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Literature and culture, a humanizing force?

My dissertation on democracy, language, and colonialism will likely be prefaced by the following quote:

We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to his day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that his ear is gross, is cant. In what way does this knowledge bear on literature and society, on the hope, grown almost axiomatic from the time of Plato to that of Matthew Arnold, that culture is a humanizing force, that the energies of spirit are transferable to those of conduct? Moreover, it is not only the case that the established media of civilization – the universities, the arts, the book world – failed to offer adequate resistance to political bestiality; they often rose to welcome it and gave it ceremony and apologia. Why?

George Steiner, Language and Silence.

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Practices and intellectualist fallacies in social science

Charles Taylor’s well-known essay “To Follow a Rule” offers social scientists and theorists an indispensable but still neglected perspective on human agency and norm governed life. The arguments have much in common with those made by James Tully in “Wittgenstein and Political Philosophy”. Like Tully, Taylor’s main resource is the later work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, which he deploys in order to deconstruct a number of persistent intellectualist fallacies. The gist of the argument is that one’s understanding of a norm or rule, as well as deviation from the rule, is in the first instance a bodily understanding of appropriate ways to move and act in relation to others. There is no intellectual formulation – no representation of a practice – that is required for our practical understanding. What follows is a summary of the article. I conclude with a minor point that in addition to bodily know-how being the grounds of following a rule, it is also the grounds of contesting a rule.

Taylor argues that for any principle or justification we do end up articulating in order to explain a rule to someone there are an “indefinite number of points at which, for a given explanation of a rule and a given run of cases, someone could nevertheless misunderstand” (166). Misunderstanding the character of a practice occurs when our interlocutor does not share the appropriate background: “Understanding is always against a background of what is taken for granted, just relied on. Someone can always come along who lacks this background, and so the plainest things can be misunderstood” (167).

What is the nature of this background? Taylor quickly dismisses the notion of an infinite catalogue of resolutions that qualify every possible instance of rule conformity and deviation. No one possesses such a mental compendium. For after all the inevitable exceptions and qualifications that we admit during an interrogation of the principle we’ve mustered to explain or justify, we eventually hit a point where we are unable to provide any further account. In such cases, as Wittgenstein observes, my justifications “have reached bedrock, and my spade is turned” (167). At this point I can only offer that “this is simply what I do” and continue on acting, as it were, “without reasons” (167). Taylor concurs, observing that “reason giving has a limit, and in the end must repose in another kind of understanding” (179).

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The Master’s Tools Cannot be Used

When Audre Lorde agreed to participate in a feminist conference at NYU in 1984, she was dismayed to find an almost complete absence of black and lesbian participants other than herself. In Lorde’s now famous rebuke to her audience of white heterosexual feminists she demanded that feminism begin acknowledging the practical and experiential differences that exist between different groups of women. A failure to do so condemns feminism to reinscribe patterns of exclusion and domination. For in this failure to recognize, nurture, and benefit from the diversity of female experiences, she charged that white feminists were deploying the very racist and patriarchal ‘tools’ of exclusion they sought to challenge:

What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.

In excluding the experiences of black and lesbian women, academic feminists were subverting their own goals of democratic inclusion. Lorde issued her now well-known caution, arguing that systems of oppression cannot be challenged by woman’s participation in those same systems:

the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.

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Thoughts on Paul Nadasdy’s ‘Hunter’s and Bureaucrats’…

Paul Nadasdy, an anthropologist, published a book in 2003 titled Hunters and Bureaucrats: Power, Knowledge, and Aboriginal State Relations in the Southwest Yukon. The book presents an analysis of the ways in which the Canadian state and its bureaucratic structures impose a transformative context on negotiations between aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities, a context that distorts and displaces the meaning of aboriginal accounts. Using his experiences living with and aiding the Kluane First Nation, settler-born Nadasdy explores the subtle power of the state to structure the terms of dialogue such that the demand for a public accounting of traditional practices and ways of knowing leads to these forms of life being excluded or disfigured in translation.

