OOO and Flat Ontology: Reply to Levi
So, Levi has a post up in which he comments on my recent post on ‘Network Ethics’. The funny thing, however, is that he addresses my prelim discussion of the desire for a flat ontology, and its relation to ethics, without actually getting to the part on Network Ethics. Read a little further, Levi, there’s cool stuff in there!
Anyway, as becomes apparent by the end of the post, here’s my main point: “its impossible to justify epistemological or ontological claims without invoking value statements, and hence, ethical and political concerns. Philosophy today that doesn’t talk about oppressions like racism and global capital is radically incomplete, and even if its implied ethics is anti-oppressive.” The question is how I get there. I also go off a little on Levi’s mode of arguing in the middle (hey, a guy’s aloud to get a little pissed off sometimes, right?), but that’s only tangentially related to the substance of the post.
But why’s it so important for us to all be ‘flat stanleys’ these days?
The Importance of Flattening
But ok, flatness. I agree with Levi, yes, object-oriented approaches are about flat ontology: “When flat ontology places objects on equal footing the point is not that all beings are to be treated equally in the political or ethical sense, but rather that there is no one being that overdetermines all the rest”. And I also agree with Levi when he says that, “the ethical implications of OOO are still unclear and there’s a massive amount of work to be done.”
But just because the ethics of OOO have not yet been explicitly articulated does not mean there’s not an implicit set of ethical implications already at work in the primary presuppositions of OOO. The ethics that’s implicit here simply hasn’t been drawn out yet. And most philosophies start from one of the primary traditional philosophical ‘disciplines’ of epistemology, ontology, ethics, aesthetics, and then move to the other from there. Its clear in its very name that OOO starts with ontology (and seems to have a something against epistemology, I must say, ok, epistemology is often over extended by Kant and all, but epistemology has become a dirty word these days!).
And so yes, OOO is about flat ontology. And let’s face it, flat ontology and immanence are all the rage. But who cares? Or rather, why is that the rage? The point I was making in the segment that Levi quoted is that the original desire for ‘flatness’ in ontology comes from, genealogically speaking, Nietzsche’s call for a ‘this worldly’ philosophy, and finds more distant precursors in Spinoza and the Roman Stoics. Deleuze then shows how this essentially ethical project can be tied to ontology in a wide variety of ways. But even for Deleuze, I think the impetus is primarily ethical. While Deleuze does ontology, he is not fundamentally an ontologist. For him, it seems to me, at least, ethics comes before ontology. Deleuze largely suspends questions of knowledge and justification of his thought, he simply presents it, like an old-fashioned metaphysician such as Leibniz or Spinoza. Of course, he does so in a way that gets beyond the deconstructionist style critiques in that he also has a fully fashioned philosophy of language which takes into account the ‘linguistic turn,’ and his metaphysics of the virtual is able to skate around many of the critiques of presence articulate by Derrida and the like. And his work continually ‘self-deconstructs’ the binaries he uses. So, while he’s no ‘old fashioned metaphysician’, he’s certainly a metaphysician.
But why this metaphysics over any other? This is where the Nietzschianism comes in. Deleuze desires a world which is ontologically flat because of the ethical implications thereof. An ethics of immanence.
[Now, I realize that this is not at all what Levi had in mind: “The point is not that frogs and people are of equal concerns to ethical thought. In fact, the point is not about ethics at all.” Ok, the point FOR YOU, Levi, isn’t about ethics at all. I must say, Levi, it really is annoying to me when you argue ex cathedra when speaking for OOO, or say I or others ‘don’t understand’ when we see things differently. I mean, you can say whatever you want, but don’t you, as the proverb (!) goes, ‘win more flies with honey than with vinegar’?
