Saturday, 14 December 2013

BBC rewilding documentary 'Predators In Your Backyard'

A beautifully made and politically rather mind-blowing look at the practice of 'rewilding.'  Specifically, this documentary looks at the reintroduction of large predators such as wolves, panthers and bears into ecosystems that were damaged by the eradication of these species in the 19th/20th centuries.

Unfortunately the audio gets a bit out of sync with the pictures but only marginally.  It's still worth watching.  It really is cosmopolitics in action.  The yearning for a Nature that could be mastered and possessed is still in evidence but its absurdity becomes plain.

Also, there's some Mogwai on the soundtrack, which is always nice.

Saturday, 7 December 2013

On 'entitlement culture'

It is a familiar leitmotif of conservatives of a neoliberal bent everywhere these days: 'The feckless poor and their sense of entitlement, this is what is sending the world to hell in a handbasket!  These people think they have a right to a roof over their heads and bread in their bellies.  We makers, we Galts cannot take this any longer.  No, alas, we cannot afford the takers of this world such luxuries any more.  Every tile and every crust must be earned and if you are a failure - not my problem, son.  Global race, competitiveness, tightening belts [yadda yadda yadda...]'.

The usual response to this attack on the 'entitlements' of the poor (or rather the non-rich) is a more or less humanist one: 'How dare you?!  Every human being has a right to food, shelter and dignity!  You conservatives with your evil ideology have no respect for your fellow humans.  You reduce humanity to lines on a spreadsheet!  You absolve yourself from the most basic kinds of compassion!' and so on.  This response is entirely inadequate.  What is so sad about the 'entitlement culture' trope is the fact that all the poor seem to feel 'entitled' to is food and shelter - if that.

It is not that people feel too entitled, it is that they do not feel entitled enough.

This response doesn't rely upon any universal, given, abstract human value that must be defended on behalf of the feckless poor by an articulate, representative intellectual class.  Instead it places the emphasis upon stoking the agencies of the poor (or the non-rich) themselves, making them the enfired agents of their own defence - agents of their own entitlement.

If there is a road to an alter-humanism this is it.  Humanism sets us into a box adorned with certain brass plaques that we can only point at and insist 'No, but look!  We are humans, we deserve dignity!'.  Another humanism must insist that human beings are capable of insisting upon their own entitlements - that human beings have no need of being entitled as Human Beings endowed with Dignity from on high.  And yet the term 'anti-humanism' seems to detract from the absolute imperative of insisting.  It is not enough to be against, one must also be for.

'Entitlement' is a conservative trope that must be turned on its head - or perhaps set on its feet.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Two scientists debate climate engineering, Parliament of Things

Climate scientists David Keith and Mike Hulme debate the possibility of climate engineering, particularly the injection of sulphur into the stratosphere(!).  Hulme argues, amongst other things, that:
The technology is ungovernable. Even the gradual deployment [of these measures] will have repercussions for all nations, all peoples and all species. All of these affected agents therefore need representation in any decisions made and over any regulatory bodies established. But given the lamentable state in which the conventional UN climate negotiations linger on, I find it hard to envisage any scenario in which the world's nations will agree to a thermostat in the sky.
Does this reinforce or undermine Latour's notion of a Parliament of Things?  Hulme is clearly sceptical of the possibility of any such political assembly—indeed, the implication is that it is absurd.  And yet Latour's grand narrative of ever increasing entanglement and the end of nature resulting in a need for such a thing seems awfully prescient.  Hulme goes on to say that:
Another argument against intentional solar climate engineering is that it will introduce another reason for antagonism between nations. There are those who claim that their models are good enough to precisely attribute specific local meteorological extremes—and ensuing human damages—to greenhouse gas emissions. There will be nations who will want to claim that any damaging weather extreme following sulphur injection was aerosol-caused rather than natural- or greenhouse gas-caused. The potential for liability and counter-liability claims between nations is endless. 
I am against solar climate engineering not because some violation of nature's integrity—the argument used by some. I am against it because my reading of scientific evidence and of collective human governance capabilities suggests to me that the risks of implementation greatly outweigh any benefits. There are surer ways of reducing the dangers of climate change.
All nations, all peoples, all species—no Nature in sight.

But there's more.  It's clear that the risk of outright war—and not just the ontological, metaphysical kind of 'war' that Latour so loves to tell us about—is a very real possibility in the not so distant future.  Wars of blood and terror, steel and explosives.  Wars that will make our petty debates over intercultural misunderstandings seem like a joke.

I'd draw two conclusions from this exchange: First, that Latour's political philosophy does have its finger on the pulse of world history inasmuch as these issues will be central to world politics in the coming decades.  Climate engineering is coming and the space mirrors won't save us.  Second, his political philosophy is largely incapable of adequately understanding or articulating these developments because it remains stuck at an extreme level of abstraction that wilfully ignores concrete political actualities, preferring to dissolve institutional and territorial realities into a shifting sea of 'issues' overseen by an airless metaphysical Parliament of Things that is conceptually underspecified to the point of being almost meaningless.

We need a political philosophy that can articulate realpolitik and dingpolitik rather than just substituting the latter for the former.  There can be no settlement of the earth-wars without a better understanding of the turf-wars that come with them.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Alleged London 'slave holder' was Maoist cult leader

Can't wait to hear Badiou's take on this...
The 73-year-old man arrested on suspicion of holding three women captive in a south London flat for 30 years is a one-time Maoist activist who was well known within far-left circles in London during the mid- and late 1970s as the leader of a separatist party-cum-commune. 
Aravindan Balakrishnan, known as Comrade Bala, had been a senior member of the Communist party of England (Marxist-Leninist) and a member of the party's central committee‚ but according to a history of the movement he split from the Maoist party in 1974. 

Prof Steve Rayner, now head of Oxford University's institute for science, innovation and society, studied Balakrishnan's group in the late 1970s, and noted the leader's "superior ability to manipulate" other members, despite the supposed non-hierarchical structure. Rayner's report made it clear the group had elements of a cult, calling it the "clearest case of far-left millenarianism which I have encountered".

The group had about 25 members, who in 1977 "confidently predicted" they would be liberated by the Red army by the end of the year, the report said. [...]
I'm sure this'll be used to smear everyone to the left of Enoch Powell.  And there'll probably be some on the far, far 'left' calling it a stitch up and blaming it on MI5.  But these people weren't on the 'left wing' of anything, they were orbiting another planet entirely

Latour's libéralisme

In a previous post I mused on Latour's relation to anarchism, suggesting that the predicament he describes (one of total political and metaphysical anarchy) could perhaps better be approached through an anarchist political philosophy rather than the kind of vague globalist republicanism that Latour defaults to in response to his cosmopolitical scenography.

That was a searching post trying to provoke something in my own thought processes rather than anything else.  Getting more serious, one thing that we need to get to grips with in order to understand AIME, in particular the last few chapters, is Latour's liberalism.

