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« Embracing Impossibility | Main | Some Thoughts on Cyborgs and Symbiots »

An Impossible Squaring of the Circle? Normativity and Heterogeneity

Thanks for these stimulating exchanges, Martin. Apologies for any misreadings of your position, I assure you none of these are wilful – I may be too hastily reading into your claims arguments I am having with myself. Nevertheless, I think we are touching onto some quite fundamental questions that far exceed the specifics of your work but are no less critical since they seem to be at the crux of a lot of contemporary theorising. We may end up having to agree to disagree but I think this discussion is useful if only to clarify our respective positions (not least to myself). I realise some of the issues I raise are profound philosophical dilemmas that I therefore don’t expect you to solve here and there.

One of the original reasons for my questions was to explicate the meaning you attribute to heterogeneity (I confess to not having time to read your entire book so I realise you probably do so there). Are we simply talking about a form of political plurality or cosmopolitanism within a broader homogenous frame such as national identity or liberal subjectivity? Or is it a much more fundamental unbounded heterogeneity that inherently destabilises the above categories and leaves the question of membership of a collectivity or polis open-ended? I hope I am not misreading you in thinking that your position is much closer to the latter than to the former. Nor do I seek to doubt your sincere commitment to such a form of heterogeneity.

What I am querying is whether the recourse to law and political normativity undercuts such a commitment to heterogeneity-in-itself. I see how my original comments might seem like I am neglecting the contingency and fluidity of law and no doubt it constitutes another arena for struggle over meaning and the permitted forms of life. However, it still appears to me that at any given time, the law must stipulate what constitutes legal liability and agency (one cannot try a child or an individual deemed to be deranged or mentally incapacitated, let alone non-humans) along with the different rules and procedures by which actors must abide in order to make a legal intervention, even if all of these may be contested and eventually altered in the process. If law is indeed not the repeated application of unchanging rules but a contest over the interpretation and (re)writing of these rules, it remains that all normative interventions in this battle over meaning carry within them fundamental ontological statements.

Moreover, I think the invocation of a pragmatic approach to law as “a tool for contesting violence” merely shifts the question since then one has to ask what constitutes violence. Nietszche famously claimed that all acts of creation are inseparable from destruction: “whoever must be a creator always annihilates” (in Thus Spoke Zarathustra). In other words, the creation and establishment of new values necessarily requires doing violence to a previous order. One can therefore only judge an action to be illegitimately violent by reference to the destruction or injury of a form of being deemed worthy of existence – and thus discrimination between worthy and unworthy forms of being. The expansionary discourse of rights (reproductive rights, linguistic rights, sexual or transgender rights, fathers’ rights, rights to intergenerational equity and sustainability, animal rights, etc.) entails the implicit statement of forms of being entitled to existence and against which violence is being committed. This in turn legitimates violence (military or police force, imprisonment or death) against those found to be contravening these rights. So does the establishment of an international law on urbicide not enshrine a particular power over the forms of life to be protected and those to be prosecuted?

My central difficulty, and here it is as much a problem I am wrestling with myself than any specific challenge to your work, is that of, as you acutely observe, “the difficulty (if not impossibility) of acting and deciding on the basis of such an ontology [of heterogeneity].” I have to say I am not particularly satisfied by the theoretical attempts to square this circle – notions of agonistic democracy seem more like sleights of hand than true resolutions of this quandary. I fail to see how any form of democracy will not necessarily be exclusionary, if only of those that do not accept democracy or the modalities of engagement within it. I feel like it shies away from the unavoidable conclusion that any political intervention seeking to establishing new norms of communal life in the world implies a particular set of ontological commitments to specific notions of humanity and polis. Furthermore, in the absence of the invocation of any transcendent truths (as is frequently the case in contemporary political theory), such an intervention has no justification other than the force of its own existence (and we are back to Nietzsche here). My final question is therefore as follows: can one ever truly act in the name of pure heterogeneity or must it necessarily be a conditional and constrained form of heterogeneity?

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