Archives For anthropocene

Author Information: Eric Kerr, National University of Singapore, eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg.

Kerr, Eric. “On Thinking With Catastrophic Times.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 8, no. 1 (2019): 46-49.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-45Q

Image by Jeff Krause via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Reprinted with permission from the Singapore Review of Books. The original review can be found here.

• • • •

On Thinking With – Scientists, Sciences, and Isabelle Stengers is the transcription of a talk read by Jeremy Fernando at the Centre for Science & Innovation Studies at UC Davis in 2015. The text certainly has the character of a reading: through closely attending to Stengers’ similarly transcribed talk (2012) Fernando traverses far-reaching themes – testimony, the gift, naming, listening – drawing them into a world made strange again through Stengers’ idea of “thinking with” – as opposed to analyzing or evaluating – notions of scientific progress, justice, and responsibility.

All this will make this review rather different from convention. I’ll attempt a response, using the text as an opportunity to pause, regroup, and divert, which, I hope, will allow us to see some of the connections between the two scholars and the value of this book. I read this text as a philosopher within Science and Technology Studies (STS) and through these lenses I’ll aim to draw out some of the ideas elaborated in Fernando’s essay and in Stengers’ In Catastrophic Times.

Elusive Knowledge

Towards the end of the essay, Fernando muses on the elusive nature of knowledge: “[T]he moment the community of scientists knows – or thinks it knows – what Science is, the community itself dissolves” (p.35). He consequently ties epistemological certainty to the stagnation, or even the collapse, of a scientific community.

In this sense, Fernando suggests that the scientific community should be thought of as a myth, but a necessary one. He implies that any scientific community is a “dream community… a dream in the sense of something unknown, something slightly beyond the boundaries, binds, of what is known.” (pp. 35-36) Further, he agrees with Stengers: “I vitally need such a dream, such a story which never happened.” So why? What is this dream that is needed?

Stengers suggests that we are now in a situation where there are “many manners of dying” (2015, p. 9). Any attempt on “our” part to resolve the growing crisis, seems to merely entrench and legislate the same processes that produced the very problems we were trying to overcome. International agreements are framed within the problematic capitalocene rather than challenging it. Problems arrive with the overwhelming sense that our current situation is permanent, political change is inertial or even immovable, and that the only available remedy is more of the poison. Crucially, for Stengers, this sense is deliberately manufactured – an induced ignorance (ibid. p. 118).

Stengers’ concern, which Fernando endorses, is to reframe the manner in which problems are presented. To remove us from the false binary choice presented to us: as precaution or pro-action, as self-denial of consumer products or geoengineering, as deforestation for profit or financialization of forests. For his part, Fernando does not offer more solutions. Instead, he encourages us to sit in the mire of the problem, to revisit it, to rethink it, to re-view it. Not as an act of idle pontification but for what Stengers calls “paying attention” (ibid. p. 100).

Paying Attention to Catastrophic Times

In order to pay attention, Fernando begins with a parental metaphor: Gaia as mother, scientific authority as father. For him, there is an important distinction between power and authority. Whereas power can be found in all relations, authority “is mystical, divine, outside the realm of human consciousness – it is the order of the sovereign. One either has authority or one doesn’t” (p.21).

Consequently, there is something unattainable about any claim to scientific expertise. The idea that authority depends on a mystical or theological grounding chimes with core epistemological commitments in STS, most forcefully advocated by David Bloor who argued that the absolutist about knowledge would require “epistemic grace”.

Alongside Fernando’s words, Burdock details gooey, veiny appendages emerging from pipes and valves, tumours and pustules evoking the diseased body. Science and engineering are productive of vulnerable bodies. Here we might want to return to Stengers’ treatment of the pharmakon, the remedy/poison duality.

For Stengers, following Nietzsche’s gay scientist (whom Fernando also evokes), skepticism and doubt are pharmakon (Nietzsche 1924, p. 159). She details how warnings as to the dangers of potential responses are presented as objections. STS scholars will note that this uncertainty can be activated by both your enemies and your friends, not least when it comes to the challenges of climate change. This is the realization that prompted Bruno Latour to issue what Steve Fuller has called a “mea culpa on behalf of STS” for embracing too much uncertainty (Latour 2004; Fuller 2018, p. 44).

