After Biopolitics: Society for Literature Science and the Arts, Houston 2015

November 12-15, 2015

Please see below conference description and call for papers.  This is a very intelligent, thought-provoking, and congenial event frequented by friends of INC and EC.

(SLSA is particularly interested in recruiting more scientists, artists, and philosophers at this time.  However, contributions from all disciplines are welcome.)

AFTER BIOPOLITICS
“Over the past thirty years, no paradigm has become more central to understanding our own moment than the paradigm of biopolitics—a fact that has left hardly any discipline untouched, resulting in new formations such as bioart, bioethics, biotechnology, biomedia, biocapital, bioinformatics, biovalue, and biocomputing, among many others. The reasons for this are not far to seek: the engineering, canalization, domestication, and commodification of “life” in the era of “synthetic biology,” at a level scarcely thinkable fifty years ago; rapid depletion of the earth’s resources in the context of global warming in what used to be called the “first world”; seemingly endless debates over the political and economic complexities of healthcare, social security, lengthening retirement ages and dwindling personal savings rates in the developed West; confrontations over abortion and immigration in the United States, in which the concepts of “life” and “race” are never far from view; the unequal global distribution of access to medical care and medical technologies at the very moment when pharmaceutical industries have never been more deeply woven into daily life in the developed West (or more profitable); and the post-9/11 context of the “war on terror” and ongoing anxieties about security and borders resulting in the normalization of spaces and practices of juridical “exception” such as Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, and electronic surveillance at a level heretofore unknown, all revolving around a logic whose biological underpinnings reach back to the very origins of the biopolitical in the concept of the “body politic.” Add to these an increasing awareness (in no small part under the pressure of global warming and the emergent paradigm of the “Anthropocene”) of the plight of non-human life (whether in discussions of animal rights, factory farming, and the bioengineering of non-human creatures, or in the increasingly undeniable fact of the sixth major extinction event in the history of the planet) and how deeply imbricated t is with the plight of the human and its technology, and you have ample grounds to understand why “life” (in the broadest sense) has become the central object of politics over the past few decades.

In the face of such developments, the conference theme, “After Biopolitics,” seeks to reexamine the theoretical, cultural, social, and political underpinnings of the biopolitical paradigm, and to explore conceptual resources (both within and outside of the biopolitical paradigm) for the possibility of thinking what has been called an “affirmative” biopolitics that views the intersection of “Life” and the political as a potential space of affinity, community, and creativity, rather than the “thanatopolitics” that has dominated the biopolitical paradigm thus far.”

CALL FOR PAPERS
POTENTIAL TOPICS

  • The concept of “Life”
  • Immunitary and autoimmunitary paradigms of biopolitics
  • Race, species, and biopolitics
  • States of exception: theoretical and historical dimensions
  • Bioengineering life
  • Biomedia and bioart
  • Biopolitics and the Anthropocene
  • The politics of medicalization and the Medical Humanities
  • The biopolitics of foodways
  • “Letting die”: the biopolitics of extinction
  • Biopolitics and the ecological paradigm
  • Biopolitics and genocide
  • “Making live”: biopolitics, health, and hygiene
  • Neoliberalism and biopolitics
  • The concept of sovereignty in biopolitical thought
  • Biopolitical histories of race, gender, and sexuality
  • Genetics, epigenetics, and biopolitics
  • “Flesh”: concepts of the body and embodiment in biopoltics
  • Imagining affirmative biopolitical futures
  • These and other topics related to the theme will be welcome. As always, the conference of the Society for Literature, Society, and the Arts is open to wide range of related topics drawn from a broad array of scholarly and creative disciplines and practices that are relevant to the mission of the organization.

SUBMISSIONS

For individual paper contributions, submit a 250-word abstract with title. Pre-organized panel submissions, which might include three or four papers per panel, should include an additional paragraph describing the rubric and proposed title of the panel. Roundtables, alternative format panels, and the like are encouraged.

Submit all proposals to http://litsciarts.org/slsa15/slsaproposal.php

Paper/Panel Proposal Due Date: April 1, 2015

Notification of Acceptance: June 1, 2015

Click here to download the full CFP

http://litsciarts.org/slsa15/call-for-papers/

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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I

biodiversity2

In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?

I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.

Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.

In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.[1]

MWBBC

Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.

