Saturday, 23 January 2010

Haraway and Object Oriented Ontology

I’m pasting some elements of Levi Bryant’s response to my proposed paper on Feminist Metaphysics as Object Oriented Ontology below.
In the world of cultural studies and the humanities, I think there have been a number of privileged sites that have been directed towards bucking the primacy of anti-realist or correlationist thought than other disciplines by virtue of the nature of the objects that constitute their object of investigation. These theorists have not, of course, in most cases baldly stated their work as a debate between realism and anti-realism, but their work has nonetheless inevitably led them to thinking being in such a way that it is not simply a discourse, language, or a correlation with the human.
Paradoxically, these privileged sites have largely been marginalized in the world of academia and the humanities; no doubt because of the hegemony of anti-realist thought or the status of correlationism as the establishment position. Among these privileged sites I would include environmental philosophy and thought, science and technology studies, critical animal theory, geographical studies, writing technology studies, media studies, queer theory, and, of course, feminist philosophy and thought. I am sure that there are many others that don’t immediately come to mind for me. If these have been privileged sites for the development of significant conceptual innovations in the field of realist ontology, then this is because all of these sites of investigation force encounters with real and nonhuman objects and actors that cannot be reduced to correlates of human thought, language, perception, or use but that have to be approached in their own autonomous being to properly be thought.
The point here, then, is that these privileged yet marginalized sites of realist thought are, in so many respects, ground-zero for object-oriented ontology. The conceptual innovations and creations, the ontological discoveries, that inhabit these sites require, demand, from object-oriented ontologists the most careful scrutiny and attention for there is a wealth of ontological riches to be found in these sites. Here OOO/OOP learns from these sites of research and engagement, not the reverse. For these thinkers were all object-oriented ontologists before anyone thought to name themselves “object-oriented ontologists”.

To the above points I must simply agree. Moreover, Levi’s words here and elsewhere reminded me where some of my positive predispositions towards a future “Object-Oriented” and anti-correlationist stance probably began. Specifically, it was sometime in the mid/late 1990s when I encountered the writings of Donna Haraway and was particularly interested in the manner in which her ecofeminist and cyborg manifesto commitments converged. It was definitely one of those rare eureka moments when you discover someone who is saying something that you have been struggling to articulate for some time yourself. Looking back on her work now - that is, following my recent encounters with OOO and SR - it is quite amazing how many parallels and resources there are that need revisiting (as Levi notes, ‘these people were ... object-oriented ontologists before anyone thought to name themselves “object-oriented ontologists”). I can’t lay my hands on my copy of Penley and Ross’s (1991) Technoculture, where Haraway makes some of these intriguing claims, so I'm using a segment from Jim Cheney’s exellent article ‘Nature/Theory/ Difference’. He begins by noting Haraway’s
idea that we reconceive the object of knowledge (the world – not just humans) as “agent in the productions of knowledge.” Pointing out that Western conceptions of objectivity and the object of knowledge are historically constructed and “can seem to be either appropriations of a fixed and determined world reduced to resources for instrrumentalist projects of destructive Western societies, or ... masks for interests, usually dominating interests,” Haraway argues that objectivity in our accounts of the natural world require that we understand the “objects” of the world as actors and agents to be understood, not through a “logic of discovery,’” but through a “power-charged social relation of ‘conversation.’” She envisions “feminist theory as a reinvented coyote discourse” with actors who “come in many and wonderful forms” ...
She stresses that in speaking of the “objects” of the natural world as actors/agents she is not thereby characterizing them as subjects with languages. Hers is the “project of finding the metaphors [e.g. coyote and trickster] that allow you to imagine a knowledge situation that does not set up an active/passive split” ... What she is searching for is “a concept of agency that opens up possibilities for figuring relationality within social worlds where actors fit oddly, at best, into previous taxa of the human, the natural, or the constructed.”

