Over at stunlaw, David Berry presents a pretty scathing critique of OOO (h/t to Alex Reid), arguing that,

It seems to me that object-oriented ontology and speculative realism together reflect a worrying spirit of conservatism within philosophy. They discount the work of human activity and place it alongside a soporific litany of naturalised objects – a method that points less at the interconnected nature of things, and gestures more towards the infinity of sameness, the gigantic of objects, the relentless distanceless of a total confusion of beings (see Harman 2009a for a discussion of things and objects).

Although Berry doesn’t mention me much in his post and seems fairly unfamiliar with my publications and writings here on the blog– I think it’s rather difficult for someone familiar with my work to accuse me of conservatism or indifference to politics –given the amount of writing I’ve done here and in print on political issues I think it’s worthwhile to respond.  This is especially important, given what one of the respondents to his post goes on to say:

ooo completely ignores movements, forces and power structures (Deleuze, Foucault) that impact on the planet. They have nothing to say about networks, nodes, spheres (Sloterdijk). A very impoverished conservative philosophy. I stll can’t work out what Harman and his “objects” are trying to achieve. Great article David. We should get more radical in our critique

This is a very surprising claim given all Morton and I have written about ecology, as well as all I have written about networks, nodes, forces, movements, and power.  The question is that of how power is constituted and functions.

1)  Flat Ontology and Hierarchy:  From the very outset, Berry seems to get the concept of flat ontology wrong.  He writes:

they follow the other speculative realists in attempting to develop a notion of ‘flat ontology’. This flat ontology is one in which hierarchy is banished and therefore bears a striking resemblance to the universe described by science, albeit differing in not seeking reductionist explanations in terms of causation, etc. Nonetheless, there seems to be no World, in the Heideggerian sense, for the speculative realist, who, observing the relative position of philosophy vis a vis science within human culture, endeavors to replicate or supplement scientific inquiry without human culture, by providing a speculative and philosophical description of the universe through the notion of withdrawn or partially visible objects…

Flat ontology is neither the thesis that there is no hierarchy, nor is it an eradication of human culture.

a)  As Bogost articulates the basic thesis of flat ontology, “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.”  Let’s take the first half of this thesis, “all objects exist equally.”  This is merely the claim that if something exists it can’t be reduced to anything else– for example, to a social construction –but is a real being that, as I argue in “The Ontic Principle” (The Speculative Turn, 2011), that contributes differences to the world all its own.  Take the example of Zizek’s famous toilets in The Plague of Fantasy.  Zizek brilliantly analyzes French, German, and American toilets, showing how they are the embodiment of a particular ideology.  This is not a form of analysis that I wish to abandon and is a form of analysis that I believe has value (I say as much in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects).  However, what does Zizek’s analysis ignore?  Well it ignores the material difference that toilets make in social assemblages, or the power that they exert.  For Zizek, toilets are merely carriers or vehicles for human significations.  Here the difference is coming from humans (ideology), while the toilets are introducing no difference of their own.  My onticology does not deny that humans introduce differences through their significations.  What it tries to draw attention to is non-signifying differences made by other things.  What difference does a toilet make?  Is it possible that the absence or presence of a toilet plays a role in the forms power takes?  The point is that if we really want to understand how assemblages function we must avoid reducing the actors in assemblages to something else and must instead be attentive to the play of differences among different types of actants or objects.  This includes significations and also includes the bubonic plague.

read on!

Now let’s take the second half of Bogost’s aphorism, “…not all objects exist equally.”  If this is not a statement of hierarchy, I don’t know what is.  The claim that not all objects exist equally is the claim that while all objects might equally be objects, they are unequal in the scope of their effects on other entities in an assemblage.  Some objects exercise greater power within a particular assemblage than other objects, exercising, as a result, greater effects on that assemblage.  The sun exercises greater effects in the solar system than do the other planets.  In contemporary socio-political assemblages, oil and other fossil fuels exercise greater power than other sources of energy and other social contributors.  All of society comes to be organized around these substances such that changing these assemblages entails responding, in particular, to the role played by these actors in that assemblage.

