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.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

David Graeber against Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and the 'ontological turn'

Further to my last post, the new issue of Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory has an article by David Graeber, Radical alterity is just another way of saying "reality": A reply to Eduardo Viveiros de Castro. As the title might suggest, it is a reply to de Castro's Who is afraid of the ontological wolf?, which, in turn, criticises another of Graeber's essays.

It is a long, often interesting but also often rather pedantic defence of Graeber's philosophical position against what he sees as the idealism of de Castro et al.

A fairly large portion of the piece involves 'unpacking' what I thought to be really rather stark, staring obvious: that when advocates of the so-called 'ontological turn' in anthropology use the word 'ontology' they do not mean it in the traditional philosophical sense of a formal, structured, philosophical account of being but rather use it to refer to the tacit, informal lived understandings and presuppositions that have ontological or cosmological consequences. I really don't know why it needed so much explication as, from what I've read, this is not in any way a controversial interpretation.

The reason for the longwinded explication is presumably that Graeber sincerely dislikes this redefinition (although he is relatively courteous, for the most part, with how he goes about stating this). Particularly at issue is the relativism that refuses the right of an anthropologist to posit a singular reality 'behind' the multiplicity of understandings of the world (the famous multiculturalism/mononaturalism).

For Graeber, the self-declared ontological pluralists are just radical idealists. He prefers the 'depth ontology' of critical realism that posits a singular reality that is unknowable. This unknowability is thought to leave enough room for cultural multiplicity and all the ontology talk is, at best, unnecessary.

As I see it, the accusation of idealism is the product of Graeber's own dualism. For the ontological turners, Graeber claims:
"[authoritative] statements must be treated as a window onto “concepts,” and concepts treated—through a form of “radical constructivism”—as if they were themselves realities of the same ontological standing as “things,” or indeed, constitutive of the world itself." (20)
For concepts to be of the same ontological standing as things simply means that one is not bifurcating reality – i.e. one is refusing dualism. To slip from that to "or indeed, constitutive of the world itself" is a conflation. He continues:
"The “ontological turn,” then, involves not only abandoning the project of ontology1 [i.e. traditional, philosophical ontology], but adopting a tacit ontology which seems indistinguishable from classical philosophical Idealism. Ideas generate realities. One could go even further. What they seem to be proposing is abandoning the entire project of philosophy (or at least, philosophy in anything like the forms it has historically taken in Europe, India, China, or the Islamic World.) Science, in contrast, would be preserved, but as the special property of “Westerners” or “Euro-Americans”—which if taken seriously, would amount to one of the greatest acts of intellectual theft in human history, since after all, much of what underlies what we now call “Western science” was actually developed in places like Persia, Bengal, and China, and in (dare I say?) the real world. Most scientific research is no longer being conducted by Euro-Americans at all." (21)
There are various claims here. The claim to be able to state what the entirety of the philosophical traditions of not only Europe but also India, China and the Islamic world have been all about is presumptuous bordering on pompous, to say the least. Even Western philosophy has been about rather more than magisterially postulating the furniture of the universe, although that has certainly been a part of it. The bit about science is a cheap shot that relates to nothing I can imagine de Castro et al. accepting for a moment.

The main claim, however, is that all the ontological turners are really doing is reproducing a tired, old and quite extreme form of idealism where concepts produce and/or exhaust reality. Now, I've by no means read the entirety of the relevant literature but this strikes me as a knee jerk reaction based on a misunderstanding that ultimately says more about Graeber's presuppositions than it does about anyone else's.

I do not understand the position of ontological pluralism to be claiming that concepts constitute reality without remainder. I understand the claim to be that concepts, ideas, whatever you want to call them, are on the same level of reality as everything else. That is, that it is illegitimate to say that one has concepts on one hand and things on another (bifurcation). Furthermore, that it is impossible to refer to a thing except in liaison with particular concepts. That doesn't mean that concepts are all that there is, only that to speak is to conceptualise. You cannot think without abstractions, as Whitehead put it.

So, yes, Amerindians and Europeans have different perspectives, different cosmologies, etc. But the trees and ants and spiders and so on presumably have their perspectives, too. Of course, the anthropologist qua anthropologist is not so interested in the perspectives of those things in themselves but in what their informants say about those things (although this is far from straightforward, admittedly). Hence why it might look a bit like idealism. But it simply does not follow that these things are equivalent. Methods and philosophies overlap and might confuse each other a little bit but a sympathetic reading can, I think, tell them apart.

The question hanging around the entire article is 'okay, but you don't really believe it when they say that, do you?' The implication is that it may be good manners (or even, depending on the circumstances, good politics) to rhetorically accept the beliefs of others that strike the observer as being wholly untrue but that there is a deeper and more fundamental sense in which one can, and should, declare them obviously unbelievable. Belief is absolutised, underlying all other modes of action. The epistemic underlies and underpins the moral, the political and so on. Belief is sacred. To fail to give belief its sovereignty is simply incomprehensible.

The thing that Graeber really can't get away from, I think, is the idea that either you accept that there is a real world (I won't add 'out there' because I think he is sophisticated enough to avoid that artefact of common sense stupidity) or you deny the existence of a world apart from concepts altogether. In other words, he seems to presume that to say that there are 'many worlds' rather than just a singular world is to reduce reality to concepts. This just doesn't follow and doesn't grasp what I think ontological pluralists are claiming.

It's a tough thing to explain so I'll approach it from a bit of an oblique angle (I'm thinking this through more for myself than for anyone else, to be honest!).

When I used to live in London, I realised quite quickly that nobody actually lives 'in London' – it's an abstraction. London is just far, far too big to live 'in' it in any meaningful sense as a totality. You live in this or that street, that area. Perhaps you have friends here and there. You take this tube line, etc. It is quite obvious that you live inside quite a narrow and confined network and that the vast, overwhelming majority of the city falls between the lines that you travel. Most of it you will never see nor even think about.

The fact that the epistemic techniques of geography allow us to place these networks within a larger container that can be defined as the totality 'London' (and the fact that this may be a very useful and sensible thing to do navigationally, administratively and so on) should not determine the social ontology by which one understands this city as it is being lived in. In other words, the common sense fact that all these streets, offices, bars, pipes, drains and so on that make up an individual's city-as-lived reside within a definable, connected region does not mean that London is one, cohesive, singular entity – like a body of which one was a cell.

The claim I would make is that there is no one way of joining these various things up that can be said to be the 'reality' that would have parts from which particular perspectives could be assembled (not the planner's bird's eye view, nor the individual's lived experience, etc.). That singularity or totality is a superfluous hypothesis. The crucial thing to emphasise is that the bollards, the rails, the bins, the foxes, the concepts and so on – all of these things are part of this not-one, part of this multiplicity that cannot be assembled in any one way that can be declared the most real. Because they are not bifurcated into different realms, it is perfectly sensible and consistent to hold that there is no one way of joining them up, just connected and overlapping ways that never add up to a whole. Or, rather, when a particular manner of joining things up forms a totality, this is also just one kind of entangled complex among others. It may be more or less important, more or less useful relative to a particular task or problem but it can be given no transcendent, automatic priority.

What is true of London is also true of the world, indeed the planet. Yes, in a certain sense we all live on 'one' planet. It would be silly do deny this but in either affirming or denying it we have tacitly accepted certain premises with regard to the form of connection that matters most. Nothing obvious about how things are proves that we should think about this planet as a singular entity rather than as an intensively connected but nevertheless fragmented and discrete bundle of bundles – that is if we think about anything beyond our immediate locale at all (that might also be okay).

The banal fact that everything is connected to everything else in some fashion does not mean that there is one world rather than many. It is in no way obscure or contradictory to claim that there are many worlds, all of which overlap and are related in some way but some of which are quite distinct and should be understood and dealt with as such. Nothing obvious about the way things are licenses a 'real world' which would reside behind all merely cultural understandings of said world. It's a dogmatic presumption, which doesn't make it wrong but doesn't make it right either.

At several points, Graeber pulls out the old incommensurability argument, which suggests that the de Castro et al. think that the collectives for which they are describing ontologies exist as some kind of definite, bounded, billiard ball-type entity. That, again, is a cheap shot against a position that I doubt anyone involved in this debate is really claiming to adhere to. No collective, certainly not one that has had a Western anthropologist living in it for years, is absolutely pure and separated from the rest of the world. Of course these things overlap, of course they are complicated. The limitations of language sometimes brings us to suggest that such things are definite entities in the manner of classical physics (or ball-based sports) but that does not make it necessarily so. Every attempt to name a collective is in a sense an attempt to verbally lasso a loose and self-assembling bundle of bundles that may well shrug off that signification, that may even violently reject it. The degree to which one is successful in articulating a bounding that is acceptable to the larger proportion of those persons is the basic barometer by which the naming can be judged a success. Of course, this is complicated by all sorts of power dynamics – who gets to object? whose objections are heard?, etc. – but such is life. These are the problems that are to be negotiated by the trials of experience.

