Object-Oriented Feminism at CUNY

On Wednesday (Dec. 7) there was a panel at the Graduate Center in NYC celebrating a thought-provoking new book of essays called Object-Oriented Feminism. The short event was framed by comments about the book by a guest responder, none other than Rebekah Sheldon who I mentioned (total coincidence, really!) in my last post. The panelists and the editor, Katherine Behar, gave themselves five or so minutes each to say something. It was one of those interdisciplinary panels where some of the technical details from each person’s specialization went over my head, and a couple perspectives came across as striking and novel.

Behar did a nice juggling act with the cast of characters. She implied at one point that the use of erotic language in OOO could use a little feminist critique. Hmmm. The two highlights for me were Piper Marshall and Patricia Clough. Marshall, a PhD student at Columbia and up-and-coming curator, did much to capture the kind of work object-oriented thought can do in a feminist context. She talked about the infamous “mattress” performance by Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia, turning an analytical eye on how Sulkowicz foregrounded surprising things that had previously been taken for granted as “equipment.” That includes not only the sexual violence activism and controversy surrounding the artist’s alleged rape, but a new sense of the peculiar bulkiness of the mattress and how the logistical nightmare of the performance (in metaphorical conjunction with its disturbing content) revealed surprising new things about Columbia’s architecture. Clough was the last to speak, and she seemed very keen on taking OOO seriously rather than dismissing it with knee-jerk moralism. She combined a lively interdisciplinary irreverence with a desire for intellectual care and respect.

The panelists were diverse in their understanding of OOO and its relation to feminist scholarship. Someone went the route of “some of my best friends are object-oriented, but…” (I can’t remember who said it, but they did it with comic self-awareness); I think Irina Aristarkhova said something about how OOO has nothing to fear; more than one person played word games with the idea of data points turning people into [guess that word!]; R Joshua Scannell explained that he thinks OOO is fine as far as it goes, but needs to do more a la Levi Bryant. Timothy Morton (not present at the event) contributed to the volume, so that indicates a pretty diverse set of viewpoints in store for readers. Sheldon claimed to be convinced. Her review is coming out somewhere soon. But I think only certain things convinced her, and it wasn’t Morton!

For better or worse Sheldon set the tone for the evening. She largely received Object-Oriented Feminism as a kind of intervention on OOO. That’s the softest way I can put her description. As far as I could tell, nothing about her understanding of OOO has changed since she wrote the essay for The Nonhuman Turn that I mentioned in the previous post. To give you a better sense of where Sheldon stands, here is a paragraph from the essay, titled “Form/Matter/Chora.” The quote starts p. 195:

The distance between object-oriented ontology and feminist new materialism, therefore, is not a function of the ostensible anthropocentrism of a feminism grounded in identity politics, as it might initially appear. Rather, I argue that their differences result from the radically different ways in which these two fields treat human knowledge systems. For as much as they both contribute to the critique of epistemology, the causal effects assignable to knowledge-making practices continue to be prominent in their divergent understandings of the role and form of scholarship. For object-oriented ontology, epistemology is epiphenomenal, a second-order representation whose range of effects is limited to human knowers. For feminist new materialism, by contrast, epistemology is an agent with directly material consequences. This account of epistemology is captured by the consistent use of doubly articulated phrases in feminist theory, such as Donna Haraway’s nature-cultures and Karen Barad’s material-discursive intra-actions, phrases designed to collapse hierarchical dualisms and insist on the materializing force of broadly circulating ideas. This perspective is emphatically relational. It begins from the assumption that ideas and things do not occupy separate ontological orders but instead are co-constituents in the production of the real.

It is possible, but mistaken, to read this conjunctive articulation as correlationist…

I’ll say four things about the long quote and leave you with that:

  • Sheldon pits feminists against OOO: “The distance between OOO and feminist new materialism…” Elsewhere she calls it an “antagonism.” OOO’s “relationship with feminism has been particularly rancorous.” She will claim that this dichotomy between the two fields recapitulates the form/matter distinction. Hence the weird Plato stuff that I mentioned in the last post. Well, it’s good to be clear where you’re coming from. I think Piper Marshall proved in five minutes that this battle royale is hazy if it even exists.
  • The difference between OOO and feminism supposedly stems from how they treat knowledge. For OOO, “epistemology is epiphenomenal, a second-order representation…For feminist new materialism, by contrast, epistemology is an agent with directly material consequences.” Here Sheldon is the only one conflating epistemic objects with sensual objects. Journal articles, graphs, word of mouth, parades, slogans, mathematical proofs, anthropological studies, genetic markers, and human self-identities may very well be real objects. Once more, “the assumption that ideas and things…occupy separate ontological orders” is assigned to OOO by Sheldon, NOT by its practitioners. Graham Harman writes somewhere in Tool-Being that even ideas must be regarded as real things.
  • At the end of the quote, Sheldon holds that it would be a mistake to read stuff like Barad’s intra-action as correlationist. I believe her on that point, but she makes it hard. After all, she calls Barad’s concept of intra-action “material-discursive,” meaning that “ideas and things…are co-constituents in the production of the real” – and later she again claims that “matters and discourses are co-constituting.” As Sheldon is aware, Barad is not just talking about matters and discourses, but about everything (“actants of many kinds”). Harman is totally fine with the mixture of physical things and discourses: he and Barad actually stand together against that taxonomical distinction. His complaint is with her relationism and her supplement to it. See his argument here.
  • From what I can tell, Harman’s differences with Barad are philosophical, not a result of some disturbing inherent gap between OOO and feminism. I’d be curious to see how Sheldon reacts to Harman’s take on agential realism, or better yet, to either of his two recent books. (Which reminds me: extended thoughts on the Dante book from my end are coming soon.)

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