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.