Tuesday, 19 November 2013

At the limits of dingpolitik: Institutions are issues too

The ‘politics’ found in AIME follows on from Latour’s previous work on ‘dingpolitik,’ the basic idea of which (as I understand it) is that instead of starting from established political institutions and then addressing issues secondarily we need to start with issues in all their fractious, decentred complexity and then look into how the publics that form around them pass through established institutions, re-establishing them as they go. This politics of ‘publics’ derives primarily from John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems and Walter Lippmann’s The Phantom Public.  It also relates to Ulrich Beck's notion of the 'risk society.'  It can be found in its most developed form in the work of Noortje Marres.

I think that there are many virtues to this inversion. For starters, the question of democratic legitimacy is transformed. We become able to assess the ‘democratic deficit’ on a case by case basis. Instead of simply lamenting how ‘unrepresentative’ our institutions are in general we can take a more forensic look and see just how unrepresentative they are in various situations. We may even be able to unearth some rare occasions when they actually work well enough! We thereby transcend the political binary of ‘move along, nothing to see here!’ and everything’s rotten, tear it all down!’ From a political science perspective this is alluring.

Of course the principle virtue of this mode of political analysis from Latour’s perspective is that is it enables an ‘object-oriented politics’ – where ‘object’ must be understood as ‘thing,’ the etymology of which Latour never tires in explaining. Here’s the entry from etymonline.com:
Old English þing "meeting, assembly," later "entity, being, matter" (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also "act, deed, event, material object, body, being," from Proto-Germanic *thengan "appointed time" (cf. Old Frisianthing "assembly, council, suit, matter, thing," Middle Dutch dinc "court-day, suit, plea, concern, affair, thing," Dutch ding "thing," Old High German ding "public assembly for judgment and business, lawsuit," German ding" affair, matter, thing," Old Norse þing "public assembly"). Some suggest an ultimate connection to PIE root *ten- "stretch," perhaps on notion of "stretch of time for a meeting or assembly." 
For sense evolution, cf. French chose, Spanish cosa "thing," from Latin causa "judicial process, lawsuit, case;" Latin res "affair, thing," also "case at law, cause." Old sense is preserved in second element of hustings and in Icelandic Althing, the nation's general assembly.

sed colloquially since c.1600 to indicate things the speaker can't name at the moment, often with various meaningless suffixes, e.g. thingumbob (1751), thingamajig (1824). Southern U.S. pronunciation thang attested from 1937. The thing "what's stylish or fashionable" is recorded from 1762. Phrase do your thing "follow your particular predilection," though associated with hippie-speak of 1960s is attested from 1841.
Before ‘thing’ meant ‘object’ it meant ‘assembly.’ Dingpolitik refers to a politics of things in both senses of the word – as a politics of objects and a politics of the assemblies that form around problems; a politics that seeks to better institute problems in order to better compose a collective (in Latourian jargon).  As well as a mode of analysis it suggests a form of political engagement that is better suited to the complexities of the Anthropocene than institution-centred politics.

From my perspective that’s all fine as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. I should say a little about that perspective: my academic background is as a student of international relations and political science. In the past few years I have mostly been interested in the sociology and philosophy of science but I am always drawn back to IR/politics.  It is an orbit from which I cannot and do not want to escape, even though it is too closed and conservative an intellectual environment to remain stuck in for too long.

The problem with dingpolitik qua ‘issue-oriented politics,’ then, is that it makes the institutions that I want to study recede into the background somewhat. They become nothing more than moments along the trajectories of a vast multiplicity of issues. They may be very significant moments along these trajectories but they are moments nevertheless. While the primacy granted to issues over institutions that reverses the long standing tendency to do the opposite is liberating in the short term we must ultimately find a way to deal with institutions and issues without one dominating the other.

What I need to affirm is that institutions are issues too.  This aspect of dingpolitik, while by no means denied, has not been given enough attention (to the best of my knowledge – please correct me if I am wrong).  I believe that it must be.

For example, the entire agenda of the current British government is oriented around ‘making an issue’ of its own parts – a peculiar kind of mereological self-harm. The British state has become what the tax campaigner Richard Murphy calls ‘the cowardly state’ or the journalist George Monbiot calls ‘the self-hating state.’ That is, the British state is presently in the grip of a revolutionary neoliberal government that is seeking to perform two functions: first, to radically slash and burn the welfare and regulative components of the state, salting the earth as it goes, by turning as much of its functionality as possible over to ‘market forces’ through privatisation, outsourcing or simply cutting out functionality altogether; and, second, to expand the components of the state that reinforce market functions and neoliberal ideology, by intensifying state surveillance of dissident groups, instilling neoliberal practices and ideologies through education and welfare policies, putting agents of industry into all positions of regulative authority and generally becoming ever more grovelling and servile in the face of wealth.

In short, we cannot understand the British state as a moment in the trajectories of the issues it is meant to deal with unless we can understand it as an issue, or as a whole host of issues with vast attendant publics, itself.

This is just one example, of course. The need to understand institutions as issues is general. Here are two possible research topics for looking at this in more detail:

First, the British based Tax Justice Network:
The Tax Justice Network promotes transparency in international finance and opposes secrecy. We support a level playing field on tax and we oppose loopholes and distortions in tax and regulation, and the abuses that flow from them. We promote tax compliance and we oppose tax evasion, tax avoidance, and all the mechanisms that enable owners and controllers of wealth to escape their responsibilities to the societies on which they and their wealth depend. Tax havens, or secrecy jurisdictions as we prefer to call them, lie at the centre of our concerns, and we oppose them.
The TJN makes an issue of tax regimes worldwide and campaigns in a whole variety of ways – advising unions, producing reports, blogging, writing for the media, etc. – in order to further their aims.  They have been remarkably successful in putting their institutional issues 'on the agenda' of the very institutions that they criticise and even more successful in building public awareness of tax politics (they have been sailing with the wind, admittedly).

Second, the so-called ‘Kochtopus,’ the shadowy network of industrialists, think tanks, pseudo-‘grass roots’ astroturf movements, politicians, academics and media commentators funded and guided by the immensely wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David.

The Kochtopus propagates free market ideals, bankrolls the massively powerful Tea Party movement, spreads climate scepticism, purges think tanks of non-ideologically aligned thinkers – the list is extensive. It is both an institution (an extremely active-network!) in its own right, albeit one that is closed to outsiders and is cloaked in deniability, and one that makes an issue of whole swathes of the American political landscape – including the state itself.

Having recently become acquainted with Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown I must give honourable mention to the Mont Pèlerin Society, formed by such right wing luminaries as Hayek, Friedman, von Mises and Popper.  In tracing the history of this society Mirowski and the multiple authors of The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective have brilliantly drawn together the genesis of neoliberalism as a global political phenomenon without resorting to any half-baked, pseudo-scientific metaphors of 'spontaneous emergence.'  This is utterly exemplary work in the sociology of knowledge and bodes well for accommodating institutions themselves within the auspices of dingpolitik.


  1. what I appreciate along these lines from Latour is the simple but powerful understanding that publics (including institutions) have to be constantly re-assembled/re-enacted and aren't running on/out Rule-Based programs/logoi.

  2. http://sms.cam.ac.uk/media/1594675