Thoughts on the Political and the Epistemological

I feel that, contrary to most contemporary scholarship on the matter, politics and more specifically democratic politics, occur at the level of subjective practice, human experience, and the everyday. It is not institutional, nor could it only be such. It is for the sake of convenience that political scientists would categorize politics as participation and behavior in publicly recognized events like voting, protests, and the occasional admission on a public opinion poll. Men and women are put into office. The occasional law is disputed, overturned or amended. The public is measured as to its attitudes. These measuring instruments ensure a steady stream of data. They endure over time and do not necessarily evaporate after use.

But these data are not, and cannot, stand in for what are concrete social relations among human beings—among the conditions for politics. They are guideposts, mere materializations and fabrications (in the strictest sense of the word: to make, to be made) that capture a thought, but do not capture thinking, at a particular time. It is a temporal view, and an epistemic commitment to that temporality, that political scientists take for granted when they discuss ‘changes’ in data sets. They seek correlations between and among static moments of capture. And, much like Philip Converse’s own criticisms about polling and public opinion, I doubt the internal consistency of such measures. But I doubt them for different reasons. Whereas Converse saw irrationality being transferred through more or less undependable instruments (the exit poll, the public opinion question), I see more of an attempt to render an elision between thinking and thought, between flux and fixity. It is the latter that becomes the problematic issue when such studies are pressed about the abundance of attitudes and preferences. These words (attitudes, beliefs, values, and preferences) themselves bear only the imprints of thoughts very much past as the artifice of a public opinion poll itself.

Thus politics is thinking. I mean that the fundamental aspect of a science of the political must be epistemological, and no less ontological. These terms are already wrapped up in a kind of philosophical cloak. By suggesting that a theory (or theories) of knowledge is fundamental to political science thinking itself as a science, as a discipline or as a means of understanding human conditions, I mean that the political itself is encased within the production of knowledge rooted in the everyday. We must first learn to think about the everyday and conceive of how human beings, in the abundance of ways in which they appear and learn, conceptualize and internalize, share and communicate their knowledges in order to arrive at even the first set of questions that can be brought to bear on what would constitute politics. The everyday, conditioned in its own various ways by the external pressures of a ‘society’ or a ‘government’ or ‘capitalism’ or ‘norms’ constitutes the terrain on which ontological questions may be presented, and are no less important. The ontological thrust of democratic politics thus help shape the ways we can conceive of knowledge production.

Yet, borrowing from Foucault, there is an underlying cultural norm, a discursive regime fixed as a kind of normalized epistemology (the episteme), that founds the conditions for the possibility of all knowing, of how thinking can occur and in what forms thought takes shape in material ways. And in that sense epistemology becomes, for my purposes, a political question.

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