Beyond bedrock hauntology,
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
Abstract: A prevalent image of ontology takes it to be the ground for politics. A tradition of criticisms of this image has developed a taste for politics with minimal ontological commitments. The current revival of interest in ontology invite for a more thorough consideration of the possible relations between ontology and politics. This essay departs from the rejection of a bedrock model – where ontology provides a firm ground for politics – to develop an alternative image, one based on fire. Inspired by Heraclitus ontology of the polemos, where fire has a crucial role, I consider different ways in which ontology and politics can meet on fire based on contemporary images of ontology. I develop the fire image in terms of process philosophy (mainly of Souriau and Latour), of recent materialisms (mainly of Hamilton Grant and Bennett) and of an ontology of absolute facticity (that of Meillassoux). I claim that, although very different in many aspects, these ontologies provide elements to elaborate the image of fire – and not that of a bedrock – connecting together politics and what there is.
Keywords: Ontology, politics, ontological turn, speculative ontologies, process philosophy, materialisms, facticity
1.Introduction: ontology, politics and priority
Ontology has been often presented as ground. It is taken to be first philosophy, or a class of basic assumption, or as laying out the furniture for politics. Throughout the 20th century, this image of ontology has been occasionally challenged on the basis that decisions concerning ontology are themselves guided by ethical and political decisions. Lévinas (1961) claimed ontology was an exercise in reducing the other to the same and criticized any metaphysics – any treatment of the relation between the other and the same – that fails to posit ethics as a first philosophy. Lukács and Adorno, in different ways, suspected that ontological postulates were shaped by the existing political structure – and philosophers like Butler (1993) extended the suspicion to the existing sexual norms. In all those cases, ontology was not the main focus, the issue was not how to conceive of ontology as something other than the ground for ethics and politics. The issue was rather to free other philosophical endeavors from the upper hand of ontological assumptions.
In recent years, ontology has moved back to the center of the philosophical stage. An ontological turn (in the phrase of Heil and Martin (1999)) has taken over different traditions in the analytical side of philosophy while the continental side has experienced a renewed interest for such questions mostly in what has been dubbed a speculative turn (see Bryant, Snricek and Harman (2011)). Many reasons can be presented for this current renaissance – including post-humanist takes on politics, exhaustion with the linguistic turn and its variations, enthusiasm for modalities and failures to demarcate metaphysics out of science and philosophy. In any case, the question concerning what ontology is supposed to look like and how it relates to politics becomes particularly relevant. It is the issue of whether ontology can be anything other than prior to politics that this essay addresses.
2. Ontology: bedrock and fire
This is the common image concerning ontology and politics: ontology grounds, politics comes after. Politics is what is up for grabs, what can be affected by alliances, negotiations, governments, resistance movements, change of rule, revolutions and the balance of forces. It takes place on a ground, it moves on how things are independently of any political act. Where politics ends, we find a bedrock, something that is often predicated as natural, as beyond all npolitical swing. This is where ontology is. It 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 never at stake – it is simply present, as a given, or as an underlying structure that is a fixed stage ready for all sorts of different plays but who has to provide them with a ground. A bedrock is always alien to political fire. Surely, one can claim that any ontology ought to present bedrocks – which is akin to insist on placing rocks underneath any fire. I 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.
Now, arguably, adopting a taste for bedrocks is clearly a political stance. To be sure, it depends on an architectural decision: here lies ontology, there lies whatever comes on top of it. This architectural plan provides a landscape for orientation and as such it guides political decisions. If it is so, granting the plan, and the correlate taste for bedrocks, is either something avoidable – like a political decision – or something compulsory – like part of the ontological ground itself. In any case, the taste for bedrocks has an image of ontology as something that grounds, that is stable and fixed once and for all. It is the domain of what is structural, or of what it is internally related to reality. Ontology could be no more than the rules of the game of reality – and, surely, of all the political games. Such a position – and the political outlooks that it encourages – leaves us with two options: either there is something like an ontology that precedes all politics or there is no ontology at all.
