Friday 1 November 2013

AIME Contribution #3: Have we ever been Moderns?

[…] It is entirely possible—indeed, it is already largely the case—that the West (Europe, at least, unquestionably) is finally in a situation of relative weakness. No more question of hubris; no more question of repentance. It is high time to begin to spell out not only what happened in the name of “modernity” in the past (a patrimonial interest, as it were) but also and especially what this word will be able to mean in the near future. When the incontrovertible authority of force is lacking, when it has become impossible to “steal history,” might the diplomats’ moment finally be at hand? 
This inquiry into values, as they have been extracted, cherished, misunderstood, mistreated, patched back together, and appropriated by the West as its patrimony, seeks to contribute to the planetary negotiation that we are going to have to undertake in preparation for the times when we shall no longer be in a position of strength and when the others will be the ones purporting to “modernize”—but in the old way and, as it were, without us! We shall claim, even so, that we have something to say about our values—and perhaps also about those of the others (but with none of the privileges of the old European history). In other words, “Occidentals” will have to be made present in a completely different way, first to themselves, and then to the others. To borrow the remarkable expression used in chancelleries, it is a matter of making “diplomatic representations” in order to renegotiate the new frontiers of self and other. (15)
I have a very simple yet fundamental objection: If it is true that the ‘former others’ are now modernising (extending the ‘modernisation front’) this must mean that ‘the Moderns’ are no longer exclusively Western (if they ever were). Therefore, using the words Modern, Western, European, Occidental and White interchangeably (as AIME does throughout) is damagingly inconsistent with the abstract definition of the Moderns as a “population of variable geometry” (8) with “no spatio-temporal limits” (V: The West) that is “defined by contrast” (V: Moderns/Modernization).

On the one hand, the Moderns are consistently defined in philosophical terms as those who bifurcate, as those who portion reality into only two modes: that of the subject and that of the object (this basic dichotomy in all sorts of guises and disguises). And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns are also repeatedly suggested to be Europeans and Westerners in territorial, historical, political and anthropological terms.  Whether or not this ambiguity is intentional it is a serious confusion right at the heart of the AIME project itself. I would go so far as to say that without resolving this conflict there is no possibility of the diplomatic summit convening at all.

First of all, let us note that it is entirely unproven that bifurcation as a metaphysical and political ruse was immaculately conceived in Europe. It seems to me, judging by how Bruno (are first names too casual and familiar for diplomatic discourse?) tells the story, that the godfather of the Moderns is Socrates. Is not Double Click, in many ways, the avatar of Plato’s dear mentor (or is it vice versa)?

The important point is that it is only ethnocentric prejudice that makes Socrates a ‘European.’ As John Hobson argues, the Ancient Greeks identified eastwards rather than towards the north-west.
[…] this view of a pure European Greece was decidedly not how the Greeks saw themselves. They viewed Greece as fixed firmly within what was known as the ‘Hellenic Occident.’ That Europe has always been an idea as opposed to a geographical ‘reality’ is reflected in the fact that ‘Europa’ herself was in Greek mythology the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre, situated on the coast of Lebanon.” (John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, 227).
Indeed, transforming the ‘rational’ Greeks into ‘Europeans’ was one of the things that allowed early modern Europeans to imagine the East as being irrational and other. Europe bathed in Greece’s reflected glory and the histories of science and rationalism in India, China, the Islamic world and beyond were scrubbed out (e.g. Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam: A History).  What is all this if not "stealing history"?

The extent to which ‘the Moderns’ are genealogically rooted in the West is debatable, to say the least. But, regardless of the historical question, it seems manifestly self-evident that there are now non-Western Moderns. Indeed, Bruno admits as much in a recent interview:
[…] all of the others are modernizing in the most blatantly modernist unrepentant way: the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians. So actually, it’s interesting that you are doing an exhibition on animism, because it’s the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist. It’s like ‘Iconoclash.’ Suddenly, the Europeans realize that, wait a minute, maybe we made a big mistake in attributing animism to the others. What happens if we have been animists, and in what way were we? Since we have agencies everywhere, we mix the agencies, we made a whole series of transformations about the agent, we added wings, and we took the souls out, and sometimes the opposite. We did all sorts of very, very strange things, and we turned to the others, who are no longer others, and what did they do? Well they modernized without any worry...
The amalgamation of Modern, Western, Occidental, European and White into a single figure is a mistake historically, philosophically and politically. It places ‘diplomacy’ on perilously swampy ground from the very beginning: Who are to make representations to whom? Who are the selves and who the others? The answers to these essential questions fall into a thick fog.

Many of the ‘former others’ – the elites, at least – are now emphatically Modern. Some of the ‘former others’ might be even more Modern than any of the Euro-Moderns ever were! ‘Capitalism with Asian values’ might be even more capitalist than its Euro-American peers! More than a few futurists have predicted that Singapore will become the politico-economic model for the rest of this century…

Regardless of such hypotheses, what is indubitable is that ‘capitalism with Asian values’ has only been possible due to a process of translation. Asian values and Western neoliberalism have been spun and entwined into a complex and explosively economically productive and politically transformative entanglement – a process that has been ably described by anthropologists such as Aihwa Ong (e.g. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty). The Western version of capitalism has proved to be remarkably pliant and plastic in its march across the globe. Universal equivalency has come at the cost of intensive localisation – but that work has been achieved, no doubt.

