Sunday, 16 September 2012

Politics and Ontology: More from Agent Swarm

Agent Swarm remarks on an old comment of mine on the politics/ontology question:
Harman scores points against a very silly opponent: “Once blog exchanges reach a certain point of fruitlessness, I tend to stop reading them. Hence it came as a shock to me to learn that anyone ever made the argument that if I say that corporations are real objects, I must therefore support corporations”.

If we go back to Alexander Galloway’s original post, we see that nowhere does he say this. Something like this is falsely attributed to him by a commenter called Philip, of Circling Squares: “And as for the claims that granting reality to corporations justifies their political enfranchisement … well, my mind boggles at that. That would only be the case if ontology and politics were fused. Only then would the granting of ontological thing-hood simultaneously be the granting of political personhood”.

Once his position has been caricatured in this way, the caricature can live a life of its own and be”refuted” effortlessly in both curt (Harman) and long-winded repetitious (Bryant) versions. And the original argument, containing (horror!) concepts, can be forgotten.
From Alex Galloway's "A response to Graham Harman’s 'Marginalia on Radical Thinking'":
This brings out a secondary problem with OOO in that it falls prey to a kind of “Citizens United fallacy”.. everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.
For what it's worth I did read the post that I commented on. I didn't just take Harman's word for it. And I agree with his interpretation of what I've quoted above. It seems to me that Alex made ontological thinghood and political personhood one and the same thing and used that supposition to critique the philosophy of Harman et al. Harman's claim, like mine, is that this doesn't follow. Whether or not a thing is a political person is a property of that thing, not a question of the thing's bare existence. Saying that an object exists tells you nothing about what kind of object it is. Therefore, nothing about saying that corporations are real necessarily means that they are or should be political persons.

Simply, the claim that ontological realism vis-a-vis corporations necessarily entails the granting of political personhood to corporations is a non sequitur. I don't know what 'concepts' of Alex's got lost in my interpretation. As I read it his post was a fairly weak caricature based upon some simple misunderstandings and/or misrepresentations. It was actually rather light on concepts.

p.s. I try to avoid engaging in the malice that these discussions seem to generate so I hope that this comment is met in the spirit of friendly discussion that it is intended, rather than the vindictive turf wars that these things seem to all too often degenerate into!


  1. I probably should have taken more oratorical precautions here, but I was trying my hand at the curt response style that GH was using. Philip, I do think your interpretation was wrong, but I was quite aware that you were reacting to this passage (“everything is an object, and thus Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are objects on equal footing just like the rest. Like other (human) objects, Monsanto is free to make unlimited campaign donations, contribute to the degradation of the environment, etc.”) and I probably should have quoted it, so I was not accusing you of not having read Alexander’s post. My worry was quite elsewhere/ I think that the OOOxians (are you one?, I didn’t know that. I see you in your blog engaging enthusiastically but to my mind not critically enough with OOxian ideas and readings) create false rumours and straw man opponents that they then spread everywhere to give the illusion that their adversaries are very silly indeed. So I think that your reading served as the first step in the fabrication of a silly stereotype. Harman does not reply to Galloway, he replies to a caricature fabricated by Bryant on the basis of your eading. You at least are responding to a concrete text. (This by the way is typical Harmanian hand-waving, eg talking about the omnipresence of “epistemologies of access” without bothering to analyse specific texts by epistemologists such as Popper, who gives the lie to this sweeping stereotype).
    My interpretation of that passage is different than yours (but interpretation is a pluralist gesture, is it not?). I think that ontology has to be far more “granular” or heterogeneous than it is often taken to be. Alexander’s remark seems to mean that Monsanto and Exxon Mobil are political objects and that while OOO, at least in Bryant’s version, is capable of recognising and dealing that, this granularity is not reflected in the basic principles of OOO (especially in the mind-numbing phrase “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.” One of the techniques of ideological critique is the symptomatic reading, where the failure to make a certain sort of distinction is a political failing.
    So what “concepts” is Bryant blind to, I think he is blind to the heterogeneity of régimes of enunciation, having only a weak watered down notion of what it could mean. he is blind to the concept of “critique”, and also of ideology (which is in practices and in objects too). He is blind to the specificity of religious enunciation and practice, and so is blind to his own reductionism.

  2. Hi Terence,

    No, I don't consider myself to be an 'OOO-er.' To be honest I don't think of myself as an anything-er. Not so much out of any particular hostility towards labelling but just because I don't find myself sitting comfortably in any particular camp. Latour is the theorist I know best by far in this area so my responses to these questions tend to come from that perspective. I suppose you could call me a Latourian (though with some caveats).

    If my recent posts haven't come across as very critical of OOO, etc. then that isn't necessarily representative of my thoughts as a whole. On this particular issue I tend to agree with Bryant and Harman. However, for instance, I find Harman's reading of Latour to be deeply wanting (while interesting). His take on Latour's 'plasma' is just plain wrong, in my opinion. (e..g.:

    However, while I have my reservations about OOO-ers I think they're an important counterpoint to the same old dogmatic pretensions of continental thought. My impressions on this are formed by my recent scrape with grad student life, being force fed poststructuralist theory as if it were the only alternative to outright positivist empiricism or paleo-Marxist materialism. Too many people are just repeating the slogans of decades past, pretending that what was radical in the '70s is still such today -- like 'Theory' hasn't been gentrified. The kind of mishmash of linguistic-phenomenological social constructivism that gets forced upon you is just another sedimented dogma -- just as myopic and self-regarding as those it supposedly critiques. At least these people are trying something a bit different, whether you agree with them or not at least they're diversifying the gene pool.

    I cannot speak for or defend Bryant's position. Suffice to say I am willing to look on his silences vis-a-vis the specificity of different regimes more generously than you are though I concede that he fails to properly explicate the differences and that it can seem as though ontology is the master discourse, explaining all the others. He does have a tendency to respond to criticism less than positively, which only makes matters worse. In fairness to him he does tend to be subject to the same sorts of criticism over and over -- and when he thinks he's responded to it enough times it's clearly frustrating to have the same things thrown at you again and again. Sadly, the ensuing slagging matches fail to pick apart the real differences and nobody ends up any wiser.

    As for the importance of ideological critique and symptom reading, what we have here, it seems to me, is mutually incompatible modes of analysis. Symptomatic analysis involves a whole different set of rules of inference compared to the programmatic setting out of definitions in relation to each other, logically. It's impossible to have a conversation on these terms since we're really talking about different things. What constitutes a defence of a claim in one set of rules is nothing of the sort in the other. It's a difficult bridge to build, that.

    To be honest 'critique' is one term that, in my opinion, needs to be subjected to severe critique itself. The symptomological reading has a hegemony of its own that restricts itself to particular pathways -- paths that are, by now, well trodden. So, yes, I suppose I'm also more amenable to the 'programmatic' mode of discourse rather than the critical one.

    I'm not sure that answers all your points but hopefully it tells you something!