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:

http://rethinkingpossibilism.blogspot.co.uk/

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.
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*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 the 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.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

James, politics and prescriptive pluralism: part 1

I'm just starting to read Kennan Ferguson's William James: Politics in the Pluriverse, a book that I've been meaning to get hold of for some time. So far it's a good read.


The early part of the book attempts to dissociate James' pluralism, a term that he popularised in the late nineteenth century, from the course that word took in the twentieth.
James created pluralism as an anti-Hegelian distrust of all universalist systematizing—an anti-teleological ethos that emphasizes the profound and meaningful differences in the worlds of different people. In short, James' pluralism was prescriptive
Over the course of the twentieth century, however, the term pluralism came to primarily mean something far different, something merely descriptive. Pluralism is now understood as referring to the fact of human difference, the unpleasant and sometimes unavoidable incommensurability of values that threatens people's abilities to build political institutions, share meanings and even communicate. (15)
Later the book goes into the connections between Continental and American philosophies and a Jamesian 'onticology' of objects.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

Pluralism—neither idealism nor realism but, above all, not absolutism

If philosophical absolutism can be defined as the expectation that a philosophical schema can (and should) be capable of incorporating any thing of any kind, anywhere at any time into its tenets, postulates and axioms with no remainder then we will notice that many philosophies termed ‘realist’ and ‘idealist’ have much in common.

A pluralist philosophy not only expects to encounter entities that baffle, dissemble and defy but welcomes such virtuous incomprehension—but then, of course, so may an inquisitive, curious and expansionist absolutism. What distinguishes pluralism is that it does not attempt to explain, subsume or incorporate as such; instead, it attempts to facilitate the terms of the encounter, to work through the situation as a specific event, to think through the middle, penser par le milieu.

Many ‘realisms’ would be better termed 'absolutisms'; and it would be well noted that they are not so dissimilar to their declared others. Pluralism does not mean idealism; on the contrary, it has no necessary affiliation to either side of that conflict. Pluralism needn’t grant ‘ideas,’ ‘mind,’ ‘language,’ ‘discourse’ or ‘consciousness’ any particular privilege. Indeed, it’s difficult to see how a properly pluralist philosophy ever could.

Pluralism must be realistic with regard to itself. All its realism must derive from—no, be subsequent to—this first demand (note: not first principle).

Realisms tend to operate with an implicit and more or less denied self-denial that I have characterised with the phrase ‘of course, I might be wrong.’ Few philosophers are such megalomaniacs as to think that they have finally—'at last!'—uncovered the real secret key to the hidden order of things. However, an all too thin concept of ‘speculation’ permits the argumentatively tentative (although often rhetorically bombastic) suggestion that this or that particular bundle of words and pages may, finally, have pinned down the butterfly, uncovered the thought that would allow us to stop thinking.

Pluralism operates, as I have written previously, with a much ‘thicker’ and more demanding notion of speculation. Philosophical action, not unlike action in general, results from existential demands. Its speculative character must be understood in relation to these demands. Thought untethered from a real problem is simply practice in the sense of 'today I practiced my guitar.' If a real, pressing, urgent problem is not present then one must be simulated. Nothing can be said against this but it is plainly an example practice qua preparation.

If philosophical thought—action—has a virtue (and I don't take the 'if' lightly) it is realised 'on stage,' as it were; in the midst, in the melee, in the milieu.

Pluralism can be distinguished from other comparable terms by the fact that it never takes 'reality' as its problem. The realist qua absolutist seems to say 'anything less than reality as a whole, without remainder, is not worth my time.' There is a political consequence that does not 'follow from' such philosophical pomposity but closely neighbours it: any ignorance, any foolishness, any deception relative to the Real that is the one and only real, perennial Problem is a matter of concern that must have Truth spoken to its power, to its plainly illegitimate Being. Pluralism, on the contrary, can choose its battles neither arbitrarily nor dogmatically. Not every disagreement on the register of knowledge must become public, political. In fact, many disagreements simply do not matter. That 'not mattering' is the new route to the good life. To live well is to live with, well enough—to 'I can live with that.'

This is perhaps the fault, then, of materialism, as generally conceived: it cannot ever reach the truly immaterial, that which simply does not matter. If everything, everywhere is of a common base and follows common laws and if avowed acknowledgement of all that is ontologically subtensive is a matter of public order then any divergence from reality, no matter how trivial, becomes a matter of public concern. On the contrary, if differences must do more than merely diverge in order to become a problem, and if 'reality' as such simply cannot ever become meaningfully 'problematic,' then coexistence becomes remarkably more thinkable.

The question then really becomes: is 'coexistence' that which we are working for? For many the answer to this is 'no' (they have other agendas) and that is the terrain on which arguments should proceed since this is what truly divides; this is terrain worthy of a friend/enemy declaration; endless feuds over relations and substances and so on are not at all as deserving—these are examples of philosophy for its own ends.

To the pluralists, problems; to the absolutists, perennials. This chasm runs far deeper than idealism versus realism, and is many times more urgent an area for exploration.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

Harman's 'Reassembling the Political'—Some first impressions

I received Graham Harman's new book on Latour's political thought last Wednesday. Apparently before it's author!

Having spent several hours in and around airports on the following day, I was able to read it on Thursday. However, I'm only just now having time to put my thoughts down in words, this time looking out at the passing Devonshire countryside.

It is certainly a very thorough introduction to aspects of Latour's political philosophy. However it has, in my opinion, several major flaws.

First, and perhaps least importantly, the first half of the book should really give Latour co-writing credit since it is mostly a patchwork of quotations from his books. In excess of 50% of the text seems to be quotation in many places (I haven't calculated this systematically). This gives the impression of a book that was written in a hurry and that, while not being very long, is short on original content. The actual analysis is packed into the last 70 pages or so, amidst more long quotations from other authors.

Secondly, and much more seriously, the book almost completely decontextualises its subject matter. Latour's political thought becomes free-floating and grounded only in his own personality, not in his problematiques, nor in his historical moment. It is written, like Harman's Prince of Networks, as though Latour was responding to 'perennial problems' rather than concrete historical issues. Unless I somehow missed it, Harman doesn't even mention the 'Science Wars,' a quite surprising omission, especially with regard to the extensive treatment of Politics of Nature, which, along with Pandora's Hope, was written in direct response to said affair. (I should add that I don't have the text in front of me to double check these points but if these things were mentioned it can only have been very briefly.)

Thirdly, and not unrelatedly, Harman hardly mentions diplomacy as a concept at all. His treatment of 'politics' comes down almost entirely to the issues of power and violence. He does mention at one point that, contrary to Zizek's imperiously self-certain basing of politics on Truth, Latour thinks and argues as a diplomat rather than a vanguardist. However, the depth and importance of this concept (one that he takes from Isabelle Stengers) is unrecognised and its conceptual complexities are not even nodded at.

Much like his previous writings on Latour, Harman's new book should not be read as a neutral introduction. Just like Prince of Networks, Harman really ends up talking about himself and his own interests via the medium of Latour's concepts. Harman's clear, accessible and sometimes entertaining prose style, and the excessively extended introductory quotations, should not distract from this point. The final two fifths of the book are far stronger than the earlier part with interesting and valuable discussions of Zizek and Strauss. However, as mentioned above, it appears to be a book written both in a hurry and in a style that fosters the appearance of being relatively neutral and introductory while in fact being anything but. Once again, Harman completely ignores the more interesting and complex, pluralistic aspects of Latour's work and his unwavering groundedness in problems.

To take account of the changing historical circumstances in which Latour was writing would require a more careful and difficult writing process. Harman prides himself seemingly above all in being prolific. Well, it is easy to be prolific when you trade in 'perennial problems' that require no contextual discussion. Moreover, it is easy to slice Latour's works up into heuristic phases when when the actual conditions under which his thought evolved are simply erased.

Harman writes that Latour deserves better critics than he has for the most part been subjected to so far. I would agree. However, Harman's only real criticism is that Latour is not 'realist' enough, which perhaps explains why he gives diplomacy as a concept such short shrift. If he had to actually deal with the extreme intimacy of thought, politics and plurality in Latour's and Stengers' works it wouldn't be so easy to reduce the former's to bland, emaciated musings on 'perennials' that are said to be hamstrung by being inadequately underpinned by 'realism.'

Harman continues to reject out of hand the possibility of any real relation between Latour's work and that of Deleuze on the rather dubious metaphysical grounds that Deleuze apparently dissolves things into flows while Latour is interested in individual things. Even if that were true it is flabbergasting to think that the basic ontological aesthetic choice of things versus processes would exhaust the relevance of a thinker as complex and multifaceted as Deleuze.

