In a previous post I argued that politics necessarily deals with questions of relations. There can be no coherent politics that does not deal with relations because the field of political engagement is always a field of conflicts or antagonisms between different entities. For example, the struggles of adjunct professors revolving around issues of job security, pay, benefits, the courses they can teach, etc., is a field defined by relations between adjuncts, tenured and tenure track professors, administrators, the manner in which institutions of higher learning are funded by the state, and hence legislatures, tax payers, and government. There simply is no coherent way of understanding these political issues without understanding these networks of relations.
In this regard, the real distinction in an onticological politics is not between relational and non-relational politics, but rather whether relations are treated as external or whether they’re treated as internal. The internalist sees relations as “organic”, such that all entities are internally related to one another in such a way that the position of any particular part is natural within that collective and other forms of social organization are not possible. The externalist sees relations as extrinsic such that there is no natural ordering of entities and such that it is possible for collectives to be organized in other ways. Historically externalism has been the position of leftist political theorists whether we’re speaking of thinkers such as Lucretius, Spinoza, Hume, Marx, Foucault, Butler, Deleuze and Guattari, and so on. Again and again there is a demonstration that the organization of a particular social order is contingent and that therefore it is possible for it to be otherwise. There is a perpetual focus on the analysis of relations not for the sake of demonstrating that everything is a product of relations, but rather for the sake of showing that these relations are contingent and can be changed. The aim is to understand the mechanisms, the relational processes, by which certain oppressive orders are produced precisely so that those mechanisms can be contested and changed.
However, the debate between leftist and rightist thought is not simply a debate externalism and internalism. It is also a debate over what entities or units participate in political assemblages. Unlike Hegel, the neo-liberal is an externalist where relations are concerned, but it would certainly be a mistake to describe the neo-liberal as a leftist. Rather, the debate between leftist forms of thought and neo-liberal rightwing thought is a debate over both the units (to use Bogost’s term for “object”) that compose social assemblages and the mechanisms by which these assemblages are organized. As Margaret Thatcher put it, “society does not exist, there are only individuals and families.” For the neo-liberal, the only units that compose social assemblages are individual persons and the mechanism by which social assemblages are formed arises through them pursuing their own rational self-interest. If a person fails to find success in the world, then this is because they are lazy, lacking in initiative, or because they have failed to properly exercise their will. They are therefore responsible for their circumstances. In short, the neo-liberal is committed to the thesis that larger-scale units or objects such as markets, societies, groups, etc., do not exist and do not function as mechanisms playing a role in the opportunities open to smaller-scale units such as persons.
By contrast, leftist political orientations tend to be more pluralist where the units composing the social are concerned. In addition to units such as persons, they argue for the existence of larger-scale entities such as societies, markets, languages, groups, cities, etc. Here there is particular attentiveness to how these units interact with one another in relations of domination and in the formation of emancipatory possibilities. In other words, these units are entangled with one another in a variety of ways such that they constrain and enable each other. One way we can think the relations between objects at different levels of scale is metaphorically in terms of the way organic bodies assimilate food and in terms of antibodies. Where we have larger-scale units such as societies and markets draw on individual persons, among other things, as nutrients in order to sustain themselves in their ongoing autopoiesis. A unit like a capitalist market, for example, draws on my labor and the surplus it produces, as well as my consumption, to continue its operations from moment to moment, avoiding a decay into entropic dissolution. For this unit I, as an individual person, am only related to selectively in particular ways, with the rest of my features (and, in particular my needs, desires, and interests) become invisible. I am “digested” by this unit in ways that might be very destructive to me.
Likewise, insofar as larger-scale units, like all objects, only relate to other entities selectively, and insofar as, like organic bodies, they seek to allocate the other entities they relate to to specific functions within themselves as in the case of bodies allocating some cells to the liver, others to muscles, etc., larger-scale units such as social-systems semiotically and materially code among their elements, assigning some elements this position, other elements that position, etc. Insofar as the smaller-scale elements such as persons are irreducible to the role they take on as element in a larger-scale object, they often contest these roles. At this point, autoimmune responses emerge in the larger-scale object, either trying to allocate the individual person to their “proper” role (for that unit), or to destroy the part altogether, or to simply ignore it. This, for example, is what’s at work in institutional racism, sexism, and classism, where larger-scale units assign people particular roles in the system according to their race, sex, and class position and bring strong sanctions to bear to insure that people remain in those positions. Here the system is structured in such a way as to ensure that the pattern of relations among parts (men, women, sexual orientations, class relations, races, religions, etc.) are reproduced in the same way across time. The aim of terraism is to map these organizational patterns (cartography), devise strategies for undoing them (deconstruction), and build new assemblages (composition).
