Saturday 19 October 2013

Non-full presence: or, Thank goodness for our liquid world

Some reckon the impossibility of full presence to be a limitation, a tragedy or something to be buried lest the commonfolk find out.  Others (not as dissimilar to the first crowd as they would like) think its absence to be a void towards which we are drawn and that this drawnness is a good thing - the best thing - that the void holds the highest virtues; it is that at which we gaze, necks craned upwards, expectant.  Because of this latter prejudice, no less unbelievable than the former, everything good becomes messianic and we all twiddle our thumbs, awestruck, doing as we're told and waiting...  Or we would if we were really listening.  It's good that we nod at this philosophy and that it travels no deeper into our being than our neck muscles.

No, the absence of full presence is a good thing but not because we are drawn towards the void.  There is a void but it serves a completely different purpose.  Despite the ubiquity of non-full presence - well, that's just it, isn't it?  Presence is ubiquitous.  Were it ever full we wouldn't be able to move.  We do not want for presence, we are swimming in it.  It is liquid.  That is its virtue and its virtuality.  Full presence would be strictly solid, tighter than a diamond.  We would be crushed under its infinite mass, instantly.

Thank goodness that there is enough warmth in our world to keep the absolute away.  And thank goodness that there is enough coolness in our world that it doesn't flee itself, lurching into gas form, scattering particular traces so far apart that they could never be connected again (not by any mortal anyway).  Thank goodness for our liquid world, our world just the right distance from the sun; a world that the slightest orbital perturbation could either freeze or enfurnace.  Thank goodness that absolute presence not only is not here but is not and that its not being leaves not a vacuum, a void, but a liquid, a semi-presence.  Just the right amount of presence for currents to circulate.

Yes, the fact that presence is always also elsewhere and other and beyond and strange and intangible is a good thing but precisely because we are not drawn to it like moths to a flame (we don't need more heat, not that much anyway).  We are drawn from present to present, in the present - concurrently.  Even the 'Absolute' is a presence within the present.  Even the regulative ideals of Truth and Justice are only the following of one present to another, not the stalking of the absolutely absent presence.  What use would such ideals be if their targets were wholly elsewhere or wholly nowhere?  Elsewhere, over the horizon, yes, but not in some other dimension.  Never fully realisable, no, but found in crumb-form, partially assemblable if the collector is fastidious and obsessive enough - that is, if she puts her gloriously opposable thumbs to better use than mere twiddling...

The Duplicity of Diplo-macy: a Genealogy

Diplomats mediate but they are not neutral.  They are ambassadors, representatives 'charged' (in both senses of that word) with the power of their sovereigns.  They are not mere messengers, either; they represent the 'interests' of their dispatcher; they are mediators, not intermediaries.  Diplomats operate in a condition of anarchy - that is, there is no higher power to which they can appeal; they must operate only on the powers with which they have been charged, negotiating only the issues that are 'on the table,' according to the protocols that they have inherited.

The absence of a 'higher power' is why Latour adopts diplomats as the ideal subjects of his political 'negotiations.'  In lieu of a higher, cosmic force along the lines of God or Nature there is no 'trump card' for ontological discussions.  No one can say 'God willed it, thus it is so' or 'but that is just how Nature is, no argument.'  The philosopher qua diplomat has to work with her opponent so as to achieve not unity or unanimity but a settlement, peace.

However, Latour's 'diplomat' is quite a gaunt, ahistorical creature.  There is much more to the diplomat than the simple fact of 'negotiating in the absence of a higher sovereign.'  If this concept is to be taken seriously then it should be investigated much more closely - and broadly.

