Thursday, 21 August 2014

Philosophers: where are your instruments?; or, On the defensive deflation of philosophy

One of the principle tasks that were given to the 'specbook'-writing participants at the final AIME workshops in July was to, in one and the same motion, both defend and deflate the institutions and the values of the Moderns. That is, to identify in these basic and cherished contours of collective life the most indispensable and valuable distributions of agency and then, at the same time, to cut science, politics, religion, economics and so on 'down to size,' to divest them of their excessive, unsustainably explosive pretensions so as to condition the possibility of finding them their proper, diplomatic accommodation amidst other, non-Modern cosmoses.

This had to be a symmetrical and simultaneous deflation—deflate politics and not economics and you've got neoliberalism; deflate science and not religion and you've got theological dogmatism; deflate religion and not politics and you've got a cold and authoritarian secularism, and so on. This work sought not to diminish or denounce any of the involved and invoked terms but, rather, to alleviate the tendency for each form of existence to imperially define the entire world in its own format, thus stoking the flames of war. The objective was not diminution but, rather, coexistence.

Following through the internal logic of AIME, it seems no less necessary that we must also deflate philosophy. This task is suggested by the fact that philosophy is accorded a particular mode of existence, namely [pre].

The deflationary effect can be understood by contrasting philosophy with science [pre·ref]. According to Latour, the sciences achieve their specific form of objectivity through the incremental construction of circulating chains of instrumented references that transport information at the cost of deformations at every stage. To refer is to instrument, there is no other way.

So, philosophers: where are your instruments?

To take up one of Graham Harman's phrases, it should be now clear that philosophy qua [pre] cannot possibly be a "philosophy of access." Philosophy does not access, that is the job of reference. Philosophy can, at best, aid and abet this movement; it can act with, it cannot act for.

For millennia, philosophers have insisted that their art involved the construction of objective knowledge about the abstract conditions of existence, conditions inaccessible to the mere senses and discernible only by the privileged intellect. This, it seems to me, is unequivocally refuted by AIME; a philosophy of access is a contradiction in terms, a category error.

This brings me to a section from The Prince and the Wolf, a transcript of a public conversation between Latour and Harman at the LSE.
[…] there has to be a point where contact [between objects] happens. And what I worry about is that if we don’t specify that point metaphysically, then it becomes just a kind of ad hoc practical decision, which of course is fine when writing history. You could say: “all right, it seems like the case of Joliot connecting politics and neutrons is interesting but Joliot and the eardrum is not that important, so we can stop there.” And that’s fine for purposes of writing history but not fine for metaphysics.


Why? Because you haven’t explained how the contact occurred.

But metaphysics is not for explaining. It is the first principle of [Alfred North Whitehead's] Process and Reality. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining anything. Actual occasions explain what happened, not philosophy. If there is one thing which philosophy should not do, it is to try to explain anything. That’s where our disagreement is. Philosophy is not in the business of explaining. This is not at all the same thing. Philosophy is in the business of allowing the explanation to go far enough, to help the explainers to move in the explanatory trajectory but not to provide an explanation. (66-7)
This is the disagreement between Harman and Latour, and it's the difference that Harman does not get to grips with anywhere in his writings on Latour's work (to date). Philosophy, for Latour, no more accesses than it explains. As Latour put it in Reassembling the Social:
As anthropologists have tirelessly shown, actors incessantly engage in the most abstruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all of the elements of the world. Only a researcher trained in the conceptual calisthenics [emphasis added] offered by the philosophical tradition could be quick, strong, daring, and pliable enough to painstakingly register what they have to say. (51)
The value of philosophy here is the same as in AIME's [pre]: it is the lability, agility and sensitivity that it affords the actors who have been trained its art, not the overview it gives on reality or the quasi-scientific loose ends it explanatorily ties up.

To somewhat egocentrically quote myself from a couple of posts ago:
It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.
This is precisely what I was trying to get at here: that philosophy is a calisthenic rather than explanatory art. Metaphysics is calisthenics or it's nothing.

After the example of AIME, if philosophers wish to refer to the objective existence of this or that then they should specify their empirically traceable referential chains. Anything else is Double Click [dc].

This rearticulation of philosophy is intrinsically social in the precise sense that there can no longer be such a thing as a philosopher-hermit—the philosopher is necessarily an associative, allied being; she has no other purpose than to work with others in the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in concrete, contested cases.

Deflated? Undoubtedly. But also defended.

This rehousing and repurposing of philosophy—this empiricisation of philosophy in the most profound sense—is, in my humble and weightless opinion, perhaps Latour's most important philosophical contribution. This aspect of his thinking does not begin with his modes of existence project but can be found throughout his works, in varying stages of development (it is rooted in his long-standing commitment to a reformed ethnomethodology). And it is precisely this most crucial of insights that is erased when his work is turned into a series of dry pronouncements on the furniture of the universe—pronouncements that 'of course, might be wrong.'

This is why those who accuse Latour, and those who philosophise like him, of 'correlationism' and of insufficient 'realism' are missing the point. The philosopher, here, simply has no business explaining the unchanging, overarching structure of the universe—if that is what 'realism' means then may it rest in peace.

This empiricised philosophical ethos is not, as I have argued, a matter of engendering 'humility' in philosophical practice; it is a far more pragmatic transformation than that. Humility is too self-denying a psycho-ethical disposition (too 'Christian' in the precise sense that Nietzsche excoriated so epoch-definingly). It is not a matter of limiting or constricting oneself as such—whole universes of beautiful speculation are still possible; it is a matter of undertaking a fundamental reconfiguration of philosophy and of the philosopher's role in the world.

To undertake this defensive deflation, and to thus desist from thinking Absolutely, is not to stop thinking—indeed, it may be to start.

Latour has by no means invented or initiated this progressive reassembly—nor has he undertaken it alone—but his works have massively contributed to the thorough pragmatisation and concomitant pluralisation of philosophy.

So, (Modern) philosophers: where are your instruments? Ovens, tables and balls of wax do not count.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

On speculation, commitment and humility in philosophy

In response to my last post Elmorus writes:
You nail on the head the central issue behind the compulsion towards generic, inhuman-striving, realism (to which I feel very close, to be honest). I would object, not to the core of your argument, which I would need to process further, but to the identification of epistemological humility with the philosophical position, or tendency, that you describe as realist : are not the idealist or the anti-realist just as susceptible to such a positioning ("we cannot be sure of the great outside, contingency is the core of our condition, etc.")? Lee Braver convincingly argued in this sense at the start of his article on Continental Realism, which would suggest to me that the gesture of humility that you describe is part of a wider, more general stance related to philosophical practice itself...
This raises a very fair and important point: what on earth do I mean by 'realism' here? It's true that I'm being vague and declining to name names -- i.e. to attach the label to a definite, actual proposition. I'm declining to do this not because I want to be coy or elusive but because naming names should impose a commitment to (at least attempt to) do interpretive justice to those arguments that are thus specified. That's a difficult thing to do. Refusing to name names grants a certain liberty inasmuch as one can gesture towards generalities (or perhaps virtualities) that cannot defend themselves (and don't have egos to be defended, anyway). This is a prerogative that most philosophers (or would-be philosophers) grant themselves. However, it can lead to vagueries -- in this case, 'realism.'

Certainly, the tendencies that I am remarking on are not unique to 'realists' (whoever they are). 'Realism' as something singular doesn't exist. Some objective idealisms may well fit 'realism' as I'm describing it.

Let's define 'realism' here not with reference to any group, sect or movement but simply relate it to the issue, namely: what commits us to think and what pathways do these commitments set us on?

A realist here is someone who claims to take their obligation to thought from the need to represent (or: explain, describe, articulate -- whichever) the real (how things are, reality) 'as it is,' 'whether you like it or not,' 'regardless of political commitments,' and so on.

The real demands representation (etc.) because it is the real. Such a demand is automatically validated by the very essence of that which concerns it. And, more importantly, only the real can demand representation because anything that deserves thoughtful consideration is always already subsumed within the real, by definition. (This is why realists are so bad at taking criticism: they've always already brought anything worth thinking about within their purview; anything left out is, by definition, unthinkably worthless.)

