Friday, 24 January 2014

Cosmopolitics and blasphemy

Levi has a reply to my musing on cosmopolitics, itself a reply to his thoughts on pluralism and realism.

One thing I didn't mention in my previous post (though I think I hinted at it) is that I am ambivalent about this diplomacy/cosmopolitics pluralist thing.  I'm probably more in favour than against on balance but I wrote that post more as a proposition than a thoroughgoing endorsement.  I share some of Levi's reservations and criticisms and have others besides.  Having said that, however, really I don't agree that it's idealism (if it's idealism where are the ideas? what's an idealism that accepts stars, bacteria and rocks as real?).  In fact I think some of the criticisms Levi gives bear little relation to what I wrote (I'm not offended or picking a fight or anything, just saying it as I see it!).
I get the feeling that realism that dares to say that a particular world-picture is mistaken is seen as somehow being intolerant or totalitarian or oppressive.
I get where Levi's coming from with that.  It's definitely something that Latour insinuates often enough but that's not how my preferred interpretation of his argument goes.

The cosmopolitician doesn't deny the possibility or occasional necessity of a 'war footing,' so to speak (I actually don't like this martial terminology but I'll stick with it for now).  If we look at Latour's reading of Carl Schmitt (key to his political writings since Politics of Nature) then it is the omnipresent possibility of 'war' that makes the political friend/enemy decision necessary and renders politics possible in the first place.  'War' is always a possibility and so this is not a lovey-dovey, liberal, 'aw shucks can't we all just get along' kind of pluralism.  It simply asks the questions: Can we get along or not?  Need we come to rhetorical or critical blows over this or can we just let it be?  What forces are at play?  What battles must we fight?  It forces decisions to be made rather than simply being in a perpetual battle with everyone around you by default.

As I understand it Latour and Stengers are not arguing for a wishy-washy pluralism but an agonistic pluralism à la Chantal Mouffe - a political philosophy explicitly based upon a deep critique of the very conflict-averse liberalism that Levi is suggesting cosmopolitics reproduces.  A pluralism that accepts the inevitability of conflict, which requires a friend/enemy decision to be made and that strives for an adversarial rather than antagonistic relationship (but accepts the possibility of either).  So, the claim that cosmopolitics would deny the possibility of justifiably agonistic or antagonistic debate is simply untrue, at least in my understanding.
In arguing that everything is a social construction, the pluralist undermines the possibility of public deliberation about truth.
This is also, in my opinion, simply false.  The claim seems to rest on a couple of premises: first, that all the cosmopolitics/instauration stuff is just a fancy new vocabulary for the same old social construction (debatable); second, that any meaningful concept of truth requires transcendence - either things are real or not, existent or non-existent, a social construction or a real reality and we must decide, definitively, on which category all things belong to or our mouths are somehow sewn shut or our words have no purpose.

And this strikes me as really odd.  I can't see how Levi's philosophy can allow for unmediated access to reality à la the view-from-nowhere - to be candid: it can't.  And yet such hard-boiled realism seems, to me, to necessitate such a thing.  So, if he can't hold that then he can only demand transcendent truth as a regulative ideal, something to strive for but which is by definition unachievable - in short as a practice.  And if he's conceded that then he's conceded the inevitability of mediation and, therefore, the inescapability of 'social construction.'  (I don't want to do the lame Kantian/correlationist 'gotcha' thing, even if I were capable of such, but I can't see a way around this.)  I don't deny (nor, I'm sure, would Stengers or Latour) that bifurcated reasoning can be very productive (indeed, one could valuably argue that it is a 'noble lie' that is necessary for some forms of discourse, especially scientific, despite being strictly impossible) but to separate the socially, practically constructed from the non-socially constructed (if we must persist in using these terms) in a fundamental, transcendent way requires unmediated access to something that transcends the practices that bear the enquiry, doesn't it?  Otherwise we simply have constructivism with added self-denial.  (I presume Levi would refer to critical realism on this point but I don't think their arguments work, personally.  In short: ontological realism and epistemological relativism can only be rounded off by judgemental rationalism given an essentialist view of the human subject.)
In disagreeing with an-other do we not, in fact, recognize their dignity as subject by attributing to them the capacity to both decide their own being and act according to reasons?  Isn’t there a sort of denigration of otherness in pluralism insofar as it thinks of people as mere products of their cultural horizon or world-picture?
Yes and no.  There's definitely something to this and under some circumstances I'd agree entirely.  I think that Latour and Stengers overgeneralise and fail to cast their ideas with anything like adequate clarity.  Quite often a friendly debate ending in 'agree to disagree' is perfectly adequate.  But then that's hardly a political discussion.  Where's the conflict?  Where's the friend/enemy declaration?  Having a friendly debate with a Bishop over dinner and drinks is an easy case, all too easy - roughly equal power relations (if anything the philosophy prof. holds a lower social status!), a social setting explicitly open to such debate and (I would presume to guess) many shared values besides the theological disagreements.  For an agonistic pluralist there's no politics here, just a bit of fun.

