Saturday 22 February 2014

Reply to Levi on pluralism, etc.

Levi responds (in the comments) to one of my previous posts on pluralism:
I find this post perplexing. First, it seems to me that this is a wildly implausible interpretation of the modernist. The modernist does not see the critical investigation of idols as a-political, but as a deeply political project. The whole motive behind "smashing idols" is that these idols have very real political effects and a very real impact on people's lives. Given that, there's really no alternative but to engage in that "warfare". Here I wonder whether some of this blase attitude towards these idols doesn't arise from different political circumstances in the US and Britain. I take it, for example, that Britain doesn't have people resisting climate change policy on religious grounds-- they claim to know how the world will end --or pushing Middle Eastern foreign policy based on end times theology; not to mention the issues of abortion, gay marriage, contraceptives, sex education, evolution, attitudes towards capitalism filtered through Calvinism, etc; nothing in American politics can be understood without understanding the role played by these idols and these idols have very real domestic and international effects. 
Second, I just don't think this is an accurate reading of Latour and that this post reflects Deleuze's description of the "beautiful soul" in Difference and Repetition. The beautiful soul holds that there can be a confederation of peaceful differences. I think we hope for this and strive for it as much as possible, but I also think that there are a number of circumstances where there are just irreducible antagonisms. There's really no way to align the interests of the worker and the owner. They'll always be at odds with one another. Similarly, there's no way to align the interests of the fundamentalist and the GLBT person. One really has to choose in these circumstances and unfortunately there's "war"; though hopefully of the peaceful variety (though the bombing of abortion clinics suggests otherwise). The premise here seems to be that the problem lies in people not being politically pluralistic, but it seems to me that antagonisms arise from elsewhere and from very real differences. 
Finally, it's important to recall the relationship between "trials of strength" and truth in Latour. Latour argues that every "truth" is produced through trials of strength that determine its capacity to stand or not (note his warlike language here). You seem to say that religion and science are on equal grounds with their fragility. Perhaps, perhaps not. Many religions have undergone trials of strength through the formation of collectives, institutions, and rituals that make them incredibly sturdy. Here I think of Dennett's version of meme theory where religions, for example, create memes such as "you will go to hell if you question doctrine" creating for themselves an "autoimmune system" that's extremely effective in producing endurance of these collectives. And, of course, religion engages in all the sorts of anti-pluralistic warfare you decry in this post. Science has also gone through its trials of strength through the experiment, the creation of instruments, the invention of "speaking objects" (the events that take place in experiments and that are observed by a variety of people), journals, institutions, etc. I don't think either of these things are particularly fragile. Both have aligned all sorts of actants to sustain their existence. As Latour says, those black boxes can always be opened and questioned anew, but in the case of science-- and depending on what scientific claim we're talking about --the bar is pretty high for justifying the opening of those boxes, e.g., there's not much reason to question the black box of vaccination at this point.
I don't doubt that there are differences in experience between where you are, Levi, and over on this side of the pond; in fact I know that there are and I appreciate how that creates a difference in perspective.  However, if anything that fact strengthens my argument.  I couldn't have been any more explicit in saying that sometimes idols need to be smashed, could I?  If they are destructive and deleterious to collective life then smash away!  You have not only a right to do so but a duty.  But do they all need to be smashed?  Really?

My whole point is that idol-smashing is an act that requires a decision, that it can't be auto-justified by appeal to a higher order of Nature or Rationality.  And I really do think that this is one of the central pillars of Modernism - that any action is justified if it's enforcing more Rationalism upon the world, if it's extending the light-curtain of Enlightenment that extra inch; that violence isn't really violence if it's in service of Rationalisation.

If you don't recognise the whole 'I am merely tearing the veil from your eyes; pain is character building, thank me' thing in Modernism then I'm not sure what to say.  Pretty much the entire discourse of European colonialism was built on this kind of thinking.  And it's not gone anywhere.  'Oh, you think this forest is sacred?  Adorable.  Bring in the bulldozers.  You'll thank us when your economy is rationalised.'

But the most important thing politically (or diplomatically) is that the world will never be Enlightened, Reason will never reign - so, we have to find ways of living together in spite of all that.

