Big History and Cosmopolitics

April 16, 2014 § 4 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. (Don’t know what Big History is? Me neither until a few weeks ago. Here’s a short primer.)

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.

Adam Robbert

Paper Title: Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Aesthetics, Ecology, and Ethology

Abstract: This paper examines the contributions of the process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead (1861-1947) and the biologist Jacob von Uexküll (1864-1944) to an understanding of the aesthetic dimension of Big History, specifically by focusing on the ecological aesthetics of living organisms.  Writing in the early half of the twentieth century, Whitehead and Uexküll remain important contributors to contemporary issues in ethology, ecology, and aesthetics.  Specifically, Whitehead’s critique of the bifurcation of nature and his philosophy of organism provide important tools for thinking about the multicentric nature of ecosystems, which is to say, thinking about the multiple forms of interiority (agency, value, and subjectivity) distributed throughout ecosystems. Likewise, Uexkull’s account of multispecies perspectives (“umwelts”) remains a cornerstone of contemporary ethology. By considering Whitehead and Uexküll together a comprehensive approach to ecology is rendered that includes the lived experience of individual organisms alongside the physical structures by which those experiences are enacted. This paper suggests that an ecological approach to ethology and aesthetics complicates traditional philosophical distinctions between ontology and epistemology, and between the empirical and the transcendental, by placing both in contexts of evolutionary process.  Beginning with an account of Whitehead’s speculative philosophy the paper moves toward a reading of Uexküll’s umwelten and considers the implication of both accounts for philosophical approaches to the aesthetic dimension of Big History.  Aesthetic value is not the sole property of human beings but is evident throughout the entire evolution of life and, for Whitehead, throughout the whole universe.

Sam Mickey

Paper Title: Concepts for Collective History: Cosmopolitics and Journey of the Universe

Abstract: Cosmopolitics shares an aim with Big History and Journey of the Universe (JOTU): to articulate a collective history that integrates the human and the natural world.  Whereas the term “cosmopolitanism” normally refers to a universal humanity (e.g., human rights), Isabelle Stengers developed her concept of cosmopolitics as a way to bring the cosmos into the procedures, institutions, and experiences that make up human society.  Cosmopolitics critiques the bifurcation of the world into two halves: one side populated by humans, values, meaning, and subjectivity, and the other side populated by nature, facts, matter, and objectivity.  Cosmopolitics thus facilitates a redistribution of categories such as value, agency, subjectivity, and experience, such that those categories apply no longer exclusively to humans but in various capacities to all beings.  The cosmological scope of this redistribution resonates with the work of the JOTU project.  While cosmopolitics derives primarily from philosophers (Stengers, Latour, and others drawing from poststructuralist and process philosophies), the JOTU project was developed amidst the intersection of cosmology (Brian Swimme) and the field of religion and ecology (Mary Evelyn Tucker).  Swimme and Tucker carry forward the integrative vision of the cultural historian Thomas Berry, for whom the cosmos cannot be sufficiently understood as a series of objects but must be understood as a “communion of subjects,” such that meaning and value are woven throughout the entire fabric of the evolutionary journey.  Cosmopolitics and JOTU provide concepts that assist the effort of Big History to continue articulating an integrative history beyond human/nature dualisms.

Kim Carfore

Paper Title: Post-Secular Justice and the Ghosts of Big History

Abstract: The poststructuralist movement of post-World War II French theory contributed to various criticisms of the dualistic structures prevalent in modern thought, including the dualism between human culture and nonhuman nature.  Along these lines, concepts developed by poststructuralists can facilitate the integration of human and natural history, as is evident in the influence of poststructuralism on cosmopolitical accounts of collective history.  This paper focuses on contributions to Big History in the work of the poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida, who developed the theoretical method called “deconstruction.”  I indicate how deconstruction welcomes the “otherness” of beings, which has an ethically compelling force that puts into question the boundaries of animal/human and nature/culture dualisms.  For Derrida, the historical work of remembering the past is also the work of mourning others (including nonhuman others) and doing justice to their memory.  Although Derrida is a relatively atheistic and materialistic philosopher, he argues that, insofar as this call for justice is inherent to the work of history, there is a messianic impulse in history, an impulse to welcome a more just future by reflecting on past injustices.  In other words, irreducible to a series of facts, history is an encounter with haunting memories—ghosts.  The pursuit of justice requires scholars and teachers of Big History to cultivate messianic attention to the haunting otherness of past others.  Not secular but not quite “religious,” it is a post-secular messianic attention, which accounts for the calls for justice in history without confessing adherence to any particular Messiah or religious tradition.

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 »

What is Infratheory?

November 4, 2013 § 4 Comments


[Image: Chad Wys]

This is a short excerpt from my essay-in-progress for the Metatheory anthology I am contributing to:

Certainly, we can call this tradition “speculative” in the etymological sense that we are concerned with capacities to contemplate, anticipate, or grapple with the subtle dimensions of reality; that is, those questions which concern being, time, space, causality, substance, change, process, identity, or difference. But the tenets of this fictional tradition, as we will see, do not so much connote a meta-physics, meta-theory, or meta-language so much as they do an infra-physics, infra-theory, and infra-language. If “meta-” connotes above and beyond, “infra-” connotes between and below. The argument I advance here is not a prohibition on going “meta-”, but rather an ontological account of what metatheories actually are. Metatheories, like all knowledges, are real beings that draw reality together from the inside — there is nothing uniquely “above” or “beyond” about them. They are sticky, virulent creatures whose vectors of transmission are the fragile, evolving structures of human psyches and their companion species and assemblages. Despite the connotation implied by their name, metatheories are entirely situated, earthbound creatures, and while they may have transcendental implications, these implications are true only insofar as there are other actual entities — humans, texts, microscopes, data centers, planets, solar systems, galaxies — that can be attached to one or more of these transcendental claims. Metatheories exist only on the inside of the beings they describe; the cosmos is itself the condition for the possibility of metatheory, and not the other way around. It is in this sense that metatheories are actually infratheories; they are endosymbionts and we their unwitting hosts, and this switch opens new possibilities for knowledge and practice. « Read the rest of this entry »

Geocentric Media Ecology

October 14, 2013 § 21 Comments

vh-page093[Photo: Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze]

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

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Ecology and Time

September 17, 2013 § 3 Comments


Image: Felix Salazar

Cognitive ethology is the study of animal minds, and it provides essential insights into the ontology of ecosystems—most recently in regards to the relation between ecology and time. Throughout history, human beings have been captivated by animal minds. We have, for example, writings from Plutarch, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras musing on the nature and status of animals. In the case of Pythagoras, many of these writings date back to c. 530 BCE; however, given that we know humans have lived in deliberate multispecies societies for at least 100,000 years (as is the case with human-canine relations, which have existed for almost as long as the human species itself has), it is uncontroversial to claim that humans have been speculating on the nature of nonhumans for at least as long, and certainly much longer than the philosophers of ancient Greece. « Read the rest of this entry »

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