Thursday 17 October 2013

The risk of 'de-centering humans'; Reflections on LSE last year

Nicholas at Installing (Social) Order has a nice post updating the blogosphere on their latest work, particularly on 'decentering humans' in International Relations.  I'm glad to see that these issues are still burning away and that the IR/ANT collective is still hanging together!

With regard to the project in general, one question that must ultimately be asked, I think, is: when we have traced all the networks that form the human how do we avoid humans being dissolved into those networks?  How do we avoid shifting from anthropocentrism to an un-self-critical network-centrism?  How do we avoid the political complacency that can potentially come from thoroughgoing relationality?  Are there no unintended consequences of ANT's creeping colonisation of more and more intellectual territory?  I think that there are.

This is something that came up at the Millennium conference last year, as I'm sure you remember!  There was a clear divide at that event between ANT-types and others, most particularly from the critical realist camp, for whom human reflexivity as the basis of political agency is indispensable.  It was argued that the appropriation of 'agency' as a substitute for 'causality' undoes all the hard won victories of emancipatory politics (and its accompanying critical theory) in the 20th century.

As something of an ANT-phile I was quite challenged by this idea.  David Chandler in particular helped me to see the point.  I came to realise that it isn't just a blustery, reactionary reiteration of substantialism or modernist humanism (although it sometimes goes that way too!).  When ANT was working just on science and technology it was easy to downplay and de-exceptionalise the agency of the human - scientists and technicians had been granted far too much agency, far too much centredness and self-control and therefore depriving them of that was methodologically and politically unproblematic.  No one was ever going to lapse into thinking that these people really lacked agency or were cultural dopes; the goal was to shift these human agents back into their networks and ANT did that brilliantly.

When we shift forward 25 years and look at the situation where, now, rightly or wrongly, ANT is a sociological metalanguage that is informing all kinds of theorisation we have to tread much more carefully.  The political agency of human beings in general is in no way as assured as that of scientists and technicians.  We simply can't take human agency for granted in all walks of life (or in all modes of existence, perhaps).  Remember that ANT ethnographers were always (and they were always aware of this) studying up.  That is, they were studying persons with more power, money and prestige than they themselves enjoyed.  Studying down, studying persons who are downtrodden, disenfranchised, held by dominant discourses to be feckless and incapable of rational self-determination - these people need to be treated with greater care.

To systematically remove all the classic humanist means by which their agency can be defended without careful consideration of consequences is, frankly, irresponsible.

That isn't to say that ANT-type work has no place within broader social or political theory.  Far from it.  I am still an ANT-phile!  All I mean to say is that irreducing the human must not, ultimately, dissolve the human.  The ontological status of human political agency is too fragile to be thrown around so cavalierly.  That doesn't mean that we must stop walking in the direction that we have been but, as Latour would put it, we may need to slow down.  It isn't that ANT cannot be translated into all these different areas but we need to recognise and deal with the ever larger degree of transformation that is required to properly extend these networks the further they stray from their origins.  Part of that, I think, means that we have to find a way of saying: the more mediations, the more human.  More humanity, not less.  A new humanism.

That's the major realisation that I got from the LSE event last year (having had a year to reflect on it!).