Which brings me to the second point.  'Living together' doesn't mean all holding hands in a circle and singing Kumbaya.  It might merely mean not kicking the shit out of each other.  Peace doesn't mean harmony and I don't think anything I've written can be taken to mean that.  My interpretation of Latour's whole cosmopolitical thing is that it's basically a more metaphysically ambitious version of Chantal Mouffe's agonistic pluralism.  Both are based on Carl Schmitt, for goodness sake (I almost wrote 'for heaven's sake...!').

The thing with Latour in his political writings (his later ones at least, e.g. On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods) is that his tone often suggests the perspective of a middle-of-the-road bourgeois liberal imploring us along the lines of 'aw shucks, can't we all just get along?'; but if you look at the philosophical resources he's drawing on he's always gone for the political realists.  In the '80s it was Spinoza, Hobbes, Machiavelli.  Today it's Schmitt.  Nothing cuddly about these folks, nothing beautiful about their souls.  The utopia of liberal consensualism is precisely what this whole political philosophy is working against.

Perhaps my tone has taken too much of Latour's along with it.  But there's agonism in that there pluralism, make no mistake.  And, if anything, I am going more towards the political realist side of things than Latour.  So, with respect, I think my reading of Latour is accurate and that, if anything, I am more cognisant of outright conflict than he is!*

Lastly, whether or not religions in the US are strong and sturdy (clearly they are) is beside the point.  It's a matter of decision and responsibility.  I'm not saying 'oh leave the poor old religious lot alone, you big bully.'  I don't dispute for a moment that there are many instances where there's a zero-sum game in terms of engaging with others: 'it's either you or me.'  E.g. when a child is ill, needs a blood transfusion and its parents won't allow it because they're Jehovah's Witnesses (this kind of story crops up with sad regularity).  Religious freedom and the right of the child to get medical treatment - there's a zero-sum game there, a decision must be made.  Neither Reason not Science can answer that question, it's always a political decision.  Likewise, in the UK recently there's been a lot of debate over female genital mutilation.  It's been made illegal but is still practiced.  Here, too, there's no middle ground.  It'll never be okay to say 'oh, only mutilate them a bit' or 'only mutilate young girls' genitals on a Sunday' - it's a fundamental disagreement.  And it's an abomination that must be eliminated.

I see no contradiction in this and anything of what I said in the last post.  Differences in emphasis, that's all.

It's easy to justify your attacks when your opponent is more powerful (i.e. when taking on the religious in the US).  But that isn't always the case and a political philosophy must be able to at least comprehend situations in which one's other is weaker, when speaking from higher status to lower - how does one then act?  And how does one act when one finds that an other's ways are ridiculous but in a manner that is inconsequential to oneself?  How does one act towards things that might be perceived as absurd but are of no real consequence or might even make the world a slightly better place?  Modernism, as I see it, can at best snigger behind its hand rather than with bared teeth in these situations.  That's scarcely pluralism.  It's not political pluralism, anyway.  There are deeper (and better) varieties of pluralism than this, that's all I'm really arguing for.

* An aside: Latour has long since moved on from Irreductions.  As important as that text clearly was for him it's been grossly overestimated as being programatically foundational in the past few years (blaming no names *cough* Harman).  The strict, reductive ontology of trials of strength hasn't been a major part of his work since the early 1990s, as I see it.  For example, his essay on circulating reference (the one in Pandora's Hope) was first published in 1993.  That produces rather a different theory of science to the trials of strength period in the 1980s.  He's a very different thinker to the one he was thirty years ago - although there are obvious continuities between then and now, too.

Friday 21 February 2014

Morton's Hyperobjects and Pluralism

It occurred to me yesterday after reading Timothy Morton's Hyperobjects just what a postmodernist text it is in terms of style and construction.  It's really no different in how it's put together from the old 'all the world's a text' school of culture studies bricolage.  Bits and pieces of pop science mixed with every kind of cultural artefact (and, in all fairness, some genuinely earnest political musings) all jumbled together and loosely assembled with the help of some all too chunkily chopped and, for my tastes, rather undercooked object-oriented philosophy (garnished with wilted affectations of scientific realism...).  A thought salad, if you will.