To that end, the following is an extract from my MSc thesis that I wrote several years ago:
The origin [of the word diplomacy] is usually credited to Edmund Burke who in 1796, spoke of the ‘diplomatic body,’ and used “‘diplomacy’ to mean skill ... in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations.” In seventeenth-century Italy, diplomatic agents had become known as “orators” and in most of Europe “ambassadors were still legati”. To use ‘diplomacy’ or ‘diplomat’ to refer to events of the seventeenth-century is, therefore, an anachronism, however, diplomacy was not “immaculately conceived in the seventeenth, eighteenth, or any other century” – there are traces of it throughout history. The Ancient Greeks, for instance, engaged in the sending of ambassadors and heralds; however (as with ‘representation’) they had “no single term that conveyed the themes of diplomacy”, nor any equivalent without “supplementary political associations and meanings”. Nevertheless, the word does have Ancient Greek roots. 
The diplo- in ‘diplo-macy’ derives from “the ancient Greek verb diploun (to double), and from the Greek noun diploma” (“diplo = folded in two + suffix ma = object”). ‘Diplomas’ were documents “written on parchment and ... papyrus”, “handed over to heralds [and] carried as evidence of their status and authority.” The word diploma later “came to mean a letter of recommendation,” a passport or “an order enabling a traveller to use the public post.” As diplomas increased in quantity and importance amidst the fractured jurisdictions of the Middle Ages, the accumulation, organisation and authentication of these documents became an imperative for any self-respecting polity. 
"[C]hanceries were set up to handle ‘diplomatic’ affairs. Indeed, in the early years of the Holy Roman Empire, and particularly in the Empire of the Ottos, control of the disposition of diplomas was tantamount to control of the Empire."
The -macy in ‘diplo-macy’ derives, according to Costas Constantinou, from the ceremonial staff or mace carried by the heralds and messengers of the Carolingian dynasty (751–987). These items, which were of symbolic rather than defensive utility, authorised “the agent as an official medium”. These items were presented to messengers (known as ‘missi’) at court ceremonies. Of additional etymological significance is that ‘missus’ was “the name for the royal procurator” of this period, while ‘mace’ also denoted “the scepter of sovereignty”. 
During the seventeenth century, ‘diploma’ became associated with ‘diplomatica’ [the science of authenticating documents], a change that “appears to have started with the charging of ... Daniel Van Papenbroeck, with the examination of ancient monastic diplomas in order to determine their authenticity”, the falsity of which “had been suspected since medieval times.” Papenbroeck “claimed that almost all Merovingian diplomas and other medieval documents were forgeries”. Devastating as these claims were to the archival wealth of his order (not to mention the reputation and integrity of the entire system of political communication of the time), the Benedictine monk Jean Mabillon “worked silently for six years” to refute Papenbroeck’s criticisms. He studied “the form, not the content, of old diplomas” and his forceful critique compelled even Papenbroeck to accept his methods and conclusions. Mabillion’s masterwork ‘De re diplomatica’, first published in 1681, established a new science called ‘diplomatic’ or ‘diplomatics’, which Mabillon defined as: 
"[C]ertain and accurate terms and rules by which authentic instruments can be distinguished from spurious, and certain and genuine ones from uncertain and suspect ones." 
His techniques and his definition remain in use to this day. 
In 1693, Gottfried Leibniz published Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, a collection “of treaties and other official documents” which attributed “to the adjective diplomatic the meaning of something related to international relations.” Such activities were institutionalised across Europe: shortly after his appointment as English historiographer royal in 1693, Thomas Rymer was directed to compile and “publish all records of alliances and other transactions in which England was concerned with foreign powers from 1101 to the time of publication”. This became the Foedera (“treaties”). 
As Nicolson notes, it was through these works of accumulation and authentication “that the usages of diplomacy as a science based upon precedent and experience came to be established”.  The association of ‘diplomatic’ with the study of archives rather than inter-sovereign representation persisted until relatively recently.  Not until Burke’s accreditation with the origin of the term after 1796 did the meaning shift decisively. However, by the late seventeenth century, the “link of the diplomatic with diplomas and handwriting was increasingly overshadowed by the newly established political theme”  as attention was gradually diverted “away from the form or style of the diploma- document,”  towards “what it actually represented in international relations.”  The meaning of ‘diplomacy’ crossed over from the ‘diplomatic’ verification of documents to the ‘diplomatic’ system of negotiation and communication. 
So goes the story of the word, but what of the practice? 
"Many aspects of the diplomatic organisation of western and central Europe as it existed by the beginning of the Seventeenth century continued with little essential change down to the French Revolution and indeed beyond." 
Change was slow, however diplomacy gradually became more institutionalised in the late seventeenth-century.  According to Mattingly, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, foreign affairs remained in a state of confusion due to the nepotism of feudalism, the multiple actors assigned to each task and the multiple tasks assigned to each actor.  “Everywhere outside of Italy political relationships ... were still personal” and diplomatic organisation, just like the rest of government “was, in 1600 as in 1500, still just the king’s household and his retinue.”  France under Richelieu was foremost among the reformers. In 1626, Richelieu amalgamated the organisation of foreign relations “within the Ministry of External Affairs, over which he himself maintained constant supervision. He thereby secured that the word of command in foreign affairs should be delivered by a single voice only”.  By the end of the century, diplomatic representation had lost “any overtones of religiosity”  and become the prerogative of the sovereign alone.  In this way, the development of diplomacy matches that of political representation as over the century the “undergrowth of quasi- diplomacy”  was cast aside as absolutism centralised political authority within each distinct territory. It is unlikely to be coincidental that “from the advent of Richelieu to power in 1616 until the Revolution more than a hundred and sixty years later, the diplomatic method of France became the model for all of Europe”. 
For an ambassador in the seventeenth-century, “the safeguarding ... of the honour and standing of the monarch” continued to be “the most fundamental of his duties”.  For Mattingly, such duties were characterised by “pointless squabbling”, perceived insults and dangerous symbolic manoeuvres from which physical violence, even war, followed.  However, as Der Derian notes: 
"[I]t is as much the “petty” rituals and ceremonies of power as it is the “great” events of power politics or the famous developments of international law which define diplomacy[.] " 
Particularly as we are interested in the representative function of ambassadors, the ceremonial aspect of their act is of the utmost significance. The seventeenth-century witnessed an increase in the importance, complexity and (most importantly) the sense of representativeness of ceremony. In Italy “symbolic courtesies” and “emphasis on the representative character of the ambassador’s office”  had been of the utmost importance since the 1470s, though it was ahead of its time. By the early 1600s in the rest of Europe "ambassadors began to behave as if injury to their master’s subjects was an insult to his crown, and to intervene to protect their fellow countrymen without waiting for specific instructions to do so."  The role of the ambassador became such that “in the gesture of obedience or condolence or congratulation which the ambassador performed, he acted as if in the person of his prince.”  Ambassadors, therefore, became less authorised communicators and more authorised representatives (as we would understand such today). 
The reasons for this change are too complex to go into, however it is undisputed that, to a large extent, the “emergence of Western diplomacy was driven by the disastrous desolation caused by the Thirty Years’ War“.  The drive to end this war (or, more accurately, these wars) led to the development of large scale conference diplomacy. “The first of these congresses were the linked meetings held at Münster and Osnabrück (1643-8) which resulted in the Peace of Westphalia.”  Although they were novel in format, norms of the time prevailed in the details as, despite their close proximity, the delegations negotiated mostly through correspondence.  The mode of communication thus remained largely textual, paralleling the continued importance of diplomas at this time, although increased physical proximity gradually reduced this dependence. 
Three principle practical developments have been outlined: 
1)  Gradual bureaucratisation and centralisation; 
2)  Increasing ‘representativeness’ of ambassadors in ceremonial and administrative functions; 
3)  Development of conference diplomacy. 
These are complemented by the etymological development of ‘diplo-macy’, both halves of which are related to the authorisation of political communication and the symbolic establishment of sovereign right. The word evolved from its roots in the collection and collation of treaties (e.g. Leibniz, Rymer) and the authentication of such documents (e.g. Mabillon) to the actual engagement with representation and negotiation. 
It took the developments of early modernity to make the diplomat ‘representative’ as we understand that term now. While ambassadors had, in a sense, always embodied the messages of their employers, during this period they began to act on the sovereign’s behalf and eventually would act on the nation-state’s behalf as sovereignty was alienated from the sovereign body. Although, diplomacy in the seventeenth century “was still far from modern”,  there was a shift in the kind of representation practiced – from carrying the voice of another human to ventriloquising that which has none [the abstract sovereign will of Hobbes' Leviathan]...
Here's the pdf version with references, if anyone's interested.  I analysed four concepts in total: representation, diplomacy, public and propaganda, all of which are included in the pdf.  However, I've not included the full thesis because, on the whole, it wasn't very good!

