Friday, 8 January 2010

Starting Out in 2010

In the interests of further clarifying my position vis-a-vis Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, it is perhaps worthwhile stating something about my previous work and current commitments. My first book Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy was very much an attempt to unpack and philosophically elaborate the metaphysical worldview of an emergent religious movement, namely the Goddess movement and - more specifically - Goddess feminism. My main contention in that work was, and remains still, that the worldview of this relatively young NRM (1970s onwards) was both more coherent than many of its critics claimed and also contained some concepts, metaphors and models of the nature of reality that were novel and warranted some philosophical and specifically metaphysical exploration. This movement embodied an effort to re-think nature, through a radical feminist lens, in terms of agency, chaos, complexity, ecological networks and organicism. Some of the elements, individually and also in combination, were not particularly new (for example, some close affinities with process philosophy), but the constellation of ideas as a whole was original and worthy of note.

Significantly, though, what I was not able to do in that book was pursue many of the concepts that interested me with anywhere near the freedom and commitment that I wanted. The project was constrained by the demands and structural limits of a doctoral thesis, on which the book was based, and the particular problems that I had set for myself therein. My efforts were directed towards providing a plausible reading of the reality-claims made by some influential members of the movement and elaborating their coherence. The book was in part a hermeneutical reading of the emergent worldview of Goddess feminism, in part a constructive project – in the tradition of Gordon Kaufman and Sallie McFague’s constructive theologies – and in part a work of analytic philosophy of religion. Awkwardly this meant the work had several disciplinary mistresses, and probably suffered from the demands of most such interdisciplinary endeavours. In my case, it was perhaps too selective in its hermeneutical reading to be very useful to sociologically inclined scholars of new religious movements, too analytic and systematic to be tolerated by most thealogical insiders and less analytically rigorous than some Anglo-American philosopher of religion would accept. That said, though, it did the job I initially envisaged and there is much within it that I am still wedded to and motivated by. Indeed, my current concerns are the same as many post-doctoral academics who are still moderately close to their completion, namely to examine the attractive threads, frustrating problems and interesting avenues of enquiry that could not be explored in detail during the doctoral process (typically because of the constraints of wordage, time and perhaps ultimately coherence). I accept the tales of many doctoral students who claim that they grew to hate their research and were glad to see the back of it. But this just doesn’t square with my own experience. Yes, in the end it simply wrote itself, there were things that needed to be said and the structure was what it needed to be. But there was much that was only a beginning, a seed for future work. Retrospectively, I despise the style of the book; it may have been clear - that cherished analytic virtue - but it probably wasn’t evocative or memorable. Importantly, though, there was plenty of fuel within it for future work and I can now walk down those rich and stimulating avenues free of my prior doctoral constraints, although they have now, admittedly, been replaced by a rather different and weightier set of constraints.

What are my concerns today? Broadly they fall under the canopy of what might be termed feminist metaphysics and ecological philosophy. I am interested in theorising the autonomy of the world, via a flattened ontology, wherein the human-world relation has no special status. Consequently I am attracted to Object Oriented Ontology and its anti-correlationist commitments. Somewhat awkwardly, though, given the feminist and ecological prefixes noted above, there are also tensions to be addressed with regard to any relations that I might posit to obtain between ethics, politics and ontology. But this is work to be done – and I will have to see what gives way as I think it through. One pressing concern is that feminist philosophies tend to be firmly situated within the correlationist camp (given their constructionist, social and political commitments, plus their sympathies with much continental philosophy); although this may be resolvable in terms of being able to jointly hold an antirealist epistemology and a realist ontology without problem (see Levi’s post here); but again, work to be done. I am also particularly interested in some of the resources and themes being brought to the fore by feminist philosophers (e.g. Christine Battersby, Rosi Braidotti, Catherine Keller, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Luce Irigaray, the late Grace Jantzen, Val Plumwood) whose work can be read as addressing aporias, conceptual blind-spots and areas of neglect in the history of western metaphysics. Natality is one case in point, a rather different existential, metaphysical and phenomenological avenue of enquiry than the dominant preoccupation with being-towards-death (or, increasingly, being-towards-extinction). The meaning of sexual difference is the other major player here, a broad field that is giving rise to, amongst other things, new philosophical perspectives on identity and subjectivity, as well as alternative theorizations of space and time. As Grosz notes in Space, Time and Perversion (1995: 100):
It is not clear that men and women conceive of space or time in the same way, whether their experiences are neutrally presented within dominant mathematical and physics models, and what the space-time framework appropriate to women, or to the two sexes may be. ... [T]he bodies of each sex need to be accorded the possibility of a different space-time framework.

Previously I have closely allied myself with those philosophies that are concerned with organicism, vitalism and what Graham Harman identifies in Prince of Networks (2009: 154) as ‘a primal unified womb of becoming’; hence, perhaps, my interest in Goddess feminism. This has meant that since my undergraduate years I have been reading Whitehead and his interpreters (despite severe misgivings about much of the Christian theistic baggage that is imported), Bergson, some Deleuze, a number of ecological philosophers and, amongst many others, the feminist philosophers noted above. Throughout this period, though, and particularly coming through the thesis, I was becoming progressively more and more frustrated with explaining the autonomy and emergence of things within the metaphysical frame I was working with. I was never entirely happy with the solutions proposed by process metaphysics, and given more time and familiarity I may have thrown my lot in with Deleuze. However, the demands of my first and current teaching post interrupted, committing me more forcefully to the religious studies thread of my academic interests rather than the philosophical. This only changed earlier this year with my with my discovery of Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, the impetus to get my philosophical research interests back on track (although I had also been teaching some philosophy for three years by then with a major/minor Philosophy and Ethics subject pathway at my university).

For those who may be interested, my religious studies teaching and research interests are based around New Religious Movements (notably Paganism, the New Age and the Spiritual Revolution), the Psychology of Religion, Method and Theory and, in past years, Religion and the Media. These inevitably cut across and inform some of my philosophical interests, sometimes in unusual ways, but they are not central drivers for my current philosophical interests. There may, as I noted in an earlier post, be some compatibility between animism, panpsychism and object oriented ontology, for example, but I don’t think I will be tackling that particular topic for some time. At the moment I am grappling with the relationship between feminist metaphysics and OOO, both for an article for Speculations and for the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects’ conference at the University of Dundee in March. The clock is ticking on the deadlines for both.


Paul John Ennis said...

There are certainly some fascinating threads that you are well placed to explore in relation to SR/OOP. I don't think we have a distinctly theological angle yet and we certainly lack a feminist approach (and more to the point female adherents but that is a broader issue in academic philosophy).

I'll also need to write to you about my own possible theological point of view (in the dissertation/book I want to talk a little about secular ecology). It is perhaps amusing that in the age of Zizek one can be a religious atheist of sorts but then again this is perhaps what philosophy, at heart, is.

Looking forward to seeing how you develop on these themes.

Paul Reid-Bowen said...

Oddly enough, within Religious Studies the notion of being a religious atheist isn't and has never been particularly contentious, plenty of not particularly philosophically informed books on the subject. Most versions of Buddhism are by definition atheist, plus Daoism, Indigenous religions, plus many others deny a God or gods. Indeed, stictly speaking, Christians, Muslims, Jews etc. are atheists too, since they deny the existence of all other concepts and instantiations of deity but their own.
But this is clearly very different from the contortions and complex theoretical manoeuvres that many continental philosophers go through via there engagments with onto-theology, transcendence a/theology and the like. Sadly it is all rather Christian, although often not explicated in that way. But it certainly sells books, as soon as you push your philosophy to the point where it appears on the theological radar, you are on to a whole different conference tour.

Paul Reid-Bowen said...

Of course, being a Christian atheist - which is perhaps what you meant - is a rather different matter and perhaps, as you note, a product of the age of Zizek.