Friday 20 June 2014

Political aesthetics, realpolitik and the composition of the common world

Michael L. Thomas has a really useful summary of Latour's diplomatic political philosophy and, in particular, the importance of aesthetics to this vision of politics (thanks to dmf for pointing to this).
An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, the most recent publication of Bruno Latour, represents an exciting new philosophical project in so far as it raises an audacious question in a novel methodological light: “How do we compose a common world?” On its surface, this question calls forth images of universality of human beings, a “kumbaya” society organized through a shared vision and lack of conflict. The question changes in the hands of Latour, however, insofar as it is not a question of normativity, but of what I term political aesthetics. In deploying this term, I mean to diverge from its usage in Benjamin and others concerned with the relationship between art and the state, and, instead, towards the sense in which the construction of a common world involves determining principles of the articulation and communication of forms of experience. These principles are not decided in advance but generated through making the construction of reality in the present more explicit, thus providing pathways to forge connection between modes of experience (existence) and generating a ground to negotiate reality in the present.
I don't know if Michael has looked at Latour's Gifford Lectures from last year but there he goes into much more detail on his political aesthetics. John Dewey's The Public and its Problems is key here. The fundamental point for Dewey is that:
the consequences of conjoint action take on a new value when they are observed. (24)
There is therefore a political imperative to render constituents sensible to both the consequences of their own actions and to the issues that affect them and their interests. Indeed, if this doesn't happen then there is no politics. In this vein Latour argues that we must:
[...] agree to hear in the word aesthetic its old meaning of being able to ‘perceive’ and to be ‘concerned,’ that is, a capacity to render oneself sensitive, a capacity that precedes any distinction between the instruments of science, of art and of politics. (97)
[...] we have to weave ourselves, to cocoon ourselves within a great many loops so that progressively, thread after thread, the knowledge of where we reside and on what we depend for our atmospheric condition can gain greater relevance and feel more urgent. This slow operation of being wrapped in successive looping strips is what it means to be ‘of this Earth.’ And it has nothing to do with being human-in-nature or human-on-a-globe. It is rather a slow and painful progressive merging of cognitive, emotional and aesthetic virtues because of the ways the loops are rendered more and more visible through instruments and art forms of all sorts. Through each loop we becomes more sensitive and more responsive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit. (95)
In these lectures Latour goes beyond the human-focused diplomatic politics of AIME and opens up onto a world where every living being is sensitive to the world around and which subtly adjusts its environment to suit its own needs during the course of its own evolution (as per the Gaia theory that Latour has made his leitmotif in the last decade or so). In this new political scenography our fragile Sloterdijkian atmospheres and envelopes are what is at stake; science is the most powerful tool we have in explicitating our immunological conditions:
Science is the new aesthetics able to render us sensible to where we are standing. (130)
However, science cannot replace politics. A scientised politics is as worthless as a politicised science. These practical institutions cannot be separated but not should they be conflated. Science cannot decide, only politics can. As Michael rightly notes, this is not a 'kumbaya' political philosophy. Political aesthetics is necessarily conjoined to a kind of political realism extended to non-humans. In AIME Latour writes:
Yes, there are beings that do not deserve to exist. Yes, some constructions are badly made. Yes, we have to judge and decide. (142)
In 2005 Latour argued for 'dingpolitik' as opposed to realpolitik; however, there is a strong strand of political realism that runs from his earliest works right up to the present.

The way in which Latour melds the self-consciously post-colonial, post-secularist peace-making political practice of 'diplomacy' with this thorny, decisionist, Schmittean ethos is the key to understanding his political philosophy. They are very much part of the same project, although how successfully they are combined is an open question.