Image Sources:

MarineBio http://marinebio.org/oceans/conservation/biodiversity/

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pg5dr

[1] Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.

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Filed under Affect and Ecology, Art, economicss, Environmental Ethics, Humanities and Ecology

Notes From the Banks of the Two Yamunas

By Randall Honold

I had the pleasure of spending the first two weeks of December in India, co-directing a study abroad trip with John Shanahan and Michele Morano of our Department of English. We took 13 undergraduates to Delhi and Mumbai, plus the obligatory day trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal.

It was John’s and Michele’s first visit to the country; my sixth and third with students. Our aim was to plunk students down into places undergoing rapid ecological (in the expansive sense) change and practice paying attention to what’s happening there. It wasn’t about “understanding” India as much as being among some of its dimensions and letting them press upon us. Every place has a fractal quality, inexhaustible with complexity and the ability to overwhelm, but megacities make this truth obvious. We were overstimulated almost every day and it’s an understatement to say we were tired when we got home!

While being bored in India would take some effort, I nevertheless do something brand new every time I’m there. Wangling reasonably compliant co-travelers adds to the adventure. So, given the environmental interests of many in our crew, we arranged to get an up-close look at the Yamuna River, which flows from the lower Himalayas, bisects Delhi, and comprises the main tributary of the Ganges. The Yamuna plays important roles in Indian mythology, literature, religion, history, and now in the political ecology of the region. Overwhelmed and underfunded, sewage processing facilities fail to keep up with the output of 20 million (give or take a Chicago) human bodies, resulting in the continual flow of untreated or insufficiently treated effluent into the river via ten sources. A small contribution to the pollution stems from human cremation. The Nigambodh Ghat, where Hindus have been ritually burning their dead for 3000 years, has gas-powered crematoria, but devout (and affluent) families prefer a sandalwood pyre, the remains of which are placed into the waters. We spent some time in solemn observation of the preparation of one pyre and politely declined the offer of a boatsman to take us on an excursion. Here the river has an inky blue sheen and a complex aroma with top notes of rot, ash, and shit. What parts of the shore that aren’t cemented over are muddy with a few scrubby plants along the barriers. The only nonhuman life in sight are scavenging gulls. The Yamuna, here, is by any definition, not a river. It has no oxygen. It supports no life.

DSC_4890

What a contrast we found only a few kilometers north, on the other side of the dam at Wazirabad! There the river was still just that – glistening and rippling and sustaining a robust marsh ecosystem. In our brief time at this spot we saw multiple species of shore birds, fishers in the distance evidently having some luck, and a family setting out a picnic spread.

yamuna north

Efforts to clean up the Yamuna are ongoing. The tales we heard of impediments to river conservation were familiar: not enough funding, politicians breaking promises, increasing shoreline development, volatile chemical dumping, and general public ignorance. While we didn’t head back to our lodgings at the end of the day overly optimistic about the future of the Yamuna, we nevertheless shared a kind of grim realism that the scale of work it will take to bring back and sustain the health of this focal place and so many more like it is necessary and possible. May the two Yamunas become one again.

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It’s the Indifferent Universe That Brings Us Together

by Rick Elmore

indifferent

There is a deep affinity between what is called Speculative Realism (SR) and pessimism, insofar as both of these philosophical approaches understand the universe as, on a fundamental level, indifferent to human existence. This affinity is most clearly marked in the work of Ray Brassier, for whom the realist commitment to a world independent of human thought leads necessarily to the nihilist conviction that the world is “indifferent to our existence and oblivious to the ‘values’ and ‘meanings’ which we would drape over it in order to make it more hospitable” (Brassier 2007, xi). From this perspective, realism undermines all that might make humans feel at home in the universe. This basic undermining of the human is, of course, an essential tenet of pessimism. As Eugene Thacker writes, echoing Brassier, pessimism “is the difficult thought of the world as absolutely unhuman, and indifferent to the hopes, desires, and struggles of human individuals and groups” (Thacker 2011, 17). From Schopenhauer to Ligotti, pessimism rests on the assertion that “while there may be some order to the self and the cosmos […] it is an order that is absolutely indifferent to our [human] existence” (Thacker 2011, 18). Hence, there is a basic sense in which realism and pessimism agree that, for humans, the universe is not all smiles and noodle salad. We may need the universe, but it certainly does not need us, and this non-reciprocal relation challenges the privilege we’ve so often accorded ourselves. This basic commitment to an indifferent universe is not, however, merely a tenet of pessimism or Brassier’s realist nihilism, but is an implicit assertion of all anti-correlationist realisms, I think.

