To the Political Ontologists

The political ontologists have their work cut out for them. Let’s say you believe that the entire world is made out of fire: Your elms and alders are fed by the sky’s titanic cinder; your belly is a metabolic furnace; your lungs draw in the pyric aether; the air that hugs the earth is a slow flame—a blanket of chafing-dish Sterno—shirring exposed bumpers and cast iron fences; water itself is a mingling of fire air with burning air. The cosmos is ablaze. The question is: How are you going to derive a political program from this insight, and in what sense could that program be a politics of fire? How, that is, are you going to get from your ontology to your political proposals? For if fire is not just a political good, but is in fact the very stuff of existence, the world’s primal and universal substance, then it need be neither produced nor safeguarded. No merely human arrangement—no parliament, no international treaty, no tax policy—could dislodge it from its primacy. It will no longer make sense to describe yourself as a partisan of fire, since you cannot be said to defend something that was never in danger, and you cannot be said to promote something that is everywhere already present. Your ontology, in other words, has already precluded the possibility that fire is a choice or that it is available only in certain political frameworks. This is the fate of all political ontologies: The philosophy of all-being ends up canceling the politics to which it is only superficially attached. The –ology swallows its adjective.

The task, then, when reading the radical ontologists—the Spinozists, the Left Heideggerians, the speculative realists—is to figure out how they think they can get politics back into their systems; to determine by which particular awkwardness they will make room for politics amidst the spissitudes of being. In its structure, this problem repeats an old theological question, which the political ontologists have merely dressed in lay clothes—the question, that is, of whether we are needed by God or the gods. If you have given in to the pressure to subscribe to an ontology, then this is the first question you should ask: Whatever is at the center of your ontology—does it need you? Does Becoming need you? Is Being incomplete without you? Has the cosmic fire deputized you? And if you decide that, no, the fire does not need you—if, that is, you resist the temptation to appoint yourself that astounding entity upon which even the Absolute depends—then you will have yourself already concluded that there is nothing exactly to be gained from getting your ontology right, and you will be free to think about other and more interesting things.

If, on the other hand, you are determined to ontologize, and determined additionally that your ontology yield a politics, there are, roughly speaking, three ways you can make this happen.

First, you could determine that even though fire is the primal stuff of the universe, it is nonetheless unevenly distributed across it; or that the cosmos’s seemingly discrete objects embody fire to greater and lesser degrees. The heavy-gauge universalism of your ontology will prevent you from saying outright that water isn’t fire, but you might conclude all the same that it isn’t very good fire. This, in turn, would allow you to start drawing up league tables, the way that eighteenth-century vitalists, convinced that the whole world was alive, nonetheless distinguished between vita maxima and vita minima. And if you possess ontological rankings of this kind, you should be able to set some political priorities on their basis, finding ways to reward the objects (and people? and groups?) that carry their fiery qualities close to the surface, corona-like, and, equally, to punish those objects and people who burn but slowly and in secret. You might even decide that it is your vocation to help the world’s minimally fiery things—trout ponds, shale—become more like its maximally fiery things—volcanoes, oil-drum barbecue pits. The pyro-Hegelian takes it upon himself to convert the world to fire one timber-framed building at a time.

Alternately—and herewith a second possibility—you can proclaim that the cosmos is made of fire, but then attribute to humanity an appalling power not to know this. “Power” is the important word here, since the worry would have to be that human ignorance on this point could become so profound that it would damage or dampen the world-flame itself. Perhaps you have concluded that fire is not like an ordinary object. We know in some approximate and unconsidered way what it is; we are around it every day, walking in its noontide light, enlisting it to pop our corn, conjuring it from our very pockets with a roll of the thumb or knuckly pivot. And yet we don’t really understand the blaze; we certainly do not grasp its primacy or fathom the ways we are called upon to be its Tenders. You might even have discovered that we are the only beings, the only guttering flames in a universe of flame, capable of defying the fire, proofing the world against it, rebuilding the burning earth in gypsum and asbestos, perversely retarding what we have been given to accelerate. This argument expresses clear misgivings about humanity; it doesn’t trust us to keep the fire stoked; and to that extent it partakes of the anti-humanism that is all but obligatory among political ontologists. And yet it shares with humanism the latter’s sense that human beings are singular, a species apart, the only beings in existence capable of living at odds with the cosmos, capable, that is, of some fundamental ontological misalignment, and this to a degree that could actually abrogate an ontology’s most basic guarantees. From a rigorously anti-humanist perspective, this position could easily seem like a lapse—the residue of the very anthropocentrism that one is pledged to overcome—but it is in fact the most obvious opening for an anti-humanist politics (as opposed, say, to an anti-humanist credo), since you really only get a politics once the creedal guarantees have been lifted. If human beings are capable of forgetting the fire, someone will have to call to remind them. Someone, indeed, will have to ward off the ontological catastrophe—the impossible-but-somehow-still-really-happening nihilation of the fire—the Dousing.

