Levi R. Bryant

The Democracy of Objects

    5. Regimes of Attraction, Parts, and Structure 5. Regimes of Attraction, Parts, and Structure > 5.2. Parts and Wholes: The Strange Mereology of Object-Oriented Ontology

    5.2. Parts and Wholes: The Strange Mereology of Object-Oriented Ontology

    Within Continental philosophy and theory, a lot of mischief has been caused as a result of failing to carefully think through issues of mereology or the relationship between parts and wholes. This has especially been the case for bodies of social and political thought deeply influenced by the structuralist turn arising out of Lévi-Strauss and a variety of other French thinkers. In its focus on social structure as a totalizing relational system without an outside, structuralism created a crisis in French social and political thought, raising questions as to how any sort of agency or social change is possible. For if structure consists in differential or oppositional relations between elements and elements cannot be said to exist independent of their relations, then the question emerges of how any action whatsoever is possible that doesn't merely reproduce the social structure. Matters were further complicated in the tendency of structuralism to treat the subject as an effect of impersonal and collective structures that function according to their own pulse and rhythm. In this connection, who can forget Althusser's pronouncements concerning the subject in “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”? There Althusser remarks that,

    the category of the subject is constitutive of all ideology, but at the same time and immediately I add that the category of the subject is only constitutive of all ideology insofar as all ideology has the function (which defines it) of 'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects. In the interaction of this double constitution exists the functioning of all ideology, ideology being nothing but its functioning in the material forms of existence of that functioning.[239]

    Althusser's pronouncements about the subject immediately generated a crisis in French social and political theory, generating, in subsequent years, a series of responses from both his students and those deeply influenced by his thought and conception of the social.

    In many respects, the problem is quite simple. If the subject is both constitutive of ideology and constituted by ideology, and if ideology is the means by which the social system “reproduces the conditions of production”,[240] then it would appear that social and political thought is unable to account for how it is possible for social change to take place. This problem emerges from the relational conception of the social developed within the various structuralist frameworks. Insofar as the relations constituting structure are themselves internal relations in which all elements are constituted by their relations, it follows that there can be no external point of purchase from which structure could be transformed. As an element of structure, this would hold for the subject as well. Like anything else within the social system, the subject would necessarily be differentially constituted by the relations making up social structure.

    With these grim pronouncements, a desperate search began to find a free or void point within structure, a point not overdetermined by the differential relations constituting social structure, such that the transcendental condition under which change is possible could be articulated. Surprisingly, the theoretical resources for such an account were already suggested in the early work of Lévi-Strauss. In his early Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, Lévi-Strauss's theorization of the concept of mana suggested the existence of a paradoxical feature of structure that is simultaneously internal to structure and undetermined by structure. As Lévi-Strauss observes,

    always and everywhere, those types of notions [mana], somewhat like algebraic symbols, occur to represent an indeterminate value of signification, in itself devoid of meaning and thus susceptible of receiving any meaning at all; their sole function is to fill a gap between the signifier and the signified, or, more exactly, to signal the fact that in such a circumstance, on such an occasion, or in such a one of their manifestations, a relationship of non-equivalence becomes established between signifier and signified, to the detriment of the prior complementary relationship.[241]

    Further on, Lévi-Strauss goes on to remark that,

    I believe that notions of the mana type, however diverse they may be, and viewed in terms of their most general function [...] represent nothing more or less than that floating signifier which is the disability of all finite thought (but also the surety of all art, all poetry, every mythic and aesthetic invention), even though scientific knowledge is capable, if not of staunching it, at least of controlling it partially.[242]

    To this list we can add politics. What this floating signifier suggested was the possibility of a void point within structure, a point of complete indetermination, marking a space where both the social might be transformed and where the subject might exist as something more than a patient or object of social forces.

    And indeed, if we look at the trajectory of subsequent French social and political theory, we see a variant of precisely this option being embraced. The later work of Althusser comes increasingly to focus on Lucretius and a discourse of the swerve and the void.[243] Rancière comes to emphasize the role of the “part of no part” as that void point within the social order (which he calls “the police”) from which the social order comes to be transformed.[244] Badiou emphasizes the manner in which every structured situation is haunted at its edge by a void where entirely novel and undecidable events can occur that a subject can then decide, inaugurating truth-procedures that gradually change the organization of the structured situation.[245] And Žižek emphasized the unrepresentable real at the heart of the symbolic from whence a subject becomes possible that marks the failure of the symbolic and such that an absolute act that completely abolishes the subject and re-creates it is open. All of these themes, developed in so many different ways, appear to be variations of the floating signifier that simultaneously marks the limit of the social and its infinite transformability.

