Friday 13 March 2015

"Taking Gaia seriously in Bruno Latour’s Geopolitics: comment on Philip Conway’s ‘Back Down to Earth’"—Simon Dalby

Simon Dalby's reply to my research article on Bruno Latour's geopolitics is now online. The first paragraph:
Reading Philip Conway’s (2015) brave effort to tease out Latour’s geopolitical themes and think through the possible formulations that might emerge from an engagement with both his anthropology of the moderns and his facing Gaia ideas in the Gifford Lectures, one is struck by both the complexity of the conceptualizations and the urgency of dealing with them too. Simple assumptions about politics and nature won’t do anymore; we are past the point where colonial concepts can help. They are much more obviously part of the current problematique that needs urgent attention than they are useful theoretical or political constructs. Their implicit ethnocentrisms matter, as do their presuppositions that expropriations and appropriations in the cause of progress, the common good, if not simply the triumph of modernity, are simply de riguer in a world where apparently moderns should rule given their obvious superiority of technology, law, science and of course Reason. The Gaian engagement that Latour has undertaken and that Conway explicates in detail has no place for such metropolitan hubris; its categories are the problem to be addressed
As before, if anyone wants a copy and doesn't have institutional access just drop me an email.

It is a nice comment that reflects Simon's own work on environmental geopolitics over the past two decades but also the new challenges faced by political geography. The main critical point he makes is that I might not have done enough to draw out the differences between the kind of geopolitics I am articulating in this article and the classical geopolitics of Kjellén through Kissinger to Kaplan. I completely accept the necessity of a more in-depth intellectual historical approach to geopolitics. I'm hoping to undertake precisely this as part of my PhD project (that is currently under review for funding!). It's a far bigger task than I could have accomplished in this article; however, it's something that does interest me and that I hope to develop in the near future (indeed, my previous post on Alexander Humboldt relates to this historical work in that he precedes the post-1870 era of reactionary politics and harsh disciplinarity and thus possibly offers some insight into paths not taken).

"I wish you to know that I am a river about 350 miles long; I have not many tributaries, nor much timber, but I am full of fish."

I recently finished reading a fascinating book by Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. It is essentially a biography but pays particular attention to Humboldt's travels through the (mostly South) Americas and his influence on (mostly North) American literature. It issues an impassioned plea for a revival of interest in Humboldt's proto-ecology, his worldly cosmopolitanism and his synthetic, romantic naturalism. I would take issue with most of that but there's no doubt that he's a fascinating character, one whom I intend to learn more about.

For a differently focused but equally enthusiastic take on the man, see John Tresch's glorious essay Even the Tools Will Be Free: Humboldt’s Romantic Technologies (this is reproduced in Tresch's equally excellent book The Romantic Machine).

The titular quotation ("I wish you to know...") comes from one of Humboldt's letters, written upon receiving news that a Nevadan river had been named after him (in addition to hundreds of towns and countless streets all over the US).

I think the thing that fascinates me about Humboldt, even as I admit greater wariness than the above-mentioned authors, is his project. He was a man with a plan: the production of a cosmic synthesis; a singular poetic-scientific vision of the entire universe that would bring readers to understand their interconnectedness, interdependence and shared fate. He was hardly the first to attempt an encyclopaedic synthesis of all knowledge but few have approached it with such poetic gusto.

All of that is completely at odds with where we are now. It is no longer possible (perhaps it was no longer possible even by the end of the nineteenth century—although Élisée Reclus continued Humboldt's project in his own way into the twentieth) to conceive of the synthesis of nature and humanity as a progressive project (at least not without considerable naivety, even stupidity). We know all too well what Humboldt's legacy really was in practical terms: he facilitated, whatever his noble intentions, the colonisation and capitalisation of the very territories, strata and ecosystems that he mapped and surveyed with such superhuman vigour. His pioneering (in every sense) techniques were quickly adopted by state and corporate agents and his quasi-utopian hope for the nascent United States was soon shown to have been misplaced.

He perhaps did more than any other individual (although from another point of view 'Humboldt' himself was a collective of many agents, human and machinic—see Tresch on this point) to join up, to interconnect, to (in a sense) socialise the Americas. He thought, ever so naively, that this would bring peace, progress, harmony. We can no longer be so sheltered. And yet there is something so very appealing in his energy and character. Walls frequently notes that Humboldt rarely writes about himself (he is always intensely focused on the world he is frenziedly vascularising) and yet the charisma simply leaps off the page, even reading his works second hand.

We can no longer be as naive as Humboldt. His mapping, surveying, ethnographing, vascularising, cosmosynthesising project we now understand was, at best, a double-edged sword. His faith in modernisation can only be something of the past. But the interest of him I think is this: he was born just early enough that he could still in all good faith believe in modernisation as a progressive project without having to wear blinkers of such a scale that we can simply dismiss him out of hand as wilfully ignoring the consequences of his actions. He was a moderniser that it is possible to sympathise with even if we cannot identify with his problems as such.

If he had been born any later, his project, his grand synthesis would have been all but unthinkable. Indeed, he struggled against the growing disciplinisation of the sciences even as his gargantuan specimen-gathering exercises necessitated ever greater specialisation (indeed, his brother Wilhelm is remembered for presiding over the reconstruction of the German academic and educational system, as well as being one of the foremost linguists of the era).

He was perhaps the last major figure who could elude the later nineteenth century's obsession with disciplinisation. He exuded an intellectual freedom that had been crushed by 1900 and was perhaps mortally wounded even by 1851. Now that every field of the humanities and social sciences seems (at last) to be deeply concerned with inter- trans- post- or multi-disciplinarity (take your pick), it might be time to reconsider Humboldt in more detail.

I don't share the belief that his romantic, cosmosynthetic naturalism is the answer to our problems today. Nevertheless, better understanding this extraordinary and crucially liminal figure might allow us to better understand our present predicaments, both geo-political and academic-disciplinary, in more sophisticated terms. From this tumbling, darting, indefatigable blur of such prodigious vivacity it seems utterly implausible that there is nothing more to be learned.

Wednesday 11 March 2015

'It's not a pathology, it’s a project!—Sociology, anomie and atmosphere'

I'm very much looking forward to speaking at a seminar run by the Performance Research Group at King's College London next Monday (the 16th). The theme of the series is 'the anomalous' and this session in particular is titled 'The Anomaly in Art and Modes of Existence.' I'll be speaking alongside Penny Newell, the organiser. I'll be presenting something drawn from my ongoing interest in the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running. I'm in the slow but gradually progressing process of turning this interest into something concrete.

The presentation will have three parts: first, an illustrated summary of the film; second, a consideration of Émile Durkheim's concept of anomie relative to the themes presented (the main idea I take from the film is that of 'tragic modernism'—where the basic tenets of modernism are fully and naively accepted but lamented as a tragedy); and third, a reconstruction of this concept in dialogue with the AIME project, trying to understand its socio- or geo-political importance with respect to, in a phrase, air-conditioning our collective atmospheres (this then linking back to the film and its beautifully, movingly nuanced illustration of what happens when affective and social atmospheres, no less than oxygenated ones, are stripped away).

The title captures the essential point I'm trying to make: anomie is poorly understood as an anomalous pathology afflicting the social organism, as per Durkheim. Anomie—defined by Durkheim as the destructive de-restriction and derangement (dérèglement) of collective moral-legal bonds—is precisely the objective of the modernist project! To remove all bonds, all obligations with regard to other humans and, crucially and most intensively, to non-humans is precisely the point. They called it 'rationalisation.'

Durkheim cannot see this, or at least he cannot see it fully (his condemnation of economic theory for its anomie-inducing reductionism notwithstanding), because he has already fully and completely accepted the primary consequence of the anomie of the moderns: the fundamental separation of the social and the natural.

Durkheim was actively participating in this anomie-exacerbation (ever the 'rationaliser'). His condemnations were failures since he was reproducing the most fundamental principles of the very ideologies that he was condemning. This, I think, can be demonstrated through a close reading of the film, although I am still figuring out just how to construct this argument (very much a work in progress!).

To what extent the concept of anomie can (or should) be reconstructed is debatable but, I hope, it is at least worth debating. Connecting Durkheim to Latour's work is undoubtedly a provocative move! However, I think it could be a productive one (albeit one that will inevitably raise more questions than I am able to answer at present).