Thursday 10 November 2011

'Out there'

Reality: 'out there' - out where? Out of the window? Sure! Plenty of real things out there! Outside of the realm of subjective perception? Don't be silly. Nothing is outside of a thing that doesn't exist. Or inside.


Just because objects can't be meaningful on their own doesn't mean that humans can be either.


Says the one to the other:
'Every revolution ends in murder and tyranny.'
Says the other to the one:
'You think with your memory! There are more possibilities in the world than the past has known. The next revolution will be different.'
'You bay for blood, in complete innocence. Reform is the only way.'
'You speak the system, it has no outside! You can't reform a universe from within.'
'Now who thinks while walking backwards? If reform needs reform, so be it.'
'Talk, talk, talk. Reform is always the same: more of the same. You can't change that. History needs to start again - a history for the young.'
'Cherish your youth, I cannot but fear it! Every time the same promises and yet when the dust settles we always say: never again.'
'Reform is reform: it'll never change.'
'Revolution is revolution: always the same.'

Who is the conservative and who the radical here?

Wednesday 9 November 2011

ANT, Actualism and Nuclear Latency

This post by Juan Cole just got me thinking about conceptual revisions needed for ANT (Actor-Network Theory) for studying world politics (or politics generally).
The way you tell if a country like Iran is actively working on a nuclear bomb is that it diverts uranium to weapons purposes. Iran has not done that, as the IAEA repeatedly affirms. Almost certainly, if Iran were seriously working on a bomb, it would kick international inspectors out altogether. ... It is likely that Iran wants “nuclear latency,” or the “Japan option.” That would involve knowing how to construct a bomb in short order if the country was ever directly menaced with an invasion and regime change a la Iraq.
If Latour's philosophy is as strictly actualist as Graham Harman claims in Prince of Networks then it seems that any ANT constructed on this basis cannot really understand the above. (Indeed, given that Harman embraces a rather strict actualism I'm not sure if he could adequately articulate the above in his terms.)

If Cole is correct and Iran are not seeking a functioning atomic bomb but simply a latent capacity to build a bomb then the bare actuality of their project misses that the goal of the process is virtual. Iran is apparently constructing not a coherent material object but rather a virtual capacity to bring into existence a coherent material object (that is dependent upon a pre-existing arrangement of many objects, knowledges, etc.).

If there is any principle that is fundamental to Latour's work (at least as Harman articulates it) it is that if something makes something else happen then it is an actor. It doesn't matter if that actor is fictitious, material - whatever. Moreover, to act is to exist; no action, no existence. (c.f. Nietzsche.)

Should it really make a difference whether the actor is actual? This is where things get complicated as actual derives from the Latin actus meaning simply 'act.' What then is the relation of the virtual to the actual if to exist is to act and virtual things apparently can act?

(Perhaps it's the opposition of actual and virtual that is the problem here.)

I'm not sure I'm in a position even to formulate this question properly.

Monday 7 November 2011

Poststructuralism and the Agoraphobia of 'Thinking Space'

A "post-structuralist discourse" apparently "expands the agenda of social theory, posing questions that other discourses must refuse to ask" (Richard Ashley, Living on Borderlines). It 'opens up thinking space' (Jim George, International Relations and the Search for Thinking Space).

But poststructuralism itself is utterly incapable of asking a whole swathe of questions because of its own dogmatic ontological assumptions; its thinking space is suffocating. In fact, whatever ground it opens up is micrified by that which it forecloses; for example: the assumption that objects are reducible to the discursive conditions of their emergence eliminates the possibility of understanding what it even means to be 'critical.'

Take science (an excellent but not fundamentally privileged example):

Scientists are always engaged in criticism but they don’t criticise everything at once (‘perpetual critique’), nor could they, nor would they ever want to. This would disallow instrumentation or black boxing. No debate could ever end. Scientists don’t engage in perpetual critique because they believe that their subject matter is capable of objecting – of showing itself to differ from established knowledges.

This doesn’t mean that scientific objects can object on their own but many scientific discoveries have been made in the course of otherwise routine experiments that went awry, felix culpa; when one was looking for one thing but found another.

