Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849 - Cecil Woodham-Smith

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Irish peasantry had become so dependent upon the potato for their survival and livelihood that poor Irish women scarcely knew how to prepare other foods. According to historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, when the crop failed it was inevitable that a people, who annually dealt with lean times verging on a starvation-lifestyle, would suffer mightily. What was entirely avoidable, was that the depths of the famine would reach such biblical proportions that perhaps 1.5 million Irish would die, and that the peasantry would be essentially forced to emigrate, thus altering the country's history such that effects were still felt a hundred years hence. While soil chemistry and agricultural pathology may have birthed the Irish Potato Famine, it was the work of men which turned hunger into a veritable holocaust. The disregard of British politicians and Irish landholders for the peasantry verged upon acts of willful genocide.

Woodham-Smith casts the most destructive impacts of the famine as those caused by an adherence to illusions of market economic theory. Relying upon forces of price and the ability of labor to jump-start spending and economic activity, during the first two years of the famine British policy makers cast about for ways to productively employ the peasantry. Road construction programs (terminating in the middle of nowhere), measures to combat soil erosion (for untended fields), and other manual labor attempts fell short for want of basic skills, but, more importantly, for a lack of affordable goods to sustain livelihoods. Policy makers and government officials, from their seat of power in London, saw the problem not as one of sustenance, but of economy; all-too-often providing food for the Irish meant helping them procure employment so as to partake in the economy. Once it became universally understood that a people without food cannot hope to work to earn food, it was for so many Irish, simply too late.

Blame for the worst impacts of the famine thus rests at the feet of a men who subjected humane ways of thinking to an economic calculus. Woodham-Smith suggests that a veritable perfect storm of pre-capitalist land tenure, combined with market economic forces, so greatly alienated the Irish masses from the land which they relied upon, that a tenuous position must yield widespread hardship. That it would lead to large-scale ruin and death need not have been inevitable, however, it has come to seem unavoidable. The greatest tragedy is perhaps that the famine never really ended. Concentrated land-holdings did not disappear, rather the Irish struggled on and continued to similarly suffer throughout the nineteenth century. Woodham-Smith places a great deal of emphasis on the iterative character of the natural and economic feedbacks, which would doom so many. Preceding the development of the welfare state, and, to some extent, the welfare global community, Ireland's Great Hunger demonstrated the all-too-real implications for a purely economic manner of treating human life.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Philosophy of Social Ecology - Murray Bookchin

Murray Bookchin pursues a philosophy consisting of man and nature, within a unified continuum. It is through the notion of becoming - that things are in the process of fulfilling their potential, as created by their interactive growth within a co-produced world - that Bookchin finds the unifying thread between ecology and society.

Crucial to Bookchin's concept is the assertion that potentiality exists in the here and now, as not only part of any thing's being, but as the fundamental aspect of it. Because potentiality has a history in the things that preceded it, its creation in the world can be traced as an arrival of interactions (emergence, it would seem, guarantees existence). This potentiality is of central import because the interactivity of reality continually builds towards complexity and subjectivity, and it is in relation to this development that an objective ethics becomes feasible. What fosters such complexity and variety of cognition must too, according to Bookchin, be an intrinsic good, as it encourages development towards the fulfillment of evolution. We therefore have the beginning point for an ethic which consists of both man and nature - to Bookchin's thinking one of the insuperable cleavage points in western philosophy. Because our reasoning and increasing subjectivity finds its origin in the natural world, we are given a grounding for an ethics which encompasses both.

The foremost problem with the myriad conclusions from Bookchin's application of a certain brand of dialectics, is the narrowness of his purview concerning concepts of development. Bookchin's assertion that more complex and subjective phenomena are increasingly arising from the natural, groundlessly imputes a specific teleological thinking onto the natural world. That phenomena have become more complex and subjective in historical time, whether a supported assertion or no, does not guarantee the primacy of this particular characteristic. Assessing reality based-upon the presence, absence, or differing shades of a developing continuum of consciousness becomes problematic when other manners of assessment are marginalized by a specific epistemology-cum-ontology. Ignoring other aspects of being threatens to straight-jacket reality. As the adage goes, "when the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." How we assess the world dramatically impacts what we are able to see.

Bookchin's dialectical leanings, and his assertions that evolution and ecological interactions foster differentiation and complexity, are insights in need of broader social sympathy. Nevertheless, the notion that the pontential created by dialectical processes is an expression of objective morality remains a groundless teleology favoring human ways of being in the universe. While a historical development, from a "metabolic self-maintenance" to more rational self-expressions, may emerge from natural processes, the occurrence of such transformations does nothing to suggest their relationship to the good, whether social or metaphysically defined. Positing such undermines the value of the dialectic from the start: the dialectic itself becomes simply a manifestation of supra-mundane phenomena. We risk an interactive reality driven primarily by some illusory Other - beware the realm of Forms. While Bookchin has certainly made headway towards a more integrated perspective on people and things, his insistence upon the cumulative nature of the dialectic remains problematic.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Great Transformation - Karl Polanyi

Daily our lives enact the hopes of a stark utopia. The free market system aims at achieving 'the greatest good for the greatest' through the market's ability to measure, and respond to, the needs and desires of individuals. While we may think of the market as nested within society, Karl Polanyi inverts this notion to suggest that society has become nested within market logics. This so-called "Great Transformation" renders men and women as economic entities. This is an assessment not only of the primary interests of the individual, but the extent to which each of us ought to be measured. It is the agglomeration of individual goods, transformed into the broader good of society, which is supposedly the goal of the free market approach. Polanyi argues that this utopian ideal is impossible. The total extension of the free market, he argues, would achieve no more or less than the destruction of society.

We are well-served to remember that the creation of the market society was specifically a historical occurrence nested within certain political and social contexts. This transition away from the period of state formation in the 17th and 18th centuries, into one of increasing global interconnection, altered the logic and balances of power. As states became awash in broader contexts their interactions took on a decidedly more economic air. Economic liberalism suggested that trade between countries and regions held the power to deliver men wealth beyond what heretofore had been possible. Of course, with winners there are losers, and the backlash of protectionism fostered deepening institutional strains. The requirements of greater production demanded the transformation, not only of industry and economy, but of landscapes, geographies, and human interactions. These transformations rested upon contradictory balances which required the careful governance of society and economy to ensure the 'proper' functioning of markets. In Polanyi's estimation the free market has never, nor can it ever, truly exist. Rather, society is an arrangement of priorities favoring certain economic values at the expense of broader human and environmental concerns. The isolation of the market, as the nexus of society, from these varying concerns, is, perhaps, the strangest of movements in the modern world.

It is this isolation of man from his broader concerns, and standardization of interactions, that renders the modern world something new under the sun. The freedom of modern society is rightly conceived as primarily freedom within a narrowly defined economic sphere: as long as we don't threaten the proper functioning of the market (read: society), freedom is ours to explore. However, any social organization is a negotiation of freedom regarding certain expectations of contract. The question becomes if the balance of society forecloses the expression of our broader freedoms. Society has become the new reality, how we measure and balance our desires and the expression of our humanity within it potentially authors further transformations.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Ecology Against Capitalism - John Bellamy Foster

A series of essays critiquing the relationship between capitalism and the non-human world, John Bellamy Foster employs a marxist perspective to describe the contradictions wrought by our global economic system.  Modern, economic, attempts to measure the immeasurable, to bring nature into the balance sheet, are seen by Foster to be both necessary aspects, and  unavoidable difficulties for capitalism. Examining the environmental debates (crisis?) of the 1980s and 1990s, these short essays variously touch on contemporary issues of technology and human freedom, while integrating more scholarly examinations of economic and social theory.

Throughout, Foster emphasizes the necessity for broad-scale social transformation to address growing human-caused, environmental degradation and transformation. This is largely grounded upon what he sees as the inextricable linking of the dominant political powers to the economic levers of influence. The uninitiated is left to imagine that such ties have only strengthened in the ensuing years.

