[-empyre-] Meillassoux / Harman

Akshay akshay87 at gmail.com
Mon Jun 18 12:00:44 EST 2012

Hi all,

I’m new to this place, but I thought I might write a little on this
topic as for better or worse, I have one foot in both social/critical
theory and metaphysics. I hope I'm using the list properly!

I think this discussion has taken many interesting turns and been rich
and varied, but I am also left with the sense that the stakes could be
clarified further in a way that might be productive for all involved.
Though I can’t claim to represent either queer theory or OOO, which
seem to have become primary threads, (theoretically, my area of focus
is in race and ethnicity, and metaphysically, I do subscribe to
philosophical realism, but of a different stripe,) I do find that many
of the contours of the discussion here are symptomatic of some larger
debates within the world of Continentally-inflected thought, and so I
would like to zoom out a bit and attempt an intervention at the level
of assumptive foundations. I’m drawing on the words of Zach Blas,
quoted by Micha Cárdenas, as a point of departure because I feel they
get to the heart of the matter. I hope zooming out this way doesn’t
detract from or stray too far away from the specifics at hand, and
feel free to shelve my comments if they do!

Blas states that the realities of OOO/SR “are always already
culturally parsed through class, gender, and race.” It seems to me
like insufficient attention to social realities, in particular, to the
ways they might condition or otherwise affect the ontologies in
question, is the basic charge that unites most of the theoretical
criticisms of the new realisms, whether Galloway’s, Halberstam’s, or
others. To cut to the chase, these criticisms ultimately concern the
role and jurisdiction of philosophy and/or theory, which is something
I noticed has not been addressed yet (if I’m wrong here, my

Blas’ position on the matter appears to be the one shared by most
people working within the Continental world, which we can find in the
final question of the excerpt: “what are one’s ethical and political
obligations when writing and constructing a conception of reality and

As I understand it, this question contains two claims:

a. Ethical-political obligations are inseparable from metaphysics/ontology.
b. These obligations are a priori issues that ground ontology (ethics
as first philosophy as found in Levinas.)

We can bracket the first claim- whether or not it’s true that we have
ethical obligations, it seems that all of us here are invested in
ethical and political problems in our own ways, and believe that there
are important connections between ethics/politics and ontology.

The second claim is the relevant one, and where the real disagreement
between the realisms and their critics exposes itself. For most people
doing (queer, race, etc.) theory, forays into the ontological are
indeed prompted by ethics, and ultimately secondary to them. Such
theory has its origins in the experience of oppression and violence,
and has as its goal engagement with and resistance against them.
Marx’s famous quote from his Theses on Feuerbach springs to mind as an
historical epigraph: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world
in various ways; the point is to change it.”

The priority of ethics impacts the other regions of philosophy in a
number of ways, one of the most relevant being that ontology often
becomes instrumental- the servant of ethics (here referring to
specifically human concerns, though this is changing thanks to
Critical Animal Studies.) People who do theory (from here on, crude
and unfair shorthand for a vibrant multiplicity of thought-formations)
are interested in questions of what race, gender, society, etc, are so
that the violence and inequalities associated with them can be
resisted in some way. Occasionally, depending on the theoretical
approach, the “what is it?” question is extended further down the
ontological ladder, but once again, that extension is often a
byproduct of the ethical-political process or the adoption of some
larger philosophy for application in a particular area. Theory, as
Foucault and Deleuze have described it, is mostly conceived as a
“toolbox,” and its concepts are the tools we use to change the world.
Ontology becomes secondary, to speak with Deleuze again, “what
does/can it do?” emerges as the relevant question, and often, the
relation to any notion of truth is politicized. In its most extreme
instantiations, the priority of ethics makes “pure” ontology seem
unethical, as in part of Galloway’s criticism, or ontology is thought
to be literally decided by ethics itself.

Ontologists like those who make up the OOO camp (also an internally
diverse category) are committed to a reality that is not restricted
to, exhausted by, or inaccessible to the human (though it need not be
unmediated, of course,) and is thus irreducible to and not constituted
solely by the “dirty political battles” Blas cites. They hold that
ontology can be pursued, in opposition to those who argue that the
very possibility is hindered or even foreclosed by capitalism,
postmodernity, psychoanalytic structures, etc (though arguably, those
critiques are themselves ontological, meaning ontology can’t be
escaped so easily,) and furthermore, can be pursued for its own sake,
or for the sake of understanding (though I must emphasize that this
relationship to the Real isn’t necessarily crudely scientistic.) While
they may make political and ethical claims in addition to ontological
ones, and political claims can and should be made against them (such
as Halberstam’s point about masculinist archives,) they do not
ultimately legislate or, in the case of the OOO philosopher’s own
ethics, flow directly from ontology, which also means there is no
clear or necessary homology between the two.

I don’t want to attempt a foray into questions about the priority,
relationship, and nature of ethics or ontology, or the larger issue of
what philosophy/theory should be just now, but in my humble opinion,
these discussions would achieve more clarity if this particular divide
were at least kept in mind, and participants acknowledged their
fidelity (or indifference) to specific ethical or ontological
propositions, even if they didn’t jump right into the debates. Doing
so would highlight the purpose of each participant or group’s
engagement with philosophy and the guiding motives for their projects
(for Being or for beings, as Heidegger and Sartre put it,
respectively, in their famous debate.) Otherwise, we can end up
talking past each other, and much irrelevance is generated through the
unacknowledged assumptions about what philosophy is/should be, for us
and for others. It seems unproductive to me, for example, when a queer
theorist is criticized by an OOOer for being insufficiently attentive
to ontology, or too human-centric, if it is not clear that those are
relevant to their project. Similarly, it seems unproductive to me when
OOO’s ontology is declared illegitimate for lacking a politics or for
having a view of entities that has alleged affinities with
(neoliberal) Capitalism, since neither of those are necessary for
ontology from their own standpoint, and since they don’t necessarily
bear on whether OOO’s claims about the world are false or not. Keeping
these provisional assumptions in mind will hopefully allow for more
pointed exchanges, connections, and criticisms all around. Cheers!


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