Data and Gaia

Although there is little mention of any specific sciences, scientific instruments, theories or texts, Fernando instead focuses on what is perhaps the primary object of contemporary science – data – especially its relation to memory. It is perhaps not a coincidence that he repeatedly asks us to remember not to forget: e.g. “we should try not to forget that…” (p. 11 and similar on p. 17, 22, 21, and 37). He notes that testimony occurs through memory but that this is, generally speaking, unreliable and incomplete. His conclusion is Cartesian: perhaps the only thing we can know for sure is that we are testifying (p. 16).

Stengers picks up the question of memory in her dismissal of an interventionist Gaia (to paraphrase Nick Cave) denying that Gaia could remember, could be offended or could care who is responsible (2015 p.46 and fn. 2). She criticizes James Lovelock, the author of the Gaia hypothesis, for speaking of Gaia’s “revenge”. While he begins his text with Stengers’ controversial allusion to Gaia, Fernando’s discussion of data also has a curious connection to a living, self-regulating (and consequently also possibly a vulnerable) globe.

Riffing on Stewart Brand’s infamous phrase, “information wants to be free,” Fernando writes, “[D]ata and sharing have always been in relation with each other, data has always already been open source. Which also means that data – sharing, transference – always entail an openness to the possibility of another; along with the potentiality for disruption, infection, viruses, distortion” (p.22). Coincidentally, along with being an internet pioneer, founding one of the oldest virtual (and certainly mythological) communities, Brand is an old friend of Lovelock.

Considering these words in relation to impending ecological disaster, I’m inclined to think that perhaps the central myth that we should try to escape is that we don’t easily forget. Bernard Stiegler has suggested that we are in a period of realignment in our relationship to memory in which external memory supports are the primary means by which we understand our temporality (2011, 2013).

Similarly, we might think that it is no coincidence that when Andy Clark and David Chalmers proposed their hypothesis of extended cognition, the idea that our cognitive and memorial processes extend into artefacts, they reached for the Alzheimer’s sufferer as “Patient Zero” (1998). In truth, we do forget, often. And this is despite, and sometimes even because of, our best efforts to record and archive and remember.

Fernando’s writing is, at root, a call to re-call. It regenerates other texts and seems to live with them such that they both thrive. The “tales” he calls for spiral out into new mutations like Burdock’s tentacular images. But to reduce Fernando’s scope to simply a call for other perspectives would be to sell it short. Read alongside In Catastrophic Times, the call to embrace uncertainty and to reckon with it becomes more urgent.

Fernando reminds us of our own forgetfulness and the unreliability of our testimony about ourselves and our communities. For those of us wrestling with the post-truth world, Fernando’s essay is both a palliative and, potentially, charts a way out of no-alternative thinking.

Contact details: eric.kerr@nus.edu.sg

References

Bloor, D. 2007. Epistemic grace: Antirelativism as theology in disguise. Common knowledge 13: 250-280.

Clark, A. and D. Chalmers. 1998. The extended mind. Analysis 58: 7–19.

Fuller, S. 2018. Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game. Anthem Press.

Latour, B. 2004. Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?  From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern Critical Inquiry 2004 30(2).

Nietzsche, F. 1924. The Joyful Wisdom (trans. T. Common) New York: The MacMillan Company. Accessed 10 June 2018. https://ia600300.us.archive.org/9/items/completenietasch10nietuoft/completenietasch10nietuoft.pdf.

Stengers, I. 2012. “Cosmopolitics: Learning to Think with Sciences, Peoples and Natures.” Public lecture. Situating Science Knowledge Cluster. St. Marys, Halifax, Canada, 5 March 2012. Accessed 10 June 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ASGwo02rh8.

Stengers, I. 2015. In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the coming Barbarism. Open Humanities Press/Meson Press.

Stiegler, B. 2011. Technics and Time, 3: Cinematic Time and the Question of Malaise (trans. R. Beardsworth and G. Collins). Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Stiegler, B. 2013. For a New Critique of Political Economy (trans. D. Ross). Cambridge: Polity.

Author Information: Steve Fuller, University of Warwick, s.w.fuller@warwick.ac.uk.

Fuller, Steve. “Staying Human in the 21st Century Is Harder Than You Might Think.” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 7, no. 12 (2018): 39-42.

The pdf of the article gives specific page references. Shortlink: https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-44W

The Main Street Bridge in Columbus, Ohio, the largest major city near Ashland University.
Image by Bill Koontz via Flickr / Creative Commons

 

Let me start by saying that it’s a great honour to address you today.[1] It turns out that nearly forty years ago, I was the ‘salutatorian’ of the Class of 1979 at Columbia College in New York. That means I was the number two guy in terms of overall grade point average across all subjects. And that guy gives the introductory speech, whereas the number one guy gives the closing speech, the so-called ‘valedictory’ address, which literally means saying goodbye.

It seems that once again I am the ‘warm up act’ for a graduation ceremony in that once I finish speaking, you’ll actually get your degrees! And that’s exactly was how it worked in the old days.

I am someone who thinks that if I have anything interesting to say, it will be to those who are more oriented to the future than to the past – or even the present. In any case, this is how I would wish you to interpret me.

There are many challenges to our sense of humanity today. I want to start with a long term challenge that you will increasingly face in the coming years. That has to do with privileging ‘humanity’ understood as a kind of upright ape who has consolidated its place on Earth by monopolizing control over the planet’s resources. This is what geologists are beginning to call the ‘Anthropocene’, and it probably began with the Industrial Revolution in the late eighteenth century – and it marks the first time a single species has dictated the terms of engagement on Earth.

This has led to considerable metaphysical soul-searching about the human condition. And put bluntly, much of this soul-searching has resulted in self-loathing for humanity as a species. We are to blame for the unprecedented levels of mass extinctions and climate change over the past two or more centuries.

All the while, our species has come to range over the entire planet in a manner that reminds some of these scientifically informed misanthropes of cockroaches. However, the difference between us and cockroaches is that cockroaches don’t seem to exhibit the strong sense of inequality among its members that we have historically insisted among ourselves.

So given our evolutionary track record, in what sense are humans are worth promoting, let alone all of us – as Thomas Jefferson said, as ‘created equal’? Of course, it’s been long recognized that there is an enormous spread in the capacity of human beings. Modern biological science has given this informal observation an empirical basis.

Originally it was presented as a demonstration of natural inequality, and the phrase ‘scientific racism’ remains a legacy of that line of thought. However, nowadays biologists prefer to speak of the diversity of life-forms, which together constitute ecologies, the Earth itself being the ultimate ecosystem.

But against this general current of thought, egalitarianism has been advanced by the Abrahamic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – simply on the grounds that we are all children of the same God in some broadly ‘privileged’ sense.

In the modern era, this fundamental intuition was given focus by the classical idea of republicanism, namely, that a society should be constituted only by those who regard each other as equals. And what makes and keeps people equal are the standards by which they are judged – and this is determined by the people themselves. And that was what was meant by the res publica – the ‘public thing’, in Latin.

It’s worth recalling that prior to the US Constitution, republics had been small enclaves of the few who regarded each other as equals. Think about Athens, Rome, Venice and the Netherlands in their republican phases. Basically, they were places for rich migrants.

So What Happens If The Migrants Aren’t Rich?

In law, there are two general ways in which people can become citizens. One is called jus soli, and refers to the land in which you yourself were born, and the other is called jus sanguinis, and refers to the birth of your parents. If you look at a map of the world today, you’ll see that jus soli dominates the Western hemisphere and jus sanguinis dominates the Eastern hemisphere. And that’s because the Western hemisphere – this hemisphere of North and South America – has been seen as a natural place for migrants.

However, candidates for citizenship in a republic typically have to demonstrate their fitness to be treated as equal with regard to the res publica. And then once accepted, they would be obliged to participate in public life. Providing evidence of wealth was historically crucial because it showed both management skills and a desire to pool one’s resources with an alien society. The duty to vote in elections – in which each vote counts as one — is simply a remnant of what had been a much stronger civic expectation to engage in society.

Many philosophers have believed that republicanism cannot be scaled up because they thought it was unreasonable to expect that people with quite diverse backgrounds and interests could treat each other as ‘equals’ in some politically sustainable sense. It’s quite clear that even the American Founding Fathers had their doubts, since they counted slaves as only 3/5 of a person for purposes of Congressional representation.

Notice that I haven’t yet mentioned ‘democracy’. That’s because democracy has historically meant ‘majority rule’, on whatever terms it’s established. For example, 51% could license the execution of the remaining 49% in a democracy. Indeed, people may start equal in a democracy but that equality could soon evaporate after the first collective decision is taken. Think Animal Farm and Lord of the Flies, two classic mid-20th century English novels.

Here one can begin to appreciate the abiding importance of the Abrahamic religions in upholding a metaphysical conception of human equality that cuts against what had been traditionally seen as the eventual descent of democracy into ‘mob rule’.

That metaphysical idea – the fundamental equality of all humans — was first made incarnate in the practice of debt forgiveness among the Jews on each sabbatical year. To cut a long story short, since I don’t want to bore you with religious history, the fundamental equality of people was ritualistically demonstrated by the redistribution of wealth from the ‘winners’ to the ‘losers’ in society, which in turn provided an opportunity for everyone to be ‘born again’: The rich as somewhat poorer and the poor as somewhat richer. Thus, society is periodically remade as a level playing field.

Until the losers are regarded as always the equals of the winners of society, democracy is not an especially egalitarian political movement. This helps to explain why such great defenders of liberalism as John Stuart Mill regarded democracy with considerable suspicion. He believed that given the chance, the great unwashed might permanently silence the enlightened few, who throughout history have often been on the losing side of many of society’s great arguments – especially on matters concerning the future.

In What Sense, Then, Are All People ‘Created Equal’?

I would like to propose that our equality is ultimately about possessing a wide degree of freedom. And I mean a freedom that gives you the right to be wrong and the right to fail. This is only possible if you’re allowed to express yourself in the first place — and be allowed a second chance. This is to do with the range of opportunities available to you.

It’s easy to see that someone with a track record of managing their own wealth successfully would already be in the business of allowing themselves second chances – say, when an investment sours – and so would be fit for republican citizenship. However, the ancient Jewish practice of debt atonement was the original policy to allow everyone to acquire that enviable status. It was always in the back of minds of those who designed the welfare state.

Every human is entitled to be free in how they dispose of their lives, regardless of their likelihood of success. Freedom is the capacity to take risks, and universities are for the development of that capacity. There is nothing natural about how people come to want what they want. It is all a matter of training, and the only question is where and how it happens. And you have come to Ashland for that.

If you graduate from Ashland with a clearer sense of purpose than when you entered, then this university will have done its job and you will be able to go forward as an exemplary human being. I say this as a matter of principle – regardless of what you take your purpose to be, and even if your sense of clarity arises from revolting what you have encountered here.

The bottom line is that if you can’t have a sense of purpose unless you have faced serious alternatives – that is to say, ‘opportunity costs’, as the economists like to put it.

You’re not free unless you have had the opportunity to reject alternatives presented to you. And in that respect, the value of your education amounts to increasing your capacity for rejection – you can afford to let go. And that means more than simply saying no because of what you have been taught, but rather saying yes because you can identify with a certain way of being in the world.

We live in a time when those of you before me can self-identify in a wider range of ways than ever before. When I was your age, all we had was class and national mobility at our disposal, but now you also have gender and even race mobility added on to it – at both a social and a biological level, in case one is worried by pedigree.

I am by no means suggesting that you need to think about any of these sorts of migrations, but they are there for the asking, and if you have been trained properly here, you will at least have heard of them and have adopted a reasoned response to them.

Whatever else one can say about humanity in the future, it is bound to be a moveable feast. And you will be among the movers and shakers!

Contact details: S.W.Fuller@warwick.ac.uk

[1] What follows is the commencement address to the Winter 2018 graduating class of Ashland University, Ohio. It was delivered on 15 December.