Monday, 26 January 2009

On having your cake and eating it.

The blogosphere is alive with talk of speculative realism and its sub-genre, object-oriented philosophy (as manfully elaborated by Graham Harman and Levi Bryant). The political stakes of this have also been interrogated, (see especially here) but I find a slight flaw in much of the discourse surrounding this issue, a weakspot or point of blindness.

The challenge to political (or politicised) ontologies is clear: illegitimately bringing the political into the ontological is an underhand philosophical manoeuvre (if being = cosmic difference = innately creative and revolutionary for example then already an overly convenient political orientation is present at the level of being) and hence somewhat unbelievable. If the challenge of a realist orientation in metaphysics is that being is radically flat, divested of hierarchy or morality (no layer higher or more significant, authentic, real etc than any other) then the grounding of normativity cannot be located within an ontological analysis. Of course, we already have a certain kind of normativity within the claim towards radical ontological egality, but one which is de-charged or a-signifying- it gives no clue as to preferential principle. In this regard flat ontologies are capable of overcoming the Deleuzean ethology or Nietzschean forces which incessantly moralise over that which ought to be a matter of descriptive naturalism. Whilst Badiou’s minimal ontology in some regards escapes this politicisation of being, his notion of event as trans-being and political truth procedures emerging via the momentary uncovering of the hidden being of being itself comes close to a similar structure to Deleuze or indeed Nietzsche: there is an aboriginal state to being, which is innately good, which is somehow perverted, manipulated, falls into a state of disarray, illusion, falsehood etc. The edenic structure of political ontologies is plain, and must be undermined at all costs because it leads metaphysics towards absurdity. For, to take the example of Nietzsche, if his force analysis is a kind of naturalism, then a force is what it does, and the play of such forces simply is- without guide towards preference. If the weak forces predominate over the strong we have no reason to think them weak at all.

However, I cannot but find the true implications of this for the political to have been safely “bracketed”, to have been separated so far from the political field as to be of little importance. It would seem that if Speculative Realism not only de-couples the world from the human but also necessarily and as a consequence removes all hierarchies between layers and scales, then politics as such is deeply problematised. The current blog discourse seems to hold that this new metaphysics might be deployed as a kind of analytical conceptual technology, in the service of political aims or projects. But this seems to have failed to learn the proper lesson- for surely such political praxes are themselves justified in terms of a system of norms, at the very least a theory of “the good”. It seems as if many writers would want to use the descriptive powers of flat ontologies or network/assemblage theories (of the kind proffered by De Landa and Latour) in the service of pre-existing political orientations. To do so would simply be to fall into a sort of double-think. For each political praxis is itself justified by a theory of what is good, each of which can be genealogically traced to a prior philosophical or religious system, each of which are crucially undermined by the very notion of an ontology without preference. If we are to think only pragmatically then we remain within the domain of the correlation—to remain neo-liberal democrats, Marxists, humanists etc. There is a clear issue of how the bare/indifferent/non-preferential ontological interacts with the human-ontic. Two options seem available. Firstly we think ‘pragmatically’, deploy flat ontological analyses as a mere technological appendage to serve pre-existing political vectors, but this seems to be somewhat paradoxical for it entails a hidden claim that the ontological has no baring upon the political—but this indicates the technological potentials of the philosophy are null and void. Alternatively we might think the other formulation: if being gives us no ability to prefer this over that, then we cannot do so (or seek some other form of validation). But to seek other validation is to inevitably rest upon some other problematic ground (all the different kinds of situated-chauvinism from racial-tribalism to humanism or vitalism). To take SR seriously is to hold to a radical nihilism, and it is in this respect that Ray Brassier comes closest to unravelling the full consequences (in spite of his own apparent gestures towards the continued validity of collective politics, perhaps another example of doublethink?). Either SR has no impact on politics, or destroys politics (and its reliance upon the situated-chauvinistic) altogether. It seems intrinsically a-political. In making of philosophy a science, we can no longer draw political claims from it, or rather perhaps, only a rigorous (though absolutely whimsical) anti-politics where it as good to eliminate the human race as to institute globalised communism. In this sense a kind of political hyperchaos might be thought, or perhaps an anti-phenomenological/inhuman ur-nihilistic existentialism.


reidkane said...