Now anyone reading this who has some familiarity with the current state of Object Oriented Ontology is probably thinking of points of cross-over and similarities that warrant closer examination. Indeed, this is something I’m starting to do myself, specifically with regard to publication. One of my recent thoughts was, ‘Did Haraway read or draw upon Latour?’ A quick check of the bibliography of Simians, Cyborgs and Women reveals a couple of Latour endnotes. I copy one of them here, emphasis is mine:
Latour’s brilliant and maddening aphoristic polemic against all forms of reductionism makes the essential point for feminists: ‘Mefiez-vous de la purete: c’est le vitriol de l’ame’. ... Latour is not otherwise a notable feminist theorist, but he might be made into one by readings as perverse as those he makes of the laboratory, that great machine for making significant mistakes faster than anyone else can, and so gaining world-changing power.
This is from her 1988 paper ‘Situated Knowledges’, I will be checking her later works in due course. Interesting material for anyone searching out allies for Object Oriented Ontology, though.

Friday, 22 January 2010

IOC Sexual Objectification Madness

On the subject of treating persons as irreducible and not objectifying them, I would draw your attention to the move by the International Olympic Committee to consider mandatory gender testing and therapies in response to cases such as that of Caster Semenya. See Sentient Developments post here. A genuine case of medicalization and biological reductionism imposing itself on the world once again in the most invidious way.

Harman on Objectification

Just a quick note that Graham has responded to Levi's response to my post here (apologies for the painful circle through blogspace). Usefully he is clarifying what was one of the concerns in my paper, namely that "the objects of object-oriented philosophy have nothing to do with objectification. In fact, they are what resist all objectification." This is rather obvious when one reads some OOO, but probably far less so if one doesn't. In terms of PR, it is one thing to claim that pepsi bottles, cacti and snow flakes are objects, but claiming that people are objects will frequently cause "objectification alert" alarm bells to start ringing. Unfortunately, if OOO wants to build alliances with the Humanities, this topic will need to be tackled with some regularity. Indeed, when I thought about introducing OOO to a feminist journal a couple of months ago, this seemed to be the problem or misconception that would need to be addressed first and foremost.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Foreshadowing Dundee

Interesting to see Paul Ennis mentioning the 'Real Objects and Material Subjects' Conference here and some of the content of Levi Bryant's post on Inhuman Ethics here. I'm aiming to attend the conference and have submitted a paper that will be touching on some of Levi's claims about the need for a re-engagement with Haraway . I think that her work can be productively read as ontology, notably OOO, and - as Levi suggests - it was perhaps unfortunate that her work was located precisely when it was in history.

My abstract for the conference reads as follows, not sure how closely I can stay to it, but it is vague enough to allow me to formulate some ideas over the next couple of months.

Thinking Sex(es)/Object(s): Feminist Metaphysics as Object Oriented Ontology
Three main claims are advanced and defended in this paper, albeit with some brevity and increasing gradations of tentativeness. First, it is noted that feminist philosophers, in both analytic and continental traditions, have been reluctant to engage with metaphysics, or, far more commonly, they have been active critics and opponents of it. This attitude may be explained, in part, by the masculinist and misogynist use of “essentialism” in the history of women’s oppression, although a number of other reasons can be mobilised with relative ease. Second, contra these considerations, I propose that the marginalisation of metaphysics by feminists has been overly hasty. Indeed there are good reasons to move the discipline of metaphysics towards the centre of feminist philosophy. Third, I identify some feminist philosophers whose work may be read as metaphysics and whose commitments mark them out as holding realist ontologies (e.g. Christine Battersby, Donna Haraway and Luce Irigaray). I then bring to the table of continental metaphysics some concepts developed by those selfsame philosophers and propose that an Object Oriented Ontology may be the most appropriate means of developing and exploring these ideas. The irony and/or perversity of proposing this alliance, given the history and weight of feminist analyses of sexual objectification, is not lost on me. However, I contend that an Object Oriented Ontology does not run afoul of ethical, political and social feminist critiques of objectification; rather, it delivers fertile resources and research possibilities for tackling a pre-existent feminist interest in the status of objects.

[ADDENDUM: Just been informed that my paper hasn't been accepted, so it is likely to be worked up in a more developed form for Speculations or Hypatia. I'll still probably be attending Dundee and soaking up the SR and OOO atmosphere, although it will depend on how my institution feels about funding the trip].