Nadasdy employs the work of a number of theorists to illustrate just how ‘contexts’ delimit what it is possible to say, do, or even think. Referring to the work on ‘symbolic power’ developed by Pierre Bourdieu, he argues that speech acts are situated within certain “linguistic fields” that may or may not be amenable to the particular ‘linguistic habitus’ of an individual. In certain contexts, particular modes of speaking may be discredited or excluded while others are recognized as ‘official’ or ‘formal’. Likewise through the work of Michel Foucault we see that knowledge is always imbricated in relations of power that do not rely on coercive force but nevertheless shape discourse, what Eric Wolf has referred to as a ‘structural power’ that defines the basic conditions of admissibility and intelligibility (10).

What this means in practice is that we cannot simply depend on dialogue to forge mutual understandings, if for no other reason than the meaning of words is derived from and supported within certain forms of life that may be absent from the context of the negotiation. Nadasdy offers the word “respect”, upheld as a guiding principle of traditional life, as an example. He writes that it is not enough to simply agree with aboriginal peoples on the importance of respect because we’re probably not talking about the same thing.

 We cannot simply assume that the English word “respect” stands for a distinct and coherent set of First Nations beliefs and practices; rather, we can only hope to understand what First Nations peoples mean by the term if we examine it “in action.” In other words, we must observe its use within specific social contexts. (80)

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Radical incommensurability is incoherent…

Seyla Benhabib has made some observations about radical difference that I continue to wrestle with despite my many disagreements with how it fits into her general argument. If we wish to claim that a culture or way of being is radically different from our own, how is it that we understand it as a culture at all?

Radical incommensurability and radical untranslatability are incoherent notions, for in order to be able to identify a pattern of thought, a language – and, we may add, a culture – as the complex meaningful human systems of action and signification that they are, we must first at least have recognized that concepts, words, rituals, and symbols in these other systems have a meaning and reference that we can select and describe in a manner intelligible to us – as being concepts at all, for example, rather than mere exclamations. If radical untranslatability were true, we could not even recognize the other set of utterances as part of a language, as, that is, a practice that is more or less rule-governed and shared in fairly predictable ways.

Seyla Benhabib, The Claims of Culture, p. 30.

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Internal Exclusion…

Iris Young makes the simple but critical point that for the marginalized admission into democratic institutions provides no guarantee of inclusion into democratic processes. Indeed, such admittance may signal a deeper and more insidious form of domination.

Though formally included in a forum or process, people may find that their claims are not taken seriously and may believe that they are not treated with equal respect. The dominant mood may find their ideas or modes of expression silly or simple, and not worthy of consideration. They may find that their experiences as relevant to the issues under discussion are so different from others’ in the public that their views are discounted. I call these familiar experiences internal exclusion, because they concern ways that people lack effective opportunity to influence the thinking of others even when they have access to fora and procedures of decision-making.

Iris Young, Inclusion and Democracy, p. 55.

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Care as Democratic Ethos…

My general approach to political theory, and my approach to democratic theory and the problem of colonialism more specifically, identifies care as the chief structuring or motivating dynamic of political life. Political philosopher, Fred Dallmayr, grounds such a vision in the work of, among others, Martin Heidegger:

Opposing the modern construal of action as the instrumental production of effects, Heidegger portrays the core of action as “fulfilling” (vollbringen). What is fulfilled or accomplished in action is not so much the goal or effect but rather the human quality or humanity of the agent. What in particular discloses this quality is the degree of the agent’s openness or receptivity to the claims of others, an openness that transforms action into the midpoint between doing and suffering – something Heidegger calls “letting-be” (Seinlassen) and that is far removed from both indifference and manipulative control. As can readily be seen, this kind of “letting-be” – Heidegger also calls it “primordial praxis” – is of crucial relevance for democracy provided the latter is seen as a relational practice and not a form of unilateral domination or subjugation. Inspired by “care” (Sorge), as  indicate, this primordial praxis also can be seen as the cornerstone of a democratic ethos.

Fred Dallmayr, The Promise of Democracy, p. 9.

