Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Interrogating 'complexity'

A really interesting post on Deterritorial Investigations on the limitations of complexity theory, cybernetics, etc. for critical social and cultural thinking.

I think this is a really important point.  Complexity, etc. has been such a privileged resource for 'critical' thought for so very long that it's quite strange that the concept has received so little critical interrogation from within.  It amazes me that people hardly ever draw a connection between the Deleuzian complexity aesthetic and that of Friedrich Hayek.  For both, writing around the same time, the allure is the same: spontaneous self-organisation does away with the need for any centralised decision making process, i.e. the State (which is something of a bogeyman in both their vocabularies).  Now, that isn't to make a lazy 'Deleuze is a neoliberal' comment, I don't believe that for a second.  But the whole spontaneously organising communism thing has always struck me as a neoliberal fantasy.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Language is not a mode of existence—wouldn't the 1970s be scandalised?

Clive Barnett of Pop Theory writes an interesting and lengthy musing on Latour's AIME (helpfully linked to by the ever helpful ANTHEM blog).  He draws a number of very useful links between Latour's use of speech act and other elements of linguistic philosophy.

I think he may be right about Latour overstating the language-reductiveness of speech act theory, etc. and analytic philosophers certainly are interested in being as well as language.  However, I think it's also fair to say that Latour goes a long way beyond where any of these people end up.

In AIME he argues the following (I paraphrase loosely but, I think, accurately) with regard to language and metaphysics: everything relates with or 'passes through' something else in order to continue existing; therefore everything joins things together, everything 'articulates'; each mode is a particular kind of articulation, a particular way of relating; thus every mode can be understood as having different truth procedures or standards of meaning; everything articulates, everything interprets, everything judges—from tics to popes, as Latour puts it at one point; language is just one way of articulating, among others, though it is not a mode itself but a mixture, presumably, of [tec]hnology, [fic]tion and others; when we speak or write we are simply taking advantage of a capacity that already exists in the world—namely, articulation; language is an invention that utilises and renders unusually explicit and dynamic what was there all along; thus we can understand the world in language, not as a 'lens' or anything of the sort but as something with real purchase on how things are because meaningful articulation is how things are.

Making AIME all about language is, therefore, rather misleading.  Although it makes use of lots of linguistic philosophy it's utterly metaphysical at heart.  To suggest that 'ontology' and 'metaphysics' are empty signifiers because it's really all about language—that misses the whole point of what Latour is trying to do.  Saying that 'practices' also have a meaningful structure and therefore discourse theory, etc. isn't all about language isn't sufficient either—that's like an agoraphobic setting one foot outside his front door and saying that he's been around the world and back.

For Latour the evolution of sea algae in and of itself is as meaningful and articulated as this sentence, as any sentence.  I can't see Searle et al. getting on board with that!  Now, that's not to say that there can't be all sorts of productive conversations between these thinkers of language and meaning but, suffice to say, I don't think that ontology and metaphysics are empty signifiers.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

'Largest volcanic eruption in human history changed the 19th century as much as Napoleon'

There's a truly fascinating post by one Gillen D'Arcy Wood over at The Conversationa very interesting blog (or rather set of blogs):
Most have heard of the Battle of Waterloo, but who has heard of the volcano called Tambora? No school textbook I’ve seen mentions that only two months before Napoleon’s final defeat in Belgium on June 18, 1815, the faraway Indonesian island of Sumbawa was the site of the most devastating volcanic eruption on Earth in thousands of years.
Read the whole thing, it's superb.  It's also funny that the title is the way around that it is.  Isn't it remarkable that Napoleon is the thing that the volcano is having to measure up to?!  In the comments the author suggests that the reason why this event is almost unknown while the far less devastating eruption at Krakatoa in 1883 is legendary is that telegraph systems were up and running by that time and thus everyone in the West heard about it almost immediately instead of just experiencing a bunch of strange climatological and atmospheric goings-on indirectly.

Maybe one day volcanoes will set the benchmarks for warmongering statesmen to measure up to.

He also has a book coming out on the subject in the near future (first chapter available here):

Monday, 7 April 2014

Plato on materialists

The materialists pull everything down from the sky and out of the invisible world onto the earth as if they wanted to clench rocks and oak trees in their fists. They grasp them, and stubbornly maintain that the only objects that exist are those that are tangible and comprehensible. They believe that the physical existence of an object is existence itself, and look down smugly on other people — those who acknowledge another area of existence separate from the physical. But they are totally unwilling to listen to another point of view. 
(Plato, Sophists)
(Taken from the epigraph of Jakob von Uexküll's essay The Theory of Meaning.)