    Closely connected with this recognition of the void or floating signifier that haunts every social structure was a growing awareness of the contingency of structure. In a certain respect, the contingency of structure had been a persistent theme of structuralist thought. Where Kant had proposed one universal transcendental structure of the world issuing from the transcendental subject, structural anthropology and linguistics had revealed a variety of different structures organized in very different ways. However, increasingly structure came to be thought as veiling an infinite multiplicity bubbling beneath structure without order or unity. No one has developed this line of thought with more rigor and in greater detail than Alain Badiou in his magnificent Being and Event. There, developing an ontology based on Zermelo-Fraenkel set theory, Badiou advances something of a dialectical ontology partitioned between what he calls inconsistent multiplicities and consistent multiplicities. Inconsistent multiplicities can be thought as a sort of chaos insofar as they are pure multiples without any structure or individuated entities. These multiplicities constitute being as such or being itself. Consistent multiplicities, by contrast, are structured and unified situations. Consistent multiplicities are formed from inconsistent multiplicities through an operation Badiou refers to as the “count-as-one” and, by virtue of being founded in inconsistent multiplicities, are always haunted by a chaos that bubbles just beneath the surface. As such, any consistent multiplicity is only a contingent organization of a situation.

    It is not difficult to detect, lurking behind Badiou's ontology, the desire to rigorously ground revolutionary social theory. One of the main ways in which ideology functions is through the naturalization of the social world. In other words, ideology presents the structure and organization of the social world as the inevitable and natural order of things, such that other arrangements are impossible. One major form of ideological critique has thus historically taken the form of demonstrating the manner in which social formations are contingent or capable of being otherwise through maneuvers of historicization and so on. Badiou's thought provides an ontological grounding for this capacity to be otherwise. In many respects, such a conclusion is already internal to set theory. Recall that, within the framework of set theory, sets are defined strictly through their extension or the elements that belong to the set. Here we can distinguish between a set and a type based on whether or not membership in the collection is defined extensionally (by the parts that belong to it) or intensionally (by some shared feature among the elements). The collection of all dogs, for example, is a collection that is defined intensionally insofar as membership in it is a function of all elements belonging to the collection sharing a common characteristic or set of characteristics. In contrast to types, sets are collections defined purely in terms of their members, such that there is no necessity of these elements sharing a common characteristic. Nor must the elements of the set be ordered in any particular way. Insofar as sets are defined extensionally, the set {x, y, z} is equivalent to the set {y, z, x}. In short, the elements of sets are non-relational or are not defined by the relations among their elements. The point here is that if social structures are sets, there is no one way in which they can be organized and a variety of other forms of social organization are possible.

    Initially these issues pertaining to set theory might seem remote from issues of ideology and the naturalization of the social field. However, if it is true that being is “set theoretical” and that, at its most fundamental level, being consists of inconsistent multiplicities rather than consistent multiplicities, then it also follows that any social structure is contingent in the precise sense that relations among elements can be otherwise. From the foregoing, this can be seen in two ways. On the one hand, because sets are defined extensionally and without any ordering relations among the elements, it follows that there is no necessary relation among the elements. Here relations are external to their terms. Likewise, a similar point can be made through the power set axiom in set theory. The power set axiom allows us to take all possible subsets of a set, forming a new set out of this collection. Thus, for example, given a set {x, y, z}, its power set would be {{x}, {y}, {z}, {x, y}, {x, z}, {y, z}, {x, y, z}}. The power set can then be applied recursively yet again to generate an even larger set and so on. The “cash value” of the power set axiom at the level of ideology critique is that it reveals the manner in which social groupings are contingent and capable of being otherwise by being grouped in different ways. In effect, Badiou provides an ontological “foundation” for demonstrating the contingency of social relations, thereby underlining the manner in which they are always capable of being structured otherwise.

