The Universe of Repulsion

 

ravenstealssunboddhisatva

My own depiction of Pacific Northwest Raven as a Tibetan wrathful Bodhisattva, or perhaps anti-Bodhisattva. 

Concurrent with my 3 years of delving into speculative realist philosophy has been a simultaneous exploration of the historical intellectual thought in Buddhist and Hindu traditions. I remain as much a materialist and atheist as I have ever been, but find the intellectual journey of these religions far more interesting than that of the Abrahamic faiths I have been surrounded by for most of my life. In some ways I believe they can show glimpses of what intellectual life would be like in the western half of Eurasia (and its descended colonies) were it not for the rise of Christianity. Particularly in Japan, Mongolia, and China, where foreign religions largely integrated with pre-existing polytheism rather than simply replacing or expunging them. The only places in the west where such syncretism occurred is in Afro-Caribbean influenced places, some Native American modern beliefs, and New Orleans voodoo-and those of course are heavily dominated by surrounding Christian cultures.

Hinduism had outright atheistic and materialistic schools of thought, and Buddhism denies the immutable soul and upholds philosophical inquiry as dialectic exchange. Certain concepts, such as ‘Indra’s Web’ (shared by both), a concept of the universe as a web containing droplets where each droplet reflects the others ad infinitum, have a remarkable level of confluence with Whitehead’s process theory or to be much more contemporary Bryant’s ‘democracy of objects’- with the notable exception that the philosophical trends are expressed materialistic, and the religious concepts usually are the opposite. Still, much of this way of thinking effectively did not exist in the west from late antiquity until Shopenhauer and its interesting to follow its trends as thought in parts of the world where it was in effect never interrupted.

This bring me to my main point here with the post, and its a problem I have with both process theory and other adjacent to the new speculative turn schools of thought as well as those eastern religions. The problem is quite simple: sure the universe is all interconnected, but this certainly does not mean that it is all *one*.

One of the reasons I have always been partial to hard polytheistic cosmologies as cultural complex is because while there is the acknowledgement that the pantheon of (I would hold, symbolic) figures all takes place in the same world, they are fundamentally different and sometimes at odds. While many philosophical trends, secular and eastern, are superior to the brute certitude and absolutism of Abrahamism, they still can’t quite bring themselves to see the power of chaos and repulsion. In fact, repulsion seems one of the few universal values that can be said to observably exist.

I generally find metaphysics that are not grounded in actual science or natural philosophy to be nothing but faffing about and New Agey nonsense, and fortunately my background in being an astronomy nerd is in fact much longer and more robust than that of philosophy. Dark Energy, so far considered the dominant force of our universe, immediately comes to mind. If the concept of negative mass can be proven it will contribute to this. The fact that gravity is universal and omnipresent, but also weak compared to the forces of energy (dark or otherwise) also makes a case of interconnections not being enough to overcome repulsion. But this is, first and foremost, a humanities blog and there the immediate effects of repulsion seem most obvious.

In international relations we find the natural desire for all states, no matter their official ideological inclination, to balance and counter-balance each other so as to maintain the maximum freedom of action in an anarchic inter-state world that is possible. In culture and politics we see competition leading to rivalry which leads to divergence, and unity only possible when a majority is willing to countenance the use of force to keep such unity alive. Societal bonds break down both for oppression from an increasingly alien ruling class as well as in times of immense complacency and opulence. New mergers are often only possible when two groups fear a third group more, in which case unity itself is the product of an even higher level of repulsion. Foreign attack or invasion is the best way to create unity, because the level of general repulsion is often held to be greater than that which occurs naturally within a society when not under existential threat. When things are left to their natural anarchic state, repulsion is the norm. It is unity that is the artificial construct and temporary state, beneficial as it can often be. But repulsion seems to be the baseline all is working from on the macro-scale. As the Arab proverb goes (paraphrasing here): ‘My country against other countries, my region against my country, my town or city against my region, my family against my town, me against my family.’ What we see here is that unity is only truly reliable when a greater force of repulsion is present. Even those insufferable kinds of people filled universal love show this by the scorn they heap upon those that deny their vision and the hierarchies of condescension they create from those who follow the doctrine they espouse down to ‘the unenlightened’ who do not.

