Category Archives: philosophy

FROM EXTINCTION: NINE STRATEGIES FOR A LEFT-HAND EXIT

by Michael Uhall, The University of Illinois

Extinction.png

The problem

As a political theorist, I often find myself submerged in the academic and professional details of my work. For example, I spend most of my time reading and writing, and much of what I write is addressed to an audience largely composed of other political theorists. The politics of knowledge production aren’t quite so simple, of course, and I think we political theorists should welcome the imperative to make our work speak to anyone who cares to listen.

In brief, my work addresses what I call the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis does not reduce to climate change – indeed, climate change is only a symptom of something much more intractable. Instead, the ecological crisis refers to a crisis of relationality that obtains at multiple scales – from the individual to the collective, from the local to the global. In short, the ecological crisis started when we started operationalizing the relationship between nature and politics in a certain way.

Call this way pathological modernity, which theoretically misconstrues nature as the ontological space of determination and necessity. If nature is necessitarian, then either the political also is determined by the principle of necessity, or else politics exists somehow apart from nature, even opposed to it.

This poses a ruinous conceptual dilemma that leads to extinction.

Politics as the unique synthesis of collective action and collective imagination becomes impossible both if nature determines it and if nature serves as its antagonist. If nature determines our politics, then this eliminates the possibility of free action. Without the possibility of free action, collective action ceases to be action. Action becomes behavior; decision is determined. On the other hand, if there is freedom – that is to say, if politics is possible, after all – then this produces an irresolvable antagonism between nature and the political. Hence, if nature serves as antagonist to the political, then politics transforms into sheer domination, and a politics of domination is no more genuinely political than is mere compulsion itself.

Think of it like this: either nature makes the political impossible, or politics is purchased at the price of eliminating or excluding nature, practically and theoretically. This dilemma drives pathological modernity forward, and it produces and sustains the ecological crisis as such.

In short, my work begins with the two intuitions: (1) something is terribly wrong and (2) the future will not resemble the past.

Rather than merely producing a critical theoretical diagnostic, however, I want to suggest alternatives and reasons for adopting such alternatives.

For example, in my work, I argue that the pathologically modern philosophy of nature to which we adhere can be replaced by an altermodern philosophy of nature that incepts a degree of freedom at the origin of nature itself. We rarely examine what we are talking about when we talk about nature. Instead, we simply assume that what is natural is deterministic and necessitarian. There are historical and intellectual reasons for this, but, these reasons, like all reasons, are subject to revision – else we are mere dogmatists and worshipers at the altar of modernity.

I also argue that such an altermodern philosophy of nature allows us to reconstruct how we conceive of human subjects – that is to say, of what it means to be an individual or collective agent capable of taking action and making decisions. In short, I conclude that subjectivity is – must be – an emergent property of ecologically embodied immanent relationality. In other words, agency emerges only in ecological conditions. Accordingly, I propose the concept of companion ecologies to help us understand better what and who we are. Companion ecologies name the composite, multimodal, yet entitative pluralities that constitute our ecological conditions, ranging from our gut and skin microbiomes to our habitats more generally, as well as the numerous agencies that compose and traverse such spaces.

Both the altermodern philosophy of nature and the theory of the ecological subject I propose allow us to intervene in the operation of commonplace political terms. Specifically, I look at identity, community, and normativity. In ordinary language, these refer to the ways in which we are concerned with ourselves, our companions, and our judgments. After contrasting securitarian and immunitarian dynamics (each modeled after different ways of understanding the formation of immunological functionality – i.e., immanent relationality), I conclude that we can recuperate a robust sense of human identity as creaturely, which is to say, radically dependent upon the companion ecologies in which we emerge. Likewise, community takes shape, then, as a function of ecotone – or, as the complex of companion ecologies that overlap and traverse each other at multiple scales. We do not have a community, because a community is not a form of identity. Instead, we are always already in a condition of community. As such, we are creatures – human animals – who depend radically upon the ecological conditions that first manifest us as distinctive agents. We are agents only by virtue of other agencies. This entails a new form of normative naturalism, a naturalism that says not “Do what I say because nature says so” (as with the old naturalisms), but, instead, “Act revisably in such a way as to acknowledge and preserve the metabolic and vitalizing capacities of your conditions of existence.”

All of the foregoing, however, constitutes a theoretical intervention aimed at dissolving certain conceptual formations and replacing them with new regimes of description. Take up my terms, and you will see nature and politics differently. See nature and politics differently, and you will have the means to resolve the ecological crisis. The problem is that our conscious assumptions and unconscious attachments already are formed under the conditions of pathological modernity. They are not a superficial optics that can be easily swapped out for another, like you might switch a pair of glasses. Here we encounter the weakness of theoretical interventions. Theory can elucidate, impel, or inveigh, but it cannot compel material change by itself.

