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A brief report on the [POL] workshop in London (by Bruno Latour)

04 February 2014
filed under: materials

The general organization

First, many thanks to Noortje Marres for having organized a day of intense brainstorming and thanks to participants for having come, sometimes from afar. And thanks for Christophe Leclercq for having organized it all.

The goal was to test the notion of [POL] as a mode of existence by two different trials:
a) according to the specialists of the domain what is missing in the account given of it in the AIME proposal?;
b) if it were feasible to use [POL] as a tracer, what sort of empirical materials would be most revealing? — this last point being of special interest to Noortje since her question was to check whether digital methods documenting issue displacements allow the tracing of [POL] as well or even better than what is usually done by considering political “speech” and “rhetoric” [1].

This face to face meeting prepares the rewriting that will take place in Paris at the end of July, so it was important to see whether the argument made on [POL] had to be abandoned, amended, strengthened and on what empirical material the work should continue to be done.
We had organized the meeting in three phases:

  • a brief presentation of the beings of [POL] and what they make us do;
  • then two hours of “protestation” during which all the participants could complain about what was missing from the account given so far;
  • and then an afternoon devoted to the comparison of two genres of empirical material: the new digital methods to follow issue formation; and the older genre of political speeches (find below examples):

What should clearly be redrafted

First, the extreme difficulty of concentrating the attention of the participants on a mode of existence and not on a domain – the political – or a discipline – political sciences or political theory. The difficulty was compounded by the genealogy of ANT (actor-network-theory): after thirty years of extending politics to “everything” – including non-humans, technology, science, bodies etc. – it seems difficult to admit a sudden restriction of politics to one type of trajectory only.

The paper by De Vries [2] and the subsequent discussion of what was in the bibliography would have helped distinguish three approaches to the problem that have to be made much clearer in the future:
-the generalization of politics to “everything" being in fact an approach to associations (using ANT, redescribed now as NET in the inquiry). -the displacement of issues studied at length by Noortje and for which “political” describes only a moment in the natural history of issues [3] (and my own paper in the bibliography numbering those moments “political 1 to 4” [4]); - and finally political as an adverb capturing the shape of a trajectory in a way totally independent of whether or not it is part of the “political” as an institution, a domain or even an issue ([POL] as a mode).

Because of the failure to share those distinctions among participants, it was difficult to keep the discussion from drifting to a side problem: is [POL] described in AIME an alternative political theory to be evaluated side by side with let’s say Hobbes, Arendt or Voegelin? To which the answer is of course, “No, it is not an alternative” since it claims to focus attention on something entirely different that cuts across the disciplinary distinctions and does not even pertain to the political (this is why it is labeled [POL]!) – but which has nonetheless some connection with generating the values and institutions associated, in the anthropology of the Moderns, with politics (this is why it is labeled [POL]!).

Especially frustrating to the participants was the concept of “Circle” introduced in AIME to specify some aspects of the shape of the trajectory of POL but that was taken often not as an analytical concept but as a theory about the shape of a political system or architecture or group. Obviously Circle has to be redrafted and may be abandoned as a term, even though it also has some useful features [5]. Against the notion of straight talk, the concept is good at pointing out the circularity and tautology of so much politics-generating practice and talk. It is also good at multiplying at each segment of the circle the notion of exception or break since it needs to “bend” so as not to go “straight”. And finally it has the great advantage of capturing the ‘made to move’ by others that is so characteristic of POL and its special semiotics – it is simultaneously ahead and behind, a phenomenon that the word representation does not carry so well.

Equally to be redrafted is the notion of “group formation”. It plays an important role in the AIME report but the notion is probably a mischaracterization since “group” is a multimodal term and in fact we should be able to detect the work of forming a group in the style of [POL] different from, for instance, of those of [REF], [LAW] etc. Even though it is crucial in order to foreground [POL] to keep in mind ANT’s general point that there is no group if it is not produced and bordered by some sort of action – one of them is clearly [POL] –, the word “group formation” cannot be attributed to [POL] entirely.
Many problems of understanding the project are due to the following of modes instead of crossings. In the discussion, it was obvious that it would have been useful to follow other crossings. For instance, [FIC·ATT] to account for the constant dramatization of issues (some examples were part of the ‘sublime’); or to detect the theatre of politics, or the clichés. But also [MET·POL] as probably crucial in practice to following an instance of political maneuver [HAB·POL] and of course [POL·LAW]. The weakness of the AIME draft is shown here again by the repeated tendency to follow a mode and not the crossings out of which something was learned about the mode. We have not yet found a convincing way to encourage and facilitate the crossing of modes and that’s a pity because the only advantage of the method is to allow for the comparison between modes.

On the good side, it was interesting to see that we have not been bogged down too much by the notion of the “public” (even though it was often mentioned), and that is of course the great contribution of Noortje’s work since it has replaced the political as a standing set of institutions and procedures “through which” issues are supposed to circulate, by the notion of issue formation – each with its own ‘public’ in the Lippmanian sense. So empirically, it has been validated that the quest for the experience of POL is made possible only once we follow issue displacement. It is clear that only through this complete reversal of traditional political science is the tracing of POL made feasible. Without following the shapes of the issue, POL is invisible. (With the limit that the study may become [NET] and not [POL] when we are unable to characterize the [POL] way of displacing an issue!
And even more interestingly, for me at least, it was clear that issue displacement methods (even though I don't follow the details of the digital methods) provide us many ideas on how to follow more traditional empirical cases such as the rhetoric of speech in official settings (Clinton, Eliot etc.). Not because everything is “speech” but on the contrary because “speeches” are tiny segments in issue displacement. So it is clear that methodologically we are in business.

