You Can’t Have Me: Feminist Infiltrations in Object-Oriented Ontology

Rebekah Sheldon on "Object-Oriented Feminism."

You Can’t Have Me: Feminist Infiltrations in Object-Oriented Ontology

Object-Oriented Feminism by Katherine Behar. 280 pages.


It is a bit of chimera, a little slapdash (or maybe slap-bash), a ludic, improvisational routine with an axe to grind and a sharp-toothed smile, not just a queer survivor but an intoxicated ibis living in the polluted waters of its own bio-becoming.

Or as Katherine Behar writes, it is a “newfound inhospitability” given face by what she calls a “Botox ethics”:

Botox ethics seeks not to articulate connections but to inhibit them; to create not unbounded subjects but enclosed objects; it recommends not outward-directed networking and changeability but inward-directed unexpressivity and singularity.

To what does this refusal of hospitability respond? And what might that have to do with objects, or for that matter, with feminism? In her wonderful introduction, Behar tells the story of her first encounter with Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO). It’s a story I had forgotten or maybe just repressed. Reading it again helped me to understand, if not quite the nature of the connection, at least something of what motivated Object-Oriented Feminism.

So this is the story: Ian Bogost had created a little digital toy for the website advertising Georgia Tech’s symposium on OOO back in 2010. It drew from Flickr any image labeled “object,” “thing,” or “stuff” and displayed them in random sequence. Turns out, though, that some subset of the images labeled with those terms were images of women. One in particular, of a woman in a bunny suit (and in combination with the lack of women on the program) caused consternation, so Bogost altered the Boolean code to draw “object” or “thing” or “stuff” but not “sexy” or “woman” or “girl.” Behar dilates on this decision. She writes:

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.

It is from out of the resulting mix of rage, repugnance, and disappointment that OOO became OOF, like a punch to the sternum, like shame: OOF, what happens when something calls and you respond with openness toward and desire for something only to be misrecognized, written out of the code. OOF is an exclamation, a trickster, a returned letter, a punk inhabitation as inhospitability.

It’s pretty genius.

But here’s the thing about shame. Shame results from the co-existence of opposing imperatives: to look and to look away; to be recognized and to avoid the horror of misrecognition. The situation it puts us in reminds me of the Donald Barthelme novella The Dead Father. Here we are again carting the carcass of a giant patriarch around with us — like queer theorists did with Freud, but we have (at least) four dead patriarchs to haul around.

So why do it at all? Because there is something in this idea that took. Like Donna Haraway’s cyborg, OOO gives us our ontology. We are there because that’s where we are. No walking away possible. And so it seems appropriate to me that OOF the book ends with Joshua Scannell’s essay “Both a Cyborg and a Goddess.” As Haraway wrote all those years ago, the cyborg is an ironic political myth, faithful like blasphemy is faithful. OOF is blasphemous OOO, not the O? (surprise), O! (wonder), Ooooo (awe) of OOO but awwwwww … oof. Or even, as Adam Zaretsky has it in his contribution, OOPS?

Fine. But what does it mean to say that OOO gives us our ontology? To answer that question, I want to look a bit closer at two refrains that skein across the book and web it together: withdrawal and mutation. It is through their investigations of these two kinds of object relations that the book’s contributors reveal most suggestively how and why we might think of OOO as a description of our ontology, consonant with our political and epistemological environment, and thus why we might want a critical, inhospitable, feminist response.

Here it may be useful to recall Object-Oriented Ontology’s most strenuous claims. For OOO, the world is composed of stuff and not just words about stuff. Object-Oriented Ontologists contend, contra ’90s-style high theory, that we can talk about stuff (rather than just the meaning systems we use to represent stuff) in a philosophically robust way. Further, they argue that thinking about the stuff that falls outside of human meaning systems might help reconcile us to the kind of world we live in now — in the digital era, in the Anthropocene, in the sixth great extinction, or what have you. But, and here is the crucial turn, stuff is always elusive, withdrawn, vacuum-sealed. Objects turn their faces away and present instead a shimmering, alluring facade.

