I’m delighted to formally announce that I have accepted an offer to take up the position of J. S. Woodsworth Chair in the Humanities at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada, beginning next year. (Simon Fraser recently, once again, took the top spot among comprehensive universities in Macleans’ Canadian university rankings.)

The chair is named after J. S. Woodsworth (1874-1942), a prominent Canadian activist-intellectual, pacifist and labor campaigner, co-founder and first leader of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, predecessor of today’s New Democratic Party), co-architect of Canada’s social-welfare system, and minister (the robed type) who was part of the Social Gospel movement. It will be a great honor to represent these aspects of his legacy and to follow in the footsteps of previous chair holders Eleanor Stebner, Ed Broadbent, and Alan Whitehorn.

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The article “Indigenous identity & Vermont, an update” has been updated with some new information and several new links. Click here (or on the image below) to read that article.

I’m part of a roundtable discussion on ecomaterialist theory that’s just been published by the New Review of Film and Television Studies. It’s with film and media studies scholars Seán Cubitt (of Melbourne University), Elena Past (Wayne State University), and Hunter Vaughan (University of Cambridge), and curated by Ludo de Roo (Macquarie University).

Among other topics, the roundtable delves into what counts as media today, why media studies should inherently be “eco-,” different styles of materialism, the “elemental” in “elemental media,” and the origins of the two journals that distinguish the ecomedia field, the open-access Media+Environment and the Journal of Environmental Media.

You can find the roundtable here. Click on the “Topic” links to open up the sections of the multi-part conversation.

The study of so-called “near-death experiences” is fascinating, as it is one of those areas that remain most mysterious to science, yet which empirical evidence suggests is very consequential to those who undergo it.

By now we’ve all likely heard of the countless reports of people journeying through tunnels toward sources of light, being greeted by dead relatives or benevolent deities, and experiencing emotions by which they have been able to deeply reframe their lives upon “re-entry” into their post-near-death lives. What’s less well known are the cases in which someone has been “clinically dead” for a period of hours — more than six hours, in some instances — and who has “come back” to describe experiences like the above.

In a Guardian “Long Read” article titled “The new science of death: ‘There’s something happening in the brain that makes no sense’,” Alex Blasdel provides a fascinating overview of the growing study of near-death experiences — and even some death experiences, examined from a brain-science perspective.

Blasdel divides the various schools of thought among near-death researchers into three, and while the three categories strike me as overgeneralized (e.g., I don’t think it’s accurate to say that all parapsychologists believe mind and brain are separate), it’s a helpful mapping. The three are the “spiritualists,” “some of them evangelical Christians, who were convinced that near-death experiences were genuine sojourns in the land of the dead and divine”; the “parapsychologists,” the largest faction, whose scientific study pursues “phenomena that seemed to undermine the scientific orthodoxy that the mind could not exist independently of the brain”; and the “physicalists,” the “smallest contingent,” who are “committed to a strictly biological account of near-death experiences.”

By the end, Blasdel favors the physicalists, for whom mind and body require each other and cannot function apart from each other. My own leaning favors this view as well, even if I’m fascinated by the experiences that play center stage for the spiritualists, and by the creative theorizing of the parapsychologists. The physicalist understanding fits best with the process-relational ontology I’ve been developing (and with Spinozism, panpsychism, and other forms of relational “new materialism”). This (and the others) are forms of mind-body non-dualism, or what’s sometimes called dual-aspect monism: they see “mind” and “body” — and therefore also “mind” and “brain” — as two sides of the same phenomenon, the first experienced from the “inside” and the second observed from the “outside.” (Not all the perspectives are as clear on this inside/outside dynamic as is Whiteheadian process-relationalism, which sees the inside and outside as co-determining and present in all things, i.e., all relational events.)

Viewed from this perspective, near-death experiences and their accompanying brain activities appear to be the experience of the brain going into a kind of “hyperdrive” (as neurologist Jimo Borjigin calls it). This raises two important questions: (1) Why do reported near-death experiences seem so coherent and meaningful (as opposed to being something akin to the hypnagogic state that precedes sleep, which our mind experiences as a kind of randomizing release from narrative coherence)? (2) And what evolutionary benefit do these experiences bring? Why did we evolve to have these experiences?

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The recent International Union of Geological Sciences decision to reject the proposed “Anthropocene epoch” might seem confusing. Here’s a piece of draft material from my forthcoming book-in-progress, The New Lives of Images: Digital Ecologies and Anthropocene Imaginaries in More-than-Human Worlds, that attempts to bring the situation up to date. Comments welcome! Please note that the references to signs, signatures, and indexicality come from the book’s (processual-) semiotic approach to understanding images; if they seem abstruse, the first half of the book explains them clearly.