There have been a number of posts on this site illustrating the way in which SR encompasses an array of philosophical realisms and materialisms (and it is a term that, for various reasons, I think we should move away from). However, what all these positions generally have in common is a resistance to what Quentin Meillassoux calls correlationism: the belief that the human-world correlate forms the central element of philosophical investigation (Bryant, Srnicek, Harman 2011, 3). For thinkers such as these (and here I am thinking of Graham Harman, Levi Bryant, Timothy Morton, Iain Hamilton Grant, Jane Bennett, but also, as Katerina Kolozova shows in her recent article, “Thinking the Political By Way of ‘Radical Concepts’,” Quentin Meillassoux and François Laruelle, among others) any serious realism rejects the assumed importance of human thought to the constitution of the universe. In their own way, each of these thinkers asserts an indifference of the universe to human existence, that is, they assert a basic pessimism. Now obviously there is much to argue for here, as one would need to show that “indifference” is the fundamental basis of pessimism, and that each of these thinkers, in their quite different philosophical systems, articulates a basic indifference. However, it seems right to me that there is a parallel between the realist assertion of a world independent of the human mind and the pessimist contention of a fundamentally indifferent universe, and that this parallel suggests that realism (understood as an anti-correlationism) necessarily entails a certain pessimism. I think this connection between pessimism and realism helps to clarify the growing interest among realists in the question of horror and the work of H.P. Lovecraft, in particular. However, it also suggests a connection between realism, pessimism, and environmental philosophy, insofar as the critique of anthropocentrism entails a significant displacement of the importance of the human as well.

The critique of anthropocentrism is a commonplace of environmental thought. From Aldo Leopold and Rachel Carson to Val Plumwood and Warwick Fox, there has been a recognition that the overprivileging of the human or of certain human capacities contributes to the instrumental, exploitative, and destructive relationship between modern culture and the natural world. From this perspective, it is difficult to imagine a serious environmental philosophy that would not question the place of the human. Yet despite this thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism, few environmental thinkers go as far as arguing that the universe is fundamentally indifferent to human existence. (I’m indebted to my friend and one of my favorite environmental philosophers, Keith Peterson for this insight. He’s good stuff, and you should all be reading his work). There are naturally exceptions to this rule, mostly in the tradition of deep ecology. For example, the Australian philosopher, William Grey articulates what he calls a “cosmic anthropocentrism,” the belief that “[t]he intellectual history of the past few centuries can be characterized as pedestal bashing: a succession of successful demolitions of comforting myths through which we have sought to locate ourselves in the world” (Grey 1993, 463). For Grey, modern scientific and social scientific thought develops through a continuous challenge to the place and importance of the human, from the Copernican undermining of the centrality of humans in the universe and the Darwinian displacement of humanity’s biological privilege to Freud’s contestation of the human as uniquely rational, Grey sees the intellectual history of the West, much like Brassier, as an unseating of the supposed importance of the human. It is this unseating that marks an affinity between realism, pessimism, and environmental thought. What I find interesting about this affinity is that it raises the question of whether a thoroughgoing critique of anthropocentrism requires that we accept the ontological and metaphysical claim that the universe is indifferent to human existence?   Put differently, is a certain pessimism requisite of environmental thought or requisite for any robust critique of anthropocentrism? And if it is, how might this connection suggest a realism in environmental thought that goes deeper than the dominant, scientific realism? (This is a question already at play in Tim Morton’s work). In short, I wonder how deep our critique of the human needs to go in environmental philosophy, and in what way realism and pessimism help us to think this critique? And, conversely, are realism and pessimism forms of environmental thinking, forms that could be assisted by a more explicit “ecological” focus?

Image Source: Biospheric Communionism <https://sites.google.com/site/biosphericcommu/&gt;

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Does Carbon + Humans x (Progress)10 = Suicide Narcissus?

1280px-John_William_Waterhouse_-_Echo_and_Narcissus_-_Google_Art_Project

by Jeff Tangel

(A version of this article was previously published on the author’s website The Tecumseh Project.)

