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?