Some specifications and their relation with the Circle

So at this meeting I learned a lot about the specifications proper to the beings of POL even though the participants were, it seems to me, constantly disappointed and frustrated that it was such a bad version of political science or political theory. In what follows I toss out for consideration, without ordering them, some of the features that have been underlined as being part of the “specs” of the beings of POL (apologies to the participants for not adding their names to what they said; we will do that on the formal transcript later on).

  • it is interesting to note the way practicing politicians often have to account for their actions with a myriad of anecdotes and yet of course without any theory of what it is to be “political” (anecdotes underline the aggregative nature of the process of composition and for me are what makes the Circle tick);

  • the insistence in political theory on procedural aspects – the isogoria, the parrhesia, rule of law etc- underlines an important aspect of the Circle that it is constantly uncertain about how to continue and always concentrating on the process – its movement, as well as on its content – the issue; procedure and trajectory have a lot in common;

  • one way to link the mode and the institution is to detect when the practice shifts from issue formation to connecting issues to one another; in the example we studied – Clinton on abortion, etc. - we detected that we were ‘in politics’ because the whole framing was done to connect issues; but all those were somewhat late in their issue displacement history; this point is at the heart of Noortje’s work and is important to the articulation of issues and institutions;

  • dissent and consent are totally linked so that those who protest “not me, I am not part of that!” are just as much involved in achieving the movement of POL as those who consent; this is somewhat obvious since the whole trajectory is to be repeated once again so as to take into account or to fight those who are not “part of”, so being “part of” or “not being part of” is a “spec” of POL; mereology is an essential aspect of POL and so is the exclusion/inclusion movement;

  • violence always seems to be brought in when people talk of the political, but of course, violence is a multimodal term that pertains to all the other modes as well, so what is violent in the sense of [POL]? In the examples we studied the marking of dissent was clearly part of the answer (that’s again the parrhesia argument) in the sense that each part insists on the impossibility of completing the Circle, and each impossibility forces the Circle to bend so to speak, and to start all over again; that’s what makes me like the image of the Circle since the principle of exception and the violence of being in and out is not localized anywhere but spread throughout in the very shape of the movement to be given to any action;

  • many examples have to cross the distinction between speech, word, symbols, gestures, pain, bodily attitudes etc.; so it is important to follow the [POL] tracer throughout registers (a hunger strike is just as much an expression as a slogan, a rumble, or a “boo”); the word “logos” could carry this, but only for those who know some Greek…; what counts in defining those encounters with the political is what comes next in line and this is what the notion of circular movement tries to capture; it is the n+1 that counts and not any n+1 but the one that comes back to make you do something and address others (“representation” could mean this but on condition of turning it into a movement… well a circular movement!);

  • it is interesting to reflect on the obsession of political architecture – mental and physical – with the circular or spherical shape (pace Sloterdijk [6]); of course it is not necessary – and the concept of Circle is not itself “circular”; it is a movement – but it is not totally accidental either that the Greco-Roman obsession for globes and round tables has seized the imagination (see the Making Things Public catalog [7]); once again the articulation between the mode and the institution and the way it has been elaborated by the tradition is to be studied empirically;

  • when politics end; this is a central aspect of Lippmann’s argument and it is a question we addressed only in passing but that can be clearly separated in two versions: when issue displacement brings an issue away from the official, hot and intense political institutions (for instance when it becomes ‘governmentality’, or “political 4” in my proposition); when the trajectory is evaluated as ‘bad’ politically, that is as losing its truth condition – summarized provisionally in the expression “doing the Circle”.

Provisional conclusion

These meetings are obviously very useful to clarify the questions; we tried to do in a day what should have been done in a week…; much more work should be done to make clear how difficult it is to follow a mode; much more insistence should be put on the crossings; we should spend more time on the NET part of each question since it is only after the networks have been deployed in a ANT fashion that the question of characterizing the shape of a trajectory is even thinkable; nonetheless more effort should be put into showing how a trajectory (here issue displacements) is articulated with institutions; in the case of POL it is clear that it is impossible not to follow the constant interferences between the mode and the elaboration of political theory; redrafting should be possible in July to take all of that into account and launch new inquiries later on.

Bruno Latour


  1. Noortje Marres. No Issue, No Public. Democratic Deficits after the Displacement of Politics. Amsterdam: Phd in Philosophy, 2005 ; "Issues Spark a Public into Being: A Key but Forgotten Point of the Lippmann-Dewey Debate." Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy. Eds. Latour, Bruno and Peter Weibel. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005. 208-17.

  2. Gerard De Vries. "What is Political in Subpolitics? How Aristotle Might Help STS." Social Studies of Science 37 (2007): 781-809.

  3. Noortje Marres. "The Issues Deserve More Credit: Pragmatist Contributions to the Study of Public Involvement in Controversy." Social Studies of Science 37.Octobre (2007): 759 - 80. ; "The environmental Teapot: re-connecting the politics of issues, technology and things." Objects and Materials: A Routledge Companion. Eds. Harvey, P. and E. Conlin Casella. London: Routledge, 2013.

  4. Bruno Latour. "Turning around Politics: a Note on Gerard de Vries' paper." Social Studies of Science 37 (2007): 811-20.

  5. Bruno Latour. "What if we Were Talking Politics a Little?" Contemporary Political Theory 2.2 (2003): 143-64.

  6. Peter Sloterdijk. In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalization (translated by Wieland Hoban). Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013.

  7. Bruno Latour, and Peter Weibel, eds. Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2005 (pdf accessible on any good pirate site).

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