The following is a short dialogue that Latour wrote for the magazine Domus in 2005.  It used to be available on his website but is no longer so I will reproduce it here in full (although it is cached on the Internet Archive).
—I find it quite amusing that when I am in the U.S. I am criticised for being a “liberal”, but when I am in France I am looked down on as a “libéral” even though the adjective means just the opposite…
—In Europe we are right. The drift towards liberalism is deadly. This is why so many people oppose the European Constitution: the whole text is infected with the virus of liberalism.
—A virus? I suppose you are referring to economic liberalism?
—Yes, the domination of market forces, deregulation, globalisation.
—But not liberalism in matters of mores? Not gay marriage, abortion rights and free choice? This stuff you don’t fight? These are not viruses, correct? From what I know, you seem to embrace it wholeheartedly.
—But of course! This is the historical frontline against all the reactionaries who want to imprison us with the shackles of the past: morality, nature, precaution, all the old social mores.
—See, this is what I never get when I am in Europe: How can you fight one liberalism while promoting the other? If you are for the extension of freedom, flexibility, autonomy, emancipation from the prisons of the past, this is just what they advocate in The Wall Street Journal editorials.
—It’s only the freedom of markets they advocate; for the rest they are the worst liberal bashers.
—But that’s exactly what I mean: they are for total autonomy in economic matters and against it when morality is the issue. You love autonomy, flexibility and free choice, where neither the state nor the church intervenes in your private affairs. But then you hide behind the religion of state intervention for economic ones. It’s just as contradictory. If you are for liberty, you should be for it all the way.
—Like the English then?
—More like the Scottish. After all, this is the invention of the Scottish Enlightenment and you, the continental liberals as well as the American anti-liberals, have made a mess of it.
—You are confusing things that have nothing to do with one another: you can be for free choice and against market domination. Actually, you should be.
—Sure, just like the American ayatollahs of free markets who happen to be in favour of school prayer and who want to phase out abortion rights. What I am saying is that I don’t see the logic of it.
— You are mixing up the issues. I don’t want to lose sight of the principal enemy, which is capitalism, not moral emancipation.
—Except, of course, if it can be demonstrated that the principal ally of capitalism is just this extension of freedom to the inner sanctuary of psychology. Is this not exactly the new spirit of capitalism as described by Boltanski and Chiapello? [1] Capitalism, they explain, has learned to turn its worst enemies —the anti-bourgeois critics— into its most faithful supporters: freedom leads to more freedom; autonomy leads to more autonomy; flexibility leads to more flexibility.
—But if you were right, American capitalism should be hamstrung by its reactionary attitude on moral issues. It does not seem to fare so badly in spite of the recent hunt against liberals.
—Fair enough, but the reason might be entirely different and go against your contradictory position as well as against theirs.
—It remains to be seen whether my view is contradictory.
—Don’t you believe that there is such a thing as an independent domain that one calls the economy?
—Of course I do.
—This is what you have in common with The Wall Street Journal and what allows you to be as illogical as them. Since the economy is autonomous, you can attack capitalism —or defend it as is their view— even though when dealing with moral issues you take a totally different stand. For you as well as for them it makes no difference.
—But it doesn’t! The economy forms the basic infrastructure of everything.
—And I presume that morality, law and culture form the “superstructure”? See, you liberals, you are Marxists from the left and those guys, the anti-liberals, are also Marxists but from the right.
—What? The Bible-reading, gay-bashing, liberal-hunting, God-fearing, anti-abortion, Yankee capitalist is a Marxist?
—Yes, just as much as the Derrida-reading, latte-drinking, pro-choice, European-leaning liberal. They both believe that there is such a thing as “the economy”, that it has its own laws, its own impetus, and that it should be promoted (or opposed) en masse.
—Unfortunately, this is the sad truth that has been discovered thanks to two hundred years of economic science in case you had forgotten.
—Nonsense, the economy offers nothing but a hybrid mix of law, morality, institutions, customs, state powers, international organisations, technology and virtues (yes, virtues, go back and read Adam Smith). In no way is it an autonomous and homogeneous bundle of stuff endowed with its own inertia.
—Have you ever heard of “the iron laws of economy”?
—I have heard of the economists’ laws but because I am a libéral I am rather suspicious of the work done by economists to render the economy autonomous.
—Great! So, according to you economies (the material ones) are an outcome of economics (the scientific ones)?
—Yes, that’s about right.[2]
—So the real world is nothing but the outcome of your ideas of it. Idealism, this is pure idealism. If this is the alternative, I much prefer being a Marxist, even though this seems passé to you.
—But I am not saying that it’s passé. I am saying that it’s illogical to be in principle for state intervention for one topic and against it for another. It means you have to take up an entirely different attitude, namely there are no markets, only market organisations.
—Why should that be against my position?
—Because it’s precisely those organisations that are missed when you try and resist the expansion of market forces while doing your utmost to extend flexibility to moral values. Your “radical” opposition to capitalism blinds you to those organisations and their potential for re-organisation.
—But if you start on this slippery slope, you could wind up saying that there is no capitalism, that it is a pure illusion created from two hundred years’ worth of economic pamphlets…
—Do not tempt me. I think I am ready to slip all the way down that slope…
—You libéraux are capitalism’s worst accomplices.
—You liberals are capitalism’s worst accomplices. 
[1] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapelllo, The New Spirit of Capitalism (Translated by Gregory Elliott), W W Norton & Co Inc, 2005.
[2] Michel Callon (ed.), The Laws of the Markets, Blackwell, Oxford, 1998.
Here is what Latour says about liberalism in the vocabulary section of the AIME site:
The question of liberalism occupies the whole of European history. In this inquiry it takes on a particular sense: can we free ourselves from all metadispatchers and finally break free from the two-hundred-year religious war between State and Market? It is this dual liberation that we refer to here as "liberalism" - we detach ourselves completely, of course, from "neo-liberalism", which only stirs up the old religious war, forgetting that there are only "market organizations" and as a result that the State-Market opposition is a practical impossibility. 
"Liberal" contains liberty: aime is liberal (in the English and French sense of the word) in the specific sense that we try to undo the configurations both of The Economy as a metadispatcher of all [org] roles and of the state as the degree zero of political experimentation. We ask again the dual question of freedom: how can market organizations function freely to explore what was once merged in The Economy but which now becomes the free movement of [pol], [att], [org], [law], [mor] and [fic]? How can we give back a semblance of truth to the State's incredible claim of embodying the common good without trial, without experience, without instruments, without reprising the movement of politics liberated from the State? (Hence the importance of the Dewey-Lippmann pragmatic tradition for politics.) 
A liberalism that exceeds the false quarrel between Market and State is slightly asymmetric in that, two and a half centuries after the beginnings of economics, we still doubt the automatism of markets and their search for the optimum while the best minds (in Europe at least) act as though there was a total assimilation between the State and the Common Good - which doesn't need any instruments, trials, and does not contain any friction. In other words, Economics-as-a-discipline, for once, is superior to political theory because it studies, with all its equipment, that which it sees as a difficulty, a problem, while statism (outside of Dewey-style pragmatisms) continues to act as if (in France at least) the discovery of the "common world" was unproblematic. In this sense, a liberal always leans towards market organizations with a little less mistrust than a liberal mind leans towards the state: at least in market organizations problems of optimization are seen by everyone to be difficult.
On the subject of the market Latour approvingly cites Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics lectures:
From the point of view of market organizations, there is no fundamental difference between Market and state except that, in the ideology of the economy, they are two ways of adding fictional transcendence to devices for calculating and exploring the common good. This transcendence leads to a short-circuiting of the difficult search for the common good. 
According to Foucault, political economy leads to the market becoming a new form of veridiction (p. 34, p. 63) whereas, before the reign of The Economy, it was only one of the things that justice and policing forces had to monitor carefully: "Of course, I do not mean that this is the first time that Europe thinks about the world, or thinks the world. I mean simply that this may be the first time that Europe appears as an economic unit, as an economic subject in the world, or considers the world as able to be and having to be its economic domain (...) let’s say that we have the start of a new type of global calculation in European governmental practice." (Foucault, 2004) p. 58.
Which brings me to this article that I read recently by Michael Behrent: Liberalism without humanism: Michel Foucault and the free-market creed, 1976–1979.  Here's the abstract:
This article challenges conventional readings of Michel Foucault by examining his fascination with neoliberalism in the late 1970s. Foucault did not critique neoliberalism during this period; rather, he strategically endorsed it. The necessary cause for this approval lies in the broader rehabilitation of economic liberalism in France during the 1970s. The sufficient cause lies in Foucault's own intellectual development: drawing on his long-standing critique of the state as a model for conceptualizing power, Foucault concluded, during the 1970s, that economic liberalism, rather than “discipline,” was modernity's paradigmatic power form. Moreover, this article seeks to clarify the relationship between Foucault's philosophical antihumanism and his assessment of liberalism. Rather than arguing (as others have) that Foucault's antihumanism precluded a positive appraisal of liberalism, or that the apparent reorientation of his politics in a more liberal direction in the late 1970s entailed a partial retreat from antihumanism, this article contends that Foucault's brief, strategic, and contingent endorsement of liberalism was possible precisely because he saw no incompatibility between antihumanism and liberalism—but only liberalism of the economic variety. Economic liberalism alone, and not its political iteration, was compatible with the philosophical antihumanism that is the hallmark of Foucault's thought.
Foucault's critical project at this time had a profound asymmetry.  He set out to criticise the state with considerably greater vigour than the he criticised the market, first of all, and, more seriously, he ended up taking the neoliberals far too much at their word with regard to how 'the market' works.  This is explained by reference to the upsurge in interest in liberalism amongst the French left in the mid to late 1970s in resistance to the Mitterrandian establishment left and the still all too Stalinist Communist party.  Foucault rejected political liberalism due to its intrinsic humanism (human rights and all that) but found in economic (neo)liberalism a form of governmentality that, if he did not unconditionally endorse, he at least expressed an affinity for.

So, back to Latour.  He is a self-declared libéral.  How radical a declaration is that for a Parisian intellectual these days?  Behrent's article makes clear that it was a somewhat provocative affiliation in the 1970s but we're a long way from that now.  Secondly, given that Foucault takes the market too much for granted (indeed, he assumes that there is such a thing) and given that Latour endorses Foucault's general economic analysis then how are we to understand the final few chapters of AIME?  It seems to me that this can be read as an extension of Foucault's project, going further than he was prepared to.  Foucault cut off the king's head; Latour takes the extra step in severing the invisible hand, too.  However, how are we then to understand the declaration that a liberal tends towards embracing market institutions rather than the state?  That is an attitude that results from a very French experience, I would aver.  From a British perspective, we have never had such a state-centric political discourse.  We have been market liberals for a very long time.  This goes to show something else: that for all the talk of the West and European ontologies AIME is, in many ways, a peculiarly French work that derives from largely French experiences.