The first option entails that politics has an outer boundary – the border where things are already determined, where there is a ready-made order or a set of rules for all games. This grounding ontological bedrock can be solid and dense like a set of structural furnitures for the universe or made of quicksand like some general logical principles (say, that the world satisfies classical logic), 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 it is made of non-inflammable things. Whatever happens above it cannot affect it – it is rock, this is the sense of the image. A law-like realm of nature, stable and structural, is a common candidate to give flesh to the idea of a bedrock ontology. It is an example of a domain that is beyond any political incendiary. Bedrock ontology can be an attractive idea 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. This 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, to borrow a word from Derrida, where nothing can be said about what there is because to be is to be a bedrock. Often, but not always, such a bedrock hauntology ends up placing politics in people's head and makes most of it depend 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.
If the taste for bedrocks is replaced by another image, the bedrock dilemma – bedrock ontology versus bedrock hauntology – fades away. The common assumption behind both horns of the dilemma is that ontology is some sort of ground, prior to anything else and, in particular, alien to all political dispute. Ontology, if there is any, is a bedrock underneath anything political. If this assumption is put aside, ontology needs no longer to be placed as something stable under the political busts; the quest for what exists is placed rather somehow amid political endeavors and not under their feet. A different image would then reject the idea of a ground and therefore the friction between politics and ontology would no longer be a matter of priorities. A first possible alternative image is to take ontology and politics to be the same. If this is so, they can either have merely an identity of processes and mechanisms or also an identity of scope. So, for instance, when we talk about a politics of nature – or a natural contract (Serres, 1990), or democracy of objects (Bryant 2011) – we can understand it as describing a natural ontology or we can take it as being both ontology and politics. If we take them to have different scopes, the bedrock image can still find itself vindicated: the politics of nature could be taken as a ground for all other politics.
Instead of an image of ontology and politics being the same, I would like to propose and explore one where they interconnect heavily while being somehow still different. The image is that of a fire where the difference between what is in flames and what is inflammable is not a matter of substance but rather a matter of position. It ithe position of the woods that determine where the flames will catch. Inflammability is everywhere but it admits of degrees and it cannot be measured independently of any circumstances. The inspiration can be found in Heraclitus doctrine of the polemos (more about it below) and its connection with fire. Heraclitus has that “[f]ire in its advance will judge and convict all things” (2009, fr. 66). But fire mingles with spices, he adds, and takes the flavor of them. It is as if political fire can inflame anything but there are things that set the stage for the fire – and yet they are made of combustible material.
In the fire image, 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. They are combustible. Ontology and politics intertwine as fire knows no borders, no scope separations. 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 and yet they are contingently distinct one from another. Ontology is made of combustible materials, it is not alien to fire – not being the flames themselves. As a consequence, nothing is immune to politics and not political outcome ceases to be up for grabs. Fire can take it all.
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 (cf. Deleuze & Guattari 1980, chap. 10). The non-reckoned inflammability of things lie in their capacity for politics. No order is alien to its surroundings. 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.
3. Ontology and politics meet on fire 1: process philosophy
The taste for fire can be expressed in many ways as there are several different ways to conceive of a friction and combustion relation between ontology and politics. I will consider three possibilities in order to explore further the fire image.
