Monday, 15 September 2014

The reality of speculation – speculative pluralism

Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative. 
– Deleuze & Guattari, What is Philosophy?
Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. 
– William James, Is life worth living?
[...] when Sartre’s Roquentin, out of despair, vomits on a tree root, he certainly does not realize that the tree, the root, the rhizome have exactly the same problem as his: that they too are existential entities and not substances, that they are organisms which wage a bet on life in the sense that they have to exist, to get out of themselves and apprehend—hence the word prehension, so necessary for Whitehead—and that many other beings are necessary for the continuation of their existence. 
– Bruno Latour, What is given in experience?
Is existence worth existing? There's only one way to find out: speculate.

Speculative pluralism suggests not speculation on reality but, rather, the reality of speculation.

The pluralist specification: A philosophy must be capable of comprehending its own partiality and contingency without recourse to 'of course, I might be wrong'; that is, without the epistemological caveat. It must be capable of understanding itself as an event – and, what's more, remaining true to this particularity. It cannot outsource its particularity to doubt.

Speculative pluralism is sceptical of all 'regulative ideals' and 'as ifs.' These are the sounds of disappointment, not thought.

The least of a badly constructed concept's problems is that it is wrong.

Does 'reality' demand representation? In what tongue did you speak to it last?

Thinking is not 'made of' thought. The contrary: thencefrom derives all 'realist' mystification. (Thought can only 'correlate' if it is made from itself.)

To designate thought as 'speculative' – or, indeed, as 'pluralist' – is not to concern it with 'maybes.' Such indulgences are for those safe from the abyss.

The autogenic ends of philosophy

I am not a philosopher and am not interested in philosophy for its own ends. Then again, I am enough of a philosopher to be suspicious of anyone who is interested in philosophy for its own ends. Such introversion and self-interest seems, to me, to divert thought away from both where it is needed and where it thrives.

Call it conceptual callisthenics (Latour), the creation of concepts (Deleuze), or the development of a wisdom tradition (Sloterdijk) -- either way, the point is that philosophy mustn't pursue its own ends. Such self-pursuit is, one could even say, unphilosophical.

Self-pursuit is scholasticism; is a dog chasing its own tail; is a serpent eating itself...

Such autogenesis becomes autoerotic.

Pragmatism, with teeth

For a problem there is a condition worse than insolvability: inconsequence.

How few ponder the purpose of their Sisyphean (or, better, Ouroborean) predicaments!

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Valuing philosophy as an historical phenomenon

Levi Bryant has a new post simply asking what is the value of philosophy? A most interesting and complicated question!

I'm reading Peter Sloterdijk's books at the moment and his attitude to philosophy seems to be not that it is a 'love of wisdom' per se but rather that it is a wisdom tradition -- one among others. While Sloterdijk is a curate's egg, to say the least, I like this aspect of his work a lot as it anthropologises, historicises and also pragmatises how we think about philosophy.

The question of the value of philosophy could be posed, on this basis, in (at least) two ways:

First, counter-factually: Would the world be better or worse off if philosophy hadn't been practised all this time? This seems to be an almost impossible question to answer since I can hardly even imagine such a world, such has been the entanglement of philosophical thought and power over the centuries. In this respect enquiring as to the value of philosophy seems to be beside the point; it suggests that not philosophising is somehow an option for those living in its wake.

Second, we could ask: Why should we take up this tradition, enrol in these regimens today? This all hangs on who the 'we' is. If we're talking you, me, whoever is engaging in this conversation then we must recognise that even if we don't then surely someone else will. And we can hardly put the genie back in the bottle or block ourselves off from its deep-seeped whisperings.

So, long story short, 'the value of philosophy' is unthinkable without recognising the entanglement of its regimens with power-effects of various varieties over the course of ('Western') history.

The value of philosophy in this broad, sociopolitical sense (by no means the only sense in which this question can or should be answered) must surely be this: it provides those of us who enrol in it with an opportunity for subjectivity within circuits and milieus where, lacking the privileges afforded by these age-old callisthenics, there would otherwise be none (or, perhaps more modestly: less).

That is not to say that simply having a disposition towards reading difficult books magically gives us the powers to 'change the world' or any such thing -- that would be naive idealism of the most silly sort. However, I think it's fair to say that philosophy makes us agents within certain processes and practices in a way that we would not be otherwise.

The question of philosophy's value should not, therefore, be limited to its eudaimonic, affective, personal qualities -- as profound as these elements of the wisdom tradition in question undoubtedly are (and as sensitively as Levi has articulated them). As wizened old war veterans say, philosophy has 'seen action.' It may be that the tradition's days of serious sociopolitical influence are long behind it but even so the question of its value goes beyond its value to you or me, here or there, then or now.

The values it has created and the effects that its creativity has thus unleashed on the world are irrepressible once one considers philosophy in its historicity.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The British view of French philosophers

The classic British satirical news programme The Day Today, created by Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci and broadcast in 1994, featured a character named Jacques 'Jacques' Liverot who appeared in several short cutaway scenes, dispensing pithy but incomprehensible musings on various issues.

Only a few of them are on Youtube but here they are:

From Wikiquote:
If we could see politics, what would it look like? A cube... but with all its corners on the inside.
Episode 3 (2 February 1994).

A man sees God in his car. He crashes.
Episode 3 (2 February 1994).

An optimist sees half a pint of milk. He says 'It is half full'. A pessimist sees half a pint of milk. He says "It is half empty". I see half a pint of milk, I say 'It is sour'.
Episode 4 (9 February 1994).

If democracy is a bra, then the monarchy are breasts. And we cannot imagine a society without breasts. Hélas.
Episode 4 (9 February 1994).

An old man stands naked in front of a mirror, eating soup. He is a fool.
Episode 4 (9 February 1994).

What is a 'gay'?
Episode 6 (23 February 1994).

When I drive my car, I am not driving. I am participating in a conspiracy called 'traffic'. I will walk.
Episode 6 (23 February 1994).

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Patrice Maniglier on Diplomacy and AIME

In the new issue (187) of Radical Philosophy there's a review of Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence by Patrice Maniglier (translated by Olivia Lucca Fraser) titled A metaphysical turn?. It's currently available to download for free.

It argues similarly to another piece by Maniglier translated by Stephen Muecke and posted to the AIME website earlier this year. This excerpt from Fictions and Attachments: A Comparative Metaphysics of Art and Commerce muses on and somewhat extends the concept of diplomacy that derives from Isabelle Stengers' work and which lies at the heart of Latour's project (which, by the way, is continuing past its previously advertised end date).

Both pieces are well worth reading.

A metaphysical turn? describes Latour's approach to metaphysics in a similar (but rather more sophisticated) fashion to how I have attempted to describe it recently. Of particular relevance is the concluding comment, which argues that Latour's philosophy:
surmounts both the hypercritical relativism of deconstruction and the rather ostentatious dogmatism in which the new, so-called ‘speculative’, metaphysics basks. (44)
Earlier on he writes that, for Latour:
Being isn’t the Separate (what should be reached) but the Confused (what should be disintricated, contrasted). What ontology has to resolve are not the problems of access, but the problems of equivocation. (40)
This gets at an important contrast with the reading of Latour that derives from Graham Harman. This popular reading, rather point-missingly, wonders whether Latour's work is a 'philosophy of access' or not. What should be becoming clear now is that 'access' is an irrelevant concept to philosophy, as Latour describes and practices it; or, to put it in other words, that 'access' is pertinent to other modes of existence but not to the philosophical mode.

