Supply-Side Green Consumers

Consumption and Environment

I asked you all to read three pieces concerned with “consumption” and its relation to another concept “the environment.” This is to get you thinking away from individualistic notions of consumption – such as what you had for breakfast or how you’re consuming this post – to a broader and more collective focus that should get you thinking about how collectives of humans and non-humans form and are held together. In that sense, we really should be thinking more in the register of consuming rather than consumption as our world is made and remade through everyday practices of being in it and how the resultant environments or habitats enable and direct further consuming as a feature of life. All of our pieces, Brooks and Byrant in Death, Luke (1997) Chapter 6 and Luke (2019) Chapter 2, emphasize how “the environment” is an ensemble, or assemblage, of extractive and consumptive practices embodied through massive technical regimes run through individuals, and we should be careful in how we ascribe moral blame and praise based on these larger systems of global consumption. 

We’ve seen that commodities and their circulation partially make-up the features of our everyday lives, and that environs can be constructed for the purposes of making and extracting more commodities. The process of making something from a mix of labor and stock parts with the aim of bringing that combination to market such that it can be exchanged for money or other goods and services we called commodification. Commodification and commodity development, we’ve seen, has gone beyond the simple truck and barter economies of exchange that characterized Adam Smith’s day and have become decoupled from the local contexts to enter into massive systems of commodity chains that span the globe. As you may recall, the commodity can hide its destructive origins through a distancing effect such that you may not be aware of the ecological damage, or human suffering that went into the production and delivery of that commodity. In this way, the commodity offers us a nexus into the history of its development and thus a history of relations that went into its production and circulation. This, however, must be investigated by looking behind it, per se, and is not information floating on its surface. 

The commodity and commodification both hide and embed risk within their circulation and these risks are very rarely distributed evenly. A Chinese worker for Foxconn might be responsible for assembling your iPhone that you enjoy, but must assume the health risks of assembling that phone in exchange for some means of subsistence. You, sitting there looking at your iPhone, do not necessarily apprehend the conditions of the factory (some so miserable that massive nets have to be suspended between building to keep workers from killing themselves), and you probably aren’t wondering about the resources that make up its physicality or whether those resources were “ethically” sourced. I recap the above for two reasons: (1) is to display the uneven global distribution of risk through commodity development and circulation; and (2) because we’re going to update the above below through putting consumption in context. 

Point one has been covered in the past two weeks. In particular, I’ll remind you that the commodity and commodification as a process offer windows into human-environmental relations. Further, since at least Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics and governmentality, political theory and political ecology have recognized the circulation of commodities through environments as central to governing. Crisis can ensue when there is a slow-down in the circulation, and, indeed, I remember being told to go shop by the President of the United States after roughly 3000 people were murdered not much more than 50 miles from me one day in September, 2001. 

The act of consuming is something we must do in order to survive. Consumption, therefore, is central to understanding the relations among things within ecosystems and “the environment,” generally construed. This is exhibited in how society organizes consumption on mass scale as a mode of being and how objects are coded through and within environs. If one wishes to think in terms of class stratification, one can do so based on who consumes what and how. We live in consumptive environs built through price and purchasing systems mediated through the social phenomenon of money. Who has money and in what quantities partially determines their relationships to consumable (purchasable) objects flowing through our inter-linked environs. This is usually cashed out in terms of choice and opportunity within our consumptive ecosystems, however there is a quietly asserted form of bounded rationality in which decision-making is constrained by relations from outside any one agent. If you have the choice between buying a Maserati or a Kia, then this assumes that you have the opportunity to buy either and this is typically understood through both the proximity to the object one wishes to consume, and the individual abilities of that agent to consume it. Say you don’t have the cash or credit to buy the Maserati; your “choice” is then between the Kia, or nothing. If you must have a car, then your choices and rationalities are bound by that necessity as well as the price system that passively determines the distribution of commodities throughout environs based in capitalist economics. The simple example above gets more complicated when one considers things such as the intransitivity of preferences but it’ll get the ball rolling for us in the direction of the environment and how consumption is articulated within it.  

Brooks and Bryant do something rather interesting in the first few paragraphs that you should mind. They make a cut into consumption through a particular formulation of economics called ecological economics (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72). I want you to be mindful of a distinction I’ll make quickly below, but if you have an interest in these areas, it will serve you well to keep ecological economics as distinct from environmental economics. The two are often conflated, but they are not the same and how they articulate “environment” and what they measure are quite different. I can’t go too deep into the distinction for brevity’s sake, but here’s a rough and ready distinction: Ecological economics is concerned with how things flow through an environment and how human, or social systems, are integrated into the patterns of those flows. This means that the objects of analysis within ecological econ are not necessarily things like money, or capital in general, but flows of water, energy distributions based on food webs, or biotic communities of humans and non-humans. 

Environmental economics is an attempt to incorporate what were considered “externalities” into mainstream economic analysis based on the exchange of money and fluctuations within price systems. It does not necessarily look at flows of water and solar energy as part of the bedrock of economic analysis and decision-making, but may try to attach a price to interrupting the flows of a stream, or the destruction of habitat across the Earth. In other words, environmental economics fails to take “Nature” as not only the very thing upon which the economies it examines are built, but as something external to human systems of consumption and flow that can be incorporated by giving them a price. Environmental econ, really, is concerned with the further production of commodities as part of an economic calculus rather than an actual attempt at understanding how things are distributed through organic economies of matter and energy that have formed life on Earth, including our species. 

If we look at ourselves and our societies through the prism of ecological economics we can better understand how flows of matter and energy form the basis of our artificial ecosystems. As you’ll recall, the commodity is something that is eventually consumed by an agent who may have had no hand in producing that thing and their circulation partially conditions and physically makes “the environment.” Where the commodities go, and who consumes them, should, in principle give you part of the picture of relations within an ecosystem. We need the other side of the equation – the side that displays the energy and matter that went into making and circulating that thing – to get a picture more appropriately in line with ecological econ. This picture would give you a better idea of the infrastructures in place that enable consumption and thus the larger social machinery involved in social reproduction through circulation and creation of commodities (Brooks and Bryant, in Death. p.72-73). Those commodities, thus, display relationships to the organic as they circulate through consumptive infrastructures, and those infrastructures create consumptive spaces and partially dictate who consumes what, when, and how as part of commodity circulation. 

Think of it like this: There are lots of ways to organize the production and sale of beef, but you, as a consumer, are presented with a limited range of opportunities and outlets to buy and consume beef. Taking one further step backwards, you, as a consumer, are presented with normalized routines, or practices that in some way delimit your range of options concerning what to consume and how. There are many fruits and vegetables to buy in the supermarket, but most times you, as a consumer, cannot dictate what Kroger buys directly. You might take your business elsewhere, but at each junction of decision-and-purchase, you are presented with a limited range of options concerning what you can and will consume. Delimited choice is merely a structural feature of opportunity but it is an environmental feature in that it is a limit placed on any one agent that occupies that space. Many of the choices you as a consumer are presented with at the store are the result of choices you did not make and are features of your operational context. Thus, these features in some way structure your behavior and limit your options just as a simple fact of being-in-an-environ. Moreover, how those options were produced is usually well away from your personal power and are typically historical manifestations of how some humans have related to the organic. One can consider massive feedlot operations or the genetic modification of the banana for more concrete examples of bounded rationality within consumptive environs. But, and in either case, you’ll find that the material history of our society is exhibited within and through the commodity of the cow and the banana as well as the decision-making regarding how those things are produced and brought to market.

I’ve been writing in a rather abstract way and this can give the illusion that this problem is, in fact, rather abstract. On the contrary, I think it is important to understand consumption as an historical phenomenon that is conditioned by the technical capabilities of some people over others and within the organic. This pattern of rule, that is, over the materials from which you build your identities and sustain the energy exchanges necessary for your cells to survive, gets to the depths of our everyday beings and displays how technological systems are integrated into your body as part of your daily activity that is mediated through those massive technological systems. I’ll put this a little more concretely: you didn’t build the concentrated feedlot operations that allow for the production and sale of beef globally. However, how you and millions of other people obtain beef is delimited by those systems that, at the very least, alters pricing for beef in its favor and aims at being the only game in town for obtaining beef. This system of beef distribution has real material components that must be regulated as technological systems to ensure business success necessary for reproductive viability within capitalist environs. These systems may grow in Texas, harvest and process in Omaha, distribute through Chicago, and turn up everywhere from Setauket, NY to Shanghai, China. These systems are managed, maintained and built through human and non-human labor reactive to effects both from within and outside of the commodity chain. 

A simple thing to remember that any engineer will tell you is that the larger the system, and the more components necessary for its functioning, the more mistakes are built into it. A Marxian technophilosopher would add that those mistakes arise as a result of the instrumental logic used to create the system itself and that those mistakes materialize as contradictions within those systems. Your reading on risk touched on this but it deserves to be spelled out: the risks inherent within technological systems are the result of the contradictions within those systems and, as a matter of security, those risks must be distributed away from the larger machinery necessary for systemic reproduction. This technical handling of risk and ensuring the machines run properly is the job of the technocrat, as discussed in the last post. The technocrat is responsible for continuing system viability of whatever machine to which they are assigned.

The bigger the system, the more mistakes are built into it. We’ve not seen the end of risk, and as our systems expand, so do the risks. More technology = more complexity = more risk.

Machines should not be thought of simply as mechanical things embodied in metal, here we can think of them as any organization of matter and energy purposefully constructed to automate the control and production of things. In this sense, the State appears as a machine for controlling the distribution of resources and power among a population as well as individuals within that population. We can think of algorithms, for example, as abstract calculational machines with an input-process-output schematic, or as logistical networks as being collections of machines and machinery for the distribution of things [think of how Amazon is a collection of algorithms connected to global logistical networks enabling remote consumption]. Each and every time you consume something within our society (more likely than not), you are connected, in some way, to a machine and thus the choices of a technocrat or collections of technocrats. Here, you’ll see that your choices within your environment concerning what to consume are technologically and economically bounded from the beginning simply based on the networks necessary for the production and distribution of things as a technological project, and conditioned by economic rules, formulated and advanced by only one way of understanding the economy, that partially produces your consumptive environs.

The Luke readings become a little more intuitive with the above in view. Puzzlingly, perhaps, Luke’s Chapter 6 in Ecocritique takes aim at the en vogue movement of Green consumerism. His critique can be paraphrased (faithfully enough I hope) as the hopeless naiveté of commodity fetishists and not a real solution to ecological degradation. Thus, green consumerism, as I’ll show below, is not an effective alternative to current socio-ecological despoilation of the Earth, but is, instead, just some nonsense hawked to people who can afford it. Those do-gooders, in other words, miss their target and do no good.

The do-gooders do no good because they rethread consumption and commodification back into their material practices (driving to the store, buying something, etc.,) as part of a strategy of resistance. Consumption and the modes of consumption including waste disposal and supply-chain practices are within the ambit of the green consumer’s critique. However, Luke’s critique is that the green consumer – as practiced and advised through the literature he reviews in Chapter 6 (1997) – fails to address the politics of production through a focus solely on the consumer. In other words, the green consumer has fallen prey to people who are more interested in selling lifestyles and books than actually helping to construct a more equitable and habitable Earth.

Politics and consumption get to the heart of who we are as people. What one adopts, consumes and repeats have real environmental effects as well as others exhibited through their subjectivities. Our environments are characterized by multiple lines of production stratified through prices if acquiring goods and services and these lines of production are the results of planning and production related to the material stuff that populates our environments. Who is producing what, for whom, is central within Luke’s critique, but you’ll notice that he isn’t telling anyone to go out and buy from some labels over another. He’s concerned with the labels themselves and what they denote, who consumes them and how they were produced. You’ll notice that he speaks of capital as an almost totalizing presence within environments to the point that escaping it might be impossible. This is because he’s articulating a theory of capitalist globalization couched in terms (though not in so many words) of monopoly capital

I can’t go too deep into the theory of monopoly capital but I can give you a synopsis and help you understand why Luke might be concerned with agents operating in its environs. Essentially one can recognize that capital has developed to the point that most avenues for production and consumption are connected to massive concentrations of it conceived as machinery that produces it – the modern corporation, and that concentrations of it have arisen in the productive systems such that economic competition is actually oligopolistic. Corporations have not always been our main methods for procuring goods and services and their growth has a definite and material history connected to the establishment of them as the modes of global commercial organization. It’s Paul Sweezy and Paul Barran who are credited with giving the phenomenon of growing corporate influence and structure in everyday life and Luke is quietly working with the premise that almost all consumptive outlets available to the average city-dweller are built from and for the operations of the abstract machines of capital. On can think of this through the infographic below concerning oligopolistic production, and, indeed it seems like oligopoly might be a better term for our purposes. 

Luke’s critique is that it is the demands and operations of capital run through that sort of abstract business machinery that is responsible for ecological despoilation. As green consumerism is concerned with a critique of ecological despoilation, their practices must be seen in the light of monopoly capital and the environments it creates. It is here that Luke nails the line item green consumer for looking to a solution to the global overconsumption of some against the impoverished many by further consumption. Not only does this seem self-contradictory, but Luke is also critiquing the practice of constructing those markets necessary to feed a growing green consumer audience that involves subtle adjustments to how things are perceived (think ‘fair trade’ labels, Save the Waves programs by cruise lines, designer, ethically sourced chocolate) and that this recasts the collective problems of global environmental degradation through an individualizing ethos and narrative pitched to the Earth’s richest.

Further, Luke is uncomfortable with how the blame and responsibility for ecological destruction is forked onto the people consuming products that they didn’t make, didn’t sell or advertise, and maybe didn’t ask for. The problem has to do with some historical shifts in US production after the Great Depression leading to the Washington Consensus that is largely regarded as a shift within economic policy-making from demand-side production and social support, to supply-side production and inflation controls through monetarism. Without dipping too deep into economic history, the Washington Consensus, as it was known shifted economic power and focus away from your usual supply and demand thinking where demand is the motive force in an economy, to the production of economic oversupply to maintain a mobilized economy based on the desires of employers and corporate producers. This means that in times of economic downturn, the economic and financial support from the state is concentrated (with shades and degrees) mostly on the side of corporations deemed vital to the functioning of the American economy cashed in terms of GDP, currency value, and GNP rather than the overall health of employment and employees. 

The above economic shift solidly grounds a critique of consumption that shows you why “the law of supply and demand” has become perverted by a constant emphasis on corporate viability and not necessarily the demands of the populace. The supply-side economy I’m referring to (and idealizing) is one in which products are marketed before their markets are created. This is because responding to demand (as in the demand-side scheme mistaught in high schools) is not only difficult when consumers can only “vote with their dollars” but also because marketing research has evolved to the point of predictive analytics through massive information gathering. This means that a company can develop a product and then try to advertise it and still make money. Oftentimes this sort of marketing and advertising is for stuff you didn’t know you needed, probably don’t need, and might not solve the problem it creates. One can think of zit commercials and advertising that is meant to make you feel bad about something, and then, the product is presented as a miraculous solution! This is only one small example, but it is played across consumptive sectors within our broader global economy as products are made and marketed to everyone who could receive the advertising. This system, Luke says, is hugely wasteful and ecologically damaging (just think about how much food is thrown away at the grocery store) and that the sort of lifestyles that are being sold to green consumers do nothing to combat the wasteful system itself. It might make people feel better. It might even help some more than if the status quo were to continue, but ultimately it has a depoliticizing effect.

Green consumerism has a depoliticizing effect because it reduces the massively complicated problems of global environmental change to that of technical practices. If we can buy and eat, and travel in the right way, listening to the right people, then the consumer can grab the wheel on climate change, and the global top 20% of people in the richest countries will lead the way to a sparkling green future. This language totally ignores that there are many who cannot contribute to or buy into the green economy with its expensive products and wasteful practices. This means that within the subject herself, the problem has been defined as something to do individually and leaves the outrage at the interpersonal level for people to disagree over plastic straws. It fails to end, politically, the production of plastics, the extractive economies and practices of synthetic materials manufacturing, and fails, in the short, mid, and long-term to lay blame at the feet of the actual actors responsible. 

