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19 June 2011

Social Objects and the Building of the Social

Levi has a post up about Latour's We Have Never Been Modern in which he summarizes nicely Latour's main thesis of the social sciences: 
This, I believe, is Latour’s core thesis: society must be built. Society does not explain, but is precisely that which must be explained. And wherever we refer to social forces and the like to explain such and such a phenomenon, we’ve skipped this step. Under the most charitable interpretation, Latour’s point is not that there aren’t projections or that there aren’t objective forces, but that 1) the form social relations take cannot be completely explained through projections or naturalizations, and 2) that humans cannot be entirely reduced to marionettes of so-called objective forces. In other words, Latour sides with both the humanist and the antihumanist, while nonetheless arguing that there’s an additional missing term, a missing mass, in their social explanations: nonhuman entities.
In other words, the social sciences have traditionally been caught between two paradoxical positions.  On the one hand, rejecting objective forces as mere social constructions, and on the other positing objective forces (i.e social structures) to explain human behavior.  Many of the recent advances in social theory - Latour being, in my opinion, at the forefront - have been attempts to move beyond this contradiction.


 I want to point out, too - since I'm currently reading Green Mars, the second of Kim Stanley Robinson's (KSR) Mars Trilogy - that this is one of the things I like so much about this book.  It's as much about the construction of a new society as it is a construction of a new ecology - indeed, the two can never be wholly removed from one another.  Thus, the process of areoformation (as KSR's characters call it, in contrast to terraformation) is a social and an ecological practice - and the two processes are intertwined so that changes to the planet - both intentional and unintentional - affect social processes, and vice versa. This is also what was depicted in The Organic Machine by Richard White, which I recently read, except that White's book was more concrete and down-to-earth, in a literal sense.  So, where White presented a wilderness history, KSR has created a wilderness future.

I also like in the book that the process of areoformation is not deterministic - there is no totalizing plan which the process follows.  Rather, there are many different plans being implemented in many different ways on many different scales, and they conflict with one another, reinforce one another, or are simply neutral towards one another in varying complex ways.  Furthermore, there are processes at work outside of the plans, or which cannot be wholly controlled - such as the creation of a Martian atmosphere.  Thus the outcome is never what's planned, but always unexpected and unpredictable. 

Of course, KSR has a plan in mind, and, as the author of the book, is able to implement it however he likes - in that sense only is it deterministic, but that's the nature of writing fiction.  On another level, though, the books become part of a social collective which is just as nondeterministic as that depicted within the books.  There's no way KSR could have known that his book would come to influence Levi - one of the prime movers in object-oriented ontology - and potentially have a profound effect on philosophy and the future of social theory.  And it all gets amazingly complex very quickly!

12 June 2011

Columbian Wilderness


In The Organic Machine, Richard White provides an excellent "wilderness" history (my phrase, not his) of the Columbia River.  His account flows through linearly through time, but also follows themes as if linear time must occasionally pause and stew in a reservoir before plunging through the spillway.  The result is a magnificent story of the forces - both human and non-human - at play on the river. 

White starts with a description of the natural processes which carved the river we know today, and the early human interactions with it.  He details the ways in which the Indians along the river worked it and allowed it to work for them by bringing them abundant food in the form of Salmon.  In fact, the story of the Columbia presented by White is the story of work, but not the work for knowledge of which some social scientists and environmentalists are so enamored.  Instead, this work creates the river.  It is the work of the river and the work of the animals and people on the river, and all are mutually constituting.

White argues that, in the late 19th and 20th centuries, the Columbia became an "organic machine" - the realization of the Emersonian dream of wedding the natural to the human.  But, he argues, the marriage was ultimately a failed one, for the ideals that were sought for both nature and society were never realized.  Lewis Mumford envisioned a world powered by electricity from natural resources.  This "neotechnic" would transform society, creating a more equitable and democratic world.  However, the politics and economics at play on the river failed to bring this vision about.  Furthermore, the many dams placed along the river transformed the river's ecosystem:
"The architects of the new river have been nearly constant in their protestations of concern for the salmon, but they have quite consciously made a choice against the conditions that produce the salmon.  They have wanted the river and its watershed to say electricity, lumber, cattle, and fruit and together these have translated into carp, shad and squawfish instead of slamon." (90)
What was truly unique about this book, for me, was the way it depicted the creation of a world on the Columbia.  There was no master overseer determining all, there were simply many different interests (both human and non-human) trying to make their way and to carve out a little space for life on the river.  Some of these interests, such as the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA), were more powerful and, thus, more capable of implementing their vision than others, but none was ever fully determining.  Rather the river we see today was carved by myriad agencies acting upon the river for many different purposes.  All of this work has created a new river:
"... [T]o simply renounce development on the Columbia is equally to miss the point. We can't treat the river as if it is simply nature and all dams hatcheries, channels, pumps, cities, ranches, and pulp mills are ugly and unnecessary blotches on a still coherent natural system. These things are now part of the river itself. There are reasons they are there. They are not going to vanish, and they cannot simply be erased. Some would reduce the consequences to a cautionary tale of the need to leave nature alone. But to do so is to lose the central insight of the Columbia: there is no line between us and nature. The Columbia, an organic machine, a virtual river, is at once our creation and retains a life of its own beyond our control."
There are many more quotes I would like to reproduce from this book.  It is well written and full of insight, but I'll let you read it for yourself!

09 June 2011

Wilderness Ontology

Levi (here and here) and Michael (here, here, and here) have recently been posting on what they're calling a 'wilderness ontology.'  As Levi puts it in his first post:
"What’s crucially important to wilderness thought is that humans occupy no particularly privileged or unilaterally determining position within being. We are beings amongst beings and being, of course, would continue were we to cease to exist or die out ...  The mark of wilderness thought is this decentralization and multiplication of points of view. Now suddenly, human points of view are but one point of view among others. The fur trapper contends with the point of view of the grizzly bear and the approaching winter storm. He is amongst beings rather than a being for which all other beings are correlates." 
Obviously, this is a concept I wholly agree with, though I'm not sure I would use the term "Wilderness" since that term comes with a great deal of baggage.  Environmental philosophers, historians and others have spent a great deal of time and ink deconstructing it - revealing it as a construct and a problematic category opposed to "Civilization" - how can we suddenly reclaim it?  It wouldn't be the first time, I suppose, but maybe a better term exists.  I certainly like Tim Morton's use of ecology, which Levi likens to his wilderness.  I also think the concept shares some similarities with John Law's "hinterland" in After Method, though that could be deconstructed in a similar fashion as has "wilderness."  But whatever you choose to call it, a wilderness ontology is certainly a worthwhile project.  The question that remains is, what does it do for/to us - how does it affect our experience and practice?

Moving from a wilderness ontology, I think, does many things for us, but I'll focus on just a couple.  First of all, it humbles us.  It forces us to experience ourselves not as the lords of creation we tend to think we are, but as humble actors trying to make our way in the world just as every other entity is doing.  Granted, we are doing far more to the planet than say an eagle or an ant (on the other hand, see the E.O. Wilson quote on the sidebar...), and we are certainly of a different kind than all of those others, but difference and scale of influence is no cause for hubris.  Second, it eliminates, as Levi calls it, the Romantic ideal of the wisdom of nature - as if to say we should only be more natural and everything would be alright.  It exposes this for the normative and value laden claim that it is.  What does it mean to be natural?  Who gets to decide?

But does this exonerate us from our responsibility to those non-human others?  No, I think not.  In fact, a wilderness ontology places us in a far better position than we have ever been in before to create a more just and sustainable world.  In order to dominate, control, and destroy an other, one must first degrade it - turn it into passive material that doesn't care what happens to it.  For people, we call this dehumanization, and I wouldn't be the first to suggest that something similar has been done to the non-humans we share this planet with.  Only by denying the agency of non-humans (and humans too) have we been able to destroy them, and only by restoring that agency can we hope for a different constitution to emerge.  This, to me, is the point of feminism, post-colonialism, and every other activist movement - first and foremost, to force those in power - those who dominate - to recognize the agency of the Others.  The same is now being accomplished for the non-humans we live with and relate to. 

Wonderful as this may be, I think that recognition is not enough.  It's a start, for sure, but the real work comes after in terms of building a new world.  As Ghassan Hage points out, "... what is important is the relational imperative - that is, how do you make bad relations good relations?"  Recognizing the agency of Others is the first step, the second, possibly more difficult, step is to start to transform those relations from ones characterized by domination and degradation to ones characterized by cooperation and trust.  That's the work that a wilderness ontology allows us to perform.

02 June 2011

Crafting Ecologies

I went to a meeting yesterday to kick-off a project I'm going to be working on this summer and into next year.  The project is on aquatic invasive species being introduced into the mid-Atlantic region (specifically, the Chesapeake Bay) through live bait and live bait packing materials.  Basically, live bait - i.e. bloodworms - is packaged with this plant material that helps to keep the worms separated and moist so they stay alive during shipping.


However, this material often contains other organisms which may become invasive to the regions where anglers use the bait if the bait is not disposed of properly (i.e. thrown in a trash can instead of the water).  So, the project is meant to try to find ways of interrupting the vector for invasive species including potentially, alternative packing materials, washing packing materials, and encouraging proper disposal of the materials.
But all of that isn't the point of the post - I had a bit of a realization during the meeting that I wanted to share.  If we are talking about an ecosystem  - one that is not restricted to the usual nature/culture boundaries we tend to impose upon such systems (that is, thinking of ecosystems as primarily non-human constructs which humans tend to disrupt) - then what we are looking for in this project is to craft the ecosystem in such a way that the introduction of invasive species is halted or slowed.  Currently, the ecosystem favors the movement of species from one body of water to another fairly freely, thanks in large part to human ingenuity.  But, perhaps by introducing new techniques for packing or utilizing packing material, or by introducing regulations on packing material or live bait trade, or by introducing social marketing campaigns designed to encourage anglers to dispose of bait properly, we can alter the ecosystem to restrain the movement of species.  In some sense, then, we are introducing a new (conceptual, regulatory, practical, etc.) species into the ecosystem in order to prevent the spread of these invasives.
Thinking this way keeps us away from the kind of all-or-nothing thinking of "behavior change" (which social marketing folks and scientists love so much), and it forces us to consider the full system - i.e. the live bait harvesters, the packing material harvesters, the live bait wholesalers, the live bait retailers, the anglers, as well as the worms, the weed, the Bay and the other species who are either invasive or will be affected by the intruders.  I'll have more on this later, I think.

PS - Levi Bryant has a nice post up describing just what I was thinking here.
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