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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.

published December 10, 2012

Comments

  1. Paul Ennis

    ‘If I can be a bit glib, it asks, essentially, how can you just stare at toasters while children are starving in Africa?’

    I love this line.

  2. Robert Jackson

    Ian. I don’t see the drawback of understanding politics as a pragmatic, configurable act. Badiou of course can be said to operate such a politics, albeit a pseudo-transcendent politics wrapped in a Hegelian immanent mathematical sphere. The uncomfortable aspect for many is the ultimate sin of suggesting that a right-wing politics operates in reality.

    Heres what I think OOO brings to the table: firstly its take on how objects are configured and given, Secondly, theres the pragmatic of interrogating the object’s operations.

    So what if our ontology ‘looks like’ like a FedEx network, its also ‘looks like’ a non-profit open source system. This is the point – the reality of a given system can be abused for exploitation but it must also be negotiated and reconfigured.

  3. Michael Dieter

    “The reality of a given system can be abused for exploitation but it must also be negotiated and reconfigured.”

    Yes, but isn’t this also the point? OOO pauses and does not on a conceptual level make claims for who or what is exploited, nor how that might even occur. There doesn’t seem to be any coordinates for establishing the difference claimed in that statement. For Bogost, it apparently goes so far as to cast doubt on whether ‘suffering’ can be really established as such. In this way, OOO appears to me as a weird variant of aesthetic philosophy for our times, especially to the extent that it implies a kind of subjectivity, but remains suspended between conditions of heteronomy and autonomy.

  4. Ian Bogost

    For Bogost, it apparently goes so far as to cast doubt on whether ‘suffering’ can be really established as such.

    This is precisely the trajectory of contemporary critical theory. It has, over time, expanded and altered its understanding of suffering to accommodate ever-different circumstances, ones previously left unseen or unconsidered. I’m not proposing a rejection of this principle, nor ignoring it, but exploring what happens when we take it to its logical conclusion.

    In Alien Phenomenology, I talk about this issue at greater length, with special attention to the ethics of objects, and the difficult, even aporetic challenge anyone (or anything) faces in truly considering the rights of another or the right way to act in relation to its interests.

  5. Michael Dieter

    I wonder what texts and authors you’re referring to by contemporary critical theory here. Certainly there’s the kind of trajectory that, for instance, Timothy Campbell traces through post-Heideggerian conceptions of thanatopolitics and technicity (Agamben, Esposito, Sloterdijk, Foucault).

    But the trend in Latourian-influenced frameworks and neo-assemblage theory, for instance, has in my understanding been an explicit departure from critical theory in a classic sense. In fact, there is a rejection of critique, negation or even historical materialism to then arrive at the kind of aporia concerning political decision-making that you accurately describe (I’m also thinking of Jane Bennett’s concluding problematic for political action in the chapter on rolling North American blackouts). This kind of trajectory is one that might be described, as Hal Foster puts it, as ‘post-critical’ (and explicitly as such, in fact, criticality is often claimed itself as perpetuating suffering itself).

    I don’t mean to be pedantic or anything, but just wondering who you’re thinking of here and on what terms.

  6. Ian Bogost

    Hi Michael – Yup, Latour and Jane Bennett are definitely fellow travelers! I rely on those two in particular quite a bit.

  7. Michael Dieter

    btw @ Robert Jackson. I read elsewhere on ‘An und für sich’ that you’ve got a book due soon on these questions. Look forward to checking it out.

    Does sound like a bit of a departure from computational art theory and criticism, tho!

  8. lassie

    HI Ian,

    You said: “all things (including people)” – and that’s just the thing. Most people that have thought about this don’t consider human beings (or sentient beings generally) as mere “things”, on the same ontological level with toasters and computers.

    There are many reasons for this. An important one is that we don’ find rocks or toasters behaving like this:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0ctjlROdNcc

    Now, another level, it’s true that not even “mere things” are “mere things”. Because even “mere things” have being in time and space – and “being”, “time” and “space” are not themselves objects. They may SEEM like objects, if you’re only talking about time and space that takes place on a computer screen and has primary existence, for you, as a quantifiable piece of information. But the world outside – and especially self-conscious beings – are lot more complex than that. Infinitely more complex.

    Most people who have thought seriously about this, understand this intuitively, so the minute they come across a sentence like “all things (including people)” they sense immediately that there is something wrong.

    I hope in the future you won’t have to be baffled about this.

