Praise of the singular

Going beyond the alternative between universalism and relativism, Emmanuel Alloa pleads for perpectivism and singularity. Philosophical, historical and artistic dive.

What if occupying a particular and personal place in the world was a guarantee of a better understanding of it? In his latest work, Perspective sharingthe philosopher Emmanuel Alloa invites us to positively reconsider singularity, going beyond the usual confrontation between universalism and relativism.

Who is afraid of subjectivity?

Is the contemporary world frightened by singularity and subjectivity? From the cries of horror uttered at each postcolonial claim in the name of defense of the universal to the admonitions with regard to the cacophony of social networks, including the cult of universality, “neutrality” and “the ‘objectivity’, it is customary to condemn the particular positioning of a speaker when he or she expresses himself in the public space. Speaking out should preferably be done in the name of the collective interest, in a neutral voice, to be best heard. It remains to be seen, of course, who is not worked on, informed by their own particularities of gender, class, geographical, ethnic or social origin, and whether the “neutral” is not the mask of the “dominant” . Perspective is then considered according to its double paradoxical nature: in that it indicates the position of the viewer, it affirms its particular dimension, which can even be one of the historical activators of the “subject”; as it can, through the Cartesian cogito and the successive reflections of Kant for whom the understanding of reality passed in particular through experience and perception, state that this subjective starting point is also the only solid ground on which to base itself since we seek to postulate the existence of the world and ideas.

Perspective sharing by Emmanuel Alloa is intended in this context as a historical, philosophical and artistic dive into the question of perspective, and its relationship to objectivity and subjectivity. Its postulate is that, however problematic and insufficient it may be, perspective – or rather, that of each person – remains the best and, in fact, the only means of understanding reality. Perspective, eternally tied to the idea of ​​subjectivity, has been pointed out by modernity as a daimon personal to be banned, leaving us unable to believe in the strength of our specific positioning in the world: it is presented as the reverse of scientific work, the latter being seen as objective by its collective nature, but also by the remote manipulation of measuring instruments and encrypted data. In his book, the author therefore strives to re-envision “perspectivism” in a positive way, that is to say the fact of assuming to see the world through one’s own eyes – while trying to understand its historical trajectory.

Perspective trajectories

Emmanuel Alloa’s enterprise is not content with a philosophical reflection: by taking up the thread of the two major works in art history on the question, Perspective as a symbolic form (1927, 1975) by Erwin Panofsky, and the rereading of it by Hubert Damisch (The Origin of Perspective1987), Emmanuel Alloa adds a new chapter to the history of this “enunciation device”, focusing in particular on the type of relationship to the world that it indicates, in line with the pages devoted to it by Philippe Descola In Beyond nature and culture (2005).

The author reminds us that there is not only one form of perspective, and that the complexity of such a phenomenon recommends the crossing of several disciplines to better understand it. If the history of art is obviously widely used, Emmanuel Alloa also draws the very long thread of the history of philosophy, from Plato to Deleuze and Merleau-Ponty, via Leibniz, Kant and Nietzsche, allowing a salutary rereading of their respective approaches to appearances and cognition through the visual. The author also engages the linguistic question with Benveniste, Saussure and Jakobson, notably taking from the latter the category of “clutchers”, namely the words which act as indicators in a sentence, allowing us to locate the operators, the actions, patients, context, in short, everything that makes a sentence take on meaning, recognizing here that it is indeed the particularizations that give access to the world, more than neutral generalizations.

Emmanuel Alloa also complements his reflection with references to anthropology, and more particularly the structuralist branch of it, that of Lévi-Strauss and Viveiros de Castro, notably in his way of seeing the world as “a gigantic range of significant differences between qualities and beings, a range which can be systematically organized, not despite, but thanks to these differences”, according to the definition given by Philippe Descola in his preface to How forests think by Eduardo Kohn (2017). Alloa partly takes up Viveiros de Castro’s theory of “multiperspectivism”: the world is constructed by different perspectives, sometimes contradictory, disrupting the fixity of the identity of a being or a thing. Alloa, however, does not seem to completely adhere to the “multinaturalism” invoked by de Castro, remaining on the line set by Hannah Arendt: it is the very fact of speaking in a differentiated way about the same thing which attests to the existence of it. this. This precision makes it possible in particular to situate the work as an overcoming of the sometimes sterile conflict opposing realists believing in a unique and already entirely given world and constructivists postulating the total and permanent edition of reality.

