Friday, 24 January 2014

Cosmopolitics and blasphemy

Levi has a reply to my musing on cosmopolitics, itself a reply to his thoughts on pluralism and realism.

One thing I didn't mention in my previous post (though I think I hinted at it) is that I am ambivalent about this diplomacy/cosmopolitics pluralist thing.  I'm probably more in favour than against on balance but I wrote that post more as a proposition than a thoroughgoing endorsement.  I share some of Levi's reservations and criticisms and have others besides.  Having said that, however, really I don't agree that it's idealism (if it's idealism where are the ideas? what's an idealism that accepts stars, bacteria and rocks as real?).  In fact I think some of the criticisms Levi gives bear little relation to what I wrote (I'm not offended or picking a fight or anything, just saying it as I see it!).
I get the feeling that realism that dares to say that a particular world-picture is mistaken is seen as somehow being intolerant or totalitarian or oppressive.
I get where Levi's coming from with that.  It's definitely something that Latour insinuates often enough but that's not how my preferred interpretation of his argument goes.

The cosmopolitician doesn't deny the possibility or occasional necessity of a 'war footing,' so to speak (I actually don't like this martial terminology but I'll stick with it for now).  If we look at Latour's reading of Carl Schmitt (key to his political writings since Politics of Nature) then it is the omnipresent possibility of 'war' that makes the political friend/enemy decision necessary and renders politics possible in the first place.  'War' is always a possibility and so this is not a lovey-dovey, liberal, 'aw shucks can't we all just get along' kind of pluralism.  It simply asks the questions: Can we get along or not?  Need we come to rhetorical or critical blows over this or can we just let it be?  What forces are at play?  What battles must we fight?  It forces decisions to be made rather than simply being in a perpetual battle with everyone around you by default.

As I understand it Latour and Stengers are not arguing for a wishy-washy pluralism but an agonistic pluralism à la Chantal Mouffe - a political philosophy explicitly based upon a deep critique of the very conflict-averse liberalism that Levi is suggesting cosmopolitics reproduces.  A pluralism that accepts the inevitability of conflict, which requires a friend/enemy decision to be made and that strives for an adversarial rather than antagonistic relationship (but accepts the possibility of either).  So, the claim that cosmopolitics would deny the possibility of justifiably agonistic or antagonistic debate is simply untrue, at least in my understanding.
In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth.
This is also, in my opinion, simply false.  The claim seems to rest on a couple of premises: first, that all the cosmopolitics/instauration stuff is just a fancy new vocabulary for the same old social construction (debatable); second, that any meaningful concept of truth requires transcendence - either things are real or not, existent or non-existent, a social construction or a real reality and we must decide, definitively, on which category all things belong to or our mouths are somehow sewn shut or our words have no purpose.

And this strikes me as really odd.  I can't see how Levi's philosophy can allow for unmediated access to reality à la the view-from-nowhere - to be candid: it can't.  And yet such hard-boiled realism seems, to me, to necessitate such a thing.  So, if he can't hold that then he can only demand transcendent truth as a regulative ideal, something to strive for but which is by definition unachievable - in short as a practice.  And if he's conceded that then he's conceded the inevitability of mediation and, therefore, the inescapability of 'social construction.'  (I don't want to do the lame Kantian/correlationist 'gotcha' thing, even if I were capable of such, but I can't see a way around this.)  I don't deny (nor, I'm sure, would Stengers or Latour) that bifurcated reasoning can be very productive (indeed, one could valuably argue that it is a 'noble lie' that is necessary for some forms of discourse, especially scientific, despite being strictly impossible) but to separate the socially, practically constructed from the non-socially constructed (if we must persist in using these terms) in a fundamental, transcendent way requires unmediated access to something that transcends the practices that bear the enquiry, doesn't it?  Otherwise we simply have constructivism with added self-denial.  (I presume Levi would refer to critical realism on this point but I don't think their arguments work, personally.  In short: ontological realism and epistemological relativism can only be rounded off by judgemental rationalism given an essentialist view of the human subject.)
In disagreeing with an-other do we not, in fact, recognize their dignity as subject by attributing to them the capacity to both decide their own being and act according to reasons?  Isn’t there a sort of denigration of otherness in pluralism insofar as it thinks of people as mere products of their cultural horizon or world-picture?
Yes and no.  There's definitely something to this and under some circumstances I'd agree entirely.  I think that Latour and Stengers overgeneralise and fail to cast their ideas with anything like adequate clarity.  Quite often a friendly debate ending in 'agree to disagree' is perfectly adequate.  But then that's hardly a political discussion.  Where's the conflict?  Where's the friend/enemy declaration?  Having a friendly debate with a Bishop over dinner and drinks is an easy case, all too easy - roughly equal power relations (if anything the philosophy prof. holds a lower social status!), a social setting explicitly open to such debate and (I would presume to guess) many shared values besides the theological disagreements.  For an agonistic pluralist there's no politics here, just a bit of fun.

