Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Latour, sovereignty and the ‘generalised international’

Bruno Latour's keynote from the Millennium conference in London last October has now been published: Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty. Alongside it is an interview conversation between Latour, Mark Salter, William Walters and Iver Neumann: Bruno Latour Encounters International Relations: An Interview.

In the latter, one of the interviewers mentions a point I made (to be cited: still very much a novelty for me!) in my article on Latour's geopolitics, published last year. Specifically, I suggested that his work had shifted in the last 10 or 15 years from a conceptual vocabulary mostly concerned with parliaments and procedures to one perhaps better characterised by the term, borrowed from Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss, the 'generalised international.'

This connection is something that I really just threw in to the article without much explanation. The point that Edkins and Zehfuss were making in their article was that 'the international' is generally understood, in International Relations (as an academic discipline) at least, as a realm of contingency, uncertainty, negotiation and open-endedness. In other words, of anarchy (see also Alex Prichard on this point). This realm is then generally pathologised relative to the 'domestic' arena of order, law, certainty and control. Their appeal, therefore, in 'generalising the international' is to embrace this more anarchic political sensibility not as the illegitimate other of the domestic but as a general condition of a politics 'open to the future.'

The connection to Latour's work is, I think, not completely straightforward or equivalent. However, from at least his War of the Worlds: What about Peace?, published in 2002, Latour has not only tended towards a predominantly 'geopolitical' conceptual vocabulary rather than a 'parliamentary' one, but he has increasingly emphasised the importance of Carl Schmitt's distinction between war and police operations as distinguishing fundamentally different political conditions.

The major difference that I papered over in my passing allusion is that, for Latour, the 'anarchic' political situation is not necessarily the preferable one. A state of war may be 'open to the future' in a way that a police operation is not – recognising this state is the precondition of negotiating a peace that is more than nominal. However, it is more a matter of recognising the state that we are in than it is opting for a political imaginary that is morally preferable in any general sense. And so, I suppose, in the end, we meet with different meanings of 'generalisation.'