Responding to my recent post on Mckenzie Wark, George makes a great set of observations:

As for this perennial “ontology” vs. “politics” issue that you guys discuss here over and over again (it seems), it would be nice if it was that easy – ontology is about things being and does not imply politics of any sort – but somehow it’s not (which is why you have to say it again and again like a mantra for years now). So if Nazis think that races exist and that among those, some are superior and some are inferior, is this not an ontological statement about how things are? If that doesn’t in itself imply a certain political view (I’ll grant you that), then surely such an ontological position is very easily politicized.

For me, the issue is rather different.  It’s not that I disagree with the thesis that an ontology can have political implications.  Ontologies do and can have political implications.  At the core of my ontological thinking, I belong to a tradition of thinkers such as Lucretius, Hume, Badiou, and Meillassoux.  When I say I belong to this tradition, I am not saying that I share all of their philosophical positions or claims.  Far from it.  Rather, I am saying that with these thinkers I hold that every configuration of being is contingent– though I wouldn’t go as far as Meillassoux –such that it is capable of being otherwise.  Thus, for example, I reject necessitarian accounts of being such as we find in Leibniz with his thesis that this is the best of all possible worlds and that this world results from a design, or accounts such as we find in Hegel.  For me, the world is not the result of a design, a plan, nor is there a way it “ought” to be (though certainly we have preferences as to how things ought to be).

This is a thesis that I think has important political implications.  If it is true that everything is contingent, then it’s also true that every social order is contingent.  There is no reason that societies have to be organized in this particular way.  If it is true that there is no reason that societies have to be in this particular way, then we are free to envision and fight for other types of social formations.  In my view, every revolutionary political philosophy is premised on the thesis that being and the form society takes are contingent.    By contrast, we will find that every reactionary politics always puts forward a thesis about necessity, whether through claiming that human nature is such that this is the only way that society can be organized without disaster (“people are just greedy, so communism could never work!) or by arguing that this is naturally the way in which society must be organized.  Both of these positions– the revolutionary and the reactionary –presuppose very different ontologies.

read on!

So if I concede that ontologies can have political implications, what is my gripe about questions about the relationship between politics and ontology?  First, I believe that allowing your politics to dictate your ontology is simply poor reasoning.  Ethico-politico questions and ontological questions are different language games and obey different rules.  When I have my ethico-politico theorist hat on, I’m asking questions about what ought to be.  When I have my ontology hat on, I’m asking questions about what is and is not, and what is generally common to all beings.  What I believe ought to be doesn’t legislate what is.  Ethico-politically I think that atomic bombs are evil, terrible things and that they shouldn’t exist.  That doesn’t change the fact that they do exist.  My reasons for claiming something does or does not exist should be based on whether or not it is true that such a thing exists, not whether or not I would prefer for it to exist.  Second, the domain of ontology is broader than the domain of politics.  As far as we know, politics is an activity only engaged in by human beings.  It is something that only occurs for a subset of existing beings.  When we’re raising questions about the being of beings, we’re concerned with the nature of all beings, not one particular subset of beings.  There’s no politics that I know of on the planet Venus, yet Venus and everything that exists on Venus is nonetheless something that exists and therefore of interest to ontology.  For some reason, some people seem to feel that pointing this out somehow diminishes politics.  To me it just means that questions of the political are more specific than questions of ontology.  Nothing about that prevents one from raising questions of the political.

George raises an important question about racism with respect to Nazi’s.  I make the claim that OOO doesn’t entail any particular politics.  Why is that?  It’s because I recognize that things like national socialism are real, exist, or are beings and that therefore ontology must account for them.  The point here is difficult to express clearly.  National socialism was a real being, and is therefore counted among the things that exist.  Any ontology must therefore provide the means of accounting for such things.  Howevernational socialism also presupposes an ontology or itself contains a theory of being.  What ontology or theory of being do national socialists presuppose?  They presuppose an ontology in which difference races have essences and that some of those essences are superior to others.  That is an ontological claim.  Is it true?  I don’t think so.  One can simultaneously acknowledge that something like national socialism is a real being and that national socialism’s theory of being (that essences or races exist) is false.  Our reasons for rejecting national socialism’s theory of being shouldn’t simply be that it is a loathsome doctrine, but also that it is a false doctrine.  Were I, however, to claim that OOO somehow entails a particular politics, I would also be claiming that somehow being itself prevents things such as national socialism from coming into existence.  Not only is that an absurd thesis, but it would come as quite a surprise to the families and friends of the millions who died in the Holocaust.

All of this aside, I do believe that the ontology I propose– and these claims aren’t shared by all OOO theorists; indeed there’s quite a bit of disagreement between us on these points –does have political implications.  What might they be?

First, flat ontology 1) rejects the existence of any sovereign terms that stand above all other beings and legislate and organize those beings (God, kings, fathers, etc) without themselves being impacted and limited by those beings, and 2) rejects the existence of any eternal and unchanging essences.  Rather, flat ontology holds that all beings exist on a single plane, interacting with one another, that they all equally exist, while there are also clear differentials of power between them.  If these claims are true, then it follows that sovereignty is always an illusion and that any social formation premised on essentialism is false.  Here we find preserved all the critiques of identity and essentialism carried out over the last few decades.  Someone might say, “if you think that, then why don’t you talk about it?”  First, I do directly talk about it in my published work and quite often on this blog.  Second, I think these critiques have been completed and I accept them.  What more is there to say?

Second, I hold that all beings or objects are the result of a becoming and themselves become.  Objects come into being out of other objects, become over the course of their existence, and pass out of existence.  There’s no entity that did not arise out of other beings, that isn’t subject to change or becoming, and that won’t eventually pass out of existence.  This thesis is perhaps where I diverge most markedly from other OOO theorists.  In my view, objects– or what I’m now calling “machines” –only exist as processes or becomings.  From moment to moment they must engage in activities to endure or continue to exist, and when those activities cease they disintegrate.  If this is true, then some sort of historicist account of how societies come into being and why they take the form they take must also be true.  In a Twitter discussion today McKenzie Wark claims that OOO has problems with thinking historical time.  I find this claim completely baffling.  If it’s true that every entity arises out of other entities and has its own becoming, then it will also be true that every object is historical.  Nothing about my variant of OOO stands opposed to the sort of historical materialist analysis that Wark advocates; indeed, I pretty much embrace a hybrid of Marx and Braudel with respect to why society has taken the form its taken.  But again, ontology is working at a more general level of analysis than the specific analysis of a particular being such as contemporary society, and this is work that’s already been done elsewhere.  What more is there to say?  I accept it.

“Wait, so you don’t reject the critiques of the social constructivists with respect to essentialism and identity, and you don’t reject the historical materialist account of why society has taken the form it’s taken; so what’s all this controversy over OOO about?”  I honestly don’t know as I’ve been upfront about these things.  Sometimes it just seems that everyone wants you to talk about what they’re talking about and that they somehow take you to be opposed to what their research work if you’re not talking about the same things (many of us will be familiar with the blind reviewer that basically says “x should be doing my project!”).  My instinct is always to integrate things that I take to be true and important, not banish or exclude them.  As Eileen Joy says, “we need more thought, not less, we need more tools, not fewer.”  But if there is one thing that I’m trying to do, it’s broaden the realm of what can be talked about today.  I believe that contemporary Marxist theory largely came to be dominated by idealism as a result of cultural Marxism, focusing on ideology, law, beliefs, signifiers, texts, narratives, etc.  In doing so, I think it’s betrayed Marx’s original vision that was extremely attentive to material power in the form of technologies, geographical peculiarities, infrastructure, factories, etc.  I believe that a good deal of essentialist critique came to focus too much on the signifier, text, and narrative, to the detriment of materiality.  What I try to do, in my own small way– and many others are doing it as well –is draw attention to the power of things, how they constrain and afford possibilities of action, and how they are every bit as important to understanding oppression and emancipation as sound critique of law, ideology, signifiers, narratives, texts, beliefs, etc.  I don’t care to get rid of either cultural Marxism nor discursivist critiques of essentialism.  Rather, I want to contribute to broadening the field of what we can talk about and analyze in our political thought.  I believe that this will lead to more effective critique, but will also expand our possibilities for engaging with and trying to change the world about us.