    Through this maneuver, Badiou strikes a strong blow against the internalism of structuralism. Structuralism had argued that all relations are strictly internal to their elements, such that elements cannot be said to have any existence independent of their relations. Through an ontology of inconsistent multiplicities coupled with an account of the externality of relations, Badiou is able to show that while elements do indeed enter into temporary relations with one another, these relations are always and everywhere necessarily contingent and capable of being otherwise. As such, Badiou significantly broadens the possibility of our ability to think change within the social sphere, while also allowing us to maintain the best insights of structuralism through his account of consistent multiplicities.

    Badiou's meditations on the relationship between sets and subsets is thoroughly mereological in character. In making claims about the extensional composition of sets (parts), Badiou underlines the manner in which the parts of a set are simultaneously objects in their own right while also being parts of larger objects, to wit, the sets from which they are drawn. What is interesting here is that the parts are not defined by their relations to other elements in the set, but are objects of their own that can be detached from their membership in the set. Here object-oriented ontology and onticology find an unexpected ally with Badiou and a surprising point of resonance. As we have already seen, Graham Harman argues that all objects are such that there are objects wrapped in objects wrapped in objects, such that we can simultaneously treat objects as relations among objects and discrete units in their own right. Badiou argues—and, I might add, argues well—that all sets are infinite in the sense that they are infinitely decomposable. This is the dimension of inconsistent multiplicity haunting every consistent multiplicity.

    What we encounter here is what I call the “strange mereology” of onticology and object-oriented philosophy. Mereology is that branch of mathematics, ontology, and logic that studies the relationship between parts and wholes. The study of mereology is highly complex and formalized, however onticology and object-oriented philosophy are concerned with a particular mereological relation; namely, that relation between objects where one object is simultaneously a part of another object and an independent object in its own right. To understand why this mereology is such a strange mereology, we must recall that all objects are independent or autonomous from one another. Objects can enter into exo-relations with one another, but they are not constituted by their relations. Put differently, their being does not consist of their relations. Consequently, the strangeness of this mereology lies in the fact that the subsets of a set, the smaller objects composing larger objects, are simultaneously necessary conditions for that larger object while being independent of that object. Likewise, the larger object composed of these smaller objects is itself independent of these smaller objects.

    Despite profound points of overlap between Badiou's mereology and the mereology advocated by onticology and object-oriented philosophy, there are nonetheless important points of divergence between the two ontological frameworks. While both Badiou and onticology and object-oriented philosophy endorse an extensionalism of relations between objects, onticology and object-oriented philosophy endorse an intensionalism of relations within individual objects. In short, objects are not merely aggregates of other objects, but have an irreducible internal structure of their own. However, it's important to note that the intensionalism advocated by onticology and object-oriented philosophy is not an intensionalism revolving around a predicate shared by a plurality of objects, but is rather an intensionalism pertaining to the relations composing the internal relations of an object. To avoid confusion, I thus follow Graham Harman's convention of distinguishing between “domestic relations” and “foreign relations”. Domestic relations are relations that structure the internal being of an object and correspond to what I have called “endo-relations” in chapter 3. Foreign relations, by contrast, are relations an object enters into with another object and which I have referred to as “exo-relations”. Foreign relations are external to objects in the sense that objects are not constituted by exo-relations and can be detached from these relations. Of course, such detachment can also bring about less than happy local manifestations. If I am launched into outer space by a giant catapult without any sort of life-support suit, I will undergo a local manifestation that freezes me solid and kills me. Domestic relations, by contrast, are those relations that constitute the internal being of an object, its internal structure, and therefore the essence of an object.

    Where Badiou sees sets or objects as possessing only foreign relations among the elements composing the set—e.g., {x, y, z} is equivalent to {y, x, z}—onticology and object-oriented philosophy insist that objects contain domestic relations such that their elements cannot be related in any old way. I will have more to say about this in the next section, but for the moment it is sufficient to note that Badiou's account of the relationship between inconsistent and consistent multiplicities generates special problems for his ontology. I have already discussed some of these problems in the first chapter when addressing those ontologies that argue that being is composed of chaos or a one-All that is then subsequently carved up into units. A similar problem emerges with respect to Badiou's ontology concerning the question of just how the transition from inconsistent multiplicities without unity or one to consistent multiplicities that are unified such that “one-ification” takes place. To explain this transition from inconsistent multiplicity to consistent multiplicity, Badiou refers to operations of the “count-as-one”. These operations somehow effect both a selection and a unification of elements within the field of inconsistent multiplicity, producing consistent multiplicities. Two questions emerge here: first, what is the agency that carries out this operation, and second, exactly how does this agency accomplish this feat of both making selections from the field of inconsistent multiplicity and producing unified collections? Despite the advancements of Logics of Worlds, it is my view that the answers to these two questions are significantly underdetermined in Badiou's ontology.