However, this mini-history of diplomacy is very informative for Latour's iteration of the concept.

Firstly, diplomacy as a 'duplicitous' enterprise is inherent in the word itself.  There is a duplicity to the diplomat that is actually baked into the etymology and genealogy of the word itself.  This links into Latour's [POL] mode and its embracing of 'crooked talk.'  It seems to me that his whole book is written in a somewhat duplicitous, diplomatic, political way - particularly with regard to his self-professed empiricism and his confusing definitions of 'the Moderns.'  His diplomatic project is already in motion.

Secondly, and as I argued at the beginning of this post, the diplomat of history is very much a representative, a mediator - not an adjudicator.  A diplomat's vocation is compromise, yes, but only inasmuch as it is necessary to achieve their goals.  There are no giveaways, no freebies in diplomacy (if there ever are this is to achieve something, to build trust and respect).  There is no rationality more instrumental than that of a diplomat.  Acknowledging this fact should help remove the sheen of pacificity and 'beautiful soul-ness' that Latour is wont to impress upon his narrative.  As I've argued previously, Latour's [POL] mode has a very strong undercurrent of realpolitik despite the somewhat cosy, collegial, liberal democratic style with which he expresses it.

Thirdly, the emergence of diplomacy as we understand it today is inextricable from the emergence of the modern state, scientific rationality and the partitioning of religion from both these domains - in other words, diplomacy is part and parcel of the emergence of the Moderns.  This acknowledgement poses numerous problems.  If diplomacy is a Modern institution then how can it be taken so straightforwardly to be the solution to the Modern predicament?  Perhaps diplomacy is the one Modern institution that recognises the unavoidability of composition - that would seem to be the point.  However, diplomacy requires a plurality of diplomats to represent views from multiple sides, not just one.  If diplomacy is a Modern institution then how can non-Modern diplomats exist?  Without a truly heterogeneous multiplicity of diplomatic representatives what use is the whole concept?

And where is the emergence of the State (and, correspondingly, modern international relations) in Latour's narrative?  There can be no diplomacy between equals in Europe - i.e. no diplomacy conducted in the absence of a higher power - until the Holy Roman Empire is defunct and political power is institutionalised on a purely (or largely) territorial basis.  Latour mentions the state in aime but certainly doesn't acknowledge its absolutely pivotal place in this story, nor does he admit that modern diplomacy depends upon the existence of the modern state and states-system - and therefore diplomacy depends upon this geopolitical settlement, too.

While this none of this deals a deathblow to Latour's iteration of diplomacy by any means it certainly shows that it cannot be taken to be a simple, obvious concept that can be asserted without commentary.

Fourth, diplomacy is only possible given the verifiability of representatives.  The entire pre-modern genesis of the word and practice involves the symbolic and material validation of political representation and a whole new science had to be invented in order to validate the Benedictine archives (a fascinating entanglement of modes, by the way!).  How are the diplomatic spokespersons of the Moderns and their Others (if the latter even exist) to be validated as representative of those they claim to speak for?

Fifth, and enlarging on the last point, many argue that diplomacy is only possible given a skein of established, mutually accepted rules - in the presence of what international relations scholars call 'international society.'  This is deeply problematic for Latour because it means that diplomacy presupposes an existing social arrangement.  I'll say more about that in a future post.

Lastly, it seems to me that one can, in light of this history, say that Latour is attempting, on an abstract level, to imitate the genesis of diplomacy-proper and develop a kind of ontological 'conference diplomacy.'  Recall that conference diplomacy emerged out of the Thirty Years War - the war out of which Europe emerged Modern!!  Is Latour's whole bombastic, epochal scenography not built around claim that we are on the cusp, metaphysically speaking at least, of another emergence, this time out of the Modern?  And is this whole participatory Modes project not his attempt to piece together a Münster or Osnabrück of his own?

What ceremonies, what 'petty rituals,' what pomp and circumstance are necessary to make this assembly function?  As Der Derian argues, it is precisely the arbitrary emptiness of these rituals that makes them valuable - they form a kind of social compact between the participants that commits nobody to anything besides negotiation; a social bond but the bare minimum of one.  Perhaps this emptiness is the way out of the impasses that I identified above - a way of joining Modern and non-Modern in negotiation despite their lack of common ground.  So far the aime project's discourse has been throughly rational, thoroughly scholarly - every word so full of meaning!  Evidently, such full blooded rationalism (for that is what it is) alone will not do.

Diplomacy is built upon an elaborate yet empty edifice of rituals and pleasantries.  Reason alone cannot engender diplomacy.

Defending objects; Sorting our [REF] and [REP]; A pagan Christian

Levi Bryant kindly responds to my recent comments and corrects my misunderstandings!

I've not finished the aime book yet either; it's slow progress but I'm getting there.  It's a very readable tome but I keep having to put it down and let some of the ideas sink in (and then fly off in all directions).  Good books have that effect, I find.  They can be difficult to concentrate on because they spark trajectories that fly away from themselves.  Textual fecundity can be distracting.

It's a quite remarkably explosive book in terms of concepts - 'explosive' in the sense of the Cambrian explosion!  There's been this slow, gradual evolution of his work since the late 70s.  Looking back retrospectively you can clearly see it building up to this point.  And, actually, I wasn't that surprised when I learned of the modes project; it had become quite obvious that he was treating law, politics, science, etc. according to different standards, it just wasn't clear what those standards were or how they linked together.  The whole 'post-ANT' debate in STS has been leading in this direction since the 1990s.  The modes of net, reference, politics, religion, law, technology and morality are all thoroughly precedented and, to some extent, aime can be understood as a synthesis, rectification and systematisation of all this past work.  However, the larger part of the modes framework is startlingly new.  Quite revolutionary, albeit a revolution with a long genesis (and many influences - James, Whitehead, Serres, etc.).  I have some reservations about it and some enduring criticisms but for the most part I'm just enjoying the ride.

