This article traces the history of the radical idea of an “administration of things” from its origins in utopian socialism to the present.Acknowledgement: An early version of this paper was presented to the Penn/Yale Workshop on Utopianism in Moral and Political Philosophy. My thanks to the organizers, Adrienne Martin and Matthew Noah Smith, for the invitation, and to Lionel McPherson for his generous criticism. My thanks, also, to my hosts at the Internationale Kolleg für Kulturtechnikforschung und Medienphilosophie (IKKM Weimar) for their hospitality as I reworked this piece. Thanks, finally, to Stefanos Geroulanos, Daniel Lee, Erica Robles-Anderson, Camille Robcis, and, especially, Joan Scott.
“If men never disagreed about the ends of life, if our ancestors had remained undisturbed in the Garden of Eden, the studies to which the Chichele Chair of Social and Political Theory is dedicated could scarcely have been conceived,” Isaiah Berlin told his audience at Oxford when he assumed that position in 1958. Philosophy was at its best when it was being contentious, especially when it was being contentious about the meaning and purpose of our common existence. Too much agreement was an abdication of its ethical responsibility:
Where ends are agreed, the only questions left are those of means, and these are not political, but technical, that is to say, capable of being settled by experts or machines like arguments between engineers or doctors. That is why those who put their faith in some immense, world-transforming phenomenon, like the final triumph of reason or the proletarian revolution, must believe that all political and moral problems can thereby be turned into technological ones. This is the meaning of Saint-Simon’s famous phrase about ‘replacing the government of persons by the administration of things’, and the Marxist prophecies about the withering away of the state and the beginning of the true history of humanity. This outlook is called utopian by those for whom speculation about this condition of perfect social harmony is the play of idle fancy. Nevertheless, a visitor from Mars to any British—or American—university today might perhaps be forgiven if he sustained the impression that its members lived in something very like this innocent and idyllic state, for all the serious attention that is paid to fundamental problems of politics by professional philosophers.Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), 118.
The task of philosophy was not to settle disputes, but to unsettle them, to encourage them, to keep them going. For it was only through disputation that we could resist the rule of experts and machines, the bureaucratic-technocratic society foretold by Saint-Simon and championed by Marx and Engels, a society in which we replace the “government of persons by the administration of things.”
Berlin was hardly alone in his concern about the implications of Saint-Simon’s formula. In Natural Right and History, Leo Strauss argued that “in order to reach his highest stature, man must live in the best kind of society, in the kind of society that is most conducive to human excellence. The classics called the best society the best politeia. By this expression they indicated, first of all, that, in order to be good, society must be civil or political society, a society in which there exists government of men and not merely administration of things.” Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965 ), 135–136. He reiterated this criticism in a slightly more confused way in The City and Man: “On the basis of the break with Aristotle, one could come to believe in the possibility of a simply rational society, i.e., of a society each member of which would be of necessity perfectly rational so that all would be united by fraternal friendship, and government of men, as distinguished from administration of things, would wither away.” Leo Strauss, The City and Man (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978 ), 37–38.
Hannah Arendt was even blunter. After citing Lenin’s assertion that administration in the future would become so simple that even a cook could take charge of it, she remarked, “Obviously, under such circumstances the whole business of politics, Engels’s simplified ‘administration of things’, could be of interest only to a cook, or at best to those ‘mediocre minds’ whom Nietzsche thought best qualified for taking care of public affairs.” Hannah Arendt, Between Past and Future: Eight Exercises in Political Thought (New York: Penguin, 1968), 19. In an interview late in life, Arendt reflected that “after all, the world in which we live has to be kept. We cannot permit it to go to pieces. And this means ‘the administration of things,’ which Engels thought such a marvelous idea, and which actually is an awful idea . . . is still a necessity.” “Hannah Arendt on Hannah Arendt,” in Melvyn A. Hill, Hannah Arendt: The Recovery of the Public World (New York: St. Martin’s, 1979), 327. Cited in Michelle Rodriguez, “The Challenges of Keeping a World: Hannah Arendt on ‘Administration,’” Polity 40:4 (October 2008): 495. Still other mid-century thinkers objected that the administration of things would lead to the thingification of people. Thus Raymond Aron argued that “the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century have shown that if there is one false notion it is that the administration of things can replace the government of people. It has emerged very clearly that if you want to administer all objects you must control all individuals at the same time.” Raymond Aron, The Dawn of Universal History: Selected Essays from a Witness of the Twentieth Century, trans. Barbara Bray (Boston: Basic, 2003), 175. And in The Coming of Post-Industrial Society, Daniel Bell warned “the administration of things—the substitution of rational judgment for politics—is the hallmark of technocracy.” Or even more succinctly: “In the evolution of technocratic society, things ride men.”Daniel Bell, The Coming of Post-Industrial Society: A Venture in Social Forecasting (New York: Basic, 1973), 77, 352. Another example can be found in Arendt’s On Revolution (1961): “Who could deny the extent to which in our mass societies the political realm has withered away and is being replaced by the ‘administration of things’ which Engels predicted for a classless society?”
