Saturday, 23 May 2015

Reassembling geopolitics—a brief synopsis of my long-term project

For the past 8 or 9 months, I've been plotting and planning the long-term research project that, one way or another, I will pursue for the next several years. (In fact, this plan has been more or less complete since January but I'm just getting around to sharing it now.)

It takes Bruno Latour's work on geopolitics as its starting point but also departs from it in various ways. My recently published article Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic geopolitics is essentially a (very) long preface to this larger work.

The project is divided into six parts, each of which are substantially independent but also follow on from each other:

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

The first two parts suppose that if we are to reimagine what geopolitics might mean 'in the Anthropocene' or 'facing Gaia,' etc. then we really need to understand what some key terms mean (and have meant) in a broader historical context: Earth, first and foremost, but also the inherited Latin and Greek parallels of that Germanic term, terra and geo. Following on from Peter Sloterdijk's grand conceptual histories, Earth also has to be understood in its historical geo-ontological relation with cosmos. Geopolitics, as I've written in Back down to Earth, was coined in 1899; however, it has to be related to the much longer history of geography and then, in turn, to the entangled histories of words such as environment, climate, milieu, and so on. By the end of these first two parts/chapters, the various conceptual-historical issues surrounding 'geopolitics in the Anthropocene' should be well understood and a thorough reconstruction should therefore be possible.

The middle two parts focus on different sorts of techniques and technologies and how these produce differing configurations of exclusion and belonging. Techniques of fortification—walls, fences, barricades, etc.—carve up space and cement geopolitical arrangements. We are used to understanding such constructions along borders and on strategic high grounds as being geopolitical but increasingly it is not only humans that must be kept in/out: flood defences, dykes, geoengineering projects—these are all geopolitical forms of fortification in the new sense that I would like to articulate. Diplomacy, meanwhile, is not a technique of exclusion but a 'technology of belonging,' as Isabelle Stengers puts it. How differing forms of territory are negotiated (or not) is crucial to understanding the possibility of new forms of coexistence given mounting Anthropocenic pressures.

The final two parts investigate the role of the sciences in this nascent geopolitics in more detail, particularly focusing on problems of calculation, possibility and deep time in relation to matters of land, dispossession and resistance. Possibilism is a term taken from the historian Lucien Febvre. He opposed it to the alleged environmental determinism of the previous generation of geographers from Germany, such as Friedrich Ratzel. Linking to abovementioned investigations, I also want to think about compossibility in the sense of Leibniz and the concept of compossibilism as a diplomatic form of thought about possibilities of coexistence. Possession I take to mean both possession of and possession by—I want to relate geopolitics particularly and inextricably to matters of expropriation but also to mass movements and political passions. Geohistory I mean both in the sense of Fernand Braudel's geographical histories and of Martin Rudwick's history of the geological sciences. Related to the latter, geodesy is a somewhat archaic term meaning the science of measuring the shape of the Earth. However, etymologically the '-desy' also suggests division, which relates back to matters of apportionment, appropriation and nomos, in the sense of Carl Schmitt.

There is an enormous amount of work to be done on all of the above; however, I've already made a start on some of it.

My work-in-progress paper Varieties of diplomatic experience (with particular attention to the problem of territory), presented at a workshop in Windsor this week, investigates the conceptual side of the diplomacy/territory conundrum. I intend to do more empirical work on these issues, taking Richard White's The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 as a starting point; however, working out some of the conceptual problems is a good starting point.

On possibilism and determinism, I've arranged a roundtable conference session at RGS-IBG in Exeter later this year: Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation. I'm hoping to assemble a variety of geographers and environmental scientists to talk through these issues from different perspectives and to form, however modestly, a research agenda on these topics that are so crucial for political geographers and earth-concerned thinkers of all sorts.

I will write a series of six further posts in the coming days/weeks, each going into one of these project parts in more detail. As the project develops over the coming months/years it'll be interesting to see how it changes relative to this initial envisagement!

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

'Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance'—a brief report

Further to my previous post, I had the great pleasure of attending a workshop on 'Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance' at the superbly plush Cumberland Lodge in Windsor this week.

We worked through a stellar line-up of papers, which were innovatively presented and intensively discussed:
Matthijs Kouw and Arthur Petersen, Learning to trust the IPCC again: A diplomatic approach

Mark Brown, Bruno Latour and the democratic representation of climate change

Maximilian Mayer and Michele Acuto, Large assemblages and ‘size’ in world politics: Questioning a forgotten variable to understand the topography of LTS

Philip Conway, The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)

Sandra Junier and Maurits Ersen, “An ant’s nest could bring down a hill”: The material in actor network theory

Arjen Zegwaard, Parliaments of mud

Werner Krauss, The political ecology of emerging climate landscapes

Tim Forsyth, Critically examining Science and Technology Studies within environment and development: Actor Network Theory and the stabilization of science in the Global Landscapes Approach

Stephen Flood and David Frame, The IPCC’s science–policy interface through a Latourian lens

Jasper Montana, ‘An IPCC for biodiversity’: On being, and becoming unlike, IPCC-­like

Ed Dammers, The Nature Outlook as an example of diplomacy between different modes of existence

Hanneke Muilwijk and Albert Faber, Beyond borders: How the Anthropocene re-­colours our world

Jasmine Livingston and Eva Lövbrand, Contested purification: The (un)making of integrated climate science in the IPCC’s Fifth Synthesis Report

Kari de Pryck, Developing a methodology for tracing issues and statements in the IPCC
(N.B. not all co-authors attended the workshop.)
My own paper on diplomacy and territory seemed to be well-received and I particularly benefited from the several co-workshoppers who have had first hand experience of participating in IPCC negotiations. I'm hoping to draw on those experiences as I redraft my paper.

Thanks particularly to the organisers Arthur Petersen, Theo Lorenc and Matthijs Kouw.

Friday, 8 May 2015

Austerity as the contested ground of future politics

More and more I feel that austerity is going to form the principal political space of conflict not just for the coming years but for the coming decades. Its neoliberal version is only getting stronger. As ecological crises bite more and more, another version will cross-cut the first (with the same distribution of suffering in both cases).

Econo-austerity and eco-austerity will work together and operate through the same spaces of exception and immunity (i.e. spaces outside protection and spaces outside obligation, respectively).

What we see now is the thin (but rapidly thickening) end of a wedge that prises apart the haves and the have-nots, not by way of systemic dynamics (or not by these alone) but by deliberate, concerted efforts. We are facing an era of fortifications -- steel to keep the poor out, concrete to keep the rich dry (all secured by finance and law).

