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.
Setting aside the issue of whether or not racism is real or an ontological fact (it is) the more important question is whether racism is inherently political. This discussion has been very helpful to me, as it has allowed me to see the sort of concept of the political that people are operating. Without sharing all their positions, I draw my concept of the political from thinkers like Ranciere, Badiou, Zizek, etc. All of these thinkers share the view that politics is something very specific and that not everything is political. In particular, they endorse the view that politics is something that only occurs under very specific circumstances, such that the question is one of how to make those circumstances takes place. Ahmed’s reasoning seems to be something like “x is based on racism, therefore x is political”, but I think this fails to understand what politics is. It is unclear how we get from the claim that “x is racist” to therefore “x is political”. This strikes me as very sloppy and superficial thinking. It confuses a social fact that is real with something that is political. Sadly, the fact that something is a social fact does not yet make it political.
Politics, in my view, is what takes place when some social reality is contested. No social reality is inherently political. Or rather, just because something involves power, force, inequality, oppression, repression, etc., it does not follow that it’s yet political. Take the example of the feudal system during the middle ages. Clearly in that system one group of people, the serfs, lived under unequal and oppressive conditions for centuries. Does that make it political? It’s hard to see how. Both the serfs and the nobles took this social system as simply the way things are, decreed by God, with everyone having a particular role to play in the social order (nobles for leadership, knights for defense, serfs for providing food and goods). They took this as the natural order of the world. The situation is similar with gender relations. Women occupied a subordinate position within society for centuries– and still do, though now that inequality has become genuinely political –without anyone thinking this was odd or that it should be different. It was just obvious, in that frame, that this is the way things should be. And finally, we see similar things with racism, where both the racially oppressed and the oppressors saw this system as just the way things are.
There’s never anything inherently political about a system of social relations. That’s the problem. And it seems to be a problem that is perpetually missed by those who say that “everything is political” or that certain things are intrinsically political. The question is always how to get from simple social routine that members of a social order see as obvious and natural to the political where people begin to see the social field as contingent and capable of being otherwise. Take Marx’s analysis of class relations in Capital. Marx shows how the system of capitalistic production ineluctably generates inequalities and class differences. Yet while Marx demonstrates this, the issue still remains of how to get from this social fact, to contesting that fact. How do we get proletariats to see this system as unjust and something that should be otherwise? This, perhaps, is the central difference between neoliberal economists and Marxist economists. Neoliberal economists see the functioning of the capitalist system as ahistorical and natural, such that there just are winners and losers in the game of exchange, and that this is just the way things are. Marx tries to show that this system of orginaization is contingent (that there have been others) and that it is possible for there to be different ways of doing things. Along the way he shows the mechanisms that systematically produce these unequal class relations, but that doesn’t yet get us to politics. To get to the political we need that additional step of contesting this system and struggling to produce an alternative.
That possibility of an “otherwise” is what is political, not mere sociological facts, and that “envisioning of the otherwise” does not always occur. Politics only arises at that moment where social organizations are contested, challenged, and where people are actively struggling to find a way to produce a different social order. Sadly, this is all too often not the case. For example, in the recent debt crisis, many people saw their terrible circumstances not as the result of an unjust lending system that stacked the cards against them, but as the consequence of their own bad decisions. They saw the situation apolitically, not politically. The question is how to shift from that apolitical stance, to that political struggle to change that system. If we begin from the premise that “everything is political” or that certain things are “inherently political”, we thoroughly miss this important point that things must be made political. We thereby miss a whole series of questions pertaining to how to make things political.
Now don’t get me wrong. I think that disciplines like sociology can help us in this by revealing the social dynamics behind certain social facts, but even here an additional step is needed. Explaining the dynamics behind a certain social fact does not yet generate politics. Rather, people have to make the additional leap to concluding that 1) these dynamics are unjust, and 2) that another way is possible. Politics is a field of activity that strives to render alternative possibilities available. In this regard, and in reflecting on these discussion, I think there’s a real poverty and vagueness about how politics is discussed in these debates.