A Correction of One of Mr. Bryant’s Bizarre Misconceptions about Marx

In one of Levi Bryant’s recent posts, he writes:

As Marx argues, because we work under conditions of forced necessity, and because we are alienated from the products of our labor – yes, yes, I know, Marx later abandons the alienation thesis, yet this is still a valuable point to emphasize in understanding the dynamics of capitalism and why we should care about them – work comes to be seen as something outside life, something other than life, rather than as one aspect of life that contributes to our flourishing or eudaimonia.

Forgetting, for a moment, the rather odd question Levi poses about eudaimonism (one of Bryant’s passing conceptual fancies) in labor, it must be emphatically pointed out Marx never “abandons” his earlier thesis of alienation. I’m not sure where Mr. Bryant is getting this idea from, especially as he has repeatedly assured me that he is “widely read” in Marx’s works (he cites Mikhail Emelianov as having in the past “suggest[ed] that I [Levi] know nothing about Marx (I have quite an extensive background)”).

And what is perhaps even more troublesome, Bryant writes as if the idea that Marx jettisoned “alienation” from his theorization of capitalist society is common knowledge, adding “yes, yes I know…” and thereby suggesting that this was somehow a clearly established fact.  I can say with confidence that this is an error standing in grave need of correction.

Now it might be fair to say that the concept of alienation was more prominent in Marx’s earlier writings, but it would be a blatant distortion to say that it disappeared completely.  Certainly, in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 the term appeared with greater frequency, as he was writing the work in the peculiar philosophical idiom of Left Hegelianism. Alienation was a more pervasive concept in that work, but by no means does Marx ever drop the notion of “alienation” from his conceptual apparatus. This can be seen in some of the following quotes from Capital.

From Capital, page 182:

Things are in themselves external to man, and therefore alienable. In order that this alienation [Verausserung] may be reciprocal, it is only neces­sary for men to agree tacitly to treat each other as the private owners of those alienable things, and, precisely for that reason, as persons who are Independent of each other.

From Capital, page 204:

Leaving aside its exchange for other commodities at the source of production, gold is, in the hands of every commodity-owner, ‘his’ own commodity divested [entiiussert] of its original shape by being alienated [veriiussert]; it is the product of a sale or of the first metamorphosis C-M. Gold, as we saw, became ideal money, or a measure of value, because all commodities measured their values in it, and thus made it the imaginary opposite of their natural shape as objects of utility, hence the shape of their value. It became real money be­cause the commodities, through their complete alienation, suffered a divestiture or transformation of their real shapes as objects of utility, this making it the real embodiment of their values.

From Capital, page 205:

Money is the absolutely alienable commodity, because it is all other commodities divested of their shape, the product of their universal alienation.

From Capital, pg. 716:

[T]he worker himself constantly produces objective wealth, in the form of capital, an alien power that dominates and exploits him; and the capitalist just as constantly produces labour-power, in the form of a subjective source of wealth which is abstract, exists merely in the physical body of the worker, and is separated from its own means of objectification and realization; in short, the capitalist produces the worker as a wage-labourer.

In this magnificent quotation, from pg. 799:

within the capitalist system all methods for raising the social productivity of labour are put into effect at the cost of the individual worker; that all means for the development of productIon undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers, they dIstort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of hIs labour by turning it into a torment; they alienate [entfremden] from hIm the intellectual potentialities of the labour process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labour process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital.

On pg. 990:

What we are confronted by here is the alienation [Entfremdung] of man from his own labour. To that extent the worker stands on a higher plane than the capitalist from the outset, since the latter has his .roots in the process of alienation and finds absolute satisfaction in it whereas right from the start the worker is a victim who confronts it as a rebel and experiences it as a process of enslavement.

From Capital, page 1,003:

We have seen that the capitalist must transform his money not only into labour-power, but into the material factors of the labour process, i.e the means of production. However, if we think of the whole of capital as standing on one side, i.e. the totality of the pur­chasers of labour-power, and if we think of the totality of the vendors of labour-power, the totality of workers on the other, then we find that the worker is compelled to sell not a commodity but his own labour-power as a commodity. This is because he finds on the other side, opposed to him and confronting him as alien property, all the means of production, all the material conditions of work together with all the means of subsistence, money and means of production. In other words, all material wealth confronts the worker as the property of the commodity possessors. What is proposed here is that he works as a non-proprietor and that the conditions of his lab our confront him as alien property.

Alienation is even explicitly connected to the fetish-form of the commodity. Same page:

The objective conditions essential to the realization of labour are alienated from the worker and become manifest as fetishes endowed with a will and a soul of their own.

Pg. 1,006:

Conversely, work can only be wage-labour when its own material conditions confront it as autonomous powers, alien property, value existing for itself and maintaining itself, in short as capital. If capital, in its material aspect, i.e. in the use-values in which it has its being, must depend for its existence on the material conditions of labour, these material conditions must equally, on the formal side, confront labour as alien, autonomous powers, as value – objectified labour – which treats living labour as a mere means whereby to maintain and increase itself.