Branding and rebranding are constant activities for modern corporations. Above is Dow’s “the human element” commercial. I find this hilarious because the U.S. Government murdered protesting students with the National Guard at the Kent State Massacre who were objecting to the role Dow Chemical played in their campus environment and the Vietnam War effort. Most notably, Dow should know just how important the “human element” is in their chemistry because they made money from combing napalm with people during the Vietnam War.

Until we name names, organize, and force the despoilers to reckon with their actions, we are only shouting into the void. It might make you feel better, but this is just an effect of the commodity fetish as more brands, goods and consumptive communities are created for rich suburbanites who have failed to understand the foundations of their material cultures and their place in ‘the environment.’ If we allow “the environment” to be reduced to a merely technical problem, then we hand the keys back to those who have created the material conditions in which we find ourselves, and once more, we will have to fight for control against the logic of the machines themselves as they recreate the world in their image and usher new material organizations only responsive to environmental demands rather than produce a less demanding environment for all.

Lyrics and video are important for this one. “For example, what does the billboard say? Come and play. Come and play. Forget about the movement.”

Risk and Environment

The readings from week 3 bring up some interesting points throughout their respective chapters. We are primarily concerned with Risk as a structural feature of environment and a component in environmental construction and governance. As a reminder, we’re not so much interested in “the environment,” as a “natural” setting but as something that is manifested from the components that make it up. In this sense, humans and human society do not exist independently from “nature” nor is “the environment,” simply something “out there.” It is something that is both larger than its individual components and exhibits their behavior within and through it. The Luke chapters will give a little more flesh to the concerns within the Pellizzoni chapter in the Death reader, but I will spend less time on Pellizzoni than might be expected. 

We are not interested in a definition of risk in the sense that it could be applied within analyses of it. There has been plenty of ink used in ferreting out those questions, and you’ll notice that Pellizzoni has some recommendations for further understanding risk in environment. His recommendations following his chapter will be useful for anyone wishing to write their portfolios on risk and you may incorporate them into your independent reading portfolios if you wish. I am, instead, pointing out how risk is connected to management and how management is connected to capital, or perhaps more concretely, commodification as we discussed last week.

Having an understanding of risk management within environmental construction can point you towards ecocritiques that expose structural inequalities that, to a degree, are purposefully created, or otherwise “accidentally” exacerbated. This has import into studies that would concern environmental racism as a structural feature of coloniality, capitalism, fascism, or other forms of governance. It is also something to consider when analyzing relationships of subject and state, capital and labor, upper class and underclasses, and global distributions of risk inherited from the history of territorial and state development. In a banal (but not so banal) way, risk can be understood by looking at how a society delegates responsibility – such as who takes the leadership position during a pandemic, and the measures that are in place for crisis (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.206) – as in how the U.S. has a health insurance industry built on actuaries who assess and delegate risk relative to the company’s profitability, while the U.K. has the National Health Service offering healthcare to all with triage measures in place for assessing risk relative to organizational operational capacity. 

The important thing to notice in analyses using risk, is who benefits from not assuming risk, and to whose detriment it is who must assume that risk. For example, in the production of neoprene – a polymer used in things like sports knee-wraps; who is it that gets to enjoy the products without having to assume the risk of toxic air, soil, and water contamination? More to our class’s focus; why is it that some people have to live with environmental risk and others don’t? Our readings for the week show more than tell how risk is a structural feature of the environment and below I point out a few places of interest. 

Luke’s Chapter 5: Environmental Emulations (1997) shows us how risk can be written or inscribed into an environment. As you’ll recall, this chapter dealt with a rather strange but illuminating experiment carried out as the Biosphere 2 project in the Arizona desert. Biosphere 2, a massive geodesic dome structure, was built for the purposes of replicating the functions and workings of Biosphere 1 – the Earth – at a micro-scale in a hermetically sealed enclosure. This is almost a perfect example of what we mean by environ in our course. It’s purpose was to suss out the possibilities and problems that may come from building similar environs in extraterrestrial environments and exhibits a process called terraformation – or earth shaping. The experiment became a media spectacle as researchers were enclosed in Biosphere 2 to study the movements of a simulated environment. As you’ll recall, the “oceans,” agricultural zones, desert environ, jungle enclosure, and living space were all placed together in an attempt at creating an operating ecosystem. The environ of Biosphere 2 did not include large predators, germs or novel Coronaviruses, and was built to serve its human inhabitants as a closed system. It was not a closed system in any real sense as the experiment needed input from outside its environs to insure human survival – most notably food and oxygen (Luke, 1997, p.99)! 

The experiment was funded almost entirely by private investments and these were generated through creating speculations concerning the usefulness and marketability of any findings coming out of Biosphere 2. You should notice a few things about its history: One, the experiment needed to attract capital and did this through promising a return on investment through the sale of information rendered from the experiment (this is a common practice and places like VT do this all the time) (Luke, 1997, p.98); two, this created a speculative bubble that burst in the first run of the experiment causing a change in leadership; three, the leadership change involved a reshuffling of responsibility that landed on VT UAP graduate and the architect of the Trump 2016 campaign, Stephen K. Bannon (Luke, 1997, p.99). These points taken together show that Biosphere 2, though purportedly to the benefit of “all humankind” was, in fact, a commodity complex that brought together tools for creating new knowledge commodities that could then be marketed (Luke, 1997 p.102). 

At the helm of this commodity complex was not the scientists, technicians, and engineers who were living in and through the experiment, but a manager, or group of managers responsible for channeling capital, in the form of money and supplies, to the environ, that was then sending informational commodities (or the raw resources for them) back to the managerial team that would then disperse those informational products to potential buyers. This shows a commodity circuit connected to the labor of the scientists and engineers who receive wages for their labor while creating informational capital that could then be used to write further environs. In this sense, the enclosure of Biosphere 2 is both a commodity (its functioning is imperative to experimental success) and a site of commodity production (the things coming out of it as information become commodities when an exchange-value is attached to them). It is here that we can see a self-expanding system of informational extraction based on technological instrumentation and also the delegation of risk within a commodity circuit. 

 The only risk capital must assume in Biosphere 2 appears to be whether there will be a return on investment. Luke does not mention whether the experiment was a success in that way, but looks at it as a monument to a way of thinking and articulating “the environment;” or, more adroitly, a manifestation of instrumental logic that shows Biosphere 2 as an engineering marvel of the movements of capital itself. Its technological edifice is exhibited in the combination of humanity, machinery, and the bios in an attempted replication of our planet and its ecosystems. However, as Luke says, the actual relationship to the technological system of Biosphere 2 and the relationship of capital to Biosphere 1, is rather confused. The extraction involved in the production of capital through activities such as mining, or drilling, is an intensive input into a system that then draws out resources necessary to make or become commodities while despoiling the earth as a byproduct. In Biosphere 2 the direction is supposed to be reversed and new information coming out of the project is directed through commodity circuits to become a sort of “green capital.” Capital intensivity is still exhibited in the flows of services and supplies going to Biosphere 2 to support the environ itself, but the experiment was supposed to be “self-sustaining” and operated as a stand-alone system. However, the Biosphere 2 enclosure more adequately reflected the real processes of terraformaiton through the advance of technological systems that attempt to subsume the biological and organic into synthetic artifice. 

One should notice that the systems embodied in the “ocean” ecosystem of Biosphere 2 contained no megafauna such as whales or sharks and had those risks taken out of the design. The systems and subsystems of Biosphere 2, therefore, do not replicate Biosphere 1 as it occurs through its novelties and creative energies, but is, instead, the manifestation and embodiment of a way of thinking about Biosphere 1’s conveniences and inconveniences. In other words, Biosphere 2 is a designer, a boutique system that does not replicate the magic of Biosphere 1, but only imitates or emulates the parts which were found desirable by design. The information arising from that environ is simultaneously disembedded from its conditions of discovery embodied by the humming of the technological systems that make up Biosphere 2, and only alludes to the environments of Biosphere 1 as it is purposefully designed and controlled as an enclosure that produces commodities for speculative capital. 

The design, presentation and operation of Biosphere 2 exhibits a dynamic important for the arc of the course. It shows the mobilization and operation of technocrats – a sort of manager – in the production, design, and distribution of commodities that have the potential to re-write the environment in the image of capital as well as accidentally embed more risks into the supermassive technological ecosystem of the Earth itself (Luke, 1997, p.111-114; Luke, 2019, p.28-38; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.199-200, 204-205). Luke makes the point that the only thing Biosphere 2 emulated really was a process of environing that removed “undesirable” parts from existence within it as much of planet Earth has suffered in the name of product development, risk and operational convenience. 

We build massive technological systems that envelop us in settled society, and in the U.S., UK, EU, Japan, China, Korea, India, etc.,. In almost any and every sense, a “settled society” is one that exists through and because of an arrangement of technologies into systems. How those systems are arranged, and what they’re made of exhibits how subjects – people, for example – relate to each other, their technologies and environment. We are so deeply embedded in our technological systems that their multiple and interlocking interstices create liminal spaces of uncertainty that embed risk within our daily lives. Car accidents, nuclear meltdowns, acid rain, ocean acidification, coral reef die-off, accelerated species extinction, are all risks embedded within the supermassive environ of planet Earth that can be attributed to the operation of social-technological systems that draw in the life and living of Biosphere 1. We, to my mind, in the global North are entirely reliant on the circulation, use and expenditure of hydrocarbons to power our societies. As you read this, take a look around and see what in your immediate surroundings can be attributed to the extraction, refinement, and circulation of commodities such as oil. You’re most likely sitting on polyester, if not wearing it, and this is an oil derivative! The synthetic revolution that occurred contemporaneously with the full employment of oil and coal as the bedrock of industrial power has created a myriad of things you use everyday that are derived from some sort of hydrocarbon. The circulation of hydrocarbons – plastic for example – leeches from both the “organic” environment of Biosphere 1 through mass-scale extractive activity, and becomes part of both “settled society,” and novel ecosystems represented by massive trash islands, in this case. The novel ecosystems generated by the interaction of organic flows (say ocean currents and their collection points) and the commodities generated through industrial activity (like plastic) exhibit in their being, the interaction technological commodity production and organic economies of matter and energy that make the planet work. What we’re witnessing is the formation of new habitats for both humans and non-humans that are and will have novel effects within the biosphere. That is, the exhibition of novel systems composed of social-technological activity, and biospheric function. The risk embedded in these novel combinations is a result of both technological activity and the economies of energy and matter that exhibit social intervention within them. Plastic straws might not be risky for Texans but apparently they’re not good for sea turtles.

Recall from last week that the commodity form is an ever present way of understanding oneself in relation to others and to “nature.” It is a way of perceiving conditioning one’s judgment within interaction. It is a fairly easy jump to assert that Biosphere 2 is an artefact of commodity form thinking in how it was articulated technologically as a simulation designed to produce further commodities. These commodities were supposedly in response to “market desires” for technological fixes to environmental problems threaded within living spaces as risk inherited from industrial technological externalities and capital development. You’ll notice that the core of Luke’s ecocritique in Chapter 5 is “At the end of the  day, Biosphere 2 appears in many ways to be an attempt to replicate technologically a naive anthropocentrism as the  fundamental design rule for operating the earth’s biosphere rather than a new collective defense technology for guarding Nature from further ecological degradation. (p.96)” The simulation of Biosphere 2, it would appear, is yoked to a “business-as-usual” logic masquerading as environmentalism that has created and exacerbated environmental risk for some over others rather than environmental risk for all

The purposeful creation and management of an environ we will call environmentality. We will flesh out the meaning of environmentality and you’ll see how it fits into ecocritique in the coming weeks. For now, however, Biosphere 2 exhibits an environmentality in its being and day-to-day function. In the above quotation, the environmentality displayed by Biosphere 2 is characterized by anthropocentric thinking regarding the role of the living within technological systems; an environ that supports technoscientific development of commodities; and an environ that is reliant on capital inputs channeled through managers that attract speculative capital and alienate the information produced through the environ through commodification. The environ of Biosphere 2, thus, is conditioned by the commodity form in its construction and operation and its day-to-day functioning, being, and operational mission all decenter any humanistic scientific project in the service of capital. The environ, the lived territory of Biosphere 2, exhibits a managerial approach to “nature” that treats it as a space and thing of inertia to be controlled through enrolling it in technological systems that embed structural risk in the worlds of the humans and non-humans that are its populations.    

Gardens by the Bay is an excellent (and possibly updated) example of biospheric mimesis. I can speak from experience that its enclosures direct the attention of its tourists to the delegation of risk away from repsonsible parties and down to the individual. Singapore is around the size of L.A. and is the 25th largest carbon emitter in the world, and handles nearly a quarter of all global trade through its port based solidly in the hydrocarbon complex at the heart of global civilization. Don’t believe the hype, but definitely go there if you get the chance. It is a massive commodity complex that cost Singapore around $1.5 billion to construct and forms a crown jewel in the City in the Garden development strategy.

Risk must be managed for the production and expansion of capital through the circulation of commodities (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.203-204). Capital prefers predictability and control within its attendant economies as a matter of creating and conditioning certainty (Pellizzoni, in Death, p.198-200). Uncertainty and risk can and must be managed psychologically and materially to ensure organizational viability and as a function of systemic security. This means that environs must be written and structured in a way as to deflect or down-play systemic risks that are embedded within technological systems as a result of the inherited blindness of instrumental reason used to organize matter and energy into the systems necessary for social reproduction and population viability. This means that risk is an object of management and this implies that management is, in some way, threaded into “the environment,” itself. Consider this before I lose my job for writing this on here: 

Virginia Tech, the Blacksburg campus, makes an environ that is used both as a site of education and the development of human capital (you guys, your training and the degrees that signify satisfactory competence in that which is deemed important by those training you) and also a site for extracting capital (your cash, your guardian’s cash, student loan cash, informational products, and physical inventions brought to market). This environment is made up of interlocking technological systems designed to solve certain problems and they work with variations between them. Campus housing, transportation, dining, entertainment, and health services, for example, all have separate bureaucracies tasked with doing different things, but they are all reliant on the movement and placing of students within the campus environ. All of these attendant systems that make up VT require capital inputs – people need to pay for beds and meal plans for the housing and dining systems to work, for example, and VT, as a space and organization that transforms capital through its movements, needs students to be at the physical site in Blacksburg [for now and probably forever]. All of this bureaucracy is wrapped up into the commodity package of an “educational experience” bought by and sold to you, the consumer. If these systems are interrupted in their function by hiccups in capital flows, the university (read; the commodity complex) suffers and has trouble functioning. 

COVID-19 emerged from an environment constructed by the interaction of humans, machines, and non-human commodities. Its virulence – it’s a damn cold virus for the love of God – is accelerated by clustering humans together in and through space within the presence of a vector. As vectors are, oftentimes and in this case, known-unknowns, this means that risk of infection is part and parcel of uncertainty in everyday life and individual agents are constrained by the structural features of the environs in which they live out those lives. VT needed to bring you back to Blacksburg and ran risk models (oh boy, more models because that worked well with campus population growth and housing!) to assess whether the costs of running the campus environ could be justified against the risk of human mortality from COVID-19 within their populations. The influx of students into Blacksburg based on economies reliant on the movement of specific bodies, in specific space, and at specific times represents an influx of risk within the locality of Blacksburg and its surrounding territories and populations. This means that risk is being pushed down to the level of individual students, and individual bodies as students arrive from urban centers such as NOVA, VA Beach, and New Jersey that then influences the function of the commodity complex of VT’s campus. This whole process may not happen without the assistance of informational production that is then fed into risk-reward analyses based on “models” that are then fed into the university decision-making apparatus populated by technocrats. This means that the functioning of the environs of Blacksburg and the NRV are attached materially to the decision-making apparatus of VT and that apparatus chose, based on how it generates and articulates knowledge, to rethread mortal risk into those environs (don’t panic, you’ll be just fine) in the pursuit of capital. This is part of VT’s environmentality whether they’re conscious of what they’re doing or not.  