It was a sad end to a strange idea. Saint-Simon’s formula, with its utopian hope that paperwork might someday be used to emancipate humanity, had instead become shorthand for dehumanization. Had not the abolition of political life led to the gulags? And the administration of things to the kulaks? And as Daniel Bell made clear, it was not only communist societies that were undergoing this change. All mass societies were at risk of becoming societies in which “things rode men.” The idea that someday the state might redirect its paperwork toward the management of resources instead of people was experienced as a threat to a conception of political life as old as Aristotle.
I have argued elsewhere that modern political thought was both founded and confounded by its encounters with paperwork.Ben Kafka, The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork (New York: Zone, forthcoming), esp. chapter 3. The concepts and categories inherited from early modern political philosophy were simply unable to accommodate the transformations in the forces and relations of state-sponsored document production, reproduction, and exchange. Starting in the late eighteenth century observers realized that they would need new words and new ideas. The most famous of these was, of course, “bureaucracy.” To democracy, aristocracy, and monarchy—rule by the many, the few, the one, respectively—the political economist Vincent de Gournay added rule by a piece of office furniture. Saint-Simon’s formula, while less successful, nevertheless had a powerful hold on the imagination of European political thinkers for almost a century. This article will attempt to trace the genealogy of this formula. At the time of its creation, at least, it represented a radical and creative solution to one of the most intractable problems of political philosophy in the modern era: What do we do about all this paperwork?
Law in Its True and Philosophic Sense
The first thing to say about Saint-Simon’s formula is that it was not actually Saint-Simon’s, but Auguste Comte’s, a fact that seems to have eluded previous commentators. Comte, in turn, based the formula on a collection of informal distinctions circulating through the books, treatises, and tracts of the late eighteenth century. “The first need of all societies is police,” the Marquis de Chastellux wrote in his essay On Public Happiness (1772). “It is above all here that the language explains the facts rather than facts explaining language: πολιτεία in Greek, Civitas in Latin, originally signify nothing other than the government of a city, even if they came to designate everything pertaining to administration in general; and still, in our time, the term police can be understood as the government of men as distinct from administration, which rather designates the government of property.”[François Jean de Chastellux], De la félicité public, ou Considérations sur le sort des hommes dans les différentes epoques de l’histoire, 2 vols. (Amsterdam: Chez Marc Michel Ray, 1772), 1:59.
People were governed, things administered. We find a similar distinction being made in the early weeks and months of the French Revolution. In November 1789, for example, the Moniteur Universel published a “Tableau de la municipalité de Paris,” which, though unsigned, seems to have been written by the administrator and proto–social scientist Jacques Peuchet. The report set out plans for an institutional renewal of the French capital. Breaking with the Old Regime, a number of powers previously separated would be united in single assembly. “This combination of functions would seem to be consistent with the nature of a municipal constitution, since it essentially comprises the administration of things and the government of people.” Peuchet reiterated this distinction in another article on Parisian municipal politics the following spring and then again in the 1792 volume of the Encyclopédie méthodique devoted to the National Assembly, which he edited.Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur, 32 vols. (Paris: Bureau Central, 1840–1845), 1:220, 582. Jacques Peuchet, Encyclopédie méthodique. Assemblée nationale constituante, 2 vols. (Paris: Chez Panckoucke, 1792), 2:540. All of these texts made clear that these tasks were compatible, even complementary. At this moment of revolutionary optimism, when the state’s capacities still seemed abundant, even infinite, Peuchet felt no pressure to decide which of these tasks the state should make its priority.
