Thursday 8 December 2016

Alfred North Whitehead and the Logician's Nose

In his foreword to Isabelle Stengers’ Thinking With Whitehead, Bruno Latour writes:
“It could be one of those little games journalists play on television talk shows about books: “Who was the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century whose name begins with W?” Most learned people in America would answer “Wittgenstein.” Sorry. The right answer is “Whitehead” – another philosopher whose name begins with W to be sure, but one who is vastly more daring, and also, unfortunately, much less studied.”
Last week, here in Aber InterPol, we had a two-part reading group on A.N. Whitehead’s works. Being partial instigator, I got to choose the readings:
Session 1 – Whitehead’s Problem: The Bifurcation of Nature
The Concept of Nature, chapters I (“Nature and Thought”), II (“Theories of the Bifurcation of Nature”) and VIII (“Summary”). In these lectures (given 1919), Whitehead sets out his “problematique” for the first time, concentrating primarily on the philosophy of physics – something that is taken up and expanded in his later works. His argument here is crucial to many contemporary thinkers, such as Haraway, Barad, Latour and so on. 
Session 2 – Philosophy between Science, Art and Nature
Science and the Modern World chapters IV (“The Eighteenth Century”), V (“The Romantic Reaction”) and XIII (“Requisites for Social Progress”). In these lectures (given 1925), Whitehead fleshes out his problem historically, ranging much more widely than before. The fourth and fifth chapters are particularly interesting because they set out a distinction between natural philosophy and nature poetry, respectively, with Whitehead, as philosopher, taking both equally seriously.
We had been hoping to arrange something like this for a while; however, the occasion was provided by the annual visit of (Visiting Professor) Patrick Thaddeus Jackson from American University – noted Wittgensteinian (and Weberian, for that matter).

Besides myself, we had Milja Kurki, whose work on ‘relational cosmology’ gave us some really important parallels between Whitehead’s century-old works and contemporary physical thinking. Also, representatives of Lacanian psychoanalysis, Eliasian process sociology, and more.

Whitehead’s works are really important for my research at the moment, particularly regarding the place of ‘environment’ within his ‘philosophy of organism,’ and so it was extremely useful to get such a wide range of reactions. Having spent quite some time reading and absorbing Stengers’ reading of (or rather with) Whitehead, I am given to picking up particularly on his pragmatist tendencies. For example, from Science and the Modern World:
“You cannot think without abstractions; accordingly, it is of the utmost importance to be vigilant in critically revising your modes of abstraction. It is here that philosophy finds its niche as essential to the healthy progress of society. It is the critic of abstractions.” (p.59)
Patrick, on the other hand, was most struck by the ‘totalising’ ethic of endeavouring to combine all elements of experience and of scientific fact into a complete conceptual scheme, a theory of everything.

This impression derived particularly from recognition of Whitehead’s intellectual milieu. This being a few years before Gödel's incompleteness theorems were published (1931); a place and time where a ‘theory of everything’ was an objective that hardly needed explanation. Indeed, in our first reading, The Concept of Nature, Whitehead pointedly evades what he calls ‘metaphysics’ but sets out, quite straightforwardly, to construct a concept of nature that will enable the unification of the sciences. And, of course, we can hardly ignore that Whitehead was the mathematician who, with Bertrand Russell, attempted to do nothing less than provide a new foundation for mathematics in their Principia Mathematica (explicitly echoing Isaac Newton in the process).

Reading Whitehead's prose can seem, as Patrick put it, as though it's translated “from the original math.” We can see the ‘totalising’ aspect encapsulated very well on the very first page of Process and Reality (1927), where Whitehead describes “Speculative Philosophy” as:
“the endeavour to frame a coherent, logical, necessary system of general ideas in terms of which every element of our experience can be interpreted.” (p.3)
Of course, much hinges on what is understood by “our experience” but we can see the point.

My first reaction to this was that Whitehead’s project may have been totalising in this sense but it was not dogmatic. In other words, we should consider precisely what way it was totalising (partial, preliminary, fleeting – i.e. pragmatic). In Stengers’ words (taken by Latour as an epigraph): “Every synthesis begins ‘anew’ and has to be taken up from the start as if for the first time.” In Whitehead's own words: “The many become one, and are increased by one” (1927, p.21).

However, this all got me to thinking further about what I take from Whitehead, creatively rather than historically per se. My interest is not so much in ‘totalisation’ in the sense of insisting that conceptual schemes should necessarily involve consistent abstractions from “every element of our experience.” I am interested in avoiding arbitrary and premature delineations of intellectual boundaries – something for which Whitehead is evidently excellent.

However, I think the more interesting point concerns the profound obligation imposed by the requirement of logical consistency. The interesting aspect of logic, in this regard, is not so much the promise of cohesion into a permanent, solid, unshakeable whole. Rather, it is the unavoidable recognition of the fact that altering one part of the spider's web ripples through every other element. Change your concept of relation and this affects your understanding of life, knowledge, politics, dreams.

If Whitehead’s milieu compels us to interpret him as searching for the totality of the infinite, I am in a sense interested in the totality of the indefinite – stretching far beyond any given instance or expression, constantly rippling back, surprising and forcing reassessment of what could previously taken as totality. In other words, when we refuse to keep process cosmology out of the process of thought. When we give up trying to think the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

In this sense, you need the logician’s nose to follow the flows. The genius of the tradition of rationalism that Whitehead embodies lies not so much in permanence but in its capacity for dealing with impermanence.

Thinking the thought that would allow us to stop thinking – was this Whitehead's objective? Maybe. But he provides plenty of possibilities for those seeking to kick the habit. Not trying to bring thought to an end but refusing to give up on the means yet developed for dealing with the exigencies of the indefinite.

The Anthropocene, Eurocentrism and Consensus

The Anthropocene is, as they say, a contested concept. This contestation has rumbled loudly along a number of fault-lines – none louder (or perhaps faultier) than the dispute between Clive Hamilton, on the one side, and the likes of Erle Ellis and Mark Maslin, on the other.

For Hamilton, the Anthropocene has to be defined principally in accordance with the principles of Earth System science; specifically, with regard to the shift of system state brought about by industrialised human activity. 'Industrialised' is the key term. The mere fact of human beings affecting their surroundings – something recognised for centuries – is beside the point.

For others, however, this is precisely the point (e.g.). Ellis and Maslin argue that an industrially-defined Anthropocene:
"[…] ignores thousands of years of human impact on Earth. To declare the start of human transformation of Earth in the 1950s fails to take into account the continuous nature of human-induced changes to our planet. Underlying such a claim is the view that only Earth’s most recent human populations possess the capacity to change Earth. Such thinking instils a Western, white-male, elite-technocratic narrative of human engagement with our environment that is counter to contemporary thinking in the social sciences."
While sharing many of these authors' convictions, I must confess that I find this claim to be rather misguided.

First of all, I agree with Hamilton that an 'early' Anthropocene defined in terms of human capacities for soil erosion, fire-based agriculture or continent-scale extinction is basically incoherent. It has to be defined explicitly in relation to a tipping point or shift of magnitude or the whole concept becomes basically arbitrary.

However, this is the least of the problems. The Anthropocene as a term has been widely criticised, not least by social scientists, for its construction on the Greek 'anthropos' – i.e. humanity. Since causality entails responsibility, a great many have pointed out that it is not humanity as such but, rather, that most industrialised, capitalised tranche of humanity that has brought about the new epoch.

Ellis and Maslin attempt to turn this critique on its head by suggesting that a denial of the 'early' Anthropocene entails a denial of the "capacity" of "all but Earth’s most recent human populations" (presumably they mean industrialised societies) "to change Earth" (note the capitalisation and absence of 'the,' conveniently blurring 'surroundings' and 'planet').

So, non-industrialised humans are left out of the Anthropocene club. Is this an exclusion or an exemption? Ellis and Maslin presume the former. It must be humanity as such that defines the Anthropocene – to say otherwise reinforces the narrative of "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic"…

While I would not presume to pronounce what the "contemporary thinking in the social sciences" is, I  suspect more than a few social scientists would take issue with this on any number of levels. It is like saying that nineteenth-century Indians, as human beings, had the capacity to colonise the British – undoubtedly true but also completely beside the point. There is a whole historiography on why the Industrial Revolution didn't happen in China before Britain. It could have done; it didn't.

This rather perverse universalist guilt-trip evaporates the moment one considers the question of magnitude.  Yes, humans have always "shaped the environment" – so have all mammals, animals, life. So what? Not every meteor strike is geologically significant, some are. Same principle.

It seems to me that the 'early' Anthropocene, if it is to make any sense whatsoever, must adhere to the following: The arrival of industrial humans was inevitable. Take pre-industrial humans and industrial humans follow as if it were a logical consequence. This is the only way all these myriad diversities can be lumped into the same boat.

And 'diversity' is the final point. Ellis and Maslin make a plea for the place of social scientists at the natural science table:
"It is time for the Anthropocene Working Group to move beyond its current status as a typical stratigraphic working group, formed of invited volunteers without a formal membership process or by-laws. 
We instead call for a dedicated scientific institution, perhaps called the International Anthropocene Commission, to coordinate this. It could be set up and funded by the International Union of Geological Sciences, Future Earth and the United Nations. Half its members should be drawn from anthropology, archaeology, history, sociology, geography, paleoecology, economics and philosophy."
In broad strokes, this is something that I would be sympathetic with. However, there is a crucial difference between geology in particular and the social sciences and humanities in general. A single community-approved timescale is the backbone of the former, it is more or less irrelevant to the latter. Non-geologists can do their work without this consensus – and they will do, whatever happens.

Ellis and Maslin are right to point out that the institutional inauguration of a "human epoch" is an event with much broader and more profound consequences than the parochially geological. However, their strategy of blurring boundaries helps no one. Geology is not landscape ecology and it is not at all clear why it should be.

Above all, defending a post-1750 or post-1950 Anthropocene in no way, shape or form entails the presumption that non-industrial peoples are somehow 'in harmony with nature' or any of that outdated claptrap.

The "Western, white-male, elite-technocratic" concern is an important one but, in this case, thoroughly misconceived. Certainly, this means that more dialogue is needed between natural, social, political and human sciences. However, this is already happening without the forms of consensus that are the peculiar prerequisite of geology.

Dialogue doesn't mean collapsing differences. On the contrary, it requires heightened sensitivity to them.

Monday 31 October 2016

Bruno Latour on geo-logy in a neo-Humboldtian university

In her book The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America, Laura Dassow Walls writes:
"By asserting that nature is independent of humans in a difference that is profoundly generative, [Alexander] Humboldt is trying to bridge the impasse reached by Kant, who had deepened the Cartesian dualism of mind and nature into an unbridgeable abyss by arguing that the nonhuman or “noumenal” world could never be reached or conceived. We could see only its phenomenal shadow, the mask, what little was open to the human senses. As Margarita Bowen details, Humboldt bridged this Kantian impasse by showing how humans developed their concepts over time, in a historical process by which they “are generated, tested and incorporated into the sphere of ideas.” Through this historical process, ideas forged in the crucible of physical nature made the world of thought part of the process of nature. As Bowen observes, Humboldt sees the very gulf between mind and nature “as the locus of the sciences.”"
In an endnote to this passage, she adds:
"I would argue that in this respect Humboldt’s philosophy anticipates that of the French sociologist of science Bruno Latour. A Latourian analysis of Humboldtian science would be a very productive project."
Walls is surely not the first to find affinity between Humboldt, whose leitmotif was Alles ist Wechselwirkung [everything is interrelated], and Latour, the famous thinker of networks.

In a recent talk at Cornell, Latour himself has reflected on the contemporary relevance of Humboldt with regard to the challenges of Anthropocene affairs, particularly regarding the question of how to organise training and knowledge production in a world where words like "world," "nature" and "earth" have been challenged on the most fundamental level. This connection presumably derives from the suggestion of Cornell's Aaron Sachs, whose book The Humboldt Current: Nineteenth-Century Exploration and the Roots of American Environmentalism establishes Humboldt as something of a 'founding father' of North American environmental thinking.
This is a felicitous happenstance for this blog (as long-term readers will probably have noticed). I'm currently writing what began as a chapter (and is ending up as six chapters) on Humboldt's work. It is not my intention to directly compare his thinking with that of Latour; however, there is an important connection.

My thesis, such as it currently exists (13 months into my PhD), asks a very simple and very complicated question: What is the history of the concept of environment? The basic philosophical idea that runs through the whole project derives from a paper by Latour and Michel Callon from 1992, Don't Throw the Baby Out With the Bath School! – specifically, "the distribution of agencies." In short, I understand the evolution of the concept "environment" (and its various equivalents, cognates and associates) in terms of variations in the distribution of agency between domains (particularly "society" and "nature").

In writing this I am attempting to engage with a whole range of questions and debates. However, one book in particular that stands out is The Shock of the Anthropocene by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz. This is, as I have written previously, not just another Anthropocene book. It is an excellent piece of work and covers much the same sort of territory that I am attempting to examine; however, it has some serious limitations. First of all, I'm not convinced that the critique it makes of the works of Latour and Ulrich Beck stand up. What they call "environmental reflexivity" seems to somewhat misrepresent what these two authors were saying.

However, the important point for my project is that while they do a very good job of demonstrating that capacities for sophisticated modes of thought and action concerning "environment" are nothing new, they do little or nothing to establish what, in statistical language, we can call the incidence or, simply, the relative importance of environmental concepts, practices and concerns within their particular historical epoch. They seem to me to be operating within an epistemological conception of historiography (à la Bachelard through Foucault) that primarily concerns itself with establishing what is "thinkable" and "unthinkable" in any historical period. That is to say, an historiography for which incidence is largely irrelevant.

