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In his 1979 book The Postmodern Condition, Jean Francois Lyotard famously described the coming age of postmodernism as a the dissolution of grand narratives, that is, overarching schemes or horizons of thought that move the unifies social forces. “…it is possible,” he wrote, “that these narratives are already no longer the principal driving force behind interest in acquiring knowledge.”[1] From then on, postmodernism became a buzzword, bound up in a nebulous array of definition, counter-definition, debate, celebration, and disgust. It found its application rapidly in the worlds of art, literature, and architecture: postmodern allowed the creator to step outside the conditions of progress and time itself, blending effortlessly the old and the new, the high-brow and the low-brow, the abstract with the concrete.

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The Postmodern Condition is name-checked endlessly, yet something that seems to be repeatedly glossed over is that fact that the argument put forward by Lyotard is a discourse grounded in techno-scientific development, or more properly, an analysis of a new mode of organization emerging from within a new techno-economic paradigm[2] – that of the rise of computing power, and the regime of post-industrial capitalism that it empowered. This is clear from the book’s opening paragraph:

Our working hypothesis is that the status of knowledge is altered as societies enter what is known as the postindustrial age and cultures enter what is known as the postmodern age. This transition has been under way since at least the end of the 1950s, which for Europe marks the completion of reconstruction. The pace is faster or slower depending on the country, and within countries it varies according to the sector of activity: the general situation is one of temporal disjunction which makes sketching an overview difficult. A portion of the description would necessarily be conjectural. At any rate, we know that it is unwise to put too much faith in futurology.[3]

By pointing to the 1950s as the moments in which postmodernism began its ascendancy, Lyotard is grounding his discourse in the development of the information theory and systems thinking, both interrelated byproducts of World War 2 era scientific research. In the models advanced by these theories, the lines demarcating man and machine – and nature by extension – collapse into an array of feedback loops, distributed flows, and emergent patterns following shifts from equilibria to disequilibria and back again. From one perspective these developments point towards the possibilities of new ethical formations – such was the work, for example, of Gregory Bateson, among others. Yet the sciences were born in the hull of the so-called military-industrial complex, and it was to the twin powers of war and industry and they have largely remained coupled. In elliptical fashion, Lyotard acknowledges this historical composition: coupling “society” to ‘postindustrialization’ and cultural to “postmodernism”, he argues that the “decline of narrative can be seen as an effect of the blossoming of techniques since the Second World War, which has shifted the emphasis from ends of actions to its means; it can also be seen as an effect of the redeployment of advanced liberal capitalism after its retreat under the protection of Keynesianism…”[4]

Neither of these trajectories, in fact, is capable of being separated from one another. As the history traced in Philip Mirowski’s difficult – yet essential – Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science[5] illustrates, the theories that became neoliberal capitalism were themselves honed in the military’s think-tanks alongside research into cybernetics, game theory, operations research and systems analysis, as well as the correlated evolutions in computer technology necessitated by the war effort and the demands of the rising Cold War. These trajectories broke upon unto the international stage in 1972, when the crisis of the dollar’s imminent devaluation led President Nixon (under the advice of Chicago School economist Milton Friedman) to remove the US currency from its gold standard, thereby undermining the worldwide monetary order and demolishing the international regulatory scheme arranged by the post-war Bretton Woods institutions. The result was the dizzying explosion of finance markets: without gold, global interest rates were no longer fixed, and became instead free-floating and flexible. Computerized marketplaces proliferated, opening spaces where futures contracts could be traded across a variety of international currencies. The rise of finance economies around these trading hubs played directly into the evaporating of industrial bases of the dominant world economies, and aided by dynamic modelizations and enhanced communication techniques made possible by information technologies, vast transnational supply chains cris-crossed the globe. No longer did corporations have to kowtow to the regulatory and taxation demands of the state and the costly worker protections of the unions – they now had the freedom to move anywhere in the world, seeking out the lowest possible costs for production. Under the reorganization of global economic systems through neoliberal governmentality and computerization, the largest narrative of them all – that of the state – was repurposed into something else, awash in the dizzying logistics of electronic flow and uneven planes of development.