The idea that one of these tasks might replace the other reflected a new conception of power that emerged in the nineteenth century. Early modern political thinkers basically conceived of power as plentiful. There were frequent power shortages, of course, but these could always be blamed on bad harvests, corrupt ministers, wicked queens. The realization that power was structurally rather than contingently scarce was a new one. This mentality was perhaps best expressed by the utilitarian principle of “Official aptitude maximized; expense minimized,” but it was by no means limited to Bentham and his circle. Jeremy Bentham, Official Aptitude Maximized; Expense Minimized: The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 18 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993). In Primitive Legislation (1802), for example, Louis de Bonald pointed to the hard choices that the state would have to make. “In the modern state, we have perfected the administration of things at the expense of the administration of men, and we are far more preoccupied with the material than the moral,” he wrote. “Few governments nurture religion or morality with the same attention that they promote commerce, open communications, keep track of accounts, provide the people with pleasures, etc.” Louis de Bonald, Oeuvres complètes, 3 vols. (Paris: Chez J.-P. Migne, 1859), 1: col. 1248 n.1. Like many observers, he attributed this scarcity to the state’s reliance on paperwork. “The administration of things has caused us to lose sight of the direction of men,” he wrote in an essay titled On Political Economy (1810). “By trying to regulate everything, and to regulate everything from a single center, in a uniform manner, governments are lost, drowned in details.”Ibid., 2: col. 299. The more the state tried to accomplish, the more paperwork it produced, and the more paperwork it produced, the more it “drowned in details.” In other words, the state was limited by the very medium of communication on which it relied. It would thus have to make a choice—a political choice—about priorities.
This was the context in which Auguste Comte made the argument that has been attributed to Saint-Simon ever since. Given the choice, we should replace the government of persons with the administration of things. He made this argument in the third installment of Saint-Simon’s Cathéchisme des industriels. The essay was published in 1822 as the Plan des travaux scientifiques nécessaires pour réorganiser la société and then again in 1824 as Système de politique positive (it would also be known as the Opuscule fondamentale). Saint-Simon wanted to take credit for the publication, which Comte had written at his request, but the younger man insisted on having his name attached to it. The result was a complicated printing history and an even more complicated schism between master and disciple that probably explains why subsequent readers were confused about its authorship.“Catéchisme des industriels, troisième cahier,” in Oeuvres de Claude-Henri Saint-Simon (Paris: Éditions Anthropos, 1966), 4:5. This edition is a facsimile (actually an anastatic print) of the É. Dentu edition of 1875. Manuel stresses Comte’s debt to Saint-Simon in this treatise in Frank Manuel, The New World of Henri St. Simon (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963), 332–343. Pickering stresses Comte’s innovations in Mary Pickering, “Auguste Comte and the Saint-Simonians,” French Historical Studies 181 (spring 1993). My conclusion that it is the first appearance is based on searches in various online databases (including the complete works of Saint-Simon and Enfantin) and supported by Célestin Bouglé and Elie Halévy in a footnote to their edition of La Doctrine de Saint-Simon. Exposition, new ed. (Paris: Rivière, 1924), 162–163. The text became mandatory reading in Saint-Simonian circles. Prominent figures like François Guizot and Jean-Baptiste Say praised its modernity. And it quickly made its way across the Channel to John Stuart Mill, age twenty-two, who later credited the text with giving his ideas the “strong jolt which, along with other causes but much more than they, was responsible for my definitive leaving the Bentham section of the revolutionary school in which I grew up; I can almost say in which I was born.”Mill to Comte, November 8, 1841, in The Correspondence of John Stuart Mill and Auguste Comte, trans. Oscar A. Haac (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1995), 35. On the reception history of the text, see Pickering, “Auguste Comte and the Saint-Simonians.”
All history, Comte argued, is a history of class struggle. Not the struggle between master and slave, lord and serf, bourgeois and proletarian—that was still a couple decades away—but the struggle between two classes of phenomena: “critical” phenomena that contributed to moral and political decay and “organic” phenomena that promoted individual and social regeneration. The French Revolution had promised one but delivered the other. So too the recent Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. The cycle of critical forces had made another rotation. “The means of finally escaping from this deplorable vicious circle, this inexhaustible source of revolutions, does not consist in the triumph of the opinion of kings, nor in that of the opinion of peoples. There is no other means of escape than the formation and general adoption, by peoples and by kings, of the organic doctrine,” Comte wrote. “This doctrine alone can terminate the crisis, by leading society as a whole on the road to the new system, whose establishment has been prepared by the course of civilization since its origin.”Auguste Comte, Early Political Writings, ed. and trans. H. S. Jones (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 59. Further references will be given parenthetically in the text.
The historian Keith Baker has argued that Comte and Saint-Simon were primarily concerned with bringing an end to the era of the French Revolution.Keith Michael Baker, “Closing the French Revolution: Saint-Simon and Comte,” in The French Revolution and the Creation of Modern Political Culture. Volume 3, The Transformation of Political Culture, 1789–1848, ed. François Furet and Mona Ozouf (Oxford: Pergamon, 1989).Like Sieyès and Condorcet before them, Comte and Saint-Simon believed it was up to a class of experts—scientists, industrialists—to work out a new doctrine capable of bringing enduring social and political stability. The scientists would turn their observational skills onto the social and political realm, revealing its laws of development. The industrialists would then reconstruct institutions in such a way that their operations were in harmony with these laws. Unlike Sieyès and Condorcet, however, these postrevolutionary thinkers adopted what Baker has called a “theocratic” understanding of knowledge. Any deviation from rationality became a kind of heresy. “No one is so insane as to set himself up, knowingly, in revolt against the nature of things,” Comte argued (101). He had supreme faith in the power of knowledge.
The objective was to protect against arbitrariness in all of its manifestation. Earlier political thinkers had tended to associate arbitrariness mainly with absolutist governments, but for Comte any form of government was susceptible so long as it rested on “metaphysical” rather than “positive” principles. It hardly mattered whether the supreme legislator owed its existence to one contract or two, whether it was composed of one man or many. It could even exist in the sort of state envisioned by Rousseau in The Social Contract. “Society as a whole might substitute itself for the legislator, if it were possible,” Comte wrote, “and it would still be the same; except that, arbitrary power being now exercised by the whole of society over itself, the disadvantages would become greater than ever” (108). In effect, none of the solutions devised by his predecessors—absolute monarchy, constitutional monarchy, republican government—would succeed in providing the necessary protection. “Scientific politics radically excludes arbitrariness,” Comte explained, “because it removes the absoluteness and the vagueness that have generated and sustained it.” In other words, political science enables us to exchange certainties and uncertainties—our beliefs—for true knowledge. This knowledge, in turn, “prescribes as unequivocally as possible the political action that can be exercised in each era.” Law in its descriptive sense became law in its prescriptive sense. Humanity would know exactly what to do with itself. The era of arbitrariness would come to an end, and with it the social and political conflicts that had caused so much turmoil throughout Europe.
The result? Here was the first and, to my knowledge, only appearance of what Isaiah Berlin called Saint-Simon’s “famous phrase”: “The government of things replaces that of men. It is then that there is really law in politics, in the true and philosophic sense attached to this expression by the illustrious Montesquieu” (108). With this culminating reference to Montesquieu, the formula instructs us on how it wants to be understood. The “things” in question were not limited to objects in the ordinary sense. Rather, they were “things” in the sense that Montesquieu used the term when he defined law as “necessary relations deriving from the nature of things.” That is to say, they were “things” in the most general sense of res, that is, objects but also beings, matters, affairs, events, facts, circumstances, occurrences, deeds, conditions, cases, and so forth (Lewis and Short). Likewise, these things “governed” in the sense that “many things governed” when Montesquieu wrote that “many things govern men: climate, religion, laws, the maxims of the government, examples of past things, mores, and manners.”Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne Cohler, Basia Miller, and Harold Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 310. Pickering has an excellent discussion of Comte’s early readings of Montesquieu in Mary Pickering, Auguste Comte: An Intellectual Biography, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), chapter 1. That is to say, some things governed by constraining possible actions, others by constraining permissible ones.
When Comte advocated replacing the government of men with the government of things, he was advocating the replacement of the arbitrary power of individuals with the rule of law. But the laws that ruled were not formal, or only formal ones. They were laws that took all kinds of “things” into account: nature, culture, custom. There may be aspects of this formula to wonder at, but few to worry about. If it was utopian, it was just barely so. For even as it summoned up a bureaucratic-technocratic world—a world that was plenty appealing in Metternich’s Europe—this world was nevertheless a tempered one. That is to say, it was tempered in the double sense of the term, taking both its suppleness and its strength from an expansive notion of things and their relations.
