I have to admit that I’m always surprised at how many people disagree with my claim that reality exists independently of politics. It seems like such an obvious statement to me. Which is not to say that they can’t be related in particular cases, but that the study of ontology can be done without a regard for politics, and vice versa. And so I want to respond to what I see as the main line of refutation that people have put to me. I put this forth honestly, and would be quite happy to have someone show me the flaws in my thinking.
As I posted on Twitter a while ago, for me the argument is extremely simple:
- a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
- politics is a human-centered realm
- therefore, a realist ontology needs to be separate from politics
[EDIT #1: Since there seems to be some confusion about what I meant (due to my hasty use of terms, though I clarified in the comments) here’s a proposed new argument, which makes the same basic point, except ideally with less confusion. Hopefully I’m not breaking any philosophy blog rules by deciding a previous argument was confused…
1) Realism, by definition, says that something exists independently of humans.
1a) Realism, by definition, gives us knowledge of this independent existence. (If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be a realism.)
2) Politics is a human-centered activity.
3) Therefore, realism requires that politics is not co-extensive with reality.
3a) Therefore, ontology, as the study of reality, gives us knowledge independent of politics. (Otherwise it wouldn’t meet premise (1a).)]
Since (1) and (1a) are true by definition, and (3) and (3a) are the conclusions from the premises, the problem arises with premise (2). And, indeed, it is my contention in this post that those who deny politics and ontology are separate, deny it because of a ‘neutered’ definition of politics. What do I mean by that? Here are some examples:
One common response is that politics is defined as something like ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’. The argument here being that politics is not solely concerned about relations amongst human actors, but also between human and nonhuman, and between nonhuman and nonhuman actors. Clearly, the argument goes, politics infects everything – it simply is the modes of relating amongst entities.
A second common response is to say that politics is the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion. What goes into a particular category, or community, is a political decision. Philosophy, as utterly concerned with proper definitions, is highly political. But so too is the decision over ‘what a planet is’, or the decision on what the word ‘book’ means, or the mutual exclusion of rival animal packs. Science, language, and nature are thus eminently political as well. Politics, it is argued again, is everywhere.
A third common response is to say that politics is the space of the im/possible, and ontology – by showing the contigency of any formation – is the unground for political action. Or in other words, it is the undecidable ground, which makes political decisions possible in the first place. Note, though, that this claim doesn’t say that ontology is political – it merely says that it is the precondition for politics; a claim I wouldn’t disagree with in any way. It does however claim that politics is ontological, in that ‘the political’ is taken to be the space of undecidedability. And since this undecidedness is everywhere, everything is again political.
The common theme in all of these definitions is that politics, by definition, becomes co-extensive with anything and everything – hence why I say it is the neutering of politics. (We might also, playing on Laruelle’s work, call this the self-sufficiency of the political – which makes anything and everything potential material to be politicized.) If everything is politics, then it becomes an empty term.
The problem, therefore, is that these definitions are too generic, too extensive, to provide any meaningful traction on real politics. Rather than deal with the messiness of real world politics, these ontological definitions of politics have the bad tendency to permit its supporters to merely sit at the sidelines.
But despite appearances, my point in this post is not simply to note the neutering of politics I see in many definitions of politics, but to raise the more general (and much more important) question about ‘what does politics mean for us?’ My point is that if we’re not careful, everything becomes politics, and nothing gets changed. Art becomes intrinsically political. Ineffective protests become political (rather than spectacle). Writing blog posts becomes political! Politics – if it is to mean anything, and if it is to escape the nihilism and apoliticism that Nina rightly criticizes – must have a narrower definition than these neutered conceptions of the political. Moreover, again totally in agreement with Nina’s original post, these definitions of ontological politics (or political ontology) risk ignoring the ontic world, i.e. the world of actual politics. Do I have an answer to these problems? I wish! But I don’t find the alternative definitions of politics raised here to be convincing – and in many cases, they risk being hindrances.
[EDIT #2: At the risk of insulting all the great comments, I’m afraid I won’t be able to participate fully in the discussion, though I will try to answer as many as possible. I just don’t have the time to get pulled into an interesting, though diversionary, debate right now. My apologies, though I hope that doesn’t stifle the debate in any way. As I tried to make clear in this post, I’m not even fully clear what precise position I take, though the debate has been useful for me to clarify my own intuitions. As well, I do think it’s an important question, and it’s extremely useful to have this debate.]