Saturday, 26 July 2014

After the summit, the fatigue!—A first reflection on the final AIME workshop

This past week I was fortunate enough to participate in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence's final Diplomatic Writing Workshop.

I don't think that I'm yet able to articulate my reflections on the past week intelligently (and not just because of the overpriced Parisian alcohol that's still in my system). After the five days of debating and writing (and rewriting and rewriting and re-debating and arguing!) I feel mentally, physically, emotionally and existentially exhausted—in a good way, but still...

As the only non-francophone in attendance there was a formidable language barrier. I was greatly aided by the kindness of my co-writers who spoke English when they could. I'm especially grateful to Cormac O'Keeffe and Stephen Muecke for their brilliant on-the-fly translations and interpretations, not to mention their moral support.

Apparently the best way to learn a language is to be dropped in at the deep end. This end was deep more ways than one!

As an experiment in collective thought it was a strange and intense experience. An undoubtable success, albeit with many problems, flaws and internal failures of diplomacy. Peace was not achieved but this was never the expectation.

Next week, on Monday and Tuesday, AIME goes public with the final ceremonial assembly before the appointed charges d'affaires. Perhaps the most difficult thing with this experiment has been the fact that seemingly everyone taking part had a slightly different interpretation of what the protocols were and what was to be achieved. To over-(or badly-)philosophise the point, this past week has been thoroughly pre-individual. I look forward to Monday to find out what we've been doing all this time!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Diplomacy as theory; theory as diplomacy—excerpts from Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy

Further to my last post, which provided some excerpts from Costas Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy on the subject of diplomacy itself, here are some more, this time concentrating on the etymology of 'theory' and its relation to diplomatic and metaphysical practice.
This word theoria was used in ancient Greek to designate, among other things, an old type of embassy, the solemn or sacred embassy sent to attend religious festivals and games, discharge the divine obligations of the polis, and consult the oracle. This particular ancient meaning has been lost in the modern, Anglicized use of the term theoria, as is the case with the modern Greek term. (p.52-53) 
Firstly, theoria is derived from the words theos (god) and orao (to see). It had the meaning ‘to see god’ and particularly referred to this aspect of eyeing god in the shrine. Orao also relates, however, to the word hora (time, hour), and so theoria can be understood as the moment of god or the moment devoted to god. The sight and time of the theoria invoked therefore a specific truth-making process. (p.53)

Later, in the biblical tradition, theoria was given a special theological significance, for it was specifically used to describe the view of Jesus at the cross, that is, bearing witness to the moment of sacrifice. But the root word theo in Ancient Greek also meant—depending on the emphasis—to run and to look. […] From this root theo- (run), theoria acquired the meaning of a journey, of traveling abroad to see the world. This meaning is especially important, for it refers to the first known use of the word theoria by Herodotus. It was employed to designate the journey of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, to Egypt and other ‘far away’ places. The importance of the timing of Solon’s journey points to the significance of hora, the reaching of a certain moment in one’s private or political lifetime for going on a theoria. (p.54)

[There is also a link with theatre,] the theatron itself being the place where theoria was practiced. (p.54)

The sacred ambassadors [sent to religious events and oracles] were called theors or theoroi and were specially chosen. (p.55)

Theoria then was an embassy to god or truth (tied to divine sanction and authority), and theors were ambassadors, peripatetic ‘theorists,’ charged with the discovery of what was right or true. In theoria, therefore, one can view embassy as theory and theory as embassy. (p.55)

[…] theory at its Platonic conception was the mirror image of the very diplomatic process it [i.e. diplomatic theory] now seeks to explain. (p.56)

In Phaedo, Plato employed theoria to describe the solemn embassy sent to the Delian oracle ‘in honour of the god’ Apollo and to commemorate Theseus’s journey to Crete. In The Republic, there are instances where Plato’s theoria can be understood more generally as participation in any kind of festival or campaign. In Crito, theoria is used as a journey, and in the Laws, in addition to voyage, as view and careful observation. In another instance, it has a more specific meaning when it refers exclusively to the Dionysian celebrations. Finally, Plato employs the word theoria to denote the contemplation of the divine, and in his most common usage as speculation and philosophical reasoning. (p.56)

[…] in order to see reality, the philosopher is required to ascend out of the cave. Plato thus describes the return of the philosopher to the cave as a theoria. The return of the philosopher signifies the conclusion of a contemplative journey, a journey that equips the philosopher with theoretical knowledge subsequently communicated for the benefit and education of the people. Theoria constitutes, therefore, the philosophical journey out of the cave of ignorance. But it is important to note that this is not a journey of any kind. It is not simply a theoria, as understood by Herodotus […]. It is a theoria meant for divine contemplations. Just like the sacred embassy, it is sent to contemplate the metaphysical. (p.57)

Platonic philosophical thinking, therefore, appears [at first] to resemble ancient Greek diplomatic practice. (p.58)

[In the Laws, ambassadors and theors have a key pedagogical role. They are to educate the] youth concerning the laws and affairs of the polis. This was a role traditionally reserved for the man of philosophy, but Plato appears also to expect pedagogical responsibility from the man of diplomacy. (p.58)

[This granting of power required strict rules—infringement of which would be punishable by death.] Plato begins by establishing certain conditions under which a citizen could travel abroad. First, nobody under the age of forty would be permitted to do so under any circumstances. Second, nobody would be permitted to go abroad in a private capacity—only in a public one, which involves the sending of heralds, embassies, and theorias […]. The information and knowledge acquired by such theorias is then to be communicated to the citizens of the model polis so to confirm the rightness of its laws or to amend the deficient ones. […] Theoria is therefore charged with the discovery of the good and held responsible for the perfect condition of the polis. Of course, that was precisely the role saved for the philosopher-ruler in The Republic. In the Laws, consequently, the Platonic republic attains its full metaphysical significance. It becomes a political cave. (p.58-9)