The alternative to realism in this precise and limited sense is neither anti-realism nor idealism (I am refusing these 'opposing camps' -- I don't want to articulate the opposite of anything); the alternative could well be called 'realism' too but in order to adopt that term its meaning must be transformed.

The argument with regard to a philosophy being able to think itself as an event in its own world (and thus refusing to countenance the possibility of its truth claims transcending its own occurrence) is bound up with this contrast that I'm stumblingly trying to articulate. This refusal of self-transcendence with regard to truth is part and parcel of an approach to philosophy that refuses to take 'reality' in any singular or totalised sense as its referent (not even 'speculatively'). It is not, I think, a matter of humility.

The contrast I'm trying to get at here is not to do with modesty or humility in terms of the scope or scale of thought, it's to do with what motivates and obligates it. And if thought is not obligated by the need to represent the real then it must be obligated by the need to deal with concrete problems. 'The real' must therefore be replaced with 'the situation.'

If the situation demands immodesty in some sense then immodest we must be. But demand is the important word here -- the addition of this word excludes the possibility of the automatic validation of a research project by virtue of the essence of the thing researched; it establishes the necessity of a trial of validation in each and every case (something that this vulgar 'realism' can never comprehend, much less undertake).

How and why are demands, requirements, specifications placed upon thought? -- that is the question. The realist can say, for example, that 'galaxies are real; as a realist I'm obliged to think the real, therefore I must think galaxies.' The real is its own justification. This is what I am trying to criticise.

The 'realist' approach, as I have described it, is always tending towards the über-thesis, the systematic account of everything. That's the regulative ideal that is enabled by that old get-out-of-jail-free card 'of course, I might be wrong.' In this sense realism shares a deep kinship with the old 'universal historians' like Arnold Toynbee; it shares an in-built will to totality, to ever greater and more encompassing synthesis. Indeed, such directedness towards the absolute (however unachievable the project may be 'in practice') is what makes the project worthwhile, according to this mindset.

An interventionist approach, by contrast, is perfectly willing to think on any scale of space or time as the situation demands. But such an act of thought is always related to a concrete and limited demand, not to a will to think everything because everything is real and only the real in its totality can obligate thought. The thinking of things like galaxies isn't auto-validated by the mere fact that they're there. We must have some further, additional impetus in order to approach such entities (and perhaps we have this impetus, but it isn't guaranteed a priori).

So, in short, it's not at all a question of humility but of commitment. The 'realist' feels committed to think the real in general not so much because they are lacking humility but because, for them, 'the real' is the only thing that can obligate thought, or the only thing that can issue demands worth responding to. The interventionist, by contrast, refuses to heed demands made in the name of 'the real' or any equivalent term not so much because of humility or les bonnes manières but because that whole approach is entirely incompatible with thinking the situation, the case, the issue, the problématique.

Philosophy always flirts with hubris -- and rightly so. It is not a matter of 'hubris versus humility' but a question of 'hubris, to what end'?

Let's misuse Wittgenstein's famous line: 'The world is everything that is the case.' A realist feels committed to take as their world that which is the established case -- that is, to think the world as a totality of, in a quasi-juridical sense, closed cases. The interventionist, by contrast, understands the world as a thronging mass of open cases -- and the obligation to think this demands a very different approach, it demands a philosophy that recognises a fundamental indeterminacy with regard to the broader contours of the world precisely because the world is not a collection of closed cases but rather open ones. There can be no question of thinking the totality in this instance, nor can there be any pretence of timeless truths, whether they are given the caveat of 'I might be wrong' or not.

To put it another way, being 'right' or 'wrong' is not of particular concern to the interventionist because their objective never consists of sketching (however skilfully) the outlines of the totality of closed cases. Instead, success and failure for the interventionist are always relative to particular open cases, all of which are replete with reality in themselves but none of which license the attempt to sketch the real in its totality -- not even the attempt.

This is the contrast: the realist might freely admit the impossibility of sketching totality 'in practice'; the interventionist (or realist-deserving-of-the-name) must reject not only the possibility of this 'in practice' but also 'in principle' -- and, still further, the very attempt to do so.

Open cases cannot be sketched, no matter how preliminarily or speculatively. Their shape is indeterminable prior to an inventive, interventive encounter -- and this requires a great degree of time and attention; it defies the metaphysicist's generalism.

Humility doesn't come into it, in my view. Our risky speculations have no intrinsic boundaries. They are certainly not hemmed in by good manners or modesty. We should reject the absolutism of 'realism' for far more pragmatic reasons than our own sense of shame. It is not for the modesty of our own egos that we refuse to sketch the absolute, it is because of the nefarious consequences of that only apparently innocent project.

It is a clash of objectivities. For the realist, objectivity connotes 'objects' qua closed cases. For the interventionist objectivity connotes 'objectives' -- the objective being different in every situation as it is always addressing a different open case (the totality never becomes an issue and is therefore never a legitimate horizon for thought).

These entirely distinct philosophies can be articulated with similar vocabularies but they should never be confused. Their similarities will only ever be entirely superficial.

I don't know how much sense I am making to others but it makes some sense to me.

To throw one final spanner in the works: yes, this is about pluralism, again. The 'realist' pluralism and what I have called here the 'interventionist' pluralism might seem superficially similar but they have little in common 'under the hood,' as it were.

If I am to make any of this stick I'll have to name names eventually but that's a commitment that I'm not yet prepared to accept!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

The epistemological caveat: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'; The false modesty that subtends 'realism'

Even the most self-importantly 'realist' philosophies generally contain a caveat that goes (whether explicitly or implicitly) something like this: 'Of course, I might be wrong...'.

This epistemological disclaimer is of paramount importance; it cannot be understood as a mere article of etiquette (nor as a statement of the obvious); rather, it subtends the entire operation—it underpins the whole claim on 'realism.'

By uttering such a phrase the author demonstrates that she is neither a fool nor a dogmatist; she shows that she understands very well the near-impossibility, 'in practice,' of describing or explaining the absolute (and she opens herself to her peers in anticipation—or perhaps preemption—of their inevitable disagreements). Nevertheless, in precisely the same gesture she maintains this possibility 'in principle' and thus monumentalises the True as a 'regulative ideal.'

She thus self-identifies as a selfless, hard-nosed, gravel-handed voyager in dogged pursuit of a far-flung ideal: what a noble and romantic tragedy!... It is as though she were saying to her others—the shadowy, infantile anti-realists, idealists and correlationists: 'at least I'm giving it a go!'. The others are stay-at-home losers, unwilling to even attempt to transcend human finitude; she herself strides out—bold, fearless.

Embracing the near-inevitability of failure 'in fact' permits the self-congratulatory subscription to the (supposedly) noblest of noble goals 'in principle' and thus absorbs some fraction of the reflected glory of the absolute (as if the phrase 'it's the taking part that counts' applied to more than just amateur sports).

By making Truth a point in space that can be located and appropriated 'in principle,' the author is able to claim that she is 'getting closer' even though she has 'not yet' reached the promised land. (The rather Socratic paradox of 'getting closer' to a location that one has not yet been able to identify is remarkable; however, it is the practices of philosophers who claim to bathe in the warm, reflected light of Truth that concerns us here, not their aporia per se.)

The reflected glory of graduated approximations is what gives blunt and vulgar 'realisms' their seemingly effervescent aura. For some this hazy glow makes 'realism' a semantically closed shop—a gate to be kept, all alternatives shunted into opposing (i.e. binarily opposite) camps.

However, there are other ways of being realistic in matters philosophical and metaphysical—ways less absurd.

By saying 'of course, I could be wrong' the author avoids the obligation to construct her text in such a way that it could think itself as an event in its own universe. Instead of being a novel event that differently joins up the various threads of existence and thus differently realises and articulates all kinds of things that 'were there all along' (although this 'there' is only sensible or meaningful after the event) it instead speculates on 'how things were all along,' regardless of itself.

The 'realist' philosophy really just does this: it describes a universe in which its own occurrence is circumstantial; where it itself needn't have occurred in order for the truth claims it makes to be sensible. That self-incidentalism is its entire conceit; and it is the leaky logic of that conceit that is bailed out by the phrase 'of course, I could be wrong.'

