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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.

published September 16, 2012

Comments

  1. Dark Chemistry

    Yea, Ian, all this blather on the web sometimes gets to me too. Sometimes I look and read the matter of fact statements of someone like Badiou, and grin and nod in agreement, even if I don’t support all his ontological mathematization of sets and Cantorian moments:

    “The possibility of philosophy instead depends on the joint interplay of multiple truths that take place outside of philosophy, or behind the philosopher’s back. Politics is only one out of four such conditions of philosophy, next to art, science, and love. Philosophy, moreover, cannot in turn subordinate the truths produced in these conditions to the norms and concepts that would be its privilege as a crowning or higher science. Instead, philosophy opens a space of compossibility in which each of the conditions finds its place, not so much to violently seize them but rather so as to let itself be seized by that which takes place in them in terms of events.”

    Bosteels, Bruno (2011-07-20). Badiou and Politics (Post-Contemporary Interventions) (p. 24). Duke University Press – A. Kindle Edition.

  2. Adrian Forest

    If the ontological dimension of racism is about whether “humanity is composed of difference species, each of which has a particular essence that ineluctably makes individuals of that species behave in particular ways” as Levi argues, doesn’t this make arguments against racism on the grounds that this is not so inherently ontological claims? But doesn’t racism’s political “ought” of “therefore they should be treated differently” rest rather heavily on that ontology? Doesn’t any ontology that proposes that apples are different from oranges also necessarily contain the argument that apples “ought” not be treated as identical to oranges?

    How, then, can the “is” claims of any ontology be separated from the “ought” that these claims about what “is” should be recognised, and that we “ought” to act accordingly?

  3. Guacamolay

    In response to Adrian Forest:

    I think one of the points of the OOOists is that there is no necessary relationship between the discourse of the “is” (ontology) and of the “ought” (politics/ethics).

    Ontology is a discourse about the universal. whereas politics, traditionally conceived, is a discourse about a particular (i.e human relations, obviously OOO contests this).

    Arguably there is no logical (i.e necessary) move that can be made from the universal to the particular. Even in a logical syllogism the move from the major premise (all men are mortal) to the minor premise (socrates is a man) requires a decision that is non-logical in nature. This decision is, rather, based on the rules of a discourse other than that of the universal.

    In short, an ontology of apples as against oranges doesn’t contain necessarily contain the argument that apples “ought” not to be treated as identical to oranges.

  4. Sandy

    I read your post often as I am very interested in how OOO can contribute to sociology. I just wanted to say that I (and I think lots of others on facebook) thought Sara Ahmed was perfectly right in her initial response to Bryant. His description of ontological events was vastly inadequate (‘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.’ I thought it was clever to pick the white up from the shark and give it to the person shooting where it often is!). Her point is that an account of an event is also an account of the attributes of the things involved in an event, and in some cases, these attributes (for example that the police officer is white, that the police as a force are racist) are acquired in time, so ontology can also involve processes — which themselves are withdrawn. What was striking to me was that her descriptions of racism as a phenomena were so much more precise and helpful than Bryant’s (who uses it as an example in the initial post) and certainly far less ‘shallow’ and far from ‘shallow’ (in the response to his follow up blog, I am interested in the use of profiles – a phenomenological concept – to describe how racism looks at others (racial profiling) and to show how people can have a different ‘picture’ of the same event). So maybe if OOO needs to offer a fuller picture of social worlds as well as things we might need to do some more empirical work (I am a sociologist!) and be less dismissive of others? After all, we should stay surprised by repetition even if repetition is not all that happens.

  5. Ian Bogost

    More empirical work sounds like a good idea. It’s not that far from what Levi and I have been suggesting: take things for what they are, and ask questions about them. What is a shooting? If all we can come up with is a discourse on race, then that says something about our commitment to ontology, our willingness to see the shooting for what it is, which is “just a thing,” like it or not. Yet, it’s impossible to say this without someone objecting, “but you’re ignoring race!” or even making appeals to inclusivity and dismissal, even though some dismissal is necessary for disagreement. In this case, Bryant is looking for more, not less, and Ahmed insists on less, not more, while claiming that less is actually more.

  6. Sandy

    But she wasn’t answering that question (what is shooting?) she was using race as an example to challenge the assertion that politics/ethics arrive with ‘ought’ by saying its there in this ‘is’…and nor was Bryant in his post answering that question (he said that an ontological event was ‘simply’ that: I wonder about the relation of your ‘just’ and his ‘simply’). The sociologist in me says Ahmed and Bryant would do well in reading the history of sociological thought on ‘action’ both of the examples are actions and actions are not simple things at all. OOO does not need to make things simpler than they are.

