The Neutering of Politics: A Response to Some Friendly Critics

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:

  1. a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans
  2. politics is a human-centered realm
  3. 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.]

65 thoughts on “The Neutering of Politics: A Response to Some Friendly Critics

  1. You write:
    a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans

    But I don’t agree with this at all. A realist ontology, by definition, posits the existence of real ‘stuff’ independent of humans, but, but given that it is an activity how could ontology qua ontology possibly be carried out independently of those who undertake said activity? As humans engaged with the discipline of ontology, we cannot separate ourselves from it simply by claiming to do so anymore than we could separate ourselves from the activity of breathing on the basis that air is real and independent of us. Given this, your syllogism does not hold in my opinion. Neither would it hold if you amended you definition to mine as the conclusion would then not follow from the premises.

    I think that your point about the potential neutering of politics when claiming that everything is political is a good one and a constant danger. However, I think that the reverse is equally, if not more problematic. Very crudely – By excluding politics from certain forms of discourse they are posited as being somehow ethically neutral, when they are in fact nothing of the kind. This potentially leads to all sorts of problems. I don’t want to clog your comment box with some vast tract about this, but I hope that you get my basic point.

    • Indeed, premise (1) was assumed as uncontroversial given speculative realism’s principles. But I don’t see your criticism as altering that. We have to use knowledge and thought in order to conceive of a real object X – yes, absolutely. But to then say that X only exists in the mind (or in an activity) is to confuse the conception of X with the real object X. Of course the former exists only in the mind, but that doesn’t refute the latter’s independent existence.

      And yes, completely agreed with you about your political point – thinking about it, I get the sense that’s the problem so many people have with the claim that politics can be separated from ontology. But clearly not everything is equally political, which suggests that there is a zero degree of politicization, and which I would say is ontology (as distinct from our knowledge of being).

      • But to then say that X only exists in the mind (or in an activity) is to confuse the conception of X with the real object X. Of course the former exists only in the mind, but that doesn’t refute the latter’s independent existence.

        But that has nothing to do with what I am saying: You are confusing ontology as an activity, with ontological claims. I am perfectly amicable to the ontological claim that there are at least some ‘real things’ completely independent of human existence which we can then think/talk about via a realist ontology. I am not happy with the claim that any form of ontology, i.e. an investigation/explanation of being, could possibly exist independently of the explainer (I’m not sure what SR’s principles are, but I can’t see Ray or Iain being happy with such a claim and nothing I have read by Meillassoux indicates that he would be either). That is what your definition posits – It is not a definition about existence in the world; it is a definition about the study of existence. It’s like saying philosophy/love of wisdom exists independently of the philosopher/lover.

        Now you might want to argue that ontology can be carried out by aliens, computers, or ravens and I would admit the possibility of an ontology (realist or otherwise) independent of humans under those terms, but to claim that somehow a realist ontology can exist independently of whatever it is that carries out the study is nonsensical.

        The concept of a zero degree of politicization is an interesting one, but I have to think about that.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems like just a definitional problem. I thought it was fairly clear from the context, but by ‘realist ontology’ I meant those ‘real things’, since the more accurate terms ‘realist existence’ and ‘realist Being’ don’t quite sound right as replacements. So yes, I agree that ontology – as the study or discourse of existence – can’t be done without some investigator. Being itself remains independent of humans or ontological investigators though. So replace my first premise with something like ‘real being, by definition, is independent of humans’.

      • Let me add too, the further implication is that ontology, as the study of realist being, can still remain independent of politics. Ontology simply is not reducible to, or co-extensive with, politics.

      • Onta+logos = ontology (excuse such idiotic formula but I couldn’t help but think of it when reading your exchange with John) – realist or any other ontology is the logos/science of being – who is doing that science? realist ontology or any other ontology is what we, humans with logos, propose about the being of X, that’s a commonsensical philosophical position, not that “a realist ontology, by definition, is independent of humans” – it’s “by definition” that is wrong here, clearly…

        It’s onto-logy (humans making claims about being/beings/objects, whatever those claims are) – “object exists outside of my mind” is a claim – my claim – whether it is true or not is not an issue, the issue is that I make this claim, I construct this ontology, but yet it is about the world as it is (whether I can say anything about it or not doesn’t matter) – “by definition” any sort of -ology will be a human enterprise and if it posits independently existing objects it’s fine but independent of what? me, human.

  2. On your third point, which is obviously my position:

    Yes, everything is political, insofar as we use it. In themselves, of course, things are not ‘used’ – even to extend this to objects themselves, as with Harman, the real of the object is never exhausted in its interactions.

    Yet whenever we use an object (even in trivial senses, like perceiving or reflecting upon it), we impose some end upon it, we incorporate it into some project that cannot be grounded in a ‘necessary’ or ‘natural’ use of the object. I’d say this gap, between our imposition of use upon something intrinsically admitting no necessary use, or our relating to something admitting no necessary relation, this sense in which our projects have no guarantee – this is where the political emerges.

    Politics is, after all, a question of the collective projects in which we engage, in organizing and directing our existence, and I’d add, the precarious, ungrounded, unnecessary nature of these projects. So yes, everything is political – insofar as we use it. Political in-itself, no, but the in-itself as factical is a condition of politics, insofar as we can deduce no necessary way in which we should exist, in which we should use ourselves and other things, and hence we must decide without guarantee.

