Flat Ethics, OOO, and Politics

I don’t count myself in the object-oriented ontology court. I read the books, I keep up with the blogs, and I even participate in a OOO book club. I am interested in OOO (and speculative realism more broadly) because I think that it presents us with an interesting problem in correlationism. I think that correlationism is a bad thing; I read, write, and think about animals and the human relationships with animals often, and I think that breaking out of correlationism puts me in a better place in regards to those relations.

Ultimately, and this has been a point of inquiry for me in the past, I think that OOO presents us with a good spot to begin ethical work.

The way I think about ethics is intimately related with politics. Following Scu, I think that the traditional continental model of ethics erupting from the call of a face or appearing from nowhere might not be the best place to start. Feeding a stray dog for one moment does nothing to help or alleviate the suffering of the billions of animals who are killed at an incomprehensible speed every year. That is merely one example–I am also deeply concerned with the way that power is organized around race, class, sex, gender, attraction, and every other identity category that has proliferated out of the analysis of human interaction. I’m not trying to play the “who is more radical” game here, nor am I pushing a purely liberal project–these issues cannot be solved for with no remainder (Ranciere articulates this in several places). At best, probably, they can be alleviated.

And that might be the best way to put it. Ethics is a project of alleviation. It informs political action (in all ways that we can think of it), but it also responds to it. This is similar, I believe, to what Scu means when he talks about being “post-lapsarian.” We are constantly complicit in a number of actions that make innocence impossible–I would argue, probably more strongly than he, that the very act of living in late capitalism means that we have a kind of “original sin” that we can never break from (playing in the Judeo-Christian language here). So ethics is a way of dealing with that–it isn’t an attempt to get back to innocence, but rather recognizing that we are living in a world where violent political action mediates our relationships with most other beings and a fair number of objects.

This is where I think that OOO gives some really good ground for thinking through ethics and politics.

There are a couple places that I want to go from here. If you don’t care about small disagreements that lead to larger questions that are ultimately important to me and me alone, skip the rest of the post. Keep thinking that I’m vaguely smart and not floundering around in the dark.

1. Levi Bryant wrote a post that is highly relevant to what I am talking about here. In this post, he makes a distinction between flat ontology, which is the concept that all things are ontologically equal, and flat ethics, which is that all things are ethically equal. A flat ethics, which is something that I am totally on board with, would mean that all things should have equal ethical consideration. Bryant outright rejects the possibility of a non-anthropocentric ethics, thus making flat ethics an impossible thing to even think. As he says:

So far– even among the critical animal theorists –I can’t say that I’ve seen a single ethical theory that I would characterize as non-anthropocentric.  I’m not even sure what a non-anthropocentric ethical theory would look like.  Even in the case of those ethical theories that argue that we should have heightened regard for animals, that we should attend to their suffering, and that we should have regard for the planet– all positions that I advocate –it still seems to me that we are the ones doing the valuing and proposing the norms and that therefore these positions are anthropocentric.

Bryant has a number of reasons for this being true, and as I read it, it mostly comes down to conatus. Human beings are consumed, on a very practical level, with human stuff. Jane Bennett also comes to similar conclusions in Vibrant Matter:

To put it bluntly, my conatus will not let me “horizontalize” the world completely. I also identify with members of my species, insofar as they are bodies similar to mine. I so identify even as I seek to extend awareness of our interinvolvements and interdependencies. The political goal of a vital materialism is not the perfect equality of a variety of actants, but a polity with more channels of communication between members (Latour calls this a more “vascularized” collective.)(104)

For Bryant, flat ethics is impossible because we can’t get out of a hierarchy of ethics because it might be unimaginable; for Bennett, that hierarchy takes precedence even if she could imagine a way out of it. Both are disturbing to me on a political level because they seem to suggest that even though they are both involved in opening up the relationships between humans and nonhumans, there are still certain “boundaries” that cannot, or in Bennett’s case will not, be crossed. There has to be recognition that conatus, in drawing beings that are alike together, creates fundamental political exclusions. It cannot be a cornerstone for the way that we think ethics precisely because it draws us into denial on aesthetic and ontological levels; the “monstrous” is produced through this process, being “unlike” other human bodies, and we should all know the implications of that.

My real discomfort here comes from the “throwing your hands in the air” that comes out of all of this. Referring back to conatus is Bryant and Bennett’s way of saying that it might be impossible to think flat ethics, and so we don’t embark on that process. A similar attitude is reflected in Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology when he writes that “ethics itself is revealed to be a hyperobject: a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien object they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.” (I wrote on this previously here.) What I get from this is that ethics is really hard, but that isn’t a viable response to the various oppressions and violences that occur near-constantly, especially when humans are at the center of so many of them (and intentionally, too.)

More recently, in this post, Bryant has responded to Galloway’s criticism of OOO. In the comments, Bryant sums up his response in this way:

It’s simple. If you don’t understand the actants involve in a situatuation–including the nonhumans –and how they structure power you can’t effectively intervene. That’s what’s politically disastrous.

This is an extension of a point he makes further up in the post:

Have we properly counted the entities that belong to the socius? Or are there all sorts of dark agencies that we haven’t counted? The liberals among us are accustomed to– following Thatcher –seeing society as composed entirely of humans; whatever those might be. OOO has proposed the far more disquieting thesis that entities such as corporations, states, armies, groups, etc., are also agencies independent– while not being able to exist without –humans.

