From what I understand, Ray Brassier will soon be giving a talk about flat ontology. Since I’m pretty sympathetic to his positions and since the concept of flat ontology is central to my own work, I thought I should give a few words of clarification. It appears that Ray takes the thesis of flat ontology to be the claim that “everything is real”. I adamantly reject any position of this sort. For me flat ontology signifies three things: materialism, naturalism, and atheism. The thesis is that only material and natural beings exist. As a consequence, the following entities are rejected by a flat ontology: anything supernatural, God, souls, Platonic forms, and so on. I wholeheartedly agree with Brassier’s contention that the thesis “everything is real” is absurd.
Now perhaps the idea that flat ontology holds that everything is real arises because I’ve sometimes said that beings like Harry Potter are real. What do I mean by this? Something very trivial, I think. I mean that if everything is material, then fictions, which obviously make up the furniture of the world we live in, have to have material being as well. What do I mean by that? Do I mean that there is a living being named Harry Potter that eats and drinks, breaths air, shits, fucks, and casts magical spells? No! I mean that “Harry Potter” has to be inscribed in brains or on pieces of paper or on video clips. I mean that there has to be some material medium for this fiction to be present in the world. That said, I do not think there is any referent to this fiction. The absence of a referent to the fiction is precisely what makes it a fiction.
A trivial and obvious point, right? Nonetheless, I think it has important consequences, especially in the realm of political theory. The mark of materialism is that it recognizes that things are located in time and space. Unlike a Platonic form that can be anywhere and everywhere at once, material beings are in a place and a time (though as Whitehead has taught us in his less “woo-ish” moments, place can be pretty complicated). This entails that ideas are place-bound as well. Why’s that significant? I don’t know, maybe it isn’t. However, I think that perhaps it is because I think a lot of our political theorists have the unconscious assumption that it’s enough to develop a compelling critique or develop the right concept to overturn whatever idols they wish to demolish. From a materialist perspective, however, it’s not enough simply to develop the critique. In addition to formulating the critique, it’s necessary for that critique to materially circulate throughout the world to produce effects. Emphasizing the materiality of thought draws our attention to networks of transport or how ideas circulate throughout the world and encourages us to develop strategies to enhance the possibility of those ideas circulating broadly, thereby maximizing the transformative effects they might have.