Not So Fast: Cosmopolitics and the Higgs Boson
SCIENCE, 30 Jul 2012
Will media reports on the Higgs boson announcement influence the way “modern people” treat all other people?
There was an odd moment during the press conference that followed the announcement regarding the Higgs boson at the CERN lab. A small episode that, I think, opens a little window that allows us to approach the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) as media object and critique the narrative that has been established around it. One of the journalists asked Rolf-Dieter Heuer, Director General of CERN, the following question:
“To the extent that I am made of fundamental particles, does this not have any relevance to me?”
Heuer looked around, as if about to lose his patience, and replied:
“I think it has a lot of relevance to you because if that would not exist, I think that YOU would not exist. I think that’s in a very short layman term.”
He then turned to his colleagues, asking – “Do you agree?” Everyone nodded hastily. Yes, absolutely! “Ok… ok” – he announced – “I got agreement!”
The scientist stressing his authority over the meaning of existence itself, the journalist for a moment looking at the scientist as if he were consulting an oracle, the rushed motion for “agreement”, were all curious signs that later that day mirrored in the way journalists around the world reported on the event.
Effect of the media narrative
Upon closer examination of Heuer’s curious reply, one can say that he makes it absurd to even consider that existence might be determined by orders of things different than subatomic physics. By extension, cultures around the world who define their worlds in different terms would need to be declared nonexistent. Heuer’s statement at the press conference is an example of what Portugese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos calls “Sociology of Absences” in Western culture:
“I distinguish five logics or modes of production of non-existence. The first derives from the monoculture of knowledge. It turns modern science and high culture into the sole criteria of truth and aesthetic quality, respectively. All that is not recognised or legitimated by the canon is declared non-existent.”
Will the way the media reported on the Higgs boson announcement influence the way “modern people” treat all other people, gods, forces and events that (as it seems) no longer exist? What will be the effect of the media narrative that has been put in motion, a narrative about the finding of the unequivocal essence of the universe? Will this result in renewed Western arrogance, harsher policy and even deeper disregard towards those around the world who inhabit universes differently weaved?
Robert Wright, writing for The Atlantic, calls for “intellectual humility”. Sounds good, “humility” always sounds good, but his argument ultimately boils down to an abdication of subtle forms of thought, and to the de-legitimisation “in the grand scheme of things” of knowledge produced through means other than scientific equipment.
“So, as for the question of what this Higgs Boson thing ultimately ‘means’: It means we should all try to have some intellectual humility, especially when opining on grand philosophical matters, because the thing we’re using to try to understand the world -the human brain – is, in the grand scheme of things, a pretty crude instrument.”
Not so fast. Millions of Hinduists or Buddhists (for example) have used the mind and the body as instruments to apprehend the cosmos for centuries. However, statements like the above go uncontested in Western media. In this case, “humility” stands for subjugation. Why does global journalism rush to agree for everyone else that there is one cosmos defined as a system of fields, waves, forces and particles?
Even Western philosophy, currently passing through a very interesting period of inquiry in this same topic, the essence of existence (or in philosophical terms, “ontology”), would find plainly silly to suggest that what is needed in the face of CERN’s announcement is “intellectual humility”. On the contrary, a paralysing shock to our critical potential would be catastrophic at this point.
The past decade, in particular, has seen the rise of “a unified theory or ontology of objects“, Object-Oriented-Ontology (OOO), to the forefront of academic philosophy. But there will be no headlines on the work of thinkers such as Graham Harman, Timothy Morton or Bruno Latour for contemporary philosophy at the moment poses no match to the LHC in terms of spectacular imagery. It is a shame, because this field might actually hold the keys to forge the alliances necessary to deal with global concerns such as global warming, indigenous survival and mass bio-extinction.
The narrative surrounding the announcement at CERN threatens to further subjugate vast fields of human knowledge, both academic and traditional. Now that the time for redistribution of power seems to be on the works, shutting down the voices of local gods would be a setback. The powerful language used to build the narrative of the LHC, “mankind”, “reality”, “triumph”, “god particle”, etc makes the issues of knowledge hard to think freely about. This is precisely why it is important to examine the inner workings of the way this story has been presented.
The ‘global’ avengers of CERN
An important part of this narrative is the idea that particle physics is an endeavour of all mankind. It is crucial that we agree to believe that is so. The assumptions interwoven in the syntax used by The Economist make it seem like there is “global” consensus around the authority of CERN to define “reality”:
“The LHC, sustained by a consortium that was originally European but is now global, cost about $10 billion to build.
“That is still a relatively small amount, though, to pay for knowing how things really work, and no form of science reaches deeper into reality than particle physics.”
The LHC project has been repeatedly described as “global”, but the participation of scholars and institutions that are already aligned with CERN’s approach does not make it diverse nor does it mean that any culture other than modern science is really represented. Because of the very scientific nature of the endeavour, such a thing (significant representation of other cosmic traditions) wouldn’t even make sense.
Like in the movie The Avengers, individuals of all shapes and colours are welcome to the team as long as they renounce their essence and commit to defend a New York that is under attack by strange gods coming from another universe. There can only be a team after the primal rage of the Hulk is tamed. Thor, who comes from the other dimension, enters the team only after Captain America teaches him a lesson. Alignment to its ways and goals is “diversity”, according to the West. Diversity understood in this way is condescending, cosmetic and unlikely to work in the long run. Except, of course, in Hollywood.
By this I don’t mean to argue that the experiments conducted at the LHC are illegitimate; the science indeed seems sound and the sheer amount of labour concentrated in this thing is mind blowing. Still, the LHC shouldn’t overreach, making the project more legitimate or “global” than it really is. Its findings are relevant within the confines of modern rational materialism, but they are not the unique and universal model of existence. To say that the Large Hadron Collider is the final “global” jury on the matter of ontology because they have international collaboration programmes is like believing that the locally customised versions of the McDonald’s meal accurately represent the world’s cuisine.
The question then is, if the global Avengers of CERN can’t provide a universal model of the universe, who can?
How to kill a sleeping god?
The answer is, of course, that no one can. Local knowledge, local definitions of the constitution of the universe shape fundamentally different realities around the world. For all practical effects, the local theory of the universe (the local ontology) is always the true one.
The idea that there is one single nature is an artefact of Western culture, both cunning and naïve at the same time. It is the biased interpretation of the world at the root of colonialism past and present. Mining operations around the non-industrialised world are an example of how the Western idea of nature imposes devastation on the rest. In dealing with the local inhabitants, the white man uses (to his convenience) his scientific instruments and describes the universe: “This is a mountain, it is made of coal worth billions”. The idea makes no sense in the universe the indiginous inhabit: “This is not a mountain, this is a sleeping God, and it is clearly priceless.” Since money is the ruling spirit in the universe of the materialist, who is also more powerful, the God is usually killed no matter what.
Who is right, when it is clear that neither is speaking metaphorically? The mountain, being a cornerstone of local cosmology, literally is a god, but scientific instruments designed for a materialist universe are unable to register the fact. Every day, right now, the outcomes of these fundamental disputes, these clashes of worlds, determine the extinction or survival of indigenous cultures around the world.
The problem of nature has been since the beginning of colonial times a matter of genocide. The idea that the “standard model” has been fully demonstrated is so dramatic, so absolute, that it might fuel further invasions. Will the Western inability to co-exist with other universes take a further, deeper, turn into plain arrogant greed? How many more languages will disappear after everyone has been forced to agree that there is only one true “standard model” of the universe?
The dawn of cosmopolitics
In an important essay called War of the Worlds, What About Peace? French sociologist Bruno Latour gives hope:
“No, Westerners might not be able to modernise the whole planet after all. This does not mean that they are forever locked into the narrow confines of their own civilisation, threatened by all others in a war of all against all. It just means that they counted a bit prematurely on possessing a sure principle that could unify the whole world, make one accepted common world. It is not the case that an already existing peaceful union has been savagely shattered.”
Latour explains how the West built its claim of higher ground over the rest by constructing the idea of a single, neutral, “nature”: “Religion had to become a mere culture so that nature could become a true religion – what brings everyone into assent”. This is precisely what is problematic about the language constructed around the Large Hadron Collider: it is crafted to make unthinkable dissent about the making of the universe.
Ontology is the soup in which politics (understood as the rules about how to conduct collective life) is cooked. To change the recipe is to change life. Ultimately, ontology is politics at the highest level: it determines everything else in a society. In this sense, the way the work of these scientists is being presented by the media and in some cases by themselves, make the whole operation feel like an ontological landgrab of long-term political consequence.
This is a larger, cosmic, political field. Belgian sociologist Isabelle Stengers called it Cosmopolitics. Cosmopolitics is concerned with the negotiations between the overlapping universes that in reality make up the world, instead of imposing Western materialist rationality:
“In the term ‘cosmopolitical’, cosmos refers to the unknown constituted by these multiple, divergent worlds and to the articulations of which they could eventually be capable.”
An example of cosmopolitics in action is perhaps the work of an organisation such as Survival International, devoted to “helping tribal peoples defend their lives, protect their lands and determine their own futures”. With the goal of establishing the possibility for actual dialogue between universes, their tactics include the creation of platforms to make tribal peoples’ voices heard and education efforts – education, of course, of the West. Perhaps if they learn to understand the other in its own terms, Westerners will be able to establish earnest and open-ended dialogue for mutual benefit.
It is key to get over the modern idea that there is one nature and “cultures” are just superficially different approaches to decorating life. Western modernity is one among many versions of the cosmos currently operating in this shared world. Latour calls these other universes modes of existence, in contrast to Marx’s materialist philosophy that reduces analysis to modes of production. The West has trouble understanding that other “cultures” are in fact fully consistent models of the universe. The idea that there is one single nature is colonialist because it sets the stage for systematic violation of all other realities: the key concept is multinaturalism, not condescending multiculturalist “tolerance”.
Multinaturalism for a P2P future
Paradoxically it is thanks to another CERN project, the World Wide Web, that Cosmopolitics can be now considered a possible path for the future. Perhaps the most important potential the web has is the emergence of what has been called peer-to-peer production in all fronts of human activity. P2P arrangements are based on equipotentiality as an organising principle: “This means that everyone can potentially cooperate in a project, that no authority can pre-judge the ability to co-operate, but that the quality of cooperation is then judged by the community of peers.”
The interconnection of infinitely versatile computers has created a global trend towards distribution of power, as opposed to centralisation of power. However, it is important to remember that we will not have a truly P2P world as long as we buy into the idea of one single “standard” model of the universe, one single indisputable ruling truth. It is a notion that disempowers the other, who can then no longer be honestly called “a peer”. And that is what is truly backwards.
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