Bruno is correct that the ‘former others’ can no longer be written off by Euro-Americans as ‘pre-modern.’ And this is indeed a most important geopolitical issue. But the fact that the many of the 'former others' are now Modern (a) demolishes the idea of Modern as synonymous with Western or European and (b) creates real problems for the idea of a grand summit over which we will discuss our values.

First, we must recognise that the others – “the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians” – cannot be negotiated with ‘directly.’ Diplomats represent kings rather than peasants, do they not?  Diplomats are agents of elites – the very same elites who may have become Modern. It seems that if we are to negotiate with the ‘former others’ we will have to do so through those ‘former others’ who have become most like 'us.'  Peculiar, no?

Secondly, even if ‘we’ could get non-elite others to the ‘negotiating table’ we cannot be sure that they would either have any interest in our rambling verbiage or would understand the process in anything like the same way as we do. What is a neutral, sedentary platform for honest and frank discussion for one group is a frightening, offensive and restrictive monstrosity for another. No, a table is never 'just a table,' no matter how much we all love to thump it so as to punctuate our rhetoric. I understand that the likes of Philippe Descola have made this criticism (p.88) of the diplomacy project before.

The third problem that the fact of the modernised ‘former others’ raises for the diplomacy project is the supposition that these ‘still-somewhat-others,’ even if we solve all the other problems, are going to present and propose to us radically different values, in spite of their being modernised to a greater or lesser degree. If their value systems have been infused with Western values via the often brutal translations of Western institutions and if they have internalised these values in various ways then who is to say which values are ‘theirs’ and which are ‘ours’? Is ‘capitalism with Asian values’ any less capitalism than its European or American forms? Are we to impose another kind of imperial exoticism in the form of a standard of authenticity where we would peel away the vales that the ‘we’ have ‘given them’ and try to uncover their ‘pre-modern’ essence?

Just how other are these ‘still-somewhat-others’? What if we find ourselves too much in agreement? And who are the Moderns, anyway? Have any of us, anywhere ever been Moderns?...

It seems to me that the Moderns are best thought of as being the masks, avatars or personas of Modernism. There has never been any single fleshy, individual homo sapien who was ‘a Modern.’  There are no distinct, simple, designatable citizen-units of the Modern nation.  The Moderns are not a people as such.  And yet, reading AIME, I am given the certain feeling that I have met these beings. I recognise this or that tendency in things that I have read, in people I have talked to.  I recognise particular gestures, repetitive arguments and familiar attitudes – indeed, I see these things all around me with great regularity.  I recognise large parts of my own self in the description of the Moderns! I can even pin down specific utterances, mark them with a highlighter and scribble in the margin: 'modern!!'.  However, I've never seen any one individual human being with 'Modern' emblazoned across their foreheads so starkly that I can think to myself 'ah, there goes one now!'

Moderns are perhaps circulating beings; they are never fully-formed, flesh-and-blood homo sapiens.  They gather, stick to one another, clump together and congregate but they never amalgamate into a population.  The Moderns are spectral...

So, my objection in brief: The terms Modern, Western, European and White can no longer be used interchangeably, if they ever could. Therefore, the assumption that it is Westerners who must ‘make representations’ to non-Westerners in order to facilitate a diplomatic dialogue of Moderns and non-Moderns is highly problematic.

I do not have any solutions at this point but I believe that I can offer a way forward.  The concept of diplomacy is, at present, a very 'thin' one.  From all the rich history of diplomacy-proper it absorbs only the bare fact that diplomats operate without any appeal to a higher power (under modern geopolitical conditions, anyway).  Diplomacy is a much finer and more fascinating inheritance than that.

As it stands at present the diplomacy metaphor appears inadequate for its task.  I do not know if it can be saved but I do know that it can be significantly extended.  However, that extension will have to follow on in a future Contribution.

AIME Contribution #2: Monty Python's 'All England Summarize Proust Competition' [FIC]

When I read this in AIME:
Since the dawn of time, no one has ever managed to summarize a work without making it vanish at once. Summarize La Recherche du temps perdu? [...] (243)
I knew I had to offer this as a Contribution!:

Is this a Contribution or a comment? Again, I hope that it is the former. It is obviously a humorous offering but it makes a serious point very well: Proust’s master-work defies summary but then so does Monty Python’s masterful deconstruction of summary itself. There is simply no substitution for submitting to the experience!

My next Contribution will be more substantial and critical.

AIME Contribution #1: "Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray" [REF]

I've posted the following Contribution on the AIME website.  It draws on a recent news story.
A fascinating news story from the world of palaeoanthropology: the discovery of a skull that could, after further extensions of the referential chain, fundamentally transform the story of early human evolution. 
Here is the key quote: "Everything that lived at the time of the Dmanisi was probably just Homo erectus," said Prof Zollikofer. "We are not saying that palaeoanthropologists did things wrong in Africa, but they didn't have the reference we have. Part of the community will like it, but for another part it will be shocking news.""

