Politics and Ontology

Given the recent bevy of posts spawned by Nina‘s comments on what she sees as a problem inherent in “certain corners of contemporary continental philosophy”, with regard to the relation between politics and ontology, I feel drawn to say something about the issue. I think straight off I should say that for the most part I agree with Nick’s opinions on the matter (here and here), although I think he made claims for Speculative Realism as a whole that were perhaps more true of his own approach (and that of some others in the loosely defined SR paradigm). Not being a speculative realist, I’m not going to frame anything I say in terms of what a speculative realist approach allows us to do with politics, but rather try to spell out what the relation between politics and ontology is from my own perspective (which I’ve been slowly elaborating on this blog over the past couple months). Also, I’m not going to summarise all of the discussions that have been going on, but I do need to say something about Nina’s brief remarks and the comments Nick made in response to them.

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Dissecting Norms

Levi recently launched a couple new salvo’s in the debate over normativity (here, here, here and a bit earlier here), and although he hasn’t mentioned me, I think his reference to ‘transcendentalists’ who are concerned with guaranteeing normativity is probably aimed in this direction, especially after our earlier exchange over Latour (here and here on deontologistics, which petered out in a comment exchange here on larvalsubjects), and his reference to the ‘howler’ that norms don’t exist.

The major thrust of Levi’s argument still seems to be that concern with transcendental normativity precludes the possibility of first analysing the real social conditions (and their causes) that underlie undesirable political states of affairs, and then acting upon these analyses in strategic ways to undermine these and potentially produce new and better social configurations. This is put in a slightly more inflamatory way in his comparison of philosophers of normativity with the kid in the playground that thinks shouting at the top of his voice that the bully is in the wrong is enough to stop the bully. I’ll try to take this jab in good spirit.

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Normativity, Causation and Explanation Revisited

Levi has put down some initial comments on my last post (here and here), and I feel that I really must clear up what appear to me to be some obvious misunderstandings of my claims. Fortunately, I think that the major misunderstanding Levi puts forward allows me to clarify some of the less clear points I made about causation and its problematic status within Levi’s variant of OOO. It also appears that I need to say some more about my own political pretensions in order to stave off the objection that I demand an appeal to ‘transcendent’ norms or that my approach ignores the reality of the political situation. Here we go then.

1. Varieties of Force

The major objection Levi has to my account of Latour is my characterisation of the first of the two moves I identified in his position (although Levi has yet to say much about the second, and I think he’ll find it equally problematic). I described this in two ways:-

1) The collapsing of the distinction between might and right.

2) The reduction of normative force to causal force.

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Explanatory Networks and Political Reason

There has recently been an interesting (and somewhat turbulent) discussion regarding Latour’s Actor-Network Theory (ANT) and the Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) that are influenced  by it, in relation to the kind of politics these theories can support.

There is obviously Nick Srnicek’s very interesting piece from the Militant Dysphoria conference (available here), which tries to show how ANT provides some useful resources for reconsidering the nature of political action, and his recent additional commentary on it (here), which situates this piece in relation to the notion of folk-politics (something I myself have talked about here, but with a slightly different twist).

Then there is the more fiery (though now thankfully cooled) exchange between Reid Kane at Planomenology (here and here) and Levi at Larval Subjects (here, here, here and here) over whether either Latour’s ANT or OOO has neo-liberal political implications. This obviously got out of hand, but it strikes me that the real intuition behind the argument that Reid was making (and that others have also been making), was never made fully explicit. Without wishing to blow on the embers, I feel that it would be helpful for this intuition (as I see it) to be properly formulated. This also gives me an opportunity to work out some other thoughts about Latour’s position which have been haunting me.

The proviso here is that I am neither an expert on Latour or on OOO, although I will admit to having read more of the former than the latter. So, it is possible that my reading, and the implications I draw from it, will be faulty. As ever, I am happy to be corrected. That being said, I will proceed anyway, while the point is fresh in my mind.

Edit: It is of course also important to note that there are different variants of OOO, and not all will endorse or take up the Latourian positions I’m trying to analyze here, at least in the way they are found here.

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