This is why I am interested in Humboldt – and why my initial single chapter has ballooned to six. I am attempting to set the aspects of his work that can, anachronistically, be termed "environmental" or "ecological" within a fuller account of his life, works and networks. By doing so, I will be able to show the relative importance (or otherwise) of these aspects for Humboldt and, by a more tentative implication, for his historical epoch.

Needless to say, this has been quite a challenge! Not only are Humboldt's own works voluminous in the extreme but the figure of this "great man" has been claimed and re-claimed so many times that the layers of interpretation form strata that are themselves formidable. My agenda is not really to criticise the spectacular plume of recent writings that have reclaimed Humboldt once again for the ecological age we seem to be in. However, I cannot help but be struck by how different my approach and the reading that results is from most if not all of these writings.

Humboldt is, undoubtedly, quite a likeable chap. However, Humboldtography has a definite tendency towards sanitisation, sometimes turning over into outright hagiography. My objection to this is not so much that one should not attempt to reclaim aspects of the past for the present. Rather, it is, I think, that the version of Humboldt that results from this purification is substantially more boring than the "warts and all" version that results from a more thorough and less tendentious reading. Quite often, the specifics of Humboldt's work simply disappear by his being interpreted through more contemporary modes of thought.

This is, I think, what happens in the passage from Walls quoted above. It is deeply misrepresentative in a whole number of ways. Primarily, presenting Humboldt as somehow overcoming Kant (even in intention) is quite implausible. He constructed his magnum opus Cosmos (written in the final years of his life and never finished) on explicitly Kantian lines, strictly dividing the objective and subjective elements into separate works. Yes, he was attempting to reconcile the opposition – but so was everyone else (including Kant). Nothing could have been further from his mind than the project we inherit from Whitehead (circa 1919) of overcoming the bifurcation of nature.

Once again, I have no problem with creative readings of past thinkers. However, there is a risk in this: making the past an extension of the present and thereby erasing the possibility of encountering historical difference.

And so, I think there is much to recommend revisiting the Humboldtian project (evidently!). Latour is careful to distinguish Alexander from his brother Wilhelm, who was a statesman, linguist and political theorist. However, I would argue that this separation should not be undertaken too hastily. It was Wilhelm who founded the University of Berlin (later Humboldt University) and was principally involved with educational reform (Alexander worked, before his South American journey from 1799 to 1804, reforming mining and industrial practices). True, Wilhelm was known as the "humanist" in a disciplinary sense – they were both humanists in the philosophical sense. However, Alexander explicitly joins the two projects in Cosmos, extensively quoting his brother's works (and, after Wilhelm's death, editing and publishing his most important works).

I would also, on the basis of the above, have to question Latour's statement that:
"What I propose to do, then, is to introduce a division between nature and the natural sciences, on the one hand, and phusis and the earthly sciences on the other. A fully geo-centric move, if you wish, provided that you take geo not as a globe but as a critical zone. It is not as speculative as one might think, since there are lots of good technical reasons to utilize such a partition. Witness Timothy Lenton’s version of the same divide in his book: “For many Earth system scientists, the planet Earth is really comprised of two systems -the surface Earth system that supports life, and the great bulk of the inner Earth underneath. It is the thin layer of a system at the surface of the Earth -and its remarkable properties- that is the subject of my work” 
This is something that Humboldt would have understood easily."
Humboldt was nothing if not an open-minded empiricist and, so, would undoubtedly have been delighted to encounter the geo-logy of today. He did as much as anyone in his era, both intellectually and infrastructurally, to enable the contemporary earth sciences. However, it is, I think, important to remember that his "climate" was nothing like ours – nor was his "earth." Moreover, his geopolitics (to use another anachronistic term) was a very, very long way from what is needed today. If there was ever a more enthusiastic advocate of modernisation than Alexander von Humboldt, I have never encountered them.

In short, if we are to learn from the likes of Humboldt we must not get hung up on those aspects that echo with reassuring familiarity. We must, instead, be attentive to the differences – encounter that historical difference. Doubtless, we share some of Humboldt's problems but we should not, as his hagiographers all too often do, suppose that we have much "common ground" with him or his epoch.

Friday 14 October 2016

Exploring the international through film

As part of my teaching this term, I am screening and introducing five films (or collections of films) from around the world that deal with various aspects of international politics. Below are my synopses. Looking forward to it!

1. Apocalypse Now (1979)
Regularly listed as one of the greatest films ever made, Francis Ford Coppola's masterpiece has won plaudits and provoked controversy ever since its release. Set during the Vietnam War in 1969, the film follows Benjamin L. Willard, a Captain instructed to travel up the Nung river and assassinate Walter E. Kurtz, a Special Forces Colonel gone rogue, establishing himself as a demigod somewhere inside neutral Cambodia. Simultaneously realistic and surreal, Coppola once claimed that: "My movie is not a movie. My movie is not about Vietnam. My movie is Vietnam." Having as much to do with the drugs, the lies and the madness of the era as with the war itself, Apocalypse Now will make us ask: Does this film really criticise war or, rather, subtly glorify it? Does it undercut racism or just reproduce existing prejudices? And can we, in the end, separate the cinematic spectacle, the 'entertainment value,' from the politics it plays out?

2. Our Friend the Atom (1957)/The War Game (1965)
Appearing just eight years apart, these two short films show two very different sides of Western nuclear politics in the mid-twentieth century. Our Friend the Atom was produced by Disney to educate the public about nuclear science and extol the virtues of this 'magical' technology for everything from energy and transportation to health. In stark contrast to such bubbly optimism, The War Game depicts the events and aftermath of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain. It was produced for the BBC but deemed "too horrifying" to broadcast. With recent debates around the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system and, in light of global warming, the vices and virtues of nuclear power, these films offer a window onto past attitudes to nuclear politics that will help inform our thinking in the present. These films will make us ask: How are apparently 'elite' issues of strategy and planning connected to public perceptions of legitimacy, security and science? What do these differing understandings of nuclear technology tell us about our collective attitudes towards the future? And is it even possible to have a 'rational' debate around these issues, given how massively emotive they have been for such a long time?

3. Mustang (2015)
Set in a parochial, provincial Turkish village ("1000 miles from Istanbul"), this Franco-Turkish production tells the story of five teenage sisters, rebellious and orphaned, living with their kind but conservative grandmother and brutal, controlling uncle. After one act of youthful disobedience too many, it is decided that the girls are to be married – forcibly, if needs be. As a result, their home is gradually turned into a prisonlike "wife factory" – complete with bars on the windows. However, while the film does not shy away from the horrors possible in a patriarchal society, it is not a film about suffering but, rather, about resistance, love and the exuberance of youth. With a relevance that transcends its particular cultural circumstances, Mustang will make us ask: What are the sorts of violence that young women are particularly vulnerable to and how are these vulnerabilities perpetuated? What sorts of agency do women, of all ages, have to resist these unequal and unjust relationships? And what message might this film have for those of us living, seemingly, much further away than "1000 miles from Istanbul"?