There’s been a raft of news stories and reports about climate change lately, re-sounding alarms once silenced. Maybe the emerging cacophony will be enough to get us to cut carbon emissions and begin building rafts that will float us over the onrushing wave of consequences we’ve so long denied. I’m not optimistic.

My best argument for anthropogenic climate change has always been a simple observation: in what amounts to a geologic eye-blink in time, humans have reshuffled the nature-deck by transferring billions of tons of carbon from beneath the earth’s surface to the rest of the ecosphere. I would explain to naysayers that this switch-about is tantamount to tearing the carpet off your floor and putting it on the ceiling and claiming the room is no different—even that it looks great.  Or worse: that it’s supposed to be that way. Try making that work on popular remodeling show “Love It or List It.” Well, this usually gets people to think, but I’m unaware that such a cogent analogy has created any new climate activists.

It may be a problem of epistemology, compounded by a particular notion of progress, both held so dear by most of us in the so-called developed world. That is, our most fundamental understanding of the world revolves almost solely around ourselves, with that self-absorption informing all our actions. Thus, whatever we humans do well is generally considered a good—and in the main what we do is aim at “progress” through wealth creation and consumption. Even though most of that wealth goes to the very few, nearly all of us believe the progress paradigm is natural; for the most part we can’t imagine anything else. And Nature itself is little more than a resource for accumulating wealth, or providing a temporary recuperative respite from the exhausting pursuit of that progress.   Such myopic hubris is fraught with problems, as any parent of a teenager can tell you.

The story of Narcissus is an apt description of our collective behavior.[i] If this has put you off, please hold your fire. I don’t think most of us want to behave this way, and would behave quite differently if we could. Narcissism is a pejorative term because it violates our values.

I’ve recently re-read the Seattle Times article, Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn (Sep. 11, 2013) [ii], an investigation of the increasing acidification of the ocean (spoiler alert: it’s worse than we think). The article highlights the work of two scientists at James Cook University in Australia who conducted an experiment with those cute little clown fish you may have seen (darting here and there, in and out of reef flora) on any number of aquatic nature shows.  They’re naturally shy little critters, inclined to hide from predators, and this helps keep them alive.

In order to examine the effects of a more carbonized ocean, the researchers increased the amount of carbon in a tank and watched for any change in these darling little creatures’ behavior.  And boy did they find a big one.  These normally reclusive cuties became disoriented, and swam about insouciantly, right at predators. It’s as if they had smoked a joint in a foxhole and wandered onto a battlefield waving cheerfully, “Dude, what’s up?” (True story, from my neighbor, Vietnam, ca 1969:  stoned while on guard duty in a perimeter foxhole, and struck by the beauty of reconnaissance flares, he stood up to get a better look and got shot in the buttocks—Purple Heart and home).

So I thought: Might we all be in a tank with excess carbon—stoned as it were, on CO2?  We have been breathing the odorless and colorless gas for some time now—increasingly so, exponentially so, since the onset of the Industrial Revolution. How could we know?  As the saying goes, you can’t ask a fish about water. Maybe carbon anesthetizes us—or maybe it anesthetizes us and makes us want more carbon.  One way to look at “progress” is that ever since the Industrial Revolution we can’t seem to get enough of the stuff—we need and want more and more.  That’s what economic growth is. Hmmm . . . if we are marching headlong to a precipice, then maybe it’s because this carbon has gone to our heads.  It’s a positive feedback loop, just like the melting polar ice caps and thawing tundra!  Our consumption relies on carbon, either directly, or imbedded in products that we buy constantly and dispose of, constantly, to buy some more.  In a way we’re carbon junkies. And more: perhaps our progress paradigm is not a reasoned path with innate merit, but instead a form of disabling intoxication. Maybe we’re addicted to admiring ourselves in the mirror because we have become cognitively impaired.

