John LOOOcke – An Object-Oriented Ontological Critique of Lockean Property Acquisition

Part 0: Meta

What follows is a retooled version of a paper I wrote a while ago for a political science class. I did some reworking and editing both to make the argument better as well as to make sure the formatting was decent (eg. photos, relevant addons, etc.), but nevertheless, I hope you enjoy it!

 Part 1: Introduction

Although John Locke’s conception of the generation of private property from common property is profound in that it provided a new, pre-materialist[1], model of understanding how private property and value are created, it, like so many other historical models, has its own issues. Specifically, Locke’s view of nature as the common gift given by God to man in order to exploit for his own devices – namely for man to act upon and change to create value and property – is a fundamentally troublesome way of viewing the world because it defines humans as the sole arbiters of valuation and value creation by elevating the ontological status of humans above non-human objects in the world thus privileging an anthropocentric mindset. The creation of, what I call, an arborescent ontology that is inherent in this mode of thinking not only has been the justification for the destruction/objectification[2] of Indigenous Peoples (among other, “lesser” beings) and the expansion into America that Locke mentions, but also is a poor epistemic starting point for understanding policy making and governmentality as it already assumes some inherent “natural order” or teleological end point and is not self-reflective. This paper serves to function as an object-oriented ontological/epistemological critique of Locke’s concept of value creation and the implications thereof – the implications being arborescent ontology – in favor of a less hierarchical[3], more or rhizomatic ontology – flat ontology.

Before continuing, however, I feel as though some key terms and concepts ought to be defined and described in order to avoid confusion later on. Although I am using words like “arborescent” and “rhizomatic” in their Deleuze and Guattarian sense, I do not intend to drag along the baggage that comes with Deleuze and his seeming disdain for non-human object focus. When I say “arborescent ontology” I mean a very hierarchical focus on understanding being in the world such that one’s description of is very rigid and tree-like, that is to say very “unidirectional”.[4] When the rhizome is discussed (in the context of rhizomatic forms of knowledge), I mean less rigid and more free flowing – that is, grass like – forms of knowledge and understanding (at the least, bidirectional and arguably polydirectional).[5] Finally, when object-oriented ontology is discussed, I feel like there is no better definition than the following one given by Ian Bogost: [6]

Ontology is the philosophical study of existence. Object-oriented ontology (“OOO” for short) puts things at the center of this study. Its proponents contend that nothing has special status, but that everything exists equally–plumbers, cotton, bonobos, DVD players, and sandstone, for example. In contemporary thought, things are usually taken either as the aggregation of ever smaller bits (scientific naturalism) or as constructions of human behavior and society (social relativism). OOO steers a path between the two, drawing attention to things at all scales (from atoms to alpacas, bits to blinis), and pondering their nature and relations with one another as much with ourselves.[7]

 

Part 2: Lockean Property and the Subject-Object Question

 While John Locke’s explanation of property acquisition in his Second Treatise of Government avoids many potential criticisms and is, to some extent, revolutionary, it is far from immune to criticism. In Chapter V of the Second Treatise entitled “Of Property”, Locke sets an ambitious goal for himself; he wants to show how public property is changed into private property. Specifically, Locke’s goal is to show “how men might come to have a property in several parts of that which God gave to mankind in common,”[8] thereby rectifying any religious objections to his market-based, individualistic approach whilst explaining his pre-Marxian labor theory of value. According to Locke, nature was created by God without any intrinsic value – that is, value in nature because it is its own thing – rather, nature was created by God for men to “make use of…for the support and comfort of their being”[9] and for men to appropriate the fruits of for their own benefit. In a word, Locke believes God created nature so humans can exploit it.

That statement alone, ignoring the subsequent explanation of what he means by “appropriation” (which will be discussed momentarily), is problematic in its original description of what nature is. Locke tries to assert that the only ontological trajectory that nature has is one that involves human action – namely, one that involves humans changing the natural[10] around them to create something “better”. This view, however, ignores the fact that apart from plenty of things in nature existing without a teleological purpose for humans (more on this later), the very capacity for nature to be different from us and to exist in its own sense[11] means that it, at the very least, has some value that is extrinsic from value that humans impose on it/draw from it. As explained by Keekok Lee, teleological justifications for the valuation of nature are illogical because,

Earth did not come into existence and does not continue to exist to serve human purposes. In this sense, as we have seen, the thesis of external teleology is simply false, and should be distinguished from the thesis of intrinsic/immanent teleology which holds true in the case of organisms…Humans, of course, find parts of nature useful as food, clothing, shelter, etc., just as nonhuman life forms find other parts of nature of use to them. Plants (autotrophs) can make use of abiotic nature to sustain their own functioning integrity and in this sense, the carbon dioxide, minerals, water, heat and light from the sun, etc., have instrumental value for the plants. But it would be misleading to say that abiotic nature exists for the purpose or end of keeping plants alive. Similarly, the leaves of plants have instrumental value for insects but it would also not be correct to say that plants sustain their own functioning integrity in order to be of use to insects. As already argued earlier (see Resisting Humean Projeetivism [Projectivism]), neither can it be said that plants and animals exist for the purpose of keeping humans alive and flourishing although they, clearly, have instrumental value for humans.[12]

What’s more, any claim that humans provide special benefits to the environment ignores the reality of species growth and adaptation and the fact that any “niches formerly filled by humans will be taken over by other species” – in a word, humans provide no unique benefit.[13] Additionally, the fact that different cultures have viewed, and still do view, nature differently in their treatment of the world around them speaks to the fact that there isn’t one human-centered way of viewing the world, rather our conceptions of nature are inherently pluralistic.[14]

Finally, lest a discussion of intrinsic value drag on too long, I want to discuss one other argument that, at the very least, makes one think about one’s place in the world – the so-called phenomenological argument. Edwin Pister, a retired biologist, had a passion for fish and was very involved in environmental conservation efforts. Dr. Pister was doing research in the Southwest when he came across the “Devil’s Hole pupfish”[15]. He saw the pupfish’s habitat being destroyed by big business and thus he decided to sue the agro-businesses for their negligence and habitat destruction. His case went before the Supreme Court of the United States and he won ultimately saving the pupfish from extinction! After the trial, however, Pister was often asked questions such as “why save the fish, it has no benefit?” The question sounds very valid from an extrinsic anthropocentric view point for the pupfish was too small to be eaten and there wasn’t any current human use for the parts of it. After thinking on this issue, Pister came up with the following, brilliant retort: “what good are you?”[16] The beauty of that answer, and the way it can be applied to Locke’s understanding of nature as a thing to create value, is that it forces the human subject to examine their own utility through the lens they have set up – namely it forces anthropocentrists to examine what productivity they contribute to the world that is, according to them, built around productivity and value creation. The original question sets up a framework of utility that, supposedly, allows one to determine the protectability of a creature based on usefulness. Despite the widespread belief that one’s life is somehow special, it probably isn’t,[17] and thus the question of who ought to be permitted to live must be asked when operating under this kind of utilitarian framework. The question is a tad odd because barely anyone advocates the killing of the weak or useless[18] because they view human life as intrinsically valuable. Yet, just as many humans are useless while still being viewed as valuable, Dr. Pister thought the “useless” pupfish ought to be treated with the same value and care. To quote environmental philosopher J. Baird Callicott on the aforementioned issue and scenario, “The question How do we know that intrinsic value exists? is similar to the question How do we know that consciousness exists? We experience both consciousness and intrinsic value introspectively and irrefutably. Pister’s question What good are you? simply serves to bring one’s own intrinsic value to one’s attention.”[19]

Locke’s simple description of nature is far from the only problematic part of his theory, however. His explanation about how property is acquired from nature and how value is created is rooted in a way of understanding objects that privileges anthropocentric ontologies and epistemologies. Sections 27 and 28 in “Of Property” lay out Locke’s view in full detail:

Though the earth, and all inferior creatures, be common to all men, yet every man has a property in his own person: this no body has any right to but himself. The labour of his body, and the work of his hands, we may say, are properly his. Whatsoever then he removes out of the state that nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his labour with, and joined to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his property…The labour that was mine, removing them out of that common state they were in, hath fixed my property in them. [20][21]

It’s clear that, for Locke, value and property are things that are not inherent to nature (much less objects in the State of Nature), but rather are things that are assigned to objects based upon their instrumental use. This view of looking at objects as a means to an end for a given subject is what I would call “subject-oriented ontology” where the more complex objects, in this case, humans, trump less complex objects, in this case, nature. In a word, objects are only paid attention to/viewed in regards to how they benefit a third party subject. This view is an issue for object-oriented ontologists who view no object as inherently more or less important than another. For example, a chair and the relations it has to the world are no more important or unique than the atoms that make up the chair and the relations they have to the world. What’s more, the atoms and their relations are no more important than abstract concepts and their relations. In other words, the concept of property as a whole, the physical existence of atoms, and the physical existence of a chair are all equal ideas insofar as none of them are more important than any other and each one of the three exists independently of the other while still retaining the ability to relate to, and work with, the other two.[22][23]

What’s more, the belief that any object is contingent upon a subject viewing and/or acting upon it denies the fundamental nature that all objects are subjects and all subjects are objects and nothing about a subjects/objects existence is contingent upon its relationship to another subject/object.[24] As Graham Harman says in reference to Heidegger’s critique of empiricist understandings of objects[25], “what about the floor you’re sitting on right now? Something you weren’t thinking about, most likely, until I mentioned it but you’re relying on it, you’re taking it for granted…you’re relying on this silent network of withdrawn objects that you don’t consciously access”.[26]

The aforementioned mode of thinking, that is one that privileges certain objects at the expense of others, creates a very rigid structure of being in the world. The view that growth is contingent upon the subjugation and changing of supposedly “lesser” objects is the foundation for what I call an arborescent ontology. The arborescent ontology is one where each object is confined to its “proper place” in the world and everything is ordered in a progressively, hierarchical fashion[27] that leads to some objects, what would then probably be called subjects, being placed atop the tree and considered more important than other objects which are placed on lower branches. The arborescent ontological focus denies the interrelatedness, both vertically and horizontally on the tree, of all objects and is independently a poor form of ethical engagement (more on this in the next section).[28] I argue that ignoring the philosophical problems with an arborescent ontological approach and what it justifies, namely Locke’s description of America and the people living there, is proof enough that this hierarchical form of being is genocidal.

Calvin on Ecology

 

Part 3: America as a Data Point – Arborescent Ontology and Genocide

 In Locke’s discussion of property and individuals acquiring it, America, and the types of people that may use the land, are brought up. According to Locke, “he [God] gave it [the land] to the use of the industrious and rational, not to the fancy or covetousness of the quarrelsome and contentious”.[29] Furthermore, Locke describes the implications of land in the hands of the irrational and what ought to be done about it in section 41 when he says:

There cannot be a clearer demonstration of any thing, than several nations of the Americans are of this, who are rich in land, and poor in all the comforts of life; whom nature having furnished as liberally as any other people, with the materials of plenty, i. e. a fruitful soil, apt to produce in abundance, what might serve for food, raiment, and delight…[30]

Locke’s bias towards the West and his privileging of so called “industrious and rational” people by way of violent denial of non-Western accomplishments and non-Western existence is demonstrable by reading the concluding sentence from the above quotation: “…yet for want of improving it by labour, [the Indigenous peoples] have not one hundredth part of the conveniences we enjoy: and a king of a large and fruitful territory there, feeds, lodges, and is clad worse than a day-labourer in England.”[31] What’s more, when the question of what to do once land in Europe runs out, the answer is simple yet genocidal: expand![32] This politic is inherently a politic of hierarchy that claims that some types of knowledge or prowess (eg. “industrious and rational” knowledge) are superior to other forms and thus must dominate them by whatever means necessary. This form of knowledge production is very rigid, standardized and sets the mold for future understanding of, and actions upon, other cultures. Specifically, it is an example of an arborescent ontology informing epistemology and subsequently policy making.

But apart from the obvious, and painful, logic of domination that stems from a hierarchical form of knowledge production, the type of ethic that is justified by the arborescent ontology of Locke’s privileging of the human subject is an ethic that justifies violence against the other in the name of control and betterment of the self.[33] What’s more, the previously discussed knowledge is rooted in what Quentin Meillassoux calls “correlationism”, that is “the idea according to which we only ever have access to the correlation between thinking and being, and never to either term considered apart from the other”.[34] This logic changes the focus of politics from helping the other, to helping the self. It changes the focus of politics from understanding the other, to writing over the other in an effort to make the other useful to the self – in a word, the logic of slavery. Ay, as Levi Bryant says, “[c]orrelationism trains us to see all other material things as alienated images of ourselves in a mirror. The question always becomes ‘what are things for us?’, and the thesis is that matter is merely a brute passive stuff awaiting our inscriptions”.[35]

What’s more, a focus on politics that ignores, and subsequently fails to interrogate ontological assumptions (as is the case in Second Treatise on Government) is a politic that is doomed to failure. It is doomed to failure because it inevitably repeats the mistakes of the past because it: a) never challenges existing justifications for actions and why they might be wrong and/or replicating current issues[36] (in this case, genocide) and b) fails to question its relationship with the world at large. This non-self-critical mentality makes it impossible to have effective relationships with other humans because individuals shut themselves off and are only focused on their own self-centeredness.[37]

Finally, failure to question what type of ontologic lens one uses to examine the world fundamentally changes how reality is viewed and thus forecloses the possibility of even fully understanding value – in a word, absent ontological interrogation and subsequent justification, value as a concept can never be understood.[38]

(I apologize for the video not being centered…it’s frustrating me)

 

Part 4: Shedding Ontology – Towards a Flat Understanding of the World

The question that naturally arises from the above critique is, “if arborescent ontology is such a poor model, what is a better model for understanding the world?” I, along with many other object-oriented ontologists, view the model of “flat ontology” to be superior. Before explaining the rationale and providing my own breakdown, however, I would like to quote Levi Bryant defining flat ontology in his response to David Berry’s critique of OOO[39]:

As Bogost articulates the basic thesis of flat ontology, “all objects equally exist, but not all objects exist equally.”[40]  Let’s take the first half of this thesis, “all objects exist equally.”  This is merely the claim that if something exists it can’t be reduced to anything else– for example, to a social construction –but is a real being that, as I argue in “The Ontic Principle” (The Speculative Turn, 2011), that contributes differences to the world all its own.  Take the example of Zizek’s famous toilets in The Plague of Fantasy.  Zizek brilliantly analyzes French, German, and American toilets, showing how they are the embodiment of a particular ideology.  This is not a form of analysis that I wish to abandon and is a form of analysis that I believe has value (I say as much in the introduction to The Democracy of Objects).  However, what does Zizek’s analysis ignore?  Well it ignores the material difference that toilets make in social assemblages, or the power that they exert.  For Zizek, toilets are merely carriers or vehicles for human significations.  Here the difference is coming from humans (ideology), while the toilets are introducing no difference of their own.  My onticology does not deny that humans introduce differences through their significations.  What it tries to draw attention to is non-signifying differences made by other things.  What difference does a toilet make?  Is it possible that the absence or presence of a toilet plays a role in the forms power takes?  The point is that if we really want to understand how assemblages function we must avoid reducing the actors in assemblages to something else and must instead be attentive to the play of differences among different types of actants or objects.  This includes significations and also includes the bubonic plague.[41]

Flat ontology, as Bryant quoting Bogost says, “all objects equally exist” – that is, all objects, be they human or not, have the same basic but common, quality: being. More specifically however, what OOO and flat ontology hold is that while all objects have relations and connections to other objects, these relations and connections do not define what the object is. That is to say, objects can be detached from their relations and still exist in and of themselves.[42] The example Levi Bryant uses in his “Promiscuous Ontologies” talk is one where rat neurons are taken from a rat’s brain and hooked to other things and do different tasks independent of the physical brain (the thing they are supposedly reliant on).[43][44] This example, while gruesome, shows that just because things are connected and/or are often related that does not mean one requires the other to exist.

