Cosmopolitics and reconstituting worlds; Concrete political clashes between worlds; 1995 majority of French population believes the future of their children to be worse than their own; the end of the trust in progress; Globalization; sacrifice for competition; Political Ontology; civilizing modern practices
What are concepts good for? Science wars—scientists and critical thinkers—rationality, universality; modern hegemony—knowledge cannot be about representation only
Concepts have a power; the self-confirming power of representationalism; the concept of practice is introduced to divide scientists (to break “Science” up); open up a space for thought in which the monolithic figure of objective knowledge is broken
Reformulating the claims of the sciences rather than directly denying them—situating objectivity as a rare achievement. The particular and exceptional nature of objective interpretation; the general reduction.
Disembedding what has to be enrolled as a witness. The production of reliable witnesses. The indifference of the prospective witness to the experimenters question. If the witness speaks for itself it is not a reliable witness.
If relevance—rather than knowledge—was the goal adventure rather than conquest may have been the outcome of experimental practices. Civilizing scientific practitioners. The creation of new adventurous questions. The idea of civilized practitioners is as speculative as the idea of “Political Ontology.” The concern for relevance is thwarted by the blind imperative for objective knowledge.
Knowledge Economy—knowledge is a matter of representation only, but not the kind of verification critical thinkers are after. Speculative economies, bubbles, and crash economies are taking control over the production of scientific knowledge. The machine may run without the need for reliable knowledge.
The question of an ecology of knowledge or of practices is a question of a political and practical struggle against that which is destroying all practices. How can this ecology—a capacity to link; to present oneself in a civilized way—extend to other than human persons?
Can we avoid the curse of tolerance? “We know better, but just have to ignore those others.”
Are we able to admit that we are bound to coexist with others—Pachamama—beings who have their own ways of demanding consideration.
This is beyond separating scientific practices from general knowledge. “Politics” in its Greek sense is maintained—a gathering of people congregated to discuss an issue. “Cosmos” is there to signify the limitations of this political process.
Other than human entities enter the political scene. Partial connections liable to articulate divergent worlds. Marisol and political ontology. Marisol wants to ontologize politics and interrogate the link between diplomacy and politics. Other than human entities are to be recognized as political protagonists. A radical re-invention of politics that bears on ecology/equality.
Equality and homogeneity of the space that gathers a political community. Extended to the spokespersons for nonhuman communities. Things defined as a matter of collective concern. Bruno Latour; entangled realities of things. Isonomia; more than human world vs. other than human entities.
Matters of belief; matters of concern. We may all agree that the earth has been mistreated; we may all suffer the consequences of modern irresponsibility. Paying attention to what has been recklessly ignored. Slowing down in order not to reduce more than human entities.
The challenge of animism. The entities themselves; taking seriously the commandment “not to regress.” The ecology of practice and cosmopolitics complicate the meaning of this statement. Not in a world that is mute, but is more than human. Negotiating the consequences of an other than human injunction. Reverse cosmopolitics.
The challenge of animism is the point where a strange equality is achieved.
Only a naturalist would organize into Descola’s categories. Organizing schemes; neuronal attractors.
Deleuze/Guattari—Rhizomes; ecological anarchy; heterogenous practices; not a free for all; the connections must be effectively produced. Scientists as diplomats creating rhizomatic links. Conflicting ontologies.
The challenge of animism could be evaded by the power of the injunction if the injunction is given a more than human power. More than human entities have to be recognized so that they do not become overpowering. We are demanded to feel that we feel the high responsibility of determining what it is that really exists and does not exists
Those who claim to be animists—that say that rocks really have soul, power, purpose etc.—have no real word for “really.” The “do not regress” commandment and the statement “other than human entities really have power.”
Reclaiming means recovering what we have been expropriated from and that we have to recover from this expropriation. “Do you really believe in . . . ?”
The smoke of the burned witches still hangs in the streets. Those witch hunters are no longer in the streets, but are replaced by the modern pride that we are able to determine by ourselves what really exists. We are the heirs of social and cultural eradication in the name of civilization.
The point is not to feel guilty. But, following William James, to open up a “genuinely” effective option. Starhawk: claiming the past is not a return to an authentic past, but learning to feel the smoke; to reactivate memory and imagination. Respective milieus.
Those who sneer and those who are sneered at.
Is it possible to reclaim animism? The other than human entities really exist. David Abram. Animism is no longer here an anthropological category. Not reducing the craft to a matter of illusion(ism). If there is an exploitation it is the magician himself who is exploited. Senses for participating in the metaphoric capacity of things. The flux of participation. We are a particular kind of animist. Animated by signs, and animating them. The spell of written text; the alphabetic text as able by itself to experience strange scenes and other lives.
The compulsive insistence on either/ or attitudes. Writing is an experience of metamorphic transformation. The idea requires some bodily contortion; assemblages; a coming together of heterogeneous components. The manner of my existence is my participation in assemblages. Animation; agency; desire; assemblage; reflexivity; the experience of detachment. What is really responsible for what?
Assemblages and William James’s radical empiricism. Not experience as critically purified—subject and experienced object. Relating animism, assemblages, and radical empiricism is a dangerous move because it may appear to comforting. We are pondering experiences other people have written down.
The erotic power of ideas animating the human soul (Plato). Imperfect realization. The possibility of imperfect realization; not knowing the search that animates us. Metamorphic sources make themselves felt. The violent history of ideas.
How can we grant this kind of intentionality to other beings? The text imposes itself as an entity of human province only. Animism is a typical anthropomorphic fantasy.
Improvising words—words with academic restriction. “Magic”—of an event, landscape, music—protected by “metaphor” it is safe to use. Ignoring that we are interfused with something else that may or may not be intentional (we do not really care whether the interfusion is intentional or not).
The sad monotonous voice instructing us not to become mystified. The role of illusions. The craft of magic. Naming it such is in itself an act of magic; conjuring a sense of discomfort associated with the word. How can we accept such a return to supernatural beliefs?
Fictions have a power to shape us—to empower or enslave us. “Fiction” is a poor defense against the shaping power.
Empirical practices of immanent attention. Whitehead and diagnosis. Toxicity. Contemporary witches are radically pragmatic. Interpreted in terms of assemblages. Does change belong to the goddess-as-agent, or to the
If magic is to be reclaimed as an art of participation then assemblages are reframed as empirical.
