One Last Time

Yesterday, my online experience began with the discovery that some people were talking about my recent post on object-based ontologies and politics–a perennial “hot topic” (object-based ontologies and politics, that is; not me). It’s nice to be talked about, of course, but it is even nicer to be included in the discussion. It seems, however, rather than discussing (1) whether or not object-based ontologies have political implications and (2) if object-based ontologies can provide good political analysis, my interlocutors were upset that I had characterized the political analyses of Tim Morton and Graham Harman as incoherent. Apparently it is “unhelpful” to call a spade a spade. You would think that if any group of academics liked the idea of calling a spade a spade and an incoherent thought an incoherent thought it would be the proponents of object-based ontologies. Apparently I should have called Morton and Harman’s comments on guns “nuanced and insightful” rather than gibberish. In addition to taking offence to my use of the word “incoherent,” my interlocutors put forward two lines of argument. First, ontologists shouldn’t be your go-to experts on politics. Second, in the face of tragedy, it is irresponsible to not speak. Somehow this culminated in a defence of Morton and Harman.

The first line of argument is perfectly sensible and it is one I agree with. There is no good reason why ontologists should be an authority on politics. There is no good reason why anyone should turn to ontologists for political analysis. And there is no good reason why ontologists should be offering political analyses on the basis of their ontology, especially if they are not astute observers of politics. All of this is easily (and uncontroversially) admitted.

This final position only emerged after the initial claim that academics are not good at politics. This claim is both true and false. Compared to lawyers and businessmen, academics seem to have had limited electoral success in most political regimes. This is the narrow sense of “academics are bad at politics.” But, it is plainly obvious that electoral success is neither the beginning nor the end of politics. Were that the case, “Presidential politics” would only occur once every four years and “Senate politics” would only occur once every two years for half of the Senate. A significant part of “everyday politics” is the process of various legislative and policy hearings, testimony in courts, intervening in supreme court cases, writing opinion pieces in newspapers, providing quotations for journalists, and being talking-heads on TV. While academics may not be the single most dominant group, it is hard to imagine a lot of high profile legislation, policy, and court cases going forward without the involvement of academic expertise. Given the state of the world, the question isn’t whether academics are good at politics, but whether their politics are any good and the answer is either academics have generally bad politics or academics are particularly bad at convincing judges, politicians and bureaucrats that their politics are sensible.

There is another sense of politics that extends beyond interventions into policy, law, and the courts. The other sense of politics is the daily work of sociologists, political scientists, geographers, political philosophers, and others. That is, providing concrete analyses of social and political forces; how they intersect and interact; how, for instance, social movements form, motivate for various changes, and how these changes come about (or not). Here the issue isn’t whether academics are good at politics or have good politics, but whether not their analyses have any consequences outside of the academy. This returns us to the first point: academics are highly involved in the process of politics.

In both cases, an advocate of an object-based ontology could reasonably be interested in politics. There is no reason why the concepts and methods of object-based analysis cannot be used beyond a narrowly ontological domain and extended into the repertoire of the social sciences and humanities in general. Indeed, given the interest in that “object-oriented sociology” paper, there is interest among the new realists for precisely this sort of analysis. Now, this does not mean that the current cohort of new realists are necessarily the best candidates for doing such analysis (in my view, this is demonstrably the case vis a vis Morton, Harman and Bogost). However, just because most of the central figures in object-based ontologies are terrible at political analysis does not mean that others can use the ontological framework they’ve developed productively.

This brings us back to the second line of argument raised by interlocutors: it is irresponsible to not speak in the wake of tragedy. This is a principled defence of idiocy if I’ve ever heard one. Fortunately, upon being pressed, my interlocutor changed their tune: we can’t all be well-informed on everything, therefore it is okay to speak authoritatively even when one is not well-informed. This is yet another principled defence of idiocy.

Setting aside the fact that a random object-based ontology advocate’s blog post will have any effect on anything other than the few dozen irritated readers who see it–and the hundreds more who are brought to its attention once the sheer inanity of the comments are realized–it isn’t clear why it is a responsibility to speak even if stupidly in the face of tragedy. To whom is this responsibility owed? Why? I’m sure the parents of the dead children appreciate Harman’s nuanced perspective that guns such as the one used at the shooting belong only in Afghanistan. (Did Harman ask the mothers of Afghanistan how they felt about an influx of small arms into their country? What? No?) Given the proclivity to say politically, socially and morally irresponsible things when it comes to object-oriented politics, the null hypothesis ought to be, “Unless your comments are particularly well thought out and insightful, it’s likely better to say nothing at all.” To then defend such statements on the basis that we can’t all be well-informed isn’t responsible, it is crass nihilism of the worst sort. It is trivially true that we can’t be well-informed about everything. The conclusion we should draw from this is that we should limit our statements to that which we are well-informed on rather than saying whatever stupid thing enters our mind. This is what responsibility entails: speaking authoritatively and carefully on matters that we have knowledge of.

Insofar as people like Tim Morton and Graham Harman continue to say plainly idiotic things on politics, the Galloway line of criticism will always be lurking in the background. There will be the demand that object-based ontologies reveal their political implications and the advocates of these ontologies “rising” to the challenge will constantly confirm that object-based ontologies have bad politics on account of the shitty political analyses that are offered. If you want Galloway’s attack to go away, someone needs to take Morton and Harman’s keyboards away from them–or at least tell them that “analysis” like “I can’t imagine such a gun would be needed anywhere outside Afghanistan.” or “People kill people like the NRA says. Also, guns kill people, like the NRA doesn’t say.” are embarrassing and irresponsible.