Nature, Knowledge and Negation: Volume 26

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(20 chapters)
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Pages vii-viii
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As the title of this volume suggests, its unifying theme is the interdependence between nature, knowledge, and negation. How we aspire to achieve knowledge is intrinsically related to how we conceive of and exist in and with nature. In turn, how we think about and relate to nature is a function of the kinds of knowledge we pursue and the purposes we ascribe to the pursuit of knowledge. Yet, efforts related to facilitating and accumulating knowledge are intrinsically entwined with concrete socio-historical contexts, as are modes of existing in nature. Depending on the values and priorities that shape as well as represent social life in a particular society, its inhabitants are likely to regard nature as a dimension of reality that must be protected, nurtured, dominated, subjugated, or exploited. If most members of a given society would be fully cognizant of the perimeter circumscribing the relationships between that society and nature, the need for social theory should be limited, and the importance of critical theory close to negligible. As social philosophers and theorists of society have been trying to verbalize for more than two centuries, rigorous awareness of the character of prevailing society–nature (or culture–nature) links in modern societies has required focused and steady intellectual effort, as in societies of this type, the mode of relating to nature is not only highly dynamic, but also – under the aegis of industrialization – constructive and destructive at the same time. According to much of the history of social theory (its actual history, as opposed to the history of misinterpretations of social theories), from Hegel to Marx, to Weber, to the Frankfurt School theorists, to Foucault, Beck, and many others, how a society “sees” its relationship to nature is not likely to be conducive to grasping the real character of the relationship. Rather, how modern societies are contingent on a kind of conditioning that prevents human beings from facing the facts of what makes modern society possible shapes how humans perceive nature. Those perceptions are more likely than not integral features of modern society that are difficult to access without the help of social as well as critical theory, due to the kind of gravity they exert on human existence (Lemert, 2007). Put differently, without the willingness to “negate” the programming of individual as well as group consciousness that modern societies require to maintain stability and to function, “reality” will remain hopelessly elusive, and the ability to face facts a skill that is as difficult to sustain as the recognition of and commitment to a truly meaningful conduct of life. Without the practice of determined negation in Adorno's sense becoming integral to the life of humanity, socially compelling notions of “reality” and “meaning” will remain fleeting at best.1

During the great post–World War II economic expansion, modernization theorists held that the new American capitalism balanced mass production and mass consumption, meshed profitability with labor's interests, and ended class conflict. They thought that Keynesian policies insured a near full-employment, low-inflation, continuous growth economy. They viewed the United States as the “new lead society,” eliminating industrial capitalism's backward features and progressing toward modernity's penultimate “postindustrial” stage.7 Many Americans believed that the ideal of “consumer freedom,” forged early in the century, had been widely realized and epitomized American democracy's superiority to communism.8 However, critics held that the new capitalism did not solve all of classical capitalism's problems (e.g., poverty) and that much increased consumption generated new types of cultural and political problems. John Kenneth Galbraith argued that mainstream economists assumed that human nature dictates an unlimited “urgency of wants,” naturalizing ever increasing production and consumption and precluding the distinction of goods required to meet basic needs from those that stoke wasteful, destructive appetites. In his view, mainstream economists’ individualistic, acquisitive presuppositions crown consumers sovereign and obscure cultural forces, especially advertising, that generate and channel desire and elevate possessions and consumption into the prime measures of self-worth. Galbraith held that production's “paramount position” and related “imperatives of consumer demand” create dependence on economic growth and generate new imbalances and insecurities.9 Harsher critics held that the consumer culture blinded middle-class Americans to injustice, despotic bureaucracy, and drudge work (e.g., Mills, 1961; Marcuse, 1964). But even these radical critics implied that postwar capitalism unlocked the secret of sustained economic growth.

Antonio cites J. K. Galbraith (among others) as having criticized a view central to mainstream economics, namely, that “human nature dictates an unlimited ‘urgency of wants,’ naturalizing ever increasing production and consumption and precluding the distinction of goods required to meet basic needs from those that stoke wasteful, destructive appetites.” In citing Galbraith, Antonio evidently has some sympathy for the former's viewpoint, which I now examine.

Robert J Antonio's ‘Climate Change, the Resource Crunch, and the Global Growth Imperative’ is an excellent starting point for examining the dominance of the ideology of ‘economic growth’ within contemporary societies and social thinking against the background of the growing and profound socio-ecological crises such as climate change, resource scarcity and rampant consumerism. His article integrates contemporary scientific evidence about climate change and the ecological devastation being wrought by contemporary patterns of globalised carbon-fuelled and climate changing capitalism with classical and contemporary sociological theorising and calls for a greater engagement of social theorising with these defining challenges of the 21st century. In particular, Antonio's article begins the process of sociological theory re-engaging and re-interpreting classical sociology (Weber, Durkheim, Mead and Dewey) to develop forms of social theorising, which overcome a simplistic nature–cultural dualism and can equip critical social theory as fit for purpose for analysing the ecological, climate and resource ‘crunches’ facing all societies in the 21st century.