Simply: knowledge can become critical (i.e. unstable) without the instigating (which is not to say intentional, although it's similar) intervention of a (human) critic. Without the labour of scientists most scientific objects have no means of eliciting this surprise, it is true. But that doesn’t mean that making critical is dependent upon critique.

Making critical, in such cases, may only occur during scientific practice but that practice needn’t be critical per se; it is often or perhaps even usually routine, directed towards another end entirely.

And isn’t this how everyone saw the end of the Cold War? As an event that objected to IR theory itself? (Poststructuralists included.) Certainly it wasn’t self-interpreting but it demanded interpretation by social scientists (and everyone else for that matter). It is in no way reducible to interpretation or the sum of all human interpretations. If it was it could never demand interpretation.

(Does this mean that the demand transcends interpretation? I'd say not, it can be ignored, missed - nothing necessitates its being taken as a provocation and so its conditions of emergence remain pivotal but none of that makes its demand reducible to its interpretations. This is realism.)

Beware modesty dressed up as radicalism.

Beware radicalism generally when it runs from the typing fingers of middle-aged academics.

Poststructuralists are truly agoraphobic (and this is a nice little academic play on words). They are afraid of the outdoors, of things (at least in their work - in the rest of life they enjoy all the luxuries). Moreover, for all the talk of radical democracy and opening up debate they foreclose almost all of it by having such a limited and such a dogmatic ontology. They cannot ever genuinely stand in the agora and speak. They are doubly afraid of the outdoors and of things. Of things qua objects and things qua places of politics. They can barely stifle their grins and snorts when people talk passionately about their belief in the reality of things. This is my own ethnographic observation!

The 'thinking spaces' are not wide open spaces, they are closets.

Process and Politics

An ontology in which things are always in process and nothing is ever fully achieved or closed is not in itself morally or politically superior to any other way of thinking. It simply solves some problems some of which are moral and political. In particular, one never has to draw a line between that which is achieved and henceforth settled, beyond dispute and universal and that which isn't.

It is an axiom of experience and so of common sense that not everything is settled, beyond dispute and universal (Parmenides notwithstanding) and so to say that there are some things like this means that there must be a line. The drawing of this line is one of the main problems of modern philosophy and seems irresolvable (as does the question of such resolution's desirability). Doing away with the line does away with the problem, which is both philosophical and political.

We could revive Parmenides but that doesn't seem very plausible or useful (this is dismissive but probably fair, particularly if we take experience as the spur of conceptualisation a la Whitehead). The opposite is plausible and can be shown to work, to generate greatly conceptually sophisticated schemas that are able to do justice to all sorts of aspects of reality while redefining what we mean by reality itself.

If this leads to moral and political sophistication too then this is excellent. Yet these are not the only problems that such conceptual work resolves nor the only problems that it is a response to.

If a term is valuable it must be a 'meso' term. Too general and it becomes meaningless, too global. Too specific and it is too inapplicable, too local. Politics is like this. When politics becomes the question that dominates any given consideration it becomes effectively meaningless because there ceases to be any way of distinguishing between different kinds of good, different valuations. It is valuationally hegemonic - and this is bad for all sorts of reasons, including political ones!

If politics is too easily achieved (if 'everything's political') then there is no reason to do anything in particular in order to achieve politics. If politics is too rare (only appearing in epochal fissures or 'events') then despondency sets in (what agency could anyone have in bringing about something that is by definition vast and impersonal?).

Politics must be accessible but not without effort: just like everything. Moreover, it shouldn't be the only kind of value as this both eliminates other kinds of valuation but also makes politics total, which also makes it meaningless (and so you've lost all kinds of values but also lost politics - worst of all worlds).

Above all politics must be an achievement and this makes process ontology fit it perfectly. The alternative, where elements of reality are absolute, unchanging and beyond dispute, means that the passing and contingent can be subordinated to this fundamentally ulterior realm. Those with access to that realm - which is always already achieved and need only be accessed - thereby become legislators, even dictators, for those who merely splash around in what is contingent. This is intolerable.

For the above reasons: Politics (as I would like to describe it) needs process but process must be justified for more than political reasons. Other valuations must be involved.

Pluralism must also mean that politics is only one value among others. This is what too many people forget.

Beggars of 'Reality'

Words like ‘reality’ just beg questions: ‘Which?’ ‘What?’ ‘Where?’ ‘All of it?... At once?!’