My talk at the Ontology and Politics workshop in Manchester: The Polemos, or politics and ontology meet on fire
it depends whether our passions reach fever heat and influence our whole life or not. No one knows to what he may be driven by circumstances, pity, or indignation; he does not know the degree of his own inflammability Nietzsche, Human All Too Human, 72
Politics and ontology meet on fire. A blow. Events catching other events like fuel. Both ontology and politics dwell on collision and urges. Nothing is beyond the ever-living fire and its contagions, its combustion, its bursts. Nothing is beyond the reach of its reshaping capacity. Neither the remotely small components of an atomic particle, nor a car parked at Clarence Road, Hackney. They meet in fire, and yet they are not just fire. Ontology and politics are about the lack of stable reductions. Inflammability. Fire in its advance will judge and convict all things, says Heraclitus (66). But fire mingles with spices, he adds, and takes the flavour of them. It hides underneath any establishment. Inflammability is the source of the shakiness of things. Everything can act as a fuel – matter, as Jane Bennett has been saying, is vibrant and political. It is so because it carries an unmeasurable portion of inflammability. Politics put fire on things, their inflammability makes politics urgent.
That meeting on fire means that politics is no second creation, no cherry placed on top of the ontological cake. Gather your tools anywhere you like, ontology ain't immune to politics. It is, however, most frequently presented as being the ground for all (political) alliances, (political) processes, (political) events and (political) choices. This is the common image: ontology grounds, politics comes after. Ontology then appears in a “prior to the political” arena where things have been laid out once and for all – the realm of what is not up for grabs. A bedrock that is not inflammable. A bedrock alien to political fire. Surely, one can claim that any ontology ought to present bedrocks – which is akin to placing rocks underneath any fire. We can refer to such a position as that of a taste for (bed)rocks. Not for rolling stones but for fixed rocks. It holds that any ontology is to lie underneath all politics. Adopting a taste for bedrocks is clearly a political stance. Such a position – and the political outlook thereafter – leaves us with two options: either there is an ontology preceding all politics or there is no ontology at all.
The first option entails that politics has an outer boundary – the border where things are determined, where there is a ready-made order. This grounding ontological bedrock can be even made of quicksand, but it is a realm of its own, under no jurisdiction of any political agent and subject to its own laws. It means that ontology is safe from any political fire – that there are non-inflammable things. The realm of nature, with its laws, is a usual candidate to give flesh to the idea of a bedrock ontology. It is an example of a domain that is beyond any political incendiary. It can be attractive for those who want an end to politics – even if it is to be found deep down inside a neutrino.
The second option provided no such closure for politics – it is all pervasive. However, it allows for the ghost of a bedrock to haunt politics – there is a lack of ontology; the lack is the lack of bedrock – no fire can replace the solid, well-shaped, enduring and clear-edged stone. In this case we are left with a void of ontology, a hauntology where nothing can be said about what there is because to be is to be a bedrock. Often, such a bedrock hauntology ends up placing politics in people's head and makes most of it dependent on human election. Further, it looks incapable to quench the renewed cravings for ontological responses concerning what there is – for instance, there is politics – as nothing can be like a bedrock. Given such a position it is interesting to consider variations of the move to make politics precede ontology – inspired, for example, by some reading of Lévinas. At least in the context of bedrock hauntology, the move would make it impossible to consider what ontology could follow from politics – as ontology is attached like Sisyphus to a rock. The unavailing effort is that no politics will ever ground (what ought to be) a bedrock.