 The dreams of a placeless (fully online and nearly fully automated) university are a technological fantasy that would, we’re told, weedout structural risks inherent in bringing tens of thousands of people to a specific location as bricks-and-mortar universities must. This has been a dream in the ether for decades, if not longer, as Luke discusses in Chapter 2: Informationalism and Ecology (2019). You should notice that this chapter was written and published in 1983, and he’s watching the transformations in industrial modes of production wrought by the realizations of computing (Luke, 2019, 25-26). We can apply this to the case above by recognizing that participation within the attendant systems of online education (Canvas, Zoom, Brain Clutter, etc.,) means that one participates in a flow of information connected to the functioning of a commodity complex – VT. Let’s imagine that they pull it off and VT is fully online and the “educational experience,” that was packaged and sold as part of actually being at VT is decoupled from its material conditions and repackaged through online ed. Each and every class you participate in will engage in extracting information from you regarding product development and delivery, from me and any of your professors in how we manage that information and “create” an “educational experience,” and will be channeled through networks that are owned and surveilled by neither party. The networks might be owned by VT, a private corporation (a concentration and machine of capital) or jointly owned but you, and me do not write the rules for their use, but may enforce their standards and rules through our actions within those networks. In this sense, we both will have become decoupled from our physical beings through participation in online education as we are rearticulated through those technological networks as information. 

This is an instance of environmental construction, and governance related to the production of risk within “the environment,” generally construed. Supposedly, an online university would mitigate the risks inherent in face-to-face learning such as COVID-19 infections. However, these environs would not be without their environmental impacts (look at energy use relative to digitization over the past 40 years), and would not be without their structural risks as well. Mass scale information gathering on you already includes the risk that some undesirable entity might use that information for nefarious ends. Maybe President #45 doesn’t like what I have to say and I end up on a blacklist. Maybe you accidentally plagiarize something, but the informational scanner doesn’t understand this and this creates a problem for you. Maybe an EMP generated by some SNAFU in an energy grid knocks out communications for a while and your money is totally wasted because VT already has it and doesn’t care that you experienced difficulties wrought by some other technocracy and apparatus. Due to how the commodity form conditions thinking and can structure environs, it seems likely that any technocrat will err on the side of their machines working rather than the livability within the habitats they create and administer as a consequence of technological necessity rather than a valuation of life and the living (Luke, 1997, 97-99, 104-109; Luke, 2019, p.33; Pellizzoni, in Death, p.202-204). 

In this way and the ways above, we can see the operation of risk as a structural feature of environments. As we exist in and through technological networks coupled with and articulated through organic economies that display the synthesis of technological deployments within those economies in the pursuit of commodity development and circulation; and as those massive technological systems contain risks inherited from this coupling, we can assert that risks in “the environment,” are partially anthropogenic and thus conditioned by human decision-making and technological operation. The logic and operations of technocrats are conditioned by the economic imperatives of capital for continued maintenance and expansion and it is those technocrats who are at the helm of massive technological apparatuses such as VT. Technocrats are chiefly responsible for constructing and administering environs and thus, will create environs from which they can extract capital by writing the rules of conduct into those environs either materially or through instruments such as policies that then exert a material influence. Therefore, it is fair to assert that the articulation of risk within environs as they stand currently is inherited from the logic of capital itself and the actions of technocrats in service to capital and its development through technological systems. Therefore, environmental risk, as it stands as a structural feature of “the environment” is partially inherited from the production and circulation of commodities channeled through industrial decision-making apparatuses populated by technocrats. For now, the technocrats responsible for environmental production and reproduction are human, and we have an ability (though not usually the opportunity) to talk them out of environmental construction in service to the commodity form and technological fetishist pathologies. But what would an environ run by a non-human look like? What are the possibilities of resisting un-democratic technological environmental construction if the whole lifeworld becomes one massive technology run by the imperatives and logic of technology itself? 

Kubrick was brilliant for making this film, 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The Sophist as Capital

What is a Sophist According to Plato?

I asked you all last week to read Plato’s Sophist, a later dialogue in Plato’s writings concerning the definition of a role in Athenian society – the sophist. I have found a better and easier e-copy than what I provided in the syllabus through the Perseus collection at Tufts University. I will refer to the “section numbers,” I am told that they are called “Stephanus pagination,” as this will help you track the discussion with more ease than me just referring to the dialogue generally. If you click the link above, it’ll take you to Perseus and start you with the first section of this dialogue. Look on the left-hand side and you’ll find the section numbers in a menu. 

Sophist comes as the second in a three-part conversation beginning with the Theaetetus. One could and some do spend their lifetime on Plato and his works, but I won’t trouble you with reading Theaetetus as it is primarily concerned with knowledge though it does lead into discussions of “the good life,” that are continued in Sophist and Statesman (your reading for this week and the third in the series). Sophist, I feel, is a relatively straightforward text once one gets the hang of reading Plato. As a reminder, much of the dialogue is written in a style that includes summaries of the finer points made and rejoinders that should help you track the conversation. As you’ll notice, Socrates does very little talking in both Sophist and Statesman but gets the ball rolling between the primary interlocutors in the dialogue: the Eleatic Stranger (referred to as “the Stranger,” in this post) and Theaetetus, an interlocutor of Socrates’ at the time. Again, it’s difficult to track when this was written and if it really corresponded to the life of Socrates at the time. Plato was Socrates’ student, so it’s kinda odd to think he’d be a fly on the wall for these conversations – dutifully scribbling down the things his master has uttered. 

The Stranger, we gather, is kind of like a visiting scholar, or guest speaker from the town of Elea and is trained in the most current philosophies of his day. He is clearly of the Eleatic School, and is well versed in Parmenides’ method of deduction as well as the Parmenidean arguments concerning the universe, its oneness, its unchanging character and its unity as all things. We see through the dialogue that he employs an argument or two from Parmenides to arrive at a few thoughts concerning the character and role of the sophist in Athens, and much of Parmenides and the paradoxes he introduced recur in Platonic philosophy, and, I believe, the contemporary philosophy of our day through sticky problems in language that don’t take seriously enough process philosophy. I’ll point out a few places of interest before diving into a more sustained analysis of the dialogue but these points shouldn’t be left to the side as they have bearing on much of how ‘we’ interpret and understand ourselves and problems like certainty embedded within political decision-making and discourse. 

Joel and Ethan Cohen aren’t philosophical slouches. Sam Elliot offers some wise words to the Dude (Jeff Bridges) as an unnamed Stranger in The Big Lebowski.

 The Parmenidean argument for a static, unchanging unified field of being that we call the universe is not only logically compelling, but also, and to a degree half-right scientifically. The argument (which you can find above in the links provided) posits the existence of being and the non-existence of non-being through an argument that treats linear, deductive logic as the only path to Truth and eschews perception as only able to generate mere opinion. Parmenides is quite serious about this claim and his philosophical orientation is one of trying to understand the nature of things or Nature itself. In so doing, he rejects inductive reasoning as a method for arriving at truth and this begins a fight between at least three major philosophical schools at the time: the Eleatic School, the followers of Heraclitus – the Heraclitians, and the Atomists – a school of ancient philosophy buried by power (probably Plato’s power) that had already posited the make up of all matter as composed of atoms and their movements. Unfortunately, it seems that Plato (or the Stranger) did not take the Atomists seriously and brushed their natural philosophy aside in favor of engaging the juxtaposition between Parmenides and Heraclitus. Had he taken the Atomists seriously, we may have publicly understood atoms earlier than we did, but I must leave this matter aside.

Louis C.K., possibly a sophist, arrives at the Parmenedian argument for being at the end of this clip. It is often said that children are the best philosophers and I think he demonstrates why.

Heraclitus takes an opposite route to arriving at Truth, and is famously memmed as asking why one can never step in the same river twice. Why can’t one ever step into the same river? Because it’s always moving. This means that the felt or wished permanence of an object is simply an illusion as all reality is flux. In other words, the Truth about the Real is that it is always changing and this is in stark contrast to Parmenides and his followers. Little has been recovered from Heraclitus or Parmenides and we have their students and writing fragments as well as Platonic dialogues to thank for our civilizational memory of these early disagreements. Socrates, we’ll see, tried to reconcile Parmenides and Heraclitus and we’ll judge whether he was successful when we come to The Republic in a week or two. If you notice, we’re still kinda stuck with the paradoxes they introduce as we grapple with larger problems in the expansion and being of the universe, theories of relativity, quantum mechanics, the big bang theory, other questions and issues in particle physics. To say that either Parmenides or Heraclitus, or the Atomists, were ahead of their time is to miss their impact on civilization. In some sense, we might not have “their time,” without them and indeed our notion of “time,” might be different.

Disney Corp.’s Pocahontas distills the disagreement between Parmenides and Heraclitus nicely in song.

I think that the endurance of the problems presented by the disagreements between the three schools above shows the importance of studying and understanding philosophy in the context of politics because it shows politics within the dialogues themselves as well as in inquiry generally. Much of the baulking and squawking concerning the atomists seems to be motivated by the politics of the time as neither naked perception nor logical deduction (the primary philosophical methods at the time) would reveal something like atomism or atomist thinking. The intuitive appeal of Parmenides and Heraclitus, it would seem, is the deciding factor in Plato’s engagement in both Sophist and elsewhere. One of the more interesting things to notice is that the dialogues flip between “God” and “gods” in their discussions. This could be a slip in translation, but it would appear that those taking Eleatic philosophy seriously tend to use “god,” and not “gods.” This could be a form of monotheism based on Parmenides’ arguments for oneness and universality already sweeping over polytheism that might separate the world into different parts ruled by different gods. At any rate, that Eleatic philosophy existed and had been taken seriously by anyone properly educated in the Greek world could give weight to the proliferation of Christianity through Greece and Rome regardless of the official religions at the time because it, following the Abrahamic tradition dating back to the ancient Jews at least, posits a monotheism that recognizes the unity of existence through Yahweh.

It is important to recognize that Parmenides, Heraclitus, and the Atomists were all concerned with Nature, or the field of existence – being – in which humans come to know themselves and others. One can find the discussions of pre-Socratics through the writings of Thales of Miletus, Anaxagoras (very cool and probably needs more study in the light of Biosphere/Noosphere debates), Anaxamander, Pythagoras, Zeno of Elea, and Xenophanes as still having something to say about the nature of reality and this is more acute during Socrates’ time. However, and importantly, the discussions being had were concerned with Nature, and we see that most of our thinkers listed above were trying to come up with ways of understanding and interpreting the universe. In this way, they’re considered “Natural philosophers,” as their primary objects of inquiry regarded the movements of the heavens and of “natural” bodies. Much of pre-Socratic philosophy was about getting the metaphysics right and then handing down ways to live based on those postulates. The Pythagoreans, for example, had an ethos based on his mathematical teachings as well as thoughts about the organization of society and politics. Socrates and Plato, however, flip the problem of inquiry on its head and while much of their writings on ethics and politics are subordinate to their discussions of metaphysics and epistemology, they spend considerable ink on more “practical” concerns such as justice, and goodness, how society ought to be organized and what sort of life is worth living. In other words, their inquiries seem to be conditioned by an omnipresent ought floating in the back of their minds as they try to respond to those who came before them while trying to present philosophical advice and edicts to their successors. 

Sophist and to a lesser extent Theateatus arrive at the crux of the discursive shift taking place during the life of Socrates. It concerns how one ought to live in order to be happy and becomes an ever present thought in the mind of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics and its conduit is through the state itself as state and subject are brought into alignment through the practice of ethics and the formation of the just constitution. I’ll give you a preview in that the state, as we saw in Crito, is to become a sort of tutor or an instrument that cultivates the main question of ethics at the time – how to lead a good life. Again, in our readings from last week, we saw that this concern and commitment is central for Socrates who, in the end, dies by the pain of his own logic through state ordered suicide by hemlock. How to lead a good life is the primary concern for ethics during antiquity and this is to be accomplished through philosophical inquiry – if one is a philosopher. 

Sophist opens with Socrates posing a question to the Stranger. He asks whether the Eleatics make a distinction between three terms: sophist, philosopher, and statesman. This is a good question in the light of the details above not only because the Stranger is simply from another town that may have different customs, but because the Stranger is also a follower of Parmenides. Presumably, oneness and a static, unchanging unity of being might have trouble parsing out the finer details of living, or categorizing people as having or fulfilling different roles. This concern, however, should be left to the side and the Stranger indulges Socrates who then demands he argue with Theateatus. Much of the argument proceeds by the Stranger leading Theateatus through lines of questioning (as if he hadn’t enough from the day before) that help parse out a bit of reality at a time and he makes a few big cuts into the role and function of the Sophist who is their main target of inquiry. 

Apart from the disagreements between philosophical schools at the time, it seems that there are further disagreements between vocations and disciplines in Athens. Principally, we see a disagreement over “the good life,” and how to live it between the philosophers and their rivals (sometimes, kinda, maybe) the Sophists. The Sophists were a kind of intellectual class tasked with producing arguments and instructing wealthy young Greek males in the art of persuasion – rhetoric. We see their influence today in communications studies, English and language arts, law, politics and business, to say the least. Many people still claim this role as a sort of public persuader and present themselves as experts on many subjects including philosophy, gender religion, art, economics and politics. People like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, Ben Shapiro, Sam Harris, Al Franken, and Bill Mahr fill a role that could be classified as sophistical and concern themselves with public opinion and, most importantly for any sophist, how to make money from the public opinion. In it’s thinnest distillation, one might consider a sophist as a sort of paid teacher who instructs the young. In this case, I might be a sophist, and we see in Apology that one of Socrates’ best defenses against the accusations of the Sophists is that he accepts very little money and mostly food and good company for his teachings. In this case, and based on my tax bracket and pay-stubs, I am probably not a sophist and could be making more money slinging bullshit and creating controversy rather than pursuing science and philosophy. I can only imagine that Ben Shapiro either does very well for himself, having a law degree from Harvard, or is just a shit lawyer and couldn’t make enough in that field; but he is intellectually descended from Sophists so maybe the practice of sophistry was an inevitable conclusion for him. 

 The Stranger makes a few interesting cuts through the process of division in answering Socrates’ question. You can trace this process as he makes some broad statements that seem to fit with both language and practice. For example, he splits “the arts” into two classifications that he defines functionally – that is, what they do and how they do it: that of productive arts and that of acquisitive arts (Sophist, 219a-221d). Productive arts are practices that produce something from the earth or are otherwise related to creative energies that bring something into being. Depending on your lens (especially if you’re Thomas Kuhn or Michel Foucault or Don Ihde) science could be considered a productive art as worlds of atoms and neutrinos come into being through their instruments and frameworks. For the Stranger, he uses agriculture or metallurgy – casting and milling instruments like eating utensils – as his primary examples of productive arts. He does not think that the Sophist belongs to this camp and seeks a negative definition to distance the sophist from the productive artisan.

The other branch of his division of the arts is that of acquisitive art. To this belongs hunting and angling and other arts that are not concerned with the production of things (the angler, presumably, does not create the fish they “hunt,” although I might problematize that with some readings in ecology later). The sophist, the Stranger believes, is engaged in a sort of acquisitive art having failed to land in the camp of the productive arts. How does he arrive at this definition? He simply observes the behavior of those who might call themselves sophists and makes logical cuts into his perceptions through methods of classification reliant on division. The sophist is a sort of artist, so presumably he fits somewhere. We have but two kinds of arts generally: productive and acquisitive arts. He doesn’t fit into the former, so he must fit into the latter, but what does he “hunt” if he does? 

The Stranger answers: 

“[221d] Stranger

Good gracious! Have we failed to notice that the man is akin to the other man?

Theaetetus

Who is akin to whom?

Stranger

The angler to the sophist.

Theaetetus

How so?

Stranger

They both seem clearly to me to be a sort of hunters…

[222a] Stranger

Now up to that point the sophist and the angler proceed together from the starting-point of acquisitive art.

Theaetetus

I think they do.

Stranger

But they separate at the point of animal-hunting, where the one turns to the sea and rivers and lakes to hunt the animals in those.