The biggest problem seems to me to be how the beings of the different modes come together, both in terms of how they conflict and co-evolve but also in terms of how they are able to create highly cohesive composite trajectories despite being different beings - because they are not modes of a single substance; every mode pertains to a distinct being.  That I don't really understand.  Is it only habit [HAB] that unites us?  Is that sufficient to make our buzzing, dashing confluences of things and modes hold?  Habit is the mode of black boxes; it pertains to individuation, certainly, but I'm not sure that it's a complete account of the problem.

Well, this question - individuation - brings us back to perhaps the central disagreement between Latour and all the OOO/OOM/OOP lot!

The way Latour uses the terms 'subject' and 'object' actually seems to owe a lot to structuralism and to sociology (despite what he claims to think of these discourses).  In the traditional philosophical order of things, subjects are substantial beings.  Human beings have agency, reflexivity, etc. and therefore are subjects.  One human, one subject.  In the sociological or post/structural vocabulary 'subject' is detached from any individual body and rendered relational in terms of socio-linguistic structures.  Thus any individual person is simultaneously many kinds of subject.  For instance I, as a Brit, am simultaneously a citizen (of the British state) and a subject (of the Queen - whether I want to be or not!).  Citizen and subject are really two different kinds of subjectivity, two different overlapping social assemblages that produce subjectivities (with capacities and obligations) that I embody but which are not reducible to my physical person.  I am also a subject of the English language, of the university that I work for, etc.  In short, subjectivity is social, multiple and variously embodied.

Latour effectively does the same thing with subjects and objects and then pulls the rug out from under them both by eliminating the body-qua-material-substrate and making the physical body into another mode.  Yes, I certainly do embody legal subjectivities and I do have a physical body but that is a LAW/REP crossing, not an embodiment of a transient mode by a single, underlying substance.  Subject and object become meaningful only within a mode.

To go back to his infamous assertion that Ramses II couldn't have died from tuberculosis because that hadn't been discovered then we can now see that as a confusion of modes, a confusing crossing.  Tuberculosis only became an 'object' once it existed for a subject in 1882.  Yes.  But that is only tuberculosis as object of knowledge, of REF.  It says nothing of tuberculosis as object of REP, which surely did pre-exist its discovery.  Hence he is now able to make this claim:
Beer yeasts were in no way prepared to become the experimental material through which the “yeastists” in Bordeaux made them capable of making themselves known. These yeasts had been making grapes ferment as long as there have been grapes, and producing grape must as long as there have been farmers, but they had never before caused brains to ferment, or contributed to the writing of blog posts and articles. (89)
A bit further along Latour goes on to say that “object and subject are then no longer the causes but only the consequences of the extension of such chains and, in a way, their products.” I.e. object and subject only exist in relation to an epistemic process, an instantiation of the REF mode, that produces both. Object and subject are not the ontological basis of knowledge but are the products of the process of reference.

This must mean, then, that the yeasts prior to documentation in articles and blogposts or tuberculosis prior to discovery in Koch’s lab were not 'objects'. Yeast and tuberculosis only became ‘objects’ (of knowledge) once they became known [REF], however that doesn’t mean that they did not previous exist [REP].

This relativity of objectivities in terms of modes gets rather complex.  It'll be interesting to see how it's tied together.  I'm not sure that it makes sense to me just yet.

On religion, I've not read Latour's 'Rejoicing' book yet but I have it waiting to be read.  He defines religion as a mode so very abstractly that it can seemingly be completely detached from religious practice.  Anywhere one agonises over the fidelity of one's transformations then religion qua mode seems to be present.  How this helps religious institutions I'm not sure.  Maybe it isn't supposed to.  Indeed, the kind of religion that Latour ends up articulating seems much more pagan than Christian!

I think his attack on the Modern epistemological rejection of religion is a blow that lands.  He's hardly the first to argue that comparing religion with science is effectively a category error - and he may well be right.  However, what is to stop atheists from simply shifting their stance and saying 'well, okay, [REF] and [REL] are different things, fine.  But I still refuse to organise my life and my world around something so fundamentally arbitrary; viva la référence!'

An atheist is free to argue that religion is nothing but an agonising over origins plus a tradition of fictions and habits and this is consistent with Latour's ontology.  The REL mode doesn't tell us why the worship of a deity is necessary or desirable - only that it's possible without reference.  It actually does nothing to bolster the case for religion at all, despite how its narrated.

Metaphysics as equipping; Seeing every problem as a nail; Becoming more impressionable

In reply to my argument that we need to trace the networks that produce the human in order to produce a new humanism, an alter-humanism, dmf (now my most dedicated interlocutor!) writes:
my preference in terms of sorting out descriptions/techniques would be to take on case-studies and show (rather than abstractly say) what is gained and lost (to the degree that we can capture such things, obviously any view-point/lens by foregrounding certain things leaves others out of focus, and than many things just exceed our grasps) by the applications of the differing approaches/styles.
Case studies are indeed essential.  The central intuitions of ANT have to be maintained, one of which is: we can only learn through trials in which the researcher makes herself open to transformation by her participants; she makes herself plastic, quite literally impressionable.

However, we cannot go into a case study 'unequipped'; without 'tooling up,' so to speak, beforehand!  This brings me back to the modes project and the relationship between fieldwork and metaphysics in general.

Can't we take metaphysical arguments as 'wagers' that practically precede but do not empirically predetermine fieldwork?  We might never be sure when turning up for work whether we'll need a hammer or a scalpel but if we familiarise ourselves with both tools and bring them along with us then we will be both sensitive to and prepared to deal with the issues that arise.

Arriving with only one tool, one mode - that of networks - brings to my mind a joke: give a man a hammer and every problem starts to look like a nail...

Having a whole set of tools (not just one or two) requires us to make a decision, it requires us to think about the kind of problem we are facing.  It may even prompt us to realise that none of our tools fit and we have to go 'back to the drawing board' - that is, back to the space of abstraction, of planning, of architecture, of philosophy.

A plurality of metaphysics makes us more impressionable because it makes us more uncertain, more hesitant as to our next step.  It makes us a little bit more 'lost' in our moment but, at the same time, increases the number of routes open to us.

