A friend of mine was kind enough to share some of his political worries with Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology. Some of my readers might find my response of interest as the question of politics comes up often in relation to SR. I understand your worries about the de-politicization of ontology, but I also can’t help but feel that Meillassoux and Badiou are making a very political point that they’re trying to ground in ontology. It seems to me that throughout the history of philosophy, one way of distinguishing the revolutionary from the reactionary is that the latter always argues that there is 1) a necessary order to the social world to the social world and that therefore 2) the social world can be organized in no other way. In other words, the reactionary always argues that the social world is either naturally or divinely decreed. By contrast, the revolutionary always argues that the social world is contingent or that things are capable of being otherwise, that our identities, classes,
modes of production are, as you put it, “historical”. I take it that when Badiou, Meillassoux (and not incidentally myself!) are interested in contingency to ground this very point: the world does not have to be this way!
I realize I’m not a target of your remarks, but I wanted to briefly clarify some of my own positions. First, the issues you raise about the project of critique in queer theory, feminism, post-colonial theory, race theory, Marxist critique, etc., are very close to my own thought and are constant themes in my own writing. I have attempted– whether or not I’m successful is another question –to develop a theoretical apparatus capable of integrating these modes of critique. In particular, chapters 4 and 5 of The Democracy of Objects attempt to develop the resources for retaining the discoveries of critical theory broadly construed, while my article “Of Parts and Politics: Queer Theory and Onticology” (forthcoming, Identities), details the application of these concepts in greater detail. I have no intention of abandoning the discoveries of critical theory or embracing some form of identity essentialism that “naturalizes” identities. In other words, all of this remains in my thought.
Second, I consider myself both a Marxist and a materialist. I have tried to argue that those that continue to deploy the nature/culture opposition have not yet followed through on the implications of the Darwinian revolution. What Darwin disclosed, in my view, is that the natural world, far from being a world of essences and necessity, is historical. This thesis has reverberated throughout the natural sciences to such a degree that even “natural kinds” such as iron are now understood to be the result of a production, a history, that takes place in the core of stars, rather than fixed and eternal essences. In other words, the reactionaries can no longer even appeal to natural ontology to ground their essentialist claims. Part of the reason for my engagement with biology and the other physical sciences has been to diffuse the residual essentialisms (such as we find, for example, in sociobiology).
So if I consider myself a Marxist materialist then why am I embracing realism? Part of the reasons arise from the very sort of critical historical meditation you bring up in your remarks. In my view, the move beyond Fordist modes of production consisted in a shift to media/knowledge/information production roughly at the behest of biopower. Nonetheless, this form of production– while itself tarrying with the incorporeal –is grounded in a physical infrastructure. Flows of capital and the ability of capital to exercise its power literally needs highways, satellites, trains, farms, land, fiber optic cables, ocean going ships, and so on. Without these channels of transportation and information transfer, coupled with sources of calories and energy to run these engines, capital is unable to continue itself for, as Harvey points out, capital only exists in the motion of capital. For me this Marxist thesis about motion and being is true of all objects. Consequently, if you wish to smash an object you have to find a way to halt its internal motion or the process by which it sustains, continues, and propagates itself.
Now, for whatever reason, it seems to me that there’s a strange way in which this shift from factory production under Fordism to immaterial knowledge-production in a post-Fordist regime has simultaneously been seen in most variants of Marxism while nonetheless remaining unseen (in much the same way that a neurotic, and especially an obsessional like Hamlet, might endlessly talk about his symptom without quite seeing it or moving to the act). Here I have in mind the shift in much Marxist theory to cultural Marxism or critique of ideology, largely forgetting the physical world or things like fiber optic cables and soil conditions. However, while I believe that ideology critique and cultural critique are absolutely indispensable, I also feel that they often lack any political efficacy because they simply tarry at the level of signs and discourses, ignoring the material infrastructure upon which this form of production relies to perpetuate, continue, and sustain itself. Thus what I’m trying to do is both retain cultural critique while also drawing attention to this material infrastructure. If we ignore that
dimension, I think, we leave the basic coordinates within which this system functions intact. We need better cartography so we develop better strategy. This cartography and the practice that accompanies it is what I’ve called “terraism”.
To get a sense of what I’m talking about, take the example of OWS. I am absolutely on the side of the OWSers, but I also find myself frustrated as it seems to me that much of it is unfolding at the level of an ideology critique (cultural Marxism) and a desire to persuade these governmental and corporate forces that is doomed to fall on deaf ears. Occupations are taking place everywhere except, I think, in the places where they would have a chance to make a real difference and produce real results. If we think of capitalist social systems as being akin to an organic body, then these social systems will have a circulatory system and a nervous system. The nervous system of a capitalist social system would be the various mediums through which information is transmitted (internet, phones, television, newspapers, etc) as well that the events that take place in those systems (images, songs, reports, narratives, articles, etc), while the circulatory system would be the various paths of distribution and production the system requires to produce this sort of social structure such as highways, trains, airports, portions of the internet used for monetary exchange, farms, shipping lanes, etc. The political goal of the critic of capitalism requires causing capitalism to have a stroke or a heart attack (continuing with the metaphor of circulatory systems). But if that’s to be done, it’s necessary to occupy not a park in front of Wall Street or a governors office, but rather the arteries capitalism needs to survive. Why not occupy the highways? Why not occupy the ports (Oakland was a good move)? Why not occupy the internets, finding ways to block commerce traffic? My view is that if all focus is on the nervous system, these infrastructural dimensions are entirely missed and we end up with a form of political engagement that is merely one more form of information production leaving the basic structure of the system intact. This is why I’m an object-oriented ontologist.