While it had some forerunners, the concept of the Anthropocene as a geological epoch was first proposed by atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and limnologist Eugene Stoermer in the year 2000. Within a few years, geologists were taking the concept as a serious proposal to mark a new epoch in the history of planet Earth, an epoch brought about by human activities.

For geologists, an epoch is not just any time period; it is part of a nested set of delineations: from smallest to largest and most encompassing, these are known as ages, epochs, periods, eras, and eons. Each is a geochronological unit, that is, a unit of time as marked by Earth history (geology) and determined through the practice of chronostratigraphy, or the reading and writing (-graphy) of layers of rock (strata) marking time (chronos). The entirety is based on the long verified observation that the remnants of the earth’s surface lay themselves down in horizontal layers, with the more recent laid on top of the less recent. The smaller chronostratographic units denote smaller levels of change over time; these combine to make up the larger ones, which denote larger changes.

The geologic time scale provides a kind of chronostratigraphic “address” for anything in the geologic record. We who live today are said to find ourselves “in” the Holocene or—if it should come to be accepted—the Anthropocene epoch, which are respectively the second and potentially third epochs of the third period (Quaternary) of the third era (Cenozoic) of the fourth eon (Phanerozoic) since the formation of the Earth. The Holocene, which began about 11,700 years ago, is roughly the thirty-eighth epoch in Earth’s history.

To say that we are in it, however, or in the Anthropocene, is to presume that we, or someone, could step out of time and see ourselves inside it. We cannot: we are at the leading edge (one of an infinity of leading edges) of a set of dynamic processes that unfolds not with the flatness of a unrolling roll of paper, but with noticeable folds, twists, and lumps. Whether today’s present will one day appear smooth or lumpy, or even form a dramatic twist in the geochronological fabric, cannot possibly be known until that present has become past. It will take additional layering on top of it—further epochs or ages at the very least—to see what it will look like once it is lain down. Geology is, after all (at least in its stratigraphic form), a reading of the past in the rockscape of the present.* Its ability to read the present is constrained by the fact that the present is not yet past. Its layering can only be predicted or, perhaps, divined.

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A lot has been written about music and the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze: for instance, on Deleuze and music theory, on music after Deleuze, and on Deleuze’s “Thought-Music,” and there’ve been some valiant efforts to put Deleuze to music, like this one, this one, and this one, and several related to Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus, including an entire record label.

Not nearly as much has been done with the writings of Alfred North Whitehead. If we take his three key late-period books of metaphysics — Process and Reality, Adventures of Ideas, and Modes of Thought — we find, to my knowledge, only a handful of albums named after them: free saxophonist Evan Parker’s Process and Reality, the collaboration of the same title by Richard Pinhas, Tatsuya Yoshida, and Merzbow/Masami Akita (which I wrote about here), Steve Bicknell’s EP Modes of Thought, and an album by Anu BlonDee that may or may not be titled after the latter book as well (with track titles like “Mahjong Tea” and “It Ain’t Ova,” I’m not convinced). There’s nothing named after Adventures of Ideas, which could be because it, like most of Whitehead’s books, wasn’t particularly adventurously named. Process and Reality remains his most compelling title (and still awaits a beer named after it, which Difference and Repetition has long had).

If there’s any generalization we can make about music inspired by either Deleuze or Whitehead, it’s that their work appeals especially to electronic musicians (all the Mille Plateaux folks, Bicknell, maybe BlonDee), free jazzers (Evan Parker), and those populating the experimental terrain between the two genres (Pinhas and his collaborators). (My own efforts — tracks like this one and a few others, rather than full albums — are in a more minimalist vein, but the inspiration has generally been free-jazzy.)

It’s a bit surprising to me that no well-known 20th century composer shows any clear and documented influence from Whitehead’s philosophy. You’d think, for instance, that Schoenbergian twelve-tonalism would have been influenced by Whitehead’s earlier or middle period writings on science and relativity.

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White smoke

Everyone sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for geologists to finally decide whether or not we have entered the Anthropocene epoch can now breath a sigh of relief. They’ve sent up their white smoke signal to indicate that yes, they’ve decided. (Oh, maybe I’m mixing it up with the Vatican.)

They’ve decided no. But it doesn’t mean what you think it does.

If it sounds like they’re passing the buck, well, they are geologists, the turtles of the scientific world. They shouldn’t be making radical, epoch-ending pronouncements.

Actually, it may mean what I and others have been saying it ought to mean: that the Anthropocene is an event, not an epoch. It’s the kind of thing that, in the geological record, happens pretty suddenly, shockingly — “a complex, transformative, and ongoing event analogous to the Great Oxidation Event” — and everything afterward is different.

How different? We won’t know until we’re an epoch or two removed from it. Let’s enjoy the ride.

(But in the meantime, you can read Erle Ellis‘s account of the decision. Ellis resigned from the Anthropocene Working Group last year, partly because he disagreed with the narrowing of criteria the group was using to define the Anthropocene.)

Language is an instrument for dealing with the details of reality. All of our words, along with the ways we string them together, contain or reflect concepts — signs or semiotic constructs – by which we refer to elements of a dynamic world. Because they are essentially pragmatic and context-specific, if we scrutinize any of them too closely or probe them too deeply, they become incoherent. (That’s what Jacques Derrida’s voluminous writings on deconstruction were intended to demonstrate.)

“Religion” is one of those words, and I’m going to argue here that its value has diminished significantly since it emerged into wide usage. (This isn’t my original argument; see, e.g., Benson, McCutcheon, or my earlier articles on this.) It came into broad usage for comparative reasons — to describe discrete things called “religions” — at a time when Europeans were colonizing and encountering other places and cultures around the world. But that world was changing rapidly, and in the intervening time the things called “religions” have also changed due to various processes (which we can loosely, but also problematically, label “modernization”). As a result, “religions” aren’t what they used to be, and a lot of other things have emerged which don’t fit the category of “religion.” These things all fit on a spectrum, but the concept of “religion” keeps us from being able to describe that spectrum appropriately.

It’s not that the elements of “religion” have gone away. They are all still with us.

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Ontology 101

The word ontology comes up a lot in the fields I work in (loosely speaking, the environmental humanities and social sciences), especially among scholars grappling with cultural differences and “decolonial” thinking. Here’s a crack at a 5-minute introduction to it for newbies.

Ontology is commonly defined as something like “the philosophical study of being” or “of the nature of being,” or the study of “what is and of how it is.” I prefer to call it “the study and understanding of reality in its differing contours, dimensions, and modes.” So what does that mean?

Let’s take a random list of items: the Brooklyn Bridge, the rain falling outside my window as I write, the number six, a copy of The Book of Mormon found in a drawer in room 613 of the New York Downtown Marriott, gravity, Jesus’s resurrection on the third day, Spiderman, an earworm of Pere Ubu’s “Chinese Radiation,” and the Red King.

Each of these is real in some sense or other: for instance, as a tangible object, as a concept (a type or category, a theory, et al.), as an event that either occurred or was imagined to occur, as a possibility, etc. Some of their realities may overlap.

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This is a follow-up to a series of posts shared here on the topic of Indigenous identity, allyship, and the situation in my local state of Vermont. The first three can be found here: titled “Reindigenization and allyship: starting points,” “Reindigenization & allyship, part 2,” and “Reindigenization & allyship, part 3: on getting it right.” I’ve been a co-organizer of several key events related to this issue at the University of Vermont, and I plan to share further thoughts on it in the future. Here I am just providing links to recent scholarship and reportage that could help bring readers up to date.

The conversation continues to evolve, and this page may be updated as it does. The list of links is not comprehensive. If you have other material you think should be here, please send it to me. This page was originally published on December 22, 2023, and most recently updated (and revised) on May 7, 2024.

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Teaching my course in comparative spiritual practices, I find there is a rationality underpinning each, but that some require lesser leaps of faith (for us twenty-first-century humans) than others.

Stoicism is one of the lesser-leap philosophies: it has a pretty systematic account of the nature of things, which resonates with modern science reasonably well, and it shows you how to confirm that nature empirically. Of its Greco-Roman-Hellenistic kin, Epicureanism has a lower confirmation bar, and Skepticism still lower; so for those who like some bar, Stoicism is a good bet.

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My talk at the recent “Apocalyptic Anxieties” conference, at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, is available for viewing at the SFU Institute for the Humanities YouTube page, or below. Here is an abstract of the talk:

From the Angel of Apocalyptic History to the Optimism of the Will: Climate Hope within States of Urgency

Apocalyptic scenarios have accompanied environmental politics for decades; today they are globalized in a profusion of political and ecological anxieties (representing a “pessimism of the intellect”) and a welter of conspiracy theories. Apocalyptic trauma has also been the shadow side of the centuries-long “slow violence” of extractive colonialism, and of the fascisms of the twentieth, and arguably twenty-first, centuries. This talk will seek insight into apocalypse in the historical meditations of Walter Benjamin — specifically, in his “angel of history” who “sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage” in front of his feet — and in the writings of Gramsci, Stengers, Mbembe, and others. It will propose an “optimism of the will” rooted in a willingness to face Benjamin’s “angel,” who challenges us to acknowledge commonality with humans and nonhumans facing the uncertainties of a world unmoored from any guarantees — of “nature,” of “truth,” of “progress,” of scientific knowledge, or even of human survival itself. 

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