Latour has always kept his political cards very close to his chest.  He's always been happy to loosely affiliate himself with 'the left' but always in quite a vague way.  Clearly he is attempting to articulate a kind of soft left liberalism that is in thrall to neither the state nor the market - and arguably this goes beyond where Foucault got up to.  But, then again, in letting the state recede into the background and in suggesting a preference for market institutions is Latour not somewhat giving up on the state as a site of political contestation?  In prioritising issues over institutions is he not distracting us from the fundamental inequities in issue-processing that structure our collectives?

Having severed the invisible hand he is carefully reassembling it in what he sees to be its proper configuration - as a fully visible multiplicity of 'hands' qua calculative mechanisms.  However, he seems to have no real interest - or at least not an equal interest - in reassembling the king's head!  This metadispatcher seems to have been subordinated to the multidispatchers (to coin a term) of economics.

Is he not still in thrall to biopolitical governmentality in much the same way as Foucault was (arguably)?  What kind of liberalism is this?

Lots of information, lots of questions, no answers - yet!  But this, I think, is key.

Provisionally I will stick my neck out and say that Latour goes beyond Foucault in submitting the market to critical scrutiny and reassembly (severing the invisible hand as well as the king's head) but he sticks too closely to Foucault (and thus perhaps too closely to the anti-statist French liberals of the 1970s) in accepting and even celebrating the subordination of the state to economic mechanisms.  He radically rearticulates what these mechanisms are but their priority over and above the state seems to remain.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

At the limits of dingpolitik: Institutions are issues too

The ‘politics’ found in AIME follows on from Latour’s previous work on ‘dingpolitik,’ the basic idea of which (as I understand it) is that instead of starting from established political institutions and then addressing issues secondarily we need to start with issues in all their fractious, decentred complexity and then look into how the publics that form around them pass through established institutions, re-establishing them as they go. This politics of ‘publics’ derives primarily from John Dewey’s The Public and its Problems and Walter Lippmann’s The Phantom Public.  It also relates to Ulrich Beck's notion of the 'risk society.'  It can be found in its most developed form in the work of Noortje Marres.

I think that there are many virtues to this inversion. For starters, the question of democratic legitimacy is transformed. We become able to assess the ‘democratic deficit’ on a case by case basis. Instead of simply lamenting how ‘unrepresentative’ our institutions are in general we can take a more forensic look and see just how unrepresentative they are in various situations. We may even be able to unearth some rare occasions when they actually work well enough! We thereby transcend the political binary of ‘move along, nothing to see here!’ and everything’s rotten, tear it all down!’ From a political science perspective this is alluring.

Of course the principle virtue of this mode of political analysis from Latour’s perspective is that is it enables an ‘object-oriented politics’ – where ‘object’ must be understood as ‘thing,’ the etymology of which Latour never tires in explaining. Here’s the entry from
Old English þing "meeting, assembly," later "entity, being, matter" (subject of deliberation in an assembly), also "act, deed, event, material object, body, being," from Proto-Germanic *thengan "appointed time" (cf. Old Frisianthing "assembly, council, suit, matter, thing," Middle Dutch dinc "court-day, suit, plea, concern, affair, thing," Dutch ding "thing," Old High German ding "public assembly for judgment and business, lawsuit," German ding" affair, matter, thing," Old Norse þing "public assembly"). Some suggest an ultimate connection to PIE root *ten- "stretch," perhaps on notion of "stretch of time for a meeting or assembly." 
For sense evolution, cf. French chose, Spanish cosa "thing," from Latin causa "judicial process, lawsuit, case;" Latin res "affair, thing," also "case at law, cause." Old sense is preserved in second element of hustings and in Icelandic Althing, the nation's general assembly.

sed colloquially since c.1600 to indicate things the speaker can't name at the moment, often with various meaningless suffixes, e.g. thingumbob (1751), thingamajig (1824). Southern U.S. pronunciation thang attested from 1937. The thing "what's stylish or fashionable" is recorded from 1762. Phrase do your thing "follow your particular predilection," though associated with hippie-speak of 1960s is attested from 1841.
Before ‘thing’ meant ‘object’ it meant ‘assembly.’ Dingpolitik refers to a politics of things in both senses of the word – as a politics of objects and a politics of the assemblies that form around problems; a politics that seeks to better institute problems in order to better compose a collective (in Latourian jargon).  As well as a mode of analysis it suggests a form of political engagement that is better suited to the complexities of the Anthropocene than institution-centred politics.

From my perspective that’s all fine as far as it goes – but it doesn’t go far enough. I should say a little about that perspective: my academic background is as a student of international relations and political science. In the past few years I have mostly been interested in the sociology and philosophy of science but I am always drawn back to IR/politics.  It is an orbit from which I cannot and do not want to escape, even though it is too closed and conservative an intellectual environment to remain stuck in for too long.

The problem with dingpolitik qua ‘issue-oriented politics,’ then, is that it makes the institutions that I want to study recede into the background somewhat. They become nothing more than moments along the trajectories of a vast multiplicity of issues. They may be very significant moments along these trajectories but they are moments nevertheless. While the primacy granted to issues over institutions that reverses the long standing tendency to do the opposite is liberating in the short term we must ultimately find a way to deal with institutions and issues without one dominating the other.

What I need to affirm is that institutions are issues too.  This aspect of dingpolitik, while by no means denied, has not been given enough attention (to the best of my knowledge – please correct me if I am wrong).  I believe that it must be.

For example, the entire agenda of the current British government is oriented around ‘making an issue’ of its own parts – a peculiar kind of mereological self-harm. The British state has become what the tax campaigner Richard Murphy calls ‘the cowardly state’ or the journalist George Monbiot calls ‘the self-hating state.’ That is, the British state is presently in the grip of a revolutionary neoliberal government that is seeking to perform two functions: first, to radically slash and burn the welfare and regulative components of the state, salting the earth as it goes, by turning as much of its functionality as possible over to ‘market forces’ through privatisation, outsourcing or simply cutting out functionality altogether; and, second, to expand the components of the state that reinforce market functions and neoliberal ideology, by intensifying state surveillance of dissident groups, instilling neoliberal practices and ideologies through education and welfare policies, putting agents of industry into all positions of regulative authority and generally becoming ever more grovelling and servile in the face of wealth.

In short, we cannot understand the British state as a moment in the trajectories of the issues it is meant to deal with unless we can understand it as an issue, or as a whole host of issues with vast attendant publics, itself.

This is just one example, of course. The need to understand institutions as issues is general. Here are two possible research topics for looking at this in more detail:

First, the British based Tax Justice Network:
The Tax Justice Network promotes transparency in international finance and opposes secrecy. We support a level playing field on tax and we oppose loopholes and distortions in tax and regulation, and the abuses that flow from them. We promote tax compliance and we oppose tax evasion, tax avoidance, and all the mechanisms that enable owners and controllers of wealth to escape their responsibilities to the societies on which they and their wealth depend. Tax havens, or secrecy jurisdictions as we prefer to call them, lie at the centre of our concerns, and we oppose them.
The TJN makes an issue of tax regimes worldwide and campaigns in a whole variety of ways – advising unions, producing reports, blogging, writing for the media, etc. – in order to further their aims.  They have been remarkably successful in putting their institutional issues 'on the agenda' of the very institutions that they criticise and even more successful in building public awareness of tax politics (they have been sailing with the wind, admittedly).

Second, the so-called ‘Kochtopus,’ the shadowy network of industrialists, think tanks, pseudo-‘grass roots’ astroturf movements, politicians, academics and media commentators funded and guided by the immensely wealthy Koch brothers, Charles and David.

The Kochtopus propagates free market ideals, bankrolls the massively powerful Tea Party movement, spreads climate scepticism, purges think tanks of non-ideologically aligned thinkers – the list is extensive. It is both an institution (an extremely active-network!) in its own right, albeit one that is closed to outsiders and is cloaked in deniability, and one that makes an issue of whole swathes of the American political landscape – including the state itself.

Having recently become acquainted with Philip Mirowski's Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown I must give honourable mention to the Mont Pèlerin Society, formed by such right wing luminaries as Hayek, Friedman, von Mises and Popper.  In tracing the history of this society Mirowski and the multiple authors of The Road from Mont Pèlerin: The Making of the Neoliberal Thought Collective have brilliantly drawn together the genesis of neoliberalism as a global political phenomenon without resorting to any half-baked, pseudo-scientific metaphors of 'spontaneous emergence.'  This is utterly exemplary work in the sociology of knowledge and bodes well for accommodating institutions themselves within the auspices of dingpolitik.

The oddity of accelerationism

Steven Shaviro has a really interesting piece on his blog on accelerationism.

I'm alternately puzzled and appalled by the whole accelerationist thing.  I'd like to think that it's the death throes of something old rather than the birth pangs of something new but I'm not sure.  Despite its sexy, fashionable, fast talking conceptual garb there's something oddly outdated about.  It seems to presuppose a very pre-Gaian kind of Nature (this is ironic since the people pushing these ideas often justify themselves in relation to the anthropocene, etc.) that is quite untenable in our contemporary ecological situation.

It comes down to this: can we accelerate capitalism to the point that it breaks down, mutates and becomes something else before Gaia boils us to death?  I can't imagine how.  We may have already passed the point of no return in that regard.