Monday, 11 January 2010

Circus Philosophicus trailer

Graham Harman gives some tempting insights into his Circus Philosophicus here. Amongst many carnivalesque spectacles you will encounter Graham in "verbal dispute with China Miéville on a Gulf of Mexico drilling platform, leading to [their] discussion of the horrific model of an occasionalist polytheism, in which oil rigs embody the countless deities of the cosmos."

Where do I buy my entry ticket. Yowza, yowza, roll up, roll up ... see the performing idealists, stare at the contortions of the folded Deleuzians.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

The contradictions of the modern university

Just read this by Nina Power at Infinite Thought and nearly choked on my drink, unfortunate for the undergraduate essay I was marking at the time, I really shouldn't multi-task too much, but the tea stains aren't too noticeable. Very funny, I really should read her blog more often. This is taken from an interview that she did with the German newsaper Taz.

Has the introduction of the RAE affected your capacity to publish outside academia? How?

Not really. Universities want you to demonstrate all kinds of contradictory things at once – in-depth scholarship yet accessibility, value-for-money yet long-term outcomes, and so on. The contradictions of the modern university are simply a microcosmic version of the bastardised form of neo-liberalism fused with state bureaucracy that characterises contemporary life. In this sense, universities love academics who can at once be ‘scholars’ and ‘populists’. They don’t even seem to mind if you write scornful pieces about the very nature of academia itself, so long as the journal you publish in has a high enough rating. The thing that should take up most time is teaching – yet this is the one area (unless it involves getting overseas or postgraduate fees) that universities are not really interested in. When the students find this out, they can’t believe it. We shouldn’t either.

I won't add much comment on this, suffice it to say that my university has identified itself as teaching led for some time, albeit while emphasising all the other things too.

Friday, 8 January 2010

In Praise of Dark Vitalism

I really must note that I very much enjoy Ben Woodard's Naught Thought blog (I've been intending to mention it for some time), stylish and I must hold my hands up to feeling many intellectual affinities with it. I haven't waded through the back catalogue of blogs yet, so don't have a complete picture, but there are plenty of parallels with my final assessment of the Goddess as Nature (i.e. Kaliesque, frequently unheimlich (bloody strange and scary), and a fluid/protean force that incorporates/embodies the organic and inorganic alike); no wonder we all reach for Lovecraft with such regularity. I probably differ with regard to the nihilistic edge of Ben's dark vitalism, for which I honestly will try and find time to give reasons in the near future.

Starting Out in 2010

In the interests of further clarifying my position vis-a-vis Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, it is perhaps worthwhile stating something about my previous work and current commitments. My first book Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy was very much an attempt to unpack and philosophically elaborate the metaphysical worldview of an emergent religious movement, namely the Goddess movement and - more specifically - Goddess feminism. My main contention in that work was, and remains still, that the worldview of this relatively young NRM (1970s onwards) was both more coherent than many of its critics claimed and also contained some concepts, metaphors and models of the nature of reality that were novel and warranted some philosophical and specifically metaphysical exploration. This movement embodied an effort to re-think nature, through a radical feminist lens, in terms of agency, chaos, complexity, ecological networks and organicism. Some of the elements, individually and also in combination, were not particularly new (for example, some close affinities with process philosophy), but the constellation of ideas as a whole was original and worthy of note.

