Thursday, 29 April 2010

Middlesex Closure

Difficult to know what to contribute to the righteous fury over the closure of the Philosophy Department at Middlesex University. Check out the updates and background at Infinite Thought, sign up to the Facebook group and the petitions; more importantly, write to the main players with influence at Middlesex. Do what you can because, in my view, Middlesex has a better fighting chance than most. The logic of capitalism is grinding its way through HE at the moment, intensified and accelerated by the recent recession.

What more can I say without channeling some deep pessimism? Wading through the comments of philosophers at Leiter Reports, I was fortunate enough to come across Grahame Lock's wonderful post. I find myself in near total agreement.
The broad lines of the above comments are of course true.
But what explains this "madness"? I am terribly sorry to use the following old-fashioned term, and it certainly involves simplification, but I think it is at least more adequate than any new-fangled vocabulary: in a word, what explains the madness is the logos of capitalism, in its consequent form.

Capitalism is concerned, in its pure variety, solely with quantifiable results, quantified in the last instance in money terms. Thus all other than such quantifiable criteria of success are deemed to be eliminable: that is, all intrinsic values (if this short list is not too "edifying": beauty, learning, morality, even the quest for truth, except in the instrumental sense) are "for the chop".

Many (but not all) academics usually, at some level, still believe in the intrinsic value of scholarship and learning. Thus they do not fit into the new world of British (or western) "education policy". So they are eliminable too, to be replaced by a new, conformist generation of manipulable academic technicians. All government audit and control instruments, like the QAA, RAE and REF, are oriented towards the slow but sure, even if de facto inefficient, production of this result.

Existing academic postholders express their disagreement and anger in reactions like the above. However, theirs is a rearguard action, for an evident reason: power in western society is not in their hands.

Up to fairly recently, say a quarter or half century ago, many liberals (in the broad sense of the term) were not consequent: they believed in the market, but made exceptions, like the family, or art, or music, or religion ... or the universities. This exceptionalism has largely come to an end. The political and business classes are ever more characterized by a philistine mind-set. (There are some admirable members of these classes who still support such intrinsically valuable activities, but e.g. fund-raisers will know how difficult it is to locate them.)
What is happening at Middlesex will therefore be repeated elsewhere, even though we do not know the exact timetable, which depends on many contingent factors, and will take some time to come close to being fully implemented.

There are still niches, and many colleagues fighting to keep them intact. This is a marvellous thing. But they are fighting against the Zeitgeist, which is (broadly) a spirit of barbarism. Many "deans" and the like, those who implement particular plans of destruction, are agents or bearers of this Zeitgeist, but otherwise, for this reason, of very little interest. As the system demands, they too are interchangeable.
What to conclude?

Indeed, what to conclude, but also, what to do?

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Weird Fiction and Unheimlich Bedtime Stories

Just resumed made-up bedtime stories with my five year old daughter after a considerable hiatus. We migrated to book stories (a) because dad was feeling increasingly exhausted and unimaginative at the end of the working day and (b) because said daughter was hijacking the stories with ever greater regularity. To be fair her embellishments were sometimes fun and very creative, and I was often more than happy to work them in to the stories, but they were becoming the norm and added to the storytelling being a high energy investement. Anyway, we returned to them this evening with a visit to her favourite characters and their newest adventure - and boy did she add some scary elements to the mix. Basically we had the set up of the main protagonists, two princesses (mother and daughter), and their magical but morbidly obese cat, being roped in by the King of the Faeries to rid Faery Town of some horrible monster created by goblin magicians; moreover, said monster was hiding in the sewers and had been abducting faeries from the town for several weeks.

What did my dear daughter add to the mix? Here are some unprompted elements:

On what the monster might be like: "The monster is made of all the goblins ideas ... and even nastier ideas than they can think of, all the nasty ideas in the world and nastier than the whole universe."

I was scared. Personally, I wouldn't like to see my daughter's Monster-X (see Prince of Networks for that particular reference).

On the age of Faery Town: "Older than God." Brilliant.

On what might be happening: "The goblins are getting all the faeries magic. They are getting better and stronger every day." A classic of fantasy literature.

I fully accept that parents can be easily impressed by their children's accomplishments, but the imagination of the young can be a powerful thing. We may praise the unheimlich of Lovecraft, the weird fiction of Mieville and others, the small town horror of King, but just tap in to the creativity and imaginations of some children, absolutely amazing material.

P.S. It can be mundane and very practical too. She was quite clear that the goblins would have special clothes to keep them dry and clean in the faery sewers.

Immanent Response to Relations

Adrian at Immanence has made a careful response to Graham and my posts on relationality. I duplicate his response to my points below.
Moving on to Paul's post: Having some familiarity with the kinds of relational and processual holists he is describing -- Goddess thealogians, Gaian pantheists, Neo-Pagans and New Paradigm thinkers, et al. -- I can sympathize with his conundrum, which he expresses poignantly and, in the following passage, evocatively:

"It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves."

What surprises me about this -- though I'm guessing that Paul's frustration arises out of a very specific and personal academic trajectory, so I don't mean to be hard on him here -- is that he would have expected detailed explanations of "precisely how things relate to one another" from theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists, and not from the many social scientific and humanistic accounts of such relations -- detailed post-constructivist (or co-constructive, material-discursive) analyses of a tremendous array of socio-technical-political-ecological ensembles, all of which draw on relational and processual theories in nuanced and empirically oriented ways to make sense of real-world processes and events.

Adrian is appropriately sensitive to where my frustrations emerge from here, although I certainly don’t mind being called on these issues or the kind of hard questions that he generates. My main answer to the question of why ‘theologians (or thealogians), ecosophists, and spiritual activists’ ought to be doing this complex mereological and metaphysical work is quite simply that many/most of them don’t need to be. However, I do have a more substantial argument, that, in religious terms – basically in terms of long-term survival and growth and applicability of religions beyond a local level – there will be a need for some members of a religion to do this. Once a religion starts to deploy a set of concepts at a suitable level of complexity, there is a need or responsibility, and I recognise this may be contentious, for further systematization. That is, a particular kind of philosophical work ought or needs to be done, at some point in a religion's development, if it is developing its models and concepts of reality beyond a certain point and if it is committed to growth/survival.

To begin listing names here is probably unnecessary, and I've named many of them here on this blog before; but a casual look through the leading theoretically sophisticated journals in human geography, anthropology, science and technology studies, environmental history, and a host of other fields, should be enough to indicate what I mean. What one finds in that literature is reference to thinkers like Latour, Foucault, Haraway, Deleuze, Guattari, Harvey, Lefebvre, Massey, Law, Stengers, Massumi, Thrift, Maturana and Varela, Luhmann, Connolly, and others, all of whom can be reasonably considered "relational" thinkers. What one doesn't find (yet) in the vast majority of that literature is any reference to object-oriented ontology. While Harman, Bryant, et al. may begin to infiltrate that literature over time -- and more power to them -- comparing them to Goddess thealogians as a source for "explaining precisely how things relate to one another" seems like comparing apples with tulips.

I recognise the value of many of these theorists of the relational and the processual. Moreover, I think it is of value for any systematic religious thinkers – whether Pagan, New Age or otherwise – to draw upon and adapt their theories in order to aid in the articulation of their own positions. My main point would be, though, that some of these figures provide better conceptual resources for some of these religions than others. For example, my suspicion is that Object Oriented Ontology will provide better resources for Goddess feminism than some others. However, to be honest, I have now moved some distance from the thealogical commitments and I am working on the metaphysics for the sake of my own intellectual curiosity.

Paul's question “have you ever actually seen a relation?” could be answered with the rejoinder, “Have you ever actually heard an object? Smelled or tasted one?” Seeing is a relation. Is it possible to see anything outside of a relation? Failing to recognize that the thing you see is something that you see seems to me a fairly serious error.

I will hold my hands up to this one and simply acknowledge that the question has a largely pedagogical and rhetorical function. The question prompts further reflection and opens up a number of interesting avenues of enquiry; although it was the product of a certain grumpiness with regard to some overly vague account of relations in a first year philosophy class.

Adrian continues with some very useful commentary which I can't quickly do justice to:
This is not to suggest that we cannot say anything about things in themselves; it's just that relations are fundamental. There's the relation between myself and the words I'm typing on the screen in front of me, but each of these is already a manifold of relations -- relations which include my nervous system, fingers tapping a set of plastic keys, the English language, computers and electrical cables spanning the world, people sitting in front of some of those computers who read the same books as I and ponder similar topics, and so on. The fact that each of these is something specific -- my nervous system, the English language, a particular keyboard and monitor (and a particular model of keyboard and monitor) -- doesn't mean that it's not a product of a series of (specific) relations unfolding in time, coming together in specific ways, coming apart in others, and working together for a while as long as conditions allow it.

The same sort of thing can be said of the impact of the La Garita Caldera volcanic eruption 28 million years ago, or of the damming of a lake by a family of beavers. The volcano, the eruption, the dam: what is each of them apart from the forces that move through them, except the singularity, the signness, that we observe and name as such? The "volcano" is our name for something, it is not the name nor the perception that a flock of geese or a stream of lava have of that same "object," though they may perceive and reckon with something that overlaps with our "volcano." The "objects" of the world are our objects; other subjects have their own objects, with the two categories slipping over into each other in every moment, and no wishful thinking will eliminate all that subjectivity and chiasmic interperceptivity from a world that is bursting with it.

What exactly is gained by calling these things "objects" that isn't already there when we call them by their (everyday, human-given) names and recognize their temporary, processual, and at the same time very specific nature? The latter is what Latour tries to do when he makes sense of the (planned but never built) Aramis transportation system in Paris or the pasteurization of France; it's what Haraway does with cyborgs and primatologists, what Cronon does with Chicago and White with the Columbia River, Tsing with Indonesian rainforests and Whatmore with global wildlife networks, Helmreich with microbial oceans, Protevi with the Columbine massacre and Hurricane Katrina, and DeLanda with the last thousand years of germs, languages, and cities. It's what I tried to do with the red rocks of Sedona and green hills of Glastonbury (and with some of the same thealogians and eco-Gaians that Paul got frustrated with). These studies aren't definitive, but unless one puts an object in its context, one doesn't know the object; and when one does, that object becomes a meeting-point of so many other processes and flows. It's still a point, and I appreciate OOO's question, which seems to be something like "but what is the invisible underside of that point?" Or "once you've delineated all the processes and flows that make up a point, what's left over?" Their answer is different depending on the theorist, but what they all seem to insist is that it isn't "nothing." That's interesting to me, and if their ontologies tell us something important that's missing from the accounts we get from relational (and other extant) theories, then they'll have gained their place at the table of useful tools for understanding the world.

But maybe the point, for a philosopher, is that all of those empirical studies of real-world phenomena are based on one or another kind of philosophical hodgepodge (as most are), and that the task of producing a pure and perfect ontology still lies ahead of us. Since that's not really my game, perhaps it's unfair for me to be critiquing it. I would like object-oriented ontology to be part of the game I'm playing, part of the palette of ideas I can bring to the task (in my case) of theorizing the intersection of cultural and environmental changes as these occur in the world today. I hope its tools will be useful for that. But I don't see any reason to ditch the relational ones that have already been well honed.

Swift response is that I have no wish to throw the relations out of the window, it just seems to me that the contexts in the above examples can be considered objects too. This, though, warrants far more work.

I also apologise to Adrian, as I had forgotten just how much work he had done on the Pagan, New Age and other ecospiritualites (particularly Glastonbury, which is on my doorstep).

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Dark Vitalism and Worlds Without End

I am rather attracted to Ben Woodard’s ongoing theorization of a weird nature, complete with slime mechanics, dark vitalism and other matter(s) over at Naught Thought. At many points his work converges with the metaphysical framework that I spent my PhD elucidating, albeit with the sacred/goddess taken out. I find it particularly intriguing in its usage and synthesis of Schelling and others, plus its tropes of a nature that is unheimlich, wild and ontologically strange. I tend to diverge, though, on the topic and usage of nihilism. This is for reasons that are broadly cosmological in character. I read Ben’s nihilism, perhaps mistakenly, as reliant on a cosmological extinction or omega point (e.g. big crunch, heat death, whatever), and it is this with which I disagree. My own preferred cosmological model is that of the maternal space-time of the physicist Andrei Linde. His work theorises an ongoing/eternal process of cosmic inflation, wherein universes emerge, bubble-like, from the space-time of other universes/bubbles (see here and here). This is a framework within which all talk of origins and teleology becomes remarkably problematic. Now I fully accept that one may still speak meaningfully of the death of our own universe in some deep time frame (not upsetting, in this sense, Brassier’s thesis that is grounded in the certainty of “our” own extinction). However, it seems quite reasonable to conceive of a vitalism, similar to the one that Ben is working with, that stretches beyond the horizons of our own universe’s space-time. I won’t dabble with past and future tenses here, suffice it to say that, in Linde’s cosmological framework, it seems plausible to contend that it is simply universes all the way down and also all the way up. Ben’s version of vitalism just doesn’t seem to warrant the description of dark in this cosmological framework, except in the sense of some dark, Kali-like mother who is both fecund but also remarkably destructive. Fair to say that I may have misunderstood the nature of Ben’s nihilism, but it seems more plausible to me to posit a cosmic natality – as a metaphysical principle – wherein vitalism is the crystallising, emananting and processual spread manifesting itself through/as infinite space-time bubbles/universes. This would be a vitalism that propagates worlds without-end and certainly does not seem to warrant the prefix dark. Now, of course, whether one can specify metaphysically what this vitalism means in more detail is where Ben’s work gets interesting. I just don’t happen to get the nihilistic edge of his work in progress.

Relations, Objects and Pendulum Swings

There is an interesting debate going on between Adrian Ivakhiv at Immanence, Graham Harman and Levi Bryant. This is my third attempt to write a response to this exchange. It has been difficult largely because the debate goes to the heart of my thoughts on Object Oriented Ontology, and also because there is considerable overlap between Adrian’s interests and my own. My ecological philosophising is probably a little more nuanced by gender and religious issues than Adrian’s, but I suspect we share a great deal. Significantly, though, I seem to have shifted on the topic of relationism in the last year or two. While I would in the past have been firmly located in the metaphysical camp of those who Graham characterises in Prince of Networks as concerned with a ‘primal unified womb of becoming’ (in addition to Heraclitean flux, relational networks and Whiteheadian processes), I have become increasingly unhappy with this stance. I’ll endeavour to elucidate with some context as it may help clarify my current position.

My main published work, Goddess as Nature: Towards a Philosophical Thealogy, was a slightly revised version of my doctoral thesis, and it was this that set the agenda for much of my early and rather undeveloped metaphysical speculations. Briefly put, the work was a philosophical reading and elaboration of the largely implicit metaphysical worldview of Goddess feminism. This religious movement grew out of second wave feminism during the 1970s and was a largely grass-roots phenomenon, the product of women (and some men) who were disillusioned with or repelled by patriarchal and mainstream religiosity and were interested in exploring and/or creating alternative pro-female and/or feminist modes of religion and spirituality. The movement gave rise to a disparate number of religious collectives, ideas and practices, entailed a syncretistic appropriation of goddess myths, narratives and symbols from across the world and history, incorporated and formed alliances with contemporary paganism and slowly articulated models of deity that were severely at odds with the monotheistic norm. My concern was with the nature of these models of deity and their ultimate coherence in metaphysical terms. More specifically, while recognising that the Goddess movement was rather suspicious and critical of the intellectualism of the academy (and particularly philosophy), I was interested in systematising and constructively elucidating the reality claims being developed within the movement. These reality-claims were intriguing, to me at least, specifically because they were formed from a synthesis of contemporary science (ecology, Gaia theory, chaos theory), religious models of relationality and becoming and a range of feminist political and ethical commitments. It was an attractive cocktail of ideas and values, and one that I had considerable sympathy with. The thesis ended up being a half-way house between a work of analytic philosophy of religion and a form of constructive thealogy, although it also produced what I hoped might be some useful resources for feminist metaphysics

The major limitation of the work was that, while it was possible to demarcate many of the beliefs and claims of the movement in a broadly coherent fashion, many of the details clearly needed to be worked through with greater rigour than was possible within the remit of a doctoral thesis. It was one thing to identify and stretch out some analogies between the organicism in Gaia theory and that of the cosmos as a pantheistic unity, or else establish some plausible links between the nature of ecological networks, chaotic systems and processes of flux. It was quite another to specify how they might work or fit together in the details. I was always aware of this oversight, but I was also quite confident that I was doing something exciting, innovative and original. Becoming rather than being, chaos and complexity, ecological networks, process thought, it all seemed challenging to the analytical philosophy that I was most familiar with, and also relevant to the future too. Except, that is, post-completion, somewhat distanced from the main Goddess feminist orientation of the thesis, I came to realise that I wanted to get the metaphysics to work; and I was painfully aware that this wouldn’t be easy. There followed several years in an academic post at a teaching-led university and a hiatus from the kind of systematic speculation and analysis needed to move this metaphysical project forwards. My thinking, in this regard, simply stalled.

Fast forward then to the summer of 2009 when I discovered speculative realism and object oriented ontology and also enjoyed some much needed time for thinking and research. What did I know at this point? Basically, I knew that I wasn’t happy with the kinds of relationism and relationality that had been alluded to in my previous research. Frankly, I was confronted with a relationality that lacked content and specificity. While one may boldly lay claim on the pervasiveness of relational networks (often, for many of the people I was reading, misleadingly reduced to the soundbite: “everything is connected”), many of those relations just do not seem to make a difference, or rather a significant difference, to the way the world operates. Now one may of course play the chaos theoretical card at this juncture and point towards the Lorenz “butterfly effect”. But again, the very fact that small perturbations in a suitably complex system can have long range and large scale unpredictable effects, does not permit an anything goes attitude to the contents and/or causal processes of the world. The moon does not turn to cheese at the drop of a hat. My movements typing this blog entry do not impact on the tides of a chlorine ocean on a planet seventy three light years away.

I should state that I am not pushing this view on Adrian, or indeed process relational philosophers who can offer more nuanced accounts of relationships at different ontological scales. Indeed, Adrian notes very clearly in one of his recent entries that “all relations aren’t the same.” I am simply venting my frustration at those religious and other advocates of relationism who do, maximally, come close to treating relationality in the aforementioned anything goes, or all relations are cosmically significant, manner; or else, minimally, gloss over or ignore the problems of explaining precisely how things relate to one another. It is one thing to bask in the warmth of an intellectual hot-tub of Heraclitean flux, asserting that all things are transitory stabilities in a cauldron/continuum of becoming. It is quite another to explain how the things themselves, qua transitory stabilities, do relate to one another and/or how they do form parts of larger complex wholes. Goddess feminism, for example, was strong on the metaphors and models of becoming, but remarkably weak on the actual nature of the mereological relationships themselves. There certainly remain many elements of my earlier engagement with feminist philosophy, paganism and process metaphysics that I want and aim to take forwards, but the vagueness of some relational rhetoric has made me rather grumpy of late. [Indeed I seem to have extended a Humean scepticism about causes into the realm of relations and networks; as I asked one student recently: “have you ever actually seen a relation?”]

Usefully, though, Object Oriented Ontology seems to have cut through some of my problems, permitting the articulation of a position that coheres and converges more comfortably with my intuitions and current stock of conceptual resources than the alternatives. First, one engages with and speculatively theorises the objects of the world. These objects are never wholly knowable, but, nonetheless, exhibit an autonomy that makes sense of our encounters with and experiences of them. Second, one theorises the relations. Objects are not hermetically sealed, although much of the interesting stuff takes place inside them. But the relations that arise between them are always moderated/mediated through a third party. This democratised, vicarious community of objects, within which all objects possess a significant sense of autonomy and identity, just seems a more productive avenue of enquiry to me than the ‘relations all the way down’ or ‘transitory stabilities’ approaches. If this is indeed a penduluum swing away from relationism, I seem to be riding it - although I would contend that I have good reasons for doing so.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Atheist Barbie

Just spotted this over at Feminist Philosophers and the point of origin BlagHag. It certainly raised a chortle, particularly as I have been immersed in the world of Barbie for the past couple of years thanks to my five year old daughter. My male feminist consciousness is always a little stressed out by toys such as this, and it is always nice to subvert them and the gender stereotypes they support where we can.

Atheist Barbie is, I should note, a response to the Reverend Barbie, the creation of Reverend Julie Blake Fisher, an Episcopalian priest from Kent, Ohio. I don't have any particular problems with either, save for the body politics underpinned and policed by each. I'm just waiting for Dianic, Lesbian sepratist, Wiccan Barbie. More work for the Barbie Liberation Front and Barbie Liberation Organization.

[Addendum: a quick Google search reveals quite a few Wiccan Barbies out there, I just doubt that there are any Dianics]

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Dundee, Dragons and Hegelianism

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the ‘Real Objects or Material Subjects’ Conference at Dundee, a victim of what myself and a colleague jokingly call academic and domestic realism. It seems to have been a particularly good conference, though, and I have been enjoying some of the reflections of the attendees, particularly here, here, here and here (and becoming increasingly nuanced here and here). I suspect I would have been playing catch up and join the philosophical dots for much of the time, like many HE academics in the UK today there seems to be little time for actual reading and research and we frequently feel a little distanced from some of the materials. I remember just smiling and nodding at one of my professors when he advised me to do as much reading as I could while I was a postgraduate, because, he explained, there would be little time for it if I got a job as a lecturer - how right he was!

Anyway, Hegel seems to have loomed large at the conference and it is a long time since I read any. Even when I was an undergraduate it tended to be the young Hegelians who I was reading, most notably Feuerbach and Marx, rather than the man himself. One of few notable phrases I could remember about Hegel was that of the Prussian King Frederick William IV when he courted Schelling to ‘battle the dragon seed of Hegelian pantheism’. It has always stuck with me because of an ongoing interest in pantheism. But I include it today (a) because the dragon seed of Hegelianism is clearly still strong (Zizek perhaps being its leading exponent and incarnation) and (b) self-referentially, because it links so nicely with my previous post.

Come to the Dungeons of Dundee and fight the Dragon seed of Hegelianism, with that kind of advertising I would have been there in a shot.