The only way out of this for the accelerationists would seem to be to assume that either late-late capitalism or that-which-follows-capitalism would be sufficiently technologically advanced that it could engineer the climate and master Gaia.

In other words, the accelerationists must have precisely the same long term goals as the most idealistic, technophilic neoliberals.  I can only imagine that there are some twenty-something CEOs in Silicon Valley reading this stuff and thinking to themselves 'yes! that's exactly it!'  It's a young man's discourse with some seriously old school presuppositions.

It's quite possible that I'm being ignorant and unfairly simplifying in all of this but that's my impression.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

The cultural lives and speciation practices of Reindeer; On 'Anthropology beyond Humanity'

I just watched this really excellent talk by Tim Ingold on Anthropology beyond Humanity.  I found it to be fascinating and engagingly delivered but argumentatively flawed.  First, Ingold claims that Latour claims that there is a radical disjuncture between humans and non-humans with regard to the socialisation of objects.  That huge diagram behind him disproves that immediately!  Non-human primates are included on the same diagram as humans.  So, there's a continuum, not a bifurcation!  I think Ingold has a point inasmuch as Latour doesn't adequately distinguish between different kinds of objects and how they differently socialise humans and allow humans to socialise but his point is overstated.

Secondly, he gets Latour's 'collective' all wrong.  The collective, a I understand it, is a political concept.  To be within or without the collective is a political means/ends distinction.  When Latour says that some non-humans must be 'outside' the collective this doesn't mean that they aren't part of human life as such - precisely the opposite, in fact.  It is because humans are now entangled with the entire planet that we need to decide what is inside and what outside.  Historically, during modernity, nearly everything was treated as a means to humans' ends (masters and possessors of nature, etc.) - that is no longer tenable because of Gaia, etc.  However, we can't then make all things ends, either.  We wouldn't even be able to eat.  So, we have to decide.  It is because we are entangled with all earthly existence, so the argument goes, that there must be an 'outside' to the collective.  The reason why non-humans need 'representatives' is because their case has to be argued politically, which is most definitely something that cannot be done by non-humans themselves (Ingold argues that non-humans can 'speak for themselves' and I suppose they can but in a very limited way with respect to politics).

In all of this Ingold conflates different meanings of 'social' - there's the simple sense of one thing affecting and being associated with another (in which case humans are social with the entire planet, as Latour has argued again and again - in the way Ingold describes it at some points we might have to say that we are social with the entire universe) then there's social in the sense of fixing or unfixing social structures or social habits, in which case humans are most definitely social with non-human things but in a more limited sense (and so it goes for non-human sociality, too).  I think Ingold is right to point out that non-humans are just as involved with other kinds of non-humans as humans are and that this could be called 'social' in some senses of that word but he's wrong, I think, to suggest that Latour refuses these entanglements.  It's simply not a matter of 'non-humans amongst themselves' versus 'humans plus non-humans.'  I think that's a false reading.  Humans enrol non-human things in order to fix, reify and, if you like, mineralise their social relations (and thus make them extend over time and space) - humans do this at a far greater intensity than e.g. primates.  I see little to object to here.  Where Latour goes wrong, I think, is in arguing that all technological artefacts constitute this broader sociality.  Ingold points out that often tools are made from local materials and immediately discarded.  That is right.  The kind of artefacts that mineralise social relations are e.g. the colourful feathers made into a ceremonial headdress that reminds everybody of who the chief is (a somewhat ethnocentric example but, I hope, a fairly innocent one).  Fashioning a stick into digging implement and then immediately discarding it doesn't do much for social relations at all.  So, Latour's argument is a bit simplistic but I'm not at all convinced that it's wrong in the way that Ingold is arguing here.

Lastly, the idea that we must think of species in terms of ongoing practices of speciation is a fine one although pretty much compatible, I think, with Latour's arguments in general.

Overall, Ingold seems very determined to damn and blast Latour and goodness knows that I do a bit of that myself but his understanding is a bit shallow and some of his comments in the Q&A at the end are simply prejudicial.  He doesn't like the fact that Latour uses a speedbump as an example of non-humans because, for Ingold, humans are much more rich and diverse than that and they can be learned from as agents in their own right.  But when Latour says 'follow the actors themselves' he isn't just talking about humans!  Ingold makes it sound like Latour is only interested in humans and non-humans are simply instrumental and secondary, which is precisely the opposite critique that the vast majority of people have made of Latour, which tells a story in itself.  Latour clearly irks Ingold deeply (a common enough reaction, for sure) but unfortunately his ire is largely misdirected.

Friday, 15 November 2013

Between aesthetics and reasoning – Brown reviews Harman and Morton

Terence Blake approvingly posts a review of Harman and Morton by Nathan Brown in Parrhesia. It's definitely an interesting review. I don’t agree with every bit of it but it raises some important points. The general accusation seems to be that of style over substance – aesthetics over reasoning. I like what James says at the start of A Pluralistic Universe: 'the distinctive quality of a philosophical truth is that it is reasoned.' There seems to be a generation of theorists who, one could argue, in rejecting Reason have forsaken reasoning too. It's a matter of rigour in a very specifically philosophical sense. Derrida's writing is notorious for its overstylised self-indulgence but there's no doubt that he was rigorous in his argumentation, in his own way. Rigorous to a fault, if anything! He worked incredibly hard to work through his analyses. His process was exhaustive and exhausting. His 'truths,' whatever their value, were most definitely reasoned.

I wonder whether this new philosophical aestheticism results in some way from Deleuze's claim that philosophy is the creation of concepts. I know that he meant something very specific by 'concept' (he had a rigour of his own) but that definition of philosophy has been taken very loosely by many people. It's seemingly become accepted that philosophy is the creation of concepts any-old-how. I am an unrepentant Jamesian in this respect. A philosophical truth or a philosophical concept must be reasoned. There is no one mode of reasoning called Reason but that doesn't absolve philosophers from the duty of reasoning. Every philosopher must construct their own version of reason and this may be something of a Sisyphian task but it cannot be avoided. No reasoning, no philosophy. Reasoning involves not just a series of utterances outlining an idea but a proliferation and working through of problems. It's not enough to paint a picture, that picture has to be closely scrutinised; the canvas has to be worked over again and again. Philosophy should be hard work. Producing concepts via aesthetics (or “riffs”, as Brown puts it) just seems a bit too easy – and, much more seriously, the end product is compromised as a result.

I suppose I'm a bit of a Platonist too in a very specific, methodological sense. Plato's dialogues are hard work. They are twisting, winding roads. There is no slick, smooth, polished superhighway in a Platonic dialogue (or, at least, there is none until the end – each dialogue is the construction of such a superhighway, a well-oiled cosmic escalator leading out of the cave). Contrasts and disagreements have to be worked through, there's no shortcut. Okay, interlocutors aren't all given a fair hearing, there are clear favourites, the field is tilted and the conclusion of the argument is usually fairly predictable. But the point is that the argument is worked through, it isn't just sketched out and put into circulation. Philosophy is a journey, a process, a travail – it isn't a product or a commodity. Yes, that’s the best word for it: philosophy is a travail in both senses of that word. It takes us back to the days when travel was hard work, when the roads were bumpy, muddy and potholed and, often enough, there were no roads at all. Philosophy qua aestheticism is an ironic, postmodern philosophy that skates about on the surface of concepts without giving a great deal of thought to what made that surface so smooth. It can be exciting, yes. Thrilling, in fact. But it’s like a sugar rush; it quickly gives way to fatigue and regret.

I suppose it would be unfair to hang this ‘philosophy qua aestheticism’ sign on Harman and Morton without a serious caveat. There is reasoning in their texts, undoubtedly. Genuine conceptual creation, too. There is philosophy. But I would agree with Nathan Brown, as I understand him, that there isn’t enough philosophy; that an interesting and suggestive lashing together of this and that is not enough; that difficult questions have to be worked through, they can’t be fobbed off; that superficial iterations of complex ideas is dangerous; that thinking of philosophical texts as objects in circulation does a tremendous disservice to philosophy. Every philosopher may lean on it to some extent but such freeform ice-skating can only go so far. If it isn’t held together by the laborious processes of philosophical reasoning, of whatever kind, then it produces texts that are shallow and misleading. And OOO, I would agree, sometimes skates too much and labours too little. That is what makes it so thrilling and wide ranging but it’s also what makes it oddly unphilosophical at times.

That said, OOOers are certainly not the only ones guilty of this sort of thing. Manuel DeLanda’s A New Philosophy of Society is a stunning book – stunning in part because it contains almost no philosophy whatsoever. Indeed, philosophy seems to be something he desperately tries to get out of the way early on so that he can get on with stitching together these concepts out of various elements of historical sociology. It’s an interesting and conceptually suggestive read but it’s not really philosophy as I'm prepared to understand it – it's more of a prolegomena to a new philosophy of society.