In the same way we can’t ask a fish about water, we can’t ask Narcissus about his brother, sister, the fish in the pond, the birds in the trees and so on.  We certainly can’t ask him what’s on the other side of the pond—or about tomorrow.  He’s stoned, and not just a little.  (Like, totally, man.)  He’s glued to the program and takes no notice.  He’ll do the hokey-pokey and the chicken-dance all around the foxhole if need be, just as long as he can keep watching himself, the star of the show. Pass the Doritos. [iii]

A cursory review of the science suggests an interesting hypothesis. CO2 acidifies the blood, just like the oceans, a condition called acidosis, which is a poisoning marked by rapid breathing, cardiac arrhythmia and impaired consciousness or confusion, all of which sound to me like an agitated state of inebriation.   At high levels CO2 is an asphyxiant, ultimately leading to shock, which is the body shutting itself down. And interestingly, this is a life-threatening problem because there is a positive feedback mechanism. When shock sets in it increases in severity—towards death—unless treated. [iv]

Holy tomatoes.  Doesn’t everyone feel like their heart is racing a bit, our breathing more rapid as we try to make our way nowadays?  Life has become so complicated. This is progress? And aren’t most of us in a mild state of shock, a bit dizzy, unable to come to grips with war, poverty, inequality, joblessness, ecological demise, and any number of other stressors that we come in contact with everyday?

Are we so carbon poisoned, figuratively and perhaps literally, that we can’t see what we’re doing?  Are we now in a stew-pot of our own making such that we can’t reason, feel, or respond sensibly, and so swim like anesthetized clown fish towards our own demise? [v] Could this be why the issues of climate change and ecological collapse can’t gain any real traction? Are we so drunk on carbon that we will follow this notion of progress anywhere—especially if it feeds the obsessions of the wealthy and leaves us all heart racing and anxious?

Recent research by Paul Piff and others at UC Berkeley[vi] concluded that the wealthy are generally more narcissistic than people of lesser means. So maybe they are just more susceptible to the effects of carbon—that is, more inclined towards addiction—than normal people. Aren’t we all emulating them to some degree, though? And aren’t there other, better progress paradigms? Most of us, and Nature, surely deserve something better. Why don’t we talk about that?

In the meantime, maybe, we should get scientists on the neuro-carbon-case, toute de suite.  Most of us don’t want to be like Narcissus and these positive feedback loops are a wicked problem.  Carbon—the exhaust from progress and wealth creation—may be the wind beneath our Icarus wings.

[i] The term “Suicide Narcissus” (in the title) comes from an art show at The Renaissance Society, Hyde Park Chicago held in 2013.

http://www.renaissancesociety.org/exhibitions/suicide-narcissus/

[ii] Sea Change: The Pacific’s Perilous Turn: <http://apps.seattletimes.com/reports/sea-change/2013/sep/11/pacific-ocean-perilous-turn-overview/> (Well worth reading.)

[iii] (I’m really being unfair to marijuana smokers here—some of whom are my friends—and for the record, they stay away from most chemistry projects by Frito Lay, et al.  And they don’t watch much TV.  Their herb-use often enables a certain perspicacity not frequently found in common culture.  And, well, that’s the point, man.  So here I offer a second hypothesis: add to the litany of medical marijuana uses that it may well be an antidote to CO2).

[iv] See: National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of NIH <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16499405> and
Medline Plus, Nat Library of Medicine, NIH. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000335.htm>

[v] Thanks Bill Jordan for “anesthetized clownfish,” very funny…

[vi] See: http://paulpiff.wix.com/paulpiff#!press/c1n0f for links to writings. And this PBS Newshour segment: https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=IuqGrz-Y_Lc (9 min.)

Image Source:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Echo_and_Narcissus_(Waterhouse_painting)

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My love/hate relationship with Paddy Woodworth’s Our Once and Future Planet

By Lauren Umek*

I’m writing this review from my perspective as a PhD candidate studying restoration ecology and as an occasional-to-regular practitioner of restoration in the Chicago area.

I love this book.

And I hate this book.

This dichotomy is present throughout my reading of a Once and Future Planet as well as my regular thoughts on the topic of restoration. In general, I’m reminded that our interactions with nature themselves are bi-modal. Our species interacts with nature through exploitation but we also work hard to undo the destruction resulting from this exploitation. Our positive interactions with nature may occur while on a stroll through a blooming prairie in summer or colorful, senescing woodland in fall are in contrast to our negative encounters with nature; where we brave sweltering heat, blistering cold, and are annoyed by mosquito bites and poison ivy rashes.

It is with this dichotomous theme that Paddy explores restoration. We are forced to think of nature and culture, of science and practice, of success and failure, of knowns and unknowns, of support and opposition, of short and long term perspectives and most importantly, of the answerable and unanswerable questions.