Latour is Deleuzian, in my view, in this sense: he is a thinker for whom thought must always move from, around, towards and/or through a specific, particular, pressing and contemporary problem. His work simply cannot be properly understood in ignorance of this. The crucial connection between philosophical and political pluralism, both of which must be redefined in order to reach a new accommodation of the Moderns' values, is just left outside in the cold.

In grounding Latour's thought in perennials rather than problems, Harman not only misrepresents Latour's work; in my view, he fails to understand its most essential characteristics. He doesn't just perturb the works along a slightly new trajectory (of course every commentator does this) and he doesn't just neglect important aspects of Latour's work. He gets crucial, core elements of Latour's thought wrong.

It is for this reason that Harman's books should be read with a highly critical eye. Under no circumstances, in my opinion, should they be assigned to students or interested beginners as introductory texts. While the copy and paste reassembly of choice cuts of Latour-prose may be useful for such readers—as a kind of highly edited 'Latour Reader'—they are likely to be wholly mislead by the unmistakably Harmanian spin that is put on the whole assemblage. Once again, this is, on a conceptual level, more a book about Harman than it is about Latour, and it must be read as such.

Harman's central conceit in both his books published on Latour to date is this: to read Latour as though he hadn't attempted to redefine what doing philosophy, or doing political philosophy, involved; as if he could be read without recognising the degree to which he attempts to modify the very ground of interpretation from which he could be understood.

Harman's book is not without merits but its demerits are disappointing. The summary of recent criticism makes for a useful literature review and focusing some attention on the Hobbesian underpinnings of Latour's work over the years is worthwhile. However, ultimately Harman is all too conservative a reader. His modus operandi is one of simplification, axiomatisation and schematisation. While I have nothing against these operations per se they it would be nice if Harman at least acknowledged that in pinning down the proverbial butterfly he is losing something of its being—perhaps the most crucial part.

Latour's work doesn't need simplification and separation; it needs articulation and interconnection; less carding, more weaving. The principle fault of the existing secondary literature on his work is that it fails to draw it together in its interconnectedness. Harman compounds this problem. Just as his book on Latour's metaphysics sidelined his sociology, seeing that as a separate thing, here certain elements are deemed political and others are left out. This is, in my view, not helpful. If Latour's work were so easily 'zoned' it wouldn't be as interesting as it is.

And so I can only conclude by saying that if Harman's commentary becomes the prism through which people begin to read Latour (and I have seen some evidence of this) we will all be a lot worse off for it.

Monday, 27 October 2014

'Silent Running' at the Eden Project—Some reflections on cinema and its world

Following on from a post I wrote recently, the 1972 sci-fi classic film Silent Running was shown last night at the Eden Project in Cornwall.
The event was kicked off by the performance of a quite gorgeous sci-fi-inspired, ambient piece of music by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp), with Adrian Lee and Tim Allen, in the Mediterranean biome. (Among the celebrity Cornishmen in attendance—this needs to be mentioned as there really aren't many of them!—was the artist usually known as Aphex Twin.)

With dozens of speakers dotted around the place, the band's magnificently brooding, droning, chirping sound-waves reverberated all around the biome, mixing and melding with the rippling rhythms of talking, walking, dropping things... It was an immersive aural delight.

Afterwards, back in the main building and overlooking the domes, Utley and Gregory described how they were inspired particularly by the soundtrack for Forbidden Planet (1956) and its cobbled-together, hugely experimental techniques of sound-scaping.

Then came Mark Kermode's hilarious and heartfelt introduction to the film. I expect that a video of this will emerge on Eden's Youtube page soon, though it hasn't yet.

I'd watched the film five or six times before but never on a big screen, nor with a crowd of people. (Nor, indeed, on film as opposed to the DVD version.) It was quite remarkable how different the experience was under properly 'cinematic' conditions. I saw so many things in the film that I hadn't before (I am sure that it was differently edited to the DVD version, although it seemed to come in at the same running time); moreover, I felt many things watching the film that I had not previously. Scenes which previously slid by with little to mark them as remarkable became pivotal moments; the rhythm, pacing and structure of the film seemed to somehow reveal themselves; jokes that seemed only mildly humorous became hilarious ('laugh and the whole world...'), while the pathos of the film's closing act was stunningly magnified by the sheer silence of the audience as the events unfolded.

The film has its moments of kitsch and inadvertent humour (whatever the bird is that lands on Lowell's arm during the first Joan Baez song never fails to have them rolling in the aisles). In many ways, as even Kermode conceded, the film doesn't hold together; in many ways it is rather dated. However, there really is something very special about it as a work of art, especially when viewed in its proper environment—that is, when viewed cinematically.

The fact that some of the film's more naive moments provoked laughter only served to emphasise the degree to which its more sensitive moments were still able to move deeply, to make present sentiments that were utterly relatable, despite all the distancing effects of time and the ageing process of technical progression.

While the film was screened in a conference room rather than a proper cinema this hardly mattered. In fact the setting couldn't have been more perfect. The room was set up in such a way that Eden's domes, the architecture of which was inspired by the film, were visible just to the right of the screen. As the credits begin to roll we see one dome gradually drifting off into the distance. As Kermode noted rather excitedly, it appeared more or less the same size on the screen as the domes that were visible out of the window.

I can't think of a film that has been connected to its worldly consequences in the mere fact and technique of its projection as intimately as this one. What could sunder all pretences of textualism or filmic internalism more than this moment? Projection as a technical art is an intimate part of the broader art of cinema—this much is clear. And film is of the world. It is an ever transforming assemblage; it acts, it moves, it builds.

As I mentioned in my previous post, I'm planning on writing an article on all of this, taking this film as a case study for thinking about space and spatiality in film. It seems to me that for all the countless pages written on time in film there is precious little that concentrates on space—as though that were somehow either given or uninteresting. Neither of those things seem to me to be true. I am now quite excited about getting to work on this project!

On Law, Nomos and Gaia: Three Questions for Latour’s Legal Geopolitics

On Friday and Saturday last week I had the terrific good fortune of attending a workshop at the University of Hamburg titled 'The Materiality of Law and Global Politics: Inquiries into Bruno Latour’s Sociological Anthropology of Modernity.'

The paper that I presented is available here:



I am still mentally digesting what I learned from the event but it confirmed to me what I had already suspected; specifically, that I want to incorporate the sociology of law into my work in future.

I certainly wasn't able to resolve the 'three questions' that I posed; however, I think that I have a better idea of how to go about addressing them. Examining the relationship between law and geopolitics in their respectively pluralised senses will, I think, be very interesting.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Brian Cox's 'boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment' and The Ascent of Man

There's a good article on the Guardian's Science website today by Henry Gee, a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist. He writes about the physicist and popular science presenter Brian Cox's new 'ascent of Man' series Human Universe.
Cox talks about finding our place among the stars, when the ISS is hardly more than several solar-powered baked bean cans in low-earth orbit. Fewer than 20 people (all men) have set foot on any other body in the solar system – the moon – and none more recently than 1972. Plans to return people to the moon or go anywhere else are, to be charitable, at the pipe-dream stage. To talk of our place among the stars is at best premature, at worst hubristic. 
But that’s just a quibble, an unsightly pimple on what is a greater problem. Cox speaks, with the prerequisite Bronowskian awe and reverence, of our uniqueness as a species, that we are the only species capable of doing the things we do, by virtue of attributes such as language and writing. Cox turns his boyishly unfocused gaze of general wonderment from the heavens to the depths of antiquity, the growth of societies and trade and how writing pulled this all together.
Cox's programme is indeed a familiarly and depressingly linear, upward account of human evolution, full of questionable science and cod philosophy. Its teleology doesn't halt at the present but implicitly projects the path of the human essence out into the stars, as if that weren't all a bit last century.

In fairness it's very well put together and it's great that someone can make science exciting and accessible. In this respect Cox's talent is not in doubt. One can only wish that the ontology implicit within and propagated by such popularisations wasn't so very stupid.

Gee does a good job of humorously puncturing Cox's bubblegum science but I don't think too many will hear. Cox is the anointed successor to David Attenborough as the Voice of Science for the BBC and hence, to a large extent, for Britain.

Why is it always physicists these days who get to tell everyone what science is?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The only thing worse than being talked about...

If, as Oscar Wilde famously put it, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about then Graham Harman could certainly have things worse. To be sure, people are talking.

However, of course, one never wishes to be merely criticised. To be criticised well—that is the tacit compliment one must hope for. And having read the first instalment of Peter Wolfendale's surgical broadside against Harman's work—namely The Noumenon's New Clothes (Part 1)—I can only conclude that Harman is being criticised really rather ably, albeit with an attitude that is not exactly cordial.

Now, I haven't followed the ins and outs of this kerfuffle over time and to be honest I don't really care that much. However, to have one's work subjected to such forensic criticism can only be a compliment of sorts, even if said forensics are openly pursuing a policy of annihilation by scorched earth. To be the subject of such an analytical blitzkrieg is assuredly not the worst thing in the world.

So, 'SR,' 'OOP.' Moribund? Perhaps. Dead? Not with this level of chatter on the lines. Even as something to react against, Harman's work is clearly vitalising for many.

However, having said that, I am less and less interested by it every time I read some of it. Despite Harman's prolific output I haven't detected a great deal of evolution or progression (or even consolidation) in his ideas over the past several years—and I was fairly unconvinced of the major points of his philosophy to begin with.

The 'reduction to relations' critique is often asserted but rarely argued and I've never found it in the least bit convincing. Without that bombshell in place the substance-oriented edifice doesn't have a leg to stand on (to mix my metaphors) and becomes just a rather de-nuanced, metaphysical version of actor-network theory with the word 'realism' inserted at strategic intervals.

Harman points, fairly enough, to the fact that a great many people are interested in his work. However, to say that a philosophy is demonstrably popular is not an overwhelmingly strong defence of its validity. Its value should be assessed by the quality control department, not sales. It is entirely possible that its popularity and its controversy issue from the same sources: excessive simplicity, depthless polemic and unprogressive repetitiveness.

Anyway, the only way to kill something off, ultimately, is to stop talking about it. And I'm not sure that we're there yet, but we may be getting closer.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

The common ground between secular and religious -- some belated reflections on the religious mode of existence and how it can improve (as)sociology

One of the more challenging chapters in Bruno Latour's An Inquiry into Modes of Existence is that on religion. I initially found this section to be very frustrating but have come to appreciate it more with time. If I am reading it adequately, and this post should establish whether or not that's the case, it is a line of thought with considerable political importance but also with some major problems in its existing iterations.

Latour's theology must be read, I think, by taking very seriously the claim that his whole project is an exercise in diplomacy -- that is, in building a middle ground between hitherto ontologically irreconcilable groups (in this case those hitherto known as the secular and the religious).

The need for such a mediation exercise is obvious. Many religionists stereotype secularists as cold, uncaring, self-interested, amoral or even actively immoral, interested only in their own pleasure and short-term well-being (this being a relatively mild version). Likewise, for many secularists (particularly of the atheist-humanist variety), the religious are figured as babbling lunatics seething in an ear- and reason-clogging soup of their own violently self-certain and irrational existential dogma (this is a fairly common version).

As a way out of this collective impasse, Latour proposes to transform the concept of religion. His theology is based upon the argument, I think it can be said, that the secular are religious and the religious are secular. That is, it is based upon two argumentative moves that cut across each other.

First, the larger part of his theological writings are dedicated to divesting religion of its vulgar or 'abusive' transcendence; that is, of its claim to 'another world' above or behind the merely manifest one. To the religious Latour says: 'you are also secular'; secular in the sense of the Latin saecularis "worldly, pertaining to a generation or age." The religious are secular because they are of this world; they have no transcendent realm to appeal to as though it were some kind of cosmic supreme court, nor another, higher world to escape to as though this grubby, fallen sphere were not good enough for them (here his Christianity is strikingly and ironically Nietzschean). The only world is this sublunar world; however, crucially, religious experience is found to be reconcilable with this statement; indeed, Latour seems to argue, it is only by reconciling the religious and the worldly that religion-proper can be rediscovered. Transcendence, far from enshrining religious experience, crushes it.

Second, an equally important though less extensively developed portion of his argument follows on from Michel Serres' return of 'religion' to its etymological roots, the word deriving from relegare (to go through again, reprise), religare (to attach) or religiens (careful, opposite of negligens). Serres suggests that religion inherits particularly from the latter: "Whoever has no religion should not be called an atheist or unbeliever, but negligent" (The Natural Contract, p.47-8). To the secular Latour says: 'you are also religious'; religious in the sense of being care-imbued and loving creatures of intimacy and mutual personification. In his Gifford Lectures on natural theology (the Facing Gaia lectures), Latour suggests that coexistence and civilisational persistence on this earthern orb will only be achieved by taking up religion once again, urgently radicalising a radically reconstructed religiosity.