Caputo on Latour; Messianic Realism vs. Realism in the Present

dmf posted a good article from John Caputo on Derrida's 'hyper-realism' over on the aime-group blog.  It basically reinforces what I thought before (conveniently, for my ego).  If Derrida is a 'realist' then he only fulfils the absolute bare minimum condition for that status - not hyper-realism so much as hypo-realism.  He identifies something like a 'desire for the thing itself despite the impossibility such a meeting'.  Yes, it's true that his entire corpus can be understood as being about that.  But if that's realism of any sort it's the absolute bare minimum ('love of the world') - he doesn't go beyond that to try and say something else of the world or produce something else in the world in spite of the impossibility of the absolute, fully present meeting of the subject and the thing itself (other than that our 'love' of the 'impossible' compels us to live through the impossible - which is saying almost nothing).

Indeed, Caputo's very fixation on the thing itself goes to show how Latour has moved away from this tradition; beings of REP are not things themselves, no mode can claim that title.  However, we are no more estranged from REP than we are from anything else, we just have to learn to speak in the correct way, to articulate ourselves competently.  That's a pretty fundamental metaphysical difference.  'Loving' things themselves might stop one being a Berkeleyan but little more than that.  Take Kant, strip out the transcendental, replace it with some linguistics, add a quasi-Freudian desire for the unachievable object and you have something pretty close to Derrida's 'realist' position.
...the thing itself always eludes our grasp, always gives the slip to the net of signifiers in which our desire had hoped to catch it up.
Latour follows in this vein inasmuch as he rejects Modern absolutisms, of course, but surely he would have to reply: 'things only slip away and elude our grasp if our institutions fail, if our networks degrade, if they are shocked beyond our ability to maintain them.'  That's a pretty fundamental difference too.  Deconstruction does good work inasmuch as it detaches signifiers from having any essential or pre-given relation to signifieds and then demonstrates the impossibility of structures of signifiers, taken in isolation, having any final, fixed configuration that would be free from flux and contradiction.  In that sense it opens the door, as I said before, to Latour's relativist (as in relationist) theories of truth - and it is in this respect that Latour is wrong to distance himself from deconstruction so radically - however it by no means anticipates them, much less does Derrida 'get there first.'

In short, 'love of things' is not enough!  Messianic realism is barely realism at all.  Latour gives us reality, gives us presence here and now and distinguishes between many ways of being present, being made present, being kept present, being kept in the present (i.e. being kept in existence).  It's not perfect but it's progress.

I must add that from what people have been saying on other blogs John Caputo is a nice, generous kind of guy.  I still think he's very wrong, though!

Friday 18 October 2013

Thinking about an alter-humanism internal to ANT; Policing translation in the borderlands

Nicholas replies to my last comment on his blog; an excerpt:
...Like the hard-won efforts to generate political agency, ours was a hard-won battle to generate technological agency but with a balance. Jan and I have always written that ANT has been used in so many and so many contradictory ways that it almost defies simple summary and has a much more malleable character these days, as it is collided with new theories born in disciplines with different traditions and orienting assumptions. 
So, a materialist answer that still provides something of political agency: I wonder what a discussion would look like if it were started like this: “what should we do with bodies when we de-center humans?” 
I think that in Jan and I’s chapter for that new book, we are walking as far away as we can from humanist theories of international relations precisely waiting for the moment for other to say “STOP, you’re too close to the edge!” Not because we have “materialist-blinders” on, but because I think the ultimate answer to your question will not have almost anything to do with theories or findings, and instead it will be a professional or (dare I say, but surely I do mean it) aesthetic decisions about what theories and models we will invite to populate our home disciplines. This will be something of a traditional “gate keeping” practice that nearly any discipline must encounter. Given the “migratory” (or predatory, depending on perspective) uses of ANT … perhaps its time for a few boundary policemen in IR to ask the hard question: now that they are in the gates, do we let them say and settle here?
I tend to cross post my longer comments on other blogs here. That much typing must deserve a post of its own! So here it is.

I think that kind of dialectical, agonistic discursive approach is a very valid one.  Take your line of argument as far as you can until someone stops you or until it breaks down!  It recognises that thought is a dialogical process and one where (polite) conflict can be productive.

I think that a kind of neo- or alter-humanism is possible from within ANT.  It simply has to take the form of: the more mediations, the more attachments the better (that's the ANT way).  What are the associations and assemblages that make us human?  Can we intensify them to make us even more human (note, not post-human but more human)?  The problem with classic humanism is the location of agency in the human body as if human beings were substances with essential properties.  It's an occult theory that always requires a 'context' to be appended to the individual body as if these things were somehow of different orders of reality.  Instant dualism, just add water.  The worst part of this bodily ontology is that we are locked in to our bodies, as if they are all we are, as if being born naked means we have to live naked.  If, on the contrary, humanity is the product of a broader network then that network can be extended.

I'm thinking of an essay of Latour's on 'qualculation' (what a horrible word!) where he says that e.g. in a supermarket the way that prices are laid out per unit and per weight, etc. turn the shopper into a calculating subject; the shopper 'downloads' that capacity through the network.  Likewise in extended cognition terms we can think of the expansion of calculative capacities that comes even from a simple abacus, for example.

What are the attachments that constitute human political subjectivity and how can they be extended, intensified?  I think part of answering that question might mean taking another look the word 'agency' itself.  If it really is as essential as the humanists say (and aren't we supposed to be ethnomethodologists and diplomats who 'respect our informants'?) then perhaps that's something that needs to be sacrificed, given up to the human inasmuch as it is taken to refer to those attachments that achieve a particular kind of agency, a particular kind of subjectivity instead of standing for all kinds of causal efficacy in general.  It is just a bit of terminology, after all, it is a replaceable part.  It's the spark plug of ANT - essential and yet replaceable.

As for the need for boundary policing, yes I think so.  I'd go so far as to say that ANT requires that kind of opposition.  After all, what produces translation?  A trial.  And if no one opposes ANT's adventurism with any force then there are no real trials and no translation of any significance.  In that sense ANT is an intrinsically agonistic, dialectical, dialogical form of discourse.  It needs to be told no.

I'm also thinking this issue through Latour's modes book that I'm about 2/3 of the way through.  That puts a whole other spin on things as it makes NET one mode among many (albeit a pivotal one).  The modes are pretty transformational for Latour's ANT but he still maintains the ontological policy of 'agency for all' so there's still a debate to be had on that, very much so.  Particularly as the politics mode is quite weak, I think (based on my reading so far at least).  Certainly weaker than some of the others.

