Saturday, 7 June 2014

Liberal science denial and other tomfoolery

I don't know if this video will stay online for long but it's a really interesting segment from The Daily Show last week:

It's interesting for at least two reasons: First, it ably (and funnily) demonstrates that cynical attitudes towards science are by no means particular to the right (as is often prejudicially assumed, certainly here in the UK). Second, the show's own attitudes towards science are themselves very problematic. For them it basically boils down to 'yeah, but it's a fact so you're an idiot.' Perhaps true but not helpful. What makes a fact a fact? Is it the fact that scientific knowledge is debated in public, peer reviewed (usually well), and is the product of centuries of rigorous and progressive experiment, confirmation, refutation and invention? Perhaps that is in the subtext but barely. The only real message to this is 'yeah, but it's science.' Of course, having said that, the segment also demonstrates that some people simply aren't interested in evidence, whatever ontology it's dressed up in. However, these discussions always seem to happen at a kind of second-order level where two incompatible notions of truth just bash their heads against each other without ever really engaging with each other or even understanding that there is anything to be engaged with. And it can't be otherwise if science-defenders genuinely don't understand what makes science objective other than 'it's science, durr'...

John Oliver said more or less the same thing recently 'you don't need people's opinion on a fact.' Although he produced a slightly more sophisticated (and equally hilarious) take on it when he constructed a 'statistically representative' debate over climate science. The obvious absurdity doesn't detract from the performative effect: that it isn't a 'two sided' debate, as the rest of the media continue to insist that it is; it's a many sided debate with one alliance of viewpoints utterly overwhelming the other. And that's the key point: an alliance of close-knit viewpoints, not just the singular, thunderous voice of Science being spoken univocally in the language of Facts.

William Connolly on Latour's Gifford Lectures; Pluralist conflux

William E. Connolly has posted an interesting piece on Latour's Gifford Lectures on his blog.

Well, I say it's on Latour's Gifford Lectures—for the most part Connolly takes these lectures as a jumping off point for a reflection on his own micropolitical interests; stuff that'll be familiar to anyone who's read his most recent work, particularly The Fragility of Things.

I think that he thoroughly misinterprets Latour's use of the word 'secular.' Connolly takes this to be referring to the 'new secularists' and their role as a political group. I see no evidence of that whatsoever. When Latour says that Gaia is 'secular' he means it, as I understand him, by contrast to Nature, which is an insufficiently 'secularised theological concept' (to use the phrase of Schmitt); it is because Nature presupposes transcendence and Gaia immanence that Gaia is secular—literally 'worldly.' Connolly is reading too much into that, I feel; although, it would be interesting to think how the new secularists would receive such ideas (not well, I'd imagine!).

Connolly also understands Latour as making a distinction between lab scientists and theoretical scientists—I must have missed that but I recall no such distinction being made, nor such a divide having any real importance. Latour waxes lyrical about the 'Earthbound scientists' but seemingly all manners of scientific praxis are included under this umbrella. The key point is that both lab and theoretical sciences must be irreduced, that is escorted back inside their networks; he has this to say about Stephen Hawking, for instance:
It is hard to point out a more situated knowledge than this one: from this very local place on Free School Lane, in the hands of a great scientist, electrons are supposed to have spread successfully to populate all chemical bonding and all computers! But in the next minute, the same physicists will have no qualms about admiring how Steven Hawkings’ mind roams through the whole cosmos in intimate dialog with the Creator, wishfully ignoring that Hawking’s mind benefits not only from a brain but also from a ‘corporate body’ described by Hélène Mialet in her book Hawking incorporated, as composed of a vast network of computers, chairs, instruments, nurses, helpers and synthesizers that are necessary for the step by step flow of his equations. With such a bifocal view of science, it is hard to reconcile the view from nowhere with the highly localised classrooms, office spaces, laboratory benches, computer centres, meeting rooms, expeditionary treks and field stations, where scientists have to locate themselves when they begin to really talk about their findings or to really write their papers. (86)
If anything Latour refuses the distinction between theoretical and lab sciences—both are fully instrumented, incarnated endeavours and that's the important thing about them. The Earthbound need theorists and lab scientists, both—and who embodies that fusion better than Dr Lovelock?

Connolly writes in conclusion:
I am glad Bruno Latour gave these lectures. They focus attention on the severity of the planetary issue and the denials and evasions attached to it. I am also moved by the spirituality that infuses them.
Latour's theology is about as heterodox as one is likely to find anywhere. He refutes the possibility of any kind of fundamental transcendence; God is only what is assembled in the reverential networks of his followers; religious practice transfers no information, only the transformations of love and tradition. Latour's theology jars with most religious theory at least as much if not more so than his thinking jars with most theories of science. However, in these Lectures he also insists upon the translatability of different deities; taking up Jan Assmann's work on mono/polytheism to suggest that we must conceive of Nature, Gaia or OWWAAB (Out of Which We Are All Born) as secular divinities that are at least potentially comparable, translatable with the divinities of others (as were the divinities of the pre-monotheistic world), thus facilitating a geo- or cosmo-politics that removes (or at least de-emphasises) one unnecessary and, frankly, stupid point of confrontation: whether or not there's a God.

This very much plays into Connolly's project of conceiving of political alliances being built across ostensive cultural and religious divides; heterogeneous assemblages that cultivate a certain political vibrancy in anticipation of Events that will draw them together and produce a General Strike, or some-such. (I have my doubts about Connolly's working-through of this point but there's something to it.)

It might be a stretch to call Latour a 'spiritual' philosopher because his theology is so very anti-transcendence (even more so perhaps than Connolly, self-described 'immanent materialist'!). I don't think many of his fellow Catholics would consider him spiritual on the basis of his thinking. His recent book (recently published in English, anyway) on religion—Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech—is a paragon of sensitivity and counterintuition but it is really questionable to what extent it is religious in the sense most people understand that (i.e. as spirituality). Just what is the point of a totally immanent God? Latour's theology is religious in the sense that Michel Serres describes religion as rooted in religiens, which is the opposites of negligens—i.e. 'religion is the opposite of negligence' (as he defines it in The Natural Contract). That is an extremely fecund point; I am converted inasmuch as this: 'Whoever has no religion should not be called atheist or unbeliever, but negligent.' To act religiously is an essential part of life, god or no god.

The real meeting point of Connolly and Latour is, however, pluralism—a pluralism that is political, not just metaphysical. It is this meeting point that presents the challenge; it is here that Latour's whole project of 'diplomacy' (taking up Stengers' term) comes into play. It'd be interesting to read a more sustained engagement by Connolly on this matter. There are clear, strong and (dare I said it?) vibrant parallels between these philosophies but also serious differences. Connolly, for me, leans too heavily on the notions of self-organisation. His reading of Hayek in Fragility is nowhere near critical enough either of Hayek's politics nor of the notion of self-organisation itself.

The problem with self-organisation (and I think this is a critique that needs to be impressed upon many, many... let's say post-Deleuzians who take up self-organisation as their ontological aesthetic of choice) is not the organisation aspect, it's the self—what is the self doing the organising? Gaia is, of course, a self-organising system but her 'self' is something that Latour takes some time discussing. She is not a 'super-organism' and not a final cause but rather the product of all the individual organisms, each of whom are their own final cause, their own providence, their own telos, each of whom follow their own interests but, in doing so, produce an effect, an agency in excess of themselves, an effective being that has maintained atmospheric and chemical conditions conducive to life (whatever that has meant in any given era) for billions of years.

For Hayek, of course, the importance of self-organisation is that it validates extreme market-based individualism (although Hayekian neoliberals are well aware of the need for a coercive state to force people to obey their own true selves...). The 'self' here is that of homo economicus, however contrived and enforced his existence may be. A methodological maxim: never speak of self-organisation without speaking also of a self.

Ramble ends.

Geopolitics and varieties of soil

In Latour's recent Gifford Lectures he attempts to redefine geopolitics as the politics of the Earth itself, the central premiss of this being that we must learn to understand the 'soil' to which we are attached and then to find ways of defending that soil. He does not, of course, mean 'soil' literally or straight-forwardly; certainly not reactionarily:
To insist on the soil is to be reactionary in the old way—appealing to ‘Blut und Boden.’ Reactionaries of all hues and colours have always insisted on how criminal it was to attempt to leave the ancient land, to abandon the old soil, to forget the limits of the old nomos, to be emancipated and cosmopolitan. (108)
Although Latour channels Carl Schmitt extensively he does not want to go back to that horrendous, reactionary geopolitics of yore.
[...] there might be another meaning to being attached to the old soil, this time to the Earth. (108)
Our 'soil' is everything that we need to survive; it's also the air that we breathe and the climate that we perturb. However, the actual soil itself is also part of our 'soil.' George Monbiot points to how certain farming methods are literally washing Britain into the sea and how the land-owner lobby in the UK has utterly captured its own regulatory apparatus, making matters worse and more stupid by the day.
The people who got this directive ditched claim to love their country. But they’ve ensured that it will continue to run down the rivers and into the sea. You want to get Britain out of Europe? Well how about ensuring that our soils stop ending up on the coastlines of France and Holland and Germany?
This is an interesting confluence of political imagery and an extremely apt issue for considering a post-Natural politics that is resolutely not post-national.

We have certainly come a long way since the days of General Haushofer (from The Geopolitics Reader, p.33):
While the theoretical foundations of Geopolitik were laid only in recent times, its practical application—the instinctive sense for geopolitical possibilities, the realization of its deep influence on political development—is as old as history itself. Geopolitical vision inspired daring leaders who guided their people along novel never-before-travelled roads. Powerful new states emerged because their creators, with the sensitivity of the true statesman, understood the geopolitical demands of the hour. Without such insight, violence and arbitrariness would have charted the course of history. Nothing with lasting value could have been created. All structures of state which might have been erected would sooner or later have crumbled into dust and oblivion before the eternal forces of soil and climate.
To be sure, the powerful will of a great and strong man may tear masses and nations away from soil-bound existence into roads other than nature had provided for them. But such actions are short-lived. In the end every people will sink back into its accustomed ways; its lasting earthbound traits will eventually win out.
Neither the soil nor the climate can be taken for granted; much less can their immutability found the dark dreams of imperial domination—that very dream of imperial supremacy, oriented towards 'nature,' has shattered its own illusion. It is indeed time for a new politics of the soil—but also of the air and the sea and ecosystems and so on. A geopolitics finally worthy of the name—of both sides of the name, geo and politics.

Haushofer committed suicide with his wife in 1946; supposedly he died under a tree, clutching the very Bavarian soil that he so cherished. At the end of the film Gravity, the protagonist clutches the sludgy earth she has landed on between her exhausted, trembling fingers. There are whole galaxies between these two relations to the soil—the departure and the return.

Latour's geopolitics is overly naive in the sense that it doesn't engage with historical (or disciplinary) geopolitics in any way; he simply appropriates the phrase and moves on. This isn't good enough. However, I think that his project is an important one. The soil, in the literal sense, is both the cherished basis of the worst kinds of geopolitics from the past and is, evidently, not something that even a powerful state can simply rely on at present. It is a case that this 'new' geopolitics must somehow pass.

Philosophy-wise I'm quite interested in how Peter Sloterdijk's work can be brought into this debate. Latour dedicated his Gifford Lectures to Sloterdijk and his ideas abound throughout the series. While very different thinkers in some ways their work meshes remarkably well.

Weaponising climate change; the American political system

I have my reservations about Ezra Klein but this is a splendid paragraph:
If you were going to weaponize an issue to take advantage of the weak points in the American political system — to highlight all the blind spots, dysfunctions, and irrationalities — you would create climate change. And then you would stand back and watch the world burn.

NB RE PB: a partial retraction

A note with regard to my previous post on plant being, etc.: Michael Marder corrected my misunderstandings on a few points. I added a comment to this effect at the bottom of the post in question.

Friday, 6 June 2014

Another nail in the coffin of the Holocene

From Science:
Plastic may be with us a lot longer than we thought. In addition to clogging up landfills and becoming trapped in Arctic ice, some of it is turning into stone. Scientists say a new type of rock cobbled together from plastic, volcanic rock, beach sand, seashells, and corals has begun forming on the shores of Hawaii.

Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder on 'Meeting through the Vegetal World'

I had the distinct pleasure of attending an extremely interesting event last night, a joint lecture between Luce Irigaray and Michael Marder on the subject of 'plant-being,' 'plant thought,' 'the vegetal world' (as you prefer). They are working to produce a kind of eco-phenomenology of plants. Here's the blurb from last night's talk:
Climate change, resource-related conflict, pressures on food supplies, and the contamination of air and water continue to intensify, despite efforts to put environmental concerns on the political agenda. How can a more collaborative relationship with other living beings, including plants and animals, help ensure a sustainable future? Join two of the world’s leading philosophers for a public lecture on one of the most pressing problems of our age: how to develop a relational ethics through the natural world.
They were both charming and involving; both extremely prolific too (see Marder's website for his list of publications, all downloadable; Irigaray is famous enough that she needs no bibliographing, I'm sure).

During the Q&A at the end I commented that the picture of the plant world that Marder sketched out (Irigaray's contribution was less programmatic and more reflexive) seemed awfully pacific and genteel. There were lots of trees, grasses and shrubs of various sorts but none of the more ugly and violent kinds of plants. The venus fly trap of course springs to mind but also the nightmarish ophiocordyceps unilateralis  a fungus (okay, not technically a plant) that infects ants, takes over their bodies, compels them to move somewhere warm and humid before the ant dies and a stalk sprouts out of its head which releases more spores. Or, less grotesquely but still rather violently, the so-called 'strangler figs' that wrap themselves around trees, climbing towards the light, eventually crushing their hosts and leaving hollow plaits of ivy as the trunks rot away.

For that matter there was also (and this didn't occur to me to ask until this morning) a rather excessive emphasis on rooted plants such that we might find in a park or garden. Algae, by far the most important kind of photosynthesiser there ever was or ever will be, wasn't mentioned (or if it was I missed it).

I was very conscious in mentioning all of this (although I may have been unsuccessful in warding off this impression) that I wasn't trying to assert a masculine view of nature as blood and thunder, vicious competition  green in thorn and barb, we might say  over a feminised one of it as serene coexistence; however, I did get the impression that it is only a small fraction of the vegetal world that this philosophy is prepared to consider. For me, a philosophy of nature can't just pick and choose the nice bits (to do this is to treat science as a content provider rather than a constituent producer).

This is from a recent article published by both in the Guardian:
The plant world shows us in silence what faithfulness to life consists of. It also helps us to a new beginning, urging us to care for our breath, not only at a vital but also at a spiritual level. We must, in turn, care for it, opposing any sort of pollution that destroys both our world and that of plants. The interdependence to which we must pay the closest attention is that which exists between ourselves and the vegetal world. Often described as "the lungs of the planet", the woods that cover the earth offer us the gift of breathable air by releasing oxygen. But their capacity to renew the air polluted by industry has long reached its limit. If we lack the air necessary for a healthy life (or, indeed, for any kind of life), it is because we have filled it with chemicals and undercut the ability of plants to regenerate it. As we know, rapid deforestation combined with the massive burning of fossil fuels, which are largely the remnants of past plants, is an explosive recipe for an irreversible disaster.
It's all a bit too kumbaya for me, if I'm honest. I don't recall them using the word 'harmony' but it's altogether too much implied. Where's the danger? Where's the non-human agency? It is all about scolding humans for their nasty exploitations with no recognition of the fact that things themselves might strike back...

The more important point I was trying to make by reference to the ugly side of plants was that perhaps in order to revere the non-human world we also need to fear it. Irigaray said that she didn't understand my comment (translation was an issue and I was quite nervous as I tried to articulate myself so it may not be her fault!) but she did say that to fear plants is to fear life itself. For her that is clearly a terrible, horrible thing. But I can't accept that. Yoda had it wrong: 'fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate...'. Fear is an important part of human existence. We can fear well and fear badly. We should fear the right things.

I didn't think that my comments would be received well and they weren't especially (although Marder was very gracious and accepted that it went to the heart of the matter). There's no place for fear, for violence or for that kind of negativity in these sorts of philosophies of nature. They are pick-and-mixes of the pluriverse that simply ignore the nastier sides of things. (Although, I must add another caveat and say that someone told me last night that Marder's book mentions poisonous plants; I will have to read it before I can really make any really bold claims in this regard.)

Marder doesn't believe that plants are capable of 'violence.' His reason for this is Hegelian: plants are, he says, incapable of self-negation. Now, I'm not altogether sure what that means (doubtless my fault) but my impression is that plants cannot do otherwise; immobile, they simply are (being immobile, he added, they cannot be territorial – something else I don't agree with). Devoid of animalistic intentionality they provide us with a model for being ourselves, otherwise, without the exploitative relation with other things that is brought on (this was also made clear in the Q&A) not by capitalism as such but by the specific relation towards logos inaugurated by the Greeks (capitalism being simply the latest product of this mode of thought).

Marder insisted that he didn't want to give a pacific picture of the plant world  it isn't that plants don't do damage to other things but that this isn't violence per se. Plants can be neither pacific nor violent, they just are. I don't think that this is a very good definition of violence. Moreover, I am of the Darwinian opinion that intentionality precedes awareness; all life is intentional because all life is goal-oriented, even if the only goal is survival and procreation.

When a fly trap dissolves an insect alive it isn't 'aware' of that insect in the way that an entity with a central nervous system is, of course, but I'm not sure why that matters. What difference does it make that the plant cannot uproot and move off, or retreat from a conflict with its tail between its legs? The plant destroys the insect, making it a means to its own ends. In this way, although it seems like Marder goes far too far in talking about 'plant thought' and so on, I think he doesn't go nearly far enough.

Plants in this phenomenological ontology of Irigaray-Marder aren't fully agential in the Latourian sense. Consequently they lack the capacity to demand our reverence; they cannot stoke fear in us; they cannot endanger us; they cannot unnerve us; and, consequently, they are entirely dependent upon our good will towards them. The vector of our moral obligation towards our green others always begins with the active, cognising human; the plants, however essential to our oxygen-hungry being they are acknowledged to be, cannot make demands on us, cannot really perturb us because they simply are  and their simple unindividuated thereness is what, for these authors, makes 'plant thinking' a model (or at least a partial model) for our own modes of thought.

I think it's quite the contrary: we need to be threatened by the non-human world again. People revere in large part that which they fear (when I said that at the lecture someone towards the front audibly snorted with derision  I feel I was not amongst like-minded people!). People used to fear nature  many still do who live in less homogenised, emaciated ecosystems than ours in the towns and cities (and the biochemically annihilated farmlands) of the Western world. That fear is proper, it's necessary. It's all very well insisting that we must recognise our extreme indebtedness to our plants others, etc, etc. but by itself this is still idealism. Humans neither revere nor respect just out of the kindness of their hearts nor through the workings of their rationality. Nothing is a simple as that.

This event was very thought provoking and I'm sticking my neck out since I've only read a tiny bit of the oeuvres of either of these extremely impressive intellectuals. However, this is not a naturphilosophie that I think I can get on board with. It actually, despite many explicit and very assertive insistences to the contrary, reproduces the modernist attitude towards non-human things because it makes humans the root of every vector of moral evaluation. Plants are there and they do stuff but they are at our mercy; they are prostrate before us; we are to be scoldingly reproached for our exploitation but human supremacy is to be presupposed and baked into the settlement. This isn't a break with whatever modes of thought the Greeks loaded on us; it's more of the same, differently nuanced.

I prefer what Latour calls an ethos of 'Optimism': all entities evaluate means and ends; it is as impossible to make the whole world a means for us, as per the modernist dream of progress (because immutable, eternal Nature doesn't exist and that attitude therefore leads to environmental catastrophe); however, it is equally impossible to make all the world our ends (we have to eat, breathe, etc.). The moral imperative is, first, to introduce a moment of hesitation in action where we are uncertain of how means and ends are distributed; second, it is to perpetually renew the search for the Optimum, for the best distribution of means and ends for a collective. This philosophy necessary requires political decision (in the literal sense of de-scission, cutting off). This is cosmopolitics (or geopolitics, if you prefer). It has nothing to do with harmony but rather spheres of influence; exploitation isn't a dirty word, we just have to know our limits and the limits of the world around us.

This brings me to Gaia (largely a vegetal entity though emphatically one not in a 'vegetal state'!), the whole point of which is that she is fiercely dangerous to us. She is a danger in the proper etymological sense (from Old French dangier 'power, power to harm, mastery, authority, control'). She is 'sovereign,' according to Latour.

Marder has a paper on Carl Schmitt ('The Elemental Regimes of Carl Schmitt') that I'm looking forward to reading. I'll conclude this over-long ramble with a quote from Latour discussing Schmitt. I think it's pertinent:
The great virtue of dangerous and reactionary thinkers like Schmitt is to force us to make a choice much starker than that of so many wishy-washy ecologists still swayed by unremitting hope. Schmitt’s choice is terribly clear: either you agree to tell foes from friends, and then you engage in politics, sharply defining the borderlines of real enough wars — ‘wars about what the world is made of’ —; or you shy away from waging wars and having enemies, but then you do away with politics [...] (105).
From living plant-like to living dangerously – there's a world of difference between these programmes.

[Update (07/06/14):

I received an email from Michael Marder which politely informed me that I'd gotten the wrong end of the stick about a couple of things!:
1. I never said that plants are immobile. Their being-in-place precludes locomotion, but not other kinds of movement, as I discuss everywhere in my writings. (In fact, even a certain long-distance locomotion is possible for plant seeds and pollen, as I always note.) 
2. Plant-Thinking is in large part dedicated to an exploration of the plant's intentionality. You will notice this as soon as you open the book, but especially if you reach Ch. 5 on The Wisdom of Plants.
On the first point, I meant 'immobile' in the sense of locomotion; in the sense that animals are not immobile but plants are—that is a fair point of clarification.

Second, I do need to read more of his books. The tagline of this blog 'In which I form strong opinions about things I don't know enough about' was never more appropriate!

This is a very interesting naturphilosophie and I encourage others to take it up. Hopefully one day I can give it the critique it deserves—i.e. an informed one!]