Wednesday, 9 August 2017

"Forget ‘the environment’"—problems of geosemantics and ecopoetics

George Monbiot has a typically provocative new article on The Guardian today:
If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.
His point is that the words we use have a great deal of power in terms of carving up the world and affecting how we react to things. See 'migrant' versus 'immigrant' or, as per Monbiot, 'climate change' versus 'climate breakdown.'

It is a highly relevant dispatch for me, as my PhD thesis basically investigates how we all came to be so convinced that we live in an 'environment.' In other words, how did this term come to be part of our spatial, political, poetic and worldly common sense?

Well, strictly speaking, my thesis covers the emergence of 'environment' and its cognates, in particular the French 'milieu,' up to the start of the twentieth-century. (A thesis is unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, a finite thing.)

'The environment' came to be during the 1960s. I am not yet, therefore, able to give a detailed account of how that happened. However, the broad strokes are simple enough.

In a book called The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth in 1970, the ornithologist, conservationist and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Edward Max Nicholson wrote that a "revolution in human affairs" was then taking place. The "obvious descriptive label" for this, he continued, "once so infrequent and now becoming so universal [is] 'environmental'" (p.5).

Until around that time, 'environment' was a rather dry, technical term. The word itself was coined a few times, probably independently. However, the person who made it catch on was Herbert Spencer, the social evolutionist and purveyor of the phrase "survival of the fittest."

In short, it was through evolutionary theory that 'environment' became an item of intellectual common sense. Darwin in fact didn't use the term until late in his career and was quite sceptical about it for a number of reasons. However, by the 1920s, the word was everywhere in its scientific (or seeming-to-be-scientific) sense.

It is unsurprising, then, that 'the environment,' while perhaps exciting to those preparing to be 'masters of the Earth' in the 1970s, has proved to be quite the ecopoetic sedative in the long term.

While, of course, there is much more to the world than words, Monbiot's call for creativity is therefore welcome:
Rather than arrogating naming rights to themselves, professional ecologists should recruit poets and cognitive linguists and amateur nature lovers to help them find the words for what they cherish. […]
If we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing.
I'm not convinced that 'natural world' is any less anodyne and affectless than 'environment,' although, off the top of my head, I have no bright ideas as regards alternatives.

However, one point that might be interesting comes from something I've just been researching in the past few weeks: the origins of the Italian and Spanish ambiente (the equivalent of environment in those languages – in Portuguese, it's meio ambiente).

One of the earliest uses of the adjective 'ambient' outside of Latin is found in the 1587 poem El Monserrate, by the Spanish poet Cristóbal de Virués:
Gozo divino, celestial aviso,
Lleno de sacra luz, claro desvelo,
Influye el rico clima eternamente
Del fértil y alto monte al ayre ambiente.
Translated (very literally) as:
Divine joy, heavenly warning,
Full of sacred light, clear sleeplessness,
Influence the rich climate eternally
From the fertile and high mountain to the ambient air. 
The development of 'ambient' and 'ambience,' it seems, is a largely poetic history. For example, in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667):
How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adorn’d
Innumerable, and this which yields or fills
All Space, the ambient Air wide interfus’d
Embracing round this florid Earth, […]
Quite by contrast, the French 'milieu' that became the English 'environment' came originally as a translation of Isaac Newton's use of the word 'Medium,' then adopted in mechanistic nineteenth century biology before being taken up, in turn, by the rather nasty biosociology of Spencer.

So, long story short, the ambient has always had poetic qualities that the 'medium' and the 'environment' have not.

However, perhaps our problem is not just our combinations of words or their translations but the very worldviews or cosmologies that these vocabularies have been created to express?

As Keavy Martin writes in her book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, the Inuktitut word sila most commonly "refers to the environment, such as in the phrases silami qanuippa? (how’s the weather) or silaup asijjipallianinga (climate change)" but also "refers to wisdom, or cleverness, as in silatujuq (he/she/it is intelligent, sensible, or wise)."

Obviously, 'environment' is the go-to phrase for rendering anything like this into English. However, without her explanation, almost everything would be lost in translation.

And so, what kind of connection might we find here? What more might we need to do in order to transform the vocabularies with which we express – and not only express, feel – the worlds around us?

I have no great suggestions but we must stop complacently mouthing the same old stale slogans of yesteryear – of that I have no doubt.

Monday, 31 July 2017

RGS-IBG 2017: Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference in London is now just a month away. I'm organising a Friday afternoon session on Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’ and very much looking forward to it.

I've wanted to arrange something along these lines since I first read Traces over Christmas/New Year 2015/16 and noticed at the time that it was coming up to its 50th anniversary of publication. My initial thought was to put something forward for the Association of American Geographers conference this year. Finances and other circumstances precluded that; however, this side of the pond also has historians of geography!

It will be a more informal and conversational session than the standard papers-presentational format, having three panelists who will introduce and lead an open discussion with whoever decides to turn up and participate. I'm very pleased to have Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone on board for this task. The line-up was also to also to include Stuart Elden. Unfortunately, scheduling issues prevented his being able to attend the conference on the Friday and the organisers were not able to schedule it on another day.

It may chop and change over the next month (and over the two and a half days of the conference that I'll have to reflect upon and fine-tune it); however, here is the draft of my introduction to the session:
With the subtitle ‘Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century,’ Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore casts a long shadow on the history of geographical ideas, even after half a century. Published in 1967, this 700+ page monolith remains unsurpassed in its genre. Indeed, in a way, it is a genre unto itself. 
Tracing a grand narrative arc from the antiquity of Stoic cosmoses and Hippocratic climates, to early Christian teleologies of divine creation and human fallenness, to early Modern physico-theology and mechanical determinisms, to Enlightenment self-assurances regarding the perfectibility of man and the domination of nature – it is quite a vista. 
Assuredly, books such as this are rarely written today. Taking over ten years to produce, without any apparent urgency and, until the closing stages, without tenure, it is something of a throwback – and in more ways than one. While its conditions of production might strike us with a certain nostalgia, at 50 years old, its style of historiography has been out of fashion for almost as long. 
Glacken introduces his work as setting out to trace the lineage of three ideas: “the idea of a designed earth; the idea of environmental influence; and the idea of man as a geographic agent” (p.vii). And this trinitarian scheme seemingly echoes his own educational formation. 
In 1949, at the age of 40, Glacken joined Johns Hopkins University to write his PhD thesis on ‘The Idea of the Habitable World,’ which he completed in just two years. Despite having retired eleven years previously, Johns Hopkins at this time still bore the impression of perhaps the most influential Anglophone historian of ideas of the early twentieth-century, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy. 
His best known work, The Great Chain of Being (published in 1937), was also structured upon a trinity. The idea of the ‘great chain’ – “one of the major conceptions in Occidental thought,” Lovejoy wrote – was the result of three interlocking principles that could be found and followed over the centuries: ‘plenitude,’ ‘continuity’ and ‘graduation.’ 
Glacken indeed credits Lovejoy’s work for having “made an important segment of Western thought intelligible” to him (p.xix) and Traces in fact began its existence as an introduction (!) to the book that was to be derived from his PhD thesis. 
There are two important points that I want to draw from this: 
First, this is not, for the most part, a tradition of historiography that holds much sway today. Rather, our standards are set more by the Parisian epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem via the seemingly omnipresent persona of Michel Foucault. Our received wisdom, it seems to me, is one of ‘epistemic breaks’ rather than grand narratives, radical transcendence rather than longitudinal continuity. 
The second point I’d like to make, in accordance with what we’ve been talking about over the past few days, is that such uncomplicated identification with a lineage of ‘Western’ or ‘Occidental’ ideas must, today, set alarm bells ringing. 
In one telling footnote in Traces, Glacken confesses: “I have reluctantly omitted discussion of Ibn Khaldūn. His ideas belong to Arab thought and not to the West, least of all in this period” (p.255). Such a partitioning of knowledge traditions was questionable in 1967 and, to say the least, is even more so today. 
It should be added, on this point, that Glacken was not in the least bit parochial in terms of his intercultural experiences. By the time he finished his master’s degree in 1931, he was fluent in German, French and Spanish and had knowledge of Greek and Latin. Over the course of his career, he would also learn Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Japanese. After spending the mid-1930s working for the Farm Security Administration, in 1937 he set off to travel the world, taking in Japan, China, Indochina, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Drafted into the army in 1941, he was posted to Japan and Korea. And, after completing his thesis, he returned to Japan to research village life in Okinawa, resulting in a monograph published in 1955. 
It was not a lack of either interest or ability that confined his studies to the West, then, it was something rather more fundamental. For him, ‘the West’ existed. Are we so sure? 
There is much more that could be said – and, I hope, will be said! – on all of this and more, this afternoon and afterwards. And so now I will pass things over to our three panellists, Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone, and ask them to speak for a few minutes about their own encounter with Glacken’s text, their valuation of it in terms of the history of geographical ideas and anything else they would like to raise by way of observation or provocation. 
In the spirit of keeping things as horizontal and informal as possible, we will then open things up to questions, answers, comments and other responses, and take it from there.

