War of the Worlds: Cosmos and Polis in the Pluriverse

What is reality? Seasoned metaphysicians will be quick to point out that the phrasing of this question already assumes too much. The copula “is” implies that reality is a species of being or existence. Does this mean reality excludes nonbeing, nonexistence? That, in other words, reality includes only what is already actual and nothing of the virtual or the possible, nothing that may be but is not yet actual?

Metaphysical questions are unending. I ask the question, What is reality?, and immediately the question becomes a question to itself. Philosophy, as Aristotle taught, begins in wonder, in ignorance. Whenever we ask metaphysical questions we are striving amidst ignorance not only to know the truth, but to begin the process of knowing it without presuppositions. Ultimately (and here I begin to show my own metaphysical hand), we can only ever pretend to have found a presuppositionless starting point. We must strive for one. But we do not and cannot reach one.  The desire for wisdom is never satisfied. Every solution we devise soon dissolves into further questions. If we can be said to begin at all, it is always in the middle of things, always lost at sea, awash in mystery, surrounded on all sides by infinity. Sure, there are clear, calm days when we  can climb into our speculative crow’s nest to see miles in every direction. But even on these days, the round, shining horizon reminds us of our ultimate situation: though we may feel a breeze at our back,—call it inspiration—there is no land in sight for us to rest our heads on solid certainty. In our hastiness to carve a path through the Deep toward truth, it is likely that we will become shipwrecked on some hidden reef. If anything is certain, it is that we can never confidently claim to have stepped off our philosophical ship to walk on steady ground. There are no foundations upon which a philosopher can stand when he thinks about reality, there are no rocks he can kick to prove the solidity of his ideas. There are only these ideas, and the effects they have on experiential reality. And here again, I reveal one of my own metaphysical commitments, that ideas are (or can be) effectual as agents, as participants in the makeup of reality.  

So then, let us begin again: What is reality? The copula also presupposes that reality is simply One Substance,  a singular unified system. But what if there is not one reality? What if there are many realities? This latter possibility, that reality is pluralistic, is precisely the topic I wish to explore. I will offer an “ontological pluralism” as a pragmatic hypothesis, rather than a final doctrine. I aim only to sketch some of the important implications of pluralism as it relates to cosmology, by which I mean our way of imagining and organizing space-time, and to politics, by which I mean our way of composing a common world together. I hope also to convince you of the vital necessity for an interfusion of cosmology and politics, for a cosmopolitics, that is, a political theory and activism that re-situates human life within the wider universe, or pluriverse, of which we humans are but a part.

One of the more radical aspects of an ontological pluralism, at least when heard by modern ears, is its protest against what Whitehead called “the bifurcation of nature,” the splitting off of human consciousness and values from everything physical and factual. We are left by this all too modern predicament, Whitehead tells us, having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality. Ontological pluralism, unlike most modern dualistic and materialistic metaphysical schemes, rejects the division of experience and reality, mind and nature, and instead suggests a panpsychic vision of things. There is no bifurcation: to speak crudely, mind belongs to nature, is intrinsic to it. But to speak more precisely, nature or the universe is not or at least not yet a unified totality. For now it is better described as an evolving ecology of organisms. In all our talk of a supposedly already finished nature, we neglect the living network of naturing natures going on all around and within us. As Whitehead says in Process and Reality, “We find ourselves in a buzzing world, amid a democracy of fellow creatures” (50). Whitehead here alludes to perhaps his most significant influence, William James, who famously referred to the experience of pre-egoic infants as a “great blooming, buzzing confusion.” In A Pluralistic Universe, one of the last significant lectures James delivered before his death a year later, he suggested that “The common socius of us all is the great universe whose children we are” (lecture 1). Indeed, humans, as participants in this cosmic community, are new here, just now (we hope) struggling through adolescence and maybe, maturing into adulthood. We are learning that the polis, the city, is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our capital projects. We are waking up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an Earth community. We are fashioning a new cosmology to express our newly expanded politics, recognizing that order is not imposed on the cosmos from beyond it—by us or by some God imagined to be like us—but is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.

My teachers in the development of this ontological pluralism include Whitehead and James, but also the contemporary French philosophers Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour.

What are we to make of the metaphysical thesis of multiple worlds, multiple natures? This is not a multiculturalism, but a multinaturalism. What if reality itself is made of perspectives, such that there is no underlying and pre-established unity to reality, no hidden identity to which all apparent differences in perspective ultimately refer and return to. Instead of the monistic and dualistic substance ontologies of modernity, what would be the consequences of a nonmodern pluralistic and panpsychic process ontology? What would be its effects on our cosmopolitics (=our human attempt to compose a common world together with all the other creatures we inhabit this planet and universe with)? 

