I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly sure what blogging means to me these days. But whether by accident or design, I’ve been avoiding some of the back-and-forth debate that both helps and hinders the work of philosophy online these days. That said, this is one of those back-and-forth response posts, this on answering some of the questions and comments Cameron Kunzelman makes here.

I think Cameron does a good job setting the context, so if you don’t follow all the conversations in the speculative realism/object-oriented ontology blogosphere on a regular basis, you should read his post and the posts he links to.

There are two observations Cameron makes that I want to reflect on. First, he accuses OOO of offering a “throwing your hands in the air” response to ethics. Here’s how he puts it:

Referring back to conatus is Bryant and Bennett’s way of saying that it might be impossible to think flat ethics, and so we don’t embark on that process. A similar attitude is reflected in Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology when he writes that “ethics itself is revealed to be a hyperobject: a massive, tangled chain of objects lampooning one another through weird relation, mistaking their own essences for that of the alien object they encounter, exploding the very idea of ethics to infinity.” (I wrote on this previously here.) What I get from this is that ethics is really hard, but that isn’t a viable response to the various oppressions and violences that occur near-constantly, especially when humans are at the center of so many of them (and intentionally, too.)

The part of my book Cameron refers to can be found on pp 78-79, although I recently posted a lengthy excerpt to the empyre mailing list (it’s formatted terribly in the archive, sorry).

Here’s what I find interesting about Cameron’s conclusion: essentially, he’s implying that the invitation to difficulty is insufficient. The idea that we might have to do some serious and perhaps even intractable work to make progress on the ethical and political registers of human experience, and that such work would be difficult and take time, this fact is deemed unacceptable in advance. I don’t mean to pick on Cameron in particular here: I think he’s put his finger on a criticism we have seen again and again. What hasn’t yet been done should have been done.

I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t part of the downside of the immediacy of digitally-mediated philosophical discourse. Blogs are fast. Twitter is fast. Facebook is fast. But ideas aren’t always fast, and to take a problem or an idea as insufficient because it hasn’t been taken to its ultimate possible conclusion feels like a kind of highbrow version of a tl;dr scoff.

Second, Cameron comes to the following conclusion:

I don’t believe that OOO means a total abandoning of questions of identity and relationships between humans explicitly, but I do know that I can’t name a single person in the OOO/SR field who deals with human relationships.

At the risk of flaming, Cameron must not be thinking about the question very hard. Tim Morton has written two books about ecology. Levi Bryant posts endlessly about political and social questions, and discusses them at length in The Democracy of Objects. And I’ve written no less than four books about the relationship between forms of new media and political and social thought. Among those, two of them (Persuasive Games and Newsgames) deal explicitly with the intractable complexity of political and social questions. I also spent a good part of the last two years running a high-visibility rejoinder to today’s digital social practices. To put it bluntly: what the fuck?

Apart from clearing the air a bit (ahem), it’s worth reflecting on why such an assumption could proliferate. Perhaps the answer is simpler than it seems: in academic fields strongly tied to contemporary theory and philosophy, one’s identity is coextensive with a certain kind of social practice, of being a humanist scholar, rather than being a citizen or even a philosopher. In a comment on a post in which Levi recently asked Ethics and Politics: What are You Asking? Jeremy Trombley said the following:

I think part of the issue is that OOO doesn’t foreground things like race, class, gender, etc. That is, it doesn’t explain by means of these categories, but rather, it seeks to explain them. For critical theorists, everything revolves around these constructions, and to not foreground them is itself an act of political/ethical violence.

He goes on to describe how one of his advisers rejoined him for looking at the material aspects of a computer simulation of the Chesapeake Bay, instead of giving greater attention to its identity politics.

