Sunday, June 26, 2011

Perspectives and Predispositions

If we see knowing not as having an essence, to be described by scientists or philosophers, but rather as a right, by current standards, to believe, then we are well on the way to seeing conversation as the ultimate context within which knowledge is to be understood. Our focus shifts from the relation between human beings and the objects of their inquiry to the relation between alternative standards of justification, and from there to the actual changes in those standards which make up intellectual history.

- Richard Rorty
Conflicts such as the ‘War on Terror’ (and the long prelude to them in histories of capitalism, colonialism, empire, and globalization) are not simply veiled productions of greed and selfishness played out on the imagined stage of global American empire – they are deep-seated, existential, and vital to understand. We cannot address them without thinking about our place in the world, our understanding of what it means to give consent to a community and to belong inside of it, and what it is to declare or be declared as an enemy of that community.

This sort of thing, for which I need to come up with a better word than ‘radicalism’ or 'extremism' (and, likewise, the common reactions of the non-radical to the radical) tends towards precluding this sort of discourse. Each side ceases to exist for the sake of its issues and rather dedicates its efforts in opposition of the other – in short, ceases to be 'for' anything, in favor of being 'against' something else. Through rejection of not simply the current conclusions of the dominant social order – which it perceives as a categorically incorrect ‘Other’ – but also the very structure of the order by which those conclusions were arrived at, this sort of critique does little more than add ruins to an already ruinous world.

Bruno Latour wrote, in 2004, an article entitled “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” which opens with a question: “Should we be at war, too, we, the scholars, the intellectuals? Is it really our duty to add fresh ruins to fields of ruins? Is it really the task of the humanities to add deconstruction to destruction?” His plea is to for critique to move away from taking things apart, and instead to move towards putting new things together:
The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. The critic is not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naïve believers, but the one who offers the participants arenas in which to gather. The critic is not the one who alternates haphazardly between antifetishism and positivism like the drunk iconoclast drawn by Goya, but the one for whom, if something is constructed, then it means it is fragile and thus in great need of care and caution.1
These are the questions that have haunted my thought in recent memory, and have found form in stymie and frustration as I seem to see the world slowly and methodically taken apart – with the perverse and well-intentioned curiosity of a child pulling apart a toy his father made, so that he can see how it works, finding later that he is unable to put it back together, that in dissembling he has destroyed something transcendent. I find myself hoping that we can, rather, put that object next to another toy from another father, to create something unanticipated and possibly better than either of the two on their own.

In an effort to make sense of these frustrations and senses, which exist largely in the nebulous realm of reaction, the first part of this paper deals with perspectives – with where I’m coming from and how I see us as being able to act in the world while remaining aware of the questions we have asked this semester. As well as I can articulate them, here are the main questions driving my inquiry:
1. How can we rescue the ability to act from our awareness of disparate and innumerable perspectives on the world that are both visible and occasionally intractable or contradictory?

2. Is there a way of acting in the world that can both embrace a community, such as the United States , while not falling into the traps of ignoring or seeming to ignore the mistakes, missteps, tragedies, and occasional crimes that have been committed by people claiming the same name? Put another way, can I be American without being held responsible for slavery, or can a country that has detonated nuclear bombs and not intervened in Rwanda argue for non-proliferation or humanitarian invasion decades later?

3. Once we have established that ability to act in the world and with or without that community, how do we determine what, precisely, we should do, ethically, responsibly, and effectively – both intelligently and wisely? Put another way, how do we avoid what happened in Somalia or Vietnam while retaining the ability to do what we did in Kosovo?

4. Can we not understand a middle ground, a space of moderation, that exists between fully-believed claims of exclusive knowledge on all subjects on the one hand, and the self-willed, self-imposed impotence brought on by a crippling fear of repeating mistakes of which we are and are not aware? Put another way, can we imagine and create a foreign policy that intervenes in the Balkans and the Sudan without getting mired in the mud of Iraq – can we rescue humanitarianism from empire?