Disloyal fabulation. Discreetly dismantling academic habits. Confusing the gaze of inquisitors. New habits of knowing what makes us think and feel differently.
The west and the rest. The devastating machine now destroying even the sciences. Equality; all peoples cultivate a manner of animism. Living together or becoming-together. Agents for anti-colonial alliance. Treaty making is not a new universal in a world where many worlds may exist. Not the west and the rest. Treaty bound.
Civilizing the demanding power that commands us not to regress. Immanent attention. Speculative Fabulation; participating in political ontology after learning to relate to the more than humans that make us a people. Politics with the metamorphic efficacy of rituals. Situated by that which one cannot betray without losing one’s soul. An ecology connecting milieus; animating in order to be animated.
Isabelle has given us a kind of a feast which is impossible to comment upon. Some kinds of questions that may provoke certain kinds of conversations I would like to see enabled.
SF; speculative fabulation; string figures; animating cosmopolitical critters. Scientific fact. Science fiction. Speculative Feminism. Its temporality is “So far . . . “ To produce with another; to jest; speculative joking—serious joking.
It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories. Marilyn Strathern. Working by partial connections; analogy. Two dissimilar things held together not to find common identity or differences but to let them systematically exam one another.
THINKING THOUGHTS WITH THOUGHTS
Not to establish what is true, but what is happening reciprocally. Indigenous politics. Cosmopolitics. These words are swirling among us. Ordering avalanches of data.
Graphing SF. Psychotic tree structures in their lines of transfecting; transforming. Cat’s cradle figures. This kind of art depends on the machine. Incredibly competent digital transmogrification.
The gift of symbiosis that the bacteria provide the earth. Over the chemical top-ness. Homages to the gift of symbiosis; multi cellularity, The peopling of the earth; the other than human peopling of the Earth. The level of detail at which we are all lichens. The challenge of animism.
Urusula Le Guin. The Word for World is Forest. How Forests Think. Freud. The practice of lucid dreaming. Infecting the imagination with color.
Isabelle Stengers’s cosmopolitical critters are IDEAS. The doings of ideas populate the territory. Taking her ideas seriously. Otherwise she is completely incomprehensible.
Isabelle is a craftspersons (philosopher) for the building of the lures of propositions for abstractions. Not “mere” abstractions. The building of abstractions that hold worlds together—fragile, more than humans, other than humans, not methodological individualism. Abstractions coming together like Margulis’s endosymbiotic critters.
This is the kind of work that Isabelle does. What kind of FRIGHT is she trying to make available to us? Some kind of reclaimed other-than-human. [What trouble is Donna trying to evoke]
Isabelle is concerned with the phrase “concrete situations.” The really real. The actual etc. (Marisol challenging Isabelle). What is the suspicion of concrete situations? One of the most important things in Isabelle’s cosmpolitics is the outcome of experimental scientific achievements. Science’s experimental achievements—scientists at risk to materials, answers, colleagues, other stake holders, agnostics—something that holds is a radically pragmatic, full of consequences, agonistic achievement.
Concrete situations have a kind of “LAND HO!” — tell me what’s really in play here. If you have “good will” any one can describe in plain language what’s really happening. Isabelle thinks this is plainly neurotic. [Concrete situations are outcomes not givens?]
Isabelle is concerned with the uncritical “concrete situation.” That you can just be “clear” about what you mean and what’s happening. Here we run into a forest of odd terms—humans and nonhumans—they seem to inhabit (can be made to inhabit) the once Euro West. The experimental practices are not born of Western worlds alone. Greece is not the birthplace of Europe. [There is not a disagreement here—this is a false problem Haraway and Stengers do not need to debate].
Choreographed and complex relationships between humans, machines, bosons, horses, inclined planes, archived mouse parks, mice, etc. can count as nonhumans. Collectively these are more than human in Isabelle’s lexicon. Other than humans seem to do something else (Or “earth others”—Val Plumwood). The other than human; there’s trouble there. It doesn’t seem to be includable within cosmopolitics or the more than human.
Thou shalt not regress. The problem of animism. Why are we back in the language of colonial developmentalism? Descola’s semiotic square. The technology of the square. Isabelle is suspicious of generalizing a “developing organism.” Why has Isabelle set up the problem in this way? Isabelle is saying hold still; we’re going to honor this commandment.
Haraway: The problem of animism should not be posed as question of development or regression. This should not hold so much weight. Isabelle’s demands are more interesting and complex than this. Relations between the indigenous and cosmopolitics. Indigenous cosmopolitics. Is this oxymoronic?
Some kind of politics as usual has been suspended when a mountain is made visible—and made visible by a specific person who can make it visible—in politics. Cuzco. Confrontations. Forceful entities making claims on everyone—whether you believe in them or not. Forces are making demands in ways that are rather recent, or in some aspects are recent, and are consequential for (maybe) reconstituting worlds.
Isabelle is a radical pragmatist; we share the same enemies. Humans and their machines are a “people” where intentional individuals play a very small role.
Isabelle’s language is anti-inflammatory and immune system boosting, rather than something that should give me allergies. Isabelle and I share the same enemies: the notion of ecological services; knowledge economy; truth over illusion; the power to dispel others of their illusions in the interest of my truth because I have given myself that power.
Moments of literalization that claim to speak for the really real—whether or not they are spoken by Europeans or not.
What should be understood in the “Thou shalt not regress” is not whether sentient mountains really exist, but not sorting out whether or not sentient mountains exist. The point is to leave alone the sorting. Civilizing won’t work either. We cannot pronounce what exists and what doesn’t. Or what is truth and illusion; these separations are part of eradication—mountains, ideas, soils, practices. The power of extermination, genocide, and sorting.
To reclaim, but not to restore. Reformatting and reclaiming and SF. What comes into the world that way and whether one throws one lot in with it. Zoo. Ooz. Open structures of participation. Who leaves is not under your control. Whoever you are. The power to leave is very important to everything Isabelle means by politics.
