In Irreductions, or perhaps it’s elsewhere, Latour says that we’ll never do better than a politician. Presumably when Latour evokes this aphorism, his point is that we always have to navigate the world in such a way that we have to deal with resistances, assemble other actors to form coalitions or assemblages, and so on. The point would be that the purity of a stance is impossible to maintain, but that compromise is always necessary. Here it’s important to note that for Latour, the figure of the politician is an ontological category, not primarily a political category. What we call politics is a subset of a more general ontological condition. Take the example of the wood carver. If the carver is a politician, then this is because in working the wood, the carver must work with the flow of the grain, the knots, the shape of the wood, etc. The final product is a sort of compromise between the singularities of the wood and the aims of the carver.
Latour is right, but the worry that arises with respect to his aphorism is that it comes to function as the thesis that we should abandon certain aims and goals, thereby pre-emptively compromising. In this connection we hear terms like “pragmatic realism”, where the idea is that we must settle because the so-called “mature realist” understands that certain things just aren’t possible. Of course, in having pre-emptively declared that certain things are not possible, the pragmatic realist insures that they aren’t possible by virtue of never pursuing them and re-structuring the social space by creating popular consensus rendering them possible. It is here that I think Zizek and Badiou are on the right track. Their politics continues the aphorism written on the walls in Paris in Spring of 69, saying “be realistic, demand the impossible!” The only realist position is to demand the impossible and to refuse all pragmatic realism or compromise.
We can thematize this point in terms of Latour’s theses about realism. Earlier in Irreductions Latour also makes the claim that reality is resistance. While I do not share Latour’s view here– whether or not something resists something else has nothing to do with whether it’s real –I certainly would agree that how we come to know reality involves resistances. In this regard, the person or group that aligns herself with a politician (in the political, not ontological, sense) withdraws herself from the domain of social reality. This is precisely because she creates no reality that the politician must navigate and therefore becomes invisible. She presents no singularity that must be navigated. In this regard, the goal of the political activist should be to be like a knot of wood. The goal should be to occupy the position of a singularity that must be navigated. This would be the case regardless of whether or not one is sympathetic to the politician or shares her ideology. It is only in this way that the political subject can play a role in forming the social space. By contrast, in aligning oneself with a politician, the subject ceases to be a political subject insofar as they have become invisible, a smooth space, that requires no navigation.