Theaetetus

To be sure.

Stranger

But the other turns toward the land and to rivers of a different kind—rivers of wealth and youth, bounteous meadows, as it were—and he intends to coerce the creatures in them…”

Notice that the Stranger articulates hunting, or acquisition generally, as based in coercion. Hunting, for the Stranger, is a coercive act and for the Greeks, and to some today, lying, or misrepresentation of one’s knowledge is an attempt at coercion. The philosopher – according to the Stranger – persuades through a special type of coercion that is the force of reason alone. The use of fallacious arguments is out of bounds for the philosopher but tools of the trade for the Sophist. The Sophist, through the use of fallacious arguments (bad ones that contain logical errors but can slip under the radar in persuasive speech), in other words, engages in the mass coercion of people – particularly wealthy and naive people, for money knowing full well that what they say is merely a representation and not necessarily a truthful one (Sophist. 234b-234e).

What would it look like if Justice was only concerned with the image? Mike Judge might have an answer for us in Idiocracy. But can idiots perceive truth, or are they unable to by definition?

We already have a disagreement over the good life in this dialogue: one between a class of people who believe that their job is to persuade regardless of “the Truth,” and another whose quest is “the Truth,” and who see their jobs as those who spread and nurture it (Sophist. 223b-224d, 233c, 235a). Perhaps the philosophers are deluded and maybe “the Truth,” doesn’t exist, but they believe it does, that they can pursue it, and that it is worth pursuing and once presented they believe it persuasive through the force of reason alone (Sophist 230d-230e, 253e). At some point, the conversation becomes confused and there’s a philosophical breakdown and then a rejoinder through Parmenedian metaphysics. I won’t bore you with much of the details, but the Stranger carries a sustained and interesting conversation concerning the ontological status of falsehood and whether the false could exist in the universe of oneness argued for by Parmenides. It’s an interesting question, but the Stranger eventually creates a special class of things through some tricky logic that can be considered false but his definition seems to be reliant on some sort of correspondence between a presented image and what it’s supposed to represent (Sophist. 253c-261b). There are sticky debates as to the nature of Truth, so I want to be careful in pointing out the above to you, but the above seems reliable. 

After a tour of Eleatic philosophy, the reader is treated to a more concrete rejoinder concerning the nature of the Sophist. The Sophist, says the Stranger, is a sort of image maker, someone who presents a self-brand as an expert in something, and may be, but doesn’t care about whether they present a “true” representation (Sophist. 264e-267a). We see that the Sophist does this because he hunts the young, naive and wealthy as his quarry but ensnares his victims through the deployment of false representations and chiefly, a representation of himself as an expert (Sophist. 267a-267c). The content of expertise is left to the side in their conversation and it’s not clear how one “becomes” an expert in the Stranger’s eyes, but it seems, quite conveniently, to pursue inquiry through philosophical reflection and conversation. That is, through an excision of one’s malignant beliefs about something – reality, and all its components – to realize one’s ignorance.

Kill the sophist and the image is what survives.

The Sophist is never ignorant of anything, so says the Stranger. He is constantly staging his knowledge for the capture of money and the imagination. In this way, his art concerns that of the fantastic (fantastic in this sense as producing or emanating from fantasy or a sort of entertainment) (Sophist. 267a-267c). Sophistry imitates knowledge, and is considered a mimetic art by the Stranger and this complicates his definition further because it would appear as if making appearances, or mimetic images is a sort of production. If that’s the case, then how does the Sophist belong to the acquisitive arts and not the productive arts? It is because he makes falsehoods through his images. Nothing of any real meaning stands behind his representations as he feigns knowledge and expertise through his extractive enterprise. In this light, the Sophist is a sort of bewitching parasite – an incubus or succubus (today, at least) of sorts – that latches onto money or power and draws as much as it can from its host (Sophist. 268b-268d). The Stranger says: 

Stranger

Then shall we call one the simple imitator and the other the dissembling imitator?…

[268b]

Stranger

I am considering, and I think I can see two classes. I see one who can dissemble in long speeches in public before a multitude, and the other who does it in private in short speeches and forces the person who converses with him to contradict himself.

Theaetetus

You are quite right.

Stranger

And what name shall we give to him who makes the longer speeches? Statesman or popular orator?

Theaetetus

Popular orator.

Stranger

And what shall we call the other? Philosopher or sophist?

Theaetetus

We cannot very well call him philosopher, since by our hypothesis [268c] he is ignorant; but since he is all imitator of the philosopher, he will evidently have a name derived from his, and I think I am sure at last that we must truly call him the absolutely real and actual sophist. [268d] of the image-making art, and is not divine, but human, and has been defined in arguments as the juggling part of productive activity—he who says that the true sophist is of this descent and blood will, in my opinion, speak the exact truth.”

There you have it. The Sophist is a professional bullshit artist and I know you can find many of those today. But what distinguishes the Sophist from the Statesman? And what of the Statesman from the Philosopher? The philosopher is that seeker of truth, a practitioner in the sweet science of self-pugilism and a knower, or discoverer of ignorance. The Sophist, in the word of the Stranger “runs away into the darkness of not-being, feeling his way in it by practice, and is hard to discern on account of the darkness of the place.” (Sophist. 254a)  

We also need a rejoinder at this point in our course. You’ll see above that the Sophist is an image-maker in the sense of a false-representer of knowledge. He does this to draw in capital and both lives on and builds his life in the image of capital. As you may recall from your reading in Marx, capital can go through transmutation and can materialize in different forms. One of those is that of an instrument (Marx, GI, p.3) an impersonal instrument of production. The Stranger makes an interesting remark regarding the production of “fantastic” art [you’ll remember from above that “fantastic” here does not mean good, but more of an untruthful spectacle or entertainment]: 

Stranger

One kind is that produced by instruments, the other that in which the producer of the appearance offers himself as the instrument.

Theaetetus

What do you mean?

Stranger

When anyone, by employing his own person as his instrument, makes his own figure or voice seem similar to yours, that kind of fantastic art is called mimetic. (Sophist. 267a)
Recall also that Thucydides named the establishment, plunder and frustration of capital as one of the principal reasons for the Peloponnesian War. Further, recall that Marx says the formation of capital is related to and springs forth from settled society (Marx, GI, p.5) and further, that capital can be considered an agent and takes specific (read particular) embodiments (Marx, GI, p.11). Taking together the Stranger, Thucydides and Marx, we may assert that the Sophist is a sort of embodiment of capital that draws in, ensnares, and produces more capital through persuasion and is not at all concerned with “the Truth,” but the production of discourse within society for personal gain (Marx, GI, p.3, 5, 11; Sophist, 245a, 267a, 268b-268d; Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1). To that end, those who project and protect a self-brand where they pretend to be experts on anything and everything are instantiations of capital that have been with us since antiquity – the Sophists. The best way to stop them (they’ll kill philosophers when given the chance as they did with Socrates!) might be to tune them out, and to that you’ll see that I’ve not included their videos above.

The song playing is called “Dead Flowers” and is sung by Townes Van Zandt.

The Good and the Philosopher’s Life

Euthyphro, Apology and Crito (8/31/20 – 9/4/20)

This week marked our course recalibration to the study of ancient philosophy, politics and society. We will do a series of dives into some of the classic texts from the ancient Greeks and Romans. We’ll examine conceptions of the good life and how this was woven into the political thought of the time through that prism. Specifically, we begin with differing conceptions of the good life emblematic of a tripartite disagreement still with Western Civilization. We begin with a fight between a professional class of orators, rhetoricians, speakers and persuaders – the sophists – and the lovers of wisdom, seekers of truth, and noted ascetics, the philosophers. Their subject of disagreement is of fundamental importance to both Athenian society and our own. It concerns large questions such as “what is the good,” and “how ought we live our lives?” These questions are vital to understanding political organization at the time as conceptions of justice are grounded in disagreements over the construction of a moral-political ethos – a way of living – debated between the philosophers and sophists. At bottom is a disagreement over the use of force and social violence through the powers of language and representation of knowledge. Should people and society listen to the voice of reason alone and can people and their institutions be trusted to abide by reason? Should the most persuasive argument carry the day, even if it resorts to fallacious reasoning and trickery? These are the questions considered in your reading this week, whether consciously stated or not.

Plato is one of the most important figures in Western intellectual history and has enjoyed an enduring presence over our thoughts, actions and organization with writings dating back to 380 BCE. We’ll see that his philosophy is far from cut and dry and that it is concerned with, among other things, the just state and the good life.

We open our discussion with Socrates. He is considered widely as the father of Western philosophy despite the long history of enquiry that preceded him. He is a master of the Reductio ad Absurdum argument form and routinely pesters people of high standing in Athens for definitions of terms in their fields of study. Socrates is not a good looking man – already a problem for Athenians – he’s not wealthy but has a lot of wealthy friends, and he spends his time, we gather, in the agora discussing philosophical matters such as the nature of truth, nature herself, morality, justice, social organization, reality, knowledge, mathematics, beauty, memory, and logic. He has already built a reputation for himself within Athens, and is somewhere around 70 years old when we find him in Euthyphro

Scholars know about Socrates and his life through the works of his student, Plato. Plato is a wealthy disciple of Socrates’ and comes from Athenian high society. Socrates was not fond of writing anything down and it is Plato who gives us the dialogues we read. There is disagreement over the reality presented in Plato’s dialogues and this has led to interpretive battles within the academic community over whether some of the people – Socrates notably – actually existed. Regardless, we can read Plato through Socrates most of the time, and it may be that Plato is simply using his characters as mouthpieces. It is fun to wonder about these details lost to history, but I will leave them aside here. We’re going to read a few dialogues that flesh out and address the disagreements between philosophers and sophists and the dialogic style is something with which the contemporary philosophy student might be unfamiliar.

There’s an old philosophy joke (most of them are ancient) that goes something like this: How many people does it take to do philosophy? Two. One to do it and the other to say “Yes, Socrates. Of course Socrates.” Silly as it is, this highlights a point or two worth mentioning when approaching Plato’s dialogues. 

Socrates is Plato’s hero in much of his writings. He’s the archetypical philosopher wandering around and upsetting powerful Athenians by exposing their ignorance in the subjects where they are publicly expert. Socrates is also a war veteran having fought in the Peloponnesian War for Athens, and a trained sculptor and mason. He has, we gather, a family though little mention is made of them in our reading this week aside from Apology and Crito. We gather from this week’s readings that Socrates is attempting to fulfill a quest in his life given to him by the Oracle at Delphi – a soothsayer and an important player in Athenian society. The Oracle has made the claim that Socrates is the wisest man in Athens. In typical fashion, Socrates disagrees and claims that he is not wise – that he is ignorant – and he sets himself to the task of proving the Oracle wrong. He does this by questioning powerful Athenians – sophists, poets and statesmen alike – on broad topics such as “What is the good life,” and “How ought society be organized to produce a just one?” These questions span many sectors of Athenian life at the time, and most of the dialogues we have from almost 400 years before the emergence of Christianity are conversations Socrates supposedly had with supposed experts on their subjects. 

The style of a dialogue can be confusing for fixing philosophical and theoretical interpretation. Taking a wider view and trying to see what the conversation is about can be difficult, but is often the best way to approach reading these things. Additionally, grabbing information about the dialogue under consideration can be helpful and one can usually get away with a good encyclopedia entry for a fuller understanding of the topics under consideration. Another way (and one that should be combined with almost any other method) is to look for bigger blocks of text within the dialogues themselves and carefully unpack them as they are usually full of philosophical exegesis. Apology has very little dialogue in it, so finding the important bits can be harder than usual, but it is forgivingly short and a good portion of it is less the philosophical discussion and more about Athenian society and Socrates’ life. Crito is also relatively straightforward and brief but you’ll notice Socrates’ argumentative style there as well as in Euthyphro. As above, Socrates is a master of a style of argument called Reductio ad Absurdum – to reduce to absurdity – and this style is not only powerful, philosophically speaking, but also frustratingly funny to read.

Sometimes it will appear as if Socrates is leading his interlocutors in a circle. Most of the time, this is not the case as he tries to get them to generate a contradiction within their own reasoning. The example above is a clip from Mike Judge’s Idiocracy. The film depicts a reality closer to home than is comfortable, however, it is instructive in fallcious reasoning. Above, displays a circular argument regarding a fictional Gatorade-type beverage, Brawndo, the idiots have been using to water their crops. Luke Wilson, who plays the smartest man in the world, presses the other characters for a definition only to find circular reasoning. The logic displayed by the idiots shows a fallacy in reasoning called “Begging the question,” and shows both how question-begging is animated and that we as a society are drifting closer to idiocracy – the rule of idiots – because the people on the TV, (and in academia!) misapply “begging the question,” or “begs the question,” almost every time they employ the description.

You’ll find that Socrates routinely frustrates and pesters his interlocutors with questions. Most of his discussants are recognized experts in Athenian society and Euthyphro – the subject and title of the dialogue – is a poet of high standing in Athens. Poets are who you went to to understand questions pertaining to the gods. A polythesistic society at the time, Athens had many gods – their patron being Athena, goddess of war and naval expertise – and relied on interpretations of poetry that contained the gods and their exploits. One only need consider The Odyssey by Homer to see how the gods were woven into the fabric of Athenian reality. Socrates is on his way to court – open court composed of judges and jurors within an amphitheatre populated by Athenian citizens. “Citizen,” here, is reserved for landowning males who are the Head of the Household. The Household is more than it is today, and refers to what we might recognize as a working farm or some other type of homestead directly linked to an agrarian economy. We see in Apology that they are the jurors at Socrates’ trial and vote on his fate. 

Socrates strikes up a conversation with Euthyphro who is also visiting court that day to accuse his father of murder. Agast, Socrates asks Euthyphro to explain his decision and both come to the understanding that Euthyphro is committed to his father’s condemnation and possible execution as an act of piety – a religiously faithful and devoted act related to the will of the gods themselves. Piety, here is in the orbit of justice and one can see how the two overlap and intersect in Athenian society. Notably, Euthyphro believes that in bringing the attention of the court to his father’s manslaughter of a serf he is doing a justice to both Athens and to the gods themselves. It seems almost as if Euthyphro – so convinced of his pious action – is performing a duty as a divine command. In a subtle twist of Platonic irony, Socrates, himself in trouble for following the wishes of the Oracle (a divine commander), meets Euthyphro outside of court and begins pestering him for a definition of the pious, or piety more generally. 

Euthyphro attempts to define piety three times throughout the dialogue and the dialogue itself ends in aporia – philosophical frustration and confusion typified by throwing ones hands up in the air and shouting “agree to disagree,” or “it is what it is,” and then walking off or changing the subject. You can see this in the text rather clearly and it exemplifies the Reductio argument employed by Socrates. Reductios go something like this: Assume your interlocutor is right and get them to define the thing under discussion (you’ll see Socrates do this almost every time you read him). Then probe your opponent for further elaboration by trying to draw out inferences from their definition (if piety is X, then we can infer Y), and get them to agree to your inferences or elaborations. Go through this process until you get them to generate a contradiction or an otherwise unpalatable conclusion. Then show them that they have contradicted themselves, accuse them of putting forward an invalid definition of the thing you’ve asked them to define, and pester them for another definition. 

Philosopher, Dan Dennett speaks to the Reductio as part of the philosopher’s toolbox that has wide application in the sciences.