Metamorphic transformation. Recognizing what animates us. What Isabelle is asking is that we be with those who share practices of disloyal fabulation. We have to actually experience transformative fright. The world we thought was there is not. It undoes what we thought we were. Worlding vs. ontology. What is and what is not. Who is using ontology how? Isabelle does not use ontology in order to sort.
The history of heresy. Rooting out heretics. The forced act of belief. Coerced belief. Deeply felt belief can still be coerced. “I believe . . .” is a very Christian—not Greek or Jewish—thing to say. The Christianization of the Greeks.
There are ways in which Isabelle and I [Donna Haraway] are barely secularized. Is indigenous cosmopolitics an oxymoron? Different uses of ontology. Powers acting, pressing, having affects, whether or not anyone believes in them or wants them to. “Sentience” is a very baggage filled word.
Producing a powerful fright with “Thou shall not regress.” Radical pragmatism and opening to experimental situations.
Killing and “carrying capacity.” The failure to put together ontological politics. Destruction of Navajo land and sheep.
Q & A
Ideas are critters to be honored and feared. The invention of humans. Whitehead and Plato. This is another aspect of ideas. “Human” is an idea; a soul animated by ideas. We are the people of ideas. Ideas may have the status of other than human beings, and the problem is knowing them. They are dangerous; more complicated than us fabricating them. The fury of an imperfect realization of ideas. The westerners who see themselves as “the people” or “human” and not among other people.
The point is not to honor the “do not regress” command, but to take it as a divine power that marks that we have not honored or received what makes us human. It is important that we honor or learn to receive. If we re-member that we were made humans, than we can acknowledge that others are made otherwise. We cannot dream of a freedom from the “do not regress.” Super market spirituality (“no limitations”).
Oncomouse. The first patented animal. An instance of cyborg; a particular kind. Oncomouse as who am I; the implosion of propriety forms; sacrificial surrogacy; detailed technical knowledge; practical relationality with flesh. A non-optional origin story of who we are. Oncomouse is a little bit like Plato’s human; Linneaus’s homo sapiens. Somehow Oncomouse is now a player in the world of ontological politics and cosmopolitics. She is my sister. You can’t repudiate her.
Your [Isabelle’s] relations to proprietary biology do not work for me.
Oncomouse is a victim of worse and worse science.
I don’t think that’s true. I think you like it less and less. The proprietary issue; the financialization of biology etc.
Oncomouse is part of my world.
I think you become a critic when money enters biology.
I would fight my own indigenous politics against the knowledge economy
I think I’m more worried about Plato . . .
Patents do not need reliable knowledge. Just correlations that can be appropriated. Oncomouse may be my sister, but she has been misused.
Well . . .
[Questions/comments—Marisol de la Cadena].
Cosmopolitics as slowing down of political good will.
Abstractions are very concrete.
Time: 4:00 PM – 7:00 PM Location: Multipurpose Room: Student Community Center
Speaker: Isabelle Stengers, Free University of Brussels Interlocutor: Donna Haraway, UC Santa Cruz
This is part of the 2012-2013 John E. Sawyer Seminar on the Comparative Study of Cultures “Indigenous Cosmopolitics: Dialogues About the Reconstitution of Worlds”
This year long seminar will convene an interdisciplinary and international group of renowned scholars to discuss comparatively the innovative world-making possibilities that might emerge from the conceptual and political interrogation of the division between nature and culture that organizes modern life. Our guests–sociologists, philosophers, anthropologists, literary critics–work on science and technology studies, environmental studies, indigeneity, critical design studies, and feminism.
This event is sponsored by Anthropology, DHI, STS, CSIS, and LGBTRC
Andre Ling links us to a very interesting interview with Isabelle Stengers where in part she writes: “One way of articulating what I do is that my work is not addressed to my colleagues [laughs]. This is not about contempt, but about learning to situate oneself in relation to a future—a future in which I am uncertain as to what will have become of universities. They have already died once, in the Middle Ages, with the printing press. It seems to me that this is in the process of being reproduced—in the sense that they can only exist as diplomatic institutions, not as sites for the production of knowledge. Defending them against external attacks (rankings, objective evaluation in all domains, the economy of knowledge) is not particularly compelling because of the passivity with which academics give in. This shows that it’s over. Obviously, the interesting question is: who is going to take over [prendre le relais]? At the end of the era of the mediaeval university, it was not clear who would take over. I find this notion compelling.”
Levi Bryant has posted some reflections on the deployment, evolution, and potential shortcomings of the term “correlationism.” It’s an interesting read that covers some of the more baffling developments and associations that have become attached to this oft-quoted term, and the post has me reflecting on the impact that correlationism — and its adjacent speculative realist movement — has had on my own thinking. Now, I don’t use the term correlationism very much, almost never actually, and I don’t really consider myself to be a “speculative realist,” whatever that might mean, but I have been involved in my fair share of discussions surrounding both so it’s not like I’m divorced from these terms either.
In the first place correlationism is, for me, a problem that I have to get into rather than one I have to get out of. This has to do with the fact that my two largest intellectual influences — the sciences of ecology and speculative philosophy — both start off from a radically different position than those for whom correlationism is a problem, and for whom the critique of it is an innovation. That’s not to say that correlationism doesn’t usefully describe a particular set of philosophies, or that the responses the concept has generated are simple, unnecessary, or unhelpful. Rather, I’m trying to emphasize that correlationism is a concept that has emerged historically within the context of a very specific set of discursive circumstances, and that there are other discourse communities, other ecologies of thought and ideas, for which correlationism wasn’t the problem or tradition of thinking that needed to be challenged or overcome. I just happen to belong to one of those traditions within which correlationism might never have emerged as a topic of consequence.
But if correlationism is not a term I readily use, and not a problem I was trying to solve, what has correlationism done for the work I am doing? The answer is that it has made possible a greater variety of discussions with a greater variety of people. The concept of correlationism has redistributed discursive relations amongst philosophers. In my case it has increased my ability to dialogue with people working within continental philosophy, and made it possible for me to engage these traditions in a much more complex way than was previously possible. However, even here the contribution of correlationism has to be thought within a larger ecology of knowledges, and within a movement towards speculative philosophy emerging in continental circles more generally. This movement seems to have had something of a slow build over the past few decades, but surely we can point to a kind of Deleuzian moment with an epicenter radiating out somewhere around the publication of Difference and Repetition in 1968 (and even earlier with his recovery of Henri Bergson in Bergsonism). Surely a more robust genealogy would reveal an even more distributed build through time.
