Object Oriented Feminisms

Katherine Behar, ‘An Introduction to OOF’, pp.1–36 in:

Behar, K. (Ed.), 2016. Object-oriented feminism. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis.
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In what can only be characterized as ontological slut shaming, bunnies—which is to say, sexualized female bodies—are barred from ontology. And if, reading this, we think OOO must be joking by committing to this founding gesture (in print, at that), it is assuredly not. Now this ontology looks not only tiny but impoverished.

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In many ways this episode stands as a parable for the complex tensions between feminism and object orientation. In their responses to bunnies, both object-oriented ontologists and feminists (if we are to assume the women’s college dean is one) end up enacting crippling misrecognitions of the stakes around objects, objectification, and material practices.

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OOF originated as a feminist intervention into philosophical discourses — like speculative realism, particularly its subset OOO, and new materialism — that take objects, things, stuff, and matter as primary.

It seeks to capitalize perhaps somewhat parasitically on the contributions of that thought while twisting it toward more agential, political, embodied terrain. Object-oriented feminism turns the position of philosophy inside out to study objects while being an object oneself.

Such self-implication allows OOF to develop three important aspects of feminist thinking in the philosophy of things: politics, in which OOF engages with histories of treating certain humans (women, people of color, and the poor) as objects; erotics, in which OOF employs humor to foment unseemly entanglements between things; and ethics, in which OOF refuses to make grand philosophical truth claims, instead staking a modest ethical position that arrives at being “in the right” even if it means being “wrong.”

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Reflecting feminist ideals of inclusivity, OOF forges alliances by participating in endeavors in theory and practice that share not only OOF’s commitment to feminism but also its key interests in nonanthropocentrism and the nonhuman, materialism and thingness, and objectification and instrumentalization.

[…] work in feminist new materialisms that highlights our common condition as matter to overcome anthropocentric human–nonhuman distinctions is compatible with OOF’s concern with object relations (and is explored in greater detail in the section on erotics below); and this same concern connects OOF with artistic and curatorial practices that establish representational and nonrepresentational relationships between objects.

[…] while OOO and speculative realism represent important points of reference (and provide significant points of departure), they are by no means the only or primary context for OOF. Indeed, as I show, OOF’s approach to these and all subject areas involves appropriating certain elements and rejecting others, always in the interest of cultivating feminist praxis.

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OOF gladly seizes on speculative realism’s nonanthropocentric conception of the world as a pluralist population of objects, in which humans are objects no more privileged than any other. This provides a welcome respite from theories of subjecthood that many feminist philosophers point out are fundamentally dependent on the logic of phallocentrism.

OOO seems to relish, in the idea that humans too are objects, a sense of liberation from the shackles of subjectivity, especially from the “unreal” delusions of correlationism.

[…] OOF therefore positions itself as a friendly if pointed rejoinder, reminding this flourishing philosophical discussion first, that object-oriented approaches to the world are practiced in disciplines outside philosophy, and second, that all too many humans are well aware of being objects, without finding cause to celebrate in that reality.

[…] a third contention of OOO, developed in the work of Graham Harman, is that objects are fundamentally withdrawn and sealed off from one another. For feminists, this idea is particularly provocative: those concerned with activist struggles in late capitalism would do well to imagine its implications.

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Despite OOO’s disavowal of “object-oriented programming,” it can be no coincidence that object-oriented thinking is emerging at a historical juncture characterized by networks, or the capacity for ordering through code. Programmability is paramount.

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It remains to be seen whether this may prepare objects for a feminist conception of networks such as Donna Haraway’s “integrated circuit,” or whether “withdrawal” makes objects more or less susceptible to regimes of control.

Steven Shaviro and others favor versions of speculative realism that privilege Whiteheadian relation over Harman’s isolated objects, and in this respect would appear compatible with Haraway’s notion of a connectivity that reflects and resists the ubiquity of code toward feminist ends. As Haraway explains, “‘Networking’ is both a feminist practice and a multinational corporate strategy—weaving is for oppositional cyborgs.”

As a brand, object-oriented ontology has leveraged a calculated posture of coolness to make waves among various communities.

OOO struck some as radical partly because it was largely developed in the blogosphere and could afford a somewhat punkish attitude toward institutionalized forms of academic publishing, appearing to buck a blindsided and sluggish philosophical establishment.

However (notwithstanding Timothy Morton’s suggestion that OOO’s politics may be anarchic), the self-proclaimed radicality of OOO’s discursive intervention was not matched by a radical politics.

This is where OOF steps in, offering an alternative brand that is, following Haraway’s vision, both a feminist practice and a multi-national corporate strategy. OOF is a brand for oppositional cyborgs.

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Historically, feminism’s object or at least its objective has been political. Specifically, it has involved inward ways of orienting politics through subjectivity, whether translating private domestic practices into the public sphere of politics or advancing inner personal affect as a source of knowledge.