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Microblog mesoblog: On the cosmopolitics of the Anthropocene

It's easy to get carried away on Twitter. That's more or less its purpose. I sometimes wonder what the point of writing long threads of multiple tweets is. Why not just write it properly, in continuous prose?! However, occasionally I too indulge the medium's raison d'être.

I was re-reading a piece that I commented on before: Scientists still don’t understand the Anthropocene – and they’re going about it the wrong way by Mark Maslin and Erle Ellis.

(Full disclosure – and no surprises: I am also a white, male and Western, although not much of a scientist.)






I should add that the Anthropocene as a scientific problem necessarily concerns more than geologists in the strict, disciplinary sense. Earth sciences are a far broader church today than they were in the past. Nevertheless, I think the point stands.



They argue, in short, that:
"Defining a human epoch is so important it should not be rushed. It should be treated by scholars from all disciplines with the seriousness it deserves."
I could not disagree. However, there is a risk of politically overburdening earth scientists when, in fairness, human and social sciences are not necessarily in a position to be overconfident in their own cosmopolitical acuity.

Reminding ourselves of the Greek epokhe would therefore seem to be a necessary waypoint in this conversation.

Monday, 19 June 2017

Why blog?

My blogging activity has gone rather off the boil over the past year or so, for reasons that I may get into in future posts.

However, without getting too existential (again), I've been brought to wonder why I do this at all.
I started this blog some years ago (early 2009, records show), shortly after finishing my MSc degree. I was a little lost as regards my future and wanted to keep something intellectual and creative going until such time as I figured out what I wanted to do.

It turned out to be a great decision. Writing frequently (if somewhat sporadically) helped me develop to my own voice and ideas. Moreover, my uninvited and, to begin with, largely unread missives eventually helped me make the personal connections that brought me back into academia. I am certain that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I hadn't started writing here, then.

Although my motivation to do it comes and goes, it has been worthwhile at every step of the way.
The highly recommendable geography PhD blogger, Matthew Scott, adds:
This is certainly true, as my back catalogue will testify!

Right now, I am in a very different position compared to previously. I have a lot of writing to do this summer – particularly on the dreaded thesis but other papers and side projects, too. However, I find this to be far from a zero-sum game.

Writing begets writing. The more regular the exercise, the more fluid the flow from brain to page. Of course, it is important not to give in too much to displacement activity. However, it is really like any art or any sport – it is a matter of good habits and practice.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Hot off the press: 'Dismay, dissembly and geocide: Ways through the maze of Trumpist geopolitics'

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of being invited to write a short piece for a review forum in Law and Critique on Kyle McGee's new book Heathen Earth: Trumpism and Political Ecology.

The other contributions are now online, along with Kyle's own introduction:

Introduction: Law Between Two Vertigos, Kyle McGee
The Denier-in-Chief: Climate Change, Science and the Election of Donald J. Trump, Kari De Pryck and François Gemenne
Earthbound Law: The Force of an Indigenous Australian Institution, Stephen Muecke
Trumpism and Being in Worlds that Fall Between Worlds, Lilian Moncrieff

My own piece seems to have gotten jammed in the cogs of Springer's editorial bureaucracy, hopefully to be dislodged some time soon. However, I've uploaded a pre-print and will re-advertise the situation once the finalised version emerges.

So, 'hot off the pre-press,' then: Dismay, dissembly and geocide: Ways through the maze of Trumpist geopolitics

[Update 23/06/17: The full and final version is out now in open access.]

The short of it is that Heathen Earth is excellent and well worth a read for anyone concerned with issues of political ecology, the politics of climate and earth systems, the Anthropocene, the tawdry dementedness of he-who-shall-remain-nameless and so on, particularly (although by no means exclusively) in relation to law.

However, my piece is not really a review as such. Rather, it take Kyle's provocative postulates as a spur for my own worries, musings and therapeutic rhetorical splurges.

All in all, very pleased to have been involved!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Lexit's revenge?—A tale of three summers

We all live in our own little bubble. Well, maybe not everyone but I know that I do – and if you are reading this then you probably do too.

It occurs to me now that in June of the past three years, three particular political events have dominated my own mediasphere.

Late in June 2015, Alexis Tsipras announced that his bureaucrat-besieged Greek government would hold a referendum on the bailout conditions proposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Then, almost a year to the day in 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Now, in June 2017, the Labour Party has staged an astonishing electoral surge to leave the UK Parliament hung and the Conservatives running a seemingly untenable minority government with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, rather sickeningly, holding the balance of power.

The reaction of my mediasphere to the first is perhaps best summarised by the hashtag #thisisacoup that went viral early that July. The reaction to the second was that this was, at best, a monumental blunder and, at worst, an act of the most poisonous xenophobia by a bunch of know-nothing Little Englanders. And to the third: unrestrained gloating and glee.

I must say that I have more or less shared in the consensus of my milieu each time.

So, here's the thing: Labour campaigned for Remain but, following the 52/48 win for Leave, switched their stance. It was fairly apparent that their campaigning was, at best, half-hearted and if they had shown the kind of motivation and nous that has been on show over the past several weeks, the result may well have been different.

Corbyn, many suspected, was a closet 'Lexiter' – i.e. Left Brexiter – the whole time. In any case, post-referendum, the party under his leadership saw the opportunity to reclaim ground lost to UKIP and the SNP by taking up a position of moderated acceptance regarding the results (as opposed to the Tories, who took a far harder stance, and the Lib Dems who wagered, unsuccessfully as it turns out, on courting despondent Remain voters).