Nonetheless, among the leftists, while there is broad agreement that a variety of different units (and not just individual persons) compose social assemblages, there are debates as to just what units compose these assemblages. Among humanists, the thesis is that while social assemblages can be composed of units at a variety of different levels of scale (individual persons, institutions, markets, societies, cities, etc), nonetheless the only truly social and political entities are those that are directly composed of humans (through human agency, language, beliefs, ideologies, economic exchange, contracts, power, etc). Here the focus comes to be on these sorts of mechanisms and political engagement becomes largely a practice of enacting different laws, changing beliefs, critiquing ideology, and so on (all of which I believe, make no mistake, are salutary activities). By contrast, others such as Bruno Latour, Jane Bennett, Isabelle Stengers, Deleuze and Guattari, etc., argue that collective assemblages are composed not only of humans and human societies, but of nonhumans such as technologies, microbes, animals, plants, rivers, etc., as well. In Vibrant Matter, Bennett argues that,
…the public [is] a confederation of bodies, bodies pulled together not so much by choice (a public is not exactly a voluntary association) as by a shared experience of harm that, over time, coalesces into a “problem.” Dewey makes it clear that a public does not preexist its particular problem but emerges in response to it. A public is a contingent and temporary formation existing alongside many other publics, protopublics, and residual or postpublics. Problems come and go, and so, too, do publics: at any given moment, many different publics are in the process of crystallizing and dissolving. (100)
For Bennett, the onto-genetic mechanism by which assemblages or regimes of attraction are formed are “problems” (at some point I’ll write on this drawing on Deleuze’s theory of problems, perhaps for my plenary address at the Deleuze conference in New Orleans this Summer). For both Bennett and Deleuze problems are ontological entities that exist in their own right and not just in the minds of persons. When we hear the term “public” our initial reaction is to think of people, but for Bennett, Latour, and Deleuze, the public is not composed simply of people, but of all sorts of nonhuman agencies such as microbes, animals, technologies, texts, fiber optic cables, etc., etc., etc. What units are included in a public will be a function of the problem that draws, like magnetism or gravity, entities together.
The point of this broader orientation– which I share –that includes nonhumans is not to reject the methodologies of the humanists and their concerns (laws, norms, beliefs, ideology, signifiers, contracts, etc.) but to broaden the field of political engagement, intervention, and analysis. The thesis is that not all social and political problems are problems of beliefs, law, ideology, etc. If we’re trying, for example, to understand the shift from Catholicism as the only reigning form of Christianity during the Middle Ages (and the Orthodox church as well!), to the Protestant Reformation and explosion of Christianities, we’ll find many interesting things at the level of belief that might have motivated this transformation, but would nonetheless be remiss in ignoring the role of the black plague in eroding confidence in the Church. These microbes were agencies in the formation of subsequent assemblages. If we ignore the fact that people living in northern Alaska have limited access to technologies such as the internet, markets, etc., we’ll give a highly distorted analysis of why they live as they do, presenting the rather uncharitable account of why their social assemblages have developed as they have (e.g., suggesting that such people are primitives). Once we include nonhumans in our social and political thought we both arrive at more nuanced understandings of why social assemblages are as they are (cartography), but also broaden our means of political intervention. Just as it makes little sense to debunk an alcoholics beliefs to get them to stop drinking when they are addicted, it makes little sense to solely rely on debunking people’s beliefs about the environment to get them to live more sustainably when material alternatives are not available to these people. Recognizing that people might be entangled in “sticky material networks” or regimes of attraction gives us the opportunity to set about undoing these networks (deconstruction) and providing other material alternatives (composition).