A first alternative to understand the connection between ontology and politics in terms of fire comes from process philosophy. The original idea came from Whitehead's ontology of processes and prehensions, of his conception of things as dependent on each other. Whitehead's guiding metaphysical idea is that reality has no ready-made item but rather processes that sustain and are sustained. In the absence of a ready-made furniture of the world that exists independently of anything else, the existence of anything depends on something else. Nothing exists by itself. Etienne Souriau (2009) introduced the vocabulary of instauration: something exists if and only if it has been constantly brought about by something else. Existing things are in a network or a crossroad of sponsors. Whatever sponsors can also blow up things – supporting alliances can be unmade, standing lifelines could be disrupted, current networks can be dismantled. Existence is not independent from whatever else exists. Everything is at risk while anything could affect the support for existence of anything else: the existence of something depends on what else happens to exist. Like with combustible materials, flames could come from anywhere. Souriau's conception of existence as instauration appeals to an act of sponsoring – the act of making something exist. There is no existence tout court. Existence is somehow spread from somewhere, it never stands alone. Therefore, existence is not independent of anything else. One way of understanding the lesson of process philosophy is to think that everything is a creation of something else –everything ends up being implicated on everything else. It is about an interrelatedness of all things, a holism albeit an actualist one that relies not on capacities and tendencies but on actual alliances and networks of sponsors. It relies on contingent, external relations that happen to support whatever exists.
Process philosophy makes the vocabulary of ontology very close to that of politics – the processes (negotiations, alliances, tests etc.) are common to both. Ontology is somehow about the political processes among whatever exists – not only human groups but living beings, objects, materials and forces. Latour (1988, Part Two, Irreductions), drawing mainly on Souriau's conception of existence, puts forward an ontology of testing procedures. He starts out with a principle of irreduction – which is like a prince who doesn't reign – stating that nothing is in itself reducible or irreducible to anything else.1 The follow-up from this is about test procedures: 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. Further, nothing on its own resists the different test procedures on its own – they rely on the supporting alliances. 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. Importantly, it is a chain that knows no privileged ex-nihilo starting point. There is no reality further than the processes of negotiation, of crafting alliances and of relying on support. There is no reality beyond what is combustible by the trails of fire – no reality is politics-proof.
The image of ontology promoted by process philosophy is one where there is no transcendent principles or forces (or laws or fixed ingredients) that shape reality. In other words, there is no ontological bedrock. Further, there is no bedrock hauntology as there is no lack of ontology – existence is immanent to what exists. This lack of transcendence is akin to many ways of thinking popular in the twentieth century – including those championed by Heidegger and Deleuze. In contrast with the first2, process philosophy promotes a robust ontology guided by the idea that all things are thrown in the world with no prior purpose or definite transcendent role – a generalized Geworfenheit. In contrast with Deleuze, there are no intrinsic nature of the forces, no virtuality, no potencies beyond actual relations and alliances. There is no transcendent element that guides, grounds or gives flesh to what there is. Similarly, there is nothing supporting politics like a bedrock – ontology and politics meet on fire, the difference between them lying in what is burnt now and what is the inflammable layout. We can take politics to be the former and ontology to be the latter but there is no constitutional difference between them, It's like fire, inflammability is to be tested by the force of combustion (and the power of the protective alliances) and the differences in combustion is what guides the flames.
4.Ontology and politics meet on fire 2: the adventures of matter
A second way to understand the image of fire connecting ontology and politics is to appeal to some variety of materialism. Materialism appeals to matter as a common support for both politics and ontology. It could look like matter is an element of ontology and therefore acts like a bedrock, but for some materialisms, matter is a vibrant repository of potentialities with a history of folds and layers. Among the several kinds of materialisms that could go in this direction, I will limit myself to mention contemporary versions of speculative materialism, specially that of Iain Hamilton Grant (2006) and Jane Bennett (2010). In both cases, there is a common ground that is not substantial as objects are – materialism attempts to focus on what is beyond the specific boundaries of bodies, forces or laws and postulates matter as a constitutional element that is required everywhere.