Now, to bemoan the browbeating treatment of Greece in 2015, renounce the mindless isolationism of the Eurosceptics in 2016 and acclaim the triumph-by-cog-jamming of Labour in 2017 are not necessarily incompatible positions. However, nor is their happy coherence altogether obvious.

Those described as Lexiters (a silly portmanteau of a silly portmanteau but let's indulge it for now) pointed to the treatment of Greece (along with Spain, Italy and others) by Germany-centred EU elites as evidence for the need to reject the EU as just another instrument of neoliberal domination.

Which, of course, it is. Or, rather, that is a large part of what it is and what it does. I, like many, despite accepting these criticisms nevertheless thought Brexit to be a looming disaster. More or less all the mainstream arguments given for Leave were entirely bogus and this was palpably and overwhelmingly an exit coming not from the left but from the most boggle-eyed extremes of the British right. A Lexiter's Brexit this was not and so none of the arguments from that side could really apply.

My own thought on the value of the EU in general for quite some time has been this: There is undoubtedly more to the post-1945 achievement of peace in Western Europe than this institution alone but nothing has done more to cement and secure mutual openness and cooperation as being not only the reality but also common sense for the vast majority of Europeans, on a blood-drenched continent for which lasting peace had been all but unthinkable for a generation or more.

However, among the many actors that have undermined this genuinely remarkable achievement, we must include the EU itself.

When Eurosceptic propagandists whip up visions of grey-faced, expensively suited men with rimless glasses and dour expressions tediously administering the minutiae of our daily lives, they peddle a reservoir of misinformation built up drip by drip over a period of decades. However, the job of said propagandists is made significantly easier by there being a large grain of truth to that caricature. 'Democratic deficit' – this is the polite version. Hardened, unapologetic technocracy – that is more on the money.

The stand-off between Greece and Germany was a symptom of economic integration running ahead of political integration, with elites and publics alike being unwilling to recognise the hard realities of both. As should be obvious to all but the most blinkered apologists, the bailout was not so much for the Greek people as for the German banks – those same banks who happily and knowingly lent to a corrupt government at unsustainable levels in the years previously. The agreement was as much punishment as it was administration – a glorified debtor's jail, large enough for an entire country. Britain, take note.

And so, were the Lexiters right after all? Is Corbyn's 'soft' Brexit the course we should have been hoping for all along? I remain sceptical on that count.

Those of us who were so upset about the referendum result weren't thinking about regulations and bureaucrats, grey-faced or otherwise. We were thinking about our friends, family, lovers who are only where they are – and therefore only who they are – because of the freedoms of movement that have been afforded by the EU. We were worried about our lives and our futures because we are the ones who have benefited so richly, economically and otherwise, from that constitutional and, yes, ideological status quo.

The new political movement lead by Corbyn is exciting but this remains a country with stolid, stubborn reserves of conservatism. I fear for the future and not only because I have made choices that depended upon the status quo that has now passed.

Nobody knows anything, least of all right now. But at least, right now, the watching and thinking feels like something good.

Friday, 9 June 2017

Election reaction—The real fight starts now

They laughed, they mocked, they guffawed. I must admit, I too was sceptical. Not because I didn't want it to be true – I'd just been hurt too many times before…

Fast forward. The common sense of both national and party establishments has been well and truly routed. The cadaverous plodding of throwback-Blairism has had its unbeating heart irreversibly staked.

Young people turned out – turns out they just needed something to vote for.

On a personal note (being still, if only in electoral terms, a young person), I was 11 years old when New Labour swept to power in 1997 and 17 when the Iraq War of 2003 kicked off. Gains in things like the minimum wage and being basically better than the Tories notwithstanding, for most of my adult life, Labour has been the party of hubris, capitulation and shame.

This is the first election in my life that I could vote for something, with hope.
Okay, in 2015 I hoped that the Labour of Ed Miliband might sneak in. He always seemed to be a basically decent guy, with his heart in the right place. However, in retrospect, his tenure was the end of an era, not the beginning.

He might not have been a New Labourite at heart (even if he had been in career). Nevertheless, his was still a politics of tracking 'public opinion' as though it were some transcendent, external force and then tacking opportunistically this way or that.

After Corbyn, we we can expect more. We can set the agenda.

Of course, we must also keep things in perspective. This is, at most, Act II of the drama. Party deal-making is underway and Labour has a long way to go as regards its own pool of parliamentary talent. Brexit looms, the inscrutable harbinger of who-knows-what. We do not know, at this stage, who will be the next PM or even how long this Parliament will last.

Nevertheless, considering the avalanche of lies and bile spewed from every orifice of the media-plutocrat-parliamentary complex, this stalemate constitutes a remarkable victory. What could have been a noble defeat has turned out to be a noble draw – and that is not damning by faint praise.

Whether or not Corbyn is a future PM, the Labour of his leadership have created the conditions for rebuilding a new kind of politics in this country.

But what's good is not yet good enough. The real fight starts now.

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

In which a PhD scribbler asks: ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

It is a question that we must all ask ourselves at some point (and those trying to write a PhD thesis must ask more often than most): ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

There has perhaps been no worse time to be entering (or thinking of entering) the academic job market, at least since the era when proleish schmucks like me would have been repelled by the red brick and tweed like mace to the face. If you’re going in, right now, it has to be with complete commitment; lever fully down; all in or nothing.

To be honest, it’s not a difficult decision. I have no other interests, skills or opportunities – at least none that stand a chance of giving me a liveable salary, with work I can enjoy (sporadically, as it may be). It is a privileged life, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future.

But that’s not yet an answer. I am not just some book-polished pebble rolling down a hill, following the path of least impassability. Why I am getting myself into this?

I am getting myself into this because I like to do the kinds of things that this allows me to do. I love the creativity of thinking and writing about difficult, profound and often obscure things. I also recognise the value of occupying a social position that permits such indulgences, both materially and normatively.

It is, then, a matter of pursuing a profession that permits the inhabitation of a certain position, not the profession itself. I know this to be true for many, perhaps most (but certainly not all). I give less than a shred of a damn about the prizes and puffery; the clawing and climbing. To think, write, teach, learn – that is the allure.

One can certainly chase such things far beyond the gates of the university (indeed, on some counts it might help). However, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future, there aren’t too many places like it. And, with at least a foot in the door, I am prepared to risk said door slamming as the winds of decline bluster indifferently by.

These ideals, as naive and silly as they are, have consequences.

If I write, I want to write something that people want to read and will find rewarding. Of course, there are many genres in which this can be achieved, the genre of a PhD thesis being perhaps the least of them. And that is a sticking point. The more acquainted I become with the PhD as an institution and genre, the more it appears as an essentially conservative medium. That is, like all institutions, it exists to reproduce its own basic assumptions and is blithely oblivious as to what this precludes.

That is not to say that creativity is not possible from within the genre – it absolutely is (and it is frequently encouraged, I feel no lack of that). However, such creativity is achieved in spite of the genre, not because of it. The genre exists to mediocritise. The mediocritic is mediocratic, not in the sense that mediocrity is actively encouraged but in the sense that the basic contours of the landscape make mediocrity the path of least resistance. It is a gulley where fluids flow via the sharply downwards-carving median point. ‘Like it or not’ (and many don’t), this seems to be ‘just the way it is.’

Whenever I’m writing something that someone else will read – like now – I always have in the back of my mind a calculation of sorts. If it’s a mid-length piece that takes, say, an hour to read and 100 people read it, that’s 100 hours of human existence absorbed by that text. And so, it’d better be worth it.

