(the) Political, Alain Badiou, Jane Bennett, Levy Bryant, Noortje Marres, Ontological Politics, Ranciere

a minor thought on OOO and politics

Just recently – over at Larval Subjects – Levi Bryant discussed the question whether there is a politics of object-oriented ontology. Notably, (m)any recent attempts, this one included, inside the vibrant chaos of political theory / ontology seem to give rise to the twofold issue of, firstly, the ‘ontologization of politics’ and, secondly, the ‘politicization of ontology’. Bryant uses Jacques Ranciere’s opposition between the ‘police’ (roughly; the standardization of socio-political antagonisms ‘in/as’ the status quo) and ‘politics’ (that which – or, in Badiouian the very moment that – breaks with the order of the ‘police’ by explicating the/an implicate antagonism) to connect these two; the police/politics opposition makes politics into an issue of ‘reality politics’, an ontological activism (that which formerly did not exist (or; ‘did not exist as existing), now comes and is being brought to the fore) and politicizes ontology by forcing the status quo to ‘answer’ the (Badiouan) question ‘what’s your ontology?’ – what does currently exist, what is recognized, what is the status quo made of.

OOO, arguably, interrupts this onto-political ‘scheme’ precisely by questioning what/who is able or is granted the ability to perform ‘politics’ – i.e. to interrupt the hierarchical order that goes under the name of the ‘police’ or ‘status quo’. Now, where many or, perhaps, all contemporary proponents of this line of thought (roughly Ranciere, Badiou, Zizek etc.) consider ‘the subject’ as the primordial interlocutor of the gap, void or lack between police/politics, OOO conceives of this standpoint as taking an ontological inequality as its starting point. This is reflected, perhaps, in the image of the status quo as an ‘objective’, positive realm (that, just like an ‘object’, is inherently passive) and as opposed to the active, interrupting ‘subject’ (Badiou talks of the ‘objectless subject’ and in his work a subject is precisely only constituted when it actively breaks with the passive given order). OOO’s intention is to conceptualize how starting from an ontological equality – ‘refusing a partition of being into two distinct ontological categories’ as Bryant puts it – and, successively, conceiving of all objects as having political agency changes what politics is made and capable of. Although Bryant does not refer to this point, Ranciere – in Jane Bennett’s article ‘A Parliament of Things’ – denies any such possibility, by stating that politics ‘ought not to be stretched beyond the realm of the human’ (Bennett in a fabulous book edited by Tonder, p. 139). Without a doubt Badiou would say exactly the same. That is; Althusser’s influence on French thought can be characterized by saying that objects are mainly there to be ideologically ‘loaded’.

Although it gives rise to much daring explorations (and I here arrive at my minor thought on the topic) there does seem to exist a danger in trying to borrow the Rancierian/Badiouian (et.al.) schema and using it for un-Rancierian/un-Badiouian purposes. That is, the question ‘do objects have political agency’ is perhaps fully legitimate as a conceptual protest against the reduction of objects to meaning, symbolism etc., but less so with regard to the fact that it suggests that politics itself is a ready made, i.e. something one ‘has’. This comes down to what Noortje Marres has characterized as the ‘political naturalism’ in some of Latour’s accounts: he ‘suggests that things can have political effects in and of themselves, that is, without these things having been defined as political in nature. [His account] entails a strangely naturalist understanding of politics [for he suggests that] a non-human can be political in itself by some sort of secondary quality’ (Marres 2005). The issue of ‘making them voices in democracy’ (as Bryant puts it), in other words, does seem to make unable the question of when and how an object or non-human becomes political, how and when it is depoliticized, how it can have anti-political effects. That is, the gesture of conceptualizing objects as political actors on the basis of an horizontal ontology is much needed, but must not obliterate the complex nature of ‘politics’ itself. OOO could, perhaps, make one step further by not only granting objects political agency, but also understanding how an object (mis)uses it, changes or overtakes it. My minor thought thus comes down to saying that the Ranciere/Badiou framework is not unproblematically the most convenient for an politics of OOO, at least not when it comes down to conceptualizing what this political agency of the object consists of.

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One thought on “a minor thought on OOO and politics

  1. Interesting stuff here. I’m still thinking through all of this. In Ranciere’s framework, one of the major differences would be that nonhuman objects cannot articulate a wrong, but rather require another agency (humans) to act as their voice (much like the creature that holds the microphone for the leader of the merchants in David Lynch’s Dune). This poses all sorts of problems for a mapping of nonhuman politics onto Ranciere’s schema. Nonetheless, what fascinates me in Ranciere is that we never know, a priori, who is capable of speaking. This suggests the possibility of speech to the animal and mineral. But again, I’m working through this.

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