Tag Archive: theory


What books, published over the last ten years, have contributed most cogently and profoundly to our thinking about the relationship between culture and nature, ecology and society? (That’s to name just two of the dualisms this blog regularly throws into question.) Who have been the most important ecocultural theorists so far this century? And which are the most important publishers in this area?

Below is a highly subjective “top 10″ (sort of) of the books that have most influenced my own thinking on these issues. It aims for a certain representativeness, a balance between the rigorously theoretical and the  theorized-applied, the established names and the new, and between the many fields and styles of thinking I’m aiming to encompass on such a list.

This is followed by a longer list of some 50 additional nominees. These include books that almost made the top ten and others that I haven’t read yet, but that have gotten enough mention in one or another of the fields and subfields I try to monitor to warrant their inclusion. Those fields include philosophy, social/cultural theory, geography, science and technology studies, environmental history, environmental anthropology and sociology, cognitive science, and emerging or interdisciplinary fields like ecocriticism, environmental communication, political ecology, biosemiotics/ecosemiotics, critical animal studies, affect studies, religion and ecology, and ecopsychology.

All are monographs (or close to it) first published in the English language between 2000 and 2010. In including titles published this year, I’m keeping in mind that a book can be influential even before it comes out, since the author is likely to be preparing the way for it — in articles and public presentations — for some time in advance.

I’m interested in hearing your suggestions for other books not on this list, as well as comments and votes “yay” and “nay” on any of the following. If there are enough “seconds” on any of these 60 or so nominations, or on any others anyone would like to add to the list, I’ll run a Survey Monkey style vote (and share it on relevant listservs) to see which book wins.

Finally, with such a long list, I’m bound to offend everyone who’s been left off. My apologies in advance. Remind me of your book (or, better still, send me a copy! ;-) ).

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readings

I’m reading, and being very impressed by, John Protevi’s recent book Political Affect: Connecting the Social and the Somatic. The book brings together a lot of recent work on affect with the best of the cognitive sciences (embodied/embedded/distributive/enactive cognition), complexity and nonlinear dynamical systems theories, and a strong grounding in philosophy, from Aristotle to Kant to Deleuze and Guattari. Protevi’s main source of strength is Deleuzian theory, and here he draws very much on Manuel Delanda’s efforts to synthesize Deleuze with complexity theory (as did his very good co-authored book on Deleuze and Geophilosophy). But he also perceptively accounts for the strengths and weaknesses of these very differently rooted research/theoretical programs as he tries to build a synthesis out of them — one that would account for affect (and affective cognition) at multiple levels of the “body politic,” from the neurophysiological to the subjective/intersubjective and “up” to the civic, cultural, “populational” and societal. Chapter One is a gem of summative concision. I haven’t gotten yet to the case studies — Terry Schiavo, the Columbine high school massacre, and Hurricane Katrina — but having read his earlier writing on Katrina, I expect these will be good.

It’s the kind of book I would recommend for a reading group (graduate class or online cross-blog sort of thing). Others in that category might include Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (which I’ve so far only read bits and pieces of that have appeared elsewhere); John Mullarkey’s excellent, perhaps even field-defining Refractions of Reality: Philosophy and the Moving Image, which I recommend to anyone interested in film, the image, and philosophy; and Sean Esbjörn-Hargens’ and Michael E. Zimmerman’s Integral Ecology if only to see where they succeed and where they fail in synthesizing the various extant forms of ecophilosophy. I’ve yet to get to the latter book, and reviews I’ve seen have been mixed, which isn’t surprising given the authors’ almost devotional indebtedness to integral philosopher Ken Wilber (quite a shift from Zimmerman’s earlier Heideggerian/Continentalist work). But we need syntheses like it, so I expect the effort, even if flawed, to be valuable.

more on Tehran

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Planomenology‘s Reid Kane has posted an extensive analysis of the Iranian events from a perspective informed by Zizek and Agamben, among others — the first I’ve seen in this vein, though I’m anticipating others like it in the left-philosophical blogosphere. The piece draws too much, for my taste, on a monolithic (Marxist) understanding of capital and defers too hastily to Zizek’s weaker moments (I’m being respectful here). Reza‘s comments (see below the article) provide some important correctives to the piece, as does Ali Alizadeh’s piece here. But the article makes some useful points on Foucault’s original engagement with the Iranian revolution, and especially on the possibilities opened up by the new media landscape. Reid also reminds us that Guatemalan unrest had previously been dubbed “the Twitter revolution.”

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I took a break from reading John Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy: An Outline – in which Mullarkey develops a philosophy of immanence drawing on, and critiquing, the respective efforts of Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou, Michel Henry, and Francois Laruelle – to have some lunch and browse the latest issue of Tricycle. One of the articles, a personal-confessional story of the kind that’s typical for this popular Buddhist magazine, includes a nice, pithy summary of the Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination:

“It’s teeter-totter metaphysics–I arise, you arise; you arise, I arise. [...] You are because you are not something else; therefore, what you are not–the chair beneath you, the air in your lungs, these words–births you through an infinity of opposites. It’s like the ultimate Dr. Seuss riddle: Without all the things that are not you, who would you be you to? There’s no Higher Power in this system to grab onto for support; we are all already supporting each other. Pull a person or people the wrong way, and you immediately redefine yourself in light of what you’ve done to your neighbor.”

Isn’t this the metaphysics of immanence in a nutshell? A two-and-a-half-thousand year tradition of philosophy and practical psychology studies it intimately, while contemporary philosophers grope painstakingly towards it. A handful of philosophers work to bridge the two traditions (David Loy, Robert Magliola, Carl Olson, Youxuan Wang, Jin Park, et al.), but they are pioneers in a largely undiscovered corner of the forest (or wing of the insane asylum). Loy’s most recent books, Money, Sex, War, Karma: Notes for a Buddhist Revolution and The Great Awakening: A Buddhist Social Theory are particularly good at communicating, in a popular vein, the more theoretical/philosophical work he had done in earlier works such as Nonduality and A Buddhist History of the West: Studies in Lack. But it’s a little frustrating that this dialogue has not gotten further. (For instance, the parallels between Loy’s Buddhism and Zizek’s Lacanianism cry out for analysis. Only a handful of people seem to be working on a rapprochement between Buddhism and psychoanalysis, e.g., Raul Moncayo, Anthony Molino, Gay Watson, Mark Unno. Zizek’s own writing on Buddhism seems restricted to a superficial, pop-cultural analysis. The blog Something Completely Different has had a bit of discussion about this.)

Incidentally, Mullarkey’s book seems very good at first glance; he’s a clear thinker and writer. And his new book on film and philosophy, Refractions of Reality, looks even better. Its first chapter can be read here.

This is a summary I provided to a grad student who was starting to get into this area. It’s very introductory and far from complete in its coverage, but since there’s so little out there on this topic, I thought it would be useful to post it. It’s also a bit biased towards literature that’s relevant to religion and religious experience (since this is what the student was working on). Comments are welcome.

The topic of the imagination had been out of fashion for a while in the humanities, especially as textual and semiotic approaches (structuralism, poststructuralism et al) came to dominate cultural theory in the 1970s and 1980s. Gradually it’s been coming back, but without any consensus on what it means or how it should be dealt with. The following are some of the threads of thinking that, to my mind, need to be drawn together in a coherent way in order to make contemporary sense of ‘the imagination’ or, as I prefer to call it, the imaginal. They are pieces of a much larger puzzle that is far from being solved.

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Or, Toward an eco-Buddhist-processualist cultural criticism

Note: This is work in progress and probably won’t be published for a while, and not in this form in any case. It comes from an attempt to theorize an ‘ecocritical’ understanding of culture that is in dialogue with the Marxist tradition of social and political analysis, Derridean poststructural philosophy, Buddhist psychology, and the psychoanalysis of Freud, Lacan, and Zizek, among others. I welcome comments.

For Fredric Jameson, it is history, understood in Marxian terms as a series of changing relationships among and between social groups and their systems of material production, that serves as a relatively stable ground or horizon against which the vicissitudes of human culture play their figure. For Derridean deconstruction (and other brands of poststructuralism), there is no ultimate ground, and textuality in its groundless infinite play is what shows us this most clearly. For the approach I’m working on, rooted in a more naturalistic understanding of the world than Derrida’s and a more ecological one than Jameson’s, there is similarly no ultimate ground, but there are relative grounds that can be found in the unfoldment of social and ecological relations. The hermeneutic I’m proposing doesn’t leave us errantly wandering among texts and discourses (as does deconstruction), but leaves us ethically responding to others (as many deconstructionists themselves do) among relations that are simultaneously material and biological (a la Marx and Darwin), discursive (a la culturalism), and imaginal-phantasmic (a la psychoanalysis).

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