Ideology


Reflecting on the Georgia Tech Object-Oriented Ontology Symposium, one of the moments that I’m less than pleased with was an exchange with one of the members of the audience who was defending the analysis and critique of ideology. If I’m bothered by this exchange it’s because I cut the participant off mid-sentence without allowing him to fully articulate his point. This was rather rude on my part and for that I apologize.

So what was at issue in this discussion? In my paper, “Being is Flat”, one of the key points I sought to make is that social and political thought has focused entirely too much on content, fetishistically revolving around beliefs, ideologies, signs, narratives, and discourses found in groups. My thesis is that if social and political analysis focuses on ideologies, narratives, signs, signifiers, discourses, beliefs, etc., in its analysis of why social formations are organized as they are, it is doomed to go astray. Following Latour, I thus propose that the concept of society should be replaced by that of collectives. A society is composed entirely of humans, human relations, and human phenomena such as discourses, narratives, and ideologies. A collective, by contrast, includes all of these things when it is a collective involving humans, but also includes nonhuman objects like technologies, resources, roads, cane toads, bacteria, etc., etc., etc. The concept of society should be abandoned, I believe, in favor of the concept of collectives. And if this is the case, then there is no such thing as human relations that do not also include all sorts of nonhuman actors. Moreover, these nonhuman actors are not simply passive resources that people use as tools (a form of overmining with respect to objects), but rather introduce all sorts of differences that deeply influence what sorts of associations between humans come to exist.

Latour underlines this point nicely in Reassembling the Social. Latour writes:

Between a car driver that slows down near a school because she has seen the ’30 MPH’ yellow sign and a car driver that slows down because he wants to protect the suspension of his car threatened by the bump of a ‘speed trap’, is the difference big or small? Big, since the obedience of the first has gone through morality, symbols, signs posts, yellow paint, while the other has passed through the same list to which has been added a carefully designed concrete slab. (77)

Latour tirelessly emphasizes that mechanisms of organization that pass through morality, symbols, and signs are incredibly weak and are very difficult to maintain. To be sure, they make their contributions, yet it is odd that entire schools of social and political thought seem to attribute these actants or objects an iron clad omnipotence and place their eggs in the basket of producing social change through a critique of this order of “morality” and signs. By contrast, the speed bump out there in the world is a real physical constraint. As Latour emphasize, the speed bump is an actant or object entangled with semiotic actants, but it is far from being a mere vehicle or carrier of these actants. Your car slows down whether you like it or not when you pass over that speed bump.

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Responding to Graham’s talk at Dundee, Reid has a terrific post up discussing the manner in which Marxist materialism differs from reductive materialisms that trace back to the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius. In many respects, Reid’s remarks come very close to a number of the central intuitions of OOO and onticology where social and political thought are concerned. These intuitions revolve around hoisting social and political thought from its almost exclusive focus on what I call the semiotic, to take into account other domains of collectives and the role they play in social formations. Thus Reid writes:

Materialism in Marx’s sense is neither a metaphysical nor an epistemological doctrine; it is not a philosophical doctrine or theory in any ordinary sense. Rather, it is a meta-philosophical doctrine about the relation between philosophy and its material conditions of possibility. In this regard, both the content of philosophical discourse and the methodological form of that discourse must be referred to the conditions under which philosophical practice occurs. Material conditions in this regard can begin quite narrowly: philosophy requires various material and institutional supports, from universities and publishing houses down to brains and paper. But these conditions, of course, never exist in isolation, and depend upon a certain mode of production that not only conditions their genesis, but their distribution, maintenance, etc. Ultimately, philosophical practice depends upon a broad economic, political, and social condition that enables it to occur, whatever its function within society may be.

The point here is that we can’t focus on the discursive or ideological alone, but must take into account the role that nonhumans play in the collectives within which we find ourselves. Reid drives this point home a moment later when he writes:

Because philosophy always operates under a specific material condition, materialist philosophy must be attentive to the specificity of its relation to this condition. This relation is not necessarily manifest in theoretical content, but it certainly is in the practice through which this content is produced. For example, as a graduate student at a university, I have a specific relation to the political-economic mode conditioning my philosophical work: I take out loans, I pay tuition, I work, I have limited resources whose use is determined by administrators with whom I have limited contact, etc. The central concern of materialism in this regard is not the content of one’s position, which becomes relatively equivocal, but the practical form of its production. The content would become a concern if it were used to justify a particular practice of philosophy. It is on this basis that Marx so strongly condemns all varieties of philosophical idealism, especially Hegel, which in his eyes amount to an apologetics for idealism about philosophy, or the thesis that the practices conditioning philosophical thought are either no concern for philosophy, or must necessarily be as they are for philosophical activity to proceed (Hegel would advocate a variant of the latter).

There’s a lot more there (some of which I’m not entirely in agreement, but which is nonetheless very good), so read the rest here.

All of this brings to mind a beautiful diagram I came across in David Harvey’s sublime Companion to Marx’s Capital. There Harvey seeks to diagram the relations involved in those collectives that involve humans (it’s also important to recall that there are collectives that don’t involve humans at all). The powerful feature of Harvey’s diagram is that in mapping the interrelations between elements that belong to collectives in which humans participate, he expands that field of relations well beyond an obsessive focus on representation, the semiotic, the ideological, or the linguistic. The domain of representation is one element in these collectives, but only one. In addition representation we get nature, technology, modes of production, social relations, and the reproduction of daily life.

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I’m experimenting here so hopefully the more mathematically knowledgeable among us won’t give me too hard a time. Perhaps one of the ways the argument of my previous post could be understood is in terms of mathematical categories. What mathematical categories allow us to think are functional morphisms or relations between sets. I’ll say more about this in a moment. In playful jab at my friend Nate, I wrote the following in my previous post:

Rhetorically Nate seems to think that it’s of no significance that his post was written on the internet, requiring fiber optic cables, a particular platform, news feeds, electricity, etc., that created the opportunity for our thoughts to be brought together and preserved despite the fact that we live an hour apart.

Drawing on the formal resources of category theory we can construct an external diagram of the point that I was trying to make, depicted in the upper lefthand corner of the post. In this diagram we notice that there are upper and lower case letters and arrows. The upper case letters are what are referred to as objects in category theory, and are essentially sets. Thus, for example, the set composed of Levi and Nate constitutes what category theory refers to as an object (not to be confused with what OOO refers to as an object). We can denote this set with the name “conversants” or communicants, or simple “C” for short. The lower case letters refer to rules defining relations, morphisms, transformations, or correlations between sets. The relation between f and g connected by a small circle (I can’t figure out how to make the symbol here) is referred to as a composition of functions or morphisms and is read “g following f”. Thus, if we follow the arrows we have X pointing to Y governed by the morphism f and we have Y pointing to Z governed by the morphism g. We note that there is an arrow pointing directly from X to Z with the composition of g and f (g circle f, read as g following f)) which is to be read as the composition of these two morphisms for the three objects or sets involved.

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Towards the end of Capitalist Realism Fisher puts his finger on the central reason for my reluctance to discuss issues of normativity. In the chapter entitled “There’s no central exchange” Fisher compares contemporary capitalism to the bureaucratic universe depicted so well by Kafka.

The supreme genius of Kafka was to have explored the negative atheology proper to Capital: the centre is missing, but we cannot stop searching for it or positing it. It is not that there is nothing there– it is that what is there is not capable of exercising responsibility. (65)

What we have here is a sort of “transcendental illusion” that emerges when mereological relations are crossed in such a way that it seems as if we’re dealing with one object when, in fact, we’re dealing with quite a different object. Fisher deftly illustrates a similar point with respect to bureaucracy. Like Kafka’s famous Castle or Law, you never directly encounter the castle or the law. Rather, we only ever encounter spokespersons or surrogates of the castle or the law. Many of us will be familiar with this is the case of bureaucracy. Suppose you’ve just been promoted and that this promotion was a very public affair, announced before all the staff and faculty at the bi-annual beginning of the semester meeting (our version of this event here at Collin is called “All College Day”). Perhaps you’ve been appointed Provost of your campus or Dean of Student Affairs. Whatever.

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Object-oriented social and political theory can be illustrated with respect to Lacan’s famous Borromean knots. It will be recalled that the peculiar quality of the Borromean knot is that no one of the rings is directly tied to the other, but if you cut one of the rings the other two slip away. In evoking the Borromean knot I do not here intend to give a “Lacanian reading” of object-oriented ontology. Rather, I wish to draw attention to certain features of the social and political world that object-oriented ontology would like to bring into relief for social and political theorists. Consequently, in what follows I will take a certain degree of liberty in how I use the categories of the “real”, the “symbolic”, and the “imaginary” (abbreviated “R”, “S”, and “I” respectively), only loosely associating these with Lacanian psychoanalytic categories. I will not, for example, discuss the real in the Lacanian sense as the impossible, as a constitutive deadlock, as what always returns to its place, or as constitutive antagonism. This is not because I am rejecting the Lacanian real in these senses, but rather because I am here using the Borromean knot for other purposes. I have no qualms with reintroducing concepts such as constitutive deadlocks or antagonisms at another order of analysis. In short, I am using the diagram of the Borromean knot as a heuristic device to help bring clarity to certain discussions in social and political theory.

Thus for the purposes of this post, let the ring of the Imaginary refer to the domain of ideology, signs, group identities, political parties, images, the content of media, the sense or meaning possessed by cultural artifacts such as films, clothing, commodities, certain norms, etc., collective narratives, texts, and so on. It is important to emphasize that in placing these in the ring of the Imaginary I am in no way suggesting that these things are unreal or demoting their status. Here the category of the Imaginary retains some of its Lacanian resonances. Lacan associates the imaginary with the domain of meaning (hence the reference to cultural artifacts, texts, signs, etc). Likewise, Lacan associates the category of the Imaginary with images (visual, acoustic, olfactory, tactile, etc), as well as the domain of the ego and identity. Hence the placement of group identities, group narratives, and media in this category. By contrast, let the symbolic refer to the domain of laws, institutions, governmental systems, economy, as well as language, and so on. Again certain Lacanian resonances are retained here, especially with respect to placing law and language within the domain of symbolic.

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Both Ben and Austin have posts up responding to some claims Zizek makes about nature. Ben writes:

For Zizek nature must be non-all or barred, but this nature never goes beyond the range of the earth. Zizek those go on to argue that the appearence of the whole in nature, that the very possibility of nature-in-itself is merely a result of subjective experience, an argument he ties to the experience of the sublime. Zizek then argues for ecology without nature thereby following Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature. I have unfortunately not yet read his text of the same name. From what I have read it seems that what he attacks as the concept of nature is a dominant mode of nature – one stemming from the rationalist tradition where is an immense but separate entity. Zizek writes: “what we need is ecology without nature: the ultimate obstacle to protecting nature is the very notion of nature we rely on.”

Here my largest issue (which seems to come up with many commentators on nature and ecology) is that the ecology of concepts of nature is severally narrowed for the sake of argument. Zizek seems to make a reversal when discussing the films of Tarkovsky and in particular Stalker but then shifts back to focus on transcendental subjectivity.

The ontological priviledge of the subject remains a serious stumbling block for any approach to nature that is not too shallow or too obfuscated. The finitude of the subject has become increasingly transcendentalized at the expense of nature, nature becomes merely an elaborate background. Nature goes right through the subject.

Following up on Ben’s criticism, it seems to me that there is a fundamental ambiguity in how Zizek refers to “nature”. When Zizek critiques nature is he referring to nature as such or the discursive concept of nature as it functions in a particular ideological discourse? If the former, it is completely appropriate for Zizek to critique this concept of nature and how it functions ideologically. Within this discursive framework, nature is treated as a whole that is harmonious and independent of culture. That is, culture is treated as something other than nature and outside of nature.

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Over at Poetix Dominic has an interesting post up responding to Pete’s recent discussion of normativity over at Speculative Heresy. Dominic writes:

The crux here seems to be that “man” is not in himself a normal animal: normative accounts of human being are best taken as descriptions of the commitments we make to ourselves and others as preconditions for various kinds of social being, and the capacity to bear such norms is rather haphazardly instantiated in our animal selfhood.

This split between the normed human being and the ab-normal human animal plays out in Badiou, for example, as a tension between the “de-subjectivising” pull of egoic self-interest and the possibility of constructing a political “subject” which affirms (or “verifies”) egalitarian norms. But there’s a problem here: egoic self-interest is arguably also a normed expression of human being – neo-liberalism explicitly affirms it as a norm, as a precondition for higher forms of social organisation (e.g. those based on competitive markets). The conflict between Badiou’s ethical “good” (tenacity in the construction of truths) and “evil” (de-subjectivation, the saggy victory of the flesh) can be seen as a conflict between rival normative commitments rather than between committed and uncommitted being as such. What Rowan Williams calls the “false anthropology” of neo-liberalism does not merely declare, in social Darwinist fashion, that human beings are intrinsically self-seeking creatures: it also goes to considerable lengths to modify the “soul” of society (its basic normative commitments and symbolic co-ordinates) so that individuals will perceive this to be their true nature and act accordingly.

There’s a good deal more in Dominic’s post, especially with respect to heteronormativity and discussions of heterosexuality coming out of the Christian Right, but I wanted to draw attention to this passage in particular as I think it represents something that is truncated or underdetermined within the framework of critiques of neo-liberal capitalism. While I do not disagree with Rowan William’s thesis that the picture of the human as an intrinsically self-seeking creature constitutes a false anthropology, I have noticed that there is a tendency to treat the core of neo-liberal capitalist ideology as consisting almost entirely of this false anthropology.

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