The Most Productive Possible Research Priorities, Composing, 05/05/2014

The last major chapter of Rosi Braidotti’s The Posthuman is about what a post-human research program would look like. She lists some examples of existing works of philosophy and critical theory that constitute a post-human perspective, and describes what the university institution would look like with post-human priorities.

With regard to the content of this new mode of knowledge, post-humanity, I feel as though I fit in quite well. The central ontological ideas of my Ecophilosophy project are that the world is primarily constituted through relations and networks, that the significant motor of change in the world is dynamic tensions among systems and bodies, and that the mathematics best suited to describe these dynamics are non-linear, of a type most commonly arising in probability and complexity theory. 

Fractal geometry and complexity mathematics do more
than create beautiful images. But the images are also
That’s pretty much what Braidotti says a post-human theory would do, particularly her vision of post-human critical theory. So I would fit in well among her collection of fellow travellers, which includes feminist epistemology (such as Evelyn Fox Keller, Henrietta Moore, Isabelle Stengers, and Donna Haraway), Peter Galison’s embrace of “the end of grand systematic theoretical discourse” regarding science, the philosophical elaborations on complexity theory that have flowed from Deleuze and Guattari to Karen Barad and Luciana Parisi, and Dipesh Chakrabarty’s historicist approach to the development of climate change science, not to mention Katherine Hayles’ approach to the digital humanities. 

Of course, we have important differences in our visions, as her own philosophical vision is shaped by the background framework of critical theory: the conception of problems as texts to be interpreted, common in the critical theory context, doesn’t really appeal to me. In one way, this is a personal preference. My own background and education has been through self-identified philosophy departments, and my first years of philosophical education was in a department that was very historically-oriented in its research and teaching. So I have a strong background in that canon of dead white male Europeans (and some Americans at the end). 

If studying the history of philosophy teaches you anything (aside from a head for details and anachronistic language), you learn that there are many different ways to engage with conceptual creativity. Critical theory is just one set of approaches, one school of style, in a history that includes many different ways to develop new ways of thinking. It gave me that taste for pure conceptual thought that isn’t necessarily wedded to a single style of expression. Yes, most contemporary philosophy has a fairly standard form of the academic essay, putting forth arguments and responding to them, piece by piece. But consider some of the innovations in form. 

I’m not just talking about Heidegger or Derrida’s games with language, or even the way Deleuze and Guattari pack countless layers of signification into so much of their writing that uncharitable readers almost think it all nonsense. Look at Russell and Whitehead’s masterpiece of symbolic logic, the Principia Mathematica, and especially their early drafts and dead-ended attempts. How Kripke and Lacan crafted brilliant books from intricate lectures. Marx’s monstrous interdisciplinary beast, Capital. Hegel’s dialectic via aufheben. Spinoza's geometrical argumentation. The first-person narration of Descartes’ Meditations has more in common with the stream-of-consciousness experiments of Virginia Woolf than most of the scientific writing of his day. Kierkegaard’s army of conceptual personae. The ancient Greeks used forms of writing that have no modern analogue: the aporetic dialogue that obscures even the author’s own beliefs; the philosophical poem that expresses philosophy as praise to the gods. Nietzsche.

I’m no innovator in the form of philosophy. The Ecophilosophy manuscript is a pretty clear extended, multi-part essay making an argument for what kind of ethic and self-conception a person would have to hold to live authentically according to an ecocentric morality, and that we should start thinking of ourselves this way for the sake of our species’ survival. But I’m glad I don’t wed myself to a particular style straight out of the gate. Who knows what I’ll be writing in ten years?

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