(For some reason, this didn’t go out over Google Reader, so I’m re-posting it…)
The Speculative Realist blogosphere has been abuzz over the relationship between ontology and politics. Nick Srnicek’s post at Speculative Heresy – and the many comments on it – provide a good entry point to this discussion. Nick has wisely redrawn his initial arguments in ways that represent the counter-arguments quite well, so that both (or all) sides seem smarter and more clear-headed coming out of the process than going into it — which is what good philosophizing should be about.
The key, as he presents it, is to define politics in a viable and useful way: is it just about relations between humans and other humans (as he first assumed), or is it about ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ ‘the space of the im/possible’ (a Derridean formulation that needs more clarification, so see Nick’s elaboration on it), or something else. Nick argues that “if we’re not careful, everything becomes politics, and nothing gets changed. Art becomes intrinsically political. Ineffective protests become political (rather than spectacle). Writing blog posts becomes political! Politics – if it is to mean anything, and if it is to escape the nihilism and apoliticism that Nina rightly criticizes – must have a narrower definition than these neutered conceptions of the political.”
I agree with Nick that the definition of ‘politics’ should not be fully subsumed within the definition of ‘art’ (or ‘philosophy’ or religion’ or ‘science’ or ‘nature’ or anything else) — losing the distinctiveness of each of these terms renders the world less distinct and gives us a weaker grasp on things. But art, philosophy, etc. can still be political, and identifying overlaps between these categories can do important work for us.
Politics, to my mind, is about relationality — ‘the way of being-with amongst entities’, ‘the act of deciding exclusion and inclusion,’ etc. — but it doesn’t just describe that relationality; it affects it. Something becomes political to the extent that it effects change in relations, and specifically in power relations — that is, to the extent that it opens up, closes down, or somehow reorients or reconfigures capacities (one’s own and/or others’) for acting and for effecting change in the world.
This seems circular, but I’m trying to be consistent here with a process-relational ontology. To say that ‘politics’ is about ‘effecting change in the ways change can be effected’ is to render politics open in a world that is itself open. If voting cannot effect change, then it is not (any longer) political; or rather it is negatively political to the extent that it closes down the possibility for change, for instance, by creating the illusion that one is making change when one isn’t. Politics, by this definition, consists of those adjustments, negotiations, and struggles by which we reconfigure power in the world (where power is not just ‘power over’ but power-to, power-with, etc.). This can be done through art or philosophy, i.e. through the expression or conceptual formulation of new or different ways of relating, to the extent that these then affect actual relations in the world. But it is not identical with them.
And it can be not only between humans, since humans aren’t the only entities acting within a shared world. But humans have been pretty effective at changing others’ capacities for acting on their worlds, so politics – cosmopolitics, in Stengers’ terms – should today be about the nonhuman as well as the human .