The Legume, the Piston, and the Bearded Man

Today’s contribution to the ongoing Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities event, is from the author, videogamer designer, Stephen Colbert guest, and blogger, Ian Bogost. Merging high philosophy with an in-depth knowledge of emerging forms of technology and art, Ian has provided a series of creative contributions to the field of ‘applied OOP’, and here provides a wonderful reflection on the issue of ethics.

On another note, I’d just like to mention that any submissions contributed need not be supportive of speculative realism or the relation between it and norms. We already have one thoughtful contribution set to be published that is critical of SR’s approach, and would appreciate other critical comments as well.

The Legume, the Piston, and the Bearded Man

Ian Bogost

Large, white letters on black, the bumper sticker reads: “Soy is Murder.”

It’s a riff off the “Meat is Murder” adage popular among some animal rights proponents, a slogan itself borrowed from the pro-vegetarian title track of The Smiths second album. It’s tempting to read the bumper sticker as a send-up, a caustic imputation of moral vegetarianism through backhanded reductio ad absurdum. But further reflection might dampen an initial scoff. Is wrestling a tuber from the ground or ripping a pea from its pod a sort of violence?

The criticism of selective indignance has long plagued veganism, whose proponents have developed a number of responses to the accusation. One downplays the suffering of plants by arguing that they have no central nervous system and thus cannot experience pain like animals can. Another points out that some plants must be eaten in order to spread their seed and reproduce—fruits, for example. There’s even a name for the practice of eating only fallen seeds, frutarianism. Such a diet is sometimes correlated with ahimsa, a tenet to “do no harm” central to Buddhism, Hinduism, and particularly Jainism.

To the first response, opponents respond that such an argument assumes that feeling-by-nervous-system is only one kind of sensation. Others clearly exist, even if they remain unfamiliar. Plants clearly sense the world too, whether to seek out light or water, or to react chemically to external threats. To the second response, they make enjoinders to logic: even the strictest Jainist ahimsa risks its own violation, since to eat the seed is also to disrupt its final cause, the new tree. Does the wanton destruction of a new plant qualify as harm?

No matter what we may feel about eating or abstaining from meat, appeals to feeling and suffering exemplify the correlationist conceit: the assumption that the rights any thing should have are the same ones we believe we should have; that living things more like us are more important than those less like us; and that life itself is an existence of greater worth than inanimacy. These are understandable biases for we humans. We are mortal and fragile in specific ways, and we worry about them.

Things become more difficult when we move beyond the animate, and into the great outdoors, toward an ethics of objects.

When I turn the ignition of my car, a mixture of air and gasoline are drawn through the engine intake valve into the cylinder. The piston rises, compressing the the mix. Once it reaches the top of its stroke, the spark plug ignites the fuel, detonating the flammable aliphatic compounds within it. The explosion drives down the piston, which in turn rotates the driveshaft. The cylinder’s exhaust port opens, and the fume of exploded fuel exits toward the tailpipe.

When we talk about the ethics of internal combustion engines, we usually talk only about the first and last steps, the social and cultural practices that encourage driving in the first place, or the plume of combustion gases that exit the vehicle and enter the environment. In the first case, matters of ritual, exercise, or safety might be mustered: driving is a kind of sloth that loosens the physical and the social body alike. In the second, matters of environment take the stage: exhaust contains carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, and particulate matter that can be harmful to living creatures.

By contrast, we don’t consider the ethics of the spark plug, the piston, the fuel injector, or the gasoline. Does the engine have a moral imperative to explode distilled petroleums? Does it do violence upon them? Does it instead express ardor, the loving heat of friendship or passion? Such questions must be asked quite separately from any ethical inquiry into the processes sourcing and extracting crude oil in order to produce fuels and other products: they are questions not about the human imperatives for or against conservation, consumption, militarism, and related matters, but instead questions about the moral relation between non-human, non-living objects.

Take another, weirder case: theories, concepts, and memes. Is there an ethics of ideas? Not an ethics for their application, as by human hands advancing a political cause, but an ethics for the interactions of ideas as such? When I utter a phrase, do I owe it more than its utterance? When it enters into relations with other utterances—whether as inscription on surface, as charge on magnetic storage devices, as disruption in the fluid dynamics of a cold morning—what responsibility do I have to them through my having uttered them? Likewise, what rights do they have relative to one another? When I encounter a catchy chorus on the rdio or a clever edition of a web comic, does its desire to propagate create duty?