Latent in Foster's critique (and it seems in most marxist criticisms) is the notion that society as currently constructed sacrifices the many at the alter of the few. Though the alienation of people from the world may be an issue which obscures our true relationships amongst each other and the world, left unclear is why people are not more outraged? The insights of a marxist approach, though they may run contrary to numerous, dominant, western paradigms, are not that irreconcilable with different approaches to knowing and governance. Why then, do people not raise more vocal oppositions? Are we silenced more than we realize? Do we simply ignore the disconnects in the world around us? Maybe it is that the rhetoric has become so demonized, but such critiques always smack a bit of paranoia. If we cannot provide an adequate rebuttal, why do we not therefore change our own minds, expectations, and approaches? What is the passage through which concepts must navigate to become reality?

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature - John Bellamy Foster

While it is universally accepted that the work of Charles Darwin has revolutionized the natural sciences, lesser known is the impact it had on another of the 19th century's most formative figures. The publication of The Origin of Species helped cohere Karl Marx's ideas about the dialectical principles within the world. Much like Marxism was a philosophy rooted in the interactive, joint production of people and the world, Darwinian thought struck at two of the fundamental tenets of contemporary western thought: essentialism and teleology. By grounding history and society in a "materialist ontology of emergence" (p. 233) both Darwin and Marx would transform how humans conceived of their relations with the world.

John Bellamy Foster sets out to reveal a forgotten history of Marx's (and Engels') ecological thought. Tracing the intellectual development of a young Marx through his dissertation examining Epicurean philosophy, Foster sows the materialist seeds that will blossom into Marx's central works. Overlooked in western recountings of Marxist thought, Foster argues, is an almost proto-ecological ethic. This is was not because Marx was some closeted, dreamy-eyed romantic, but rather because he drew sharp connections between the alienation of men from the landscape, and the domination of the capitalist. In Marx's estimation, the progression of capitalism relied on a double alienation of the worker both from himself (his human-ness) and from access to the land. Only the disconnect of town and country fostered a people abstracted from the world. In a passage that presages our own modern ecological concerns, Marx writes:

"Man lives, from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man's physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature."

It was, Marx thought, that only through such an awareness could the formative ensemble of relations between people and the world be adequately conceived. Attempts to separate Marx's political economy from his ecological theory will, Foster argues, incorrectly assess both the home-ground and the implications of Marxist thought.

For Marx, the true dialectic requires a proper situating of relations. Marx was a thoroughgoing materialist, one who saw the relational interaction of things as the constant reinvention of the world. In this materialism Marx was echoing the words of Epicurus and Lucretius: in materialism he too imagined the fundamental premise by which men could be freed to make their own history. For Marx, the materialist conception of nature and the materialist conception of history went hand-in-hand. As such, he and Darwin can be heard to speak the message, registering in different octaves.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What Hath God Wrought - Daniel Walker Howe

One can almost book-end what Daniel Walker Howe terms the formative years of the American republic with the political career of John Quincy Adams. As Secretary of State for President Monroe, Quincy Adams would pen the Monroe Doctrine, asserting the rights of the United States to the continent and setting the course for American expansion. On February 21, 1848, Old Man Eloquent would die serving at his post in the House of Representatives, speaking out against the country's continued insistence of celebrating the Mexican-American War, ambivalent about the expansion he had helped to nurture. Though he was only one of what might be considered the grandest generation of statesmen (including Webster, Clay, Calhoun and Hart Benton, among others), Adams cast a special shadow as the conscience of the young and fitful nation. His death was the final knell sounded for an older America, as it receded into history.

Interweaving growing industrialization, the increasing power of differing sects of Protestantism, and the advent of the two-party political system, Howe persuasively argues that the thirty years from 1815 - 1845 set the course for America beyond the Civil War and into the twentieth century. Though Howe's work sets itself the ambitious task of reviewing the entirety of the nation's history for the period, as an introduction and overview it ably casts a broad scope while pulling out salient and memorable details which provide a flavor of the politics and personages of the time. Throughout he emphasizes the speed and abilities of communication and the development of infrastructure as forces that would shrink time and space and bring the frontiers of empire to the door of civil-society.

The work succeeds as both a top-down review of political power and a bottom-up examination of the role that burgeoning social movements played in the growth of the empire and the American psyche. Howe's work is perhaps at its most insightful where these two concerns meet: the emergence of the modern US political party system. From virtual one-party rule under the Monroe Administration to the splintering of both the Whigs and Democrats in the run-up to the Civil War, the unsettled issues and contestations of debate are shown to interact within evolving nested contexts. Concepts of person-hood and rights, state versus federal power, and the privilege of the many versus the protection of the few, were far from settled by the Constitution and Bill of Rights. As the Congress and the Supreme Court struggled to enumerate the roles of government and the rights of citizens, the parties jockeyed for position and influence. With such uncertainty the political winds of influence blew in great gusts, swinging between seeming Democratic hegemony and Whig ascendancy. Shying away from simply defining all politics through the lens of slavery, Howe argues that the "peculiar institution" is better understood as one of a host of political (and ethical) concerns - though this too would evolve over the period. Yet it was often the cleavage point of slavery which continued to divide North and South, and served as the discursive shorthand for the opposition of different ways of life and conceptualization of the relationships between government and the people.

Here we see the adolescence of America in all its fits and starts. From the halls of the Capitol to the swamps of Louisiana. Within the percolations of such an era of global uncertainty we glimpse the formations of time and space; and are given room to imagine a world as it has been, as it would come to be, and, what did not come to pass.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Song of Myself - Walt Whitman

Whitman writes of wonderful interconnection; cosmos wheeling underneath, numbered hairs and dignity within, and without. So many roads to walk and, similarly, to move under our feet. "And there is no object so soft but it makes a hub for the wheel'd universe." How to synopsize, how to coalesce and communicate a statement of the self that is at once driving headlong, and similarly, felt at the margins? Both bold in assured dignity and timid in tentative wonder? Much as Whitman bequeaths himself to the dirt, or hastens to converse with the chorus of the all-purposed invisible, he lives and breathes, touching within and without, in surrender.

The binding notion for Whitman, in my own estimation (at least today) is total emptiness at the center: the arrival of oneself is the whole coming-together of an entire history of the universe - past, present, and at the knife-edge of creative novelty. We are, and it all is, constantly being reinvented. "Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes." Total stability renders phenomena immobile. Thermodynamics demands the loss of energy; the unintended outcome gives rise to the new world, and, thus, the new self. If we were already full, determined, drivers of our own destiny, then whither our new sense of self, our own transformation? We would be rendered immobile by Ecclesiastes - disparaging of nothing new under the sun. Recombination. Stagnation. Death there.

But I hesitate to simplify it, even so. Surely there is much more to find and be found. Wiser minds thinking wiser thoughts. The mountain doesn't simply come to Muhammad, nor can it provide our own salvation. Each, like Whitman, brings what he or she will to each new pass-way, each tight-rope movement. Transcendent effort, his, and each of us can meet him along the road - that place of co-production. Thus, the world is borne again, and each of us within it, and constituting it. Forever and ever. Great exultation there.

"I know I have the best of space and time, and was never measured and never will be measured."

Thanks, Gary.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Moa - Quinn Berentson


Quinn Berentson's Moa: the life and death of New Zealand's legendary bird, is part environmental and scientific history, part anthropological travelogue, and all elegy for these grand, extinct, birds of New Zealand. The moa emerges in Berentson's work as both product and producer; gateway into a disappeared world, and formative of this new-found place.

In detailing the settlement of New Zealand alongside the introduction of the moa to the western world, Berentson reveals how the last journey of the moa would be New Zealans's first: as they both entered into our consciousness. Uncovering the shifting grounds of uncertainty surrounding scientific discovery, Berentson allows us to peer into the unknown in the world around us, and reflect upon, not only how we come to know, but that we too leave footprints on the landscape trod.


Complete review published in Ostrich: Journal of African Ornithology

Monday, September 2, 2013

Trying Leviathan - D. Graham Burnett

The sound of a startling hubbub permeated New York City between Christmas and New Years, 1818. At issue was a court case debating a, seemingly, simple question, "are whales fish?" Yet, as D. Graham Burnett relates, this straight-forward question of classification and natural history was anything but, for it touched not only on the place of cetaceans and people in the "great chain of being," but also on the place of scientific and popular knowledge within the young American republic. In delving deeply into the historical and social context of the court case, Maurice v. Judd, Burnett has provided a far-seeing window allowing the reader to glimpse not only the evolution of classification within biology, but also contestations over who was the rightful representative of the natural world within the human sphere and the how definitions and placements of the natural delineated roles and differences within society.