When we consider fire – and not bedrocks – we escape the issue of grounding. And the subsidiary issues of layers, realms, priorities, mon- or pan- archy. Fire spreads by catching from one thing to the next. It is about contact, not about established orders. It burns in a plan de consistance. Politics and ontologies assert an arché that itself cannot be alien to the inflammable matter on which each arché is crafted. And if it is so, the world is implemented on its fuel: there is no ready-made politics petrified in an ontology. First because nothing gets petrified to the point of being immune to politics. And second because, barring an ex nihilo creator, there is no political agent whose outcome ceases to be up for grabs. Nothing is made once and for all – nothing is fireproof as fire can test things through different procedures. The non-reckoned inflammability of things lie in their capacity for politics. No order is alien to its surroundings. Fire can inspire an ontology where everything boils down to testing procedures – and different tests appear from different corners. Latour's follow-up from his principle of irreduction stresses the point: there are no more than tests (of strength or of weaknesses). For him, it follows that reality is what resists to the tests (or rather what has resisted this far). Reality doesn't get certificates. It is up for negotiation. So, no movement of the planets or constitution of the particles is tested once and for all. It depends on what comes along. And it would be no good to appeal to a general ontology that maps what is possible and what is not. Or rather to postulate all-encompassing laws ruling over what is possible. This would be again to crave for a bedrock. Once ontology is placed within pyrology, there is no appeal to an ultimate layer. Unless this ultimate layer can itself be burned.
If the taste for bedrocks is replaced by a taste for fire, the bedrock dilemma – bedrock ontology versus bedrock hauntology – fades away. Ontology and politics dwell rather in pyrotechnics. The friction between them is no longer a matter of grounding, not even of reversed grounding. But rather one of common undergrounds, one that concerns how the inflammable is ignited. It is also no longer an issue of territories – whether politics has an outer boundary. It is not that ontology reigns over things (or objects, or events or intensities) while politics rules elsewhere. There is a politics of things (and of objects, events, intensities). There is an ontology of these things too. Ontology and politics intertwine as fire knows no borders. Whatever there is makes a political stance – it has a measure of inflammability and therefore is political fuel. There is no realm for ontology separated from the realm of politics. Clearly, when we talk about the politics of things we are not talking another politics, we are rather stating that things are politically inflammable and the proper fuel can come from anywhere. As Jane Bennett would say, echoing the perfect taste for fire displayed in Guattari's Three Ecologies, it is an ecological politics.
Outside the scope of a bedrock ontology, there is no room for completion – things are not ready, they are constantly relying on others to become whatever they become. Relying on others means to depend on the alliances they manage to crack – we rely on the matter of our body, we rely on our tools, they rely on energy transmission, energy transmission rely on pressure and temperature. It is a chain that knows no privileged ex-nihilo starting point. We can list three initial elements that seems to stem from an ontology and a politics knitted by fire:
a) No things are completed once and for all – no particle, no political party, no cosmos have attained the final form. There is an element of inachèvement to everything, to use the Souriau's phrase. Including also the laws of nature, the laws of logic and the principles of identity. In fact, nature, logic and identity are words that themselves harbour a taste for bedrocks. We ought rather to look at countries, their borders, their internal structure and their government – including their international relations, therefore their alliances with other countries – to understand how everything is open to be dismantled or reshaped.
b) Alliances seem solid because they rely on many others that we are not ready to dismiss. As Latour stresses when elaborating his principle of irreduction, there is a cost to make or break any alliance – and a cost to maintain it. There is a cost to maintain a government in place, to maintain a bird's nest, to maintain a river flowing. The costs are often shared by many parts and alliances cannot be broken without their supporting alliances. Ontology is knitted by politics here: it is made by the alliances that are active. Politics rely on ontology here: it has to rely on alliances to make or break other alliances. The counterpart of alliances are testing procedures – alliances resist to some tests but fail others. To put something into test is an exercise akin to doubt something. Doubts are like fire, they spread with no limits. And I would argue that just like politics, they ain't in the head. When we doubt, we are in contact with how things are, not because they are one way or another but rather because often the oscillation (or hesitation) captures the swing of things. There is something ontological to doubting itself.
c) Fire goes well with gunk, that stuff where each part has more parts. It encourages an ontology of fragments, with no archaic, primordial atoms composing everything else. In the terms that have been used recently by Schaffer and Bohn, there is nothing preventing a gunky ontology, where everything has parts. Nothing also prevents a junky ontology – where everything is a part. Things can always be broken into pieces, but nothing is a whole that is not an element for further composition.
Those who have a taste for bedrocks attempt to undermine pyrotechnics by denying one or more of the previous points usually by arguing that ontology should provide a landscape visible from nowhere. Some kind of privileged view from outside everything that makes the crafting of the alliances irrelevant – and the compositions, the doubts, the incompleteness of things devoid of any (ontological) importance. The landscape maneuver is a strategy to rid the world of all movement and all animation: such a view from nowhere will have scarce room for time, for the potential and for the virtual. It is a desperate way to reach a bedrock, but it reaches no more than a painted rock that, as in the image of Wittgenstein, grounds no more than the painted house.
Heraclitus developed a resolute taste for fire. For him, since his old days, things are inherently flowing. His ontology was one of interactions, of contrasts, of perspectives and also of the polemos. Old fragments of Heraclitus are often translated with struggle or conflict – sometimes war – figuring in the place of the polemos. Fragment 53 talks about it as what made some slaves while making some masters. It is like the burning of the fire. But the polemos is not presented as a ex-nihilo creator – but rather also what made some gods while making some mortals. Slavery but also mortality is driven by the polemos. It is the vulnerability of all alliances. All things come to being through polemos, says fragment 80. I take it to be an overall centrifugal force that ignites what it finds. It is the force of dispute, the engine of all polemics. The force of polemos is that of disruption that can come from anywhere. It is no fixed arché but rather an element of displacement and disturbance that acts as an insurance against any ontology (or politics) of fixed ingredients. It is a force of friction that has no fixed ontological status, no fixed place in any chart of beings. Heidegger translates polemos as Auseinandersetzung – what moves out to another position. Polemos is dissolution. It belongs to a realm of displacements, negotiations, disputes and frictions that stops nowhere short of ontology itself.
As it is currently well known, The Obscure, a philosopher of shape-shifting, survived his own mutations. Not that he remained himself, but he survived. He lived to be a world-traveler and aged to cherish his widespread anonymity. Due maybe to his mountain herbs, he had strength to leave Ephesus for good and carry on alive for millennia. An-archeology, the study of what is not established, with its preference for versions and subversions, has thoroughly considered his late output. Those an-archeological efforts date his last texts from his days in Deir Al Balah, Gaza, before the bombings of 2009. Rumours have that he was planning a second edition of his book on physis to be published in the several languages he spoke in his late years. He used to say that in him lived the philosophers who didn't intend to have their grip on things but rather would approach everything in their tiptoes. The manuscript that he was carrying with him in his last years disappeared after the Israeli attack and no more than about two hundred new fragments remained. Some of these new fragments, that circulate in different versions, provide an aggiornamento of the doctrine that the polemos ties ontology and politics together.
Polemos is presented as a political plot inside everything. It is not something that can be contemplated from the outside as it also acts through our awareness of it. It is thoroughly situated. It is as if Heraclitus were saying that no matter is immune to fire – one can maybe contemplate things from beyond anything inflammable, but one wouldn't then be able to breath there. Among the many ways the polemos finds to spread its disruption, our knowledge of it is one of them. He writes:
130. Whenever something comes about, a polemos comes about and then there is politics.
131. Polemos often lies where we don't expect. It lies not only in the catapults, but also in the surprise that meets the polemos, in the temptation for polemos and in the knowledge of polemos.
Polemos cannot be controlled through knowledge because it is present in the very cage that attempts to cage it. Any exercise in ontology takes on a political stance. The polemos is the force of resistance against the establishment of realms and dominions – an arché and what springs from it. Dominions require subjects that act as inanimate subservient instantiations of something else whereas the polemos opens up a plan d'instantiation akin to a plan d'immanence where no arché is implemented in anything but on inflammable stuff. Polemos brings about a vulnerability to fire, an incapacity to be merely following orders. It is the spark of things, rather than what subjects them. The kingdom of polemos, an-arché, anarchiste couronné. Heraclitus has several fragments on the polemos and an-arché:
138b. The powerful of the time ends up claiming that the polemos is asleep. It sleeps, but doesn't obey.
