Earth First?

After arriving at a drag queen house show, I make my way through crowds of pretty young people with beers and spliffs in their hands searching for familiar faces. The house is a notorious communal house where I have met with friends before and besides looking for kicks of stimulation I keep my ears open for leads. Sure enough, one of those familiar faces pops up in the middle of a rolling conversation of radical politics with words like “guerrilla gardens”, “anarchists”, “worker’s unions”, “ecology”, and “capitalism” flowing freely. There will be something to learn here, something to latch onto. Inserting myself in the conversation is done with ease at a party where such behavior is welcome and bodies are mixing like the drinks falling down our throats.

Being in attendance at ’actions’, making the effort to show up to an event billed as a great protest for some righteous cause has an effect that cannot be summarized by whether or not capitalism dies the morning after. There are faces to remember, there is information to collect, there is a milieu to become acquainted with, and a comfortability that comes with it sparking more genuine and less reserved conversations. A general sense becomes shared: something is terribly wrong and we are here to devise a plan. Even if opinions differ greatly from one to the next, this much has been made clear to me by schmoozing with so-called activists: assembling into a greater, more powerful body is a necessary step in the process of social change. The body that assembles in a particular time and place may disperse, fail to achieve its stated goals, or become a mere routine as predictable as the bureaucratic regime that it opposes; but it is in those sites full of charged up bodies who share you’re rage at the state of social affairs, along with its “external” effects on the environment at large, where a conversation can steer you onto a new path increasing the possibilities for projects that would have been inconceivable in isolation. A meet-up spot yes, but in the setting of a heightened feeling of power amongst a sea of others. A fluid mass of which you are only a part that at once puts you on the edge of your senses and expands your capabilities in the face of a terrible threat in both the short and long term.

Ever collecting points of intersection, one has crossed my attention that is too juicy to let drift away. That familiar face from the party indeed does have a lead: a connection pointing towards a future convergence.

Or, in short, I heared about a film screening.

A recent slice of history is documented in the film titled “Who Bombed Judi Bari?” and I learned some eye-opening things about radical politics from very close by my own region. After finishing the documentary I was surprised at how little I knew about Earth First! when much of the action came not only within my short lifetime but was exposed in the national media. With its current attention at a hush, I can understand the need for this documentary as it details the story of a grassroots organization that was building momentum when it became the target of a ruthless campaign by the Oakland Police Department and the FBI.

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Earth First! is a movement that engages in direct action against corporations who threaten life on earth. They are quick to point out on their website that it is not an organization but a non-hierarchical body of people with a shared goal: protecting “Mother Earth” at all costs. The stated claim about Earth First! is that it is a principle of “Biocentrism” around which individuals (explicitly in contrast to members) gather to stop particular practices that usually amount to slowing down loggers, their trucks, and equipment before they cut down trees. This is an instance of bottom-up politics organized not by any individual with any authority but by a common commitment bringing people together for specific events. Simply put, Earth First is a belief, or a set of beliefs, that are simultaneously a tool for pragmatically implementing those beliefs: “It is a belief in biocentrism, that life of the Earth comes first, and a practice of putting our beliefs into action.”.

They boast on their website: “Our front-line, direct action approach to protecting wilderness gets results.” and direct action does indeed get the goods. But is this really only a belief with a will to act brought along with it? It is possible to unpack Biocentrism as well as an ethical commitment to the Earth but this is not my aim. The bigger question lies between the belief and the action: are the actions that Earth First!ers perform faithful to the belief in protecting the life of the Earth? Does the belief too quickly translate into action without acknowledging all of the other beliefs that it carries in tow? Getting excessively reflective can stifle the ethical energy or moral courage by inducing doubt – I know this much (get it?). Given that one understands the stakes of the rapidly collapsing ecosystem planet-wide, the question is more about where and how one’s energy is being directed by the tactics and principles that go along with affiliating oneself with Earth First! But this is just to wet the curiosity. Before tackling these big questions we should look into the story of Earth First! in my own bioregion with special attention paid to their victories, near-misses, and resistance from powerful enemies.

The documentary focuses on the movement to stop logging companies from clear-cutting redwood forests in Northern California, Oregon and Cascadia in general. Roadblocks, tree-sits, confrontations with tractors all are captured on film as we see human bodies standing directly in the way of logging machinery. Initially, the group based its efforts on linking up with the timber workers and together putting a stop to the over-cutting or clear-cutting of forests that completely transformed ecosystems. It seems that the timber companies once logged sustainably (if that is possible) but then after CEO Charles Hurwitz “took over Pacific Lumber Company, raiding the company’s pension plan, selling off its assets, and doubling the logging[sic] in the forest so he could pay back his junk bonds debt.” (take a great big note on that one and file it away for later). Certain tactical rifts began to divide the Earth First!ers as tree-spikers and monkeywrenchers filled trees with spikes that would destroy logging machinery in acts of sabotage. This “ecotage” wasn’t a new practice but ran counter to the method that Bari and crew were going for: joining green activist together with workers to stop managers and bosses from eliminating the old-growth Redwoods. This could have been an exciting development had it gone through, establishing a shining example of how to effectively challenge corporate overproduction with an alliance of righteous activist and worker.

