Over at Ecology without Nature, Morton has an interesting post up on the status of individuals in his version of object-oriented ontology. Morton writes,
Because they are withdrawn, objects are unique. This doesn’t mean that they are individuals or that they are individualists.
In this post I get the sense that Tim is trying the navigate the Charybdis and Scylla of individualism and holism. In the corner of individualism you would get the thesis that objects are so thoroughly individual that they purely define and determine themselves sans any intervention from an outside (I suspect Harman’s thesis that objects are withdrawn is often getting read in this way). In the corner of holism you would get the thesis that the being of each and every object is thoroughly relational such that it has no existence or agency independent of the relations it entertains with other objects.
As is so often the case in continental philosophy, politics lurks in the background. Individualism functions as code for rightwing ideology and holism functions as code for leftwing ideology. This variant of rightwing ideology received it’s most precisely and memorable formulation from Margaret Thatcher. As Thatcher famously said, “society does not exist.” She then added that there are only individuals and families. When Thatcher said that society does not exist, she meant that people are not products of social forces and conditions, but are rather products of themselves through their own sovereign decisions, choices, skills, and so on. The practical consequence of this position is twofold: (1) If people are products of their own sovereign choices and make themselves, then they are responsible for where they are in society, and (2) other individuals and government institutions have no responsibilities to individuals in dire circumstances such as poverty. Rather, the function of government would be to protect the rights of individuals, protect the state, and punish crime; nothing more, nothing less. If we have no obligations to individuals in unfortunate circumstances, then this is because these individuals are where they are as a result of the poor choices they made. The poor person is not a product of poverty, but rather their own bad decisions. The criminal is not a product of social circumstances, but is the result of a crack in their being that leads him to crime. Such is the core thesis of liberalism and neoliberalism.
From this vantage, we can see why holism becomes attractive. The holist rejoins that no, individuals are products of their relations or circumstances. Poverty produces poverty. Wealth produces wealth. Horrific living circumstances tend to produce horrific circumstances. Individuals do not choose these circumstances, but find themselves entangled in these circumstances. If this is the case, then individuals are not responsible for where they are because, to use a Heideggerian turn of phrase, they were thrown into a set of circumstances not of their own making that channel and form them in a particular way. Holism thus becomes attractive for two reasons: (1) it allows us to discern how circumstances in-form individuals, and (2) in arguing that everything is inter-related such that no individual is ever solely a product of their own actions (e.g., the wealthy person is not self-made, in a vacuum), we are responsible to others because (a) we necessarily have a hand in producing the social field and therefore the circumstances of others, and (b) because we are not simply products of ourselves, but are also where we are because of the countless contributions others have made to producing our circumstances.
If the holist is so loathe to grant one inch to individuals, then this is because the stakes are incredibly high. In granting an inch to the individual, the holist is opening the door to a set of policies that authorize ignoring circumstances, relations, and the negative feedback loops operative in the social field. Those familiar with cybernetics will recall that negative feedback consists of those types of feedback relations that produce homeostasis or self-regulation along a pre-determined route in a system. The thermostat in your house is an excellent example of negative feedback. You set your thermostat at, say, seventy degrees. As the temperature begins to drop, the heat kicks on running until the thermometer hits seventy degrees, then stopping once again. This continuous cycle ensures that your house will always remain around seventy degrees. In other words, the temperature in your apartment doesn’t jump to one hundred degrees, nor does it fall to thirty degrees, but rather remains in a particular basin of attraction around seventy degrees. The holist recognizes that there are all sorts of negative feedback mechanisms at work in social relations. If the children of poor people themselves tend to grow up to be poor, then this is because there are all sorts of negative feedback relations that tend to draw that person back into the state of poverty even if they heroically push against it. These negative feedback relations include everything from malnutrition, to grueling work schedules required to survive (leaving little time for personal development), to the way employers react when they note that you don’t have the right sort of clothing, mannerisms, or speech (all the things that Bourdieu lists under habitus in texts like Homo Academicus and Distinction), to underfunded schools, to an absence of contacts in networks of wealth and power, etc. And likewise with wealth. Like rats in a maze with only one path, human bodies tend to be channeled into particular basins of attraction that reproduce the organization of the social order along certain hierarchical lines. These hierarchical lines involve economic class, symbolic capital or position, race, gender, religion, etc. Hierarchical stratifications such as this (and here we should think of Deleuze and Guattari’s strata in the “Geology of Morals”) are organized around all sorts of regulatory or negative feedback relations involving the symbolic, the cultural, pathways of communication, geography, urban, rural, and suburban organization, technologies, etc.
It is my view that these political concerns are lurking in the background of every debate surrounding object-oriented ontology. In its focus on individual objects, OOO sounds as if it defends, at the level of ontology, the foundations of the rightwing ideology outlined above. In defending a conception of being premised on discrete and unrelated objects it sounds as if OOO is providing ontological ammunition for a rightwing account of the world. Here readers of Difference and Repetition and Nietzsche & Philosophy will remember Deleuze’s famous discussions of State Thinkers. Roughly, a State Thinker is a thinker that naturalizes dominant orders of power, hierarchy, and oppression. Hegel, for example, argues that the Prussian state is the culmination of Spirit. Rather than looking for ways to undermine and transform oppressive systems, he instead treats the Prussian state as the fulfillment of logos on earth. Likewise, following Jonathan Bennett’s perspicuous critique of Kantian morality, we might wonder what Kant’s position would be with respect to Huck Finn freeing Jim in Huckleberry Finn. Within the space of that novel, Jim is the property of someone else. The categorical imperative states that we have a duty to respect the property of others. The categorical imperative thus seems to entail that Huckleberry Finn is violating duty and morality in freeing Jim (and indeed, Finn himself feels this way as he’s wracked with guilt at what he’s doing and is thereby led to give up on morality altogether in his mind). In a case such as this, Kant’s moral philosophy seems to be at the behest of the state, preserving the greatest injustices of the state and distributions of power. One might object that this is not the case, for by the second formulation of the categorical imperative we are to always treat persons as ends in themselves and never as means to an end. However, on closer inspection this argument fails to hold up, for we will recall that Kant argues that there are no circumstances in which we are entitled to lie for the sake of philanthropic concerns (i.e., the famous scenario where we’re asked whether we should lie to a crazed killer to save the life of a person we’re harboring in our home). The case would not be any different where respect for property is concerned. It is not Finn that is failing to respect the dignity of another human being, but Jim’s owner. Similar conclusions would follow with respect to whether we should respect laws even when they are unjust (Kant’s famous pronouncements about the injustice of revolution in “What is Enlightenment?”). Kant’s moral philosophy, when put into practice, thus seems to function as a rationalization and justification of the state precisely because it is unable to deal with the specificity of circumstances.
OOO, in arguing for a universe composed of discrete and unrelated individuals or objects can also give rise to this worry. Here, I think– and I sincerely hope Harman’s won’t be upset with me for raising this point and will take it in the spirit it’s written –there are occasions in which Graham doesn’t do himself any favors. In chapter two of Circus Philosophicus Harman recounts his political differences with his lost love Olympia. Olympia is of a Marxist bent, seeing things like crime as a product of social relations. Graham, by contrast, sees crime as arising out of the individual sans context. Graham concludes this discussion with the remark that “[o]ur debates on this point were always respectful [debates over Simondon, Deleuze, the great Greek philosophers, etc], unlike our running dispute on the origins of crime, which then– if not now –I ascribed to the inherent taint in the criminal soul” (15). As I read a remark like this I inwardly cringe, hearing in my head the holist declare
Ah ha! The gig is up! We now see what we suspected all along! We now see the political consequences we always believed followed from Harman’s ontological positions! It is the individual alone that is responsible for what he is and what the individual is has nothing to do with the circumstances in which the individual finds himself. Were we to confront Harman with the disproportionate levels of crime among impoverished people, he would respond that this is because they are bad people, not because of their circumstances!
In other words, a remark like the quoted can be seen as a symptom of an entire ontology. This is a point that I believe must be addressed and taken seriously if OOO is to be taken seriously. Elsewhere, I think, Harman provides a way out. In a post entitled “Life by the 8 Ball” dated November 23, 2010, Harman writes:
we are probably more defined not by the choices we make, but the choices we face.