    But I actually think you are wrong about the less and more. And after all adding detail to the shooting event gave us more not less of an account of an event. Now its up to others to say even more about the other ‘stuff’ involved in making this event happen that way. But Bryant said little by making the event little. Maybe using his general model, we can say more, but that would also be true for Ahmed: Queer Phenomenology is full of objects like tables, and she is far from a scholar who writes ‘just’ on race.

    I also think spending time saying ontology is this and politics and ethics are that can actually keep us apart from things: if we become invested in what remain human distinctions, we can take ourselves away from the world even just by the sheer labour of then arguing with humans about those very distinctions! Maybe it is time for an OOS (Object Oriented Sociology), one that would not be invested in distinctions between ontology and ethics and politics and would stay/start with the question: what is this is?

  7. Ian Bogost

    It’s worth reading Alex Reid’s response.

    Bryant argued that the thing called “a shooting” exists. That’s not saying little, apparently, since it’s so controversial. That was Ahmed’s reaction, actually: no, you can’t say that things exist, you have to choose my favorite political lens with which to talk about them.

  8. Sandy

    Wow! Talk about making things perfectly clear!

  9. Ian Bogost

    I’m sorry if I seemed to be dismissive, Sandy, I just find it unhelpful to take something like “Sara Ahmed once talked about tables” as a response to the very clear position she took in responding to Bryant, namely, that he was wicked for observing that shootings exist without immediately making appeals to identity politics. This is especially discomforting since, as Alex observes in the post I linked, the additional detail is arrived at arbitrarily.

    But let’s not get too wrapped up in Ahmed, because I never intended to focus on her response specifically. Rather, it’s a paradigmatic one, which I tried to explain above, and which Alex did as well.

    If we did have something like an Object Oriented Sociology, perhaps it would approach matters in a different way, but then again we do have something like that in systems theory and material history. Still in the humanities and social we return again and again to the same lenses. So while I’m encouraged by the notion of Object Oriented Sociology, I’m also concerned at how it would overcome these existing biases.

  10. Glen Fuller

    I’m glad the focus has finally shifted more to the ontology of events, rather than objects. I find ‘events’ far more interesting on a number of levels. Ontology of events requires a different metaphysics, what is the event ‘to withdraw’?

    Reality consists more of what happens than what it is. The individuation of elements (‘objects’) in the shooting event occurs across a complex interplay of events that are all happening at the ‘same’ time. It is midly amusing that Harman talks about ‘emphasis’ in theory building as if it is a logical category. It is not. It is a political category. What events — and therefore which individuations of objects — are emphasised and how are such events put to use?

    Poverty is a classic example; different sides of politics emphasise different events (biography of personal responsibility vs collective/structural conditions of possibility), both of which involve ANT concerns with distributions of agency and both are individuations in a singular complex event of ‘this’ poverty.

  11. Ian Bogost

    Hi Glenn– hmm, events are not really any different from object to me, ontologically speaking. Object doesn’t mean “middle-sized entity,” but is just a name for a thing. I sometimes use the word “unit” as a more generic term.

    You’re clearly influenced by more Deleuzian inclinations, which is fine of course, and you’re in good company. I’m afraid I’m not following the second part of your comment about emphasis and political categories.

  12. Sandy

    I am not going to say any more after this because I find these responses depressing(as I am depressed by Bryant’s more recent blog where he rescues his argues about ontological events by redefining political so it doesn’t even include racism). The point was that the ontological event was only ‘simply’ by being hypothetical. To talk of an actual event would to to talk of events with actors or entities that have attributes (a shooter has a history, of course race ‘if’ it was part of it — and there are historical and sociological reasons for how how shooting events tend to happen in racial ways – would be part of it, just as what the shooter shoots with has its own history, that lets it be ready-to-hand) which is why they are complex and complicated, and why to make prior distinctions between ontology, ethics and politics is to lose the capacity to give a fuller account of what happened. Even to say ‘this is what happened’ is be involved in the creation of something that is not reducible to singular elements. Things leans this way or that, and we have our leanings when we explain them. I totally agree with Glen about the significance of moving to an analysis of events (precisely not in Badiou’s sense)because that would help us think more in terms of ‘oriented’ nature of things. If you don’t want to engage with very difficult questions of race (one of the most withdrawn dimensions of the social life and very hard to bring up in these forums) sobeit. But maybe it is time OOO thinks more with the middle O.

