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« Reply to Graham: Two Questions | Main | Forensic Footprints of Urbicide »

Modernity and Metaphysical Upheavals

Marc, a really fascinating set of comments – much too much for me to address in toto, but I’ll offer a few reflections.

I suppose my comments on modernity and the dynamic of exclusionary violence were somewhat parochial insofar as they reflect my concern as an International Relations scholar to highlight the historicity of the (Westphalian) state. There is a tendency to project the state as a transhistorical phenomenon and I spend a lot of time in class and at conferences arguing that it is a historically contingent bundle of practices. That said, I think you are right that exclusionary figurations of community may be more widespread than the modern state. I might want ask, however, whether the modern state has particular dynamics – especially in light of the widespread idea that the holocaust (though not necessarily genocide) and the modern state are linked. One thing to think about is the way that the idea of national self-determination (as enshrined in the UN) is a quite historically specific phenomenon that is always mixed up in (if not at the root of) cases of contemporary ethnic violence. This is a thought going nowhere precise, but an indication of what I was thinking in my comments.

With regard to the distinctive character of violence in an era of global urbanisation, I would want to try and add two points:

  • On the one hand I think I am suggesting in my network centric violence paper that the technologised metropolitan life that is characteristics of global urbanisation is a particular way of being – Stephen Graham has referred to it as ‘cyborg life’, following, unless I am mistaken, the trajectory established by Harraway.
  • On the other hand, you are right about revivalist movements – and I think this should be added to the jihadist and neo-con anti-urbanism that Steve described in his post earlier today.

But this brings us to your comments on the metaphysics of materiality. I don’t want to go off the deep end here, but I have been thinking increasingly about what Latour et al. call ‘actants. Jane Bennett wrote a couple of really interesting essays looking at whether we could regard things as having agency[1]. Bennett asks a number of intriguing questions such as who or what ‘caused’ the North American blackout of 2003? If causation and agency are related we might come to the conclusions that electrons, substations, high-voltage wires and so on have a certain agency. The term actant indicates that this is a distributed agency (i.e., stemming from an assemblage that is part human part object) and one not identical to the classical notion of (self-contained and unitary) human agency. I have not really begun to puzzle through what we might make of Bennett’s (and indeed Latour’s) thought in this regard. But it does suggest that the metaphysical upheaval you point to is being entertained.

I think, like you, that we would go too far to make our metaphysics about things alone. But we may have to concede that metropolitan life is full of cases of very distributed agency or material-human (cyborg) assemblages that are complex actants, not simple actors.

[1] Bennett, Jane, 2004. ‘The Force Of Things: Steps Toward An Ecology Of Matter’, Political Theory, Public Culture 17(3): 445-65. See also 32(3): 347-372; and Bennet, Jane, 2005. ‘The Agency of Assemblages and the North American Blackout’,  ‘Edible Matter’, New Left Review 45, May-June 2007.

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