Isabelle Stengers: The Cosmopolitical Proposal (2005)

In Isabelle Stengers short article ‘The Cosmopolitical Proposal’ she argues for the design of a political ‘habitat’ or ‘stage’ within which new outcomes might become possible.

Here habitats (oikos) are understood not to determine individual behaviours (ethos) but to unescapably influence them; ethos and oikos are in an inseparable etho-ecological relationship.

The stage she proposes connects decision makers to the consequences of their decisions, a gap currently maintained by legal and narrative ‘anesthetics.’ As an example she cites the grand narrative of sacrifice for economic progress, where victims aren’t treated comparably to those who have sacrificed for other wars. This reconnection would ‘complete’ politics: decisions would then have to be made in the presence of everything, especially their victims.

By removing anesthetics and establishing a relationship to consequences Stengers imagines a new oikos that she names ‘cosmopolitics.’ The term ‘cosmos’ is selected precisely for its imprecision; it enigmatically suggests the infinite and the unknowable (including diverse differences in ontological understanding). Against the false certainties of business-as-usual politics (ie. we will do this and then this will happen…), the cosmopolitical proposal foregrounds uncertainty, reminds deciders they are not masters, and tries to ‘slow down the construction of the common world.’ In slowing down we might be able to open black-boxed concepts, examine what it is that we are busy doing and make decisions that are conscious and concerned about expected and unexpected consequences.

Stengers is clear that the Cosmopolitical Proposal is intended only as a method of practice (ie. not a theory), and accordingly she emphasises how this might unfold. She advocates for inclusion of ‘idiots’ as evoked by Dostoevsky and Deleuze: a slow and opaque presence that resists consensual presentation (ie. challenges authority) and claims ‘there is something more important’ to be considered (without ever articulating what this is).

She articulates the presence of idiocy through re-designing the political stage, specifically assigning clear roles as ‘expert’ and ‘diplomat’. ‘Experts’ are identified not as those who know best, but as those with the socially constructed authority to speak unchallenged. ‘Diplomats’ have a rather more complicated role: to remove the anesthetics that prevent experts from seeing consequences by consulting with and representing those whose identities, practices and modes of living might be under threat. Further, diplomats convoke the invisible, represent the presence of uncertainty and suspend the habits that make experts (/us) believe we know with certainty.

In a certain sense this may not sound dissimilar to politics-as-usual consultation, but what I think is at stake here is what Stengers calls a different regime of thought and feeling. As an evocative example she refers to the Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell (WITCH), a feminist activist group founded in 1968 whose legacy remains visible in contemporary protest culture, recently by casting spells on Donald Trump. In evoking magic the protestors transform the language, feelings and relationships that surround an issue and encourage those present to rethink its framing. Stengers asks “…what do we carry on doing when we use words that make us the heirs of those who have eradicated witches?”

There are clear links to be drawn with architectural practice here; certainly many architects evoke different regimes of thought and feeling through their work, and some also attempt a similar social role to Stenger’s ‘diplomat.’ I will discuss this further in a future post, looking at Albena Yaneva’s anthology on Cosmopolitical Architecture.