Flock-of-Starlings-over-Scotland

Multiculturalism, as Latour points out in a 2002 essay (the title of which I’ve borrowed for this post), is only the flip side of “mononaturalism.” Modern Western people have for a few hundred years thought of themselves as only a “half-culture,” since unlike all other earthly peoples, moderns are also the practitioners of something called Science, the faithful servants of something called Reason. Modern Science and Reason, so the story goes, granted moderns access to an objective and universal Nature, an external world “out there” that for so much of human history had remained buried beneath religious superstitions and cultural projections.  Buried, that is, until moderns came along. Modern Science sent its anthropologists to study exotic peoples in far away lands, always assuming that no matter how different those people appeared at first glance, beneath the surface the same physical laws belonging to the same universe must be governing their behaviors. Yes, modern Westerners also have their subjective quirks, their psychological complexes and superstitions, but still, only they had the good fortune to discover a way to uncover Nature, to put aside their cultural idiosyncrasies (at least in the laboratory and law court) so as to reach naked and indisputable matters of fact. It then became their sacred duty to educate others about the One True World. Prior to modern European science, medieval European religion had attempted something similar. There was one God, one final divine arbiter who decided what was Good and True for everyone. For modern scientific people, the one major difference is that the one Nature is understood to be entirely disenchanted and meaningless. Later describes the paradox:

“… modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals. ‘Let us wipe away our tears,’ the modernists liked to declare, ‘let us become adults at last; humanity is leaving behind its myth-imbued childhood and is stepping into the harsh reality of Science, Technology and the Market. It’s a pity but that’s the way it is: you can either choose to cling to your diverse cultures, and conflicts will not cease, or, alternatively, you can accept unity and the sharing of a common world, and then, naturally (in every sense of the word), this world will be devoid of meaning. Too bad, love it or leave it.’ One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars did not consist of this odd way with which the West sought to pacify all conflicts by appealing to a single common world. How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (11-12).

Back in the 1990s, it still seemed as though some sort of global multicultural society had a chance to take hold. Communism had failed, and only one way forward remained. Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace, treating it like a matter of taste or preference. So for instance, some of us prefer to buy presents to give to our loved ones on Christmas, others on Hanukah, still others on Kwanza, etc. Global capitalism embraces the consumerist excesses of all religions equally. 

The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism. Today, multicultural tolerance no longer seems possible. Westerners can no longer take seriously their attempts to force feed enlightened free market democracy to the rest of the world. If only the Rest would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace, respecting one another’s mutual (and meaningless) differences. The modern West can no longer take seriously the idea that all that is necessary for peace is that each of us get a proportionate representation of our kind of person (racial, gender, age, ability, etc.) on TV, our own aisle in the grocery store, our own holidays off from work. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are deeper than “culture,” but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” “technology,” “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it—all those special activities which were supposed to make moderns superior by giving us access to a higher truth—it should be clear enough to everyone now that these are no less constructed, no less fragile and in need of constant re-investment by the human sociusthan what, for example, the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc. And so we live in a permanent State of Emergency, a war of worlds. The question is, what new order can emerge from our chaotic situation?

Latour again:

“Nobody can constitute the unity of the world for anybody else, as used to be the case (in the times of modernism and later post-modernism), that is, by generously offering to let the others in, on condition that they leave at the door all that is dear to them: their gods, their souls, their objects, their times and their spaces, in short, their ontology. Metaphysics no longer comes after physics but now precedes it as well, and attempts must be made to develop a protophysics—an indescribable horror for the modernizing peoples, but the only hope for those fighting against both globalization and fragmentation at the same time. Compared to the light shiver that cultural relativism might have provoked, this mess, this pandemonium can only evoke at first repulsion and dismay. It was precisely to steer clear of all of this horror that modernism was invented somewhere in the seventeenth century. It was in order to avoid having to put up with so many worlds, so many contradictory ontologies and so many conflicting metaphysics, that they were wisely set up as (in)different entities on the background of an indisputable (and, alas, meaningless) nature full of matters of fact. But nothing proves that this ‘bifurcation of nature,’ as A. N. Whitehead calls this catastrophic solution, is the final state of history” (30-31)

What is emerging is the possibility of a new kind of politics, a politics based not on the toleration of different identities, but the welcoming of difference as such. The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist—an acknowledgement made always from a distance, of course. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right. A politics of difference, on the contrary, requires accepting the plain psychological truth that our constructed identities are always at risk of being interrupted, challenged, and re-constructed. To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but acceptance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship and commonality requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.” Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, that my very identity as a self is always constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort; it can’t be its uncontroversial starting point.” This is true whether we are talking about a people, a political body, or about “nature.”

Along with this new politics of difference, where others are not kept at a distance but welcomed as opportunities to transform ourselves, comes a new cosmology and practice of techno-science. Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times. Science itself is not unified, nor is the Nature it was supposed to be explaining. There are as many sciences as there are natures. There is a cosmos, yes, but it is awash in chaos, and like us, always at risk of losing its identity. The order of the universe is not a given, does not come pre-packaged out of an eternal heaven; rather, it is continually and contingently constructed by the ecological network of the organisms which compose it. The pluralist accepts that we live in an unfinished universe, unlike the Idealistic monist, for whom, as James puts it, the “world is certain to be saved, yes, is saved already, unconditionally and from eternity, in spite of all the phenomenal appearances of risk.” For the pluralist, James continues, “the world…may be saved, on condition that its parts do their best. But shipwreck in detail, or even on the whole, is among the open possibilities.” The world may fail to hold together as a whole. Its peace and harmony is always an achievement and cannot be taken for granted as a “natural” state of affairs.

Science is a messy and even an unnatural process, its methods always being forced to adapt to the unforeseen circumstances of our chaosmos. Its facts are constructed, yes, but making facts is not the same as making them up. Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it or explain it away. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world. As a radical empiricist, he seeks to describe the process of cosmogenesis rather than explain it. Nature is defined by Whitehead as simply what we are aware of in perception.

Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Overlord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through. Reality is then better approached through James’ each-form, more as a multiform creality than a reality, a creative pluriverse only ever tentatively weaving itself into a coherent collective.

Advertisements

19 Comments Add yours

  1. terenceblake says:

    Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    Very interesting presentation of ontological pluralism.

  2. Richard Herbert says:

    This is very interesting, but the concepts of ontological pluralism and extending that to a politics of difference seem contradictory here and rather surreptitiously prescriptive of an intransigent continental worldview, one in which the continued European hierarchy of cultures can be justified by the paradoxical insistence on the tolerance of difference. How can panpsychism possibly be reconciled with a philosophy that predicts a plurality of realities? If nature is myriad and unable to be wholly represented, then why cannot there be a reality of mind, as well as a reality of body? A reality of hand, and a reality of foot? An infinity of realities of varying kinds of consciousnesses, external to human consciousness, all of which are separate but equal? Furthermore, your plurality extends along predictable cultural lines. Using the politics of the “Muslim” world, which strangely groups together an incredibly diverse and, yes, strikingly different panoply of cultures and nations into one “All-form” against another “All-form” of the west, is a highly specific and suspicious application of metaphysics. To this reader, it seems like a politically-charged miscalculation of your own ontology. An outward welcoming of difference has always been the veil obscuring the fear of a potential union. Perhaps more usefully, the plurality of difference here could be applied between abstract philosophy of mind and real-world human politics. Equal in their own legitimacy, certainly, but perhaps not well-suited for one another.

    On a more ponderous note, I find interesting your contention that the cosmos “is brought forth out of an aboriginal chaos by the collective activity of its human and non-human inhabitants.” Again, your panpsychic worldview threatens to collapse under your the need to distinguish the universe from its inhabitants, the need for order to come out of “creaturely” observation, going so far as to claim the cosmos’ entire existence as being constructed by said inhabitants. But wouldn’t a plurality of realities necessitate a universe existing without the need or prescription of the human concept of “creation” or without extant inhabitants in which to observe or construct it? How can we accept a multitudinous reality and yet insist on defining those realities almost entirely from species-specific conceptualization of difference? Just some thoughts.

    1. Thanks for your comments and critiques, Richard. I don’t think a panpsychism of the Whiteheadian or Jamesian sort in any way negates the reality of bodies. And it would certainly be in agreement with your statement that there are a variety of consciousnesses external to human consciousness. I am not sure about the “separate but equal part,” as nothing suggests that the variety of modes of experience that compose our cosmos are “equal.” They are all valuable, yes, but equal? Almost certainly not. But I’m not sure what kind of equality you mean…?

      I am guilty as charged when it comes to the oversimplified category “Muslim.” These are notes, not a polished document. One thing is for sure, though, a politics of difference rooted in an ontology of pluralism is not about seeking union. There will always be irreconcilable differences. We will always be more or less at war. What I’m proposing is that we drop the pretense of multiculturalism, of some ideal global society when we might all get along. I’m not suggesting a PC cultural relativism. I’m saying that we live in very different worlds, and that while we should be willing to engage in diplomacy, there are no guarantees that our encounters and mutual transformations will be peaceful. Sometimes war becomes inevitable because the values of different worlds cannot reach accord or compromise. Giving up on multiculturalism means taking seriously the fact that one culture’s or creature’s means of survival are in conflict with another’s. The evolution of the pluriverse has never been a peaceful process. It includes mutation, extinction, etc. Fortunately, there are as many examples of cooperation and symbiogenesis as there are of competitive elimination. So there is hope.

      Finally, while it may be possible to distinguish the cosmos from its creatures as a way of speaking, metaphysically there is no disjunction. The collective of creatures just is the cosmos (or better, the chaosmos, to use James Joyce’s coinage). The whole does not precede the parts. The parts are cocreators of one another (and so of the whole) in a network of reciprocal determination.

      1. Adam Robbert says:

        I think the above criticisms are apt. You’re basically replacing one reductive monism with another. If your argument is that reality is a series of perspectives then this is just a kind of reductionism (to appearances/perspectives). Further, if all of these perspectives are instances of one kind of thing—minded-ness, however broadly construed—then this is also just a kind of monism. Ontological pluralism necessitate differences in kind and not just differences in degree, and what your suggesting above won’t take you there.

      2. It is a kind of reductionism only if we try to pull the fast one of claiming that ontologizing is inherently reductionistic. Monism to me would imply, in its idealistic variant, that only one Mind is finally real, and in its materialist variant, that only a mindless material plenum of one sort or another is real. I am not sure why perspectives or actual occasions, each one unique and once-occurrent, never to have occurred before and never to occur again, should be so easily dismissed as another form of monism. Are they different in kind? Well, not in ontological kind, no, since I’m working towards a flat ontology here. There are no metaphysical exceptions, no special beings or Being for whom the rules are suspended. Differences in “kind,” in “type,” “genus,” or “species” etc. is actually too abstract and general a notion of difference for what I’m getting at. No two perspectives are ever the same, meaning the move to group them into some category of kind (whether it be the same kind of a series of kinds) only succeeds in obscuring their radical differences. I would still want to preserve some sense of genetic kindredness, since this is also an evolutionary cosmology wherein perspectives are born from the erotic coupling of other perspectives, giving rise to a lineage of temporally related perspectives. So you can’t get stars before you get hydrogen atoms, just like you can’t get saber tooth tigers before you get amphibians. But genetic kindredness is not the same as imposing differences in kind from above or beyond time/lineage. It’s the difference between Darwin and Linnaeus.

      3. Adam Robbert says:

        “Are they different in kind? Well, not in ontological kind, no, since I’m working towards a flat ontology here” — so, in my view, this is an argument for empirical pluralism and not ontological pluralism. Now, I’m not saying we *should* or even *can* impose such differences in kind, but it strikes me that this is exactly what an ontological pluralism would necessitate.

        “No two perspectives are ever the same, meaning the move to group them into some category of kind (whether it be the same kind of a series of kinds) only succeeds in obscuring their radical differences” — I would take this a step further and say that things never coincide with one or more perspective because things *are not* perspectives; that is, they escape all perspectival appropriation. Do you see how it’s difficult, and even undesirable, to say that things *are* perspectives?

      4. I think we are working with very different definitions of monism.

      5. Adam Robbert says:

        Your description above sounds more like a kind of Jamesian neutral monism: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neutral_monism

      6. Adam Robbert says:

        Hm, I think I’m using the terms in a fairly standard way:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monism

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluralism_(philosophy)

      7. Those definitions look fine to me. Maybe it is the word “perspective” that is causing the problem? Since usually it refers to a perspective on something, whereas because I’m suggesting there are only perspectives, each perspectival creature takes a perspective only on other perspectival creatures. It’s perspectives on perspectives all the way down. The word perspective also leaves out the active role played by each creature in the co-construction of others. They aren’t just observers. Anyway, definitely a lot to discuss tonight

  3. I am currently enduring some kind of soft torture affecting my ability to think in a serene manner. Wanted to make that clear in case some of my comments seem incoherent or offensive…
    *************
    “The attacks of September 11th, 2001 marked the end of this earlier era of optimism.”

    It’s funny, because an event (now indissociable from its consequences) you seem to perceive as a bifurcation in the NWO (being ironic here), as defined by G.H.W. Bush after the fall of the Berlin wall, could as easily be interpreted as a symbol of the continuity of Hegelian dialectic, the fall of the iron curtain being the end of one cycle, 9/11 being the beginning of the next one. To paraphrase, 9/11 can also be viewed as the extension in the 21st century of the 20th century’s Schumpeterian “creative destruction”…

    “Peace on Earth was believed to be possible, if only we could learn to tolerate one another’s differences by treating culture like any other commodity bought and sold in the global marketplace […].”

    Moreover, your seemingly “naturalistic” take on what post-cold-war peace entailed is a viewpoint in itself (meaning one among many others), namely the Anglo-Saxon one : in some European countries, it took social-democracy fifteen to twenty years to get used to the idea everything is a “commodity”. And they didn’t get used to it willingly; they did so because they are being dominated by a thing called Empire. Today still, there is a coalition of non-aligned countries some consider to be a remnant of the East-West duopoly, and it has been targeted on all flanks by the Empire’s thirst for hegemony. In other words, one man’s “optimism” is another man’s imposed reality, and peace, to the Empire, can only be reached through global dominion, particularly as it is falling apart (In effect, the dollar is worthless nowadays…). 9/11 provided the cause for a new militarization. Today, the TPP and the TTIP (whose aim it is to isolate China by strengthening the collapsing Empire a little while longer) ambition to provide the economic counterpart.

    This comment may seem very down-to-earth, and not very philosophical, but the reality it describes is no less monolithic than similar attempts at ‘unifying the diverse’ made by “European science” and “medieval European religion” throughout history.
    _______
    “We no longer believe that, if only they would grow up and accept cosmological nihilism and cultural relativism like we have, then together we might live side by side in peace […]. Instead, it is gradually dawning on us not only that our differences are irreconcilable, but that our “modernity,” our “secularity,” our “capitalism” and “democracy,” our “Nature” and the “Reason” that was supposed to know it […] are no less constructed than what the non-modern Islamic world believes in—their “Allah,” their “Caliphate,” etc.

