Over at This Cage is Worms, Cameron has a post up discussing OOO, flat ethics, and politics. There are a few misrepresentations of my position there, so I thought it would be worthwhile to say a word or two in response. In his post, Cameron suggests that I hold that humans are ethically privileged over all other beings because I’m skeptical of the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics. In other words, Cameron seems to think that I hold that humans are the sole entity of ethical regard and concern. Yet I am not claiming this at all. As I argue in my post entitled “The Question of Flat Ethics“, ethical consideration can be extended to all sorts of nonhumans. Where traditional ethics tend to treat ethical duties and obligations as only pertaining to humans, OOO, SR, and NMF’s expand the domain of ethical regard to nonhumans. Indeed, this is at the core of my own position. So why do I nonetheless express skepticism at the possibility of a posthuman or non-anthropocentric ethics? Not because I think we’re only concerned with humans or that we should only be concerned with humans, but because it is still humans making the ethical judgments and setting the values in this framework. That is still an anthropocentrism, even if it is one that extends ethical regard to nonhumans.
Cameron goes on to suggest that I hold that every entity must be counted within an OOO politics. As he writes:
I’m deeply disturbed by this desire to account for every possible actor in assemblage. Talk about “effective intervention” makes me worried about ways in which we understand who, and what, counts in that intervention. OOO would obviously say that everything counts, but practical politics can’t possibly account for all actors. I am worried that this is symptomatic of a much larger trend in the OOO sphere that desires a count before action, which will always allow for a critique of ethics and politics; it means that there will always be someone who can say “you got your count wrong” or “you didn’t wait for the full count.” Between this and the “hands in the air” model, I am concerned that there is a political paralysis that accompanies the current OOO way of doing things.
In my view, Cameron is here confusing two very different types of political questions: normative political questions and, for lack of a better term, analytic political questions. What’s the difference? Normative political questions ask questions like “how should society be constituted?”, “what should we do?”, “what is justice?”, etc. Normative political philosophy is interested in judging the situation and determining what should be done. “Should we support the workers or the wealthy?” “What would a truly free society look like?” This is the sort of political philosophy you see in thinkers– very different amongst themselves –like Plato, Rawls, Habermas, Badiou, Ranciere, and so on. These thinkers all, in very different ways, attempt to provide criteria for distinguishing between just and unjust social formations. In claiming that I hold we should count everything, Cameron seems to think I’m making a normative claim about what a just ethical and political philosophy would look like.
However, my claim about the need to take nonhumans into account is not a normative claim, but an analytic political claim. Although normative and analytic political questions can never be completely separated, they nonetheless have very different aims. Analytic political questions revolve around the investigation of those mechanisms by which power is structured. How is power structured? How are these inequalities and forms of oppression produced? How do these forms of oppression, power, and inequality maintain themselves? Why is the North Side of Chicago relatively wealthy and the South Side of Chicago fairly poor? Analytic political philosophy seeks to understand these mechanisms so it can intervene and change these circumstances. Examples of analytic political philosophers are thinkers such as Marx, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari. These thinkers don’t tell us a whole lot about what ought to be done, but instead analyze power and the functioning of power that gives social assemblages the persistent form that they have. Analytic political philosophy tries to map the structure and mechanisms of power so that we might figure out both why oppression takes the form that it has and therefore what needs to be changed or where we need to intervene. Clearly analytic political questions are guided by normative commitments (emancipation, for example), but there can be no effective normative political engagement without a map of the territory and how it functions.
It is in the context of analytic political questions that my remarks about nonhumans are to be understood. The point is not that we should “count everything” in our ethical and political meditations, but that if we’re to pursue emancipation and fight various forms of oppression we need to understand what structures situations. With the rise of cultural Marxism and the linguistic turn, societies came to be seen as almost entirely structured by language, discourse, narratives, signifiers, beliefs, and ideologies. The thesis has been that oppression and inequality take the form they take because of ideologies, beliefs, language, narratives, and so on. This model consequently ends up prescribing certain strategies for changing things. We are told that we must first analyze, for example, the ideology, and then debunk the ideology. Once the ideology has been effectively debunked things will change. All onticology says is that signifying components are not the only thing that structure power-relations, but that nonhuman entities such as technologies, animals, plants, modes of transportation and communication, rivers, mountains, microbes, and so on play a significant role in structuring power-relations as well. Notice the word “only” preceded by a negation here. Onticology does not say “it’s really nonhumans that structure power-relations and that signifying components don’t play a role at all”; rather, onticology says that both nonhumans and signifying elements structure power-relations; but that political theory has tended to ignore the former.