This unique way of viewing objects and the relationships they have to one another is a radically rhizomatic way of viewing objects as subjects and subjects as objects in that the heart, for example, is no longer strictly a thing that has some instrumental value that comes with being part of a living organism, but it has its own value as a thing within the world. What’s more, the cells that make up the heart and the atoms that make up the cells (and so on) are, like the “whole”, not only instrumentally useful in that they make up a larger superstructure, but they have intrinsic value simply because of their existence independent of the superstructure.

This model of viewing the world is superior to the highly structured, arborescent model mentioned above in that allows for successful analyses of, what would be called “meta-objects” or the “building blocks” of larger objects without trampling them into obscurity. A flat ontological approach to viewing the world takes a different starting point when examining objects, relations, and, in the case of sentience, governmentality and how creatures interact and control one another (eg. the basis of politics). Instead of privileging one side of the story, one side of history, one view of the world, flat ontology takes all positions as potentially equally valid and examines the relationships between from there.[45] Flat ontology may not have a prescribed end point, but it is certainly better than the status quo.

 “The flatness of flat ontology is thus first and foremost the refusal to treat one strata of reality as the really real over and against all others.”[46]

 

Appendix and Citations

Appendix A: In footnote 3 I mentioned that OOO and flat ontology are not opposed to all hierarchy and/or hierarchy as a concept, rather a specific form of hierarchy – namely the hierarchy articulated in parts 2 and 3. As Levi Bryant expands, however:

Now let’s take the second half of Bogost’s aphorism, “…not all objects exist equally.”  If this is not a statement of hierarchy, I don’t know what is.  The claim that not all objects exist equally is the claim that while all objects might equally be objects, they are unequal in the scope of their effects on other entities in an assemblage.  Some objects exercise greater power within a particular assemblage than other objects, exercising, as a result, greater effects on that assemblage.  The sun exercises greater effects in the solar system than do the other planets.  In contemporary socio-political assemblages, oil and other fossil fuels exercise greater power than other sources of energy and other social contributors.  All of society comes to be organized around these substances such that changing these assemblages entails responding, in particular, to the role played by these actors in that assemblage.[47]

 

Citations:

[1] I say “materialist” not in the typical sense, rather in reference to the dialectical materialism extrapolated upon by Marx.

[2] “Objectification” is a really interesting word, when you think about it. Saying that one was objectified typically means that one was thought of as less than human and thus is treated poorly because of that. While that may be true, the assumption behind the word “objectification” is that being an object is somehow bad whereas humans are inherently better than that. Basically, objects are bad and deserve to be treated poorly and we don’t want to place humans on that level. To me, this is almost akin to the assumptions behind phrases such as “that’s gay” or “that’s retarded” insofar as they both posit that the end point of the degradation – in this case queer or neuoatypical – is somehow inherently bad. I wonder if people have written about this…

[3] It is vitally important to note that this is not a call for the rejection of all forms of hierarchy, rather a very specific form of hierarchy. See Appendix A below.

[4] Dan Clinton, “Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. ‘Rhizome,’ in A Thousand Plateaus”, Theories of Media. http://csmt.uchicago.edu/annotations/deleuzerhizome.htm (Accessed November 3, 2014)

[5] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis MN, University of Minnesota Press, 1987). D.

[6] That being said, Ian Bogost’s fantastic short talk entitled Seeing Things – OOOIII explains the philosophy in a short, down to Earth manner. I highly suggest you listen to – Ian Bogost. “Seeing Things – OOOIII.” Vimeo. Online Video. http://vimeo.com/29092112 (Accessed November 7, 2014)

[7] Ian Bogost, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology?”, Bogost. http://bogost.com/writing/blog/what_is_objectoriented_ontolog/ (Accessed November 3, 2014)

[8] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government (Indianapolis IN, Hackett Publishing Company Inc., 1980). 18.

