Technology, Conservation, and Other Ways to Spell Exploitation

An integral function of transnational corporations is the acquisition, expansion and exploitation of capital. In relation to the natural environment, many organizations advertise themselves as ‘environmental’ or ‘eco-friendly.’ However, their main aim is to find ways to attain wealth and ownership through supposedly ‘environmental’ practices. The following passages explore the ways in which environmental organizations exploit the natural environment for economic gain. In Darier’s Discourses of the Environment, Isabelle Lanthier and Lawrence Olivier examine the historical precedents of scientific environmentalism, as well as the social conditions that led to the popularity of mutual interest and cooperation for the benefit of the environment. James Igoe, in Carl Death’s Critical Environmental Politics, investigates the methods that transnational corporations utilize to increase profits and ownership of capital under the guise of conservation and environmental awareness. In Chapter Seven of Anthropocene Alerts, Timothy Luke explores critiques towards society’s reliance on technology in the manifesto of Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski. Furthermore, they will explain the ways in which such organizations present their economic motives to the public in such a way that avoids any attention that might challenge their acquisition and ownership of the natural environment.

Sam: Lanthier and Olivier “The Construction of Environmental Awareness’”

In “The Construction of Environmental ‘Awareness’,” Lanthier and Olivier argue that the explanation for environmental awareness as a product of exploitation with consequences for life needs to be altered.  They aim to identify the conditions in which “environmental awareness” and the scientific thought of “environmentalism” became possible.  For these conditions to exist, they find that a system of societal values had to first be present (65).   Using an “archeo-genealogical” approach, Lanthier and Olivier connect the development of medical discourse to the formation of these values that made individuals more concerned over the health of the environment (65).  Namely, medicine’s shift to the “lifestyle” as a part of health made the human a subject in their environment.  This change in ideas resulted in the current environmental awareness brought to the forefront in political and public discourse.   

The authors first point to the study of cosmology as an origin of this environmental discourse.  The field was the first to “call for the reintroduction of humans within nature as full-fledged members,” (65).  In viewing the world this way, cosmology gave each aspect of the environment equal weight of importance.  These values served to decrease human concepts of self-superiority and domination over their environments.  

Rather, more modern concepts portray the environment as an equal that humanity is obligated to respect (66).  Many prior concepts of the environment —Descartes’s view for instance— saw the external world as mechanistic and defined systematically by sets of laws. The environment then, “is without movement, deprived of everything: life or soul” (67).  In order to promote human welfare, Descartes contends that humanity must know these laws in order to exploit them to their advantage. 

Environmental discourse began to take root when environmental disasters illustrated the possible negative consequence of this environmental manipulation (67).  This discourse gained global attention in the early 20th century, events and developments like the World Wars and the atomic bomb illuminated the human and environmental destruction that scientific advancement could leave in its wake (68).  This destruction would lead to the “militant environmentalist movement” with the goal of eliminating the “death culture” of environmental domination (69).   The new concept of environmentalism is not a separate entity from science, but it is a part of science that asks other fields to look at their work more holistically, taking into account its macro ramifications for environmental systems both in the present and future (70).  

The shift in perspective to environmental awareness also came about as a result of the end of Colonialism.  An increased emphasis on forming contracts that protect human rights also brought about agreements to treat nature with rights rather than an “object of appropriation” (70).  Another historical condition that Lanthier and Olivier identify that advanced this shift was genetic research.  This development made it possible to quantify the effects of environmental conditions on human health and the health of other organisms (71).  Medical science’s value on bettering the quality of life encourages an ethical and responsible relationship with the environment. Medicine’s construct of humans being responsible for their health also necessarily changes the perception of the environment (72).

This responsibility for our health arose from medicine’s new notion of the “lifestyle”.  Lifestyle refers to the change in behavior so that the individual is, “acting according to one’s values” (75).  The term makes medical discourse itself more holistic in that it looks at a multitude of factors to analyze health.  This holistic approach balances the need for good internal factors of health, as well as a healthy environment.  In this respect, the needs of humans and nature are no longer viewed as opposing one another (76).  Instead, mutual cooperation and respect for the environment become intertwined with our other ethical values.  Further, the individual’s place in medical discourse as having agency over their lifestyle makes one turn attention to the external parts of their environment.  This change in thinking forces society to look inward and examine how they relate to that environment.  Medical discourse, then, served to open up more public and political discourse on responsible human interaction with the environment.

Nick: Igoe, in Death, ed. “Chapter 7: Conservation”

In Chapter Seven of Critical Environmental Politics, James Igoe explores Western notions of ‘conservation,’ and how such notions are often subtle attempts to expand ownership, commodification, and economic control over the natural environment. Although Western conservationist organizations often advertise themselves as ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘environmental,’ they typically prioritize the establishment of productive economic relations between the transnational corporate economy and the local natural environments they exploit before establishing alternative ways of ownership and replenishment of nature that benefit the Earth. Furthermore, neoliberal conservation, which consists of privatized, exploitative ventures disguised as ‘eco-friendly’ initiatives, often disables diverse conservation techniques practiced by indigenous populations that offer unique perspectives to contemporary environmental problems. Neoliberal conservation was one result of free-market economic policies of the late twentieth century that prioritized privatization, efficient business models, and capital ownership. As a result, some organizations began to secure ownership of the natural environment in the name of ‘conservation,’ so long as the business entities can make profitable margins off of such conservation efforts. 

Comics Kingdom - Eco Tourism in the Arctic Cartoons - 2012-11-15

Since the second half of the 20th century, conservation politics has seen the expansion of neoliberal conservation, which seeks to utilize the natural environment as a means to earn profit and expand economic influence through commodification. Neoliberal conservation groups like The Conservation Fund and Conservation International view the environment as a stock reserve of potential capital that is to be commodified and sold; However, many efforts by such organizations consist of the privatization, commodification, and “exclusive enjoyment,” of nature (Igoe, 63). Consider NGOs, or non-governmental organizations, which often seek contracts with governments and corporations for supposedly environment-friendly business ventures like hydroelectric dams in Laos or oil pipelines in Chad and Cameroon (Igoe 67). Even if such entities do not literally construct material products with the nature they control, they may utilize the spectacle of nature to raise funds or manufacture consent for their exploitative natural ventures, despite the possibility of tremendous harm to local or regional environs or contribution to global pollution. Neoliberal conservationists fail to bring about truly beneficial environmental change because they exist within a capitalist economy that prioritizes making profit over the welfare of nature; such organizations will not pursue initiatives that will not bring about economic growth. Therefore, many tactics that exist outside of the Western capitalist perspective of ‘conservation’ that could have a greater, more beneficial impact on the natural environment fail to be considered.

The consolidation of power to a few ultra-rich conservation groups has led to the lack of diverse conservatory practices. Often, when neoliberal conservationists venture to foreign lands, they disregard the conservation practices of the indigenous people of that land. In the 21st century, conservation politics saw an increasing amount of conflict between indigenous groups and capitalist conservationist groups about the efficacy of neoliberal conservation practices, as well as the divestment away from traditional conservatory practices by indigenous people. Western notions of conservation typically fail to acknowledge or utilize non-Western practices, which has resulted in an adverse effect on Earth, both locally and globally.

Although neoliberal conservation organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund or the Wildlife Conservation Society facilitate most of the world’s conservationist activities, they will fail to disrupt the primary polluters of the natural environment because they exist within the same economic framework as them. Therefore, any alternatives to the harmful modes of economic production would be harming the economic wellbeing of those neoliberal conservationist groups. Furthermore, such techniques disable the diversity of conservatory practices on a large scale. The Earth’s natural environment will continue to deteriorate unless a de-commodified, democratized critique of environmental politics gains popularity.

