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.