Contemporary speculative materialism opposes matter to objects. Objects appear always as already constituted while matter is constitutive. Then, process philosophy is engaged by Harman (2009) as part of his object-oriented war machine against materialism. Iain Hamilton Grant (2006) opposes materialism to the many sorts of somatism that hold that there is nothing beyond bodies – for instance, nothing that undermines objects as Harman sees them, as they are ultimate furniture of the world (see their debate in Bryant, Snircek and Harman 2011). Grant draws on Schelling to seek a philosophy of nature capable of providing a continuation to a tradition of physics that goes back to Plato where the main focus is ontogenesis – not a physics of all things (objects, already formed structures like bodies or governments or mobs or ideas) as Aristotle would understand it in his Physics, but rather a layer where things get constituted. Matter provides this layer of folds where the embryos of everything is gestated – matter is the underlying element behind all, and as such it is both behind politics and ontology. Grant also finds in Schelling the idea of a natural history that underlies both what exists and what is politically at stake. Natural history is a geology of folds and layers that makes what is possible conditioned on what has taken place in the past – whereas matter is itself unconditioned, das Unbedingte, also translated as unthinged. It belongs in a transcendental level, in the sense of Schelling's nature as transcendental, as the condition of possibility for everything. Matter here is inflammable, it is about what can be done with a material that is saddened with potentialities. In contrast with process philosophy, the meeting on fire of ontology and politics here depends on a common non-actualist underground that holds both political moves and ontological conditions. There is a material element undermining the core of anything – politics is always possible because matter itself has no nature, nature is nothing but history. There is no outer limit to the political as matter means no more than a difference in degrees of inflammability and it holds no ontological order. It is as if there is no more than combustion underlying both politics and ontology, there is no realm of law that supervenes on sheer materiality as there is no political struggle that takes place where the natural law is silent. There is no bedrock, matter appears as no more than a source of (relative) inflammability. Because of matter, different bodies host inflammability in different degrees. It is matter that carries the political within the bodies. It is no ontological component but rather a political fuel.
Jane Bennett's (2010) vital materialism provides a framework for an political ecology of things. She believes our time and our political concerns are taking us towards matter and objects. The appeal to ecology is itself an interesting element of a taste for fire. Guattari's (1989) seminal concern with how politics emerges from a confluence of an ecology of the socius – the practices, the institutions, etc. - an ecology of subjectivity – desires, fears and management of drives – and an ecology of fauna and flora and objects. The three ecologies interfere in each other, each one of them support what takes place in the others. Whatever takes place in one ecology is echoed and spread through contagion. There is no fixed structure in any of the three scopes, neither is there a hierarchical order between them. Change can come from each of the three realms and spread throughout. Bennett conceives of matter as a repository of capacities for composition that cannot be exhausted by its deployment in any particular configuration of things. It has a measure of inflammability that hides behind any shape it takes. It is no bedrock, no ground, but fuel. Objects are not shaped out of a raw material but rather carry the seed of something else within its constitution. Matter is the opposite of a grounding stock, it is more like a repository of disruptions, more like an explosive material. It is vital, animated, full of its own plots and whatever is made out of it has to juggle in a landscape of pyrotechnics.
Finally, it is worth mentioning that politics meets ontology on fire at least in some sense in the ontology of plastic put forward by Catherine Malabou (2009). She also holds that there is a common component to everything and holds that this then has a high degree of plasticity; which she contrasts with elasticity: plastic has no archaic shape to which it tends back to, its form just shrift endlessly. Malabou's ontology of plastic is not presented as a variety of materialism, but it shares with it the idea of a common component that is not in itself determining of anything but, like fuel, carries potentiality. In general, the appeal to matter can be something different than the appeal to a bedrock, it could be the basis of a universe with no determinate form. Even though in important senses contemporary materialisms differ from process philosophy, in both cases we can find elements to see ontology and politics meeting on fire. They in fact meet on matter – which is at once ontological and political – but matter is intrinsically combustible. It is fuel lent to the what there is, no passive constituent.
