The Inhumanities

Fabio Gironi’s contribution to the cross-blog event

with 6 comments

[This is a contribution from Fabio Gironi, who blogs at Hypertilling]

I would like to start with some line-drawing.

The ways in which speculative realism has moved against anthropocentrism are varied: as they stand now, the positions of two theorists like Harman and Meillassoux are only loosely convergent. If with ‘realist ontology’ we designate any attempt to get back to the possibility of thinking things as they are, independently from human access, we can surely see these two positions as challenging the same adversaries. However, the actual (independent) ontological status of these things-in-themselves can take several forms. Meillassoux is much less interested in ‘realism’ than Harman. In a nutshell: Harman tries to revive and revise some form of ‘substance’ while Meillassoux some form of non-metaphysical, rational ‘absolute’. That their starting point is similar (the critique of the primacy of human access) does not mean that their end is the same. This difference is crucial.

‘Nonhuman’ is equally to be specified: as a formally negative definition (‘humans excluded’) it opens up a large field of actors. The crucial differentiation for our interface of critical animal studies and realist ontologies is between ‘living ones’ (animals) and ‘non-living ones’. This inaugurates the problem: having overcome anthropocentrism, should we aim to overcome zoocentrism (that is, ‘the priority of the biologically living being’)?

These clarifications are fundamental when it comes to approaching ethical investigations, since—and this will be my guiding point—any ethics requires ethical subjects. The questions could thus be reformulated: what kind of ontology allows for the existence of ethical subjects (is ontological necessity a necessary condition for the existence of these kinds of subjects)? Is biological life a necessary condition for (ethical) subjectivity?

Approaching ethical theories, two necessary poles of confrontation are Levinas’ ethics of the face and Badiou’s situational ethics.


Levinas’ phenomenologically-based ethics orbits around an obsession with the provoking power of the face, capable of puncturing the thread of individuality, of totalizing being/sameness itself and of initiating an always time-lagged ethical relationship with the Other. This epiphany of the Other alone is capable of breaking the monologue of egology which has neutralized the Other from its discourse. Levinas equally attacked the philosophy of subjectivity and the philosophy of the neutral, the horror of the ‘il y a’ (hence his aversion for Heidegger’s philosophy, a ‘shameful materialism’) and moved transcendent otherness to the (open) centre of the stage, creating a hole in the texture of totalizing being, towards an ethics which concerns the indexing of the structure of the exteriority of the Other. His promotion of ethics as first philosophy is a recognition of the principle I stated earlier: there is no ethics without individuated ethical subjects; therefore, let us dispense with Heideggerian warnings about the oblivion of Being and the ontological difference and let us focus on existents only.

Yet, the ethical face of these existents is always a human face (the stranger, the widow, the orphan). Levinas’ answers regarding the possession of a face by animals are unsatisfactory:: ‘I don’t know if a snake has a face. I can’t answer that question’. This pushes animals to the grey margins of ethical theories (which are subject to a mere ‘porting’ from human-centered ones) and faceless objects straight out of the competence of ethics. For even if we displace the Levinasian ‘face’ from a physiological location, we can push the interpretation (with Judith Butler) only as far as a body, a corporeality which transmits some mute vocalization of suffering (as Levinas does commenting on the emaciated backs of prisoners), a suffering that is eminently biological.

If we can force Levinas’ face into a call of responsibility for the fragility (precariousness in Butler’s words) of the living flesh, thus opening a space for animal ethics, there seems to be no way whatsoever to give space to inanimate objects in the grammar of his ethics. (Notably, Žižek focused his critique of Levinas precisely on this issue of the human face which ‘”gentrifies” the terrifying Thing that is the ultimate reality of our neighbor’, and proposed a different ethics which ‘chooses against the face, for the third’). As long as ethics necessitates the existence of ontological dependence—‘do not kill’, do not annihilate my being, you are responsible for my life (and death)—it will be impossible to formulate a ‘non correlationist ethics’ (if the formula—herein lies the rub—makes any sense at all).


Badiou’s situational ethics, is intended as an attack against the contemporary ‘catechism of the goodwill’ and aimed at a complete erasure of the overarching, crypto-theological theme of the ‘other’ in ethical discourse. For Badiou, alterity is simply ‘what there is’, and ethics should be returned to the problem of the Same, a same—a subject—which comes-into-being only through fidelity to the process of verification of a truth. As with Levinas, Badiou is interested in breaking with Totality (‘the One is not’) yet not ready to give up the priority of ontology to an ethics heterologically founded on Otherness. Badiou’s ethics is a consequence of his ontology, one which does not refer to an ultimately theological (i.e. always already ethical) infinity, but to a purely (generalized, undifferentiated, atheist) mathematical one.

