Monday, 5 October 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Collated and concluded

I don't intend to do this for every conference I go to but writing up these summative posts has been very useful for the mental processing of my conference experience:

Day 1 (part 1)
Day 1 (part 2)
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4

It should be added that reconstructing these snippets of very complex talks days after the event from my very sparse notes and even sparser memory may have resulted in mistakes and misrepresentations, although I hope not. Undoubtedly I missed whole chunks of what was said at the time and even more from the later stages of translation. Nevertheless, hopefully this has given whatever brave (or perhaps foolhardy!) readers have managed to trawl through my scribblings some idea of my week—and the inchoate thoughts that are scrambling to get out of my head as a result.

I don't think that I have much else to say about the event as a whole. As I wrote in my day 2 post:
[Before the conference, I had wondered] how well my own interests, which have meandered rather a long way from traditional IR in the past few years, would fit into the state of this discipline today. I needn’t have worried. By the end of day 2, I had realised that my epistemic idiosyncrasies were amply accommodated within what this discipline has become, at least in some quarters: an open-minded forum for ambitious intellectual work that is connected more by shared passions and concerns than by the strictures of method or domain.
That pretty much sums it up. Bravo, IR! Roll on Sussex in December.

I can only echo the widespread praise for the organisers (one of whom is, in the interests of full disclosure, my supervisor but from whom I swear I have complete editorial independence!) and look forward to Izmir in 2016.

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 4

As the EISA 2015 conference ebbed towards its conclusion, I am happy to say that the level of interest did not.

Saturday commenced, for me, with a session on ‘Securing the Atmospheric: On Shifting, Melting, Rising and Geo-Engineered Boundaries,’ chaired by Lukas Pauer of RMIT University.

The first presentation was my old friend Marijn Nieuwenhuis from whom I have heard about half a dozen papers in the last eighteen months, including one earlier in the week. (Once I’ve finished scribbling these posts I have to get on with an essay that I’m due to write for a collection Marijn is putting together—tick-tock, tick-tock…) He spoke about the need for re-engaging elemental concepts, particularly reconnecting with a geopolitics of the air before moving on to the subject of law, particularly the principle from property law: Cuius est solum, eius est usque ad coelum et ad inferos (whoever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to hell) Paralleling the work of his Warwick colleague Stuart Elden, he talked about “territory’s volumetric cone” and the inherent absurdity in geometric-legal partitions of space that are constantly undone by the forceful dynamics of the pluri-elemental Earth.

I must admit that the conceptual vocabulary of elements leaves me a little cold, although I am gradually warming to it. I find it difficult to extract the classical elements from a sense of purity and essence. If all we encounter is mixture and if air is unthinkable without combustion, oxidation, photosynthesis (to name but a few processes), then what sense does it make to speak of ‘the elements’ in this older sense? I think there is a strong case for looking at how these concepts are embedded in our (European) languages and seeing how this structures our thought. I am sceptical as to whether it makes sense to appropriate them positively as useful concepts in their own right. That said, the use to which Marijn is putting these concepts is an interesting one. I am just left wondering whether elementalism is, on the whole, a plausible avenue for creative thought (but I may be alone in this).

The second paper came from Elizabeth Reed Yarina, ‘Post-Island Futures: Mobility and Territory for Tuvalu’s Sinking Atolls.’ This was certainly the most visually impressive presentation that I’ve seen in a long time, as you might expect from an architecture student at MIT (see this paper of hers for another example).

Finally, Janelle Knox-Hayes presented the work of her collaborator Alyssa Maraj Grahame on ‘Resources of Recovery: Connecting Crisis and Arctic Economic Governance’—a fascinating tour through the recent political economy of Iceland in all its multi-faceted complexity, touching on the incredibly fast recovery from its recent financial and political crises, its heated (if you’ll pardon…) national debates over its geothermal engineering projects and its tendencies towards protectionism against building an export economy.

For the last two sessions of the conference, I joined the section organised by Delf Rothe and David Chandler. The penultimate of these: ‘Environmental Terror: Complex climate change, disasters and resilience.’

First up was Harshavardhan Bhat, another architect who talked about ‘Open hegemony: In anticipation of forgetting architecture.’ This was followed by three German scholars whose papers chimed together, as I heard them, rather well.

Maximilian Mayer in ‘Reducing the complexity of climate change? A comparison of diverging co-productions of planetary order’ spoke about the epistemic technologies—infrastructural and conceptual—that render climatic complexity an actionable object of knowledge. He also mentioned the various political contestations and contradictions surrounding such technologies, particularly around Green politics in Germany; for example, environmental activists resisting the construction of wind turbines for the sake of birds. Delf Rothe in ‘Seeing like a satellite: Of plants, carbon and other securitizing actors’ (great title) spoke about the emergence of these same sorts of technologies from Cold War geopolitics before moving on to discuss planetary emergency, the commercialisation of remote sensing and more besides. Finally, Stefanie Wodrig in ‘Science and emotions as a response to complexity: First evidence from anti-fracking protests in Northern Germany,’ talked about fearful reactions against technologies such as fracking and how these emotions enter into matters of scientific knowledge, the production of expertise and, ultimately, governance.

One crucial thread that was, for me, connecting at least the final three presentations and perhaps all of them was the question of modernisation, something that has been back on the agenda recently. What was in Europe in the 1990s called ecological modernisation theory has been given a brash, slick new makeover for the US market in the form of ecomodernism (on this connection see for example). The principal target of the ecomodernists has been the traditional, allegedly techno-sceptic wing of environmentalism. Against this, the ecomods advise ramping up technological innovation, lassoing capitalism via intelligent state regulation and getting out of the ecological and demographical crises by producing enough wealth that family sizes dwindle and production is concentrated onto industrially intensified portions of the earth. More technology, more capitalism—less environmentalism. Regardless of the pitfalls of this thinking, an echo of this resonated in these papers, even if negatively: the question of modernisation, its varieties and its alternatives.

The simplistic critique often levelled at Greens that lumps anyone who doubts the power of technology to liberate humanity from any- and everything into the same category as anarcho-primitivists is silly. But it is not always without some evidential basis. Very well, so wind turbines will harm birds—but then where, what, when, how? There is no technology without downsides—there must be decision, a cutting off, a cutting out.

I cannot resist quoting Alfred North Whitehead at this point:
“In a museum the crystals are kept under glass cases; in zoological gardens the animals are fed. Having regard to the universality of reactions with environment, the distinction is not quite absolute. It cannot, however, be ignored. The crystals are not agencies requiring the destruction of elaborate societies derived from the environment; a living society is such an agency. The societies which it destroys are its food. This food is destroyed by dissolving it into somewhat simpler social elements. It has been robbed of something. Thus, all societies require interplay with their environment; and in the case of living societies this interplay takes the form of robbery. The living society may, or may not, be a higher type of organism than the food which it disintegrates. But whether or no it be for the general good, life is robbery. It is at this point that with life morals become acute. The robber requires justification.”
And this all got me to thinking about Germany in particular. There is no country in Europe that has based its economy so heavily on engineering and technology—and few in the world (even a scandal of the magnitude of that consuming Volkswagen is unlikely to shake this). Certainly from a British perspective, where finance capitalism has been politically dominant for decades now, this is particularly striking. Likewise, there can be few countries in the world who are so manifestly proud—this is how it is projected abroad at least—of their economic productivity. This work ethic self-righteousness plays a large part in setting the political agenda for the whole of Europe, as was demonstrated so starkly during the the ‘negotiations’ with Greece this summer. The German Ordoliberal ideal of balanced budgets and fiscal austerity rests upon the material basis of a technologically sophisticated, export-based economy, something that is not easily replicated.

And yet the general consensus is that the German attitude towards technology is, and has perhaps always been, markedly sceptical (although see this for another view). Germans are understood to be among the most hostile in the world with regard to nuclear power, fracking, geoengineering and so on. The roots of this undoubtedly run deep—the whole early-to-mid-twentieth-century thing springs to mind (Heidegger!)—but the entire history of romanticism long before that, also.

I should add that I know very little about political economy and even less about German political discourse. My impressions are very much made from afar. However, the point I am trying to make is this: Germany seems to embody in a particularly pronounced form a contradiction broadly evident right across the Euro-American world (and perhaps beyond), a contradiction that the likes of the ecomods capitalise on. I have little sympathy with their politics—their strategy is consistent: demonise those to their left, build bridges to those to their right—but they are asking some of the necessary questions.

So, having said all of that, the last (but by no means least) panel of the EISA 2015 conference that I attended followed right on from this one and was chaired by Delf Rothe. ‘Critique in an Age of Complexity’: this is how my conference was concluded.

The four papers presented were: ‘Resisting Resilience?’ by Chris Zebrowski; ‘Warring in the Mind: Ideology, Truth and the Neuromarketing of Hope’ by Claes Richard Wrangel; ‘Assemblages and the Positives of the New Materialism’ by Jonathan Joseph and Robert Carter (only the former of whom was present); ‘Complexity and “critical government”: Kantian legacies, critical disjunctures’ by Regan Burles.

Chris, drawing on his recent book The Value of Resilience: Securing life in the twenty-first century, talked about hybridity as immanent critique and how resilience depreciates the non-adaptive. Claes, drawing on a broader research project on hope, discussed the neuroscientific conception of the mind as an adaptive system and how this, quite peculiarly, leads to new forms of politically questionable subjectivism. Jonathan levelled a scornful critique at ‘new materialism,’ particularly taking exception to the alleged levelling of human and non-human agencies in the ‘flat ontology’ of actor-network theory. He mentioned that the concept of assemblage might have some value as a tool for diagnosing neoliberalism but that was about the best that could be said of it from his critical realist point of view. Finally, Regan drew more from the Kantian legacy. To be honest, by this point my brain was fried and I can’t really remember what he said—but it was good!

On the new materialism point, Delf, as discussant, commented that perhaps Jonathan and Robert would be better off aiming their critique at one particular author rather than the group as a whole since this term ‘new materialism’ masks a lot of important differences (a point that I have made previously). From my point of view, Jonathan’s critique was nothing new and mostly relied upon only half thought through reductiones ad absurdum—however, having not read the full paper perhaps I should hold my tongue/fingers.

The question that stuck in my mind at the end of this session was the relative obscurity of ‘critique’ as a term that is constantly used within academic discourse but is used in a variety of different ways. From the strict Kantian sense of interrogating transcendental conditions of possibility to the more deconstructionist sense of ‘problematising’ and ‘destabilising,’ there are clear commonalities and shades and degrees in-between but critique remains, to my mind, a concept that is used almost invariably without any qualification and clarification and, perhaps it’s just me, but I am often left wondering what precisely it is supposed to mean—not that it is meaningless but that it is rather fetishised. I did raise this question in the final Q&A but was left none the wiser.

And so concludeth the conference.

Saturday, 3 October 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 3

My Thursday at EISA started off with a panel on ‘Kinship in Historical International Relations and Beyond.’ This session was organised by the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs (NUPI).

My notes are, once again, a bit sparse for this session and with the air-con on full blast (the room was sweltering) it was difficult to hear some of the discussion (my hearing isn’t the best, anyway)—plus there were some noisy aircraft making a nuisance of themselves overhead, preparing for the airshow the next day, which made negotiating the discussion-space even more interesting.

In any case, Iver Neumann, formerly of NUPI but now of the LSE, introduced proceedings by reflecting on matters of kinship in IR, particularly with regard to early state formation. Jan Harald Sande Lie gave a very short and very useful introduction to the history of kinship within anthropology. Ole Jacob Sending discussed how kinship is constitutive of international actors, drawing (to the best of my recollection) to a large extent on political theory circa Hobbes. Finally, and most usefully for my own thinking, Halvard Leira talked about kinship in diplomacy. He noted that diplomacy does not invent new forms of organisation but derives its rites and routines from the world around it. ‘Diplomatic culture,’ in other words, derives from the culture of the world(s) with which it is entangled. This is particularly apposite when considering how, before formalisation and professionalisation, ambassadors were quite often quite literal kin.

I am interested in the relationship between IR and anthropology in general and how these differing traditions and disciplines have intersected, are intersecting and could work together differently. Kinship is an excellent focal point for thinking this through and I’ll look forward to the book that is apparently forthcoming on the subject. As mentioned, I gave particular thought to Halvard’s paper. I wondered how European kinship traditions, as embodied in diplomatic institutions, functioned when coming into contact with non-European diplomatic cultures. Kinship was, for example, a key component in French North American colonial relationships with the Iroquois and Algonquian alliances. As Richard White has argued, lacking a common culture as such, Europeans and First Nations negotiated a ‘middle ground’ based not on mutual understanding so much as mutually beneficial misunderstandings. Differing conceptions of kinship, particularly fatherhood, structured the French and Algonquian relationship by providing a common (or rather ‘middle’) vocabulary with which to reach agreements (usually temporary, fragile and fleeting).

White’s book demonstrates diplomacy occurring on multiple levels at once: not only formal and institutional but also familial, sexual, cosmological and more. (This is something that I hope to explore in my thesis.)

I don’t have as much to write about Thursday as previous days (1.1, 1.2, 2), in large part because the two sessions I went to in the afternoon were roundtable discussion sessions and, consequently, didn’t have a structure or rhythm conducive to note-taking (also, I was beginning to feel somewhat fatigued at this point!). They were, however, very interesting.

After lunch, I went to the concluding session of a section organised by my new friends at Aberystwyth on methodological challenges in research. We talked about the epistemic and institutional difficulties in doing research, particularly as PhD students subjected to the often dogmatic Research Council-imposed demands of research training modules and the ever-emphasised need to have a ‘framework’ clearly distinct from (and sometimes even hegemonic over) what one is studying. It seems to me, and happily I am apparently not alone in this, that these ways of framing and carving up the research process place limitations upon what can be researched.

Against this, how can mess, as John Law has written about, be not only accepted as a legitimate methodological mindset but also recognised as an inevitable part of any research project and even as something that needn’t be covered up as though it were some dirty, unfortunate secret?

Writing styles and methods of textual construction were also mentioned, including matters of reflexive writing, which got me thinking about my own projects ahead. I enjoy writing and like to approach it, whenever and wherever possible, as a creative activity. While my research is primarily historical and philosophical (in roughly equal measure), I spent much of my journey home to Wales thinking about how to wrap my own authorial voice up into my writing, to locate my subject-position not just by way of preface (as is common practice) but throughout the process, and to take the experience of research itself as a creative, structural principle in writing. This is easier to do with ethnographic or similar forms of qualititative research as these, quite often, involve a literal journey (or journeys) of self- and other-discovery. But all research is a journey of sorts.

I am drawn back to the idea of theoria, which at the time of Herodotus meant a voyage abroad in search of knowledge. In Plato this meaning is also evident (particularly in the Laws) but also slips into what we recognise today as ‘theory’: when one no longer needs to travel or even to move because one apperceives Ideas, which are placeless, timeless and fundamentally external to any fallen, earthly derivation. Historians and philosophers also go on journeys, also move, also transform and are transformed. How can this not only be accepted as part of the mess of research but also be taken as a principle of narration—as a part of the very fumbling, stumbling world-bundling process in which we are engaged? These are things that I need to think through and experiment with.

Following on from that, the final session of the day for me was also the final session of a section on ‘Diplomacy and Symbolic Violence.’ The panel included Paul Sharp, Costas Constantinou, Alisher Faizullaev and Marcus Holmes.

Costas (who, incidentally, taught me at Keele University all of a decade ago and whose On the Way to Diplomacy is what inspires my inchoate thoughts on theoria, above) began by affirming that one needn’t represent a territory in order to be a diplomat; that we are all diplomats in our own ways as we all negotiate relations of otherness in a world without certainty, simplicity or readymade sovereignty. The discussion touched on formal diplomatic relations but also diplomacies (and symbolic violences) of the everyday.

I was left thinking (although, having only been to this final session and not the ones that preceded it, I should throw a caveat over this) that the concept of violence probably needs a clearer and more carefully considered articulation. It is very easy to expand the concept to such a degree that more or less anything can be understood as ‘violent.’ I would prefer to relate violence necessarily to a conception of harm. An act is violent to the extent that it is harmful. One thing that did come up was the indeterminacy of symbolic violence—something may or may not be intended to be violent; whether or not it is will depend on how it is received by an other; this gap, this fissure is ineliminable. Consequently, we might say that no symbolic act is without violence or that we can never discount the possibility of an act (symbolic or not) being violent; however, not every act that exerts a force need be violent to a notable degree and nor should all acts that do cause harm be lumped into one category as there are ranges and degrees of violence. I see little to be gained by this critical slippage.

In any case, it was another interesting day and one that I am feeling tired simply by recounting! By around this point in the week the weather was turning, getting cloudier and more humid. Practically everyone at the conference was covered by mosquito bites. Many had also quaffed a fair quantity of the hyper-plentiful local wine (sold by the litre) the night(s) before. The fact that the debate remained so engaging and energetic is testament to the stamina and determination of all those involved!

Friday, 2 October 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 2

The first panel of the EISA conference on Thursday morning (after the Wednesday plenaries) that I attended was ‘Geographies of Violence—The Political Ecology of Violence,’ chaired by James Andrew Tyner of Kent State University.

Connor Cavanagh kicked off proceedings by talking about the history of the Ugandan protectorate and the imperialist knowledge produced by the likes of F.J.D Lugard, an Indian-born British colonial administrator and author. Connor also mentioned the POLLEN political ecology network, which I will have to investigate in more detail.

Second, the chair himself, James, gave an outline of his project of “the biopolitics of geophysical transformation,” particularly looking at the agricultural and canal building projects of the Khmer Rouge. Against the stereotype of the Khmer Rouge as being anti-technology and absurdly naive with regard to the agricultural possibilities of the land, James showed the importance they placed on engineering projects as part of their Great Leap Forward and also that their overly optimistic expectations with regard to agriculture were based, at least in some part, on US and UN research.

Esther Marijnen outlined her work on the Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo and, particularly, the Oscar-nominated 2014 documentary film Virunga; tagline: ‘Conservation is War.’ She talked about conflicting perceptions of the work and position of the park’s director, the Belgian aristocrat Prince Emmanuel de Merode. Some see him as having appropriated the park but others apparently regard him as a saviour of sorts. She also reflected on her own position as a researcher, having been asked to go to Brussels to feed back discontent that local people were not able to communicate themselves, and on the difficulty of getting hold of the reports and documents being produced by international organisations.

Finally, Marijn Nieuwenhuis delivered a paper titled ‘Violence in the Air,’ which started off with Carl Schmitt’s definition of man as a “groundling,” that is, as essentially related to the earth (as suggested by the etymology of human). Interestingly for the work that I have been doing on environmental determinism, he then drew on the work of Paul Vidal de la Blache and argued for understanding eco- and geo-political relations through a conception of an emergent milieu rather than an Umwelt or environment. He concluded with a range of examples of how the air can be turned into an instrument of violence, through technologies such as tear gas and other bioregulators.

At every session there were at least 3 or 4 panels that I wanted to go to; however, next I decided to go  to ‘Environments of Violence,’ organised and chaired by Carolin Kaltofen of Aberystwyth University.

First up was Jakob Zahora who outlined the early stages of his research into the new architectures of Israeli checkpoints, comparing them to other kinds of systematised, rationalised spaces, such as factories and slaughterhouses (he was careful to admit the care needed in constructing this argument!).

Next, Jesse Reynolds gave a very useful overview of a forthcoming article, co-authored with Joshua Horton, on geoengineering. He lamented the lack of engagement so far by IR scholars in this crucial topic. It was an even-handed presentation of the risks, costs and potential benefits of these technologies.

Marta Abegón Novella and Matilde Pérez Herranz investigated the possible extension of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) to environmental issues in a paper titled ‘On the Responsibility to Protect the Individual from Environmental Degradation.’ They argued that environmental factors are neglected within discussions of human security. They were careful to emphasise the risks associated with R2P discourse, particularly with regard to justifying military interventions, which, they stated, should only be used as a last resort.

Finally, Audra Mitchell took us to a much more speculative and philosophical place with her thinking on extinction, drawing on the likes of Claire Colebrook, Jean-François Lyotard, Ray Brassier, Quentin Meillassoux and Nigel Clark. She argued that, despite the popularity of discourses of extinction (e.g.), this is something that our received conceptual categories are currently unable to grasp. The philosophical relation between the ‘unthinkable’ and extinction was a thought-provoking one, although I think I’d need to read about it some more before I am quite convinced.

After lunch, I went to see ‘The Force of Lawyers: Authority, Lawyering and Expertise.’ I have no background in law but I wrote a little bit on it last year and am hoping to develop a project on it in the near future, so this was very useful for that. (I must admit that this session was in a very warm room, looking out onto the glistening Mediterranean and my note-taking noticeably waned as a result; however, I will see what I can recollect from the snippets.)

Gavin Sullivan of the University of Amsterdam (and soon, I believe, to be of the University of Kent) opened proceedings with a paper on ‘Global Emergency and the UN1267 Ombudsperson.’ Drawing on, among other resources, Annemarie Mol’s The Body Multiple, Gavin articulated a description of the actors creating the legal assemblage that constitutes the ombudsperson as a distributed entity. He particularly emphasised the role that some IR scholars have played in being branded as global security experts, playing a key part in the reconstitution of international regulatory regimes. Against some critical legal thinkers, he sees the processes he is researching as leading not to a loss of law but a jurisgenerative recalibration with regard to preemptive security logics.

Ioannis Kalpouzos talked about ‘New Weapons Technologies and the Administration of Violence,’ particularly with regard to the global administrative law of targeting. Immi Tallgren’s paper ‘The Birth of the Epistemic Community of International Criminal Lawyers’ wound a long and fascinating route between the many theoretical approaches that one might take in trying to understand the social and political place of the community of IC lawyers, settling, for the time being it seems, on the notion of the epistemic community.

Finally, Michelle Farrell and John Reynolds co-presented a paper on using linguistic and discursive analysis, understanding representative practices to be constitutive of legality. The first example they mentioned was the 'surgical strike' discourse of drone warfare. This immediately brought to my IR-trained mind works from the 1990s like James Der Derian’s Antidiplomacy: Spies, Terror, Speed, and War, which make similar arguments with regard to the representational techniques utilised in the 1990-91 Gulf War. As the discussant commented during the panel, it will be very interesting to see how this comes together in bridging IR and international legal points of view.

Finally, I attended a session run by more people from Aberystwyth University (my new institutional home from which I am typing these very words!) on ‘How methods shape how we know: The disciplining of knowledge production.’

Danielle Nicole Young and Andrew Davenport both presented papers on conceptualisations of history. Danielle asked ‘Where do you start?’, arguing that this question is crucial to the knowledge that results, particularly when it comes to origin stories such as, in IR, the infamous year of 1648. Her work comes out of training in medieval history but she is keen to stress that she is not interested in how to ‘do history better,’ as important as that question might be. Instead, she is interested in understandings of history as a construction that narrativises temporal experiences, opening and up and closing down various avenues of knowing.

Andrew, similarly, set out to explicate his critique of the use of history in IR. Particularly in his critical crosshairs was neo-realism and its systematic theorising. Drawing on Reinhart Koselleck, he is thinking about the invention of historical time and what happens at the intersections of other conceptual oppositions (inside/outside, time/space, agency/necessity, etc.) when notions of history are taken into account. His concluding words: “What relation to the past would a new global subject have?” I suppose everything hangs here on what is meant by ‘new.’ Undoubtedly, there have been subjects declared ‘global’—typically, one would assume them to be characterised by a self-conceived detachment from the past and an embrace of some sort of humanist universality. Of course, the word ‘global’ is also crucially enigmatic.

This was all fascinating for my own budding project, although I take a slightly different view of how modernist conceptions of history might be undone. I was left wondering what place the trace has within these understandings of history that place so much weight upon experience abstracted from the rest of the world. History is a narrative art, of course, but I would argue that what it draws together, ties in bundles and patterns and filigrees is not experience in the abstract but concrete, entropic, experienced traces of the past from books, archives, oral accounts and even, in some cases, tree rings and ice cores (mediated via the relevant sciences). That said, I have only heard about a very small part of these projects so far and I’ll look forward to hearing more over the coming months.

Finally, Laura Sjoberg and J. Samuel Barkin gave a preview of their forthcoming book on heterodox, critical and progressive uses of quantitative and mathematical methodologies (an article on this subject is available here [paywalled]), a most welcome and overdue endeavour in a discipline where methods tend to be divided up according to politics (to the detriment of both).

Having been away from IR as a discipline for a long time (since 2006, formally), this was a very exciting and reassuring day for me. While I am very glad to have received the studentship that I have and to have three years ahead of me in one of the best International Politics departments in the world, I did wonder how well my own interests, which have meandered rather a long way from traditional IR in the past few years, would fit into the state of this discipline today. I needn’t have worried.

By the end of day 2, I had realised that my epistemic idiosyncrasies were amply accommodated within what this discipline has become, at least in some quarters: an open-minded forum for ambitious intellectual work that is connected more by shared passions and concerns than by the strictures of method or domain. This conference was perhaps exceptional in this regard—by no means is everywhere so free-thinking! However, the fact that it happened and that it was so overwhelmingly successful (far more participants than previous years) was and is deeply reassuring.

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 1, Semi-plenary

The second EISA 2015 event that I attended (after this) was a semi-plenary session that was run in parallel with two others. The panel featured Navnita Behera, Gurminder Bhambra, George Lawson and Arlene Tickner and was titled “After empire? New legacies for international thought.”

Navnita began by emphasising three problematic and interrelated Es: Empiricism, Epistemology and Eurocentrism. The phrase that stood out for me in her presentation, and that I noted down, was “every act of knowing brings forth a world.” She emphasised the multiplicity of cosmologies and the need to understand their heterogeneity from a non-hierarchical and non-hegemonic point of view. Who is entitled to know? How are knowledges produced? These, rather than the traditional epistemological questions of ‘what constitutes correct knowledge,’ are the questions that were urged to be pursued.

Arlene reflected on her complex status as a US academic working at an elite university in Colombia, as well as being a journalist and activist. Like Navnita, Arlene also emphasised the need to knock modern forms of rationality from their pedestal and to place them alongside, rather than above, other forms of knowledge. Against a “one-world reality,” in John Law’s words, should be posed a pluriverse of worldly, collective perspectives.

George, particularly usefully for what I’m trying to think about in my own work, articulated the need to reconnect and entangle forms of knowledge historically. He gave the examples of Hegel’s understanding of the revolution in Haiti and Adam Smith’s relationship to British trade networks. (This brings to my mind Simon Schaffer’s work on the crucial importance of British trade networks for gathering the data used to produce Newton’s Principia Mathematica.) He also affirmed very convincingly that no aspect of IR is without an imperial dimension and that imperialism should be researched more intersectionally in places where it is not generally recognised.

Finally, Gurminder spoke of the refugee crisis and the linguistic politics of posing ‘refugees’ against ‘migrants,’ noting the overwhelming absence of any consideration of how such movements of people are caused and how Western countries are complicit in these processes. She made a particularly interesting observation on the fact that in British political discourse it is often Ugandan Asians who are held up as the model for social integration and an example of British benevolence in immigration policy. Au contraire, the Ugandans were received grudgingly by the British authorities and only after much contestation. Against previous presentations, she argued for the necessity of a “single conceptual frame” rather than discerning between multiple cosmologies.

Perhaps the most memorable moment of this session was a passionate, indeed angry, intervention by a Turkish scholar from the floor during the Q&A. To paraphrase: How can we be talking about cosmologies when people are drowning in the sea and being herded around like cattle? The point was well made that those of us already settled in Europe are only talking about these people because they are “pushing”; because they are making an issue of themselves by walking thousands of miles and passing through the various precarious bottlenecks of the geographies that Fortress Europe hasn’t been able to close off altogether.

This certainly goes right to the heart of questioning what an academic conference is for and what responsibilities academics have to their matters of concern. I mentioned in my previous post that I found it thought-provoking that the conference was held on the edge of the Mediterranean, the sea that has so occupied news cycles recently. Is this ‘thought-provocation’ not a little pretentious and withdrawn from concrete political struggles, looking at it from a point of view of abstract intellectual interest rather than urgent, pressing need for activism? Perhaps. I plead guilty to over-fondness of abstraction and too little engagement with practical politics.

That said, this intervention also provoked me to think about the need for care and specificity with regard to the agenda for ontological and cosmological thinking in relation to geopolitics. In some circumstances these approaches are perhaps not so useful. However, in others I think that they are. For example, the missionaries who attempted to completely eradicate native cultures and turn the people into, to all intents and purposes, European Christians—a form of imperialism still in evidence in various forms today and touched on by at least two of the panelists in this session. Without understanding the clashing of cosmologies, we miss much of the mass of matters geopolitical. It is questionable whether such modes of thought would help to understand the refugee crisis; however, that should not, in my view, detract from the many situations where these factors are of considerable relevance.

Where all of that leaves my own thinking (and, perchance, acting) I’m not sure.

Monday, 28 September 2015

Reflections on EISA 2015—Day 1, Plenary

We were greeted in Sicily by glorious, blazing sunshine. As I write this, the lights are flickering and thunder is growling in the distance. The good weather did not last but this was, nevertheless, a wonderful venue for a conference. Sandwiched between the Mediterranean sea and the volcanic Mount Etna, the town and resort of Giardini Naxos was peculiarly quiet before the conference got going—bars and cafes packed with bright lights and blaring music but few customers. The town's cracked pavements and peeling paint suggest faded glories and a context of regional poverty. However, this did not by any means detract from the experience. Likewise, when, on Saturday, the Italian aircraft display team, the Frecce Tricolori, rattled the windows and drowned out moments of the last few presentations, this, if anything, made the venue an even more interesting match.

These elemental and techno-political interventions gave me the feeling that the venue was almost building us into a box of matters of concern—the deep, deadly sea, the monstrous looming geology, the crumbling edifices of poverty and the soaring spectacle of the military-industrial-entertainment complex: all contributed to a swirlingly texture-rich and undeniably pertinent place to discuss the conference theme ‘The Worlds of Violence.’

Wednesday 23/09 was given over to registration, a plenary speech and several parallel semi-plenaries. The main event, titled ‘What We Do,’ was delivered by Nicholas Onuf, Professor Emeritus at Florida International University.

Onuf, one of the principal innovators of social constructivism within the discipline of International Relations, introduced his talk as a reflection on 50 years of scholarly practice. Particularly, he was delighted that this conference had attracted such a substantial proportion of younger scholars and wanted to pass on what he had learned in his time.

He began with a consideration of culture—“the link between us and the world”—and with C.P. Snow’s famous ‘two cultures’ diagnosis. Beyond the cultures of the artists and scientists, Onuf, reflecting on his father’s experiences as an academic engineer, added a third: that of the practical arts and applied sciences. Next to the artist and scientist should, for Onuf, be placed the craftsperson.

What then followed was an exquisitely detailed philosophical reflection, drawing largely on Kant who, it was claimed, “got it mostly right.” Starting with individual sensory impressions and the fact of speech as a social activity, cognitive faculties were argued to be inseparable from their public exercise. Onuf's practice revolves, then, around “variously institutionalised social faculties.” Particularly:

1) Imagination
2) Understanding
3) Judgment

The discussion of these faculties was very rich and greatly exceeded my note-taking ability (and perhaps my attention-span). However, the overarching point seemed to be that no faculty is ever mobilised in a pure state. Scientists and artists are crafty; even mathematicians have their practical tricks and techniques. The pursuit of understanding—the scholarly endeavour—must, therefore, be linked to techne, to techniques and to the complex, overlapping, always public rules that mediate and enable any and all discursive achievements. Rules are unavoidable—even artists have their rules of thumb. The pressure to codify rules is intrinsic to the rationalising, professionalising and bureaucratising projects of modernity. Against formalism, we should recognise, through intensive self-reflection, the crafty character of our epistemic practices and thereby engage more seriously with the functional foundations of our rules and ways.

This may be a rather loose and incomplete paraphrase of Onuf's argument but this is what I took away from it.

Although not entirely intending to go first, I did put up my hand to ask a question and was, as it happened, the first in line. My question, perhaps best described as impertinent, asked what Kantian social constructivism could do for the matters of concern that are pressing upon us ‘youngsters,’ as we were called, today.

The geography of the conference venue, as mentioned, seemed to me a poetic illustration of the need for a thorough reconsideration of the ontological and epistemological categories that focus scholarly attention away from matters of ecology, geology and climate. More pointedly, I stated that “the last thing that IR needs is more Kantian social constructivism”—perhaps I could have worded this a little less confrontationally but it is a sentiment that I stand behind. Others in the audience also asked searching questions; several of these questions were informed by a sense that this was a rather apolitical vision of ‘what we do.’

Although I should speak only for myself, my feeling is that we ‘youngsters,’ however keen we may be to learn from the experiences of those in whose academic footsteps we are following, cannot find much but complacency in such visions. We are a generation riven with anxieties and uncertainties about the future. Of course, so were older generations (what can someone too young to ever know the fear of obliteration by The Bomb know about anxiety?). However, to disconnect a consideration of ‘what we do’ from the issues and entities that surround and motivate us misconstrues not only the political purpose of scholarship but also, I think, its day-to-day practice.

Onuf’s response to my provocation emphasised modesty: no, he admitted, not much can be said of such issues from this point of view. A more gracious reply than my comment might have received. It perhaps indicates the importance of pluralism—no mode of thought can deal with everything and nor should it be expected to. However, this nevertheless leaves me quite dissatisfied.

First, there is the question of the proverbial baby and bathwater—the sheer sophistication of the (broadly) Kantian principles are inspiring but I struggle to see how they can be sufficiently disentangled from their profound and inbuilt (one might say even purpose-built) limitations to achieve much of a conversation with more anthropocenically-sensitive and materialist points of view. It would be a conversation worth having but there has been little progress on that front, as far as I can see.

Second, Onuf's talk, although touchingly well-intentioned and kind-hearted, failed to sufficiently recognise its own situatedness as issuing from a position of authority. Believe it or not, we ‘youngsters’ are already encountering such modes of thought—indeed, they are “variously institutionalised” in such a way that they constitute a substantial portion of the rule-scape that we are obliged to navigate in order to justify the very existence of our own intellectual endeavours. In other words, the downwardness of this wisdom-transmission must be recognised. And the weather down here might be a bit different to how it is up there…

“World-making is collective and continuous,” said Onuf in conclusion. I certainly would not disagree and it is a point worth repeating. However, the range of entities admitted to that term ‘collective’ is contested—and, we might say, some entities are more ‘collected’ than others. That is, not every craft-doer gets to fashion the world with the same weight of privileges. This, too, is variable—and habitual ignorance of this fact is one among a vast litany of problems that have been handed down, alongside the rest of our inheritances. Indeed, amidst such a deep, dark sea of generationally-imposed problems, the wisdom we are grateful to receive can appear as little more than an island, perhaps even sinking beneath the waves.

Perhaps such dismissiveness stems from the arrogance of youth but, if so, it is an equal and opposite reaction to the arrogance of age. If only the former requires justification in relation to the disciplinary rule-scape in which we are embedded, well, that really proves my point.

A busy couple of weeks

A busy couple of weeks—but in a good way.

On Friday 11/09 I finished up the job that I’d been doing for nearly five and a half years. The following Wednesday, I upped sticks and moved from Bristol to Aberystwyth, five days before the start of term. No sooner had I registered and attended the welcome events on the Monday than I was leaving for Sicily and the 9th Pan European Conference on International Relations in Giardini Naxos. The conference finished on Saturday but, before I head back to Aber to unpack all the boxes and suitcases that are still piled up all around my new abode, I have a couple of days to compose my thoughts (and catch my breath).

I’ll be writing a few posts summarising the conference day by day, sharing snippets of the many fascinating sessions that I was able to attend, before reflecting, rather more egocentrically, on my experience and what I’ve taken from the conference in general.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Determinism, environment and geopolitics: a conversation initiated?

After much ado about many things, the session Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation finally went ahead in the last time-slot of the RGS-IBG conference on Friday. Being at the end of a very long week (and having been shifted around several times), the group that assembled to converse was, shall we say, select. However—quality over quantity!—, we had an excellent conversation and one that emboldens me to persist with this line of enquiry. Indeed, both the theme and the format were roundly appreciated, which bodes well for the future of this project.

Most pleasingly, around half our number identified as being environmental or physical geographers of some kind rather than simply social or human geographers (RGS-IBG tends to be overwhelmingly dominated by the latter).

Gwilym Eades spoke about his fascinating on-going work on place, naming and counter-mapping. With a background in physical geography and GIS, Gwilym is exemplary of the cross-boundary thinking that is possible within geography. He drew attention to the novels of Thomas Hardy, the interesting point of which here is that they were almost obsessively topographically planned out and mapped.
This fictional Wessex, very closely tied to but nevertheless distinct from the historical Wessex, has become a matter of concern for campaigners who wish to preserve the fictional-historical landscape. When these cosmopolitical clashes come to concern, for example, wind farms then we do indeed witness a very distinctive Anthropocenic politics coming to the fore—one that eludes any easily disciplinary categorisation.

What is useful about this, for me, is that it draws attention to the importance of representation and mass mediation for these debates. Determinism is as much about epistemic politics as it is about the workings of things. There Is No Alternative—this is the fundamental maxim of determinism. How do fictional-environmental matters of concern, fictive landscapes, come to compel assent to this or that political campaign? What possesses people to pursue this bond or allegiance and not that one?

One related issue that came up was that of affect and political passions. I am particularly interested in Albert Hirschmann's 1977 book The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism Before Its Triumph. It seems to me that many discussions of affect in geography could benefit from a connection with this sort of work.

It is part of what I am trying to get at with the concept of 'possession'—what if, to quote the book/film Fight Club, the things you own end up owning you? That is, what if we become possessed by our possessions? This seems to me to be intrinsically tied to the problem of possibility and possibilism. Any reconception of possibilism must also reconsider property and properties (in legal-social and metaphysical senses, both). (See this wonderful article on the genealogy of spirit possession for the importance of this concept in relation to colonial geopolitics.)

This sense of being a container for something other than us (and yet not altogether other) is the unsettling experiential condition that derives from social existence and 'ecstatic' phenomenality (i.e. the sense in which, in experiencing the world, we are somehow 'outside' ourselves). There is a great deal of work being done on affect, emotion and phenomenal experience in human geography; however, little of it connects, as Hirschmann's work does, with considerations of mass mediation (cf. the geopolitics of Hardy's Wessex), mass manipulation and the basic concerns of war, peace and social order.

Among the other issues discussed were mental health and the pressure put on climate scientists by researching such frightening futures; the ways in which the discursive practices of consultancy combine deterministic and possibilistic statements (with apparent impunity to consistency!); the etymology of optimism (a concept that I have written about a little), emerging as it does in Voltaire's famous satire of Leibniz; the production of 'false' or artificially generated datasets in order to test algorithms against other worlds than this one (I know of this in epidemiology research but apparently it is also being undertaken in climatological research too); the limitations of 'assemblage' thinking with regards to overemphasising degrees of freedom.

There was more but these are the points that have stuck in my mind (and to my page)!

All of this brings me to reflect on my last post and the fact that, even in geography—as open to interdisciplinarity as geography is, perhaps more so than any other discipline—there is still an extreme pressure to specialise in this or that field, whether it is defined formally or by invisible lines that are navigated as if semi-consciously, as if by scent trails!

It has been repeated to (and perhaps beyond) the point of cliché that the Anthropocene razes old disciplinary distinctions and compels much greater communication between specialisms. We are definitely not there yet. However, there are enough talented scholars that recognise the problem to convince me that we might get there in the coming years.

One final thought that comes from one of the participants who remarked that human geographers can be very intimidating to those coming from the outside. I hope that the way in which I have presented my ideas was accessible—albeit idiosyncratic and of course slanted towards my own peculiar interests. However, I think that it is an important point. (It also came up in a less explicit way in the Verticality and the Anthropocence: politics & law of the subsurface [in collaboration with the British Geological Survey] sessions on Thursday.)

There is also great pressure amongst human geographers (and those working in the humanities and social sciences generally) to cultivate a kind of aura of supreme intelligence (which often leads, ironically, to supreme unintelligibility!). Perhaps because we can so rarely point to experimental objects, hard numbers or established principles, we adopt a form of sublime self-justification, in the sense of the sublime described by Iver Neumann in his article on Sublime Diplomacy: Byzantine, Early Modern, Contemporary. We attempt to create an effect (and indeed an affect) of knowingness that can, in fact, get in the way of talking with others who justify their works in quite different ways. (On Justification: Economies of Worth by Luc Boltanski & Laurent Thévenot might be useful on this point.)

There is a degree of self-criticism needed here that recognises the distinct truth regimes involved and attempts to find ways to, as Isabelle Stengers would put it, make them 'contrasting rather than contradictory.' This diplomatic work is extremely difficult but I am surer than ever that it is worthwhile.

How have conceptions of earth, environment and otherness changed over the years in relation to conceptions of politics, science and truth—and how might these conceptions and connections be thought through differently?

A truism of PhD study: you've got to have a question! I've known this for some time—and already lost count of the times that I've been prompted for it—but struggled to come up with a question for my own project. Not so much because I couldn't boil my interests down to a simple sentence but rather because I hated what that residue looked like and couldn't quite bring myself to repeat it!

Having spent the last few days at the 2015 RGS-IBG conference, listening to ever so many interesting presentations of ideas by researchers of all ages and stages struggling with many of the same issues as I am, it now seems clear (in fact I somehow woke up this morning with these words rumbling around my head):
How have conceptions of earth, environment and otherness changed over the years in relation to conceptions of politics, science and truth—and how might these conceptions and connections be thought through differently?
Okay, so that's two questions, strictly speaking, but they're really two sides of the same coin. Also, it is still extremely ambitious and far-reaching. However, I think that, from now on, every time that someone remarks, with a half-masked air of incredulity, that this is an 'ambitious' project, I will simply reply, with as sweet a smile as I can muster: yes, and?…

That is not something that I feel the need to justify. I claim it by right—for myself and for anyone else who wants it! Perhaps such grand plans will fail, perhaps they will not. In any case, I will not allow them to fail due to the doubtfulness or lack of imagination of others. It will take more than a slightly flippant smile to navigate the rocky waters of academic conservatism but I think that, suitably bedecked, it is possible.

If anybody is allowed to ask Big Questions, everybody must be allowed to ask Big Questions. The gerontocratic settlement that has Youngers do the plodding leg-work so that Elders can do the far-seeing speculation is not only unjust—it just doesn't work…

All of which is not to suggest that the last few days have been discouraging—quite the opposite. I've been extremely encouraged by the generosity and good-heartedness of those I've been able to meet and to see again. Particularly, Lauren Rickards, Simon Dalby and Rory Rowan but I could easily list a dozen others.

This week has also brought home to me just how much work there is to be done—not only on my own project(s) but also in taking on the many assorted inadequacies concerning how various forms of knowledge are supposed to be made conversant. Geography is a strange discipline in this respect: it is so very good at providing space within which questions that cut across traditional dividing lines can be asked but so very bad at recognising its own informal fissures and striations that carve up the epistemic field in manners no less arbitrary or effective.

As a concluding aside, this blog has been a little quiet over the summer. It has been an extraordinarily hectic one for various reasons, not least of which is that I will be uprooting my life and moving to Aberystwyth in a couple of weeks. Five days of work left in which to tie up five years of loose ends (from my current job). Then packing!

There will be more blogging on the other side… (Particularly at EISA, which I am very much looking forward to!)

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.

[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 [though it has a prehistory in French radical politics]. 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.