A lively discussion erupted from my post on philosophy and politics of a few days ago. Among other things, commenters revisited the relationship between ontology and politics, issues OOO proponents in particular have attempted to disentangle.
Among the many lengthy comments from David Rylance comes this snippet, which may have finally helped me understand something fundamental about the whole ontology/politics problem. Here’s Rylance:
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.
First Rylance allows that ontology can stand as ground. But then he suggests that SR’s insistence that ontology be autonomous must be an ethical move, because it is one grounded in an imperative. Since ethical codes have political implications, David concludes (through implication) that the call for ontological realism is political.
The assumption I want to discuss here is this one: ontologies like those of OOO issue an imperative, and an ethical one at that. (There’s another assumption we could consider, but I’m going to leave it for now, namely that all imperatives are ethical imperatives.)
But as Rylance himself admits, the consequence of realism is that the world isn’t particularly concerned with us. As such, it’s wrong to construe realism as an imperative in the first place. Rather, it must be cast as an invitation: if things exist in multitudes, then perhaps it might be interesting and productive to consider them. It’s thus quite apt that Rylance uses the word fascination to describe the situation. For I’d suggest that it’s just this sort of attitude that motivates the object-oriented approach: fascination, curiosity, wonder, and other allures, rather than imperatives. The very idea of an imperative, we might conclude, is a symptom of correlationism itself.
You cannot really love without letting go in the way Heidegger suggests and the Buddhists learn to do. And I think correlationist thinking is something that has to be surmounted before this is possible. Otherwise humans are doomed to just love themselves.
Cogburn is suggesting that part of the move to realism also involves something similar to the Buddhist call to “let go” to the desires that we know drive us. While the Buddhist metaphor is just that, a metaphor, there’s some kernel of truth in the comparison: OOO and other counter-correlationisms also mount calls to let go of the idea of one correlation, be that a general one like human subjectivity or a more specific one like the critique of capitalism.
Imagine: it might be possible to pursue an interest in the world starting from an earnest curiosity about that world, rather than a predetermined idea of how it ought to be operated by the human beings living within it. That said, there’s nothing inherent to OOO that is incompatible with ethical questions, with a concern for that very way of living. Indeed, as Levi says in the post linked above, “the resources for thinking these things are already there in OOO.” But simultaneously, the motivation to pursue such thinking need not derive from ethico-political motivations. And unlike scientism, this position allows for a variety of conflicting and even contradictory accounts of worldly experience, rather than a single, depth-driven truth-for-humans.
For example, when Nick Montfort and I suggested the platform studies approach, one of our motivations was that of curiosity. The systems underlying digital media artifacts seemed often to be overlooked. What insights might we derive if we acknowledged them and paid them greater attention? The results were interesting on multiple registers: historical, material, aesthetic, cultural, economic, and even political. And of course beyond that one book, I’ve written extensively about politics and ethics and persuasion and remain interested in those topics. But they are not all that interests or motivates me.
In Guerilla Metaphysics, Harman discusses aesthetics as a type of primordial relation, not just one of human judgement. It’s this attitude that leads him to suggest that we might think of aesthetics as first philosophy. The idea of wonder or curiosity seems like a particularly productive way to reframe the ethico-political imperative Rylance and others assume motivates all motivation. In Clement Greenberg’s analysis of the avant garde, for example, he suggests that the formal exploration of painters like Rothko and Pollock represent attempts to pay pure attention to the medium rather than its representation. Likewise, in game design circles, we often prefer a creative approach that encourages the exploration of a possibility space. Surprising discoveries often emerge from such an approach, as I recently discussed in relation to the Isner-Mahut Wimbledon match.
In summary, the problem of a political precedence for ontology is really only a problem for those who already assume that politics undergird everything in the first place. It’s the same motivation that will, I’m sure, motivate its supporters to disagree with me on the grounds that my position is merely an ideological misconception of some sort of latent neoliberalism. Of course, that’s an example of the very problem with correlationism in the first place, one of many obsessions we must learn to let go of.