to have done with life

You can now listen to audio of the recent conference in Zagreb on 'neo-vitalism' and 'anti-vitalism' entitled "to have done with life" here: June 17-19, 2011.

I’ll summarize: “we’re all really smart and if we can’t construct a coherent metaphysics of difference with regards to the properties of a crow-bar and a crow, then you can’t either. ” Biotech, biopolitics and the will to speculation converge into a frenzy of post-Heidegger, post-heuristic cyborg fantasy.

And what is with the world’s top grad students intellectuals asking unintelligible questions? Every time I listen to the Q&A at one of these conferences I want to gag at least once. Why can’t these people formulate questions that make sense? Even the panelists can’t figure out what the question is. Is it a competition of who can ask the most complicated question as a means of impressing their advisor?

To be fair, there was some good stuff about “Life” being the contemporary equivalent of a previous preoccupation with “Being”. Evan Caulder Williams’ work is always fascinating and politically poignant, and Adrian Johnson’s talk was also characteristically lucid and great for thinking about “second natures” as continuous extensions of complex matter.

[ h/t immanence ]


Grandeur In This View

Celtic Tree of Life
One of my favorite passages ever written is the final paragraph of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection:
"It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."
Adrian’s excellent new post (here) about Malik’s The Tree of Life led me to these words once again. I never cease to be inspired by this passage.

War on the Earth

From ZMagazine:
War on the Earth: David Barsamian interviews Vandana Shiva

Vandana Shiva provides an international voice for sustainable development and social justice. She's a physicist, scholar, social activist, and feminist. She is director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi and a recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. She is the author of many books, including Water Wars, Earth Democracy, and Soil Not Oil.

BARSAMIAN: On receiving the Sydney Peace Prize in November 2010, you said, "When we think of wars in our times, our minds turn to Iraq and Afghanistan, but the bigger war is the ongoing war against the Earth. This war has its roots in an economy which fails to respect ecological and ethical limits." Tell me more about this war.

SHIVA: This war is being fought, for example, in India across the country, wherever there are minerals, which happens to be where there are forests, which happens to be where tribals live. And it's fueled by the very investor-speculators who brought down the world economy. Huge money is to be made out of iron ore and bauxite mining. And then to push consumption, to use more and more of these nonrenewable resources.

India until 20 years ago never had landfills. But our laws are now saying they want us to move from 1 kilogram of aluminum use to 15 kilograms per capita of use. Fifteen kilograms multiplied by a billion Indians means that every mountain will have to be mined, every forest will have to be destroyed. This generates war against nature because it devastates ecosystems. But it's also a war against people, because every human right must be violated, and a war economy, in a real sense, has to be created.
Read More: Here


Marijuana: A Chronic History

A brief history of marijuana via the history channel:


Fukushima: "worst industrial accident ever"

On June 21, 2011 famed physicist Michio Kaku told CNN that Japanese officials have been lying throughout the nuclear crisis and still don't have control of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Kaku reports Fukushima is "a ticking time bomb":

Former Intelligence Operative Calls for P2P Revolution

“Modernity…based on a autonomous self in a society which he himself creates through the social contract, has been changing in postmodernity. The individual is now seen as always-already part of various social fields, as a singular composite being….Atomistic individualism is rejected in favour of the view of a relational self, a new balance between individual agency and collective communion.” Jane Jones
Robert David Steele is a former CIA operations officer and senior civilian responsible for creating the Marine Corps Intelligence Center. In 1988 he realized that the US Government was spending all of its intelligence money on secret technical collection and virtually nothing on open sources of information. He became the global proponent for Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), and from there advanced to M4IS2 Multinational, Multiagency, Multidisciplinary, Multidomain Information Sharing and Sense-Making. He is currently working on Manifesto for Truth: Intelligence with Integrity in the Public Interest.

Steele's talk below is currently being circulated both in video and audio format by Anonymous and LulzSec hackers and sympathisers, who have recently announced via video "Operation Anti-Security and their joining of forces. The June 20 announcement of Operation AntiSec contained justification for its attacks displacements of government sites, citing governmental efforts to "dominate and control our Internet ocean" and accusing them of corruption and breaching privacy:

[ h/t P2P Foundation ]

Conversation of the Arche-fossils

“Confronted with the arche-fossil, every variety of idealism converges and becomes equally extraordinary – every variety of correlationism is exposed as extreme idealism, one that is incapable of admitting that [which] science tells us about these occurrences…And our correlationist then finds himself dangerously close to contemporary creationists: those quaint believers who assert today, in accordance with a ‘literal’ reading of the Bible, that the earth is no more than 6000 years old, and who, when confronted with the much older dates arrived at by science, reply…[that these radioactive compounds were placed there by God]…in order to test the physicist’s faith. Similarly, might not the meaning of the arche-fossil be to test the philosopher’s faith in correlation, even when confronted with data which seems to point to an abyssal divide between what exists and what appears?”
- Meillassoux, After Finitude, pp.16-17


Integral Ecology Reading Group – Week 3

Coming back to the sharp angles and buzz of urban life after a few days deep in the backwoods of Banff National Park I find myself playing all sorts of catch-up with the fantastic commentary taking place on this week’s readings.

First, Adrian Ivakhiv has two excellent posts up with his commentary on chapter 3 (“A Developing Kosmos”) and 4 (“Developing Interiors”). Tim Morton then weighs in with some critique of AQAL’s generalizations and categories (here) and Adrian responds (here). Adam Robbert adds to the discussion with with talk of noospheres and the nature of subjectivity (here).

