Returning to the questions of an earlier post, it seems to me that perhaps the central concern with OOO and SR is that flat ontology leads to a flat ethics. Flat ontology is, in many respects, a response to the primacy of correlationism that places humans, language, Dasein, etc., at the ground of being, as that being to which being is given and that somehow structures all of being. These positions are variants of what I call “vertical ontologies”. Vertical ontologies are characterized by treating on type of being as a privileged being within the order of existence, such that all other beings are dependent on that being. In contemporary thought, that being is generally treated as some variant of the human, the social, or language. For a basic account of flat ontology, one can consult some of my previous posts here and here, or chapter 6 of The Democracy of Objects. The basic characteristic of correlationist ontologies is that the treat the lion’s share of agency as issuing from humans. For example, a theorist might endlessly discuss how signifiers structure reality without examining the differences that nonhuman entities contribute to the world. Under this model, things become passive matters awaiting inscriptions, and do no inscribing or contribute no differences of their own. This, I believe, has been the dominant way of thinking over the last forty years, if not the last two hundred years.
Flat ontology rejects this approach, not because it holds that humans don’t contribute differences to the world– that would be absurd –but because it believes this approach is dangerously one-sided and prevents us from thinking both ecologically and from comprehending why societies and power take the form they do (follow the links above for a more detailed discussion of this). In other words, the aim of flat ontology is not to throw out the magnificent findings of the linguistic idealists, semioticians, social constructivists, phenomenologists, etc. It is not to limit, but to broaden. Towards this end, flat ontology asserts that humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings. Nonhumans and the material world are not passive stuffs awaiting human inscription, but rather contribute differences of their own. Indeed, a number of these differences are significant contributors to what human beings are at any point in history and the form that social systems take; often moreso than signs and signifiers. Flat ontology once to open a space where these non-signifying differences can be discerned and their inscriptions can be traced. Thus, rather than focusing on the question of what we contribute to the being of beings– though that question remains –flat ontology strives to draw attention the differences that nonhumans contribute. In other words, it decenters obsessive focus on the agency of humans so as to investigate the agency of things. All flat ontology says is that all things equally exist, even if they unequally contribute differences to various assemblages of entities. A plant is no less a being than a person and its being cannot be reduced to how it is signified in a signifying system. In other words, flat ontology rejects the anthropocentrism implicit in most contemporary theory.
Judging by the discussions I’ve had over the last three or four years, this thesis somehow manages to cause quite a ruckus. As far as I can tell, the worry seems to be that flat ontology entails a flat ethics. In other words, people seem to somehow jump from the proposal that plants are every bit as much beings as humans, and plants contribute important differences of their own that cannot be reduced to significations, social constructions, effects of social power, intentional experience, etc., to the conclusion that all beings are on equal ethical footing. To put it bluntly, the critic of flat ontology seems to worry that flat ontology entails that we should let the shark eat the child. I am not quite sure how this follows, but the worry seems to come up again and again. To put an end to the suspense, no, I don’t think we should let the shark eat the child.
So far– even among the critical animal theorists –I can’t say that I’ve seen a single ethical theory that I would characterize as non-anthropocentric. I’m not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like. Even in the case of those ethical theories that argue that we should have heightened regard for animals, that we should attend to their suffering, and that we should have regard for the planet– all positions that I advocate –it still seems to me that we are the ones doing the valuing and proposing the norms and that therefore these positions are anthropocentric. Maybe I’m missing something, or maybe it’s just a failure of imagination on my part, but it seems to me that for an ethical philosophy to be truly flat it would 1) have to begin from how nonhumans value, and 2) evaluate humans from that standpoint. I suppose that there are some ways in which we might do that already as in the case of Temple Grandin exploring the world of cows to develop kinder ways of treating them, or the ways in which we treat our pets, taking into account what we understand of their desires so as to assist them in living a satisfying life and in avoiding cruelty with them. However, given that we don’t simply attend to the conatus of nonhumans, but are also concerned with our own conatus, I don’t see a circumstance arising in which we conclude that the “rights” of bubonic plague bacteria trump our own endeavor to persist in our being. Do people really worry about this.
I think that Eileen Joy, in a comment over at Alex Reid’s Digital Digs, best articulates what the aims of an object-oriented ethics (OOE) might look like.
