Monday 28 September 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 1, Plenary

We were greeted in Sicily by glorious, blazing sunshine. As I write this, the lights are flickering and thunder is growling in the distance. The good weather did not last but this was, nevertheless, a wonderful venue for a conference. Sandwiched between the Mediterranean sea and the volcanic Mount Etna, the town and resort of Giardini Naxos was peculiarly quiet before the conference got going—bars and cafes packed with bright lights and blaring music but few customers. The town's cracked pavements and peeling paint suggest faded glories and a context of regional poverty. However, this did not by any means detract from the experience. Likewise, when, on Saturday, the Italian aircraft display team, the Frecce Tricolori, rattled the windows and drowned out moments of the last few presentations, this, if anything, made the venue an even more interesting match.

These elemental and techno-political interventions gave me the feeling that the venue was almost building us into a box of matters of concern—the deep, deadly sea, the monstrous looming geology, the crumbling edifices of poverty and the soaring spectacle of the military-industrial-entertainment complex: all contributed to a swirlingly texture-rich and undeniably pertinent place to discuss the conference theme ‘The Worlds of Violence.’

Wednesday 23/09 was given over to registration, a plenary speech and several parallel semi-plenaries. The main event, titled ‘What We Do,’ was delivered by Nicholas Onuf, Professor Emeritus at Florida International University.

Onuf, one of the principal innovators of social constructivism within the discipline of International Relations, introduced his talk as a reflection on 50 years of scholarly practice. Particularly, he was delighted that this conference had attracted such a substantial proportion of younger scholars and wanted to pass on what he had learned in his time.

He began with a consideration of culture—“the link between us and the world”—and with C.P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ diagnosis. Beyond the cultures of the artists and scientists, Onuf, reflecting on his father’s experiences as an academic engineer, added a third: that of the practical arts and applied sciences. Next to the artist and scientist should, for Onuf, be placed the craftsperson.

What then followed was an exquisitely detailed philosophical reflection, drawing largely on Kant who, it was claimed, “got it mostly right.” Starting with individual sensory impressions and the fact of speech as a social activity, cognitive faculties were argued to be inseparable from their public exercise. Onuf's practice revolves, then, around “variously institutionalised social faculties.” Particularly:

1) Imagination
2) Understanding
3) Judgment

The discussion of these faculties was very rich and greatly exceeded my note-taking ability (and perhaps my attention-span). However, the overarching point seemed to be that no faculty is ever mobilised in a pure state. Scientists and artists are crafty; even mathematicians have their practical tricks and techniques. The pursuit of understanding—the scholarly endeavour—must, therefore, be linked to techne, to techniques and to the complex, overlapping, always public rules that mediate and enable any and all discursive achievements. Rules are unavoidable—even artists have their rules of thumb. The pressure to codify rules is intrinsic to the rationalising, professionalising and bureaucratising projects of modernity. Against formalism, we should recognise, through intensive self-reflection, the crafty character of our epistemic practices and thereby engage more seriously with the functional foundations of our rules and ways.

This may be a rather loose and incomplete paraphrase of Onuf's argument but this is what I took away from it.

Although not entirely intending to go first, I did put up my hand to ask a question and was, as it happened, the first in line. My question, perhaps best described as impertinent, asked what Kantian social constructivism could do for the matters of concern that are pressing upon us ‘youngsters,’ as we were called, today.

The geography of the conference venue, as mentioned, seemed to me a poetic illustration of the need for a thorough reconsideration of the ontological and epistemological categories that focus scholarly attention away from matters of ecology, geology and climate. More pointedly, I stated that “the last thing that IR needs is more Kantian social constructivism”—perhaps I could have worded this a little less confrontationally but it is a sentiment that I stand behind. Others in the audience also asked searching questions; several of these questions were informed by a sense that this was a rather apolitical vision of ‘what we do.’

Although I should speak only for myself, my feeling is that we ‘youngsters,’ however keen we may be to learn from the experiences of those in whose academic footsteps we are following, cannot find much but complacency in such visions. We are a generation riven with anxieties and uncertainties about the future. Of course, so were older generations (what can someone too young to ever know the fear of obliteration by The Bomb know about anxiety?). However, to disconnect a consideration of ‘what we do’ from the issues and entities that surround and motivate us misconstrues not only the political purpose of scholarship but also, I think, its day-to-day practice.

Onuf’s response to my provocation emphasised modesty: no, he admitted, not much can be said of such issues from this point of view. A more gracious reply than my comment might have received. It perhaps indicates the importance of pluralism—no mode of thought can deal with everything and nor should it be expected to. However, this nevertheless leaves me quite dissatisfied.

First, there is the question of the proverbial baby and bathwater—the sheer sophistication of the (broadly) Kantian principles are inspiring but I struggle to see how they can be sufficiently disentangled from their profound and inbuilt (one might say even purpose-built) limitations to achieve much of a conversation with more anthropocenically-sensitive and materialist points of view. It would be a conversation worth having but there has been little progress on that front, as far as I can see.

Second, Onuf's talk, although touchingly well-intentioned and kind-hearted, failed to sufficiently recognise its own situatedness as issuing from a position of authority. Believe it or not, we ‘youngsters’ are already encountering such modes of thought—indeed, they are “variously institutionalised” in such a way that they constitute a substantial portion of the rule-scape that we are obliged to navigate in order to justify the very existence of our own intellectual endeavours. In other words, the downwardness of this wisdom-transmission must be recognised. And the weather down here might be a bit different to how it is up there…

“World-making is collective and continuous,” said Onuf in conclusion. I certainly would not disagree and it is a point worth repeating. However, the range of entities admitted to that term ‘collective’ is contested—and, we might say, some entities are more ‘collected’ than others. That is, not every craft-doer gets to fashion the world with the same weight of privileges. This, too, is variable—and habitual ignorance of this fact is one among a vast litany of problems that have been handed down, alongside the rest of our inheritances. Indeed, amidst such a deep, dark sea of generationally-imposed problems, the wisdom we are grateful to receive can appear as little more than an island, perhaps even sinking beneath the waves.

Perhaps such dismissiveness stems from the arrogance of youth but, if so, it is an equal and opposite reaction to the arrogance of age. If only the former requires justification in relation to the disciplinary rule-scape in which we are embedded, well, that really proves my point.