Sunday 10 December 2017

Environment, ontology and PhD rites of passage

The PhD programme is a remarkably unstandardised institution. It varies wildly in its duration and parameters between countries, universities and disciplines. In the UK, scholarships are usually for 3 years and submissions are expected within 4 (when studying full-time). In many places, there is an 'upgrade' process where the candidate moves from the initial MPhil registration to the full PhD once they can demonstrate that they have what it takes to meet the full standards.

At my institution (Aberystwyth University, International Politics), we have no 'upgrade' as such (although there are endless 'monitoring' forms to be filled in each semester). As a less formalised but nevertheless highly invested rite of passage, we have instead what we call the 'IPRS' (the International Politics Research Seminar). This is a weekly event usually hosting guest speakers from outside the university; however, around this time of year, PhD candidates in their third years present their work to the department.

And so, this past Thursday was my turn.

I basically attempted to present the entirety of my (as yet only partially written) thesis, section by section.

This was building on my other (shorter) presentations of previous years.

I won't try to summarise the argument here (not least because it is a work in progress). However, it starts with Isaac Newton's use of the word 'medium' and the association of this with the idea of a cosmic aether or fluid underpinning physical forces of various kinds.

The 'medium' then becomes the French 'milieu' – a key term in both eighteenth and nineteenth century science (though for very different reasons). However, before getting to the English 'environment,' the thesis also takes a long look at the concept of climate as found, for example, in the works of Alexander von Humboldt.

Well-known in certain scientific circles from the 1860s, the English 'environment' had been popularised, at least among literary and technocratic elites, by the start of the twentieth century.

The objective of the thesis is, then, to discern and distinguish the complex (and often forgotten) nuances of these many layers in their specificity, thus more precisely informing (and perhaps troubling) contemporary articulations and interpretations.

What I'm still figuring out is how this history speaks to what I called (in the second slide, above) 'the problems of the present.' Environment circa 1910 is not, of course, precisely the same concept as that which we know from the 1960s onwards. It is not invested with the same moral force, nor does it entail the same conception of human agency.

However, it is, I think, precisely in the reversal of the distribution of agencies found with this concept at this time – 'environment' circa 1870 being something that subordinates and, circa 1970, something that is subordinated – that is really the key thing.

This, ultimately, is what I am trying to develop in terms of 'historical ontology' – an understanding of how terrestrial relations of possibility are conceptually articulated and, moreover, how conceptions that seem rather diverse when taken in terms of 'domains' or 'fields' can be made to speak to one another (or, rather, to speak to one another again).

I'm going to rework variations on this presentation over the coming months – in Oxford in February, New Orleans in March and probably several more times through the coming year (intending to submit the thesis by the summer).

A work in progress, then, though, I hope, an interesting one even at this stage.

Wednesday 15 November 2017

“The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas

A couple of months ago, I presented a paper at the EISA conference in Barcelona titled “The Ecological Indian” and the History of Environmental Ideas. A somewhat revised version has just been published at the wonderful The Disorder of Things.
‘But what about indigenous cosmologies?’ This kind of question is becoming more and more common in debates in International Relations, human geography and other fields. Whether articulated in terms of decolonisation, worlding, ontology, lifeways, cosmopolitics or pluriversality (other terminologies are available), there is a strong and growing conviction that making space for modes of collective existence beyond, besides and despite the hegemonic naturalism of the West is a pressing intellectual and political priority. 
Indeed, this is a question that I am asked (and ask myself) on a regular basis. However, it is a more conceptually, ethically and politically complicated question than it may first appear. This essay explores some of these complications in relation to the research project that I am currently embarked upon – namely, a history of how ‘environment’ became a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation by around about 1910.
The article basically constitutes my attempt to think through how such a question must be approached with regard to my current research. It is, then, looking a little bit beyond my thesis project, although it certainly feeds back into and problematises various aspects of what I'm currently writing.

It also puts me a little way outside my comfort zone, which makes me apprehensive but, nevertheless, I am glad to have written it.

Particular thanks to Kerem Nisancioglu for his able editorship.

Tuesday 31 October 2017

AAG 2018: The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics

To date, I've never been to any of the big North American academic conferences (in fact, to date, I've never been to the Americas). However, I'll be breaking that three-decade streak in April by attending the Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting in New Orleans.

The abstract that I've submitted is essentially a summary of my PhD thesis, which, by that time, should be somewhere nearing completion. I'm looking forward to presenting it:
The Historical Ontology of Environment: From the Unity of Nature to the Birth of Geopolitics
By around 1910, 'environment' (and its cognates) had become a conceptual commonplace of Euro-American scientific, literary and political conversation. How did this come to be the case? How was this expression shifted and translated through different registers, regimes, disciplines and languages? In other words, how did we come to live in an 'environmental' world – and what difference does it make that (or if) we do? These are questions that are fundamental to the identity and origins of disciplinary geography; however, they also go well beyond it. This paper gives a short history of the emergence of 'environment' up to its initial moment of expansion and popularisation at the beginning of the twentieth-century. Beginning from the physics of Isaac Newton, it runs through the biology of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, the sociology of Auguste Comte, Harriet Martineau, Émile Durkheim, Gabriel Tarde and Herbert Spencer, the novels of Honoré de Balzac, Émile Zola and Thomas Carlyle, the climatology and cosmography of Alexander von Humboldt, the ecology of Charles Darwin and Ernst Haeckel, and the euthenics of Ellen Swallow Richards to the geopolitics of Friedrich Ratzel, Halford Mackinder and Ellen Churchill Semple. Of course, 'environment' circa 1910 is not yet the concept of care and conservation found from the 1960s onwards. However, by following these early moments of creation and propagation, this history facilitates a more complex understanding of twentieth- and twenty-first-century environmental thought and problems. Fundamental to the history of geography, then, but also to its present. Is environment an adequate concept for the problems of the Anthropocene? What is the relationship of environment to the Earth system? Is there future in environment – and, if so, how is it to be made?

Review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken"

In 1967, Clarence Glacken published Traces on the Rhodian Shore – an encyclopaedic masterpiece in the history of geographical ideas describing, as per the book’s subtitle, Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Despite writing many more pages prior to his death in 1989 at the age of 80, most of these, tragically, were lost, destroyed or simply unpublished – until now.
My review of "Genealogies of Environmentalism: The Lost Works of Clarence Glacken" has just come out at the journal Local Environment. This link apparently gives subscription-free access to the first fifty clicks (the standard link is here; if anyone can't access it and wishes to, feel free to get in touch).

It's a fairly short and sweet affair. I basically summarise the text and discuss its circumstances, weaknesses and (not inconsiderable) strengths. The one conceptual point I draw out of it in particular is from p.183, where Glacken writes:
Environmental determinism in fact has been so strong that only with the greatest difficulty have systematic studies of man’s role in changing the physical environment been made.
This connection between environmental determinism in the sense of that which imposes upon and moulds the environed and environment in the post-1960s sense of something to be concerned for is, for me, crucial.

Borrowing a phrase from Bruno Latour, I call it an example of the redistribution of agencies – something that I am trying to further develop in my thesis work.

Sunday 15 October 2017

Regarding 'post-truth': causality, complacency and complicity

There's an interesting set of essays recently uploaded at Discover Society on the so-called 'post-truth' phenomenon, including a piece by Greg Hollin, which mentions debates within Science and Technology Studies on this topic, starting with Bruno Latour's well-known 2004 essay.
It always struck me, and I know many others, that one of the most striking aspects of Bruno Latour’s famous article, ‘Why has critique run out of stream’ (2004) was a peculiar sort of self-aggrandizement. It is not entirely clear to my mind whether Latour thought that Science and Technology Studies (STS) caused inaction over global warming or 9/11 conspiracy theories, but the use of phrases like ‘our weapons’ (p.230) and ‘our critical arsenal’ (p.230) certainly seem to permit such a reading. 
He goes on to mention recent commentaries by Sergio Sismondo, Harry Collins and others.