Significantly, though, what I was not able to do in that book was pursue many of the concepts that interested me with anywhere near the freedom and commitment that I wanted. The project was constrained by the demands and structural limits of a doctoral thesis, on which the book was based, and the particular problems that I had set for myself therein. My efforts were directed towards providing a plausible reading of the reality-claims made by some influential members of the movement and elaborating their coherence. The book was in part a hermeneutical reading of the emergent worldview of Goddess feminism, in part a constructive project – in the tradition of Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague’s constructive theologies – and in part a work of analytic philosophy of religion. Awkwardly this meant the work had several disciplinary mistresses, and probably suffered from the demands of most such interdisciplinary endeavours. In my case, it was perhaps too selective in its hermeneutical reading to be very useful to sociologically inclined scholars of new religious movements, too analytic and systematic to be tolerated by most thealogical insiders and less analytically rigorous than some Anglo-American philosopher of religion would accept. That said, though, it did the job I initially envisaged and there is much within it that I am still wedded to and motivated by. Indeed, my current concerns are the same as many post-doctoral academics who are still moderately close to their completion, namely to examine the attractive threads, frustrating problems and interesting avenues of enquiry that could not be explored in detail during the doctoral process (typically because of the constraints of wordage, time and perhaps ultimately coherence). I accept the tales of many doctoral students who claim that they grew to hate their research and were glad to see the back of it. But this just doesn’t square with my own experience. Yes, in the end it simply wrote itself, there were things that needed to be said and the structure was what it needed to be. But there was much that was only a beginning, a seed for future work. Retrospectively, I despise the style of the book; it may have been clear - that cherished analytic virtue - but it probably wasn’t evocative or memorable. Importantly, though, there was plenty of fuel within it for future work and I can now walk down those rich and stimulating avenues free of my prior doctoral constraints, although they have now, admittedly, been replaced by a rather different and weightier set of constraints.

What are my concerns today? Broadly they fall under the canopy of what might be termed feminist metaphysics and ecological philosophy. I am interested in theorising the autonomy of the world, via a flattened ontology, wherein the human-world relation has no special status. Consequently I am attracted to Object Oriented Ontology and its anti-correlationist commitments. Somewhat awkwardly, though, given the feminist and ecological prefixes noted above, there are also tensions to be addressed with regard to any relations that I might posit to obtain between ethics, politics and ontology. But this is work to be done – and I will have to see what gives way as I think it through. One pressing concern is that feminist philosophies tend to be firmly situated within the correlationist camp (given their constructionist, social and political commitments, plus their sympathies with much continental philosophy); although this may be resolvable in terms of being able to jointly hold an antirealist epistemology and a realist ontology without problem (see Levi’s post here); but again, work to be done. I am also particularly interested in some of the resources and themes being brought to the fore by feminist philosophers (e.g. Christine Battersby, Rosi Braidotti, Catherine Keller, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Luce Irigaray, the late Grace Jantzen, Val Plumwood) whose work can be read as addressing aporias, conceptual blind-spots and areas of neglect in the history of western metaphysics. Natality is one case in point, a rather different existential, metaphysical and phenomenological avenue of enquiry than the dominant preoccupation with being-towards-death (or, increasingly, being-towards-extinction). The meaning of sexual difference is the other major player here, a broad field that is giving rise to, amongst other things, new philosophical perspectives on identity and subjectivity, as well as alternative theorizations of space and time. As Grosz notes in Space, Time and Perversion (1995: 100):
It is not clear that men and women conceive of space or time in the same way, whether their experiences are neutrally presented within dominant mathematical and physics models, and what the space-time framework appropriate to women, or to the two sexes may be. ... [T]he bodies of each sex need to be accorded the possibility of a different space-time framework.

Previously I have closely allied myself with those philosophies that are concerned with organicism, vitalism and what Graham Harman identifies in Prince of Networks (2009: 154) as ‘a primal unified womb of becoming’; hence, perhaps, my interest in Goddess feminism. This has meant that since my undergraduate years I have been reading Whitehead and his interpreters (despite severe misgivings about much of the Christian theistic baggage that is imported), Bergson, some Deleuze, a number of ecological philosophers and, amongst many others, the feminist philosophers noted above. Throughout this period, though, and particularly coming through the thesis, I was becoming progressively more and more frustrated with explaining the autonomy and emergence of things within the metaphysical frame I was working with. I was never entirely happy with the solutions proposed by process metaphysics, and given more time and familiarity I may have thrown my lot in with Deleuze. However, the demands of my first and current teaching post interrupted, committing me more forcefully to the religious studies thread of my academic interests rather than the philosophical. This only changed earlier this year with my with my discovery of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, the impetus to get my philosophical research interests back on track (although I had also been teaching some philosophy for three years by then with a major/minor Philosophy and Ethics subject pathway at my university).