It would be easy for a retrospective historian to look at this trial as one more tired example within the popular opinion versus scientific knowledge narrative. Luckily for us, Burnett has far too deft a touch, and is clearly too careful a thinker, to allow for such reductionist pandering. Rather than attempt to cut through the uncertainty and messiness of the period, with some modern-day dismissal of our naive and ignorant predecessors, Burnett sinks himself into the morass of context, to make us wonder along with everyone else, "what exactly makes a fish a fish?" Was it so settled that scientists thought whales were mammals? What about whalemen? Surely those who had actually grappled with a living beast ought to have their say. As for the common people, even their understandings were not so easily categorized. This final concern was of central importance. For, as the trial closed, it was about the practical application of understandings within the young republic, and how these differed across space, that would decide the fate of leviathan. Maurice v Judd was to become not only a question of classification, but of the placing of science within the politics and policy of the city.

Toward the end of his work Burnett refers to natural history of the period as existing within a "paradigm of confusion" and, indeed, it is the careful elucidation of this paradigm which grounds Trying Leviathan. Certainty and uncertainty rarely fall into such neat classifications. Too frequently we assume to know everything, or nothing. Truly, it is often the case that we have some information, that we move forward tentatively, with uncertainty. Capturing the spirit which animates the tough slog of living gives history a more nuanced, and yes, a more truthful animation.  Whether we hail the whale as a brother of Mammalia is about expertise yes, but also about common acceptation, which, like knowledge, is always subject to revision and change. We too are caught in the same morass; overwrought by the same hubbub.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Mayflower - Nathaniel Philbrick

After the perilous crossing was over, after the initial exploration of a mysterious shore was begun, and the first winter survived, the self-styled Pilgrims still had to carve a new life out of a landscape they could have never imagined. With a lifetime of vast uncertainties ahead, these believers tried to make sense of their lives, community, and faith in this new, unknown, and at many times perilous, world. Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower looks at the story of this preeminent early American community - those who Americans would claim as their progenitors - and how they lived and died, made peace and war, settled and fought on this new continent.

Central to Philbrick's work is his claim that the story of the Mayflower doesn't simply end with the Pilgrim's settlement at Plymouth Rock. Without developing crucial relationships with native people, any hope of Pilgrim survival would have been little more than a dream. Though both Indians and settlers ran the gamut of emotions and positions concerning these foreign people, avenues of exchange were forged and each came to rely upon the other. However, as the years passed, and the English became more comfortable and assured in this new world, their younger generations could not but help take the Indians for granted. Often seeing these, so different, people as obstacles to more peaceable lives, and along with unfettered access to a land they coveted, it is little wonder that conflict would arise. Philbrick's work continues through the end of King Philip's War and argues that the conflict remade the American landscape and was central to securing this new English preeminence. Contrary to the American national mythos, Philbrick demonstrates the tenuous nature of English victory in the war - and the precarious advantages they were able to exploit. We are left believing that history could have been written very differently indeed - that the future of this new world balanced on a knife's edge. Yet, by the time sachem Philip was killed in battle, the Indian population had been decimated and their claims to land usurped. Their numbers were never to rebound - nor was their land to be reclaimed.

These early days preceding the United States ought to remind us all of the humble and uncertain beginnings. As we look at the uncertainty of days gone by, we cannot help but wonder how things could have been, and what opportunities were lost along the way.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt - Edmund Morris

All energy.

The power and enthusiasms of Theodore Roosevelt crackle off the page of Edmund Morris' first of a three-part biography. From his birth and family origins unto the very precipice of the presidency, we see the young Theodore Roosevelt as a man never satisfied. Ever striving, succeeding (and failing), ever looking at what's next, Roosevelt seems to imagine a world on the cusp of being. Out West freedom is waiting to be harnessed. On the floor of the New York Assembly are problems to solve, foes to vanquish. Corruption in government is rampant. The natural world is in need of taming, exploration and explanation. To sit, to stagnate, is to watch life pass before you. Keep moving, seems to be his credo.

Yet for all TR's breathless efforts, we are left uncertain as to his motivations. Though it is always fraught to ascribe contemporary moralities to past periods, Morris more so questions Roosevelt's lack of common humanity. Why Roosevelt was driven to a life of public service remains largely uncertain - perhaps the man himself could not say. In all its power as a character-study Morris does wonder greatly at the young behemoth. We are left with the subtle feeling that Roosevelt's energies were expended more with an eye towards contest and glory than for any other notion. That it was the cultivation of his own imagined aspects of character, more than his impact on others, that drove Roosevelt so incessantly. Though we may wonder at this, it is not clear that Roosevelt ever did. We are left pondering: was the young Theodore Roosevelt a careful man? A thoughtful one? Does this change our estimation of his (coming in later volumes) greatness? Do we like Theodore Roosevelt?

While we may stand in awe of his efforts, his energies and his results, in the balance it is difficult to revere Roosevelt. The human dynamo blasts beyond everything in his path, yet when the points are tallied his success seems to reside largely in self-promotion. Thought he may embody the truly American spirit, a prizing of victory and glory without a reflection upon motivation and broader impact remains a tricky proposition. While we applaud his personification of our boundless enthusiasms, we simultaneously are given pause by the display of our many darker lights. Our tightrope between the past and the future is one strung across a chasm of uncertainty. Action and reflection are the opposing tensions holding our rope aloft. Pay too little, or too much, heed to one or the other, and we are lost. Some plow forward unknowingly, while others are paralyzed. Yet both falter. History would seem to conclude that Roosevelt found a balance which propelled him, and the country, forward. That, in his colossal efforts, he brought the world into a new age. Perhaps this demands a reassessment of the proper tension between action and reflection. We will see.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Spillover - David Quammen

"We shake the trees, figuratively and literally, and things fall out."

The notion, David Quammen writes, that the human world can ever be bracketed, separated, from the nonhuman world of animals, ecosystems, and the still undiscovered mysteries out there, is given lie by our susceptibility to the world's lesser understood aspects. Rampant population growth, exploding agricultural industry, and ecosystem destruction suggest that our relationship to the world around us is not what it once was. We have crossed a threshold. We no longer simply inhabit the world. As Michel Serres writes, we weigh upon it. It is not that our embeddedness within the world is something unique, rather, that the role of people in the biosphere has become outsized. Thus, we are confronted with novel challenges.

Foremost among these emergent concerns, Quammen writes, are the role that zoonotic diseases play in the present, and future, of the human prospect. The animal kingdom, both through our husbandry of domestics and our increasingly inescapable closeness to the wild, is now brought into more direct contact with people. Often these interactions take place in circumstances that are patently unsanitary and unhealthy for both man and beast. New phenomena arise from novel circumstances, and we can never fully prepare ourselves for the next big thing.

As coyotes and rabbits, hawks and deer, have become forcibly acclimated to life alongside and within human society, with fewer ecosystems to exploit, and as cattle and pigs, chicken and game meat are more widely slaughtered and traded, viruses, once confined to obscure existences in relatively untouched corners of the geographical and microbial world, are adapting to the human sphere and to human hosts. If the thrust of evolution is adapt or perish, then we must expect our tangled world of things to exploit the breadth of possibility. These tentative forays into a brave new viral world are bound to catch populations of people unawares. As our global interpenetration increasingly connects all people to all places, the risk of being caught unprepared is broadcast. The illness of Singapore quickly becomes the outbreak of Toronto, Lagos and Rio.

As we reach our fingers across the globe and into the depths of unexplored realms, is it any wonder that we have loosed phenomena which outstrip even our most scientific and modern epistemologies? Encountering more of the world means that we must develop our own understandings. Ways of knowing continually evolve, not only to meet the unexplained within ourselves, but to make sense of the heretofore unknown. As our envelopment of the world grows we will continue to be confronted with uncertainty, with the previously unimaginable. How this uncertainty informs our decisions and our actions is of crucial importance. We are left to wonder: will humans ever be adequately prepared to meet the world in all its complexity and awesomeness? Will we ever be able to forecast the next big thing?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Parasite - Michel Serres

Whether we speak of identities or relationships, our selective vision is inevitably exclusionary. Speaking meaningfully to one another entails ignoring all that pervades a setting; the extraneous; noise. Yet such a willful dismissal does not render the excluded unimportant. As Latour writes: Things strike back.  While relation may produce being, there will always be another/others who benefit from, or feed off of, action and intention.