Great post, and it's good to see you back. I don't have much in the way of a direct response, but I do deal with the issues you raise here, to some extent, in a recent post "With the Real on Our Side".

I think you are right about the relationship between realist ontology and politics, but I have two rejoinders. On the one hand, I think this 'annihilation' of politics might have the effect not of undermining politics itself, but a certain form of politics, one focused exclusively on the content of political claims or positions. This still leaves open a shift toward an 'empty' politics of form, in which the form of political involvement takes precedence over specific claims.

Second, I think this problem of political agnosticism or nihilism points towards the limits of ontology, or even philosophy, in general, and really indicates the pertinence of a non-philosophical intervention.

I develop these points more in that post. Anyway, hope to read more from you soon!

Duncan said...

"the grounding of normativity cannot be located within an ontological analysis"


"...To take SR seriously is to hold to a radical nihilism... Either SR has no impact on politics, or destroys politics (and its reliance upon the situated-chauvinistic) altogether."

No. Because this assumes that the only legitimate or possible ground for politics is ontology. You can have an apolitical ontology that fails to provide normative or political guidance or prescription, and get your norms just fine from other places instead. To do so isn't to fall into 'correlationism', because it's perfectly possible for normative and political commitments to be produced, collectively or individually, by human practices, desires, etc, without Being qua Being, or whatever we take the object of ontology to be, also being so produced. We can have our cake and eat it, because we're dealing with two different cakes.

On the other hand – yes: to attempt to derive political conclusions from ontology is generally going to involve disguising political commitments as ontological claims, whether deliberately or not.

Alex said...

Duncan- yeah I thought I was being overly simplistic here, but then again the kind of norms that you end up resting on can all be traced back to some kind of principle of ontological selection, usually to do with some vision of human existence. The problematic point is where does the human matter? In the world of human affairs perhaps, but there is a need to avoid a slide back towards naive humanism or vitalism- the radicality of a claim towards an egality of objects implies the end of all chauvanisms of proximity or situatedness. It is this that is the hardest fact to take away from SR, since to do otherwise (to seek say an immanent affective norm or one rooted in life or equality or whatever) is to engage in a doublethinking which brackets philosophy or politics apart from the other. But as Reid says quite accurately an empty politics of praxical activities, relationships, activities still occurs. It is simply that the claims of any action towards ultimate truth or value cannot be vouchsafed within a realist philosophy.

Duncan said...

But vitalism, or some of the more problematic variants of humanism, would be based on a projection of features of our own lives onto Being. We can just not do that. We can still have norms, which don't have to be ontologically validated.

"It is simply that the claims of any action towards ultimate truth or value cannot be vouchsafed within a realist philosophy."

Again, though, we don't need "ultimate" truth or value; this is a hyperbolic demand, and its disappointment does no damage to our ordinary and exigent values. We don't need Being's endorsement in order to love, or judge, or participate in political struggle. All this stuff – the stuff of the human sphere - is socially, historically, biologically contingent - part of our fleshy, temporary existence. It is no less real for that; no more empty; and it requires no validation from beyond the sphere we inhabit – whether from Being or from God. The idea that the 'disenchantment' of Existence is the strait gate to nihilism is based on a confusion about what our values are and where they come from, imo.

kvond said...

I have in a genuine quandry over how an ontlogy which posits forever retreating objects (much as how fetishized commodities forever retreat from their users), can be apolitical. At the very least it is in a dialogue with the social forms (political included) which helped produce it. I understand perfectly that this is the aim of ontological description, but the idea that a description (of anything) should transcend its critique, vies with all that we have come to learn and say about description.

If we grant the Latourian notion that theories compete in a violent way with other theories, resorting to all kinds of hair-pulling, so to speak, then perhaps this claim to the apolitical status of SR ontology is just this sort of move in the game of theoretical competition, a claim that sets it apart in the Will to Power marketplace of ideas. Would that not be the Latourian answer? Nothing can be reduced (not even ontology), and there is no transportation (not even ontology) without translation.

I like all your points here, SPA

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