Mackay, Robin 2010 editor, Collapse VI: Geo/philosophy, reviewed by Gerald Aiken
Robin Mackay, editor, Collapse Vol. VI: Geo/philosophy, Urbanomic, Falmouth, UK, 2010, 540 pages, £9.99 paper, ISBN 9780955308772
For four years now the journal Collapse has evidenced avant-garde, underground philosophy from the publishers Urbanomic. Best known for being the flagship journal of speculative realism, the sixth edition of Collapse focuses on Geo/philosophy. It is a melee of speculators, thinkers, and artists brought together with such diverse and unlikely characters as Microsoft employees, 18th century polymaths, and architectural polyglots. In keeping with the journal’s bold aim “to create a portrait of the present state of planetary thought,” diversity of opinion is also respected. Indeed for Collapse, diversity is the only way to go. They have an inordinate disregard for established intellectual boundaries, such as between continental and analytic philosophy. What’s more, as if this was not a task too comprehensive, this edition seeks to précis such a wide topic by means of an array of thinkers often leaning on differing presuppositions and schools of thought (planetary or otherwise). The fear with an all-encompassing task such as this, is that it would muddle and un-weave itself out of sheer incoherence, collapsing under the weight of its own ambition. This fear is largely allayed, and the editors must be praised for finding a lucid line of thought thread throughout.
If there is a universal theme to this volume it is a call back to the micro. Not in a reductionist, ever-smaller building blocks kind of way, but a whispering that is humble, grounded, and embracing, rather than seeking to flee or supersede the limitations of our earthly condition. The better parts of this volume are reminiscent of the poetry of Norman MacCaig and his lauding of ‘miniaturist’ landscapes. His view of nature did not focus on the majestic or the sublime. The ‘nature’ we meet here has no deeper meaning, it just is. There is no Casper Friedrich scale vaulting of the world here. ‘Nature’ is met on its own terms, without a need to extrapolate a moral that is applicable for the whole. In other words, the particular is valued for its particular-ness, not for what it can reveal about the universal, either through scaling up, or revealing deeper truths.
Nicola Masciandro’s contribution, Becoming Spice, launches into these themes through the exposition of two terms that almost map onto the polar tensions of universal-particular, abstract-concrete, or philosophy-geography. Her metaphors for understanding are “commentary” and “spice.” Spice is the yearning for exploration, the search for that which exists in the world other to us and infuses our aromatic experience. Commentary represents exploration also, but it is an intellectual exploration, a geophilosophical search for understanding.
The two are, of course, a false binary. Masciandro has them dance around each other like courting birds in spring before, in a final flurry as predictable as it is natural, they are united in the notion of “commentary-as-spice.” This is “not merely an authorative supplement … not a condiment, but something that actually holds the essence of revelation as a living process” (page 39). The spice that we are talking about here is more akin to salt than icing sugar; salt is that which infuses, holds, and brings together the dish, makes it palatable. Sugar, particularly icing sugar, is that which sweetens but does relatively little to change the substance or flavour. Masciandaro’s refrain is to emphasise the particular, contextual nature of being. However, an alternative reading of spice would see it as representative of that which is transferable, tradable, and transportable – transient. More biliously, spice still retains, for Western ears and eyes, its symbolism of trade, commerce, Orientalism, the reification of the exotic (indeed, even the notion of the exotic itself), and also of exploitation, imperialism, and empire. This does not diminish the Point Masciandro makes. Talk of spice is used throughout this volume and seems to be something of a leitmotif for the Collapse collective. However, it is worth noting that her choice of metaphor has these unintended echoes and baggage.
Part of what helps to create the semblance of a coherent narrative running throughout this volume is a central plank of republished work by F.W.J. Schelling. Schelling is adopted for his emphasizing of the ‘vital’ in materialism and grounding against Kant, rather than his Romantic views, particularly of nature. Use of Schelling gives a sense that much of what surrounds it in this volume grows out of solid philosophical roots, even if those roots are not what the layperson may have come to expect from philosophy after Kant. In Schelling’s work there are two resonances in current ecological concepts of humanity’s place in relation to the world: Gaia and ecopsychology. By far the more popular of these two is the Gaia hypothesis. It would be anachronistic to claim that Gaia influences the whole of this volume, Schelling having written his piece in 1798. Yet, Lovelock’s baptising of Greek myth into ecology has achieved such pervasiveness, that the issues in Collapse VI are forever tainted with this notion, for good or ill. When, like in this volume, there is talk of ‘planetary thinking’, universal organism, or a ‘World-Soul,’ in the reception of these ideas – Gaia looms. It is a Gaia that is far more at home with Lovelock than the often rather wooly, benevolent nature, readings of Gaia that have become popular. The purpose of Schelling here is to steer a course between Romanticism and various new age thinking, that at the same time is philosophically rigorous.
Less popularly, but for sure no less importantly, is the echoing of ecopsychology in Schelling’s concept of ‘naturephilosophy.’ Although Theodore Roszak’s (1995) coinage is not mentioned in this edition of Collapse, it more than overlaps with it. Heavily anti-Kantian, Schelling desires to move away from deterministic, causal thinking. He modestly talks of the “incompleteness of our knowledge of first causes” (page 71). This is not to say they do not exist, just that we can never fully know them.
The important truth in the world, states Schelling, “is not susceptible to an empirical, but only a transcendent deduction” (page 93). This is perhaps the greatest asset to Collapse VI. In order to realise the truth of any encounter, we must first choose sides and get involved. It is through enacting that we truly understand. This radical materialism is making a comeback, and the placing of Schelling here is on the mark, aware that certain things are only cognisable through a lived rather than instrumental understanding. Schelling is talking about a truth that calls for participation.
The jewel amongst the crown in this collection however, is Timothy Morton’s The Mesh, The Strange Stranger and the Beautiful Soul. In it is the attempt to debase the notion of telos, the reconfiguring of community, and an attempt to build a bridge between the death of ontotheology and negative theology, all seen through an ecological lens. This piece, its title and content, fits well with Lefebvre’s concept of ‘meshwork.’ Tim Ingold’s Lines (2007) carry’s much of the same intentionality, not least the desire to challenge notions of an inevitable, chronological structure to our conceptions of the world. Central to this is the shift from linear thinking, or even from a multi-linear approach, a web, to that of a mesh. Not quite a coherent whole, it is “both the holes in the network and the threading between” (page 199). Whatever the lineage of the term, it fits snugly and is profoundly useful in understanding how Morton sees life’s entangled, relational existence. Being relational can often appear to be defined as if one is nothing but the sum of one’s relations. With a meshwork it is the entanglement, the lost, trapped, woven “in both hardness and delicacy” (page 199) suffused nature of presence that defines being.
Both the attempt to debase telos and the reframing of community come together when Morton begins to discuss ontotheology and negative theology. The article, and Collapse as a whole, is critical of the Heidegger of Being and Time. But in the equation of ontotheology as standing for all metaphysics, and impressing the need to dispense with it both of these, it is in agreement. This is highly relevant for the discussion of how the earth begins to think about itself, or how we encompass planetary thought.
Collapse VI is dense, but not impenetrable for the curious layperson. It is also highly relevant both to those from a philosophical background, looking to anchor their thoughts in something more material, and for those from the social sciences who seek deeper intellectual nourishment for their planetary thought.
Gerald Aiken, Department of Geography, Durham University, Durham DH1 3LE, United Kingdom
Roszak T, Gomes M E, and Kanner A D, 1995 Ecopsychology (Sierra, London)
Ingold T, 2007 Lines (Routledge, London)