The situation today is quite different. Indeed, we can now name a whole litany of new speculative texts in addition to those directly associated with speculative realism. Here we can mention Isabelle Stengers’ book Thinking With Whitehead, which has clearly had a huge impact on the way Whitehead is read in France and elsewhere, as well as Steven Shaviro’s book Without Criteria, which as had a very profound effect on my understanding of Kant, Deleuze, and Whitehead, and has opened up new avenues of discussion between continental and speculative philosophy. We’ve also seen works like Nature and Logos, which draws connections between Whitehead’s speculative philosophy and Merleau-Ponty’s later philosophical research. There’s also been a renewed interested in older texts like Gabrial Tarde’s Monadology and Sociology. And There’s still much more on the horizon — the english translation of Bruno Latour’s An Inquiry into Modes of Existence for instance. There are countless more examples we could list.
All of these works point to an interesting shift, not just in continental theory, but in the ecosystems of thought that are now capable of interacting and mutating with one another in general. A new phase of parasitism and symbiosis has begun, and I think that the truly interesting syntheses of these disparate figures still lay ahead of us. Within this broader shift towards speculation correlationism has acted as a kind of rallying point in otherwise loose ecological zones. Here the object “correlationism” must be thought of as a conceptual actor with the agency to produce different kinds of discursive effects structurally coupled with different kinds of media. So even if it’s not a concept I hang my hat on every night it is one that has directly impacted the ecologies of knowledge in which I participate. At the end of the day it’s the increase in dialogue with a more diverse group of thinkers, a dialogue that I can attribute to this word “correlationism,” that I think has had the most impact on my work, rather than the problems to which the concept itself refers.
From now on, politics is something entirely different from what political scientists believe: it is the building of the cosmos in which everyone lives, the progressive composition of the common world (Latour: 2004). What is common to this vast transformation is that politics is now defined as the agonizing sorting out of conflicting cosmograms (Tresch: 2005). Hence the excellent name Isabelle Stengers has proposed to give to the whole enterprise, that of cosmopolitics, meaning, literally, the politics of the cosmos (Stengers: 1996) – and not some expanded form of internationalism (Beck: 2006).
For the past several years I have devoted significant portions of my time to understanding what I now view as an experimental investigation into the ontological status of ideas, concepts, and knowledge. The phrase I have given to this project — “Knowledge Ecology” — has been traveling with me since around 2007 when I first began formulating my thesis that knowledge and its relation to knowers has a predominately ecological character. In 2008-2009 I began my first attempts at composing a proposal for my M.A. thesis. I wanted to link natural, social, and humanistic sciences into a transdisciplinary framework united by the principles of ecological and evolutionary thinking. My thesis then, which I still largely hold to, was that, in order to make sense of — and in order to meaningfully intervene on — the human situation, we need to understand the constitutive role played by three interdependent ecological domains: natural ecologies, media ecologies, and knowledge ecologies. (I have since dropped the phrase “natural” in order to separate the scientific principles of evolutionary ecology from the homogenizing and hetereonormative implications often associated with deployment of “natural” categories of anything.)
The above diagram represents my latest effort to understand the conceptual force of knowledge ecologies visually. The diagram draws from two primary sources: Alfred North Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature and Bruno Latour’s critique of the split between Nature and Culture diagnosed in We Have Never Been Modern and The Politics of Nature. The horizontal axis represents the belief that the world is split into two types of qualities, primary and secondary. The vertical axis represents the belief that the world is further split between two poles, nature and culture. The intersection of these two axes results in the separation of facts and values at an ontological level. My thesis is that this conceptual arrangement has affective force independent of its logical content. In other words when we think about knowledge ecologically we have to understand it in terms of it as a being-productive-of-affects in addition to its being-as-statement-of-truth. The cosmogram has agency insofar as it enforces certain regimes of truth at the expense of others, and acts as a tool by which societies feel justified in legislating claims about philososphy, politics, bodies, health, ecology, religion, and the nature of human experience.
Some of these affects are as follows. In the wake of the bifurcation of nature modern humans — and all beings capable of sense, really — are relegated to a secondary status. We remain second class citizens (a phrase I picked up from Terrence McKenna) in a worldview dominated by the apartheid of sense and being; the one possesses all of the qualities, value, and experiences but enjoys no ontological reality; the other enjoys ontological reality but has no foothold in the everyday experience of living things. I have noted this state of affairs in the upper-right hand corner of the diagram (“Politics but not facts; values but no truths”) and the bottom-left hand of the diagram (“Facts but no values; truth but no politics”). This state of affairs is terrible news for politics which must integrate the knowledge acquired through the third-person objective scientific understanding with the first-person morals, aims, and needs of concrete life.
The goal of political life, as I see it, is the struggle to compose a common world — a public in Latour and Dewey’s sense of the word. On one level this requires that we generate a completely different kind of cosmogram to help us forge and deploy new social relations. For my part, I think that in order to design more meaningful multispecies collectives of humans and nonhumans I believe that part of our work must be to investigate the nonhuman world of cosmograms, and to develop more sophisticated theories regarding our understanding of how sensitive, vulnerable, and plastic the human psyche is. We are beings amidst ecologies of shellfish, coral, and oak trees, but also ecologies of extraordinarly subtle and distributed cosmograms as well. As Latour says in the epigram at the top of this post, this work is in part “defined as the agonizing sorting out of conflicting cosmograms,” and, I would add, the production of new ones as well.
I will be giving a talk this Thursday (10-18-12) on Isabelle Stengers’ book Thinking with Whitehead. My lecture is part of a 15-week graduate seminar on Bergson, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Stengers being taught at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
My talk will focus on (briefly) situating Whitehead within the contemporary philosophical landscape, and will then move on to discuss Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature as articulated in his work The Concept of Nature (which takes up the first 100 or so pages of Stengers’ book). There will of course be plenty of input from Stengers included as well.
It’s been quite a lot of fun re-reading Stengers’ book with an eye to explaining the concepts she covers to students unfamiliar with them. On my first read of the book I remember feeling that this book is best suited for more advanced students of Whitehead — a work best enjoyed after reading many of Whitehead’s primary texts. This time around, however, I found Stengers much more accesible, but maybe that’s just my increased familiarity with her style.