Michel Serres' The Parasite explores the world of the ignored; the third in a two-way interaction. When the banquet is over and the guests have departed, it is the mouse who will feast on the surfeit. The unexpected guest; the beneficiary of lost excess. Surplus creates an unexploited niche, ready to be filled. Serres writes that the introduction of the parasite is analogous to the introduction of noise: it frustrates mechanistic and deterministic relationships; it yields unexpected outcomes.

Such unexpected outcomes can be seen as creative novelty - the knife-edge of history. With only a priori delineated relationships uncertainty remains absent entirely. Inspiration, revelation, epiphany, all initially strike us as unwanted noise until categorized or related to other phenomena or concepts. Lacking the unexpected and, sometimes, inconvenient, we may never view things afresh. The parasite, the unwanted, forces a reexamination of accepted  understandings; "it is the location and the subject of transformation." Awakening new possibility, the parasite, when viewed narrowly, may be seen as an encumbrance - an unwanted effluent.

But only the unexpected is truly novel. Any time the whole is transcendent it will force a redefinition (an expansion?) of the system. The whole is always a negotiation of internal mechanisms, each at various times subsuming and being subsumed by the others. No thing can obstinately cling to its past identity if it is to move forward. While the parasite draws upon energy and time, it also demands change in unexpected ways. It is here that novelty emerges, and the world is constantly remade afresh.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Searchers - Alan LeMay

The story from which Alan LeMay's The Searchers takes its inspiration was shrouded in myth before LeMay wrote his novel. With real-life blood, fear and destruction on the Texas High Plains as it source material and a film adaptation to-follow, the story of LeMay's work may be variously known to many - though the specificities, grasped by few.

Getting back to LeMay's work uncovers various nuances to the story. It is interesting to view the tale as an evolving mythology of competing source material. Allowing the recorded history, LeMay's work, and John Ford's movie to speak in-light of one another enables a multidisciplinary look at the intersection of mytho-reality and how the two become enmeshed in our conceptions of self and experience. While Amos (alternately Ethan) Edwards and Martin Pauley may have never walked the Earth in a traditionally western (cultural, not genre) sense, we can compare their characterizations between novel and film with one another. Though it may seem mistaken to compare the two, in attempts to find the true Amos/Ethan Edwards, how we make sense of such competing personas can offer insights into ourselves and competing mediums of art (among other issues). The characters' descent from a historical account of the search for Cynthia Parker only complicates, and enriches our sense of their place and actions.

Looking for an absolute grounded, tangible center for this conception of an evolving reality will inevitably come up short. However, our sense of discussion amongst texts enables for differing modes of truth to revolve around a central place, which itself must be empty. This is not a denigration of such an arrival: how do we delineate the absolute central aspect of any entity's identity, without which all the surrounding phenomena would be something different? The discussion which takes place within our interpretations will likely never be entirely settled. Edwards and Pauley can continue to live, grow and change in our minds and with ourselves. If the observer co-creates the world s/he inhabits, then this fluid discussion allows for the continual re-creation of the world, and the subsequent novel generation of opportunity and contingency. The frontier of the Texas High Plains is now - and not what it was before Ford's movie, or LeMay's work. How it is interpreted implicates a real change in the here and now. What is done will be owned, reinterpreted, appropriated, understood and misunderstood; to each his own. Faulkner was right: "The past is not dead. It's not even past."

Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Ladder of Divine Ascent - St. John Climacus

At more than 1400 years old, St. John Climacus' Ladder of Divine Ascent has become a part of the Christian, particularly Catholic, liturgy and scholarship. Derivative of the parable of Jacob's Ladder, and speaking of the steps required in one's journey towards a life in service to the Lord God and his only begotten Son, The Ladder gives insight into some of the most nuanced and influential thinking concerning Christian belief during the Dark Ages.

Of particular interest to me was the work as the efforts of an eminently rational mind. While the writings of a 6th century monk, directed specifically towards his brethren, may smack the modern ear as outmoded religiosity, what struck me was the rational tone of St. John's arguments and approach. Here is a case for fealty to God, carefully constructed and based upon the founding premise that he is not unjust, and will not close the door to those who knock with humility.

Such a rational, and indeed, one might argue, logical, argument, proceeds to place the would-be adherent within a world of uncertainty. While the world may be a multiple and changing place, the divine is eternal and changeless. If we are to believe as St. John does, creation, as emanating from God, is a manifestation of his love. If love is the central guiding principle then the eternal must be good, and it is only within the fleeting veil of change in the world that evil arises. Thus, we must discard our worldly concerns, which occur for but a blink in the eyes of the divine, and enter into a life whereby we wish only for what is transcendent of our time and place. While this may strike the modern as specifically escapist or even savage, we may imagine a time and place in which such understandings would have been a radical invention within the history of human thought. In a world of recurrent season and ceaseless change, positing an eternal and unchanging principle must challenge our conceptions of our place in creation. The possibility of such permanence potentially gives rise to countless pursuits - not the least of which is that of permanent knowledge itself. The conceptual shift from the latent uncertainty of a complex and evolving world within which we are subsumed, to a creation which we can grasp and potentially meaningfully understand and, possibly, even alter, is a bold and great conceptual leap. We do well to remember the foundations upon which we have built our own castles in the sky.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Dutch - Edmund Morris

After years of all-access privileges to the Reagan White House, Edmund Morris seems to have concluded that, to honestly write a biography of the 40th President, he would have to re-imagination what is meant by reality. Operating from the premise that Ronald Reagan lived within his own arrived upon conception of reality, Morris too attempts to inhabit such a reality as he would have created; one running parallel to the President's.

Such an accomplishment - Morris' approach - probably says more about Reagan than any historical recounting could. If we are interested in knowing Ronald Reagan as a man, how he thought, how he grew and how changed to understand, and eventually, how he would come to shape the world, then Morris' approach comes highly recommended. This is, first and foremost, a study of character. The ambitiousness of his work, the sheer gall to flaunt such convention is surely worthy of high praise. If the central short-coming of Ambrose's work on Nixon is a failure to learn about the man himself, then Morris' work suffers from a lack of historically situating Reagan's grand personage.

Perhaps Morris - and Reagan - are right in their estimation of the actor-cum-President's role in the American psyche. Reagan has always existed more in our imaginations than the reality of his actions have formed our opinion of him. The casting of such a character adds a weight of meaning to the performance of Reagan's public life and Presidency. It helps us better understand the world-as-stage ethos that can infuse the biggest of lives. It gives the onset of Reagan's dimentia and alzheimer's a more potent reality and, eventually, allows us to agree that we can never really know him. Morris' analogizes Reagan to the planet Jupiter: a large mass of extreme gravitational force, inexorably altering all objects around it, looming large in the sky, and, eventually, revealed as without center. Ronald Reagan was a point of arrival; a creative novelty of performance at every moment drawing all of us towards him and the world of his creation; whether we wished it or not. Morris seems to think that Reagan never cared to realize this; was never much for introspection. Maybe it all really is just a big picture show.

Friday, July 19, 2013

How To Be Alone - Jonathan Franzen

Naked and alone.

As the century, nay, the millennium draws to a close, life in America is supposedly at its apogee. The Cold War is over, poverty, racism, and all other forms of social malaise are in retreat. Wealth. Freedom. Success. The American Dream. Never have we felt so secure. The world is our oyster. "So", Franzen seems to ask, "what's wrong with me?"

When the day is done we still puzzle over what it means to make sense of being ourselves in the world. Modern ascendancy has left such concerns drastically wanting. Franzen feels inundated with depersonalized technologies, both physical and social. No matter how fast our machines whir, no matter how reassuringly they hum, at the end of the day we are who we are. Left, as Franzen assures us, standing in the shower; naked and alone.

