(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘sociology

“Be not the one who debunks but the one who assembles, not the one who lifts the rugs from under the feet of the naive believers but the one who offers arenas in which to gather”*…

From Stephen Muecke, an appreciation of the late, lamented Bruno Latour (see here, here, and here)– an exploration of his ideas and of their sources…

A humble virus, the Dead Sea, oil pipelines, Wonder Woman, a voodoo doll, Escherichia coli, the concept of freedom, monsoons, ‘extinct’ languages, and tectonic plates. All are real. All are active. And, in their own way, these and myriad other nonhuman entities are actors, enrolled in the production of our world. We’re still in the opening paragraph, but this is where Bruno Latour might have stopped us to make a slight correction: the production of worlds.

For Latour, who was one of most influential and provocative thinkers of the past century, the world is always multiple. Above all else, his thought is pluralist – this is his legacy. He died on 9 October 2022, leaving behind a pluralism that accommodates non-Western worlds but also, remarkably, the worlds of nonhumans, which are not just things or forces, but ‘actors’ with the potential to change their worlds. However, this pluralism is not an ‘anything goes’ relativism. In an age when worlds are being destroyed at an unprecedented rate, its stakes are life and death.

Latour’s approach is radical because it shows just how active nonhumans have been in human affairs. His work calls for new political strategies that can acknowledge humans aren’t the only ones enrolled in the production of truth. In his view, forms of ‘nature’ – including nonhumans such as mountains, voodoo dolls, policy documents or door stoppers – are woven together in political networks. To use his phrase, they form a ‘political ecology’. If this is ‘ecology’, it is a particularly French kind. Among Latour’s many actors we find none of the piety of the North American wilderness tradition associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who sought spiritual transcendence in pristine nature. The ecology Latour was developing is practical, earthbound and problem-oriented. So where did he get his ideas?…

Bruno Latour showed us how to think with the things of the world, respecting their right to exist and act on their own terms: “The generous philosopher,” from @MonsieurMouche in @aeonmag.

* Bruno Latour

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As we cultivate curiosity, we might send traditionally-cultivated birthday greetings to Vandana Shiva; she was born on this date in 1952. A scholar, environmental activist, food sovereignty advocate, ecofeminist and anti-globalisation author, she is often referred to as the “Gandhi of grain” for her activism associated with the anti-GMO movement.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

November 5, 2022 at 1:00 am

“These are the times that try men’s souls”*…

Last January, (R) D looked, via Adam Tooze, at the concept of the Polycrisis: “I know it is relentless. That is also a feature of the polycrisis we are in. It comes from all sides and it just doesn’t stop.” He’s developed his thinking, summarizing in a recent Financial Times piece…

Pandemic, drought, floods, mega storms and wildfires, threats of a third world war — how rapidly we have become inured to the list of shocks. So much so that, from time to time, it is worth standing back to consider the sheer strangeness of our situation…

Of course, familiar economic mechanisms still have huge power. A bond market panic felled an incompetent British government. It was, you might say, a textbook case of market discipline. But why were the gilt markets so jumpy to begin with? The backdrop was the mammoth energy subsidy bill and the Bank of England’s determination to unwind the huge portfolio of bonds that it had piled up fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

With economic and non-economic shocks entangled all the way down, it is little wonder that an unfamiliar term is gaining currency — the polycrisis.

A problem becomes a crisis when it challenges our ability to cope and thus threatens our identity. In the polycrisis the shocks are disparate, but they interact so that the whole is even more overwhelming than the sum of the parts. At times one feels as if one is losing one’s sense of reality. Is the mighty Mississippi really running dry and threatening to cut off the farms of the Midwest from the world economy? Did the January 6 riots really threaten the US Capitol? Are we really on the point of uncoupling the economies of the west from China? Things that would once have seemed fanciful are now facts.

This comes as a shock. But how new is it really?…

Welcome to the world of the polycrisis” (gift link)

Then, in his newsletter, he goes more deeply into the concept and its roots…

Polycrisis is a term I first encountered when I was finishing Crashed in 2017. It was invoked by Jean-Claude Juncker to describe Europe’s perilous situation in the period after 2014. In the spirit of “Eurotrash”, I rather relished the idea of picking up a “found concept” from that particular source. On Juncker check out Nick Mulder’s wonderful portrait of “Homo Europus”. It turned out that Juncker got the idea from French theorist of complexity and resistance veteran Edgar Morin, who is a whole ‘nother story…

Polycrisis – thinking on the tightrope

Both pieces are fascinating and useful; both, eminently worth reading in full…

* Thomas Paine, The American Crisis

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As we ponder profusion, we might recall that it was on this date in 1898 that an American institution was born.

