Monday, 26 January 2015

Brains and patterns

Of course the brain matters! What would we be without its exquisite, sometimes agonising, sensitivity to the subtly rippling, ripping rhythms of significance that pass through us (that is, if we are lucky)? But no amount of prodable fleshiness makes the brain ontologically prior to that for which it is the sense organ: patterns. It is what it is because there are patterns—that is to say, repetitions, reproductions. And yet there was a day, some time ago, when patterns were, for the first time, sensed. And this was an event in the history of patterns.

Culture makes life worth living?

Levi Bryant has some more reflections on the ontology of culture and ecology.

I find Peter Sloterdijk interesting on these questions. He generally cites Heiner Mühlmann's The Nature of Cultures when he wants to talk about cultures as entities. Sloterdijk's mixing of this kind of socio-biology and grand, sweeping Spenglerian history makes me a little uneasy but it is interesting. Understanding cultures as tensegretic structures (i.e. as holding together in relations of tension) makes a lot of sense.

Although, of course, the temptation is to understand culture as cultivation, as care, as enriching and enlivening. In this sense culture could be understood as a kind of surplus that arrives when beings achieve more complex modes of existence than simple Darwinian selection (Elizabeth Grosz makes more or less this argument). A kind of froth of irreducibility that rises up from natural selection without ever leaving it (but that's the limitation of this metaphor: it suggests epiphenomenality).

Culture is 'what makes life worth living' for beings self-sensitive enough to need a 'life worth living.' (Here 'culture' is very close to Sloterdijk's 'sphere.') It is not what transcends life but what mediates the deadly contradiction of consciousness—at first, anyway; and then it has 'a life of its own.'

It is not a spiritual supplement but, on the contrary, a profoundly down-to-earth necessity. A history of its invention, or rather of its innovations, would require the consideration of far more than cave paintings and string quartets. It would be a nonsensical overreach to say that 'the heart cultivates the blood' or somesuch but do the evolving aesthetics of sexuality cultivate the becoming-reproduced of the sexualised organism? That isn't nonsensical to say.

And so 'nature,' whatever that may be, should have no quarrel with culture; nor should this pair be in need of any 'mediation' of the dialectical sort. If culture is what itself mediates the emergent problems of highly self-sensitive vitality then culture certainly cannot be confused with bio-nature but nor should it be seen as something laid on top of it, an embellishment. Stones and stars might have no need of it but it is easily understood as woven into the biological fabric of living beings of all sorts.

Monday, 19 January 2015

"We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks."—Latour in Le Monde

In an op-ed to appear in Le Monde tomorrow (and somehow already available in English translation courtesy of Tim Howles), Bruno Latour waxes polemical on the Charlie Hebdo murders:
We have to face up to the facts: these killers were good French folks. Yes, we’ve received a wound, but not one that has come from the outside. After all, can it be said that those who marched, with good reason, in protest at the crimes committed by these murderers have never in turn acclaimed the ‘necessary sacrifices’ that have been imposed upon us all by ‘the inevitable march of modernisation’, even if this also had to involve violence? 
If we are to declare war, then, it must be declared against ourselves. After all, what is the origin of the dream (even if it is a dream that long since turned into a nightmare)? It has always had the same source, a source that has not yet run dry: it comes from certain people who believe they possess a knowledge that is so absolute that they have the right to impose it without having to take into account the necessary brakes of law, of politics, of morality, of culture or of simple good sense. It comes when certain people in the name of the utopia of a paradise on earth assume to themselves the right to impose hell on those who hesitate or don’t obey fast enough. We will not be able to fight against these new criminals until we understand that, behind their archaic appearance, they are above all fanatical modernizers. 
As Eric Voegelin has shown, modernity begins in earnest when religion loses its uncertainty and becomes the realization on earth of that which should be kept for the beyond. The modernizer is one who is convinced that he can achieve the goals of religion by means of politics. But eventually, as once again Voegelin has shown, religion is cast aside: all that remains is politics – whether of the left or of the right – claiming for itself the absolute certainty borrowed from a religion that did not possess it.
These arguments are not altogether new for Latour. Indeed, he writes much the same thing in his 2002 pamphlet War of the Worlds: What about Peace? However, this is, I think, the most direct, angry and really quite bluntly pointed political text that he has written to date.

But if modernity begins with the fateful crossing of depluralised religion with violent transcendence then at what precise juncture was modernity inaugurated? To insist upon the historicity of a thing is not, in itself, to historicise it. So, when then? Was it with what Jan Assmann (who Latour cites extensively in his Gifford Lectures) calls 'The Mosaic Distinction' roughly 3,400 years ago?

It is a strange kind of modernity that predates Christ by a millennium and a half. Such a modernity could not be understood as an historical period but rather as an ongoing project, criss-crossing, demolishing and overlapping with all sorts of others. Less a segment of time than a mode of being...

In this case then Islamism and colonialism would be scarcely periodically distinguishable, practically concurrent (and existentially joined at the hip). The distinguishing feature of colonialism would be its more direct entanglement with another historical, or rather geohistorical, period around three times the length of the post-Mosaic era: the Holocene (c. 11,700 years BP).

So Latour concludes:
For ultimately, while the jihadists threaten us with apocalypse, they hardly seem to notice that another apocalypse is looming, compared to which, just like their predecessors, they have no weapons at all.
Turf-wars, Earth-wars, wars of the most pathetic gods—facing their true enemies is seemingly a luxury that human collectives of all sorts refuse to afford themselves.

It is quite a burden on the reckoning, this geopolitical landscape. Concrete chunks of time measuring in the thousands and tens of thousands of years sit alongside the most fragile and exact ethnographies; continent-spanning industrial infrastructures and planet-circling satellite networks abut polite dinner table conversations and the most horrific flesh-splaying bullet scatter as if 'the collapsing of space' had simplified precisely nothing. It is a crushing, tragic vista. Not quite 'inexplicable' but, undeniably, an explanation would be beside the point.