It is typical of Platonic irony that Socrates, the nontravelling philosopher, becomes a model of the theoretician. Socrates is a philosopher who contemplates aporia and yet he himself is an aporos (without passage or way), one who has never crossed to the beyond (peras). (p.59-60)

[Eventually, ideas win out over journeys.] Plato demotes and marginalizes the journey out of the cave. Once the light is encountered, once the truth is revealed, once reality is viewed, the quest is passé and the path that led there loses its significance. […] the Platonic idea becomes an idol (eidolon) in the mirror of which theoria is now immediately discharged. (p.60)
So, long story short, the Greeks before and around Plato provided the linguistic and conceptual basis for the kind of theoretical diplomacy that Bruno Latour is now seeking to practice; however, Plato being Plato, this promising beginning was immediately sundered by Transcendence.

From the beginning of the AIME project I've felt that diplomacy was an undertheorised concept. The above (and the previous two posts on the subject [one two]) might provide the possibility of a more thorough conceptuual consideration of diplomacy.

Credit must go, however, to Costas Constantinou whose wonderful little book I've so ruthlessly pillaged here. (It deserves a proper read; these excerpts do it no justice.) I took his class on diplomacy during my final year of undergraduate study at Keele University and it's the one thing I learned at that time theory-wise that really stuck with me.

See also:

Articles

Costas Constantinou's Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge (pdf)

On Homo-Diplomacy (pdf)

Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge (pdf)

Constantinou & Der Derian's Sustaining Global Hope: Sovereignty, Power and the Transformation of Diplomacy (pdf)

Books

Noé Cornago's Plural Diplomacies: Normative Predicaments and Functional Imperatives

James Der Derian's On Diplomacy: A Genealogy of Western Estrangement

Iver B. Neumann's At Home with the Diplomats: Inside a European Foreign Ministry

'Diplomacy does not exist'—diplomats are servants of the diplomatic frame

From Costas Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy:
[…] diplomatic representation functions through simulation, for simulation is traditionally also the art of diplomacy. Simulation is an art, a technique that involves a secret and a challenge. The secret is that diplomacy does not exist. The challenge is to make diplomacy appear. In diplomatic representation, consequently, there is an ironic and fatal alliance, an inaugural quid pro quo between all the subjects involved […] The reality of these diplomatic representations is, therefore, self-referential. It is based on metaphysical rationality that produces its own closure. It involves the capacity to produce a metaphysical picture, to paint articulations, and to frame presences and absences. (p.21)
Modern ambassadors are trained to make present the unrepresentable and to see what cannot be seen. They are trained to get the picture and to get into the picture. That is why the ambassadors are enframed, worked in a similar way to those of "The Ambassadors [see below]." (p.22)
Ambassadors are part of and responsible for the diplomatic frame-up—the very construction and animation of the diplomatic world they live in. In and through their confident diplomatic representations, ambassadors normalize the frame-up as the framework. Working within this so-called normal framework they are claimed by their representations and so enter into a power relationship, a relationship of discursive and historical servitude. (Note that the word ambassador stems from the Latin word ambactus, meaning servant.) (p.22)
The primary role of this incredible service is to make credible representations. For diplomatic representation always involves an act of faith (in the picture). It needs to be accredited. Just as ambassadors are required to present their credentials before they can represent, diplomatic representation also needs to be credited itself with establishing a sovereign presence. (p.22)

Sloterdijk on the non-existence of 'Religions'

From You Must Change Your Life:
European Enlightenment—a crisis of form? An experiment on a slippery slope, at any rate, and from a global perspective an anomaly. Sociologists of religion put it quite bluntly: people keep believing everywhere else, but in our society we have glorified disillusionment. Indeed, why should Europeans be the only ones on a metaphysical diet when the rest of the world continues to dine unperturbed at the richly decked tables of illusion? 
[...] a return to religion is as impossible as a return of religion—for the simple reason that no 'religion' or 'religions' exist, only misunderstood spiritual regimens, whether these are practised in collectives—usually church, ordo, umma, sangha—or in customized forms—through interaction with the 'personal God' with whom the citizens of modernity are privately insured. Thus the tiresome distinction between 'true religion' and superstition loses its meaning. There are only regimens that are more and less capable and worthy of propagation. The false dichotomy of believers and unbelievers becomes obsolete and is replaced by the distinction between the practising and the untrained, or those who train differently. (p.3)
In contrast to Latour's translative theology, Sloterdijk's concentration on "regimens that are more and less capable and worthy of propagation" refocuses attention entirely away from the past. Religious truth conditions become entirely presentist: is this regimen worthy or not? It doesn't matter, in and of itself, how many years hermeneuts have agonised over this or that crumb of biblical dogma. There is no prejudice against the nouveau riche of religiosity. If these stratified ponderings upon ponderings going back millennia have generated a rich, beautiful, jumbled jungle of immuno-psychic possibilities then great! However, that is merely the means to the end of the successful religious dispositif, not the end itself.

Religion, in this iteration, becomes fully relativistic and thus fully secularisable and is, therefore, a better diplomatic proposition (from my godless point of view) that the one Latour proposes as [rel].

Friday, 4 July 2014

Diplomas, diplomacy and theory – the folding and unfolding of objects

The diplo- in ‘diplo-macy’ derives from “the ancient Greek verb diploun (to double), and from the Greek noun diploma”[1]; “diplo = folded in two + suffix ma = object” [2; see also]. According to Costas Constantinou, ‘diplomas’ were documents “written on parchment and … papyrus [...] handed over to heralds [and] carried as evidence of their status and authority.” The word diploma later “came to mean a letter of recommendation,” a passport or “an order enabling a traveller to use the public post” [3].

