Monday 24 May 2010

Plato's Statesman - 'Lump Ontologies' and 'Barbarism'

I read Plato's Statesman last night; a quick and enjoyable read - and food for thought aplenty (which is good seeing as I'm basing the essay around this dialogue!). One thing that stood out was the very briefly examined issue of 'barbarism'. Initially, this piqued my interest as it gives a hint at Plato's attitude towards what we would now call 'international relations'; but on reflection, it is much more significant than that:
VISITOR: [Attempting (with a hint of impatience) to explain to Young Socrates the dialectical art of division] All right, here's an analogy. Suppose one wanted to divide the human race into two parts. What most Greeks do is make the division by separating Greeks from all the rest: they use the term 'barbarian' for all the other categories of people, despite the fact that there are countless races who never communicate and are incompatible with one another, and then expect there to be a single category too, just because they've used a single term.
Young Socrates, in his inchoate wisdom, fails to 'carve nature at its joints' but rather opts to jump straight to the conclusion (he attempts to define humans in opposition to beasts instead of taking all the progressive steps of division that the visitor demands).

A helpful footnote on this same page:
'Barbarian' literally means someone whose language one does not understand. The visitor's point is that this does not pick out a unified class; various peoples are not brought into a single natural grouping by the fact that they are not comprehensible to Greeks, and an important sign of this is that some of them are not comprehensible to one another.
So, Plato goes beyond many other Greeks of his time in not dissolving all foreigners into one homogeneous mass; good on him, but this is not the interesting point here, I think. Rather, this moment in the dialogue hits on something most important; a point made more extensively and convincingly by the likes of Bruno Latour and Graham Harman; specifically, he refuses to reduce a group of beings to one ontological category just because there is a convenient noun for that group of beings and because those beings are linguistically incomprehensible or mute. He refuses, in other words, to reduce foreigners to an undifferentiated 'outside' against which the 'inside' is defined. Thus, he refuses the dominant trope of both modernist and postmodernist political ontologies.

So, Plato grants ontological self-distinction to foreign beings.

But wait!: "Various peoples are not brought into a single natural grouping by the fact that they are not comprehensible [i.e. they do not speak] to Greeks". Well, isn't this more or less the same point Latour et al. make about non-humans? They have the ability to act and differentiate themselves without subjective attribution of such difference; without, even, the need to communicate this differentiation linguistically. So it is with non-humans: telephone wires, space dust, cows and gyroscopes possess the ability to act to differentiate themselves from other objects beyond what these nouns do to/for them. Certainly it would be difficult (if not impossible) to speak of these objects without having individualised words for them but that does not reduce their being to these words, just our relation (note: not 'reference') to these objects through these words. Plato recognises foreigners not as an undifferentiated lump, but as multiplicitous and active. He recognises reality as something that can be ‘cut at the joints’ (and therefore as having joints).

However, while he doesn't relegate foreigners to a ‘brute lump,’ he does something similar – he relegates the polis to something like this. For Plato, it is the polis that is a brute lump, an anarchic mass of flapping mouths and flailing arms (and this he loathes). It is active, fractious even; dangerous, certainly; a many-headed monster, as they would say in the seventeenth-century. It is self-differentiating to be sure but it cannot be self-organising except in the most basic and flawed ways. It needs organisation, it needs care, structure, it needs a statesman. This is not at all unlike the 'lump ontology' so loved by post/moderns; it identifies an aggregate of actants as undecidedly mixed up; as effectively homogenous and unknowable; above all, as dangerous.

In this latter sense, then, we recognise clearly what 'Platonism' has come to mean today; the philosophy by which the polis is an unruly force to be ordered by an enlightened, all powerful leader. Yet in the section I've highlighted we notice something else, something irrepressibly present in Plato's texts, something not anti- but un-Platonic. It is a germ, a sapling, it is embryonic, but it is there.

Is it too much to refer to 'lump ontologies' as committing 'barbarism'? I like this word; I think I will keep it!
Barbarism: The fallacy by which any aggregate or collective (and so that is anything) is conceived of as being an undifferentiated mass incapable of self-differentiation or action because the differences between these objects cannot be linguistically communicated. The fallacy by which an outside force (mind, discourse, Geist, political structures, etc.) is said to be necessary to impose order, establish differentiation and provoke action. A close cousin of 'hylomorphism'. [A definition in progress, clearly.]
This all begs for me a large number of questions but, in particular: I've been wondering a lot while reading Latour's work of his relation to Plato and to dialectical method more generally. Certainly he rejects absolutely 'dialectic' as it is received today but there is something in Plato's (often painfully) slow, methodical reasoning, his progressive distinctions, his acts of division and combination, that resonates with Latour's methodology.

The essay that I am planning will basically argue that if we can stop reading the Statesman as a dialogue on how to conceive the ideal autocrat and instead read it as a work on method that folds back into a work on subjectivity generally, we can drive a stake into the hearts of Platonism and anti-Platonism (so, that is one heart from different directions, really) equally.

Detaching Plato's dialogue from his transcendental cosmology and his (entirely co-dependent) transcendental political prescriptions is no small task but I don't think, having read this dialogue now, that it is as hard as one might think. There is so much in the dialogue that it completely overflows any attempt to narrate it definitively - much less can it ever be reduced to the clich├ęd received Platonism that so many love to bash today. That said, it is completely understandable why people bash Plato - there is a lot there to dismiss - but that has for too long been used as an excuse to not read more creatively. At least that is what I hope I'm doing!