More pragmatically and immediately: How did anti-austerity become a 'radical' cause? Criticism of austerity is mainstream economics (albeit not neoliberal economics).

Labour, among other such parties around the world, accepted the austerity narrative and it's getting harder and harder to go back on that with every passing day -- days like these in particular.

The quiet death of the Labour Party?

Amidst the utterly crushing, dispiriting disappointment of this election result, I think we have to remember that this was a colossal missed opportunity. The soul searching and self-flagellation is already underway, and rightly so. The Tories are presenting this as a glorious victory but in truth they've barely scraped a majority. Relative to expectations that's huge -- far beyond the wildest hopes/nightmares of supporters/opponents, respectively. But the discontent with the way this country has been run is still there, still simmering -- perhaps even more so now.

Our progressive political parties south of Scotland, with a handful of exceptions (including in my own home constituency of Bristol West), have manifestly failed to tap that. They've managed to take a simmering discontent and thrown a damp blanket over it.

What the Tories will now knock down may never be rebuilt. That is a weight that will rest on us for generations to come.

It feels like a death in the family, this morning.

And it really makes me question whether the Labour Party has a future (not questioning the future of the Party, whether it has one). The pattern now will be precisely the same as five years ago. The in-fighting of leadership contests will paralyse any possibility of opposition for weeks if not months. Meanwhile, the Tories are already consolidating their narratives, burying the abovementioned fact that this is an extremely narrow victory, and presenting themselves as having a formidable mandate. They're aided in this by the larger part of the media, the offshore, oligarchic ownership of which is only going to get stronger. Add to this further gerrymandering and the effective loss of Scotland (whether through SNP dominance or outright independence)...

I know everyone always thinks that they're at a turning point of history but it's difficult to get around the sense that this was the last chance for the Labour Party in its present form.

It died not with a bang but with a whimper. What comes next?

Monday, 4 May 2015

Russell Brand, Ed Miliband and the irritating necessity/necessary irritation of populist politics

Interesting character, that Russell. Quite the conundrum.

He seems to have figured out that politics isn't about a lot of self-righteous, beautiful-souled loudhailery in the blind hope of an unfathomable miracle. That's welcome (oh so many persons of more incisive, sophisticated and unhyperventilated thought-rhythms could take note).

Will Miliband 'listen'? In the sense of doing everything you'd like? Of course not. I think he'll be less congenitally disinclined to anything approximating a progressive policy than his blue equivalent. I think he'll be able to actually comprehend what the difference between changing the status quo and crumpling in the face of it is. Not inspiring words but still.

I think the difference is that Ed will ultimately face whichever the way the wind is blowing and won't be able to do much about that direction but he will probably wish it was blowing towards a more progressive compass point (westerly?)

Everything Brand says is correct. If you want to have progressive politics in a representative system, you've got to put the politicians under more pressure than the forces of regression, stasis and downtroddening are capable of. The question is whether that's at all possible.

For all Brand's incomparable zest and zeal, we seem under-equipped... Then again, a few more like him and that might really mean something.

Of course, whether his, *ahem*, brand survives his giving up selling beautiful souls is yet to be determined. People do so love the nobility of a perfectly pure defeat.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—Conclusion

The fourth and final part (1, 2, 3) of a review of the Ecomodernist Manifesto.

When criticising something, I think it's important to make a distinction between what that text is attempting to do and how well it achieves what it sets out to do. In other words, one can criticise a text's objectives, or its realisation of those objectives, or both.

The Manifesto, I think, can be praised on this basis: it achieves what it sets out to do. In response to Clive Hamilton's rather scathing critique, Matthew Nisbet replies:
History suggests that policy makers and their publics are far more likely to spare nature if options are available that allow them to meet their social development goals, than for any sacred, moral, or ideological reasons. 
Politics, argue ecomodernists, is about getting a diversity of people to act on behalf of the same goal but for different reasons. Politics is not about getting everyone to share the same belief, or vanquishing from politics those who disagree.
If that is what this text is about—presenting ecological imperatives in terms that well-meaning and more or less liberal politicians and bureaucrats can understand and make use of—then that's great. However, this cannot disguise the Manifesto's flaws.

My main constructive suggestion would be that the authors need to broaden their cohort to include anthropologists and postcolonial political scientists. The way in which liberal values are presented as obvious, incontestable and universal is a mistake. Perhaps that is what policymakers and business leaders need to hear so as to get their attention (and not scare them off with the idea that they might be part of the problem) but I, for one (and I'm sure I'm not alone), will never be satisfied with the sub-Pinkeresque verbiage that passes for their geopolitical analyses.

There are others than the ecomodernists doing similar sorts of work and doing it, in my opinion, rather better in some respects. Johan Rockström, for instance, in a recent article titled "Bounding the Planetary Future: Why We Need a Great Transition" writes:
Economic growth in the Global South and global sustainability are compatible aims. A world paradigm of abundance within planetary boundaries can be made plausible— if we act with sufficient rapidity, scope, and coherence to avoid crossing thresholds of irreversible change. But robust world development within [Planetary Boundaries] will need to ensure a fair distribution of this finite space among all nations and people. 
Sharing finite planetary budgets will require fundamental value changes. Planetary regulation needs to spur innovation and technological breakthroughs. Ethical norms need to evolve to embrace a universal belief that all citizens in the world have the right not only to an equitable share of the available environmental space, but also to a stable and healthy environment.
Rockström also utilises some of the tropes and traits that I've criticised; e.g.:
Our species [emphasis added] must thus give up the illusion that a heavy reliance on market-based policy measures—which can, at best, deliver relative, not absolute, improvements—can deliver a flourishing civilization in this century.
However, the emphasis on boundaries and limits moves away from any tendency towards excessively utopian optimism and his attention to non-Western peoples and the poor is far stronger.

I hope that others better informed that me (particularly in scientific and technical terms) will get their teeth into the ecomodernist claims as, for all their faults, I think that this is a movement worth engaging with.

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 3

The third part of my review of the Ecomodernist Manifesto. The first instalment was a bit of a knee-jerk reaction (although I can't say that I've changed my mind). The second proceeded to go through the Manifesto point by point. I'll try to continue in that vein.