Accordingly, I have condensed and extracted nine strategic recommendations with the intention of illustrating how the theoretical interventions I propose translate into modes of practical action. Theory is a form of action at a distance. I say these recommendations are strategic, first, because strategy is the hinge between speculative inquiry into the real and experimental practice. Also, they are strategic not because they speak to specific material interventions (although I do refer to specific examples, when possible), but because my recommendations are able to cash out into a wide range of possible programs. Note that these recommendations are not derived formally from my theoretical interventions, and nor are they the only possible such recommendations. That being said, I believe that, in nuce, they embody the practical framework of departure for a politics of exit from pathological modernity.

In other words, if you want to survive the ecological crisis and flourish after the collapse it heralds, consider what follows.

Strategic recommendations

The figure

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Dark Ecology. What’s a Human—to Do?

by Randall Honold
Co-director, Institute for Nature and Culture, DePaul University

 

Thoughts prompted by Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence

Remember the end? I’m recalling all the “end of . . . ” books that started pouring out around twenty years ago. We read about the end of history, nature, faith, poverty, men, globalization, power, Europe, imagination – even absence. Maybe because we love a good ending when we see one we start seeing them everywhere. Or maybe we love resolution no matter what comes next. There’s a kind of end-logic we get trapped by: either we’re pouring accelerant on the flames of decline or we’re cynically indifferent to the suffering in front of us: “Everything has to end sometime – c’est la vie!” Of course, nothing that has been ending has actually ended. We don’t know how to see the end to the end, it appears. The past persists.

Black Square.2

Today we’re grappling with the meaning of the end of the Holocene, from here and now at the onset of the Anthropocene. Coming to realize that we humans changing the earth may be a defining event for both the earth and humans. Who are we humans and what is the earth after the end (better: during the ending) of the Holocene? What might our entwined future(s) look like?

We need help thinking about who and what we all are at beginning of the first geological era to which we’ve given our name. Even if at first that help doesn’t look like a guiding hand but a dead sparrow on our doorstep. Even if in the welcoming of help we let go of what we thought we were and invite across the threshold what we didn’t want to admit was already here for some time.

DarkEcology

Timothy Morton’s Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence is the kind of object we need to help us think what we are and what to do about it. Calling the book an “object” sounds like I’m reducing it to a single instrument but no – it’s a rich, dense, diverse collective of reflections that unfurls like a growing crystal, its fractal structure embodying one of Morton’s main ideas, that reality is a loop of objects resisting organization by a larger ideal. And like all objects, the book gets weirder the more I interact with it. Which brings me to what its title describes, “dark ecology.”

What happens to us if we practice dark ecology? That is, what happens to the meaning of us and what kinds of actions do we end up taking? Since Rimbaud, at least, we’ve known that “I is another.” That knowledge in itself isn’t enough to twist free of what Morton calls agrilogistics, the roughly twelve-thousand year tradition of rearranging the earth in order to stabilize ourselves. Furthermore epistemology itself probably isn’t tweakable any further. The knowledge we have and the ways of knowing we practice are plenty satisfactory for making it through the ecological crisis. Imperator Furiosa and Max Rockatansky made it across the wasteland and back on far less! Our fate is tied to a very large number of equally non-selvish beings that we can’t fully know but we always already coexist with aesthetically. Practicing dark ecology isn’t something esoteric or obscure; it’s kind of a continual reorientation toward the equally mysterious beings we’re already coexisting with.

Dark ecology entails practicing intimacy in as many ways as possible. It amounts to compassion, really, consonant with Tibetan Buddhism practiced by Morton.  Every manifestation of compassion arises from an orientation that has been open to suffering. Robert Thurman says suffering alerts us to the fact that we are not being aware of what we really are. For at least a couple of thousand years we’ve tried applying a variety of Anthropocentric therapies to this lack of awareness, intended to restore us to the larger whole we’ve fallen from and redeem our suffering. But that’s not what we need at the onset of the Anthropocene. We’re in a time that’s pretty clearly defined by our futility at getting on top or to the bottom of wicked problems of our own making (cue global warming, species extinction, fresh water depletion, and even the end of sand!). What if there isn’t a big Nature to get back to, an Environment to clean up, an Earth to become one with? Would it be so bad for these big old Beings to come to an end? What if we follow Morton and experiment with Anthropocenic anti-therapies which yield results consistent with increasing intimate coexistence with ourselves and other objects?

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SPF 2017 (Subscendence Perpetration Formation).  Directions: Apply liberally and often.

