Friday, 10 April 2015

2015 Millennium Conference: 'Failure and Denial in World Politics' (keynote: Bruno Latour)—an opportunity for rethinking critique?

The theme for this year's Millennium conference at the LSE has been announced: "Failure and Denial in World Politics." The keynote speaker will be Bruno Latour.

This is an interesting development (not surprising as Latour has a long standing relationship with the LSE, but nevertheless). Until just a few years ago, Latour's work was almost completely unknown in the field of International Relations (the field that provided ma formation, as the French say).

At the 2012 Millennium conference on "Materialism and World Politics" (at which I presented a somewhat inchoate paper on actor-network theory and offshore tax havens) there were what seemed like dozens of graduate students drawing on Latour's work and actor-network theory more broadly. The larger proportion of senior academics, however, ranged from indifference to hostility to this trend. And the hostile did not hold their tongues—all the familiar tropes were wheeled out: "networks are neoliberal!"; "this reduces humans to rocks!", etc. One objector even suggested, with all the indignation of a die-hard humanist, that this 'flat ontology' business was proto-fascist.

Actor-network theory, 'new materialism,' object-oriented philosophy and the like have gained ground within IR with remarkable speed—like an invasive species flourishing in a hitherto blissfully isolated island ecosystem! I would not be surprised if at this conference there were some kind of revanchist backlash from Critical Theorists attempting to regain lost territory.

Besides all that, it should be a very exciting conference. I've not attended since 2012 but I've never heard anything but good things. The Millennium conference is run by the remarkable and prestigious graduate-run journal of the same name. It has none of the fusty self-importance of the larger, more grimly institutionalised professional conferences but, at the same time, is large and well-known enough to attract a really top-notch group of participants.

I'll have to give some thought regarding what I'd like to present (the deadline for abstracts is the 3rd of July). It would be a good opportunity to visit the problem of science critique in relation to science denial. This is a troubling issue for IR, which is far more deeply wedded, at least amongst some sections, to the practice of critique than science studies ever was (and for good reasons, I'd argue).

If the impressions and expectations I've described above are correct, the time would be very ripe for attempting to think through critique once more. Not so as to dismiss it—how could one conscionably study the arms trade or the Israel/Palestine conflict without doing so, in some sense, 'critically'?—but in order to think it 'par le milieu,' as it were.

If the classic will to "ruthless criticism of all that exists" can no longer license the usual pompous, faux-radical stupidity (not the context in which that line originated but very much what it has become), and I believe that it cannot, that does not mean that critique as such can be dispensed with. What if critique is also an atmospheric phenomenon, a necessary precondition of our continuing to breathe? What if the minute perforations it instils are necessary for the stability of any enshrouding coexistential manifold? What would a more incisive and selective critique or decompositionism—not 'of all that exists' but necessarily relative to some situational decision—look like?

These are the kinds of questions that, I think, will need to be asked.


  1. Thanks for posting about this enticing conference, Philip.
    Believe it or not, I myself was a review editor for Millennium back in 2002-2003, when completing a Masters course in IR at the LSE. It's a great institution and, as you say, rather privileged in the access it has to very interesting senior figures, without having to submit itself to certain conventional conventions.
    It’s interesting that Latour often ‘scales up’ to IR-type complexes as he sets out his ubiquitous lists: in WHNBM, if I remember right (‘The Leviathan as a Skein of Networks’? – don’t have the book in front of me right now) the Red Army is given as a case-study of a macro-agency composed of micro-agencies par excellence. Indeed, for the average citizen, I think that international negotiations would still present themselves as the most complex of network associations that we can imagine in the contemporary world (even more than technical, religious, legal ones, etc). Just as BL is constantly pointing out in regard to COP21. Here, I suspect, is reason for some of the democratic deficit we are experiencing in the UK: on the one hand, we ask what these wretched people are doing behind their closed doors in the UN/ Westminster - but on the other hand, do we really want to know, do we even think we could understand if we did?
    I’m glad you’re flagging up the resources BL’s work offers in support of a new system of critique. I suppose this is what you’re currently considering in your work on diplomacy in Latour/ Stengers. I’m thinking about writing something on how these resources might be applied to Girardian critique which, in my opinion, treads a fine line between offering a heuristic device to describe hominization and a monolithic platform for denunciation (in the bad sense) of everything that does not agree with it!

  2. Very interesting! Good to know that you were part of that club. I don't know Girard very well but I'll look forward to learning.