Wednesday 5 February 2014

Pluralism and ontology: a second attempt

So, pluralism. Realism too.

It all kicked off on the blogosphere a couple of weeks ago! I dropped out of the conversation as I was first ill and then very busy. I’m only catching up on what other people wrote now, apologies to all wherever they're due. I’ll try to respond to some specific points later but here’s a general clarification:

I think my original statement about ‘granting all entities an ontology’ has been broadly misunderstood (probably my own fault). To grant a god, for example, an ontology is not to admit that everyone's gods exist in the way that their followers describe them – that is the wrong register to even think about it. All that is required is to grant that a god is more than the electrical ripples in someone’s brain, more than abstract, vaporous ideas transcendently opposed to an earthy, material reality. All that is required is that when someone says that their god is something beyond them, external to them, greater than them, that it imposes duties on them, has effects on them that they do not themselves will – we accept this. In short all that we need to accept is that gods are irreducible to any subjective, isolated instantiation, any floaty, ethereal ideality or any sociolinguistically sanitised intersubjectivity. We don’t have to agree that there’s really a big bearded old man sat up on a cloud, a mysterious force that watches everything we do or whatever. That’s irrelevant. Belief per se is irrelevant. The point is that the god is an entity that exceeds its believers, that circulates among them, that is brought into presence through the heterogeneous and, yes, material practices of worship. Nothing more than this. Everything else follows from this, I think.

It’s in making this distinction (between chasmic dualism and joined-up pluralism, essentially) that we see what Stengers means by ‘this is war’ and what Latour means by ‘iconoclasm.’ The hammer-happy modernist going around wantonly smashing the idols of the poor, stupid, ignorant believers believes that he is scything the scales from their eyes, revealing the truth behind the illusion, tearing the curtain to the ground and showing them how things really are, rescuing the poor saps from their false consciousness. But what he is really doing is a violence to their practices, to the ways in which they bring into presence the beings that make these people who and what they are. This iconoclasm is a violence perpetrated upon these people and their cherished entities at their very core. That’s the point. It’s not that we should all be obsequiously polite or just not say mean things about other people’s beliefs, nor is it necessarily to deny that some idols are bad idols and so deserve to get smashed – it’s that to go around smashing idols is not a pure, innocent activity, it’s not a matter of revealing the reality behind mere appearances, it can’t be neutralised and made apolitical by appeal to Reason, Nature or Science. It’s political. It’s about making and unmaking worlds. At best it’s creative destruction, at worst it’s cosmopolitical imperialism. It’s not a cosy fireside chat between friends who happen to have some divergent beliefs. It’s a very much more serious matter of engagement with profound estrangement, with others who neither desire nor welcome your input, with others who encounter your unprompted proclamations as to their lives and worlds not as an amusing conversation starter but as an imposition. When I say ‘violence’ I do not necessarily mean it literally but nor should the seriousness of the signifier be understated.

To tear down a god is to destroy an entity – this is all I mean by granting all things an ontology, I mean that we must recognise this fact. In no way, shape or form do we need to agree what mode of existence that entity enjoys, what capacities it has, what demands it can make on us. We needn’t agree about any of that. But in order to be meaningfully pluralist we need to recognise that going around smashing idols – figuratively or literally – is an act of violence, an act of destruction not of revelation. This is why we need to be diplomatic; this is what makes that whole ethos necessary. This is why political engagement with others cannot be secondary to or derivative from belief; belief is not the foundation upon which we act politically; politics is a whole other mode of action from believing and knowing. This is why it’s wrong to see ‘being nice about others beliefs’ as being a matter of mere politeness, or of tolerance – ‘tolerance’ is a vacuity.

The point can be driven home by the recognition that 'our' cherished practices are not immune to iconoclasm either; we do not occupy a privileged position outside, above and beyond the melee; we are all vulnerable. Science, too, can be smashed. Behind the modernist’s reckless, vicious abandon is the belief that his idols are made from the purest adamantium – indestructible. But this is not true. Science, too, is a fragile institution of world-making that institutes beings that can be destroyed by unbound, marauding iconoclasm. Capitalism is the iconoclast-in-chief. The ideal of science as a community of researchers openly and publicly pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake is becoming more and more brittle, friable, frail by the day. More and more research is conducted behind closed doors, more and more knowledge is patented and closed off from public consumption, more and more science is owned by the capitalists who fund the research rather than the scientists who perform it, less and less are scientists the agents of science as an exercise in exploring the world and discovering its secrets, more and more are they simply employees of whatever arms firm or shampoo manufacturer their fragile employment conditions and limited epistemic horizons have forced them to work for. (And that’s not even getting into issues such as climate cynicism and the Science Wars of the 1990s.) Science, too, is vulnerable.

