Thursday, 14 July 2016

PhD diary #9: 14/07/2016

I've struggled to find something to write about this month. So, I suppose that I will just say a little bit about what I'm working on at the moment and how I'm going about organising my work (possibly a bit boring but may be of some use to someone!).

My current thesis plan consists of six chapters and my schedule, deriving therefrom, is divided into three-month blocks. In each block I am dividing my time roughly equally between reading and thinking about the thesis as a whole and working, in a more concentrated fashion, on one chapter in particular. At the end of each quarter, I should have a first draft of that chapter and, over subsequent three-month periods, I will return to already written chapters as I develop a better grasp on how the thesis holds together as a whole.

I'm just coming to the end of the first of these periods (May to July). Consequently, I'm about to start writing my first chapter (besides the introduction). This chapter, as I've written about here recently, uses the life and works of Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) as a focal point for understanding the development of geological and, to speak anachronistically, ecological sciences in the early 19th century while, at the same time, serving as a point of contrast with the much longer history of climatic and geographical knowledges (e.g. the importance of air, water and location in Hippocratic medicine) as these were being reproduced or replaced around this time.

I will end up talking about Humboldt's "cosmic geopolitics" – the cosmopolitan vision of development, progress and both natural and anthropological unity that his synthesis of enlightenment and romantic values achieved, particularly in his great work Cosmos. This will then give me a way into the second chapter, which will pick up on the consequences of Darwin's Origin of Species (published a few months after Humboldt's death), Herbert Spencer's sociological and psychological appropriation and popularisation of "environment" as a term of art and, finally, the development of what is understood in the context of the history of geography as "geopolitical" thinking towards the end of the century.

I have a pretty good idea of how these things fit together in broad strokes. However, arranging the details and then getting the words flowing is much trickier! I probably won't meet my self-imposed deadline of the end of the month for this first draft. Nevertheless, it should materialise in some form over the next few weeks.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Caught between a clusterfuck and an omnishambles

I did not think that a Leave vote would have particularly pretty results but I must admit that I did not expect quite this degree of party political meltdown, legal and administrative cluelessness or, most worryingly, bald, blatant far right triumphalism. No one seems to know quite what the hell is going on or what is going to happen next (not even tomorrow morning, never mind in the coming weeks). However, it is becoming very clear to me just how deep running and comprehensive this political failure is. It could have been otherwise – we are only talking about a few percentage points and polls that until mere weeks ago made this result seem unlikely; however, this is a tipping point that has been trembling for some time and there is a lot of blame to go around.

I do not think that I have any particularly revelatory insights to offer but in the spirit of blogging (and self-therapy), this has been on my mind.

New Labour's total and complete abandonment of working class concerns in the mid-90s has everything to do with this ugly, ugly situation that we're now in (in the UK at least). That smug, elitist, metropolitan condescension and contempt – as Peter Mandelson infamously put it, "they have nowhere else to go" – is perfectly real and very much alive in the academy, too (that prodigious production line of easy, familiar platitudes to which we can all nod with a furious, righteous solemnity). Which is not to say that many millions of people have not been systematically deceived, manipulated, conned – they have – but their consciousness is not "false" and their grievances not altogether imaginary.

That sense of abandonment and victimisation, whether or not it is justified in precisely the way it has become manifested, has been made to resonate violently with the racist and xenophobic resentments that have always lurked and festered there, out of the sight of polite society (add in some Machiavellian Tory opportunists and voilà). That complicity between the merely frustrated and the truly hateful cannot be ignored – a vote for crypto-fascism is a vote for crypto-fascism – but every time we tar everyone with the same brush we are part of the problem.

Thursday, 23 June 2016

Vote Remain

At the time of writing, a climax of indecision. The polls are a dead heat; one of the most vile and hate-fuelled political campaigns in recent memory scutters to its overdue conclusion.

The driving force behind the Leave movement has been a coalition of racists, xenophobes, nationalists and, it must be said, a huge swathe of the population that would love nothing more than to stick one in the eye of "the establishment," while at the same time projecting their frustrations and insecurities onto traditional enemies (France, Germany, Brussels bureaucrats…) against whom there is a wealth of folklorish enmity.

However, these frictions have run along fault-lines that in no way approximate the usual political alliances. Some have seen a chance to be rid of the Germany-dominated Euro-neoliberal project that has, in the last few years, been so gruesomely unveiled in all its snarlingly grey-suited, Greece-crushing ignominy.

These opportunisms leave me unpersuaded. Left arguments for Leave might hold water did they not require me to abandon more or less everything I know about the English electorate (and the Westminster political system). It's sometimes easy to forget just how conservative a country this is – and then you visit the south-east. Remain is making the best of a bad situation, in the present moment (i.e. for now); Leave would be making the worst.

My thought all along has been that I love the idea of a European Union, it's just a shame that it had to be this one. I won't exactly be jumping for joy either way but a defeat for this suffocating xenophobia and faux lager-swilling insularity would be something to celebrate. There is plainly good cause for Left Euro-scepticism but, today, it would be someone else's victory.