Not to see 'the whole' but to see enough of all the most relevant parts and to make sense of most of them. Every version I've seen yet has been too exclusive, or has excluded the wrong parts in one way or another. But there is something here—a need, at least.

Fernand Braudel once spoke of the "desire and need to see on a grand scale." Draped in the indulgences of his culture and ensconced in the security of his leather-bound centre of calculation, he could afford himself such desires and such needs were self-explanatory. He could not see what we see now on a daily basis, in high-definition, we screaming angels of our present. To rise above and see everything—would not the most ice-hearted weep themselves to nothing?

To see enough. But of what? That's a question few are asking. The right to look and the right to be unseen—these relentlessly dissonate against each other like great forgetful pendula. It would change everything if we understood that understanding is a form of being and that it is truly a variety of thread in the latticework of the planet—a plant fibre among plant fibres. Moreover, that, like any invasive species, if it were to overgrow it would suffocate the world. To know enough. But of what? I fear that there is no good or right answer to that question.

This music is making me melancholic. But I wouldn't change one grain of it.

Saturday, 17 January 2015


Just out in the UK, I can't say much more than see this film—and in a cinema. The louder the better. Wow. Just wow.

Whether you have the slightest interest in jazz drumming or not, this is a breathtaking piece of cinema; heart-pounding from the first minute to the last with barely a pause for breath. And the ending. Well, every music movie ends with a set piece like that but ... never quite like that. Amazing.

"Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure."

"It is often suggested that Communism was such a failure in the countryside partly because Marx, a bookish townsman, was not attuned to the needs of agriculture. This is true enough, but the real issue goes deeper than that. Marxism was lacking not merely in the understanding of agriculture but in the understanding of ecology and therefore of history itself. Marxism was primarily a theory of history—but of human history alone, whence—to a large extent—followed its failure. It was an extreme case of the modernist failure to understand humanity's place in nature."—Reviel Netz, Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity, p.180.
I've just finished re-reading Reviel Netz's extraordinary book Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. It is not at all a book about Marxism or, even, about ecology per se. It is a work of environmental history, of geopolitical topology, of not historical materialism but historical materiology—of how a particular material, barbed wire, become part of the 'natural' (understood not as 'beyond-the-human' but simply as 'taken-for-granted') environment of a litany of historical actors in the late nineteenth and early to mid twentieth-centuries—from the Great Plains to the Boer War, to the trenches, to the Gulag, to Auschwitz.

Ian Hacking's short review summarises it well.

It is a remarkable book in a whole number of ways. Its style of argumentation is disarmingly direct and to the point; unmistakeably angry but almost surgically lucid in its analytical incisiveness. It is a deeply ontologically and philosophically sophisticated work but not one that dwells at any moment on its concepts. The bulk of the text is a matting of expertly crafted asides but these never for a moment fail to get drawn tightly and neatly back into the narrative.

It's a model for environmental history and for historical geopolitics. For a book first published in 2004, I don't think that it has received anything like the attention that it deserves.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

John Adams—The Dharma at Big Sur

It's been a long time since I've heard a new piece of music (new to me) that has truly taken my breath away—too long. But now this:

It's something I really should have listened to before. I've loved Steve Reich and Philip Glass for a long time and I knew of John Adams as someone related to them but I'd only ever heard his operas, which, while nice...—I just don't like operas. But this piece for solo electric violin and orchestra just blows my mind. (NB I prefer the Leila Josefowicz version but the above is free.)

Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The last book I'll read this year: Peter Sloterdijk's 'Globes'

I haven't kept a list of the books I've read this year but I know what will be the last I'll read (as I've just finished reading it): the second volume of Peter Sloterdijk's Spheres trilogy, Globes.

At 1,019 pages it is a veritable breeze-block of book. However, while somewhat time-consuming, it is lucidly written and so full of illustrations that the 1000+ page count is in fact somewhat illusory. Moreover, much of the final chapter has previously appeared in another book: In the World Interior of Capital (sections 1-10 and 13-30 of Interior appear in Globes).

While meandering and ponderous in places, the journey is well worth enduring. It is a quite monumental achievement, the purpose of which one only really begins to glimpse towards the end of volume 2.

The book is obviously unsummarisable and so I won't bother. However, I'll be looking forward to the third instalment, whenever Wieland Hoban gets round to finishing that translation (he does a very good job, by the way). I have a copy of the third volume in French but am only planning on reading snippets of it in that format. With my language skills, reading the whole thing would take me up to this time next year!

Next up, if my brain can handle it (it's sore), is Isabelle Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead. I've made two attempts at this book in the past and failed to make it more than half way through. It isn't the kind of book one can read a bit here, a bit there. It demands sustained periods of close attention, which I've struggled to find the time/energy/wherewithal for. I perhaps wasn't ready for it in the past but I'm feeling confident this time around!

My top ten films of 2014

I watched a lot of films this year. Of those released (in the UK) in 2014 here are some of the best:

1) Under The Skin: Mesmerising, disturbing and haunting on every level. Something utterly, brilliantly singular. The pick of a very good bunch.

2) Pride: I cried with laughter, joy, sadness and regret for the loss, or near loss, of a world where solidarity still meant something. Achieving its seamless combination of politics and entertainment is a brilliant achievement.

3) Boyhood: It's amazing that no one has tried this before—although perhaps no one else could have pulled it off. Watching these people age before your eyes in this way is more moving than I thought possible. A perfectly realised vision.

4) Two Days, One Night [Deux jours, une nuit]: Marion Cotillard's portrayal of the egg-shell fragility of depression is heartbreakingly on the mark and the manner in which she musters the strength to discover and accept the love, friendship and solidarity of those around her when it really does seem like the world is against her is astounding. No film has stayed with me more than this one this year.