But debates over deities and idols aren't always conducted on such cosy, well-fed, egalitarian grounds.  Sometimes there's real conflict, real ant/agonism.  The much more difficult (and interesting) cases are ones where power relations are unequal.  The phrase Latour always comes back to is 'the modernising front.'  Stengers talks about capitalism and the way it destroys practices (including those of science).  I think they overstate their case, in a way.  Not every political situation is conquistadors facing off against Amazonians or colonialists lecturing natives (as important as these cases are).  Latour and Stengers sometimes act as though these were all the cases that mattered and clearly they're not.

So, sometimes, in some situations if one were to apply the 'I'll grant your deity an ontology for the sake of peace' thing it would be just a load of over-intellectualised hot air - yes, I'd grant that.  But then sometimes it's not.  And how can one make the distinction if one is committed to perpetual critique of the perceived irrationalities of others?  Cosmopolitics allows the distinction - brutish, dualist realism doesn't.

I don't think I've got any way of wrapping all this up in a neat little bow - I'm still unsure of all this myself.  Clearly this is an ongoing debate both between and within ourselves.  I'll conclude by saying that although the tension between pluralism and realism isn't zero-sum clearly a choice needs to be made.  The gruff, gravel-voiced realism that mutters under its breath about 'bloody idealists' and 'religious loons' is compatible with a pluralism of 'it's a free country - if you wanna believe in fairies, be my guest' but little else.  Maybe that kind of arrangement is the right one - I have some sympathies in that direction, I'll admit - but I don't think it's obviously right.  Not at all.

In my last post I linked to a stand-up routine on 'political correctness' by a British comedian called Stewart Lee.  He is probably best known internationally for co-writing Jerry Springer: The Opera (if you've not seen it do!).  It was a massive critical and popular success.  It was due to be aired on the BBC when an evangelical organisation orchestrated a campaign to stop it being broadcast, to close the show down and to prosecute the writers for blasphemy.  They objected to the portrayal of Jesus during a fantasy sequence (actually internal to Jerry Springer's twisted imagination).  There were also threats of violence and so on as you'd expect.  It was broadcast and no prosecutions were made, in part because the government didn't pass a blasphemy law that it was debating at the time.  (In the US you suffer from far greater evangelism but also enjoy far greater freedom of speech, which is in no way formally enshrined in law in this country.)   The evangelicals did succeed in preventing the show from touring provincial theatres, however, and so they ensured that the creators made little or no money from several years of work.

After the dust had settled Lee got back on the standup circuit he had given up pre-Springer.  He wrote a routine called Stewart Lee, '90s Comedian, which concluded the most intensely, scatalogically blasphemous story one could possibly imagine.  It has to be seen to be understood - he did it in such a way that the story seems real, almost moving.  It was, in short, a giant 'fuck you' to those who had hounded him and stressed him to the point of illness.  But, and this part has to be seen to be believed, he did all this with a sensitivity and intelligence that made a mockery of the blunt-headed stupidity of his haters.  He wasn't attacking Christianity as such, despite the monumental blasphemousness of his routine.  It was a squarely, forcefully, artfully directed blow straight onto the collective chin of those who had wronged him - directed at them in particular.

