Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Ray Brassier returns with Leon Niemoczynski of After Nature in 2016! (And, an update for the fall semester.)

Updated (per summer and as of fall of 2016) a lengthened and much more detailed interview between Ray Brassier and Leon Niemoczynski *hopefully* coming out soon, to be published not here at After Nature, but this time elsewhere in an as-of-yet-to-be-announced peer-reviewed publication. Please note this is not definite as of yet but (hopefully) very likely. After a few email exchanges with Ray I'm told end of October seems like a fair date to receive the responses after having sent out some enormous questions to him this past August (and he's gracious to a fault for agreeing to answer these questions, trust me - you'll see what I mean when you read the questions). So let's keep fingers crossed.

Things take off where he and I left off back in 2012 and immediately move into completely new territory with a series of all new exciting and fresh questions and material. I don't want to jinx it of course but I couldn't contain my excitement either as the end of this month approaches. My good friend Pete Wolfendale hints Ray is up to some great things these days, so I just had to find out for myself what has developed since Ray and I last spoke in what was a brief interview that since then I always thought deserved to be updated, expanded by as much as anyone's time might allow, and published. Thus, with Ray's new work in-progress I don't think anyone has seen anything quite like this yet! Hopefully more soon as news develops. Fair enough to say I am very, very excited.

In the same place you'll find interviews with Iain Grant and Niemoczynski (from 2013 or 2014, I want to say) and a new one from Quentin Meillassoux (if that's what it is going to be called). Not to jinx it as well as I can't mention any other names too far in advance- but with any luck there *may* be a French philosopher of science in those pages too (no, not Latour) - but again, no official word just yet so I can't say too much. But we'll see, ok? All fingers crossed and hush hush. Soon!

Less than a few months to put all of this together as there are a few pieces to this puzzle I am looking to add here, but I think that is enough of a "with any luck something big will be coming this way hopefully soon" type announcement. I've been working on this project for about one year. If worse comes to worse I am going to split the project into two separate publications each with a different focus.

Ok, so that is some (hopefully) good news if things work out.

Now for some unrelated and quite unfortunate news...but a fall update is in order.  If you aren't interested in hearing personal news about me please feel free to skip.


A, well, heartfelt and somewhat abrupt announcement concerning the very future of After Nature blog (yes, certainly a labored decision, as I've been thinking about this intently, is coming very soon: namely some not so great but necessary news regarding the future of this blog and its six year history must by circumstance alone be announced rather concretely if only to put things in perspective and balance out some of the big news regarding the forthcoming publications mentioned above since - afterall - our mission here is *just* about finished... on the bright-side, it *has* been six years....

Within the next three months let's say, definitely around winter 2016 (as early as December) but no later than very early winter 2017, I will be forced to make an announcement that, well, is a challenge for me not because I want to do it but because my health is now forcing me to: or at least, for now, so it seems that a decision will be forced.

It does involve some, hmmm, less than ideal news regarding my health issues which have now returned as an issue for me unfortunately; and soon, as in the next few weeks, I'll be at a crossroads yet again (likely within eight to ten weeks time or less), to make a very important decision to go ahead and undergo a (required) emergency operation for a brain aneurysm (so that) my body can withstand the bloodthinners needed to be pumped into me for an emergency cardiac ablation required for a recently discovered life-threatening heart arrhythmia likely responsible for my TIAs that occurred between '09 and '11 (those TIAs which incidentally contributed to at least one failed corrective surgery that damaged the femoral and obturator nerves leaving me in debilitating chronic pain for the past four years which has now only recently begun to resolve; yet three orthopedic surgeons tell me the nerve damage is so bad, i.e. permanent, that I am in need of total hip replacement. That's beside the point: I have two hips and one heart; and one is a vital organ. But make no mistake about it: chronic pain isn't a joke either, it's just that the heart is priority number one.)

I found out about the cardiac arrhythmia only recently - as I had been having severe symptoms at least since June of this year (I knew about the brain aneurysm but it was never a problem in-itself causing no symptoms until the prospect that the blood thinners for the heart operation turned out to be a risk in that they could, potentially, burst the aneurysm while I'm on the table, and, well, you get the idea). And this is all news to me in about the past month to month and a half as to what is what.

