The Miracle of Existence


In the beginning, there was nothing. No ground. And then things began to come together – literally come together.  Through the forging of relationships, beings began to compose themselves and one another.  Began, as well, to join together in new and ingenious ways to compose beings more complex and more diverse than before.  If there is a miracle in the universe, it is the miracle of cooperation and collaboration – the miracle of working together.  Nothing had to exist.  And yet, here we are in a universe populated by stars, planets, nebulae, black holes, neutrinos, oceans, whales, cats, dogs, fish, flowers, trees, clouds, air, rivers, fossils, statues, buildings, books, mountains, asteroids, computers, bagels, people, paintings, oil tankers, birds, octopuses, bears, turtles, boats, telephone poles, houses, gardens, laser light shows, music, ice cream, microbes, insects, and much much more!  That any of these things exist is a miracle because they are all the product of many different beings working together to create new things and new ways of being.  This is the hope in post-nihilism: the universe may be without meaning, but we can create our own meaning with those around us!  The world is what we (all of us – whether human or not – together) make of it!

The Ontology of Knowledge

The following quotes come from John Steinbeck’s The Log from the Sea of Cortez (co-written, supposedly, with Ed Ricketts, but he is not credited on my edition):

“… the Mexican sierra has ‘XVII-15-IX’ spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being – an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth ‘D. XVII-15-IX.’ There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed – probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

“It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way.

“Let’s go wide open. Let’s see what we see, record what we find, and not fool ourselves with conventional scientific strictures. We could not observe a completely objective Sea of Cortez anyway, for in that lonely and uninhabited Gulf our boat and our selves would change it the moment we entered. By going there we would bring a new factor to the Gulf. Let us consider that factor and not be betrayed by this myth of permanent objective reality. If it exists at all, it is only available in pickled tatters or in distorted flashes. Let us go into the Sea of Cortez, realizing that we become forever a part of it; that our rubber boots slogging through a flat of eel-grass, that rocks we turn over in a tide pool, make us truly and permanently a factor in the ecology of the region. We shall take something away from it, but we shall leave something too.”

This is what I mean when I talk about the ontology (maybe I should say ecology) of knowledge production.  Producing knowledge is about more than the creation of symbolic and conceptual realities that either correspond to a reality “out there” or don’t depending on your epistemological outlook.  Producing knowledge is the production of relationships, connections, entanglements between beings.  The man in the lab with his pickled fish is one kind of relationship, and the fisherman on his boat with the thrashing, spiny, colorful fish is a different one.  Both entail the creation of knowledge – knowledge is one kind of relationship that is built out of the encounter – but also much more than that.  The very act of studying something, holding it in your hand, dissecting it, putting it in a glass jar (or, for those of us who study people, interviewing them, doing participant-observation, excavating a site, and so on) changes the thing and yourself.  A new relationship is made a new thing is made – knowledge, but so much more than that; a new way of being, a new form of entanglement.  Focusing exclusively on the production of knowledge in the form of epistemological symbols and concepts (as was the tendency in anthropology after the “linguistic turn” and Writing Culture) limits our perspective on the effects of our scientific practices and constrains our imagination of the many other possible sorts of relationships that could be composed.

To me, it is not an either-or issue.  Viewing knowledge production as a fundamentally ontological process broadens the scope of possibilities for research.  No longer does research have to be only about composing an image or representation of some thing – this is what got us (anthropologists, at least) into trouble in the first place!  Instead, research can be about building relationships – what kinds of relationships can we build, what kinds of relationships do we (the researcher and the subjects of her research – seen now as the collaborators they always were) want to build?

See the work of John Law on method for more.

Buddhism and the Cultivation of Awareness

Following up on my previous two posts (here and here) on buddhism and the recent visit of the Dalai Lama, I want to elaborate on the position I see for Buddhism in the struggle for a better world.


