Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Facing up to Relativism: Negotiating the Commons

The bad news is that it's a long way through this post, 4000 words. The good news is that the discussion turns to Latour in a strong and perhaps a bit surprising way. I know I wasn't expecting it. Further, the end is near. I'll be writing up one more post that reviews the whole discussion, from objects, to Realms, Arenas, Unity of Being, Life Ways and, now, Latourian negotiation. I'll then gather the series into a PDF, write an intro, and we're done. For the time being.
In my earlier post, Unity of Being 2: Choosing Life Ways, I brought this discussion of pluralism to the edge of ethics. I now wish to look over that edge, and not just with respect to ethics, but revisit aesthetics as well, this time looking beyont literature.

It is the fact strong suspicion that the possibilities for human Life Ways far exceed the capacities of any individual and any one collective, to use a term from Latour, it is this fact that forces ethics and aesthetics upon our pluralist enterprise. That, and the practical ongoing business of life.

Remix Culture

For it has been the practical business of history that peoples of different beliefs—beliefs about what exists in the world (ontology), beliefs about the beautiful (aesthetics), beliefs about the good (ethics)—have been mixing and clashing and negotiating their mutual affairs from day to week to month to year and beyond. Until relatively recently, however, the parties to these interactions have assumed, if only by default, the one of them is right, or at least more right than the others, and so in the end must, or at least should, win out.

For the last two or three decades “multiculturalism” has been a reference point in American cultural and political life. Often enough it is a code word for race, with cultural matters being secondary. For the politics of identity and the so-called culture wars have conflated race and culture along with culture and society. America’s national mythology proclaims the nation to be a “melting pot,” a metaphor implying that the various inflowing cultures become one.

The historical reality in America is far more complex, and interesting than that. And that reality extends beyond America. Differing peoples have been mixing and mingling since whenever and the result, so far, has been a continual regeneration and remixing of differences.

Immigration across widely different cultural boundaries is a fact of contemporary life. In 2010, for example, 9.4% of the population of European Union countries consisted of people born outside of their resident country, with most of them being born outside the EU. And then we have the internal conflict in nation states created by Western colonialism where people of different cultures find themselves co-existing within the same state. And so.

I do not, however, intend to preface these reflections with even the most cursory review of cultural flow in human history, for that would amount of a précis of that history. My point, rather, has been simply to say enough to remind us that interaction between peoples of differing cultures is a fact of human life, and one that is becoming more pressing as the globe “shrinks” through the multiple interacting forces of economic globalization, population growth, and global climate change. We are in this together and so must figure out how to live with one another.

This existing pluralism, this pluralism on the ground if you will, has received scant philosophical attention, the expansive and open-ended nature of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on relativism not withstanding. This is, I presume, because all philosophers are necessarily partisans of some cultural formation—I know I certainly am—and so work as advocates of that formation, if only by default.

Bruno Latour is a significant exception though he, like Lévi-Strauss in an earlier generation, writes as an anthropologist pursuing philosophical matters. Thus the fourth chapter of We Have Never Been Modern is a subtle examination of relativism, rather mostly with respect to ontology and epistemology rather than the ethical and aesthetic issues I’m concerned with here. However, it is his more recent Politics of Nature that I wish to examine, if only briefly. Like the earlier discussion, this one focuses on epistemology and ontology, but the apparatus Latour creates in the process can, it seems to me, be extended into ethics and aesthetics, into politics.

Some Definition: Culture, Society, Realms, Life Ways

But first we must address some matters of definition. For, as I’ve argued at some length in my working paper, Culture, Plurality, and Identity in the 21st Century, conceptual confusion is rife.

