Craig Epplin has just published an excellent post on Alexander Galloway’s recent critique of Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) from the last issue of Critical Inquiry. I think Craig captures the problem precisely, and opens up the question of speculation in productive ways. I won’t summarize the debate between historical materialism and speculative realism (SR) which Galloway has rather elegantly opened. I would simply advise you to read Craig’s post on Nonhuman Collectives before continuing further here.
Galloway’s critique, it seems to me, rests on a dedication to a speculative (or specular) subject — a human constituted through speculation so as to be capable of historical critique. He therefore chastises SR/OOO for engaging in the wrong kind of speculation — practicing a sort of objectivism that unwittingly mirrors contemporary capitalism. On one hand I find it bizarre how many philosophers, particularly in the realm of political theory, cling so dearly the Western subject, ie the specular subject. (If you have further interest in how I understand “speculation” and “Western subject,” two essays are vitally important: Paul de Man’s “Autobiography as De-Facement” and Salvador Elizondo’s “Teoría del Infierno.”) There is not a little conservatism to their radicalism in maintaining specular-subjectivity as central, a holding-on to a last vestige of Eurocentrism, and here I am thinking of Badiou and Zizek, and those like Galloway in their wake. The argumentative circles one has to run in order to maintain the borders between subject and object are quite extraordinary, paradoxical and anachronistic. Zizek’s entire world-view depends on an act of castration, a fundamental and originary cut between subject and object, even though it has been quite apparent to him from the get-go that this cut never actually takes place. Badiou has to have his empty-set, or else it would be impossible for Mao to form a new historical subject after-the-fact. Obviously I’m being overly facetious here, but with all due respect I hope my stance is clear. All concerned in these debates knows full well that the self-knowing (specular) subject is an ideological fantasy, and that this fantasy has been projected into our concrete reality as the kernel of Western modernity and capitalist exploitation. All concerned also know that the Age of Don Quixote has finally come to end, rendering the quixotic quest to project fantasies of subjective-formation into reality as something of an historical relic. New systems of power, agency, action, and mediation have emerged — such that holding up the quixotic relic of subject-formation may seem an act of militant resistance. Which it isn’t.
On the other hand I wish Speculative Realists would drop the “Speculative,” both in name and in practice. Latour’s Actant-Network Theory is valuable to the extent that it provides insight into how we might see the engagement of humans and nonhumans as an emergent system of interactions in which the limit between them in concrete space is limited, if it exists at all. In other words, my identity as a human “Subject” is not necessarily constituted by me facing an Other/Object and seeing my self reflected back to myself. Rather, the identity “me” and the identity “Other” may be mutually emergent in the space between one and one, through a process of intermediation. (It is significant therefore that we understand such intermediation as a *complex system*, but that is grist for another mill.) This process will necessarily “resemble” capitalism if intermediation is conducted through the machinery of capitalist production, a curious feedback loop in which the object constituted through human-nonhuman intermediation becomes the medium constituting human-nonhuman intermediation. Curious, but hardly difficult to theorize or understand, as witnessed by the final section of Vilém Flusser’s Vampyroteuthis Infernalis. If my identity has become informationalized across a network, then I can rapidly and cheaply produce multiple identities and deposit them here and there. This thought would have been patently schizophrenic but a few decades ago, but now it is business as usual. Literally. As Galloway is correct to point out, global capitalism is increasingly reliant on what I would call “nano-labor,” in which surplus value is generated via the exploitation of infinitesimally small units of work — such as updating my status of Facebook or (gulp) writing a blogpost on WordPress. I can use digital machines to create identities (or “masks” as Flusser would call them), and a corporation can profit by aggregating the minimal labor required to do so. If I produce multiple “masks” and put them on and off, “I” do not have an identity inside myself; “I” am the aggregate of multiple identities flowing into and out of my body. If this last statement does not seem ridiculous to you, then you would agree that ANT need not be taken as being speculative or specular. “I” don’t see myself in a digital network, and the network is not a “Real” nonsubjective object of desire (in the Zizek-Lacan sense) folded into a history of subject-formation, because “I” and “network” (Self and Other) do not exist as unique stable entities prior to the interaction. And perhaps more importantly, one is not “inside” or “outside” the other; there are flows of intermediation. In this sense “network” is not quite the best term either, since it implies a closed-circuit of communication between actants. For me, “complex system” will have to suffice for now. And these complex systems, pace Galloway, are not of comparable size or value. A human body is a complex system, Confucianism is a complex system, garbage collection is a complex system, snowfall is a complex system (to say the least!), IT infrastructure has multiple embedded complex systems (as does the human body). This does not mean that they are all the same complex system, or of equal value for this or that purpose, even though entities like “citizen” or “political power structure” may emerge from the intermediations between them.
Let me end this rambling response to Prof. Epplin with a few provisos. First, I do not myself take sides in any debate between realists and materialists, or subjectivists and objectivists. I merely rob what I need of them and attempt to sidestep their debates to the extent possible. In this regard, second, I think that Craig as staked a very smart position at the end of his post, one with which I wholeheartedly agree:
Much to the contrary, I find in the work of writers like Latour and Manuel DeLanda (among others) the possibility of historicizing even more precisely, for they understand objects not only through the lens of human society and class structure but also as complexes of nonhuman forces and relations that exceed “our” purview.
I think what Craig is saying is that one cannot stake the future entirely “subject,” or entirely on “object.” Historical and material critique is certainly necessary, especially given the vast quantities of misery being produced in today’s world. But critique need not hinge entirely on One or Other. My third and final observation is this, then: The problem with these sorts of debates is that in order to engage with them fully, one must enter into a zero-sum game of subject-or-object. How can you have your meat if you won’t eat your pudding: If you’re with the subject, then no object; and if you are with the object, then you can’t have a subject. As if those were the only two categorical options available to us if we are to know the universe, society, politics, power, literature, etc. Certainly there must be further entities we might consider, and not just “nonhuman.” For my part I would explore the possibility of a “no-subject” and “dis-placement” — matters for which I have no space here. In any case… I like my Coke and Pepsi, but I don’t really like them, I never drink them, I think they taste vile in fact, and oftentimes I would much rather prefer to open a bottle of Malbec with my loved ones.