That said, a non-catastrophic version of this last position is also possible, though its politics will be accordingly duller. Maybe duller is even a good thing. Such, at any rate, is the third pathway to a political ontology: You might consider arguments about being politically germane even if you don’t think that humanity’s metaphysical obtuseness can rend the very tissue of existence. You don’t have to say that we are damaging the cosmic fire; it will be enough to say that we are damaging ourselves, though having said that, you are going to have to stop trying to out-anti-humanize your peers. Your position will now be that not knowing the truth about the fire-world deforms our policies; that if we mistake the cosmos for something other than flame, we are likely to attempt impossible feats—its cooling; its petrification—and will then grow resentful when these inevitably fail. You might, in the same vein, determine that there are entire institutions dedicated to broadcasting the false ontologies that underwrite such doomed projects, doctrines of air and doxologies of stone, and you might think it best if such institutions were dismantled. If it’s politics we’re talking about, you might even have plans for their dismantling. Even so, you will have concluded by this point that the problem is in its essentials one of belief—the problem is simply that some people believe in water—in which case, ontology isn’t actually at issue, since nothing can happen ontologically; the fire will crackle on regardless of what we think of it, indifferent to our denials and our elemental philandering. You have thus gotten the politics you asked for, but only having in a certain sense bracketed the ontology or placed it beyond political review. And your political program will accordingly be rather modest: a new framework of conviction—a clarification—an illumination.

Still, even a modest politics sometimes shows its teeth. William Connolly, in a book published in 2011, says that the world-fire is burning hotter than it has ever burnt; the problem is, though, that some “territories … resist” the flame. What we don’t want to miss is the basically militarized language of that claim: “resisting territories” suggests backwaters full of ontological rednecks; Protestant Austrian provinces; the Pyrenees under Napoleon; Anbar. Connolly’s notion is that these districts will need to be enlightened and perhaps even pacified, whereupon political ontology outs itself as just another program of philosophical modernization, a mopping up operation, the People of the Fire’s concluding offensive against the People of the Ice. Don’t fight it, Connolly, in this way, too, an irenicist, instructs the existentially retrograde. Let it burn.

The all-important point, then, is that there is absolutely no reason to get hung up on the word “fire,” in the sense that there is no more sophisticated concept you can put in its place that will make these problems go away: not Being, not Becoming, not Contingency, not Life, not Matter, not Living Matter. Go ahead: Choose your ontological term or totem and mad-lib it back into the last six paragraphs.  Nothing else about them will change.

• • •

Anyone wanting to read Connolly’s World of Becoming, or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, its companion piece, also from 2011, now has some questions they can ask. The two books share a program:

-to survey theories of chaos, complexity; to repeat the pronouncements of Belgian chemists who declare the end of determinism; and then to resurrect under the cover of this new science a much older intellectual program—a variously Aristotelian, Paracelsian, and hermetic strain in early modern natural philosophy, which once posited and will now posit again a living cosmos a-go-go with active forces, a universe whose intricate assemblages of self-organizing systems will frustrate any attempt to reduce them back to a few teachable formulas;

-or, indeed, to trade in “science” altogether in favor of what used to be called “natural history,” the very name of which strips nature of its pretense to permanence and pattern and nameable laws and finds instead a universe existing wholly in time, as fully exposed to contingency, mutation, and the event as any human invention, with alligators and river valleys and planets now occupying the same ontological horizon as two-field crop rotation and the Lombard Leagues;

-to recklessly anthropomorphize this historical cosmos, to the point where that entirely humanist device, which everywhere it looks sees only persons, tips over into its opposite, as humanity begins divesting itself of its specialness, giving away its privileges and distinguishing features one by one, and so produces a cosmos full of more or less human things, active, volatile, underway—a universe enlivened and maybe even cartoonish, precisely animated, staffed by singing toasters and jitterbugging hedge clippers.

