Saturday, 22 November 2014

Gaia in woodcut—the artwork of Gordon Liddle

Some arresting images!

See more here. This is what the artist has to say about his work:
I have used Gaia as a metaphor for this print and a series of paintings (underway). She is shown in the print raising her arms below the symbol for the Sixth Extinction, borne by the two eagles. The Sixth Extinction (Holocene Extinction) is being triggered by humans by our treatment of the environment, recently accelerated to about 140,000 species per year. Huge population growth, resource depletion, deforestation, ocean trawling, dumping and industrialisation leading to climate change have exacerbated this event. Gaia stands within a paradise, mother nature, the earth in all its splendour, whilst on the other side are the humans with their processes of destruction: too many to place in a single woodcut, hence the series. The creatures (I’ve shown a few) are leaving Gaia and bound to extinction, ensnared by pollution and destruction. The remnants of humanity wail in despair at the spectacle, unable to stop their own demise. The science is overwhelming now, either we act or we perish. There is no planet B to escape if we destroy life here. My picture is a warning, a lament, my contribution to the debate on the future of humanity and our relationship with Gaia.
I would quibble the mother nature bit—indeed, the personification of Nature as Woman.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Henning Schmidgen—Bruno Latour in Pieces (some brief thoughts)

Peter Gratton wrote a short review of Henning Schmidgen's Bruno Latour in Pieces a couple of weeks ago. I had, at that point, only just started reading it and thought the review a bit harsh. Having now finished it, I think that I liked it more than Peter did overall. However, he was not wrong that its best moments are in the first 50 pages or so. Unlike him I wasn't so bothered that the book is quite light on explications of Latour's major texts. For me it just seemed to run out of the interesting anecdotes, asides and observations that pepper the earlier pages so delightfully.

The 'Science Wars' were covered but not in a great deal of detail. The manner in which Latour is occasionally heckled at public events could certainly have been dealt with (see, for example, this). That might have given some weight to the otherwise rather breezy (and admittedly very readable) air of the text.

One rather minor and grammar police-type point that bugged me a little: a spectacular underuse of commas. It's like the printers were charging them by the punctuation mark or something. I tend to overuse such things and there are grey areas in terms of their proper use; however, I thought that it began to impede readability. (Maybe it was just me.)

All in all, it's well worth a look but I could by no means put it in the 'must read' column for many readers. It's probably best for those who already have a good familiarity with Latour's work and are looking for some degree of fleshing out with regards to its background, particularly in the early days (those interested, for example, in Latour's work in Africa in the '70s should definitely find a copy). Provided that one doesn't pick it up expecting something especially systematic and rigorous it's a welcome addition to the secondary literature.

"that Mortall God" — Zvyagintsev's Leviathan; law, structure and the state

"This is the Generation of the great Leviathan, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace, and defence." — Thomas Hobbes

Although Andrey Zvyagintsev's highly (and justly) celebrated film Leviathan obviously connotes Thomas Hobbes' famous treatise, it should perhaps also be linked with one of Nietzsche's most famous lines, specifically when he called the state "the coldest of all cold monsters". 'Leviathan' gives this film not only its title but its whole sense of world; it is a film about structure, about the crushing, irresistible weight of this great, horrible, monstrous, but also mortal being.

If it can be summed up so simply, the film reflects on the immense, destructive, tragic but also transient force of assembled societal power; a power that seems utterly vast and yet will, in time, crumble like everything else. Churches will become ruins in which teenagers hang out, powerful leaders will become jokes (albeit private ones), whales will wash up and leave only their skeletons on the beaches.
"Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?" (Job 41:1)
There is a strong sense of anger but also, overwhelmingly, futility in this film. Non-resistance seems to be the only means of survival for any of these characters (indeed, the Book of Job-speaking priest offers precisely this advice at one point). The protagonists perturb the status quo in the first act but, like a sturdy ship, it rights itself and it is as if that wave had never rolled in. The state's fragility (and here taking 'state' in its broadest sense, including the church, organised crime, and so on), its transience, its mutability is of no comfort to those caught up in its wheels and cogs. It is something that is only even really perceptible on a broader scale of time than that of a human life. It would take the whole 140 years that Job is said to have lived in order to make anything of this mortality. The skeleton on the beach, while deeply symbolic, doesn't suggest any real possibility of resistance. Structural mortality and fatalism come together, without contradiction.