    How about considering the whole picture as a vast nihilistic panorama, the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” and its mass murders and damage to countless mosques and artworks being merely the mirror of the Empire’s ?
    _______
    “The old politics of multiculturalism had it that, so long as you stayed in your neighborhood, and me in mine, we could get along well enough just by acknowledging one another’s all too abstract human right to exist […]. Identity politics is based on an ontology of substance, where to be an individual—whether white, black, gay, straight, or whatever—means to be independent of all relationship, by right.”

    What you call “the old politics of multiculturalism” created cultural ghettos indeed, but did they fail because they were implemented or because they weren’t ? And did they fail because of themselves or because of a substrate of almost instinctive intolerance towards difference, even if only limited to some people’s physical aspect ? In the latter case, how could any “new multiculturalism” tame this instinct ? (Note that I’m not saying it can’t, but I’d like you to provide me with concrete means to make it happen…).

    One other thing : to me, being “independent of all relationship” is a chimera in a technological world (and I’m not talking about cell phones and the like here). But, on an individual physical level, what’s fundamentally wrong with the right to be a recluse if said recluse doesn’t cause anyone any trouble ?

    http://www.theguardian.com/film/2012/apr/26/two-years-at-sea-little-happens

    Who is to judge the recluse’s reasons for being a recluse ? Has being a recluse become an impracticable and unacceptable luxury on a planet populated with over 7 billion souls and counting ? Or is accepting (more than tolerating) the recluse for who he is the condition to really accepting difference ? Last but not least, is tolerating a recluse individual equivalent to tolerating a recluse State or are both antinomic ?…
    _______
    “To truly make possible the composition of a common world with others, we need not tolerance of identity, but tolerance of the mutual transformation that genuine relationship requires. Such a politics is built not on ethical individualism, but on what Simon Critchley has called “ethical dividualism.”

    First, I’d say the word ‘individual’ already contains the notion of ‘duality’, paradoxically enough. Therefore, to me, Critchley’s “dividualism” seems redundant (I say ‘seems’ because I don’t know the author, and I haven’t checked the precise meaning he’s giving to it.).

    Second, why systematically oppose identity and readiness to adapt ? If an individual is indeed dual, why not view identity as the first part of said duality, the second part being the one influenced by mutual transformation ? This is not to say this identity is immutable, only that it answers to its own logic, whereas if you consider everyone to be only a mutant (poor choice of words, I know…) in a necessarily collective environment, on what substance exactly are human interactions supposed to be founded ? Haven’t we wrongfully amalgamated the “selfish consuming prototype” with the individual ? Why would it be impossible to reconcile “we are all individuals” with “we are all multitudes”, both of which are the technocratic system’s worst nightmares ?

    Third, …

    “There seem to be different kinds of “citizens”. On the one hand there are those who took part historically, in a more or less real, idealised or fantasised way, in the original social contract, who share the common homogenous culture and who in the collective mindset are actually part of the society. Those seem to be naturally entitled to the same rights. Then on the other hand there are the others, the “new citizens”, the “foreign citizens”, but whose culture and religion are perceived as different, who may indeed be citizens but whose status is not the same: they are still “them”, outside, “a minority”, whereas the concept of “minority citizenship” has no legal existence. It is a psychological status: those “citizens” still have to integrate, to prove (often after several generations) that they can really be part of “us”. […]

    Nothing is clearly said, it is all informal, but that informality of “moral citizenship” or of “psychological citizenship” has very concrete consequences on individuals: they are not really part of the collective psyche and they can suffer discriminations which do not really shock “the majority”. After generations of presence, the legal and psychological success of integration would lie in no longer speaking about integration, but what can be observed is the opposite: after two, three, four generations, “they” are still “of immigrant background”. It should perhaps be recalled, and this is ultimately the implicit and explicit message which South Americans wanted to convey to Europe about its “immigration policy”, that the difference between immigrants and “new” citizens on the one hand, and “original citizens” on the other hand, lies in the fact that the latter are merely longer-standing immigrants. We are no longer in the sphere of law but in that of psychology, of the informal, of time and of confidence (in oneself and in others), and the consequences should not be minimised.”
    http://tariqramadan.com/english/2013/06/04/when-citizenship-and-human-rights-clash/

    Thus spoke philosopher Tariq Ramadan, an emblem of Muslim multiculturalism.
    What he says actually applies to the poor in general. Being unemployed myself, I know all too well the liberties the institutions as well as little autocrats within them can take with the law. I even came up with four stanzas illustrating my current state of mind about it :

    The law is the canvas of obligations imposed to the serfs.
    It is the tissue of appearances perpetuating their servitude.
    The less the imposition is tolerated, the heavier the canvas.
    The more the servitude is revealed, the less resistant the tissue.

