I suppose this piece is in some way a continuation of my essay on definition. Not really, but actually. I deal again here with a form of categorisation. I explore how ‘we’ designates ourselves and all of the duplicities a we embodies. Yet somewhat oddly there is a short hand around the nuances and complexities any we represents. And it is the simple pronoun itself and the ubiquity it so jarringly represents via two simple letters, just the three awkward syllables of a ‘w’ and the hard worked ‘e’. This I find baffling and an incredible example of humanity’s desperation for simplicity .
In Tristan Garcia’s second instalment of the Letting Be trilogy, We Ourselves: The Politics of Us, Garcia outlines the way in which ‘we’s’ are conceptualised in society as a representational form, in order to give identifying traits to people. ‘We’ is a form of categorisation, which allows us to mark ourselves as part of a constellation of likeminded individuals in a way that we can be identified by those who don’t belong to our order of we. In other words, ‘we’ is a fundamental designation for group identification, which enables groups to reference themselves under the banner of a similar identity, ideology or interest. These marks of identity are often symbolic: a holy rood, a style of dress, a uniform etc. Some examples include, ‘we, Christians’, ‘we, foodies’, ‘we, petrol-heads’ or ‘we, racists’. However, despite the differentiation of identifying traits, because the first person plural is even used by those with radically differing worldviews it nonetheless, even as it divides us, unites us under this tiny pronoun, ‘we’. As Garcia explains:
Try for a moment to make no distinction between all of the possible groups and associations to which you feel you belong and those that appear distant, even exotic. Stop separating the collective identities that you consider to be grounded, universal, and serious from those you consider irrational, ridiculous, or dangerous. Suspend your moral judgement. Then, through thought, try to establish a sort of imaginary plane upon which you might consider, at once equally and distinctly, everything that speaks in the name of we. Try this now, and you will see that everyone who says ‘we’ speaks as the same person, which is to say that they take on the being of people who speak that way, even when those people have an identity or principles that irritate or repulse them. (6)
How we organise ourselves is through subscription to divisional forms of collectives, each with a set of codes of conduct and ideological biases, which either stem from or retaliate against historically informed groundings. These grounded forms have generated the appearance of being universally ‘real’ because they have structured we’s for more time than a novel ‘we’ which is in its infancy. However, this overlooks how new we’s emerge because human ingenuity discovers more knowledge through scientific and philosophical thought. Just because all humans don’t understand the same thing should not reduce the gravity of such endeavours and the reality of the influence they have had. The knowledge we discover isn’t new to reality or nature but only to our understanding of it. Nature’s generative mechanics don’t need us around to pay attention to them. This proved impossible for empirical realism to reconcile. How could anything, so they thought, be meaningful unless it is all for humanity alone?
Roy Bhaskar, in A Realist Theory of Science gives us strong theoretical grounding for understanding this. What Bhaskar outlines is a structurally stratified reality in which, what Bhaskar calls, a real ‘generative mechanism’ or what we know as the invisible domains of reality (atoms, DNA etc) are irrefutably separated from the actual domain of reality, which is the form of causality we are affected by every day. The reason we can conclusively illustrate this, according to Bhaskar, is because we can do an experiment and repeat it. That we can use science experimentally to pry into the matter of objects in the world, indicates that a substratum-world exists underneath the one which is phenomenologically encountered. In other words, what makes the materials we see is not perceivable except through scientific discovery, because to observe beneath the phenomenological world of colour, shape and texture is impossible. The world we perceive is not governed by the same laws that emerge because of the generative mechanisms which are fundamental to the world we perceive. To distinguish these two operative strata of reality Bhaskar calls the fundamental, generative domain intransitive and the phenomenological, experiential domain transitive. This distinction may appear superfluous, until you consider the influence of science on our understanding of gender. Garcia provides us with such an example:
Genital sex…depends on external developmental conditions and genetic code. A fertilised egg is always undifferentiated, or bivalent. This means that genital sex is linked to a hormonal mechanism. In the lab, one can always induce a more or less stable inversion of sex by administering variable quantities of hormones to an embryo. (115-116)
In addition to this, we may consider that in 1959 scientists discovered that the chromosomes do not always come in the neat pairs we assume they always take. There are always exceptions to the rule, which is not to say that the exception becomes a rule, but that whatever the exceptions are, they are actual phenomena, which people use to create worldviews through which they experience their lives. This is owing to experimentally reproducible actions, which illustrate causal laws, which just are reality’s way of happening.