5.Ontology and politics meet on fire 3: facticity and unreason
A third way to see how politics can be related to ontology in a way that appeals to no landscape of bedrock is to look at absolute facticity and the absence of all necessity. While Grant's materialism takes matter as a repository of folds and layers and process philosophy sees a state of affairs in terms of alliances and resistances actually in place, the thesis of absolute facticity holds that nothing prevents nothing from turning into something entirely other – the ruling principle is the principle of unreason. Quentin Meillassoux (2006) champions the idea that it should follow from Hume not a thesis about the limit of our capacity to access the world – a correlationist thesis according to which we cannot know (or even think) of anything beyond the correlation between us and the world – but rather a thesis that there is no sufficient reason for anything. It should follow that everything is contingent, nothing is held the way it is based on needs of any sort, things are the way they are out of no necessity. He argues that instead of embracing a humility from Hume's attacks on how reason (aided or unaided by experience) can reach the world, we should rather proceed to find in the facticity of all things an absolute that reason can attain. All things are factual – this is the only absolute that there is and reason can defend it against those who turn to other sources to seek something beyond contingency. The ontology espoused by Meillassoux is one where no necessity of any kind reigns. Nothing is held by anything and, as a consequence, nothing is impossible either. In a world of facticity, there is no room for any relation of support or ground – there is nothing but actual matters of fact.
The absence of grounding precludes the possibility of a bedrock of any kind holding and framing political action. Politics and ontology meet on facticity. Meillassoux aims at exorcising all impression that there is a non-casual regularity in human or non-human affairs that is not a product of habit. Laws, for instance, he argues, carry no projection into the future and their supposed predictive success is no more than a result of a misuse of the idea of the set of all alternatives (2006, chapter 4). Pervasive facticity provides a flat ontology where no item is shattered by no other as nothing prevents or ensures the existence of anything. Politics appears in this open field of unreason – there is no outer limit to what is politically up for grabs. Unconditioned facticity also means unrestricted combustion power coming from anywhere. There are no network of objects nor sheer matter conditioning politics – there is no bedrocks and no ontological jurisdiction alien to all political fire. There are, in an ontology of facticity, no matter of fact about inflammability of anything – whatever exists can catch some contingent matter of political fire from anywhere.
6.Conclusion: Polemos and an ontology of inflammability
The idea of an ontology and a politics of inflammability contrasts with that of a bedrock where politics is built on a something that is ontological because it is firmer. If ontology and politics meet on fire, the borders between them are less clear and any no relation of priority between them is postulated. Maybe ontology and politics meet on fire because they are the same albeit described in different ways. We can take ontology and politics to be exactly the same and insist that they are no more than apparently distinct. Or maybe ontology and politics are two modes of existence of the same, in the sense of Souriau's (2009) existential pluralism: things exist in politics at the same time as they exist naturally (or ontologically, or just exist tout court). In any case, the fire image contrasts with that of the bedrock and can be spelled out at least in the three contemporary versions I sketched above. In the three cases, we can also see pyrotechnics as related to the ontology of the polemos put forward by Heraclitus.
Heraclitus developed a resolute taste for fire. Whatever there is, is inherently flowing. His ontology was one of interactions, of contrasts, of perspectives and within that context lies the polemos. 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. Ontology, but also politics. Further, slavery, but also mortality, is driven by the polemos. It is about the vulnerability of all alliances. Either because they are dependent on ongoing processes or because they rely on vibrant matter (or the absolute facticity). In any case, the polemos points at vulnerability. All things come to being through polemos, says fragment 80. I take the polemos to be an overall centrifugal force that ignites what it finds. It could be 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 (ch Heidgger & Fink 1979) 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.3 It also belongs with the contingency of things, with the relative position of everything, with the combustible properties of what, by existing, is ready to ignite.
Bosteels (2011) and others have asked, within the framework of the so-called ontological turn (see, for instance, Heil & Martin 1999) in several areas of thought, whether there could be a leftist ontology. Heraclitus could be a candidate. His gesture towards ontology 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. A polemos cannot give rise to no order but an order of rioters. Hence, 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.
I would like to conclude with a note concerning the image of fire. 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. Fire is what brings things together; it is always the intermediary. Fire is also unveils unsuspected distances between things. And it is about reliance. Not a reliance on a single, stable bedrock but rather interacted, mutual and factual reliances between what there is. Whenever anything factually relies on anything else, there is an inflammability among them. There, ontology and politics meet on fire.
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