Some schools of thought in speculative realism, especially Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology, adopt a view more closely to what I am getting to with repulsion. Despite being more on the process theory side of things (as, I think increasingly, am I), Bryant talks about such issues as well. These thinkers speak not only of withdrawn objects and and the core of objects being inaccessible, but also of the real material basis for divergence between objects in thought. As stated before, I myself am not into the metaphysical side of things enough to bother as much with this aspect, but I do think that one can acknowledge that everything is interconnected through processes while still rejected the idea that ‘all is all one’-unless that one thing is base struggle. Interconnections need not mean monism or uniformity. In fact, rivalry and division are also a form of being connected to things. A kind of connection through repulsion-which is still a type of relationship of course but one of many rather than of one.

All of this is to quibble with semantics of course. But I feel for those of us who study the competition of societies vis-a-vis each other, or the unpredictability of change in any form, it is a useful rhetorical tool to have. It also has the positive value of being able to repel hippies and anti-intellectual ‘its like, all one mannnnn’ type people who deny the very real existence of power struggle and the importance of divergences in thought while still engaging with some concepts common in discourse that are not themselves wrapped up in Platonic forms or absolutism.

Or in other more flippant words, maybe interconnections through repulsion is the true, ahem, ‘middle path.’

In Praise of Objectification

riaze bronzes

The Riace Bronzes, pictured above, were originally made around 450 BCE. Found in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy in the 1970s, they are a fantastic example of Greek sculptural talent that has survived in excellent condition.

If you look at them superficially they seem the pinnacle of lifelike form. Artistic realism from a time when it was rare in much of the world. But they are in fact not quite this. A closer look reveals that they are in fact aesthetic exaggerations. The proportion of the limbs is incorrect, the spinal divot is greatly accentuated, the torso too long. If they weren’t beautiful they would be grotesques-a perverse distortion of the human form. And yet it is this accentuation itself that makes them so striking, not for being horrifying, but for being captivating. They are proof of the power of objectification.

We live in a contemporary culture that seeks to deny this power and the positive role that objectification can play. Moralists across the political and social spectrum which have inherited the puritanical drives of monotheism and puritanism seek an artistic world that reflects a reality where nothing can be perfect. Being a (political) realist, I agree that the world can never be perfect and should never be idealized in thought. But being a (speculative) realist I also maintain that there is no harm doing so in the visual arts or in the abstract. So long as we maintain the the difference between ideal and real not only do I not see harm, I see a valuable lesson for rumination by the materialist.

The first and most simple point is entirely subjective, so I will dispense with it quickly. Non-objectified art can be made with less talent and often just leads to edgy pure-interpretative postmodern navel gazing. It is boring and its time is rapidly drawing to a close. Various cultures have created great works of art by not just idealizing the physical forms of people, but animals, plants, mythological creatures, you name it. The Fushimi-Inari Shrine in Kyoto, one of my favorite man made places I have ever been to, objectifies (if using the definition of moralist scolds of left and right) foxes for symbolism. Much of what is great and striking in classical art does something similar for more human like figures. Modern art such as Osprey which merely seeks to recreate historic clothes and armor often does much the same. Propaganda does the same in more abstract form, particularly in the earlier part of the Twentieth Century.

But more substantially and less subjectively as a second point, to the philosophical realist objectification is good in any context because objectification is true. The concern with the moralists of left, right, and center is always the fear that humanity will be reduced to an object. They wish to avoid embracing this, but I would prefer embracing it directly. Humanity is a collection of objects which in turn creates its own cohesive object as the human in turn (See Graham Harman’s Object Oriented Ontology and Levi Bryant’s Onto-Cartology in turn, mentioned a few entries ago on this blog in greater detail). Humanity is more than the sum of its parts, sure, but only because the addition of multiple objects creates new ways for assemblages to interact in physical space and thus to create new and larger objects. Your liver is an object, but in meeting with your other object-organs it creates a greater object-assemblage, which is yourself. And yourself, it reasons to assume, is itself a smaller object as part of the assemblage of humanity itself as a species, and Earth itself as an object-planet. Therefore, from a materialist standpoint, you really are an object. And all objects, depending on their use to others, become objectified by living beings in some way.

The third point is that objectification reminds us not to be suckered into anthropocentrism. As humans we constantly objectify everything around us because our relationship with the rest of the world is much more honest than the one we have within our own species. In the era of the anthropocene it is more and more important that we disavow with this artificial separation between how we perceive ourselves and the rest of the natural world. To reduce someone to an ‘object’ is not really an insult, but rather an honest admission as to how we view most people who we do not have a personal acquaintance with. This also overlaps with contemporary culture’s obsession that physical beauty matters more than everything else. If one believes that acknowledging (ever-changing) beauty ideals exist and will always exist in some form, this is viewed as morally bad. But really it is an admission of reality. The actual ideals will change, of course, but not that such ideals in some form will exist. What this means, ironically, is that the woke-burqa alliance is actually stating that they believe, deep down inside, that physical beauty is the only meaningful form of praise.

