Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Of Course You can Do Something about Hyperobjects

Objects can't touch ontologically doesn't mean “You can't do anything about something politically.” Far from it. Almost the opposite, in a way, as I'll show here.

And actually it doesn't mean “You can't touch a stick of deodorant.” Of course you can.

Of course you can do something about global warming, a hyperobject. You can “touch” it. You can for instance reduce carbon emissions. Wow, you think I'm arguing there's nothing we can do about global warming?!

Ontologically withdrawn doesn’t mean that you can’t touch something ontically. Withdrawn means “not reducible to anything else.” And as I'm going to show this is really really good for anyone who wants to dismantle a thing.

Just changing labels really doesn’t help. For instance, someone recently worried about hyperobjects in the terms outlined above has suggested the term “situation.” “Situations” can touch each other and we can touch them (unlike, for some reason, hyperobjects). But “situation” is a diluted and vague label—I’m afraid it doesn’t yet rise to the level of “concept” so I can’t address it that way.

Various clues hint at a not so hidden agenda: the worry (this is an essay about the drug war as a “situation”) is coming from a Deleuzianism that's a bit cross, as it can be sometimes, that there’s a new way of thinking about things (OOO).

The main clue is that situation seems most like assemblage (the use of the neologism “assemblic” in the title of this particular essay is a clue).

OOO is much nicer than that, because “assemblage” is a reductionist concept.

The assemblage concept is saying that big things are just loose aggregates of smaller things. The very things we want to describe aren't actually described--they're reduced, which isn't the same thing. Happy nihilism, a philosophical tool of neoliberalism (aka agrilogistics 9.0) is really pleased that largely distributed things might only be loose affiliations of small things, because it means that they don't really exist, so you can do anything. For instance, if a  meadow is just a bunch of other things, you can argue that it doesn't really exist and build a parking lot on “it.” Deterritorial assemblage logic is pretty much how a lot of neoliberal logic works. There was perhaps a utopian moment for this logic when it sounded so fresh and different from the previous subversive logics, but we're way past that now in an age of corporate tax inversion, conceptual artists dictating Putin's foreign policy, and everything BP. 

OOO is saying that groups of things are also things that exist equally with their parts. There is an ontological gap between whole and parts.

But this in turn means that we have an awful lot more political wiggle room than we thought. Far from being disempowering, it's just about the most liberating ontological concept we've come up with in quite a while.

It actually gives us a really powerful political conceptual and tactical tool, because it means that the whole is always less than the sum of its parts (I invented this term subscendence to describe it). This is an incredibly counterintuitive idea (because we've been brainwashing each other for ever) but in the end it's a very easy to understand overturning of millennia of holist beliefs about sets (that wholes are bigger than the sums of their parts) that is really just a monotheism reteweet (and thus part of the problem). Dominic Boyer and I are talking about it in our book Hyposubjects.

There are plenty of political tactics outlined in Hyperobjects already, which circle around subscendence without directly naming it (sorry! Can't think everything all at once!). 

I think maybe that we are scared of naming big things precisely because we're still retweeting monotheism. We are hobbling our ability to cope with the entities we've unleashed. We think that if you name it, you've made it into a Thing (capital T), and that means a bit bad scary holistic being that lords it over its parts. This says more about our idea (or rather precritical assumptions) about sets than it does about things in the world. It gives rise to a paranoid, precisely “anti-Oedipal” (aka still relating to and caught up in the Oedipal, which is to say agrilogistical, dynamic!) style of engagement. Showing your behind to the political father (Barthes) means you think there is a father on a throne. 

You have swapped the holist tactic of substituting one god for another to the still-holist tactic of mooning a god.

The hyperobject concept and the subscendence that it implies give you something really toothsome and handy to hang on to and so they're ever so much better for tactical reasons than situation. Situation is more like a cloudy, slightly inverted version of the monotheist holism. We are caught (as the examples in the essay show) in various “situations” at which we throw up our hands, sinners in the hands of a cloudy god.

So behind the Deleuzianism there's something else. It's good old correlationism. A situation is anthropocentrically scaled. It's just a matter of changing your attitude, from using the term as a smoke screen behind which you can throw up your hands (“I'm in this situation, what can I do?”) to starting a needle exchange (for instance--the example is the drug war). If it's that easy, then there's nothing there apart from how you decide it to be. So your politics is mostly about getting the label right, rather than trying to work with reality. 

As Blake would say, I want a wiry bounding line. Determinacy means you can see your enemy clearly. 

1 comment:

D. E.M. said...

I gave this exact lecture to an undergrad class yesterday! OK , not exactly, for my word smithing is not so intricate as this lovely lattice-- but with very similar concepts, involving spells and counter spells and creating dangerously in the face of fear.