I’ve had the pleasure of visiting with a number of classes recently after they’ve read Alien Phenomenology. Very different groups as well, from freshmen to graduate students. A common question that arose in many of these conversations relates to the consequences of object-oriented ontology. This question usually takes a form like, “Doesn’t object-oriented ontology risk turning our attention away from human suffering?”
I won’t say this question baffles me, because it’s actually quite a reasonable question. Indeed, the fact that it’s a reasonable question could be taken as part of its answer: OOO holds as a premise that philosophy, theory, and culture in general has been too content in putting human affairs at the center of being and therefore discourse, and that instead we should allow all things (including people) to be of potentially equal impact and concern. So, in that respect, OOO does ask us to expand our attention. And it makes this request on ontological grounds, because it holds metaphysics to be an additive rather than a subtractive philosophical medium.
What does baffle me is the assumption that taking the OOO position entails a turning away from human beings and human suffering in particular. This concern does not always emerge in its most extreme forms, namely the accusation that OOO might be used to justify violence or apathy, or that it amounts to nihilism. More often, it emerges amid much more earnest, reasonable questions, like the one first cited above.
Anyhow, what baffles me about this question is twofold.
The first thing that baffles me is the implicit assumption that human suffering is our obvious, complete, and superordinate topic of interest, subject to no further debate or consideration. It’s a bit like invoking “pro-life” as a verbal frame: no matter its consequences, such a phrase allows one to play a trump card because, well, who wants to be “against life”? Likewise, who wants to be “pro suffering?” Nobody does, save the demented. But just as pro-choice proponents are not really against life, so OOO is not really “for suffering” just because it argues that we might concern ourselves with fire or rebar or horse-flies. Things are more complicated than that. In fact, maybe one way to turn our attention toward human suffering, and even to make greater progress in that process, involves relinquishing the fundamentals of human centrality, which is all that an object-oriented metaphysics proposes with respect to humanity. Indeed, many recent methods for engaging with the very topic of human suffering (climate change, economics, health) involve steering our attention away from it for a spell. Do we even know what “suffering” really is, even for humans? Who gets to decide? What actors are involved in facilitating it? These answers are far from obvious.
The second thing that baffles me the idea that we have some finite amount of total attention to pay to things in the first place. I suppose it’s true to some extent: there are only so many hours in the day or in the decade. But even before we consider the object-oriented position, hasn’t it been the case that we’ve been able to stack or nest such concerns effectively in relation to human affairs? For example, critical race theory didn’t have to displace or upset feminism as a subject of inquiry. Queer theory didn’t have to cede ground to allow for the advent of disability studies. Animal studies didn’t require the foreclosure of political economy. Instead, our theoretical attachments have a kind of quantum physical relationship to one another: we can be in more than one place at the same time.
I think I understand where the question comes from. It’s a natural response to an unfamiliar proposal. If I can be a bit glib, it asks, essentially, how can you just stare at toasters while children are starving in Africa? This is the same logic that leads folks to claim that OOO is “dangerous,” a conclusion Alex Galloway has recently reached while arguing that new realisms amount to a poverty of philosophy. An OOO proponent might respond in a similar vein, suggesting that philosophies that take humans as the center of being are dangerous because they miss everything else. The mere invocation of injustice isn’t equivalent to its eradication anyway. Whereas staring at toasters is at least the first step in asking questions about toasters—and maybe other things too. But such responses just spin us in circles, rehearsing the same arguments over and over again. Nobody benefits, save maybe Twitter and Facebook and Google, who own the services that host our mutual grousing.
If the last fifty years in particular have witnessed a constant, slow increase in admissions of validity among worldly things, then OOO could be understood to propose: let’s just take that pattern for granted and get it over with all at once. Everything gets to be of potential interest and concern, not just for philosophers and economists and governments, but for everything else as well. And if that sounds like a contradiction—when everything is of possible interest, then nothing is—the point is well taken. For me, an OOO perspective admits that there are fundamental conflicts involved in the infinite combinations of and relations between things in the world, and so we’d better pause before drawing easy conclusions or endorsing simple shorthands (like, say, “human suffering”).
Indeed, taking for granted, in advance, what actors and approaches are of most appropriate use feels far more destitute as a philosophy than opening the floodgates. Mark Nelson has quipped that “radical critique” involves applying well-worn tools in the conventional way to reach the expected conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, such an attitude looks far more like nihilism than it does like revolution, or even liberation. By contrast, the realist position recommends greater attention and respect, not lesser. It admits that we have to do the work of really looking hard at all the things in the world before drawing conclusions about what they mean for one another—or for ourselves. That’s not a poverty of philosophy, at all. Just the opposite. A wealth, a cornucopia, a profusion, almost to the point of overwhelm.