But debates over deities and idols aren't always conducted on such cosy, well-fed, egalitarian grounds.  Sometimes there's real conflict, real ant/agonism.  The much more difficult (and interesting) cases are ones where power relations are unequal.  The phrase Latour always comes back to is 'the modernising front.'  Stengers talks about capitalism and the way it destroys practices (including those of science).  I think they overstate their case, in a way.  Not every political situation is conquistadors facing off against Amazonians or colonialists lecturing natives (as important as these cases are).  Latour and Stengers sometimes act as though these were all the cases that mattered and clearly they're not.

So, sometimes, in some situations if one were to apply the 'I'll grant your deity an ontology for the sake of peace' thing it would be just a load of over-intellectualised hot air - yes, I'd grant that.  But then sometimes it's not.  And how can one make the distinction if one is committed to perpetual critique of the perceived irrationalities of others?  Cosmopolitics allows the distinction - brutish, dualist realism doesn't.

I don't think I've got any way of wrapping all this up in a neat little bow - I'm still unsure of all this myself.  Clearly this is an ongoing debate both between and within ourselves.  I'll conclude by saying that although the tension between pluralism and realism isn't zero-sum clearly a choice needs to be made.  The gruff, gravel-voiced realism that mutters under its breath about 'bloody idealists' and 'religious loons' is compatible with a pluralism of 'it's a free country - if you wanna believe in fairies, be my guest' but little else.  Maybe that kind of arrangement is the right one - I have some sympathies in that direction, I'll admit - but I don't think it's obviously right.  Not at all.

In my last post I linked to a stand-up routine on 'political correctness' by a British comedian called Stewart Lee.  He is probably best known internationally for co-writing Jerry Springer: The Opera (if you've not seen it do!).  It was a massive critical and popular success.  It was due to be aired on the BBC when an evangelical organisation orchestrated a campaign to stop it being broadcast, to close the show down and to prosecute the writers for blasphemy.  They objected to the portrayal of Jesus during a fantasy sequence (actually internal to Jerry Springer's twisted imagination).  There were also threats of violence and so on as you'd expect.  It was broadcast and no prosecutions were made, in part because the government didn't pass a blasphemy law that it was debating at the time.  (In the US you suffer from far greater evangelism but also enjoy far greater freedom of speech, which is in no way formally enshrined in law in this country.)   The evangelicals did succeed in preventing the show from touring provincial theatres, however, and so they ensured that the creators made little or no money from several years of work.

After the dust had settled Lee got back on the standup circuit he had given up pre-Springer.  He wrote a routine called Stewart Lee, '90s Comedian, which concluded the most intensely, scatalogically blasphemous story one could possibly imagine.  It has to be seen to be understood - he did it in such a way that the story seems real, almost moving.  It was, in short, a giant 'fuck you' to those who had hounded him and stressed him to the point of illness.  But, and this part has to be seen to be believed, he did all this with a sensitivity and intelligence that made a mockery of the blunt-headed stupidity of his haters.  He wasn't attacking Christianity as such, despite the monumental blasphemousness of his routine.  It was a squarely, forcefully, artfully directed blow straight onto the collective chin of those who had wronged him - directed at them in particular.

This was an 'act of war,' no doubt.  But it wasn't total war.  It wasn't perpetrated in the name of any absolute, it was strategic.  This is Carl Schmitt's realpolitik critique of liberalism: it leads to worse wars because they are wars fought in pursuit of absolutes rather than limited objectives.  Wars fought for 'freedom' or 'to end all wars' are, ultimately, wars of extermination.  I don't like building a political philosophy on the basis of war-talk (and basing it on Schmitt is, shall we say, problematic) but in this case it makes a point.  As soon as your introduce absolutes into the equation the ground shifts.

I realise that this is an inadequate explication of the point but it is all my brain seems capable of at present!  I suppose all I really mean is this: have friendly debates over dinner, sure; say 'fuck you' to evangelicals who want to impress their fundamentalisms on you, of course; but hold out the possibility that peaceable relations are also possible besides simply saying 'I think you're an idiot but each to their own.'  The value of the diplomatic attitude, I think, is that it broadens the range of attitudes possible towards others and it permits this at an ontological level.  It closes off nothing - it's openness that's the point.