Confront, rather than multiply, perspectives?

Perspective sharing is therefore to be understood as a desire to redefine the contemporary approach to perspective. The author focuses on a critique of a form of false consciousness around perspectivism, since it should be considered negatively as “claustral” (in the sense that a single perspective, necessarily subjective and biased, is incapable of say the world correctly) or positively as “additive” (in the sense that it would then be enough to juxtapose the perspectives to obtain a perfect description of reality). Each of these definitions may appear attractive or convincing at first glance, but nevertheless proves to be insufficient, in that they ultimately validate the idea of ​​an ultimate point of view: each attests that it would be possible, either by access total objectivity, or through descriptive profusion, to reach the exhaustion of the richness and paradoxical character of the world.

In this sense Emmanuel Alloa seeks in fact less to rehabilitate perspectivism than to invite a form of “conflictual multiperspectivism” (p. 251) or the continual friction of different life experiences, forms of construction of worlds, which P Descola notably named the processes of “worlding”, allowing a permanent sharpening of our perceptions and our understandings of life. It is through confrontation with contradictory points of view, with differentiated positions that we can strengthen or enrich our own, and perceive our own specificity, our own limits, our own richness. In this respect, the essay sketches some beginnings about the umwelten of the biologist Jakob von Uexküll: these non-human worlds which only exist through the perceptual equipment of animals, plants and minerals, whose grasp of the world is informed by an entirely different spatio-temporal and sensory relationship, and whose knowledge could overturn our very human definition of reality. This necessary decentering, which we find in work in social anthropology as in the plastic proposals of Robert Smithson, such as Spiral Jetty, Yucatan Mirror Displacement or Gyrostasis – each calling for a decentered, dynamic approach, articulating “nature” and “culture”, questioning the human perspective, or seeking to activate a non-human perspective – skillfully invoked in the last chapters of the book, is at the heart of the project of Alloa: re-envision perspective as a real means of understanding things, not approaching it as a diminished approach, but as the starting point of a permanent dialogue with others.

Political outlook

The great merit of Emmanuel Alloa’s work is to confront and better avoid the trap that a rehabilitation of perspectivism can conceal, namely a certain leniency with regard to “post-truth” and ” alternative facts”; as he avoids the opposite pitfalls, namely the dangers of the illusion of neutral facts. This reflection haunts the book in a diffuse way. How, by advocating the intrinsic quality of particular points of view, can we avoid giving in to total relativism? How can we counter “alternative facts” without giving in to the mirage of fact-checking, of which the search for total objectivity is often only an illusion? By allowing precisely this permanent confrontation of perspectives, which, far from causing a total atomization of the social body, would on the contrary lead to a sharpening of understanding of the world, and perhaps, the evacuation of disastrous and destructive points of view. By recognizing that it is the gaze of the other that constructs me and vice versa, Emmanuel Alloa’s essay raises the hope of a society of trust, where the singularity of points of view is no longer considered. like a defect, but rather as an opportunity to doubt, to look again, perhaps better, undoubtedly differently, in any case never to be satisfied with one’s own singularity. Ultimately, it is by recognizing others’ right to singularity that we will give more credit to our own. As such, it would have been fruitful to couple these reflections with the concept of “minority subjectivity” developed by Didier Éribon, according to which the fact of belonging to a minority allows you to better describe a world that puts you on the margins, and on which you actually have an “outside” look; even to the discipline of the sociology of knowledge of Schutz, Berger and Luckmann, who in other contexts developed parallel reasoning. Perspective sharing is, however, already sufficiently rich on a transdisciplinary level for us to be able to direct this criticism to it.

Emmanuel Alloa’s “conflictual multiperspectivism” refers to the most beautiful democratic promises, that of arousing respect for the polyphony of existences that make up the worlds. As such, the book can be understood as the political commentary of a society haunted by division, wavering between the sirens of a totalitarian universalism and a perilous relativism. These times of “social distancing” can further isolate our social and intellectual archipelagos, this invitation to share could be a solid avenue for finding the path to the “next world”.