This was an 'act of war,' no doubt.  But it wasn't total war.  It wasn't perpetrated in the name of any absolute, it was strategic.  This is Carl Schmitt's realpolitik critique of liberalism: it leads to worse wars because they are wars fought in pursuit of absolutes rather than limited objectives.  Wars fought for 'freedom' or 'to end all wars' are, ultimately, wars of extermination.  I don't like building a political philosophy on the basis of war-talk (and basing it on Schmitt is, shall we say, problematic) but in this case it makes a point.  As soon as your introduce absolutes into the equation the ground shifts.

I realise that this is an inadequate explication of the point but it is all my brain seems capable of at present!  I suppose all I really mean is this: have friendly debates over dinner, sure; say 'fuck you' to evangelicals who want to impress their fundamentalisms on you, of course; but hold out the possibility that peaceable relations are also possible besides simply saying 'I think you're an idiot but each to their own.'  The value of the diplomatic attitude, I think, is that it broadens the range of attitudes possible towards others and it permits this at an ontological level.  It closes off nothing - it's openness that's the point.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

London Underground's Victoria Line suspended due to control room being flooded with quick setting concrete

Actor-network theorise that!

The irruptions of infrastructure!

Ontological conflicts, political pluralism

Levi Bryant has a new post up (responding to Jeremy Trombley) on the difficulties of being both pluralist and realist:
We need a pluralistic– a pluralism that also recognizes different animal worlds as phenomenologically described by Uexkull –to cultivate compassion and proper ethical regard for others; a big part of which involves recognizing the limitations of ones own conceptual schemes, attempting to understand others, or at least recognize that they might inhabit worlds of meaning (in Heidegger’s sense) that differ substantially from our own. However, we need a realism because there are facts of the matter pertaining to what causes psychic maladies, climate change, how economy functions, etc., and when we get these things wrong we generate horrific practices. How, then, can these things be thought together? I don’t know. It seems I’m continuously trying to square circles.
(Well, let me try to circle that square! ... sorry.)

Ontologically and metaphysically the idea of realist pluralism is no longer an issue.  There are (appropriately) numerous variants but the basic idea that reality is itself pluralistic is well established.  The question is political-discursive.  It's what Stengers and Latour are getting at with their concepts of diplomacy and cosmopolitics.

They grant, first, that all entities exist and, second, that to say that someone's cherished idol (or whatever disputed entity they hold dear) is non-existent is a 'declaration of war' - 'this means war,' as Stengers often says.  They thus shunt onto-political discourse off of the terrain of knowledge/belief in the sense of existence/non-existence.  Their basic claim seems to be that 'respect for otherness,' i.e. political pluralism, can only come from granting the entities that others hold dear an ontology, even if you don't 'believe' in them.  You are thus permitted to say 'I do not follow that god, he has no hold over me' but you are not permitted to say 'your god is an inane, infantile, non-existent fantasy, grow up.'  And it's not just a question of politeness (although there's that too).  The point is to grant others' idols and deities an existence - one needn't agree over what that existence entails, over what capacities that entity has or what obligations it impresses upon you as someone in its partial presence but to deny it existence entirely is to 'declare war' - to deny the possibility of civil discourse, of pluralistic co-existence.

I think it's important to add that they do not deny the possibility of legitimate 'war talk' - perhaps there are circumstances where that is entirely justified, in fact it's inevitable - but the properly political question should be 'how can we live together?'  That is not a utopian political programme but a pragmatic one.  And that's also the root of the notion of the composition of a common world through diplomacy.

I found (and still find) this a difficult notion to get my head around.  The notion of 'speaking your mind,' of 'saying what you really mean' is so engrained in many ways that to temper that seems dishonest.  But we do it all the time, in practice.  That's 'political correctness' (which, contrary to reputation, has not actually 'gone mad').

Interestingly, although Stengers and Latour base this political philosophy upon their interpretation of anthropological praxis (combined with that of diplomacy), this kind of mutually accepting ontology is not entirely de rigeur within anthropology.  Mario Blaser is developing basically the same set of ideas within anthropology itself, talking about ontological conflicts and political ontology.