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A: Proletkult

Can we be infrapunks, builders of tiny bits of a structure of another life?[1]

I. Living in Shadows

Last month I made the trip from Louisville to Frankfort, Kentucky’s state capitol, to attend an annual rally protesting the destructive practice of mountaintop removal mining. A coal industry favorite, this process of extraction involves the rapid deforestation of the landscape, followed by the blasting apart of the surface layer rocks, defined as “overburden,” which is then most commonly moved into an adjacent valley. The coal removal can now take place, with excavator digging deep pits into the truncated mountain; when this particular mine is fully emptied out, it becomes the dumping site for the next overburden removal. It continues like this, large paths of ruined forest snaking through the Appalachian mountain country.

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The environmental and social impact is immense and negative. The process of blasting dumps pulverized rock, dirt, and chemicals into the air, blanketing any towns or property that happen to be near the mining site. The processes of deforestation and the dumping of overburden in the valleys, where streams and rivers make their way through the landscape, obstructs the functioning of the regional ecosystems. The streams that aren’t cut off fill with minerals and chemical run-offs; aquatic biodiversity collapses and the toxins find their ways into the water table. The rates of pulmonary disease, physical deformities and birth defects, cancer, and heart disease are skyrocketing amongst the local populations. The purpose of this entire process, coal, is shipped across the country and burned for energy; as the third most common energy source – and perhaps the dirtiest – it accounts for the majority of America’s c02 emissions. The machine eating away at the Appalachian Mountains, and the eco and social systems that inhabit these spaces, is plugged directly into what we call the Anthropocene.

Shivering the winter weather, the rally moved through downtown Frankfort, ending on the steps of the Capitol building where speakers, many from the devastated regions, analyzed the multilayered crisis this paradigm has ushered in. Their talks were militant: one speaker spoke in the plain, familiar language of the everyday about dismantling the state’s current power structure, embodied by a senator with a thirty year tenure in office and enough dark money paths to keep investigative journalists spinning in circles for ages.[2] She linked the reality of this dysfunctional representation to the environmental degradation triggered by strip mining, and connected this further to her own experiences and those of others in Kentucky’s Harlan Country, where the coal industry sucks up not only natural resources but regional job markets. Like so many other places across America, Harlan County – once the site of the legendary 1973 “Brookside Strike”[3] – is an experimental neoliberal laboratory for living suspended between a dying ecosystem and a collapsing economy. Another speaker followed a similar route, emphasizing the need in movement building to connect the disparate strands between a varieties of struggles: no isolation between the fights for racial justice and economic equality, between environmentalism and the crisis of governance. This is the truth of being on the left in age of the Anthropocene: there can be no radical struggle that doesn’t hold the ecological as the foundation of its horizon.

As the Situationists once said, “Our ideas are in everybody’s minds.”

How could such a required transformation take place? The career politicians have posed vague solutions such as carbon capture storage; attempts to legislate plans such of these, perversely, have produced incentives and tax breaks for coal extraction to continue.[4] Going wide view, the efforts of cap-and-trade, originally the brainchild of conservative bureaucrat C. Boyden Gray, have done little to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions; other environmental regulations have amounted to little more than reshuffling the deck of cards without any long-term impact. For all intents and purposes there is no compatibility between the current global economic paradigm and living conscious of the Anthropocene.

Mike Davis, best known for his outstanding work on global poverty in The Planet of the Slums,[5] attempts to unify the questions of labor and ecology in a vision of the urban environment as the place to prototype sustainable futures. He draws our attention to the development of the postmodern metropolis through the anti-democratic regimes and investment luring, resulting not only in our ecologically unsustainable infrastructure, but also a rampant “growth of peripheral slums and informal employment, the privatization of public space, low-intensity warfare between police and subsistence criminals, and bunkering of the wealthy in sterilized historical centers or walled suburbs.”[6] The point he is stressing is that today, more than ever, the spatial is the political (or, as Metahaven would have it, the ‘personal is geopolitical’). In my home state this is illustrated by the fact that the parceling out of public infrastructure is part of the same machine as the crisis of representation in the capital, along with the corporations that profit, the coal they extract, they carbon they dump into the atmosphere, the think-tanks that whitewash the effects, the money spent lobbying to carve up more public space…

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Adam Robbert bringing the Foucault and Deleuze eco-style: 

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

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

What I like about Adam’s framing of F & D here is his seemless demonstration of how each of these Frenchies are already thinking ecologically in their appeals to structure and materiality, without having explicitly stated as such. Reading Adam’s post (here) reminds me exactly why the work of these two gents is so near and dear to me: each attempts to think about the structural dynamics embodied in material relations of power, subjectivity and episteme in an ecological manner.

I cannot stress enough how important it seems to me to find ways of operationalizing the insight that nonhuman forces always already act on the “inside” of human experience, as the non-human-in-human – the dark flesh conditioning and positioning hominid experience. Experiencing bodies are complex multiplicities of synthesizing assemblage – higher dimensional enfoldings of space-time…

“[M]an and nature are not like two opposite terms confronting each other – not even in the sense of bipolar opposites within a relationship of causation, ideation, or expression (cause and effect, subject and object, etc); rather they are one and the same essential reality, the producer-product” (Anti-Oedipus, p. 4-5).

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Notes towards an emancipatory ecologistics? * What would be required of us cognitively, technically, and practically in our attempts to alter our ways of existing for more adaptive modes?

Bruno Latour, from ‘To modernize or to ecologize? That’s the Question’ (1998):

In the new regime, everything is complicated and every decision demands caution and prudence. One can never go straight or fast. It is impossible to go on without circumspection and without modesty. We now know, for example, that if it is necessary to take account of everything along the length of a river, we will not succeed with a hierarchised system that might give the impression, on paper, of being a wonderful science with wonderful feedback loops but which will not generate new political life. To obtain a stirring up of politics, you have to add uncertainty so that the actors, who until now knew what a river could and could not tolerate, begin to entertain sufficient doubts. The word ‘doubt’ is in fact inadequate, since it gives the impression of scepticism, whereas it is more a case of enquiry, research and experimentation. In short, it is a collective experimentation on the possible associations between things and people without any of these entities being used, from now on, as a simple means by the others.

Political ecology, as we have now understood it, is not defined by taking account of nature, but by the different career now taken by all objects. A planner for the local agricultural authority, an irrigator, a fisherman or a concessionaire for drinking water used to know the needs of water. They could guarantee its form by assuming its limits and being ignorant of all the ins and outs. The big difference between the present and the previous situation does not lie in the fact that, before, we did not know about rivers and now we are concerned about them, but in the fact that we can no longer delimit the ins and outs of this river as an object. Its career as an object no longer has the same form if each stream, each meander, each source and each copse must serve both as an end and a means for those claiming to manage them.

At the risk of doing a little philosophising, we could say that the ontological forms of the river have changed. There are, literally speaking, no more things. This expression has nothing to do with a sentimentalism of Mother Earth, with the merging of the fisherman, kingfisher and fish. It only designates the uncertain, dishevelled character of the entities taken into account by the smallest river contract or the smallest management plan. Nor does the expression refer to the inevitable complexity of natural milieux and human–environment interactions, for the new relationships are no more complex than the old ones (if they were, no science, management or politics could be done on their behalf, as Florian Charvolin [1993] demonstrated so well). It solely refers to the obligation to be prepared to take account of other participants who may appear unforeseen, or disappear as if by magic, and who all aspire to take part in the ‘kingdom of ends’ by suddenly combining the relationships of the local and global. In order to monitor these quasiobjects, it is therefore necessary to invent new procedures capable of managing these arrivals and departures, these ends and these means — procedures that are completely different from those used in the past to manage things.

In fact, to summarise this argument, it would have to be said that ecology has nothing to do with taking account of nature, its own interests or goals, but that it is rather another way of considering everything. ‘Ecologising’ a question, an object or datum, does not mean putting it back into context and giving it an ecosystem. It means setting it in opposition, term for term, to another activity, pursued for three centuries and which is known, for want of a better term, as ‘modernisation.’.

Everywhere we have ‘modernised’ we must now ‘ecologise.’ This slogan obviously remains ambiguous and even false, if we think of ecology as a complete system of relationships, as if it were only a matter of taking everything into account. But it becomes profoundly apposite if we use the term ecology by applying to it the principle of selection defined above and by referring it to the Kantian principle for the justification of the green regime.

‘Ecologising’ means creating the procedures that make it possible to follow a network of quasi-objects whose relations of subordination remain uncertain and which thus require a new form of political activity adapted to following them.

