Pushing Through the Indifferent Objects. An Object Oriented Politics

There was a good article by Laura Mclean-Ferris in Art Monthly about contemporary art's interest in objects. It took in some of the philosophical basis of this interest, describing and critiquing what Mclean-Ferris understood of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology.

The things she wrote about the way artists had engaged with objects was interesting and thorough, but her understanding of the philosophy made me a bit sad about the general perception of OOO as an apolitical way of thinking. I'd also recently had a conversation with an artist about what they saw as OOO's failure to engage with the practicalities of politics - the "what is to be done" of political activism.

I thought I'd try and write something about OOO and politics. This is the most politically engaged I have felt for years, and it's because of OOO's embrace of unfashionable, unresolved questions of ontology and metaphysics.


OOO, as a new mode of philosophical thought (and that's what I think OOO is - a new mode, not just an "object turn") seems to be constantly re-iterating its basic principles. Graham Harman is particularly fond of beginning every lecture and a lot of his essays with a precise and detailed description of the Heideggerian concept of tool-being, from which OOO takes its idea of withdrawal.

(Tool-being is the idea that when an object becomes present to us in thought, it withdraws from our understanding of it. There is always more to the object than we can possibly comprehend. OOO pushes withdrawal further. Objects don't just withdraw from human consciousness, but from each other. And, in fact, the very basis of being is this withdrawal. If OOO was an American cable channel its tagline could be ALL WITHDRAWAL, ALL THE TIME.)

Because of OOO's post-human flavour it can often seem as if OOO is uninterested in humans. The long lists of humorously contrasting objects pertaining to the idea of flat ontology can make it seem as if OOO doesn't really believe humans exist, or have any specific characteristics. As though humans are just dumb objects with no special relationship to the world.

But a good way to think about OOO's expanded idea of withdrawal is as a universal subject-hood. I think of it as a universal correlationism. In turning humans into objects, OOO turns objects into subjects.

Humans don't have a special relationship with "the world" because there is no world, there is just a flat plain of objects (and in my super-flat version, the horizon of this plain expands infinitely and that infinity is continually growing). But this is not a rejection of the possibility of a human politics, it is just a realisation that human politics has to take in the entire pantheon of objects. Not just human-objects but also animal-objects, material-objects and "hyperobjects" - objects with massive distribution in space-time, like global warming, or radioactive material, or the concept of God in various cultures.

Not only do we have to massively expand our politics to include non-human objects, but we have to always understand that every object, human and non-human, is irreducible to the relations it currently and hypothetically fulfils. So, radioactive material is not reducible to its impact on human health. Higher education is not reducible to the future economic prospects of its students. Al Qaeda is not reducible to religious fundamentalism (but nor, conversely is it reducible to concepts of pragmatic terrorism).

Picking up on one of the more specific issues raised in Mclean-Ferris's article, human identity is recognised within OOO, but no human-object is reducible to their identity (gender, race or sexuality, for example). So the problem of identity politics as a kind of hallowed/ghettoised space disappears, because the new object oriented politics must always recognise that identity politics is not reducible to whatever identity it seeks to represent (and, the individuals involved in identity politics are not reducible to that identity, or that political struggle alone).

The word caricature is used a lot in OOO, to describe how relationships between objects are always simplified and incomplete. This could seem like a pure moment of apathy in OOO, with objects floating mutely in space, misunderstanding each other and never quite touching. But the recognition that there is always something relations miss out is the basis for a progressive, fluid politics. A politics that is necessarily incomplete, a politics that strives never to caricature those who it claims to represent, or even that which it critiques.

Also, in my understanding, OOO implies becoming, the never-fixed fluidity of the always-withdrawing object. Objects are always in flux because of their withdrawal from one another. This withdrawal is the engagement of objects "in" space-time. (In fact, withdrawal might be the basis for space-time itself, which oozes out from objects as a product of their withdraw from each other.)

From this we can draw out another political axiom from OOO - every political idea is completely contextually dependant, constantly in flux, never finished. There is no utopia of OOO politics. The necessary caricaturing of relations between objects, along with the constant state of change in the relations between all things, forces an object oriented politics to re-evaluate its meaning and application as it moves from context to context. There is no underlying reality to which one might appeal.

For me an object oriented politics comes from a pushing through: pushing through the void at the heart of being, pushing through the idea of objects as dumb and indifferent, and pushing through the idea of a complete or adequate politics.

It isn't a a simple politics, and it's no longer simply a human politics. But an object oriented politics - as far as I can see - might be the only politics brave enough to begin dismantling the hyperobject of capitalism.