Priorities will have to be reordered and some pretty big (serious) life decisions be made too, regarding how to best handle this situation which has decided to yet again attack me now, after two years of being free and clear of my illness by and large. But, suddenly things have changed in perspective. Of course.

That's all I can say at this point for now. So on one hand hopefully good things for me are on the short term horizon; on the other hand, not so good of course if worse comes to worse and the surgeries are required as soon as I believe that they will be: I am thinking early to mid-December.

If I can develop the discretionary tact to discuss in more detail what has developed now with my health situation (literally out of *nowhere* but related of course to all else since '09 strange happenings) without jeopardizing the dignity of my career or academic name-sake I'll try to give an update in the future; but honestly, perhaps just ending the blog at that time might be better as, afterall, After Nature has accomplished its mission anyway.

For the longterm future if these surgeries go well I hope to keep my permanent/continuing VAP that I've worked so hard to attain and continue to teach well and publish often if I can (and I sincerely hope to and am going to try my best as I always do); but, I just don't think blogging is a wise or anymore useful priority for me. Ending the blog is something I am *considering* now - but be that as it may, because of my health and VAP job priorities, ending it this coming winter is likely.

I've not battled worse before than what I am about to go through in the next two to three months, and so I thought sharing a little uplifting news beforehand about new projects might be helpful before breaking the potentially bad news. Otherwise I'm sure I'll be fine. Afterall, as Hoelderlin once wrote, "Where there is danger, grows also the saving power."

Thanks so much, and thanks for reading. My apologies for any apparent melodrama: it's just the truth of what's going on right now and why, for me, having completed my blog's mission, come this winter (or early next year, latest) with two major surgeries and recovery looming, and getting back to my VAP (counting on it), ending a six year part of my life - meaning, this blog - wasn't a decision that came easy to me.

Many thanks for your patience in reading this. And of course many thanks for reading After Nature so far and for making it the success that it is today.

Sincerely, and as news develops I'll be sure to keep readers posted.


Leon / After Nature

Monday, October 24, 2016

"How the old and the new make the mind ebb and flow" (Aeon Essays)

How the old and the new make the mind ebb and flow | Aeon Essays
// Aeon

For some 2,500 years, humans have located the mind in the brain inside our heads. But we ought to consider the origin of mind with an open mind. Is the mind truly within the brain? Or is this an illusion?

I gained some insight back in the 1980s, as college drew to a close. I was in my 20s and working in Mexico for the World Health Organization on a project to study curanderos – folk healers – in a region where the press of modernisation of a local dam, La Presa Miguel Alemán, 250 miles south-east of Mexico City, was changing communities and local medical services. One morning, on a horseback journey to interview a local healer as part of my project, the saddle on my horse loosened and, with feet still strapped into the stirrups, I was dragged, they tell me, a hundred yards over gravel and rock, my head banging against the ground beneath the horse's racing hooves. When the young and frightened horse finally came to a stop, my riding companions thought I must be dead, or at least that I'd broken my neck. I did break my teeth and nose, and damaged my arm. The head trauma induced a state of global amnesia that lasted about a day.

In the aftermath of the horse accident, I became attuned to a level of knowing beneath personal identity, personal belief and personal expectation. I had no idea what to call this change in 'me' so I never discussed it with anyone, putting it into a category of some existential wakeup call to lighten up, given life's fragility following that near-death accident, to be grateful to be able to move my neck, be alive, be awake and aware. I didn't think of it then as a gift, but I realise now it was one of those unplanned experiences that are turning points, even if we don't realise their impact at the time.

How do all these layers of reality, these domains of life, find some common home, some common ground of understanding? Two terms that offer some insight and indicate how information is processed in our minds and brains are 'top-down' and 'bottom-up'. These terms are sometimes used for the anatomical location of processing: the higher cortex (seat of executive function) at the top, the lower brainstem (heart rate, breathing) and limbic areas (emotion) at the bottom. But the same terms are also used for layers of processing not related to the anatomical distribution of up and down. Instead, they are used for the degree of processing of information.