The knowledge which materialises out of scientific understanding grounds us in potentially new methods of defining ourselves. This is why theory and philosophy is so important. Yes, science provides the potential for revising the ground of reality, but because it is a separate strata to the one we perceive it requires careful deliberation outside of its criteria, in order to allow us to make use of it in the context of society. Otherwise we create scenarios in which science becomes distorted in unpredictable ways. One such example from my own life has been the implications of the Double Slit experiment. A lot of people I have known, because the observer interferes with the object observed through the act of observing in this experiment, have drawn the conclusion that we must organise reality through observation. I too have naively assumed this to be the only possibility. This is dangerously close to idealism and a radical form of empirical realism, in which man only needs to be an observer to manifest reality. While I cannot claim to know the answer to why the observer interferes it seems that the application of consciousness to fundamental particles is potentially not the cause. It could be something much more complex, or merely different. It seems to fail to factor in do how both actors operate in different domains of time and space from each other. Whatever that complication may give rise to, in this case, that the observer interferes with how the photon organises itself, serves only to complicate things further by giving consciousness full power to manifest fundamental particles into matter.
What new information does then is code itself against a territory of information which has embedded itself over a period of time. To put it in Michel Serres terms it distorts with a ‘noise’ which perturbs the well grounded information, which has consequently grounded opinion in a traditional worldview. So for example, the neat clockwork universe of the Enlightenment was radically perturbed by the discovery that atoms contained something. That is, it changed humanity’s trajectory. In addition, the discovery of DNA and genes had immense ramifications for how we think about the emergence of life. These lead to a significantly altered potential, a noise which some people gather around and build new perspectives upon.
Oversimplifications erroneously assume the ‘world’ to be simpler than it is. This mode of perception has grounded itself and made reactions to the contrary appear ridiculous. However, as I have explained repeatedly, if somebody thinks something is happening to them then this informs the actualisation of that sensation. The point Garcia is trying to make in regards to the construct of ‘we’ is that all manifestations of we are actual and should be treated as such. This is why Garcia is a speculative realist.
Without others any definition of the group we belong to is jeopardised unless it has a we contrary to it. This does not mean we’s must be constantly at war, but that should they realise their reliance on the other they might just understand the requirement of others to their identity. Garcia puts it like this:
A we is a forced identity that makes the differences between us appear all the more clearly. It is also a forced difference that makes the identity that we have in common with others increasingly apparent. Within any we whatsoever, an excess of identity produces a lack of difference, and, likewise, an excess of difference produces a lack of identity. Whatever a we lacks becomes its next historical end. For an extremely small we such as our tribe or our family, stretching out towards universality gradually becomes an end. (220)
Some of Garcia’s examples of representational ideologies include Christianity, Marxism and Evolutionary Optimism. Each of these establish a code of conduct, a set of parameters, which subscription to transforms into ideological traits, which, if followed, incorporate the practitioner into them and the practitioner indicates the reality of by performing the code through their actions in the world, all informed by the code. But ideologies are not the only representations, we could also, as aforementioned, input identity or interest. The individual becomes a node in the manifestation of the worldview which is what is represented when the subscriber uses the first person plural ‘we’. The aim of each ideology/interest/identity is to persuade the “other”, which is every external first person singular, to be represented by this code. This is what Garcia calls extension and it is how we’s become grounded, which is another way of saying hegemonic or universal.
The dynamism of extension is domination. Without domination there is no securing of the territory gained by the extended we. However, there are pitfalls to dominating ideological territory. Garcia explains how, ‘The larger the set of different organisms incorporated by a we becomes, the more that the differences within that we become stronger than the one difference that is supposed to hold the boundary between we and not-we’ (180). It may be tempting to think that we’s are inevitably dyadic, expressing either an extensive or intensive character. However, this is not accurate.
If we think back to my previous essay ‘The New Conspiracy Visibility’ there I talk about what Deleuze & Guattari call the body without organs (BwO). I explained how, for D+G, society is structured like a strata, through which BwOs (or in our current instance, we’s) make lines of flight through various other strata. This is because the plane of consistency (the most extended of we’s) contains within it the germs of intensity, which countervail the dominant, consistent we. Intensive and extensive we’s overlap, then: two subscribers to differing ideologies can be of the same sex, same race, can live next door to each other and share a passion for lepidopterology and the novels of Vladimir Nabokov; and yet, they could both despise each other because one is an advocate of social justice and reads critical race theory while the other happens to be a UKIP supporter who wishes for a pure British, white, heterosexual population. It is not uncommon to discover congruence and incongruence in close proximity.
