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.