Monday, April 24, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: TIME

Maybe I'm reading too much into a novel.  Maybe not.  I find, reading Adam Roberts' brilliant science fiction novel The Thing Itself, that Roberts is following his own rule.  That is, the one given in his guide to writing science fiction, also known as his Gold Rule: 'Show, don't tell' (Roberts, 2014).

The Thing Itself shows the reader (who, I posit, is in all probability a science fiction reader, and therefore more likely than most readers to be an active participant in the cultural milieu of the writer and potentially a writer him/her-self (Roberts, 2006)) what it means to construct a performatively heterogeneous world.

The world of The Thing Itself, as a heterogeneously performative one, is distinctly preferable to that of, for example, Doreen Massey in her book For Space, where she asserts that heterogeneity is something worth wanting in and of itself, and she asserts this without evidence, and as a statement, furthermore, with political intent.

Instead of a tedious quote from Massey, I will here assert with Kant (and Roberts) that heterogeneity is a property of the cognitive structure of being human and it is, furthermore, chalk-full of representational content that largely gives the structure its content.  It is part of a dialectic of inside/outside that maps onto time/space quite precisely.  The origin of this dialectic springs ultimately from the thing itself.

Roberts novel maps onto the Kantian dialectic very nicely, while at the same time producing a cognitively diverse set of responses to The Critique of Pure Reason (translation used by Roberts: unknown).   There is, truing to the fundamental dialectic of the thing itself of Kant, a mix of the interior and the exterior in terms of the locale of narrativity of the various voices found in The Thing Itself.  There are many.  We switch, in ten chapters, between several with the longest being 'A Solid Gold Penny', corresponding to Kant's category of Limitation.

The beauty of the heterogeneous narrativity of The Thing Itself lies also in its compulsive readability.  The cognitive structure of a main character corresponding to each 'fragment' chapter is set up and then fulfilled through the production of a stream of representations.  In the Solid Gold Penny section, we have a sort of Molly Bloom cognition that is inhabited by a child who evolves through the course of the section to the point where this chapter alone constitutes a short story or mini-novel in itself.

There are alternating chapters that continue the thread of the ongoing conflict between Roy and Charles who become united in their opposition to an evil AI, product of 'The Institute' that has 'solved' the problem of 'the thing itself' by accessing it through computing devices that do not hold the same cognitive limitations as humans.  They are thus able to directly access the thing itself because computer intelligences are not limited by the products of human evolution: brains structured specifically with underlying hardware that automatically 'see' the world structured in terms of time and space.

Time, in Roberts, is given as careful consideration as space, and it is structured logically according to various psychologies, times, and places in which the characters find themselves situated, from the 'olden days' of the Golden Coin chapter, to a futuristic one in which genders and times alike have become blurred almost beyond recognition.  There is an experimental quality to these chapters that feels true somehow to the spirit of Kant, for whom time:

"is therefore to be regarded as real, not indeed as object but as the mode of representation of myself as object" (Kant, 1989, page 79).

I cannot help but think, when reading Massey (2005) that not only does she incessantly 'tell' (as opposed to showing), but that she completely misses the fundamental dialectic of space-time, that of the body and its structuring devices.  She misses out too on the space-times of science fiction, as for example explained not only by Roberts himself (2006 and 2014), but by expert 'hard' science fiction writers like Nahin (2011), who demonstrate (i.e. 'show') what is and is not possible, logically and in light of the given theory and evidence, in time and space travel.

It is much more exciting to be told about space-time in a story like Roberts' The Thing Itself.  I wish the reading (both popular and academic) portions of the world had more space (and time) for this kind of thing.

[To Be Continued]


Kant, Immanuel.  1989.  Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  London: Macmillan Education.

Massey, Doreen.  2005.  For Space.  London: Sage.

Nahin, Paul J.  2011.  Time Travel: A Writer's Guide to the Real Science of Plausible Time Travel.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins.

Roberts, Adam.  2006.  The History of Science Fiction.  Basingstoke: Palgrave.

Roberts, Adam.  2014.  Get Started in Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy.  London: John Murray.

Roberts, Adam.  2015.  The Thing Itself.  London: Victor Gollancz.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant: SPACE

Space (Kant, 1989, pages 67-74)

Why are (as a colleague remarked to me in the hallway on the way to a meeting) so many geographers afraid to talk about space?

Perhaps they are afraid of becoming a bit like Roy Curtius in Roberts (2015, page 1) The Thing Itself: "Sick in the Head."  Let's talk about Roy for a moment before returning to the pariah-status of space in the discipline of geography.

We find out in chapter 1 of The Thing Itself that Roy (antagonist) is stuck with Charles (protagonist) on a research base in Antarctica.  It is just the two of them (a bit unlikely), and it turns out that Roy is a terrible roommate, a bit of a Sheldon Cooper know-it-all mixed together (as we find out later) with a Machiavellian silence-of-the-lambs side.  Roy is reading the Meiklejohn translation of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason.