It's a writing style that presupposes a flat ontology – i.e. a monism – i.e. a situation where a single vocabulary, a single style of speech, a single mode of assembly suffices to address any kind of thing wheresoever, whensoever, howsoever, whatsoever.  Heterogeneity without plurality.

It matters little in practice whether this monistic plane is discourse, object, language, network...  The world becomes a frozen lake across which the bricoleur glides, slides or tumbles, depending on his skill.  The relational labour required to forge any particular connection seems minimal, almost inconsequential – it is enough that the words are on the same page, conjoined by puns.

This can be a very exciting way of moving around, no doubt, but, read in book-length, it strikes me as shallow, superficial and reductive.  To address climate change, Dr Who, early 1990s British indie bands, aboriginal art, nuclear waste, Aristotle and so on all in the same mode of address, all in the same tone of voice, the same frenzied, impatient blur of the hyperactive scholar-magpie – it makes for an interesting read but ultimately an unrewarding one.  And it's difficult to swallow the dogmatically asserted 'realism' (proclaimed, never argued) when there is so little attentiveness to the specificities of all these things, when their bumps, grooves and all manner of details are smoothed over in such dramatic fashion.

It is as though the materials themselves offered no resistance, objection or direction to how they are spoken, stretched, compressed, displayed; they impose no obligation on the articulator as to the way in which they must be articulated.

This, it seems to me, is the importance of the pluralist project, philosophically (and realistically) speaking: to compel attention to the specific ways in which different things must be addressed in order to be properly articulated in their own terms.  This is what OOO, etc. can never do because it is essentially monist: there is one way of being and all further distinctions are subcategories of that one mode.

In establishing a 'universal equivalence' between all things (everything equally an object) it makes everything articulable all-together with a minimum of complication.  And this is not without value but nor is it innocent.

One interesting thing with Latour's modes project is that [net] permits this scholar-magpie approach since it self-consciously disregards the nuances of individual forms of being in order to string together as many relations (and thus to forge the thickest of descriptions) as quickly, easily and simplistically as possible.  So, the fast, loose thrill-ride of the monist is seemingly permitted but it is relativised, deprived of its innocence – it compels a choice, a decision to be made: why this mode, why this movement, why not another?  In other words, the very partiality of the pluralised network mode demands passing by the way of another mode [pre] (and from there to any number of others); plurality demands decision and hence responsibility.

And this, I think, leads to a more convincing 'realism' than that of Morton et al., for whom this becomes little more than a badge to pin to one's lapel and strut around, chest puffed out – proud.  That is a good name for it: proud realism, a realism of pride.  Science, in this 'realism,' becomes not so much a process that is implicated in any event of thinking the worlds around us in particularly productive ways but simply an honoured and honorific background process that gifts us lists of objects that we are entitled, since they are scientifically certified, to assert as 'out there, whether you like it or not.'  Science is a research and certification process: if it's on the list we can let it into our ontologies without another thought.  ('And if you're not on the list you're not coming in!' – for doormen-realists this is the main point: the authority to refuse entry.)

Thus, with Morton, we can stand there in the rain, feeling it falling on our head and imagine the vast, sublime, oceanic climate system whirring and whooshing over our head and think 'climate change is raining on my head' (he actually writes this) and think that this is a meaningful sentence, in all disconnection and transcendence from the scientific institutions that stabilise climate and climate change as objects of cognition.  And then we can denounce those who would insist that dynamic, ongoing scientific processes are essentially implicated in this event, in this actual occasion as lava lampy relationalists.

There's nothing more lava lampy than the manic postmodern stylings of cultural studies bricolage – and this is a style that Morton excels at.

To move with [net] is to move laterally; that is, across the frozen lake, traversing the flat ontology.  And we don't need to watch the Winter Olympics to know what stunningly graceful high-velocity ballets this freedom of movement can sometimes produce.  But this is not the only way of moving.  To pretend otherwise is irresponsible.

Pluralism is not an alternative to realism.  It is simply realism without its chest puffed out, showing off.  Pluralism is realism that recognises the multiple paths that any trajectory can follow and the beautiful plumage that can grace any mode of existence.

In that sense there is nothing much to it; it might be counter-intuitive but it's not especially complicated.  Perhaps one day it'll even be common sense.