Over at This Cage is Worms Cameron has a nice post responding to my recent post on ontology and politics and articulating his own meditations on the political within a speculative realist framework. I truly wish that I had a better answer to the question of the political, but there are a couple of reasons that I’m hesitant to articulate positions (while simultaneously, I think, being pretty clear about my ethico-politico commitments). First, as a flat ontologist and “Darwinian materialist“, I reject the thesis that there are transcendent values or norms that hold for all times and that would allow us to make judgments from afar. Rather, as I tried to argue in my article “The Ethics of the Event: Deleuze and Ethics without Aρχή” in Smith and Jun’s Deleuze and Ethics, much political and ethical thought gets things exactly backwards. Ethical thought does not begin from abstract normative principles that are then used to evaluate situations, but rather– as Deleuze argues and as Bennett argues in her discussions of Dewey in Vibrant Matter –the norms we use to evaluate situations arise from problems that are, in their turn, collectives of nonhumans or collectives of humans and nonhumans. We only begin to raise ethical and political questions in the face of a problem, a situation where a collective does not work, in those situations where new ways of relating are called for. As Deleuze argues, these problems are not cognitive deficiencies that disappear in the presence of a solution, but rather are ontological realities that arise from collectives of nonhumans and humans and nonhumans that call for new forms of life. Moreover, they are singular or responses to specific circumstances. Ethical and political thought always arises in the midst of a crisis, of a lacuna in the functioning of a collective. It is not a set of principles that precedes these forms of life. It seems to me that this is the basic teaching of historical materialism: our values arise from singular problems specific to those circumstances.
In this regard, I just don’t think that we can give a “one size fits all” account of the ethical and political because there isn’t a set of eternal and unchanging problems belonging to the world. Rather, as entities enter into new relations with one another, new problems are generated and new values and norms are called for. Instead of asking “what is the ethics and politics prescribed by onticology?”, we should instead ask “what are the problems and what values, what norms, do they generate?” At this point, no doubt, I’m sure that others will cry “but that’s relativism! that gives us no plan of action!” I wish I had a better response to this charge. All I can say is that first, yes, I hold that systems of value and norms are relative to problems. Having learned my lessons well from Marx, Nietzsche, and Foucault, it’s impossible for me to see how those things that become “issues” at any given point in history aren’t the result of problems specific to the problems that animate those circumstances. Second, charges of relativism and historicism are always accompanied by charges that one must therefore advocate Aztec sacrifice, the rightness of the Nazis had they won, etc., etc. Yet while I can readily see how problems can generate norms and values that compel people to act and refuse certain disgusting and reprehensible solutions, I’ve never seen a value or a norm prevent racist and sexist oppression, murder, the holocaust, or mass sacrifice. The value of a value and a norm lies in motivating people to act to assemble things differently, not in preventing atrocities. Finally, third, while there are no eternal and unchanging norms because norms are always a response to problems, it doesn’t follow from this that we can’t evaluate solutions and collectives and distinguish those collectives that are better and worse than others. Certainly pathological collectives that are characterized by profound instability and tendencies towards self-destruction are worse than collectives that do not share these characteristics. An ethics of problems and solutions thus calls us to evaluate the features of systems or assemblages that tend towards self-destruction and those that do not. Maybe I’m sneaking a universal, transcendent, and eternal value in through the back door here. I don’t know.