  1. Hi Philip,

    I think we agree on a number of things here. A few points. First, I think the thesis that realism is a "view from nowhere" is a bit of a strawman. Getting knowledge of the world is a laborious enterprise that requires bootstrapping our way out of a view from somewhere. Take the example of climate change. Certainly the somewhere from which we view the world indicates little in the way of climate change. To know whether or not climate change is taking place we had to take all sorts of ice core samples, we had to develop a knowledge of the behavior of gases and how they correlate with other things, we had to develop satellite technology allowing us to measure surface temperature of the earth, etc, etc., etc. Through experiment, technologies, and the gathering of data we gradually build the most probable truth. I don't see how this is a view from nowhere.

    I could perhaps follow Latour and Stengers in their cosmopolitics if ontology didn't matter. In that framework we could say "hey, that's just what this other person thinks, they're entitled to their beliefs." The problem is ontology does matter. What we take being to be plays a role in what legislation gets passed, how we govern, what we pursue, etc. Often that is a life and death role. I'm all for the ethnographic project of understanding other people's ontologies but that's quite different than treating them as true, especially when the stakes are so high. Sometimes I get the sense that Latour and Stengers have this "why can't we all just get along" fantasy, as if these things didn't matter. It certainly matters when someone believes-- contrary to the *evidence* --that immunization is what causes the sickness.

    As an aside, I define as idealism any position that holds that we can only speak of our mediated picture of being. It matters little whether one holds that those mediators are ideas, language, signs, narratives, or discourses. In each instance we have an idealism. I simply don't see how L&S can simultaneously hold that rocks are real and are what they are while also holding we should just accept another person's ontology that posits vital forces. Either vital forces exist or they don't and if they don't the person that holds they exist is mistaken about the being of life.

  2. Fair comments. Admittedly my reading isn't neutral. S&L are vague enough that they permit a number of readings. My preferred strategy is to take a reading as far as I can in a direction I like and see where it runs aground, where it breaks down. I think the Schmittean decisionist aspect has been neglected in readings of Latour's work and he's been making more references to him in some recent lectures. (I'm researching an article on Latour's geopolitics at present, in which Schmitt plays a central role.)

    The climate change example is useful. The assembling of various materials in complex technical networks in order to build probable truth - that assumes no view from nowhere, true, but I think that it's also entirely compatible with S&L's constructivism. I don't see what part of what you said would escape them. So, what is it in your account that makes it realist above and beyond S&L's constructivism?

    My understanding of S&L's diplomacy is, now I come to think about it, actually rather Nietzschean. We all wear 'masks' in different situations, everyone knows this. But we're accustomed to thinking that we have a real face underneath all the appearances. For Nietzsche we just have masks and it's masks 'all the way down,' so to speak. For you, Levi, ontological beliefs seem to be the face beneath all the masks. And when you speak politics you insist upon 'speaking from the face' rather than 'speaking from the mask.' Hence, from your point of view, to say to someone 'I accept your god's existence but I do not recognise his authority, I owe him no allegiance' is false, duplicitous even - even if it might be politically apposite.

    But for S&L politics isn't *essentially* about beliefs, it's about forming groups, resolving conflicts, mediating otherness. Beliefs, ontology - these things are secondary. They enter as issues not as essential parts of the proess. So perhaps this disagreement is less metaphysical than political. If you think that politics must necessarily involve the hashing out of true beliefs then that differs from S&L. For them the speak in a political modality doesn't necessarily (although it may) bring beliefs into it.

    Personally I think it depends on the circumstances. The diplomat is one political subject-type among others. Sometimes we should politic as diplomats, sometimes as philosophers. I think that's where I come down on it in the end.

  3. I think it really just depends on the context. Obviously there are a number of situations where we don't get in arguments or disagreements with others about their ontologies and where, in our dealings with them, we might even take them into account and speak in the language of that ontology. For example, the psychoanalyst wouldn't get in an argument with his patient about whether or not God exists, but would treat the patient's belief as a dimension of their universe of meaning. I don't disagree with doing this sort of thing at all.

    As I said in my post, what I take umbrage with in Latour is his claim in Irreductions that we should just grant these ontologies and not engage in attempts to critique and dispel these things. I honestly don't see how he can simultaneously be a realist and hold this position.