5. How can we, as academics, ensure that we give credence to Latour’s call for critical study that goes beyond debunking and deconstruction – that adds to that the work of assembly, of asserting a position that exists not merely in opposition to something, but instead stands for something to replace it? Put another way, what do we suggest ought to be done about the world?
In considering the role of in foreign policy, Didier Fassin’s model of trauma, and his deployment of Foucault in order to ground that study, is particularly interesting. These sorts of studies concern themselves deeply with Foucault’s focus on regimes of truth, a central focus of his work; in Foucault’s words, his concern is “to know how men govern (themselves and others) by means of the production of truth… By ‘the production of truth,’ I do not mean the production of true statements, but the arrangement of domains where the practices of the true and the false can be at once regulated a relevant.”2

It seems that Foucauldians such as Fassin tend to take a rather absolute view of this production of truth, particularly when they focus on the transitions and changes in the structure and tenets of each successive regime. In the Introduction to Empire of Trauma, Fassin speaks to his purpose in writing:
The point is to grasp the shift that has resulted in what used to excite suspicion now having the value of proof—the shift whereby what was false has become what was true. We seek to grasp the historic moment when suspicion ended.3
The assumption is that this sort of diametric change in the accepted structure of normalcy in the world is taken as a fundamental change in the truth of the world – that it is not simply what people believe to be the case that has changed, but also, in effect, that which is true, with all the weight that the concept implies. The assumption made is that there is in this shift an absolute naturalization of the new reality, which discards and forgets the old in its processes. I point this out only to make the point that these changes are not absolute, and that it is with suspicion that they deal: it is not about what is true, but what is assumed to be the norm.

Speaking specifically to Fassin's subject: the 'old regime' held as assumed that soldiers displaying conditions of neurosis were playing at it in order to avoid going back to the front, whereas the 'new regime' holds that there is truth in this display, even so far as to include trauma that the victim is not aware of, that warrants attention and treatment. My clarification would be that it is not that the experience of trauma was previously a lie and now is genuine, but rather that the assumption of normalcy has shifted (one could even say progressed) from being one of suspicion – wherein the 'victim' is subject to doubt – to being one of acknowledgment and recognition – wherein the understanding of the reality of the world has shifted to include the possibility of trauma.

In fairness, Fassin's area of focus is in drawing an historical line through the shift from suspicion to diagnosis – I merely want to make the point that this attempt seems to be derived from an interpretation of Foucault's production of truth that accords a huge amount of weight and objectivity to how people view the world, and that this doesn't seem (at least to me) to give enough weight to and respect for people's awareness of the world, nor to their typically diverse motivations and intentions – there are today still soldiers who claim non-existent or exaggerated trauma in order to avoid combat, just as much as there is now an over-abundance of diagnosis of trauma simply because it is assumed to be present as a matter of normalcy.

The idea of diagnosis – that is, of assumptions of normalcy having a tendency to relegate reality to a back burner behind what is declared to be normal and expected – has definite parallels in the roles that the United States takes on on the world stage. The connection that I would make is that the American tendency (and, in a larger sense, the tendency of the liberal and the Western, including organizations such as the UN) to diagnose and attempt to show others how to fix or improve their world, which is often critically viewed as tending towards paternalistic, is subject to the same uncertainty and fallibility as the diagnosis of trauma.
The two do not overlap merely in the possibility of error. Just as there is, in the case of trauma diagnosis, an indisputable basis of reality behind the model that has developed, there are on the world stage certain events and situations that dictate intervention as a responsibility and obligation either political, moral, ethical, humanitarian, or a combination thereof.

We are presented with deep difficulties by involving ourselves with global politics, an urge which so often stems from a sense that something is wrong with the world, and that we either know or can sufficiently guess at the (or a) solution to the problem. In a way, the over-zealous, misguided, or ill-motivated attempts to solve problems on the world stage can be understood in the same frame as a mis-diagnosis of trauma, whether from ignorance or mistake.

However, the existence of those failures does not preclude the possibility of success in other attempts. It is, in a sense, this chance that I am working towards preserving – worried, as I am, that in attempting to remove the possibility of failure, we will also remove the opportunity for success.




1. Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Lost Its Steam?”, 246.
2. Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman. The Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry Into the Condition of Victimhood. Translated by Rachael Gomme. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009. 5.
3. Fassin 5.