[9] Ibid.

[10] I use “nature” and “the natural” interchangeably.

[11] I’m going to ignore Locke’s empiricist musings because, while interesting, they ultimate can never lead to policy making or any sort of governmentality.

[12] Keekok Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual (Lanham MD, Lexington Books, 1999). 173-4.

[13] Ibid, 175.

[14] Eugene Hargrove, “Weak Anthropocentric Intrinsic Value”, The Monist 75, no. 2 (April 1992) 183-207. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27903285 (Accessed November 3, 2014)

[15] Considered to be one of the rarest fish in the world.

[16] J. Baird Callicott, “Intrinsic Value in Nature: a Metaethical Analysis”, The Electronic Journal of Analytic Philosophy 3 (1995).

[17] See Albert Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays. New York: Vintage International, 1991.

[18] Ignoring Plato in Republic.

[19] Callicott, “Intrinsic Value in Nature: a Metaethical Analysis”

[20] Locke, Second Treatise of Government. 19-20.

[21] There are plenty of other quotations that speak to this point as, namely in Section 42, but for the sake of length I shall limit the discussion the above one.

[22] Levi Bryant, “RSI, Discursivity, Critique, and Politics”, Larval Subjects. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/07/18/rsi-discursivity-critique-and-politics/ (Accessed November 6, 2014)

[23] Levi Bryant, “Promiscuous Ontologies”, RMMLA Panel with Ian Bogost and Tim Morton, Ecology Without Nature, MP3 Audio File, http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.com/2010/10/promiscuous-ontologies-mp3.html (Accessed November 6, 2014)

[24] Ibid.

[25] That is, that objects only exist and/or only have significance insofar as they are perceived.

[26] “Graham Harman defines Objects” YouTube. Flash Video, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=77peIcMXp58 (Accessed November 6, 2014)

[27] Arguably, this is similar to Aristotle’s view of people fulfilling their natural roles in society.

[28] Levi Bryant, “Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics”, Larval Subjects. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/06/01/flat-ontologyflat-ethics/ (Accessed November 6, 2014)

[29] Locke, Second Treatise of Government. 21-22.

[30] Ibid, 25-26.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid, 28.

[33] Bryant, “Flat Ontology/Flat Ethics”.

[34] Quentin Meillassoux, After Finitude: An Essay on the Necessity of Contingency (London, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010) 5.

[35] Levi Bryant, “Worries About OOO and Politics”, Larval Subjects. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/worries-about-ooo-and-politics/ (Accessed November 7, 2014)

[36] Michael Dillon and Julian Reid, “Global Governance, Liberal Peace, and Complex Emergency”, Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, Vol. 25 Issue 1 (Jan-Mar2000) 117. http://connection.ebscohost.com/c/articles/3095592/global-governance-liberal-peace-complex-emergency (Accessed November 7, 2014)

[37] Gavin Rae, “Re-Thinking the Human: Heidegger, Fundamental Ontology, and Humanism”, Human Studies 33, issue 1 (May 2010) 23-39. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10746-010-9136-y (Accessed November 7, 2014)

[38] Jerome Miller, In the Throe of Wonder: Intimations of the Sacred in a Post-Modern World (New York, State University of New York Press, 1992) 197-198.

[39] David Berry. “The Uses of Object-Oriented Ontology”. Stunlaw http://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/05/uses-of-object-oriented-ontology.html (Accessed November 7, 2014)

[40] See appendix A.

[41] Bryant, “Worries About OOO and Politics”.

[42] Bryant, “Promiscuous Ontologies”.

[43] Ibid.

[44] From my understanding of this experiment, it seems to be some perverse physical manifestation of Descartes’ “brain in a vat”.

[45] Levi Bryant, “Flat Ontology”, Larval Subjects. http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/02/24/flat-ontology-2/ (Accessed November 9, 2014)

[46] Ibid.

[47] Bryant, “Worries About OOO and Politics”.