(based on an essay that appeared in Parallax 48)
I have been looking to the efficacy of things to think through a puzzle about the efficacy of voters. I know that voters—as we conventionally conceive of them—are a decidedly mainstream topic, one that cannot help but cast democratic action into the most narrow, mundane terms possible. What brings me to it? And (how) does new materialism help me to cast it in an interesting light?
In these past years I’ve noticed what I took to be an unlikely convergence. Empirical studies of opinion formation were converging on a performative conception of representation—one that takes the process of representation to participate in creating that for which it purports merely to stand. I’m speaking here of people like John Zaller, Jamie Druckman, Skip Lupia, and Paul Sniderman who have shown that citizens form reasonably consistent beliefs but they do this by working from the cues and frames put out by opinion leaders, including the mass media, political parties, elected representatives and pundits.
The story, however, does not stop there. Those opinion leaders, pundits, etc. are not merely cranking out propaganda. They are soliciting support. So they use the technologies at their disposal to pick up on nascent demands and emergent trends. Elites are cuing citizens who are cuing elites. The process of democratic representation is not mimetic and linear but dynamic and symbiotic.
Why is this interesting?
Simply put, it flies in the face of a basic democratic commonsense: that democratic representatives should respond to constituent preferences not participate in creating them. Hanna Pitkin put this especially vividly in 1967, writing that, “as I have argued in rejecting the fascist model of representation, the represented must be somehow logically prior; the representative must be responsive to him rather than the other way around” (1967, 140). Pitkin makes me feel bad. On her account, what I see as the performativity of democratic representation is tantamount to fascism.
I have found some measure of comfort in the work of Bruno Latour, who merges the idioms of science and representative democracy in ways that I find fruitful because he suggests that the world pushes back—that there is a material resistance that cannot simply be scripted.
He communicates this material resistance in his recent book, The Politics of Nature, by offering political ecologists an unusual piece of advice. The gambit goes something like this:
Next time you are called upon to argue for the Kyoto protocol, whether on National Public Radio’s ‘Science Friday’ or over dinner with your nation’s president, resist the temptation to speak as an expert ‘on’ climate change. Imagine speaking as an advocate for the associations of interested parties, both human and non-human, that agreements such as this one would have to take into account. In other words, think of yourself as representing. And I don’t mean this term in the postmodern ‘cynical’ sense of telling a story about the world that is just one fiction among others. I’m talking about the ‘ancient political’ sense of this ‘crucial word’: the representative as ‘spokesperson’. Take this gambit, and no longer will you be invited to settle political disputes by recourse to matters of fact. You will be charged, instead, with representing your non-human constituents ‘as faithfully as possible’. On this matter of faithfulness, it is not to epistemology that you must turn but to politics, ‘probably the best model that we have to understand this relationship between forces and their spokesmen’.
What does Latour mean by reframing scientific expertise as spokespersonship? If he understood the spokesperson as someone who merely reports the words of someone more powerful, this would not be interesting. But in Latour’s terms, a spokesperson is a ‘mediator’ rather than an ‘intermediary.’ Whereas an intermediary ‘transports meaning or force without transformation’ (porte parole), the function of a mediator is to ‘transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry’. A spokesperson is not a mouthpiece but a gambler: he or she puts forward a claim as a wager that a force will emerge to support it. Latour holds up experimental practice as a model for how the wagers of spokespersons are put to the test.
It is not that science manages somehow to enable things to speak on their own. Rather, it is that experimental practice stages phenomena that vote either for or against the hypotheses of the experimenter. In Latour’s curious formulation, ‘things become, in the laboratory, by means of instruments, relevant to what we have to say about them’. Relevance does not turn on humans choosing words that pertain to a line of argument or suit a situation. Instead, experimentally staged phenomena become pertinent to the theses that scientists formulate about them.