True, it is pretentious to read Kant (unless you are a Kant scholar or are writing a very cool novel based on his ideas), and to leave your copy of it lying around so people can see that you are reading Kant, and to discuss Kant with people who are not interested in it might be considered a sign of poor social skills or worse.  Roy should have put me off reading Kant.  However, it is Roberts novel as a whole that overwhelmingly corrected that negative reaction, way over towards a positive one, that of really really wanting to read the Critique now that I'd finished The Thing Itself.

To leave behind any doubt as to the coolness of reading Kant, and to throw it back in Roy's face, I decided (like, not long ago) that it was in fact the Meiklejohn translation that made people cray-cray when reading Kant, and not the fact of Kant himself.  This, and reading Taylor's The Language Animal in which he cites the Smith translation, and the fact that the Smith translation is more in the spirit of Kant's self-description of the Critique as a literary (perhaps even more than a philosophical) undertaking, that I now thought to myself: I can handle this if I take it as a work of literature, and Smith's Kant seems to embody that notion.

Now when I say space has a pariah-status in the discipline of geography, this is true in spite of efforts of scholars like Massey (2005) and Soja (1989) to re-invigorate and liven-up the spatial.  These efforts were (and are) necessary because geographers remain enamoured of place.  But I would argue that Massey (but not so much Soja) in fact end up doing space a disservice by insisting on its non-representationality.

I have come (again) to pages 67-74 of Smith's Critique (Kant, 1989), the initiation to Kant's views on space, reaching a crescendo on pages 72-73.  Without a doubt, Kant views space as a representation, to the extent that he almost equates the two (space/representation), except for the fact of its ideality.  The is a massive exception to the 'rule' that space, in Kant, equals representation.  In fact Kant makes it very clear (as does Roberts) that space as a 'substance' underlying objects out there in the world is no thing at all.  Space is just an (shared, transcendental) idea that is part and parcel of what it means to be human, and not a property of the world itself.

Kant (1989) talks a lot, on pages 72-73 especially, about things-in-themselves, and it is here, I suspect, that the whole logic of Kant's dialectic is ultimately derived:

"we cannot treat the special conditions of sensibility as conditions of the possibility of things, but only of their appearances, we can indeed say that space comprehends all things that appear to us as external, but not all things in themselves..."

Take that NRT!  Kant says, almost surreally, that space comprehends things.  He (Kant, 1989) goes on to say:

"We assert, then, the empirical reality of space, as regards all possible outer experience; and yet at the same time we assert its transcendental ideality -- in other words, that it is nothing at all, immediately we withdraw the above condition, namely, its limitation to possible experience, and so look upon it as something that underlies things in themselves."

When Kant/Smith says that space is nothing at all, I immediately have doubts as to what extent Kant is the reactionary I have sometimes made him out to be!  He sounds positively Thriftian (2007)!

So, here I am, at the edge of a what?  Back to NRT (no, for now)?  To science fiction (I have been a sci-fi fan since adolescence, and The Thing Itself is a bit of a departure for me because I tend to favour hard/extrapolative sci-fi if I'm being honest)?

If there is any truth to the idea that mere repetition of words/phrases leads to belief in their validity/truth then Kant//Smith must've been aware of it, for we have a third mention (Kant, 1989, pages 73-74) in these two (and-a-half) pages of the thing itself:

"The transcendental concept of appearances in space, on the other hand, is a critical reminder that nothing intuited in space is a thing itself, that space is not a form inhering in things in themselves as their intrinsic property, that objects in themselves are quite unknown to us, and that what we call outer objects are nothing but mere representations of our sensibility, the form of which is space"

The problem now, is that Kant has to prove this, which is as it stands a mere assertion.  At the same time, at least for now, this (Smith's) Kant is so immanently readable, so literary, that I was half the time thinking about writers like Cormac McCarthy, Christopher Dewdney, and Erin Moure (ok my taste in literature also runs smack into Canadian avant-garde poetry).

That is to say, I'm hooked, thanks in no small part to Roberts and Smith!  Now, back to Kant.

[This is an ongoing review of Kant/Roberts, to be continued]


Kant, Immanuel.  1989.  Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  London: Macmillan Education.

Massey, Doreen.  2005.  For Space.  London: Sage.

Roberts, Adam.  2015.  The Thing Itself.  London: Victor Gollancz.

Soja, Edward.  1989.  Postmodern Geographies.  London and New York: Verso.