It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that 'diplomacy' began to attain the meaning we attribute to it today. In 1693, Gottfried Leibniz published his Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, a collection of treaties and official documents which attributed “to the adjective diplomatic the meaning of something related to international relations” [4]. Other European powers followed suit in commissioning large archiving activities such as this; the diploma thus became organised and was a vital resource for statecraft.

However, it wasn't until 1796 that we find 'diplomacy' in its modern form in the writings of Edmund Burke who spoke of the ‘diplomatic body,’ and used “‘diplomacy’ to mean skill … in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations” [5]. In seventeenth-century Italy, diplomatic agents had become known as “orators” and in most of Europe “ambassadors were still legati” [6].

While the basic elements of the practice of diplomacy may therefore be as old as human being, the word and concept are of quite recent genesis. It's informative to mention at this point the origin of 'theory':
… the Greek practice theôria [is] the etymological precursor to the English word theory. In George Rawlinson's translation of Herodotus, theôria is rendered only as "to see the world," yet theôros has multiple meanings, including a spectator, a state delegate to a festival in another city, and someone who travels to consult an oracle. Theôria is itself a compound of different etymological possibilities: the first half of the word suggests both vision (thea, meaning sight/spectacle) and God (theos), while -oros connotes "one who sees." Unsurprisingly, then, theôrein is the verb meaning "to observe" and is connected to sightseeing and religious emissaries. This etymology posits a link among theôria, travel, direct experience, and vision, but it is in Herodotus's Histories that such practices are tied specifically to the achievement of knowledge: in one of the earliest known uses of the word theôria in the ancient world, Herodotus describes Solon the Lawgiver's journey from Athens for (among other reasons) the sake of theôria and explicitly links theory and wisdom (sophia) to travel across vast terrain (1.30.2). Herodotus reiterates the association among theory, travel, and knowledge when he describes Anacharsis the Scythian (4.76.2) as one who "had traversed much of the world on a theôria and throughout this had given evidence of his great wisdom." [7]
The practical precursor of diplomacy might have been theory (Constantinou makes this point extensively). We could call the 'diplomacy' articulated by Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, therefore, a fittingly theoretical diplomacy. Wisdom, travel, religion and interpolitical relations are all tied up in this web of connections. However, diplomacy, as Stengers and Latour deploy the concept, is rather different to its historical precursors.

The diplomat was once the bearer of the diploma, the emissary that the folded document confirmed. The issues which motivated his journey were borne otherwise; the purpose of the diploma was to authenticate the authority of the received utterances [the science dedicated to the authentication of official documents: 'diplomatics']. It was crucial to the mission but was not its cause.

The folded object remains central to 'cosmopolitical' diplomacy but takes on a different role to one of mere passport. The diploma now does not simply authenticate the diplomat's right to speak but forms precisely the foundation of the entire endeavour.

If the heart of diplomacy remains the diplo-ma – the folded object/document, the duplex entity – then what does this make the diplomat? The diplomat is not the folder of objects (its sovereign – its public – is that which has folded the object and dispatched the envoy). The diplomat is the unfolder of objects that cannot be unfolded by one party. It is as though the causal issues were a giant bed-sheet impossible to fold or unfold by one person alone. The cosmopolitical diplomat is a burdened traveller in search of unfolding that can only come with the meeting of an other.

The diplomat is the one who arrives bearing the folded object but, unlike a mere herald, messenger or legati, is greeted, is subject to elaborate ceremonial attachment to the receiving community and who becomes resident so as to work through the matters at hand – the matters present-at-hand, we might say (the essence of the diploma qua passport was its very unproblematic, indubitable readiness-to-hand).

The duplex character of the diplomatic matter indicates its issue-hood, its status as a matter of concern, of contestation, of disagreement, dissensus, discord. Diplomacy always begins in duplicity; if successful it ends not in unity but in settlement.

The diplomat of this procedure is a transformed character, a theôros – a philosopher, indeed!

------------

[1] Costas Constantinou, On the Way to Diplomacy, p.77.
[2] José Calvet de Magalhães, The Pure Concept of Diplomacy, p.58.
[3] Constantinou, On the Way to Diplomacy, p.77.
[4] Magalhães, The Pure Concept of Diplomacy, p.58.
[5] Ernest Mason Satow, A Guide to Diplomatic Practice, p.3.
[6] Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, p.130.
[7] Roxanne L. Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge, p.21.

Monday, 30 June 2014

"Resetting Modernity" in Paris

I've just received a flurry of information for the forthcoming 'diplomatic summit' to be held as the conclusion of Bruno Latour's AIME project. It describes the event as (and I paraphrase rather than offering my own mangled translation of the French!) attempting to reflexively redefine the Moderns so that we might present ourselves to Gaia once more under the slogan (and this is given in English) "Reset Modernity." I couldn't help but be reminded of this:


'Designing out crime,' panopticism, etc. etc.

An interesting article today in the Guardian on 'designing out crime' by modifications made to the built environment through planning and design processes:
“You want the rooms most regularly inhabited to be in view of any potential criminals,” says Craig. “It’s what we call ‘natural surveillance’: we like ‘active frontages’ to overlook communal areas so that people are seen and can be seen. The more windows overlooking the street and public spaces, the better.” Enforcing clear boundaries is also important, making distinctions between public and private space with fences and hedges.
[...] 
The crime figures for the area suggest good design has indeed deterred criminals: between 2011 and 2014, just five burglaries were reported in Greenheys, compared with 76 in the surrounding square kilometre. “The fact the estate looks nice helps a lot,” reckons Craig. “If it looks grim, people behave in an accordingly grim way. I think this development shows that compliance with our recommendations doesn’t stifle innovative design. It’s a challenge to planners and architects, sure, but if it’s done right, there’s still scope for imagination.”
There's no doubt that bad urban design (and what mid-twentieth-century architecture in Britain wasn't abominable?) substantially contributes to a poor quality of life – including suffering crime; however, the problem with this is, of course, that it poses a technical fix to essentially political problems. Still, it's an interesting case of the sociology of translation in action.