Elsewhere, I have referred to hierarchy within assemblages as “The Gravity of Things“.  Einstein taught us that gravity is the result of how mass curves or bends space-time, causing other entities to move along particular paths about those objects.  I want to say that objects– metaphorically, of course –do something similar to other objects.  They warp or curve the space of relations such that other objects get caught in their orbit.  And in this regard, some objects curve the space of relations to a much greater degree than other objects.  During the 14th century, rice production in Asia was a tremendously powerful “gravitational” force, pulling human beings together in particular ways and leading their societies to organize in particular ways.  Why?  Well the advantage of rice is that 1) it is an extremely hardy crop so it’s very reliable (unlike the grains cultivated in Europe), 2) while on the other hand, you get two to three harvests from rice a year (again, unlike European grains).  However, rice is also extremely labor intensive to plant and harvest.  These difficulties with harvesting and planting rice are going to favor certain types of social relations and practices to respond to the problem of production:  namely, collective farming will be favored and people will spend long, back breaking days in the fields.  And, of course, where people are spending long days in the field they won’t have time for other things and a hierarchical social structure between farmers and those who keep track of the rice and distribute it will also be favored.  This response to rice is how rice exerts a specific “gravity” on people.   This is a hierarchy where rice is playing a dominant role in the situation or what I call a “regime of attraction”.

Responding to this situation so as to change it will thus involve responding to two material realities– the properties of rice as well as the need for that collective to eat –and in breaking the hegemony that rice holds within this particular social assemblage.  The case is the same with oil and other fossil fuels for us.  Our lives, our ways of living, our modes of production, our agriculture, our transportation, and our international relations are organized around oil and fossil fuels.  Oil and fossil fuels are an organizing set of entities within our social assemblages.  A big part of changing our social world– not the only part –consists in responding to these nonhuman actors and how they organize relations among human actors.  In this regard, the point is not to stop thinking about humans– as Berry seems to suggest –but rather to start thinking about the role nonhumans play in organizing our social relations in particular ways.  If you want to intervene in an assemblage, if you want to undo oppression and bring about emancipation, you have to know something about the “lay of the land” and how things came to be organized in this way.

2)  Correlationism and its Discontents:  For me, at least, the desire to overcome correlationism does not arise out of some pure speculative desire to “get at the things themselves”, but because I believe that correlationism has noxious political consequences that cultivate an attitude destructive to effective political practice or engagement.  As Stacy Alaimo, who is not an OOO theorist but who is very close to my onticology in many respects puts it,

Matter, the vast stuff of the world and of ourselves, has been subdivided into manageable “bits” or flattened into a “blank slate” for human inscription.  The environment has been drained of its blood, its lively creatures, its interactions and relations– in short, all that is recognizable as “nature” –in order that it become a mere empty space, an “uncontested ground,” for human “development”.  (Bodily Natures, 1 – 2)

Correlationism trains us to see all other material things as alienated images of ourselves in a mirror.  The question always becomes “what are things for us?”, and the thesis is that matter is merely a brute passive stuff awaiting our inscriptions.  In other words, the basic gesture that become dominant in cultural theory beginning around the 60’s was to show that what we take to be objects are really our own significations that we fail to recognize as our own.  A critical analysis– modeled on Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism but diverging quite significantly from hismaterialism –thus came to consist in revealing how these significations come from us, rather than from the things themselves.

Now, as I have said, both here and elsewhere, I have no desire to abandon this form of analysis.  As I argue, all entities translate other entities in particular ways and this is no less true of humans.  However, the problem with this style of analysis is that it renders invisible the differences contributed by nonhuman objects to social assemblages.  We come to think that it is just significations that structure social assemblages and that if we want to change social assemblages all we have to do is critique and debunk significations or ideologies.  Clearly critiquing and debunking ideologies is a part of changing social assemblages, but it is not the only part.  And because correlationism functions as a theoretical axiom where we don’t even recognize the existence of this other part– say rice –because it treats the only real difference as signifying difference, we find ourselves surprised when we’ve adequately critiqued and debunked signifying systems and the social system doesn’t change.  Perhaps this would clue us into the possibility that perhaps there are other actors involved in these social assemblages, holding people in place in particular ways.