There is far more to this film than I am able to go into here. Despite its bleak themes, it is often very funny and is beautifully shot. Many shots of the decaying ships in the harbour recall the cinema of Tarkovsky so strongly that had they been held for 50 seconds rather than 5 one could have been excused for mistaking parts of Leviathan for his Stalker.

In short, the film is about church, state, Russia past and present. The fact that it was sponsored by the Institute Of Modern Russian Culture is interesting in itself. The film treads an extremely fine and precarious line with regard to the current regime. Overt criticism is more or less avoided but the subtext sounds out like a foghorn. The various portraits of Putin hanging about the place, the Orthodox figures of Jesus staring from every mantlepiece (and dashboard), the scene with the portraits of past Russian leaders, the brief glimpse of the words 'Pussy Riot' on a TV screen. Iconographically the film is incredibly rich and it'd take someone far better qualified than me to do any of it justice. It is a remarkably critical film in many ways although clearly one that has elected to mind its historical moment (one character says precisely this in one of the film's most crucial political scenes — a scene that occurs, tellingly, far out in the wilderness, 100km from the small town in which the film is mostly set).

The one other thing I'd like to mention is the law. One of the most striking scenes in the film is found in a court room where the presiding official reads through the judgement so fast that the words become just a blur, a solid block of somehow insignificant signification, a stream of pronouncement without even the slightest hesitation; she barely even pauses to breathe and when she does it seems almost reluctant. It is a barrage, an avalanche, a volley of legalese. The force of the power on display is its total incontestability. Never mind 'getting in a word edgeways,' there is no gap for any objection whatsoever.

It is also quite amazing how surprised everyone at the police station and courts appear when the hotshot lawyer from Moscow swans in and presents them with legal argument (with the ever so naive belief that this will have some force). It is not only that they do not accept its force, it is that the very notion that they would appears to be the strangest thing in the world. 'What? That is not how things work here,' they seem to be saying. For the most part this is without any particular maliciousness (except for where the principle antagonist is concerned, who is nothing but malevolence, maliciousness and greed). It simply is not the way things are done. It is an alien proposition.

Here we are presented with the institution of law without its process. The hollowed out shell, the great fleshless ribcage of the social in a society corrupted, captured by organised crime of one sort or another. Although this is a film on the most ostensive level about law there is precious little legality within it. All legal utterances fall flat against an edifice that has simply rendered them not unspeakable but inaudible. (And here perhaps it would be interesting to reflect on the preoccupation of structuralism with speech — 'can the subaltern speak?' In the case of the main character, a socially privileged male in some respects but utterly incapable of engaging with bureaucratic formality on its own terms, he clearly cannot speak or act in the language of law. And yet when his incomparably more nuanced, cultured lawyer friend speaks for him in perfect, considered, calm but also forceful and pointed sentences he meets an infrastructure simply incapable of hearing his flawless, metropolitan speech acts.) This is a world in which law has, to all intents and purposes, died; reduced to procedure; reduced to a tool of power, of organisation.

Like so many excellent films, this one has, its excellence notwithstanding, perhaps been a little overhyped. I went into the screening with mildly overinflated expectations. It is not an epic. It is a low budget film with a relatively small cast but, most importantly, big ideas. It is the epitome of what film making should be; however, I certainly didn't find it to be life-changing or anything of the sort. An absolute must watch for anyone interested in political or legal theory, or simply anyone who likes slow moving, beautifully made, slightly dystopian tragedies. Since I tick all of those boxes it is a film that I'll be thinking about for some time to come.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

James, politics and prescriptive pluralism: part 2

Just to finish off what I raised in my last post now that I've finished that book (Kennan Ferguson's William James: Politics in the Pluriverse).