There's another article from last week about these same practices in Scandinavia. I don't know much about criminology but it'd be interesting to see how this fits in with Scandinavia's generally more progressive approach to crime and punishment. Is it possible to mobilise technical solutions to such problems without this effectively tarmacing over their political causes?

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

On habits and habitats

There's another great write up on the AIME Group blog. This is my favourite bit from chapter 10 on 'Learning to Respect Appearances':
Without habit, we would never have dealings with essences, but always with discontinuities. The world would be unbearable. It is as if habit produced what stays in place on the basis of what does not stay in place. As if it managed to extract Parmenides’s world on the basis of Heraclitus’s. We can say of habit that in effect it makes the world habitable, that is, susceptible to an ethos, to an ethology. (268)
Without habits we cannot become habitated, we cannot have habitats (Latin habitare "to live, dwell," frequentative of habere "to have, to hold, possess"). Habits are therefore things to be celebrated, with the proviso that there are good and bad habits, habits that forget being-as-other and those that retain a connection with it.

[hab] answers a problem that I've found with Latour's philosophy from the beginning: if everything at every moment is in a perpetual state of perishing and becoming something else (and if this process is essentially discontinuous at each moment) then isn't our everyday experience an illusion? Apparently not; we mostly experience through habit for the most part. If the world seems to flow together smoothly and continuously then this is because, when habitated, this is exactly how it is.

This links nicely with Latour's reading of Sloterdijk's spherology. If spheres seem too smooth and continuous to be incorporated into the ontology of networks then we need only consider that such habitats benefit from regimes of habit. We cannot live in broken, bitty, fractured networks; we can only live in envelopes, blankets and containers that permit implicitation—that allow elements of our environment to be taken for granted (even if they are not God- or Nature-given). Habit permits the connection of these two ontologies: the network and the sphere.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

More on Clive Hamilton on optimism

Reading the pieces mentioned in my last post reminded me that I've had Clive Hamilton's Earthmasters on my bookshelf for a few weeks now. Finally getting around to read it this weekend I've found it to be an outstanding introduction to the issue of geoengineering. I'm about half way through and just getting into the discussion of how these technologies intersect with geopolitics. Anyway, I particularly enjoyed this section on the follies of optimism as an end in itself:
Some people derive a peculiar sort of pleasure in describing themselves as an 'optimist.' It's a kind of one-upmanship used to shut down those arguing that the evidence shows the future is not rosy. 'Whatever you might say, I am an optimist,' they declare, implying that their interlocutor is somehow not bold enough to take on the challenge. It's not so much passive aggression as sunny aggression firmly rooted in the moral superiority of cheerfulness [...] (104-105)

Friday, 20 June 2014

Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the 'good Anthropocene'; the rough edges of political aesthetics

An important article by Clive Hamilton on the 'new environmentalists' and the so-called 'good Anthropocene':
[...] almost as soon as the idea of the Anthropocene took hold, people began revising its meaning and distorting its implications. A new breed of ecopragmatists welcomed the new epoch as an opportunity. They gathered around the Breakthrough Institute, a “neogreen” think tank founded by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, the authors of a controversial 2004 paper, “The Death of Environmentalism.” They do not deny global warming; instead they skate over the top of it, insisting that whatever limits and tipping points the Earth system might throw up, human technology and ingenuity will transcend them. 
As carbon dioxide concentrations pass 400 ppm for the first time in a million years, and scientists warn of a United States baking in furnace-like summers by the 2070s, Shellenberger and Nordhaus write that by the end of the century “nearly all of us will be prosperous enough to live healthy, free, and creative lives.” The answer, they say, is not to change course but to more tightly “embrace human power, technology, and the larger process of modernization.” 
The argument absolves us all of the need to change our ways, which is music to the ears of political conservatives. The Anthropocene is system-compatible.
[...] 
In the words of the most vocal eco-pragmatist, the environmental scientist Erle Ellis, “We will be proud of the planet we create.” Ellis speaks of “the good Anthropocene,” a golden era in which we relinquish nostalgic attachments to a nature untouched by humans and embrace the new epoch as “ripe with human-directed opportunity.”
It's difficult to know what's more obnoxious about this utterly cynical 'optimism': the blithe disinterest it shows for anyone who isn't wealthy enough to ride out the storm or the sheer numb-skulled stupidity that doesn't even seem to realise that this might be an issue.

By the final quoted paragraph in particular I am reminded of Nigel Clark's thesis in Inhuman Nature (and other writings) where he holds constructivism (particularly of the Latourian variety) as being effectively complicit with the over-statement of human agency in the face of overwhelmingly inhuman forces. I don't agree with parts of his analysis; however, the above clearly demonstrates his wider and more important point: that we must reckon with our finitude -- and fast.