Socrates leads Euthyphro through at least three reductios throughout the course of the dialogue. If you notice, Euthyphro becomes increasingly unsettled and frustrated with Socrates throughout the dialogue. Reductios are sometimes called “indirect arguments” and one can readily see why in Euthyphro. Socrates never puts forward his own definition of piety though you may be able to detect that he disagrees with Euthyphro. He is indirectly unsettling Euthyphro’s expertise on piety, the thing he’s supposed to understand better than most in Athens and this is shaking Euthyphro to his core because he’s at court to condemn his father for an impious act! In this way, Socrates has quietly accused Euthyphro of impiety, or, at the very least, acting without properly understanding what grounds his action. Socrates, in many ways, is concerned with what we’d call epistemology – the study of knowledge or knowing – and his approach to epistemology involves publicly embarrassing people of high standing by unseating their “solid” understandings of things through reductios

Knowing one’s limits through understanding one’s ignorance is the core of Socrates’ quest and he considers his role within Athenian society as a gadfly – an annoying insect that impels larger creatures to action. He makes this clear in Apology as he is addressing the court and dealing with his accusers. Again, in a funny twist, apology here, means “defense,” and Socrates is supposed to be defending himself from the accusations that he is a corruptor of the youth and makes the weaker arguments appear the stronger (read: he uses reductios to make important people look like ignorant assholes), and that he worships false gods, or is just generally impious. Stringing together Euthyphro and Apology paints a picture that shows his accusers are close enough to the reality of his behavior to warrant concern from the court. Socrates is unapologetic for his behavior and flings his own accusations against his accusers whom he believes are under the employ of three powerful sectors of Athenian society associated with sophists and the practice of sophistry. 

Sophists, as we’ll see, are professional orators or debaters – akin to today’s lawyers – who could be bought (at no small expense) to defend someone publicly, or instruct the youth in rhetoric. They are not concerned with a search for truth, as Socrates is, but about “winning” the argument – that is, garnering the public will. Socrates is and has been fighting the Sophists over their picture of reality and we’ll see how they conceive the good life and public service throughout the course. Here, however, in open court and in front of the masses Socrates loses.

His accusers carry the day in Apology and Socrates is asked what he believes his punishment should be for his crimes. He claims that he has done and is nothing more than a public servant to Athens. He loves his city and has fought for her in battle and has tried to do nothing more than develop her philosophically. For these services he insists that his punishment should be living in the Prytaneum – the Hall of Heroes in Athens – where he would be cared for in his old age. The court rejects this proposal and orders a hefty fine, exile or death. 

Despite Plato’s presence at the trial and his wealth, he is unable to raise the fine necessary to free his teacher. The citizens of Athenian democracy have spoken, and Socrates must choose either to live in exile – never to return to his home and the city he loves – or to drink hemlock and end his life by state ordered suicide. He chooses hemlock and is locked away to await death. It would seem that the Sophists have won the final argument, but Socrates is not finished discussing goodness or how one ought to live and Crito elaborates some of these notions.

Rick Roderick lectures on the philosophical pursuit of knowledge and the life and death of Socrates. Please keep “knowledge” and “fact” separate in your minds. The quest for knowledge and truth may be different from fact and science.

The unexamined life is not a life worth living. Socrates is convinced of that maxim and cannot do anything but search for truth. He does not, so he says, enter into debate merely to win the argument and show his cleverness. His project is to examine every facet of life and the living and subject it to rigorous critique. He is interested in producing liveable knowledge about things generally construed such that one can understand one’s place in the universe. His life is not simply a series of motions repeated for the sake of living in the humdrum of the day but a personal quest for wisdom. The Greek and Roman philosophers and thinkers we examine in this course do not, generally, make a separation between the study of ethics and the study of politics. To them, a personal ethic, or ethos is a way of living to produce a happy and good person and this person fits into the patchwork of society thus influencing the whole. Perhaps ironically, Socrates has been on a quest for goodness, and has tried to live his life in accordance with his mission handed down from the Oracle. This transformed him from a former soldier and sculptor (he claims he is descended from Daedalus) into a philosopher-as-public-servant, as he went about Athens agitating the powerful who would lead people astray with their false knowledge and sophistry for the sake of power and wealth. Apology shows that Athens was convinced by sophistry to condemn a man to death who claimed to have loved them dearly. Crito, I think, shows the depth of Socrates’ love for Athens and his commitment to living in accordance with reason itself in the quest for a good life. 

Crito opens in the prison chamber where Socrates’ is inturned. Crito, a friend and student of Socrates’ (many Platonic dialogues are named after Socrates’ interlocutor in the dialogue) has bribed the jailor for Socrates’ freedom and has planned an escape for him into exile. Depending on who you read, the conversation between Socrates and Crito is either just the two of them, or in front of a larger group of friends who are supposed to aid Socrates in his escape to Thessaly –  another region and city in ancient Greece. Crtio implores Socrates to leave and save his own skin as the court was clearly in error in their condemnation but Socrates refuses on the grounds that his exile would not be a good and just action.

Socrates reasons that Athens has given him everything in his life. He thinks of the State – the governing apparatus for our purposes here – as his alma mater (his generous mother) and owes his existence to Athens. His children and wife have benefitted from living in Athens and for him, there is no other city. He is loyal to her citizens, he has fought as a soldier and served as a senator for his district in her interests and the interest of its citizens. He cannot imagine living anywhere else in disgrace and refuses to live outside of the wishes of the city that made him. It wishes him destroyed and he accepts his fate on the grounds that to live and die by her hand concludes his debt to her and is preferable than defying the wishes of his generous mother. This may, again, produce another irony for us, in that we will see that Socrates (Plato most probably) was distrusting of democracy and had problems understanding whether it would produce justice and goodness in its organization. However, in Crito, Socrates is resolute. He will not bring his life into contradiction with his philosophy and believes, as a matter of living a good life, he must not show himself to be an opportunistic sophist and must obey the wishes of the Athenians. He drinks hemlock (again depending on the translation) in the fulfillment of a just and good life.

There are a few troubling things about the series of dialogues we read for this post. One, it shows that the philosopher may never be accepted into society as their role of critic. Two, that reason does not always carry the day and sophistry is a powerful tool for directing the will of the masses; and three, that the philosopher – the lover of wisdom – must endure the burdens above if they pursue philosophy as a matter of praxis, or as an ethos. Socrates puts forward a quiet social contract theory in Crito, mostly basing his argument for why he should obey the State within the notion of tacit agreement and participation. We could have pressed Socrates, if we had been there for an explanation of why he should listen to the dictates of an unjust state – one that allows false witness to murder the innocent – but the message from Socrates is clear. To live any other way would be to live his life in a self-contradictory limbo and to live outside of the good life and thus to live unjustly. 
We will see the disagreements over the just state and the good life in the coming weeks. Philosophers, sophists and statesmen alike are all interested in the intersection of these questions and they make a deep connection between personal morality and a moral social organization. The disagreements had in ancient Greece are with us today as we try to interpret our changing worlds and how we fit in them, and these perennial matters cannot be ignored by the student of politics. Despite so-called realist attempts to distance the functions of state from morality (Waltz or Morgenthau for example), this division may not hold firm under the weight of philosophical discussion and the search for Truth. Truth, as we will see, is deeply connected to the concept of state and the good life in the mind of the philosopher and their disagreements with the sophists will be repeated to our time. 

Commodification and Post-Naturalism

How much is “The World,” worth to you?

Paterson. Death ed., Chapter 1; Luke, 2019, Chapter 1; Luke 1997, Chapter 3

I asked you to read three pieces this week that together demonstrate and animate the spirit of ecocritiques. We’re diving into ecocritiques as a form of writing and this can often become muddied by the dense resources mobilized to construct one. They often take a piece of the world and subject it to rigorous examination by running it through cultural, social, political and economic frameworks to exhibit connections between that part and its consequences. For example, Luke in Ecocrtitque selects a seemingly benign or culturally accepted organization, The Nature Conservancy, and examines their practices from their marketing and psychodemographic targeting campaigns to their on-the-ground conservation practices. The results of his analysis are informed by both his theoretical and philosophical commitments, as well as his political economic methodology. In this way, his chapters show us a few things: It is important to have philosophical and theoretical commitments not only for site selection, but also to guide the arc of critique; and reflecting on the larger conditions of one’s existence is necessary to construct a global understanding of the self-in-the-world as well as the interconnections that exist as a part of global social infrastructure. I’ll unpack the above as follows: first, I’ll show you why I selected the readings and why they’re helpful for understanding ecocritiques; a discussion of theoretical and methodological selection follows; and third, how we can go from local to global considerations through political economics as an orientation.

Firstly, I selected Paterson’s chapter from the Death reader as a conceptual introduction to a central consideration within political ecology and environmental studies – commodification. The Death reader is a useful book to keep at hand because it can be used as a sort of advanced glossary or encyclopedia for doing environmental politics. The concepts examined throughout the book – an anthology of different authors and experts in the field – are useful depending on the framework you, as an analyst, are adopting. Some concepts work better in some frameworks over others and it is important to understand how different schools of thought deploy their analytic frames within their research. Some schools, for example, emphasize hybridity and interconnections of technology in understanding the social, and the natural; others don’t have a Natural/Social division and favor nature-cultures, or technoculture, or socio-nature as part of their analytic toolbox; still others, like Paterson, prefer language inherited from political economics as a field and see the circulation of things as central to environmental construction.

None of the above is to say that different schools can’t be mixed and matched or that every concept has to pay homage to its origins. Part of the fun of theorizing is coming up with new combinations of terms to help flesh out analyses and give some order to one’s perceptions. My preferences fall in the Neo-Marxist camp and I arrived at these considerations in language and analysis over a period of time and philosophical reflection. My thoughts tend toward thinking about the environment through assemblages, commodities, and technologies and this trifecta points me in the direction of social complexity theory, Marxism, Anarchism, the philosophy of science, philosophy of technology and postphenomenology. These are big terms and there’s a lot more than an encyclopedia article can explain for understanding the traditions and arguments that are behind them. As a general rule, however, one can learn almost anything simply by understanding terms and vocabulary used within the subject of study. One must, of course, strive to be a practitioner of their subjects and this points to different forms of knowledge than simply know-that gleaned from understanding terms and how they operate to produce a theoretical framework. One should cultivate some other forms of knowledge such as do-how – a knowledge of how to do something, or know-how – a form of knowledge concerning the production and impetus of knowledgeable action. Mastering oneself can be done through the practice of self-discipline and it’s important to hear “disciple” in discipline as one cultivates an interest in one’s subject area. 

Rick Roderick delivers a lecture on the philosophy of Herbert Marcuse and the internal contractions of modernity and the modernizing process. If you’re looking for a project for this course, try to identify an irony or a contradiction and dial in on it. More often than not, you’re putting your finger on something that can be eco-critiqued.

 I arrived at Neo-Marxism after nearly a decade of attempting to reject it through more traditional forms of liberal thought. “Liberal,” here does not refer to Democrat, or the largely incorrect and obfuscating left-right distinction one hears from the crypto-fascists on the news. It was Luke’s Chapter 3 on TNC that was the final coffin nail on my largely John Rawls infused philosophical and theoretical orientations. When Luke critiques “liberals,” he’s speaking to a philosophical tradition that has informed the formation of the U.S. and other countries. A rough and ready but all-too violent characterization of liberal and liberalism is one that adopts both a “rule of the people,” as in democracies and representative republics such as our own; as well as “free” market principles and separates (typically) Nature and Society, and Public and Private spheres conceptually and operationally (as in laws and other practices). People from “left” to “right” in the U.S. fit under liberalism as a political discourse whether or not they’re conscious of it, and one can argue that everyone from [some] Democratic Socialists to [some] “free-market” libertarians are types of “liberals” with some misgivings. In many ways, and again this is rather quick, liberalism is concerned with the balance of two ideals that are in tension with one another: definitions of “equality;” and definitions of “freedom.”

Without spending too much time on the fundamental tension in Liberalism, one can readily grasp the arc of the discussion by reflecting on how different definitions of equality and freedom circulate in our society. The tension is exhibited best in how U.S. political discourse circulates representations of freedom. More often than not, they depict definitions of freedom that also seem in tension with one another. The theorist, Isaiah Berlin split “freedom” as a term into at least two operational definitions: freedom-to, or positive freedoms; and freedom-from or negative freedoms. Positive freedoms might be something like the “right to bear arms,” or the right to assemble. If you’re in the UK, or other countries that still have an understanding of society, then you have the freedom to affordable, or tax-funded healthcare. On the flip-side, and they’re often two sides of the same coin, you have the freedom from unlawful search and seizure – at least formally, or the freedom from debtor’s prison – again, probably only formally and we’ll see how this goes when the student debt bubble explodes. 

One can witness the results of how “freedom” is operationalized within the environment by examining the differences in how society delegates and distributes power and capital. Corporations were defined, conceptualized and discussed as people earlier than black slaves and this shows an orientation not only to the notion of people or person but the networks of terms in which they are embedded. Persons are rights-bearing agents in U.S. philosophical and legal frameworks while slaves are regarded as property and are thus subject to rights-bearing agents as objects. This exhibits a tension between “freedom” and “equality” as the states argued over the status of black slaves in the U.S. slave-economies operating across the expanding nation. One can see, rather easily I think, that much of the arguments spun around whether whites had the freedom-to own black slaves, positing a freedom-from Federal intervention that would have slaves recognized as equals formally in U.S. law. Equality, in the above, suffers as a concept and practice under the governing frameworks of slave-states and it isn’t a big leap to understand how a slave-state – say Virginia – had an environment that immobilized the black body and fed it into whole living economies of governance, representation, and commodity production. The fight for “equality” through abolitionism was a fight for slaves to be recognized as people, and not property, and thus become rights-bearing agents capable of exercising “freedom” in any of its forms. Economically, the body of the black slave served as a foundation for slave economies that operated internationally as well as in the United States and the argument over “states rights” can be cashed out as states arguing for the freedom-to own people through an argument for freedom-from Federal regulations and discourses that treated the black slave as an equal, rights-bearing agent. 

The above beares on our readings from this week because Paterson starts us off with commodification – that is, the process that makes something into a tradeable object that has exchange-value – or, a commodity. Notice here that we’re concerned with the process of something becoming a commodity and not the individual commodity itself. In the above, one can think of the black body becoming commodified on the auction blocks in Richmond as buyers bid for slaves. On the flip side, the body of a particular black person within governing frameworks that posit the black body as property is a commodity to a slave master. How commodities circulate and what they are helps focus analyses of society and we can see how society pulls-in what you might call “Nature” through commodification. One can think of this clearly by recognizing that the computer you’re using to view this post is a composite (we’ll use assemblage in this course) of “natural” elements – metals, plastics derived from hydrocarbons, etc., – organized toward some “social” end – communication between peoples, education. The computer, bought and traded as it is, allows or enables this sort of social behavior and thus rethreads the need for “natural resources” – coltan is one to watch – within and through patterns of extraction all connected to the production of that computer. The computer itself is useful in that it amplifies certain desirable abilities over others, but this use-value is conditioned by the social networks that value those abilities. Regardless of who decides what attributes and abilities to value, the computer in your hands, on your desk, or in your lap holds a socially conditioned exchange-value typically represented in monetary denominations that allow for its circulation within and through social networks. 

Think of it this way: money is a social grease. It gets the gears turning and impells actions that might not otherwise be committed. It exercises a coercive and persuasive influence in our social organization and a lot of people – mistakenly – cashout happiness in terms of cash acquisition. It’s a motive force in our environments and many an environ is designed to generate, capture and channel money – just look at Land Grant Universities. Money, however, is nothing but a representation and an abstraction attached to things by people. Those things to which it is attached are commodities and concentrations of money attract and are constitutive of concentrations of things. Think of the material networks necessary for a gold mine to operate – the discovery of gold, the organization of labor to extract it, the machinery to aid in its extraction, the melting and smelting facilities and all the attendant knowledges used in the extraction of gold. All of that activity, the material changes to landscape, the carbon outputs that circulate globally, and the global draw of people and materials to a place – a mine – already shows networks interested in dragging the stuff from the ground so that it can circulate in social environs like New York’s Diamond District as rings, and other material used in the construction of more commodities. 