It's an easy read if a little tame; meek, even. Lightweight in both style and length (only 93 pages). Chapter 3 ('Sovereignty, Self-Determination and the Nation') is interesting as it ties James' pluralist political theory to International Relations literature (this hardly ever happens and so I'm very pleased when it does). Chapter 4 ('La philosophie américaine: James, Bergson, and intercontinental pluralism') does a good job of narrating James' relationship, personally and philosophically, with Henri Bergson. However, there is more to it than this. Particularly intriguing is a point made late in the chapter, specifically that James was popular in Russia around the turn of the century. This, of course, did not last.
For Lenin, of course, pluralism was inadmissible; one could not doubt what actions to take, nor admit to more than one possibly right approach. (64)
This would be an interesting case to develop further. The final chapter ('Onticology recapitulates philosophy') seems at times to posit a kind of 'object-oriented' James (Ferguson does discuss him in relation to object-oriented programming) but doesn't quite follow through; things never quite seem to achieve the status of differences that make differences, they are more like 'always-theres.' However, Ferguson certainly makes the case against the reduction of James to a thinker of 'flows' and 'streams.' In this reading, everything for James, in the end, comes down to the question of plurality—and this is better articulated in terms of things than flows.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

James, politics and prescriptive pluralism: part 1

I'm just starting to read Kennan Ferguson's William James: Politics in the Pluriverse, a book that I've been meaning to get hold of for some time. So far it's a good read.


The early part of the book attempts to dissociate James' pluralism, a term that he popularised in the late nineteenth century, from the course that word took in the twentieth.
James created pluralism as an anti-Hegelian distrust of all universalist systematizing—an anti-teleological ethos that emphasizes the profound and meaningful differences in the worlds of different people. In short, James' pluralism was prescriptive
Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the term pluralism came to primarily mean something far different, something merely descriptive. Pluralism is now understood as referring to the fact of human difference, the unpleasant and sometimes unavoidable incommensurability of values that threatens people's abilities to build political institutions, share meanings and even communicate. (15)
Later the book goes into the connections between Continental and American philosophies and a Jamesian 'onticology' of objects.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pluralism—neither idealism nor realism but, above all, not absolutism

If philosophical absolutism can be defined as the expectation that a philosophical schema can (and should) be capable of incorporating any thing of any kind, anywhere at any time into its tenets, postulates and axioms with no remainder then we will notice that many philosophies termed ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ have much in common.

A pluralist philosophy not only expects to encounter entities that baffle, dissemble and defy but welcomes such virtuous incomprehension—but then, of course, so may an inquisitive, curious and expansionist absolutism. What distinguishes pluralism is that it does not attempt to explain, subsume or incorporate as such; instead, it attempts to facilitate the terms of the encounter, to work through the situation as a specific event, to think through the middle, penser par le milieu.

Many ‘realisms’ would be better termed 'absolutisms'; and it would be well noted that they are not so dissimilar to their declared others. Pluralism does not mean idealism; on the contrary, it has no necessary affiliation to either side of that conflict. Pluralism needn’t grant ‘ideas,’ ‘mind,’ ‘language,’ ‘discourse’ or ‘consciousness’ any particular privilege. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how a properly pluralist philosophy ever could.

Pluralism must be realistic with regard to itself. All its realism must derive from—no, be subsequent to—this first demand (note: not first principle).

Realisms tend to operate with an implicit and more or less denied self-denial that I have characterised with the phrase ‘of course, I might be wrong.’ Few philosophers are such megalomaniacs as to think that they have finally—'at last!'—uncovered the real secret key to the hidden order of things. However, an all too thin concept of ‘speculation’ permits the argumentatively tentative (although often rhetorically bombastic) suggestion that this or that particular bundle of words and pages may, finally, have pinned down the butterfly, uncovered the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

Pluralism operates, as I have written previously, with a much ‘thicker’ and more demanding notion of speculation. Philosophical action, not unlike action in general, results from existential demands. Its speculative character must be understood in relation to these demands. Thought untethered from a real problem is simply practice in the sense of 'today I practiced my guitar.' If a real, pressing, urgent problem is not present then one must be simulated. Nothing can be said against this but it is plainly an example practice qua preparation.

If philosophical thought—action—has a virtue (and I don't take the 'if' lightly) it is realised 'on stage,' as it were; in the midst, in the melee, in the milieu.

Pluralism can be distinguished from other comparable terms by the fact that it never takes 'reality' as its problem. The realist qua absolutist seems to say 'anything less than reality as a whole, without remainder, is not worth my time.' There is a political consequence that does not 'follow from' such philosophical pomposity but closely neighbours it: any ignorance, any foolishness, any deception relative to the Real that is the one and only real, perennial Problem is a matter of concern that must have Truth spoken to its power, to its plainly illegitimate Being. Pluralism, on the contrary, can choose its battles neither arbitrarily nor dogmatically. Not every disagreement on the register of knowledge must become public, political. In fact, many disagreements simply do not matter. That 'not mattering' is the new route to the good life. To live well is to live with, well enough—to 'I can live with that.'

This is perhaps the fault, then, of materialism, as generally conceived: it cannot ever reach the truly immaterial, that which simply does not matter. If everything, everywhere is of a common base and follows common laws and if avowed acknowledgement of all that is ontologically subtensive is a matter of public order then any divergence from reality, no matter how trivial, becomes a matter of public concern. On the contrary, if differences must do more than merely diverge in order to become a problem, and if 'reality' as such simply cannot ever become meaningfully 'problematic,' then coexistence becomes remarkably more thinkable.

The question then really becomes: is 'coexistence' that which we are working for? For many the answer to this is 'no' (they have other agendas) and that is the terrain on which arguments should proceed since this is what truly divides; this is terrain worthy of a friend/enemy declaration; endless feuds over relations and substances and so on are not at all as deserving—these are examples of philosophy for its own ends.

To the pluralists, problems; to the absolutists, perennials. This chasm runs far deeper than idealism versus realism, and is many times more urgent an area for exploration.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Harman's 'Reassembling the Political'—Some first impressions

I received Graham Harman's new book on Latour's political thought last Wednesday. Apparently before it's author!

Having spent several hours in and around airports on the following day, I was able to read it on Thursday. However, I'm only just now having time to put my thoughts down in words, this time looking out at the passing Devonshire countryside.

It is certainly a very thorough introduction to aspects of Latour's political philosophy. However it has, in my opinion, several major flaws.

First, and perhaps least importantly, the first half of the book should really give Latour co-writing credit since it is mostly a patchwork of quotations from his books. In excess of 50% of the text seems to be quotation in many places (I haven't calculated this systematically). This gives the impression of a book that was written in a hurry and that, while not being very long, is short on original content. The actual analysis is packed into the last 70 pages or so, amidst more long quotations from other authors.

Secondly, and much more seriously, the book almost completely decontextualises its subject matter. Latour's political thought becomes free-floating and grounded only in his own personality, not in his problematiques, nor in his historical moment. It is written, like Harman's Prince of Networks, as though Latour was responding to 'perennial problems' rather than concrete historical issues. Unless I somehow missed it, Harman doesn't even mention the 'Science Wars,' a quite surprising omission, especially with regard to the extensive treatment of Politics of Nature, which, along with Pandora's Hope, was written in direct response to said affair. (I should add that I don't have the text in front of me to double check these points but if these things were mentioned it can only have been very briefly.)

Thirdly, and not unrelatedly, Harman hardly mentions diplomacy as a concept at all. His treatment of 'politics' comes down almost entirely to the issues of power and violence. He does mention at one point that, contrary to Zizek's imperiously self-certain basing of politics on Truth, Latour thinks and argues as a diplomat rather than a vanguardist. However, the depth and importance of this concept (one that he takes from Isabelle Stengers) is unrecognised and its conceptual complexities are not even nodded at.

Much like his previous writings on Latour, Harman's new book should not be read as a neutral introduction. Just like Prince of Networks, Harman really ends up talking about himself and his own interests via the medium of Latour's concepts. Harman's clear, accessible and sometimes entertaining prose style, and the excessively extended introductory quotations, should not distract from this point. The final two fifths of the book are far stronger than the earlier part with interesting and valuable discussions of Zizek and Strauss. However, as mentioned above, it appears to be a book written both in a hurry and in a style that fosters the appearance of being relatively neutral and introductory while in fact being anything but. Once again, Harman completely ignores the more interesting and complex, pluralistic aspects of Latour's work and his unwavering groundedness in problems.

To take account of the changing historical circumstances in which Latour was writing would require a more careful and difficult writing process. Harman prides himself seemingly above all in being prolific. Well, it is easy to be prolific when you trade in 'perennial problems' that require no contextual discussion. Moreover, it is easy to slice Latour's works up into heuristic phases when when the actual conditions under which his thought evolved are simply erased.

Harman writes that Latour deserves better critics than he has for the most part been subjected to so far. I would agree. However, Harman's only real criticism is that Latour is not 'realist' enough, which perhaps explains why he gives diplomacy as a concept such short shrift. If he had to actually deal with the extreme intimacy of thought, politics and plurality in Latour's and Stengers' works it wouldn't be so easy to reduce the former's to bland, emaciated musings on 'perennials' that are said to be hamstrung by being inadequately underpinned by 'realism.'

Harman continues to reject out of hand the possibility of any real relation between Latour's work and that of Deleuze on the rather dubious metaphysical grounds that Deleuze apparently dissolves things into flows while Latour is interested in individual things. Even if that were true it is flabbergasting to think that the basic ontological aesthetic choice of things versus processes would exhaust the relevance of a thinker as complex and multifaceted as Deleuze.

Latour is Deleuzian, in my view, in this sense: he is a thinker for whom thought must always move from, around, towards and/or through a specific, particular, pressing and contemporary problem. His work simply cannot be properly understood in ignorance of this. The crucial connection between philosophical and political pluralism, both of which must be redefined in order to reach a new accommodation of the Moderns' values, is just left outside in the cold.

In grounding Latour's thought in perennials rather than problems, Harman not only misrepresents Latour's work; in my view, he fails to understand its most essential characteristics. He doesn't just perturb the works along a slightly new trajectory (of course every commentator does this) and he doesn't just neglect important aspects of Latour's work. He gets crucial, core elements of Latour's thought wrong.

It is for this reason that Harman's books should be read with a highly critical eye. Under no circumstances, in my opinion, should they be assigned to students or interested beginners as introductory texts. While the copy and paste reassembly of choice cuts of Latour-prose may be useful for such readers—as a kind of highly edited 'Latour Reader'—they are likely to be wholly mislead by the unmistakably Harmanian spin that is put on the whole assemblage. Once again, this is, on a conceptual level, more a book about Harman than it is about Latour, and it must be read as such.

Harman's central conceit in both his books published on Latour to date is this: to read Latour as though he hadn't attempted to redefine what doing philosophy, or doing political philosophy, involved; as if he could be read without recognising the degree to which he attempts to modify the very ground of interpretation from which he could be understood.

Harman's book is not without merits but its demerits are disappointing. The summary of recent criticism makes for a useful literature review and focusing some attention on the Hobbesian underpinnings of Latour's work over the years is worthwhile. However, ultimately Harman is all too conservative a reader. His modus operandi is one of simplification, axiomatisation and schematisation. While I have nothing against these operations per se they it would be nice if Harman at least acknowledged that in pinning down the proverbial butterfly he is losing something of its being—perhaps the most crucial part.