What is Buddhism?  It’s not a religion like any other.  In those sects where deities are acknowledged, they are recognized as immanent beings rather than transcendent, and subject to the same limitations as other worldly beings.  In most sects, deities play little or no role at all.  At the core of Buddhist philosophy is the impermanence of the world.  The world is suffering, the Buddha tells us, but “suffering” is not necessarily the appropriate term. The world is dynamic – always changing.  Beings come in and out of existence, and the nature of our relationships with other beings is constantly in flux. Attempting to hold fast to one form of existence – to a particular kind of being or a particular kind of relationship – is, in the nature of things, to experience dissatisfaction. Huxley says it well:

Because his aspiration to perpetuate only the “yes” in every pair of opposites can never, in the nature of things, be realized, the insulated Manichee I think I am condemns himself to endlessly repeated frustration, endlessly repeated conflicts with other aspiring and frustrated Manichees.

So Buddhism is, at its core, a philosophy of coexistence. This world is changing because it is heterogeneous, because there is no ground. So what do we do about it? How does one live in a world coinhabited – co-constructed – with myriad other beings? Buddhism provides an answer in the eightfold path – right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration.  Notice, though, that these are not commandments – “Thou shalt”.  They are open-ended, defined not by some divine creator or an essential nature of being (the search for which is still reflected in the search for scientific truth), but rather by the circumstances.  So how do we know what “right” means in any given context?  Again, Buddhism has an answer for us – through the practice of meditation.

Meditation is a diverse practice.  There are many different kinds of meditation, and each does something different.  However, broadly speaking, they are all practices (in the sense of “practice makes perfect”) of cultivating a particular kind of affect or cognitive-emotional state.  At the least, meditation cultivates an affect of tranquility and peace of mind, at it’s best, it cultivates an affect of awareness.  Huxley, again:

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action. But Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

Does Buddhism offer us a way of retreating inwards (and thus competing with critical theories that would have us turn outwards in our struggle for a better world)?  The answer is, in some sense, yes.  Buddhism – especially as it has been transformed by its encounter with Western, Capitalist modes of thought – offers us the possibility of a happiness that does not demand social change.  But it doesn’t have to be that way, and the practice of cultivating affect can be (I might go so far as to say is an essential) part of struggle.

Our affects – the way we feel and experience the world around us – are also part of the world we live in.  Our affects can be as inscrutable and unknowable as the lives as other beings.  In that sense, the usual division between inside and outside becomes irrelevant, and instead we can look at any given situation as a complex assemblage of factors and features, one of which is our affect.  What is it that compels an individual to struggle?  What is it that keeps that same individual, at a different time, from participating?  Affect is not the answer, but it is part of the answer.  A person who is simply depressed and unable to leave her room is not capable of struggle – for her own benefit let alone that of others.  It may be that her depression is tied to many factors that are beyond her immediate control (a lifeless job, or an oppressive marriage), and these factors will not go away magically through the practice of meditation.  Nor should meditation be seen as a way to achieve peace and happiness within those circumstances – she could be happy, perhaps, but happiness is not an end itself.  Instead, the cultivation of an affect of awareness might allow this woman to recognize how her depression is limiting her and shift her affect towards one that would allow her to struggle for the change that she wants – whether that new affect is happiness or something else.

Capitalism and other oppressive systems depend on our internalizing, to some degree, the logic of the system.  They depend on us becoming our own minions, to use Stengers’s phrase.  Much ink has been spilled in articulating how this is achieved: through schooling, media, etc. – the ideological state apparatus, however you conceive of that.  In that sense, taking time to cut out those voices all around us, and being attentive to the ways in which our own internal voice mimics them, might be a powerful form of resistance – one of the cracks that must be grasped and ripped open in order for struggle to continue. This is the cultivation of an affect of awareness that meditation (and sorcery, perhaps) offer.

But, you might say, what about enlightenment? Isn’t the goal of Buddhism to achieve enlightenment and escape from the world of illusion?  If so, how does that not compete with a desire/need to change the world itself?  It’s true, perhaps, for some forms of Buddhism.  However, what becomes very clear when exploring the philosophy of Buddhism and the concept of enlightenment as retreat from the world, is that it’s impossible.  Impossible because, even as enlightened beings, we cannot escape this world – the only out is death.  Our experience of enlightenment is subject to the same transitory existence as all of the rest of being, so achieving enlightenment becomes a project and practice of cultivation, and one which involves coexistence and co-construction with other beings as well.