4. World War II short films (1935-1945)
World War II was perhaps the heyday of propaganda films. Huge numbers were produced on all sides, across a wide variety of genres. This session will play a selection of British, American, French, German, Japanese and Soviet short films and cartoons, as well as excerpts from feature films such as the infamous Nazi epic Triumph of the Will (1935). Placing all these audiovisual artefacts side-by-side will demonstrate the differences but also the similarities between the competing schemes of national representation and vilification that were tearing the world apart at this time. While in many ways 'of their era,' we will find in these films certain tropes and techniques that remain in continual use, right up to today. These films will make us ask: How were perceptions of the War produced through film and how did they differ between different nations? What do these differences tell us about our own hyperactive media environments? And what, in the end, is a 'propaganda' film, anyway?

5. Embrace of the Serpent (2016)
Like Coppola's Apocalypse Now, this film also features a journey down a tropical river – a journey taken under desperate circumstances. Théo, a German explorer, seeks the help of an Amazonian shaman, the only man for many miles who can cure his fatal illness. However, this is not another story of a white European disappearing into the frightful foliage of the wild and 'primitive.' Instead, the story is told from the perspective of Karamakate, the shaman. Set against the background of the 'rubber wars' perpetrated by Euro-American invaders seeking to exploit Amazonian rubber trees, Embrace of the Serpent is simultaneously a scathing indictment of colonialism and, in the words of its director, "an attempt to build a bridge between Western and Amazonian storytelling." This film will make us ask: What place is there in our political attention-spans for forms of violence and exploitation apparently at the 'fringes' of civilisation? Are we even able to recognise all the forms of violence that such projects of domination enact? And how, given all of that, can we 'build bridges' between different ways of living and surviving in the world?

Tuesday 6 September 2016

PhD diary #10: 05/09/2016

I've fallen rather behind on these "monthly" updates over the past few months. Consequently, I will try to write a few posts in the next few weeks to catch up (before I come to the end of the first year of my PhD).

There are several reasons for this un-prolific spell. Principally, the writing of my first chapter has turned out to be a rather more mountainous endeavour than I had anticipated.

As last I wrote, I was in the process of collating and condensing my notes, annotations, plans and ideas in anticipation of putting pen to paper (so to speak). What I had underestimated – in a good way, really – is just how much material I had amassed over recent months. The sheer scale of information is difficult to either organise or cognise. However, going back over everything also revealed to me, or reminded me of, various things that I should have also read and digested! The weaving strands continue to extend and spiral ever outwards.

With all that, it also became quite apparent that the < 20,000 word aim for this chapter was hopelessly lowballing it. I really have no idea, at this point, how long it will end up being. Fortunately, however, this shouldn't be a major issue for the thesis. I have my starting point, I know how the narrative develops, I may simply not get as far as I had originally intended (before either running out of time or, more likely, hitting the word limit).

The basic purpose of the thesis remains more or less the same as it has been in the past: to narrate the genesis of "environment" (and its cognates) as an aesthetic, scientific, philosophical and political concept (or, rather, set of concepts), starting in the late 18th century. This, I hasten to add, is in no way the earliest point at which such a narrative could begin. On the contrary, it is rather the latest point, I think, at which this narrative, as I wish to write it, can begin.

And so, the original plan to bring things right up to the present may be unrealistic (at least for the thesis, hopefully not in the long-term). However, I am really pleased with how it is all coming together. The plot is unsummarisable but the threads do, in the end, mesh together.

Thursday 14 July 2016

PhD diary #9: 14/07/2016

I've struggled to find something to write about this month. So, I suppose that I will just say a little bit about what I'm working on at the moment and how I'm going about organising my work (possibly a bit boring but may be of some use to someone!).

My current thesis plan consists of six chapters and my schedule, deriving therefrom, is divided into three-month blocks. In each block I am dividing my time roughly equally between reading and thinking about the thesis as a whole and working, in a more concentrated fashion, on one chapter in particular. At the end of each quarter, I should have a first draft of that chapter and, over subsequent three-month periods, I will return to already written chapters as I develop a better grasp on how the thesis holds together as a whole.

I'm just coming to the end of the first of these periods (May to July). Consequently, I'm about to start writing my first chapter (besides the introduction). This chapter, as I've written about here recently, uses the life and works of Alexander Humboldt (1769-1859) as a focal point for understanding the development of geological and, to speak anachronistically, ecological sciences in the early 19th century while, at the same time, serving as a point of contrast with the much longer history of climatic and geographical knowledges (e.g. the importance of air, water and location in Hippocratic medicine) as these were being reproduced or replaced around this time.

I will end up talking about Humboldt's "cosmic geopolitics" – the cosmopolitan vision of development, progress and both natural and anthropological unity that his synthesis of enlightenment and romantic values achieved, particularly in his great work Cosmos. This will then give me a way into the second chapter, which will pick up on the consequences of Darwin's Origin of Species (published a few months after Humboldt's death), Herbert Spencer's sociological and psychological appropriation and popularisation of "environment" as a term of art and, finally, the development of what is understood in the context of the history of geography as "geopolitical" thinking towards the end of the century.

I have a pretty good idea of how these things fit together in broad strokes. However, arranging the details and then getting the words flowing is much trickier! I probably won't meet my self-imposed deadline of the end of the month for this first draft. Nevertheless, it should materialise in some form over the next few weeks.

Sunday 26 June 2016

Caught between a clusterfuck and an omnishambles

I did not think that a Leave vote would have particularly pretty results but I must admit that I did not expect quite this degree of party political meltdown, legal and administrative cluelessness or, most worryingly, bald, blatant far right triumphalism. No one seems to know quite what the hell is going on or what is going to happen next (not even tomorrow morning, never mind in the coming weeks). However, it is becoming very clear to me just how deep running and comprehensive this political failure is. It could have been otherwise – we are only talking about a few percentage points and polls that until mere weeks ago made this result seem unlikely; however, this is a tipping point that has been trembling for some time and there is a lot of blame to go around.

I do not think that I have any particularly revelatory insights to offer but in the spirit of blogging (and self-therapy), this has been on my mind.

New Labour's total and complete abandonment of working class concerns in the mid-90s has everything to do with this ugly, ugly situation that we're now in (in the UK at least). That smug, elitist, metropolitan condescension and contempt – as Peter Mandelson infamously put it, "they have nowhere else to go" – is perfectly real and very much alive in the academy, too (that prodigious production line of easy, familiar platitudes to which we can all nod with a furious, righteous solemnity). Which is not to say that many millions of people have not been systematically deceived, manipulated, conned – they have – but their consciousness is not "false" and their grievances not altogether imaginary.

That sense of abandonment and victimisation, whether or not it is justified in precisely the way it has become manifested, has been made to resonate violently with the racist and xenophobic resentments that have always lurked and festered there, out of the sight of polite society (add in some Machiavellian Tory opportunists and voilà). That complicity between the merely frustrated and the truly hateful cannot be ignored – a vote for crypto-fascism is a vote for crypto-fascism – but every time we tar everyone with the same brush we are part of the problem.