Let’s exemplify. The microblogging service Twitter allows me to publish 140 character updates as often as I wish. My “followers” receive notice of these quips, which might include links, complaints, aphorisms, or self-promotion. Like everything these days, it’s a challenge to keep up with the pace of Twitter. Filled with mild malaise at this nuisance, I might lament, as I did recently, Why must there be something clever to say one or more times per day? It was a selfish outburst meant to lament the tenacity of public life today.

When I don’t tweet, I might lose face; my social or professional credibility could suffer. But, what does such an attitude reveal if not my disregard for the ideas themselves? The most charmingly inscrutable of my followers, @metacomedy, responded incisively: because your actions’ continued existence might depend on it. What a thought! Why is it that one’s neglect for laundry, blogs, or elliptical trainers entails only metaphorical neglect, while one’s neglect of cats, vagrants, or herb gardens is allowed the full burden of genuine disregard?

Bruno Latour would describe the relations among engine parts or memes as forces between actors in a network. Quasi-objects, he sometimes calls them, which are neither human nor non-human. The forces between these objects exert transformations, Latour’s replacement for relations of power. Latour helps us see the many conflicting stakeholders in a situation, all grasping for differently shaped handles to pull a network in one or another direction. As Latour says, “none of the actants mobilized to secure an alliance stops acting on its own behalf. They each carry on fermenting their own plots, forming their own groups, and serving other masters, wills, and functions.”

Latour invites us to see that there is no rightful owner to whom relations return, “one form of know-how is no more ‘true’ than another.” One way to interpret such a move is to cast ethics as contextual, relative. This helps, to a point. One can imagine positioning oneself in the context of the chickadee or the window washer, but things get murky quickly, as we move from human and animal actors to object actors: the snowblower, the persimmon, the asphalt.

When we speak of things, are we prepared to equate their forces with their ethics? Is what a thing tends to do the same as what it considers noble or right? We might observe in an individual what Aristotle calls ἕξις, or what Pierre Bourdieu dubs habitus. But a disposition is quite different from a code. Here a further problem arises, as the fact of relations shouldn’t be sufficient to affirm that the actors involved in those relations act according to an ethics, or in violation of one.

When faced with pistons and soybeans, where would we look for morality? In Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology, things recede into inaccessible, private depths. When objects interact, they do so not from these depths, but across their surfaces, in their sensual qualities. When fire burns cotton, it takes part only in the cotton’s flammability, not in its other properties, or in its real essence, which withdraws interminably.

When we ask after the ethics of objects, we are really asking if moral qualities exist as sensual qualities. I’ll float a categorical response: no. When the vegan eats the tofu, she bathes in its moisture, its blandness, its suppleness, its vegetality. Yet, the soy does not bathe in her veganism. Through its sensual properties, she construct a caricature of the soy, which does more than render it nutritive or gratifying; it also renders it moral. It is what Emmanuel Levinas calls enjoyment, an egoistic process for which he favors the metaphor of eating: we eat the other in order to make it the same.

But what of the things themselves? Does the tofu muster moral practice when slithering gently in the water of its plastic container? Does the piston when compressing air and petrol against the walls of its cylinder? Does the snowblower when its auger pulls snow from the ground and discharges it out a chute? Perhaps, although if any do, they do so by means of a code irrevocably decoupled from the material acts they commit. The ethics of the spark plug are no more clear to us than would be those of the vegan to the soybean plant, even as the former strips and devours its salted, boiled babies in a tasty appetizer of edamame. Worse yet, there might be multiple, conflicting theories of soybean ethics, lest one assume that the noble legume is any less capable of philosophical intricacy than are bearded men.

An object enters an ethical relation when it attempts to reconcile the sensual qualities of another object vis-à-vis the former’s withdrawn reality. Perhaps counterintuitively, ethics is a self-centered practice, a means of sense-making necessitated by the inherent withdrawal of objects. It is a filing system for the sensual qualities of objects that maps those qualities to internal methods of caricature, a process often full of struggle.

