Friday 8 August 2014

'We Moderns' versus 'The Moderns'; or, The weight of our ancestors

One persistent source of disagreement during the AIME project was the precise meaning of 'Moderns.' This was captured most notably by Annemarie Mol during her presentation for the final seminars (I believe that this will be made available here but does not appear to be there at present) when she refused to speak in the name of any such entity. She asked that we focus instead on localised, specific issues that require no overarching or underlying group identity. To speak of a Big 'We,' it was suggested, is inherently oppressive and dangerous.

(What follows is one way, one attempt to rationalise ex post facto what actually happened during these events. In the midst of them there was an irreducible uncertainty.)

It seems to me that 'Moderns' has been used in at least two ways within AIME.

First, 'We Moderns' (the 'new nous,' as someone put it) are those who were performatively called into being by the project itself. The aim of AIME, it now seems to me (though I claim no authority on such matters!), was to produce a definition of 'Moderns' to which those assembled by the event would be willing to subscribe -- that is, not to self-identify with an already existing 'we' but to create a new ontological identity to which membership is not at all overarching but, rather, voluntary. This usage of 'Moderns' does not, then, indicate an actually or historically existing population. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have never been modern that such a performative creation is necessary.

However, secondly, Annemarie was right to point to a conflation of this performative and highly localised meaning of 'Moderns' with something rather broader and more historical. 'The Moderns' often seems to be used, additionally, as shorthand for 'those-who-though-they-were-modern'; in other words, 'The Moderns' also means the ancestors and kin of those assembled by the project -- a quite different ontological proposition.

Here is where it gets interesting: We (participants) were attempting to take responsibility for our ancestors. Latour, in his opening remarks, emphasised the importance of the fact that the event was taking place in a lecture theatre named after Albert Caquot, a famous French engineer and über-modern. Caquot, of course, echoes the Greek kakos meaning 'bad' or 'evil.' The Moderns, it was suggested, thought that they were building a 'cosmos' (a divine order of existence) but all too often they were establishing a kakosmos (a nasty, broken order).

'We Moderns' (the new nous) and 'The Moderns' (those-who-thought-they-were-modern) converge on this point: We (participants) were obligated, due to our rather ignoble family history, to attempt to formulate a new definition of 'Modern,' a definition to which we would be happy to subscribe -- that was the challenge. We were obligated to perform this act precisely because (a) those-who-thought-they-were-modern were never modern (in the sense that they understood that term) and because (b) we still live in the house that they built.

Here it is important to contrast history with ancestry. To speak of 'ancestors' is to acknowledge a deep debt to and responsibility for those who came before us. To speak of history is, contrariwise, to suggest a broadly impersonal process that we just happen to find ourselves at the end or in the midst of. Ancestry entails an unavoidable familial commitment. History is what has made you; ancestry is, to some degree, what you are.

Here is where I would disagree with Annemarie's refusal to speak the phrase 'We Moderns': we have a responsibility for those who came before us because they still live among, through and around us; we are not free of our ancestors just because they are in the ground. They cannot simply be disavowed; saying 'I am not...' is insufficient.

If a child of disreputable parents were protesting 'but I am not my father, I am not my mother -- I have nothing to do with them' we might have to reply: 'but you still live in their house, they still feed you and put clothes on your back, you still speak their words; you walk like them, you talk like them; you exist through their modes of existence!'

We are children of contemptible predecessors but we still live in the house that they built (when we're in the Amphitheatre Caquot, more or less literally!). They thought that it was a grand, glorious palace; we now know that it was, in many ways, a tumbledown structure built on slavery and brutality. But we live there nevertheless.

We Moderns are unlike The Moderns in one crucial respect: The Moderns believed that they were standing on the shoulders of giants; we fear that we may be standing on the shoulders of tyrants. What we share is the predicament that none of us can dismount; there is no 'down there'; we have, instead, to find a way to modify our precarious situation, to stand a little differently.

We participants of AIME were assembled, first, as descendants of those-who-thought-they-were-modern and, second, as the future ancestors of our own offspring (thanks to Stephen Muecke for this point). The 'We Moderns' invoked by AIME was an opt-in performance of identification. We cannot say that this invitation to subscribe lacked 'informed consent'! Ultimately we failed to produce a definition to which those assembled could all sign up. However, this does not detract from the validity of the effort. An enduring Modern legacy is the pursuit of impossibles...

Permanently opting-out of such identity-challenges might seem superficially progressive and 'right on' but this, I believe, dissolves upon a deeper consideration of the predicament. Such an attitude of 'tune in, drop out, call me when there's something specific to talk about' is quintessentially Modern inasmuch as it implies a supersessive logic of history where we can gesture to a past that makes us but is not us; a past that we can shed like clothing. A logic of ancestry entails a commitment to more thoroughly reconsider the house that our ancestors built, the house in which we have no option but to continue living -- and to gradually renovate, wall by wall, brick by brick.

This is not a conservatism. It is not that we must 'honour' our elders -- far from it! -- but we must recognise that we cannot distance ourselves from them by mere renunciation. The only distance that we can put between ourselves and our less than salubrious predecessors is by differentiation, by becoming otherwise -- and that requires considerable attention to what we are and why we are what we are.

'The progressive composition of the common world'; or, the progressive renovation of our inherited abode. Either way, the important concept here is obligation.

Our burden is not that of the White Men of History. Theirs was not really a 'burden' at all but a gift to be passed on to the underdeveloped 'others,' whether they wanted it or not. Perhaps it is false to say that we are 'standing on the shoulders' of anyone; perhaps it is more like that they are standing on us. We are no longer 'burdened' with the obligation to spread our wisdom freely around a world that is simply open, empty and waiting to be filled by rationality. Instead, the world is now thinkable as being always already meaningful, always already rational but differently rational. Our true burden is finding our place in a world that doesn't need us -- and doing so with full cognisance of our ancestry.

Whatever we choose to name ourselves after we cease to be White Men, we cannot outrun our past. AIME solved nothing but it posed some important questions for what is ahead. A planetary negotiation? Negotiation has an interesting double meaning: the sense of parlay and the sense of navigation. 'Icebergs ahoy!'

To navigate the coming century without shipwreck -- are we not all in the same boat at least in this much?

Clive Hamilton and Toby Tyrell on Gaia

Clive Hamilton made two wonderful contributions to the final AIME colloquia/diplomatic summits held the week before last. Both have now been published on his website. First, Gaia Does Not Negotiate; second, When Earth Juts Through.

The latter begins:
With the arrival of the Anthropocene we must now be suspicious of all ideas developed in the last 10,000 years. That includes James Lovelock’s notion of Gaia which, it turns out, is a child of the Holocene. In his recent book, On Gaia, Toby Tyrell shows that since Lovelock put his idea into the world some 30 years ago our understanding of the Earth system has changed dramatically. 
As Earth scientists have found means of taking a more fine-grained view of Earth history, especially through the analysis of ice-cores, the trajectory of Earth appears much more wild and unpredictable. There is no built-in stabiliser; life does not bring the planet back into equilibrium. Gaia is based on old science.
(I love that first line!) Now, I haven't read Tyrell's book but I think one point needs to be made: while Earth system science has moved on in the past thirty years so has Lovelock's take on Gaia. It is true that the original hypothesis posited the Earth as a homeostatic system but that notion of homeostasis has long since been abandoned. 'Gaia' has evolved. Lovelock now well understands that there is no equilibrium as such, only an indefinitely large range of quasi-stable states within a complex system; strange attractors and so on. This is not the same thing as 'homeostasis.' The possibility of a sudden and massive system state shift in response to a relatively minor degree of perturbation is precisely the point of his more recent works. That is why Gaia is 'vengeful.'

Here is how Lovelock differentiates the hypothesis and the theory in the glossary to Revenge of Gaia (p.208):
Gaia Hypothesis
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis postulated in the early 1970s that life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favourable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms. When introduced it was contrary to the conventional wisdom that life adapted to planetary conditions as it and they evolved in their separate ways. We now know that both the hypothesis as originally stated and the conventional wisdom were wrong. The hypothesis evolved into what is now Gaia Theory and the conventional wisdom into Earth System Science.
Gaia Theory
A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal—the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life. It is based on observations and theoretical models; it is fruitful and has made ten successful predictions.
The hypothesis is not the theory and while I am in no position to scientifically defend either this is worth noting.

While, as I say, I've not read Tyrell's book, this interview on his publisher's website makes for interesting reading. Tyrell makes the case, albeit briefly, that Gaia is simply anthropocentric wishful thinking and should be rejected as a scientific idea:
Q: If the Gaia hypothesis is not the reason, then why did the Earth remain habitable for such an enormously long interval of time? 
A: This may relate partly to the weak Anthropic Principle, whereby we logically cannot observe any facts that preclude our own existence. So however infrequent it may be in the universe for a planet to remain continuously habitable over billions of years, we happen to be on just such a planet. According to this way of thinking, Earth may just have been lucky, with no sentient observers having evolved on other planets which were not so lucky, i.e. where conditions became sterile at some point. Another possible explanation for extended habitability in the absence of Gaia is a predominantly inorganic thermostat, such as has been suggested for silicate weathering.
This is a provocative and contestable claim. However, his concluding remarks are if anything more revealing than his central thesis:
Q: Are there any implications for the current era of global change? 
A: Yes, it is suggested that belief in the Gaia hypothesis can lead to excessive complacency about the robustness and resilience of the natural system. Gaia emphasizes stabilising feedbacks and protective mechanisms that keep the environment in check. If Gaia is rejected, however, we are left with a less comforting view of the natural system. Without Gaia it is easier to appreciate that the natural system contains lines of weakness and other susceptibilities. One such line of weakness that has already been demonstrated is the ozone layer depletion by CFC’s. I have argued in the book that there is no over-riding Gaia to protect our planet’s life support system. Maintaining the Earth’s environment is up to us [emphasis added].
Who is the Modern here? I don't think that it's Lovelock... To suggest that Gaia is a 'comforting' theory is to be a few decades out of date. Yes, the original might have encouraged worshipful idleness and Nature-absorbed complacency but that is not at all the image of Gaia that is now presented to us. In Gaia Does Not Negotiate Hamilton quotes Latour who is in turn ventriloquising Gaia:
I am not your Mother, nor your protector. … So figure out the enigma of my presence.
The motherly vision of Gaia as homeostatic über-regulator is surely a holocenic fable that has long passed its sell-by-date. However, while, as I've mentioned recently, Lovelock is a tricky ally to enrol I'm not sure that Tyrell is a better option.

Without Gaia what planetary imagery are we left with? 'Spaceship Earth'? Again?...

Thursday 7 August 2014

The focus of thought: 'positions' versus 'problems'; of turf-wars and earth-wars

One thing that the AIME workshops encouraged me to think about a little more carefully was the status of the 'problem' as that which gathers, focuses and motivates thought. (I must thank Isabelle Stengers for reminding me of this.)

It seems to me that 'problem' should be contrasted with 'position.' These words represent two entirely different ways of arguing and thinking.

To argue from a 'position' (in the sense of 'that is my position,' 'I agree with your position on X but...') is to reason like a General; it is to make concepts into little tin soldiers, planes and tanks that are pushed around a map of philosophical terrain (probably a map of somewhere near the border of France and Germany!). Thinking is thus a war; there are enemy positions to be routed and strongholds to be fortified. The modest and realistic general will surely concede that outright and total victory is impossible in practice but the Prince of 'in principle' dictates that the goal must always be total domination.

However, at least as important as this inherent will-to-power is the continuity and identity that are thus stitched into the philosophical process. Any given conversation or argument becomes but a campaign, a battle, a skirmish in a longer war, an epic saga. Positions are always related to an author -- He who 'holds' them with chest-jutting pride. Sequences of positions mark out the 'careers' not of thoughts but of authors. Position-thinking always comes back to the ego of the author who 'holds' whatever bit of terrain at whatever time. It is ego-centric.

To think from (or rather around) a 'problem' is quite a different process. Every conversation is an event, a creative re-gathering of the past in service of whatever is presented. That which energises the philosopher here is not the vainglorious dream of conquering the world (whether by 'hard' or 'soft' power) but rather the pragmatic desire to settle the issue at hand. The philosopher's skill is no longer that of dominating the other but rather of re-gathering that which has always and necessarily dispersed since the last time, and differently. Her focus is not the safe, secure ground that she defends but the shaky, uncertain space that she must somehow weave.

Thinking from problems makes one less like a General and more like a herdsman. Every time a shepherd wishes to achieve something with his flock he must assemble it as a flock once again. As though Heraclitus was a shepherd: One cannot gather the same flock twice. Of course, there is continuity between assembly-events inasmuch as the shepherd doesn't go out and buy or steal a whole new set of animals each time. He responds to each problem he is faced with by working with the set of resources that he has at hand. There is a momentum built up through his day-in, day-out responsiveness to problems; a fragile, pragmatic identity. He never builds his flock from scratch at dawn -- if he is presented with such a need he is surely destitute. However, sheep get sick; they are born; they get lost; they age; they are selectively bred; they break their legs; they are eaten; they are traded; they are made into peace offerings, bribes... After every event the flock disassembles and it will never assemble in quite the same way again.

This is not a pacific, pastoral world; it is cold, harsh and offers no safety net; life and death hinges upon adequate or inadequate responses to problems. There are no soft-handed shepherds but more than a few Generals with immaculate cuticles [okay, it's a terrible metaphor but you probably get the point].

So, yes, concepts are a little like sheep -- more like sheep than like tin figurines being pushed around a map, anyway. Of course I am saying nothing in the least bit original here, I am just trying to assemble my own rather tired and skinny-looking herd in my own way!

The military/herding metaphors are illustrative if inelegant; they tell only a tiny little part of the story. Where the herding metaphor, in particular, breaks down is in the suggestion of isolation and individuality. Herds of thoughts are in fact chaotic, overlapping, intermixing thickets and soups rather than isolated, clumped dots on a hillside. We are all tangled up in each other's thoughts, utterances, things and concepts. We are all herders, weavers, world-makers -- but we make worlds together.

This entanglement destroys any possibility of a simple binary friend/enemy distinction. Silly declarations like 'realism vs. anti-realism' have no meaning here. These are tribal affiliations in old-fashioned turf wars. They are of no use in the infinitely more complex, problem-centred earth wars.

Lovelock, Singapore and Techno-Superorganicism

James Lovelock's most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), backtracks from his previous apocalypticism and, to some degree, from his repeated suggestion that the human global population needs to be reduced to a few hundred million in order to ensure the survival of the species. In this latest work he instead argues that what is needed is a massive and rapid increase in urbanisation and technological development. It is only, he argues, in densely populated mega-cities that humans can keep a low enough ecological profile per capita not to throw Gaia into a wholly hostile state. That is the claim.

Interestingly, the model he holds up for these futuristic urban utopias/dystopias is Singapore -- a city-state often credited as exemplary by futurists in large part due to its success in marrying economic and consumer freedoms with political and social authoritarianism. As a model for authoritarian capitalism in a hot, wet and massively urbanised environment it surely has few rivals.

The epigraph to A Rough Ride comes from Daniel Dennett:
The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
Lovelock thus redoubles his penchant for superorganismic metaphors to describe human society. We are and must become more like ant colonies, he argues. It is only with such technically efficient social organisation that we can hope to survive. Fortunately, we undertake this improbable task endowed with certain gifts. Humans are exceptional Gaians inasmuch as we are the only species able to wire her neurons, to become her mind. We thus have not only the capacity but the duty to undergo this intensive self-systematisation -- 'for Gaia!'

Which brings me to a very interesting (if somewhat toothless) article (accompanied with some beautiful animations) in Foreign Policy today; the headline:
The Social Laboratory: Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.
I won't repeat its arguments here but it deserves reading -- both in its own right and in light of the above.

With regards to Lovelock the phrase 'Curate's Egg' springs to mind. He is troublesome; but perhaps that is what makes him so important. His potentially genocidal predictions with regard to human population reduction have been heavily criticised but less attention has been given, so far, to his latest thoughts. It is frankly impressive that at 95 years of age Lovelock has flip-flopped from apocalyptic catastrophism to what is basically a qualified capitalist techno-utopianism. But then again, how far apart are these visions?

It would seem a wise bet that our future lies somewhere between the two Lovelocks: between mass eco-death and mass techno-urbanism; perhaps both together.

Tuesday 5 August 2014

When 'men of science' became 'scientists'

There is a very interesting post by Melinda Baldwin, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal (due out in 2015), at the consistently excellent The Conversation blog.

I was well aware that 'science' in its modern meaning is of relatively recent provenance and that most of those early moderns we anachronistically call 'scientists' were known amongst themselves as 'natural philosophers'; however, I was unaware of how recently it was that 'scientist' became accepted as a professional title, at least in Britain.

In 1894 the word 'scientist' was considered positively vulgar with 'man of letters' being the preferred term. Until 1924 Nature had a policy of forbidding the use of 'scientist.' Even after Nature removed this policy many refused to adopt the term.
[In the 1920s] The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists”, he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired – perhaps unjustly – the significance of a charlatan’s device”.
In the end, Gregory [the journal's editor] decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist”, but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word. Gregory argued that “scientist” was “too comprehensive in its meaning … the fact is that, in these days of specialised scientific investigation, no one presumes to be ‘a cultivator of science in general’”. 
Nature was far from alone in its stance. As Gregory observed, the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and the Cambridge University Press all rejected “scientist” as of 1924. It was not until after the World War II that [the physicist Norman] Campbell would truly get his wish for “scientist” to become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.
It's interesting that detractors of 'scientist' feared that such a generic term would lack the requisite respect and authority. Today many philosophers of science argue against the monolithic designation 'Science' and for a more pluralistic 'the sciences.' Perhaps we should regret that Norman Campbell got his way in the end! If only scientists [sic] were "content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists".