Summarising Segall: Tracing the Cosmopolitical (iii – cosmopolitics)

This is ‘philosophy in a time of emergency’, Segall declares, the ‘old story is dying,’ and ‘we need as many hints about the new one’ as we can muster.

Emergency though it is, before we consider what some of those hints might be, let me reiterate that in this series I am summarising in my own words a talk by Matthew Tarnas Segall that I rather liked. I have done my best to provide a faithful rendering. I welcome all comments big and small.

You can link to the original talk here, or to an early transcript here if you would like more than the summary offered here.

And so …

For Segall, one vital hint about this new story is found within the theoretical framework of ‘cosmopolitics’. The cosmopolitical framework was introduced by chemist turned philosopher Isabella Stengers, over a couple of books at the turn of the decade: Cosmopolitics I (2010) and Cosmopolitics II (2011).

Here we will acquaint ourselves with this framework.

A protest against the bifurcation of nature

Cosmopolitics is primarily a protest against the ‘bifurcation of nature’, wherein, suggests Segall, we are left “having to somehow reconcile the “dream” of our common sense experience of an apparently meaningful world with the scientific “conjecture” of a mind-independent and so meaningless reality”.

For Whitehead, bifurcating nature into dream and conjecture is a fallacy, though one inevitable in the ‘reality’ that emerges with the scientific revolution, and one that has echoed through the conceptual landscape ever since.

An early exemplar, Descartes bifurcated nature into mechanical nature comprised of matter and human nature comprised of spirit. To resolve the obvious problem of causal interference between the two, he proposed that any influence of one upon the other necessitated an intervening God.

Later, Locke bifurcates nature along the lines of primary and secondary qualities: primary qualities being extension, mass and so on; secondary qualities, the sensuous qualities of colour, taste etc. The latter are properties that human nature traces over nature proper to make it comprehensible. They are not in nature itself, but in mind, in spirit.

Kant deepened this ontological rift, arguing all we can access in principle are appearances, or what he called phenomena – even space and time are activities of the mind. For Kant, things-in-themselves, or noumena, are forever beyond our grasp. Philosophers after Kant, the story went, should occupy themselves with considering how the mind conditions incoming intuitions (about which nothing at all can be said) so as to produce the dream of existence. After Kant, talk nature of Nature was – and still is for many – decommissioned.

A contemporary manifestation of the bifurcation is the notion of so-called mental representations: contentful symbolic structures the brain creates and manipulates, operating in the time between the light that turns red reaching your retina and you reaching for the break with your foot. Such representations are, so says Wikipedia, the “intermediaries between the observing subject and the objects … in the external world … [they] … stand for or represent to the mind the objects of that world”. Perception is a process of converting sensory stimulations into symbolic representations to produce sensory experience and guide action. What we perceive is not nature, but a mental representation of nature.

Common to these positions is the alienation of the human subject from Nature, and the idea that Nature is intrinsically devoid of meaning. Meaning is illusory, something added, and since Darwin, only as the exhaust fumes of the adaptive mechanisms that make genetic reproduction possible.

For Whitehead, Stengers and Segall, nature’s bifurcation has been disastrous. Our collective apprehension of nature as a submissive machine has played a star role in our current ecological emergency. “The city is not just built by and for us on a planet passive before our projects.” Segall decries, continuing, “we must wake up from the nightmare of bifurcation to our roles as creaturely citizens of an earth community”

Segall, like Whitehead, reminds us often that ideas matter. They shape our actions. Our failure as custodians can be traced directly to the ideas about nature that emerge during the scientific revolution. Today’s ideas matter for the activities of generations to come.

Cosmopolitics brings together a conceptual first aid kit. It helps us overcome the alienated philosophical position that the bifurcation of nature endows, but it also lights a path for future actives and helps us move forward with some confidence during a time of emergency.

It may be slower, faint, and even treacherous, but with casualties mounting on the highways and the full weight of the emergency soon to envelop many, its slowness will come to be cherished, much of its treachery circumnavigated, and its faintness lessened with every step taken upon it.