I disagree. I think a person can be objectified for their body, or for their brain, or for some useful or impressive talent (which most likely involves the manipulation of objects in turn) because it is both consistent and correct to do so. Society does not exist to have numerous atomized individuals all pretending they are all perfect wholes separate from the rest-nor does it exist to pretend that egalitarianism must mean different traits are not exceptional. It exists so that different specializations can be harnessed for a variety of communal outputs. The real objective should not be to ‘make everyone comfortable and modest’ or ‘make everyone beautiful’, which would only make everyone bland and indistinguishable even in the entirely unlikely scenario that it would succeed (not to mention create an underground and illegal beauty and horror market to fill the need being denied) but rather to increase the amount of things we are going to objectify so that more people can be objectified in more fields…and thus elevated.

The cultures that first dove into philosophy were the same ones who made works like the Riace Bronzes. This is not a coincidence. When Christian fanaticism came to power many of these so called idols were smashed. Islam did much the same. Daesh did this just a few years ago in Syria during the occupation of Palmyra.

Maybe its time to bring the idols back.

 

The Hip Old Fogeys and the Fear of Realism

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Back when I was firmly ensconced inside academia it seemed apparent to me that there was a certain cadre of social science professors-as well as their acolyte grad students-who were still under the delusion that they lived in 1990, and that 1990 was the future. They were, of course, postmodernists. Now, I know I have delved multiple times before into why I find that ideology anti-intellectual and useless for anyone taking the (correct) position of materialism so I am not going to go back into that here. But what I wish to deal with more specifically is the last gasp critiques of this dying old guard that refuses to admit it is yesterday’s fad.

I was sent, jokingly, a link to this which galvanized my idea to write a reaction. I am not interested in picking on these three academics specifically however, but rather the general trend of certain (usually boomer, or if younger, hipster) academics and their closest students to insist that they are still the cutting edge and critical observation. If you take a look through the list of positions held by Theory Revolt on how history is taught at the university level you can see in their own worlds what they are all about. Largely, they are opposed to a stodgy fusty old man and High Tory kind of historical instruction that defers to authority and source material and insists on universal truth. They wish for more theory to counteract a bland spreadsheet of dates and facts with little interpretation. Well, I agree with that.

The problem is that the widespread teaching of this kind of history is long since banished to the margins of most academia (outside of DC in polisci and economics in general, of course.  I am sure I have ranted about this before). The other problem is that to replace it with ‘critical theory’ (a nebulous term that implies critical thought but functionally and largely just means relativizing everything into subjectivity and attaching the milquetoast label of ‘problematic’ to everything) would be to update history courses from 1960 into the far off future of 1990. Theory Revolt is proposing nothing new as a solution to a problem that ceased being a problem around the time I was born. To be honest, this ‘revolt’ cannot be against the academic establishment: because for the most part these critical theorists *are* the academic establishment in the humanities.

Furthermore, this is reflective of a class of scholars who would rather ‘queer’ specific niche aspects of history than, say, write a large and comprehensive history of alternate sexualities. But I happen to know of a big-picture book that has done more for the subject that a million woke lit crits and film reviews about how things are portrayed in fiction. And that brings us to the other problem these academics have inflicted on us: fiction is now held as just as reliable a form of knowledge as nonfiction. Now as any cursory perusal through this blog can show, I do not write fiction off as a tool of analysis and fun for atypical nonfiction and theoretical topics. But it is no panacea on its own. I cannot help but think that the postmodern infiltration of all of the recent humanities topics has contributed to the unfortunate trend of many (usually) mainstream liberals and neoliberals to have meltdowns when real life does not conform to a Hollywood/Harry Potter/West Wing fantasy narrative about history as a progressive teleology where people like them are the heroes.

