Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Pluralism Wars: Strike Back Against the Empire

Btw, my link aggregating is on-going with The Pluralism Wars!. So, every day I plan on putting up a new edit sign, and then putting the links as the discussion goes on. Either until I get bored, the discussion ends, or the intellectual terrain is scorched and salted. Whatever comes first.

While I hope you have read some of the various posts of the pluralism wars, I understand there are so many, and so many really deep discussions going on in comments (and even more occurring on facebook and twitter). This post should be read most in conjunction with Arran James' post here.

In Kennan Ferguson's excellent book on William James as a political thinker of pluralism, he writes, "Jamesian pluralism, as an ethical and philosophical system, encourages engagement with the world based on terms we do not ourselves control" (p. 47). Jamesian pluralism, then, is based upon an idea of finitude. Finitude, of course, has increasingly gotten a bad rap among certain new realists (I wonder why), but what is being advanced here is not a Kantian finitude. Here, let's turn to James himself: "But the knower in question may still be conceived either as an Absolute or as an Ultimate; and over against the hypothesis of him in either form the counter-hypothesis that the widest field of knowledge that ever was or will be still contains some ignorance, may be legitimately held. Some bits of information always may escape (James, Pragmatism, p. 81, emphasis added). This is not the finitude of being trapped in myself, and being unable to access the thing-in-itself, but is the finitude related to the infinity of what is, the thing-itself can always be more. This is why, for example, Latour claims that the genius of ANT is its very inability to be applied (Reassembling the Social, pp. 141-157). The issue of finitude is not just that the world can always be more, it is also that reality is fundamentally constructivist itself. It is unfinished. "But this view leads one to the farther hypothesis that the actual world, instead of being complete 'eternally,' as the monists assure us, may be eternally incomplete, and at all times subject to addition or liable to loss" (James, Pragmatism, p. 82). As James adds in A Pluralistic Universe, "that the substance of reality may never get totally collected, that some of it may remain outside of the largest combination of it ever made, and that a distributive form of reality, the each-form, is logically as acceptable and empirically as probable as the all-form commonly acquiesced in as so obviously the self-evident thing."

Such a relationship to finitude and pluralism has obvious political and ethical implications. It forces us to attend to the realities of others. Kennan Ferguson, again: "What happens to those creatures that are judged deficient in their intelligibility, or those that transgress these boundaries, or those who understand but ignore them? This includes the traditionally and contemporarily problematic categories of slaves, women, criminals, the insane, and children, each of whose inclusion and exclusion from intelligibility and political involvement has been contested." (p. 10) And animals. Jamesian pluralism, unlike, say, the Bush administration, forces us to understand the legitimacy of another's world. Like Ranciere put it in Disagreement, "Politics is not made up of power relationships; it is made up of relationships between worlds" (p. 42). The idea of learning from and avowing the legitimacy of other worlds risks, of course, voluntarism. But it does so as being irreducibly opposed to the authoritarianism of the Bush administration understanding of truth that Levi has mentioned.  Against the authoritarian doctrine of truth from the Bush administration, Jamesian understandings of truth sides with those who have been systemically excluded from the intelligible. In his own life, of course, James was publicly opposed to militarism and imperialism, and frequently spoke out against the Spanish-American War, and the colonialism of the Philippines.  James' pluralism granted the legitimacy of the world of the neighbor. His philosophy is profoundly social. Again from Ferguson, "James opposed this homogenization, celebrating those people who were overtly unlike him, for it was they who could teach and change him: people who loved war, people who hated nature, people who believed in the afterlife, people who had new ideas of medicine, and Cubans, Hawaiians, and Filipinos." (p. 46). Such a move has nothing to do with discursive or social construction, and is certainly not "first world philosophies" (an ethos stealing phrase if there ever was one). I am sure that W.E.B. Du Bois, Cornel West, and Paul Taylor (to name a few) would be surprised to hear they are engaged in first world philosophies. Because Jamesian pluralism is not a project of tolerance or liberalism. It is perhaps a project more disconcerting, one that has to take seriously the worlds of those who are most dissimilar from yourself.

And in so doing, pragmatism continues, as I argued before, a refusal of first philosophies and grounding. It removes the satisfaction of being one of the knowers. It seeks to develop an allergy to what Stengers has called "the desire to be the thinking brain of humanity." It means taking seriously beliefs that get sneered at, rather than being the sneerer (again, images taken from Stengers). As satisfying as it is to rant about the global warming deniers and the young earthers and the birthers and all of that. Let's be honest, the ability go scream "you are wrong" has not somehow managed to help the climate at all, or change income inequality, or stop factory farming, or little else. And even if tomorrow climate denying went away, it doesn't really mean that we be doing what needs to be done. The political, social, and ethical problems of the world are not fundamentally cartesian problems that after the right truth follows right actions. I spend my whole life having discussions with people who all agree with me about the evils of factory farming and fail to do anything in their own lives about it. So maybe, instead, we need to understand the worlds of others. Not tolerate them, or concern troll them, or proselytize them, but actually engage those who are most dissimilar from ourselves. This is, of course, a not inconsiderable part of the projects of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. This is the issue of mediators (Deleuze), the issues of diplomates and cosmopolitics and ecologies of practices. This is to understand politics as a relationship of worlds, and to understand the realities of how truth goes about being validated in those worlds and about those worlds. And therefore pluralism is profoundly antithetical to the projects of universalism. But it is not relativistic or solipsistic, and certainly is not the liberal project of polite tolerance.

But, to return us to Arran James' questions, does this not just return us to a position of neutrality? How do we account for what Fred Moten has called a general antagonism? As Bill Haver has put it, isn't non-neutrality the very condition of immanence (in which the god-trick of transcendence allows neutrality)? How do we combine this Jamesian pluralism with those for whom in their fundamental existential comportments require the ability to resist against worlds that treat them only with violence and domination? Maybe cosmopolitics and pluralism seeks to stop imperialism before it happens, but does it also cause us to demand that the insurgents put down their arms? Or that we remain neutral between those who are fighting for the right to exist and those who deny that right?

I have tried to argue before that a Jamesian understanding of ethics is one that cannot be neutral (see here and here). One is forced to act, without the assurance of being right. It is the register of the tragic, before it makes a world that was a live possibility now a dead possibility. But for all of that, we must of course act. In this way, James is, of course, a meliorist. Long quotation, I apologize:
Midway between the two [optimism and pessimism] there stands what may be called the doctrine of meliorism, tho it has hitherto figured less as a doctrine than as an attitude in human affairs. Optimism has always been the regnant doctrine in european philosophy. Pessimism was only recently introduced by Schopenhauer and counts few systematic defenders as yet. Meliorism treats salvation as neither inevitable nor impossible. It treats it as a possibility, which becomes more and more of a probability the more numerous the actual conditions of salvation become.
It is clear that pragmatism must incline towards meliorism. Some conditions of the world’s salvation are actually extant, and she cannot possibly close her eyes to this fact: and should the residual conditions come, salvation would become an accomplished reality. Naturally the terms I use here are exceedingly summary. You may interpret the word ’salvation’ in any way you like, and make it as diffuse and distributive, or as climacteric and integral a phenomenon as you please.
Take, for example, any one of us in this room with the ideals which he cherishes, and is willing to live and work for. Every such ideal realized will be one moment in the world’s salvation. But these particular ideals are not bare abstract possibilities. They are grounded, they are live possibilities, for we are their live champions and pledges, and if the complementary conditions come and add themselves, our ideals will become actual things. What now are the complementary conditions? They are first such a mixture of things as will in the fulness of time give us a chance, a gap that we can spring into, and, finally, our act.
Does our act then create the world’s salvation so far as it makes room for itself, so far as it leaps into the gap? Does it create, not the whole world’s salvation of course, but just so much of this as itself covers of the world’s extent?
Here I take the bull by the horns, and in spite of the whole crew of rationalists and monists, of whatever brand they be, I ask why not? Our acts, our turning-places, where we seem to ourselves to make ourselves and grow, are the parts of the world to which we are closest, the parts of which our knowledge is the most intimate and complete. Why should we not take them at their face-value? Why may they not be the actual turning-places and growing-places which they seem to be, of the world–why not the workshop of being, where we catch fact in the making, so that nowhere may the world grow in any other kind of way than this? (Pragmatism, pp. 137-138, emphasis in original)

Against the universalists and the idealistic monists, it is the very unfinished nature of the world that allows for us to respond to this age of catastrophes. (And one should take seriously Bill Connolly's political project as spelled out in Pluralism, The World of Becoming, and The Fragility of Things). The point is, to quote Bill Haver quoting Samuel Delany, to "practice invention to the brink of intelligibility."

Okay, I know I haven't yet answered Levi's questions about evil spirits yet (maybe I won't, we will see), but I wanted to address the issues of political philosophy and ethics more.