“What if we talked politics a little?” By Bruno Latour

“If we are to accomplish the impossible feat of (re)composing a group from a multiplicity or, equally impossible, making a plurality obey a common order, it is necessary above all not to start with beings with fixed opinions, firmly established interests, definitive identities and set wills. This would guarantee failure, for any work of composition appears only as an intolerable compromise, even a dishonest one, and would break, shatter or annihilate wills, opinions, interests and identities. Conversely, if we set out to ‘recognize’ all affiliations, to ‘take into account’ all interests, to ‘listen to’ all opinions, to ‘respect’ all wills, we would never manage to close the circle–neither one way nor the other–since multiplicities would triumph, doggedly stubborn in their irreducible difference. The only way of making the circle advance, of ‘cooking’ or ‘knitting’ politics, of producing (re)groupings, consists in never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities and interests. It is up to political talk alone to introduce, re-establish and adjust them. For political life to be thinkable, utterable, speakable, it is therefore necessary for agents not to have fixed opinions but to be likely to change their minds; for them not to have an identity but affiliations that shift throughout the course of the debate; for them not to be sure of the interests they represent but for their wills to waver or, by contrast, to develop as the relations of all the other agents who make them talk and whom they cause to talk, gather together, and change. We can now understand the meaning of that fragile, contradictory, meticulous alchemy that the Sophists called autophuos, and which has nothing tautological about it, despite Socrates’ irony: he who talks does not talk about himself but about another, who is not one but Legion. Nothing less than this constitutes frank, authentic political expression.
If my hypothesis is correct, we can well imagine times when political talk will disappear or at least become so strange that it would immediately be banned. I am not thinking here of the practice of censorship of opinions, of a lack of freedom of speech regarding content. No, what I am referring to is a disease infinitely more serious, which might strike the very substance of political talk. By constantly despising this type of talk, constantly judging it by the yardstick of the faithful and transparent transfer of double-click information or power struggles, we may well end up depriving ourselves little by little of all its resources, as I have shown us to have done with science and religion–like by neglecting a road network we may end up making all journeys impossible and allowing only local relations. In these matters there is no reassuring destiny, as if talk were an inherent of the political animal and we could count on the nature of things for this invaluable form of enunciation to be preserved. Invaluable and fragile, it survives only with meticulous care by a culture as delicate as it is artificial. By replacing distorted representation by faithful representation, impossible obedience by pedagogy, composition of new groups by rectilinear transfer of ‘relations of domination’, we may well finish off politics for good or, in any case, cool it down to the point of it dying of numbness, without even noticing, like a careless pedestrian lost in a blizzard.”

14 Replies to ““What if we talked politics a little?” By Bruno Latour”

  1. It’s so fascinating to me that this issue of finding unity in diversity in politics, is the very same issue, transposed, as panpsychism vs idealism vs panentheism, about which so much of this blog is concerned.

    Do we start with non fixed minds, non fixed opinions? Bruno’s comments on politics hold true infinitely more for philosophy, I would think (or, intuit:>))

    1. Indeed, and in the case of panpsychism, as in politics, it is important to remember the importance of process and relationality: souls don’t come pre-packaged from heaven in neatly separated capsules; rather, to be ensouled is to be constantly caught up in processes of mutual transformation with other souls, to be constitutively interrelated to other souls and to the multiplicity of soul within oneself.

  2. I think what makes “never ever starting with established opinions, wills, identities, and interests” so difficult is that, in the first place, it’s not clear that this is something we’re capable of doing, and in the second, it’s our interests, identities, and concerns that draw us towards this multiplicity and not that one, right? Politics just is this drawing together of some groups and not others. So, my question is (in general), what does this “preparation for political expression” look like?

    1. Getting at least some distance and detachment fro our established opinions is the essence of contemplative practice. At least, several thousand contemplatives over the centuries have reported this, with considerably fine evidence. There are groups of contemplatives – Christian, Buddhist, Sufi and others – around the world who are practicing this and teaching it to others, in relation to political concerns. See Sri Aurobindo’s “The Life Divine” for more.

      1. Yes, this is exactly what I’m driving at. Latour doesn’t thematize this much, so I wanted to raise that practical bit to the foreground.

    2. I don’t know, seems to me that identities arise out of processes of dialogical differentiation. We don’t encounter one another already formed, but forge our opinions and identify ourselves with causes only after the encounter with others has lead us to enunciate ourselves. As for preparation for politics, perhaps Latour is referring to the need to get a handle on what religion and science are, so we don’t constantly conflate them with each other or with politics (by expecting political speech to be “factual” or by demanding everyone feel summoned by the same religious texts).

      1. I disagree. We show up with all our idiosyncrasies in place. Having known you for several years, I can say that you reliably show up to different issues in a very consistent way!

      2. Most assume a single Cartesian-Newtonian world with a single history. In truth, alternate versions exist to varying degrees. Since we are the singular attachment to our lineal variations, the process of inter-personal self identification involves grounding ourselves in a common realm.

  3. Is this another prayer ? Are the Breitbart Milos among those we should or shouldn’t ‘recognize’ ? Change one’s mind about what ? At what point does the blizzard engulf everybody ? Are you ready for anarchy ? What does ‘panpsychism’ say about that ?

  4. If we did not note that the emperor had no clothes then, without their acknowledged absence, the emperor would not be moved buy some. Without some kind of parrhesiastic dialogue what would drive non-knee-jerk reform? Who would come to the aid of our lost leaders.

  5. Recently discovered your blog while running some arcane google search (possibly something about William James, I forget), and am enjoying/appreciating it immensely! Entirely by coincidence, I had also recently begun to visit Bernardo Kastrup’s joint now and then, so I’m much pleased to learn of your correspondence with him.

    Venturing into political discussion these days is certainly not an exercise for the timid – even when the approach is as oblique as that taken in this post!

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