Unwittingly, perhaps, but the researcher articulates the [ref] mode in its scientific form beautifully. The discovery will unleash deeply interested passions, both positive and negative! There will be anger, indignation, argumentation! But colleagues and predecessors are not portrayed as dopes who have no 'access to reality' or who are 'wallowing in a world of illusions'  they simply 'didn't have the same reference' that these researchers presently do.
I posted it in relation to this section on page 107 of AIME:
Here, too, this is very ordinary business: delicately placing a specimen brought back from an archaeological dig in a drawer lined with cotton is “putting into form,” since the drawer is marked by a label with a number that will make it possible to categorize the specimen, and the white cotton lining makes the specimen’s shape more visible (it was hard to make out when it was only a brown spot on brown soil). The drawer has its “tails” side—it takes in the fossil—and its “heads” side—the fossil receives a label and reveals its outlines more readily. Something like an ideography. A minuscule transition, to be sure, but indispensable in the long series of transformations that permit, in the end, perhaps, if the paleontologist is lucky, the reinterpretation of the fossil.
Does this qualify as a Contribution rather than a mere comment? I hope so. It is a small Contribution, for sure, but it is a nice example that fleshes out [ref] to some degree and demonstrates that, in practice, scientists do not usually refer to Science in order to win arguments.

Thursday 31 October 2013

The 'small talk' of STS and ANT – Of trails, trials and travails

Jan posts some interesting comments on trends in STS/ANT:
[...] during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big.
These tendencies involve denying that their approach is a theory or a method, using "thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations" and then trying to articulate cases well but not 'get it right.'

Does the 'small talk' really denote modesty?  Perhaps.  But I think that perhaps it allows STS-ers to be sneaky!  To slink around, following their trails, trials and travails in ever more expansive and ambitious loops without being detected.  To keep their ambitions secret.  The quietest of coups.

The science warriors awake from their icy slumber

Nicholas at Installing (Social) Order reblogs an interesting story about Bruno Latour's receipt of the Holberg Prize.  This unspeakable crime against rationalism has perturbed some of the 1990s' most enthusiastic 'science warriors' from their slumber and prompted them to protest the award.  Latour is a relativist, they exclaim (again)!  And a Jacobite to boot!!

Hacks gotta hack, I suppose.

The irony of the science wars is perhaps that Latour et al. emerged stronger in many ways - not stronger than their opponents necessarily but stronger than they were themselves before.  A true trial.

Theory did get a bit carried away with itself in the early '90s and there was much in the damnations of Sokal et al. that was valid criticism.  However, whereas the likes of Latour internalised much of this criticism and came up with some pretty interesting answers (e.g. much of Pandora's Hope is an explicit reply to the science warriors and the AIME book, borrowing elements from Stengers' more avowedly realist, Whiteheadian philosophy, takes this even further) those on the other side are just beating the same old timeless drum.

As far as they are concerned intellectual history has ended.

They seemingly have no desire to engage with their opponents on any issue whatsoever.  Nothing less than total and complete capitulation will suffice.  Which only goes to prove the point the point that many people have made vis-à-vis scientism qua fundamentalism - that it's all about politics and has very little to do with science.

On strike

Today was the first day I've ever been on strike.  Until fairly recently I didn't have a job secure enough to strike over!

The higher education sector in the UK has had an average real terms pay cut of 13% over the past five years.  This year we were offered a 1% rise, up from 0.8% last year - way below the rate of inflation.  Another pay cut.  We're being expected to do more work for less money.  A familiar tale but no less wretched and unscrupulous for all that. 

It was an enjoyable experience if bloody cold.  The end of October is not a great time to be stood outside for hours in England.  But at least it didn't rain - we've had storms here in the past week!

The most interesting thing was watching people cross the picket line.  A pretty even mixture of genuine solidarity, polite tolerance, slightly bewildered indifference and barely veiled hostility.  The latter reaction was especially fascinating.  These sorts of moments reveal a lot about the people you work with.  Pigheaded, self-absorbed ignorance is a prevalent quality even among the highly educated - or perhaps I should say especially among the highly educated.

I learned that only about 20% of the university's employees are unionised, which is fairly average for the UK.  This figure chimes with my estimation of absenteeism on the day but probably only half that number participated in the pickets and demonstrations.  The rally at the university's main administrative building was impactful if not overwhelming.  The attitude of those who turned out was heartening and the rhetoric was enlivening.  The wonderful Professor Harriet Bradley spoke truth to power with inspiring vigour.  It was a reminder that there's life in academia yet, although most of her peers were conspicuous by their absence.  Champagne socialism is alive and well, also.

