While reading Christian Thorne’s excellent essay “To the Political Ontologists” in Dark Trajectories: Politics of the Outside (Joshua Johnson, ed), I found myself thinking once again what on odd idea “political ontology” is. As Thorne beautifully puts it,
The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a combustion engine or a mtabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame– a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno –shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what conceivable sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposas? For if fire is not just a political good, but is in fact the very stuff of existence, the world’s primal and universal substance, then it need be neither produced nor safeguarded. (97)
The problem is this: Ontology is about what is, about what it means to be, how things are, and what types of things– in the broadest terms possible –are. At its best, it makes no claims about what ought to be. Rather, ontology is concerned with the being of beings in their pure beingness (how’s that for a sentence!). By contrast, politics is a machine that evaluates how things ought to be and develops strategies and techniques for attempting to bring this selection and arrangement of being into existence. If, building on Thorne’s example, our ontology says “all is fire”, that ontology has nothing to say about what sorts of fires we ought to promote. It doesn’t tell us whether we ought to prefer neoliberal fires or anarchist fires, but just argues that both of these forms of being are fire and gives an account of how fire comes to take the form of one or the other of these conf(lag)igurations.
From time to time the question arises as to just how materialist and immanentist ontologies are able to handle universals. For the materialist universals are regarded with suspicion. The reason for this resides not in some sort of relativism or social constructivism, but from the apparent ontological nature of universals. Where the materialist is committed to the thesis that everything is material or physical, universals seem to be incorporeal. Take a quality like “red”. We can readily understand red in material terms as a physical event occurring when particular wavelengths of light are refracted off of the surface of an object and interact with nervous systems structured in a particular way. Redness is not something that an object has, but rather is a happening that occurs or takes place through the interaction of various material beings such as photons of light, the surface of an object, and nervous systems. Turn off the lights and it’s not that we cease to see red that is still there but veiled in darkness, but rather that red ceases to take place. Suggesting that the object is red even when the lights are out is a bit like saying that the sun rises. The sun only appears to rise. What is in fact happening is that the earth is spinning, creating the illusion that the sun is rising. It’s the same with qualities like color. They only appear to possess a color, when in fact color is a complex physical event that involves a variety of interacting entities.
So far we aren’t in the domain of universals but just interacting beings. The more difficult thing to understand is something like redness as a universal. When we speak of universality we are not speaking of a shared belief that all people possess, but rather shared properties that all entities of a particular kind share in common with one another. No doubt there are many idiots out there that don’t know that the square of the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides of a right triangle. Whether or not people know it is irrelevant to whether or not this relationship is universal. This is because this relationship is a feature of right triangles, not a feature of belief. Universally all right triangles in two dimensional space possess this characteristic.
What’s mysterious here is how something– these universal features –can simultaneously be in many places at once. Setting aside the complications of quantum mechanics, material entities all seem to have a location in time and space. Universals are strange in that they seem to be everywhere and nowhere. Redness as such is simultaneously in every red object and in no red object. What, then, is redness as such? What is right triangleness as such? Is redness something over and above red events? Is it, the universal, an entity in its own right over and above the entities in which it manifests itself? There’s a whole series of considerations that easily lead one to such a [Platonist] view. For example, even if a single right triangle doesn’t exist in the entire universe it would nonetheless be the case that the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of its other two sides. This seems to suggest that these properties of triangles are real in one of Lacan’s senses of being something that “always returns to its place”, while not being dependent on material existence in time and space. If you have difficulty seeing this, keep in mind that we have mathematical knowledge of geometrical and mathematical entities that can be found nowhere in nature but which is nonetheless absolutely true. Shouldn’t considerations such as this lead us to conclude that there’s an entire class of ideal entities that exist independent of material entities and that are absolutely real? For the materialist, of course, this will be an incredibly disquieting thesis. What’s next, we start introducing souls and god?