155. I keep meeting people that act as if disputes are about poles. Polarization distorts the polemos – polemos has no poles. Its force lies in the sliding of the poles. […] only when we get tired, we choose sides.
178.* There are no archés. What we take to be archés are often no more than the slowest things to change. Like a turtle that holds the world. Or laws of nature that guide the world. Or a unitary cosmos that ground all its parts. Slow things are not always a metronome setting the pace for the orchestra. Often, they are just another instrument. Polemos, on the other hand, is just about a lack of archés – it is an an-arché.
198*. [...] [On the other hand,] attachment to archés springs from an interest in control: find out who is the boss and we shall deal with him. Find the laws of the land and we will crack our deals. But no empire lasts because no realm lasts. Not even the realm of all things. There is no principle that could prevent any other beginning. Bacteria, worms and viruses as much as roaches and rats didn't surrender to the alleged human victory over the animalia. Human gestures are themselves full of anomalies that resist the humanizing principle imposed to all things and mainly to whoever happens to be born in the human species.
252. The polemos doesn't do anything, but it doesn't leave anything done either.
259*. The polemos is no demiurge. It gives birth to no chaos, to no order. It leaves a trace of exceptions behind it. Eventually, they germinate...
Polemos is a capacity to disrupt, just like doubts. To say that it is not in our heads but at the kernel of things is to say that there is no non-slippery core to anything. Fragment 145 says:
145. It is quite common to exorcise the polemos from the world by holding that each thing has its core. A core is a conquered territory where battles have already been fought and everything is properly trained and tamed. We find no cores, we find no more than more things. In order to persuade us that the world is rid of any polemos, we posit a world that have no more things than the ones that seem to be still. And then we can say, with the sort of philosophy that is most popular in the last centuries, that the polemos is in our heads.
In contrast, Heraclitus sees physis as polemos, the force of the inachevé. It is a force that lies in the weaknesses of the alliances, on their vulnerability. Disruption is not an incident, but rather what he prefers to see as characters in his ontological plot. He diagnoses what is lost in the translation of physis as a realm of natural laws:
141. When physis, which is polemos, was replaced by a realm of laws – and nature stopped being strong to become merely ruling – it freed itself of wild dispositions and became merely an instrument of order and progress. What was left of the polemos itself was then thrown into the realm of chance.
And then he sees the laws of nature as something that is conveniently left outside the scope of politics:
157b*. Nature, by contrast, is no more than our scapegoat.
271. [it often seems as if we are] taming nature in order to tame people. The world is presented as a universe of servitude. Sometimes of inescapable servitude. The open possibilities are no more than concessions. So people fight for concessions. [but, in fact,] no one has ever anything to loose other than their chains. To win or to loose are things that happen only to those who are ruled.
There are no hierarchies (no archies) other than the ones determined by the existing alliances, by the current political configuration of things. Heraclitus takes necessity and contingency to be equally up for grabs, not derived from archés and not held by bedrocks.
196.* […] While the river changes, it changes what it drags and what can swims in it. Nothing is necessary or contingent once and for all. The flowing of the river changes not only what there is but also what there possibly is. No law is immune to flooding. Some of them are just too costly to challenge at the moment.
Heraclitus' conception of the ontological as something that has little to do with fixity and his suspicion concerning the politics of bedrock ontologies are expressed by fragments like the following:
210. While everything is connected to everything, there is no whole
212. Borders are where the war stopped. Being? It cannot be anything but a cease-fire.
213. [They say, someone says] that words are prejudices. So are things.
