Dialoghi di San Giorgio What’s the body of the Body Politic? Sovereignty, Identity, Ecology

Venice, Island of San Giorgio Maggiore

Opening event. Dialoghi di San Giorgio
12 September 2017

Dialoghi di San Giorgio 2017, entitled What’s the body of the Body Politic? Sovereignty, Identity, Ecology, will be opened by a special event: a performance of music from Karlheinz Stockhausen, Tierkreis (1974/1983) for clarinet, flute, trumpet and piano performed by mdi ensemble and readings from works by Platone, San Paolo, Giovanni di Salisbury (John of Salisbury), Christine de Pizan, Thomas Browne and Wiliam Shakespeare.

Dialoghi di San Giorgio
13 – 15 September 2017

Do you remember the Aesopian Fable of the Belly and the Members, or the letter of Paul to the Corinthians about the Body and the Church, or The Fable of the Bees by Mandeville, or the somewhat dangerous association of pests and foreigners, or the more recent attempts to think of the Earth as a giant organism? None of these stories stops shifting metaphors between one domain —that of the body— and another —that of politics. The result has been the creation of that most important concept of Western philosophy, corpus politicum, the Body Politic. One interesting aspect of this most famous topic is that every domain borrows from each other the certainty associated with the other’s authority, so that political science ends up borrowing from biology what biologists borrow from political theory. This constant commerce of concepts and metaphors, unfortunately, has never guaranteed the quality of what has been ceaselessly transported from one domain to another. The result is that we remain deprived of a coherent definition of collective bodies. Hence the idea of attempting to re-open the question in this Dialogue by bringing the different domains together and examine what each has really to offer to the others that is genuinely proper to the phenomena it studies.

Just at the moment when the idea of sovereignty has become obsolete through the intensification of globalization, planetary changes and migrations, the new political mood is to withdraw behind the borders that Nation States invented in previous centuries. In spite of the vast transformations that the new climatic regime requires, it is today a politics of identity, nationalism and borders that seems the most attractive to voters. Everywhere the choice is either to prolong the extension of globalization or else return to the older ideas of strictly enforced sovereignty. There seems to be no other alternative. In this Dialog we wish to open the way for another political orientation, one that relies neither on the idea of globalization nor on those of sovereignty, identity and individuality. Our assumption is that most of the ideas about the Body Politic come from ideas about the biological body, and vice versa. There has always been a two-way stream of exchanges between biology, law, religion and social theory to the point that it is very difficult when people talk about ecosystems, identity, genetics, organism or globalization to decide if they speak about human or non-human entities. Biologists don’t seem to worry that they import social theory to talk about organs and tissues, sociologists don’t hesitate to use a legal conception coming from Church history to define the individual, while economists happily mobilize what they take as a “naturalistic” notion of competition to render the optimum calculable, while organization theorists borrow offhandedly the DNA metaphor of cell organization, and so on. Metaphors travel freely, transporting the same unexamined perplexities from field to field.

This confusion has become even more complete, at the time of the Anthropocene, when politics has to be expanded to the former objects of nature.  The solution is certainly not to add to the confusion by treating humans and non-humans as if they were the same, either by treating all of them as being equally “social”, or all of them as equally “natural”. When selfish genes look suspiciously like Wall Street executives, when the planet Earth is treated as a goddess, when organism themselves are treated like corporations, when anthills are treated as macro-organisms, cells as if they were cybernetic machines, States as if they had natural boundaries, it is extremely difficult to specify the differences between collective forms. It is at this point that we wish to intervene. The newly emerging Body Politic requires a careful examination of what is meant by body, organism, individual, identity and collective.

Immense advances have been made in the study of collective behavior at many different scales — markets, cells, social animals, nation states, corporate bodies, human interactions as well as ecosystems. And yet a difficulty remains that scholars and scientists tend simultaneously to solve practically and to dismiss intellectually: the notion of an individual agent that then enters into some sort of relations within a collective is not a notion that seems to work. First, because every time a study is carefully made, the individual does not seem to have clear-cut boundaries; and second, because the collective of which it is supposed to be a part does not seem to be really more than its components. The difficulty is constantly papered over by vague concepts such as organism, emerging properties, systems, totalities.

This conundrum is well known. Everyone recognizes that the two notions of individual and collectives are fraught and then tries to find some way to avoid the difficulty. This creates a strange situation for ethics, law and politics as well as for science: the most important features of our orientation in the world (who are we as individuals? What is the shape of the larger ensemble inside which we are supposed to live? What are the boundaries that define our collective existence?) are based on a series of concepts wholly unfit to capture the nature of individuality and of collective. Strangely enough, even though scholars, scientists, educators and moralists all recognize the fragility of this model, there has been no systematic way to find an alternative model to redefine part/whole relations and rework the odd notion of organism that is then used as a blueprint for our ideas of sovereignty. Social theory and biology seem to go their own ways even though they keep exchanging concepts and metaphors without examining carefully what is thus exchanged.

We think that there is an opportunity to advance the search for a critical examination of such commerce by using to our benefit the very fact that it travels freely through so many domains at once. The problem of defining organism and identity has exactly the same form if you study cell development, the behavior of ant colony, of a baboon group, the growth of geopolitical coalitions, corporate bodies, ecosystems, markets or human interactions in societies. Naturally, the empirical material differs, but not the concepts in which such material is then formatted. It is this very problem that could offer the best opportunity to solve it. Our idea is very simple: to compare and exchange the solutions each of us in our own discipline had to develop to renew our definition of collectives and individuals. Since the same conundrum is impeding all our various disciplines, let’s render the common problem visible by assembling around one table several specialists of various disciplines  (biology, philosophy, ecology, social theory, anthropology, history of science, political science) who have, each in their own way, courageously raised the same question against the paradigms of their own disciplines. We will not solve the problem in three or four days; but the two-way commerce between biology, politics and social theory will be at least clear to all.

Although we will speak about totally different entities — bacteria, cells, ants, corporations, clans or bands —, we will force ourselves to be uniquely attentive to the origin, nature, quality, impact, undertone of the metaphors and concepts we borrow from other disciplines when we frame the problem of what is a collective in our own disciplines. It is risky, but every one of us has had to develop some aspect of such an enterprise against the powerful paradigms we had to dispute. As political ecology is clearly and urgently paralyzed by the inability to develop a clear conception of what could compose a Body Politic, it would be heartening to feel that we are not isolated, but – much more important – we might come up with a much better way to phrase the problem.

The Island of San Giorgio Maggiore, a secluded island, is the ideal venue for the dialogue, in that it differs from some other utopias. Instead of dogmatically assuming the answer has already been reached, the Fondazione Cini offers the chance for collaborative search for better questions.

The speakers of this edition of the Dialoghi di San Giorgio are Deborah Gordon, Shirley Strum, Scott Gilbert, Isabelle Stengers, Didier Debaise, Mike Lynch, Kyle McGee, Timothy Mitchell, Tim Lenton, David Western, Bruno Latour and Simon Schaffer.

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