Douglas Adams on philosophy and philosophers

From the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, of course:
There are of course many problems connected with life, of which some of the most popular are Why are people born? Why do they die? Why do they want to spend so much of the intervening time wearing digital watches? 
Many many millions of years ago a race of hyperintelligent, pandimensional beings (whose physical manifestation in their own pan-dimensional universe is not dissimilar to our own) got so fed up with the constant bickering about the meaning of life which used to interrupt their favourite pastime of Brockian Ultra Cricket (a curious game which involved suddenly hitting people for no readily apparent reason and then running away) that they decided to sit down and solve their problems once and for all. 
And to this end they built themselves a stupendous super computer which was so amazingly intelligent that even before the data banks had been connected up it had started from I think therefore I am and got as far as the existence of rice pudding and income tax before anyone managed to turn it off. 
It was the size of a small city. 
Its main console was installed in a specially designed executive office, mounted on an enormous executive desk of finest ultramahagony topped with rich ultrared leather. The dark carpeting was discreetly sumptuous, exotic pot plants and tastefully engraved prints of the principal computer programmers and their families were deployed liberally about the room, and stately windows looked out upon a tree-lined public square. 
On the day of the Great On-Turning two soberly dressed programmers with brief cases arrived and were shown discreetly into the office. They were aware that this day they would represent their entire race in its greatest moment, but they conducted themselves calmly and quietly as they seated themselves deferentially before the desk, opened their brief cases and took out their leather-bound notebooks.  
Their names were Lunkwill and Fook. 
For a few moments they sat in respectful silence, then, after exchanging a quiet glance with Fook, Lunkwill leaned forward and touched a small black panel. 
The subtlest of hums indicated that the massive computer was now in total active mode. After a pause it spoke to them in a voice rich resonant and deep. 
It said: "What is this great task for which I, Deep Thought, the second greatest computer in the Universe of Time and Space have been called into existence?" 
Lunkwill and Fook glanced at each other in surprise. 
"Your task, O Computer..." began Fook. 
"No, wait a minute, this isn't right," said Lunkwill, worried. "We distinctly designed this computer to be the greatest one ever and we're not making do with second best. Deep Thought," he addressed the computer, "are you not as we designed you to be, the greatest most powerful computer in all time?" 
"I described myself as the second greatest," intoned Deep Thought, "and such I am." 
Another worried look passed between the two programmers. Lunkwill cleared his throat. 
"There must be some mistake," he said, "are you not a greatest computer than the Milliard Gargantubrain which can count all the atoms in a star in a millisecond?" 
"The Milliard Gargantubrain?" said Deep Thought with unconcealed contempt. "A mere abacus - mention it not." 
"And are you not," said Fook leaning anxiously forward, "a greater analyst than the Googleplex Star Thinker in the Seventh Galaxy of Light and Ingenuity which can calculate the trajectory of every single dust particle throughout a five-week Dangrabad Beta sand blizzard?" 
"A five-week sand blizzard?" said Deep Thought haughtily. "You ask this of me who have contemplated the very vectors of the atoms in the Big Bang itself? Molest me not with this pocket calculator stuff." 
The two programmers sat in uncomfortable silence for a moment. Then Lunkwill leaned forward again. 
"But are you not," he said, "a more fiendish disputant than the Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler of Ciceronicus 12, the Magic and Indefatigable?" 
"The Great Hyperlobic Omni-Cognate Neutron Wrangler," said Deep Thought thoroughly rolling the r's, "could talk all four legs off an Arcturan MegaDonkey - but only I could persuade it to go for a walk afterwards." 
"Then what," asked Fook, "is the problem?" 
"There is no problem," said Deep Thought with magnificent ringing tones. "I am simply the second greatest computer in the Universe of Space and Time." 
"But the second?" insisted Lunkwill. "Why do you keep saying the second? You're surely not thinking of the Multicorticoid Perspicutron Titan Muller are you? Or the Pondermatic? Or the..." 
Contemptuous lights flashed across the computer's console. 
"I spare not a single unit of thought on these cybernetic simpletons!" he boomed. "I speak of none but the computer that is to come after me!" 
Fook was losing patience. He pushed his notebook aside and muttered, "I think this is getting needlessly messianic." 
"You know nothing of future time," pronounced Deep Thought, "and yet in my teeming circuitry I can navigate the infinite delta streams of future probability and see that there must one day come a computer whose merest operational parameters I am not worthy to calculate, but which it will be my fate eventually to design." 
Fook sighed heavily and glanced across to Lunkwill. 
"Can we get on and ask the question?" he said. 
Lunkwill motioned him to wait. 
"What computer is this of which you speak?" he asked. 