Let us begin with a simple distinction, that between culture and society. Bhikhu Parekh puts it clearly in Rethinking Multicultralism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (Harvard UP 2000, p. 146):
Although culture and society are inseparable in the sense that there is neither a society without a culture nor a culture which is not associated with some society, the two have different focus and orientation. Broadly speaking, society refers to a group of human beings and the structure of their relations, culture to the content and organizing and legitimizing principles of these relations.
Terms such as “French culture,” “Japanese culture,” or “African culture” are generally used as though they indicated kinds of culture rather than simply the geo-political locus of cultural practices. And when one is talking about such things as cuisine, music, and cinema, that conflation seems reasonable. But what do we make of the fact that there is a Disneyland in France and one in Japan? Are they outposts of French culture and Japanese culture, respectively, or American culture, for America is the home of the original Disneyland? Or perhaps they’re all outposts of Disney culture, along with Hong Kong Disneyland. Does this mean that there IS such a thing as Disney culture and that it’s not a national culture?

And what of, say, physics? Is French physics conceptually and operationally different from Japanese physics? Do they recognize different laws of motion, have different rosters of subatomic particles, use different mathematics, different experimental protocols, different instrumentation?

Those questions are just some of the many questions posed by the too easy conflation of culture with the geo-political nation state. If French culture were indeed a product of French soil then Muslim immigrants, for example, would lose interest in seeing their women and girls wear headscarves upon setting foot on French soil. But that has not happened and girls wearing headscarves in school has been controversial. Nation states, like France, have myths about national culture and identity, but we cannot take any of those myths at face value.

And certainly not the myth of Western culture, a myth the moderns created even as they drew a sharp line between nature and culture, a line Latour has shown to be fractal in form, like the line between the light and dark portions of marble cake.

Culture is one thing, society is another. The relationship between social groups and the cultural forms enacted by their members is a complex one.

And then we have the terminology I’ve been developing in this investigation, Realms of Being and Life Ways, which, alas, presents subtleties of its own. You will recall that in my post, From Objects to Pluralism (revised version), I defined the concept of a Realm of Being. I took Levi Bryant’s notion of a regime of attraction as “networks of fairly stable exo-relations that tend to produce stable and repetitive local manifestations among ... objects” (The Democracy of Objects, p. 169) and crossed it with Harman’s notion of indirect or vicarious causation so that:
Realms of Being are revealed in the formal structure of causal relationships in the cosmos... Working out the causal laws and mechanisms is a job for the specialized disciplines. Working out the overall structure of causal relations is a job for philosophy.
In subsequent posts on literature and literary study I paid particular attention to Realms of Cultural Being, which are specifically human Realms. Of course, in proper Latourian fashion, these Realms must necessarily include non-humans. The Realm of Automobile Mechanics, to pick a non-literary example, would include tools and materials as well as mechanics and their technical knowledge. Likewise the Realm of Roman Catholic liturgy includes a panoply of ritual objects, including the place of worship, along with the ritual celebrants and appropriate texts and activities. And so it goes for all these Cultural Realms, of which there are obviously very many.

Let me now add a refinement: each Cultural Realm may be conceived of as a structure of social roles, some of which will be played by humans and others by nonhumans. In this way we can analytically separate the notion of a Cultural Realm from any given concrete embodiment and thus conform to the standard distinction between culture and society. Likewise we must recognize, again in conformity with that distinction, that really existing Realms are always embodied in specific collections (assemblages?) of human and nonhuman actors or actants, to use Latour’s term.

I then defined a Life Way as a pattern over Realms (see the previous post in this series, Unity of Being 2: Choosing Life Ways). For an individual it is the set of Realms in which they play some role at one time or another. For a group, the Life Way is the set of Realms required by all members of the group. For any but the simplest more or less autonomous society, the group’s Life Way will contain more Cultural Realms than the Life Ways of any individual members.

Negotiating Collectives: Latour’s Republic

In his Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy (Harvard UP 2004) Latour is concerned about how properly to negotiate the common world to be shared by all beings. Quarks, goblins, galaxies, zombies, Newton’s Laws of Motion, curses and spells, giant squids, dragons, global warming, and Valhalla, which of these are real and so belong in the cosmos, that is, the common world, and which are to be banished? Latour doesn’t set out to answer the question, to give us his outline of the common world. Rather, observing that the moderns have botched the job of creating a common world (We Have Never Been Modern), Latour sets out to examine what we must do to get it right.

