Saturday, 28 March 2009

Scotology (John David Slocum)

"....optical rationality is not contaminated by exceptional violence...; compulsory visibility is the rationality of state counterinsurgency and acts of terror alike - this is evident in the visual staging and technological penetration of the body by cameras...or digitized bombs, which unite both seeing and killing, surveillance and violence, in a unified scopic regime."

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Amata: Thai attitudes to human cloning

My Thai friend Jeerathida has been sending me some articles relating to a sci fi novel about human cloning that was popular in Thailand. I found the following article particularly interesting for its attempt to not only contextualise Amata with respect to Buddhism, but as symptomatic of the growing sense of resentment in the country after the so-called Asian Financial Crisis in 1997, in which irresponsible currency traders devastated the Thai economy.

Derridata, if your own interests in the philosophy (ies) of anime touch on any similar themes I'd be happy to see some of your references.

"The path toward nirvana starts with elimination of greed, anger and delusion and thus anything that contributes to the elimination would for the Buddhist be of positive ethical value. Hence it seems that the intrinsic nature of an act, such as human cloning, is neither positively and negatively valued according to Buddhism; it is whether the act contributes to the Buddhist supreme good that decides whether the act is good or bad.

This does not, however, mean that Buddhism teaches that there is no intrinsic value at all. Some acts will lead one astray from the path toward Enlightenment no matter what, such as killing, stealing, performing wrongful sexual conduct, and so on. However, since human reproductive cloning by itself does not necessarily consist of killing anybody (providing that there are no aborted embryos and there is no harm done to any organisms), it does not seem to be intrinsically bad. If this is so, then the main reason why Arjun is so opposed to human reproductive cloning is that it is done for the purpose of farming human bodies for their organs, with the ultimate aim of creating a business.

To the Buddhists’ eyes, this is intolerable, for the act would certainly involve killing and would mean that human beings are created solely for the purposes of others. (Here we have an affinity between Buddhism and Kantian ethics in the West.) So what this story tells us about Asian genomics is that (1) the Thai attitude toward recent advances in science and technology, as exemplified in Amata, is highly negative. The reason is that these technologies are perceived to be subservient to business interests and more poignantly to egoistic desires to prolong one’s life indefinitely. However, an examination of basic Buddhist tenets reveal that (2) Thai Buddhists do not view the processes and products of the advanced technologies as a necessarily bad thing. The technologies are bad only when they are applied with a frame of mind which leads one away from the path toward Enlightenment. That is, when they are applied for the purpose of fulfilling one’s egoistic desires. Thus, if human reproductive cloning is performed with a frame of mind that furthers the movement toward Enlightenment, such as when it is performed with loving-kindness or compassion, then the act is not necessarily bad. Furthermore, (3) since Theravada Buddhism largely informs the Thai indigenous knowledge system, we see in Amata a concrete example of the interplay between the indigenous and the system of knowledge that originates from the West.

What we see is that Buddhism is still the superior mode of knowledge in that it integrates the epistemic and the ethical dimensions of knowledge systems. Knowledge is not to be divorced from ethical considerations. Prommin’s dissecting a dog in order to learn where its soul resides is a typical example of how modern western science is perceived to be alienated from ethical considerations. And it is precisely this reason that modern science has to be reined in by the Buddhist teachings.

In my recent book, Science in Thai Society and Culture (forthcoming), I discuss that the way out of the problems arising from negative attitudes toward science and technology is that science and technology need to be part of the people’s lives. A way needs to be found in order that science and technology become integrated into the cultural fabric of Thai lives. I proposed many ways to do that, chief among which is that the direction of scientific research should be geared toward solving local problems and catering to local needs rather than toward serving the globalized corporate interests".

No doubt in coming years we will see even more debate as to whether human cloning could fill the vacuum created by the "fertility crisis". Let's hope the debate will feature a broad cross section of the public,including social scientists [to battle the next generations of Malthusians], and not just self-styled futurist entrepreneurs in the style of Patrick Dixon of

Academics Caught Between Plagiarism and Bullshit

New on my reading list is Steve Fuller's latest book. I haven't got hold of it yet, so until I do I'll be monitoring reviews as they trickle in. The title of this post is actually a chapter in Fuller's book, so it seems he is not pulling back on the critical style I enjoyed so much in The Intellectual when he skewered one of my favourite bugbears, contemporary practitioners of Continental philosophy.

The Sociology of Intellectual Life
The Career of the Mind in and Around Academy

Steve Fuller
University of Warwick, UK
August 2009
224 pages
SAGE Publications Ltd
Series: Published in association with Theory, Culture & Society


Table of Contents:
1. The University as an Institutional Solution to the Problem of Knowledge
2. The Alienability of Knowledge in our so-called Knowledge Society
3. The Knowledge Society as Capitalism of the Third Order
4. Will the University Survive the Era of Knowledge Management?
5. Postmodernism as an Anti-University Movement
6. Regaining the University's Critical Edge by Historicizing the Curriculum
7. Affirmative Action as a Strategy for Redressing the Balance between Research and Teaching
8. Academics Rediscover their Soul: The Rebirth of 'Academic Freedom'
1. Epistemology as 'always already' Social Epistemology
2. From Social Epistemology to the Sociology of Philosophy
3. Is the Sociology of Philosophy Merely the Codification of Professional Prejudices?
4. Interlude: Seeds of an Alternative Sociology of Philosophy
5. Prolegomena to a Critical Sociology of 20th century Anglophone Philosophy
6. Analytic Philosophy's Ambivalence toward the Empirical Sciences
7. Professionalism as Differentiating American and British Philosophy
8. Conclusion: Anglophone Philosophy as a Victim of Its Own Success
1. Can Intellectuals Survive If the Academy Is a No Fool Zone?
2. How Intellectuals Became an Endangered Species in Our Times: The Trail of Psychologism
3. A Genealogy of Anti-intellectualism: From Invisible Hand to Social Contagion
4. Re-defining the Intellectual as Agent of Distributive Justice
5. The Critique of Intellectuals in a Time of Pragmatist Captivity
6. Pierre Bourdieu: A Successful Case of an Academic Sociologist Becoming a Public Intellectual
7. Conclusion: Recovering Sociologist's Voice in British Intellectual Life
1. Academics Caught Between Plagiarism and Bullshit
2. Bullshit: A Disease Whose Cures Are Always Worse
3. The Scientific Method as a Search for the (Piled) Higher (and Deeper) Bullshit
Other Titles in: Social Theory Philosophy of Social Science Philosophy of Education

Friday, 20 March 2009

Shadow Company

If you're seeking a sociological explanation for the emergence of private military contractors in relation to the history of the nation state, I'd recommend taking a look at Catherine McCoy's piece in Contexts Magazine. It's an excerpt from her dissertation, so I hope she publishes some day, or at least makes it freely available on the web. She also generously provides a very good bibliography on this important issue, including references to the documentary Shadow Company, a clip from which I've posted here (this documentary is also no slouch in contextualizing in relation to longer term relationships, in a manner generally not possible in the reportage style of traditional news media).

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

From legislators to interpreters......

And here is a wonderful supplement to my previous post regarding the changing contexts of academic labour:

"Zygmunt Bauman’s discussion of the rise and decline of the “legislator intellectual” is of crucial importance here. Bauman connects the value of “culture” to the role of intellectuals in legitimating the power of the early modern and modern nation state. The value of culture, the notion that to be fully human meant to be cultured or cultivated, was tied to the way in which the emergence of the modern state involved the replacement of traditional forms of solidarity with centralized social control. It was in this context of the rise of the nation state that Bauman locates the legislator intellectual. Intellectuals, as guardians of “culture,” played a crucial role in legitimizing these new forms of social control and political-cultural identity. Bauman writes: “The intellectual ideology of culture was launched as a militant, uncompromising and self-confident manifesto of universally binding principles of social organization and individual conduct.” The legislator intellectual played a role in defining and asserting the superiority of the national culture, and thereby in legitimizing the power of the nation state. Bauman argues, however, that this role of the legislator intellectual has declined as national culture has been replaced by the market as the central ordering principle of modern societies. “More and more,” he argues, “the culture of consumer society was subordinated to the function of producing and reproducing skilful and eager consumers, rather than obedient and willing subjects to the state.” In consumerism, normative regulation through the nation state is replaced with seduction through the market and the commodity spectacle.
In this context, intellectuals are no longer looked to as “legislators” of cultural values. Instead, they become “interpreters”: “from the perspective of the present-day intellectuals, culture does not appear as something to be ‘made’ or ‘remade’ as an object for practice; it is indeed a reality in its own right and beyond control, an object for study, something to be mastered only cognitively, as a meaning, and not practically, as a task.” The task of creating culture has shifted from intellectuals to the media and other purveyors of mass entertainment and mass consumption. This context provides little rationale for the maintenance of the university apart from the market as a source of high-cultural values.
However, Bauman’s analysis of the importance of the rise of consumer society needs to be supplemented with an account of the relationship of intellectuals to global politics....."

Ghosts in the academic writing machine?

I immediately suspected that Latour would have cited Gabriel Tarde as a precursor to actor network theory. So one needs to be extremely careful about where the critiques of cosmopolitanism in Schillmeier's article could end up taking you.

Derrida also wrote a slim volume on cosmopolitanism (a popular term in social theory that has been favourably mentioned previously on this blog), so I must check the bibliography of said article, and once I get hold of it, trace other elective affinities as well.

It's the sort of conversation that I believe could and, moreover, should, be taking place more generally in Continental philosophy circles as well (including the blogosphere), but it does not seem to be. From what I've seen lately on blogs, the greater focus there is on (the usual, hermetically closed off, internal conversations) regarding subjects such as whether Deleuze's philosophical system presupposes a biological metaphysics.

Fine, do a rigorous scholarly philosophical reading in such terms, but even if you disagree with the conception of philosophy as "underlabourer" for the social sciences, why not still attempt to foster as well a more expansive public debate, say along the lines of the Steve Fuller references I've also listed here? Why just address another philosopher and not the representative of another discipline or some other greater public interest/representative? By the same token, why just append some contemporary philosopher to the latest movie, dubstep album etc, as per usual in the Continental philosophy blogosphere, when you are not really logically obliged to stand behind your words by being made answerable to the subject in question? How high, really, are the stakes in those kinds of "analysis" anyway? [once they become ends in themselves]

I say this because I can remember derridata voicing some strong critiques years ago of a fellow philosophy postgrad who was deep in the throes of a doctorate: "it should be finished's practically writing itself". Precisely my point: the student becomes a mere ghost in an academic writing machine, thanks to the autonomy of the discourses in question. It's almost like a game.

I know that someone such as Geoffrey Bennington would argue that my line of reasoning presupposes "already knowing what politics is", so it can only amount to something like "journalism". But surely this pro forma response is itself nonsense? For how could a philosopher already know what form the conversations would take until they had made the leap of faith and attempted to dialogue with the other? Bennington writes commentaries (or exegesis if you prefer), but he also teaches in an institutional setting (a university), where surely he does not believe that such a formal setting, by virtue of its very existence, closes off all possibilities for dialogue? It's hard to see how he could justify his existence as a [tenured] philosopher if he believed otherwise. So why wouldn't the same principle apply in other formal (or even less formal) settings, albeit outside of the academic circuit, where Bennington could also test his philosophical propositions?

I don't mean to imply in every case this requires participating in something like a science court. It could be as simple as posting some thoughts to a blog [outside one's immediate area of expertise] that addresses important scientific debates with clear public ramifications, such as, for example, Telic Thoughts.

It's one thing then to argue that the death of the author thesis absolves the academic philosopher of personal responsibility, and that the upside of this is that your work will be taken up subsequently in all sorts of other contexts you cannot personally control (so writing is like a message in a bottle). Changing metaphors, it's another thing though to acknowledge that the apple does not usually fall very far from the tree, which becomes immediately obvious when one notes the similarities between academic practice and what goes on in the Continental philosophy noosphere. The only difference I can see is a greater willingness by the latter to apply the canon to popular culture, but with the publication of titles such as The Matrix and Philosophy, even that gap may be rapidly narrowing. How about a reflexive inquiry then to try to explain why this might be the case? I'm pretty sure though that thinkers such as Zizek would only be pleased with these developments, as he has cannily played both sides all along. Of course, I'm not claiming that none of this kind of work can be of any value, I'm simply wondering why so often it seems in some circles to be "all there is".

And so to some articles I hope to acquaint myself with before making any further attempts to try to fill in the gaps.....

The Social, Cosmopolitanism & Beyond Michael Schillmeier

History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 87-109
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 87-109

Review symposium: Steve Fuller's The New Sociological Imagination: introduction: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006. 240 pp
Zaheer Baber
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 110-114

Fuller's project of humanity: social sciences or sociobiology?: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006
Francis Remedios
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 115-120

The fabrication of man: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006
Peter Baehr
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 121-127

Disenchantment of the world and the devaluation of human species: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006
Chai Choon-Lee
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 128-132

Fuller's nostalgic imagination: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006
Christopher Kevill
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 133-137

In search of sociological foundations for the project of humanity: Steve Fuller, The New Sociological Imagination. London: Sage Publications, 2006
Steve Fuller
History of the Human Sciences 2009;22 138-145

Ghosts in the Machine: Publication Planning in the Medical Sciences
Sergio Sismondo
Social Studies of Science 2009;39 171-198

Saturday, 14 March 2009

Policing borders against alien intruders

This is not a gushing fanboy style blog, so I can offer no guarantees as to the quality of the projected District 9 feature length expansion of the short film Alive in Joburg. But I still think the theme of apartheid in relation to aliens (the film is set in South Africa) looks quite promising. At the very least, it may warrant a chapter unto itself in a future edition of Ziauddin Sardar's and Sean Cubitt's Aliens R Us: The Other in Science Fiction Cinema.
The official website for D-9 is also worth exploring. To my mind it all sounds very much like the social imaginary of a biopolitics for whom border/immigration controls function in the same manner as antibodies.. .....I won't even begin to cite precedents; you know who you are!! (i.e. the alien as liminal figure, an allergic symptom triggering hysterical attempts at control etc etc.....)

Friday, 13 March 2009

Palingenesis, electronic music, fascism, fusion, transcendence?

ahuthnance, we were talking about Roger Griffin and his [separate] interests in electronic music and Nazi Germany. The interesting question is whether any commonalities could be teased out in how he discusses palingenesis? Or is his musical frame of reference so tightly tied to rave culture that it becomes impossible to imagine other settings and genres being used as props for Victor Turner style liminal rituals (even if the participant is a lone individual not directly fusing with a collective)? What if the music is used to provide a commentary on violence in such contexts as well?

In the absence of other writings on electronic music more generally by Griffin, I've had to content myself with other artefacts, such as the brilliant rescoring of Salo, using Kelly Bailey's evocative soundtrack from Half Life 2 (notwithstanding any historical differences between Italian and German variants of fascism, we would agree that each bears examination as a palingenetic populist form of ultranationalism). And then there is the stunning Tangerine Dream track from the opening of The Keep......

Ord & Bild

Where does humanity end and artificial intelligence start? Does intelligence need emotions? Will robots ever be self-replicating, thus replacing humans? Where does a human end and a cyborg begin? With a prosthetic leg, spectacles, or the notepaper used by someone to record their thoughts and thus relieve their brain? These are some of the questions asked in the new issue of Ord&Bild.

The fact that 4000 semi-autonomous robots were used during the Iraq-war gives Christopher Kullenberg the creeps. "Some have peaceful tasks, such as defusing mines and bombs, others are armed with weapons. [...] They act on human orders." The prediction of Noel Sharkey, professor of artificial intelligence and robot-technique, frightens him: "The next step will be fully autonomous robots where the decision-making ability is completely delegated to a machine. [...] In the near future we will be seeing machines taking decisions about who shall be a victim and who shall survive."

Androids: Andrés Stoopendaal returns to Masahiro Mori's model of the "uncanny valley" to discover why humans find androids so eerie. "As long as the object looks sufficiently unlike a human, its human characteristics appear uncomplicated and create empathy. But when the object seems almost completely human, its inhuman features appear in a different light and create a feeling of strangeness in the human observer." Yet the belief that in the future robots will be superior to humans is firmly anchored in industry and the academic world, notes Stoopendaal. The more anthropomorphic the design, the more questions surrounding their humanity will become central.

Also: Stefan Svallfors writes about experiments by Ernst Fehr in Zurich, suggesting that evolutionary programming has developed the human brain towards a capacity for reciprocity rather than self-interest. This has a two-way effect on politics and society, writes Svallfors. "Our perception of what one, as part of the society, should expect is to a large extent formed by the political institutions we have shaped. [...] The way institutions work forms our view of what is possible and what is worth aiming for."

The full table of contents of Ord&Bild 5/2008


My first thought was to label this post something along the lines of, "The Iranian roots of Transhumanism", before conceding that this would have been inconsistent with the reasons FM2030 chose to change his name from the more  conventional F.M. Esfandiary. Clearly he is an important historical figure, even if it transpires that some of his more outlandish predictions never eventuate. 

Coming across the clip for the song Risky, I have to confess having no memory whatsoever of this song. Back in 1987 I was a huge fan of Iggy Pop and was watching a lot of music tv, but I experienced no Proustian  reveries seeing and hearing it on youtube. Truth be told, the conceptions behind the song are more interesting than the finished product (i.e. the whole is not greater than the sum of its parts). But anyone else watching it is free of course to make up their own mind. 

Here's the mention of the piece in the Wikipedia entry on Iggy Pop:

"In 1987, Pop appeared (along with Bootsy Collins) on a mostly instrumental album, Neo Geo, by Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. The music video for Risky, written and directed by Meiert Avis, won the first ever MTV Breakthrough Video Award. The groundbreaking video explores transhumanist philosopher FM-2030's ideas of Nostalgia for the Future in the form of an imagined love affair between a robot and one of Man Ray's models in Paris in the late 1930s. Additional inspiration was drawn from Jean Baudrillard, Edvard Munch's 1894 painting Puberty, and Roland Barthes Death of the Author. The surrealist black-and-white video uses stop motion, light painting, and other retro in-camera effects techniques. Meiert Avis shot Sakamoto while at work on the score for The Last Emperor in London. Sakamoto also appears in the video painting words and messages to an open shutter camera. Iggy Pop, who performs the vocals on Risky, chose not to appear in the video, allowing his performance space to be occupied by the surrealist era robot".