As I’m still going through everyone’s contributions I will only quote one passage from Adrian’s post that to me deserves special attention and discussion:
“[T]here is no such straightforward sequence (ego-ethnos-world-planet) written into nature, because “ego,” “ethnos,” “world,” and “planet” are constructs that are relative to particular kinds of societies, or more precisely to socio-material-technological networks or collectives. Generally, I would suggest, “ego” (selfhood) always co-emerges alongside some form of collectivity, and collectivities take various forms depending on the type of society, its relationship with the nonhuman world, and its conception of the cosmos.”
This is an amazingly important point. I have always felt a bit uneasy about Wilber’s presentation of individual development. I think ego-generation is a much more tangled affair - with parallel development, co-local interactions and non-linear dynamics – so even very broad generalizations must be qualified. I don’t have an opportunity to offer my thoughts on why this is so just yet, but I will dive a little deeper into issues of individuation and interior development as soon as possible.


Thinking Nature - Volume 1

I’ve been eagerly waiting for Volume 1 of the new journal Thinking Nature to come out, and today it did just that! The journal is edited by Timothy Morton and Ben Woodard. Ben provides a note to the reader in lieu of an editorial or introduction here:
I hope that readers will find that the essays address the larger problem of trying to think nature in philosophical and ecological means and display the need for further inquiry into the conceptual monstrousness of nature.
As of tonight I will once again be embedded deep in the rocky mountains for the next 4 days, but reading these essays is a priority when I return home. Enjoy:

Thinking Nature - Volume 1


/5/ – Ecological Necessity – Tom Sparrow

/6/ – Six Myths of Interdisciplinarity – Ted Toadvine

/9/ – Man and Nature – Ross Wolfe


Integral Ecology Reading Group – Week 2

As usual I’m a bit behind with contributing to the reading group, but I would like to draw attention to Sam Mickey’s excellent post at Knowledge Ecology (here) on Chapter 2 of Integral Ecology entitled, “It’s All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model”.

The chapter goes through the basic tenets of Ken Wilber’s ‘integral perspectival’ AQAL (“all quadrant, all level”) meta-framework which attempts to synthesize and organize as many different perspectives as possible. Following Max Weber and Jurgen Habermas, Wilber argues for the modern differentiation of three major epistemic modes: the subjective (1st person perspective), the intersubjective (2nd person perspective) and the objective (3rd person perspective) – or, the beautiful, the good and the true. From these 3 basic modes of knowing the world Wilber adds the interobjective (3rd person plural) perspective to create what the authors believe is a "post-disciplinary" 4 quadrant model capable of integrating data and knowledge from every major discipline in the sciences and humanities.

Ambitious? Surely. Hubris? Perhaps. But the model does have its strong points. For example, the AQAL  framework does seem to allow us to sort various approaches according to their methodologies and domains of interest. Behaviorism (Skinner) clearly took a 3rd person perspective with its focus on the objective, observable behavior of organisms, whereas hermeneutics (Gadamer) focuses squarely on the dynamics of intersubjectivity using a 2nd person, interpretive methodology. And conventional ecological sciences, as the authors are quick to point out, focus of the inter-objective processes of the world from a 3rd person perspective, whereas existentialism or introspective psychology investigate subjectivity from a 1st person perspective.

What is important here is that the authors believe taking a multi-perspective and integral approach to ecology and environmental issues helps us identify blind spots, and important points of consideration, and therefore better equips us in our effort to understand the many dimensions and complex relationships involved in such issues. What the AQAL framework does, so it is argued, is prompts us to include multiple perspectives, and therefore multiple methodologies in our investigations.

There is much more to the AQAL model than I have time to go into, but you can learn more about Wilber’s meta-framework here.

SO what I’ll leave you with is some excerpts from Sam’s post, and some interesting tid-bits from the resulting comments:
After proposing post-disciplinarity, E-H&Z describe two aspects of perspectivalism, ontological and epistemological. First, an ontological claim (“sentient beings are capable of taking a perspective, or opening a clearing that allows phenomena to present and reveal themselves”) (48). The phrase “opening a clearing” sounds suspiciously Heideggerian to me (especially knowing that Zimmerman is a Heidegger scholar). In any case, this claim implies that perspective (like interiority) isn’t exclusively human. Rather, the world is made of perspectives. [Sam]

…the second aspect of perspectivalism, an epistemological claim (“all knowing is perspectival”) (48-49). We are told not to “confuse the map with the territory” but, instead, to recognize how “the map is a performance of the territory,” such that all knowledges (all maps) are situated in the concrete limits of perspectives (50, 55). Against postmodern relativism (a straw man, to be sure), perspectivalism asserts that the partial truths of perspectives can be arranged according to nested hierarchies (holarchy) in which truths transcend and include any less comprehensive truths (63f). [Sam]

The authors keep reminding us not to take their framework too literally and not to mistake the map for the territory. They reassure us that the flat representation of the AQAL model is “not a Cartesian grid” but is more of a “Buddhist mandala,” which is full of multidimensionality and depth that are only discerned in light of meditative engagements (59).[Sam]

And from the comment section:
It is quite apparent that the AQAL model is very heavy on classification, possibly at the expense of adequate description. Sam, I think this goes some way to further pushing your point that AQAL can be both “too precise” and “not precise enough.” I would say it is too precise in classification and not precise enough in description. [Adam Robbert]

I really do find the quadrants helpful, but beyond that the AQAL system feels very heavy to me- almost like an OS that takes up so much space on a computer that it can’t actually perform any of the functions it is designed to run. [Adam]

Along with the tri-ecological vision found in Guattari and of Wilber’s big three, the integral ecology model proposed by Leonardo Boff brings together the mental, social, and environmental dimensions of ecology. Boff is influenced by Guattari’s three ecologies and by the cosmogenetic principle of Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme, which is a threefold principle involving autopoiesis, communion, and differentiation (mental, social, and environmental, respectively). [Sam]

