So well, after some six months of relatively anonymous blogging, I thought it would do no harm to clarify a bit about who I am and, mainly, what this blog is meant to be. It is something I am arguably doing more for myself than to inform the readers about my biographical events and my academic interests. Being the relatively shy, introverted and somewhat misanthropic person that I am, it is only with some hesitation that I push myself to this therapeutic ‘coming out’. Should you not be interested in what follows, be charitable.
I’m a PhD student in London, precisely in the School of Oriental and African Studies. It is a place which I have come to love with time, but that unfortunately has a big lack for my academic interests: for historical reasons that would be too long to explain, SOAS lacks a department of philosophy. However, this was no problem for me and when I first came to it for my MA, and I merrily joined the department of Study of Religions, where I currently –slightly less merrily– am. After my undergraduate studies in Philosophy, in Rome, I was burdened by a dissatisfaction with what academic philosophy seemed to me to be. I was, from my standpoint, correct at the time, given the particular context in which I had spent my previous 3-4 years, surrounded as I was by philosophical fanboys and by a research tradition oriented towards the sublime recapitulation of the Great Masters more than to the production of any kind of original thought. Without going into details, in Italy the academic environment in general, and the philosopical one in particular are, to say the least, all but stimulating and engaging for a young student (not to mention the bleak general intellectual, cultural bankrupcy of the country as a whole, don’t get me started on that). Indeed I graduated with, as a sort of respectful farewell, a dissertation on the work of Pierre Hadot, on his reading of ancient philosphy as a way of life and his focus on the degradation of the practice of philosophy since the early Greek days of the discipline. I felt I owed a lot to his work, especially regarding the cultivation of my first philosophical passions: Seneca, Plotinus and, later, Origen and Augustine.
So, the fool that I was, I thought it was time for me to move on, physically and intellectually, and dedicate myself to the study of alternative traditions of thought. I have never been (and never harboured sympathy for) someone inclined to hippie-like celebrations of ‘eastern wisdom’ (the most repellent form of orientalism): it seemed to me only fair to get to know something different, especially given my feeling of stalemate regarding the philosophical developments (or lack thereof) that my academic experience saturated me with. It is not without some shame, however, that I must recall a certain ‘spiritual’, or anti-intellectual element in my choice; one perhaps already present in my neoplatonic/early Christian interests.
So, I packed my bags and I moved to London, a move that was to a large extent an escape. Yet my philosophical interests were to chase me. If I started out with the idea of learning about ‘other traditions’ with a practical (maybe job-related) edge to it, funnily enough I soon found myself reading buddhist philosophy with a heavily comparative eye, writing essays on Zen mysticism and Wittgenstein and on Buddhist phenomenology and analytic philosophy of perception (the analytic tradition being the ‘new thing’ for someone like me who was newly arrived on the anglo-american academic scene). As a climax of irony, I ended up writing an MA dissertation on Nagarjuna (a second-century Indian buddhist philosopher) and Derrida, the same Derrida that, after an encounter with his work the very first semester of my first undergraduate year, I had told myself to stay henceforth away from (this dissertation was later turned into an article, which has been now for 10 months under review by a known journal of comparative philosophy. I’m sure they are reading it word by word. Probably twice, to be extra sure).
[Of course, in all of this I am willingly omitting several minor and major events of a more personal nature that, in one way or the other, made me choose the path I did.]
The effects this year had on me were considerable: on the one side my spiritual interests quickly vanished, under the conjoined impulse of philosophical analysis and of my growing interests for the ‘hard sciences’, hence replaced by a naturalisitc and atheist view on reality, and on the other, my ideas and plans about my own future crystallized into an academic one, in philosophy. Therefore, it seemed only obvious to me to enrol for a PhD. At the beginning, my research was supposed to be entirely focused on the issues surronding the academic (and non-academic) discourse around ‘science and religion’, as seen from the perspective of a cross-cultural analysis, something that would have made it possible to reconcile my work with non-Western philosophy and my parallel, personally cultivated interest in astronomy and physical cosmology, and that would seem to give me some sort of coherence regarding the department of SoR in which I was, making me feel like I could somehow ‘fit in’. So I spent my first year researching in this direction, looking at recent work in, on the one hand, the study of religion and on the other, the sociology of science (where I first ‘met’ Latour), and feminist and postcolonial analyses and critiques of science/scientific rationality. The first fruit of that (on the theories of religion side) is an article that will be imminently published in the first 2010 issue of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion.
[The keen reader of this blog (?) might observe at this point the hypocrisy of my frequent propagandistic statements about Open Access scholarship. I pledge guilty. In my defense, I can say that I do not think that OA scholarship is mature enough to grant the level of 'prestige factor' that, like it or not, a young researcher/academic has no choice but to submit to. By the end of my PhD I'll be covered in debts, and I do need a 'paper trail' in order to hope for a job. My admiration goes to those 'affirmed' scholars who, once made their name known, switch back to OA]
Then, more or less at the same time when this blog was created, I started to focus my philosophical interests in a more organized way, trying to plan my subsequent stages of research. It was in this period that I fortuitously came into contact with a vast network of philosophy blogs loosely bound by an interest in a new philosophical movement known as speculative realism, and I discovered, with surpise, an uncanny similarity between the themes that such a movement had displaced in its relatively sudden rise and my own personal theoretical interests (and our keen reader will here already know that I still find this uncanniness, this surprising convergence of fundamental, inner interests among this variety of individuals not a coincidence, but an extremely interesting and under-scrutinized manifestation of specific set of social historical and intellectual circumstances). Ever since, my interests and readings have exploded, if in a controlled way, creating lines of thought which I am currently trying to tie up in a coherent fashion, in order to respond to the constraints of a doctoral thesis.
The issues which are dear to me, or better the lenses through which I reorganize the material I am coming in contact with, are a product of my training: I still belive that in order to understand the basic issues of Western thought one must take seriously early Christian thought as much as the Greek sources; I still feel the urgent necessity to break open a space for a newly concieved cross-cultural, comparative philosophical work capable of leaving behind colonial approaches and of responding to the questions of our time (and creating new ones); and I still am interested in examining what philosophical stakes are at play in the (Western-generated) ‘science and religion’ debate, especially in terms of the tension between realism and antirealism. What will probably occupy my mind in the coming future are the interplay of these interests with, mainly, the work of Meillassoux and of Latour and some of the pivotal points of ‘speculative realism’ (or what is left of it), first of all its anti-correlationist ambitions. On top of that, I am fundamentally a geek, which means that I have a compulsive interest in all the ways in which technology (the Internet in the first place) allows us new ways of thinking/writing/interacting with the world, hence my occasional flirts with AI, AR, hyperlink theory, videogames etc.
More generally, I have been trained to believe that no intellectual tradition can be examined in isolation, both in terms of its historical placing and in terms of the cultural context in which it flourished, and I believe (with Hadot and Heidegger/Foucault) that the first task of a philosopher is to look at the present with historical eyes, trying to discern the ‘style’ of our times (call it ‘episteme’, call it ‘Zeitgeist’, call it ‘mode of revealing’). In the West we cannot ignore how the history of Christianity influences our every step (and on this point, I find extremely telling the constant subtle interest of extremely timely ‘radical thinkers’ such as Badiou and Zizek with Christianity, not to mention of course Meillassoux own polemic against fideism and yet his confrontation with theological, or divinological, issues), without, for this reason, be tied to piety or devotion. Anyway, if all goes well these motifs will shape up into something concrete and coherent, in the form of my PhD thesis. Fingers crossed. (I intended to write a paper about religious themes into contemporary realism/materialism for the forthcoming Dundee conference, but, to be honest, I could not bring myself to conjure up anything smart enough. Too bad. I’ll be there, as auditor).
I deeply agree with Levi’s recent arguments on the evaluation of philosophical currents based on their ability to stimulate the creation a research program. In a way what interests me about some forms of SR is to research both their baggage of tacit knowledges (looking back) and to pick them up as examples of a philosophical stance that offers fertile ground –in its rejection of some core features of the history of Western thought…and its retention of others– for an opening up of a confrontation with non-Western metaphysics. Not for a sort of ‘I am so open-minded and politically correct’ public statement, but for a consistent and constructive (looking forward) encounter capable of engendering a larger philosophical network (see here my crude future plan to employ Latour’s arguments to promote the necessity of philosophically filling the West-Rest divide).
On the more practical level, I am fighting a subtle PR campaign, among my fellow students, regarding the necessity for SOAS to establish a department or a centre of philosophy (a small paper of mine that will soon be published on the SOAS Research journal is nominally on Heidegger and East/West regionality, but actually a rhetorical apology for the use of philosophy in the context of area studies). I feel quite assertive regarding this issue: an institution that proudly defines itself as ‘the world’s leading centre for the study of a highly diverse range of subjects concerned with Asia, Africa and the Middle East’ simply cannot afford to lack a place for up-to-date research in comparative philosophy. Over and above the internal benefits, it would be, I believe, an asset for the philosophical scene of the UK as a whole. Unfortunately, as it is well known, the issue is not so much what the School thinks is right (even if ‘it’ gets convinced that it is) but what the School can economically afford to do. A new department means heaps of money, money which, in these days, is nowhere to be found (reader, should you be a billionaire interested in comparative philosophy, please consider a donation to my cause).
That’s all. As any blog, the rest will be archive.