Redeeming the word politics

The word politics has become dirty. To be politicking is to be conniving, shady and unscrupulous; even politicians use the word pejoratively.

Stengers hopes to redeem the word.

Placing it in a cosmopolitical perspective, she forces politics beyond the domains it normally presumes itself to be concerned with; bringing together our cities – where politics is practised and tends to focus – with the rest of the cosmological community. Such redemption is a small but important move in overcoming our bifurcation. All of nature is political. To practice politics in a manner that ignores this is to succumb to and maintain the bifurcation. Cosmopolitics aims to bring a democratic framework to an unbifurcated and politicised nature. Retaining the word politics helps us extended existing intuitions to a broader set of relations, across all nature.

Cosmopolitics Conceptual Pillars

Stengers posits a couple of conceptual pillars at the core of the cosmopolitical effort: ontological pluralism, and ecology as the foundational science.

Ontological pluralism (explored in more detail in part ii of this series) rejects dualism and reductive materialism and instead embraces a panpsychist (or more precisely, panexperientialist) position. Experience and nature co-emerge; we are nature experiencing itself alongside the rest of the cosmos. There is a plurality of experience, of more or less overlapping and interpenetrating modes of existence, strung along, network like, each ‘grafting’ through their creative expression ‘onto the existing mass’.

As Segall has written elsewhere, “as ontology, pluralism asserts the irreducible creativity of the each-form”. No event in the cosmos is reducible to generic categorisation, nor is one ever reducible to another – creative potential always inheres.

This panexperientialist, pluralistic vision implies an organic ontology: all is both perceived and perceiving. Cosmos is an entanglement of existences that come into being in felt relation to one another.

Taking such a participatory cosmos seriously, ecology can be recognised as the foundational science, for it is the science of felt relations.

In bringing a democratic framework to the plurality of felt relations across all scales a cosmopolitics comes into view.

Reinvention

Two primary fronts will require significant reinvention if a cosmopolitical civilisation is to materialise: politics and science. Cosmopolitical reinvention requires reimagining politics and science in ways that take heed of all interested parties, grounding them on more democratic terms.

On the political front, Stengers points out that use of the prefix cosmos should not be confused with notions of the universal. Cosmopolitics is not the quest for a universal humanity, it is not cosmopolitanism.

For Stengers, an abstract humanity, from which a set of universal human rights is further abstracted, is jumping ahead. It assumes in advance what should be the revisable outcome of an ongoing process of negotiation and consensus building. In doing so, the claim goes, it causes as much harm as it does good.

The difficulty with the universal model is answering the question who gets to be human? Some will be congruent with the model, but others it will disqualify by default. Inspecting existing models we see that this is the case and that the models are motivated by market concerns.

The curse of tolerance

For Stengers, universal notions of human rights align closely with what she calls “the curse of tolerance”, the idea that we can ‘tolerate’ each other publically so long as our real differences are kept hidden, and reanimated only in the company of those who would enact comparable worlds.

You have your beliefs, I have mine, but we should repress them in public life, acting only in accordance with what Segall calls the “strange mononaturalist/multiculturalist double bind of modernity”. We acknowledge each other’s abstract ‘right’ to exist, but secretly deride that existence.

Tolerance implies a vantage point, but the only view for sale is from atop the mound of late-modernity.

This is not sustainable. Segall writes, “this all too abstract form of peace would quickly dissolve if we concretely encountered one another’s differences”. Indeed, dissolution of peace is all too common when the veneer of tolerance grows sufficiently thin – something we have grown substantially more familiar with even since Segall’s writing.

A cosmopolitical civilisation will be one in which private and public are not distinct spaces. The public will have become a space for encountering difference; we will have found a way of living together. Unity, as Latour puts it, will be “the end result of a diplomatic effort; [not] … its uncontroversial starting point.”

