The Political Implications of Flatness

Yesterday I presented at Realisms and Object Orientations: Art, Politics and the Philosophy of Tristan Garcia at the ICA.

I was speaking about the pre-ideological affective states that might orientate a thinker towards thinking certain thoughts. I was trying to burrow into the the reasons as to why certain ideas are fashionable, or seem relevant at certain times and to certain people. Why is ontology currently the most on trend area of philosophical study after 200 years of neglect? And why are so many humans with a seemingly natural investment in the concept of the subject, so fascinated by the possibility of seeing the world in terms of objects?

The talk went well, thanks to those who came. I'll post a version of it online soon.

But for now I wanted to address some of the political discussions that took place yesterday - or at least, began to take place. We were lucky enough to have Tristan Garcia speaking at the symposium. I did three days of seminars with Tristan in New York in April and I'm halfway through reading his systematic philosophical work, Form and Object.

Form and Object is an interesting piece of object orientated philosophy because a flat ontology is the basis of Garcia's system of thought, rather than its goal. The book is split into two parts: Form, laying out the formal ontology of what Garcia calls things, and Object, which is Garcia's metaphysics applied to various subjects including but not limited to ageing, death, genders, animals, and representations. Garcia's ontology is 'poor' and 'weak', 'depressed' even, with a thing defined as needing only the minimal determination necessary to ensure its existence. Within his ontology there can be no interaction, no complexity, no unity, no distinction between real and unreal. But this formal system is, he says, useless when confronted with objects. Once you are in the realm of objects, for example in the physical universe in which humans operate, then you are no longer in the domain of ontology but of metaphysics. Garcia defines metaphysics as a process of ordering - deciding what matters - and with metaphysics you are able to comprehend objects within objects, complexity, interaction, time, change, the difference between true and false, etc. etc. Garcia's ontology is flat in order that he might build his metaphysics on level ground.

In his lecture yesterday he laid out the political foundations for his project. I'm not sure if this is something he has developed in response to the wider political critique of Speculative Realism  and Object Oriented Ontology, but it was nice to hear politics explicitly addressed. Garcia spoke about his use of the word liberal when describing ontology. He clarified that liberal ontology is the existing ontology of liberalism. His ontology is what he calls 'ultra-liberalism' - using ultra in the original Greek sense of 'beyond'. This could be seen as a kind of accelerationist ontology, a race to the bottom, to reify everything to a something. The substantial difference between accelerationism and Garcia's project, I think, is that for Garcia, ontology doesn't have a singularity at which collapse might occur. There is nothing beneath the bottom of being. Indetermination does not count as an ontological determination, however liberal you are with your definition of a thing, and therefore, there is no trapdoor, no exit plan, there is no escape from being. This goes along with an understanding of liberalism/modernity/capitalism/whatever that is very similar to Latour's understanding of The Moderns. For Garcia, capitalism makes everything equally a thing in order to make things equivalent (i.e., in order to make them tradeable), but it uses this ontology to tricksily justify a metaphysics that makes certain things and ideas, e.g. the idea of possession (of oneself, and of property), into transcendent ideals, more-than-things in Garcia's terms . It does this through the ontological determination of unity - that something is the same thing over time - and through the in-itself (or the compact as Garcia terms it) - the idea that certain things have possession of themselves and full access to themselves. (It doesn't really matter whether you're thinking of humans as transcendent subjects or non-humans as objects that fully and authentically inhabit themselves, the important thing is that it contradicts the liberal ontology of equality.) The point is that the ontology of liberalism claims flatness (equality) but also maintains economic and political ideologies (metaphysics) that give more importance/existence to certain ideas/things than to others, the notion of private property being just one obvious example.

He then went on to criticise the effectiveness of critique, which for Garcia (I'm paraphrasing hugely here), just keeps on pointing out things which cannot be reified by capitalism and which capitalism then (rightly, in Garcia's view) inevitably reifies - much to the shock of the critics but not to the shock of the capitalists (just for clarity, I'm kind of personifying capitalists and capitalism here, but I don't think that capitalism is consciously enacted by a group of people that see themselves as capitalists). Critique in Garcia's view, is just a way of keeping the process moving.

The political struggle, Garcia implies, is not located in halting reification or finding sanctuary from capitalism in something that cannot be turned into a thing, but in confronting the metaphysics of capitalism, and to do this, we need to find a plane of being from which to operate. A place where nothing can be reified (because it is already a thing), and nothing can be alienated (because no thing is in full possession of itself). This is Garcia's ultra-liberal ontology.

(And thanks here to Iain MacKenzie for his wonderful reading of Garcia in terms of possession.)

So the important question must be this: what are the metaphysics/ideologies implied by this ultra-liberal ontology?

This is trickier. We don't know yet, I guess. That's the short version. The metaphysics are in the process of being built through thought and writing and reading and discourse. That's why it's exciting. If you've ever read Timothy Morton or Donna Harroway you can see its implications for ecology, but elsewhere in the political sphere its not so obvious. In fact, its implications are quite ambiguous.

For me, it's not clear how an ultra-liberal ontology is much different from a liberal ontology in terms of how it might be used by capitalism, i.e., if capitalism claims a liberal ontology of equality as its base, but then also utilises a metaphysics of inequality in its practice, why couldn't it use this new, ultra-liberal ontology from which to build its contradictory metaphysics?

An ultra liberal ontology could also be seen as simply a critque of a liberal ontology - 'you haven't gone far enough'. And pointing out the contradictions inherent in capitalism (even if it is in the rather novel area of ontology and metaphysics) is Marx, and what is Marx if not the critiquing capitalist par excellence? (If you know what I mean.)

One possibility I'm interested in discussing is that the ontology that is most accurate (and I do believe that a hyper-flat ontology of Garcia's kind really is an accurate description of being) might not necessarily lead to a politics that we want, and if so, what do we do then? (Clue: the answer is not turn back to the transcendent subject.)