From physiká to metaphysiká; Grand theories as 'portals'

In the comments to my last post dmf writes:
... personally I don't feel the need for a "meta" to physics and I think this ties in with our earlier discussion of Latour leaving the field/lab behind to take a perch for a more God's-eye view.
It's late and I'm not sure that I can think straight but this prompts some words to emerge from my brain, run through my nervous system and into my tippy-tappy, keyboard bothering fingers.  Here they are:

I don't think there's anything to be feared in shifting from physiká to metaphysiká.  If any discourse claims to be a god's eye view of reality it's surely modern physics!  A metaphysics that tries to explain things away or to denigrate the non-meta is a bad metaphysics but one that acknowledges the metaphysical presuppositions implicit in our physical experiences, gives them a vocabulary and thus makes them thinkable is alright in my book.  As long as it does something worthwhile it is worthwhile.  That it is intrinsically speculative is neither here nor there.

I think that we need to do away with the notion that metaphysics is the 'highest' form of knowledge.  In a way it's the lowest.  Below even common sense.  It's an expression not of knowledge but of ignorance; it's a way of muddling through despite our almost complete ignorance of that of which we speak.  It can be exciting but it's nothing to be exalted.

The same is broadly true of e.g. grand, macroscopic social and political theories.  These are usually accorded the grandest honours and greatest respect.  The more a theory is said to 'explain,' the wider the window it gazes from, the higher the vantage point it looks down from the more wonderful it is said to be.  This is nonsense.  The higher you rise up in your observation balloon the further you see, yes, but the worse you see it.  Reach increases as resolution declines.

The best that can be said of grand theories (and this is an important virtue, I'm not damning by faint praise) is that they are often extremely well connected.  Like a good map, you can use a grand theory to travel widely and securely with very little terra incognita roughing up your smooth ride.  A good map is a 'portal' that connects intimately to everywhere it represents but without even beginning to 'sum up,' much less 'explain away,' anything (or even trying).

If every pixel of a digital bitmap is a trajectory connected to a locality then you can either focus in closely on one thing and connect to it very intensively or step back and capture many things but be much less connected to any one of them.  That's a stretched analogy but hopefully it makes sense.  Grand theories as portals are valuable.  The trouble comes when we take grandiosity to suggest proximity to the real.  If anything the opposite is true, although a bad map connects to nowhere.

Thursday 17 October 2013

The risk of 'de-centering humans'; Reflections on LSE last year

Nicholas at Installing (Social) Order has a nice post updating the blogosphere on their latest work, particularly on 'decentering humans' in International Relations.  I'm glad to see that these issues are still burning away and that the IR/ANT collective is still hanging together!

With regard to the project in general, one question that must ultimately be asked, I think, is: when we have traced all the networks that form the human how do we avoid humans being dissolved into those networks?  How do we avoid shifting from anthropocentrism to an un-self-critical network-centrism?  How do we avoid the political complacency that can potentially come from thoroughgoing relationality?  Are there no unintended consequences of ANT's creeping colonisation of more and more intellectual territory?  I think that there are.

This is something that came up at the Millennium conference last year, as I'm sure you remember!  There was a clear divide at that event between ANT-types and others, most particularly from the critical realist camp, for whom human reflexivity as the basis of political agency is indispensable.  It was argued that the appropriation of 'agency' as a substitute for 'causality' undoes all the hard won victories of emancipatory politics (and its accompanying critical theory) in the 20th century.

As something of an ANT-phile I was quite challenged by this idea.  David Chandler in particular helped me to see the point.  I came to realise that it isn't just a blustery, reactionary reiteration of substantialism or modernist humanism (although it sometimes goes that way too!).  When ANT was working just on science and technology it was easy to downplay and de-exceptionalise the agency of the human - scientists and technicians had been granted far too much agency, far too much centredness and self-control and therefore depriving them of that was methodologically and politically unproblematic.  No one was ever going to lapse into thinking that these people really lacked agency or were cultural dopes; the goal was to shift these human agents back into their networks and ANT did that brilliantly.

When we shift forward 25 years and look at the situation where, now, rightly or wrongly, ANT is a sociological metalanguage that is informing all kinds of theorisation we have to tread much more carefully.  The political agency of human beings in general is in no way as assured as that of scientists and technicians.  We simply can't take human agency for granted in all walks of life (or in all modes of existence, perhaps).  Remember that ANT ethnographers were always (and they were always aware of this) studying up.  That is, they were studying persons with more power, money and prestige than they themselves enjoyed.  Studying down, studying persons who are downtrodden, disenfranchised, held by dominant discourses to be feckless and incapable of rational self-determination - these people need to be treated with greater care.

To systematically remove all the classic humanist means by which their agency can be defended without careful consideration of consequences is, frankly, irresponsible.

That isn't to say that ANT-type work has no place within broader social or political theory.  Far from it.  I am still an ANT-phile!  All I mean to say is that irreducing the human must not, ultimately, dissolve the human.  The ontological status of human political agency is too fragile to be thrown around so cavalierly.  That doesn't mean that we must stop walking in the direction that we have been but, as Latour would put it, we may need to slow down.  It isn't that ANT cannot be translated into all these different areas but we need to recognise and deal with the ever larger degree of transformation that is required to properly extend these networks the further they stray from their origins.  Part of that, I think, means that we have to find a way of saying: the more mediations, the more human.  More humanity, not less.  A new humanism.

That's the major realisation that I got from the LSE event last year (having had a year to reflect on it!).

Monday 14 October 2013

Modes: abstract/concrete

This is at risk of becoming an extremely prolific blogging day by my very low standards.  Terence writes more; this is the first sentence:
Traditions are polarised by Latour into abstract modes and concrete domains.
How abstract are the modes?  Or, in what way are they abstract?  They are produced qua philosophical objects by a process of abstraction, for sure.  They are essences abstracted from a more complex and chaotic milieux.  But they are not abstract like, say, Whitehead's eternal objects.  If Latour is right then the modes are instantiated in every event of their kind.  If they cease to be instantiated then they must surely disappear from existence.  They have to spread like viruses; to stop spreading is to go extinct.  If they are real then they cannot exist in any 'elsewhere' like eternal objects.  That sounds an awful lot like concreteness to me.