And more examples can be found all over the rest of the book, and in its subsequent volumes (this entry only covers examples from Volume 1).


Some recent blog entries and threads of note:

1. Over at the blog An und für Sich, there has been a recent post regarding Moishe Postone’s fascinating and insightful thesis that Nazism (and historical anti-semitism in general) is a perverse form of misrecognized anti-capitalism.  The comment thread has now turned into a broader discussion of neoliberal capitalism and the state of the Left.

2. Also, once again the blogger Pete Wolfendale of Deontologistics has posted a brilliant and thorough rejoinder to Levi Bryant’s irresponsible and frankly indefensible anti-epistemological and anti-representationalist speculations.  I expect that Bryant will feign ignorance to it, will not directly respond to it, even though it is both polite and extremely charitable in taking anything that Bryant has to say seriously.  My own critique of his post on commodities, objects, and persons, of which he is doubtless aware and which he has almost assuredly has read and broiled over, will likely never receive a response either.  I do not know whether to attribute Bryant’s refusal to respond to such legitimate criticisms is a sign of his intellectual incapacities or of his general cowardice when it comes to confronting harsh critiques of his work.

Also, a blog I recently discovered:

3. A brilliant website on architecture and other interesting topics, aggregat456.  As the author of the blog explains in the right-hand column of his site, “Originally conceived as a place to post thoughts about architecture, this site now contains a variety of design-based ideas that cut across various disciplines.”  One of his posts proved to be extremely helpful for the composition of my recent post on the Palace of the Soviets.

On Commodities and the False Liberation of the Object

The Soviet avant-garde produced agitprop and advertisements for goods, such as this beer advertisement by Maiakovskii and Rodchenko. The point of advertisement in a postcapitalist society, it was argued, was not to entice the customer to buy unneeded products, but rather to inform the consumer of new goods that had become available

In a recent series of posts over at the blog An und für sich and Larval Subjects, Levi Bryant and the author Voyou have engaged in a discussion trying to link Object-Oriented Ontology to the much-celebrated Marxian concept of commodity fetishism, outlined in the first chapter of Capital.  Voyou seems to want to use the Object-Oriented Ontological approach because it promises for him a sort of “liberation of the object,” the object being the thing commodified.  Bryant follows him in this respect by stating first that under capitalism, “things are no less alienated in commodities than labor,” and then rephrasing it couple paragraphs later by saying that “things are no less alienated under capitalism than persons.”  Without conflating their positions too much, it would thus seems that the “liberation” Voyou proposes would be the object’s liberation from its own self-alienation under the commodity-form, as Bryant construes this state of affairs.  There is some small amount of truth to this proposition, but in such a manner that neither Bryant nor Voyou traces out.  This will become apparent in the following.

Backtracking a bit, Voyou mentions at the outset of his piece the seemingly counter-intuitive nature of an Object-Oriented Ontological approach to commodity fetishism.  He rightly notes that “[o]ne of the criticisms of object-oriented ontology which has some currency is the suggestion that it is a form of, or a philosophized alibi for, commodity fetishism.”  This stems from the Object-Oriented Ontologists’ “daunting” claim that objects exist independently of their relations.  Or, as Voyou puts it, anticipating the obvious philosophical criticism:

But, you might say, doesn’t object-oriented ontology, with its isolated objects that never enter into relations, make the mistake of commodity fetishism to an even greater degree than the anti-consumerism argument, by completely removing objects from the social relations of which they are the bearers?

Levi Bryant, remarking on this passage from Voyou’s exposition, offers an important corrective to this rather simplistic understanding of relationality within the framework of Object-Oriented Ontology.  “OOO doesn’t claim that objects don’t relate,” insists Bryant, “but that objects are external to their relations such that they can move out of a particular set of relations and into another set of relations, i.e., objects aren’t constituted by their relations, though they are certainly affected by their relations.”  But here Voyou’s subsequent comments about how different kinds kinds of relations entail different forms of dependence for the objects involved come into play.  Voyou thus continues to note the fact that “objects cannot be reduced to their relations does not mean that they could have come to exist without these relations. The relations of production which produce commodities as commodities are no less visible on an object-oriented view.”

In other words, if I may draw some conceptual distinctions of my own, Object-Oriented Ontology does emphatically deny that the existence of objects is dependent on their relation to human cognition, to their mental representation by a subject.  However, it would be preposterous to assert that objects exist independently of the objective forces of the social relations of production.  An object that has been subsumed beneath the commodity-form could not appear in such a form were it not for these shadowy relations 0f production that take place “behind the backs” of these objects, to paraphrase Hegel.  Even in precapitalist modes of production, when the preponderance of the commodity-form was not as yet total, the appearance of objects that were the products of human labor would clearly be the result of relations of production specific to that social formation.  The mark of their artifice would be inscribed in their objectivity.  And so again, the existence of certain objects could not appear external to the productive relations that gave them their shape and constitution.

