Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Microblog mesoblog: On the cosmopolitics of the Anthropocene

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 June 2017

Why blog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 11 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All in all, very pleased to have been involved!

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Lexit's revenge?—A tale of three summers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 9 June 2017

Election reaction—The real fight starts now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 February 2017

The prison house of disciplinarity and the poverty of paraphrasism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Isabelle Stengers on becoming a philosopher with Deleuze and Whitehead

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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