In another article on the same themes posted only a few days ago Hamilton writes:
In the end, grasping at delusions like “the good Anthropocene” is a failure of courage, courage to face the facts. The power of positive thinking can’t turn malignant tumours into benign growths, and it can’t turn planetary overreach into endless lifestyle improvements. Declaring oneself to be an optimist is often used as a means of gaining the moral upper hand: “Things may look bad but, O ye of little faith, be bold and cheerful like me.”
There is a point at which optimism starts to become pathological; I think this the point where it is taken to be an end in itself. In a society with a fully-developed pathology one can win an argument simply by being optimistic; one can, with a snide chuckle, merely brush off inconvenient questions simply because they are uncomfortable. One's cognitive comfort (and that of the well-heeled choir to which one preaches) comes first and prevails over and above all dissuasive shrieks and cries. Those who suffer must not only suffer but also do so quietly.

I must say that excessive optimism is not a condition not something that we Brits are overburdened with in general.



However, that does not mean that we are not similarly insensitive. Most of us would sooner starve half the world than give up our cars or our South African asparagus (though we would never admit this, least of all to ourselves).

It goes far beyond obnoxiousness. Those who will be instructed to nail themselves to their own crosses must joyously sing the last choking gulps of life out of their battered, miserable bodies. It isn't enough that people suffer; the suffering must be unbothersome in their existential dissolution. Like a king offended by the screams issuing from his own dungeon: 'can we do something about the noise?...'

The subalterns must be neither seen nor heard; they must dig their own graves and then fall in them.

I don't suppose that any of the 'eco-pragmatists' (oh pragmatism, what crimes have been committed in your name...) would agree with a word of what I am polemically attributing to them; however, this really does seem to be the unavoidable conclusion of their line of thinking -- how else will they sustain their fantasy if not by exporting disconfirmatory externalities into the bodies and atmospheres of others?

This is where they, our brightest lights (or rather our loudest voices), are leading us: to hell in a handbasket. Whether we are being lead there out of malevolence or stupidity, it matters not.

The incapacity to cognise discomforting information as anything other than a falsehood (false because it is discomforting) leads inexorably to chronic insensitivity and from there to hell. Fear is not, as Yoda had it, the root of suffering: 'Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.'

If we're not afraid then we really haven't been paying attention.

Political aesthetics must have rough edges.

Political aesthetics, realpolitik and the composition of the common world

Michael L. Thomas has a really useful summary of Latour's diplomatic political philosophy and, in particular, the importance of aesthetics to this vision of politics (thanks to dmf for pointing to this).
An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the most recent publication of Bruno Latour, represents an exciting new philosophical project in so far as it raises an audacious question in a novel methodological light: “How do we compose a common world?” On its surface, this question calls forth images of universality of human beings, a “kumbaya” society organized through a shared vision and lack of conflict. The question changes in the hands of Latour, however, insofar as it is not a question of normativity, but of what I term political aesthetics. In deploying this term, I mean to diverge from its usage in Benjamin and others concerned with the relationship between art and the state, and, instead, towards the sense in which the construction of a common world involves determining principles of the articulation and communication of forms of experience. These principles are not decided in advance but generated through making the construction of reality in the present more explicit, thus providing pathways to forge connection between modes of experience (existence) and generating a ground to negotiate reality in the present.
I don't know if Michael has looked at Latour's Gifford Lectures from last year but there he goes into much more detail on his political aesthetics. John Dewey's The Public and its Problems is key here. The fundamental point for Dewey is that:
the consequences of conjoint action take on a new value when they are observed. (24)
There is therefore a political imperative to render constituents sensible to both the consequences of their own actions and to the issues that affect them and their interests. Indeed, if this doesn't happen then there is no politics. In this vein Latour argues that we must:
[...] agree to hear in the word aesthetic its old meaning of being able to ‘perceive’ and to be ‘concerned,’ that is, a capacity to render oneself sensitive, a capacity that precedes any distinction between the instruments of science, of art and of politics. (97)
[...] we have to weave ourselves, to cocoon ourselves within a great many loops so that progressively, thread after thread, the knowledge of where we reside and on what we depend for our atmospheric condition can gain greater relevance and feel more urgent. This slow operation of being wrapped in successive looping strips is what it means to be ‘of this Earth.’ And it has nothing to do with being human-in-nature or human-on-a-globe. It is rather a slow and painful progressive merging of cognitive, emotional and aesthetic virtues because of the ways the loops are rendered more and more visible through instruments and art forms of all sorts. Through each loop we becomes more sensitive and more responsive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit. (95)
In these lectures Latour goes beyond the human-focused diplomatic politics of AIME and opens up onto a world where every living being is sensitive to the world around and which subtly adjusts its environment to suit its own needs during the course of its own evolution (as per the Gaia theory that Latour has made his leitmotif in the last decade or so). In this new political scenography our fragile Sloterdijkian atmospheres and envelopes are what is at stake; science is the most powerful tool we have in explicitating our immunological conditions:
Science is the new aesthetics able to render us sensible to where we are standing. (130)
However, science cannot replace politics. A scientised politics is as worthless as a politicised science. These practical institutions cannot be separated but not should they be conflated. Science cannot decide, only politics can. As Michael rightly notes, this is not a 'kumbaya' political philosophy. Political aesthetics is necessarily conjoined to a kind of political realism extended to non-humans. In AIME Latour writes:
Yes, there are beings that do not deserve to exist. Yes, some constructions are badly made. Yes, we have to judge and decide. (142)
In 2005 Latour argued for 'dingpolitik' as opposed to realpolitik; however, there is a strong strand of political realism that runs from his earliest works right up to the present.

The way in which Latour melds the self-consciously post-colonial, post-secularist peace-making political practice of 'diplomacy' with this thorny, decisionist, Schmittean ethos is the key to understanding his political philosophy. They are very much part of the same project, although how successfully they are combined is an open question.

Monday, 16 June 2014

World Cup Comedy

For anyone who watched the 2010 World Cup final and recalls Mark van Bommel's unique take on the beautiful game:



The funniest thing I've heard in ages.

Also very funny and an absolutely brilliant summary of the whole sorry state of affairs that is FIFA:

Tuesday, 10 June 2014

Actor-Network Theory in theory and in practice

Perhaps in theory actor-network theory neglects human reflexivity; in practice, however, ANT accounts are full of fully reflexive humans all reflexively reflecting in their own ways. Mol's The Body Multiple is a paragon of self-awareness and empathy. Latour's Aramis is replete with engineers agonising over engineering, politicians opportunistically politicking, etc. In Gomart and Hennion's A Sociology of Attachmenteven drug addicts aren't reducible to their vice; their vice, instead, provokes instances of subjectivation.
[G&H] reveal a subtle interweaving between being abandoned to an external power and the virtuosity of practices, of manual, and of social skills. The user passes between active and passive. That is, between 'I am manipulated' (because I agree to it) and 'I manipulate' (an object which is stronger than myself). (p.243)
There are no more 'network dopes' than there are 'cultural' ones.

And so on and so on.

Nowhere are human beings reduced to being mere 'mouth pieces' of networks; however, the mere fact that humans have reflexive self-awareness isn't allowed to be the be all and end all, the thing that separates humans from other things so fundamentally that they have to be dealt with in separate chapters or with distinct conceptual vocabularies.

Where does that craving for a kind of ontological cordon – a prophylactic for humanness, an agency-shield – come from? It can only come from the fear of automata, the belief in beings that are pure clockwork and simply reproduce their constitutive causes without alteration. ANT dismisses this as a possibility and so the lack of human agency is never really an issue, at least not a priori.

Certainly people are repressed but always in particular times, in particular places and always by particular networks. If something or someone is without agency (and for a human this must mean that they are incapable of understanding what it is that they are doing) then this is something remarkable that must be explained, it isn't something that justifies letting nature bifurcate all over again.

If you are convinced that human beings are engulfed in totalitarian social structures that threaten to drown them in determination then it makes sense to worry endlessly about reflexivity and to make it the alpha and omega of your sociology. If, however, you grant everything agency (of whatever sort and of whatever strength and intensity) as a matter of course and then proceed to understand the meshing of these infinitely variegated agencies in concrete situations then this never becomes a problem since the presence or absence of any kind of freedom is always explained by concrete forces deployed in the case at hand.

In short, actor-network theorists routinely deal with human reflexivity, they just don't make a big song and dance about it.

The above tenets are, of course, entirely questionable and open to criticism; however, unless ANT is criticised for what it does rather than what its humanist critics like to think that it does we'll never get anywhere with anything.

ANT deserves to be critiqued – but it deserves to be critiqued well.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

'What is space?'

I'll be presenting a paper at the 'What is space?' workshop being held at Warwick in a couple of weeks (17/06/2014). As the programme demonstrates, it's a positively eclectic interdisciplinary event. I'm going to be exploring the title 'Latour, Lovelock and Sloterdijk on being imprisoned in the World.' Looking forward to it!


Edward Casey on place and plants

A tree stands in its own place. Its life is sedentary. It is a life in one place, a life without anxiety. Not only is a tree in its place; it actively contributes to its place, filling it up with its own organic substance. It knows no menacing void, even though to move from its own place is to risk the death of the organism. (Getting Back Into Place, xii)
The movement-capability and hence the spatiality of plants is indeed different to that of locomotory animals. Plants are where they are; they move but only by themselves growing; they migrate but only reproductively, across generations.

This is significant. But if what Latour, Sloterdijk and Lovelock all say of the Earth—that it is the only planet we have and that space migration is, most likely, for fools (or those with a death-wish); that we are trapped within this planet's atmosphere—then aren't we as stuck in our planetary place as plants are in their soil (at least those of them that put down roots)? Even more so since it would take many generations to travel to the nearest habitable planet (wherever that is) even at lightspeed.

This ties into the question of 'soil'; humans are rooted to their 'soil' if not to their soil. Indeed, isn't human from humus (earth)? In this way the difference that is meant to found a fundamental difference in being between animals and plants is really just an illusion of scale—we are even more rooted to our 'soil' (let's say humus instead of 'soil') than plants are to their soil. Territory in the sense that Latour uses the term—to designate all those attachments without which a being could not be and that could fail it at any moment—is as applicable to plants as it is to animals, human or otherwise. Every existent has a territory, an umwelt, a humus. Some existents have the capacity to nurture their natures; plants as well as animals do this—all life does it, according to Lovelock's theory.

The serene emplacedness of plants impresses Casey, a partisan for place. Perhaps, then, we do have to recognise our plant-ness; our common vegetal-spatiality. Plants have accepted their place while we try to convince ourselves that we are placeless, infinitely mobile; that we have no air-conditioning requirements, that we can breathe without spacesuits. We are fools, no doubt.

However, I think with this settlement must also come a rejection of some of the exclusivity granted to plants. They cannot do violence, according to the Hegelian theory—but don't they sever, crush, choke, smother and destroy, like other beings? If we are even more trapped and emplaced (albeit against our apparent will) than they are then how can we attain the self-negation that they cannot? Isn't it the self-negation itself that is illusory? It is only on a short scale that these differences appear and cannot sustain differences in kind, at least not in the respects aforementioned.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Liberal science denial and other tomfoolery

I don't know if this video will stay online for long but it's a really interesting segment from The Daily Show last week:


It's interesting for at least two reasons: First, it ably (and funnily) demonstrates that cynical attitudes towards science are by no means particular to the right (as is often prejudicially assumed, certainly here in the UK). Second, the show's own attitudes towards science are themselves very problematic. For them it basically boils down to 'yeah, but it's a fact so you're an idiot.' Perhaps true but not helpful. What makes a fact a fact? Is it the fact that scientific knowledge is debated in public, peer reviewed (usually well), and is the product of centuries of rigorous and progressive experiment, confirmation, refutation and invention? Perhaps that is in the subtext but barely. The only real message to this is 'yeah, but it's science.' Of course, having said that, the segment also demonstrates that some people simply aren't interested in evidence, whatever ontology it's dressed up in. However, these discussions always seem to happen at a kind of second-order level where two incompatible notions of truth just bash their heads against each other without ever really engaging with each other or even understanding that there is anything to be engaged with. And it can't be otherwise if science-defenders genuinely don't understand what makes science objective other than 'it's science, durr'...

