Relating to Objects in a P2P World

Andre Ling offers us an introduction to some recent philosophies that are taking ‘objects’ very seriously. The P2P Wiki article has many references.

Andre Ling:

“In the present era, we humans find ourselves surrounded by a continuously expanding mountain of ‘things’. From the new entities revealed to us through scientific discoveries (the Higgs Boson for example) and the products that we manufacture through continuously changing technological possibilities (ipods, replicators, space probes, the internet) to the countless mundane objects that we rely on for every single part of our lives (beds, spoons, houses, lakes, forests and insects…). We humans have been living with such things, harnessing them for our purposes but also being affected by them, since before… we were even human. Our current societal forms can be looked at as complex entanglements of humans and non-human things, arranged in various combinations, creating particular sets of possibilities and constraints for the ongoing unfolding of this great entanglement. We have even reached a stage now where the things that we have unleashed are beginning to rear their heads in a rather ugly way: mountains of plastic that will outlive all currently living beings on the planet; a layer of radioactive waste across the surface of the earth; factories, cars, offices and homes releasing fossil fuels into the atmosphere… And then of course there are all the distributional issues…

It is not always entirely clear what effect these things have on us, or indeed just what they are. The traditional subject-object divide, tends to posit things, i.e. objects, as passive lumps onto which subjects project their intentions, their meanings. Objects, in this sense, exist first and foremost for humans. Since Kant, acknowledgement of the limits to human knowledge of objects (as opposed to subjects) has become a standard feature of philosophy and more recently has resulted in a very strong emphasis on questions of epistemology over ontology within mainstream academic philosophy. The question of what objects are, of what it means to be a thing and of what exactly being is, became backgrounded, almost taboo. However, there has been a recent upsurge in interest in ‘things’, with a number of philosophers, science and technology studies scholars and social/political scientists trying to get a better grip on the nature of things and how they work. These philosophers who take objects seriously also ascribe them powers, some form of agency. Objects thereby become active participants in reality, influencing other objects around them, including humans, in all kinds of ways.

Taking objects seriously

One of the well-known philosophers who takes objects seriously is Bruno Latour. His work has gone a long way to collapse the nature-culture divide, to give non-human entities an agential role in ‘society’ (through his work on actants and Actor Network Theory), to point out the dangers of taking ‘wholes’ as givens (e.g. society as a ‘whole’ that is somehow prior to that which composes it rather than attending to the details of how society is composed; Reassembling the Social is a good read for this). He proposed a symmetrical anthropology for engaging with both moderns and non-moderns, developed the notion of the ‘factish’ to describe those ‘things’ created/discovered/invented by humans but then unleashed into the cosmos where they have their own autonomous existence (e.g. DNA, bacteria, GM crops, private property, etc.). One of his particularly interesting and relevant shorter pieces is the ‘Compositionist Manifesto’ (available here) in which he proposes the word composition to describe the process of constructing a common world with all these things. His website provides links to fairly sizable collection of his published articles available for free download.

In Vibrant Matter: The Political Ecology of Things, Jane Bennett, a political scientist based in the US, drawing on Latour and a number of other philosophers (from Nietzche and Thoreau to Ranciere and Bateson) sets out to explore not just the agency of non-human things and the assemblages that they compose, but also what it would mean, to incorporate the non-human into our calculations of the political. Assigning agency to the non-human is not a move that liberates humans from their responsibilities but that expands the understanding of the ways in which objects become part of ongoing political processes, for better or worse. Furthermore, paying increased attention to objects and the political assemblages they hold together can help to reveal what else is at work in shaping social and economic realities besides the interplay of humans intentions and purposes (reality frequently defies intentions!).

Another great philosopher who takes entities – both human and non-human – seriously is Manuel DeLanda. His work is profoundly Deleuzian and he uses his very deep knowledge of Deleuze’s work to produce highly accessible material. In A New Philosophy of Society he focuses in particular on the relationship between (heterogenous) individuals and ‘wholes’ using assemblage theory to examine the various human and non-human structures (most of which combine the two) that deserve the ontological designation of ‘real entity’. These entities perform functions upon each other, coding and decoding, territorialising and deterritorialising, producing both order and disorder. Order results in the production of new or emergent entities, from families to markets (always specific, embodied markets, however – not an abstract ‘the market’). This enables a wide array of ‘things’ both material and semiotic to be given an equal ontological status, and to be taken seriously in considerations of what society is and what it means to be implicated in it.

One particular group of philosophers, who are all very active in the blogosphere, are associated with the relatively recent phenomenon of Object Oriented Ontology (OOO), which holds that reality is composed of objects – i.e. objects are the fundamental unit of reality, of being. Some of the best known Object Oriented philosophers are: Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, Levi Bryant and Ian Bogost. They all take their explorations of objects in different (and not always complementary) directions, have radically different blogging styles, are supportive of open access publishing (see the Open Humanities Press, and see Levi’s book Democracy of Objects there in particular) and all recognise that blogging has played a vital role in permitting the development and spread of their philosophical work. You can get an overview of OOO over here (newly put up).

The apparent ‘return’ to objects can be a bit frustrating for those who have struggled hard to point out that we need to get beyond some kind of atomistic/Newtonian vision of reality and instead recognise that everything is interconnected, that reality is relational… But the OOO-ers are certainly not Newtonian, though they do refute the notion that objects can be reduced to mere epiphenomena of more ‘real’ relationships. They rather see reality as being distinctly ecological in nature, with objects entering into and exiting relationships which do not exhaust their being. Instead, objects all withdraw from access in some form or the other (i.e. they defy naieve realism, incorporating many of the key elements of critical theory and epistemic limits into the nature of being itself) such that they always keep something in reserve. Objects are not static or passive lumps but are agential, having powers and capacities, exerting influences on other objects that encounter them. They have molten cores. They are split along their sensual and real selves. They are processual and dynamic in nature. They are composed of yet other objects. They undergo transformations… and so on… They cannot be reduced to some fundamental underlying object (this is often called undermining) that is the basis for all others (the real ground of being) and they are not somehow merely a display put on by some transcendent other object (this is called overmining), what these authors often call onto-theology. OOO constitutes a major new domain of philosophy (associated with a movement called speculative realism) that takes objects very seriously and is opening up new ways of understanding society, politics, architecture and much else besides.

Isabelle Stengers, a Belgian philosopher, particularly of science (she first trained as a chemist), also takes objects and the non-human seriously. Stengers is concerned with the politics of human practices in the cosmos, crossing human and non-human boundaries, modern and non-modern. She is ardently anti-capitalist but takes a profoundly nuanced path to the question of how we might best respond to the challenges with which we are confronted in our present moment. Her concept of ‘cosomopolitics’ provides a way of taking stock of politics at work as groups of humans and other entities enter into relationships with each other that can have profoundly disturbing effects for one group or the other. Every group has its own conditions of existence, the things (human or not) that permit them to reproduce themselves as that group (e.g. a particular tribe, a profession, etc.) and the actions of one group can threaten to undermine the conditions of existence of another. Cosmopolitics then is about groups entering into exchange with each other in a manner that recognises their own vulnerability, and in which the forging of an agreement between them is founded on both groups putting their own conditions of existence up for negotiation, rather that the more unilateral form of consultation that we witness (if at all) under contemporary capitalism. Her most recent books (Capitalist Sorcery: Breaking the Spell and Au Temps des Catastrophes: Resister a la Barbarie qui Vient) are specifically about resisting capitalism and responding to the imminent (if not already occurring) ecological disaster and, even more specifically, about avoiding falling into the traps that will plague those seeking to construct/compose another reality.

Relating to other cultures in a post-Nature world

Timothy Morton – in his book Ecology without Nature – does a fascinating job of showing that there is no such thing as Nature (note the big ‘N’) that is out there, a kind of backdrop or background against which things happen, a holistic totality or underlying ground of being, or something that can be turned to as a source of ‘wisdom’, etc. This idea of Nature is born out of a form of alienation and it is a cultural construction. Instead, there is just a cosmos full of things, a nature with a small ‘n’ if you will, made up of all kinds of things, some of which are human and some of which are created by humans as they interact with non-human things (Latour calls such things ‘hybrids’). In this sense, the multiple nature thesis would be the one that says that there are multiple ‘Natures’ (big N) but only one nature (small n). Latour, in Waiting for Gaia. Composing the common world through arts and politics (available here) argues that rather than the present era being characterised by post-humanism it is rather a post-natural world that we are now inhabiting.

However, drawing on the work of ethnopsyhciatrist Tobie Nathan (askey do both Stengers and Latour), it rapidly becomes clear that the realities encountered by people with so-called non-modern cosmologies and ontologies, can be affected by the entities that they ‘believe’ in: spirit powers, djinns, witchcraft, etc. while those who do not ‘believe’ in these entities cannot be affected by them (in the same manner). The scientist or regular psychiatrist/psychologist, who ‘knows’, has been trained to see these entities as mere fantasies, beliefs, projections of the subconscious or else some kind of filling of the mind with cultural stories and fairy tales, etc. Those believing in such things, those who ‘just believe’, so we moderns have been led to believe, must be purged of their false beliefs in order to return to a ‘normal’ life, to be cured. At best, if they are harmless, they can be tolerated (see below on Stengers idea of the ‘Curse of Tolerance’). However, Tobie Nathan’s work shows that it is by taking these entities seriously, as real entities, that the troubles they induce (or rather the situations they produce and induce) can be effectively addressed. What then is real? And what is not? Once culture is understood not as something distinct from Nature but, more accurately, as part of nature, then so-called cultural constructions, what Latour calls ‘factishes’ (such as totem poles or DNA) must also be taken as real entities that are capable of circulating (in longer or shorter networks) and exerting some kind of agency or influence as a result.

Latour’s work is, I think, both subtle and nuanced (perhaps this is why it seems to be open to such misunderstanding?) – and so is his treatment of what he calls ‘the moderns’. This is why he can write one book called We Have Never Been Modern and another called The Modern Cult of the Factish Gods. For Latour, the moderns are those who claim to have established the separation of nature and culture, whose Science gives them access to rationality and objectivity and who have finally liberated the human spirit from the clutches of nature through something like the project of Enlightenment. This, he contends, is a fallacy and one that proceeds through the construction of a particular concept of Nature. There is, of course, no Nature that is separate or distinct from culture, no separation was ever really executed or discovered – even though it may have been imagined, praised and decried. Hence, ‘We have never been modern’: we (the moderns) never really forged the separation we imagined from nature: on the contrary we just became increasingly entangled with it.

At the same time, the so-called moderns (with their fallacious self-narrative) can be analyzed through what Latour describes as a symmetrical anthropology: one that is capable of approaching moderns and non-moderns on an equal footing, rather than taking the former as the appropriate position from which to consider the latter (Latour and Stengers both make the distinction of those who ‘know’ from those who ‘merely believe’). This notion of a symmetrical anthropology is itself a huge contribution to any kind of critical praxis. One of Latour’s conclusions from symmetrical anthropology is that moderns and non-moderns can be distinguished by the nature of the rhizomal networks they construct around their factishes, with moderns constructing significantly longer/more complex networks than non-moderns.

Stengers, however, commenting on Latour’s work, notes that while this certainly makes it possible to describe and compare, for example, climate scientists and the Yoruba (a West African tribe), it also carries risks with it. Its major advantage is that it is able to problematise the practices, the culture, the truth-claims, etc. of the moderns, those calls to objectivity, rationality, etc. that deny non-modern cultures and practices (such as those of the Yoruba) any claim to deserving a seat in the Parliament of Things (a space Latour imagines where human and non-human entities can be represented and where a true ‘political ecology of things’ – one that really holds the space for everything from climate change and polar bears to microchips and seed varieties – can operate). Let us not forget, in our celebration of modernism’s achievements, that these ride on the back of a highly complicit saga of violence, colonisation, slavery, environmental destruction, cultural imperialism, etc., etc. What I think we need, in part at least, is theory that interrupts and complicates our smugness; what we take for granted about our own achievements and what we manage to brush aside as ‘something else’ rather than that with which it co-evolved.

Stengers notes that there is a danger of putting all practices on an equal footing, so that they can be compared side by side, since we feel that it invites us again to start sorting them, as thought it was somehow for us to do so, by defining criteria by which they can be sorted, a priori. Of course, the symmetrizing anthropologist must situate themselves too, and must recognise that they can never have a claim to speak for everyone that they study. This does not, however, descend into some absolute relativism (where no judgement is possible, anything goes), but asks one to proceed with caution when dealing with other cultures, their practices and their realities. Rather, the one encountering another culture functions as a diplomat, making this move thanks to a precarious peace, what Stengers calls the ‘diplomat’s peace’, an uncertain, risky peace over which the possibility of either war or betrayal always hangs. Finding the way of putting different cultures on an equal footing, which is precisely what Latour’s symmetrical anthropology (and its underlying ontology) permits, provides a starting point for addressing the bigger question:

“Here we [the moderns] return to the question “How do we live with the Yoruba?” not in the sense that the problem would be resolved but in the sense that it can begin to be explored. If sorting is not the business of science, but again relates to a technical problem that can only be introduced “with” the Yoruba, how can we construct this problem in such a way that it does not assume we are “angels,” capable of understanding everything, sharing everything, and, therefore, sorting everything. We, who are not angels but think in political terms, must therefore create obstacles that prevent us from rushing toward others while requiring that they resemble what we might become, obstacles that prepare us to wonder about their conditions, the conditions they might establish for eventual exchange. This is our problem. Its construction in no way ensures that the Yoruba will meet with us (any more than the construction of an experimental device ensures that the being we wish to mobilize will agree to show up). Our words are relative to out practices and we now ask that they tell us which obligations will guide us where angels fear to tread.” (Stengers, Cosmoplitics 2, The Curse of Tolerance, p.362)

In her book The Curse of Tolerance, Stengers goes into considerably more depth to explore just what is entailed in the exchange between two cultures. While her discussion is quite nuanced, the crux is that tolerance is not the answer to our contemporary crisis of cultural diversity. Tolerance, is what a powerful group can choose to express with respect to another group whose beliefs and practices they believe to be predicated on false conceptions of reality. We can tolerate the Muslims with their Sharia law in London (unless they turn into terrorists), or we can tolerate indigenous people in jungles (unless we get a sudden need for the resources they live on top of) but by no means do we make any kind of attempt to enter into a genuine exchange, a meaningful exchange with them, in which the world that we take for granted, the conditions of our own existence, are also up for debate… Which is what cosmopolitics entails. It is a much more cautious mode of engagement with others, one that seeks to create the conditions that will make possible a genuine attempt to find ways of living together. It is based, I think, on the belief that there is no short-cut to cultural change, that we cannot simply rely on legal institutions to enforce new cultural practices unilaterally, but that change must always be wrought locally, meaningfully, by people who are enmeshed in specific contexts and who have earned the legitimacy to occupy those contexts, interact with the people concerned and play the delicate and risky diplomatic role of bring about cultural transformation and exchange. Of course, they must also do this with the recognition that cultural change is not a unilateral affair; it is a matter of exchange between two or more groups whose very conditions of existence (i.e. identities) are at risk or must be put at risk in order for the possibility of an equal exchange to occur and for the possibility of a new, more hybridised cultural formation to be produced as a result of this.”