Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Brian Cox's 'boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment' and The Ascent of Man

There's a good article on the Guardian's Science website today by Henry Gee, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. He writes about the physicist and popular science presenter Brian Cox's new 'ascent of Man' series Human Universe.
Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic. 
But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.
Cox's programme is indeed a familiarly and depressingly linear, upward account of human evolution, full of questionable science and cod philosophy. Its teleology doesn't halt at the present but implicitly projects the path of the human essence out into the stars, as if that weren't all a bit last century.

In fairness it's very well put together and it's great that someone can make science exciting and accessible. In this respect Cox's talent is not in doubt. One can only wish that the ontology implicit within and propagated by such popularisations wasn't so very stupid.

Gee does a good job of humorously puncturing Cox's bubblegum science but I don't think too many will hear. Cox is the anointed successor to David Attenborough as the Voice of Science for the BBC and hence, to a large extent, for Britain.

Why is it always physicists these days who get to tell everyone what science is?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The only thing worse than being talked about...

If, as Oscar Wilde famously put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about then Graham Harman could certainly have things worse. To be sure, people are talking.

However, of course, one never wishes to be merely criticised. To be criticised well—that is the tacit compliment one must hope for. And having read the first instalment of Peter Wolfendale's surgical broadside against Harman's work—namely The Noumenon's New Clothes (Part 1)—I can only conclude that Harman is being criticised really rather ably, albeit with an attitude that is not exactly cordial.

Now, I haven't followed the ins and outs of this kerfuffle over time and to be honest I don't really care that much. However, to have one's work subjected to such forensic criticism can only be a compliment of sorts, even if said forensics are openly pursuing a policy of annihilation by scorched earth. To be the subject of such an analytical blitzkrieg is assuredly not the worst thing in the world.

So, 'SR,' 'OOP.' Moribund? Perhaps. Dead? Not with this level of chatter on the lines. Even as something to react against, Harman's work is clearly vitalising for many.

However, having said that, I am less and less interested by it every time I read some of it. Despite Harman's prolific output I haven't detected a great deal of evolution or progression (or even consolidation) in his ideas over the past several years—and I was fairly unconvinced of the major points of his philosophy to begin with.

The 'reduction to relations' critique is often asserted but rarely argued and I've never found it in the least bit convincing. Without that bombshell in place the substance-oriented edifice doesn't have a leg to stand on (to mix my metaphors) and becomes just a rather de-nuanced, metaphysical version of actor-network theory with the word 'realism' inserted at strategic intervals.

Harman points, fairly enough, to the fact that a great many people are interested in his work. However, to say that a philosophy is demonstrably popular is not an overwhelmingly strong defence of its validity. Its value should be assessed by the quality control department, not sales. It is entirely possible that its popularity and its controversy issue from the same sources: excessive simplicity, depthless polemic and unprogressive repetitiveness.

Anyway, the only way to kill something off, ultimately, is to stop talking about it. And I'm not sure that we're there yet, but we may be getting closer.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The common ground between secular and religious -- some belated reflections on the religious mode of existence and how it can improve (as)sociology

One of the more challenging chapters in Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence is that on religion. I initially found this section to be very frustrating but have come to appreciate it more with time. If I am reading it adequately, and this post should establish whether or not that's the case, it is a line of thought with considerable political importance but also with some major problems in its existing iterations.

Latour's theology must be read, I think, by taking very seriously the claim that his whole project is an exercise in diplomacy -- that is, in building a middle ground between hitherto ontologically irreconcilable groups (in this case those hitherto known as the secular and the religious).

The need for such a mediation exercise is obvious. Many religionists stereotype secularists as cold, uncaring, self-interested, amoral or even actively immoral, interested only in their own pleasure and short-term well-being (this being a relatively mild version). Likewise, for many secularists (particularly of the atheist-humanist variety), the religious are figured as babbling lunatics seething in an ear- and reason-clogging soup of their own violently self-certain and irrational existential dogma (this is a fairly common version).