I’m about to read William Connolly’s new book The Fragility of Things (I’ve ordered it but it hasn’t arrived yet). While Connolly’s books are generally enjoyable reads I find them to be quite superficial (see his book Neuropolitics in particular – a text largely undeserving of its title). My preconception of this book is that it will largely follow the philosophy qua aestheticism scheme that I’ve outlined above. So, this isn’t something particular to OOO. I think it may have more to do this specific aspect of Deleuze, far from the best aspect, that has been extracted, simplified and rather impoverished – the idea of philosophy as the creation of concepts any-old-how.

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Latour, Diplomacy and Anarchism

There is a giant, bright red, stompy, irritable elephant at the centre of Latour's concept of diplomacy (or his version of it, anyway).  Here's how he defines diplomacy:
The present investigation is presented as a diplomatic enterprise in the sense that there is no outside arbiter - survival of the fittest, universal reason, state, law, laws of nature etc. In this case, for want of a "referee" acceptable to all, we must "retake language" and, with the aid of a minimal number of forms, organize identification and bring negotiable and non-negotiable positions into contact with each other.
In other words, we must henceforth be 'diplomats' because we no longer have 'nature' to appeal to as a sovereign that could decide disagreements for us.  Okay, but diplomacy is the practical response to the absence of a deciding sovereign.  What is the condition of having no sovereign to appeal to itself?  Anarchy.  So, whither anarchism?

Anarchism is a word conspicuous by its absence from Latour's entire corpus.  There are only a few mentions, all of them dismissive.  This is from a 1993 interview:
I think deep down, Feyerabend rendered a disservice to the history and philosophy of science. I don't take very seriously political anarchism, and I don't take very seriously anarchism in science because it is completely reactionary. Again, it is a debunking strategy, and all debunking makes people believe in the thing being debunked. The attitude of unveiling and denouncing the falseness of the scientific method always reinforces the argument of the scientist, so I think Feyerabend has been rather counterproductive. His is a constant negative argument that the true method is not there, which makes you believe it is important to find the true method. 
This denouncing presupposes the existence and importance of what is at stake, and I think Feyerabend has been fighting a nonexistent element from the beginning--in exactly the same way as political anarchism or Dadaism. It is very chic but finally not very interesting. Feyerabend is a critical mind and all critical minds are disappointed. Deep down they believe very seriously in rationality, and they have been disappointed--something has not happened as they believe it should have. Maybe they believed something in their childhood, never got it, and were consequently disappointed.
In Pandora’s Hope (p.298) he dismisses anarchism because despite “its beautiful slogan ‘neither god nor master’” […] it has always had one master, man!”  But that's about it for Latour on anarchism.  And this is hugely ironic because Latour's post-natural world is as anarchic an imaginarium as was ever conceived!  I think that this needs to be redressed.

One thing hampering Latour's diplomacy metaphor is that it is not anarchic enough.  It does not recognise quite how anarchic the world it is supposed to mediate has become.  If diplomacy is modelled after interstate diplomacy then it is conceptually inadequate because such diplomacy is premised upon sovereignty.  While there may be no sovereign 'above' the state diplomat there are sovereigns 'behind' each one.  There is anarchy but only 'outside' the state, in the domain of the international.  A very partial, limited state of anarchy - nothing like that chao-scape which Latour sets in front of us Earthlings.

Latour's political philosophy deliberately transcends the state, seeing it as one set of points along many political trajectories.  Okay, so he doesn't urge us to burn the state to the ground, far from it but it does become just one flawed institution among many.  'Latour the Anarchist' may be an ironic figure but he's far from an absurd one.

So, Latour's diplomats cannot be state representatives.  There is no more a sovereign 'behind' than there is one 'above.'  This is generalised anarchy.  There is no one to 'report back to.'  No sovereign to appeal to anywhere.  It is anarchy in the most pure sense.  Indeed, it is far more anarchist than the classical anarchists like Proudhon for whom Man was the sovereign from which all questions could answered and upon which all politics could be assembled.

The anarchy of the international is partial because it presupposes the National.  Classical anarchism's anarchy is partial too because it presupposes Man or Nature.  Latour's anarchy is total.  Can 'diplomacy' make sense of such a world?

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Having culture without bifurcating nature

Jeremy at Struggle Forever has a post on the social, culture and nature.  The first paragraph:
I’ve been following an interesting discussion of Facebook where Levi Bryant says that the way to eliminate essentialism is not to erase “nature” and make everything “cultural”, but rather to embrace “nature” and queer it. The discussion is largely conceptual and not worth rehashing here, but it did remind me of an issue I’ve been thinking a lot of lately. As a cultural anthropologist who works extensively with natural scientists, I walk this tight-rope a lot. We are continually trying to insert or tack on what is generally referred to as “the human dimensions” to environmental science projects. This is how it was with the invasive species project that I was working on and this is how it has been with many of the projects on which I and my cohort have been involved. “The human dimension” is secondary and often perfunctory rather than integrated and systematic. Nevertheless, we continue to try, going to great lengths to fully integrate our research with that of natural scientists.
It's an interesting question that I've thought a bit about recently.

What's unnatural about agriculture, horticulture?  Even if they're not natural in the strict, old school sense because they're human activities then they certainly blur the line.

The way I understand culture is simply as cultivation.  If culture is peculiarly human then it is mostly because it pertains to institutions that persist over time.  There is no isolated instance of agriculture.  If you don't collect the muck from your cattle and plough it into the fields at one time of year you can't harvest your crops at another time.  Other beings don't have such complex, long term or social activities like this.

But then again, don't squirrels collect nuts for winter?  That's simpler but is it so different?  Well, 'cultivation' implies a process that is cyclical and cumulative.  It builds year on year rather than being built up and then broken down again like a reserve of blubber.

Also, I suppose we can say that cultures are modes of human activity.  There were humans before agriculture and one doesn't have to be directly involved with agriculture to live now.  We might agree with Nietzsche that life without music would be an error but it wouldn't be the death of us.

Maybe squirrels don't have to collect nuts but can live off of discarded food in urban areas.  I'm not sure, I don't know a lot about squirrels!  But in that case then scavenging isn't really cultivating anything, it's just servicing a need.  And the modal requirement counts e.g. ants out of the equation.  Yes, they cultivate their empires in a sense but they have no real alternative.  That is what they do.

Culture is cultivation - a set of practices that relate to the beings that practice them as modes and need to be reproduced over time and space, looping back into themselves in a cyclical and cumulative fashion.  Still woefully inadequate as a definition but there's something there.  I'm just thinking 'out loud,' anyway.  There's definitely a way of conceptualising culture that doesn't destroy its usual meanings but doesn't bifurcate nature either.

'Homemaking' is a kind of cultivation, for sure.  Yes, there is a culture of domesticity.  Many cultures.  What cultures there are is an entirely empirical question.  The philosophical point is to transform the concept so that it (a) doesn't exist in opposition to nature (or anything else in any dualist fashion) and (b) doesn't deform so far from its conventional meanings that it becomes meaningless.  I.e. if music ceases to be thinkable as culture then the concept has lost value.

Politics of ontology/ontology of politics; The great wall of philosophy

Levi Bryant has a new post on the separation of politics from ontology:
Ontology is about what is, about what it means to be, how things are, and what types of things– in the broadest terms possible –are. At its best, it makes no claims about what ought to be. Rather, ontology is concerned with the being of beings in their pure beingness (how’s that for a sentence!). By contrast, politics is a machine that evaluates how things ought to be and develops strategies and techniques for attempting to bring this selection and arrangement of being into existence.
As I see it 'political ontology' can mean (at least) two things:

1. Politics of ontology: While I agree that the idea that politics can determine ontology is absurd it doesn't follow that ontology must be hermetically sealed from politics.  Any ontology can potentially be opened up to political criticism but political (or ethical) criticism alone is unlikely to constitute an effective critique.  Politics is a perfectly valid motivation for criticising an ontology but it must marshal more forces than 'ought' statements to be effective - and this is something that politics can do, of course.  The reduction of politics to 'ought' is a failure of the second possible meaning of this phrase:

2. Ontology of politics: Every politics assumes certain things to exist and to exist in a certain way.  Moreover, every notion of politics thinks politics itself to be a certain kind of thing.  It makes a huge difference whether 'the personal is political' or whether politics is just a matter of senators, MPs, parliaments, etc.  Also, it makes a huge difference whether classes, for instance, are real, historical forces or whether they are just figments of the imagination of 'bloody pinko commie femofascists,' or whatever.

Any ontology can have a politics read into it; any ontology can be said to have implicit political biases buried within it even if it doesn't declare any allegiances. This is the work of critique.  At the end of his post Levi writes:
We’ve gotten very good at denouncing, I think, but for the moment I think we would be far better served by plumbing these ontological issues.
I agree with this up to a point but politics is not ethics, nor critique, nor denunciation.  'Doing ontology' doesn't require a drastic separation of it from any of these things - ontology and politics can cohabit, albeit in a state of tension.

