Not my bag, and what’s in it

Recently, a colleague working in animal studies and I were discussing Ian Bogost’s new book Alien Phenomenology and she eventually asked me what I find compelling about the Object Oriented enterprises. This is totally not my bag, but what follows is what I could spill out of in a sitting, for what it’s worth.

I’m tangentially interested in Object Oriented Ontology for a very few reasons. My primary reason is that I’m directing a really smart dissertation that’s trying to cobble an Object Oriented Rhetoric, so I kind of need to know what he’s talking about. Also, my close friend Levi Bryant is one of the primary figures in OOO (along with Graham Harman and recently Bogost, Tim Morton, etc.), so I get an earful whether or not I ask for it (he’s passionate about it and I trust his passion). I have to say that Levi’s flavor of it all sits better with me, as he’s coming at it through Deleuze and Lacan, so I have some purchase there. And I suppose that there’s maybe some overlap between OOO and my proto-project on authenticity; there may be something there I can use for something once I figure out what I want to talk about.

Also, I’m not compelled by the philosophy as much as interested in how it’s explained. Graham Harman’s work is really interesting, but I’m less a fan not because his book on Latour (for instance; it’s the one I’ve read) doesn’t offer interesting reading, but that his examples/analogies are often problematic for me (available here). Levi Bryant (find his latest here) is sometimes better at it, but I’m biased toward the informing background, etc. I like Bogost’s work on games, so I’m reading the new one. My point is that this is my FUN reading, so I want to be entertained while I’m taught.

Really interesting is how these discussions have intersected with recent interest in The New Aesthetic. So Bruce Sterling’s Wired piece gets read by Warren Ellis, Bogost responds to Ellis via Twitter (I was e-mailing with Ellis while they were tweeting – #namedrop), Alex Reid considers all of this in his own way, etc. And they do seem to be having a really useful conversation in this collision. OOO has a nice critique of NA.

I’ve been thinking that the scary thing about OOO (and maybe why some react so viscerally to or against it?) is that it doesn’t seem to have an ethics. I don’t mean that it’s unethical, but that it is non-ethical. It doesn’t make (m)any ethical claims I can identify. Which means that really bad things could come from its deployment. But it also means that very good things could come, too. Because they are taking such a radical stance (that flattening), it’s not just things and (non-human) animals that are objects, but humans, too. So can there be an ethics with/out the human? My answer right now is maybe not.

Of course, OOO also often seems guilty of a kind of animism. I think that’s a strategic move, but it’s still a problem they’ll have to deal with. A lot of the work of course comes from Latour, but insists that networks aren’t everything; that objects exist and aren’t completely knowable or describable except in terms of of those relations shouldn’t elide the possibility that there’s always something more there (this is that withdrawal, I think) that needs to be accounted for (this resonates for me with the Lacanian Real in his later, topological inflection). So where I don’t take the animism charge seriously, I think what they might be up to is an atomism.

I know much less about Animal Studies than I know about this stuff, but what I’ve happened upon through the OOO discussions and other places, I think it might offer a fine critique of OOO. The latter has no apparent praxis (maybe it’s biggest problem) and animal studies (and eco-criticism more largely) clearly does. But OOO might offer something useful, too. I’m looking forward to the inevitable collision to see what comes out.

For instance, when Cary Wolfe was introduced at a recent talk, there was a sentence that said something like his work moves posthumanism away from technology and toward the animal. I hope that it’s more like he expands it to include the animal. My worry is that, say, privileging the bonobo over the dvd ontologically (Bogost equates them?) might dismiss the dvd (and technology generally) as trash (or even sin) and not deal with it seriously (I guess dark ecology address this, though, right? Marine animals mutating from an oil spill is natural, but dangerous and not desirable). And there’s sometimes a sad scientism on OOO’s side that seems to find its corollary in Animal’s “science studies.” And animal studies might sometimes be guilty of the correlationist fallacy Quintin Meillassoux describes and decries.

