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Isabelle Stengers “Including Nonhumans in Political Theory”

Stengers, Isabelle 2010. Including Nonhumans in Political Theory: Opening the Pandora’s Box? – Braun, Bruce; Whatmore, Sarah J. (eds). Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life. Minneapolis, London: University of Minnesota Press, 3-33.

What we need to think about and address is not the empty generality of humans as thinking beings but something we usually reserve for expertise, the correlate of the classical definition of political agency: humans as spokespersons claiming that it is not their free opinions that matter but what causes them to think and to object, humans who affirm that their freedom lies in their refusal to break this attachment, even in the name of some common good. (5)

What makes us human is not ours: it is the relation we are able to entertain with something that is not our creation. It should be rather said, following Whitehead’s Plate, that those who now call themselves humans are thinking under the power of what can indeed be called an Idea, an Idea that causes them to define themselves as humans. (6)

[…] including nonhumans in politics cannot be reduced to taking an explicit account of the role they would already play in the fabric of political association and public life. I would claim that nonhumans were never cast out of the political fold, because this political fold mobilized the very category of humans, and that this category is anything but neutral as it entails human exceptionalism at its crudest – reducing […] what causes humans to think and feel to human productions. From this standpoint, the very drastic opposition between humans and nonhumans would the itself be the witness of the unleashed power of this (nonhuman) Idea that made us humans, as it allowed us to claim exception, to affirm the most drastic cut between those beings who „have ideas“ and everything else, from stones to apes. (7)

[…] a true experimental setting enhances the abilities of nonhumans as actors (see Latour 1999a) in a demonstration, while human scientists too often produce settings that play down this ability because their first ambition is to produce data that avoid the accusation of having been suggested by the setting. Humans as such lack recalcritance, and any method that mimics experimentation is thus mistreatment. (12)

What I call human Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (1987), in A Thousand Plateaus, define as a „standard“ (in French, an étalon, which means both a „standard“ and a „stallion“: meanings enjoined in the white, male, middle-class husband and father citizen). The standard human has the power to define everybody else in terms of a deviation from what then becomes taken as normal. (13)

In short, the Deleuzian difference between majority and minority plays on the two distinct meanings of the term ensemble in French: „set“, in the mathematical sense, and „togetherness“. A mathematical set can be defined from the outside; all its members are interchangeable from the point of view of this definition and, as such, may be counted. But those who participate „together“ in a minority group cannot be counted, as participating is not sharing a common feature but entering into a process of connections, each connection producing, and produced by, a becoming of its terms. (14)

[…] I wish to downplay the original oppositional connotation and affirm its relevance for the togetherness of what I call „practices“, whose members can be described as „attached“ to something that none of them can appropriate or identify with – a nonhuman – but that causes them to think, feel, and hesitate. (14)

Hesitation is what diffrentiates a practice from a normative or rule-following activity. This does not mean that practices are free from rules or norms; rather, in cases that matter, practitioners have to wonder if those rules or norms are not called into question because there is something more important than conformity. What is more imporant depends on the practice, but the concept of practice I introduce generically demands that nobody is able to set the rule, to appropriate the norm, and to a priori silence hesitation. (16)

[…] the realist stance would be to conclude that all this business of practices and of nonhumans as what causes thought and feeling is part of the past and cannot have the power to force political theorists to think. […] I would just emphasize that ratifying the process that destroys practices is also ratifying the impossibility of including nonhumans as this same process is depriving them of their spokespersons. (20)

A situation, when defined in terms of the stable, vested interests of stakeholders, is always defined in majority terms, but when this situation gains the power to cause thinking, it induces a becoming that we may associate with the production of a minority – as none of the relations, knowledge, or agreements so generated can hold „in general“ without this power. […] In contrast, empowering minority techniques are needed when this normalizing procedure is defined as a trap to be avoided because what matters then is a collective becoming that humans could not produce „by themselves“ but only because of the situation that generated the power to make them think. (21)

I would propose that including nonhumans in the guise I have characterized – that is, as causes for thinking – both leads to a rhizomatic situation and protects the rhizome image against any assimilation with a network, such as a technological one, when each connected term has for its only identity the way it is connected with others. (24)

[…] the idea of an ecology of practices entails that each practice has indeed its own recalcritant, diverging manner of defining what matters, what I previously characterized in terms of obligation. The point is that there is no direct connection between such manners and the defnition of a well-defined ethos. The ethos may be defined only in relation with its oikos. (25)

As we know, radical direct democracy is often associated with the idea of an imperative mandate and the disavowal at any time of a representatice who would betray it. This is an interesting and challenging proposal if, and oly if, representatives can trust that those they represent will be interested in their account of the situation and know how to hesitate and consult before concluding that the mandate has been betrayed. If the notion of the imperativeness excludes hesitation about the way the imperative is to be satisfied, the representative is a hostage, and the proposal is self-defeating. (30)

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