Foucault news now at Refracted Input

Hooray! The news component of Foucaultblog has found a new home at Clare O’Farrell’s blog Refracted Input. Foucault News blog.

Clare is well known in the Foucault community and the author of several books on Foucault, as well as maintaining Michel-Foucault.com since 1997.

I’m very grateful for Clare’s offer to continue posting news about Foucault and Foucault-related events. Foucault Blog is dead, long live Foucault news!

Foucault Circle cfp

Below is the Foucault Circle call for papers, 2011 meeting (pdf).

FC11cfp

Foucaultblog on hiatus?

Foucaultblog was founded in 2007 as a kind of indirect adjunct to my and Stuart Elden’s co-edited book on Foucault and geography. I’ve been the sole owner and contributor to it during that time, passing on Foucault news (I set up a Google Alert: whenever anybody mentioned “Foucault” on the web I would check out what they said and link to it if it was interesting). This is quite time consuming as you can imagine.

I’ve been thinking for some time that Foucaultblog is perhaps nearing the end of its run, but at the same time I know there’s a wide readership of the blog centering around interest in Foucault. I’ve rather badly kept it going these last few months but have increasingly found myself restricted by the (self-imposed) need to keep it on topic, when I might wish to write on other issues (eg Wikileaks).

Now I think the time has come to at least admit publicly that I have less interest and time in maintaining this blog. This has meant fewer posts and as every blogger knows, fewer posts means fewer readers. There are two options which occur: put the blog on hiatus, or ask you the readership to take it over. My guess would be that people would prefer to run their own blogs rather than one associated by someone else, so I’ve decided to put the blog on hiatus.

What this means is that while I may occasionally post here if something very interesting happens, my blogging activity will be elsewhere.

To that end: in September 2009 I registered for another blog name, opengeography, inspired by the open geography movement and its associated practices such as participatory GIS and openstreetmap. I started posting regularly there about a week ago. It’s weird but I knew no-one was reading it and this felt very liberating. I planned to post there for a while and then gradually stop here. I also planned to design it a bit more before publicising it.

However, I’m starting to see a few readers and links there now, so I might as well confess to it.

So, farewell then, foucaultblog!

Those readers interested in open, public and participatory geographies, critical historical genealogies of space and territory, and critical cartography, and oh well, the things I’m interested in, are welcome to check out opengeography! It’s experimental and unplanned and the topics will no doubt vary widely, but it the idea is to create an interesting, riskier space.

Thanks to all who have commented and linked here over the last few years!

Philip K. Dick and Heidegger

The science fiction writer Philip K. Dick died in March 1982, but has left a legacy behind that would be the envy of most writers (a lot of people think he is still alive and writing). Although the majority of people come to his work through the many movies that have been made from his stories, such as Minority Report, Scanner Darkly and of course Bladerunner, for me it is ultimately his written work that makes the deepest impression.

His last three novels were Valis (1980), The Divine Invasion (1981), and the astounding Transmigration of Timothy Archer (1982), which features his only female protagonist, Angel Archer; the latter is  based on the real-life story of Bishop James Pike, whom PKD knew well.

Philip K. Dick and Bishop James Pike on Dick’s wedding day to Nancy Hackett, July 1966

Dick wrote these as lightly fictionalized accounts of his own life–Valis for example features the sf writer Philip K. Dick and another character, Horselover Fat (which means Philip Dick in Greek and German) who is a kind of projection of PKD’s psychosis (there is a kind of deep humor here that is often missed).

Dick’s themes often touched on authenticity and penetrating to the authentic. As an autodidact and a scholarly dabbler you can explicitly see references in his work to gnosticism, Hebrew kabbalah, Spinoza and so on. One reference I have sometimes wondered about, as I once wrote elsewhere, was whether Dick had read or encountered the work of Heidegger. (Tessa Dick, his former wife, wrote to me several years ago noting that “one of Phil’s favorite topics was Heidegger’s concept of Ereignis, that is, that existence creates or gives birth to space and time. I guess you could say that Phil’s writing focuses on phenomenology.”)

This can now be confirmed. The sixth and final volume of his Letters has at last appeared (the other five appeared nearly 20 years ago but this one was delayed) begins almost immediately with this letter to John B. Ross:

[January 30, 1980]. As I read your letter I thought about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and wondered if you’d read him.I just read him recently and his ideas made quite an impression on me. It seems as if both you and I have been fighting for what he calls authentic existence,which always involves a crisis as the person becomes aware of the possibility of his own nonexistence. This sets off primal dread but it can lead to authentic existence, finally.

Of course Dick is interpreting Heidegger here through his own understanding and concerns (and he doesn’t say what Heidegger he read; and for all we know it could even be a secondary source), but notice how well it fits with the Dick oeuvre (he even characterises it novelistically, with that turn from inauthentic to authentic in the last act).

What’s more interesting though is that he continues:

I wrote an outline of a new novel last month in which I combined Heidegger with early Hebrew concepts of monotheism–a daring effort on my part since Heidegger was a Nazi and totally rejected the idea of God, and, most of all, the Hebrew deity. The outline ran 80 pages.

What’s important here is not whether or not you agree with Dick’s characterization of Heidegger and the latter’s rejection of God, but rather that Dick was prepared to understand this novel, and his own work, in light of Heidegger. While I have not read that 80-page treatment I’m pretty sure that he was referring to a novel he was then calling Valis Regained (after Milton) which later became the published book The Divine Invasion.

TDI charts the arrival of a small boy Emmanuel (ie., God is with us; Valis had a small girl with the significant name Sophia or knowledge) who for various reasons is the target of a corrupt church here on earth (cf. the much later series  His Dark Materials by Phillip Pullman). Unfortunately Emmanuel suffers from amnesia and some of the book concerns efforts to restore his full memory, or anamnesis (an idea Dick derived from Plato). You can see here perhaps in sketch form some of what might be understood as efforts to reach the authentic if it were written up as an sf novel.

There is much more to the novel than that of course and I shall certainly have to reinterpret these last three novels (actually four, there’s also the posthumous Radio Free Albemuth, which has just been made into a movie). I’m certainly looking forward to reading more of these letters, which cover the last 2 years of his life.

Wikileaks and secret intelligence on Afghanistan

The massive release by Wikileaks of 90,000 pages of classified material on the war in Afghanistan has once again raised the question not only of how that war is prosecuted–and the details fill in a picture that will need an equally massive effort of discussion–but also of the way in which governments routinely classify and restrict intelligence to cover up mistakes and prevent information from circulating that would cast them in a bad light. Rather than for protecting security as is often proclaimed.

Wikileaks has now had two critical releases of information this year–the collateral murder video which I discussed on a panel on geographers’ role in forming foreign policy at the AAG meetings in Washington DC in April–and this newest release which they made available to the New York Times, Der Spiegel and the Guardian a few weeks early on the grounds that they wouldn’t discuss it until today.

Glenn Greenwald has a typically trenchant analysis of the situation here. I’ve been reading Greenwald’s blog for nearly five years now, since he came on the scene with commentary about the famous piece in the New York Times about warrantless wiretapping in late 2005, and he is simply compulsory reading on government intelligence, war, and the shape of democracy:

Whatever else is true, WikiLeaks has yet again proven itself to be one of the most valuable and important organizations in the world.  Just as was true for the video of the Apache helicopter attack in Baghdad, there is no valid justification for having kept most of these documents a secret.  But that’s what our National Security State does reflexively:  it hides itself behind an essentially absolute wall of secrecy to ensure that the citizenry remains largely ignorant of what it is really doing.  WikiLeaks is one of the few entities successfully blowing holes in at least parts of that wall, enabling modest glimpses into what The Washington Post spent last week describing as Top Secret America.  The war on WikiLeaks — which was already in full swing, including, strangely, from some who claim a commitment to transparency — will only intensify now.  Anyone who believes that the Government abuses its secrecy powers in order to keep the citizenry in the dark and manipulate public opinion — and who, at this point, doesn’t believe that? – should be squarely on the side of the greater transparency which Wikileaks and its sources, sometimes single-handedly, are providing.

Despite the distractions you’ll hear this week–that the material contains nothing new, that it only covers through December 2009 (the Pentagon Papers were three years out of date when they were released but still highly relevant), Greenwald’s point must be kept front and center: how does secret intelligence (knowledge if you prefer) and its correlates such as surveillance and “security” get used by government to pursue its own ends? This is if you like a version of the old question of power/knowledge (see my Foucault book co-author Stuart Elden commenting on Wikileaks here).

New York Univ. professor of journalism Jay Rosen has some critical discussion here. He says Wikileaks is the world’s first stateless news organization. Who are the Jay Rosen’s and Glenn Greenwald’s of geography I wonder. Certainly Trevor Paglen comes to mind–see his op ed here which examines how Obama is continuing Bush-era programs of secrecy and surveillance. Derek Gregory. There are a number of political geographers as well. Who else?

“So Yahoo hired a professional ontologist…”

This article by Clay Shirky is a good encapsulation of the computer/GIScientist understanding of ontology that is rapidly entering geography and especially mapping and GIS:

It is a rich irony that the word “ontology”, which has to do with making clear and explicit statements about entities in a particular domain, has so many conflicting definitions. I’ll offer two general ones.

The main thread of ontology in the philosophical sense is the study of entities and their relations. The question ontology asks is: What kinds of things exist or can exist in the world, and what manner of relations can those things have to each other? Ontology is less concerned with what is than with what is possible.

Shirky is right that ontology has many definitions, though he then confuses this statement by offering only one as the definition: in his words ontology is “essence, “Is-ness.”” Of course, philosophers will recognise this definition, and a classic one at that: objects with properties ie., Arisotelian substance or predicate ontology. This tradition had already been challenged in the 1920s by Martin Heidegger who replaced ontology as “is” with “being” and essence with existence. Today we would see Shirky’s definition of ontology as rather covering the “ontic” rather than the ontological.

Nevertheless, it’s important to get to grips with this kind of ontology-speak, because as the rest of Shirky’s article discusses it is being applied to some really interesting problems, namely how we sort information, and by extension how we access and use information.

One fascinating aspect of this problem has emerged over the course of the development of the more interactive web, or web 2.0, that changes the game from just downloading information (web 1.0) to contributing to it. In geography this is playing out as various forms of participatory geography: volunteered geographic information (VGI), geolocated pictures, tracks and locations, geotagging, and what is sometimes called the semantic web.

The journal I edit, Cartographica, has a special section in its latest issue of how ontologists are approaching the problem of redoing the US National Atlas (or any other large scale mapping project), many of whom draw on this tradition of ontology for their schemas. To me, the most interesting aspect of this are bottom-up categories, which need not be commensurable or static, are deeply meaningful to individuals and yet sharable.

As this fascinating article points out though, the problem of the “universal book” and data organization, access, retrieval and interrelationships long predates the internet. There was for example Paul Otlet:

In 1934, years before Vannevar Bush dreamed of the memex, decades before Ted Nelson coined the term “hypertext,” Paul Otlet envisioned a new kind of scholar’s workstation: a moving desk shaped like a wheel, powered by a network of hinged spokes beneath a series of moving surfaces. The machine would let users search, read and write their way through a vast mechanical database stored on millions of 3×5 index cards.

Having just come back from the National Archives, where information discovery and retrieval are often dodgy at best (print-only finding aids, stapled “cheatsheets” for use by the archivists with different but similar dates lying around on battered ring binders, frank admissions by the staff that the online catalog covers only as small fraction of even the top-level categories–and this for a reasonably popular “record group” the OSS), well, I can certainly relate.

The quote in the post title comes from Shirky’s description of Yahoo’s attempt at classifying the web back in the “earlies.” He goes on to pull this system, which the “professional ontologist” had devised, apart. With a powerful search engine like Google, you don’t need categories just good tagging (metadata).

“Ontology” may (or may not) be good for small technical domains (and even then bottom-up looks more useful) but for getting at lived human existence, it seems hopeless. Here in contrast is Jeremy Wood’s lived map of Warwick campus, which he made by walking it with a GPS and then making a map form the traces:

The Warwick campus, produced through GPS traces by Jeremy Wood. A map traversed at 1:1 scale, the scale of lived human experience.

Philosophers have a lot to contribute to these issues, not just formal philosophers such as Heidegger but (obFoucault) people who talk about archives, genealogy and epistemology, and the production of knowledge.

(Thanks to John Krygier for the Paul Otlet link.)

OSS and Arthur Robinson

Nice memo by Arthur Robinson, who was Chief of the Map Division in the Research and Analysis (R&A) branch of the OSS during WWII. Usually he signed himself by his full name but I like this one because he used his nickname, Robbie, by which he was well known in later life.

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