September 2012

In discussions of speculative realism, a lot of ink has been spilled over debates about correlationism or whether or not it is possible to think being apart from thought, but, within an object-oriented framework, it seems to me that a far more profound ontological issue is at stake of which the issue of correlationism is only a subset.  Here I hasten to add that I owe this conclusion to Graham Harman.  The real issue is not whether or not whether or not it is possible to move beyond correlationism or whether being can only ever be thought in relation to thought and whether thought can only ever be thought in relation to being, but rather whether or not relations are internal or external.  The thesis that relations are internal is admirably summed up in Karen Barad’s statement that “relata do not precede relations” (Meeting the Universe Halfway, 334).  The thesis that relations are external is the claim that entities can break with whatever relations they happen to entertain to other entities at a particular moment and enter into new relations with other entities.  Based on these two conceptions of relations, we can thus see why the issue of correlationism is a subset of the question of whether relations are internal or external.  Correlationism is the thesis that the relation between mind and world or culture and world is always an internal relation, such that thought is necessarily inseparable from world and world is necessarily inseparable from thought.  It is a specific variant of a broader thesis that all entities are internally related or inseparable from one another.  We can see that if relationism or internalism is true, it is impossible for it to avoid correlationism, for in a world where everything is internally and inseparably related it would necessarily follow that all beings must be internally related to minds or culture.  This, however, is not the issue I wish to focus on.

Before proceeding to discuss these issues of relation in more detail, it is first important to address what this debate is not about, as I’ve sensed there has been some confusion regarding these matters.

First, the debate over whether relations are internal or external is not a debate about whether or not relations exist.  All sides are agreed that there are relations.  The question is whether these relations are characterized by inseparability or separability.  Can something break with its relations or is its being necessarily determined by its relations such that it has no minimal ontological independence from these relations?

Second, the question is not whether or not relations are important or whether they make a difference.  Whether or not my cat is related to oxygen or food or certain atmospheric pressures makes a big difference for my cat.  All sides, I think, can agree that the sorts of relations that obtain between entities make a tremendous difference to those entities.

Thus, third, the question is not whether we should focus on the analysis of objects or relations.  In other words, the debate isn’t whether we should focus on objects, decontextualized, independent of any milieu, or whether we should focus on milieu/relations.  Rather, the discussion is whether or not relations are internal to beings such that they are inseparable from their relations, or whether they are external in the sense that entities can break with relations.  As I have said with respect to my own work on many occasions in print and publicly, it is not so much objects or substances that interest me, but what happens when a substance, machine, or object (they’re all synonyms to me) either enters into new relations or breaks with its existing relations.  In my view, internalism just does not do a good job of responding to this question because it presupposes that beings are already internally related and thereby forecloses the question of what takes place when relations are either severed or forged.

Finally, fourth, it’s important to be clear as to what sorts of relations we’re talking about here.  Clearly there are some relations that are of a purely internal.  A parent cannot be a parent without a child.  There is no left without right.  There is no North without South, etc.  A triangle can only be a triangle through relations between three points.  We can call these “diacritical” relations.  Diacritical relations are relations that only exist internally.  Indeed, I would argue that every substance has its “diacritical domain” defined by what I call its “endo-relations”.  This is its internal relations– like the three points of a triangle –without which it would not be what it is.  The debate here is not between internal relations of this sort, but about relations between entities, substances, objects, or machines (again synonyms); or what I call “exo-relations”.  Is the relation that my cat entertains to all other entities in the universe like that of the three, inseparable points of a triangle such that it cannot break with any of these relations, or does my cat possess some minimal ontological autonomy that allows it to break from whatever relations it currently entertains, such that it is able to enter into new relations?  That’s the question.

read on!


Graham has a fantastic post up responding to some friendly criticisms of his recent article on literary criticism in New Literary History.  The whole post is worth a read, but I wanted to set aside the discussion of literary criticism and focus on a point he makes with regard to the nature of theory that I think is tremendously important and all too often overlooked.  Harman writes:

Green’s point here is that only a fool would think that literary works could be cut off from all criticism. The New Critics were very intelligent, not fools; of course they knew that the literary work wasn’t cut off from all context, they simply chose to “emphasize” the relative autonomy of literary texts.