Examples like this explain why I recently wrote the short thought that Cameron excerpts from the empyre list:

As for “nary a mention of race, class or postcolonial thinking,” [a comment from Jack Halberstam] one of the interesting puzzles in the formula “SR/OOO are a kind of continental philosophy” is the fact that continental philosophy has such a strong association with matters of human identity, and SR/OOO/etc. are interested in various non- or extra-human matters, and are therefore moving in slightly different directions than continental philosophy has done in recent decades. The assumption—which seems to be prevalent—that this means “abandoning” questions of human identity is an interesting one.

Sometimes I regret having gotten back into the “traditional humanities” after spending the last ten years in a weird hybrid of liberal arts and engineering at a technical institute. For it deals with the greatest irony of conservatism: a conservatism whose hallowed tradition is a purported progressive radicalism. Things are changing in philosophy, and that change is terrifying to some and liberating to others—perhaps it should be both. This conflict, if that’s really what it is, is evidence of something big. We can fear it, or we can scoff at it, or we can make accusations about it. Or we can work, in whatever our medium. Perhaps the time has come for less blogging, and more working.

published June 15, 2012


  1. Nick LaLone

    It is interesting to me to see these arguments coming around.

    I had a lot of the thoughts Kunzelman seems to have had when I first started getting in to ANT back in 2009. It was extremely difficult for me to take all of the gender courses / sociology methods training / theory and understand the rift that seemed to exist between them. It took me a couple years to start to understand that these theories like OOO aren’t taking the old theories and extending them but are completely recalibrating them after years and years of conflict over philosophical problems the former has had. I wonder how much longer these problems will be debated. Forever?

  2. Ian Bogost

    Interesting to hear that comparison, Nick. Thanks for sharing it.

    As for forever… I think maybe part of the short-circuit will come in the form of a reconfiguration of the contexts. And before someone accuses me of defending the neoliberal destruction of the university of something, no, that’s not what I’m saying. But things are going to be different.

  3. Greg Borenstein

    I’ve seen the same problem in the art world discourse around the New Aesthetic. In that context, the problem is framed, for example as asked by one questioner at the New Aesthetic Death Match at Flux Factory, as something like: “the New Aesthetic doesn’t do anything to address (or possibly, because of its newness actually increases) the disenfranchisement within the art world of women and minorities and hence the new things it has to offer are invalid”. In that debate, I tried to gently express the idea that it might not be fair to expect I new set of ideas that are just finding their voice to fully and satisfyingly address as set of problems that have plagued art-world thinkers for at least a good hundred years. If Modernism itself never solved the problem through its whole history, maybe its not fair to expect a year-old movement run through a tumblr to have already done so. This was met with laughter and the extension of additional patience and sympathy.

    In the broader OOO context, I think you’re really hitting on something here about the sensitivity of reducing identity issues as the chief explanatory mechanism. Maybe a similar move could reduce the anxiety this produces. Simply asking the question: has the single-minded focus on identity issues as the central explanatory mechanism actually lead towards justice? Where has it succeeded and where hasn’t it? Is it possible that additional approaches might also contribute to that campaign in their own way over time?

    Do you think there is a danger to even suggesting such an outcome? In other words, do you think the attempt to instrumentalize an object-oriented understanding of the world to the ends of human justice, even as a transitional strategy based in the current universality of this way of thinking within the academy, will do harm to OOO?

  4. Ian Bogost

    Greg, given the overlaps between the art world and the world of the scholarly humanities, I’m not surprised to hear this report. I’ve encountered it myself a bit, but I think I’ve also seen a far more welcome reception of material practices in the arts than in the humanities. Do you think?

    I certainly think the question you suggest asking would be viewed as an attack on the last half-century of critical theory, and because so much scholarly identity formation is invested in that adoption, of the very identities of the thinkers themselves. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth asking, but I think we have to realize that this process of change will be long and difficult.

