Blog Post

Troy Davis and Object-Oriented Ontology

To destroy an object is to reduce that object to mere appearance. Somehow a weapon of some kind is inserted into the rift between essence and appearance and translates the object so radically that the rift collapses.

The reduction of an object to its appearance (“criminal,” “scapegoat,” “cop killer”) is a reduction of an object to consistency. An object is internally riven: it is fundamentally inconsistent. Thus the imposition of consistency is simply violence, at the most profound level on which violence can manifest.

Non-violence, at this level of being, is allowing an object to remain inconsistent. This is why ecological coexistence, the conscious realization of which by humans involves all kinds of awkward hypocrisies and compromises, is so tricky. Ecological coexistence necessitates struggles to allow as wide a variety of inconsistency as possible.

An object is intrinsically nonviolent in this sense, since its very existence is in the mode of coexistence: between it and itself, its form, its notes, its essence—let alone with other objects. It is not that objects are themselves and somehow are constrained to “get along” by relations. An object must get along with itself.

Thus Levinas is wrong, in a subtle sense, to say that my existence as such is a form of violence, quoting Pascal: “My place in the sun is the beginning of all usurpation.” Me and my and I are profoundly ambiguous entities that can only exist as long as there is an uneasy, uncanny face-off between itself, if that is not too strange a way to put it. (One sometimes has to stretch grammar to breaking point to make things clear.)

When the state executes someone, it is committing an act not only of physical but also of ontological violence, reducing an entity to memories, appearances, a news story, a corpse. The reasoning that “this particular execution is justified” only makes things worse, since reason is now co-opted to the side of sheer appearance. If this excuse were the blunt end of a well worked out philosophical view, that view would be total instrumental nihilism.

Philosophy is required in such moments to step up and say things.

Timothy Morton's picture

Timothy Morton is Professor of English (Literature and Environment) at the University of California, Davis. Professor Morton's interests include literature and the environment, ecotheory, philosophy, biology, physical sciences, literary theory, food studies, sound and music, materialism, poetics, Romanticism, Buddhism, and the eighteenth century. He teaches literature and ecology, Romantic-period literature, and literary theory. He has published nine books and sixty essays, including The Ecological Thought (Harvard UP, 2010) and Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007).