When I was a young child my days were spent in the woods, wetlands, and creeks of the places that I lived. I would collect barks, lichens, leaves and mosses. I was fascinated with salamanders, tortoises (they were my favorites), toads, and snakes. In the creeks I would explore the worlds of all manner of fish, tadpoles, crawfish, turtles (I loved the painter and snapping turtles), tadpoles and frogs. I delighted in the insects that skimmed across the water, weaving in and out of cattails on long legs, and the dragon flies that flew like acrobats at break neck speeds. My room was filled with aquariums of my specimens– poor things –and my joy was to immerse myself in their beautiful patterns, shapes, colors, and behaviors. There was no purpose to any of this beyond sheer delight and curiosity. I don’t know why I was curious in this way. I just loved the woods, swamps, creeks and rivers. I was immersed in them.
As I grew older, my curiosity turned more towards social, political, psychological, and historical questions. I was a painfully shy child, nervous about how the movements and shape of my body were seen by others about me, deeply aware that I was seen by others, nervous about my smile, my teeth, unsure of how to talk to other people. When I was around the age of fourteen, a conservative fundamentalist religious revival swept through the small town where I lived, New Philadelphia, Ohio. Everyone suddenly became born again, and the fascisms began to sweep through the town. People that got along were now at each other’s throats. They got rid of evolution in the biology curriculum, switched to abstinence only sex education, banned the teaching of Orwell’s 1984 because of it’s sexual content. Indeed, they actually burned copies of 1984 in oil drums outside the school. I found this deeply traumatic and wanted to understand it and do something about it. I became obsessed with the holocaust and the sad and horrific fate of the beautiful communist dream in the Soviet Unions. The histories of this period, Orwell, Primo Levi, Soltzhenitsyn became my bibles. I found Durkheim and Freud. Anything to understand why this was happening. I also discovered philosophy during this time: Above all Spinoza, Sartre, and Heidegger, but also Whitehead, Dewey, Peirce, James, and Husserl. These questions would be my obsession for the next fifteen years, and are still my obsession.
Throughout college and grad school, I was obsessed with phenomenology, living almost in the transcendental epoche, but I also discovered the linguistic turn, Marxism, and post-structuralism during this period. These orientations struck me as the most powerful tools for fighting the micro- and macro- fascisms that had traumatized me during my highschool years. The sociologists, Spinoza, Whitehead, Dewey, and Heidegger had shown me the relational nature of the world, thereby providing me with weapons to fight the cruel ethic of individual and personal responsibility I had encountered among the neoliberals and fundamentalist fascists in New Philadelphia (they, the neoliberals and fundamentalist fascists –seem to seek ways of blaming others and of absolving themselves of complicity; there’s is always an easy and narcissistic ethics that judges others so that they might feel superior and justify their own decadence). The post-structuralists provided me with weapons to dissolve the essentialist identities the fascists defended in their attacks on women, the queer, minorities, etc. Modeled on Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism in Capital, the task of critical theory and post-structuralism was to show how all these purported “natural” identities and differences were really socially produced fetishes that need to be demolished in the name of the freedom to create oneself (Foucault’s care of the self, Butler’s performativity) and in the name of a communist egalitarianism. Psychoanalysis as refracted through Lacan and Deleuze and Guattari’s schizoanalysis provided the tools to show why we libidinally become attached to such sad and harrowing social structures. Marx provided a basic framework for how “the judgments of the earth” take place, stratifying and hierarchializing social relations through a play of ideologies, machines, resources, and flows of capital. And always, lurking in the background, was the Spinozist project of joy, of sorority and fraternity, rather than Oedipus, sovereignity, or authority… Always there’s the dream of transversal social production out of groups on a flat and egalitarian plane, rather than centralized aborescence. Brothers and sisters as a conspiracy against the Father.
