Tuesday 12 November 2013

Politics of ontology/ontology of politics; The great wall of philosophy

Levi Bryant has a new post on the separation of politics from ontology:
Ontology is about what is, about what it means to be, how things are, and what types of things– in the broadest terms possible –are. At its best, it makes no claims about what ought to be. Rather, ontology is concerned with the being of beings in their pure beingness (how’s that for a sentence!). By contrast, politics is a machine that evaluates how things ought to be and develops strategies and techniques for attempting to bring this selection and arrangement of being into existence.
As I see it 'political ontology' can mean (at least) two things:

1. Politics of ontology: While I agree that the idea that politics can determine ontology is absurd it doesn't follow that ontology must be hermetically sealed from politics.  Any ontology can potentially be opened up to political criticism but political (or ethical) criticism alone is unlikely to constitute an effective critique.  Politics is a perfectly valid motivation for criticising an ontology but it must marshal more forces than 'ought' statements to be effective - and this is something that politics can do, of course.  The reduction of politics to 'ought' is a failure of the second possible meaning of this phrase:

2. Ontology of politics: Every politics assumes certain things to exist and to exist in a certain way.  Moreover, every notion of politics thinks politics itself to be a certain kind of thing.  It makes a huge difference whether 'the personal is political' or whether politics is just a matter of senators, MPs, parliaments, etc.  Also, it makes a huge difference whether classes, for instance, are real, historical forces or whether they are just figments of the imagination of 'bloody pinko commie femofascists,' or whatever.

Any ontology can have a politics read into it; any ontology can be said to have implicit political biases buried within it even if it doesn't declare any allegiances. This is the work of critique.  At the end of his post Levi writes:
We’ve gotten very good at denouncing, I think, but for the moment I think we would be far better served by plumbing these ontological issues.
I agree with this up to a point but politics is not ethics, nor critique, nor denunciation.  'Doing ontology' doesn't require a drastic separation of it from any of these things - ontology and politics can cohabit, albeit in a state of tension.

What is politics, then?  Ah, that's the corner I've painted myself into, isn't it?  Well, I've not got any satisfactory answers but, off the top of my head, it's something along the lines of: the practices by which human beings deliberately structure or liberally destructure their common relations of order and obeyance.  Inelegant, for sure, and maybe it begs more questions than it answers but the point is that this definition can be understood as involving ontology in all kinds of ways without determining it.  Politics is everywhere but it's not everything.  Its practical omnipresence is an historical a priori - the result of prodigious networking activities - not a metaphysical a priori - always already there, whatever anyone does or says about it.

So, politics is undoubtedly concerned with 'ought' but its practices are no strangers to 'is' - how could they be?  'This is the way that things are' is the political statement par excellence.  However, that doesn't mean that ontology can be dissolved into politics, only that the two things involve each other in all kinds of ways and that any ontology can be politicised via critical reading practices.

Those who would make the politicisation of ontology the only legitimate ontological reading practice are just textual vampires, draining all the life out of discourse.  However, those who would separate the hallowed lands of ontology from the barbarians of politics by some kind of great wall are kidding themselves - the urge to strictly separate ontology and politics is the deadest of dead-ends.

I suspect that Levi may agree with some of the above and I don't think that he's really a 'great wall' advocate as such but it does come across that way in his post.