‘post-politics’, STS, and ’emergent’ theorisations: navigating beyond an ‘either-or’ approach

What I think is emerging with regards to recent debates around politics and democracy in Geography and elsewhere, is an ‘either or’ choice; On the one hand, we have understandings of an established ‘post-political condition’ where politics proper has been foreclosed through a consensual order replacing antagonism and ideological struggle (Swyngedouw, 2007). On the other, notions informed by Science and Technology Studies (STS), and pragmatist philosophies where political contestation is a much more ‘ordinary thing’ (Barnett, 2012). The debate often becomes stuck between these two opposing positions where the political is viewed as an ‘event’ (Badiou, 2005; Rancière , 2004; Swyngedouw, 2007; Žižek, 1999), or one based around the political emerging more frequently through a variety of issues (Callon, 2010; Latour, 2005; Stengers, 2010). But as Rancière (2010) writes, “if politics is everywhere, then it is nowhere”.

Tensions within post-politics approaches

a) ‘over-arching’ (Larner, forthcoming)
b) Is not attentive to empirical cases (Barnett, 2011)
c) Not attentive to issues and emergence (Marres, 2010)
d) misses many ongoing political struggles (Dean, 2009)

Tensions within STS-based approaches

a) Politics is everywhere, therefore what is actually political? (Rancière , 2010)
b) Does not account for the political as closure (Mouffe, 2005)
c) Anti-historical, does not focus on context (Asdal, 2012)
d) The state is static or not considered at all (Jessop, 2008)

This divide is further exemplified when the concept of ‘single issues’ is considered for example. For post-political theorists the foreclosure of the political, is replaced by ineffective deliberation around single issues, a particular technological choice for example, or identity politics as another, which has come to replace antagonistic politics around more substantial questions of political economy (Žižek, 1999). Thus single issue politics is symptomatic of the post-political condition, where disagreement is enthusiastically encouraged within a range of topics, however questions regarding redistributive justice and alternatives to neoliberalism are excluded. For others however, “the issues deserve more credit” (Marres, 2007). Here, it is ‘issues’ which are the generative cause of passionate political engagement and should not be seen as a form of inauthentic or ‘bad’ politics (Marres, 2010).

For theorists associated with post-politics, contemporary political configurations represent an anti-democratic or ‘post-democratic’ technocracy (Swyngedouw, 2010), whilst ‘issue-based’ accounts often discuss the displacement of politics in terms which at times depict an optimistic view of democratic extension as a consequence of the displacement of politics (Marres, 2007). There is an implicit assumption in such accounts of an ‘opening up’ of more issues to democratic accountability without considering ways in which issues can be ‘closed down’.

However, an alternative is to consider that single issues are not necessarily in fact single issues at all, but rather may be best thought of as sites through which a ‘short circuit’ to a multiplicity of other issues, and indeed, broader political struggles can be articulated (Barry, 2010). On the other hand however, following Asdal (2012: 1) a ‘side effect’ of such focus on emergence is that “not enough attention is given to that which enables certain situations to occur”. Recent research on public engagement with energy, and much work with STS, focuses on specific instances of public engagement and misses the ways in which political power, state choreography, and foreclosure of debate, can all impinge on the legitimacy of a particular participatory exercise.

Recent work on ‘emergent publics’ (Mahony et al, 2010) is more attentive to these concerns, navigating a way through the pitfalls of both approaches identified above. The focus here is on the processual manner through which ‘multiple publics’ emerge politically, which is more attentive to comprehending empirically how political contestation unfolds. What is also emphasised is the notion that ‘de-publicisation’ as well as processes of ‘publicisation’ occur in relation to emergent publics (Mahony et al, 2010), however this has not been emphasised or developed sufficiently. Discussion of the state remains limited and insufficient consideration is given to simultaneous processes of depublicisation’ or ‘de-politicisation’.

Elsewhere, more nuanced approaches to ‘post politics’ have focussed upon the contextual and partial ways through which it is achieved in particular policy settings (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012). Within these accounts state strategy is once again linked to the political landscape, but not in a manner where a certain political constellation is explained away by state power. Rather, there is greater empirical focus on how specific reforms impinge on, and close down, politics in certain settings. This puts emphasis on the where of politics in relation to particular policy landscapes and policy reforms. Allmendinger and Haughton (2012) use the notion of the ‘displacement’ of politics, emphasising that post-politics is never an over-arching or completed project. Similarly, Cowell and Owens (2006), with specific reference to public inquiries, focus on the ‘political opportunities’ for activist groups in relation to state restructuring through planning.

This notion of ‘displacement’ (Allmendinger and Haughton, 2012; Metzger, 2010) lends itself towards a more empirical focus on how the locations and political methods utilised by different groups relate to particular policy reforms and state restructuring processes. Whilst STS-inspired approaches focus on ‘emergence’, the state and the contextual politics of this emergence are rarely considered. As Asdal writes, the focus of STS has been on contemporary ‘live’ processes, and whilst many insights have been gained from such an approach, “the effects of this forward looking move is that not enough attention is given to that which enables issues and situations to emerge in the first place” (2012:1 Original emphasis).

I guess the challenge then, is to be attentive to ’emergent’ politics without falling into a causal explanation where issues neccessarily bring new political formulations into being. There is always a political contestation of some form required to enable new political collectives to emerge, and as exciting as ’emergent’ accounts may be, these struggles and such things as ‘the state’, should not be empirically over-looked.


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