Latour's work doesn't need simplification and separation; it needs articulation and interconnection; less carding, more weaving. The principle fault of the existing secondary literature on his work is that it fails to draw it together in its interconnectedness. Harman compounds this problem. Just as his book on Latour's metaphysics sidelined his sociology, seeing that as a separate thing, here certain elements are deemed political and others are left out. This is, in my view, not helpful. If Latour's work were so easily 'zoned' it wouldn't be as interesting as it is.

And so I can only conclude by saying that if Harman's commentary becomes the prism through which people begin to read Latour (and I have seen some evidence of this) we will all be a lot worse off for it.

Monday, 27 October 2014

'Silent Running' at the Eden Project—Some reflections on cinema and its world

Following on from a post I wrote recently, the 1972 sci-fi classic film Silent Running was shown last night at the Eden Project in Cornwall.
The event was kicked off by the performance of a quite gorgeous sci-fi-inspired, ambient piece of music by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp), with Adrian Lee and Tim Allen, in the Mediterranean biome. (Among the celebrity Cornishmen in attendance—this needs to be mentioned as there really aren't many of them!—was the artist usually known as Aphex Twin.)

With dozens of speakers dotted around the place, the band's magnificently brooding, droning, chirping sound-waves reverberated all around the biome, mixing and melding with the rippling rhythms of talking, walking, dropping things... It was an immersive aural delight.

Afterwards, back in the main building and overlooking the domes, Utley and Gregory described how they were inspired particularly by the soundtrack for Forbidden Planet (1956) and its cobbled-together, hugely experimental techniques of sound-scaping.

Then came Mark Kermode's hilarious and heartfelt introduction to the film. I expect that a video of this will emerge on Eden's Youtube page soon, though it hasn't yet.

I'd watched the film five or six times before but never on a big screen, nor with a crowd of people. (Nor, indeed, on film as opposed to the DVD version.) It was quite remarkable how different the experience was under properly 'cinematic' conditions. I saw so many things in the film that I hadn't before (I am sure that it was differently edited to the DVD version, although it seemed to come in at the same running time); moreover, I felt many things watching the film that I had not previously. Scenes which previously slid by with little to mark them as remarkable became pivotal moments; the rhythm, pacing and structure of the film seemed to somehow reveal themselves; jokes that seemed only mildly humorous became hilarious ('laugh and the whole world...'), while the pathos of the film's closing act was stunningly magnified by the sheer silence of the audience as the events unfolded.

The film has its moments of kitsch and inadvertent humour (whatever the bird is that lands on Lowell's arm during the first Joan Baez song never fails to have them rolling in the aisles). In many ways, as even Kermode conceded, the film doesn't hold together; in many ways it is rather dated. However, there really is something very special about it as a work of art, especially when viewed in its proper environment—that is, when viewed cinematically.

The fact that some of the film's more naive moments provoked laughter only served to emphasise the degree to which its more sensitive moments were still able to move deeply, to make present sentiments that were utterly relatable, despite all the distancing effects of time and the ageing process of technical progression.

While the film was screened in a conference room rather than a proper cinema this hardly mattered. In fact the setting couldn't have been more perfect. The room was set up in such a way that Eden's domes, the architecture of which was inspired by the film, were visible just to the right of the screen. As the credits begin to roll we see one dome gradually drifting off into the distance. As Kermode noted rather excitedly, it appeared more or less the same size on the screen as the domes that were visible out of the window.

I can't think of a film that has been connected to its worldly consequences in the mere fact and technique of its projection as intimately as this one. What could sunder all pretences of textualism or filmic internalism more than this moment? Projection as a technical art is an intimate part of the broader art of cinema—this much is clear. And film is of the world. It is an ever transforming assemblage; it acts, it moves, it builds.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm planning on writing an article on all of this, taking this film as a case study for thinking about space and spatiality in film. It seems to me that for all the countless pages written on time in film there is precious little that concentrates on space—as though that were somehow either given or uninteresting. Neither of those things seem to me to be true. I am now quite excited about getting to work on this project!

