Can a distinction between ontological existence (‘is’) and political desires (‘oughts’) be bracketed apart and hence exist as separate concepts? Levi Bryant thinks so over at his blog Larval Subjects, and it’s proven to be a sticky argument over at Alexander Galloway’s facebook page (pretty much a public one here – he comments on a lot of things). I don’t know whether this is indicative of SR’s reputation of the philosophy for the digital era, but Ian Bogost then summarises the lively debate over at his blog in a post entitled ‘Let’s talk about politics and ontology again!’. If you’re still keeping up, Bryant then responds in another post (‘War Machines and Military Logistics’) at Larval Subjects, and Harman jumps in with a short post over at his OOP blog here.
If this is all a bit tl;dr, then let me summarise some key points to the argument. Bryant suggests, in short, that whilst ontologies can indeed be produced through political means (say, in the form of ideological bias), they are in themselves apolitical as they concern ‘being’ (or ‘what is’) ipso facto are factual concerns. He (says he) makes no claims to an idealized or preferred state of things in this passage (an ‘ought’ rather than an ‘is’).
In a relational form, then:
ontology/ies (‘is’) ——–> politics (‘ought’)
His critics in the fb post on Galloway’s wall, again, in summary, suggest that by making this claim of a partitioned apolitical ontology, he is in fact making a distinctly political claim. In the process one of the commenter’s charge him and other SRs with having a ‘depoliticizing stab at a new realism’ (see Jairus Grove’s first post).
Imho, I think the people who are responding to Bryant on Galloway’s page are making a few cheap shots, and Bryant himself actually underplays the construction of ontology which might have helped in get away from the criticisms angled at his approach to ontological and political separation. I probably agree on the points made by Grove especially, but argue that this doesn’t necessary detract from SR/OOO’s aims. I think Bryant would do well to accept the political nature of ontological claims (notice the small p) but be happy in refuting the Politics of ontology (with a capital p) on the basis of needing to act on a broader, transindividual plane that works with some (more?) solid claims (immutable mobiles, say?), i.e. an ontological basis. So it’s whether you give credence to the solidity of ontological claims as being ‘true’ as to whether or not you can agree with Bryant on this one.
One thought on “ontological ‘is’ and political ‘ought’”
I don’t think it’s right to separate ontology from politics as a separation of is from ought at all. Questions of ‘ought’ are questions of ethics. There can be ethical politics or unethical politics. If politics is defined as activity undertaken to make, unmake, contest, construct or disintegrate the structures of collective life then ethics may or may not enter into it. People may take political action based upon an idea of what the world should be like — this is common enough — but it isn’t strictly necessary. The difference between (philosophical) ontology and politics is not the difference between ought and is, it is the difference between the abstract conditions of existence in the most general terms and the far less abstract characteristics of a specific aspect of existence: politics. Ethics is another aspect still. There can be unpolitical ethics and unethical politics — these things might be BAD ethics and BAD politics but that’s another question entirely.
I think one of the many sources of confusion in this debate/debacle is that ontology is a promiscuous term. We can talk about specific ontologies of politics or ontologies of botany — i.e. what kind of things are these areas of life composed of? Ontology, when used with no prefix, really means philosophical ontology, i.e. metaphysics — and, boy, do people hate metaphysics?! For that reason it isn’t even clear exactly what we’re opposing, pulling apart and comparing.
It really is a muddle.