Luke in his chapter from Ecocritique recognizes a sort of commodification occurring through the conservation actions of The Nature Conservancy. Commodification occurs within circuits (Paterson, Death ed. p.54) and these circuits are assemblages of people, and things that interact to produce objects that are then sold for an abstract representation. This process of commodification contains the process of abstraction that underwrites a notion of equivalence among objects and buyers. This is usually, as we see it now, run through a brand that is used to condition the expectations of consumers. I have been all over the world and have had many excellent coffees but sometimes I didn’t know what I’d be getting if I went to a local coffee shop. Some coffees are terrible – a travesty against God and legumes – and, being the consumer that I am, I try to avoid the terrible ones and buy things that satisfy expectations. I’m usually never in the place unless I’m running late or road tripping but Starbucks can be a welcome sight in a foreign land because they train and regulate their supply-chains according to company procedures to produce a reliable source of caffeine and enjoyment. I don’t know whether I’ll get a good coffee in any particular Starbucks, but generally speaking, I can trust the brand to produce palatable espresso – if but too little in their servings. One can zoom out and see Starbucks traded on the New York Stock Exchange and realize that no one is buying a cup of coffee when they trade the “SBUX” ticker, but “SBUX” has a value relative to the belief that money invested in the company will have a “return-on-investment” much the same way Virginia Tech implores prospective students to consider going into debt in the hope of a good paying job and fulfilling career after graduation [Hint: you’re more commodity than you realize]. 

We’re often so bound up in commodity networks that the notions of “choice+freedom” circulates to an accelerated absurdity. Escaping the commodity nexus of society is often through a rejection of what it means to be a human and a member of society. Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting probes one alternative and the notion of “freedom.” What does it mean to be free when all the world is a commodity?

We can see, in the above, that commodification often requires some sort of material input that mixes with labor to produce a tradable object. In the case of Starbucks, I can trust that I’ll get a decent coffee because the brand signifies a particular admixture of labor and resources that are guided through labor practices to produce a Starbucks coffee. In their Pike Place roast, for example, the barista chars the beans before grinding them together with old cigarette butts and hamster-cage newspaper lining before placing them into a coffee urn where nothing but the freshest tap water percolates through the urn and into a cup that is a standardized measurement necessary for grounding a sense of equivalence among particular coffees. Notice that I, as a consumer, am almost nowhere in the above example. I don’t participate in collecting the coffee beans, I don’t know where they’re coming from and I really do nothing but issue a request to the barista and then give them some numbers representing debt owed to me that I’ve accumulated throughout the course of my labor and life. In this way, one can see how commodities and commodity chains produce a sense of distance between consumers, labor and capital as I am typically ignorant of the whole story of the commodity I buy and consume except for its excretion (Paterson, Death, ed. p.54). 

This expose by The Guardian – the only news source trusted by George Orwell – traces slavery through global supply chains of shrimp (prawns in the video). Slavery, the commodification of people and the theft of their lives is still alive and well, and maybe you eat it every day. Unless you do the work, the commodity will never tell you where it comes from.

Notice how Luke applies his theoretical and methodological commitments in his chapter on TNC. He dives into their actual material practices rather than merely their ecological lip service by focusing on a commodity and the network that produces it. He’s thinking about how TNC commodifies land and the processes, and considerations that go into making land tradeable and in that sense, commodities. Again, consider that commodities are a mix of resources and labor that have an exchange value ($3 for 16 ozs of Pike Place, for example), and circulate throughout your environment. Now consider that the land you’re sitting on is a commodity but only insofar as the U.S. government recognizes land as tradeable. This means that land is a potential site of commodity production – as in a gold mine – and a commodity itself – in that we can attach an exchange value for it, and we live within a society that thinks land can be bought, owned and traded. This leads to other quandaries such as fictitious commodities (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56) and the Second Contradiction of Capital (Paterson, Death, ed., p.56-60) but I’ll leave these aside for simpler language. 

Both Paterson and Luke see commodification as central to the reproduction of a particular form of society grounded in liberalism and exhibited through the establishment of markets and circulation of commodities. Their crux is that commodity development and circulation, as practiced, is often ecologically destructive and grounded in notions of abstraction and extraction that complicate and animate social relations and exacerbate and create inequalities through discourses of market “freedom.” However, liberal thinking has generally ignored ecological and environmental damage and degradation within its economic calculi and labels these effects as “market externalities.” Ignorance of externalities is accomplished through the distancing effect that commodities and their circulation have on the perceptive faculties of consumers and reinscribes a sense of accelerated consumption and accumulation of material stuffs that are built from extractive networks. These consumptive patterns are driving (in a sense) the production of ecological destruction and it isn’t until externalities become salient within the environment that attempts at incorporation within economic calculi are made (look at the establishment of Superfund sites). This process already exhibits a relationship to that thing we might call “nature” and already shows you how “nature” and “society” are enmeshed through extractive commodity production. Social demands are and always have “natural” consequences and Luke admonishes TNC for their “conservation” strategy which reinscribes the logic of commodification within the production of the physical environments they’re supposed to protect! 

Look at it this way: Commodities are capital. They can be bought, traded, made, and circulated as a force within and through environments. They are also, according to our authors from this week, central in the production of ecological destruction because they exist and emanate from real material networks of extraction and production. Commodities and commodification are so pervasive that we often talk about ourselves and others as existing within markets – this labor market, or that labor market – and this leads to some unpleasant social consequences like the mistreatment of people, or, as in a previous example, the enslavement of others as commodities! 

We cash our hopes and define freedoms through objects and commodities but is anyone asking whether we should, or what consequences that will have?

All of the above have material effects. We can look for sites of analysis through the commodity as a nexus – a window – into a world that runs on commodification and an environment built by the circulation of things based on perceived values. More often than not, our notions of freedom are cashed out in terms of consumption – in terms that make freedom constitutive of the objects to which it is attached (watch a car commercial as above, and ask what values they’re selling you). Our social structure often includes the language of commodification and exchange!

So, here’s the dirty little secret: Luke might nail TNC for doing the very thing they claim to be preventing – the degradation of lands, waters and airways by commodification and the production of sociality – by commodifying more lands, waters and airways in service to their notions of what “the environment” should be; but commodification is a cornerstone of liberal discourse. It’s often what people turn to when presented with a recalcitrant externality showing itself through our environs. Indeed Luke’s first chapter in Anthropocene Alerts is an alert from 1980 prodding liberal thought and thinkers for not considering commodification as a central problem in “the environment (Luke, 2019, Chapter 1). They slap a technological band-aid (not the actual common term, but a brand name!) on nature’s sucking chest wound and then try to find something to sell – some sort of “market incentive” to attract more capital or make environmental protection palatable to people who can’t understand that clean drinking water is a must for everyone and people other than themselves live in this world and are fighting for their lives every single day. This collective akrasia in evidence points to – alludes – to the presence of the commodity form – a notion of collective consciousness that sees the commodity as the omnipresent model of society and social relationships (Paterson, Death, ed., p.54). If you’re paying attention, this means that the commodity form also quietly regulates conduct toward the environment and its construction. In other words, the commodity makes the machines we call societies run and are simultaneously its output creating a self-repeating system of extraction and expansion. One only needs to consider carbon markets discussed by Paterson, The Nature Conservancy’s trade lands discussed by Luke, or habitat credit swaps discussed by yours truly, to see the presence of the commodity form and its psychic and material effects.

Chozen’s “Tel A Lie Vision” talks about the circulation of commodities, of desires represented through a system reliant on passive viewership and active consumption. Here we can hear the circulation of commodities as a system of governance.

When all the world is processed, what will Nature be? If everything can be commodified and turned into capital, then where is Nature now? These questions should help you come to an understanding of the world we live in when you consider that Nature is dead and we have killed her. 

Welcome to the Critical Ethos

There are three things I discuss in this post:

  1. The critical ethos and its importance in doing environmental politics through self-reflective cultivation; 
  2. An introduction to ecocritique as a genre of writing, method of analysis and theoretical orientation that can help develop and emmenate from the critical ethos;
  3. And lastly, looking for inspiration through critical self reflection on oneself in the environment

Looking through the syllabus, you’ll notice, dear reader, that this course does not take particular case studies of global environmental change as its guiding arc. I made this decision because this class is for those already somewhat convinced of global change, and my apologies to those whom this class leaves aside. In short, “the science” has been discussing global change for centuries – if but relegated to local analyses in its early years – and we are not in the business of merely finding more information regarding our changing planet and transmitting it. Instead, this class is focussed on developing thinkers – people capable of going beyond the particulars, the phantasms of reality, and grasping the totality of interactions that make up the environment

As such, we’re engaged in developing engaging and thoughtful people through a recognition of “the self” within “the environment.” We will question and probe what “the environment” is and what it means within political discourse and we’ll try to wrap our heads around some of the more puzzling and difficult problems presented by global trends in social organization and how those trends contain not only civilizational history and its modes of living – the lifeforms it produces and has produced – but, and more importantly, how plastic “the environment” actually is in its meaning and its materiality. 

Neither myself nor any (for the most part) of our authors are trying to alarm you to the “problems” or issues in “the environment.” You’ll notice that I won’t be impelling you to “do your part,” or make some mealy-mouthed oath to “safeguard” the planet. We have no time for such arrogant managerialist approaches to our spinning orb. Instead, we focus on how deeply embedded and political the issues presented by global environmental change are within “the science,” or through the case studies and examples mobilized in this course. We live in settled societies with real material effects and consequences. These effects are the result of how we’ve built and run our societies across the Earth. As a result, we’re going to question the totalizing attitude presented by discourses of “The Anthropocene” – the geological epoch of humans – and how this discourse hinders critical environmental reflection necessary to tackle the problems presented by global environmental change. 

George Carlin expresses the attitude we should develop toward our human arrogance. It is not so much that the planet is changing and it’s “our” fault, but the results of this change. Who wins and who loses? Who gets to pollute and who lives with that pollution? Who despoils the Earth and who has to live in the rubble and the wrecks when all is said and done?

This course is a class in Political Ecology – a subfield of political science, and environmental studies (Death, Death ed., p.8). We are interested, in short, in how politics constructs and administers environments. Carl Death’s chapter from this week’s readings splits discourses of the environment into two broad categories (Death, Death ed., P. 8-9). One treats the environment as part of Nature – something that exists independent of human societies. Indeed many thinkers seem to separate arenas of action into “nature” or the natural and “society” or the social. We’ll see why this separation is problematic and why, in my opinion, we’d be better off without it as it merely clouds thinking. In short, this class questions the Nature/Society split, and we must approach this often unquestioned conceptual framework from the position of theory and theorizing. For those of you questioning that vantage point, I’ll remind you that theory is almost always animated, lived and felt regardless of whether you’re conscious of it, and that the act of splitting reality into “Nature,” and “Society,” is already a theoretical division.

Theoretical fantasias such as “pristine nature,” “untouched wilderness,” or an independent Nature akin to the Abrahamic God will not be mobilized for our discussions save as whipping posts. We will, instead, take the opposite fork of the two ways the environment is portrayed in political discourse and thus acted upon through political networks. This is one that understands the environment as made up of environs – that is, enclosures and how those enclosures are made, animated, policed, securitized and linked to the machinations of global capitalism. This is a more intuitive notion than it sounds. 

It’s often said that we wear different hats in society. Sometimes you have to put on your student hat and listen to me in my professor hat. Other times you put on your driver’s hat and have to recognize, interpret and anticipate the actions of others who are also wearing their driver’s hat. Something switches when you put on your different hats for your different functions in society and you’ll notice that your surroundings more often than not, play a role in how you behave and what hats are needed by you within different enclosures. We’ll suggest in this class that we exist within different enclosures that are textured by rules, technologies, interactions, histories, governments, sciences, and more. We’ll see that these little worlds and the actions within them make up the much larger aggregate of “the environment” at a global scale and that we humans are deeply, inexorably embedded within the functions of the planet writ large. These enclosures – these environs – are created and administered by and through politics and it is here that we focus our analyses. 

Our course is not for those in love with binge and purge style regurgitation. It will require you to think and think very hard about how your enclosures are connected to others and how this aggregation is connected to that which has cradled humanity since before homo sapien arrived on the scene. To do this, we’ll need a few tools. The first and most important tool for the task is you, dear reader. We will learn that we must cultivate a critical sensibility suggested by Carl Death in his first chapter, by Tim Luke throughout his work, and by me, your professor, in my work and throughout the course. I want to show you how this ethos is actually a way of living, one that tries to connect the little loves and lived realities of our everyday lives with the massive movements of capital, culture, society, technology, and politics – civilization

To do this, we must cultivate, as Death councils, a sensibility that questions the everyday and the things that seem given to us. Why are you reading this? Because you were told to? Who told you to do that and what gave them that authority? How is that authority connected to an environ and how is it connected to the rest of the living, breathing orb on which we live? These are the sorts of questions that should concern you. When a cruise ship that belches out a carbon output equivalent to a million cars everyday tells you that they have a “Save the Waves” environmental program, are you simply going to accept it and be on your way? Or are you going to recognize the interconnection of all things and wonder how in the fuck an industry that relies on a fuel source dug from the ground that is then burned in a furnace could possibly claim any semblance of sustainability? In short, will you call bullshit and recognize that bullshit circulates in your environments everyday but that maybe you’ve become numb to it? This is the germ of the critical ethos – a critical way of life that refuses to accept the given and wants more. Cultivate it, as you will in this course through your own research.  

This is a clip from The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology by Slavoj Zizek – the Jarjar Binks of critical theory. We won’t use “ideology” much as a term in our course and favor “discourse,” instead, but Zizek is alluding to the difficulty of liberation in one’s environment. We’ll circle back to this problem throughout the course, but the clip is instructive in that it shows how ideologies are environmental and how the environment is constructed by ideologies.

    Secondly, you’ll need a weapon – something sharp, maybe but something you can wield with precision. We’re going to study, and sharpen a weapon that will help you cut the bullshit into manageable sizes. I suggest we learn ecocritiques as that weapon. Your weapon’s expert is Timothy W. Luke and we must learn how to use his weapon with care. Thankfully, however, ecocritiques are intuitive and customizable and we’ll continue to see example after example of ecocriticisms that demonstrate not only a mind armed with a critical ethos, but one flexible enough to make it work across disciplines. We’ll roam from critical approaches to understanding science and management, to ecocritiques as a technology of self-discipline and scholarly improvement. 

Ecocritique, at its broadest, is a genre of writing that questions the place of humans within their environments through criticising or interrogating their social organization related to the machinations of their broader operational contexts. They are about taking the familiar and making it strange; of seeing other perspectives through the connections exhibited within environs; or of coming to understand and probe positions purportedly in the name of The Earth, or The Planet, or The Environment. We’ll push the very big categories to their limits and question the actions of others in a political-environmental context. 

Try to cultivate a sensibility that sees the separation between an uncaring planet, and one that must care about the planet’s inhabitants. We can’t simply collapse into actionless nihilism that sees the emptiness of meaning. We must come to recognize our spinning orb as our home and the home for others including nonhumans. There’s no need to despair in darkness when you are the author of your own light – not in that stupid individualistic way though.

Here’s the rub. It’s not good enough to find “the science” and bring it back to your village. You need to see how “the science” is mobilized within politics and how it acts within environs. Yes, we’ll see more flooding. Yes, the Great Barrier Reef has been pronounced dead. But who cares? We in Blacksburg can’t see how the Reef is connected to our everyday worlds. We in Virginia didn’t have to live through Katrina, or Sandy and deal with the destruction wrought by those storms. We may have sent money, supplies and people, but no one lost a house because Sandy made landfall in our remote mountains. That’s what this course and its ecocritiques get to. Who wins and who loses in the global environment constructed by politics? We don’t have to look far to see racism threaded throughout our environments and one only has to go to Shockoe Bottom in Richmond to see how flooding was a problem for some and not for others and that this was created and committed in and through politics. 

Ecocrtiques are about exposing the political, cultural, economic, and social forces within our environs. They are about exhuming the connections we share to one another not simply through the air we breathe and the water we drink, but how that water got there in the first place, and how the composition of the air came to be that way. Luke opens his Anthropocene Alerts by altering his readers to the radioactive isotopes circulating in the global biosphere as a result of Cold War politics and the need for displays of power within the strategy of nuclear deterrence. In other words, politics is already in the water – just ask the people of Flint, MI – our job is to bring those politics into fresh light so we, and others can see more clearly how their lives are built and run by remote interests as much as life and the living emanate from the individual. 

