The Ecological in Foucault and Deleuze

January 13, 2015 § 10 Comments

tumblr_nfcqdp6AoL1r67qauo1_500[Image: Liu Kuo-Sung]

How are we to think about Foucault and Deleuze in an ecological world?

On one level, Foucault’s interest is in writing a history of the dynamics that make statements true or false, in the modes of governance that shape bodies, and in the kinds of truths that can be told and the people who are allowed to speak or verify those truths. On another level, Foucault is interested in the shaping of humans into certain kinds of subjects with certain kinds of capacities, in the ways in which subjects complexly conform to and resist processes of subjectivation. Uniting both levels is Foucault’s exploration into the possibilities and constraints of speaking the truth where truth statements are indexed to a certain historical a priori—a bringing of the transcendental conditions for the possibility of knowledge into the riven flow of history.

In a similar vein, Deleuze’s interest lies in the creation of concepts in response to problems that are themselves encountered as ruptures or as unexpected events experienced in the evolution of living forms. The application of thought to being exercised by human persons is for Deleuze but one example of the pragmatics exercised by all living beings as each one traverses in and out of the unwelten of surrounding bodies, captured by the call and response of ecologically configured life forms. The Deleuzean insight encourages us to see that the synthesis of experience achieved by any one organism is first and foremost a prior synthesis of many symbiotic bodies, multispecies collectives forged into complex wholes with increased abilities for discernment and decision-making.

For Foucault, then, the nonhuman impresses itself onto anthropic space through the production of laws and regulations, the production of material infrastructures that manipulate human behavior and perception, and the enforcement of practices that condition human beings. In Foucault’s understanding, the human is always born into a larger historical condition that is not of the same kind as any one person’s individual experience, an experience that is, to an indeterminate degree, an effect of historical trends rather a starting point for historical evaluation.

Similarly, for Deleuze, nonhuman forces already act on the inside of human experience. Here all knowing is an inter-species effort; multiple species are always on the inside of anthropomorphic space, undermining it from within. The Kantian transcendental subject is for Deleuze a complex and multiple collective of diverging syntheses of cognition and perception. If Foucault initiates a move from the transcendental a priori to the historical a priori then Deleuze initiates a similar movement—from an historical a priori to an ecological a priori. Crucially, the enfolding of divergent species into human cognition marks not just an ecological basis for all human thought—a mark that suggests that all human thought is dependent on a multiplicity of nonhumans living and dying on the inside of human subjectivity—but more cosmically that human cognition is a higher dimensional enfolding of spacetime itself, a synthesis that makes the vastness of the cosmos thinkable to the human mind.

Ecological Metaphysics

October 7, 2014 § 24 Comments


[Image: Neil Krug]

[Update: Leon responds to some of my questions here.]

Leon Niemoczynski writes an interesting post on ecological metaphysics here. While we have our differences concerning the contemporary philosophical landscape, Leon and I agree quite strongly that ecology represents something like the future basis for philosophy. However, while he lists quite a few resources for thinking philosophy through ecology, and ecology through philosophy, we don’t get much in the way of articulating what, exactly, makes a philosophy or a metaphysics ecological. Leon writes:

The key ideas for [American and Continental] traditions, I think, when it comes to developing an environmental philosophy that is inspired by recent positions of speculative philosophy in realist and materialist orientation, is that these metaphysical positions are developed so that they are thoroughly ecological.  Thus, “speculative naturalism” is an ecological metaphysics as much as it is a realist and materialist metaphysics.

Okay, but what does “ecological” in this context mean? To be sure, there are some references to the process tradition, to naturalism, to actor-networks, to materialism et al., but we don’t get an account of what specifically differentiates an ecological metaphysics from any other kind realist, materialist, or naturalist metaphysics. This raises an important question: What are the precise criteria for identifying philosophical ecologies?

For Leon, is philosophical ecology just naturalism updated?* Does a philosophy concerned with creatures and relationships necessarily constitute it as ecological? I don’t think so. Lest we simply render ecological metaphysics as Nature 2.0., I’ve suggested a preliminary definition of an ecological metaphysics where ecology is the breakdown between structure and content. This is the most general definition of ecology I have been able to formulate. In the biological sense, the breakdown between structure and content applies to organisms and environments, to genetics and epigenetics, to genotypes and phenotypes, to nature and nurture, to cultural history and biological history. In a more philosophical key, this formulation references the breakdown between the transcendental and the empirical, between the ontological and the epistemological, and between appearance and reality. (I have a recent paper on this breakdown here and a shorter synopsis here, both of which place aesthetics as an important category for philosophical ecology, a move I think Leon would affirm.)

Whitehead of course is a key influence for me here, but so is Isabelle Stengers, if not more so. Not enough has been written on the entanglement of the physics of laws (read “structure”) and the physics of phenomena (read “content”) she details in Cosmopolitics. Readers of Whitehead will notice that Stengers’s entanglement of laws and phenomena mirrors very closely Whitehead’s ontological principle, and it also comes close to the physicist Lee Smolin’s reading of cosmic evolution and the emergence of physical laws. In the case of Whitehead, Stengers, and Smolin, it’s not enough that we think of physical laws as atemporal and necessary. Instead, we must understand that the laws themselves emerged at a point in cosmic history and that they are in an important sense immanent to and entangled with all phenomena. Ecology is an entanglement of laws and phenomena; the real is ecological, evolving, recursive; the cosmos is an ecological event.

Here there’s a breakdown of structure and content at a very basic cosmological level, which leads us to a related point about ecological metaphysics: the cosmos is historical all the way up and all the way down, all the way backwards and all the way forwards. Leon quotes the popular Whiteheadian aphorism “Other cosmic epochs are possible” to get at the same point, but when he writes, “The adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is far from over [emphasis mine]” I have to disagree. And I also have to point out that Leon is contradicting himself. (Earlier in the post Leon writes, “There is no super-order or container of “Nature.”  There is, on the other hand, agencies and networks, or better, creatures and relationships.”) Thus if ecology is a general condition that describes the breakdown of structure and content, and if there really are cosmic dimensions to this statement, then the adventure of the natural world and the agencies within it is precisely what’s over.

This ongoing breakdown is, I think, where we need to start with philosophy and ecology.

*If naturalism is the route we choose to take, I think whatever “naturalism” means these days must come to grips with Steven Shaviro’s “Twenty-Two Theses on Nature.”

Histories of Lived Experience

August 8, 2014 § 14 Comments

tumblr_n7v7s4CrVw1qzngato1_1280[Image: Edward Burtynsky]

Earlier today I delivered a talk on ethology, ecology, and aesthetics as part of a panel on Cosmopolitics at the International Big History Conference held in San Rafael, CA. I am posting my talk below, which you can also find in .pdf form here.

Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Ethology, Ecology, And Aesthetics

Adam Robbert, San Francisco, CA

Paper presented at the International Big History Conference, Dominican University, San Rafael, CA, August 8.

What is the significance of meaning in Big History? There is a great diversity of opinion on this issue. For example, Eric Chaisson, one of the original board members of the IBHA, holds that Big History must let go of concepts such as intentionality, subjectivity, and, presumably, meaning, in order to understand evolution objectively.[1] Conversely, the focus of my talk is that an understanding of meaning is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. A central claim of my talk is that we have to understand that which is meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. My talk thus offers a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of geological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of meanings, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Blind Brain Theory and Enactivism: In Dialogue With R. Scott Bakker

June 11, 2014 § 7 Comments

tumblr_mkwlanqOci1qzngato1_1280[Image: Hannah Imlach]

Last week I posted a short essay on the question of meaning, style, and aesthetics in the ecological theories of Alva Noë and Jacob von Uexküll. The post resulted in a long and in-depth discussion with science fiction novelist and central architect of the Blind Brain Theory (BBT) of cognition, R. Scott Bakker. Our conversation waded through multiple topics including phenomenology, the limits of transcendental arguments, enactivism, eliminativism, meaning, aesthetics, pluralism, intentionality, first-person experience, and more. So impressed was I with Bakker’s adept ability to wade through the issues — across disciplines, perspectives, and controversies — despite my protests that I felt it worth excerpting our dialogue as a record of the exchange and as a resource for others interested in these debates. Whatever your views on the philosophy of mind, Bakker’s unique position is one you should familiarize yourself with — if only, like me, so that you can find better ways to dispute its unsettling consequences. To provide a little context to the dialogue I am re-stating my central claim and concluding paragraph from the earlier post: « Read the rest of this entry »

Big History and Cosmopolitics

April 16, 2014 § 6 Comments

fournier_6b[Image: Vincent Fournier]

I’ll be speaking with some of the usual suspects at the International Big History Association Conference this August at Dominican University in San Rafael, California. Our Panel description and abstracts can be found below.

Panel Title: Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey: Resolving Nature-Culture Dualisms

Abstract: In its research and teaching programs, Big History facilitates the integration of human and natural history into a multidimensional collective history.  There is still much work that remains to be done to articulate collective history without falling back into longstanding dualisms that separate humans from nature.  Along those lines, Big History can benefit from a dialogical encounter with others who are oriented toward overcoming the human/nature dualism, including those involved in the Journey of the Universe project and, in a very different vein, philosophers like Isabelle Stengers, Bruno Latour, and others associated with a theoretical movement called “cosmopolitics,” which aims to overcome the separation between the natural world (kosmos) and the constitution of human civilization (politikos).  Initially developed by Stengers following her work with Ilya Prigogine, cosmopolitics aims to articulate a collective history that affirms the intertwining of human societies with the evolutionary unfolding of the cosmos.  Cosmopolitics draws more explicitly than Big History on philosophical concepts useful for overcoming the dualisms separating a realm of humans (subjects, values) from a realm of nature (objects, facts), including concepts associated with process philosophy (Alfred North Whitehead), philosophical biology (Jakob von Uexküll), and French post-structuralist philosophy (Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida).  This panel introduces the idea of cosmopolitics and situates it in relationship to similar approaches to collective history (e.g., Big History, Journey of the Universe), drawing particular attention to the importance of accounting for the axiological dimensions (e.g., ethics, aesthetics, and spirituality) of our collective history. « Read the rest of this entry »

Whitehead, Kant, and Sloterdijk: A Renewed Geocentrism

March 2, 2014 § 8 Comments

Face[Image: Morgan Herrin]

Yesterday, as I was listening to Melanie Sehgal’s lecture on Whitehead’s metaphysics as situated metaphysics, I was reminded of two passages in Whitehead’s work that have stuck out to me ever since reading them. The first is the oft-quoted airplane analogy Whitehead gives in Process and Reality to describe his mode of speculative thinking. Through this analogy, Whitehead suggests speculative thinking always takes flight from a given location — a context, a historical epoch, a field of concerns, etc. — and then, from this atmospheric perspective, the speculative philosopher attempts to give, in Whitehead’s own words, “a coherent, logical, and necessary system of general ideas” that are also “applicable” and “adequate” to every element of our experience. In other words, for Whitehead, speculative philosophy’s method is a practice of thought wherein one starts with experience, ascends as though in an airplane to the height of generality — away from the structure of particular experience to the structure of experience in general — and then lands once again back into the particularity of experience. « Read the rest of this entry »

Geocentric Media Ecology

October 14, 2013 § 21 Comments


Media theorist Jussi Parikka has a very interesting essay published in The Atlantic on the geology of media. The essay is part of the ongoing series of “Object Lessons” edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg. In the essay Parikka draws our attention to the relations between media technologies and geological elements — for example, to the copper, gold, lead, mercury, palladium, and silver deposits that are transformed into the components of electronic devices. By foregrounding the relationship between material resources and communication technologies, Parikka’s essay offers an important commentary on the geopolitics of media. While this is certainly a worthwhile call to attention, the second half of the essay continues into equally important, though less explored, terrain. On the communicative agency of the Earth Parikka writes

« Read the rest of this entry »

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