Wednesday 5 May 2010

Reply to: A Brief Remark on Ideology

I think the problem with your interlocutor’s argument is less one of discourse vs. objectivity/realism or the overemphasis of signification as, to borrow a Latourism, argumentative ‘short-circuiting’. The argument certainly over-privileges ideology but I think that this is less to do with the character of ideology versus whatever else as with reductionism (which can itself take various forms besides ‘ideology’ per se).

So, there is a bridge on the road leading to a beach. The bridge is too low to allow buses past. Poor people tend to take buses therefore poor people’s access to the beach is unfairly limited by the bridge. No problems here.

Your interlocutor suggests that the bridge is somehow a materialization or encrustation of ideology – you stipulate, quite rightly, that, as it stands (so to speak), it is a bridge! No more, no less. It is not a canvas, or a cinema screen and human cognition is neither the paint nor the projection required to make these ontological tabula rasa ‘come alive’. The bridge needs construction and maintenance by human hands but it wants for nothing in the moment. In other words, its being subsists in the short term apart from ideology, though it relies upon humans to exist in the long term.

Does this mean that the bridge’s shortcomings (pun intended) have nothing to do with ideology? Not at all – but nor does it mean the contrary. To establish this one way or the other requires substantially more labour – one must interrogate the bridge’s history; go and find planning records, interview the architect (if still alive), find out who and what was involved with the planning of the height of the bridge. Perhaps it was the work of a cabal of right-wing politicians, perhaps it was the result of a negligent planning process that excluded the voices of poor people, perhaps it is a very old bridge and the materials it was built from limited its size. None of this is known a priori; to short-circuit the argument by attributing a pre-established, pre-fabricated cause is insufficient. Ideology may well have played a part in this situation, it may not have.

One could equally short-circuit the argument with ‘objectivism’ (of various sorts) rather than ideology yet all of that is to be established and it is always open.

The bridge is ideological and it is objective – which aspect of its being becomes relevant in any given moment requires labour.

So, the question for me is not so much whether the bridge is an ideological construction or an objective one so much as what connections can be traced and how much labour one wishes to put into the investigation. Its shortcomings may be ideological or not – it is an empirical question in the Latourian sense of that word.

That said, the act of reducing this situation to ideology clearly indicates a preference for idealism! But this cannot be countered with objectivism of whatever sort without what I would call, again with M. Latour, ‘experimental metaphysics’!