This point does not seem to be controversial, and I believe that most Object-Oriented Ontologists would gladly concede it.  However, I should like to make the further claim commodities do not exist independently of their relation to cognition, either.  In fact, it is only through their social recognition as commodities that they can function as such, as essentially fungible and equivalent to one another.  This recognition alone provides the key to how commodities can function as fetishes, how they are able to reify the conditions of the present into the seemingly timeless conditions that obtain in all societies, past and present.  For it is only through their transfiguration into objects of ideology that qualitatively multiform objects, each unique in the aspect of their utility, can be reduced to quantitatively uniform equivalencies.  The overarching thought-forms of society, the ruling ideologies, allow (among other things) objects to be represented t0 the social subject as commodities available in their quantifiable immediacy.  Of course, it is through the general social acceptance of this representation as empirically valid that allows capitalist society to sustain itself, not as some sort of illusory veil pulled over the eyes of the masses, but as an historically specific reality.  In his dialectical unmasking of this ideological fetishization, Marx notes that

[t]he categories of bourgeois economics consist precisely of forms of this [relative] kind.  They are forms of thought which are socially valid, and therefore objective, for the relations of production belonging to this historically determined mode of social production, i.e., commodity production.  The whole mystery of commodities, all the magic and necromancy that surrounds the products of labour on the basis of commodity production, vanishes therefore as soon as we come to other forms of production.

And it is precisely this “representationalist” aspect of commodity fetishism that so constantly eludes the grasp of Object-Oriented Ontology.  Vigorously denying the legitimacy of “correlationist” philosophies, which hold that the objects of experience arrive to the subject only in the form of “representation,” Object-Oriented Ontology is unable to make sense of how the phenomenon of reification or commodity fetishism takes place.  Their realism is such that it simply tries to bypass the eidetic apprehension of reality.  This allows for their unfettered speculation into the constitution of the real, without having to bother with troublesome socio-epistemological questions of how subjects perceive and misperceive the world.  In fact, it is unclear whether or not the contemplative subject of post-Cartesian philosophy vanishes entirely.  This point is brought up in a brilliant comment by the poster Utisz, who highlights not only the methodological quandaries involved when Object-Oriented Ontology is forced to deal a counter-intuitive concept like commodity fetishism, but also the superficial way in which Marxist theory has been appropriated by members of the OOO movement.  His comment, which seems otherwise to have been ignored, runs as follows:

I think this would hold water if any of those who actually put forward OOO were that interested in Marx and showed any desire to acquaint themselves with debates within Marxism 1850-2011 or were by any stretch of the imagination political activists. They seem more interested in fighting ‘anthropocentrism’ and riffing on a strange combination of Leibniz, Whitehead and Arne Naess. I’d recommend reading a figure like Naess – this is the sort of thing we’re really dealing with here. Of course there’s an ‘orientation’ to things in Marx (critically not speculatively so, there’s the rub) as there was to objects in Hegel (critically and speculatively). But no analysis of things in today’s world can with any responsibility ignore or downplay their relation to labour or to the subject respectively. A better approach would be: no object-orientation without equal subject-orientation (the subject, yes, scandalously different from rocks and flowers and bacteria), no speculation without critical self-reflection, awareness of contradiction, paralogism, etc. Object-orientation is forever caught in a dualism flailing around trying to battle a supposed privelege of subject over object by merely plumping enthusiasticaly for the other. Abstrakte Negation. No Glasnost for me, I’m afraid.

Utisz hits the nail on the head when he mentions Object-Oriented Ontology’s obsessive mania to avoid anything that even remotely resembles “anthropocentrism.”  For the movement’s adherents, human beings are just one kind of object leading an unprivileged existence within a more inclusive “democracy of objects,” to use Bryant’s terminology (though I’m not quite sure how inhuman objects can constitute a demos).  So while Object-Oriented Ontology is quick to attribute the category of “agency,” a faculty usually reserved solely for human subjects, to non-human objects (Latour’s “actants”), it is slower to admit the qualitative difference of human agents from the rest of nature.  A microcosm of this tendency appears in Levi Bryant’s post concerning his rather opaque concept of “wilderness ontology,” in which he collapses the distinction between human and non-human architectural enterprises.  “[T]here is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural,” asserts Bryant.  “There is just a flat field where, occasionally, human creations happen to populate this field in much the same way that we occasionally come across the marvelous architectural feats of termites on the African and Australian plains.”  The astounding difference between anthills or termite mounds, which are the blind product of natural social instinct, and a modern skyscraper, a profoundly unnatural, geometricized conglomeration of synthetic materials like ferro-concrete and glass, designed by an architect or team of architects — all traces of this qualitative difference disappear within a shapeless mass of equivocation.

