Thursday 24 October 2013

Empiricism, abandoned; A concrete example of the politics mode; Return to power

One of the most frustrating things with Latour's abandonment of empiricism (in all but the most abstract, philosophical sense) in his works in the past decade (despite the fact that this is the period where he embraces the term most explicitly) is how much more difficult it makes it for him to explain his philosophy - and for us to understand it.  Even anecdotal examples of e.g. the political mode of speech would make it far easier to understand his argument.  Instead he ends up saying the same thing over and over, meandering endlessly, only reaching his conclusion after more or less exhausting his reader.

I'm not asking for 'straight talk,' unembellished, as-the-crow-flies, etc. - I'm just asking for talk that marshals the appropriate resources to get to where it's going without excessive and gratuitous meandering.  Be as direct as possible; no more, no less.  No author has his audience by right - he has to earn their attention.  In the past Latour has been an often brilliant writer but his loss of the empirical has coincided (and I don't think it's a coincidence) with the loss of a large measure of that wit, verve and directness.

Ed Miliband's speech at the Labour Party Conference this year was a good example of politics as Latour describes it (albeit not in its ideal, essential form).  Miliband had been dogged all summer by suggestions in the media that he was a 'weak leader,' that he didn't have the 'full support' of his party and that he couldn't 'connect' with voters.  This speech went a long way towards turning that around.  It contained enough 'red meat' to sate the party faithful in the room but also contained enough populist ideas to appeal to the 'floating voters' and he did enough to distance himself from the left wing of his party (and his family) to at least partially appease centrists/centre-rightists concerned that he might actually be 'red.'  He did a fairly good job of tying this constituencies together (at least according to those who decide the media narrative) and he secured his political position as a result.

The point in relation to Latour's argument is that Miliband did so through rhetoric.  He didn't stand up there in that agora and 'say what he really thinks'; he didn't stand and read a laundry list of the things he'd do, the policies he'd enact in 'straight,' quasi-scientific language.  He intimated, insinuated, explained, joked, grandstanded.  His speech was a compromise between of a vast number of different forces.  Every one of those forces had to be 'betrayed' in order to be represented.  Not one of those constituencies would have been overjoyed at the speech as a whole; not one of those listening would have written that same speech, worded in that same way; and, indeed, if Miliband were to 'say what he really thinks' then undoubtedly the speech would have been very different.

However, the ambiguous, bubbling, swerving 'curve' of his speech was sufficient to draw enough of his constituents along to reaffirm his political status as leader of the Labour Party.  He succeeded in sufficiently representing enough people that he could count on their obedience (in one form or another) again.  That's politics as Latour describes it.  It's intrinsically representative, intrinsically rhetorical.  And, as far as it goes, he has a point.  When people expect 'straight talk' from their politicians they not only expect too much, they misunderstand the politician's vocation.  The only the way a politician can represent and be obeyed is to be afforded the flexibility of rhetoric, the ability to shift positions, to 'betray.'

And with some work we could even extend this idea past its major hangups, past the cosy, cloying liberal democratic language that Latour clings to and see that a king, an autarch must also be sensitive to the needs and wishes of his subjects in order to command their obedience.  Indeed, he has the castles and the money and the power to have them beaten and enslaved but a brutal king runs the risk of rebellion - for he is one and they are many.  If he wants to keep his head on his shoulders he would do well to respect the Circle, too.  All of this is in Machiavelli (and perhaps Hobbes).  It is, in this sense, a realpolitik mode.  It is literally amoral (morality is another mode entirely [mor]).  And if we bear that in mind and strip out some of the Deweyan baggage - turning it from a political [pol] or democratic [dem] mode into a mode of political representation ([rep] is already taken!) - then it starts to look a lot healthier, more 'full cheeked' as Latour says in aime, somewhere.

So, as far as the argument goes it has some saving graces.  However, because it meanders so widely and proceeds so slowly and repetitively it really doesn't go very far.  'Tying constituencies together,' thus representing them, thus establishing their obedience to him is only one of the things that Miliband did well in that speech.  He also demonstrated his competence as a leader.  He reassured sceptical would-be allies that he was 'leadership material,' that, come the next General Election, he could take the platform next to David Cameron and give him 'a run for his money.'  In other words, he reassured unsettled supporters that he could win the election, that he was politically 'potent.'  That doesn't fit in with Latour's narrative at all.  'Alas, a mere detail of habit - the way that the Circle is gradually corrupted by repetition and institution.'  Perhaps, but that doesn't change the fact that there is far more to politics than the Circle.  And the rest is not a remainder, it is not mere detail.

Moreover, it's pretty much impossible, historically speaking, to make the Circle aboriginal of politics.  Dewey was extraordinarily naive on this point, believing that states formed around existing political publics and that the multiplicity of states could be explained by the manner in which 'issues' or 'problems' are spatially limited to particular areas (this argument is in The Public and its Problems).  How can a Frenchman of all people not understand that every polis and every state is born in blood and terror?  There's no territory without terror! - goodness knows, Latour loves etymology enough to know this.  The state doesn't gradually congeal and encrust around an already existing polis, so as to institute it, shield it.  Or, if it does, then this polis bears little resemblance to Lippmann's 'phantom.'

And how can someone who speaks of Gaia every other sentence not see Dewey's naivety vis-à-vis political multiplicity as the result of the spatial finitude of issues?  Okay, Latour would probably argue that Dewey could only have believed what he did in the period 'we thought we were Modern' and that it has since been demonstrated that our state system is inadequate to our Gaia-political moment because issues are now without territorial limit - that, henceforth, politics must be global...  Undoubtedly.  However, it's still astonishingly naive to think that institutions form around issues, that states follow representative politics rather than forming the conditions under which representative politics (with all its carefully, gradually and haphazardly designed limitations) can take place; that just because issues have 'gone global' that institutions not only must follow but will (because, taken at his word, that is what Dewey believed).  Buried within the pseudo-realpolitik (itself hidden within the language of liberal democracy) is the most extraordinary political idealism.

By way of conclusion, then, there are many problems with aime and with the politics mode in particular.  However, I think that it's very important to remember the considerable discursive generosity that Latour is offering with this project.  The 'collaborative' aspect is indeed managed and the website is still very much in development.  However, there are merits to these modes and to the modal system and Latour is not only inviting criticism, he is facilitating it (albeit not with his style of writing, which makes the whole endeavour much more difficult!).  And there are potential remedies.

The main thing that [pol] is lacking a concept of power.  Latour has rejected the very idea of power from the very beginning of his work, however I believe that we are now in a position - now that he has presented us with his magnum opus and effectively said 'have at it' - that a concept of power internal to and consistent with network ontologies can be developed.  That is a topic for a later post...