What is politics, then?  Ah, that's the corner I've painted myself into, isn't it?  Well, I've not got any satisfactory answers but, off the top of my head, it's something along the lines of: the practices by which human beings deliberately structure or liberally destructure their common relations of order and obeyance.  Inelegant, for sure, and maybe it begs more questions than it answers but the point is that this definition can be understood as involving ontology in all kinds of ways without determining it.  Politics is everywhere but it's not everything.  Its practical omnipresence is an historical a priori - the result of prodigious networking activities - not a metaphysical a priori - always already there, whatever anyone does or says about it.

So, politics is undoubtedly concerned with 'ought' but its practices are no strangers to 'is' - how could they be?  'This is the way that things are' is the political statement par excellence.  However, that doesn't mean that ontology can be dissolved into politics, only that the two things involve each other in all kinds of ways and that any ontology can be politicised via critical reading practices.

Those who would make the politicisation of ontology the only legitimate ontological reading practice are just textual vampires, draining all the life out of discourse.  However, those who would separate the hallowed lands of ontology from the barbarians of politics by some kind of great wall are kidding themselves - the urge to strictly separate ontology and politics is the deadest of dead-ends.

I suspect that Levi may agree with some of the above and I don't think that he's really a 'great wall' advocate as such but it does come across that way in his post.

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Peter Radford on Neoclassical Economics and Ideology

This is one of the best couple of paragraphs I've read on economics (and, indeed, ideology) in a while:
In the very long run there is no doubt, or ought not to be, that a decentralized economy produces better results than a centralized one. It can adapt better. It can innovate better. And it can thus grow better. What it cannot do, necessarily, is to allocate better. Yet, and this is the truly pernicious nature of modern orthodox economics, it is precisely it allocative power that modern theory lauds.  
Why is this? 
If you are trying to build an ideological defense of a particular worldview – in this case that markets ought to be left alone to get on with it – it is prudent to defend its weakest points mostly actively. This is the brilliance of neoclassical economics. Its entire edifice is built around ideas that make it appear as if markets will always outperform alternatives in the allocation of society’s resources. It does this by inventing and deploying specialized uses for common concepts like “efficiency”, and then restricting the set of assumptions used in the theory to ensure that it achieves its goals. Outside of academia most people don’t realize the extraordinary effort needed to distort the real world into conformance with neoclassical theory, they simply accept that, somehow, economists have “proved” the superiority of markets. They accept economics as being a sort of science, and that it has intellectual sincerity or objectivity.
Spot on.  The neoclassical economy's biggest weakness is the allocation of resources.  It turns that into its biggest strength by defining 'allocation' in a way completely contrary to how it should be defined.  Thus its own weakness becomes unthinkable in its own terms.

Philip Mirowski has made similar points and in this quite brilliant lecture he argues that neoliberals too (he distinguishes them from neoclassicals quite radically) are far more smarter than the left often give them credit for.  Their incoherences are an assemblage of great power.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Diplomacy and Ethnopsychiatry

Latour mentions the ethnopsychiatrist Tobie Nathan in AIME and also in his book Iconoclash. Here’s a section from a very interesting article by Nathan On Ethnopsychiatry:
[…] the traditional drama of a therapeutic session involves a patient and an expert: the former is an expert of his own affliction, the latter, an expert in Illness. The purpose of the dialogue is to bring the subject to realize that the expert is right, and that he, as patient, understands very little of what is happening within his own mind and body. The admission of a third person into this otherwise standard battle scene changes the interaction so that the dialogue no longer serves to establish which is of the two is right, but rather to find common ground. 
An example of this might be found in the case of an African immigrant, a Manjak man from Casamance, living in France. The patient, who claimed to be the ninth of 14 sons, had mourned the death of his eight older brothers, and was worried that he would be the next to die. “My eight brothers are gone,” he explained, “because my father sold all of his sons to a sorcerer in exchange for wealth and power.” A therapist, alone with the patient, would be inclined to think that this was what the patient literally believed, or that fear and anxiety were putting words in his mouth. The therapist might decide to focus on the patient’s latent aggressiveness towards his father, or delve into his past in other ways, merely as a result of dealing one on one with his patient’s words. On the other hand, the expert might choose to introduce a translator, another Manjak from the same region as his patient, to mediate between them. When asked to interpret, this third person (for this approach was indeed applied), answered that it was common in his home country, not to sell one’s sons, but to use this expression. In other words, the patient was speaking realistically, acceptably, but with the words of his own culture, which to a foreigner might sound delusional. It is irrelevant, at this point, whether the interpreter understands the patient’s past or his particular use of the expression; simply by intervening, this “mediator” enlarges the parameters of what is normal, thus introducing a dimension of the Possible where the cultures of patient and therapist overlap. His presence makes a peaceful agreement possible, when it might be said that psychotherapy is a form of conflict. In the war of psychotherapy, both parties oppose one another in order to prove which of the two is right. Translation, on the other hand, is peace, because it seeks means of sharing a world, or a common ground of language.
The resonance with Latour’s 'diplomacy' project is obvious. The whole thing is well worth reading.  It makes the whole fetishism/iconoclash thing make a lot more sense.

Friday, 1 November 2013

AIME Contribution #3: Have we ever been Moderns?

[…] It is entirely possible—indeed, it is already largely the case—that the West (Europe, at least, unquestionably) is finally in a situation of relative weakness. No more question of hubris; no more question of repentance. It is high time to begin to spell out not only what happened in the name of “modernity” in the past (a patrimonial interest, as it were) but also and especially what this word will be able to mean in the near future. When the incontrovertible authority of force is lacking, when it has become impossible to “steal history,” might the diplomats’ moment finally be at hand? 
This inquiry into values, as they have been extracted, cherished, misunderstood, mistreated, patched back together, and appropriated by the West as its patrimony, seeks to contribute to the planetary negotiation that we are going to have to undertake in preparation for the times when we shall no longer be in a position of strength and when the others will be the ones purporting to “modernize”—but in the old way and, as it were, without us! We shall claim, even so, that we have something to say about our values—and perhaps also about those of the others (but with none of the privileges of the old European history). In other words, “Occidentals” will have to be made present in a completely different way, first to themselves, and then to the others. To borrow the remarkable expression used in chancelleries, it is a matter of making “diplomatic representations” in order to renegotiate the new frontiers of self and other. (15)
I have a very simple yet fundamental objection: If it is true that the ‘former others’ are now modernising (extending the ‘modernisation front’) this must mean that ‘the Moderns’ are no longer exclusively Western (if they ever were). Therefore, using the words Modern, Western, European, Occidental and White interchangeably (as AIME does throughout) is damagingly inconsistent with the abstract definition of the Moderns as a “population of variable geometry” (8) with “no spatio-temporal limits” (V: The West) that is “defined by contrast” (V: Moderns/Modernization).

On the one hand, the Moderns are consistently defined in philosophical terms as those who bifurcate, as those who portion reality into only two modes: that of the subject and that of the object (this basic dichotomy in all sorts of guises and disguises). And yet, on the other hand, the Moderns are also repeatedly suggested to be Europeans and Westerners in territorial, historical, political and anthropological terms.  Whether or not this ambiguity is intentional it is a serious confusion right at the heart of the AIME project itself. I would go so far as to say that without resolving this conflict there is no possibility of the diplomatic summit convening at all.

First of all, let us note that it is entirely unproven that bifurcation as a metaphysical and political ruse was immaculately conceived in Europe. It seems to me, judging by how Bruno (are first names too casual and familiar for diplomatic discourse?) tells the story, that the godfather of the Moderns is Socrates. Is not Double Click, in many ways, the avatar of Plato’s dear mentor (or is it vice versa)?

The important point is that it is only ethnocentric prejudice that makes Socrates a ‘European.’ As John Hobson argues, the Ancient Greeks identified eastwards rather than towards the north-west.
[…] this view of a pure European Greece was decidedly not how the Greeks saw themselves. They viewed Greece as fixed firmly within what was known as the ‘Hellenic Occident.’ That Europe has always been an idea as opposed to a geographical ‘reality’ is reflected in the fact that ‘Europa’ herself was in Greek mythology the daughter of Agenor, King of Tyre, situated on the coast of Lebanon.” (John M. Hobson, The Eastern Origins of Western Civilisation, 227).
Indeed, transforming the ‘rational’ Greeks into ‘Europeans’ was one of the things that allowed early modern Europeans to imagine the East as being irrational and other. Europe bathed in Greece’s reflected glory and the histories of science and rationalism in India, China, the Islamic world and beyond were scrubbed out (e.g. Ehsan Masood, Science and Islam: A History).  What is all this if not "stealing history"?