Consulting my trusty etymology dictionary I find that the root of abstract is the Latin abstractus meaning "drawn away."  In this sense the modes are the opposite to 'abstract' - they draw towards, draw together.  The modes themselves seem to be, in principle, utterly concrete; the drawing away comes when we divert them from their trajectories to be poked and prodded by our conceptual interrogations.  They are concrete beings that, like any being, can be abstracted by reference.  We shouldn't mistake their abstracted state for what they are (if we accept that the referential chains are valid).

Anyway, that's enough thinking for one day.

Niall Ferguson's incessant whinging

Niall Ferguson continues his crusade to whinge and cry foul at every left-of-far-right blogger on the Internet.  This time he's summarily swatted away by the Politics Editor of Business Inside, no less.
One final note. In the process of criticizing me, Ferguson writes: "If you are defending someone against a charge of incivility..." I'm going to stop him right there. I'm not defending anybody against a charge of incivility. Paul Krugman is often quite uncivil. I am sometimes uncivil too, for example in this blog post. 
The reason Ferguson wants to talk about civility is that he can't talk about not being full of crap. Ferguson trades on his academic credentials to write popular articles that contain misleading and false claims. His writing causes readers to come away with a worse understanding of the economy than they entered with. He is changing the world for the worse. 
My contention is not that we haven't been uncivil to Ferguson. We definitely have. My contention is that he deserves it.
Well, that's my schadenfreude fix for the day.

Yet more on ontological conservatism and the confluence of modes

Terence comments on Levi's comments on my comments on Latour's modes.  (How's that for a referential chain?)

On the 'prohibition of category mistakes arising from illegitimate crossings,' it is not all crossings that are said to be 'bad.'  Far from it - modes are co-dependent.  What use is REF without REP?  Were there nothing of the latter there'd be nothing to 'bring back.'  Likewise, TEC cannot function without beings of REP to hybridise.  In the habit chapter he gives the example that if a microphone goes out during a pastor's sermon then it takes an engineer to fix it and that's a REL/TEC crossing.  Every mode such as REL, LAW, POL, etc. is related to a specific form of HAB and various METs and NETs - these uber-modes.  The prohibition is on crossings that do violence to the modes and seek to erase one or the other of them.  So, there's clearly a conservatism or conservationism inherent in that but it's not crossings that are illegitimate per se, only certain forms of crossing that try to state one mode in terms of another, thereby erasing the former (at least that's my understanding).

That said, he's altering his argument subtly as the book progresses.  In the habit chapter he's now able to say that DC isn't all bad.  It's now the result of well ordered processes; it's an appearance and appearance has its own mode of existence, HAB (a mode itself pluralised by the fact that every other mode instantiates it differently).  Even the appearance of being 'critical' early on in the book vis-a-vis the 'evil genius' of DC was, in fact, just another mode to be asserted positively.  An addition to the pluriverse, not a subtraction from it.

What is this kind of ontological optimism lacking?  It doesn't prevent us from questioning or interrogating modes - indeed, the whole endeavour seeks to lay them bare, to de-habituate them and open them to appreciation (i.e. appreciation meaning an assessment of value).  It isn't 'uncritical' in that sense; it is de-habituating.  It doesn't stop us proposing new modes that transform the other modes by their entry into the ecosystem (indeed, this is highly encouraged).  It doesn't stop us from combining modes in new ways, provided that we do not attempt to define one mode in terms of another.  It doesn't necessarily mean that e.g. an ethnographer working with a church group must be essentially preoccupied with REL.  That group is a confluence of all kinds of modes and cannot even begin to be understood mono-modally.  Fieldwork is essentially polymodal, that much is clear.  Nor does it stop us from extending e.g. the REL mode to situations that are not conventionally 'religious.'  Indeed, as I mentioned before that mode is defined so abstractly that it could apply to almost anything.

However, this ontological optimism does tend to encourage us to 'keep our distance,' to let others just get on with their modal adventures unperturbed; to live and let live, so to speak.  And this brings me back to what I said about chapter 1 with Latour exoticising the other in order to construct it as that which must be absolutely respected - 'respected' to the point where it seems unclear as to how we could even engage with it (a common problem, in fairness).  An anthropology of almost any church group (to rejoin that example) would surely demonstrate that most Believers tend at least as much towards a kind of confluence of REF and DC overlaid with a hazy mysticism of HAB, speckled with flecks of MET, as they are to the translations described by REL.  That Jesus really was the son of God, that there are indisputable moral certainties and that the Bible 'proves' this in a very real and referential sense (pointing to the book to make a point, quoting chapter and verse to prove a point, etc., everything points towards reference!) is fundamental to these forms of life.

The assertion that these are really just crossings (however legitimate) and that REL is the true essence of religion is not a merely descriptive, empirical assertion - it is a proposition, a declaration of value, an appreciation of value.  It is an assertion that the proper form of religion is concentrated around the REL mode with crossings across that mode only serving its practical, institutional needs.  It is a value judgement.  And this is where Latour must depart (and if he does not do so then be deported!) from his self-styled evidentialist empiricism and reveals his true moral-political-philosophical colours.

These are not just neutral descriptions of modes as they really are but the distillation and rearticulation of the values of the Moderns - a kind of saving of the Moderns, an identification of what is valuable in their metaphysics, a flushing out of the poison and a reconstitution of the valuable materials as a carefully designed, rigorously controlled 'menu of values.'  Like a kind of tapas menu (if you permit me the analogy) where some items are necessary (the bread and butter modes) and you're encouraged to try everything but some items are optional.  All items, however, have been carefully crafted from many materials - an appropriately heterogeneous network.  It is a gourmet restaurant, the cuisine is often stunning in its subtly and ingenuity but it can hardly pass its wares off as raw - nor would it want to.  Everything is highly refined and, indeed, this is what makes the whole endeavour valuable; that is the chef's skill.  No mediations, no value.  Essential Latourism.

