Sunday, 19 April 2015

"My readers have now been warned"—halfway through Stengers' Thinking With Whitehead

At the end of chapter 16 of her book on the work of Alfred North Whitehead (just slightly over halfway through the text), Isabelle Stengers writes:
"My readers have now been warned. If they are fascinated by the heroic grandeur of refusal, and despise compromises; if they deplore the fact that the radical demands of every new position are recuperated by what was supposed to be subverted; if 'to deconstruct' is a goal in itself for them, and scandalizing self-righteous people is a testimony to truth; if they oppose the pure to the impure, the authentic to the artificial; if they cannot understand how the most 'unplatonic' of philosophers situated himself as a 'footnote' to the text of Plato ... let them close this book. Never will they see celebrated in it the power of a truth that is verified by the destruction of false pretenders. They will therefore find in it only disappointments and reasons for contempt." (Thinking With Whitehead, p.275-6)
And slightly different in French:
"Le lecteur est maintenant prévenu. Si, comme le Belzébuth mis en scène par Leibniz dans Confessio philosophi, dont la rage se déchaîne à l'offre de salut, il est fasciné par la pureté du refus et méprise les compromis, s'il déplore que les exigences radicales de toute position nouvelle se monnaient progressivement en contrastes enrichissant ce qu'il s'agissait de subvertir, s'il ne peut comprendre que le plus « non platonicien » des philosophes se soit situé lui-même comme « note en bas de page » au texte de Platon... qu'il referme ce livre. Jamais il n'y verra célébré le pouvoir d'une vérité qui se vérifie par la destruction de faux prétendants. Il n'y trouvera donc que déceptions et raisons de mépris." (Penser Avec Whitehead, p.310)
This is my third attempt to read this book and it's the first time that I am sure that I will reach the end. It is not that it is a 'difficult' book as such. Stengers, in her own inimitable way, writes with extraordinary precision. However, being something of an autodidact with respect to philosophy, I wasn't quite ready for such a dense and demanding text in the past.

It is a work that requires a very particular routine of reading. It cannot be read casually, put down and picked up a week or two later (not usefully, anyhow). At over 500 pages it is not something that can be read in one sitting, or several sittings, either. (There is no quick way through such a text—the whole point is that the reader slows down.) It requires, for me at least, extreme attention and focus. It's not something that I am able to read except when at my most clear headed, and then for a few hours at a time. Unfortunately, there aren't many windows like that in my week (I hope that soon this will change). I, out of necessity, do most of my own reading and research in the evenings—not a time of day conducive to this kind of endeavour.

Nevertheless, I am gradually working my way through the book—one immersion at a time—and it is most certainly worth the effort. It's the kind of book that, after having read it, I will never be able to read any other book in the same way again. It neither condescends to its reader nor indulges in unnecessary dissimulation. It attempts to be clear but, at the same time, transformative. This time around, I am finding that it succeeds in both respects. Again, I find that the best words for it are: precise but, at the same time, extraordinarily dense. It is the most exquisitely constructed thicket.

There is far, far too much in this book to even begin to summarise or select. However, I find the above quotation(s) to be a perfect signal of its tone and intentions. This dissuasion addressed directly to the reader is at the same time reassuring—I am assured that none of the things described appeal to me (and their sirenic allure is further muted with each and every passing page).

Thursday, 16 April 2015

"The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)"—for workshop on "Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance"

I'm very excited to be taking part in a workshop next month titled "Bruno Latour and Environmental Governance."
Since the 1980s Bruno Latour has attempted to supplant the prevailing image of science by proposing a pragmatic and anthropological perspective. [...] The two-day workshop takes as its starting point the idea the Latour's work can be used to explain and understand the workings of environmental governance, using the IPCC as a prime example.
It's being organised and funded by UCL Department of Science, Technology, Engineering and Public Policy and PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency and will be held at Cumberland Lodge, Windsor (just outside London)—an impressive venue!


My paper will be titled, wordily, "The varieties of diplomatic experience (with special attention to the problem of territory)." I hope to:

(a) Introduce the history of diplomacy as a word and practice, particularly drawing on the existing literature on the subject in the field of International Relations.
(b) Articulate diplomacy as a philosophical concept, particularly as it is developed in the work of Isabelle Stengers (see for example).
(c) Relate the preceding to the concept (and problem) of territory, particularly comparing its modern, state-centric iteration (as traced most notably by Stuart Elden) to the speculative, topological conception articulated by Bruno Latour in his most recent works (see here for an overview).

The crucial link between (b) and (c) is Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz—he is the prized witness of Stengers' philosophical diplomacy and is credited by Elden as articulating the modern conception of territory for the first time. Understanding his creative conception of territory as a diplomatic act itself allows Latour's reconception to be framed as a diplomatic act also—and thus related to the geo-ontological upheavals that institutions like the IPCC are grappling with in their own ways.

My overall argument is that 'high-level' diplomacy, such as is practised at the IPCC, can only succeed if diplomacy is occurring at all levels and everywhere. Geogovernance (being the focus of the workshop) cannot be taken in abstraction from geopolitics (taking the latter term more or less as Latour articulates it).

I attended a really excellent conference session on anthropology and diplomacy in Exeter this week. Their focus was, as you might expect, 'everyday' diplomacy outside the corridors and constrictions of formalised, state diplomacy (although not ignoring the unavoidable connections and collisions between tentacular state institutions and mediative practices everywhere).

I want to bring these threads together—the historical, the philosophical, the anthropological—and to use this convergence to nudge the concept of geopolitics towards an integration of state and non-state apparatuses.

It's very much a work in progress, and will remain so for a while; however, it should be published, with a bit of luck, in a special issue of Science & Technology Studies next year.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Against (eco-)austerities, left and right

Reading this Ecomodernist Manifesto, I am reminded of the Accelerationist Manifesto. These tracts have little to nothing in common politically (besides a general commitment to a renewed modernism); however, they do to some extent have a common target: eco-austerity (or, traditional left-wing environmentalism).

I am tempted to draw a link between austerity on the right (as we find once again now in our regrettable General Election here in the UK, with both major parties competitively swingeing state budgets like there's no tomorrow) and left austerity or eco-austerity—in other words, the belief that foreseeably convergent environmental and economic crises require a radical reduction in the material expectations of both the already wealthy (in global terms) and the would-be wealthy (i.e. 'developed' and 'developing' countries).

Austerity in its neoliberal form is not going away any time soon. It has become engrained in British political discourse (and not only here) to such an extent that it seems almost incontestable—we are arguing only over rates, degrees and timetables.

I have profound reservations about neo-modernism in both its centre-right, third-way, neoliberal version (ecomodernist) and in its self-consciously radical left, techno-vanguardist version (accelerationist); however, their shared resistance to the austerity project that is traditional left environmentalism is to be commended.

There are deep problems with both sets of solutions but they are asking some of the right questions.

Furthermore, I wonder if one of the key political fissures in the coming years will be precisely this sense of a project of austerity—which, as I have suggested, does not exist only on the right. The distinguishing feature of rightwing austerity is that it is only the poor that are expected tighten their belts to assuage their hunger pains (and, of course, that this project concerns only the economic in ignorance of the ecological). The rich are the aristocracy who can splurge their hard-earned ill-gotten gains as they please—the more frivolously the better, it seems. The poor lap up their crumbs and must never forget to say 'thankyou.'

I do not believe that the distinction between left and right is any less vital now than it ever was. However, it is not the only political shibboleth/sorting hat that matters. If the left is to maintain (and further) the strength of this distinction in the years to come, years in which ecological politics will become ever more indistinguishably suffused into the general political fabric, it has to address its own austerity hangups.

In the long-term, there will be no countering neoliberal austerity without overcoming eco-austerity.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

'An ecomodernist manifesto' reviewed—part 1

There is much in this document that is praiseworthy. However, it gets off to a bad start:
To say that the Earth is a human planet becomes truer every day. Humans are made from the Earth, and the Earth is remade by human hands. Many earth scientists express this by stating that the Earth has entered a new geological epoch: the Anthropocene, the Age of Humans.
That is a very poor interpretation of 'the Anthropocene' for several reasons. First, it simple mindedly interprets 'anthropos' as 'homo sapiens.' Second, and even more important, it continues the claim previously made by several of its authors, namely that human beings are 'The God Species' capable of harnessing earth systems. It confuses perturbation with control, peril with mastery.

'An ecomodernist manifesto' published

An Ecomodernist Manifesto

So much wrong with it that it's difficult to know where to begin. Will take some digesting...

Friday, 10 April 2015

2015 Millennium Conference: 'Failure and Denial in World Politics' (keynote: Bruno Latour)—an opportunity for rethinking critique?

The theme for this year's Millennium conference at the LSE has been announced: "Failure and Denial in World Politics." The keynote speaker will be Bruno Latour.

This is an interesting development (not surprising as Latour has a long standing relationship with the LSE, but nevertheless). Until just a few years ago, Latour's work was almost completely unknown in the field of International Relations (the field that provided ma formation, as the French say).

At the 2012 Millennium conference on "Materialism and World Politics" (at which I presented a somewhat inchoate paper on actor-network theory and offshore tax havens) there were what seemed like dozens of graduate students drawing on Latour's work and actor-network theory more broadly. The larger proportion of senior academics, however, ranged from indifference to hostility to this trend. And the hostile did not hold their tongues—all the familiar tropes were wheeled out: "networks are neoliberal!"; "this reduces humans to rocks!", etc. One objector even suggested, with all the indignation of a die-hard humanist, that this 'flat ontology' business was proto-fascist.

Actor-network theory, 'new materialism,' object-oriented philosophy and the like have gained ground within IR with remarkable speed—like an invasive species flourishing in a hitherto blissfully isolated island ecosystem! I would not be surprised if at this conference there were some kind of revanchist backlash from Critical Theorists attempting to regain lost territory.

Besides all that, it should be a very exciting conference. I've not attended since 2012 but I've never heard anything but good things. The Millennium conference is run by the remarkable and prestigious graduate-run journal of the same name. It has none of the fusty self-importance of the larger, more grimly institutionalised professional conferences but, at the same time, is large and well-known enough to attract a really top-notch group of participants.

I'll have to give some thought regarding what I'd like to present (the deadline for abstracts is the 3rd of July). It would be a good opportunity to visit the problem of science critique in relation to science denial. This is a troubling issue for IR, which is far more deeply wedded, at least amongst some sections, to the practice of critique than science studies ever was (and for good reasons, I'd argue).

If the impressions and expectations I've described above are correct, the time would be very ripe for attempting to think through critique once more. Not so as to dismiss it—how could one conscionably study the arms trade or the Israel/Palestine conflict without doing so, in some sense, 'critically'?—but in order to think it 'par le milieu,' as it were.

If the classic will to "ruthless criticism of all that exists" can no longer license the usual pompous, faux-radical stupidity (not the context in which that line originated but very much what it has become), and I believe that it cannot, that does not mean that critique as such can be dispensed with. What if critique is also an atmospheric phenomenon, a necessary precondition of our continuing to breathe? What if the minute perforations it instils are necessary for the stability of any enshrouding coexistential manifold? What would a more incisive and selective critique or decompositionism—not 'of all that exists' but necessarily relative to some situational decision—look like?

These are the kinds of questions that, I think, will need to be asked.

New materialism is the new poststructuralism

I think that this is true in more ways than one; however, one way is particularly important.

Like poststructuralism, new materialism is a signposting mechanism that allows (largely anglophone) academics to obscure the differences between (largely francophone) thinkers, mashing them into a single digestible lump.

New materialism doesn't exist at the level of the authors it claims to encompass, just as poststructuralism didn't. It only exists secondarily, as a way-finding supplement.

If we can make a distinction between the academic and the intellectual, new materialism and poststructuralism are emphatically of the former. They do not involve the unnerving risk of thought but rather the comforting stability of simplification.

They are ways of making a complex situation teachable. They are pedagogical terms—and are not, therefore, without value. However, we should be very suspicious when they are posited as intellectual concepts, as though their purpose were somehow creative.

The manner in which academia satisfies itself with such signposts accounts for a large part of its intellectual malaise. An inability to think beyond badly printed banners is by no means inevitable but it is strongly encouraged by an internal political economy that prizes 'expert knowledge' of trends occurring elsewhere more highly than it does the thought practices occurring (or not occurring) within its own walls.

This is one part of a generalised anglophonic anti-intellectualism that sees 'theory' as something to be imported, bussed in like fresh water to a desert state.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Scientific iterations of 'Anthropocene' and modal incommensurability

Terence Blake writes (by way of introduction to a broader blog critique of Latour's AIME project):
The term “Anthropocene” is a scientific denomination, and so belongs to the mode of scientific knowledge, or “REF” in Latour’s terminology.
I don't think that's fair. 'Anthropocene' is a multi-modal term if ever there was one. This is an interesting video that pertains to that point:



John Tresch in conversation with Jan Zalasiewicz. The latter is very insistent upon the necessity of sticking to a strictly scientific (and, more specifically, geological) vocabulary within the context of his debates with other geologists. There is a very precise mode of discourse that cannot be seen to be influenced by political or moral concerns in any way. For the geologist, it all ultimately comes back to the stratigraphic record itself. That is king. However, Zalasiewicz at no point attempts to push away or close down political or moral iterations of 'Anthropocene.' Indeed, he seems to have many sympathies with these readings.

The distinction of modalities here is an institutional necessity but it does not follow that 'Anthropocene' begins and ends with science.

Terence's broader point concerns something he's taken issue with before: the apparent incommensurability of the modes of existence. When writing my recent article on the subject, I thought long and hard about how to describe the relationship of Latour's modes to one another. I settled on the term 'interimplicatedness'—ugly but precise. The context: "[Latour's] works must be read ‘anthropologically’ – that is to say, in cognisance of the interimplicatedness of every typological strand of ‘the social’ taken altogether [that is, all of the modes]."

'Interdependent' would be too strong, 'interrelated' too bland. Implication seems to me to be the correct choice. To transform one mode is to transform the others. They are not vacuum sealed. However, the question does persist with regards to their purity.

If a mode is akin to a particular kind of rhythm, vibration or tone and if the 'crossing' of modes can result in harmonics and disharmonics then are we to expect a pure harmony (a perfect sine wave) when we overlay modal events of the same kind? Or is there a necessary degree of modulation (a resonant disharmony) between any two existents, even at a strictly ontological level? The latter seems a more palatable. There is, therefore, a question of plurality within modes of existence as well as between them.

To put it another way, if we overlay two existential waveforms on one another and if we then discover subtle disharmonics in evidence, this indicates the historicity of these abstract categories. To paraphrase Nietzsche, only that which has no history can be identified. This intra-modal plurality was not the concern of the Inquiry; nevertheless, it is something that seems to follow from the principal concepts upon which the project was constructed.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Styles of writing, modes of thought and logic versus poetics

By way of response to my previous post on the seminar that she organised, Penny Newell writes (with terrific kindness!):
It's great to read the write-up on your blog Philip, and, having browsed the press release for the Reset Modernity! exhibition, I really see how it all links in to the anomalies series. I feel compelled to say something. One thing I really love about your blog is your ability to say that you simply do not know, or that you might know, at some point, but perhaps not everything, just yet. I actually think this in itself is how I think modernity should be 'reset'. It blows syllogistic logic out of the water, allowing you to speak meaningfully, truthfully, rigorously, with an quality of erudition that I think is truly important, in ways that allow your reader to slow down; allows your ideas to resist the finitude of conclusive statements. Put simply: I can't extract what you say from how you are saying it. Maybe you don't intend this, but it's there (and it's actually, in my opinion, really in keeping with the Stengers piece you sent to me - not that I am calling you out as an 'idiot'... merely that I feel you resist the 'and so' of writing). 
Bit of a tangent, but just yesterday I was reading a piece by Constantino Marmo, referenced in Eco's work on metaphor, entitled, 'Suspicio: A Key Word to the Significance of Aristotle’s Rhetoric in Thirteenth-Century Scholasticism'. It sparked an interest in me as Marmo posits the 13th c. (esp. Albert the Great / Aquinas) as a (mini-)paradigm shift toward subtended various modes of thinking within logic, such that Aristotelian rhetoric and poetics became subsumed within the rationalis scientia; opening the way to reading poetics as and through a methodological modus sciendi. This is fascinating! (though I need to explore in more depth just how much I can make the following claim...) as it seems to me that part of the task of resetting modernity should be to reclaim rhetoric and poetics from logic; or at least to position them alongside it. My open question is: if we do so, what happens? What happens to the task of criticism within the field of poetics, if we consciously, just-so-slightly, nudge logic to one side? Does it reveal that works such as the Poetics are somehow subordinate to the Organon? Does it show that we're trying to be too logical in our readings of those works? What does it say about a whole field of Arts and Humanities, which owes so much of its thinking to thinking substantial things, drawing substantial conclusions, about poetics and rhetoric? I feel (or at least, I try in my work to practice the possibility that), if we shift the positionality of the Poetics, away from logic, it becomes a document that we can just write through, away from the rationalising project of modernity, towards, well, not much ... perhaps just away from an 'and so'. Perhaps just towards a 'perhaps'.
I hadn’t thought about it in that way but I suppose that I do work with a degree of ‘idiocy’ (in the technical sense!). I feel utterly unimpressed by modes of thought that always have a pre-fabricated answer for everything. ‘Well,’ they say with a half-stifled yawn, ‘this is, of course, just a case of [xyz].’ Such boredom infects and infests everything it touches (it’s the boredom of someone who’s already had every idea they’ll ever have...). The most important thing I ever learned was how to be productively and creatively perplexed (rather than merely bored) by things that I didn’t understand. It took me a long time to figure that out. I feel like I’ve been making up for lost time ever since.

Self-certainty is good for defending hilltops; exploring forests is another thing altogether. How this translates into a writing style is tricky. I do give a lot of thought to the relation between style, mood, rhythm, structure and argument. And I do find them to be inseparable. Of course, this is not a new insight. However, acceptance of the mere fact of performativity tells us nothing with regard to how that performance should be carried out. And that is something that doesn’t get thought through enough. (Most academic and intellectual ‘styles’ are just copies of copies of copies.)

Regarding poetics and logic, that all does sound very interesting! I suppose if we want to think about ‘resetting’ some dualistic aspect of modernity then we would have to begin by acknowledging or finding the value of both sides of the equation. We might want to save poetics from the stolid strictures of logic. Okay, but if we are to flood this particular valley we need to adequately re-house both villages. If the modernist settlement makes logic an enemy of poetics then we should have some sympathy for the logicians too! They also have no choice but to act as though logic is exhaustively defined by the abstract, the austere, the ‘whether-you-like-it-or-not.’ To quote one Freeman Lowell, “now, what kind of life is that?”

However, it is not a question of adopting a 'neutral' position. A diplomat will never attempt to arbitrate a dispute as though it could be resolved by technicality. A diplomat is necessarily ‘biased’ (or, better, committed) to one side or the other. However, a diplomat will also sometimes say to their side ‘now hold on, they won’t accept that; no, no, that won’t fly.’ Even militants can be diplomats if they are able to slow down momentarily in this manner. So, to militate for poetics against logic is fine and understandable (goodness knows we are all tired of having our poetic daisies stomped on by jackbooted yawn-stiflers!) but the situation, to my mind, becomes truly interesting (in every sense of that word) when we take on the agency re-distributions necessary to do justice to both sides. It becomes interesting when we start to say ‘now, hang on….’

And, in that respect, I think an historical approach is really crucial. A kind of diplomatic history in the sense of a history of disputes becomes extremely fecund when we are able to recognise ourselves as inheritors of these disputes. We may not share the problems that these disputers were grappling with but we have often inherited their solutions.

So, in other words, we should ask not only what could poetics be if it was not browbeaten by logic but also what could logic be if it was not burdened with having to browbeat poetics? A far harder question, I admit!

Friday, 20 March 2015

Academia.edu

I've avoided using Academia.edu for a while. Not for any particular reason, I just didn't feel the need to 'network.' However, it seems that the time has come. Follow me, or whatever.

Tuesday, 17 March 2015

The relentless immolation of straw men

One after the other, higher and higher they are piled! Relentless, ruthless—none shall be spared. What bravery, what hard nosedness! And my, how they burn! (It is almost as though they were lashed together for this very purpose.) Fields of faceless figures ablaze, screaming men of straw light up the horizon. The flame-tongued critics scorch the bones of the earth.

Oh, how easy it is to win when you get to fabricate your own enemies…

Anomie and atmosphere in Douglas Trumbull's 'Silent Running'—Now with words and pictures

As previously advertised, I gave a talk yesterday at a seminar run by the Performance Research Group at King's College London, the theme of which was 'The Anomaly in Art and Modes of Existence.' The paper, complete with illustrations, is here if anyone is interested. I spoke about a film that has been the subject of previous blog posts; namely, Silent Running.

Some version of this paper (probably greatly modified) is going to be submitted for the catalogue of Bruno Latour's 'Reset Modernity!' exhibition that is running from April to August next year at ZKM in Karlsruhe. I've already had a few ideas about how to approach these themes and issues a little differently after yesterday. It'll need to be a fair bit shorter, for one thing.

The talk on Monday was a lot of fun (the warmest thanks to the organisers!). It was the first time I'd been invited to go and speak somewhere, so that was nice. I rambled on for longer than I intended but I think I managed to keep everyone awake!

Friday, 13 March 2015

"Taking Gaia seriously in Bruno Latour’s Geopolitics: comment on Philip Conway’s ‘Back Down to Earth’"—Simon Dalby

Simon Dalby's reply to my research article on Bruno Latour's geopolitics is now online. The first paragraph:
Reading Philip Conway’s (2015) brave effort to tease out Latour’s geopolitical themes and think through the possible formulations that might emerge from an engagement with both his anthropology of the moderns and his facing Gaia ideas in the Gifford Lectures, one is struck by both the complexity of the conceptualizations and the urgency of dealing with them too. Simple assumptions about politics and nature won’t do anymore; we are past the point where colonial concepts can help. They are much more obviously part of the current problematique that needs urgent attention than they are useful theoretical or political constructs. Their implicit ethnocentrisms matter, as do their presuppositions that expropriations and appropriations in the cause of progress, the common good, if not simply the triumph of modernity, are simply de riguer in a world where apparently moderns should rule given their obvious superiority of technology, law, science and of course Reason. The Gaian engagement that Latour has undertaken and that Conway explicates in detail has no place for such metropolitan hubris; its categories are the problem to be addressed
As before, if anyone wants a copy and doesn't have institutional access just drop me an email.

It is a nice comment that reflects Simon's own work on environmental geopolitics over the past two decades but also the new challenges faced by political geography. The main critical point he makes is that I might not have done enough to draw out the differences between the kind of geopolitics I am articulating in this article and the classical geopolitics of Kjellén through Kissinger to Kaplan. I completely accept the necessity of a more in-depth intellectual historical approach to geopolitics. I'm hoping to undertake precisely this as part of my PhD project (that is currently under review for funding!). It's a far bigger task than I could have accomplished in this article; however, it's something that does interest me and that I hope to develop in the near future (indeed, my previous post on Alexander Humboldt relates to this historical work in that he precedes the post-1870 era of reactionary politics and harsh disciplinarity and thus possibly offers some insight into paths not taken).

"I wish you to know that I am a river about 350 miles long; I have not many tributaries, nor much timber, but I am full of fish."

I recently finished reading a fascinating book by Laura Dassow Walls, The Passage to Cosmos: Alexander von Humboldt and the Shaping of America. It is essentially a biography but pays particular attention to Humboldt's travels through the (mostly South) Americas and his influence on (mostly North) American literature. It issues an impassioned plea for a revival of interest in Humboldt's proto-ecology, his worldly cosmopolitanism and his synthetic, romantic naturalism. I would take issue with most of that but there's no doubt that he's a fascinating character, one whom I intend to learn more about.

For a differently focused but equally enthusiastic take on the man, see John Tresch's glorious essay Even the Tools Will Be Free: Humboldt’s Romantic Technologies (this is reproduced in Tresch's equally excellent book The Romantic Machine).

The titular quotation ("I wish you to know...") comes from one of Humboldt's letters, written upon receiving news that a Nevadan river had been named after him (in addition to hundreds of towns and countless streets all over the US).

I think the thing that fascinates me about Humboldt, even as I admit greater wariness than the above-mentioned authors, is his project. He was a man with a plan: the production of a cosmic synthesis; a singular poetic-scientific vision of the entire universe that would bring readers to understand their interconnectedness, interdependence and shared fate. He was hardly the first to attempt an encyclopaedic synthesis of all knowledge but few have approached it with such poetic gusto.

All of that is completely at odds with where we are now. It is no longer possible (perhaps it was no longer possible even by the end of the nineteenth century—although Élisée Reclus continued Humboldt's project in his own way into the twentieth) to conceive of the synthesis of nature and humanity as a progressive project (at least not without considerable naivety, even stupidity). We know all too well what Humboldt's legacy really was in practical terms: he facilitated, whatever his noble intentions, the colonisation and capitalisation of the very territories, strata and ecosystems that he mapped and surveyed with such superhuman vigour. His pioneering (in every sense) techniques were quickly adopted by state and corporate agents and his quasi-utopian hope for the nascent United States was soon shown to have been misplaced.

He perhaps did more than any other individual (although from another point of view 'Humboldt' himself was a collective of many agents, human and machinic—see Tresch on this point) to join up, to interconnect, to (in a sense) socialise the Americas. He thought, ever so naively, that this would bring peace, progress, harmony. We can no longer be so sheltered. And yet there is something so very appealing in his energy and character. Walls frequently notes that Humboldt rarely writes about himself (he is always intensely focused on the world he is frenziedly vascularising) and yet the charisma simply leaps off the page, even reading his works second hand.

We can no longer be as naive as Humboldt. His mapping, surveying, ethnographing, vascularising, cosmosynthesising project we now understand was, at best, a double-edged sword. His faith in modernisation can only be something of the past. But the interest of him I think is this: he was born just early enough that he could still in all good faith believe in modernisation as a progressive project without having to wear blinkers of such a scale that we can simply dismiss him out of hand as wilfully ignoring the consequences of his actions. He was a moderniser that it is possible to sympathise with even if we cannot identify with his problems as such.

If he had been born any later, his project, his grand synthesis would have been all but unthinkable. Indeed, he struggled against the growing disciplinisation of the sciences even as his gargantuan specimen-gathering exercises necessitated ever greater specialisation (indeed, his brother Wilhelm is remembered for presiding over the reconstruction of the German academic and educational system, as well as being one of the foremost linguists of the era).

He was perhaps the last major figure who could elude the later nineteenth century's obsession with disciplinisation. He exuded an intellectual freedom that had been crushed by 1900 and was perhaps mortally wounded even by 1851. Now that every field of the humanities and social sciences seems (at last) to be deeply concerned with inter- trans- post- or multi-disciplinarity (take your pick), it might be time to reconsider Humboldt in more detail.

I don't share the belief that his romantic, cosmosynthetic naturalism is the answer to our problems today. Nevertheless, better understanding this extraordinary and crucially liminal figure might allow us to better understand our present predicaments, both geo-political and academic-disciplinary, in more sophisticated terms. From this tumbling, darting, indefatigable blur of such prodigious vivacity it seems utterly implausible that there is nothing more to be learned.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

'It's not a pathology, it’s a project!—Sociology, anomie and atmosphere'

I'm very much looking forward to speaking at a seminar run by the Performance Research Group at King's College London next Monday (the 16th). The theme of the series is 'the anomalous' and this session in particular is titled 'The Anomaly in Art and Modes of Existence.' I'll be speaking alongside Penny Newell, the organiser. I'll be presenting something drawn from my ongoing interest in the 1972 science fiction film Silent Running. I'm in the slow but gradually progressing process of turning this interest into something concrete.

The presentation will have three parts: first, an illustrated summary of the film; second, a consideration of Émile Durkheim's concept of anomie relative to the themes presented (the main idea I take from the film is that of 'tragic modernism'—where the basic tenets of modernism are fully and naively accepted but lamented as a tragedy); and third, a reconstruction of this concept in dialogue with the AIME project, trying to understand its socio- or geo-political importance with respect to, in a phrase, air-conditioning our collective atmospheres (this then linking back to the film and its beautifully, movingly nuanced illustration of what happens when affective and social atmospheres, no less than oxygenated ones, are stripped away).

The title captures the essential point I'm trying to make: anomie is poorly understood as an anomalous pathology afflicting the social organism, as per Durkheim. Anomie—defined by Durkheim as the destructive de-restriction and derangement (dérèglement) of collective moral-legal bonds—is precisely the objective of the modernist project! To remove all bonds, all obligations with regard to other humans and, crucially and most intensively, to non-humans is precisely the point. They called it 'rationalisation.'

Durkheim cannot see this, or at least he cannot see it fully (his condemnation of economic theory for its anomie-inducing reductionism notwithstanding), because he has already fully and completely accepted the primary consequence of the anomie of the moderns: the fundamental separation of the social and the natural.

Durkheim was actively participating in this anomie-exacerbation (ever the 'rationaliser'). His condemnations were failures since he was reproducing the most fundamental principles of the very ideologies that he was condemning. This, I think, can be demonstrated through a close reading of the film, although I am still figuring out just how to construct this argument (very much a work in progress!).

To what extent the concept of anomie can (or should) be reconstructed is debatable but, I hope, it is at least worth debating. Connecting Durkheim to Latour's work is undoubtedly a provocative move! However, I think it could be a productive one (albeit one that will inevitably raise more questions than I am able to answer at present).

Friday, 27 February 2015

Four theses on (and for) criticism

If the intention of a criticism is not to construct then call it what it is: a denunciation. That would save us all a lot of time.

I would not denounce denunciation – sometimes there are things worthy. However, it is not an act that should be taken lightly. Nor should it be confused with criticism, which is an opening, not a closing.

To denounce is to decide (or to claim to). It is to cut off, to load up the proverbial iceberg and push it out to sea.

If 'constructive criticism' were a pleonasm then critique might be less deserving of its critics (not to mention its denunciators).

Saturday, 21 February 2015

Hobbes on Warre

Further to my reflections on Leviathan and the concept of war in my previous post, perhaps the words of the man himself might be in order:
"There Is Alwayes Warre Of Every One Against Every One. Hereby it is manifest, that during the time men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe, they are in that condition which is called Warre; and such a warre, as is of every man, against every man. For WARRE, consisteth not in Battell onely, or the act of fighting; but in a tract of time, wherein the Will to contend by Battell is sufficiently known: and therefore the notion of Time, is to be considered in the nature of Warre; as it is in the nature of Weather. For as the nature of Foule weather, lyeth not in a showre or two of rain; but in an inclination thereto of many dayes together: So the nature of War, consisteth not in actuall fighting; but in the known disposition thereto, during all the time there is no assurance to the contrary. All other time is PEACE."
War is seemingly something approaching a default metaphysical state, or at least a given and established tendency in nature. War is to be assumed, peace is what is to be explained. Bellicosity comes first, co-operation second. Moreover, war per se is divorced from any specific actions or means and becomes like a climatic state.

Is Gaia a Leviathan? Without deference to such a terrestrial deity—"that Mortall God, to which we owe under the Immortal God, our peace, and defence"—are we in a state of war? I'd prefer to retain a sense of concrete practise to 'war'—i.e. to insist that the means matter. However, it is a more complex question than just this.

Gaia does not much resemble Hobbes' deity in the details (or the illustrations) but certainly the concept of sovereignty needs to be re-evaluated at its roots and that must surely mean a meeting of these figures.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

“We scientists are on a warpath” – Gaia: Global Circus

Last Saturday evening, I had the great pleasure of attending the first UK performance (and, indeed, the first in English) of a play written by Pierre Daubigny and organised by Bruno Latour – ‘Gaia: Global Circus.’


It should be noted immediately that I am a total and complete plebeian when it comes to the theatre. Nevertheless, some thoughts:

What is Gaia? I am tempted to quote Hobbes and say a ‘mortal god.’ However, if we think of the famous frontispiece to Hobbes’ book, we find a problem with this allusion.


Hobbes' Leviathan, at least as it is visualised here, suggests something organ-ised in the most profound sense. Gaia, on the contrary, does not have – does not have yet – any sort of apparatus or dispositif (political, legal, religious, scientific) that could broadcast her 'eviction notices,' as I have called them, with anything approaching a singular, booming 'old Testament' kind of a voice. The phenomenology is more that of earth-shaking claps of thunder and blinding bolts of lightning that we are all stumbling around, bumping into each other trying to understand.

Galileo's 'and yet it moves' (apocryphal or not) is a crucial phrase. Oh, he had no idea! Certainly, Gaia has the authority to decide to 'move' as she pleases 'whether we like it or not' – so much more so than Galileo could even have imagined; however, one scientist's self-righteous mutterings does nothing for the problems we face.

It is this not-yet-assembledness that, I think, 'Gaia: Global Circus' explored. I will not attempt to summarise it in detail. It was too inventive and multi-layered to be précised in any useful way. From the very first scene, events constantly folded back on themselves, going one way and then stopping, resetting and approaching their topic from another angle, with an ever shifting array of personae.

The star of the show was perhaps the canvas, the canopia or the ‘sheet with balloons attached to it,’ as one audience member commented, that dominated the stage. It could be manipulated in such a way that it was facing the audience and acting as a projection screen; at other times, it was pulled and tussled so as to convulse and summon up a storm; it lurked above the stage for a time before being pulled down so as to conceal and partition the space; finally, and by way of finale, it floated out over the audience, encapsulating them. This was an impressive technical achievement (although one of the actors did remark at the end on the difficulties they would be in if a balloon burst!), however it was also a poetic one as the device never seemed extraneous to the performance – on the contrary, it was integral.

A few words must be added for the four actors whose performances were remarkable, particularly considering that portions of the play relied heavily on improvisation and that they were doing this outside their first language. Being that funny and that engaging under those conditions deserves applause in itself.

And on that point, humour! A play on something as serious as climate change and environmental destruction could easily lapse into a kind of dour, pious sagacity. This was averted by simply being consistently very funny (as one might well expect from a Bruno Latour production).

The most important point is that the play attempted to enact the stuttering, uncertain beginnings of the representative invocation of a sovereign. We are not yet ready to carve Gaia’s image in brass, all her features clear and distinct. In terms of Gaia’s fictive representation, we remain at a much more impressionistic stage, for political, religious, artistic and scientific reasons. A stage well suited to... the stage!

On this point, a tangent beckons me... It'd also be interesting to investigate, in the style of von Uexküll, how Gaia perceives us. What are we to her? We are not ambulating beings, wandering around, faces wobbling, eyes blinking – we are chemicals and heat; we are a chemical burn, an itch. Perhaps that should be factored into our representations. Gaia is 'ticklish' but only in response to very specific stimuli. Our pleas will not be heard! She should not be imagined as having eyes, ears. Perhaps she should have a nose, a giant and over-sensitive nose. She will be monstrous, in any case. Maybe less a task for a fine artist than a cartoonist. Something out of H.P. Lovecraft.

Gaia can call on no Leviathan; by this I mean that there is no assembly so coherently assembled as to legitimately declare itself the medium of her 'Word' and, therefore, the task of translating her coded, gaseous missives into affective and cognisable messages falls on Earthbound scientists, politicians, religionists, etc.

At perhaps the pivotal moment in the play, one character declares with defiant force: "we scientists are on a warpath!" I’ve been critical of Latour’s use of ‘war’ as a concept previously. As I mentioned in the conclusion to my recent article, there are problems of translation when adapting these ideas for political geography (which is my interest). The matters of concern that must be taken into account there involve ISIS in Iraq, Putin in Ukraine, Obama's drones in Pakistan, the walls and fences being built in Israel, Texas, India, Saudi Arabia's plan to build a fence around their entire territory (!), and so on. Consequently, one must be very careful when talking about 'war' and violence in this context.

And, in light of that, I think 'warpath' is good alternative to 'war.' It indicates an attitude – which is serious, passionate, angry, implacable, forceful, being prepared for violence – but doesn't conflate what we are doing with what we are trying to prevent ('all out' or 'total' war). In Lippmann's Phantom Public he remarks that a war could perhaps be fought for democracy but it couldn't be fought democratically. We are most definitely on the path to war. Those fences on the borders of the EU, those migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, those drones in the sky – these are geogovernance and geostrategy at work (and the Pentagon is not where you'll find the climate deniers...).

However, if we accept that 'politics is war by other means' then we should conclude not that politics and war are one and the same but that politics is not war because it is by other means. In other words, the means matter. To somewhat egocentrically quote myself:
A climate scientist arguing fiercely with a denialist at a public meeting may lack a ‘sovereign’ to whom he can appeal to settle the dispute; however, no matter how much they bellow – no matter even if they brawl – they are not ‘at war’ in a sense that should be so easily literalised. [...] We would do well to remember the difference between heated arguments and charred flesh, even if we are staring at a future that is going up in flames.
So, the sense of 'being on a warpath' modifies this vocabulary notably. It becomes possible to state that we are engaged in a secret war with Gaia but, for the most part, a nervous peace amongst ourselves. There are relations of domination, violence and injustice, of course, but 'total war' is, for now, absent. Those 'on a warpath' must insist that, if we are not very careful, we are headed for worse. Those walls, fences and other fortifications are there for a reason and Gaia will not differentiate between polluters and non-polluters. Nothing proves that the crimes of the last century are unrepeatable.

More could be said, much more (particularly by someone who knew what they were talking about). Nevertheless, the play has achieved what it set out to do, from my perspective at least: to provoke thought.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald: 'Was the Anthropocene anticipated?'—Explorations of historical geo-ontology

In what is, in my humble opinion, one of the most important contributions on the subject yet, Clive Hamilton and Jacques Grinevald ask: 'Was the Anthropocene anticipated?' [paywalled; if anyone wants a copy and doesn't have access, drop me an email]. That is, does the notion that human beings can and have had transformative, geology-scale effects on the Earth itself have precedents within the history of thought?

Various commentators have recently drawn links between thinkers as diverse in time and predilection as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Vladimir Vernadsky, George Perkins Marsh, and the Comte de Buffon (to name but a few), suggesting that these figures articulated arguments regarding the effects of human action on the Earth that are directly comparable to present concepts.

Hamilton and Grinevald argue in no uncertain terms that to equate any of these authors with the Anthropocene is deeply anachronistic. None of these authors had anything approaching the same conception of what the Earth is as we do today. They were operating, in other words, with completely different geo-ontologies. Their statements should, therefore, be read in their historical contexts.
"[S]ince the last decades of the 19th century natural science’s understanding of the global environment has undergone a profound transformation, a scientific revolution not yet fully recognized. Although human impact on Earth was a well-known theme within naturalistic and geological thinking from the time of the Western industrial revolution, there was no foreshadowing of the Anthropocene in its contemporary sense. Stoppani’s ‘anthropozoic era’ and a number of variations – Renevier’s ‘Période Anthropique’ (1873), Joseph LeConte’s (1877) and Charles Schuchert’s (1918) ‘psychozoic era’, James Dwight Dana’s ‘Era of Mind – Age of Man’, Teilhard’s noösphere – described the impact of human action on ‘the face of the Earth’ rather than on the planet Earth as an evolving complex system. The concept of the Earth system – including the anthropogenic alteration of the great biospheric or biogeochemical cycles – was another century in the making." (p.6)
For Hamilton and Grinevald, we must recognise the deep novelty of the Anthropocene and refuse any undue backdating of either its concept or its referent. The historiographical and geopolitical point of their argument is to unbendingly refute the 'early Anthropocene' thesis.

Alongside John Tresch's work, which I wrote about yesterday, this short but extremely informative essay has convinced me that the project of reconceiving geopolitics as a concept requires a far more historically informed and anachronism-sensitive approach than has prevailed so far. This kind of historical geo-ontology is something that I'm hoping to develop in the near future. 

'Gaia: Global Circus,' London, 14th February

Next weekend at UCL's Bloomsbury Theatre, 'Gaia: Global Circus,' a play by Pierre Daubigny and organised by Bruno Latour, will have its first UK performance. There are still a few tickets left. It should be an interesting experience!



It'll also give me a chance to go and see the exhibition on James Lovelock at the Science Museum, which is on until April.


That particular feature brought to you in association with Shell, Siemens, Bank of America and other presumably generous benefactors.