Grounded we’s have a habit of spreading themselves too thin, so that ‘The more a we extends, the less intense it is; the inverse also holds: the more a we intensifies, the less extended it becomes’ (180). This may seem oxymoronic after what is written above. However, just because an intense we is within an extended we doesn’t mean it belongs there as such. They are still separated by the territorial demarcations of their worldview. An interesting consequence of an extended we is that it eventually begins to collapse in on itself. A politician speaks to a nation as a we because they share a land mass. But they don’t necessarily share the same national concerns. And this is supposed to be what is encouraging about democracy.
We see another example of this in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Israel has become so dominant a we that it has coded itself so extensively into the landscape itself that it is plausible that fragmentation from the inside can occur. This has materialised in the form of political activists like Eyal Weizman, a Jewish architect who wrote an influential book called Hollow Land which outlines the history of how Israel used military force and architecture to usurp and occupy Palestinian territory. The domination of Israel has extended so viciously that even a coterie of its own we are critical of its cruel hegemony over the Palestinian people. Moreover, we can imagine Palestinians, who inhabit the valleys overlooked by settlers who have usurped their land, do not regard politics in the same way Israelis do, for very obvious reasons.
Any dissenting, intensive voice within an extended we is capable of existing because a we pulls itself so tightly over an ideological terrain that it can be perforated by intensive we’s embedded in its network of causalities. This is because societies and life just aren’t simple enough to create total coverage. If this were so Nazism would not have collapsed, nor the Roman empire; Christianity would not be on the back foot and there could not be any criticism of capitalism.
So how can we begin to be inclusive toward we’s that we disagree with and thus disregard. Well Garcia gives us a pretty strong abstract model for doing this and he calls we’s transparencies in order to do it. What this involves is the tracing of the contours of a we in order to see how it is structured. If you have a number of we’s traced and line them up, you would see where their different contours align and where they divide. What you would notice is where we overlap and where we diverge. This would lead to eureka moments of ‘O wow…you do that too!’ What this results in is a strata of planes, which are transparent so that we can look down through all the other planes and see all the lines of divergence and contours of overlap. Of course this is a mental, abstract exercise. But you can imagine those lines of division and overlap and you can begin to understand that the problem of division isn’t totally divisive. This is just impossible. We would discover that every we would overlap with every other we. This is just what a society formed of natural materials, reliant upon natural processes of varying micro and macro scales and with particular needs results in. We overlap. This is because the world is an ecological system. Both nature and society are not mutually exclusive but mutually reenforcing. if we want to be grounded in anything it should be this: we are ecological beings within and without. For this reason being ecological enables us to forge relationships not just with people following different coded worldviews, but moreover with nonhumans actors who are a regulatory principle in the health of the world’s ecosystems. Moreover, stand up and give a round of applause to the fundamental, generative principles that work tirelessly to give us what we see. I mean, don’t because they just do it anyway. This is why they are difficult to observe and play tricks on us, even as they reveal themselves to help us discern, how insane is reality?
What we need to see is an overhaul of how we ground worldviews. The process of domination must be less aggressive. The phrase ‘that’s just how things are’ needs eradicating. This way-things-are mentality is disastrous for addressing the ever increasing nuance of identifying factors. There is only one domain that is irrefutable and that is the domain of generative mechanisms, which persist despite us. They are not directly perceivable and though they can inform our social life, we cannot make the actualised phenomenological processes of politics and life into ‘real’ generative mechanisms, because they are not experimentally repeatable in this same way. For us everything is linear.
We should instead create an inclusive grounding, which would enable diversity. We must recognise the interchangeability of our worldviews, where we overlap and agree, as well as where we disagree. In this system of exchange, what makes us dissimilar would be what makes us similar. We are the same because we are all different. And we would talk and listen rather than ignore each other. Maybe we’d get a bit further with ourselves. Subscription to small pockets of identity would be the intensive similarity conjoining us in an overlapping, fragmented unity. This is not utopian, in fact, we already have all of the different identities, the obstacle now is accepting that difference just is the repetition.
Make friends with something weird.