All of this remains at the core of my passions, yet there was nonetheless a disquiet. If Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism was the elementary schema, the master-key, of all critical theory and analysis, what was I to do with my love of all nonhuman living things, of the inorganic world, of meteorology, astronomy, geology, and all the rest? What was I to do with my naturalism? Were all of these things commodity fetishes, were they socially produced? Were my beloved turtles, frogs, rocks, barks, spiders, and salamanders really fetishes? I felt as if my naturalism was a dirty secret that I had to hide to be a good proponent of my critical theory, phenomenology, Marxism, schizoanalysis, and post-structuralism. In the shadows, under a sheet with a flashlight away from the prying eyes of my critical theory super-ego, I would continue to delight in reading Gould, in watching documentaries on animal life, the formation of stars, the astoundingly complex movements of weather, and the glacial changes of geology. During the day, I would be a good critical theorist, semiotician, and phenomenologist, showing how things are socially constructed through a play of language, practices, intentions, and signs. I was split, schizophrenic.
This is why, for me, OOO and the New Materialist Feminisms (NMF) came as such a relief. With these vectors of thought, I was suddenly allowed to take joy in the world again. There at the heart of OOO, NMF, and MOO (machine-oriented ontology), there is an intellectual love of God, an intense aesthetic sensibility, coupled with a very earnest and serious ethico-politico sensibility. Graham Harman is the great philosopher of lassen sein, of letting things be. His message always seems to be “let things be”, and this is reflected in his delight in circuses and cotton and fire. While his thought might seem a-political and a-moral, can we not sense a profound ethico-politico sensibility here? Harman refuses the commodity, that move that would transform something into a “value” (in the Marxist sense) or the occupation of a position within a diacritical system of signs and signifiers, instead insisting that it is itself and has its own being that shall not be usurped in an economic logic. Jane Bennett delights in worms, bottle caps, and the furtive processes of garbage heaps, but also develops a distributed theory of agency in politics and ethics. Stacy Alaimo writes of jelly fish and creatures of the world, but develops a trans-corporeal theory of interactions between bodies showing how we’re implicated in one another and how our actions always exceed us (often for the worse). Bogost delights in the universes of cameras and Atari’s ET video game, showing what their universes are like and thereby hinting that we might be drawn into their universes every bit as much as we draw them into ours. Is Bogost a closet Stieglerian? I could go on and on.
In all of these thinkers there is a deep love and curiosity about the world, an Aristotlean wonder and delight, but also a profound ethico-politico sensibility. This ethico-politico sensibility does not always manifest itself in the form of declarations and explicit norms– perhaps many of us have learned all too well the lessons of psychoanalysis and Nietzsche with respect to how declarations of the Law generate cruelty to both others and oneself –but it is impossible to escape the impression that much of this is guided by both an aesthetic delight and an ethico-politico sensibility. As I reflect on my own journey, I find myself thinking that critical theory, in treating Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism, repeats the central sin of capitalism. The brilliance of Marx’s analysis of commodity fetishism was to show how wage-labor is a form of exploitation that unjustly divests wage-earners of their productive power. It shows how what appears to be an equitable exchange is really an unequal exchange due to the production of surplus-value that takes place in production organized around wages. It is not the commodity that is the source of value, but production. The worker is alienated in wage labor and that alienation must be surmounted.
Yet don’t we find a similar form of alienation, an alienation of the things, actants, objects, or machines in treating commodity fetishism as the elementary matrix of all social and political analysis? In treating all things as fetishes to be decoded and debunked, I have not practiced lassen sein, because I reduce, for example, the animal to a social construction, to social positionality, in a system of signs or signifiers. Rather than letting the octopus be for itself, I instead treat it as a cultural text. I turn it into something else, a social text, rather than approaching it as a divergent series, another possible world, that departs from ours while also taking up a point of view on ours. And in doing this, I repeat the elementary attitude of human exceptionalism and capitalist production, where all things that exist are things that are there for us, rather than for themselves. I treat all things as things to be exploited and used. I write alienation and exploitation into the heart of ontology.
What we need is a critical framework strong enough to engage in the necessary work of critiquing and debunking the fetish, while simultaneously striving to overcome the alienation of not just persons, not just humans, but also the things of the world: animals, minerals, microbes, rocks, trees. We need a framework that is attentive to being for themselves and not just as entities that are texts to be decoded for us. We need a little bit of the naturalist joy and curiosity that is not for any purpose, but that simply delights in the otherness of these aliens. And above all, we need a framework that is ecological all the way down, that practices a pan-ecologism, showing how the social world is both an ecology and embedded in a broader ecology of nonhumans, and that is capable of loving the lichen covered rock. We need our naturalism and critical theory too.