Our cosmopolitical future will be one in which differences are recognised but we also recognise our shared earth community.

Science

Beyond challenging the bifurcation and lobbying for a more democratic approach to public life, the cosmopolitical considers how economic interests interfere with the practices of science: our knowledge does not result from a detached, purely objective and disinterested ‘view from nowhere’, but from amid a constellation of individual and collective concerns, many socioeconomic in nature.

For the pluralist, Segall writes, “Knowledge is an ecological affair, an ongoing and risky process of building alliances and relationships between humans and nonhumans across wide distances.” Getting cosmopolitical and democratising science is considering its implications within a broader ecology of interested, though often voiceless, human and non-human others.

However, merely deferring to politics won’t do, for it takes shape amid the same assumptions and motivations as our science. We must appreciate that reality itself is a “planetary negotiation” – a matter of consensus building among interested parties. Science is political and must be recognised as such. The need to consider and engage all interested parties must be front and centre of its practices.

As Segall writes, “instead of in every case sending in the experts to tell local populations how to solve their problems, assuming in advance that scientific knowledge is universal and that only science has the right to produce knowledge, every issue is approached diplomatically under the very different assumption that knowledge is relational, its claims conditional, and its construction, risky.”

To appreciate the value of enacting a cosmopolitics, we need only stop for a second and imagine a world in which our science was more diplomatic from the outset … 

Of course, science has always taken shape amid a host of other concerns, and I am not suggesting that the same opportunities that present themselves today were always present, but as we project another couple of centuries into the future, we can imagine future generations reflecting on our efforts, and hopefully thanking us that we paid heed when we did.

Whitehead’s role

Whiteheads speculative philosophy not only supplies the grounds for the pluralism and ecologism essential to thinking cosmopolitically, it provokes what Segall describes as “a reimagination of modern subjectivity” and the “the transformation of the American Dream of human individuality and natural property into the Dream of the Earth”.

If I may digress briefly.

The notion of the Dream of the Earth is a reference to a book by the same name by Thomas Berry, the self-styled eco-theologian for whom planetary well being was the measure of all human activity, and the dream of an integral earth ecology was a perfectly realisable, and even imminent, future.

In The Dream of the Earth, Berry writes, ”Our secular, rational, industrial society, with its amazing scientific insight and technological skills, has established the first radically anthropocentric society and has thereby broken the primary law of the universe, the law that every component member of the universe should be integral with every other member of the universe and that the primary norm of reality and of value is the universe community itself in its various forms of expression, especially as realised on the planet Earth.”

Reading Berry now, more than 30 years later, his words land with what seems prescient insight, however, they are in fact a sad reminder that 1) the crises we currently face has a long history, and 2) what little action has been taken in the time since to avert it. Nevertheless, we can see Berry was sensitive to the kind of planetary negotiation that a cosmopolitics entails.

Whitehead is what Segall calls a “philosophical diplomat”. His work and his words help bridge many of the divisions our intellectual history bequeaths us.

Like James, he resists the rationalistic urge towards universalisation and unification, acknowledging a plurality of perspectives, and providing the conceptual support for us to do the same. Thinking with Whitehead, we come to appreciate our ecological embedding and that our contexts are primarily relations among concerned subjects.

For Segall, a future cosmopolitical civilisation requires us all to adopt the role of the philosophical diplomat. “We will all have become diplomats,” writes Segall, “willing to exist in the tension-filled space between worlds, to accept that our own identities are always risked in encounters with others, acknowledging that our own world must be unfinished so long as it leaves “others” outside of it”.

A cosmopolitical future, and maybe any future worth living, demands that we follow through on this.

A role for Awkwardness?

As a brief addendum to Segall’s writings I wanted to insert the following.

Our future depends upon the wide adoption of a ‘diplomatic’ mode of being. This cosmopolitical mode reminds me of the work of another author, Adam Kotsko, in his wonderful little book Awkwardness (2010). Kotsko proposes that the success of our multi-cultural society demands embracing a pervasive sense of awkwardness, what he calls ‘radical awkwardness’.

Radical awkwardness arises when there “doesn’t seem to be any norm governing a given situation” (2010, p.7). For Kotsko, this is not necessarily problematic. He wants to make a case in favour of awkwardness, suggesting that it “holds a certain promise”, as “something we can embrace” (2010, p.25). Embracing awkwardness makes possible a strategy of “assimilation”, wherein the weak are favoured – the dominant culture accommodating minorities and the disadvantaged.

Kotsko says “one might call this favouring the weak a style of interaction, a starting point for social improvisations. This improvisation doesn’t overcome the awkwardness of cross-cultural interactions, rather, by leaving everyone’s preexisting cultural expectations alone, it dwells in it” (ibid, p.98).

My sense is that Kotsko is illuminating a mode of being that I feel to be commensurate with the cosmopolitical project – proffering a welcome hint about the new story.

I have a metaphor that I think helps illustrate this cosmopolitical mode.

Metaphor of the knife

Consider this mode as analogous to walking on the sharp blade of a knife. The sides of the blade symbolising the plurality of perspectives. To live in the cosmopolitical mode is to be able to see both sides of the blade, all narratives. 

But walking on the edge you are uncertain, uneasy; leaning one way and then the other you feel unstable, your skin tears and bleeds. Realizing that if you lean one way long enough you can topple the knife, you lean until the knife lays flat on its side.

Walking along the side of the blade now, you’re comfortable: feet no longer bleed, it is stable, it is easy to find friends to join you.

Time passes and you settle in, more friends join, and the collective weight makes it almost impossible to stand the knife back on its spine. To chance getting your fingers under the edge now is to risk getting seriously hurt, and anyway, what would you do with all your new friends?

But what if you value perspective more than certainty and choose to walk along the blade?

It is unstable, painful, awkward, but only initially; feet toughen, and balance develops. Friends are not immediately abundant, but in the ones you find, you see a hard won stability and resilience. You learn to view all sides from the edge the blade, even climbing down one side or the other when needs be.

Over time you notice that it is not just your feet that suffer from the wear and tear, but the knife’s edge gets duller too, making it a little more comfortable for others to come and join you. And they do. And as they gather, they as well find their balance and grow resilient.

Choosing to walk on the edge of the blade is embracing the cosmopolitical mode, it is embracing radical awkwardness, it is becoming the philosophical diplomat.

Here also there are claims of a privileged vantage point, a meta-perspective. However, this is not the smug certitude of late-modernity, nor a perspective into which all others collapse, but the understanding that there are many ways of understanding, there are many wholes. And it is an acknowledgement that when we think about a shared future, no one understanding has privileged access to dictating how that future should unfold.

Moving slowly, with haste

An emergency is afoot. Distress is being signalled all about us and we must respond without further ado if casualties are to be kept to a minimum. What injuries we would incur from choosing to walk along the knife’s edge are but scratches in a future wherein we decided to settle for existing narratives.

Kotsko’s embrace, Whithead’s diplomacy, cosmopolotics – they need scaling up if our science and politics are to be faithful to the flourishing of a future earth community commensurate with Barry’s dream. If this is to be the new story, we must respond with as much haste as we can muster, but with haste for a cosmopolitical future that is slower. Poised as we are, walking back-first into an emergency, slowness is a virtue.

p.s. Stenger’s newest book, released only this month, is called Another Science is Possible: A Manifesto for A Slow Science.

Please feel free to join in the conversation. Leave a comment below and I will do my best to get back to you.

You can link to Matthew David Segall’s website here.

I will be dedicating future posts to his notion of organic realism, and also, his attempts to synthesise what might be called an expanded enactivism, in which he attempts to unify the enactive approach to cognition with a Whiteheadian cosmological scheme. However, my next couple of posts will be focusing on dynamical/developmental systems theory, considering its potential for addressing questions of embodied interaction.

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