SR/OOO and political outcomes

After spending a week or more catching up on administrivia, I am now trying to catch up on some of the discussion around the issue of flat ethics, politics, and sr/ooo. This is an extended conversation on Alex Galloway's blog and Levi rounds up a number of other posts here as well. Ian also has a responese. Part of what is going on, especially in Galloway's post and the many comments, addressing the personal politics and behaviors of OOOers, particularly Harman. You can read that discussion there. I am interested more in the other matter, which to me asks the question of what is (or should be) the relationship between politics and philosophy? No doubt that's a question that goes back at least as far as Plato's Republic, right? 

In a fairly obvious way one might assert that answer the political question of what should be done would depend upon the question of what actions are possible, which is a an ontological question. That would suggest that ontology precedes politics. However, in a slightly less obvious but still straightforward way, one can also assert that politics shapes our ability to answer that ontological question. I would guess that no one involved in these conversations would disagree much with either of these points.

So, to take up a Latourian perspective, for example, one might say that the Modern state establishes a particular ontology in the division of human and nonhuman, society and nature. It attributes certain qualities and capacities to each. Specific political values emerge with this ontology, shaping that ontology in turn. It's not a deterministic relationship, of course, and to study the development of particular politics would obviously require far more details. But generally speaking, we have ideas like human rights, equality, justice, freedom, and so on that develop along with a Modern ontology. As my colleague Arabella Lyon often reminds me, in China, rather than having negative rights (establishing what the government should not do), there are positive rights (establishing the obligations of the government, like providing health care). We can have a debate about whether or not a Modern state really operates in service of these democratic values (or pursues some other ideology), about the role of capitalism in relation to democracy, and about the relative success of Modern states in living up to these values. 

Hypothetically, a nonmodern ontology might be so alien as to weaken a concept like justice to the point where it becomes untenable. In such an event, it would not be surprising that those who are politically committed to justice might view such an ontology as a political threat. In this situation, the response to that threat, at least in academic-intellectual circles, would be to make the argument that this nonmodern ontology results from a feedback of the dominant political view, that the political precedes the ontological. Understandably, a political position responds to all threats as political threats. 

Please note the word hypothetically at the beginning of that last parargraph, as I am unaware of any SR/OOO argument against the pursuit of justice! That said, SR/OOO accounts of justice (and there could be a variety of them) would likely differ from the (post)modern ones with which we are familiar. I suppose one would begin by saying that justice establishes values for what the relations among objects should be. And while we typically focus on justice for humans, human-only relations are nearly impossible (I am imagining naked humans in the vacuum of interstellar space). Besides justice cannot be separated from questions of materiality. It requires language, courtrooms, jails, etc. We could then study the ways in which humans account for how a concept of justice operates in various situations. None of that would tell us, however, what justice should be. Is the death penalty just? SR/OOO might seem to leave us with moral relativism. Everyone has his/her own values and has the right to pursue a politics based upon them. Gay rights activists and the relegious right are on equal footing; energy company lobbyists and environmentalists are on equal footing. Maybe they aren't equal in terms of their political power, but each can make an equal ontological claim for being just. 

I suppose one could lay that complaint at SR/OOO's feet, but I think that would be a error. For one thing, I've described a very widely held view and SR/OOO is little known when you come down to it. This relativism is a feature of the (post)modern world and its ontology, not the nonmodern.

It is likely true that a nonmodern view has to say that there is nothing intrinsic to ontology that places any value on the continuation of human life or any life. That said, a nonmodern, flat ontology might identify that values are a necessary result of object relations. Such an understanding might give us a basis for better understanding how particular values lead to particular ontological conditions. Maybe that gives us a better basis for political action. That is to say that there is potentially less relativism in a flat ontology that there is in our legacy postmodern views. I believe this is also viewed as a threat by the politically-committed. That is, relativism is a threat because it opposes an absolute political committment to whatever value. But an argument that certain relations or values are ontologiclally necessary would also be a threat (unless it happens to support their existing commitments).

All of this though seems very speculative to me. It is a matter of continued research and study. I don't believe we know what the political implications of a flat ontology will be. I think it would be unethical to promise that certain political values would result, just as it would be unethical to imagine that the research and study of ontology would not have a political dimension. These are the same things that we might say about scientific research (a la Latour). Ultimately though, I don't believe we can require philosophical investigations to make some kind of ideological loyalty oath before moving forward. Having put up with years of attacks in graduate school from Marxists and other politically-committed academics who would simply condemn anyone who wouldn't agree with them, I eventually decided to treat such individuals with the same disregard as I do anyone who wants to carry around a sign declaring that I am sinner for whatever reason. I hardly imagine that the academy is an apolitical space but I suppose I have less certainty about how the world works (and how it should work) than these folks.



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