As I argue elsewhere, this winds up committing OOO to a redoubled (but now blocked) epistemology in exactly the place where it had offered the promise of opening the way toward ontology. The brilliance of OOF, it seems to me, is in its amplification and torqueing of this unfortunate condition: while OOO’s conceptualization of the object requires that we never have full access to it, with all the aggrieved helplessness and apophatic mysticism this engenders, OOF takes that philosopheme into the self and makes it into a taunt. You can’t have me.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. In a real sense, the very first step must be to name what OOF is not: it is not OOO done by women. But the negation is telling; OOF is/not OOO. It is what happens when we refuse what we nonetheless must acknowledge. It is, in the strongest sense, critique. And so it may be less surprising to find that where OOO tends to theorize itself through deracinated philosophical examples, OOF proceeds by way of a fairly recognizable mode of engaged political criticism and an even more recognizable target of that criticism: neoliberal governance.

Joshua Scannell’s essay “Both a Cyborg and a Goddess: Deep Managerial Time and Informatic Governance,” the final essay in the collection, once again sets the tone for the whole. Scannell draws on Haraway’s famous closing clause (“I’d rather be a cyborg than a goddess”) in two ways. First of all, Haraway is careful to remind us that the promise of the cyborg lies not in some abstract liberation or original plenitude but in the encroaching formation it allows us to see. It is premised by the supposition that if we want to do social justice work, we can’t wish away our episteme; we must instead meet it head on and inside of its logic.

In his chapter, Scannell does this by vividly auguring the end of eugenic biopolitics (which he calls deep managerial time) and describing the emergent logics of “governance by algorithm.” Key to these logics, and what moves them so radically out of their former moorings in population management, is their objectification of individuals and, on the flip side, their individuation (or humanization) of the big data calculations. Scannell supplies the following example of one kind of search performed by the NYPD’s Domain Awareness System, a real-time mapping device that draws on a network of surveillance cameras and data systems:

DAS [Domain Awareness System] maps produce space, time, and objects’ secondary qualities as policeable. Under given spatiotemporal, racialized conditions, like gang injunction sites, the color red is a criminal offense. The DAS [Domain Awareness System] does not determine the policy of outlawing red shirts on black bodies, but it provides the technical know-how to determine where red dye is transubstantiated into an eventuality of violence. That the violence provoked by redness is ordinary police violence is recycled back into a system that understands it as an indicator that “crime is dropping.”

In other words,

The DAS [Domain Awareness System] is indifferent to the maximalization of certain life potentials over others in that life is incidental to the map, no more relevant than credit histories, shopping habits, electrical usage levels, road quality, air quality, radiation levels, real estate values, noise levels, transportation habits and so forth.

Scannell’s point, it seems to me, is that the computation at the heart of this procedure is not just postracial (even as it enables racist violence), it is post-people. People do not register here. Data-logics don’t see unities like deep sovereign subjects; they understand well-defined queries directed at very particular databases.

This occasions the second way that Scannell adapts Haraway’s famous closing. The figure Haraway conjures to do battle with the incipient control logics of her time is the cyborg, and she rejoices in the power of it as a trickster figuration, fitted to the apparatus it was to take apart. Scannell gives face to the calculative governance he diagnoses through the figure of the cyborg goddess. The cyborg goddess is the source of the “perverse gnosis” of technical mysticism he describes. In overseeing the “translation between incommensurate ontological planes,” the cyborg goddess de-fleshes people (“organic liveliness is an afterthought”) even as she herself acquires a strange form of quasi-divinity.

A congruent movement structures Marina Gržinić’s main contention in “Political Feminist Positionings in Neoliberal Global Capitalism.” Gržinić sees these datalogics operating in the autoaffection of algorithmically driven market trades, which humanize capital while at the same time desubjectifying and dehistorizing people, subliming them into code. In each of these analyses, it is the compulsive fit between subjects and systems of connection and the frenzy of access that divinizes the goddess and vacuum-seals her away from the banal algorithms that compose her.

