How I Politically Situate Myself

I followed The Nonhuman Turn conference closely. I watched the keynotes, kept up on twitter, and got the lowdown about the moment-to-moment from people on the ground. I was involved in it, in a way that only the internet allows, and it was good. Obviously, there was a strong presence of the object oriented-ontology people, which was fine; Tim Morton, Ian Bogost, and Levi Bryant are all people whose blogs and work I read regularly, and it was nice seeing them get some wider exposure and citation (there need to be more women involved in OOO so I don’t have to list out the White Male Club when I talk about OOO).

And through all of this conference watching and thought thinking, I kept coming back to this: How do we live ethically in a world where we take OOO seriously?

This isn’t one of those “gotcha” moments where I spend time trashing OOO and the people involved so I can prove some marginal point about philosophy. I am genuinely curious about what it means to behave ethically if I live in a universe where all things have being and should be considered equally on an ontological level. I know what this means with animals–don’t kill them. Prevent them from losing life. Don’t actively detract from their quality of life and, if you can, build communities and alliances. Feed stray animals. Fight for zoo abolition. I get that part. I also understand the argument when it comes to plants. Don’t participate in plant eugenics. Don’t poison plants. Be and let be.

But what does it mean to behave ethically toward my desk?

It is actually Levi Bryant who forced me to write this. His response to Christian Thorne’s post “To the Political Ontologists” forced me to sit down and start answering some questions for myself, especially because the answers that are out there right now seem sort of insubstantial.

As Bryant says, “every politics presupposes an ontology,” which I am totally on board with. Politics implicitly works this way, as Levi alludes to; a politics implies a negotiation between entities, and before you can begin, you have to think about what entities can engage in politics.

And so here is my conundrum. I can accept that my desk has its own being that is just important, metaphysically, as a stray cat (or myself, a volcano, rice grains, photons, glue, etc). But, politically, I feel the need to draw a line in the sand. In a world where I have to think through the implications of harm coming to my desk or another living being who can feel pain and fear, I have to extend political considerations to the living beings. For me, the extension of the political has to be accomplished before we can think ethically–I have to think about something as a being who can be effected and affected with consequences to that being before ethics comes into play. This is, for example, why the Cartesian “automaton” theory of animals was, and continues to be, so popular; if an animal is merely a machine with input-stimulus and output-action, a basic machine, then it is not a political entity. Its relationships are not “real,” it isn’t a political entity, so I don’t have to act ethically by it.

I am asking a similar question here. Should I think of my desk as a political entity? Do I have to act ethically by it? What does it mean to have ethics for a desk?

I feel nearly the same way about plants. Ben Abraham nailed me to the wall recently about plants and my decision to draw an arbitrary line in the ethical sand with them. On the day to day, I don’t think about plants in my ethical considerations. I don’t think of plants as political entities, though I certainly believe that each plant has its own way of being in the world.

There are multiple critiques of my position. Ian Bogost deals with it directly in Alien Phenomenology in the chapter titled “Metaphorism”:

No matter how we may feel about eating or abstaining from meat, appeals to feeling and suffering exemplify the correlationist conceit: the assumption that the rights any thing should have are the same ones we believe that we should have; that living things like us are more important than those less like us; and that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy. These are understandable biases for us humans. We are mortal and fragile in specific ways, and we worry about them. (73)

The pages following that quote go down the rabbit hole of what it means for an object to have ethics. Bogost eventually comes down to saying that we need to realize that there are “endless” correlates; any way that I have been using ethics is fundamentally one that correlates to a human experience of the universe and cannot access the “true” ethics of objects-in-themselves. We can’t know about the ethics of the fuel and the soil. In fact, the end of the section on ethics ends with Bogost’s declaration that ethics exists as one of Morton’s hyperobjects: “a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien objects they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity” (79).

I accept all of this. I fully believe that I, as a being, inscribe actions and relations with ethical qualities when they do not inherently possess them. There is no ethical quality embedded in the act of eating flesh itself. But I live the life of a conscious being who experiences the world in a very specific way. I have known fear and terror. I have known pain. Cut with a knife, hit with a saw, scraping the skin off my legs in large, painful slabs. These are experiences that I have known. Science tells me that pigs experience the same sensations. Their skin is similar enough to ours that my father was able to replace his black plastic flesh with pig.

And so, knowing my own body and observing the pig, I want to prevent that pain, and more importantly, I don’t want that pig to die because someone wants a spicy breakfast patty from Burger King. I make those considerations first. As Bogost claims, metaphors are a useful tool in order to talk about experiences of the world that are totally opaque to us.

The pig is me.

This is correlationism. I recognize it. But this is a strategic correlationism. It is a moment of thinking the world through the correlation in order to make theory into praxis.

To end, I just want to say that I am not out to make anyone angry. I want some clarification about where OOO takes us ethically, and I think putting my own ideas out there first is critical to getting a better understanding of the issue. So respond, comment, talk on Twitter. Do anything.

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15 Responses to How I Politically Situate Myself

  1. Tim Morton says:

    OOO, on this view, could simply mean that politics is always a matter of decisions as to what counts as inside or outside a political system. You can’t take that for granted. It doesn’t mean you HAVE to consider your desk as much as your child. It just means that you should be aware that you have made a political decision NOT to include your desk.

    • kunzelman says:

      And I am totally cool with that. Is this expressed somewhere by the OOO crowd in such precise and explicit language? Thanks for the clarification, Tim.

      • Ian Bogost says:

        Hmm. I was pretty happy with the way I answered this in the book, which ended purposely without conclusion. I’m on a plane that’s about to land, so I’ll have to go back and look at that section of AP and perhaps I can offer some additional thoughts soonish.

  2. dariusk says:

    It seems like your response to this is similar to mine. Recognize that people and pigs and desks are ONTOLOGICALLY equal, bracket that equality, and then make strategic decisions about ethics based on things you observe about the world around you. So, you and I are in agreement.

    Where I feel like this breaks down is where you get folks who want an ethics that proceeds from their ontology. I think it’s probably because an ethics that proceeds from an ontology has more of a ring of truth to it, and it feels like less of a crass “social construct.” My response is always that I have no issue with an ethics that is a “social construct” as long as we don’t delude ourselves that it proceeds from some ontology or another. (Obviously the ethics you outline can proceed from OOO in that it can exist peacefully side by side with it, but it’s not a “pigs and humans are categorically different from desks” type of argument.)

    • kunzelman says:

      Can you give me a quick rundown of an example of what you mean by “ethics that proceeds from their ontology.” I think I follow you, but I want to make sure.

      • dariusk says:

        Well if you have a correlationist ontology, you can have an ethics that proceeds directly from the idea that humans are different from the world. Your ethics can raise humans above all (or I suppose raise the world above humans!), and justify Enlightenment-style instrumentalism and be not just consistent with your ontology but more or less naturally following from your ontology.

    • Ian Bogost says:

      On first blush, I don’t see anything to disagree with here…

      • kunzelman says:

        Awesome. I don’t find anything to disagree with AP, either. I just want there to be an additional step beyond “ethical obligations explode out, forever.” Levi Bryant’s response to this post sums it up as “situations come up, we have to respond to them, ethics is there”, which I find true but also not satisfying.

    • Ian Bogost says:

      Certainly it’s not yet satisfying. That may be work that can’t be done on blogs, but we’ll see…

      • dariusk says:

        Yeah, I think everyone *here* is in agreement about everything. I’m just wondering how to answer the charges that are likely to be leveled by those who want ethics to be derived directly from first principles…

      • Ian Bogost says:

        It’s a challenge. Because they tend to interpret a response like “It can’t be done” to mean “You murder squirrels and babies.”

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