5) Frank: Funny, brilliantly constructed and with some incredible music. Maggie Gyllenhaal learned the theremin for her role in this film. Nuff said.

6) Leviathan: A complex, intelligent and brave piece of film-making. Utterly without the upliftingness of the other political films on my list but perhaps its lead-coat fatalism is an important counterpoint. Also, no one does alcoholism like Russian alcoholics. Blimey.

7) The Grand Budapest Hotel: Yes, it looks like a cake—but what a cake! Stylised to within an inch of its life but erring just on the right side of brilliant.

8) The Past [Le passé]: A perfectly constructed drama that somehow has all the twists and turns of a thriller. Bérénice Bejo's performance I can only describe as the most explosively kinetic I've ever seen.

9) Calvary: Clunky and heavy-handedly allegorical at times but with a redeeming charm and thoughtfulness. All in all a very clever look at the place of the Catholic Church in Irish society without ever for a moment being, dare I say it, preachy.

10) Blue Ruin: Shoe-string film-making at its best. There are other films I enjoyed more this year but I can't leave this one out. I'll never be able to watch a 'revenge thriller' in the same way again and it's not often that a film permanently transforms your sense of a genre.

And ten of the rest that didn't make it into the above:

The Lego Movie: I enjoyed this as much as any film this year but it is essentially a feature length advert...

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rip-roaring fun. Didn't see Chris Pratt as a muscle-rippling movie star but he wears it very well indeed. Can't wait to see future instalments.

Maps to the Stars: It's quite amazing that Julianne Moore's paranoid, narcissistic monster of a character isn't even the nastiest on show. A dark-hearted piece, for sure.

Snowpiercer: I liked it but didn't love it. It's an interesting concept and was very well realised but I found it to drag a little. I'm not sure why I didn't like it more.

Locke: The kind of film that cannot possibly sound as good on paper as it does on the screen. A bravura one man show from Tom Hardy. I can't imagine anyone else in the role.

Nightcrawler: Very nearly in my top 10. A spot-on satire of the horror economy of cable news with a spookily gaunt and superlatively sociopathic Jake Gyllenhaal.

Mr Turner: Timothy Spall is brilliant and the story was perfectly interesting. However, not exactly life-changing. Probably a little over-hyped.

Foxcatcher: Again, brilliant performances (particularly from Steve Carrell although Channing Tatum's emotionally stunted athleticism is also well done) but not enough to put it anywhere near my top 10.

Cold in July: Michael C. Hall is never less than excellent and this film hops genres with aplomb.

Interstellar: A stunning spectacle (I'd love to see it in IMAX) but 'problematic', as cultural critics like to say.

(Other films could have featured depending on what one counts as the release date. I've counted 12 Years a Slave as a 2013 release, as most people seem to have done. Inherent Vice isn't out here yet but I'm looking forward to it.)

I've by no means seen everything that I've wanted to. Particularly notable in their absence: Ida, The Imitation Game, Winter Sleep, '71, Citizenfour, Merchants of Doubt, The Golden Dream. I'll hopefully catch up with at least a few of these over what remains of my Christmas break (which, so far, has been anything but!).

Monday, 15 December 2014

Call for Papers, RGS-IBG 2015: 'Rethinking possibilism for an Anthropocenic geopolitics'

Because I don't have enough going on in my life already, I've decided to put together a session proposal for the RGS-IBG* conference next year on 'Geographies of the Anthropocene.' Despite having a perfectly serviceable blog (and the conference organisers putting calls up on their own site), I've given the CfP its own page:

Looks much nicer that way (and doesn't really take any more time than posting it on here).

In brief:
Possibilism, as opposed to environmental determinism, is a concept perhaps better known to writers of disciplinary textbooks than debaters of cutting edge theory. This session is motivated by the conviction that, given the geopolitical challenges of the Anthropocene, this should change.

*That's Royal Geographical Society/Institute of British Geographers, for the uninitiated.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Police violence at Warwick University

The, to put it politely, heavy-handedness perpetrated by police officers against student demonstrators at Warwick University this week was shocking if not exactly surprising. As we have learned several times over the past few years, universities around the world now protect their hierarchy first and their students second. Likewise, the police are now seemingly incapable of distinguishing young people acting disobediently but legitimately from errant lumps of flesh to be first aggravated and then pacified by whatever means are necessary. Both these are common threads running through far more than this one isolated case.

(Link to other relevant resources, including an alumni petition. This open letter at Critical Legal Thinking is particularly excellent in its composed forcefulness.)

The Vice Chancellor's personal response is a masterpiece of contorted vacuity, including this gem:
I, like many others, have been saddened by the images of what then occurred which saw police and students having to engage in and resolve an unnecessarily challenging situation which led on from the actions of one individual.
The 'one individual' in question being a student who is alleged to have assaulted a member of university security personnel. For this the police were called and from that, for reasons yet to be explained in anything even approaching a satisfactory manner, the police felt the need to CS gas students at close range, drag a young woman around by her scarf and threaten others with a Taser electro-shock weapon (as Amnesty rightly insist upon it being called).

Whatever any individual may or may not have done, the fact that this kind of police behaviour on campus can be shrugged off as a 'challenging situation' is deplorable. Incidents of this sort have been more or less normalised in recent years and the wilful acquiescence of the 'powers that be' to this situation (as with every other blight on the university sector) is shameful.

It is most telling that the VC declines to comment directly on the actions of police but is perfectly happy to insinuate that all blame for this incident lies with the 'individual' (whose actions remain alleged). Even if this individual is found guilty of whatever it is they are claimed to have done, that doesn't justify the police's behaviour in dealing with what was by all accounts, up to their arrival, an otherwise placid and legitimate sit-in. That university suits are willing to hang one individual out to dry to save the blushes of the police speaks volumes of their priorities and makes a mockery of their duty of care.

How all this contrasts with Lawrence Green, an MA student at Warwick, who gave a wonderfully eloquent response to the incident, as a representative of the student perspective, on Channel 4 News a couple of nights ago. He argues the case far better than I can, and has more right to do so.

While the University's administrators are probably just trying to do what is best, in their view, for their institution, the contrast between their mealy-mouthed missives and the eloquent, passionate poise of their students is stunning. If only the suits could realise that it is precisely this sort of intelligent passion that their institution is there to cultivate. If only they still had some sense, from beneath the crushing decades of paperwork and commercialisation, of what they are actually there for...

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Monbiot on Britain's feudal present—an interesting case for agnotology

George Monbiot has been one of the most rigorous journalists in Britain for a long time now, if not the most (who else publishes footnotes with every article?). He's also surely one of the most diverse. Today's article on land ownership in Britain is a particular tour de force. (Entirely incidentally, apparently it's also the first he's written using voice recognition software. I don't know if it has affected his style, as he suggests, but there's certainly nothing wrong with it.)
The Scottish programme for government is the first serious attempt to address the nature of landholding in Britain since David Lloyd George’s budget of 1909. Some of its aims hardly sound radical until you understand the context. For example, it will seek to discover who owns the land. Big deal? Yes, in fact, it is. At the moment the owners of only 26% of the land in Scotland have been identified.
I've become interested in land politics in general recently and am going to be reading much more on it in the near future; however, it's this sort of agnotology (the study of ignorance or doubt) that really fascinates me. So much has been written on how knowledge is produced but relatively little on how it's prevented; so much on connection, so little on disconnection.

This also links very much to another issue Monbiot has written a lot about: tax havens. The production of ignorance and evasion of tax are closely linked—indeed, tax evasion/avoidance is largely to do with the production of ignorance with regard to who owns what where and when. It's all about having your cake and eating it too (paywalled article), as Ronen Palan has argued most ably—receiving the benefits of state protection without the responsibilities. And this is achieved largely by controlling access to information.

It's interesting that land ownership and taxation have risen together as issues here in Britain in the past few years, alongside the financial crises. Indeed, land and tax are tied closely together in Monbiot's article:
Consider Scotland’s determination to open up the question of property taxes, which might lead to the only system that is fair and comprehensive: land value taxation. Compare it with the fleabite of a mansion tax proposed by Ed Miliband, which, though it recoups only a tiny percentage of the unearned income of the richest owners, has so outraged the proprietorial class that some of them (yes, Griff Rhys Jones, I’m thinking of you) have threatened to leave the country. Good riddance.
Why is it that a tax on mansions can have such political purchase but one on land so little? Perhaps sprawling fields and woods turned into grouse hunting grounds don't scream opulence and wastefulness like the oversized and over-marbled pseudo-palaces of celebrity millionaires. But they probably should.

Reflections on An Inquiry into Modes of Existence as an experiment in the digital humanities

In the last week of July this year, I had the good fortune of attending the concluding workshops of Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence project. I've written several posts on and deriving from this in the past; however, I've not really reflected on the event itself as an experiment ‒ which is what it was; an experiment in the digital humanities. (See also this by Consuelo Vasquez.)

We were to play a 'Serious Game' ‒ that is, to test, trial and interrogate the 'Report' (i.e. the AIME book) produced by Latour as his 'Anthropology of the Moderns.' However, we were not at liberty to simply set about 'critiquing.' The attendees were divided into several roundtables that worked independently on politics, religion, economy, nature and diplomacy, respectively. Each table was to, first of all, review and synthesise the many contributions submitted to the project website. By the end of the week, we had to collectively write a 'Specbook' containing our indispensable values and requirements that would inform, first, the public seminar to be held the following week in which the chargés d'affaires (Barbara Cassin, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Annemarie Mol, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Deborah Danowski, Peter Weibel, Simon Schaffer, Clive Hamilton) would, each in their own way, begin to edge towards 'facing Gaia'; and, secondly, the eventual rewriting of the Report. At the end of each day, there was a plenary session where the groups came together and debated their findings.

At this point I should mention my own struggles ‒ travails, as we say in English... ‒ with having only the most rudimentary grasp of the French language. The roundtable on politics was held primarily in English (and this is were I spent the first part of the week); however, the plenary sessions were almost entirely in French (and with perfect justification since I was the only non-French speaker in attendance!). Although I was greatly aided by the interpretations of Cormac O'Keefe and Stephen Muecke, the most immediate consequences of this linguistic disjuncture were that (a) my head hurt a lot and (b) whenever I opened my mouth I ran the very serious risk of making a fool of myself, having only understood about 10% of what was going on. (Sure enough, that happened. However, I more or less got through the week in one piece!)

But back to the point. The thing that strikes me most about the way all this worked, retrospectively, is the very partial realisation of the 'game' aspect. Certainly, this was never going to be a run-of-the-mill academic workshop since we were playing a 'Serious Game' under quite unconventional conditions. However, it was not quite a 'role playing game' (something like a Model United Nations) either since there was no clearly defined narrative nor prescribed characters. As 'gamers' we were surely playing characters ‒ but those characters were, seemingly, ourselves.

The whole format of the event was consequently approached from an array (perhaps, at times, a disarray) of perspectives. At times it seemed as though every participant had their own idea of what was going on (though this may have been an impression imposed by my aforementioned linguistic marginality). This was liberating inasmuch as it permitted the event to evolve ‒ diverging, converging and improvising ‒ as it progressed. However, this freedom was by no means uncurtailed. The plenary session effectively acted as a 'sovereign voice' that stamped down on this or that, approving or denying certain lines of conjecture.

In other words, it was never completely clear what the rules were but it was occasionally made very clear what they were not. This is how the experiment was able to hang so loosely without falling apart altogether. (Schmitt, and so on...)

These occasionally crossed purposes, and the practical misalignments that resulted, came to a head particularly in the discussions of diplomacy (a roundtable that I participated in towards the end of the week). Every table was under instruction to 'deflate' its subject matter, and to do so both simultaneously and symmetrically. A deflated politics without a correspondingly humilous economy would be neoliberal; a deflated religion without its matching politics would be a cold and aggressive secularism, and so on. The diplomacy table interpreted its remit as covering both anthropology and philosophy. It then, and this was certainly the overwhelming judgement, inflated these institutions to a degree earning the label 'Kantian.' This really didn't go down well. The balloon burst.

Upon reflection, I think that the whole experiment may have worked better if it had been more of a 'role playing game' and, in that sense, more intensively fictionalised. Some attendees (myself included) were, at times, labouring under the misapprehension that we (the attendees) were ourselves 'diplomats.' It seems to me now that we should have thought of ourselves as, at most, attachés. We were doing nothing more than preparing briefing papers based upon our own, partial, naive perspectives (plus the electronic augmentations afforded by the contribution-collecting website), towards a negotiation that would be decidedly 'above our pay-grade.' The 'middle ground' was indeed the issue but it was not we who would go there.

Nevertheless, it was enormously refreshing and exciting to participate in an intellectual exercise that broke the usual conference/workshop format where various researchers assemble, read their pre-written papers, eat, drink and then fly back to wherever it is they came from. If this experiment seeds more creativity in the manners and modes by which ideas get debated and texts get drafted then it will have been a success for that alone.

However, on that point, a final difficulty sticks in my mind in particular: the difficulty of speaking under a condition of the suspension of 'true belief.' In other words, in order to participate in a game one does not act solely on the basis of one's own sense of self but, rather, upon the instructions received, the roles given or taken up. One must speak from a subject position that is not 'oneself' but is already the result of the displacement that necessarily occurs in anticipation of negotiation.

This happened, I think, only fleetingly and inconsistently. The participant to have adopted such a pose most explicitly was the chargé d'affaires Simon Schaffer,   who made a point of embodying a diplomatic persona and thus not 'saying what he really thinks.' While there were many personae flying about the place, I'm not convinced that the specific form of detachment necessary for the diplomatic game was widely achieved ‒ at least not as widely as it could have been. Indeed, some clung to their 'true beliefs' with a passion.

To be 'detached' with regard to any firm, pre-given ground but not, for that reason, 'disinterested' ‒ such discursive techniques are still to a large extent awaiting if not their invention then certainly their adoption.

And this brings me back to my previous remarks: the experiment only partially broke free of the conventions and standards of existing academic discursive formats. At times the 'game' relapsed into something much more closely resembling a conventional 'conference' or 'workshop' than, I think, was intended. The gravitational pull of engrained habits remained too strong and the deterritorialisation effected by the territorialising motions of the 'rules of the game' was too weak precisely because the rules themselves were too weakly specified. Truly leaving the orbit of arbitrary convention would, however counter-intuitively, have required a stronger and more arbitrary imposition of a counter-convention for the purposes of the game. Stronger, more challenging rules, roles and narratives would have meant a greater pull towards dissociating 'true belief' from speech-action and would, therefore, have established a more diplomatic event, a more thoroughly and impressively prepared 'middle ground.'

That said, I count myself very fortunate to have played a part in this experience ‒ perplexed, furrow-faced, pain-brained onlooker though I so often was!

Monday, 1 December 2014

'The legal, the material, and the geophysical' ‒ Rachael Squire on Warwick postgrad political geography conference

I spent Thursday and Friday last week at the University of Warwick's 2014 postgraduate conference on political geography.

Rachael Squire of Royal Holloway has written up an excellent summary review of the proceedings. She also presented an outstanding paper on the sometimes weirdly creative territorial geopolitics found in the dispute between Gibraltar, Britain and Spain.

I didn't present anything ‒ or, indeed, submit an abstract to that end ‒ as I'm (a) up to my eyeballs in work as it is (article revisions, PhD applications, a full-time job...) and (b) not a graduate student at the moment anyway. However, it was nevertheless a fascinating and enjoyable event (perhaps even more so as I didn't have to worry about what I was going to have to say!).

'The Great Hedge of India' ‒ a work of historical materiology

As regular readers may have noticed, I've started to write short blog posts about books I've just finished reading and films I've just seen (when they're of some political or philosophical interest).

The last book of this kind that I've finished is Roy Moxham's The Great Hedge of India. I won't write too much in the way of description as Oliver Dixon wrote a nice summary on the Royal Holloway critical geopolitics blog a couple of weeks ago:
"British colonial history tells many remarkable tales, none more so than the story of the Great Hedge of India. This relatively unknown story was rediscovered recently by author, Roy Moxham. He tells of a botanical and architectural structure, an impenetrable 8ft high hedge, 1500 miles long, that stretched across Central India. How is it that a wall, comparable to The Great Wall of China, has completely vanished from the story of the British Raj? And what relevance does it have to bordering today?"
It's a fascinating book, engagingly written. Stylistically it's a mixture of personal travelogue and academically inflected journalism. It isn't especially dramatic or action packed but the way in which British colonial history is intertwined with techniques of violence, cartography and fortification, as well as the cruel, 'bare life' biopolitics of the salt tax is tremendous.

It is the epitome of what one might call trajectorial thinking, trajectorial geopolitics ‒ another more major exponent of this being Reviel Netz's magnificent Barbed Wire: An Ecology of Modernity. By this I mean that it does not begin with a domain and attempt to understand it as a whole that must be separated from other domains 'for analytical reasons'; moreover, it doesn't attempt to explain the whole's parts on the basis of systemic functions but, rather, works through an array of threads that cut across a complex, indeterminately delimited space, tracing cascades of action and reaction that, when knotted together, build up a partial picture of a world in motion. It is a kind of historical materiology.