Wednesday 30 October 2013

Politics has sharp edges; The good life is culture

I really hate definitions of 'politics' or 'political' that remove all its sharp edges, that make it smooth, rounded, honorific and wonderful.  Take this from a paper titled The Thing Called Environment:
[...] we use the adjective ‘political’ to indicate all aspects of human existence that are related to the question of the good life, which we thus regard as the ultimate political question. With the noun ‘politics’, we refer to the different processes through which the political is dealt with and it follows that ‘political agency’ and ‘responsibility’ are, correspondingly, understood in terms of shaping the good life.
Awful.  Just awful.  Politics is not a nice, cosy, cuddly sweater of a thing – or, rather, it rarely is.  Any politics of any consequence is going to make someone somewhere at the very least somewhat unhappy.  More often than not it is a fierce, fearsome battleground of vicious tongues and severed heads.  That is not what politics is but what it is most often.

That's why I recoil in horror every time someone says 'everything is political' – what a dystopian nightmare!!  Every affair of every heart, every soul, every crumb of everything a matter for the polis?  Thank goodness that's not even remotely true.  Every moment of every day of everyone and everything broadcast live to the hive mind of the omnipolis?!  It is a horror beyond imagining.

Those who would make the whole world from politics alone – or who would wish away everything that is not 'political' – leave me aghast.  Kafka, Huxley and Orwell all being worked to death in a Stalinist gulag couldn't come up with a more obscenely dystopian scenario.  And those who to attempt to dull politics' every edge, to sweetly scent its every malodour and to present it to us as something to be taken into our heart of hearts – these people may be well intentioned but that is the best that we can say of them.

No, what Goeminne and François are referring to isn't 'politics.'  I'd rather call it culture.
culture (n.) mid-15c., "the tilling of land," from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura "a cultivating, agriculture," figuratively "care, culture, an honoring," from past participle stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested c.1500. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.
Not culture in the childish, reductive sense of 'art and music and food and clothes and songs and poems and books and ...' but culture as cultivation.  Agriculture, horticulture, anthroculture.

The classic British sitcom The Good Life had a better idea of the good life than Goeminne and François' 'politics.'  A husband and wife who grow tired of life in the capitalist economy and attempt to live off of the land in their own back garden – growing vegetables, raising livestock, making clothes, bartering, making do.  Did their attempt to cultivate both their means of subsistence and their love for one another outside of the conventions of their society make them transcend politics?  Not at all.  But their most noble of endeavours – eking a living out of the very skin of the earth in a way that is consistent with care for all around them – is not 'politics' however you look at it.  In the end the outside world irrupts into theirs and dashes their tragically fragile lacework to nothing.  That is what you get for going it alone.  That is what you get for growing against the grain.  That is what you get for your counterculture – for your cultivations that run contrary to the political.

Yes, the good life is all about cultivation, nurturing, the production of the conditions for flourishing (or simply for getting by) – it's about culture.  Culture must pass by way of politics since it is too fragile to persist on its own but politics it is not.  Culture is the good life is ethics; politics is something else.  Politics has no moral compass of its own, no direction of its own – it must be directed.  Perhaps when politics takes culture as its compass – when politics is encompassed by culture and not the other way around – the outcomes are the best for everyone but to speak of politics as though it were culture misses the whole horrid underbelly – the underbelly that is shamelessly exposed more often than not.  Worse, it deprives politics of all the powers that could splint, ballast and mineralise culture – that could make it enduring, that could put bones beneath its aching, beautiful flesh.

"Politics have no relation to morals," wrote Machiavelli.  He should have written 'no necessary relation' – but aside from that he was right.  "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun" – when culture is encompassed by politics this is the result.

Understanding human speciation in a broader sense

In response to my last post on human exceptionalism dmfant writes:
going back to our being creatures of habit why isn't the differences in our response-abilities (our place in the family-rhizome), from other beings as human-beings, just a matter of evolution and adaptation/socialization?
Perhaps it is but which adaptations, which socialisations, which habits?  Which ones are particularly important?  Which are particularly destructive?

We can accept that we are the product of unexceptional processes and still ask how we exceptionalise ourselves within all of that.  While all living things are subject to evolution not every living thing shares the same evolutionary pathways.  If humans are a species then we can ask what it is about their pathways, in the ways they persist in particular, that is exceptional relative to other pathways, each of which is exceptional in its own way (Stephen Jay Gould was good on this kind of point).

So, we must ask not 'what distinguishes humans from all the rest of existence?' but rather 'what marks human pathways off from all the other pathways that all have their own particular qualities?'.

To believe that human being is so exceptional that it makes all other existents homogenenous by comparison is as foolish as it is dualist.  To believe that human being has its own qualities, its own resonant frequencies and that all other natural kinds (in all their fuzzy-edged glory) have their own characteristic kinds of resonance too is a pluralist tenet - and an entirely sensible one, in my view.  The search for only one exception - the human exception and the human exception -, the dualist task, is barbaric, as I have argued before.

Of course, no amount of exceptionality can extract us from our complex worldly relations.  If the Gaia hypothesis is true then we are inextricably bound up in not only evolutionary processes on the biological level but on practically every level - chemical, geological, atmospherical.  If we recognise that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star then this realisation is taken even further.

So, I suppose what I'm saying is that understanding human speciation (in a non-biologically reductive sense) is an ontological and political imperative.  It's a political imperative simply because 'knowing oneself' is an intrinstic part of subjectivation.  Becoming more human (not more than human), amplifying the best parts of the human condition, becoming alter-human - this requires a grasp of human speciation in the broadest possible sense.

Human exceptionalism

On the AIME reading group blog sam asks: "How else can we account for the uniqueness of human existence (if we can at all)?"

I’d say that we, as humans, can’t leave the uniqueness of human existence up to transcendental principles. If humans are unique it is because we make ourselves such – it’s down to what we do, not who we are (or, who we are is a result of what we do). So, the more valid question is: how do we exceptionalise ourselves (because surely we do)? And, if we answer that, we can then ask: how can we exceptionalise ourselves better (because surely we must)?

sam notes that "The hierarchy would not be simply given, but must be articulated through the cosmopolitical process of composition, which is to say, we have to make the truth (facere veritatem)."  That seems to be saying basically the same thing, although it implies a degree of self-awareness, deliberateness and futurity than differs from what I'm saying, which is that we already exceptionalise ourselves (and not just in our thoughts and self-representations) and we need to learn how to do this better.  The problem isn't the idea that human beings have unique qualities that must be understood, respect and celebrated, it is the belief that these qualities set us apart from the rest of existence - a practice that I have elsewhere called barbarism.

Is what we really need a kind of alter-humanism?

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Habit: the flywheel of cognition

William James famously called habit 'the enormous flywheel of society.'  He could also have called it the flywheel of cognition.  Levi Bryant links to a really fascinating article in The Atlantic on a study that shows how 'poverty taxes brains' - that is, poverty deprives people of the habits that permit wealthier people the luxury of saving cognitive energy by not having to think about so many things.

For example, if you have to think (and worry) about where your next meal is going to come from then you will expend enormous cognitive and emotional resources on achieving only that goal.  A wealthier person who can breeze through the supermarket without having to stop to think whether or not they can afford what is in their basket is free to think about other things.  If they are really wealthy they needn't even set foot in the shop, they simply bark 'food!' and it appears before them!

The really important thing to realise, as James did well over a century ago, is that habits run deep.  We are plastic beings.  Our brains are plastic, our habits are plastic.  It isn't just that the rich person saves time by not having to consciously recall how much money is in their bank account and then carefully add up every item in their basket in order to ensure that they are not humiliated when they reach the checkout because they are unable to pay.  It runs much deeper than that.  No, these kinds of practices affect the way we are 'wired' at every level - the aforementioned study focuses, of course, on brains but it is a general truth.

So writes James:
What is so clearly true of the nervous apparatus of animal life can scarcely be otherwise than true of that which ministers to the automatic activity of the mind … Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.
Habit is self-perpetuating.  The more that we expend our cognitive energies on survival the less energy we have to expend on other things and, over time, the less we are capable we become of thinking about other things.  The more attuned we become to survival thinking the less attuned we become to anything else.  Habits are plastic - they have a structure that yields but not all at once, as James puts it - and so they can be reversed but only with great effort.  Human being is habitual long before it is 'rational.'  Indeed, rationalities are habitual.

This is at odds with pretty much everything economics and psychology have assumed in the last hundred years - and with the entire disciplinary logic of neoliberalism.  The Atlantic article notes that:
The design of these experiments wasn't particularly groundbreaking, which makes it all the more astounding that we’ve never previously understood this connection between cognition and poverty. “This project, there’s nothing new in it, there’s no new technology, this could have been done years ago,” Shafir says. But the work is the product of the relatively new field of behavioral economics. Previously, cognitive psychologists seldom studied the differences between different socio-economic populations (“a brain is a brain, a head is a head,” Shafir says). Meanwhile, other psychology and economics fields were studying different populations but not cognition.
Behavioural economics is only just catching up with the man who died in 1910.  It's utterly shameful, really.  A brain is not a brain, a head is not a head.  A brain without a body is a dead lump of goo.  A body without all its social accoutrements is a dead lump of flesh and bone.  A human being without its habits is moribund.

Assuming perfect, habit-less rationality of human subjects in order to make your sums add up (as this is what modern economics basically amounts to) is criminal in its absurdity.  Latour (following Callon) is right that economics is a discipline and not a science.

Monday 28 October 2013

Chapter 5: speech impediments in politics

The summary and discussion thread for chapter 5 of the AIME reading group is online.

I found this to be a very frustrating chapter. Frustrating in many ways because what he’s saying is neither very complicated not especially innovative – but he takes so long to say it. (Indeed, this is only half the argument, there’s another politics chapter to come later in the book.)