Stupendously Grand Thoughts
The subsequent history of this formula would be one of misapprehension and misattribution. “To the crude conditions of capitalist production and the crude class conditions corresponded crude theories,” Engels wrote of Saint-Simon, Comte, and the other “utopian socialists.” His critical history of socialism in the long and frequently tedious Anti-Dühring (1878) would soon be excerpted as Socialism: Utopian and Scientific (1880), which would become one of the most-translated and widely read publications of the communist movement. In these texts Engels presented the first sketches of what the state would look like under communism. To be sure, it was only a sketch, not a portrait. Large sections remained obscure or incomplete. This was intentional. Engels believed that the obsession with detail that had characterized utopian socialism—its compulsion to work out every last aspect of future social organization—is precisely what made it so utopian. That said, their ideas were not to be dismissed. “For ourselves, we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thought that everywhere break out through their fantastical covering.”Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Collected Works, 50 vols. (New York: International, 1975–2004), 25:246. Henceforth abbreviated MECW.
According to Engels, replacing the government of men with the administration of things was one of these stupendously grand thoughts. Discussing utopian socialism, Engels invoked Saint-Simon, Fourier, and Owen, but ignored Comte altogether. In this, he was probably following the lead of Marx, who dismissed Comte’s work in a single word: “Shitty.” Letter from Marx to Engels, July 7, 1866, MECW 42:292. Engels argued that the ruling classes had build up the state for one reason and one reason alone: “for the maintenance of its external conditions of production, and, therefore, especially, for the purpose of forcibly keeping the exploited classes in the condition of oppression corresponding with the given mode of production (slavery, serfdom, wage labor).” Ibid., 267. Reformists were wrong to believe that the state could be turned to any other purpose; the anarchists were even more wrong to believe that it could simply be abolished. The state was not the problem, capitalism was. A revolution in the mode of production would render the state obsolete.
Engels envisioned this revolution as a final spasm of sovereignty:
When, at last, it becomes the real representative of the whole of society, it renders itself unnecessary. As soon as there is no longer any social class to be held in subjection; as soon as class rule, and the individual struggle for existence based upon our present anarchy in production, with the collisions and excesses arising from these, are removed, nothing more remains to be repressed, and a special repressive force, a State, is no longer necessary. The first act by virtue of which the State really constitutes itself the representative of the whole of society—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—this is, at the same time, its last independent act as a State. State interference in social relations becomes, in one domain after another, superfluous, and then dies out of itself; the government of persons is replaced by the administration of things, and by the conduct of processes of production. The State is not “abolished”. It dies out [absterben, also translated as “withering away”]. Ibid., 268.
Engels’s account of this process differed in significant ways from Comte’s. When Comte argued that the government of persons would be replaced by the government of things, he meant that an arbitrary government would be replaced by a lawful one, where law was understood in the “true and philosophic sense” given it by Montesquieu. This distinction was either lost on Engels or ignored by him. He understood things not as the subject of government (Montesquieu’s “many things govern men”) but as the objects of government. Once class domination had come to an end, once the state had died off, the only task left would be to administer things and conduct production. Engels had thus reformulated the formula. For Comte, the challenge consisted in deriving necessary relations from the nature of things, a problem best left to experts. For Engels, by contrast, expertise was not an issue. If anything, the formula represented an attack on the idea of expertise. It went without saying—indeed, he left it unsaid—that the proletariat would know how to administer its things once given the opportunity.
This was the version that worked its way into twentieth-century Marxism. Lenin offered a careful explication of Engels’s text in The State and Revolution (1917) in an effort to differentiate his position from the other socialist parties and factions. They had used Engels’s absterben to argue against political revolution; it was simply a matter of waiting for nature to take its course. But Engels, Lenin argued, intended no such thing. He was offering a forceful argument for violent revolution. Bukharin and Preobrazhensky elaborated on the theme in their influential ABC of Communism (1920). In abolishing the old institutions, the revolution had sought to establish a state in which the whole working population—regardless of race, sex, creed—could participate in their administration. True, recent events had shown that this wasn’t always effective; even the “best of comrades” had much to learn. But experience, gained from the continuous rotation of functions, would soon solve this problem. “As soon as all the healthy adult members of the population, all without exception, have come to participate in administration, the last vestiges of bureaucracy will disappear. . . . The government of men will be replaced by the administration of things—the administration of machinery, buildings, locomotives, and other apparatus. The communist order of society will be fully installed.” Nicholas Bukharin and Evgenii Preobrazhensky, The ABC of Communism (London: Merlin, 2007), 188. The things here were things in the most literal sense: trains, tractors, and the like. Their administration was a matter of collective concern, and thus must be undertaken collectively. In this way bureaucratic rule would give way to the dictatorship of the proletariat, and the dictatorship to a fully communist society.