Monday, 6 June 2016

PhD diary #8: 06/06/2016

Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos – a book more often cited than read (aren't they all?). Over the past couple of weeks I've managed to plough through all 1100 pages of the three volumes (to be precise, the English translation, of which the first two volumes were published in 1848 and the third, posthumously and incomplete, in 1859).

The scientist (and 25th Prime Minister of France) François Arago once remarked,
"Humboldt, you really don't know how to write a book. You write endlessly, but what comes out of it is not a book, but a portrait without a frame."
He was not wrong. To read Humboldt's work is to face down a deluge of information, poured out as if uncontrollably. The several hundred pages of the first volume roll on and on without so much as a section break.

Astronomical illustration from the atlas accompanying the German version of Kosmos

Nevertheless, while Humboldt's science was already somewhat eccentric by 1850 and although his politics were, at best, naive, his is an impressive bundle of intellectual energy to spend some time with.

Next up is his Essay on the Geography of Plants from 1807. This was the first major publication following his famous voyage from 1899 to 1804 (and, as such, although it was written by Humboldt, it is co-credited to his travelling partner, the botanist Aimé Bonpland).

It's interesting to look at this early text after Cosmos, which was the magnum opus supposed to cap off his career. There are substantial continuities between the two; indeed, much of the grand, synthetic vision of a universal cosmography was apparent to Humboldt by the early 1790s. Nevertheless, some of the (from a contemporary point of view) stranger geological ideas are more pronounced in the earlier work.

Humboldt went to his grave just a few months before Darwin's The Origin of Species was published and he never quite accepted (due to, in his view, insufficient evidence) the extent of earthly deep time necessary to make sense of the thesis of natural selection. His was an old earth but not to the extent that ours is, post-Darwin. On the question of whether the Earth had a history (in the sense of experiencing many eras of gradual or sudden transformation or remaining more or less in its current processual state from the beginning), in 1807 at least, the burden of proof was very much on the historicists. Likewise, his journey dissuaded him from the Neptunism of his former teacher Abraham Gottlob Werner but he was tentative in abandoning its hypotheses.

I have the next four weeks or so to continue delving into Humboldt's works (and still other works on them). There is no hope whatsoever for any kind of completism; however, that should not be necessary. I am essentially interested in Humboldt as a figure who, in a sense, typifies the naturalism of one era while, at the same time, setting up another. The kind of "cosmic geopolitics" that emerge in his final major work is, I think, a very interesting way into the history of ideas and transformations that my thesis chapters 2 to 6 will explore.

Sunday, 1 May 2016

PhD diary #7: 01/05/2016 – On stupidity

Among the questions commonly asked of PhD candidates concerning their research, there are two that I think are closely related: the "so what?" question and the "what are your normative commitments?" question. The first asks for some justification, by unspecified criteria, as to the project's general worth and validity. The second might be attempting to elicit some sort of political or tribal affiliation – as is an academic's wont; or, it might be asking largely the same thing as the first question but slightly more specifically: what are the political or moral commitments that make this a worthy, valid project to be undertaking?

With a project as broad, abstract, philosophical and, therefore, as "academic" as the one that I am working on, these questions can be tricky – not least because these are the sorts of questions that keep PhD students up at night, quite apart from any summary, collegial interrogation! Particularly, working in the field of International Relations, there is often an implicit sense that the intellectual validity of your work is directly proportional to the directness with which it is concerned with grotesque amounts of horrendous violence and death – actual or possible.

Of course, I have many normative and political commitments, some of which might even be relevant to this specific instance. Likewise, there are many ways in which I think that I could respond to the "so what?" question with regard to this or that nugget of academic debate. However, the stronger answer that I am inclined to give, even if this might be seen to indulge in a certain intellectualism, is to say: what I am against, what I am resisting, what I am seeking to undo, displace or contradict is, most fundamentally, stupidity.

Now, of course, that is the kind of word that requires immediate qualification.

In Isabelle Stengers' recent (or, rather, recently translated) book In Catastrophic Times (2015, Andrew Goffey trans. [Au temps des catastrophes, 2009]), she describes stupidity [bêtise] as follows:
"Stupidity does not here refer to stupor, to paralysis, or to impotence. Stupidity is active, it feeds on its effects, on the manner in which it dismembers a concrete situation, in which it destroys the capacity for thinking and imagining of those who envisaged ways of doing things differently, leaving them stunned, a stupid and nasty argument may well leave you stunned with the mute perplexity of a “he may be right but all the same,” or enraged, which confirms it in turn: you see, with these kinds of people, there’s always violence."
The concept has a particular meaning in the context of her overall argument, which particularly concerns how to deal with (or not) the "guardians" that take it upon themselves to govern us. My meaning is slightly different, although perhaps adjacent.

