I’ve been having a lengthy discussion with a very good friend about normativity and how we go about determining values. One of the things that keeps coming up is the question of what ethical implications my version of object-oriented ontology. In particular, they ask whether my flat ontology is making the claim that all things are equally valuable or have equal worth. This question isn’t unique to my friend. It’s something that has come up since I first proposed flat ontology years ago. When I first started receiving this question I was completely caught off guard. Flat ontology is a thesis about what is and how things are, not a thesis about values and worth. It is not making the claim that a flea is as valuable as a human being. It is the thesis that fleas are real and so are human beings. Given the curious tendency of people to convert ontological claims into value claims, I’ve come to suspect that there’s some feature of our psychology that leads us to do this. I’m not sure why, but I encounter it so frequently that I find it difficult to escape this conclusion.
None of this is to say that I don’t think there aren’t political and ethical implications of my work, just not how one might think. When I reflect on my articles, The Democracy of Objects, and Onto-Cartography, I think the entire aim of my work is to help people ask better questions. I’ve said this for years, but now that I think about it, I’ve seldom explained what I mean by a better question. There’s a very real sense in which my work isn’t aimed at philosophers. I get very impatient with debates in philosophy about who interpreted a philosopher better, or whether we should be Kantians or Hegelians or speculative realists, or whether Heidegger got it right or Badiou got it right. These all have merit and value, but they’re not what I’m after.
If I were to sum up the spirit of my work, I would say that it is a philosophy of design. When I say I want my work to help people to ask better questions, I’m talking about better questions with respect to the world we live in and how it is put together. I see design problems everywhere and I see a lot of cruelty in our world because we don’t reflect on design and how it enhances or detracts from our lives. Take education reform. A feature of both Bush and Obama’s education reform was to link federal funding of schools to student performance. The idea was that if a school is performing poorly we should withdraw funding to get the teachers and the school to get their act together. I think this is a terrible design solution. The idea is that the schools are failing because teachers aren’t doing their job (notice also that at a certain point we began demanding teachers get more training– at least a master’s degree –so they would be competent at their jobs). These sorts of design solutions are profoundly superficial in their analysis of the problem.
read on!

Good design requires thinking ecologically, where ecology doesn’t simply mean “natural ecosystems”, but relations between people and things of all kinds. Take a place like Flint, Michigan. What sort of assemblage is it. Years ago the factories closed down, leading jobs to become decimated. This meant that there was a collapse in home ownership. That collapse in home ownership meant that there was a collapse in property tax revenue.  Property taxes are the primary way in which schools are funded in the United States, so this led to a crisis in maintaining schools, providing supplies, providing simple things like heat and air conditioning in the summer and winter months, etc.  With joblessness, of course, comes all of the other problems:  rising crime rates, substance abuse, broken families, a rise in domestic violence, etc.  Meanwhile, there is the whole Flint, MI water crisis where the water is poisonous in a way that literally causes brain damage, causing a variety of emotional and cognitive disorders.  There is an entire ecology here filled with all sorts of negative and positive feedback loops that make achieving “escape velocity”– finding a way out of the poverty –incredibly difficult.

Return then to the “solution” of Bush and Obama.  They said the problem was the teachers.  If they just had more training, they argued, and if they just did their job, then students would perform.  The entire premise of their linkage between federal funding and student performance is placed on human performance– in this case, teachers –and humans alone.  They have not analyzed the ecology of the situation that contributes to the poor student performance.  How are these students supposed to perform well when they develop in this sort of ecology?  How can they perform well when they exist in this sort of an impoverished world?  Recent research, for example, suggests that there is a high incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder among children raised in conditions of poverty literally impacting the development of brains, and that post-traumatic stress disorder, in its turn, is linked to diminished cognitive function.  What I outline here is a very brief sketch of what I called a “cartography” in Onto-Cartography.  A cartography is the mapping of an assemblage and how the elements of an assemblage form an ecology that plays a key role of the movements and capacities open to us.

Good design, I believe, requires good cartographies.  You have to map an assemblage in order to devise good design solutions.  As Deleuze taught in Difference and Repetition, the first step is always to survey the problem.  The problem, in my view, is the ecology.  When I say I want to provide tools to help people ask better questions, I mean questions that arise out of an awareness of the organization of the ecology they are dealing with.  It turns out that this doesn’t even occur to a lot of people.  Those education reformers were blind to the ecologies that generates the educational crisis that they are trying to fix.  They just see the educational crisis.  They just see the tip of the iceberg.   I think Heidegger explained why this is so in Being and Time:  We are so integrated with the “ready-to-hand”, with the equipment that we use, that it is invisible to us.  We take it for granted.  Thus, when people like Bush and Obama address an issue like education, they have developed in an ecology that has always worked for them and they assume these things are in place for others.  They don’t see what they constantly see.

The first principle of a design philosophy, in my view, is flat ontology or, as Ian Bogost put it long ago, the thesis that “all beings equally exist, but they do not exist equally”.  Again, this is not a normative statement or a value statement.  It is not a claim about worth.  Consider how we often talk about politics.  We take it as a strictly human affair pertaining to the beliefs and commitments of human beings with respect to one another. We bracket out all non-humans.  We here practice a lumpy ontology, where humans are treated as the center and all else is ignored.  Flat ontology instructs us to look not just at the humans, but all of the elements of the assemblage.  How are they all relating to and interacting with one another in the functioning of the assemblage.  This is the first step n undertaking a cartography of an assemblage.  When I think of the ideal audience of my work, who I would most like it to reach, it is not philosophers, but activists, designers, architects, or all of those who are engaged in trying to solve very concrete and real world problems.  Marx famously said that the point of philosophy is not to represent the world, but to change it.  I want my work to make some small contribution to doing that.