I disagree with this rejoinder, for the following reasons. Yes, the world is a complicated place, and theoreticians qua human beings are rarely going to embrace extremist doctrines about anything. If you try to pin down a Derridean on “there is nothing outside the text,” then of course they’re going to concede that the world isn’t just a text, and they may even act annoyed that you would attribute such a belief to them.

But the point isn’t whether private individuals called the New Critics really believed that a work could be entirely cut off form its social/biographical context. The point is whether they sufficiently accounted for the context in their theory. This is why reductio ad absurdum proofs are possible, after all. If I say that mathematism and scientism give us no good explanation of why perfect knowledge of a tree would not itself be a tree, it is insufficent to say “but of course they know that knowledge and trees are different.” The point isn’t what they know qua humans, but what their theories lead to as logical consequences.

This point is absolutely crucial to understand what it means to do theory and really gets to the crux of a number of debates we’ve had online over the years.  I cannot tell you how many times I’ve encountered someone who says “but of course theorist x doesn’t really think there are no things in the world or that material things don’t matter, they’re just doing this.”  Right before I left for Europe a couple weeks ago a well-known Deleuzian anarchist friend of mine who is now reading The Democracy of Objects made precisely these sorts of arguments against my critique of correlationism in a friendly email exchange.  As this person had it, I was attacking a “straw man” and claimed that certainly no one holds to the sort of discursivism or social constructivism I outline in the first chapter of TDO.  This person evoked Judith Butler in response to my claims, remarking that she’s a materialist and that while she focuses on the performative, utterances, and citational discourse, she certainly doesn’t reject the sorts of nonhuman actants I’ve been trying to draw attention to.

read on!


Ian Bogost has a nice post up discussing the most recent politics vs (sic.) ontology kerkuffle.  Over at Digital Digs, Alex Reid has also written a terrific post.  What follows is an expanded version of a comment I posted over at Ian’s blog.

In Ian’s post and in a subsequent comment, it’s said that I gave the example of a white police officer shooting a black man in the face.  Actually I don’t use the example of a white police officer shooting a black man in the face.  I just refer to a shooting (at least as far as I can tell in my quick reread of the post).  That example came from Ahmed.

That aside, I think my point about the difference between ontology and politics holds up quite nicely with that example.  First, I immediately agreed with Ahmed’s point that racism is a real thing, that it is an ontological fact.  There was no dispute there.  In chapter 4 of The Democracy of Objects, as well as the introduction, I’m careful to make room for the ontological reality of social phenomena.  The realism of object-oriented ontology is not a realism that says that only physical objects like rocks and tardigrades are real, but is one that also defends the reality of semiotic entities like texts, works of art, court judgments, etc.  In some respects, this makes it a rather strange realism, as it refuses the thought/world, discourse/thing, divide characteristic of more traditional discussions surrounding realism.  Where, to simplify dramatically, debates over the last 40 or so years have tended to be organized around an exclusive disjunction stating that either the material world is what is really real or the discursive world is really real, OOO holds that both of these worlds fall in the field of the real.  Where before we were faced with a choice between either a scientific realism that said that only things like rocks, quantum particles, pulsars, etc., are really real such that things like signifiers, institutions, etc., “only exist in the mind”, or a social constructivism that said that our discourses abut the world and how we represent the world are the really real, such that things like rocks, stars, animal species, etc., are effects of discursivity, OOO says that both a pulsar is entirely real and irreducible to discourse, and that a discourse about race such as we find in eugenics is entirely real.  This discourse is not real in its representational capacity pertaining to what it says about race (it’s full of all sorts of false things about race beginning with the thesis that races exist), but it is real as a discourse that inhabits a world and that has entirely real and noxious effects on human bodies.  For OOO, discursive constructions are no less actors in the world than physical entities.

What OOO refuses is the thesis that we have to either hold that “physical beings” are constructed by discourses (discursivism) or that we must hold that discourses are mere figments of the mind that are unreal.  Both, for OOO, belong to the domain of being or existence.  This is probably why OOO tends to come under so much criticism from both sides of the debate.  The scientific realists are aghast that we would claim that things like myths or the discourse of creationism are real entities in the world that have real effects, and thereby take us to be undermining science and treating it as equal with creationism (we’re not).  The social constructivists are aghast that we would say that rabbits, aardvarks, black holes, etc., are real material entities in the world irreducible to discursive constructionism, and take us to denying the discursive construction of things like race, gender, nationality, etc., thereby allowing a dangerous essentialism in the door (we’re not).  What we’ve instead tried to do is adopt a more inclusive ontology that allows us to think the complex imbrication and interaction of a variety of entities, discursive and material, in the world.

read on!

I received the following remark from an interlocutor in email:

For me, politics are a way of accounting for the forces exerted among interacting objects in systems, and as such ontology and politics are inseparable. It could just be that our conceptions of politics are radically different, where your polis is much more narrowly defined than my tendency toward a cosmopolis.

This might get at the crux of the matter between people who claim “everything is political”, and people such as myself, Badiou, Ranciere, and Zizek who vehemently reject this thesis. In my view, the idea that politics is a field of “forces exerted among interacting objects” is about as apolitical as you get and is not a politics at all. Entities exerting force on one another is merely a state of affairs, not a politics. People live for centuries with certain forces being exerted on them in highly despotic ways without ever encountering these forces as political. Rather, they see these things as “merely the way the world is” and as natural as the regular movement of the stars.

Politics is something that happens at a very precise point: it is what happens when that field of forces is contested and agents begin to envision the possibility of doing things differently. Nothing is inherently political. Things have to be made political. Indeed, making things political that were before apolitical is one of the most significant aspects of political struggle. The domestic space of the home does not begin by being political or a site of the political, but is made into a political site. Sexuality does not begin by appearing political, but is made into a political site. The workplace does not begin as political, but is made into a political site. As Philip says in a comment responding to my last post, “nothing is in and of itself political, but anything can be made political.”

If you claim that everything is political and reject the thesis that politics is a specific moment and type of activity, you’ve entirely given up politics and all that is important about politics. Politics is not merely the presence of things exerting force on one another, but is that precise moment where that field of forces is contested, challenged, and it is declared that something else is possible, that things don’t have to be this way. Making something political that was previously apolitical requires a lot of hard work. Go into any workplace around the world and you will find people that deplore their working conditions, think that they are horrible, but who also believe that this is just the natural and inevitable order of things and the natural lot for people such as themselves. Talk to any number of people suffering from incredible debt due to dishonest credit and loan practices, and you will discover, much to your frustration that while they deplore their crushing debt they do not see it as a political issue but their natural lot resulting from their own actions. It takes work to shift these things from being “the natural order of things” to something that is politically contested. The politics is not there already. The whole point is to get the politics there. Politics isn’t a state-of-affairs, but is the moment of intervention.