Thursday 23 June 2016

Vote Remain

At the time of writing, a climax of indecision. The polls are a dead heat; one of the most vile and hate-fuelled political campaigns in recent memory scutters to its overdue conclusion.

The driving force behind the Leave movement has been a coalition of racists, xenophobes, nationalists and, it must be said, a huge swathe of the population that would love nothing more than to stick one in the eye of "the establishment," while at the same time projecting their frustrations and insecurities onto traditional enemies (France, Germany, Brussels bureaucrats…) against whom there is a wealth of folklorish enmity.

However, these frictions have run along fault-lines that in no way approximate the usual political alliances. Some have seen a chance to be rid of the Germany-dominated Euro-neoliberal project that has, in the last few years, been so gruesomely unveiled in all its snarlingly grey-suited, Greece-crushing ignominy.

These opportunisms leave me unpersuaded. Left arguments for Leave might hold water did they not require me to abandon more or less everything I know about the English electorate (and the Westminster political system). It's sometimes easy to forget just how conservative a country this is – and then you visit the south-east. Remain is making the best of a bad situation, in the present moment (i.e. for now); Leave would be making the worst.

My thought all along has been that I love the idea of a European Union, it's just a shame that it had to be this one. I won't exactly be jumping for joy either way but a defeat for this suffocating xenophobia and faux lager-swilling insularity would be something to celebrate. There is plainly good cause for Left Euro-scepticism but, today, it would be someone else's victory.

Monday 6 June 2016

PhD diary #8: 06/06/2016

Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos – a book more often cited than read (aren't they all?). Over the past couple of weeks I've managed to plough through all 1100 pages of the three volumes (to be precise, the English translation, of which the first two volumes were published in 1848 and the third, posthumously and incomplete, in 1859).

The scientist (and 25th Prime Minister of France) François Arago once remarked,
"Humboldt, you really don't know how to write a book. You write endlessly, but what comes out of it is not a book, but a portrait without a frame."
He was not wrong. To read Humboldt's work is to face down a deluge of information, poured out as if uncontrollably. The several hundred pages of the first volume roll on and on without so much as a section break.

Astronomical illustration from the atlas accompanying the German version of Kosmos

Nevertheless, while Humboldt's science was already somewhat eccentric by 1850 and although his politics were, at best, naive, his is an impressive bundle of intellectual energy to spend some time with.

Next up is his Essay on the Geography of Plants from 1807. This was the first major publication following his famous voyage from 1899 to 1804 (and, as such, although it was written by Humboldt, it is co-credited to his travelling partner, the botanist Aimé Bonpland).

It's interesting to look at this early text after Cosmos, which was the magnum opus supposed to cap off his career. There are substantial continuities between the two; indeed, much of the grand, synthetic vision of a universal cosmography was apparent to Humboldt by the early 1790s. Nevertheless, some of the (from a contemporary point of view) stranger geological ideas are more pronounced in the earlier work.

Humboldt went to his grave just a few months before Darwin's The Origin of Species was published and he never quite accepted (due to, in his view, insufficient evidence) the extent of earthly deep time necessary to make sense of the thesis of natural selection. His was an old earth but not to the extent that ours is, post-Darwin. On the question of whether the Earth had a history (in the sense of experiencing many eras of gradual or sudden transformation or remaining more or less in its current processual state from the beginning), in 1807 at least, the burden of proof was very much on the historicists. Likewise, his journey dissuaded him from the Neptunism of his former teacher Abraham Gottlob Werner but he was tentative in abandoning its hypotheses.

I have the next four weeks or so to continue delving into Humboldt's works (and still other works on them). There is no hope whatsoever for any kind of completism; however, that should not be necessary. I am essentially interested in Humboldt as a figure who, in a sense, typifies the naturalism of one era while, at the same time, setting up another. The kind of "cosmic geopolitics" that emerge in his final major work is, I think, a very interesting way into the history of ideas and transformations that my thesis chapters 2 to 6 will explore.

Sunday 1 May 2016

PhD diary #7: 01/05/2016 – On stupidity

Among the questions commonly asked of PhD candidates concerning their research, there are two that I think are closely related: the "so what?" question and the "what are your normative commitments?" question. The first asks for some justification, by unspecified criteria, as to the project's general worth and validity. The second might be attempting to elicit some sort of political or tribal affiliation – as is an academic's wont; or, it might be asking largely the same thing as the first question but slightly more specifically: what are the political or moral commitments that make this a worthy, valid project to be undertaking?

With a project as broad, abstract, philosophical and, therefore, as "academic" as the one that I am working on, these questions can be tricky – not least because these are the sorts of questions that keep PhD students up at night, quite apart from any summary, collegial interrogation! Particularly, working in the field of International Relations, there is often an implicit sense that the intellectual validity of your work is directly proportional to the directness with which it is concerned with grotesque amounts of horrendous violence and death – actual or possible.

Of course, I have many normative and political commitments, some of which might even be relevant to this specific instance. Likewise, there are many ways in which I think that I could respond to the "so what?" question with regard to this or that nugget of academic debate. However, the stronger answer that I am inclined to give, even if this might be seen to indulge in a certain intellectualism, is to say: what I am against, what I am resisting, what I am seeking to undo, displace or contradict is, most fundamentally, stupidity.

Now, of course, that is the kind of word that requires immediate qualification.

In Isabelle Stengers' recent (or, rather, recently translated) book In Catastrophic Times (2015, Andrew Goffey trans. [Au temps des catastrophes, 2009]), she describes stupidity [bêtise] as follows:
"Stupidity does not here refer to stupor, to paralysis, or to impotence. Stupidity is active, it feeds on its effects, on the manner in which it dismembers a concrete situation, in which it destroys the capacity for thinking and imagining of those who envisaged ways of doing things differently, leaving them stunned, a stupid and nasty argument may well leave you stunned with the mute perplexity of a “he may be right but all the same,” or enraged, which confirms it in turn: you see, with these kinds of people, there’s always violence."
The concept has a particular meaning in the context of her overall argument, which particularly concerns how to deal with (or not) the "guardians" that take it upon themselves to govern us. My meaning is slightly different, although perhaps adjacent.

For my purposes, stupidity is not so much inadequacy of understanding or inability to respond intelligently to a problem as an inability to recognise such inadequacy as inadequacy and, therefore, a wilful, active inability to recognise this thing as a "problem" at all.

It is in this sense a second order inability. The proper response to stupidity is neither problematisation as an end in itself nor an attempt to fix or solve the problem once and for all. Rather, it is to attempt to respond better, by some metric relevant to the immediate situation. General metrics can only lead to further and deeper stupidity.

A failure to think where thinking is necessary. (Of course, everything rests on this "necessary.")

In whichever way you cut it, there is a great deal of stupidity with regard to how we think (or do not think) about issues of environment and geopolitics, today. Both the purposes and the commitments of the project therefore derive from a determination to, in however minor a fashion, ease the pressures imposed by the stupidity of the moment.

Monday 25 April 2016

Social Science Talks Science Fiction: Embassytown by China Miéville

If you've visited this blog before, then you've read my ramblings – now you can hear them, too.