"I will speak of it no further in this present time," said Deep Thought. "Now. Ask what else of me you will that I may function. Speak." 
They shrugged at each other. Fook composed himself. 
"O Deep Thought Computer," he said, "the task we have designed you to perform is this. We want you to tell us..." he paused, "...the Answer!" 
"The answer?" said Deep Thought. "The answer to what?" 
"Life!" urged Fook. 
"The Universe!" said Lunkwill. 
"Everything!" they said in chorus. 
Deep Thought paused for a moment's reflection. 
"Tricky," he said finally. 
"But can you do it?" 
Again, a significant pause. 
"Yes," said Deep Thought, "I can do it." 
"There is an answer?" said Fook with breathless excitement." "A simple answer?" added Lunkwill. 
"Yes," said Deep Thought. "Life, the Universe, and Everything. There is an answer. But," he added, "I'll have to think about it." 
A sudden commotion destroyed the moment: the door flew open and two angry men wearing the coarse faded-blue robes and belts of the Cruxwan University burst into the room, thrusting aside the ineffectual flunkies who tried to bar their way. 
"We demand admission!" shouted the younger of the two men elbowing a pretty young secretary in the throat. 
"Come on," shouted the older one, "you can't keep us out!" He pushed a junior programmer back through the door. 
"We demand that you can't keep us out!" bawled the younger one, though he was now firmly inside the room and no further attempts were being made to stop him. 
"Who are you?" said Lunkwill, rising angrily from his seat. "What do you want?" 
"I am Majikthise!" announced the older one. 
"And I demand that I am Vroomfondel!" shouted the younger one. Majikthise turned on Vroomfondel. "It's alright," he explained angrily, "you don't need to demand that." 
"Alright!" bawled Vroomfondel banging on an nearby desk. "I am Vroomfondel, and that is not a demand, that is a solid fact! What we demand is solid facts!" 
"No we don't!" exclaimed Majikthise in irritation. "That is precisely what we don't demand!" 
Scarcely pausing for breath, Vroomfondel shouted, "We don't demand solid facts! What we demand is a total absence of solid facts. I demand that I may or may not be Vroomfondel!" 
"But who the devil are you?" exclaimed an outraged Fook. 
"We," said Majikthise, "are Philosophers." 
"Though we may not be," said Vroomfondel waving a warning finger at the programmers. 
"Yes we are," insisted Majikthise. "We are quite definitely here as representatives of the Amalgamated Union of Philosophers, Sages, Luminaries and Other Thinking Persons, and we want this machine off, and we want it off now!" 
"What's the problem?" said Lunkwill. 
"I'll tell you what the problem is mate," said Majikthise, "demarcation, that's the problem!" 
"We demand," yelled Vroomfondel, "that demarcation may or may not be the problem!" 
"You just let the machines get on with the adding up," warned Majikthise, "and we'll take care of the eternal verities thank you very much. You want to check your legal position you do mate. Under law the Quest for Ultimate Truth is quite clearly the inalienable prerogative of your working thinkers. Any bloody machine goes and actually finds it and we're straight out of a job aren't we? I mean what's the use of our sitting up half the night arguing that there may or may not be a God if this machine only goes and gives us his bleeding phone number the next morning?" 
"That's right!" shouted Vroomfondel, "we demand rigidly defined areas of doubt and uncertainty!" 
Suddenly a stentorian voice boomed across the room. 
"Might I make an observation at this point?" inquired Deep Thought. 
"We'll go on strike!" yelled Vroomfondel. 
"That's right!" agreed Majikthise. "You'll have a national Philosopher's strike on your hands!" 
The hum level in the room suddenly increased as several ancillary bass driver units, mounted in sedately carved and varnished cabinet speakers around the room, cut in to give Deep Thought's voice a little more power. 
"All I wanted to say," bellowed the computer, "is that my circuits are now irrevocably committed to calculating the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything," - he paused and satisfied himself that he now had everyone's attention, before continuing more quietly, "but the programme will take me a little while to run." 
Fook glanced impatiently at his watch. 
"How long?" he said. 
"Seven and a half million years," said Deep Thought. Lunkwill and Fook blinked at each other. 
"Seven and a half million years!.." they cried in chorus. 
"Yes," declaimed Deep Thought, "I said I'd have to think about it, didn't I? And it occurs to me that running a programme like this is bound to create an enormous amount of popular publicity for the whole area of philosophy in general. Everyone's going to have their own theories about what answer I'm eventually to come up with, and who better to capitalize on that media market than you yourself? So long as you can keep disagreeing with each other violently enough and slagging each other off in the popular press, you can keep yourself on the gravy train for life. How does that sound?" 
The two philosophers gaped at him. 
"Bloody hell," said Majikthise, "now that is what I call thinking. Here Vroomfondel, why do we never think of things like that?" 
"Dunno," said Vroomfondel in an awed whisper, "think our brains must be too highly trained Majikthise." 
So saying, they turned on their heels and walked out of the door and into a lifestyle beyond their wildest dreams. 