But what if the impersonal is political? A better question to ask might be who is the object of feminism? Feminist politics might also arise from outward orientation, from looking to the abounding realm of inanimate, inert, nonhuman objects.

In this case, the call for solidarity should be to rally around objects, not subjects. Primarily a white, male, hetero, abled, rational heir to Enlightenment humanism, the subject is a red herring.

Orientating feminism toward objects means attuning it to the object world. While at first such a move may seem to risk abandoning the concerns of real human subjects (i.e., women), the object world is precisely a world of exploitation, of things ready-at-hand, to adopt Harman’s Heideggerian terminology.

This world of tools, there for the using, is the world to which women, people of color, and the poor have been assigned under patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism throughout history.

Perceiving continuity with other objects in the world, not as subjects but as subject to subjects’ dominion, allows us to rework assumptions about feminist political priorities and the what and who of feminist ethics. Object-oriented feminism does not abandon feminist attention to interiority.

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Object-oriented feminism’s intervention is to approach all objects from the inside-out position of being an object, too.

Shifting focus from feminist subjects to feminist objects extends a classic tenet of feminism, the ethic of care, to promote sympathies and camaraderie with nonhuman neighbors.

A feminist perspective imparts political urgency to the ideas that humans and nonhuman objects are of a kind, and that the nonsubjective quality of being an object is grittily, physically realist.

Moreover, reorienting from feminist subjects to feminist objects puts critiques of utilitarianism, instrumentalization, and objectification in no uncertain terms.

People are not treated “like” objects when they are objects as such from the outset. By extending the concept of objectification and its ethical critique to the world of things, object-oriented thinking stands to evolve feminist and postcolonial practices to reconsider how the very processes of objectification work.

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These feminisms undertake an important political function. Re- directing feminism from a paradigm of personal visibility toward what Elizabeth Grosz calls the impersonal politics of imperceptibility, object-oriented feminism shifts its operational agencies from a “politics of recognition,” of standing out, to a politics of immersion, of being with.

[…] object-oriented feminism coincides with perspectives in feminist new materialisms, wherein our common status as matter makes way for continuity between all objects, whether human or nonhuman, organic or inorganic, animate or inanimate.

[…] Patricia Clough describes how recent work on bodies, science, and technology propels feminist theory to “[open] the study of bodies to bodies other than the human body.” For Clough, this revision forges compatibility, even co-constitution, between bodies and the technics of measurement that support advances in genetics and digital media.

Similarly striving to shed subjecthood — which is to say, the damaging legacy of humanist exceptionalism — object-oriented ontologists and speculative realists also embrace objecthood.

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Object-oriented feminism participates in long histories of feminist, postcolonial, and queer practices and promotes continuity with and accountability to diverse pasts stemming from multiple regions and disciplines.

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[…] our pursuit of a feminist object-orientation brings us unexpectedly to Sara Ahmed’s “queer phenomenology,” a specifically subject-oriented endeavor. Usefully for OOF, Ahmed’s excavation of queer orientations leads her to parse multiple meanings of “orient” and to distinguish between being “orientated toward” and being “orientated around.”

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Indigenous approaches to nonanthropocentrism and object-orientation forge a distinct line between an artifactual mode, also employed in object-oriented theory, and a vitalist perspective that also appears in new materialism. This stance is compatible with OOF, especially insofar as it is forthright about having real political objectives.

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[…] object-oriented feminism professes no innocence, but offers a prescriptive activist practice, rejecting the noninterventionist, descriptive stance of ontologists—which remains too redolent of the aloof distancing of orientalism.

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Object-oriented feminism shares this penchant for experimentation over speculation. Where an ontologist might speculate, describing the world, “This is the way things are,” object-oriented feminists and feminist new materialists engage in the world using experimental praxis, “This is a way of being with things.” Or more simply, “This is a way of being things.”

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Anne Pollock has observed that objects in object-oriented femi- nism, as in OOO, are usually blatantly artificial things, typical of engineering and art. Here, object-oriented feminism and new materialisms may begin to diverge. New materialism’s object of study is frequently a thing of science, some essential dollop or granular manifestation of matter that originates in the natural world.

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[…] key for object-oriented feminist methodologies, humor is a creative, constructivist practice. Humor, too, is a form of making—making ourselves laugh.

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Although Lorde’s eroticism accepts nonhuman entanglements, it remains life- and self-affirming. Perhaps surprisingly, then, OOF’s erotics are better aligned with a version of eroticism theorized by Georges Bataille, as the radical surrender of self in becoming other-than-subject.

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Erotic nonsense breaks down ideology’s common sense. Problematic erotic pairings provoke insights into things’ innards. And perhaps most important, erotic agility sidesteps the weighty burden of truth claims.

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While a constructivist edge coupled with rhetorical levity are features that object-oriented feminism shares with both art and OOO, the latter remains invested in philosophical truth claims about an accurate ontology. Likewise, new materialism claims truths surrounding nonanthropocentric science and the nature and inherency of matter as such. But based as it is on a redundant paradox, and riddled through with artifice, object-oriented feminism is on track for being beyond untrue, in an erotic sense, in excess of singular truth.

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Like assenting to erotic self-erasure, insistent self-implication and meticulous modesty are methodologically necessary if the hope is to achieve anything resembling nonanthropocentrism. And this is the hope on offer: to be objects, generously and generatively, together; to recognize how fraught that position is, always for all parties, as power articulates itself through each and every arrangement of objects; and from this recognition about objecthood, which is to say self-recognition in objecthood, to cultivate a praxis of care.

In short, are ontologies subject to ethics? OOF submits that they are. Recall that carpentry, OOO’s mode of thing-praxis, “entails making things that explain how things make their world.” Not only the object or artifact is of import here; tantamount is the sense of orientation. The thing, not the maker, explains the world; so orientating or listening to things begets ontology.

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I would argue that by coding against further incursions of sexually objectified women into a programmed ontological purview, OOO misses the point. Sexual objectification is not “certainly unsupported by OOO thought.” On the contrary, objectification, utilitarianism, and instrumentalization are presences that haunt OOO, and are among the very questions at the heart of object-oriented feminism.

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The status quo, in which philosophy conferences are devoid of Playboy bunnies, is entirely in keeping with the comfort zone of humanist morality, not to mention with patriarchal institutional mores that prefer to engage female bodies in the abstract if at all.

Outmoded humanist politics asks who counts as a subject (and criticizes the objectification of women on the basis that classing women as objects means that they are less-than-subjects). Object-orientation sets forth an entirely different political problem: the question of what counts as an object.

p.22

Object-oriented programming is a form of computer programming that makes use of “objects” to organize information. In OOP a programmer creates objects, prototypical entities in code that have defined qualities, known as “attributes,” and capabilities, known as “methods.”

While OOO may deny the association, much work conducted under the mantle of object-oriented feminism suggests that a connection does exist. In speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and new materialism, we find a new wave of theories that takes objects, things, and matter as fundamental units. These ideas are emerging now amid a particular set of historical conditions. Although OOO’s and new materialism’s assertions about being transcend history, object-oriented feminism suggests that some form of historical contingency is at work.

Alexander R. Galloway critiques OOO similarly for reiterating the language of post-Fordist capitalism, yet OOF has stakes in a different formulation of OOO’s historical specificity.

Materialism and object-oriented thought are popular now, for a reason, and it is not because the linguistic turn rewrote distinctions like gender as seemingly irrelevant constructs. Rather, at this moment, paradigms like gender are all the more worthy of our attention because they are in the process of becoming something other than what we thought we knew. Increasingly, we understand them as secondary qualities of objects.

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But being objects first has direct implications in programming. In OOP, secondary qualities, like gender distinctions, are simply attributes. From the perspective of code, when all things are objects, they are individually nameable and, as such, can be interpolated into a program. This means that all things, as individuals, can be networked together, subsumed in software, and thereby systematized, operationalized, and instrumentalized.

If in OOP, all things as individuals can be networked and instrumentalized, in OOO, all individuals as things can be so instrumentalized. Although OOO disavows the “P” dropped from its name much as it repudiates politics, programming lends shape to object-oriented politics.

It can be no coincidence that this theory is emerging from within a global culture that fetishizes programmability. An aura of programming saturates these philosophies, hinting at something fundamental about contemporary objecthood.

Harman’s conception of objects rests on his Heideggerian tool analysis, and his view that objects are always fundamentally tools ready-to-hand, or broken tools present-at-hand, pervades object-oriented thought.

With this in mind, object-oriented feminism links Harman’s “tool-being” to the instrumentalization of all objects, irrespective of their utility or unusability. Networked through code, all objects are compelled to generate that “hyperobject”—to borrow Morton’s term— data itself.

In necropolitics, the capacity of all objects to be instrumentalized, whether living or dead, puts a different spin on dark ecologies’ investments in the nonhuman and nonlife, and indeed returns “darkness” to the question of racism. Here Harman’s broken tool resonates, but not with vibrant animism.

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The Panhandler Project […] reflects a critical question for object-oriented feminism: is it time to abandon subject-oriented terms like control, consent, and coercion if our aim is object- oriented self-possession?

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OOF emphasizes ontology as a political arrangement, realism as an arena for self-possession and relation, and objecthood as a situational orientation, so as to apprehend and alter objects’ intersectional prospects for self-determination, solidarity, and resistance.

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