I add by way of conclusion shutting up and going to sleep that I'm not unquestioningly or naively on board with the ontological pluralist agenda as it's being articulated in anthropology (for a start, the things I'm describing above may well not be fair representations of or addenda to their arguments). First, I'm not an anthropologist, just someone with an interest in, for want of a better term, the comparative sociology of knowledge. Graeber's argument that it should be wholly legitimate for anthropologists to adopt the role of an instigator of dialogue between collectives rather than just someone who continually emphasises and safeguards radical alterity seems perfectly acceptable to me. However, it really depends on the collective in question. Making general ethical rules with regard to this seems not only impossible but also deeply unwise.

The really important question would be which ethical and political roles are appropriate depending on what circumstances. That isn't the conversation that is happening at the moment but there does seem to be room for it. I'm sure that this conversation will roll on, in any case.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Andrew Kipnis on agency, ANT and the limits of ethnography; or, Does ANT have a politics problem?

The fabulous Hau: Journal of Ethnographic Theory has a new issue out.

Among the articles is Agency between humanism and posthumanism: Latour and his opponents by Andrew Kipnis. It is the latest in a series of interventions in this journal on anthropology and the so-called 'ontological turn.'

It starts out with a thoughtful and well-reasoned argument that, in short, 'agency' as such is not really the important issue. This is rather similar to what I was trying to get at a few posts ago with regard to 'flat ontology.' The disagreements that many people have with ANT have more, I think, to do with its methodological prescriptions than with the philosophical underpinnings – or, at least, the ontological discussion needs to deal with the methodological aspects as well. Kipnis writes:
"The methodological problem that ANT poses for politically critical research is not so much that it considers the agencies of nonhuman entities, or that in “posthumanist” fashion it considers agency to arise in networks rather than to reside in the individualized subjectivities of conscious human actors, but rather that it requires researchers to engage in slow, painstaking, and careful ethnographic research." (53)
Ethnographic methods might be very important and underused in many of the social sciences but there are, quite simply, some questions that cannot be answered through the sorts of detailed, empirical, case study-based research that ANT insists upon.

This is also something that I was attempting to articulate in a paper I wrote a few years ago on ANT and IR, Offshore: Symmetry, Space and Materiality. I argued that offshore tax havens are an excellent example of the kinds of networks that not only cannot be traced in any particular detail in practice (the investigative resources of whole nation states struggle to get past these walls of silence, so what could a mere social scientist do?) but, more than that, their very untraceability is what makes them what they are.
Because ANT “starts from irreducible, incommensurable, unconnected localities” [Latour] it assumes disconnection as an omnipresent status quo, thus foregrounding connection as what is exceptional and, consequently, as what is to be explained. Moreover, it takes for granted that relational events and the traces thereof are accessible to the researcher in a quasi-ethnographic fashion. This is emphatically not true in the case of, for instance, tax havens, which are defined by their secrecy. It is not for nothing that tax havens are argued to be more accurately termed ‘secrecy jurisdictions.’ Take, for instance, the case of tax haven lawyers who utilise trust and confidentiality laws to shield their clients’ assets; their entire purpose is to make these links untraceable; these people are not ‘centres of calculation’ but rather centres of “calculated ambiguity”. One cannot trace these networks since secrecy, non-traceability, is precisely what makes these networks function. They create disconnection and presume connection – precisely the opposite of ANT. 
This is, indeed, the experience of those who try to gauge offshore. A report for the Tax Justice Network compares the “subterranean system” of offshore to a “black hole” since it “is virtually invisible and can be somewhat perilous to observers who venture too close. So, like astronomers, researchers on this topic have necessarily used indirect methods to do their estimates, conducting their measurements from a respectful distance.” Or, as journalist Nicholas Shaxson (who has gotten as close to these networks as anyone) puts it, “[e]ven if you can see part of the structure … you can’t see the whole, you cannot understand it.” Another tax analyst uses the black hole metaphor: “Identifying tax shelter activity can be as difficult as finding objects trapped inside a black hole – their presence is known only through inference.” 
ANT grew up, so to speak, in the information-rich environment of STS. Whether following scientists, engineers, lawyers or psychotherapists, Latour, for one, has always examined actors who were relatively indifferent to their being followed. Thus he can write: “Our slogan ‘follow the agents themselves’ is not for the dogs. To it we sacrifice everything.” This methodological principle can be raised to an absolute without missing out on too much. IR, by contrast, is frequently an information-poor environment. Or, more accurately, it has huge quantities of data to sift through but these are generally traces of traces of traces; too much data, not enough information. Moreover, many of its actors are likely to be quite hostile to the notion of being followed in anything like an ethnographic sense! The mode of inference particular to ANT is basically limited to the ability to join the dots between one material-semiotic trace and another; consequently, it is quite ill-prepared to confront phenomena characterised by untraceability. While IR can learn a lot from ANT’s radical empiricism, for example its insistence that well constructed descriptions are explanations, it cannot swallow this pill whole.
After that point, Kipnis' arguments, for me, go off the rails a little bit. After suggesting that we can grant 'agency' to everything provided that we distinguish between different kinds of agency (okay, fine), he attempts to smuggle some fairly unreconstructed humanism and Marxism back in (reconstructed, I might be able to deal with).