Scannell’s cyborg goddess is not offered in the spirit of Haraway’s cyborg, for it offers little in the way of resistance. But Behar’s Botoxed, necrophilic Missing Me may just be a cyborg for our time. Like Scannell and Gržinić, Behar looks to Haraway in her critique of neoliberal regimes of flexibility and connection. Calling on Haraway’s notion of situated knowledges, Behar asks what might happen to OOO’s objects if we were they, that is, if we began with ourselves as object. But this is a bit disingenuous of her. Her strategy is not the generous gesture of amplification but the dangerous one of infiltration. Remember, it is Behar who gives us the opening image of shame. And what better way to evade the shame of misrecognition than to wear a false face?

It is this false face that Behar is really after in her necropolitical aesthetics. “The only way to disconnect, to get off the grid,” she writes, “is to self-destruct.” In a bravura rereading of feminist body artist Orlan, Behar gives us a figuration of refused connection in the practice of facial deadness. Citing Catherine Malabou, she reminds us that self-fashioning replaces one sort of face with another through acts of effacement. The Botox Goddess of Behar’s “Facing Necrophilia” “turns us into objects, shoots us up with our own plasticity, and lets us — as objects — exist mutually, independently, and graciously.”

In the Botox Goddess, OOF has its superhero. In the wake of her vacuum-sealed grace, OOF becomes the sound made by broken connections, refused requests for access. If OOO has given philosophical standing to a world of flattened, deracinated data points, OOF completes the seal on the object, taking away its allure.

Perhaps this comes down to saying that OOF is masquerade. Like the sweet Victorian children whose characteristic petticoats, frocks, muslins, and curls become the fetish styles Frenchy Lunning analyzes in her contribution “Allure and Abjection,” the Botox Goddess cites what oppresses in order to make it a new form of protection.

After all, as Irina Aristarkhova writes, “Things left us, mortals, a long time ago and will be here long after we die, creating their own world and stories. Our world is ended. They don’t need us … It might be time to forgive them for that and learn to let them be.” Or, we might transpose, to learn to be them.

I want to track one more way through the volume: a number of the articles suggest an alternative to the Botox Goddess that is still responsive to the background of calculative governance that Scannell describes. If the first OOF strategy was to exaggerate OOO-style withdrawal, this second strategy strews null-sets, undetermined data points, and unpredictable futures. Here I am thinking of the example of transfection by gene gun that Adam Zaretsky, in his chapter “OOPS: Object Oriented Psychopathia Sexualis” associates with the muck of relations. Transfection works in situ, in relation. What that act of transfection will effect depends on what sort of thing it is and what sort of milieu it enters. Transfection depends in other words on desire:

Without these inured, blunted, impeded, and scarred relations, the grasping, moist, slow, throbbing, pulsing, squiggling, negentropic, optimistic, and elated transmissions of want and gift will have no bearing in the world of flat unit objects.

Or, to put that otherwise, it is no surprise that Bogost scrapped sexy bunnies from the Boolean code: flat unit objects — the objects of OOO — can only remain vacuum-sealed in an ontology free of sex and other vectors of infection.

And, as Anne Pollock stresses in her “Queering Endocrine Disruption,” we may not have a lot of say over the chemicals that camp out in our fatty cells from the agricultural spillways and flushed pharmaceuticals of our waterways, so we might as well learn how to live as queer survivors of non-consensual chemical penetrations. We will not ever be dead enough, Botox Goddess or no, to shirk these desires. We might as well make like the gay ibises intoxicated on methylmercury and take a long stroll on the beach with our honeys.


Rebekah Sheldon is assistant professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington.

LARB Contributor

Rebekah Sheldon is assistant professor of English at Indiana University Bloomington, the author of The Child to Come: Life After the Human Catastrophe, and a co-editor of a special issue of GLQ on The Child Now along with Kathryn Bond-Stockton and Julian Gill Peterson. She is currently at work on a new book-length project on 20th-century queer occultism.


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