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Latour the polytheist

There are some really interesting bits and pieces hidden away, sequestered in the AIME website (which continues to evolve).  Here's the entry for God:
By convention, we retain the word "God" with a capital letter to designate the "truth requirement" carried by [rel] beings, as opposed to the deities that the specific frameworks of [met] beings explore relentlessly. It is this conflict that orchestrated the fight against idolatry (and, by extension, a great deal of anthropology). But we can also use the word god, lowercase this time, to designate the unifying principle of each mode; we need to be able to protect the various specifications that are particular to those entities too quickly confused in the so-called "sociology of religions" or the notion of belief.  
In aime there are as many "gods" as there are modes: there is a [rep] god, a [law]god, a [rel] god - responsible for emphasizing the contrast with the "end of days" - but also a [pre] god, the god of philosophers, and a [ref] god, the god of scholars. This is a practical polytheism which is added to the specific polytheism of [rel]'s God - He who is Father, Son, Spirit, Church, each latter reprising the former. There are as many gods as there are forms of enunciation, not because each enunciation has a different view "of" one God but because the word "god" resumes, for each mode, the unification and continuity obtained by the trajectory of each mode. This is why there is a [ref] god - of the laws of nature - as well as a [rep] or [tec] god, and an [org] god, of course, in the form of Providence or oeconomia. 
For aime, the question of God is resolutely constructivist in that it is necessary to completely invert its b.a.b. meaning - that which is lasting and guarantees duration - by its b.a.o. meaning - that which does not last and which must be constructed, maintained, faithfully preserved etc. At the same time, the critical constructivist inversion ("men make God in their own image") was not sufficient to grasp the [rel] meaning that Western history found and then lost, lacking the power to extract it from its parasitical notion of substance. With relation to God, aime must at once refrain from appealing to substance and critiquing it. And yet the outstanding feature of this mode of existence, ultimately, is God's dependence on man.
This would seem to tie into Latour's use of Jan Assmann's notion of translatability in his Gifford lectures - that ancient peoples saw their gods as being translatable, roughly equivalent, not necessarily incommensurable and even drew up tables of translation to formalise these translations.  Assmann's The Price of Monotheism details this.  Not read it yet but it's on my list...  Latour suggests that it's a cosmopolitical necessity to become able to see secular gods such as Gaia as being translatable with their religious counterparts—that's his 'peace proposal,' at least.

The principle of charity: moral or epistemological?

Is the principle of charity a moral or epistemological principle?  Both, really, but it's often taken to be the former.  If anything I'd lean towards it being more valuable as the latter.

The worst argumentative style of a group of academics I have ever come across is the critical realists.  Their discursive style is one of eliminating an opponent.  If caricature and defamation does that, all the better.  (Okay, I suppose the above is a bit of a caricature itself but I'll stand by the assertion that there's a strong family resemblance between those who identify as critical realists and their discursive styles.)  Bhaskar himself endlessly repeats the line about Hume once saying that there's no more reason to walk out of a front door than out of a third floor window (I've heard him speak a few times and he always wheels it out).  Plainly that isn't what Hume meant, there was a broader argument going on there, but it's repeated on and on as if he was just an idiot.  A nice, easy knock-down argument, as Humpty Dumpty would have said.  We needn't agree with Hume (and I wouldn't) but making him out to be stupid doesn't constitute an argument, indeed it detracts from the arguments that are then presented (and in fairness to Bhaskar he certainly does present thorough arguments, albeit against straw-based lifeforms).

It's not so much that this style is morally objectionable, although this militancy can often degenerate into macho posturing, it's that it's epistemologically indolent.  To take apart an argument while granting that argument the strongest, most reasonable interpretation you can honestly muster: that's a challenge.

I'm not against rhetoric in philosophy by any means but all too often it becomes a crutch for self-important hectoring.  (Then again, so does blogging so I'll leave it at that!...)

The Birth of Territory and book review tropes

Stuart Elden very tactfully points to a somewhat icy review of his new book The Birth of Territory.  I've partly read the book (I'm not sure when I'll get around to finishing it though I intend to).

It's a slightly odd review.  It criticises the notion of a Birth of Territory (taking issue with the how it might suggest a definite beginning) without mentioning that the title is an obvious nod to Foucault's Birth of Biopolitics.

I dislike reviews that (and many fall into this trap) criticise a book for not being something that it was never intended to be (in this case the reviewer seems to have wanted a hegemony-smashing, truth-to-power-speaking page-turner instead of a dry, painstaking and self-consciously scholarly excavation of a contested concept—he's quite right that it's very much the latter and he even admits that this isn't a criticism per se but why then the disappointed and slightly cold tone?).  It's right up there with 'but they didn't mention my area of interest' in crap review tropes.

Surely it's part of the principle of charity to attempt to review a book at least somewhat on its own terms?

I think it's fair to criticise careers for neglecting the relation of their work to current affairs but to criticise individual texts for that seems quite shortsighted.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Stengers on anthropocentrism and accelerationism

There's a load of really interesting stuff in this new book on Architecture in the Anthropocene (discovered courtesy of ANTHEM).  In particular the interview with Isabelle Stengers has some interesting moments.  I wrote a few weeks ago that there seems to be an ongoing competition among some academic-types to be ever more anti-anthropocentric than everyone else—i.e. anthropocentrism might be the new 'presence.'  Stengers says something similar:
The position of the critic will not get humans out of the trap. On the contrary, it will probably produce new ways of commenting on art, in a trendy race for the most radical manner of moving away from a human-centred view. This is exactly what I fear with the Anthropocene thesis; it proposes a “future perfect continuous” tense, which puts theorists into a very agreeable position. The mess can now be forgotten, swallowed in a continuity that can be theorized in a single shot. Abysmal aporia will flourish, happily confronted by theoreticians hunting down shades of anthropocentrism in other theoreticians’ writings—a beautiful prospect for generations of doctoral students and aesthetic ventures in the art world. (178)
Also, she has this to say in response to a question on the accelerationism of Nick Land, etc.:
I decline contrasting Cosmopolitics, whatever its shortcomings, with that trash—they are male chauvinist pigs, that’s all. I am only sorry for the memory of Félix Guattari, which they deface. (179)
I've heard tell of her capacity for brutal putdowns but that is quite something.  Ouch.