Latour’s exposition is very abstract and somewhat in the spirit of Plato’s Republic. It is not simply that the allegory of the cave recurs throughout the book, but that the argument itself presents an ideal social formation—I avoid the world “society” as it has a particular meaning in Latour’s lexicon and it is exactly what he wants to overcome—with its organs and procedures for renegotiating the relations between facts and values in determining which beings will enter into the common world. Latour calls that ideal formation simply the collective (p. 238):
it accumulates the old powers of nature and society in a single enclosure before it is differentiated once again into distinct powers...In spite of its use in the singular, the term refers not to an already-established unit but to a procedure for collecting associations of humans and nonhumans.
In sketching out this collective Latour asks us to imagine an upper house and a lower house, along with various skills and powers accorded to the actants in this drama, all operating in due process as set out in a new constitution. For the purposes of this essay we can leave those and many other details aside. What I need, what I’m after, is something that comes late in the argument, the notion of the diplomat and the need for negotiations.

Latour asks us to imagine an idealized process in which the common world is negotiated among diplomats representing the interests of the various extant “associations of humans and nonhumans” seeking to form a common world. Of the diplomat, Latour notes that he or she (p. 212) “always belongs to one of the parties of the conflict” and
has one peculiar and decisive advantage over the anthropologist: a potential traitor to all camps, he does not know in advance in what form those whom he is addressing are going to formulate the requirements that may lead to war or to peace.
And he goes on to elaborate this notion of the diplomat.

The point of Latour’s formulations is to make it clear that the diplomat does not occupy a standpoint that is transcendental to those of any of the parties in the conflict. The diplomat has no special vantage point that allows him or her to see all and no special knowledge or principles that would allow him or her to adjudicate the matters under dispute. On the contrary, the diplomat’s job is to engage in negotiations with other diplomats and to create, over time, the essential requirements of common world in which the parties to the conflict will agree to live, one with the other. As he points out, in the old world, that of the moderns, “what was essential was always already known; with the new, what is essential is still to come” (from the diagram at the top of p. 213).

And now we have an astonishing and brilliant passage, one in which the term “collective” is applied to the individual parties in common world negotiations (p. 214):
Apart from a diplomatic trial, no collective can differentiate between what is essential and what is superfluous; it will go to war over anything, because it sees everything as equally necessary. Only slowly, through preliminary negotiations, pourparlers, will a collective agree to reconsider its own constitution, by differentiating what is essential from what is superfluous according to other principles. It will undertake this exhausting task only on condition that the other will agree to subject itself to the same triage.
Thus, over time as negotiations evolve, those matters essential to the larger collective, the common world, will emerge and be separated from “what can be given up as the price for an extension of the collective.” The hinterlands. And beyond them, I suppose, is the mysterious Latourian plasma.

As I said before, Latour is concerned with ontology, not with ethics or aesthetics. But the idealized mechanisms and processes he has invented for that purposes can, it seems to me, be applied to matters of ethics and aesthetics as well. As a practical matter, peoples, whether tribes, city-states, or nation states, do have multiple differing Life Ways. Some differences are mere differences and, as such, present no significant obstacles to living among people with other Life Ways, that is, other cultures. Other matters are more consequential.

But there is, as far as I can tell, no a priori way of running up a list of beliefs and practices and dividing them into the consequential and the minor. That’s the point of Latour’s subtle exercise in philosophical state craft: How do we proceed in the absence of being able to draw up such a list and then divide it in two?

I will also say that, in some ways Latour’s account of an idealized procedure to be implemented at some future time also seems to characterize, albeit very abstractly, what has actually happened (and is happening) in interactions among different peoples and nations. Yes, the rich and the strong have imposed their ways on others. But those impositions have rarely been as thoroughgoing as the strong have wished and, in any event, it is not as though the strong are or ever have been of a single party. And that is certainly not the case in the world today.