Thrift, Nigel.  2007.  Non-representational theory: space, politics, affect.  Abingdon and New York: Routledge.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Notes on Norman Kemp Smith's Kant


There are two main inspirations for even beginning to think about reading Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason (i.e. the translation of Kant made by Norman Kemp Smith).  The first was Charles Taylor’s book Hegel, which covers some of Kant (that part related to dialectics).  The second was Adam Roberts’ book The Thing Itself, which gives a fictional treatment of the Critique (though not the Kemp Smith version specifically).

Taylor also mentions Kant in his newer book The Language Animal, citing Kemp’s translation specifically.  This was the final straw that broke my resistance to committing to reading Kant’s most important work, translated by his most important English-language translator.  Taylor himself has always had a big influence on my writing, in terms of both style and content.  Taylor's take on Kant (and his translator) matters a great deal to counter-mapping mainly for getting dialectics right.  The latter requires philosophical sophistication, subtlety, and style.

I’m also writing a book on dialectics that explicitly avoids both Hegel and Marx.  And without those two elephants in the room, and with the above intellectual supports in place, I can begin to think through some of the implications of Kant for my book (Contrapuntal Cartographies) that takes a dialectical approach to counter-mapping.  The latter, being properly dialectical and therefore political, will undertake a constant excavation of taken-for-granted assumptions and bases for the production of powerful mappings of- and in-the-world. 

In a way, I'm looking for a critique of non-representational theory 'from the beyond', from before Hegel, Bergson, and Jameson launched their critiques.  A large part of the continuing momentum of NRT is carried forward in the discipline of geography with theorists like Massey and Thrift at the leading edge.  Massey's For Space deals much too casually with questions of representation/space, and her main point that space is seen as fixed and dead is somewhat close to that made by Soja in 1989 in Postmodern Geographies.

So, reading Kemp's Kant is a way of critiquing the critique, but also of being right at its leading edge as well.  For counter-mapping, or mapping against hegemony, it is the hegemony of NRT that is ripe for critique and re-mapping.  I propose to take a more-than-representational approach that brings in evolutionary theories and memetics, and also a good dose of dialectics (including Kant).  An occasional geographer will be useful in this endeavour (e.g. Lorimer's 2005 intervention in Progress in Human Geography), but more often it will be philosophers, anthropologists, even biologists I might disagree with (thinking Dawkins and indeed Kant here) who will 'come to the rescue'.  And then I'll fold it all back into counter-mapping and geographical thought. 

Philosopher Rowlands, in New Science of the Mind, and anthropologist Malafouris, in How Things Shape the Mind, take on questions of representation in ways that geographers do not seem ready to do.  The all-too-easy geographical (NRT) critique remains mired in post-structuralism and even, at times, a kind of happy-go-lucky Nietzschean nihilism.  What Rowlands and Malafouris do, in their separate ways, is to give questions of representation the treatment they deserve by carefully sifting through the various arguments for and against, accepting and rejecting aspects that do or do not fit the facts and frameworks at hand, and making judgements and conclusions based only upon whether the theories fit the facts, without speculation.  In short, there is too much speculation in geography.

Kant is just the medicine for the speculative turn in geography, and for naive thinking in general (but also unfortunately in geography very specifically).  His thinking is idealistic, which will also rub many geographers trained in 'materialities' and 'spatialities' thinking the wrong way, going against an ingrained framework that is only superficially hard-headed.  The problem with much recent theorising in geography is in fact its lack of grounding in useful questions, in useful theory!  It is, in fact, (as for example in McCormack's 2017 lead paper in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers) an a-theoretical approach to questions of geography, lacking robust empirical and methodological grounding, and epitomised by the post-phenomenological, affective, speculative, and circumstantial, all terms currently favoured in the current paradigm of geographical thought. 

To put it another way: Kant's just the antidote.

Contrapuntal Cartographies: Dialectics of Counter-Mapping (McGill-Queen's University Press) is expected to be on shelves by 2019

Kant, Immanuel.  1989.  Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith.  London: Macmillan Education.

Lorimer, Hayden.  2005.  "Cultural geography: the busyness of being `more-than-representational'" Progress in Human Geography.  29(1): 83-94.

Malafouris, Lambros.  2013.  How Things Shape the Mind: A Theory of Material Engagement.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Massey, Doreen.  2005.  For Space.  London: Sage.

McCormack, Derek P.  2017.  "The circumstances of post-phenomenological life-worlds" Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers.  42(1): 2-13.

Roberts, Adam.  2015.  The Thing Itself.  London: Victor Gollancz.

Rowlands, Mark.  2010.  The New Science of the Mind: From Extended Mind to Embodied Phenomenology.  Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Soja, Edward.  1989.  Postmodern Geographies.  London and New York: Verso.

Taylor, Charles.  2016.  The Language Animal: The Full Shape of the Human Linguistic Capacity.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Taylor, Charles.  1975.  Hegel.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.