One of the habits of these types in the field is to become incredibly niche in their interests so that they are the only expert in an entire university or even country. That way they can all pretend they cannot speak with any authority on their colleagues’ research and thus that no one can be professionally challenged. A mutual non-aggression pact. Though stultifying, this hardly effects the students. It does, however, discourage the learning of big picture issues and cross-disciplinary topics. As a History undergrad/ International Relations postgrad crossover working on a doctoral thesis that was both of those majors at once, I made it a mission of mine to encourage cross disciplinary study and events as part of a group I was in. We successfully brought together scholars from History, Literature, Politics, Psychology, Anthropology, and the like from around the world to meet each other and think of joint projects. This is work that helped cross-pollinate ideas and contacts. It is also something I never saw the people on the deep end of critical/postmodern theory ever do…unless, that is, that it was around a topic that would guarantee that everyone in attendance was also of a similar ideological background. We had no such scruples in our group, and lively discussions that resulted from this were much more enlightening.

One of the positive things that postmodernism gave us, before it went off the rails, was a greater emphasis on scrutinizing the purpose and ideology behind primary sources. They did not invent this, of course, but helped to popularize it. The thing is that good historians already did this, and now there are more historians of all calibers who do. But they do it across the board. Marxist historians, realist historians, geopolitical historians like myself. We all do it. The foundational work of the Post Cold War era was not Derrida or Butler, but Diamond. It was the re-entry of physical space that jump-started humanities disciplines left moribund and uninteresting to most people by decades playing in the ashes of a postmodern apocalypse.

Lest you fear I am only now updating the curriculum to 1998 or 2005, let me assure you Diamond was only the start. Speculative Realism is a school of philosophy that has been doing its thing since 2008 and through the present. While still primordial, the normally dry but practical naivete of analytic philosophy and sterile introspection of continental philosophy have been both left in the dust by thinkers like Meillassoux, Harman, Brassier, and others who have taken the critical thinking of the continental and paired it with a commitment to removing the anthropocentrism of that school of thought by returning to a real world that (obviously) exists outside of our feelings about it. In other words, social science creationism is out, philosophy’s reconciliation with real life begins anew. This is the actual cutting edge of philosophy and hopefully soon theory as well in today’s world, not the stodgy old fogeyism of the Me Generation. After all, we live in a world of obvious and undeniable environmental deterioration. As if the greater world around us was not enough to wake us up from decades of prosperity induced solipsism, everything that has happened since the Great Recession has really just reminded the world around us that politics (and therefore useful theory) must be rooted in the physical as the core of all things political is the struggle for the allocation and distribution of resources. Full stop. Only the physical can confront the physical. The challenges of the anthropocene will either consume us or be alleviated by new technology.  Anything else is in effect theology, and that is a waste of time for issues of import in the here and now.

By all means let’s have a theory revolt. But let it be against all types of fogeyisms, Tory or Woke. Realism is necessary and coming back, but it won’t be doing so uncritically. And a vital part of that is making a world where academics are uncomfortable and can be wrong. Because that is how we grow.

 

 

 

Geopolitics in a World of Interlocked Machines

mt roraima

Mt Roraima, the closest thing to a true natural border, serving as the meeting point of the borders of Brazil, Guyana, and Venezuela

In previous posts I have mentioned in brief my fascination with speculative realism and object oriented ontology. I was always planning on making a post drawing the connections between it and the geopolitics which are the centerpiece of my writing here, but kept putting that off. Of course, now that I have read Levi Bryant’s (blog here) excellent book on ‘Onto-Cartography: An Ontology of Machines and Media’ I am now jump-started into finally getting around to this task. This post will also partially count as a book review for said work.

Also, as an aside, damn University of Edinburgh, you folks publish a lot in both speculative realism *and* China-Central Asia studies. I can’t believe I never realized this connection until after I moved out of the city. All my fields represented in my favorite place I ever lived. Missed opportunities and all that.

I got my start in grand historical narratives with Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns Germs and Steel’, and I feel that its influence and verifiability in my experience kept me always on the side of anti-idealism and pro-realist interpretations-one of the few views I have never changed in my adult life. The anthropocentrism of so much of philosophy is both silly and divorced from the big picture and largely seemed to make most of philosophy-especially since the postmodern turn-utterly divorced from anything interesting or practical. It was only with my discovery of John Gray and then speculative realism as a whole that I finally found like minded people who wanted to insert some materialist and/or pseudo Taoism into these trends and thus rescue philosophy from its own self-imposed irrelevance.

From what can be inferred by the writings of many of these new wave of thinkers, the breaking point is the anthropocene itself. Human-caused environmental destruction ironically shows both how unintentionally powerful we are as a species as well as how utterly enslaved we are by the forces of nature even as we effect them. Climate change and the like are very real material things that cannot be ‘socially constructed’ away. This really forces the issue: western philosophy must get its head out of its own ass. The world is real no matter what you want to think about it. And postmodernism, Kantian idealism, and all the rest have done nothing but effectively make the same case for philosophy that climate change denialists and young Earth creationists do for the hard sciences. By relaying everything through human interpretation (correlationism), we elevated ourselves to the status of godlings in ideal but deluded street preachers in the real. Here is the world, we are part of it and it is part of us. We are not special or have some separate destiny through our unique access to consciousness. We are where we come from and what we are made of. In turn we effect the rest not because we are apart of the world but because we are very much an integrated (if increasingly overly powerful) part of the process.

Thinkers like Quentin Meillassoux, Graham Harman, Ray Brassier, Steven Shaviro, and others have done much work on bringing the usefulness in realism back to metaphysics and I encourage you to check out their work. But I must say, none of them quite have pieced together all the elements I wanted to see in one place like Levi Bryant has. More importantly, he does so in a way that makes it easier to do what I wanted to do–connect these forms of philosophy to geopolitics and history.

To put it extremely succinctly but perhaps unjustly as a summary: Onto-Cartography is Bryant’s mode of viewing the reality of objects (both physical and functional, so from plants to states or companies) as machines made of component parts, which in turn are machines made of component parts. All machines can be modified, made irrelevant, or increased in power by the addition or subtraction of various sub-components. These are all real de facto objects in space, whose interactions with each other and space itself as a medium are the sum total of reality. There may also be hidden objects-which is to say things that exist but that we do not and might never know of due to our lack of ability to interact with them-or objects that me might infer the existence of but still cannot detect outside of the inference on objects we can see (such as dark matter and dark energy, or the ideology of an umfamiliar society which you cannot yet communicate with linguistically). The one connector between all of these machine-objects, whether seen or unseen or man made or organic, is nature itself. The only holism here is that all things are natural.

This is not to say that all things are monistic and equally intertwined (what I would call the hippie-spiritualist platitude of ‘we are all, like, one mannnnn’). Some machines only interact with some things and may be invisible to others. The internet interacts with me and you if you are reading this, but not a wild boar rummaging around in the bush. Nor are such bilateral relations equal. The machine-activity of plant life, evolving constantly and striving to extract energy from the sun is utterly dependent on the sun-but the sun is hardly dependent on those plants and would exist unchanged without them. So too does it follow that bi-laterals can be proportionally unequal when they do exist as a back-and-forth, with the Earth influencing the sun, but nowhere near as the sun influences the Earth. Our solar system in turn, while obviously influenced by the context of evolving in the Milky Way galaxy, would continue to exist if it was ejected from said galaxy until the death of the sun, and the Milky Way itself would be unaffected by its absence. Most relationships in physical space exist to some degree, as everything observable interacts with energy and gravity, but this is dead end. Functionally speaking, the relationship between machine-object assemblages that matter are context dependent and have to be broken down to strategic linkages of power and cause and effect. So too, with grand theories of the humanities, where being pro or anti-capitalist becomes an almost meaningless position from the perspective of actively seeking to create change through politics when instead one must use a targeted approach to attack or support policies through their interlinkages with direct results, geographic context, and the interplay of physical factors that social science theory may not account for. This brings us strongly into the need to re-engage with geography-long one of my main causes.

When you consider that agriculture first arose in parts of the world that had the easiest plants to domesticate, and animal husbandry arose where the easiest and most useful animals to domesticate still lived or evolved, it becomes a legitimate question: Who domesticated who? Are we not now as beholden to our wheat crops and herds as their spread and cultivation is beholden to us? Are we not one giant interlocked process of physical objects as machine processes whose relationships can change or be re-evaluated by the constant evolution, revolution, and modification of these relationships through nature-often unintentionally? I would lean in the direction of a strong yes. The factors cited above which are also those which most directly the anthropology and history at the center of the humanities are directly tied to this geographic understanding. Against this background there is also the understanding that Bryant, much like Ibn Khaldun, constantly reminds us of: entropy. Machines break down with time. Geography itself, long treated by pop-geostrategists as eternal, is in fact temporal-if not as much as human societies themselves (Bryant 120, 174). To function in such a world machines need to either repair themselves or be re-invented, so is the overlap of seeing states (or tribes or gangs or whatever) as machines interlocked with the fate of their physical and contextual environment. To quote Bryant directly from page 191: ‘The social is not a specific sort of stuff, but is another word for the ‘ecological’. A social assemblage is an ecology.’ So zoologists have treated the interactions of their various species but anthropologists often have difficulty meeting this standards when looking at people.

