Too Much: Excess

I’m very sympathetic to the critique of consumerism and market fundamentalism given by Clive Hamilton and Richard Deniss in their 2005 book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough.  However, their critique throws the exorbitantly excessive baby out with the consumerist bathwater.  They’re upset about how much people desire more and more and much too much.  Environmentalists and critics of capitalism often emphasize much needed limits and regulations without paying enough attention to the need for multiple forms of transgression, expansion, extravagance. 

An ethicopolitical response to contemporary ecological and economic challenges must engage the astonishing complexity of limits, whereby limits are constitutively entangled with their transgression.  Abundance abounds, scarcity overflows.    

From Bataille’s perspective […] there is always too much rather than too little, given the existence of ecological (“natural”) and social (“cultural”) limits.  The “end” of humankind, its ultimate goal, is thus the destruction of this surplus. […] Bataille emphasizes the maintenance of limits and survival as mere preconditions for engaging in the glorious destruction of excess.  The meaning of the limit and its affirmation is inseparable from the senselessness of its transgression in expenditure (la dépense).
—Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability [University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 45]

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. […] Exuberance is Beauty. […] Enough! or Too much.
—William Blake

You took too much.  You’re about to explode.  Jesus, look at your face! […] The first rush is the worst.  Just ride the bastard out.
—Dr. Gonzo

Too much is never enough.
—MTV (one of many slogans)


Schopenhauer on Philosophy Blogs

Of course, Schopenhauer didn’t have a blog, but a glance at his notebooks indicates the kind of delightfully pessimistic  things we might hear from him. 

Could any great mind have reached his goal and created a lasting work, if he had taken the flitting will-o’-the-wisp of public opinion as his guiding star, i.e., the opinion of little minds?

I have lifted the veil of truth higher than any mortal before me.  But I should like to see the man who could boast of a more miserable set of contemporaries than mine.

It enters my mind as little to mix in the philosophical disputes of the day, as to go down and take part when I see the mob having a scuffle in the street.

All of those quotations can be found in Helen Zimmern’s old book, Arthur Schopenhauer, His Life and Philsosophy.  I should note that I’m only joking.  I don’t really have any idea what Schopenhauer would have to say about philosophy blogs.  It’s hard to say what a dead philosopher would think of contemporary phenomena.  Maybe there should be some kind of argumentum post mortem fallacy.

Saving the World from Sovereignty

The Posthumanities book series at the University of Minnesota Press keeps releasing terrific books.  I finally got around to reading Mick Smith’s book, Against Ecological Sovereignty: Ethics, Biopolitics, and Saving the Natural World (2011).  Making important contributions to political ecology, environmental ethics, and continental philosophy, Smith presents an approach to radical ecology grounded in a thorough critique of the concept of sovereignty. 

Smith focuses extensively on Agamben’s analysis of biopolitics and the reduction of humans to “bare life,” which Smith relates to Heidegger’s analysis of the reduction of nature to Bestand (“standing reserve” or “resource”).  Arendt, Bataille, Benjamin, Latour, Levinas, and Nancy also make frequent appearances, as Smith draws on their works to support his critique of sovereignty and his ethicopolitical vision of an open, diverse, and posthumanist “intimate ecology of responsibility” (167).  Furthermore, in a refreshing tone, he does not propose a solution to the environmental crisis.

In any case, unlike the majority of people writing on the environment, I do not have a recipe for saving the natural world, a set of rules to follow, a list of guiding principles, or a favorite ideology or institutional form to promote as a solution.  For before all this, we need to ask what “saving the natural world” might mean.  And this requires, as I have argued, sustaining ethics, and politics, and ecology over and against sovereign power—the exercise of which reduces people to bare life and the more-than-human world to standing reserve. […]  What we need are plural ways to imagine a world without sovereign power, without human dominion. (220)

Saving nature, saving the planet, saving Earth.  These are usually just more exercises of sovereignty.  To the extent that we should “save” some beings in the natural world (e.g., save the whales!), saving must take on a meaning that is not encumbered by sovereign power. 

To save the whales is to free them from all claims of human sovereignty, to release them into their singularity, their being such as it is—whatever it is—quodlibet ens, and into flows of evolutionary time, of natural history, just as they release themselves into the flows of the world’s oceans.  This “saving” is an ethicopolitical action. (103) 

Although Smith is focusing primarily on criticizing human sovereignty over nature, he is clear that this does not mean replacing human sovereignty with the sovereignty of nature. 

It is not a call to recognize the sovereignty of nature over all human activities, including ethics and politics. […]  It is a political and ecological critique of sovereignty per se, both natural and political.  The breadth and depth of this critique is why radical ecology is potentially the most radical form of politics, why it offers the most fundamental challenge to the established order of things. (107)

One highlight of the book is that Smith brings together multiple philosophers without ignoring their differences, incompatibilities, and contradictions.  His use of Agamben is a good example: Smith continually draws on Agamben’s concepts and analyses while simultaneously criticizing Agamben’s anthropocentric or “hyperhumanist” tendencies (116).  Another example: Smith offers a critique of Latour that ends up bringing Latour and Levinas together in a productive way.

In short, there are a lot of gems in Smith’s book.  It’s inspired me to look deeper into Arendt’s work, which I haven’t spent much time with in quite a while.  Overall, Against Ecological Sovereignty makes me like radical ecology more than I did before I read it.  Continental philosophy and radical ecology are good for one another.


Adam Robbert has posted a helpful overview of Steven Shaviro’s paper, “Consequences of Panpsychism,” a paper which I heard Shaviro deliver at Claremont in 2010. 

I’m somewhat sympathetic with panpsychism, but I don’t consider myself a panpsychist.  Of course, any “ism” has its problems, but I’m not just bothered by the “ism” in panpsychism.  It’s the “pan” that bothers me.  I would have similar reservations about pantheism or pan-anything. 

What’s wrong with the “pan” in panpsychism?  Everything!  It everythings things.  In contrast, attending to things themselves, I tend to resist the everythinging of things. 

No quality or thing should be panned.  It would be better if the “pan” in panpsychism meant that panpsychism would involve inquiry into the souls of dish pans, or what it’s like to be a baking pan.  Even better, in a more Latinate turn of phrase, panpsychism would describe the vibrant materiality of animate bread.

Latour’s Bad Words

The vocabulary I have used is very bad and it is meant to be bad: actant, mediation, obligatory passage point, translation, delegation, they have no meaning in themselves and they do no metaphysical work whatsoever.  I never put any sort of explanatory weight on them.  I don’t believe the world is made of mediations, entities, or agencies.  Those words are simply tools deployed to travel from one site to the next.  The whole vocabulary of Actor-Network Theory is a way of moving from one agency to the next.  This is why, in the book I did on the politics of nature, I call what I do “experimental metaphysics.”  Like Whitehead—whom Isabelle Stengers defines as the greatest philosopher of the past century—I believe that to do metaphysics experimentally, one should not define the actors of the world in advance.  It is the job of metaphysicians to monitor the experiment in which the world makes itself.  We need a very poor vocabulary, composed of stupid terms, to function infra-conceptually.  Words like modernity are even more useless since they have no empirical content, they simply dramatize some ideological questions.  See, I find all those terms disgusting as well, but I don’t worry if they are dirty since I put no explanatory weight in them. (p. 18)

Bruno Latour. “Interview with Bruno Latour,” in Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality, eds. Don Ihde and Evan Selinger, 15-26 (Indiana UP, 2003).

The Place of Irigaray’s New Age

The transition to a new age requires a change in our perception and conception of space-time, the inhabiting of places, and of containers, or envelopes of identity. It assumes and entails an evolution or a transformation of forms, of the relations of matter and form and of the interval between: the trilogy of the constitution of place. Each age inscribes a limit to this trinitary configuration: matter, form, interval, or power [puissance], act, intermediary-interval. (pp. 7-8)

Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill [Cornell UP, 1993].