For those interested a draft of the paper I will be working from is available HERE.
Andre Ling seems to be laying down a very fruitful path in his latest series of posts (first here and second here). Andre shares with me an awareness that there is a dormant connection between object-oriented philosophy and what Isabelle Stengers calls “cosmopolitics” that can and should be awakened. In my essay submission for O-Zone: Journal of Object-Oriented Studies I am tracing a similar path as Andre, and I continue to be impressed with the way he is building the connections necessary for an applied object-oriented cosmopolitics (something Andre references with the term “empirical ontology”– perhaps a phrase not so different from Latour’s “experimental metaphysics” introduced in The Politics of Nature).
The sciences, through cosmopolitics, are thus engaged in a “symbiotic agreement” with other modes of knowledge and other communities of entities. The symbiotic agreement is “an event, the production of new, immanent modes of existence, and not the recognition of a more powerful interest before which divergent particular interests would have to bow down” (2010, 35). Cosmopolitics calls societies of humans and nonhumans to produce a mode of “reciprocal capture,” pointing to the “coinvention of identities,” in which the life sciences, ecology in particular, play a large role in creating and sustaining new modes of existence amongst beings (e.g., through technology, medicine, and genetics). Thus Stengers:
I have called “cosmopolitics” the kind of experimental togetherness that makes peace a challenge and not the condition for a polite conversation…. The prefix “cosmo” takes into account that the word common should not be restricted to our fellow humans, as politics since Plato has implied, but should entertain the problematic togetherness of the many concrete, heterogeneous, enduring shapes of value (SMW, 94) that compose actuality, thus including beings as disparate as “neutrinos” (a part of the physicist’s reality) and ancestors (a part of reality for those whose traditions have taught them to communicate with the dead) (2002, 248-249).
Stengers’ move is to examine the proliferation of multiple sciences and their effects in the world. This examination aims to produce an ethical relation to science, and epistemology in general, in order to create democratic, cosmopolitical relationships alongside of the generation of new scientific concepts.
From the cosmopolitical view, scientific knowledge making, as described by Stengers, is primarily a creative endeavor that situates scientific knowledge as a productive enterprise that generates new insights, objects, and perspectives (2010). The conception of science as a generative enterprise requires, according to Stengers, an “ecology of practices,” which situate scientific knowledge making in terms of its effects on other communities of humans and nonhumans, in addition to its truth value (2010 pp. 32-40). Stengers suggests that ecology has a dual meaning, one scientific, the other political (2010 p. 32). Ecology, in the political sense means that: “Ecological practice (political in the broadest sense) is then related to the production of values, to the proposal of new modes of evaluation, new meanings…they are about the production of new relations that are added to a situation already produced by a multiplicity of relations” (2010 p. 32). The ecology of practices is a call to understand the way in which science is ethically situated within a complex and “entangled coexistence” (2010 p.34) that implicates scientists and nonscientists, humans and nonhumans. For Stengers, “ecology is, then, the science of multiplicities, disparate causalities, and unintentional creations of meaning” (2010 p. 34).
“From now on, politics is something entirely different from what political scientists believe: it is the building of the cosmos in which everyone lives, the progressive composition of the common world (Latour: 2004). What is common to this vast transformation is that politics is now defined as the agonizing sorting out of conflicting cosmograms (Tresch: 2005). Hence the excellent name Isabelle Stengers has proposed to give to the whole enterprise, that of cosmopolitics, meaning, literally, the politics of the cosmos (Stengers: 1996) – and not some expanded form of internationalism (Beck: 2006).”
There is a curious moment in Modes of Thought (1968) where Whitehead writes, “The distinction between men and animals is in one sense only a difference in degree. But the extent of the degree makes all of the difference. The Rubicon has been crossed” (p. 27). The question that always strikes me when reading this passage concerns exactly what worlds the “Rubicon” is connecting. Where — or amidst what — were beings situated before the Rubicon was crossed? What kind of ecology are humans situated amidst after having crossed the Rubicon? What is the Rubicon itself made from — what kind of structure does it have? Where did it come from?
Is the question of Science (with a capital “S”) indicative of a certain misrepresentation of knowledge, politics, and composition? The question is itself an orientalizing one since it fails to establish which science, who’s common practice, and what intellectual climate. Being a good critical thinker one might then transition “Science” to “sciences” in order to do better justice to a heterogeneous series of distributed experimental, technical, political, and intellectual practices. But is pluralizing the term enough? What work is actually done by pointing towards the multiplicity, contingency, entanglement, and fragility of scientific practices? Donna Haraway (who’s name in this context will no doubt evoke mixed feelings) was the first person I heard point out that objectivity—that rare and vaunted diamond of knowledge—was in fact a very scarce resource in scientific practices, highly sought after, rarely achieved, and far reaching in its consequences (how hard it is to undo something once labeled objective!)
I think Haraway is right on two fronts: 1) the kind of objectivity achieved by various practices of science is, in an ontological sense, a true achievement (i.e., it tells us something significant about stars, planets, helium, and lithospheres), and 2) objectivity is always a hard fought, and difficult thing to produce. But objectivity is one of those words that can leave philosophers stumbling to define. Part of this is comes from the word “objectivity” itself which, in its every invocation, already pits one kind of knowledge against all others. I’m particularly interested in how one might formulate an understanding of knowledge—including, but not limited to scientific knowledge—within what we can all Graham Harman’s “withdrawal thesis.” The charge might be made that, because no mode of being or knowledge reaches the core of Harman’s “real objects,” all knowledge claims become equally valid since all fail equally at arriving at true knowledge of a real object. Unruly waters here folks.
If—and it’s a big if—withdrawal necessitates an ontological relativism of all knowledge claims (a “flat epistemology,” to borrow a term from Terrence Blake) we would land in a shaky relativism, both in terms of the question of science and the development of knowledge in general. Clearly, this is not a desirable position to be in with regards to ethics, politics, and science. However, I think the answer to the question is, “No—withdrawal does not necessitate a flat epistemology.” To reach this conclusion I argue that Harman’s withdrawal thesis (and his metaphysics in general) cannot be understood without some working knowledge of one of Harman’s great inspirations—Bruno Latour —and that the process of adjudication between knowledge claims is explicitly arrived at (for Harman) from Latour. Latour’s criteria for knowledge, as we know, come from the applied notions of composition and political art. The epistemic and the political must be composed and the criteria for the composition is doubly political and aesthetic insofar as what gets taken up in composition must (a) resist the trials of strength put against the knowledge claim, and (b) represent the interests of the various actors in question (which, as we also know, can be human or nonhuman for Latour). The central problem of composition is then not just one of resistance to trials of strength (which are necessary to evaluate the claim) but of mediation and translation between actors (who are implicated in the process of knowledge production).
The prolonged engagement Harman has had with Latour (e.g., the published dialogue recounted in The Prince and the Wolf and in Harman’s overview in Prince of Networks) indicates that Harman is well aware of the implications his ontology has for the knowledge making practices of the sciences. In accord with Latour’s own method, Harman has chosen to follow the actors-themselves to arrive at his version of an object-oriented philosophy, and its controversial claim of withdrawal along with it. This reframing of the Latourian strife between actors and their mediations forms a substantial component of Harman’s metaphysical program, and this has implications for how we understand both knowledge and politics within an object-oriented philosophy.
Insofar as Harman has provided us with conceptual tools to understand the ontological foundations of the processes of mediation and translation, his ontology actually strengthens the work begun by Latour in understanding the functioning of different practices of science, and the ways in which knowledge comes to be. None of this implies that (a) science and philosophy do not make any historical progress, or (b) that all knowledge claims are equal. The problem put forth by withdrawal simply states: interactions between objects are always mediated by the qualities (sensual and real) of those objects (or set of objects), denying the claim that unmediated interaction is possible. Mediation here means not that all knowledge claims are equally valid, just that all knowledge claims are equally mediations. The quality of those mediations is determined by the criteria listed in the above paragraph, and those criteria are inherently unstable, contingent, and contestable (i.e., they are always already political). In other words, Harman’s metaphysics does not lead to a flat epistemology, but rather a worthwhile engagement with what I would describe as the ontology of knowing based in the aesthetics of causality where the aesthetic refers to the ways in which different actors interpret one another more-or-less-well, without some final arbiter capable of overseeing the whole process from above. We can see this process unfold using an example.
The example I want to use is climate change and the associated political and ethical considerations that emerge when tracking the ontology of the event itself, and the ontology of knowledge by which we come to understand the event. When we are talking about a globally distributed phenomena like climate change—whose “center” is nowhere but whose effects are everywhere—the groups that must be mobilized (the “public” which must be formed, in Latour’s sense) to respond will be stakeholders that may: (a) hold mutually exclusive positions, (b) be ontologically entangled within different local scenarios in diverse and/or incommensurable ways, (c) be situated alongside asymmetrical categories related to gender, class, and nation, and (d) not even be of the same species (climate change effects all species, after all). As anthropologists, political ecologists, social psychologists, and environmental activists of all stripes know, any issue emerging at the intersections of climate change, eco-social pollution, and political organizing can be organized in myriad ways. Yes, there is data, and yes there is science. But the knowledge regarding complex systems like climate and ecosystemic functioning—particularly when thought alongside of complex human social dynamics—rarely leads to straightforward conclusions about the future trajectory of those systems; in fact, it would be regressive to suggest that appeals to mathematics and physics could solve these problems alone. In other words, the knowledge must be mediated, composed, and translated on multiple levels of interaction in such a way so as to assemble the collective towards a complicated idea called “justice.”
Such practices of mediation are at the heart of what Latour means by political art (in close alliance with what Isabelle Stengers calls “cosmopolitics”). Here’s Harman in praise of Latour’s politics (and metaphysics):
All reality is political, but not all politics is human. Referring to the ‘cosmopolitics’ of his friend Isabelle Stengers, Latour speaks of a redefined political order that ‘brings together stars, prions, cows, heavens, and people, the task being to turn this collective into a “cosmos” rather than an “unruly shambles”’ (PH, p. 261). It is no accident that Latour’s book Politics of Nature is translated into German as Das Parlament der Dinge: ‘The Parliament of Things’. We must liberate politics from the narrowly human realm and allow prions and the ozone hole to speak as well. Whether babble is reduced by reason (Socrates) or by power (Callicles), in either case political mediators are eliminated. Latour’s position is not just more politically attractive than this, but more metaphysically acute (Prince of Networks, p. 89).
Harman’s object-oriented philosophy can thus be read as implicitly tied to a Latourian politics of composition (indeed, this seems to be precisely what is at issue when Harman links his metaphysics of the object to the aesthetics of causality). To my reasoning this sets up a renewed potential for thinking through complex epistemic, political, and aesthetic issues (surely intertwined categories) at just the time we need them. In this respect, I don’t think the obligation lies solely on Harman to sort out all of the implications and uses of an object-oriented philosophy, but rather falls on the rest of us who are committed to using philosophy as a tool to help arrange more livable collectives in a socio-ecologically troubled twenty-first century. Not everyone will be interested in such a task of course, but for those that are I think Harman provides valuable resources to do so.
HERE. My favorite quote from the review:
For Pignarre and Stengers, at its most basic, capitalism is a social system which depoliticises decision-making practices or, as they state eloquently: “a politics that kills politics.” (15) Such depoliticisation, frequently disguised as a set of technocratic processes, tends to proceed through the production of “infernal alternatives,” or, “that set of situations that seem to leave no other choice than resignation or a slightly hollow sounding denunciation.” (24) The alternatives are infernal as they are the product of no centralised apparatus or coordinated logic, but rather of the convergence of the work of “many thousands of minions.” While incapable of and unwilling to question the system of capitalism itself (“being dumbstruck by a prohibition on thinking”), those minions (agents, institutions) are at the same time infernally creative, ever set on expanding the powers of capital.
Another way of saying this is that rather than being the realm of instrumental rationality and bureaucratic Reason, capitalism is in fact a “system of sorcery without sorcerers (thinking of themselves as such), a system operating in a world in which judges that sorcery is only a simple ‘belief’, a superstition that therefore doesn’t necessitate any adequate means of protection.” (40) The argument, which presumably draws on Deleuze and especially Guattari’s work on “machinic enslavement” and “apparatuses of capture,” claims that capitalism does not reproduce itself thanks to the powers of ideology/illusion or alienation. Ideology/illusion separates a theater of appearances from an objective and truthful reality, as if by a screen (43), while alienation implies the existence of non-alienated intellectuals who are going to allow the masses to “become conscious” of the forces oppressing them. (106) By contrast, capitalist sorcery operates by “capture,” through a culture of “spells” that immobilise thinking and paralyse collective action. What anti-capitalist politics needs then is not so much demystification or dis-alienation, but a counter-magic capable of protecting its practitioners and breaking the spell.
Now if we could only get the publisher to drop the sticker price of this otherwise essential looking text…
From Process and Difference (pp. 248 – 249):
I have called “cosmopolitics” the kind of experimental togetherness that makes peace a challenge and not the condition for a polite conversation. “Politics” recalls that this proposition stems from our Western tradition that linked what it abstracted as “reason” with what it invented as “politics,” which has meant, since Plato, the problem of who is entitled to speak and on what grounds when the question of our common destiny is at stake. The prefix “cosmo” takes into account that the word common should not be restricted to our fellow humans, as politics since Plato has implied, but should entertain the problematic togetherness of the many concrete, heterogeneous, enduring shapes of value (SMW, 94) that compose actuality, thus including beings as disparate as “neutrinos” (a part of the physicist’s reality) and ancestors (a part of reality for those whose traditions have taught them to communicate with the dead).
Cosmopolitics defines peace as an ecological production of actual togetherness, where “ecological” means that the aim is not toward a unity beyond differences, which would reduce those differences through a goodwill reference to abstract principles of togetherness, but toward a creation of concrete, interlocked, asymmetrical, and always partial graspings. To take the very example of what Deleuze calls a “double capture”—a concept Whitehead would have loved—the success of an ecological invention is not having the bee and the orchid bowing together in front of an abstract ideal, but having the bee and the orchid both presupposing the existence of the other in order to produce themselves.
THIS talk with Isabelle Stengers took place last Monday. I’m told that a recording of the talk was made and I’ll keep an eye out for when it goes online (h/t Dirk Felleman).
Here is some more info:
Professor Stengers’ keynote address will examine sciences and the consequences of what has been called progress. Is it possible to reclaim modern practices, to have them actively taking into account what they felt entitled to ignore in the name of progress? Or else, can they learn to “think with” instead of define and judge?
Trained as a chemist, Professor Stengers received the grand prize for philosophy from the AcadémieFrançaise and has collaborated and published with, among others, Nobel Prize winning chemist IlyaPrigogine and renowned sociologist of science Bruno Latour. Her books include: Order out of Chaos(with I. Prigogine), A History of Chemistry (with B. Bernadette Bensaude-Vincent), Power and Invention, The Invention of Modern Science, Cosmopolitics I & II, Capitalist Sorcery (with Philipple Pignarre), andThinking with Whitehead.
This event is the keynote presentation of “TO SEE WHERE IT TAKES US”, a series of conversations with philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers March 5-9, 2012. Details for the conversations can be found below.
My job as a philosopher is not to describe the probable but, rather, to activate the possible.
- Isabelle Stengers
Perhaps the two most radical (and radically important) concepts that I have encountered so far this year have come from the philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Graham Harman. The first has proposed the concept “slow science” as a practice of thought (an ecology of practices) that takes into account the effects of scientific knowledge production alongside of how well the sciences are undertaking their own constructions of knowledge. The second concept comes from Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. Harman has suggested, provocatively, that we should reject two often-related concepts: holism and interconnectivity. I’ll try and give an account of why I think both Harman’s object-oriented philosophy and Stengers’ account of slow science provide counter-intuitive, but enormously helpful, insights to contemporary practices of ecological ethics. Slow science and object-oriented philosophy will perhaps merge into one another in this essay, though I shall try and treat them separately and sequentially as much as possible before offering some conclusions.
Slow science, one might say, is an insertion of the precautionary principle into the very structure of scientific knowledge production itself. In other words, slow science attempts to join the effects of scientific knowledge production with the actual practices of scientific problem-solving. By merging the ethical impact of the sciences with the logic of science as an effective problem-solving tool, we generate a new kind of science; one that is structurally geared towards ethics, social complexity, and the future. “Need less to say,” says Stengers,
Slow science does not mean idle. The choice of the expression slow science makes this initiative part of the “slow motions,” best known of which is slow food—resisting fast, bad quality and ready-to-eat food and the system that produced it. Slow science is about the quality of research that is also its relevance for today’s issues.
We might say that slow science is thus first and foremost a form of slow thinking. Slow thinking attempts to stay with phenomena—to follow the actors where they might lead—so that a clearer understanding of the situated character of beings might emerge. This is necessarily a democratic process that turns the scientist into the composer of new publics and turns the citizen into a participant in the processes of scientific and technological knowledge production. Slow science is not a deconstruction of scientific enterprises but rather an attempt to construct better sciences that serve more people. It is in this respect that one might invoke the precautionary principle and build it into very logic and apparatus of the sciences; slow science attempts by democratic means what government attempts by legislative, judicial, or electoral means.
A practice of slow science has become necessary since modern technoscientific practices and modes of production have turned the whole planet into a volatile laboratory—without due process or consent from any of its erstwhile guinea pigs (which currently includes every living creature on the planet). Without knowledge or permission the beings on planet earth have been exposed to new, foreign chemicals, harmful pollutants, genetically modified foods, nuclear technologies; and an ongoing contamination of living, local resources. Science is no longer simply a question of hypotheses and experiments, nor is it simply an ethical matter regarding what constitutes an ‘appropriate’ scientific subject for investigation (though it is both of these). Rather, science has become the production of whole new world-spaces.