John Oliver said more or less the same thing recently 'you don't need people's opinion on a fact.' Although he produced a slightly more sophisticated (and equally hilarious) take on it when he constructed a 'statistically representative' debate over climate science. The obvious absurdity doesn't detract from the performative effect: that it isn't a 'two sided' debate, as the rest of the media continue to insist that it is; it's a many sided debate with one alliance of viewpoints utterly overwhelming the other. And that's the key point: an alliance of close-knit viewpoints, not just the singular, thunderous voice of Science being spoken univocally in the language of Facts.

William Connolly on Latour's Gifford Lectures; Pluralist conflux

William E. Connolly has posted an interesting piece on Latour's Gifford Lectures on his blog.

Well, I say it's on Latour's Gifford Lectures—for the most part Connolly takes these lectures as a jumping off point for a reflection on his own micropolitical interests; stuff that'll be familiar to anyone who's read his most recent work, particularly The Fragility of Things.

I think that he thoroughly misinterprets Latour's use of the word 'secular.' Connolly takes this to be referring to the 'new secularists' and their role as a political group. I see no evidence of that whatsoever. When Latour says that Gaia is 'secular' he means it, as I understand him, by contrast to Nature, which is an insufficiently 'secularised theological concept' (to use the phrase of Schmitt); it is because Nature presupposes transcendence and Gaia immanence that Gaia is secular—literally 'worldly.' Connolly is reading too much into that, I feel; although, it would be interesting to think how the new secularists would receive such ideas (not well, I'd imagine!).

Connolly also understands Latour as making a distinction between lab scientists and theoretical scientists—I must have missed that but I recall no such distinction being made, nor such a divide having any real importance. Latour waxes lyrical about the 'Earthbound scientists' but seemingly all manners of scientific praxis are included under this umbrella. The key point is that both lab and theoretical sciences must be irreduced, that is escorted back inside their networks; he has this to say about Stephen Hawking, for instance:
It is hard to point out a more situated knowledge than this one: from this very local place on Free School Lane, in the hands of a great scientist, electrons are supposed to have spread successfully to populate all chemical bonding and all computers! But in the next minute, the same physicists will have no qualms about admiring how Steven Hawkings’ mind roams through the whole cosmos in intimate dialog with the Creator, wishfully ignoring that Hawking’s mind benefits not only from a brain but also from a ‘corporate body’ described by Hélène Mialet in her book Hawking incorporated, as composed of a vast network of computers, chairs, instruments, nurses, helpers and synthesizers that are necessary for the step by step flow of his equations. With such a bifocal view of science, it is hard to reconcile the view from nowhere with the highly localised classrooms, office spaces, laboratory benches, computer centres, meeting rooms, expeditionary treks and field stations, where scientists have to locate themselves when they begin to really talk about their findings or to really write their papers. (86)
If anything Latour refuses the distinction between theoretical and lab sciences—both are fully instrumented, incarnated endeavours and that's the important thing about them. The Earthbound need theorists and lab scientists, both—and who embodies that fusion better than Dr Lovelock?

Connolly writes in conclusion:
I am glad Bruno Latour gave these lectures. They focus attention on the severity of the planetary issue and the denials and evasions attached to it. I am also moved by the spirituality that infuses them.
Latour's theology is about as heterodox as one is likely to find anywhere. He refutes the possibility of any kind of fundamental transcendence; God is only what is assembled in the reverential networks of his followers; religious practice transfers no information, only the transformations of love and tradition. Latour's theology jars with most religious theory at least as much if not more so than his thinking jars with most theories of science. However, in these Lectures he also insists upon the translatability of different deities; taking up Jan Assmann's work on mono/polytheism to suggest that we must conceive of Nature, Gaia or OWWAAB (Out of Which We Are All Born) as secular divinities that are at least potentially comparable, translatable with the divinities of others (as were the divinities of the pre-monotheistic world), thus facilitating a geo- or cosmo-politics that removes (or at least de-emphasises) one unnecessary and, frankly, stupid point of confrontation: whether or not there's a God.

This very much plays into Connolly's project of conceiving of political alliances being built across ostensive cultural and religious divides; heterogeneous assemblages that cultivate a certain political vibrancy in anticipation of Events that will draw them together and produce a General Strike, or some-such. (I have my doubts about Connolly's working-through of this point but there's something to it.)

It might be a stretch to call Latour a 'spiritual' philosopher because his theology is so very anti-transcendence (even more so perhaps than Connolly, self-described 'immanent materialist'!). I don't think many of his fellow Catholics would consider him spiritual on the basis of his thinking. His recent book (recently published in English, anyway) on religion—Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech—is a paragon of sensitivity and counterintuition but it is really questionable to what extent it is religious in the sense most people understand that (i.e. as spirituality). Just what is the point of a totally immanent God? Latour's theology is religious in the sense that Michel Serres describes religion as rooted in religiens, which is the opposites of negligens—i.e. 'religion is the opposite of negligence' (as he defines it in The Natural Contract). That is an extremely fecund point; I am converted inasmuch as this: 'Whoever has no religion should not be called atheist or unbeliever, but negligent.' To act religiously is an essential part of life, god or no god.