Philosophers have props but no instruments.

Referential truth is none of their direct concern. Their pretensions must thus be duly deflated; the possibility of ontological co-existence is not something that they will bestow on the world, it is something that they themselves must undergo, that they themselves must achieve amongst themselves. Until philosophy itself is thus transformed it can be of no use to the 'planetary negotiations' that we apparently collectively face.

It will be interesting to see which side of philosophical history Harman's forthcoming Prince of Modes will come down on. I suspect that it won't be the same side as Maniglier.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The 'thick letters' of pragmatic philosophers

My last few posts (1, 2, 3) have speculated wildly on the worldly role of a properly pragmatised, pluralised, 'deflated' philosophical practice. I am happy with how these thoughts are developing; however, I am risking over-honouring 'the philosopher' relative to others.

It might seem from what I've written as though only someone with the training and the title—as though only the philosopher qua doyen—could think. I've written of problems and skills but said nothing of philosophical texts or, even more importantly, their readers.

If philosophy books are, as Peter Sloterdijk puts it (citing the poet Jean Paul), 'thick letters to friends,' then surely philosophers do not just befriend other philosophers. For the pragmatic philosopher this would be absurd.

If the philosophical transformation, the event-type proper to philosophical experience, can be said to vary in intensity then the thick letters that philosophers write—if, of course, they are well written and well read—are transferences of intense philosophical creation in response to problematic situations. The differing parts of these networks must be understood as differently localised intensities, not as differences in kind. The philosopher doesn't hand down truth from upon high but rather transfers transformative experiences (or attempts to).

Without the capacity to transfer transformations, all the backflipping conceptual acrobatics in the world are for nothing. That is not to say that the best philosophers are the best communicators (the untruth of this is surely self-evident!) but it is to say that without the writing and reading of these thick (or thin) letters the whole enterprise comes crashing down. Indeed, perhaps there must be an exchange of letters, a two-way street (or many-way street). Certainly, there can be no more ivory tower.

Understanding philosophy in action, therefore, requires not just an understanding of conceptual creation but also mediation—media theory, as Sloterdijk might put it.

Nothing pre-determines where it is in these variegated chains of mediations that constitute 'philosophy' that the significant transformations will occur; that must always be a surprise. There is often lag-time—many letters will only 'come to life' once they find the right reader, rewriter, distributor, rediscoverer.

It would be absurd to say that the professional, dedicated philosopher has no privilege—were that not the case what would be the purpose of them? However, this is not a vertical privilege of oversight but rather that of residing at nodal points in networks of transferred transformations; a tangled rather than disentangled privilege; a pragmatic privilege.

After all, if the virtue of metaphysics is that it allows the nimble trace-based following of 'actors themselves' then it is the actually occurring 'actors themselves' that are the most fleet-footed metaphysicians, whatever their training.

More on Lovelock, technical evolution and the climate apocalypse

I've just re-read through James Lovelock's A Rough Ride to the Future (2014) for a paper I'm presenting this week. In a previous post I mentioned how he had reversed some of his earlier apocalypticism with regard to Gaia and global warming. While it's true that he's now presenting himself as an 'optimist' (169) and damping down the apocalyptic predictions of a human population curtailed to a few hundred million, there are some extremely troubling undertones that remain amidst the hyper-futurist techno-babble.
We have to ask ourselves the painful question: are we seeking the survival of the largest number of humans, regardless of their condition, or seeking the survival of as many as we can keep in an acceptable condition? (110) 
[…] in reality we are not thinking of saving Gaia, we are thinking of saving the Earth for us, or for our nation. […] If I am right to think that our species is evolving maybe to become part of a planetary intelligence, then our most important task for Gaia, as well as for ourselves, is to ensure that enough of is survive to sustain our role as the first species to sense, think about and act to oppose adverse environmental change. […] We are not yet clever nor determined enough to serve in this way, but we could still be the progenitors of those that can. (111)

Perhaps a similar suspension of democracy [as in WWII] will be needed when climate and other changes become as serious and as deadly as a major war. (120)

[Urbanisation might be] a powerful, benign force leading us to a future existence in city super-organisms. (123) 
My hope is that we survive and evolve further to the point where we are as much a part of our living planet as our brains are of us. (131)

[We have] to trust in Gaia to regulate the Earth as she has done since life began, and retreat to the best cities that we can design and build with the objective of saving as many of us as we can […]. (156)

The system cannot sustain the present level of human population for very much longer. (169)
It's clear that, whatever he claims, Lovelock remains a population pessimist. It's also clear that when he asks, rhetorically, 'are we seeking the survival of the largest number of humans, regardless of their condition, or seeking the survival of as many as we can keep in an acceptable condition?' he is erring on the side of urban air-con for the few rather than subsistence for the many.

His 'optimism' is of the techno-utopian variety. The wretched of the Earth remain wretched and voiceless, albeit perhaps with a little more hope for the future thanks to the evolution-accelerating brilliance of inventors (such as James Lovelock).

His pessimistic predictions are never issued with anything like a sense of endorsement or approval; it would be utterly unfair to suggest that. However, he makes them with such an air of blithe disinterest and detachment that he is basically acquiescent to this future. Add to this the extreme superorganic naturalism that he forces upon human political organisation and he is only ever a stone's throw from endorsing the future he foretells. He endorses it teleologically if not morally.

'Resistance is futile in the face of Gaia's evolution'—that is the persisting subtext.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Philosophers: where are your instruments?; or, On the defensive deflation of philosophy

One of the principle tasks that were given to the 'specbook'-writing participants at the final AIME workshops in July was to, in one and the same motion, both defend and deflate the institutions and the values of the Moderns. That is, to identify in these basic and cherished contours of collective life the most indispensable and valuable distributions of agency and then, at the same time, to cut science, politics, religion, economics and so on 'down to size,' to divest them of their excessive, unsustainably explosive pretensions so as to condition the possibility of finding them their proper, diplomatic accommodation amidst other, non-Modern cosmoses.

This had to be a symmetrical and simultaneous deflation—deflate politics and not economics and you've got neoliberalism; deflate science and not religion and you've got theological dogmatism; deflate religion and not politics and you've got a cold and authoritarian secularism, and so on. This work sought not to diminish or denounce any of the involved and invoked terms but, rather, to alleviate the tendency for each form of existence to imperially define the entire world in its own format, thus stoking the flames of war. The objective was not diminution but, rather, coexistence.

Following through the internal logic of AIME, it seems no less necessary that we must also deflate philosophy. This task is suggested by the fact that philosophy is accorded a particular mode of existence, namely [pre].

The deflationary effect can be understood by contrasting philosophy with science [pre·ref]. According to Latour, the sciences achieve their specific form of objectivity through the incremental construction of circulating chains of instrumented references that transport information at the cost of deformations at every stage. To refer is to instrument, there is no other way.

So, philosophers: where are your instruments?

