Schlagwort-Archiv: narratives

Is this news or….?

Nigel Farage - By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Nigel Farage – By Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Greece CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

This morning I got a link to an article claiming that Nigel Farage (of all people) had applied for German citizenship following this summers Brexit vote. That he would do such a thing sounds somewhat absurd, seeing he has been fighting for Brexit for more than 20 years, and it has since been denied. But, my first reaction was not to think of it as absurd, it was “Is that news or satire?”. I genuinely could not tell, even after reading the article. This is happening to me more and more often lately, something utterly strange turns out to be true.Political developments have become unpredictable and I would not dream of saying something is impossible just because it sounds unbelievable, stupid or outright mad anymore. Brexit and the Columbians vote on their peace treaty are really just prominent examples. I have taken to watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, because somehow he manages to still clarify fact from fiction…. Seriously, watching satire to get the news?

Something called “fact-free politics” or “post-truth politics” has achieved a notoriety that has earned it its very own wikipedia article. Essentially the phenomenon means a kind of politics that appeals first and foremost to the emotions of people. Post-truth politics is said to be derived from communication habits developed through social media interaction and features prominently in the US Presidential Campaign. The trouble, of course, is, that just because it is factually wrong, it does not mean a political statement won’t be taken serious, I always have to consider every statement as true until…. Well, until when?

Discourse theory has taught us, that it matters what is said. And that things can become true by being said. Not because they are facts but because if everyone acts like they were true, the world will be like they were true. Discourse theory, however, never sufficiently explored how and why statements that are wrong in that they do not follow discursive rules (like appealing to certain speaker positions or relating to established discursive patterns) can gain traction. They shouldn’t be believed so easily.

I fear there is some deeper development at play here. The dawn of modernity came, when people realized that the world was not as is but made through the actions of people. It began with a select few but this sense has since extended to everyone, culminating in the belief, that everybody is the maker of their own fortune and one’s achievements are purely the result of effort and ability. Through these efforts we have created a world full of stuff that people just thirty years ago might have considered pure magic. My kids don’t flinch at the sight of a 3D-printer, they just shrug. Anything is possible. In a world, created through our own words and actions, down to its material substance, in which ever new developments make impossible things possible, how is one to distinguish the plausible from the implausible? Anything could be true. If we make it so.

That, however, is not the solution to the aforementioned morning problem, but the beginning. The trouble lies in the “If we make it so.” We used to be constrained by lack of technology, communication, knowledge. Like small children who simply lack the skills to light a candle or reach the knifes. They can do little permanent harm. It is when we learn to do more that we must learn to decide, what to do and when to do it. It seems to me, that the world has arrived at the stage, where we must learn to transition from trying everything and be amazed at our ability to just do it to deciding what it is we want to do. And this may even be less about reasserting ethics. I think about it like coming of age: the purpose of the teenage years is not (just) to learn to do the right thing, but to learn to decide who you want to be.  Like teenagers we drift, we don’t want to be tied down by choices. That is why we keep believing anything is possible and avoid the tough questions. fact free politics suggests to us that there is no limits, not even facts. We want it to be so, it is so.

We have the means to make a world to our liking. We have the means to destroy it. The whole spectrum of opportunity is infront of us. But not forever. It seems like we can ignore the facts of climate change, world poverty, war, technological change and no consequence results. Sometimes the facts come back to haunt us, sometimes they don’t. There is one fact, however, that we all must learn personally at some point and that the world will feel, too: Not making a choice does not leave all options open. It just makes the fading of opportunities follow a path you have not chosen. Of course, we could keep drifting and just see where it takes us. But I had much rather, we make decisions. We ask ourselves, who we want to be and then try to be that. Sure, we can fail. But it beats the feeling of realizing that we could have a built a great world but somehow missed the opportunity….And let’s be honest -  in an age of fact-free, why not dream?