  9. Ian Bogost

    Lassie, unfortunately it’s not really possible for me to to respond because you’re questioning some of the assumptions at the very heart of the philosophies I’m advocating for. That’s certainly your right, but if you’d like to consider some of this material in greater detail, you should read some work in this area. Besides my book mentioned above, which is quite accessible and quick, you might look at Graham Harman’s books Prince of Networks or the Quadruple Object, or Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects.

    I’m sorry if this comes off as a condescending response.

  10. Tim Morton

    “Thou shalt not talk about entities that the senses cannot see or touch, yet reason can compute. For these entities are products of capitalism, and that makes you a bourgeois ****”

    http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2012/12/thou-shalt-not.html

  11. Robert Jackson

    @ Michael Dieter

    If it was the comment written today (can’t think of any others I’ve written for AUFS) its not a book, but a short essay for the ‘And Another Thing Expanded Exhibition Catalogue

    Structurally speaking, its not that much of a departure(!!)

  12. Michael Dieter

    “Structurally speaking, its not that much of a departure(!!)”

    Ah, cool. Will keep an eye out then!

  13. lassie

    Ian,

    So let me get this straight. First you were advocating for “tiny ontology”:

    Lately I’ve been working on my account of flat ontology, and I’ve just finished penning the first version of it. It bears similarity to both Graham and Levi’s positions on being, but I’ve got my own take of course. I’m calling it tiny ontology, both for pragmatic and aesthetic reasons. Pragmatically: being is dead simple, and any ontology that belies such a claim is likely to be flawed. And aesthetically: despite the fact that I’m writing a book about it, I’m increasingly unconvinced that more description leads to more clarity. I want an aphoristic ontology. One that can be rendered via screen print on a trucker’s cap.

    http://www.bogost.com/blog/weird_media_and_tiny_ontology.shtml

    ***

    But now you’re saying one has to read your books to understand the justification for such sweeping reductions?

    I can only conclude from this that you already know that your position is basically indefensible.

    We already have the objectification of everything, Ian. It’s nothing radical or revolutionary: its called commodity culture.

  14. Joe Krall

    Hi Ian,

    I think in many ways that the thrust of contemporary theory is less a questioning of the possibility of suffering as such, than a reframing of the concept given a multiplicity of subjectivities. One response to the question might be framed through an investigation of the term “human,” and its potential to limit the scope of our investigation. We certainly have ample historical evidence that a concentration on “human” suffering at one time, for instance, excluded black or proletariat forms of suffering from its analysis. By choosing to remove the “human” locus from our ontological orientation, we allow suffering to be considered through a variety of subject and object positions free from the delimitations imposed by our understanding of “humanness”. To follow your glibness, it allows us to see the starving African children as suffering regardless of whether or not we’re the kind of racist assholes who think Africans are less than human.

  15. Alex Reid

    As always this politics and OOO business baffles me. OOO is mostly academic business and it’s primarily academics that raise these concerns. I would suggest going to a dissertation database and searching for humanities dissertations with Marxism (or whatever -ism) in the title. I would be willing to bet that whatever apolitical or counter-revolutionary complaints one might lodge against “staring at toasters,” could just as easily be directed at work that arises from such methods. To me this is less about politics than it is about intellectual turf.

  16. Ian Bogost

    @lassie

    What a charming interlocutor you are! I hope you’ll continue posting comments with asterisks in them because I find them dashing and sparkly. Oh wait, am I just commoditizing again? LOLBURGERS.

    @Joe

    Right, a good point that extends, I think, the rationale I’ve described above. Why not just take everything as a possible subject of interest, and in so doing to remind ourselves of the times we’ve been mistaken in the past.

    @Alex

    No disagreement here.

  17. Joe Krall

    I think something else that people are failing to realize here is that OOO doesn’t amount to staring at toasters. Instead, it involves placing toasters and people on an ontologically level playing field. When one does so it becomes abundantly clear that starving children (African or otherwise) face an ontological threat in their starvation that toasters sitting on counters, in boxes, or even in garbage dumps do not face. This creates an ethical imperative for one to attend to the needs of children before toasters. Placing toasters before children in this situation is not the project of OOO, it’s simply an inversion of the prejudices involved in humanism, and represents a very under-nuanced understanding of the implications of OOO.

    @lassie

    Appealing to both Marx and common sense all at once? Someone needs to reread their Althusser… “It is a peculiarity of ideology that it imposes (without appearing to do so, since these are ‘obviousnesses’) obviousness as obviousness, which we cannot fail to recognize and before which we have the inevitable and natural reaction of crying out (aloud or in the ‘still, small voice of conscience’): ‘That’s obvious! That’s right! That’s true!’” (Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses)