The Eternal And Necessary Bond Between Politics and Ontology: Some Notes On The Nature Of Artifice

I wanted to write something on ontology and politics since it’s been going around. I haven’t had a chance to read the posts by Ben and Reid regarding this issue, so this may be painfully out of date and for that I apologize. I always worry when a hot topic goes around and I know that both Ben and Reid have commented on the issue that I will simply be repeating them. This comes largely as notes on Nina’s original post and Nick’s follow-up. It is not meant to be conclusive, but simply a statement of belief regarding the relationship of ontology and the political.

I can understand the theory that brought these ideas forth, I have even made similar arguments against someone in my department (a post-Marxist who draws on Deleuze and Negri and insists that ontology is inherently political). What I am concerned about is more of an epiphenomena of such a critique. I accept Nick’s claim that Being (and it’s study) should not be hindered by one’s politics; monarchists have just as much access to reality as Marxists. I do however worry about what such a sharp divide does for ontology.

One of the things I very much dislike about Badiou is that for him philosophy is very much reactionary. It is always the result of someone working within one of the conditions and then applying such advances, discoveries, or beliefs to philosophy. It strikes me that this is what is at root of both Nina’s and Nick’s writings on the relation of politics and ontology. It seems very much like a Reese’s problem, as if the history of thought said: “you got your politics in my ontology,” “you got your ontology in my politics,” and now we are looking to separate the two. I don’t think ontology is inherently political, reality is not conservative or liberal or capitalist or communist, it is what it is. That being said, I don’t think the division can be stated so strongly. Politics are a part of reality, as part of humanity they are an emergent property of the real, that is, Nature. There is nothing artificial about politics. One of the points of Nina’s original post was that there is a necessary split between politics and ontology, even if it is entirely artificial. There is no such thing as artificiality. All is Nature. As such, we must consider politics as entirely natural. I am very much an Aristotelian in this way (or perhaps a pre-modern or anti-modern), we should look to Nature in order to understand our own political struggles. This is exactly why I have proposed a loose outline of survivalism, a form of ethics and politics that takes the health and well-being of systems as its goal.

It is not then that politics have infected metaphysics, ontology is not in itself political. What is the political though? I think it can be defined as essentially “the development and maintenance of systems of things and relations.” At it’s most basic politics are a complex system of relations. Ontology as I understand it, the study of Nature (the only realm of existents), is also relational. It would follow then that the study of one will necessarily involve the understanding of the other. We must be clear however that I grant no sacredness to the political the way Nick seems to, politics are the logical extension of a thing able to act on those systems which generated it, just as ontology and ethics are studies which develop from specific things in reality (complex animal organisms), so too is the political able to act on on its own ground. This is consequential of the outgrowth of consciousness in Nature: organisms can now act rather than simply react. In this sense I grant politics to all relational organisms, or rather, all organisms able to act on their own systems of relations. This means, again, that politics are not sacred. I see nothing special in human politics except that we are more partial to them because we are implicated in their development and decisions. I’m sure if the politics of bees had an impact on me I would be much more concerned with their network of workers and queens, but as it stands the system of human relations are just another system. Certainly I would not stand for political decisions that I see as unethical or unjust, but that does not make such systems holy, only of more concern for my wellbeing. To repeat, I see Nature as inherently relational, and I see the political to be nothing more than a complex system of relations. It follows then than we should, following Aristotle and many others, attempt to understand the political through an understanding of Nature-itself.

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5 responses to “The Eternal And Necessary Bond Between Politics and Ontology: Some Notes On The Nature Of Artifice

  1. I find this a curious sentence: “I don’t think ontology is inherently political, reality is not conservative or liberal or capitalist or communist, it is what it is.”

    The difference between ontology and reality is that ontology is inherently social – it is a ‘study’ of reality. Studies of imply a vast social background, and the object of the study doesn’t eliminate that background. There is nothing inherently political about a piece of quartz, but there is about geology – in as much as it exists within institutions and expresses itself institutionally. Even a casual glance at, say, the history of geology from Hutton to Lyell should make that evident.

    The politics are two fold – one being within the institution itself, and one being in relation to external institutions.

    This seems pretty plain to me. When, for instance, Darwin wrote the origin of the species, on the one hand, he was positioning himself politically against other schools of thought – say, Agassiz – about speciation and the unity of living organisms. On the other hand, as Adrian Diamond has shown exhaustively in Darwin’s Sacred Cause, he was also positioning himself (as was Agassiz) in the deeply political discourse about slavery and race – Darwin was not just accidentally from a family with a deep involvement in the abolitionist cause.

    Whatever ontology studies (the idea that it studies reality is, I would think, something that a nominalist would certainly dispute), when it actually exists in the world – for instance, in disputes about whether it is political or not – it exists socially – it uses language that inherently reflects certain values (for instance, the value system that inheres in thinking there is a hierarchy in philosophy in which the study of being comes “first”, followed by ethics and aesthetics – which is definitely a reflection f an old, aristocratic form of thinking), and it tries to position itself by various means of moral suasion – the appeal to the truth, for instance, or the appeal to definitions, another old and curiously persistent political thematic in philosophy, which goes back to the Cratylus and the notion that the gods, or the rulers, lay down the definitions of things.

    I find the appeal to the object of study as proof of the value neutrality of the study itself a little astonishing from the left wing perspective supposedly shared by the theory blogs.

  2. Roger, the problem with your argument is that it assumes an inherent bias within the structure of knowledge, that when I do metaphysics I bring along all of my aesthetic, ethical, and political baggage with me and am therefore not seeing reality but always and only my own distorted view of things. I reject such a claim as it is nothing more than a political form of correlationism. When it comes to epistemology, I follow both Schelling and Schopenhauer in their correctives of the Kantian view: we know things in themselves because we know ourselves.

    While the discourse of reality certainly has political implications it is not itself political. This is why for instance it is possible to have Left or Right Hegelians, Nietzscheans, or Lacanians. Their work in ontology is able to be read politically, but it is not inherently political. Regardless of Darwin’s intentions, he worked with empirical findings; bones are not political entities unless used as such. There is nothing political about a fish in-itself, it becomes political when it enters the system of relations involving human fishing, border disputes, Native rights, etc.

    Again, I do not reject that there are things that exist as political entities or that things can become political, but I do not see anything political in a pile of leaves until I consider the legalities of burning them. The leaves-themselves are devoid of political concern or consequence until I make them political. The same goes for human beings. Based on my physiology I am not political, I am a complex system of organized parts and actions. The working of this system I call myself is not itself a political issue, it is simply the maintenance of a system. For me, politics comes from the extrapolation of this “maintenance of a system” in order to maintain larger systems involving smaller systems.

  3. “I do metaphysics I bring along all of my aesthetic, ethical, and political baggage with me and am therefore not seeing reality but always and only my own distorted view of things.”

    I don’t quite know what this means. Why would your view be distorted if you bring along your aesthetic and ethical views?

    I can’t imagine Schopehauer, of all people, as the philosopher who would credit this approach. Schopenhauer would be the first to point out that you don’t escape the veil of Maya by saying I am going to pretend it isn’t there, or escape the will by an act of will – which of course takes place someplace. To “reject” this, you would, of course, have to reject the language that you are using, the training in a particular culture that would make you adduce Schopenhauer and Schelling, and the medium in which you are writing, the internet. In fact, rejection itself is just the kind of political move I am describing in the interior form of politics. It is often a very successful one: I’m not making this or that statement from my situation, but reflecting a revealed truth from — fill in your deity.

    The politics of saying that you aren’t doing politics has a long and inglorious history, but it is an empty performative.

  4. “Schopenhauer would be the first to point out that you don’t escape the veil of Maya by saying I am going to pretend it isn’t there, or escape the will by an act of will – which of course takes place someplace.”

    You’re missing the point here. The point is not the escape of the Will, but the knowledge of it. The Will is the equivalent of the noumenal, it is what things are in themselves. My point was that for Schopenhauer we are able to get outside of the phenomenal realm and actually know things as they are because we know ourselves as Will.

    I don’t agree that reality is dependent on my knowing it. Nor is reality inherently linguistic or determined by my civilization. Things don’t show themselves as English or Canadian or Western or Late Capitalist. I’m not sure what reality you’re in where rocks and stars and waterfalls have those names attached to them, but that’s not where I live or work. I don’t need to “reject” that because it is a false claim in the first place. It would be as if I were to maintain that you must reject your Kryptonian heritage in order to understand my point, the point being that there is nothing there for you to reject other than an empty claim. It’s not a clever trick to say that I am using language or thought; I am not “trapped” in the confines of my culture or heritage. This assumes that those things are somehow artificial impositions, as if I somehow stand over against the real and infect it, while I maintain that there is no such thing as artificiality in the first place.

  5. “It’s not a clever trick to say that I am using language or thought; I am not “trapped” in the confines of my culture or heritage. This assumes that those things are somehow artificial impositions, as if I somehow stand over against the real and infect it, while I maintain that there is no such thing as artificiality in the first place.”

    No, I don’t see those assumptions packed into the notion of politics at all. Far from it – I don’t see how you can stand over against the real at all, or in any point. It is a simple observation about the real you stand in, the social fact that you use terms, concepts, historical references, etc., which are all mediated through the social. (Incidentally, I think that completely misinterprets Schopenhauer, but for this discussion, that is a red herring.)

    As for the ‘trap’ talk, which is like the ‘bias’ talk or the ‘distorted view’ talk – that’s not my terminology and it certainly isn’t anything that derives from one’s social emplacement. Why would you think, in the first place, that ‘seeing reality’ requires a non-bias? Maybe distortion is the best way to see the real – whatever distortion means, or seeing the real. As a human, you will always have a severely limited sense of the real – you’ll only sense your portion of it. Unlike a bat, you don’t have echolocation; and you don’t have the 100 senses that Voltaire attributed to the inhabitant of Sirius.

    However these things may be, ‘to study something’ requires certain things – and I can show you the collected student debt in the U.S. to give you one aspect of that. Another aspect, of course, is that study is not the same as being. A biology student who claimed that he had to get a passing grade in because he was alive would probably lose the argument. If ontology is not a study of anything, then the case is mute. If it is, it is a study like any other study. You don’t get a passing grade in the ontology class because you are real (although you might want to try that trick in the Zen class).

    As for traps, limits aren’t traps. When I say that you walk on two legs or grasp things with your hand, I am not saying you are “trapped” by your legs or hands, or that your hands are distorting your relation to the object you grasp. No trap, no bias, no distortion comes with these things, they are simply the ground conditions in which activities like philosophy, or bowling, or eating spaghetti go on.

    Now, how would I prove that your enunciative situation is such that you are in no privileged position vis a vis any object of study? How would I prove that, furthermore, no outcome of that study would take you out of an enunciative situation?

    Ultimately, this is the solipsism problem. It is as if one were playing chess with someone who rejected the idea that he was playing chess. I could point out that he uses only the chesspieces on the chess board, he confines his play completely to the rules of chess, and to the spaces on the board, and ask what else he was doing. He might claim he was playing something completely different which only always coincides with the outward procedures of chess. Ultimately, there is no way to persuade that person he is not playing chess, even if you point out that every move, and every piece, and every game he plays looks exactly like chess. Because every time he can say that you are proving he is playing the game that completely coincides with chess – not chess. He could even say that chess is demeaning, biased, and ultimately enslaving. He would never be trapped by chess!

    Well, so be it. But an outside observer should simply view that player as playing chess. The expression of intention here, upon which we normally rely on, is broken. And who cares?

    It only really matters when some ontologist’s claim to be only relying on the direct contact with reality becomes part of an argument, or a rhetorical move, etc. Then it takes on a strategic significance. This is in fact quite common in institutions – this is how the truth is strategized in, say, medicine, so that the doctor as the holder of the truth is the one who has no self interest, thus disarming the patient and criticism. Or in economics, where the technician is merely producing models that are completely neutral vis a vis any ideology.

    That there is a strong pull towards neutrality, towards valuing it, finding it fundamentally more valuable than distortion, and this might be a good thing – a Daoist thing, actually. Humans shouldn’t value humans too highly. The useless is ultimately higher than the useful.

    But in a utilitarian society such as ours, this vestige of the sacred usually leads to very suspicious strategies for creating an aura of neutrality in order to exert a certain positional power.

    Instead of Schopenhauer, I think our ultimate authority here should be Dr. Seuss. You have to eat your green eggs and ham somewhere. The act of rejecting eating them anywhere and eating them anyway is cheating. Sam I am would not approve.

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