The following post arises out of discussions I’ve been having with Alexander Galloway and Sara Ahmed on the relationship between ontology and politics on facebook.  I confess that I’m thoroughly baffled by the question of what politics an ontology should entail.  I readily recognize that an ontology can be pervaded by illicit ontological assumptions and that these should critiqued, but still maintain that as a regulative ideal, our claims about what is and what is not should not be based on our political and ethical preferences.  Indeed, I think that in the past when we’ve attempted to ontologize our political commitments this has led to horror.  For example, this seems to be part of what took place in the Soviet Union.  It seems that they believed that being ineluctably, eschatologically, entailed a certain social condition and therefore felt that any treatment of others was justified on these ground.  I also readily recognize that no inquiry and discourse is motivated by some interest or purpose– why else would we do it –and that therefore our ethical, eudaimonistic, and political aims function as teloi for our inquiry.  The doctor, for example, sets out to investigate the nature of the H1N1 virus for the sake of curing the sickness that accompanies this virus.  Yet this is very different than claiming that the doctor’s desire that the H1N1 virus not exist entails that it doesn’t exist.  Similarly, no one would dream of suggesting that because the doctor wants to know what causes the bird flu, the doctor is somehow justifying the bird flu or claiming that it is a good thing.  No, the doctor wants to understand the bird flu precisely so he can prevent it.  I’ve thus been shocked to hear some say that if you claim that nuclear bombs are, you’re somehow claiming that nuclear bombs should be.  In his questions to Graham Harman over at An und Fur Sich, Alexander Galloway even made a similar argument, suggesting that because Harman thinks corporations are real entities he must also think that they have a right to exist and that they are good things.  I also recognize that there are norms governing inquiry that we all adopt.  I merely think that these norms don’t legislate what is and what is not.
I’ve thus asked what people are asking for when they ask “what politics does your ontology entail?” or “what is the politics upon which your ontology is based?”  This is a question that makes no sense to me.  It’s like asking “what politics is your chemistry based on?” or “what politics does your chemistry entail?”  I don’t see how chemistry entails any politics.  It just says what different atomic elements do under certain circumstances.  It doesn’t say which combinations of atomic elements we should produce.  And if chemists combine elements in unethical and unjust ways, I fail to see how this changes the reality that elements can be combined in these ways.  I can easily see Latour’s point that scientists investigated the properties of certain elements like uranium for political reasons, but I fail to see how this changes the fact that uranium has these properties.  I honestly just don’t understand the nature of the question that’s being asked.  So far no one has clarified this for me.
read on!

As a discourse, ontology seeks to articulate the most general and fundamental nature of being or of what is and what is not.  Ontology and being are not the same.  Being consists of what is regardless of whether there is any discourse about it.  Ontology is a discourse about what is.  This distinction is important because ontologies, as discourses about the being of beings, can be mistaken.  There is no discourse that doesn’t presuppose an ontology or metaphysics (I use the two terms as synonyms).  For example, if you tell a person that your mother is seriously ill and going in for surgery and they reply by saying “I will pray for you”, their statement, whether they realize it or not, presupposes an ontology.  Minimally such a statement presupposes ontological claims about the types of beings that exist and about causation.  This person presupposes the existence of a divine being of some sort and that prayer can have some sort of causal effect on your mother.  Likewise, when someone says that a particular technology is intrinsically neoliberal or capitalistic, they are making certain metaphysical claims about the world.  They are saying that 1) entities are an expression of the context in which they exist (in this case the technology expresses capitalism), and 2) they are saying that relations expressed by the entity are internal to that entity.  The claim that a relation is internal to an entity is the claim that that entity is inseparable from those for relations.  For example, if I claimed that the steam engine is an expression of capitalist economy, I am claiming that steam engines are inseparable from capitalist economies and that they cannot, for example, exist in a communist economy.  The claim is that the steam engine is necessarily an embodiment of capitalism.  Such a view presupposes a particular ontology:  an ontology of expression and internal relations.

Whatever certain post-metaphysical thinkers might like to claim, there is no statement nor action that does not presuppose an ontology or metaphysics.  Of course, most of the time the ontologies we presuppose are operative yet unconscious.  We speak and act based on them, without reflecting upon them.  I seldom pause to think of the ontology my actions presuppose when I’m cooking.  I seldom pause to think of the ontology I’m assuming when I evaluate presidential politics in the United States.  This is true even in philosophy.  Often the epistemologist fails to reflect on the ontology his utterances about the nature of knowledge presuppose, and likewise with the philosopher of art and ethicist.  We can refer to these types of ontologies as “non-reflective ontologies of everyday life” or just “non-reflective ontologies”.  These non-reflective ontologies are presupposed and operative without the person acting and speaking based on them being aware of them.  They’re just experienced as the obvious way things are.  Like Heidegger’s spectacles in Being and Time, they are so close we don’t even notice them.  I look through my spectacles to something else, not at my spectacles.  Likewise, I speak, live, and act through my ontology, rather than reflecting on my ontology.

read on!


For anyone who’s interested, Rutgers is offering a post-doc devoted to SR/ANT/OOO.

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