Tim Morton
Image Sources:

https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2017/06/02/what-is-the-lay-of-the-land-part-ii/

https://cup.columbia.edu/book/dark-ecology/9780231177528

http://archinect.com/features/article/149934079/timothy-morton-on-haunted-architecture-dark-ecology-and-other-objects

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The Roots of Creative Darkness

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)

 

two men

Two Men Contemplating the Moon, Caspar David Friedrich

Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is writing a dissertation prospectively titled “On the Political Uses of Creative Darkness: Nature, Companion Ecologies, Biopolitics,” and his website can be found at https://www.michaeluhall.com/.

CS: What follows are excerpts from a longer piece which can be found on Uhall’s blog, here .

Introduction: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling

At first glance, the three figures under discussion – Algernon Blackwood, Marion Milner, and Friedrich Schelling – seem to form a rather unlikely trio, especially if you’re looking for insights into politics in the Anthropocene. Before I can examine why they complement each other so well – not to mention what insights they do, in fact, provide when grouped together – I’ll introduce each figure, since my impression is that none of them tend to be particularly familiar to us.

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Algernon Blackwood  (1869-1951) was an English writer of horror and fantasy tales in the early 20th century. Best known for such stories as “The Willows” – considered by H. P. Lovecraft to be one of the finest weird tales ever written – Blackwood’s output ranges from the didactic and whimsical to the disconcerting, eerie, and haunting. As Mike Ashley, S. T. Joshi, and others document, his stories tarry constantly with dark vitalities and psychic doctors, with transformative terrors and with the radical disruption, even dissolution, of the subject upon her encounter with natural forces that exceed and escape from the prisonhouse of modern selfhood.

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Marion Milner  (1900-1998), by contrast, was a practicing psychoanalyst, best known for her development of freewriting techniques and introspective journaling, as well as her classic case study of a 20-year-long analysis with a severely schizophrenic analysand, Susan, and her wry self-reflections on the negative capacities of the self in On Not Being Able to Paint (1950). [ . . .] Always of principal interest to Milner is what she perceives as the fundamentally unconscious origins of existential creativity, and how it is that creative acts and practices can be blocked – or else made possible – by the subject’s own comportment toward “inner” and “outer” nature alike. “The idea of a live tree,” she writes, “with its roots hidden in darkness and its branches outspread in the light, seems to me an apt symbol for a way in which one can experience oneself creatively.”

Last, we have Friedrich Schelling, a 19th century German philosopher of nature writing mostly between 1794 and 1815. Schelling argues that nature fundamentally consists of infinite productivity – that is to say, nature is neither the aggregate of all products, nor is it an embodied or underlying “substance,” as for Spinoza. Rather, nature is the very principle of productivity as such. [ . . .] Apparent momentary stability appears insofar as the constitutive opposition of forces in nature flirts with equilibrium and then falls repeatedly into disequilibrium. What this produces, Schelling claims, is not an entropic slide into absolute disequilibrium, but, rather, developmental stages of increasing complexity and reticulation – what Schelling calls “potencies.” A potency is a formal degree of complex organization (or self-organization). Each is composed of “darkness,” that is to say, of matter that is organized more or less differently, thereby giving rise to potencies that exceed basal norms. As Schelling writes in an 1806 essay: “Das Dunkelste aller Dinge, ja das Dunkel selbts nach einigen, ist die Materie” (“Matter is the darkest of all things – indeed, it is the darkness itself”). Accordingly, we see in Schelling a deep fascination with what we can call the “nightside” of nature, that is to say, those expressions of nature that do not reveal themselves easily or, perhaps, at all to the instrumental techniques of the natural sciences.

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Contexts

So there we have them: Blackwood, Milner, Schelling. An author of weird horror stories, a psychoanalyst, and a German Idealist. It’s necessary to note, in passing, the various ways in which we could reconstruct genealogies of influence or force fields of effect that link these apparently disparate figures together. For example, much scholarly work (e.g., Ellenberger, Ffytche, McGrath, Žižek) has been done to show how the German Idealists – and Schelling, in particular – contribute to the development of the concept of the unconscious prior to Freud. On the other hand, the lineage of Dark Romanticism that precedes the weird tale bears no small relationship to these very same discourses – E. T. A. Hoffman was a touchstone for Freud, of course, while a figure like Heinrich von Kleist was close friends with Gotthilf Schubert, one of Schelling’s disciples. In Blackwood’s case, some of the meager scholarship addressing him examines the influence of Gustav Fechner upon his work. Fechner, a German psychologist in the mid-19th century, was a late devotee of Schelling’s, and much of his work assigned itself the task of reconciling the mind/body problem, specifically. Rather than dwelling further on any of these genealogies, however, I’d like to put all three figures to a more speculative use.