    By contrast, object-oriented ontology begins with the premise that the world is composed of distinct entities or units, each of which has its own internal structure or set of endo-relations. The twist is that larger scale objects can emerge from smaller scale objects and larger scale objects are composed of smaller objects. Similarly, larger scale objects can break apart into a plurality of other independent objects under certain circumstances. Thus, while onticology maintains that there are ordering relations, domestic relations, or endo-relations among elements within an object, it also argues that larger scale objects contain autonomous smaller scale objects. In this connection, what constitutes the substantiality of a substance is not the parts that compose it, but rather the organization, domestic relations, or endo-relations presiding over the organization of these parts.

    A variety of examples can be marshaled in defense of this thesis. Organic bodies, for example, continuously lose cells and generate new cells. Although a body cannot exist without its cells, it is clear that bodies cannot be reduced to their cells either. What constitutes the substantiality of a body is not its cells, but its organization or its endo-relations. This point might be readily granted, yet someone might object that while bodies and cells are distinct, it is a mistake to suggest that cells are independent objects in their own right insofar as cells only exist within bodies. However, this is not true. On the one hand, we can think of the various forms of cancer as relations between a body and its cells in which cells have begun to act autonomously. Likewise, organ transplants are dependent on the possibility of cells being separated from bodies. Recently, scientists in Surrey, England have created a monstrous hybrid of organic life and machine, splicing a certain number of rat brain neurons into a computer chip that sends radio messages to a robot that can sense the world and that develops pattern and cognitive skills over time.[246]

    Various forms of social relations have this structure as well. The citizens of the United States, for example, are born, die, and sometimes renounce their citizenship, yet the United States continues to exist. While it is certainly true that the United States would not exist at all without any citizens, it cannot be equated with its citizens. Additionally these citizens must be linked in some way. In Imagined Communities, for example, Benedict Anderson shows how print culture, among other things, contributed to the formation of national communities. [247] My only caveat here would be that these entities aren’t imagined, but are, once built, real entities in their own right. Moreover, the United States cannot be equated with a particular geography either. The United States was the United States when it was just thirteen small colonies. Similarly, were some sort of national catastrophe to occur, the United States would remain the United States even if located solely on an island like Hawaii, or, more radically, even if citizens scattered all over the world maintained its existence through the internet. Moreover, the citizens of the United States are not just elements of the United States, but are autonomous entities in their own right. They can plot against the United States, seek to bring about the demise of the United States, renounce their citizenship, and engage in many activities not related to how they are counted as citizens of the United States.

    From a certain perspective it can thus be said that all objects are a crowd. Every object is populated by other objects that it enlists in maintaining its own existence. As a consequence, we must avoid reducing objects to the manner in which they are enlisted by other objects precisely because the objects enlisted are always themselves autonomous objects. Another way of putting this would be to say that there is no harmony or identity of parts and wholes. Parts aren't parts for a whole and the whole isn't a whole for parts. Rather, what we have are relations of dependency where nonetheless parts and wholes are distinct and autonomous from one another. In this respect, we must reject the thesis of holism. Latour remarks that when one object enlists another “the two join together and become one for a third [object]”.[248] While I do not go as far as Latour in claiming that every relation between objects generates a third object, the important point is that the object that emerges out of other objects does not erase the objects out of which it is composed, but rather generates a third autonomous object related to these other autonomous objects. For example, if we treat romantic relationships and friendships as objects we must ask how many objects are before us. For the sake of simplicity, we can say that the romantic relationship is composed not of two objects, but of three objects. Here you have the two people involved in the relationship, as well as the amorous relationship itself. The amorous relationship is an object independent of the two persons in the amorous relationship. While initially this sounds very strange, we should here recall how couples talk about their relationships. They talk about being in a relationship, about how the relationship is going well or is in a state of crisis. Likewise, friends of couples often treat couples as units, behaving as if one person cannot be invited to dinner without inviting the other. Similarly, from a legal standpoint, a person is married regardless of whether or not she has renounced the marriage or has decided to step out on her spouse. In all of these cases, the relationship is an autonomous object that has an existence over and above the persons that it enlists in its own continuing existence.