    • But my problem is, how is this definition of politics meaningfully political? My act of gazing on a computer screen is political? I think this may be a metaphysical or phenomenological or cognitive act, but politics, for me, is a much more stringently defined space or act.

      Don’t get me wrong, I completely agree with your point that ontology, and its contingency, is a precondition for politics – but that condition is a general metaphysical condition, and not one limited to politics.

      • Gazing at the computer screen is not itself an isolated activity, but one bound up in a massive network of other commitments and activities, and generally the overarching project or projects constitutive of one’s life itself. In this regard, we are both using these computers in connection with generally political activities.

        More generally however, even if the activities we were engaged in were in no sense explicitly political – say, simply seeking pleasure or something – I don’t think we can exclude these from politics either, because even apolitical activity can only occur on the condition of general collective projects which furnish it with conditions, projects which do involve political commitments. In simply indulging these conditions uncritically, we are implicitly choosing to support, consciously or not, the political projects that make them possible.

        And lastly, even the very notion of acting, of engaging in any activity, involves a process by which we assimilate that activity into a communicable account structured by reasons. I don’t think that such an account is an a priori condition of acting itself – obviously we can act without reasons, as presumably can animals and other forms of life – but it is a condition of our involvement in collective projects structured by language qua infrastructure of collectively distributed cognition.

        In this regard, the assignation of reasons will either refer to a fundamental necessity at bottom, a reason which is somehow ‘already decided for us’ (either by an larger collective body, or fantasmatically imputed to nature itself), or it will assume the burden of acting without such necessity, of ultimately positing such reasons without having to do so. These basic attitudes, relying on necessity or assuming contingency, are themselves, I think, fundamentally political in the purest sense of re-inscribing within a project the ontological status of that project, as either grounded or not.

        I agree that contingency is a metaphysical condition, and that from the eyes of metaphysics there is nothing intrinsically political about it; but from the eyes of politics, it cannot but be political, in that politics is itself the relation between what is and what should be or will be, insofar as the determination of this relation to some extent falls to us.

      • Hmm, if I may suggest something – your examples make a number of references to political projects, as something existing externally from these apolitical actions. And you argue it’s only in light of this political project, or restricted political space, that other things take on a political nature. But if that’s the case, isn’t there a sense already here that politics is a much more narrow space than what you’re trying to explicitly suggest? There’s a restricted notion of politics, which then infects other apolitical networks, but these become political only from it’s own internal perspective (“from the eyes of politics”). I don’t mean this so much as a critique, so much as trying to point out a tension in what you’ve written.

      • You’re absolutely right here, but with a slight qualification: politics is a narrow space, but our minuscule existence is confined entirely within it.

        Also, because politics is always a manner of thematizing being in-itself, it is a way of accessing that which lies outside of this space. I think the question of correlationism is precisely that of whether this outside is always reduced to our mode of access, or whether we can somehow grasp touch it in-itself.

        I think that non-philosophy, perhaps with Brassier’s modification, gives us the best strategy for the latter, but I think it is fundamentally mistaken to misinterpret this as an apolitical move. I think there is a fundamental link between philosophical decision as analyzed by Laruelle and political/sovereign decision in Schmitt and the tradition of political theology. Fully explicating this, however, is something I have barely even started thinking about, and which I hope to work on for PhD.

      • Also, the reduction of the in-itself to access is precisely what I mean by the fantasmatic grounding of action, whereas breaking the correlationist circle amounts to thematizing groundlessness as such in action.

      • I agree with all of this (politics as a mode of access, and Laruelle and Brassier’s potential to escape this), except in the claim that the move to realism is necessarily a political move. Though I’m really excited to hear you develop that line of thought in your work, and I may still be convinced.

  3. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this seems like just a definitional problem.

    Yes. This is exactly the point, but when you base a syllogism on a definition if your definition fails, so does the syllogism.

    So replace my first premise with something like ‘real being, by definition, is independent of humans’.

    That would certainly be valid. However, as far as I can see, it would be sound if and only if a realist ontologist thinks that humans (or possibly, just other humans) are not real. That’s not a route I’m prepared to go down.

    This is dragging on a bit now: feel free to tell me to piss off whenever you want to. However just to be clear, I think that the most you can say is this:

    1. all realist ontologies, by definition, claim that at least some ‘stuff’ exists independently of humans.
    2. politics is a human-centered realm
    3. therefore, all realist ontologies claim that at least some ‘stuff’ exists independently of politics

    My point is that when humans start talking about it, it unavoidable becomes sutured (if you like) to politics to one extent or another.

  4. Can I add something that may clarify. Political theorists talk of a ‘wide’ and ‘narrow’ definition of politics. In the latter, only what goes on in the formal institutions of the state is political. In the former, everything can be political when it bears on a contest of collective values in some way. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. An action can be political in the wide sense, e.g. reading the words on a computer screen and writing a response (which impacts, even if only small ways, on collective values). It could also become political in the narrow sense, say if reading the words on the screen prompted you to lobby your representatives for computers to be made available to currently excluded groups, so everyone could read the same words and take part in the philosophical debate.Often for something to have the world-shaking effect we usually associate with being ‘political’ it begins in the wider sense of making a few individuals merely reflect on, discuss, collective values or the ‘common good’.