The real meeting point of Connolly and Latour is, however, pluralism—a pluralism that is political, not just metaphysical. It is this meeting point that presents the challenge; it is here that Latour's whole project of 'diplomacy' (taking up Stengers' term) comes into play. It'd be interesting to read a more sustained engagement by Connolly on this matter. There are clear, strong and (dare I said it?) vibrant parallels between these philosophies but also serious differences. Connolly, for me, leans too heavily on the notions of self-organisation. His reading of Hayek in Fragility is nowhere near critical enough either of Hayek's politics nor of the notion of self-organisation itself.

The problem with self-organisation (and I think this is a critique that needs to be impressed upon many, many... let's say post-Deleuzians who take up self-organisation as their ontological aesthetic of choice) is not the organisation aspect, it's the self—what is the self doing the organising? Gaia is, of course, a self-organising system but her 'self' is something that Latour takes some time discussing. She is not a 'super-organism' and not a final cause but rather the product of all the individual organisms, each of whom are their own final cause, their own providence, their own telos, each of whom follow their own interests but, in doing so, produce an effect, an agency in excess of themselves, an effective being that has maintained atmospheric and chemical conditions conducive to life (whatever that has meant in any given era) for billions of years.

For Hayek, of course, the importance of self-organisation is that it validates extreme market-based individualism (although Hayekian neoliberals are well aware of the need for a coercive state to force people to obey their own true selves...). The 'self' here is that of homo economicus, however contrived and enforced his existence may be. A methodological maxim: never speak of self-organisation without speaking also of a self.

Ramble ends.

Geopolitics and varieties of soil

In Latour's recent Gifford Lectures he attempts to redefine geopolitics as the politics of the Earth itself, the central premiss of this being that we must learn to understand the 'soil' to which we are attached and then to find ways of defending that soil. He does not, of course, mean 'soil' literally or straight-forwardly; certainly not reactionarily:
To insist on the soil is to be reactionary in the old way—appealing to ‘Blut und Boden.’ Reactionaries of all hues and colours have always insisted on how criminal it was to attempt to leave the ancient land, to abandon the old soil, to forget the limits of the old nomos, to be emancipated and cosmopolitan. (108)
Although Latour channels Carl Schmitt extensively he does not want to go back to that horrendous, reactionary geopolitics of yore.
[...] there might be another meaning to being attached to the old soil, this time to the Earth. (108)
Our 'soil' is everything that we need to survive; it's also the air that we breathe and the climate that we perturb. However, the actual soil itself is also part of our 'soil.' George Monbiot points to how certain farming methods are literally washing Britain into the sea and how the land-owner lobby in the UK has utterly captured its own regulatory apparatus, making matters worse and more stupid by the day.
The people who got this directive ditched claim to love their country. But they’ve ensured that it will continue to run down the rivers and into the sea. You want to get Britain out of Europe? Well how about ensuring that our soils stop ending up on the coastlines of France and Holland and Germany?
This is an interesting confluence of political imagery and an extremely apt issue for considering a post-Natural politics that is resolutely not post-national.

We have certainly come a long way since the days of General Haushofer (from The Geopolitics Reader, p.33):
While the theoretical foundations of Geopolitik were laid only in recent times, its practical application—the instinctive sense for geopolitical possibilities, the realization of its deep influence on political development—is as old as history itself. Geopolitical vision inspired daring leaders who guided their people along novel never-before-travelled roads. Powerful new states emerged because their creators, with the sensitivity of the true statesman, understood the geopolitical demands of the hour. Without such insight, violence and arbitrariness would have charted the course of history. Nothing with lasting value could have been created. All structures of state which might have been erected would sooner or later have crumbled into dust and oblivion before the eternal forces of soil and climate.
To be sure, the powerful will of a great and strong man may tear masses and nations away from soil-bound existence into roads other than nature had provided for them. But such actions are short-lived. In the end every people will sink back into its accustomed ways; its lasting earthbound traits will eventually win out.
Neither the soil nor the climate can be taken for granted; much less can their immutability found the dark dreams of imperial domination—that very dream of imperial supremacy, oriented towards 'nature,' has shattered its own illusion. It is indeed time for a new politics of the soil—but also of the air and the sea and ecosystems and so on. A geopolitics finally worthy of the name—of both sides of the name, geo and politics.

Haushofer committed suicide with his wife in 1946; supposedly he died under a tree, clutching the very Bavarian soil that he so cherished. At the end of the film Gravity, the protagonist clutches the sludgy earth she has landed on between her exhausted, trembling fingers. There are whole galaxies between these two relations to the soil—the departure and the return.

Latour's geopolitics is overly naive in the sense that it doesn't engage with historical (or disciplinary) geopolitics in any way; he simply appropriates the phrase and moves on. This isn't good enough. However, I think that his project is an important one. The soil, in the literal sense, is both the cherished basis of the worst kinds of geopolitics from the past and is, evidently, not something that even a powerful state can simply rely on at present. It is a case that this 'new' geopolitics must somehow pass.

Philosophy-wise I'm quite interested in how Peter Sloterdijk's work can be brought into this debate. Latour dedicated his Gifford Lectures to Sloterdijk and his ideas abound throughout the series. While very different thinkers in some ways their work meshes remarkably well.

Weaponising climate change; the American political system

I have my reservations about Ezra Klein but this is a splendid paragraph:
If you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system — to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities — you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.

NB RE PB: a partial retraction

A note with regard to my previous post on plant being, etc.: Michael Marder corrected my misunderstandings on a few points. I added a comment to this effect at the bottom of the post in question.