Monday, March 8, 2010
The Weakness of Strong Ontologies
There’s no such thing as ontology on the whole—-or even “leftist ontology,” as Carsten Strathausen’s inclusive new anthology, A Leftist Ontology, makes clear (A Leftist Ontology: Beyond Relativism and Identity Politics [Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2009]). Ontology is limited only by being the study of being in the abstract. Thus Bruno Bosteel’s afterword to the anthology remarks that “the most radical ontological investigations toward tend toward spectrality, virtuality, potentiality—and not toward actuality,” in contrast to Foucault’s call for a “historical ontology of ourselves” (in Strathausen, 244). So, the possible leftism of an ontology is often rejected on the ground that it weakens an ontology’s claim to generality to tie it to any quality, leftist or otherwise. There is likewise no logical reason, however, to characterize ontology by strength. Any way of organizing entities, substances, and forces is ontological, ontologies that emphasize transience and frailty no less than others. (In addition to Foucault’s, the projects of Ian Hacking and Catherine Malabou might be called to exemplify such ontological theories.) Despite recognition of “weak” ontologies, the discourse of ontology in the theoretical landscape tends to slide from abstraction to generality to invariance. Its most common function is to protect against the potential fascism of loyalty to any particular, but also against historicity and contingency, which are not excluded from, but are often denigrated within, ontological theory.
As a result, as Bosteels notes, contemporary ontologies can show hostility toward the entire category of the actual as well as to specific actualities. Criticism of actuality in ontological writing, including that writing’s objection to the aggression of ontic reality claims, co-exists with the charge that after all, ontic claims are not aggresaive enough: that what's desirable is something more invariant than could be achieved by any mere ontic claim. The abstract form of an ontological system, its representation of a carapace that holds experience, then becomes a kind of armor: the ontic without organs, invariance without vulnerability.
Zizek draws a distinction between theologies that treat appearance as a cover for an absolute void (“the Oriental notion of the Absolute Void-Substance-Ground beneath the fragile, deceptive appearances that constitute our reality”) and Christianity in which it is “the Absolute that is thoroughly fragile and fleeting” (The Fragile Absolute, or, Why is the Christian Legacy Worth Fighting For? [London: Verso, 2001],128). Yet, he enjoins the reader to work to preserve the glimpse of frailty and to make it recur; the Absolute isn't frail in the sense that it is allowed to change, much less to depart. It is treated as a beloved object in “the place of the Thing, the unconditional object” (128). Absolute fragility flashes pathos, while denying the mutability of attachments.
Conversation about ontology replaces debates about what critical theorists used to call “agency.” We now accept without anxiety the notion that subjugation and subjectivation are not separate, while much 1980’s and 1990’s work was saturated with anxiety about the problem for agency thought to have been created by Foucault. So, Meili Steele, writing in 1997, sees herself as resolving the dilemma of how to arrive at “a satisfactory account of the interplay between the two kinds of stories we need for critical theory: those that speak of the subject’s determination and those that speak of the subject’s ethical/political agency” (Theorizing Textual Subjects: Agency and Oppression [Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1997], 108). This vocabulary of determination versus agency, twelve to thirteen years old, is rarely used any longer. The support for action formerly (and unpersuasively) supplied by versions of agency is more likely to be located in an ontology of which the self is only one element; the role formerly played by a moment of subjective agency in brilliant excess of its conditions is more likely to be played by an equally primary ontology that is counted on for leverage. In a general way, this second narrative makes some advances over the first. It doesn't necessarily require a sovereign subject; it is able to distribute the energy and significance of situations more evenly over the elements that compose them; it can recognize more fully the materiality of objects and forces. At least, nothing prevents it from doing so. Yet the earlier conversation about agency continues to shape the current conversation in unacknowledged ways. If there is little anxiety about agency, it’s because the muscular rhetoric of ontology interposes itself. Figured a certain way, ontological assertion perpetuates infantile and/or masculinist wishes for invulnerability, over and against the toleration of ambiguity—-even though it isn’t inevitable that any of this happen.
In one essay in Strathausen’s anthology, “an ontological priority of violence” leads to the necessity of “political authority” (4; 14); in another, “the unconditional primacy of inherent antagonism as constitutive of the political” is discovered in anxiety (225). Both figure ontology as priority, the unconditioned, the primary, the inherent, the constitutive; both associate firstness, in turn, with aggressive affirmation. The question is not just whether ontology is prior, but what conflicts the affirmation of this priority may appease. Aggressive affirmation is often the mode of even negative ontology; Klaus Mladek and George Edmondson value the “unclear ontological and epistemological standing” of the specter (it “invites our hesitant investigation,” induces questions for being), yet focus on the one feature of the specter that is not unclear, its insistence: “to be possessed by a specter . . . is really to be dispossessed . . . of the bedrock (mis)assumption that the lack of the phallus is merely transient . . . . We cannot will away specters any more than we can will away the political” (225). The “confused” ontology of the specter, reflected in the multiple negatives of the utterance (so as not to make the lack of the phallus into another presence), does not affect its force, which remains “affirmative” (206) and possessive.
Or again, in Sorin Radu-Cucu’s (noncontroversial) reading of Ernesto Laclau, “the ontological element” achieves “autonomy.” Laclau proposes “a procedural category” that “acts as the formal structure for the constitution of the social” (164). Quoting Laclau: “order, for instance, is autonomous in regard to ‘particular order in so far as it is the name of an absent fullness that no concrete social order can achieve.’” Ontology here possesses the priority of first philosophy; this priority is assumed to be desirable because it enables one to claim to overcome the particularity and mortality of concrete phenomena which may falsely propose themselves to be irreplaceable, riding on their concreteness. So Laclau’s “ontological tools” (165) are constants to be leveraged against particular manifestations of politics. They “show the instability of political divisions and the contingent character of the political spectrum” (165) by being stable themselves—as if, were they not stable, the contingency of political movements would be less observable. Is this true? And what is the impact of the assumed virtue of formal invariance—-and of the desire that constructs it—-on the evaluation that it supposedly enables? I don’t doubt the sincerity of Laclau’s critique of tyrannical presence, a critique so strong that his ontology should be described as negative. But because his kind of critique of presence is consistent with the deployment of invariance in the name of autonomy, Laclau’s writing does not raise the anxiety that Foucault’s did. It’s as though we didn’t care so much about being autonomous as about the preservation of autonomy somewhere. In this way formalism relocates the source of stability that was lost with the illusion of autonomous agency.
Given the insistence on autonomy, it's unclear how ontologies might think self-critically and why the subject of the ontology—-but not the ontologist-—must take on all the risk of connecting the system to a historical context that renders it meaningful in the present. Why shouldn't the ontologist write about being in the game? It's possible, of course, to present a system in assertions and let the reader do all the work of testing and comparison. An ontology that does that, however, may disavow its historicity or treat it as though it were unrelated to its formal theses, and so miss the chance to reflect on its historical meaning. Or it may assert a historical significance as though it were the inevitable outcome of its formal structure, which is also not really to reflect on their relation. But most of all, it may miss the advantages of presenting philosophy—-to oneself and to others-—as mutable and vulnerable, susceptible to historical contradiction and therefore able to reveal contradiction inside itself. The relationships that change us, and thereby change individual and group experience to an extent, are with phenomena that are frail.
image: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (1992/93)