The problem, however, remains: who is this subject? Ontologically speaking, who or what is eligible for the jump from simple individual to fully-fledged subject? It doesn’t seem enough to displace ethics from a reverence for the Other to a situational fidelity of the subject to an untotalizable event of truth explicitly to get rid of anthropocentrism in ethics. As a matter of fact, Badiou claims that

In each case, subjectivation is immortal, and makes Man. Beyond this there is only a biological species, a ‘biped without feathers’ whose charms are not obvious… Man is to be identified by his affirmative thought, by the singular truths of which he is capable, by the Immortal which makes of him the most resilient and most paradoxical of animals. (Ethics: 12,16)

I identify four fundamental subjective ‘types’: political, scientific, artistic and amorous. Every human animal, by participating in a given singular truth, is inscribed in one of these four types. (Ethics: 28)

‘Some-one’ is an animal of the human species, the kind of particular multiple that established knowledges designate as belonging to the species. (Ethics: 44)

In Badiou’s ethics there seems to be little space for nonhuman animals, as they are unable to participate in the process of truth, which is the condition of possibility for ethical action. Humans (actually, in Badiou’s words, ‘men’) can perhaps act ‘ethically’ towards animals and things, but only as belonging to a determinate situation. Norms coded by the fidelity to the specific and singular event of a truth can be identified for (and followed by) human subjects alone. Badiou replaces the precariously living Other with a Self which determines itself ethically only through courage, discernment and reserve, but this appears to be a step backwards towards ethical (yet not ontological!) anthropocentrism. Is this unfortunate or inevitable?


Directing our speculative gaze to the ontologically independent world of non-human objects we should focus on the concepts of ‘interactions’ between ‘actors’. Whatever the normative base, any ethical interaction is conditioned, either by an a-priori deontological principle (Kant), a heteronomous injunction (Levinas), or by a rupturing event to which the subject remains faithful (Badiou). What conditions interactions between nonhuman objects? If we are to accept Meillassoux’s argument, there are no necessarily existing entities which interact in necessarily stable ways, we could go back to a Badiouian position and claim that the inconsistent multiplicity of being as such is impermeable to ethics, while only the sphere of presentation, of the situation as counted-as-one, allows a space for ethics (which includes human political action). For Meillassoux thus, it would be necessary to pursue a radical revision of ethical standards, compulsory once ‘life’ (as a necessary condition for ‘thought’) is dethroned as a criterion for ontological worth/moral dignity: the absolutization of facticity strikes at the heart of the Western system of ethics (from its Christian/Platonic metaphysical roots to the Jewish humanism of Levinas’ ethics of hospitality) by denouncing ‘the illusory manufacturing of necessary entities’. A ‘life dignity’-centered ethics becomes impossible once the absolute contingency of all being has been acknowledged, just as the priority of human thought over the inanimate real(m) is deleted by its objectification produced by a reflection on its temporally contingent existence. A contingent ethics can be located only in necessarily contingent and specific situations.

However, as I observed at the beginning, the kind of realism advocated by object-oriented ontologists is not the same as Meillassoux’s (nor the same as Badiou’s of course, who has been even labeled as a correlationist). OOO flattens the ontological horizon, giving equal ontological status to inanimate objects as well as to humans, effectively deposing thought from rule over/ontological determination of objects, and deprives humans of ontological exemplarity (still not degrading them to an inferior plane of being; there are no depths on a flat plane). But contrary to Meillassoux, Harman advocates real, substantial objects whose reality cannot be merely defined by their ‘relations’, but he also—I add—needs to advocate regular interactions (the vicarious nature of these interactions in no way removes the possibility of law-like behavior) between them. The issue here, is with the kind of interactions. Withdrawn objects are surely conditioned by laws in their subterranean interactions, but they lack a key element which makes an interaction ethical: a will of adherence to those norms which characterize an action as ethical (where I would call an ethical interaction a relation, guided by norms, not merely laws)). To deny this difference would mean ending up in that very ‘hardcore’ panpsychism which Harman wants to avoid.