Some friends at the International Politics department, here in Aberystwyth, run a podcast called Social Science Talks Science Fiction. This week, I was recruited to co-comment on China Miéville's Embassytown.

I don't think I said anything excessively stupid. However, after blogging for all this time it is an interesting experience to throw your thoughts out there without the safety net of re-editing them afterwards!

Tuesday 19 April 2016

Latour, sovereignty and the ‘generalised international’

Bruno Latour's keynote from the Millennium conference in London last October has now been published: Onus Orbis Terrarum: About a Possible Shift in the Definition of Sovereignty. Alongside it is an interview conversation between Latour, Mark Salter, William Walters and Iver Neumann: Bruno Latour Encounters International Relations: An Interview.

In the latter, one of the interviewers mentions a point I made (to be cited: still very much a novelty for me!) in my article on Latour's geopolitics, published last year. Specifically, I suggested that his work had shifted in the last 10 or 15 years from a conceptual vocabulary mostly concerned with parliaments and procedures to one perhaps better characterised by the term, borrowed from Jenny Edkins and Maja Zehfuss, the 'generalised international.'

This connection is something that I really just threw in to the article without much explanation. The point that Edkins and Zehfuss were making in their article was that 'the international' is generally understood, in International Relations (as an academic discipline) at least, as a realm of contingency, uncertainty, negotiation and open-endedness. In other words, of anarchy (see also Alex Prichard on this point). This realm is then generally pathologised relative to the 'domestic' arena of order, law, certainty and control. Their appeal, therefore, in 'generalising the international' is to embrace this more anarchic political sensibility not as the illegitimate other of the domestic but as a general condition of a politics 'open to the future.'

The connection to Latour's work is, I think, not completely straightforward or equivalent. However, from at least his War of the Worlds: What about Peace?, published in 2002, Latour has not only tended towards a predominantly 'geopolitical' conceptual vocabulary rather than a 'parliamentary' one, but he has increasingly emphasised the importance of Carl Schmitt's distinction between war and police operations as distinguishing fundamentally different political conditions.

The major difference that I papered over in my passing allusion is that, for Latour, the 'anarchic' political situation is not necessarily the preferable one. A state of war may be 'open to the future' in a way that a police operation is not – recognising this state is the precondition of negotiating a peace that is more than nominal. However, it is more a matter of recognising the state that we are in than it is opting for a political imaginary that is morally preferable in any general sense. And so, I suppose, in the end, we meet with different meanings of 'generalisation.'

Sunday 10 April 2016

International Politics in/and/or the Anthropocene; Thoughts on individuals and historiography

It's Sunday, the Easter holiday is all but over. To be honest, I spent almost the whole time writing – so, not much of a holiday. However, I was able to spend the last few days in Tübingen at the 3rd European Workshops in International Studies (EWIS). More specifically, at the workshop on "International Politics in the Anthropocene."

It was a fantastic event in a beautiful town. This particular workshop was convened by Delf Rothe, who did a wonderful job, as usual.

I presented the first draft of the introductory chapter of my thesis. Essentially, an attempt to articulate what the overall project will look like in terms of structure and content but particularly in terms of conceptual setup. My very generous discussant, Audra Mitchell, gave me a wide range of useful and thought-provoking feedback, as did everyone else.

One question that was particularly playing on my mind on the journey back to Aberystwyth was one concerning historiography. In my chapter, I mentioned that I am thinking of using the idea of a "witness" as a kind of historiographical organising principle. In other words, each chapter would focus to some degree on a specific thinker (for example, Alexander Humboldt, Herbert Spencer, Ellen Semple, et cetera).

It was mentioned that this might risk reproducing a kind of "great man" take on history. Instead, might it not be better to focus on discourses and make individuals secondary?

By taking certain biographical trajectories as privileged focal points, I do not wish to suggest in any way that these individuals are uniquely important or that the historical questions I am asking can be adequately addressed by looking at them alone. My reasoning is rather different.

First of all, and rather pragmatically, I am intending to cover a very large amount of historical ground in not very many words. This approach may help narrow the scope somewhat. Secondly, I am trying to get away from a version of historiography based upon the notion of discourse, which is a very useful concept but has problems accounting for or differentially attributing agency – which is precisely the problem at the core of my thesis.

What if, instead of starting from a "discourse," the existence of which is historically given but geographically vague, one instead starts from actions and events and takes specific trajectories, biographical or otherwise, as opportunities for comparison between and reflection on the entanglements of influences, imitations and infections relevant to a particular question or set of questions?

In other words, I am not really interested in these individuals as such. I am interested in the worlds around them (in their contexts; indeed, their environments). The worlds they are passing through, affecting, being affected by – or not. If aspects of the worlds around them are indifferent to or unperturbed by their actions, then that is just as important as those respects in which these people were influential. And this is something that "discourse" can never capture: indifference, disconnection, parallelism. It assumes connectivity as a given due to temporal coexistence and structural resemblance. Its mode of inference is completely different to that which I am attempting to employ.

However, there is one more thing to be said: were I to adopt the "discourse" conception, it would no longer be possible to subvert the "great man" view of history. To subvert something you have to get close to it. You can deny, denounce, obviate from a distance but you cannot subvert. Subversion requires an initial act of imitation or identification. It is only once that artificial proximity is in place that subversion even makes sense as a concept. It requires that risk. Because the concept of discourse operates at a distance from individual biographical trajectories, proceeding on the basis of a priori assumptions about historically specific but geographically indefinite social relations, it cannot perform this task.

It is precisely the "great man" conception of history that is to be resisted; it is just this kind of distribution of agency that the entire project must actively work against, running right to the roots of its basic performative principles. However, the distribution of agencies operative (methodologically or otherwise) in the concept of discourse is also to be regarded sceptically.

It is an awkward idea to describe – perhaps I do not yet fully understand it myself. I think that it is the kind of idea that can only really be meaningfully unfolded in action, in the actual writing process itself. In any case, it is not a guiding principle but must be continually adapted to the set of questions relevant to each historical period that I am examining.

Many more thoughts are buzzing around my brain but these are those that I felt compelled to immediately externalise!

Thursday 31 March 2016

PhD diary #6: 31/03/2016

Six months through. Depending on how you look at it, that's 1/8 of the time until the thesis has to be submitted, 1/6 of the time until my funding runs out, 1/5 of the time until I plan to submit, and 1/4 of the time until I plan to have a first draft written. "Plan," then, being the operative word. (Saying it out loud makes it more real.)

In the past month, I've mostly been thinking about the sixth and final chapter – that is, where I need to end up, both narratively and in terms of work schedule. The rise of Earth system science, complexity and resilience over the past fifty years or so and the modes of geopolitics and geogovernance that have co-developed over this period. Right now, I feel that I am in the middle of two grand narratives, both of which I find be increasingly incomplete and unsatisfactory.

