The Stengers Lexicon: Cosmopolitics II
“The term ‘cosmopolitics,’” Isabelle Stengers writes, “introduces what is neither an activity, nor a negotiation, nor a practice, but the mode in which the problematic copresence of practices may be actualized: the experience, always in the present, of the one into whom the other’s dreams, hopes, and fears pass” (p. 372).
Stengers prose is dense, articulate, and, at times, hard to reach. There is nothing obvious about the thought she deploys, nor any readily available historical categories by which we might seek to appropriate her aims. She travels through a world of entangled networks. In a universe filled with atoms, molecules, and microscopes; neuroscientists, poets, and metallurgists; factishes, gods, and symbiogenesis, her’s is an ontology of wild and diverse beings. I claim only that I have a strong and strange attraction to Stengers’ work, but only a patchy understanding of what it all might mean.
Since writing is equally a means of understanding as it is of explaining, I am jotting some notes on her work as I read through Cosmopolitics II.
On the name “cosmopolitics” Stengers writes, and I quote at length:
The prefix “cosmos–” indicates the impossibility of appropriating or representing “what is human in man” and should not be confused with what we call the universal. The universal is a question within the tradition that has invented it as a requirement and also as a way of disqualifying those who do not refer to it. The cosmos has nothing to do with this universal or with the universe as an object of science. But neither should the “cosmos” of cosmopolitical be confused with a speculative definition of the cosmos, capable of establishing a “cosmopolitics.” The prefix makes present, helps resonate, the unknown affecting our questions that our political tradition is at significant risk of disqualifying. I would say, then, that as an ingredient in the term “cosmopolitics,” the cosmos corresponds to no condition, establishes no requirement. It creates the question of possible nonhierarchical modes of coexistence among the ensemble of inventions of nonequivalence, among the diverging values and obligations through which the entangled existences that compose it are affirmed. Thus, it integrates, problematically, the question of an ecology of practices that would bring together our cities, where politics was invented, and those other places where the question of closure and transmission has invented other solutions for itself. Cosmopolitics is emphatically not “beyond politics,” it designates our access to a question that politics cannot appropriate” (p. 356).
Drawing a great deal on the work of process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, and working in tandem with Bruno Latour, it seems to my mind that Stengers is beginning to fill in some long missing pieces in science studies and actor-network theory. My sense is that Stengers, through enacting a cosmopolitical view (itself used in close relation to what she calls an “ecology of practices” and “reciprocal capture”), has begun to think the ontological character of thought in relation to the ontological character of the universe.
Often when reading Stengers or Latour I have found myself thinking three unresolved questions: 1) is thought an actor? 2) are thoughts actors? 3) are human rituals and practices actors in themselves, or just habits that spring off actors? For Whitehead, a distinction between thought and the being who thinks it is not a tenable question since each entity has both a “mental” and “physical” pole. In this way, Whitehead’s cosmology is panexperientialist insofar as every entity has an experience (its mental pole) that is coarising with its structure (its physicality). Thus humans do not have bodies separate from the activity called thinking. And yet, the types of thoughts humans have are greatly diverse, despite regularity in the human form. Stengers’ notions of an “ecology of practices” is helpful here, a term coined in response to several questions she frames thusly:
How can we examine the discordant landscape of knowledge derived from modern science? Is there any consistency to be found among contradictory or mutually exclusive visions, ambitions, and methods? Is the hope of a “new alliance” that was expressed more than twenty years ago destined to remain a hollow dream? (p. vii).
Stengers is holding on to two poles in the above quotations, poles I believe will help to answer some of my questions. First she opens to the possibility of “nonhierarchical modes of existence.” Second this nonhierarchical mode of existence is rife with “inventions of nonequivalence.” I read her use of the word “invention” to refer to — rather controversially perhaps — the broader state of cosmologically emerging entities (e.g., stars, planets, and life) alongside of, and in addition to, the more colloquial use of the word invention (e.g., telescopes, microchips, and hammers). Following Whitehead, each of these diverse entities count as actualities in the universe, following Latour, each of these entities are irreducible to one another. By considering the nonhierarchy of the universe ontologically, and the nonequivalency (irreducibility?) of entities Stengers is 1) putting all actualities on the same interactive plane whilst 2) not reducing those actualities to the plane itself, or to one another.
If Stengers is indeed producing an ontology that is cosmological (in Whitehead’s sense) and irreducible (in Latour’s sense) it seems likely, then, that Stengers is articulating (a) an account of the effects of knowledge in the world through (b) an encounter with the ontology of knowledge in relatation to the ontology of being that allows for (c) an ethical description of knowledge — not in the sense of making value judgements based on an epistemological account of the truth value of claims, but rather an onto-ethics at the level of effects that different types of knowledge-making might produce within the greater ecologies of actuality.
When ethics and knowledge are thought as part of being — as unfolding actors amidst the flora and fauna of the cosmos itself — the need for the cosmopolitical vision becomes clear. If we are to resist a bifurcation of nature, and by so doing create a genuine “Parliament of Things” are we not obliged to consider that thought, knowledge, and practice are things, actors, or objects in their own right? Each replete with the same irreducibility, withdrawal, and sensuality as any other entity in the cosmos?
To my knowledge this is largely uncharted territory and my thoughts here are inadequate. However, if it does prove tenable to consider the ontology of thinking, and subsequently the ontology of knowledge, then I believe we will have a strong “suggestive cartography” (as Stengers, following Pignarre, puts it) that may lend a constructive hand in thinking the irreconcilable differences between worldviews, disciplines, religions, and perspectives.
Thinking knowledge ontologically is appealing for several reasons which I outline below:
First, we do not need to appeal to notions of “tolerance” where one group simply allows the existence of another group (a notion Stengers writes critically of at length) since each knowledge making practice is seen to exist in its own right apart from our beliefs of it.
Second, one knowledge making practice cannot be reduced to another — a Stengarian ontology of knowledge makes the emergence of a “master discipline” almost impossible (e.g., biology is not reducible to physics, psychology is not reducible to neurons, religion is not reducible to politics), whilst simultaneously does not deny the effectiveness of a practice of knowledge within a given domain.
Third, an ontology of knowledge may help to move us from the mere application or utility of knowledge to the effects of knowledge (this, as Stengers notes, will become a political necessity as we move into a greater ability to manipulate genes and genomes — the knowledge might be accurate, but who is thinking about the unforseen and unknowable effects?)
Fourth, since knowledge making practices are irreducible in the same way as other objects or actors (i.e., they cannot be reduced from below or absorbed from above) the idea of creating one “grand system” of knowledge dithers in importance in favor of the concrete actuality of each particular practice.
Finally, by exploring how knowledge impacts other entities ontologically, knowledge and ethics become closely linked in that, by understanding that thought is always-already an operative actor in any given scenario, the production of thought becomes an ethical exercise in relation to a larger ecology of action.
I may be adding too much to Stengers own words, though it is clear that she is highly sensitive to the types of technoscientific worlds that are, and have been, generated through industrial practices in the past 200 hundred years. She writes: “Are we fully aware that we are about to connect, and thus transform through multiple and partly unpredictable acts of reciprocal capture, histories that, on Earth and until now, were distinct?” (p. 368). By framing knowledge and ethics on an ontological concourse parallel to the ecological and humanitarian crises the Earth faces, Stengers points us to the realization that thinking only in terms of correct, encompassing solutions will not alone win the day when it comes to articulating a vision of Earth’s future.
Stengers calls it cosmopolitics, I call it the ecology of knowledge.