The problem is that correlationism tends to rendernon-signifying differences in social assemblages invisible because it begins from the axiom that nonhuman things are just blank slates awaiting our inscription.  Anyone who’s ever gardened knows that this can’t possibly be true.  The diacritical nature of how I signify “tomato” will not make my tomatoes grow any better.  No, to grow tomatoes I have to navigate soil conditions, sunlight and heat (which are quite substantial here in Texas), the gangs of roving rabbits that populate my back yard, insects, worms, water, etc.  I am enmeshed in an entire network of actors that contribute to whether or not the tomatoes will grow and, more importantly, I must constantly attend to these nonhuman actors.

The point here is not, as Berry suggests, to diminish human political interventions and promote a troubling conservatism, but to expand the sites of political intervention as well as our possibilities of acting.  We cannot effectively act and change things if we don’t know how the assemblages within which we are enmeshed are put together, what actors are present in those assemblages, and how we might intervene on these actors to change our social possibilities.  Correlationism tends to draw our attention to only one type of actor– the signifier –and while this is a real actor it is not the only one.

This is why, with my onticology, I have proposed a praxis called “terraism” as integral to political practice.  Terraism has three dimensions to it:  cartography, deconstruction, and construction.  Cartography is a mapping of social assemblages that discerns what actors or entities are present in the assemblage (signifiers, ideologies, people, groups, bubonic plague bacteria, toilets, rice, etc.), how they are linked together, and how these assemblages are organized or what power or gravity they generate in perpetuating certain ongoing patterns of relation.  Deconstruction is the practice of strategic intervention designed to target those various entities that exercise power or gravity in particular ways so as to produce social change.  Such interventions can be of the semiotic-critical variety such as Zizek, Adorno, or Foucault practices that we’re all familiar with, but can also consist in more material interventions such as changing finance law to blunt the power of corporations.  Construction, finally, consists in building new assemblages through the introduction of new discourses (as OWS has done in the American situation), introducing plumbing and irrigation in impoverished parts of the world, building alternative ways of living in fossil fuel economies, and so on.  OOO does not so much reject representation, the discursive, and signification as see it as one element in an assemblage among others.

3)  “OOO eradicates culture.”:  While some of us certainly talk about culture and society more than others, it is difficult to see how this could be true.  Such an enunciation could only arise from a theoretical discourse that functions within the culture/nature split of modernity, seeing the object (under this view, nature) as something other than the subject (under this view culture).  Working within this schema it thus concludes that OOO is trying to eradicate culture so as to talk about pure natural objects.  Yet in point of fact, the move is quite different.  As I have argued, culture is a part of nature.  Cultural formations, in all their contingency and historical being, are natural formations.  They are not something outside of or independent of nature.  The advantage of this formulation is that it allows me to show how, in addition to, natural entities like contingent signifying systems, cultural and social formations are intertwined with all sorts of material, nonhuman entities that both impact social collectives in all sorts of ways (rice, the bubonic plague, meteor impacts, volcanic explosions) and upon which they draw to sustain themselves.  This has led me to propose that we replace the terms “society” and “culture” with “hominid ecology” because social systems are particular types of ecologies– not unlike a jungle ecology –that open on to a broader material world of nonhumans without which they could not exist or function.  The advantage of talking about “hominid ecologies” is that it allows us to see how our social systems are intertwined with this broader world.

Again, it is difficult to see how any of these considerations are indifferent to politics– for me they’re riddles with political considerations –or how they aim to cultivate a political conservatism.  The entire aim is to enhance our ability to act, change the world about us, and intervene.  This requires that we actually know what is organizing situations.  And here I believe that nonhuman actors play a significant role in why assemblages take the form they do.  If there is currently a focus on nonhuman entities in OOO– and I perpetually go back and forth between human and nonhuman actors in my work, trying to show their imbrications with each other –then this is because signification currently hegemonizes cultural studies and the humanities and it is necessary to bring other things into relief.  I would invite Berry to tarry a bit with the question of what difference toilets make– especially in human assemblages where they are absent –and what changing introducing plumbing might make in those assemblages.  If he thinks seriously about such earthly things he might begin to see that signifying intervention is not the only form of intervention and that often big emancipatory differences can be introduced by attending to non-signifying entities.