Archive for March, 2013

Deep Shit

Marc Abeles is a brilliant writer. He suggests, in the linked essay, that a politics of survival is emerging where “what matters…is to attain harmony between humans and their future” — a problem that is much more difficult to address than a question of which economic or political system to struggle for. He asks, “how do individuals exercise agency” when a politics of survival is pressed upon people by “natural or man-made catastrophes”?

Not just the specter of catastrophe in the future, but also refugee communities, narco-warzones, ruined ecosystems — Lake Victoria.


Abeles’ essay “Foucault and Political Anthropology” is directed toward ethnographers. He suggests that Foucault’s “blind empiricist” is a good mindset for the researcher to take — “the researcher who proceeds by trial and error and tries to make their own tools without paying much attention to their discipline.” (p 67 International Social Science Journal vol 59 issue 191)

When it comes to problematizing a situation like Lake Victoria, though, I’m not so sure that the image of Foucault — the lone subversive archeologist — as blind empiricist is sufficient for our human future. Actually, I’m not sure that a global tribe of blind empiricists — each finding their own tools for the job — would do the trick either. To me that seems to imply a free-market approach to problem solving via curiosity-driven research. When it comes to certain wicked problems that seem to be obstacles to attaining a harmony between humans and their future, we need certain kinds of blind empiricism and not others — a blind empiricism of blind empiricism conducted in groups.

Arnim Wiek, a sustainability scholar at Arizona State University, writes so beautifully about this problem. For Arnim, disciplinary boundaries need to be problematized, as do boundaries between sectors, cultures, ecologies, and just about all else. What he calls Transformational Sustainability Research combines, I think, the best of Foucault’s blind empiricism with a pragmatic realization that developing, evaluating, and implementing solution options — the intended outcome of a problematization — is one of the hardest things humans have ever had to do. Our universities are only weakly equipped, as are nation-states, international institutions, NGOs, publics North and South, et al. The wickedness of the complexity refers to a mismatch between the problem and the present institutional capacity to solve the problem.

To make the matter of attaining a harmony between humans and their future more involved, consider the discussion about transhumanism in the academy. Most academics find fault with determinist accounts of a disembodied future — too extreme a view for them, not enough ethics and agency, too many poor people left behind, and so much uncertainty! The Unabomber’s back-to-nature platform fairs no better in academia — too extreme, but useful to instigate thoughtful conversation. There is a great deal of “blind empiricism” , “audacity and imagination” happening in between the extremes, but also at these extremes.

Somehow, though, the literature I’ve come across that addresses transhumanist themes doesn’t lay bare “what deep shit we’re in”, to use Zizek’s phrase. The techno-determinists think super-intelligent machines will solve the Lake Victoria problem without lifting a finger — even while placidly napping. The academic might recoil with a trope expressed by David Collingridge in 1980: these are not just technical problems, they are human problems. What makes the techno-determinist think that intelligent machines will solve those problems? The techno-determinist often gives the impression that the exponential growth of processing power and nuanced knowledge spontaneously obliterates the blockages in the pipes of civilization.

“Attaining harmony between humans and their future” captures very nicely the major emerging plight of our time — in this I agree with Marc Abeles. However, I disagree with the suggestion that, among ethnographers, the blind empiricist is the aesthetic ideal in this fucked up situation.

*Thanks to Kelly Kroehle for linking me to Aster Aweke’s music.

Jonardon Ganeri is a professional philosopher with appointments at University of Sussex, Nehru University in New Delhi, and other places. I came across his work through a subscription to Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. I myself, having a degree in philosophy and having briefly studied at a monastery, am quite excited that people like Ganeri are working so prolifically with philosophy as a global human thing. Ganeri edited a volume on the metaphor of philosophy as medicinal therapy for reducing mental suffering, for example, that spans a huge terrain of culture and history

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Ganeri’s recent work on early modern Indian philosophy is of particular interest to me, as I am about to perform a collaborative research experiment with a contemporary Indian polymath, Anirban Bandyopadhyay, who composes Sanskrit poetry that encapsulates his pattern-based computation theories. Ganeri suggests that a disjunctive transition to modernism is not what happened in Indian philosophy; rather, early modern thinkers continued to engage Sanskrit sutra traditions and writing styles that nevertheless demonstrate deeply “contemporary” global philosophical concerns — ethics, epistemology, philosophy of language, metaphysics, reflections on the nature of the self, etc. [I would suggest that in the Western tradition the transition to modernism also isn’t a major rupture — Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy (an early modern text) were written in a Jesuit style that had a religious pedigree of several hundred years.

It is in this connection that I find it so interesting to learn that David Hume was likely conversant with Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhist theories. Ganeri says in a 3am interview:

“Incidentally, Hume, as Alison Gopnik has demonstrated in a recent article, seems to have had access to a swathe of materials about Tibetan and Theravāda Buddhist theory from the documents of the Jesuits Desideri and Dolu.”

Dolu was part of the French embassy in Siam in the late 17th century, and was a prominent landmark at the Jesuit university in La Fleche during the 1730s when Hume was writing his Treatise of Human Nature in La Fleche. Hume describes in a letter from the 1760s how his argument in On Miracles came to him while discussing “nonsensical miracles” with a Jesuit who had travelled the world. Hume basically lived at the library in La Fleche, and he is famous for his international curiosity, soaking up like a sponge stories of distant lands.

Desideri was Dolu’s friend who lived in Tibet from 1716-1721. Keep in mind that Hume was obsessed with being at the forefront of international culture; as my former professor Norbert Samuelson says, “Hume’s greatest ambition was to be a member of the French Court.” It wasn’t just sexy women and costume parties that Hume (the Scotsman who wrote a history of Britain) wanted so desperately. He wanted access to the best international perspectives, and he wanted to say the most important, true, controversial things that might influence his own culture.

Hume continues to be all the rage these days, especially in debates about metaphysics / causality. Bernard Berofsky, one of the leading thinkers in America on metaphysics, published a book in 2012, Nature’s Challenge to Free Will, which claims to be “the first full defense of Humean Compatibilism” ever penned. Berofsky is prone to bold claims — he is a world-class stage magician who enjoys racing Indy cars and singing the Marseillaise.

But you will not find Berofsky talking about Hume’s links to Tibetan and Theravadan Buddhism.
That’s just something the reader has to do on their own. When I was an undergrad, I came across Berofsky’s magisterial Liberation from Self: A Theory of Personal Autonomy, “the most sophisticated treatment of autonomy currently available” — again that boldness. That book lit my philosophical attic on fire. It also got me thinking about how resonant the language was with eastern themes — “liberation from self” is a pun, if you imagine that the author is conscious of the Indian tradition.

What I am wanting to explore now is the role of this global philosophical view to the fields of science studies, STS, and science & technology policy. Have western scholars probed the depths of the cultural context of Indian polymath scientists? Can some form of authentic listening take place when the western “ethicist” enters a laboratory with such cultural resonances?

Time will tell.