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Does Ontology Reinforce Capitalist Moral Ambiguity?

by on April 25, 2013

Placing blame is not a fruitful labor. In the wake of travesty, it is after all a purely retroactive activity, one that stalls progress and will never offer a solution (case in point, New Orleans). Responsibility, however, is distinctly different: responsibility provides a list of operations that one is to complete, maintain, monitor, however you want to phrase it. Responsibility, in a cultural sense, gives purpose to states, associations, businesses, individuals, and even objects themselves (it is my chair’s responsibility to keep me suspended comfortably above my floor).
The distinction between these two concepts are all too often forgotten, particularly (and quite deliberately) by corporate industries where it is common practice for, let’s say a corporation who has taken up the job of producing plastics, to produce said plastics in a responsible, safe manner. But, through a simply baffling ideological turn of words, corporations have effectively managed to safeguard themselves from any consequences: it always trickles down to a party who never took up such responsibilities. In a virtual object aggregate like a corporation, while there may be a singular drive that organizes it (i.e. the production of plastics) no one party is at any point responsible for the responsibility. The corporate board or owners have responsibility to shareholders, profit margins, production rates. So overriding are these responsibilities that it makes all other concerns secondary, even from a legal stand-point. Shareholders have successfully sued and ousted CEO’s for making financial decisions that may aid the greater good (i.e. better safety systems, agreeing to environmental policies that may raise production costs, etc.), so clearly their responsibility is to shareholders, not the safe production of plastic. Federal laws mandate that such businesses have safety regulators whom the corporate structure now gets to say are responsible for socially responsible fulfillment of their responsibilities (the repetitive diction is intentional to illustrate the ridiculousness of this), in turn though, these safety regulators operate according to the rules set out by those on top. And it just keeps going from skilled laborer, who passes responsibility to the unskilled laborer, who passes responsibility back up to his or her manager, who passes it back up the corporate latter, who will pass it back down because their main responsibility is to the stockholder…….We get the point, it’s an asinine loop in which the only people who are truly free from responsibility are the ones who set it all in motion provided money didn’t illegally change hands, or they can claim ignorance because that was the responsibility of someone bellow them (this is exactly how Rupert Murdock, Dole, Shell, BP, De Beers and countless other industries have managed to remain intact despite blatantly illegal activity, in the case of the latter 4, literally avoiding charges for crimes against humanity, treason, aiding and funding terrorist organizations, etc). Their main responsibility was to serve capitalism or industry in general; all others fall on someone else’s shoulders.
What I am getting at here is an area that I have found quite troubling in certain texts we have read this semester: rather than creating an increased responsibility in the world, or a democracy of existence that holds all things on equal ontological footing, I see some of the ideas put forth by Harman and in passing in Bennett as justifying this lack of corporate responsibility, albeit in ways I would tend to agree with.
I tend to agree with Harman that ideology and organizations and states all most assuredly exist, maybe not physically, but they are certainly out there operating in the physical world, and we can point to legions of corpses, failed states, failed economies, destroyed ecosystems, and marginalized populations to prove they affect us. So why is it that Bennett, whom I think is making more of a valiant effort at a practical ontology than most of the other OOO and SR heavyweights we have read, seem to vindicate this? I am specifically thinking of the example of assemblage that she gave, the August Blackout of 2003, in which she essentially said that she did not feel that the Ohio based FirstEnergy and Enron were “to blame” for the event, as there were a host of other contributing factors. While I argue that A) she could stand to do more research on the subject since it was definitely proven then Enron was deliberately “turning off” power supplies because they were receiving energy credits and in turn driving up stock value for the stored electricity that was being sold rather than delivered (watch the Enron movie, this is not conspiratorial, there are recorded conversations with executives and traders discussing when they should allow power to be restored), I would also say that B) she and Harman both are running the risk of philosophical justification for this lack of responsibility. Corporate entities are not treated the same way in a court of law as a person as we all know, even though the evils they wrought upon the world most certainly are the actions of humans. So, while a host of circumstances were the ultimate cause of the power outage, she is playing the same semantic games that allow companies to skirt these responsibilities to begin with.
This again just raises the same question I have had all semester: what are we to do with ontology to better humanity, as it seems like these vague grey areas have been being taken advantage of for quite some time. While I love the fact that she is extending ontology to a discussion about diet, language (perfect timing for me in that regard as her discussions of Foucault and representations fit in wonderfully with my final topic), but I fear a full adoption of ontology put into practice could if anything reinforce a great deal of the evils of this world if applied the wrong way, as capitalism is want to do.


From → Quadruple Object

  1. On the question of adopting an ontology and applying it in the wrong way or not: Iargue that using an ontology in a de-historicised de-contextualised way, that following Bernard Stiegler I call synchronic, actually does make us more “stupid”, ie less senstive, less responsible, more dogmatic and inflexible. The same ontology, applied with regard to to context and possible ways we may want things to turn out, having an eye on long-term consequences and possibly un-wanted or even unforeseen effects I call a “diachronic” ontology. Andrew Pickering gives good examples of how this approach can change many domains, including civil engineering and dam construction.

  2. 7sshare permalink

    What if Bennett’s usage of the Deleuzian concept of the operator could come to her rescue here? I agree, her lack of ‘strong responsibility’ and full blame is problematic but tough to navigate. What if, in the hypoethical utopian object-oriented legal system of the future, blame could be distributed according to the relative operating strength of any entity to the other entities in the assemblage in question? This way blame would not be avoided but would require a careful, ANT-like analysis in order to be properly placed.

    “I fear a full adoption of ontology put into practice could if anything reinforce a great deal of the evils of this world if applied the wrong way, as capitalism is want to do.” Is OOO ultimately going to come down to another personally-political ethical decision that we can make, like being a vegan or not shopping at Wal-mart, in order to assuage our consumer guilt? Because you’re right. On a large scale it does seem awfully problematic and just as unrealistic as any other kind of mass ontological shift.

  3. I must admit, I certainly wouldn’t anticipate an OOO legal system any time in the near future, but the idea of an OOO “personally-political ethical decision” is an interesting idea to consider: what would that actually entail? I wonder what part of my day to day interactions I might approach differently, if at all. Obviously, this takes up a moral angle to objects, and I’m really not sure what moral obligations I would have to any non-living thing.

    The linked essay above makes this point well:

    “Applied to the the ontological turn, this means that an ontological system is useless, a hindrance to thought and action, whereas an ontology which is not crystallised into a system and principles, but which limits itself to an open set of rules of thumb and of free study of concrete cases is both acceptable and desirable. The detour through ontology is useless, because according to Feyerabend a more open and less technical approach is possible. In effect, Feyerabend indicates what Eddington could have replied to Harman: just like Althusserianism OOO must be considered a premature and harmful failure because it specifies in an apriori and dogmatic fashion what the elements of the world are. This failure is intrinsic to its transcendental approach: it is premature because it prejudges the paths and results of empirical research, it is harmful because it tends to exclude possible avenues of research and to close people’s minds, making them stupid.”

    This makes sense to me: while none of the texts we have read advocated for abandoning scientific pursuits, a great deal of them always seemed to risk a tremendous limit on intellectual pursuits, which is inherently dangerous under any circumstances.

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