What I most admire about the OOO work is that it’s so available. I’ve linked to some of the blogs, and these folks are generous to a fault. All of them are invested and engaged. And many of them are committed to open access publishing so that, while we can (and should) buy meat-space versions of their books, they are also available immediately in web or pdf options. Not only does this help include folks in the discussions who might otherwise be cut off, it makes the discussions vibrant and allows nuancing and change on a dime.

(Having said this last, I’m turning off comments not because comments aren’t valuable to me, but because all of the usual end-of-semester stuff is going to keep me away for a while and I don’t want to slight anyone.)

I have never been current

For a while, I’ve been worried about not being able to keep up with new scholarship in new fields. I was talking about this with Levi Bryant, whose Larval Subjects blog I depend on to keep me abreast of what I don’t know yet. Levi’s brand of Object Oriented Ontology appeals to me insofar as it overlaps with my old interests, psychoanalysis in particular, which gives me some purchase. And it was this problem we were discussing: instead of getting super-excited about new ideas and idioms, I’ve discovered that I’m most thrilled when I reread texts I thought I had a handle on and find whole new possibilities in them. Most recently, I’ve revisited Zizek’s Plague of Fantasies for a grad class I’m teaching and, well, it seemed like a new book. Such realizations are old news, of course, but my question is how to engage with really new work when I don’t feel I’ve exhausted the old stuff? Is it possible to slip out of the old frame when it keeps reframing itself for me? Or, rather, I keep repainting the frame to match the redecorations?

Which brings me to our recent Hermanns Lecture Series dedicated to Animals. A great list of scholars presented really fine work in animal studies and posthumanism. These aren’t specialties of mine by any means (especially the former), so each was exciting. But in my inability to abandon my old devices, some ideas occurred to me during Cary Wolfe’s discussion. Wolfe was introduced as someone who helps move posthumanism away from the technological and toward the animal. I don’t know if that’s accurate, but it’s certainly a perception of his work. I like to think that he rather expands the posthuman to include the animal. Regardless, in the day’s discussions – both formal and relaxed – it seemed to me that the animal-studies side of things began to resemble a feminism in its critiques of what seemed to be a primarily masculine understanding of technology and in its presentation of the non-human animal. I don’t want to theorize here too much, since these are new thoughts and likely smeared by my own inability to give up my old mattes, but at least one prior presentation explicitly connected the feminine and the animal (so I don’t think this is entirely made up). And several scholars of renown have moved from feminist-focused work into animal studies in the last decade or so.

In broad terms, is it possible that, in the distinction between human animal and non-human animal, masculine and feminine economies are reinscribed in certain ways? I can only think of these certain ways in Lacanian terms (ok, hell, I am a Lacanian), so my impulse is to sexuate. The human would then maybe be a masculine (castrated, barred) subject infatuated with a phallic technologism (there’s logos in that word, technology, after all) and the non-human would in some way be seen to address a lack in its (human) other? And (per Derrida, et al) THE animal wouldn’t exist as such (just as THE Woman doesn’t?). The non-human animal would thus be situated on the side of contingency, the not-all that was so frequently misunderstood in Lacan?

Too general for any good use, but a sketch of a thought, maybe?

(I’m qualifying so much because I don’t want to step on others’ toes with big phallic feet. But the itch needs scratching.)

Even Cary Wolfe’s discussion – excerpted I believe from his forthcoming book Before the Law – begged for this kind of reading (again, for/from me) inasmuch as I couldn’t abandon the idea of Law in its Lacanian inflection (Name-of-the-Father stuff, etc.). In Wolfe’s primarily Foucauldian reading of Law and politics, he repeatedly turned to figures of machinery and “mechanisms of power,” in effect masculinizing the technological metaphor if not technology proper.

So if it’s possible and useful to talk of such things in these terms, would a look to before the law be analogous to Kristeva’s project of discussing the pre-symbolic imaginary? Is animal studies a preoccupation with the imaginary?

Of course, I have no idea. But there’s something really appealing in Kevin Kelly’s much less academic and often problematic treatment of technology AS animal in What Technology Wants. Which seems to align in some ways with what I understand of Dark Ecology?