Such a form of arguing seems to imply that there’s a right and a wrong way to see these things. Now I can understand the desire to at least try to ‘get right’ what someone is trying to say before disagreeing with it. But I think its often subtly implied that there’s a right way, and its the OOO way, and those who have a different opinion simply just don’t understand it yet. Firstly, until more texts are in the public domain, the logistics of ‘understanding’ remains a challenging endeavor, requiring the sifting through of blog posts over many months. But more pertinently, while there are virtues to ‘getting right’ what a person is saying or trying to say, I’m much more interested, as Deleuze would say, with putting a philosophy ‘to work.’ So if saying that I or other bloggers miss something is a way of saying maybe that we disagree, fine. But its kinda condescending to say that others keep misunderstanding things. Do you mean misunderstanding you, or the ‘order of things’, the ‘way the world works’? I promise to not condescend to you if you don’t condescend to me, but so far, it feels a bit like a oneway street. Can’t we agree that its ok to disagree, and not everything is misunderstanding?
Some of this could be disciplinary, those trained in philosophy programs I find tend to speak more in terms of things like ‘misreading’ or ‘misunderstanding’, while those of us who pursued theory in comparative literature departments and the like are I think a bit more pluralist. You’ll notice I rarely will say anyone got something wrong (most certainly in regard to ‘what is’, though sometimes its possible to be wrong in regard to a philosopher, ie: ‘Heidegger just hates ontology!’). Rather, I generally try to say that we see things differently, or there seem to be contradictions in a chain of logic, etc. But I don’t believe in this ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ thing, rather, in Nietzschian fashion, with ‘better’ and ‘worse’. Or to be Deleuzian/Guatarrian, not ‘what does it mean’, but ‘does it work’? An experimental pragmatics, if you will. But to quote Harold Bloom (a figure I’m rather ambivalent about), all reading is misreading, and misreading can be very, very productive.
Perhaps that’s my faith in the infinite, a la Badiou, or the virtual, or whatever you call it. Every perspective produced is part of the world, and we need to understand it, and so, every perspective has some degree of the true in it. Isn’t that part of what it means to be ‘flat’ in one’s approach to the world?]
Back to ethics. I think that the only reason for having a flat ontology over any other is ethical. And I don’t think you can separate ontology, epistemology, aesthetics, and ethics – yes, for practical purposes they may be distinct, but each implies the other when it comes down to it.
When Levi says that flat ontology means “that there is no one being that overdetermines all the rest“, yes, I couldn’t agree more. But the whole reason for this, at least historically, is the attempt to secularize philosophy. Getting rid of the ding-an-sich is all about exorcizing the hidden hypostatizations in the machine, right? And there are politico-ethical reasons for this. Levi may not have this in mind, but the philosophical tradition certainly does, as it thinks ‘through us’, so to speak. But to argue that, “Flat ontology is not a normative or ethical claim. When flat ontology places objects on equal footing the point is not that all beings are to be treated equally in the political or ethical sense” seems to me to deemphasize the implicit ethics implied by any and all philosophical claims. For in a sense, to say that all is flat is shorthand for, ‘how might our world be different if everyone saw things as flat’. Otherwise, why write philosophy? Why not simply decide for oneself that all is flat, and take that secret to the grave? Why try to convince others, if there’s not an ethical/political set of implications? Is it possible to defend any epistemo-ontological claim without using value judgements to do so? Isn’t then all epistemology/ontology implicitly ethico-political?
According to Levi:
Rather, my reasons for being interested in flat ontology are far more anthropocentric. It is my view that we cannot truly understand human societies and political structures so long as the marked space of theory consists entirely of norms, signifiers, meanings, and signs. So long as we are doomed to focus on these alone, we are also doomed to pose the wrong sorts of questions when analyzing the social field and strategizing political action. What I wish to draw attention to by carrying out a “cross” over the boundary of the distinction between meaning/non-meaning is the role played by nonhuman objects in human collectives.
It seems to me here (notice I use the qualifier ‘seems to me’, rather than ‘what Levi misunderstands’!) that what Levi is doing here is articulating much of his implicit ethical reasoning for arguing for a flat ontology. And I couldn’t agree with him more – OOO is great cause it helps us think about the way non-human actors interact with humans in a variety of ways, in much more complex fashion than has previously been done. But this is done to decenter the human, to de-correlationalize. But why then are Levi’s reasonings for this move, as he says, ultimately anthropocentric? My sense is that because by taking into account how “nonhuman objects are the medium in which human associations become possible in the first place” we develop a fuller account of the world, one in which we do less damage to ourselves and other sorts of sentient creatures. Because, as Levi says, simply understanding signifiers and the like just doesn’t cut it. If we don’t have this fuller understanding, what happens? Then our understanding of “human societies and political structures” is lopsided, incomplete. Why should we care? Levi seems to imply that his reasons here are politico-ethical.
Which is great! This is why I firmly believe that its impossible to justify one’s epistemological or ontological choices without invoking, somehow, value-claims which are ultimately of an ethico-political nature. Just try it. I’m not sure its possible.
My sense, from everything I’ve read by Levi, is that me and Levi are quite on the same page with wanting a better, anti-oppressive world. I think the difference is that I think philosophy needs to be explicit about how this desire is implicated in our ontological and epistemological commitments. I mean, you don’t really want to be Noam Chomsky, do you? That guy has very progressive politics, but has very regressive and in some ways even reactionary philosophy, and yet for him its essential to keep those two spheres separate. I just don’t buy it, nor do I think things should be that way.
Am I accusing Levi of some sort of implicit racism or sexism or whatever? Not at all. If anything, I think anti-oppressive politics is implicit in his own work in a wide variety of ways, and as he states, will be developed in time as an object-oriented ethics is articulated. Otherwise, why the emphasis on ‘democracy’ in the title of Democracy of Objects?
So, if anything, I think perhaps there’s just a sense of modesty about what a philosophical project can do. But why not bring to the fore the radical potential implications for politics and ethics that a flat ontology, an object-oriented ontology, can have? Certainly this was Deleuze’s intent. That is, if you’re going to advocate for a flat ontology, why not also put the anti-oppressive aspects of that to the fore just as much as the ontological ones? Otherwise, what a missed opportunity!
Final Thoughts: Philosophy, Ethics, and SR
So, I guess I’ll end with an open-ended question – is the reason for the desire for a flat ontology/immanence ultimately because of ethical concerns? My answer is yes, it should and must be. If so, then what are these ethics? My sense is these MUST value talking about racism before frogs (although frogs are important too!), not because of anthropocentrism, but as Steve Shaviro has recently argued, anthropomorphism. Humans are a complex example of what is to be valued, ethically and politically, in the universe, but not the privileged standard of value. Otherwise, anything humans did would be de facto good.
This is why network ethics values complexity and robustness. Racism does a LOT more harm to global robustness than hurting frogs ever did.
What’s more, I’m convinced that philosophy MUST talk about racism, and other related forms of oppression. The myth that there is disinterested knowledge of any sort is dangerous. As I’ve tried to argue here, its impossible to justify epistemological or ontological claims without invoking value statements, and hence, ethical and political concerns. Philosophy today that doesn’t talk about oppressions like racism and global capital is radically incomplete, and even if its implied ethics is anti-oppressive, it doesn’t go far enough unless this is explicit and brought to the fore. Yes, I know this is a strong position, but I believe in it very strongly. One of my goals in writing philosophy is to make this point central to my own work. Philosophy is not and cannot be disinterested. Too long has philosophy hid its world refashioning desire under the bushel of pure epistemology and ontology. Its always also been about the ethico-political as well. Let’s be explicit about this, because it pushes us to articulate what is merely latent otherwise.
So when Levi articulated yesterday how OOO relates to Invisible Man, I thought that was really amazing. I know that’s implicit there, why not make it explicit! Its important, I think, to do so, for a wide variety of reasons.