Monday, 23 May 2011

"We're Doomed"

Broadly coextensive with my engagement with Speculative Realism and Object Oriented Ontology, for the last eighteen or so months I have been slowly (re-)immersing myself in ecological philosophy and environmental ethics. Initially this was with the aim of exploring the connections, continuities and possible alliances between some of my earlier research interests and the metaphysical oeuvre of SR/OOO. However, I must confess that this hasn’t quite played out in the way I intended. Rather perversely, either my ecological philosophy has finally gone dark, to appropriate Tim Morton’s term, for reasons that may have everything to do with the alchemical wedding between it and SR/OOO, or else I have simply had a "moment of clarity", "got real" and/or finally stopped denying what, on some level, I have known for some time. Standing in solidarity with many environmentalists, I can now confidently say “we’re all fucked” (or, in the words of Private Frazer of Dad’s Army fame, “we’re doomed”). I’m also prepared to take a hatchet to hope, optimism and positive thinking; but I’ll bypass those for the moment as mere corollaries of the main event.

While I have been teaching ecological and environmental philosophy for the better part of a decade, and been studying it for more than double that, I have also been doing a good job of (a) maintaining some comforting conceptual blind spots, (b) failing to correlate a lot of what I know and believe in a coherent, meaningful and practical manner, and (c) not fully, or perhaps sufficiently, emotionally engaging with what I know and believe. Now there are many increasingly well-understood psychological and evolutionary explanations and excuses for all of these failures (not least of which is the inability of our poor Stone Age, flight-or-fight wired brains to apprehend long term threats or hyperobjects like climate change). However, I’m still more than a little shamefaced that, while I’ve been able to academically babble on about animal rights, ecocentrism, ecological degradation, intrinsic versus instrumental value and species extinction for the past decade, I’ve also been able to carry on with the usual business of life without too much discomfort. Oddly, I was able to recognize and get moving with this kind of problem with regard to my gender identity and my relationship with feminism quite some time ago, but following through with regard to ecology seems to be something I’ve been able to resist, repress and ignore with some tenacity. This, at least, is now changing.

Where now? Obviously the blog is serving more as a confessional at the moment. I never seem to have the time for the mini-treatise of Levi Bryant or others. Most spare moments of writing time, amidst family or academic commitments and piles of administrivia, always seem better directed towards book projects or sleep. These sporadic blog entries are at best side comments for anyone who might be interested or memos for my future self. The favourite blogs list to the side is perhaps indicative of a migration in my thinking. For example, Climate Progress, the Oil Drum and Real Climate are recent additions.

What of OOO? Sometime in the last year I remember one of Anthony Paul Smith’s comments on OOO at An und für sich striking me quite hard. Paraphrasing, I remember him saying that he didn’t have any major problems with OOO, except that he couldn’t see the pay off. I’ve thought about that quite a lot since then. Now clearly one could question the need for demonstrable pay offs (impact assessments anyone?), or else interrogate precisely what paying anything off could mean? Minimally, though, I was more concerned with what I was expecting to get from OOO. What value did it have for me? Simple answer: new/innovative (qua better) conceptual and theoretical tools/lenses for doing non-anthropocentric metaphysics. I won’t belabor or defend whether OOO succeeds in this – the commitment and effort alone remains sufficient. But the pay-off? Why should I want OOO to succeed in this endeavour? My answer of a few months ago would have been that better theories of non- and inhuman agency, actants, matter/nature, objects, the things-in-themselves etc. are one amongst many necessary conditions for escaping the mess that we are in and the crises we are moving towards. Now, though, I’m not so certain. An awful lot of these activities feel increasingly like navel-gazing. Don’t get me wrong, I love philosophy and theory, but of late I’m really starting to focus, with painful intensity, on which theories are, or might be capable of being, applied to, or translated into, some world-changing praxis (the Marxist refrain with regard to the purpose of philosophy loops in out of my consciousness with some regularity here). Indeed, it is with some regret that Graham Harman’s writing has taken a backseat in my thinking of late. Despite the pleasure I gain from reading Harman and his championing of Latour, metaphysics and weird realism, I am finding it difficult to build bridges between his work and the more ecocentric and systems-based theories with which I am most familiar. It is Levi Bryant’s work that is more clearly pointing towards what I need OOO to be, and where I need it to move. Recent posts, such as his Materialism of Onticology, are keeping me very attentive. The following quote usefully captures the trajectory my philosophizing needs to take.
As we watch the nuclear meltdown at the Fukishima power plant, here are some questions we might ask: What difference does an earthquake make? What difference does a tsunami make? What differences do nuclear power plants make? What do all of these things do in their specific affective circumstances? The point is not to deny the role of things such as capital, capitalism, and interests, but to understand these things as genuine actors in these societies or assemblages of association. For example, what new possibilities arise as a result of people’s encounters with all these agencies?

What of me? Well the bookshelves near my desk are divided between an array of academic and diagnostic texts that encompass such pessimistic/realistic terms as collapse, crisis, decline, descent, end-times, last and extinction in their titles (two thirds) and practical, self-help books, featuring some rather more hopeful/necessary descriptors as self-sufficiency, survival, sustainability and transition (one third). To this one may add the pile of undergraduate dissertations and projects in front of me and the sounds of my wife and kids playing in the next room. I think that is a pretty accurate snapshot of where I am and what matters at the moment.

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