Sunday 16 September 2012

Politics and Ontology: Yet More

Alexander Galloway responds to my previous claims:
My reference to Citizens United simply references what we might call the “Personification problem” in Harman. When people quote only those two sentences, they’re unfortunately doing a straw man on me. But if one reads *the very next sentence* you’ll see that I address these concerns. 
Anyhow, here is the personification problem laid out in more explicit language: 
1) Harman assigns the as-structure to all objects. (Rationale: This is self evident, since it’s the central thrust of Harman’s tool analysis.) Specifically, Harman locates the as-structure in the sensual or phenomenal part of the object, as opposed to the real or noumenal part of the object. 
2) The as-structure is the essential ingredient of personhood. (Rationale: this is just straight phenomenology. In Heidegger, from where Harman borrows it, the as-structure is the key ingredient in Dasein, which we know is the special mode of being that is associated with the human person.) 
3) Thus to assign the as-structure to all objects is equivalent to granting personhood to them.
Sorry if I misunderstood you, it wasn't my intention to misrepresent anyone.

I can't argue with the specifics of the Heidegger stuff since I don't know him very well though I must say that just because Harman takes this idea from Heidegger it doesn't necessarily mean that he has to take everything that goes along with it.  Just because (a) this is the criterion of personhood for Heidegger and (b) Harman extends it to objects generally this doesn't preclude the possibility that (c) Harman can supply a separate criterion of personhood that separates political or legal persons from objects altogether.  If he fulfils the latter then your point 3 doesn't hold for him.  Assigning "the as-structure to all objects" is only "equivalent to granting personhood to them" if the Heideggerian concept is both adopted unmodified and if there is no other ontological distinction between objects and persons addended to that concept.  From what he's said it seems that this is just what he claims -- that personhood follows on from bare objecthood and it isn't implied by it and, therefore, that he doesn't swallow the Heideggerian concept whole.

If you're saying that using Heidegger's personhood criterion to define objecthood *suggests* the personification of things while it doesn't strictly *denote* it then your critique really just amounts to 'guilt by association.'  You've not demonstrated any concrete link, just hinted at a vague and possible one and taken that to be a symptom of a deeper ideological prejudice.  I'm sorry but, with all due respect, that's weak.

I appreciate that the above quote was out of context.  Here's what you say just after the Monsanto bit:

"The way out of this problem, at least for Bogost and Bryant, seems to be a kind of cake-and-eat-it-too Animal Farm koan: that all objects are equal, but some objects are more equal than others. This seems to be rather nonsensical, since on the one hand they want to reject correlation and put all objects on equal footing, but on the other hand retain a pop science view of the world in which some equal-footed objects nevertheless have more “gravity attraction” than other equal-footed objects. What this produces is a kind of marketplace ontology that essentializes and reinforces hierarchy even as it claims to circumvent it. The only thing worse than inequality is an inequality founded in equality. But that’s capitalism for you: everyone is equal in the marketplace except for, ta-da, the 1%."

In other words, they claim that (a) all objects equally exist but (b) they don't exist equally (or exist as equals).  In their view, there is no contradiction between a 'flat ontology,' metaphysically speaking, and between social or political inequality.  A slave and a plantation owner equally exist but they don't exist equally -- it'd be absurd to say that one is more real than the other due to social subordination and it'd be equally absurd to say that their position within the social hierarchy is equal because of the bare fact of them both existing as material beings.

But then I suspect that you know this.  What you really seem to object to is the very notion of 'equal existence' (the first part) since you suggest that equal existence implies existing equally.  You refuse the separation between the two because you find it nonsensical.  And because you refuse the separation you can then say that OOO adopts a 'marketplace ontology' and is neoliberal in character, etc. since there is no longer a reasonably maintainable difference (in Bogost or Bryant's own accounts) between being equally materially existent and being socio-economically equal.  Collapsing the two together by pointing to their alleged absurdity makes the critique possible.

So, the disagreement here is really on the possibility of collapsing the separation between equally existing and existing equally (or existing as equals).  You say that this separation is based on little more than pop-science and so on.  Maybe, but that isn't a good enough reason, in my opinion.

Can the separation be maintained?  I think so.  To be honest you don't really provide any particularly strong argument to contradict this claim, you just make suggestions to that end.  This is important since, as I understand it, your entire critique hinges on it.  If the separation is absurd and unsupportable then equally existing can be taken to imply equal existence and torn asunder for all that implies.  If, however, it is a reasonable separation then taking equally existing to mean existing equally is just over-reading or over-reaching -- the connection hasn't been demonstrated or justified but the same conclusions are drawn regardless.  Again, it's guilt by association.  And, again, that's just weak critique.

I don't think that intellectual condemnations should be made on the basis of such loose, undefined and vague connections.  To be honest it comes across as being ideological itself.  Gaps in the reasoning are bridged not by reasoning but by rhetorical fiat.  It is just declared to be so.  This is ideology just like the reactionary who denounces the immigrants who 'come over here are steal our jobs' and simultaneously 'sit around and mooch off our welfare system.'  The obvious contradiction points to a deeper cause: hatred of foreigners is being rationalised according to whatever narratives are available.  Similarly, here it seems that you just plain don't like what Harman et al. are saying so you're trying to find reasons to justify that dislike but, upon inspection, the dots just don't join up.  There's a clear drive to tear these arguments apart but it's done in such a way that doesn't hold together.  There just are too many unjustified inferences.

At least that's my critique.  Harman, Bryant and the rest say that they do not believe that objecthood denotes personhood or that flat ontology denotes marketplace-esque equivalence between things or humans.  Because you take each of these things to connote each other (but you don't by any means demonstrate that one follows from the other) then I don't think that your critique holds water.

Perhaps I'm still getting it all wrong -- it's perfectly possible.  I've certainly rambled on for long enough.  However, I don't think that I can be much clearer.  A large part of these disagreements results from poor communication.  I hope that I've at least communicated well enough!