Franzen seems to understand who is audience is: the small-group of like-minded, self-identified, readers. He relies upon a keen sense of kinship with his audience: either you intuitively understand the various disconnects he wonders over, or you are likely unable to feel his sense of estrangement. These essays puzzle over how each of us is finally able to be okay with ourselves; though I wonder if Franzen would feel, personally, successful?

In a larger sense How To Be Alone is a series of essays letting like-minded people know that such disconcerting feelings that too often characterize the modern situation need not be experienced in isolation. Though the questions he drives at are finally particular to each person, that we share a common humanity in the first place, even amongst all the noise, might still be a truism that binds us. Finding the common ground in shared disassociation is Franzen's driving force. How he makes sense of it tells us about ourselves as birthed by, and standing in opposition to, the world we inhabit.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Religion and Nothingness - Keiji Nishitani


All people, indeed all things whatsoever, meet on the common field of nothingness which is the universe. On this common field, each moment of time is ever-present in all things. Always. This means that all things, including you and I, are constantly in a state of becoming - constantly transcendent of the moment. Such continual newness yields ever-present, novel freedom and possibility, as well as burdens and necessities.

For Keiji Nishitani of the Tokyo school of philosophy, such seemingly radical assertions are really simple ramifications wrought from an investigation of our experience in the world. Standing in opposition to the western scientific edifice (which he describes as a vast superstructure spanning a yawning nothing), Nishitani's marriage of western philosophy and Buddhist thought encourages a reflection upon our own interactions within the world. Our own newness without ceasing; our embodiment of the vast web of relations, entails an emptiness (not proscriptively negative) at the core of our being. Such an emptiness allows for the freedom of the moment; enables us to interact with and grow alongside the universe of radical becoming.

Nishitani's work does much to invert our sense of self and the world - perhaps long overdue. The ramifications of a radical becoming on a field of emptiness have been touched upon in canonical Buddhist works and given a certain audience in the West by Whitehead. By fully investing ourselves into the world (an acceptance of the home-ground of the emptiness of all things demands such) we can begin to understand our own formation in moment, and live the embodiedness of things-as-self, and vice versa.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Nixon: The Education of a Poltician 1913-1962

"He was a swine of a man and a jabbering dupe of a president. Nixon was so crooked that he needed servants to help him screw his pants on every morning ... He was queer in the deepest way. His body should have been burned in a trash bin." - Hunter Thompson, on the death of President Richard Nixon

It is absolutely impossible to read a biography of Richard Nixon divorced from what the man would grow into within a certain part of the American consciousness. My mother was raised by Eisenhower Republicans. The first election in which she was eligible to vote was 1972. To this day her vote for Nixon hangs like a specter in her mind. Hunter Thompson believes that such a man as this transcends objective journalism; that it was specifically this tendency to overtly rational thought that Nixon perverted in the first place. Even now, it feels dishonest to review a biography on him without mentioning such things.

Fairly or unfairly, political biographies, particularly those of presidents, will, for some time, be measured against the triumph of Robert Caro's The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This is, most likely, unfair for numerous reasons, the least of which is that Caro has spent more than forty years writing this four, soon-to-be five, volume work. Stephen Ambrose has clearly set-out to achieve something different, in his own three-volume life of Richard Nixon.

As a retelling of a life, Ambrose first part works well enough. Here are the facts, Jack, and there is enough wiggle-room allowed for a reader's interpretation. Yet, too often it seems that Ambrose has not taken the initiative to separate myth from history. To whit: he recounts the scene before Nixon's "Last Press Conference" in the defeated candidates hotel room, only to leave the reader uncertain as to what prompted Nixon's rebuke of the press. It is perhaps the greatest testament to Nixon the man to say of a 600-plus page biography, even knowing that it is part one of three, that I wish it would have been much longer. Though he takes a few paragraphs out to engage in some counter-factual history, what if Nixon had won in 1960, we are left with only hints of a stolen Kennedy election. Though it may be too much to ask for a conclusive answer, surely a deeper analysis of this pivotal hinge in American history, not to mention the life of Richard Nixon, is in order.

While Ambrose has done much to give Nixon's image a, probably much-needed, softening, we are left wondering beyond facts which could be simply distilled from deep historical reading amongst stacks of newspapers. Ambrose takes not nearly enough time to get into Nixon's life and relationships and root around. He vacillates between Nixon as inherently unknowable mysterious figure and entirely public persona. Jumping from episode to episode, we witness Ambrose's Nixon growing in stature and influence, without our having much sense of the man. There is little achieved to dissuade the reader of their preconceived notions of this most loved and hated man. If the subject himself were not so fascinating, one wonders what purpose the work would serve? 

Though Ambrose may be correct in railing against so-called "psychological biographers," surely the more uncertain motivations and personal machinations of such a towering and vast historical figure as Nixon, a more careful analysis of the man as situated within a time that he helped to co-create, might tell us more about ourselves and our history.

Nixon's spirit, love him or hate him, remains noticeably absent throughout the work. Thompson's 2,500-word obituary speaks more to the substance of Richard Nixon, albeit from one drastically derisive point of view, than Ambrose has captured. 

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Complexity - Roger Lewin

Roger Lewin sets out to better understand the notion of emergence, and, more broadly, its relationship to the science of Complexity. Whether or not it is intentional, Lewin's approach is itself a sort-of exercise in cultivating emergence. In trying to tease out the more subtle aspects and important ramifications of Complexity theory and science, Lewin hopes to uncover heretofore unrealized understandings.

As an introduction to Complexity Lewin's work successfully posits different thinkers against one another. In-so-doing he simulates a focused dialogue for the uninitiated that at once examines the common ground and differentiation in thinking about complex systems. Along the way aspects of evolution and self-organization within systems are given a critical examination. If, as many scientists within the work suggest (and Lewin seems to be sympathetic towards), there are certain attractors of order within complex systems, then evolution will favor certain outcomes. If true, the implications of this force a re-imagination of Darwin's theory and might demand a re-examination of our interactions with the world. The uncertainty of emergence is perhaps the most tricky, yet the most potentially fruitful aspect, of Complexity thought.

At the very least, notions of Complexity thinking suggest reflection surrounding notions of equilibria in nature. If it is less the components of a system, and more the interactions between these pieces, that give a system its identity, then evolution and creative novelty are both drivers and resultants of complex systems. Looking towards relationships first, as Serres and Whitehead do, means re-thinking our approaches across disciplines; scientific or otherwise.

The Outbreak of the Peloponnesian War - Donald Kagan

Thucydides believed that the Peloponnesian War (431 - 404bce) was inevitable. The closing of the Greco-Persian War left the Hellenic world riven between a polarity of attractors: Sparta and Athens. For forty years the Athenians would pugnaciously push their advantage in the Mediterranean; Sparta waited, knowing from hard-fought experience that rivals come and rivals go. But the growth of Athens remained unchecked, and, despite light skirmishes, Sparta proudly maintained her supposed hegemony. But the Lacedaemonians could remain aloof for only so long. It was fated in the stars, as Athens goaded Sparta's allies, that the rival powers must clash; bringing a new order to the Hellenes.

Donald Kagan fiercely contests Thucydides inevitability thesis. To the contrary, Kagan writes, the Peloponnesian War resulted from a confluence of emergent circumstance which transcended the control and intention of those involved. Kagan emphasizes that, to speak of Sparta, Athens, or any other Greek polis, one must negotiate the passage between the internal and the external, the domestic and the foreign; the multiple and the singular. Clashes were often less between city-states and more between specific factions within each city-state; such factions would periodically wax and wane in power. It is only when such factions exercised power, thereby responding to and subsequently altering regional events, that a small undercurrent leading towards conflict swept the Greeks along towards war.

In answering Thucydides claim of inevitability, Kagan's approach reveals a different history. Inevitability as such suggests a causality in which  outcomes are equal to the sum of their inputs. A certain reorganization of powers, wealth and influence. Such a history must be linear; it leaves no room for creative novelty; emergence is absent. Kagan's history is one of percolations; of folded times. Technologies are employed and actions are put-forth into a world of tentative uncertainty. When actors are co-defined, when relations create spaces of arrival which earn the name of a discrete entity, then outcomes are never fore-ordained. Kagan speaks of a different relationship with time. Rather than a linear progression of inputs and outcomes, Kagan's folded and percolated times move with fits and bursts. Events and objects replay their importance. Did they ever depart in the first place? Creative novelty emerges from the knife-edge of uncertainty. As actors wobble between co-created identities, as they become in relation to evolving circumstance, time is the result.

Change and asymmetries of outcomes demand response and re-definition, thus, the world moves forward. The Peloponnesian War far surpassed anyone's expectations; it was a war that no one wanted. Yet, the fault was not in the stars. Politicians and citizens made choices in-light of changing circumstances. Sometimes they chose well, sometimes ill. But in a co-created world there is often chance to retreat from the precipice. Rhetoric of the time suggested that each had no other alternative but conflict - at a certain point this was surely true. But all circumstance is itself  a synthetic place of arrival. And each action ought to bespeak an uncertainty by the actor.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Troubadour of Knowledge - Michel Serres

A topology of time and of the person. Michel Serres speaks of the Instructed-Third. Fabulous generalist? Not precisely. More as one who is, themself, a fluid ensemble, what the ancients might have called a master of rhetoric. Odysseus, man of a thousand talents. Lumpy time demands lumpy personhood.

As time is not simply a linear recounting, but emerges in fits and starts, so too, the creative novelty of the individual, or better, the hub of the wheel, is a passage, held in place by a great many things. Here again events converge, and novelties emerge. Wobbly persona; uncertain personhood. Time is a continual birth of us all, and us, of time. If someone asks who you really are, look deeply into the eyes of he who asks, he will not ask again.

There is no end to the patchwork cloak of us all. Harlequin forever removes his second-to-last coat. The task of each is to make that cloak as variegated , as multiple, as possible. In other places Serres speaks of dancers; of the passage of muse. We cannot help but translate the world, but neither can we dominate it. We are swallowed by a context that we co-evolve with and within. Whitehead called it superject. The goal is thought, leading to invention. Novelty: the birth place of time.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

The Great Gatsby - F. Scott Fitzgerald

Out among the ash-heaps is where life, and death, occurs. Tom, Daisy, Jordan, and, yes, even Nick, fly from one side of the world to another. As they blissfully dismiss the effluent of their actions, the rest of the world is left to clean-up. Only the strong (rich) survive, while the poor - Myrtle, Wilson, and Jay - are destroyed. Though the past, much to Gatsby's chagrin, may be gone, the celebrations, excesses and profligacy of the few must be paid for; but not by themselves.

But there is a flip-side. Being incapable of death renders the elite unable to live. Yes, Tom and Daisy may retreat into their protective cocoon of wealth, but what will they find there? Another endless carousel of events and gatherings? Intrigues and gossip? More sprees to lament and joys to be paralyzed by? The Great Gatsby is truly an American story: for, only in America, will we continue to mistake this specter of existence for a desirable life, time and again.

It is entirely reasonable to chide Gatsby for his optimism; for his stubborn efforts towards creating the world around him as he thinks someone else idealizes it. Tom is right: Gatsby can never be like them. And so, his insistence upon reliving times gone-by overlooks the price that must be paid for the past. Living demands dying, and Gatsby always wanted to live. The desire to witness another, brighter day, requires the willingness to risk - to stumble and even fail. George, Jay and Myrtle dared to dream a new life, and paid for it. There is much that conspires against change; against a brighter tomorrow. Transformation is not received, it is won. Are the risks worth it, knowing the possibility of failure? We cannot simply wish that tomorrow we will run faster, stretch our arms out further - the yearning hope for a better world, employing our same capabilities, continually yields the past.

American Indian Ecology - J. Donald Hughes

Europeans and American Indians suffer from such a fundamental disconnect concerning the relationship between people and the natural world, that they are unable to speak meaningfully across cultural boundaries. Such a disconnect was on-display at treaty negotiations and throughout the process of land settlement disputes, as Europeans settled North America. More crucial still was the victory of the Western mindset and subsequent subsuming of American Indian cultural ethos and ways of knowing. If American Indians had anything to teach the West about potential alternatives for how people and the world would interact, that message has all but disappeared.

But not entirely.

J. Donald Hughes looks across a plethora of American Indian cultural experiences (while acknowledging the fundamental differences between them) and communicates alternative ways of living in the world that were every bit as rational and tested as the Western-scientific approach. To casually dismiss an entire people, who inhabited all available environments and developed complex and responsive ways of living within them, is, most innocently, dismissive, and, at worst, a willing and continued cultural genocide. Upon what premises do we assume that American Indians have nothing to tell us about living in the world? While Hughes may oversell the benevolence of American Indians in relation to their habitat, and overlook a broader historical contexualization, his work represent a marginalized voice, in need of a platform. American Indian ways of living have much to say about finding our place within the world; this is, perhaps, more important than ever.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought - J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.)

As environmental destruction grows apace the world's Western turn, many cannot help but wonder at a different way forward. Perhaps the very ideological underpinnings of Western thought are fraught from the outset with problems surrounding conceptions of objectivity, rationality, and an unbridgeable gap separating people from the world (whether contingent or essential). Could a subsequent departure from western thought be in order? The East, ostensibly so different in its conceptions of man and the universe, has much to say that Western thought marginalizes, or outright ignores. Is it possible that our world could be healed with a dose of Eastern thought?

Spanning traditional Chinese environmental conceptions of the Lao-Tzu (TaoTe Ching) and insights from Buddhist teaching and mythology, many of the chapters give the western mind much to ponder over. Does our insistence upon the Cartesian separation of man and the world ensure an inability to live an interconnected existence with our surroundings? Are there alternate ways of seeing ourselves in the world, and vice-versa? While the questions raised may strike the Western mind as unanswerable and circular, the reader is left with the impression that the Eastern thinker would respond to such a quandary with a simple, "yes."

Agreed upon across the work, largely the result of Asianists from the United States, is the belief that in no manner can traditional Eastern thought be simply imported to our present predicament. While varying philosophies and ways-of-being can potentially expand our horizons of possible futures, modes of thought arise within, and in response to, certain social and cultural contexts. Once again, a simple answer for our environmental predicament is left disappointed.

This edited volume seeks to answer the question, what does the East have to teach the West about a possible environmental philosophy? Various contributors respond ranging from much and some, to none and the question itself is fraught. Such variety is hardly surprising. As can similarly be expected, the strength of argument, insight and scholarship varies. There is much to inform the beginner here and much for the initiated to ponder over. After more than twenty years much of the work maintains its insight, clarity and necessity.


Monday, May 13, 2013

The Song of the Dodo - David Quammen

"The case of the Dodo was only one of hundreds."

Truly, David Quammen's book is not really that much about the dodo. Nor is it strictly a lament for our now muted world of absent bird-song. Quammen has achieved much more than a simple elegy for extinct species; his is not just mournfully warning us about the hazardous world we have created for our disappearing neighbors. Rather, Quammen has endeavored to explore a host of complex scientific theory, make his understandings communicable to the reader, and interrogate the extent to which our best scientific efforts mesh with the world around us. Weaving his travels and own scientific explorations together, Quammen brings the full-force of a scientific argument to the world, while simultaneously giving concrete example to the sometimes erudite work of the research community. As the work develops and deepens in nuance and explanatory power we better realize why Quammen's is so dedicated to his pursuit. This is a tale that grows in the telling.

The Song of the Dodo takes the transformation of our world and concomitant effects on biodiversity as an alarming, and complex problem desperately in need of explanation. To better illuminate the disappearance of (mostly island) species the world over, David Quammen travels the extent of the globe to speak with researchers and locals. Throughout, his motivating question examines why certain species become extinct. While it would be a noteworthy addition to the scientific literature if he could simply provide a lucid answer to such a difficult question, Quammen has achieved something much more profound: along the way we also learn why we ought to care about such disappearances. Part natural history, part travelogue, part historical scientific review, The Song of the Dodo is a triumph for taking the question of extinction and ponderously allowing a plethora of perspectives to interweave. The result is an emergent understanding, transcendent of aggregate evidence. It is as though Quammen has concretized his subject into a physical entity that we can circle and investigate from a host of angles and insights. What appears to begin as another lament for the destruction of the world, a two-dimensional abstraction of a global problem, gains force and momentum throughout the study. There is much to mull and ponder in the work, not least of all the transformation of Quammen's, and our own, thinking about how our own place in the world, more and more, comes at the exclusion of other species. It is not simply that the song of the dodo has been forever cast beyond the ken of human knowledge; rather, it is the silent cacophony of voices that have already joined it, and the untold numbers that will be added to the chorus in years to come.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn

Vast amounts of critique, plaudits, queries and aspersions have been leveled at Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the 51 years since it was first published. While I am sure there is little novel (or, frankly, of interest) that I could add to the discussion, I wanted to highlight one aspect of the work which seems generally overlooked. Though SSR is the intricately tied together and carefully written this aspect is surely addressed in reference to many of its other salient points, what struck me was the notion of incommensurability and perception.

When Kuhn writes (paraphrasing) that each scientific revolution transformed the scientific imagination in ways ultimately resembling a transformation of the world, he is speaking volumes indeed. Seeing something new, for the first time, is, for Kuhn, a discovery not only of what something is, but, moreover, that something is. Our conception of science and the universe will always impinge upon our sense of what is possible. Thus, it is not to say that Aristotle was a primitive Newtonian, or that Einstein could have imagined quantum theory - each time period is dealing with a context so distinct, that they can be meaningfully said to inhabit different realities. The implications of this, and the role that perception and theory play upon both our science and our place in reality, are far-reaching.

As such, science can be said to evolve, just like nature. Issues of emergence, fitness, and phase change are just as real in science-as-subject, as they are in science-as-method. What this evolution says about the substance of science - about the phenomena that science can possibly know - is surely a pressing concept for  the field of science studies. All around us science (and scientific endeavor) expands, seemingly without limit. Yet, any case must choose what to prize and what to marginalize; all manner of looking must be exclusionary. The development of our scientific understanding has yielded so much; we must remember to not lose sight of that which it would deem insignificant, or, worse, non-existent.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Mother Earth - Sam D. Gill

The ubiquity of the Mother Earth story in Native American traditions rest, in Sam Gill's estimation, upon a mistaken legacy of simplified scholarship and dismissive, and one might argue racist, history. Gill's historical scholarship looks at the scant evidence upon which this myth was originally perpetuated, and, then, how it did become adopted by latter-day Native American's in defense of their lands and tribal rights.

Gill has uncovered a historical narrative worthy of examination, and his thorough scholarship strongly contrasts to the small evidence upon which the traditional Mother Earth narrative took shape. Perhaps the most interesting point his scholarship addresses is concern over what is lost when traditional voices are abstracted to fit a predetermined mold: by assuming before-the-fact that Native American tribes have similar Mother Earth traditions, we risk overlooking the cultural nuance and uniqueness of each tribe's stories and myths.

While the work raises many interesting questions, Gill addresses too few of them. His depth of historical research succeeds at the hands of what might be a more creative scholarship. Seemingly much  of the conclusions highlighted could be better addressed in an essay or introductory chapter. Unexamined are questions surrounding the power of narrative and the ability to take ownership of discourse. Why is that a story imposed by a powerful colonial system, became adopted by the very people oppressed to defend themselves from further divestment? What does this tell us about the politics of story and narrative? It is possible that to answer such is not the purview of this work; but the questions sit as inescapable. When Gill compares the differences between tribal-belief structures to the gaps between Catholic and Protestant Christians, or, furthermore, between Jews, Christians and Muslims, he seemingly undermines his own argument. Symmetrical interrogation suggests a Native American anthropologist traveling to Europe and the Middle East and wondering at how all of these people have come to believe in single, indivisible ancient father who created heaven and Earth; and man in his image. The level of analysis and abstraction is crucial when looking for similarities and differences in such an arena. How we look greatly influences what we see. Yes the particulars of each sect differ, but, depending on the level of abstraction, they can seem similar indeed.

While Gill's work puts forward interesting insights and broaches numerous interesting questions, the work, finally, waivers between being too deep and too broad. It is a successful provocation of novel lines of thought in need of further pursuit.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Kennedy - Theodore Sorenson

The days of the Cuban Missile Crisis would test the organization, the powers, the wherewithal and the abilities of the Kennedy White House. So much in those days of greatest tension was uncertain, and so many pieces were, by needs, juggled to ensure that such a defining moment would become, in essence, landmark for what did not, what could not be allowed to happen. Amidst the storm of danger and uncertainty was President John Fitzgerald Kennedy. With less than two years - and, one could argue, more than a few missteps - under his belt in the Oval Office, President Kennedy had to be ready, had to be willing to look out to the precipice and bring his country back from the ledge. To hear Ted Sorenson tell it, this was not a question of politics or ethos, patriotism or toughness, President Kennedy was uniquely able, in such overwhelming circumstance, because of a very simple, though nonetheless rare, quality: his humanity. John Kennedy was many things to many people: a symbol of hope and a new generation, a war hero, a political upstart and accidental superstar. For Sorenson, a man who would work with the Senator-cum-candidate-cum-President, John Kennedy's greatest strength and most virtuous depths were as man suited to the time and task; a man of great care and compassion, patience and thoughtfulness. He was, in one estimation, a bigger man than could have been supposed. It was this that set John Kennedy apart.

Sorenson's laudatory biography traces the political growth of Kennedy from 1954 to his assassination. Largely a character study, we are given insight into how Kennedy thought-about and approached such numerous issues as Civil Rights, peace summits, arms control and trade policy. Because it was written so soon after the President's death in Dallas (published in 1965), it is little wonder that Sorenson's work speaks in unparalleled terms of the man. That he was a great man is not in question, yet Sorenson perhaps oversells the young President's wisdom and adequacy to each task of his mammoth office. When missteps occur it is rarely on account of the President's approach or judgement, and all victories are won by his sage abilities and good humanity. Virtual deification can only help us understand the man in relation to his times to a certain extent, and runs the risk of leaving an audience feeling disempowered in the light of a complex and uncertain world: not a particularly democratic ideal. Though Kennedy's calls to service energized a nation, Sorenson biography may leave us all too willing to look for our next savior. He is, through and through, a Kennedy man.

Despite this Sorenson's work has achieves an insightful look into the most inner of circles of power. That we have a record of how President Kennedy governed, less from a perspective of politics and more as a study in character, is a gift. Should future generations ever wonder what it was about the brief public career of John Kennedy that made him such an important figure, they will need to look no further then Sorenson's work.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Africa as a Living Laboratory - Helen Tilley


Helen Tilley’s work examines the role that colonial science played in the expansion of empire in British Africa. Rather than succumb to the traditional narrative that scientists and colonial administrators blindly employed pre-conceived epistemologies to African environmental issues of the day, she reveals an intellectual and administrative history whereby African indigenous knowledge played a formative role in how western scientific concepts evolved and were translated back to the seats of Empire. Being able to govern an empire, with the attendant necessity of integrating varying disciplines and realms of knowledge, meant that these emergent scientific understandings also had to be integrated into a broader framework that scientists at the time were beginning to refer to as ecology. Tilley’s work gives voice to a heretofore overlooked concern of colonial science that still speaks strongly to our contemporary concerns: how do we apply practical and conceptual developments within the sciences to address complex and heterogeneous environments? Not only does this work address the role of science in the development of Africa, it asks us to consider the role of colonial Africa in the development of modern western science. Surely such an inversion is potentially grounds for fruitful discussion concerning ways of knowing, localized and universal knowledge, and how the sciences speak, not only to one another, but to the world at large.

See full review at:




Saturday, March 30, 2013

Prince of Networks - Graham Harman

Metaphysics deals with two fundamental problems (and, subsequently, how the two interact with one another): substance and relation. Based upon his contributions to metaphysics, specifically his novel insight into these two spheres, Bruno Latour ought to be cast among one of the preeminent philosophers of the twentieth century (and one would hazard the twenty-first); so says Graham Harman. By relocating reality to the particularities of objects' relationships, without retreating to some outside, autonomous force (as Harman accuses Whitehead), Latour has given birth to the first secular occasionalist philosophy and redefined what an actor is and how we ought to think of them. No mean feat.

