On Matters of Concern: Ontological Politics, Ecology, and the Anthropo(s)cene
Ontology is in; epistemology is out. The question is no longer how we know what we know, but what is: what are the fundamental constituents of the universe, what is their nature, how do they relate and differ, and so on. Ontology, furthermore, is political. Or so a certain glean of the intellectual and philosophical landscape might suggest. Ontology has become an issue (again) among philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, science and technology scholars, and others, in a way that it has not been for perhaps a century.
This paper arises from an entanglement of conversations in ecologically informed philosophy. Most specifically, it emerged from debates within the movement of “speculative realism” around the subspecies of that genre known as Object-Oriented Ontology (“OOO”) and its defense of an ontology of objects rather than processes. More broadly, the paper attends to conversations in the “ontopolitical” milieu of contemporary social, cultural, and environmental theory, a milieu in which posthumanism, critical animal studies, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, critical realism, agential realism, nonrepresentational theory, enactive and embodied cognitivism, post-phenomenology, multispecies ethnography, integral ecology, and various forms of “new materialism,” “geophilosophy,” and “cosmopolitics” fashion themselves as intellectual responses to the predicament indicated by such terms as the ecocrisis, the climate crisis, and the Anthropocene.
One of the lines of debate to which this paper responds is that between those who believe we have lost a sense for the objects that make up the world and those who believe that what we need is a more nuanced account of processes, both those encompassing human-nonhuman relations today and those encompassing all dimensions of the knowable universe. Object- oriented philosophers, like Graham Harman (2005, 2009, 2011), Levi Bryant (2011, 2014), Ian Bogost (2012), and Timothy Morton (2013), begin from the premise that the best description of the world is one that attends closely to the objects that make it up. This is their “realism” more broadly, and their “objectivism” more specifically. While this premise sounds, at first blush, not unlike phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s call “back to the things themselves,” the difference is that Husserl approached those “things” through the human perception of them—to which Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others added an emphasis on interpretation, language, discourse, embodiment, decision, and other contextual determinants of human experience. Object-oriented philosophers are more interested in decentering human perception and experience, so that it is no more valued in principle than any other kind of experience. In part, this is out of a desire to account for a world that, as Bryant (2010, par. 1) has put it, “far from reducing the number of existing objects as alleged by reductive materialisms, has actually experienced a promiscuous proliferation and multiplication of objects of all sorts.”
This desire to acknowledge the proliferation of objects is a valuable step for philosophers insofar as it returns us to a concern for the world, and not merely for humanity. Yet it is important to recognize that this proliferation results, in large part, from the tremendous proliferation of commodities in a capitalist world-economy—the most productive economy the world has seen, whose productivity relies on the extraction of substances from their processual relations to produce things that appear to have no such relations—objects that are simply there, for us to admire, desire, purchase, and use. The “objectivity” of these objects is a product of a set of relations; it is illusory, or partial in any case, to the extent that these objects are not simply objects as such, but that they, for all their specificity, arise out of certain kinds of processes (extractive, productive), give rise to others (consumptive, waste-producing), and entangle their owners in relational ecologies that are morally imbued, materially generative, and dramatic in their effects on the world that is passed on to future generations.
The approach I advocate in what follows shares object-oriented philosophers’ goal of a metaphysical realism, but approaches it from a direction that is in some respects the polar opposite. It begins from the premise that, in an ultimate sense, there are no objects, only events, and that what defines those events is a relational encounter in which subjectivity is central. This does not mean that it begins as a “revolt against substance,” for the world of relational process is as substantive as any world of objects can be. It begins, however, from the subjective encounter. It begins, following Alfred North Whitehead (1933), Martin Heidegger (1962), Bruno Latour (2003), and Isabelle Stengers (1997), from matters of concern, and it does this because it is such matters that we are always in the midst of. It begins with a refusal to extricate the “knowing self” or “subject” from the relations that constitute it. This article proposes an evocation of what a “process-relational” ontology entails at its phenomenological and hermeneutic outset: a beginning from matters of concern, yet a beginning that allows a reaching outward to others who are similarly bound up—openly and not deterministically—within their own matters of concern.