First, he criticises Latour's lack of attention to questions of power and economics.
"[…] the lack of discussion of Capital and Power in his seemingly encyclopedic “Anthropology of the Moderns” makes me cringe. How can capital not be one of the modes of existence for modern humans?" (54)
How 'capital' would work as a mode of existence, I have no idea. This is a criticism of AIME that has cropped up repeatedly, in various ways: 'you've not made [this thing that is very important] a mode of existence, therefore you are devaluing or ignoring it.' Capital would, in the context of AIME, presumably be an ontic rather than ontological entity. In other words, it would be something constituted by a heterogeneous complex of modalities rather than being a kind of being in itself. That doesn't devalue it as a concept (although Latour's disinterest in such concepts is no secret).

Capital, for Kipnis, is:
"an instituted agency that pressures us moderns to make our calculations selfishly."
The ease with which this force of nature is injected into the text so casually, as though it were something that operated independently, autonomously and without mediation, is striking. One needn't undertake only detailed, local, empirical case studies of 'capitalism' (what a task that would be!) in order to recognise the value of the insistence that one look for the mediators by which any given force, no matter how powerful, is assembled, produced and made to act in the world – even as this force exerts pressures that are irreducible to the networks that mediate, stabilise and utilise it. Divested of the excesses of its occasionally fussy and fastidious empiricism, ANT can still help us to understand this much. Perhaps this is the shared task or middle ground that Kipnis is trying to get at but it doesn't come across as such in his writing on this point.

He then rolls out a familiar trope that I also discussed in my previous post on 'flat ontology,' the alleged ignorance of power:
"I find Latour’s relative disinterest in human power relations mirrored in his lack of attention to the concept of power. If I were rewriting his conceptual framework, I would substitute “power” for “felicity/infelicity conditions” as the primary dimension for differentiating types of agents." (54)
Felicity conditions in AIME concern different ways of distinguishing between success and failure. Of course, each mode has a kind of 'power' of its own as each is a different way of acting, of existing. Using 'power' as a differentiating condition would simply be restating what that mode is (hence the concept adds nothing and is superfluous, which is precisely Latour's point about it).

In the end, Kipnis rather undoes his previous good work by making a mess of agency, somehow 'granting it to everything' but then insisting that it differs categorically from power and describing human agency as "that contradictory space we experience whenever we attempt to make a decision about the unknown" (56). Far from offering a minor modification to the ANT take on agency, this completely undoes it since it re-locates human agency in an essential human reflexivity (which sounds a lot like politics, from Latour's point of view) and, presumably, any capacities that human beings have beyond this are not 'human agency' (and so what are they?).

The distinction between agency and power I just find strange.
"Barack Obama or Bill Gates undoubtedly have more power than I do. They get to follow their proclivities or gut instincts across a wider range of contexts than I do and their decisions certainly affect a greater number of people than mine. But this power does not give them more agency than me." (56)
Perhaps it is just me but I find this to be an irredeemably knotted jumble of thoughts. Making agency a qualitative condition of a kind of thing (specifically, humans) and power a quantitative measure (where some 'have' more of it and others less), again, completely demolishes anything that might remain of the ANT-type conception of the world.

The likes of Obama and Gates are only powerful due to their particular locations within various networks of all kinds of actors. Yes, they 'have' power in a sense – when they move or speak, ripples issue out far out of proportion in amplitude to those from you or me – but these networks also 'have' them (the 'possession' of power works both ways). These landscapes are full of asymmetries – as are scientific laboratories or building sites. Power is everywhere, so much so that pointing it out is rather trite and serves to convey nothing more than the author's self-identification as a 'critical thinker.' The well-beaten drum of 'power critique' has less, I think, to do with the urgencies of the world than with the proclivities of the academy but that is perhaps another post.

