Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Possibility of a Flat Ethics

​So I've been a little absent here, and for that I apologize. However, I've been pretty busy. At the end of May I presented a paper at the Rhetoric Society of America conference in Philadelphia over Object-Oriented Identification (I finally finished the point brought up by my last couple of posts...I might post my paper here soon). I was on a panel with Jim Brown Jr. and Scot Barnett, and during the Q and A session following our presentations we were asked about the possibility of an Object-Oriented ethics. I've been able to give it some thought and what follows is a rough sketch of an idea that occurred to me after the conference.

To answer the question of whether or not there can be a nonhuman or non-anthropomorphic ethics, it is important to first understand the most fundamental axiom of object-oriented ontology—that objects withdraw from all relations—for its withdrawal is also its excess. In other words, the withdrawn object is a volcanic soup of potential, waiting to be actualized. And, second, like object-oriented ontology itself, any attempt at developing an object-oriented ethics must also follow the logic of the uncanny. In this way, an object-oriented or flat ethics requires an adherence to contingency, so that what was or is could very well not be, and that was is not, could very well exist. As was stated earlier, the logic of the uncanny forces binaries to overlap, to seemingly bleed into each other without requiring the other to disappear completely. In other words, the uncanny allows there to be both appearance and withdrawal simultaneously and an interior that is also exterior.

Here, Meillassoux’s insistence on the necessity of contingency in After Finitude might be of some help. For Meillassoux, unlike the object-oriented folks, the way around correlationist thought is to “uncover an absolute necessity that does not reinstate any form of absolutely necessary entity” (34). Unlike object-oriented ontology, which insists on the necessity of the object, Meillassoux finds his necessity in contingency itself—a non-metaphysical necessity. Contingency “expresses the fact that physical laws remain indifferent as to whether an event occurs or not – they allow an entity to emerge, to subsists, or to perish” (39). In other words, by absolutizing contingency over any specific entity, Meillassoux places contradiction at the heart of being itself. Being itself becomes contingent, meaning there could just as well be something as well as there could not. But, then why is there something rather than nothing if both are possible?
For Meillassoux, contingency also requires that something exist—that there be something rather than nothing. His argument for this something, again, revolves around the necessity of contingency: Since contingency is thinkable (as an absolute), but unthinkable without the persistence of the two realms of existence and inexistence, we have to say that it is necessary that there always be this or that existent capable of not existing, and this or that inexistent capable of existing. ​ Thus the solution to the problem [of contingency] is as follows: it is necessary that there be something rather than nothing because it is necessarily contingent that there is something rather than something else. The necessity of the contingency of the entity imposes the necessary existence of the contingent entity. (emphasis in original; 76).
For Meillassoux, then, the necessity of contingency requires that there actually be something that is contingent. In order for there to be this logic of existence/nonexistence that contingency is based on, a logic that is itself uncanny, there must be something that follows such logic. Object-oriented ontology, therefore, is justified in claiming that all entities are objects but only if they abide by some sort of uncanny logic that is guided by absolute contingency. Again, what makes this possible in object-oriented ontology is the withdrawn nature of every object. As Bryant argues, “Insofar as virtual proper being is thoroughly withdrawn and never itself becomes present, it can only be inferred through the actual. It is only through tracking local manifestations and their variations that we get any sense of the dark volcanic powers harbored within objects” (281). What withdraws from all objects is precisely this absolute contingency, this uncanny volcano of potential. But what does this have to do with the ethics of such objects?

​It is only because of the necessity of the contingent and the adherence to an uncanny logic, that an object-oriented ethics can exist. Simplified, ethics require that a choice be possible and depending upon how one responds to that choice, one’s actions are deemed either ethical or unethical. Typically, these decisions are based on some sort of law (social, moral, personal, etc.). So for example, if I were faced with the choice of whether or not to save a baby from a hungry shark, my choice to save the baby at the expense of the hunger of the shark would depend upon my acceptance of some moral law(s) or social law(s). If I go against some moral or social law, I might find myself attempting to explain my unethical behavior. The problem is that such laws change over time and in between social circles, so that what might be ethical today may not have been 50 or so years ago, or what might be ethical in the United States may not be ethical in India. In this way, there is already a certain amount of contingency in human ethics.

​Most material nonhuman objects, on the other hand, do not abide by any set of moral or social laws. Instead, most are guided by physical laws. These physical laws can guide form, structure, function, and collectivity. Two hydrogen atoms seem to only bond with an oxygen molecule in a very specific way. But as Meillassoux argues, even these laws are subject to contingency, meaning “that the laws of nature could change, not in accordance with some superior hidden law…but for no cause or reason whatsoever” (83). Because of the necessity of contingency that Meillassoux argues for, physical laws (like objects) must be seen as operating in a contingent space between being one way or another. So if objects are contingent and laws are contingent, why are things not simply constantly in flux? Why is there a seeming static nature to the world?

​ The answer is rather simple, but one that seems to run throughout object-oriented thinking: because of contingency, there is always the possibility that physical laws become something other than what they are. Or, as Meillassoux puts it, requiring the necessity of contingency means not ruling out “the possibility that contingent laws might only very rarely change—so rarely indeed that no one would ever have had the opportunity to witness such a modification” (106). Again, the emphasis is on potential and contingency. Yet this contingency implies fidelity of the object to the physical law and fidelity of the law to the object. Objects act ethically to one another insofar as they stay faithful to the physical law. But since the physical law itself has the potential to be other at any time, it too has a certain fidelity to its relation with the object. In other words, a flat ethics proposes that all objects are contingent, and that any laws by which they might abide, must be understood as contingent, as well.

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