For my purposes, stupidity is not so much inadequacy of understanding or inability to respond intelligently to a problem as an inability to recognise such inadequacy as inadequacy and, therefore, a wilful, active inability to recognise this thing as a "problem" at all.

It is in this sense a second order inability. The proper response to stupidity is neither problematisation as an end in itself nor an attempt to fix or solve the problem once and for all. Rather, it is to attempt to respond better, by some metric relevant to the immediate situation. General metrics can only lead to further and deeper stupidity.

A failure to think where thinking is necessary. (Of course, everything rests on this "necessary.")

In whichever way you cut it, there is a great deal of stupidity with regard to how we think (or do not think) about issues of environment and geopolitics, today. Both the purposes and the commitments of the project therefore derive from a determination to, in however minor a fashion, ease the pressures imposed by the stupidity of the moment.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Social Science Talks Science Fiction: Embassytown by China Miéville

If you've visited this blog before, then you've read my ramblings – now you can hear them, too.

Some friends at the International Politics department, here in Aberystwyth, run a podcast called Social Science Talks Science Fiction. This week, I was recruited to co-comment on China Miéville's Embassytown.

I don't think I said anything excessively stupid. However, after blogging for all this time it is an interesting experience to throw your thoughts out there without the safety net of re-editing them afterwards!

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Latour, sovereignty and the ‘generalised international’

Bruno Latour's keynote from the Millennium conference in London last October has now been published: Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty. Alongside it is an interview conversation between Latour, Mark Salter, William Walters and Iver Neumann: Bruno Latour Encounters International Relations: An Interview.

In the latter, one of the interviewers mentions a point I made (to be cited: still very much a novelty for me!) in my article on Latour's geopolitics, published last year. Specifically, I suggested that his work had shifted in the last 10 or 15 years from a conceptual vocabulary mostly concerned with parliaments and procedures to one perhaps better characterised by the term, borrowed from Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss, the 'generalised international.'

This connection is something that I really just threw in to the article without much explanation. The point that Edkins and Zehfuss were making in their article was that 'the international' is generally understood, in International Relations (as an academic discipline) at least, as a realm of contingency, uncertainty, negotiation and open-endedness. In other words, of anarchy (see also Alex Prichard on this point). This realm is then generally pathologised relative to the 'domestic' arena of order, law, certainty and control. Their appeal, therefore, in 'generalising the international' is to embrace this more anarchic political sensibility not as the illegitimate other of the domestic but as a general condition of a politics 'open to the future.'

The connection to Latour's work is, I think, not completely straightforward or equivalent. However, from at least his War of the Worlds: What about Peace?, published in 2002, Latour has not only tended towards a predominantly 'geopolitical' conceptual vocabulary rather than a 'parliamentary' one, but he has increasingly emphasised the importance of Carl Schmitt's distinction between war and police operations as distinguishing fundamentally different political conditions.

The major difference that I papered over in my passing allusion is that, for Latour, the 'anarchic' political situation is not necessarily the preferable one. A state of war may be 'open to the future' in a way that a police operation is not – recognising this state is the precondition of negotiating a peace that is more than nominal. However, it is more a matter of recognising the state that we are in than it is opting for a political imaginary that is morally preferable in any general sense. And so, I suppose, in the end, we meet with different meanings of 'generalisation.'

Sunday, 10 April 2016

International Politics in/and/or the Anthropocene; Thoughts on individuals and historiography

It's Sunday, the Easter holiday is all but over. To be honest, I spent almost the whole time writing – so, not much of a holiday. However, I was able to spend the last few days in Tübingen at the 3rd European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS). More specifically, at the workshop on "International Politics in the Anthropocene."

It was a fantastic event in a beautiful town. This particular workshop was convened by Delf Rothe, who did a wonderful job, as usual.

I presented the first draft of the introductory chapter of my thesis. Essentially, an attempt to articulate what the overall project will look like in terms of structure and content but particularly in terms of conceptual setup. My very generous discussant, Audra Mitchell, gave me a wide range of useful and thought-provoking feedback, as did everyone else.

One question that was particularly playing on my mind on the journey back to Aberystwyth was one concerning historiography. In my chapter, I mentioned that I am thinking of using the idea of a "witness" as a kind of historiographical organising principle. In other words, each chapter would focus to some degree on a specific thinker (for example, Alexander Humboldt, Herbert Spencer, Ellen Semple, et cetera).

It was mentioned that this might risk reproducing a kind of "great man" take on history. Instead, might it not be better to focus on discourses and make individuals secondary?

By taking certain biographical trajectories as privileged focal points, I do not wish to suggest in any way that these individuals are uniquely important or that the historical questions I am asking can be adequately addressed by looking at them alone. My reasoning is rather different.

First of all, and rather pragmatically, I am intending to cover a very large amount of historical ground in not very many words. This approach may help narrow the scope somewhat. Secondly, I am trying to get away from a version of historiography based upon the notion of discourse, which is a very useful concept but has problems accounting for or differentially attributing agency – which is precisely the problem at the core of my thesis.