    Secondly, on the metaphysical question, “We have to use knowledge and thought in order to conceive of a real object X – yes, absolutely. But to then say that X only exists in the mind (or in an activity) is to confuse the conception of X with the real object X.” I don’t know anyone other than Berkeley who would see this conclusion as following from the premises. Ever after Berkeley philosophers acknowledged that thinking takes us outside ourselves, there’s no prison house of thought. What I think Reid is rightly objecting to is the idea that in theorising objects, as OOP does, the object remains wholly independent of the thinker. On the contrary, theorising – by definition – brings the object into a relation with the thinker, a relation which – again by definition – cannot be one of absolute independence. (If one disagrees with this, think through the meaning of ‘object’ or ‘Gegenstand’ in the history of philosophy). There’s a connection with the wide view of politics here – though I don’t judge a philosophy by its political affinities, I’m with Benjamin that a bad metaphysics is reason enough to reject a theory – namely the recognition that even the slightest change in thought or values alters the world in some small way, a point which (God forbid!) I think Heidegger rightly makes against Marx’s 11th Thesis.

    • Hi Utisz,

      Agreed with your point about politics – my minimal claim is that things can exist independently of politics; they don’t always have to, and they can be incorporated into politics at particular times, but it’s just to say that ontology is not co-extensive with politics. I don’t think a meaningful definition of politics will include actions like my solitary gaze on a computer screen, whereas ontological definitions of politics will. But you make a very good point about the narrow and wide definitions that is useful.

      As for the metaphysical question, agreed as well. Let me clarify: I don’t deny that to know an object, we must take up a relation to it. But this mode of access doesn’t make the object we discover irreducibly a correlate of our thought. As for OOP, in particular, I do think they take up a relation to objects, though it’s more along the lines of a rational derivation of an inaccessible core to objects, than a sense-given experience of that core. Which is not to say I agree with that position, but I think the issue is more subtle than saying they are independent from their objects.

      I find your Benjamin point really intuitive to myself (I’ve adhered to a heavily relational ontology for most of my philosophical life), but this still seems to make everything political in an unhelpful sense. Deciding what to have for lunch becomes political. Unless we want to say that it is only potentially political – which implies that there is an apolitical realm which at certain times can become political; a statement I wouldn’t disagree with.

      • “But this mode of access doesn’t make the object we discover irreducibly a correlate of our thought.”

        How so? It’s an ob-jectum, it’s a Gegen-stand – if this is not a co-relation, then what is? We access the object, i.e. it is an object in as much as we access it, it stands against us, that’s why we call it that, object. Again, object and subject come together, they are born together – you can separate an object and call it a thing, but then you have a thing-oriented philosophy. Trying to change the philosophical meaning of a term is a noble enterprise, but it’s not going to go very well with those who like the old meaning – I’m not saying you’re trying to do it, but there’s plenty of that going on in OOP: wishing it is so does not make it so, unfortunately, otherwise I would have been a little bit taller, and very possibly a baller (with a rabbit in a hat with a bat and 64′ Impala)…

      • I’m quite happy to call it something different from ‘object’, though I’m not sure what. But the basic point is this: We use thought, knowledge, representations, to grasp onto a ‘thing’. We develop a concept of this thing. But to then say that this thing only exists as a correlate of our thought, is to mistake the concept for the thing. Certainly our concept or our mode of access is dependent on us. That doesn’t make the thing it is knowledge-of merely an artefact of thought.

      • Nick, I want to say this nicely and I don’t mean it personally, but your presentation of the non-realist position is very basic – no one’s suggesting that thing is “an artifact of thought” – when I posit thing as existing in itself, I do the positing which does not mean I reduce things to thoughts or thoughts to things, this is why it is a correlation – we need both, separating one leads to a mistake, your mistake here is trying to separate objects/things from what makes them into objects/things, i.e. us.

      • Two things: First, my argument takes premises (1) and (1a) to be givens (this is a speculative realism blog, after all). But regardless of whether premises (1) and (1a) correspond to some actually existing philosophy, it seems to me that the consequences follow from the premises. If a realism exists, then it must necessarily be independent of politics.

        Second, absolutely we can have a discussion about positing, correlation, things, objects, concepts – but I’ll have to do it in the more leisurely time and space provided by email. Besides, as my first point makes clear, the aim of this post isn’t at all about that question.

  5. I think the problem with the comments is precisely that once again we are in danger of becoming overly concerned with whether Speculative Realism can claim firstly to be a Realism and secondly whether it’s Ontological concerns are in fact non-political. But actually the differend between us, as you are aware is contained in the following sentence: “My point is that if we’re not careful, everything becomes politics, and nothing gets changed”. The question is whether the recognition that everything is political actually produces a neutered politics or whether it actually refuses the political gesture that restricts the political to merely what your refer to as “real world politics”.

    A gesture which I think would have restricted any engagement with the actual politics that developed in the last 40 years.

    I asked on twitter what areas, implicitly thinking solely of humans, that Speculative Realism would suggest are not-political. But actually on re-reading this with the commentsI see that you do begin to state that here.

    • SDV, do you think you could say more about this:

      “The question is whether the recognition that everything is political actually produces a neutered politics or whether it actually refuses the political gesture that restricts the political to merely what your refer to as “real world politics”.

      A gesture which I think would have restricted any engagement with the actual politics that developed in the last 40 years.”

      What I’m not clear on is how this reduction to ‘real world politics’ would restrict engagement in the actual politics of the past 40 years.

  6. I’m not sure it’s adding much, but isn’t the missing term ideology? It’s not so much everything is political, but that if we don’t think about the political / social effects or implications of our practices, philosophical or otherwise, we may find we are replicating the ideologies of our social system (capital, I’d say). I’d also add, pace real abstraction and Althusser/Lukacs, that ideology is real – the way in which the value-form shapes our thinking / social practices. In fact, I’d say capitalism itself is a metaphysics / ontology and what concerns me with SR is that it reproduces or replicates that metaphysics…
    The problem is not so much that SR doesn’t provide us with a politics, but that it embodies unthought through ideological commitments, I’d say a certain scientism, accelerationism (negative or positive), and features of the value-form in terms of a flipping between mysticism / scientism. This is not to argue that there is some ‘pure’ ‘correct’ philosophy out there, but rather to reiterate John’s point about imbrication in politics / ideology.

    • Ben,

      I agree that ideology could be considered to be a missing term, but given Nick’s belief that Speculative Realism is a realism, once you introduce the concept into the discussion of Speculative Realism and politics – don’t you automatically have to apply the logic of ideology to the restricted notion of politics that the Ontological work proposes…?

      Which is to say that what is the ideological work that SR is carrying out.

      • Haha, I would love to hear an analysis of what ideological work I’m unconsciously doing. (Seriously – I’d almost certainly disagree with it, but it would be a fun argument.)

    • Ben, I’m really drawn to that argument as well, and I don’t think I’m trying to deny that our practices (scientific or realist or philosophical or everyday) can’t have political implications or ideological grounds. What I am rejecting is the idea that science or realism or philosophy is reducible to its political context, and that because of that it can never give us knowledge of something outside of politics and the human. In a way, after having these discussions, I’m more prone to say that philosophy aims, as a normative goal, at being apolitical. And contra perhaps many people, I think it can achieve that goal at certain times (indeed, it has to, if realism is to mean anything).

  7. I have to agree with Nick fully that in terms of the way SR thinks the word ontology – as the fundamental nature of physical things – then its is not useful to approach politics in this way. Most ontological political theory falls into this trap; trying to infer a political position from, say, the nature of time or some such category. Politically you could draw almost any theory at all from these ontological postulates, and so they become useless. Politics cannot be reduced in such a way.

    If there is an ontology worthy of that name in regard to politics, it must be an ontology of the political – politics as an object (both linguistic and real). This ontology would be a correlationist one though in its relation to the ‘great outdoors.’

  8. Nick,
    This is more in response to your most recent post, but I’m wondering if your assertion that “SR forces one to do politics” isn’t contingent on a certain definition of philosophy/thought? For example, thinkers like Kierkegaard and (late) Sartre would never concede that ‘doing’ (writing) philosophy is in anyway political, but rather that philosophical thought which doesn’t lead directly to socio-political activity just isn’t good philosophy.

    Clearly we can list tons of philosophers for whom sitting at home writing (blogging these days) is a political act in itself, but this is only half the story. For many, thought not accompanied by action is just bad thought. Maybe that’s a crass way to put it, but you get the point.

    • Michael, agreed, the degree to which a philosopher allows its supporters to pretend doing philosophy is doing politics, is itself variable. I think you’re absolutely right about Sarte (and I take your word that Kierkegaard is the same). I think, finessing my original claim (and really, all of my claims here are put forth as hypotheses), the usefulness of SR for politics is that it tries to reach for the null point, where one can’t at all pretend that doing philosophy is doing politics. Whereas most other thinkers do allow their followers to confuse the two.

  9. Also in regard to your more recent post Nick, I couldn’t agree more. And it is not just good to hear it said that doing philosophy is not doing politics; lets say it for everything else too – doing music is not doing politics, doing art is not doing politics etc.etc.

    It is a smug delusion that has unfortunately spread far and wide that in order to affect political change you don’t really need to actually get involved in politics: how can just publish obscure papers in academic journals, or smuggle some political lyrics into your band’s line up. Anything it seems other than actually really get involved in politics as an autonomous procedure (to speak like Badiou).

    At the very least, it moves the focus onto what constitutes authentic political activity and where are the limits of that for this autonomous procedure. Because let us also be brave enough to admit that there are rare cases when music, art and philosophy can have direct political affects; just not today that’s all.

    • I think you are making a familiar mistake when you equate politics with a left political activity, in the western world it is clear that the majority of political action is conservative and reactionary. As a consequence of this the absence of left political art does not mean that the work is not an ‘authentic political art’ quite the opposite – the politics is always there. Doing art, doing music, doing journalism is always political. It is just, (just) not a socialist or communist politics.

    • Completely agreed, Nathan – and this is my problem with the neutered definitions of politics: they let anything become a political gesture, which too easily slides into a passivism which lets people think they’re changing the world with ineffectual actions. We do need a definition of authentic political activity (and one that, like you say, can incorporate those rare cases where apparently non-political actions become political.)

      • Nick,

        “What I’m not clear on is how this reduction to ‘real world politics’ would restrict engagement in the actual politics of the past 40 years.”

