ontological ‘is’ and political ‘ought’

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.


Elden, Harman, Latour

Stuart Elden’s Progressive Geographies is one of a few academic blogs I return to on a near-daily basis. Surfing from personal insights into the academic work process to book releases, video links and conference details, Elden provides a rich stream of content across Political, Geographical and Philosophical spheres. There are recurring figures most weeks; Henri Lefebvre, Michel Foucault, Martin Heidegger, Immanuel Kant and Peter Sloterdijk pop up frequently. As does Graham Harman; a feverish blogger himself over at his Object-Oriented Philosophy page. Elden’s latest post is a re-blogged interview with Harman over at The Loyal Opposition to Modernity that can be read here. As Harman is a big reader of Bruno Latour, he brings his name up in conversation, alluding to his appeal to anthropologists, geographers and sociologists over philosophers. Harman also talks of his lethargy with purely relational concepts (in metaphysical terms and then political arenas). In particular Harman says;

Now that relations and events have become king in continental philosophy, these battles have largely been won. Rather than endlessly using these theories to beat up the decreasing number of reactionary holdouts, we ought to take a closer look at the problems with relationality itself.

‘Metaphysical essentialism’, he says later, ‘is politically harmless, but epistemological essentialism is not’. So two problems with essence? The idea that it can be directly known (rather than obliquely), and is eternal (a-historical).

Another great quote is on Deleuzian thought within Continental Philosophy:

We are well into the “Deleuze is compatible with everyone and foresaw everything” phase, the lack of a challenging outside, which always announces the closing decadence of any philosopher’s vogue; Derrideanism got this way by the early 1990’s. And now the Deleuze industry is finally on the point of overheating and excess inventory, and soon there will be layoffs and plant closures.

Latour, as Harman argues, is certainly no Deleuzian (too much flux not enough formation). Harman’s Prince of Networks, from 2009, is a good starting point for thinking about Latour as a philosopher, and how Harman’s own Object-Oriented Philosophy can work with Latour’s Actor-Networks. It’s available as a free pdf from here, but also well worth buying.