Lastly, and this has bearing on your final project, I want to share a personal journey with you and show you, dear reader, how you and your interests are connected throughout this amazing planet and how you can find inspiration almost anywhere. This class is for those who want to feel inspiration. It is not for people who are merely interested in sliding through their education to hopefully find a job. I have earned four degrees in my life and looking for “a job” or “money” through education is wrongheaded and expensive – we need tradespeople! I sought freedom – liberation – from the utter discomfort I feel daily in my environs. Ecocritques, self-discipline, the critical ethos are all fine and good, but the reason I’ve done this and chosen these paths is because I’ve been looking for the tools – the vocabulary – to describe my surroundings and deal with their discomforts. Critical theory, the school of thought we will examine throughout this course, deals specifically with the problems of liberation – of freeing oneself from the matrices of the status quo – and I have selected this school of thought as my philosophical home after examining a few of the alternatives in the Western canon. This journey has taken years and really begins with 9/11/01 and the shock of death that hung in the air over Long Island. I won’t bore you with the details of how my sky had ash in it for three days, or how this sent me on a long project of trying to figure out what would possess people to slam themselves and others into the World Trade Center on Manhattan but it bears mention that thoughts and thinkers don’t come from nowhere and have a material basis. 

I was getting my butt kicked by my dissertation committee. I hadn’t found my project yet and nearly 12 years of continuous education and all the money and energy spent during them were in jeopardy. My advisor told me to go home to Long Island and think seriously about what I wanted to research and hopefully come back to Blacksburg with something concrete to present to the three other scholars on my dissertation committee. I did as Tim told me and went back to Setauket, NY and wracked my brain trying to find something to talk about. The horse blinders were on though and I couldn’t relax enough to think through talking about whatever it was that I wanted to talk about. Truth be told, I couldn’t find any environmental histories of Long Island that weren’t half-assed collections of hearsay as most seemed to lack the primary sources to substantiate their claims. This was a defeating dead end, and though there’s an insane amount of things to talk about in Long Island’s history, nothing appealed to me and I was in too foul a mood (having had my ego chopped into little pieces and scattered around me by one brilliant teacher) to recognize anything worth writing about in the sort of detail a dissertation demands. 

I was sleeping most of the day because I was living for the night and happy to be back in some of my old haunts with good friends. My dad, sensing my slothful inebriation, shook me awake one morning and told me that we were going kayaking around Setauket Harbor and into Conscience Bay. The hangover was pounding in the mid-day sun and I was regretting every last drop from the night before as my sweat poured into the water surely altering the BACs of the fish populations in the Long Island Sound (I do not advocate drinking as a source of inspiration but the pains from the hangover can be quite instructive life advice). I looked up and there was an osprey on a dock pylon with a huge fish in his talons.

Setauket Harbor.

I did not grow up seeing many ospreys in my waters. We always had to drive East to Shelter Island or Greenport to see them. They have been making a comeback since their extirpation and raptor populations, generally, have rebounded with peregrines and bald eagles claiming more nesting sites across the island. I did not know this at the time, but found out later after we approached the beach where I had grown up and spent a significant time in my younger years.

It was moving. All of it. The sand, the water, the grasses, all of it shaking and shimmering. I chalked it up to my booze-addled brain recoiling in horror at the sun and heat, producing some sort of delirium that made everything appear more alive; just some last ditch effort by a fading consciousness to entertain and soothe a damaged ego that was again having the tar whipped out of it by physical activity and the July Sun. I was wrong – thank God. 

It was a march of fiddler crabs the likes of which I had never seen before nor since and I couldn’t believe their density when I beached the kayak. I had to get out and stand in them to make sure I wasn’t totally off my nut, but they were there. Shaking, moving, living, and marching in throngs that would make Christmas Island blush. They scuttled around me and I stood watching them and the whole beach move under the weight. 

I took this experience back to my advisor, Dr. Luke, and he told me to look at the removal of a synthetic pesticide from Long Island’s environments called DDT. Without going into the specifics of DDT, it had been held responsible for killing off raptor populations and crustaceans through its over application to remove mosquitoes from Long Island and elsewhere. There is a long history to its use dating back to the Second World War, but it entered our suburban environments shortly thereafter. It was the Environmental Defense Fund who spearheaded the removal of DDT from Long Island and the rest of the US and I rifled through their exploits by reading books and articles published by them and their employees. It turns out that I had grown up looking at their old headquarters behind an animatronic bald eagle on the Stony Brook Post Office and I took this as some sort of sign that they were supposed to take center stage in my work. 

I tried, dear friends, I really did, to only focus on EDF and their history as an environmental organization. I passed my comprehensive exams with a rough idea of how it would go only to find that EDF’s archives were housed at Stony Brook University in physical collections I would have to go to for any real sort of scholarship to be written about them. I couldn’t do that. I had limited funding that tied me directly to Blacksburg and I was unwilling to drive home and let my classes run without me while pouring over notes, and letters in the bowels of Stony Brook University (the archives, of course, are undergoing digitalization currently and would have made my life easier). Another dead end – maybe.

Refusing to give up can be an excellent skill to cultivate when it’s not naked stubbornness and stupidity. In my case, EDF felt right. I wanted to tell a story about a hometown hero and how a ragtag group of scientists, one old school English adventurer and a foulmouthed lawyer after my own heart failed upwards and stuck it to the US government and their corporate overlords. The problem was, that story had already been told, and better by the people who were there. So, who was EDF and who are they now became my guiding question. I had to start looking at their current projects and who they had become since the DDT wars. They fired the lawyer I loved – the guy whose slogan, his personal slogan, was “Just sue the bastards,” and the current president was a Long Islander from Mineola Station in Nassau County. Leaving aside how anyone could possibly know anything natural and be from Nassau County, I started looking at the projects Fred Krupp was heading. They were trying out a new sort of environmental economics scheme called a habitat exchange and the most sophisticated and advanced instantiation of it was in Wyoming and concerned the Greater Sage-grouse. 

I had not been to Wyoming at the time, and had never seen a Greater Sage-grouse. I was a researcher living outside a temperate rainforest, not the sagebrush steppe and I had no real local knowledge to speak of concerning the state, its biota, ecotones, or environs. I was, however, trained to smell bullshit through my education in politics and philosophy (amazing disciplines for the study of bullshit and not themselves bullshit studies). Their schemes didn’t seem right to me in how they simply talked about “nature,” or Centrocercus urophasianus. I smelled bullshit and dug deeper. It grabbed me, and pulled me in and finally, I produced the first two chapters of my dissertation that would be edited, chopped up, remixed, criticized and prodded.

Yours truly combing the sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.

Kayaking. That’s all it took. It was seeing an osprey and some crabs kayaking. This led me on a journey that took me to the heart of the US and connected my birthplace with somewhere I never thought I’d go. I have since solved my problems of having never been to Wyoming, nor seen a sage-grouse and this is because I let my research take me when it felt right. The point to all of the above is to show you a small cut into doing research on the environment. Your little lives are connected to much bigger things and it’s pulling out those connections that displays your education, your creativity, and your understanding of things well beyond your local conditions. You’ll read my dissertation in this class, and I’m excited to share it with you, but you should know that ideas don’t come from nowhere and that you can find inspiration if you let it in and fight through all the dead ends and stumbling blocks in your way. I want this experience for you, my friends, and I want to see you find a little piece in this world that you’ll come to know and, hopefully, as in my case, love. 

We’re not going to be easy on the world and it’s a path that can be isolating and lonely at times, but you can find your way through it and see things in new lights and inspire other people. I’m not going to moralize anyone in their consumptive habits or blame individuals solely for the changes in our planet, but we’re going to cultivate a larger sense, something planetary that goes beyond the narrow confines of our bailiwicks to see the patchwork of connections that make our worlds. I invite you to join me in this project and I want to show you how a critically reflective way of living can open new worlds that many never see, and how simply seeing those new worlds will make your lives richer and maybe, just maybe, help us get a handle on the changes in our worlds as we make and remake habitats of the living and the unborn.

A sage-grouse hen taken through a spotting scope in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe. Photo credit: Jon Butcher.

Thucydides and Marx: Capital in Conquest

I am using the Prometheus Books edition of Karl Marx’s The German Ideology and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides translated by Richard Crawley. I will refer to The German Ideology which includes the “Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy” and “Critique of Modern German Philosophy According to its Representatives Feuerbach, B. Bauer and Striner” as (Marx, GI) throughout this post. I will refer to Thucydides as such throughout. My edition of Marx in Chicago citation format is: Marx, Karl. The German Ideology: including Theses on Feuerbach and Introduction to the Critique of Political Economy. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1998.  

The aim of this introductory essay is to connect two thinkers in time. They are consumed by the problems of their individual times but share a concern for the problems of civilization. Both come to understand themselves seated within the great material fabric of human behavior through their technologically textured lifeworlds, and both are concerned with the growth and function of Capital. Karl Marx, the author I asked you all to read this week, is a figurehead, if not the figurehead, of the scientific study of Capital and its effects writ large. Thucydides – a famed historian, trailblazer and general – I argue, is a voice in the history Capital within his seminal The History of the Peloponnesian War

We attempt to ground definitions with empirical facts in our class. This is a common practice within political theory as we try and work our way through the broader world of political phenomena and the human experience. Political theorists are not a lone voice in social science and are joined by a menagerie of other fields and disciplines. The empirical sciences, depending on one’s framework, can be mobilized to support an argument – or, in some cases, serve as a model for theorizing, but they are not the sole authority on the human experience or humans-in-the-world. The humanities, as they are known, include disciplines such as English literature, cinema, language studies, and, for our purposes in this essay, history. 

When discussing the social sciences we can separate domains of inquiry not only by discipline, such as political science vs. economics, but also speciate disciplines into fields. The field with which we concern ourselves is the nebulous field of political theory. Political theory, we shall see, often has difficulty staying put and policing its own borders. The fun of political theory, and of political science generally speaking, is its widespread theoretical and methodological applicability to the study of humans-in-the-world per se; or, more generally, what one might call “social phenomena.” I have difficulty with pigeonholing political science as concerned solely with “social” or “political” phenomena because the study of politics has widened in recent decades with the further formalization of subfields to include the study of how phenomena manifest in human lifeworlds that are distinctly nonhuman, and would more properly belong to the conceptual constellations concerned with the study of “nature.” I won’t be at length discussing the finer points of these conceptual divisions, but part of the political theorist’s job, as a person of scientific mind, is to investigate the emergence of phenomena and offer explanations for their emergence. This is not their sole duty, of course, but one can imagine that the emergence of phenomena – say COVID-19 – and its political effects might complicate neat conceptual divisions that position separations between something called “Nature” and something called “Society” or “Politics.” The political theorist can sit at the interstices of Nature and Society and recognize that an economic slowdown, or recession, may have a disproportionate effect on vulnerable populations who do not regularly benefit from the fruits of economic progress. These considerations can take the theorist from the realm of “Nature,” such as the emergence of a non-human actor, read COVID-19, to the “Social,” by studying how politics, or the acts of politicking are connected to the emergence of a novel virus that has disrupted global economies characterized by the flow of capital. In this way, the political theorist seeks a correct description of the phenomenon under consideration through a correct description of its conditions of emergence. 

Standards of correctness are often measured against the strength of one’s theoretical and methodological frameworks. The difference between the two, for our purposes, is that the former postulates the existence of specific entities deemed as having evaluative significance for the study of some phenomenon; and the latter is about preserving the logical and scientific validity of investigations concerning that phenomenon. In other words, both theory and methodology play important roles in the construction of facts, and, depending on your framework, one phenomenon may look one way to you and another to your partner. Methodologies are quietly considered in this course, but we are less concerned with how someone arrived at a theoretical postulate – as we will read many authors through a materialist lens – and more so at why they believe their theoretical postulate is a correct description of something-in-the-world. 

 Say you and your friend are looking at an object – a vase maybe with flowers in it. You are wearing blue colored glasses, and your friend is wearing rose colored glasses. I ask you both for detailed descriptions of the object in front of you. Both of you tell me about the vase, the flowers, ect.,. I ask you how both of you arrived at your description of the object and you both tell me that you simply looked at it (neither of you bothered to smell, taste, touch, or listen to the object in front of you, you simply carried on like occulocentric technoscientists). Methodologically speaking, then, you both executed similar investigations to the point that they should be comparable and we should be able to arrive at a consensus that the thing in front of you both is a vase with flowers in it. However, the key differences between your descriptions are the color of the flowers and of the vase and whatever else might be associated with it. In this circumstance, with no one to arbitrate and tell us “how things really are,” we find ourselves in an antimony – a case in which we have equally good and compelling descriptions of things that may be the case but share incompatible frameworks; one sees the world through rose colored glasses, the other through blue. 

At this point we might appeal to a theory or theoretical language to help us out of this disagreement. Your friend may have a theoretical framework in which all objects have a rose tint to them and so, they have surmised, all that exists that they know of, is rose colored. You, on the other hand, clever scientifically minded person that you are, know of the color spectrum and understand that what you perceive may be clouded by local conditions and that color as you perceive it, and color as you know it, are two separate things. You, upon hearing your friend’s report that all things have a rosy tint, judge that your local conditions and your friend’s local conditions are different and that what you’re observing, and what your friend is observing  share common features except for their tint. The differences lead you to believe that there are local effects obscuring your view of things but your simple friend has not arrived at that conclusion because their theoretical framework about that which exists cannot appropriately deal with disagreement over the tint of things. 

In the above, theory helps the scientist put their findings in perspective. It gives more context and bite where method fails and can provide breathing room in fundamental disagreements over reporting “the facts.” You may not be able to remove the glasses that give the world a blue tint, but you are aware that a tint exists and that it is not something necessarily “out there” all the time, but that you and your perceptions are colored in a way that may not always faithfully report “the facts.” Unfortunately, I must leave aside discussions concerning internal validity for another day and I cannot concern myself with the construction of “facts” and what “a fact” is as opposed to “truths” or “the Truth.” However, I want you keeping those words conceptually distinct and while philosophy might concern itself with a search for “the Truth,” we are instead concerned with the production of “facts,” within scientific endeavor. We should be careful in equating “Science,” with the search for “the Truth,” or even “truths,” as the scientific project, seen in historical context, has been about producing a seemingly less stable category of “fact” that get their power from our belief in “the scientific project” generally, and the internal validity of the particular sciences that include their theoretical frameworks and postulates (such as gravity and gravitation) and their methods for investigating it (scientific commitments to experimental repeatability, theoretical parsimony, standardized instruments, measurements and data collection methods and ethical frameworks). 

The above is a standard account of a small piece of scientific endeavor. We, scientists – “social” or otherwise, approach phenomena within our lifeworlds with theoretical lenses that include conceptual frameworks for understanding and interpreting them. Our interpretations must, on pain of being intellectually dishonest, stand the test against other interpretations and other frameworks that may be incommensurate with our own, and we must understand and interpret data against the slings and arrows of the phenomena we investigate. We will through this course see how this familiar story started in the Euro-American intellectual cannon, and by adopting the perspective of our theorists in this way – the way of approaching them as if they were theories to which we might subscribe but must satisfactorily explain “social,” or “political” phenomena – will elucidate their main objects of inquiry embedded in their description of things writ large

Karl Marx believes in something termed Capital. He believes that this thing plays a hand in human affairs and he is witnessing its transformation and growth in Victorian England and an industrial revolution taking the world stage. Capital and its social effects, among many things, are keeping Marx awake at night frequently as he theorizes its functions within social milieux (you may read “milieux,” or “milieu,” as “the environment” but I have chosen “milieux” to display the multidimensional character to human experience as if specific cuts could be made between different lifeworlds and lifeforms). Marx is not concerned with class warfare as prominently in The German Ideology as he is in his infamous Manifesto, but these concerns are never too far away as he theorizes capital. He is principally concerned with some philosophical turf-kicking against some of the Godheads of his day and their school of philosophical idealism. He’s interested in grounding idealism with remarks on how he thinks theorizing ought to be done and this is grounded in a sort of materialism that focuses on the (re)production of society and the actual lived and material contexts in which humans find themselves generally. 

