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The Issue of Politics: A Report on Bruno Latour’s Politics Workshop

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In its everyday usage, politics is often a pejorative term for shady dealings and spin-doctoring. When we say something is political we tend to think of Gov Chris Christie of New Jersey clogging up commuter bridges out of electoral spite, rather than the everyday labour of legislating and drumming up support. But while we are relatively accomplished at describing what politicians are doing wrong, it is not always clear that we have a language for evaluating what is “good” politics.

According to Bruno Latour’s latest book An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (2013) a big part of the problem is the longstanding confusion between politics and science (which, he emphasises, might be traced back to the ancient separation of rhetoric from logic). The suggestion is that “If only we could make decisions rationally and talk straight like scientists, everything would be solvable. If only the body politic was as, seemingly, transparent to us as mitochondria and stars are to science! But neither science nor logic nor the latest hybrid “evidence-based-policy” can settle the political – something for which the last decades and indeed century offer plenty of examples.

The fateful intersection of science and politics has been a fundamental concern for Science and Technology Studies scholars who once pronounced that “science is political”: that laboratories are permeated by networks of allies, asymmetric resources and technologies which participate in the construction of scientific facts and thus “nature” as we know it. But there have been objections from outside STS that even if this account of science is accurate, there is something lacking in the understanding of politics it implies. Some complain that this politics doesn’t prominently feature the regular cast of political actors (politicians, assemblies, bills) and that these kind of micro-politics are simply everywhere, too amorphous and banal. This politics of techno-science is not the politics known to political scientists nor activists who are accustomed to speaking about it normatively (see De Vries 2007 and Latour 2007 for a full discussion).

Over the last decade or so, STS has sought to intervene in political theory through the pragmatist-influenced study of “issues”. Noortje Marres (2007) linked Walter Lippmann’s claim that publics gather around ‘problems’ which existing institutions are not equipped to deal with, to the heterogeneous assemblages in Latour’s matters of concern . Following issues offers a way of describing what political theory overlooks – the events and associations involving humans, environments and things that make up issues and their contribution to making politics happen often before the legislators, professional campaigners and experts arrive. But while the fate of issues can be traced from their initial definition to their anti-political stagnation in laws and Foucualtian bureaucracy (see Politics 1-5 in Latour 2007) linking this process to politics-as-we-know it is more difficult.

It was this problem of further specifying politics which brought Bruno Latour and his team to Goldsmiths last week as part of the Modes of Existence project: an ambitious attempt to redescribe all of the key institutions of modernity (science, law, art, politics etc.) on their own terms – there are 15 ‘modes of existence’ which cut across these institutions. Latour is currently seeking feedback to further qualify the modes through a series of workshops and through an online collaborative platform. Following his call for an anthropology of the moderns (Latour 1991), this project of re-description seeks to account for the significant gap between what actors in these institutions claim they are doing and what they do in practice. While ‘political’ actors may constantly cross institutional boundaries and deploy different types of heterogeneous resources, there is still a particular set of gestures, manners of speaking and operations or ‘movements’ which can be read as specifically political and can be evaluated as such.

For Latour, as he reiterated in his opening talk, the movement specific to politics is what he tentatively calls the circle. This is most clearly identified in political speeches, which are the opposite of the aforementioned “straight talk”: it is curved speech, because they have to “bend over backwards” to repeatedly redefine the collective: “we are” “we want” (and necessarily who’s outside the collective). This mode of talk demands reactions, both protestations and shows of support, the later of which may lead to legislation which in turn generates new problems which must be accommodated. Politics is thus defined by a kind of momentum, it must keep cycling to work.

This is what the Moderns value in the particular politics, deliberative and representative democracy, which they impose on the rest of the world. It is important to remember that the Modes project is limited to the type of politics valued and practiced in Modern (read Western/Northern) society. This is also not, as it would become clear, the politics of political theory or even strictly speaking the institution or profession, hence the use of [POL] instead of politics [see Latour’s report of the workshop].

The day started with two hours of protestations by the participants, most of which reflected the wide range of expertise and commitments to the political.  In some countries, as Manuel Tironi argued, politics is mostly seen as something specifically invisible, it involves money changing hands and waiting and coping, far from ostentatious speeches and protests. It was generally agreed, including by the author, that the circle itself was a weak metaphor, (one suggestion was a Mobius strip with alternating insides and outsides). The process Latour refers to as ‘circle’ or ‘circling’ should be  impossible to complete, because we can’t ever agree on anything, and if it were to complete it might look quite totalitarian!

Michael Guggenheim pointed out that it was easier to identify politics in speech acts, centring around known issues, but more difficult in non-verbal, non-issue politics such as a hunger strike. Latour acknowledged that there are of course no words without bodies and things behind them and that gestures and performances may be seen to advance the circle in similar ways. Lisa Disch posed the contrast between the hunger strike and ‘being hungry’. Being hungry is not ‘political’ until it is effectively politicized as a famine and made to be  unnatural as Amartya Sen famously put it (1981). One recurring theme was that politics must involve a break from the normal, something about novelty, the impossibility of continuing the habitual way of doing things.

