Over on Twitter, sdv_duras, joepdx and I have been having an interesting discussion about OOO and human emancipation. For me, my interest in OOO revolves around what I believe to be its potential for social and political thought. Thus, while OOO is a posthumanist ontology that seeks to decenter the primacy of humans and, especially, the place that correlationism or the subject-object correlate enjoys in theory, this posthumanism aims not at the banishment or exclusion of humans, but out of a reflection on the very practical inadequacies of correlationist social and political thought. On the one hand, I believe that correlationist social and political thought (ideology critique, cultural Marxism, discursive and semiotic constructivism) is inadequate to explain why social systems hold together as they do and therefore to effectively strategies ways of changing oppressive regimes. In my view, the failure to take nonhuman agencies into account as part of the glue that holds social systems together dooms us to ineffectual critique and practice. The point is not that semiotic and ideological elements aren’t part of that glue, but that they don’t exhaust the glue that accounts for why social systems hold together as they do. On the other hand, I want an account of being that is robust enough to make room for a viril ecological theory. The tendency of much cultural theory over the last sixty years –and there are notable exceptions among folks like Deleuze, Latour, Haraway, Barad, Bennett, certain Marxists, Serres, the Whiteheadians, etc; yet they have, overall, enjoyed rather marginal status in discussions –has been to treat the things of the world as mere screens upon which humans project their meanings. In other words, there’s a tendency to treat nonhuman entities as contributing nothing save their status as vehicles for the transport of human meanings, intentions, aims, goals, signs, etc. Just as the value of the dollar bill resides nowhere in the paper and ink of that dollar bill, but is rather projected by us, just as there’s nothing intrinsic to the “Mens Room” and the “Ladies Room that makes it a mens room or a ladies room, but rather it is our language that diacritically produces this difference in things, much of the project of “critical theory” (broadly construed) has consisted in following Feuerbach and Marx in showing how the “sortals” of the world are really our work and not from amongst the things themselves. In my view, a robust eco-theory and politics cannot rest content with this thesis, but must also recognize the agency and independence of all manner of nonhuman entities.
What I thus seek is a theory rich enough to both integrate the momumental and important discoveries of what I’ve called critical theory above (I outline this in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects as well as my CUNY Wilderness talk last week). In other words, for me, agencies like ideology, signifiers, etc., are agencies. It’s not a question of excluding these agencies and the modes of critique we’ve developed for responding to them, but of recognizing that the cultural, the semiotic, the normative, the ideological, is only a part of the story. What I wish to think about are– following Karen Barad’s pathbreaking work in Meeting the Universe Halfway –the entanglements of the signifying/representational and the material in such a way that while both domains mutually perturb and modify one another in all sorts of ways, they are nonetheless irreducible to one another.
For me, part of this mode of thought consists in flattening being. Rather than striving to reduce one type of being to another as in the case where we try to show that something we took to be material was “really” a constellation of signifiers in ideology (social constructivism) or rather than trying to show that what we took to be a constellation of signifiers was “really” genetically determined (sociobiology), I instead treat signifiers, genes, microbes, animals, persons, armies, buildings, cities, bits of paper, etc., as existing on a single flat and immanent plane where these entities are entangled with one another in assemblages where all the elements mutually modify and transform with one another without any entirely being reducible to some other element. As my friend Joseph Schneider might put it, for example, the body is both a cultural construction (the way we’re metabolized by a larger-scale cultural system modifies us in all sorts of ways) and a biological system. The body cannot be reduced to a constellation of signifiers or how it has been written over by signifiers as Lacan might try to have it in his discussions of hysteria and conversion systems, but those signifying dimensions of the body cannot be reduced to the biology of the body either. As Schneider suggests in his analysese of Yoga, we get, in Yoga, something that is both biology and a constellation of cultural practices where the final “phenotype” of the “disciplined” body is the result of the entanglement and interaction of these elements together. These entanglements and the affective-material-semiological processes of becoming they involve are incredibly difficult to describe and analyze. We only have the barest rudiments of a language for doing so.
At any rate, rather than thinking of a diacritical structure of signifiers as the glue that holds society together, I instead suggest that we should think in terms of metaphors of gravity as developed in Einsteinian theory. There is a gravity of things whether those things be signifiers, nonhuman material objects like rice, persons, telephone lines, and so on. Part of our job as critical/emancipatory social and political theorists should consists in the cartography of this gravity. The following video clip gives a beautiful account of the basic idea behind relativity theory:
Within Einstein’s framework, gravity is not a result of an attractive force, but rather of the way in which an object bends and curves the space about it. As a result of this curvature of space, other objects fall towards the object along the trajectory of the curve, being trapped within that curvature just as a surfer might become trapped in a particularly vicious current. But note well, the curvature of space is not the exclusive domain of the object around which the other object orbits. The orbiting object, as well, produces its own curvature of space. In other words, we don’t get unilateral determination.
