As an ontological framework OOO prescribes no particular politics. Nonetheless, it’s difficult to escape the impression that there are political implications to this ontology. In declaring that being consists entirely of objects, in refusing a partition of being into two distinct ontological categories, the subject and the object, OOO seems to begin from the standpoint of equality. Its core spirit is one that rejects hierarchy such as we find in the infamous “great chain of being”. It will be noted that in the deployment of this ontology, OOO selects the lower term in the couplet of the subject and the object to take as its general ontological category. Historically, the category of the object has been conceived as the passive pole in the couple of the subject and the object. The object has historically be seen as that which is mastered by an active subject. This line of thought achieves its zenith in idealism, where the object is erased beneath the subject altogether. As such, subject-object ontology 1) inscribes hierarchy into being, and 2) implicitly develops a logic of mastery that pervades every branch of philosophy (the most troubling forms of mastery and hierarchy appearing in political theory and ethics where, again and again, philosophy rediscovers the need to posit a master that knows and a rabble in need of direction and subordination to this master: Plato’s philosoper-king as the dream inscribed unconsciously in nearly all phallosophy). OOO, by contrast, makes the strange claim that humans are objects among other objects (they have no ontologically privileged position and are not the crown of existence) and proposes the strange idea of active objects (objects that aren’t merely passive recipients of the acts of other entities but which are agencies in their own right).
This week it occured to me that there is a profound overlap between Ranciere’s political philosophy and OOO. Like OOO, Ranciere begins from an axiom of equality. Everyone, Ranciere says, is equal to everyone else. Where phallosophy begins from an axiom of inequality, arguing that there are some that are unequal and therefore in need of rule (phallasophy henceforth becomes the elaborate demonstration of this inequality and elaboration and justification of why it should rule and how positions should be organized in society based on this rule (think of Plato’s partition of society into roles of bronze, silver, and gold alloting different hierarchical forms of labor with the phallosopher at the top, or of Brandom’s obsessive meditations on rationality seeking to determine who is authorized to speak)) philosophy begins from the premise of equality and democracy. Here democracy is not a form of government or the state, but an action and a way of relating to others premised on equality. It is a form of relation that refuses to relate to others as ignorant students in need of a master to govern and instruct them, but that instead relates as equals in collaboration.
For Ranciere, politics refers to that form of practice, and that form of practice alone, where those elements that have been excluded from the social contest this hierarchical ordering and demand to be included as actors that can speak. To understand what Ranciere is getting at, it’s necessary to understand his concept of the “police”. For Ranciere, the police is not people with badges that pull you over for speeding. No, “police” refers to that order within society that allots positions and roles, establishes and naturalizes hierarchy, determines who is a member of the social and who is not, and, above all, who is authorized to speak and who isn’t. At base, the police is that order of inequality that determines who can speak and who can’t.
Ranciere illustrates this concept with respect to book one of Aristotle’s Politics in his brilliant Disagreement. In book one of the Politics Aristotle asks the question “are there natural born slaves?” Often this portion of the Politics is treated as tangential to the rest of the book, but Ranciere argues that it is crucial to Aristotle’s understanding of politics for it outlines the conditions under which one can legitimately rule over another. The question of whether or not there are natural born slaves spins, in Aristotle, on whether or not slaves have logos or the capacity for rational, self-directing speech. Aristotle contends that slave speech is largely akin to animal noise. Because certain persons are not capable of speech, it is just for them to be ruled by a master. This is the police. The police is that order that distributes the difference between speech and noise, determining who gets to participate and who does not. Politics is what contests these partitions and distributions of the social, working from the axiom of equality.
Ranciere’s schema for the police as the mechanism that partitions speech from noise works nicely to pinpoint a variety of sites of struggle. The police is not an entity nor a conspiracy, but an immanent machine within the social that distributes rulers and ruled. We might, for example, think of the place of the worker in the workplace as the one denied “speech” in how the workplace is run. We can think of the denial of speech to women prior to emancipation and those instamces where “female speech” continues to be denied such as the treatment women often receive from their male colleagues in phallosophy departments. We can think of the distribution of speech in the classroom between teacher and professor. In each case we have a hierarchy in which speech is authorized for one position and the other goes uncounted and is coded as noise. Politics is that moment where this distribution and partitioning is challenged and a demonstration of the power of speech for that uncounted part commences. The commencement of this sequence premised on axiomatic equality is what Ranciere calls “democracy”. Class struggle, for example, would be an instance of democracy. Much of what takes place in “democracies”, by contrast, would not be democracy as it is a procedure of the police, distributing noise and speech, and maintaining hierarchy. Democracy is a verb, not a noun. It’s not something you live in but that you do.
Ranciere’s politics, of course, is human centered in that it is occupied with analyzing those moments of politics where the uncounted assert amd demonstrate their power of speech, transforming the social order as a consequence. None of this disappears in OOO as humans do not somehow cease to be beings within OOO. The OOO flattening of being only entails that humans are not ontologically privileged beings. We are, of course, important to ourselves– just as dolphins are important to themselves –but we are not the summet of existence. However, when Ranciere’s political theory is conjugated with OOO we get an interesting result. We get the question “do nonhuman objects speak?”. Latour has taught us how to ask this question in texts like Science in Action and We Have Never Been Modern, where he shows how a certain nonhuman speech takes place in the laboratory. With the possibility of nonhuman speech, it becomes possible to include nonhumans such as animals and flourocarbons within the domain of the political, thereby making them voices in a democracy. In other words, nonhuman objects could no longer be treated as mere passive recipients for our use.