I wouldn’t blame anyone for finding this last idea rather winning, though one problem should be noted right way, which is that Connolly, in particular, despite getting a lot of credit for bringing the findings of the natural sciences into political theory—and despite repeating in A World of Becoming his earlier admonition to radical philosophers for failing to keep up with neurobiology and chemistry and such—really only quotes science when it repeats the platitudes of the old humanities. The biologist Stuart Kauffman has, Connolly notes, “identified real creativity” in the history of the cosmos or of nature. Other research has identified “degrees of real agency” in a “variety of natural-social processes.” The last generation of neuroscience has helped specify the “complexity of experience,” the lethal and Leavisite vagueness of which phrase should be enough to put us on our guard. It turns out that the people who will save the world are still the old aesthetes; it’s just that their banalities can now borrow the authority of Nobel Laureates (always, in Connolly, named as such). Of one scientific finding Connolly notes: “Mystics have known this for centuries, but the neuroscience evidence is nice to have too.” That will tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the role of science in the new vitalism, which is that it gets adduced only to ratify already held positions. This is interdisciplinarity as narcissistic mirror.

But we can grant Connolly his fake science—or rather, his fake deployment of real science. The position he and Bennett share—that the cosmos is full of living matter in a constant state of becoming—isn’t wrong just because it’s warmed over Ovid. What really needs explaining is just which problems the political philosophers think this neuro-metamorphism is going to solve. More to the point, one wonders which problems a vitalist considers still unsolved. If Bennett and Connolly are right, then is there anything left for politics to do? Has Becoming bequeathed us any tasks? Won’t Living Matter get by just fine without us? And if there is no political business yet to be undertaken, then in what conceivable sense is this a political philosophy and not an anti-political one?

The real dilemma is this: There are those three options for getting a politics back into ontology—you can devise an ontological hierarchy; you can combat ontological Vergessenheit; or you can promote ontological enlightenment. Bennett and Connolly don’t like two of these, and the third one—the one they opt for—ends up canceling the ontology they mean to advocate. I’ll explain.

Option #1: Hierarchy could work. Bennett and Connolly could try to distinguish between more and less dynamic patches of the universe—or between more and less animate versions of matter—but they don’t want to do that. The entire point of their philosophical program is a metaphysical leveling; witness that defense of anthropomorphism. Bennett, indeed, uses the word “hierarchical” only as an insult, the way that liberals and anarchists and post-structuralists have long been accustomed to doing. Having only just worked out that all of matter has the characteristics of life, she is not about to proclaim that some life forms are more important than others. Her thinking discloses a problem here, if only because it reminds one of how difficult is has been for the neo-vitalists to figure out when to propose hierarchies and when to level them, since each seems to come with political consequences that most readers will find unpalatable. Bennett herself worries that a philosophy of life might remove certain protections historically afforded humans and thus expose them to “unnecessary suffering.” She positions herself as another trans- or post-humanist, but she doesn’t want to give up on Kant and the never really enforced guarantees of a Kantian humanism; she thinks she can go over to Spinoza and Nietzsche and still arrive at a roughly Left-Kantian endpoint. “Vital materialism would … set up a kind of safety net for those humans who are now … routinely made to suffer.” That idea—which sounds rather like the Heidegger of the “Letter on Humanism”—is, of course, wrong. Bennett is right to fret. A vitalist anti-humanism is indeed rather cavalier about persons, as her immediate predecessors and philosophical mentors make amply clear. The hierarchies it erects are the old ones: Michael Hardt and Toni Negri think it is a good thing that entire populations of peasants and tribals were wiped out because their extermination increased the vital energies of the system as a whole. And if vitalism’s hierarchies produce “unnecessary suffering,” well, then so do its levelings: Deleuze and Guattari think that French-occupied Africa was an “open social field” where black people showed how sexually liberated they were by fantasizing about “being beaten by a white man.”

Option #2: They could follow the Heideggerian path, which would require them to show that humanity is a species with weird powers—that humans (and humans alone) can fundamentally distort the universe’s most basic feature or hypokeinomon. That would certainly do the political trick. Vitalism would doubtless take on an urgency if it could make the case that human beings were capable of dematerializing vibrant matter—or of making it less vibrant—or of pouring sugar into the gas tank of Becoming. But Bennett and Connolly are not going to follow this path either, for the simple reason that they don’t believe anything of the sort. Their books are designed in large part to attest the opposite—that humanity has no superpowers, no special role to play nor even to refuse to play. Early on, Bennett praises Spinoza for “rejecting the idea that man ‘disturbs rather than follows Nature’s order.’” We’ll want to note that Spinoza’s claim has no normative force; it’s a statement of fact. We don’t need to be talked out of disturbing nature’s order, because we already don’t. The same grammatical mood obtains when Bennett quotes a modern student of Spinoza: “human beings do not form a separate imperium unto themselves.” We “do not”—the claim in its ontological form means could not—stand apart and so await no homecoming or reunion.