And this is what returns us, circuitously, to the problem of commodity fetishism in the first place.  For one of the most pernicious features of the commodity is its tendency to naturalize its own existence within the collective consciousness of society.  The existing social relations it engenders are reified into a bizarre sort of “second nature,” wity its own set of seemingly immutable laws and forces.  Or, as Lukács explained it:

[M]en are constantly smashing, replacing, and leaving behind the “natural,” irrational, and actually existing bonds, while, on the other hand, they erect around themselves in the reality that they have created and “made,” a kind of second nature which evolves with exactly the same inexorable necessity as was the case earlier with irrational forces of nature (more exactly: the social relations which appear in this form).

And this is what separates the speculative realist approach of Object-Oriented Ontology from the critical realist approach of Marxism.  There is nothing in the positive constitution of the commodity would suggest that there is anything peculiar about it; in enumerating its objective qualities, the social matrix that engendered it is nowhere to be found.  The analysis thus undertaken rises no higher than the level of the empirical, extracting only the metaphysical properties from the datum of immediate experience.  By contrast, the ruthlessly critical essence of Marxism presumes a radically anti-empirical approach to the study of reality.  Nothing is as it immediately seems.  For only through a rigorous dialectical investigation is one able to discover the quasi-theological roots of the commodity’s existence.  Through this method the underlying category of socially congealed labor-time is exposed, which allows for the possibility of exchange and a potential equivalence between otherwise fundamentally different objects of use.  The physical immediacy of the commodified object conceals its dark origins in the web of social relations, contained within its value-dimension.  In the case of commodity fetishism, a social relation between people becomes objectified as a permanent state of affairs that exists independent of their own activity, as “just the way things are.”  Or, as Lukács put it, “a relation between people takes on the character of a thing and thus acquires a ‘phantom objectivity,’ an autonomy that seems so strictly rational and all-embracing as to conceal every trace of its fundamental nature: the relation between people.”  Bryant thus rightly quotes a passage from Adorno that confirms this totalizing logic of homogeneity within capital and in the commodity fetish in particular:

The barter principle, the reduction of human labor to the abstract universal concept of average working hours, is fundamentally akin to the principle of identification. Barter is the social model of the principle, and without the principle there would be no barter; it is through barter that non-identical individuals and performances become commensurable and identical. The spread of the principle imposes on the whole world an obligation to become identical, to become total.

This passage simultaneously also demonstrates how Bryant misconceives Adorno’s critique of “identitarian thinking” in Negative Dialectics.  For Adorno is only trying to save that dialectical principle of non-identity, of the inadequacy of the concept to its logic.  He acknowledges that the logic of identity that dominates late capitalist society (“administered” society) is real, it is simply Adorno’s concern that theory does not become complicit with it.  It is only through the resolute apprehension of reality as dialectical, contradictory, and antagonistic that one’s thought avoids becoming a mere symptom of that reality.  But as Adorno would be the first to point out, facile emancipatory gestures toward the utopia that does not yet exist, impotent performances that simulate resistance or difference, are just as assimilable to the capitalist totality as those behaviors that are straightforwardly conformist.  And this is precisely why the “identity politics” of recent times falls prey to the homogenizing logic of our present social formation.  Clinging to instantiations of difference, performances that “defy” the normative or “challenge” the status quo become integral to the maintenance of the present order.  Or as Adorno’s true successor in critical theory, Moishe Postone, points out,

[T]he contemporary hypostatization of difference, heterogeneity, and hybridity, doesn’t necessarily point beyond capitalism, but can serve to veil and legitimate a new global form that combines decentralization and heterogeneity of production and consumption with increasing centralization of control and underlying homogeneity.

But to return to the original premise of the “liberation” of objects, a few words might be said.  The “liberation” of anything non-human is a decidedly abstract notion.  Unlike their non-human animal counterparts, humans are able to sublimate their primordial drives and urges in order to pursue rational action.  As Freud famously pointed out, this formed the entire basis for any further possibility of “civilization.”  For despite his animal origins, the first seeds of self-consciousness and free will were gradually awakened in the mind of man.  The natural instincts that drove him mindlessly toward the satisfaction of this or that primitive desire were gradually suppressed, and sacrificed so that man might cultivate the earth and himself along with it.  This is taught not only by Hegel in his dialectic of the master and the slave, but also (as mentioned) by Freud, who saw that the redirection or sublimation of these natural instincts toward conscious ends was a prerequisite for society.  “Sublimation of instinct is an especially conspicuous feature of cultural development; it is what makes it possible for higher psychical activities, scientific, artistic, or ideological, to play such an important part in civilized life,” wrote Freud.  “If one were to yield to a first impression, one would say that sublimation is a vicissitude which has been forced upon the instincts entirely by civilization. But it would be wiser to reflect upon this a little longer. In the third place, finally, and this seems the most important of all, it is impossible to overlook the extent to which civilization is built up upon a renunciation of instinct, how much it presupposes precisely the non-satisfaction (by suppression, repression, or some other means?) of powerful instincts.”