Monday, 24 March 2014

Re-reading AIME: Still insensitive to the Word

I'm making good progress re-reading Latour's AIME book.  I've just finished the chapter 'Welcoming the Beings Sensitive to the Word.'  I found this chapter much easier going this time, much like the book as a whole.  The first time around I felt exhausted and irritated by the end; this time I found it quite interesting.

However, I can't help but come back to exactly the criticism I had before: it seems to me that religious transcendence (i.e. the [rel·dc] crossing) is a feature, not a bug; the only reason anyone has heard of a Jesus of Nazareth is because of the Platonism that was mixed into it in about the second century.  Religious transcendence wasn't an invention of Moderns, it didn't come about in reaction to science, it's been there all along.

Secondly, if the churches have instituted the mode of existence as poorly as Latour suggests then why continue in their vein?  He attempts to justify this, channelling Charles Péguy (of whom I admittedly know almost nothing).  But if religion is love then what need have we of all that existing dogma?  Why cling to the gods of our parents?  Why the conservatism?  What awful fate will befall us if we attempt to reinvent our communal being in a more ambitious and adventurous way rather than stodgily, deferentially nudging our inherited trajectories this way a bit or that way a bit?

I'm still resolutely insensitive to the Word, evidently.

Leibniz, Spinoza and Whitehead

A really interesting post on Leibniz, Spinoza and Whitehead on the Footnotes 2 Plato blog. I like the last line of this a lot:
Whitehead certainly owed a lot to both Spinoza and Leibniz. His speculative system is a re-assemblage of many of their most insightful concepts. But in re-assembling them, Whitehead also drastically alters their meaning. Leibniz’s monads are turned into process-relational actual occasions; they are, unlike Leibniz’s ultimate entities, almost all window.
Stengers is interesting on Leibniz because she takes his diplomatic profession very seriously.
In order trace the escape route from this major key, I could contrast Benedict de Spinoza and Gottfried Leibniz. It has been said that while Spinoza did entertain an optimistic conception of the power of truth, Leibniz was pessimistic; and I would add that he had plenty of reasons to be pessimistic since his time was the time of religious wars, killing in the name of God and Truth. It may well be that Spinoza's so-called optimism is much too tricky to figure as an example of 'major key' thinking, even if he has come to be an inspiration for some of them. But the very discomfort surrounding Leibniz, the thinker of diplomacy about whom it was said 'Herr Leibniz glaubt nichts [believes nothing]', marks him as a 'minor key' thinker. I think Leibniz would have understood Bartlebys 'I would prefer not to' – I would prefer not to appeal to the strong drug of Truth, or to the power to denounce and judge, to deconstruct and criticise. The strong drug of enlightenment against illusion.
Isabelle Stengers, An Ecology of Practices, 187-8.
It seems that for Stengers the dismissal of Leibniz as a liar is as much a hatred of politics as anything else – a very modernist tendency.  The almost evangelical preference for Spinoza over Leibniz shown by some historians of philosophy would seem to play into this – the beautifully souled, misunderstood outsider versus the corrupted, duplicitous insider.

Friday, 21 March 2014

Serres' Statues – Translation forthcoming

Michel Serres' Statues (first published in 1989) is getting a long overdue English translation courtesy of Bloomsbury Publishing.  November 2014 is the claim.  I find that Serres can be hit and miss but I'll be looking forward to this one.

Thursday, 20 March 2014

AIME Reading Group Redux

The AIME Reading Group returns!

My post on chapter 8 of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence – 'Making the Beings of Technology Visible' – has just appeared on the blog, thanks to Adam Robbert. It includes some background, a short summary of the main themes and a speculative application of the ideas to thinking about 'artificial' and 'natural' borders within the context of critical geopolitics.

Overall I think the idea of a materialism based on materials rather than matter per se is an important one. Other people are producing somewhat similar ideas – Tim Ingold's Materials against materiality springs to mind – but Latour's iteration of the notion is powerful and provocative. It's certainly one of my favourite chapters of the book.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Kyle McGee's 'Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks'

I'm currently reading the above.  I had to order it on inter-library loan (all the way from Scotland; thanks University of Glasgow!) as it's only available in hardback and for an utterly stupid price.  I hope it comes out in paperback soon; it's really very good.

For a start it's easily the best introduction to Latour's work I've read.  It is right up to date, including a discussion of the modes of existence project but that's not its only quality – it's written with stunning clarity, has absolutely no wasted words and is just generally very fluid and readable while at the same time being impeccably precise.  It comes as no surprise that the author is a practicing lawyer as well as being a legal philosopher!

I'm yet to get deep into the philosophy of law part so I'll reserve judgement on that for now.  But, based on early impressions, I highly recommend it to anyone wanting an introduction to Latour's work in general and, of course, anyone interested in socio-legal studies or anything of the sort should get their hands on it if they possibly can.

