Isabelle arrives late; the south lawn beckons; the unbearable lightness of the ecology of practices is discussed.

by helenjrr

Isabelle is late, and I nurse my coffee in an offhand manner. This feels contrived, I’m not relaxed at all; the café is busy, the table I’m sitting at is tightly wedged into a corner, and I’m decidedly nervous. I didn’t like the text. And now I have to talk about why, and to do so with its author, a highly esteemed feminist, philosopher, and professor about whom I know very little and whose work I have read embarrassingly little of.

I test pushing back my chair, rehearsing the moves required to make a run for it, to escape to the south lawn and join the other students sprawled there, in the bright sunshine, discussing tv shows and politics. Lost in this thought, I fail to notice her enter and then suddenly she is at the table, smiling; caught off guard, I freeze, deer-like. Too late.

Isabelle sits down, signals to a waiter, orders a double espresso and introduces herself all in one, extended, movement. She’s just escaped a long and caffeine-deprived meeting in the physics department where – she brushes her grey hair out of one eye, exasperated as she unloads on me, a complete stranger – her suggestion that “physics needs a new habitat” was apparently met with some misgivings. “I have many friends, physicists, who get this, but here, at this school, it seems impossible for them to imagine that by defining a physical reality – a reality beyond fiction – that they claim a very exclusive position of judgement over other realities. In this way, they are both the addicts and the dealers of the strong drug of Truth, with all of its attendant power to judge, to deconstruct, and to criticize.”

Oh God, I think, immediately despondent, we’re getting straight to the bit that I like the least. Like jumping straight into a cold bath. I take a deep breath, turn on the voice memo function on my phone, and try not to speak too quickly (a nervous habit). “And this – Isabelle – is why I wanted to talk to you. As I understand it,’” I pull out a text marked ‘Introductory notes on an ecology of practices’, photocopied from a 2005 issue of Cultural Studies Review, “this text effectively poses critical theory as inoperable, possibly unethical, destructive even.”

“I mean,” I continue, “I guess that I’ve taken a lot from Raymond Guess’ definition of critical theory,” here switching tone a little, aware that she knows the territory better than I do, but at the same time determined to be clear, “and have been very interested in the production of theory that produces enlightenment in the agents who hold it (enabling those agents to determine what their true interests are); and then that (secondly) aspires to be emancipatory, freeing agents from (largely self-imposed) coercion. That definition has been really valuable to me” – here, I start to sound defensive – “yet it’s exactly that kind of theory that you describe as ‘ethics in a major key.’ You pretty much reject it outright.”

I pause to draw breath, and then continue, words crashing into each other now in an effort to get to the end of what I needed to say. “But without ‘grounding definitions or an ideal horizon’ (your words) and without an ‘if… then’ – without ‘cause’ that exceeds the specificity of ‘case’ – and ultimately without justifying our proposals in terms of reasons that can be accepted in spite of borders, how can we change the world for the better? I know it sounds ridiculously naïve, but how can an ecology of practices actually change anything? It seems that as a theoretical position, it can only celebrate that which already exists, by describing it. At best, it can affect people in a way that they change themselves. But,” I falter, feeling like a child, “what if that’s not enough?”

“Change the world? No.” She looks at me directly. “Absolutely not. Individual practices? Maybe. At least to the extent that the habitat of a practice, its surroundings, can affect its ethos. Through description theory produces, reinforces, and in some case solidifies those surroundings, the connections that form that network. Here is where we can work. This has to be enough.”

“Like architects?” I ask.

“Like diplomats.”

She goes on to expand on her choice of figuration, switching terminology and situation several times, rapidly, in her advocacy for the deployment of this metaphor. She talks me though the idea of a model of change based on the reformulation of “obligations” associated with certain “attachments”, through the production of “belongings” (a quality that, as I understand it, informs obligations) – both one’s own and others. I get a sense of a kind of performed change, that is embodied, enacted, and (she was very clear about this) definitively non-discursive. This is an immanent and performative model of the social world, then, whereby the effect and the cause present themselves simultaneously (in what she calls “the case”). A world without policy horizons, without The Future, without Utopia, and without critique. A world without urban planning, I surmise; or perhaps a planning of affect and experience, rather like the one of today – a planning that persuades, that seduces, that negotiates amongst actors, but that lacks a cause, an ideology, a doing that is for and on behalf of its diverse “publics”. Impressed though I am by the wide and simultaneously radically limited scope of her proposition, its shiny lightness, and its sense of generosity, my head is spinning trying to think it through in planning terms.

I’m shaken out of my reverie when she gets up to go, shaking my hand and encouraging me to continue thinking about this. I finally notice the tattoo on her arm – “Empowerment Not Enlightenment” – and smile. I like Isabelle, but I’m not so sure that I can be in her gang, I decide, as I walk towards the south lawn and finally slump onto the grass in the bright sunshine. I still have too many causes that, no matter how hard I try, fail to transform themselves into cases. I pull a book out of my bag, and decide to give myself up to the strong drug of Truth for the remainder of the afternoon.