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Report from the Workshop: 06/06/22

[This was intended to be the report published in 06/06/22, but then Things Happened and I didn’t get it done. I’m publishing it now because I also haven’t had time to write a Report this week. Things Have Continued to Happen. If this post stops abruptly it’s because I’ve plum run out of bandwidth.]

Currently reading:

Yates, Frances: Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition

  • Quite long and very detailed, but still interesting. Scholars have improved upon Yates’ work since her writing, but still a good introduction to the Early Modern milieu before science and magic as we now understand them had been separated. Some of the arguments are directed at other specialists, but the book is still quite readable for someone outside of that field.

Wulf, Andrea: The Brother Gardeners: Botany, Empire, and the Birth of an Obsession [NB: finished in a couple days – worthwhile reading.]

  • Started over the weekend. A fascinating glimpse at the mid-eighteenth century and the birth of modern botany. I read Wulf’s book on Alexander von Humboldt, The Invention of Nature, and I appreciate her style and the way she contextualizes her subjects. Probably most interesting to me so far has been reading about the lengths to which English noblemen went to acquire plants from North America since their native gardens were dead and colorless in ye olde English winter.

I’ve recently had avocations on the brain. I started (but gave up on – just too dense and long for me right now) Priest of Nature by Rob Iliffe, a biography of Isaac Newton a little bit ago. I’ve also been reading about the hermetic revival in the European Early Modern period, and now I’m turning my attention toward botany and plants in general. I wrote about the edifying potential of popular science books in an essay post last week, and I wanted to continue thinking about the importance of avocational work.

Modern professionalism is, well, modern. “Profession,” in the Medieval and Early Modern periods meant something a bit more specific than what we think of with the word today. A doctor, lawyer, or churchman had a “profession,” while any other kind of worker, even a skilled mason or merchant, had a trade. “Professionalizing,” then, meant a more extensive or “deep” education, as integration into a social hierarchy and institution. To study mathematics at Trinity in Newton’s time, for example, one typically also had to take holy orders in the Anglican church. Professions, then, also required a certain degree of (at least public) profession of orthodoxy. Newton got special dispensation not to take holy orders, but not because of his heterodox positions on the Trinity. Rather, Newton was making such important contributions to mathematics (still part of “natural philosophy” then), that pastoral and clerical duties would get in the way of his progress.

Wulf’s The Brother Gardeners gets into the question of avocations as well. The main characters of her account are Peter Collinson, an English cloth merchant, and John Bartram, a farmer in the North American colonies near Philadelphia. In the early eighteenth century gardeners in England practically devoured botanical specimens from the American colonies, and John Bartram provided many of their seeds, cuttings, and specimens with Collinson as an intermediary. Both men were Quakers, which meant that neither could have attended university, but Bartram in particular is interesting because despite his lack of Latin and his comparatively humble status as a colonial farmer, he developed a deep and extensive knowledge of botany and came to play an important role in the spread of botanical science and North American plants to the Old World.

One might think that botany as a sideline would be natural for a farmer, but it’s worth considering that farmers grow crops to support themselves and their families – while some knowledge of botany in a scientific sense would no doubt serve them well, a Philadelphia farmer who grows corn or potatoes might not care too much about the specific number of pistils and stamens that a flower from Jamaica has, and what this means for botanical classification, pace Linnaeus. These were the kinds of things that did fascinate Bartram, despite his botanical collecting initially making him no money and even resulting in injury.

I’ve spent most of my adult life pursuing an education in fields abstract and humanistic. First history when I realized geology required calculus, then an interesting mishmash of humanistic subjects under the heading of “Liberal Studies,” and now philosophy. I’ve had jobs during the entire time I’ve been in undergrad and graduate school, many outside of or adjacent to academia proper: Lifeguard and swim instructor, grocery bagger and cashier, adult ESL teacher, high school English teacher, adjunct faculty at a community college, substitute teacher at an elementary school, science camp counselor, teaching assistant, and now library assistant at UNM.