A little while ago, I wrote a short piece on the same topic (Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics) that also drew on Latour's 2004 essay. To reiterate a little more briefly what I wrote then, I think we have to distinguish causality, complacency and complicity.

Did academics (STS scholars or otherwise) cause this new wave of propaganda and ‘post-truth’ (as in it wouldn’t have happened without their works)? Of course not, that’s ridiculous and shouldn’t be given a second thought. Have many academics been massively complacent as regards the relation of their own work to basic standards and practices of truthfulness as a public good (for want of a better phrase) that cannot be taken for granted? Yes, of this I have no doubt. Does this make such academics complicit in these events? Possibly. I think there’s a case to be made there. Most certainly, it changes the priorities for our thinking (and teaching) in a way that few seem prepared to recognise, much less confront.

I took Latour’s 2004 article to be pointing out the complacency, not the causality, although I agree that he’s not very clear on that point. It's more of a provocation than a diagnosis as such.

And so, if there is complicity arising not out of causality but rather complacency, what does that mean? I think it means, first of all, that there is no use attempting to attribute blame, as some have done. Certainly, this latest episode has been seized on by various unreconstructed, so-called 'rationalist' buffoons and bullies as evidence of the need to purge the academy of the epistemologically unclean. Excuse me while I stifle a rhetorical yawn. Such self-important exhortations are a lot of hot air that we can do without.

However, if there is such a state of complicity then this also means that there is a serious obligation to think about how we can do better – and at quite a fundamental level. Such a situation brings into question not only epistemology but also wide-ranging issues of politics and pedagogy. It challenges and changes far more than these debates, so far, have been willing to admit.

With all due respect to them, and as valuable as their contributions may continue to be, I therefore doubt whether this is a question best answered by the likes of Bruno Latour and Harry Collins. It is a question that thinkers of my generation (post-grad or 'early career') need to take on, without any guide ropes or sherpas.

It is, after all, the world that we have inherited.

Monday 4 September 2017

Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Summaries and reflections

As per previous posts, last week I attended the RGS-IBG annual conference and organised a session at on Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought.’ It was a great session and I’m very grateful to everyone who came along, particularly to the three excellent panellists, David Livingstone, Georgina Endfield and Innes Keighren.

I posted my introductory comments on here previously. However, perhaps the best introduction to Glacken might be found in this interview with Allan Pred from 1980, uploaded by the late Anne Buttimer.

It shows Glacken as a soft-spoken and thoughtful man, as befits his reputation according to everyone who knew him.

Despite scribbling away at top speed, I by no means recorded all the points made during the very interesting presentations and ensuing discussion. However, I thought it might be interesting to collate some of the major ideas and issues encountered.

Undoubtedly the most immediately striking thing about Glacken’s book is its sheer size and density. Not only is it over 700 pages long, it packs an extraordinary quantity of information onto every page. All three panellists confessed to, in one way or another, reading the book more as an encyclopaedia or point of reference than something that could be gainfully absorbed as a whole.

Such a book, it was agreed, is rarely written these days. Indeed, as David pointed out, the anthropologist Jacob Gruber’s review of the book from 1968 already noted that “the scholarly tradition within which such a book can be written is disappearing.” It is perhaps not true that Very Large Books are no longer produced in this kind of area – take, for example, Maria Rosa Antognazza’s intellectual biography of Leibniz, James Turner’s history of philology, or Geoffrey Parker’s account of climate and crisis in the seventeenth century (to name but three). Nevertheless, the conditions under which Glacken’s tome was produced – taking a decade to research and write, for the most part without tenure – are certainly difficult to reconcile with our ‘output’-oriented present.

The status of Traces within geography is also an interesting point to consider. Few undergraduate programmes include the history of geography in much more than a rudimentary manner. Innes made use of his bibliographical skills to tell us that there are around 50 copies of the book at 38 UK academic libraries – not many considering its apparently canonical status. It is often cited by geographers as a classic text but just how often is it seriously made use of? This also might not be such a new issue. While Traces was widely reviewed in the years following its publication, it was neglected by the Annals of the Association of American Geographers until Yi-Fu Tuan’s review in 1977.

There are various aspects of the book that might be faulted by specialists. For example, while possessing considerable linguistic skills, Glacken’s use of translations, particularly of ancient texts, sometimes led to errors of interpretation. However, I think it was generally agreed that such criticisms, while of course legitimate, are also a little bit beside the point.

Traces provides a profound resource for those wishing to engage with the history of geographical (and not only geographical) ideas. As Georgina put it, the book takes us “into the realm of the environmental imagination.” Of course, we cannot in any way straightforwardly take, say, Plato to speak for his time and place. However familiar such sources may seem, there are always problems of anachronism and partiality. Nevertheless, as Glacken himself put it (p.503), “their questions suggest our questions.”

As I mentioned in my introduction, the style of historiography that Traces embodies has been out of fashion for around as long as the book has been with us. When Quentin Skinner wrote his famous essay Meaning and Understanding in the History of Ideas between 1966 and 1967, he apparently had trouble getting it published (it appeared in print in 1969). One of the pillars of orthodoxy against which he took aim was precisely the longitudinal style of Arthur Oncken Lovejoy, which (I would argue) Glacken was very much working within.

Today, it is the epistemological tradition of Foucault and the contextualist tradition of Skinner that are rather more conventional. We are generally concerned with radical ruptures rather than with recurrence and repetition – indeed, the very notion of continuity tends to be dismissed as conservative.

But this itself might be taken as somewhat outdated thinking. Given all the earnest pronouncements concerning ‘the Anthropocene’ in recent years, are we not by now accustomed to the idea that our notions of temporality are being scrambled?

The opposition of the longue durée to histoire événementielle, in the terms of the Annales School, presupposed that structures of ‘nature’ changed at only a glacially incremental pace compared to the ever-fluctuating realm of human activity and consciousness. Now that we understand the ground beneath our feet (and the air around our heads) to be far from stable, durable or enduring, are we not also brought to question the ‘revolutionary’ quality of our ideas? If one is moving rather faster, do we not find the other to be moving rather slower than we would like? Issues of inheritance and recurrence therefore become important once again.

Much more was said than this and there remains much more to be said on these issues. However, just a few more things should be added by way of conclusion (now speaking only for myself).

Books such as these are rarely written – and rarely read – today. The political economy of academia (and, of course, not only academia), if it does not exactly prohibit, certainly dissuades the sort of creative ambition found in this text. It promotes ambitions of rather sadder and more self-regarding sorts.

This book was, as its subtitle openly declared, a history of ‘Western Thought.’ There are various ways in which this partitioning might be challenged today. First, it does not do enough to account for the ways in which Euro-Americans absorbed, acquired and (often violently) appropriated knowledge (and not only knowledge) from around the world. It tells us a lot about the ‘what’ and not a lot about the ‘how.’ Moreover, while Traces never passes judgement on any tradition and never assumes the superiority of its own, nor does it do much to unsettle such hierarchies. It is quite comfortable being where it is and doing what it does (in a way that makes me, personally, quite uncomfortable).

However, these are, I think, by and large forgivable limitations for a book that undoubtedly pushed those limitations it did challenge to quite a remarkable degree. Nevertheless, it does bring to my mind a question.

As I noted in my previous post, the conference theme of ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’ has been criticised for placing rather ephemerally conceived ‘knowledges’ ahead of “structures, institutions and praxis” that pertain to the continuation of colonial processes of exploitation and exclusion. It is not enough, therefore, to speak only in terms of knowledges in order to address what decolonisation properly entails.

The question that is brought to my mind concerns to what extent there is cause for solidarity, and indeed sympathy, to be found here.

If a book such as Traces stands as an artefact of conditions that few can, today, expect to inhabit, this suggests to me that the very ambition, the very ‘will to connect’ diverse ideas and knowledges over space and time, is being asphyxiated by those conditions that we do find to prevail. The relentless drive to instrumentality and short-termism is of a kind with that which marginalises and demeans those whose traditions are not those of ‘Western Thought.’

I hasten to add that I am in no way suggesting that the struggles of decolonisation should be equated with those of white academic historians – most certainly not. The relative degrees of exploitation and exclusion are in no way equivalent. And yet they are not altogether unconnected.

If we wish to write books such as these today – whatever the shortcomings of the genre to date – such a creative adventure presupposes freedoms that few, if any, of us may enjoy.

This is a thin gruel as regards nourishing the political dynamics of the history of geography – dynamics that I, for one, found rather lacking in the conference last week. However, I conclude with this thought because the thing that I really expected to take away from this session was a conviction that the ‘Western’ history of ideas had to be broken down at its borders and reconstituted. I still, more or less, think that to be the case.

However, it seems to me that this cannot really occur in the absence of a more widespread recognition that the continuation of a tradition of ambitious historiography cannot be taken for granted. If there is no question of historians after the fashion of Glacken being in ‘the same boat’ as those scholars who seek to create scope for the needs and experiences of peoples beyond, beside and in spite of ‘the West’ then these projects are, at least, subject to many of the same storm systems.

I do not know what conclusion to draw from that conclusion. However, it has given me food for thought in the coming weeks and months.

Saturday 2 September 2017

A temple to colonialism: talking (or not talking) decolonisation at the RGS

Sitting in the Ondaatje Lecture Theatre at the Royal Geographical Society in London, let your eyes gaze upwards from the stage to the corners of the room and you will see the names of famous explorers written in large gold letters around the wood-panelled walls. Wandering through the building, everywhere are slowly fading portraits of presumably very important men. Upstairs, one also finds giant antique globes over which an observer can pore, holding the whole world before them.

The RGS was, and remains, a veritable temple to colonialism.

An interesting venue, therefore, for this year’s RGS-IBG annual conference with the theme of ‘Decolonising geographical knowledges’ – a venue, you might think, that would itself serve to provoke thought regarding the roots of geography and its political present. However, as it turns out, such connections were kept, for the most part, rather quiet.

It should be added that, of course, a conference theme of this kind is in no way binding upon its participants. This is the major professional conference of the UK academic calendar for human geographers. Last year, the theme was ‘Nexus thinking,’ the year before that, ‘the Anthropocene.’ Often, it is enough to just get one of the theme’s keywords into your session title. Indeed, the session that I arranged was conceived some time before I knew what the conference theme was.

However, the lack of engagement with this year’s theme across most of the conference was, to me, quite remarkable.

The theme had been the subject of some discussion before the event. A few weeks ago, James Esson, Patricia Noxolo, Richard Baxter, Patricia Daley and Margaret Byron published a short intervention in the journal Area titled ‘The 2017 RGS-IBG chair’s theme: decolonising geographical knowledges, or reproducing coloniality?’ By way of introduction, they write:
According to the Chair’s abstract for the conference, the event will form part of an agenda to
query implicitly universal claims to knowledges associated with the west, and further interrogate how such knowledges continue to marginalize and discount places, people and knowledges across the world.
In this paper, we aim to explain why this pursuit of critical consciousness via a decolonial approach could do more harm than good, in a discipline that may not be ready to, or even capable of, responding to the challenge of decolonisation.
I highly recommend reading the whole thing as they articulate the issues far better than I am able to and, having spent the past few days at this conference, I think they were spot on.

I should also add that on Tuesday, just before the start of the conference, the Race, Culture and Equality Working Group (including authors of the above) organised an event nearby on ‘Decolonising Teaching and Research in Geography.’ Unfortunately, I only made it there for the last couple of hours in the afternoon. However, this all informed my thinking over the rest of the week.

There was, in the programme and in the general conversation, a certain amount of outright chauvinistic hostility to the very notion of decolonisation – albeit with little apparent understanding of what this term actually involves. On the other hand, there was also a much larger amount of extremely incisive and insightful work presented from scholars from various fields and various parts of the world on issues of race and coloniality.

However, my abiding impression of the relation of the theme to the conference as a whole (of course formed by my own choices regarding the sessions that I attended – largely historical geography and political ecology) was an overwhelming indifference and obliviousness. Numerous papers picked up on the general topic of colonialism as regards subject matter but very few addressed the connections that might be found between these apparently distant worlds (temporally or spatially) and the traditions and institutions within which attendees were themselves living and working.

Now, I hasten to add that I do not mean to detract in any way from the integrity and creativity of the many, often junior, researchers showcasing their wares. I was consistently impressed, and often a little intimidated, with the breadth, depth and variety of their work.

However, I have no doubt that the very format of an academic conference discourages diversity of every kind. When you have 12 minutes to summarise often extremely complex courses of research, to make them accessible to a general audience, and to do so while, quite often, stood in front of the very people who hold your current and future career in their hands – none of this is conducive to anything except homogeneity and risk averseness.

In my own faltering, fumbling way I attempted to prompt and provoke as best I could with regards to the neglect of decolonisation even where it was immediately and directly relevant to the subject matter at hand. However, I was also frustrated at my own inability to do so effectively or even cogently – clearly this is something that I myself need to work on.

This was my fourth RGS-IBG conference. However, I still come to it somewhat from the outside – not being, or not being yet, a geographer in any formal sense. It continues to surprise me just how much politics in geography can be treated as a specialism. Political geography is something that one ‘does’ and if that is not your thing then politics becomes, seemingly, something of an optional extra. There is, of course, a general kind of undisclosed liberal-academic consensus underlying codes of conduct and comportment but, to my mind, also a rather more pervasive conservatism that betrays profound complacency as regards the relation of human geography to colonialisms past and present.

As one gentleman (whose name I unfortunately do not know) at the Q&A of the opening plenary session, in the aforementioned Ondaatje Theatre, pointed out most eloquently, we were sat there in London talking about colonisation as if it were some distant phenomenon, while people whose lives are the direct products of British colonial history were outside preparing our drinks.

That opening plenary in many ways summed up the whole conference, for me at least. It brought together several Indigenous scholars from North American First Nations, each of whom presented extraordinary papers. This was exactly the kind of thing that made me glad that I attended. Nevertheless, it also highlighted the complete inadequacy of approaching decolonisation only in terms of ‘knowledges.’ Anyone can ‘know’ what has been made transferrable. And what has been made transferrable can therefore be assimilated without any alteration of the principles of bodily exclusion that continue to striate academia (as elsewhere).

As Esson et al. put it:
We argue that the current emphasis on decolonising geographical knowledges rather than structures, institutions and praxis, and the disingenuous phrase ‘opening geography out to the world’ (as if geographers, and indeed the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), had never been involved in the exploration, colonisation and continuing exploitation of the world and its resources) dilutes decolonisation and decoloniality’s transformative potential, while concealing oppressive structures in the discipline and recentring non-Indigenous, white and otherwise privileged groups in the global architecture of knowledge production.
I’m not sure that the conference was, ultimately, harmful to this agenda (although I am in no position to make an informed judgement on that score). Nevertheless, it most certainly highlighted the very long way that geography has to go even to really recognise decolonisation as an issue that concerns it on anything but the most superficial level of an intellectual trend or specialist research agenda.