    Yet, all rights are supposed to be granted individually. This principle is the very herald of modernity, the very heritage of the French Revolution and the US Bill of Rights, and it is still the cornerstone of the UN’s universal declaration of Human Rights. Should we nonetheless, in a “pluralistic” perspective, consider this in a relativistic way ? And how to prevent malevolent people from abusing their authority and interfering with people’s lives, in such a common framework, whose core motto would be : “I do not belong to myself” ?…

    Fourth, combining “genuine” with “politics” is a recipe for disaster and demagogy.
    _______
    “Such an ethic involves the realization that I do not belong to myself, that I am constitutively relational, my very identity as a self constructed in community. My sense of individuality, in other words, is contingently constructed, not possessed “by right.” On a collective level, it follows that, as Latour puts it, our “unity has to be the end result of a diplomatic effort […].”

    What would such an ethic mean if it isn’t based on equality ? What would it mean if it didn’t result from an equitable choice, it it were merely imposed as a “reality” without alternatives ? In his “Social Contract”, Rousseau foresaw the possibility to exit one particular community…

    On a collective level, which kind of “diplomacy” could any such effort reveal in an historical context marked by an unjust balance of power ?

    One example : if all architectural forms are expected to evolve through mutual transformation, which reason would we have to protect particular buildings or neighborhoods ? In France, for instance, a debate has been raging about the ‘Amélie Poulain’ vision of Paris’ genuine soul, named after a homonymous movie of the early 2000s.

    To a lot of those calling themselves progressives, this movie is an imprint of conservative nostalgia. Yet, in its own way, it only depicts a certain Bohemian way of life French singer Aznavour, among others, lamented about : prior to their takeover by huge real estate conglomerates, neighborhoods like Montparnasse and Saint-Germain-des-Prés were the symbols of an abundant cultural life. In these ‘quartiers’, it was as if time stood still. They had… an identity ! Which once again begs the question : what drives “mutual transformation” ? Can anything other than what is driving it now drive it in the future ? If so, what can bring about the much needed paradigm shift ? Or is this shift just going to be spontaneous ? However that may be, how will it guarantee “genuine” diversity ?
    _______
    “Twentieth century physics has taught us that we inhabit multiple more or less overlapping space-times.”

    Do you mean space-time continuum ? Can you elaborate ?
    _______
    “Scientific materialism, that sort of capital S Science that sought to polemically dismiss common sense opinion with expert knowledge, does too much violence to experience to be considered valid by radical empiricists like James, Whitehead, Latour, and Stengers. Rather than marshaling supposedly pure facts in an effort to silence all controversy or to explain away false consciousness by replacing common sense appearances with true essences unveiled only through some elitist method of purification, we can engage the sciences democratically as an effort to construct our facts so that they elucidate our concrete experience, rather than confound it. Whitehead, like William James, protests against the absolute materialist and idealist alike in their attack on our common sense experience of the world.”

    I don’t fundamentally object to any of this, as I am convinced “capital ‘s’ Science” has become a perverted substitute for religion in the minds of many. But I would insist on the need for anyone ambitioning to apprehend “reality” in the 21st century to bear in mind “capital ‘s’ Science” is what has been presiding over our destinies for the past two centuries and a half at least, whether they like it or not…
    _______
    “Ontological pluralism is not simply a preference of the Many over the One. It is rather the replacement of any notion of an Over lord of anything, of an All-form (as James calls it) that would unify all things in some finished eternal absolute whole, with the more democratic notion of reality as creative and social through and through.”

    Yet, at this stage, mankind is unable to scientifically dismiss any metaphysical theory. Could doubt therefore not be the philosopher’s stone allowing all possibilities, while reconciling all mankind ?…

  4. Adam Robbert says:

    Indeed, lots to pick apart. Ontological pluralism aside a for a moment, something to think about in the lead-up to the discussion is my own grappling with the issue of perspectives and relations in von Uexküll. A relevant excerpt:

    While von Uexküll tends toward a relational account of the organism, he is also ambiguous in regard to the ontological implications of his own view. For example, in Theoretical Biology, Uexküll writes, “all reality is subjective experience” (1926 xv). Here von Uexküll takes a broadly Kantian approach to ethology by generalizing the a priori intuitions of space and time to all organisms, which is to say that, for von Uexküll, each organism constructs a world filled with objects that conform to its own organism-specific ethology, to sense-qualities arranged into a unity of experience organized by the capacities of that organism. In this first account von Uexüll limits his description of reality to that which appears to an organism—i.e., to a phenomenal realm, ecologically construed. However, in A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans, von Uexküll gives a different account of the relations among organisms, appearance, and reality. In his example of the oak tree taken as an object by multiple species of subjects, von Uexküll concedes that, while the oak tree appears in multiple ways to multiple organisms, these varieties of appearance “are only parts of a subject [the oak tree] that is solidly put together in itself, which carries and shelters all environments—one which is never known by all the subjects of these environments and never knowable for them” (2010 132). In this second account von Uexküll introduces another dimension—a “never knowable” aspect of the oak tree, a Kantian noumenal—that problematizes his first statement that “all reality is subjective appearance.”