    I think there are a number of situations where ontology does matter politically. Here in the United States, for example, there's a lot of policy and legislation that's based on religious beliefs. As astonishing as it might sound, much of our foreign policy towards the Middle East seems to be driven by end times theology. Attitudes about climate change and climate change denialism is also often driven by end times theology (the believer believes he knows how God has decreed the world will end and therefore thinks climate change is hogwash). Then, of course, there are policies surrounding contraceptives, gay marriage, etc.

  4. Latour seems to have the idea that the ontological views that drive these positions are harmless and that we have the option of just leaving well enough alone. But the social and political reality is quite different. Women and queer folk, for example, find themselves having to address these religious ontologies as they pursue their own rights. It's unavoidable. I don't think the concept of cosmopolitics and his positions in Modes does a good job of capturing this or even addressing it.

    I also think it's important to be cognizant about what different disciplines are doing. Philosophy is trying to get at the true nature of reality (or, in its skeptical version, is arguing that there is no true nature of reality to be known). In this regard, it's necessarily going to be critical of a number of pictures of reality. The antirealist-skeptic will be critical of the realist arguing for a pluralism of different world-pictures that all have equal legitimacy. The realist will argue that a number of different pictures of being are just mistaken. This is just what philosophy does and there's no getting around it.

    By contrast, the ethnographer is trying to understand how different groups of people understand the world they live in. The ethnographer will bracket questions about whether or not these pictures of reality are true, will not engage in critiques of those accounts of being, but will instead just try to understand how their structured and put together. This is an entirely different project. Here I think it's important to remember that Latour-- Harman's reading aside --is above all an ethnographer not a philosopher. He's trying to understand why groups of people-- including us --do what they do and this requires understanding their picture of being. I think this is a perfectly legitimate enterprise. Just as the psychoanalyst must under the "being-in-the-world" of his patient to properly treat him, the ethnographer has to understand the "being-in-the-world" of different groups to help in forging relations between these groups. This project is, however, distinct from one interested in truth.

  5. Over at Struggles Forever Jeremy said something to me that I both found surprising and perplexing. He criticized realists for not recognizing their fallibility. This seems to be premised on the idea the realist believes he knows reality. However, the realist position is not that she knows reality but that there's a reality to be known and that both she and others can be mistaken about that reality or get things wrong. By contrast, where everything is a narrative or a story, there's no possible fallability. There are, of course areas where the realist is confident that they've gotten things right such as in the case of climate change; but this is because of the laborious gathering of evidence that points to the truth of that hypothesis. At the end of the day, I think that's really all the realist is asking for: evidence. Is there good *reason* to suppose that this claim is suppose that such and such a claim is true, or is it just a claim one holds, floating in the air, with one evidence whatsoever?

    I'll never forget what a good evangelical friend once said to me about evolution: "God put fossils in the earth to test our faith." It seems to me that a claim like this is utterly corrosive. It's not that his belief in creationism is the problem. It's his attitude towards evidence that's the problem. A person who argues in this way is a person who has no respect for evidence and what it might point to whatsoever. There's no possible discourse with such a person because they nullify anything that could count as a *public* reason. There's little possibility of a respectful social relation with a person because there's no way to dialogue with him, ie., he has no respect for the social relation. In Irreductions Latour tells me that I should accept this person's ontology. I believe that doing so would be deeply corrosive. On the other hand, I can see circumstances where I might use a Latourian strategy. For example, I might argue *from God* to try and persuade him, e.g., "Justin, you'd agree that God is a perfect being, right? Can a perfect being be a liar? Wouldn't God be a liar if he put false fossils in the earth to deceive us?"

  6. It is important to note that the distinctions that Latour makes between the different modes of existence have nothing to do with “belief”, but are based on an empirical and conceptual analysis of the various material networks that sustain them. For Latour the people occupying a certain domain of practices may be totally mistaken not only in particular beliefs, but also globally in the type of existence that they attribute to the entities they deal with. Such is the case of the Christian fundamentalist. There is no question of ontological tolerance being extended to every worldview and to every belief, some are just plain wrong. This is the realist principle underlying Latour's pluralist ontology.

    Fundamentalist Christians, in Latour’s terms, are mistaken over many things, not just about their own religion: their preoccupation with belief as the defining feature of religion is wrong, their actual beliefs are false, their idea of reference to the world is wrong, and so Latour concludes that they get the world wrong.

    The same can be said (and Latour says it often) about climate change denialists (they are wrong about science, they are wrong about climate change, the politics that they advocate would have disastrous consequences). Latour’s pluralism is no wishy-washy tolerant relativism, but a doctrine of combat.