It therefore appears that that we simply cannot meaningfully talk about ethics in the context of objects: my mouse has many kinds of interactions with my mousepad (many more than I can be related to), yet no ethical interaction (relation). It seems that even when we put objects on the same ontological footing as humans, humans still manage to retain the privilege (is it a privilege?) over the sphere of ethics even when, with Badiou, we reject the pallid notions of ‘human dignity’ or ‘the commandment of the other’. Among objects, there are no ethical subjects, they have human-independent interactions, not mutual relations. Ironically, we seem here to witness a reopening in ethics of that gap which SR aimed at closing in ontology, between the human and the nonhuman world.


I’d like to close these—tentative and incomplete—openings with some remarks. As human beings, when faced with two sound arguments, we invariably make a theoretical choice on the basis of some sort of personal preference. All of us involved or interested in ‘speculative realism’ are  for some specific set of reasons, historical and biographical. The very fact that there is this online community, coming from different backgrounds and yet sharing an interest in a revision of ‘philosophies of human access’ is a proof of that. So I see the silhouette of a paradox: even if we break the correlationist circle and we get out (with Meillassoux) of the pesky argument ‘we think X to be independent of thought but we still think it to be independent of thought so it is actually dependent on thought’ and/or delineate a realist ontology of independently existing objects (with Harman), I believe another issue emerges. Say that we have proven that we can think the existence of X as independent of thought. Say that we have proven that ethics cannot be legitimately extended in its authority to this realm of thought-independent stuff. How can we also rule out that our very enterprise of overcoming correlationism/anthropocentrism had nothing to do with ethical (loosely intended to include ethical normativity and its more riotous offspring, political ideology) considerations in the first place? This sounds like lame constructivism, but I believe it is not. We are talking about a philosophical movement which explicitly presents itself as a revolution (or counter-revolution) against the way philosophy was made in the West after the criminal of Königsberg laid out his project. I am not claiming ‘anti-correlationism is self-refuting’. I want simply to claim that even if anti-correlationism is well-guided, the contributions which pushed the history of philosophy to reach these new, disobedient positions cannot but be (partially) ethical ones. So here is the paradox: how do we commence a process in which ethics is involved (no matter in what infinitesimal part) and end up with a net result which is completely nonporous to ethical considerations?

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Written by Inhumanities

November 25, 2009 at 11:29 am

Posted in cross-blog event

6 Responses

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  1. [...] Posted on November 25, 2009 by Nick Srnicek Fabio Gironi of the blog Hyper Tiling has a really interesting post up for the event, over at The Inhumanities. If you haven’t already, make sure to check out [...]

  2. [...] SR/OOO and Ethics event My contribution for the Speculative Heresy/Inhumanities (or, as Ian has conjoined them the ‘Speculative Inhumans’–which I guess sounds better than the ‘Inhuman Heretics’) cross-blog event is now up on The Inhumanities blog. [...]

  3. A most enjoyable piece. Here’s a worry though:-

    “How can we also rule out that our very enterprise of overcoming correlationism/anthropocentrism had nothing to do with ethical (loosely intended to include ethical normativity and its more riotous offspring, political ideology) considerations in the first place?”

    The real question is what kind of influence we’re talking about here. Is is that some of exposure to ethical/political discourse plays a part in the chain of causes that leads to us adopting a certain anti-correlationist stance? If so, then it seems unproblematic. The death of a relative in a car accident can motivate one to design a better seat belt, but it has no bearing on the effectiveness of the design. Whatever factors causally motivate us to take up a position are irrelevant to that position (with the exception of observation statements). This becomes a more pressing issue if ethical concerns function as reasons motivating the adoption of this position. Then we do have a dilemma.

    In my opinion, there is something like a norm driving us to adopt this position, though I don’t think its an ethical norm. This does raise interesting questions about how we square this with where the norm leads us.


    November 25, 2009 at 4:18 pm

  4. Excellent! If this were facebook I’d send you a virtual pint of beer for your efforts!

    SR/OOP faces this problem over ethics for sure.

    But it is also a revolution, as you say, of sorts, though I think the revolution may finally lay in the overturning of the ‘academy’, rather than in the ‘thought’ itself – which needs tweaking – just as the Salons des Refusés rejected the art academy in late 18th Century Paris, but waited decades for Duchamp (‘anything can be art’), and, after, Beuys (‘everyone is an artist’) and later Warhol, before any real change was seen.

    I don’t agree with a lot of SR, as I feel you don’t, but its free dissemination over the internet does tally with its fundamental non-hierarchical basis (no hierarchy of subject over object), and it may beckon, finally, a change in the ways in which philosophy is communicated, helping it to catch up with other genres, such as music and art.

    Logical Regression

    November 25, 2009 at 4:49 pm

  5. @Pete,

    thanks for your nice comment. I understand your objection, but let me observe one thing. You say, as an example, that

    “The death of a relative in a car accident can motivate one to design a better seat belt, but it has no bearing on the effectiveness of the design.”

    But actually I think that this example plays into my argument: what is the ‘effectiveness of the design’? And here the word design just makes me think about the infamous ‘intelligent’ one.

    If a (philosophical) position is meant to be also a solution to some problem (hence your example) and if the effectiveness of this position is based onto a consideration of effectiveness for the sake of rational beings, (which you define saying “ultimately, being a rational entity is a matter of engaging in the process of giving and asking for reason”) than this design is directed towards a desired (rational) outcome. No norm whatsoever springs out of the ground, or the universe, already formed. (Unless you are Kant).

    Moreover, you say that

    “In my opinion, there is something like a norm driving us to adopt this position, though I don’t think its an ethical norm”

    so it seems to me that you would be tempted to loosely define this norm as a ‘rational’ one, where in your position ‘rational’ is not necessarily linked to ‘human’. It is a position which rationally ‘works’ so we adopt it.

    Well, I provisionally agree with this (even if I find hard to really distinguish ethical and rational), but one of the main points of my response was to look at Meillassoux’s denial of necessity. He argues for a rationality free from necessity. But if we replace, as you do, ‘rational’ to ‘ethical’ we must be ready to claim that even this ‘rationally’ based ‘ethics’ cannot have any necessity hence no norm nor content! What is of ethics without a norm for necessary application of it?

    Of course, you can simply reject Meillassoux’s argument. I just wanted to spot the paradoxes which emerge in ethics (of any kind) once we remove necessity from the picture. This is not aimed at undermining Meillassoux’s project, but simply to raise a problem in ethics.

    On the other hand, for as much as I like his line of argumentation–and this is what I meant in my final ‘Questions’–I do think we must question the validity of his conclusions as allegedly the pure product of the ‘luminous clarity of intellection’ (AF: 91).

    Let me conclude these murky remarks with some good old name-dropping, a quote which I particularly like that I wanted to include at the end of my response, but which I omitted for reasons of space:

    ‘It has gradually become clear to me what every great philosophy up till now has consisted of—namely, the confession of its originator, and a species of involuntary and unconscious auto-biography; and moreover that the moral (or immoral) purpose in every philosophy has constituted the true vital germ out of which the entire plant has always grown. Indeed, to understand how the abstrusest metaphysical assertions of a philosopher have been arrived at, it is always well (and wise) to first ask oneself: ‘What morality do they (or does he) aim at?’

    (Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Ch.1 Par.6)

    @Logically Regressed

    Thanks! I’ll gladly accept your pint.

    Fabio Cunctator

    November 27, 2009 at 9:39 am

  6. I do believe that the norm in question is a rational, rather than ethical one, and it is loosely the obligation to describe the world as it is in itself. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the seemingly paradoxical result of this norm is that it demands that we conceive the world as not containing anything like norms. As for what distinguishes rational norms from ethical norms, I admit that I need to present a better account of this, but it can be left for another day.

    As for Meillassoux, I think you’ve got to be careful what you’re getting out of him. It’s important to recognise that there are different kinds of necessity, or different kinds of modality. Obviously, there is what gets called alethic necessity, which Meillassoux’s argument concerns itself with. This is the kind of necessity which is supposed to obtain in natural laws. In essence, he shows that there is no alethic necessity other than mathematical necessity. However, there is at least also deontic necessity, which is the necessity of obligation, or the necessity of ‘must/should’ rather than ‘will’. Meillassoux’s arguments don’t touch the latter kind of necessity.

    Interestingly enough, there is also epistemic modality, examples of which are claims like ‘Goldbach’s conjecture could be true’, indicating that we don’t know whether it is true or not. in this case, if Goldbach’s conjecture is true, it is so necessarily in the alethic sense. I get the feeling that Meillassoux’s argument for the necessity of contingency conflates alethic and epistemic necessity, but I can’t demonstrate this as of yet.


    November 27, 2009 at 2:05 pm

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