The cyborg as imaginative resource

I have to admit, Donna Haraway‘s “Cyborg Manifesto” – despite its shortcomings – wows me every time I read it. I am not sure if it is the fact that this text – so eloquently describing changes that seem so very real today – was actually written in the 1980ies, when none of the things that seem to make us cyborgs today were part of everyone’s everyday life. Or it might be the sheer amount of different ideas brought together and interwoven, from science fiction to Marxism to feminist theory. Could be this text wows me because its style is so radically different from the usual academic writing, because it dares to speculate, antagonize and call for action. Or maybe, because it does all of those things at the same time. If I look closely, I find that the argument is not all that clear and some twists seem out of place to me. I am not always sure, there is even such a strong conclusion in there. However, this texts achieves what good political theory – in my humble opinion – is supposed to do: it provokes thought and triggers the imagination. In fact, it sends me down a spiral of exciting new thoughts whenever I return to it.

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway and companion, By Rusten Hogness, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons

Haraway introduces the cyborg as what she calls “an imaginative resource” (292). The cyborg is an image that stands for embracing what Haraway identifies as three “crucial boundary breakdowns” of the contemporary world — between human and animal, between animal-human (organism) and machine, and between the physical and the non-physical (293/4). She suggests this image in order to launch a criticism of feminist discourse that questions its very basis – the idea that there is something about being a woman that naturally binds women. according to her there “is not even such a state as ‘being’ female” (295). The contemporary self, she argues, is fundamentally fractured. She asks then, “what kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective – and, ironically, socialist-feminist?” (297).  This is usually where I associate the Zapatistas and the peculiar way the Zapatista discourse manages to connect different struggles without levelling out the differences. Of course, their inspiring example also teaches us about the possible limitations.

Having tackled the concept of identity, Haraway goes on to question the postmodern conception of “biopolitics” and argues instead to think of the contemporary self as being constructed within the “informatics of domination”. This kind of domination works not through division and the imposition of categories but through permanently dissolving them, by blurring all distinctions and thereby disabling the crude (post-)modern tool of resistance – identification. Coding and information processing (rather than categorizing and subjectivation) are the ways in which this domination manifests itself. In its most advanced form it can eliminate the natural unity altogether – when in microlectronics there is copies without originals (303) or, as we would say, the digital copy is indistinguishable from the original. This is evident not just in purely digital environments but also, for example, in genetically ‘identical’ beings such as clons or identical twins where there is indeed differences inscribed in the genes themselves (Casselmann 2008). Even the genetic code of a living breathing person may change over the course of their life. In other words, coding always means recoding and there is never a wholly identical copy. The process of communication transforms all information and negates the possibility of complete identity.

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

Seven of Nine, a borg made from a human currently recoding as a human

The cyborg as a resource for political imagination – how does that work in the informatics of domination? Haraway draws on literature in order to give her answer. I have a “literary” cyborg of my own in mind. In the Start Trek universe there is a race called the Borg (clearly, not the most original of names). These Borg procreate by “assimilating” other species, making their “technological and biological distinctiveness” part of their collective consciousness. The Borg absorb difference and create a unified whole in which individual distinctions are denied in favour of a collective unity. They are awfully efficient and – needless to say – the ultimate villains of the liberal consciousness. In one installation of the franchise, a young female, designated Seven of Nine, (incidentally dressed in a very revealing costume for the rest of the series…) is “freed” from the collective. It turns out, however, that she cannot be fully re-transformed into a human – some cybernetic implants remain as well as – more importantly – many character traits. Throughout the series the character remains trapped between being Borg and being human, never fully emerging as one or the other. She struggles with defining and re-defing herself and there is no choice for her than to remain in between. Interestingly, the franchise offers many more of these characters – the robot “Data“, who looks so much like a human and interacts with humans like a human but lacks emotion like a radicalized version of a vulcan. The half-klingon B’Elanna. The holographic doctor with the complex personality subroutines. Outside the Startrek Universe we could consider the Terminator or Marvin, the paranoid android. If we think of their struggles not as ones that seek to cross the border between human and machine but rather as continuous struggles for acceptance of the lack of any clear boundary, we may find the inspiration Haraway sees in the image of the cyborg. Just like Seven of Nine can never be fully human nor return to be Borg, we may never be woman or man, German or European, white or black but only ever the something that struggles to cope with lack of clear distinction between these categories.