Far more than peer review or my own sense of intellectual propriety, this is the standard that I feel obligates me to take what I’m doing seriously and to put everything that I have into it, however much of myself is available for that given thing (and of course it varies; right now it’s 01:37 and I feel that I should be sleeping). I don’t want my writing to just make sense, be logical, structured and so on, nor do I just want it to be fluid, readable, creatively phrased (although these are all fine, mediocre qualities).

It’s simple, really.  I want to write something good, something better, something rewarding. Maybe even something beautiful. Perhaps inspiring. Inspiring in that head-buzzing, pulsing sense that I've felt only a handful of times, reading words that have stuck with me, stuck to me, that have made me in their wake.

Not that I think I have achieved this yet (and certainly not right now). But whether or not I have achieved any of that, or even if I am capable of achieving that, is not the point. In fact, it’s beside the point.

If I can’t hold open the possibility of being more than a mid-level technician of academic cog-churning then I can’t get out of bed in the morning. That’s what it comes down to.

And this is the tricky thing with writing a PhD thesis. For a long time I’ve put myself under a lot of pressure to get to the point where I can write something good. Writing a thesis, however, is about writing something that’s good enough.

Ultimately, a thesis has a simple purpose: to be defensible in front of your examiners. However, behind that objective I find another that is in many ways more demanding and is certainly more troubling: to have something that is defensible to yourself.

Once it’s done, it’s done – a wise tautology. However, I cannot disengage the practical exigencies of this task from the very motivation that compels me to undertake it in the first place.

Whether or not I am capable of, some day, writing something genuinely, rewardingly creative, beyond the ponderous, blinkered, bureaucratic mush of, let’s be honest, the vast majority of academic writing, is uncertain – and, as I have said, really beside the point. I have to assume that I am capable of this in order for the initial risk that I am taking to amount to more than the utmost hypocrisy.

Not being content with the procedural attainment of a professional bauble (that’s nice but it’s not enough), I have to want something more. By the same token, I have to presume that anyone else who wants this can also achieve it. Not in the faux-aspirational sense of ‘you can do anything if you try hard enough’ (you can’t). It’s not about that because it’s not about me or anyone in particular. It’s about evading the fundamental hypocrisy of capitulating from the very beginning to the very things that the initial risk requires that I resist.

The above feels a little raw, perhaps inadvisable. However, I’ve come to feel recently that I’ve lost my nerve. Not become complacent exactly but lost the sense of urgency that I felt before returning to education (after a hiatus of six years).

And so, I have no doubts that I am doing the right thing in general (and it wouldn’t help much if I did). However, I still have to find a way through the maze of mediocritisation. My conjecture (at 01:51) is that a little more rawness, a little more nerve might be what’s needed.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

New essay on 'Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics'

We need to talk about truth. Or, more precisely, “post-truth.” As has been widely reported, shared, liked and ridiculed, this was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016: “[R]elating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Although in use since at least the early 1990s, in the year of Brexit and Trump, post-truth was claimed as a kind of zeitgeist. Cue much pensiveness and gnashing of teeth.
A new essay on 'Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics' that I wrote in response to recent debates on these issues has published at E-International Relations.

Writing about US politics at present is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I started writing the piece in the immediate aftermath of the Trump election in November. It was updated in the early part of the year to reflect various changes that had occurred by that point. Consequently, I didn't comment on some more recent contributions mentioned in a previous post.

So, this is really my attempt to make sense of the politics of nonsense that Trumpism embodies. It is, in this sense, an ongoing project; something of a collective work in progress.

I write particularly from my current disciplinary situation in International Politics (or International Relations, delete as appropriate). Nevertheless, this is a discussion that goes well beyond any academic circumstance.

I'm very glad to have it out there (even if I'm currently experiencing the customary apprehensiveness that comes from having one's own thoughts suddenly on public display!).

Sunday, 19 March 2017

The need for humility and creativity in the face of 'post-truth'

PT Jackson has a very good post on Duck of MinervaFor Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto.
The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation.
There's an old adage that seems to me to be rather pertinent here: Beware the General who plans for the previous war (because they are likely to lose the next one).

One reaction to the whole 'post-truth' thing has been to point out that politics was never truth-based in any meaningful sense. Politicians always lied. Truths were always multiple. This reaction basically says 'move along, nothing to see here.'

Another reaction has been to dust off the old 'Science Wars' tropes from the mid-1990s and blame 'postmodernism' for corrupting public morals and undermining rationality (as if a few literary theorists were running the world this whole time).

The first of these reactions is basically correct but nevertheless deeply, ponderously complacent. The second appropriately militates against this complacency but falls down by being extremely stupid.

And so PTJ's post is very welcome in falling into neither of these traps, having the humility to admit that the politics of truth the author hitherto practiced also had its shortcomings.

As far as this need for self-criticism goes, I think it comes down to this: To show the politics in truth claims is easy. At this point, we can pretty much do this in our sleep. It's practically automated.

Yes, everything is contestable and much of everything must be contested. But this is the battle cry of the previous war. There are much more difficult questions to be asked.

There will be no end of history, intellectual or otherwise.

Monday, 27 February 2017

The prison house of disciplinarity and the poverty of paraphrasism

Working within a discipline is a tricky thing, particularly when your work doesn't fit at all neatly into any discipline in particular. Such are the quandaries of inter- trans- or multi-disciplinary, neatly summarised here:
Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
Multidisciplinary: people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.
My PhD project involves writing a history of the concept of the environment, particularly in the 19th century. One basic methodological principle I have adopted is to work 'semasiologically' – that is, to take a word and explore its possible meanings as opposed to 'onomasiologically,' which takes a concept or thing and explores its possible significations.

Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. However, prioritising the former has an important consequence: it is impossible to limit the study to pre-specified disciplinary domains. For example, while geographical uses of 'environment' are extremely important to the story I'm telling, they cannot be prematurely isolated from the popularisation of 'milieu' as a term in literary theory or linguistics.

Disciplinarily, I am housed within and funded by a department of International Politics, although I also have supervision from geography and the history of science. This is working out to be a very productive arrangement as it combines a substantial degree of intellectual freedom with a continual demand to think more intensively about the political consequences of what I'm working on.

So, clearly my work is inter- or multi-disciplinary, depending on how you look at it. It is also trans-disciplinary inasmuch as I am not just combining different areas of knowledge haphazardly or indifferently but also thinking about things that none of these 'boxes' really encourage (although, institutionally, they may to some extent facilitate).

However, it is perhaps easier to define the kind of disciplinarity that I am working against than what I am working towards. Obviously, nothing about this project is 'intra-disciplinary.' However, it seems to me that strict intra-disciplinarity is becoming more and more rare, at least in the areas that I am familiar with.

The aspect of disciplinarity that I would really see myself as resisting has more to do with the 'cross-disciplinary,' or perhaps a better term would be 'para-disciplinary.' This is something that I find to be particularly prevalent in International Relations, although by no means only there.

In a word, I would call it 'paraphrasism' – that is, the norm that a scholar residing within one discipline, looking to other disciplines for interesting ideas and then essentially paraphrasing these ideas, repackaging them for colleagues in their home discipline, makes not only an acceptable but a highly valued form of intellectual contribution to collective knowledge.