I love this book, because, at least in the Chicago-centric chapter, from my, albeit biased perspective, science is the hero.  (In fact, there is a paragraph that I selfishly interpret to indicate that my dissertation, looking at ecological outcomes of various durations of restoration at a landscape scale, will change the world.) It is clear throughout all of the chapters, that there are still so many questions to be answered. Thus, objective, well replicated research are essential in effective restoration practice and outcomes. This reminds us that restoration ecology, as a science is still in an adolescent, if not infantile stage, without a significant Wright Brothers-eqsue breakthrough.

I love this book because it reminds me that I’m not alone. By showing a global perspective on a topic that I’ve had such a personal, as well as professional connection with, makes it obvious, that while I know quite a lot about restoration, that I don’t know nearly enough. It also reminds me that that there is a planet full of other people that are thinking about and working on similar, if not identical issues of what, when, where, why and how we should restore.

I hate this book because it makes me uncomfortable. It makes me think about things that I am not traditionally trained to think about as a scientist. I am forced to question my understanding of ecosystems and how I interpret both basic and complex components and interactions in nature.

As a scientist, I collect data in search of the “truth” of the natural world. What I rarely consider, is that there are other “truths” of nature that I can’t measure, can’t quantify and can’t describe. Even if I could, (as I recognize that my colleagues in the social sciences explore exactly these issues) I am forced to consider that what I might find to be ecologically appropriate, might not be culturally, economically or temporally appropriate.

The considerations we face as practitioners and scholars of restoration are not all quantifiable. I cannot graph or calculate a p-value to describe how someone feels about nature let alone reconcile how, when, where, why and if we should restore it. And even more perplexing to me is what if it is that social connection with nature that is what is in need of restoration, not just the ecosystem itself? Surely the restoration of one’s connection with nature cannot be restored with the application of herbicide, seeds or even fire.

The topics covered in this book remind us that restoration is a relatively new practice, at least given this name and restoration ecology is an even newer science. This means that while almost any question we ask, will yield a new and hopefully interesting answer, it also means that there is a lot of uncharted territory. We’re working hard, but we’re not REALLY sure if our work is working, or if our goals are even really appropriate or sustainable. Paddy makes us consider our ecological as well as social, temporal and global context when considering the topic and practice of restoration.

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“It is what it is” or things T. W. Adorno would have hated

 

Adorno.2

 

By Rick Elmore

There are few phrases I dislike more than “it is what it is.” It grates me something awful. However, if there is one person that would have hated it more than any of us, it’s T. W. Adorno. In fact, the one redeeming attribute of this phrase is that it perfectly highlights the central stakes of Adorno’s work. I’m not being hyperbolic. If you want to understand what critical theory is all about, one way to explain it is to say that critical theory is a fundamental rejection of “it is what it is” and all that phrase implies. But first things first, let’s revisit the horror of “it is what it is.”

People probably can’t help the occasional recourse to banal tautologies. Phrases like “it is what it is” have a certain sports radio, ‘works in almost any conversation’ kind of appeal. It’s like describing a team as “strong up front” or affirming a statement with “you can’t stop a train.” No one really knows exactly what you mean, but it sounds just concrete enough that everyone goes home happy. Yet, what’s truly pernicious about this phrase and what connects it to Adorno’s work isn’t that it’s tautological or unimaginative, but rather that it is a shorthand way of naturalizing the current state of the world.

When someone says “it is what it is,” what they really mean is that this thing, whatever it may be, is an intractable fact of reality: unchanging and unchangeable. It is what it is. That part of the world cannot be otherwise. It’s necessary, not in the least open to the contingencies of history or desire. You might as well stop thinking about it. “It is what it is” marks the parts of the world that cannot be other than they are, and, in so doing, it implicitly marks the limits of what is worthy of thought. Now as a general rule, I follow the environmental philosopher Karen Warren in thinking that anything one has to take the time to say is “natural” or “necessary” probably isn’t, since if it was, you wouldn‘t need to say so. However, claims to naturalness are also one of the central concerns of Adorno’s work.