None of this, I hasten to add, means that ANT doesn't have a problem with politics. The case study-centrism, the ethnographic fundamentalism (perhaps these terms are a bit strong but rather too much than too little…) – these close off many important research questions from examination. The centrality of the case study, particularly when articulated in its somewhat vulgarised form as part of a 'theoretical framework' to be employed by graduate students, has the effect of creating legions of researchers that are tremendously interesting and productive but can all too easily disconnect their matters of research concern from dissensus, conflict and the embeddedness of their own research in wider political processes.

In one sense, this is nothing more than an argument for methodological pluralism (in additional to the ontological pluralism that AIME brings with it), which is usually, in my experience, pushing at an open door with regard to getting people to concur. Institutional acceptance is another issue altogether.

I am not, in this post or previous ones, attempting to pretend that there aren't flaws and limitations in the ANT approach to social science (I, for one, do not intend to employ them in any direct fashion in my own thesis work). I am rather trying to get away from criticisms that are, by now, misplaced clichés and get towards something a bit more productive.

Not quite there yet but hopefully I'm making some progress – and the better parts of this Kipnis article have helped in that regard.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

PhD diary #1: 21/10/2015

Officially, it is one month to the day since I began my PhD studies at Aberystwyth University. A lot has happened in these past few weeks – miles travelled, people met, words written. Far too many things to recount (and to do so would be rather tedious for those who have not experienced them).

I owe the idea for this post (and the few dozen that will follow it) to a presentation I heard at the Millennium conference in London last weekend by Erzsebet Strausz of Warwick University (formerly also of Aberystwyth). Reading out excerpts from her own thesis, she reflected on the process of writing and related it to the panel's theme: in a word, Foucault.

I missed Erzsebet's talk at the EISA conference in Sicily a few weeks ago but I did go to a couple of sessions organised by new friends and co-students here at Aber on research methods. Not nearly as dry as it might sound, we talked at length about creative writing, reflexivity and the importance of laying the workings of the research process bare – in other words, incorporating the messiness of research into the finished product rather than stripping it all out and polishing it all away (see John Law for more details). Megan Daigle (of Aber until a couple of years ago) talked about how she wrote up her fieldwork in Cuba more or less chronologically, structuring it around a narrative of her own journey. We also complained, as any people with a shared vocation do when they get in a room together, about the strictures and rigmaroles of university research training – and of the university in general. (That can all stay in the room.)

I don't think that I have Erzsebet's talent for self-reflection, nor does my less travel-oriented project really lend itself to Megan's approach to writing. Nevertheless, sitting in that stuffy room, on that uncomfortable chair at the LSE, I was brought to ponder: What is a preface for? To set up what needs setting up, to preempt what needs preempting, to give thanks to whoever or whatever needs to be given it. Although it always sits at the very front of a work (in older books it might even be before the contents page), it is usually the very last thing to be written. But why not, I thought, write this often rather perfunctory document as I go? Why not allow this usually withered and forgotten organ to become something more interesting?

And so, and I do not mean to give this great fanfare as I'm sure that someone else has done it before, I decided to write the preface to my thesis as a series of monthly diary entries, the overall number to be determined simply by when I finish the damned thing.

There is, of course, quite a risk in committing to this this! I feel somehow exposed even writing these words. Do I really want to commit right now to the words (these very words!) that will open my PhD thesis in three years time? It goes against every instinct towards perfectionism that I have (and I have a few). And yet that is precisely the reason why I should finish this post, click 'Publish' and send it out into the world (or onto the screens of my, shall we say, select readership, at least). If I am this pretentious at this point, I am unlikely to be less so after 36 months of breathing inside an academic bubble. So, why not?

It seems fitting given that I had been pouring thousands of words after thousands of words on this blog for several years before ever setting foot on the west coast of Wales. If anything prefaces the academic work that I have now thrown myself into, it is this.

I don't have much to say about the progression of the thesis so far other than what was obvious all along. My initial plan was acknowledgedly over-ambitious and I plainly need to peel away large slabs of it until I arrive at something more direct and manageable. My supervisors, if they are reading this, may be relieved to hear such sense being spoken. How they are feeling about my somewhat impulsive decision to write (and, more to the point, to commit to) the first few hundred words of my text so far ahead of time, I do not know.

But that, I am sure, will be fine. The real challenge will be to avoid the fate of almost every diary that anyone has ever started to write: fatigue, disinterest and abandonment.

We shall see, we shall see…

Rethinking environmental determinism historically and speculatively for future geopolitics—Tübingen, EWIS, April 2016

I'm pleased to say that I'll be off to Tübingen in April for EWIS (European Workshops in International Studies). Specifically, a workshop on 'International Politics in the Anthropocene,' organised by Delf Rothe.