First, the coming to fruition of something like reflexive modernity or the risk society. This grand narrative has been strongly challenged from an historical point of view, as I've discussed recently. Second, the narrative produced by (mostly) Foucauldian critiques of resilience and complexity ontology. To put it rather simplistically: this ontology, we are led to believe, bears some essential relation (and therefore complicity) with neoliberalism (because networks).

Where both these narratives fall down is in their historical simplicity. However, there is a point that derives from both, albeit not quite in the same spirit that I am taking it, which I think is valuable. There has been a presumption for some time that overcoming the "bifurcation of nature" is the foremost conceptual challenge of the present. I accept that to a large degree. However, this is only one challenge among others.

Critics of the first narrative point out that various sorts of "environmental reflexivity" have existed in the past and have been suppressed. Promoters of the second narrative point out that non-dualistic ontological presumptions (or at least those that style themselves as such) are evident throughout all sorts of deeply questionable contemporary geogovernmental practices. These promoters, in turn, tend to ignore the monistic ontologies that have been powerful and prominent in the past.

And so, there is clearly an important dialogue to be had here. One that is interested in the relevant novelty of the present but is not obsessed by it. One that is interested in the relevant conceptual questions but can see beyond them. It is a difficult net of nettles to grasp but I think that I am on the right track, so far.

Monday 21 March 2016

Environmental reflexivity, different kinds of precedent

With regard to my last post, Hywel Arnold on Twitter raises an important question: how does the project of Bonneuil and Fressoz – specifically, to look for precedents to what they call "environmental reflexivity" prior to the past 50 years, for example in the works of the Georges-Louis Leclerc (Comte de Buffon) – differ to that of the likes of Nigel Lawson, a climate cynic (undeserving of label "sceptic"), who also identify Buffon and others as precursors to current understandings of climate change?

It must be made very clear that Bonneuil and Fressoz are in no way, shape or form establishing this genealogy in order to suggest that there is nothing new in the current situation – "move along, nothing to see here." Rather, they very much emphasise the ways in which environmental reflexivity has been played down, demeaned, discouraged and erased from public discourse over the past two centuries. Lawson, for his part, is merely one of the latest in a long line of liberal/neoliberal economists who abstract economic relations from the world they supposedly organise to such a degree that all pretensions to "market correction" make very little sense. In other words, Lawson et al are precisely the people who have been scrubbing out this capacity of people to pay attention. This argument is directed against them.

It is perfectly possible for two people to look at the same set of facts and to derive opposite conclusions – this is what the climate cynics do, with intellectual history no less than with climate data. The correct response is not to say the opposite and therefore allow them to dictate the terms of their own criticism. I think we must be quite vulgar historical realists on this point.

One limitation of Bonneuil and Fressoz's argument, as I think I at least suggested in my brief review, is the question of scale – is not the sheer magnitude of present transformations, and our scientifically-mediated awareness thereof, all out of keeping with these prior examples? Perhaps, I think that this is an open question at this point (at least with regard to where this book ends up).

The point that I find valuable, for my own work but also generally, is that we must be more historically nuanced with regard to our understandings of these world historical transformations.

Sunday 20 March 2016

Not just another Anthropocene book: "The Shock of the Anthropocene" by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz

I must admit that I feared the worst. For a while now, perhaps since the RGS-IBG conference last September, I have been experiencing something like Anthropocene overload. So many opportunistic declarations of it being the new, big, scary/wonderful thing; so many furious denunciations of the very idea (some convincing, many not); and so few substantial intellectual contributions to the debate, one way or the other.

From various sources, I had heard that a new book by a pair of French historians titled The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us was worth reading. Published in French in 2013 (as L'événement anthropocène: La Terre, l'histoire et nous), the English translation has been with us for a few months now. Finally, last week I got my hands on a copy and got to reading.

Initial impressions aggravated my underlying Anthropocene fatigue. Chapter 1: "Welcome to the Anthropocene" – if I see another op-ed or book chapter that opens with this line, I think I will get a headache. On the upside, my list of "-cene" neologisms has been extended by six. Here's the list from before, assembled from various sources over the past year or two:


And now I get to add, from this book:


However, my fears and prejudices were wholly misplaced. Bonneuil and Fressoz have written a meticulous, timely and much-needed work. Neither seeking to dismiss nor diminish the Anthropocene as an event, nor propounding it with the giddy overexcitement of so many popularisers, nor contenting themselves with pointing out the obvious criticism: that it is in no way "anthropos" in the sense of the human species as a whole that has brought about this event (although they do make this point, and well).

It is a rich and complex text, one that I will not attempt to summarise in any great detail (read it!). The book consists of 11 chapters, divided into three parts. The first outlines the Anthropocene concept and debates around it; the second criticises the concept with regard to the grand narrative it has tended to promote; the third, and most significant, part of the book weaves together a quite encyclopedic synthesis of historical knowledge (some of it based on original readings of primary texts, much of it tying together the vast but somewhat scattered relevant literatures), encompassing intellectual, conceptual, environmental, economic, political, geopolitical, sociological, ecological (and more) histories.

The most original argument it makes, I think, concerns its refutation of various theories and grand narratives that have been popular since the 1990s (and have become heavily associated with the Anthropocene concept). Specifically, ideas like Ulrich Beck's reflexive modernisation, Peter Sloterdijk's explicitation and Bruno Latour's modernist constitution. All, the authors argue, share the presumption that in recent decades we have witnessed the raising to awareness of the consequences of technological, scientific, industrial and economic productivity in a way that is somehow unprecedented.

Against this, Bonneuil and Fressoz argue most forcefully that:
"The problem with all these grand narratives of awakening, revelation or arousal of consciousness is that they are historically wrong. The period between 1770 and 1830 was marked on the contrary by a very acute awareness of the interactions between nature and society." (76)
They continue:
"[…] it is clear that the moderns possess their own forms of environmental reflexivity. The conclusion that forces itself on us, disturbing as it may be, is that our ancestors destroyed environments in full awareness of what they were doing." (196)
In all kinds of ways, the intensive worldly awareness said to be characteristic of the Anthropocenic future is shown to have precedents in the early days of the Industrial Revolution (and after). The sensitivities were never absent, they were repressed, forgotten, scrubbed out – hence "Agnotocene." And so the post-1990s cry of "but we did not know!" rings hollow. Ignorance, no less than knowledge, is also something produced; it also has a history.

This is an agenda-setting work, however it is also a modest one. The authors admit that their analysis, thorough though it is, is only preliminary. It closely parallels (though thankfully does not overlay!) much of what I am working on for my PhD thesis. There are some points on which I find myself in disagreement. By emphasising, with evident justification, continuities that had been repressed or forgotten, they merge and run together some important distinctions that still need to be identified and understood. (This is more or less the criticism made of their work by Jacques Grinevald and Clive Hamilton in their important article from last year.) Moreover, there are some points of detail that, on the basis of my limited learning, seem to be questionable. (This will need more work on my part.)

A more nuanced version of the explicitation/reflexivity thesis could still be made, pointing out that it was never a question of a binary shift from unawareness to awareness but rather a gradual trend from one to the other. Therefore, pointing out precedents does not, in and of itself, disprove the thesis. One would also have to demonstrate a comparable degree of incidence – i.e. just because examples can be found does not mean that they had anything like the same degree of influence or importance as they do now.