James: Luke, Chapter 7: “Re-Reading the Unabomber Manifesto”

In the reading “Chapter 7: Re-Reading the Unabomber Manifesto,” Ted Kaczynski had been arrested for a string of sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995 that wounded 23 and killed 3. In the series of the bombings, Kaczynski was thought of as a “rational and serious man, deeply committed to his cause, who has given a great deal of time to his expression of it.” (142). However, he had claimed he was sorely depleted of his self-esteem, with painful feelings of emptiness, unworthiness, despair and desolation, which made the relations between his life, his reputed manifesto and the cultural context that emerged from the bombing significant (142). The violent nature of the Unabomber tried to explain how the “workings of the industrial system” have “destabilized society, made life unfulfilling, subjected human beings to indignities, led to widespread psychological suffering and inflicted severe damage on the natural world, which is an indication of the constraint categorical imperatives of technology have on true freedom (143). The Unabomber concedes that the manifesto is not comprehensive: it examines “only some of the negative developments that have grown out of the industrial system”, which explains why his belief that technology increases life expectancy and everyday ease as it decreases life enjoyment and freedom parallels Herbert Marcuse’s reading of technology (144).  

Capital, research and technology in market-mediated choices, with an allegedly emancipatory technology can result in rational, totalitarian order without capitalist liberal-democratic regimes being imposed on ill-minded individuals (144). Technology is being examined as a force itself; it follows its own logical interpretations rather than desire for human needs, but if technology were to fail, a social collapse would be in the making and that’s why Unabomber hints that Technology is the true “environment” of modern man. The Unabomber believed that the social machine had certain flaws that limited individuals of their true freedom and what repercussions had come with it. The “freedom to choose,” as celebrated in advertising, is merely “an element of a social machine and has only a certain set of prescribed and delimited freedoms; freedoms that are designed to serve the needs of the social machine more than those of the individual” (157). The Unabomber states that “the effort needed to satisfy biological needs does not occur AUTONOMOUSLY, but by functioning as parts of an immense social machine.” (145).

Unabomber embeds his critique by labeling two kinds of technology: “small-scale technology” and “organization-dependent technology.”(148). Small-scale technologies can thrive in small-scale communities without outside assistance, but organization-dependent technologies are thought of to be an approach in creating a social system. This thought supported by his conjecture that “modern INDIVIDUALS and SMALL GROUPS OF INDIVIDUALS have far less power than primitive man ever did, “ because “the vast power of ‘modern man’ over nature is exercised not by individuals or small groups but by large organizations (149). For individuals to wield the true power of technology would require “a license for everything and with the license comes rules and regulations,” meaning that individuals would only possess “the technological powers with which the system chooses to provide him.”(149). 

Radical interpretations of nature are no less artificial and no more certain than the positive ideologies of technology that the Unabomber opposes (151). Luke explains that he conventionalizes a series of fashionable ecocentric assumptions about nature and transforms them into timeless truths conjoined into the roots of “deep ecology.”  The Unabomber draws his certitudes for a new social order constrained materially by this prime directive: nature’s attributes make it necessary to destroy Technology so that small groups of autonomous individuals can coexist with it in ways that do not devastate nature and thereby let it take care of itself (152). The Unabomber’s ideal technologies that he believes to be more successful are small-scale technologies. The Unabomber explains that the colonization of everyday life by industrial society is becoming virtually irresistible and irreversible as New Class symbolic analysts rob , assimilating them through organizational technologies whether or not they have a choice, of their autonomous power potential (153). Luke believes that new associations of autonomous individuals on a more local but less than national level can work as viable alternatives to the surrogacies of industrial democracy, militarized nationalism, and personal consumption within the industrial system of developed nation-states. Populists – old and new – advance their visions for alternative conditions of associating ordinary people with new arrangements of machines, which would accentuate personal competencies, familial cohesion, and communal ecologies (155). 

Nick Anthony is a junior at Virginia Tech with majors in History and P.P.E. (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics). His undergraduate research on the illegal eradication of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense by the American government highlights parallels in contemporary perceptions of armed self-defense among African Americans.

James Peed is a junior at Virginia Tech with a major in Environmental Science and graduated with an associate’s degree in Science, with a specialization in chemistry, from Germanna Community College in Fredericksburg, VA. He had a capstone project utilizing UV Spectroscopy on the Chesapeake Bay to identify light patterns that can measure pollutant content.

Sam Kemp is a Junior with majors in Economics and PPE.  He hopes to attend law school in Virginia and practice law after graduation.  He has worked at a workers compensation law firm for the past two summers and he is interested in pursuing that area of legal practice.  He is currently researching a project comparing state systems of Judge selection and their effect on case rulings in 2020.    

Plato’s Republic: Conceptions of Justice Books 1 and 2

Nathaniel Blevins:

  • I’m a sophomore with a major in Philosophy. I’m also an MV and a member of the Hokies Pep Band. Music and philosophy have always been passions of mine, and I’m glad I can pursue both of them here at Tech.

Katie Stewart: 

  • I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a focus in legal studies and I’m also minoring in philosophy. I’m really interested in the intersections between politics and philosophy and I’m excited to further my understanding of them through this class. 

Camille Wellman:

  • I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a focus in national security and a minor in peace studies and violence prevention. I am interested in political and philosophical discussions and how they intersect, as well as how we use these discussions to understand our modern world. 

Johnny Callihan:

  • I am a graduating senior majoring in Political Science with a focus in national security. I minor in basketball (joke, I’m alright). I like to see how philosophical discussions relate to modern day arguments and I have enjoyed the structure and function of the course so far.

Plato’s Republic: Defining the concept of justice, the just city-state, and the just man:

This week our group was assigned to read Plato’s Republic, one of Plato’s later works. Like Plato’s earlier works, his dialogue is spoken through Socrates–his teacher  The book is organized into 10 books, but for the purposes of this discussion we are only touching on the first and second book. A majority of the first book is a conversation between Socrates, Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus (a sophist), where Socrates is trying to answer two questions: what is justice/the nature of justice? And why should one be just? The three men offer their own definitions of justice and Socrates promptly refutes them. The first book ends with the men being no closer to a definition of justice. The second book is primarily Socrates’ own account of justice, as he agrees to stop criticizing the others’ opinions and offer his own thoughts. All in all, his goal is to show why the just person leads a better life than that of the unjust person.

Book 1: Defining justice

The main goal of Socrates’ conversation(s) with Cephalus, Polemarchus, and Thrasymachus was to come up with a definition of justice. The first definition of justice is proposed by Cephalus: Justice is speaking the truth and paying whatever debts are owed. Socrates tests the definition by first asking if justice was only speaking the truth and paying back debts, then provides an example: if a friend loans you a weapon but then becomes insane and asks for it back, should you give it back? Cephalus says no, contradicting his own definition, causing it to fail–if one does not return the weapon, they are not repaying their debts. Cephalus’s approach to the definition of justice is logical, but it is too relativistic because it cannot be applied to all situations–pointed out by Socrates in his counterexample. Before providing his definition Cephalus explained how he made many unjust decisions when he was younger and how he made up for those mistakes in the future with his wealth. Money played an integral role in Cephalus’ life so it makes sense that he came to that conclusion 

After Cephalus leaves, Polemarchus disagrees with Socrates and takes Cephalus’ definition, but makes it more general, stating justice is friends doing well by each other–never harming one another–and enemies are owed harm. Socrates counters: what if one falsely believes an enemy is a friend and a friend is an enemy? Everyone makes that mistake at least once in their life. If one makes this mistake then the just man could accidentally help his enemies and harm his friends. To resolve this issue, Polemarchus clarifies a friend is someone who is of use and is inherently good; an enemy is one who is inherently bad. Due to this Polemarchus changes his definition to, “it is just to do good to our friends when they are good and harm to our enemies when they are evil” (335 e). Socrates again counters and the two come to the conclusion that hurting someone is unjust, thus the just man cannot cause harm to an enemy or a friend. 

Finally, Thrasymachus offers his definition of justice, but for a price–a key marker of a Sophist. Thrasymachus states justice is nothing more than whatever advances the stronger person. Thrasymachus’ points are touched on in more depth in the next section. The two eventually come to a conclusion that justice is related to virtue and wisdom while injustice is related to vice and ignorance. They then begin to talk about the soul and how an evil soul is an evil ruler and a good soul must be just, since justice is the excellence of the soul (353 e – 354 c). In other words, one who is just is happy and one who is unjust is unhappy. At the end of this conversation Socrates confesses that he still does not know what justice precisely is. In other words, throughout his exploration for the definition of justice, Socrates was jumping from idea to idea, finding holes in them, causing him, at the end, to be no closer to a positive definition of justice. 

In the clip linked here from Game of Thrones, John Snow is negotiating with Mance Rayder. Mance is considered the “King Beyond the Wall;” his followers call him that because he united thousands of warring wildling tribes, which is unheard of in GOT. In the previous episode they attacked the wall that protected the 7 kingdoms. Thrasymachus would say that Mance united the tribes because he wanted power and he wanted to take power from the seven kingdoms–which is why they attacked the wall. That is far from the truth. Mance wanted to protect his people from the dangers coming from the North and attacked the wall so they could get behind it and hide. He, like Socrates states, ruled for his subjects. He did not unite the tribes for a power grab, he instead spent years of his life planning to protect the free folk; he risked his life in the process not for his benefit, but for the benefit of his people. 

The just man vs. the unjust man:

Thrasymachus asserts that justice is the interest of the stronger (338 c). The just man will serve the stronger, and doing so is justice. The unjust man will not serve the interest of the stronger, and doing so is injustice. This concept is also known as “might makes right” and was seen, albeit much later, in Machiavelli’s The Prince. So long as one has the necessary power, the means to ends he aims to meet, Thrasymachus’ “interest of the stronger” are just. In response, Socrates maintains that justice is more profitable than injustice, as was one of the catalysts of this argument. However, Thrasymachus goes on to say the unjust man achieves more than the just man because the just man is limited by his unwillingness to exploit his fellow just men, whereas the unjust man is willing to strive for more than the just and his fellow unjust (343 c-e). 

Thrasymachus believes the unjust man profits more than the just man (344 c). He then says rulers rule for their own benefit, and tyrants are happiest because of their injustice. The unjust man benefits from injustice in seeking the benefit for himself (340 e – 341 a).

Socrates uses Thrasymachus’ argument against him and shows how the ruler rules to the benefit of his subjects (346 e). He explains how artists of a certain art aim to perfect their craft, and that these crafts are for the sake of the art’s subject. Socrates compares how a doctor treats his patients to how a ruler rules his subjects; the doctor’s craft is for the benefit of the subject of the art, medicine, and the ruler’s craft is for the benefit of the subject of the art, ruling or government. Thus, the ruler doesn’t rule for himself and isn’t unjust. He goes on to add that just people would in fact seek out positions of power so that they might do the job better than unjust people in the same position (347 c-d).

The unjust city vs. the just city:

Thrasymachus claims that injustice is what creates powerful states with powerful tyrants because they are willing to harm the just and enslave them (344 b-c). He believes the perfectly unjust state would vassalize other states that are more just. As perfectly unjust people will become rulers, due to their willingness to lie and cheat and use other expedient ways to achieve power, they will naturally do to other states what they do to their subjects. Someone who has mastered injustice and can completely carry out acts of the like can and will force other states to serve their own interest. Thrasymachus’ description of justice is instrumental. To him, justice is a tool to serve the powerful. Rulers use “justice” as a mere instrument to affect their interests or desires onto the world. On the other hand, Socrates takes a realist approach to justice. Instead of justice serving rulers, rulers serve justice; justice is not the malleable device Thrasymachus makes it out to be, it is instead a powerful natural law unto itself.

Socrates shows that injustice is ignorance and malice, while justice is cleverness, goodness, and wisdom (350 a-e). Then, he rebuts Thrasymachus’ argument with the idea that injustice creates disorder, prevents necessary functions of a society or a state. He uses the example of a band of thieves who would inevitably steal from one another, then generalizes it to any group of unjust people turning on one another and against the just (351 d). How could a state form when injustice, as Thrasymachus admitted, is unwise and not good and this creates disorder and confusion? Socrates persists and demonstrates how injustice causes disorder in a single person (352 a-b). Injustice fosters disunity in one’s own mind and turns others against him. How could anyone be happy or live a fulfilling life when they are internally divided and at odds with everyone around them? They have been shown to be ignorant and bad, disorderly and treacherous. Surely, the just man prospers more than the unjust man.

In this clip from Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, Anakin Skywalker defeats Count Dooku in a duel and is left with the option of killing him (against the Jedi code) or sparing him (the Jedi way). Palpatine, unbeknownst to Anakin and the rest of the Jedi, is actually a Sith and is Dooku’s master. Instead of Palpatine intervening to save his ally, he betrays Dooku by convincing Anakin to kill him. This is a great example of how a group of unjust people cause disharmony by having no restraint from harming their “allies”.

Nature and Origin of Justice: The Brothers’ Argument 

The conversation of defining justice is continued through Socrates’ dialogue with Glaucon and Adeimantus. Glaucon begins by classifying that which is “good,” or desirable, into 3 categories: good for its own sake (intrinsic goods), good for another’s sake (instrumental goods), and good for its own sake and another (intrinsic/instrumental goods). Glaucon and Adeimantus desire Socrates to prove his argument that, not only is justice desirable, but that justice belongs to the highest class of desirable things in that it is desired both for its own sake and its consequences. Though Glaucon does not agree with the beliefs of Thrasymachus, he formulates his argument in a way that praises the unjust life to the highest degree to demonstrate to Socrates how he should praise the just life to the utmost of his power in order to prove his argument in a satisfactory way. In order to do this, Glaucon pulls from the argument of Thrasymachus and breaks up his argument into three sections. First, he speaks of the commonly viewed nature and origin of justice. He moves on to argue that men who practice justice do so out of necessity and against their will. Finally, he argues that there is reason in the view that the life of the unjust is far better than the life of the just.  

Glaucon argues that “to do injustice, by nature, is good; to suffer injustice, evil; but that the evil is greater than the good” (359a). When people have both carried out and suffered injustice, they agree to do away with injustice altogether. This is because the best case scenario for man is the ability to carry out injustice without being punished. The worst case scenario is suffering injustice without the ability to retaliate. Man cannot enjoy the benefits of injustice without also enduring the worst of injustice. Justice is at the middle point, therefore it is not tolerated as good, but as the lesser evil. As a result, laws arise and that which is lawful is deemed just. This, according to Glaucon, is the nature and origin of justice. Glaucon goes on to argue that those who practice justice do so involuntarily because they do not have the power to be unjust by force of law. He illustrates his point using an allegory called “The Ring of Gyges.” The allegory is about what would happen should a ring of invisibility exist. Glaucon claims that whether the ring is worn by a just or unjust man, the individual will take part in unjust practices because of the lack of repercussions they would face. This, he says, affirms the notion that a man is not just willingly or because he believes it will benefit him, but out of necessity for his own safety. Wherever man believes he can be safely unjust, he is unjust. Glaucon continues with his argument that living a perfectly unjust life is more pleasant than living a perfectly just life. The unjust man is able to achieve more as he seeks benefits for himself and is honored and rewarded with wealth and power. 

Adeimantus interjects, before Socrates is able to respond to Glaucon, to develop his brother’s argument further. Parents and tutors, Adeimantus states, teach their children and wards to be just, not for the sake of justice, but for the sake of reputation. He also adds that divine rewards and punishment should be excluded from Socrates’ praise of justice. The quick-witted youth, in Adeimantus’s eyes, would think that if they are just then there is no profit in it, “but the pain and loss on the other hand are unmistakable. But if, though unjust, [they] acquire the reputation of justice, a heavenly life is promised to [them]. Since then, as philosophers prove, appearance tyrannizes over truth and is lord of happiness, to appearance [they] must devote [them]self.” The brothers implore Socrates to prove justice as choice worthy, in practice rather than image, outside of possible external or divine reward or punishment.

In this scene from the show Vikings, we see a group of noblemen from Wessex slaughter an entire unsuspecting Danish settlement. When the party returns to report, King Ecbert berates them for violating a peace treaty that was signed with the Danish leader, Ragnar, “in good faith.” Ecbert has the entire party arrested for treason, although, after the room is cleared, he reveals to his son that he is actually thankful and may have planned this from the beginning, for now he maintains his just image without having to grant concessions to the Danish. 

The Just State Cont.: 

Socrates, in rebuttal, begins to explain the just state, seeing as the state must have more ability to be just than the man due to size, as one which recognizes the specialization of human labor in order to make the use of skill more efficient. The growth of population in this just state would directly correlate with the development of specialized labor. After discussing the final form of specialized labor, hirelings, who lack skill, but bring with them physical strength, Glaucon and Adeimantus ask Socrates to draw attention to the existence and location of justice and injustice within this state. “Probably in the dealings of these citizens with one another.” Socrates considers, “Cannot imagine that they are more likely to be found anywhere else (372a).” 

The population of the just state, Glaucon remarks, would also be fond of living luxuriously more so than the simple lifestyle that Socrates’ just state would originally provide. In discussing the toils of a comfortable life in a just state, Socrates and Glaucon arrive at the challenge of expansion which would produce war. The guardians of the state would be hand-picked in showing an aptitude for the many skills they would need. The guardians would need to be physically and spiritually strong, but must also show a gentleness towards their own populace. Socrates and the brothers spend time debating if someone of this nature could exist with these seemingly contradictory traits before Socrates realizes that these traits are found together in many animals, especially the well-trained dog, and, thus, must be able to be found within the members of the state. Animals are constantly learning, familiarizing themselves with others and situations, so the guardians of the state must also have a love for learning (376b). The trio arrive at the desired traits of the guardian to unite in himself: philosophy, spirit, swiftness, and strength. 

The nature of the soul cannot develop thoroughly on its own, so the education of these guardians as youth is brought up as a way to protect and hone these natures. The soul seems to be as important to the state as it is to the individual body, so the state will be dependent upon the actions and desires of the soul. Education will be necessary to direct the soul and purge the state of destructive ideals. Socrates believes that music, including literature, and gymnastics ought to be taught to the guardians from a young age. Because stories told to the youth often shape the character of the adult, the specific stories of fiction told within the state must also be supervised as to not “…carelessly allow children to hear any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons, and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part the very opposite of those which we should wish them to have when they are grown up (377b)[.]” Socrates then describes how stories of the gods should be articulated. First, stories should only show the gods as wholly good. Many poets of the time would write of devious actions by the gods, but the young guardians-to-be in the just state must not be allowed to believe that these actions could be permissible. Second, the gods should not be seen as transforming their image, because any change for the “wholly good” gods would be into something worse than themselves and a form of trickery. “The gods,” Socrates elaborates, “are not magicians who transform themselves, neither do they deceive mankind in any way (380d).” This would also be a negative influence on the young population, so the poets would not be allowed to describe this. Book 2 of The Republic transitions to Book 3 discussing similar topics.

Environmentality Through Governmentality- An Unfinished Project

Elizabeth Vasquez

  • I’m a junior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and minoring in Environmental Policy and Planning. I am interested in philosophical discussion about environmental issues and how philosophy and politics affect global change.

Quincy Bienkowski

  • I’m a junior majoring in Aerospace Engineering specializing in Energy and the Environment and attaining minors in PPE and Mathematics. I enjoy studying all aspects pertaining to energy. The main reason I am so interested in energy is my conception of its limitless potential. With enough energy, all problems could be solved. With that being said, sustainability goes head in hand with this. 

Olivia Davis

  • I am a senior majoring in Political Science. After graduation I plan to work at an HR department for a couple years, then I am moving out to Oregon to be closer with some of my family. I also work as a bather so spend a lot of my time working with dogs:). 

Rainey Blankenship

  • I am a senior majoring in political science with a concentration in legal studies. Prior to graduation, I plan to continue my education by pursuing a path in law and hope to attend Liberty University School of Law. I am interested in the relationship between global environmental issues and the political; specifically, the way in which the political shapes environmental change. I believe this relationship is one directly intersecting with intellectual property protection, an area of law I am interested in pursuing.
Editor’s Note: The following video exhibits an environmentality in operation. Specifically one can see how adjustments in the town’s planning and composition are reactive to the dictates of ecological sciences. The adjustments made to how people interact and live with wildlife is accompanied by governmental projects such as youth programs, the dictates of wildlife biologists and the policing of both human and non-human populations. For our purposes, Policing and Normalization need not be thought of as Blacksburg PD banging on your door. Policing, that is, the enactment of disciplinary measures supported through populational surveillance, can come in soft forms, such as a wildlife biologist telling people to stay away from a gorging bear, or to carry pepper spray or wear bells. We can also think about how strategies of deterrence are enacted to keep the townsfolk from inviting more security threats (read bears for now) into their habitats by removing fruit trees. These are subtle adjustments to living conditions that signify changes in governing rationalities related to environmental needs. You’ll see that technological changes accompany the incorporation of wildlife into the town of Canmore’s infrastructure and this shows a link between technological development, shifts in “environment” and the construction of space relative to the perceived needs of wildlife populations supported with ecological knowledges.

Death, “Chapter 12: Governmentality” 

Core Ideas

Michel Foucault is known for his work surrounding the concept of ‘governmentality’ or governmentality studies; the art of government concerning the ways in which the government ‘conducts people’s conduct’ (112). It is Foucault whose critique embodies a lens producing ‘ethos of investigation;’ explaining how things happened and how they differ from previous interactions, rather than why they happened (118). Although Foucault is widely known for his analysis of governmentality studies, he is often overlooked for his contributions to environmental theory. While he himself never addressed the environment in his critical studies, others have engaged with his work, resulting in his analytical legacy leaving its mark in fields such as ‘political geography, environmental history and environmental politics’ (114). 

Historical Productions of Nature

Two of Foucault’s publishings, Security, Territory and Population (2007) and The Birth of Biopolitics (2008), provide great insight to the concept of ‘governmentality.’ Foucault brings emphasis to the nature of governmentality, it is not something that comes readily made and it may not last forever (114). 

Ecopolitics and Green Governmentality

Two key thinkers picked up on the critical linkage of ‘the environment’ to governmentality that Foucault skipped over in his studies, those two being Tim Luke and Paul Rutherford. These authors formulated the concepts of ecological or green governmentality to signify the critical linneage between Foucault’s work in governmentality. Rutherford is credited with the concept of ‘eco-politics,’ expanding Foucault’s theorizating of governmental practices concerning the population domain to the environment. Luke is credited with the attention he brings to the ‘eco-knowledges,’ that in turn invoke ‘enviro-discipline’ (115-116). 

Conclusion- The Unfinished Product

Foucauldian studies have led to the expansion of environmental theories by allowing modern critical thinkers to denote a linkage between ‘the environment’ (environmentality) and ‘governmentality.’ Environmental governmentality studies remain an unfinished product that must be examined through the lens of Foucault’s analytical legacy (methodological ethos) to constitute intellectual inquiry resulting in a new theory of environmental governmentality (119). 

Darier, “Foucault and the Environment: An Introduction”

When looking at the current environmental status, people in the North are concerned and starting to get anxious. For many years now people have been discussing the idea that better technological innovations and scientific knowledge may not be the way for us to better ourselves. In “Discourses of the Environment,” Eric Darier mentions, “…very few experts would volunteer a resolutely optimistic outlook for the environment in the future,” (Darier, 2). Each different field of ecological sciences have been fighting and researching ideas for environmental issues. Despite most fighting the same problem, basically nothing unites them. Callliot even mentioned that we need to maintain a united world view. Everyone in inconsistent circles with contradictory demands creates an overlap which then only causes conflict.