    As for “doing harm to OOO,” I think the question is more like this: how do we accomplish progress in philosophy in a way that brings folks along for the ride? I think we’re already seeing a strong measure of empathy for the new approaches SR and OOO offer—dare I call it progressivism? But at the same time, how can we increase the audience of empathetic folk without resorting to mere social compliance? I’m sure posts like this one won’t help, which is why I reflect at the start and end on the downsides of scholarly blogging.

  5. Greg Borenstein

    Ian, I do think you’re right that the art world is a little bit more receptive to this kind of idea. Partially, that’s true just because it’s a world that’s explicitly engaged in the creation of interesting objects. And hence some of the central practitioners there have rich and complex relationships with objects — they’re already carpenters. Object-orientation describes a way they already think. Also, the victory condition, rather than systematic correctness, is the production of things and experiences that are interesting. Therefore any strategy that is producing such automatically has some traction, regardless of conceptual or political objections (in fact, loud version of those objections usually just serve to increase that interest and so are quite poor as censorious strategies).

    On the other hand, though, art practice bleeds into active large scale public institutions and the spending of public moneys much more directly than most humanities scholarship. That fact makes its stewards more sensitive about the issues of access and exclusion that surround questions of identity. Race, gender, and sexual orientation questions translate directly into real bodies accessing or being rejected from real spaces and concrete objects. Hence they have more tangible weight and consequences. I think that this is a big part of why critical theory has taken such a hold in these institutions: it resonates directly with the concretely political issues that the administrators of these spaces navigate every day. At their best, they may lead those administrators towards more just and broadly considerate ways of operating. At their worst, they make them paranoid and tentative.

    I would love to find a way to develop a “political module” for NA/OOO (as POSZU has called for: http://www.poszu.com/2012/04/03/new-aesthetics-new-politics/ ) exactly to “increase the audience of empathetic folk” to include the art world characters in these positions. And also, less strategically, because I think OOO actually offers a powerful vocabulary for addressing some of the most pressing political questions of our day.

    The place it gets really interesting, though, is that I think these are actually different political questions than are addressed by the identity politics that have evolved out of critical theory. For example, the work that Tim has done on ecology, that you’ve done on understanding our relationships with digital objects such as social networks, etc. I think that a number of people in the NA conversation are doing really interesting work on drones, search engines, and machine vision. These are all things in the world that, in an identity politics world, lay largely outside political consideration (or are only considered as extensions of particular groups and classes of people). I think there’s a lot of promise for a New Politics that specifically builds up its analysis and its critique out of a close attention to objects like these and demonstrates its conclusions through carpentry of an increasingly sophisticated form: from 9eyes to Aaron Straup-Cope and James Bridle’s drone balloon and Adam Harvey’s CVDazzle and forward.

    Ironically, while the academic wing of SR/OOO may need less blogging, I think that the recent spasm of blogging and public talks shows that NA may actually need more blogging, more theorizing. Maybe there’s a way to bring these two groups together in the middle?

  6. Ian Bogost

    Great thoughts, Greg. I think you’re right on all fronts, but I’m particularly interested in your comments on asking different political questions, and on NA needing more blogging. The former expands on the thoughts at the end of my post above, and the latter, well, maybe the latter proves that a tumblr is not enough!

  7. Dan Greene

    Is it a lame excuse to just feel as though most folks are talking past each other? Needless personal attacks aside–and these are largely absent from the work cited here, though it did crop up in responses to Galloway’s post–this seems to be a case of groups of very smart people staking out their priorities and being insufficiently creative in seeing how these priorities can politically, ethically, productively coexist. Ian, this is where your patience above is refreshing. Your section in AP on the random image generator at the Georgia Tech OOO conference also comes to mind.

