Fila Sophia

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Family & Polis

A review of Kennan Ferguson’s All in the Family

This book follows the “contestation” line of political theory, exemplified by William Connolly, Chantal Mouffe, or Bonnie Honig, that owes much to Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt. Briefly, contestation democrats view democracy as a form of politics which highlights its own indeterminacy. Arendt is often cited for saying,

“Politics is the site of contestation, so it should never begin with conclusions.”

One can read Ferguson either as applying the analogy of the family to contestation, or as fitting democratic contestation through the family analogy.

After a short summary of the ancient and modern political use of the metaphor of the family, Ferguson critiques the romantic notion of family harmony as both unrealistic and dangerous. Then he finds, like Honig, much in common between liberal (Rawls) and communitarian (Sandel) political theory. They both assume some minimal “unity” or unanimity that wish away deep differences and incommensurabilities.

All in the Family contends that the real family—with its warts, dirt, unresolved conflicts, and silences—could better serve as model of a polis living together. Real families are “ugly” ones that work despite, or because of, conflicts and contestations—negotiations—that are never fully resolved, yet never break the bonds that keep the whole together.

The most original and interesting chapter talks through “silence”—silence in political, social, and familial life. Is silence a sign of powerlessness? Is public silence a manifestation of exclusion? Is it also a form of protest? Does silence have a deep spiritual meaning, such as for the Quakers? While Ferguson critiques most political theory for privileging language and speech, he does not give silence any singular value or meaning. His examples articulates the multiple uses and interpretations of silence, depending on how, when and where it is employed. At least some uses of silence keep incommensurables at bay and the group together, in the family.

The next chapter, “I heart my dog,” critiques another presumption of Western philosophy, political theory, ethics: that reason and logic are/should be masters of moral and social life. Talking about pets, one could begin with the quasi-rhetorical question: “How can people spend so much time and money on their dogs rather than try to relieve some of the incredible amount of human suffering in the world?” According to Ferguson, those who defend or condemn pet owners, often misunderstand how attachment and felt obligation works, either labeling it entirely irrational or beyond reason when it is somewhere in between. Moreover, “dog love” illustrates how incommensurables—in this case belonging to entirely different species—do not preclude deep affection, trust, and community.

If families negotiate and overcome such deep divides, misunderstandings, silences—even across species—shouldn’t political theory get over thinking of pluralism as a barrier to living together? Isn’t it time that politics grew up to embrace difference? All in the Family is creative, original yet quite accessible. It flips the cliche of “family values” on its head and corrects the oversimplification of “all one big family” discourse, only to make the analogy of the family both more realistic and more useful for political theory and practice. Rather than using “family” to push politics aside—towards some idealized unity or minimal consensus—Ferguson employs the family as the epitome of deep pluralism and contestation. Yet neither family nor “contestation” are romanticized. The fact of living together despite everything serves as ultimate justification for embracing difference, metaphysical or Aristotelian glorification of the political animal aside.

The book lacks any prescription to politics as practiced or advice for reformers. It is political theory addressed to theorists, which calls on them to set aside their hunt for universals (of reason) to resolve the important conflicts or end once and for all the unending negotiations. That far it succeeds, and if it urges us non-theorists to find ways beyond reason and arguments to keep the family together then it also gives activists or reformers something to chew on.

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