I think…the AQ can be made to work like a Guattarian machine, or a Peircian semiotic hub (Wilber’s “big three” being analogous to Peirce’s triadics). But it’s the hierarchic developmentalism that has always been Wilber’s hallmark. On the other hand, submitting those (AL) parts of Wilber’s model to empirical data might result in a loosening of some of its built-in assumptions, e.g. into a more horizontal understanding of hierarchies (a la DeLanda). [Adrian Ivakhiv]

All the context you need and much more substance can be read in the original post and comments. Please check out the rest here. [And be sure to look for Adrian Ivakhiv’s summary and comments on chapter 3 and 4 in the next few days…]


Adrian Ivakhiv on Ingold and Liveliness

Dr. Timothy Ingold
On the occasion of anthropologist Tim Ingold’s new book Being Alive Adrian weighs-in on the irreducibility of life as animate process:
Ingold has always been very much his own thinker, never part of any school (to my knowledge) — which means he’s always been good at finding the limitations of any train of thought. And as a social anthropologist working with herders and hunters, he’s always maintained an empirical groundedness that’s kept his theorizing from getting too abstract. (That’s another thing I’ve tried to emulate, though my “one foot in empirical research” has moved around restlessly between landscape and place conflicts, cultural identity, religious practice, and media and visual culture.)

Over the last dozen or so years, it seems that Ingold’s trajectory has paralleled my own push into Latourian, Deleuzian, and Whiteheadian process territory. His general theme, as developed in his 2007 book Lines, has become that life is lived along lines, or paths, or “wayfaring,” and that “to move, to know, and to describe are not separate operations that follow one another in series, but rather parallel facets of the same process — that of life itself” (p. xii).

This work, to my mind, provides a useful corrective to those who would seek to “flatten” our ontologies so as to erase the differences between living and those things that mediate the living, but do not, in and of themselves, initiate it. There are reasons to question the division between “life” and “non-life” (as Jane Bennett and the object-oriented ontologists have done, among others), but there are also reasons to think carefully about what it is that makes life lively.
My assessment of Ingold’s work would mirror Adrian’s, with the added assertion that before being directed towards his research as an undergrad by a sensitive and astute professor I had no sense of my own intellectual trajectory. In addition to contributing to the development of a conceptual space where I could investigate my own deep intuitions and interests, Ingold’s work directly led me to the groundbreaking work of both Martin Heidegger and J.J Gibson – two thinkers who have had an enormous formative influence on me.

Now go read Adrian’s entire post: here.

"Caution: It is vitally important not to make connections"

From Mediacology:
A powerful example of combining the printed word with audiovisuals. Here Bill McKibben’s Washington Post op-ed, “A link between climate change and Joplin tornadoes? Never!,” is narrated and enhanced by plomodmedia. This has the right balance of research and emotional appeal to help get the message across.


Japan Finally Admits Meltdowns and Major Radiation Leaked into Ocean

From Democracy Now:
Almost three months after the earthquake and tsunami that triggered a nuclear disaster in Japan, new radiation "hot spots" may require the evacuation of more areas further from the damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power facility. Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency recently admitted for the first time that full nuclear meltdowns occurred at three of the plant’s reactors, and more than doubled its estimate for the amount of radiation that leaked from the plant in the first week of the disaster in March.

“What they failed to mention is that they discharged an equally large amount into the ocean,” says our guest Robert Alvarez, former senior policy adviser to the U.S. Secretary of Energy. “As [the radiation] goes up the food chain, it accumulates. By the time it reaches people who consume this food, the levels are higher than they originally were when they entered the environment.” Alvarez also discusses his new report on the vulnerabilities and hazards of stored spent fuel at U.S. reactors in the United States. Then we go to Tokyo to speak with Aileen Mioko Smith, executive director of the group Green Action. She says citizens leading their own monitoring efforts are calling for additional evacuations, especially for young children and pregnant women:


On Feral Philosophy – Part 1: Deviant Engagements

“The age of philosophy is in a sense, again, that we are confronted, more and more, often with philosophical problems on an everyday level. It is not just that you withdraw from daily life into a world of philosophical contemplation. On the contrary: you cannot find your way around daily life itself without answering certain philosophical questions. It is a unique time where everyone is in a way forced to be some kind of philosopher.” - Slavoj Žižek
Sometimes I get emails from strangers who prompt me to reflect on what it is I am attempting to do here. As an applied anthropologist gone public health technocrat I no longer have strong attachments to my disciplinary roots. At times this distance gives me a profound sense of isolation from the fertile environment where I learned my most valuable and applicable skills and lessons. So when someone questions me about my background or theoretical commitments it agitates me to reconsider my positions and current inspirations. Such was the case with a recent email that included the following question:
“I have been reading you blog for some time now and I wonder why you post more about philosophy than anthropology, when you describe yourself as an anthropologist. Where are all the anthropology related posts?”
My initial reaction was to argue that what I do here is not strictly a disciplinary project. This blog is a laboratory for theory and collection site where I explore all sorts of issues and topics, including blogging about philosophy. When I venture into ontography and/or critical theory I do so from a decidedly post-disciplinary perspective. The only label I have yet to come up with for this is: feral theory.

Feral theory, or ‘feral philosophy’ operates outside of the civilizing processes of institutional and canonical strictures, and attempts to think wildly through the exigencies of practical and political life in opposition to homogenizing conventions. Of course, such theorizing is not without its influences, or founding premises, but it radicalizes those legacies, resources and logics by forging monstrous alliances between discourses and paradigms, while intentionally mutating them for explicitly pragmatic and strategic purposes. A feral theorist, then, is a bricoleur who preys on the theoretical fauna of numerous authors and subsists by plundering the cultivated fields of all available disciplines, carving out niches of praxis and resistance. At least this is how I frame what I do.

