Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

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Of Selves and Mirrors

If you want to know whether something or someone possesses a capacity for self-recognition or self-perception, a common test to use is the mirror test. Put people in front of a mirror, and see if they can recognize themselves in their reflections. Can you tell that your reflection is your image, that is, an image of you yourself? If so, you would see that the reflection of your nose is not another’s nose. Rather, you would recognize that it refers back to your actual nose. If you wanted to touch your nose, you wouldn’t touch the mirror. You would touch your face. That implies that you can recognize yourself, hence the official name of this test: mirror self-recognition (MSR). That test has some problems. Ultimately, the mirror test says very little about the self of those who do or don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. It says more about the self of someone who thinks mirrors are adequate tests for selfhood.  

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Poetics, Practice, and Things

Poetry can compress vast acreages of meaning into a small compass or perform the kind of bold linkages that would take reams of academic argument to plot; it can widen the aperture of our gaze or deposit us on the brink of transformation…
One of the most striking and unsettling aspects of the Anthropocene is the newly poignant sense that our present is in fact accompanied by deep pasts and deep futures. Fundamentally, the Anthropocene describes how humanity has radically intruded in deep times, the vast time scales that shape the Earth system and all the life-forms that it supports.

– David Farrier [Anthropocene Poetics: Deep Time, Sacrifice Zones, and Extinction (University of Minnesota Press, 2019), 5-6]

I’m currently teaching an ecopoetics course, which has given me a good excuse for keeping up with new books like Farrier’s Anthropocene Poetics. In the gap between this post and my previous post, I was preparing for the class, moving north of San Francisco to a house along the Russian River, and doing the usual mixture of teaching, writing, and conferencing. Incidentally, the river is currently flooding due to unusually heavy rains, and a siren is sounding for people living on the river to evacuate. I’m basically in a tree house, high off the ground, about a minute’s walk from the riverbank, so that siren isn’t for me.

This blog might have seemed abandoned. I was just letting it breathe.  I’ve been doing a lot of writing in other venues. I’ve had a few pieces published recently, including an essay comparing Jean-Luc Nancy and Graham Harman on the ontological status of objects, “Touching without Touching: Objects of Post-Deconstructive Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology” [Open Philosophy 1.1 (2018): 290-98]. Another essay focuses on Christian, Daoist, and vegetal sources of Heidegger’s notion of letting beings be: releasement (Gelassenheit), “Without Why: Useless Plants in Christianity and Daoism” [Religions 10.1 (2019): 65-79].I also wrote something about philosophical practice (“Practice is not a Life Hack”) for the up-and-coming media empire, The Side View, run by the exceedingly industrious and brilliant, Adam Robbert. 

A few book reviews have come out as well, including my review of an anthology on nonviolence, Advancing Nonviolence and Social Transformation: New Perspectives on Nonviolent Theories, edited by Heather Eaton and Lauren Michelle Levesque. I also reviewed Jason Wirth’s poetic-philosophical book on Gary Snyder, Zen Buddhism, and ecology, Mountains, Rivers, and the Great Earth: Reading Gary Snyder and Dōgen in an Age of Ecological Crisis.

For the rest of the year, I have a couple more book reviews coming out, as well as a couple of chapters in anthologies (one on Stoicism, the other on climate ethics). I’m editing an anthology on multiple forms of ecological knowledge, with essays on conservation biology, traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) in indigenous communities, psychedelic science, affective and imaginal ways of knowing, storytelling, Asian philosophies, Gaia theory, and more. I’ll share more specifics about that project as it gets further underway. Hopefully it will be out before the end of the year. I’ll also share more while I’m working on my next book, which is a short monograph about theology and new materialism.

New materialism seems pretty old by now, since it’s been over twenty years since people first started using that term. It’s basically a shorthand for the contemporary reception of Deleuze’s materialism (Karen Barad’s Derridean/deconstructive tendencies notwithstanding), which is still quite novel compared to the materialisms that run from Lucretius to Marx, or whatever people like Donald Davidson or Hilary Putnam were doing. New materialism is theologically rich, bearing in mind that it is sometimes expressed rather implicitly. In terms of transcendental monotheism, it’s entirely atheistic, which opens the door for much more complex and compelling forms of theos, drawing on kabbalah, alchemy, animism, panentheism, pantheism, Zen, magic, mysticism, and much more.

 

The Practice of Wisdom

Wisdom is not a mind-hack or life-hack or any kind of hack. It’s not a way of cutting through life’s difficulties with tips or tricks. It’s not a set strategies or operations that can be adopted in piecemeal or applied in pertinent situations. It’s more of a path than a hack. It’s a way of life. As a practice, wisdom demands a total change of lifestyle, or it is nothing at all. What is that lifestyle? With characteristic Judeo-Platonic-Stoic syncretism, Philo of Alexandria gives an exemplary description of the practice of wisdom in this passage from On the Special Laws [trans. F. H. Colson. (Loeb Classical Library), 2.44-49].

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The Beginning and End of Nature

When people talk about the end of nature, what exactly is this nature that has ended? It’s not like the whole universe imploded. Earth is still spinning. Nature isn’t the universe, and it’s not a planet. It’s nature. Nature is an idea, a word, a symbol, which is not to say that it is merely those things. Nature is also whatever reality people were referring to when they used the idea, word, or symbol of “nature.” That reality sufficiently degraded so as to indicate to many people that it has ended. There are still organisms, ecosystems, lakes, rivers, atmospheric conditions, roots, fruits, and all kinds of things, so what ended? What is the reality to which ideas of nature were pointing or in which symbols of nature were participating? An answer can be found by returning to the beginning, to the earliest appearances of the idea of nature.
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What is Philosophy?

What is philosophy? There are so many definitions of philosophy. It is not altogether unlikely that the “What is…?” question is not the best way to approach a definition of philosophy. There are many other important questions for defining and describing philosophy. Who are philosophers? What do philosophers do? How does one become a philosopher? How, where, and when does philosophy happen? If you want to keep the question of being (ti esti, “What is”), maybe you could at least pluralize or verbalize philosophy, so that “What is philosophy?” becomes “What are philosophies?” or “What is philosophizing?” (“What are philosophizings?”). In any case, all of these questions hover around the same point. Whatever philosophy is/does, it seems particularly involved in defining itself, maintaining itself, like it has to keep turning on the engine in order to keep driving, continually initiating itself, bringing itself back to itself. In short, philosophizing maintains a constant connection to its own beginning. Philosophy is perpetually preparatory, programmatically provisional. Continue reading

Archetypal Astrology: Questions and Problems

Despite exaggerated claims about the disenchantment of the world in the modern age, religious traditions and esoteric spirituality never went away, which is not to say that the persistence of enchantment didn’t cause severe anxiety among some who wished that those things would go away. Among the persistent modes of enchantment is the practice of interpreting the meanings of heavenly bodies in relation to human affairs: astrology. Continue reading