  7. Excellent discussion. Levi, I'm confused by your claim that for Latour and Stengers ontology doesn't matter. I think they might reply—and I would be surprised if the following doesn’t correspond to your own position—“sure, ontology matters, but only if you can make it matter. Naked propositions aren’t decisive; claims without allies never to heaven go. Or anywhere. Without an institution—a church or a scientific institute, to use your examples—i.e., without an army, the truth sets no one free.”

    Do you take this reply to be weak, cynical even, implying as it does that ontology is at the service of politics? Or would you say that politics—the production of meaningful differences—can only make and sustain differences if it has strong allies; sometimes, but not always, scientific truths can aid such struggles. But then you would have distinguished between ontology as practice (a profession, a task, a field) and ontology as a host of claims about what is. The former is more or less strong, more or less rugged, always already exposed to the rejoinder, “you and what army?” But is the latter ideal, abstract, in touch with what is real? No, philosophy is an institution as well, right? The ontology you defend only appears to be free of institutional supports. It’s this version of ontology that Phillip here accuses of being a view from nowhere. You and he should then agree that philosophers are embodied doers, practitioners who rub up against others. Ontology then would be another trade—not “just another trade”; I mean no put down. Trades are noble.

    You also write, “Latour seems to have the idea that the ontological views that drive these positions [of evangelicals] are harmless and that we have the option of just leaving well enough alone.” Do you have evidence for this? In much of his recent work, he’s trying very, very hard to establish particular modes of existence and the diplomatic relations that reign in each: and diplomacy presumes conflict, struggle. To take an old example, in the Pasteur book, he may be doing a discourse analysis of 19th c. struggles over microbes; he may treating the Pasteurians, the hygienists, the microbes, the petri dishes, the medical doctors, etc. as equals, as symmetrically constituted and constituting, but it’s clear that he sides with Pasteur, identifies with him even, is learning how actor network theory can itself pasteurize domains of practice, how it can duplicate Pasteur’s victory: I won’t fight microbes/actors on their own ground where they are strong; I will bring them to the lab, where I can dominate them, etc.

    He takes sides here, so why worry that Latour doesn’t take sides in struggles? I just don’t see that. Or are you worried that he can’t ground his position consistently given his ontology? I can almost see that, but I simply disagree. He’s entirely consistent. He may want peace (in “Iconoclash” he claims that he want to end the image wars) but he fights to bring it about (hence in the same text does he pervert the second commandment, writing, “thou shalt not freeze frame any graven image”).

  8. Let’s take your final example, the evangelical friend. And let's imagine, to pick up Phillip's refrain—from Latour via Schmidt— that you and this friend are two warring camps—or camps that aren't yet at war but could be. What should you, as a diplomat, as a potential combatant, do? Through what particular means might you and your ontology come to dominate (or dominate just enough to neutralize the threat) and thus to live peaceably? We know that arguments that aim to prove that there is no god, that the believers simply are mistaken, simply don’t work, so I admire this:

    "On the other hand, I can see circumstances where I might use a Latourian strategy. For example, I might argue *from God* to try and persuade him, e.g., 'Justin, you'd agree that God is a perfect being, right? Can a perfect being be a liar? Wouldn't God be a liar if he put false fossils in the earth to deceive us?'"

    Sadly, your friend might simply reply that God didn’t lie to Abraham when he sent him up the mountain… God doesn’t lie, he tests the faithful—or he permits the devil to test the faithful, etc. In other words, yes, you can only try and try again. There are no shortcuts; and typically we aren’t alone when we confront adversaries. E.g., shouldn’t we look to the victors that we love—marriage equality or social security or the anti-apartheid movement—and ask how these victors won? They didn’t (only) win because they had truth on their side; they won because hordes of actors—in legal domains, in affective ones, in families and on the streets—started moving differently. Mysterious! But not enigmatic. What Latour did for Pasteur and for laboratory life, someone has to do for these victories—so we can repeat what would be relevant to repeat. Learning from successes and not just from errors.

  9. This is a draft attempting to give some specific content to a debate on the relation between pluralism and realism that tends to go in circles, as one can put all sorts of contents under such generic terms. I try to distinguish pluralism from its relativist shadow, and to elaborate, both abstractly for its own sake, and in relation to a concrete example of a pluralist thinker, the concept of a realist pluralism. The concrete example is the pluralist metaphysics of Bruno Latour as it is expounded in his book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE. I take Bruno Latour’s realist pluralism as it is articulated here and find that it does not correspond to Levi Bryant’s reductive stereotype: