Monday 18 October 2010

Comment on: "Structuralism, Cybernetics, and Regimes of Attraction"

In my view, the problem with the concept of structure is that it tells us that there are patterns that reproduce themselves across time and space while telling us little in the way of how these patterns reproduce themselves. As a consequence, structure comes to be treated as an agency in its own right, somehow doing things, without giving us much insight into how precisely structure does these things. And in the absence of an exploded view schematic of how structure reproduces itself, we’re left with little in the way of an account of just how to engage structure.
Structure is a difficult concept mostly, I think, because it has habitually been defined in terms of an opposite: agents. In this respect it is just another bifurcation of nature. If agents are what act and if structures are what constrain them (or, in some more sophisticated accounts, also enable them) then how are they linked? ‘Structuration’ is easily the most popular answer in sociology these days: the two halves mutually constitute themselves by a dialectical movement, thus avoiding the reification of each side but completely failing to address the problem that no one can tell us why these two things are absolutely separated in the first place. That said, I am aware that some dispense with agents altogether and see only structure but this seems to be a case of choosing one side over the other without recognising that it was a silly divide to begin with.

However, I think we can partially rescue the concept if we do away with the idea of structures as entities distinct from some other natural kind and just use it to discuss how things are structured – i.e. reclaim it in its adjectival form. Everything that is related in a coherent way can also be said to be structured. Now, there is more to it than that because structure is not simply an arrangement or configuration – it is an arrangement or configuration that effects the elements that comprise it; it is an aspect of the whole in causal relation to its parts. But nevertheless, it is a supervening mechanism that cannot be abstracted from its parts and thus cannot be wholly estranged from them as in the conventional model. A strength of assemblage theory is that it can talk about the ‘structured’ aspect of wholes without imagining them as two distinct kinds of entities.

Structure in this view is different to a ‘regime of attraction’ but still somewhat related. A regime of attraction would seem to be a largely virtual organising principle, whereas structure in this model is actual.

Sunday 17 October 2010

Comment on: "What Would Flat Ontological Criticism Look Like?"

This question has occupied my mind a fair bit. I think the best place to start is most definitely Latour's critique of critique. (This has been present in his work since at least 'We Have Never Been Modern' but has been most fully expounded in his essay 'Why has critique run out of steam?')

For Latour all critique, whether in the lineage of Kant through Marx to the Frankfurt School and today's poststructuralists or in the tradition of denunciation in the name of Science, results from the same ontological assumption: ontological un-flatness (what is the opposite of a flat ontology?). This is because critique is equated directly with denunciation and to denounce one needs an unreal overlaying the really real to peel back or tear away or unveil (postmodernists still follow this path even though they no longer believe in a real underneath the fabric - it's veil all the way down!). A flat ontology, for Latour, must therefore forego critique.

He makes a powerful point with regard to some elements of what has passed for critique to date. There is a widespread sense among (usually self declared) 'critical scholars' in the social sciences that not only is critique good but that it is the only valid occupation for a true scholar. All other forms of scholarship are seen as being somehow repressive. This is taken to an extreme by deconstructionists who insist that anyone enforcing their interpretation on anything is committing 'symbolic violence' or somesuch. To this extent, critique is a self-marginalising discourse. By this I mean that 'critical' thinkers are bound to ONLY criticise and they can only define themselves in opposition to a fabled 'uncritical' or 'essentialising' Other. For this reason they can never possibly succeed, which is a canny move as it means they never have to stop publishing and we never have to stop reading their work!

Latour makes mincemeat of these cliches but he goes too far. In fact I would say that he himself is too critical of critique - he ends up mirroring the very people he seeks to destroy. He has not one good word to say about critique and has no interest in asking what of it should be saved.

It's disappointing because Latour is at his very best when he takes something he disagrees with, takes it apart, translates it into his terms, puts it back together in the context of his overall system and makes you wonder how you ever thought otherwise. That is the way to proceed with the somewhat sullied word 'critique,' I feel. informs me that 'critique' comes from the Greek kritikos "able to make judgments," from krinein "to separate, decide". The word thus carries connotations of separation and deciding; separation and judgement. Might we say that critique consists in separation and judgment? Judgement by separation? Separation by judgement? Aren't we all critically minded? If we weren't able to separate and to judge we wouldn't be able to get very far in life. If we accept something along these lines then there can be no more pure, exceptional form of critique only known by a chosen few (notice how in this way critique production has mirrored truth production). If this is so then we have to distinguish between different forms of critique and separate the good from the bad (itself a critical act, as I would describe it). This would require no foundation (contra Habermas), it would proceed by a process of critical deambulation, if you like. This would be a better definition (if a broad one) because we wouldn't have 'critical' thinkers opposed to 'uncritical' thinkers and the self-perpetuating dance this necessarily creates.

(Also this is more or less what a music or movie critic does - breaks cultural objects down, analyses the pieces, relates them historically and contextually and judges them (or at least that is the ideal).)

Moreover, this definition wouldn't allow for the assumption that everyone is engaged in a competition to be more critical than everyone else. This is really what critique as a self-marginalising discourse must do - its a perpetual arms race, a race to the bottom that isn't there. No matter how critical you are I must always try to be more critical because that is all there is to do. If we try to do anything else we're committing 'violence' and so must surely commit hara-kari forthwith. As with all practices premised on fundamental bifurcations of reality, it just can't work.

Yet critique is far too valuable an activity to throw to the dogs of excess and stupidity. For all the negligence of those who take critique too far - and far away from where they should - they're not all completely mad - there really are those who would deny critique all licence as a scholarly activity. And these people are the real enemy.

Latour often goes on about how Science Studies was the only field that could foment the breakthrough of transcending bifurcated nature - in other words, refusing sociological idealism without trudging back to the same old realism; of forming a new realism. Science Studies, so he says, was uniquely placed at the midpoint of the 'two cultures' and he and others were thus able to realise how both sides had it all wrong. Well, I think something similar could be said for my field, International Relations, on this subject of critique. If eradication of critique is at all possible or desirable in Science Studies it certainly is not in IR, the field that deals with war, genocide, espionage and all forms of tyranny as a matter of routine. One would have to be an utter sociopath to engage seriously with these issues and not have some sort of 'will to critique' (although, having said that, there are plenty who would attempt to do so in the name of 'political Science', but that's another story).

So, I'm not sure what a flat ontological criticism would look like. First we'd have to figure out just what 'criticism' has meant in other traditions - it doesn't seem to be any one thing. I've been meaning to read Foucault's 'What Is Critique?' for a bit as well as Judith Butler's commentary on it. That might be as good a place as any to start.

DeLanda Reading Group: Cities and Nations (Part Two)

I won’t try to review everything in previous chapters and I will assume that the various technical details and taxonomies are well defined by previous commentaries, however some points deserve revisiting before we crack on with chapter 5.

The first point to raise regards DeLanda’s realism and his definition of this in sociological terms as ‘conception-independence’ (3). In response to Levi’s review of the book’s introduction I wrote:
“‘Mind independence’ is in no way a new idea, it is the mainstream view for social scientists of all stripes. DeLanda’s innovation, it seems to me, is nowhere to be seen in the first few pages (though it abounds immediately after).”
I more or less stand by this argument, although I must now make some adjustments. Upon reviewing my notes, it becomes clear that DeLanda does not say that society is ‘mind independent’ – i.e. it has an existence independent of human minds – but that it is ‘conception independent’ – i.e. it has an existence independent of the analyst’s conceptions of it. This distinction is introduced to account for the fact that if human minds disappeared so would society. This is a fair and appropriate distinction but I still don’t accept that it is particularly innovative. It’s still ‘off the shelf’ realism that, to someone trained in social science rather than philosophy, is frankly de rigeur.

To my first comment Michael at Archive Fire argues that:
“While, for the most part I agree with that line of thinking, it must be acknowledged that DeLanda’s audience are not those people [social scientists]. DeLanda is, first and foremost, a philosopher – and specifically a Deleuzian philosopher drawing extensively on what has come to be known as the “continental” tradition. So DeLanda’s project must primarily been seen as philosophical - as an attempt to reach out to those thinkers who, having learned from the intensities of critical theory of the 80’s and 90’s that focused on language and interpretation, may, again, be seeking out a way to supplement their thought with a new concern for material life and the more tangible dimensions of human experience.”
I see his point but I don’t think that I can accept his reasoning. DeLanda makes extensive use of various sociologists’ works throughout the book and declares that his intention is to “elucidate the proper ontological status of the entities that are invoked by sociologists and other social scientists” (8). Far from aiming his book primarily at ‘continental’ philosophers he clearly wishes it to be valuable to social scientists too – he’s working at the edge of both traditions and as such should be evaluated as much as possible by the standards of both. This is consistent with his statement in an interview that “a philosopher cannot take … artificial [disciplinary] limits into account, and … should push multidisciplinary approaches to the limit” (Deleuzian Interrogations, 14). It is not that I find his definitions of realism wrong as such, it is just that they are a little simplistic – ‘clunky’ would be my preferred adjective.