    The relationship between multiples and sub-multiples or larger scale objects and smaller scale objects is one in which sub-multiples provide constant perturbations to multiples and where multiples perturb sub-multiples. Each object is an operationally closed object that relates to the sub-multiples of which it is composed or the multiples that it composes only in terms of its own internal organization. Sub-multiples and multiples are only “interested” in one another in terms of the perturbations they provide for one another with respect to their own respective autopoietic processes. The United States, for example, only relates to American citizens qua citizens, being exclusively concerned with things such as taxes, votes, positions on a variety of issues determining strategies for Congress and administrations, whether or not their action is legal or illegal, and so on. Most of the things that occupy the personal life of individual citizens are completely invisible to an object such as the United States and are treated as mere noise. The United States, for example, is completely oblivious to what I cooked for dinner last night or the fact that I am now sitting on the floor before my computer. Put in terms of Spencer-Brown's theory of distinctions, things like what I had for dinner last night belong to the unmarked state of the distinctions deployed by the United States in defining its channels of openness to its environment. These are events that cannot perturb or “irritate” the United States in its processes of producing information.

    These relations between multiples or larger scale objects and sub-multiples are thus relations of what Maturana and Varela refer to as “structural coupling”. As they describe this relation, “[w]e speak of structural coupling whenever there is a history of recurrent interactions leading to the structural congruence between two (or more) systems”.[249] In short, structural coupling is a relation in which two or more objects constantly perturb or irritate one another, thereby making contributions to the local manifestations of each other and the evolutionary development of one another. The key point here is that while these systems or objects perturb or irritate one another, each system relates to these perturbations according to its own organization or closure such that we can't treat relations between objects as simple input/output relations.

    Because objects are operationally closed and are composed of other objects, it follows that tensions or conflicts can emerge between multiples or larger scale objects and sub-multiples or smaller scale objects. As Latour writes, “[n]one of the actants mobilized to secure an alliance stops acting on its own behalf [...]. They each carry on fomenting their own plots, forming their own groups, and serving other masters, wills, and functions”.[250] Here it could be said that each object contends with its own system-internal entropy arising from the surprising and dissident role that other objects play within it. In enlisting other objects to produce them, larger scale objects must contend with the tendencies of other objects to move in other directions and act on behalf of other aims. Each object therefore threatens to fall apart from within, to have the endo-relations presiding over its own organization destroyed, and therefore must develop negative feedback mechanisms to maintain its own structural order.

    For example, if a class is an object, the professor, an element or sub-multiple of the class, might conduct him- or herself in a way different from his or her prescribed role as professor, teaching nothing at all, talking about unrelated things, relating to students in inappropriate ways, and so on. In these circumstances, some or all of these students or perhaps administrators might relate back to the professor in such a way as to steer him or her back to his role as a professor. Indeed, today one major administrative trend in academia is to formulate ways of gauging the performance of professors by selecting samples of student work as well as student evaluations. At a higher system-specific level, these are ways in which the administrative level increases its capacities to be “irritated” or “perturbed” by classes that are difficult to directly observe on a day to day basis. Based on these ways of constructing openness to an inaccessible environment, administrations devise techniques to steer faculty or introduce negative feedback into the classroom that strive to normalize or codify academic standards and techniques. Meanwhile, many faculty who are called upon to construct educational rubrics for these purposes try to structure them in such a way as to minimize the intervention of administration into their classroom and while appeasing the desire of administrations to have a spread sheet that shows their institution is successfully instructing students. In other words, we get relations of counter-feedback where faculty attempt to steer administrations in such a way as to keep them out of their business. In this instance, we can see the operational closure of two distinct systems, the classroom and administration, that do not so much communicate with one another but rather produce very different information based on perturbations with respect to one another.