A while back I wrote a post entitled “The Gravity of Things” to illustrate this point. There I argued that things have a certain “gravity” that structures the movement of other things in their vicinity. This is no less true of signifying elements than it is of nonhumans. What are some examples of how nonhumans structure power-relations in a variety of ways? Marx gives us a nice example of how nonhumans contribute to the form power takes with regard to industrial machines. With the emergence of the factory machine a deskilling of labor takes place as the worker that operates the machine requires little skill to do so and engages in the same repetitive activity minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. This deskilling of labor, in its turn, makes the worker ever more dependent on capital because since 1) he has very little skill he can be easily replaced by any other person on the street, thereby undermining his ability to negotiate with the owners of the factory for better wages and working conditions, and 2) because with the disappearance of his skill he becomes more dependent on commodities (and therefore wage-labor) because he cannot any longer produce goods himself. I gave a similar example of how the invention of the lathe changed class relations in my Speculations article entitled “On the Reality and Construction of Hyperobjects with Respect to Class” (.pdf). Similar points could be made– and I have made them –about the role that rivers, roads, and mountain passes structuring power-relations, as well as the role that different types of grain production, energy production, and plague epidemics play in structuring social relations.
The point here is that these actants are non-signifying structuring mechanisms within social assemblages that also contribute to the form that power takes. If we want to change our world we have to understand something about how both these signifying and non-signifying elements contribute to the structuring of power relations. In critical theory we’ve payed a lot of attention to the signifying dimension of power relations, but we’ve paid far less attention to the role played by non-signifying elements. As a result, we might be entirely missing why power takes the form it takes, and might also be missing points of strategic intervention that could multiply our political strategies.
Citing a post by Halberstam, Cameron goes on to write:
At risk of sticking my neck out and offending various readers, I think that Halberstam is exactly correct when stating this:
The questions about the politics of OOO and speculative realism, it seems to me, are questions that I might also direct to you in terms of these 5 or 6 lengthy posts – it is not a matter of whether we can find points of political engagement, of course we can find many active arenas of contestation in terms of the environment, the centering of the human and so on but there is an apolitical drift that comes in to the form of a high theoretical commitment to grand narratives and normative modes of theorizing. The theories that count and that get counted in OOO and SR tend to be masculinist most of the time and tend to cluster around enlightenment and post-structuralist theory or a particular, continental stripe: Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, Zizek, Lacan, with a Butler or Braidotti thrown in for good measure but nary a mention of race, class or postcolonial thinking.
As for “nary a mention of race, class or postcolonial thinking,” one of the interesting puzzles in the formula “SR/OOO are a kind of continental philosophy” is the fact that continental philosophy has such a strong association with matters of human identity, and SR/OOO/etc. are interested in various non- or extra-human matters, and are therefore moving in slightly different directions than continental philosophy has done in recent decades. The assumption—which seems to be prevalent—that this means “abandoning” questions of human identity is an interesting one.
I don’t believe that OOO means a total abandoning of questions of identity and relationships between humans explicitly, but I do know that I can’t name a single person in the OOO/SR field who deals with human relationships.
I find these remarks extremely frustrating as I’ve written so much on these issues. As I’ve expressed many times (here, for example), I have no desire to throw out social constructivism, but rather to situate it within the broader framework of my ontological. I also make these points in the Introduction to The Democracy of Objects, as well as chapter 4 and chapter 5. In chapter 4, for example, I attempt to show how larger-scale social systems structure and form identities of people. This is a thesis I also develop in my recent Identities article entitled “Of Parts and Politics: Onticology and Queer Politics” (Identities: Journal for Politics, Gender, and Culture, Vol 8., No. 1); where I also, incidentally, provide normative criteria for evaluating situations. Meanwhile I have been carefully deconstructing the traditional concept of nature precisely to show how racial, gendered, class identities, etc., are constructed. Here is a representative example of that work.
Far from ignoring these things, they have been at the heart of my thought. As I put it in The Democracy of Objects, the central project of my work has been to integrate the discoveries of anti-realism, linguistic constructivism, and social constructivism with a realist ontology. The reason for this is two-fold: On the one hand, I don’t think the cultural-linguistic turn in theory is able to adequately deal with ecology due to its tendency to treat everything as socially constructed, thereby ignoring the real differences that things contribute independent of signification. On the other hand, I don’t think that we can adequately understand social assemblages without taking into account the role that nonhumans play in structuring power relations within those assemblages. This project does not consist in excluding, for example, the questions of identity formation in feminist, queer, and post-colonial theory that Halberstam refers to, but in expanding the sorts of actants we consider when investigating power-relations in social assemblages.
Understanding these complex interrelations between nonhuman things and signifying components is at the heart of my onto-cartography project. Onto-cartography seeks to map the ecology of social and natural situations, investigating how power is structured so that we might devise strategies for intervening in these situations. Drawing on Deleuze and Guattari, I distinguish between the plane of content and the plane of expression. The plane of content refers to machinic assemblages or relations between bodies affecting and being affected by one another. The plane of expression refers to collective assemblages of enunciation, the traditional site of cultural studies, where we investigate signifiers, texts, narratives, discourses, etc. On the plane of content we find technologies, roads, fiber-optic cables, satellites, roads, animals, plants, microbes, buildings, etc. Here we find all sorts of relations structuring movement, forming identities, allotting privilege, etc. On the plane of expression we find racial identities, sexuality, gender, religion, systems for categorizing entities, discourses, narratives, status, political positions, institutions, and so on. Here there are all sorts of relations between identities and roles, as well as social machines that both form identities and strive to reinforce and maintain social relations between identities and the identities themselves.
