Frames /sing


(C)ontinental Philosophy’s Incursion Into Environmental Study

Four Moments of Engagement

Adrian J. Ivakhiv, over at Immanence, provides a crisp, seemingly exemplary mini-history of the on-going interaction Environmental Studies has had with (C)ontinental philosophy, thrilling to read even though I am unfamiliar with nearly every Environmental author. One has a sense that one is watching the arboreal-rhizome of how philosophy invades a discipline, like so much Japanese Knotweed perhaps, in beautiful time-lapse photography. Additionally, I enjoyed the anti-essentialist, very “contenental” manner in which he denies there is anything such thing as Continental philosophy, insisting it is perhaps, at most, “a style”. A delightful paradox of form and content (and I do not say this critically).

I just love the tracing of Spinoza’s initial and then latter-day coming to the field (and as a Spinozist cringe over the Heideggerian phenomenology). And savor how he rightly labels Spinoza “prehistorical”. In any case, this is one of the most informative and enjoyable weblog entries I have read in a long while, opening up a world of persons, texts and species. 

The Ontology Beneath it All

Of this Spinoza’s Return moment Adrian writes:

This is the moment when Spinoza and other relational thinkers make their return via Deleuze, among others, into a field already imbued with phenomenological-hermeneutic and postmodern-poststructuralist thinking as well as the non-dualist provocations of Bruno Latour (actor-network theory), Donna Haraway and the critical animal studies folks, and other schools of thought. What’s missing in much of this work is an adequate ontology, and what Spinoza, Bergson, Whitehead, and the Deleuzians bring is an attention to the complex networking of the temporal-relational processes that constitute the world. This moment is ontologically anti-essentialist in its focus on processes of subjectivity (or subjectivation) and network-building (relationality, complex systems, etc.). Epistemologically it is realist in its understanding of cognition and affect as intertwined, relational, dynamic parts of the process by which organisms/subjects encounter environments/contexts. It is both materialist and discursive, politically and ethically engaged, holistic but not totalizing.

To bring to bear a perhaps critical question, it is interesting to query just how much Spinoza’s own ontology (even however bent by Deleuze’s will) could be asked to bear the full weight/breadth of the intellectual milieu it has entered. If indeed Spinoza helps provide an ontology for this field of positions, is it a Spinoza that would have to relinquish his main securing claim to enter fully into the continental style, that we understand something through its cause. That is, is Spinoza a “relational thinker”? Perhaps a direction is taken to an answer in my comparison between Latour and Spinoza: Is Latour an Under-Expressed Spinozist? where we may find the seed of a distinction for a coming importance of a non-Deleuzian Spinoza for Environmental (and Bio-ethical) Studies.

5 responses to “(C)ontinental Philosophy’s Incursion Into Environmental Study

  1. Adrian May 31, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Thanks for that wonderful summary, Kevin – this is a case where the supplement (summary, commentary) is at least as striking as the original that it’s supplementing & commenting on. I love your time-lapse Japanese Knotweed image.

    I will have to read Spinoza more thoroughly before I could begin to answer your question, but working through a Latourian-Spinozist ecophilosophy sounds like a great thing to do, and something I’m hoping to contribute to… Has anyone other than yourself and Graham Harman (does he do Spinoza?) tried to bring the two together?

  2. kvond May 31, 2009 at 7:02 pm

    Thanks for the response to the response. For some reason your writing style and tone, detail on this issue was all just Right, compelling.

    Graham is most definitely stymied by Spinoza (though he would not admit it), as when our relationship was much better he simply could not answer the questions I put to him on the matter, in the end saying that he would need a book-length response on the question (sigh). I sincerely suspect that like many he was not very familiar with Spinoza’s actual writings, having given his interest to Leibniz instead. I argued repeatedly that Spinoza provided the “depth” of object that he was attempting to provide through the Phenomenological door. Of course now Graham and I are not on “speaking terms” as he terminated his (first) blog amid my criticisms of his orientialism, and seems to count me among the jealous rabble (sigh, again).

    I would love to see a Latour/Spinozist Ecophilosophy. I have never seen anyone connect the two, but from my first reading of Latour it seemed the most obvious of things. I do know that Latour himself has read my criticism of his take on Copies and the Original:

    As he emailed me to correct the citation and give minimal comment/thanks. And perhaps he has read my follow-up

    From Graham I understand that Latour is reluctant to play in metaphysical realms. It seems that most people who are interested in Latour are from a continental stock that does not have Spinoza readily at hand. In my view the synthesis gives us two important improvements on Latour:

    1). Causal explanation taken on the dimension of power (something Latour will not likely relinquish).

    2). A built-in Ethical ontology giving Environmental studies an ethical foothold, while retaining Latour’s relationalism whole-cloth.

    I wish you would blog more as I always find your thoughts interesting.

  3. Adrian June 1, 2009 at 10:23 am

    There are some geographers who have tried to bring together Latourian and Spinozian sensibilities (an actor-network, beyond nature/culture kind of frame, with a Spinozian interest in affects, etc. — I’m thinking of Bruce Braun, Nigel Thrift, in some ways Noel Castree, and others), but these tend to be eclectic (e.g., often bringing in Marxian political economy) and are generally done without the rigor a philosopher would bring to them. I say that without intending to slight them, though – their goals are different.

    I’ve yet to read Graham’s stuff on Heidegger or on Latour, but I need to do that since my own work draws on both of them. I think your contribution of Spinoza is a crucial piece to this kind of thinking, and I enjoy your blog very much.


    • kvond June 1, 2009 at 4:20 pm

      Thanks for the leads with Braun and Thrifft, I should look into it. If you email Graham I’m sure he’ll send you an electronic copy of his Latour book (as he had it available while his last blog was up), and his Tool Being book on Heidegger is there on Google Books with, as I remember it, nearly all the pages available for reading, with a little hopping around.

      The best.

  4. kvond June 2, 2009 at 11:56 am


    I just ran into this past discussion of early interaction Graham and I had on Spinoza (I had forgotten). Graham took down his blog so the links to his entries don’t work, but I think you can get the sense of his remove from him:

    “The Coldness of Spinoza: Was He Really a Spock?”

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