    Returning to the themes with which I began this section, we can see that the issues of social change are far more complex than is suggested by both structuralist thought and the heirs of structural thought. On the one hand, I believe that Althusser and his heirs tend to over-estimate the role that ideology plays in reproducing the conditions of production. While it is certainly true that “subjects” can internalize ideologies and therefore act to “reproduce the conditions of production”, the role that negative feedback plays in larger scale objects such as social systems, coupled with problems arising from operational closure, play at least as great a role if not a greater role in explaining why certain social systems tend to reproduce themselves in such a way that they are resistant to change. Moreover, we cannot blithely reduce subjects to effects of social structure. While social structures, like any other system or object, indeed constitute their own elements, it is also important to recall that they do so from other systems or objects outside the system itself. That is, they draw on systems in their environment as the “matter” out of which they produce their elements. However, these systems are themselves operationally closed, governed by their own distinctions and organization, and thus can never be reduced to mere elements within a higher order system. The result, as social and political theory inflected by Lacanian psychoanalysis has constantly reminded us, is that subjectification is never complete or entirely successful. Nonetheless, within the framework of activist politics, groups, which are themselves objects within larger scale objects such as societies, find themselves beset by negative feedback issuing from these larger scale objects that tend to stand in the way of producing the sort of change for which these groups aim.

    Returning to the theme of ideology as only one element among others explaining why social systems take the form they have, we must not forget that individuals or psychic systems exist in regimes of attraction that might severely limit or impede their capacity for action. For example, a subject might very well know that he is getting a raw deal, that the political and social system within which he is enmeshed functions in such a way as to disproportionately benefit the wealthy and powerful, diminishing his wages, quality of life, benefits, and so on. However, such a subject must also eat, especially if he has a family, and must therefore have a job. In order to have a job, such a subject must have a place to live so as to eat, rest and be presentable, must have transportation, very likely requires a phone, etc., etc., etc. As a consequence, such a subject finds himself trapped within a regime of attraction and a form of employment that, while unsavory, is required for his existence. Taking action against such a system might very well amount to cutting off the very branch the person is sitting on to sustain his own existence. In this connection, I suspect that people are far more aware of the manner in which the cards are stacked against them by the broader social system and far less “duped” by ideology than one might initially suspect.

    Similar observations can be made with respect to how people are dragging their feet with respect to responding to the growing environmental crisis. Here we are trapped between an awful knowledge that the environment is changing in ways that might very well affect human existence in a radical way and a social structure that is organized in such a way that nearly everything required for mere existence carries a significant carbon footprint. We need some form of transportation to get to work and, absent affordable electric cars or some equivalent, are therefore trapped within a system dependent on fossil fuels. We do not produce our own food and, due to the de-skilling of labor that has arisen as a consequence of the functional differentiation of society, are largely unable to do so on a scale necessary to sustain a family. Thus, we are dependent on food transported by vehicles that run on fossil fuels and that is produced in a way that harms our environment. Likewise, electricity, largely produced by fossil fuels, is now a necessity of life. Meanwhile, the broader social system is structured in such a way that it is very difficult to persuade politicians to change regulatory standards for industries like trucking to invest in alternative energies and so on because such changes would be detrimental to large businesses that both create jobs (which translate into votes) and which line the pockets of politicians through the campaign contributions they require to get re-elected. Closely related to this, we might note that many politicians enter the private sector as lobbyists and consultants after their terms of office, getting paid handsomely for the access they have to other politicians and agencies. Faced with the option of low-paying activist work that improves the world and high-paying consultant and lobbying work that largely benefits big corporations, they tend towards the latter and most likely are thinking about such a future while they’re in office.

    Finally, questions of political change are constantly beset by issues revolving around resonance between systems. Resonance refers to the capacity of one system to be perturbed or irritated by another system. As we saw in the last chapter, because systems or objects are operationally closed such that they only maintain selective relations to their environment, they can only see what they can see and cannot see what they cannot see. Most importantly, they cannot see that they cannot see this. Niklas Luhmann has argued that modern society is functionally differentiated (legal system, media system, economic system, and so on), such that it contains a variety of different subsystems each organized around its own system/environment distinction within the social system. In addition to these function systems, society is also inhabited by various groups that become objects or systems in their own right, organized around their own system/environment distinctions.

