Wednesday 13 June 2012

The Archipelago Empire of Poststructuralism (The Beginnings of a Polemic)

The once vibrant and invigorating spirit of poststructuralism has ossified under the force of its own oscillations; flung to the 'margins' so far and so often, it has hardened into a dogma as sedimented and inflexible as any foundations that it once shook.  Indeed, the 'margins' once occupied by self-declared 'dissidents' no longer exist.  Today there are simply mainland empires and archipelago empires.

The cog-grinding, smog-belching industrial monolith of the positivist mainstream is as imperious, self-certain and xenophobic as ever; yet, fringing the shore, harboured on islets, cays and atolls, Lilliputian hegemons rule with fists no less iron than the grand girder-smelters of the mainland.  The poststructuralist’s archipelago empire can lay claim to no sprawling plains or ragged mountain ranges but within their own jurisdictions – certain journals, particular departments, chosen conferences and prescriptive seminars – their place is established, safe, proud, grey, boring, unquestioning, self-assured and fecund as dust.

The deterritorialisers have become territorialised.

The margins mirror the mainstream in miniature.

What once shook needs shaking.

Pre-fab Post-ies; More on Critique

Will of 'Untied Threads' just wrote a critical but also very generous comment on an old post of mine.  It was a post on critique and poststructuralism in International Relations discourse.  He suggests, among other things, that I treat Richard Ashley unfairly.

In response, let me say firstly that I like Richard Ashley's work; I think that it has been very important.  The work that he (and others) have done since the 1980s drawing on hermeneutics, deconstruction and so on was important at the time and remains of value today.  I was trying to write in quite a polemical style in that post so maybe I sounded a little more damning than I intended!

To be more clear: the problem I have with Ashley et al. from a contemporary viewpoint is that while hermeneutic or deconstructive critiques had a great critical impact in the 1980s they don't any more.  Those ideas have become, formalised, institutionalised, standardised.  As always happens, those angry, young academics grew up.  They went from 'sticking it to the man' to being 'the man'!

Today poststructuralism is one of a number of 'approaches' or 'theoretical frameworks' that a student can adopt or enact as a preconceived, prefabricated scheme.  It has become an orthodoxy of its own.  While the critiques were originally opening up 'thinking space' by taking apart hegemonic discourses, their own presuppositions have become naturalised, are not internally challenged and are frankly stultifying.  These presuppositions have become the entrenched dogma of Poststructuralism (with a capital P).

For this reason we desperately need critiques of those critiques -- and that requires that we think hard about what it means to be 'critical' in the first place.  That was the basic point of my post.  People throw around that word without ever making clear what it means.  For some it seems to be little more than saying damning things about the state, or capitalism, or war, or patriarchy or whatever.  Which is all well and good as far as it goes but it doesn't go far enough.

The two meanings of 'critical' should be drawn together much more closely.  If critique fails to make its object critical (i.e. unstable) then it's pointless.  It doesn't deserve to be called 'critique' at all.  Being 'critical' has become more of a pose or a demeanour than anything substantial.  It's a social signifier, a territorial marker, a pin badge, a way that people identify with a particular kind of academic self-identity.

What all of this results in is the endless the regurgitation of the same old arguments about hegemonic discourses, logocentrism, speech acts and the rest.  It's time for serious change in our modes of thought.  There are many virtues of the poststructuralist heritage that should be retained but there must also be deep rooted and damning investigation of the flaws and vices.  We shouldn't throw the baby out with the bathwater but equally we shouldn't hold back in our critiques.

Vis-à-vis science: my point was simply that, in 'critical' IR discourse, 'science' is often taken to be the epitome of un-critical, mainstream, hegemonic thought.  Science becomes a synonym for positivism or the grumpy kind of Enlightenment rationalism that poststructuralists so love to eviscerate.  On the contrary, in my view, science is inherently critical.  Scientific knowledge (in scientific practice, if not in the popular imagination) is very unstable, often changing and always vulnerable to change.