There is a main issue around two groups: the “nature-skeptical,” which feel nature can only make sense through social construction, and the “nature-endorsing,” which feel “an irreducible positivist reality outside human interpretations” (Darier, 3). However, it remains important for people to be able to find a middle ground between the controversy in Manichaean framing, or seeing things as in black and white. In turn, Michel Foucault brought to light a heated debate in environmentalism in terms of essential and necessary conditions for the emergence of an ecological/environmental movement. Foucault is thought of as one of the most influential thinkers, even though he never addressed the environmental issue directly and was not really a fan of Nature. 

The best way to see Foucault’s contributions is to study his work. There are actually three Foucauldian approaches: archeological, genealogical, and ethical, so you have to be mindful of the time period. His articles, books, etc. were all written in scholarly vernacular which made them hard for others to read in general. One would often have to have outside knowledge in order to understand his writings. Then on top of that many people had different interpretations of his writings. Looking at the first approach, the archeological approach, “attempts to undertake excavations of historical texts,” (Darier, 9). The purpose of this approach is to show various historical layers for what did or can constitute as knowledge. Though this approach is considered to be “ill-defined,” it also adopts a “truth-claim” which in itself shows the reliability through factual backgrounds in detailed studies.

Foucault’s second or “middle” approach is a genealogical one. While, as per Foucault, this approach is very broad and touches on a multitude of philosophical, ecological, governmental, etc. topics, in many ways was a response to critiques of his first approach. By adopting genealogy, Foucault “tried to distance himself further from structuralism and detached empiricism,” (Darier 14). In this section, Foucalt further argues his point about the broader complexity of social practices, power, and knowledge itself. That all of these things must continuously be challenged through discourse and practice.

In response to the Marxist critique of archeology, Foucalt dives into ‘power’. In referring to power, he made a careful effort to never explicitly define his conception of power. Only to say what it is not. It is not something “which the State or a dominant class has or possesses,” (Darier 17). It is not a zero-sum game and is, in-fact, mostly relational and hardly entails absolute domination for those who are subjected to power still maintain some choice, however limited. Foucault also makes a point that power has a ‘heterogeneity between a public right of sovereignty and a polymorphous disciplinary mechanism’(ibid.) which allows power to create many unintended consequences that are not always bad. That power is more complex and is not inherently bad as most contemporary scholarship regarding Foucault’s conception of power is that it is a creative force.. 

Ironically enough, Foucalt’s last section has a focus on ethics. This is because he saw ethics as a technique for the normalization of the population. In a way, it was a form of imposing power through others by creating and normalizing the behavior of populations through individuals. Nearing the end of his life, Foucalt aimed to answer questions regarding individuals, subjectivities, and the constant struggle with normalization. He firmly believed that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ were far too simple to accept. That discourse must take place on each individual’s behalf in order to move forward. So, Foucalt’s ethical approach focussed on the individual disengaging from normalization to the practice of freedom.It is possible to remake ourselves without normalization and to understand the ways in which we are free and he sketches how in a lecture series entitled Technologies of the Self. Many have seen Foucalt as pessimistic, but Darier makes it clear that Foucalt was instead just a very good skeptic and philosopher.

Darier, Rutherford, “The Entry of Life into History”

As previously mentioned by Death, Michel Foucault’s work has been applied to many critical studies, but is rarely applied to critical environmental studies. Paul Rutherford, another critical thinker, steps in to denote the linkage of Foucault’s ideas of biopolitics/governmentality and contemporary environmental problems by providing three propositions that are as follows: (1) The modern environmental crisis is parallel to what Foucault called ‘the regulatory biopolitics of the population.’ (2) It is biopolitics that gives rise to new areas of scientific development. (3) Biopolitics gives rise to new and developing techniques that can simultaneously manage the environment and population, thus ‘ecological governmentality’ (37-38). Foucault characterized biopolitics as a new form of power concerned with the fostering of life through biopower of the individual or the species body. Regulatory controls administer said life, which Foucault characterized as ‘biopolitics of the population’ (39). This constituted a parallel growth of ‘the institutions of state power alongside the techniques of biopower.’ Rutherford labels the rise of biopower/biopolitics as the ‘entry of life into history;’ new techniques and regulations allowed for modification of ‘the life processes’ as a political project (42). Rutherford wants to emphasize that knowledge is central to that which makes up the objects that biopower operates through, therefore biopolitics and expertise are inherently linked (44). 

Rutherford feels that Foucalt’s approach does not sufficiently explain the way that political and economic problems in society led to similar problems in nature and the environment, and so he attempts to draw those comparisons in this text by defining different biopolitical relations. Particular to our discussion on environmentality, he shows that ecology and environmental management are forms of biopolitics, “as these originate in, and operate upon, the same basic concerns for managing the ‘continuous and multiple relations’ between the population, its resources and the environment” (45). As a social policy, the ecological is inherently biopolitical as it exists to regulate populations of humans through relationships with non-humans.

In Rutherford’s discussion of government rationality, he again points out the relation of power and knowledge in biopolitics, but also how it goes beyond those two factors. In government analysis, there exists a ‘triple domain’ in government (46). Human governance is delineated by self-government, government of others, and the state’s government. This is to illustrate the broadness of what ‘government’ means, that there is a large scope that extends from self reflection to the regulation of entire populations. As political discourse around governance evolved, new theories came to be. One major theory was raison d`état, or reason of state. What was different about this was that it regarded the government as no longer focused on governing territory, but things, and meant to manage the social body to ensure a prosperous population. It meant that governmental laws were inherent in the state rather than natural or divine law. Foucalt described ‘reason of state’ as growing from two political technologies: police and diplomatic-military practices. This marked a sort of introduction into the police state. But how do we know what the interests of the state are and how do we manage them? The way that this new type of society is administered is by gaining exhaustive knowledge of the state’s resources. Acquiring this knowledge, in police theory, is meant to ensure the well-being of the population and thereby strengthen the state through the enactment of discipline and surveillance within populations. Though raison d`état and police science are a part of modern government rationality, these theories do not fully encapsulate the idea.

Rutherford moves the discussions toward liberalism and security, and how these ideas are also necessary to understand government rationality. The influence of liberalism was an important development in the evolution of government. It should be noted that in this sense, ‘liberal’ does not necessarily mean ‘opposite of conservative’ or any sort of economic ideology. It is viewed by Foucalt, and written in this text as, “a  specific practice of government that embodies a  continuous reflection on not only the limits of government but also its necessity” (48). Essentially, liberalism came to be as a critique of the state of reason, and asserts that the state is not its own end and government does not equal state. Another way it differs from the police state is that the interests of the population don’t necessarily align with those of the state. Because the state is unable to achieve the total knowledge that the police state seeks, according to liberal theorists, the state’s ability to act beneficially is impacted by the fallibility of its knowledge. Liberalism “dissolved the immediate unity between knowledge and government” (49), and in doing so brought about a new configuration known as ‘governmentality’ which emphasized a relationship between less formal bodies of knowledge and administration.

The question that Rutherford had previously pointed out regarding the incompleteness of Foucalt’s idea of the problematization between population and environment can be answered more fully by three major social developments: (1) modern biology, (2) European population increases that led to mass migrations, and (3) new international capitalist markets.The rise of these three factors relate modern biopolitics with the emergence of population and resource problems. The growth of capitalism also meant the growth of production, particularly industrialism as a system of production, becoming a large factor in the problems of global pollution and resource exploitation.

As ecology rose as a rationale behind political economy, ecological discourse gave way to regulatory science and ecological governmentality causing a rise in environmental legislation, enforcement agencies, regulation (such as intervention in industrial settings), and planning. 

The growth of regulatory science and the use of environmental impact assessments became two major aspects of ecological governmentality. As biopolitics and governmentality are concerned  with enforcing the conduct of a population, ecological sciences are fundamental to biopolitics due to the importance of regulating the relationships held between the human and non-human as a political project.

Plato’s Gorgias

Names and Bios

  • Erik Wrightson

I am a senior in my last semester as a Physics major with minors in Mathematics and Political Science. I value having a clear understanding of the logical frameworks in Philosophy, Politics, and Sciences that have led us to the modern world. I am particularly interested in how one may make an argument to have found a “truth” and how humanity’s ability to argue for how we know what we know has evolved over time.

  • Clare Calhoun 

I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science and minoring in Spanish. As someone concerned with the politics of national security, this class provides the structure for the concepts and arguments which have framed global politics. 

  • Cole Mccommons

I am a sophomore majoring in Political Science with a minor in Army leadership. I enjoy reading and analyzing political discussions. I am interested in how these arguments and dialogues correlate to modern discussions.

  • Jack Williams

I am a Sophomore and I’m a Political Science and PPE (Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) double major. I am interested in how arguments and dialogues create a clear understanding of what people want from the world. From that I hope to learn how all of these wants fit together, if it is even possible, so that we can create a world where people are all capable of grasping their desires instead of being forced into complacency.

Gorgias: The Continued Search for the Good and Just

Plato’s Gorgias sees Socrates and company talking about how they have just missed a great exhibition of the skills of a man named Gorgias. They hear that this man asserts that he will endeavor to answer truthfully and fully any question put to him. Always looking to be proven wrong, Socrates hopes this man may have some path to truth that he does not. In hopes (although somewhat sarcastically) of finding  someone who could explain what is good and just in the world, Socrates goes off to the home of Callicles who is currently housing the orator, Gogias. As Socrates seeks to begin a dialogue with Gorgias, a man named Polus eagerly seeks to bring the questioning of Socrates upon himself by saying, “you may make trial of me too, for I think that Gorgias, …, is tired” (448d). After a bit of questioning from Chaerephon, Socrates butts in with an observation that Polus is a good speaker but does not answer questions directly (a trend that only further shows its truth the more Polus speaks) and because of this Socrates seeks conversation with Gorgias who he came there to speak with.

The Establishment of Gorgias and Rhetoric

Gorgias purports to be an expert in what he sees as the art of rhetoric and creating rhetoricians. Socrates seeks to ensure that each of them is operating on the same logical grounds in order to uncover some truths, so he asks that Gorgias fully define the art he practices. Socrates even offers a bit of a complement to Gorgias that for a rhetorician he is very capable of giving short and succinct answers to Socrates’s inquiries. This can be seen as to slightly tip Socrates’s hand in his personal view of rhetoric as a disingenuous tool of sophistry, however he attempts to remove himself by allowing Gorgias to agree to the establishing premises of rhetoric.

Gorgias initially attempts to state that rhetoric concerns itself with words of “the greatest, Socrates, and the best of human things” (451f). After Socrates cuts through the ambiguity of Gorgias’s rhetorical arguments, the two men arrive at the conclusion that rhetoric is a manner of discourse that concerns itself with its chief end of persuasion. They then cover that rhetoric is not only the art of persuasion as many arts do this to one extent or another, but rhetoric is one that has their chief concern in persuasion and not directly with truths. This is further shown in Gorgias argument, “If you have the power of uttering this word, you will have the physician as your slave, and the trainer as your slave, and the money-maker of whom you talk will be found to gather treasures, not for himself, but for you” (452e). This essentially states that the rhetorician must be great to possess the power of making free men his slaves. However, this goes against the core of Socrates’s beliefs in that it is always better to suffer injustice than commit it. How could a man make others his slave and be truly happy with himself and believe that he understands how to have a just and good life?

Once this footing of what Gorgias reports to be the art of persuasion is established, Gorgias is sure to lay what he sees as a protection to the arguments that some men do wickedness with the art of rhetoric in saying, “I should rather say that those who make a bad use of the art are to blame” (457a). This then becomes a bit of a focus in Socrates’s line of questioning.

Caption: Gorgias would argue that Johnnie Cochran is at fault for utilizing the best of man’s arts to make his case in court through an incoherent rambling that confuses the jury of the truth but achieve’s Cochran’s desired result.

The Great Flaw of the “Art” of Rhetoric

Socrates then seeks to find what Gorgias would do with a man that does not know just from unjust who is seeking to learn rhetoric from him. Gorgias of course says that he must teach the man this difference and that it is the duty of a good rhetorician to know such facts. As someone who through each of our readings has been consumed for this search for the just and the unjust, Socrates is happy to learn that apparently these rhetoricians know the answer to his pursuits, but he then comments on the fact that Gorgias said that only a man who misuses rhetoric is to blame for wrongdoing and not his teachers, but if his teachers knew just from unjust then there should be no way for the man to not know. This is the basis of the inconsistency present in Gorgias’s argument that rhetoric is the best of arts. Socrates hopes to further explore this before the young Polus seeks to save the sinking ship of Gorgias’s stance as Gorgias seems to be at least momentarily wise to accept the logic behind Socrates’s statements. In Socrates’s view, men who make free men slaves cannot partake in the good life, let alone try to act as the most noble of arts. This directly mirrors the case covered in  Sophist and shows that these rhetoricians are nothing more than sophists in the guise of a noble liar.

Socrates is left disappointed by the failure of Gorgias to be a man who fully knows just from the unjust as his search would finally be over. However, this initial dialogue with Gorgias is just the beginning of Plato’s work as it establishes the premises with rhetoric which Socrates takes issue. Rhetoric is therefore looking like a field that may seem to have the just and unjust worked out, but may in fact be as farcical and admonishable from that endeavor that a field can get. The further exploration and frankly tearing apart of the notions of Polus lead to further insight.

In the above clip, the entire scenario should shed some light onto the more complete outlook that Socrates has on rhetoric. Mr. Lawyerstein in particular is a rhetorician in bad faith just like Gorgias warned could exist. However, the prosecutor and judge both partake in rhetorical arguments that bring the focus of the jury away from the truth and everyone is worse off for it as Mr. Lawyerstein gloats over beating the truth.

Socrates And Polus: The True Form Of Rhetoric

Moving on to the discussion between Polus and Socrates on the matter of rhetoric, it is seen that Polus is of the notion that rhetoric is an art and that Socrates should have to answer the question that he pushes on to Gorgias. This question has to do with whether rhetoricians are teaching the difference between just and unjust as stated prior, but Socrates takes issue with the idea that rhetoric is an art at all. In fact he thinks that it is just an experience, or a flattery, that deceives people into thinking they are achieving something higher than they are actually getting. Socrates’ analogy for this includes a comparison between cookery and medicine as cookery pretends to give a higher good to the body while medicine actually knows what is best for the body. In the same manner, rhetoric is disguised and trying to play itself off as justice.

Socrates then talks about the role that the body and the soul play in making decisions, and how if the body were solely in charge of making decisions then it would be the flattery goods like cookery and astiring described earlier would be the goods that most people choose over true goods. The reason that people would choose these is because much like sophistry they are deceptive in their appeal, they may seem just as good if not better than true goods like medicine or gymnastics, but in reality they are not as good when considering the needs of both the body and the soul.  

This discussion draws out what seems like one of the main goals of this text, which is to say that it is better to suffer injustice than to be the one enacting injustice. This is where the two switch from discussing the idea of whether or not that rhetoricians have a great power to what Socrates believes is the greatest evil, injustice, and how this compares to suffering injustice.

It is clear this notion frustrates Polus as he then moves on to what seem like personal opinions having to do with the standing of rhetoricians in other states, and whether or not they have great power. Polus believes that this power is derived from the fact that they can do whatever they will and they act as tyrants do, killing and despoiling whoever they want. Socrates disagrees with the idea that they have power at all, and suggests that tyrants as well as rhetoricians do not have great power because, as Polus puts it, power is a great good. 

To explain his point, Socrates goes through whether or not people can do the things they will, or if it is for the sake of which they willed to do it. After agreeing that things are done for the sake of what they willed to do and allotting indifferent actions for the sake of good, they discuss that if people do things that they think will benefit them, but doesn’t actually, then it would result in them not doing what is good according to Polus. If we only will the things that are good, then by Polus’s own logic killing or taking from someone because you think it is in your best interest and it not actually being good for you would mean that you did not will it as we can only will things that are good. In addition, great power, which has already been established to be good cannot be obtained if the things we do are in fact not good. This proves what Socrates was alluding to, which is that rhetoricians as well as tyrants do not have any power because they do only what they think will be good for them but in actuality is not. 

Once Socrates is done disproving the idea that rhetoricians have power in states Polus continues to push the idea that they do and even makes the claim that Socrates would be jealous of said tyrants for being able to kill whoever they pleased as long as it seemed good in a state. Socrates is unhappy with Polus for thinking someone who unjustly kills deserves to be envied. This feeling makes sense as it once again contradicts the stance both Gorgias and Polus take in that rhetoricians understand the difference between just and unjust.

If this stance is to be taken into account in regard to what Polus has just said then there is no way  that a rhetorician would ever be capable of killing unjustly because they know that it is unjust. In addition to this they would never be able to will themselves to do it as it was previously established that things done for the sake of evil cannot be willed.  

Injustice and the Soul

In the following parts of the dialogue, Socrates enters into a debate with Polus on where the two stand in regard to divisions in the things we take part in. Acts as mundane as going for a walk or something extraordinary as murder are all defined by the purpose behind them. Some acts are done in the nature of the good, some in the nature of evil, and others which fall in the neutral. The justification behind these arguments is important as it becomes the framework for the ideas surrounding injustice and one’s soul. 

Socrates begins the discussion of injustice with Polus by asking whether he believes a man who is unjust and doing injustice to be capable of happiness. Polus maintains that the man who is unjust can be happy, even if he does not meet retribution or punishment. Socrates differs in that idea and puts forth the main point of his discussion with Polus, that doing an injustice and being unjust is the worst possible evil when one is not disciplined. 

This discussion between Polus and Socrates begins earlier in the dialogue as the two argue over the notion of rhetoric as an art or an experience. Socrates believes rhetoric to be a sort of  experience in producing delight and gratification. Within this discussion he explains the body and the soul being separate,  where politics attends to the soul and art attends to the body. In creating the two divisions he includes the idea of rhetoric as a flattery because it cannot attend to the soul and only to the appearance of the body or soul. In Socrates’ statement that he considers doing an injustice to be worse than suffering an injustice he also proposes that this requires treatment and not the flattery of rhetoric as it affects the soul(469a-479e). This brings back the previous discussion between Polus and Socrates of the retribution or punishment of an unjust person. While Polus thought the unjust person would remain happy without punishment, Socrates found it to be necessary for a person to be penalized. Following the idea that behaving unjustly is the worst evil, then a person who receives punishment for their action will be better off. This punishment is given through the actions of the state which helps the unjust in realizing their greater purpose. Those whose actions are not disciplined by the state are tyrants which are ruled by their own desires. Tyrants work outside the boundaries of justice to achieve their objectives by manipulating others. 

A good life vs a pleasant life

Socrates and Callicles discuss life and what it means to live a good life. Socrates and Callicles begin their discussion of good as the two argue over what makes people happy in life. Socrates believes that a man needs to seek knowledge. Callicles discusses that a servant can never be happy because they never truly put their wants first. Callicles argues that happiness is obtained through achieving their desires. Socrates then questions this thought, “Then those who want nothing are not truly said to be happy?”(492d). Callicles disagrees with Socrates statement and Socrates further argues that good is not the same as pleasant. Therefore Socrates believes that a good life is different from a pleasant life. Socrates starts the dialogue by asking if a man can have good and evil fortune at the same time. Callicles agrees with this statement that a man can not have good fortune and evil at the same time. Socrates further states that there is pleasure in drinking but pain while thirsty. Socrates found that drinking while thirsty is pleasant and that pain might occur during pleasure. Socrates states that, “Then pleasure is not the same as good fortune, or pain the same as evil fortune, and therefore the good is not the same as the pleasant” (497a). Socrates continues that a foolish man is evil while a brave man is good. Both men obtain pleasure throughout their life. This brings back Socrates’ argument that good and pleasure exist differently, because both men feel pleasure. This comes back to their original discussion on what a good life is. Socrates believes that to live a good life is “to practise justice and every virtue in life and death (527c).

Just Rule and Plato’s Statesman

Names and Bios

  • Garrison Holt
    • I am a graduating senior majoring in Political Science, and minoring in Politics/Philosophy/Economics at Virginia Tech. I have been interested in political philosophical discussion throughout my time at VT, and synthesizing them with modern day problems and philosophical discussions.
  • Paul O’Donnell
    • I’m Paul and I am a senior in Political Science graduating this spring. I enjoy reading and writing analytically, and I am excited to continue learning these skills through these discussion posts. I look forward to diving deeper into the analytical frameworks that make up a majority of our philosophical discussions.
  • Elizabeth Vasquez 
    • I’m Elizabeth and I’m a junior majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics with a minor in Environmental Policy and Planning. I am interested in exploring the intersection of political science and philosophical topics, and how those fields influence each other.
  • Max Gallant
    • I am a junior majoring in International Relations. I enjoy political and philosophical readings such as this one, and discerning their meaning.I also enjoy writing about these texts and putting my understanding into words.

Statesmen: Achieving Excellence through a just state

This week, we were tasked to read Plato’s Statesman, a dialogue written in the later parts of Plato’s works, and directly following the events of Sophist. The bulk of this writing consists of conversations between The Eleatic Stranger, and a Younger Socrates, and continue a lot of points of discussion around “the good life” and what it means to be “just”, specifically in the context of statesmen and states themselves.

Democracy, Rule, and Property/Discussion of the political science and the care of the state

One of the first important topics that the two discuss revolved around different types of government, namely monarchy (which is ruled by a royalty), aristocracy (which is ruled by a select few), and democracy (which is ruled by the many), and their “distinctions between the one, the few, and the many” (292a). They then charge themselves with discerning which of these methods of ruling is the most just and constituted statehood, and which do not. The Stranger states that scientific men are the true rulers, and whether or not they make themselves kings is up to them, yet they remain kingly in nature regardless. True states are to be ruled by those who are scientific in nature and rule in a scientific manner. The Stranger brings up a notion that physicians are an example of scientific men ruling over their subjects (293b): he notes that physicians “cure us against our will or with our will”, and thus make us their subjects of medical practices, in much the same way that scientifically led rulers make us subjects to their rule. 

Instead of deciding whether one form of government is inherently better or worse than another, Socrates and the Stranger decide that these forms are less relevant than those ruling them, which I believe is a very interesting philosophical point. If a ruler is just, and makes decisions in order to best help his people and best prolong the state he rules, then it does not matter what kind of government he aligns with. The institutions surrounding the ruler constitute the “form” of the government, which ultimately matters less so long as the ruler in charge rules in a just and scientific manner. On the other hand, it can be inferred that they believe corruption (or as they would say it: unscientific men) can plague any type of government, and the laws within them. 

The discussion moves on, beginning with the Stranger seemingly railing against the nature of laws themselves, posing the idea that perhaps acting in a scientific manner is more important than any laws might be, because if a ruler were to act scientifically, he could act in just ways that stretch outside the boundaries of laws, and can better address the problem in his state. He extends this to say that whatever form of government must take place, that the power should be concentrated in a few people, if not a single person, because while a single person may be able to study political science and use it to rule justly, a large group of people could not, and would mess up the system, foreshadowing that perhaps Democracy is not as perfect as we would believe.  Any state in which the rich few take into account the law solidly, he calls an aristocracy, and any which largely disregard them, he calls an oligarchy, and those who rule are called kings. However, if a ruler goes against the laws with an ignorant way of thinking, and is not altogether scientific in his reasoning and decision making, then he is not a king at all, but a tyrant. The Stranger acknowledges, however, that this perfect type of ruler (being the one that is not ignorant and acts according to science) is essentially impossible, or at best highly improbable, and not something one should base entire state institutions around. 

The rule of the many, unlike the types of rule we just discussed, is democracy. The Stranger believes that democracy is comparatively weaker than other forms of government, namely monarchy and aristocracy, due to its stretching itself too thin amongst its subjects. However, it has its advantages, namely that “of all these governments when they are lawful this is the worst, and when they are lawless it is the best” (303a), essentially stating that in the absence of these scientifically driven rulers, and in a state which emphasizes freedom above all, democracy flourishes. Without laws, this type of government, according to the Stranger, provides the types of conditions we might want in order to live “the good life.” He ends this part of discussion railing against the sophists of his day, calling them not statesmen, but partisans who are themselves the “greatest counterfeits… imitators and cheats”, which I believe adequately sums up his thoughts on the aristocratic rule of Athens in his day (303b-c).

Here’s an example of a… “scientific” ruler enacting his will upon his people through his own “scientific” reasoning. This goes to show that maybe not all science is sound science, and that it might not always be a good basis for a ruler, given its evolving nature.

Statecraft as a Science, The Just State

This clip shows a student take credit for another’s joke and be given all the credit. This is similar to the situation of statesmen Socrates and The Stranger discuss. They practice the art of statesmanship, and the kings use their advice and earn the credit.

The Stranger goes on to argue that the statesman must become its own occupation, rather than a duty performed by others not fit for the role. When discussing the path of a statesman, the Stranger says, “For we must find it, separate it from the rest, and imprint upon it the seal of a single class.” (258c). Importantly, anyone who understands and applies the science of statecraft, “whether he happen to be a ruler or private citizen,” (259b) has a right to the title “kingly.” This is due to the precedent of only kings and nobles participating in statecraft. The Stranger is making the argument that anyone with distinguished ability in statecraft deserves to practice the science. The Stranger then suggests that they “divide all science into two arts,” (258e) by making one category for practical applications, and one for intellectual applications. This is an important distinction because the Stranger and Socrates agree that all science falls into these two arts, except for statecraft. Statecraft is described as “the kingly process of weaving,” (305e) because it intertwines intellectual and practical arts.

The Stranger makes a critical point about education in statecraft by saying that only kings and nobles from birth are educated in statecraft, but the statesmen become adept in statecraft through experiences and their own nature. The king rules as he wishes, but the statesman interweaves “the characters of restrained and courageous men.” (311b). The Stranger argues that statesmen possess the “kingly science,” (311c) which accounts for their gifts in statecraft. Kings and rulers, however, are merely instructed in statecraft, and do not truly understand it. The Stranger says, “for them this is the medicine prescribed by science” (310a) when referring to kings’ knowledge of statecraft. The distinction made between kings and true statesmen is significant because the statesmen possess the knowledge and ability to practice statecraft, and the kings are only able to practice statecraft by being advised by the true statesmen.

Definition of a Statesman/God, the Universe, and Nature

Further into this discussion, the definition of a Statesman starts to take shape. In the conversion between Younger Socrates and the Stranger they discuss the subdivisions present in the art of the statesman. They discuss clearly the commands and work that it takes to “herd-tend” subdivisions of animals. Specifically, the one we are most interested in is the art of herding human beings which it is described as, “a single art called both kingly and statesmanlike.” I want to raise a question, however: from the ruler’s perspective are we merely animals designed exclusively for being raised? This definition carries that familiar burden that is present in our democracy. Throughout this reading we hear of the distinction between false Statesman and other misleading ruling categories. Explicitly, ruling styles like democracy, aristocracy, monarchy, etc or most styles present from our modern history. These styles are limited in their effectiveness based on their inability to rule from direct knowledge. Rather they rule based on law, order, and other forms of mass consent which gains internal legitimacy from those values, not necessarily knowledge. These claims made by the stranger highlight some key flaws in his conclusions. From his argument, he concludes that a Statesman would be an individual who would “herd” others into making thoughtful decisions and using knowledge would create a better society. However, these claims seem unreasonable in operation. This thorough practice would require significant manpower and individuals willing to live their lives based on knowledge rather than choice. This choice allows us to remain ignorant to lives led by knowledge which may be harmful to our democracy. Further, this devout myth presented by the stranger creates a void in current politics that creates a divide between the politicians and the individuals they represent. Despite the radical thought discussion presented, it is clear that buried in this reading is an inherent message that represents the difference between us and animals. The idea of knowledge and consciousness present itself as a significant barrier that makes us different from herded sheep. Yet, the feeling and aspiration for happiness causes discussions like these to deepen our own individual perspective on how we run society, and specifically, what we can do to change this perspective.

The King and a Tyrant

The Stranger and Socrates discuss a distinction in caretaking between the divine shepherd and the human caretaker: that which is compulsory and that which is voluntary. Through this they realize “we were more simple-minded than we should have been, and we put the king and the tyrant together, whereas they and their respective modes of ruling are quite unlike” (276e). Though they had previously likened the king and the tyrant to each other, they observed the dissimilarities. The Stranger divides the ruling of people into two parts, the aforementioned compulsory rule and voluntary rule. Tyrants compel their people while the “true king and statesman” provides voluntary caretaking.

This section of the dialogue brings up the distinction between forced and voluntary compliance, between tyranny and royalty. Though the Stranger and Socrates have discussed them together, they are dissimilar. Specifically, the tyrant rules without law while the statesman rules citizenry according to the values of justice. The distinction they end up making between mandatory and voluntary compliance to a leader is significant because while it helps the two in their journey to find the statesman, still “our figure of the king is not yet perfect” (277a).

Production/Instruments, ‘Carving the world at its joints’ and Statecraft

Now that the Stranger and Young Socrates have made their distinction between the king and the tyrant, they are still trying to complete their figure of the statesman. The Stranger inquires, “What example could we apply which is very small, but has the same kind of activity as statesmanship and would enable us satisfactorily to discover that which we seek?” and he chooses a metaphor about weaving to illustrate his thoughts (279a). He walks Socrates through the steps of weaving and gets to the point that “the process of weaving is, I take it, a kind of joining together” (281a). The Statesman weaves together politics and society. He is one who unites his people.

Continuing with the way of thinking that they used for the weaving scenario, they try to classify arts as contingent causes (287c). The Stranger wants to divide the arts “like an animal that is sacrificed, by joints, since we cannot bisect them” (287c). By this he means he does not want to separate these classifications into more parts than are necessary. The Stranger begins to separate statecraft into classes. (1) He says the first class – instruments – will be hard to separate from the others. It is too large a group as everything that exists is an instrument of another. (2) The next class is also unhelpful to the two: “It is a very large class and has, so far as I can see, nothing at all to do with the art we are studying” (288a). This is one that is composed of materials both wet and dry, wrought by and without fire. (3) Another class that is very large, but differs from the other two is that of vehicles. It is the work of carpentry, pottery, and bronze working, but it “certainly is not at all the work of statesmanship” (288a). 

“Carving the world at its joints” as a method of division is not helping them get closer to finding the statesman. The Stranger has already illustrated that the statesman is one who weaves together, so they should be searching for something that unifies. The Stranger had previously said to Young Socrates “I think, Socrates, that the form of the divine shepherd is greater than that of the king, whereas the statesmen who now exist here are by nature much more like their subjects, with whom they share much more nearly the same breeding and education” (275b, 275c). The statesman weaves himself together with his people by being similarly educated and so brings about social reproduction through statecraft. He is united to his people through their shared humanity and the rule of reason itself.

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 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 for 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 despoliation. As green consumerism is concerned with a critique of ecological despoliation, 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 combining 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.”

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 next 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?


Who is akin to whom?


The angler to the sophist.


How so?


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.


I think they do.


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.


To be sure.


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: 


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



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.


You are quite right.


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


Popular orator.


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


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]: 


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


What do you mean?


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.

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 were 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 vortices and collection points) and the commodities generated through industrial activity (like plastic) exhibit in their being, the interaction of 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.

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 two things: (1) It is important to have philosophical and theoretical commitments not only for site selection, but also to guide the arc of critique; (2) 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; second, 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 economics 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. 

The Good and the Philosopher’s Life

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

This week marked our course calibration 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 personal 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: 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.