223. In the middle of all there is polemos.
237. I hear people asking what the world is made of. It cannot be made of anything but of world, I want to say. They want a list. There are things that cannot be in a list. There are lists of things that wouldn't fit in the world, the world wouldn't fit in any of them.
277b*. Thought cannot strip off the garments of the world. It is itself garment. Nothing, not even the world, is ever fully naked – nor fully clothed. Physis loves to hide itself – it cannot be fully unveiled. Thought has nothing to do with the naked universe. Physis, and the polemos that infests it, is rather in the undressing.
The description of an ontology cannot be itself more than an intervention on how things are. Ontology is not in the description, but rather it is in the performance of describing things. It fits no narrative, it requires a performed gesture, a situated intervention. Ways to describe motivate political movements – the polemos acts through them. See differently and you will act differently. Ontology is not about faithful accounts, but about teasing the world. In that vein, Heraclitus writes:
222. A friend once explained to me that ontology is politics viewed from above. I never stopped thinking about that. But I feel the vertigo.
147. In the beginning there was no politics. Neither was there polemos. Nor beginning.
228*. […] No description of the world can afford not to stir it. Don't read me as if I was saying that there are polemos or logos or anything. I don't deal in catalogues. Everything can be ripped apart. When I talk about what there is I want to unlock something. The unlocking matters. What matters is what escapes from one's words.
286. When I talk about the polemos, I'm not describing the underground of things, I'm rather inserting underground on them.
286a*. [...] I don't do geology, I dig tunnels.
286b. Words are actors. They perform different characters in different acts. At most they carry a style throughout. Polemos is a style of acting.
In other fragments, Heraclitus argues against formality in ontology. We cannot consider the difference between reductionism and non-reductionism, or between monism and pluralism, without considering the difference between saying that everything is a rock and saying that everything is fire. While not in the business of taking everything to be one thing – fire, polemos or whatever – Heraclitus points at the difference between an ontology inspired by layers of rock and one that draws on flames and burst. He certainly wouldn't take all ontology to have a similar architecture – not only each monism entails a different sort of reduction but also each pluralism (or even each way to conceive the world as gunky and made itself of fragments, as he would favour) carries a different multiplicity. Each ontological performance produces a different gesture. His gesture would rather mostly be one of asserting the polemos as something that cuts across ontology and politics – and as such has a formal element – in order to play it against their ready-made forms. His gesture is to look across what there is while digging tunnels, inserting movement and igniting the inflammability of things. At the same time, his gesture is to avoid the fire to be seen as lava that will solidify and, instead, point at the ubiquitous molten rock.
A leftist ontology? Heraclitus intervention in ontology is one where he shows how to think about the world in terms of fire. He picks categories – such as polemos – that are crafted to be unable to ground anything, let alone produce an order of its own. Fragment 290 states that the polemos cannot give rise to no order but an order of rioters. Further, his stance is not one of faithful commitment to these categories but rather to take them as actors (286b) – it is the unlocking that matters (228). It is not an ontology of bringing the Other to the Same, nor is it an ontology of subjection. It has scarce place for subjects at least in the sense that it is no humanist view of things – forces, as the physis, go through humans and rarely around them – while it views identity as a transient fragment – an assemblage of pirates. The Obscure avoids presenting a chart of beings, being rather moved by the politics of insurgence to craft an ontology of what conspires.
Fire is not like earth. It spreads, it doesn't ground. A fire ontology is one where contagion matters more than support and subjection. It is also an ontology of contact: nothing catches fire at a distance. Fire has to go and spread itself – it doesn't do it by proxy, by drafting an army or by commanding subordinates. There is an occasionalism about it: fire is the intermediary. Fire is a testing procedure that discovers unsuspected distances between things. It unveils empty gaps between fragments assembled by testing the strength of the alliances. Alliances are inflammable because it depends on intermediation and there is always room for fire between things. Whenever anything relies on anything else, there is an inflammability between them. There ontology and politics meet on fire.