And this is not to say that I think disciplined discourse specialists are somehow less important, or are “sell-outs” to “the system”, because without the scholarship and rigor of these trained professionals the feral theorist would be unable to sustain their activities at the fringes. The academic and professional knowledges and products afford the feral theorist their sometimes oppositional, sometimes participatory opportunities for conceptual license and strategic deviance.

Regardless, the reader’s question is an appropriate one and deserves an answer. Why would a confessed practicing applied anthropologist focus so much on discussions with professional philosophers about seemingly strictly philosophical issues? My answer: because the philosophers I read and engage are thinking and doing work which stimulates my own mutant praxis the most. And the practical work that I am employed to do and the political work I am compelled to do is fueled by such deviant engagements.

Natural Cultures and Dark Ontologies

ROSS: I’ve said this elsewhere, in various places, but I reject ontological thinking (especially in the vein inspired by Heidegger) as unhistorical. Its concept of “historicity” attempts to freeze the inherent fluidity of historical time by assimilating its to the existential structures of presentistic being, and thus dilutes the richer and more dynamic understanding of the world as historical and the qualitative changes brought upon by the forces of world-history.

MICHAEL: You must not have had too much exposure to Bergson or Whitehead or Deleuze for that matter. Those guys have very “fluid”, diachronistic visions of the world. It’s true that Heidegger drew some strange and abstract conclusions from his investigations, many of which I do not support, but his interrogation of ‘the meaning of being’ was groundbreaking – and I believe the only starting point for a properly reflexive theoretical deliberation of existence.

And I think you go too far in assuming you can simply “reject ontological thinking” Ross. All belief systems, including Marxist ideologies, have at their conceptual core ontological commitments. All schematic thought, worldviews and paradigms necessarily operationalize certain basic assumptions. If you are not interested in investigating those assumptions and beliefs by engaging in thinking about ontology, or more fundamental, doing ontography then those guiding assumptions about the structure of the world will remain unexamined and taint everything you think.

Regarding the “forces of world-history”, I have developed my own ecological realist orientation which holds process, transitions, events and assemblages as fundamental features of the real world, and rejects the primacy of the existential analytic (correlationism) in favor of an (re)evolutionary, participatory, communialistic focus.

ROSS: In terms of our connection to nature, no one will deny humanity’s origins in the natural world, out of a long evolutionary process of biology. Yet the reason why I say that the nature/culture split is real is that it has become real, through a process of historical alienation. The moment that humanity becomes self-conscious, achieves systematic thought, and instrumental rationality — as well as begins to repress its more natural instinctual drives — humanity begins to differentiate itself from nature. At first this alienation is minimal, as even in primitive agricultural societies one remains tied quite immediately to the natural rhythms and cycles of existence.

Once human society becomes increasingly denaturalized, once its interaction with the nature from whence it sprang becomes more and more mediated through social processes and the built environment of towns and cities (artifice), the alienation rises to the level of consciousness. I believe that historically this took place most noticeably after the Scientific Revolution and capitalist rationality/intellectualization began to disenchant nature of its mysterious properties, such that the early Romantics began to feel a profound sense of estrangement and distancing from nature. Since then, this consciousness has gone through a variety of ideological mutations, all the way into the present.

That is why I affirm the division between nature and culture, not as an absolute, insurmountable opposition, but as one which has arisen historically and might be historically overcome. Human beings themselves cannot be called wholly “unnatural.” Our bodies are the outcome of hundreds of millions of years of natural biological evolution. But the world which we create for ourselves, and with which we are more immediately familiar than “original” nature, cannot be said to be entirely “natural.” There is something about a skyscraper that is profoundly unnatural, with its ferro-concrete frame and huge glass facades. The anthills and honeycombs of Levi’s example pale in comparison to these designed artifacts, being as they are the creations of the unconscious social instincts of ants and bees.

MICHAEL: That’s all well and, for the most part, historically accurate, but in the last instance not at all a defensible position in light of contemporary science. Nor does the promotion of such a binary follow from a thorough-going investigation of our being-in-the-world. There is no-thing in existence which is un-natural. Everything is composed of the known cosmological elements and forces. The ‘wilderness’ of being is an immanent matrix which generates the full range of potencies we call reality. Anthills, beaver dams, bird songs, chimpanzee tools are expressions of material assemblages and intensive properties no less than primate sweat lodges, kula rings, international banking systems, pornography and skyscrapers. Ants do “design” hills, beavers do “design” dams, birds do “design” songs, etc. Bower-bird culture, for example, is just as expressive, interpersonal and natural as any human culture. The full litany of existing flows, objects and assemblages in existence are ‘Natural’ occurrences. The differences between humans and non-humans are the result of differences in composite substantiality - the relational organization of their extensive and intensive properties.

That said, we can also step back and appreciate the truth of your statements. Humans have fundamentally changed the ecological composition of the planet. And we have indeed alienated ourselves in disastrous ways. But we have not alienated ourselves from “Nature” in any ontological sense. What we have done, however, is organized our realities in ways that not only disrupt the functionality inherent in non-human ecological systems (as if that wasn’t dangerous and insane enough), but also distance us mentally and aesthetically from being able to sense and experience those systems in an adaptive manner. Alienation is a problem of intimation not metaphysical rupture. And it remains a problem whether or not we subscribe to any particular proto-modernist, romantic, theistic, or normative variations of the subject/object, culture/nature binary.

And to continue to perpetuate such binaries is to reproduce and reinforce the kind of alienated modes of being, consciousness and, yes, ontologies we seek to overcome. It is the kinds of ideations which posit a split between “nature” and “culture” that facilitate both our maladaptive domination (“sovereignty”) of ecosystems and our maddening fantasies of separation.

