Out of Many IV: How We Make Ourselves, Composing, 12/12/2016

Continued from previous . . . I have an orientation to political thinking that you could call a little unorthodox.

I’m not talking about my actual personal beliefs about policies and the role of the state. It’s a blend of left-wing welfare progressivism, distrust of government and police, anti-racism, and libertarian love of relative chaos. Not that today.

I’m not talking about my philosophical journey toward being an increasingly strident progressive – seeing militaristic and nationalist reaction grow and grow all over my culture ever since 11 September 2001. Not that today either.

Today, I want to give a direct answer to the problem my friend was banging into through the earliest drafts of his master’s thesis. What is the political? Here’s my weird, but sensible answer.

The domain of the political is the set of projects, processes, thoughts, and forces that shape human character, personality, and culture. When we talk about all these things in the context of how they shape humanity, we’re talking politics.

I came to this conclusion as I was finishing the first draft of Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity. That book is an outline of one way* to think ecologically about the whole world. How to foreground relations, flux, and interdependence in how we understand the world.

* Among probably many ways. But this was the way I could best assemble, given my resources at McMaster and the expertise I built from and developed.

My book started as a thesis on environmental philosophy – mostly a bunch of academic quibbling over arguments about rights and moral principles, unfortunately. But the truly great writing in environmental philosophy – people like Val Plumwood, Arne Næss – got into wider investigations about how we fundamentally saw ourselves in the world.

All the way down to the turtle.
You can’t care about the ecological relations of your world if you believe humanity is of a different order of being from nature. So if you were going to have a decent chance of believing in those moral principles about protecting nature and preserving our productive ecologies, you had to think ecologically all the way down.

When you say ‘political philosophy,’ it refers to a fairly clearly defined disciplinary boundary of research and thinking. John Rawls’ A Theory of Justice or Karl Marx’s The German Ideology – definitely yes. Pierre Bourdieu’s critical studies of education and all the concepts of subjecthood he developed along with it – borderline.

Metaphysical arguments about the nature of freedom and determinism? Or how humans are different ontologically from other creatures? Not at all. Or so you’d think. Until you realize that those questions can cause political crises like environmental destruction.

Matter is determined in its motions, but humans are an exception from that order because of their free will. Metaphysicians argue about the existence of that free will and its underlying nature. But if you think nature has no agency but you do, then you don’t need to be all that respectful of nature except as far as your own benefit goes.

That’s a very political attitude in an era of ecological crisis – of global-level pollution, resource depletion, and climate change. Yet what conditions that attitude are deeper concepts that have nothing to do with politics.

So as I research and write Utopias, this realization is at the heart of how I’m building the argument and the research program. There’s a recent tradition in Western philosophy that thinks in basically the same way.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari were the most ambitious recent thinkers – with their works developing enormous repositories of complex, innovative concepts about the ecological nature of existence.

But there’s a strong tradition of political philosophers who think this way too – I could call them the contingent materialists. But that’s a new name for it. They look at society and human subjectivity as a complex assemblage of ecological, technological, cultural, geological, biological, psychological, and artistic processes and forces.

They come from a left-wing political tradition. Sometimes associated with revolutionary politics. Names like Antonio Negri, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Jacques Rancière. Their ancestors include names like Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Karl Marx. Their ancient sources are as seemingly distant and dissonant as Niccolo Machiavelli and Benedict Spinoza.

But you can weave a tradition of thought and influence through that chain. And as I continue to work and slowly promote my writing whenever I can, I hope Utopias will contribute even just a little bit to that tradition.

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