However, this is not the main problem. The greater problem, besides his realism’s ‘clunkyness,’ is that both ‘mind independence’ and ‘conception independence’ appear to be attacks on a position of subjective idealism, whereas poststructuralist inspired orthodoxies (which I would assume are primarily in his crosshairs) must be characterised as intersubjective idealism. This is not a particularly massive difference in the grand scheme of things but it does make a difference in this case. An intersubjective idealist may well agree that society has a reality independent of their individual conceptions of it because their views, they would add, are themselves drawn from (or even produced by) the wider socio-linguistic or discursive field. Of course, because they define society in linguistic terms they remain anti-realist, yet they would still dodge DeLanda’s realist haymaker.

In other words, mind or conception independence is clearly a necessary condition for realism but it is not a sufficient condition.

So, moving swiftly on, what do we already know about assemblages?

“[A]ssemblages [are] wholes whose properties emerge from the interactions between parts” (5). “[A]t each scale one must show that the properties of the whole emerge from the interactions between parts” (32). In keeping with the realist temper of the ontology, assemblage based analysis is causal and is “concerned with the discovery of the actual mechanisms operating at a given spatial scale” (31). ‘Micro’ and ‘macro’ are relative terms, with any given assemblage having micro or macro aspects and there existing an effectively unlimited multitude of gradations between the two throughout the cumulative emergence of levels (32). Importantly, “although a whole emerges from the interactions among its parts, once it comes into existence it can affect those parts” (34). Assemblages thus possess powers of ‘downward causation’ – indeed this property may be what distinguishes them from mere aggregations of parts.

Assemblages are thus characterised by ‘levels’ which are continuous insofar as there is no definite dividing line between them and each higher level comprises all lower levels as parts; however, levels are discrete insofar as one can identify a number of parts which form a larger whole, the properties of which are irreducible to the simple aggregation of the properties of the parts.

Insofar as each level has its own properties and dynamics different analytical resources will be required. For this reason we could say that discrete assemblages are characterised by distinct modalities (L. modus “measure, rhythm, manner”) of existence. The sense of harmonic, rhythmic or musical distinction is a useful one because these notions are easy to imagine in terms of continua, yet at the same time it is easy to imagine distinct aural objects emerging from that milieu. In other words, the notion of modes as rhythms or harmonies allows for both the mixing and imbrication of elements and their distinction from each other.

Analytically, assemblages are analysed through a fourfold structure – that is, two intersecting axes, each of which are envisioned as continua. The first division is between material and expressive properties and the second division is between processes of territorialization and deterritorialization. (I will assume that readers are familiar with what these terms mean.) Each level thus requires an analysis of the following factors:

1) Material components of the assemblage.
2) Expressive components of the assemblage.
3) Territorializing processes at work in the assemblage.
4) Deterritorializing processes at work in the assemblage.

This divides up the empirical analyses quite neatly and intuitively. The analysis as a whole, however, should also indicate what causal mechanisms create, sustain and/or threaten the assemblage as a whole and must, therefore, give some indication of how all these elements work together. With this in place we can get down to business…

DeLanda Reading Group: Cities and Nations (Part One)

So, the DeLanda reading group draws to a close! All that remains is for me (and, independently, Peter Gratton at Philosophy in a Time of Error) to review the final chapter: Cities and Nations. As some of my review has become rather lengthy, I will divide it up between a few posts. After this first short explanatory post will follow:

2) A brief overview of some pertinent points made in previous chapters that will serve as background to the discussions of Cities and Nations.

3) Something approximating a blow-by-blow account of chapter 5 with minimal critical commentary.

4) A conclusion comprising a few comments on the preceding summary but also trying to extend DeLanda’s analysis beyond cities and nations. By this I mean that DeLanda’s “journey from the micro to the macro” (6) goes from individual persons through various types of local and regional organisation to territorial nation states and stops there. In my field, International Relations, this is insufficient. As DeLanda says himself: “an assemblage analysis of singular, individual entities must be complemented by a study of the populations formed by those entities” (107). States themselves form populations; they are usually called ‘international systems.’ I shall not offer anything like a complete (or even adequate) analysis but, utilising the writings of Kenneth Waltz (undoubtedly the most influential if, also, probably the most maligned IR theorist of the twentieth-century), I shall try to sketch out a beginning for this extra level.

EDIT: I've posted parts 2 and 3. Part 4 will follow some time next week. I'll update this post with links as and when I post the rest.

Monday 20 September 2010

Reply to: 'Essentialism and a Very Strange Mereology Indeed!'

Response to:
[H]ow could we ever test this? We can't test it because there's no way to redo a particular interaction between two organizations using different individual components.
Sure, but there's a whole lot in social science that we can't test. Only logical empiricists would argue that only things that are empirically testable can be legitimately considered as knowledge. And logical empiricism is pretty much dead because it doesn't even satisfy its own conditions. That doesn't mean, of course, that we should go the other way and renounce empirical analysis - we need more of that not less - but rather that we can't expect everything we need to know to present itself conveniently for our 'testing.' (We need to be more radical in our empiricism!)

This is the problem with talking about 'mechanisms,' which I must admit always makes me feel a bit queasy. It's difficult to use this language without implicitly (even unintentionally) endorsing the 'mechanistic universe' image that is so wrong in so many ways and so thoroughly opposed to all we hold dear in these corners of the blogosphere.

But I take your point - we mustn't just take the standard categories of social science at face value. Ideas such as culture and civilization have long and ignoble histories. They are slovenly, rotund, catch-all categories that should be avoided.

But that doesn't mean, however, that we can't talk of social aggregates that possess the capacity for constrainment, enablement and downward causation. It just means that categories that encompass millions upon millions of people who have less in common than they do in difference should be avoided because they tell us nothing about those people other than that some people like to group them all together for no good reason.

Such a thing a 'Muslim culture' or 'Islamic civilization' surely doesn't exist except for its manifestation in various public discourses (and although this mode of existence gives them a certain degree of reality it takes an enormous amount of effort to territorialise these discursive assemblages, which I think is really rather the point - they're like an empty sack, they don't stand up if you're not holding them there!).

In the example you raise I think we would do well to recall DeLanda's useful notion 'redundant causation' - that is, we can talk of wholes insofar as we would gain nothing more in the subject of our analysis if we considered the parts as well. Certainly there are many instances where this is true. If we weren't able to 'frame' our world in this way we wouldn't be able to do or think anything much at all.

So, we shouldn't talk about the enculturating effects of 'Muslim civilisation' but we may be perfectly justified in talking about the enculturating effects of particular sects, particular mosques, particular geographical areas. We don't necessarily have to follow each individual person around indefinitely to grasp the requisite 'mechanisms' at play. Every analysis is an instance of abstraction - the question is whether this abstraction comes from real terms and whether it is abstracting properly.

But it is true, emergence is a very hard thing to pin down. It is not something that can be solved completely. This whole debate over emergence and mereology, we would do well to remember, largely replaces the agent-structure problem as it is in conventional social theory. It improves upon that problem in a variety of ways but it shares certain problems - there is a fundamental indeterminacy in both not just in fact but in principle too. With an indefinite number of causes acting upon an agent over an indefinite amount of time and with no possibility of isolating certain variables in a laboratory environment, we can't imagine causation in these circumstances following anything at all linear or determinate. We certainly can't do much 'testing,' it is true.

It'd be better to think of culture in terms of its other meaning: a culture of germs in a petri dish, say. Concrete objects involved in a complex, co-dependent and co-emergent mixture. It is down to the analyst to establish precisely the character of the mixture and perhaps it needs to be broken down into smaller, purer sections before it can be understood. 'Redundant causality' can help us make this connection but we can't ever hope for 'mechanisms' in any deterministic sense.

And remember: 'any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' We might not have gotten a handle on social emergence yet but that doesn't mean it isn't a real phenomenon any more than my not understanding how a car engine works means I can't drive it around.

Monday 13 September 2010

Derrida, "9/11" and discourse analysis

Ian Bogost has written a blog post on Derrida's take on '9/11' and Graham Harman commented on it on his own blog. Both, unsurprisingly perhaps!, are rather nonplussed by it.

Bogost writes:
the "event" (see, I can use scare quotes too) seems to me to invite reflection on so much more than just "this question of language," as Derrida calls it. And more than just "this question of politics," too.
Harman remarks (in reference to the so-called "Derrida wars"):
this isn’t what realism looks like.
Well, quite. Derrida is only willing to talk about the events grouped under the moniker '9/11' in terms of the moniker itself. This much is true. He doesn't recognise the larger geopolitical realities - material and symbolic alike - that extend beyond the formation of the day qua symbol.

This much is to be deplored and, I am sad to report, in my native academic discipline (international relations - the discipline meant to study such events) such linguistic idealism is becoming more and more widespread. However, having said all of that, it is very far from being a majority or even mainstream view - the hardcore of IR as with political science generally is fairly conventional reductive positivism. The mainstream remains utterly incapable of allowing for analysis of the symbolic dimensions of political violence in anything approaching a sophisticated manner. They remain stuck in a reductive analysis of what is called the "distribution of capabilities" - i.e. what war making resources different states have in relation to neighbouring states. The health of the academic discourse is not great.

For this reason I would stress the importance of not dismissing Derrida's point of view tout court (I don't think Bogost or Harman are arguing for this but it deserves iterating nevertheless). His narrowness of vision should not detract from the importance of linguistic/semiotic analysis in situations such as this. Yes, there is more to geopolitical events than their interpellating symbolisation but this aspect is nevertheless crucial and cannot be dismissed.

This, to change the topic slightly, is why I don't agree with, for instance, Manuel DeLanda (but Harman and others have more or less said the same at other times) who says that the 'linguistic turn' was the "worst possible turn" that the humanities or social sciences could have taken. For the most part, the 'linguistic turn' has made a positive and beneficial impact on IR precisely because of its prior impoverishment - an upcoming IR scholar was previously limited to a choice between behaviouralism and positivism; now they have more interesting options. Nevertheless, I've not seen a particularly original 'poststructural' or 'hermeneutic' IR text for some years now - the vein that was once rich is spent. Which is why it is necessary to develop a social ontology that keeps the benefits the linguistic turn allowed (including the kinds of analysis that Derrida was prone to) but at the same time allows analysis of non-linguistic elements of political reality. Such an ontology would, by allowing for all analytical aspects to shine through, improve upon the idealist discourse analyses, not detract from them.

If we needed any more evidence of the importance of this sort of analysis, take the so-called 'Ground Zero Mega Mosque' (which is none of those things). It is a complete fabrication - absolute nonsense from beginning to end. Yet, it has been staggeringly powerful. We need to understand how such linguistic fabrications can be put together. Derrida's form of analysis therefore has an important place. Yet, if we were successful at formulating the new social ontology suggested above, we would not only have to analyse the construction of this fabrication linguistically but also analyse the networks of media outlets reproducing this lie, the financiers buying politicians to reproduce their racist views for short term political gains and the emotional, material and economic status of the desperate, disenfranchised people who, having seen all that they thought solid melt into air over the past few years, cling to whatever nonsensical, simplistic, all-encompassing explanation they can find (i.e. racism - it's the Muslims not the capitalists!).

So, I agree with Bogost that '9/11' is 'more than a question of language.' Certainly, it is also 'more than a question of politics' for those directly affected too. The personal, emotional trauma of those who lost friends, colleagues and loved ones cannot be reduced to 'politics' - much less to the wafer thin politics of linguistic idealism. Yet, the political dimension can hardly be subtracted. Being British and fairly anti-social, I've only ever met one person I know to have been directly affected by the WTC attacks. Yet '9/11' qua symbol, 9/11' qua history changing event affects my life and the lives of millions all over the world who had no direct connection with the events at all. The day was not just a day; to quote one commentator:
As with Sarajevo in1914, Pearl Harbor in1941, and Berlin in1989, 9/11 is presented by pundits of diverse political hues as being a transformational moment where the fabric of history was violently torn.
More than a day, it punctuates 'our' history - indeed it makes 'us' 'us'; it generates the very notion of a shared history. What is more political than that?

For all the flaws of the linguistic turn, it provides a way to understand how this happens. I think that is valuable.

Sunday 12 September 2010

The "Mega" "Ground Zero" "Mosque" (that is none of those things)

I'm finding U.S. politics even scarier than usual right now. There have been a lot of reports in the media over the past few days about how Islamophobic beliefs are gaining ground now far more than just after 9/11. Communities with Muslim minorities that had few or no problems with their neighbours previously are seeing more and more aggravation, agitation and outright hostility.

The downtown New York community centre that has caused such a ruckus is fanning the flames and spineless piece of shit politicians across the board (with only occasional exceptions) are lining up to cast aspersions against a project that there is simply no good reason in the world to object to (and indeed until a few weeks ago nobody objected at all) just to score some quick political points in the upcoming elections.

Now, David J. Rothkopf over at his Foreign Policy blog - a mainstream, middle-of-the-road neoliberal if ever there was one - calls the people wanting to build their community centre "odious" and directly compares them to the extremist preacher threatening to publicly burn Qurans this week (who has now put those plans 'on hold'). Racism is in the mainstream, folks, and otherwise relatively unobjectionable people are going that way too. Islamophobia is becoming a widely acceptable prejudice.

Supposedly 2/3 of Americans now think that the centre should not be built there while 20% believe that Obama is a secret Muslim. Both equally baseless and nonsensical.

What we are seeing at the moment completely demolishes any remaining trace of the naive belief that the Internet would somehow open up public discourse for progressive ends. Utterly baseless, completely ridiculous rumour mongering, it is plain to see, is this brave new world's driving force. The more absurd and the less evidence available for any given viewpoint the stronger it will fare. If there is no evidence to support a view clearly that is evidence of a vast coverup!! If people call your view absurd clearly that is because you are an oppressed minority!!

It is sickening and very easy to denounce. However, it is questionable how far denunciation can go as a strategy. Certainly it will only reinforce the truly racist fringes but I think that it can work very well for the relatively mainstream bandwagon-jumpers like Rothkopf. To hell with him.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Learned a new word: holon

Of particular relevance to thinking about DeLanda's ontology perhaps:

Holon: something that is simultaneously a whole and a part.

Thanks Wikipedia.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

More from Žižek

What if, in truth, intellectuals lead basically safe and comfortable lives, and in order to justify their livelihoods, construct scenarios of radical catastrophe? For many, no doubt, if a revolution is taking place, it should occur at a safe distance—Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela—so that, while their hearts are warmed by thinking about faraway events, they can go on promoting their careers. But with the current collapse of properly functioning welfare states in the advanced-industrial economies, radical intellectuals may be now approaching a moment of truth when they must make such clarifications: they wanted real change—now they can have it.
He is referring primarily to Horkheimer and Agamben; the latter I consider to be a particularly important target given his weirdly pronounced fashionability in the last few years.

There certainly are a lot of self-styled 'radicals' in the academy. I myself have no problem with admitting to being a lily-livered leftist who has never been anywhere near genuinely radical, let alone revolutionary, political action. My parochial, rural working class upbringing was about as far from that world as that of private schools and private jets and nothing I have done since has brought me any closer to either of these alien realms. How usual! Indeed, yet what is striking is that so many people who are just as politically irrelevant as me pretend the opposite - these are self-styled radicals.

Times of potential political change, such as the present one, show much self-styled radicalism to be exactly what it is - so much hot air. 'You wanted change and decried its enforced impossibility - now it is there for the taking; take it!' No taking, no changing; there is nothing to say. Nothing in the academic production cycle allows for its relevance: it takes years to publish anything and nobody reads journals anyway. Besides, its not like anyone has anything in particular to say despite spraying words like 'emancipatory' and 'liberating' across their essays like piss up a brick wall.

At least Žižek gets people interested and he usually has something to say.

Žižek on Europe and "Permanent Economic Emergency"

I've not yet heard a better description of the state of the European Union than this piece by Slavoj Žižek:
One often hears that the true message of the Eurozone crisis is that not only the Euro, but the project of the united Europe itself is dead. But before endorsing this general statement, one should add a Leninist twist to it: Europe is dead—ok, but which Europe? The answer is: the post-political Europe of accommodation to the world market, the Europe which was repeatedly rejected at referendums, the Brussels technocratic-expert Europe. The Europe that presents itself as standing for cold European reason against Greek passion and corruption, for mathematics against pathetics. (Slavoj Žižek, A Permanent Economic Emergency, New Left Review 64).

It is difficult to find a place to stand on the EU in the UK. The right are happy to queue up to bash it on almost every conceivable issue, real and imaginary; however, the free market core of the project is generally ignored in terms of scrutiny in favour of ridiculous, spittle-flecked, nostril-flaring stories about straight bananas and the like. The EU's most voracious support comes from the centre with Lib Dems and New Labourites only too happy to endorse technocracy, supporting as they do both the EU's cosmopolitan pretensions and its free market ideals.

The leftist position should be clear: the EU is a neoliberal homogenising operation designed to facilitate the faster, easier appropriation of wealth for a more mobile few and to remove the possibility of political resistance for the (physically and socio-economically) immobile many. Yet it cuts across the political spectrum in an awkward way: it also realises in highly concrete terms a sort of left-leaning liberal cosmopolitanism that, in many ways, is difficult to resist, while, as the other side of precisely the same coin, it eliminates local democratic accountability and communal heterogeneity for the sake of neoliberal free market ideals.

It is easy to love the results of the Shengen agreement, the ability to live and work anywhere in the EU easily and freely, the apparent disappearance of intra-Europe realpolitik, etc. The question is: would the (at least ostensive) disappearance of borders that is so intuitively agreeable (to a social liberal) be possible without the overriding goal of socio-economic homogenisation (which should not imply egality). If one opposes the EU does that automatically make one an unrepentant nationalist?

To oppose the EU in the UK would generally involve aligning oneself with nationalists of all stripes - from moderate Tories to white supremacists via UKIP. It is something of a double bind that catches the most difficult questions for leftists today: how does one oppose neo-liberal economics while embracing broadly liberal values on questions of gender, sexuality, race and religion, etc.? The academic quasi-left of poststructuralists, deconstructionists and hermeneuticists have never come up with an answer for why their 'celebration' of contingency, openness and tolerance accords almost completely with the dominant centrist, liberal status quo. Of course, scratch many a pomo and you'll often find a economic Marxist underneath, which must lead them to declare: To economics, solidarity; to society, freedom and openness. Does this not preclude, as Žižek emphasises "political economy"? Two worlds, two rules - not unlike the nature/society fissure that social theory rests upon. Wherever shall the twain meet? The quasi-left has little or no interest. Where do we go from here?

Žižek continues from the above:
But, utopian as it may appear, the space is still open for another Europe: a re-politicized Europe, founded on a shared emancipatory project; the Europe that gave birth to ancient Greek democracy, to the French and October Revolutions. This is why one should avoid the temptation to react to the ongoing financial crisis with a retreat to fully sovereign nation-states, easy prey for free-floating international capital, which can play one state against the other. More than ever, the reply to every crisis should be more internationalist and universalist than the universality of global capital.
Not this Europe - another Europe. This seems to be the only way ahead. Damn the vicious, knuckle-dragging nationalists but equally damn and blast the suave, smug cosmopolites. Thing is: looks like this must be a Europe built from the ground up.

Levi's review of ch.1 of DeLanda's 'New Philosophy of Society'

Comments on:

Two points:

First, DeLanda's key axis 'material/expressive:territorialisation/deterritorialisation' is very interesting and is quite a powerful starting point for a social ontology. However, I wonder how far the material/expressive dimension can be taken ontologically. It is a fairly easy distinction to maintain cognitively or epistemologically - indeed, it'd be difficult think without making this separation in some way - but just how deeply rooted can we say it is in reality? If we take DeLanda at his word then surely we must say that the gravitational attraction of two asteroids is a material relation while the attraction of a wasp to an orchid is an expressive relation. Moreover, this is a truth quite apart from any human interpretation of the situation - it is not a separation made for our convenience alone - it is how the universe is really divided up. I like the distinction but I'm not sold on its being an ontological as opposed to a cognitive or an epistemological distinction (that is if this is what DeLanda is really saying). I'm not fundamentally opposed to the argument but I think I need to know more about it before being at all convinced. (Admittedly this is the first book by DeLanda that I've read besides A Thousand Years of Non-Linear History, which is primarily empirical, so I may be just showing my ignorance.)

Second, I agree with Levi that territorialisation as DeLanda articulates is a very promising linking point with Latour's thought - particularly his notion of black boxes and his distinction between social complication and social complexity.

As Latour and Callon put it:
An actor grows with the number of relations he or she can put, as we say, in black boxes. A black box contains that which no longer needs to be reconsidered, those things whose contents have become a matter of indifference. The more elements one can place in black boxes – modes of thought, habits, forces and objects – the broader the construction one can raise. Of course, black boxes never remain fully closed or properly fastened … but macro-actors can do as if they were closed and dark. (Latour & Callon 1981, p.184-85)
The process of black boxing is, in Latour’s terms, a process of social complication to be distinguished from social complexity: “[C]omplexity [is] the simultaneous taking into account of many variables at once … complication [is] the piling of many simple steps one after the other.” (Latour 2000)
Something is ‘complicated’ when it is made of a succession of simple operations. … [T]he skills in an industrial society are those of simplification making social tasks less complex rather than making them more complex by comparison with other human and animal societies. By holding a variety of factors constant and sequentially negotiating one variable at a time, a stable complicated structure is created. Through extra-somatic resources employed in the process of social complication, units like multinational corporations, states and nations can be constituted[.] (Strum and Latour 1987)
In other words, social life starts out as being enormously complex; in this state societies can only be small, relatively ragtag bands of individuals. Social members (Latour uses the example of baboons as an example of social beings in an almost pure state of social complexity) have to work constantly to maintain their social relationships. No relations endure much beyond the immediate moment of interaction - this is an ethnomethodologist's society; a society whose bonds are constantly being remade on an inter-subjective level.

The more society becomes complicated (and this occurs when humans fold more and more non-humans into their increasingly 'entangled' society) the more social relations can be placed in black boxes, the more forces can be translated over greater distances with minimal distortion, the more tightly disciplined and closely knit humans become and the larger their collectives can grow; in this state societies can take almost any form - from larger tribes to city states to empires. Now relations endure far beyond the immediate moment of inter-subjective interaction and we can say, although Latour largely shuns this language, that social structures develop (and so social mereology becomes a relevant consideration).

The important point here is that Latour, like DeLanda (it seems) and unlike Deleuze and Guattari, doesn't hold territorialisation, organisation, disciplinisation or ordering in contempt so as to 'celebrate' the 'freedom' of deterritorialisation tout court. D&G were always begrudged to allow for anything positive in territorialisation, while for DeLanda and Latour these are more or less neutral terms, circumstance excepted. We can easily translate Latour's arguments here into DeLanda's terminology: territorialisation does not simply gather social beings into tighter, more disciplined, more regimented assemblages, it makes larger collectives possible. Therefore, simply 'celebrating' deterritorialisation as being inherently 'liberating' or whatever doesn't make much sense - we have to think much more about where social organisation must be carefully disciplined and where it must not. Sweeping statements either way are not helpful.

Latour, B. & Callon, M. 1981, "Unscrewing the Big Leviathan: How Actors Macro-Structure Reality and How Sociologists Help Them to Do So," In Advances in social theory and methodology: toward an integration of micro- and macro-sociologies, K. Knorr-Cetina & A. V. Cicourel, eds., Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Latour, B. Progress or Entanglement? Two models for the long term evolution of human civilisation. 2000: Unpublished Work:

Strum, S.S. & Latour, B. 1987. Redefining the Social Link - from Baboons to Humans. Social Science Information Sur Les Sciences Sociales, 26, (4)

Sunday 5 September 2010


Already the DeLanda reading group is getting interesting with a lot of attention focused on the subject of reflexivity of social beings as distinct from natural beings as DeLanda outlines it in his introduction.

In short, DeLanda argues for a 'realist' conception of society where the social analyst's conceptions meet something intransient and real -- i.e. where the sociologist has a concrete referent object to analyse, not where said sociologist just builds up what society is through hypotheses, ideal types or signifiers. Having said this, DeLanda then immediately acknowledges that in some cases it is not this simple; he uses the case of a refugee as an example of an instance in which the social scientist may affect the referent object of study by altering the system of classification by which 'refugee' qua social subject is constituted. This happens and it is important; however, DeLanda argues, it is the exception rather than the rule. Most object of sociological inquiry are not reflexive in this manner (1-3).

On his blog, Alex Reid picks up this idea from Levi Bryant's introduction to DeLanda's introduction and writes:
[T]here is an interesting reflexive quality to a social realist ontology that it different from an ontology of natural objects. That is, calling a tree a tree doesn't impact what the tree is. Calling a plant a weed, doesn't change the plant (though it may change the way people react to the plant). On the other hand, the way we name things in a social milieu can be cybernetic. For example, students who become labelled as smart or troubled or whatever can tend to take on those roles.
In response Levi writes:
This reflexivity is one of the key features of the social. Social entities are capable of relating to the manner in which they are described, such that their description modifies their nature through this relation. If my doctor, for example, diagnoses me as suffering from depression, I might do research on depression and begin emulating some of these descriptions.

All of which reminds me of an essay called 'Social Thought and Social Action' by the philosopher Martin Hollis that appeared in a book called The Social Dimensions of Science in 1992. In particular I am reminded of what Hollis called 'double' and 'triple hermeneutics.'

"Guinea pigs do not read books", begins Hollis, "Biologists do." Humans react to their observation in a way that non-humans do not; in short, they are reflexive beings. This is a "universal social fact" (68). I think we can all agree that guinea pigs, in fact, do not read books. But this highlights something rather important. For Hollis the reflexivity of social beings divides the world in two: on the one hand, there are intelligent, reflexive humans who, when observed, necessitate 'double' or even 'triple hermeneutics' as we are then layering interpretations on interpretations on interpretations (hence leading to 'double' and 'triple hermeneutics'); on the other, there are mute, prostrate non-humans largely oblivious to their manipulation and utterly incapable of affecting the observer in response to the observer's manipulation.