The laboratory can be trusted as a staging ground for things precisely because it is not like a dinner party, classroom or opinion survey. Nonhuman research subjects are indifferent to human researchers in ways that human research subjects cannot be. When an experimental scientist proposes something that is not relevant, things do nothing to cover the awkward silence. Whereas Hacking has argued that experimentation is intervention, Latour underscores that it goes both ways: ‘any scientist worth the name has been thoroughly redefined by the actors he or she has dealt with’. As the scientists manipulate apparatuses to incite phenomena to perform, the phenomena induce scientists to alter both their apparatuses and their assumptions. In short, the ‘faithful’ spokesperson and the ‘reliable’ fact are co-producing.
This is Latour’s insight into political representation. The representativity of a claim is to be judged not by the accuracy of its resemblance to some measure of reality that would have been fixed in advance (the ‘preferences’ of voters or the ‘thing-in-itself’) but, rather, on whether or not the system of representation has ‘conferred’ agency on the represented. Put differently, the test of a claim to represent is turns not on states of affairs but on the representation process, which should distribute agency throughout a system, whether it be a laboratory or a democratic state. Regardless whether we are speaking of politics or science, the test of the spokesperson is the same: Are the represented ‘allowed to make a difference in our thinking about them?’
Can humans vote?
By figuring non-humans as voters, Latour provocatively sets into relief the constraints on human voters whom he contends have a much more difficult time making difference in what is thought of them. Like experimental phenomena, political constituencies are staged. The question is, how is it possible to tell the difference between authoritarian manipulation and inspiring democratic leadership?
It is tempting to want to secure the possibility of ‘faithful’ political representation by shoring up humans’ resistance to political rhetoric, as if one could develop the political equivalent of an experimental apparatus whose protocols would render human voters robust enough to defy their interlocutors in the way that non-humans do. The preeminence within democratic theory of the idea of ‘deliberative democracy’ can be read as an attempt to do just that. As an attempt to purify politics of its rhetorical, symbolic and affective dimensions, it transposes a literal and idealized image of the laboratory onto politics.
If not on the foundation of deliberation, then just what would it take for humans to be said to have cast a vote? What I take from Latour is that we humans cannot do this on our own. The American voter is not an individual exercising choice but an assemblage. It is only in our alliances with non-humans that we become sufficiently recalcitrant to validate or refute the claims of our spokespersons. The problem with democratic politics is that its tests—elections, letter writing campaigns, civil disobedience—glorify the human capacity for speech in a way that actually reduces politics to the expression of opinion. Such tests certainly do not allow humans and non-humans to vote together as to the adequacy of their representation.
What might such voting look like? Elections would not be scheduled. There would be no ballots, no campaigns, no fundraising. Instead, one day a hurricane might destroy a historic American city, or a subprime mortgage crisis might nearly bring down capitalism. This is not hard to imagine…. But it does take some powers of imagination to think about how to take this as a vote.
Typically, such events trigger parallel conversations. Experts interrogate nonhumans as to the technical causes of their failure—were you badly constructed? Carelessly inspected? Poorly regulated?—while humans speculate as to the meaning of the event, as to the values it ought to prompt us to embrace. Latour’s insight is that the force that nonhumans enjoy in these parallel debates is self-defeating. Although they are typically given the last word, the power to settle the question “what happened?”, that power comes at the cost of being reduced to passivity, being rendered subjects of technical failures that can be diagnosed, remedied, and deployed to limit controversies over values.
What if, instead, these events were comments on the pertinence of the claims that political representatives make on behalf of their constituencies. The hurricane is political demography: it lays bare the differential distribution of political power and continues to lend visibility to systematic patterns of exploitation and neglect. It is a call to arms that must not be reduced to a call to charity and disaster relief. The financial crisis speaks out, lending its voice to those voters who have long argued that both of the two major political parties represent capitalism first, the interests of working Americans second. Perhaps it wants a third-party movement.
There is a whole apparatus of punditry and political science devoted to reading election results as if they were tea leaves. What would it mean to deploy this apparatus not simply on the first Tuesday in November but in the wake of these unscheduled elections, to insist that they should be read as such? I feel like I’m groping here, but I am trying to experiment with representational strategies because I am convinced that we theorists have a role to play in narrating such events as political acts pressing demands, thereby resisting their co-optation as problems to be solved.