More Than Mere Images, Composing, 11/07/2018

Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about different ways I’ve seen philosophical writers push themselves into more ambitious expressions. The results are beautiful and inspiring. The quality of the results are mixed, but that’s true of any attempt to overcome limits.

You’d be right to ask what limits I’m talking about, for a start. Well, these limits are based in the norms of academic writing, which tend to the self-destructive. Let me take a paragraph or six to explain how.

Academic training in the university sector tends to cause a lot of impostor syndrome. There are many causes for this, but I want to focus today on two causes.

One cause is that there’s no generally acceptable upper limit on how comprehensive a paper must be to appear credible. A writer must always prepare to face someone who calls their work inadequate because it doesn’t refer to a particular writer that critic is familiar with.

A powerful mystical experience can be had here, but only if you're
already open to it. If you aren't open to that phenomenological
communion, you might just see some potentially valuable
minerals that this damn National Parks act prevents you from
accessing, for the economic good of the people.
Image by Jorge Lascar via Flickr / Creative Commons
But research overproduction has made this impossible, especially combined with how long peer review takes. In the sometimes two years or longer between submission and publication, a study might become obsolete or out of date. If an article for a research journal was written in 2015, it won’t be able to include references to relevant stuff published in 2017, even though it didn’t come out until 2018.

So academic writers are brutally scrutinized by journal authorities through a process that makes their submissions irrelevant because publication takes so long.

Another, related cause, is how the training and publication peer review processes are so rigorous about the form of academic research writing. An essay must use a particularly narrow range of writing styles, tones, and ways of explaining ideas, if it’s going to pass the muster of a peer review process for a publication whose credits count toward tenure and job security.

Little to no experimentation is allowed, until you’re so deep into your career that you’ve likely lost your zeal for experimentation in writing at all.

So I have a lot of respect for writers like Jussi Parikka, Timothy Morton, Ian Bogost, and Jane Bennett, who base so much of their philosophical positions on imagery as a starting point. It’s a method that breaks with the dry prose style where bloodless argumentation and obsolete rationalist attitudes dominate.

Now the question is, like I said a few days ago – Can you open up the evocation of the image to find something philosophically experimental and innovative?

When I was researching Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity, I found a lot of academically-written environmentalist philosophy that depended on the power of the image alone for the strength of their argument. I did read one author, Scott Aikin, who dismissed the style of this argument in an insightful, if cruel way – He called it seeing a big rock and having an experience.

The lands where the different nations of the Nishnaabeg lived before
they were driven from their lands by the violent dispossession of
Canadian and American state institutions.
Map by DarrenBaker - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Thinking about this more mystical philosophical method now, I think the point was well-made, but without giving credit to a failed attempt to write philosophy differently than the academy typically trains you.

The naive environmentalist argument is that these experiences – farming, hiking, naturalistic observation, among others – is that there’s only one correct response to them in thought. But they made no argument as to why that one response is the correct one.

A few days ago, I started reading Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s As We Have Always Done. She produces a strong argument for why a reverent, respectful attitude to the ecological networks in which we live is the proper response to experiences of Indigenous ways of life.

That argument is rooted in the philosophical concept of grounded normativity, a central framework principle of many Indigenous North American philosophical traditions, particularly in her own culture, the Nishnaabeg of what is now called the Great Lakes region.

Simpson is building a remarkable philosophical edifice. It’s one of the most conceptually ambitious works I’ve come across in a long time. I don’t want to talk much more about this book right now, because I only just started reading it, and there’s already enough philosophical density to sustain centuries of commentary and uptake. It deserves such devotion.

As for Parikka, his reliance on images to express philosophical concepts is still vulnerable to the Aikin critique. More respectfully, it means that an image underdetermines its meaning. The Geology of Media does interesting things with media theory, and along with allied works like Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, pushes against the tired restrictions of academic style. Reading Parikka, I want his next book to try even harder.

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