Friday 4 November 2011

An Elisional Theory of Anti-Realism and Ignorance

Something that realist critiques of anti-realism rarely acknowledge is that anti-realism works more by elision than by denial. Anti-realists rarely deny anything, they just affirm particular kinds of things (words, practices, discourses) and, by using these materials to construct (or deconstruct) everything else, ignore everything else. They'll say that "the constitution of the event and its elements is a product of its discursive condition of emergence"(1) – and hence suggest that the discursive conditions are all there is (by failing to mention anything else) but not come right out and say it (and how could they?).

This is why they get so upset and indignant when called ‘anti-realist’! ‘I’m not denying reality!’, they say, ‘I am simply critiquing the naive realism that assumes that we can perceive things as they are regardless of our historically contingent socio-linguistic presuppositions! Down with Enlightenment Reason, Scientism, Man, Phallogocentrism, Universa...’ (I usually mentally turn the volume down at this point; it’s amusing to watch lips flapping philosophically and in anger to no end at all).

Realists misstep when they say that 'anti-realists deny any reality beyond perception' or something like that because that actually gives the anti-realists an exit, a way out.

When realist critics accuse them of ‘denying reality’ they can always shoot back ‘I’m not denying anything!’ – They refuse to deny it; they just refuse to talk about it – at all. They refuse, they ignore.

This habitual elision deserves to be called ignorance because it is precisely a process of ignoring most of reality (and, indeed, most of experience), pretending it isn’t there (at least so long as one is sat at one’s desk and doesn’t need, say, medical attention or transportation – then we all become stubborn realists; poor old desks, so incapable of making obvious what we would be doing without them: scribbling on our knees!).

‘I may make assumptions with regard to the reality of things whenever I eat, walk, drive, medicate, breathe – but I refuse to accord things any reality in my political analyses! There’s room for things in my lungs, my house and my stomach but not in my philosophy!’

How snide, the elite who elide.

Elision – a stutter, a stammer, a break, a gap where the things should be. It’s not that we don’t get ‘the whole picture’ (as if that is even what we’re after) but rather that we only get every third picture and are left to make wild guesses as to what goes in the gaps. We're apparently just meant to pass over them, 'unseeing.'

This is the difference between the big, old, bad realism and more refined kinds we find presently: The former would scold anti-realists for not ‘looking at things on the whole’ and ‘breaking away from subjective perceptions to see how things really are’; this is not the way forward, it is the way back (towards the wrong side of town, the estates we did well to escape!). The latter realists will just want to fill in the gaps, without the grumpy, pumpkin-sized gesticulations suggesting that we take in ‘the big picture’ or look at things ‘as they really are.’

Saving realism from the realists, again.

(1) David Campbell, International Engagements: The Politics of North American International Relations Theory.