The interesting historical materiological connection between Netz's and Moxham's books can be found in Nicholas Blomley's wonderful article Making Private Property: Enclosure, Common Right and the Work of Hedges (may be paywalled). Blomley refers to thorn bushes, such as those used in the Indian hedge, as 'organic barbed wire.' Before the developments that Netz traces, it was precisely these plants that were technologically enrolled in order to enclose spaces, for various reasons. These methods had many drawbacks.

The hedge that Moxham traces was only necessary but also only possible due to the extremely lucrative tax on salt imposed by the British. The hedge was costly to both build and maintain and, with its raison d'etre removed, it rapidly disappeared to such an extent that it was almost completely forgotten about. Barbed wire was not only cheap but also, crucially, inorganic and hence durable. On the battlefields of the World War I, it took enormous barrages of shelling to even partially dissolve the roll after roll of barbed wire that were lethally strewn between the trenches. By enrolling iron rather than various fragile, slow growing and imperfectly violent plant species, history was irreversibly transformed.

Read alongside Netz and Blomley, Moxham's work seems not only interesting but also profound. Were we to have more trajectorial accounts such as these, the world we perceive in motion through such mediators might be better understood.

How wolves change rivers and whales change climate through trophic cascades

After the very popular How Wolves Change Rivers, now How Whales Change Climate, narrated by George Monbiot.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Launched into the stars by their own bootstraps: The American post-imperial anxiety of Interstellar; or, The anti-Gravity

***Some minor spoilers in the following***
"Humanity was born on Earth. It was never meant to die here."
A little behind the curve, perhaps, but I finally got around to seeing Interstellar this week. First thing to say is that it’s a terrific piece of entertainment. The 169 minutes fly by in no time. Beyond that, it’s a really interesting film for a number of reasons; however, my impression of it differs from most of the reviews that I’ve read.

It’s a film that’s premised on ecology, set in space, sold on the basis of science and tells everyone that it’s all above love. However, my first reaction (second, if you count watching the trailer) is this: it is, quite unambiguously, a film about American post-imperial anxiety.

The quasi-ecological element is really just a narrative crutch; an external cause qua fig leaf; a reason for the empire’s decline that is entirely unattributable to the empire itself; a blameless (and, crucially, carbon-neutral) act of God that sets the wheels of the narrative in motion. The fact that the larger part of the film is set in space is really just a matter of genre. Its only importance in terms of the film’s subtext is that outer space is the only medium into which the (Final) Frontier can now be comprehensibly extended; the only direction in which there are still lands weak enough to conquer. (The lands beyond are fearsome and cold, but infinitely less so than the future of the irremediably dying Earth – it is in this precise sense that Interstellar is the anti-Gravity.) The early parts of the film doff their cap sufficiently to their physicist attachés to lend it all Nolan’s signature air of vérité and to partially placate imagination-phobic militants of ‘hard sci-fi,’ while locating it tonally (if not ontologically) within the zeitgeisty aesthetic footprint of Gravity. The film glorifies techno-science but this is hardly what it’s about. Likewise, although the somewhat overbearing quasi-spiritual message that it’s really all above Love that transcends time and space has been repeated time and again, this is really just a through-line that holds everything together. It’s only ‘all above love’ if you stay strictly on the surface and believe everything that you’re told to believe.

The film opens in a near-future, Midwestern USA where everything is pretty much exactly the same as the present, only worse. Every value, convention, pastime and social structure (besides capitalism) seems to be intact only now everyone’s poor, covered in dust, thinks that the moon landings were faked and are rubbish at baseball. The world has gone to hell but in a manner where everyone is more or less ‘in it together.’ We are told briefly and offhandedly of bombs being dropped on food rioters at some point in the past but no one in the film is morally compromised or, indeed, visibly malnourished. Just dusty. It’s a relatively soft-lensed dystopia; yet it is a dystopia nonetheless. Above all, though, it is self-absorbed.

At no point does the film show any interest whatsoever in the rest of the world. The closest we come to an international perspective is in the opening moments where the family McConaughey take down an Indian surveillance drone through Dad’s ‘last of his kind’ techno-wizardry. Although, for no apparent reason, all non-agricultural forms of advanced technology have been rendered obsolete due to crop-blighted mass hunger (surely, given all we know about the world from the past century, this would make military technologies more valued rather than less?) this drone has been circling under its own solar power for years. Despite the daughter’s plea to let it go – ‘it wasn’t hurting anyone’ – the drone is salvaged for parts. (Tellingly, this is framed in quasi-evolutionary terms as 'adaptation' to the external, unnegotiable natural circumstances.) But, besides all that character development, what could be more humblingly post-imperial than an Indian drone circling American skies for decades unchallenged? It may have landed softly but its impact on an already wounded hegemonic psyche is obvious.

Fear of imperial decline has been a mainstay of US political discourse since the 1950s. Its most heavy-handed iteration in this film comes in the continual references (through the medium of inset talking heads) to the ‘Dust Bowl’ era of the 1930s. This humiliating, regressive ‘return of the repressed’ emblemises the fallenness of the Great Power. When McConaughey repeats the film’s tagline ‘we used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars … now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt’ he nearly spits his porch-supped beer on the grubby, only semi-fertile ground in disgust. Here this existential ‘geocentrism’ is to be understood as a tragic humiliation, a loss of all vitiating force, of all that would make life worthwhile; this is why I call it the anti-Gravity.

What way out of this? Nothing says ‘Space Age’ like the acronym NASA. Reduced to a rag-tag bunch of misfits and a few talking fridges though they may be, it is the ever benign (and now scandalously maligned) National Aeronautics and Space Administration that is the ultimate saviour of humanity. (Having said that ‘everything is the same, only worse,’ there is, as mentioned parenthetically above, no capitalism in this film. There seem to be three social categories: the ‘hard working families’ of goddarn, salt o’the earth farmer folk; the soft-handed but hardly well-heeled scientists in their middle-of-nowhere bunker; and, finally, the unseen remnants of state power providing the last scraps of techno-scientific resources to the would-be guardians of the human race. At least in the shreds of the world we are privy to, there is a certain ‘equality of poverty.’)

It is techno-science that is at the root of everything. If only ‘we’ could ‘dream big’ once again and not be so darned defeatist, the film seems to say, things will work themselves out. Optimism. Let’s launch ourselves into the stars by our own bootstraps! We need only one really, really smart girl/woman to solve just one equation and the universe is our oyster. Because science.

Finally, numerous commentators have pointed to the 1997 film Contact as a parallel to Interstellar, and for good reason. The important contrast that sticks out in my mind is that there is at least a semblance of internationalism in Contact in terms of how the single representative (and hence embodiment) of humanity is selected. Of course, that film operates in a benign state of civilisational non-devastation (and in a post-Cold War period when American power was perhaps at an all-time high and therefore needn’t be so jealously self-obsessed). Nevertheless, the contrast is striking. The candidate eventually chosen in Contact is, inevitably, American (despite being hilariously inappropriate for the role); nevertheless, at least there was some hesitation before installing the closed loop that would have American speak for Man as though this were the most obvious and natural thing in the world.

In short: there’s life in the Final Frontier yet. The subtext of this film could be readily summarised with the aid of Stephen Colbert’s brilliant book title America Again: Re-becoming The Greatness We Never Weren't. Of course, this Hollywood film is far too politically correct (and mindful of its global audience) to ever explicitly frame ‘America’ as its collective subjectivity. Its ‘we’ is always an abstract ‘humanity’ that the cast of Americans (besides the somewhat out of place Michael Caine) just happen to embody.

We are all familiar enough, I hope, with popular humanism to see straight through this ploy. The future space colonies that the film ultimately envisages fly stars and stripes. Yes, yes – ‘it’s just a film’ and one can read too much into these things but I can’t help but experience this film as being something like the death throes of the self-image of American world supremacy in its popular cultural form, faced with its half-denied anthropocenic non-future.

It's a magnificent spectacle, and that's really the point. It takes some extremely bright lights to make a film that is as backwards looking as this appear as though it is facing forwards. (But, for all that, I like it.)

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Gaia in woodcut—the artwork of Gordon Liddle

Some arresting images!

See more here. This is what the artist has to say about his work:
I have used Gaia as a metaphor for this print and a series of paintings (underway). She is shown in the print raising her arms below the symbol for the Sixth Extinction, borne by the two eagles. The Sixth Extinction (Holocene Extinction) is being triggered by humans by our treatment of the environment, recently accelerated to about 140,000 species per year. Huge population growth, resource depletion, deforestation, ocean trawling, dumping and industrialisation leading to climate change have exacerbated this event. Gaia stands within a paradise, mother nature, the earth in all its splendour, whilst on the other side are the humans with their processes of destruction: too many to place in a single woodcut, hence the series. The creatures (I’ve shown a few) are leaving Gaia and bound to extinction, ensnared by pollution and destruction. The remnants of humanity wail in despair at the spectacle, unable to stop their own demise. The science is overwhelming now, either we act or we perish. There is no planet B to escape if we destroy life here. My picture is a warning, a lament, my contribution to the debate on the future of humanity and our relationship with Gaia.
I would quibble the mother nature bit—indeed, the personification of Nature as Woman.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Henning Schmidgen—Bruno Latour in Pieces (some brief thoughts)

Peter Gratton wrote a short review of Henning Schmidgen's Bruno Latour in Pieces a couple of weeks ago. I had, at that point, only just started reading it and thought the review a bit harsh. Having now finished it, I think that I liked it more than Peter did overall. However, he was not wrong that its best moments are in the first 50 pages or so. Unlike him I wasn't so bothered that the book is quite light on explications of Latour's major texts. For me it just seemed to run out of the interesting anecdotes, asides and observations that pepper the earlier pages so delightfully.

The 'Science Wars' were covered but not in a great deal of detail. The manner in which Latour is occasionally heckled at public events could certainly have been dealt with (see, for example, this). That might have given some weight to the otherwise rather breezy (and admittedly very readable) air of the text.

One rather minor and grammar police-type point that bugged me a little: a spectacular underuse of commas. It's like the printers were charging them by the punctuation mark or something. I tend to overuse such things and there are grey areas in terms of their proper use; however, I thought that it began to impede readability. (Maybe it was just me.)

All in all, it's well worth a look but I could by no means put it in the 'must read' column for many readers. It's probably best for those who already have a good familiarity with Latour's work and are looking for some degree of fleshing out with regards to its background, particularly in the early days (those interested, for example, in Latour's work in Africa in the '70s should definitely find a copy). Provided that one doesn't pick it up expecting something especially systematic and rigorous it's a welcome addition to the secondary literature.

"that Mortall God" — Zvyagintsev's Leviathan; law, structure and the state

"This is the Generation of the great Leviathan, or rather (to speake more reverently) of that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace, and defence." — Thomas Hobbes

Although Andrey Zvyagintsev's highly (and justly) celebrated film Leviathan obviously connotes Thomas Hobbes' famous treatise, it should perhaps also be linked with one of Nietzsche's most famous lines, specifically when he called the state "the coldest of all cold monsters". 'Leviathan' gives this film not only its title but its whole sense of world; it is a film about structure, about the crushing, irresistible weight of this great, horrible, monstrous, but also mortal being.