For those who may be interested, my religious studies teaching and research interests are based around New Religious Movements (notably Paganism, the New Age and the Spiritual Revolution), the Psychology of Religion, Method and Theory and, in past years, Religion and the Media. These inevitably cut across and inform some of my philosophical interests, sometimes in unusual ways, but they are not central drivers for my current philosophical interests. There may, as I noted in an earlier post, be some compatibility between animism, panpsychism and object oriented ontology, for example, but I don’t think I will be tackling that particular topic for some time. At the moment I am grappling with the relationship between feminist metaphysics and OOO, both for an article for Speculations and for the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects’ conference at the University of Dundee in March. The clock is ticking on the deadlines for both.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Comedy Highlight of 2009

Reflecting back on some of the events of 2009, I just thought I'd share with you one of my comedy highlights. Namely, imagine my amusement and horror on finding my four year old daughter, who has a penchant for taking my books from the shelves, sitting in bed one evening, teddies and barbies on either side of her, studiously flicking through Sun Tzu's Art of War. At that point I realised, parentally speaking, I was probably doomed.

Fortunately she could not read at that point, although I now suspect that this could have been a clever subterfuge. Even today the 3"x4.5" Pocket Classic version is her favourite of my books, so I remain worried.

Gender Equity in Philosophy

Just thought I'd drop in this post by Jenny Saul at Feminist Philosophers. Hopefully I'll soon be blogging again myself after a lengthy hiatus.

The New Year seems like a nice time to compile a list of small things that many of us (whatever our sex/gender) can do fairly easily to help the cause of gender equity in philosophy. (If you’re wondering why *these* suggestions, scroll down to “Background”, below.) Of course, their ease and appropriateness depends on your particular situation. Use your judgment about what small things you should try.

(1) Organising a conference? Make sure you’ve got some women speakers. Try appropriate subject searches in the Philosophers’ Index, and remember that implicit bias may have prevented good women philosophers from getting the visibility they deserve. You can help to change that. (Also, think about doing things that will get you in the position to organise conferences or sessions, like joining an APA committee.)

(2) Attending an all-male conference? Say something about it. You can be confrontational, jokey, or friendly, depending on what suits you. Personally, I find it very effective to make a joke, which then opens up the conversation in a very productive, non-aggressive manner.

(3) Editing a volume or special issue? See (1): similar considerations apply.

(4) Teaching? Include some women on the syllabus. Even in the history of philosophy, they’re not as rare as you think. When students see all-male syllabi, that helps to shore up the implicit associations between maleness and philosophy.

(5) Check out the candidacy/comprehensive/prelim exams in your department. Try to get some women included. This can usually be done in a pretty non-confrontational manner by just suggesting “a few more recent authors”, and a helpful list of suggestions.

(6) Doing a job search? Make sure everyone on the committee knows about implicit bias, and bear in mind the suggestions here.

(7) Involved in a journal? Urge anonymous refereeing and editing at every stage, to minimise effects of implicit bias. (This is also important for making sure that there isn’t a bias in favour of famous names, a bias against foreign names, biases for or against particular institutions, etc etc.)

(8) Develop the habit of acknowledging women. One thing research has shown over and over again is a tendency not to notice the contributions of women. Be sure to acknowledge women’s contributions to discussions (by name, if possible), and notice when others fail to do so. Pick up on this in a friendly way (e.g. “Yes, Edith was saying something very like that just a minute ago…). When you’re writing a paper, make a special effort to remember women who may have helped you (or whose work may have influenced you), since research shows you’re likelier to forget them.

(9) If you’re speaking to a woman, make eye contact and listen to what she’s saying. (Both men and women make less eye contact with women than with men.)

(10) Whatever you’re doing, talk about implicit bias. It’s really not that hard to do, since it’s incredibly interesting. And the more people who know about this, the better.

Background: Psychological research on implicit bias has made it very clear that nearly all of us are subject to unconscious biases, whatever our conscious beliefs. Believing ardently in gender equality does not prevent one from being subject to biases which work against women. Nor does being a woman. (If you want to know more about implicit bias and its likely workings in philosophy, you might start here.)

If we want to be less biased we need to work at it, rather than just reflecting on our conscious non-sexist beliefs. Deliberately trying to include/notice/pay attention to women is one way to do this. Moreover, research suggests that exposure to counter-stereotypical exemplars can do a lot to counteract implicit biases. In this case, that means women philosophers.