Long story short, the value menu is propositional, not simply descriptive.  It may be based upon experience both as a concept and in terms of some fieldwork but that doesn't change the fact that its menu items are highly philosophically refined.  Latour's rhetoric (for we really must distinguish it from the substance of his argument, there's no other way to read him) often implies an earthy, concrete empiricism-qua-evidentialism that is promised but never really delivered.  The empiricism-qua-trajectories-of-experience is perfectly valid - he channels some experiences and not others.  No problem there.  But he should be more direct in his representation of his endeavours.  His skill is great but he sometimes tries to pass it off as magic.  This must not be permitted.  A habit, an appearance of the worst sort.

REL isn't 'how religion works' (though I can accept that it may be part of how religion works), it's the part of religion that is asserted to be most valuable, the most appreciated.  A kind of mereological judgement (and therefore critique since judgement connotes critique) - looking into the assemblage, picking out the most valuable part according to your own predispositions and making this the essence of the thing, whether it is functionally essential or not (that is an open question - a lab without REF is surely unthinkable - it'd be a total failure - but the same may not be true of religious groups and REL).

By doing this across a range of domains one ends up with a system of essential values that can be debated with others and their interpretations of what's essential and what's not.  That's the way around the impasse of the rhetoric of description/empiricism vs. the reality of proposition/judgement.  Take them for what they are and then they can be properly debated; indeed, this is the condition of possibility for diplomacy.

The essences are not idealisations.  REL is not the idealisation of religious practice, it is one part of it - a part raised up and honoured by its identification.  The mereological judgement extracts and abstracts this one component and raises it to the level of essence.  Not because that's necessarily how things work but because that's how things work best - or so it is claimed.

If we take this approach to the modes then things open up and are pluralised again.  If we ignore the continual, nagging suggestion that these modes have been rigorously derived from experience of the way things are and simply accept that they are derived from particular, narrow portions of experience that have been abstracted, translated and submitted for debate and scrutiny then, personally, I find little more to object to on this issue as long as we're also able to say that e.g. REL isn't confined to religious practice but is simply typified by it; that religion is the archetypical instantiation of it but does not 'own' it.

If we can assume all of that (a double dislocation) then I don't see what is to stop someone (a) detaching REL from religious practice in observing it in other kinds of situations and (b) insisting that REF is the appropriate mode for exploring fundamental questions of cause and reason, that the piousness of REL is sometimes an appropriate form of translation but it's nothing to base a life around and that religious practice is for the most part a crossing of FIC/HAB with some thoroughly misunderstood MET thrown in for good measure all wrapped up with an often dangerous ribbon of POL and LAW.  That doesn't define any mode in terms of any other; its a perfectly legitimate diplomatic argument.  It doesn't deny the reality of REL, it simply recognises that religious practice is neither determined by that mode nor is that mode exhausted by religious practice.

Apologies to anyone who managed to read all of that.  I'm still working this out as I'm writing it!  There must be a shorter way of making the point but that's all I've got for now.

More on ontological conservatism

Terence replies to my previous comments on Latour's ontological conservatism.  He uses the phrase “duty of non-infringement” to describe the way Latour defends his modes – that’s a good way of putting it. I think a lot of it comes down to how we interpret that. On the one hand Latour is very clear that he wants to grant ‘dignity’ to each mode, that each mode is valid and good in its own way, etc. However, this is stated and insinuated rather than actually argued. His intention is clear but he doesn’t go so far as to say why the modes must be conserved at all cost – why no creative destruction? If they are historical then surely that is inevitable, given a long enough timeframe. Why hold back the tide as a matter of necessity?

Or is it necessary?  It seems like that from the way his argument proceeds but I do wonder.  In its precise technical definition I don’t see what the REL mode even does to save religion, really. It’s narrated in such a way that it’s clearly meant to defend religion from its detractors but it’s a funny sort of defence. REL is defined so abstractly that it could apply to completely non-religious situations – ‘I adhered religiously to my instructions - I agonised over them out of respect to their originator.' And if it can be detached from religious situations then religion is merely an archetype of the mode, nothing intrinsic to the mode itself (perhaps this is true of all the modes; they are named by their archetypes rather than their essences).

Sunday 13 October 2013

Modes, Pure Philosophy and Latour's Will-to-conserve

Terence Blake has a couple of posts criticising Latour's modes and his philosophical strategies.  The second post begins:
Latour bifurcates our traditions into the heterogeneous networks of domains (concrete traditions) and the homogeneous felicity conditions of modes (abstract traditions) and their values. Having spent a lot of time explaining to us how science, contrary to its image as an abstract tradition, is in fact a concrete impure assemblage of actors and trajectories, Latour is now explaining how nevertheless one can abstract out a pure value of objectivity that is served by this composite rhizomic domain.
The further I'm getting through the book the more I'm liking it, however I am also more convinced of one of my initial impressions: that this is a work of pure philosophy.  It is 'empiricist' only in the most abstract, philosophical sense (despite what Latour insinuates).  Yes, Latour has done case studies on science, law, technology and so on, and to some extent aime is a synthesis of all is work to date.  But he's written no case studies on politics, for example (Politics of Nature is another work of pure philosophy).  The majority of the modes has no anthropological connections whatsoever - at least not yet.

Not that there's anything wrong with that as such but it is as though admitting doing pure philosophy isn't good enough for him and so it has to have these empiricist motifs tagged on here and there, clogging up the flow of concepts in order to make it all seem more real and grounded.

There is, of course, a very real sense in which his work is empiricist - that is, 'radical empiricist'.  The whole endeavour is built on the foundation of James' flows of experience but this is a purely philosophical empiricism; ironically, it doesn't seem to flow all that directly from or into fieldwork.

However, as for this 'bifurcation between networks and modes' it's quite a weak bifurcation inasmuch as, I believe he states early on, every concrete situation is an event of both NET and one PRE or other.  The limitless heterogeneity of NET is always combined with the particular essence of a mode.  REF is not equal to science; science both exceeds it and REF exceeds science.  So, there's still plenty of room for the heterogeneity and messiness of real practices.

I agree that his way of setting out the modes is conservative.  However, every mode inserted into the schema will transform the whole assemblage.  Perhaps it isn't the will to conserve and protect that is the problem but the absence of other modes that would, if recognised, transform the whole?  That's my working hypothesis, I'm still working out what those modes might be.