Both Alex and Levi imply (perhaps they would not agree, but this is how it seems from the discussion so far) that reflexivity is a defining characteristic of sociality and that only social beings can be properly reflexive. DeLanda does perhaps imply something like thus but I do not think this is the right way to interpret him at this point.

DeLanda asserts that some social relationships are reflexive and others are not. Social relationships are reflexive when interpreting them affects the original phenomena. Writing policy guidelines for government refugee legislation is, therefore, a decidedly reflexive act as the category of 'refugee' is being reshaped as it is being observed. If I am sat watching a news report about refugees in Australia, for example, this is not reflexive in this way as my experience has no (or at least negligible) impact on the category of 'refugee.' Fair enough, but none of this restricts reflexivity to the social or, indeed, makes societies defined by reflexivity.

Firstly, DeLanda is clear that reflexivity is the exception rather than the rule. Secondly, I see no reason why, for example, an assemblage of gases locked in a relatively stable cycle of disequilibrium (so that the assemblage is constantly changing but cycles back to repeat itself relatively consistently) cannot be said to be 'reflexive'. Certainly it is not of the order of sentient beings attaining self awareness but nor is it totally different. Various beings in an assemblage react to other beings in such a way that all their properties are altered over time.

For Hollis humans are reflexive and non-humans are not, therefore humans and non-humans are completely different (reality is thereby duly bifurcated). For DeLanda some human relationships are reflexive and some are not and we already know that humans and non-humans are not altogether different. On that basis, I would rather put it this way: reflexivity is a possible property of all assemblages, not just social ones. Although social, human assemblages display unusually enhanced properties of reflexivity this does not place them ontologically apart from less reflexive or even un-reflexive assemblages. All can develop reflex mechanisms of one kind or another.

In this reading, human/human, human/non-human and non-human/non-human assemblages may all attain 'reflexivity' or they may not. It is an open question.

re: DeLanda Introduction

I would certainly agree with mark about the introduction. I don’t really like the way DeLanda begins there, to be honest. The first few pages could have been lifted from any positivist sociologist in the twentieth century (and there have been more than a few). ‘Mind independence’ is in no way a new idea, it is the mainstream view for social scientists of all stripes. DeLanda’s innovation, it seems to me, is nowhere to be seen in the first few pages (though it abounds immediately after).

My criticism of his opening would be that the language with which he outlines his philosophy of science is far too similar to that of most mainstream (i.e. positivist) social theorists. Any given individual mind is not a necessary condition for the existence of society, although minds altogether are – that’s Durkheim’s shtick. It’s all valid enough but it’s not new. In short, DeLanda believes in social facts (a social fact: a social phenomenon that has “an existence of its own, independent of its individual manifestations.”)… Which is fair enough, any realist must believe so (at least in some form), but that is not where his innovation lies.

As soon as he gets into his assemblage theory we realise how different his approach is from any Durkheimians. We begin to see that, yes, minds in the plural are necessary conditions for the existence of society but that doesn’t mean so much. Water is a necessary condition for the existence of oceans, as are worms for the existence of rainforests. Human minds are just parts of vast ecosystems and, as important as they are, the mind independence of society is hardly reducible to social (or human) factors alone! Once we get into the assemblage theory we can think as widely as this, whereas the conventional social theory he flirts with would take collective human minds as (a) on a different (i.e. objective) ontological level to individual (i.e. subjective) minds and (b) as the only significant object of analysis.

But, that aside, this is an excellent introduction to DeLanda’s introduction and I’m looking forward to the rest of the reading!

Friday 27 August 2010

Completed: 'Where’s the Action’ Latour, Ontology and World Politics

I finally finished writing the paper that I put an abstract up for a while ago. It turned out much longer than I expected. I have had to make up a severely redacted copy to present in Oxford next week. I shall post the full end product here for posterity.

'Where’s the Action’ Latour, Ontology and World Politics

Friday 20 August 2010

The Onion on U.S. troop withdrawals

Sometimes only satire can cut to the core of things.

According to the president, the relative victory could be credited to a number of achieved benchmarks, depending upon how strict one's definition of "achieved" is. Obama pointed to the democratic election of an Iraqi parliament currently being held together by a thread; the streets of Iraq being slightly less hellish than they were in 2006; and the fact that women are now, for the most part, free to move around the country so long as they don't make a big production out of it.

Obama also noted that during the war more Iraqi insurgents died than American troops, which, he admitted, isn't necessarily the best way to determine a war's victor, but is nonetheless still preferable to the other way around.


Following the president's address, a car bomb ripped through an outdoor market in Baghdad killing eight Iraqis and wounding 32.

Pentagon officials also declared the mission, in a sense, kind of sort of accomplished Tuesday, citing the handful of Iraqi hearts and minds that may have been won over by the U.S. occupancy, and the fact that Iraqi prime minister Nouri al-Maliki had not yet been assassinated.


With the cessation of combat operations, and the declaration of what sources said couldn't be called a complete and utter failure because to do so would be to admit that the U.S. wasted $750 billion, lost 4,400 troops, and killed 100,000 Iraqi civilians for absolutely nothing, both Democrats and Republicans have attempted to take credit for the quasi-victory.

Two realisms

@ John (post 7)

Well, you can 'prove' anything with contextualism so, yes, my point is conceptual in that regard but I think that it makes sense.

To put it a little more precisely: it seems to me that there are two variants of 'realism' to be recognised and they often become conflated. This point can be demonstrated by quoting Levi from above:

"Nothing is completely present, there is no transcendental signified."

One variant of realism would agree with this statement, one wouldn't. The former, I would argue, has taken on board, knowingly or otherwise, the kind of arguments that Derrida and his associates have been making for the past forty years -- taken on board, understood and moved on. The latter still believe in the 'really real' beneath all the mess, superstition and unreality. This is quite a big difference.

Many of the critics of the sort of realism that Levi and Graham are proposing immediately assume that they are attempting to insert some sort of transcendental signified back into the discussion -- to get 'back' to the 'really real' beneath all the sludge and detritus of sense perception. (I must admit, this was the conclusion I initially and ignorantly jumped to.) This is rather far from the truth!

Perhaps my view is a little skewed coming much more from political theory than philosophy -- in political theory 'realism' has for a very long time been the exclusive province of rock-kickers and table-thumpers, desperate to beat their opponents into submission. Levi, Graham et al. are, thankfully, a bit above that and the difference between this old, rather vulgar, foundationalist realism and what is going on now deserves recognition.

Many 'realists' in political theory talk about going 'back' to realism, the implication being that 'yes, yes, all that stuff about signifiers and whatnot is very interesting and all but lets get back to what we were doing before -- talking about reality'. The new realism isn't going 'back' it is going in its own direction, which I, for one, am pleased about.

Thursday 19 August 2010

Derrida again.

Nothing is completely present, there is no transcendental signified. Isn’t this above all what deconstruction is asking for and isn’t this a move beyond metaphysics as the metaphysics of presence? Isn’t this precisely a world without ultimate arche that would ground everything else and from which everything would originate, and without terms that are fully present and self-identical?

Something that has become quite plain from this debate is that when you say ‘realist’ (especially when coupled with ‘substance’!) a lot of people immediately hear contained within that term ‘unmediated, full, infallible, rational, foundational presence’ — which is unfortunate… It throws the proverbial baby out with the bathwater somewhat (i.e. it ditches all metaphysics so as to ditch metaphysics qua foundationalism).

The way Levi describes his own relationship with J.D. it would make sense to describe OOO as ‘post-Derridean’ in the sense that the main lessons of his work have been taken on board and are accepted but, some decades after deconstruction first broke onto the scene, is (refreshingly) no longer bound to Derrida’s method, his vocabulary or his goals.

re: "Realism is de rigueur" (pt. 2)

@ BB (post 53)

Thanks for the reading suggestion (G. Bennington “Not Half No End”), I’ll check it out.

[I]n the spirit of OOP, why not talk about the object (i.e. Derrida) and not your linguistic mediation of the object (i.e. the “tradition”?)

Is Derrida more of an ‘object’ than ‘the tradition’? Of course there is Derrida and then there is “Derrida” (just as in Latour’s Pasteurization of France there is Pasteur (the man) and “Pasteur” (the myth, the legend, the ‘genius’)).

It is difficult to disentangle these two things but certainly both were objects or collections of objects. Derrida is dead so he’s not much of an object anymore!

As for his texts, they remain objects but very much in the plural, translated into many different languages and printed thousands of times. Never mind the fact that they are intertextually related and cannot be understood qua philosophy texts outside of that relationality.

But aside from that, if you mean that I should just talk about the real Derrida rather than what I was taught about him (perhaps erroneously) then I must say that my impression upon reading him was that while he was ambiguously realist in his interviews, in his other texts he was straightforwardly anti-realist.

Derrida was extremely lucid in his interviews and rather difficult everywhere else and I suspect many of the citations arguing for his ‘realism’ came from the interviews rather than his other texts as there he let himself use declarative sentences.
But I must be clear: I am no Derrida expert — not even close, so I am not claiming any interpretative authority whatsoever. My point is more that if Levi and others take Derrida to be an anti-realist they are, in this respect, fully in agreement with the vast majority of the secondary literature on J.D.. Where they differ is that Levi and others think anti-realism is a bad thing and most Derrideans don’t.

This jars with the Derridean side of this ‘debate’ which broadly takes the line: ‘how can you think he is anti-realist? he obviously is a realist, just look at A, B, C, D…’. Well, it isn’t at all that obvious; if it was then fewer people would have made this mistake (if that is what it is).

My question therefore is: if Derrida was a realist why have so many people come to the opposite conclusion? Everybody is perfectly entitled to argue that he is a realist but I would like to hear why it is that so many intelligent people have made the mistake of thinking he isn’t (if it is a mistake).

It may well be that he has said anti-realist things and realist things at different times and in different texts. This seems most plausible. In this case we should ask if there is enough realism in Derrida for him to be usefully taken as a realist philosopher. That would seem to be the more pertinent debate.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

re: "Realism is de rigueur"

If Derrida is truly a realist (and I think that this argument is very interesting) then 99.5% of the scholarship on his work for the past thirty years has completely misinterpreted him.

Certainly I was not taught this particular version of J.D. in grad school. To quote (verbatim) the professor who taught discourse analysis: “language relates only to language”. (Pretty unambiguous!) Perhaps I was misinformed by an oaf who knew nothing? Or perhaps, and I find this rather more plausible, I was taught the overwhelming, mainstream view present in every textbook and seminar syllabus I’ve ever seen. Perhaps this is why whenever anyone in the class was so naive as to suggest that human perception is impacted by non-human objects in fashions irreducible to individual or collective discursive representations of those objects they were swatted down with disdain?

So, why is it only now that the ‘real’ (i.e. ‘realist’) Derrida is there for all to see, so obvious and self-evident? For all those who consider Derrida to be a realist: great! But the first thing you have to do is to explain why almost everybody who has ever read Derrida has gotten the opposite impression.

Secondly: Does language relate to more than language? If there is no REFERENCE between words and worlds (nobody here is arguing that) then is there RELATION between words and worlds and, more importantly, are there worlds even without words?

Wednesday 11 August 2010

re: Failed State of Political Theory

re: Failed State of Political Theory

A very interesting document on 'Failed States' is Foreign Policy's "Failed States Index":

It appears on their website with the tagline "The World's Most Vulnerable Nations -- And the Bad Guys Who Keep Them That Way". (Because we know that the world's problems are all down to evil black men, obviously.)

It ranges from the insensitive and oversimplifying to the overbearingly orientalist (not to say borderline racist), but that is the 'failed state' thesis all over.

Whoever heard of, instead of a 'failed' state, a 'successful' tribal structure? Presumably because such pre-modern notions are inherent failures -- only states can either fail OR succeed.

The state is the only game in town even when it's not.

There is a large body of literature on this topic within security studies but it hasn't made a dent on the neoliberal mainstream (which Foreign Policy embodies thoroughly).

Tuesday 10 August 2010

Derrida et al.

The Derrida debate:

For some obscure and possibly pathological reason this debate recalls to my mind a cliché often found in car adverts:

"It's all the car you'll ever need..."

Is deconstruction "all the [philosophy] you'll ever need"? Can anyone make that claim of any philosophical position or any one thinker? If so that pretty much precludes the claim to be a philosopher. Yet a great many people (and I am not necessarily including anyone in this debate in this generalisation) seem to think that deconstruction is 'all the car you'll ever need' and that we should pretty much just stop looking for anything else. The only legitimate task ahead is to iron out the creases in the theory and get on with 'destroying in slow motion', as Latour likes to say. (For anyone who thinks this is an invalid generalisation I know a notable professor of political theory who has said pretty much exactly this to me in the past; I have no reason to believe that it is an isolated belief -- in fact I expect the contrary.)

It is an odd sort of 'end of history' movement and it cropped up around the same time that Francis Fukuyama revived that tired old Hegelian trope (and for probably very similar reasons). Fukuyama declared the end of history for geopolitics; Derrida, if you believe the hype, declared it for philosophy and literary and social theory alike. Strident rightists and confused leftists have this in common. I think this says a lot.

I have nothing against Derrida, only against Derrideans. He was a first rate philosopher but a limited one. If he can be said to be a great philosopher that greatness surely comes from an unsurpassed and probably unsurpassable attention to detail and a close concentration on a handful of very particular problems. For this he should be celebrated.

He is not, however, all the car I will ever need; nor is his work all that useful for what I am interested in right now. The problem is that his work has achieved such a hegemony that I have to prove that he is not relevant to my work than the other way around. The burden of proof with regard to his ir/relevance is on me, as far as far as past supervisors and many of my peers are concerned. This too says a lot, I think.


The thing we commonly see with advocates of deconstruction and hermeneutics is, whenever faced with any criticism, is to call for a return to the careful reading of the text. But this is a trap. Whether intentional or not, it is a trap designed to insure that we never move out of the history of philosophy, an established canon, and the text.
This sort of thinking is also, I regret to report, increasingly widespread in social science and the influence here is even more corrosive because there is an added dimension: an avoidance of doing any actual research.

The 'there's nothing outside the text' crowd are a minority, yes, but they're a growing one; their cherished 'theory' provides a good excuse to never actually leave the campus or delve into primary research. A box set of The Wire and some theory textbooks and you're good to go. No need to go to the effort of speaking to 'real' people (what a regressive, rationalist notion!).

Of course I do not think that that textual analysis is a bad thing; rather, I am concerned that because of the narcissistic excesses of the 'textualists' the whole concept becomes ghettoised, making it extremely difficult for any fresh thinking to break through.

As a grad student or early career academic either you submit to the empiricist mainstream, which comes out in a rash at the sight of anything remotely 'continental', or shipwreck yourself on one of a handful of 'discourse friendly' institutional islands where you're not allowed to 'go outside the text' or make any positive claims about the world at all -- if it's beyond the horizon (of discourse) it doesn't exist!.

It's no wonder it all ends up going a bit 'Lord of the Flies' in these places.

PhD woes/lack of them

Peter Gratton's PhD experiences certainly seem to be exceptional. I'm not even sure if it is possible to finish a PhD inside eighteen months in the UK -- in political science at least. Most departments would not want to lose the funding for one thing (and so would surely attempt to refuse early finishers if at all possible) and any students with Research Council funding are funded for three years so it wouldn't make any sense for them to finish early even if they could -- they might as well work on something else in the meantime and finish the thesis off at the three year point.

I am not currently a PhD student but I have many friends that are and it seems that their supervisors expect them to work their thesis over and over several times before they actually commit to a topic or a question firmly, let alone complete the thing. This may be due to badly thought through ideas but it certainly seems that this is seen as being a formative experience that all but the most utterly exceptional students are expected to go through.

Monday 5 July 2010

Comment on 'Letting Go'

In summary, the problem of a political precedence for ontology is really only a problem for those who already assume that politics undergird everything in the first place. It's the same motivation that will, I'm sure, motivate its supporters to disagree with me on the grounds that my position is merely an ideological misconception of some sort of latent neoliberalism. Of course, that's an example of the very problem with correlationism in the first place, one of many obsessions we must learn to let go of.
I hate to always bring it back to Monsieur Latour but he has a nice take on this issue: we must, he says, "detect politics ‘everywhere’ when some group formation is at stake [but] nonetheless ... avoid the empty claim that ‘everything is political’." (Taken from What if we Talked Politics a Little?.)

1: Politics is everything.

2: Politics is everywhere.

The broader part of contemporary 'continental' political philosophy and its associated 'theory' in the humanities and social sciences (along with most of the graduate students I know) would subscribe to the former; and they do so with good intentions. It is, however about as empty a claim as empty claims come.

If everything is political then writing 'deconstructions' that nobody will read about things nobody cares about can be construed as being politically 'active'.

I've thought in the past that this odd, paralysing stance of 'everything is political' mirrors exactly the scientistic notion of truth: that something is true because of a transcendent attachment to how things really are rather than a whole assemblage of attachments to heterogeneous actors who, altogether, make something true. Mirroring this, many people consider themselves to be 'politically active' because they think that 'everything is political' and thus that their 'critiques' are of worth simply by virtue of existing, not because they have any actual effect on anyone or anything whatsoever.

If politics is everywhere rather than being everything then what does this mean for the politics of ontology/philosophy debate? I think it means that we can never pretend that our discussions are completely outside politics but that does not mean that we should always be agitating for a particular political programme.

A Latourian response to politics is to admit that 'we don't know'. We don't have the answers. All we have is some questions that, to put it in a Deleuzian way, we have to reformulate until we have the right questions (because without the right questions you can't arrive at the right answers).