Wednesday 9 August 2017

"Forget ‘the environment’"—problems of geosemantics and ecopoetics

George Monbiot has a typically provocative new article on The Guardian today:
If Moses had promised the Israelites a land flowing with mammary secretions and insect vomit, would they have followed him into Canaan? Though this means milk and honey, I doubt it would have inspired them.
His point is that the words we use have a great deal of power in terms of carving up the world and affecting how we react to things. See 'migrant' versus 'immigrant' or, as per Monbiot, 'climate change' versus 'climate breakdown.'

It is a highly relevant dispatch for me, as my PhD thesis basically investigates how we all came to be so convinced that we live in an 'environment.' In other words, how did this term come to be part of our spatial, political, poetic and worldly common sense?

Well, strictly speaking, my thesis covers the emergence of 'environment' and its cognates, in particular the French 'milieu,' up to the start of the twentieth-century. (A thesis is unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, a finite thing.)

'The environment' came to be during the 1960s. I am not yet, therefore, able to give a detailed account of how that happened. However, the broad strokes are simple enough.

In a book called The Environmental Revolution: A Guide for the New Masters of the Earth in 1970, the ornithologist, conservationist and co-founder of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), Edward Max Nicholson wrote that a "revolution in human affairs" was then taking place. The "obvious descriptive label" for this, he continued, "once so infrequent and now becoming so universal [is] 'environmental'" (p.5).

Until around that time, 'environment' was a rather dry, technical term. The word itself was coined a few times, probably independently. However, the person who made it catch on was Herbert Spencer, the social evolutionist and purveyor of the phrase "survival of the fittest."

In short, it was through evolutionary theory that 'environment' became an item of intellectual common sense. Darwin in fact didn't use the term until late in his career and was quite sceptical about it for a number of reasons. However, by the 1920s, the word was everywhere in its scientific (or seeming-to-be-scientific) sense.

It is unsurprising, then, that 'the environment,' while perhaps exciting to those preparing to be 'masters of the Earth' in the 1970s, has proved to be quite the ecopoetic sedative in the long term.

While, of course, there is much more to the world than words, Monbiot's call for creativity is therefore welcome:
Rather than arrogating naming rights to themselves, professional ecologists should recruit poets and cognitive linguists and amateur nature lovers to help them find the words for what they cherish. […]
If we called protected areas “places of natural wonder”, we would not only speak to people’s love of nature, but also establish an aspiration that conveys what they ought to be. Let’s stop using the word environment, and use terms such as “living planet” and “natural world” instead, as they allow us to form a picture of what we are describing.
I'm not convinced that 'natural world' is any less anodyne and affectless than 'environment,' although, off the top of my head, I have no bright ideas as regards alternatives.

However, one point that might be interesting comes from something I've just been researching in the past few weeks: the origins of the Italian and Spanish ambiente (the equivalent of environment in those languages – in Portuguese, it's meio ambiente).

One of the earliest uses of the adjective 'ambient' outside of Latin is found in the 1587 poem El Monserrate, by the Spanish poet Cristóbal de Virués:
Gozo divino, celestial aviso,
Lleno de sacra luz, claro desvelo,
Influye el rico clima eternamente
Del fértil y alto monte al ayre ambiente.
Translated (very literally) as:
Divine joy, heavenly warning,
Full of sacred light, clear sleeplessness,
Influence the rich climate eternally
From the fertile and high mountain to the ambient air. 
The development of 'ambient' and 'ambience,' it seems, is a largely poetic history. For example, in John Milton's Paradise Lost (1667):
How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adorn’d
Innumerable, and this which yields or fills
All Space, the ambient Air wide interfus’d
Embracing round this florid Earth, […]
Quite by contrast, the French 'milieu' that became the English 'environment' came originally as a translation of Isaac Newton's use of the word 'Medium,' then adopted in mechanistic nineteenth century biology before being taken up, in turn, by the rather nasty biosociology of Spencer.

So, long story short, the ambient has always had poetic qualities that the 'medium' and the 'environment' have not.

However, perhaps our problem is not just our combinations of words or their translations but the very worldviews or cosmologies that these vocabularies have been created to express?

As Keavy Martin writes in her book Stories in a New Skin: Approaches to Inuit Literature, the Inuktitut word sila most commonly "refers to the environment, such as in the phrases silami qanuippa? (how’s the weather) or silaup asijjipallianinga (climate change)" but also "refers to wisdom, or cleverness, as in silatujuq (he/she/it is intelligent, sensible, or wise)."

Obviously, 'environment' is the go-to phrase for rendering anything like this into English. However, without her explanation, almost everything would be lost in translation.

And so, what kind of connection might we find here? What more might we need to do in order to transform the vocabularies with which we express – and not only express, feel – the worlds around us?

I have no great suggestions but we must stop complacently mouthing the same old stale slogans of yesteryear – of that I have no doubt.

Monday 31 July 2017

RGS-IBG 2017: Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’

The RGS-IBG Annual Conference in London is now just a month away. I'm organising a Friday afternoon session on Clarence Glacken’s ‘Traces on the Rhodian Shore’ at 50: Nature, Culture and ‘Western Thought’ and very much looking forward to it.

I've wanted to arrange something along these lines since I first read Traces over Christmas/New Year 2015/16 and noticed at the time that it was coming up to its 50th anniversary of publication. My initial thought was to put something forward for the Association of American Geographers conference this year. Finances and other circumstances precluded that; however, this side of the pond also has historians of geography!

It will be a more informal and conversational session than the standard papers-presentational format, having three panelists who will introduce and lead an open discussion with whoever decides to turn up and participate. I'm very pleased to have Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone on board for this task. The line-up was also to also to include Stuart Elden. Unfortunately, scheduling issues prevented his being able to attend the conference on the Friday and the organisers were not able to schedule it on another day.