Inherit the darkness: Schelling

It’s from Schelling primarily that the concept of creative darkness emerges, although, as Eugene Thacker and others have noted, affinities between various descriptive vocabularies of darkness and some sense of primal, or primary, creativity can be discovered in many alternative traditions (ranging from various Western mystical traditions to the Hawaiian creation chant Kumulipo and even the Tao Te Ching).

Creative darkness refers to the interaction between the emergence of ontological novelty as the product of creative agency or action, on the one hand, and the alluring, but often disconcerting or even horrifying opacity of nature, on the other hand.

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For Schelling’s philosophy of nature, the question is always: How do free subjects emerge in nature? I think this is a particularly relevant question for any attempt to think a meaningful, nonpostural politics in the Anthropocene – a term that, as Timothy Morton excels at pointing out, implies both the remarkable power of human agency and nevertheless implicates the human in the ecological crisis we face today. Accordingly, the attempt to conjure possible existential alternatives to our current path is one of our principal political tasks today. To do this – to create “new modes and orders” (borrowing the term from Machiavelli) – requires first that we attend closely to the seething darkness of nature itself – both “inner” and “outer.”

“Rooted in darkness”: Milner

It’s here, then – for our sense of the “the inner darkness of our nature,” or the natures that we are – that the turn to Milner proves most productive, for she unceasingly directs our attention to the expressions and sources of the creative unconscious as implicit in the materiality of the body itself. For Milner, the unconscious is not a generically ideological writing machine, nor is it the subject of symbolic interpolation, but rather, the interface between the body and what we still rather unimaginatively still call “the mind.” For Milner, the body and the mind are not distinct entities in any sense. Bodies dream, feel, and think long before they are conscious. Having a mind – or, perhaps more clearly, making a mind happen – is one of the many things that bodies do. So there’s a sense in which the unconscious is the body, or that function of the body that makes minds and enables minds to take shape, to endure, to change, and to shift over time.

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I think Milner is directing our attention toward what I’d call a deeply personal materialism, one which simultaneously separates and sutures action and ideation in the conscious and unconscious personality of the subject. Hence Milner’s advocacy for what we might call a arboreal model of the self (as against the various [rhizomatic] [] models of subjectivity proposed in the wake of Deleuze and Guattari): “So it was that I came to try thinking of the tree as a symbol for the ego’s direct, non-symbolic sense of its own being: something rooted in darkness, but spreading its branches into the light.”

Sylvan darkness: Blackwood

In Blackwood’s novella, “[The Man Whom the Trees Loved],” [] precisely this same structural emergence of the subject takes place, albeit at a different scale. Although Blackwood almost always directs our attention expressly to the seething darkness of nature “out there” – consider, for example, the endless, earthly alien whispering of the willows in “The Willows” – his interest often turns to dissolving subjects whose very dissolution opens up the possibility for a heightened attunement to the natural world, or else whose interpenetration by inhuman agencies makes possible radically different forms of life or ways of being-in-the-world.

“The Man Whom the Trees Loved,” then, concerns the long, slow seduction and integration of the retired forester David Bitacky by the forest near which he retires. What this seduction largely entails remains ambiguous, although the main character of the story, David’s wife, documents the seduction with unsettlement, at first, and, eventually, horror at the darkly vital stationary green hurricane that the forest embodies. David spends more and more time in the depths of the forest alone – “a man, like a tree, walking.” Eventually, of course, the forest consumes David, and sylvan dread becomes a fierce, verdant joy. As Punter and Byron state, “the transcendence of human concerns that this implies is carefully balanced against his wife’s powerful sense of loss.” Returning to Blackwood: “In the distance she heard the roaring of the Forest further out. Her husband’s voice was in it.”

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Toward a conclusion

In conclusion, I argue that considering the concept of creative darkness through the speculative lens these three figures provide gives us access to a dimension of speculative political theory that we often overlook. Specifically, two central contentions animate the foregoing considerations. First, I want to suggest that the politics of ecological receptivity and transformation we need now are impossible without a new theory of the human subject. Second, I think we need to start looking at why this doesn’t mean what we probably think it means – for by abstracting her out of the conditions of creative darkness, we have fundamentally lost touch or misunderstood what sort of creature a human subject is.

Read the whole paper here.

Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/2000.51/

 

 

 

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(Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

By Zachary Braiterman, Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish though and philosophical aesthetics. Facebook | Twitter | Academia.edu.

Reading Existence and Existents by Emmanuel Levinas, I stumbled across this neat little bit about art in the chapter on “Existence without a World.” This is a 1947 text, written right a…

Source: (Art) Existence Without a World (Levinas)

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