    As a consequence of this, one of the major issues facing any collective seeking to produce change within a social system is that of how to produce resonance within the various subsystems in the social system. This issue can be seen with particularly clarity in terms of how the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) protests were reported by the media system in the United States. While there was indeed a great deal of reporting on these protests, one curious feature of this reporting in televisual media was that there was very little discussion of just what was being protested and why it was being protested in cable and network news. Rather, viewers were presented with images of massive throngs of people and acts of vandalism protesting the WTO, while being told little in the way of just why these activists were protesting the WTO. The positions and complaints of the protestors were almost entirely absent from media coverage. As a consequence, the manner in which the message resonated within the media system ended up working, in many respects, counter to the aims of the protestors. Within the media system, the protestors were coded or portrayed as anarchistic hooligans with no respect for private property and as “dirty hippies” filled with the enthusiasm of youth and its accompanying immaturity. There was next to no analysis of the protestor's arguments against how the WTO places countries in massive debt, forcing them to privatize various industries and local resources, bringing about massive environmental exploitation and the oppression of indigenous peoples, thereby causing a severe decline in wages and quality of life. Nor was there any discussion of how similar dynamics are occurring in “first tier” countries, causing significant inequalities of wealth and diminishing the ability of average citizens to represent their interests within the political system. In many respects, we can thus say that the manner in which the WTO protests perturbed or irritated the media system and the way in which those perturbations were transformed into information ended up working contrary to and against the very aims of the protestors. Within the psychic systems inhabiting the broader social system and coupled to the media system, it is likely that the protestors resonated as an anarchic threat against which the social system needs to be defended.

    Similar points about system resonance or the lack thereof can be made with respect to the notorious response of the United States government to Hurricane Katrina. Everything about the government’s delayed response to the events that were unfolding in Louisiana and New Orleans suggests that there was a lack of resonance between the political system and what was unfolding on the ground. Given the detail and pervasiveness of the reporting of these events in television and print media, this is difficult to believe yet, without such a thesis, it is difficult to account for how the Bush administration could have acted in a way so contrary to its own political interests. Here we should recall that the environment of a system or an object is always more complex than the system itself. As a consequence, there is much in a system's environment that a system cannot observe or register. The events following Hurricane Katrina suggest a form of system-closure at the level of government and administration that was structured in such a way that these entities lacked the capacity for resonance with these features of the environment occurring in both New Orleans and Louisiana and the media system. This lack of resonance with the media system is particularly difficult to explain. However, if we recall that within conservative circles the media has been branded as biased by liberal ideology and that the Bush administration had taken many steps to manage the media and control their access to government, it becomes plausible to conclude that the then current administration and Congress had ceased observing the media and instead created an “echo chamber” that severely diminished their openness to the environment.

    In the Critique of Cynical Reason, Peter Sloterdijk argues that cynicism has become the new form of dominant ideology.[251] Cynicism differs from traditional ideology in that where traditional ideology is a false belief about the world and social relations, cynicism has a true knowledge of social relations, power, exploitation and so on, yet continues to participate in these oppressive forms of social structure as before. As Žižek puts it, “[t]he cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he nonetheless still insists upon the mask. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: 'they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”.[252] From this, Žižek concludes that ideology resides not at the level of what subjects know, but of what subjects do. In other words, if we are to locate ideology, we ought not look at the level of their beliefs, but at the level of their actions.

    In his treatment of society at the level of ideology, Žižek returns social analysis back to the domain of content, meaning, or signification. Recalling figure 4 from the introduction, we can see that Žižek's engagement of the social structure is organized around the culturalist or humanist schema:

     Figure 8
    Figure 8

    Within the field of this distinction, the subject or culture falls in the marked space of distinction and we get a sub-distinction where all other entities in the world are comprehended or related to as vehicles for signs, signifiers, meanings, discourses, narratives, or representations. To analyze a cultural practice or artifact according to this structure of distinction is thus to focus on its meaning-content in some form or another. Nonhuman objects and entities qua nonhuman objects and entities thereby fall into the unmarked space of the distinction.

    Putting a finer note on this point, we can say that the culturalist or humanist approach to the world of objects treats any differences objects might contribute as signifying or representational differences. By way of analogy, we can say that the culturalist schema of distinction thinks about nonhuman objects in much the same way that we might think about the relation between a movie screen, a projector, and the images that appear on that screen. Objects are reduced to the status of screens and culture or subjects are treated as projectors. The only thing that becomes relevant to the analysis of social formations is thus the images that appear on the screen and how they are cultural or subjective projections. As a consequence, non-signifying differences contributed by nonhuman objects or actors are largely excluded from the domain of social analysis. Indeed, within the culturalist framework, objects aren't actors at all but are merely screens for the projection of human meanings and representations.