The price that the religious have to pay for this accommodation is relinquishing their other-worldly transcendence. The price that the secular have to pay is losing their (insufficiently) secularised theological concept, Nature. Both must concede the easy, knock-down arguments that they habitually aim at their Other. The mutual gain is a common ground where neither Nature nor God can serve as a unilaterally imposed court of appeal and disputes must be worked out and alliances must be forged in a common manner (or in a manner of becoming-common while remaining plural); that is to say, diplomatically.

This, I think, is a profoundly important argument. However, my initial frustrations haven't entirely dissipated. To put it simply, in reading this ground-building exercise between the secular and the religious I, as one of the godless, get the feeling of reading a letter that is addressed to someone else. I see elements of relevance to my life's experience within it but this seems almost coincidental. In other words, one side of Latour's middle ground seems a smoothly paved plaza while the other is, at best, a dusty, bumpy track.

The way that the theological ideas are presented in AIME seem largely directed towards only one of the groups that are being brought together: the hitherto 'religious.' That is, the text seems overwhelmingly preoccupied with convincing the religious that they are secular and gives short shrift to the equally necessary argument that the secular are also religious. This second element becomes almost subtextual.

The key conceptual and imagistic meeting point that Latour gives the two sides is the equation of love-talk and the religious experience. He explains it thus: When one lover says to their partner 'do you love me?' and the other replies 'of course I do' their relationship is rebuilt anew; if, however, the latter replies 'why are you asking me this? I told you so on the third of November!' they mistake the opening to relational reinforcement for a request for information. This category mistake, for Latour, typifies the misunderstanding of religion. Thus one can say (and this is not an uncommon posit in general) that the religious experience is love.

In his book Rejoicing: Or the Torments of Religious Speech, Latour refers to the lovers' affirmations as a "scale model" of the religious experience (p.118). In this phrase a middle ground is affirmed but, at the same time, also rendered rather uneven. It would be interesting to know on what scale this relationship functions on; 10:1, 20:1, 1000:1? The argument that Latour seems to be furthering here is that formalised religion, when properly enacted, institutionalises, intensifies, extends, links, joins and safeguards the world-, bond- and person-forming experience of love. However, the suggestion of this is therefore that those who play no part in organised religion are somehow less taken by the religious love, less caught up in its mode of existence; which, if the dual move is followed through fully in both directions, should not be the case.

The Inquiry is silent on non-traditional forms of love-instituting, which seems to imply the religionists' prejudice as detailed above -- specifically, that the secular are somehow less loving, caring or interested in those around them. This is, in my opinion, the Inquiry's biggest diplomatic failing. However, it is far from unameliorable.

Latour regularly (and often polemically) quotes Margaret Thatcher's infamous declaration that 'society does not exist.' Of course, the meaning that he takes from the phrase differs somewhat from that of its originator. While for Thatcher this meant that, as she went on to say in the second and less quoted half of that sentence, 'there are only individuals and their families' -- i.e. that any sense of social solidarity between communities or classes is an irrational illusion that must be (and was) crushed --, for Latour the absence of society as an ontologically sui generis form of reality means that sociality must be continually constructed, assembled, composed by materially and modally heterogeneous means (not by 'social bonds' which is, for him, a semantic vacuity).

Society is not a 'there' that can be leaned on, presupposed; it is fragile. It can be (and has been) devastated by the machinations of Thatcherian, neoliberal politics. Thus we would do well to better understand it.

The family, for Latour, is, therefore, not necessarily any more or less sociologically real than the neighbourhood, the nation, the race, the class, and so on. In order to understand what is real in any given scenario we must 'follow the mediators'; that is, abandon nomothetic theorising (searching for abstract laws) and embrace idiographic or casuistic analysis (examining concrete cases).

However, if we understand sociology not only as the study of how the world is held together through heterogeneous associations but, in addition, as the study of how bonds of communal solidarity are achieved then we must surely bring the concept of religion into the picture. I previously wrote about conceiving solidarity as kinship but it could equally, on the basis of the above arguments, be termed religiosity.

A study of social, secular religiosity -- of the loving bonds that hold together not just lovers and churches but communities of all sorts (bonds that are inextricable from but also irreducible to political interest) -- would go a long way towards answering the charge of conservatism that is often levelled at the actor-network version of sociology. It would also complete the second move required to fully reconcile the secular and the religious.