Very much looking forward to it. Here's my abstract:
Rethinking environmental determinism historically and speculatively for future geopolitics 
Geographically, climatically and environmentally deterministic forms of knowledge have ancient roots, often being traced back to Herodotus. As the likes of Mike Hulme have recently argued, such epistemic tendencies are evident in forms of climate science that project narrowly defined human futures on the basis of abstract and reductionist calculative practices. To so much as have a conversation about ‘the Anthropocene’ requires some degree of discursive absorption of the progressive produce of calculative rationality. However, there is equally an imperative not to turn the looming spectre of vast, inhuman forces into deterministic narratives that paralyse political possibility. This paper will build on a discussion session that I arranged at the RGS-IBG conference in September 2015. It will, first, set out a brief history of determinism and its critics and, second, engage with contemporary speculative philosophical debates around geophilosophy and geopolitics in order to begin to creatively re-articulate how determinism can be intellectually and politically overcome without lapsing into voluntaristic denial of the crushingly urgent facts of the Anthropocene. In short, it attempts to articulate an updated form of possibilism that might help to facilitate the production of future geopolitical analyses—and future geopolitics.
I'm also hoping that I'll have time to stop off in Karlsruhe on the way back to have a look at the 'Reset Modernity!' exhibition at ZKM to which I have contributed an essay.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

"My enemy is arrows. I want to get rid of arrows" – Bruno Latour on maps, earth and International Relations

One of the first academic conferences I went to was that of the Millennium journal of International Relations in 2012. The theme was 'Materialism and World Politics' and IR, always late to any bandwagon, was doing its best to catch up. One striking pattern that was immediately evident was the proliferation of references to a certain Bruno Latour in many papers and presentations, particularly amongst students and early career academics. Up to that point, his name was almost completely unknown amongst IR scholars – surely one of the last provinces of the social sciences and humanities to remain so unperturbed.

Three years on and Latour was Millennium's headline act, delivering the keynote lecture. This was filmed and will presumably be made available online in the next few days. Consequently, I will not try to summarise it but will just offer some thoughts.

The lecture began with a visual comparison of Hobbes' famous frontispiece with a recent front cover from Nature.

Both are monstrous but in totally different ways. The Anthropocenic human juts out randomly, stupidly, headlessly. The Hobbesian sovereign is all measure, calculation and looming menace. This speaks to the real difference between them: Hobbes was proposing a solution to the problem of political order that had so drastically broken down in his time; Nature, on the contrary, is representing the problem of the Anthropocene, a problem of order – indeed, political order – without any apparent solution in sight. The problem of Nature's image, then, is precisely the disappearance of Nature as an organising principle of geopolitics in the fullest sense of that term.

This is one thing that I was trying to get at when I recently wrote at a fair bit of length about Latour's conception of geopolitics and, particularly, his reading of Gaia. The key feature of Gaia, taking James Lovelock's iteration somewhat creatively, is that it is not any sort of personal deity because it doesn't care one bit about the fate of any individual or species but, at the same time, Gaia is not Nature because it is not indifferent or external to human action – it reacts, it is perturbed, it is responsive. To quote myself:
"However, responsiveness is not responsibility. Gaia can summon no Leviathan; there is a Great Society but no Great Community [à la Dewey]. Of course, it is not that Gaia ‘lacks’ the appurtenances of a formalised polity per se – it is only we Earthbound that such a supplement impels; it is, rather, that Gaia, our past and our present, will only be our future – we will only have a future – if such an assembly is realised."
The image I had in mind at this time was precisely Hobbes' most famous image and the cohesiveness and unity of that ugly apparition looming over the English countryside. Nothing could be less true of the geopolitical predicament that Latour is addressing. There is no Global State – nor will there be. The things formerly known as natural do not bring unity; total knowledge of the Earth's surface in no way allowed it to be mastered (some of its occupants, perhaps, but this paramilitary victory was plainly overestimated); its complex spatiality greatly exceeds merely topographical imagings; the things formerly known as natural, in fact, disturb, destabilise and destroy the comforts of order and regulation, they do not and will never again give it a secure foundation. This realisation, to parrot Naomi Klein, changes everything.

Oliver Kessler mentioned in the closing panel of the conference that he wished that Latour had used the modified version of this image from Shapin & Schaffer's Leviathan and the Air-Pump.

That would have been an interesting connection but the point that Latour was making concerned political unity rather than the relation between science and politics per se. In any case, Latour's attempt to imagine a representative geopolitics of this Gaian situation was precisely the overarching theme of his lecture.