What if, instead of starting from a "discourse," the existence of which is historically given but geographically vague, one instead starts from actions and events and takes specific trajectories, biographical or otherwise, as opportunities for comparison between and reflection on the entanglements of influences, imitations and infections relevant to a particular question or set of questions?

In other words, I am not really interested in these individuals as such. I am interested in the worlds around them (in their contexts; indeed, their environments). The worlds they are passing through, affecting, being affected by – or not. If aspects of the worlds around them are indifferent to or unperturbed by their actions, then that is just as important as those respects in which these people were influential. And this is something that "discourse" can never capture: indifference, disconnection, parallelism. It assumes connectivity as a given due to temporal coexistence and structural resemblance. Its mode of inference is completely different to that which I am attempting to employ.

However, there is one more thing to be said: were I to adopt the "discourse" conception, it would no longer be possible to subvert the "great man" view of history. To subvert something you have to get close to it. You can deny, denounce, obviate from a distance but you cannot subvert. Subversion requires an initial act of imitation or identification. It is only once that artificial proximity is in place that subversion even makes sense as a concept. It requires that risk. Because the concept of discourse operates at a distance from individual biographical trajectories, proceeding on the basis of a priori assumptions about historically specific but geographically indefinite social relations, it cannot perform this task.

It is precisely the "great man" conception of history that is to be resisted; it is just this kind of distribution of agency that the entire project must actively work against, running right to the roots of its basic performative principles. However, the distribution of agencies operative (methodologically or otherwise) in the concept of discourse is also to be regarded sceptically.

It is an awkward idea to describe – perhaps I do not yet fully understand it myself. I think that it is the kind of idea that can only really be meaningfully unfolded in action, in the actual writing process itself. In any case, it is not a guiding principle but must be continually adapted to the set of questions relevant to each historical period that I am examining.

Many more thoughts are buzzing around my brain but these are those that I felt compelled to immediately externalise!

Thursday, 31 March 2016

PhD diary #6: 31/03/2016

Six months through. Depending on how you look at it, that's 1/8 of the time until the thesis has to be submitted, 1/6 of the time until my funding runs out, 1/5 of the time until I plan to submit, and 1/4 of the time until I plan to have a first draft written. "Plan," then, being the operative word. (Saying it out loud makes it more real.)

In the past month, I've mostly been thinking about the sixth and final chapter – that is, where I need to end up, both narratively and in terms of work schedule. The rise of Earth system science, complexity and resilience over the past fifty years or so and the modes of geopolitics and geogovernance that have co-developed over this period. Right now, I feel that I am in the middle of two grand narratives, both of which I find be increasingly incomplete and unsatisfactory.

First, the coming to fruition of something like reflexive modernity or the risk society. This grand narrative has been strongly challenged from an historical point of view, as I've discussed recently. Second, the narrative produced by (mostly) Foucauldian critiques of resilience and complexity ontology. To put it rather simplistically: this ontology, we are led to believe, bears some essential relation (and therefore complicity) with neoliberalism (because networks).

Where both these narratives fall down is in their historical simplicity. However, there is a point that derives from both, albeit not quite in the same spirit that I am taking it, which I think is valuable. There has been a presumption for some time that overcoming the "bifurcation of nature" is the foremost conceptual challenge of the present. I accept that to a large degree. However, this is only one challenge among others.

Critics of the first narrative point out that various sorts of "environmental reflexivity" have existed in the past and have been suppressed. Promoters of the second narrative point out that non-dualistic ontological presumptions (or at least those that style themselves as such) are evident throughout all sorts of deeply questionable contemporary geogovernmental practices. These promoters, in turn, tend to ignore the monistic ontologies that have been powerful and prominent in the past.

And so, there is clearly an important dialogue to be had here. One that is interested in the relevant novelty of the present but is not obsessed by it. One that is interested in the relevant conceptual questions but can see beyond them. It is a difficult net of nettles to grasp but I think that I am on the right track, so far.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Environmental reflexivity, different kinds of precedent

With regard to my last post, Hywel Arnold on Twitter raises an important question: how does the project of Bonneuil and Fressoz – specifically, to look for precedents to what they call "environmental reflexivity" prior to the past 50 years, for example in the works of the Georges-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon) – differ to that of the likes of Nigel Lawson, a climate cynic (undeserving of label "sceptic"), who also identify Buffon and others as precursors to current understandings of climate change?

It must be made very clear that Bonneuil and Fressoz are in no way, shape or form establishing this genealogy in order to suggest that there is nothing new in the current situation – "move along, nothing to see here." Rather, they very much emphasise the ways in which environmental reflexivity has been played down, demeaned, discouraged and erased from public discourse over the past two centuries. Lawson, for his part, is merely one of the latest in a long line of liberal/neoliberal economists who abstract economic relations from the world they supposedly organise to such a degree that all pretensions to "market correction" make very little sense. In other words, Lawson et al are precisely the people who have been scrubbing out this capacity of people to pay attention. This argument is directed against them.

It is perfectly possible for two people to look at the same set of facts and to derive opposite conclusions – this is what the climate cynics do, with intellectual history no less than with climate data. The correct response is not to say the opposite and therefore allow them to dictate the terms of their own criticism. I think we must be quite vulgar historical realists on this point.

One limitation of Bonneuil and Fressoz's argument, as I think I at least suggested in my brief review, is the question of scale – is not the sheer magnitude of present transformations, and our scientifically-mediated awareness thereof, all out of keeping with these prior examples? Perhaps, I think that this is an open question at this point (at least with regard to where this book ends up).

The point that I find valuable, for my own work but also generally, is that we must be more historically nuanced with regard to our understandings of these world historical transformations.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Not just another Anthropocene book: "The Shock of the Anthropocene" by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

I must admit that I feared the worst. For a while now, perhaps since the RGS-IBG conference last September, I have been experiencing something like Anthropocene overload. So many opportunistic declarations of it being the new, big, scary/wonderful thing; so many furious denunciations of the very idea (some convincing, many not); and so few substantial intellectual contributions to the debate, one way or the other.

From various sources, I had heard that a new book by a pair of French historians titled The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us was worth reading. Published in French in 2013 (as L'événement anthropocène: La Terre, l'histoire et nous), the English translation has been with us for a few months now. Finally, last week I got my hands on a copy and got to reading.

Initial impressions aggravated my underlying Anthropocene fatigue. Chapter 1: "Welcome to the Anthropocene" – if I see another op-ed or book chapter that opens with this line, I think I will get a headache. On the upside, my list of "-cene" neologisms has been extended by six. Here's the list from before, assembled from various sources over the past year or two:


And now I get to add, from this book:


However, my fears and prejudices were wholly misplaced. Bonneuil and Fressoz have written a meticulous, timely and much-needed work. Neither seeking to dismiss nor diminish the Anthropocene as an event, nor propounding it with the giddy overexcitement of so many popularisers, nor contenting themselves with pointing out the obvious criticism: that it is in no way "anthropos" in the sense of the human species as a whole that has brought about this event (although they do make this point, and well).

It is a rich and complex text, one that I will not attempt to summarise in any great detail (read it!). The book consists of 11 chapters, divided into three parts. The first outlines the Anthropocene concept and debates around it; the second criticises the concept with regard to the grand narrative it has tended to promote; the third, and most significant, part of the book weaves together a quite encyclopedic synthesis of historical knowledge (some of it based on original readings of primary texts, much of it tying together the vast but somewhat scattered relevant literatures), encompassing intellectual, conceptual, environmental, economic, political, geopolitical, sociological, ecological (and more) histories.

The most original argument it makes, I think, concerns its refutation of various theories and grand narratives that have been popular since the 1990s (and have become heavily associated with the Anthropocene concept). Specifically, ideas like Ulrich Beck's reflexive modernisation, Peter Sloterdijk's explicitation and Bruno Latour's modernist constitution. All, the authors argue, share the presumption that in recent decades we have witnessed the raising to awareness of the consequences of technological, scientific, industrial and economic productivity in a way that is somehow unprecedented.

Against this, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue most forcefully that:
"The problem with all these grand narratives of awakening, revelation or arousal of consciousness is that they are historically wrong. The period between 1770 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society." (76)
They continue:
"[…] it is clear that the moderns possess their own forms of environmental reflexivity. The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing." (196)
In all kinds of ways, the intensive worldly awareness said to be characteristic of the Anthropocenic future is shown to have precedents in the early days of the Industrial Revolution (and after). The sensitivities were never absent, they were repressed, forgotten, scrubbed out – hence "Agnotocene." And so the post-1990s cry of "but we did not know!" rings hollow. Ignorance, no less than knowledge, is also something produced; it also has a history.

This is an agenda-setting work, however it is also a modest one. The authors admit that their analysis, thorough though it is, is only preliminary. It closely parallels (though thankfully does not overlay!) much of what I am working on for my PhD thesis. There are some points on which I find myself in disagreement. By emphasising, with evident justification, continuities that had been repressed or forgotten, they merge and run together some important distinctions that still need to be identified and understood. (This is more or less the criticism made of their work by Jacques Grinevald and Clive Hamilton in their important article from last year.) Moreover, there are some points of detail that, on the basis of my limited learning, seem to be questionable. (This will need more work on my part.)

A more nuanced version of the explicitation/reflexivity thesis could still be made, pointing out that it was never a question of a binary shift from unawareness to awareness but rather a gradual trend from one to the other. Therefore, pointing out precedents does not, in and of itself, disprove the thesis. One would also have to demonstrate a comparable degree of incidence – i.e. just because examples can be found does not mean that they had anything like the same degree of influence or importance as they do now.