        To clarify this may be difficult but in your note you argue “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 …” must have a narrow definition of the political…

        The meaning of this depends on what you mean by ‘real world politics’ I am understanding this in relation to previous statements which clearly assumed that politics was effectively the domain of parliamentary politics, critically the state and related areas. An understanding of the political that appears to be related to Alain Badiou’s understanding of the political. This does not in itself restrict the acceptance of particularist politics as political, within which I would include such things as feminism, gender politics, race, ecology, science, children and animal rights. But it does restrict the understanding of what the effect and meaning of political activity can be because it places these forms of political activity always in a relationship to the state. There are a couple of things that need to be explicitly stated – it has been obvious since 1979 that a particularist politics is never necessarily about human emancipation and liberation, thus feminists could argue in 1979 for women to vote for Thatcher because of her gender, ecologists can speak of people having rights removed and so on. (Which incidentally is not to forget Badiou’s deeply unpleasant and reactionary political ‘Truth’ the Maoist cultural revolution). The second thing then is that politics is not to be confused with a universalist conception of human emancipation, which is actually another particularist political concept human emancipation. And thirdly that notions of power and control sit uneasily within a concept of ‘real world politics’.

        I am not suggesting that ‘real world politics’ and engagements with the state and superstate organizations is not critical. But that since your definition of ‘real world politics’ appears to be restricted to this understanding of the political, then a politics which places the particular over the universal (human emancipation) must be considered as not a ‘real world politics’. With the consequence that the particularisms of gender politics, ecological politics might be considered to be secondary to an engagement with ‘real world politics’.

        Give the above propositions about particularist politics and especially the regrettable and sad fact that human emancipation is now a particularism. Then it may be clearer why your understanding of ‘real world politics’ which is founded on a belief that a left-politics must engage in the restricted domain of parliamentary politics and be founded on a notion of human emancipation restricts the possible engagement in politics. An actual politics, let alone a left-politics, can no longer be restricted to ‘real-world-politics’ because what constitutes the political is dominated by the fact of our human dominance of the world. We are responsible and accountable for everything, this is not a universalism merely a statement of realism about our position.

        To differ I think you would need to define what a ‘real world politics’ and how this informs different social and political actions.

        Note that I have avoided any discussion of the known differends between us on realism and ontology – completely unnecessary given our earlier discussions.

      • SDV,

        I can see how you might think that I want to restrict politics to parliamentary politics, though that’s not my intention at all. As I replied to Nathan (somewhere in this comment thread), the definition of politics should be able to include actions which appear utterly non-political (art, writing a blog post, etc.) but that, at rare times, do take on a political character. Which isn’t to say that these actions are always political, or intrinsically political, or irremediably tied up with the political. It’s only to say that politics is a wider sphere than state politics, and a narrower sphere than all of existence. I’m in complete agreement about the significance of all the political actions you mention, and think feminism is a major example of how major change can occur without primarily focusing on state conduits.

        And agreed, this question of politics doesn’t need to bring in our differend on ontology – an argument we may endlessly circle!

  10. Michael:

    You say “This is more in response to your most recent post, but I’m wondering if your assertion that “SR forces one to do politics” isn’t contingent on a certain definition of philosophy/thought?”

    I think probably yes, in that SR refigures the definition of philosophy as being a philosophy of objects, physical things, the raw nature of reality etc. Marx is also doing philosophy, but a political philosophy instead.

    This distinction that SR forces – and it is an important one – is that science (or scientific SR style philosophy) is irreducible to politics. That one learns how to split the atom, does not mean that one must.

    To infer an important lesson from this, for instance, I think we should reject the Marxist position that religion is just the opiate of the people and with bettering material conditions it will just fade away, to rather observe that science itself has an autonomous truth effect on the rise and fall of belief.

    That is, there is an autonomous procedure of truth at work with the humiliations of science upon the religious beliefs of humankind. In a sense this is also the founding gesture and imperative of SR itself; to combat religion through a philosophical ontology which deprives it of any basis. Politically it prescribes nothing however about how, why, or if it is even necessary, to politicise this.

    • In a sense this is also the founding gesture and imperative of SR itself; to combat religion through a philosophical ontology which deprives it of any basis. Politically it prescribes nothing however about how, why, or if it is even necessary, to politicise this.

      How can an imperative to combat religion politically prescribe nothing? Why is it an imperative? Why should religion need combating? These are plainly political questions raised by your claims about what SR is doing.

      Additionally, I am very dubious about the idea that there is anything autonomous the way some aspects of science humiliate religious belief. Far be it for me to stand up for religion, but the majority of the history of most religions is one of eventual accommodation to scientific development.

      As for all this business about armchair philosophers, etc. not really engaging in politics, I couldn’t agree more. However, I fail to see how this is anything more than a rewrite of the (admittedly very crucial) theory/praxis distinction. Just because all human activities are necessarily political, it does not follow that all humans are politically active.

      • Well, that would be within the scientifiico-philosophical procedure (or discourse, if you like) religious conceptions have sent the philosophical half down the wrong (illogical track) thus leading to its divorce from science, which when the two are re-reconciled find no place for God.

        If ontologically we know there is no God, this does not, however, infer that we should become radical atheists, or in fact anything of the sort. If we admit politics an autonomous procedure, and we are, say, Marxists, that would mean that could find a strategic alliance with liberation theologians and not have to force our ontological insights as prima facie into the political field.

        Or to give another example, if Julian Barbour was right and at a fundamental level there is no time, we would not have to infer political apathy from this, any more than we would have to infer the need to always act in the now, immediately.

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  12. apologies for the drive-by, but why should 19th century notions of disciplinary specialization and autonomy be assumed as natural features of reality, and/or why should they persist as professional ethics? it seems to me the illusion of social stability that sustained these absolute differences is pretty much over.

    julian barbour is a good way into what i think is a problem with the position being advanced here. his training and experience as a physicist allowed him to develop convincing theories about time and his being a professional physicist in good standing allows him to talk about it in public. the fundamental levels of reality he’s interested in bear a superficial resemblance to ontology, but they are constituted from within a very different tradition of inquiry, one that doesn’t wholly rely on its own history, introspection, and secondhand research. philosophy can piggyback on his work, and theoretically a philosopher could study what he studied and produce a convincing counterargument. but a philosopher who didn’t derive their arguments from scientific research — that is a philosopher who is not an armchair scientist — could not. on the other hand, if barbour proves his theory, he will actually (unlike meillassoux) have refuted kant (himself an armchair scientist and not a pure metaphysician). and yet barbour is, just to be clear, not studying ontology.

    so in matters of reality, a philosopher needs to understand science, while a scientist doesn’t need to understand philosophy. this is true, i think, of every other field’s non-relation to philosophy as well.

    to do good politics or good science doesn’t require good metaphysics. to do good metaphysics, which i assume to be metaphysics that is useful for non-philosophers (forget laruelle for a second), and in the limited, non-theological sense that seems to be the aim of SR, requires knowledge of science. good politics, i would argue, also requires knowledge of science, in addition to a demand that scientists understand their (highly consequential) roles as political actors. hence the confusion when philosophers claim to be both a) autonomously deciding on what ‘reality’ is and b) claiming these decisions are apolitical.

    • Traxus, yes, definitely – I’m actually very much anti-disciplinary in my political work, precisely because to think that the divisions of the university magically match the divisions of reality would be absurd.

      But the case of the distinction between ontology and politics seems different, particularly insofar as ontology is the study of reality in general, whereas politics is a merely restricted realm (which is really my basic point).

      I don’t deny that to do good ontology, one needs to also know science. And in some minimal sense, to do good ontology, one should also be aware that one could merely be acting out a political position. But I don’t think good ontology is reducible to either of those. It has its own independence, and it strives to reach that (and attains it, at its best). Good ontology, therefore, can be independent of politics for me.

      • ok but i think the point of my confusion is what “reality in general” is in the context of ontology according to, let’s say OOP because it seems to insist the most on autonomy, vs. “reality in general” in the context of physics. if they don’t have two different notions of what that is, then i don’t understand how ontology is not dependent on physics, in the sense of being an interpretation of physics. if they do, then i don’t understand how ontology is formally different from theology in its relationship to science (of course they are or at least can be different in terms of internal structure).

        i reiterate that i think this is where the confusion about ontology vs. politics comes from.

        as a footnote, i don’t think anyone is “merely acting out a political position.”

    • by “interpretation of physics” i should have said: interpretation of physical reality, and as a consequence, dependent on physics (as an established body of knowledge and theory about physical reality).

  13. Nick, I agree with your general point about the non-political nature of certain phenomena, but –and I am sorry if I keep beating the same drum– I think that the issue to resolve in order to clarify the ‘SR-politics issue’ is to delineate what kind of *ethics* a (specualtive) realism of ontologically equal and human-independent entities allows for.

    Indeed, I do not want to claim a Levinasian ‘ethics comes before ontology’, I simply want to fully recognize that if SR is indeed an ontologically ‘revolutionary’ position in the landscape modern and contemporaray western philosophy, and if (as I believe) our very conception of ethics is largely dependent on a series of ontological committments of christian/enlightenment inheritance, then a radical reconfiguration of ontology (and here, more than just OOO I have specifically in mind Meillassouxian facticity) will necessarily have to enact a revision of ethical assumptions.

    If all the above is true, it seems to me that ‘the ethics question’ should be asked (and answered) first.

    Is ‘politics’ not (on a very trivial, but also on a very vital level) a theory around the creation of a social system able to instantiate in praxis some preassumed ethical committments? No political system can survive when applied to a community of individuals that do not already share some basic ethical guidelines.

    And take care, I am not saying that SR does not have an understanding of ethics. All that I am saying is that if it does have it, it has not been properly thematized yet.

    • I think this is an interesting line of thought, and I’m sure a number of the SR people would be in line with it.

      One question to ask, if I’m understanding you right, you say modern ethics is based upon a specific set of ontological commitments (agreed), and that by changing these ontological commitments, one necessarily reconfigures ethics. But I don’t think it follows that ethics should or can come first, since the derivative effects of the change first result from the shift in ontology. And this shift, for me, is initiated by SR’s refusal to be political, and as a consequence, its realist ontology.

      • Indeed. I don’t think that it must come first. Schematically, new ontological tenets will condition ethics, and a reconfigured ethics will push towards different, and almost necessarily unprecedented, political configurations. What are they? I cannot tell yet, but I just think it is an interesting option to pursue.