Basically (this is as I understand it, I could be wrong): there is a dialectic between being represented and being obeyed. Political representatives must ‘betray’ those they represent because they have to tie together as many people as they can in order to create a ‘we.’ No ‘betrayal,’ no ‘we,’ no politics. If a politician stands up in front of a crowd and ‘says what he really thinks’ in clear, declarative terms – i.e. engages in ‘straight talk’ then – he will most likely fail at his vocation. Some small part of the crowd will be enthusiastically engaged (because they think exactly the same way) but most will be alienated, insulted and bored, by the blunt, cold, unseductive speech. Thus there is no ‘we’ embodied by the person on the soap box, no liberal democratic Leviathan. There is no representation, so no obedience, so no politics.

If, on the contrary, the politician engages in rhetoric, grand standing, even lying and carefully speaks to the issues that matter the vast majority in one way or another then he might be able to appeal to most, perhaps even all of the crowd – thus there is a ‘we’ and there is politics.

Is it just me or is that a really simple argument that doesn’t need such a complex, meandering explanation? Maybe it’s simple because I’ve simplified it (pinned down the proverbial butterfly) but I don’t see that there’s much more to it than that. It’s certainly a valid argument as far as it goes. People are always expecting politicians to speak like scientists and wishing that they ‘just spoke their minds.’ Clearly politicians need the degree of freedom afforded them by rhetoric in order to do their jobs – and, just as clearly, the quasi-scientific straight talk is the death of politics. But this is nothing to base an entire political philosophy around, is it?

We have never been Moderns

There’s a really interesting interview with Latour on his website that I hadn’t read until now. It’s with some art curator. Anyway, the interesting thing is that he acknowledges that the ‘non-moderns’ are now modernising:
…we have very little idea about what the modernists will inherit when they abandon their idea of having been the bearer of rationality. We have very few inklings, and the reason why is that, in the meantimes, which was unexpected when I wrote this book, all of the others are modernizing in the most blatantly modernist unrepentant way: the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians. So actually, it’s interesting that you are doing an exhibition on animism, because it’s the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist. It’s like ‘Iconoclash.’ Suddenly, the Europeans realize that, wait a minute, maybe we made a big mistake in attributing animism to the others. What happens if we have been animists, and in what way were we? Since we have agencies everywhere, we mix the agencies, we made a whole series of transformations about the agent, we added wings, and we took the souls out, and sometimes the opposite. We did all sorts of very, very strange things, and we turned to the others, who are no longer others, and what did they do? Well they modernized without any worry... (emphases added)
So, let’s get this straight. The non-Moderns, the ‘former others,’ the ‘Resteners’ as I called them, are now modernising but that doesn’t make them ‘Moderns.’ No, they are imitating the Westerners, the Moderns, the Whites (all these terms are interchangeable) in extending the modernisation front but this doesn’t make them Moderns themselves – this population remains as pure as the driven snow. They are adopting all the practices of the Moderns but somehow they are still essentially other to the Moderns (even though they are ‘formerly other’), with essentially other values that will need to be 'negotiated' with.

This makes the Moderns themselves begin to look less like a population defined by ‘a variable geometry,’ as Latour puts it in AIME, and a racialised, spatially regionalised, essentialised group. Whether or not he means it like this (I assume he’d deny it), these seem to me to be the necessary consequences of what he’s saying.

My critique at the start of the AIME reading group looks better and better, if I do say so myself! Yes, this is just an interview but it seems very clear and plain to me here that Latour believes that the Moderns do exist, that they are more than avatars of modernism, that they are a meaningful, somewhat geographically definable population on the stage of world history. When he says that the West is declining relative to the East and that this fact demands a kind of ontological diplomacy because Western values can no longer be taken for granted – this isn’t just an abstract, philosophical kind of diplomacy he’s talking about. It is that but it isn’t just that. It's also an overarching political call for Europeans to 'make representations' to the Chinese, Indians, Indonesians, etc. who are now becoming 'our' geopolitical equals and, therefore, our politico-ontological equals also.

And everything I wrote before still applies, in that case.  This really is the Achilles' heel of the whole 'political' project.

The narcissism of minor differences or the importance of small mutations?

In many ways Latour is thoroughly disingenuous in terms of his intellectual predecessors.  He is an enthusiastic cheerleader for the relatively unknown or unfashionable - Tarde, Serres, James, Dewey, etc. - but either ignores or distances himself from other more hegemonic figures whose influence on his work is, nevertheless, unmistakeable.  Derrida, Foucault and Deleuze are the poststructuralist/postmodernist trinity that he attempts to distance himself from perhaps above all.  He generally has good things to say about them when prompted and will occasionally cite Foucault as a good example of this or that but in general they either sit in the background or, in the case of Derrida, become straw men for Latour's rhetorical bonfire.

So, Latour as a philosopher is thoroughly precedented and this is obvious despite his best Oedipal efforts to distance himself from many of his predecessors.  However, those critics who say 'this argument is very similar to that made by X, therefore X said it all before' are utterly misguided.  For one thing, the originality of the likes of Foucault and Derrida is itself often overstated.  Derrida didn't invent the notion of a regulative ideal that must be pursued despite being unachievable (but whenever anyone adopts such a position now they are said to be Derridean).  Many things are often labelled 'Deleuzian' that could just as easy be called Nietzschean.  Likewise Foucault and, say, Bachelard (or Marx who Foucault delights in not citing).

