New Materialism and a commitment to philosophy
What is the use of philosophy today? The only thing more embarrassing than declaring oneself a philosopher these days is perhaps to come out as a poet. Few things are as indulgent and impractical as philosophizing in the ever-productive world of contemporary late capitalism. And anyway, is anyone who theorizes, reflects, and thinks intensely about the world necessarily a philosopher? Is this the job solely of academics? In his book Demarcation and Demystification: Philosophy and Its Limits (2019), J. Moufawad-Paul argues that there is, indeed, a difference between theorists and philosophers. The former are practitioners who employ various methods to create new forms of knowledge. The latter, on the other hand, are cartographers of the ‘terrains’ of knowledge, continuously demarcating the boundaries of what is knowable, and thus concerned with what belongs and doesn’t belong in the shifting landscape of human thought. Philosophy, then, can be understood as the practice of thinking clearly, and such an activity is currently deeply devalued. Mystification is everywhere: in the explanations for global events given by state figures, in the framing of the urgency to act in light of budgetary limitations, and in the acceptance of debt as an individual, moral failure rather than an expression of fundamental social relation established by forms of power. Mystification is seductive because it appeals to our preference for a narrative or an idea of “human nature”, but demystification is an act of garnering courage to shed commitments which do not serve us anyway. Mystification is the endless list of webinars that promise to teach us how to “rise to the challenge” in the “new normal”, but demystification is the often difficult process of reading theory instead. In a time where we have the least will to read philosophers, they are most needed.
In her lecture “Decolonizing (≠ Reconciling): Science, Technology, and Indigenous Relations” delivered at King’s College in Halifax, Kim Tallbear explains the stumbling block that most Canadians trained in the Euro-centric, Enlightenment tradition have in understanding the relationship between knowledge and power. At one point in the lecture, she states, “When Indigenous scholars critique your scientific method, it is rarely the science, but your politics with which they are concerned.” Because Indigenous knowledge systems are explicitly committed to the collective, they are therefore political. This is why Tallbear warns students against using terms like “bias”. It presumes the possibility of neutrality, when “we are all situated somewhere.” (Notice the spatial dimension of positionality — we do not exist in an idealized ether, but occupy a place in the world of ideas.) While most of us have been taught to focus on the supposed objectivity of methods — that is, the mechanisms employed by science (and social science, and philosophy, for that matter) — Tallbear draws our attention to the larger context in which science functions in actual practice in North America. Science, as a specific domain of knowledge production, does not exist for its own sake as some sort of intellectual exercise, but is practiced, and received a lot of money for a specific purpose.
This lecture is an invigorating slap in the face of my library training under the Liberal tradition. If universities are institutions of power tasked with reproducing subjects capable of functioning in the settler colonial state, then professional schools that produce graduates are deeply invested in maintaining the ideology that makes this capitalist, settler colonial state possible. While we have been raised to believe that science is somehow above the state or outside of political activity, this too is a form of mystification.
And yet, the call for scientists, researchers, and learners in general to be explicit about their politics is threatening to most Canadians. The idea of committing to a position is dirty. Partisanship is inferior to pure ideals, but you cannot serve an ideal for dinner. It is a testament to the power of ideology to produce so many individuals capable of compartmentalizing their lives to such a degree: to be able to advocate for social change, but only up to a point where a material commitment is required. Everyone values the idea of community, but a proposal to establish a structure of universal child and elder care is deemed an overreach. Who can claim to be anti-children? But to what extent they are in support of real children in need of real care is always left to be contested in the never-arriving future.
Slavoj Zizek concludes his recent work, Pandemic: COVID-19 Shakes the World (2020) by envisioning the likelihood of disaster:
“The most probable outcome of the epidemic is that a new barbarian capitalism will prevail; many old and weak people will be sacrificed and left to die; workers will have to accept a much lower standard of living; digital control of our lives will remain a permanent feature; class distinctions will increasingly become a matter of life and death” (p.127).
It is a grim picture, but Zizek does not see much evidence to imagine otherwise in the absence of a global ideological shift. In addition to natural catastrophe that seems to take place daily (fire, floods, hurricanes, disappearing ice cap, disappearing species), the pandemic disrupts what makes us human — our social core. I believe that the renewed interest, if not in Marxism, then in materialism, in the importance of real, actual, material reality and its effect on our understanding of ourselves is happening precisely due to the increased speed of the ruptures of the natural world. I would like to believe that more people are starting to question whether worldviews that served the privileged few in the 19th century are really capable of providing answers to the “wicked problems of today”. The current ideological order tells us that we just need to keep digging for slightly better, more innovative answers.
But what if the answers are already present among the people living their lives, going about their business, and trying to survive in the face of all the catastrophes? The argument is not for distrusting experts, but instead for not trusting them with political decisions in the first place. Many scholars emphasize that our contemporary socio-economic situation has it backward: we let the few define the structure of how we live and work, but leave it to the many to figure out the details. What if we let the many prioritize collective goals (ie. clean water, unpolluted air, meaningful learning opportunities, healthy food) while putting the few to the task of figuring out the mechanisms for making this happen?
Doing so would, of course, require us to be explicit about what counts as a good life. In her book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (2015), Isabelle Stengers argues that knowledge can be reclaimed from expertise and become a ‘common’ question, and thus a basis for political action and collectivity. Stengers uses the example of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) gaining popular attention and resulting in regulation in Europe. Regular people did not need to know the specifics of modifying the plant genome in order to understand the consequences of such activity on their health and livelihoods. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are gaining similar traction currently, at least in scholarly circles, though discourse remains mystified in the media. These technologies, like all technologies, have been made a ‘common’ concern because of their very social nature, their presence in all aspects of our lives and their control (through design, maintenance, and profit) by the technical elites.
In scholarship, this might be why we are seeing the development of object-oriented ontologies, new materialism, and a posthuman (and even anti-human) philosophy. Are we preparing for an earth without humans? Scholars interested in understanding the material conditions which shape social relations have already begun to understand capitalism as an organizing force of life in all its senses — not only land, minerals, water, and labour (Jason Moore’s Capitalism and the Web of Life) but also human life itself, in areas like genome and cybernetics (Melinda Cooper’s Life as Surplus: Biotechnology and Capitalism in the Neoliberal Era). While I am less interested in exploring the boundaries of new materialism, posthumanism, and what scholars above are calling the Capitalocene era, I am underscoring the prominence given to the stuff of life — matter — as a topic of great concern in orienting ourselves in the history of humanity and in the models that explain our experience of the world. It is becoming very challenging to cast off climate change, global movement of migrants, and species loss as an abstraction, a glitch in the Matrix, rather than symptoms of an underlying structure that requires mass organization of labour, energy, and life into a project with specific results.
It probably seems a bit paradoxical for me, as a defender of pragmatism and a practitioner of a profession, to suggest that instead of watching webinars about techniques and strategies, we should all read a bit more philosophy. But that perceived paradox is predicated on the duality of knowing and being at the heart of Liberalism. As a champion of “doing thinking” through reflective practice, tinkering, messing around, testing, and experimenting with both materials and ideas, I agree with Zizek that now is the time to think deeply rather than rush to act. Philosophy, as a practice of clarity, helps us understand the roots of the issues we are experiencing, to situate them in their larger historical context, and consequently, to situate ourselves in relation to both to the land, to each other, and to knowledge. If such clarity was not powerful, there would not be so much effort deployed to channel our attention to the symptoms and surfaces rather than underlying sources and conditions. Such practice is not attractive nor popular, but it is necessary for answering the question of “what truly is a good life?” if we are indeed interested in living fully in the world.