speculative politics, academic life and the "legacy" of postmodernism

Alex Galloway wrote an interesting post a couple weeks ago that sparked a long conversation (100+ comments), including a more recent post by David Golumbia that makes reference to a post I wrote two years ago. In a nutshell this is a conversation about the politics surrounding speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and such. It mostly focuses on Graham Harman, less so on other OOO-related folks like Bryant and Bogost, and extends to Latour, DeLanda, and others. The questions of “what is?” (ontology) and “what should be?” (politics) are clearly interrelated. I don’t think anyone believes that some version of Stalinist science is a good idea (where the search for understanding is censored up front by a political agenda). On the other hand, no one in this conversation believes that any search for understanding by humans is not shaped by ideology, politics, culture, and so on.

I agree with Galloway when he writes “The political means *justice* first and foremost, not liberation. Justice and liberation may, of course, coincide during certain socio-historical situations, but politics does not and should not mean liberation exclusively. Political theory is full of examples where people must in fact *curb* their own liberty for the sake of justice.” As far as I can tell, justice isn’t built into the structure of the world. It’s not gravity. Justice is a claim about how the world should be. As Galloway points out, there are plenty of political theories that instruct people on what they should do. Of course there’s also a lot of disagreement over that justice is, as well as how it can be achieved. Much of it is tied to theories of ontology (e.g. do you believe the Genesis story accurately describes how the universe was formed?). If I understand Galloway’s criticism, it is that OOO separates politics from ontology and fails to see how its ontology is informed by politics. He then goes on to demonstrate that the politics that informs OOO is capitalism. Maybe. Ultimately the proof is in the putting, and for me that means not only saying but doing. 

From my perspective this conversation focuses on academic life. Galloway’s post takes up Harman’s references to the political situation in Egypt. He also talks about the Occupy movement, Wikileaks and so on. But this is an academic argument happening between academics. We can say that academic life and work is political in the way that all human life and work is political. Write an article, teach a class, attend a committee meeting: all are political acts. But they are not political in the sense of Occupy or Wikileaks. If they are efforts to make the lived experiences of other humans more just then they are quite circuitous in their tactics. Certainly there are some activist academics who are more explicitly political in their research. There are some who are active with unions or with faculty oversight of institutions. But such things do not characterize academic life in general. Let’s say there are two monographs on Moby Dick. One invokes Zizek as a primary theoretical inspiration. The other one invokes Harman. From Galloway’s perspective the former is preferable on political grounds, but I am having a hard time seeing either as doing much for justice.

To put my own research on digital media technologies, higher education, rhetoric, and teaching composition is similar terms, I suppose I would say DeLanda and Latour are my primary inspiration. Put simply, my work examines the premise in my discipline that symbolic behavior is a uniquely human trait. In my view it is a premise that tends to obscure the way that symbolic behavior (and the broader realm of though and action) relies upon a broader network of actors. In particular, I see our continuing struggles over what to do with digital media as stemming from this premise. Is it sufficiently political? I’m not sure. Who makes that determination? Does “being political” by humanistic academic standards require choosing an argument from among a set of proscribed acceptable positions? I would hope not. Does it require offering some prescription, some strategy or tactic, for increasing justice in the world? Maybe. I would like to think that my work strives to make life better. That is, if I offer to you my very best understanding of how digital rhetoric and composition works and what it might mean for teaching and higher education in general, I think that I am trying to make life better. Does it make the world a more just place? How is one even supposed to measure that? If a butterfly flaps its wings…

Meanwhile, David Golumbia in responding to Galloway, takes issue with a phrase in that earlier post of mine, where I say that  “there is potentially less relativism in a flat ontology than there is in our legacy postmodern views.” The word “potentially” there has to do with point-of-view. In my view, it is almost tautological to say that a flat ontology has less relativism. This is, in some respect, Galloway’s complaint: that a flat ontology does not pursue a “superimposition of a new asymmetry.” But that’s not Golubmia’s concern. His concern is with the phrase “legacy postmodern views.” As near as I can figure though, he is not asserting that there is no such thing as “legacy postmodern views,” but rather that their shouldn’t be. As he writes

the major lights of theory have been presented by many of us to students as a bloc, as doctrine, or even as dogma: as a way of thinking or even “legacy view” that we professors of today mean to “educate” our students about. But we should not and cannot be “educating” or “indoctrinating” our students “into” theory. To the contrary: because that work is a diverse set of responses to several bodies of work, more and less traditional and/or orthodox, it can only be understood well when embedded in that tradition.

I don’t have a problem with his argument that theory should be taught a different way. In the end he makes a fairly disciplinary-conservative argument that students need to read the philosophical tradition. He complains that SR plays into this with its “sweeping dismissal” of prior philosophy and argues that their object orientation isn’t all that new anyway. He blames technology for short-attention spans, a devaluing of proper education, and an unwillingness to give due consideration to the philosophical tradition. Keep in mind that these are professors complaining that other professors don’t take education seriously and don’t read enough. Actually though, these are familiar rhetorical moves. What could be more familiar than saying persons A, B, and C have misread or failed to read persons X, Y. and Z.

I do want to respond briefly to where Golumbia remarks  “That phrase “legacy postmodern views” really strikes me wrong, and rings in harmony with the “‘leftist faculty cabal’ mentioned by Galloway. Among other things, both phrases sound much like the major buzzwords used by the political right to attack all of theory during its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.” I think he means to suggest that I am taking up some right wing attack on theory.  And I’m not sure why, as we seem to agree that “legacy postmodern views” exist and are taught, even though neither of us believe such things are worthwhile.

If I decide, for example, to focus on Latour and DeLanda rather than Badiou and Zizek, and some other digital rhetorician decides the opposite then… I’ve got nothing. I mean, I’m not sure what the stakes are. We write two different kinds of articles and books. Maybe our classes are a little different but not that different. Is one of us making the world a more just place than the other? According to whom? Either way, we’re both stuck on this treadmill of writing articles and monographs for tenure and promotion. How is it that I am evil and the other scholar some avatar of justice? When there’s maybe a couple thousand people on the planet at best who could tell the difference between us and less than 100 who would bother to. That’s the stuff that I don’t get.

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