From Bruno Latour to British Foreign Policy via Tony Blair, Part 1.October 8, 2013
I’ve been meaning to pick up my discussion of the potential of Actor-Network Theory for International Relations and the study of diplomacy but it’s got tangled up with something else I’ve been thinking about quite a lot recently: the state of British foreign policy both as it is and as it should be. The result is something of an impasse and as way of moving forward on this I’m going to take (probably) three or four posts to work through these issues. The argument in a nutshell is that the UK has quite a coherent theory of foreign policy, developed under Tony Blair, which is quite possibly wrong, Latour’s discussion of diplomacy tells us why it’s wrong. A subsidiary theme of this is the disconnect between the theory of Diplomacy as it’s talked about at ISA and the contemporary practice of diplomacy.
The parts of this discussion are probably in the wrong order but as I need to push this ahead then we’ll take them as they come.
Firstly, Latour on politics.
One reason that I’m interested in Latour is because he frequently talks about diplomacy and politics as positive activities, in fact one of the basic problems with the modern world is that there isn’t enough of them.
The importance of politics follows directly from his sociology. As he argues, particularly in Reassembling The Social, sociology has been too ready to use ‘society’ to explain things when the real question is how can society exist in the first place. In Latour’s world the mystery that needs to be explained is how things hang together rather than flying off in different directions. Thus, politics is the way that assemblage of people and things are brought together and maintained. This is a practical art, that in dealing with people places a heavy burden on rhetoric. In his essay ‘What if we Talked Politics a Little’ he argues that it is precisely this effort to create the community that ensures that political speech always seems slippery but to demand that it follows the requirements of ‘straight’ talk either in the everyday sense or in a Habermasian version of ideal communication is to fundamentally misunderstand what political speech is about. Pandora’s Hope (Chaps 7+8) contains a long dissection of Plato’s Gorgias where he argues that Socrates’s defeat of the sophists effectively replaces the necessary practical skills of politics with a version of science that is useless in practice. This affects both how we understand politics and science by theoretically separating the two we become unable to effectively deal with the increasing numbers of hybrid issues where they are intertwined.
Tomorrow: Latour on Diplomacy, on Thursday Tony Blair.