Saturday 21 November 2015

The value of science fiction for history

There is no more vivid encapsulation of an historical moment than that which is captured in a futural vision that no longer passes for futuristic. They are troves, these archaic futurities.

This is part of my ongoing semi-obsession with the film Silent Running (1972). It quite beautifully articulates a very particular understanding of what an environment is – an understanding that now stands out as being something from another era altogether. And the fact that it does so through such a rich medium serves more important purposes than the simply illustrative (although there's that too).

Of course, when reading or watching science fictions past, it is often striking just how much they get right and there is far more to such texts and reels than their out-datedness. But there is something particularly striking in moments that jar with the present rather than resonate with it. Something irreducibly valuable.

And all of this is why I would much prefer to pursue a 'history of ideas' than an 'intellectual history.' How staid and textureless is the latter as a flag for thought? That is not to condemn the close, focused concern with the texts that such a term designates, far from it. It is just to prise open the possibility of there being no useful or interesting distinction to be made between 'cultural' history and that of the 'intellectual.' To regard the separation of 'high' and 'low' not so much with scorn as with humour. (What is funnier than the vain, indignant defence of a hierarchy that has already crumbled?)

Friday 20 November 2015

The epistemological rupture and other stories

Catching up with the Eagles of Death Metal back catalogue. Seems only right.

Just finished reading Ursula Le Guin's City of Illusions. Deeply affecting.

These are inchoate, distracted, fragmented, tired thoughts (aren't they all?).

I am presently characterising my research project as an 'historical ontology' but this presents me with a problem – how far can or should I attempt to dissociate this term from its origins in the works of Michel Foucault and Ian Hacking?

Pointedly, what if the famous 'epistemological rupture' were a myth (more pointedly still: a bad one)? Or, more specifically, what if many of the problems currently encountered in thought were the result of assuming history to be a succession of more or less wiped-clean slates? Ruptures and revolutions? What if these events, not doubted per se, were susceptible to overly enthusiastic identification?

As Isabelle Stengers puts it in her book on Alfred North Whitehead, most encapsulatingly: "critical consciousness admits so many things without criticising them." And do not revolutions leave so very much in place?

I am thinking of much writing on 'resilience,' particularly the more scathing kind. So often the critics buy wholly into the propaganda of those they are criticising – that this is a wholly new way of thinking; a brand new set of techniques clearing away all that came before it, destined to take over, to sweep over and cover the planet like a blanket.

No more safety net or security cordon, just bounce-back-ability – the knocking opportunity found in the dull, distant thuds of an other's tragedy. There is certainly truth to this image. Neoliberalism and all that. The vultures do swarm.

But still there are nets, cordons, walls everywhere (a favourite world-making device of Le Guin, as it happens; particularly in The Dispossessed, chronologically the first in the Hainish cycle of books, which City of Illusions follows, a few thousand Terran years later). Walls growing like long, flat bamboo, cutting right through the land – but selectively, oh so precisely. Bringing a whole new meaning to 'land-locked.' There's security for some. It is the means of delivery and the extent of the coverage that is really in question.

And while walls are certainly enrollable into techniques of resilience, they surely echo and issue from a far older place. So why the blanket, as if such all-covering ruptures had actually occurred?

What does the built landscape of our collective abstractions look like if not a succession of semi-blank slates, temporarily stable states, rebuilt upon like neat, compressed strata? What is the proper image of such historicity. What forensis for this landscape?

Our thoughts, our categories, our abstractions – an ancient conurbation, continuously inhabited. No edifice persists without maintenance, without struts and strappings, without repetition but, for all that, we should not confuse the ages, conflate the epochs, prematurely compress the sprawling, soaring pulses of life, love, ceramic and aggregate. The architecture of our abstractions is less pristine palace, clean lines and geometric domes, than a reclaimed, hard-won, be-decked and bedraggled; ancient edifices built over, reused, repurposed – repetition, yes, but persistence nevertheless.

Some of every thought is the newest of the new and it surely cannot be otherwise. But some patterns aren't easily shrugged off. It is easier to hear them than to resist them…

The problem of history. It is not a storage crate to be picked through at leisure. It is not a layer cake that needs re-separating.

Perhaps 'historical metaphysics' would be a better term. An historical metaphysics born of speculative pragmatism. I need only show that neither of these phrases are contradictions in terms but, in fact, elements of a necessary tensegrity.

Back to the music. Damn, that's a riff.