In discussions of French inflected Marxist political theory I often get the sense that democracy is treated as a dirty word or the contrary of Marxism. The subtext seems to be that somehow neoliberalism and democracy are one and the same thing, or that the concept of democracy is identical to the actually existing system of something like American “democracy”. I find this idea very odd. For me Marxism and communism are synonyms for democracy, and the issues that motivate Marxist activists arise from the fact that our actually existing governmental systems aren’t democratic enough. Equating democracy with American “democracy” is like equating socialism with Stalinist socialism. In both cases we have an utter perversion of the political concept and the precise opposite of what these things are supposed to be. What am I missing?

In a response to my recent post on materialism, Fabio Confunctor, of Hyper-Tiling writes:

…what concerns me about political action as different from other actions is that the practice is meant to bring about some change which is not random, but a change ‘in favour of’ the human. The difference between a scientific theory and a political one is that the former can be limited to an epistemological interest of describing the world while the latter (to paraphrase Marx) has the goal to ‘change it’. Where change is not ‘from random configuration of actors 1 to random configurations of actors 2′ but is to change the configuration in order to achieve and maximise a number of desired (by me, the human actor) outcomes.

First, a disclaimer: I am very much working through these issues myself, so I haven’t been able, as of yet, to resolve these questions entirely to my satisfaction. Second, I have recently been drawing a great deal of inspiration from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism: A Political Ecology of Things who, as a political theorist has thought far more penetratingly on these issues than me, so I think she’s a good place to look when situating a number of these questions. Not only does Bennett’s thought share a close proximity to various strains of OOO, but her work is particularly interesting due to how it weaves together ontological questions with questions of politics and ethics, while calling for a deep reformulation of just what agency is.

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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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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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illustration-map_largeNick Srnicek has posted his Goldsmith’s talk “Framing Militancy” (warning pdf) over at his academic webpage. Nick hints at certain thoughts he’s developing at the intersection of Laruelle’s non-philosophy and actor-network theory. From my perspective, the paper is of interest as it raises questions of how we are to think a networked subject, and also raises questions about how to strategize change within networks. Over at Speculative Heresy he remarks that the paper received mixed reactions. I wonder how much of this had to do with selecting the neoliberal subject to illustrate the formation of a networked subjectivity, coupled with his reformist stance.

These reservations aside, I think there’s a good deal of interest in the paper. In particular, the three ideas with which Nick opens his paper leap out at me. Nick writes:

-My interest right now is in reformatting the politics of continental philosophy, away from its tendency towards grand abstractions, and focusing it more towards grappling with the concrete contours of the world.

-I take it that this basic imperative follows from three ideas:

(1) Non-philosophy’s insistence that it is the real which determines its own objectification in thought. In other words, the reality of any particular political situation is what must be allowed and permitted to determine its own thought.

(2) Actor-network theory’s idea of ‘empirical metaphysics’ – the idea that we can’t predetermine what entities are operating in a particular situation, and who is responsible for what actions. This means, for instance, getting rid of the idea of a pre-established revolutionary actor.

(3) Lastly, the imperative to work within the networks we’re embedded in stems from the materialist belief that thought is not the medium through which objects appear, but rather thought is an object alongside other objects. Theory, in other words, cannot be independent of its physical and social conditioning.

When I read these three inspirations, I find it difficult not to see at base what OOO is advancing in the domain of political thought. A good deal of my shift to SR and OOO was motivated by the desire to escape these sorts of grand abstraction to get closer to what I referred to in another post as “the rustle of being“. In the domain of political ontology, this rustle of being would be concrete social assemblages of persons, institutions, technologies, geography, signs, and so on. It is difficult to present an abstract theoretical account of what assemblages such as this look like. You have to actually read analyses of this sort. Good examples would be Latour’s Pateurization of France, Braudel’s magnificent (and mind numbingly boring! but in oh so good a way) Capitalism & Civilization, Bogost’s analysis of the history of game engines in Unit Operations, or Luc Boltanski’s and Eve Chiapello’s analysis of network capitalism in The New Spirit of Capitalism.

The sense here is that concepts like “capitalism” and “neoliberalism” are, as Deleuze might say, far too baggy to do real work in political ontology. They don’t tell us anything specific about the organization of real situations, and thus leave the activist and theoretician feeling as if they are grasping after elusive dark matter or ghosts, producing a sense of impotence and tragedy. The point here is that you have to know how the actual situation you’re in is concretely structured to strategize engagement within that situation.