All of this is not to say that Buddhism is a philosophy and practice of struggle.  It’s just to say that Buddhism and struggle are not, in my opinion, fundamentally incompatible, and that Buddhist practices can be important aspects of struggle.  There may be aspects of particular Buddhist philosophies that don’t fit well with struggle, and there are certainly aspects of the way Buddhism is practiced in both the East and the West that seem opposed to struggle.  However, the core philosophy of Buddhism (The Four Noble Truths) and the practices that it encourages (The Eightfold Path, and meditation) are compatible and possibly even valuable for struggle.

Active Buddhism

I’m still swamped by end of the semester work, but, in light of the Dalai Lama’s visit to UMD yesterday, I wanted to share a different perspective on Buddhist practice.  This interview in Tricycle Magazine with the author and activist bell hooks provides an excellent starting point for thinking about Buddhism as a potential practice of engagement rather than as simply the seeking after happiness and contentment within an unjust and unsustainable world.  In it, she explores the complicated intersection between race, gender, and Buddhism, and the challenges with understanding Buddhism as an engaged practice.  Here are a few quotes:

I like that the point of convergence of liberation theology, Islamic mysticism, and engaged Buddhism is the sense of love that leads to commitment and involvement with the world, and not a turning away from the world. A form of wisdom that I strive for is the ability to know what is needed at a given moment in time. When do I need to reside in that location of stillness and contemplation, and when do I need to get up off my ass and do whatever is needed to be done in terms of physical work, or engagement with others, or confrontation with others? I’m not interested in ranking one type of action over the other.

The central problem for women is that you can’t give up the ego and the self if you haven’t established a sense of yourself as subject. It seems to me that questions of humility and surrender don’t even come in until one has something to give up.

I do think that women like myself have to integrate the processes by which we change, and speak about those processes more. Gloria Steinem, in Revolution from Within (Little Brown and Co., 1991) says that in part there are many women now with skills and resources, but if they still feel shaky in the deep inner core of being, they cannot move forward against patriarchy. This goes back to all I’ve been saying about victimization. A lot of black people with resources and skills are so convinced inwardly that they lack something, that they cannot move forward.

It was a tremendous liberatory moment in my painful childhood, when I thought, I am more than my pain. In the great holocaust literature, particularly the Nazi holocaust literature, people say, All around me there was death and evil and slaughter of innocents, but I had to keep some sense of a transcendent world that proclaims we’re more than this evil, despite its power. When I’m genuinely victimized by racism in my daily life, I want to be able to name it, to name that it hurts me, to say that I’m victimized by it. But I don’t want to see that as all that I am.”


Certainly, the Dalai Lama’s Buddhism is more complex than what he presented in his lecture yesterday, and I hope to explore some openings I heard in the talk that might link up to the kind of Buddhism described by hooks.  However, the emphasis on happiness, peace, and contentment is, I think, easily misread as a sort of passive acceptance of whatever is given.  See also, Chris Vitale’s analysis of the “three vehicles” also provides an excellent perspective on Buddhist activism.

Proposal Summary for Volume on Vulnerability and Ontology

A few weeks ago, I brought up the idea of publishing an edited volume on Vulnerability.  The idea generated a lot of interest, and, since then, Adam Robbert and I have been working in the background to write up an abstract to submit to Punctum Books, and to share with others who might be interested.  Our aim in this project is of an interdisciplinary nature, and therefore we welcome constructive suggestions from people working in the humanities, social sciences, ecology, and more. As we continue to improve upon and finalize our manuscript proposal we welcome feedback in the form of comments or emails. Your suggestions will help us to deepen and complexify the final form of this volume.

Editors: Adam Robbert and Jeremy Trombley

Since Ernst Haeckel first coined the term “ecology” in 1866 much ecological research has emphasized the interdependent nature of all beings on Earth. But if ecology implies interdependence then another truth is evident: Ecology is precisely what makes beings vulnerable to one another at the level of their existence; ecological vulnerability opens into ontological vulnerability. In other words, the flesh that surrounds an organism—enveloping, sustaining, in part defining—is also the rupture that makes it vulnerable to the outside. Flesh is permeable. We, as fleshy beings, are therefore vulnerable, precarious, and fragile—open to the world and the other beings with whom we share it. We feel pain and we recoil. We break, we bleed, we die. This is an essential feature of our existence. To be is to be vulnerable, and this vulnerability makes us dependent upon others for sustenance, support, healing, and care.

Part one of this book addresses the philosophical aspects of vulnerability. Since vulnerabilities imply the creation of complex, evolving boundaries between beings, they also play a central role in ontological, epistemological, and ethical discourses. How are we vulnerable? Is vulnerability an ontological category? To whom or what are we vulnerable? Who do we, as unintentional creators of a new geological epoch called “The Anthropocene,” make vulnerable? These questions foreground speculative and experimental inquiries into the nature of vulnerability, and form the central themes organizing part one of this volume.

Part two explores political, economic, and cultural issues from the perspective of vulnerability. All bodies are vulnerable in radically different ways, and attending to these differences is precisely what makes vulnerability so complex. A mountain is vulnerable in ways that an animal or plant is not, and the needs of each, we may discover, are mutually exclusive. What’s more, the ways we armor ourselves against our vulnerabilities shape our personal and social lives. These armoring techniques help define social boundaries and flows of energy—material, political, psychological, or otherwise. Vulnerabilities also effect capacities within our individual lives—how we are able to express ourselves, and the limits of our expression. Vulnerabilities thus play a substantial role in shaping who we are, and define many of our roles, responsibilities, and obligations in society.

Interwoven throughout the book are personal reflections, case studies, and stories circling the collisions of ontology, vulnerability, and ecology as they manifest in the twenty-first century. These stories illuminate theoretical and empirical dimensions of vulnerability in terms of lived experience. Our goal is not to develop a total theory or representation of vulnerability and its effects, but a series of fragments, an assemblage of thoughts, concepts, and affects about vulnerability and its significance in our lives and the more-than-human world. Through these “perspicuous representations” we hope to change the way we think about our personal, social, and ecological lives by bringing vulnerability into focus, and reflecting on its effects upon the complex ecologies within which we exist.

Vulnerability can be terrifying, but it can also be beautiful and provoking. It is this openness to the world—where bodies meet in risky entanglement with one another, bonding to become something new—that makes life so wondrous. Indeed, without such openness life would be static, dull. Without such openness, there would be no caring, or compassion. Being and vulnerability thus become essential points of contemplation for thinking ecologically in our contemporary moment.

Breaking Through the Cracks

This weekend I’ve been skimming through parts of Holloway’s Crack Capitalism (thanks to Andre, Aaron, and dmf for pointing it out to me), and I think it seems to be a really powerful book.  Written in a kind of manifesto style, a call to action rather than the often dry and pretentious style of much revolutionary theory, this book could easily be picked up by anyone and understood.  And the ideas are powerful, revolutionary for revolutionary thought.  I class this in with J.K. Gibson-Graham, Hakim Bey, and Stengers’ Capitalist Sorcery for proposing a conception of struggle as working through the cracks and holes that Capitalism never completely fills.  But this book is a little more accessible than the others, and so I think – I hope – it has more potential for change.

Capitalism may be a totality, but it is not totalizing.  Taking cue from the ontological literature I engage with, no totality can ever be totalizing. There are always cracks, holes, aporias, interstices, or openings where one can catch hold and begin to compose a new world.  If anything, what makes Capitalism totalizing – what keeps us from grabbing hold – is the illusion of its totality.  As Andre points out, following Stengers, Capitalism’s minions are continuously engaged in plastering over the cracks and making it appear that it is, indeed, the “end of history.”  Coupled with the seemingly limited character of any kind of resistance, and the frequent “failure” of such struggles, it seems a futile effort. Add, finally, the “critical” theories that imagine Capitalism as a pervasive force that seeps into our consciousness and turns all struggle, ultimately, against itself, and you have a recipe for apathy, and distress.

But the bounded nature of various struggles (both temporally and spatially) ought not be taken, in my opinion, for failure. As the authors I’ve mentioned above point out (and David Graeber seems to suggest as well), no struggle has ever been won by the seizing of power, and the overthrow of a system.  Those are the manifestations that we cling to, and fantasize about, but if you look with finer resolution, it becomes clear that it was the everyday work and struggle of people in the margins and gaps that gave rise to revolutionary transformations.  I’ve said before many times, there is no place from which one can grasp a whole system, one can only grasp at parts and, by means of these parts, make a difference to the system.  But making a difference – especially a positive, directed difference – takes work, continuous work over time: Struggle Forever!  In other words, Occupy didn’t fail, it was a resounding success, but a bounded one.  The struggle is to continue to recreate those bounded successes in order to make them a continuity.

Books like Holloway’s grasp at the cracks, but not only in a way that makes an immediate opening in the system, they chip away at the plastering of the Capitalist minions.  It’s a kind of anti-sorcery whereby the cracks are made apparent – a chipping away at the plastering in our minds that keeps us from seeing the possibilities for a different world.

Comparing Modeling Performances

The other day I received a google scholar notification about this article from Sarah Whatmore “Learning Through Computer Model Improvisations”.  Needless to say, I promptly went to my institution’s library website, downloaded the pdf and read it.  Interestingly, it aligns very well with the dissertation research that I have proposed to do, though there are some holes and areas that could use more research and thought.

The authors took a performative approach to modeling – looking at modeling as “improvisation” or unscripted performance with no predefined conclusion.  They use this framework to compare two different modeling performances – one they refer to as “normal” modeling, the development within a contracting firm of a general purpose flood model for the UK coast, and the other they refer to as “post-normal” modeling, the development of a model within an “extended research collective” to address specific and local flooding issues.  This normal/post-normal divide was interesting – essentially defining the boundary between scientific practices carried out within established institutions, and those carried out in arenas of contestation.  My sense is that, rather than being discrete categories of practice or performance, these are phases or stages through which any scientific practice might go.  In their examples, for instance, the first performance that they define as “normal” could, at some point, develop into a post-normal process if/when the model that was developed is applied to a specific problem and becomes itself a point of contestation.  Similarly, in the second example defined as “post-normal”, the scientists underwent a brief “normal” phase of their own in which they developed a model that was then brought out into the research collective as a post-normal practice.  It might be interesting to investigate how models and other scientific practices move between normal and post-normal practices over the course of their development.

The authors discuss the obstacles and affordances – roughly paralleling Edward’s notion of “frictions” – encountered by the two practices.  Most of these were based on the existing technological and institutional frameworks that they were drawing upon – the authors refer to these as “ready mades” borrowing from improvisational parlance.  The ready mades used by each group generated different obstacles and offered different affordances.  In the normal modeling practice, most of the obstacles involved data – lack of data, and the inability of the model to integrate the amount of data necessary.  These were overcome by affordances that allowed the researchers to generate virtual data where data was lacking and to link several small models to deal with the abundance of data needed.

In contrast, the obstacles encountered by the post-normal researchers resulted from the structure of the model itself.  Data was abundant as scientists provided accumulated data on flooding in the region, and local participants provided information and data from their own experiences with the hydrologic system.  However, the model that was initially chosen by the researchers was unable to show bank overflow – the model had not been designed for this kind of research.  As a result, they had to abandon that model and develop a simple model of their own that allowed them to both model stream overflow and represent it through a Graphical User Interface (GUI) that allowed local participants to visualize and provide feedback on the model as it progressed.

In both modeling practices, iteration was an important factor.  This undermines conceptions of modeling that flow seamlessly from model building to model running to data analysis.  Instead all three practices occurred simultaneously.

It was an interesting article, and very timely for my research.  Hopefully, I will be able to expand on this and investigate the ways that models move from normal to post-normal practices and back, as well as the ways that models are integrated and intertwined with policy-making practices and other modes of contestation.