It may chop and change over the next month (and over the two and a half days of the conference that I'll have to reflect upon and fine-tune it); however, here is the draft of my introduction to the session:
With the subtitle ‘Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century,’ Clarence Glacken’s Traces on the Rhodian Shore casts a long shadow on the history of geographical ideas, even after half a century. Published in 1967, this 700+ page monolith remains unsurpassed in its genre. Indeed, in a way, it is a genre unto itself. 
Tracing a grand narrative arc from the antiquity of Stoic cosmoses and Hippocratic climates, to early Christian teleologies of divine creation and human fallenness, to early Modern physico-theology and mechanical determinisms, to Enlightenment self-assurances regarding the perfectibility of man and the domination of nature – it is quite a vista. 
Assuredly, books such as this are rarely written today. Taking over ten years to produce, without any apparent urgency and, until the closing stages, without tenure, it is something of a throwback – and in more ways than one. While its conditions of production might strike us with a certain nostalgia, at 50 years old, its style of historiography has been out of fashion for almost as long. 
Glacken introduces his work as setting out to trace the lineage of three ideas: “the idea of a designed earth; the idea of environmental influence; and the idea of man as a geographic agent” (p.vii). And this trinitarian scheme seemingly echoes his own educational formation. 
In 1949, at the age of 40, Glacken joined Johns Hopkins University to write his PhD thesis on ‘The Idea of the Habitable World,’ which he completed in just two years. Despite having retired eleven years previously, Johns Hopkins at this time still bore the impression of perhaps the most influential Anglophone historian of ideas of the early twentieth-century, Arthur Oncken Lovejoy. 
His best known work, The Great Chain of Being (published in 1937), was also structured upon a trinity. The idea of the ‘great chain’ – “one of the major conceptions in Occidental thought,” Lovejoy wrote – was the result of three interlocking principles that could be found and followed over the centuries: ‘plenitude,’ ‘continuity’ and ‘graduation.’ 
Glacken indeed credits Lovejoy’s work for having “made an important segment of Western thought intelligible” to him (p.xix) and Traces in fact began its existence as an introduction (!) to the book that was to be derived from his PhD thesis. 
There are two important points that I want to draw from this: 
First, this is not, for the most part, a tradition of historiography that holds much sway today. Rather, our standards are set more by the Parisian epistemology of Gaston Bachelard and Georges Canguilhem via the seemingly omnipresent persona of Michel Foucault. Our received wisdom, it seems to me, is one of ‘epistemic breaks’ rather than grand narratives, radical transcendence rather than longitudinal continuity. 
The second point I’d like to make, in accordance with what we’ve been talking about over the past few days, is that such uncomplicated identification with a lineage of ‘Western’ or ‘Occidental’ ideas must, today, set alarm bells ringing. 
In one telling footnote in Traces, Glacken confesses: “I have reluctantly omitted discussion of Ibn Khaldūn. His ideas belong to Arab thought and not to the West, least of all in this period” (p.255). Such a partitioning of knowledge traditions was questionable in 1967 and, to say the least, is even more so today. 
It should be added, on this point, that Glacken was not in the least bit parochial in terms of his intercultural experiences. By the time he finished his master’s degree in 1931, he was fluent in German, French and Spanish and had knowledge of Greek and Latin. Over the course of his career, he would also learn Norwegian, Danish, Swedish and Japanese. After spending the mid-1930s working for the Farm Security Administration, in 1937 he set off to travel the world, taking in Japan, China, Indochina, the Middle East, the Mediterranean and Western Europe. Drafted into the army in 1941, he was posted to Japan and Korea. And, after completing his thesis, he returned to Japan to research village life in Okinawa, resulting in a monograph published in 1955. 
It was not a lack of either interest or ability that confined his studies to the West, then, it was something rather more fundamental. For him, ‘the West’ existed. Are we so sure? 
There is much more that could be said – and, I hope, will be said! – on all of this and more, this afternoon and afterwards. And so now I will pass things over to our three panellists, Innes Keighren, Georgina Endfield and David Livingstone, and ask them to speak for a few minutes about their own encounter with Glacken’s text, their valuation of it in terms of the history of geographical ideas and anything else they would like to raise by way of observation or provocation. 
In the spirit of keeping things as horizontal and informal as possible, we will then open things up to questions, answers, comments and other responses, and take it from there.

Tuesday 11 July 2017

Microblog mesoblog: On the cosmopolitics of the Anthropocene

It's easy to get carried away on Twitter. That's more or less its purpose. I sometimes wonder what the point of writing long threads of multiple tweets is. Why not just write it properly, in continuous prose?! However, occasionally I too indulge the medium's raison d'être.

I was re-reading a piece that I commented on before: Scientists still don’t understand the Anthropocene – and they’re going about it the wrong way by Mark Maslin and Erle Ellis.

(Full disclosure – and no surprises: I am also a white, male and Western, although not much of a scientist.)

I should add that the Anthropocene as a scientific problem necessarily concerns more than geologists in the strict, disciplinary sense. Earth sciences are a far broader church today than they were in the past. Nevertheless, I think the point stands.

They argue, in short, that:
"Defining a human epoch is so important it should not be rushed. It should be treated by scholars from all disciplines with the seriousness it deserves."
I could not disagree. However, there is a risk of politically overburdening earth scientists when, in fairness, human and social sciences are not necessarily in a position to be overconfident in their own cosmopolitical acuity.

Reminding ourselves of the Greek epokhe would therefore seem to be a necessary waypoint in this conversation.

Monday 19 June 2017

Why blog?

My blogging activity has gone rather off the boil over the past year or so, for reasons that I may get into in future posts.

However, without getting too existential (again), I've been brought to wonder why I do this at all.
I started this blog some years ago (early 2009, records show), shortly after finishing my MSc degree. I was a little lost as regards my future and wanted to keep something intellectual and creative going until such time as I figured out what I wanted to do.

It turned out to be a great decision. Writing frequently (if somewhat sporadically) helped me develop to my own voice and ideas. Moreover, my uninvited and, to begin with, largely unread missives eventually helped me make the personal connections that brought me back into academia. I am certain that I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing now if I hadn't started writing here, then.

Although my motivation to do it comes and goes, it has been worthwhile at every step of the way.
The highly recommendable geography PhD blogger, Matthew Scott, adds:
This is certainly true, as my back catalogue will testify!

Right now, I am in a very different position compared to previously. I have a lot of writing to do this summer – particularly on the dreaded thesis but other papers and side projects, too. However, I find this to be far from a zero-sum game.

Writing begets writing. The more regular the exercise, the more fluid the flow from brain to page. Of course, it is important not to give in too much to displacement activity. However, it is really like any art or any sport – it is a matter of good habits and practice.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Hot off the press: 'Dismay, dissembly and geocide: Ways through the maze of Trumpist geopolitics'

Several months ago, I had the pleasure of being invited to write a short piece for a review forum in Law and Critique on Kyle McGee's new book Heathen Earth: Trumpism and Political Ecology.

The other contributions are now online, along with Kyle's own introduction:

Introduction: Law Between Two Vertigos, Kyle McGee
The Denier-in-Chief: Climate Change, Science and the Election of Donald J. Trump, Kari De Pryck and François Gemenne
Earthbound Law: The Force of an Indigenous Australian Institution, Stephen Muecke
Trumpism and Being in Worlds that Fall Between Worlds, Lilian Moncrieff

My own piece seems to have gotten jammed in the cogs of Springer's editorial bureaucracy, hopefully to be dislodged some time soon. However, I've uploaded a pre-print and will re-advertise the situation once the finalised version emerges.

So, 'hot off the pre-press,' then: Dismay, dissembly and geocide: Ways through the maze of Trumpist geopolitics

[Update 23/06/17: The full and final version is out now in open access.]

The short of it is that Heathen Earth is excellent and well worth a read for anyone concerned with issues of political ecology, the politics of climate and earth systems, the Anthropocene, the tawdry dementedness of he-who-shall-remain-nameless and so on, particularly (although by no means exclusively) in relation to law.

However, my piece is not really a review as such. Rather, it take Kyle's provocative postulates as a spur for my own worries, musings and therapeutic rhetorical splurges.

All in all, very pleased to have been involved!

Saturday 10 June 2017

Lexit's revenge?—A tale of three summers

We all live in our own little bubble. Well, maybe not everyone but I know that I do – and if you are reading this then you probably do too.

It occurs to me now that in June of the past three years, three particular political events have dominated my own mediasphere.

Late in June 2015, Alexis Tsipras announced that his bureaucrat-besieged Greek government would hold a referendum on the bailout conditions proposed by the troika of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF. Then, almost a year to the day in 2016, the UK voted to leave the European Union. Now, in June 2017, the Labour Party has staged an astonishing electoral surge to leave the UK Parliament hung and the Conservatives running a seemingly untenable minority government with Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, rather sickeningly, holding the balance of power.

The reaction of my mediasphere to the first is perhaps best summarised by the hashtag #thisisacoup that went viral early that July. The reaction to the second was that this was, at best, a monumental blunder and, at worst, an act of the most poisonous xenophobia by a bunch of know-nothing Little Englanders. And to the third: unrestrained gloating and glee.

I must say that I have more or less shared in the consensus of my milieu each time.

So, here's the thing: Labour campaigned for Remain but, following the 52/48 win for Leave, switched their stance. It was fairly apparent that their campaigning was, at best, half-hearted and if they had shown the kind of motivation and nous that has been on show over the past several weeks, the result may well have been different.

Corbyn, many suspected, was a closet 'Lexiter' – i.e. Left Brexiter – the whole time. In any case, post-referendum, the party under his leadership saw the opportunity to reclaim ground lost to UKIP and the SNP by taking up a position of moderated acceptance regarding the results (as opposed to the Tories, who took a far harder stance, and the Lib Dems who wagered, unsuccessfully as it turns out, on courting despondent Remain voters).

Now, to bemoan the browbeating treatment of Greece in 2015, renounce the mindless isolationism of the Eurosceptics in 2016 and acclaim the triumph-by-cog-jamming of Labour in 2017 are not necessarily incompatible positions. However, nor is their happy coherence altogether obvious.

Those described as Lexiters (a silly portmanteau of a silly portmanteau but let's indulge it for now) pointed to the treatment of Greece (along with Spain, Italy and others) by Germany-centred EU elites as evidence for the need to reject the EU as just another instrument of neoliberal domination.

Which, of course, it is. Or, rather, that is a large part of what it is and what it does. I, like many, despite accepting these criticisms nevertheless thought Brexit to be a looming disaster. More or less all the mainstream arguments given for Leave were entirely bogus and this was palpably and overwhelmingly an exit coming not from the left but from the most boggle-eyed extremes of the British right. A Lexiter's Brexit this was not and so none of the arguments from that side could really apply.

My own thought on the value of the EU in general for quite some time has been this: There is undoubtedly more to the post-1945 achievement of peace in Western Europe than this institution alone but nothing has done more to cement and secure mutual openness and cooperation as being not only the reality but also common sense for the vast majority of Europeans, on a blood-drenched continent for which lasting peace had been all but unthinkable for a generation or more.

However, among the many actors that have undermined this genuinely remarkable achievement, we must include the EU itself.

When Eurosceptic propagandists whip up visions of grey-faced, expensively suited men with rimless glasses and dour expressions tediously administering the minutiae of our daily lives, they peddle a reservoir of misinformation built up drip by drip over a period of decades. However, the job of said propagandists is made significantly easier by there being a large grain of truth to that caricature. 'Democratic deficit' – this is the polite version. Hardened, unapologetic technocracy – that is more on the money.

The stand-off between Greece and Germany was a symptom of economic integration running ahead of political integration, with elites and publics alike being unwilling to recognise the hard realities of both. As should be obvious to all but the most blinkered apologists, the bailout was not so much for the Greek people as for the German banks – those same banks who happily and knowingly lent to a corrupt government at unsustainable levels in the years previously. The agreement was as much punishment as it was administration – a glorified debtor's jail, large enough for an entire country. Britain, take note.

And so, were the Lexiters right after all? Is Corbyn's 'soft' Brexit the course we should have been hoping for all along? I remain sceptical on that count.

Those of us who were so upset about the referendum result weren't thinking about regulations and bureaucrats, grey-faced or otherwise. We were thinking about our friends, family, lovers who are only where they are – and therefore only who they are – because of the freedoms of movement that have been afforded by the EU. We were worried about our lives and our futures because we are the ones who have benefited so richly, economically and otherwise, from that constitutional and, yes, ideological status quo.

The new political movement lead by Corbyn is exciting but this remains a country with stolid, stubborn reserves of conservatism. I fear for the future and not only because I have made choices that depended upon the status quo that has now passed.

Nobody knows anything, least of all right now. But at least, right now, the watching and thinking feels like something good.

Friday 9 June 2017

Election reaction—The real fight starts now

They laughed, they mocked, they guffawed. I must admit, I too was sceptical. Not because I didn't want it to be true – I'd just been hurt too many times before…

Fast forward. The common sense of both national and party establishments has been well and truly routed. The cadaverous plodding of throwback-Blairism has had its unbeating heart irreversibly staked.

Young people turned out – turns out they just needed something to vote for.

On a personal note (being still, if only in electoral terms, a young person), I was 11 years old when New Labour swept to power in 1997 and 17 when the Iraq War of 2003 kicked off. Gains in things like the minimum wage and being basically better than the Tories notwithstanding, for most of my adult life, Labour has been the party of hubris, capitulation and shame.

This is the first election in my life that I could vote for something, with hope.
Okay, in 2015 I hoped that the Labour of Ed Miliband might sneak in. He always seemed to be a basically decent guy, with his heart in the right place. However, in retrospect, his tenure was the end of an era, not the beginning.

He might not have been a New Labourite at heart (even if he had been in career). Nevertheless, his was still a politics of tracking 'public opinion' as though it were some transcendent, external force and then tacking opportunistically this way or that.

After Corbyn, we we can expect more. We can set the agenda.

Of course, we must also keep things in perspective. This is, at most, Act II of the drama. Party deal-making is underway and Labour has a long way to go as regards its own pool of parliamentary talent. Brexit looms, the inscrutable harbinger of who-knows-what. We do not know, at this stage, who will be the next PM or even how long this Parliament will last.

Nevertheless, considering the avalanche of lies and bile spewed from every orifice of the media-plutocrat-parliamentary complex, this stalemate constitutes a remarkable victory. What could have been a noble defeat has turned out to be a noble draw – and that is not damning by faint praise.

Whether or not Corbyn is a future PM, the Labour of his leadership have created the conditions for rebuilding a new kind of politics in this country.

But what's good is not yet good enough. The real fight starts now.

Wednesday 7 June 2017

In which a PhD scribbler asks: ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

It is a question that we must all ask ourselves at some point (and those trying to write a PhD thesis must ask more often than most): ‘Why am I getting myself into this?’

There has perhaps been no worse time to be entering (or thinking of entering) the academic job market, at least since the era when proleish schmucks like me would have been repelled by the red brick and tweed like mace to the face. If you’re going in, right now, it has to be with complete commitment; lever fully down; all in or nothing.

To be honest, it’s not a difficult decision. I have no other interests, skills or opportunities – at least none that stand a chance of giving me a liveable salary, with work I can enjoy (sporadically, as it may be). It is a privileged life, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future.

But that’s not yet an answer. I am not just some book-polished pebble rolling down a hill, following the path of least impassability. Why I am getting myself into this?

I am getting myself into this because I like to do the kinds of things that this allows me to do. I love the creativity of thinking and writing about difficult, profound and often obscure things. I also recognise the value of occupying a social position that permits such indulgences, both materially and normatively.

It is, then, a matter of pursuing a profession that permits the inhabitation of a certain position, not the profession itself. I know this to be true for many, perhaps most (but certainly not all). I give less than a shred of a damn about the prizes and puffery; the clawing and climbing. To think, write, teach, learn – that is the allure.

One can certainly chase such things far beyond the gates of the university (indeed, on some counts it might help). However, even now and even in the all too foreseeable future, there aren’t too many places like it. And, with at least a foot in the door, I am prepared to risk said door slamming as the winds of decline bluster indifferently by.

These ideals, as naive and silly as they are, have consequences.

If I write, I want to write something that people want to read and will find rewarding. Of course, there are many genres in which this can be achieved, the genre of a PhD thesis being perhaps the least of them. And that is a sticking point. The more acquainted I become with the PhD as an institution and genre, the more it appears as an essentially conservative medium. That is, like all institutions, it exists to reproduce its own basic assumptions and is blithely oblivious as to what this precludes.

That is not to say that creativity is not possible from within the genre – it absolutely is (and it is frequently encouraged, I feel no lack of that). However, such creativity is achieved in spite of the genre, not because of it. The genre exists to mediocritise. The mediocritic is mediocratic, not in the sense that mediocrity is actively encouraged but in the sense that the basic contours of the landscape make mediocrity the path of least resistance. It is a gulley where fluids flow via the sharply downwards-carving median point. ‘Like it or not’ (and many don’t), this seems to be ‘just the way it is.’

Whenever I’m writing something that someone else will read – like now – I always have in the back of my mind a calculation of sorts. If it’s a mid-length piece that takes, say, an hour to read and 100 people read it, that’s 100 hours of human existence absorbed by that text. And so, it’d better be worth it.

Far more than peer review or my own sense of intellectual propriety, this is the standard that I feel obligates me to take what I’m doing seriously and to put everything that I have into it, however much of myself is available for that given thing (and of course it varies; right now it’s 01:37 and I feel that I should be sleeping). I don’t want my writing to just make sense, be logical, structured and so on, nor do I just want it to be fluid, readable, creatively phrased (although these are all fine, mediocre qualities).

It’s simple, really.  I want to write something good, something better, something rewarding. Maybe even something beautiful. Perhaps inspiring. Inspiring in that head-buzzing, pulsing sense that I've felt only a handful of times, reading words that have stuck with me, stuck to me, that have made me in their wake.

Not that I think I have achieved this yet (and certainly not right now). But whether or not I have achieved any of that, or even if I am capable of achieving that, is not the point. In fact, it’s beside the point.

If I can’t hold open the possibility of being more than a mid-level technician of academic cog-churning then I can’t get out of bed in the morning. That’s what it comes down to.

And this is the tricky thing with writing a PhD thesis. For a long time I’ve put myself under a lot of pressure to get to the point where I can write something good. Writing a thesis, however, is about writing something that’s good enough.

Ultimately, a thesis has a simple purpose: to be defensible in front of your examiners. However, behind that objective I find another that is in many ways more demanding and is certainly more troubling: to have something that is defensible to yourself.

Once it’s done, it’s done – a wise tautology. However, I cannot disengage the practical exigencies of this task from the very motivation that compels me to undertake it in the first place.

Whether or not I am capable of, some day, writing something genuinely, rewardingly creative, beyond the ponderous, blinkered, bureaucratic mush of, let’s be honest, the vast majority of academic writing, is uncertain – and, as I have said, really beside the point. I have to assume that I am capable of this in order for the initial risk that I am taking to amount to more than the utmost hypocrisy.

Not being content with the procedural attainment of a professional bauble (that’s nice but it’s not enough), I have to want something more. By the same token, I have to presume that anyone else who wants this can also achieve it. Not in the faux-aspirational sense of ‘you can do anything if you try hard enough’ (you can’t). It’s not about that because it’s not about me or anyone in particular. It’s about evading the fundamental hypocrisy of capitulating from the very beginning to the very things that the initial risk requires that I resist.

The above feels a little raw, perhaps inadvisable. However, I’ve come to feel recently that I’ve lost my nerve. Not become complacent exactly but lost the sense of urgency that I felt before returning to education (after a hiatus of six years).

And so, I have no doubts that I am doing the right thing in general (and it wouldn’t help much if I did). However, I still have to find a way through the maze of mediocritisation. My conjecture (at 01:51) is that a little more rawness, a little more nerve might be what’s needed.

Wednesday 29 March 2017

New essay on 'Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics'

We need to talk about truth. Or, more precisely, “post-truth.” As has been widely reported, shared, liked and ridiculed, this was the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016: “[R]elating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Although in use since at least the early 1990s, in the year of Brexit and Trump, post-truth was claimed as a kind of zeitgeist. Cue much pensiveness and gnashing of teeth.
A new essay on 'Post-Truth, Complicity and International Politics' that I wrote in response to recent debates on these issues has published at E-International Relations.

Writing about US politics at present is a bit like trying to nail jelly to a wall. I started writing the piece in the immediate aftermath of the Trump election in November. It was updated in the early part of the year to reflect various changes that had occurred by that point. Consequently, I didn't comment on some more recent contributions mentioned in a previous post.

So, this is really my attempt to make sense of the politics of nonsense that Trumpism embodies. It is, in this sense, an ongoing project; something of a collective work in progress.

I write particularly from my current disciplinary situation in International Politics (or International Relations, delete as appropriate). Nevertheless, this is a discussion that goes well beyond any academic circumstance.

I'm very glad to have it out there (even if I'm currently experiencing the customary apprehensiveness that comes from having one's own thoughts suddenly on public display!).

Sunday 19 March 2017

The need for humility and creativity in the face of 'post-truth'

PT Jackson has a very good post on Duck of MinervaFor Accuracy, Consequences, and Truth. A Personal Manifesto.
The Trump Administration’s proclamation of “alternative facts” to suit the arguments they wish to make, and the branding of journalistic outlets that demonstrate the inaccuracy of the President’s statements as “FAKE NEWS!!!” have prompted me to do something I am not normally inclined to do: to actively campaign for the value and integrity of a broadly scientific approach as an important input to public deliberation.
There's an old adage that seems to me to be rather pertinent here: Beware the General who plans for the previous war (because they are likely to lose the next one).

One reaction to the whole 'post-truth' thing has been to point out that politics was never truth-based in any meaningful sense. Politicians always lied. Truths were always multiple. This reaction basically says 'move along, nothing to see here.'

Another reaction has been to dust off the old 'Science Wars' tropes from the mid-1990s and blame 'postmodernism' for corrupting public morals and undermining rationality (as if a few literary theorists were running the world this whole time).

The first of these reactions is basically correct but nevertheless deeply, ponderously complacent. The second appropriately militates against this complacency but falls down by being extremely stupid.

And so PTJ's post is very welcome in falling into neither of these traps, having the humility to admit that the politics of truth the author hitherto practiced also had its shortcomings.

As far as this need for self-criticism goes, I think it comes down to this: To show the politics in truth claims is easy. At this point, we can pretty much do this in our sleep. It's practically automated.

Yes, everything is contestable and much of everything must be contested. But this is the battle cry of the previous war. There are much more difficult questions to be asked.

There will be no end of history, intellectual or otherwise.

Monday 27 February 2017

The prison house of disciplinarity and the poverty of paraphrasism

Working within a discipline is a tricky thing, particularly when your work doesn't fit at all neatly into any discipline in particular. Such are the quandaries of inter- trans- or multi-disciplinary, neatly summarised here:
Intradisciplinary: working within a single discipline.
Crossdisciplinary: viewing one discipline from the perspective of another.
Multidisciplinary: people from different disciplines working together, each drawing on their disciplinary knowledge.
Interdisciplinary: integrating knowledge and methods from different disciplines, using a real synthesis of approaches.
Transdisciplinary: creating a unity of intellectual frameworks beyond the disciplinary perspectives.
My PhD project involves writing a history of the concept of the environment, particularly in the 19th century. One basic methodological principle I have adopted is to work 'semasiologically' – that is, to take a word and explore its possible meanings as opposed to 'onomasiologically,' which takes a concept or thing and explores its possible significations.

Of course, these approaches are not mutually exclusive. However, prioritising the former has an important consequence: it is impossible to limit the study to pre-specified disciplinary domains. For example, while geographical uses of 'environment' are extremely important to the story I'm telling, they cannot be prematurely isolated from the popularisation of 'milieu' as a term in literary theory or linguistics.

