The Philosophy of Big History

I attended the recent conference of the International Big History Association.  The association is oriented toward researching and teaching “Big History,” which aims (as their website says) to “understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity,” specifically by means of “the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.”  That opens up the field of history into a comprehensive and cross-disciplinary account of the entire 13.8 billion year history of our universe.

Big History is far from alone in its aim to articulate an integrated and evolutionary vision of matter, life, and humanity.  Multiple scholarly fields and schools of thought share the integrative aims of Big History (e.g., the universe story, the field of religion and ecology, integral theory, ecofeminism, complexity theory, posthumanities, process philosophy).  Big historians still have much to learn from those and other integrative and transdisciplinary sources of evolutionary knowledge.  Continue reading

Philosophy as Resistance: Commons for All

Thinking of philosophy as resistance, one might think first of the philosophical activities of Marxists, feminists, and environmentalists.  I would add process philosophers to that list.  For Bergson, for instance, philosophizing is a violent inversion of the status quo.

The mind has to do violence to itself, has to reverse the direction of the operation by which it habitually thinks, has perpetually to revise, or rather recast, all its categories.  But in this way it will attain to fluid concepts, capable of following reality in all its sinuosities and of adopting the very movement of the inward life of things.  Only thus will a progressive philosophy be built up, freed from the disputes which arise between the various schools, and able to solve its problems naturally, because it will be released from the artificial expression in terms of which such problems are posited.  To philosophize, therefore, is to invert the habitual direction of the work of thought. (Bergson, An Introduction to Metaphysics [trans. T. E. Hulme. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1912], p. 51).

That’s not very different from Whitehead’s claim that philosophy “reverses the slow descent of accepted thought towards the inactive commonplace” (Modes of Thought, p. 174).  The question I’m left with is to what extent Bergson and Whitehead can facilitate resistance to a particularly obstinate habit that pervades late modernity: the enclosure of the commons (the becoming-inactive of the commonplace).  For Bergson, resistance to enclosures might have something to do with love, reminiscent of his famous saying, “The motive power of democracy is love.”  In Whitehead, maybe the notion of conformation provides a sense of the commons.  Consider a few quotes from Process and Reality:

The philosophy of organism holds that, in order to understand “power,” we must have a correct notion of how each individual actual entity contributes to the datum from which its successors arise and to which they must conform. (p. 56)

The pragmatic use of the actual entity, constituting its static life, lies in the future. The creature perishes and is immortal. The actual entities beyond it can say, “It is mine.” But the possession imposes conformation. (p. 82)

..and from Symbolism: Its Meaning and Effect, “Time in the concrete is the conformation of state to state” (35).

Some discussion of the DeleuzoGuattarian concepts of Hardt/Negri would help elaborate on the role of process thought in resisting enclosures and recuperating the commons, as would a discussion of Anne Pomeroy’s work on Marx and Whitehead and the anthology Bergson, Politics, and Religion, edited by Alexandre Lefebvre and Melanie White.  I’ll have more to say about this later.  In the meantime, I’m enjoying the essays in The Wealth of the Commons, edited by two wonderful defenders of the commons, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich.

The Turning Point

I was recently joking about the use of a “turn” to describe theoretical movements or epochs, like the linguistic turn and the more recent ontological turn.  I was happy to find Derrida articulating the same point as my hokey-pokey joke: the point is to question the very idea that we (who? humans? animals? beings?) are beings that can define and situate ourselves in a “turn” or some such epochal shift or historical mutation.

I would therefore hesitate just as much to say that we are living through a historical turning point.  The figure of the turning point implies a rupture or an instantaneous mutation whose model or figure remains, precisely, to be questioned.  As for history, historicity, even historicality, those motifs belonging precisely—as we shall see in detail—to this auto-definition, this auto-apprehension, this auto-situation of man or of the human Dasein as regards what is living and animal life; they belong to this auto-biography of man, which I wish to call into question today. (Jacques Derrida, The Animal That Therefore I Am, p. 24)

Intimate Curves of Earthly Existence

Geography and the Earth sciences, if they are to truly account for Earth, must study intimacy.  I would argue that intimacy has something to do with roundness….curves.

What is needed is geography as an intimate study. Just as there is an affection between animals and humans, so there is an affection that passes between the region and human appreciation. Nothing escapes the role of intimacy. There is such a thing as considering the curvature of space as an intimacy of the universe with every being in the universe. So with the bioregion, there is an intimacy that brings to fulfillment both the region and its human presence. The region responds to the attention it receives from the various members of the community.

~Thomas Berry, The Great Work.

Because the world is round it turns me on.

~The Beatles, “Because.”

Every being seems in itself round. [Jedes Dasein scheint in sich rund.]

~Karl Jaspers, Von der Wahrheit.


Take Your Turn

What’s with all the philosophical hokey-pokey?  I hear a lot about putting some things in and taking some things out and turning around, so much turning around.  How many turns have there been in the last hundred years?  Remember the linguistic turn in philosophy?  Then Habermas argued for some kind of pragmatic turn.  In the philosophy of religion a few folks tried to initiate a participatory turn, and of course, the ontological turn has been getting some attention lately.  Has anybody really thought through all of this turning?  Is the turning trope a handy substitute for thinking?  Is the philosophical tradition a boat that needs to be turned around lest it shipwreck on the shores of existence?  I would prefer the shipwreck.  Is it a game where everybody gets to take a turn so that nobody feels left out?  I’m not sure if such a game is worth playing.  As everybody is taking their turn, how many realize that they are under the spell of Heidegger’s Kehre?  Among so much hokey-pokey, Heidegger was the only one to turn to the turning of the turn, like an existential DJ spinning on the turntables of Being.

Rhythm and Trance

My latest piece for my column at Nomos Journal is up.  It’s an analysis of the Afro-Atlantic legacy of contemporary popular music, specifically in light of two interrelated aspects of Afro-Atlantic music: rhythm and trance.  The use of polyrhythmic beats in the spirit possession rituals of Afro-Atlantic traditions parallels the structure of the trance experiences that those beats occasion.  The beats mix two-pulse and three-pulse beats and the experiences likewise manifest liminal mixtures of humans (possessed) and deities (possessors), as well as mixtures between conscious and amnesiac states, between performer and audience members, between ritual and art, between humans and animals (e.g., the horses we become when we are possessed/mounted by gods)….

I’m always bothered by the inadequacy of the terminology of music theory.  Polyrhythm is a better term than syncopation, a striking-together wherein one beat is considered regular or normal, against which the irregular “off”-beat strikes.  Such a hierarchy is missing in Afro-Atlantic music; neither duple meter nor triple meter is heard as primary or regular.  In fact, there is no abstract meter at all, only the play of multiple meters.  Along those lines, polyrhythm seems like a much better term, since it does not assimilate the plurality of rhythms into a hierarchy of regular/irregular beats.  However, as Mikel Dufrenne points out in The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience, polyrhythm is still an inadequate concept for describing the phenomenon itself.  It presupposes a mono-/poly- distinction that is not present in the actual performance or experience of the music.

I’m reminded that there is a magic formula that many of us are still searching for, a formula that would equate the singular and the plural, mono- and poly-, the one and the many, monism and pluralism.  My commitment to pop analysis follows along those lines, listening for the truth of to hen in the music of hoi polloi.

Upcoming Conference Appearances

It looks like I’ve got my conference engagements lined up for the second half of the year.  I’m only doing a few things, and they’re all in California, which isn’t entirely incidental, as I try to avoid travel scenarios that involve high financial and environmental costs.

First, I’m delighted to be presenting on a panel with two close companions, Kimberly Carfore and Adam Robbert.  We’ll be at the IBHA (International Big History Association) conference in San Rafael, CA, August 6-10.  Our panel is “Cosmopolitics and the Big Journey: Resolving Nature-Culture Dualisms.”  The title of my paper: “Concepts for Collective History: Cosmopolitics and the Journey of the Universe.”  I’ll give an overview of three distinct approaches to collective history (i.e., approaches that integrate human and natural histories), including the approach called Big History, the approach of “universe story” advocates like Thomas Berry, Brian Swimme, and Mary Evelyn Tucker, and the approach of theorists associated with the “cosmopolitics” proposed by Isabelle Stengers (e.g., Gilles Deleuze, Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway).  Adam has a summary of our panel available HERE.

Next, I’ll be in Los Angeles for the annual meeting of PACT (the Pacific Association for the Continental Tradition), October 2-4.  I’ll address questions of narrative and image in relation to the work of Peter Sloterdijk, specifically his philosophical theory of globalization, which is an extension of his sphere theory.  My argument is that his general spherology provides a context for understanding the planet Earth as the locus of a grand narrative that overcomes the hegemony of previous metanarratives and the intellectual defeatism of postmodern prohibitions against metanarratives.  My paper title: “Earth: Spherological Imagination and the New Grand Narrative.”

Finally, I’ll be at the annual meeting of the AAR (American Academy of Religion) in San Diego, November 22-25.  I’ll be involved in a couple events.  I will be a panelist in a Roundtable discussion focusing on the excellent new book by George James, Ecology is Permanent Economy: The Activism and Environmental Philosophy of Sunderlal Bahuguna.  I’ll also be presenting a paper in a panel on “New Materialism, Religion, and Climate Change.”  I’m representing Tim Morton’s object-oriented perspective, specifically in light of his proposal for an updated version of animism.  My paper title: “Feeling for Hyperobjects: Animistic Affects in the Anthropocene.”  I posted a version of my paper proposal HERE.


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