Derrida/Foucault/Deleuze are the presently hegemonic generation of dead white men who are the most read and so ideas tend to get attributed to them rather than to anyone else.  The innocuous academic phrase 'as Y has argued...' inevitably suggests that Y is the brilliant originator of that argument.  It is the enduringly critical role of intellectual history to stretch out these inelastic trajectories into proper genealogies (to whom one may attribute that insight, I'll leave that question open!).

But there is a more fundamental and important flaw in the 'X said it all before' attitude.  It misses the fact that subtle mutations can make huge differences.  Yes, there's hardly a page of anything Latour has written that can't be traced back to a whole slew of predecessors.  But taken as a whole just how much of a resemblance does his work bear to even his closest progenitors - e.g. Deleuze?  Not much.  One has to be attuned to the differences, perhaps, but differences there are - and many of them.

The mutation that turns the unstable linguistic structures of Derrida et al. into the actor-networks of ANT is at once a small difference and a huge one (isn't this inversion of scale a classic ANT insight? or is it?!).  Likewise, the extension of actors into objects in the manner of Harman et al. - a small mutation (almost undetectable at first) that leads to a completely different result.

In a sense Latour's philosophy is just poststructuralism 'writ large' - but he had to write millions of carefully translative, transformative words in order to achieve that!

Bruno Latour is a dialectician - discuss

'Diplomacy' is a kind of dialectics.  It is a form of critique that has three movements: first it dismantles its opponent, then it seeks to extract what is of value in its opponent by rearticulating those values in its own terms and, finally, it makes its results public and allows them to be criticised and negotiated.

It is a philosophical form of digestion.
digerere "to separate, divide, arrange," from dis- "apart" + gerere "to carry"
It is critical.
Latin criticus "a judge, literary critic," from Greek kritikos "able to make judgements," from krinein "to separate, decide" ... [see also crisis:] from PIE root *krei- "to sieve, discriminate, distinguish"
The philosopher qua diplomat doesn't occupy the position of a judge empowered by Reason or Nature.  However, distinction, separation, sifting - all that needs to be added to these qualities is a commitment to negotiation and a deferment of de-cision - a reluctance to cut the thread of debate - and we have diplomacy.

Diplomacy is only 'post-critical' inasmuch as it departs from the vulgar modernist and postmodernist versions of critique that sought to destroy their opponents by enveloping their opponents' being in their own concepts with no remainder, leaving no possibility for engaging with objections.  In many ways this departure is actually a return to older forms of philosophical, dialectical discourse that were built upon conversation.  The major difference from these older forms, in principle, is that there is no Nature or Reason to appeal to, to slap down as a 'trump card' so as to prematurely close the conversation.  But, in practice, the classic dialogues rarely resorted to such vulgarities.  Latour has a theory/practice problem of his own.

Opponents in diplomacy are not antithetical in any metaphysical sense.  Indeed, any diplomatic 'summit' will have many interested parties, those parties will have complex alliances and ententes as well as disagreements and feuds.  But not all forms of dialectics have demanded that their terms be placed in such strict straitjackets as thesis/antithesis.  Diplomacy does not seek synthesis, it seeks settlement.  But then not all dialecticians have been pursuing the end of history.

A thing is what it does.  Diplomacy is simply a reformed dialectical critique imbued with an ethos and aesthetic of compromise, respect and coexistence.  A rose by any other name...

Sunday 27 October 2013

The Moderns don't exist - an initial review

Phew, I just finished reading An Inquiry Into Modes of Existence.  I've still got a lot to think through and write down but here are some initial reflections.

I feel that my initial criticisms vis-a-vis the Moderns and their incoherence have been entirely vindicated!  Quite simply the Moderns as a 'people' don't exist.  The Moderns are nothing more than the ideal subjects of Modernism - or the avatars of Modernism, if you prefer.  Undoubtedly there are many individuals who approximate the image of the Modern but many of these aren't Western or White.  Latour should stick to 'Modern,' it's sufficient.  Trying to turn this into a pseudo-postcolonial critique only makes things harder to understand.

All the fluff about the decline of the West and Gaia proving to the Moderns that their time is up is really just a lot of rhetorical tinsel.  The 'planetary negotiation,' for all its grandeur and pomposity, is an intellectual debate between students, academics, bloggers, interested amateurs, researchers, para-academics, etc. Presumably there'll be some scientists and lawyers involved too but there's a problem with that: I've read most of Latour's books, a lot of actor-network theory type stuff and quite a bit of philosophy and I found this book difficult to read.  This is an issue.  I really wish I'd read the conclusion at the beginning!  The humour, humility and candidness of the last ten pages was really refreshing but it only highlights how stolid and burdensome much of the rest of the book was to read.  That said, I enjoyed it.  However, I am weird.

The last few pages are also interesting because they anticipate many of the criticisms I made of the book as I was working my way through it.  I'll need to redress some of those at a later date.