“The earthquake reveals new springs.”– Nietzsche

This preliminary survey begins to probe a few purposes and practices of “Earth System Science” to rethink the ways in which Nature is “taken into account” by this new power/knowledge formation. The workings of “environmentality,” or green governmentality (Luke, 1999c), and the dispositions of environmental accountancy regimes depend increasingly on the development and deployment of such reconceptualized interdisciplinary sciences (Briden & Downing, 2002). These practices have gained much more cohesion as a technoscience network since 2001 Amsterdam Conference on Global Climate Change Open Science. Due to its brevity, this study is neither an exhaustive history nor an extensive sociology of either Earth System Science or the new post-2001 Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP), which acquired new legitimacy during and after this professional-technical congress. Instead this critique reexamines these disciplinary developments to explore the curious condition of their rapid assembly and gradual acceptance as credible technoscience formations. This reevaluation allows one, at the same time, to speculate about the emergent interests hoping to gain hold over such power/knowledge programs for managing security, territory, and population on a planetary scale (Burchell, Gordon, & Miller, 1991; Foucault, 1991c, pp. 87–104).

This chapter addresses the topic of social action in catastrophic situations. The main phenomenon to be explained is how social actors cope and adjust to a sudden and unexpected change in the ecological pressures around them, such as during natural and technological disasters, in war zones, in the aftermath of accidents, and so on.1 Using interpretative and phenomenological methods (Bentz & Shapiro, 1998), this chapter builds toward a Weberian kind of “ideal type” model outlining key sociological variables that try to explain differential social responses from human beings as they experience catastrophic circumstances.2 Human beings must act very differently during catastrophes than they do during normal life. Just why is it that some people just succumb to the elements, whereas others struggle to persevere? How do some social actors manage to rely on their intelligence, resources, skill sets and other assets to control an otherwise hostile environment while others fail to do so?

In his preface to the English edition of K&HI, Habermas described a main trajectory of his book as an exercise “to recover the forgotten experience of reflection,” all the more difficult and crucial because of the stronghold that positivism had achieved. “That we disavow reflection is positivism” (p. vii). For some of us, the demonstrated message that followed this announcement was a signal to purgation; for, we had often heard the call to positivism's table but had rarely felt that its offering equated with dining well. For some of us, reflection was “a concept in philosophy” and, as more than one advisor had assured us, pre-scientific. For some of us, lacking any but a grammar school understanding of Narcissus, reflection had been only the superficiality of mirroring. Habermas’ exercise showed that it was much more, even as we sometimes struggled to find our way through his negotiations of the unfamiliar depth.

This chapter critically considers two conceptions of sociological labor as they have recently been articulated in two competing visions for public sociology. I use the contrast between Ben Agger's and Michael Burawoy's recent professions of public sociology as a lens through which to critically understand the way in which the narratives produced by sociological labor govern the emergence of knowledge, which would be the basis of transformation.

This paper endeavours to translate Peirce's ideas into paradigmatic sociological theory in general, and praxis linked to that paradigmatic theory. Greater comprehension of the general usefulness of a Peircian Pragmaticist semiotic perspective (and ‘fallibilism’) will enhance social action and collective responsibilities. As a philosopher, C. S. Peirce interpreted the world, but he himself did not attempt to change it. How can we incorporate a unifying ‘perspective’ such as Peirce's theory into ‘method’ (both methodology and techniques)? How does that an emphasis on methodology improves sociology as an empirically based, rigorous discipline (a human ‘science’) and various forms of praxis, especially applied sociology and public sociology? If politics is going to have any long-term impact, there has to be a degree of sophistication about the theories involved (e.g. conservation of fundamental human rights and liberties, reform within liberal parliamentary democracies, transformation within neo-conservative regimes, applied sociology in professions and occupations like social work and criminology, Feminist critique and action, GLTB action, neo-Gramscian critiques and Michael Burawoy's ‘public sociology’ in the narrow, technical sense.) Praxis can include many forms of political activity that are not specifically informed by any well-developed and coherent theory. In terms of Peirce's Pragmaticist semiotics, we can translate theoretical awareness into praxis, to interpret and to change the world. Good theory and methodology is the most practical way to promote useful social action, applied sociology and public sociology. Anything less than Peircian Pragmaticism and semiotics tends to lead to fragmentation of ‘paradigms’ or postmodernist nihilism.

One of the most important and brilliant contributors to the Frankfurt School understanding of character was Theodore Adorno. For Adorno, domination was not simply due to class relations, but the totality of market society in which Reason as the logic of exchange relationships migrated into the family and was insinuated within the person to colonize subjectivity. A central moment of the critique was the internalization of the authority relations of caretakers within superego (cf. Horkheimer, 1972). The law of value, together with Instrumental Reason as a hegemonic ideology and the commodification of culture led to the formation, if not deformation of an authority seeking superego as the typical means of adaptation that sustained political economic arrangements, albeit through suffering based on the repression of desire, the suppression of self and the thwarting of human possibility. Although this critique was rooted in Marx's analysis of capitalism as alienating, dehumanizing and objectifying, the emancipatory quest sought the liberation of self and desire from the alienation, commodification, and objectification of bourgeois society. But so too can we find that from out of the depths of the alienation and despair of the émigré scholar, there also comes the promise of redemption and the possibility of the “good life,” which requires overcoming alienation, and with that overcoming, transcendence, and emancipation from domination.1

This article is the first in a series that seeks to examine the Federal Bureau of Investigation’ (FBI) surveillance of social philosopher and activist Herbert Marcuse between 1943 and 1976. We intend to map in parallel lines local, national, and international media representations of Marcuse, scholarly analysis of Marcuse's writings, Marcuse's own correspondence, speeches, and texts in comparison with the presentations of Herbert Marcuse in the collected FBI documents. Our goal is to assess what the Marcuse's FBI files tell us about the FBI, Marcuse, the New Left, and U.S. society in the 1960s. In particular, close attention is paid to examining events described inside the FBI documents occurring in the mid-1960s when Herbert Marcuse was emerging as a self-proclaimed Marxist radical, a father figure to New Left and countercultural activists, an influential author, public speaker, and teacher, and was beginning to be perceived as a threat by the FBI to U.S. national security. We seek to clarify if FBI documents can provide information and insight to help illuminate and understand U.S. social and cultural history, in this particular case, to assess how FBI documents measure up against scholarship and perceived views of Marcuse and the 1960s. We are thus interested both in what we can learn about Herbert Marcuse's life and times from these documents and what FBI surveillance and documents tell us about the FBI and U.S. intelligence services.

Dahms (2008, pp. 43–45) distinguishes Critical Theory from “Critical Liberalism, Cultural Pessimism, and Public Sociology”. He means, first and foremost, to underscore the political gulf that has opened between the original Frankfurt School thinkers and their most celebrated second and third generation heirs, Habermas and Alex Honneth. The latter's affirmative theoretical embrace of progress and cautious optimism render them constitutionally incapable of understanding their putative subject matter, modernity, and thus also of articulating a radical politics sufficient to provide orientation to the specific – the specifically totalizing and lethal – spatio-temporal challenges that confront humanity at the end of modern society. Having barred themselves from fully considering their own participation in a contradictory and deadly system, Habermas’ and Honneth's a priori ideological commitments render them unable to “face facts,” as Dahms (2008, p. 44) stresses, and thus unable to execute a discerning, or even a useful, critical social science. Unwilling to practice Marx's dictum that critique must be followed to its logical conclusion and without regard to opposition from the powers that be, Habermas and Honneth's otherwise very considerable erudition thus fails Critical Theory's original and still most essential litmus test.

In 1974, in a lecture at Stanford University, entitled, “Marxism and Feminism” (published in the same year in the journal, Women's Studies), Herbert Marcuse (1974b, p. 279) stated that the Women's Liberation Movement was “perhaps the most important and potentially the most radical political movement that we have, even if the consciousness of this fact has not yet penetrated the Movement as a whole”. Marcuse saw the liberating potential of the movement in its critical consciousness – the light it shone on the invisible structures of oppression inherent in a patriarchal, capitalist system and the knowledge that the dismantling of this system was necessary to have a truly free world.

The fateful question for our time is what comes after post-modernism, what comes after the after? Building upon the insight of Thomas Mann in Dr. Faustus, the great fictional study of the post-modern composer Adrian Leverkuhn, and upon insights of some of the post-modernists themselves, this after hovers as the lingering but ultimately expunged final (dissonant) chord whose uncanny presence in absence turns cosmic emptiness into the cult of memory, ritualized attentiveness to the faded chord that connects us back to a departed world of meaning by a gossamer thread. A vision of this ritual is acted out in the greatest of all works of deconstruction, The Recovery of Lost Time, in which Marcel Proust guards this attenuating thread with his life like the Wichita lineman, for that is his life. The traveler stranded at the beginning of the epic novel can no longer go forward – there is no more track to lay and no destination to lay it toward – only the obscured recesses of a lost world (long ago when the future still existed), now as fugitive as the years.

Cover of Nature, Knowledge and Negation
DOI
10.1108/S0278-1204(2009)26
Publication date
2009-11-26
Book series
Current Perspectives in Social Theory
Editor
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
ISBN
978-1-84950-605-2
eISBN
978-1-84950-606-9
Book series ISSN
0278-1204