Those sentences sound entirely settled, but there are other passages in Vibrant Matter when you can watch in real time as such claims visibly neutralize the political programs they are being called upon to motivate. Here’s Bennett: “My hunch is that the image of dead or thoroughly instrumentalized matter feeds human hubris and our earth-destroying fantasies of conquest and consumption.” On a quick read you might think that this is nothing more than a little junk Heideggerianism—that techno-thinking turns the world into a lumberyard, &c. But on closer inspection, the sentence sounds nothing like Heidegger and is, indeed, entirely puzzling. For if it is “hubris” to think that human beings could “conquer and consume” the world—not hubris to do it, but hubris only to think it, hubris only in the form of “fantasy”—then in what danger is the earth of actually being destroyed? How could mere imagination have world-negating effects and still remain imagination? Bennett’s position seems to be that I have to recognize that consuming the world is impossible, because if I don’t, I might end up consuming the world. Her argument only gains political traction by crediting the fantasy that she is putatively out to dispel. Or there’s this: Bennett doesn’t like it when a philosopher, in this instance Hannah Arendt, “positions human intentionality as the most important of all agential factors, the bearer on an exceptional kind of power.” Her book’s great unanswered question, in this light, is whether she can account for ecological calamity, which is perhaps her central preoccupation, without some notion of human agency as potent and malign, if only in the sense that human beings have the capacity to destroy entire ecosystems and striped bass don’t. The incoherence that underlies the new vitalism can thus be telegraphed in two complementary questions: If human beings don’t actually possess exceptional power, then why is it important to convince them to adopt a language that attributes to them less of it? But if they do possess such power, then on what grounds do I tell them that their language is wrong?

Option #3: Enlightenment it is, then. What remains, I mean, for both Connolly and Bennett, is the simple idea that most people subscribe to a false ontology and are accordingly in need of re-education. Connolly describes himself and his fellow vitalists as “seers”—he also calls them “those exquisitely sensitive to the world”—and he more then once quotes Nietzsche referring to everyone else, the non-seers, the foggy-eyed, as “apes.” I don’t much like being called an orangutan and know others who will like it even less, but at least this rendering of Bennett/Connolly has the possible merit of making the object-world genuinely autonomous and so getting the cosmos out from under the coercions of thought. Our thinking might affect us, but it cannot affect the universe. But there is a difficulty even here—the most injurious of political ontology’s several problems, I think—which is that via this observation philosophy returns magnetically to its proper object—or non-object—which is thought, and we realize with a start that the only thing that is actually up for grabs in these new realist philosophies of the object is in fact our thinking personhood. This is really quite remarkable. Bennett says that the task facing contemporary philosophy is to “shift from epistemology to ontology,” but she herself undertakes the dead opposite. She has precisely misnamed her procedure: “We are vital materiality,” she writes, “and we are surrounded by it, though we do not always see it that way. The ethical task at hand here is to cultivate the ability to discern nonhuman vitality, to become perceptually open to it.” There is nothing about her ontology that Bennett feels she needs to work out; it is entirely given. The philosopher’s commission is instead to devise the  moralized epistemology that will vindicate this ontology, and which will, in its students, produce “dispositions” or “moods” or, as Connolly has it, a “working upon the self” or the “cultivation of a capacity” or a “sensibility” or maybe even just another intellectual “stance.” Connolly and Bennett have lots of language for describing mindsets and almost no language for describing objects. Their arguments take shape almost entirely on the terrain of Geist. They really just want to get the subjectivity right.

There are various ways one might bring this betrayal of the object into view, in addition to quoting Bennett and Connolly’s plain statements on the matter. Among the great self-defeating deficiencies of these books are the fully pragmatist argumentative procedures adopted by their authors, who adduce no arguments in favor of their  chosen ontology. Bennett points out that her position is really just an “experiment” with different ways of “narrating”; an “experiment with an idea”; a “thought experiment,” Connolly says. “What would happen to our thinking about nature if…” The post-structuralism that both philosophers think they’ve put behind them thus survives intact. But such play with discourse is, of course, entirely inconsistent with a robust philosophy of objects, premised as it is on the idea that the object exerts no pressure on the language we use to describe it, which indeed we elect at will. The mind, as convinced of its freedom as it ever was, chooses a philosophical idiom just to see what it can do.