I’m deeply disturbed by this desire to account for every possible actor in assemblage. Talk about “effective intervention” makes me worried about ways in which we understand who, and what, counts in that intervention. OOO would obviously say that everything counts, but practical politics can’t possibly account for all actors. I am worried that this is symptomatic of a much larger trend in the OOO sphere that desires a count before action, which will always allow for a critique of ethics and politics; it means that there will always be someone who can say “you got your count wrong” or “you didn’t wait for the full count.” Between this and the “hands in the air” model, I am concerned that there is a political paralysis that accompanies the current OOO way of doing things.

Which is fine. There are obviously ways out of this, and I believe that Bryant is working his way through getting us there. When he writes that “we’re cartographers exploring a new terrain, striving to determine where the problems lay, what concepts need to be invented, what tools need to be invaded, what new sensibilities must emerge, what new capacities or powers must be developed, and what old tools, assumptions, and ways of thinking must be abandoned,” I am filled with a sense that he will keep trying to find new and better ways to make OOO-as-theory both better and more politically operative. Also, Bryant has humility and will radically change the way he thinks if he realizes that he was wrong about something, which is really amazing and refreshing.

2. I wrote this because of a blog post that Tim Morton wrote when he couldn’t sleep. At Empyre, a listserve,  J. Halberstam (I never know which name is being used currently) and Ian Bogost got into a discussion about some deeply political implications of object-oriented ontology and the ecology that surrounds it.

At risk of sticking my neck out and offending various readers, I think that Halberstam is exactly correct when stating this:

The questions about the politics of OOO and speculative realism, it seems to  me, are questions that I might also direct to you in terms of these 5 or 6  lengthy posts – it is not a matter of whether we can find points of political  engagement, of course we can find many active arenas of contestation in terms  of the environment, the centering of the human and so on but there is an  apolitical drift that comes in to the form of a high theoretical commitment to  grand narratives and normative modes of theorizing. The theories that count and  that get counted in OOO and SR tend to be masculinist most of the time and tend  to cluster around enlightenment and post-structuralist theory or a particular,  continental stripe: Hegel, Heidegger, Derrida, Zizek, Lacan, with a Butler or  Braidotti thrown in for good measure but nary a mention of race, class or  postcolonial thinking.

And this is patently true. These things are important; we had an entire culture war about them. What is slightly more interesting is Ian Bogost‘s response:

As for  “nary a mention of race, class or postcolonial thinking,” one of the  interesting puzzles in the formula “SR/OOO are a kind of continental  philosophy” is the fact that continental philosophy has such a strong  association with matters of human identity, and SR/OOO/etc. are interested in  various non- or extra-human matters, and are therefore moving in slightly  different directions than continental philosophy has done in recent decades.  The assumption—which seems to be prevalent—that this means “abandoning”  questions of human identity is an interesting one.

I don’t believe that OOO means a total abandoning of questions of identity and relationships between humans explicitly, but I do know that I can’t name a single person in the OOO/SR field who deals with human relationships. I also know that Bogost has a large section of a chapter in Alien Phenomenology dedicated to ethics that seems to purposefully sidestep any talk of what it means to live or be ethical if we take the political implications of OOO seriously.

What I am getting at here is that there is a hole in OOO that no one seems to want to touch except for Levi Bryant. It is a hole that is ethics shaped and politics deep. Halberstam brings this up beautifully in this post. I can’t summarize it because I believe that every single point is correct and spot on–more than that, it should be taken very seriously by OOO scholars. A taste:

So, ok, if women and racialized bodies have all too often been rendered as  “things” in the marketplace of commodity capitalism, and if a lot of the work  on on Object Oriented Philosophy leaves the status of the human unmarked even  when rejecting it in favor of the object and relations between objects then  surely we need a queer and or feminist OO philosophy in order to address the  politics of the object.

Though Halberstam, being in conversation, makes no calls for anything, I certainly want to. Writing, in and of itself, is a political and ethical endeavor. There should be action on the part of everyone to break out of the current bind that OOO is in of having white men as their patron saints–Bryant has done this with his recent discovery of the feminist materialists, but I rarely see it anywhere else. This shit is important. Discourse is shaped and all of that jazz.


It seems like I’ve gone a long way off from flat ethics, but not really. I think that a project of ethical engagement is incredibly important, maybe the most important thing, and I also believe that OOO gives us a really good start at getting there. It should also be apparent from this post, though, that the very act of being a object-oriented ontologist is rife with complications and ethical conundrums, especially in the citational apparatus that constructs the field of “accepted” OOO theorists.

So these are all points of contention, but they are also just simple questions. I always stress in these posts that I am not hostile to OOO, but that I am just curious. It is a field that is shaping itself as we speak. That process can go in a lot of different directions. I want it to be a good one.

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3 Responses to Flat Ethics, OOO, and Politics

  1. Pingback: Onto-Cartography, OOO, and Politics: A Reply to Judith Halberstam and Cameron « Larval Subjects .

  2. terenceblake says:

    I share some of your concerns about the very necessity of OOO and its political substructure. I discuss some of these concerns here:
    and in previous posts.

  3. Fascinating. I strongly question Harmen’s (fetish?) identification as ‘a pure Heideggerian’ – and his OOO seems to me to be proto-fascist. For if all ‘objects’ are equal and the ‘cotton stupidly burns’ then what is the ethical foundation for this? In line with his philosophical hero, Heidegger, Harman ‘goes with the flow’ of politics. He has even stated that he is really not that concerned with politics, and that Heidegger showed a ‘sensitivity’ toward human affairs!

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