For example, within IR it is possible to be a scholar who works primarily on the philosophy of science. To varying degrees, ideas taken from disciplinary philosophy of science may be adapted to the specificities of IR; however, equally they may remain debated in the abstract among other IR-philosophers. Sometimes such debates do get to the point of going beyond what has been said elsewhere. However, the important point is that paraphrasing and 'bringing in' these ideas is considered to be original intellectual work in itself.

Such para-disciplinary repackagings seem to score highly on assessment metrics and are generally a sound route to professional success. I find this rather disappointing. I hasten to add that I'm not condemning or demeaning this sort of endeavour. It is worthwhile. However, it is also extremely limited.

I try to set myself quite different goals. If I am making use of ideas derived from the philosophy of science, the history of science and anthropology, I want my recombination and rethinking of these ideas to entail original contributions to each of these areas. That is, every significant adoption should entertain the possibility of productively feeding back on whence it came.

I hasten to add once again that this is extremely difficult to achieve and that I do not expect that I am any more capable of this than anyone else. It is difficult to add to any one area of knowledge, never mind several. However, this is rather beside the point. The important thing is to choose your implausible objectives very carefully – to construct one's own intellectual obligations in such a way as to make such a thing possible rather than foreclosed from the start.

I expect that this is not an altogether original thought. However, I don't know of anyone articulating it in quite this way. For example, in Why International Relations has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to do About it (2001), Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue that the "semipermeable membrane that allows ideas from other disciplines to filter into IR, but seems to block substantial traffic in the other direction" amounts to their discipline's 'failure.' They propose that IR qua coherent, ontologically grounded discipline must have something to 'give back,' balancing the trade deficit with other coherent, ontological grounded disciplines, particularly sociology. That 'something' is the very thing that gives the discipline its 'ground': the concept of 'international systems.' Along very similar lines, in International Relations in the prison of Political Science (2016), Justin Rosenberg proposes that the discipline find its ground in the concept of 'political multiplicity' – it is this disciplinary heartland that will let IR scholars hold their heads high at the table of social sciences.

Personally, I have little interest in such intra- and inter-disciplinary politics. I have the luxury, at present, of ignoring such things. However, at some point, I will have to dress myself in the garb of one house or another. Clearly, my past and present institutional circumstances have effected my reference points for thinking about these things. Disciplinarity is certainly not something that can be shrugged off. It is an ongoing, continual conditioning effect operating via a variety of means, obvious and otherwise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing – I mean it when I write that my situation in an IR department provokes me to think politically in a way that I would not elsewhere.

There is something of a tightrope to navigate. However, I won't content myself with paraphrasism, even if that would make for an easier life. I just find that altogether too boring.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Isabelle Stengers on becoming a philosopher with Deleuze and Whitehead

Further to my last post on why I wouldn't feel comfortable calling myself a philosopher, Isabelle Stengers' recent essay in Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey's The Allure of Things is very interesting. She writes:
"I learned that I would become a philosopher when reading Deleuze and I experienced that philosophy is worth existing only if it accepts the risk of existing in the teeth of other practices, producing its own demanding concerns without needing to weaken theirs." (p.195)
That is more or less exactly my frustration with so many excessively pious and all-encompassing readings of 'geophilosophy.' She adds:
"If I learned what it feels to become a philosopher with Deleuze, it is with Whitehead that I learned what it means to answer this challenge by practicing philosophy as an openly speculative adventure."(p.196)
I must admit that I continue to feel un-carried away by Deleuze. The aspects of his thought I find compelling are those I find in either Stengers or Latour after him or James or Whitehead before (and with less intellectual indigestion). It may well be my failing.

Friday, 3 February 2017

Away from 'theory as overlay'; or: On not being a philosopher

I make no claim to be a philosopher, although I philosophise (and maybe that is enough – need one philosophise well?). This reluctance perhaps derives from being Anglophone and thus born of a deeply anti-intellectual culture for which more or less the only legitimate meaning of 'philosopher' is as shorthand for a particular subsection of the academic profession (and not one given much respect).

However, the more philosophical reason for this reluctance is that I find myself ever more an empiricist. I am interested in ideas only if they do not lead away from experience but allow it to be extended or amplified in various ways. This is, I suspect, why I have always found a liking for pragmatism, actor-network theory, and so on.

Above all, I am sceptical – no, that is too polite: I cannot abide – the use of theory as overlay. That is, the situation where an abstract vocabulary becomes so sophisticatedly all-consuming that it does not enable surprising connections but rather precludes them – a universe unto itself. This is Whitehead’s "thought within a groove" – the stuff of the professional.

For example, I find myself unable to share the fascination of so many philosophically-inclined geographers* with the geophilosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. It seems to me that their conceptual vocabulary of territories and strata is, if anything, the least useful aspect of their continually transforming, runaway stagecoach of a philosophical project (I mean this as a compliment) for thinking about matters of earth, experience and politics.

By taking practically all of the conventional terms available to actors engaging in geographical/geological practices and making them into unconventional technical terms, there is no longer any easy way of relating the web of abstractions to said practices as such actors themselves describe them.

There is a decoupling at this moment that carves out 'philosophy' as an autonomous space. I cannot abide that space. In this much, I am not a philosopher.

This is not to suggest that words should not be made and remade in abstraction from convention – they should. However, as counterintuitive as it may be, it seems to me that a creative conceptual universe made from the lexicon of geography might be less useful for geography than a conceptual universe made from something else.

This would not be such a problem if the likes of D&G were read more creatively and less, for want of a better word, 'professionally.' There is a remarkable lack of creativity – indeed, often outright piety – in the parsing of these thoughts as though they were to be a system adequate to an object.

Theory as overlay is incapable of astringency, as Isabelle Stengers describes that term:
"[…] the function of scientific thought has less to do with its ‘truth’ than with its astringent effects, the way it stops thought from just turning in self-satisfying circles."
Self-satisfaction is a vice of the intellect.





____________
*I'm not a geographer either but let's save that for another day.

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Alfred North Whitehead and the Logician's Nose

In his foreword to Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, Bruno Latour writes:
“It could be one of those little games journalists play on television talk shows about books: “Who was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century whose name begins with W?” Most learned people in America would answer “Wittgenstein.” Sorry. The right answer is “Whitehead” – another philosopher whose name begins with W to be sure, but one who is vastly more daring, and also, unfortunately, much less studied.”
Last week, here in Aber InterPol, we had a two-part reading group on A.N. Whitehead’s works. Being partial instigator, I got to choose the readings:
Session 1 – Whitehead’s Problem: The Bifurcation of Nature
The Concept of Nature, chapters I (“Nature and Thought”), II (“Theories of the Bifurcation of Nature”) and VIII (“Summary”). In these lectures (given 1919), Whitehead sets out his “problematique” for the first time, concentrating primarily on the philosophy of physics – something that is taken up and expanded in his later works. His argument here is crucial to many contemporary thinkers, such as Haraway, Barad, Latour and so on. 
Session 2 – Philosophy between Science, Art and Nature
Science and the Modern World chapters IV (“The Eighteenth Century”), V (“The Romantic Reaction”) and XIII (“Requisites for Social Progress”). In these lectures (given 1925), Whitehead fleshes out his problem historically, ranging much more widely than before. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly interesting because they set out a distinction between natural philosophy and nature poetry, respectively, with Whitehead, as philosopher, taking both equally seriously.
We had been hoping to arrange something like this for a while; however, the occasion was provided by the annual visit of (Visiting Professor) Patrick Thaddeus Jackson from American University – noted Wittgensteinian (and Weberian, for that matter).