    We can quibble about translating the terms “subjective” experience and “organism,” as Whitehead and von Uexküll use these terms in slightly different senses, but for me the core issue is the same—can you allow for something, or even an aspect of something, that escapes perspectival appropriation by other actual entities? And if there is, mustn’t we acknowledge that there’s more to reality than multiple perspectives?

    1. dmf says:

      escapes or just exceeds (perhaps even is a kind of enabling background/infrastructures).
      http://www.partiallyexaminedlife.com/2015/04/27/ep114-schopenhauer-will/

  5. Nice post, a trajectory far along. I wonder how muc this “all-form” and monism can be attributed to the rise of monotheistic religion. After all, European scientists with their unitary Nature were mostly coming from a thoroughly Christian world.

    1. Related to monotheism, yes. And to the political impulse toward empire, which is not unrelated.

      1. Agreed. I would recommend adding Nietzsche to your arsenal. My favorite book is The Gay Science.

  6. admin says:

    Your post reminded me this one: Mirrors, Maps and Slime Mold: How to Think About Epistemology http://faithfulbuddhist.com/2015/03/14/mirrors-maps-and-slime-mold-how-to-think-about-epistemology/
    Your text is amazing. Thanks!

  7. My initial comment was more of an answer to your own opinion, and only indirectly to his. Until now, I hadn’t actually read Latour’s essay. Your recent alt-right post (Jan. 2, 2017), which refers to this one, made me read it after all. But there are two versions of it, both published in 2002 : one in French (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/fr/node/180), and one in English (http://www.bruno-latour.fr/node/168), and the latter is not just a translation of the former, but a modified and amplified version of it.

    As a result, it’s sometimes unclear what the translator actually translated. For instance,

    « On peut d’ailleurs se demander si l’une des causes en quelque sorte métaphysiques des effroyables conflits […].» (p.3/FR)

    becomes :

    “One may wonder whether one of the many metaphysical origins of the twentieth-century world wars […].” (p.12/EN)

    while it should have been :

    « by the way, one may wonder whether one of the somehow metaphysical causes of the appalling conflicts […].”

    It may seem like a detail, but it’s not : “somehow metaphysical” implies ‘metaphysical for lack of a better word’, whereas the ‘official’ translation leaves no room for doubt.

    Entire paragraphs have been added to the (substantially longer) English version, as well as a clear emphasis on 9/11, closing arguments propulsed to the introduction and the other way around, references inserted (Tocqueville, Huntington, Furet, et al.). And only the reader of the French version realizes there may be some chronogical and semantic confusion on Latour’s part about some key concepts.

    Indeed, what is known in English as the early and the late modern period becomes “les temps modernes” (‘modern times’ – no relation to Chaplin) [1492 -> 1789] and “l’époque contemporaine” (‘the contemporary period’) [1789 > today] in French. It is therefore difficult to understand what he’s referring to when talking about modernity. Noteworthy in that respect is that he alternates the use of ‘moderns’ (‘les modernes’), ‘modernists’ (‘les modernistes’) and ‘modernizers’ (‘les modernisateurs’), which don’t have the same (historical) meaning at all. In English, the word ‘moderns’ appears only once and ‘modernists’ is almost omnipresent, whereas in French there’s only one occurrence of the adjective ‘moderniste’ (and none at all of the noun), while there are plenty of “modernes”.

    Galileo, Pasteur, Newton and even Oppenheimer, whom he names, can give us an indication, but did the political system Galileo lived in really espouse the rational, market-oriented, human-rights-cherishing society Latour describes, linking such societies/systems to a particular view of war ?

    As far as Oppenheimer is concerned, there are conflicting reports about his state of mind after the Manhattan Project he spearheaded reached its conclusion : http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/the-agony-of-atomic-genius. Einstein was even more disgusted at “the monster” he had helped create, that “monster” being an offspring of science. Yet, Latour writes : “[t]o the Galileos, Newtons, Pasteurs, Curies, even to the Oppenheimers, politics always appeared […] as a violent fire that a little more objective science could always snuff out.”

    Aside from that (and from the numerous spelling mistakes to be found in the French version), I’d also point out he isn’t afraid of gratuitous, baseless, assertions such as : “[e]ven the French, despite their fondness for republican universality, rally against globalization” and start noisily demanding the right to maintain their “cultural exception”—something that would have been inconceivable even ten years ago!” (p.23)

    Would it, really ?… « L’expression « exception culturelle », à laquelle est parfois préférée celle de « diversité culturelle », est née il y a 20 ans. En 1993, l’Union européenne décide, notamment à l’instigation de la France, l’instauration d’un statut spécial pour les œuvres et la production audiovisuelles visant à les protéger des règles commerciales de libre-échange. »
    http://clesdelaudiovisuel.fr/Connaitre/Histoire-de-l-audiovisuel/Qu-appelle-t-on-l-exception-culturelle

    Here’s another example (from the FR version only) : on page 5, Latour asserts that, contrary to the past, there are now “science wars”. But, instead of elaborating on that, he only refers to a footnote about a famous scientific hoax : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sokal_affair. Not only is this not very serious, it also eclipses the fact that, if some major theories are indeed being contested today (the role of gravity as a universal constant, for instance), it’s always been this way since the beginning of science. By suggesting it hasn’t, would Latour have us believe there’s never been scientific dissent before ?