Trees-spiking caused some nasty injuries to timber workers and the alliance was never solidified. The ’hippy’ stereotype took over worker sentiment of the Earth First!ers, only now with the addition of the ’eco-terrorist’ label. Still the group pressed on with protests and blockades that were picking up momentum thanks to a media campaign. And it was working. Judi Bari’s voice was articulate, passionate, and concretely situated in the task at hand; a major example how effective civil disobedience could be when focused in the right direction. With songs and dance that brought a flavor of country and mountain music, she and her ecological comrades sent out a potent message of wilderness preservation. A festive culture of resistance was sprouting up that would be mimicked in the anti-globalization protests through the Occupy movement and other protests today. Nationally televised news stations were reporting on recent developments in the movement and other states beyond the west coast had joined in with conservation actions of there own. The movement would culminate in a mass rally and civil disobedience display where over a thousand people would get arrested in blocking the access to the headwaters forest. This was dubbed ’The Redwood Summer’ and should sound eerily familiar.

But right before the big demonstration in 1990, Judi Bari’s car was blown up by a bomb in Oakland. She was sent to the hospital and upon gaining consciousness arrested as the only suspect for her own car explosion. The Oakland police department figured that she was transporting a bomb to be used for ecological sabotage when she had vocally denounced even tree tampering to harm logging equipment, much less blowing it up. It was a brazen move to simultaneously smear her name as a terrorist and send a chilling message to the movement as a whole: stir-up the populace and we will come down on you, hard. Her pelvis was shattered. She and her friends homes were raided by the FBI. Troves of evidence were ignored and false claims stated before national reporters that even a glance at the images and video of the bombing’s aftermath would have discredited. The affair is detailed by Bari here. The most shocking part of this affair though is the FBI’s holding of a “Bomb School” open to all police officers and attended by Oakland Police Officers. Together they conducting pipe-bomb tests on ordinary cars in a logging site near Eureka, California just a few weeks before the Judi Bari incident. Upon approaching the wreckage in Oakland, with video-recorder in hand, a police man jokingly says something like “…here we go, here’s the final result…”

The case is still I unsolved today. In 2011, the FBI tried to destroy the evidence but was blocked by a California judge. The police and the FBI refuse to take up the case though and the evidence remains buried on a shelf somewhere. Bari gave a testimonial for a lawsuit she filed against the FBI and OPD in which she recounted the entire storyline of her involvement in Earth First! and the bombing incident; the defense asked her no questions. She won over 4 million dollars for her friends and family, but died of cancer before seeing any of it.

With tactics like these deployed against protesters and activists concerned about the negative impact on the environment (or, say, the erosion of any control over who our country bombs, our private security, or who gets to be bailed out with public funds) it’s a wonder that these organizations remain so steadfast in their routines of operation. After clearly being the target of a bombing for getting too big, how do these individuals stay calm and carry on instead of opting for escalation? The motto of Earth First! Reads: “No Compromise in Defense of Mother Earth!”, yet there is no more urgent of a time in which to take this seriously, and that means above all critically and with a strategic mind-set. We are constantly reminded by climate scientists that we have but a few years before we do irreversible damage to the Earth and turn a majority of it into an infertile desert. Billions will die. Most species will go extinct. This seems like a perfectly reasonable justification for taking the next step when confronted with an enemy that terrorizes and slanders you. But hold on a minute, what would that look like?

While the health of the Earth most definitely ought to be held consciously in mind in our efforts to change society, there is a disconnect that ecological activists groups ignore when they organize their rallies, marches, and other acts of civil disobedience. The Earth doesn’t speak our language, it could be said. If the Earth’s greater biosystem unleashes certain positive feedback loops then it will be a disaster for every life-form on it including people and their civilizations. And yet, when that old question “what is to be done?” comes up, the options resemble previous campaigns from recent history like the Civil Rights Movement or some form of slight modification to consumer products under the banner of “sustainability” or “green capitalism”. The current mode of we commonly settle into is to protest and make demands that our legislators will turn into laws that, piece by piece, will chip away at the culprits of CO2 emissions until they are gone and a green transition will take place. The rallies can increase in size and we can feel a bit more comfortable in gazing upon how many other people share our commitment, or we can hold onto some inkling of hope by thinking that in assembly our voices are being heard by our representatives. We can cry in outrage, we can form a giant marching mass, and we can pander ever more to those with power, but the Earth doesn’t care. The Earth is heating up and all that matters is ending the release of carbon from the ground into the atmosphere.

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This impasse we are at and the futility of current methods is not a big secret. But what people can’t seem to see yet is that preventing this collapse will require far more than well tread civil disobedience – at least of the kind that generally comes to mind in light of the phrase. The kind of action that would lead to stopping global warming would utterly disfigure the face of civilization. The energy used to move big metal objects through concrete freeways (and the energy required to pull that metal out of the ground and transport that concrete to a construction site in the first place) comes almost entirely from fossil fuels. Alternative energy sources are just simply inadequate to fill the void in the absence of the black liquid fire. See this film on the crisis of civilization and this clear explanation of our energy-fueled, debt-based growth society.

Mass rallies and blockades have an empowering effect. Stepping out of our everyday social roles as (possibly unemployed) workers, family members, or what have you and stepping into the streets strengthens bonds and increases possibilities moving forward. But where are we going? One-time actions seem hardly capable of bringing about the deep structural change that would halt Carbon emissions when people must rely on their cars to get to work, heavy machinery and pesticides are needed to grow our food, and maritime shipping and trucking transport it across the globe. Even if an ugly juggernaut of a pipeline is stopped from being built, the economy that we’ve grown so accustomed to demands amounts of energy that continually rein in on the future health of the Earth. Is putting the Earth first really what would bring about a reorganization of our social infrastructure so as to end this bleak scenario?

Stopping ourselves from carrying out this suicidal quest to dominate the Earth is by all means the end-game for our generation. How that is achieved is not necessarily by heeding the call to act Right Now and with the greatest sense of urgency in Our Great Mother’s defense. Stopping global warming will instead require that we as a civilization look in the mirror and never cease asking the question: “how do we stop ourselves?”

When ways of life conflict within a common place that we cannot escape from, inter-societal conflicts have always arose. With such limited time and a stubborn behemoth of a nation towering over the rest and doing some effective blockading of its own (the US has stifled all international climate resolutions), how can we with good conscience settle for local targets when large systems of power dwarf the actions of any company in particular?

*

Wen Stevenson penned an article in the Nation which began with our current battles around the Keystone XL pipeline before moving on to compare it with the civil disobedience of Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau popularized the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ in his 1846 essay of the same name. In his lifetime, Thoreau spent a little time in jail for not paying a poll tax, helped fugitive slaves escape to Canada, and, most radically of all, defended John Brown after his raid on Harper’s Ferry with a company of armed white and black men. With a polarized country shaken by the mounting tension over the question of slavery and a man having taken up arms for a righteous cause, Thoreau rushed to his defense. He gave a speech in front of a large audience just days after the bloody battle and used his renown to argue for the sanity and justness of John Brown. This was a radical author, who built a house by a secluded pond to “live deliberately” and free from the trappings of American industrial life, standing behind his dead friend who took up arms for a principle.

After citing America’s most radical author of the 19th century, Stephenson then suddenly turns on him writing “Fortunately, Thoreau – with his explicit endorsement of violence – didn’t get the last word on civil disobedience.” He continues:

“And yet today we face a human crisis as extreme in its way as the one faced by Thoreau. What is the “sane” – and appropriately radical – response to the urgent human crisis of global warming? Is anyone willing to say, “This people must cease to extract fossil fuels, and to unjustly rob today’s children and future generations of a livable planet, whatever the cost”?
It sounds crazy. But just as Thoreau and other radical abolitionists were willing to push the boundaries, so climate activists must be willing to say and do “crazy” and “radical” things – like put their bodies in the way of coal shipments, or demand that universities divest from fossil fuel companies – not because it’s politically expedient, but because it’s morally imperative. When the truly sane courses of action – putting a heavy price on carbon, leaving fossil fuels in the ground, massively scaling up clean energy, urgently seeking the necessary global commitments – lie outside the limits of political “realism” and “reasonable” debate, it’s time to ask who has the firmer grip on reality and reason.”

For Stephenson, “radical” action finds its home in human blockades and divestment campaigns and ring of the craziness of a zealous moralist. Yet it is somehow redeemed in a political environment of stagnancy. His radicals operate outside the limits of rational debate and straddle the lines of sanity – all under the umbrella of non-violence.

There is a curious double move going on here. On the one hand, taking radical and passionate action outside of mainstream politics is becoming more acceptable and is granted a more realistic, reasonable quality. On the other hand, its teeth are completely knocked out of it. After going through the extreme dangers of global warming and then the actions of one of countries most beloved literary figures (the kind that sometimes give you hope for a future with the promise of America not wholly intoxicated with greed and conquest still in it), the reader is lead to believe that blockading and divestment are a radical panacea for our climate ills.

Stephenson picked the right topic and the perfect figure to demonstrate the kind of radical action that would actually help transform society “whatever the cost”, but what is lacking is not the moral fanaticism (this country has got that in spades). What is lacking is the courage to challenge the obedience inherent in ‘non-violent civil disobedience’. The risks that go along with the type of disobedience that we see from McKibbon’s climate rallies (“I got arrested at the White House! Take my picture!”) do not exemplify the moral courage to match the situation of our biosphere. A case can be made for the bravery of the blockaders of the Keystone XL, with a victory perhaps propelling the movement into a bigger stage. But without the structural change to the energy and monetary growth demands of the US led global economy, these actions will remain reformist. The last word in the piece is “revolutionaries”, but there is nothing revolutionary about non-violent civil disobedience devoid of the will to follow in John Brown’s footsteps.

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Such a revolutionary movement could potentially be built from the ground up and sustained by local victories. Such actions give us the opportunity to solidify friendships and make new ones that will bolster the drive to a cooler planet. But make no mistake, this kind of sustained movement growth hasn’t been anywhere in sight since Occupy. And like all social movements, a conservationist campaign will confront the strong arm of the powers that be if it actually gets big enough to make the necessary changes to capitalist production.

*

Back at the ‘Who Bombed Judi Bari?’ film screening, I kick back in a big round chair and pass the time before it starts by opening up the book I’m reading and cracking a beer. The book is Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s ‘What Is Philosophy?’ and by pure coincidence I’m on a chapter called ‘Geophilosophy’. An older woman, veteran of activism no doubt, notes the author and after I ask if she’s read in any she says: “I don’t read any of that postmodern stuff.” I’m not surprised by this reaction, just disappointed in her. Not wanting to kill my buzz, I just dig right back into it.

I’ll end with some quotes from the chapter:

“Thinking is neither a line drawn between subject and object, nor a revolving of one around the other. Rather, thinking takes place in the relationship between territory and the earth.”

“The earth is not one element among others but rather brings together all the elements within a single embrace while using one or another of them to deterritorialize territory.”

“In imperial states deterritorialization takes place through transcendence: it tends to develop vertically from on high, according to a celestial component of the earth. The territory has become desert earth, but a celestial Stranger arrives to reestablish the territory or reterritorialize the earth.”

“As concept and as event, revolution is self-referential or enjoys a self-positing that enables it to be apprehended in an immanent enthusiasm without anything in states of affairs or lived experience being able to tone it down, not even the disappointments of reason. Revolution is absolute deterritorialization even to the point where this calls for a new earth, a new people.”

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Simon Critchley on Nihilism, Ethics, and the Democratic Deficit

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Here is a link to a video of Simon Critchley at the European Graduate School. His talk begins with Nietzsche on the problem of Nihilism and moves on towards his meta-ethical schema of the infinite demand.

Some take-away notes:

– In thinking with Nietzsche we have lost belief in the world. The final moment of nihilism is the understanding that the true world of being is an illusion and there is only “the reality of becoming”.

– the Christian will-to-truth has been inverted. What was true has been found to be false and meaninglessness sets in: “”why?” finds no answer.”

– Nietzsche is not a nihilist according to Critchley but develops his philosophy as a counter-movement to nihilism.

– Nietzsche’s eternal return is the ultimate a test of endurance. It is the most burdensome thought one can have and one’s ability to endure the eternal return is a measure of one’s strength.

– Critchley interprets the eternal return as an ethical thought, and Nietzsche as a “super-Kantian” who gives a moral law without any metaphysical guarantee. He acknowledges that there are other competing interpretations. “Nietzsche is like the Talmud”.

– the response to nihilism has taken on a split between active and passive forms.
Passive nihilism being a withdrawal from the world that has been lost: give it all up, it’s gone.
Active nihilism being the project of destroying the old world and creating a new one.

– this distinction is a mere model though, alternatives and mixtures between the two could be devised.

– Kant’s categorical imperative is an autonomous choice of a subject, an internal agreement with the Universal moral law.

– Levinas’s ethics is a heteronomous confrontation of the face of the other that is transformed in his later work into an movement that invades the subject and divides it. The dividual, schizo-subject is torn between itself but by an external other that demands its commitment.

– Critchley believes that ethics is by nature an infinite demand that splits a subject in two and internalizes the ethical responsibility to the other. This is a “Meta-Ethical” schema of
(approval demand).

– Critchley is holding out for the formation of an Hegemonic body-assemblage composed of ethical subjects centered around a name (LGBT, Migrant, Worker, etc.).

– he is vocally unconcerned about an internalized self-hatred. Nietzsche is very concerned with it, and takes great pains to diagnose the resentment of the slavish weakness of morality vs. ethics.

– **Critchley does not make a hard distinction between Ethics and Morality**

– his Meta-Ethics is the Logic of Debt.

This is especially interesting in his engagement with David Graeber in the end of his book Infinitely Demanding. Since then, the greatest force for social change in my view has been the occupy movement of which Graeber has played a big role in. The Strike Debt movement similarly has a wide reaching potential to completely transform the world-economy and rescue us from this prolonged Capitalist crisis. But here is a series of very weighty questions that arise form this debate:

Will a revolutionary movement today come from a hegemony of dividuals committed to an ethical principle and organized around a name? Or is the logic of indebtedness – individuals perpetually behind on their internalized responsibility to pay back their borrowed value – precisely what is to be challenged?

Would a post-nihilist ethic still necessarily involve this Meta-Ethical structure or would it be possible to reinterpret debt as the basis for social cooperation instead of a theological skeleton?

A one point in his The Faith of the Faithless, Critchley says “To be is to be in debt.” In a Heideggerian exegesis on the structure of belief. The subjective ethical demand is and remains based on an ontology still tinged with the image of thought that can be rooted in the (subject-object) distinction.

Later in the lecture, Critchley misinterprets Foucault’s work on the care of the self as an ethics that he subscribes to, rather than a genealogy of the subject as it was formed in the long history of Greek-Roman-Christian technologies. Couldn’t we imagine a revolutionary practice that does not take the form of a moral subject?

Perhaps one way to respond to nihilism would be to refuse the ethical demands that are placed on one and resolutely declare: “I am not in your debt anymore”. Perhaps Striking at Debt would be a viable post-nihilist praxis. One way or another, getting past nihilism is only the beginning.

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The Triumph of Activism

Excellent piece by Hyphy-Republic. This felt like common knowledge to the occupiers on the streets just last year, but has been drowned-out by tired activist discourse and corporate media. Occupy is a movement that merely took successful tactics from the past and attracted a new wave of angry, youthful people. For the most part, there was really nothing wrong with the actions and organization of Occupy (in Oakland anyways), and the problems were largely a result of physical oppression and media distortion.

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 The last several decades have represented an extended period of decline for the idea of “activism”. Protest, which in its golden hey-days of pre-institutional labor, anti-war, and civil rights, was an organic powerhouse, using a flexible diversity of tactics. Movements were not tied to a single form of protest, but it was clear that the most effective method of any protest was to be intractable, to seize time and space and not let it go until the establishment began to buckle.

Protest has evolved over the years into institutionalized and funded shell of its former self, where large scale parades and pre-arranged civil disobedience have created toothless hours-long spectacles that scare the organizers—who spend significant energy policing their own protesters—far more than they do the targets of the protests.

No one who has been involved in political action over the past decade can have failed to notice this dynamic, because…

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More Thoughts in Response to Levi Bryant

This time from his latest God and Mythico-Poetic Thought.

Rather than reject religion outright, how about rejecting the monotheism that requires inward directed souls/subjects to declare their belief in a perfect God? The internalized desire of the believer-subject is reproduced as well in Descartes who then can split himself from the external world of “Nature”, which is then in turn reproduced in the discourse of naturalist science. Both science and religion contain in their theories an ideal observer distinct from the external world; in one case an omnipresent God, in the other a complete world both external to the believer and total at once. Physics too has its religious pretensions in that elusive quest for the theory of everything.

The problem as I see it is rather in conceiving Nature as a whole and not working through its persistent aporias. We’re it not demanded to achieve a theory of Nature that matches or replaces a belief in Everything, scientists could be seen as producing accurate measurements without being hounded by deniers for being “just a theory”.

The mythico-poetic is of a different form than religions which force subjects to believe in a god. It is more like a background of cultural signifiers which make meaningful discourse possible just as much as the “wiredness” of our bodies. They contain many creation myths that do not explain in the same way as an individual explaining a foundational belief because they provide a foundational background for a common, shared cultural imagination.

The distinction I am drawing here is between subjective-belief in The universe and universes of symbolic reference as diverse as their are isolated cultures. This is possibly an ontological distinction, perhaps pertaining to the ground needed to have the the figure of a belief in general. I’m thinking now of the function of “the full body of the earth, the cosmic egg” in Deleuze and Guattari’s 3rd chapter of Anti-Oedipus. It plays the role of a territorial beginning from which flows and codings then implement primordial inscription. Still a rough draft of an interpretation of a massive work though.

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Beware: Labyrinth Ahead

20130516-165206.jpgThe world that we inhabit today is tangled up in such a convoluted manner that we can only give it its proper name by calling it a labyrinth. This world of ours is no longer a limitless world of indefinite expansion and sustained growth, nor does can it appeal to another perfect world from which we can extract the pure forms and make sense of it. Yet these activities account for most of the activity that goes on day to day in labor, production, and thought whether we admit it or not. The labyrinth has grown so difficult to navigate that the tools, conceptual and otherwise, received by history and culture are no longer are up to the task; and the task is quite simple: to prevent self-destruction, which will entail shifting both ourselves and our worldview into new beginnings.

Disentangling the labyrinth is not possible at the moment and no quick and easy answer will get us out of it; each answer is twisted and contorted to increase the scope and complexity of the labyrinth. The way forward is not simply to become fixated on an object or an end and strive toward it but, first and foremost, the way must be walked, the path moved along, one must stay alive. Dead ends, black holes, red herrings all conspire to attract towards them and direct the flow of movement inwards as heavy objects offering sanctuary and satisfaction. These dead ends conspiring together patternize bewildered bodies undergoing the experience of moving through the labyrinth. If one is to avoid these traps and snares, if one is to keep moving with the hope of the future held safely in one’s hands, if we are to survive, then the logic of the labyrinth – its rationality – must be understood and its construction seen in full view. This will involve an entire culture of beginnings and ends in science, philosophy, myth, and history to elaborate, but this involvement by no means implies a comprehensive view or assured knowledge of its object – an impossible endpoint within a task only concerned with beginning.

Guidance through the labyrinth is better equipped when one understands the place one occupies not as a vector point in a field of space but as mythical place with strange processes and spells being casted systematically without clear precision. A map and a GPS will help you get from point A to point B by drawing a zigzag line showing the way to your destiny (the destination), but we are not concerned with destinies and ends but creation and beginning. The act of creation cannot rely on a history of predictions whittling down chance and error to a minimum with their accompanying theories and devices while it also cannot avoid the place that this history has brought it to: it must be on one hand self-composed and on the other hand grateful for the gifts of history. To get through the labyrinth and not be drained of one’s creative capacities or excessively burdened by the sheer size of the world bearing down, recognizing the immense intricacy and complexity in the form of a singular name like ’the labyrinth’ will be of considerable utility. This word represents a place meant to induce the confusion, contradiction, and paradox: which is exactly the term needed to relieve an individual of this duress and reaffirm the quest for beginnings. For experience of being inside of the labyrinth is a common experience localizable in a given place, yet the effect of its walls and tricks is to remove this common element. Myth has a way of taking a problem and offering a fantastic reference for avoiding the frequent mistakes in handling socially relevant decisions pertaining to those problems. The labyrinth will be a touchstone for its invocation of confusion and frustration as a mind-state but also as a place-ground conspiring against the mind that seeks an object or a state to arrive at. There will be no such object-savior or tranquil state, however, skills will be sharpened as we make our way through this meticulously laid out place.

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Enter Cornelius Castoriadis and his book Crossroads in the Labyrinth. Or, rather, enter the labyrinth. The gate appears suddenly and then disappears after the first step. “Was that a gate back there we just went through? Can’t be sure anymore.” If we could just retrace our steps back to the entrance we could leave the very same way in which we first came inside, but this has already become an illusion, for our questions demand answers and not mere rhetorical tricks of entertainment. Sophistry will no longer do for us after passion has entered the scene, a passionate love for wisdom has taken over us. Wisdom intoxicates with an ambiance we cannot see as an object before us and in our perception, yet it propels us farther than anything hitherto has been able to. It will sometimes feel as though this jolt of energy came from within us and was there all along, or that it was imbued in us from another world perfectly arranged and never ending. Allowing these thoughts to be our guide will plant us between two sturdy walls and make us stare upward at the lazy sky with only clouds and storms passing by to observe (with luck), or even worse: we will end up staring at one of those walls. One wall could be labeled ’inside’ the other ’outside’ and staying in the middle will not help us move forward to the next convergence if those
are our only options. They will not appear as walls constraining our motion and within which we navigate if they are our only points of reference: they will fill us with awe and admiration, these beautiful walls, these answers.

The love of wisdom undeniably demands answers, but we mock our lover by grabbing hold of it and holding it up to the sky. Soon wisdom will become disinterested and simply leave us behind as we try in vain to maintain our grip, and then the whole relationship simply falls apart to neither party’s benefit. To think with wisdom there needs to be some mutual agreement of coadaptation between the knowledge wisdom holds and our activity and our contribution to it. This knowledge has already come a long way, split off into many disciplines, and seeped into nearly every facet of social life whether one decides to enter into the amorous relationship or not. So in order to join up with its path of motion and influence its trajectory it is necessary to dip into the history knowledge that such wisdom has inspired. Only then does the path open up towards a convergence that strengthens both wisdom and ourselves:

“To think is precisely to shake up the perceptual institutions of the world and of society, and the imaginary social significations born by this institution. What is akin to perception in this case, is that when we consider thought which is already achieved, we confront the schema of background/figure, and the necessity of such a schema… original thought posits/creates other figures, brings about the existence a figure of that which could not previously so exist; and this involves, inevitably, a tearing apart and a recreation of the existing background, the given horizon.”

This inevitable schema of figure/ground factors into the current quest as the given monuments left over from history and which constitute the solid structure of the walls of the labyrinth we wade through. These walls are figures firmly placed in the traversable ground directing our movement and any creation of ours will inevitably recreate the same structure. But the movement and composition of flows that follow from such a creation that radically unearths a new figure is not so determined:

“A true relationship with such a thought strives to retrieve this moment of creative tearing apart, this new and different dawn in which at a single stroke thing take up another configuration in an unknown landscape. This in turn implies that, for us, this thought of the past becomes a new being under a new horizon, that we create it as object of our thought, in another relationship with its inexhaustible being.” (p.xxv)

Both the figure erected and the ground surveyed become newly minted only as the reproduction of a prior “tearing apart” exercised already before the act but always different from the old act. The act of creation summons all that is lying around and constructs something truly new on both a new ground and as a unique object. Though it be new in both figure and ground, we only add to the labyrinth, even if we cannot see beyond this slice of it. The labyrinth by itself is no figure or ground, no work of creation either, and is thought futilely if as a exclusively a figure as well as exclusively a ground; it is a place not to be mistaken for its concrete walls or floor which account for the lot of its material, but is nothing without them. It is a forest bewildering our sensibilities and wreaking havoc on our ideas, but it is a place nonetheless – a place we are undoubtably inside and within which we must construct.

The labyrinth is theory itself, and theory must always take into consideration the extending of thought to its limit while acknowledging the particularity of this act here, or that perception there. But as soon as one catches wind of these questions and the difference that distorts the certainty claimed by an experience or a true statement, doubt itself carries one to its limit in a skeptical stance of defensive parrying like an aikido warrior. As sure a substitute for knowledge as this internalized doubt may sound, it risks falling into disrespectful boasting against its opposition without which it would devoid of response for it only reacts to and channels away from. Truth must be admitted in circumstance *and allowed to push outward beyond historical contingency or else collapse – swallowed by the labyrinth. The intense desire for knowledge that compels actors to jog through it and to construct pieces of it is as inescapable as the labyrinth. Even if our desired object becomes a negative destruction of the labyrinth as its creative act of “dehiscence”, such a force will remain impotent without properly navigating it towards a convergence – the crossroads in the labyrinth. Once again, this means assuming the theoreticians mode of practice to link up with other actors likewise stifled by the labyrinth to build a contrary edifice in the opening.

We need not throw on his (and it almost always is his) robes and become fitted out to a priestly comfort in order to navigate through the labyrinth though. However protection will be needed. It’s better to thing of one’s appearance walking through the labyrinth as armor with an agonistic functionality: call it your arg-garments. Skillful rhetoric and sound tactics are only as good as conveyed to a collective group of some kind, and this necessarily involves visibility and showing up. Of course, neither appearance nor a concise plan will save you alone and only assuming the proper surface garments along with latching on to the proper flows within the labyrinth will together let way forward open.

“Theory exists neither as a ’view’ of that which is, nor as a systemic and exhaustive constitution or construction of that which may be thought, whether arrived at a single definitive moment or a process of gradual elaboration. No breach opens suddenly within the walls surrounding us, so that we can at last see the light of the sun which has always been there. And no more is there an harmonious edifice whose overall plan we shall progressively discover as we work on its construction.
There is theoretical activity, the making/doing of theory, which emerges only at a given historical moment. This human activity or undertaking is a social-historical project: the project of theory. To give an account of, and a reason for – logon didonai – everything: the world, the objects surrounding us, their ’laws’, ourselves, this activity itself… This is a pure fact: we can do no otherwise. We can do no otherwise, once the question has been raised. And we know that it has not always been raised, since the beginning of time, but that it happened at ’a given moment’.
If this is so, are our questions and our projects perhaps contingent? Yes, but for whom? For an absolute Spectator. But to speak or think this way, this absolute Spectator must himself be doing theory, a theory dependent on the categories of the necessary and the contingent. We are not and never shall be this absolute Spectator. Yet at the same time, and despite what has sometimes been said, we cannot prevent ourselves from adopting his fictitious standpoint, even if only to declare that he does not exist, or that he cannot be conceived without contradiction. This which we are speaking of as contingent – this which is neither contingent, nor necessary – this is our reality. Can we get out of it? It is obvious that we can’t. It is obvious that we can. Unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot but think that thought is a social-historical creation – and that this thought is true. And, unless I succumb to delirium, I cannot think either that all thought is true, or that, when it is, it is capable of accounting for its own truth; I cannot think either that thought is founded upon itself, or that it is transparent to itself.” (p.xix)

Delirium, absolute Spectator, a given historical moment, the activity of theory: our guide’s harassment of our intellect is the expression of tough love. For we can only follow him up to a point before that point disappears and we are left to make our own way. We assume the role of spectator only to learn how to abolish such passive receptivity, we learn the from the privileged volumes of history chalked full of mistakes and self-congratulation to imagine the blood-soaked result of victories, we learn to rationalize in the logos of our culture bearers to achieve gradual metamorphosis, we go into delirium to experience ourselves the raw form of Dionysian exuberance; but we can never sit comfortably again.

So strap on that armor and sharpen those arguments because now that the labyrinth’s illusions, traps, and blockages are better visible we must meet perhaps our most formidable agents of anti-theory: Modern Scientists.

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On Levi Bryant’s ‘Axioms for a Dark Ontology’

Levi Bryant has drawn up a brief manifesto of a nihilist reflection on the world and life’s place in the one and only world as a mere accident. His materialism in the matters of human belief brings forth succinctly and strikingly a conception of the world as void that is reminiscent of Lucretius. World here functions as a pure void, an empty space on which the dance of matter takes place. This distinction of matter and world seems to recreate the full/empty binary which then is grafted on to existence as a whole, or, the universe. The manifesto is well worth a read and long contemplation, as well as a follow up from arranjames.
http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2013/05/14/axioms-for-a-dark-ontology/
http://attemptsatliving.wordpress.com/2013/05/15/levi-bryants-axioms-for-a-dark-ontology/

But must we abide by these terms and this conceptual framework? The world conceived as it is here is doomed from the start to void and nothingness, which is clearly the only conclusion that could follow from this conceptual treatment. When imagining the world as a single unified place (and this must be an exercise in the imagination, or perhaps an intellectual excursus within a conceptual model), it could not possibly be full and perfectly meaningful to the point of which a perfectly understood significance could give cultural actors access to it. The world is at once occupying the figure and the ground, holding both the indisputable ’thereness’ of existence as object and also the setting, place, or environment upon which all objects dwell. Lying within this word is the collapsed distinction which at first allows for a meaningful object to become a thing under consideration with its own properties, tendencies, structures, and relations to other objects. An object must always ’be’ amidst a backdrop, a backdrop which tries to attain distinctly objective status as a cognizant thing when the unification meant for an object is “outsourced” to its own ground.

This linguistic movement of a binary opposition (figure/ground) is accompanied by the enormous successes of scientific institutions which have brought along with them a discourse rife with philosophical undertones of disinterested objectivism. However, these matters are largely ignored by today’s scientists and left to the “lofty intellectuals” so they can do their work of infinite knowledge production in their secure, unchallenged ’world’. Their experiments, results, and the method so fruitful in producing useful technologies for their nations do indeed prove themselves over and over again to be of great worth. Though the dis-coveries of these material things in their patterned movement can lay claim to truth in the minimally predictive sense, when science moves to theory and, either consciously or unconsciously, harkens back to the beginnings of science in the certainty, finality, and universality it must (if sincerity and honesty is given to the words and concepts with which they construct those theories) admit to itself that it is engaging in philosophy. Recourse is always given to a history of actors, experimenters, and observers that carry science from one new mode to the next, and the unifying thread of science does indeed have a history that goes as far back as when ’physics’ was called ’natural philosophy’.

Bringing up the paradoxes and entanglements of science with regards to the nihilistic refusal of meaningful belief in the world is can be of some utility here since it problematizes both subjective commitment and disinterested (supposedly non-subjective) knowledge. If the separation of subject and object would be held apart so firmly, the subject would be forced to have as its object of conscious adherence (ideology if you want) the forced choice between a foundational social/ego or bare objects/things. I believe things are more complicated and intertwined along with Merleu-Ponty. The reflective and inward-folding that a solitary writer is privy to can be also recognized as an object in the “mind-space” so as to balance the linguistic relationship. A sentence that makes sense, written down or spoken between those within a common discourse must be the result of an actor in a performance – and on a stage. Ideas are inextricable in thinking about the world and any of its particular objects and we must place them some*where* – as we must do with objects, placing them in the world. However, when the object tries to become its own ground, to take over the whole stage as it were, we get an idea that attempts to both produce its own existence and declare for itself nothing at all.

This is an extremely important topic, since I have both flirted with nihilism and remain very open to the Spinozist-Lucretian-Nietzsche Delueze thread that treats nothingness as nothing (as a mere linguistic nothing and not a source of creation or attachment). This all set within the problem of global warming and the threat of ecological collapse which I want to hold out as avoidable. There is so much still yet to be done.

Having gone this far into the labyrinth of theory I should make something clear: these thoughts gave been germinating in my mind for quite some time now from various sources. But those consistent bloggers have made it seem like there was a community of participants willing to read what I wrote and I owe you all thanks for inspiring me to experiment with this mode of expression. It is very strange indeed having so many ideas floating around both the Internet and my face to face encounters and this reassures me that I am onto the right track with regard to the topics, even if the content is disputable. A great deal of my influence has come from reaching out into other spheres and keeping running debates with friends and fellow autodidacts, but blogs allow rough thought to just “get out there” and be seen. The books that I’m drawing from in this piece which I haven’t yet been able to make good enough essays about yet are Cornelius Castoriadis’s Crossroads in the Labyrinth (a staggering work of theoretical genius), Robert Pogue Harrison’s Forests, and Deleuze’s Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. I’ll get around to coming up with more substantial works on these books soon since they have been so educational and I want to share.

As a teaser: the social actor is inextricably bound up with yet opposed to Nature. Nature is less a world than it is a labyrinth. The place, region, or territory is neither neutral or empty. The place of nature (seeing as it is that the social must juxtapose with nature) is the forest.

“There’s just no time for these thoughts…”

As a philosopher trying to keep up with the many strains and schools that diverge and often fight with each other, I’ve had to spend much time sitting for long periods of time and reading. The foreign, heady, and counter-intuitive ideas and discourses from the distant past need a good deal of personal reflection and distancing from the everyday, common speak with friends and family, so a lot of this philosophical practice requires isolation. Breaks from reading are generally spent spacing out by staring off into the ceiling of a cafe or library to more thoroughly reorient myself to the strange ideas of epochs gone past. But these writings left behind as great monuments by those who took conceptual problems seriously are extremely powerful, so powerful that they have reorganized our societies, our beliefs, matter itself…

There is a disconnect between the solitary or purely discursive intellectual-philosophical activity and the great potential for change which these ideas (not immediately tangible things) can produce. Making this connection has been very hard in my experience, as many people have settled on the simple prioritization of practice over theory. Be it the result of the acceleration of physical activity and the effective mobilization of the labor-work force to produce or the inability to perceive ideas that have organized this increased activity, so many people (even among those who theorize for a living!) just don’t think of theory or critique as valuable activity. It is not a worthwhile endeavor, for the fruits of this labor do not appear soon enough, one desires instant gratification (and perhaps too many need that reward to continue surviving) and there just isn’t time to wait for ideas to run their course and take the grand effect of global change they invoke. There has actually been a wealth of new and wonderful theory in these past decades, but the disconnect between the ideas that change along with the times and the critical mass they are trying to reach has accompanied the disconnect between the removed theoretical activity and the wide subjects which they deal with. Must this be the case? Must great ideas be doomed to take their effect on the field of play too late?

I’m told that when at dinner parties of times gone by, or whatever social gathering substitutes for one, philosophers who makes themselves known would be asked: “Oh! Well tell me the meaning of life then Mr. Philosopher!” This would be slightly uncomfortable for the philosopher and they would reply in turn that it’s not that simple or pull out some similarly disarming wise-crack. To this day nobody has asked me about the meaning of life when I express my chief interest and area of study. Instead, the almost universal response is: “What do you do with that?” Both are meant to put some pressure on the person claiming a devout love of wisdom, as they will inevitably feel belittled by the one working with things that perplex them, but the ’meaning of life’ challenge is infinitely more desirable than ’what can you do with that?’. I yearn to be asked the life question, but it just never comes. I could actually give some of my ideas on where life is going, how it was formed, the disparity in definitions given by different scientific disciplines, how earth’s ecosystem adjusts itself like a living organism itself, how life might not require any meaning to be valuable and self-generate its own meaning… But instead I get someone asking a vastly dumbed-down gut-reaction question about what *I* can *Do* with this knowledge. As if it was not already an action itself or needed the justification of applicability in the job market to be worthwhile.

This contrast between the two dinner party questions to the philosopher is telling of our age. And to demonstrate how worthy of an activity philosophy is, I’m going to learn from this development and ponder: why do people now think of bare activity (vs. theory) when confronted by a philosopher instead of life and meaning?