Monday, 9 March 2009

Cold weather tourism

Before I went on holiday, I made brief reference to the topic of "extreme tourism". There I hinted at a possible rapprochement between the society as "camp" or "ballardian" and more empirically robust accounts of such zones in the academic field of tourist studies. I'm greatly impressed by what I've seen so far in the field of nissology ("Island Studies") as a possible suitable candidate. Particularly noteworthy is the series of related questions posed in relation to "extreme tourism", with a focus here on "cold weather tourists".

If these are partly methodological issues, then I see Island Studies as a vehicle for escaping the traps found in the kind of "cultural theory" that dominates the blogosphere (which I prefer to call the noosphere in this case), and, to a lesser extent, cultural studies in its more formal academic settings. I've previously mentioned how the "fish scale model of omniscience" provides a ready explanation for the ubiquity of Continental philosophy in the "noosphere". If the problem there is an inflated, abstract, grand mode of theorising, at the other end of the scale, difficulties can accrue where large scale empirical verification requires greater team project work. What this can mean in practice is that the team of researchers can more easily become beholden to the wishes of their sponsors, thereby denuding the work of critical content. In other words, it becomes a question of economies of scale.

The appeal of so-called "middle range" theorising lies in navigating between these extremes. Given my [oft stated] reservations about actor network theory, I am unhappy whenever I encounter attempts to frame it as a form of middle range theory. However, I believe there is still something good about such conversations taking place, as they at least imply a degree of reflexivity on the part of the authors about what and how they are doing something, and the kinds of problems that might arise as a result. Again, this characteristic is largely absent in the noosphere, which is why I refer to that method repeatedly in this blog in terms of its being "an avant garde formalism". While not couched in exactly these terms, a very good explanation of middle range theory, reflexivity, descriptive and normative critique, can be found here, which teases out the full implications of the issues I'm trying to raise. 

An example of the kind of work that interests me is using reflexivity in conjunction with the "key questions" raised in nissology in relation to "cold weather tourism" (as per the above link). So rather than just do a typical noosphere style "mash up" of, say, Fred Jameson and Slavoj Zizek, this alternative method offers the promise of elucidating the reflexivity of authors such as Kim Stanley Robinson. For example, how may a text such as Antarctica be construed as a reflexive commentary on the "key questions" raised by nissologists when discussing "cold weather tourism"?
What may start to emerge is a sense of reflexivity where this means a fluid conversation between theory and empirical work (and one should remember that Robinson heavily researches the subject matter of all of his novels to the fullest extent possible, in addition to foregrounding how the context is mediated by particular, and often conflicting, world views).  Perhaps a nissologist could justifiably apply said method to other texts as well, such as Herzog's documentary Encounters at the End of the World? To convince me otherwise, you would have to explain in detailed methodological terms why it was not possible in principle (and I would take a lot of convincing).

I also see it as an interesting way of expanding "key question" number 3 in the study of "extreme tourism". Consider then the compatibility with Fred Jameson's discussion of the connotations of "extreme cold" on page 268 of his Archaeologies of the Future, where he notes how the loss of physical autonomy in a harsh environment equates also to a loss of psychic autonomy. This makes the layers of insulation a cold environment necessitates stand in contrast to the tropics, where heat:

 " conveyed as a kind of dissolution of the body into the outside world, a loss of that clean separation from clothes and external objects that gives you your autonomy and allows you to move about freely...." 

Or so it would seem...afterall, maybe it is wrong to say something opposite is at stake here, so that the cold environment would necessarily consolidate a more autonomous, survivalist personality. In situations such as these, what could scandalize the typology is that section of Cyclonopedia, which discusses "openness" and the "outside". It is seemingly the act of resistance, the attempt at maintaining autonomy, that can make for a strange attractor for those forces that may affect a transformation into something else. Think here of that quintessential "body horror" film, John Carpenter's The Thing, and note then how Jameson's terms such as "dissolution" can be equally applicable in the "cold weather" setting. However, I don't see this as troubling the nissology paradigm, as "question 3" is posed as an open question, and must be tested and contextualized in relation to the other listed key questions. Any problem in this instance would seem to relate more to Jameson than nissology per se, which is more equally balanced [than Jameson] in terms of receptiveness to empirical, case by case studies.