SOURCE: http://bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/73-7TH-CITY-GB.pdf

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On Matters of Concern:
Ontological Politics, Ecology, and the Anthropo(s)cene

Adrian Ivakhiv 

Ontology is in; epistemology is out. The question is no longer how we know what we know, but what is: what are the fundamental constituents of the universe, what is their nature, how do they relate and differ, and so on. Ontology, furthermore, is political. Or so a certain glean of the intellectual and philosophical landscape might suggest. Ontology has become an issue (again) among philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, geographers, science and technology scholars, and others, in a way that it has not been for perhaps a century.

This paper arises from an entanglement of conversations in ecologically informed philosophy. Most specifically, it emerged from debates within the movement of “speculative realism” around the subspecies of that genre known as Object-Oriented Ontology (“OOO”) and its defense of an ontology of objects rather than processes. More broadly, the paper attends to conversations in the “ontopolitical” milieu of contemporary social, cultural, and environmental theory, a milieu in which posthumanism, critical animal studies, actor-network theory, assemblage theory, critical realism, agential realism, nonrepresentational theory, enactive and embodied cognitivism, post-phenomenology, multispecies ethnography, integral ecology, and various forms of “new materialism,” “geophilosophy,” and “cosmopolitics” fashion themselves as intellectual responses to the predicament indicated by such terms as the ecocrisis, the climate crisis, and the Anthropocene.

One of the lines of debate to which this paper responds is that between those who believe we have lost a sense for the objects that make up the world and those who believe that what we need is a more nuanced account of processes, both those encompassing human-nonhuman relations today and those encompassing all dimensions of the knowable universe. Object- oriented philosophers, like Graham Harman (2005, 2009, 2011), Levi Bryant (2011, 2014), Ian Bogost (2012), and Timothy Morton (2013), begin from the premise that the best description of the world is one that attends closely to the objects that make it up. This is their “realism” more broadly, and their “objectivism” more specifically. While this premise sounds, at first blush, not unlike phenomenologist Edmund Husserl’s call “back to the things themselves,” the difference is that Husserl approached those “things” through the human perception of them—to which Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Jean-Paul Sartre, and others added an emphasis on interpretation, language, discourse, embodiment, decision, and other contextual determinants of human experience. Object-oriented philosophers are more interested in decentering human perception and experience, so that it is no more valued in principle than any other kind of experience. In part, this is out of a desire to account for a world that, as Bryant (2010, par. 1) has put it, “far from reducing the number of existing objects as alleged by reductive materialisms, has actually experienced a promiscuous proliferation and multiplication of objects of all sorts.”

This desire to acknowledge the proliferation of objects is a valuable step for philosophers insofar as it returns us to a concern for the world, and not merely for humanity. Yet it is important to recognize that this proliferation results, in large part, from the tremendous proliferation of commodities in a capitalist world-economy—the most productive economy the world has seen, whose productivity relies on the extraction of substances from their processual relations to produce things that appear to have no such relations—objects that are simply there, for us to admire, desire, purchase, and use. The “objectivity” of these objects is a product of a set of relations; it is illusory, or partial in any case, to the extent that these objects are not simply objects as such, but that they, for all their specificity, arise out of certain kinds of processes (extractive, productive), give rise to others (consumptive, waste-producing), and entangle their owners in relational ecologies that are morally imbued, materially generative, and dramatic in their effects on the world that is passed on to future generations.

The approach I advocate in what follows shares object-oriented philosophers’ goal of a metaphysical realism, but approaches it from a direction that is in some respects the polar opposite. It begins from the premise that, in an ultimate sense, there are no objects, only events, and that what defines those events is a relational encounter in which subjectivity is central. This does not mean that it begins as a “revolt against substance,” for the world of relational process is as substantive as any world of objects can be. It begins, however, from the subjective encounter. It begins, following Alfred North Whitehead (1933), Martin Heidegger (1962), Bruno Latour (2003), and Isabelle Stengers (1997), from matters of concern, and it does this because it is such matters that we are always in the midst of. It begins with a refusal to extricate the “knowing self” or “subject” from the relations that constitute it. This article proposes an evocation of what a “process-relational” ontology entails at its phenomenological and hermeneutic outset: a beginning from matters of concern, yet a beginning that allows a reaching outward to others who are similarly bound up—openly and not deterministically—within their own matters of concern.

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