All in all, there are some really major problems with some of the modes and some quite serious issues with the project overall, however it is a brilliant book despite all that.  Frustrating most of the time, infuriating sometimes.  Probably 75% or more of the book is based on previously published work, however it is an impressive synthesis of a thirty or so year career.

In short, while he admits that the project is 'idiocy' I think that he's just crazy enough that he might pull it off!

I do think that the religion mode needs to be torn down and begun again.  It tries to do too much and doesn't leave any room for secular personification.  Trying to force non-Christians to adopt Christian language is not only an unrealistic diplomatic proposal but also rather offensive.

The politics mode has potential but needs to be greatly expanded beyond the naive and rather outdated musings of Dewey and Lippmann.  We need to understand representative politics as Latour describes it in relation to other forms (e.g. populism, anarchism) and how non-democratic politics can also be representative.

The separation of The Economy into three modes is at times inspired but is sadly incomplete.  The fact is that capitalism isn't just a series of formatting and calculative practices, it's the very lifeblood of our political world.  At the very least it's a group of extremely wealthy and powerful people who actively and aggressively pursue their own class interests.  Whether or not class is thought in terms of scripts (and I see no reason why it can't be) it needs to be conceptualised and taken seriously rather than left to hang in the thin air of abstraction.

But that's the major problem with all these modes - with the whole project, in fact: it is very difficult to bring these abstractions back down to earth and understand concrete events with them.  The State may be an absurd artefact of the Modern imagination but nation states are the basis of all global politics.  To ignore them is political idealism, plain and simple.  The modes are certainly fecund for thought but they're a long way from being anything that can actually make sense of the world as it actually exists.

Latour's philosophy inhabits a twilight zone.  It's neither really empirical or fully philosophical.  He never really commits to either and ends up producing something inbetween.  Compare it to, say, Plato's Republic.  There's never any danger of that thought experiment being confused with reality.  It's full philosophy - and all the richer and more vivid for it.  Latour's partial empiricism stops him from achieving the same scope and breadth of speculation and then, on the other hand, he's not empirical enough that his thoughts can be easily integrated into the world through those filaments of evidence and experience.

The only way it can possibly work is collaboratively and critically, which is why the project as a whole is really rather inspired.  I'm excited to see what happens next.

Auto-ontology (every philosophy must be able to conceive of itself in its own terms)

Terence writes:
Philosophy seems to pose a problem for Latour, and is not officially included in his list of modes of existence, but is declared to be definitory of the Moderns: “the Moderns are the people of Ideas; their dialect is philosophy” (22).
Every philosophy must be able to account for itself within its own terms, otherwise it is a performative contradiction.  A philosophy of discourses must conceive of itself as a discourse; a philosophy of objects must conceive of itself as an object, etc.  Does a modal philosophy have to conceive of itself as a mode?  It might be able to but I'm not sure that it's necessary to conceive of it as a single mode.

Clearly the practice of philosophy (like all concrete practices) must be polymodal.  First, aime is a work of fiction [fic] inasmuch as it uses all kinds of characters, various sorts of shifting and so on.  Whether we are reading Latour in his 'own' voice or speaking through his litany of characters we are encountering a shifting (and rather shifty) actant.  That much is straightforward.  Aime is also political [pol] inasmuch as it declares 'we,' 'us,' and 'them' on various occasions.  The 'talk' of the book is most definitely 'crooked' rather than straight.  It does seem to have the structure of a curve that tries to draw the reader along.  It is actively and explicitly seeking to compose a public.  Latour claims that in his religious writings he aims to 'speak religiously,' although they didn't have that effect on me!  The book also involves elements of reproduction [rep] via technology [tec] in both its printed and electronic forms.  That's true if somewhat banal.  More interestingly, the book is written in a transformative way [met].  It seeks to provoke emotions in us and leave us different to how we started.  It is not written in a fashion that avails itself to evaluative reading.  Indeed, it is hugely frustrating if you want to read it evaluatively along the lines of a scholarly paper or a student essay wherein theses must be first set out then justified.  Latour delights in revealing what he's really talking about only after x hundred pages of dissembling, metamorphising, preparation and preamble.  We could even say that it is a legal [law] text inasmuch as it is seeking to reattach the Moderns to their actions.  Moreover, it is clearly a passionate attachment for its author and doubtless it will be for many of its readers.

I could go on but I think the point is clear.  The book (in all its forms) can be understood in many different modes.  The question is: is that enough?  Is something missed out?  Is there terra incognita lurking at the edges of this field of vision (apologies for the mixed metaphors)?  Is the above confluence of modes sufficient to account for the book itself not just as a book but as a work of philosophy?

I wrote in another post that, as James argues, the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it arrives through reasoning.  Latour's process may not always seem entirely reasonable but it certainly involves a thread of reasoning inasmuch as it presupposes a subject-reader that it must lead on a journey in order to transform that reader, in order to lead its reader to conclusions that can only make sense at the end of the journey, with no shortcuts being taken.  That 'journey' is the key thing.  If philosophy can be thought of as a mode then it's in that transformative journey that the contrast is to be found, I think.