Fabio Gironi’s contribution to the cross-blog event
[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?