Besides myself, we had Milja Kurki, whose work on ‘relational cosmology’ gave us some really important parallels between Whitehead’s century-old works and contemporary physical thinking. Also, representatives of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Eliasian process sociology, and more.

Whitehead’s works are really important for my research at the moment, particularly regarding the place of ‘environment’ within his ‘philosophy of organism,’ and so it was extremely useful to get such a wide range of reactions. Having spent quite some time reading and absorbing Stengers’ reading of (or rather with) Whitehead, I am given to picking up particularly on his pragmatist tendencies. For example, from Science and the Modern World:
“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction. It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society. It is the critic of abstractions.” (p.59)
Patrick, on the other hand, was most struck by the ‘totalising’ ethic of endeavouring to combine all elements of experience and of scientific fact into a complete conceptual scheme, a theory of everything.

This impression derived particularly from recognition of Whitehead’s intellectual milieu. This being a few years before Gödel's incompleteness theorems were published (1931); a place and time where a ‘theory of everything’ was an objective that hardly needed explanation. Indeed, in our first reading, The Concept of Nature, Whitehead pointedly evades what he calls ‘metaphysics’ but sets out, quite straightforwardly, to construct a concept of nature that will enable the unification of the sciences. And, of course, we can hardly ignore that Whitehead was the mathematician who, with Bertrand Russell, attempted to do nothing less than provide a new foundation for mathematics in their Principia Mathematica (explicitly echoing Isaac Newton in the process).

Reading Whitehead's prose can seem, as Patrick put it, as though it's translated “from the original math.” We can see the ‘totalising’ aspect encapsulated very well on the very first page of Process and Reality (1927), where Whitehead describes “Speculative Philosophy” as:
“the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (p.3)
Of course, much hinges on what is understood by “our experience” but we can see the point.

My first reaction to this was that Whitehead’s project may have been totalising in this sense but it was not dogmatic. In other words, we should consider precisely what way it was totalising (partial, preliminary, fleeting – i.e. pragmatic). In Stengers’ words (taken by Latour as an epigraph): “Every synthesis begins ‘anew’ and has to be taken up from the start as if for the first time.” In Whitehead's own words: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (1927, p.21).

However, this all got me to thinking further about what I take from Whitehead, creatively rather than historically per se. My interest is not so much in ‘totalisation’ in the sense of insisting that conceptual schemes should necessarily involve consistent abstractions from “every element of our experience.” I am interested in avoiding arbitrary and premature delineations of intellectual boundaries – something for which Whitehead is evidently excellent.

However, I think the more interesting point concerns the profound obligation imposed by the requirement of logical consistency. The interesting aspect of logic, in this regard, is not so much the promise of cohesion into a permanent, solid, unshakeable whole. Rather, it is the unavoidable recognition of the fact that altering one part of the spider's web ripples through every other element. Change your concept of relation and this affects your understanding of life, knowledge, politics, dreams.

If Whitehead’s milieu compels us to interpret him as searching for the totality of the infinite, I am in a sense interested in the totality of the indefinite – stretching far beyond any given instance or expression, constantly rippling back, surprising and forcing reassessment of what could previously taken as totality. In other words, when we refuse to keep process cosmology out of the process of thought. When we give up trying to think the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

In this sense, you need the logician’s nose to follow the flows. The genius of the tradition of rationalism that Whitehead embodies lies not so much in permanence but in its capacity for dealing with impermanence.

Thinking the thought that would allow us to stop thinking – was this Whitehead's objective? Maybe. But he provides plenty of possibilities for those seeking to kick the habit. Not trying to bring thought to an end but refusing to give up on the means yet developed for dealing with the exigencies of the indefinite.

The Anthropocene, Eurocentrism and Consensus

The Anthropocene is, as they say, a contested concept. This contestation has rumbled loudly along a number of fault-lines – none louder (or perhaps faultier) than the dispute between Clive Hamilton, on the one side, and the likes of Erle Ellis and Mark Maslin, on the other.

For Hamilton, the Anthropocene has to be defined principally in accordance with the principles of Earth System science; specifically, with regard to the shift of system state brought about by industrialised human activity. 'Industrialised' is the key term. The mere fact of human beings affecting their surroundings – something recognised for centuries – is beside the point.

For others, however, this is precisely the point (e.g.). Ellis and Maslin argue that an industrially-defined Anthropocene:
"[…] ignores thousands of years of human impact on Earth. To declare the start of human transformation of Earth in the 1950s fails to take into account the continuous nature of human-induced changes to our planet. Underlying such a claim is the view that only Earth’s most recent human populations possess the capacity to change Earth. Such thinking instils a Western, white-male, elite-technocratic narrative of human engagement with our environment that is counter to contemporary thinking in the social sciences."
While sharing many of these authors' convictions, I must confess that I find this claim to be rather misguided.

First of all, I agree with Hamilton that an 'early' Anthropocene defined in terms of human capacities for soil erosion, fire-based agriculture or continent-scale extinction is basically incoherent. It has to be defined explicitly in relation to a tipping point or shift of magnitude or the whole concept becomes basically arbitrary.

However, this is the least of the problems. The Anthropocene as a term has been widely criticised, not least by social scientists, for its construction on the Greek 'anthropos' – i.e. humanity. Since causality entails responsibility, a great many have pointed out that it is not humanity as such but, rather, that most industrialised, capitalised tranche of humanity that has brought about the new epoch.

Ellis and Maslin attempt to turn this critique on its head by suggesting that a denial of the 'early' Anthropocene entails a denial of the "capacity" of "all but Earth’s most recent human populations" (presumably they mean industrialised societies) "to change Earth" (note the capitalisation and absence of 'the,' conveniently blurring 'surroundings' and 'planet').

So, non-industrialised humans are left out of the Anthropocene club. Is this an exclusion or an exemption? Ellis and Maslin presume the former. It must be humanity as such that defines the Anthropocene – to say otherwise reinforces the narrative of "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic"…

While I would not presume to pronounce what the "contemporary thinking in the social sciences" is, I  suspect more than a few social scientists would take issue with this on any number of levels. It is like saying that nineteenth-century Indians, as human beings, had the capacity to colonise the British – undoubtedly true but also completely beside the point. There is a whole historiography on why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China before Britain. It could have done; it didn't.

This rather perverse universalist guilt-trip evaporates the moment one considers the question of magnitude.  Yes, humans have always "shaped the environment" – so have all mammals, animals, life. So what? Not every meteor strike is geologically significant, some are. Same principle.

It seems to me that the 'early' Anthropocene, if it is to make any sense whatsoever, must adhere to the following: The arrival of industrial humans was inevitable. Take pre-industrial humans and industrial humans follow as if it were a logical consequence. This is the only way all these myriad diversities can be lumped into the same boat.

