Friday, 27 February 2015

Four theses on (and for) criticism

If the intention of a criticism is not to construct then call it what it is: a denunciation. That would save us all a lot of time.

I would not denounce denunciation – sometimes there are things worthy. However, it is not an act that should be taken lightly. Nor should it be confused with criticism, which is an opening, not a closing.

To denounce is to decide (or to claim to). It is to cut off, to load up the proverbial iceberg and push it out to sea.

If 'constructive criticism' were a pleonasm then critique might be less deserving of its critics (not to mention its denunciators).

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Hobbes on Warre

Further to my reflections on Leviathan and the concept of war in my previous post, perhaps the words of the man himself might be in order:
"There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One. Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE."
War is seemingly something approaching a default metaphysical state, or at least a given and established tendency in nature. War is to be assumed, peace is what is to be explained. Bellicosity comes first, co-operation second. Moreover, war per se is divorced from any specific actions or means and becomes like a climatic state.

Is Gaia a Leviathan? Without deference to such a terrestrial deity—"that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace, and defence"—are we in a state of war? I'd prefer to retain a sense of concrete practise to 'war'—i.e. to insist that the means matter. However, it is a more complex question than just this.

Gaia does not much resemble Hobbes' deity in the details (or the illustrations) but certainly the concept of sovereignty needs to be re-evaluated at its roots and that must surely mean a meeting of these figures.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

“We scientists are on a warpath” – Gaia: Global Circus

Last Saturday evening, I had the great pleasure of attending the first UK performance (and, indeed, the first in English) of a play written by Pierre Daubigny and organised by Bruno Latour – ‘Gaia: Global Circus.’

It should be noted immediately that I am a total and complete plebeian when it comes to the theatre. Nevertheless, some thoughts:

What is Gaia? I am tempted to quote Hobbes and say a ‘mortal god.’ However, if we think of the famous frontispiece to Hobbes’ book, we find a problem with this allusion.

Hobbes' Leviathan, at least as it is visualised here, suggests something organ-ised in the most profound sense. Gaia, on the contrary, does not have – does not have yet – any sort of apparatus or dispositif (political, legal, religious, scientific) that could broadcast her 'eviction notices,' as I have called them, with anything approaching a singular, booming 'old Testament' kind of a voice. The phenomenology is more that of earth-shaking claps of thunder and blinding bolts of lightning that we are all stumbling around, bumping into each other trying to understand.

Galileo's 'and yet it moves' (apocryphal or not) is a crucial phrase. Oh, he had no idea! Certainly, Gaia has the authority to decide to 'move' as she pleases 'whether we like it or not' – so much more so than Galileo could even have imagined; however, one scientist's self-righteous mutterings does nothing for the problems we face.

It is this not-yet-assembledness that, I think, 'Gaia: Global Circus' explored. I will not attempt to summarise it in detail. It was too inventive and multi-layered to be précised in any useful way. From the very first scene, events constantly folded back on themselves, going one way and then stopping, resetting and approaching their topic from another angle, with an ever shifting array of personae.

The star of the show was perhaps the canvas, the canopia or the ‘sheet with balloons attached to it,’ as one audience member commented, that dominated the stage. It could be manipulated in such a way that it was facing the audience and acting as a projection screen; at other times, it was pulled and tussled so as to convulse and summon up a storm; it lurked above the stage for a time before being pulled down so as to conceal and partition the space; finally, and by way of finale, it floated out over the audience, encapsulating them. This was an impressive technical achievement (although one of the actors did remark at the end on the difficulties they would be in if a balloon burst!), however it was also a poetic one as the device never seemed extraneous to the performance – on the contrary, it was integral.

A few words must be added for the four actors whose performances were remarkable, particularly considering that portions of the play relied heavily on improvisation and that they were doing this outside their first language. Being that funny and that engaging under those conditions deserves applause in itself.

And on that point, humour! A play on something as serious as climate change and environmental destruction could easily lapse into a kind of dour, pious sagacity. This was averted by simply being consistently very funny (as one might well expect from a Bruno Latour production).

The most important point is that the play attempted to enact the stuttering, uncertain beginnings of the representative invocation of a sovereign. We are not yet ready to carve Gaia’s image in brass, all her features clear and distinct. In terms of Gaia’s fictive representation, we remain at a much more impressionistic stage, for political, religious, artistic and scientific reasons. A stage well suited to... the stage!

On this point, a tangent beckons me... It'd also be interesting to investigate, in the style of von Uexküll, how Gaia perceives us. What are we to her? We are not ambulating beings, wandering around, faces wobbling, eyes blinking – we are chemicals and heat; we are a chemical burn, an itch. Perhaps that should be factored into our representations. Gaia is 'ticklish' but only in response to very specific stimuli. Our pleas will not be heard! She should not be imagined as having eyes, ears. Perhaps she should have a nose, a giant and over-sensitive nose. She will be monstrous, in any case. Maybe less a task for a fine artist than a cartoonist. Something out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Gaia can call on no Leviathan; by this I mean that there is no assembly so coherently assembled as to legitimately declare itself the medium of her 'Word' and, therefore, the task of translating her coded, gaseous missives into affective and cognisable messages falls on Earthbound scientists, politicians, religionists, etc.

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the play, one character declares with defiant force: "we scientists are on a warpath!" I’ve been critical of Latour’s use of ‘war’ as a concept previously. As I mentioned in the conclusion to my recent article, there are problems of translation when adapting these ideas for political geography (which is my interest). The matters of concern that must be taken into account there involve ISIS in Iraq, Putin in Ukraine, Obama's drones in Pakistan, the walls and fences being built in Israel, Texas, India, Saudi Arabia's plan to build a fence around their entire territory (!), and so on. Consequently, one must be very careful when talking about 'war' and violence in this context.

And, in light of that, I think 'warpath' is good alternative to 'war.' It indicates an attitude – which is serious, passionate, angry, implacable, forceful, being prepared for violence – but doesn't conflate what we are doing with what we are trying to prevent ('all out' or 'total' war). In Lippmann's Phantom Public he remarks that a war could perhaps be fought for democracy but it couldn't be fought democratically. We are most definitely on the path to war. Those fences on the borders of the EU, those migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, those drones in the sky – these are geogovernance and geostrategy at work (and the Pentagon is not where you'll find the climate deniers...).

However, if we accept that 'politics is war by other means' then we should conclude not that politics and war are one and the same but that politics is not war because it is by other means. In other words, the means matter. To somewhat egocentrically quote myself:
A climate scientist arguing fiercely with a denialist at a public meeting may lack a ‘sovereign’ to whom he can appeal to settle the dispute; however, no matter how much they bellow – no matter even if they brawl – they are not ‘at war’ in a sense that should be so easily literalised. [...] We would do well to remember the difference between heated arguments and charred flesh, even if we are staring at a future that is going up in flames.
So, the sense of 'being on a warpath' modifies this vocabulary notably. It becomes possible to state that we are engaged in a secret war with Gaia but, for the most part, a nervous peace amongst ourselves. There are relations of domination, violence and injustice, of course, but 'total war' is, for now, absent. Those 'on a warpath' must insist that, if we are not very careful, we are headed for worse. Those walls, fences and other fortifications are there for a reason and Gaia will not differentiate between polluters and non-polluters. Nothing proves that the crimes of the last century are unrepeatable.

More could be said, much more (particularly by someone who knew what they were talking about). Nevertheless, the play has achieved what it set out to do, from my perspective at least: to provoke thought.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald: 'Was the Anthropocene anticipated?'—Explorations of historical geo-ontology

In what is, in my humble opinion, one of the most important contributions on the subject yet, Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald ask: 'Was the Anthropocene anticipated?' [paywalled; if anyone wants a copy and doesn't have access, drop me an email]. That is, does the notion that human beings can and have had transformative, geology-scale effects on the Earth itself have precedents within the history of thought?

Various commentators have recently drawn links between thinkers as diverse in time and predilection as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vladimir Vernadsky, George Perkins Marsh, and the Comte de Buffon (to name but a few), suggesting that these figures articulated arguments regarding the effects of human action on the Earth that are directly comparable to present concepts.

Hamilton and Grinevald argue in no uncertain terms that to equate any of these authors with the Anthropocene is deeply anachronistic. None of these authors had anything approaching the same conception of what the Earth is as we do today. They were operating, in other words, with completely different geo-ontologies. Their statements should, therefore, be read in their historical contexts.
"[S]ince the last decades of the 19th century natural science’s understanding of the global environment has undergone a profound transformation, a scientific revolution not yet fully recognized. Although human impact on Earth was a well-known theme within naturalistic and geological thinking from the time of the Western industrial revolution, there was no foreshadowing of the Anthropocene in its contemporary sense. Stoppani’s ‘anthropozoic era’ and a number of variations – Renevier’s ‘Période Anthropique’ (1873), Joseph LeConte’s (1877) and Charles Schuchert’s (1918) ‘psychozoic era’, James Dwight Dana’s ‘Era of Mind – Age of Man’, Teilhard’s noösphere – described the impact of human action on ‘the face of the Earth’ rather than on the planet Earth as an evolving complex system. The concept of the Earth system – including the anthropogenic alteration of the great biospheric or biogeochemical cycles – was another century in the making." (p.6)
For Hamilton and Grinevald, we must recognise the deep novelty of the Anthropocene and refuse any undue backdating of either its concept or its referent. The historiographical and geopolitical point of their argument is to unbendingly refute the 'early Anthropocene' thesis.

Alongside John Tresch's work, which I wrote about yesterday, this short but extremely informative essay has convinced me that the project of reconceiving geopolitics as a concept requires a far more historically informed and anachronism-sensitive approach than has prevailed so far. This kind of historical geo-ontology is something that I'm hoping to develop in the near future. 

'Gaia: Global Circus,' London, 14th February

Next weekend at UCL's Bloomsbury Theatre, 'Gaia: Global Circus,' a play by Pierre Daubigny and organised by Bruno Latour, will have its first UK performance. There are still a few tickets left. It should be an interesting experience!

It'll also give me a chance to go and see the exhibition on James Lovelock at the Science Museum, which is on until April.

That particular feature brought to you in association with Shell, Siemens, Bank of America and other presumably generous benefactors.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

John Tresch's 'The Romantic Machine'

John Tresch's The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon is a beautifully constructed and unfailingly impressive work that takes its reader on a journey through Parisian scientific and intellectual life in the early to mid nineteenth century. Published in hardback a couple of years ago but only just out in paperback, it won the History of Science's Pfizer Award—and deservedly so.

Tresch's work fits into an historiographical movement that attempts to complicate the distinctions between rationalism and romanticism. Particularly, it problematises this opposition's straightforward mapping on to oppositions between mechanism and organism, science and art. Romantics prior to 1851, he makes clear, were just as enthusiastic about technological and scientific progress as the rationalists. They had their own preferred technologies, which related to their own epistemological and ontological developments in a profound way.
To quote the publisher's summary:
"Focusing on a set of celebrated technologies, including steam engines, electromagnetic and geophysical instruments, early photography, and mass-scale printing, Tresch looks at how new conceptions of energy, instrumentality, and association fueled such diverse developments as fantastic literature, popular astronomy, grand opera, positivism, utopian socialism, and the Revolution of 1848. He shows that those who attempted to fuse organicism and mechanism in various ways, including Alexander von Humboldt and Auguste Comte, charted a road not taken that resonates today."
I also highly recommend Tresch's recent essay (pdf available) Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas, which argues for the need to bring together histories of science and intellectual histories, something that his Romantic Machine does with aplomb.

I've enjoyed reading Tresch's book tremendously and it's had quite an effect on my own interests and plans. It made me realise that I want to delve into the history of science, particularly that of the nineteenth century, in a much more serious way. It's one of those rare books where I only wish there was more of it!

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Diplomacy and cosmopolitics

In response to my last post, dmf writes:
see I thought diplomacy was about the negotiating workable (extra-military) relations between competing interests. more William James than Kant...
It certainly is much more James than Kant. I didn't mean to suggest that the goal is synthesis as such. That would be unanimity rather than plurality and is emphatically not the goal of diplomacy as either Stengers or Latour articulate it.

[What follows is a thinking-out-loud. Consider yourselves warned.]

There are and must be indefinitely multiple cosmoi. And diplomacy is the "technology of belonging," to use Stengers' words, that renders these cosmoi "contrasting rather than contradictory." It turns either/or into and/and, as she puts it.

This becoming-coexistent requires an openness of all parties to change. It is a political technology and by no means the only one.

When you share an atmosphere, in the Sloterdijkian sense of the word, then you share a kosmos/kakosmos. A progressive composition of a common world means a collective air-conditioning of that atmosphere. And this requires the same diplomatic openness. The same detachment in a very precise sense: not disinterest or any kind of neutered neutrality but detachment from a fixed, permanent, absolutised self that could only ever dominate, be adopted, be enforced, be destroyed or be 'tolerated.' A diplomat's detachment is a unique and extreme case. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us can go around living out our inner perfections.

Is diplomacy just the negotiation between cosmoi or is it also the name of the political technology at work in conditioning and composing the cosmoi from within?

Well, mereologically speaking, once the notion of cosmos is radically pluralised, we are constantly within, between and butting up against the cosmoi of others. We are in a world of foam, in Sloterdijk's imagery. And yet when we find ourselves 'in the same boat' as another—whether that other is a hungry tiger or not—veritably it is not a matter as simple as maintaining border relations (although that is unavoidably part of it). When we share an infrastructure that is toxifying the very air that we breathe then we surely have no option but to negotiate the terms of our coexistence in a rather more intimate sense.

And when this 'air' is conceptual then the ground of the negotiation is a philosophical one. Calculemus!

So, the AIME project, as I understand it, was about attempting to negotiate the composition of a shared atmosphere: a conceptual, philosophical atmosphere. In its participatory stages it was about collectively writing the design specifications that would construct the problem to which the philosopher(s) will respond.

Not everyone or everything is inside this particular 'hothouse.' There are many other abodes. And yet 'the Western philosophical tradition' is not a meaningless designation. Too simple, certainly, but it passably signifies the shared atmosphere in question; an atmosphere that undoubtedly has its toxicities and yet that we cannot simply forego breathing all of a sudden—we cannot simply step out into the void. Hence 'inheritance' and the inevitable problems of translating between generations.

If we suppose that diplomacy pertains to the inter-cosmic and cosmopolitics to the intra-cosmic then that would be an elegant enough distinction. However, as far as I can see, the difference is not one of polarity but of intensity. The pressure of coexistence is relative to the pressure of the atmosphere and the pressure increases relative to the toxicity experienced by the occupants who format the existential space itself—pressure is a function of the tension experienced by those who collectively constitute the tensegretic milieu. And even hostile parties share a space formatted by that very non-indifference.

So, while there are undoubtedly other political technologies besides the diplomatic metamorphosing of contradictions into contrasts and while there are vastly more kinds of atmospheres than the merely conceptual and while diplomacy as a concept obviously suggests a concern with the interrelation of existential spaces that have some sort of mutual exteriority, the capacities, the requirements, the technical competencies required of the diplomat are only an extreme case of what is required of a negotiated coexistence in general. The 'true self' abhors coexistence.

So, pace Kant, it is not synthesis that any kind of diplomacy is working for. There is no 'perpetual peace,' only perpetually negotiated settlements. There are no shortcuts. But, equally, this is not an atomising gesture. It does not function to fracture the foam into ever smaller bubbles. Co-occupancy is not a choice and toxicity is not a mere metaphor.

The goal is not synthesis and yet if we are co-occupant then we will soon realise it. Plurality does not mean disentanglement. And so becoming-cosmic through a quasi-system, as I have described it, does not presuppose a will to synthesis—only the recognition that this is one possible tool for the negotiation of a co-occupancy that we cannot easily opt out of, nor need we.

Those of us read and talk philosophy—or simply those of us who speak a European language—are part of a hothouse that we cannot close like a book. It is something that we share and something that we are, something that is part of us.

We speak of becoming-coexistent not becoming-unified. And yet negotiating the shape of the space we occupy necessarily means negotiating the very shape of who we are—and the 'we' is not an idle one because we are something together, 'we are in this together.' Such a statement can never be exempted from scepticism or even refusal but nor can we pretend that we are all mutually exterior and that we don't have collective projects or that we can become-cosmic without some sort of convergence—even if, and here we can inherit a modern classic, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is, even if convergence contains its contrary within itself, it is still a necessary motion. Convergence is still something that is built, is still something that can be built better.

Why is cosmopolitics not cosmopolitan? Cosmopolitanism, in its perpetually pacific end state, would have no need of diplomacy since all borders would be dissolved. In a cosmopolitical world—'cosmopolitics' being the recognition that there is only cosmos with politics and only politics with a cosmos, not that these are one and the same but that they are in a state of tension—there would be only varying intensities of the demand for diplomatic detachment that would be adjusted according to relative degrees of estrangement, conflict and pressure. Unity would never be the goal but nor would isolation be anything but a death sentence. Collective writing projects would be commonplace, not because we were striving for a hive-mind but because we would be capable of saying 'that is my writing' even when the words did not conform to 'my true beliefs.' We would recognise our ecstasy, our being outside ourselves. We would recognise ourselves in collective composites, in trace-lattices without a trace of purity.

Our borders would not disappear but their fortification would become ever less urgent.

[P.S. just saw Ex Machina and it left me feeling very philosophical.]

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

Should 'system' be part of our ontological inheritance?

In response to my last post, Tim Howles writes:
Cf. the question put to BL in his recent interview on 'AIME as system': "The site has been open for two years in French, one in English, and I still don’t see new modes coming in. Isn’t the 'system' here coming to paralyse the inquiry?"
System or 'quasi-system' (a term that I've applied to AIME elsewhere)?

What is the 'quasi' doing for 'object' and 'subject'? Literally speaking, they are 'as if' objects and subjects. More specifically, it renders them not a kind of object or entity, or at least not any entity with an enduring identity, but a point in a trajectory; it implies that the quasi-X is always a becoming-X and always a becoming-with-others. It is a relativisation of subject and object not to each other (à la dialectic) but to a wider pluriverse of existential modalities.

In terms of AIME, it is obvious enough as to why we'd want to keep notions of objectivity and subjectivity as part of our 'inheritance' (albeit deeply modified). The question is really one that I posed right at the end of my article: what are we to inherit and how? What is it in the notion of 'system' that is valuable, despite all the problems with that term?

I think it could be related to the notion of cosmos. Unlike high modernists like Alexander von Humboldt (whose biography I've been reading recently -- but that's an aside), the Latourian cosmos is not at all a pure, perfect state of harmonious nature. It's more Messiaen than Mozart. Harmony, yes, but amidst discord of all sorts. No kosmos without kakosmos -- we'd do well to remember that there is no guarantee of enjoying a cosmos whatsoever; cosmoi are composed.

If a quasi-systematising is an organising, a settling, a becoming-cosmos, then the important question concerns how that systematising is happening. And isn't that what the diplomacy is all about? Progressively composing the common cosmos in the absence of a pre-given sovereign?

Certainly, we shouldn't hold becoming-cosmic or becoming-system to be necessarily superior to whatever the contrary would be -- no composition without decomposition. What a quasi-system permits is an organised conversation about our cherished abstractions. Its realisation is necessarily a stuttering and pragmatic one. However, I think that there is definitely a case for 'system' to be part of what we inherit from the moderns.

I'm trying to think up a joke about Quasimodo but I haven't quite gotten there yet.
quasimodo: "Low Sunday," 1706, Quasimodo Sunday, from Latin quasi modo, first words of introit for the first Sunday after Easter: quasi modo geniti infantes "as newborn babes" (1 Pet. ii:2). The hunchback in Victor Hugo's novel was supposed to have been abandoned as an infant at Notre Dame on this day, hence his name. For first element, see quasi; for second see mode.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Learning to write in public

A few reflections on the rite of passage that is publishing your first journal article. Not exactly advice, although my naïf experiences may be useful for others in a similar situation:

1. It wasn't as difficult as I expected. Although this should not suggest that it was easy. I worked incredibly hard on this article (propelled in no small part by the anxiety of having more than a few people actually reading my work!). However, the vast gulf that I kept expecting to appear between myself and the hallowed ether of publishing academics simply never materialised (imposter syndrome). Turns out that if you know quite a lot about something and can write, that's enough.

2. Having a good editor certainly helps. Global Discourse is a relatively new journal (volume 5 this year) but it's well run and has all the right priorities. Their policy of commissioning a reply to each research article from another author in the field is fantastic and should be the rule rather than the exception amongst pubishers (I don't know when the reply/replies to my article will be out but at some point in the next few months, I expect). I'd certainly recommend this journal to other would-be-first-time-publishers.

3. Pushing back against reviewers is okay. Neophyte that I am, I really wasn't sure to what extent a reviewer's comments were final or not. While all my reviewers were helpful, they were not of one voice and consequently I was able to resist on one or two things and get my way (while taking several other important criticisms on board). This would probably be less of a problem for those able to call on the advice of supervisors, etc. I didn't have that but managed to blunder my way through somehow!

4. I fretted much too much about typos at the drafting stage. These things drive me crazy but it shouldn't really matter. Those professional proof-readers are very thorough, possibly even excessively so. (They tried to prune a lot of the stylistic choices I made that may not have been grammatically perfect but were nevertheless deliberate. Read the proofs carefully!)

5. Criticism can sting but it's mostly useful. Whatever you need to do to guard yourself against the inevitability of criticism (and the possibility of rejection) you can figure out for yourself (a kind of underlying fug of underspecified pessimism works for me). However, letting criticism sink in for a few days completely transforms it—at least in my experience. That isn't to say that you end up agreeing but seeing where the critic is coming from (even if they're wrong), that's the important thing!

6. Relatedly, I've found it important to take breaks from writing and re-writing. Not just going to get a coffee but shelving the whole project for a couple of weeks and coming back to it then, particularly in the later stages. There were times when I was trying to redraft when I felt that I just couldn't imagine the words being arranged in any other configuration than the one they were in! This is probably the biggest lesson I've learned with regard to re-writing: don't overdo it in one sitting, not so much because you can't achieve anything that way but because it you get into diminishing returns very quickly. I've never *touch wood* experienced writer's block as such but there comes a point when going over this or that section yet again just isn't bringing benefits proportional to the time it's taking. Efficiency.

7. Regarding content, Latour is a tricky thinker to write about in the way that I have. I refer to his AIME project as "simultaneously a magnum opus and a work in progress." This sums up a problem I've grappled with, I hope with a modicum of success. A large portion of the first half of the essay consists of a one-by-one summary of each of Latour's fifteen modes of existence. I felt this was necessary for two reasons. First, one of the most fundamental principles of AIME is that each mode is unique and must be understood in its own terms. Second, I was aiming this essay at those with a passing familiarity with Latour's work but without a detailed understanding of the finer points, particularly with regard to his recent works. If I was going to intertwine the various threads of his work in the way that I wanted to, I had first to separate out those threads and make them understood. The problem with this may have been an implicit essentialising of the modes. It certainly risks oversimplifying them. Nevertheless, I think I achieved my basic objective: to provide a provocative way in to this grand assemblage of ideas with respect to debates in political geography.

8. It is very satisfying to see your name in print. For all the intermittent bouts of stress and countless expended hours, I've actually really enjoyed the project as a whole. Moreover, having endured the rite, I feel much more confident about what I want to do next.

9. I probably wouldn't have had the confidence to do this without the experience of blogging. Just the experience of, and this is effectively what it is, 'writing in public'—that's an important thing to become comfortable with. I started this blog after finishing my MSc (now more than five years ago) and it's kept my curiosity ticking over and kept me in the habit of writing and thinking.

10. Having said that, I couldn't have undertaken this project without the resources available to me as a university employee. I owe much to the fact that lowly library assistants, research administrators and research assistants (the jobs I have occupied over the past few years) have the same access rights as anyone else (at the University of Bristol, anyway).

11. This peculiar mixture of freedoms—being able to write exactly what I want, having the resources to do so, having an audience to practice on (!)—is an interesting and probably rare situation to be in. It's not exactly a path that I planned with any particular foresight but I think that it has more or less worked out.

12. This is just the beginning! This article is essentially a (very) long preface to what I want to do next, which should hopefully be the subject of future blogging.

13. Nothing is ever finished. I just spent a few minutes looking back over the published version of the article and spotted several things that made me think 'why on earth did I write that?!' but no matter. What's done is done and this is definitely done and dusted.

Right, I think that's enough confessional self-indulgence for one day.

Hot off the press: 'Back Down to Earth: Reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic Geopolitics'

After much preamble on this blog over the past few years, my first journal article has just been published online (it will appear in print at a later date as part of a special issue).

The principal intuition of this article is that Bruno Latour’s explicitly or implicitly ‘geopolitical’ works – strewn as they are across many years and innumerable texts – have not yet been coherently assembled in such a way that their critical interrogation relative to contemporary debates in political geography can gainfully proceed. Such a reassembly must consider ‘earlier,’ ‘later’ and whatever other Latours. Although ‘politics’ per se has, in his more recent works, become just one ‘mode of existence’ among others, every aspect of Latour’s thought has political ramifications. Consequently, his works must be read ‘anthropologically’ – that is to say, in cognisance of the interimplicatedness of every typological strand of ‘the social’ taken altogether. In short, this article attempts not only to read Latour’s works more interconnectedly than have other readers, but, furthermore, to read Latour’s ‘geopolitical’ writings in a more joined-up fashion than he has himself written them. To this end, it (1) introduces the major elements of Latour’s political philosophy, highlighting the importance of geopolitical issues and concepts from his early works onwards; (2) précises his 15 ‘modes of existence,’ laying out the philosophical resources that will be subsequently rewoven; (3) examines six key allies with whom he rearticulates first geo (James Lovelock, Peter Sloterdijk) and politics (Walter Lippmann, John Dewey) separately and then geopolitics (Michel Serres, Carl Schmitt) itself; and, finally, (4) details his Anthropocenic geopolitics conceptually by speculatively intertwining the above with his recent Gifford Lectures. The reassembly attempted – or, rather, initiated – herein is, therefore, neither disinterested nor definitive. It is a working through of the possibilities internal to a specific, albeit sprawling, bundle of texts. It presents a reading both constructive and ‘charitable’ – not in order to obviate critical interrogations but in the hope of provoking a more incisive debate concerning Latour’s works in relation to political geography.
If anyone without institutional access wants a copy, this link allows 50 downloads free of charge. (If those with institutional access could download from the normal page, that would be appreciated.) If and when that route is exhausted, just drop me an email (see top right between 'Subscribe' and 'Archive') and I'd be happy to oblige.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Brains and patterns

Of course the brain matters! What would we be without its exquisite, sometimes agonising, sensitivity to the subtly rippling, ripping rhythms of significance that pass through us (that is, if we are lucky)? But no amount of prodable fleshiness makes the brain ontologically prior to that for which it is the sense organ: patterns. It is what it is because there are patterns—that is to say, repetitions, reproductions. And yet there was a day, some time ago, when patterns were, for the first time, sensed. And this was an event in the history of patterns.

Culture makes life worth living?

Levi Bryant has some more reflections on the ontology of culture and ecology.

I find Peter Sloterdijk interesting on these questions. He generally cites Heiner Mühlmann's The Nature of Cultures when he wants to talk about cultures as entities. Sloterdijk's mixing of this kind of socio-biology and grand, sweeping Spenglerian history makes me a little uneasy but it is interesting. Understanding cultures as tensegretic structures (i.e. as holding together in relations of tension) makes a lot of sense.

Although, of course, the temptation is to understand culture as cultivation, as care, as enriching and enlivening. In this sense culture could be understood as a kind of surplus that arrives when beings achieve more complex modes of existence than simple Darwinian selection (Elizabeth Grosz makes more or less this argument). A kind of froth of irreducibility that rises up from natural selection without ever leaving it (but that's the limitation of this metaphor: it suggests epiphenomenality).

Culture is 'what makes life worth living' for beings self-sensitive enough to need a 'life worth living.' (Here 'culture' is very close to Sloterdijk's 'sphere.') It is not what transcends life but what mediates the deadly contradiction of consciousness—at first, anyway; and then it has 'a life of its own.'

It is not a spiritual supplement but, on the contrary, a profoundly down-to-earth necessity. A history of its invention, or rather of its innovations, would require the consideration of far more than cave paintings and string quartets. It would be a nonsensical overreach to say that 'the heart cultivates the blood' or somesuch but do the evolving aesthetics of sexuality cultivate the becoming-reproduced of the sexualised organism? That isn't nonsensical to say.

And so 'nature,' whatever that may be, should have no quarrel with culture; nor should this pair be in need of any 'mediation' of the dialectical sort. If culture is what itself mediates the emergent problems of highly self-sensitive vitality then culture certainly cannot be confused with bio-nature but nor should it be seen as something laid on top of it, an embellishment. Stones and stars might have no need of it but it is easily understood as woven into the biological fabric of living beings of all sorts.

Monday, 19 January 2015

"We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks."—Latour in Le Monde

In an op-ed to appear in Le Monde tomorrow (and somehow already available in English translation courtesy of Tim Howles), Bruno Latour waxes polemical on the Charlie Hebdo murders:
We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks. Yes, we’ve received a wound, but not one that has come from the outside. After all, can it be said that those who marched, with good reason, in protest at the crimes committed by these murderers have never in turn acclaimed the ‘necessary sacrifices’ that have been imposed upon us all by ‘the inevitable march of modernisation’, even if this also had to involve violence? 
If we are to declare war, then, it must be declared against ourselves. After all, what is the origin of the dream (even if it is a dream that long since turned into a nightmare)? It has always had the same source, a source that has not yet run dry: it comes from certain people who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough. We will not be able to fight against these new criminals until we understand that, behind their archaic appearance, they are above all fanatical modernizers. 
As Eric Voegelin has shown, modernity begins in earnest when religion loses its uncertainty and becomes the realization on earth of that which should be kept for the beyond. The modernizer is one who is convinced that he can achieve the goals of religion by means of politics. But eventually, as once again Voegelin has shown, religion is cast aside: all that remains is politics – whether of the left or of the right – claiming for itself the absolute certainty borrowed from a religion that did not possess it.
These arguments are not altogether new for Latour. Indeed, he writes much the same thing in his 2002 pamphlet War of the Worlds: What about Peace? However, this is, I think, the most direct, angry and really quite bluntly pointed political text that he has written to date.

But if modernity begins with the fateful crossing of depluralised religion with violent transcendence then at what precise juncture was modernity inaugurated? To insist upon the historicity of a thing is not, in itself, to historicise it. So, when then? Was it with what Jan Assmann (who Latour cites extensively in his Gifford Lectures) calls 'The Mosaic Distinction' roughly 3,400 years ago?

It is a strange kind of modernity that predates Christ by a millennium and a half. Such a modernity could not be understood as an historical period but rather as an ongoing project, criss-crossing, demolishing and overlapping with all sorts of others. Less a segment of time than a mode of being...

In this case then Islamism and colonialism would be scarcely periodically distinguishable, practically concurrent (and existentially joined at the hip). The distinguishing feature of colonialism would be its more direct entanglement with another historical, or rather geohistorical, period around three times the length of the post-Mosaic era: the Holocene (c. 11,700 years BP).

So Latour concludes:
For ultimately, while the jihadists threaten us with apocalypse, they hardly seem to notice that another apocalypse is looming, compared to which, just like their predecessors, they have no weapons at all.
Turf-wars, Earth-wars, wars of the most pathetic gods—facing their true enemies is seemingly a luxury that human collectives of all sorts refuse to afford themselves.

It is quite a burden on the reckoning, this geopolitical landscape. Concrete chunks of time measuring in the thousands and tens of thousands of years sit alongside the most fragile and exact ethnographies; continent-spanning industrial infrastructures and planet-circling satellite networks abut polite dinner table conversations and the most horrific flesh-splaying bullet scatter as if 'the collapsing of space' had simplified precisely nothing. It is a crushing, tragic vista. Not quite 'inexplicable' but, undeniably, an explanation would be beside the point.

Not to see 'the whole' but to see enough of all the most relevant parts and to make sense of most of them. Every version I've seen yet has been too exclusive, or has excluded the wrong parts in one way or another. But there is something here—a need, at least.

Fernand Braudel once spoke of the "desire and need to see on a grand scale." Draped in the indulgences of his culture and ensconced in the security of his leather-bound centre of calculation, he could afford himself such desires and such needs were self-explanatory. He could not see what we see now on a daily basis, in high-definition, we screaming angels of our present. To rise above and see everything—would not the most ice-hearted weep themselves to nothing?

To see enough. But of what? That's a question few are asking. The right to look and the right to be unseen—these relentlessly dissonate against each other like great forgetful pendula. It would change everything if we understood that understanding is a form of being and that it is truly a variety of thread in the latticework of the planet—a plant fibre among plant fibres. Moreover, that, like any invasive species, if it were to overgrow it would suffocate the world. To know enough. But of what? I fear that there is no good or right answer to that question.

This music is making me melancholic. But I wouldn't change one grain of it.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Just out in the UK, I can't say much more than see this film—and in a cinema. The louder the better. Wow. Just wow.

Whether you have the slightest interest in jazz drumming or not, this is a breathtaking piece of cinema; heart-pounding from the first minute to the last with barely a pause for breath. And the ending. Well, every music movie ends with a set piece like that but ... never quite like that. Amazing.

"Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure."

"It is often suggested that Communism was such a failure in the countryside partly because Marx, a bookish townsman, was not attuned to the needs of agriculture. This is true enough, but the real issue goes deeper than that. Marxism was lacking not merely in the understanding of agriculture but in the understanding of ecology and therefore of history itself. Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure. It was an extreme case of the modernist failure to understand humanity's place in nature."—Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity, p.180.
I've just finished re-reading Reviel Netz's extraordinary book Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. It is not at all a book about Marxism or, even, about ecology per se. It is a work of environmental history, of geopolitical topology, of not historical materialism but historical materiology—of how a particular material, barbed wire, become part of the 'natural' (understood not as 'beyond-the-human' but simply as 'taken-for-granted') environment of a litany of historical actors in the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth-centuries—from the Great Plains to the Boer War, to the trenches, to the Gulag, to Auschwitz.

Ian Hacking's short review summarises it well.

It is a remarkable book in a whole number of ways. Its style of argumentation is disarmingly direct and to the point; unmistakeably angry but almost surgically lucid in its analytical incisiveness. It is a deeply ontologically and philosophically sophisticated work but not one that dwells at any moment on its concepts. The bulk of the text is a matting of expertly crafted asides but these never for a moment fail to get drawn tightly and neatly back into the narrative.

It's a model for environmental history and for historical geopolitics. For a book first published in 2004, I don't think that it has received anything like the attention that it deserves.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

John Adams—The Dharma at Big Sur

It's been a long time since I've heard a new piece of music (new to me) that has truly taken my breath away—too long. But now this:

It's something I really should have listened to before. I've loved Steve Reich and Philip Glass for a long time and I knew of John Adams as someone related to them but I'd only ever heard his operas, which, while nice...—I just don't like operas. But this piece for solo electric violin and orchestra just blows my mind. (NB I prefer the Leila Josefowicz version but the above is free.)

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The last book I'll read this year: Peter Sloterdijk's 'Globes'

I haven't kept a list of the books I've read this year but I know what will be the last I'll read (as I've just finished reading it): the second volume of Peter Sloterdijk's Spheres trilogy, Globes.

At 1,019 pages it is a veritable breeze-block of book. However, while somewhat time-consuming, it is lucidly written and so full of illustrations that the 1000+ page count is in fact somewhat illusory. Moreover, much of the final chapter has previously appeared in another book: In the World Interior of Capital (sections 1-10 and 13-30 of Interior appear in Globes).

While meandering and ponderous in places, the journey is well worth enduring. It is a quite monumental achievement, the purpose of which one only really begins to glimpse towards the end of volume 2.

The book is obviously unsummarisable and so I won't bother. However, I'll be looking forward to the third instalment, whenever Wieland Hoban gets round to finishing that translation (he does a very good job, by the way). I have a copy of the third volume in French but am only planning on reading snippets of it in that format. With my language skills, reading the whole thing would take me up to this time next year!

Next up, if my brain can handle it (it's sore), is Isabelle Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead. I've made two attempts at this book in the past and failed to make it more than half way through. It isn't the kind of book one can read a bit here, a bit there. It demands sustained periods of close attention, which I've struggled to find the time/energy/wherewithal for. I perhaps wasn't ready for it in the past but I'm feeling confident this time around!

My top ten films of 2014

I watched a lot of films this year. Of those released (in the UK) in 2014 here are some of the best:

1) Under The Skin: Mesmerising, disturbing and haunting on every level. Something utterly, brilliantly singular. The pick of a very good bunch.

2) Pride: I cried with laughter, joy, sadness and regret for the loss, or near loss, of a world where solidarity still meant something. Achieving its seamless combination of politics and entertainment is a brilliant achievement.

3) Boyhood: It's amazing that no one has tried this before—although perhaps no one else could have pulled it off. Watching these people age before your eyes in this way is more moving than I thought possible. A perfectly realised vision.

4) Two Days, One Night [Deux jours, une nuit]: Marion Cotillard's portrayal of the egg-shell fragility of depression is heartbreakingly on the mark and the manner in which she musters the strength to discover and accept the love, friendship and solidarity of those around her when it really does seem like the world is against her is astounding. No film has stayed with me more than this one this year.

5) Frank: Funny, brilliantly constructed and with some incredible music. Maggie Gyllenhaal learned the theremin for her role in this film. Nuff said.

6) Leviathan: A complex, intelligent and brave piece of film-making. Utterly without the upliftingness of the other political films on my list but perhaps its lead-coat fatalism is an important counterpoint. Also, no one does alcoholism like Russian alcoholics. Blimey.

7) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Yes, it looks like a cake—but what a cake! Stylised to within an inch of its life but erring just on the right side of brilliant.

8) The Past [Le passé]: A perfectly constructed drama that somehow has all the twists and turns of a thriller. Bérénice Bejo's performance I can only describe as the most explosively kinetic I've ever seen.

9) Calvary: Clunky and heavy-handedly allegorical at times but with a redeeming charm and thoughtfulness. All in all a very clever look at the place of the Catholic Church in Irish society without ever for a moment being, dare I say it, preachy.

10) Blue Ruin: Shoe-string film-making at its best. There are other films I enjoyed more this year but I can't leave this one out. I'll never be able to watch a 'revenge thriller' in the same way again and it's not often that a film permanently transforms your sense of a genre.

And ten of the rest that didn't make it into the above:

The Lego Movie: I enjoyed this as much as any film this year but it is essentially a feature length advert...

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rip-roaring fun. Didn't see Chris Pratt as a muscle-rippling movie star but he wears it very well indeed. Can't wait to see future instalments.

Maps to the Stars: It's quite amazing that Julianne Moore's paranoid, narcissistic monster of a character isn't even the nastiest on show. A dark-hearted piece, for sure.

Snowpiercer: I liked it but didn't love it. It's an interesting concept and was very well realised but I found it to drag a little. I'm not sure why I didn't like it more.

Locke: The kind of film that cannot possibly sound as good on paper as it does on the screen. A bravura one man show from Tom Hardy. I can't imagine anyone else in the role.

Nightcrawler: Very nearly in my top 10. A spot-on satire of the horror economy of cable news with a spookily gaunt and superlatively sociopathic Jake Gyllenhaal.

Mr Turner: Timothy Spall is brilliant and the story was perfectly interesting. However, not exactly life-changing. Probably a little over-hyped.

Foxcatcher: Again, brilliant performances (particularly from Steve Carrell although Channing Tatum's emotionally stunted athleticism is also well done) but not enough to put it anywhere near my top 10.

Cold in July: Michael C. Hall is never less than excellent and this film hops genres with aplomb.

Interstellar: A stunning spectacle (I'd love to see it in IMAX) but 'problematic', as cultural critics like to say.

(Other films could have featured depending on what one counts as the release date. I've counted 12 Years a Slave as a 2013 release, as most people seem to have done. Inherent Vice isn't out here yet but I'm looking forward to it.)

I've by no means seen everything that I've wanted to. Particularly notable in their absence: Ida, The Imitation Game, Winter Sleep, '71, Citizenfour, Merchants of Doubt, The Golden Dream. I'll hopefully catch up with at least a few of these over what remains of my Christmas break (which, so far, has been anything but!).

Monday, 15 December 2014

Call for Papers, RGS-IBG 2015: 'Rethinking possibilism for an Anthropocenic geopolitics'

Because I don't have enough going on in my life already, I've decided to put together a session proposal for the RGS-IBG* conference next year on 'Geographies of the Anthropocene.' Despite having a perfectly serviceable blog (and the conference organisers putting calls up on their own site), I've given the CfP its own page:

Looks much nicer that way (and doesn't really take any more time than posting it on here).

In brief:
Possibilism, as opposed to environmental determinism, is a concept perhaps better known to writers of disciplinary textbooks than debaters of cutting edge theory. This session is motivated by the conviction that, given the geopolitical challenges of the Anthropocene, this should change.

*That's Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers, for the uninitiated.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Police violence at Warwick University

The, to put it politely, heavy-handedness perpetrated by police officers against student demonstrators at Warwick University this week was shocking if not exactly surprising. As we have learned several times over the past few years, universities around the world now protect their hierarchy first and their students second. Likewise, the police are now seemingly incapable of distinguishing young people acting disobediently but legitimately from errant lumps of flesh to be first aggravated and then pacified by whatever means are necessary. Both these are common threads running through far more than this one isolated case.

(Link to other relevant resources, including an alumni petition. This open letter at Critical Legal Thinking is particularly excellent in its composed forcefulness.)

The Vice Chancellor's personal response is a masterpiece of contorted vacuity, including this gem:
I, like many others, have been saddened by the images of what then occurred which saw police and students having to engage in and resolve an unnecessarily challenging situation which led on from the actions of one individual.
The 'one individual' in question being a student who is alleged to have assaulted a member of university security personnel. For this the police were called and from that, for reasons yet to be explained in anything even approaching a satisfactory manner, the police felt the need to CS gas students at close range, drag a young woman around by her scarf and threaten others with a Taser electro-shock weapon (as Amnesty rightly insist upon it being called).

Whatever any individual may or may not have done, the fact that this kind of police behaviour on campus can be shrugged off as a 'challenging situation' is deplorable. Incidents of this sort have been more or less normalised in recent years and the wilful acquiescence of the 'powers that be' to this situation (as with every other blight on the university sector) is shameful.

It is most telling that the VC declines to comment directly on the actions of police but is perfectly happy to insinuate that all blame for this incident lies with the 'individual' (whose actions remain alleged). Even if this individual is found guilty of whatever it is they are claimed to have done, that doesn't justify the police's behaviour in dealing with what was by all accounts, up to their arrival, an otherwise placid and legitimate sit-in. That university suits are willing to hang one individual out to dry to save the blushes of the police speaks volumes of their priorities and makes a mockery of their duty of care.

How all this contrasts with Lawrence Green, an MA student at Warwick, who gave a wonderfully eloquent response to the incident, as a representative of the student perspective, on Channel 4 News a couple of nights ago. He argues the case far better than I can, and has more right to do so.

While the University's administrators are probably just trying to do what is best, in their view, for their institution, the contrast between their mealy-mouthed missives and the eloquent, passionate poise of their students is stunning. If only the suits could realise that it is precisely this sort of intelligent passion that their institution is there to cultivate. If only they still had some sense, from beneath the crushing decades of paperwork and commercialisation, of what they are actually there for...