The paradoxes of political ontology

Christian Thorne has a brilliant, challenging post up about the impasses of political ontology. The guiding question is simple: If you’ve figured out how things are, then where does the politics come in? His example is an ontology wherein everything is made of fire — what political program would correspond to this? Are we supposed to make more fire somehow, or…?

Of particular interest is his discussion of Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, which as I recall was the subject of a book event around these parts (though I can’t find a link at the moment).

Naturally, I found this challenging since I put forward an ontology in Politics of Redemption that I claim issues in some normative commitments. My way out of the impasse, in retrospect, was to embrace a special role for humanity, which I could hardly fail to do given that my ontology was developed out of the Christian tradition. Yet I’m not getting off scot-free here, as I notice that Thorne’s paradigm renders me suspiciously close to the hierarchical ontology that I’m trying to fight against.

In short, read it. Everyone should find something to ponder in it.

7 thoughts on “The paradoxes of political ontology

  1. I have to agree with Christian Thorne (and this not because he happens to be a former student of mine). Btw, I haven’t read the Bennett book, and I’ve not engaged with the more recent Connolly. Thorne is right to say that one can’t derive politics from ontology– as he puts it in his provocation ‘saying the world is made of fire does not tell you what to do with fire’. I can’t disagree with this. At the same time, it seems to me that there is a perfectly harmless sense in which we can engage in political ontologizing.

    The French have a distinction between la politique and le politique: the former referring to politics in the sense of making deals and framing policy; the latter to the conditions (of possibility and intelligibility) which allow la politique to take place. What’s wrong with saying that reflecting on le politique is precisely what political ontology is about? Granted that this understanding of the term may seem too minimalistic and deflationary to qualify as ‘ontology’ in the sense that satisfies Connolly or a certain kind of Christian philosopher, but that’s their problem, not mine. We need le politique (and la politique) to deal with the world, and it doesn’t matter to me in this context whether the world is made of fire, water, air, or fine wine or hot turds for that matter.

  2. But wouldn’t that run into the same problems? You would know the “deep structure” underlying all actual politics, but it wouldn’t give you normative prescriptions.

  3. I’ve found myself using the expression “social ontology” quite a bit recently. “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families” is a social-ontological statement, with evident political ramifications. Global ontology may (have to) be politically inconsequential, but a social ontology is an ontology *of* something, and can be meaningfully contested by considering that something in the light of other things. It’s quite possible to have both an “atomistic” global ontology, for example, and a “relational” social ontology, and to have good political reasons for the latter which nevertheless have no direct bearing on the former.

  4. Adam — I almost frightening agree with (or at the very least, am delightful agitated by) just about everything you write. I tend toward the more ontological side of things, but am open to strong and interesting critiques of such an approach.* So I was excited to take a look at this. But, after I did, I had to come back to your post to make sure it wasn’t tagged with “The Lighter Side.”

    This post is not brilliant. It’s actually quite violent. I have a number of line by line critiques I’ll try to share – here or there – sometime later but (I know this will just seem like a cop out – but I have a really busy day today!) I really can’t right now.

    In general, I think the author would do better to spend less time trying to shove the authors into a nice preexisting framework, more time carefully reading them. There are a number of questions raised or (more often) criticisms leveled in the post (particularly regarding a supposed lingering subjectivism) which find direct answers in the works under review. I don’t want to lean in the direction of the OOO “you must read everything before you can raise questions about anything” position, but it’s also worth pointing out that some very proximate work (a book published a few years before, an article or widely circulated talk published since) by the same authors are actually CENTRALLY preoccupied with things flagged by the article (militancy, the relation between the terms faith, creed, philosophy, ontology, and [an important term for WEC not mentioned in the post] ontopolitical interpretation).

    Feminist sidebar: Connolly and Bennett overlap on many points, but I would say it’s basically unacceptable to refer to a major book by Bennett as a “companion piece” to a book by Connolly.

    *Disclosure: I came to graduate school to work with Connolly, but now work primarily with Bennett and Sam Chambers. Chambers, incidentally, has become a very insistent and very persuasive critic of the ontological approach to political and ethical theory – including Connolly’s version of it. The best reference here is his forthcoming book on Ranciere, but since that’s forthcoming I’ll also say Ranciere is someone who (despite the kind of highly polemical style I tend to be allergic to) also makes a number of thoughtful critiques of ontology.

  5. Nathan, I’m glad you mentioned Ranciere’s critique of ontology. I was getting ready to do so myself. I should note, by way of self-promotion, that this critique is the upshot of my essay in Anthony’s edited Post-Secular collection. One needn’t agree w/ Ranciere (see, Voyou) to affirm he at least gives us some tools to go about the la politique vs. le politique distinction Ken reminds us about. Which reminds me, I have two books by him on my shelf I’m supposed to review on AUFS. To work!

  6. Adam– I don’t think one can have the “deep structure” underlying all actual politics, one can only have the “deep structure” of a particular political orientation (liberalism, marxism, and so forth). No “deep structure” can yield “normative prescriptions” (this is where I agree with Christian Thorne), the normativity is already embedded in the political orientation– e.g. if I’m a marxist, I already have all I need in the way of political normativity. “Political ontology” (= le politique) only supplies the conceptual underpinnings of my actual political orientation and all I do to implement/realize that orientation (= la politique).

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