But politics is hard to track because it so often collides with the other modes: when inequalities become enforced through law [LAWŸ. POL] or segments of the population are medicalised and locked away [REFŸ. POL]. But the problem which we kept encountering was how to talk about politics without invoking the standard repertoires of political theory which use violence, group definition and publicity/visibility as distinctive markers or necessary conditions. But Patrice Maniglier contended that these conditions or markers in themselves are not specific enough: there can be non-political violence (a bar fight), non-political publicity (an pottery exhibition) or non-political group definition (the bridge club).

In the second half of the workshop the group turned to various empirical materials to detect the signature of the entities of politics and their indicators, capacities, movements, much like a wine taster (Latour comes from a wine family) detects fruity notes. Donato Ricci of Density Design was busy mapping the group’s findings and protestations with markers and sticky nodes – a fully designed version will be made available soon. First, the group discussed several visualisations of issues on social media, which Noortje Marres argued were particularly suited to capturing their trajectories. In particular we focused on discussions of privacy, which became politicised following the Edward Snowden NSA leak. There was a general concern to move beyond the frequency of mentions of an issue as an indicator of politicisation since this has more to do with the publicity mechanisms of social media. And yet the shrewd phrasing of tweets to ‘go viral’ and be re-tweeted, mirrored the work of political speeches but in the aggregate. Marres instead preferred novelty (the rapid introduction of new hashtags and slogans) or shifts in the register of tweeting (from a predominance of celebtrity tweets to critique of the ‘state apparatus’) as possible indicators of issue formation. Despite lots of questions about method, and the relationship between online to the offline, it was generally agreed that traces of something political was captured in these visualisations.

Moving on to the speeches, we watched a taxi driver, who turned out to be a London-based artist, giving a caricature of an activist rant which made tenuous connections between disparate issues of the day. Some participants wondered how the perceived authenticity of the speech affected its political currency. We also saw Hilary Clinton brow beat a Republican Senator who pressed her on abortion. Some saw this exchange as non-political because she so quickly moved the discussion into comfortable territory of Democrat-Republican: there was nothing at stake, no danger for either side. Finally, we saw the former Australian PM dramatically accusing the opposition leader of misogyny. She invoked the body politic (women of Australia) by politicising her body, making ironically feminized gestures while repeating, “I was offended”. Her opponent, the current PM, in later interviews seemed to acknowledge the political skill in her move but also painted it as wrong or inappropriate.

Gathering together some earlier comments about the eventfulness, novelty and abrupt discontinuities of the political circle, it was suggested by Maniglier that what was political about the speech was the “making an issue out of it”, or the reframing of existing issues, but especially the “obscene” or transgressive manner in which this was accomplished. This reading of [POL] as the displacement of issues was one way of linking the normal political arena to the thorny issues which never quite respect its boundaries. Politics, in this sense, is constantly shifting and elusive and quickly dissipates into bad slogans, or party politics or conventional protest gestures, but when it does happen (and anyone from mainstream politicians, activists, hunger strikers or famine victims are capable of making this move) it is difficult to ignore or evade. We can see how this way of viewing politics POL is a positive, or at least not entirely negative, phrasing of the political craft.

But there were still reservations about the limits of the [POL] mode: does it apply not only to speeches but equally to hunger strikes and protests and riots? How far beyond the parliaments and lips of politicians does it extend? David Chandler, for example, wondered if politics wasn’t too important to be relegated to a mode, which was too easily confused with the institution. In other words in the anthropology of the moderns, politics is the one mode where it is important to not ‘go native’.

I suspect that many of the empirically minded among us, who were content with the existing toolkit of the Actor-Network Theory [NET] mode, locating a diversity of politics and power in the cracks and fissures between institutions without necessarily needing to give it a name. But most also recognised the importance of a project which has the potential to propose a different way of understanding the world, beyond mere critique.

It was perhaps appropriate that the format of the workshop and the modes project is built on a model of experimental testing of propositions, through protestation and elaboration, itself a novel format of politics. But if this workshop was indeed representative of the range of opinions amongst sociologists and philosophers (but also politicians and everyday actors who have a stake in the term), then we may find that politics is a particularly contested mode, whose particular truth-conditions are too important for anyone to ever agree on.

  • De Vries, Gerard (2007), What is Political in Sub-politics? How Aristotle Might Help STS. Social Studies of Science 37 (5): 781-809.
  • Latour, Bruno (2007). Turning around politics. Social Studies of Science 37 (5): 811-820
  • Latour, Bruno (2012). An inquiry into modes of existence : an anthropology of the moderns. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013.[Augmented Publication available online : URL: www.modesofexistence.org]
  • Marres N (2005) Issues spark a public into being. A key but often forgotten point of the Lippmann-Dewey debate. In: Making things public: Atmospheres of democracy, pp. 208–217
  • Sen, Amartya (1982) Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation. Oxford University Press.

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