Sadly, like the men who wrote the ABC of Communism, the formula would not survive Stalin, who condemned it in his 1939 report to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. “Is this proposition of Engels’s correct?” he asked, citing the passage above. The answer was yes but only if we assumed a world revolution. “What if Socialism has been victorious only in one country. . . . what then? Engels’s formula does not furnish an answer to this question. As a matter of fact, Engels did not set himself this question, and therefore could not have given an answer to it.” For Stalin, Engels’s phrase was not so much obsolete as inapplicable to the current conjuncture: “A country which is surrounded by a capitalist world, is subject to the menace of foreign military attack, cannot therefore abstract itself from the international situation, and must have at its disposal a well-trained army, well-organized punitive organs, and a strong intelligence service consequently, must have its own state.” “Report on the Work of the Central Committee to the Eighteenth Congress of the C.P.S.U.(B.),” delivered March 10, 1939, in Joseph Stalin, Works (London: Red Star, 1978), 14:415–416. Totalitarianism, at least in its Soviet guise, rested precisely on the rejection of the utopian formula.
By the time of the Twentieth Congress, then, the formula was all but exhausted. “I think it was Trotsky who used a very plain but very telling metaphor,” the historian Isaac Deutscher told graduate students in a seminar on bureaucracy at the London School of Economics in 1960. “The policeman can use his baton either for regulating traffic or for dispersing a demonstration of strikers or unemployed. In this one sentence is summed up the classical distinction between administration of things and administration of men.” Deutscher repeated the argument, offered by Engels and developed by Lenin and Bukharin, that once the state ceased to function as an instrument of class domination, it could turn its attentions to “objective social and productive process.” And like Engels, Lenin, and Bukharin, he emphasized the difference between this idea and anarchism: “We are not concerned with the elimination of all administrative functions—this would be absurd in an industrially developing society—but we are concerned with reducing the policeman's baton to its proper role, that of disentangling traffic jams.” Isaac Deutscher, “Roots of Bureaucracy,” Socialist Register 6 (1969): 20. Deutscher is right to say that this metaphor was “telling.” It was probably more telling than he intended it to be. Even in its most innocuous form—directing traffic—the “administration of things” functioned through the implicit threat of violence: the baton remained at the ready. Far from dehumanizing, the formula was perversely rehumanizing. It returned the policeman to power.
Our hasty genealogy of the “administration of things” must conclude with its latest, and quite possibly last, iteration: Bruno Latour’s “Parliament of Things,” or Dingpolitik. Initially proposed in his book We Have Never Been Modern (1991), then extended in a massive exhibition and accompanying catalog, Making Things Public (2005), Latour’s program has attracted a growing number of partisans in the world of political theory He recalls the etymological roots of the “thing” itself as “a certain type of archaic assembly.” To this day, he points out, “Norwegian congressmen assemble in the Storting; Icelandic deputies called the equivalent of ‘thingmen’ gather in the Althing; Isle of Man seniors used to gather around the Ting; the German landscape is dotted with Thingstätten and you can see in many places the circles of stones where the Thing used to stand.” Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), 12–13. For Latour, the thing is both a matter of common concern and a procedure, or set of procedures, for making decisions about how those concerns ought to be handled. Latour’s Dingpolitik is not a depoliticization but a repoliticization of the activities that have historically been associated with the term administration.
As with so much of Latour’s work, this program derives its energy from a collision between those nuclei of Western metaphysics, namely, “subject” and “object.” I will leave it to others—or perhaps to another occasion—to investigate the apparatus he has designed to harness that energy. Philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers has written that “the Parliament of Things does not belong to the future, like a utopia that would have to be realized—it is not ‘realizable’. It belongs to the present as a vector of becoming or an ‘experiment [experience] of thought’, that is, as a tool of diagnosis, creation, and resistance.” Isabelle Stengers, The Invention of Modern Science, trans. Daniel W. Smith (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000), 155. Her determination to differentiate Latour’s project from the utopian projects of the past is understandable, but also regrettable: first as tragedy, second as farce, and the third time, perhaps, as romance.
Ben Kafka is an assistant professor of media history and theory at New York University and a contributing editor to West 86th. His book The Demon of Writing: Powers and Failures of Paperwork is forthcoming from Zone Books.