Can we imagine a speculative ethics? Could an object characterize the internal struggles and codes of another, simply by tracing and reconstructing evidence for such a code by the interactions of its neighbors?

It is much harder than imagining an applied speculative phenomenology (a practice I call alien phenomenology), and it’s easy to understand why: we can find evidence for our speculations on perception, even if we are only ever able to characterize the resulting experiences as metaphors bound to human correlates. The same goes for the piston, the tweet, and the soybean, which can only ever grasp the outside as an analogous struggle. The answer to correlationism is not the rejection of any correlate, but the acknowledgement of endless ones, all self-obsessed by givenness rather than by turpitude. The violence or ardor of piston and fuel is the human metaphorization of a phenomenon, not the ethics of an object.  It is not the relationship between piston and fuel that we frame by ethics, but our relationship to the relationship between piston and fuel.

Unless we wish to adopt a strictly Aristotelian account of causality and ethics, in which patterns of behavior for a certain type can be tested externally for compliance, access to the ethics of objects will always remain out of reach. It is not the problem of objectification that must worry us, the opinion both Heidegger and Levinas both hold, albeit in different ways. Despite the fact that Levinas claims ethics as first philosophy, what he gives us is not really ethics, but a metaphysics of intersubjectivity that he gives the name “ethics.” And even then, Levinas’s other is always another person, not another thing, like a soybean or an engine cylinder (to say nothing of the engine cylinder’s other!). Before it could be singled out amidst the gaze of the other, the object-I would have to have some idea what it meant to be gazed upon in the first place. Levinas approaches this position himself when he observes, “if one could possess, grasp, and know the other, it would not be other.” That is, so long as we don’t mind only eating one flavor of otherness.

What we might imagine instead are scores of bizarro Levinases, little philosopher machines sent into the sensual interactions of objects like planetary rovers. Their mission: to characterize the internal, withdrawn subjectivities of various objects, by speculating on the ways object-object caricatures reflect possible codes of value and response.  Object ethics, it would seem, can only ever be theorized once-removed, phenomenally, the parallel universes of private objects cradled silently in their cocoons, even while their surfaces seem to explode, devour, caress, or murder one another.


4 thoughts on “The Legume, the Piston, and the Bearded Man

  1. “Plants clearly sense the world too, whether to seek out light or water, or to react chemically to external threats.”

    Can we assume that sensation in itself is the relevant measure of harm?

    Is torture or beating of someone who has CIPA (congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis) a more acceptable act?

    From the other direction, can the sensation of momentarily undesirable sensation be taken as the most important measure, even though the struggling soldier or athlete would gladly suffer for victory, the student will readily sleep deprive and stress herself for success, and the birthing mother bears a great deal of pain in the interest of bringing life into the world.

    On that note of reproduction, but back to sensation: if its behavioral effect on animal behavior can serve as a clue about evolution’s reward sensations, then perhaps the apple tree knows of no greater pleasure than to have its ripe apples picked. Perhaps crops fear the scarecrows most, for keeping the reproductive joys of the animal beaks off of their most sensitive regions, until the delayed satisfaction culminating with mechanical harvest.

    Plants, if they indeed sense, seem most likely to benefit from an adapted ethics at a community level, rather than at a strictly individual level, where success of the species takes priority over success of the individual. In this case, the detection of their nearby seeds being spread could, again, be just the scent/vibration/chemical that most elevates their “happiness” however manifested.

    If indeed we can ascribe an arbitrarily high level of intelligence onto plants, then would it not be likely that they’d (a.) overlook a temporarily unpleasant sensation, or even aspire to obtain it, in the interest of becoming an even more dominant life form (b.) be in such a terrible state of constant boredom, frustrated by their lack of mobility, agility, direct sensation, potential for culture or personal significance, and so on, that the plant spends every day after it sprouts from the seed desperate for some merciful animal with claws or combines to come along and put it out of its misery?

    “The criticism of selective indignance has long plagued veganism, whose proponents have developed a number of responses to the accusation.”

