In recent days there’s been a flare-up of discussion about speculative realism and politics. It’s a more mild and reasoned one than previous debates, with contributions well worth reading.

First read Chris Vitale’s post Queering Speculative Realism. Then read Diversifying Speculative Realisms on Archive Fire. After that go read Levi Bryant’s post, which responds to the first two.

The argument generally goes like this: philosophies need to include political and ethical positions to be complete. Privileges (like race, gender, and class) make it easy to ignore certain assumptions, and the whiteness and maleness and heterosexism of philosophy writ large automatically infects speculative realism, for it is a product of institutions propped up on those privileges.

Levi points out that this institutional privilege might not be as universal as it seems, using himself as an example. He goes on to explain that issues of ontology and epistemology help get at politics and ethics in new ways (this is a common position of we OOO folk, that ontology is ground).

In the later part of Vitale’s post he says the following:

My approach to philosophy has always been that if its not engaged with the wider world, its dead. And that means the life-world, but also the horrible injustices in our world. And it does seem to me that all the folks working within speculative realism are firmly committed to social justice in a wide variety of ways. So this is not an attack. I too am fascinated by the scientific aspects of the movement. But part of it does seem a seduction, perhaps too far away from the pressing needs of our world today.

I’ve written about this before (in the Turtlenecked Hairshirt and in We Think in Public), but I almost always find intellectual appeals to “the world” and “the public” to be disingenuous. For one part, who are we, holed up like we are with our French theory and our espresso, to talk of being “political?” If it means incanting Foucault and Žižek at one another, then that’s not politics. If it means blogging about injustice to a group of twenty friends and acquaintances, then that’s not politics. If it means gasping about injustices at wine bars and gallery openings, than that’s still not politics.

I’m not just picking on Vitale here; I think this is a sickness that runs throughout all of the humanities, and has done for many decades. Being “engaged with the wider world” is a virtue worthy of our aspiration. But I’d hardly describe critical theorists as having even the most basic of relationships with the wider world.

There’s a tendency in contemporary theory to talk about “politics” as if it is a general category. But in these contexts, “politics” is usually a code word for a very specific kind of Marxist leftism. The social justice of which Vitale and others speak is often just as exclusive of its opponents as it claims to be inclusive of marginalized groups.

For me, the turn to objects is itself a part of the path toward a solution, of paying attention to worldly things of all sorts, from ferns to floppy disks to frogs to Fiat 500s. We can understand this attitude is as an indictment of the very idea of “politics” or “social justice” itself. What if we’re obsessed with some the wrong “pressing needs” in the first place? Or at least, what if we’re missing some thanks to our own sequesterism? Then the very idea of making ontology couple to politics would be a mistake. At least if politics means politics as usual.

Political and ethical positions in philosophy and theory are thus, I would argue, fucked (to use a term that is truly populist). Just as the proponents of theory accuse purportedly apolitical thinkers of being complicit in global capital or heterosexism or whatever, so those very proponents remain mired in their own blindered worldviews, so disgusted by those who don’t already agree that they resolve simply to ignore them, to pretend that they do not exist. This despite the claims for inclusiveness and justice that supposedly motivate political theory in the first place. Perhaps I have a special purchase on this disgust, since I am not a Marxist, and thus often find myself unknowningly marginalized among my “enlightened” brethren.

If that’s politics, you can have it. I’ll take frogs and Fiats for now, for communing with them is sure to make me more attuned to the diverse world of things—among them the Marxists, the evangelicals, and the cynics, among so many others.

published June 29, 2010


  1. Levi


    Don’t you think it’s worthwile to say a bit about what you believe it means to be a Marxist before declaring that you aren’t a Marxist? Exactly what claim are you making when you claim that you’re not a Marxist?


  2. Levi

    I also worry that there’s a way of throwing out the baby with the bathwater with a rejection of politics as such in the humanities. WHy not instead reject a particular form of politics. One of the key claims of OOO, to my thinking, is that humans and human collectives are among objects. In this connection, it strikes me as very strange to reject these questions tout court. Rather, I believe that OOO should have a lot to offer to how these questions are posed.

  3. Ian Bogost


    Well, of course I’m mostly making a performative provocation. Since academics so frequently enjoy making claims that begin from their status “as a Marxist,” it’s interesting to turn the tables. Your query is helpful here, because it’s really not a political position at all that I believe is intrinsic to most claims for Marxism anyway.

    That said, when I say I’m not a Marxist, I mean it literally. I am not of the opinion that the proletarian revolution and collective ownership is an optimal politico-historical strategy. That doesn’t make me a neoliberal (for those waiting to pounce), nor does it mean that I reject all socialized services. It means that I am persuaded that the literal adoption of Marx’s political philosophy is inoptimal.

    As for the bathwater, I’m not endorsing the disposal of politics as such, unless what “politics” really means is just the sort of abstruse posturing I speak of above. In that case, it’s not a baby at all in the bath, but a ferret corpse, and we can drain the tub without worry.

    I believe that OOO should have a lot to offer to how these questions are posed.

    I agree with this completely, but I would add that what OOO has to offer is partly (largely?) a reframing of what it means to pose a political question in the first place.

  4. Levi


    As I understand it, Marxism is not synonymous with the thesis of a proletarian uprising. The question of class has been problematized for the last couple of decades. First and foremost, Marxism raises questions of how certain institutions and normative frameworks are the product of particular social relations, up to, and including, the role that technology plays in how human relations are organized. How these social structures are to be responded to is an entirely open question. Moreover, *who* the proletariate is, is a completely open question. Is it industrial workers? Is it anyone who works for a wage? Is it the marginalized and excluded? Class is an emergent reality that becomes an object in its own right, produced by particular dynamics involving technology, resources, entities like wages, markets, etc.

  5. Ian Bogost


    Your response offers a great reason why it’s insufficient to call oneself a Marxist anymore, and indeed offers good reasons why I do not. Things are complicated, and even talking about the proletariat requires clarification. But if what you’re trying to say is that “Marxism” is a generic name for careful and open-minded investigation of the relationships between people and social institutions, then I think we’ve opened the umbrella far enough that we’re no longer even making distinctions, even if we take into account the broadly applicable ideas of ground and superstructure, or ideology, or hegemony, or what have you.

    That said, I do not deny the existence of class as an object, nor any of the other dynamics you mention.

  6. Ian Bogost

    As I understand it, Marxism is not synonymous with the thesis of a proletarian uprising.

    That’s fine. Marx’s thought is rich and has a long history of complex influences and adoption, many of which are merely inspired by Marxist principles. Counting any one take as definitive is always reductionist. But do you not think agree that the baseline political position among the purportedly open-minded humanist intellectual elite is one that assumes an “inevitable socialist revolution”?

  7. Daniel Joseph

    Hi Ian!

    I think that your assertion that requiring all academic work to be expressly political, in the sense that it is overtly working for “social justice” is a valid one. It would be silly to assert that close readings of media and the advanced formalisms of academia are without merit – the very act of understanding ourselves and the world is a political one.

    But as Levi is saying, I think its important to not essentialize Marxism and Marx’s own express political goal of the socialist revolution. Marxism is a framework of understanding relations in capitalism. As such, there are many ways of understanding and using it as a tool with other critical theories without getting caught in a debate about a (the?) socialist revolution. Debates about what comes after capitalism (if there IS such an after) is a very common thing when discussing and using Marx, and hell, all of his writings still haven’t been translated into English, if that says anything about the maturity of the field.

    I guess I am curious by what you mean by saying you are not a Marxist (other than your already stated politics) – is it that you do not find credit (or use) in his, and subsequent Marxist thinkers’, writings? Or is it just that your own academic approach is outside the purview of his work?

  8. David Rylance

    “For one part, who are we, holed up like we are with our French theory and our espresso, to talk of being “political?” If it means incanting Foucault and Žižek at one another, then that’s not politics. If it means blogging about injustice to a group of twenty friends and acquaintances, then that’s not politics. If it means gasping about injustices at wine bars and gallery openings, than that’s still not politics.”