    This is all such a shame because some of the most politically interesting work in critical theory these past 20 years, thinking especially of third world feminism of the Sandoval or Mohanty sort, has encouraged us to recognize affinities instead of intractable, interpellative identities and to work towards alliances. At the same time, OOO has been a breath of fresh air because it emphasizes just how much we humans don’t and can’t know and that our knowing only becomes possible through assemblages (or whatever) of bacteria, electricity, and eyeglasses. Yes, OOO has a fairly serious White Guy problem and canonical critical theory has a serious, reactionary, name-and-know-thyself problem—but all the acrimony seems like a failure of imagination, a knee-jerk response that forgets where we’ve already been and where we want to go. Reading Halberstam, Bogost, Galloway, Kunzelman, etc. these past few weeks, I’ve never felt anyone was particularly wrong, just somewhat hasty.

    I’m an ethnographer working on the politics of internet infrastructure. My advisor Jason Farman is a phenomenologist that works on experiences of digital space, especially in mobile media. This is people stuff, critical theory stuff, cultural criticism stuff–but we’ve both found OOO has much to add. Jason sees OOO’s horizontalization of being as essential to the ethical projects of the 21st century–ethics always involves the recognition of the other, and our others are only occasionally human. To think of my Twitter activity only as a set of conversations between procrastinating nerds, with other likeminded meat sacks as audience, is to miss out on the litany of actors that make that conversation happen, listen in at registers I can’t hear, and store and circulate it once I’m done paying attention. In my own work, and like Greg says above, I see OOO as one possible, novel way out of the hegemony of identity politics—even if you only want to focus on traditional, liberal, human politics. As McPherson and others have started pointing out, the modularity of identity and the focus on distinct representational units as the bedrock of politics is a hallmark of a particular technological, economic, and political moment. Identities are made into a particular sort of object. Recognizing other affinities between bodies, besides those boxes presented by the Census and Facebook, is an essential activist project. The materiality of race and gender still matter, but OOO might be able to help them matter differently.

  8. Ian Bogost

    Reading Halberstam, Bogost, Galloway, Kunzelman, etc. these past few weeks, I’ve never felt anyone was particularly wrong, just somewhat hasty

    This is why I’ve started wondering how much of the problem is created by the media we are using to converse. I hint at this above in a playful and somewhat apologetic way, but the demands for immediacy on mailing lists, blogs, twitter, and so forth may be creating a kind of false urgency. As you suggest, the answer isn’t to abandon those media (of all people, I’m not suggesting that), but to realize that internet conversations easily breed more conversation, but not always more insight.Then again, the very idea of insight has been altered by digital media, and I think that’s part of what you get at later in your comment above, Dan. But then, I’d suggest that even understanding my suggestion here about how media are helping to form this purported disagreement demands an object-oriented approach! A similar example to the one Jason Farman models (and why OOO has proven particularly useful to media scholars willing to accept that media has materiality—a startlingly unpopular idea in the era of identity!).

    All of this is why I constantly return to the same theme in all my work, trite tho it may seem: stuff is hard. Embracing complexity, even intractability, is one of the greatest challenges we face—as people, as philosophers, and as “objects” as well.

  9. Greg Borenstein

    Some follow-up to this on the NA front. Two of the most-vocal identity politics critics from the death match wrote-up their perspective here: http://theclustermag.com/blog/2012/06/shading-the-new-aesthetic/ It’s a bit of a rambling post, but it does bring up some interesting work. I feel like there’s a response to be made to them that tries to re-focus the discussion away from the knee-jerk return to identity politics as the dominant (and only just) explanatory force, but I’m having a hard time composing it in a way that’s not instrumental (i.e. advocating for better understanding of objects in order to make a more trenchant identity critique, etc.).

  10. Ian Bogost

    Thanks for linking this Greg. Surprised I missed it before.

    For now, I’ll say this: the article misconstrues OOO as being about digital technologies, which as you know is a massive underestimation of our project. But second, I don’t think there’s any reason we can’t have both. The critique you and the NA folks are getting here is really quite similar to the ones OOO sees so often: why are you doing this other thing rather than the thing we’ve been doing? Well, for one part, why do we have to choose? And for another part, why can’t we consider the world of things that has gone so ignored as we’ve been attending so keenly to identity?