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.