The alternative to this tumbledown half-thought is to fully reckon with an event-based ontology that always embraces within itself its own novelty, partiality and contingency—that recognises these things not at an 'auto-meta' level, saying 'I might be wrong,' but internally and intrinsically to itself, saying 'I am an event that differently articulates existence thus...'.

'Partiality' and 'contingency' have long since become clichés and articles of faith for academic philosophers and theorists. What matters much more than the well-mannered re-statement of these principles is where they issue from and how they are achieved. If they are articulated on the back of 'I might be wrong' then this is a completely different statement to the case where they are understood through an event that understands itself as an event.

The former is the product of position-based thesis-thinking—that is, where the objective of thought is to set out a comprehensive statement of 'how things are' and to defend this 'position' from those of others; the latter is the product of problem-based intervention-thinking where the objective of thought is to intervene or interject into already ongoing processes on the basis of continually evolving problématiques.

These oppositions—caveat/event, position/problem, thesis/intervention—are not absolute but they are strong. If 'realism' has value as a signifier then it has to reckon rather differently with these contrasts than it has to date. However, more than realism, speculation is the word that really must be saved from 'I might be...'.

Speculation is not what philosophers do, uniquely, when they boldly undertake to articulate how things are and have always been, securing themselves above this abyss with the coarse rope of 'I might be wrong.' Speculation must instead be understood as what happens when existence demands of any entity an action that cannot be performed solely on the basis of already-occurred (or readily articulable) existents; in other words, whenever there is a demand for novelty in a state of profound existential risk.

Speculation, in this sense, is pragmatic, issue-oriented, local and widely practiced. It only makes sense in direct relation to a problem that is demanding the risky becoming of some unknown and—until the occurrence—unknowable event.

It is here that the philosopher qua intervener enters the fray, not as an architect of the world, urban planner of the galaxy or master of the universe but as an acrobat of thinking, a flexer and folder of thought, a monkish sage—inheritor of long traditions of agility-focused self-development—whose skill involves not the freehand sketching of the beams and struts of the background of things but rather of the rendering-pliant of modes of connection and transformation in service of (or, better: in alliance with) those whose very subsistence is at stake.

'Being wrong' is the least of this thinker's worries and 'being right' would be the least of her rewards. Her destination of choice is no less mysterious or puzzling than that of the paradise-pursuer but her relation to it is never one of progressive approximation; it is always that of gradual, hesitant, tentative fabrication, assembly, achievement. Such a destination is never 'just over the horizon' but always at the centre of the milieu, in the midst of the melee, at the heart of the matter at hand.

To give the matter at hand a heart that beats—that is the utopia that this philosopher pursues: bold, fearless...

Friday, 15 August 2014

The posturing and positioning of 'realism versus idealism'

What if we non-idealists, realists (or whatever) thought to ourselves not 'idealism, what an absurdity!' but rather 'idealism, what an achievement!'?

What if we took idealism to be not a flawed 'position' to be bombarded but rather an outdated, outmoded achievement ill-suited to the present and its problems?

To acknowledge something as an achievement -- even a glorious achievement -- by no means obliges anything like heartfelt subscription to that thing. However, such an acknowledgement does preclude the naive denunciation that would declare, perhaps subtextually: 'what idiots! who could believe such a thing?!'

Their problems are not yours -- so, why denounce their solutions as absurd? Rejoice in not sharing their problems!

'Ah, but their stupidity is my problem -- how can I live well in a world containing deceived minds?!'

That absurdity is our problem.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

What is the contrary of 'cosmos'? What, then, is 'cosmopolitics'?

Isabelle Stengers' cosmopolitics is one of those concepts that is oft-cited but rarely examined in any detail. I won't try to explicate it on the basis of Stengers' texts here (though that needs to be done); I'll just ask a simple question: what is the contrary of 'cosmos'? How we answer this question will determine what we take cosmopolitics to be.

It seems to me that many readers take the cosmos in cosmopolitics to be basically equivalent to the everyday meaning of that word; they take it to mean cosmos in the sense of Carl Sagan's Cosmos -- that is, as, more or less, a synonym for the universe. The only possible contrary to 'cosmos' in this sense would be 'non-existence, nothingness.'

Taken this way, cosmopolitics must either mean that politics is a transcendent metaphysical model for existence (i.e. Graham Harman's reading of Bruno Latour's Irreductions); or, cosmopolitics must mean that the entirety of existence must now be subsumed within political contestation (taking the old cliché 'everything is political' to ever more absurd heights). Neither of these interpretations are, in my opinion, especially useful (or even comprehensible).

It'd be helpful to think of 'cosmos' in broader terms. Here's what the etymology dictionary has to say about 'cosmos':
c.1200 (but not popular until 1848, as a translation of Humboldt's Kosmos), from Latinized form of Greek kosmos "order, good order, orderly arrangement," a word with several main senses rooted in those notions: The verb kosmein meant generally "to dispose, prepare," but especially "to order and arrange (troops for battle), to set (an army) in array;" also "to establish (a government or regime);" "to deck, adorn, equip, dress" (especially of women). Thus kosmos had an important secondary sense of "ornaments of a woman's dress, decoration" (compare kosmokomes "dressing the hair") as well as "the universe, the world." 
Pythagoras is said to have been the first to apply this word to "the universe," perhaps originally meaning "the starry firmament," but later it was extended to the whole physical world, including the earth. For specific reference to "the world of people," the classical phrase was he oikoumene (ge) "the inhabited (earth)." Septuagint uses both kosmos and oikoumene. Kosmos also was used in Christian religious writing with a sense of "worldly life, this world (as opposed to the afterlife)," but the more frequent word for this was aion, literally "lifetime, age."
For the Stoics, kosmos meant that existence was divinely ordered; it meant that, to ape Leibniz, we lived in the best and most rational of all possible worlds and for this we owed thanks to God or Nature in all their divinity. It is related to this sense of kosmos as a divinely ordered existence that we get cosmos as simply a synonym for astronomical existence generally (perhaps beginning with Pythagoras). However, the etymology of the term is demonstrably more complex and interesting than that.

So, we should take note that when Latour uses 'cosmopolitics' in Pandora's Hope, Politics of Nature and later texts he opposes it not to non-existence but to 'kakosmos' (kakos in many contemporary European languages meaning shit and in the Ancient Greek meaning bad or evil). Cosmos is, in this usage, not just a straightforward synonym for existence; it is, like for the Stoics and the other Greeks described in the quotation above, a word meaning a specific kind of ordering, a good, beautiful, agreeable ordering. In this usage there may well be no cosmos! The mere fact that there is existence proves nothing.

Cosmopolitics, in this sense, therefore means not that politics is a transcendent metaphysical principle such that all existence is political in and of itself, nor that the entirety of the cosmos must be brought within previously human-exceptional politics (whatever that would mean). Cosmopolitics is instead the recognition that since both God and Nature are dead then there is only one possible route towards a cosmos and away from a kakosmos: through politics, with all the messiness, compromise and frustration that this word entails.

It is not that the universe is always already political in itself, as though politics were some kind of transcendent metaphysical condition. It is precisely the opposite of that: there is no transcendent metaphysical condition, that's why there must be cosmopolitics.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

The felinocene(?!) -- Cats as invasive species

From a paper published in Nature last year but featured by the BBC today:
Cats are one of the top threats to US wildlife, killing billions of animals each year, a study suggests. 
The authors estimate they are responsible for the deaths of between 1.4 and 3.7 billion birds and 6.9-20.7 billion mammals annually.
The abstract to the Nature paper concludes:
Un-owned cats, as opposed to owned pets, cause the majority of this mortality. Our findings suggest that free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals. Scientifically sound conservation and policy intervention is needed to reduce this impact.
A nice reminder in yet another ecological arena that anthropogenic doesn't mean 'human controlled.' The perturbatory ripples issuing out from our actions rapidly attain shapes, patterns and magnitudes almost unrecognisable to us as they are amplified by processes and agents with aims and objectives entirely their own.