  14. Thanks Nick for giving voice to what I’ve essentially thought for a while now. The debate reminds me of the anecdote that Althusser relates in ‘Lenin and Philosophy':

    “[…]Gorky’s aim was to invite Lenin to discuss philosophy with the group of Otzovist philosophers. Lenin laid down his conditions: Dear Alexei Maximovich, I should very much like to see you, but I refuse to engage in any philosophical discussion.

    To be sure, this was a tactical attitude: since political unity among the Bolshevik émigrés was essential, they should not be divided by a philosophical dispute. But we can discern in this tactic much more than a tactic, something I should like to call a ‘practice ‘ of philosophy, and the consciousness of what practising philosophy means; in short the consciousness of the ruthless, primary fact that philosophy divides. If science unites, and if it unites without dividing, philosophy divides, and it can only unite by dividing. We can thus understand Lenin’s laughter: there is no such thing as philosophical communication, no such thing as philosophical discussion.”

    The praxis of tactical unity is therefore privileged over the terracing of theoretical positions; the decision in the face of undecidability. Althusser goes on to say that this is why philosophers view Lenin with suspicion, since he is a politician who speaks on philosophy, rather than having a philosophy. He continues:

    “[…] In fact, I believe that what we owe to Lenin, something which is perhaps not completely unprecedented, but certainly invaluable, is the beginnings of the ability to talk a kind of discourse which anticipates what will one day perhaps be a non philosophical theory of philosophy.”

    And we all know that Brassier claims that ‘Materialism and Empirico-Criticism’ is perhaps an important inspiration for After Finitude.

    • Thanks Andrew, and if you haven’t already, you should check out Nathan Brown’s work, who has been doing a lot of really interesting stuff on the relations between Althusser, Meillassoux, and Lenin.

  15. Sorry Nick, the new syllogism is once again valid, but still not sound unless you have a rather unconventional view of knowledge. Consider the following substitution:

    1) Christianity, by definition, says that God exists independently of humans.

    1a) Christianity, by definition, gives us knowledge of God’s independent existence. (If it didn’t, it wouldn’t be Christianity).

    2) Politics is a human-centered activity.

    3) Therefore, Christianity requires that politics is not co-extensive with reality.

    3a) Therefore, Christian theology, as the study of Christianity, gives us knowledge independent of politics. (Otherwise it wouldn’t meet premise (1a).)

    1a attempts to define x into existence.

    • I think Christianity doesn’t function as a good replacement though – for me, at least, realism means more than the thesis that something exists independently of us (otherwise Kant would be a realist). We also have to know something about this independent existence, in order for it to be a realism. I am introducing (1a) by fiat, but I think it’s inherent to the definition of what realism is.

      Also, you mention above, the distinction between theory and praxis – I’d argue my point is more about a distinction within theory. There can most certainly be political-oriented writings and theories, but I also want to argue that there can be theories that aim and successfully reach an apolitical norm and provide us knowledge of reality independent of politics.

      • This is my last post about all this, before we start going round in circles.

        As I said, it depends what you mean by knowledge. Christians would also claim that you need to know something about God in order to be a Christian. Still, it’s not sufficient to state that we must know something, you have to have a convincing argument for how we know it. Christians can always turn to Fideism, but I wouldn’t think SR wanted to go down that route. My initial point, which I still think holds, is that what you originally claimed as an ‘extremely simple’ argument. Is nothing of the sort. I don’t think it is something that can be encapsulated in a syllogism.

        My comment about praxis was addressed to Nathan’s one about publishing in obscure journals rather than your claim about SR forcing people to think about politics.

      • I think Fideism is actually a great route for SR, how else would you explain all that stuff that Harman tells us about objects? How does he really know any of it? He doesn’t, he’s speculating – it’s not a matter of knowledge then which means all these syllogisms are a great exercise but ultimately this is a dead end for speculativerealism – as for the usual realism, I’m yet to see a good argument that refutes Kant’s problems with it…

      • John,
        I think we agree – I’m not saying knowledge by fiat or faith is viable knowledge. But a realism that didn’t give us any knowledge, wouldn’t be a realism. It’d be a negative theology or something like that.

        So, yes, definitely we can have a debate about how particular forms of realism attain their knowledge – but I think it’s intrinsic to the definition of realism that it does have such knowledge.

        Ah, I misread your comment about praxis then.

        I of course disagree! Graham gives quite excellent arguments for his position in Prince of Networks, deriving it rationally from considerations of widely-accepted philosophical positions. As does Ray in Nihil Unbound, Meillassoux in After Finitude, and Iain in Philosophies of Nature after Schelling. There’s also extensive realist literature in philosophy of science (try Roy Bhaskar, Philip Kitcher, James Ladyman, Gabriel Catren or Latour), the history of philosophy (try Schelling, Deleuze, Sellars, and potentially Nietzsche), and in modern philosophy (try Badiou, Zizek, Johnston, Stengers, Laruelle, Delanda to name just continental philosophers). My assertion that they do refute Kant is no better than your assertion that Kant remains untouched, but I’m just trying to make clear that there’s a multitude of arguments for realism, and to say it’s all fideism is to overlook that diversity.