The extent to which ‘the Moderns’ are genealogically rooted in the West is debatable, to say the least. But, regardless of the historical question, it seems manifestly self-evident that there are now non-Western Moderns. Indeed, Bruno admits as much in a recent interview:
[…] all of the others are modernizing in the most blatantly modernist unrepentant way: the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians. So actually, it’s interesting that you are doing an exhibition on animism, because it’s the spirit of the time, the Zeitgeist. It’s like ‘Iconoclash.’ Suddenly, the Europeans realize that, wait a minute, maybe we made a big mistake in attributing animism to the others. What happens if we have been animists, and in what way were we? Since we have agencies everywhere, we mix the agencies, we made a whole series of transformations about the agent, we added wings, and we took the souls out, and sometimes the opposite. We did all sorts of very, very strange things, and we turned to the others, who are no longer others, and what did they do? Well they modernized without any worry...
The amalgamation of Modern, Western, Occidental, European and White into a single figure is a mistake historically, philosophically and politically. It places ‘diplomacy’ on perilously swampy ground from the very beginning: Who are to make representations to whom? Who are the selves and who the others? The answers to these essential questions fall into a thick fog.

Many of the ‘former others’ – the elites, at least – are now emphatically Modern. Some of the ‘former others’ might be even more Modern than any of the Euro-Moderns ever were! ‘Capitalism with Asian values’ might be even more capitalist than its Euro-American peers! More than a few futurists have predicted that Singapore will become the politico-economic model for the rest of this century…

Regardless of such hypotheses, what is indubitable is that ‘capitalism with Asian values’ has only been possible due to a process of translation. Asian values and Western neoliberalism have been spun and entwined into a complex and explosively economically productive and politically transformative entanglement – a process that has been ably described by anthropologists such as Aihwa Ong (e.g. Neoliberalism as Exception: Mutations in Citizenship and Sovereignty). The Western version of capitalism has proved to be remarkably pliant and plastic in its march across the globe. Universal equivalency has come at the cost of intensive localisation – but that work has been achieved, no doubt.

Bruno is correct that the ‘former others’ can no longer be written off by Euro-Americans as ‘pre-modern.’ And this is indeed a most important geopolitical issue. But the fact that the many of the 'former others' are now Modern (a) demolishes the idea of Modern as synonymous with Western or European and (b) creates real problems for the idea of a grand summit over which we will discuss our values.

First, we must recognise that the others – “the Chinese, the Indians, the Indonesians” – cannot be negotiated with ‘directly.’ Diplomats represent kings rather than peasants, do they not?  Diplomats are agents of elites – the very same elites who may have become Modern. It seems that if we are to negotiate with the ‘former others’ we will have to do so through those ‘former others’ who have become most like 'us.'  Peculiar, no?

Secondly, even if ‘we’ could get non-elite others to the ‘negotiating table’ we cannot be sure that they would either have any interest in our rambling verbiage or would understand the process in anything like the same way as we do. What is a neutral, sedentary platform for honest and frank discussion for one group is a frightening, offensive and restrictive monstrosity for another. No, a table is never 'just a table,' no matter how much we all love to thump it so as to punctuate our rhetoric. I understand that the likes of Philippe Descola have made this criticism (p.88) of the diplomacy project before.

The third problem that the fact of the modernised ‘former others’ raises for the diplomacy project is the supposition that these ‘still-somewhat-others,’ even if we solve all the other problems, are going to present and propose to us radically different values, in spite of their being modernised to a greater or lesser degree. If their value systems have been infused with Western values via the often brutal translations of Western institutions and if they have internalised these values in various ways then who is to say which values are ‘theirs’ and which are ‘ours’? Is ‘capitalism with Asian values’ any less capitalism than its European or American forms? Are we to impose another kind of imperial exoticism in the form of a standard of authenticity where we would peel away the vales that the ‘we’ have ‘given them’ and try to uncover their ‘pre-modern’ essence?

Just how other are these ‘still-somewhat-others’? What if we find ourselves too much in agreement? And who are the Moderns, anyway? Have any of us, anywhere ever been Moderns?...

It seems to me that the Moderns are best thought of as being the masks, avatars or personas of Modernism. There has never been any single fleshy, individual homo sapien who was ‘a Modern.’  There are no distinct, simple, designatable citizen-units of the Modern nation.  The Moderns are not a people as such.  And yet, reading AIME, I am given the certain feeling that I have met these beings. I recognise this or that tendency in things that I have read, in people I have talked to.  I recognise particular gestures, repetitive arguments and familiar attitudes – indeed, I see these things all around me with great regularity.  I recognise large parts of my own self in the description of the Moderns! I can even pin down specific utterances, mark them with a highlighter and scribble in the margin: 'modern!!'.  However, I've never seen any one individual human being with 'Modern' emblazoned across their foreheads so starkly that I can think to myself 'ah, there goes one now!'

Moderns are perhaps circulating beings; they are never fully-formed, flesh-and-blood homo sapiens.  They gather, stick to one another, clump together and congregate but they never amalgamate into a population.  The Moderns are spectral...

So, my objection in brief: The terms Modern, Western, European and White can no longer be used interchangeably, if they ever could. Therefore, the assumption that it is Westerners who must ‘make representations’ to non-Westerners in order to facilitate a diplomatic dialogue of Moderns and non-Moderns is highly problematic.

I do not have any solutions at this point but I believe that I can offer a way forward.  The concept of diplomacy is, at present, a very 'thin' one.  From all the rich history of diplomacy-proper it absorbs only the bare fact that diplomats operate without any appeal to a higher power (under modern geopolitical conditions, anyway).  Diplomacy is a much finer and more fascinating inheritance than that.

As it stands at present the diplomacy metaphor appears inadequate for its task.  I do not know if it can be saved but I do know that it can be significantly extended.  However, that extension will have to follow on in a future Contribution.

AIME Contribution #2: Monty Python's 'All England Summarize Proust Competition' [FIC]

When I read this in AIME:
Since the dawn of time, no one has ever managed to summarize a work without making it vanish at once. Summarize La Recherche du temps perdu? [...] (243)
I knew I had to offer this as a Contribution!:

Is this a Contribution or a comment? Again, I hope that it is the former. It is obviously a humorous offering but it makes a serious point very well: Proust’s master-work defies summary but then so does Monty Python’s masterful deconstruction of summary itself. There is simply no substitution for submitting to the experience!

My next Contribution will be more substantial and critical.

AIME Contribution #1: "Skull of Homo erectus throws story of human evolution into disarray" [REF]

I've posted the following Contribution on the AIME website.  It draws on a recent news story.
A fascinating news story from the world of palaeoanthropology: the discovery of a skull that could, after further extensions of the referential chain, fundamentally transform the story of early human evolution. 
Here is the key quote: "Everything that lived at the time of the Dmanisi was probably just Homo erectus," said Prof Zollikofer. "We are not saying that palaeoanthropologists did things wrong in Africa, but they didn't have the reference we have. Part of the community will like it, but for another part it will be shocking news.""

Unwittingly, perhaps, but the researcher articulates the [ref] mode in its scientific form beautifully. The discovery will unleash deeply interested passions, both positive and negative! There will be anger, indignation, argumentation! But colleagues and predecessors are not portrayed as dopes who have no 'access to reality' or who are 'wallowing in a world of illusions'  they simply 'didn't have the same reference' that these researchers presently do.
I posted it in relation to this section on page 107 of AIME:
Here, too, this is very ordinary business: delicately placing a specimen brought back from an archaeological dig in a drawer lined with cotton is “putting into form,” since the drawer is marked by a label with a number that will make it possible to categorize the specimen, and the white cotton lining makes the specimen’s shape more visible (it was hard to make out when it was only a brown spot on brown soil). The drawer has its “tails” side—it takes in the fossil—and its “heads” side—the fossil receives a label and reveals its outlines more readily. Something like an ideography. A minuscule transition, to be sure, but indispensable in the long series of transformations that permit, in the end, perhaps, if the paleontologist is lucky, the reinterpretation of the fossil.
Does this qualify as a Contribution rather than a mere comment? I hope so. It is a small Contribution, for sure, but it is a nice example that fleshes out [ref] to some degree and demonstrates that, in practice, scientists do not usually refer to Science in order to win arguments.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

The 'small talk' of STS and ANT – Of trails, trials and travails

Jan posts some interesting comments on trends in STS/ANT:
[...] during the last few months I noticed that we in STS (and we as ANTers especially) have a tendency to talk small when talking big.
These tendencies involve denying that their approach is a theory or a method, using "thin concepts, modest methods, weak explanations" and then trying to articulate cases well but not 'get it right.'

Does the 'small talk' really denote modesty?  Perhaps.  But I think that perhaps it allows STS-ers to be sneaky!  To slink around, following their trails, trials and travails in ever more expansive and ambitious loops without being detected.  To keep their ambitions secret.  The quietest of coups.

The science warriors awake from their icy slumber

Nicholas at Installing (Social) Order reblogs an interesting story about Bruno Latour's receipt of the Holberg Prize.  This unspeakable crime against rationalism has perturbed some of the 1990s' most enthusiastic 'science warriors' from their slumber and prompted them to protest the award.  Latour is a relativist, they exclaim (again)!  And a Jacobite to boot!!

Hacks gotta hack, I suppose.

The irony of the science wars is perhaps that Latour et al. emerged stronger in many ways - not stronger than their opponents necessarily but stronger than they were themselves before.  A true trial.