In his sublime Sublime Object of Ideology, Zizek raises the profound question of just why, after a potent ideology critique, people nonetheless continue to do what they do. How is it that they can know that x is an ideological mystification while still continuing to behave towards things as they did before? In psychoanalytic terms, why doesn’t the symptom always disappear after it’s been interpreted? Zizek’s answer is two-fold: On the one hand, he contends, ideology resides not in our beliefs but in our practices. I might not believe anything of the theology of my church, I might believe that it’s all nonesense, yet the fact that I still kneel with everyone else or that might voice becomes hushed when I’m in a grave yard indicates that I’m still in the grips of this ideology. Ideology resides not in our representations or what we believe, but rather, according to Zizek, in our doing or action. You might be the most tolerant, multiculturalist at the level of belief, but if you still clutch your purse tight when the young black man enters the elevator you’re still deep in the grips of ideology. On the other hand, Zizek contends, cynicism is the dominant ideology today. In cynicism we maintain a cynical distance from every belief, seeing all of them as shams of one sort or another, while nonetheless behaving exactly as we did before.
It’s curious that Zizek gives two explanations for the persistence of the ideological symptom, rather than just one. Do we not here encounter something like the phenomenon of overdetermination in the unconscious suggesting that something else might be at work. The possibility that Zizek doesn’t entertain is that perhaps nonhuman things have a gravity that organizes our action in a variety of ways that aren’t a matter of ideology in the classic sense of a “system of deceptive representations”. The things of the world bend and curve social space in all sorts of ways that lock us into particular modes of existence. While these things are certainly entangled with ideologies, they are not themselves reducible to ideology nor are they mere representations, deceptive or otherwise.
Let’s face it, the things of the world are sticky and like Serres’ quasi-objects or operators in The Parasite, our actions are stuck around these things in all sorts of ways. Take the example of rice production in Asian countries during the 13th century. Rice had a number of advantages over other grains favored in Europe. Unlike grains like wheat and barley, it was fairly reliable and not as susceptible to the vicissitudes of climatic variation. Unlike wheat and barley, you could get two to three harvests out of rice each year. However, rice is also extremely labor intensive in terms of its planting, harvesting, and preparation.
This labor intensiveness of rice has a certain gravity to it with respect to the actions and social relations of human beings. Rice encourages and invites collective forms of farming as well as social stratification. On the one hand you get the peasants that work the fields, while on the other hand you get an elite class of priests and kings that preside over when to plant, how much to plant, when to harvest, and how the grain is to be distributed. Moreover, because so much labor is put into rice, you increasingly get mono-diets and mono-cultures where other potential forms of cultivation (other plants, livestock, etc.) are more or less foreclosed as time and energy must be devoted to the sure thing.
All of this gets entangled in ideology and religion, but we can imagine our cultural critical theorist (he who emphasizes representation to the detriment of all else) expressing Zizekian shock after carrying out an entertaining and widely recognized critique of the ideology and superstition that represents these social relations. “I’ve shown that the King is really not a god, yet the peasants continue to do things as they did before! Are they cynics that know what they’re doing yet still do it?” Why not the simpler alternative explanation that the reason the peasants continue to do it –even though they know that the ideological representation of the king and the priestly class –is because they really have no other alternative. They are caught in the gravity of rice. Without another viable food alternative or another way of harvesting rice, and with the persistence of the need to feed themselves and their families, they have little alternative but to continue doing things as they did before. They can overturn the king, of course, yet another “manager” arises in his place as someone still has to determine when to plant, harvest, how much to plant, and how to distribute the crop among the people. A stickyness of life.
I do not wish to resurrect the old base/superstructure relation as signifiers, like everything else, have their gravity as well. However, all too often ideology critique is a triple insult to people. First, it is always undertaken on the premise that people are stupid and duped and therefore in need of being shown the truth by someone who truly knows. Second, to add insult to injury, it tends to ignore the very real gravity of things that people contend with daily. Third, it blames them for not recognizing that they are duped even though real alternatives aren’t available. The rice and nature of rice, the way in which it becomes entangled with human social systems, is not itself ideological. It is not a representation of social relations, but a real actant among humans that beckons certain forms of activity and relations.
Yet oddly this dimension of sticky objects forming regimes of attraction is oddly invisible to so much cultural critical theory. Zizek reduces toilets to semiotic vehicles of ideology, never raising the question of how waste disposal might organize social relations in particular ways and especially for those who don’t have toilets (cholera anyone?). Moreover, the explanations of social change we often get from cultural critical theorists are often strangely circular. We ask “why did attitudes towards the Catholic Church change during the Rennaissance and the Enlightenment?” The answer becomes “because people’s beliefs changed?” Well sure, but why did those beliefs changed? There’s little discussion of the role that a little microbe like yersinia pestis, coupled with rats and fleas might have played in these changes. After all, the Church was unable to avert the disaster (strike one) and Bishops began advising the people to give each other the Last Rights because the priests were either dead or had fled (hmmm, might this have something to do with the emergence of a belief in the lack of a need for a mediator between lay and God through the Church or a priest?). If we wish to understand why the patterns we fight hold together as they do it’s not enough to evoke ideologies and signifiers. We must also make room for all sorts of nonhumans like rice, rats, flees, streets, rivers, mountains, cows, fields, bacteria, telephone lines, and so on. There’s no harm in increasing our strategic conceptual tool box and we might very well discover all sorts of other paths of intervention that don’t simply reside in endless demystifying interpretation.