Wednesday, 29 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 19 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 27 February 2017

The prison house of disciplinarity and the poverty of paraphrasism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Isabelle Stengers on becoming a philosopher with Deleuze and Whitehead

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

Friday, 3 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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