Over the past several weeks I’ve become motivated to closely examine critical theory approaches to climate change. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by the limitations of object-oriented philosophy or what some are calling speculative realism, such as Levi Bryant’s recent lament that there is no hope for the climate and we might as well consign ourselves to a potlatch fossil energy conflagration. Bruno Latour’s now famous argument ‘From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern’ also hinges on climate change and, like Bryant’s, it is also inadequate from any empirically-informed stand point. But so what? Does it matter to critical theory? Does critical theory matter to a social science of climate change?

The real question, it seems to me, is not to hammer the philosophy-types because they aren’t empirically grounded – nothing could be more pointless from my view – but rather to ask whether work that’s a little less caught up in the intricacies of practice can help formulate relevant questions for an empirically-informed ‘fieldwork in philosophy.’ In other words, what is needed is neither a catalog of minutae nor theory from the troposphere, but a range of meso theorizations that provide a grasp on contemporary transformations.

The loud sucking noise created from the collapse of Foucault-inspired critical social science in the US hasn’t really abated much over the past few years. My own dissatisfaction with the range of alternatives – Latour, Deleuze, whatever – has been heightened by the totally unsurprising realization in the course of my dissertation writing that those approaches has little to say about what was patently important in the field, and even less of a commitment to sussing out the demands empirical work should make on theory. To top it off, I still find convincing Rabinow’s proposition that we shouldn’t be doing theory. Rather, the challenge is to identify what’s critical and then create the necessary equipment. Subsequently, the conceptual work I have found most useful has been far less over-arching, less tied to any God-figure, and a lot more mobile.

But a specific disappointment remains – namely, whether there is capacity to think the broader significance of events or processes such as climate change, beyond the analytical demands. In other words, maybe even if we’re still within the space created when life enters history, the bottom up approach of analyzing ‘practices, instruments and techniques’ (as a recent very awesome workshop hosted by Amy Levine and Andrea Ballestero pegged it) seems insufficient to the scale of the transformations we are witnessing.

Granted, we are so close to so many potentially monumental historical moments. One doesn’t even know what questions to ask when scientists begin formulating concepts like Anthropocene, or for that matter when geothermal engineers trigger swarms of earthquakes by injecting pressurized water kilometers deep in seismically active fault zones. At the very least we are at an intensely generative moment. But the other side of the analytical coin is that our critical tools for understanding culture – power – history are really good now. I mean, they are fabulously good. The wealth of critical resources, far from having played themselves out, have instead obviated many of the questions that motivated them.

When I started the Accounting for Atmosphere project, two overarching framings dominated: first, that the political project of dealing with climate change was to create a global regime to manage atmospheric chemistry; and second, that the primary technical mode for this dwelt on intensive quantification regimes at several scales (national carbon budgets, carbon finance (markets), and enterprise accounting (businesses, etc). All of this still holds, and many of the practices, instruments and techniques in play are excited loci of dynamic transformation. Indeed, there is a rapidly expanding literature on carbon markets, including luminaries such as Donald MacKenzie and Michel Callon.

On the other hand, there is Critical Theory Climate Blah Blah, which is sort of like Video Killed the Radio Star, I mean, there are a host of old and new hats weighing in on climate change who just don’t know much about it, or maybe they know something, a little bit, but are prone to speculation because they too easily recognize in climate change their own specific intellectual commitments.

Let me take an example I like: Peter Sloterdijk’s nifty Semiotext(e) volume Terror from the Air. To me, this is an exciting book – I very much sympathize with how he formulates a problematic around chemical warfare in terms of a trio of environment, design and atmosphere. But Sloterdijk’s short little passage on climate change just doesn’t cut it. It’s banal. It’s generic. Climate is a stand in for what he already thinks. At any rate, it’s just one example. Another example – one I really have not much sympathy for – is Brian Massumi’s ‘National Enterprise Emergency: Steps toward an ecology of powers’ (TCS, 2009).

Having established now in three different papers what I think is critically relevant for these contemporary transformations, over the next few months I’ll shift from using the blog as a platform for critical empirical analysis toward some public thinking-through on the critical theory lit.

We need a critical theory of planetary relations. We need a critical geology and a critical take on atmospherics. We need a biopolitics that does not confuse active critical politics about the future with the many brute instruments of control. We need a take on speculation that is not deliberately weighted down by metaphysics, and a critical analysis of ecology that doesn’t get lost in infinite connection. Many loose threads are floating around: the task is to try and collect them into something – a web, a cocoon, a fabric.