What sounds like a grim outlook may be the one strategies that alleviates the effects of the informatics of domination. As nothing is fixed, the domination is constantly challenged by the very mechanisms that maintain it. Resistance is not about overthrowing domination but about continuing to struggles along the lack of clear boundaries. It is about turning the struggle into the purpose. Maybe that is why Haraway ends on the optimistic note:

I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. (316)

Story telling as political theory

Political theory comes in many forms and variations. Currently it follows academic modes of speech, which focus on the analytical distinctions and a language which connects to academic discourses. But we don’t have to go far to see how it could be different. The writings of Foucault would hardly pass the hard muster of academic peer review as they often lack the clarity and structure expected of academic papers. So would Hannah Arendt’s and those of many others, who reference discourses with great knowledge yet not necessarily systematically. Political theory comes in many shapes and forms and always has.

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Le Soldat en Semestre, by Sigmund Freudenberger, Public Domain

Story telling has been one of the more prominent modes in which political theory was presented. It is easy to think of obvious examples such as Thomas More’s Utopia – which lead to the naming of a whole genre of political theory. At the juncture of theory and literature a number of author’s have used stories to reflect upon societal and political conditions. Remember Lilliput? Gulliver’s Travels may well be read as critique his contemporary society.

But fictional accounts are not the only way in which story telling matters in political theory. Drawing historical analogies may also be understood as a form of story telling. Machiavelli uses history in his arguments on good governing quite excessively. He tells stories of failed wars and titles won, of great strategies and bad luck. I believe, anyone who argues from historical experience in political theory, in a way, chooses to tell a certain story.

A third way of using stories turns out to be common: that of allegory or parable. This is a technique that tells neither a fictional story nor refers to historical arguments in a strict sense. Instead it constructs an artificial setting in order to make a certain point. Plato’s Cave Allegory is an example. But one could think of the use of parables in the bible in a similar manner. By telling a story such as that of the Good Samaritan certain moral and ethical values are illustrated and put in an easy to understand context (admittedly, doesn’t seem to have worked too well, but that’s true for Machiavelli too…).

In so far as political theory analyses and criticizes existing conditions and suggests how thinks might be differently, story telling can be a central tool. And there is some very obvious reasons why:

  • stories are easy to understand and to remember
  • good stories are interesting – people want to hear them
  • complex problems, when explained in form of a story, may be more easily seen in their complexity, because the also communicate an affective, emotional dimension that academic papers do not/ should not

Of course, there are also limitations – stories lack conceptual clarity and leave much to interpretation. But when it comes to political theory problems which touch upon people’s identities, fears, hopes or values, a good story may well help to navigate the complexities of the issue. That is one of the reasons why story telling of sorts has some repute even in contemporary academia. In particular sociology has recovered the art of story telling to play out the future effects of contemporary trends. Anthropology uses it to describe complex social interactions for example when retelling the way rituals are lived. In political science scenario development is used to explain how various changes today may impact the future.  All these attempts may be pursued as a subversive activity of developing a new narrative, a new way to see that which is there. When Foucault talks about the ways in which discourse may be subverted, he remains vague. I believe, that story telling – which allows the breaking of certain rules of truth and adequacy – may work as one way of subverting dominant discourse. This happens – for example  in this video:

Clearly, story telling is no cure all. But if it helped Thomas More condemn land crabbing and displacement of the poor as thievery, maybe it is a good tool today, too.

Just for fun

Sometimes it is important to just go out and listen to some interesting thoughts by someone who is, well, interesting. So I did last Thursday and went to Gayatri Spivak‘s talk at the Center for Area Studies here in Berlin.

It was entitled An Aesthetic Education in the Era of GlobalizationWeiterlesen