Here, I think, we begin to see the significant difference between Graham’s position and neoliberalism. What is entirely absent in neoliberal and rightwing strains of thought is this dimensions of choices we face. Neoliberal thought reduces everything down to choices we make, completely ignoring choices we face. Here it’s worthwhile to coin a concept to describe the intellectual universe of rightwing thought: vacuum space. Deleuze and Guattari, of course, distinguishes between “smooth space” and “striated space”. Putting matters very crudely, a smooth space is a space of freedom like the steppes or the ocean, where there is not yet a grid dividing up space and where movement is possible in all directions. They argue (and I won’t get into this now) that it is a space populated by intensities and events. A striated space, by contrast, is highly structured and constraining. Here, for example, we should think about the game of chess. The striated nature of the game of chess lies not so much in the fact that the board is composed of squares, but rather because each piece has a fixed identity defining the movements of which it is capable (bishops can only move diagonally, rooks only horizontally and vertically, etc).
Neither the concept of smooth space, nor the concept of striated space quite gets at the onto-spatial underpinnings of neoliberal thought. What we need is something like vacuum space. Vacuum space is a conception of being without something like Heideggerian thrownness, where there are no obstacles facing us, where space is completely empty, and where everything is reduced down to the choices we make rather than the choices we face. It is the space underlying the intellectualist fallacy that Bourdieu so compellingly and trenchantly criticizes in Pascalian Meditations where all agents are treated as formally equivalent. For example, the economist is thinking in terms of vacuum space when he reduces agents to rational actors such that there are no circumstantial or relevant differences between men, women, gay, straight, believers, non-believers, different ethnic groups, people of different classes, etc. Here the agent is thought, for all intents and purposes, as being suspended in a vacuum.
When we shift registers and instead think in terms of choices we face, the set of questions changes significantly. Here we are now in a populated universe that faces us with certain constraints. Let’s return to the example of the rat in a maze. In the maze depicted to the rat, the rat doesn’t simply make choices, but faces choices as a result of how the walls and paths of the maze are constructed. Let’s suppose that the entrance to the maze is birth and the exit to the maze is death (our maze is not merely spatial, but is spatio-temporal). The rat can make choices, it can wander around in the maze, but the paths the rat can take are more or less predelineated in a way that constrains the choices that the rat can make. “Will I go left or right? Forward or backward? Will I stand still and wait?”
This is largely how it is with the negative feedback processes that populate the social field. Those negative feedback relations are the walls of our maze and define the choices that we face. The generate a basin of attraction that draws human agents in particular directions even where those agents might will and wish otherwise. One of the major projects of social and political variants of OOO, I believe, is to map these negative feedback systems, these choices agents face, and the basins of attraction they generate. This entails a situated form of analysis that refuses our tendency towards thinking in terms of vacuum space. It requires the mapping of institutions, geographies, technologies, networks of communication and contact, etc., etc., etc. This is what I’ve been trying to get at with my concept of regimes of attraction. A regime of attraction is simply a negative feedback system that channels objects into a particular basin of attraction. I want diagrams of these systems.
Let’s return to Morton’s opposition between individualism and holism. First, I do not share Morton’s thesis that objects are not individuals. If an entity is an object, then it is an individual. However, second, with Morton (and Harman), I share this suspicion of holism. All of my instincts tend in the direction of holism, however, the problem with holism is that it undermines the possibility of agency. Where individuals are products of relations, there is no possibility of an agency that can break with oppressive relations because the individual, in the interiority of its being, is but an internalization of the relational field out of which it is excreted. As such, the individual, in its action, will merely reproduce those relations. The problem is that the whole debate is organized around a stark oppositional alternative: we’re either determined (holism) and therefore incapable of agency or free (individualism) and therefore social relations do not channel action in any sort of way. What is missed is a third dimension where we are faced with choices or situated.
The point of an OOO politics is not simply to map negative feedback systems or regimes of attraction. No, diagrammatology or speculative cartography is only a first step. The whole point is to displace, transform, abolish, and mutate the attractors that populate a regime of attraction or set of social relations. What modes of engagement, what forms of praxis, what interventions, can undermine basins of attraction that channel bodies in particular directions? That’s the question. Where negative feedback seeks to minimize perturbations insuring that things are channeled into particular repetitive basins of attraction (“we gotta keep those women in their place!”) positive feedback seeks to intensify the effects of a perturbation or act so that new basins of attraction might emerge. In other words, the production of positive feedback seeks to change not so much the choices we make, but the very choices we face through a fundamental mutation of the feedback relations structuring the social sphere. However, if we are to do this in a strategic way– rather than messianically awaiting a purely aleatory event that might occur despite the fact that we never expected it –we need a speculative cartography that understands the lay of the land, how the space is put together, or what negative feedback relations structure the regime of attraction.