’t see this as a problem in a lot of Marxist theory (including Jameson), and certainly ecological thought, by virtue of the very nature of its questions, has engaged with nonhuman actors in their own terms from the getgo. My thought largely developed in the context of French post-structuralist thought (especially Lacan, Zizek, and Derrida) where language is given a disproportionately important role to the detriment of other factors (Deleuze, I think, doesn’t suffer from this).

However, for me the point of flat ontology is not to reject things such as signifiers, signs, humans, etc., but to make room for other sorts of nonhuman actors in their own terms and as irreducible to the status of being vehicles for signs and social/mental contents. Here I’m in agreement with McLuhan. McLuhan argues that media are “extensions of humans”. A fork, for example, would be an example of a medium for McLuhan because it extends us in a particular way. In Laws of Media McLuhan remarks that,

It makes no difference whatever whether one considers as artefacts or as media things of a tangible ‘hardware’ nature such as bowls and clubs or forks and spoons, or tools and devices and engines, railways, spacecraft, radios, computers, and so on; or things of a ‘software’ nature such as theories or laws of science, philosophical systems, remedies or even the diseases in medicine, forms or styles in painting or poetry or drama or music, and so on. All are equally artefacts, all equally human, all equally susceptible to analysis, all equally verbal in structure. (4)

Ian Bogost and I are currently writing a book on McLuhan’s theory of media, porting it into an object-oriented framework. In the passage above, there are two points we find objectionable, though the core thesis remains sound. First, McLuhan restricts media to extensions of humans. We, by contrast, argue that a medium is any object that extends another object, regardless of whether the object being extended or doing the extending is human or animate. For example, wind is a medium for sand. Humans are a medium for grass insofar as we plant them all over the planet. Second, we object to McLuhan’s thesis that mediums are primarily verbal in nature. The core feature of any medium is that it extends another object. The verbal and semiotic is only a subset of the different types of media that exist.

With these two caveats in mind, McLuhan gives a nice picture of what a flat ontology looks like and how it can simultaneously take into account the role played by cultural objects like signs and nonhuman objects like cane toads. In other words, within the framework I’m proposing, a signifier, a sign, laws, etc., are no less objects and actors than quarks, stars, cane toads, and so on. The Domestication of Objects simply focuses on how certain nonhumans such as wheat, lawn grass, microbes, cows, cereals, etc., have “used” humans as mediums to extend themselves and the impact this has had on the structure that various societies have taken. As Braudel notes in Capitalism & Civilization, for example, Chinese agriculture was largely based on rice from the fourteenth century on (and prior to that as well). The advantage of rice is that, unlike other cereals such as wheat, it is an extremely reliable crop and you are able to get two to three harvests out of it a year. Rice, however, is extremely labor intensive to produce, requiring collective effort. This had a significant impact on the social structures that emerged throughout Asia. Likewise, in Guns, Germs, and Steel, Jared Diamond notes the large role played by domesticated animals in their agriculture. Because of the close proximity of humans to domesticated animals, there was a lot of cross-over in diseases in livestock and human diseases. Europeans built up a strong immunity to these diseases as a result, but people’s in the Americas did not as they did not have nearly as many domesticated animals. This led to tragic results that significantly contributed to the sorts of social structures that emerged in contact between these different groups.

In my view, continental theory has been dominated by a strong focus on the analysis of representations, norms, signifiers, signs, contents, meanings, and so on. Here we might think of Barthes’ semiological thesis that language is a primary modeling system for everything else in the world. The point is not to reject mediums like signs and how they extend and change other things, but to draw attention to these other sorts of entities and the role that they play. As someone who is deeply influenced by Marx and presumably Marx’s discussion of machines and the working day in Capital, I’m sure Gerry can appreciate why such analyses might be important and why, in our time, dominated as it is by all sorts of technologies and ecological transformations, it might be valuable to de-emphasize focus on cultural artifacts and their meanings for a time so as to draw attention to these things.

At any rate, I appreciate Gerry’s link and his follow up. Back to putting the final edits on The Democracy of Objects!