Over at The Nation, Patricia Williams has written a scathing editorial on Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Ordinarily I would ignore this sort of debate– I’m particularly uncomfortable with all the cultural stereotypes flying about on both sides –but my attention was caught by a passing contrast Williams draws between values-based approaches to the world and social issues and what, for lack of a better word, might be characterized as materialist orientations. Williams writes,
Chua’s fears are not confined by race, ethnicity or personal effort alone. After all, in Greece and France students have been rioting because of the rising costs of a good education and the paucity of jobs. In Akron, Ohio, an African-American tiger mother named Kelley Williams-Bolar was recently prosecuted for lying about where she lived so she could get her children into a decent school district. In California, immigrant kids of Mexican parents are battling for the right to pay in-state tuition at public universities. In Memphis there are fights about whether integrating a poor school district with a wealthier suburban one would constitute a “theft” of education. In London, a woman named Mrinal Patel was accused of fraud for misrepresenting her address so as to qualify her child for a better school. There are few places, in other words, where people are not worried about the quality of life and distribution of resources on a crowded planet.
At the same time, if Singapore, China and Hong Kong are producing a greater number of students with musical proficiency and excellent test scores, it’s because they have made huge public investments in education. They make musical instruments available to students—as the United States once did in the first part of the twentieth century. They have teachers certified in the subjects they teach—as was the case in Russian schools during the Sputnik era. “Westerners” are not nearly as lacking in work ethic as Chua maintains; but you don’t get to Yale if your elementary school has no books. You don’t rank first in the world in science if, as in the United States, 60 percent of your biology teachers are reluctant to teach evolution—and 13 percent teach creationism instead.
It would be so deliciously convenient if calling your kids “garbage”—another parenting trick Chua boasts about—actually turned them into little engines that could. But our larger educational crisis will involve a public investment that simply does not correlate with shooting down the self-esteem of children or disrespecting the “Western-ness” of the parents who struggle to raise them.
On the one hand you have Chua arguing that our educational woes are the result of having the wrong sorts of values. Chua talks a lot about work ethics, decline, etc, etc., etc. In Chua’s universe, everything is to be explained by reference to the beliefs, norms, values, etc., that we embrace. In this respect, Chua is a thoroughgoing humanist. If we wish to understand why social relations are the way they are, argues Chua, we need to look to the beliefs and values that people embrace. Change those beliefs and values and you will change social assemblages.
Williams does not deny the importance of these sorts of values and their importance. On the one hand, she critiques what she discerns as a sort of cultural essentialism in Chua’s arguments, wondering whether these sorts of values are unique to the Chinese. On the other hands, she points to a number of other cultures that share similar values and aspirations. However, Williams does argue that these values are not enough. What’s interesting in Williams’ argument is the attention that she draws to infrastructure and objects with respect to issues in education. I’m unable to run my latest version of Word on my old Atari precisely because that Atari doesn’t have the right sort of platform to run such programs. Likewise, one can have all the values in the world, but if their schools don’t have books, reliable power, transportation to get to the schools, sufficient room for the students, a sufficient number of teachers for the students, and if the students are spending the day starving, etc., it’s pretty difficult for those students to perform.
Object-oriented ontology has received a lot of flack for being antihuman or hating humans or something, but that misses the whole point. In The Mangle of Practice, Pickering does a nice sorting of the difference between humanism, antihumanism, and posthumanism. Humanism, argues Pickering, is a position that locates all explanatory power in the domain of meaning, values, norms, signifiers, and so on. Antihumanism, in Pickering’s idiosyncratic characterization, excludes all pertaining to the human entirely. He describes antihumanism as the traditional stance of the physical sciences. There one is only concerned with cause and effect interactions, thoroughly ignoring anything to do with meaning, norms, power, and so on. Finally, posthumanism would be that position which attempts to think the interplay of these domains, placing them on equal ontological footing.
OOO is not antihuman, but posthuman. In my work what I try to draw attention to is the role that nonhuman objects play in human assemblages. As I argue in my recent Georgia Tech talk, nonhuman objects play a key role in producing the sort of inertia that characterizes social relations. People might aspire for something else, they might value something other than the sort of social world they find themselves in, but the nonhuman objects that populate our world (availability of resources, the set up of technologies, how institutions are structured and funded, etc), create a sort of inertia that channels us in particular directions. In my post “Falling and Social Assemblages“, I compared this inertia to a sort of gravity structuring the social. This is why, in “The Faintest of Traces” (my Georgia Tech talk), I argued that we always have to think the social from a geographical site and the ways in which the exigencies of that site structure social assemblages. We must take care not to think purely at the level of the signifier, the symbolic, and meaning as these can geographically exist anywhere. We have to look at the material make-up of social assemblages if we truly wish to understand them.
It’s not that I disagree with Chua’s values– though I would never tell my daughter she’s trash or threaten to adopt a “real” Irish-Spanish child to replace her –but rather that I believe that the domain of meaning is never enough to account for why social assemblages are as they are. The problem with arguments such as Chua’s, is that they often lead to cruelty and blindness. In their humanism, they place all efficacy in the agent’s beliefs, meanings, values, and so on. “If people x in region y of the country or world live in dire circumstances z, then this is because they must be lazy, have the wrong values, not have a good work ethic, etc!” Such arguments endlessly ignore the manner in which people are situated, and because they place all efficacy in human agents, they are able to morally blame these agents for where they are in the world and get themselves off the hook for any complicity they might have in the production of these social assemblages (through the manner in which capitalism systematically generates inequality, for example). It is my hope that if OOO does anything at all, it draws attention to this bubbling, yet often invisible, world of nonhuman objects and how they structure our social relations. Greater attentiveness to this dimension of our social world might allow us to begin identifying those links that produce certain oppressive social relations and devise ways to change them. Sometimes digging a well can have far more of a transformative impact than critiquing ideology or instilling people with the right values. Such analysis might not be as sexy as a demystification or an ideological unmasking or the heights of jouissance produced in morally condemning others, but often they make a much bigger difference. We need to cultivate the habit of tracing networks, even when we don’t know what we’ll find as in, by contrast, psychoanalytic critiques.