Here I want to be clear and emphasize that science has not only opened up new perspectives on a pre-existing world, but actively participates in and dominates the composition of new material world-configurations. To think that the sciences simply represent one perspective amongst many represents the scourge of perspectivalism; perspectivalism equivocates and, in so doing, completely flattens the possibility of a genuinely powerful engagement with the more than human world and our various modalities for knowing it. My point here is not that the sciences occupy a sovereign position over other ways of knowing, or that the sciences provide any kind of a clear route forward for humanity. No, it is precisely because the sciences produce effects so unpredictable, so far spread and wide reaching, and are so linked to militarization and exploitative models of consumption that they demand special attention by the public. We need more science, not less. But the kind of science that we need is slow science, a participatory model of science that takes the public—both human and nonhuman—seriously.
This notion of slow science—hinged on the very premise that the sciences and ecological worlds are intimately linked—finds a strange companion in a highly counter-intuitive ontology. I am referring of course to Graham Harman’s object-oriented philosophy. While most scientists, politicians, and philosophers have come to grips with the fact that we need a better account of ‘things’ and their impact on human societies and the earth’s ecology, fewer people have accepted that these ‘things’ may have a deeper, subterranean layer to them that, despite our best efforts at physical or conceptual interaction with them, resist our capacity to encounter them fully. Here the various professionals and hobbyists who have tried to understand ‘things’—economists, artists, ecologists, and philosophers—have adopted two primary commitments about things: (1) all things are interconnected, and (2) they can be fully understood by their interactions with other things. To deny that either of these theses is true seems to cry out for a flat earth in an age of GPS satellites and quantum physics.
To think ecologically it just doesn’t seem to make sense to argue against holism and interconnectivity, but this is exactly what Harman’s object-oriented philosophy does and, I would argue; it not only makes good, justifiable sense in an ecological age, it might actually provide us with some of the strongest grounds with which to construct a new kind of ecological ethics. Harman’s thesis about objects is rather simple and has four basic postulates: (1) beings cannot be reduced to their presence to any other being, which means that; (2) any object is not exhausted by either its use or conceptualization by any other object, implying; (3) whilst objects do interact with another—and can be created, transformed, and destroyed—no object directly impacts another, this amounts to (4) A “vicarious causality” where the contact between two objects is always mediated by a set of relational qualities that emerge between the interaction of objects themselves.
Vicarious causality has an aesthetic structure insofar as all objects are limited in their interactions between each other such that there is a process of abstraction at work where each thing can only ever render an incomplete picture of the other things that it comes into contact with. I would argue that this aesthetic quality of causality also has what one might call a metonymic structure. Just as the ancient Greek philosophers tried to conceptualize the whole of Being through a series of metonymies—symbolic parts that stand in for a greater, more complex whole—so each thing in the universe enacts a simplified rendering of an infinitely deeper cosmos. Where the pre-Socratics variously posited earth, air, fire, or water as the primary elements by which all other phenomenon could be interpreted, so to do things of this world form simple metonymies of the cosmos, caricatures that bespeak a thing-specific enactment of a world that sits at the surface of an ocean that remains infinitely deeper.
Harman’s argument for the non-relational qualities of objects has important contributions to make to ecological thinking. In ecological circles there is an ever-present concern with ‘ecofascism’—a term used as a point of criticism by leftists and conservatives alike to point to the unsettling ability of some ecological discourses to totalize and subordinate the parts of a system to the whole of a system. The problem with holistic schemes is that they tend to wreck havoc on social relations, and usually to the determinant of the already marginalized. Global summits on climate change, for example, routinely demand tougher regulations on ‘developing’ nations while the very rich continue on expanding as they please. But if we take Harman’s object-oriented philosophy seriously, than it appears that totalities are actually ontological impossibilities; and if totalities are ontological impossibilities then it starts to make sense why holism can feel so wrong from a sociological perspective—holisms try and force a totalized identity upon an irreducibly diverse community. In this sense holism is not only politically dubious but also ontologically dubious.
What a slow thinking of Harman’s philosophy helps us to understand is that, yes, ecology is about relations, but this is only a part of the story since it ignores the huge and potent dimension of non-relationality that affords an important substantiality to all beings not well-captured by interconnectivity or holism. When you think about it, not only does this raise some provocative ontological questions, but it also helps us to think the hugely important question of why relations are, without contest, the unquestionable center of ecology to begin with when ecology should just as readily be about the non-relational. Take industrial growth society for example, its completely unsustainable and the central problem with industrial growth society is that its central goal is to connect everything to everything else through capital exchange. Ecological ethicists, for example, do not want the Keystone pipeline built precisely because it will make things more connected and not less. The Keystone pipeline is dangerous only insofar as it increases the interconnectivity between tar sands in Canada and oil producers in the heartland of the United States. In this case increased interconnectivity is a terrible thing for ecological ethics and we need a better conceptualization of the non-relational to understand what it is that makes sound, ecological sense.
In other words, what ecological ethics needs right now is a strong theory of non-relationality to compliment its overemphasis on interconnectivity—not to deny the importance of interconnectivity in ecology but to recognize that ecology is not exhausted by interconnectivity. Harman’s emphasis on the dark nucleus of objects held in reserve from direct contact with other objects allows us to consider a fuller ecological ethics, one more acquainted with a non-totalizable alterity—the truly alien—that does not sacrifice our ability to contemplate a rigorously more-than-human and ecological ethics. In fact, Harman’s ontology actually produces the conditions for the possibility of the alien and so makes, we might say, a condition wherein liminality is ontologically basic. Here we have a cosmology that is not a homogenous or unified whole, but rather something like a series of intimate collectives—ecologies of actuality—encountering and shaping one another. These liminal gaps are what make interconnectivity possible in the first place. Objects thus resist the tryanny of the one (or what Harman calls “overmining”) and the tyranny of the many (or what he calls “undermining”).
The point is not to reduce or discount the ontological monism(s) upon which the earliest theories of ecology were built (Cf. Ernst Haeckel) but to continue to think the project of ecology forward so that we can better adapt human society to the earth’s ecologies. We might theorize, then, that Stengers’ practice of slow science and Harman’s object-oriented philosophy produces a revitalized sense of what ecological ethics actually means. With slow science we are concerned with the sciences as a constructive enterprise that actively shapes the future conditions of a common socius–the earth community–and that such an understanding should be connected to practices of science as such. On the other hand, Harman’s ontology provides ecological ethics with the opportunity to consider the non-relational elements of things as central to ecological issues, and in this case we ought also to consider the disconnect between beings if we are to practice a relevant form of ecological ethics.