If it can be summed up so simply, the film reflects on the immense, destructive, tragic but also transient force of assembled societal power; a power that seems utterly vast and yet will, in time, crumble like everything else. Churches will become ruins in which teenagers hang out, powerful leaders will become jokes (albeit private ones), whales will wash up and leave only their skeletons on the beaches.
"Canst thou draw out Leviathan with a fishhook?" (Job 41:1)
There is a strong sense of anger but also, overwhelmingly, futility in this film. Non-resistance seems to be the only means of survival for any of these characters (indeed, the Book of Job-speaking priest offers precisely this advice at one point). The protagonists perturb the status quo in the first act but, like a sturdy ship, it rights itself and it is as if that wave had never rolled in. The state's fragility (and here taking 'state' in its broadest sense, including the church, organised crime, and so on), its transience, its mutability is of no comfort to those caught up in its wheels and cogs. It is something that is only even really perceptible on a broader scale of time than that of a human life. It would take the whole 140 years that Job is said to have lived in order to make anything of this mortality. The skeleton on the beach, while deeply symbolic, doesn't suggest any real possibility of resistance. Structural mortality and fatalism come together, without contradiction.

There is far more to this film than I am able to go into here. Despite its bleak themes, it is often very funny and is beautifully shot. Many shots of the decaying ships in the harbour recall the cinema of Tarkovsky so strongly that had they been held for 50 seconds rather than 5 one could have been excused for mistaking parts of Leviathan for his Stalker.

In short, the film is about church, state, Russia past and present. The fact that it was sponsored by the Institute Of Modern Russian Culture is interesting in itself. The film treads an extremely fine and precarious line with regard to the current regime. Overt criticism is more or less avoided but the subtext sounds out like a foghorn. The various portraits of Putin hanging about the place, the Orthodox figures of Jesus staring from every mantlepiece (and dashboard), the scene with the portraits of past Russian leaders, the brief glimpse of the words 'Pussy Riot' on a TV screen. Iconographically the film is incredibly rich and it'd take someone far better qualified than me to do any of it justice. It is a remarkably critical film in many ways although clearly one that has elected to mind its historical moment (one character says precisely this in one of the film's most crucial political scenes — a scene that occurs, tellingly, far out in the wilderness, 100km from the small town in which the film is mostly set).

The one other thing I'd like to mention is the law. One of the most striking scenes in the film is found in a court room where the presiding official reads through the judgement so fast that the words become just a blur, a solid block of somehow insignificant signification, a stream of pronouncement without even the slightest hesitation; she barely even pauses to breathe and when she does it seems almost reluctant. It is a barrage, an avalanche, a volley of legalese. The force of the power on display is its total incontestability. Never mind 'getting in a word edgeways,' there is no gap for any objection whatsoever.

It is also quite amazing how surprised everyone at the police station and courts appear when the hotshot lawyer from Moscow swans in and presents them with legal argument (with the ever so naive belief that this will have some force). It is not only that they do not accept its force, it is that the very notion that they would appears to be the strangest thing in the world. 'What? That is not how things work here,' they seem to be saying. For the most part this is without any particular maliciousness (except for where the principle antagonist is concerned, who is nothing but malevolence, maliciousness and greed). It simply is not the way things are done. It is an alien proposition.

Here we are presented with the institution of law without its process. The hollowed out shell, the great fleshless ribcage of the social in a society corrupted, captured by organised crime of one sort or another. Although this is a film on the most ostensive level about law there is precious little legality within it. All legal utterances fall flat against an edifice that has simply rendered them not unspeakable but inaudible. (And here perhaps it would be interesting to reflect on the preoccupation of structuralism with speech — 'can the subaltern speak?' In the case of the main character, a socially privileged male in some respects but utterly incapable of engaging with bureaucratic formality on its own terms, he clearly cannot speak or act in the language of law. And yet when his incomparably more nuanced, cultured lawyer friend speaks for him in perfect, considered, calm but also forceful and pointed sentences he meets an infrastructure simply incapable of hearing his flawless, metropolitan speech acts.) This is a world in which law has, to all intents and purposes, died; reduced to procedure; reduced to a tool of power, of organisation.

Like so many excellent films, this one has, its excellence notwithstanding, perhaps been a little overhyped. I went into the screening with mildly overinflated expectations. It is not an epic. It is a low budget film with a relatively small cast but, most importantly, big ideas. It is the epitome of what film making should be; however, I certainly didn't find it to be life-changing or anything of the sort. An absolute must watch for anyone interested in political or legal theory, or simply anyone who likes slow moving, beautifully made, slightly dystopian tragedies. Since I tick all of those boxes it is a film that I'll be thinking about for some time to come.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

James, politics and prescriptive pluralism: part 2

Just to finish off what I raised in my last post now that I've finished that book (Kennan Ferguson's William James: Politics in the Pluriverse).

It's an easy read if a little tame; meek, even. Lightweight in both style and length (only 93 pages). Chapter 3 ('Sovereignty, Self-Determination and the Nation') is interesting as it ties James' pluralist political theory to International Relations literature (this hardly ever happens and so I'm very pleased when it does). Chapter 4 ('La philosophie américaine: James, Bergson, and intercontinental pluralism') does a good job of narrating James' relationship, personally and philosophically, with Henri Bergson. However, there is more to it than this. Particularly intriguing is a point made late in the chapter, specifically that James was popular in Russia around the turn of the century. This, of course, did not last.
For Lenin, of course, pluralism was inadmissible; one could not doubt what actions to take, nor admit to more than one possibly right approach. (64)
This would be an interesting case to develop further. The final chapter ('Onticology recapitulates philosophy') seems at times to posit a kind of 'object-oriented' James (Ferguson does discuss him in relation to object-oriented programming) but doesn't quite follow through; things never quite seem to achieve the status of differences that make differences, they are more like 'always-theres.' However, Ferguson certainly makes the case against the reduction of James to a thinker of 'flows' and 'streams.' In this reading, everything for James, in the end, comes down to the question of plurality—and this is better articulated in terms of things than flows.