Such Latourian negotiations, if you will, have always been a part of the historical process. And they will continue for the foreseeable future and, I warrant, well beyond. Marx asked us to imagine a future in which class conflict ceased to exist. Latour is asking us to imagine a world in which the commons is negotiated in a more expeditious and transparent fashion. He makes no representations of ultimate success, whatever would that be? much less of stasis.

Nor do I. The world is too rich, too abundant, for that to happen.

Politics: Some Example Issues

Rather than continue on in this abstract vein, let us consider some example issues. My purpose here is certainly not to attempt to adjudicate them—which is the most that I, as a single individual, could do, for negotiations must take place between independent parties—nor even to express my own opinions on them. I wish only to put them before you as examples of issues that have in fact arisen in the contemporary world and that are of the kind that a pluralist must take seriously. And by that I mean that, while any individual pluralist will have a preference on these issues, that the fact that they are in dispute means that they must be entered into the the kind of negotiations Latour has elaborated.

Rather than present my own list I offer you one compiled by Bhikhu Parekh in Rethinking Multicultralism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (Harvard UP 2000). He characterizes the list as a number of “practices that have aroused different degrees of public concern in recent years” (pp. 264-265):
  1. Female circumcision.
  2. Polygamy.
  3. Muslim and Jewish methods of slaughtering animals.
  4. Arranged marriages, practised mainly, but not only by Asians. The practice ranges from largely formal parental approval of their offspring’s choice to foisting ones on them.
  5. Marriages within prohibited degrees of relationships, for example, Muslims can marry their first cousins, and Jews their nieces, both of which are viewed with disfavour in some western societies.
  6. The practice, common among some African communities, of scaring their children’s cheeks of other parts of the body as part of the initiation ceremony.
  7. The Muslim practice of withdrawing their school-going girls from such activities as sports, athletics and swimming lessons that involve wearing shorts and exposing parts of their body.
  8. Muslim girls wearing the hijab or headscarf in schools. Although it is allowed in most western countries, it continues to arouse varying degrees of opposition in some of them.
  9. Sikh refusal to wear helmets rather than their traditional turbans when driving motor cycles or doing dangerous work on building sites, to take off their turbans when taking oaths in court or bowing before the speaker in the House of Commons, and to shave off their beards when workingin places that involved the handling of food.
  10. Refusal by gypsies and the Amish community to send their children to schools either altogether or after reaching a certain age on the grounds that modern education is useless form them and alienates them from their community.
  11. Requests by Hindus to be allowed to cremate their deceased on a funeral pyre, scatter the ashes in rivers and, in rare cases, to drown rather than cremate their corpses.
  12. Subordinate status of women and all it entails including denial of opportunities for their personal development in some minority communities.
The list is certainly not exhaustive; it is merely indicative. What issues must be decided for all polities, one way or another, and what can be allowed to vary from one polity to another? On what issues can members of a given polity have different beliefs and still respect and tolerate the beliefs of all citizens in the nation?

Before going on to a somewhat shorter and rather different list of aesthetic issues, let me add one more example to Parekh’s list, one that Latour has taken up at various times:
Global Warming: Here we have a cascade of issues. The basic question is whether or not global warming is real. If it is, so what? Do we conserve? What, and how? Do we hope that technology will get us out of any difficulties? And so forth.
Only on thing seems certain: The world WILL undergo a radical change over the next century or so, one that cannot be reversed to the way things were 20, 30, much less 100 years ago. The Anthropocene will not disappear from the historical record.

Aesthetics: Toons, Grooves, and Graffiti, for example

As examples, of arenas of aesthetic negotiations, consider cartoons, musical grooves, and graffiti.

Rather than looking at cartoons in general (I’ve glossed that in this post, along with grooves and graffiti) recent feature film, Sita Sings the Blues, by American film-maker Nina Paley. The title itself indicates some of the dimensions of cultural commitments therein being negotiated. The blues is a musical form that arose sometime around the transition from the 19th to the 20th Century somewhere in America, just when and where are not at all clear. Sita is one of the central figures in the Hindu epic, The Ramayana.