Friday, 8 August 2014

'We Moderns' versus 'The Moderns'; or, The weight of our ancestors

One persistent source of disagreement during the AIME project was the precise meaning of 'Moderns.' This was captured most notably by Annemarie Mol during her presentation for the final seminars (I believe that this will be made available here but does not appear to be there at present) when she refused to speak in the name of any such entity. She asked that we focus instead on localised, specific issues that require no overarching or underlying group identity. To speak of a Big 'We,' it was suggested, is inherently oppressive and dangerous.

(What follows is one way, one attempt to rationalise ex post facto what actually happened during these events. In the midst of them there was an irreducible uncertainty.)

It seems to me that 'Moderns' has been used in at least two ways within AIME.

First, 'We Moderns' (the 'new nous,' as someone put it) are those who were performatively called into being by the project itself. The aim of AIME, it now seems to me (though I claim no authority on such matters!), was to produce a definition of 'Moderns' to which those assembled by the event would be willing to subscribe -- that is, not to self-identify with an already existing 'we' but to create a new ontological identity to which membership is not at all overarching but, rather, voluntary. This usage of 'Moderns' does not, then, indicate an actually or historically existing population. On the contrary, it is precisely because we have never been modern that such a performative creation is necessary.

However, secondly, Annemarie was right to point to a conflation of this performative and highly localised meaning of 'Moderns' with something rather broader and more historical. 'The Moderns' often seems to be used, additionally, as shorthand for 'those-who-though-they-were-modern'; in other words, 'The Moderns' also means the ancestors and kin of those assembled by the project -- a quite different ontological proposition.

Here is where it gets interesting: We (participants) were attempting to take responsibility for our ancestors. Latour, in his opening remarks, emphasised the importance of the fact that the event was taking place in a lecture theatre named after Albert Caquot, a famous French engineer and über-modern. Caquot, of course, echoes the Greek kakos meaning 'bad' or 'evil.' The Moderns, it was suggested, thought that they were building a 'cosmos' (a divine order of existence) but all too often they were establishing a kakosmos (a nasty, broken order).

'We Moderns' (the new nous) and 'The Moderns' (those-who-thought-they-were-modern) converge on this point: We (participants) were obligated, due to our rather ignoble family history, to attempt to formulate a new definition of 'Modern,' a definition to which we would be happy to subscribe -- that was the challenge. We were obligated to perform this act precisely because (a) those-who-thought-they-were-modern were never modern (in the sense that they understood that term) and because (b) we still live in the house that they built.

Here it is important to contrast history with ancestry. To speak of 'ancestors' is to acknowledge a deep debt to and responsibility for those who came before us. To speak of history is, contrariwise, to suggest a broadly impersonal process that we just happen to find ourselves at the end or in the midst of. Ancestry entails an unavoidable familial commitment. History is what has made you; ancestry is, to some degree, what you are.

Here is where I would disagree with Annemarie's refusal to speak the phrase 'We Moderns': we have a responsibility for those who came before us because they still live among, through and around us; we are not free of our ancestors just because they are in the ground. They cannot simply be disavowed; saying 'I am not...' is insufficient.

If a child of disreputable parents were protesting 'but I am not my father, I am not my mother -- I have nothing to do with them' we might have to reply: 'but you still live in their house, they still feed you and put clothes on your back, you still speak their words; you walk like them, you talk like them; you exist through their modes of existence!'

We are children of contemptible predecessors but we still live in the house that they built (when we're in the Amphitheatre Caquot, more or less literally!). They thought that it was a grand, glorious palace; we now know that it was, in many ways, a tumbledown structure built on slavery and brutality. But we live there nevertheless.

We Moderns are unlike The Moderns in one crucial respect: The Moderns believed that they were standing on the shoulders of giants; we fear that we may be standing on the shoulders of tyrants. What we share is the predicament that none of us can dismount; there is no 'down there'; we have, instead, to find a way to modify our precarious situation, to stand a little differently.

We participants of AIME were assembled, first, as descendants of those-who-thought-they-were-modern and, second, as the future ancestors of our own offspring (thanks to Stephen Muecke for this point). The 'We Moderns' invoked by AIME was an opt-in performance of identification. We cannot say that this invitation to subscribe lacked 'informed consent'! Ultimately we failed to produce a definition to which those assembled could all sign up. However, this does not detract from the validity of the effort. An enduring Modern legacy is the pursuit of impossibles...

Permanently opting-out of such identity-challenges might seem superficially progressive and 'right on' but this, I believe, dissolves upon a deeper consideration of the predicament. Such an attitude of 'tune in, drop out, call me when there's something specific to talk about' is quintessentially Modern inasmuch as it implies a supersessive logic of history where we can gesture to a past that makes us but is not us; a past that we can shed like clothing. A logic of ancestry entails a commitment to more thoroughly reconsider the house that our ancestors built, the house in which we have no option but to continue living -- and to gradually renovate, wall by wall, brick by brick.

This is not a conservatism. It is not that we must 'honour' our elders -- far from it! -- but we must recognise that we cannot distance ourselves from them by mere renunciation. The only distance that we can put between ourselves and our less than salubrious predecessors is by differentiation, by becoming otherwise -- and that requires considerable attention to what we are and why we are what we are.

'The progressive composition of the common world'; or, the progressive renovation of our inherited abode. Either way, the important concept here is obligation.

Our burden is not that of the White Men of History. Theirs was not really a 'burden' at all but a gift to be passed on to the underdeveloped 'others,' whether they wanted it or not. Perhaps it is false to say that we are 'standing on the shoulders' of anyone; perhaps it is more like that they are standing on us. We are no longer 'burdened' with the obligation to spread our wisdom freely around a world that is simply open, empty and waiting to be filled by rationality. Instead, the world is now thinkable as being always already meaningful, always already rational but differently rational. Our true burden is finding our place in a world that doesn't need us -- and doing so with full cognisance of our ancestry.

Whatever we choose to name ourselves after we cease to be White Men, we cannot outrun our past. AIME solved nothing but it posed some important questions for what is ahead. A planetary negotiation? Negotiation has an interesting double meaning: the sense of parlay and the sense of navigation. 'Icebergs ahoy!'

To navigate the coming century without shipwreck -- are we not all in the same boat at least in this much?

Clive Hamilton and Toby Tyrrell on Gaia

Clive Hamilton made two wonderful contributions to the final AIME colloquia/diplomatic summits held the week before last. Both have now been published on his website. First, Gaia Does Not Negotiate; second, When Earth Juts Through.

The latter begins:
With the arrival of the Anthropocene we must now be suspicious of all ideas developed in the last 10,000 years. That includes James Lovelock’s notion of Gaia which, it turns out, is a child of the Holocene. In his recent book, On Gaia, Toby Tyrrell shows that since Lovelock put his idea into the world some 30 years ago our understanding of the Earth system has changed dramatically. 
As Earth scientists have found means of taking a more fine-grained view of Earth history, especially through the analysis of ice-cores, the trajectory of Earth appears much more wild and unpredictable. There is no built-in stabiliser; life does not bring the planet back into equilibrium. Gaia is based on old science.
(I love that first line!) Now, I haven't read Tyrrell's book but I think one point needs to be made: while Earth system science has moved on in the past thirty years so has Lovelock's take on Gaia. It is true that the original hypothesis posited the Earth as a homeostatic system but that notion of homeostasis has long since been abandoned. 'Gaia' has evolved. Lovelock now well understands that there is no equilibrium as such, only an indefinitely large range of quasi-stable states within a complex system; strange attractors and so on. This is not the same thing as 'homeostasis.' The possibility of a sudden and massive system state shift in response to a relatively minor degree of perturbation is precisely the point of his more recent works. That is why Gaia is 'vengeful.'

Here is how Lovelock differentiates the hypothesis and the theory in the glossary to Revenge of Gaia (p.208):
Gaia Hypothesis
James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis postulated in the early 1970s that life on Earth actively keeps the surface conditions always favourable for whatever is the contemporary ensemble of organisms. When introduced it was contrary to the conventional wisdom that life adapted to planetary conditions as it and they evolved in their separate ways. We now know that both the hypothesis as originally stated and the conventional wisdom were wrong. The hypothesis evolved into what is now Gaia Theory and the conventional wisdom into Earth System Science.
Gaia Theory
A view of the Earth that sees it as a self-regulating system made up from the totality of organisms, the surface rocks, the ocean and the atmosphere tightly coupled as an evolving system. The theory sees this system as having a goal—the regulation of surface conditions so as always to be as favourable as possible for contemporary life. It is based on observations and theoretical models; it is fruitful and has made ten successful predictions.
The hypothesis is not the theory and while I am in no position to scientifically defend either this is worth noting.

While, as I say, I've not read Tyrrell's book, this interview on his publisher's website makes for interesting reading. Tyrrell makes the case, albeit briefly, that Gaia is simply anthropocentric wishful thinking and should be rejected as a scientific idea:
Q: If the Gaia hypothesis is not the reason, then why did the Earth remain habitable for such an enormously long interval of time? 
A: This may relate partly to the weak Anthropic Principle, whereby we logically cannot observe any facts that preclude our own existence. So however infrequent it may be in the universe for a planet to remain continuously habitable over billions of years, we happen to be on just such a planet. According to this way of thinking, Earth may just have been lucky, with no sentient observers having evolved on other planets which were not so lucky, i.e. where conditions became sterile at some point. Another possible explanation for extended habitability in the absence of Gaia is a predominantly inorganic thermostat, such as has been suggested for silicate weathering.
This is a provocative and contestable claim. However, his concluding remarks are if anything more revealing than his central thesis:
Q: Are there any implications for the current era of global change? 
A: Yes, it is suggested that belief in the Gaia hypothesis can lead to excessive complacency about the robustness and resilience of the natural system. Gaia emphasizes stabilising feedbacks and protective mechanisms that keep the environment in check. If Gaia is rejected, however, we are left with a less comforting view of the natural system. Without Gaia it is easier to appreciate that the natural system contains lines of weakness and other susceptibilities. One such line of weakness that has already been demonstrated is the ozone layer depletion by CFC’s. I have argued in the book that there is no over-riding Gaia to protect our planet’s life support system. Maintaining the Earth’s environment is up to us [emphasis added].
Who is the Modern here? I don't think that it's Lovelock... To suggest that Gaia is a 'comforting' theory is to be a few decades out of date. Yes, the original might have encouraged worshipful idleness and Nature-absorbed complacency but that is not at all the image of Gaia that is now presented to us. In Gaia Does Not Negotiate Hamilton quotes Latour who is in turn ventriloquising Gaia:
I am not your Mother, nor your protector. … So figure out the enigma of my presence.
The motherly vision of Gaia as homeostatic über-regulator is surely a holocenic fable that has long passed its sell-by-date. However, while, as I've mentioned recently, Lovelock is a tricky ally to enrol I'm not sure that Tyrrell is a better option.

Without Gaia what planetary imagery are we left with? 'Spaceship Earth'? Again?...

Thursday, 7 August 2014

The focus of thought: 'positions' versus 'problems'; of turf-wars and earth-wars

One thing that the AIME workshops encouraged me to think about a little more carefully was the status of the 'problem' as that which gathers, focuses and motivates thought. (I must thank Isabelle Stengers for reminding me of this.)

It seems to me that 'problem' should be contrasted with 'position.' These words represent two entirely different ways of arguing and thinking.

To argue from a 'position' (in the sense of 'that is my position,' 'I agree with your position on X but...') is to reason like a General; it is to make concepts into little tin soldiers, planes and tanks that are pushed around a map of philosophical terrain (probably a map of somewhere near the border of France and Germany!). Thinking is thus a war; there are enemy positions to be routed and strongholds to be fortified. The modest and realistic general will surely concede that outright and total victory is impossible in practice but the Prince of 'in principle' dictates that the goal must always be total domination.

However, at least as important as this inherent will-to-power is the continuity and identity that are thus stitched into the philosophical process. Any given conversation or argument becomes but a campaign, a battle, a skirmish in a longer war, an epic saga. Positions are always related to an author -- He who 'holds' them with chest-jutting pride. Sequences of positions mark out the 'careers' not of thoughts but of authors. Position-thinking always comes back to the ego of the author who 'holds' whatever bit of terrain at whatever time. It is ego-centric.

To think from (or rather around) a 'problem' is quite a different process. Every conversation is an event, a creative re-gathering of the past in service of whatever is presented. That which energises the philosopher here is not the vainglorious dream of conquering the world (whether by 'hard' or 'soft' power) but rather the pragmatic desire to settle the issue at hand. The philosopher's skill is no longer that of dominating the other but rather of re-gathering that which has always and necessarily dispersed since the last time, and differently. Her focus is not the safe, secure ground that she defends but the shaky, uncertain space that she must somehow weave.

Thinking from problems makes one less like a General and more like a herdsman. Every time a shepherd wishes to achieve something with his flock he must assemble it as a flock once again. As though Heraclitus was a shepherd: One cannot gather the same flock twice. Of course, there is continuity between assembly-events inasmuch as the shepherd doesn't go out and buy or steal a whole new set of animals each time. He responds to each problem he is faced with by working with the set of resources that he has at hand. There is a momentum built up through his day-in, day-out responsiveness to problems; a fragile, pragmatic identity. He never builds his flock from scratch at dawn -- if he is presented with such a need he is surely destitute. However, sheep get sick; they are born; they get lost; they age; they are selectively bred; they break their legs; they are eaten; they are traded; they are made into peace offerings, bribes... After every event the flock disassembles and it will never assemble in quite the same way again.

This is not a pacific, pastoral world; it is cold, harsh and offers no safety net; life and death hinges upon adequate or inadequate responses to problems. There are no soft-handed shepherds but more than a few Generals with immaculate cuticles [okay, it's a terrible metaphor but you probably get the point].

So, yes, concepts are a little like sheep -- more like sheep than like tin figurines being pushed around a map, anyway. Of course I am saying nothing in the least bit original here, I am just trying to assemble my own rather tired and skinny-looking herd in my own way!

The military/herding metaphors are illustrative if inelegant; they tell only a tiny little part of the story. Where the herding metaphor, in particular, breaks down is in the suggestion of isolation and individuality. Herds of thoughts are in fact chaotic, overlapping, intermixing thickets and soups rather than isolated, clumped dots on a hillside. We are all tangled up in each other's thoughts, utterances, things and concepts. We are all herders, weavers, world-makers -- but we make worlds together.

This entanglement destroys any possibility of a simple binary friend/enemy distinction. Silly declarations like 'realism vs. anti-realism' have no meaning here. These are tribal affiliations in old-fashioned turf wars. They are of no use in the infinitely more complex, problem-centred earth wars.

Lovelock, Singapore and Techno-Superorganicism

James Lovelock's most recent book, A Rough Ride to the Future (2014), backtracks from his previous apocalypticism and his repeated suggestion that the human global population needs to be reduced to a few hundred million in order to ensure the survival of the species. In this latest work he instead argues that what is needed is a massive and rapid increase in urbanisation and technological development. It is only, he argues, in densely populated mega-cities that 10 billion or more humans can keep a low enough ecological profile per capita not to throw Gaia into a wholly hostile state. That is the claim.

Interestingly, the model he holds up for these futuristic urban utopias/dystopias is Singapore -- a city-state often credited as exemplary by futurists in large part due to its success in marrying economic and consumer freedoms with political and social authoritarianism. As a model for authoritarian capitalism in a hot, wet and massively urbanised environment it surely has few rivals.

The epigraph to A Rough Ride comes from Daniel Dennett:
The planet has finally grown its own nervous system: us.
Lovelock thus redoubles his penchant for superorganismic metaphors to describe human society. We are and must become more like ant colonies, he argues. It is only with such technically efficient social organisation that we can hope to survive. Fortunately, we undertake this improbable task endowed with certain gifts. Humans are exceptional Gaians inasmuch as we are the only species able to wire her neurons, to become her mind. We thus have not only the capacity but the duty to undergo this intensive self-systematisation -- 'for Gaia!'

Which brings me to a very interesting (if somewhat toothless) article (accompanied with some beautiful animations) in Foreign Policy today; the headline:
The Social Laboratory: Singapore is testing whether mass surveillance and big data can not only protect national security, but actually engineer a more harmonious society.
I won't repeat its arguments here but it deserves reading -- both in its own right and in light of the above.

With regards to Lovelock the phrase 'Curate's Egg' springs to mind. He is troublesome; but perhaps that is what makes him so important. His potentially genocidal predictions with regard to human population reduction have been heavily criticised but less attention has been given, so far, to his latest thoughts. It is frankly impressive that at 95 years of age Lovelock has flip-flopped from apocalyptic catastrophism to what is basically a qualified capitalist techno-utopianism. But then again, how far apart are these visions?

It would seem a wise bet that our future lies somewhere between the two Lovelocks: between mass eco-death and mass techno-urbanism; perhaps both together.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

When 'men of science' became 'scientists'

There is a very interesting post by Melinda Baldwin, author of Making Nature: The History of a Scientific Journal (due out in 2015), at the consistently excellent The Conversation blog.

I was well aware that 'science' in its modern meaning is of relatively recent provenance and that most of those early moderns we anachronistically call 'scientists' were known amongst themselves as 'natural philosophers'; however, I was unaware of how recently it was that 'scientist' became accepted as a professional title, at least in Britain.

In 1894 the word 'scientist' was considered positively vulgar with 'man of letters' being the preferred term. Until 1924 Nature had a policy of forbidding the use of 'scientist.' Even after Nature removed this policy many refused to adopt the term.
[In the 1920s] The eminent naturalist E. Ray Lankester protested that any “Barney Bunkum” might be able to lay claim to such a vague title. “I think we must be content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists”, he argued. “‘Scientist’ has acquired – perhaps unjustly – the significance of a charlatan’s device”.
In the end, Gregory [the journal's editor] decided that Nature would not forbid authors from using “scientist”, but that the journal’s staff would continue to avoid the word. Gregory argued that “scientist” was “too comprehensive in its meaning … the fact is that, in these days of specialised scientific investigation, no one presumes to be ‘a cultivator of science in general’”. 
Nature was far from alone in its stance. As Gregory observed, the Royal Society of London, the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Royal Institution and the Cambridge University Press all rejected “scientist” as of 1924. It was not until after the World War II that [the physicist Norman] Campbell would truly get his wish for “scientist” to become the accepted British term for a person who pursued scientific research.
It's interesting that detractors of 'scientist' feared that such a generic term would lack the requisite respect and authority. Today many philosophers of science argue against the monolithic designation 'Science' and for a more pluralistic 'the sciences.' Perhaps we should regret that Norman Campbell got his way in the end! If only scientists [sic] were "content to be anatomists, zoologists, geologists, electricians, engineers, mathematicians, naturalists".

Friday, 1 August 2014

"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"

The hype around Christopher Nolan's Interstellar is rather excessive for a film that isn't due out for several months. However, it's has all the makings of an interesting one. The plot is simple enough: astronauts travel through a wormhole into deep space in order to search for habitable planets. So far so sci-fi; however, there's a hint of desperation to the endeavour that very much speaks to our anthropocenic moment.

As the lead, Matthew McConaughey, put it (in a line that may well have been pre-rehearsed but is no less perfect for all of that):
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.
This is, of course, following on precisely from the sentiment of Gravity, where Sandra Bullock's protagonist fights tooth and nail to return to the life-giving dirt of planet Earth. There can be no more geocentric film than Gravity and Interstellar in its very title revives the imagined possibility of human expansion into 'the final frontier.' However, the ontological shift that these films both presuppose is obvious. Final frontierism is no longer the obvious logical consequence of a rational civilisation benignly rolling out into the endlessly fertile emptiness of existence; it is the final act of the desperate and depraved, a last frantic lunge into the improbable.

Of course, it's unlikely that we will be denied a happy, life-affirming ending. This is a Hollywood blockbuster, after all:
At Comic Con in San Diego last week, Nolan told the audience Interstellar was "about what it is to be human, and what our place is in the universe," adding: "The further that you travel out into the universe, the more you realise it's in [your heart]." Hathaway's astronaut seems to be saying something similar in the trailer: "Maybe we've spent too long trying to figure all this out with theory. Love is the one thing that transcends time and space."
Nothing with that much schmaltz is going to be especially austere with its ultimate estimation of 'the human spirit,' etc. etc. Interestingly, the romantic kitsch is contrasted to the 'hard science' -- yes, there's something for all the family:
If that all sounds a bit gooey, there are hard science facts (or at least theories) at the centre of the movie, which is based on ideas about wormholes posited by the American theoretical physicist Kip Thorne. Nolan told Comic Con the conversations between film-maker and scientist were "intense" and even admitted: "It actually made my head hurt a bit. I actually said to Kip, 'Well, I don't want to understand this stuff too much because I have to be able to explain it to the audience.'"
Sit back and prepare to be explained to, kids (but don't worry, mum, there'll be a mushy love story too). And I imagine that at some point something will probably go !!BANG!!, in order to keep dad awake.

Regardless, the trend towards quasi-middle-brow, more-or-less geocentric sci-fi blockbusters is an interesting cultural development. In the past ecological issues cropped up in science fiction as a romantic or aesthetic tragedy -- 'alas, look what we evil all-too-humans have done.' Now we are beginning to see that it is a tragedy that is considerably more existential, mortal -- a tragedy that threatens not the pastoral beauty of a world that is meekly prostrate before our mastery but a thoroughly active and reactive world that may very well be preparing to extinguish us like the pests that we have become.

That is something rather different. To realise that the Earth will never be mastered and that we are simply earthbound organisms with overly high estimations of ourselves -- that is galaxies away from science fiction's past imagined futures.

To what extent Interstellar will follow that ontological detour of course remains to be seen. It seems likely that the power of love will overcome all and we'll all go home either enraptured or nauseated. (Still thinking in terms of AIME, this would be an interesting category mistake: it is as if [rel] could keep us breathing [rep]!)

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Blogging after the ether: knowing your audience

Prior to the past week and a half I had met only a handful of people who read this blog. It was interesting, then, to find that seemingly about half of my readers were at the AIME workshops/seminars! (Not that we're talking huge numbers here, of course, but still.)

Writing this now, knowing (a significant part of) my audience, is a very different experience to before. In the past my words just disappeared into the ether to be read by I-know-not-whom. The readers had neither faces nor voices. Now they have fully rounded personalities. And they're all really bloody clever!

But this is good. The reason for my writing this blog is not that I have such profound things to say that the world must be urgently presented with my words. I am not that vain (or stupid!). The experience of writing a public journal focuses the mind in a way that a private one does not.

And now that the experience is even more public than before I feel compelled to focus my mind much more intently!

Saturday, 26 July 2014

After the summit, the fatigue!—A first reflection on the final AIME workshop

This past week I was fortunate enough to participate in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence's final Diplomatic Writing Workshop.

I don't think that I'm yet able to articulate my reflections on the past week intelligently (and not just because of the overpriced Parisian alcohol that's still in my system). After the five days of debating and writing (and rewriting and rewriting and re-debating and arguing!) I feel mentally, physically, emotionally and existentially exhausted—in a good way, but still...

As the only non-francophone in attendance there was a formidable language barrier. I was greatly aided by the kindness of my co-writers who spoke English when they could. I'm especially grateful to Cormac O'Keeffe and Stephen Muecke for their brilliant on-the-fly translations and interpretations, not to mention their moral support.

Apparently the best way to learn a language is to be dropped in at the deep end. This end was deep more ways than one!

As an experiment in collective thought it was a strange and intense experience. An undoubtable success, albeit with many problems, flaws and internal failures of diplomacy. Peace was not achieved but this was never the expectation.

Next week, on Monday and Tuesday, AIME goes public with the final ceremonial assembly before the appointed charges d'affaires. Perhaps the most difficult thing with this experiment has been the fact that seemingly everyone taking part had a slightly different interpretation of what the protocols were and what was to be achieved. To over-(or badly-)philosophise the point, this past week has been thoroughly pre-individual. I look forward to Monday to find out what we've been doing all this time!

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Diplomacy as theory; theory as diplomacy—excerpts from Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy

Further to my last post, which provided some excerpts from Costas Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy on the subject of diplomacy itself, here are some more, this time concentrating on the etymology of 'theory' and its relation to diplomatic and metaphysical practice.
This word theoria was used in ancient Greek to designate, among other things, an old type of embassy, the solemn or sacred embassy sent to attend religious festivals and games, discharge the divine obligations of the polis, and consult the oracle. This particular ancient meaning has been lost in the modern, Anglicized use of the term theoria, as is the case with the modern Greek term. (p.52-53) 
Firstly, theoria is derived from the words theos (god) and orao (to see). It had the meaning ‘to see god’ and particularly referred to this aspect of eyeing god in the shrine. Orao also relates, however, to the word hora (time, hour), and so theoria can be understood as the moment of god or the moment devoted to god. The sight and time of the theoria invoked therefore a specific truth-making process. (p.53)

Later, in the biblical tradition, theoria was given a special theological significance, for it was specifically used to describe the view of Jesus at the cross, that is, bearing witness to the moment of sacrifice. But the root word theo in Ancient Greek also meant—depending on the emphasis—to run and to look. […] From this root theo- (run), theoria acquired the meaning of a journey, of traveling abroad to see the world. This meaning is especially important, for it refers to the first known use of the word theoria by Herodotus. It was employed to designate the journey of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, to Egypt and other ‘far away’ places. The importance of the timing of Solon’s journey points to the significance of hora, the reaching of a certain moment in one’s private or political lifetime for going on a theoria. (p.54)

[There is also a link with theatre,] the theatron itself being the place where theoria was practiced. (p.54)

The sacred ambassadors [sent to religious events and oracles] were called theors or theoroi and were specially chosen. (p.55)

Theoria then was an embassy to god or truth (tied to divine sanction and authority), and theors were ambassadors, peripatetic ‘theorists,’ charged with the discovery of what was right or true. In theoria, therefore, one can view embassy as theory and theory as embassy. (p.55)

[…] theory at its Platonic conception was the mirror image of the very diplomatic process it [i.e. diplomatic theory] now seeks to explain. (p.56)

In Phaedo, Plato employed theoria to describe the solemn embassy sent to the Delian oracle ‘in honour of the god’ Apollo and to commemorate Theseus’s journey to Crete. In The Republic, there are instances where Plato’s theoria can be understood more generally as participation in any kind of festival or campaign. In Crito, theoria is used as a journey, and in the Laws, in addition to voyage, as view and careful observation. In another instance, it has a more specific meaning when it refers exclusively to the Dionysian celebrations. Finally, Plato employs the word theoria to denote the contemplation of the divine, and in his most common usage as speculation and philosophical reasoning. (p.56)

[…] in order to see reality, the philosopher is required to ascend out of the cave. Plato thus describes the return of the philosopher to the cave as a theoria. The return of the philosopher signifies the conclusion of a contemplative journey, a journey that equips the philosopher with theoretical knowledge subsequently communicated for the benefit and education of the people. Theoria constitutes, therefore, the philosophical journey out of the cave of ignorance. But it is important to note that this is not a journey of any kind. It is not simply a theoria, as understood by Herodotus […]. It is a theoria meant for divine contemplations. Just like the sacred embassy, it is sent to contemplate the metaphysical. (p.57)

Platonic philosophical thinking, therefore, appears [at first] to resemble ancient Greek diplomatic practice. (p.58)

[In the Laws, ambassadors and theors have a key pedagogical role. They are to educate the] youth concerning the laws and affairs of the polis. This was a role traditionally reserved for the man of philosophy, but Plato appears also to expect pedagogical responsibility from the man of diplomacy. (p.58)

[This granting of power required strict rules—infringement of which would be punishable by death.] Plato begins by establishing certain conditions under which a citizen could travel abroad. First, nobody under the age of forty would be permitted to do so under any circumstances. Second, nobody would be permitted to go abroad in a private capacity—only in a public one, which involves the sending of heralds, embassies, and theorias […]. The information and knowledge acquired by such theorias is then to be communicated to the citizens of the model polis so to confirm the rightness of its laws or to amend the deficient ones. […] Theoria is therefore charged with the discovery of the good and held responsible for the perfect condition of the polis. Of course, that was precisely the role saved for the philosopher-ruler in The Republic. In the Laws, consequently, the Platonic republic attains its full metaphysical significance. It becomes a political cave. (p.58-9)

It is typical of Platonic irony that Socrates, the nontravelling philosopher, becomes a model of the theoretician. Socrates is a philosopher who contemplates aporia and yet he himself is an aporos (without passage or way), one who has never crossed to the beyond (peras). (p.59-60)

[Eventually, ideas win out over journeys.] Plato demotes and marginalizes the journey out of the cave. Once the light is encountered, once the truth is revealed, once reality is viewed, the quest is passé and the path that led there loses its significance. […] the Platonic idea becomes an idol (eidolon) in the mirror of which theoria is now immediately discharged. (p.60)
So, long story short, the Greeks before and around Plato provided the linguistic and conceptual basis for the kind of theoretical diplomacy that Bruno Latour is now seeking to practice; however, Plato being Plato, this promising beginning was immediately sundered by Transcendence.

From the beginning of the AIME project I've felt that diplomacy was an undertheorised concept. The above (and the previous two posts on the subject [one two]) might provide the possibility of a more thorough conceptuual consideration of diplomacy.

Credit must go, however, to Costas Constantinou whose wonderful little book I've so ruthlessly pillaged here. (It deserves a proper read; these excerpts do it no justice.) I took his class on diplomacy during my final year of undergraduate study at Keele University and it's the one thing I learned at that time theory-wise that really stuck with me.

See also:


Costas Constantinou's Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge (pdf)

On Homo-Diplomacy (pdf)

Between Statecraft and Humanism: Diplomacy and Its Forms of Knowledge (pdf)

Constantinou & Der Derian's Sustaining Global Hope: Sovereignty, Power and the Transformation of Diplomacy (pdf)


Noé Cornago's Plural Diplomacies: Normative Predicaments and Functional Imperatives

James Der Derian's On Diplomacy: A Genealogy of Western Estrangement

Iver B. Neumann's At Home with the Diplomats: Inside a European Foreign Ministry

'Diplomacy does not exist'—diplomats are servants of the diplomatic frame

From Costas Constantinou's On the Way to Diplomacy:
[…] diplomatic representation functions through simulation, for simulation is traditionally also the art of diplomacy. Simulation is an art, a technique that involves a secret and a challenge. The secret is that diplomacy does not exist. The challenge is to make diplomacy appear. In diplomatic representation, consequently, there is an ironic and fatal alliance, an inaugural quid pro quo between all the subjects involved […] The reality of these diplomatic representations is, therefore, self-referential. It is based on metaphysical rationality that produces its own closure. It involves the capacity to produce a metaphysical picture, to paint articulations, and to frame presences and absences. (p.21)
Modern ambassadors are trained to make present the unrepresentable and to see what cannot be seen. They are trained to get the picture and to get into the picture. That is why the ambassadors are enframed, worked in a similar way to those of "The Ambassadors [see below]." (p.22)
Ambassadors are part of and responsible for the diplomatic frame-up—the very construction and animation of the diplomatic world they live in. In and through their confident diplomatic representations, ambassadors normalize the frame-up as the framework. Working within this so-called normal framework they are claimed by their representations and so enter into a power relationship, a relationship of discursive and historical servitude. (Note that the word ambassador stems from the Latin word ambactus, meaning servant.) (p.22)
The primary role of this incredible service is to make credible representations. For diplomatic representation always involves an act of faith (in the picture). It needs to be accredited. Just as ambassadors are required to present their credentials before they can represent, diplomatic representation also needs to be credited itself with establishing a sovereign presence. (p.22)

Sloterdijk on the non-existence of 'Religions'

From You Must Change Your Life:
European Enlightenment—a crisis of form? An experiment on a slippery slope, at any rate, and from a global perspective an anomaly. Sociologists of religion put it quite bluntly: people keep believing everywhere else, but in our society we have glorified disillusionment. Indeed, why should Europeans be the only ones on a metaphysical diet when the rest of the world continues to dine unperturbed at the richly decked tables of illusion? 
[...] a return to religion is as impossible as a return of religion—for the simple reason that no 'religion' or 'religions' exist, only misunderstood spiritual regimens, whether these are practised in collectives—usually church, ordo, umma, sangha—or in customized forms—through interaction with the 'personal God' with whom the citizens of modernity are privately insured. Thus the tiresome distinction between 'true religion' and superstition loses its meaning. There are only regimens that are more and less capable and worthy of propagation. The false dichotomy of believers and unbelievers becomes obsolete and is replaced by the distinction between the practising and the untrained, or those who train differently. (p.3)
In contrast to Latour's translative theology, Sloterdijk's concentration on "regimens that are more and less capable and worthy of propagation" refocuses attention entirely away from the past. Religious truth conditions become entirely presentist: is this regimen worthy or not? It doesn't matter, in and of itself, how many years hermeneuts have agonised over this or that crumb of biblical dogma. There is no prejudice against the nouveau riche of religiosity. If these stratified ponderings upon ponderings going back millennia have generated a rich, beautiful, jumbled jungle of immuno-psychic possibilities then great! However, that is merely the means to the end of the successful religious dispositif, not the end itself.