Bonneuil and Fressoz have certainly assembled, via well-established historical literatures (see, for example, the works of Richard Grove or Clarence Glacken) but also under their own steam, a compelling archive of examples to bolster their claims. Nevertheless, I am inclined to wonder to what degree the ideas and practices identified can be said to have suffused the societies in question. My own work will look at political and geopolitical thought during this time period and, from my research so far, the explicitation/reflexivity thesis might still have some life in it from this point of view. Another interesting angle, one that I am slowly investigating through my own work, is to think about science fiction (and perhaps other genres of speculative fiction) as potential benchmarks or tests of incidence and influence. As Kim Stanley Robinson put it, commenting on his trilogy of novels on climate change (published between 2004 and 2007):
"If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused."
Is this something that could only be said in the 21st-century? My feeling is that it would be far too simplistic to answer this question with either a yes or no answer.

The point of a book such as this is clearly not to achieve finality or answer every question. However, if you are going to read just one book on the Anthropocene (besides the one by my supervisor, obviously), The Shock of the Anthropocene is very much worth your consideration. The synthesis they assemble, the sources they bring to light, the heuristics they offer, and the provocations they make – all render this, in my perhaps not disinterested view, an important book indeed.

Saturday, 5 March 2016

On the difference between philosopher and critic

Two ways to read a text: as a philosopher, as a critic; a lover of wisdom, a lover of error. Of course, these two tasks cannot be perfectly distinguished. One picks up a book, reads, finds no wisdom – it is difficult to avoid the judgement "what a load of rubbish." (And what coldhearted critic is so immune to this other love affair?) In a sense, the philosopher is the more self-centred of the two. The critic can be styled as some defender of the Realm, purging the nefarious and unworthy. The philosopher must always make of themselves a laboratory instrument, testing out the tremors of new thought-combinations. To think with, to pass judgement on; forgiving of sins, a magnet to them. Neither deserving of condemnation in the abstract. But, oh, would that we could discern them more ably in the concrete…

Monday, 29 February 2016

PhD diary #5: 29/02/2016

Coming into this PhD project five months ago, I had a clear (albeit speculative and provisional) plan for what I wanted to do. I had it worked out down to a chapter structure:

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

The basic idea was to have each chapter concentrate on a particular group of concepts and then the flow of the thesis as a whole would work these things through historically, reaching a synthesis by the conclusion.

It is perhaps most telling that I found it easier to work out this structure than to write a title. The interconnections between these concepts and their historical trajectories remains what interests me. However, I have had to – and this was entirely expected from the beginning – set aside or background one or two ideas and rejig the rest, while at the same time identifying a particular and singular common thread and purpose running through the whole apparatus. (I finally managed this, I think, about six weeks ago.)

Abandoning, then, the idea that I would structure the chapters around concepts, I have instead decided to configure them in an historical sequence such that each chapter approximately follows from the previous, while each also has a focal point that develops the ideas crucial to the overall argument. It looks something like this:

Introduction: Traces (1610/1964)
Chapter 1: Cosmos (1798-1859)
Chapter 2: Life (1855-1911)
Chapter 3: Travel (1874-1942)
Chapter 4: War (1915-1956)
Chapter 5: Revolution (1956-1984)
Chapter 6: Earth (1957-2018)
Conclusion: Epochs (12,700 BP)

The title: An Historical Ontology of Environmental Geopolitics. It is, then, a history of the relationship between conceptions of environment and of geopolitics, not only tracing these words and ideas in their genealogical specificity but, at the same time, situating them in relation to various sorts of crucial world events – geopolitical, geological, scientific, technological, and so on. The key concept tying this together is that of ontology as the distribution of agencies.

By understanding these intellectual historical changes, on an abstract level, in terms of variable distributions of agency unfolding over time, I think that it will be possible to better understand certain political and philosophical questions (raised by issues such as the concept of the Anthropocene) without either underestimating their novelty or obsessing over it. In other words, it is a matter of better understanding the past in order to better think the present – this present, I would suggest, being rather maltreated in this respect of late.

Saturday, 13 February 2016

Special issue of Global Discourse on "Politics and the Later Latour" published in full

The special issue of Global Discourse on "Politics and the Later Latour" has finally been published in full, including the editorial introduction. My own article "Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour’s Anthropocenic geopolitics" seems to have been made open access – whether permanently or temporarily, I'm not sure. In any case, good to see this collection finally out there!

Friday, 29 January 2016

PhD diary #4: 29/01/2016

"An Historical Ontology of Environmental Geopolitics." This is the title that I seem to have settled on. By "ontology" I mean "distribution of agencies." So, in contrast to Michel Foucault or Ian Hacking, who have employed the same phrase in the sense of "an historical ontology of ourselves," I mean to understand this not so much in the sense of subject-making as in that of world-making, in a thoroughly "material" way (this term will also require some explication).

In adopting this sort of historical project, I am unavoidably drawn to the concept of "conditions of possibility." However, I think that it is entirely possible to put clear blue water between this and any Kantian transcendentalism. But also from any unreformed materialism. Material, as I'm using it here, is taken to signify that which is a substantial precondition of some process, practice or procedure. It is therefore a relative term – more a sociological concept than a metaphysical one. Clay is material to a brick-maker; bricks are material to a brick-layer.

The crucial concept, philosophically, here for me is what Alfred North Whitehead calls a "cosmic epoch." In Process and Reality (1929), he writes:
"Evidently new propositions come into being with the creative advance of the world. For every proposition involves its logical subjects; and it cannot be the proposition which it is, unless those logical subjects are the actual entities which they are. Thus no actual entity can feel a proposition, if its actual world does not include the logical subjects of that proposition. The proposition 'Caesar crossed the Rubicon' could not be felt by Hannibal In any occasion of his existence on earth. Hannibal could feel propositions with certain analogies to this proposition, but not this proposition." (259)
The notions of proposition and epoch are explicated here in terms of language. However, precisely the same conceptual apparatus is applicable to electrons and neutrons, the experience of colour, and so on. We might recall the unfortunate fate of the dodo bird in these terms. Nothing in the cosmic epoch of the dodo prepared it for the invasive Europeans and their predatory pets. Nothing in what these entities proposed could make the dodo "feel" the response "flee!"

As Richard Grove has written in his Green Imperialism (1995), the colonial appropriation of small tropical islands and the co-emergent proliferation of botanical gardens, populated with the produce of these same trade routes, were crucial to the development of ecological thinking in Europe.

Somewhere in all these connections, I am in the process of drawing out a thesis.

Sunday, 27 December 2015

PhD diary #3: 27/12/2015

If I've learned anything in the last month, it is this: respect your wrists. I've had problems with RSI and carpal tunnel syndrome before, but it's never gotten bad enough that I couldn't work or function. I am on the mend but dictation software is a necessity for the foreseeable future! So far, so irritating. But it works well enough to get by.

I am currently about halfway through the 700 pages of Clarence Glacken's Traces on the Rhodian Shore. It's a book that I've been meaning to read for a long time. It's regarded as something of a classic in the history of geographical ideas. And rightly so, it turns out. It's an absolute masterpiece and will, I think, form a large part of the basis of my Ph.D. thesis.

Glacken ends his narrative around the year 1800, about the time I intend to take up mine.
Two men, Herder and Humboldt, it seems to me, are representatives of ideas held toward the earth as a whole in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Herder represents […] the best in the old that was now to vanish, with hints of the new. Humboldt represents an approach to nature study which leads into nineteenth-century thought. (537)
I think that I'm quite close to being able to specify precisely what my project now involves. I'm not quite brave enough to lay this out right now, however I feel that I'm getting there.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

PhD diary #2: 24/11/2015

It may be a banal and nominalistic thing to write but until 1827 no one lived in an 'environment.' Even then, when the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle coined the term in order to translate Goethe's use of the German Umgebung, this word did not quite chime with present understandings.

How did environment come to have the meaning it has today, what were its precursors and parallels and what was the significance of these changes for political, and particularly geopolitical, thought? These are things that I have been thinking about over the past few weeks. I've yet to reach an agreeable statement of a research question but I feel that I am getting there.

Philosophically, I am beginning to settle on the term 'speculative pragmatism' to describe the position that I wish to articulate. Historiographically, I am caught between 'historical ontology,' which has a previous life particularly in the works of Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking, and 'historical metaphysics,' which, to paraphrase Nietzsche, having less history is therefore more apt to be redefined. Of course, 'metaphysics' is likely to set even more eyes rolling, among the philosophically unpredisposed, than 'ontology.' But, then again, perhaps that's not altogether a bad thing.

Certainly, historical metaphysics seems as peculiar a combination of words as speculative pragmatism. A contradiction in terms? I'd prefer a contrast in terms. A tension not 'as yet unresolved' but rather maintaining a provocative interstice.

Saturday, 21 November 2015

The value of science fiction for history

There is no more vivid encapsulation of an historical moment than that which is captured in a futural vision that no longer passes for futuristic. They are troves, these archaic futurities.

This is part of my ongoing semi-obsession with the film Silent Running (1972). It quite beautifully articulates a very particular understanding of what an environment is – an understanding that now stands out as being something from another era altogether. And the fact that it does so through such a rich medium serves more important purposes than the simply illustrative (although there's that too).

Of course, when reading or watching science fictions past, it is often striking just how much they get right and there is far more to such texts and reels than their out-datedness. But there is something particularly striking in moments that jar with the present rather than resonate with it. Something irreducibly valuable.