Bonneuil and Fressoz have certainly assembled, via well-established historical literatures (see, for example, the works of Richard Grove or Clarence Glacken) but also under their own steam, a compelling archive of examples to bolster their claims. Nevertheless, I am inclined to wonder to what degree the ideas and practices identified can be said to have suffused the societies in question. My own work will look at political and geopolitical thought during this time period and, from my research so far, the explicitation/reflexivity thesis might still have some life in it from this point of view. Another interesting angle, one that I am slowly investigating through my own work, is to think about science fiction (and perhaps other genres of speculative fiction) as potential benchmarks or tests of incidence and influence. As Kim Stanley Robinson put it, commenting on his trilogy of novels on climate change (published between 2004 and 2007):
"If you want to write a novel about our world now, you’d better write science fiction, or you will be doing some kind of inadvertent nostalgia piece; you will lack depth, miss the point, and remain confused."
Is this something that could only be said in the 21st-century? My feeling is that it would be far too simplistic to answer this question with either a yes or no answer.

The point of a book such as this is clearly not to achieve finality or answer every question. However, if you are going to read just one book on the Anthropocene (besides the one by my supervisor, obviously), The Shock of the Anthropocene is very much worth your consideration. The synthesis they assemble, the sources they bring to light, the heuristics they offer, and the provocations they make – all render this, in my perhaps not disinterested view, an important book indeed.

Saturday 5 March 2016

On the difference between philosopher and critic

Two ways to read a text: as a philosopher, as a critic; a lover of wisdom, a lover of error. Of course, these two tasks cannot be perfectly distinguished. One picks up a book, reads, finds no wisdom – it is difficult to avoid the judgement "what a load of rubbish." (And what coldhearted critic is so immune to this other love affair?) In a sense, the philosopher is the more self-centred of the two. The critic can be styled as some defender of the Realm, purging the nefarious and unworthy. The philosopher must always make of themselves a laboratory instrument, testing out the tremors of new thought-combinations. To think with, to pass judgement on; forgiving of sins, a magnet to them. Neither deserving of condemnation in the abstract. But, oh, would that we could discern them more ably in the concrete…

Monday 29 February 2016

PhD diary #5: 29/02/2016

Coming into this PhD project five months ago, I had a clear (albeit speculative and provisional) plan for what I wanted to do. I had it worked out down to a chapter structure:

1. Earth and Cosmos
2. Geopolitics and Environment
3. Spherology and Fortification
4. Diplomacy and Territory
5. Possibilism and Possession
6. Geohistory and Geodesy

The basic idea was to have each chapter concentrate on a particular group of concepts and then the flow of the thesis as a whole would work these things through historically, reaching a synthesis by the conclusion.

It is perhaps most telling that I found it easier to work out this structure than to write a title. The interconnections between these concepts and their historical trajectories remains what interests me. However, I have had to – and this was entirely expected from the beginning – set aside or background one or two ideas and rejig the rest, while at the same time identifying a particular and singular common thread and purpose running through the whole apparatus. (I finally managed this, I think, about six weeks ago.)

Abandoning, then, the idea that I would structure the chapters around concepts, I have instead decided to configure them in an historical sequence such that each chapter approximately follows from the previous, while each also has a focal point that develops the ideas crucial to the overall argument. It looks something like this:

Introduction: Traces (1610/1964)
Chapter 1: Cosmos (1798-1859)
Chapter 2: Life (1855-1911)
Chapter 3: Travel (1874-1942)
Chapter 4: War (1915-1956)
Chapter 5: Revolution (1956-1984)
Chapter 6: Earth (1957-2018)
Conclusion: Epochs (12,700 BP)

The title: An Historical Ontology of Environmental Geopolitics. It is, then, a history of the relationship between conceptions of environment and of geopolitics, not only tracing these words and ideas in their genealogical specificity but, at the same time, situating them in relation to various sorts of crucial world events – geopolitical, geological, scientific, technological, and so on. The key concept tying this together is that of ontology as the distribution of agencies.

By understanding these intellectual historical changes, on an abstract level, in terms of variable distributions of agency unfolding over time, I think that it will be possible to better understand certain political and philosophical questions (raised by issues such as the concept of the Anthropocene) without either underestimating their novelty or obsessing over it. In other words, it is a matter of better understanding the past in order to better think the present – this present, I would suggest, being rather maltreated in this respect of late.

Saturday 13 February 2016

Special issue of Global Discourse on "Politics and the Later Latour" published in full

The special issue of Global Discourse on "Politics and the Later Latour" has finally been published in full, including the editorial introduction. My own article "Back down to Earth: reassembling Latour’s Anthropocenic geopolitics" seems to have been made open access – whether permanently or temporarily, I'm not sure. In any case, good to see this collection finally out there!

Friday 29 January 2016

PhD diary #4: 29/01/2016

"An Historical Ontology of Environmental Geopolitics." This is the title that I seem to have settled on. By "ontology" I mean "distribution of agencies." So, in contrast to Michel Foucault or Ian Hacking, who have employed the same phrase in the sense of "an historical ontology of ourselves," I mean to understand this not so much in the sense of subject-making as in that of world-making, in a thoroughly "material" way (this term will also require some explication).

In adopting this sort of historical project, I am unavoidably drawn to the concept of "conditions of possibility." However, I think that it is entirely possible to put clear blue water between this and any Kantian transcendentalism. But also from any unreformed materialism. Material, as I'm using it here, is taken to signify that which is a substantial precondition of some process, practice or procedure. It is therefore a relative term – more a sociological concept than a metaphysical one. Clay is material to a brick-maker; bricks are material to a brick-layer.

The crucial concept, philosophically, here for me is what Alfred North Whitehead calls a "cosmic epoch." In Process and Reality (1929), he writes:
"Evidently new propositions come into being with the creative advance of the world. For every proposition involves its logical subjects; and it cannot be the proposition which it is, unless those logical subjects are the actual entities which they are. Thus no actual entity can feel a proposition, if its actual world does not include the logical subjects of that proposition. The proposition 'Caesar crossed the Rubicon' could not be felt by Hannibal In any occasion of his existence on earth. Hannibal could feel propositions with certain analogies to this proposition, but not this proposition." (259)
The notions of proposition and epoch are explicated here in terms of language. However, precisely the same conceptual apparatus is applicable to electrons and neutrons, the experience of colour, and so on. We might recall the unfortunate fate of the dodo bird in these terms. Nothing in the cosmic epoch of the dodo prepared it for the invasive Europeans and their predatory pets. Nothing in what these entities proposed could make the dodo "feel" the response "flee!"

As Richard Grove has written in his Green Imperialism (1995), the colonial appropriation of small tropical islands and the co-emergent proliferation of botanical gardens, populated with the produce of these same trade routes, were crucial to the development of ecological thinking in Europe.

Somewhere in all these connections, I am in the process of drawing out a thesis.