Responding to one of his recent posts, she writes:For me personally, turning one’s attention to animals, objects, post/humanism and so on is precisely about thickening our capacity to imagine more capacious forms of “living with”; it is precisely about developing more radical forms of welcoming and generosity to others, who include humans as well as trees, rocks, dogs, cornfields, ant colonies, pvc pipes, and sewer drains; it is precisely about amplifying the ability of our brains to pick up more communication signals from more “persons” (who might be a human or a cloud or a cave) whose movements, affects, and thoughts are trying to tell us something about our interconnectedness and co-implicated interdependence with absolutely everything (or perhaps even about a certain implicit alienation between everything in the world, which is nevertheless useful to understand better: take your pick); it is precisely about working toward a more capacious vision of what we mean by “well-being,” when we decide to attend to the well-being of humans and other “persons” (who might be economic markets or the weather or trash or homeless cats) who are always enmeshed with each other in various “vibrant” networks, assemblages, meshes, cascades, systems, whathaveyou. And just for me — likely, just for me– it is also about love, with love defined, not as something that goes in one direction from one person to another person or object (carrying with it various demands and expectations and self-centered desires), but rather, as a type of collective labor that works at creating “fields” for persons and objects to
emerge into view that otherwise would remain hidden (and perhaps also remain abjectified), and which persons and objects could then be allowed the breathing/living room to unfold in various self-directed ways, even if that’s not what you could have
predicted in advance nor supposedly what you “want” it to do (in other words: ethics as a form of attention that is directed toward the “for-itself” propulsions of other persons and objects, human and inhuman). So, for me, work in post/humanism,
and in OOO, is attentive to the world, which includes and does not exile (or gleefully kill off) the human (although it certainly asks that we expand our angles of vision beyond just the human-centered ones); it is both political and ethical; and it is interested in what I would even call the “tender” attention to and care of things, human and inhuman (I think that the work of Bennett,
Bogost, Morton, Harman, Steven Shaviro, Jeffrey Cohen, Stacy Alaimo, Julian Yates, Myra Hird, Freya Matthews, Karen Barad, Donna Haraway, and Levi Bryant, and many, many others who *never* get cited in these discussions, especially the women working in materialism, science/gender studies, queer ecology, environmental humanities, etc.) especially exemplifies this “tender” attention to and care of all of the “items” of the world. Any enlargement of our capacity to think about the agential, signaling, and other capacities of as many items/objects/persons, etc. of this world represents, in my mind, an enlargement, and not a shrinking, of our ethical attention. It’s asking for a richer, thicker ontology, which gives is more to be responsible for (after all, that’s partly where the specialness of humans comes in), but also: more to enjoy.
It seems to me that the sort of ethico-political vision that Joy here proposes has two faces. On the one hand, there is that face directed towards our contatus, our endeavor to persist in our being and flourish. Recognizing our interconnection with nonhuman things and our impact on nonhuman things is not simply some hippy-dippy thesis that “we’re one with the universe”. No. It is a matter of self-interest. It’s the recognition that 1) we are dependent on this ecosystem to flourish, 2) that these relations upon which we are dependent are fragile and can be broken, and 3) that these things can also exercise oppressive power over us, undermining our ability to flourish or live well. As Spinoza saw, we always act with other bodies. Some of these bodies enhance our power of acting, while others diminish it. By and large, ethical thought has been blind to our relations with nonhumans, focusing only on questions of how we should treat and live with other humans. Yet this completely obscures our real ethical circumstances or conditions. Today, more than ever, our collective survival depends on broadening the domain of what counts as sites of political and ethical concern, and that means taking into account our relationship to nonhumans.
On the other hand, the other face of Joy’s ethical proposal pertains to generosity. Generosity is an attitude towards alterity, towards different universes, towards different phenomenologies (or as Bogost puts it, towards alien phenomenologies). And these universes are universes of both other humans and nonhumans. If an OOO/new materialist ethic cannot embrace the dictums “love your neighbor as you love yourself“, or “do unto others as you would have done unto yourself“, or “act in such a way that you can will the maxim of your action as a universal law of nature”, then this is because all three of these imperatives, in their focus on your self and the universal, fail to enter into the domain of alien phenomenology or alterity. Not every being’s needs and desires for a flourishing conatus are the same. Treating them as the same can issue in horrific cruelty. If you’re able to experience anguish when you walk by a harpy eagle enclosed in a small cage at the zoo, you already have a sense of what generosity and its relationship to alien phenomenology is. You experience that anguish because you discern that this is no way for harpy eagles to live. Likewise, if you are attentive to the desires (in the Lacanian sense) that animate your child– to their obsessions –even where they differ quite markedly from your fantasies and ambitions, and if you make yourself an agent that helps to foster those desires, then you have a sense of what alien phenomenology and generosity are. If you work to create a workplace that’s cognizant of the needs of people with young children– if you look to find ways not to make that a penalty for them –you have a sense of what alien phenomenology and generosity are. You are opening on to the ethical calls of alterity, whether it be with people different from yourself, animals, or any number of things.
No doubt, with respect to this other side of OOE, people will say “ah ha! so you do think that the serial killer should be able to slash his victim to pieces and that the shark should be able to eat the child!” But I do not say that, because our conatus is a central part of the equation as well. These two faces will always be in tension with one another, but it is possible to expand our ethical regard beyond ourselves to develop more generous attitudes to the others that we encounter in all walks of life.