Sunday, 16 September 2012

Politics and Ontology: Entangled but Several

I confess that I’m thoroughly baffled by the question of what politics an ontology should entail. I readily recognize that an ontology can be pervaded by illicit ontological assumptions and that these should critiqued, but still maintain that as a regulative ideal, our claims about what is and what is not should not be based on our political and ethical preferences. ...
This again! I agree with Levi.

Politics and ontology are both human discursive practices — two different practices. You can think about politics ontologically and you can think about ontology politically — but you’re either ontologising or politicising, either way.

Either ontologising or politicising may or may not be the right thing to do in any given circumstance — it depends. For example, if someone approvingly repeated Thatcher’s claim that ‘there is no such thing as society only individuals and families’ then clearly that is an ontological claim that needs to be attacked both ontologically and politically. But the manner of attack would differ depending on which approach one chose to adopt. It’d involve different kinds speech acts, different regimes of truth or modes of enunciation. These modes and regimes can be mixed and matched even in the course of a single sentence but they’re still part and parcel of different practices.

They’re just not the same practice. The only way anyone can make out that they are is if they do the ‘everything is political’ trick, which really just amounts to demonstrating that anything can be politicised and inferring from that that everything is therefore political, which doesn’t follow. Frankly I’ve never understood it since if everything is political then no work ever has to be done to politicise anything — everything just is political, always already, regardless of whatever anyone does about any of it. How?

But what I fail to wrap my head around most of all is why people seem to want politics to be omnipresent — and for apparently political or moral reasons. Politics is an ugly, inglorious business much of the time (and I’m not just talking capital P, parliamentary politics either). Why would anyone want that ugliness to be universalised? If omnipresent politics sounds blissfully utopian rather than horrifically dystopian to anyone then I can only question your rather blinkered and peculiar definition of politics!

I’m really quite glad that politics is, as Latour might put it, restricted to its own particular conduits — just like everything else is. It can be made to overlap with any other practice and, in practice, it has been spread far and wide, insinuated in some small part into most aspects of our lives but each extension of the network was nevertheless an event and it cannot ever cover everything, like Borges’ proverbial map did. Thank goodness!

Anything can be politicised but politics is still a practice limited to its own variegated and widespread but still particular and partial networks. If you want to extend it to something hitherto unattached then do so — but it’s folly to pretend that politics is a reality somehow there already, under the surface just waiting for us if only we’d shed the scales of ideology from our tired, downcast eyes. Not that such surreptitious objects of our ignorance don’t exist but calling them ‘politics’ is a misnomer. Latour called them another P-word — ‘plasma’ — meaning that on which the requisite formatting work has yet to be performed in order to make these things circulate in social (or, in this case, political) networks. This seems to be a far stronger ontological basis for thinking politics, to me.

So:

‘Politics is everywhere’ — yes.

‘Anything can be politicised’ — also yes.

But: ‘Everything (including ontology) is always already political’ — I don’t think so.

Consequently, ontology can be politicised but it must be politicised and, therefore, one should present a reason for doing so rather than just lazily claiming that it must be because everything is. Often that politicisation is perfectly justifiable but such justification must be casuistic, not universal.

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