object-oriented rhetoric

what is and what should never be

I'm not sure I would go so far as to call this a debate, but the flurry of posts on the topic of object-oriented ontology and politics has resurfaced again. Ian Bogost posts about here, and includes a link to Alex Galloway's Facebook page, where there is another discussion). Levi Bryant has several posts: here's one. The whole thing reminds me at least a little of this Led Zeppelin tune, though maybe "The Song Remains the Same" would be more apropos.

Here's how I see this going down. From the OOO perspective, the objection is to attempts to overmine objects with a political theory: that is, to claim that politics explains everything. This kind of overmining gesture certainly arises in at least some forms of Marxism which claim to offer a totalizing theory and argue that everything can be reduced to relations of capital. Clearly this isn't possible if one thinks about the relations among molecules in a distant galaxy, unless one is purpounding a very unique definition of politics. So instead "everything" is funnelled through the problem of correlationism so that everything becomes our relation to everything and thus politics is introduced this way. Levi seeks to make this distinction between objects and what we know of objects. In the latter, politics becomes an issue for investigation, but even then I think that OOO would necessarily suggest that objects are always withdrawn from whatever politics arises through human interaction.

From the other side of the flurry, as I see it, the concern is to preserve a political project. I will admit that I got worn out on this business in the mid-90s in repeated rehearsals of the same conversation with fellow grad students who called themselves the "red theory collective." In those conversations, anyone who took issue with a claim or a method was immediately accused of being a capitalist pig. It was true believer or nothing. I don't know the people involved in this conversation that well, so I don't know if that's the case here, but I just feel like I've been down this road before. However I really want to try to set aside those memories and see this more generously. In doing so, I might say that the difference lies in what one believes an ontology should be. Those critical of OOO seem to be arguing that an ontology should include some claim for what the world should be like. I suppose, for example, that Marxism classically works this way. It has a theory of history and a utopian-revolutionary component that extends from it. However, as we see in Marx, that theory has to overdetermine all relations in order be usable as a revolutionary practice.

So in this conversation there is this ongoing example of a white police officer shooting a black man. Everyone wants to claim that racism plays a role in this example. Of course without additional details the specifics are hard to know. What if the gun goes off accidentally? What if the black man is wearing a mask or its dark or for some other reason the officer cannot see/identify the race of the man he is shooting? Does it matter if the officer is a white supremacist or married to a black woman? Can the shooting simultaneously be justified (e.g. in self-defense) and motivated by racism?  As Ian writes, "Levi's hope is to show that that the nature of a thing is irreducible
to its political expression. That is just to say, something like a
shooting is not sufficiently explained by a discussion of something like
the race relations that may have partly motivated it. Indeed, something
like race isn't sufficiently explained by its political motivations and
consequences either!" However, this might be the kind of claim that an activist political theory cannot accept.

Instead, if one wants to make a claim that injustice shouldn't exist, then one requires an ontology that not only allows for injustice to be non-existent but ideally establishes some practice by which injustice can be eradicated. For this to occur, ontologically injustice would have to be an identifiable thing that could be removed. Injustice/racism causes a shooting. Remove injustice/racism, and the shooting does not happen. What is and what should never be. On the other hand, if one puts forward an ontology that doesn't allow for injustice to be identified and removed in this way, then one is accused of supporting injustice.

The bottom line I think is that an object-oriented approach to ontology will never tell one what should be. If one pursues such an ontology one will have to discover a basis for shoulds elsewhere. In fact, I think a realist ontology (if not OOO in particular) can provide a means for investigating how particular ethics and politics develop and even suggest tactics based on the understanding of the real situation. One could look at Deleuze in these terms, as a realist philosopher. DeLanda certainly does. If Deleuze makes an argument for what should be, it isn't an extension of ontology. And I've never read Deleuze that way, even though his work with Guattari certainly offers revolutionary tactics, even though it's been called "anti-fascist," etc. Obviously other people (e.g. Marxists) view Deleuze's theories in the opposite way, as supporting the status quo.

The thing with "What is and what should never be" is that it is (supposedly) about an adulterous affair between Robert Plant and his wife's sister. In this respect it seems especially appropriate to this flurry of posts. The lyrics reflect these mixed feelings and imperatives of dreaming of some imaginary future where they can be together and the recognition that it shouldn't happen. It's not so easy to extricate ourselves from our relations. In a marriage, perhaps one shouldn't sleep around. But is it wrong to be polyamorous with ideas? Isn't this Deleuze's thing? Approaching philosophers from behind? The argument in this flurry appears to be that a realist ontology's contention of "what is" is a political theorist's version of "what should never be." When faced with the temptation of an affair, perhaps one should turn a blind eye toward what one really feels, but no one would suggest this is an appropriate intellectual action. Instead, one argues that all "what is"s are "what should be"'s. It's complicated. 

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