Part of what onto-cartography seeks to investigate is how spaces become striated, how a “state” is formed, and how it might be possible to intervene in these assemblages to change them. While the plane of content and the plane of expression are independent of one another, there are all sorts of complex relations between the two. The question is one of investigating the “gravitational forces” exercised by each of these planes so that we might escape them and form more satisfying assemblages. Each plane has the capacity to affect the other. For example, smart phones are entities that belong to the plane of content, of nonhuman bodies, but they affect the plane of expression in all sorts of ways. Smart phones transform the nature of labor relations and the expressive sorting of private and public. As more and more people get cell phones, new norms and expectations emerge. One is expected to always be available, even after hours, on the weekend, and on vacation, through phone, text, or email. Individually, of course, we can decide to shut off our phone when we leave the workplace, yet if we do so we either risk direct sanctions (“why didn’t you respond to that important business email?”) or missing opportunities. Increasingly the workplace is no longer a place and a time, but is everywhere and all the time. One wakes up in the middle of the night from the familiar buzz of the phone indicating that you’ve received a text or email.
The smart phone also changes the way in which we relate to one another. People say things in texts and emails that they would never say in person. There is sexting, the sending of pics, and often rudeness. Sexuality begins to take flight becoming something other than it would have been in face to face embodied interactions because people explore things in this textual medium that they wouldn’t in person. These things increasingly become norms outside the textual sphere. Indeed, smart phones increasingly change the very norms governing language. People begin to write “u”, “2”, “tho”, etc., and use different grammatical structures, thereby influencing the broader language. While the cell phone can signify along the lines of Baudrillard’s System of Objects or Bourdieu’s symbolic-capital as a marker of status and ideology, it also introduces all sorts of differences into the plane of expression just by being what it is and by occasioning certain uses that weren’t there before. We have also seen how the smart phone can become a revolutionary potential, allowing people to circumvent government and media control to organize in new ways as in the case of the Arab Spring. There are thus ways in which the smart phone exercises a certain sort of “gravity” in negative ways, pulling us more deeply into a system of labor, but also ways in which it is emancipatory.
The smart phone also exercises “gravity” at the level of bodies in the machinic assemblage alone. Cell phone batteries require special rare metals, many of which are found in batteries. They thus foster the mining of these metals which has all sorts of impact on climate, rivers, oceans. Many of these metals are found in China, thereby contributing to the formation of certain economic relations and reinforcing certain forms of labor relations. Cell phones call for satellites to be shot into outer space and radio towers to be put up all over the place. The radio waves emitted by cell-phones are thought to contribute to brain cancer and to influence the behavior of insects like bees. Something that we might simply think of as a cultural artifact, a “text”, has all sorts of ecological impact.
The plane of expression also has all sorts of impact on the plane of content. We have seen, for example, how religious narratives and discourses have impacted stem cell research. The way in which we narrate our sexuality has a direct impact on our biology, structuring our bodies and their responses in various ways. Conservative narratives surrounding the End Times impact our ability to act in response to climate change. As a secretary once said to me here at the college, “I’m not worried about climate change, I know how the world is going to end.”
The plane of content and the plane of expression can also be out of sync with one another. Events and changes can take place in one plane that are not registered in the other. For example, at the level of the plane of expression, the Enlightenment radically rethought the nature of society along bourgeois lines. Yet at the level of material existence or the way people lived, these transformations at the level of expression were barely registered. Material social relations lagged behind the transformations that had taken place in thought or discourse for many decades, even centuries. People continued to live as peasants and nobles. Why? Part of this was because the material infrastructure had not yet changed. Mechanisms of production and distribution were not yet in place allowing people to live as “individuals” pursuing their own destiny. The remained tied to the land.
Similarly, there can be transformations at the level of the plane of content that aren’t registered in the field of expression. The invention of the birth control pill, for example, contributed significantly towards deterritorializing women from the home and the marital relationship, by giving them the ability to regulate if or when they had children, thereby creating greater opportunity for them to enter the workplace, support themselves, hold office, pursue their own sexual desires, etc. However, transformations commensurate with these deterritorializations at the level of the plane of content have been slow to catch up. The manner in which women are coded at the level of expression, social categories, social identities, etc., continued to conceive women as having a proper place only in the home for many decades and continued to hold that women should be sexually demure and restricted to monogamy. These struggles at the level of expression continue to this day and that level of expression has all sorts of impact at the level of content (actual male and female biological bodies).
This is only a thumbnail sketch of what I’m trying to do with onto-cartography and onticology, with much left out. The point that I’m trying to make is that onticology and onto-cartography do not exclude human relations, questions of identity formation, how social categorizations function, etc. These are all crucial features of the assemblages within which we find ourselves. What onto-cartography seeks to develop is a way of thinking ecologically about social assemblages. Ecological thinking is thinking in terms of relations between entities, investigating their hierarchies, as well as the positive and negative feedback relations that exist between these entities. Thinking ecologically about social assemblages does not entail ignoring signifiers, narratives, discourses, power, etc., for the simple reason that these things are part of the hominid ecologies within which we live. It does, however, entail expanding our conception of these social assemblages to include the role played by nonhumans in the structuration of power.