At this point we converge on the theme of flat ontology I develop in chapter six of The Democracy of Objects— and that Tristan Garcia develops more recently in his book Forme et objet. On the one hand, flat ontology rejects any ontological hierarchy within the order of being. All beings are, in this framework, on equal ontological footing. This thesis doesn’t entail that all units equally influence all assemblages or networks. Clearly, for example, the sun influences the earth far more than I do. Rather, flat ontology first signifies that no unit or object is any more or less an object than any other. Drawing on Harman’s concepts of overmining and undermining presented in The Quadruple Object, flat ontology refuses to overmine or undermine objects. It refuses the undermining of objects that suggests that something such as atoms, for example, are the “really real” objects whereas trees are not really objects. Or, in another example, undermining objects as Thatcher does in suggesting that institutions, societies, and markets are not real objects, but only individuals are real objects. Rather, flat ontology argues that regardless of scale, all entities from the very small to the very large are equally objects. On the other hand, it refuses to overmine objects, rejecting the claim that they are “falsely deep”, that the object is nothing but a bundle of sensations in the mind, relations to other objects, a series of events, etc. No, for flat ontology there is always an excess contained within objects or units over their manifestations. Rather, the thesis of flat ontology is that entities or units exist at all levels of scale and enter into all sorts of complex relations with one another.
On the other hand, flat ontology signifies that relations between units or objects are external (they can be broken) and that entities only relate to one another selectively. It is always dangerous to draw political conclusions from an ontology. At best, it seems that an ontology can exclude certain political claims based on the thesis that they are simply mistaken ontologically. For example, if onticology is right in claiming that relations are external, then organic holisms such as we find in Plato, Burke, and Hegel must be mistaken. Yet the thesis that relations are external and that objects only entertain selective relations to one another– and here my claims are very tentative –seems to suggest other things as well. For example, insofar as not every entity relates to every other entity, it follows that we must reject what Todd May calls “strategic politics” in The Political Philosophy of Postructuralist Anarchism. Put crudely, strategic political philosophy argues that there is only one base that organizes all social relations, and that political intervention should focus on action that targets this base and this base alone. Interventions that target elements of the superstructure and that do not directly engage this base would here be akin to Don Quixote tilting at windmills insofar as such actions wouldn’t get at the “real problem”, but would instead engage with ephemera that keeps the problem intact. Such would be the thesis of certain variants of Marxism, where economy and capitalism are the one true problem.
Yet if its true that 1) “publics” are brought into being by problems, 2) that problems are multiple and local, 3) that not everything is related to everything else, and 4) that entities only relate selectively, then it is clear that strategic politics must be mistaken. The point here is not that capitalism is not a important problem and that targeting it won’t produce significant differences in a number of assemblages, but rather that the problems worthy of political engagement are multiple and varied, such that not every problem is a problem of capital and not every network is an issue of capital. Feminists, race theorists, queer theorists, ecologists, etc., are fond of pointing this out with respect to Marxist thought. Problems can converge and diverge in important ways, but there won’t be one transcendent base or organizing principle that, for lack of a better term, gathers together all plateaus in which political intervention is called for. In the first place, then, a flat ontology would seem to defend the existence of multiple and irreducible sites of political engagement. There is no master theory, no ultimate code, that would allow us to gather all political problems together or unify them according to a single algorithm.
Following May, however, we can argue that there is a common problem that often persists among problems: the problem of representation. Here I am referring to “representation” in the political, not cognitive sense. As May recounts it, one of the central failings of much Marxist thought and social practice was that strangely it seemed to reinstitute alienation. We perhaps changed the coordinates of capitalism, but insofar as theorists were treated as a “vanguard” whose role was to “educate” the ignorant politics and insofar as agency was wrested from the proletariat in the form of the party and its leadership, we got a reinscription of alienation at the core of theory and practice. Here, as an aside, I’ll mention that Lacan’s conception of the analytic setting and Ranciere’s account of education in The Ignorant Schoolmaster are both designed to combat precisely the position of the so-called master as representative of the analysand and the student respectively. Again and again we encounter the problem of networks that become alienated by the logic of representation, where one figure, agency, or theory claims to be capable of representing all of those gathered together in the public created by a problem. It is a critique of this logic of representation that I strive to unfold in my analyses of Lacan’s account of masculine sexuation and in my diatribes against transcendence. The point here is not that representation is the ultimate problem, the genuine base, as some Marxists claim with respect to economy, because representation will be as varied as those discrete networks or regimes of attraction that exist. Rather, the point is that again and again we encounter alienation and oppression produced as a result of transcendence or representation. More on this another day as this post has already gotten too long.