On Facebook I recently wrote,
First rule of onto-cartography, don’t track in abstractions (society, capitalism, patriarchy, racism, environment). Second rule of onto-cartography: DON’T traffic in abstractions!
To this, a very close and old friend responded asking,
but isn’t the concrete an abstraction as well?
Good question, so here’s the response. That’s certainly an abstract way of responding! The idea is to suspend our assumptions about why and wherefore things are organized as they are, pausing instead to trace networks, relations between things, to discern how they’re linked up, how they’re organized, and so on. Rather than *beginning* with the premise that x organizes y, we should instead look at how things are actually linked and interact. Latour’s _Reassembling the Social_ is indispensable reading on this. His thesis is that these big terms do more to *obscure* than explain. I disagree with Latour on a number of his conclusions (I think he too hastily rejects Marx– not Marxism, for example –but think he’s making an important point. As Laruelle might argue, the problem with these big master-signifiers (society, patriarchy, capitalism, racism, environment) is that they seem to be saying something without really saying anything. Here it’s worthwhile to think of Hegel’s analysis of “formal ground” in the Science of Logic. When we think in terms of formal ground we appear to be giving the ground of something, when we’ve really replaced the thing to be explained with a *synonym*. You ask “why does the earth move about the sun?” The m’aitre responds “because of gravity!” (formal ground). You ask “what is gravity?” The m’aitre responds “things falling and orbiting about other entities!” You’ve replaced what is to be explained with a different set of words, that are nonetheless saying *exactly* the same thing (A = A).
So we ask “why is society organized as it is?” The m’aitre answers “because of capitalism!” You ask “what is capitalism?” The m’aitre responds, “the way society is organized!” It’s the same loop. You appear to be explaining something and, of course, everyone gets upset because, well, capitalism is bad. But you haven’t really explained anything at all. You’ve named the place where a ground should be, but have not yet provided that ground. So why is this problematic? First and foremost, it’s problematic because it transforms “capitalism” into what Derrida called a spectre. Capitalism is somehow the cause of everything, but it is also this elusive phlogiston that is everywhere and nowhere. Capitalism causes everything, without itself being a material or real agency. The whole problem with ghosts and spectres is that you can’t fight them. We thus end up in a position of theoretical and practical pessimism. We adopt the moral high-ground because we know that there’s this terrible thing called capitalism that we recognize and that is unjust, but because it is a purely formal ground we have no idea how to intervene in it.
The whole point of tracing the networks or onto-cartography is to examine how things are actually put together. Capitalism does not explain, but is what to be explained. Capitalism is the out-come explained by onto-cartographical explanation (as are many other things), but not the explanatory principle. In Hegelian terms, we are seeking real, not formal ground. And we only find real ground by tracing the networks, tracing the assemblages, investigating how machines actually interact in this historical setting and context. We investigate the work that is involved in producing this social structure– and all the entities or machines involved in that –rather than assuming it at the outset. “Society” explains nothing, but is what we’re supposed to explain. Of course, much of this goes unexplored in the humanities and social sciences because the concept of entropy is completely absent from their thought and there is almost no concept of work or energy at work in these theoretical frameworks. There are either concepts or brute material things, but no work to maintain them. No, the only agency is ideas. This is why Marx had to turn Hegel on his head– he understood fatigue –but us academics all forgot that. We forgot that everything is perpetually disintegrating, subject to entropy, precisely because things require energy and work. Who among us has written about fatigue save some spare pages in Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition that no one ever notices? Everything quickly became the crystalline idea once again. We worked, the “Marxists” first and foremost, to turn Marx on his head and forget all the things he said about production, energy, work, and so on. We forgot “the working day”.
The second point is that this multiplies our points of intervention at the level of practice. This is not a surprise, of course, because those of us in the humanities would like to think that everything is an idea, a text, a meaning. Then we would be important and masters of all! We could say “everything is Shakespeare!” It’s curious how we so seldom explore our own conditions of production, our own sociological conditions for our enunciations, our own “secondary correlations”. We dream of a world, instead, where our interpretive and conceptual skills are the most important things of all. However, knowing how things or machines are linked in such a way as to produce a particular negentropic social organization, knowing what actants are involved, we are now in a position to intervene in those interconnections and feedback loops. Where, hauntological thought leads us to behave like apes who believe an intervention consists in saying “capitalism sucks!” (which really accomplishes nothing beyond the delights of a beautiful soul that can feel superior to the way in which everyone else is a dupe), we now know how things are actually linked, why they hold together as they do, why people accept them (Reich/Spinoza’s question) while knowing they’re bullshit, and we can engage in interventions that blow these things up. We might be surprised as to what leads people to tolerate this bullshit and what organizes things. We might find that the clock– yes, I literally mean clocks –plays a crucial role or that the length of the working day plays a crucial role or something else besides. But we would know nothing about this because we already know what we’re going to find at the end of analysis. We already know the answer. As a result we see without seeing.
Yet if we bothered to actually trace networks and get out of our master-signifiers, we would discover that there are sites of resistance that we never before imagined because we bothered to trace the network. Sometimes a student in the first grade doesn’t learn not because he’s stupid but because he didn’t have glasses, for example. Sometimes it’s a clock that organizes people’s lives, not a belief. Sometimes it makes more sense to intervene in clocks or glasses, but you can only know that if you actually trace the networks or the concrete. Occupy Wall Street got the idea with rolling jubilee. They realized that maybe debt plays a bigger role in perpetuating capitalism than mistaken ideology or failing to have the right moral values. They then decided to start buying up that debt and then forgiving it. How many of you 101st keyboard revolutionary commandos have participated in that?
I’ll end with a low blow, because I’m despicable like that. The third point is that these big “master-signifier” explanations just don’t display very good fidelity to Marx In other words, I think you’re a bunch of poseurs. Marx spent his time in the library, reading newspapers, exploring tables of numbers, looking at gross products, looking at living working conditions, etc. Marx was a good onto-cartographer. Oh yeah, I went there! He used a methodology that created the conditions for the possibility for him to be surprised. He didn’t have a master-theory but was in search of an explanation. What sad heirs he had. They instead had a dogma that already knew the answer and that, as a result, could no longer be surprised by the world. He didn’t already have the explanation, but understood that this is what is to be explained. He did not behave like the bad psychoanalyst that says at the outset “Your problem is Oedipus!” (or those that at least think this). No, with each new datum he was willing to overturn everything. Marxism has not followed in this path, it has not looked at the actual world, it hasn’t turned Hegel on his head, but has instead tried to turn Marx upside down. Real “Marxism” is onto-cartography.