All right, this one of those posts that responds to conversations taking place on multiple blogs and on Facebook, so it’s going to be confusing if you haven’t read everything. Let me try to give you the backstory: First, Levi wrote On Ontology, another account of the difference between ontology and politics. Alex Galloway linked to this post on Facebook, and a lengthy discussion ensued in the comments on Alex’s wall. Levi responded with another post, War Machines and Military Logistics: Some Cards on the Table, which led to more comments. Here I’m hoping to respond to fragments intertwined among all these conversations, which is perhaps impossible.
In the “On Ontology” post, Levi makes the following statements:
A great white shark eating a seal is simply an event that takes place in the world. It is simply something that happens. A person shooting another person is also, at the ontological level, simply an event that takes place. We don’t enter the domain of ethics and politics until we begin to raise questions about what ought to be.
Not surprisingly, several people homed in on this passage when commenting on Alex’s post, and if you read all the comments (there are a lot), you’ll see that the ontological discussion regarding “what is a shooting” turned into one about race-motivated violence between a white police officer and a black citizen victim.
It’s interesting to reflect on how the conversation on Alex’s Facebook wall turned in this direction. I think Levi actually brought up the white police officer shooting the black man as a hypothetical example of what he clearly did not endorse when saying, essentially, “shootings exist.” Then that example took center stage, and again and again people referred back to it. Eventually, Sara Ahmed said this about it (Alex’s post is public so I don’t think I’m out of line citing it here):
Racism once it exists (and once racism exists racism is a mechanism for the reproduction of an existence) is ontological: it is a question of attributes and qualities of bodies/objects/worlds. Racism isn’t about what the police should do, its about what the police do do, and thus about what the police are.
Without disagreeing with anything Sara says here, it’s still possible to reflect on how quickly everyone was willing—eager even—to replace the entity “shooting” with the proxy of racism. Now, let’s be clear, there’s plenty of race relations influencing the discharge of firearms. There’s also lots of other stuff, and Levi suggests that we take all of it seriously: metallurgy, ballistics, industrial manufacture, freight logistics, state borders, the “hunting hypothesis,” urban planning, and really so many more. The idea that a shooting is a shooting doesn’t take anything away from reflections on state-sanctioned or -ideological racism. But it also doesn’t limit the conversation to that topic which—God spare me from the ire I’ll draw for saying this—just isn’t a sufficient account of what “a shooting” is.
Sara’s hope is to show “the entanglement of ontology with politics.” Alex still doubts that ontology even exists outside politics. But Levi’s hope is to show that that the nature of a thing is irreducible to its political expression. That is just to say, something like a shooting is not sufficiently explained by a discussion of something like the race relations that may have partly motivated it. Indeed, something like race isn’t sufficiently explained by its political motivations and consequences either! And simply gasping with indignation when a matter like race or gun violence comes up doesn’t help us get to the bottom of those things. And getting to the bottom of things is all that Levi is proposing ontology might do.
Sometimes we OOOheads talk about the earnestness of our approach—an earnestness that’s an ideal, really, which is why we talk about it. Part of that earnestness entails stepping back and asking what we’re missing when we observe things. In this respect, our approach could be seen to share much in common with old-fashioned ideology critique, if indeed the purpose of such critique were to understand and alter it rather than to wallow in a familiar and fashionable mud. Moralist claims that persecute that act (“Gasp! How dare you say ‘shooting’ without also ticking the ‘police-state’ box? You scoundrel!”) thus seem remarkably apolitical: one finds what one expected all along.
You can see this in Sara’s comment on Levi’s follow-up posts: “The separation [between “a shooting” and an account of why it took place] is not helping: ie the separation of saying x happened from describing or giving an account of what happened, and is to be honest bizarre.” And to be honest, Sara’s probably right: it is bizarre, only because we’ve become so accustomed to performing a shallow search for the most obvious or appealing or fashionable hook for explanations. Instead, one might pause to ask what actors are present in the situation at hand (impossible to do with this hypothetical, but you can imagine how such matters might proceed). Otherwise we’re all acting like TV news pundits, reaching for a big jar of My Favorite Answer and spreading it liberally on whatever toast is presented, even if that toast is really a shipping container.
Perhaps it’s time to stop suggesting that there’s something apolitical about ontological discourse, and instead to insist on the fact that there’s something apolitical about political discourse. Ontological discourse remains open to discovery, whereas political discourse seems inclined to limit its purview to already known entities and their predetermined behavior.