Since staring on a more focused academic path I’ve come to realize that I don’t feel at ease with the majority of my classmates. Most of them are at least ten years younger than me and fresh out of undergrad, sometimes with little more work experience than some summer lifeguarding or grocery bagging. Their lives and priorities are totally different from mine, and it’s been difficult bridging the gap. I also find myself balking at the pressure to professionalize. Over the last year I’ve come to realize that academia has historically been my avocation, the thing I do that isn’t the thing that actually supports me materially but that I nonetheless spend a lot of time doing. I’m using vocation and avocation here in a modern sense. I don’t feel “called,” the root of the word “vocation,” to academia. If there’s anything I fell “called” to do, it’s the avocational projects I work at, like writing professionally and gardening. These aren’t “hobbies,” at least not in the derogatory sense of that word, and it’s interesting to note that “hobbies” are now increasingly becoming integrated into the “hustling” one does on the internet. No place is safe.

John Bartram, who spent years traipsing about the American colonies to gather seeds, cones, and cuttings for his European clients, started doing so because of his fascination with botany, as a favor for Collinson, and to the connected to the wider world of botanists, even for personal gain.

The point? My original goal was a PhD in philosophy. I think that has changed. I may need to run my farm like Bartram, but I’m still planning some trips to collect new and interesting specimens.


Essay: Plants and Dilettantes (written while annoyed)

[The reader may remember this post, in which I went on a screed against writing like a jackass. This post takes a similar tone initially, but I hesitate to call it a “screed” because I start out being annoyed, but everything turns out ok in the end.]

One of the most frustrating things that I encounter in reading modern philosophy is statements of this type:

Philosophy since X has only thought of A, B, and C, and it has (illegitimately) only taken such-and-such form. Really, philosophy should be Y, etc. This is why everything is bad today, and no one wants to read philosophy.

Just about any contemporary philosophy/critical theory text (which also unhelpfully and maybe even patronizingly assumes the reader has read everything in the “Philosophy” section of the library since the Pre-Socratics, has an extensive knowledge of the punk-rock scene in New York, San Francisco, London, etc., or knows what “musique concrete” is.)

I’m being hyperbolic, of course. I’m also being uncharitable, but that is my privilege since this is a personal blog. Not all philosophers write like this (I have enough logic to know this, at least), and in many cases the people who do make such claims have good points. I do get bored and annoyed with the sometimes excessively “poetic” style of some contemporary philosophy, but an even bigger gripe is the sense that philosophers don’t read (or at least don’t write about) anything outside of their discipline.

However, I’ve just recently read a counter-example to (some of) these claims: The Life of Plans: A Metaphysics of Mixture by Emanuele Coccia, translated by Dylan J. Montanari. Coccia’s volume is fascinating for a few reasons, some more abstruse than others. I have a couple of intellectual habits that I’ve often found difficult to fit into philosophy: for one, I want to apply it. Yes, yes, metaphysics. What is it for, then? What does it do? Or convince people to do? How does it fit with the rest of the world? And, more specifically, the world of stuff? Another of my “bad” habits has to do with my dilettantism. I once used quotations from a detective novel set in North Korea to make a point in a paper on Derrida. The prof loved it, but he’s a Heidegger guy and willing to experiment. Of course, with Derrida you can get away with quite a lot, but I don’t often read much philosophy that makes use of sources too far from the 100s of the Dewey decimal system. I think that’s a shame.

Coccia does a few things that I find immensely refreshing. First of all, his analysis is grounded in actually knowing botany. He writes:

From the age of fourteen to the age of nineteen, I was a student in an agricultural high school in a small isolated town in the farmland of central Italy. I was there to learn a “real job”…Plants, with their needs and illnesses, were the privileged objects of all study that took place in this school. This daily and prolonged exposure to beings that were initially so far away from me left a permanent mark on my perspective on the world.

Coccia, The Life of Plants, xi.

Coccia’s studies obviously eventually diverged from a purely vegetarian (haha) diet, but this deep, specific education in a discipline involved with stuff, one that revolves around living, physical beings that, as Coccia makes clear, present some significant challenges to the way human beings often think of themselves and their world, nonetheless informs a book of philosophy that doesn’t just address itself to a lifeless ivory echo chamber.

Probably my favorite facet of Coccia’s writing is not in the body of the text, which is nonetheless quite interesting, but in the notes. The book doesn’t have a bibliography or works cited page, which annoys me, but it does include extensive endnotes. And they’re a gold mine for a dilettante like me.

In several notes Coccia offers readers suggestions for popular treatments of topics in botany, cosmology, and evolution, among other sciences. The notes are also replete with technical and specialized sources, of course, but the inclusion of less specialized materials demonstrates not only respect for the reader but also a refreshing sense that one can (and should) look to sources outside specialized writing in philosophy proper for material to incorporate into writings philosophical.

Coccia is clearly no dilettante, given his training in botany, but his inclusion of popular works in the sciences demonstrates, at least to my mind, an acknowledgment of the importance of the kind of edifying dilettantism one cultivates by reading works of popular science. I’ll explain.

Today, people go to universities to get degrees that will get them jobs. To be clear, this is not a bad thing in and of itself (nor is it new) – many lines of work require specialized and technical knowledge that one can much more easily gain in a formal setting than by going it alone. Universities have specialized equipment, libraries, and other resources that private individuals typically don’t have unless they have Jeff Bezos money. Western universities have their roots in the Catholic church (and, if Christopher I. Beckwith is right, ultimately in the vihara of the Buddhist world via Muslim madrasas). Clergy, lawyers, and doctors made up the entirety of university student bodies until fairly recently historically, and their courses of study were intended to prepare them for careers in these fields and in diplomacy, etc. However, the focus on utility in education tends to dissolve the more humanistic elements of education understood as a means of improving oneself. As universities become more and more like corporations, the sense that one is doing something more than jumping through a hoop on the way to a job fades into the background.

Even in historic situations where one went to university to, for example, become a priest, the actual knowledge acquisition was supplemented by a sense that one was becoming a kind of person. A newly-minted Anglican priest with bad personal habits (or heterodox positions on the Trinity, like Isaac Newton) would not be likely to go very far in the institution, regardless of their mastery of the material taught.

Like capitalism, which dissolved feudal bonds (a good thing), but then set up new problems, the modern corporate university has largely dissolved the sense of molding or shaping particular kinds of people, all the “educating the whole student” stuff you see in their fliers notwithstanding. Universities no longer act in loco parentis, which is good, and in most cases public universities don’t make weird requirements of their students for purposes of moral control. On the other hand, this means that universities are slowly becoming further and further integrated into the general webwork of hyper-industrial capitalism, creating students who may know how to do a certain job (when they even know that), but that are otherwise disinterested in the world or learning more about it. Learning, which capital understands purely in terms of “efficient” utility, becomes something one invests in, but under the aegis of all capitalist investment: ROI. Without a strong value proposition and good possibility of return on one’s investment, learning becomes, at best, a kind of “hobby.” Or at least something one does not pursue with the kind of intensity that an iron-worker with a fourth grade education in the 1930s would have consumed offerings from the Everyman’s Library or Penguin. Since from within the mind of capital there is no possible incentive aside from capital accumulation, whatever kind of person is produced by universities must, first and foremost, be more or less completely “mapped” and set up for integration into capital’s net. Of course, being heavily indebted with neither real estate or financial instruments to show for it contributes to disciplining those whose mapping doesn’t stick.

Coccia’s book, for all its merits, falls victim (a bit) to the blindness to work outside of philosophy that I’ve been describing. He offers a variety of introductory texts on topics in botany, but part of the book’s argument is that philosophy has largely ignored plants, to its own detriment. I’m not in a position to adjudicate this claim, although Coccia makes good arguments. But here’s the thing. There are people considering and thinking about plants and the world. They’ve been doing it for years, but they haven’t been doing it in philosophy departments.

Examples off the top of my head: the works of Loren Eiseley, Michael Pollan, Merlin Sheldrake, Robin Wall Kimmerer and others (without mentioning similar work in fiction, documentary films, etc). Kimmerer works directly in botany, Sheldrake is a scholar of fungus, Eiseley was an anthropologist, and Pollan has written several best-selling books on human interactions with plants and food.

Now, the cynic might object: under capitalism, the only books that get picked up and published by prominent presses are books that fundamentally do not challenge the social order. While these books may be interesting, they can’t actually offer any meaningful change because they are so popular. I have two points in response to this.

First, making this claim does capitalism’s job for it. Like all other forms of social organization, capitalism presents itself as natural. Financial “survival of the fittest” and unethical dealing suddenly become acceptable when, before, usury, simony, and other rules of the game under capitalism were not just crimes but sins, transgressions against moral law. The stakes were much higher than a fine from the SEC. Again, the only incentive capital can see is maximizing profits and accumulating more capital – if you have to behave unethically or immorally to do that, then you can just go to a tent revival or Pentecostalist service, have a blissed-out ecstatic experience that you take to mean assurance of your salvation, and then get right back to “the grind.” Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do, and you have to think that it is natural and normal that this be the case. But here’s the thing: capital is myopic in this way. You, the person living in a hyper-industrial capitalist society, do not have to be. Capital is hegemonic and creeps its way into every nook and cranny of the world, but it doesn’t go all the way down.

Maybe it is the case that Michael Pollan’s books simply serve to reinforce and reproduce capitalist forms of life. But how can you know that if you don’t read them? How can you know that buried in the garbage, are valuable bits that could be used, repurposed, remixed, or argued against? For all you know, Pollan may be keenly aware of the limitations placed on him by the vicissitudes of the book marketplace. Maybe there was a truly trenchant critique of mono cropping in one of his books that an editor ordered cut out. Besides, since we all live under capitalism, Pollan has to make money somehow. He could do it in ways far more compromising than writing books about fruit.

Second: If anyone hopes to find a way beyond capitalism and its depredations, they should celebrate the fact that anti-capitalist sentiment and critiques of capitalism – some of which do in fact get published by large presses – are becoming popular and, in the process, moving out of niche subcultures and into the suburbs. It is entirely possible that a book one could buy at a ridiculous markup in an airport bookstore with dramamine and some gum might articulate critiques of capitalism or offer alternatives or food for thought. But one might never know, because the title sounds like something one’s dyed-in-the-wool Hillary voter parents would like. Surely a book available in such a place couldn’t have anything to say to philosophy, Regina Philosophiae Gratia Deo.

I will admit that a book called something like The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck (a real title), or The Flower Child Within: Psychodynamic Gardening against Attention Difficulties (fake, but plausible), does not appeal to me. I certainly wouldn’t pay for either title. But! I would consider checking out a copy from the library or borrowing a copy. (But definitely not going to certain websites in search of a pdf…) I would read it not to just gulp it down uncritically, but to actually engage with the world and what all the people that will also have to be on board with The Revolution are thinking.

And so, after rambling in the brambles, we return to Coccia and to the possibilities in popular science books. If there’s a point to all this, it’s that insofar as philosophy understands (or understood) itself as a universal discipline, a discipline for which no part of the world is completely foreign or inaccessible, one of the philosopher’s first jobs should be to learn as much as they can about that world, and actually try to do something with that knowledge. Even if that means being a dilettante. Some degree of specialization may not only be unavoidable but necessary in a world of incredible technical complexity. But it doesn’t mean one should pass up anything on the other shelves.