Part 3 of the Manifesto gets to one thing I particularly take objection to: the 'early' Anthropocene thesis. It does not use this phrase explicitly but it is implied:
Extensive human transformations of the environment continued throughout the Holocene period: as much as three-quarters of all deforestation globally occurred before the Industrial Revolution.
If the point being made here were simply that humans have never been 'in harmony' with nature—indeed, there has never been a harmonious 'nature' to sing such sweet choral lullabies to at all—that would be fine. But that is not what's happening here. The point being made is to attach the 'anthropos' in Anthropocene to homo sapiens as such—that is, to locate the driving force behind climate change, etc. in generic, biological human capacities rather than understanding it as resulting from a particular mode of production or an historically specific and peculiarly instrumentalist social formation.

It derives not, then, from a criticism of the concept of nature as such since it retains an essentialised concept of human nature that is taken as the aetiological basis of the planetary transformations that we are concerned with.

However, again, curate's egg as this Manifesto is, they are making this assumption in the context of an interesting claim:
Insofar as past societies had less impact upon the environment, it was because those societies supported vastly smaller populations. [...] The technologies that humankind’s ancestors used to meet their needs supported much lower living standards with much higher per-capita impacts on the environment.
Of course, precisely who would claim that we must go back to a pre-Industrial collective tech-scape is unclear. There is a hint of the straw man here (as elsewhere). While the general point is indeed an interesting one, they then go and spoil it all again:
Ecosystems around the world are threatened today because people over-rely on them: people who depend on firewood and charcoal for fuel cut down and degrade forests; people who eat bush meat for food hunt mammal species to local extirpation.
They quickly qualify this by adding:
Whether it’s a local indigenous community or a foreign corporation that benefits, it is the continued dependence of humans on natural environments that is the problem for the conservation of nature.
However, the classic rightwing pseudo-environmentalist trope of blaming the poor for their feckless inefficiencies relative to the enlightened tech-savvy ways of metropolitan elites is more than echoed here.

The next section defends the project of affordable energy generation. Here, again, there is a valid point to be made:
Climate change and other global ecological challenges are not the most important immediate concerns for the majority of the world’s people. Nor should they be. A new coal-fired power station in Bangladesh may bring air pollution and rising carbon dioxide emissions but will also save lives. For millions living without light and forced to burn dung to cook their food, electricity and modern fuels, no matter the source, offer a pathway to a better life, even as they also bring new environmental challenges.
This is very important. Decarbonisation is a global goal that should not be taken to automatically prescribe the best course of action locally. Attention to this kind of complication and the way in which the negative effects of climate change, although they will disproportionately affect the already impoverished, are by no means the only concern that the poor, or those who govern them, have to contend with.

It does, however, seem to be a deliberate strategy of the Manifesto's textual composition to alternate progressive and conservative ideas because, once again, the bad follows the good:
Meaningful climate mitigation is fundamentally a technological challenge. By this we mean that even dramatic limits to per capita global consumption would be insufficient to achieve significant climate mitigation. Absent profound technological change there is no credible path to meaningful climate mitigation.
The suggestion seems to be that because restrictions to consumption alone cannot do the job therefore technological innovation must bear the larger weight of the transition. It's faulty logic, although it may reassure the conservative reader that their wealth is in no way under threat.

The point that the right kind of technological change might preconditionally necessitate political change is never addressed. An implicit teleology flows right through this text: technological innovation in and of itself is what is needed because technological innovation is a direct, rational response to a need, right?...

They do go on to say that:
Technological solutions to environmental problems must also be considered within a broader social, economic, and political context.
But this context only goes so far as noting misguided policy choices:
We think it is counterproductive for nations like Germany and Japan, and states like California, to shutter nuclear power plants, recarbonize their energy sectors, and recouple their economies to fossil fuels and biomass.
It'd be simplistic to call this Manifesto straightforwardly 'neoliberal.' The authors are wary of showing their hand in this regard:
Too often, modernization is conflated, both by its defenders and critics, with capitalism, corporate power, and laissez-faire economic policies. We reject such reductions. What we refer to when we speak of modernization is the long-term evolution of social, economic, political, and technological arrangements in human societies toward vastly improved material well-being, public health, resource productivity, economic integration, shared infrastructure, and personal freedom.
More liberal, Third Way apologistic Western triumphalism than strictly 'neoliberal' in the usual Anglo-American sense.
Accelerated technological progress will require the active, assertive, and aggressive participation of private sector entrepreneurs, markets, civil society, and the state. While we reject the planning fallacy of the 1950s, we continue to embrace a strong public role in addressing environmental problems and accelerating technological innovation, including research to develop better technologies, subsidies, and other measures to help bring them to market, and regulations to mitigate environmental hazards.
Despite criticising Germany's anti-nuclear policies above, this sounds an awful lot like Ordoliberalism.

The Manifesto's closing lines are programmatic:
We hope that this statement advances the dialogue about how best to achieve universal human dignity on a biodiverse and thriving planet.
It has certainly done that. I will try to make a more constructive and evaluative contribution in my next post.

The dialogue of Beelzebub and the Hermit—Leibniz, The Philosopher's Confession

Further to a previous post, and particularly Tim Howles' comment thereon, I thought I'd post an extract from Leibniz's 'The Philosopher's Confession,' which Isabelle Stengers references in her Penser Avec Whitehead (although it isn't mentioned in the English translation).

It is a dialogue on God's justness. The interlocutors are 'The Theologian as Catechist [i.e. instructor]' and 'The Philosopher as Catechumen [i.e. instructed].'

We may join them in the closing stages of their discussion, as our principal interest vis-à-vis Stengers' remark concerns a 'dialogue within a dialogue' that occurs soon after:
Philosopher: [...] No one who does not know God can love him properly, but such a person can hate him nevertheless. Therefore, he who hates God, hates nature, hates things, hates the world: he who wants these things to be different wants God to be different. He who dies malcontent dies a hater of God and now, as if pushed to the edge of an abyss, he follows the path on which he began, external things no more calling him back. With the access to the senses closed off he nourishes his soul, which has withdrawn into itself, with the hatred of things already began, and with that misery and loathing, indignation, jealousy and displeasure, which increase more and more. When reunited with the body, and when the senses have returned, he continually finds new material for contempt, disapproval and anger, and is so much more tormented the less he is able to change and endure the torrent of things displeasing to him. However, in a certain way the pain turns into pleasure and the wretched are glad to find something by which they are tormented. Just as with humans too, the unhappy, while envying the happy, seek at the same time to wear them down, with no other outcome than that they become indignant, as they think the inept are the masters of things, and their pain, more unimpeded and more unchecked, is turned into a kind of harmony, i.e. an appearance of reason. For in the case of the jealous, indignant and malcontent of this kind, pleasure is mixed with pain in a remarkable way, for just as they are pleased and delighted by their belief in their own wisdom, so they suffer so much more furious pain because they lack the power they think is due to them, or rather is in others they deem unworthy. Here you have the explanation of those extraordinary paradoxes, that no one is damned unless he wills it, but also that no one remains damned unless damned by himself. The damned are never absolutely damned, always damnable. They are damned by stubbornness and a perverse appetite, by an aversion to God, so that nothing gladdens them more than to have something by which they may feel pain; they seek nothing more than to discover a reason for them to get angry. This is the highest degree of madness of reason - it is voluntary, irredeemable, desperate and eternal! The damned, therefore, even if they wanted to, can never make use of those complaints which we ascribed to them earlier, and so cannot accuse nature, the universal harmony and God as being the authors of their own misery. 
Theologian: Immortal God! How you have brought about endoxa from your paradoxes. I realize that the Holy Fathers were not averse to this kind of explanation. And the pious ancients summed up the innate character of the damned very much like this in a simple but wise fable. Some hermit, in the depths of contemplation as if intoxicated, begins to be pained in earnest on account of there being so many creatures coming to ruin. Therefore he approaches God with his prayers, and shows the sincerity of his own longing - 'Oh father,' he says, 'can you watch the destruction of so many healthy children? Ah, receive into your grace those wretched demons, which drag so many souls with them into the abyss.' To him who cried out like this, the almighty calmly replies, with an expression which brightens the sky and quietens the storm: 'I see, my son, the simplicity of your heart, and I forgive the exuberance of your emotions, and in my case there is indeed no obstacle. Let those who seek forgiveness come to me.' The hermit then says, in adoration: 'You are blessed, oh Father of all mercy, oh inexhaustible source of grace. And now I go with your permission in order to meet he who is wretched to himself and others - he who so far is ignorant of the happiness of this day.' He departs to meet the prince of devils, not an infrequent visitor for him, and immediately upon making his way in, says: 'Oh you are fortunate! Oh fortunate this day, on which the way of salvation is opened to you, which almost from the beginning of the world has been closed! Come now, and complain about the cruelty of God, in whose presence the supplication of a miserable hermit on behalf of rebels of so many centuries has been effective.' The prince of devils, like the indignant and like those speaking menacingly, replies 'And who has appointed you as our agent? Who has persuaded you to so foolish a pity? Understand, foolish one, that we need neither you as mediator nor God's pardon.'
The Theologian then proceeds to recount this intra-dialogue:
Hermit: Oh the stubbornness! Oh the blindness! Stop, I beseech you, and allow me to discuss this with you.
Beelzebub: Evidently you will tell me.
Hermit: But how trifling is the loss of a few moments you spend listening to a little man who is desirous of the best for all?
Beelzebub: So what do you want?
Hermit: You should know that I have pleaded with God concerning your salvation.
Beelzebub: You? With God? Oh disgrace of heaven, oh infamy of the world, oh humiliation of the universe! And this is he who rules things, this is he who so demands the angels tremble before an authority which has prostituted itself before these worms of the earth? I am bursting with anger and rage.
Hermit: Ah, refrain from these curses as we are on the verge of reconciliation.
Beelzebub: I am beside myself.
Hermit: You will return to yourself when you have learned with how much fatherly tenderness the lap of God hopes for the return of a son.
Beelzebub: And is it possible that he who has exasperated us through so many injustices wants reconciliation? He who has so often harmed has recovered his senses? He who considers himself all-knowing has recognized his error, he who considers himself all-powerful humbles himself? Eh, and what is the price, do you think, for agreeing to the peace?
Hermit: A single supplication will extinguish the angers, will bury the hatreds, and will make the memory of earlier events submerge as if in the depths of the sea.
Beelzebub: Go and announce that by this condition I am prepared for friendship.
Hermit: Seriously?
Beelzebub: Not a doubt.
Hermit: You are not making fun?
Beelzebub: Only go, and enable the matter to be accomplished.
Hermit: Oh happy me! Oh cheerful day! Men freed, God blessed! 
God: What news do you bring with so much dancing?
Hermit: The matter is settled, oh Father! Now the kingdom and the power, and the salvation, and the strength, and the honour, and the glory are of our God and his son Christ, because he who accused us every day, and who bellowed by night and by day for our death, has turned.
God: What? You have also added the condition of begging mercy?
Hermit: He has approved it.
God: See that you should not be deceived.
Hermit: I go in order to bring him so that he will keep his promise.
God: But listen, you: let us work out in advance the form of words.
Hermit: I shall follow them.
God: Therefore give notice to whoever may want to be accepted in grace that they will have to commit to the use of these words before my throne: 'I confess with my mouth and acknowledge with my heart that my wickedness has been the cause of my misery and that it would have been made eternal if your ineffable pity had not dispelled my stupidity. Now that I, with a subdued mind, have understood the distinction between light and darkness, I would rather suffer everything to the end than return to the condition where I repeated the offence to him, which the nature of things can consider nothing so vile.'
Hermit: I have it. And now I shall go, or rather I shall fly. 
Beelzebub: Can it be that you are winged?
Hermit: The emotion has made me so fast. Here is the form of words of the supplication.
Beelzebub: I shall read it if it pleases you. But when will the condition be fulfilled?
Hermit: Whenever you want.
Beelzebub: As if the delay is on account of me.
Hermit: Come then. Let us go to the throne of God.
Beelzebub: What? Are you quite sane? Do I go to him, or him to me?
Hermit: Do not mock with regard to a matter so great.
Beelzebub: He who is going to beg for pardon will go.
Hermit: Let's go then.
Beelzebub: You are mad.
Hermit: Are you not the one who has to beg for pardon?
Beelzebub: Is this what you have promised?
Hermit: Who would think differently, even if he were dreaming?
Beelzebub: Is it not I who am offended? Shall I become suppliant to that tyrant? Oh excellent mediator! Oh plague of man! Oh model of a colluding advocate!
Hermit: Ah, what are you doing?
Beelzebub: Poison enters the limbs, and already rages the anger Through the whole body: crime is heaped upon crime. Thus we are purified. The only victim for the frenzied Is the sacrifice of his enemy. It is pleasing that he be scattered in the winds And mangled alive, drawn into a thousand pieces, Persecuted with as many marks of my own pain, The trumpet itself summoning those to be resurrected To withdraw the flesh.
Hermit: God, turn to my assistance.
Beelzebub: Gaping jaws of pale Avernus, and you lakes of Taenarum...
Hermit: He has vanished, I breathe again. That wretched creature left behind testimony of where he would go in his last words. Oh despair! Oh enemy of God, of the universe, of himself! The cursed should go to him, and have their deliberate insanity. But to you praise, honour, glory, oh my God, who have condescended to reveal your pity and also your justice so splendidly to your servant; you have removed all those temptations of doubts which were trying to make out that you are either unjust or powerless. Now my soul is at peace, and basks with unexhausted delights in the light of your beauty.