As a way out of this collective impasse, Latour proposes to transform the concept of religion. His theology is based upon the argument, I think it can be said, that the secular are religious and the religious are secular. That is, it is based upon two argumentative moves that cut across each other.

First, the larger part of his theological writings are dedicated to divesting religion of its vulgar or 'abusive' transcendence; that is, of its claim to 'another world' above or behind the merely manifest one. To the religious Latour says: 'you are also secular'; secular in the sense of the Latin saecularis "worldly, pertaining to a generation or age." The religious are secular because they are of this world; they have no transcendent realm to appeal to as though it were some kind of cosmic supreme court, nor another, higher world to escape to as though this grubby, fallen sphere were not good enough for them (here his Christianity is strikingly and ironically Nietzschean). The only world is this sublunar world; however, crucially, religious experience is found to be reconcilable with this statement; indeed, Latour seems to argue, it is only by reconciling the religious and the worldly that religion-proper can be rediscovered. Transcendence, far from enshrining religious experience, crushes it.

Second, an equally important though less extensively developed portion of his argument follows on from Michel Serres' return of 'religion' to its etymological roots, the word deriving from relegare (to go through again, reprise), religare (to attach) or religiens (careful, opposite of negligens). Serres suggests that religion inherits particularly from the latter: "Whoever has no religion should not be called an atheist or unbeliever, but negligent" (The Natural Contract, p.47-8). To the secular Latour says: 'you are also religious'; religious in the sense of being care-imbued and loving creatures of intimacy and mutual personification. In his Gifford Lectures on natural theology (the Facing Gaia lectures), Latour suggests that coexistence and civilisational persistence on this earthern orb will only be achieved by taking up religion once again, urgently radicalising a radically reconstructed religiosity.

The price that the religious have to pay for this accommodation is relinquishing their other-worldly transcendence. The price that the secular have to pay is losing their (insufficiently) secularised theological concept, Nature. Both must concede the easy, knock-down arguments that they habitually aim at their Other. The mutual gain is a common ground where neither Nature nor God can serve as a unilaterally imposed court of appeal and disputes must be worked out and alliances must be forged in a common manner (or in a manner of becoming-common while remaining plural); that is to say, diplomatically.

This, I think, is a profoundly important argument. However, my initial frustrations haven't entirely dissipated. To put it simply, in reading this ground-building exercise between the secular and the religious I, as one of the godless, get the feeling of reading a letter that is addressed to someone else. I see elements of relevance to my life's experience within it but this seems almost coincidental. In other words, one side of Latour's middle ground seems a smoothly paved plaza while the other is, at best, a dusty, bumpy track.

The way that the theological ideas are presented in AIME seem largely directed towards only one of the groups that are being brought together: the hitherto 'religious.' That is, the text seems overwhelmingly preoccupied with convincing the religious that they are secular and gives short shrift to the equally necessary argument that the secular are also religious. This second element becomes almost subtextual.

The key conceptual and imagistic meeting point that Latour gives the two sides is the equation of love-talk and the religious experience. He explains it thus: When one lover says to their partner 'do you love me?' and the other replies 'of course I do' their relationship is rebuilt anew; if, however, the latter replies 'why are you asking me this? I told you so on the third of November!' they mistake the opening to relational reinforcement for a request for information. This category mistake, for Latour, typifies the misunderstanding of religion. Thus one can say (and this is not an uncommon posit in general) that the religious experience is love.

In his book Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Latour refers to the lovers' affirmations as a "scale model" of the religious experience (p.118). In this phrase a middle ground is affirmed but, at the same time, also rendered rather uneven. It would be interesting to know on what scale this relationship functions on; 10:1, 20:1, 1000:1? The argument that Latour seems to be furthering here is that formalised religion, when properly enacted, institutionalises, intensifies, extends, links, joins and safeguards the world-, bond- and person-forming experience of love. However, the suggestion of this is therefore that those who play no part in organised religion are somehow less taken by the religious love, less caught up in its mode of existence; which, if the dual move is followed through fully in both directions, should not be the case.

The Inquiry is silent on non-traditional forms of love-instituting, which seems to imply the religionists' prejudice as detailed above -- specifically, that the secular are somehow less loving, caring or interested in those around them. This is, in my opinion, the Inquiry's biggest diplomatic failing. However, it is far from unameliorable.

Latour regularly (and often polemically) quotes Margaret Thatcher's infamous declaration that 'society does not exist.' Of course, the meaning that he takes from the phrase differs somewhat from that of its originator. While for Thatcher this meant that, as she went on to say in the second and less quoted half of that sentence, 'there are only individuals and their families' -- i.e. that any sense of social solidarity between communities or classes is an irrational illusion that must be (and was) crushed --, for Latour the absence of society as an ontologically sui generis form of reality means that sociality must be continually constructed, assembled, composed by materially and modally heterogeneous means (not by 'social bonds' which is, for him, a semantic vacuity).

Society is not a 'there' that can be leaned on, presupposed; it is fragile. It can be (and has been) devastated by the machinations of Thatcherian, neoliberal politics. Thus we would do well to better understand it.

The family, for Latour, is, therefore, not necessarily any more or less sociologically real than the neighbourhood, the nation, the race, the class, and so on. In order to understand what is real in any given scenario we must 'follow the mediators'; that is, abandon nomothetic theorising (searching for abstract laws) and embrace idiographic or casuistic analysis (examining concrete cases).

However, if we understand sociology not only as the study of how the world is held together through heterogeneous associations but, in addition, as the study of how bonds of communal solidarity are achieved then we must surely bring the concept of religion into the picture. I previously wrote about conceiving solidarity as kinship but it could equally, on the basis of the above arguments, be termed religiosity.

A study of social, secular religiosity -- of the loving bonds that hold together not just lovers and churches but communities of all sorts (bonds that are inextricable from but also irreducible to political interest) -- would go a long way towards answering the charge of conservatism that is often levelled at the actor-network version of sociology. It would also complete the second move required to fully reconcile the secular and the religious.

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Be careful who you dance with; or, The dangers of modernist post-naturalism; or, The discordant choreographies of the Anthropocene

For some commentators, the advent of the Anthropocene as a geohistorically timely concept has been a cause for celebration in at least one respect: it has thumped the final nail into the coffin of 'Nature' qua absolute, immutable outside. This post argues at possibly interminable length what can also be stated simply and with pith:

Those dancing on the grave of Nature should be careful who they dance with.

Because there are those for whom Nature's demise signals the coming of nothing less than a new White Man's Burden—this time it is the burden of Humans tending a prostrate, pathetic, infantilised and mostly lower-case nature. As though perturbation implied control.