So too does Bryant’s concept of hidden objects matter for international relations. Something that effects nothing until it does is a surprise, and often disproportionately makes history precisely because no one was prepared for it. Daesh, or ISIS, was something that lurked from the De-Bathification and marginalization of Sunnis in occupation Iraq but did not come to have proper international sway as a new and utterly bizarre entity until the circumstances of conflict in the Post Arab-Spring world enabled it to move from an ideology of rejected and angry sunnis to one which held a territorial base and influenced a web of international alliances. It was an object that barely mattered, dark to most of the world, until it achieved the mass necessary to exert a much larger gravitational force on other actors, so to speak. One could also see this process on a much larger scale in the meteoric rise of previously nonexistent powers in a short period of time, From Macedon under Philip II and then Alexander to Mongolia under Chinggis Khaan. As Ibn Khaldun was fond of postulating, the next new vigorous dynastic founders are often the most marginalized and sometimes even irrelevant people in a given order. See also the French and Russian revolutions where ideas of disaffection merely simmered until the situation made it that they could co-opt entire societies once they had momentum and a territorial base. The territorial base is key, as it means direct resource acquisition and interaction, something discussions in a salon never could achieve on their own. Tellingly, those that think salon discussion alone can bring about change (these days, mainstream liberals and conservatives) are those who already identity with the ruling class and therefore whose priorities are already de facto supported by the arms, power, and consensus of the pre-existing state.

Geography both constrains and enables what those who rule a certain place can do. It also means, in my opinion, that even if all nations can (and should) come together on environmental points that clearly would benefit everyone that they will never be able to share other common causes. Nations dependent on rare Earth exporting are going to be different that nations dependent on tourism, just as a highly urbanized region is not going to see eye to eye with a mostly rural area and neither will agree with a wilderness frontier. As geography and culture are very interlinked in an explicitly materialist way, and Earth is replete with societies of different geographies, the political idea of a common humanity vanishes even as we acknowledge we need to downgrade humanity’s overall importance in the grand scheme of things. Resource security with different powers and maintaining the right diplomacy is a way of maximizing differences for mutual gain, rather than some quixotic quest for a world order of moralism. The only thing universal is the natural and material mediums through which all such interactions take place-and even those change with climate, altitude, arability, power relationships between assemblages, and the like.

Bryant offers those of us who are old school realists and geostrategy watchers to engage with contemporary philosophy and both put into place language outside of general policy-wonkery. Considering how many absolute quacks infest geopolitics this goes in a positive direction to establish a much maligned field as more legitimate philosophy in the materialist tradition. Seeing states as the entropy-affected machines that rise and fall in reaction to the various people in that interact with their physical places as well as the pressures of the natural world and those of other people is a neutral and realist way to ground the study of alliances, war, strategy, and the historical contexts which feed into the self-justifications of states and the policy traps they often make for themselves. The relationship with nature by societies are always (at least) two ways, we affect nature and it effects us, because we like our technology and our animals, are as much a part of it as the wilderness. If we can chart the territories of wolf packs relatively objectively and always keeping the environmental context in mind, there is no reason we cannot do it with the formations of people as well. And any attempt to effect change within these societies must keep this context in mind. It also, perhaps most importantly for the realist school of IR thought, gives us the means to engage in contemporary materialism when talking about the power imbalances between strong and weak states as well as how they constantly adapt and evolve to try to find better balances of power for their interests.

 

 

 

 

 

The Unexceptional Hubris of Exceptionalism

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I recently got back from Alaska, which as you can tell from the picture above was quite nice. Naturally, while I was there I had to continue my now two years on reading quest into speculative materialism. One of the works I was reading was ‘Unthought: The Power of Cognitive Nonconcious‘. Though not strictly in the canon of that school of philosophy, the overlaps were palpable-especially when it came to combating the trend of human exceptionalism in western philosophy. Katherine Hayles dives into multiple fields, from biology to technology, to show how so much of what we do-by far the vast majority-is running on autopilot. That is, in effect, running on instinct. This has large and obvious questions for our definition of consciousness and its status in other animals as well as in increasingly complex automated systems we ourselves create. Good timing with that Blade Runner sequel, by the way.

Just a few days ago, PBS Nature had an excellent documentary on how red foxes are thriving like never before due to canny adaptations to human civilizations. Most people know rats, cockroaches, mice, and other animals benefit from our existence, but larger more independent animals like the fox are often overlooked. Perhaps even more remarkable is the story of the coywolf. In addition to being the name of a band I like, the Coywolf is also a remarkably successful wolf/coyote hybrid who, taking advantage of the coyote’s impressive success in the human era, has been migrating steadily eastwards and then southwards for the past few decades, becoming a new dominant land mammal predator throughout much of North America and fueled not in spite of, but by human civilization. One can hope a larger more aggressive hunting animal can also take advantage of too-numerous deer in the east and get them moving again, saving much of eastern flowering plant life and reducing overall lyme disease rates. Nature needs its predators, and as part of nature, so do we to even keep our systems running at peak performance.

What is nice to see is how so much of speculative materialism is clearly striving not only against bad European philosophical ideas but a common human hubris that most likely was engendered by the rise of monotheism itself, and certainly exacerbated by certain trends in modern and postmodern thinking alike in more recent times. We should, in some sense, be able to view our own species with the detached study of instinctual behavior we often only reserve for wild animals. Perhaps, one day, we will be doing the same thing with robots. Robots who will be programmed to behave as if they have a consciousness and thus cause us to question our own ideas about consciousness and what it really is. Many Speculative Materialists would answer, ‘the small self-aware tip above the water line of a very, very large ice berg of automated processes.’ And there is an excuse for another photo, even though its of a glacier and not an iceberg:

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So many of our presently debilitating blind spots, be it climate change, sustainable resource extraction, or loss of biodiversity come about by a human hubris that makes one question the utility of the level of self-awareness we have. It is becoming increasingly clear as hurricanes batter the shores, sea levels rise, and honey bees enter a critical terminal phase that our hubris must be scaled back to see our impact objectively. One of the more harrowing things I have seen is the boat pilot for the trip pictured above pointing to where the glacier *used to be* when they started running that route 17 years ago. It was a loss of over a mile.

This hubristic exceptionalism can be broken down into smaller more humanistic units as well. A country earnestly and honestly believing in its own special providence certainly strikes me as one of the more dangerous things that can happen on the world stage. Though revisionist powers seeking a re-orientation of the balance of power in their favor is hardly new, the utter calamity of German and Japanese exceptionalism in the Second World War, fueled by ideologies of nations with a unique and inherent destiny of supremacy, made the process a far more horrific affair then even the already terrible cost of conventional war alone necessitated. In the Cold War both major powers held themselves in high ideological regard, but as they competed for the ‘third world’ they had to make themselves accessible and attractive to do well. But with the fall of the U.S.S.R. checks and balances were removed, and the United States began to believe it had won the future and the world itself through virtue and being ‘on the right side of history’ alone. But since then American Exceptionalism has brought us over-extension, endless war, a rise in religious fanaticism, and a power so successful it has crossed the dangerous threshold into having its policy making elites actually believe its own propaganda. Much like humanity and man-made environmental crisis, this is to court disaster through hubris and complacency alone. When you think you are the solution, its hard to see how you might also be the problem. The outside perspective is needed, and that becomes almost impossible to achieve under hubris.

In Tlingit and Haida mythology the lines between humanity and the rest of nature was extremely blurred, with shamans that could transform into animals and animals that could masquerade as people. While not literally true, this kind of dethronement of self-centering certainly could have its uses.

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Speculative Materialism and International Relations

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Eagle transforming into Sisuitl mask (by Richard Hunt)

‘[You humans] are not as free as you think you are; your cleverness and pride bind you to the truth. Don’t you see what you are doing to us and yourselves?’ ~’The Animal’s Lawsuit Against Humanity’, 10th Century Iraqi Fable.

Over the course of the past year I have discovered and immersed myself in a relatively new philosophical school called variously ‘Speculative Materialism’, ‘Speculative Realism’, and ‘Object-Oriented Philosophy.’ While not an overtly political form of philosophy, being much more in the realm of metaphysics and the like, it nonetheless has political implications, as all schools of thoughts do when you look hard enough whether they mean to or not. Since international relations theory is a part of what is covered on this blog, I would like to make a brief case for how Speculative Materialism could impact the study of that subject in the future.

I will confess that I am somewhat new to this school of thought and have not yet read all of the works I mean to someday. I have, however, read the text that probably started it all: Quentin Meillasoux’s ‘After Finitude’ as well as Steven Shaviro’s ‘The Universe of Things’ and the essay collection by multiple authors of ‘The Non-Human Turn.’ This is not a field of my expertise by any means and I have more reading to do, with ‘The Fragility of Things’ at the top of the list. So as of yet I cannot speak with the confidence I could on say historical or geopolitical manners. That aside, having delved into this field on the side in the past year has me with a few observations.