    Within the framework of onticology and object-oriented philosophy, by contrast, we get an entirely different structure of distinction:

    Figure 9
    Figure 9

    Here objects fall into the marked space, such that being is composed of only one sort of thing: objects or substances. While objects or substances, no doubt, differ from one another, being is nonetheless composed entirely of substances. As a consequence of this shift, we now encounter a subdistinction where subjects, culture, and nonhumans are placed on equal footing. In short, nonhuman actors are no longer treated as an opposing pole necessarily related to culture or human subjects, but rather are treated as autonomous actors in their own right. Thus, while we can and do indeed have relations between humans and nonhuman objects, these relations are no more privileged than relations between nonhuman objects and nonhuman objects. Moreover, insofar as nonhuman objects are themselves actors or agents, they can no longer be treated as passive screens for human and cultural projections.

    In light of the foregoing, I hope it is now evident as to just why this redrawing of distinctions is of such crucial importance. Because the culturalist model of distinction places nonhuman actors or objects in the unmarked space of its distinction, regimes of attraction become largely invisible. Likewise, because the culturalist model focuses on content within the marked space of its sub-distinction, questions of resonance between systems or objects become largely invisible. The point is not that we ought not to analyze ideology or content, but that the manner in which we have organized our distinctions renders all sorts of other objects crucial to why society is organized as it is invisible or outside the space of discourse. As a consequence, we deny ourselves all sorts of strategic possibilities for engaging with the social world around us. In this regard, it is not enough merely to debunk the “ideological mystifications” from which we suffer. It is additionally necessary to raise questions and devise strategies for enhancing the resonance of other systems or objects within the social sphere so that change might be produced. Similarly, in his recent “Compositionist Manifesto”, Latour proposes the practice of composition as an alternative to critique. Where critique aims at debunking, composition aims at building. Where critique focuses on content and modes of representation, composition focuses on regimes of attraction. If regimes of attraction tend to lock people into particular social systems or modes of life, the question of composition would be that of how we might build new collectives that expand the field of possibility and change within the social sphere. Here we cannot focus on discourse alone, but must also focus on the role that nonhuman actors such as resources and technologies play in human collectives. For example, activists might set about trying to create alternative forms of economy that make it possible for people to support families, live, get to work, and so on without being dependent on ecologically destructive forms of transportation, food production, and food distribution. Through the creation of collectives that evade some of the constraints that structure hegemonic regimes of attraction, people might find much more freedom to contest other aspects of the dominant order.

    The point here is that the failure for change to occur despite compelling critiques of the dominant social order cannot simply be attributed to ideological mystifications. Social and political thought needs to expand its domain of inquiry, diminish its obsessive focus on content, and increase attention to regimes of attraction and problems of resonance between objects. The social space is far more free and informed than the structuralists and neo-structuralists, in their focus on content, acknowledge and it is more likely that the lack of change arises not from subjects being ideologically duped alone but from the manner in which we are entangled in life. It is not by mistake that often profound social change only occurs when the infrastructure of social systems encounter profound collapse, for in these circumstances psychic systems no longer have anything left to lose and live in the midst of a situation where the regime of attraction in which they once existed has ceased to be operative. Observations such as these teach critical theorists something important, yet the message of these events seems to be received with deaf ears. It is not an accident, for example, that the Russian Revolution took place in the middle of massive economic crisis and World War I. What examples such as these teach us are that content alone is not enough and that political theorists need to enhance their capacity of resonance with respect to nonhuman actors and regimes of attraction.


    1. Louis Althusser, Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001) p. 116.return to text
    2. Ibid., p. 85.return to text
    3. Claude Lévi-Strauss, Introduction to the Work of Marcel Mauss, trans. Felicity Baker (New York: Routledge,1987) pp. 55–56.return to text
    4. Ibid., p. 63.return to text
    5. Louis Althussser, Philosophy of the Encounter: Later Writings, 1978 – 1987, eds. Oliver Corpet François Matheron, trans. G. M. Goshgarian (London: Verso, 2006).return to text
    6. Jacques Rancière, Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, trans. Julie Rose (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).return to text
    7. Alain Badiou, Being and Event, trans. Oliver Feltham (New York: Continuum, 2005).return to text
    8. For the rat-brained robot of Surrey, England cf. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1QPiF4-iu6g.return to text
    9. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities (New York: Verso, 2006).return to text
    10. Latour, “Irreductions,” p. 159.return to text
    11. R. Maturana and Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, p. 75.return to text
    12. Latour, “Irreductions,” p. 197.return to text
    13. Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, trans. Michael Eldred (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987.return to text
    14. Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology, p. 29. return to text