On the other hand, my other difficulty with discussions of the ethics and politics entailed by onticology is that I’m just not sure of the scope of the nonhuman turn implied by speculative realism. I can readily see how onticology and OOO call for us to ontologically investigate how nonhumans encounter the world and to attend to the contributions that they make, but it’s very difficult for me to see how questions of politics and ethics might be theorized in nonhuman ways. Insofar as I hold that society and culture aren’t separated from the broader natural world, insofar as I hold that society and culture are dependent upon all sorts of nonhumans to sustain itself, I can readily see why we should have a greater regard for nonhumans and not simply treat them as instruments of our ends. Moreover, I can readily understand how humans, having the capacity to discern the pain of other beings such as nonhumans, should ethically seek to diminish that pain as best they can. Yet this is still humans originating norms and values, and I just don’t see how this is a posthuman or nonhuman system of ethics. It is much more difficult for me to imagine how non-intelligent nonhumans– and here, under the title of “intelligence”, I have in mind other hominids, dolphins, octopi, and perhaps certain technologies –might generate systems of values and norms that are binding for us. I am not excluding the possibility that such things are possible, but am just stating that my imagination fails here. Intuitively I tell my daughter it is wrong when she kills a beetle or a spider– even when they are potentially dangerous to us –but I have a very difficult time figuring out philosophically what my reasons are for this beyond platitudes like “do no harm” and a general regard for life. And there is, I believe, quite a difference between an intuitive account and a philosophical account of something. We all understand intuitively that motion is possible, but philosophically or conceptually defeating Zeno is quite a different matter.
I do think, however, speculative realism and onticology are able to exclude certain ethico-political positions or, at least, substantially modify the terms of the debate. For example, it’s clear that under an onticological and new materialist approach to being, the normative axiomatics of liberalism and neo-liberalism can no longer be sustained. Since Locke and probably before, that ethico-political framework has been based on the idea that our body is our property and that therefore we enjoy sovereign rights over our body (a position probably worth preserving), but more importantly that through the entanglement of our bodies with other entities in our labor we transform these beings into our property. My land and my products are mine because my labor in working them over transformed them and made them extensions of my body. Yet this idea is premised on the assumption that the products of my labor that result from interactive entanglement with the labor of my body remain in place, infringing on no other bodies. I can do whatever I like to “my property”, the story goes, because it doesn’t affect any other body; or, more colloquially, it doesn’t affect anybody else.
In their wonderful introduction to New Materialisms, Diane Coole and Samantha Frost, significantly call this assumption into question. As they remark,
The enormous macroscopic impact of myriad mundane individual actions provokes critical, political, and legal reflection not only upon the nature of causation but also upon the nature of the responsibilities that individuals and governments have for the health of the planet. The unequal effects of occurrences such as rising sea levels and drought associated with climate change also pose serious questions for advocates of social justice, especially in light of the mismatch between actions, intentions, and consequences. questions regarding the definition of the ethical value, and the moral and political culpability of the human the nonhuman, and the virtually human become especially vexed as concerns about environmental degradation and dwindling natural resources acquire an urgency unimaginable just a generation ago. Such questions not only prompt reflection upon who or what should be taken as subjects and objects of ethical, legal, or political action; they also suggest a need for new ways of theorizing risk and accountability as humans meddle more virgorously in natural processes and thus become more materially, if not yet ethically, responsible for outcomes. (16)
While Coole and Frost (perhaps the most awesome name for two authors ever) do not mention it, what they have here articulated is a variation of what Negri and Hardt call “the commons”. One central problem with neo-liberal ideology is that it is premised on the idea that objects remain in place. It is this that justifies the idea that we have the right to do whatever we might like with our property because doing so harms no one else. Yet while it has always been true, our time is characterized by a growing awareness that things don’t stay in place, that they obey no territorial boundaries, no national boundaries, nor boundaries of ownership. Rather, things circulate all about the world affecting everyone and everything. And for this reason there is a commons that can be owned by no one because it circulates about for everyone and everything. This is true not only of the effects that result from fracking when drilling for natural gas, not only for the effects of chemicals that enter water supplies from curing various leathers, not only for the pollutants that enter the air from factories, but also for things like information as in the case of designer genes that are then used to normalize the seeds that we plant. What we have increasingly discovered are entities that obey no boundaries of property but that nomadically wander the earth affecting all bodies. And this, my friends, significantly calls for a rethinking of the concept of “private” property and property in general; for entities that wander the earth without regard for territory are the common and are a matter for every thing.