Saturday 7 February 2015

John Tresch's 'The Romantic Machine'

John Tresch's The Romantic Machine: Utopian Science and Technology After Napoleon is a beautifully constructed and unfailingly impressive work that takes its reader on a journey through Parisian scientific and intellectual life in the early to mid nineteenth century. Published in hardback a couple of years ago but only just out in paperback, it won the History of Science's Pfizer Award—and deservedly so.

Tresch's work fits into an historiographical movement that attempts to complicate the distinctions between rationalism and romanticism. Particularly, it problematises this opposition's straightforward mapping on to oppositions between mechanism and organism, science and art. Romantics prior to 1851, he makes clear, were just as enthusiastic about technological and scientific progress as the rationalists. They had their own preferred technologies, which related to their own epistemological and ontological developments in a profound way.
To quote the publisher's summary:
"Focusing on a set of celebrated technologies, including steam engines, electromagnetic and geophysical instruments, early photography, and mass-scale printing, Tresch looks at how new conceptions of energy, instrumentality, and association fueled such diverse developments as fantastic literature, popular astronomy, grand opera, positivism, utopian socialism, and the Revolution of 1848. He shows that those who attempted to fuse organicism and mechanism in various ways, including Alexander von Humboldt and Auguste Comte, charted a road not taken that resonates today."
I also highly recommend Tresch's recent essay (pdf available) Cosmologies Materialized: History of Science and History of Ideas, which argues for the need to bring together histories of science and intellectual histories, something that his Romantic Machine does with aplomb.

I've enjoyed reading Tresch's book tremendously and it's had quite an effect on my own interests and plans. It made me realise that I want to delve into the history of science, particularly that of the nineteenth century, in a much more serious way. It's one of those rare books where I only wish there was more of it!

Thursday 5 February 2015

Diplomacy and cosmopolitics

In response to my last post, dmf writes:
see I thought diplomacy was about the negotiating workable (extra-military) relations between competing interests. more William James than Kant...
It certainly is much more James than Kant. I didn't mean to suggest that the goal is synthesis as such. That would be unanimity rather than plurality and is emphatically not the goal of diplomacy as either Stengers or Latour articulate it.

[What follows is a thinking-out-loud. Consider yourselves warned.]

There are and must be indefinitely multiple cosmoi. And diplomacy is the "technology of belonging," to use Stengers' words, that renders these cosmoi "contrasting rather than contradictory." It turns either/or into and/and, as she puts it.

This becoming-coexistent requires an openness of all parties to change. It is a political technology and by no means the only one.

When you share an atmosphere, in the Sloterdijkian sense of the word, then you share a kosmos/kakosmos. A progressive composition of a common world means a collective air-conditioning of that atmosphere. And this requires the same diplomatic openness. The same detachment in a very precise sense: not disinterest or any kind of neutered neutrality but detachment from a fixed, permanent, absolutised self that could only ever dominate, be adopted, be enforced, be destroyed or be 'tolerated.' A diplomat's detachment is a unique and extreme case. But that doesn't mean that the rest of us can go around living out our inner perfections.

Is diplomacy just the negotiation between cosmoi or is it also the name of the political technology at work in conditioning and composing the cosmoi from within?

Well, mereologically speaking, once the notion of cosmos is radically pluralised, we are constantly within, between and butting up against the cosmoi of others. We are in a world of foam, in Sloterdijk's imagery. And yet when we find ourselves 'in the same boat' as another—whether that other is a hungry tiger or not—veritably it is not a matter as simple as maintaining border relations (although that is unavoidably part of it). When we share an infrastructure that is toxifying the very air that we breathe then we surely have no option but to negotiate the terms of our coexistence in a rather more intimate sense.

And when this 'air' is conceptual then the ground of the negotiation is a philosophical one. Calculemus!

So, the AIME project, as I understand it, was about attempting to negotiate the composition of a shared atmosphere: a conceptual, philosophical atmosphere. In its participatory stages it was about collectively writing the design specifications that would construct the problem to which the philosopher(s) will respond.

Not everyone or everything is inside this particular 'hothouse.' There are many other abodes. And yet 'the Western philosophical tradition' is not a meaningless designation. Too simple, certainly, but it passably signifies the shared atmosphere in question; an atmosphere that undoubtedly has its toxicities and yet that we cannot simply forego breathing all of a sudden—we cannot simply step out into the void. Hence 'inheritance' and the inevitable problems of translating between generations.

If we suppose that diplomacy pertains to the inter-cosmic and cosmopolitics to the intra-cosmic then that would be an elegant enough distinction. However, as far as I can see, the difference is not one of polarity but of intensity. The pressure of coexistence is relative to the pressure of the atmosphere and the pressure increases relative to the toxicity experienced by the occupants who format the existential space itself—pressure is a function of the tension experienced by those who collectively constitute the tensegretic milieu. And even hostile parties share a space formatted by that very non-indifference.

So, while there are undoubtedly other political technologies besides the diplomatic metamorphosing of contradictions into contrasts and while there are vastly more kinds of atmospheres than the merely conceptual and while diplomacy as a concept obviously suggests a concern with the interrelation of existential spaces that have some sort of mutual exteriority, the capacities, the requirements, the technical competencies required of the diplomat are only an extreme case of what is required of a negotiated coexistence in general. The 'true self' abhors coexistence.

So, pace Kant, it is not synthesis that any kind of diplomacy is working for. There is no 'perpetual peace,' only perpetually negotiated settlements. There are no shortcuts. But, equally, this is not an atomising gesture. It does not function to fracture the foam into ever smaller bubbles. Co-occupancy is not a choice and toxicity is not a mere metaphor.

The goal is not synthesis and yet if we are co-occupant then we will soon realise it. Plurality does not mean disentanglement. And so becoming-cosmic through a quasi-system, as I have described it, does not presuppose a will to synthesis—only the recognition that this is one possible tool for the negotiation of a co-occupancy that we cannot easily opt out of, nor need we.

Those of us who read and talk philosophy—or simply those of us who speak a European language—are part of a hothouse that we cannot close like a book. It is something that we share and something that we are, something that is part of us.

We speak of becoming-coexistent not becoming-unified. And yet negotiating the shape of the space we occupy necessarily means negotiating the very shape of who we are—and the 'we' is not an idle one because we are something together, 'we are in this together.' Such a statement can never be exempted from scepticism or even refusal but nor can we pretend that we are all mutually exterior and that we don't have collective projects or that we can become-cosmic without some sort of convergence—even if, and here we can inherit a modern classic, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. That is, even if convergence contains its contrary within itself, it is still a necessary motion. Convergence is still something that is built, is still something that can be built better.

Why is cosmopolitics not cosmopolitan? Cosmopolitanism, in its perpetually pacific end state, would have no need of diplomacy since all borders would be dissolved. In a cosmopolitical world—'cosmopolitics' being the recognition that there is only cosmos with politics and only politics with a cosmos, not that these are one and the same but that they are in a state of tension—there would be only varying intensities of the demand for diplomatic detachment that would be adjusted according to relative degrees of estrangement, conflict and pressure. Unity would never be the goal but nor would isolation be anything but a death sentence. Collective writing projects would be commonplace, not because we were striving for a hive-mind but because we would be capable of saying 'that is my writing' even when the words did not conform to 'my true beliefs.' We would recognise our ecstasy, our being outside ourselves. We would recognise ourselves in collective composites, in trace-lattices without a trace of purity.

Our borders would not disappear but their fortification would become ever less urgent.

[P.S. just saw Ex Machina and it left me feeling very philosophical.]

Wednesday 4 February 2015

Should 'system' be part of our ontological inheritance?

In response to my last post, Tim Howles writes:
Cf. the question put to BL in his recent interview on 'AIME as system': "The site has been open for two years in French, one in English, and I still don’t see new modes coming in. Isn’t the 'system' here coming to paralyse the inquiry?"
System or 'quasi-system' (a term that I've applied to AIME elsewhere)?

What is the 'quasi' doing for 'object' and 'subject'? Literally speaking, they are 'as if' objects and subjects. More specifically, it renders them not a kind of object or entity, or at least not any entity with an enduring identity, but a point in a trajectory; it implies that the quasi-X is always a becoming-X and always a becoming-with-others. It is a relativisation of subject and object not to each other (à la dialectic) but to a wider pluriverse of existential modalities.

In terms of AIME, it is obvious enough as to why we'd want to keep notions of objectivity and subjectivity as part of our 'inheritance' (albeit deeply modified). The question is really one that I posed right at the end of my article: what are we to inherit and how? What is it in the notion of 'system' that is valuable, despite all the problems with that term?

I think it could be related to the notion of cosmos. Unlike high modernists like Alexander von Humboldt (whose biography I've been reading recently -- but that's an aside), the Latourian cosmos is not at all a pure, perfect state of harmonious nature. It's more Messiaen than Mozart. Harmony, yes, but amidst discord of all sorts. No kosmos without kakosmos -- we'd do well to remember that there is no guarantee of enjoying a cosmos whatsoever; cosmoi are composed.

If a quasi-systematising is an organising, a settling, a becoming-cosmos, then the important question concerns how that systematising is happening. And isn't that what the diplomacy is all about? Progressively composing the common cosmos in the absence of a pre-given sovereign?

Certainly, we shouldn't hold becoming-cosmic or becoming-system to be necessarily superior to whatever the contrary would be -- no composition without decomposition. What a quasi-system permits is an organised conversation about our cherished abstractions. Its realisation is necessarily a stuttering and pragmatic one. However, I think that there is definitely a case for 'system' to be part of what we inherit from the moderns.

I'm trying to think up a joke about Quasimodo but I haven't quite gotten there yet.
quasimodo: "Low Sunday," 1706, Quasimodo Sunday, from Latin quasi modo, first words of introit for the first Sunday after Easter: quasi modo geniti infantes "as newborn babes" (1 Pet. ii:2). The hunchback in Victor Hugo's novel was supposed to have been abandoned as an infant at Notre Dame on this day, hence his name. For first element, see quasi; for second see mode.

Tuesday 3 February 2015

Learning to write in public

A few reflections on the rite of passage that is publishing your first journal article. Not exactly advice, although my naïf experiences may be useful for others in a similar situation:

1. It wasn't as difficult as I expected. Although this should not suggest that it was easy. I worked incredibly hard on this article (propelled in no small part by the anxiety of having more than a few people actually reading my work!). However, the vast gulf that I kept expecting to appear between myself and the hallowed ether of publishing academics simply never materialised (imposter syndrome). Turns out that if you know quite a lot about something and can write, that's enough.

2. Having a good editor certainly helps. Global Discourse is a relatively new journal (volume 5 this year) but it's well run and has all the right priorities. Their policy of commissioning a reply to each research article from another author in the field is fantastic and should be the rule rather than the exception amongst pubishers (I don't know when the reply/replies to my article will be out but at some point in the next few months, I expect). I'd certainly recommend this journal to other would-be-first-time-publishers.

3. Pushing back against reviewers is okay. Neophyte that I am, I really wasn't sure to what extent a reviewer's comments were final or not. While all my reviewers were helpful, they were not of one voice and consequently I was able to resist on one or two things and get my way (while taking several other important criticisms on board). This would probably be less of a problem for those able to call on the advice of supervisors, etc. I didn't have that but managed to blunder my way through somehow!

4. I fretted much too much about typos at the drafting stage. These things drive me crazy but it shouldn't really matter. Those professional proof-readers are very thorough, possibly even excessively so. (They tried to prune a lot of the stylistic choices I made that may not have been grammatically perfect but were nevertheless deliberate. Read the proofs carefully!)

5. Criticism can sting but it's mostly useful. Whatever you need to do to guard yourself against the inevitability of criticism (and the possibility of rejection) you can figure out for yourself (a kind of underlying fug of underspecified pessimism works for me). However, letting criticism sink in for a few days completely transforms it—at least in my experience. That isn't to say that you end up agreeing but seeing where the critic is coming from (even if they're wrong), that's the important thing!

6. Relatedly, I've found it important to take breaks from writing and re-writing. Not just going to get a coffee but shelving the whole project for a couple of weeks and coming back to it then, particularly in the later stages. There were times when I was trying to redraft when I felt that I just couldn't imagine the words being arranged in any other configuration than the one they were in! This is probably the biggest lesson I've learned with regard to re-writing: don't overdo it in one sitting, not so much because you can't achieve anything that way but because it you get into diminishing returns very quickly. I've never *touch wood* experienced writer's block as such but there comes a point when going over this or that section yet again just isn't bringing benefits proportional to the time it's taking. Efficiency.

7. Regarding content, Latour is a tricky thinker to write about in the way that I have. I refer to his AIME project as "simultaneously a magnum opus and a work in progress." This sums up a problem I've grappled with, I hope with a modicum of success. A large portion of the first half of the essay consists of a one-by-one summary of each of Latour's fifteen modes of existence. I felt this was necessary for two reasons. First, one of the most fundamental principles of AIME is that each mode is unique and must be understood in its own terms. Second, I was aiming this essay at those with a passing familiarity with Latour's work but without a detailed understanding of the finer points, particularly with regard to his recent works. If I was going to intertwine the various threads of his work in the way that I wanted to, I had first to separate out those threads and make them understood. The problem with this may have been an implicit essentialising of the modes. It certainly risks oversimplifying them. Nevertheless, I think I achieved my basic objective: to provide a provocative way in to this grand assemblage of ideas with respect to debates in political geography.

8. It is very satisfying to see your name in print. For all the intermittent bouts of stress and countless expended hours, I've actually really enjoyed the project as a whole. Moreover, having endured the rite, I feel much more confident about what I want to do next.

9. I probably wouldn't have had the confidence to do this without the experience of blogging. Just the experience of, and this is effectively what it is, 'writing in public'—that's an important thing to become comfortable with. I started this blog after finishing my MSc (now more than five years ago) and it's kept my curiosity ticking over and kept me in the habit of writing and thinking.

10. Having said that, I couldn't have undertaken this project without the resources available to me as a university employee. I owe much to the fact that lowly library assistants, research administrators and research assistants (the jobs I have occupied over the past few years) have the same access rights as anyone else (at the University of Bristol, anyway).

11. This peculiar mixture of freedoms—being able to write exactly what I want, having the resources to do so, having an audience to practice on (!)—is an interesting and probably rare situation to be in. It's not exactly a path that I planned with any particular foresight but I think that it has more or less worked out.

12. This is just the beginning! This article is essentially a (very) long preface to what I want to do next, which should hopefully be the subject of future blogging.

13. Nothing is ever finished. I just spent a few minutes looking back over the published version of the article and spotted several things that made me think 'why on earth did I write that?!' but no matter. What's done is done and this is definitely done and dusted.

Right, I think that's enough confessional self-indulgence for one day.

Hot off the press: 'Back Down to Earth: Reassembling Latour's Anthropocenic Geopolitics'

After much preamble on this blog over the past few years, my first journal article has just been published online (it will appear in print at a later date as part of a special issue).

The principal intuition of this article is that Bruno Latour’s explicitly or implicitly ‘geopolitical’ works – strewn as they are across many years and innumerable texts – have not yet been coherently assembled in such a way that their critical interrogation relative to contemporary debates in political geography can gainfully proceed. Such a reassembly must consider ‘earlier,’ ‘later’ and whatever other Latours. Although ‘politics’ per se has, in his more recent works, become just one ‘mode of existence’ among others, every aspect of Latour’s thought has political ramifications. Consequently, his works must be read ‘anthropologically’ – that is to say, in cognisance of the interimplicatedness of every typological strand of ‘the social’ taken altogether. In short, this article attempts not only to read Latour’s works more interconnectedly than have other readers, but, furthermore, to read Latour’s ‘geopolitical’ writings in a more joined-up fashion than he has himself written them. To this end, it (1) introduces the major elements of Latour’s political philosophy, highlighting the importance of geopolitical issues and concepts from his early works onwards; (2) précises his 15 ‘modes of existence,’ laying out the philosophical resources that will be subsequently rewoven; (3) examines six key allies with whom he rearticulates first geo (James Lovelock, Peter Sloterdijk) and politics (Walter Lippmann, John Dewey) separately and then geopolitics (Michel Serres, Carl Schmitt) itself; and, finally, (4) details his Anthropocenic geopolitics conceptually by speculatively intertwining the above with his recent Gifford Lectures. The reassembly attempted – or, rather, initiated – herein is, therefore, neither disinterested nor definitive. It is a working through of the possibilities internal to a specific, albeit sprawling, bundle of texts. It presents a reading both constructive and ‘charitable’ – not in order to obviate critical interrogations but in the hope of provoking a more incisive debate concerning Latour’s works in relation to political geography.
If anyone without institutional access wants a copy, this link allows 50 downloads free of charge. (If those with institutional access could download from the normal page, that would be appreciated.) If and when that route is exhausted, just drop me an email (see top right between 'Subscribe' and 'Archive') and I'd be happy to oblige.