It seems a simple trick, but all objects that can be properly said to be “society” or “societies” must have some means of persisting such that we can identify them over time. Marx, for our purposes, does not do theorizing from on high by handing down categories or moral pronouncements without checking them against his social conditions. He understands that societies change and decay, and is a student of history as well as one of philosophy, and he has studied the course of that thing we might call “Western Civilization” up to his day through an examination of the ancients, Pax Romana, the dark ages, the various stages of medieval social development, mercantilism and the liberal revolutions that shook the old order and we carry with us, to a degree, in our age. Marx is, and is examining, a field of study that emerged prior to what we may recognize as “scientific economics,” whatever that may be, called political economics that was an outgrowth of moral, or practical philosophy. 

As a student of the economics of his day, Marx is concerned with the circulation of things through his environment and the environments taking shape through industrialization. This is, in a rough and ready way, his principle concern as he critiques the economies emerging from the new organization of people, machines and politics. His opponents, we gather through his accusations and arguments, do not see the actual organization of things as their methodological starting point (Marx, GI, p.1), but favor the realm of ideals, the methods of a priori analysis inherited from Immanuel Kant and Georg Wilhelm Hegel’s idealism, as their principal domain of theorizing. This method of theorizing purportedly starts from unshakable logical truths arrived at through pure reason, thought experiments, intuition pumps or analytic definitions and their theories seem full of weightless abstractions to Marx, and rely on mythologies that posit high concepts such as a “human nature,” or begin their economic theorizing and thus moral and political philosophizing from positions that can’t be tested except for conceptually. This means that they may be building theories wearing rose colored glasses that they’re not aware of, and Marx harries the new Hegelians, Feuerbach in particular, for believing they’re on unshakable ground as they theorize how humans, and how humans ought find themselves in the world.

This won’t do for Marx. You can’t have philosophers wandering around handing down pronouncements from on high! How can anyone expect them to have a sufficient view of things such that they can make meaningful and practical contributions to the questions of the day? It seems absurd to expect any sort of helpful advice, or sound moral pronouncement, or plan of action to come from someone who has closed off the realm of human experience – mediated through the fields of the humanities, arts and sciences, from their philosophical, political and economic thinking. Marx, instead, takes production or, as is en vogue, (re)production as his focal point (Marx, GI, 2) and subjects the abstract categories of political economics to how things seem to occur. In this sense, there is no isolated individual adrift in some lonely sea that can enter into mutual cooperation with other agents in similar predicaments. Individuals are already born into conditions of social interdependence so starting from some mythical story or “logical” place from on high is to miss the seemingly unshakable fact that humans persist in collectives. These collectives of humans must have some way of reproducing and for Marx, this is a matter of economy – a matter that concerns social reproduction through the circulation of things in space. 

People have real material needs. They have real material organization enabled throughout the ages by different technological regimes. The ability to hold any semblance of a class remotely in which I, teacher, sitting in Blacksburg, VA can reach a student sitting not only in another room, but possibly another state or country, is an ability granted through mass scale technological organization. Likewise, the material bases through which “Society,” this big thing with which politics concerns itself, is reproduced alludes to different ways, different potentials of human organization. Marx’s interests are partially in explaining social change, different phases of material development throughout civilizations, and how that change occurs, to whose benefit those changes may be, and if there is some prime mover of civilization. He has many avenues and concepts to explore and mobilize, but for us and our purposes, we can think of one of those theoretical postulates that helps explain social and political change over time as Capital

Capital is “among other things…an instrument of production, also past impersonal labor. Hense capital is a universal, eternal natural phenomenon; which is true if we disregard the specific properties which turn an ‘instrument of production’ and ‘stored-up labor’ into capital. (Marx, GI, 3).” This statement should give you pause. There are a few things to unpack from the above: (1) capital = instrument of production; (2) capital = past impersonal labor; (3) capital is an eternal and natural phenomenon; and the third is conditioned by the remark that there are things not counted as natural that make and remake capital into instruments of production and stored up labor. What allows Marx to make these pronouncements? This is capital; this is the subject of at least three books from Marx bearing the title Capital! I think this is best handled working backwards beginning with capital as natural and eternal. 

If capital is a natural and eternal phenomenon, then this implies that it persists regardless of human activity. That is, it is something which would exist whether there are humans around to observe it. When the Sun explodes and erases the evidence of human activity from this planet, capital will still exist. This is theoretically interesting because this means that a central theoretical postulate for Marx is something that, in principle, persists apart from humanity. This means that capital, as something “natural,” is, in principle, scientifically investigable as “the sciences” are concerned with correct descriptions of the state of things. In other words, the passage above solidifies Marx’s commitment to capital as something within production that is capable of being analyzed scientifically and has enough gravity (if you’ll forgive the turn of phrase), or weight such that it should be considered an evaluatively significant force in social organization. 

I can’t get into the specifics of how Marx may or may not be caught in a false dichotomy between the “natural,” and the “social,” nor can I go into the metaphysics of why that dichotomy might not matter within Marx’s framework, but methodologically he is committed to humans as occurring within communities and not as emanating from an abstract “state of nature.” He is committed, so far, only to the view that humans cannot help but be born into some social organization or another predicated upon and exhibited through their material conditions of existence with patterns of social (re)production. He goes further, however, and sees capital as both an agent of production and a source of income – that is, that thing that enables individuals to persist in monetarist societies (i.e. those who partially mediate social relations through symbolic economies of exchange-value based on weightless signs – more on that later) (Marx, GI, p.11). In this sense, capital is that thing allowing the reproduction of both societies and individuals within them mediated through economy. How capital is channeled, how it is treated, what it does, how it does it, and for whom creates a picture of the distributional patterns of a given economy (Marx, GI, p.11). 

The above gives a little more color to his remark concerning capital as a collection of impersonal past labor. Production connects humanity with the rest of “nature” for Marx, and pulls “the natural,” into “the historical” (Marx, GI, 13). Production is accomplished through the organization of labor and that organization not only displays social relationships to “the natural” but relationships of capital to living labor as it is incorporated in the reproduction of economies (Marx, GI, p.37). If capital allows individuals to live from it, and to incorporate the “natural,” into the “social,” then capital is more than merely money and money is a specific instantiation of capital. Think of it this way: if we bomb our dumb asses into oblivion such that all economic channels fail and lead to a social collapse (as in the Fallout videogame series) then paper money may become completely valueless and its only use might be for cleaning up after iguana-taco Tuesday. A working firearm, on the other hand, might be more desirable than any amount of worthless paper money and may help organize a collection of people, and machines into a functioning assemblage that helps you extract a critical resource – say water – and thus help you persist over time. That firearm, which you did not build for the purposes of this scenario, contains within its material being the accumulation of knowledge, skill, labor and technology necessary for it to persist over time. This labor, however, is impersonal in that what you hold in your hands is a commodity produced for a market and anyone who might find that firearm appealing, necessary or otherwise worth the exchange value for it. The commodity – another instantiation of capital – is not constructed with any personal view or reason in mind. It is simply there, impersonally appealing to some set of sensibilities. 

Impersonal should not be taken as impartial, nor objective. Each commodity is constructed to appeal to a set of settled uses and tates that are dependent on the material contexts and constraints of social organization at the time. However, commodities are a form of capital in that they can and do organize labor, display attitudes toward “nature,” and “society” and show distributional patterns through their production and circulation while showing the intercourse of definite and concrete individuals through the production and development of property (Marx, GI, p.41). As property is transferable among agents and adhere within their conditions of emergence, property is a kind of capital as well that shows structural features of the world in which individuals find themselves independent of their own making (Marx, GI, p.41). An example is the growth of land-as-private-property within a capitalist republic, such as our own, versus the growth of the commons under English monarchy. Each show a relationship to land-as-capital but have differing conditions of use, productivity and accessibility. 

Labor becomes speciated in its ability to reproduce through the ambit of capital due to the division of labor. Capital is dependent on labor for its growth as an agency that is a collection of impersonal past labor mixed with “natural” components derivative of production generally and specific material patterns of social reproduction. Marx sees the emergence of the State, as connected to capital’s development (Marx, GI, p. 52). The state, for Marx, is a site of contestation in which and through which the battles over social reproduction are fought between the competing class interests arising from the division of labor (Marx, GI, p. 52). He takes this a natural apotheosis in human social development, but it may only represent a backslide into one group harnessing capital at the expense of others. In some instances capital is the working body only, as he claims in the form of the slave and it is not difficult to find examples of the state solidifying the productive power of slavery for the interests of a slave-holding class Marx, GI, p. 14). However, his remarks concerning the state, for us, can be reduced to the state as claiming to work “in the common interest,” but in reality often fails to capture anything but the desires of those who hold and benefit from capital (Marx, GI, p. 52). This is because the “common interest” can never capture the particular interests of concrete individuals, and that each state is an expression of a class – that is, a collection of individuals bearing a similar relationship to the means of production and thus to capital – and thus can only hope to capture the general interests of that class (Marx, GI, p.52). The “common interest” therefore, is used as a regulative ideal in the organization of society and thus the intercourse, growth and exchange of capital (Marx, GI, p.53) and becomes a governing instrument for social activity. 

Thucydides, as I discuss later, provides evidence for some of the more counterintuitive notions within Marx. His material dialectic of accumulation and defense even mentions the growth of capital as implying a need for security: “With respect to their towns, later on, at an era of increased facilities of navigation and a greater supply of capital, we find the shores becoming the site of walled towns, and the isthmuses being occupied for the purposes of commerce and defence against a neighbour (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Capital, if it is to be an object properly considered “scientific” should be investigable in principle. Here we have Thucydides, a historian and general of ancient Greece writing in 431 B.C.E. concerned with the growth and protection of capital within Hellas. 

Further, we find that capital is used for the domination of other Greeks and Barbarians (anyone who isn’t Greek at this time) and is even obeying a grow-or-die imperative as Marx characterizes it when he wrote in 1845. As Thucydides wrote “For the love of gain would reconcile the weaker to the dominion of the stronger, and the possession of capital enabled the more powerful to reduce the smaller towns to subjection (Thucydides, Chapter 1, Book 1).” Perhaps it’s a trick in translation, maybe it’s the best word Richard Crawley could find, but Thucydides seems to make more mention of capital and its role in a war that shook his ancient world. The growth of naval powers – fleets of Galley ships and heavy infantry – captured his mind as he came to consider entangled alliances embodied within wealth and military might: “But as the power of Hellas grew, and the acquisition of wealth became more an object, the revenues of the states increasing, tyrannies were by their means established almost everywhere- the old form of government being hereditary monarchy with definite prerogatives- and Hellas began to fit out fleets and apply herself more closely to the sea.” It appears, simply on this examination, that capital is a properly scientific object in that concerns of it and on its behalf partially created the conditions for war and conquest in the ancient world. Capital can be an instrument of production (Marx, GI, p.71). It can organize navies to fight for its growth and capture. It is both an impetus for war, a condition for war’s emergence, the spoils of war, and when considered in its ability to organize labor, a foundational element in any war machine whether made of AWAKS, Abrams II, and aircraft carriers, or gallies and hoplites. It is instrumental power on a mass scale when organizing armies, a collection of machines and their attendant humans when organizing industrial society, and a seemingly “natural” element of social organization greasing the gearworks of society writ large. Perhaps this is the hardest part about Marx’s framework and his thoughts concerning capital – it is transformative and transforms depending on the broader context (Marx, GI, p. 74). We can watch it build and develop, organize and attract, destroy and rebuild all through human organization, and following Marx, this will occur with variations in geographic development (Marx, GI, p. 75). Or, perhaps, it as a concept needs theoretical refinement. In any case, we scientifically minded political theorists need to see the thoughts of our authors as we find them in history and to do our best to see their definitions, terms and philosophies as clearly as possible through the fog of the past.

Course Orientation

Some sounds are timeless.

This class attempts three things: 

  1. To situate ancient concerns throughout political intellectual history such that those concerns are brought to light in contemporary discourse. 
  2. To introduce students to dialectics as a method of analysis, political reflection, philosophical discussion and view of that which stands and gives shape to life in “civilization.”
  3. To equip students with a constellation of three interrelated terms: Capital, Democracy, and Populism; through historical deep dives favoring functional definitions of concepts rather than abstract notions constructed a priori.

These attempts, it will be shown, are simply that. No class can hope to connect the great thoughts of great thinkers throughout history, across languages, times and places sufficiently such that students become masters of those greats. However, the idea of our course is an attempt at gaining a vantage point on the progress of political theory itself – not in its answers but through its questions. To that end, the readings selected for the course may, at times, fall outside the confines of a “period” class, but the concerns raised by selected authors should be taken as perennial.

Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave is one of the most succinct problematiques for learning politics and philosophy. If I can assign one thing that summarizes how utterly difficult it is to have a politics, to present it clearly, have it understood, and then, somehow have it willingly adopted, it is the Allegory of the Cave.

I shall refer often to thinkers and their political theories who have not been assigned to the reading list. These thinkers will be referred to through links, video, and other outlets that display their philosophies or otherwise offer cuts into their thoughts. I am not at liberty to read Attic Greek, nor Latin and I do not want to misrepresent myself or our tasks as one of truth preservation throughout history or of faithful translation of meaning throughout time. Many of the theorists referred to and mobilized will be referred to tangentially and the links provided are recognized sources within political theory and philosophy…or at least do a reasonably faithful job in philosophical exegesis.

Instead, we will link the thoughts of the ancients to our present time through historical arcs constructed around key vocabulary. We shall see that capital and conquest went hand-in-hand for the Hellenistic Greeks, that Plato distrusted democracy to deliver a just society, and that populism contains the germ of the polis which concerned Aristotle. In these ways, the course displays the progression of political thought through perennial problems, and ones that must be addressed if one is to be a student of politics.

If there’s one thing that this class should show you, it’s that there are perennial problems with lots and lots of different answers situated throughout history. Billy Joe seems to be fighting a perennial problem…the idiot in “democracy.” We’ll see why we need to pay attention to idiots and the conditions in which they’re found and why, and how they’re connected to politics.

We will not concern ourselves too deeply with definitions handed down from on high. Our theorists will give us the start and our job is to batter the bulwarks of definition with empirical reality in an attempt to make our definitions lived and felt. Political discourse must be seen as more than mere squabbling and be taken for its material effects. Our thinkers will display a method of thinking and inquiry that can be called “dialectics,” or “dialectical.” In a short hand, but rough and ready way, we may think of dialectics as the interplay of seeming opposites in the construction of reality. Our world has been made by the struggles of history that have given shape to our intellectual history, the inheritance of our political and philosophical language, and the contours of the environments in which we find ourselves. One should see the history of a term as undergoing change and challenge throughout time, and our job is to carefully examine them as they change and as they stand currently. We will do this by interrogating our texts through careful reading; looking for the terms and the contexts in which they are used to seat a definition – and we will carefully and respectfully argue for our positions. If, as Marx wrote in his famous Manifesto “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles,” then class struggle must be found – empirically – in evidence of every society that stands or stood and this can be found in the clash of opposites.

The United States is and was a grand experiment in political thought. It emerged from the stings of battle, to be sure, but also from grand philosophical schemata, changes in the mode of production, and the history of argument within the crumbling English monarchy. Our capitalist republic persists but the meaning of those terms “capitalist,” and “republic” are and have been contested through philosophical and theoretical fisticuffs as well as the bodies of those who threw themselves into the fray for their ideals. Our task is to see how terms are mobilized, how they get their meaning and from where they come in understanding the firmament of our lives. 

They’re in the water. Trump’s populist charge against established political ideals shows another side of republican and Republican politics. The rejection of Bernie Sanders by the Democratic establishment displays relationships to capital and history on both sides. At stake in both currents is the shape of democracy, and with it, the contours of our civilization. The terms and the thinkers we examine are alive and continue to live with us. They are legion but we can only consider a few as we jump through history and come to connect our milieu with theirs and, in so doing, make the past live again.

Featuring a local philosopher, Francois Debrix.