Enlightenment, capitalism, fundamental ontology, the culture industry, nature, these are all logics that Adorno argues work on one level or another to make what is historically contingent appear ahistorical and necessary. Thus, the worry over the phrase “it is what it is” is itself the fundamental worry of critical theory. Just take the example of Adorno’s critique of Heidegger (steady…we can do this).

Like the concern for “it is what it is,” Adorno’s critique of Heidegger focuses on the worry that Heidegger’s fundamental ontology ends up naturalizing the world. This naturalization occurs through Heidegger’s notion of the “ontological difference,” that is, the difference between the existence or “being” of any particular thing and the quality or fact of “Being” (with a big B) that all existing things share insofar as they exist. Now this might sound complicated, but it’s actually very common sense. Heidegger is just pointing out that in a world of existing things there is a difference between the existence of any one thing and the quality or characteristic of Existence that all things share insofar as they exist. However for Adorno, Heidegger’s insistence on this strict separation leads him to dark dark places, like naturalizing Nazism for example. So starting from the ontological difference here is how Adorno argues you or Heidegger can naturalize the current political, social, and economic character of your world in five easy steps.

1. Given the strict separation of the ontological difference, you argue that one cannot define Being (the kind that all things share) nor make it into a concept, since any qualifying of Being (giving it a particular characteristic or quality) would violate the ontological difference. It would make what cannot be particular, particular.
2. You state that this unqualifiable notion of Being is essential to all existing things, since without it they wouldn’t exist at all.
3. You contend that since what is essential to all entities is their relation to your unqualifiable notion of Being, all the other particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of these entities must be inessential or accidental, since for these characteristics to be essential (part of your unqualifiable notion of Being), they would have to be essential to the existence of all entities, and they obviously can’t be that.
4. Having made it this far, you go on to argue that your unqualifiable notion of Being, since it is essential to all entities, must be the truest expression of their lived experience, as otherwise it wouldn’t be essential to them in any meaningful way. Hence, it turns out that all those particular, material, specific, and historically contingent aspects of an entity’s existence that we thought were accidental are actually the very expression of their Being in a grand sense.
5. Hence, you conclude that through the logic of the ontological difference, the current aspects of every entity’s existence, the social, political, material, and economic state of their world, is the very expression of Being. The world as it is is the necessary, ontological essence of what it means to exist at all. Or, put another way, you’ve just shown that the world, as it appears right now, is the only world that could have ever appeared. It is what it is. Now whether or not Adorno is right about Heidegger (and I think he is in general), it’s certainly the case that there is nothing more fundamental to the project of critical theory than resisting, at every turn, the notion that the world is what it is.

One of the things for me that remains crucial about critical theory and Adorno’s work in particular is that it reminds us unrelentingly that the logic of claims like “it is what it is” are not only problematic insofar as they naturalize some contingent aspect of the world, but also because they implicitly naturalize the whole framework in which that contingent aspect appears natural. When one says “it is what it is” today, one is not simply stating that whatever one is talking about is natural and necessary, but also that capitalism is necessary and natural, that climate change is unavoidable, that the extinction event we are in the midst of could not have been otherwise, that LeBron really does belong in Cleveland, etc. Adorno reminds us that one of the major impediments to progressive and radical thought, particularly on the environment, is not only the inability to really believe that the world can be different, but also the inability to think through the radical interconnectedness of our material lives. Hence, it’s precisely because the world isn’t what it is, that the world still needs critical theory.

Image Source: http://blogs.elpais.com/muro-de-sonido/2013/09/música-para-viejóvenes.html

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Killing Things

by Liam Heneghan

In the early 1980s wanting to be a naturalist — a coleopterist, in particular, that most Darwin-like of naturalists — I spent a couple of summer months in Killarney NaChrysomelidBeetleWikitional Park, in Ireland, making a collection of chrysomelid beetles. This was the first of many such collecting trips, part of a series of increasingly violent engagements with the natural world that served as stepping stones that link my life as an Irish teen to the one I live now in Chicago. All of them involved the killing of animals or plants for the sake of science.

