Thursday, 27 August 2015

Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation (now with words and pictures)

[As the year speeds onwards at a frankly alarming rate, the RGS-IBG conference for 2015 is now only a week away. For my part, I'm organising a round-table discussion session on the subject of geographical determinism. My introductory remarks and slides follow.]
Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation

RGS-IBG, University of Exeter, Friday 4th September 2015.

[N.B. this session has been moved to Peter Chalk rooms 2.2/2.3.]

[If these images appear very low quality, click on them to see a higher resolution version.]


As David Livingstone put it in the conclusion to his 2010 BBC radio series The Empire of Climate: “Climate determinism is the alter ego of climate change.” Seldom have the two been separable. So it is today.

Herodotus and Hippocrates; Bodin and Montesquieu; Gilpin and Buckle; Semple and Mackinder; Huntington and Haushofer; Diamond and Kaplan – the lineage of deterministic thinking is long and will be familiar to historians of geographical thought.

Long, familiar and, as the likes of Mike Hulme have recently argued, renascent. Hulme finds determinism alive and well in what he calls the “transfer of predictive authority” effected by institutions such as the IPCC that define human futures in terms of climatic calculations.

“If not quite the inexorable geometric calculus of Malthus,” he writes, “it nevertheless offers a future written in the unyielding language of mathematics and computer code.”

To paraphrase the post-punk band Mission of Burma, how might we escape this certain fate?


This session consists of four open, conversational roundtables, with four excellent, expert chairs!

It is motivated by the conviction, first of all, that these issues are of pressing contemporary importance but also, secondly, that while many scholars, within geography and elsewhere, are working on such matters, they are doing so rather disconnectedly. This session attempts to initiate a more cohesive conversation.

1: Representation and Determinism

In his 2012 book The Revenge of Geography: What the Map Tells Us About Coming Conflicts and the Battle Against Fate, the travel writer-cum-geostrategist Robert Kaplan caused something of a stir amongst geographers by reintroducing the principal tropes of late-nineteenth century geopolitics to popular discourse.

“The only enduring thing is a people’s position on the map,” he writes. “With the political ground shifting rapidly under one’s feet, the map, though not determinative, is the beginning of discerning a historical logic about what might come next.”

While disavowing determinism per se, he wholeheartedly embraces “partial,” “hesitant” and “probabilistic” determinisms, approvingly attributing these varieties to Herodotus, Halford Mackinder and Raymond Aron, respectively. One is reminded of Mackinder’s famous line: “Man and not nature initiates, but nature in large measure controls.” Human possibility is present but it is radically attenuated by ‘The Map.’

Reading texts like this, it can seem as though we have scarcely budged since the era when speculator-futurists like William Gilpin were mapping out the climatic regions deemed, from the eye of Apollo as Denis Cosgrove had it, hospitable to civilisation.

Against this, I do not doubt, all too familiar geo-ocular sensibility, we are very lucky to be able to pose Gwilym Eades, armed with his new book Maps and Memes: Redrawing Culture, Place, and Identity in Indigenous Communities. It is also worth mentioning his 2011 article in Progress in Human Geography, titled Determining environmental determinism. This short piece, written in response to a forum published two issues previously, confronted both the determinisms and the anti-determinisms then under discussion.

Gwilym, usefully I think, both challenges geographers’ preconceptions of their own openness to other points of view and, at the same time, draws attention to the many epistemic determinisms that we can all wittingly or unwittingly entertain.

2: Possibilism and Historical Geography

But what of our response to determinism? What of the alternatives?

Possibilism is a term attributed to the historian Lucien Febvre. He, in turn, ascribed it to the geographical works of Paul Vidal de la Blache and his followers. In contrast to the likes of Friedrich Ratzel in Germany and Ellen Churchill Semple, who interpreted Ratzel for an Anglophone audience, the ‘French School,’ it was claimed, eschewed determinism and adopted an ethos of possibility.

Although largely forgotten today, possibilism was a common talking-point of geographers throughout the middle decades of the twentieth-century. Much more recently, it has been taken up by Simon Dalby, who has called for: “A reworked notion of possibilism, one shaped by the much more comprehensive understandings of both earth system science on one hand and political ecology with its focus on lived environments on the other […].”

I, for one, can concur. However, in order to rebuild possibilism, I think that it’s necessary to understand what possibilism has meant in the past, in rather different geopolitical and geo-ontological circumstances – and this is not at all clear.

Is possibilism, as Gordon Lewthwaite had it in 1966, a matter of erring on one side of a “continuum” that has free-will at one end and determination at the other? Is it, as Vincent Berdoulay wrote in 1976, a form of neo-Kantian philosophy? Perhaps the most interesting interpretation for me, particularly if noted in relation to Kaplan’s embracing of Aron’s ‘probabilistic determinism,’ is Fred Lukermann’s argument in 1965 that the possibilists were really heirs of Antoine Augustin Cournot. Contrary to the likes of Pierre-Simon Laplace, Cournot argued that it was not human ignorance that necessitated probabilistic calculation; rather, reality itself was indeterminate – and geographies were, therefore, to quote Lukermann, “explanatorily describable only by a calculus of probabilities.”

In short, possibilism demonstrates, I think, that ‘interdisciplinarity’ must mean not only putting critical geopolitics into conversation with physical, environmental and climatic sciences but, also, with the history of ideas.

And speaking of calculation…

3: Calculation and Environmental Science

For many years now, the critical thinker has been an ally of the indeterminate. This relationship was more or less straightforward. To critique was to open up, to destabilise; the oppressive was the closing down, the narrowing, the determining; liberation was to be found in the embrace of radical potentiality, in the incalculable.

I do not wish to suggest that we should undo this legacy; however, this relationship can no longer be so straightforward. To have so much as a conversation about ‘the Anthropocene,’ ‘the climate’ or even, simply, the future, today necessitates, at the very least, some discursive absorption of the progressive produce of calculative rationality.

How can we resist “transfer[s] of predictive authority,” in Hulme’s words, while not, at the same time, becoming ‘Merchants of Doubt’? How can we integrate the biological, climatological, geographical and environmental sciences in a more cohesive way, eschewing, as Gwilym advises, any complacency with regard to geography’s interdisciplinary achievements? How do we engage with probabilistic thinking without reproducing the kinds of conservative politics promoted by the likes of Kaplan and Aron? How are we to grapple with a world that is, after Cournot, unpredictable in itself?

When to calculate and how? This is a question that Lauren Rickard’s work on scenario planning may well help us to answer. In her 2010 paper Governing the future under climate change: contested visions of climate change adaptation, Lauren writes that scenarios represent “a momentous epistemic and epistemological shift”. Ridding us of the “idea of a singular most likely [or, we might add: most probable] future,” scenario exercises, at least in some of their iterations, facilitate co-produced climatic futures in a way that pluralises and democratises the process of envisagement.

“In scenario approaches,” she continues, “the future is refracted by uncertainty into multiple possibilities.”

And so, finally…!

4: Complexity and Potentiality

Rethinking the role of geographic and climatic knowledge in relation to Anthropocenic political pressures is plainly a vast task – one that brings into question some of our most fundamental concepts: earth, world, environment, history, time…

There is no avoiding it: the spaghetti junction of interdisciplinarity to be constructed on and around a reformed environmental geopolitics must include a well-paved road to philosophy.

We might look, then, to works such as Jason Dittmer’s 2014 article Geopolitical Assemblages and Complexity. Drawing on the works of Gilles Deleuze, Félix Guattari and Manual DeLanda, among others, Jason attempts to articulate “a materialism without determinism” – a materialist ontology for geopolitics that sidesteps the dualistic bifurcations of modernism.

Complexity theory, he writes, “enables us to incorporate the environment and materiality into geopolitical analyses of change without lapsing into any of the determinism that plagues early geopolitical thought.” Following, in fact, in the footsteps of Cournot, this ontology refuses any mechanistic or reductive model of causality – everything is observed to depend on everything else and every explanation is, therefore, necessarily a simplification of a more complex and dynamic reality.

But we could, I think, gainfully go back further than Cournot, to another crucial figure in the history of probability: Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz famously argued that we live in the best of all possible worlds. Crucial to his Théodicée was the concept of ‘compossibility’: a possible world is composed of beings that are compossible.

Setting aside the excesses of Leibniz’s peerless optimism, we can turn his concept to our purposes. To state it most plainly indeed: the present composition of carboniferous civilisation is incompossible with the Earth.

What we need, then, is not the possibilism of fin de siècle French idealism, as Vincent Berdoulay identified it. Rather, we need a possibilism, or a compossibilism, that can assume indefinite multiplicities of open possibilities but that is also pressingly and incessantly aware of the unavoidable facticity of vast, inhuman forces utterly beyond our ken and control.

A possibilism fit for the Anthropocene.


Friday, 31 July 2015

e-flux superconversation: "More than Two Cities: Extinction | Optimism | Austerity | Possibility"

A few days ago, I was asked to write a response to Rory Rowan for the e-flux superconversation series. Both pieces have materialised on the e-flux site this morning:

Rory: "Extinction as Usual? Geo-social Futures and Left Optimism"

Me: "More than Two Cities: Extinction | Optimism | Austerity | Possibility"

This was put together in a bit of a hurry but it was fun to write (sometimes it helps to not over-think things). I'm delighted to have made this small contribution to the series, in any case. Among the many excellent contributions, I can particularly recommend:

Lesley Green: "The Changing of the Gods of Reason: Cecil John Rhodes, Karoo Fracking, and the Decolonizing of the Anthropocene"

Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro: "Is there any world to come?"

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

"[T]ouching down on Planet Latour"—Nigel Clark's response to my "Back down to Earth"

As regular readers will surely be aware, I recently published an article with the wonderful journal Global Discourse titled "Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic geopolitics(it's currently available online; it'll appear in print in the near future). This journal has a policy, unusual in the social sciences, of commissioning short replies to each article published.

I have been fortunate enough to receive two such responses, the first by Simon Dalby ("Taking Gaia seriously in Bruno Latour’s Geopolitics") and now a second by Nigel Clark ("Metamorphoses: on Philip Conway’s geopolitical Latour").

(If you'd like a copy of any of either of the replies or my original article and don't have institutional access, just get in touch via email and I'd be happy to oblige.)

Nigel has been a sympathetic critic of Latour's works for some time and I make reference to several of his works in my article. He most generously writes that:
"Reading […] ‘Back down to Earth’ I feel like I am touching down on Planet Latour afresh and discovering that it has been wildly terraforming itself while I’d popped out."
I am very glad that my work has made this impression. It was a large part of my intention with this article to demonstrate and articulate some of the richness evident in Latour's later works—a wealth that numerous people have confessed to me, Nigel included, that it is difficult to keep up with (it is worth mentioning at this point that Latour's Gifford Lectures, which a large part of my article was based on, are to be almost completely rewritten and expanded for publication)! Modesty dissuades me from quoting his comment that Back down to Earth is "the single most illuminating text on Latour’s work that I have ever encountered," however vanity evidently gets the better of that instinct on this occasion. Kind words!

Nigel, however, remains unsatisfied with aspects of Latour's work. Does the figure of Gaia really do enough to absorb into thought not only the non-human but also the inhuman in the world?
"Raised in the Pacific Ring of Fire, living on islands shaped and reshaped by ongoing crustal collisions and episodic volcanic activity, and intrigued by the way biological life rafted across the Earth’s surface on mobile tectonic plate fragments, I hungered after accounts of agency that put the incontrovertibly inhuman machinations of the Earth high on the agenda. All that talk of laboratories, of world-shaping events migrating outwards from European research centres, the endless reference to the co-constitution of humans and non-humans, never did quite enough decentring of the human for me. I wanted to ask not only how do scientists give rise to worlds, but how does the Earth give rise (maybe, maybe not) to a scientist?"
The most provocative point that Nigel makes, for me, concerns the conceptualisation of strata (after Deleuze & Guattari but also Elizabeth Grosz) as geopolitical or geo-ontological conditions of possibility and as radical wells of potentiality. He urges that we think:
"[…] through ‘strata’ – by which I mean not simply the layering of the lithosphere but the more general way in which earlier physic-material events lay down the conditions of possibility for what may later come to pass. Or what we might call subtending relations. […] it is this positing of an antecedent or underlying region of potentiality that is for me the real revelation."
This links interestingly with another of my present projects on matters of determinism and possibilism in geopolitics (materialising at the RGS-IBG conference this year, which, incidentally, Simon Dalby is involved with and, I hope, Nigel will be able to participate in also).

My initial reaction would be that I would resist focusing too much on this sense of profound, boundless 'potentialities' in the abstract (while not at all denying the near-unfathomability of such depths) and instead try to follow the trajectories by and through which potentialities are turned into determinations. This historical and sociological task seems, to me, to be one that resonates well with the Latourian corpus and links, indeed, with his recent encounter (or might I say collision) with the 'politics of possibility' of the Breakthrough Institute and their 'ecomodernism.'

One last critical question that Nigel raises is, I think, fair and important.
"Finally, how far do we want to extend the notion of ‘political power’? Is politics not also, sooner or later, about giving reasons: the justification of our actions to others – which would seem to be a vital part of the appeal to strangers implied by the notion of convening publics? Do we want to see Gaia and all Gaians as literally ‘geopolitic’ – as Conway reads Latour? Or might we wish to draw a sharper distinction between that which triggers or energizes the political, and that which a particular kind of negotiating, desiring and reasoning being actually makes of this excitation?"
The part of my essay that he is referring is close to the culmination of my narrative; I write:
"Human politics explicates, amplifies and formalises what was already happening – non-human Gaians already format their spheres, adore their attachments, adapt their environments, measure their means, cultivate their cultures and nurture their natures. Each in their own ways, at wildly varying intensities, through spiralling, sinuous movements that ensnare, ensphere, entwine and envelop, all Gaians ‘geopolitic.’"
The 'scare quotes' here are carefully placed. In earlier drafts I had written "all Gaians, in a sense, 'geopolitic'," to doubly emphasise the hesitancy I have in making this leap into suggesting that all Gaia's constituents are 'geopolitical.'

Last week I read Brian Massumi's recent essay What Animals Teach Us about Politics. My criticism of Massumi's argument is that, in order to affirm that there is no total, radical, transcendent break between animality and humanity but rather a continuation, amplification and transformation of certain mutually shared capacities, he makes pretty much anything that any living being does into 'politics.' So, when two wolf cubs are play-fighting, this demonstrating sophisticated and complex kinds of inter-personal relations, this is said to be a kind of animal 'politics.' I find that this is the wrong option. It would be better to argue that politics derives from capacities and practices that are part of a common ecology but that are not reducible to the same elements of that heterogeneous web—a pluralising, particularising, historicising gesture.

In other words, my 'scare quotes' indicate my hesitancy on this point and, in hindsight, I agree with Nigel. However, the really important part is, as I've mentioned, the affirmation that politics is not something imposed upon a reality with which it has little or nothing in common but a creative rupture—a metamorphosis, indeed—that derives from a plural reality that has many kinds of tangled relations of kinship and inheritance.

So, all in all, I can only express my gratitude to Simon and Nigel for their generous responses, and to Global Discourse for having such an excellent policy in this regard! Long may it continue and far may it be imitated.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

What is 'progressive'? Thomas Smith on the ecomoderns on the Pope

Further to my last post, Thomas Smith at Dissident Voice has a strong critique of Mike Shellenberger, Ted Nordhaus and Mark Lynas' dismissal of the recent papal encyclical, Laudato Si.

Of particular relevance is this on the vagueness of the term 'progressive':
Perhaps the ecomodernists should discard this vague generality of labelling themselves ‘progressive’ as it is too often used to gloss over the important details. ‘We believe in growth’, say the ecomodernists, ‘therefore we’re progressive’. ‘I put forward a sustainable steady state and/or degrowth future’, I respond, ‘therefore I’m progressive’. Nobody wins the argument, and the term is rendered an empty signifier.
This is, of course, the risk with any term that has such wide and varied usage. I, for one, can't see why the adjective 'progressive' should have such a simplistic and necessary relation to techno-economic 'progress' (i.e. growth).

Smith writes in his conclusion:
‘Progress’ is a myth. Societies do not develop in any linear fashion, and capitalist modernity is not the end of history. Sure, some things are probably ‘better’, many things are worse. There are no universals.
There is a defence of 'progress' against its critics that runs: 'But don't you want things to get better? Conservative!' Against that knee-jerk, I think that Smith is correct. It is the sense of 'progress' as a definite direction, an arrow that can be either followed or diverged from (and diverged towards something that is, by definition, 'less good') that is the problem.

Just as a steady-state economy might actually be better for those who live with it, an historical trajectory without 'progress' (in the modern/ecomodern sense) wouldn't mean that the poor must stay poor and the rich must stay rich. It wouldn't mean the end to change.

For things to improve under a steady-state economy, wealth would have to be more equitably shared because economic activity would no longer be orientated towards future surpluses. Under a 'steady-state' history, the situation might be likewise. It wouldn't mean stasis, the end of time. It'd mean a different conception of time.

Friday, 26 June 2015

Reply to Steve Fuller on Latour and ecomodernism

In response to my last post, Steve Fuller comments:
Has no one considered that perhaps Latour has never been an ecomodernist and that it was simply a misunderstanding that led him to be incorporated into the first Breakthrough Institute statement? As someone who has followed (increasingly critically) Latour's work for the last 30+ years, the man is a 'conservative' at heart, and it's only his rhetoric that makes him appear 'progressive' in the sense that ecomodernists are striving for. It seems to me that you either buy Latour's view of things or you buy ecomodernism, but the two are not compatible in terms of fundamental assumptions about the world.
I don't think I suggested that Latour was an 'ecomodernist,' did I? He's highly sympathetic to the idea of a post-natural environmentalism, which is precisely what the BTI has been advancing but with all sorts of other things attached. I'd hazard a guess that the feeling is more or less mutual. Sympathies without allegiances—straightforward enough.

As for his politics in general, I'm not sure that I really care. He's certainly no radical, nor has he ever really pretended to be (quite unlike a certain Warwick VC, for example). I think he's ambiguous enough to be read any number of ways, including progressively (for want of a better word—I'll admit that labelling someone a progressive who rejects 'progress' per se is an awkward formulation!). His use of Schmittian political theory in the last decade or so chimes very much with the likes of Mouffe, as I mentioned, although clearly they differ in a whole number of ways otherwise.

Going by his writings (no idea how you've managed to separate the 'rhetoric' from the 'substance'—that's an old and rather weak rhetorical move itself), I think he's a Deweyan liberal and a Hobbesian republican of sorts. He's the first to admit that he's bourgeois. Everything else he pretty much keeps to himself (maybe that tells you something, maybe it doesn't).

I don't 'buy' either option (both of which are, incidentally, full of coyness, contradiction and ambiguity) but with regard to political theory, agonism and the difference between politics and governance, I'm firmly in Latour's camp. In other respects, not so.

I'm intrigued by many of the ecomodernists' scientific arguments but I'm not knowledgeable enough on the technicalities to have any particular opinion. I think their political ideas, insofar as they even have any, leave a lot to be desired, to say the least. Frequently, they're downright objectionable.

If I had to choose, I presume it's clear by now which way I'd go. Fortunately, though, thinking doesn't work like that.

What is politics? Ecomodernist disagreements

A couple of months ago, I wrote a few review posts on The Breakthrough Institute's Ecomodernist Manifesto. This week, the Institute held an event that brought together the Manifesto's major proponents and critics, including (just to name those most familiar to me) Mark Lynas, Clive Hamilton, Bruno Latour and Steve Fuller.

Latour's contribution, titled 'Fifty Shades of Green,' expressed its sympathies for the Institute's aims but strongly criticised the Manifesto's politics – or, rather, its lack of politics.

Couched in (Carl) Schmittean terms of friend/enemy declarations, I don't think it went down well with its (I presume) broadly liberal (in the US sense) audience. I posted a few excerpts from Latour's piece on Twitter, including the following, which drew a response from Mike Shellenberger, one of the Institute's founders:
I suggested that perhaps this might be part of the problem – politics without anger is lacking its proper passion. Mike generously responded again. However, this exchange only really brought home to me how difficult it is to make anything approaching an intelligent point in less than 140 characters! I certainly failed to.

In any case, there is a basic disagreement here as to what constitutes politics. As I quoted in the final instalment of my aforementioned review posts, Matthew Nisbet, an Associate Professor of Communication Studies, writes:
"Politics, argue ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons."
From the point of view of agonistic pluralism (terminology from political theory that is usually associated with Chantal Mouffe but I think is also fair to apply to Latour's political thought in a general sense), this is not in itself a problematic claim. Politics is certainly about building alliances, working together and living together without any unity, any common identity, any easy 'of course, we can all agree on...' to take as a starting point and serve as a steady, unquestionable foundation, a keystone. This political theory is, in short, pluralistic – no problem.

However, pluralism should not, I believe, be separated from agonism. Indeed, I would agree with Mouffe, Latour and others that politics only really comes into existence in its proper form when there is conflict, disagreement, dissensus – yes, even anger.

Insisting upon the friend/enemy distinction is not to say that we should march around with baseball bats looking to silence those we disagree with. As Tim Howles adds:
It means, first of all, that we should recognise that we are unavoidably politically engaged with people who have no interest in 'debating' us.

There are those for whom politics is simply about winning. In one of the more chilling moments in the recent film The Look of Silence, a leader of the forces that conducted the Indonesian genocide, now a powerful politician, insists that the genocide was simply politics because (and I paraphrase from memory but this is more or less verbatim, at least to the translation) 'politics is about achieving your ideals' – and that is what they did, with machetes, wire, knives... (Lest we 'eco-modern' Euro-Americans feel smug and superior, let's not forget our flesh-smeared border fences and body-strewn beaches, for starters. Barbed wire fences are also Anthropocene technologies...)

One thing that this (quite brilliant) film brought home to me was how political struggle is often literally and immediately a matter of life and death. This genocide happened with the active support of the US government because it was exterminating 'communists' (which was, needless to say, a rather broadly applied category). The astonishingly brave protagonist of this film, whose older brother was killed in the genocide, is regularly threatened with a refrain: 'why do you want to re-open old wounds? you'll make it happen again.' The subtext being that he and his family could very well disappear if they insist on pursuing truth and justice.

That is a bit of a tangent but the point that I am making is that there are people out there who no amount of well-mannered argumentation will ever reach. To take another very important film that has just been released (or, depending on where you are, will be soon), the screen adaptation of Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway's well-known book Merchants of Doubt. The political and geopolitical actors in this real-life horror story were not out to 'negotiate' but to defeat, by any means necessary – death threats, misinformation, outright lies and worse.

Are these not our enemies (we are most certainly theirs)?...

This is the first importance of the recognition of the friend/enemy distinction, then: recognition that if politics is not war (if it is not simply the 'achievement of ideals by any means necessary') then neither, in many cases, can the two things be easily separated. It takes an extremely privileged, metropolitan and, frankly, cosseted perspective to ignore this fact. (A perspective that I myself am lucky enough to fall into on occasion, I will admit.)

However, the other crucial aspect of agonism is that politics must be distinguished from governance. For Latour, after John Dewey, Walter Lippmann and Noortje Marres, there is no politics of any note without a public and there is no public without people becoming passionately interested by issues that affect them. The problem of the 'post-political' (a term that I don't think Latour has used but, again, fits well with his thinking) is the problem of the radical disinterest in active, passionate, engaged political discourse that we find throughout Western societies in recent decades.

Throughout, the Manifesto speaks in the language not of politics but of governance. It proposes and debates technical fixes that could be employed precisely so that the masses needn't get worked up and worry themselves about it. It is not a matter, of course, of 'governance bad, politics good' but the difference must be understood. (I've written more on this aspect of Latour's work elsewhere.)
Insisting upon 'naming your enemies' doesn't mean that this is what politics is reducible to, that there is no more to it than that. It means that politics-proper cannot exist without agonism. It doesn't mean that we should simply set out to defeat our opponents 'by any means necessary' but it means that we recognise that there are people who behave like this and they (at the very least) are our enemies. Moreover, it compels us to recognise that we cannot count on consensual negotiation achieving sufficient momentum or enough of a critical mass (to mix my metaphors) to achieve meaningful political change (but that, I suspect, is precisely what the eco-modernists do not believe is necessary).

We have enemies and they must be defeated – not 'by any means necessary' but by means more forceful than earnest negotiation. We cannot assume that the existing parameters of negotiation and debate are sufficient. There is a political imperative to remake these parameters. This is, in my understanding, what Latour means when he insists that neither Nature nor Society nor anything else can remain as 'sovereign' – these parameters that used to organise our collective being simply no longer function. It is in this sense that the eco-modernists adopt some of Latour's slogans ('no more Nature!') but fail to grasp their meaning.

A fully realised pluralism has to know when to abandon discursive 'business as usual' – when to abandon ship and to learn how to swim again.

To refuse to engage with that dimension of the political demonstrates a totally underdeveloped sense of plurality (here the agonistic and the pluralistic are tied together fundamentally). Well-heeled and well-meaning, more or less metropolitan and by and large academic points of view are only a few of the political forces at play here. Supposing (as the Manifesto does) that liberal values (and US liberal values at that) are somehow universal (or can be expected to be universalised through techno-economic progress) is worse than naive. Remember Indonesia.

Modernity is built on bones as well as carbon.

I apologise that the above is a little verbose. As I believe Mark Twain put it, I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.

Regenerating Political Geography; or, letting PhD students know what they're getting themselves into

I was very fortunate to spend two days this week at an event in Birmingham organised by the Political Geography Research Group of the RGS-IBG (more specifically, by the wonderful Adam Ramadan and Sara Fregonese).

It served as an introduction to the state of the art in political geographical research and covered publishing, teaching and the markets for jobs and research funding. It was well-attended by some very notable academics in the field, all of whom were extremely helpful and encouraging!

I believe that the plan is to have these workshops every 18 months or so. I'd highly recommend any PhD/early career person (or even, as was the case with me, someone about to start their PhD) who is working in (or planning to work in) the field to attend in future.

I was especially keen to attend this time as I'll be moving to Aberystwyth in a few months and the closest city in terms of travel-time is Birmingham, so it was also good to have a look around the University and get more of a feel for the place.

Having worked within a university for several years, I was already fairly familiar with how jobs, funding, publishing, etc. work in general (and with the frustrations of such rigmaroles!); however, it was terrifically useful to learn the specifics of the political geographical field and to benefit from the wealth of others' experiences!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

At a glance: One hopelessly overambitious project (first attempt)

As previously mentioned, I'm going to be blogging about my thesis project over the next few years. (Haven't actually started it formally yet but that is a mere detail.)

With some degree of arbitrariness (but, I think, a heuristically useful arbitrariness at this stage), I've planned out my workload by splitting each of the six proposed chapters into six sub-sections. Obviously it probably won't work out like this when it comes to writing but it's been a useful exercise to try and get a handle on how it'll all fit together.


This schematic will mean nothing to anyone except me (and it is all entirely provisional, especially the last two chapters). However, I will be writing some chapter-by-chapter sketches in the near future.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

What is 'International'? A few reflections on Patrick Thaddeus Jackson's 'Must International Studies Be a Science?'

I didn’t go to the Millennium Journal of International Studies' conference at the LSE last year. (I did in 2012 and intend to attend this year.) However, a selection of the papers from the conference have just been published, including the keynote by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson ‘Must International Studies Be a Science?’ (His short answer: no.)

I don't want to go into the whole thing (or even the main of the thing) but just to draw out a few points that interest me.

The essay is set up with a good mixture of sweeping breadth and due humility:
“Depending on which authority one consults, ‘we’ are a group of scholars held together by our ‘great debates’, by our concern with the implications of inter-state anarchy, by our implication in a (neo)colonial project of establishing European hegemony, by a set of so-called ‘paradigms’ which almost no one claims to adhere to any longer even though we keep organising our introductory textbooks and courses according to them, etc. […]
I do not propose to resolve this controversy here. Instead, I will circumvent it by simply elucidating what I mean by ‘international studies’ so that my answer to my initial question becomes clearer.”
So, first of all, what about that troubling term ‘international’?
“The way I understand it, the term ‘international’ picks out those aspects of anything that involves cross-boundary encounters with difference. The international aspect of a military manoeuver or a financial transaction does not simply begin at the moment that a formal territorial border is crossed, but as soon as the existence of some other—the alien, the foreigner, the stranger—is taken into account in the operation. Representations of otherness, which shape and structure what we come to regard as legitimate or acceptable or appropriate action towards or in reaction to those others, are the common thread connecting all of our myriad substantive concerns, and the ‘return’ of culture and identity to the scholarly agenda is better thought of as a clarification of what we were all already interested in in the first place.”
A commendably open definition though this is, what portion of the human sciences does not deal with otherness (or, indeed, boundaries)? One might admit that anthropology, sociology, psychology, etc. do not primarily deal with otherness across 'boundaries' as such (although what is a boundary?); however, I think that the pivot point ‘primarily’ is a rather vulnerable 'single point of failure.' The question becomes: Why does one need a distinct discipline to deal with such things? Perhaps the answer could be that cross-boundary otherness comes in many forms and, while of course it is dealt with in a wide variety of epistemic milieus, it is important enough to demand a particular disciplinary focality, a programme of concentrated examination that would think through such phenomena taken together, regardless of their usual disciplinary partitionment.

IR (or IS) would then be essentially interdisciplinary. It would not have its own ontological ‘turf’ (the Durkheimian dominion-making assumption that a ‘science’ must have its own distinct ontological domain has dominated the discipline since at least Kenneth Waltz’s Theory of International Politics [1979]). Instead, it would draw together a range of concerns that no other discipline examines in an assembled and focused manner. Anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, literature theory, etc. etc. – all these encounter ‘cross-boundary otherness’ but severally. This would be an interesting proposition. However, I’m not sure that this is what PTJ is arguing.

He does note that “the term [international] does not pick out a discrete realm or region of social life” (i.e. the boundaries in question are not just state boundaries). However, he redefines it (having first undefined it) not quite as I have described but rather:
“I would therefore locate the ‘international’ in ‘international studies’ not in the object of study, but in the way that we approach the object of study—which means that virtually everything has an ‘international’ aspect, potentially, depending on how we look at it.”
He goes on: “After all, ‘physics’ does not name an object of study, but a way of studying objects; why should ‘international’ be any different?”

I find this to be a strange and sudden segue. ‘Way of studying’ suggests methodology – and this is, of course, the theme on which the talk was to be given. However, there’s a confusion here between methodology and ontology, at the very least. Is physics a ‘way of studying’? This is a rather obscure abstraction. PTJ seems to want to avoid the ontology of domains by talking about methods (or at least practices) but this won't work. The whole notion of a ‘physical domain’ as categorically distinct from the chemical and biological is indeed rather outdated. However, the ‘monist’ claim that these disciplines engage ‘the same’ things from different perspectives leads us back down precisely the wrong path. A lamentable regression.

We should shed the terms ‘physics’ and ‘chemistry’ here. Every scientific research exercise addresses distinct entities. These are not the ‘domain’ that grants or guarantees scientificity and I do not deny overlaps all over the place but to sever science from its particular objects, or to melt everything into a single ‘world’ that is only broken apart again when engaged by human agents is, in my view at least, completely wrongheaded. Sciences are established neither by domains nor by ‘ways’ (whatever they are). The only means of making sense of what sciences are without the traditional distinctions is as networks and assemblages (here I am of course betraying my own philosophical preferences) – networks and assemblages that include distinct objects, distinct practices, distinct epistemic standards and norms…; none sovereign or permanent but none to be unduly confused or conflated, either.

PTJ goes on to discuss his heuristic take on knowledge production, expanding on technical and epistemic 'ways' of knowing and building on his The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of Science and Its Implications for the Study of World Politics (2010). I will skip over this as I want to concentrate on the aforementioned issues.

Long story short, I find that, ‘otherness across boundaries’ seems to overemphasise the ‘inter-’ and wash out the ‘national’ (or leave it crucially underexamined), leading to a disciplinary vision that at least risks being somewhat superfluous. PTJ does not note the etymology of ‘nation’; however, it is instructive:
“c. 1300, from Old French nacion ‘birth, rank; descendants, relatives; country, homeland’ (12c.) and directly from Latin nationem (nominative natio) ‘birth, origin; breed, stock, kind, species; race of people, tribe,’ literally ‘that which has been born,’ from natus, past participle of nasci ‘be born’ (Old Latin gnasci; see genus).”
Perhaps there is something in this (though we must tread carefully). We could say that where IR/IS/IP went wrong was in assuming that ‘national’ meant ‘nation state,’ or at least nation in a modern, mass mediated sense where humans are symbolically and technically conjoined in their millions. Tribe, village, family, city – these might all be involved in ‘international’ relations – and relations on their own scale, of their own kind – in this expanded sense, tied more definitely perhaps to a sense of birth and nurturing, culture and cultivation.

(Incidentally, this could be related to the world history interpretation offered by, for example, Barry Buzan and Richard Little in their International Systems in World History: Remaking the Study of International Relations [2000], where they explode any hint of presentism in the study of the relations between human groups in the longue durée.)

But, again, don’t think that what I’m describing here is what PTJ is arguing. He is in no way trying to prescribe what others should mean by ‘international’ (and the studies thereof); he is only articulating what he means by that term. However, he is nevertheless setting out his stall by articulating a kind of ideal typical vision of what ‘International Studies’ would be, then later breaking that down by proliferating 'ways' of knowing (and only of knowing). I wonder if this is not precisely the wrong way to approach disciplinarity; it is at least the wrong starting point. It is effectively saying: ‘here is my vision of disciplinary identity; you will surely have your own’ – and that’s commendable to some degree but the underlying assumption is that disciplinary identity is the issue at hand; that it is on this level that discussion should proceed.

I would prefer to begin by understand disciplinarity in a very particular manner, which only partially matches up to PTJ's arguments (and then only in his concluding remarks). A discipline can be understood as an environment, a milieu of sorts. It is a space within which knowledge production occurs. Its prevailing conditions, accidental or designed, variously enable, disable, orient and disorient the many actual and possible courses of research that are undertaken under that more or less actively conducive, more or less permeable, more or less flapping, fluttering, stuttering membrane.

Seen in this way, what a discipline ‘is’ is purely and simply a means of formatting that space. It is secondary and it is one formatting operation among others.

Given these principles, we might be able to think of efforts such as PTJ's as being interventions towards the pluralisation of the epistemic-possibilistic space that is the discipline of International [Whatever] (the fact that the name is variable doesn’t necessary meant that we’re not talking about a particular space – just more permeable). Indeed, he writes in conclusion:
“[…] the field should contain space for all of these kinds of knowing, and should resist the call to be exclusively a form of aesthetic expression, a mode of technical practice, a normative enterprise—or an epistemic science.
Instead of intending to produce one homogenous body of knowledge, the field of international studies and we scholars within it should work to become more comfortable with the irreducible plurality, plurivocality, and diversity of knowing. Such an attitude can, I think, best be cultivated not merely by our paying lip-service to the existence of other forms of knowing, but by our actively seeking to position ourselves as scholars in the spaces between these diverse ways of knowing.”
I couldn't agree more; however, this affirmation clashes, I think, with some of the presuppositions from which it issues (as I have attempted to explain, however inchoately). 'Ways' of knowing are too quickly abstracted from the rest of the world; 'the world' is too quickly defined as something singular that is only broken up by ways of knowing. 'Ways' are given too much credit, things not enough. He sets out his terms and definitions before he explores what the act of terming and defining does. As I hope I am making clear, I have many sympathies with this approach but find that it comes up short in a variety of ways.

I was first drawn into this epistemic-possibilistic space over a decade ago, during my undergraduate degree. It has for some time seemed to me that IR as a discipline has always been about 10-15 years behind the curve of the rest of the human sciences. It is an oddly introverted intellectual culture, especially given how quintessentially outward facing one might think it would be given its matters of concern (political geography, for example, is far better connected with its neighbours). Now that I am heading back into the hothouse, I do feel a little bit like holding my breath. However, the particular pocket into which I am to be immersed is a peculiarly breathable one. This much is reassuring!

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Look of Silence – a world-changing piece of cinema

Yesterday evening, I went to the Watershed cinema in Bristol to watch The Look of Silence, Joshua Oppenheimer's follow-up to The Act of Killing (2012). The screening was followed by a live satellite stream of a Q&A with Oppenheimer and Silence's protagonist, the incomparable Adi. It was hosted by fellow documentary filmmaker Louis Theroux. (I presume that the Q&A will be put online at some point but has not yet been, as far as I'm aware.)

The films concern the massacre of as many as one million 'Communists' that occurred in Indonesia in 1965-66. However, they are not, as the director is keen to make clear, historical documentaries as such. They concern Indonesia's relationship – or, in a way, non-relationship – with these events in the present.

The most crucial aspect of the history is that the killers won. They crushed their opponents ('realised their political ideals,' as one interviewed politician puts it), were richly rewarded and remain in positions of power to this day. Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian calls it "a gerontocracy of tyranny."

The first film centred on a group of killers and particularly on Anwar Congo, a gangster who claimed to have killed as many as one thousand during the massacres. Extraordinarily, because of their positions of success and safety, the killers were happy to talk freely, openly boasting about their perceived accomplishments, gleefully recounting how went about it, and even being persuaded to elaborately re-enact their crimes in what has to be the most mesmerisingly surreal and horrific am-dram ever committed to film.

The Act of Killing explores how these men live with what they did in this almost unique situation of total impunity and suggests the dark, necrotic guilt wretching and writhing beneath their bombast and bravado.

The Look of Silence is not nearly as overtly horrifying, although it is just as moving in its own way. It follows Adi, an ophthalmologist whose elder brother Ramli was slain in an especially brutal fashion – so brutally that his name has become a quietly whispered watchword of resistance in that region.

Adi is filmed watching footage of the men who butchered his brother re-enacting their deeds with a casual and almost carefree air of nostalgia. Building on the reputation of Oppenheimer's first film, Adi also meets, interviews and provides free eye tests to the commanders and politicians who presided over the events in his region, some of whom remain extremely powerful and one of whom openly threatens Adi when his questions push too hard.

We also meet Adi's family; his young children and his elderly parents. We get to know him and feel intimately part of his world. The effect is a filmic experience that is emotionally moving beyond description.

Last night I felt utterly without words. Now I am just starting to process it. However, I still feel completely overwhelmed. In the Q&A, Oppenheimer referred to The Look of Silence as a poem dedicated to the lost. It is not didactic; it mentions the geopolitical context and opens the door, I hope, to a third film that deals with the silence in the US and the wider West on these events – a deplorable hush no less profound and no less important (although perhaps less easily broken).

Adi's family have since been moved to another part of Indonesia and, while they have allies in the country, their lives were endangered by their participation in this film. Oppenheimer himself says he felt his life to be under threat. The main thing protecting these brave souls seems to be their new-found fame and notoriety.

Nevertheless, the films have succeeded beyond any possible expectation. Both have, with some difficulty, been screened widely within Indonesia and young people are having an open conversation about their own relation to the actions of their grandparents. Reactions of family members of killers in the film range from the most heartbreaking contrition to angry dismissiveness. At the film's climax, Adi meets the wife and two sons of his brother's killer (now dead). One of the sons wants nothing to do with it but the other is drawn to remark: the wound is now open, and we are here together.

This short note doesn't even begin to do justice to the force and poetry of Oppenheimer's film-making. His dedication to his project is a wonder to behold and the bravery of his cast and comrades is awe-inspiring.

I can only add, in what I find to be an oddly profound banality, that I've never seen an audience pay such rapt attention to the credits of a film. Rapt attention to what was not there. Line after line after line: 'Anonymous'...

With only a few exceptions, all the names shown unredacted are European. The film derives from an international movement of resistance with deep local roots. I'd love to know more about how it came about and came together, although a degree of secrecy seems to be essential to the safety of those involved.

This is a film of dignity, beauty and boundless importance, both artistically and politically. However, I do feel that the two films, taken together, are incomplete. Oppenheimer described them as a diptych; it seems to me that they should become a triptych.

The director's passionate and erudite comments during the Q&A demonstrate his understanding of how this wound goes far beyond Indonesia. The massacres developed out of the vicious mixture of Cold War realpolitik and capitalism-driven neocolonialism. Western businesses were getting up to precisely the same kinds of slave labour practices in the forests of Indonesia that fascist industries had been in Europe only two decades before.

Oppenheimer started working on these issues in 2001, when he travelled to Indonesia to make The Globalization Tapes, a film about oil plantation workers being poisoned and killed by the chemicals they are forced to work with. Their brief attempt to unionise in order to resist their own slow, horrible deaths were quickly dissuaded by the same networks that committed the massacres in the '60s. These people never went away – and nor did the corporations.

Of course, all of this has been known for years but now someone has given these issues an emotive force that no amount of didactic documentation can produce. It is so much more than a documentary. It is soaked in themes of memory, loss, ageing, love and, above all, living with the unfathomable. I cannot recommend it enough.

Friday, 12 June 2015

Notes towards a conception of atmospheric diplomacy

More than a few interested parties have, in recent years and decades, detected a certain toxicity in the abstractions by which we think and live. The atmosphere bequeathed by modern thought is nowhere a pure one, nowhere obvious. Nowhere does it achieve a consistency or a simplicity that could condense into a solid ground for a definite 'we.' And yet everywhere are its deep-sunk insinuations felt. Plainly, no one has the authority to regulate or air-condition this pea-souper of concepts. And yet is it not for that precise reason that we might all be emboldened to try? We – that is, all dwellers of the dilapidated faux-palace; all the affected, all the concerned; all those who breathe the damp, questionable air.

For some, this diagnosis emboldens and prioritises the critic. 'We know from whence these toxins came and those satanic mills must be torn down, razed to the ground!' An understandable reaction. But what ground? Like so many castles in the heavy, choking air, there is no outside on which we could be sure to fall safely once the besooted brickwork comes a-tumbling. We are like birds but not 'free-like-a...'. We need an altogether different sensibility in order to work our way out of this kakosmic bind. A sensibility characterised by the prioritisation of obligation and attachment. An ethos of binds and bonds made flexible by their regular exercise.

To the critic's rage at established sentiments we must add the diplomat's patience with them. Not to preserve or celebrate the tawdry and regrettable skyline but to rebuild it – brick by leaden brick.

Was Whitehead a materialist?

S.C. Hickman on the Dark Ecologies blog has a very nice short introduction to Whitehead's Process and Reality, particularly concentrating on its cosmological aspects. He writes, by way of a concluding parenthesis, that this is part of an "ongoing project of developing a materialist philosophy".

This got me thinking about something that's been bothering me for a while: why some often claim Whitehead as a 'materialist.' I'm not trying to pick on Hickman here (he didn't say that Whitehead was a materialist, only that he's using Whitehead in developing a materialist philosophy) but it's something that comes up quite often, one way or another.

My own inclination (no more thought through than that, to be honest) is to say that, in Whitehead's terms, materialism is a philosophy that makes matter its Ultimate. Following that on, Whitehead would have to be (in P&R at least) a creativist; Aristotle a substantialist, etc.

Whatever way matter is conceived (and there are of course indefinitely many ways of conceiving it), 'materialism' must surely be related to matter qua conceptual fundament -- that is, as the thing that explains nothing but is assumed so that the rest of existence can be conceptually constructed (as the Ultimate).

There's a lot of pretty wishy-washy talk of 'materialism' that just says 'things, therefore materialism,' which tends to result in platitudes rather than insights. (Perhaps that's just me being mean; but, then again, maybe not.) It generally presupposes that anything that isn't idealism -- i.e. anything that takes non-human things seriously -- is therefore materialism, which I find to be unhelpful at best (and part of a systematic stupidification of thought, at worst).

This is basically what I was getting at with a post I wrote on 'new materialism' a couple of months ago.

It's a poorly articulated irritation that I'm describing here but it derives from a complacency that is, I think, widespread and real.

Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Starting my PhD at Aberystwyth University in September

It is with great pleasure—and no small amount of relief!—that I can announce that I will be commencing my PhD studies this coming September at Aberystwyth University. I'll be based in the Department of International Politics with co-supervision in the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences. My supervisors from those departments will be Inanna Hamati-Ataya and Mark Whitehead, respectively.

Located on the west coast of Wales, Aberystwyth is a picturesque and famously rather isolated seaside town. The Department of International Politics, founded in 1919, was the first of its kind in the world. The studentship I've been awarded is named after E.H. Carr, the historian and diplomat who joined the Department in 1936 and is best remembered for his books The Twenty Years' Crisis and What is History?

It'll be quite a shock leaving Bristol after living here for the past seven years. However, having spent a couple of days in Aber earlier this year, I'm looking forward to settling in there. Having grown up in the near-total rurality of Cornwall, I think I will get used to it easily enough. I plan to spend the second of my three years of study living elsewhere—possibly somewhere a bit livelier!—though I've not yet decided where.

I've already outlined the project that I will be working on in broad brush strokes. It builds on everything that I've been writing on this blog for the past several years. I am really looking forward to throwing myself into it full-time at last—and to throwing myself into an environment where so much great work has been, and continues to be, written.

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Bruno Latour: 'Charles Péguy: Time, Space, and le Monde Moderne'―new translation published

Bruno Latour has often commented on the importance of Charles Péguy for his thought; however, Péguy is largely unknown in English and, until recently, little had been written on the connection. Henning Schmidgen's The materiality of things? Bruno Latour, Charles Péguy and the history of science did a good job of outlining the importance of Péguy for Latour from his doctoral thesis onwards.

However, now there is finally a substantial essay by Latour on Péguy, thanks to a translation by Tim HowlesCharles Péguy: Time, Space, and le Monde Moderne―published in French as Nous sommes des vaincus. (If anyone wants a copy of the former and doesn't have access to New Literary History, just drop me an email.)

I won't attempt to summarise the essay as Tim has himself written a very fine translator's introduction (included as a foreword to Latour's text) and has also added some helpful endnotes clarifying various points that may be unclear to an anglophone reader.

I'll just pick up on a few things that are particularly interesting to me. One thing that Latour takes from Péguy is reminiscent, in a slightly surprising way, to what he takes from Carl Schmitt: he gives an account of the ontological groundlessness of the moderns and articulates the need for re-grounding, re-placing, re-territorialising. The problem with the modern world, Latour writes, is that "it provides neither a time nor a space in which it might deploy that which it claims to be instituting." The moderns' account of causation and of the inexorable arrow of progress render them incapable of understanding their own place in time, first of all.
The drama, the crime, or the destiny of the moderns is to have standardized the action of historical time in every domain of life: there was to be a chain of cause-and-effect in the physical world (such would seem to be a valid inference) and a logic of secondary causation in the domains of history and sociology (that inference would seem to be no longer sustainable), all of which was to be singularly accounted for by the structure of the capitalist economy (that one is the big lie).
 And it gets no better when shifting ontological registers.
To be without time—temporality, historicity—was one thing. But to find oneself without a place, without spatiality, was something else, albeit equally serious. And yet, if there was an intractable hiatus of the present, there was just as much an intractable hiatus in belonging to a space. If a lack of time results in a sense of suffocation, a lack of space ends up asphyxiating. Capitalism is a morbid religion of space just as much as it is a morbid religion of time. For just as it defines the future by means of the past, short-circuiting the irreducible hiatus of the present, in the same way it defines that which is universal—or, we might say, global—by short-circuiting the very earth on which we stand. The earth becomes nothing more than the backdrop for the agency of money. There are no more places, since there is no longer a place characterized by the hiatus.
There's a strong resonance with Sloterdijk here, too, for whom the legacy of globalisation was to have made, as he puts it in his book Globes, every point on the planet merely an address for capital. An odd triumvirate—Péguy, Schmitt, Sloterdijk—but an effective one for thinking a kind of geopolitical coexistentialism with particular attention to the, we might say, morbid temporal and spatial abstractions of capitalism.

Latour notes the care that must be taken to avoid the soil-obsessed nationalism with which Péguy certainly flirted. However, compared to the political legacy of Schmitt, this is certainly a less risky option.
Péguy helps himself to concepts that seem closed (such as race, earth, nation, people) in order to lever wide open that which the moderns claimed to have settled for good (before they proceeded to plunge into nearly a century of nationalistic and patriotic madness).
The poetic style that so entranced Latour in his doctoral writings on religion is key to how he appropriates Péguy's territorialisations.
Péguy realizes that by means of his poetic style alone, by means of long enumerations of place-names, he can communicate the hiatus of existence for the space-dimension of this world, for those who are earth-bound, for the terrestrials [l’espace terrestre, terriens et terreux], just as previously by means of repetition alone he was able to communicate the hiatus of the present for the time-dimension of this world. He audaciously sets out to capture all this by means of poetry. But it’s precisely because he is a philosopher that he can dare to grasp the potential of poetry to bring about that wonderful feeling of rootedness—all by contrast with the system of thought of his time, which was continually blown off course by the utopia of a global marketplace, only to find itself bogged down for four long years in the quagmire of the trenches, and then for nearly a century afterwards plunged into a world at war.
The essay concludes with a veritable call to arms.
For us, it’s not the territory of Alsace-Lorraine that is at stake. For us, it’s the whole Earth. Who is ready to take it back?
It might be worth quoting the French version of this alongside the English.
Nous, ce n’est pas l’Alsace-Lorraine que nous avons perdue, c’est la Terre. Qui se prépare à la reconquérir?
This is a striking geopolitico-philosophical gambit—a provocation put down that, I think, has yet to be really picked up. In Back down to Earth, I argued that territory was at the heart of Latour's conception of geopolitics. Here I think that is demonstrated even more forcefully. However, it is a complex proposition, only very partially excerpted above, that involves far more than any blunt appeal to autochthony. Certainly, one needs to be careful, as Latour is in this essay (but elsewhere not so much), to extract the territorial sentiments from a historical period in which these were by no means straightforwardly progressive ideas. (Beware the toxic sentiments that come with unearthed sediments!)

It'd be interesting to read Péguy alongside Schmitt (and Sloterdijk/Heidegger) in more detail. Certainly, the former is a more politically interesting figure, and one far less explored.

William James on the conciliation of religion and science; also, mathematics and pragmatism

I'm presently reading William James' Varieties of Religious Experience. Like much of James' writing, some of it can be rather pedestrian and ponderous but then certain sections jump out like great glowing epiphanies. I like this section from the end of lecture 5 on "The religion of healthy-mindedness" in particular:
The experiences which we have been studying during this hour (and a great many other kinds of religious experiences are like them) plainly show the universe to be a more many-sided affair than any sect, even the scientific sect, allows for. What, in the end, are all our verifications but experiences that agree with more or less isolated systems of ideas (conceptual systems) that our minds have framed? But why in the name of common sense need we assume that only one such system of ideas can be true? The obvious outcome of our total experience is that the world can be handled according to many systems of ideas, and is so handled by different men, and will each time give some characteristic kind of profit, for which he cares, to the handler, while at the same time some other kind of profit has to be omitted or postponed. Science gives to all of us telegraphy, electric lighting, and diagnosis, and succeeds in preventing and curing a certain amount of disease. Religion in the shape of mind-cure gives to some of us serenity, moral poise, and happiness, and prevents certain forms of disease as well as science does, or even better in a certain class of persons. Evidently, then, the science and the religion are both of them genuine keys for unlocking the world’s treasure-house to him who can use either of them practically. Just as evidently neither is exhaustive or exclusive of the other’s simultaneous use. And why, after all, may not the world be so complex as to consist of many interpenetrating spheres of reality, which we can thus approach in alternation by using different conceptions and assuming different attitudes, just as mathematicians handle the same numerical and spatial facts by geometry, by analytical geometry, by algebra, by the calculus, or by quaternions, and each time come out right? On this view religion and science, each verified in its own way from hour to hour and from life to life, would be co-eternal. (99-100)
This brief note on mathematics reminds me of Isabelle Stengers' regular insistence on the importance of the fact that A. N. Whitehead was a mathematician. Far from granting transcendent access-authority to a higher realm of ideas, in this understanding mathematics heightens only one's capacity for perspective-shifting—that is, for pragmatism.

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reassembling geopolitics—a brief synopsis of my long-term project

For the past 8 or 9 months, I've been plotting and planning the long-term research project that, one way or another, I will pursue for the next several years. (In fact, this plan has been more or less complete since January but I'm just getting around to sharing it now.)

It takes Bruno Latour's work on geopolitics as its starting point but also departs from it in various ways. My recently published article Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic geopolitics is essentially a (very) long preface to this larger work.

The project is divided into six parts, each of which are substantially independent but also follow on from each other:

1. Earth and Cosmos
2. Geopolitics and Environment
3. Spherology and Fortification
4. Diplomacy and Territory
5. Possibilism and Possession
6. Geohistory and Geodesy

The first two parts suppose that if we are to reimagine what geopolitics might mean 'in the Anthropocene' or 'facing Gaia,' etc. then we really need to understand what some key terms mean (and have meant) in a broader historical context: Earth, first and foremost, but also the inherited Latin and Greek parallels of that Germanic term, terra and geo. Following on from Peter Sloterdijk's grand conceptual histories, Earth also has to be understood in its historical geo-ontological relation with cosmos. Geopolitics, as I've written in Back down to Earth, was coined in 1899; however, it has to be related to the much longer history of geography and then, in turn, to the entangled histories of words such as environment, climate, milieu, and so on. By the end of these first two parts/chapters, the various conceptual-historical issues surrounding 'geopolitics in the Anthropocene' should be well understood and a thorough reconstruction should therefore be possible.

The middle two parts focus on different sorts of techniques and technologies and how these produce differing configurations of exclusion and belonging. Techniques of fortification—walls, fences, barricades, etc.—carve up space and cement geopolitical arrangements. We are used to understanding such constructions along borders and on strategic high grounds as being geopolitical but increasingly it is not only humans that must be kept in/out: flood defences, dykes, geoengineering projects—these are all geopolitical forms of fortification in the new sense that I would like to articulate. Diplomacy, meanwhile, is not a technique of exclusion but a 'technology of belonging,' as Isabelle Stengers puts it. How differing forms of territory are negotiated (or not) is crucial to understanding the possibility of new forms of coexistence given mounting Anthropocenic pressures.

The final two parts investigate the role of the sciences in this nascent geopolitics in more detail, particularly focusing on problems of calculation, possibility and deep time in relation to matters of land, dispossession and resistance. Possibilism is a term taken from the historian Lucien Febvre. He opposed it to the alleged environmental determinism of the previous generation of geographers from Germany, such as Friedrich Ratzel. Linking to abovementioned investigations, I also want to think about compossibility in the sense of Leibniz and the concept of compossibilism as a diplomatic form of thought about possibilities of coexistence. Possession I take to mean both possession of and possession by—I want to relate geopolitics particularly and inextricably to matters of expropriation but also to mass movements and political passions. Geohistory I mean both in the sense of Fernand Braudel's geographical histories and of Martin Rudwick's history of the geological sciences. Related to the latter, geodesy is a somewhat archaic term meaning the science of measuring the shape of the Earth. However, etymologically the '-desy' also suggests division, which relates back to matters of apportionment, appropriation and nomos, in the sense of Carl Schmitt.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done on all of the above; however, I've already made a start on some of it.

My work-in-progress paper Varieties of diplomatic experience (with particular attention to the problem of territory), presented at a workshop in Windsor this week, investigates the conceptual side of the diplomacy/territory conundrum. I intend to do more empirical work on these issues, taking Richard White's The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 as a starting point; however, working out some of the conceptual problems is a first step.

On possibilism and determinism, I've arranged a roundtable conference session at RGS-IBG in Exeter later this year: Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation. I'm hoping to assemble a variety of geographers and environmental scientists to talk through these issues from different perspectives and to form, however modestly, a research agenda on these topics that are so crucial for political geographers and earth-concerned thinkers of all sorts.

I will write a series of six further posts in the coming days/weeks, each going into one of these project parts in more detail. As the project develops over the coming months/years it'll be interesting to see how it changes relative to this initial envisagement!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

'Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance'—a brief report

Further to my previous post, I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop on 'Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance' at the superbly plush Cumberland Lodge in Windsor this week.

We worked through a stellar line-up of papers, which were innovatively presented and intensively discussed:
Matthijs Kouw and Arthur Petersen, Learning to trust the IPCC again: A diplomatic approach

Mark Brown, Bruno Latour and the democratic representation of climate change

Maximilian Mayer and Michele Acuto, Large assemblages and ‘size’ in world politics: Questioning a forgotten variable to understand the topography of LTS

Philip Conway, The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)

Sandra Junier and Maurits Ersen, “An ant’s nest could bring down a hill”: The material in actor network theory

Arjen Zegwaard, Parliaments of mud

Werner Krauss, The political ecology of emerging climate landscapes

Tim Forsyth, Critically examining Science and Technology Studies within environment and development: Actor Network Theory and the stabilization of science in the Global Landscapes Approach

Stephen Flood and David Frame, The IPCC’s science–policy interface through a Latourian lens

Jasper Montana, ‘An IPCC for biodiversity’: On being, and becoming unlike, IPCC-­like

Ed Dammers, The Nature Outlook as an example of diplomacy between different modes of existence

Hanneke Muilwijk and Albert Faber, Beyond borders: How the Anthropocene re-­colours our world

Jasmine Livingston and Eva Lövbrand, Contested purification: The (un)making of integrated climate science in the IPCC’s Fifth Synthesis Report

Kari de Pryck, Developing a methodology for tracing issues and statements in the IPCC
(N.B. not all co-authors attended the workshop.)
My own paper on diplomacy and territory seemed to be well-received and I particularly benefited from the several co-workshoppers who have had first hand experience of participating in IPCC negotiations. I'm hoping to draw on those experiences as I redraft my paper.

Thanks particularly to the organisers Arthur Petersen, Theo Lorenc and Matthijs Kouw.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Austerity as the contested ground of future politics

More and more I feel that austerity is going to form the principal political space of conflict not just for the coming years but for the coming decades. Its neoliberal version is only getting stronger. As ecological crises bite more and more, another version will cross-cut the first (with the same distribution of suffering in both cases).

Econo-austerity and eco-austerity will work together and operate through the same spaces of exception and immunity (i.e. spaces outside protection and spaces outside obligation, respectively).

What we see now is the thin (but rapidly thickening) end of a wedge that prises apart the haves and the have-nots, not by way of systemic dynamics (or not by these alone) but by deliberate, concerted efforts. We are facing an era of fortifications -- steel to keep the poor out, concrete to keep the rich dry (all secured by finance and law).

More pragmatically and immediately: How did anti-austerity become a 'radical' cause? Criticism of austerity is mainstream economics (albeit not neoliberal economics).

Labour, among other such parties around the world, accepted the austerity narrative and it's getting harder and harder to go back on that with every passing day -- days like these in particular.

The quiet death of the Labour Party?

Amidst the utterly crushing, dispiriting disappointment of this election result, I think we have to remember that this was a colossal missed opportunity. The soul searching and self-flagellation is already underway, and rightly so. The Tories are presenting this as a glorious victory but in truth they've barely scraped a majority. Relative to expectations that's huge -- far beyond the wildest hopes/nightmares of supporters/opponents, respectively. But the discontent with the way this country has been run is still there, still simmering -- perhaps even more so now.

Our progressive political parties south of Scotland, with a handful of exceptions (including in my own home constituency of Bristol West), have manifestly failed to tap that. They've managed to take a simmering discontent and thrown a damp blanket over it.

What the Tories will now knock down may never be rebuilt. That is a weight that will rest on us for generations to come.

It feels like a death in the family, this morning.

And it really makes me question whether the Labour Party has a future (not questioning the future of the Party, whether it has one). The pattern now will be precisely the same as five years ago. The in-fighting of leadership contests will paralyse any possibility of opposition for weeks if not months. Meanwhile, the Tories are already consolidating their narratives, burying the abovementioned fact that this is an extremely narrow victory, and presenting themselves as having a formidable mandate. They're aided in this by the larger part of the media, the offshore, oligarchic ownership of which is only going to get stronger. Add to this further gerrymandering and the effective loss of Scotland (whether through SNP dominance or outright independence)...

I know everyone always thinks that they're at a turning point of history but it's difficult to get around the sense that this was the last chance for the Labour Party in its present form.

It died not with a bang but with a whimper. What comes next?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Russell Brand, Ed Miliband and the irritating necessity/necessary irritation of populist politics

Interesting character, that Russell. Quite the conundrum.

He seems to have figured out that politics isn't about a lot of self-righteous, beautiful-souled loudhailery in the blind hope of an unfathomable miracle. That's welcome (oh so many persons of more incisive, sophisticated and unhyperventilated thought-rhythms could take note).

Will Miliband 'listen'? In the sense of doing everything you'd like? Of course not. I think he'll be less congenitally disinclined to anything approximating a progressive policy than his blue equivalent. I think he'll be able to actually comprehend what the difference between changing the status quo and crumpling in the face of it is. Not inspiring words but still.

I think the difference is that Ed will ultimately face whichever the way the wind is blowing and won't be able to do much about that direction but he will probably wish it was blowing towards a more progressive compass point (westerly?)

Everything Brand says is correct. If you want to have progressive politics in a representative system, you've got to put the politicians under more pressure than the forces of regression, stasis and downtroddening are capable of. The question is whether that's at all possible.

For all Brand's incomparable zest and zeal, we seem under-equipped... Then again, a few more like him and that might really mean something.

Of course, whether his, *ahem*, brand survives his giving up selling beautiful souls is yet to be determined. People do so love the nobility of a perfectly pure defeat.