Thursday 10 October 2013

Latour, Realism, Sunsets and the Mode of Realpolitik

Levi is back - and angry.  I actually quite like him when he's angry.
there are ... places where anti-realism is absolutely correct, true, and appropriate. If, by “real”, we mean “substantially existing”, not everything is “real”. The beauty of sunsets? No, only beings with certain nervous systems experience that. The essences of the Egyptian people? Nope, doesn’t exist.
Having been reading Latour's modes book a lot recently I can only read this in modal terms.  For Levi it seems that there are only two modes, still.  There's the sunset and the sun; the subjective and the objective; the unreal and the real.  Only two types of existence, two ways of persisting.  All further distinctions must seemingly be made within those master categories.  His ontology is pluralist inasmuch as it consists of a vast plurality of things but it's dualist in terms of its modes of existence.

Therefore, in Latour's terms, Levi is firmly within the 'modern parenthesis' - post-Locke, pre-James.  Of course, I'm sure he'd criticise Latour's rejection of substances, etc. but Latour's pluralism poses some challenges.  E.g. are all 'subjective' phenomena really of one mode?  Is 'subjective' really such a secure storehouse for such diverse phenomena as sense experience, dreams, fear, ratiocination, etc?  Can all further distinctions safely be made within those two categories?

Perhaps the antagonism between realism and anti-realism isn't the result of them not being 'put in their place' but the result of them being false categories to begin with.

If there's a trauma over this within academic circles I think it comes from the way that skepticism has been turned into a weapon of the powerful - the US's latent anti-intellectualism honed into a fearsome weapon of ideological war.  Few are even capable of admitting that this is a problem for the project of critique, deconstruction, constructivism, etc.  If there's an 'X step' program for overcoming skepticism then surely admitting you have a problem must be step 1.

As for issues such as the shutdown and climate change, Latour's POL mode is telling.  In politics you either succeed in building your alliances or you fail.  There are no consolation prizes for having the best reference chains or being the most morally sensitive.  (These things only matter insofar as they get you allies - no more, no less.)  Although he narrates it largely in the language of pragmatist liberal democratic theory it's really a realpolitik mode.

'So, you have secure, near-certain scientific knowledge?  Good for you.  What about your alliances?  They are weak?  Then you fail.  And don't say 'but I'm right!' - you are, but that is irrelevant.'