The Chrysomelidae had been offered up to me by Dr Jimmy O’Connor, an entomology curator at Ireland’s Natural History Museum (The Dead Zoo, as it was called in Dublin). Apparently, the Irish representatives of this group were poorly known, not having been taxonomically revised since early in the 20th Century. Chrysomelid beetles include a number of notorious pests such as Leptinotarsa decemlineata, the Colorado Potato beetle, but for the most part these insects go about their business without causing us much bother. They are remarkably pretty though, many of them possessing metallic elytra (the sclerotized outer-wing of the beetle) and when you train your eye to notice them you see them as a marvel of shimmer and vivid color. Some of them, the flea-beetles, have greatly enlarged hind-leg femora, so that when disturbed they erupt into action and spring away from you like a glorious idea that thought you had but now cannot seem to fully recall.

Collecting them is easy enough. Using a sweep net, I thrashed my way across the grassier spots in the National Park; in other locations I’d search the under-leaves of shrubs and low hanging plants, catching them on the tip of a wetted paintbrush.
The issue of killing them was quite another matter. After all, I wanted to collect them because I had conceived a liking for them, and was concerned that if neglected, we, the scientific community, would not know, ironically, if these animals needed more vigorous protection. I loved them enough I suppose to want them dead; a couple of specimens of each species at the very least. I was the Noah of death and my ark was a killing jar.

However, when one sees glamorous creatures such as these looking up at you, as it were, from the bottom of the net, the ethical calculation concerning their dispatch is not an easy one to make. Should these few glimmering Isaacs be sacrificed so that others of their kind might flourish. Or perhaps more proximately, since the question of how data might be used is always somewhat further down the road, should they die so that the storehouse of my knowledge could grow?

Perhaps in matters concerning cultural affairs there exists a parallel to Ernst Haeckel’s evolutionary conjecture that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It certainly seems as if the youth are adept at inventing rituals, and sacramentalizing their lives, in a way that seems culturally primordial. Certainly children often are ritualists in ways that those of us who are older have little patience for. So it occurred to me, youth that I was back then, that in the matter of the beetles, though my commitment to their dying was unwavering, the manner in which I put them to death mattered.

The recommended way to kill insects is to pop them in a killing jar: a sealable glass container on the base of which is a layer of plaster of paris charged with ethyl acetate, a synthetic poison. Now, I had learned around that time that the leaves of cherry laurel, if crushed, give off hydrogen cyanide. Crush cherry laurel in your hands and that delicious aroma like toasted almonds that is given off, that’s the smell of a kinder, gentler death. This being the way some plants deal with its more aggressive insect visitors, I thought, therefore, that the crushed leaves of cherry laurel might provide for my chrysomelids a sweeter, more appropriate end. Thus my routine for the summer was to walk in measured paces, sweep at regular intervals, and transfer, when the time was right, insects to a killing jar.

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Glenn Albrecht at DePaul Tuesday 27th May 2014 (3:30 PM)

We welcome pioneering environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht to Chicago and DePaul. 

Professor Albrecht investigates the positive and negative psychological, emotional and cultural relationships people have to place.  Albrecht coined the now widely used term “solastalgia” which names the human distress related to the lived experience of familiar places negatively altered by environmental change.

He will give an informal seminar and discussion on Tuesday, May 27th, 2014 From 3:30 – 5:00  PM McGowan S Rm 204 (http://www.depaul.edu/campus-maps/buildings/Pages/mcgowan-south.aspx)

Albrecht’s TED talk is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GUGW8rOpLY

The seminar is free and open to the public.

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Join Us For a Book Event: A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought by Anthony Paul Smith

APSWe are proud to welcome Anthony Paul Smith back to DePaul to celebrate the publication of his book: A Non-Philosophical Theory of Nature: Ecologies of Thought.

Anthony is DePaul Department of Philosophy alum and a Fellow of the Institute for Nature and Culture. Anthony is Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of La Salle University (Philadelphia, USA).


His  book is available here: 
http://www.amazon.com/Non-Philosophical-Theory-Nature-Ecologies-Theologies/dp/1137335874

A series of blog posts discussing the book are archived here:

http://itself.wordpress.com/category/a-non-philosophical-theory-of-nature-book-event/

The format of our event will be a series of responses to the book from faculty and graduate students ranging from Religion, Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse, Environmental Science and Studies, Philosophy, the Institute for Nature and Culture.  This will be followed by a response by Anthony!  Then I suppose we shall retire to continue our deliberations over a beverage!


When: Thursday, May 15th 6:00pm

Where: McGowan South Rm 204. 


Please RSVP to lhenegha@gmail.com so I can judge if we need a bigger room.  

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