Take this from Erle Ellis, an environmental scientist writing in Wired magazine in 2009:
You are living on a used planet. 
If this bothers you, get over it. We now live in the Anthropocene ― a geological epoch in which Earth’s atmosphere, lithosphere and biosphere are shaped primarily by human forces. 
Yes, nature is still around ― back-seat driving, annoying us with natural disasters from time to time, and everywhere present in the background ― but definitely in no position to take the wheel. That’s our job now. Don’t blame nature for global warming, sea level rise, invasive species, mass extinctions, crop failures and poverty. That’s our thing.
Or these excerpts from Ellis' article in New Scientist magazine in 2011:
[…] it's high time that we – and I do mean all of us – take stock of the new Earth we have created. 
Earth’s biodiversity, biogeochemistry and evolution are now profoundly reshaped by us – and are therefore in our hands. 
It is no longer Mother Nature who will care for us, but us who must care for her. 
[…] can we create a good Anthropocene? In the distant future will we be able to look back with pride? […] We most certainly can […] In the Anthropocene we are the creators, engineers and permanent global stewards of a sustainable human nature.
Or these snippets from Mark Lynas, a British journalist and consultant to the President of Mauritius; for Lynas human beings are now nothing less than The God Species (2011):
On a planetary scale, humans now assert unchallenged dominion over all living things. 
[…] playing God (in the sense of being intelligent designers) at a planetary level is essential if creation is not to be irreparably damaged or even destroyed by humans unwittingly deploying our newfound powers in disastrous ways. At this late stage, false humility is a more urgent danger than hubris. The truth of the Anthropocene is that the Earth is far out of balance, and we must help it regain the stability it needs to function as a self-regulating, highly dynamic, and complex system. It cannot do so alone. 
[…] the first responsibility of a conquering army is always to govern. 
In reality we can build our way out of climate change […] 
[…] simply knowing what we are doing means that none of our actions in the future that affect the climate can be called unwitting. Our hands are on the thermostat whether we like it or not, so sooner or later we are going to have to face up to the need to make a decision about what temperature we want our planet to be at over the longer term. 
Finally, this introductory remark from Emma Marris' book Rambunctious Garden (2011):
We are already running the whole Earth, whether we admit it or not. To run it consciously and effectively, we must admit our role and even embrace it. We must temper our romantic notion of untrammelled wilderness and find room next to it for the more nuanced notion of a global, half-wild rambunctious garden, tended by us. (p.2)
It is not at all difficult to hear the unabashed reclamation of the modernist telos in these claims, as well-intentioned and agreeable as each of the above authors may otherwise be. This is a problem. We are not, in the above, so very far away from the high modernist idealism of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in his book Building the Earth [Construire La Terre] (1958):
[…] mankind is not an accidental phenomenon occurring by chance on one of the smallest stars in the sky. Mankind represents the culmination of the whole movement of matter and life, so far as it is within the range of our experience. 
[…] real unity, to the extent to which all the world is finally at one in recognising that the function of man is to build and direct the whole of the Earth.

In us the evolution of the World towards the spirit becomes conscious. 
Intellectually, the progress of science is proceeding to construct a synthesis of the laws of Matter and Life, which, fundamentally, is nothing else but a collective act of perception; the World seen in the same coherent perspective by the whole of Mankind. The future of the Earth is in our hands. How shall we decide?
Nor is it so different from the thoughts of the Russian geochemist and philosopher Vladimir Vernadsky, writing just after the Second World War:
If man understands [that the strength of mankind is derived from its brain] an immense future is open before him in the geological history of the biosphere. […] we may face the future with confidence. It is in our hands. 
We are entering this new spontaneous process at a terrible time, at the end of a destructive world war. But the important thing for us is the fact that the ideals of our democracy correspond to a spontaneous geological process, to natural laws – the noösphere. So we can look at the future with confidence.
The neo-noöspheric pretensions of the modernist Anthropocene celebrators are widely evidenced. If the above references are a little obscure then take this from Daniel Dennett's book Freedom Evolves (2003):
We are outnumbered on this planet [by other species] but though we are in the minority, our capacity for long-distance knowledge gives us powers that dwarf the powers of all the rest of the life on the planet. Now, for the first time in its billions of years of history, our planet is protected by far-seeing sentinels, able to anticipate danger from the distant future–a comet on a collision course, or global warming–and devise schemes for doing something about it. The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
The final sentence of that paragraph is taken as the epigraph to James Lovelock's most recent book A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), a book that I've written about on this blog previously.

Evidently, dancing on the grave of Nature qua absolute, immutable outside in no way necessitates the abandonment of modernist onto-imperialism, nor human exceptionalism, nor anything of the sort.

Now, don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm not dancing too, it's just that I'm finding myself more and more wary of those that I'm dancing with.

No one has made more of a cause célèbre of the Anthropocene than Bruno Latour; he has literally monumentalised it. This short essay written for The Breakthrough Institute (2011) chimes fully and loudly with the above:
France, for its part, has never believed in the notion of a pristine Nature that has so confused the "defense of the environment" in other countries. What we call a "national park" is a rural ecosystem complete with post offices, well-tended roads, highly subsidized cows, and handsome villages. 
Those who wish to protect natural ecosystems learn, to their stupefaction, that they have to work harder and harder—that is, to intervene even more, at always greater levels of detail, with ever more subtle care—to keep them "natural enough" for Nature-intoxicated tourists to remain happy. 
Like France's parks, all of Nature needs our constant care, our undivided attention, our costly instruments, our hundreds of thousands of scientists, our huge institutions, our careful funding. But though we have Nature, and we have nurture, we don't know what it would mean for Nature itself to be nurtured.
Nigel Clark has criticised Latour's work for hewing too close to an excessive constructivism in his book Inhuman Nature. However, the obvious resonances of this extract with the foregoing should not be taken altogether out of context; particularly, Latour's more recent work supplements his constructivism. The crucial importance of Gaia for Latour (and, in fairness, for Lovelock) is precisely that she is utterly beyond our ken and unquestionably outside of our control, even if she is essentially immanent to our atmo-chemically effluent perturbations. It is Gaia that wreaks revenge, not us; we are little more than 'tics on her mane.' There is no possibility of mastery here.

This is the crucial difference: It is not enough to simply celebrate the end of 'Nature'—one must also recognise that its successor, Gaia, is more not less fearsome.

There's a saying, supposedly Inuit, that appears on motivational posters and in books of popular quotations: When you're walking on thin ice you might as well dance. Are we dancing because we are fully cognisant that the ice might crack at any moment or because we are so very excited see such a great and glorious future laid out before us? Nothing could be more crucial than this difference.

Are these the last days of Rome or the first?—Our entire Anthropocene choreography pivots on this crucial geopolitical distinction. Entirely different terrestrial ensembles will result from the following through of these distinct plans of movement. They are worlds apart.

It's a ghoulish thought, dancing on the fragilely interred. Might we yet plunge into Nature's icy grave? Might we follow the path of Nature after all; that is, out of existence? I, for one, am disinclined to link arms with anyone who fails to see this as all too real of a possibility.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Silent Running and the Eden Project—The founder's and architect's views

Further to my last post, on the Guardian website this evening there are (very) short interviews with the founder of the Eden Project, Tim Smit, and one of the architects, Jolyon Brewis; here's what the latter has to say:
Most architects dream of creating a new world on a scale that eclipses all that’s gone before. And many of us love the sci-fi film Silent Running, too, in which giant greenhouses are attached to spacecraft. So in the early days, when there was always the threat of construction being stopped because of lack of money, all the companies involved carried on regardless: we were so enthralled by the vision. 
Our first designs were for different locations, including a tent-like structure for a hillside, then Smit discovered the china clay quarry at Bodelva. It had a romantic, lost world feel since it would be hidden from view until you were almost upon it. I thought it was a wonderful idea: land that had been desecrated by humans being returned to fecundity by humans. [...]

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Silent Running at the Eden Project / Sci-fi in the Anthropocene

As one of several plates that I'm currently spinning, I'm writing (or, rather, at the moment planning) an article on the 1972 science-fiction film Silent Running.


In a nutshell, the article is about space in the Anthropocene, analysing this film in the context of sci-fi film more widely in order to understand how our collectively imagined attitudes to nature, ecology, space and outer-space have changed, are changing and need to change further.

Fortuitously, as part of its 'Days of Fear and Wonder' series, the BFI (British Film Institute) is putting the film on at the Eden Project in Cornwall – a tourist attraction I grew up just a few miles from.

Silent Running's geodesic biodomes inspired the domes at Eden, as one can plainly see:







I am very much looking forward to it!

Incidentally, the last time I went to Eden was to see Sigur Rós perform there last year, which was an experience bordering on transcendent.







The most ethereal, other-worldly music in the most surreal, other-worldly setting. I've seen Sigur Rós perform nearly a dozen times and this was the most perfect mise-en-scène for them.

There's certainly something about these spaces that is musically inspiring. Adrian Utley of Portishead and Will Gregory of Goldfrapp have composed pieces to be played in the Mediterranean biome before the screening of the film.


(Sadly the film will not be shown in the biomes themselves but rather in the visitor centre that overlooks the site.)

Another slightly eccentric rock band, 65daysofstatic, re-scored Silent Running and have performed their version live a number of times (never gotten to see that though, unfortunately):



(By the by, if you've not seen the film before I'd recommend watching the original before the 65daysofstatic version, as brilliant as their score is.)

The film critic Mark Kermode, who has a BFI-curated book on Silent Running coming out soon, is also going to introduce the picture.

All in all, I'm pretty excited! It's provoking lots of thoughts for me with regard to my research. I've started reading semiotics for this project and it's very challenging to think about how I can conceptualise the 'intertext' of the film, so broad and 'beyond-textual' as it all is.

The film's director, Douglas Trumbull, rose to prominence for being one of the foremost special effects wizards on Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. Off the back of that success he was given $1m by Universal Studios, as a directorial debutant, to make whatever film he wanted. He describes Silent Running as the 'human' reaction to 2001 – it's a film all about emotion, relation and affect; where 2001 is cold and impersonal, Silent Running is warm and intensely personal.

It is often dismissed as an out-of-date, hippy-era melange of preachy nature-worship – and there is that element to it, for sure (see the painfully kitsch Joan Baez song 'Rejoice in the Sun' that was written for the soundtrack, for example); however, its beating heart is the incredible lead performance by Bruce Dern.

(Griemas & Fontanille's The Semiotics of Passion: From States of Affairs to States of Feelings is interesting in this regard, though I don't yet know enough semiotics to really understand it properly. It's an intimidatingly technical discipline.)

It's both the outdated ontology of nature implicit within the film's political aesthetics and the intense, emotional core of the story that I'm interested in. These things together are what make this such an interesting film.

Beyond the narrow 'intertext,' there's also the tourist-ecological relation in the fact that these domes, or derivatives of them, were materialised on a grand scale in an abandoned quarry in a sleepy, quiet and rather impoverished part of Cornwall. And, of course, these are not the only such domes in the world.

Then there's the author-biographical fact that I grew up close to where these domes are and know the area. This, I think, affects how I experience the space of the domes and, consequently, perhaps the film. It will be an interesting phenomenological experience.

There's also a 'making of' documentary that reveals much about how the film was produced and the motivations and mindsets of the performers. Crucial, I think, is that there are no women in this film whatsoever besides a little girl whose picture on the wall is gestured to rhetorically by the main character at one point (and at a pivotal moment in the film, I might add). In this documentary we see that, as one might expect of the time, women are pretty much nowhere to be seen on the production side of things. I find this interesting because of the lead character who blends a sometimes ferocious masculinity with a sensitivity that might have been quite strikingly effeminate in context. Dern recounts jogging around the naval base at which the filming was taking place and being left in no doubt that the world wasn't ready for a long-haired hippy running about the place. The only women in the 'making of' are seemingly either organisational or ornamental; in the film itself there's almost no trace of women-kind whatsoever. And yet the lead character is far from being a straightforward 'man's man,' although he is far from being 'unmanly.' Does he project a progressive masculinity or simply a man's idea of what progressive masculinity would look like? The latter, I think; however, it's interesting either way, especially given the ecological context of the film.

 

Finally, the spaceship on which the film is set is named the Valley Forge, after the aircraft carrier on which it was filmed, which in turn was named after an important site in the American Revolution:
Valley Forge in Pennsylvania was the site of the military camp of the American Continental Army over the winter of 1777–1778 during the American Revolutionary War. It is approximately 20 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Starvation, disease, and exposure killed nearly 2,500 American soldiers by the end of February 1778.
Ecology and terror are baked into the film's very pretext.

I think it'll be impossible to weave all these threads together into a neat and perfect plait. However, there's certainly plenty to be working with. Here's the abstract as it's been proposed:
This paper examines ontologies of nature and their cognate concepts of space as they are represented in popular culture, particularly in science fiction. It does this through a close, contextualised and intertextualised reading of Douglas Trumbull’s 1972 film Silent Running. It proceeds in two parts. First, the ontologies of space and nature that are implicit within SR’s ecological mise-en-scène are examined alongside Bruno Latour’s rendering of James Lovelock’s concept of Gaia. This is used to theorise the ‘counter-Copernican revolution’ whereby our futural spatial imaginaries are turned around and transformed – as the protagonist in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014) puts 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.” The second section detects deeper and more sophisticated space-creative processes in the manner by which SR’s protagonist, Freeman Lowell, fabricates a life for himself alone aboard the damaged, drifting, dome-clad spaceship in which he is ensconced. This inner-space construction is analysed in terms of Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘microspherology.’ This paper therefore relates to a number of issues in contemporary spatial and cultural theory: the effect of the Anthropocene and the ‘irruption of Gaia’ upon our cosmic spatial imaginaries; affective, postphenomenological theories of the construction of space and their ecological politics; and, finally, the relationship between Latour and Sloterdijk, two major theorists of space whose work has not yet been compared in adequate detail. In short, this paper examines what happens to spatial, terrestrial, imaginative, immunological existence when it is realised that, as Latour (2013) puts it, “we are imprisoned in [the Earth’s] tiny local atmosphere” – when space ceases to be ‘the final frontier.’ 

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Latour on Tyrell and Gaia

I previously wrote about Toby Tyrell's book On Gaia and Clive Hamilton's references to it at the AIME colloquium. Bruno Latour himself has recently written/spoken about this book at an event in Rio. Suffice to say, his reading of Tyrell's book is scathing. However, there is far more to the text than just the critique. He fleshes out his post-Darwinian reading of Lovelock's work quite a bit and makes very clear the fundamental inscrutability and plurality of Gaia as he understands the concept.
Lovelock describes a planet that is alive because his prose is alive, meaning that any time you add an entity, even if it's a gas, a rock, a worm or a mat of micro-organisms, it vibrates with all the historical specificity of the other agencies intertwined in it. (18)

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The empire of Science, the retreat of Philosophy—five responses

It's a familiar story: The explosive successes of the empirical, modern sciences after [insert Great Man or Important Event here] forced philosophy back into ever narrower corridors of speculatability, like polar bears on a shrinking iceberg. How did philosophers respond? In several ways.

First, by grovelling—becoming lackeys, imitators, under-labourers, popularisers, celebrants, sanctioners, policemen, epistemologists. Second, by taking flight—becoming idealists, phenomenon-botherers, intrepid explorers of the ineffable ethers of language, morality, love, art, experience and religion. Third, by criticising—becoming on-lookers to history, lords of the margins, doyens of discourse, geniuses of the presupposition, sniping and biting for plurality and process, railing against fixity, sediment and being-forgetting, deploring all dogmatism. Fourth, by returning to dogmatism—becoming artists of object-schemes, journeymen of the dreaded litany, scenographers of the grandest thing-scapes, brave speculators on the furniture and infrastructure of the universe, incisively discerning the withdrawn fundamentals that had previously passed us by. Fifth, by focusing on problems—becoming pragmatists, anthropologists, sociologists, finding license to think wherever there are problems to be thought through; thus, travelling wherever they please, being barred from nowhere, but never traversing Reality, never journeying 'everywhere.'

It'll be clear from my rhetoric where my sympathies reside. Philosophers were right to be chastened by the successes of the sciences. Where they came a cropper, to use a beautiful Britishism, was in their responses—at least until they arrived at the properly pragmatic option of understanding the purpose of tradition-disciplined philosophical thought practices to be the invention and transformation of concepts in response to particular problems, in alliance with various other actors.

It is perfectly right to wish to once again grant philosophers their passport to travel wherever they please, regardless of this or that domain's domination by whatever scientific power. Indeed, such domination is certain to raise problems requiring philosophical attention; thus intellectual wanderlust is explicitly encouraged in the problem-pragmatic understanding. What is wrong is to think that such papers give philosophers access to a reality over and above (or even simply beyond and beside) that which is available to the sciences or to any other practice-complex.

Indeed, philosophy does not access.

A defence of philosophy without a concomitant deflation results not in advocacy as part of a diplomatic process but in fortification in a process of war-making. Which brings us to a first-order cosmopolitical question that can now be understood as lying at the heart of philosophical discourse: is it coexistence or victory that is the order of the day?

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 satisfy 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.
Harman
[…] 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.

Latour
Why?

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

Latour
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.