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.