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.

New materialism is the new poststructuralism

I think that this is true in more ways than one; however, one way is particularly important.

Like poststructuralism, new materialism is a signposting mechanism that allows (largely anglophone) academics to obscure the differences between (largely francophone) thinkers, mashing them into a single digestible lump.

New materialism doesn't exist at the level of the authors it claims to encompass, just as poststructuralism didn't. It only exists secondarily, as a way-finding supplement.

If we can make a distinction between the academic and the intellectual, new materialism and poststructuralism are emphatically of the former. They do not involve the unnerving risk of thought but rather the comforting stability of simplification.

They are ways of making a complex situation teachable. They are pedagogical terms—and are not, therefore, without value. However, we should be very suspicious when they are posited as intellectual concepts, as though their purpose were somehow creative.

The manner in which academia satisfies itself with such signposts accounts for a large part of its intellectual malaise. An inability to think beyond badly printed banners is by no means inevitable but it is strongly encouraged by an internal political economy that prizes 'expert knowledge' of trends occurring elsewhere more highly than it does the thought practices occurring (or not occurring) within its own walls.

This is one part of a generalised anglophonic anti-intellectualism that sees 'theory' as something to be imported, bussed in like fresh water to a desert state.