      • Fair enough, but deriving things from widely-accepted philosophical positions smells of an argument from authority. All I’m saying is that speculative realism as an idea relies on speculation, not some scientific empirical research (of objects as they are in themselves) which doesn’t mean it is better or worse – I’m not sure why you’re not willing to embrace the simple fact that speculation is based on faith.

        True, my saying that Kant hasn’t been refuted and your saying that he has is just that, an exchange of opinions, however, Kant is all about faith (“rational faith”) when it comes to speculation, since it’s not knowledge (according to him, of course). Let me ask you this (and point me to a post if you’ve already discussed this): what do you yourself is speculative about your kind of realism? What is the nature of this speculation?

      • I don’t think it has to be an argument from authority – as I take it, it’s just a basic fact that philosophy has a history, and that new philosophers operate within that history. Arguing against currently widely accepted positions, and showing how they rationally lead to your position is a common move (you of course know, for example, that Kant was responding to the debates between empiricism and rationalism of his time).

        The beauty and perhaps flaw of ‘speculative’ in speculative realism is that it permits a pretty wide variety of meanings. You take it to mean speculation unbound from concern with reason or empirical data. I, personally (i.e. not necessarily representative of anyone else working in this field), take it to mean two basic things: one, is a return to speculative philosophy, in the sense of a philosophy concerned with the absolute. Two, I see it meaning a rejection of naive realism – i.e. that realism which we use in our everyday lives, as the default philosophical stance. Speculative realism, then, is a realism that manages to upset our intuitive conception of the world – which can include realisms of Leibnizian-like objects, pure dynamism, being-nothing, and hyperchaos, but also multiverses, 10 space-time dimensions, and the non-existence of time. So, for me at least, scientific practice can partake of speculative realism as well as philosophy – though that’s admittedly a hugely contestable point within and outside of SR.

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  18. Hi Nick,

    I have a few thoughts after reading this over. I agree completely, by the way, in general with your view that to think of all ontology as political is to neuter the political. However, I have another point which I think might be relevant here. As I’ve said to you before in private communication, while I am actually rather sympathetic to “correlationism” as you call it and I find myself rather close to it philosophically, I am very comfortable with the SR notion that there is something independent of humans, and even that we can speculate about this something. This is not only a reasonable position but highly likely given our experience with the world (though to speak of any of this with certainty is of course not reasonable — we cannot actually be *certain* of any of these positions, we can only speak, I believe, about what seems parsimonious or reasonable.) In other words, because there’s no way to ever know *for certain* to what extent our speculations are tied to or dependent upon our situatedness as human being, I think it’s critical to always take this into account when thinking about ontology. In other words, the fact that there is something independent of humans, and the fact that we might speculate in a way that reasonably could be said to be *possibly* about structures or patterns which themselves do not depend upon human beings doesn’t mean that the choice of patterns we use for our ontological schemes is independent of humans.

    This is really the crucial point which I think also underlies my general disagreement with the OOO project which we were discussing via email. There is an unlimited, infinite array of possible patterns one could imagine uncovering which can apply to the universe (i.e., speaking in the “Real Patterns” sense), even perhaps an uncountably infinite space of such patterns. And it may well make sense to say that these patterns, or at least some significant subset of them, are independent of humans; that is, they refer, in some sophisticated sense, to “reality” in a way that at least in some sense is independent of human beings.

    But the choice of which patterns we use for thought, discourse, etc., is not, I believe, nor can it be said to be, independent of the fact of being human, and this is why I believe the OOO project is problematic. I think conflating these two things is the chief mistake the OOO guys are making.

    The choice of which patterns one uses I believe nearly always has profound political implications. Conservatives, on the whole, seem to choose relatively static patterns for their discourse and thought; liberals tend to choose relatively more complex, adaptive, and flexible patterns. The choice of patterns has profound political implications.

    The reason I object (no pun intended) to object-oriented ontology is precisely because it, in my mind, makes the mistake of trying to take a particular choice of observed patterns and reify them into something which appears to have some sort of human-independent, fixed status. Objects, however, I believe are the quintessential example of a human-dependent definition — which is not to say that they are human-dependent — it is to say that how we choose that particular subset of patterns from the infinite space of possible patterns IS dependent on our particularity, our situatedness.

  19. To clarify my last sentence (re-reading it I realize I wrote it in haste and it sounds a bit jumbled) — I mean to say that the choice of how to divide up the world into objects is a choice of a particular subset of “real patterns”, and that choice is very human-dependent in my view — even if the patterns themselves could be said to be at least largely referring to aspects of reality which aren’t dependent upon humans.

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  21. Nick – I like the way you’ve reformulated your original argument to fairly represent the alternatives. It shows real progress in the discussion.

    I’ve provided my own take on this question here, but in essence I would say that politics (in a process-relational view) is about ‘effecting change in the capacity to effect change.’ Politics, in other words, is about doing politics – which is a circular definition, but that’s the only way in which a functionally differentiated system (in Niklas Luhmann’s terms) – like ‘politics,’ ‘science,’ ‘art,’ etc. – can be defined.

    So in reply to the last comment: two galaxies colliding in the vast emptiness of space is (/are) not political per se, unless the galaxies are doing this with the intent to bring about political change (which seems unlikely, so it’s probably not political). It’s not just the intent that matters, and intent alone doesn’t make something political. Political action involves both agency and impact/effect.

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