Amoeba Words

“What is an amoeba word?” Amoeba words include many of the words thrown around when people are talking philosophically. The philosopher-priest Ivan Illich explains:

I take the term from the work of Professor Uwe Pörksen of Freiburg, a linguist and medievalist. During the second part of the 1980s, he came to the conclusion that there are certain words in all modern languages which ought to be labelled in a special way when they are put into a dictionary. A dictionary will tell you that a certain word in its common meaning means this; in its antiquated meaning it means something else; when you combine it in a particular way, it becomes vulgar; in another sense it is technical. He came to a conclusion that one major category of word usage had been overlooked, and for it he created the term plastic words. A plastic word, an amoeba word, he found, is a term which has about twenty-five precise characteristics—Pörksen’s very German—and he doesn’t admit any word into the egregious category unless it fits all these twenty-five. A plastic word has powerful connotations. A person becomes important when he uses it: he bows to a profession which knows more about it than he does and he is convinced that he is making in some way a scientific statement. A plastic word is like a stone thrown into a conversation—it makes waves, but it doesn’t hit anything. It has all these connotations, but it does not designate anything precisely. Usually, it’s a word which has always existed in the language but which has gone through a scientific laundry and then dropped back into ordinary language with a new connotation that it has something to do with what other people know and you can’t quite fathom. Pörksen puts sexuality, for instance, into the category of amoeba words, or crisis or information.

He has found these words in every language. There’s only a couple of dozen, and they’re always the same. When I came to Pörksen and said, “Uwe, I think I’ve found the worst of them, life,” he became very silent. For the first time in my life, I had the impression that he became angry with me, disappointed in me. He was offended. And it took about six months or mine months before he could speak about that issue again, because it is just unthinkable that something as precious and beautiful as life should act as an amoeba word. I came to the conclusion that, when I use the word life today, I could just as well just cough or clear my throat or say “shit.”

Ivan Illich in Conversation, with David Cayley (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2007), 253-254

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.

Continue reading

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.


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

Year in Preview

My first book came out in September 2014, and my seventh book was released last week. Seven books in a little less than three and a half years. I wrote three and edited four. That’s one—or more like seven—of the reasons that I haven’t posted much to this blog in the last few years. With these books behind me, I’m starting to focus more on smaller pieces. Continue reading

Alchemical Thoughts: Of Tales and Fires

In Plato’s seventh letter (341c), he says that what he pursues in his studies cannot be expressed in words, but emerges through sustained communion with “the thing itself” (to pragma auto) and “is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.” There is always a call for a return to the thing itself. Contemplation feeds on an alimentary fire. Thinking is alchemy.  Continue reading

Is Sloterdijk Conservative?

In terms of his social and political views, Peter Sloterdijk is sometimes described as a conservative thinker. Is that right? Is Sloterdijk a conservative? That question itself depends upon the hermeneutic question: What do you mean by “conservative”? He’s definitely not a neocon or a paleocon. He’s not a Reagan conservative. But he’s not exactly a social democrat, progressive, or libertarian either. He doesn’t easily fit into conventional definitions of political positions, as he interrogates, displaces, and redesigns those positions. So, is Sloterdijk a conservative? I’d suggest that he can be described with the same phrase he uses to describe Theodor Adorno, an “ambivalent conservative” (Foams, 630). A crucial difference between him and Adorno is that Sloterdijk aims to carry out a transition from critical theory to a more affirmative theory of General Immunology (by way of a Nietzschean-Deleuzian sense of affirmation). Of course, the idea that he’s a conservative who wants to protect immune systems (Whose? How?) does not necessarily inspire confidence. It demands some explication. Continue reading