To take up one of Graham Harman's phrases, it should be now clear that philosophy qua [pre] cannot possibly be a "philosophy of access." Philosophy does not access, that is the job of reference. Philosophy can, at best, aid and abet this movement; it can act with, it cannot act for.

For millennia, philosophers have insisted that their art involved the construction of objective knowledge about the abstract conditions of existence, conditions inaccessible to the mere senses and discernible only by the privileged intellect. This, it seems to me, is unequivocally refuted by AIME; a philosophy of access is a contradiction in terms, a category error.

This brings me to a section from The Prince and the Wolf, a transcript of a public conversation between Latour and Harman at the LSE.
[…] there has to be a point where contact [between objects] happens. And what I worry about is that if we don’t specify that point metaphysically, then it becomes just a kind of ad hoc practical decision, which of course is fine when writing history. You could say: “all right, it seems like the case of Joliot connecting politics and neutrons is interesting but Joliot and the eardrum is not that important, so we can stop there.” And that’s fine for purposes of writing history but not fine for metaphysics.


Why? Because you haven’t explained how the contact occurred.

But metaphysics is not for explaining. It is the first principle of [Alfred North Whitehead's] Process and Reality. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining anything. Actual occasions explain what happened, not philosophy. If there is one thing which philosophy should not do, it is to try to explain anything. That’s where our disagreement is. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining. This is not at all the same thing. Philosophy is in the business of allowing the explanation to go far enough, to help the explainers to move in the explanatory trajectory but not to provide an explanation. (66-7)
This is the disagreement between Harman and Latour, and it's the difference that Harman does not get to grips with anywhere in his writings on Latour's work (to date). Philosophy, for Latour, no more accesses than it explains. As Latour put it in Reassembling the Social:
As anthropologists have tirelessly shown, actors incessantly engage in the most abstruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all of the elements of the world. Only a researcher trained in the conceptual calisthenics [emphasis added] offered by the philosophical tradition could be quick, strong, daring, and pliable enough to painstakingly register what they have to say. (51)
The value of philosophy here is the same as in AIME's [pre]: it is the lability, agility and sensitivity that it affords the actors who have been trained its art, not the overview it gives on reality or the quasi-scientific loose ends it explanatorily ties up.

To somewhat egocentrically quote myself from a couple of posts ago:
It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.
This is precisely what I was trying to get at here: that philosophy is a calisthenic rather than explanatory disciplineMetaphysics is calisthenics or it's nothing. [The purpose of its art is conceptual creation in service of a situation, not fundamental explanation in service of the real. [ed. 22/08/14]]

After the example of AIME, if philosophers wish to refer to the objective existence of this or that then they should specify their empirically traceable referential chains. Anything else is Double Click [dc].

This rearticulation of philosophy is intrinsically social in the precise sense that there can no longer be such a thing as a philosopher-hermit—the philosopher is necessarily an associative, allied being; she has no other purpose than to work with others in the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in concrete, contested cases.

Deflated? Undoubtedly. But also defended[—if, by 'defence,' we mean not fortification but, rather, advocation [ed. 23/08/14]].

This rehousing and repurposing of philosophy—this empiricisation of philosophy in the most profound sense—is, in my humble and weightless opinion, perhaps Latour's most important philosophical contribution. This aspect of his thinking does not begin with his modes of existence project but can be found throughout his works, in varying stages of development (it is rooted in his long-standing commitment to a reformed ethnomethodology). And it is precisely this most crucial of insights that is erased when his work is turned into a series of dry pronouncements on the furniture of the universe—pronouncements that 'of course, might be wrong.'

This is why those who accuse Latour, and those who philosophise like him, of 'correlationism' and of insufficient 'realism' are missing the point. The philosopher, here, simply has no business 'explaining' the unchanging, overarching structure of the universe—if that is what 'realism' means then may it rest in peace.

This empiricised philosophical ethos is not, as I have argued, a matter of engendering 'humility' in philosophical practice; it is a far more pragmatic transformation than that. Humility is too self-denying a psycho-ethical disposition (too 'Christian' in the precise sense that Nietzsche excoriated so epoch-definingly). It is not a matter of limiting or constricting oneself as such—whole universes of beautiful speculation are still possible; it is a matter of undertaking a fundamental reconfiguration of philosophy and of the philosopher's role in the world.

To undertake this defensive deflation, and to thus desist from thinking Absolutely, is not to stop thinking—indeed, it may be to start.

Latour has by no means invented or initiated this progressive reassembly—nor has he undertaken it alone—but his works have massively contributed to the thorough pragmatisation and concomitant pluralisation of philosophy.

So, (Modern) philosophers: where are your instruments? Ovens, tables and balls of wax do not count.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

On speculation, commitment and humility in philosophy

In response to my last post Elmorus writes:
You nail on the head the central issue behind the compulsion towards generic, inhuman-striving, realism (to which I feel very close, to be honest). I would object, not to the core of your argument, which I would need to process further, but to the identification of epistemological humility with the philosophical position, or tendency, that you describe as realist : are not the idealist or the anti-realist just as susceptible to such a positioning ("we cannot be sure of the great outside, contingency is the core of our condition, etc.")? Lee Braver convincingly argued in this sense at the start of his article on Continental Realism, which would suggest to me that the gesture of humility that you describe is part of a wider, more general stance related to philosophical practice itself...
This raises a very fair and important point: what on earth do I mean by 'realism' here? It's true that I'm being vague and declining to name names -- i.e. to attach the label to a definite, actual proposition. I'm declining to do this not because I want to be coy or elusive but because naming names should impose a commitment to (at least attempt to) do interpretive justice to those arguments that are thus specified. That's a difficult thing to do. Refusing to name names grants a certain liberty inasmuch as one can gesture towards generalities (or perhaps virtualities) that cannot defend themselves (and don't have egos to be defended, anyway). This is a prerogative that most philosophers (or would-be philosophers) grant themselves. However, it can lead to vagueries -- in this case, 'realism.'

Certainly, the tendencies that I am remarking on are not unique to 'realists' (whoever they are). 'Realism' as something singular doesn't exist. Some objective idealisms may well fit 'realism' as I'm describing it.

Let's define 'realism' here not with reference to any group, sect or movement but simply relate it to the issue, namely: what commits us to think and what pathways do these commitments set us on?

A realist here is someone who claims to take their obligation to thought from the need to represent (or: explain, describe, articulate -- whichever) the real (how things are, reality) 'as it is,' 'whether you like it or not,' 'regardless of political commitments,' and so on.

The real demands representation (etc.) because it is the real. Such a demand is automatically validated by the very essence of that which concerns it. And, more importantly, only the real can demand representation because anything that deserves thoughtful consideration is always already subsumed within the real, by definition. (This is why realists are so bad at taking criticism: they've always already brought anything worth thinking about within their purview; anything left out is, by definition, unthinkably worthless.)

The alternative to realism in this precise and limited sense is neither anti-realism nor idealism (I am refusing these 'opposing camps' -- I don't want to articulate the opposite of anything); the alternative could well be called 'realism' too but in order to adopt that term its meaning must be transformed.

The argument with regard to a philosophy being able to think itself as an event in its own world (and thus refusing to countenance the possibility of its truth claims transcending its own occurrence) is bound up with this contrast that I'm stumblingly trying to articulate. This refusal of self-transcendence with regard to truth is part and parcel of an approach to philosophy that refuses to take 'reality' in any singular or totalised sense as its referent (not even 'speculatively'). It is not, I think, a matter of humility.

The contrast I'm trying to get at here is not to do with modesty or humility in terms of the scope or scale of thought, it's to do with what motivates and obligates it. And if thought is not obligated by the need to represent the real then it must be obligated by the need to deal with concrete problems. 'The real' must therefore be replaced with 'the situation.'

If the situation demands immodesty in some sense then immodest we must be. But demand is the important word here -- the addition of this word excludes the possibility of the automatic validation of a research project by virtue of the essence of the thing researched; it establishes the necessity of a trial of validation in each and every case (something that this vulgar 'realism' can never comprehend, much less undertake).

How and why are demands, requirements, specifications placed upon thought? -- that is the question. The realist can say, for example, that 'galaxies are real; as a realist I'm obliged to think the real, therefore I must think galaxies.' The real is its own justification. This is what I am trying to criticise.

The 'realist' approach, as I have described it, is always tending towards the über-thesis, the systematic account of everything. That's the regulative ideal that is enabled by that old get-out-of-jail-free card 'of course, I might be wrong.' In this sense realism shares a deep kinship with the old 'universal historians' like Arnold Toynbee; it shares an in-built will to totality, to ever greater and more encompassing synthesis. Indeed, such directedness towards the absolute (however unachievable the project may be 'in practice') is what makes the project worthwhile, according to this mindset.

An interventionist approach, by contrast, is perfectly willing to think on any scale of space or time as the situation demands. But such an act of thought is always related to a concrete and limited demand, not to a will to think everything because everything is real and only the real in its totality can obligate thought. The thinking of things like galaxies isn't auto-validated by the mere fact that they're there. We must have some further, additional impetus in order to approach such entities (and perhaps we have this impetus, but it isn't guaranteed a priori).

So, in short, it's not at all a question of humility but of commitment. The 'realist' feels committed to think the real in general not so much because they are lacking humility but because, for them, 'the real' is the only thing that can obligate thought, or the only thing that can issue demands worth responding to. The interventionist, by contrast, refuses to heed demands made in the name of 'the real' or any equivalent term not so much because of humility or les bonnes manières but because that whole approach is entirely incompatible with thinking the situation, the case, the issue, the problématique.

Philosophy always flirts with hubris -- and rightly so. It is not a matter of 'hubris versus humility' but a question of 'hubris, to what end'?

Let's misuse Wittgenstein's famous line: 'The world is everything that is the case.' A realist feels committed to take as their world that which is the established case -- that is, to think the world as a totality of, in a quasi-juridical sense, closed cases. The interventionist, by contrast, understands the world as a thronging mass of open cases -- and the obligation to think this demands a very different approach, it demands a philosophy that recognises a fundamental indeterminacy with regard to the broader contours of the world precisely because the world is not a collection of closed cases but rather open ones. There can be no question of thinking the totality in this instance, nor can there be any pretence of timeless truths, whether they are given the caveat of 'I might be wrong' or not.

To put it another way, being 'right' or 'wrong' is not of particular concern to the interventionist because their objective never consists of sketching (however skilfully) the outlines of the totality of closed cases. Instead, success and failure for the interventionist are always relative to particular open cases, all of which are replete with reality in themselves but none of which license the attempt to sketch the real in its totality -- not even the attempt.

This is the contrast: the realist might freely admit the impossibility of sketching totality 'in practice'; the interventionist (or realist-deserving-of-the-name) must reject not only the possibility of this 'in practice' but also 'in principle' -- and, still further, the very attempt to do so.

Open cases cannot be sketched, no matter how preliminarily or speculatively. Their shape is indeterminable prior to an inventive, interventive encounter -- and this requires a great degree of time and attention; it defies the metaphysicist's generalism.

Humility doesn't come into it, in my view. Our risky speculations have no intrinsic boundaries. They are certainly not hemmed in by good manners or modesty. We should reject the absolutism of 'realism' for far more pragmatic reasons than our own sense of shame. It is not for the modesty of our own egos that we refuse to sketch the absolute, it is because of the nefarious consequences of that only apparently innocent project.

It is a clash of objectivities. For the realist, objectivity connotes 'objects' qua closed cases. For the interventionist objectivity connotes 'objectives' -- the objective being different in every situation as it is always addressing a different open case (the totality never becomes an issue and is therefore never a legitimate horizon for thought).

These entirely distinct philosophies can be articulated with similar vocabularies but they should never be confused. Their similarities will only ever be entirely superficial.

I don't know how much sense I am making to others but it makes some sense to me.

To throw one final spanner in the works: yes, this is about pluralism, again. The 'realist' pluralism and what I have called here the 'interventionist' pluralism might seem superficially similar but they have little in common 'under the hood,' as it were.

If I am to make any of this stick I'll have to name names eventually but that's a commitment that I'm not yet prepared to accept!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The epistemological caveat: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'; The false modesty that subtends 'realism'

Even the most self-importantly 'realist' philosophies generally contain a caveat that goes (whether explicitly or implicitly) something like this: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'.

This epistemological disclaimer is of paramount importance; it cannot be understood as a mere article of etiquette (nor as a statement of the obvious); rather, it subtends the entire operation—it underpins the whole claim on 'realism.'

By uttering such a phrase the author demonstrates that she is neither a fool nor a dogmatist; she shows that she understands very well the near-impossibility, 'in practice,' of describing or explaining the absolute (and she opens herself to her peers in anticipation—or perhaps preemption—of their inevitable disagreements). Nevertheless, in precisely the same gesture she maintains this possibility 'in principle' and thus monumentalises the True as a 'regulative ideal.'

She thus self-identifies as a selfless, hard-nosed, gravel-handed voyager in dogged pursuit of a far-flung ideal: what a noble and romantic tragedy!... It is as though she were saying to her others—the shadowy, infantile anti-realists, idealists and correlationists: 'at least I'm giving it a go!'. The others are stay-at-home losers, unwilling to even attempt to transcend human finitude; she herself strides out—bold, fearless.

Embracing the near-inevitability of failure 'in fact' permits the self-congratulatory subscription to the (supposedly) noblest of noble goals 'in principle' and thus absorbs some fraction of the reflected glory of the absolute (as if the phrase 'it's the taking part that counts' applied to more than just amateur sports).

By making Truth a point in space that can be located and appropriated 'in principle,' the author is able to claim that she is 'getting closer' even though she has 'not yet' reached the promised land. (The rather Socratic paradox of 'getting closer' to a location that one has not yet been able to identify is remarkable; however, it is the practices of philosophers who claim to bathe in the warm, reflected light of Truth that concerns us here, not their aporia per se.)

The reflected glory of graduated approximations is what gives blunt and vulgar 'realisms' their seemingly effervescent aura. For some this hazy glow makes 'realism' a semantically closed shop—a gate to be kept, all alternatives shunted into opposing (i.e. binarily opposite) camps.

However, there are other ways of being realistic in matters philosophical and metaphysical—ways less absurd.

By saying 'of course, I could be wrong' the author avoids the obligation to construct her text in such a way that it could think itself as an event in its own universe. Instead of being a novel event that differently joins up the various threads of existence and thus differently realises and articulates all kinds of things that 'were there all along' (although this 'there' is only sensible or meaningful after the event) it instead speculates on 'how things were all along,' regardless of itself.

The 'realist' philosophy really just does this: it describes a universe in which its own occurrence is circumstantial; where it itself needn't have occurred in order for the truth claims it makes to be sensible. That self-incidentalism is its entire conceit; and it is the leaky logic of that conceit that is bailed out by the phrase 'of course, I could be wrong.'

The alternative to this tumbledown half-thought is to fully reckon with an event-based ontology that always embraces within itself its own novelty, partiality and contingency—that recognises these things not at an 'auto-meta' level, saying 'I might be wrong,' but internally and intrinsically to itself, saying 'I am an event that differently articulates existence thus...'.

'Partiality' and 'contingency' have long since become clichés and articles of faith for academic philosophers and theorists. What matters much more than the well-mannered re-statement of these principles is where they issue from and how they are achieved. If they are articulated on the back of 'I might be wrong' then this is a completely different statement to the case where they are understood through an event that understands itself as an event.

The former is the product of position-based thesis-thinking—that is, where the objective of thought is to set out a comprehensive statement of 'how things are' and to defend this 'position' from those of others; the latter is the product of problem-based intervention-thinking where the objective of thought is to intervene or interject into already ongoing processes on the basis of continually evolving problématiques.

These oppositions—caveat/event, position/problem, thesis/intervention—are not absolute but they are strong. If 'realism' has value as a signifier then it has to reckon rather differently with these contrasts than it has to date. However, more than realism, speculation is the word that really must be saved from 'I might be...'.

Speculation is not what philosophers do, uniquely, when they boldly undertake to articulate how things are and have always been, securing themselves above this abyss with the coarse rope of 'I might be wrong.' Speculation must instead be understood as what happens when existence demands of any entity an action that cannot be performed solely on the basis of already-occurred (or readily articulable) existents; in other words, whenever there is a demand for novelty in a state of profound existential risk.

Speculation, in this sense, is pragmatic, issue-oriented, local and widely practiced. It only makes sense in direct relation to a problem that is demanding the risky becoming of some unknown and—until the occurrence—unknowable event.

It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.

'Being wrong' is the least of this thinker's worries and 'being right' would be the least of her rewards. Her destination of choice is no less mysterious or puzzling than that of the paradise-pursuer but her relation to it is never one of progressive approximation; it is always that of gradual, hesitant, tentative fabrication, assembly, achievement. Such a destination is never 'just over the horizon' but always at the centre of the milieu, in the midst of the melee, at the heart of the matter at hand.

To give the matter at hand a heart that beats—that is the utopia that this philosopher pursues: bold, fearless...

Friday, 15 August 2014

The posturing and positioning of 'realism versus idealism'

What if we non-idealists, realists (or whatever) thought to ourselves not 'idealism, what an absurdity!' but rather 'idealism, what an achievement!'?

What if we took idealism to be not a flawed 'position' to be bombarded but rather an outdated, outmoded achievement ill-suited to the present and its problems?

To acknowledge something as an achievement -- even a glorious achievement -- by no means obliges anything like heartfelt subscription to that thing. However, such an acknowledgement does preclude the naive denunciation that would declare, perhaps subtextually: 'what idiots! who could believe such a thing?!'

Their problems are not yours -- so, why denounce their solutions as absurd? Rejoice in not sharing their problems!

'Ah, but their stupidity is my problem -- how can I live well in a world containing deceived minds?!'

That absurdity is our problem.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

What is the contrary of 'cosmos'? What, then, is 'cosmopolitics'?

Isabelle Stengers' cosmopolitics is one of those concepts that is oft-cited but rarely examined in any detail. I won't try to explicate it on the basis of Stengers' texts here (though that needs to be done); I'll just ask a simple question: what is the contrary of 'cosmos'? How we answer this question will determine what we take cosmopolitics to be.

It seems to me that many readers take the cosmos in cosmopolitics to be basically equivalent to the everyday meaning of that word; they take it to mean cosmos in the sense of Carl Sagan's Cosmos -- that is, as, more or less, a synonym for the universe. The only possible contrary to 'cosmos' in this sense would be 'non-existence, nothingness.'

Taken this way, cosmopolitics must either mean that politics is a transcendent metaphysical model for existence (i.e. Graham Harman's reading of Bruno Latour's Irreductions); or, cosmopolitics must mean that the entirety of existence must now be subsumed within political contestation (taking the old cliché 'everything is political' to ever more absurd heights). Neither of these interpretations are, in my opinion, especially useful (or even comprehensible).

It'd be helpful to think of 'cosmos' in broader terms. Here's what the etymology dictionary has to say about 'cosmos':
c.1200 (but not popular until 1848, as a translation of Humboldt's Kosmos), from Latinized form of Greek kosmos "order, good order, orderly arrangement," a word with several main senses rooted in those notions: The verb kosmein meant generally "to dispose, prepare," but especially "to order and arrange (troops for battle), to set (an army) in array;" also "to establish (a government or regime);" "to deck, adorn, equip, dress" (especially of women). Thus kosmos had an important secondary sense of "ornaments of a woman's dress, decoration" (compare kosmokomes "dressing the hair") as well as "the universe, the world." 
Pythagoras is said to have been the first to apply this word to "the universe," perhaps originally meaning "the starry firmament," but later it was extended to the whole physical world, including the earth. For specific reference to "the world of people," the classical phrase was he oikoumene (ge) "the inhabited (earth)." Septuagint uses both kosmos and oikoumene. Kosmos also was used in Christian religious writing with a sense of "worldly life, this world (as opposed to the afterlife)," but the more frequent word for this was aion, literally "lifetime, age."
For the Stoics, kosmos meant that existence was divinely ordered; it meant that, to ape Leibniz, we lived in the best and most rational of all possible worlds and for this we owed thanks to God or Nature in all their divinity. It is related to this sense of kosmos as a divinely ordered existence that we get cosmos as simply a synonym for astronomical existence generally (perhaps beginning with Pythagoras). However, the etymology of the term is demonstrably more complex and interesting than that.

So, we should take note that when Latour uses 'cosmopolitics' in Pandora's Hope, Politics of Nature and later texts he opposes it not to non-existence but to 'kakosmos' (kakos in many contemporary European languages meaning shit and in the Ancient Greek meaning bad or evil). Cosmos is, in this usage, not just a straightforward synonym for existence; it is, like for the Stoics and the other Greeks described in the quotation above, a word meaning a specific kind of ordering, a good, beautiful, agreeable ordering. In this usage there may well be no cosmos! The mere fact that there is existence proves nothing.

Cosmopolitics, in this sense, therefore means not that politics is a transcendent metaphysical principle such that all existence is political in and of itself, nor that the entirety of the cosmos must be brought within previously human-exceptional politics (whatever that would mean). Cosmopolitics is instead the recognition that since both God and Nature are dead then there is only one possible route towards a cosmos and away from a kakosmos: through politics, with all the messiness, compromise and frustration that this word entails.

It is not that the universe is always already political in itself, as though politics were some kind of transcendent metaphysical condition. It is precisely the opposite of that: there is no transcendent metaphysical condition, that's why there must be cosmopolitics.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The felinocene(?!) -- Cats as invasive species

From a paper published in Nature last year but featured by the BBC today:
Cats are one of the top threats to US wildlife, killing billions of animals each year, a study suggests. 
The authors estimate they are responsible for the deaths of between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually.
The abstract to the Nature paper concludes:
Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.
A nice reminder in yet another ecological arena that anthropogenic doesn't mean 'human controlled.' The perturbatory ripples issuing out from our actions rapidly attain shapes, patterns and magnitudes almost unrecognisable to us as they are amplified by processes and agents with aims and objectives entirely their own.

Friday, 8 August 2014

'We Moderns' versus 'The Moderns'; or, The weight of our ancestors

One persistent source of disagreement during the AIME project was the precise meaning of 'Moderns.' This was captured most notably by Annemarie Mol during her presentation for the final seminars (I believe that this will be made available here but does not appear to be there at present) when she refused to speak in the name of any such entity. She asked that we focus instead on localised, specific issues that require no overarching or underlying group identity. To speak of a Big 'We,' it was suggested, is inherently oppressive and dangerous.

(What follows is one way, one attempt to rationalise ex post facto what actually happened during these events. In the midst of them there was an irreducible uncertainty.)

It seems to me that 'Moderns' has been used in at least two ways within AIME.

First, 'We Moderns' (the 'new nous,' as someone put it) are those who were performatively called into being by the project itself. The aim of AIME, it now seems to me (though I claim no authority on such matters!), was to produce a definition of 'Moderns' to which those assembled by the event would be willing to subscribe -- that is, not to self-identify with an already existing 'we' but to create a new ontological identity to which membership is not at all overarching but, rather, voluntary. This usage of 'Moderns' does not, then, indicate an actually or historically existing population. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have never been modern that such a performative creation is necessary.

However, secondly, Annemarie was right to point to a conflation of this performative and highly localised meaning of 'Moderns' with something rather broader and more historical. 'The Moderns' often seems to be used, additionally, as shorthand for 'those-who-though-they-were-modern'; in other words, 'The Moderns' also means the ancestors and kin of those assembled by the project -- a quite different ontological proposition.

Here is where it gets interesting: We (participants) were attempting to take responsibility for our ancestors. Latour, in his opening remarks, emphasised the importance of the fact that the event was taking place in a lecture theatre named after Albert Caquot, a famous French engineer and über-modern. Caquot, of course, echoes the Greek kakos meaning 'bad' or 'evil.' The Moderns, it was suggested, thought that they were building a 'cosmos' (a divine order of existence) but all too often they were establishing a kakosmos (a nasty, broken order).

'We Moderns' (the new nous) and 'The Moderns' (those-who-thought-they-were-modern) converge on this point: We (participants) were obligated, due to our rather ignoble family history, to attempt to formulate a new definition of 'Modern,' a definition to which we would be happy to subscribe -- that was the challenge. We were obligated to perform this act precisely because (a) those-who-thought-they-were-modern were never modern (in the sense that they understood that term) and because (b) we still live in the house that they built.

Here it is important to contrast history with ancestry. To speak of 'ancestors' is to acknowledge a deep debt to and responsibility for those who came before us. To speak of history is, contrariwise, to suggest a broadly impersonal process that we just happen to find ourselves at the end or in the midst of. Ancestry entails an unavoidable familial commitment. History is what has made you; ancestry is, to some degree, what you are.

Here is where I would disagree with Annemarie's refusal to speak the phrase 'We Moderns': we have a responsibility for those who came before us because they still live among, through and around us; we are not free of our ancestors just because they are in the ground. They cannot simply be disavowed; saying 'I am not...' is insufficient.

If a child of disreputable parents were protesting 'but I am not my father, I am not my mother -- I have nothing to do with them' we might have to reply: 'but you still live in their house, they still feed you and put clothes on your back, you still speak their words; you walk like them, you talk like them; you exist through their modes of existence!'

We are children of contemptible predecessors but we still live in the house that they built (when we're in the Amphitheatre Caquot, more or less literally!). They thought that it was a grand, glorious palace; we now know that it was, in many ways, a tumbledown structure built on slavery and brutality. But we live there nevertheless.

We Moderns are unlike The Moderns in one crucial respect: The Moderns believed that they were standing on the shoulders of giants; we fear that we may be standing on the shoulders of tyrants. What we share is the predicament that none of us can dismount; there is no 'down there'; we have, instead, to find a way to modify our precarious situation, to stand a little differently.

We participants of AIME were assembled, first, as descendants of those-who-thought-they-were-modern and, second, as the future ancestors of our own offspring (thanks to Stephen Muecke for this point). The 'We Moderns' invoked by AIME was an opt-in performance of identification. We cannot say that this invitation to subscribe lacked 'informed consent'! Ultimately we failed to produce a definition to which those assembled could all sign up. However, this does not detract from the validity of the effort. An enduring Modern legacy is the pursuit of impossibles...

Permanently opting-out of such identity-challenges might seem superficially progressive and 'right on' but this, I believe, dissolves upon a deeper consideration of the predicament. Such an attitude of 'tune in, drop out, call me when there's something specific to talk about' is quintessentially Modern inasmuch as it implies a supersessive logic of history where we can gesture to a past that makes us but is not us; a past that we can shed like clothing. A logic of ancestry entails a commitment to more thoroughly reconsider the house that our ancestors built, the house in which we have no option but to continue living -- and to gradually renovate, wall by wall, brick by brick.

This is not a conservatism. It is not that we must 'honour' our elders -- far from it! -- but we must recognise that we cannot distance ourselves from them by mere renunciation. The only distance that we can put between ourselves and our less than salubrious predecessors is by differentiation, by becoming otherwise -- and that requires considerable attention to what we are and why we are what we are.

'The progressive composition of the common world'; or, the progressive renovation of our inherited abode. Either way, the important concept here is obligation.

Our burden is not that of the White Men of History. Theirs was not really a 'burden' at all but a gift to be passed on to the underdeveloped 'others,' whether they wanted it or not. Perhaps it is false to say that we are 'standing on the shoulders' of anyone; perhaps it is more like that they are standing on us. We are no longer 'burdened' with the obligation to spread our wisdom freely around a world that is simply open, empty and waiting to be filled by rationality. Instead, the world is now thinkable as being always already meaningful, always already rational but differently rational. Our true burden is finding our place in a world that doesn't need us -- and doing so with full cognisance of our ancestry.

Whatever we choose to name ourselves after we cease to be White Men, we cannot outrun our past. AIME solved nothing but it posed some important questions for what is ahead. A planetary negotiation? Negotiation has an interesting double meaning: the sense of parlay and the sense of navigation. 'Icebergs ahoy!'

To navigate the coming century without shipwreck -- are we not all in the same boat at least in this much?

Clive Hamilton and Toby Tyrrell on Gaia

Clive Hamilton made two wonderful contributions to the final AIME colloquia/diplomatic summits held the week before last. Both have now been published on his website. First, Gaia Does Not Negotiate; second, When Earth Juts Through.

The latter begins:
With the arrival of the Anthropocene we must now be suspicious of all ideas developed in the last 10,000 years. That includes James Lovelock’s notion of Gaia which, it turns out, is a child of the Holocene. In his recent book, On Gaia, Toby Tyrrell shows that since Lovelock put his idea into the world some 30 years ago our understanding of the Earth system has changed dramatically. 
As Earth scientists have found means of taking a more fine-grained view of Earth history, especially through the analysis of ice-cores, the trajectory of Earth appears much more wild and unpredictable. There is no built-in stabiliser; life does not bring the planet back into equilibrium. Gaia is based on old science.
(I love that first line!) Now, I haven't read Tyrrell's book but I think one point needs to be made: while Earth system science has moved on in the past thirty years so has Lovelock's take on Gaia. It is true that the original hypothesis posited the Earth as a homeostatic system but that notion of homeostasis has long since been abandoned. 'Gaia' has evolved. Lovelock now well understands that there is no equilibrium as such, only an indefinitely large range of quasi-stable states within a complex system; strange attractors and so on. This is not the same thing as 'homeostasis.' The possibility of a sudden and massive system state shift in response to a relatively minor degree of perturbation is precisely the point of his more recent works. That is why Gaia is 'vengeful.'

Here is how Lovelock differentiates the hypothesis and the theory in the glossary to Revenge of Gaia (p.208):
Gaia Hypothesis
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis postulated in the early 1970s that life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favourable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms. When introduced it was contrary to the conventional wisdom that life adapted to planetary conditions as it and they evolved in their separate ways. We now know that both the hypothesis as originally stated and the conventional wisdom were wrong. The hypothesis evolved into what is now Gaia Theory and the conventional wisdom into Earth System Science.
Gaia Theory
A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal—the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life. It is based on observations and theoretical models; it is fruitful and has made ten successful predictions.
The hypothesis is not the theory and while I am in no position to scientifically defend either this is worth noting.

While, as I say, I've not read Tyrrell's book, this interview on his publisher's website makes for interesting reading. Tyrrell makes the case, albeit briefly, that Gaia is simply anthropocentric wishful thinking and should be rejected as a scientific idea:
Q: If the Gaia hypothesis is not the reason, then why did the Earth remain habitable for such an enormously long interval of time? 
A: This may relate partly to the weak Anthropic Principle, whereby we logically cannot observe any facts that preclude our own existence. So however infrequent it may be in the universe for a planet to remain continuously habitable over billions of years, we happen to be on just such a planet. According to this way of thinking, Earth may just have been lucky, with no sentient observers having evolved on other planets which were not so lucky, i.e. where conditions became sterile at some point. Another possible explanation for extended habitability in the absence of Gaia is a predominantly inorganic thermostat, such as has been suggested for silicate weathering.
This is a provocative and contestable claim. However, his concluding remarks are if anything more revealing than his central thesis:
Q: Are there any implications for the current era of global change? 
A: Yes, it is suggested that belief in the Gaia hypothesis can lead to excessive complacency about the robustness and resilience of the natural system. Gaia emphasizes stabilising feedbacks and protective mechanisms that keep the environment in check. If Gaia is rejected, however, we are left with a less comforting view of the natural system. Without Gaia it is easier to appreciate that the natural system contains lines of weakness and other susceptibilities. One such line of weakness that has already been demonstrated is the ozone layer depletion by CFC’s. I have argued in the book that there is no over-riding Gaia to protect our planet’s life support system. Maintaining the Earth’s environment is up to us [emphasis added].
Who is the Modern here? I don't think that it's Lovelock... To suggest that Gaia is a 'comforting' theory is to be a few decades out of date. Yes, the original might have encouraged worshipful idleness and Nature-absorbed complacency but that is not at all the image of Gaia that is now presented to us. In Gaia Does Not Negotiate Hamilton quotes Latour who is in turn ventriloquising Gaia:
I am not your Mother, nor your protector. … So figure out the enigma of my presence.
The motherly vision of Gaia as homeostatic über-regulator is surely a holocenic fable that has long passed its sell-by-date. However, while, as I've mentioned recently, Lovelock is a tricky ally to enrol I'm not sure that Tyrrell is a better option.

Without Gaia what planetary imagery are we left with? 'Spaceship Earth'? Again?...

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The focus of thought: 'positions' versus 'problems'; of turf-wars and earth-wars

One thing that the AIME workshops encouraged me to think about a little more carefully was the status of the 'problem' as that which gathers, focuses and motivates thought. (I must thank Isabelle Stengers for reminding me of this.)

It seems to me that 'problem' should be contrasted with 'position.' These words represent two entirely different ways of arguing and thinking.

To argue from a 'position' (in the sense of 'that is my position,' 'I agree with your position on X but...') is to reason like a General; it is to make concepts into little tin soldiers, planes and tanks that are pushed around a map of philosophical terrain (probably a map of somewhere near the border of France and Germany!). Thinking is thus a war; there are enemy positions to be routed and strongholds to be fortified. The modest and realistic general will surely concede that outright and total victory is impossible in practice but the Prince of 'in principle' dictates that the goal must always be total domination.

However, at least as important as this inherent will-to-power is the continuity and identity that are thus stitched into the philosophical process. Any given conversation or argument becomes but a campaign, a battle, a skirmish in a longer war, an epic saga. Positions are always related to an author -- He who 'holds' them with chest-jutting pride. Sequences of positions mark out the 'careers' not of thoughts but of authors. Position-thinking always comes back to the ego of the author who 'holds' whatever bit of terrain at whatever time. It is ego-centric.

To think from (or rather around) a 'problem' is quite a different process. Every conversation is an event, a creative re-gathering of the past in service of whatever is presented. That which energises the philosopher here is not the vainglorious dream of conquering the world (whether by 'hard' or 'soft' power) but rather the pragmatic desire to settle the issue at hand. The philosopher's skill is no longer that of dominating the other but rather of re-gathering that which has always and necessarily dispersed since the last time, and differently. Her focus is not the safe, secure ground that she defends but the shaky, uncertain space that she must somehow weave.

Thinking from problems makes one less like a General and more like a herdsman. Every time a shepherd wishes to achieve something with his flock he must assemble it as a flock once again. As though Heraclitus was a shepherd: One cannot gather the same flock twice. Of course, there is continuity between assembly-events inasmuch as the shepherd doesn't go out and buy or steal a whole new set of animals each time. He responds to each problem he is faced with by working with the set of resources that he has at hand. There is a momentum built up through his day-in, day-out responsiveness to problems; a fragile, pragmatic identity. He never builds his flock from scratch at dawn -- if he is presented with such a need he is surely destitute. However, sheep get sick; they are born; they get lost; they age; they are selectively bred; they break their legs; they are eaten; they are traded; they are made into peace offerings, bribes... After every event the flock disassembles and it will never assemble in quite the same way again.

This is not a pacific, pastoral world; it is cold, harsh and offers no safety net; life and death hinges upon adequate or inadequate responses to problems. There are no soft-handed shepherds but more than a few Generals with immaculate cuticles [okay, it's a terrible metaphor but you probably get the point].

So, yes, concepts are a little like sheep -- more like sheep than like tin figurines being pushed around a map, anyway. Of course I am saying nothing in the least bit original here, I am just trying to assemble my own rather tired and skinny-looking herd in my own way!

The military/herding metaphors are illustrative if inelegant; they tell only a tiny little part of the story. Where the herding metaphor, in particular, breaks down is in the suggestion of isolation and individuality. Herds of thoughts are in fact chaotic, overlapping, intermixing thickets and soups rather than isolated, clumped dots on a hillside. We are all tangled up in each other's thoughts, utterances, things and concepts. We are all herders, weavers, world-makers -- but we make worlds together.

This entanglement destroys any possibility of a simple binary friend/enemy distinction. Silly declarations like 'realism vs. anti-realism' have no meaning here. These are tribal affiliations in old-fashioned turf wars. They are of no use in the infinitely more complex, problem-centred earth wars.

Lovelock, Singapore and Techno-Superorganicism

James Lovelock's most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), backtracks from his previous apocalypticism and, to some degree, from his repeated suggestion that the human global population needs to be reduced to a few hundred million in order to ensure the survival of the species. In this latest work he instead argues that what is needed is a massive and rapid increase in urbanisation and technological development. It is only, he argues, in densely populated mega-cities that humans can keep a low enough ecological profile per capita not to throw Gaia into a wholly hostile state. That is the claim.

Interestingly, the model he holds up for these futuristic urban utopias/dystopias is Singapore -- a city-state often credited as exemplary by futurists in large part due to its success in marrying economic and consumer freedoms with political and social authoritarianism. As a model for authoritarian capitalism in a hot, wet and massively urbanised environment it surely has few rivals.

The epigraph to A Rough Ride comes from Daniel Dennett:
The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
Lovelock thus redoubles his penchant for superorganismic metaphors to describe human society. We are and must become more like ant colonies, he argues. It is only with such technically efficient social organisation that we can hope to survive. Fortunately, we undertake this improbable task endowed with certain gifts. Humans are exceptional Gaians inasmuch as we are the only species able to wire her neurons, to become her mind. We thus have not only the capacity but the duty to undergo this intensive self-systematisation -- 'for Gaia!'

Which brings me to a very interesting (if somewhat toothless) article (accompanied with some beautiful animations) in Foreign Policy today; the headline:
The Social Laboratory: Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.
I won't repeat its arguments here but it deserves reading -- both in its own right and in light of the above.

With regards to Lovelock the phrase 'Curate's Egg' springs to mind. He is troublesome; but perhaps that is what makes him so important. His potentially genocidal predictions with regard to human population reduction have been heavily criticised but less attention has been given, so far, to his latest thoughts. It is frankly impressive that at 95 years of age Lovelock has flip-flopped from apocalyptic catastrophism to what is basically a qualified capitalist techno-utopianism. But then again, how far apart are these visions?

It would seem a wise bet that our future lies somewhere between the two Lovelocks: between mass eco-death and mass techno-urbanism; perhaps both together.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

When 'men of science' became 'scientists'

There is a very interesting post by Melinda Baldwin, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal (due out in 2015), at the consistently excellent The Conversation blog.

I was well aware that 'science' in its modern meaning is of relatively recent provenance and that most of those early moderns we anachronistically call 'scientists' were known amongst themselves as 'natural philosophers'; however, I was unaware of how recently it was that 'scientist' became accepted as a professional title, at least in Britain.

In 1894 the word 'scientist' was considered positively vulgar with 'man of letters' being the preferred term. Until 1924 Nature had a policy of forbidding the use of 'scientist.' Even after Nature removed this policy many refused to adopt the term.
[In the 1920s] The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists”, he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired – perhaps unjustly – the significance of a charlatan’s device”.
In the end, Gregory [the journal's editor] decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist”, but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word. Gregory argued that “scientist” was “too comprehensive in its meaning … the fact is that, in these days of specialised scientific investigation, no one presumes to be ‘a cultivator of science in general’”. 
Nature was far from alone in its stance. As Gregory observed, the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and the Cambridge University Press all rejected “scientist” as of 1924. It was not until after the World War II that [the physicist Norman] Campbell would truly get his wish for “scientist” to become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.
It's interesting that detractors of 'scientist' feared that such a generic term would lack the requisite respect and authority. Today many philosophers of science argue against the monolithic designation 'Science' and for a more pluralistic 'the sciences.' Perhaps we should regret that Norman Campbell got his way in the end! If only scientists [sic] were "content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists".

Friday, 1 August 2014

"We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt"

The hype around Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is rather excessive for a film that isn't due out for several months. However, it's has all the makings of an interesting one. The plot is simple enough: astronauts travel through a wormhole into deep space in order to search for habitable planets. So far so sci-fi; however, there's a hint of desperation to the endeavour that very much speaks to our anthropocenic moment.

As the protagonist, played by Matthew McConaughey, put it:
We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.
This is, of course, following on precisely from the sentiment of Gravity, where Sandra Bullock's protagonist fights tooth and nail to return to the life-giving dirt of planet Earth. There can be no more geocentric film than Gravity and Interstellar in its very title revives the imagined possibility of human expansion into 'the final frontier.' However, the ontological shift that these films both presuppose is obvious. Final frontierism is no longer the obvious logical consequence of a rational civilisation benignly rolling out into the endlessly fertile emptiness of existence; it is the final act of the desperate and depraved, a last frantic lunge into the improbable.

Of course, it's unlikely that we will be denied a happy, life-affirming ending. This is a Hollywood blockbuster, after all:
At Comic Con in San Diego last week, Nolan told the audience Interstellar was "about what it is to be human, and what our place is in the universe," adding: "The further that you travel out into the universe, the more you realise it's in [your heart]." Hathaway's astronaut seems to be saying something similar in the trailer: "Maybe we've spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space."
Nothing with that much schmaltz is going to be especially austere with its ultimate estimation of 'the human spirit,' etc. etc. Interestingly, the romantic kitsch is contrasted to the 'hard science' -- yes, there's something for all the family:
If that all sounds a bit gooey, there are hard science facts (or at least theories) at the centre of the movie, which is based on ideas about wormholes posited by the American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Nolan told Comic Con the conversations between film-maker and scientist were "intense" and even admitted: "It actually made my head hurt a bit. I actually said to Kip, 'Well, I don't want to understand this stuff too much because I have to be able to explain it to the audience.'"
Sit back and prepare to be explained to, kids (but don't worry, mum, there'll be a mushy love story too). And I imagine that at some point something will probably go !!BANG!!, in order to keep dad awake.

Regardless, the trend towards quasi-middle-brow, more-or-less geocentric sci-fi blockbusters is an interesting cultural development. In the past ecological issues cropped up in science fiction as a romantic or aesthetic tragedy -- 'alas, look what we evil all-too-humans have done.' Now we are beginning to see that it is a tragedy that is considerably more existential, mortal -- a tragedy that threatens not the pastoral beauty of a world that is meekly prostrate before our mastery but a thoroughly active and reactive world that may very well be preparing to extinguish us like the pests that we have become.

That is something rather different. To realise that the Earth will never be mastered and that we are simply earthbound organisms with overly high estimations of ourselves -- that is galaxies away from science fiction's past imagined futures.

To what extent Interstellar will follow that ontological detour of course remains to be seen. It seems likely that the power of love will overcome all and we'll all go home either enraptured or nauseated. (Still thinking in terms of AIME, this would be an interesting category mistake: it is as if [rel] could keep us breathing [rep]!)