ROSS: I agree that the world is composed of a variety of distributed forces, entities, networks, energies, and existential spontaneity. There are, of course, regularities and rhythms to this distributions that can be understood, whether as the “natural laws” of physics or as biospheric tendencies. Within this sublime order of calm predictability, there are of course also countervailing forces that are extremely chaotic, disruptive, and destructive, abiding by their own sets of laws, which can radically reshape the distribution of natural entities. It is not, of course, this fragile equilibrium hanging delicately in the balance. If that were the case, species extinction and environmental transformations would be impossible.

MICHAEL: Agreed Ross. The cosmos is a dark and relentless (and ‘wild’?) place with chaos and order swirling inside us and around every galactic fold. Adapting to both the “regularity” and the “spontaneity” of the affective forces of reality is the core imperative of sentient beings.

ROSS: [H]uman society has displayed an increasingly marked ability to affect the total environment of the Earth. While every biological organism seeks to exploit its environment in order to survive and perpetuate itself, humanity is able to do so on an unparalleled level.

MICHAEL: Yes, we certainly are talented primates. We’re especially good at hording and killing.

ROSS: Particularly following the advent of capitalism, the rate of revolutionary technological innovations has accelerated at an astonishing pace. Our ability to extract natural resources, whether from the bottom of the ocean or buried beneath layers of Siberian permafrost, is astounding. We can shear off the sides of mountains with dynamite, drill tunnels and subterranean underpasses, redirect the course of rivers, and create artificial lakes. And while this happens in a hyperexploitative, individual, and anarchistic fashion under capitalism, such monumental forces of production and environmental transformation could be directed to literally reshape the globe according to human need and taste. Humanity would have to attain a more complete mastery over its own form of social organization, such that it could self-consciously exert its energies in the most sustainable, and yet efficient, ways. I dare say that we could even enhance nature, not only for our own sake, but for nature’s sake as well.

MICHAEL: Without wanting to be interpreted as being a complete jerk-off, let me say that I find your assessment of humanity’s “progress” sad. In an age where over 50 industrial toxins can be detected in the breast milk of every new mother in North America, where much of the world’s fresh water sources are being either depleted or irreparably polluted, where childhood obesity is on average 300% more prevalent, where global warming is rapidly accelerating beyond any kind of control, etc., etc., I find it hard to believe anyone as smart as you can still support the under-critical Marxist article of faith in (post)modern technology. The myth of unrelenting progress is alive and well with you then?

Sure, we could direct all our technological innovations towards building more just and efficient subsistence systems, systems where societies are organized to maximize the allocation of resources and social solidarity, but not without first brutalizing the historically evolved and entrenched life-ways of so many people all over the planet. What you are implying is a total reorganization of human life around a technocratic machination of existing ecologies and territories based on a culturally specific instrumental rationality. This sort of undertaking would forcibly penetrate all aspects of other people’s mental and material lives, presumably without their consent. I couldn’t possibly think of a more monstrous, degrading and life-destroying endeavor.

Again, humans are only one kind of entity within a vast parliament of things, flows and forces. We would do well to set aside our violent interrogations and understand deeper the wilderness of being with all its beings and learn to adapt to it in more mutually supportive ways. Notions such as “mastery” and “enhancement” are the buzzwords and keystones of mentalities that seek to dominate, control and impose not liberate, reconcile and co-create.

ROSS: I agree that Heidegger’s thought has many facets and that one cannot uniformly label them all as fascist. I believe that much of his romantic emphasis on the “poetry” of being, “pathways” through the forest searching for “the clearing” in which beings unconceal themselves, these concepts have dangerously völkisch undertones. The simplicity of wisdom, Heidegger’s anti-intellectualism, setting itself apart from the “idle talk” of the “they” (those alien, overly-verbose Jewish cosmopolitan types), all this is extremely problematic. The problem is that many of his successors, even if they espoused different political ideologies, carried over these mute fascisms from Heidegger’s unique spin on phenomenological thought.

MICHAEL: To some extent I can see your point Ross, but, again, Heidegger’s thought can be worked several different ways, and not all of them are fascistic. I think you only read him through the Nazi lens, whereas I choose to read him through the ecological lens. There is nothing inherent in talking about ‘the clearing’ and ‘pathways’ that makes it dangerous. It is all a matter of how you deploy such thought and, more importantly, for what ends.

I’m not going to defend Heidegger the person Ross. He is indefensible. I only disagree with you about what his thinking can possibly do.

ROSS: The concept of a “wilderness” in which all beings are entangled, bound up, and which through struggle manifest themselves, this bears too much similarity to the kinds of speeches he delivered to young Nazi volunteers during his (brief) career as the rector of Freiburg.

MICHAEL: I sympathize with why you would rail against this then. But let us not give in to the Nazis. Let us not allow those monsters of history and flesh foreclose thought and the possibility of meaning because we are disgusted or afraid. Let us reclaim and eradicate their power over us. Let us chose exactitude in the face of the Real instead: because if being is fundamentally ecological, and ontology is simply an abstracted formalism of empirical investigations of ontic reality, then the notion of ‘the wilderness of being’ is entirely appropriate to the practical task of exploring, adapting and getting along in a world such as ours. The cosmos is quite literally a wild matrix of forces, flows, beings, possibility-spaces and becomings. And understanding just how this is so is indispensable.


Walter Kaufmann - Nietzsche and the Crisis in Philosophy

Walter Kaufmann spent 33 years teaching philosophy at Princeton. More than anyone else, Kaufmann introduced Nietzsche’s philosophy to the English-speaking world and made it possible to take Nietzsche seriously as a thinker – something there wasn’t always room to do in American intellectual circles up until that time.

Kaufmann saw Nietzsche as an early existentialist, whose writings broke with convention and attempted to interrogate what it meant to be a free thinker in an age of conformity and stagnation.

Below is an audio recording of Kaufmann lecturing on those strains of thinking in Nietzsche’s work that were the most focused on existential topics. The lecture was delivered and recorded in 1960:

Integral Ecology Reading Group - Week 1

“We define ecology as the mixed methods study of the subjective and objective aspects of organisms in relationship to their intersubjective and interobjective environments at all levels of depth and complexity” (2009:11).
For those of you interested and/or following along, Adam Robbert has posted an excellent opening summary with comments (here) on the Introduction and Chapter One (“Whose Ecology Is It?”) of Michael Zimmerman and Sean Esbjorn-Hargens’ 2009 book Integral Ecology: Uniting Multiple Perspectives on the Natural World.

Adam’s summary is succinct and he highlights the overall aims of the authors quite nicely. Simply put, Zimmerman and Esbjorn-Hargens seek nothing less than to integrate the core insights from all the major branches of the ecological sciences using a meta-framework developed over the last 35 years by American theorist Ken Wilber. Such integration, the authors believe, would be comprehensive enough to include the  wide range of perspectives and methods currently deployed which investigate the natural world.

The main thrust of Chapter One, however, is to argue that ‘interiority’ (or, more specifically, first-person and second-person perspectives) has been excluded from ecological thinking for quite some time. The authors’ suggest that in order for ecology to become as comprehensive as possible and mature as a research project it will have to take into consideration all dimensions of living ecologies, including the irreducible features of "interiors", perspectives and consciousness.

One of the most rewarding parts of reading Chapter One was going through the author’s arguments for ‘perspectives all the way down’. As Adam was right to explain, the authors’ are not simply arguing for a standard panpsychic view - which usually suggests that a particular type of interiority, say ‘consciousness’, is a basic feature of reality at all scales – but, rather, that all objects, or entities, or complexes have an intrinsic interiority based on their own constitution and appropriate to their capacities and functioning. I tend to be very suspicious of theories that entertain a strong perspectival focus, but the inherent perspectivism at the heart of the author’s framework is more nuanced and qualified than I had anticipated. The broad manner in which the authors’ frame their view of interiority leaves room for a far richer interpretation than the traditional subject-object schema. 

Here is a particularly striking passage with implications I would like to explore further as this reading group moves along:
“Although interiority – the capacity for opening a perspective or clearing – is not an exclusive human capacity, humans are endowed with a distinctively rich, linguistically articulated mode of interiority. Humans can even become aware that they are aware, thereby enabling them to deliberately alter how they think and act, and to question their origin, constitution, and purpose. This is a special evolutionary advancement” (2009:41)
I won’t comment on this now, but expect that i will be coming back to this passage and topic to discuss in more detail by Chapter Three.

For now here is Adam weighing in on the topic and asking strong questions with regards to how we are to understand ecology from an integrationist perspective:
Interiority is perhaps the most central and unique contribution integral ecology is making to the larger field of ecological theory. Recent studies in cognitive ethology suggest that there is a great deal of scientific reasoning for attributing interiority to all animals, as the forward by Marc Bekoff can attest to. The larger question is then an ontological one: what does it mean for atoms to have interiors?

[…] Integral Ecology is positing both a multiple epistemological and ontological system, and yet, despite this nod to ontology, are we really talking about anything more than “multiple perspectives?” Second, if we accept that interiority is a fundamental feature of the cosmos, operating at different levels, how do we approach the relationship between internal and external dimensions of a given entity? The AQAL approach seems to imply a consistent, geometric symmetry between inner and outer, or individual and collective, in what sense is this accurately descriptive of the terrain it is trying to map? Third, integral theorists are generally critical of those who are themselves critical of hierarchical or developmental schemes. Without rejecting the hierarchical nature of many natural phenomena, how do we critically think the notion of “levels” in the AQAL model with specific regard to how these distinctions manifest in intercultural environments and other contested areas of dialogue, where difference is a significant feature of the encounter?
Go read the rest of Adam’s fantastic summary, as well as the excellent discussion taking place in the comments section, at Knowledge Ecology.

Another section I will be commenting on down the road is the authors’ discussion from page 23 to page 33 on the conception of ‘Nature’ among both Modernists and the Romantics. Tim Morton already commented on this topic on his weblog here and here. I will come back to these sections and Tim’s comments in my next post.  [also read Adrian Ivakhiv's comments on the Intro and Chapter One here]

Also interesting for me was the suggestion of prioritizing a willingness to enter into the cultural worldspaces of various stakeholders by those who seek to build solutions to today’s worse ecological problems. This is an important point, and one which I confront on a regular basis in my work. If we are to be successful solution-designers and collaborators it is essential to dialogically engage and attempt to understand the “interior” depths of those people participating and/or most affected by our designs and projects. Complex ecological issues are entangled with multiple perspectives, agendas, commitments and interests, and therefore require sensibilities and capacities that can assess and accommodate such diversity.

As a parting note, i must say i am finding Zimmerman and Esbjorn-Hargens’ presentation of the material so far very clear and concise. It’s obvious the authors’ are as intimately knowledgeable about the AQAL model as they are with ecological topics when they glide effortlessly from fine point to example.

I look forward to this week's reading on Chapter Two (“It's All About Perspectives: The AQAL Model”) as presented by Sam Mackey on Adam's site Knowledge Ecology. After that Adrian Ivakhiv takes the helm with Chapters 3 and 4 over at Immanence.  If you get a moment please let us know your thoughts, if you have  read the book or not. More perspectives the better, remember...


George Carlin - We Are Part of Nature

Or, rather, there is no 'Nature' - everything is an outgrowth of the cosmic matrix.

In an epic time of extreme weather and global warming
we are all in this together. Know your world.


The Secret Life of Chaos

Below is the outstanding 2010 BBC documentary called 'The Secret Life of Chaos'. The film traces the history and major discoveries of what has become known as chaos theory. I found it informative, incredibly interesting and amazingly accessible.

Here is the official description from the BBC:
Chaos theory has a bad name, conjuring up images of unpredictable weather, economic crashes and science gone wrong. But there is a fascinating and hidden side to Chaos, one that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

In this documentary, Professor Jim Al-Khalili sets out to uncover one of the great mysteries of science - how does a universe that starts off as dust end up with intelligent life? How does order emerge from disorder?

It's a mindbending, counterintuitive and for many people a deeply troubling idea. But Professor Al-Khalili reveals the science behind much of beauty and structure in the natural world and discovers that far from it being magic or an act of God, it is in fact an intrinsic part of the laws of physics. Amazingly, it turns out that the mathematics of chaos can explain how and why the universe creates exquisite order and pattern.

And the best thing is that one doesn't need to be a scientist to understand it. The natural world is full of awe-inspiring examples of the way nature transforms simplicity into complexity. From trees to clouds to humans - after watching this film you'll never be able to look at the world in the same way again.


Wilderness Thinking, Ontology and Heidegger

In relation to Levi’s post on ‘wilderness’ (here) Ross Wolfe makes the following comments:
This is your typical anti-anthropocentric fare. Humans are just one sort of being amongst a multiplicity of beings, etc. Fairly predictable. But just how comprehensive is this “wilderness”? What exactly can it be said to “contain”? What constitutes its “parts”? [source]
Humans are just one sort of being among a multiplicity of beings Ross. In an ontological sense we are of this world in the same way moss or beetles are of this world. This doesn't mean we are devoid of special talents and significance. Only that our talents are generated and enacted within a complex but thoroughly natural matrix of extensive and intensive properties. We are amazing animals, no doubt about it. But just because we have developed frontal lobes, social techne and symbol manipulating capacities doesn't mean we are ontologically different.

The sort of ‘wilderness thinking’ I support is not simply based on metaphors but evokes and enacts the literal and empirical sense of the term. Our planet is a vast ecological niche with wild (untamable) processes and entities. And as we emerge from this generative matrix of material-energetic (ecological) potencies we find ourselves thrown into a dark and tangled reality. This sometimes obscure, sometimes illuminated field of possibilities is literally a wilderness full of objects, flows, agencies, complexes and differential powers. And we are literally animals coping and adapting to these ‘forces’ through whatever means available. We are, as it were, necessary explorers in the wilderness of being. That is to say, being as such – as the totality of distributed beings and the possibility spaces between them - is fundamentally ecological.

For me, this is not an ontological-metaphysical (onto-theological) statement; it is an ontic statement subject to empirical investigation. For me, metaphysics is a purely speculative project secondary to the more pragmatic practice of investigating the actual conditions of human praxis. And so I think ‘wilderness thinking’ can bring us down to earth (and out from within the fog of our various transcendentalist and metaphysical fantasies) and compel us to stop merely interpreting and reifying the dynamic character of nature and start living it.

To be sure, the nature/culture binary is illusory – a heuristic couplet that obscures the cosmological character of things. It is part of a pre-modernist schema predicated on the solipsistic fantasies of a species that believed itself to be the offspring of Gods, and then later reconfigured by proto-modernists as part of self-validating ‘humanism’.

What could possibly be outside of nature? Can we identity one tangible aspect of human life that is entirely or purely cultural? I strongly doubt it. Every-thing, every experience, every utterance, every symbol is composed of the same cosmological properties which occasion reality. Thus, all consequential and therefore meaningful action takes place on the same plane of immanence.

And so if I choose to operationalize the notion of wilderness in order to frame my ontographic endeavors I do so because for pragmatic and poetic reasons (listed above).

Like Dante stopping at the cusp of a dark forest, I seek to orient myself to the reality in which I find myself as a means of engaging the all too human tasks I have chosen.

In the same post Ross then comments on my associating wilderness ontology with Heidegger’s early work:
The idea of a “wilderness-ontology,” Heidegger’s pathways leading from his hut up in the Black Forest out into thick of the woods, from which he could always search for “the clearing” in which beings disclose themselves — all these metaphors can be very easily traced to Nazi ecological thought. Knowing fully well the dangers of such accusations, I say this with complete seriousness. The Germanic naturalist fetishization of nature, the Nazi concept of the perpetual forest Dauerwald as the sort of Ursprung of the Teutonic spirit, this is the source for Heidegger’s early “fundamental ontology.”
Heidegger was indeed a Nazi. And his philosophy, arguably, does have affinities with fascist modes of thinking. But these facts do not define the totality of his thought and conceptual achievements. As discerning thinkers we can take what is of value in Heidegger and discard the rest. It’s never an all or nothing affair.

Were Sartre and Merleau-Ponty fascists? No. They were communists. But they were also heavily influenced by Heidegger. Same goes with Derrida, Dreyfus, and countless others: influenced by Heidegger without being nazis. And Heidegger is a major influence on my thought but I’m not a fascist, or at least I don’t think I am. (Alternatively, were Emerson or Thoreau fascists? Nope. But they were quintessential wilderness thinkers.)

The link between fascist thought and ecological thought is not causal but incidental. It is just as easy to suggest socialist affinities in nature viz. ants and other social animals. Truly realist ecological thinking flows from the confluence of embodied experience and the methods, conceptual resources and insights of particular sciences and humanities – if it is ever generated at all.


The Wilderness of Being?

One pattern that continually astonishes me is how much we are often unconsciously drawn to people and ideas that seem to confirm to us what we had been thinking and feeling all along. Jung talked about a synchronicity at work when seemingly disparate insights and activities come together. I’m too much of a skeptic to entertain the notion of the presence of unverified cosmic laws, but it does make me wonder how certain things seem to arrive at the same place and at particular moments.

The impetus behind these thoughts is the latest burst of insight from Levi Bryant: the notion of wilderness ontology.

Here are a few extracts from the original post:
Wilderness ontology or thought would consist of a radical posthumanism wherein philosophy no longer begins from the standpoint of anthropocentrism, humanism, or the subject-object, nature-culture couplet…

As an ontological concept, “wilderness” should not be taken to signify the opposition between civilization and nature, but rather two distinct ontological orientations: the vertical ontologies of humanist, correlationist thought where being is a correlate of thought versus posthumanist orientations of thought advocated by flat ontologies or immanence. In a “wilderness ontology”, humans are not sovereigns of being, but are among beings with no particularly privileged place…

[W]ilderness ontology should not be conceived as the absence of humans, but rather in terms of a flat plane of being where humans are among beings without enjoying any unilateral, overdetermining role. Just as the fur trappers of the early European Americas brought culture and civilization along with them while dwelling in an alien nature (what Morton-Badiou would call a nature populated by “intensely appearing” strange strangers) humans dwell in the wilderness without the wilderness being reduced to a correlate of thought or a vehicle for human intentions, meanings, signifiers, concepts, norms, etc. Civilization is a part of the wilderness. Culture is a part of the wilderness. Nature is a part of the wilderness. The subject is a part of the wilderness. The difference is that there is, in a wilderness ontology, no categorical distinction between the natural and the cultural, the human and the natural…
There is so much more so go read Bryant’s post in its entirety: here.

Besides the many interesting points Levi raises, what really knocked me for a loop was the fact that Levi arrived at the exact same set of conceptual resources I have been working on in private for years: the idea of the wilderness of being. I have only ever posted on this notion once (here), but failed to develop it in any way as powerfully and coherent as Levi now has.

I cannot emphasize enough how important this conception is in my theoretical repertoire. That Levi has now articulated what I was never willing to, and in a manner I am probably incapable of doing, is both alarming and liberating. It is alarming in that some of my deepest concerns have been generated from a subjectivity not my own; and it is liberating in through the confirmation that comes from knowing there are brighter souls out there coming to near identical conclusions. Perhaps I may not be as fundamentally delusional as I tend to assume. 

Below is extracted from statements I made in August of 2010:
What this latest trip really brought home, however, in just how much a need to think through and develop my central theoretical project: the pragmatic implications of an ontographic approach to the wilderness of being. As entities 'thrown' into the world we must find and make our way in a world full of wild, uncanny and strange beings and environments. We are confronted on all sides by forces, objects, flows and contexts which exceed our control, overflow our understandings and often try to destroy, devour or entangle us. Yet, there is also an abundance to Being that affords us the conditions from which we can build our lives. The rich flora and fauna of Being is simultaneously our mother, our matrix, and our calling. And everything hinges on how we explore this vast and intimate wilderness and what we can enact within it.

This manner of framing is at the core of everything I say, write and do. And I hope to develop my thoughts further whenever possible.
I can’t help but directly relate much of this to Heidegger’s early attempts at tracing out a “fundamental ontology”. In this context, “wilderness” is a particularity apt term for thinking the spaciousness, ‘wildness’ (precariousness, chaos) and only partially knowable nature of existence.

The Heideggerian nuance here is that ‘Being’ does not signify some all-encompassing absolute but, rather, it is a term deployed to prompt us to reconsider the fundamental nature of the very background conditions which allow beings (actual entities) to exist and be disclosed in the first instance. And, for me, the process and practicality of reconsidering the raw vicissitudes of reality is decidedly cosmo-political. Without a developed ontographic imagination how are we going to be capable of engaging and exploring - and therefore intervening or adapting to - the realities of power, agency and change?

For me the notion of “the wilderness of being” evokes an deep ecological and anarchic sensibility at the core of material and existential life. Investigating the world through wild-thinking is essential for a pragmatic reconfiguration of everything hitherto assumed by our decadent and dying civil society.

Concepts Are Tools

Here is Bryant regarding the supposed transcendental structure of rationality or Truth:
“Concepts are not representations, nor are they ideas in minds. Rather, they are lenses and tools. They are apparatuses, every bit as tangible and real as hammers. It makes as much sense to ask “is this concept true?” as it does to ask “is a hammer true?” Drawing a concept from Ryle, this question constitutes a category mistake. And it is a category mistake that constitutes some of the most tiresome and fascistically terrifying attitudes in all of philosophy. Everywhere with this question of whether a concept is true, whether it represents the world, we encounter the desire to police, dominate, subordinate, and render subservient. Like Kafka’s Court or Castle, these philosophical technologies everywhere seek to trap, ensnare, halt, and limit. They create the illusion of free movement and autonomy, while everywhere weaving a semantic web about engagement seeking to fix it. The question “is it true?” is the insecure and narcissistic fantasy of academic philosophy wishing to redeem itself by functioning as master discipline, legislator, and judge of all other disciplines, practices, and experiences. The artist, physicist, ethnographer, and activist get along just fine without this type of “philosopher” to examine their papers. The proper questions when encountering a hammer is not “is it true?”, but rather “what does it do?”, “what can I do with it?”, “is it put together well for these tasks?”, and so on.” [source]
I pretty much agree with this statement in its entirety.

UPDATE / Graham Harman weighs in:
"Nothing is more boring to me than epistemological police work. There’s a reason why this sort of thing is never read outside narrow insider technical cadres.

Stated differently, it is nothing to be proud of when a philosophy is read only by professional philosophers. The pride some take in this outcome is based on a false analogy with the exact natural sciences, where it can possibly be a good sign if only 5 or 6 people in the world read your articles. In philosophy, by contrast, it’s probably the sign that you’re a pompous and over-professionalized bore who doesn’t realize that everyone at the table is bored and no longer listening."
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