Saturday 15 February 2014

Noisy neighbours: a remedy

My downstairs neighbours seem (from the sounds of it) to be having a party.  I don't begrudge them it because it's Saturday night and they're normally fairly quiet (if anything we're the noisy neighbours!) but I'm really not in the mood for the shitty techno-ish thud, thud, boom, boom music that's vibrating through the floor so I've responded by playing the following album quite loud:

As most people who know me are aware, Sigur Rós are pretty much my favourite band ‒ nay, my favourite artists ‒ of all time.  This album is by the singer/guitarist, Jonsi, and his partner (who isn't in the band), Alex.  I think the rest of them probably helped record it but it's Jonsi and Alex's composition.  Anyway, it's the perfect remedy for the aforementioned predicament ‒ etherial, magisterial soundscapes that hazily, droningly fill up up the whole sound spectrum and lay out a world that you can get lost in.  Just wonderful.  Breathtaking.

Friday 14 February 2014

RGS-IBG 2014: 'Technology as a mode of existence, geopolitics as composition: Assessing Bruno Latour’s post-ANT political philosophy'

As part of my ongoing assimilation into geography I'll be presenting the following paper at the RGS-IBG (Royal Geographical Society-Institute of British Geographers) conference in London in August:

Technology as a mode of existence, geopolitics as composition: Assessing Bruno Latour’s post-ANT political philosophy
The abbreviation [tec] for technology designates not technical objects or the material world, not even networks or socio-technical networks, but that which we emphasize whenever we pay attention to the unexpected detours by which existents have to pass in order to subsist. (Latour, 2013a
[…] geopolitics is not about human politics overlaid on the static frame of the Earth, but politics about contradictory portions, visions, aspects of the Earth and its contending humans. (Latour, 2013b)
This paper addresses two highly pertinent recent developments in the work of Bruno Latour: first, his conceptualisation of technology as a ‘mode of existence’; second, his redefinition of geopolitics as the politics of the Earth or ‘Gaia-politics.’ Latour’s recent (2013c) An Inquiry into Modes of Existence represents a substantial development in his thinking that builds on but also goes way beyond his actor-network theory (ANT). As one of fifteen modes, ‘technology’ does not refer to a distinct ‘realm’ or a kind of thing but rather to a specific form of relation or translation, a distinctively technical form of becoming. In his Gifford Lectures (2013d) Latour drew on both James Lovelock’s Gaia theory and, significantly for students of geopolitics, Carl Schmitt’s Nomos of the Earth in order to redefine geopolitics as the politics of Gaia/the Earth. This paper will: first, introduce Latour’s modal philosophy; second, outline his re-definition of geopolitics; third, draw out the possibilities and problems, pros and cons of the aforementioned and, fourth, compare and contrast these ideas with the ‘state of the art’ in studies of technology and geopolitics. I find that while Latour's recent work can and will be of great utility to political geographers (just as his earlier work has been) it is also flawed and in need of thorough constructive criticism. This paper derives from my ongoing (and, at the time of writing, unpublished) efforts towards that end.

Sunday 9 February 2014

Kaplan's "The Coming Anarchy" at twenty

Journalist, travel writer and war enthusiast Robert D. Kaplan's infamous and expansively titled article The Coming Anarchy: How Scarcity, Crime, Overpopulation, Tribalism, and Disease are Rapidly Destroying the Social Fabric of Our Planet turned twenty on the first of this month.

Kaplan, writing in his role as Chief Geopolitical Analyst at the 'intelligence provider' Stratfor (they of got-hacked-by-Anonymous fame), reflects on his piece two decades on. He commends his prior foresight, concedes some errors in hindsight and offers some fresh insights into the causes of the "season of anarchy" that we are (allegedly) experiencing at present.

First, and seemingly foremost, "The End of Imperialism":
That's right [yeah, you heard me, liberals! ed.]. Imperialism provided much of Africa, Asia and Latin America with security and administrative order. The Europeans divided the planet into a gridwork of entities -- both artificial and not -- and governed. It may not have been fair, and it may not have been altogether civil, but it provided order. Imperialism, the mainstay of stability for human populations for thousands of years, is now gone.
'And they made the trains run on time,' he doesn't add. (There is an unmistakeable air of disappointment here. It wasn't so long ago that Kaplan was heralding the US Empire as the rightful heir to Rome via Britain, given no choice but to rule the world for the good of all mankind. Kaplan roped in his imperial adventurism a matter of weeks before the election of Barack Obama, acknowledging Iraq as folly and offering an apology of sorts. Wiley pundits anticipate the shifting of the wind...)

The other causes include the weak institutions, "feeble identities" and the demise of post-colonial strongmen. (This last point is deeply ironic given Kaplan's evangelical cheerleading for the Iraq War.)

He also finds much cause for fear in battles over religious doctrine within Islam:
Religion occupies a place in daily life in the Islamic world that the West has not known since the days -- a millennium ago -- when the West was called "Christendom."
('Christendom' as "lands where Christianity is the dominant religion" is only evident from the late 14th century but who's counting?)

It's wrapped up with the obligatory references to Twitter, etc. and a call for greater focus on building strong institutions:
The future of world politics will be about which societies can develop responsive institutions to govern vast geographical space and which cannot. That is the question toward which the present season of anarchy leads.
The apolitical governmentalism evidenced here that is so typical of Kaplan's writing is obnoxious but his call to give more attention to institutions is, I think, valid.

Kaplan may have vigorously propagandised for the Iraq War (and, indeed, been consulted directly by the Bush White House about it) but he never believed that Western-style liberal democracy could be simply parachuted in à la Peter Sloterdijk's deliciously ironic pneumatic parliament. In Iraq Kaplan wanted "a transitional secular dictatorship that unites the merchant classes across sectarian lines and may in time, after the rebuilding of institutions and the economy, lead to a democratic alternative." His wilful ignorance of all history aside (i.e. where does he think Saddam came from? do we need to have The Talk that explains how the US has been installing secular dictators for decades?), he is at least aware that democracy depends upon conditions much deeper and broader than any intrinsic aspiration innate in human nature that only needs to be uncapped by bomb or bullet in order to bloom.

What's the difference between a conservative realist and a neoconservative idealist? Little in practice ‒ they gush, fawn and spite just the same ‒ but it's easy to forget (as a European) how powerful liberal and neoconservative idealisms are in US foreign policy discourse. Realpolitik may have been in the ascendancy under Obama but it is generally seen as being the weaker school of thought in US political circles (though not so amongst military-types). It is against idealism, in the International Relations sense, that Kaplan is often (implicitly) railing.
[...] what is not in dispute is that significant portions of the earth, rather than follow the dictates of Progress and Rationalism, are simply harder and harder to govern, even as there is insufficient evidence of an emerging and widespread civil society.
Indeed. But one must really wonder if there isn't at least the tiniest little gap between the idealism of universalist "Progress and Rationalism" on the one hand and late Victorian geopolitics on the other.  Mightn't there be a meliorist middle sandwiched somewhere between the hateful pessimism of realpolitik and the naïf optimism of idealpolitik?

'If you can't say anything nice then don't say anything at all' ‒ sound advice for much of life but not so much for blogging about neo-imperialist war-mongers like Kaplan. The man is awful, just awful. But, having said that, it's important to see Kaplan as embedded in a political discourse that is by no means dominated by political realists. At least he recognises some of the complexities of the world and his urge to focus on building institutions rather than fixating on abstract, universal ideals is valid.

But small mercies are no saving grace. Kaplan is alternately a nasty, hateful purveyor of geopolitical bile and a clownish pseudo-scholar who isn't sure if Poland is in the EU or not. There's little to recommend him as a human being or as an analyst but he is an unavoidable case study in the power/knowledge economy of US geopolitical discourse over the past quarter of a century.

Latour on why international negotiations on the environment fail; redefining territory for Gaia-politics

The audio quality is not great (don't just film that microphone, use it!) but here's an interesting little bit from Latour giving three reasons why international negotiations, such as the Copenhagen Summit of 2009, fail.

First, because of the separation of science and politics; second, because the issues involved don't exist at a single spatial scale; third, mountains, glaciers, rivers, etc. have no real political standing in negotiations. The basic point seems to be that traditional representational political regimes can no longer deal with the issues that concern them, that twenty-first century politics are radically different to those of the past century and need an altogether different political theory.

The solution (or part of a solution), as detailed elsewhere (in French), is to redefine territory not as a bounded plot of the Earth's surface that's calculated, owned and guarded by a state but conceived in network-terms as all those attachments that are necessary for any entity to exist. These tangles of attachments are the proper referents of geo-politics qua Gaia-politics, Latour claims, and a new representational regime is required in order to deal with these issues that lack simple location (to borrow Whitehead's term).

While I think that this is all very interesting and provocative I have numerous problems with these ideas, not least the reduction of political questions to finding the correct design for the representational apparatus.  If only we could figure out the right forum, the argument seems to go, then all these problems could be settled.  But the most beautifully crafted platform in the world is for naught if we don't look at why some agents have such loud voices and others are silent, why some are so strident and others so stifled. Secondly, while territorial, state-based political apparatuses are easy to criticise and find inadequate they're much more difficult to think around or beyond. Indeed, Latour's own work presupposes the state as a political backdrop/guarantor/calculative-mechanism-among-others.

It all comes back, I think, to questions of force. Even if the proper institutions can be designed and their means of representation (in all senses of the word) invented what will give them the capacity to decide? And in asking that question we're drawn straight back from geo-politics qua Gaia-politics to geopolitics as it has been more traditionally understood ‒ questions of power, authority, sovereignty and violence raise their ugly heads again.

Latour has spent his whole career trying to ignore these kinds of questions but the deeper he delves into the political the less justifiable this aversion becomes. Now he is talking of geopolitics and territory (even if these terms are defined somewhat idiosyncratically) I think these issues have become truly unavoidable.

Marx, Weber, Schmitt, Foucault and all those theorists of the 'old' politics (as Latour would have it) are beating at the door of cosmopolitics! Perhaps it is time to let them in.