And it cannot be otherwise. Without the practices, networks, assemblages, rhizomes, systems that bring into presence the entities that make us who and what we are then we are marooned in nothingness. So, do not give up an attachment lightly – this is the fundamental insight, I think. The diplomatic pluralist ethos stems from this. The smashing of an idol is not a mere riffing on ideas, utterly removed from material reality, it is an act of destruction. (If I can communicate only one thing please understand this: it is an act.)

Latour writes in his Inquiry:
Yes, there are beings that do not deserve to exist. Yes, some constructions are badly made. Yes, we have to judge and decide. (142)
Sometimes idols do need to be smashed. What I take from his arguments on this is that such acts of cosmopolitical violence need to be seen very clearly and understood for what they are. The decision to act against an idol or a cherished entity of any kind must be a responsible one – that is, those taking the decision must bear responsibility for it. And so we need to be able to distinguish between good and bad idols, good and bad iconoclasms (and necessary and unnecessary smashings) rather than simply swinging our hammers around recklessly, wantonly, freely – endowed with the right to do so as if by divine fiat.

We must resist the modernist philosophies that permit the destruction of world-making practices in complete innocence. For the modernists there is no violence in ideality and so nothing to think about. Tearing away the misty veil of illusions – what’s violent about that? What could be less violent? It requires no justification, no thought, no debate, no consideration, no politics. In the modernist schema iconoclasm is legitimate in and of itself, pretty much by definition, because to refuse iconoclasm is to accept living in a world of illusions – horror of all horrors. But if we reject the bifurcation of nature then we have to also reject the freedom of auto-justified iconoclasm. Without the appeal to a world of illusions that is of no intrinsic value in itself how can the modernist iconoclast claim such perfect innocence in his actions? How can he look himself in the eye if he is not revealing realities but rather destroying worlds? Depriving modernists of their dogmas, of their dualisms, of their innocence – that is the trick.

So, what of realism? If ‘realism’ means retaining this institutionalised thoughtlessness (in whatever derivative form) then I am happy to kick it to the curb. If ‘idealism’ means recognising that our worlds are fragile and that there is no bedrock beneath the beach then I’m an idealist. So be it. That said I think that an ‘idealism’ that so enthusiastically throws itself into the materiality of the world, into truths of science, into the concreteness of earthly being and which rejects any kind of ideality abstracted from the substance of the world is not an idealism worthy of the name. I’d prefer to call that realism but it’s not about who gets to appropriate which tag. It’s about finding ways of living in a world in which all are vulnerable, all can be lost; in which no entity that populates our world is so safe and secure that it does not require any kind of maintenance. It’s about forcing careful, considered thought to occur in the right places and at the right times. It’s against thoughtlessness, not reality.

So, the sun will keep burning if we all die. Sure, great. But without the practices that tie us to its fusion, its gravity, its flares then it’s just a hot, bright thing in the sky to us. Without our bodies and our thoughts it isn’t even that. Sun spots are only part of our world in any meaningful way given the institutions that allow us to dissociate and discern them from the general blazing hotness of the celestial sky-lump. I see nothing idealist in this – on the contrary, is it not the height of realism?

We cannot speak of a thing to which we are not tied, so why do we persist in trying? Why do we wrestle with our own finitude with such sage, serious, solemn and earnest and yet frenzied devotion? Why not throw our energies into studying the threads and knots of our world, our pluriverse and accept that when we abstract from these things and speak of things ‘out there, besides us’ we are doing so because our entanglements all sufficiently well-coiffed to permit us these inferences. We know the sun in all its glory because we have built these institutions that bring it more intimately into our world. Can we speak of the sun ‘in itself’? I don’t see how. But I also don’t see why anyone should care. It is surely impossible to speak of things in themselves in any absolute way but it is perfectly possible to infer how things would be without our networks from within our networks – indeed, because of our networks. Such a fiction is always speculative, constructive, contingent – and so?...

The point is that we should be happy to be swamped in our atmospheres, bound up in our networks, channelling the whisperings of our idols. These attachments are what make us strong – they are what make us. And if we accept this, if we accept our unavoidably swamped, bounded, entangled predicament, then I think this has real consequences for our political lives, too.

The pluralism of ‘that’s your opinion, dude’ isn’t much help if it’s based upon an ethos of mere politeness, of sniggering in private rather than public. A more diplomatic pluralism, as I have tried to articulate it at least, finds plurality at a deeper register; a pluralism of modes of action as well as a pluralism of umwelten. It’s my belief that these things, in fact, go together.

A true pluralism would not only accept the basic reality of others' idols, it would rush to support them if they were demonstrated to be of value to the world.

A true pluralist might recognise something of herself in the anguished cries of an other watching his world being torn apart.