This problem—the problem, I mean of an object-philosophy that can’t stop talking about the subject—then redoubles itself in two ways:

– The problem is redoubled, first, in the blank epiphanies of Bennett’s prose style, and especially when she makes like Novalis on the streets of Baltimore, putting in front of readers an assemblage of objects the author encountered beneath a highway underpass so that we can imagine ourselves beside her watching them pulsate. The problem is that she literally tells us nothing about these items except that she heard them chime. One begins to say that she chose four particular objects—a glove, pollen, a dead rat, and a bottle cap—except that formulation is already misleading, since lacking further description, these four objects really aren’t particular at all. They are sham specificities, for which any other four objects could have served just as well. She could have changed any or all of them—could have improvised any Borgesian quartet—and she would have written that page in exactly the same manner. You can suggest your own, like this:

-a sock, some leaves, a lame squirrel, and a soda can

-a castoff T-shirt, a fallen tree limb, a hungry kitten, and an empty Cheetos bag

a bowler hat, a beehive, a grimy parasol, and Idi Amin

These aren’t objects; these are slots; and Bennett’s procedure is to that extent entirely abstract. This is what it means to say that materialism, too, is just another philosophy of the subject. It does no more or less than any other intellectual system, maintaining the word “object” only as a vacancy onto which to project its good intentions.

-The problem is redoubled, second, in the nakedly religious idiom in which these two books solemnize their arguments. That idiom, indeed, is really just pragmatism in cassock and cope. The final page of Bennett’s book prints a “Nicene Creed for would-be vital materialists.” Connolly’s book begins by offering its readers “glad tidings.” Nor does the latter build arguments or gather evidence; he “confesses” a “philosophy/faith,” which is also a “faith/conviction,” which is also a “philosophy/creed.” Bennett and Connolly hold vespers for the teeming world. Eager young materialists, turning to these books to help round out their still developing views, must be at least somewhat alarmed to discover that our relationship to matter is actually one of “faith” or “conviction.” A philosophical account of the object is replaced by a pledge—a deferral—a promise, by definition tentative, offered in a mood of expectancy, to take the object on trust. Nor is this in any way a gotcha point. Connolly is completely open about his (Deleuzian) aim “to restore belief in the world.” It’s just that no sooner is this aim uttered than the world undergoes the fate of anything in which we believe, since if you name your belief as belief, then you are conceding that your position is optional and to some considerable degree unfounded and that you do not, in that sense, believe it at all.

It’s not difficult, at any rate, to show that Connolly for one does not believe in his own book. The stated purpose of A World of Becoming is to show us how to “affirm” that condition. That’s really all that’s left for us to do, once one has determined that Becoming will go on becoming even without our help and even if we work against it. Connolly’s writing, it should be said, is generally short on case studies or named examples of emergent conjunctures, leaving readers to guess what exactly they are being asked to affirm. For many chapters on end, one gets the impression that the only important way in which the world is currently becoming is that more people from Somalia are moving to the Netherlands, and that the phrase “people who resist Becoming” is really just Connolly’s idiosyncratically metaphysical synonym for “racists.” But near the end of the book, three concrete examples do appear, all at once—three Acts of Becoming—two completed, one still in train: the 2003 invasion of Iraq; the 2008 financial collapse; and global warming. All three, if regarded from the middle distance, seem to confirm the vitalist position in that they have been transformative and destabilizing and will for the foreseeable future produce unpredictable and ramifying consequences. What is surprising—but then really, no, finally not the least bit surprising—is that Connolly uses a word in regard to these three cases that a Nietzschean committed to boundless affirmation shouldn’t be able to so much as write: “warning.” Melting icecaps are not to be affirmed—that’s Connolly’s own view of the matter. Mass foreclosure is not to be affirmed. Quite the contrary: If you know that the cosmos is capable of shifting suddenly, then you might be able to get the word out. The responsibility borne by philosophers shifts from affirmation to its opposite: Vitalists must caution others about what rushes on. The philosopher of Becoming thus asks us to celebrate transformation only until he runs up against the first change he doesn’t like.

This is tough to take in. Lots of things are missing from political ontology: politics, objects, an intelligible metaphilosophy. But surely one had the right to expect from a theorist of systemic and irreversible change, one with politics on his mind, some reminder of the possibility of revolution, some evocation, since evocations remain needful, of the joy of that mutation, the elation reserved for those moments when Event overtakes Circumstance. But in Connolly, where one might have glimpsed the grinning disbelief of experience unaccounted for, one finds only the bombed out cafés of Diyala, hence fear, hence the old determination to fight the future. The philosopher of fire grabs the extinguisher. The philosopher of water walks in with a mop.

Thanks to Jason Josephson and everyone in the critical theory group at Williams College.

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