Friday, 15 August 2014

The posturing and positioning of 'realism versus idealism'

What if we non-idealists, realists (or whatever) thought to ourselves not 'idealism, what an absurdity!' but rather 'idealism, what an achievement!'?

What if we took idealism to be not a flawed 'position' to be bombarded but rather an outdated, outmoded achievement ill-suited to the present and its problems?

To acknowledge something as an achievement -- even a glorious achievement -- by no means obliges anything like heartfelt subscription to that thing. However, such an acknowledgement does preclude the naive denunciation that would declare, perhaps subtextually: 'what idiots! who could believe such a thing?!'

Their problems are not yours -- so, why denounce their solutions as absurd? Rejoice in not sharing their problems!

'Ah, but their stupidity is my problem -- how can I live well in a world containing deceived minds?!'

That absurdity is our problem.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

What is the contrary of 'cosmos'? What, then, is 'cosmopolitics'?

Isabelle Stengers' cosmopolitics is one of those concepts that is oft-cited but rarely examined in any detail. I won't try to explicate it on the basis of Stengers' texts here (though that needs to be done); I'll just ask a simple question: what is the contrary of 'cosmos'? How we answer this question will determine what we take cosmopolitics to be.

It seems to me that many readers take the cosmos in cosmopolitics to be basically equivalent to the everyday meaning of that word; they take it to mean cosmos in the sense of Carl Sagan's Cosmos -- that is, as, more or less, a synonym for the universe. The only possible contrary to 'cosmos' in this sense would be 'non-existence, nothingness.'

Taken this way, cosmopolitics must either mean that politics is a transcendent metaphysical model for existence (i.e. Graham Harman's reading of Bruno Latour's Irreductions); or, cosmopolitics must mean that the entirety of existence must now be subsumed within political contestation (taking the old cliché 'everything is political' to ever more absurd heights). Neither of these interpretations are, in my opinion, especially useful (or even comprehensible).

It'd be helpful to think of 'cosmos' in broader terms. Here's what the etymology dictionary has to say about 'cosmos':
c.1200 (but not popular until 1848, as a translation of Humboldt's Kosmos), from Latinized form of Greek kosmos "order, good order, orderly arrangement," a word with several main senses rooted in those notions: The verb kosmein meant generally "to dispose, prepare," but especially "to order and arrange (troops for battle), to set (an army) in array;" also "to establish (a government or regime);" "to deck, adorn, equip, dress" (especially of women). Thus kosmos had an important secondary sense of "ornaments of a woman's dress, decoration" (compare kosmokomes "dressing the hair") as well as "the universe, the world." 
Pythagoras is said to have been the first to apply this word to "the universe," perhaps originally meaning "the starry firmament," but later it was extended to the whole physical world, including the earth. For specific reference to "the world of people," the classical phrase was he oikoumene (ge) "the inhabited (earth)." Septuagint uses both kosmos and oikoumene. Kosmos also was used in Christian religious writing with a sense of "worldly life, this world (as opposed to the afterlife)," but the more frequent word for this was aion, literally "lifetime, age."
For the Stoics, kosmos meant that existence was divinely ordered; it meant that, to ape Leibniz, we lived in the best and most rational of all possible worlds and for this we owed thanks to God or Nature in all their divinity. It is related to this sense of kosmos as a divinely ordered existence that we get cosmos as simply a synonym for astronomical existence generally (perhaps beginning with Pythagoras). However, the etymology of the term is demonstrably more complex and interesting than that.

So, we should take note that when Latour uses 'cosmopolitics' in Pandora's Hope, Politics of Nature and later texts he opposes it not to non-existence but to 'kakosmos' (kakos in many contemporary European languages meaning shit and in the Ancient Greek meaning bad or evil). Cosmos is, in this usage, not just a straightforward synonym for existence; it is, like for the Stoics and the other Greeks described in the quotation above, a word meaning a specific kind of ordering, a good, beautiful, agreeable ordering. In this usage there may well be no cosmos! The mere fact that there is existence proves nothing.

Cosmopolitics, in this sense, therefore means not that politics is a transcendent metaphysical principle such that all existence is political in and of itself, nor that the entirety of the cosmos must be brought within previously human-exceptional politics (whatever that would mean). Cosmopolitics is instead the recognition that since both God and Nature are dead then there is only one possible route towards a cosmos and away from a kakosmos: through politics, with all the messiness, compromise and frustration that this word entails.

It is not that the universe is always already political in itself, as though politics were some kind of transcendent metaphysical condition. It is precisely the opposite of that: there is no transcendent metaphysical condition, that's why there must be cosmopolitics.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The felinocene(?!) -- Cats as invasive species

From a paper published in Nature last year but featured by the BBC today:
Cats are one of the top threats to US wildlife, killing billions of animals each year, a study suggests. 
The authors estimate they are responsible for the deaths of between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually.
The abstract to the Nature paper concludes:
Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.
A nice reminder in yet another ecological arena that anthropogenic doesn't mean 'human controlled.' The perturbatory ripples issuing out from our actions rapidly attain shapes, patterns and magnitudes almost unrecognisable to us as they are amplified by processes and agents with aims and objectives entirely their own.