The film has attracted the outrage of some Hindus, who regard it as sacrilege. And some well-meaning academics have criticized Paley for, in effect, an offense against relativism: an American Jewish woman has no business retelling one of the sacred stories of another culture. The film has also won a slew of awards from all over the world.

The film’s Wikipedia entry is a reasonable place to start tracking it, the response to which is scattered all over the web. Or you can simply google the title. I’ve written a number of mostly analytic essays which I’ve listed HERE, along with two interviews.

The fact of the matter is that film culture is and has been deeply transcultural from its early days. Yes, most films have been made by studios and crews anchored in some one nation or another and have been intended, first of all for the home audience. But film-makers have been aware and influenced by work in other countries, and many films have circulated outside, often far outside, their nations of origin.

Sita Sings the Blues must thus be considered but a single example of an expressive form that has always be working against the national labels imposed on it by journalists, critics, historians and, yes, the film-makers and their audiences. Film itself, if there is such a thing, simply doesn’t hew to the categories placed upon it by the world in which it circulates.

And so it is with music as well, with the blues and its progeny as a case in point. America’s popular music has been a centuries long negotiation among the musics of differing peoples, with the West African/European axis being the single most potent source of cultural remixing, as I’ve outlined in Music Making History: Africa Meets Europe in the United States of the Blues and in the final chapter of Beethoven’s Anvil, “Through Jazz and Beyond.”

As one last example, I offer graffiti, by which I mean, not just any markings on walls, but the particular style of name-based markings that began appearing in Philadelphia and New York City in the late 1960s and early 1970s and which has since traveled around the world. While it has been adopted as the graphic style of hip hop and of such relatively new sports and skate boarding and BMX bicycling it has at best a fitful relationship with the legitimate art world and, as vandalism, it is in a running battle with the legal system. It is thus art that still exist outside society, art that has not yet been institutionalized, which is why I used it as a running example in my reading of Latour’s Reassembling the Social. Graffiti’s place in the world is still under intense negotiation.

Will this process ever end? Will there come a time when we all speak the same language, all dance the same dances, tell the same stories, commit the same crimes, and submit to the same punishments?

The Longue Durée: Living in a Pluralist World

I don’t for a minute believe so. Cultural homogeneity is not in our future, no matter what the Walt Disney Company may wish. Over the long run, and precisely because we live in a highly interconnected world, cultural formations, Realms of Being, Life Ways, will continue to mix, remix, transmogrify, and multiple. I think heterogeneity will keep on reconstituting and transforming itself.

The common world will, of course, continue to evolve—witness, for example, the spread of certain graffiti styles from Philadelphia and New York City and across the globe in the last forty years. But this ever-evolving commons will never absorb everything. That’s neither necessary, desirable, or even possible. We’re too slippery for that.

But, where’s the philosophy? you ask. You’re just dumping us in the muck of everyday affairs. Blues, headscarfs, what has philosophy to do with them?

But what’s wrong with THAT? Shouldn’t philosophy be up to its knees in the muck and mire of life as it is lived? Doesn’t it belong there?

Yes, keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground. Philosophy is the love of wisdom, not exemption from living.


  1. Bill, not developing a habit of linking to other papers but I have been chewing through aspects that repeat in places in this post myself for the last couple of days in relation to food, dance and ethnography of bodies.

  2. Hi, I am from Australia.
    Please find an introduction to a unique perspective on the state of the humanly created world in 2012, how we got to here, and what, if anything we can do about it.

  3. From the second link in the previous comment:

    Thus, the Global Cooperative Forum I propose is a civilizing process – not at all a process of anarchy or negation. The Global Cooperative Forum I propose is not at all a matter of six billion people participating in some kind of chaotic uprising. Rather, the Global Cooperative Forum I propose is an orderly means for representing everybody-all-at-once in a globally functioning body that has the power to achieve positive actual results.

    No positively effective global approach is presently happening in the common world. There is, in global terms, only a persistent inertia of sameness, that is very effectively preventing the self-organizing, self-correcting, and self-rightening process of humankind from happening. Thus, only the status quo is being reliably maintained – and that status quo is leading toward the potential of globally terminal destruction.