There are three extracts from the book on the AIME website (registration required):
The co-presence of [pol] and [law]
The ontology of lawyer jokes
Legal reasoning as de-stratification

I may write a (somewhat) more substantial review when I've finished the book.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Science as content provider/constituent producer

What's the difference between 'constructivism' à la Latour, Stengers, Whitehead and 'realism' à la Bryant, DeLanda, Morton, etc.?  Specifically, what's the difference with respect to their uses of scientific knowledge?

The 'realists' take science to be a content provider – that is, science provides and certifies a more or less stable list of entities with which the philosopher can justifiably populate the world as they see fit.

The 'constructivists' also want to populate the world with a wide range of entities and to grant these beings their autonomy, their powers, their dignity.  However, they (a) are not prepared to grant science the right of unilateral list-writing, (b) they emphasise the instability of the list (as a necessary precondition of science itself as much as anything else) and (c) they insist, above all, on making science a constituent producer – that is, the fact of scientific production as an ongoing process must be factored in to any substantial discussion of scientific facts, including their mobilisation in world-population exercises.

It is not that scientific facts are reducible to their construction or instauration (that is, this is not relativism in the vulgar sense) but rather that discussing scientific facts severed from their subtending networks results in a dogmatism that precludes politics and a simplicity that does no justice to science.  In other words, populating the cosmos is a shared interest but opinions differ on how it is to be done.

There's far more to this dispute than this one, only partially explicated difference, of course, but this is a key part of it, I think.  For one side 'realism' means that any discussion of scientific facts implies an understanding of scientific processes and that this implication must be made explicit in the discussion; for the other side 'realism' means that one can and should ignore this implication and sever, at least in rhetoric, the facts from their networks.  It's the difference between a realism that thinks it misleading or even meaningless to discuss scientific objects in abstraction from the processes that stabilise them as knowable and hence articulable entities and a realism that thinks it the quintessence of realism to do just this.

Speaking of God in the present tense

[I actually wrote this post last November and saved it as a draft (long before the recent pluralism hoopla, although it relates to those exact same issues).  I'd forgotten about it until now so it's just been sat there.  I'm not sure why I didn't post it originally.]

I am [or rather was!] just reading Isabelle Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead.  Actually, I am re-reading part of it.  I got about half way through it about 18 months ago and then gave up.  It is a tough read!

One thought: the even-handed way that Whitehead's God is treated is very interesting.  Not just for the ethically and politically 'diplomatic' reasons of engaging with values, nor simply for the scholarly reasons of articulating a philosophy in its own terms without reactionary judgement.

God is an awfully difficult figure to kill off.  First of all in philosophical terms.  He has played some kind of role in most philosophies.  Sometimes He was largely a political addendum designed to ward off accusations of heresy (often unsuccessfully).  However, quite often His presence was a technical necessity.  So it is for Whitehead (according to Stengers).  That technical requirement needs to be taken seriously.  We cannot simply assume that the heart of these philosophies can be ripped out and there will be no adverse consequences.  "I am afraid we cannot get rid of God because we still believe in grammar," as Nietzsche put it.  How many traces of God remain in our allegedly secular discourses because we believed that mere disavowal would be sufficient to drive a stake through His heart?

Second, in terms of sociology.  Religion has performed far more profound functions in our history than simply being a bunch of explanatory tenets that people 'hold.'  Human beings are not analytical philosophers.  The intensely political elements of religion can't be written off just by appeal to the crimes of this confluence.  The Inquisition doesn't prove or disprove anything in and of itself, nor do the Crusades.

Not only do we still believe in grammar but we structure our entire civilisation around the Invisible Hand.  That is the major inheritance we have received from our religious 'past.'  Societies structured around the machinations of this ghostly spectre are, ironically, gradually made irreligious as they become socially atomised.  Why do so few Europeans of Christian genealogies religiously participate these days?  It is certainly not due to people getting more intelligent or rational.  Nor is it even entirely due to increased scientific education.  Few of us go to church any more.  That locus, that heart of the community beats ever slower, ever emptier.  That is our principle religious inheritance.  The Invisible Hand that gradually erodes the outstretched, visible hands of community.

There is so much more to God and to religion than in the atheists' imaginations - this I can believe.

Atheists and secularists of all stripes need to take God very seriously and not just as something to 'fight against.'  God is not nothing.  We may convince ourselves that the wind whistling through the rafters is not a ghostly howling - but we can hardly write off the eerie draughts as non-entities.  We cannot shunt the whole assemblage into a category marked 'non-existent' and then forget about it.  We would be replacing draughts with a vacuum.  Likewise with God.  We needn't accept either the all powerful, transcendent God of Religion or the fragile, immanent God of certain philosophers but we would do well to heed the various philosophical, political, cultural, social Gods who have been very real within our communities in the past (and remain so in the present).

We may insist that God is an unholy amalgam but we should not write those parts off as trivial, nor expect that we will not miss them, nor arrogantly assume that they can be so easily replaced.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Inventing space, determining location: Accounting as geography; or, Consider the banana …

This post is an answer to the call from the AIME project for contributions on the theme 'Let's Calculate: Reinventing Accounting'.  It is based on research I did for a paper presented at the Materialism and World Politics conference at the LSE in 2012.

