February 6th, 2011

S.C. Hickman

Excision Ethos: Flat Ontology and the Posthuman Object/Subject

"Transhumanism for me is like a relationship with an obsessive and very neurotic lover. Knowing it is deeply flawed, I have tried several times to break off my engagement, but each time, it manages to creep in through the back door of my mind."
     - N. Katherine Hayles

"In fact, for me, the facticity, the object as a support quelconque of facticity, you can iterate it, without any meaning. And that’s why you can operate with it, you can create a world without deconstruction and hermeneutics. And this is grounded on pure facticity of things, and also of thinking. It is not correlated."
     - Quentin Meillassoux

David Roden's essay Excision Ethos, published on enemyindustry.net,  offers a flat ontological reading of the posthuman, which, he says, implies "an excision of the human". He tells us that the "the logic of excision forces us to accept that there is no rigorous or pure demarcation between theoretical and practical thinking." [2] He argues that a "flat ontology would allow emergent discontinuities between the human and non-human. Here we understand radical differences between humans and non-humans as emergent relations of continuity or discontinuity between populations, or other such particulars, rather than kinds or abstract universals."  To understand his use of flat ontology we must dig deeper into the many theories surrounding flat ontology as the central term underlying his posthumanist philosophy.  

In his own essay on flat ontology Flat Ontology II: a worry about emergence Roden tells us that the terminological justification for a flat ontology originally came from Gilles Deleuze, and was then appropriated by his ephebe Michael Delanda. Delanda in his work Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy describes ontology within the Deleuzian enterprise as a "becoming without being", or as "a universe where individual beings do exist but only as the outcome of becomings, that is, of irreversible processes of individuation" (Delanda, 84). [1] This forms the nucleus of Delanda's flat ontology in which he describes individual organisms as being "component parts of species, much as individual cells are parts of the organisms themselves, so that cells, organisms and species form a nested set of individuals at different spatial scales" (Delanda, 85).  This is a non-hierarchical position, which Delanda further explicates, saying, a "flat ontology of individuals, like the one I have tried to develop here, there is no room for reified totalities. In particular, there is no room for entities like 'society' or 'culture' in general. Institutional organizations, urban centres or nation states are, in this ontology, not abstract totalities but concrete social individuals, with the same ontological status as individual human beings but operating at larger spatio-temporal scales" (63).  Paul Ennis remarking on flat ontologies in general in a humorous aside tells us that there "is no vertical ontological totem pole." [3]  As Delanda in his book emphasizes: "...…while an ontology based on relations between general types and particular instances is hierarchical, each level representing a different ontological category (organism, species, genera), an approach in terms of interacting parts and emergent wholes leads to a flat ontology, one made exclusively of unique, singular individuals, differing in spatio-temporal scale but not in ontological status" (47).

Levi-Bryant in a pertinent essay on flat ontology tells us that for Delanda "being is composed entirely of individuals." [4]  Against a flat ontology of 'individuals' Bryant argues for one of 'objects', and that a part of that ontology "consists in the activity of regional ontology, and a big part of regional ontology consists in determining the internal ontological structure of different types of beings." Bryant tells us that he is an agnostic regarding whether or not universals exist, and therefore he opts for the "trivial thesis that all things that are are objects." He also agrees with Graham Harman that what a flat ontology does is stave off strategic attacks from what Harman terms the subtle strategies or ways of undermining and overmining that philosophers have taken to either reduce or dissolve objects either through a reduction to some ultimate underlying substrata, or by stating that all objects can be described completely through scientific description and that there is no hidden or withdrawn depth beyond which objects can escape such description (i.e., there is no excess of a object, no dormant non-relation of objects hidden in voids beyond access).  Undermining is a Lucretian operation: a reductionist ploy in which everything is reduced to a fundamental substrata: the dissolution of all objects in this cosmic stew or undifferentiated lump of stuff (atoms). Overmining on the other hand  says that all phenomena can be described completely, and that there is no hidden depth or withdrawness in objects outside such description. Against both undermining and overmining Bryant states the central intuition of flat ontology following Ian Bogost (materialism) is the formulation that objects equally exist but do not exist equally: flat ontology "endorses Latour’s thesis that “nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to anything else” (Irreductions, 1.1.1)." 

Finally we are able to reenter David Roden's essay and decide just what he means by a flat ontology that would allow for "emergent discontinuities between the human and non-human." He follows Delanda in so far as accepting that this will not be a reification of totalities of kinds or abstract universals, but a distinct rupture within the "emergent relations of continuity or discontinuity between populations..."  He goes on to describe emergence as that which given a set of initial conditions can never predict the emergence of a particular entity: "emergence holds that an emergent phenomenon P cannot be predicted from from its initial conditions".  His basic thesis is that no set of determinate algorithms or probabilistic theorems could be programmed within a simulated context could establish the emergence of a posthuman entity "short of the posthuman emergence itself." The obverse of this is that any theory that could predict the posthuman emergence would also be the theory that would produce it: or, as he says,  "the epistemological distinction between a singularity and its simulacrum evaporates in perfect Baudrillardian equivalence ."

Following a detotalization within a  flat ontolgy he tells us that cyborg or asssemblage ontology exemplified in both speculative posthumanism (SP) and transhumanism (H+) can be "characterized by what I refer to as the double logic of ‘deconstruction’ and ‘excision’." What this excision implies for a cyborg/assemblage ontology is a theoretical framework within which the dynamics of how certain entities (humans) produce through excision a rupture and/or divergence/emergence of an alterity in the actualized being as it becomes an 'other'. As he states it: "Excision is not transcendence in a traditional theological or metaphysical sense. The idea of the posthuman is not the dialectical idea some entity that transcends a specifiable cognitive boundary. ... Nor, given a flat theory of difference, can we deconstruct its possibility on familiar anti-essentialist grounds We can only preclude an a priori conception of what that possibility entails." 

Ultimately he tells us that to "acquire knowledge of the posthuman we would – according to the logic of simulation – have to make ourselves, or some of our ‘wide’ descendants, posthuman." Because of this it might seem that posthumanist thought is at a impasse, for if one can neither predict through probabilistic analysis nor through the simulated algorithms of a computer program show forth the emergence of such entities then what is one left with beyond an artistic or imaginative surmise of a science fictionalization? He tells us that it is important to pursue this line of thought for the simple reason that the "human population is now part of a self-augmenting planetary technical system over which we can have little control." He tells us even if this is so there is no need to fear such self-augmenting systems because "technical self-augmentation does not imply technical autonomy." But is this true? Isn't there a truth to be discovered in recognizing  that technology itself is a third force, an all encompasing techno-environment within which we all exist and have our being; and with this recognition comes the realization that we are co-evolving in unison with our technologies, which implies the fact that we are being changed by those very technologies into  something 'other' already?  

As Roden reflects on the obvious: the "desire for technological excision is an iteration of a disruptive self-remaking, expressed in technically constituted beings or macro-assemblages." This co-evolution of technology and the human is always already a part of what he terms a "speculative engagement with technique: ontological engineering." And, if one took a Darwinian view of it: seeing that as we adapt to this techno-environment using survival and reproductive choice that has guided the human species from the beginning, we see emerging some of these strange tendencies within objects or tool-beings as they interact and engage our everyday lives shaping our views of both nature and culture in ways we have yet to fully understand. Technology as a third force between nature and culture is a disruptive power that is forcing us into patterns that we truly have no control over, and have even less knowledge of as we more and more depend upon these technological wonders as these integral companions become a part of the very infrastructure of our reality: a techno-envrionment that replaces the natural in us with the unatural technicity of this Third-Estate. 

We are already being excised within a technological engagement of which we do not as yet have any discernible posthuman theory that would give us an intelligible understanding of just 'what' it 'is' we are 'becoming' in becoming other.  As Roden says: "The only reason for the principled unintelligibility of the posthuman is its dated non-existence. Thus if we are engaged in excision we also aim or hope to understand what we are getting ourselves into one day." What Cengiz Erdem describes as our need for a speculative philosophy that is both non-normative and progressive that would provide a work in which what is necessary is for its "participants to become capable of making distinctions between their natures and cultures, their cliniques and critiques. It is a matter of realizing that theory and practice are always already reconciled and yet the only way to actualise this reconciliation passes through carrying it out and across by introducing a split between the subject of statement (the enunciated) and the subject of enunciation." (read here and here) Is not the dynamics of excision shaped in that very reconciliation through the gap between the human and its posthuman variant, carrying it "out and across" by introducing that split (excision) between the existing human and the emerging posthuman?
It is this hope that we can understand what we are getting ourselves into that such speculations as Object-Oriented Ontology and Neo-Materialist speculative realist philosophies offer us a new theoretical framework within which we might provide a fidelity to the truth-event that is the emergence of our post-human(ist) alterity as the posthuman future opens toward us in a gaze that is no longer our gaze. N. Katherine Hayles tells us that along with philosophy we should also include in our arsenal of tools the works of science fiction (SF): "Imagining the future is never a politically innocent or ethically neutral act. To arrive at the future we want, we must first be able to imagine it as fully as we can, including all the contexts in which its consequences will play out" (225). [5]


1. Delanda, M. (2009), Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. London: Continuum.
2. Roden, David, Journal of Evolution and Technology  -  Vol. 21  Issue 1 – June 2010 - pgs 27 - 36  (2010), Deconstruction and Excision in Philosophical Posthumanism
3. Gratton, Peter, Interview with Paul Ennis, Interviews 
4. Bryant, Levi, Flat Ontology (2010)
5. H±  Transhumanism  and Its Critics, Edited by Gregory R. Hansell and William Grassie (2011 Metanexus Institute)