January 2012


One of the most controversial theses of object-oriented philosophy is the claim that objects are withdrawn from all relation. No doubt, this claim has caused particular consternation among those who are politically inclined, for it is difficult to see how there can be anything like a coherent politics that isn’t concerned with relations. Putting it crudely, when we raise political questions we are raising questions of relations. OWS, for example, is raising questions about relations between the 99% and unjust privilege enjoyed by banks and corporations. Striking workers are asking questions about their relation to the products of their labor, the surplus-values they work with, the machines they work on, etc. Environmental activists are exploring relations between the natural environment and industry. Everywhere the political is a question of relations and a question of what sort of relations are just and right. Moreover, in the ontological register, it is not clear what it might mean to claim that objects are withdrawn from all relations. One might argue that I only ever encounter my object as a “sensual object”, and never encounter the real cat, and that therefore I share no direct relation to my cat. Yet in order for me to encounter my cat as a sensual object, my cat must affect me in some way, and an affection is a real relation. No affection, no direct encounter with a real cat, no experience of a sensual cat. Nothing about suggesting that my cat directly affects me need lead to the conclusion that somehow I have a full and complete representation of my cat. All it entails is that my cat must touch or interact with me in some way for me to have this experience of a sensual cat. As a consequence, whatever else withdrawal might mean, it certainly does not seem coherent to treat it as severance from all relations.

These points are not nitpicking asides. The suggestion that objects are withdrawn from all relations has led to a dismissal of relational politics on the ground that objects are independent of relations. When people rightly raise concern about such a thesis, their position is characterized as a facile view that relations are leftists and that anti-relationism is conservative (i.e., their position is characterized as bowing to a matter of taste or a flavor: “If you’re a leftist you’re a relationist”), and they are given the counter-example of Burke versus the Jacobins. Within this framework, Burke the conservative opponent of the French Revolution, was a relationist that held that all of society is organically related in a natural order (e.g., the aristocrats have a natural place, the peasants a natural place, etc). By contrast, the Jacobins are characterized as anti-relationists insofar as they held that society could be reconfigured and that it is possible to break with the existing order.

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Sometime around July 3rd, following the Liverpool Thinking the Absolute conference I’ll be speaking at the Independent College before the psychoanalysts. This seems like a perfect opportunity to address a set of concerns and motivations that led to the rejection of substance and identity among the philosophers of difference and the post-structuralists. Here I think it’s crucially important to remember that with the exception of Deleuze, the philosophers of difference and post-structuralists were not addressing a set of metaphysical issues in arguing for relationality and in critiquing the notion of substance, but were responding to a set of social and political problems. Working in the wake of the nationalisms of WWI, the anti-semitism of WWII, the persecutions of the Stalinist Soviet Union, and in the midst of a growing awareness of the systematic nature of racism, sexism, and heterosexism, it seems that the philosophers of difference noticed something like a structural law in which the more an individual or social system asserts an identity, the more a structure of paranoia seems to emerge in which the group or individual 1) experiences itself as under assault from the outside, and 2) seeks to persecute or eradicate this offending group. Noting that there was little reality because either of these claims– the manner in which the Nazi’s represented the Jews and their alleged crimes had no foundation in reality, just as the manner in which Christians represented the Jews during the plagues of the Middle Ages had no foundation in reality –the philosophers of difference wished to understand why these sorts of antagonistic relations emerged structurally and necessarily around identity, and to devise strategies for escaping this problem that had generated so much human misery. And here it bears noting that this structure is not unique to nationalisms, racisms, religious centrisms, etc., but that it is a perfectly formal structure that can appear in both right and leftwing orientations and that can characterize identifications with particular figures, movements, political parties, etc. Again and again hyper-identification seems to ineluctably generate a sort of friend/enemy distinction and logic characterized by a paranoid sense of being persecuted or assaulted by some other and by the necessity of eradicating or destroying that other.

It is this phenomenon that Deleuze and Guattari had in mind when they speak of “micro-fascisms” (i.e., those instances where a movement might be leftwing and egalitarian yet still have a fascist structure) and it is this phenomenon that the philosophers of difference had in mind when they critiqued representation and substance. They were not engaged in an abstract metaphysical debate about the nature of true reality, but rather were striving to understand this logic in the social world and devise strategies for escaping it. And it is in this connection, I think, that many working in the traditions of post-structuralism and critical theory see object-oriented ontology as a step backwards due to its emphasis on substance and identity. In other words, among other things, object-oriented ontology is seen as both unable to address or even recognize this very real phenomenon and is seen as actually providing ammunition that exacerbates these sorts of problems. I don’t think OOO is such a step backwards, but I certainly see– especially given the silence on these issues and what has motivated these theorizations among the philosophers of difference and the critical theorists, coupled with a tendency to treat these orientations as arid metaphysical debates over what enjoys primordial status, substance or relation; rather than recognizing these theoretical orientations as highly situated in terms of social phenomena –why one might get this impression and have this worry.

The question, then, is what onticology might have to say about these sorts of issues. Does it have the resources to both theorize this well documented phenomenon and of responding to it. Or is an ontology that defends identity necessarily doomed to fall into this very logic, increasingly leading to a space of social engagement in which it experiences itself as persecuted, under attack, and as needing to go to war with dissidents?

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