I don't think that any participants in these debates would place philosophy or ontology outside politics as such but it just doesn't automatically follow from this that all philosophical debates must be explicitly political ones. We cannot 'escape' politics (because it is everywhere) but we should not be lured into overestimating our own importance by assuming that everything is politics (and thus that our fairly esoteric discussions are of any political importance).

That is to say: philosophers should be free to speculate. (Politicians aren't free to speculate. Their jobs are too important for that.) This gives philosophers a certain amount of freedom - the freedom to be a bit apolitical if this is what will allow us to think differently (which is ultimately the goal of both philosophy generally and political philosophy in particular).

Every philosophy has political implications and I'd be highly critical of any philosopher who rejected political philosophy tout court but to assert that 'all philosophy must be political otherwise its just complicit in A, B, C and D' presupposes that any of us know what politics is or that any of us know what anything is for that matter.

In the name of politics this argument forecloses philosophy.

Or: if 'philosophy begins in wonder', political philosophy must begin with admitting that we don't really know what politics is.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Bhaskar’s, Latour’s, and Stengers’ conception of science is one in which scientific practice is both transitive in the sense of being socially produced and where conceptions of the world change over time, while nonetheless being ontological in the sense that the objects dealt with by science are real and intransitive actors in the world.
The major difference between Bhaskar and Latour would seem to be that, as far as I can tell, the categories of transitive and intransitive are in every sense categorical. In Latour one must have degrees of transitiveness - 'to be real is to resist' and this precludes any absolute distinction between two in any instance. Plus, for Bhaskar, the intransitive dimensions of objects are hidden away out of sight in some mysterious other realm that we can only glimpse partially through 'critique' in the Kantian sense. This is what Latour's entire ontology is explicitly and rabidly opposed to - the two tier system in which realist is only open for viewing to a privileged few. I like Bhaskar but the transitive and intransitive dimensions do appear to me to be rehashed primary and secondary qualities. They are not a one-for-one match with them but they fulfill precisely the same function in his 'critical realist' scheme, namely to distance the really real from the merely epiphenomenal. Indeed, this is explicitly the case as Bhaskar believes that 'we' need to access the intransitive dimensions of social reality so as to facilitate 'emancipation'. Complete anathema to Latour (though perhaps not to Stengers).

Friday 18 June 2010

A simple yet powerful refutation of idealism

A simple yet powerful refutation of idealism: Ask any idealist to recall a time when they had a good idea but couldn’t find a pen...

Sunday 13 June 2010

Another attempt to ape Latour's rhetorical style

‘Man is rational! States choose! They act according to their interests!’, exclaim the rationalists. ‘Have you not read Machiavelli? Do you not know who Hobbes is? It is human nature, you irrationalists’, they fume.

‘Well’, interrupt the rational choice theorists, ‘you are right up to a point, although you are terrible positivists; we can only say that men act as if they are rational – your theories cannot grasp the fullness of reality; what hubris! We only assume individual rationality because this allows us the most explanatory and predictive power.’

‘Pah!’, smirk the poststructuralists, ‘power! And power is all you’re after; you say you only ‘theorise’ but you’re as bad as the rationalists; rational subjects are simply the produce of discourse – the washed up detritus of socio-linguistic fields. Or they’re just a product of the rationalising gaze of the researcher. We don’t know which it is. We refuse to impose our interpretations!’

Having just returned from failing to smash capitalism, the critical realists are in a bad mood: ‘Bourgeois rationalists and irrationalists the lot of you! Emancipatory social action can only be taken on the basis of counter-ideological, properly scientific knowledge but to presume a rational, transhistorical subjectivity is Whiggish at best; and as for you po-mos: go back to France! We all need to focus our energies on uncovering the intransitive dimension of social structures; that is the only way to bring about the rapt… we mean revolution.’

Observing this scene, the Latourian (ever the observer) scratches her head and appears puzzled: ‘These people seem to be missing the point’, she thinks to herself. She clears her throat and ventures to interject: ‘Of course presidents and generals act like rational, self-interested actors. Of course governments are structured so as to foreground this sort of thinking. So yeah, states are rational actors, sort of; insofar as they can be black-boxed, anyway. But we don’t need to read Hobbes or Machiavelli to know this. And what has human nature got to do with it? (Really, you should read up on ‘nature’ some time, all of you; I can recommend you some good books if you want.) But anyway, you’re all grossly overcomplicating the issue. We don’t know that these people act rationally because Machiavelli and Hobbes somehow worked out what ‘really’ drives humans; these people act like this because they’ve all read Machiavelli and Hobbes!! Have you ever seen a five-star General’s bookshelf? Ever thought to ask? Of course not. You’re all too busy trying to tell people what they think.’

Met with a flurry of expletives from all sides – ‘relativist!’, ‘obscurantist!’, ‘objectivist!’, ‘apologist!’ –, the Latourian exits the scene. A more hostile and pig-headed tribe this ‘anthropologist of modernity’ has never encountered. Even natural scientists are more calm and reasonable than this lot! ‘At the very least’, she reflects with a chuckle, ‘I got them to agree about something!’

And so it was that nought was solved. A sad tale, but one that bears telling.

Thursday 10 June 2010

Middlesex moving to Kingston

It is interesting how mixed the responses to the CRMEP's move from Middlesex to Kingston have been. I, myself, am delighted although everyone recognises that it is by no means a victory without caveats attached and that the campaign must continue. The primary criticism seems to be one of the campaign 'selling out' because they didn't go down in a hopeless blaze of glory. The more fair criticisms note that two junior members of staff won't be included in the move and that Christian Kerslake is still suspended without another job to go to. I can see where this reasoning would come from but the campaign have made very clear that their struggle is not over! They're not just going to abandon their friends and colleagues; the suggestion is absurd.

Despite what the few come-lately naysayers have suggested, the student campaign has been absolutely brilliant and I see no reason to assume that it will be anything else now that the Centre's future has been secured. The campaign has wisely avoided what is often the downfall of student protests, which is to adopt a poise of all or nothing, us against the world -- a 'the revolution starts here' attitude. Such an attitude deflates even the most unexpected and, frankly, unexpectable victories such as the recently announced Kingston move.

A good friend of mine once remarked that ' it is important for the Left to celebrate small victories, otherwise we just become a bunch of grumpy, middle-aged, white men arguing furiously about our almost identical views in dark rooms above dingy old pubs' (I'm paraphrasing and possibly embellishing).

We have not passed from the darkness to the light and there remains a lot of work to do but if such pragmatism sours events such as this which even the most outrageous optimists would have struggled to see coming then we are in a pretty pitiful state.

Abstract: ‘Where’s the action?’ Latour, ontology and world politics

My proposed abstract for the 'Globalization and International Relations' conference at Oxford in September was accepted. I don't know exactly where I'm going to find the time to write it but perhaps if I post it here it'll make me find the time!

It'll be my first conference presentation, which is funny as I'm not even a student at the moment; Mr Independent Researcher, that's me. I'm currently planning to write an article on Latour and IR and submit it for publication by the end of the year. This paper will cover one part of my thoughts along these lines.

The abstract:
‘Where is world politics today?’ (‘Where’s the action?’) Two unsatisfactory answers: (1) In the variegated actions and interactions of states; (2) In the complex actions and interactions of non-/trans-state actor-networks that increasingly disregard the actions and interactions of states. It is clear: we are divided by disagreements over actors – to know ‘where the action is’ we must first know who or what is acting. We need to understand our actors; we need to understand our ontologies. The demise of the state has often been greatly exaggerated in Global Studies (GS), this much is true; yet, equally, an overbearing state-centrism is the nettle International Relations (IR) has been trying and failing to grasp for decades. This paper explores what I believe to be the best meeting point of these two problematics: the ontology of socio-political aggregates – states, nations, governments, bureaucracies, armies, terrorist networks, media networks, socio-linguistic networks, etc. To this end, this paper: firstly, reconsiders the ontology of how states and states systems are made, through the philosophy of Bruno Latour; secondly, it compares this initial analysis to notable recent attempts to apply Latour’s philosophy to GS through actor-network theory (e.g. Srnicek, 2010); finally, it considers the relationship between GS and IR both actually and prospectively – are the disciplines best conceived of as ‘close cousins’?; ‘progeny and progenitor’ (with Oedipal undertones)?; or, do they merely bear a ‘family resemblance’ to one another? The actual relation of the disciplines is a question to be left open, however I shall argue that, precisely for reasons discussed in this paper, the proper relationship of the disciplines should be one of vital and intensive symbiosis.