After Heidegger, a host of existential phenomenologists, feminists, and social theorists undertook to explore the deeply embodied and affective nature of care. I suggest that recognizing care as the soul of democratic agency – the cornerstone of praxis – permits us to see that the host of practices commonly idealized by democratic theory (e.g., deliberation, representation, performance, contestation, etc) are predicated on the more basic form of life which is attending to the needs of self and other. The next step, I argue, is coming to terms with the issues of domination and exclusion that emerge when we fetishize a single instantiation or practice of care, such as deliberation or representation.

Thoughts on Sharon Krause’s “Bodies in Action: Corporeal Agency in Democratic Politics”

Democracy in the Flesh

Sharon Krause’s recent article in Political Theory, “Bodies in Action: Corporeal Agency in Democratic Politics” is, in my estimation, one of the most timely and important essays in political theory published in a number of years. In this essay, Krause, who authored the equally interesting book, Civil Passions (2008), introduces us to recent transformations in the conceptualization of agency taking place across a number disciplines, collectively described as  a ‘new materialism’, and illustrates how this shift can be deployed to revitalize our thinking about democratic politics and citizenship. Referring to developments in Actor Network Theory (ANT) and to the work of theorists like Diane Coole, Davide Panagia, and Jane Bennett, Krause discusses how research on the affective, embodied, and distributed nature of agency offers an important and promising departure from both traditional rationalist and classical materialist (e.g. Marxian) visions of political life.

Materialism has either faded or become somewhat arcane since the political shifts of the late-80s and Krause offers a refreshing corrective. Whereas Marxian analysis posits relations of production as the explanatory grounds for interpreting institutions and action, the new materialism expands its vision beyond production to the myriad corporeal, phenomenological, relational, and environmental elements that enable and constrain human agency. As expected, it becomes vulnerable to familiar accusations of functionalism and determinism. Most significantly, in taking agency to be distributed, rendering it more diffuse as opposed to locating it solely in a sovereign subject, the approach threatens to dissolve the subject and individual responsibility completely. Such a radical materialism, according to Krause, “threatens to eviscerate the grounds for holding persons responsible,” and accordingly, “cannot sustain a model of agency that is viable for democratic politics” (317).

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Thoughts on David James’ “Rousseau on needs, language and pity”

In his excellent article “Rousseau on needs, language and pity: The limits of ‘public reason’,” published in the European Journal of Political Theory (July 2011 vol. 10 no. 3 372-393), David James (Cambridge) looks to defend Rousseau’s account of public reason from writers, such as Frederick Neuhouser (Columbia), who would interpret Rousseau as committed to excluding affective language from public deliberation and, consequently, as sharing something crucially in common with Kantian or Rawlsian models of moral and political reasoning.

James turns to Rousseau’s account of the origins of language and his account of pity and moral development in Emile, putting forth the argument that language plays an essential, and also essentially democratic, role in the public communication of human needs.

Rousseau’s recognition of the way in which spoken language forms an essential element in democratic politics, and of how such language may have its source in human need, implies that we can think of language that is anchored in human need and which may, in certain cases, take on accents of pain and of anger, as representing a potentially legitimate contribution to modern democratic politics, even when it does not, in terms of its form, in any obvious sense conform to the demands associated with the idea of public reason. (382)

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Defining ‘Settler Colonial Studies’ (updated)

Edward Cavanagh (Whitwatersrand) and Lorenzo Veracini (Swineburn) are doing a great deal to advance the field of settler colonial studies. In addition to their published work they have established what looks to be an excellent new journal and a website/blog, settler colonial studies, with updates on important research. If you are working in this area I would highly recommend getting involved.

Cavanagh and Veracini provide a definition of ‘settler colonialism’ on their website that is very helpful in distinguishing it from other forms of coloniality:

Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present. There is no such thing as neo-settler colonialism or post-settler colonialism because settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; as Patrick Wolfe has noted, settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labour before they are made to disappear). Sometimes settler colonial forms operate within colonial ones, sometimes they subvert them, sometimes they replace them. But even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they co-define each other.

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