The first half of Harman's work is a keen review of Latour's formative works and he ably reviews not only the nuance and insight, but more crucially, the implications of Latour's philosophies. Casting a laudatory eye upon Latour's notions of absolute concreteness and the actor as composite of its relations, Harman helps to illuminate how every actor is also a medium of relations. As a reviewer he helps to tease out such complications of Latour's work that unquestionably assist in aiding with our understanding of it.

The second half of the work introduces Harman's own positions, building towards what he terms an "Object-Oriented Philosophy." In preparation for this he places Latour in a position of philosophical success - to better uncover the implications, and thus critique Latour's claimed shortcomings as a metaphysicist. While Harman claims that Latour's work provides a foundational understanding his own efforts, the philosophy Harman develops seems not only to depart from Latour's at crucial junctures, but to run contrary to the whole enterprise. Though he identifies numerous problems with Latour's positions, which he attempts to rectify, central to his critique is Latour's inability to account for an object's future, and his failure to allow for a real identity outside of the relationships which articulate it. To correct this shortcoming Harman re-introduces a four-fold model whereby substance and occasion rule (though he has attempted to update the vocabulary). Though he goes to great lengths to show how his positions are similar to Latour's he cannot overcome the contradictions between the two - contradictions so central that one is left wondering how they can be said to agree. While yes, it does seem to ring true that objects exceed their constituent relations, this does not, as Harman argues, necessarily imply a pre-existence of substance to such relationships (this is one possible explanation). Though he has identified issues in Latour's philosophy in need of further clarification (which are partially given space in Reassembling the Social ) Harman's own responses are greatly lacking. While we may experience different manifestations of the same thing, we need some ground with which to identify it as the same over time. That identity is more settled in our eyes requires an explanation; it is not simply sufficient to say that it must be more settled. How anything comes to be emergent, to seemingly transcend its constituent parts, is where our interrogation ought to lie (if we are to critique Latour). This crucial realm Harman sidesteps entirely, thus dooming his response.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Empire of the Summer Moon - S.C. Gwynne

On the great high plains of western Texas, and extending as far west and north as Utah, out into New Mexico, across and up to Oklahoma, was perhaps the greatest inland indigenous empire the Americas have ever seen. From the introduction to the new world of the horse by the Spanish, until the second-half of the 19th century, the Comanche ruled as unquestioned masters of what was thought to be the Great American Desert. Taking buffalo and making war, covering vast distances and raiding remote homesteads, only to return to the immense fastness of the Llano Estacado escarpment, the Comanche held off the Spanish, punished the French and stopped Manifest Destiny cold.

But, seemingly, the end of their empire was written in the stars. Unable, or unwilling, to pursue military victories to the extirpation of their foes, the Comanche were satisfied with minor, albeit bloody and destructive, raids to steal horses and captives - fighting for a spot of land occupied by a village, homestead or fort was, to a nomadic people, entirely inconceivable. Whether a nomadic horse-people could have ever survived the onslaught of western settlement, we will never know, and the author does not provide any simple answers (as none are available) for why the Comanche were extirpated. Yet it came to pass nonetheless that the scourge of the plains diminished and their way of life disappeared; subsumed by a rising United States of America. By the beginning of the twentieth century the free-ranging Comanche would be a memory only, as the tribe became confined to reservations.

S.C. Gwynne's scholarship brings together a very complete story of this people situated within their time and place. How the Comanche impacted (and nearly halted) the expansion of the American empire, is a lens through which to understand the transformation of the country and the land. Gwynne interrogates the People's demise with an equitable and fair eye: while we can lament the destruction of a culture, the reader is left wondering how to reconcile our own vision of Indian peoples with the destructiveness of the Comanche. Though it seems that Gwynne may give short-shrift to some of the more thoughtful nuances to Comanche culture, he has, in a sense, cast them as they impacted the outside world. For better or worse that seems to be any people's doom. So we are left to wonder what has been lost, and, in our effort to create a more "civilized" world, are we all truly better for it?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Last Temptation of Christ - Nikos Kazantzakis


Across Palestine, from the hills of Galilee, to the gates of Jerusalem, the Jews are a people lamenting their station and yearning for a better day. One that they worry may never come. Each morning the cry goes out for the coming of the Messiah. As prophets arise (and are subsequently cut-down), the hopes of a nation are given brief flight—only to be dashed. “How long, lord? How long?”

Within a humble home in Nazareth resides Jesus, the only son of Mary and Joseph the carpenter. Reclusive and seemingly haunted, he is known throughout the region only for supplying the crosses for the crucifixions of zealots and prophets who challenge the glory and the rule of Rome. Hardly the firebrand that Simeon the rabbi, or Judas the blacksmith, expect to hew the tree of the old world order, the Son of Mary spends his nights sleepless, wandering the highways and the hills in search of a rest that will never come. In the hidden depths of his heart, Jesus knows that he is called by the Lord to set the world ablaze with the holy word. But he is afraid.

Thus does Kazantzakis set the story of Jesus. From his humble beginnings to his Last Temptation on the cross, the Christ we meet evolves from solitary dreamer and uncertain wanderer, to saviour terrible to behold. It is his calling, and his love for men, that eventually will give him the voice he needs. In his conflicted nature, seemingly schizophrenic at times, Jesus in fact reminds us most of the God of the Old Testament, both friend of the family and merciless warrior, lord of hosts and simple pilgrim striving to be understood in the world. Within the multitudes of personality many of the faithful can find solace and protection, but taken as a whole his evolution is both striking and, at times, off-putting. Because many of his revelations and conversations with God occur away from the reader’s inquiring gaze, we are seemingly met with a new wholly-formed Messiah, from time to time. Why must the sword, the ax, replace Jesus’ message of kinship and love, the reader is left to wonder.

In its summation, the faith that this Jesus asks of men most resembles a cult of death. Why must we blindly look beyond this world to an uncertain kingdom of God? While Jesus at once seems most at peace contemplating the lilies of the field, or amongst the birds and the animals, he conversely threatens to reduce the world to ash. A grand and vast illusion? Who would encase the spirit in such a prison? Many of the questioning of Israel and Palestine remain unconvinced. Kazantzakis has done much to ground Jesus in the world of men, so that we might see ourselves in him, and he in us. However, the disparities between this world and the next remain unresolved. Was Judas right? 

Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Greek Way - Edith Hamilton

While the modern mind is divided, perhaps irrevocably, between the individual and society, between man and state, the Greeks of classical Athens knew no such division. For them the world was a rational and ordered place, and it was man's role to make sense of creation and find his proper spot within it. Far from a simply cynical view of the world, this sense of belonging, the placed-ness, brought together the Greek mind and spirit in way that, Hamilton remarks, remains unequaled to this day.

For renowned classicist Edith Hamilton, the Greek way was one of the spirit and the mind. To illustrate a fulsome picture of 5th century Athens, she tours the world of the arts and humanities. Through reflections on Aristophanes and Euripides, Thucydides and Pindar, Hamilton tells us that we can understand much of how the citizenry thought about the world. Though this may be less directly didactic then interpretations of Plato, Hamilton's task is a different one: she endeavors to assemble an entire collage so that a portrait of the whole society might be seen.

And what is revealed? Thucydides shows us a people tragically bound to the whims of men and societies seeking power, while Xenophon hopes for a better tomorrow. Herodotus journeys fair afield in the Mediterranean, seeing much that is noteworthy in the wisdom of others. Sophocles casts an unblinking eye on the tragic aspect of the human condition, noting how we live uncertain, and remain riven between that which men hope for, and that which men must do. Finally, in the works of Plato, and in the development of Greek religion, Hamilton shows us a people vested in the hope that the individual has to make the most of himself, not because some orthodoxy tells him so, but because he has taken hold of life and found that what is best is bound to everything that we hope to achieve.

While the work is little more than a cursory overview (and falters before the likes of Kitto's The Greeks), it does convey the unity underlying the seeming contradiction of Greek thought and action. It was excellence, Aristotle saw, that was "much labored for by the race of men." Through the application of the mind the world could be made sensible, and men could finally pursue that which is best. It was in this pursuit that the Greeks left their stamp upon the world.