[…] consider the banana. 
Each bunch takes two routes into your fruit bowl.  The first route involves a Honduran worker employed by a multinational who picks the bananas, which are packaged and shipped to Britain.  The multinational sells the fruit to a big supermarket chain, which sells it to you. 
The second route - the accountants' paper trail - is more roundabout.  When a Honduran banana is sold in Britain, where are the profits generated, from a tax point of view?  In Honduras?  In the British supermarket?  In the multinational's head office?  How much do management expertise, the brand name, or insurance contribute to profits and costs?  Nobody can say for sure.  So the accountants can, more or less, make it up. 
Nicholas Shaxson, Treasure Islands: Tax havens and the men who stole the world (2011), p.11.
Accountancy is a key but almost completely neglected geographical practice.  Accountancy literally geo-graphs because it decides where things happen and what institutions are responsible for what events.  It is also the site of considerable political contestation between activists, journalists, politicians, capitalists and accountants themselves.

I propose to investigate a number of documents produced by or associated with the Tax Justice Network.  The TJN is an independent international advocacy network founded in 2003 that is comprised primarily of accountancy professionals; it is "dedicated to high-level research, analysis and advocacy in the field of international tax and the international aspects of financial regulation."  In the aftermath of the recent financial crises the TJN was highly successful in engaging media, publics and political institutions at a variety of levels.  The TJN also publish their accounts online.


Defining the Secrecy World: Rethinking the language of ‘offshore’, part of the 'Mapping the Faultlines' project.  A paper by chartered accountant and political activist Richard Murphy.  In this paper Murphy attempts to precisely define concepts such as 'offshore,' 'tax haven,' 'secrecy jurisdiction' and 'secrecy world.'  He also examines the peculiar topology of so-called 'offshore' spaces.

Highlights of the paper: the 'secrecy world' or 'offshore' is:
[…] a space that has no specific location. This space is created by tax haven legislation […] the illicit financial flows that are the cause of concern with the secrecy world do not flow through locations as such, but do instead flow through the secrecy space that secrecy jurisdictions create (secrecy jurisdictions being the new term tax havens). As the paper shows, to locate these transactions in a place is not only impossible in many cases, it is also futile: they are not intended to be and cannot be located in that way. They float over and around the locations which are used to facilitate their existence as if in an unregulated ether. This suggests that any attempt to measure or regulate them solely on a national basis will always be problematic. […] Secrecy jurisdictions enable the creation of two distinct places, ‘here’ and ‘elsewhere’. The former is a regulated, onshore, domestic space. The latter is the offshore space that is ‘elsewhere’. Elsewhere is deemed by the secrecy jurisdiction to be somewhere distinctly different and outside its own domain.
It is demonstrated that accountancy is geography, that accountants (and lawyers) define both where things happen and which political-legal apparatuses are responsible for the regulation of spatially indeterminate events.  Accountancy is, therefore, intimately related with both [law] and [pol] as well as the economic modes.  I think this also demonstrates that space needs to be thought polymodally - that the modes create space in their own particular ways and any concrete spatial assemblage is a confluential compound of multiple modal factors.

Richard Murphy was a founder of the Tax Justice Network and writes one of the most popular economics blogs in the UK.


The Financial Secrecy Index is a project of the Tax Justice Network.  The FSI project "ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and the scale of their activities."  By quantifying secretiveness it is hoped that pressure can be brought on financial jurisdictions to engage in more open and transparent practices.  In other words, the FSI is a metrological device produced by politically activist accountants that makes tax issues public.

Of every three litres of oil sold on open markets, at least one comes from Switzerland. As regards coffee, the proportion is one coffee bean out of two; and with cereals it is one kilo out of three.
Of course, these commodities do not physically pass through Switzerland but rather are traded through the burgeoning Swiss commodities markets.  The Berne Declaration is a Swiss NGO that works "towards equitable North-South relations" by monitoring "the role of Swiss corporations, banks, and government agencies."  The BD's recent publication Commodities - Switzerland's most dangerous business examines what it calls
one of globalisation’s biggest winners, a powerful industry whose dealings often take it into dangerous areas. In the last decade Switzerland has emerged as one of the world’s dominant trading hubs for commodities, handling from 15 to 25 per cent of world trade. All the world’s largest trading houses operate partly or mainly out of this seemingly peaceful and innocent country. But while these powerful companies experience an unprecedented boom, the population of many resource-rich developing countries remain mired in poverty. This book tackles the question of why.
This document demonstrates how the geography of [att] is unthinkable (indeed, unwriteable) without accountancy.  Moreover, accountancy is unthinkable without [pol] and [mor].  Finally, it provides further evidence of the complex topology of trade, tax, and 'offshore.'


Apple iTunes Europe's registered address in Luxembourg.  Allegedly all the company's European correspondence passes [or rather passed; apparently it has been moved] through this one inconspicuous mailbox.  A potent symbol of the spatial complexities (or absurdities, if you prefer) of 'offshore' and of the astonishing feats of accountancy qua geo-graphy.


1209 North Orange Street, Wilmington, Delaware - the legal address of 285,000 separate businesses, including "American Airlines, Apple, Bank of America, Berkshire Hathaway, Cargill, Coca-Cola, Ford, General Electric, Google, JP Morgan Chase, and Wal-Mart."