And 'diversity' is the final point. Ellis and Maslin make a plea for the place of social scientists at the natural science table:
"It is time for the Anthropocene Working Group to move beyond its current status as a typical stratigraphic working group, formed of invited volunteers without a formal membership process or by-laws. 
We instead call for a dedicated scientific institution, perhaps called the International Anthropocene Commission, to coordinate this. It could be set up and funded by the International Union of Geological Sciences, Future Earth and the United Nations. Half its members should be drawn from anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, geography, paleoecology, economics and philosophy."
In broad strokes, this is something that I would be sympathetic with. However, there is a crucial difference between geology in particular and the social sciences and humanities in general. A single community-approved timescale is the backbone of the former, it is more or less irrelevant to the latter. Non-geologists can do their work without this consensus – and they will do, whatever happens.

Ellis and Maslin are right to point out that the institutional inauguration of a "human epoch" is an event with much broader and more profound consequences than the parochially geological. However, their strategy of blurring boundaries helps no one. Geology is not landscape ecology and it is not at all clear why it should be.

Above all, defending a post-1750 or post-1950 Anthropocene in no way, shape or form entails the presumption that non-industrial peoples are somehow 'in harmony with nature' or any of that outdated claptrap.

The "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic" concern is an important one but, in this case, thoroughly misconceived. Certainly, this means that more dialogue is needed between natural, social, political and human sciences. However, this is already happening without the forms of consensus that are the peculiar prerequisite of geology.

Dialogue doesn't mean collapsing differences. On the contrary, it requires heightened sensitivity to them.

Monday, 31 October 2016

Bruno Latour on geo-logy in a neo-Humboldtian university

In her book The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, Laura Dassow Walls writes:
"By asserting that nature is independent of humans in a difference that is profoundly generative, [Alexander] Humboldt is trying to bridge the impasse reached by Kant, who had deepened the Cartesian dualism of mind and nature into an unbridgeable abyss by arguing that the nonhuman or “noumenal” world could never be reached or conceived. We could see only its phenomenal shadow, the mask, what little was open to the human senses. As Margarita Bowen details, Humboldt bridged this Kantian impasse by showing how humans developed their concepts over time, in a historical process by which they “are generated, tested and incorporated into the sphere of ideas.” Through this historical process, ideas forged in the crucible of physical nature made the world of thought part of the process of nature. As Bowen observes, Humboldt sees the very gulf between mind and nature “as the locus of the sciences.”"
In an endnote to this passage, she adds:
"I would argue that in this respect Humboldt’s philosophy anticipates that of the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour. A Latourian analysis of Humboldtian science would be a very productive project."
Walls is surely not the first to find affinity between Humboldt, whose leitmotif was Alles ist Wechselwirkung [everything is interrelated], and Latour, the famous thinker of networks.

In a recent talk at Cornell, Latour himself has reflected on the contemporary relevance of Humboldt with regard to the challenges of Anthropocene affairs, particularly regarding the question of how to organise training and knowledge production in a world where words like "world," "nature" and "earth" have been challenged on the most fundamental level. This connection presumably derives from the suggestion of Cornell's Aaron Sachs, whose book The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism establishes Humboldt as something of a 'founding father' of North American environmental thinking.
This is a felicitous happenstance for this blog (as long-term readers will probably have noticed). I'm currently writing what began as a chapter (and is ending up as six chapters) on Humboldt's work. It is not my intention to directly compare his thinking with that of Latour; however, there is an important connection.

My thesis, such as it currently exists (13 months into my PhD), asks a very simple and very complicated question: What is the history of the concept of environment? The basic philosophical idea that runs through the whole project derives from a paper by Latour and Michel Callon from 1992, Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath School! – specifically, "the distribution of agencies." In short, I understand the evolution of the concept "environment" (and its various equivalents, cognates and associates) in terms of variations in the distribution of agency between domains (particularly "society" and "nature").

In writing this I am attempting to engage with a whole range of questions and debates. However, one book in particular that stands out is The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. This is, as I have written previously, not just another Anthropocene book. It is an excellent piece of work and covers much the same sort of territory that I am attempting to examine; however, it has some serious limitations. First of all, I'm not convinced that the critique it makes of the works of Latour and Ulrich Beck stand up. What they call "environmental reflexivity" seems to somewhat misrepresent what these two authors were saying.

However, the important point for my project is that while they do a very good job of demonstrating that capacities for sophisticated modes of thought and action concerning "environment" are nothing new, they do little or nothing to establish what, in statistical language, we can call the incidence or, simply, the relative importance of environmental concepts, practices and concerns within their particular historical epoch. They seem to me to be operating within an epistemological conception of historiography (à la Bachelard through Foucault) that primarily concerns itself with establishing what is "thinkable" and "unthinkable" in any historical period. That is to say, an historiography for which incidence is largely irrelevant.

This is why I am interested in Humboldt – and why my initial single chapter has ballooned to six. I am attempting to set the aspects of his work that can, anachronistically, be termed "environmental" or "ecological" within a fuller account of his life, works and networks. By doing so, I will be able to show the relative importance (or otherwise) of these aspects for Humboldt and, by a more tentative implication, for his historical epoch.

Needless to say, this has been quite a challenge! Not only are Humboldt's own works voluminous in the extreme but the figure of this "great man" has been claimed and re-claimed so many times that the layers of interpretation form strata that are themselves formidable. My agenda is not really to criticise the spectacular plume of recent writings that have reclaimed Humboldt once again for the ecological age we seem to be in. However, I cannot help but be struck by how different my approach and the reading that results is from most if not all of these writings.

Humboldt is, undoubtedly, quite a likeable chap. However, Humboldtography has a definite tendency towards sanitisation, sometimes turning over into outright hagiography. My objection to this is not so much that one should not attempt to reclaim aspects of the past for the present. Rather, it is, I think, that the version of Humboldt that results from this purification is substantially more boring than the "warts and all" version that results from a more thorough and less tendentious reading. Quite often, the specifics of Humboldt's work simply disappear by his being interpreted through more contemporary modes of thought.

This is, I think, what happens in the passage from Walls quoted above. It is deeply misrepresentative in a whole number of ways. Primarily, presenting Humboldt as somehow overcoming Kant (even in intention) is quite implausible. He constructed his magnum opus Cosmos (written in the final years of his life and never finished) on explicitly Kantian lines, strictly dividing the objective and subjective elements into separate works. Yes, he was attempting to reconcile the opposition – but so was everyone else (including Kant). Nothing could have been further from his mind than the project we inherit from Whitehead (circa 1919) of overcoming the bifurcation of nature.

Once again, I have no problem with creative readings of past thinkers. However, there is a risk in this: making the past an extension of the present and thereby erasing the possibility of encountering historical difference.

And so, I think there is much to recommend revisiting the Humboldtian project (evidently!). Latour is careful to distinguish Alexander from his brother Wilhelm, who was a statesman, linguist and political theorist. However, I would argue that this separation should not be undertaken too hastily. It was Wilhelm who founded the University of Berlin (later Humboldt University) and was principally involved with educational reform (Alexander worked, before his South American journey from 1799 to 1804, reforming mining and industrial practices). True, Wilhelm was known as the "humanist" in a disciplinary sense – they were both humanists in the philosophical sense. However, Alexander explicitly joins the two projects in Cosmos, extensively quoting his brother's works (and, after Wilhelm's death, editing and publishing his most important works).

I would also, on the basis of the above, have to question Latour's statement that:
"What I propose to do, then, is to introduce a division between nature and the natural sciences, on the one hand, and phusis and the earthly sciences on the other. A fully geo-centric move, if you wish, provided that you take geo not as a globe but as a critical zone. It is not as speculative as one might think, since there are lots of good technical reasons to utilize such a partition. Witness Timothy Lenton’s version of the same divide in his book: “For many Earth system scientists, the planet Earth is really comprised of two systems -the surface Earth system that supports life, and the great bulk of the inner Earth underneath. It is the thin layer of a system at the surface of the Earth -and its remarkable properties- that is the subject of my work” 
This is something that Humboldt would have understood easily."
Humboldt was nothing if not an open-minded empiricist and, so, would undoubtedly have been delighted to encounter the geo-logy of today. He did as much as anyone in his era, both intellectually and infrastructurally, to enable the contemporary earth sciences. However, it is, I think, important to remember that his "climate" was nothing like ours – nor was his "earth." Moreover, his geopolitics (to use another anachronistic term) was a very, very long way from what is needed today. If there was ever a more enthusiastic advocate of modernisation than Alexander von Humboldt, I have never encountered them.

In short, if we are to learn from the likes of Humboldt we must not get hung up on those aspects that echo with reassuring familiarity. We must, instead, be attentive to the differences – encounter that historical difference. Doubtless, we share some of Humboldt's problems but we should not, as his hagiographers all too often do, suppose that we have much "common ground" with him or his epoch.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Exploring the international through film

As part of my teaching this term, I am screening and introducing five films (or collections of films) from around the world that deal with various aspects of international politics. Below are my synopses. Looking forward to it!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Regularly listed as one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece has won plaudits and provoked controversy ever since its release. Set during the Vietnam War in 1969, the film follows Benjamin L. Willard, a Captain instructed to travel up the Nung river and assassinate Walter E. Kurtz, a Special Forces Colonel gone rogue, establishing himself as a demigod somewhere inside neutral Cambodia. Simultaneously realistic and surreal, Coppola once claimed that: "My movie is not a movie. My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam." Having as much to do with the drugs, the lies and the madness of the era as with the war itself, Apocalypse Now will make us ask: Does this film really criticise war or, rather, subtly glorify it? Does it undercut racism or just reproduce existing prejudices? And can we, in the end, separate the cinematic spectacle, the 'entertainment value,' from the politics it plays out?

2. Our Friend the Atom (1957)/The War Game (1965)
Appearing just eight years apart, these two short films show two very different sides of Western nuclear politics in the mid-twentieth century. Our Friend the Atom was produced by Disney to educate the public about nuclear science and extol the virtues of this 'magical' technology for everything from energy and transportation to health. In stark contrast to such bubbly optimism, The War Game depicts the events and aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain. It was produced for the BBC but deemed "too horrifying" to broadcast. With recent debates around the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system and, in light of global warming, the vices and virtues of nuclear power, these films offer a window onto past attitudes to nuclear politics that will help inform our thinking in the present. These films will make us ask: How are apparently 'elite' issues of strategy and planning connected to public perceptions of legitimacy, security and science? What do these differing understandings of nuclear technology tell us about our collective attitudes towards the future? And is it even possible to have a 'rational' debate around these issues, given how massively emotive they have been for such a long time?

3. Mustang (2015)
Set in a parochial, provincial Turkish village ("1000 miles from Istanbul"), this Franco-Turkish production tells the story of five teenage sisters, rebellious and orphaned, living with their kind but conservative grandmother and brutal, controlling uncle. After one act of youthful disobedience too many, it is decided that the girls are to be married – forcibly, if needs be. As a result, their home is gradually turned into a prisonlike "wife factory" – complete with bars on the windows. However, while the film does not shy away from the horrors possible in a patriarchal society, it is not a film about suffering but, rather, about resistance, love and the exuberance of youth. With a relevance that transcends its particular cultural circumstances, Mustang will make us ask: What are the sorts of violence that young women are particularly vulnerable to and how are these vulnerabilities perpetuated? What sorts of agency do women, of all ages, have to resist these unequal and unjust relationships? And what message might this film have for those of us living, seemingly, much further away than "1000 miles from Istanbul"?

4. World War II short films (1935-1945)
World War II was perhaps the heyday of propaganda films. Huge numbers were produced on all sides, across a wide variety of genres. This session will play a selection of British, American, French, German, Japanese and Soviet short films and cartoons, as well as excerpts from feature films such as the infamous Nazi epic Triumph of the Will (1935). Placing all these audiovisual artefacts side-by-side will demonstrate the differences but also the similarities between the competing schemes of national representation and vilification that were tearing the world apart at this time. While in many ways 'of their era,' we will find in these films certain tropes and techniques that remain in continual use, right up to today. These films will make us ask: How were perceptions of the War produced through film and how did they differ between different nations? What do these differences tell us about our own hyperactive media environments? And what, in the end, is a 'propaganda' film, anyway?

5. Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Like Coppola's Apocalypse Now, this film also features a journey down a tropical river – a journey taken under desperate circumstances. Théo, a German explorer, seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman, the only man for many miles who can cure his fatal illness. However, this is not another story of a white European disappearing into the frightful foliage of the wild and 'primitive.' Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Karamakate, the shaman. Set against the background of the 'rubber wars' perpetrated by Euro-American invaders seeking to exploit Amazonian rubber trees, Embrace of the Serpent is simultaneously a scathing indictment of colonialism and, in the words of its director, "an attempt to build a bridge between Western and Amazonian storytelling." This film will make us ask: What place is there in our political attention-spans for forms of violence and exploitation apparently at the 'fringes' of civilisation? Are we even able to recognise all the forms of violence that such projects of domination enact? And how, given all of that, can we 'build bridges' between different ways of living and surviving in the world?

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

PhD diary #10: 05/09/2016

I've fallen rather behind on these "monthly" updates over the past few months. Consequently, I will try to write a few posts in the next few weeks to catch up (before I come to the end of the first year of my PhD).

There are several reasons for this un-prolific spell. Principally, the writing of my first chapter has turned out to be a rather more mountainous endeavour than I had anticipated.

As last I wrote, I was in the process of collating and condensing my notes, annotations, plans and ideas in anticipation of putting pen to paper (so to speak). What I had underestimated – in a good way, really – is just how much material I had amassed over recent months. The sheer scale of information is difficult to either organise or cognise. However, going back over everything also revealed to me, or reminded me of, various things that I should have also read and digested! The weaving strands continue to extend and spiral ever outwards.

With all that, it also became quite apparent that the < 20,000 word aim for this chapter was hopelessly lowballing it. I really have no idea, at this point, how long it will end up being. Fortunately, however, this shouldn't be a major issue for the thesis. I have my starting point, I know how the narrative develops, I may simply not get as far as I had originally intended (before either running out of time or, more likely, hitting the word limit).

The basic purpose of the thesis remains more or less the same as it has been in the past: to narrate the genesis of "environment" (and its cognates) as an aesthetic, scientific, philosophical and political concept (or, rather, set of concepts), starting in the late 18th century. This, I hasten to add, is in no way the earliest point at which such a narrative could begin. On the contrary, it is rather the latest point, I think, at which this narrative, as I wish to write it, can begin.

And so, the original plan to bring things right up to the present may be unrealistic (at least for the thesis, hopefully not in the long-term). However, I am really pleased with how it is all coming together. The plot is unsummarisable but the threads do, in the end, mesh together.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

PhD diary #9: 14/07/2016

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Caught between a clusterfuck and an omnishambles

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

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

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

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