Cosmopolitics

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Discussion

Andre Ling:

'It is here that I think Stengers’ notion of cosmopolitics (see for example her book: The Science Wars) strikes me as having a particularly valuable contribution to make. For Stengers, who makes a radical break with the Kantian conception of cosmopolitics (based as it is on the subjection of all peoples to certain universal laws that will guarantee peace between them), cosmopolitics is first and foremost a matter of the politics of the negotiation between heterogeneous others that may or may not result in domination of some by others. There is, here, no a priori universal law that could deal with every predicament. Furthermore, any attempt at a methodological law – by which practices can be judged in terms of the rules to which they conform – would simply result in the crushing of anything that seems not to conform to these laws.

Stengers (a philosopher of science amongst other things) turns to the scientific discovery of the neutrino to explore this issue:

“To affirm that the neutrino has a mode of existence of a ‘factish’, product and producer of a practice, existing by that practice and making it exist, constitutes, therefore, a first step that engages a departure from the Kantian horizon where peace must be ‘our’ peace, where exchange must limit itself to goods and ideas, to the detriment of the multiple worlds that our factishes and fetishes bring into existence.” (All quotes are my translation from the French, apologies for any errors!)

Moreover, she emphasises that the neutrino cannot enforce the conversion of those (i.e. make them affirm its existence) who are not somehow (however circuitously) linked to the laboratories that any reference to the neutrino is dependent upon. She continues:

“And so, if there must be ‘religion’ in the sense proposed by Bateson [i.e. a recognition of the unity of nature], the unity that it would celebrate would not be the one that is produced by an instance finally recognised as having the power to gather together. It is in terms of obligations and not demands that the unity of here and elsewhere can be affirmed, the co-presence of that which can be affirmed, in the same time, heterogeneous(ly).” (p.135)

Stengers’ introduces the notion of obligations and demands in an earlier section of the book (titled simply ‘Constraints’). She defines obligations as the internal requirements of a given community of practitioners: what it is that they must do in order to produce something that can be considered as valid by members of that community. She defines demands as the external (to the practitioner) requirements of the entities in order that they may be discovered, created or interacted with: requirements that may well not be satisfied by the obligations of a given community of practitioners. The neutrino here serves a case in point, since it is clear that its existence cannot be affirmed by any old set of practices (it will not be discovered by a gardener, for example); rather a set of practices must be invented that permits the affirmation of the neutrino’s existence; practices that may well deviate from the obligations of those that preceeded it. Stengers’ series of books under the title Cosmopolitics can, thus, be read as the history of the conflicts and struggles arising within modern science as the creative impetus of an open-ended science grasping for entities whose very demands could not be met by existing practices with their established obligations, battled with those very established obligations. In each case, it is the internal contradictions of the discipline and the negotiations/interactions with an ambiguous other that result in the production of both the practices (with their new obligations) and their corresponding factishes (with their own particular demands).

Thus, when Stengers writes, “It is in terms of obligations and not demands that the unity of here and elswhere can be affirmed, the copresence of that which can be affirmed, in the same time, heterogeneous(ly),” she is making an important point that I think resonates with my concern with totalities and universals, but also explains why and how the notion of a totality as a transhistorical, transgeographical identification possesses its own fragile legitimacy. From within the practice of radical/revolutionary politics there is an obligation to connect with the past and distant struggles of all who have been/are being oppressed regardless of their distinct identities and regardless of the historical and existing antagonisms that may characterise them. This is necessary work because it holds out the possibility of – or perhaps even constitutes the condition for – the construction of a transnational and historicised revolutionary identity (the proletariat? the oppressed? the international workers’ movement) that can ‘gather together’ the disparate instances of exploitation and counter-struggle and unite them against the common foe: capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy, etc. In this sense, as Pothik emphasised in his talk, it is – at least in part – this identification with the universal ‘oppressed’ that marks the distinction between insurgence and insurrection." (http://andreling.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/cosmopolitics-revolutionary-class-identity-and-the-unknowns/)