This brings to mind the folds of [tec]:
The hammer that I find on my workbench is not contemporary to my action today: it keeps folded heterogenous temporalities, one of which has the antiquity of the planet, because of the mineral from which it has been moulded, while another has that of the age of the oak which provided the handle, while still another has the age of the 10 years since it came out of the German factory which produced it for the market. When I grab the handle, I insert my gesture in a ‘garland of time’ as Michel Serres has put it, which allows me to insert myself in a variety of temporalities or time differentials, which account for (or rather imply) the relative solidity which is often associated with technical action. What is true of time holds for space as well, for this humble hammer holds in place quite heterogenous spaces that nothing, before the technical action, could gather together: the forests of the Ardennes, the mines of the Ruhr, the German factory, the tool van which offers discounts every Wednesday on Bourbonnais streets, and finally the workshop of a particularly clumsy Sunday bricoleur. 
Bruno Latour, Morality and Technology: The End of the Means (2002), p.249.
The folds of the engineers are impressive, no doubt, but what about the folds of the lawyers and accountants?!  Any more space-time compression and we'd need Dr Who…

Friday, 14 March 2014


To be natural is to be nurtured; to be cultural is to be cultivated.


'Mind' is an artefact of being locked in an oven.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Anti-anthropocentrism: it's not a competition

There's a long history of one-upmanship in leftist academe (and in leftism generally). Whether it's trying to be further 'left,' more 'radical' or more 'critical' than everyone else it seems that there's always a rush to go further, faster, more fastidiously, lest one be accused of being 'conservative,' 'unradical,' 'uncritical' or whatever.

It seems to me that anthropocentrism might be taking on that mantle - that is, there's an ongoing competition to be ever more anti-anthropocentric than everyone else. No narcissistic wound is ever fatal enough; no number of decentrings will ever spin the human subject far enough into oblivion; no amount of uncritically imbibed pop science will ever cement the deep, dark nihilism that is apparently necessary to properly cleanse thought of its subject-centred pretensions.

Now, I'm broadly on board with the notion that anthropocentrism is a supreme vice that philosophy, the humanities, the social sciences and perhaps even the Western world at large have been unpardonably guilty of; I fully accept the need for decentrings, for the need to recognise and cognise our narcisstic wounds, to understand our smallness and insignificance in the cosmic scheme of things, etc.

However, anti-anthropocentrism can't be a competition. An absolutely non- anthropocentric philosophy would be a rather self-indulgently pointless thing, even if it were possible. If thought isn't motivated by worldly concerns from an embodied, socialised, air-conditioned point of view then what can it be motivated by? What animates it? What's its purpose?

There's a degree of anthropocentrism that is not only inevitable, it's also desirable, is it not?

All this stuff about how we have to be able to think the absolutely inhuman in order to properly understand our natural, natal, cosmic predicament - this has some merit. Certainly we have to come to understand that existence is in no way given to us or predisposed towards us; that all we have is this planet, one planet only; that Earth, even in its terrifying fragility, is vastly more powerful and enduring than we are; that it (and life) will comfortably outlive us, and so on.

But even this urge to cut human pretensions down to size, this kind of will-to- diminution is anthropocentric in quite an irreducible, unavoidable sense. Stengers writes: 'Of the Earth, the present subject of our scenarios, we can presuppose a single thing: it doesn’t care about the questions we ask about it.' If we accept this it must also mean that the Earth doesn't care if we think about it in a mathematical, scientific or nihilistic way or in a way that reduces it to images and poetry or spirits and demons. So, who or what are we trying to impress with our absolute, unreserved decentredness?

I'm not sure that I can 'think' the absolutely inhuman but I can certainly imagine something like it. It takes very little effort to mentally conjure up an image of a world after humans, all overgrown (or rather regrown) and moved on with its life, all traces of human existence either crumbled or buried. All this I can imagine quite readily, in fact, thanks in no small part to film and literature. But I find it difficult to maintain an entirely disembodied, affectless point of view on the scene (and utterly impossible to imagine the scene with no point of view at all). It provokes feeling; it's melancholy, like walking past a former lover who doesn't recognise you. The viewpoint is inextricably part of that world so long as I inhabit it; it is a precondition of that world's imagining.

So, no, I can't imagine the absolutely inhuman, absent all filterings and formattings. And yet imagining (rather than 'thinking,' whatever that means) the almost-but-not-completely-inhuman doesn't seem to be particularly difficult. And isn't this good enough?

The whole 'thinking the inhuman' thing seems to be a rather bloated, overblown, overstated problem. Representations of the literally post-human are a problem for art and science as much as they are for philosophy, perhaps even more so. If we are able to vividly imagine the world beyond, before and after humans and their attachments it is because of these very same well-nourished, expertly-assembled, diligently-arrayed complexes, networks, assemblages.

And, so, why bemoan the impossibility of thinking the outside in all its purity? The inside is what draws the outside in and paints it in such vivid colours. Shouldn't we spend a little more time mixing our paints and a little less hankering after transcendence?