Trend #1: The New Ontologies

The New Trends?

The new ontologies are difficult to pin-down into a concise and over-arching statement. In fact, the proponents of the new ontologies are for the most part quite resistant to being grouped together at all. It seems to me that it would be extremely dishonest to presume that these thinkers do not trade off of the internal debates and discussions that they share between themselves. It is these debates and discussions that embody the new trends in ontological speculation. Broadly speaking, we can claim that the debates and discussions predominantly concern one of two projects. I name the first, a negative project, and the second, a positive project.

The negative project can be summed up by the analogy of the sledgehammer. The negative project that concerns the new ontologists involves destroying the pillars guarding traditional ontologies as well as the epistemological philosophies that have eschewed all ontologies as unduly representative, essentialist, and/or authoritative. The negative project thereby amounts to a critique of the project of correlationism. This concept (correlationism), more than any other, is shared by all of the new ontologists. It was first introduced by Quentin Meillassoux to describe the foundation of all transcendental philosophy which incessantly correlates objects, events, and/or laws with their relation to human access to those objects, events, and/or laws. Thus, the correlationist position denies the possibility of an unbiased investigation into mind-independent reality. For example, Bruno Latour’s negative project sought to disentangle the modernist and post-modernist posturing of much of philosophy from their shared dependence on the split between an object and/for a subject, as well as nature and/for society. Graham Harman’s negative project has involved articulating the centuries-long discursive strategy involved in ensuring that there be no investigation into the object qua object. He has critiqued two strategies pursued, often blindly, by much of traditional philosophy: under-mining and over-mining. Under-mining occurs when an object qua object is thought to be less important for philosophical inspection than that which exists beneath the object as a truer reality. Thus, one strategy might involve the assumption that a chair is less important than the atoms actually composing the chair. On the other hand, over-mining occurs when an object qua object is thought to be less important for speculation than that which exists above it as a divine law, cultural prejudice, and so on. Thus, one strategy might involve the assumption that a chair is less important than the investigation into the reservoir of personal or cultural prejudices that have constructed the chair as a political object.

The positive project can be summed up with the analogy of the carpenter. This is precisely the point that Ian Bogust made in his book Alien Phenomenology. The carpenter is interested in building, systematizing, mapping, and edifying in much the same way that Leibniz did when he wrote his Monadology. It has become popular to describe this practice as a form of cartography or ontography. In any case, the positive project involves speculating about being qua being, the real qua real, and ecology without nature. In the latter case, there have been calls for a “dark ecology” (most notably, Tim Morton) or for nature without any consideration of how it is that humans construct their understandings of human nature but rather an intensive examination of how it is that nature affects itself and affects us outside of our thinking about it (Slavoj Zizek). Quentin Meillassoux has invited readers to imagine what he names the “arche-fossil”. The arche-fossil demands that the human animal begin to think about the possibility of a stratum of things pre-existing human reflection upon those things. The arche-fossil is a material trace that allows us to imagine a world independent of our relation to it. Bruno Latour’s positive project has involved a thinking about things as autonomously contributing to the way in which humans conduct their political and judicial affairs. He has named this ding-politik. Graham Harman has provided rigorous discussions of the way in which objects relate to one another through “withdrawal”, and the way in which they relate to themselves through a form of “self-othering”. Levi Bryant is indebted to Harman’s project insofar as Bryant’s objects are defined according to the level and scope of their affect on each other (i.e., a “dark object” is so withdrawn from access that it affects another object to an absolute minimal degree). These are just a few examples of the positive work that has already been conducted by the new ontologists.

The new ontologies are not without their criticisms. However, many of the strong criticisms have not been forthcoming. The strongest criticisms have come from one of two schools: (1) Far Left Political Philosophers such as Alexander Galloway and Alberto Toscano, and (2) Lacanian Psychoanalysts such as Slavoj Zizek and Alenka Zupancic.


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