    This said, my overall critic would remain the same, whatever the version, namely :

    1/ “Thus, surrendering to modernization and naturalization did not mean submitting to any given imperialism or voluntarily imitating a cultural model, but rather coming closer to this fundamental, indisputable source of unification that was to be rooted in a nature known by reason. […] Neither those who were developing nor those being developed had the feeling that they were surrendering to another people when they respectively disseminated or adopted sciences, technologies, markets and democracy.” (p.10)

    Does he include slavery into that ?

    “[…] modernization compelled one to mourn the passing of all one’s colorful pretensions, one’s motley cosmologies, of all the many ways of life with their rich rituals […].” (p.11)

    If so, is he forgetting that, however their practices perverted them, Confederate slave-owner communities were deeply rooted in religious beliefs, in other words double-standard bigots ?

    And since he mentions Galileo in his piece, why not remind him that thirteen years before the great astronomer was born, the Church was still wondering whether American natives were indeed human (which was to say potential Christians, as opposed to savage animals)…

    “There may have been Bantus and Baoules, Finns and Laplanders, Californians and Burgundians, but they all shared a common make-up of genes, neurons, muscles, skeletons, ecosystems and evolution which allowed them to be classed in the same humanity” (p.6)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Valladolid_debate

    2/ Latour claims the West is finally in a position where it can acknowledge it has enemies, whereas before it had none, and the wars it led were not real wars, since they were allegedly based on (the expansion of) Reason : “Negotiation [could not] even start. Reason recognizes no enemy.” (p.38)

    First, one may object that 9/11 didn’t toll the death knell for Reason whatsoever. What it did is the exact opposite : it vindicated Reason in its opposition to ‘the barbarians’ (Remember Latour wrote this before the invasion of Iraq…).

    But let’s go even further : if the most basic law of nature is indeed that “only the strong survive”, might we not view the Reason that is supposed to have driven all previous wars as a mere attribute of force ? And if we do, are we not led to the conclusion that Reason was but the hypocritical packaging – the smoke screen, if you will – of a set of archaic impulses ? In the absence of demonstration, isn’t this interpretation as plausible as Latour’s premise, which is merely echoing the premise of “those who were developing” ?

    3/ “We have seen the last of tolerance, as Isabelle Stengers [who’s Belgian by the way, and not French] provocatively said, along with the hypocritical respect of comparative anthropology, and smug assertions about humanity, human rights and the fact that we are all similar inhabitants of the same world.” (p. 24)

    Like you in your (perhaps to be deleted) alt-right post, I’m a little puzzled by the last part of this assertion. Should we not consider human rights as a given ? Are they not universal ? Maybe Latour didn’t realize a human-rights relativism could lay the bases for new conflicts in which the West would no longer pretend to be the enlightener bringing democratic rights to allegedly underdeveloped nations (Looking at Iraq and Libya for instance, we clearly see the hypocrisy of that argument, don’t we ?), but rather would boast about privileges those nations would not be entitled to.

    And should human rights within each country, within our own societies, be applied selectively (which, unfortunately, they often are), to satisfy your alt-right buddy for instance (cf. the sixth point he’s making) ? Should they be part of a negotiation ? And if so, with what ? Should they be subjected to “a progressive agreement” ?…

    « [B]y definition, an agreement about nature cannot be reached, because the notion of “nature” itself has been made, as we have seen, to prevent a progressive agreement about the slow composition of the common world. […] On the other hand, if gods, persons, objects and worlds are taken to be “constructed” entities, that is, entities that could fail (and the notion of construction implies nothing else), then here is perhaps a means of opening the peace talks again” (p. 10/FR – p. 41/EN)

    We know initially human rights were a Western construction. In theory, they became universal with their Universal Declaration on December 10, 1948. Can we allow them to fail ? Just like I asked in my initial comment whether it is mixed-multiculturalism policies that are facing questioning or the absence thereof, I’d ask whether it’s human rights that are at trial, or the abuse of the concept.

    To cut a long story short, I agree with the necessity of a progressive agreement, but I also think that, for the sake of mankind, human rights should not be renegotiated : even if in some instances, they’re more of a happy proclamation, an ideal, than a reality, they are the core module allowing for any agreement to be reached in the best of terms.

    4/ “How long can one survive in peace when torn by this impossible double bind with which modernizers have trapped themselves together with those they have modernized: nature known by reason unifies, but this unification is devoid of meaning?” (pp. 11-12).”

    Here’s another one of Latour’s premises I don’t subscribe to, and there are two reasons for that :

    a/ As science cannot possibly invalidate the possibility of a single underlying principle to nature yet, the only possible method reason can provide is doubt.

    b/ Hence, unification based on reason doesn’t have to be devoid of meaning. The quest itself IS the meaning. It can take many forms, and it is both collective and individual…

What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s