Tuesday 8 June 2010

Little Lateral Realism Story

If not 'realism' then what? Anti-realism? Surely not! 'This statement is not true' is too pointless a waste of time to ever be more than silly and sophomoric; at worst it is simply moronic. Latour's position is clearly superior. Statement A is more or less universal, more or less true, more or less a fact depending on its associations; that is, on its relativity. If I whisper statement A and nobody hears it then it is extremely weak. If I pick up a megaphone and bellow it out then it could be stronger; then again, if the excessive volume annoys people who would, had I just whispered A closer to them, been receptive to it then it is counterproductive; volume - that is, raw power - doesn't necessarily equal 'strength'. Suppose I stand on Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park in London, soapbox under foot, and pontificate A to passers by. The fate of A is then dependent on my rhetorical skills, the weather, other speakers present at the same time, etc. Passers by and other onlookers may think me just another lunatic - they may immediately assume A is some weird conspiracy theory and not listen at all. If so, A remains weak - a fiction and a mere one at that. Then again, perhaps people will listen. Perhaps A is, under the right conditions, an unexpectedly powerful statement - a 'lure for feeling', indeed. Perhaps it is so powerful that it takes on a life quite of its own. Perhaps my listeners become stronger believers than myself. Perhaps then I become like Monty Python's 'Brian', terrorised by a mob that believes me to be the deliverer of the sublime A to the people. A, then has become strong - too strong! The stronger it becomes the more universal it is; the more people believe it to be true, the more entangled in all manner of heterogeneous human and non-human associations becomes the more truthful it becomes - the more real it becomes.

Critical realists call their realism (both critical and) 'depth realism'. I call mine 'lateral'; I could also call it 'breadth realism'.

Saturday 29 May 2010

Comment on: 'Lakoff on Obama and the Gulf Oil Disaster'

Comment on:

Perhaps I’m a cynical bastard, but I just don’t think people are primarily motivated by empathy but rather by interest.

The opposition of interest and empathy is an interesting one - I think it is a mistake to see them as being mutually exclusive.

For interest/empathy we can more or less substitute cognition/affect. If we do this we see that these are less terms in opposition and more psychological categories (so, parts of a whole). The point is that, if we divide the psyche up like this, both parts are involved in any event - including political and economic decisions.

Alberto Toscano's recent article 'Powers of pacification: state and empire in Gabriel Tarde' (which I read yesterday so it's fresh in my mind) makes an interesting point: the likes of Tarde (alongside Whitehead, Deleuze, etc.) who have recently been revived because of the central place they give to 'emotion' in metaphysics (and thus politics) have been hailed as displacing the reductive rationalism of neoliberal economics (and so most sociology and political science, too). But what Toscano points out is that this is only one side of the story - the side of the economists; the other side is that of the marketers - on this side, from Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann through to our PR obsessed present, the place of 'affect' has been pivotal (and it has always been associated with anti-democratic sentiments). Deleuze and Guattari weren't the first to describe capitalism in terms of desire - this had been going on for decades.

On this issue I would highly recommend Adam Curtis' documentary 'The Century of the Self (my favourite documentary of all time, in fact) which charts the trajectory of 'affect' through Western society from Freud's psychoanalysis through 60s/70s 'rebellion' to Bill Clinton's PR/market research fueled election campaigns.

All of which is a long winded way of saying that I don't think we have to choose either interests or empathy - it is in the interaction between interests and empathy that politics is to be found. The point that Ian mentions about Lakoff being a "60′s hippie flowerchild" is quite right and Curtis' documentary shows precisely the links between this kind of quasi-political subjectivity and the corporate politics of the present. Whether he is "increasingly out of place in the 21st century" is a more complex question, however. Far from being 'out of place' as such I would see his statements as standing for much of what passes for the 'left' in the U.S. today - that is, a remnant of bygone 'glories' that weren't actually all they were cracked up to be in the first place and still pervade the emotive focus of present discourse. In other words, the centrality of 'affect' or 'empathy' just places all the weight on one side of a, if not arbitrarily then certainly inexactly, partitioned psyche.

The right in the U.S. and elsewhere are under no such illusions - they are more than happy to play on both sides of psychology and be thoroughly instrumental in doing so. (See William E. Connolly's book 'Capitalism and Christianity, American Style' for an account of how the right is able to organise and cooperate even when it is profoundly divided internally between neocons, neolibs and evangelicals, etc.)

The interesting point, if we go back to Toscano's article, is that this 'affective leftism' so prominent in U.S. politics is also present in 'leftist' academia (hence the new popularity of Tarde, etc.)

Now that doesn't mean that I don't think Tarde, Whitehead, Spinoza and the others aren't important but (actually, like Spinoza) we need to rethink the relationship between emotion and rationality rather than just placing all the weight on one side over the other.

In short: neither interest nor empathy rules a priori - the 'left' is doomed so long as it dwells on either half; the right doesn't make this mistake.

Thursday 27 May 2010

Nice documentary from Al-Jazeera English on Britain, the empire and decline

'What is so great about Great Britain?' Not a lot it seems! A fine antidote to our new era of moronic, nationalist, Tory smugness.

Middlesex boycott petition, allegations of assault

It seems that my previous post was not so far off the mark. John Protevi (I'm really starting to love that guy) has organised a boycott petition. The numbers currently stand at 864 and are increasing literally by the minute.

In addition, the latest round of lies and subterfuge from the administration contains allegations that 'broken bones and serious bruising' was suffered by security staff 'protecting' the Mansion House premises from the students who were doing nothing more than turning up to talk to their Dean. (One might wonder why they were being disallowed from doing this in the first place.)

The below I posted at

Besides the various evasions and the familiar misinformation in the letter Kay links to, surely the most serious part is the allegation that, during the Mansion House occupation:
“Assaults were committed on security staff by individuals from the protest on entering the Mansion building resulting in serious injuries including broken bones and severe bruising.”
If this is true why did the police leave so soon after arriving having concluded that nothing illegal had occurred and why has no further action been taken? If there is a shred of truth to these allegations, why has it taken until now to mention the ‘broken bones’ and the ‘serious bruising’. And where is the evidence? You would have thought that if these things had actually happened then evidence would have been taken and circulated as this would be the administration’s trump card PR-wise.

I can only assume on this basis, without having been there, that these claims are completely bogus – that is, that they are lies.

The administration may have been able to make their claims of ‘assault’ stick legally before (i.e. if anyone so much as brushed past a security guard when entering the building this could be construed as ‘assault’) but now that they have made their allegations more specific and more serious this has escalated the situation yet again.

Legal advice should be sought immediately on the subject of slander. A lawsuit should be discussed. This is easy for me to say, I know (it isn’t my neck on the line), but it seems necessary nevertheless.

With their backs against the wall, as they now undoubtedly are, and with their own jobs on the line, as they may well be before long, do you think that these people, given their conduct so far, will not file criminal charges if they think they can? If we are to assume that they believe their own claims then they must at least believe this to be a possibility.

Tuesday 25 May 2010

More on Plato

After further reflecting on my earlier post on Plato, I think I've identified a little more closely what resonates for me between the Statesman and the object-oriented philosophies of Harman, Latour et al.

The resonance: (pre-Kantian) epistemology. Plato treats knowledge as an object; or, more accurately, as a wide variety of objects to be discerned through division and organised through a procedure of combination (thus mirroring in terms of philosophical method what skills the ideal statesman is supposed to have). It is clear that the Statesman is a product of knowledge - an epistemic being - but this epistemology is unconcerned with whether or how we 'really' know the statesman. Simply, the statesman is both the product of and the holder of a certain kind of stately knowledge. In the Republic we learn the importance of education and calisthenics; presumably these are the methods through which the ideal statesman is to be moulded. He is a construction, in other words; the meeting of knowledge and flesh; of rhetoric and star-jumps! How we know him is a methodological question not one of correlation (at least this is true after Plato gives up searching for the seventh, perfect kind of politics as this serene harmony could only be known to gods - how modest he is!).

So, the statesman is both the holder of the knowledge of (political) weaving and the product of the knowledge of (philosophical) weaving. This is a most important point. Would it be so hard to generalise this lesson - to collapse the structure of the dialogue into a political-philosophical kind of weaving?

What I want to take from this dialogue is a more generalised account of political subjectivation that takes the subjectivising powers of knowledge seriously but doesn't reduce the debate to Kantian epistemological questions of correlation. I think the weaving metaphor allows this precisely because it serves as a metaphor on a number of levels - principally as a philosophical method and as a metaphor for the statesman.

Plato shows a fondness elsewhere for imagining the philosopher as the statesman so this parallel shouldn't be surprising; is it all that hard to imagine going one step further and imagining every subject as a political-philosophical weaver? (There is something really rather Whiteheadian in this particular notion.) It seems quite straightforward to me. In fact this is more or less exactly the idea of the subject that we get in ANT - the semi-blind lay metaphysician plodding ever onward, simultaneously weaving and woven; entangled in the heterogeneous web by which it climbs, from which it feeds and of which it is spun. We need only forget the pre-existance of the subject and our work is done.

This I think is the trace of dialectic I find in Latour - the careful, methodical extraction and combination occurring not on the vertical axis of reality (not shuttling back and forth between ideology and nature, for example) but on the horizontal axis - shuttling back and forth between heterogeneous objects of many kinds; many of them epistemic in kind, many of them not.