That was the general point but, more specifically, I was asking: what actually induces a 'critical state' in a natural scientific discourse?  What makes things critical?  What generates the critical energy, the destabilising force?  Well, the claims of scientists, for sure.  One scientist proclaiming or disclaiming the findings of another in the myriad ways they do so.  But the objects of science can also render a discourse unstable.

When a lab experiment yields unexpected results 99 times out of 100 this is the result of user error.  But very occasionally it is because of some hitherto undetected phenomenon, some real thing that is, unprompted, by its own powers, producing a result, a perturbation, an effect.  Of course it takes much careful work on behalf of scientists to distinguish error and noise from these little kernels of discovery but the point is that scientific objects have the power to render our knowledge about them unstable.  Indeed, this is the whole point of scientific discourse: to elicit information from things themselves, not from what we say or what we think we know about things.  This information never transcends our interpretation of it -- we must always, necessarily translate the findings -- but that doesn't mean that objects do not elicit this information or that we cannot be realists about them.

In my original post when I say 'object' I am of course playing on the difference in meaning between that word as a noun and a verb -- 'an object' and 'to object.'  It's Bruno Latour's play on words to say that an object is something that objects to forces that engage it.  Scientific objects are objects because they object to the 'trials' (another Latourian term meaning experiments or tests) that scientists put them through.  They act and react in ways that is irreducible to the forces placed upon them by human subjects.  Hence they are real.  Hence we really know things about them.  Hence endless discourse analysis cannot do them justice because such analysis can only ever examine the forces tht humans place upon things, not the things themselves.

And hence poststructuralism is inadequate.  Scientific objects are objects because they can object and as such render critical the knowledge with and through which we regard them.  They cannot determine what we come think about them but they are real elements in the epistemic process.  Contrariwise, there is no place for non-human objects in poststructuralism except as blank canvases for the projection of symbols, language or meaning.  Objects might be accepted to exist but they are of no real importance, of no real reality.  In discourse analysis or deconstruction the only real things that are permitted to object or to have effects are signs, signifiers, structural linguistic relations and so on.  This is idealism with an alibi -- things in the background that do nothing, are of no consequence and exist only so that people can say: 'Hey, look!  Over there!  I'm no idealist!'.

And that's what's wrong with it all.  That's why the 'thinking space' that they once opened up is now stultifying.  That's why they're 'agoraphobic' -- agora being etymologically associated with 'thing' meaning the space where people get together and work things through.

This is getting rather long now so I'll try and wrap things up by answering Wills points more specifically!

Objects demand interpretation precisely because they are irreducible to interpretation and possess realities and capacities of their own.  You mention that demand/interpret in this sense becomes a dichotomy.  I honestly don't think that that's a problem.  There's nothing wrong with dichotomies so long as they are acknowledged to be instrumental, useful things, not simply the way reality is structured.  I could articulate basically the same point without using those terms and so without that dichotomy.  I just think that it's one useful way of making the point.  We constantly dichotomise things in thought; the problem is not with dichotomies as such but rather with the notion that our ideas describe the very structure of reality rather than our ideas being real things that interact with other real things in a common world.

I am familiar with the Copenhagen school, yes.  I read that essay you mention but it was a few years ago.  I'd need to take another look at it to comment on it now!

Vis-à-vis Heidegger: from my Latourian perspective Herr Heidegger is more part of the problem than the solution.  It isn't enough to say that we exist with other things, that we cannot think of ourselves except as embodied beings, enmeshed in other beings, etc.  All of that is true and pertinent but Heidegger prevents us from going that step further and thinking about things apart from human being (which, for Heidegger, is basically being itself).  Of course we can never truly, certainly know what things are like apart from ourselves since we can never transcend interpretation or perspective but that should not stop us thinking about the autonomy of things, thinking of things as they may be apart from us.

Poststructuralism makes this extra step impossible.  That is why it must be destroyed!