Theory did get a bit carried away with itself in the early '90s and there was much in the damnations of Sokal et al. that was valid criticism.  However, whereas the likes of Latour internalised much of this criticism and came up with some pretty interesting answers (e.g. much of Pandora's Hope is an explicit reply to the science warriors and the AIME book, borrowing elements from Stengers' more avowedly realist, Whiteheadian philosophy, takes this even further) those on the other side are just beating the same old timeless drum.

As far as they are concerned intellectual history has ended.

They seemingly have no desire to engage with their opponents on any issue whatsoever.  Nothing less than total and complete capitulation will suffice.  Which only goes to prove the point the point that many people have made vis-à-vis scientism qua fundamentalism - that it's all about politics and has very little to do with science.

On strike

Today was the first day I've ever been on strike.  Until fairly recently I didn't have a job secure enough to strike over!

The higher education sector in the UK has had an average real terms pay cut of 13% over the past five years.  This year we were offered a 1% rise, up from 0.8% last year - way below the rate of inflation.  Another pay cut.  We're being expected to do more work for less money.  A familiar tale but no less wretched and unscrupulous for all that. 

It was an enjoyable experience if bloody cold.  The end of October is not a great time to be stood outside for hours in England.  But at least it didn't rain - we've had storms here in the past week!

The most interesting thing was watching people cross the picket line.  A pretty even mixture of genuine solidarity, polite tolerance, slightly bewildered indifference and barely veiled hostility.  The latter reaction was especially fascinating.  These sorts of moments reveal a lot about the people you work with.  Pigheaded, self-absorbed ignorance is a prevalent quality even among the highly educated - or perhaps I should say especially among the highly educated.

I learned that only about 20% of the university's employees are unionised, which is fairly average for the UK.  This figure chimes with my estimation of absenteeism on the day but probably only half that number participated in the pickets and demonstrations.  The rally at the university's main administrative building was impactful if not overwhelming.  The attitude of those who turned out was heartening and the rhetoric was enlivening.  The wonderful Professor Harriet Bradley spoke truth to power with inspiring vigour.  It was a reminder that there's life in academia yet, although most of her peers were conspicuous by their absence.  Champagne socialism is alive and well, also.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Politics has sharp edges; The good life is culture

I really hate definitions of 'politics' or 'political' that remove all its sharp edges, that make it smooth, rounded, honorific and wonderful.  Take this from a paper titled The Thing Called Environment:
[...] we use the adjective ‘political’ to indicate all aspects of human existence that are related to the question of the good life, which we thus regard as the ultimate political question. With the noun ‘politics’, we refer to the different processes through which the political is dealt with and it follows that ‘political agency’ and ‘responsibility’ are, correspondingly, understood in terms of shaping the good life.
Awful.  Just awful.  Politics is not a nice, cosy, cuddly sweater of a thing – or, rather, it rarely is.  Any politics of any consequence is going to make someone somewhere at the very least somewhat unhappy.  More often than not it is a fierce, fearsome battleground of vicious tongues and severed heads.  That is not what politics is but what it is most often.

That's why I recoil in horror every time someone says 'everything is political' – what a dystopian nightmare!!  Every affair of every heart, every soul, every crumb of everything a matter for the polis?  Thank goodness that's not even remotely true.  Every moment of every day of everyone and everything broadcast live to the hive mind of the omnipolis?!  It is a horror beyond imagining.

Those who would make the whole world from politics alone – or who would wish away everything that is not 'political' – leave me aghast.  Kafka, Huxley and Orwell all being worked to death in a Stalinist gulag couldn't come up with a more obscenely dystopian scenario.  And those who to attempt to dull politics' every edge, to sweetly scent its every malodour and to present it to us as something to be taken into our heart of hearts – these people may be well intentioned but that is the best that we can say of them.

No, what Goeminne and François are referring to isn't 'politics.'  I'd rather call it culture.
culture (n.) mid-15c., "the tilling of land," from Middle French culture and directly from Latin cultura "a cultivating, agriculture," figuratively "care, culture, an honoring," from past participle stem of colere "tend, guard, cultivate, till". The figurative sense of "cultivation through education" is first attested c.1500. Meaning "the intellectual side of civilization" is from 1805; that of "collective customs and achievements of a people" is from 1867.
Not culture in the childish, reductive sense of 'art and music and food and clothes and songs and poems and books and ...' but culture as cultivation.  Agriculture, horticulture, anthroculture.

The classic British sitcom The Good Life had a better idea of the good life than Goeminne and François' 'politics.'  A husband and wife who grow tired of life in the capitalist economy and attempt to live off of the land in their own back garden – growing vegetables, raising livestock, making clothes, bartering, making do.  Did their attempt to cultivate both their means of subsistence and their love for one another outside of the conventions of their society make them transcend politics?  Not at all.  But their most noble of endeavours – eking a living out of the very skin of the earth in a way that is consistent with care for all around them – is not 'politics' however you look at it.  In the end the outside world irrupts into theirs and dashes their tragically fragile lacework to nothing.  That is what you get for going it alone.  That is what you get for growing against the grain.  That is what you get for your counterculture – for your cultivations that run contrary to the political.

Yes, the good life is all about cultivation, nurturing, the production of the conditions for flourishing (or simply for getting by) – it's about culture.  Culture must pass by way of politics since it is too fragile to persist on its own but politics it is not.  Culture is the good life is ethics; politics is something else.  Politics has no moral compass of its own, no direction of its own – it must be directed.  Perhaps when politics takes culture as its compass – when politics is encompassed by culture and not the other way around – the outcomes are the best for everyone but to speak of politics as though it were culture misses the whole horrid underbelly – the underbelly that is shamelessly exposed more often than not.  Worse, it deprives politics of all the powers that could splint, ballast and mineralise culture – that could make it enduring, that could put bones beneath its aching, beautiful flesh.

"Politics have no relation to morals," wrote Machiavelli.  He should have written 'no necessary relation' – but aside from that he was right.  "When I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun" – when culture is encompassed by politics this is the result.

Understanding human speciation in a broader sense

In response to my last post on human exceptionalism dmfant writes:
going back to our being creatures of habit why isn't the differences in our response-abilities (our place in the family-rhizome), from other beings as human-beings, just a matter of evolution and adaptation/socialization?
Perhaps it is but which adaptations, which socialisations, which habits?  Which ones are particularly important?  Which are particularly destructive?

We can accept that we are the product of unexceptional processes and still ask how we exceptionalise ourselves within all of that.  While all living things are subject to evolution not every living thing shares the same evolutionary pathways.  If humans are a species then we can ask what it is about their pathways, in the ways they persist in particular, that is exceptional relative to other pathways, each of which is exceptional in its own way (Stephen Jay Gould was good on this kind of point).

So, we must ask not 'what distinguishes humans from all the rest of existence?' but rather 'what marks human pathways off from all the other pathways that all have their own particular qualities?'.

To believe that human being is so exceptional that it makes all other existents homogenenous by comparison is as foolish as it is dualist.  To believe that human being has its own qualities, its own resonant frequencies and that all other natural kinds (in all their fuzzy-edged glory) have their own characteristic kinds of resonance too is a pluralist tenet - and an entirely sensible one, in my view.  The search for only one exception - the human exception and the human exception -, the dualist task, is barbaric, as I have argued before.

Of course, no amount of exceptionality can extract us from our complex worldly relations.  If the Gaia hypothesis is true then we are inextricably bound up in not only evolutionary processes on the biological level but on practically every level - chemical, geological, atmospherical.  If we recognise that every atom in our bodies was once part of a star then this realisation is taken even further.

So, I suppose what I'm saying is that understanding human speciation (in a non-biologically reductive sense) is an ontological and political imperative.  It's a political imperative simply because 'knowing oneself' is an intrinstic part of subjectivation.  Becoming more human (not more than human), amplifying the best parts of the human condition, becoming alter-human - this requires a grasp of human speciation in the broadest possible sense.

Human exceptionalism

On the AIME reading group blog sam asks: "How else can we account for the uniqueness of human existence (if we can at all)?"

I’d say that we, as humans, can’t leave the uniqueness of human existence up to transcendental principles. If humans are unique it is because we make ourselves such – it’s down to what we do, not who we are (or, who we are is a result of what we do). So, the more valid question is: how do we exceptionalise ourselves (because surely we do)? And, if we answer that, we can then ask: how can we exceptionalise ourselves better (because surely we must)?

sam notes that "The hierarchy would not be simply given, but must be articulated through the cosmopolitical process of composition, which is to say, we have to make the truth (facere veritatem)."  That seems to be saying basically the same thing, although it implies a degree of self-awareness, deliberateness and futurity than differs from what I'm saying, which is that we already exceptionalise ourselves (and not just in our thoughts and self-representations) and we need to learn how to do this better.  The problem isn't the idea that human beings have unique qualities that must be understood, respect and celebrated, it is the belief that these qualities set us apart from the rest of existence - a practice that I have elsewhere called barbarism.

Is what we really need a kind of alter-humanism?