    Ian, I’m a long time follower of your blog and a great appreciator/fan of your philosophical work. But this post sort of left me a little dispirited. Surely you can see that this rhetoric, even if it comes out of a different philosophical vector in your case, entirely meshes with capitalist notions of the nebulousness and social irrelevance of the academy? These notions are not just ineffable ‘prejudices’; they have absolutely real consequences for the institutions you and your colleagues work in.

    What drives me insane is how academics are so practiced at being the disciplinarians of one another, always quick to castigate each other about being social relevant at all points? This includes your post above, most especially: the offputting ‘why can’t I be free to be me?’ undertone to it is the truth of its claim that all the amazing academic work that’s been done and continues to be done on politics is essentially moribund because it makes connection between ontology and politics or makes appeals to ‘the world’ in a way that doesn’t meet up to your own academic fastidiousness. (Incidentally, while there is huge amounts to be said about how narrow our concept has been at times of ‘the world’ or ‘the public’, I’d argue that these words borrow on the very same meaninngful inspecificity Levinas assigns to the word ‘infinity’ in his Totality and Infinity: they do not posit to know totality in their use but rather insist on the total-more-than-total that is the infinite through their use. This is the heart of Agamben’s notion of The Coming Community, for instance, which is about as ‘language political philosophy’ as you can get. So, I’d insist that intellectual arrogance arises not from occlusion per se but from a refusal, first and foremost, to read for the other thinker’s full intelligence, to read, that is, generously, to read a philosophy, even a political philosophy that thinks politics as ontology, for the broadest edifice of acuity (where conscious or subconscious) that can be located within their work; not to ride roughshod over them with simple declamatory dismissals of their crudeness or irrelevance to our smarter moment, the very thing you’re supposedly critiquing here.)

    As much as I hate to say it, the kind of argument you’ve developed here – and in a more low-key way in your prior two posts – tries to create a classic ‘subject supposed to believe’ I don’t believe in – namely, the ivory tower intellectual, the conceited academic – while simultaneously using that subject as a means to insist on its own more holistic claim to relevance, even if this post has very little observable relevance to the object ontology of frogs, floppy disks, Fiats, or the ‘common folk’ to bear out its contention. This divide and conquer strategy of self-elevation, whether intended that way or not, comes off so, and is old hat. It also amounts to a distinction without a difference when the wrecking ball of funding cuts comes. That’s another object ontology that isn’t listening.

    The status quo in the academy is not simply condescension toward the apolitical or wrongly political outsiders who are thereby ignored, but also, simultaneously, the constant auto-critique of all positions, the cry toward independence of ‘theoretical straitjackets’ that thrives on attacking the institution it stands in as antediluvian and out of touch. And thrills in its moment of ‘daring’ faux-relevance as it is able to bask in the glow of briefly being ‘in touch’ with a culture that thrives on branding the academy out of touch for its own quite particular reasons. Now, this is not to torpedo the high degree of dispute and refinement and confrontation in the academy, nor even to attack the taking of what we might call ‘a stand’ (many of your own of which I’ve silently been genuinely edified and excited by). But it is to pull on the trunk of the elephant in this room – namely, the giddy little pleasure that comes from woundedly declaring oneself an academic ‘outside’ the academy. To me, what is most mired in injustice and the status quo of global capital is exactly the academic idea you’re eloquently ignored.

    Moreover, if we take seriously the caricatures you’ve offered above to show that academics don’t matter, it leads to all kinds of absurdities: thus, one cannot be a Marxist ever because one’s own position is too ‘contradictory’, too ‘imbricated’ to sustain such emancipatory or utopian visions without existential hypocrisy (to which I say, good, such crises of conscience should not be allayed but deepened); likewise, one cannot discuss politics now in relation to ontology without somehow straitjacketing the autonomy of ontology, or, vice versa. And furthermore, it’s a dubious critique in itself in that it assumes to be in full possession of some quantified table of just what impacts it is that academics do have on ‘the public’ and ‘the world’, to which they speak. Or that both the public and the world – even though you say they are more diverse than academics consider – must all have to be ‘listening’ for what academics say to matter, as though their theories weren’t autonomous objects in themselves and only came into meaning in relation with the referents of public and world. Or finally that quantification is itself the best measure of arbitratable worth when it comes to philosophy – an obnoxious orthodoxy which, as it happens, a particular kind of politics is fighting its damnedest against.

    At the end of all this, though, I’m left with a question: if we grant the autonomy of ontology, what of the autonomy of politics? By which I mean, its autonomous existence as something like the object-sequesteration of all the objects of ‘the world’ itself. By your ruling, this question of how politics might relate to how objects retain ontological autonomy is not a question for ontology since we just broke those two up like a same-sex wedding in an Arkansas courthouse, shotgun-style.

    One of the points where I increasingly feel politics does enter into an object-oriented ontology is precisely around the question of what enables withdrawal from relations, the so-called ‘firewall’ that enables objects to persist despite that which would impinge on them. That is to say, I wonder what it would be like to think of a flat epistemology that runs through the length and breath of objects, even those which don’t ‘think’ and which grants each object, for want of a better word, its ontological integrity. This leads on to a truly weird question: what are the politics of frogs and floppy disks and Fiats in terms of the ontological exactitude of frogs and floppy disks and Fiats? This would be something directed not simply in terms figuring out their epistemological production for humans but which attends to their own, internal, peculiar, awry history of sustainability and change: like, say, how frog-objectivity organizes itself. This would also have importance for a political theorist of humans: take the oil spill. One would not only look at how capital matters for the objects involved but understand how capital matters through the styles and habits those things themselves evince, their stance toward the range of objects they either phase out relations with or to which they relate.

    For me, the problem of your turn to frogs and floppy disks and Fiats is not the apoliticism of such a turn. Rather, it is the conformism to tropes of independent ‘criticality’ that the academy thrives on politically. Too, what troubles me is the unalloyed valorization of ‘diversity’ in so doing. This is precisely not a turn away from the anthropomorphic narrowness of the political but an attentuation of your human self’s appreciation for difference into awed, attentive object-spectator of ‘the world as diverse array of teeming objects’. From what I’ve learnt, OOO contains a much more interesting way of seeing and speculating than a simple dispersal of political fog. If this is all it is, it’s not nearly as revolutionary (ontologically and politically) as it presents itself or as I had privately hoped.

    This is why I would insist we do not abandon politics, for it is the far more difficult move to sustain it. One of the vistas opened by SR is the new scope it allows to become attuned to the things which are not us but it may also be said that one of the first things we might overlook in so doing, in becoming so attuned, is the status of ourselves as quite uncanny objects. I’m no booster of the human – but this is precisely why I would insist we still need the very ‘homo sapien’ political philosophy of anti-humanism to understand the ontological beyond ourselves. Politics is nothing else if not the uncanny. And while politics and philosophy need not be collapsed into one another, nor mingled and mixed in some deconstructionist free flow of mutual dependency, nonetheless they need not be thrust into total non-reciprocation either, at least not without thereby being purely ideological. Much like Harman’s theory of objects themselves, we might posit an autonomy and insulation – a vicarious causation – between politics and ontology, that does not thereby imply the abilty for one field to ‘just happen’ to already contain within it the toolkit of its own unpacking. Perhaps the crucial lesson of SR, for me, has been: keep looking elsewhere. As such a formulation might suggest, this is an ethico-political position and I’d argue it is one that is crucial to lessen the human in us.

    No one is making you be a Marxist – we need non-Marxists, just as much as we need a cohort of ‘beautiful souls’ in the academy, who, it is true, may not be relevant but meditate on reality in pure irrelevance and thus make exquisite the true, baroque contours of the equality we demand. For all this, though, Badiou makes a very sound point when he says that we know the communist hypothesis is the correct one, precisely because abandonment of that hypothesis translates as inevitably into some form of acceptance of the market economy an inevitability as inevitable as acceptance of the inevitability of the revolution that communism insists upon. Apoliticism is a strange thing: to be truly apolitical, one must be political informed in order to be disinterested. That is to say, the person who says ‘all politicans are corrupt’ is not apolitical; if there is a region of truth in that statement, it is entirely uninformed as to the nature of its truth, and so it speaks ideologically, and in service of the very corruption it supposedly spurns. It is politics in action.

    In Jose Saramago’s Seeing, the entire population refuses to vote: they abruptly become radically apolitical and it triggers a constitutional crisis in power. Life goes on, but there’s no one to rule. However, to trigger this crisis, to make tapoliticism transformatively affective, the population first had to be registered as voters. In other words, there is no subtraction without an initial meaningful orientation. There’s only unwitting instantiation.

    I say all of this not to argue you down for taking on the polemical stance of ‘not being a Marxist’ but to basically take to task the very idea of its polemicism. Marxism has been a dirty word for a long, long time: to frame it in terms of some sort of obligatory politics you bravely exempt yourself from only rewrites the reality of the effort to eradicate Marxism as an anti-human object. As a thinker I deeply admire, it troubles me that you seem to be not just shifting toward but marching down a path that can only deteriorate into the very ‘politics’, become reactionary by its very nature. For my own part, your anti-politics is problematic not because it decouples ontology and politics but precisely because it knowingly posits itself as a very enlightened and very interested non-interest, in its rhetorical reclamation of the apparently ‘difficult’ realisation that you are “unknowingly marginalized among my ‘enlightened’ brethren”. To clear oneself of the stricture of politics as a bar on other categories of understanding should not mean slumping back into the most banal and political of values – like the ‘diverse’. To put it flatly, absenting politics takes a lot more philosophical work than that.

  9. Paul Ennis

    ‘Perhaps I have a special purchase on this disgust, since I am not a Marxist, and thus often find myself unknowningly marginalized among my “enlightened” brethren.’

    As a fellow non-Marxist [only in academia is that even worth mentioning] I tend to just avoid the political ‘discussion’ as soon as it comes up. I’ve discovered that if I not once every few minutes everyone will assume I’m on board with the ‘coming-revolution-event-right-after-our-lattes.’ Oddly enough the last time I went to a protest [the flotilla] (because people can have non-philosophically inflected politics) not one of them turned up. Go figure.

  10. Ian Bogost


    I’ve read your extensive comment and thank you for taking the time to write it, because it’s the sort of one you posted here because you meant it rather than because it’s fun to troll on the internet. I appreciate your earnestness.

    I do think you’ve got me wrongly pegged, but I’ll also have to admit that you’re reading the things I’m writing, so it must be my fault. I’ll try better to express my position in the future, because I think it’s a subtle one.

    What I’ll say now is that I’m not endorsing the abandonment of politics, at all. I’m endorsing the abandonment of the pretense that academic political polemic and isolationism deserves the very name. I have personally have been involved over the years in activities I would absolutely call political in that way, and I humbly suggest that the end of the academy or the overwhelm of global capitalism can be intensely unrelated to them. But it’s not my political writings (there are plenty!) that feel the most political to me, but rather the acts that involve making things for people. That’s a tough corner to turn.


    Yes, that seems to be the best tack indeed. I suppose I should have expected as much and heeded your (and Levi’s) advice in advance.

  11. Ian Bogost


    It would be difficult, perhaps impossible to state sensibly in the 21st century that one’s work is outside the purview of Marx. Particularly when one is talking about media or society. The influence is so great and widespread. So I wouldn’t say that, I couldn’t do.

    Rather, it’s the deployment of a crass, low-level Marxist “fashion” (god help me, I’m sure I’ll regret that word, but it’s really the right one) among the intelligentsia, which all too often has nothing to do with politics of any sort (Marx-derived or not), but only with a kind of assumed yet questionably effective institutionalized practice.

    I agree that I’m essentializing. But this is also a blog.

  12. David Rylance

    Ian, thanks so much for your reply. I’m very glad I came over as sincere because my post was most absolutely not an effort to cage or score points but was prompted out of genuine interest in this issue and perplexity at your admittedly polemical stance here – especially perplexing to me, given what I can only call the strong political intelligence in your work. However, this comment especially – “But it’s not my political writings (there are plenty!) that feel the most political to me, but rather the acts that involve making things for people. That’s a tough corner to turn” – has helped clarify a lot for me, I think. If I’m understanding you correctly, you’re calling for something of a re-orientation of an ‘intellectual act’ away from the authority of the text-object itself and toward the production of other objects – other things that can be made – that may much better carry the title of theoretical politics than the circuits of ‘intervention’ in philosophical-political discourse.

    I think I’m very much in agreement with this, precisely because I feel one of the problems of the academy is not the ‘Marxism’ it evinces (a many-dimensional thing) or the analytical bent it applies but rather the sense that there’s only one work it can do, only one object it can produce. One thing I have loved about SR so far is the strange metamorphosis of forms – Harman’s rehabilitation of allegorical philosophy, the blog communication stream, your own work in constructing video games, the return to the pamphlet format via Zero, Reza Negarastani’s genre-busting philosophical masterpieces, and so on. Yet, the qualification I’d ass is that “the political polemic and isolatonism” of the academy actually does deserve the name of politics. One thing our culture of involvement cannot countenance is that quadrant which subtracts itself and critiques. To me, as someone not involved currently in the university, there is something very important in much academic writing in its strange fastidious irrelevance to the ‘pressing topics’ – a fascination with odds and ends that is actually essential toward achieving an ever more exquisite refinement of our understanding of political and ethical issues, and the kind of study that cannot be easily conducted in other venues elsewhere, and never is. In this, I’m actually defending what some attack as the ‘beautiful soul’ academic, the one that researches but that doesn’t become involved. In many respects, I’m starting to see that perhaps what you’re advocating here is for academics, as academics, to become unabashedly ‘beautiful souls’ and cast off the notion of the absolute political moment of their work as some index of its worth. I’d agree with that, absolutely. Nonetheless, while there is, of course, an overinflated sense of righteousness attendant on academic culture at times, the work still does have some moment, their attitude is not wrong – but it is a speculative moment, a kind of weird punt on some esoteric relevance to some scenario elsewhere. A punt that I see time and again come true where someone of importance suddenly turns to a work I’ve never read to explore a vital point. This I like because it strikes me, ‘as a Marxist’, that any revolutionary change in political affairs would be such a comprehensive thing, we’d need as much speculative academic theorization on how to proceed as we can get. For instance, I’d love to read more from academics operating in purely speculative mode, dealing with issues that have yet to politically be – about how to deal ethically with your capitalist opposition should you achieve power, say, or how a world-wide energy ration could be instituted that would also work toward the reconstruction and maintenance of consumer luxuries. One of the strongest traditions in Marxism has been the most neglected, its utopian bent, its ‘idle’ speculation on the problems it’d face once it broke through, which, when given thought, enhance the realism of Marxism’s viability in the present, right now.

    So to me, the problem is less about politic conceits and more to do with the fact that the academy is institutionalized to do a very narrow kind of work and that narrow institutionalism figures largely in its tendency toward bombast and quietude. To me, the university needs to become both unabashedly less relevant and experimentally more so, carrying its theorization further into its interior as well as out into the realm of public(s) and world(s) where the work of analysis must enter into acts of analysis – that is to say, into the making of new political formations and new political objects.

    On this count, I think you’re quite right that the end of capital does not need to happen for emancipatory politics to happen – although I’d qualify the point to add that even for non-Marxists, capital as an object of critical thought has an especial importance. Indeed, a reckoning with capital is indispensable for most any political praxis that doesn’t want to merely saddle transformation to another transformation of the market economy, the reduction of politics into a yet newer and ‘friendlier’ redo of capital’s deprivational drive.

  13. Ian Bogost


    Indeed, one of the greatest professional anxieties I’m currently experiencing is the question of what sorts of things I ought to be constructing. I love writing and reading and possessing books, but clearly that is not sufficient. And the books I do write, I feel, must become ever more connected with even greater readerships. Fine. But what beyond that? The idea I’ve been calling carpentry, which I will ironically explore in the Alien Phenomenology book, suggests that the construction of stuff might be the best way to be engaged with the world in the future, even as a philosopher. What does that mean? We’ll have to work it out. For my part, I’ve been lucky to enjoy enough success in my academic work to become dissatisfied that it hasn’t done more.

    I appreciate your insistence that the academy maintain a critical role toward the world. And I likewise agree that the “unpredictable usefulness” of intellectual work is of value; that we shouldn’t judge our worth based on immediate results measurable quantitatively (at least, not entirely). But I fear that we’re in a state of such complete backwardness that what we have mostly are reclusive, self-unaware dilettantes and posturers who somehow think they are deeply and meaningfully coupled to the material world. That’s part of the political conceit. It’s like the whole system is inside out.

  14. Ian Bogost

    Via Harman, a post that deals with some related issues over at Necessary Agitation: Academic Nihilism.

  15. michael-

    Ian, I wonder if this piece might be quite relevant to the discussion?

  16. Ian Bogost

    Michael, thanks for sharing that piece. It contains a lot of thoughts worth chewing on, even if there is a massive shadow of idealism that sits behind them. Universities are institutions, it turns out. It’s too bad we’re so late to notice! There’s a point early in the article that’s something George Lakoff has also pointed out, namely that conservatives spend a great deal on think tank-bred strategy, while liberals have a logical problem spending resources figuring out how to frame themselves in the first place. It’s interesting to see how the piece ends, namely on the assumption that resistance is the only way forward. This is a familiar chord, is it not?

  17. Mark N.

    @David: “The status quo in the academy is not simply condescension toward the apolitical or wrongly political outsiders who are thereby ignored, but also, simultaneously, the constant auto-critique of all positions, the cry toward independence of ‘theoretical straitjackets’ that thrives on attacking the institution it stands in as antediluvian and out of touch.”

    From where I stand, I guess I see that in only a very microcosmic sense: there is constant critique within a very stagnant, orthodox set of background assumptions, positions, and politics, and not very many people really critiquing any of those. Within a department like UCSC’s HistCon, for example, certain positions are permitted and certain proscribed. You can certainly take a critical position towards some wing of Marxism, but you cannot, for example, defend neoliberalism, or even social democracy, to say nothing of rightist politics, and still hope to get your degree— even if you methodologically came from a Marxist perspective. It just isn’t the kind of politics they’re there to promote. Overall (and not just there), imo it tends to lead towards gestures of radical break with orthodoxy that from an outside perspective look comical, because of how similar they are to the orthodoxy they’re breaking from.

    It’s as if a physicist announced a radical break from quantum mechanics, and then when you looked more closely, it was just the same quantum mechanics with something deep in the bowels of an abstruse equation being slightly modified. Maybe important to experts within that field, but not a radical break from any vantage point with any degree of perspective at all: it’s still just quantum mechanics.

  18. skholiast

    I especially appreciate David’s and Ian’s dialogue here on generosity. Had a response to this and to Levi’s that ran on way too long.

  19. Carl D

    Thanks for the thoughtful and provocative post. Although in general, I agree with your assessment, it is, I believe, important to acknowledge that there are some in the arts and humanities who do engage politics, who do work with publics, in ways that go beyond theorizing, proselytizing, and gnashing of teeth. I am not suggesting that you are ignoring or discounting those folks, but rather stating that perhaps a fruitful activity for those interested in how politics l might be done through the arts and humanities would be to look to those folks who are already engaged in such endeavors.

  20. Ian Bogost

    Carl, to be sure, positive examples are better than negative generalizations for the long term. But negative generalizations are good for getting our blood flowing.

  21. David Rylance

    Mark N.: Thanks for your response. I should clarify something before I begin: while I’m not personally in the academy right now, I have been, as a student, and hope to go back. Part of why I suggest that it’s actually entirely orthodox to lament the roteness of theory in the academy is precisely because the exact observation you’re making here is one that I hear over and over again. It’s not, in any key sense, news. And I’d suggest the difficulty is far deeper in precisely the sense that the notion that “there is constant critique within a very stagnant, orthodox set of background assumptions, positions, and politics, and not very many people really critiquing any of those” is precisely part and parcel of rote theory. Now, in saying that, I don’t mean to criticise what I see as the very important region of truth in your point: namely, that the simple worshipful didactic application of Big Theory to a problem or idea or object leads into certain conceits and high notions about the rightness of one’s work. But see, maybe it’s because I’ve spent more time now out of university than in, but one of the great successes of the humanities, in my view, has been its ability to maintain an institution for the Left. Part of what concerns me about this whole ‘marginalization of positions’ argument – where one one cries foul because one ostensibly cannot be a social democrat or a neoliberal capitalist in your English or Philosophy department – is that it really elides the relative absence of any institutional zones where one can be radically Left: not only do they not exist anywhere in the wider social world, they don’t even exist easily in the academy, beyond the humanities, and even the humanities is not nearly as monolithically ‘Marxist’ – even in rhetoric – as I think is being presented here. In other words, I think attacking academic culture for posturing is a very comfortable, very easy, very posturing thing to do – and it drives me up the wall, somewhat, especially considering that I can intuit from the comments left here that basically all of us here are Left with very serious critiques of capital, whether we are ‘academic Marxist’ or not.

    This isn’t to try and hagiography the critical culture of the humanities. As I mentioned above, it drives me nuts that academics are so driven to prove their relevance – and I’d argue that the Marxist rhetoric that you encounter and while you feel fits so badly in regards to practice, probably has a lot to do with this fundamental fetishistical anxiety about one’s academic existence being predicated on relevance. Thus, to profess ‘Marxism’ as one’s relevance is an actually well-meaning effort to defy the logic of ‘relevance’ imposed by the nu-bureaucracy of the neoliberal university – but it oddly becomes a new criterion of relevance precisely because it’s relevance itself that is the capitalist sine qua non. Ultimately, what concerns me is the idea that a simple liberatory call – ‘cast off political orthodoxy, let’s embrace the politics of all’ – is highly postideological, in Zizek’s exact meaning of the word, and will be swiftly exploited to continue to instrumentalize the humanities (or, as at Middlesex, declare them basically irrelevant). I think it’s important to remember that all the ‘independent’ academic thinkers we like or have ever appreciated are as much academics as those vexating rote theorists – they are subject to the same institutional field and the effects of its imbrication. Precisely because of that, I think it takes a lot more than just calling out orthodoxies as this is just another unorthodox intervention which seeks its public and lays its claim upon the world. Instead, for me, the question goes to – as I wrote to Ian above – what new kinds of things can the academy produce, how can it become less relevant to the current moment even as it becomes experimentally more in tune with the moment than the moment allows.

    Ian: I’m really looking forward to Alien Phenomenology. Just a quick point in response to your reply: it strikes me that the act of writing academic books is not in itself a wrong – again, this goes very much to the mandatory regime of relevance. One aspect of the ‘construction of stuff’ I’d argue is an idea you’ve already presented here which is a call for superinterdisciplinary: physics and gastronomy, philosophy and engineering, literary studies and trigonometry, economics and queer studies and so on. I’m really with you on this. There’s a great disinclination toward becoming informed in other fields and it goes to the nature of the book-objects we produce. In that sense, more dilletantism is needed, I’d argue, except as a creed, not as an orthodox practice which borrows only from the same old outside disciplines: and that goes as much for science as it does for literary studies. While I wouldn’t argue that science has consumed the humanities in recent years as literary studies, nonetheless since the turn to Deleuze – which is hardly by now a cutting-edge thing – scientific imports to philosophy have become common enough to know that if a pick up a book with Deleuze theoretically featured in it, I’ll be getting some effort at applying a scientific model ‘philosophically’ soon enough. Another thing I’ve especially appreciated about SR generally, but Harman, Bryant, Brassier and Negarastani, in particular (with this feature cutting across the respective ‘camps’), is the way in which it doesn’t just import scientific models but ontologizes them in a way which is all about the sovereignty of the philosophical discipline. I think this can be reapplied to literary studies too and assume it will – Harman’s forthcoming book on Lovecraft, for instance. But it’d be great to see more come of this, from far different angles. To bring this back to my main point, however, I’d argue that the construction of stuff need not displace book-objects, perhaps, but rethink how and what is in those objects and also how those objects are designed and done. Again, I think book-objects have deep value in their lack of evident and immediately quantifiable ‘relevance’ to our cultural conversations but, as I mentioned to Mark above, what’s been missing has been the other element of experiments with relevance that exceed what the moment even allows us to think is relevant. This can only be a job for the humanities, and especially for philosophy, I think. And such experiments will definitely demand new objects to see them through, as no experiment can exist without tools.

  22. Ian Bogost


    First I want to ask two questions about your response to Mark. Then I’ll comment on your responses to me.

    1. Let’s assume for a moment that I believe in the “neoliberal university” problematic you take as a given. (I’m not saying this to be truculent, but so I can pose a question that assumes this situation to be true.) Why is it obvious that an entrenchment on the far Left is the best solution? Why not seek other ways of “shifting the frame,” to use George Lakoff’s term, away from immediacy and measurable economic relevance? Why not choose jazz music or the oral tradition or god knows what else as a way of reframing the professional practice of research and education? Particularly since it’s arguably clear that the critique of capital approach isn’t working? Or is this what you mean when you ask “what new kinds of things can the academy produce?”

    2. Related, but different: regarding the “liberatory call” that you call “postideological.” What if the alternative to a bastion for the far left in the humanities wasn’t an “anything goes” apoliticism, but one or several specifically different positions? In other words, why is it obvious that the only way to be a “good” humanist is to be far Left, or vice versa? This is a sort of probe of a question that might lead to a follow-up.

    Now on to my responses to your responses.

    To be clear, I have no plans to stop writing. I like writing books. I think books are useful ways to converse with people. I do think the type and form of books I write has changed and will continue to change, but I won’t give them up.

    Yet, the era of the book is clearly at risk. Things are changing, not just technologically but also culturally. Particularly given my area of expertise, Ought I not to explore what the future of the production of ideas might look like? Probably so. It’s hard to do, however, because it requires operating on two registers, the theoretical and the formal. But I suppose all of us are doing that to some extent these days. But furthermore, I don’t see any reason why these other things, whatever they may be, couldn’t have the same unpredictable usefulness of books. Perhaps the only risk is the time horizon of specific technologies, but one could argue that the book’s gig is nearly up anyway. In any case, I’m not even thinking solely of computational artifacts.

  23. David Rylance

    Ian: To your last section first, I really agree that other objects are needed – and the unpredictable usefulness principle absolutely applies there too. To take a concrete instance: the suggestion Levi Bryant floated of a ‘Civilization’ style computer game called ‘Capiatalism’. That would be so phenomenal – and so instructive in ways simply unachievable via the book. Ditto the burgeoning genre of the ‘philosophical documentary’ – which I adore and want to see more of: see, for instance, ‘The Ister’ by David Barison and David Ross. So yes, very much with you on that and I think it touches on a point I was trying to articulate above: that the problem, as I see it, is less politics than institutional divisions and regulations of what constitutes the proper labour of the academic. Attacking colleagues – even very annoying ones – seems less to the moment than attacking the ways that academic collegiates are made to manage one another by university managerial demands and police not the ideas so much as the very objects of output that they may produce. In the end, if the humanities is probably Left-dominated, it’s important to remember that most of the rest of the university – especially in economics, law and science – is not. It’s easy to overlook how what seem like orthodoxies from within our immediate frame of reference are islands when taken from a scope slightly further without.

    That brings me back to the first question: in essence, I’d insist that the core of the idea of ‘shifting the frame’ is intrinsically far Leftist in itself, whether it be voiced by someone identified with the social-democratic Left (Lakoff) or whatever else have you. But the trouble lies in precisely the – well – quite business ontological language of ‘shifting the frame’ – which is about a heartbeat away from ‘thinking outside the box’. What we’re angling at here is something far more radical, I think, than a sort of multiplication of possible positions, it’s about the transformation of multiplicity itself, and I’d propose that the unavoidable radicality of that is precisely what’s Leftist about it, by default, and that which, without far Leftism, will not manifest itself as the radical shift it looks to be.

    To me, it’s less that the critique of capital approach is ‘not working’ as that it is doing only its work: it’s been institutionalized into a relation of comfort with capital. It has a ‘job’. Such ’employed’ critique needs to move further forward – past ’employment’ to what educational philosopher, Ivan Illich, once called (though in a different and more concrete context) ‘useful unemployment’ – that is to say, not literally that academics quite their jobs but that they fight to be able to do work that their ‘job’ is not professionalized to do – that they unemploy themselves and demand to be paid for it. Or, basically, that they devise new forms of comfort that are not about comfort with capital. In precisely that sense, I’d suggest that the idea of turning from ‘anti-capitalism’ to jazz or the oral tradition or what else makes a type of categorical error, as that turn is, in itself, Leftist, and involves an almost inherently a Leftist project: the Left is not a ‘solution’, it’s a method. To put it more precisely, I would contend the kind of change you’ve talked about would lose whatever made it a meaningful shift were it to shuck its anti-capital intelligence constutionally. Does that mean you have to belt out article after article, or object after object, ‘critiquing capital’? No way. But I’d argue that whatever we made or devoted our critical energies to, the critique of capital would not be set aside or dispersed but would be axiomatic in such work, almost like the magnetic field of our planet keeps the world from burning its atmosphere off.

    So: what I’m really saying is that the kind of aestheticism that would be involved in re-orienting professional practice to be more ‘jazz-like’ or ‘oral-tradition-like’ – a prospect I’m excited by – would be squashed with breathtaking speed not only by the neoliberal university but the ressentiment of what is still – even in the wake of massive economic crisis – a very, very neoliberalised public sector. And this takes me to your second question: you propose – “what if the alternative to a bastion for the far left in the humanities wasn’t an “anything goes” apoliticism, but one or several specifically different positions?” I’d suggest we have this now and what we emphatically see is how in cohoots those two poles are – different positions and apoliticism. Post-ideology, we have to remember, is not apolitical: it’s intensely political. It’s not about lack of conviction or commitment but the fundamental reconciliation of commitment to the liberal-democratic plurality of positions, the idea that such a reconciliation contains within it all possible political positions. This is the tricky part: the conundrum is literally not about political differences, but about the reconciliation of said differences in public space: the contention of the far Left – what makes it ‘far’ – is that it is simply not a reconcilable thing to be on the Left, that it is, on the contrary, fundamentally mandatory for everyone. Does this seem anti-democratic? It should, given how impoverished our ideas of democracy are today. But Left here does not mean Marxist as such or any specific absolute as such – and I don’t even mean that simply rhetorically: on the far Left, the obvious non-Marxist extreme Left alternative, for example, is anarchism, which many identify with; the more moderate Left, too, finds itself committed to this idea of an incommensurablity of the Left: it is only the pernicious ‘centre-Left’ (which should simply drop the ‘Left’, as far as I’m concerned) that tells us we can be Leftist and basically plural too. To take this one step further, however, I’d contend that even those who do not identify as ‘Left’ can be Leftist for a time, as Leftism goes to that sincerity we possess when we speak of transformation in the sense of leaving nothing like it is today, even when we keep some of the things we have today, for we’ve changed things so much even the held-on-to is no longer the same. This is why I insist we need the anti-humanism that can only be found on the Left – it is anti-humanism, now more than ever, that can provide us with the categorical imperative to deal with the challenge of being an object-among-objects that OOO in particular brings up. The Right, the centre, will not provision these things precisely because they have resolved themselves, constitutionally and from the start, against transformation and anti-humanism in their very foundational principles. To resist transformation is always what the Right and centre are about, even when they are transforming absolutely everything in order to do so. To cite a monumental moment from cinema: faced with the eclipsing rise of the bourgeoisie, a member of the fading nobility in Visconti’s The Leopard declares: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” This is the fundamental contribution of conservatism to capitalism, most especially in its ‘liberal’ centrist form. I’d argue this is exactly why we need to be Left: to make sure change transforms the same it keeps rather than the same ensuring change only stays the same through changing.

  24. Robert Jackson

    As I see it, academic political pretentiousness is one of issuing the idea that it is ideological to assume that we are suddenly â??out of capitalism/neo liberalismâ??, whilst at the same time sustaining the revolutionary promise that the current class struggle will restore power to the working class. In other words, the problem is not with politics per se (as you stated in your comments) but lies with the failing rigour of critique.

    The problem with critique is that it simultaneously resembles a self-regulating exercise and yet achieves nothing. Aside from endlessly convincing others that they are mistaken about almost anything, the position reduces academic conversation to a simple â??I have a better grip on whatâ??s going on than you doâ?? exercise, â??debunking the debunkersâ??, it has finally run out steam. When coupled with elevating levels of anti-realism in philosophy, we are essentially left with theorists desperately clinging onto something resembling stability; even if that position is one of instability.

    Recently at the 8th Swiss Literature and Science Seminar Series, Latour argued for a Compositionist Manifesto to oppose the runaway issue of critique;

    â??It thus draws attention away from the irrelevant difference between what is constructed and what is not constructed, toward the crucial difference between what is well or badly constructed, well or badly composed. What is to be composed may, at any point, be decomposedâ?.

    Where critique smashes objects into oblivion and then some more, composition, creatively constructs and identifies how objects are composed. If critique makes things less real, composition makes things more real. This is what is at stake. Latour deliberately frames this in relation to The Communist Manifesto of course (hence, why I bring it up), whilst there is the obvious difference between radical critique and composition, Latour suggests there is a similarity in the search for the common.

    â??The thirst for the Common World is what there is of communism in compositionism, with this small but crucial difference that it has to be slowly composed instead of being taken for granted and imposed on all.â?

    For me, this last point from Latour sums up all previous discussion.

  25. Ian Bogost


    But the trouble lies in precisely the – well – quite business ontological language of ‘shifting the frame’

    Lakoff discusses this problem in Moral Politics, arguing that the very idea of energizing frame shifting is anathema to liberals because it requires the reallocation of resources away from social justice. Lakoff (a 60s leftist if there ever was one) seems to think this is a mistake, and I do too. Its part of a larger pattern you’re weaving, that of being logically stuck and only being able to entrench further. I just don’t feel that to be a productive strategy, one in which nothing can ever really be done since every context has always already been infected by the tainted blood of the enemy. The solution? To dance interminably on the hot surface of a star that seems to be expanding, only because it’s about to supernova. Why would this be appealing?

    That said, maybe I’m misunderstanding, because I’m having trouble following some of your argument, by which I mean that I don’t think I understand what you’re saying. I wonder if, in particular, you can clarify the paragraph that begins To me, it’s less that the critique of capital approach is ‘not working’ as that it is doing only its work.?

  26. Ian Bogost


    Do you know if the Compositionist Manifesto is yet published anywhere? I’ve read this version [PDF], but I suspect it’s not definitive.

  27. Robert Jackson

    Yes that is the version I quoted from. It would probably be best to treat this version as reliable for now, as I have no knowldege of any other further publication.

    I’ll ask David McConville, who was also at the Literature and Science Seminar series. He might know something I don’t (as is always the case).

  28. David Rylance

    Ian: I haven’t read Lakoff’s Moral Politics but I have read The Political Mind and like a lot of 60s Leftists, he’s become more socially democratic in his aging, I’d say – more obsessed with the Rorty-esque concern about ‘achieving our country’. What’s called in the newsrooms ‘the conversation’. But to your point. If Lakoff argues that energizing frame shifting is anathema to left-liberals because it requires the reallocation of resources away from social justice, the idea I’m driving at is that his presumptive definition of what the Left sees as ‘social justice’ is all wrong. If, concretely, the frame shift here is what I was referring to above as a sort of manifesto of object-aestheticism, I’d contend that this is entirely in line with expanding the imagination of social justice, the very constitution of what the just is. In fact, I’d assume that is what implicitly guides Lakoff too, his sense that ‘shifting the frame’ would be more ethical in a social sense – it’s sort of the ‘good’ value that moors him to the worth of a reallocation. But Lakoff frames it in a zero sum logic that, in denuding the reallocation itself of being considered in terms of the Leftism of social justice, seems only to allow such frame shift to deliver all the excitement of family slide night.

    I obviously won’t be able to impartially adjudicate whether I’m logically stuck or not, especially, if as you say, I can only entrench it further. And, given that you’re saying it, I suppose I’ve probably already reached the limit of my ability to successfully make the case it is I’ve been wanting to make. But in the end, what has nagged at me in the previous posts, this post and the replies is just the fact that critiquing orthodoxy and faux-radicalism in the humanities seems to trump the ‘justice value’ your turn away from ‘Marxism’ or ‘Leftism’ or whatever is drawing its aura of integrity from. I guess I just don’t see object-aestheticism as being somehow by necessity having to involve an abandonment of the advancement of the far Leftism of infinite justice. In the paragraph you mention, my main point is that Leftism is a method not a solution to a problem: it is above all that which enables us to think infinite justice in a mattering, meaningful way. If, for instance, object-oriented ontology draws us to pay attention to grass, hats, lanterns, supernovas, and stationary, why should we be interested? It seems a predicate of SR that correlationism is more than error, it’s a blindness; but why should we care if we’re blind? Are these things in no way related to issues of emancipation, to an ethics of that? It seems to me that you risk retreating from the boldness of your own work in arguing that it is an absolute necessity of OOO that it cannot be Left out of necessity – which is not to make the ridiculous claim “all ‘authentic’ or ‘worthwhile’ object-oriented ontologists will need to be Leftists” but to make the normative prediction that they mostly will be Leftists, and to suggest this means something: that it is not some horrible wretched thing or a sign of sclerosis or a moribund intellectual climate but but goes to a dimension of the intellectual integrities SR relies on, integrities that draw on the resources of Leftism, that goes to the question of what Leftism gives to aesthetics and ontology, rather than vice versa. The Leftism of OOO, I’d suggest, is the way in which it makes mandatory interest in the outside, the open, the absolutely exterior, the other pastures to which you’re telling me you’ll turn.

    To clarify, if I can, what I meant by that sentence you cite is that the critique of capital approach has become a job that academics do: it’s a kind of reason to turn up to work, it’s what they’re professionalized to do, in certain respects, among colleagues. But to attack the politics feels wrong to me: it’s not that the critique isn’t working because it hasn’t brought down capital or something but that it’s become work – or a kind of regulated labour. To my mind, then, the kind of intervention on mores and posturing you stage here is next to useless, really, because any sclerosis that exists is an institutional obfuscation where academics think the critique of capital alone no longer means they are workers within capital. But to this we would have to add your own intervention above – because academics castigating the faux-radicalism of their colleagues is about as orthodox and faux-radical as the academy gets. The points you make above about ‘disgust’ and being ‘unknowingly marginalized’ seem really remarkable for an intellectual that is as well-known as you are and as admired (especially by ‘Marxists’). That was part of what drew me to post – the way in which it felt like a very unreflective post in some ways, not unreflective as in ‘poor’ or ‘stupid’ or something equally insulting, but unreflective as in being somehow “extra-academic”. I made a post on skholiast’s blog that talks on this but I’ll quickly repeat a point from it here. Ultimately, I tink there is no such thing as ‘rote theorists’ only ‘rote theory’ – as a type of activity we can all become mired in, and will, at certain points. It’s something we want to be outside of, but the first step toward exteriority is to apprehend how we’re not exempt from succumbing to it by virtue of our own theories alone, whether temporarily or more permanently. It is about the medium that conditions the message and in this case the medium is the university. Being an academic is more precarious than many are willing to admit, I think, most especially academics. If we want faux-radicalism to go away, I guess I’m saying we need to be more radical – and yes Leftist – in relation to what we do to be radical, certainly not less. But one thing I’ve learnt about academics: they make for the toughest converts!

  29. Ian Bogost


    On Lakoff:

    What the Left sees as social justice may indeed be wrong. But I think Lakoff’s point is far more pragmatic. He’s saying that the framing process itself is a worthwhile activity to spend time on, that it matters how one presents and talks about one’s values. That’s related to the entrenchment puzzle I’m describing: if the very act of consorting with the opposition so implicates one in its “neoliberalism” (and I think this is a massive oversimplification of the state of the world), then it feels far more far Right than far Left to me in this regard. It’s a “we don’t negotiate with terrorists” sort of attitude.

    On faux-radicalism:

    I’ll agree that talking about problems can never alone lead to solutions. But I disagree that it’s worthless. And don’t put words into my mouth, nowhere at all do I claim that OOO cannot be Leftist. As Levi and I have tried to say over and over again, OOO is politically agnostic. Before you object: I reject your suggestion that Leftism as method is indeed oriented toward openness and the outside. That was rather my original point in the post, to suggest that the purportedly far Left radicals are really conservative isolationists who couldn’t care less about the outside. I’m afraid you’ve not convinced me of the opposite, although I’ve had an enjoyable time learning about your perspective on what it means to be leftist.

    On the critique of capital as work:

    This is a clever and insightful way to turn the issue in on itself, but it still tastes of the same old critique of capital at the end of the day: the problem lies in the fact that ideas are regulated by work in the first place. Perhaps that’s partly true, but then, what next? Any possible approaches become immediately arrested as corporatist and collusive. So we sip our lattes anew.

    As for my purported “extra-academicism,” I think you may not be aware of what the intellectual environment is like in a technical institute like Georgia Tech, or in the areas of media studies and computation in which I still spend most of my time. In many ways, these areas do avoid some of the issues I’m brining up and, while by no means perfect, they represent institutions that are different from “The University” as the neoliberal monolith you and others would like it to be. That may surprise you given that technical institutes are, I think, presumed to be even more corporatist than traditional universities. Finally, I wonder if you overestimate how well known or admired I really am. From my perspective, I’ve not yet succeeded at cracking the surface of renown or influence, and that’s part of my malaise. That’s not to say I’m ungrateful, but that success is inflationary, and once one enjoys a taste of it, one also sees just how tall the next hill really is.

    David, I lament that I may not have as much time in the future to respond to your thoughtful comments, not out of disinterest or frustration, but rather due to the other obligations I’ve been shirking the last couple days to talk on the internet. I hope that won’t dissuade you from continuing, even if the turnaround time becomes longer.

  30. David Rylance

    Ian: Thanks so much for taking the time to engage. I really do appreciate it and I’m very glad for the elaboration of your take you’ve provided. I understand you must be busy and won’t drag this on much longer: these threads can become fatiguing – no natural end to them is the problem – and it’s gotten into that zone by now, I’m sure. If you’d like to respond to any of the below, please do, but I wont prolong this past that – thank you for taking the time you already have taken to go over this with me.

    Just to respond very briefly on point one, I think we’re in agreement actually. Especially on the idea of ‘consorting with the opposition’ and how it doesn’t tar one’s credentials in some scarlet lettered kind of way. But a strongly Leftist lesson I learnt from my time in the university was that critique of collusion is not opposed to autonomy and radicalism is located in the fact that one is able to be imbricated with integrity. In his compositionalist manifesto, Latour makes the same assumption about ‘the Left’ too: that it’s basically a hypocritical demolition job – a critique (word very deliberately chosen) which I would suggest is, in itself, something of a hypocritical demolition job. (But just to be clear, I find Latour thrilling as a thinker, even if he makes me screw up my face from time to time.)

    This also touches on the third point too, I guess, in that – as a Marxist and a Leftist – I find that collusion is not a dead-end. How could I? If some academic ‘Marxists’ do think that, then it’s the false work ethic of a collusion they believe they’re above we need to change by drawing attention to the fact their anti-capitalist interventions are also a kind of capitalist work (think here of Jodi Dean’s work on communicative capitalism). Though that isn’t to just recircle the circle into a new sphere of collusion. As to your question of what next, what’s next is that anti-capitalist academics must be called on not only to engage in critical interventions or issue protest or industrial action (though none of those should go) but encouraged to demand fundamental change in the way they’re ‘allowed’ to teach by the liberal-permissive/managerial controlling and, yes, even ‘supportive’ administrative ‘freedom’ of the academy. It’d be about altering what qualifies as the objects they must produce to meet the managerial requirements of ‘productivity’ in the university and how they might spend their time – for instance, with newspapers suffering such a massive decline, one immanent role for academics is to take on the role of research-reportage. Which brings me to the second point: I’m reminded of Buck-Morss’ work on the Haitian Revolution and how the Haitians, in confronting the French, sang the Marsailleise to indicate that they had carried through the revolutionary ideology to a new plain and were, in essence, more French than the French. I’m analogizing very loosely here, obviously, more metaphorically than in any rigid link, but I think that quality of ‘universal history’ is very much in keeping with what I see as the Leftism of SR and OOO – a point I make in full acknowledgment of your own attempts to refute such political orientation by necessity. Political agnosticism is nice and, again, this is not to say ontological fact is predicated on political truths – that I accept – but, beyond that, SR’s contention that not only should we ‘probably maybe ought to’ but rather must be interested in the autonomy of ontological fact is certainly an ethical and political matter. The break with anti-realism – the urgency of this – is not based on whatever really composes ontology – which has done fine and will do fine without our sudden fascination with it. Such fascination then is grounded in an ethical edict – with political consequences.

    Ditto on this count Latour’s account for where “communism” enters into his compositonalism: “The thirst for the Common World is what there is of communism in compositionism, with this small but crucial difference that it has to be slowly composed instead of being taken for granted and imposed on all.” Note that Latour critiques Marxism for the bogeyman of its ‘imposition on all’ here while also telling us that the communism in compositionalism has to be slowly composed. What intrigues me is the normative claim not in terms of the slow build but in terms of the ‘this must be done’, what Latour ‘takes for granted’. Even in Latour – who, I’m sure, would also proudly proclaim himself ‘not a Marxist’ – there is this mandatory ‘search for the Common’ – it’s not a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. And I’d argue that this obligatory insistence is the very essence of Leftism – not in its specific ideological content necessarily but in its demand for an emancipatory mandate. (Incidentally, no matter how values are phrased, the Right and the centre never invoke such an emancipatory mandate: even when they’re invading other countries or declaring capitalism a global success, they present such emancipatory not as mandatory but inevitable: and, ironically, it’s Marx that’s eternally criticised for dangerus ‘impositional’ idealism in thinking the communist revolution inevitable when he never did as such: he made the far more radical claim that it was mandatory

    – that is, not unavoidable (he spent most of his life breaking down how revolution had been avoided) but how it was the necessity that arose from a system that insists that is itself unavoidable. Only capital could be so self-assured of its historical victory! Even under Stalin, no one sat down and wrote a book like Fukyama’s ‘The End of History’: only capitalist utopianism could give us that. This is why I find such Latour’s critique of ‘imposition’ so faulty – given that compositionalism (for all its fulsome, delightful and useful aspects) is the most exquisite kind of enforced speed law. He relies on the mandate too, in order to make compositionalism a matter worthy of a manifesto.

    Lastly, I’m sorry if I seemed overfamiliar but my point was not to backhandedly brand you a big success or something but mainly to point out that those academics you gestured at probably aren’t as distinct – and on quite as clearly outstanding a trajectory – as you are, so that to speak in terms of marginalization felt off to me, in some way. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those self-same Marxists wouldn’t end up reading your own work with awe, is basically my point. And it returns to my larger point about how the academy operates – you might be the thinker discussed over lattes. Even if it were sans what you see as the faux-radicalism, is the problematic altered? Or is this all about a problem with attitude? Are we more honest when we drink lattes and thank the process of production that brought them to us? Or maybe just didn’t speak either way about it at all – talked sport, instead? I should also add an ex of mine who lives in Georgia attended Georgia Tech, did liberal arts there, so I’m actually familiar with the college to a degree. I hear you on how there is a different climate at GT – it’s obvious enough that my ex said the same – but my point is less about positing neoliberalism as a monolith that everywhere dominates the academy exactly the same but more about how the flexible and supportive work climates of late capital – the ‘smart’ zones – go hand in hand with the lessening ‘relevance’ of far Leftism precisely because ‘we have less to complain about’ (as though Marxism were a matter of complaint – I think I’d be most disgusted by academics abandoning Marxism the moment they found themselves in a ‘kinda neat’ working environment: that’s the height of faux-radicalism). The complaints of ‘Marxists’ almost always arise in areas of heavy neoliberalization in the university (or the outrightly private university) and, moreover, are mostly subject to critique for their boo-hooing from places that are not nearly so ‘neoliberalised’ – or, in other words, find themselves in a lucky situation of being in a college protected by the rules and endowments of the public sector and, in the case of Georgia Tech, for instance, which have an unusual high influx of private donations, to boot. Now, this isn’t to be atrociously reductive and reduce the intellectual climate of your workplace to ‘the money’ – I would not be so presumptuous as to even try and talk the institutional politics of GT to you, I have no clue, and even if I did, it would still be a cheap (and orthodox) argument to say intellectual independence was all about ‘privilege’ – but surely such zones of alterity and non-fake-radicalism might start to look a little peaked if you knocked out some of the props, you know? And maybe, were that to happen, you’d have a renaissance of Marxists in your department too, I don’t know. The core of my point on the ‘job’ of capitalist critique in the academy is that it essentially Taylorizes anti-capitalism: neoliberalization thrives on this – the more it attacks, the more it turns the academic anti-capitalist productivity treadmill. And does so until it decides it has no more use for it at all – i.e. Middlesex. But I’d propose what your job is at GT is different for a number of institutional reasons that go beyond the lack of illusions among you and your colleagues. I think what’s monolithic is the assumption that the Left sees neoliberalism as monolithic – when what it would argue is that the difference of your institution from ‘the neoliberal monolith’ – its ‘temporary autonomous zone’ (to pilfer a concept from the very anarchist Hakim Bey) – is not incompatible at all with what we mean when we talk of neoliberal controls. The most natural prison is, after all, a wildlife preserve. But again I’m not trying to presume to know GT better than you: only to argue that the authority of your experience doesn’t provide a refutation with no follow-up questions.

    Thanks once more, Ian. This has given me a lot to think over, and I will be.

  31. Ian Bogost

    I’m skipping over a number of things, which I’ll try to come back to later.

    you might be the thinker discussed over lattes

    A charming and humbling riposte, to be sure. And one I can’t possibly respond to satisfactorily, so I’ll gladly concede the rhetorical point. The challenge is to make the talk inform something beyond the lattes, yes? So that the latte talk isn’t the end, but just one moment along a greater trajectory.

    I think what’s monolithic is the assumption that the Left sees neoliberalism as monolithic

    That sounds nice. One of my intellectual hobby horses is complexity, so I hardly think things have a right to be simple. But I think that’s rare, and I think many people really do think it’s quite cut and dried. For example, this characterization doesn’t jive with the simplistic accusations of neoliberalism I hear quite often, whether they are leveled at media studies or at SR/OOO.

  32. CirclingSquares

    I am not a Marxist but I am more of a Marxist than most Marxists I know.

  33. Robert Jackson


    That worryingly sounds like Post-Marxism…

    Didn’t Zizek issue a similar quip regarding Christianity? I’m not a Christian, but I’m more of a Christian than most Christians I know?

  34. CirclingSquares

    @ Robert Jackson

    That isn’t far off except for the fact that ‘post-‘ is easily the most overused prefix in history.

    The reason I say that I hold Marxist views without being a Marxist is not so much out of a dislike of Marxism than the contrary: I think that Marxism is the most fundamentally important intellectual resource the left has but I don’t think that continuing along under the same banner is the right move.

    So in a sense that constitutes a move ‘beyond’ but only in a very limited sense.

    ‘Para-Marxism’ would be more accurate. We have not moved beyond (to ‘post’) Marxism just like we have not moved beyond modernism. Both Marxism and modernism are very much still around (not that these two things are all that distinct)! The idea should be to move alongside it, avoiding the pitfalls but accepting the more or less correct direction.

    (From unmodernism to unMarxism?)

    This means keeping Marxism alive without allowing it to be diluted by so many middle-class, wine drinking, hemp wearing, two-home Marxist ‘intellectuals’ (to invoke the all too accurate stereotype that Ian alludes to above) who go missing as soon as ‘action’ goes beyond writing letters.

    “Let the dead (revolutionaries) bury the dead”, as Latour puts it; I would only add: “don’t let the preening, do-nothing a**eholes bury Marxism”.

  35. Robert Jackson


    I completely agree with you on the structure of a â??Para-Marxismâ?, as much as I try to disagree with you on the stereotypical nature of â??Marxistsâ?, it pains me to admit to myself the number of old school Marxist academics who now have homes in Costa Rica.

    On my own position, I have never really clarified myself as a Marxist, (does the title of this post hark back to Marxâ??s famous quip that he also wasnâ??t a Marxist?) I do hold the position that a very damaging state of affairs can arise when society believes there is no other alternative to other modes of production than variants of Capitalism. If that makes me a Marxist then please continue to knock on my open door!!

    The relationship between the ontologies of Speculative Realism, OOO and far left politics proves to be an intriguing problem. And Iâ??d posit that the issue here is one of false reducibility; itâ??s the same problem Iâ??ve found in aesthetics. If one is working within a correlationist ontology, and human closure is all there is, it is very easily to adopt the idea that Ideology consumes all. After all, if consciousness is our natural bubble, then Marxâ??s ideas on false consciousness provides an ample situation for us in the â??falseâ? construction of Capital. This is why someone like Zizek literally has to resort to using psychoanalysis to â??get out of ourselvesâ?, â??go madâ? and contingently reconstitute the Symbolic Order as an idea for something like Communism. Or Badiou has to resort to the teachings of St Paul.

    Reducibility is the key here I think. If politics is wholly reducible to human thought, ideas and practices, then politics itself as an object of study has little agency away from human correlation. Politics may very well be dependent on humans, but to say it is ontologically reducible to the human correlate is a bit of a dishonest manoeuvre. This is like suggesting a catâ??s actions are only reducible to its relationship to the world, rather than a simple dependence. For the cat to have any impact on the world, it must have something irreducible to itself.

    This must be the same for politics; we can waffle on about the state of changing the world, whilst drinking lattes, and moan that its easier to imagine the end of the world, rather than change a simple mode of production. This does not actually stop humans from being annihilated though; only in politics would the world be destroyed if a self-elevated species were annihilated.