First, what is speculative materialism? To put it in the simplest terms it is the simultaneous rejection of platonic idealism and postmodernism relativism. It should be obvious to regular readers of this blog that I already do both (and indeed, have for most of my adult life), but this is a framework for viewing material issues (as material issues are what matters) in a way that divorces them from simply being objects under human observation and interaction to independent (but non-idealized) objects in their own right. Rather than embrace Platonic desires of therefore setting these objects up as pristine and independent, speculative materialism focuses as much on the interrelations between said objects as just as important a part of their existence as themselves. But the key here is to de-anthropocentrize the relationship factor. A rock with a stream or a fox in the stream standing on the rock all create relationships in real physical space that have nothing to do with ideals or even feelings about them, and thus the relevance of human consciousnesses as a central force is called into question, or at least its uniqueness is. In a materialist world view (i.e. the only world view that is not entirely based on faith) the consciousness is affected by the objects if at all, but not so much vice-versa. Being trapped between the utopian idealism of the left or the golden age worshiping revanchism of the right has no place in this view, and the fatuousness of consciousness-worshiping postmodern identity politics has even less. What has long been a period of affluence based ideology for middle class people to feel educated and make a pretense at being impartial observers has been dated for a long time, but postmodernists still thought themselves as fashionable and forward thinking. They never were, but now there is a new kid on the block as a philosophical school to finally show the sportscar driving midlife crisis having ageing group of people that no, they are no longer even  young nor particular culturally relevant…so maybe its time they stop hovering outside of college campuses trying to pick up prospects. If I may quote once again from ‘The Animal’s Lawsuit Against Humanity’: ‘If this is how you humans glorify yourselves , then your ignorance speaks against you. And as for what you have argued-why, it is vanity, hot air, lies and fabrications!’

That is a very stripped down version of speculative materialism, but it will do for now. What I want to mention is how much ammunition this gives the anti-idealists among us to recognize the coming crisis of world affairs is going to be in large part ecological and thus the political affairs that will arise from such ecological issues will be decidedly material.  It also helps explain in more philosophical terms the issues I have with economic globalization. While no one would deny it brings benefits, I view it as an experiment running long past its usefulness as state actors are still the most powerful actors on the world stage and must make laws and policies to reflect the differences of where they are in space and time. Therefore, global economic projects (unless they become about ensuring the installation of more sustainable energy sources or joint national parks) more often impede the policies needed to be enacted by societies. Much necessary divisions of strategies to tackle issues (Florida and Iceland will experience global warming very differently, after all) reflect that the relationships we have with the material world are not equal but based in the physical and political geography of where we spend most of our time. This in turn dovetails into geopolitics which recognizes that the use of space is the key determining factor in diplomacy, conflict, and alliance building–and sometimes even capacity for development.

The relationships we have with the non-human world around us matters as much as that with the human. But this is not some absolutist hippie creed, anything but. We are a predatory species, and like other predatory species we do what we must to survive. But in this ruthless and inevitable struggle we can at least acknowledge the context of us as reactors as much (if not more so) than actors. Much as we view the rest of nature. And this will not be some simple exercise in hubris reduction, but a way to mold our political and social strategies to give the best return for less effort. Something about it all makes me suspect speculative materialism might just be a good corollary for defense realism as a foreign policy theory. Our species base material needs are the real driving both of domestic and international affairs, and attempts to pretend otherwise often lead to error if not outright ruin.

Since the trickster is the theme of this blog it might perhaps be best to sum up my feelings with a quote from Dan Flores’ excellent book study of the coyote ‘Coyote Nation’ which shows why I find the myths of polytheism so much more enlightening to how the world really is than that of monotheism. After all it is under aninism and shamanism that the inter-contentedness of humanity as part of the animal world is constantly reinforced:

‘But what, no moral code in these stories? No promise of eternal life, no salvation from death? Coyote stories offer up none of these things…It ought to be said that Coyote stories are not really for visionary dreamers who expect to change the world. Coyotism is a philosophy for the realists among us, those who can do a Cormac McCarthy-like appraisal of human motives but find a kind of chagrined humor in the act, who think of the human story as cyclical…Coyotism tells us that while we may long have misunderstood the motives of our behavior, we’ve also known how human nature expresses itself. And who better to illustrate that than self-centered, gluttonous, carnal Coyote?’