Edit as of late April 2010 — “way too grad school up in this bitch” … oh snap. Ouch. Given what I was thinking of w/ this post, I can only say guilty as charged. Lie down w/ dogs, wake up w/ fleas. Concise summary: people who try to turn a conversation toward some other topic or insist on a particular vocabulary should have to justify themselves. So, let’s say a conversation starts off about, say, a racist law in Arizona and ideas about how to fight it and to fight it in a way that builds long term working class radical movements. Unless someone has an argument about why ontology is important that, or about why that conversation will be enhanced by using terms like “the dialectic” or “rhizomatic” or “whatever singularity”, they shouldn’t bring up those topics or terms. And if they insist, treat it like an unwanted offer of a cup of tea.

Carry on.


Funny enough, a number of blogs that I read only very occasionally but regularly, if that makes sense, have had a big wide-ranging discussion about ontology and politics at the same time as I’ve gotten into an argument with some friends in my offline life about this very same subject, friends who I’m pretty sure don’t read any of these blogs.

Personally, if I never have to hear “ontology” and “politics” said in the same conversation again it will be too soon. I find the former term annoying pretty much every time it comes up in relation to the latter and often vacuous (does the onto- part mean being as such? some particular form of being? some particular and actual being? something else? who knows! and why bother defining terms despite frequent and often idiosyncratic variation? to paraphrase Dolce and Gabbana, every continental philosopher runs away when he or she hears someone say “what do you mean by that term?” [let alone “what justifies this use which you make of that term?”]), and I find the latter vacuous most of the time it appears in the vicinity of the former. Snark (or boojum) aside, I’d really like to hear some justification for turning a conversation toward ontology. Not a discussion about why ontology is worth talking about (I’m sure it is, what isn’t?), and not a discussion of why specific claims about ontology in some contexts may have political uses (I could imagine, say, appeals to ontology as part of a refutation of determinist versions of marxism, or of claims or inferences about gender relations in evolutionary psychology). Rather, when talking about political goals, strategies, organizational forms, and tactics, under what conditions is recourse to ontology useful? And, when is it not? Honest answers to this last would go a long way to alleviating much of my annoyance with ontology-talk. The conversations I’ve been in and seen happen about all of this tend to have an implied, and in some cases directly stated, claim that somehow figuring out this or that in ontology will have some cross-context political effects/utility, a utility which merely context-bound particular political discussions and conflicts do not have. A trickle down theory of the utility of philosophical reflection, if you will. If fans of ontology-talk would just say “Well, we like this kind of stuff, we think it’s interesting, and at least some of the time it really does have no use at all for politics” I’d be much more amenable. Because what really burns me up in all this is the “ontology is always relevant!” sort of posture – because it’s just not (let alone the “ontology always offers insights which would otherwise be missed and which are more important than the insights we might find via recourse to another register” [taking ‘insight’ here as relative to a register, which means that it is likely that all registers have something like their own insights; the big question is how – which includes, in what register – one compares/ranks insights across registers… my intuition is something of a relativist one here: people using conversational registers will rank things according to criteria formulable in those registers, though I also I suspect that people prioritize this or that register because of other criteria {meta-criteria?} that shape their choices of register, like “this makes me feel smart and relevant!” or “this will get my article published!” etc]).

Of course, I’m trying to smuggle in a point of view here unargued, about the at least relative sufficiency of different registers or levels of conversation. Different discursive registers (a term I leave primitive at least for now) have an underdetermined relationship between each other, the effects of moving from one to another – the effect of a move in one register upon the possible range of moves in another register – is highly context-specific and rarely knowable in advance. (Following on a bit from some of the thoughts here.) In some cases, a change of register may well be a good or the best move. Not in all cases, however.

I know there are arguments in support of the political relevance of ontology, I just can’t think off the top of my head of any I’ve read, probably because I’ve never seen one that compelled me. Short of compelling argument, my impulse is to say, ‘leave ontology (at least when it comes to politics) to the gnawing criticisms of mice.’ At the very least, I feel safe to say that until compelling argument is had, any push to shift a conversation about some other subject (or at least about politics) into a conversation about ontology is a push which can be fairly and rightly pushed back against – except maybe according a principle of polite conversations in which attempts/requests to change the subject are nearly always in order. Perhaps that’s the best response to this ontology whatsits – rather than have a metaconversation about what one should and shouldn’t converse about, just change the subject, to a topic that one is more interested in discussing (and, in the case of politics, a topic that is more useful for achieving our aims). Again and again every time. Eventually the hint will be picked up.