  13. Sandy

    ps I am sorry too if any of my comments seemed dismissive. The whole thing just feels like lots of writers missing each other, which it what makes it a bit depressing. I was posting from hope: that OOO could be more in dialogue with the work it seems to be dismissing (not just these posts, but as you put it, the work they are paradigmatic of).I think these bodies of literature might have more to say to each other than they realize.

    Maybe OOS can be the space for this dialogue: we would read you all together!

  14. Gnomon Jimmerson

    Bryant argued that the thing called “a shooting” exists. That’s not saying little, apparently, since it’s so controversial. That was Ahmed’s reaction, actually: no, you can’t say that things exist, you have to choose my favorite political lens with which to talk about them.

    I think this is an important point. In this hypothetical sitch-ee-ayshin, “racism” as a necessary and sufficient cause of a particular shooting should be a conclusion reached AFTER sorting through thousands of other objects and trajectories surrounding the event. To reach for racism as, in Alex Reid’s words, “a spectral ideological force swooping down” just pre-determines (over-determines?) our conclusion. In other words, people like Sarah will tend to ignore other, perhaps more telling objects and trajectories because they have already found their necessary and sufficient cause through their over-determined political lens. Nothing really learned; we expected Sarah to come to that conclusion.

    Human phenotypes as “attributes” may indeed tell us something about an event. Or they may not. Or they may explain part of an event. Or they may function one way in Florida and another way in rural South Africa (where having the phenotypic attribute “white” means you need to hire private security). I don’t think anyone has said to ignore these kinds of attributes, but simply not to latch onto them as the God-Attributes through which other objects, attributes, and trajectories are analyzed?

    Or maybe I’m entirely wrong here and haven’t read enough OOO stuff.

  15. Ian Bogost

    @Sandy

    Sometimes overcorrection is necessary, at least for a while. While I remain quite open and curious about something like an object-oriented sociology, I don’t think the path to such a thing is necessarily the statistical average of OOO and identity politics. What you’re feeling as authors missing each other could also be legitimate disagreement, which doesn’t depress me at all.

    @Gnomon

    I don’t think you’re wrong. The really interesting thing is that there was never even a specific shooting in the conversation!

  16. Geoff

    I have been following the exchange with interest and want to add a note for record. Just in case it helps I am copying below how the hypothetical shooter changed to the equally hypothetical white police officer (as Sandy points out, the adjective ‘white’ is given from the shark to the shooter who also becomes a police officer).

    This is the first post by Ahmed; and we should note for fairness that this is a response to a facebook update by Alexander Galloway (ie not meant as a direct response to Levi):

    “Give more detail, show how things tend to fall: a white police officer shooting a black man and your ontological event is no mere happenstance.”

    “Show how things tend to fall” is the key phrase for me here. She is certainly not treating race as a “spectral ideological force” at least not here. Race is used quite purposefully as a way of changing the description; there is not a claim here that it is the only way. The claim is that to change the description in this way is to make the event political as well as ontological (not “mere happenstance”). I think what Ahmed is suggesting is that events are objects that have tendencies. Shootings don’t just happen, but they “tend” to happen in “this way”. At one level this is a condensed empirical claim about the police, racism and violence (and like all empirical claims its up for challenge on empirical grounds: if the shooters are the police, is this how things tend to fall?).

    I think one of the confusions is actually not that they are making different ontological arguments but they have different models of what counts as politics: this is very clear in the most recent exchange on Levi’s blog. I have a different model of politics than both of them so I have no interest in deciding between them. I don’t think an OOO has a definition of politics we all need to adopt.

    I suspect we could use different details than Ahmed does to make a similar argument: events don’t just happen they happen in specific ways: they are oriented objects. Of course more guns (another object, another trajectory) are involved in shootings than white police officers. But that’s also not saying very much?

    I suspect, hope, this is a tbc discussion within OOO at least. I agree though Ian, some sort of statistical average between identity politics and OOO would not take us far.

  17. Ian Bogost

    Geoff, you make some good clarifications. Thanks for them.

    Still, there’s a strong argument for ineffability in Ahmed’s original dismissal of Levi’s point that “shootings exist.” No, she says, one may not take such a position, that things exist. One must, instead, show “how things fall” and furthermore here’s how. Thus moments after an ontological observation we get quickly submerged into the realm of the political. To believe that an ontological claim is a claim of “pure happenstance” in the first place, that’s already a point of departure between Bryant and Ahmed. Levi was never claiming that things arise out of a vacuum, but rather that things are. This is a fundamental part of his position and not one I can imagine him bargaining with in the interest of peace on the Internet—even if there’s no question that everyone online could stand to be more charitable to everyone else.

    I think you’re probably right that Levi and Sara have different accounts of politics, and like you I’m not sure where I fall in relation to either account.