Disciplinarily, I am housed within and funded by a department of International Politics, although I also have supervision from geography and the history of science. This is working out to be a very productive arrangement as it combines a substantial degree of intellectual freedom with a continual demand to think more intensively about the political consequences of what I'm working on.

So, clearly my work is inter- or multi-disciplinary, depending on how you look at it. It is also trans-disciplinary inasmuch as I am not just combining different areas of knowledge haphazardly or indifferently but also thinking about things that none of these 'boxes' really encourage (although, institutionally, they may to some extent facilitate).

However, it is perhaps easier to define the kind of disciplinarity that I am working against than what I am working towards. Obviously, nothing about this project is 'intra-disciplinary.' However, it seems to me that strict intra-disciplinarity is becoming more and more rare, at least in the areas that I am familiar with.

The aspect of disciplinarity that I would really see myself as resisting has more to do with the 'cross-disciplinary,' or perhaps a better term would be 'para-disciplinary.' This is something that I find to be particularly prevalent in International Relations, although by no means only there.

In a word, I would call it 'paraphrasism' – that is, the norm that a scholar residing within one discipline, looking to other disciplines for interesting ideas and then essentially paraphrasing these ideas, repackaging them for colleagues in their home discipline, makes not only an acceptable but a highly valued form of intellectual contribution to collective knowledge.

For example, within IR it is possible to be a scholar who works primarily on the philosophy of science. To varying degrees, ideas taken from disciplinary philosophy of science may be adapted to the specificities of IR; however, equally they may remain debated in the abstract among other IR-philosophers. Sometimes such debates do get to the point of going beyond what has been said elsewhere. However, the important point is that paraphrasing and 'bringing in' these ideas is considered to be original intellectual work in itself.

Such para-disciplinary repackagings seem to score highly on assessment metrics and are generally a sound route to professional success. I find this rather disappointing. I hasten to add that I'm not condemning or demeaning this sort of endeavour. It is worthwhile. However, it is also extremely limited.

I try to set myself quite different goals. If I am making use of ideas derived from the philosophy of science, the history of science and anthropology, I want my recombination and rethinking of these ideas to entail original contributions to each of these areas. That is, every significant adoption should entertain the possibility of productively feeding back on whence it came.

I hasten to add once again that this is extremely difficult to achieve and that I do not expect that I am any more capable of this than anyone else. It is difficult to add to any one area of knowledge, never mind several. However, this is rather beside the point. The important thing is to choose your implausible objectives very carefully – to construct one's own intellectual obligations in such a way as to make such a thing possible rather than foreclosed from the start.

I expect that this is not an altogether original thought. However, I don't know of anyone articulating it in quite this way. For example, in Why International Relations has Failed as an Intellectual Project and What to do About it (2001), Barry Buzan and Richard Little argue that the "semipermeable membrane that allows ideas from other disciplines to filter into IR, but seems to block substantial traffic in the other direction" amounts to their discipline's 'failure.' They propose that IR qua coherent, ontologically grounded discipline must have something to 'give back,' balancing the trade deficit with other coherent, ontological grounded disciplines, particularly sociology. That 'something' is the very thing that gives the discipline its 'ground': the concept of 'international systems.' Along very similar lines, in International Relations in the prison of Political Science (2016), Justin Rosenberg proposes that the discipline find its ground in the concept of 'political multiplicity' – it is this disciplinary heartland that will let IR scholars hold their heads high at the table of social sciences.

Personally, I have little interest in such intra- and inter-disciplinary politics. I have the luxury, at present, of ignoring such things. However, at some point, I will have to dress myself in the garb of one house or another. Clearly, my past and present institutional circumstances have effected my reference points for thinking about these things. Disciplinarity is certainly not something that can be shrugged off. It is an ongoing, continual conditioning effect operating via a variety of means, obvious and otherwise. Nor is it necessarily a bad thing – I mean it when I write that my situation in an IR department provokes me to think politically in a way that I would not elsewhere.

There is something of a tightrope to navigate. However, I won't content myself with paraphrasism, even if that would make for an easier life. I just find that altogether too boring.

Tuesday 14 February 2017

Isabelle Stengers on becoming a philosopher with Deleuze and Whitehead

Further to my last post on why I wouldn't feel comfortable calling myself a philosopher, Isabelle Stengers' recent essay in Roland Faber and Andrew Goffey's The Allure of Things is very interesting. She writes:
"I learned that I would become a philosopher when reading Deleuze and I experienced that philosophy is worth existing only if it accepts the risk of existing in the teeth of other practices, producing its own demanding concerns without needing to weaken theirs." (p.195)
That is more or less exactly my frustration with so many excessively pious and all-encompassing readings of 'geophilosophy.' She adds:
"If I learned what it feels to become a philosopher with Deleuze, it is with Whitehead that I learned what it means to answer this challenge by practicing philosophy as an openly speculative adventure."(p.196)
I must admit that I continue to feel un-carried away by Deleuze. The aspects of his thought I find compelling are those I find in either Stengers or Latour after him or James or Whitehead before (and with less intellectual indigestion). It may well be my failing.

Friday 3 February 2017

Away from 'theory as overlay'; or: On not being a philosopher

I make no claim to be a philosopher, although I philosophise (and maybe that is enough – need one philosophise well?). This reluctance perhaps derives from being Anglophone and thus born of a deeply anti-intellectual culture for which more or less the only legitimate meaning of 'philosopher' is as shorthand for a particular subsection of the academic profession (and not one given much respect).

However, the more philosophical reason for this reluctance is that I find myself ever more an empiricist. I am interested in ideas only if they do not lead away from experience but allow it to be extended or amplified in various ways. This is, I suspect, why I have always found a liking for pragmatism, actor-network theory, and so on.

Above all, I am sceptical – no, that is too polite: I cannot abide – the use of theory as overlay. That is, the situation where an abstract vocabulary becomes so sophisticatedly all-consuming that it does not enable surprising connections but rather precludes them – a universe unto itself. This is Whitehead’s "thought within a groove" – the stuff of the professional.

For example, I find myself unable to share the fascination of so many philosophically-inclined geographers* with the geophilosophy of Deleuze and Guattari. It seems to me that their conceptual vocabulary of territories and strata is, if anything, the least useful aspect of their continually transforming, runaway stagecoach of a philosophical project (I mean this as a compliment) for thinking about matters of earth, experience and politics.

By taking practically all of the conventional terms available to actors engaging in geographical/geological practices and making them into unconventional technical terms, there is no longer any easy way of relating the web of abstractions to said practices as such actors themselves describe them.

There is a decoupling at this moment that carves out 'philosophy' as an autonomous space. I cannot abide that space. In this much, I am not a philosopher.

This is not to suggest that words should not be made and remade in abstraction from convention – they should. However, as counterintuitive as it may be, it seems to me that a creative conceptual universe made from the lexicon of geography might be less useful for geography than a conceptual universe made from something else.

This would not be such a problem if the likes of D&G were read more creatively and less, for want of a better word, 'professionally.' There is a remarkable lack of creativity – indeed, often outright piety – in the parsing of these thoughts as though they were to be a system adequate to an object.

Theory as overlay is incapable of astringency, as Isabelle Stengers describes that term:
"[…] the function of scientific thought has less to do with its ‘truth’ than with its astringent effects, the way it stops thought from just turning in self-satisfying circles."
Self-satisfaction is a vice of the intellect.

*I'm not a geographer either but let's save that for another day.