Humans, who can approximate or aspire toward the ideal of Kantian freedom, self-governing rational autonomy, apart from pathological drives, instincts, and inclinations, are therefore uniquely poised to take hold of the emancipatory opportunities offered by society.  Human liberty is thus a concrete, real thing, easily intelligible to anyone.  By contrast, concepts such as “animal liberation” or (in the present case) the “liberation of objects” are hopelessly abstract.  For what sort of rights or freedoms might an animal possess, slavishly following its most base instincts? Even more difficult to grasp is how objects might ever be “liberated” from their commodity form.  This liberation, should it be called such at all, would not be a liberation for the objects themselves, but for the society that utilizes them.

Here is where the notion of a “liberation” of objects from their “bondage” as commodities actually bears some semblance of truth.  As Marx justly observed, commodities predated the existence of capitalism, but capitalism arises only when commodities become the primary form of goods that are produced.  Once the primitive accumulation of capital ripened to the point where it could be unleashed upon a mass of workers freed from the countryside, commodity-production superseded by leaps and bounds all its competition.  From this point onward, as capitalist relations reproduced themselves through the constant selfsame mutation of capital through its money- and commodity-forms, the circulation of commodities became the primary site of the realization of value that had already been revalorized by labor.  With the capitalist social formation rapidly outstripping and assimilating rival modes of social existence, the objective quality of nearly every individual product everywhere was essentially commodified.  Furthermore, since capitalism is predicated on the notion of commodity-production being the predominant object of society’s labor, a postcapitalist society is only imaginable to the extent that the commodity-form can itself be overcome.  The objects that exist presently as commodities for exchange must be “freed” of their need to constantly valorize themselves through the processes of production and circulation, and must instead be directed toward society’s most vital needs.  Use-value, the old aspect of the commodity-form that was so frequently overshadowed under capitalism by exchange-value, would thus be gloriously resurrected in an emancipated society.  Artificial objects, materially appropriated from nature, would have as their societal intent the idea of how they might best be put to use, for the benefit of society writ large.  And so yes, if the notion of the “liberation of objects” is confined to this more modest proposition, then indeed the shackles of their commodification can be cast off for the good of all humanity, if not for themselves.

A Clarification on Why Levi Bryant has Really “Given up Talking to Me”

As Evgeni pointed out a couple posts ago, Levi Bryant is misrepresenting his reasons for no longer engaging with me on the blogosphere.  Yesterday, one of Levi’s followers on twitter, Joe Clement, alerted Bryant to an article that might support his “wilderness ontology” thesis against the criticisms I leveled at it two days ago:

@onticologist This seems highly relevant to your discussion with Mr. Ross about non-human agency vis-a-vis politicshttp://bit.ly/mvkRDX

However, on Levi’s twitter page Bryant indicated that he was no longer interested in talking to me, suggesting that it had something to do with my post exposing some of the origins of Heidegger’s ontological meditations on the environment in Nazi ecology.

@joepdx i’ve long given up discussion with him. When someone calls you a Nazi because you talk about ecology he’s jumped the shark

Of course, I never called Bryant a Nazi.  The real reason that Bryant chose to stop talking to me is decidedly more embarrassing, as he expressed it to me in an e-mail from May 27, about a week before I even posted the article about the fascist fetishization of nature:


Between your highly insulting and patronizing comment about my education (http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2011/05/25/dark-objects/#comment-50541) on my blog and your post mocking my work and scholarship on your blog yesterday I’ve decided to cease discussion with you.



I dealt with this little incident of crybabyism in a separate post, “On Hurt Feelings: The Case of Levi Bryant’s Missing Sense of Humor.”  But this wasn’t the first time that Bryant had banned me from his blog.  Back on April 13, I received an e-mail from Levi informing me that he wasn’t going to post my comments over at his blog anymore.  We had just previously been debating the question of the Left’s role in critiquing vs. “producing” ideology.  His reason for banning me? He explained:


I have opted to no longer post your comments.  I do not approve of how you have both interacted with the other participants on my blog and with me.  You have engaged in a monologue rather than a dialogue that has been rather disdainful to other positions equally informed by Marxist thought.  Moreover, over at your blog you have hosted discussion with one of the most well known trolls of the theory blogosphere, Evgeni Pavlov, who has spent years attacking me online, suggesting that I know nothing about Marx (I have quite an extensive background) and shooting spitwads from afar.  This calls into question the genuineness of your interactions.  Ergo I choose not to make my blog a platform for your interactions.

After repeatedly asking him to be reasonable and pleading my case with Bryant, he continued to respond:

I banned you from my blog for hate speech.