In this spirit, I fully endorse Nick’s Laruellian imperative, though it seems to me that this imperative is more Lacanian or Marxist, than Laruellian. All to often, I think, political thought begins from the standpoint of a pre-established set of normative postulates, creating an alienating rift between the multitude and the intellectual that claims to speak for the multitude. Within the Lacanian framework, the situation is entirely different. The analyst does not begin with a pre-defined set of norms defining what is good or bad for the analysand. She does not harbor a wish or desire for the analysand to accomplish some specific thing like career success, freedom from false consciousness, self-awareness, greater empathy towards others, etc. Rather, the analysand attempts to situate herself as an advocate of the analysand’s desire, functioning as a sort of midwife of that desire. Any norms or values that emerge over the course of analysis are not there at the outset, but are the analysand’s creation over the course of analysis. In this respect, it is the object that determines thought– in the case of the clinic, objet a –not the analyst that comes to the analytic setting with a set of formula as to what the analysand should be. Of course, as both Lacan and Freud liked to emphasize that analysis is an impossible art, but insofar as the real is the impossible, this is to say that analysis operates from the real.

The case is similar with genuine Marxism. Marx was deeply hostile towards what he called “utopian socialism”. You will find remarks about utopian socialism, dripping with disdain and sarcasm, scattered throughout almost all of his work. Again the case is here similar to that of the Lacanian clinic. Marx’s “utopian socialism” is Lacan’s “ego psychologist”. Just as the ego psychologist begins with a set of normative assumptions as to what is good for the analysand, even further alienating the analysand from his desire, the “utopian socialist” begins with a model of society or a set of ahistorical, normative ideals of what the social should be, thereby rendering him deaf to the desire embodied in the socius or the voice of the socius itself. This is the major difference between materialist socialism and utopian socialism. Where utopian socialism begins from the position that it has a privileged knowledge of what the social order should be and arrives at this model either based on some religious inspiration, or some sort of a prioristic reasoning, the materialist socialist begins from the premise that norms and values arises from historical situations themselves and that the task of the political ontologist is to hear these tendencies or potentialities within the social order and assist in giving voice to these tendencies. Unlike the norm based theorist or the ahistorical deontologist, the materialist socialist allows thought to be determined by the real, not the reverse.

Lacan liked to say that the analyst plays dead with respect to the analysand. In saying this Lacan meant that the analyst sets aside his own desires so that the desire of the analysand might come to speech. In this respect, the analyst subordinates herself to her analysand. She consents to occupy the position of the object or objet a. Similarly, in genuine Marxist thought, the role of the theorist should be like that of an analyst, where the theorist agrees to play dead with respect to the social order. A theoretical work in political ontology, in this respect, should look more like a Freudian case study than Freud’s essays on metapsychology.

600px_SpiderWebIt seems that one of the standard criticisms recently emerging in response to OOO is that 1) it is apolitical, and 2) it is an apologetics for neoliberalism. I confess that I find both criticisms to be deeply perplexing and am unsure what to make of them. I am unsure of whether or not I’ve ever claimed that OOO is apolitical. If I have, then I was speaking sloppily. What I have consistently emphasized is that questions of ontology and questions of politics are distinct. This is exactly what we would expect from a realist ontology. Insofar as realist ontologies reject correlationism or the thesis that objects can only ever be thought in their relation to a subject and that subjects can only ever be thought in relation to objects, it follows that the being of beings is an issue that is independent of politics. Were the being of beings always bound up with the political, we would not have a realism, but rather a correlationism. Why? Because beings would necessarily be bound up with the human.

However, and I think this is a key point, the claim that questions of ontology are distinct from questions of politics is not equivalent to a rejection of politics. All the claim that ontology and politics are distinct entails is that ontological questions are not to be decided on political grounds. That’s all. Nothing more. In this regard, I take myself to be claiming nothing different than what Badiou claims. As Badiou argues in the Manifesto for Philosophy, it is a disaster for philosophy whenever philosophy is sutured to one of its four conditions: love, politics, science, and art. Badiou does not advocate a particular ontology on political grounds. The questions of ontology are internal to ontology. Yet in affirming this autonomy, he is clearly not rejecting the political, as can be seen in his copius contributions to political philosophy.

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Vincent-Van-Gogh-The-Wheat-Field--1888-133375As I lay in bed fighting the flu this weekend I found myself once again reading Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism. In my view, Braudel’s approach to history provides a model example of what an object-oriented analysis might look like. Braudel does not tell the story of the emergence of capitalism from the standpoint of ideas, political conflicts, nations, or “great men”, but rather from the standpoint of what he calls “material civilization”. Material history consists of those constraints and affordances upon which the social world is based at any given point in time. “Material life is made up of people and things. The study of things, of everything mankind makes or uses– food, housing, clothing, luxury, whether or not money is used, what sort of money is used, tools, coinage or its substitutes, framework of village and town… (31).” This material civilization thus consists of things such as the way in which food is produced, the epidemiology of disease, the sorts of foods produced, whether or not roads are present, the layout of towns and their relationship to the countryside, clothing styles, forms of cooking, weather patterns, wild animals, the relationship of nomads to agricultural society, technologies and technics, and so on.

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