Thus spoke our hermit, and I with him.
 To quote Tim's previous comment:
This is not Milton's Satan. It's a much more cowardly, dastardly, niggardly refusal of truth: the perfect analogy, as Stengers points out, for the destructive/ deconstructive/ denunciatory reaction that she doesn't want from the reader of this book.
The crucial thing here is mediation (this is why I think that the figure of the diplomat must be kept in mind throughout Stengers' writings, even when she doesn't mention it explicitly).

The Hermit is the mediator here who is abused and betrayed by Beelzebub. God, as the previous discussion between the Theological and the Philosopher indicates, is conceived of as a substance of pure harmony. To make peace with God is thus to find peace; to reject God is to wallow in an inwardly and outwardly destructive circle of loathing and contempt.

However, I am inclined to hold at least a moment's thought for Beelzebub's position here. Is his objection not that he is being summoned to kneel before a Father? He is being granted a divine invitation to peace and harmony—an invitation that his loathing and self-importance cannot allow him to accept. However, it is an offer issued from a position that is discernibly monarchical.

Indeed, Stengers says something similar on this same dialogue towards the end of her Cosmopolitics II:
"When Leibniz attempted to consider the question of damnation and introduced Beelzebub's refusal to 'ask forgiveness,' which God had decreed to be the condition for his salvation, he also showed, perhaps in spite of himself, the extent to which apparent generosity, whenever it is one-sided, can exacerbate the rage of the one it was supposed to benefit. The cosmopolitical calculus will always remain exposed to rage, to Beelzebub's despair [...]." (415)
She goes on:
"Beelzebub's venomous rage is the rage liable to invade the victims of crimes to whom the risky commitment of the calculemus is proffered." (415)
The calculemus ('let us calculate') in Stengers' reading refers to the construction of a temporary common measure, a 'middle ground' between estranged parties for the purposes of conciliation. It takes two to conciliate; we may infer that the condescension of a benign deity is insufficient to this end.

I think it's also important that Stengers notes that Leibniz might be making this case "perhaps in spite of himself." Her reading of Leibniz posits him as a 'minor key' thinker, in the sense of Deleuze and Guattari. Leibniz is notoriously impossible to pin down—a multiplicity if ever there was one. However, the minoritarian, diplomatic reading is, I think, really fruitful, even if it has to be constructed to some degree 'in spite of' certain facets of the man himself.

Between common ground and middle ground; or, the unbearable lightness of being Earthbound

Terence Blake writes:
Do we need a “common ground” in order to communicate with each other effectively or enjoyably?
I think we should have no qualms about needing 'grounds.' Not any more. We now understand very well that no ground—not even the proverbial bedrock—can be understood as a secure, unyielding foundation; however, at the same time, we are equally well aware that there is no groundlessness, no infinite nomadism. Groundlessness is death, floating in the vacuum of space.

However, I think that one can make a distinction between 'common ground' and 'middle ground' (as the latter term is used in ethnohistory). Both imply a convergence, a political or cosmopolitical coming together (in the pragmatic conception, compelled by mutually concerning issues). However, while the common is something shared (thus suggesting an underlying unity either revealed or constructed), the middle is simply the temporary milieu fabricated between two distinct parties that may thoroughly misunderstand each other but, nevertheless, are thereby able to exchange well enough to negotiate. The common aims at a settlement 'for us,' the middle aims at a settlement 'between us.' Settlement—i.e. ground—is the issue for both but borders are drawn in completely different ways.

The common should not be prioritised over the middle because of its greater unity. However, equally, the middle is not preferable simply because of the looseness or bagginess of its mode of belonging. The conception of grounds as constructed between distinct groups implies commonality within these groups (albeit with fractal micro-divergences at every level, and so on and so on).

So, which of these conceptions pertains to democracy? If we are talking institutionalised democracy then I think it is plainly a common ground that predominates. To the extent that there are established rules that authorise participation then we are in the common. Of course, a rule is never simply 'applied' and every democrat constantly pushes their luck; however, the fact that they have to 'push their luck' implies a covenant that is recognised to be binding to some degree.

The common cannot imply harmony or an absence of dissent; however, it does imply a collective project in a way that the notion of middle does not. Although, substituting the French 'milieu' for the English 'middle' brings the notion of environment and envelopment into it. But perhaps this is the difference between ground and atmosphere: an atmosphere can be shared without in any way implying a unity. In this sense we can say that every collective on Earth shares an atmosphere but they do not yet share a ground. Not that there is one atmosphere—there are indefinitely many and of endlessly varied kinds; however, there is an atmosphere that envelops us all and that therefore serves as the medium, the ether for our collective problems—but emphatically not our unity.

There is, as I have said, a connection between atmosphere and ground (without ground we are floating in a vacuum). However, atmosphere carries qualities of envelopment that ground does not. In this much we might say that a middle ground is closer to an atmosphere than is a common ground.

Every ground can ultimately float away as if on a breeze but we would be ill-advised to valorise our being of such unbearable lightness! The bittersweet ungroundedness of the émigré understands both edges of the sword.

'All that is solid...,' says Marx. His voice shook with fury but the ground beneath his feet did not. Do we share his common ground?

The unbearable lightness of being Earthbound.

Monday, 20 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 2

In my first (very hastily written) part of this review, I commented that the Ecomodernist Manifesto gets off to a very bad start, reproducing, as it does, the simplistic interpretation of ‘Anthropocene’ as ‘The Age of Humans’ (at least they didn’t say ‘Man’).

This etymologically correct but politically misguided iteration has been criticised from many quarters. For example, Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures:
“Indian nations in the middle of the Amazonian forest have nothing to do with the ‘anthropic origin’ of climate change — at least so long as politicians have not been distributing chainsaws at election times. Nor do the poor blokes in the slums of Mumbai, who can only dream of having a bigger carbon footprint than the black soot belching out of their makeshift ovens.”
(Incidentally, Latour is a member of The Breakthrough Institute, an organisation closely affiliated with the ecomodernist initiative, and is participating in their event ‘Breakthrough Dialogue 2015: The Good Anthropocene’ in June.)

The notion of a ‘good’ (and, as we shall see, ‘early’) Anthropocene is foremost in their thoughts:
“[…] a good, or even great, Anthropocene. A good Anthropocene demands that humans use their growing social, economic, and technological powers to make life better for people, stabilize the climate, and protect the natural world.”
I, at this point, remain with the (objection-taking) opinion of Clive Hamilton. The Manifesto is not, however, uniformly disagreeable from any particular point of view:
“[…] we affirm one long-standing environmental ideal, that humanity must shrink its impacts on the environment to make more room for nature, while we reject another, that human societies must harmonize with nature to avoid economic and ecological collapse.”
‘Hear, hear,’ exclaim environmentalists everywhere.

It soon becomes very apparent that the solution to most ecomodernist problems is technological. We must, they argue, put “humankind’s extraordinary powers in the service of creating a good Anthropocene.” Their narrative is based upon optimism not only for the future but also for the past and present:
“Humanity has flourished over the past two centuries. Average life expectancy has increased from 30 to 70 years, resulting in a large and growing population able to live in many different environments.”
Accordingly, they seem to endorse (without citation) Steven Pinker’s arguments regarding violence:
“Violence in all forms has declined significantly and is probably at the lowest per capita level ever experienced by the human species, the horrors of the 20th century and present-day terrorism notwithstanding. Globally, human beings have moved from autocratic government toward liberal democracy characterized by the rule of law and increased freedom.”
At this point they get rather Whiggish:
“Personal, economic, and political liberties have spread worldwide and are today largely accepted as universal values.”
If you’ve never travelled outside the Euro-American metropoles, sure. There are entire academic disciplines devoted to demolishing this sort of naive, coyly imperialistic liberalism.

They have little truck with ‘pessimistic’ assessments of the Earth’s carrying potential, scorning the “limits to growth” thesis of the 1970s. Solar energy, for example, is effectively unlimited and energy from a “closed uranium or thorium fuel cycle” or “hydrogen-deuterium fusion” could see a technologically advanced civilisation in rude health for millennia, so they claim.

The answer to our problems, in a word: decoupling.
“Relative decoupling means that human environmental impacts rise at a slower rate than overall economic growth. […] Absolute decoupling occurs when total environmental impacts — impacts in the aggregate — peak and begin to decline, even as the economy continues to grow.”
Humans must close themselves off in a kind of eco-citadel, technically disembedding their modes of social reproduction from the wider Earth environment. (Logan’s Run flashes to mind.)

They are on stronger ground when they note, for example, the relative ecological per capita efficiency of cities compared to rural modes of living:
“Cities occupy just one to three percent of the Earth’s surface and yet are home to nearly four billion people . As such, cities both drive and symbolize the decoupling of humanity from nature, performing far better than rural economies in providing efficiently for material needs while reducing environmental impacts.”
Intensive, large-scale farming is, very unambiguously, the future: “modernization is not possible in a subsistence agrarian economy.” Intensification allows for progressive net reforestation as the square mileage of land required for every unit of food is reduced.

However, for every thought provoking point something ire-raising tends to follow:
“[…] in contradiction to the often-expressed fear of infinite growth colliding with a finite planet, demand for many material goods may be saturating as societies grow wealthier.”
While this is true, it is rather beside the point since the rise before the peak is so gargantuan. There’s no way that even a significant minority of the present-day poor could reach that peak without total ecological devastation – so does that help?

Not wanting to ramble on for too long (and being about halfway through the Manifesto), I’ll leave the rest for my next post.

Speaking of determinism and possibilism... (and ecomodernism)

Speaking of determinism and possibilism, Simon Dalby has just uploaded his paper to be presented at the AAG 2015 annual convention in Chicago. It's titled "Framing the Anthropocene: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly."

He examines, zeitgeistily enough, the ecomodernist movement and its critics before closing with remarks on determinism and possibilism:
Determinism has been finally demolished by the earth system discussions of the Anthropocene; insights from the earth system framing of current options now need much more attention from scholars in the humanities. 
A reworked notion of possibilism, one shaped by the much more comprehensive understandings of both earth system science on one hand and political ecology with its focus on lived environments on the other, offers a much better encompassing interpretive frame for present circumstances. It does so because it demands political action to shape the future, recognizing that we live in a world that, in William’s Connolly’s terms, is about fragile things and self-organizing processes that now urgently require democratic activism in the face of persistent neoliberal fantasies. Naomi Klein’s arguments for linking various forms of political activism in a coalition of fossil fuel divestment, protest against mines and pipelines and a reconstruction or rural economies using renewable energy, offers a broad outline of what is needed. Climate change adds urgency to activism in a world where opposition to fossil fuel production is obviously necessary if the majority of those fossil fuels are to stay in the ground and the planet not push pass 2 degrees Celsius heating.
Well worth reading.

'Determinism, environment and geopolitics: an interdisciplinary conversation' — RGS-IBG 2015, Exeter

I'm pleased to announce that my proposed session for the RGS-IBG 2015 Conference on 'Geographies of the Anthropocene' has been accepted. The conference will be held on 1st – 4th September at the University of Exeter.

It differs a little from the original CfP; however, I'm very pleased with how it's turned out. The abstract is as follows:
“There are no necessities, but everywhere possibilities; and man, as master of the possibilities, is the judge of their use. This, by the reversal which it involves, puts man in the first place [au premier plan] – man, and no longer the earth, nor the influence of climate, nor the determinant conditions of localities.” — Lucien Febvre, A Geographical Introduction to History ([1922], p.236)
Issues of environmental determinism and possibilism have structured human geographical debates since at least the 1920s. However, in recent decades these concepts have become more a matter for disciplinary textbooks than intellectual debate. This session is motivated by the conviction that, given the challenges of the Anthropocene, this must change. Febvre’s response to determinism, now nearly a century old, is plainly inadequate. ‘Man’ can no longer be considered either ‘judge’ or ‘master.’ The ‘influence of climate’ will not be washed away by 1920s-style humanism. And yet, for all human geography’s theoretical riches, the alternative is not obvious. 
Our challenges are vast, complex and ineluctably interdisciplinary. Bearing this in mind, this experimental session consists of four diverse, open and conversational roundtables on interrelated but distinct themes:
  • Determinism and representation (chair: Gwilym Eades)
  • Possibilism and historical geography (chair: Simon Dalby)
  • Complexity and environmental science (chair: Jason Dittmer)
  • Potentiality and calculation (chair: TBC)
These roundtables will debate their respective matters of concern individually before presenting their findings to the group. The session has two major goals: first, to collectively sketch ‘the state of the art’ of environmental geopolitics with regard to these issues; and, second, to discern the major contours of agreement and disagreement between the interested parties. We will not pretend to produce any definitive conclusions but, rather, attempt to more broadly outline the problematical terrain that requires further collective exploration. 
This session is, of course, open to all; however, we would particularly welcome participants from physical geography and the environmental sciences.
The final chair remains 'TBC' but I have a few candidates in mind.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

"My readers have now been warned"—halfway through Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead

At the end of chapter 16 of her book on the work of Alfred North Whitehead (just slightly over halfway through the text), Isabelle Stengers writes:
"My readers have now been warned. If they are fascinated by the heroic grandeur of refusal, and despise compromises; if they deplore the fact that the radical demands of every new position are recuperated by what was supposed to be subverted; if 'to deconstruct' is a goal in itself for them, and scandalizing self-righteous people is a testimony to truth; if they oppose the pure to the impure, the authentic to the artificial; if they cannot understand how the most 'unplatonic' of philosophers situated himself as a 'footnote' to the text of Plato ... let them close this book. Never will they see celebrated in it the power of a truth that is verified by the destruction of false pretenders. They will therefore find in it only disappointments and reasons for contempt." (Thinking With Whitehead, p.275-6)
And slightly different in French:
"Le lecteur est maintenant prévenu. Si, comme le Belzébuth mis en scène par Leibniz dans Confessio philosophi, dont la rage se déchaîne à l'offre de salut, il est fasciné par la pureté du refus et méprise les compromis, s'il déplore que les exigences radicales de toute position nouvelle se monnaient progressivement en contrastes enrichissant ce qu'il s'agissait de subvertir, s'il ne peut comprendre que le plus « non platonicien » des philosophes se soit situé lui-même comme « note en bas de page » au texte de Platon... qu'il referme ce livre. Jamais il n'y verra célébré le pouvoir d'une vérité qui se vérifie par la destruction de faux prétendants. Il n'y trouvera donc que déceptions et raisons de mépris." (Penser Avec Whitehead, p.310)
This is my third attempt to read this book and it's the first time that I am sure that I will reach the end. It is not that it is a 'difficult' book as such. Stengers, in her own inimitable way, writes with extraordinary precision. However, being something of an autodidact with respect to philosophy, I wasn't quite ready for such a dense and demanding text in the past.

It is a work that requires a very particular routine of reading. It cannot be read casually, put down and picked up a week or two later (not usefully, anyhow). At over 500 pages it is not something that can be read in one sitting, or several sittings, either. (There is no quick way through such a text—the whole point is that the reader slows down.) It requires, for me at least, extreme attention and focus. It's not something that I am able to read except when at my most clear headed, and then for a few hours at a time. Unfortunately, there aren't many windows like that in my week (I hope that soon this will change). I, out of necessity, do most of my own reading and research in the evenings—not a time of day conducive to this kind of endeavour.

Nevertheless, I am gradually working my way through the book—one immersion at a time—and it is most certainly worth the effort. It's the kind of book that, after having read it, I will never be able to read any other book in the same way again. It neither condescends to its reader nor indulges in unnecessary dissimulation. It attempts to be clear but, at the same time, transformative. This time around, I am finding that it succeeds in both respects. Again, I find that the best words for it are: precise but, at the same time, extraordinarily dense. It is the most exquisitely constructed thicket.

There is far, far too much in this book to even begin to summarise or select. However, I find the above quotation(s) to be a perfect signal of its tone and intentions. This dissuasion addressed directly to the reader is at the same time reassuring—I am assured that none of the things described appeal to me (and their sirenic allure is further muted with each and every passing page).

Thursday, 16 April 2015

"The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)"—for workshop on "Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance"

I'm very excited to be taking part in a workshop next month titled "Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance."
Since the 1980s Bruno Latour has attempted to supplant the prevailing image of science by proposing a pragmatic and anthropological perspective. [...] The two-day workshop takes as its starting point the idea the Latour's work can be used to explain and understand the workings of environmental governance, using the IPCC as a prime example.
It's being organised and funded by UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and will be held at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor (just outside London)—an impressive venue!

My paper will be titled, wordily, "The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)." I hope to:

(a) Introduce the history of diplomacy as a word and practice, particularly drawing on the existing literature on the subject in the field of International Relations.
(b) Articulate diplomacy as a philosophical concept, particularly as it is developed in the work of Isabelle Stengers (see for example).
(c) Relate the preceding to the concept (and problem) of territory, particularly comparing its modern, state-centric iteration (as traced most notably by Stuart Elden) to the speculative, topological conception articulated by Bruno Latour in his most recent works (see here for an overview).

The crucial link between (b) and (c) is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—he is the prized witness of Stengers' philosophical diplomacy and is credited by Elden as articulating the modern conception of territory for the first time. Understanding his creative conception of territory as a diplomatic act itself allows Latour's reconception to be framed as a diplomatic act also—and thus related to the geo-ontological upheavals that institutions like the IPCC are grappling with in their own ways.

My overall argument is that 'high-level' diplomacy, such as is practised at the IPCC, can only succeed if diplomacy is occurring at all levels and everywhere. Geogovernance (being the focus of the workshop) cannot be taken in abstraction from geopolitics (taking the latter term more or less as Latour articulates it).

I attended a really excellent conference session on anthropology and diplomacy in Exeter this week. Their focus was, as you might expect, 'everyday' diplomacy outside the corridors and constrictions of formalised, state diplomacy (although not ignoring the unavoidable connections and collisions between tentacular state institutions and mediative practices everywhere).

I want to bring these threads together—the historical, the philosophical, the anthropological—and to use this convergence to nudge the concept of geopolitics towards an integration of state and non-state apparatuses.

It's very much a work in progress, and will remain so for a while; however, it should be published, with a bit of luck, in a special issue of Science & Technology Studies next year.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Against (eco-)austerities, left and right

Reading this Ecomodernist Manifesto, I am reminded of the Accelerationist Manifesto. These tracts have little to nothing in common politically (besides a general commitment to a renewed modernism); however, they do to some extent have a common target: eco-austerity (or, traditional left-wing environmentalism).

I am tempted to draw a link between austerity on the right (as we find once again now in our regrettable General Election here in the UK, with both major parties competitively swingeing state budgets like there's no tomorrow) and left austerity or eco-austerity—in other words, the belief that foreseeably convergent environmental and economic crises require a radical reduction in the material expectations of both the already wealthy (in global terms) and the would-be wealthy (i.e. 'developed' and 'developing' countries).

Austerity in its neoliberal form is not going away any time soon. It has become engrained in British political discourse (and not only here) to such an extent that it seems almost incontestable—we are arguing only over rates, degrees and timetables.

I have profound reservations about neo-modernism in both its centre-right, third-way, neoliberal version (ecomodernist) and in its self-consciously radical left, techno-vanguardist version (accelerationist); however, their shared resistance to the austerity project that is traditional left environmentalism is to be commended.

There are deep problems with both sets of solutions but they are asking some of the right questions.

Furthermore, I wonder if one of the key political fissures in the coming years will be precisely this sense of a project of austerity—which, as I have suggested, does not exist only on the right. The distinguishing feature of rightwing austerity is that it is only the poor that are expected tighten their belts to assuage their hunger pains (and, of course, that this project concerns only the economic in ignorance of the ecological). The rich are the aristocracy who can splurge their hard-earned ill-gotten gains as they please—the more frivolously the better, it seems. The poor lap up their crumbs and must never forget to say 'thankyou.'

I do not believe that the distinction between left and right is any less vital now than it ever was. However, it is not the only political shibboleth/sorting hat that matters. If the left is to maintain (and further) the strength of this distinction in the years to come, years in which ecological politics will become ever more indistinguishably suffused into the general political fabric, it has to address its own austerity hangups.

In the long-term, there will be no countering neoliberal austerity without overcoming eco-austerity.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

'An Ecomodernist Manifesto' reviewed—part 1

There is much in this document that is praiseworthy. However, it gets off to a bad start:
To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans.
That is a very poor interpretation of 'the Anthropocene' for several reasons. First, it simple mindedly interprets 'anthropos' as 'homo sapiens.' Second, and even more important, it continues the claim previously made by several of its authors, namely that human beings are 'The God Species' capable of harnessing earth systems. It confuses perturbation with control, peril with mastery.

'An ecomodernist manifesto' published

An Ecomodernist Manifesto

So much wrong with it that it's difficult to know where to begin. Will take some digesting...

Friday, 10 April 2015

2015 Millennium Conference: 'Failure and Denial in World Politics' (keynote: Bruno Latour)—an opportunity for rethinking critique?

The theme for this year's Millennium conference at the LSE has been announced: "Failure and Denial in World Politics." The keynote speaker will be Bruno Latour.

This is an interesting development (not surprising as Latour has a long standing relationship with the LSE, but nevertheless). Until just a few years ago, Latour's work was almost completely unknown in the field of International Relations (the field that provided ma formation, as the French say).

At the 2012 Millennium conference on "Materialism and World Politics" (at which I presented a somewhat inchoate paper on actor-network theory and offshore tax havens) there were what seemed like dozens of graduate students drawing on Latour's work and actor-network theory more broadly. The larger proportion of senior academics, however, ranged from indifference to hostility to this trend. And the hostile did not hold their tongues—all the familiar tropes were wheeled out: "networks are neoliberal!"; "this reduces humans to rocks!", etc. One objector even suggested, with all the indignation of a die-hard humanist, that this 'flat ontology' business was proto-fascist.

Actor-network theory, 'new materialism,' object-oriented philosophy and the like have gained ground within IR with remarkable speed—like an invasive species flourishing in a hitherto blissfully isolated island ecosystem! I would not be surprised if at this conference there were some kind of revanchist backlash from Critical Theorists attempting to regain lost territory.

Besides all that, it should be a very exciting conference. I've not attended since 2012 but I've never heard anything but good things. The Millennium conference is run by the remarkable and prestigious graduate-run journal of the same name. It has none of the fusty self-importance of the larger, more grimly institutionalised professional conferences but, at the same time, is large and well-known enough to attract a really top-notch group of participants.

I'll have to give some thought regarding what I'd like to present (the deadline for abstracts is the 3rd of July). It would be a good opportunity to visit the problem of science critique in relation to science denial. This is a troubling issue for IR, which is far more deeply wedded, at least amongst some sections, to the practice of critique than science studies ever was (and for good reasons, I'd argue).

If the impressions and expectations I've described above are correct, the time would be very ripe for attempting to think through critique once more. Not so as to dismiss it—how could one conscionably study the arms trade or the Israel/Palestine conflict without doing so, in some sense, 'critically'?—but in order to think it 'par le milieu,' as it were.

If the classic will to "ruthless criticism of all that exists" can no longer license the usual pompous, faux-radical stupidity (not the context in which that line originated but very much what it has become), and I believe that it cannot, that does not mean that critique as such can be dispensed with. What if critique is also an atmospheric phenomenon, a necessary precondition of our continuing to breathe? What if the minute perforations it instils are necessary for the stability of any enshrouding coexistential manifold? What would a more incisive and selective critique or decompositionism—not 'of all that exists' but necessarily relative to some situational decision—look like?

These are the kinds of questions that, I think, will need to be asked.

New materialism is the new poststructuralism

I think that this is true in more ways than one; however, one way is particularly important.

Like poststructuralism, new materialism is a signposting mechanism that allows (largely anglophone) academics to obscure the differences between (largely francophone) thinkers, mashing them into a single digestible lump.

New materialism doesn't exist at the level of the authors it claims to encompass, just as poststructuralism didn't. It only exists secondarily, as a way-finding supplement.

If we can make a distinction between the academic and the intellectual, new materialism and poststructuralism are emphatically of the former. They do not involve the unnerving risk of thought but rather the comforting stability of simplification.

They are ways of making a complex situation teachable. They are pedagogical terms—and are not, therefore, without value. However, we should be very suspicious when they are posited as intellectual concepts, as though their purpose were somehow creative.

The manner in which academia satisfies itself with such signposts accounts for a large part of its intellectual malaise. An inability to think beyond badly printed banners is by no means inevitable but it is strongly encouraged by an internal political economy that prizes 'expert knowledge' of trends occurring elsewhere more highly than it does the thought practices occurring (or not occurring) within its own walls.

This is one part of a generalised anglophonic anti-intellectualism that sees 'theory' as something to be imported, bussed in like fresh water to a desert state.