In the view we will be using here, top-down refers to ways we have experienced things in the past and created generalised summaries or mental models, also known as schema, of those events. For example, if you've seen many dogs, you'll have a general mental model or image of a generic dog. The next time you see a furry canine strolling by, your top-down processing might use that mental model to filter incoming visual input, and you won't really see the uniqueness of this dog in front of you. You have overlaid your generalised image of 'dog' on top of the here-and-now perceptual stream of energy that creates the neural representation of 'dog'. What you actually have in awareness is that amalgam of the top-down filtering of your experience.

So here, 'top' means that prior experience is activated, making it difficult to notice the unique and vibrant details of what is happening here and now. The top-down generalised notion of dog will shade and limit your perception of the actual animal in front of you. The benefit of top-down is that it makes your life more efficient. That's a dog, I know what it is, I don't need to expend any more energy than needed on insignificant, non-threatening things, so I'll take my limited resources and apply them elsewhere. It saves time and energy, and therefore is cognitively efficient. That's top-down processing.

On the other hand, if you've never seen a spiny anteater before, the first time you come across one on the trail, it will capture all of your attention, engaging your bottom-up processing so that you are seeing with beginner's eyes. These are eyes leading to circuitry in the brain, not shaping and altering ongoing perception through the top-down filters of prior experience. You'll be taking in as much pure sensation from eyesight as possible, without the top-down filter altering and limiting what you see now based on what you've seen before.

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When we travel to a foreign country, bottom-up perceiving can fill our journey with a profound sense of being alive. Time seems extended, days full, and we've seen more details in a few hours than we might have seen in a week in our familiar life. What seen means for bottom-up perception is that we become more attentive to novelty, seeing the unique aspects of what is, literally, in front of our eyes. The social psychologist Ellen Langer at Harvard University calls this 'mindfulness', and has done numerous studies to reveal the health benefits of being open to the freshness of the present moment.

The novel experience of foreign travel, in contrast to the sense of dullness in our lives back home, also reminds us of what life is like in familiar terrain: top-down can dominate bottom-up and give us a familiar sense of the same-old, same-old. A street at home with just as much detail seems dull compared with the novelty of a street in a foreign town seen for the first time. This loss of attention to the familiar can be called top-down dominance. Prior learning creates top-down filters through which we screen incoming data and lose the detail of things seen for the first time.

This top-down dominance is one of the side effects, if you will, of experience and knowledge. It's one of the downsides of expertise – we stop seeing clearly because we know so much. We know what a dog is, so let's move on and not lose attentional energy by focusing on something we already know. We save our attentional resources for something more pressing than the familiar. Knowledge from prior experience helps us become selective in what we perceive so we can be more efficient in allocating attentional resources and more effective and rapid in our behavioural responses. But something gets lost with that efficiency. We literally walk next to the roses and pass them by, naming them, knowing them as the flowers they are, but we don't stop to immerse ourselves in their scents or notice their unique rainbow of colours and textures.

The mind is both embodied and relational. Energy and information flow within us as well as between us

One general way of considering the distinction between these perception modes is that with the bottom-up we are experiencing the mind as a conduit of sensory experience, whereas in top-down we are additionally a constructor of information. A conduit enables something to flow freely, directing that flow but not changing it much; a constructor is fuelled by input and then generates its own output, a transformation that changes the fuel into another form: it constructs a new layer of representational information beyond the initial sensory stream.

The mind can be a bottom-up conduit and top-down constructor.

To help answer the question 'Who are we?' consider that we are at least a conduit and constructor. It might be that if only one or the other is utilised in our lives, we become blocked in our functioning. Without the constructor, we don't learn; without the conduit, we don't feel. Could this be an extreme constructor thing to say? My conduit mind somehow urges me to stay open about this – maybe being only a conduit is fine. But if I have put these thoughts into words, my conduit is connecting with my constructor to stand up for itself – a sign of the importance of both, don't you think, don't you feel? Both are important, each playing an important but distinct role in our experience of being alive. Use one without the balance of the other, and our lives become limited. Differentiate and then link the two, and we become integrated.

The mind is both embodied and relational. In our communications with one another, we often send linguistic packets of top-down words with narratives and explanations that are already constructing the reality we are sharing with another. Even when we try our best to use words to describe what we are experiencing, rather than explain what is going on, we are still using the construction of linguistic forms.

And in our brain? Energy and information flow within us as well as between us. The nervous system, including its brain, plays a major role in shaping our embodied energy-flow patterns. This is how brain research illuminates, though not with totality, what the mind is and who we are.

One recent finding is that in the brain there are two anatomically distinct circuits mediating conduit and constructor. A more lateralised (side) process involving sensory input areas includes the anterior insula (which some say is part of the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex) and the consciousness-mediating dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the upper side area in the front of the brain, behind the forehead and above and to the side of the eyes). Notice the term lateral in each of these regions. These side circuits seem to be active when we focus primarily on moment-by-moment sensation. In contrast, we have a more centralised circuit in the brain that seems to generate thought and construct all sorts of top-down chatter about others and the self.

Sensation might be as bottom-up as we get. Since we live in a body, our within-mind experience is shaped by the physical apparatus that lets us take in energy flow from the outside world. We have our first five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch; we have our proprioceptive sense of motion; and we have our 'interoceptive' sense of the signals from the interior of the body. These perceptual capacities to sense the outer world and internal bodily world are built upon the physical neural machinery that enables energy to flow. Information is created with these energy patterns, generated as ions flow in and out of membranes and chemicals are released in the pathways of neural activity. As energy flows into the brain from our external sense organs, such as our eyes and ears, or from internal receptors of our body's muscles, bones and internal organs, we move from sensation to perception – with pure sensation as close as we get to being fully present in the world.

When we assemble those bottom-up sensations into perceptions, or go even further and reflect on the meaning of a sensation or perception, associating it with thought and memory, we are utilising the activity of a more central circuit that involves distinct areas, including midline areas of the prefrontal cortex, and regions such as the precuneus, medial and temporal lobes, lateral and inferior parietal cortex, and cingulate cortex. All this observing circuitry is a part of a brain system that neuroscientists call the default mode network, which matures during development into a cohesive, integrated whole residing at the midline front and back areas of the brain.

This circuit is called 'default' because when a test subject is at rest in a scanner, the network continues to fire as the baseline without the volunteer having been assigned a specific task to perform. What does this circuit involve itself with? 'Self and others', also known as the OATS system. In fact, some neuroscientists have suggested that elements of the default mode circuitry give rise to our sense of personal identity and might be connected to our mental health. Studies of mindfulness meditation have pointed out that this system becomes more integrated with sustained practice. We are reflective and social beings, and it would be natural to focus on others and self as a baseline activity when we're just hanging out with no particular assignment – even in a big blasting brain scanner.

wording the world can make us more distant still from the sensory richness that surrounds us. We then move further in a top-down mode

Perhaps it was this OATS system that was temporarily disabled after my horse accident. Without the engagement of a more distanced constructor of this top-down circuitry, the direct sensory input of each moment at that time could then more easily fill my awareness. Without the top-down filter of prior experience and personal identity, I was literally seeing things for the first time. The lateral sensory bottom-up conduit circuit and the midline top-down constructor/observing circuit have been shown to be reciprocal in their activation: when one is turned up, the other is turned down. When my midline construction circuit was knocked offline for a day, I could experience a fuller, richer, bottom-up, sensory world through the conduit of my within-mind machinery.

Construction could have many top-down layers. One is at the level of perception, so when we see a familiar dog it is just a dog. We literally sense the visual input of the dog but do not perceive that input with any great detail of awareness. We can also have the experience of observing at a distance, having the experience of 'Dan is seeing a dog. How interesting for him. Let's move on.' Such observation with the presence of an 'observer' – in this case, Dan – might be just the beginning of the OATS activity. Now there is a personal identity that indicates who is doing the seeing. Once I actively link autobiographical and factual memory together with linguistic forms, top-down has become the active constructor, and the OATS activity is off to the races.

We are now observing, not sensing. Such observation can then give rise to a well-defined witness – we witness an event from an even more distant stance. Language emerges from this observational flow, and wording the world can make us more distant still from the sensory richness that surrounds us. We then move further in a top-down mode to narrating what we are witnessing and observing. This is how we OWN an experience, as we observe, witness, and narrate an event – and become far more distant than if we were simply immersed in the sensory bottom-up flow of our conduit circuitry in the present moment. This is the balance we live day-by-day, moment-by-moment, between top-down and bottom-up, conduit and constructor.

The experience of living in the moment is potent and profound – and one longstanding hypothesis holds that it bubbles up from an ultra-thin layer of the upper brain. Vernon Mountcastle and other neuroscientists noted decades ago that the flow of energy in the cortex, the highest part of the brain, was bidirectional. Movement was through the cortex's vertical columns, most of which are six cell-layers deep. The highest layer is labelled number one; the lowest is labelled six. Folded over and over itself, the cortex appears thick, but six layers of cells is actually quite thin, like six playing cards laid on top of one another. The cortex serves to make neural 'maps' of the world – taking in our sensory input of sight and sound and building larger maps, finally constructing our conceptual thoughts about self and other – OATS.

Imagine the possibility, yet-to-be verified, that our sense of wonder, the thrill of the new, moves from the outside world through our senses to those microscopic layers – six to five to four. Travel up one more layer, and we start to parse and analyse, then add language, and reality shifts again. We humans revel in the experience the mind provides, even as its boundaries and contours remain at large.

Reprinted from 'Mind: Journey to the Heart of Being Human' by Daniel J Siegel, Copyright © 2017 by Mind Your Brain, Inc. With permission of the publisher, W W Norton & Co, Inc. All rights reserved.


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quote of the day

"Art is the disclosure of the invisible genesis of things."
- Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Galloway with a nice Laruellian interpretation of Heidegger

Discussing truth in immanence. A nice little write-up about Heidegger.  Link HERE

Some years ago Paul Ennis and I had been discussing whether there was a "realist" Heidegger. We agreed his work in the '30s accomplished being just that.  For example, THIS post, "Heidegger's Realism and German Idealism."

Friday, October 21, 2016

Zizek on the new realisms/new materialisms

In a 400+ book called Disparities. The table of contents looks interesting at least and seems as if the book will cover, among other things, the return to Hegel in contemporary metaphysics, contemporary speculative philosophies, the new realisms/materialisms etc.  See the link HERE.  On amazon it looks as if the hardcopy will be for about fifteen dollars. I'd like to peruse the book through google books to see what sorts of things are discussed, who, and how before I were to consider reading it. Given the topics I'd be honored if After Nature blog were included somehow in this book as I know Zizek is a regular reader of my blog.

As an aside, Birbeck will be offering a Masterclass on the book led by Zizek himself. Details HERE.

Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, Robert Paul Wolff Lecture 7 (YouTube)

Link HERE.

"Biology and Whitehead's Philosophy of Organism" (academia.edu paper)


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Toscano's Philosophy and Individuation Between Kant and Deleuze

Some time back I had offered a "Metaphysics of Individuation" summer reading group to be accomplished with some of my former students. At the time I was unaware of Toscano's book, which I am linking HERE at his academia.edu page where it is available for free in its entirety. It seems to me that this would have been a perfect addition though.

Some of the things we covered were de Castro's "Cosmologies: Perspectivism," Latour's "What is Given in Experience?," Latour's "The Whole is Always Smaller than the Parts," "Gabriel Tarde and the End of the Social" also by Latour, and then about three or four articles on Simondon (notably "The Position of the Problem of Ontogenesis" and "The Genesis of the Individual").  An article on "Raymond Ruyer and the Genesis of Living Forms" was especially helpful as was "A Peircean Theory of Individuation from the Continuum."

Book-wise we looked at some of Sherburne's A Whiteheadian Aesthetic; Tarde's Monadology and Sociology; some of Bennett's Vibrant Matter; some of Levinas's Time and the Other. To conclude we looked at Ernst Haeckel's Art Forms in Nature.

I think that it would be a great graduate seminar to run, actually. Not that I currently teach graduate courses (only undergraduates) - though if given the opportunity I think it'd be an interesting course to teach.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Faculty in Pennsylvania go on strike for the first time in state history

Universities belonging to the state system of higher education have now gone on strike for the first in PA's history. "Local campuses include West Chester, the largest in the system with about 17,000 students, and Cheyney University. Other affected campuses include Bloomsburg, Clarion, California, Edinboro, Indiana, Kutztown, East Stroudsburg, Lock Haven, Millersville, Mansfield, Slippery Rock and Shippensburg." Among the universities that I have connection to are East Stroudsburg University - where I taught as VAP for a year; and West Chester University - where I taught as a Full-time Instructor for three years (this while also teaching part-time to full-time for Immaculata University, a private Catholic institution).

Steven Hales from Bloomsburg University gives a comment on Leiter's blog HERE.  There is an article which explains specifics HERE.

This is big news, as much as it is disturbing.  But also, in the article it discusses that at West Chester University students have apparently staged (and executed) a walk-out to protest the way faculty are being treated, especially adjuncts.

In my personal experience with West Chester University the political climate for adjuncts (one was considered an "adjunct" even if working full-time, therefore the "tier" was self-imposed) was certainly not good. What struck me as odd was the blatant staging of personal politics involved with hires and how adjuncts were generally treated poorly. As I experienced it, adjuncts were used as work-horses and often outperformed the tenure-track faculty, yet were punished for their successes and (perhaps intentionally, or so it seemed) passed over during searches for full-time tenure track hires.  My own personal experience teaching there involved an administration that failed to recognize the ability or worth of adjuncts and simply did whatever they wanted to do when it came to hiring.

On the other hand, salaries and benefits were overblown for tenure-track professors who had a *very* comfortable existence: as in the level of insurance and health care was, at that time, impeccable.  So add that to the politicized and seemingly preferential hires that took place with a department which was, to quote a fellow "adjunct" at that time, a "conspiracy of mediocrity."

In my opinion, by contrast to East Stroudsburg University who actually deserves what they are asking for in this strike, West Chester University had a level of comfort with benefits, salary, and bizarre ability to hire whoever they wanted on whatever basis, which was beyond anything that I've ever seen. That is why I am not so sure about the nature of their complaints.  Unless things have gotten suitably worse for West Chester and the comfortable conditions that I saw tenure-track professors "forced to endure" disappear, then at this point I cannot understand their argument.

But East Stroudsburg (as I see it now) does have an arguable case for strike. I am just not so sure about West Chester.  For them the analogy would be similar to complaining that your brand new Mercedes lacks the latest and greatest brand of GPS while it has a perfectly good (or even perfectly great) navigation system.  But this is just my humble opinion, subject to change as I read various arguments and reports appear and develop.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

"I only regret you could not have suffered longer." The Barkley 100 (Video)

Fascinating documentary (about 20-some minutes) on the "Barkley 100," a one hundred mile race with a 60 hour time limit, held in Frozen Head State Park. It's an ultra-underground "ultramarathon" for the hardcore naturist only.  Worth a watch.

Barkley 100 from Brendan Young on Vimeo. Also on Aeon HERE.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Environmental Humanities, 8(1): Multispecies Studies (2016) [.pdf download]

Environmental Humanities, 8(1): Multispecies Studies (2016)

"The emerging field of multispecies studies, grounded in passionate immersion in the lives of fungi, microorganisms, animals, plants, and others, is opening up novel ways of engaging with worlds around us. This issue brings together some of the leading scholars in this field to explore what is at stake—epistemologically, politically, ethically—for different forms of life caught up in diverse relationships of knowing and living together. The collection takes us into the worlds of sheep and shepherds; of stones, worms, salmon, and forest-devouring beetles; of viruses and their elephants; of seals, crows, and lava flows in Hawaii; and finally of frogs-as-pregnancy-tests and possible agents of pathogenic fungal spread. Each of the contributors explores what difference curious and careful attention to others might make in our efforts to inhabit and coconstitute flourishing worlds in these difficult times."

Edited by Thom van Dooren, Ursula Münster, Eben Kirksey, Deborah Bird Rose, Matthew Chrulew, and Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
Publisher Duke University Press, May 2016
Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
ISSN 2201‐1919
148 pages
HT marcelo

single PDF (2 MB)


Wednesday, October 12, 2016