And all of this is why I would much prefer to pursue a 'history of ideas' than an 'intellectual history.' How staid and textureless is the latter as a flag for thought? That is not to condemn the close, focused concern with the texts that such a term designates, far from it. It is just to prise open the possibility of there being no useful or interesting distinction to be made between 'cultural' history and that of the 'intellectual.' To regard the separation of 'high' and 'low' not so much with scorn as with humour. (What is funnier than the vain, indignant defence of a hierarchy that has already crumbled?)

Friday, 20 November 2015

The epistemological rupture and other stories

Catching up with the Eagles of Death Metal back catalogue. Seems only right.

Just finished reading Ursula Le Guin's City of Illusions. Deeply affecting.

These are inchoate, distracted, fragmented, tired thoughts (aren't they all?).

I am presently characterising my research project as an 'historical ontology' but this presents me with a problem – how far can or should I attempt to dissociate this term from its origins in the works of Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking?

Pointedly, what if the famous 'epistemological rupture' were a myth (more pointedly still: a bad one)? Or, more specifically, what if many of the problems currently encountered in thought were the result of assuming history to be a succession of more or less wiped-clean slates? Ruptures and revolutions? What if these events, not doubted per se, were susceptible to overly enthusiastic identification?

As Isabelle Stengers puts it in her book on Alfred North Whitehead, most encapsulatingly: "critical consciousness admits so many things without criticising them." And do not revolutions leave so very much in place?

I am thinking of much writing on 'resilience,' particularly the more scathing kind. So often the critics buy wholly into the propaganda of those they are criticising – that this is a wholly new way of thinking; a brand new set of techniques clearing away all that came before it, destined to take over, to sweep over and cover the planet like a blanket.

No more safety net or security cordon, just bounce-back-ability – the knocking opportunity found in the dull, distant thuds of an other's tragedy. There is certainly truth to this image. Neoliberalism and all that. The vultures do swarm.

But still there are nets, cordons, walls everywhere (a favourite world-making device of Le Guin, as it happens; particularly in The Dispossessed, chronologically the first in the Hainish cycle of books, which City of Illusions follows, a few thousand Terran years later). Walls growing like long, flat bamboo, cutting right through the land – but selectively, oh so precisely. Bringing a whole new meaning to 'land-locked.' There's security for some. It is the means of delivery and the extent of the coverage that is really in question.

And while walls are certainly enrollable into techniques of resilience, they surely echo and issue from a far older place. So why the blanket, as if such all-covering ruptures had actually occurred?

What does the built landscape of our collective abstractions look like if not a succession of semi-blank slates, temporarily stable states, rebuilt upon like neat, compressed strata? What is the proper image of such historicity. What forensis for this landscape?

Our thoughts, our categories, our abstractions – an ancient conurbation, continuously inhabited. No edifice persists without maintenance, without struts and strappings, without repetition but, for all that, we should not confuse the ages, conflate the epochs, prematurely compress the sprawling, soaring pulses of life, love, ceramic and aggregate. The architecture of our abstractions is less pristine palace, clean lines and geometric domes, than a reclaimed, hard-won, be-decked and bedraggled; ancient edifices built over, reused, repurposed – repetition, yes, but persistence nevertheless.

Some of every thought is the newest of the new and it surely cannot be otherwise. But some patterns aren't easily shrugged off. It is easier to hear them than to resist them…

The problem of history. It is not a storage crate to be picked through at leisure. It is not a layer cake that needs re-separating.

Perhaps 'historical metaphysics' would be a better term. An historical metaphysics born of speculative pragmatism. I need only show that neither of these phrases are contradictions in terms but, in fact, elements of a necessary tensegrity.

Back to the music. Damn, that's a riff.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Matter, a concrete generality

Is it possible to sum up Alfred North Whitehead's metaphysics in a sentence? No. But here's a sentence anyway:

There are no concrete generalities.

For philosophical materialism, matter is a concrete generality. It is, quite simply, what is. In Whitehead's thought, there are only concrete particularities. That is, 'actual occasions.' But isn't actual occasion just then another way of saying 'matter'? I think not. To say that reality is constituted by actual occasions is to say absolutely nothing about what those occasions are like. Neither hot nor cold, wet nor dry, material nor immaterial. That's really rather the point of them. Contrast this to 'matter,' which is said to have all kinds of properties. For some it is dead, lifeless, inert. For others, it is active, lively, vibrant. These are variations on the same theme: matter as a concrete generality. On the contrary, actual occasions demand specificity – it is built into their very definition that nothing much can be said about them in general. Matter, then, appears as an abstraction. And there's nothing wrong with abstractions. As Whitehead affirms, one cannot so much as think without abstractions. However, we have to be careful as these things can get out of hand fast. 'Actual occasion' can then be understood as the minimal concept that permits wide-ranging abstract thought while safeguarding against the poison of concrete generality – i.e. against something fundamental, general and capable of being meaningfully described.

I'm going to be reading a lot more Whitehead in the near future, so we shall see whether this understanding is still standing in a little while. At the moment, this is basically an abridged version of my understanding of Isabelle Stengers' understanding of Whitehead.