The University of Minnesota football team (for our non-American readers out there, I’m of course referring to the kind of football where you’ll get a penalty for using your feet) was playing their final game against Northwestern University. The U of M’s team had been having a lackluster year, and there was a general feeling on campus that this was due to lack of enthusiasm during the games. So several students, lead by Johnny Campbell on a megaphone, decided to lead the crowd of spectators in a chant: “Rah, Rah, Rah! Ski-U-Mah! Hoo-Rah! Hoo-Rah! Varsity! Varsity! Minn-e-so-tah!” The crowd went bananas, as they say, and an energized Minnesota team won the game 17-6.

That day Johnny Campbell and his (presumably drunk) friends became the first cheerleader squad.

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Johnny Campbell

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“To be what you want to be: isn’t this the essence of being human?”*…

… Ah, but what does one– should one– want to be? Jules Evans, with a history of the transhumanist-rationalist-extropian movement that has ensorcelled many of technology’s leaders, one that celebrates an elite few and promises an end to death and taxes…

Once upon a time there was an obscure mailing list. It only had about 100 people on it, yet in this digital village was arguably the greatest concentration of brain power since fifth-century Athens. There was Hans Moravec, pioneer in robotics; Eric Drexler, pioneer of nanotechnology; Eliezer Yudkowsky, father of the Rationalist movement; Max More, father of modern transhumanism; Nick Bostrom, founder of Long-Termism and the study of Existential Risks; Hal Finney, Nick Szabo and Wei Dai, the inventors of cryptocurrency; and Julian Assange, founder of Wikileaks. Together they developed a transhumanist worldview — self-transformation, genetic modification, nootropic drugs, AI, crypto-libertarianism and space exploration. It’s a worldview that has become the ruling philosophy of the obscenely rich of California.

It all started in Bristol, England. There, a young man called Max O’Connor grew up, and went to study philosophy at Oxford. But Max wanted more, more excitement, more life, more everything. He changed his name to Max More, and moved to California, where the future is invented. His dreams took root in the soil prepared by Californian transhumanists of the 1970s. Many of them were members of an organization called L5, dedicated to the colonization of space by a genetic elite — its members included Timothy Leary, Marvin Minsky, Isaac Asimov and Freeman Dyson, and its magazine was named Ad Astra — which was what Elon Musk named his school for SpaceX kids in 2014.

Max was also inspired by Robert Ettinger, an American engineer who argued that humans would soon become immortal superbeings, and we should freeze ourselves when we die so we can be resurrected in the perfect future. While doing a PhD at the University of Southern California, Max got a job at the Alcor Foundation for cryonic preservation, and in 1989 he started a magazine with his fellow philosophy grad, Tom Morrow, called Extropy: Journal of Transhumanist Thought. ‘Do you want to be an ubermensch?’ the first issue asked.

‘Ubermensch’ (overman or superman) is the German word used by Friedrich Nietzsche to describe the individual (male or female) who has overcome all obstacles to the perfection of him or herself…

A history and an explanation: “How did transhumanism become the religion of the super-rich?” from @JulesEvans11.

* David Zindell

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As we ponder the (presumptuous) preference for perfection, we might recall that it was (tradition holds) on this date in 1517– All Hallows (All Saints) Eve– that Martin Luther, a priest and scholar in Wittenberg, Germany, upset by what he saw as the excesses and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church (especially the papal practice of taking payments– “indulgences”– for the forgiveness of sins), posted his 95 Theses on the door of Castle Church.  Thus began the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther (source)

Today, of course, All Hallows (All Saints) Eve, is celebrated as Halloween, which is (if it is, as many scholars believe, directly descended from the ancient Welsh harvest festival Samhain) the longest-running holiday with a set date… and (usually, anyway) the second-biggest (after Christmas) commercial holiday in the United States.

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“In the deepest sense the search for extraterrestrial intelligence is a search for ourselves”*…

Will the monumental moment of first contact fuel division among war-hungry humanity, or will it inspire our better angels and unite us? Becky Ferreira considers…

Do intelligent aliens exist somewhere out there in the universe? It is a grand mystery that has captivated humans for generations, fueling ever-more sophisticated searches of the skies for signs of advanced civilizations. But while aliens have taken many forms in our imaginations—from hostile invaders to inscrutable ciphers—we have absolutely no idea what extraterrestrial life-forms might look like, how they would communicate, or even if they exist at all.

We can, however, make some assumptions about the only intelligent space-faring species that we know of—humans—and how we might react to contact with an alien civilization. Indeed, people have spent decades developing protocols that attempt to anticipate this momentous event and all of the extraordinary potential consequences it could have on our civilization. It’s an especially important question now, as the world appears more strongly divided than at any time in recent memory, with major powers taking on increasingly antagonistic stances toward each other. 

In 2020, a pair of researchers dug into this question in an article in Space Policy by suggesting that humans might pose as big a risk to ourselves in the aftermath of alien contact as any extraterrestrial species…

The potential consequences of first contact: “Scientists Are Gaming Out What Humanity Will Do If Aliens Make Contact,” from @beckyferreira in @VICE.

* Carl Sagan

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As we listen carefully, we might note that today is the (fictional) birthday of ALF (Alien Life Form), from the 1980s TV series of the same name; he was born on this date in 1756 on the planet Melmac. ALF follows an amateur radio signal to Earth and crash-lands into the garage of the Tanners, a suburban middle-class family who live in the San Fernando Valley area of California. While largely a sit-com, it wove thematic threads (that echo that echo films like The Day the Earth Stood Still and ET) to explore exactly the issues raised in the piece linked above.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 28, 2022 at 1:00 am

“Take this job and shove it”*…

Chauncey Hare, “Self Portrait at EPA” (1980)

Chauncey Hare hated his job, so he captured the drudgery of office life in order to protest it…

Photography started as a hobby for Chauncey Hare. For 27 years, he worked as a chemical engineer at the Standard Oil Company of California, using his camera to escape the tedium of the office. By 1977, he couldn’t take it anymore. But before he declared himself a “corporate dropout” and committed to art full-time, Hare trained his camera on the world he hoped to leave behind…

“Head of Female Worker Seen Over Office Cubicle, Standard Oil Company of California” (1976–77)
“Office worker seated at a desk, ‘Standard Oil Company of California refinery, Richmond, California’” (1976-77)

Paradoxically, the same medium that once served as a respite from the banality of Hare’s professional life soon came to feel oppressive in its own right. In Quitting Your Day Job, a forthcoming critical biography of Hare, the scholar Robert Slifkin connects Hare’s sly, arresting portraiture to the artist’s critiques of capitalist power structures, including the cultural institutions that embraced him. (Hare won three Guggenheim fellowships, an honor shared only by Ansel Adams and Walker Evans.) The photographer went on to disavow “official art” and accept a part-time job at the Environmental Protection Agency to support himself. A self-portrait from that time [the photo at the top]shows Hare back in an office environment, where a poster hanging on a cubicle wall poses a question that its surroundings implicitly answer: What’s bugging you? By 1985, Hare had given up photography altogether and become a therapist specializing in “work abuse.”…

More of Hare’s remarkable work, and of his equally-remarkable story, at “Under the Fluorescent Lights,” by Hannah Giorgis. See also “These Photographs Were Made in Protest.”

* songwriter David Allan Coe (made famous in a recording by Johnny Paycheck)

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As we gag at our gigs, we might recall that it was on this date in 1911 that the first motion picture “stunt man” was hired, when Lt. Henry “Hap” Arnold, a pioneer military pilot, was brought onto director William J. Humphrey‘s production of The Military Air-Scout to do stunt flying for the film; the two-reeler was released the following December.

Lt. Arnold went on to become an Army General (head of the Army Air Corps) and then the commanding general of the U.S. Air Force; he remains the only person every to hold a five-star rank in two different U.S. military services. On retirement, he helped found both Project RAND, which evolved into one of the world’s largest non-profit global policy think tanks, the RAND Corporation, and Pan American World Airways.

“Hap” Arnold, stunt pilot

Written by (Roughly) Daily

September 30, 2022 at 1:00 am

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