Friday 8 March 2013

Politics is correlational, not correlationist

Graham Harman has written a few posts in the past few days on art and 'correlationism' and now on politics too.  He criticises:
a bizarrely literal interpretation of how to get past correlationism. First, it is assumed that the problem with correlationism is that humans are involved. Second, it is assumed that we must brainstorm some way to remove humans from the picture, even if we’re talking about a domain (such as politics) that is obviously saturated with the human even if we try to expand it into a Latourian Dingpolitik (I don’t think Latour is claiming that there will literally still be politics even if all humans are exterminated).
It is, indeed, rather strange that anyone would think that a non-correlationist politics is a good idea -- or even a meaningful idea at all.  I've heard it argued (often as a matter of outraged critique) that Latour's political philosophy makes humans and non-humans politically 'equal' -- as if it's a competition and as if there could be politics without human beings.  On the contrary, the 'Ding' within 'Dingpolitik' simply highlights on the polyvalence of the word ‘thing,’ drawing together its meaning ‘object’ and also the use of that word to mean 'political assembly' in many European languages.

Latour is drawing the two meanings together -- thing qua object and thing qua political assembly -- to argue for a political philosophy based on John Dewey's 'The Public and its Problems'.  Things, Latour argues, are the 'problems' or issues around which human political assemblies -- i.e. publics -- must form in order to resolve them.  Things provoke these politics, they provide the impetus and the risk that makes these politics necessary and which interests the human actors involved, but there is no suggestion that the things themselves are equivalent to the human political actors; it is very much the humans who have to sort things out, albeit as networked, materially and technoscientifically complex actors.

There has been a tendency in political science (as throughout the social sciences and humanities) to treat things as extrinsic to politics in the sense that we have politics one hand and the material world on the other.  In other words, conventional discourses of political science map very much onto the dualisms that get critiqued by people wielding concepts such as 'correlationism.'  Therefore, it may seem natural to involve the concept of 'correlationism' in critiquing and trying to think past these structuring dualisms.  However, people shouldn't take the notion of 'correlate' to be a dirty word!  There are many things that only exist as correlates of something else -- and politics must surely be one of those things.

There can be things without humans but there can be no humans without things.  There can be no politics without humans.  Therefore, there can be no politics without things.  But this doesn't make humans and non-humans 'equal' -- humans still have to do the work of resolving political controversies; they just do so neck-deep in political things, or 'dings,' if you will.  Politics is not ‘correlationist’ – it’s correlational.  And there’s nothing wrong with that as such, so long as it doesn’t distract us from the ontological and political folly of mind/world or human/nature dualisms.