Representation in every sense of that word – political, scientific, artistic. And representation not in the vague, vain liberal sense of 'letting everyone have their say.' It was very clearly representation as a precondition of action. In other words, it was a question of collective will and adherence; of achieving the political infrastructures by which a collective could act – and a collective that is constituted by far more than just humans and their (delegated or imposed) spokespeople. A form of action that requires the alignment of actors of all kinds (and here the humanists leave the room…).

To self-indulgently quote myself again (because I can't think of a better way of putting it than this sentence that I spent months writing and re-writing):
"Gaia is not just the scene of politics, nor a violent interjection to it, but a dramatic, swirling convolution of world-convening relations – a collective constituted by all the constituents that she collects."
This is why Gaia is at the centre of Latour's geopolitics. It is not a unity. It is not a single, homogeneous, centred actor. It is not a totality and it is not nature. It has no one name. It is not something everywhere the same. It is impersonal but not indifferent. It is violent but not malevolent. It has intentionality but no teleology.
"There is only one Gaia but Gaia is not One."
It is, above all (and in more than one sense of that phrase), a sovereign. Here we see that, however 'flat' Latour's philosophy may or may not have been in the past, his 'Gaia-politics' presupposes an emphatic verticality; a power, a transcendence that vastly exceeds human actions but does not transcend them in the sense of being in any way exterior.

This must unground every sense of earth, terrain, territory on which International Relations, knowingly or unknowingly, has based its object.

But here we should pause. Geopolitics is not IR. To re-hash John Agnew's famous article The Territorial Trap, IR has been consistently ignorant of the space, the materiality, the environments that its institutions presupposed.

Political geography was born as a discipline in the imperial struggles of the late nineteenth-century. Its reactionary extremes directed and enthusiastically served those ends – knowledge of the earth, its environments and climates was to found the efficient, ruthless administration of empire. This is, quite unambiguously, the root of 'geopolitics' (the word itself was coined, as 'Geopolitik,' in 1899).

Some would say that IR was born as a discipline in 1919 (at my home institution in Aberystwyth, from which I type these words); however, it only really got going as a disciplinary space and movement in the 1950s with sponsorship from the Rockefeller Foundation, among others. At this time, 'geopolitics' had all but disappeared from conversations in polite society as it had become had it become almost synonymous with Nazi expansionism via Karl Haushofer's association with the regime (a somewhat more complicated relationship than was recognised at the time but nevertheless).

Geopolitical ideas were soon revived by the likes of Henry Kissinger who reconstructed them for the new era of empires that the so-called Cold War brought about but human geography as an academic discipline on the whole lost its connection with international or global politics. IR, meanwhile, soaked as it was in the behavioural sciences and the realpolitik of its various émigrés, had little interest in the complexities of the ways that the world gets composed. The planet was, by this point, known rather well (or so they thought) and explanatory power was to be sought primarily in understanding the behavioural characteristics of human beings and their institutions. Their agenda was, variously, to secure peace and to overcome the non-liberal remnants of 'History,' in the Hegel/Fukuyama sense of the word.

This aside has a point, which I will now get to: 'environment' in IR has always been a special interest, a subfield, something to do with whales; 'earth' has been either an anachronism or an irrelevance; 'space' has been what you put satellites in.

Is there any discipline less prepared for what is coming than IR? I can hardly believe that there is. And yet, does this mean that IR must be brought to an end? Perhaps not.

Latour's lecture concluded with an overview of the 'Make It Work!' event – essentially a Latourised model UN – that was held in Paris this summer. The main point made by this event was that oceans, icecaps, forests, etc. – all these also require political representation, alongside corporations, NGOs and states.

And states. It is so very easy to denounce and demean this mode of geopolitical organisation, born out of the historical milieu that is encapsulated by Hobbes' towering phantasm. But let's be honest, the 'Westphalian state system is redundant' critique practically writes itself at this point, doesn't it?

"The old (but still useful) world of States" – this was on one of Latour's slides.

And this brings me to the Q&A session that followed the lecture. Two of the questioners made more or less the same point: Okay, so having non-state representatives representing beings other than humans is good but are we to believe that states do such a wonderful job of representing people? Verily, if (critical) IR scholars have achieved anything over these years it has been to demonstrate the vicious iniquities of state-based political complacency!

I was reminded at this point of the Olympics where stateless athletes are permitted to compete under an independent banner.

