I’m in the middle of grading, so my remarks here will be brief. I wanted, however, to draw attention to Christian Thorne’s recent post “To the Political Ontologists“. Thorne raises an important set of questions, but I worry that he’s confusing distinct issues. At the beginning of his post he writes:
The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a metabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame—a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno—shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire air with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposals?
It is unclear to me why we should expect an ontology should make political proposals, or why we should believe that political proposals should derive from an ontology. An ontology is a discourse about what is or is not, how beings are related to one another, how they become and change, etc. It is not a theory of whether these beings are good or bad, just or unjust, emancipatory or oppressive, etc. Consider an analogy. A marine biologist discusses the biological make up of sharks, their behaviors, their habitats, their diets, and points out that sometimes sharks attack people. We can imagine Thorne coming along and saying “how does the marine biologist derive a politics from her claims about sharks and why is he advocating sharks attacking people?” But the marine biologist was never trying to derive a politics from her observations of sharks nor, in pointing out that sharks attack people, was she advocating sharks attacking people. Rather, she was trying to understand sharks. So it is with ontology. An ontology is attempting to understand the being of beings, not make judgments about whether those beings are just or unjust, right or wrong.
This is not to say that there is no relation between politics and ontology. Every political theory presupposes an ontology. A political theory makes assumptions about what entities compose a society, what their properties are, what the mechanisms of power and oppression are, and so on. Chances are that if we get our social ontology wrong our political engagements and attempts to change oppressive assemblages will come to naught. If we target the wrong mechanisms that organize social configuration we’ll leave that social configuration unchanged and will needlessly be wasting our own energies and resources. I take it that this is what theorists such as Bennett and DeLanda are up to. While I readily recognize that their weak on the normative questions that sometimes animate political theory, I think the value of their contributions like in drawing our attention to largely ignored organizing forces and mechanisms in social configurations, thereby helping us to better strategize action.
I also readily recognize that just as happens in the sciences, ontologies can be pervaded by destructive political assumptions of an unconscious nature. Critique of veiled politics within discourses such as we find among certain science and technology theorists, Gould in his book The Mismeasure of Man, or Foucault and Butler are not practices that should be abandoned. If a theorist makes the claim that every entity has a withdrawn essence or identity and proposes that we reject Said’s critique of orientalism on the grounds that there really is an essence of say, the Chinese people, these are claims with rife political implications, supporting all sorts of racist and misogynist doctrines– not to mention classist doctrines (given that the ruling classes repeatedly try to argue that the working class is essentially or biologically inferior). One of the ways we address these positions is by raising the question of whether these claims are ontologically true of human beings and social systems (cf. here, here, and here). When thinkers like Foucault and Butler challenge these sorts of essentialist claims about particular identities (“the mad”, “the “criminal”), genders, and forms of sexual desire, they are challenging certain ontological claims. They are challenging the idea that hominids have a fixed and given essence. When Developmental Systems Theorists challenge evolutionary psychologists and sociologists, they are challenging an ontology of genes that holds that genes are a blueprint that determine behavior and identities tout court. When DeLanda presents a morphogenetic account of all beings or individuals, he is challenging this sort of essentialism. These are all ontological claims– ontological claims with profound normative and political implications –but as ontological claims they have to be evaluated in terms of their truth and falsity.
And this gets us to my final point. When we ask “how does one derive a politics from an ontology”, one central worry is that we’re allowing our normative and political commitments to legislate what is. We risk saying something like “I’m going to reject x because it doesn’t agree with my politics!” Here we might recall Stalinist regime rejections of evolutionary theory and certain linguistic phenomena. As Badiou observes, it is a disaster whenever Truth in the four domains of truth (politics, science, art, and love) is sutured to only one condition. Such a suture of ontology to politics– that gesture where we allow our political commitments to legislate our ontological commitments –undermines our ability to effectively respond to situations as we render ourselves blind to what is there in those situations, and undermines our rhetorical power in persuading others as we come to be seen as dogmatically blind and dishonest. We end up cutting off the very limb we’re sitting on. Rather than dismissing ontology because it doesn’t tell us which politics to derive, I would instead prefer a more generous approach that makes room for ontological meditations, that recognizes that not all questions are questions about politics, and that makes room for normative meditations and considerations as to how to respond to oppressive situations in the world and promote emancipation.