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.
What I find perplexing about this is that all of you asking these questions seem to think that my claim that ontology and politics are distinct means I reject politics and ethics. As Ian Bogost pointed out in the discussion on facebook, pointing out that a black person got shot in the face by a white police officer, that that really happened, is not mutually exclusive to claiming that this act occurred because of racism and that it was unjust. Would we be talking about it at all though if it didn’t exist? Shouldn’t we have a discourse about what it is for something to exist, what it is for something to happen, what types of things exist, etc, when discussing these matters?
Let’s take Alexander Galloway’s political aims. I presume that he thinks there are many things wrong with our social world and that he wants to change them. This is a view I share. Indeed, I share just about all his political commitments. Now I ask Alex this: if we want to change the social world, don’t we need to know how it’s put together, how it functions, and what causes societies to persist in their oppressive structure? These are all questions of social ontology: what is a society? What causes social relations to persist or endure in the way they do? What types of beings compose a society? Is it just people? Are institutions real beings? Are nonhumans like natural resources, technologies, and infrastructure causal factors? Or is it only ideologies that lead people to live under such intolerable conditions?
We need answers to these questions to intervene effectively. We can call them questions of “military logistics”. We are, after all, constructing war machines to combat these intolerable conditions. Military logistics asks two questions: first, it asks what things the opposing force, the opposing war machine captured by the state apparatus, relies on in order to deploy its war machine: supply lines, communications networks, people willing to fight, propaganda or ideology, people believing in the cause, etc. Military logistics maps all of these things. Second, military logistics asks how to best deploy its own resources in fighting that state war machine. In what way should we deploy our war machine to defeat war machines like racism, sexism, capitalism, neoliberalism, etc? What are the things upon which these state based war machines are based, what are the privileged nodes within these state based war machines that allows them to function? These nodes are the things upon which we want our nomadic war machines to intervene. If we are to be effective in producing change we better know what the supply lines are so that we might make them our target.
What I’ve heard in these discussions is a complete indifference to military logistics. It’s as if people like to wave their hands and say “this is horrible and unjust!” and believe that hand waving is a politically efficacious act. Yeah, you’re right, it is horrible but saying so doesn’t go very far and changing it. It’s also as if people are horrified when anyone discusses anything besides how horribly unjust everything is. Confronted with an analysis why the social functions in the horrible way, the next response is to say “you’re justifying that system and saying it’s a-okay!” This misses the point that the entire point is to map the “supply lines” of the opposing war machine so you can strategically intervene in them to destroy them and create alternative forms of life. You see, we already took for granted your analysis of how horrible things are. You’re preaching to the choir. We wanted to get to work determining how to change that and believed for that we needed good maps of the opposing state based war machine so we can decide how to intervene.
We then look at your actual practices and see that your sole strategy seems to be ideological critique or debunking. Your idea seems to be that if you just prove that other people’s beliefs are incoherent, they’ll change and things will be different. But we’ve noticed a couple things about your strategy: 1) there have been a number of bang-on critiques of state based war machines, without things changing too much, and 2) we’ve noticed that we might even persuade others that labor under these ideologies that their position is incoherent, yet they still adhere to it as if the grounds of their ideology didn’t matter much. This leads us to suspect that there are other causal factors that undergird these social assemblages and cause them to endure is they do. We thought to ourselves, there are two reasons that an ideological critique can be successful and still fail to produce change: a) the problem can be one of “distribution”. The critique is right but fails to reach the people who need to hear it and even if they did receive the message they couldn’t receive it because it’s expressed in the foreign language of “academese” which they’ve never been substantially exposed to (academics seem to enjoy only speaking to other academics even as they say their aim is to change the world). Or b) there are other causal factors involved in why social worlds take the form they do that are not of the discursive, propositional, or semiotic order. My view is that it is a combination of both.
I don’t deny that ideology is one component of why societies take the form they do and why people tolerate intolerable conditions. I merely deny that this is the only causal factor. I don’t reject your political aims, but merely wonder how to get there. Meanwhile, you guys behave like a war machine that believes it’s sufficient to drop pamphlets out of an airplane debunking the ideological reasons that persuade the opposing force’s soldiers to fight this war on behalf of the state apparatus, forgetting supply lines, that there are other soldiers behind them with guns to their back, that they have obligations to their fellows, that they have families to feed or debt to pay off, etc. When I point out these other things it’s not to reject your political aims, but to say that perhaps these are also good things to intervene in if we wish to change the world. In other words, I’m objecting to your tendency to use a hammer to solve all problems and to see all things as a nail (discursive problems), ignoring the role that material nonhuman entities play in the form that social assemblages take.
This is the basic idea behind what I’ve called “terraism”. Terraism has three components: 1) “Cartography” or the mapping of assemblages to understand why they take the form they take and why they endure. This includes the mapping of both semiotic and material components of social assemblages. 2) “Deconstruction” Deconstruction is a practice. It includes both traditional modes of discursive deconstruction (Derridean deconstruction, post-structuralist feminist critique, Foucaultian genealogy, Cultural Marxist critique, etc), but also far more literal deconstruction in the sense of intervening in material or thingly orders upon which social assemblages are reliant. It is not simply beliefs, signs, and ideologies that cause oppressive social orders to endure or persist, but also material arrangements upon which people depend to live as they do. Part of changing a social order thus necessarily involves intervening in those material networks to undermine their ability to maintain their relations or feedback mechanisms that allow them to perpetuate certain dependencies for people. Finally, 3) there is “Terraformation”. Terraformation is the hardest thing of all, as it requires the activist to be something more than a critic, something more than someone who simply denounces how bad things are, someone more than someone who simply sneers, producing instead other material and semiotic arrangements rendering new forms of life and social relation possible. Terraformation consists in building alternative forms of life. None of this, however, is possible without good mapping of the terrain so as to know what to deconstruct and what resources are available for building new worlds. Sure, I care about ontology for political reasons because I believe this world sucks and is profoundly unjust. But rather than waving my hands and cursing because of how unjust and horrible it is so as to feel superior to all those about me who don’t agree, rather than playing the part of the beautiful soul who refuses to get his hands dirty, I think we need good maps so we can blow up the right bridges, power lines, and communications networks, and so we can engage in effective terraformation.