On Law, Nomos and Gaia: Three Questions for Latour’s Legal Geopolitics

On Friday and Saturday last week I had the terrific good fortune of attending a workshop at the University of Hamburg titled 'The Materiality of Law and Global Politics: Inquiries into Bruno Latour’s Sociological Anthropology of Modernity.'

The paper that I presented is available here:



I am still mentally digesting what I learned from the event but it confirmed to me what I had already suspected; specifically, that I want to incorporate the sociology of law into my work in future.

I certainly wasn't able to resolve the 'three questions' that I posed; however, I think that I have a better idea of how to go about addressing them. Examining the relationship between law and geopolitics in their respectively pluralised senses will, I think, be very interesting.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The only thing worse than being talked about...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 October 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

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

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

Thursday, 25 September 2014

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

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


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

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

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







I am very much looking forward to it!

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







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

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


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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Latour on Tyrell and Gaia

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

Saturday, 20 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

Indeed, philosophy does not access.

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

Monday, 15 September 2014

The reality of speculation – speculative pluralism

Perspectivism, or scientific relativism, is never relative to a subject: it constitutes not a relativity of truth but, on the contrary, a truth of the relative. 
– Deleuze & Guattari, What is Philosophy?
Suppose, for instance, that you are climbing a mountain, and have worked yourself into a position from which the only escape is by a terrible leap. Have faith that you can successfully make it, and your feet are nerved to its accomplishment. But mistrust yourself, and think of all the sweet things you have heard the scientists say of maybes, and you will hesitate so long that, at last, all unstrung and trembling, and launching yourself in a moment of despair, you roll in the abyss. 
– William James, Is life worth living?
[...] when Sartre’s Roquentin, out of despair, vomits on a tree root, he certainly does not realize that the tree, the root, the rhizome have exactly the same problem as his: that they too are existential entities and not substances, that they are organisms which wage a bet on life in the sense that they have to exist, to get out of themselves and apprehend—hence the word prehension, so necessary for Whitehead—and that many other beings are necessary for the continuation of their existence. 
– Bruno Latour, What is given in experience?
Is existence worth existing? There's only one way to find out: speculate.

Speculative pluralism suggests not speculation on reality but, rather, the reality of speculation.

The pluralist specification: A philosophy must be capable of comprehending its own partiality and contingency without recourse to 'of course, I might be wrong'; that is, without the epistemological caveat. It must be capable of understanding itself as an event – and, what's more, remaining true to this particularity. It cannot outsource its particularity to doubt.

Speculative pluralism is sceptical of all 'regulative ideals' and 'as ifs.' These are the sounds of disappointment, not thought.

The least of a badly constructed concept's problems is that it is wrong.

Does 'reality' demand representation? In what tongue did you speak to it last?

Thinking is not 'made of' thought. The contrary: thencefrom derives all 'realist' mystification. (Thought can only 'correlate' if it is made from itself.)

To designate thought as 'speculative' – or, indeed, as 'pluralist' – is not to satisfy it with 'maybes.' Such indulgences are for those safe from the abyss.

The autogenic ends of philosophy

I am not a philosopher and am not interested in philosophy for its own ends. Then again, I am enough of a philosopher to be suspicious of anyone who is interested in philosophy for its own ends. Such introversion and self-interest seems, to me, to divert thought away from both where it is needed and where it thrives.

Call it conceptual callisthenics (Latour), the creation of concepts (Deleuze), or the development of a wisdom tradition (Sloterdijk) -- either way, the point is that philosophy mustn't pursue its own ends. Such self-pursuit is, one could even say, unphilosophical.

Self-pursuit is scholasticism; is a dog chasing its own tail; is a serpent eating itself...

Such autogenesis becomes autoerotic.

Pragmatism, with teeth

For a problem there is a condition worse than insolvability: inconsequence.

How few ponder the purpose of their Sisyphean (or, better, Ouroborean) predicaments!