    One of the most important responses to this accusation, which does not seem to be addressed here, is that even if plants do suffer in any form when harvested, the practice of veganism dramatically reduces the number of plants which must be harvested. The typical livestock animal consumes 10-15 pounds of grain, corn, and miscellaneous other vegetation for each pound of edible flesh produced, the majority of that energy going into metabolism. By not eating animals, the number of “soy murders” committed goes down by an order of magnitude.

    “Does the piston when compressing air and petrol against the walls of its cylinder? Does the snowblower when its auger pulls snow from the ground and discharges it out a chute?”

    In the case of the inanimate, I find it an engaging exercise to draw comparisons to a human body which has all vital organs removed. What is left, so far as science can tell, is a pile of material, as complexly configured as any mixture of material might be, and though organic, rendered entirely inanimate. What remains has either no personality, no sensation, and no consciousness – or otherwise is cause for suspicion that everything does, including bricks and engine parts. At the very least, if ethics of such a body are important, leftover from the time when the tissues were alive, than we ought to be more careful of how we handle our fingernail and hair clippings.

    This is where I appreciate your suggestion that, “…ethics is a self-centered practice…”

    History’s religions are filled with ways to preserve bodies of the dead, and even secular people generally seem nearly as shocked at the thought of desecrating/disrespecting the dead as they are with the thought of harming a living body. Meanwhile – to return momentarily to vegan concerns – the overwhelming majority of people (secular and religious alike) seem to possess a nearly total disregard for the ethical treatment of non-human animals. (Or, at best, they’ll show signs of gross confusion in this area, like taking a fly outside rather than killing it, or taking a wounded wild bird to the animal shelter, then having chicken for lunch and steak for dinner.)

    It seems even slightly hinted at how differently we’re inclined to handle the stuffed animal – something with a facial expression and approximate body form – compared to a pillow or a sweater. I’ll toss the latter without thinking twice about it, yet I make a point of sitting stuffed animals upright, and handling them as if doing so mattered.

    While the behavior of most people is clearly swayed less by ethics or philosophy than cultural momentum, that the regard we feel inclined to give something ethically mirrors so powerfully how closely we identify with it seems to put this topic in a difficult place. When we begin to discuss something greater in scope than the regard for things which are like us, is it still the same subject, or are we potentially confusing ourselves with falsely assumed parallels?

    In the meantime, I’ll continue to assume that the soybeans and vegetables that I live on are desperate for me to put them out of their boring misery, or that they long for me to help their species reproduce through continuing their harvest/planting cycles, and paradoxically feeling righteously assured that I’m minimizing plant deaths by avoiding animal slaughter.

  2. In hindsight, and though I suspect most readers will catch the distinction, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to clarify that my overwhelming suspicion tends more toward the presumption that plants are incapable of suffering. This is, as Ian mentioned, mostly from their lack of nervous system, and furthermore from lack in virtually all cases of the high fidelity mobility/reactive responses which gives pain its evolutionary function in animals. This, as opposed to there being any genuine paradox of suppose plants somehow enjoy being harvested (or put out of their misery).

    It seems like a silly distinction to bother clarifying, but it’s terribly common for people that don’t understand something to mistake humor for an admitted weakness in position. This is so common that some of the most watched “news” programs, newspaper editorials, and tabloids in the country thrive on it. But I digress…

    Speaking of digression, pressing enter to auto-complete my e-mail address in the required field while preparing the previous reply caused it to submit before I had a chance to proofread. The lack of any way to edit or erase/repost combined with a few distracting (but fortunately not meaning changing) typos made me a slightly sad panda. So it goes.

  3. Pingback: Ian Bogost’s The Legume, the Piston, and the Bearded Man « The Inhumanities

  4. Does there come a time when over intellectualizing things that we have a natural aversion to becomes inadequate in the extreme??

    If we have an aversion to eating the offspring of our neighbors, does it become morally permissible if we agree with the above arguments?

    What about other concepts like having sex with combustion engines or living creatures not of our species? If killing a cow to eat is permissible why isn’t having sex with a cow and letting it live also permissible?

    Sometimes we need to set words aside and go with our natural aversions. If people had to slaughter their own animals in their own front yards I think we’d have waaaay more vegetarians and vegans running around. But we hide it…why? Of course we hide it because most people find it disgusting to tear the guts out of something, then place the remains on their dinner tables.

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