Religion, in this iteration, becomes fully relativistic and thus fully secularisable and is, therefore, a better diplomatic proposition (from my godless point of view) that the one Latour proposes as [rel].

Friday, 4 July 2014

Diplomas, diplomacy and theory – the folding and unfolding of objects

The diplo- in ‘diplo-macy’ derives from “the ancient Greek verb diploun (to double), and from the Greek noun diploma”[1]; “diplo = folded in two + suffix ma = object” [2; see also]. According to Costas Constantinou, ‘diplomas’ were documents “written on parchment and … papyrus [...] handed over to heralds [and] carried as evidence of their status and authority.” The word diploma later “came to mean a letter of recommendation,” a passport or “an order enabling a traveller to use the public post” [3].

It was only towards the end of the seventeenth century that 'diplomacy' began to attain the meaning we attribute to it today. In 1693, Gottfried Leibniz published his Codex Juris Gentium Diplomaticus, a collection of treaties and official documents which attributed “to the adjective diplomatic the meaning of something related to international relations” [4]. Other European powers followed suit in commissioning large archiving activities such as this; the diploma thus became organised and was a vital resource for statecraft.

However, it wasn't until 1796 that we find 'diplomacy' in its modern form in the writings of Edmund Burke who spoke of the ‘diplomatic body,’ and used “‘diplomacy’ to mean skill … in the conduct of international intercourse and negotiations” [5]. In seventeenth-century Italy, diplomatic agents had become known as “orators” and in most of Europe “ambassadors were still legati” [6].

While the basic elements of the practice of diplomacy may therefore be as old as human being, the word and concept are of quite recent genesis. It's informative to mention at this point the origin of 'theory':
… the Greek practice theôria [is] the etymological precursor to the English word theory. In George Rawlinson's translation of Herodotus, theôria is rendered only as "to see the world," yet theôros has multiple meanings, including a spectator, a state delegate to a festival in another city, and someone who travels to consult an oracle. Theôria is itself a compound of different etymological possibilities: the first half of the word suggests both vision (thea, meaning sight/spectacle) and God (theos), while -oros connotes "one who sees." Unsurprisingly, then, theôrein is the verb meaning "to observe" and is connected to sightseeing and religious emissaries. This etymology posits a link among theôria, travel, direct experience, and vision, but it is in Herodotus's Histories that such practices are tied specifically to the achievement of knowledge: in one of the earliest known uses of the word theôria in the ancient world, Herodotus describes Solon the Lawgiver's journey from Athens for (among other reasons) the sake of theôria and explicitly links theory and wisdom (sophia) to travel across vast terrain (1.30.2). Herodotus reiterates the association among theory, travel, and knowledge when he describes Anacharsis the Scythian (4.76.2) as one who "had traversed much of the world on a theôria and throughout this had given evidence of his great wisdom." [7]
The practical precursor of diplomacy might have been theory (Constantinou makes this point extensively). We could call the 'diplomacy' articulated by Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour, therefore, a fittingly theoretical diplomacy. Wisdom, travel, religion and interpolitical relations are all tied up in this web of connections. However, diplomacy, as Stengers and Latour deploy the concept, is rather different to its historical precursors.

The diplomat was once the bearer of the diploma, the emissary that the folded document confirmed. The issues which motivated his journey were borne otherwise; the purpose of the diploma was to authenticate the authority of the received utterances [the science dedicated to the authentication of official documents: 'diplomatics']. It was crucial to the mission but was not its cause.

The folded object remains central to 'cosmopolitical' diplomacy but takes on a different role to one of mere passport. The diploma now does not simply authenticate the diplomat's right to speak but forms precisely the foundation of the entire endeavour.

If the heart of diplomacy remains the diplo-ma – the folded object/document, the duplex entity – then what does this make the diplomat? The diplomat is not the folder of objects (its sovereign – its public – is that which has folded the object and dispatched the envoy). The diplomat is the unfolder of objects that cannot be unfolded by one party. It is as though the causal issues were a giant bed-sheet impossible to fold or unfold by one person alone. The cosmopolitical diplomat is a burdened traveller in search of unfolding that can only come with the meeting of an other.

The diplomat is the one who arrives bearing the folded object but, unlike a mere herald, messenger or legati, is greeted, is subject to elaborate ceremonial attachment to the receiving community and who becomes resident so as to work through the matters at hand – the matters present-at-hand, we might say (the essence of the diploma qua passport was its very unproblematic, indubitable readiness-to-hand).

The duplex character of the diplomatic matter indicates its issue-hood, its status as a matter of concern, of contestation, of disagreement, dissensus, discord. Diplomacy always begins in duplicity; if successful it ends not in unity but in settlement.

The diplomat of this procedure is a transformed character, a theôros – a philosopher, indeed!


[1] Costas Constantinou, On the Way to Diplomacy, p.77.
[2] José Calvet de Magalhães, The Pure Concept of Diplomacy, p.58.
[3] Constantinou, On the Way to Diplomacy, p.77.
[4] Magalhães, The Pure Concept of Diplomacy, p.58.
[5] Ernest Mason Satow, A Guide to Diplomatic Practice, p.3.
[6] Garrett Mattingly, Renaissance Diplomacy, p.130.
[7] Roxanne L. Euben, Journeys to the Other Shore: Muslim and Western Travelers in Search of Knowledge, p.21.

Monday, 30 June 2014

"Resetting Modernity" in Paris

I've just received a flurry of information for the forthcoming 'diplomatic summit' to be held as the conclusion of Bruno Latour's AIME project. It describes the event as (and I paraphrase rather than offering my own mangled translation of the French!) attempting to reflexively redefine the Moderns so that we might present ourselves to Gaia once more under the slogan (and this is given in English) "Reset Modernity." I couldn't help but be reminded of this:

'Designing out crime,' panopticism, etc. etc.

An interesting article today in the Guardian on 'designing out crime' by modifications made to the built environment through planning and design processes:
“You want the rooms most regularly inhabited to be in view of any potential criminals,” says Craig. “It’s what we call ‘natural surveillance’: we like ‘active frontages’ to overlook communal areas so that people are seen and can be seen. The more windows overlooking the street and public spaces, the better.” Enforcing clear boundaries is also important, making distinctions between public and private space with fences and hedges.
The crime figures for the area suggest good design has indeed deterred criminals: between 2011 and 2014, just five burglaries were reported in Greenheys, compared with 76 in the surrounding square kilometre. “The fact the estate looks nice helps a lot,” reckons Craig. “If it looks grim, people behave in an accordingly grim way. I think this development shows that compliance with our recommendations doesn’t stifle innovative design. It’s a challenge to planners and architects, sure, but if it’s done right, there’s still scope for imagination.”
There's no doubt that bad urban design (and what mid-twentieth-century architecture in Britain wasn't abominable?) substantially contributes to a poor quality of life – including suffering crime; however, the problem with this is, of course, that it poses a technical fix to essentially political problems. Still, it's an interesting case of the sociology of translation in action.

There's another article from last week about these same practices in Scandinavia. I don't know much about criminology but it'd be interesting to see how this fits in with Scandinavia's generally more progressive approach to crime and punishment. Is it possible to mobilise technical solutions to such problems without this effectively tarmacing over their political causes?