Let me get this straight, Ross.  You came into my living room, made ugly slurs about women, homosexuals, african-americans and environmentalists and then proceeded to host a snark fest on your own blog with one of the most belligerent and unfair trolls in the theory blogosphere, all the while mocking the bonafides and earnestness of the Marxists that participate in that living room, and you believe that ****you**** are being persecuted because others don’t care to continue discussion with you or host you in their living room?  Yes, yes, you’re so oppressed that others don’t care to carry on discussion with a pompous, insulting, homophobic, sexist, racist, know-it-all who wishes to pontificate to everyone else without bothering to listen.  Once again, good luck with your revolution.  Somehow I think you’ll have a hard go of it if you continue to engage in this religious fundamentalist, belligerent, behavior that refuses to listen and honor others with dignity.  Pardon me, I have to get back to body building, hormone injections, and hair color treatments in between worshipping neo-pagan gods.

And finally, he explicitly compared me to Rush Limbaugh, which seems to be one of his signature terms of abuse:

You presented these emancipatory political movements in extremely ugly and stereotypical terms worthy of Rush Limbaugh.  The fact that you continue to portray these vibrant and diverse movements in this reductive light only confirms the point.  Nor was I alone in evaluating your remarks in those terms.  A variety of others responded along similar lines.  You might think you’re providing relevant commentary, yet micro-fascist sensibilities immediately exclude themselves from discussion.  Your form of Marxism seems not to have learned anything from the last one hundred years of political theory and thought on these matters, repeating the worst tendencies of Stalinist sensibility and general disdain for life.  There’s nothing critical about your critical theory.  It is religious fundamentalism through and through.

So let’s tally things up, shall we? Bryant compared me personally to Rush Limbaugh, accused me of “hate speech,” and then claimed that I repeated “the worst tendencies of Stalinist sensibility.”  As for me, I merely pointed out that many of the motifs of his “wilderness ontology” can be seen as reflecting Heidegger’s late ontology of “pathways” in the Black Forest, searching for the “clearing.”  And then I further pointed out how this was symptomatic of some of the prevailing tendencies of Nazi ecology.  That’s all I did.

Bryant didn’t appreciate that I was pointing out specific places in which he was contradicting himself.  My comments stood in the way of his rather careless philosophical improv act, and called him in for accountability.  That’s why he doesn’t want to talk to me anymore.

Levi Bryant’s “Wilderness Ontology” and Heidegger’s Hut in the Black Forest

The Idea of the Perpetual Forest, 1923

Levi Bryant has recently posted an entry on what he (poorly) terms “wilderness ontology.”  He seems aware of the confusion inherent in the choice of words, but clings to the phrase regardless:

Admittedly, the signifier “wilderness” doesn’t quite get at the concept of “wilderness ontology” I’m trying to articulate because it seems to oppose civilization and nature, the human and the natural. Nonetheless, I like the poetic resonances of the term and can’t bring myself to abandon it despite the confusion it invites.

Always building on the latest thoughts that he’s enshrined with a blog entry, the “poetic resonances” Bryant speaks of here probably have something to do with his recent post on “The Poetics of Philosophy.”  And though we might allow Bryant to wax rhapsodic with his terminology, his following exposition of the concept proves to be disappointingly prosaic.

As an ontological concept, “wilderness” should not be taken to signify the opposition between civilization and nature, but rather two distinct ontological orientations: the vertical ontologies of humanist, correlationist thought where being is a correlate of thought versus posthumanist orientations of thought advocated by flat ontologies or immanence. In a “wilderness ontology”, humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings with no particularly privileged place.

Not a difficult concept.  This is your typical anti-anthropocentric fare.  Humans are just one sort of being amongst a multiplicity of beings, etc.  Fairly predictable.  But just how comprehensive is this “wilderness”? What exactly can it be said to “contain”? What constitutes its “parts”?

Civilization is a part of the wilderness. Culture is a part of the wilderness. Nature is a part of the wilderness. The subject is a part of the wilderness. The difference is that there is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural.

All categorical distinctions, even between apparently oppositional terms, evaporate in this seemingly all-inclusive ontological zone.  In this sense, Bryant’s “wilderness” would seem to be, as Hegel said of Schelling’s Absolute, “the night in which all cows appear to be black.”  The usefulness of this concept seems fairly limited, however.  In fact, it’s hard to distinguish its position from Naessian deep ecology.

Martin Heidegger embracing the new regime, above the "X" mark

Luckily, Michael helped explicate the concept in a bit more depth in a comment on my blog, elaborating on it a bit further.  Now of course he doesn’t claim to speak on Bryant’s behalf, but I think Michael’s explanation is telling of the general notion of a “wilderness ontology,” its intellectual sources, and its implications:

I’m not sure of your familiarity with Heidegger, but the issues Levi brings up in the post you dislike follows loosely from the early Heideggerian attempt at tracing out a “fundamental ontology”. “Wilderness” in this sense, then, is a metaphor for the spaciousness and ‘wild’, unpredictable, uncontrollable and only partially knowable of Being.

The nuance would be that ‘Being’ does not signify an absolute or “All’, but is a term meant to prompt us to reconsider the nature of the fundamental background condition which allows or occasions beings (actual entities) as such to bedisclosed.

And, for me, the process and ‘need’ for reconsidering the raw nature of reality is a decidedly cosmo-political one. Without an ontographic imagination and exploration how are we to know and therefore utilize or adapt to the nature of power, agency and change?

For me the notion of “the wilderness of being” evokes an ecological and anarchic sensibility that I believe is at the core of material and existential life. In fact, investigating the world through via wild-thinking (or wilderness ontology) is essential for a pragmatic rethinking of everything hitherto assumed by our sick societies.

My response to this explanation was as follows:

I’m actually very familiar with Heidegger, for better or for worse. I’m of that school that, along with Adorno, believes that his philosophy is fascist to the core. But I’ve still read all of Being and Time and his later essays on poetry, dwelling, the world-picture, and “the turn,” etc. His Introduction to Metaphysics is probably my favorite work by him, because it’s his most Aristotelian.

The idea of a “wilderness-ontology,” Heidegger’s pathways leading from his hut up in the Black Forest out into thick of the woods, from which he could always search for “the clearing” in which beings disclose themselves — all these metaphors can be very easily traced to Nazi ecological thought. Knowing fully well the dangers of such accusations, I say this with complete seriousness. The Germanic naturalist fetishization of nature, the Nazi concept of the perpetual forest Dauerwald as the sort of Ursprung of the Teutonic spirit, this is the source for Heidegger’s early “fundamental ontology.” It is even more so the world of Heldegger’s late ontology, long after the swastika lapels came off his jacket, the antihumanist neo-Romantic reverence for nature that is also evoked by Bryant’s “wilderness.”

An excellent essay documenting the influence of “green” politics within the NSDAP can be found here.  It implicates top leaders of German fascism like Walther Darré, Fritz Todt, Alwin Seifert and Rudolf Hess in the project for Nazi environmental protectionism.  This was closely rooted in concepts like “blood and soil,” and so on.

Walther Darré standing in front of a placard that reads "Blood and Soil"

Ray Brassier on the speculative realist “movement”

Including his reaction to my satiric
Manifesto of speculative realist/
object-oriented ontological blogging

Image: Ray Brassier


I first came across Dr. Brassier’s brutal excoriation of the Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological blogging “movement” after my own lighthearted sendup of the phenomenon was met with such disapproval by Tim Morton, Levi Bryant, and (seemingly) Nick Srnicek, although Srnicek was perhaps justifiably upset that I counterposed his e-mail to me to Bryant’s. In any case, I felt some sense of vindication upon seeing Ray Brassier’s own scathing commentary on SR movement in his interview with the Polish magazine Kronos:

The “speculative realist movement” exists only in the imaginations of a group of bloggers promoting an agenda for which I have no sympathy whatsoever: actor-network theory spiced with pan-psychist metaphysics and morsels of process philosophy. I don’t believe the internet is an appropriate medium for serious philosophical debate; nor do I believe it is acceptable to try to concoct a philosophical movement online by using blogs to exploit the misguided enthusiasm of impressionable graduate students. I agree with Deleuze’s remark that ultimately the most basic task of philosophy is to impede stupidity, so I see little philosophical merit in a ‘movement’ whose most signal achievement thus far is to have generated an online orgy of stupidity.

Now, Brassier’s unsparing invective against this trend within the theory blogosphere has already been widely circulated, and I must admit that I was something of a latecomer in discovering the sentiments he expressed. Most have probably been aware of these statements for much longer than me. Nevertheless, I’ve been slowly working through his recent book, Nihil Unbound: Enlightenment and Extinction, and must admit that I’ve enjoyed it so far more than anything I’ve read from Harman or Latour. I especially appreciate his engagement with Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment; his interpretation is really quite good. So there’s a level of respect I had for him that preceded my stumbling upon this little snippet.

Anyway, following my recent publication of the satyric Manifesto of Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological Blogging and subsequent discovery of Brassier’s somewhat similar (though no doubt deeper) position on the matter, I e-mailed him with a link to the satyric piece. With the largely mixed response to the post that I’d received from the rest of the theory blogosphere, I was curious as to what Brassier might make of it. He responded this morning, rather promptly. The correspondence ran as follows.

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Cover to the volume The speculative turn

Continue reading

On Hurt Feelings: The Case of Levi Bryant’s Missing Sense of Humor

Levi Bryant, humorless "onticologist"

I know that it’s usually in bad taste to publish a private e-mail correspondence with another individual over the internet, but in this case I feel it’s fairly harmless.  Over at Levi Bryant’s blog, Larval Subjects, I was engaging in an interesting discussion between Levi and Michael from Archive Fire.  You can see one of my comments on this thread, as well as Michael’s favorable citation of some of the points I make.  Anyway, sometime yesterday, I added another comment on the entry regarding the debate between Spinoza and Leibniz on actualism vs. possibilism (although Spinoza was dead when Leibniz’s major metaphysical writings began to appear).

After several hours, I saw that new comments had been updated for the post, and so I checked to see if Levi or Michael had responded to anything I’d written.  Much to my dismay, I discovered that my comment was nowhere to be found.  I tried leaving another one, asking what had happened, but this one likewise disappeared after a few minutes.  Concerned, I contacted Levi through e-mail:

[E-mails deleted out of respect for Levi Bryant’s privacy]

Basically, Levi told me that he felt insulted by a comment I’d left the day before, and that, coupled with my satyric post on SR/OOO, he’s decided to cease discussion with me.  My reply to him was that the sendup of SR/OOO was aimed at the movement in general, and that he shouldn’t take it as a personal affront.  I also encouraged him to develop a better sense of humor about things generally and himself in particular.

So far, I haven’t received any further response.  This isn’t the first time this has happened, either.  Back in the ides of April, I published a somewhat lengthier (though similarly fraught) exchange between Levi and me that had resulted from a heated debate on the subject of Marxism on his own blog.  He accused me at that point of “hate speech.”  After some further conversation through e-mail (following the correspondence posted in that entry), I explained myself more thoroughly.  Levi eventually came to his senses and invited me back to comment on his blog.

Now again, it’s his right to exclude certain individuals from posting or commenting on his blog if he wants to.  I just think it’s a shame that he allows his feelings to be so easily hurt, or that he takes an obviously satyrical manifesto directed at a general movement and interprets it as a personal attack.  It’s really too bad that he can’t have a little better sense of humor about this, and have a laugh along with everyone else.

By contrast, the responses I received from the author of the blog ktismatics and Joseph Weissman of Fractal Ontology were unambiguously supportive.  Even the e-mail I received, from Nick Srnicek of Speculative Heresy, was polite and largely understanding:

[A polite and good-natured e-mail deleted out of respect for Nick Srnicek’s privacy]

If this means an end to my participation on Larval Subjects, then so be it.  It’s just sort of sad that it had to be over such a petty matter.

The manifesto of Speculative Realist/Object-Oriented Ontological blogging


…the infernal piping of those blasphemous flutes…

Prologue: Of manifestoes and manifestoism

To launch a manifesto you have to want: A.B. & C., and fulminate against 1, 2, & 3.

work yourself up and sharpen your wings to conquer and circulate lower and upper case As, Bs & Cs, sign, shout, swear, organise prose into a form that is absolutely and irrefutably obvious, prove its ne plus ultra and maintain that novelty resembles life in the same way as the latest apparition of a harlot proves the essence of God.

We alone are the face of our Time. Through us the horn of Time blows in the art of the world.

Throw Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc., etc. overboard from the Ship of Modernity.

  1. Up to now literature has exalted contemplative stillness, ecstasy, and sleep. We intend to exalt movement and aggression, feverish insomnia, the racer’s stride, the mortal leap, the slap and the punch.
  2. We declare that the splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed. A racing automobile with its bonnet adorned with great tubes like serpents with explosive breath…a roaring motor car which seems to run on machine-gun fire, is more beautiful than Тhe Victory of Samothrace.
  3. We are on the extreme promontory of the centuries! What is the use of looking behind at the moment when we must open the mysterious shutters of the impossible? Time and Space died yesterday. We are already living in the absolute, since we have already created eternal, omnipresent speed.
  4. We intend to glorify war — the only hygiene of the world — militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of anarchists, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and contempt for woman. Continue reading

Larvae Apparently Don’t Have Thick Skin

Larvae are not known for having thick skin; indeed, it is often only a thin membrane that separates their primitive organs from the outside world

Much to my surprise, I found myself banned from posting today on the Larval Subjects blog.  In a discussion thread attached to an entry about Marxism on his blog, apparently my comments were too controversial or offensive for Levi Bryant, the author of the blog, to tolerate.  Of course, I can’t help but point out the irony of this situation, by quoting Engels from Part III of his essay on The Housing Question:

I am not going to quarrel with friend Mülberger about the “tone” of my criticism. When one has been so long in the movement as I have, one develops a fairly thick skin against attacks, and therefore one easily presumes also the existence of the same in others. In order to compensate Mülberger I shall try this time to bring my “tone” into the right relation to the sensitiveness of his epidermis.

Since I can’t contribute to any discussion on his blog anymore, the following is taken from our brief e-mail correspondence over the course of today: Continue reading