Of course, all of this raises questions of power. How does anything come to be represented politically? By demanding that it be so. In other words, through struggle. Or, to put it in more Latourian terms, how is a 'middle ground' ever formed from which diplomacy can begin? According to Richard White, this too is about power. All sides must be capable of compelling their other to meet on the middle ground rather than imposing a settlement from without.

But returning to my thread, if we are to extend representative politics to more than humans is this not a perfect time to reconsider how we represent human beings too? And is not a discipline such as IR not well placed to consider such a task? Well, perhaps. But not on its own. IR's ignorance of space and geography is well known but its connections with anthropology are not much better. The very concept of representation, for instance, was also born around the time of Hobbes – it is no more universal than 'Nature.'

Here it might be opportune to cast our minds back to Patrick Thaddeus Jackson's keynote at the Millennium conference last year:
"The way I understand it, the term ‘international’ picks out those aspects of anything that involves cross-boundary encounters with difference. The international aspect of a military manoeuver or a financial transaction does not simply begin at the moment that a formal territorial border is crossed, but as soon as the existence of some other—the alien, the foreigner, the stranger—is taken into account in the operation. Representations of otherness, which shape and structure what we come to regard as legitimate or acceptable or appropriate action towards or in reaction to those others, are the common thread connecting all of our myriad substantive concerns, and the ‘return’ of culture and identity to the scholarly agenda is better thought of as a clarification of what we were all already interested in in the first place."
This, to my mind, is a large step in the right direction but isn't quite there yet because it continues to pretend that other academic disciplines haven't been doing this for years and years in their own ways (and doing a very good job of it). It's still sectarian. What about anthropology, for instance? Cynthia Enloe was also present at this year's Millennium conference and was a perfect reminder of the importance of that connection to IR historically. But the larger part of these disciplines remain entirely estranged.

Plainly, there is a need for a complete re-evaluation of what the purpose of IR in this new world is. Reconsidering its relations to not only geography and Earth system science, etc. but also to anthropology and other forms of knowledge production besides. A comparative and interstitial sociology of social science.

Is there an appetite for such self-criticism within this most cloistered and jurisdictionally jealous of academic disciplines? Some, perhaps not enough. But it is a conversation worth having and a task worth attempting – and one that Latour's work will help us to initiate, even if he by no means has all the answers.

But perhaps I should end with the quote that titles this post. 'What's so wrong with arrows?', I hear you ask. Well, Latour tells us, you draw an arrow on a map when you need to account for something that the map itself (base map plus territorial outlines) says shouldn't be there – migration, movement, pollution, mess. In other words, if you need to draw an arrow it's because your map is inadequate to its representational task because it assumes a flat, stable base upon which everything else is projected rather than trying to capture the territorial complexes in motion and in their own complexity; that is to say, in the process of their ongoing assembly.

This is a difficult point to grasp without a thorough transformation of conceptual vocabularies. For example, this is how Latour describes 'territory':
"A territory is everything that you need to survive and that may suddenly fail you. […] Of course the territory does not resemble the nicely coloured geographical maps of our classrooms. It is not made of nation states – the only actors that Schmitt was ready to consider –but of interlocking, conflicting, entangled, contradictory networks that no harmony, no system, no ‘third party,’ no overall Providence may unify in advance. Ecological conflicts do not bear on the nationalistic Lebensraum of the past but they do deal with ‘space’ and‘life.’ The territory of an agent is the series of other agents that are necessary for it to survive on the long run, its Umwelt, its protective envelope."
To quote myself again, in attempting to think through this conception:
"[…] an economy does not distribute goods circulating across a given territory, it formats the territories themselves; globalisation has nothing to do with ‘levels’ or ‘scales’ but rather concerns intensifications and extensions of entangled dependencies; a Collective does not have a territory but rather as many territories as it has constituents; and geopolitics is not a matter of bickering over bounded surfaces but, rather, publicly contesting these polydimensional spaces."
What political agency such a kind of spatial formatting could have is questionable. However, it asks questions that are plainly unanswerable without a great degree of conversation between researchers and technicians with a range of different skills and disciplinary experiences – scientists, artists, theorists, ethnographers, programmers, organisers, and so on. It requires institutions such as Latour's own Medialab, for instance. (For all the talk of post-disciplinarity, let's not pretend that we can do away with institutions.)

That is an exciting prospect but not one that IR is well-prepared for. Nevertheless, I think we can most certainly all count ourselves as 'perturbed' – whether this way or that – by now. If nothing else, Latour is laying down a challenge that tremors right across the disciplinary landscape. To what extent it will uproot IR's usual comforts and homilies remains to be seen but it will be interesting to find out.