Swarms and norms: refiguring the multitude

globalizationA few years ago, I published an essay in the journal Radical Philosophy titled, ‘Refiguring the multitude: from exodus to the production of norms’ (2005). It was about swarms, though I didn’t know it at the time. The publication was a coup for me. I was a struggling contract academic, vying for attention. Radical Philosophy was an ‘up there’ journal in political philosophy circles, edgy but respectable. My paper was one of the first academic responses to Multitude (2004), Michael Hardt and Toni Negri’s sequel to their best-selling book, Empire (1999).

The essay was a bit of dog’s breakfast. But the crux of the argument resonates today. I have pasted some paragraphs below. If you are into Deleuze and social movements, this one is for you.

Re-reading ‘Refiguring the multitude’ for the first time in years, I am struck by how much of this material has become part of my mental DNA. I didn’t realise at the time, but ‘Refiguring the multitude’ was crucial to my intellectual development. Multitude certainly resonates with the high-tech world of 2013. Empire and Multitude are books you should have on your shelf, whatever part of the political spectrum you inhabit. They are books about globalization. Hardt and Negri are essentially right. Of course, they are wrong in important respects too.

The paragraphs from ‘Refiguring the multitude’ that I’ve pasted below are the crux of a line of thought that I started developing in 2002 or 2003. It was a response to the failure of the anti-globalization movement that got started in the 1990s. I was looking for a theoretical trajectory that would enable me to continue on the line of flight that I’d experienced at the height of this movement (1999-2001), this time reflecting on how swarms and social movements could contribute to creating something, in the first case, a new set of norms.

In retrospect, it is easy to see how I stepped from this argument to write Coalition of the Willing.

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Nietzsche’s demon: the eternal return

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Arc De Triomphe @ FineArtAmerica

Alexis was in love with life. Fresh out of art school in Fremantle, Australia, she’d picked up a scholarship to study photography under a famous Parisian photographer. Her mother had urged caution but Alexis persisted – and thank goodness! The course – and Paris itself – was everything that she’d dreamed. Her French sponsor found her an apartment in the Latin Quarter, just a stone’s throw from the Place Saint-Michel. Alexis would stroll along the Seine in the evening, up the Champs Elysées to take pictures of the Arc de Triomphe in the flurry of lights.

After two months documenting daily life on the streets of Paris, she had enough material for an exhibition. Alexis felt like she was at the heart of life. Things could go anywhere from here.

One night Alexis was speaking to a friend in Australia. They were reminiscing about their student days, which her friend dearly missed.

‘Do you remember Nietzsche’s idea of the eternal return?’ the friend asked. ‘If I had to choose one time of my life to live out again and again forever, it would be art school’.

Alexis, for her part, was ambivalent about the ‘good old days’. She realized then that if there were a time in her life that she would have again and again, it would be her time in Paris, not Fremantle. The more that she reflected on this, the more her life seemed to come into focus. Looking out the window at the bustling streets, Alexis imagined Nietzsche’s demon coming into her room and making her the offer of Eternal Return. Alexis could hear herself reply, like Nietzsche:

‘Yes. You are a god and I have never heard anything more divine’.


This post is excerpted from Chapter 3 of Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide

What is philosophy? An expression of care for life

I was invited by Rev. John Queripel to speak on philosophy at the Bondi Chapel by the Sea. Rather than prepare a talk, I spoke off-the-cuff and from the heart about my own experience of philosophy, which I understand as an expression of care for life. Peter Dowson from Bondi Storytellers was there and captured the moment on film. Thanks Pete! I owe you hugs and beers.



‘The basic idea that I want to share with you tonight is that the philosophical disposition, the philosophical state of mind, is an expression of care for life, care for existence’.

‘We are creatures that have the capacity to create value. And the fact that we have the capacity to create value … is attested by the fact that our sense of the value of things grows and decreases, waxes and wanes, depending on how we are feeling. You know how it is, you wake up in the morning and you are feeling a bit blue and nothing seems to have any value, nothing seems to have any importance. But then on another day, you’ve had a few triumphs and all of sudden those things in the world that really seem important just come into relief for you, and you are reminded about what it is in life that you find so valuable… I think that what we are experiencing in these moments when value comes into relief for us is … our own power to care about life. And this ability to care is very very important. Without it we are sociopaths, essentially. We need to care … in order to be good human beings’. [Read more…]

See like a Stoic: an ancient technique for modern consumers

Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD) grew up surrounded by beautiful things: great art and architecture, sumptuous foods, fine wines, and artfully tailored robes. When he assumed the title of Emperor of Rome, he had everything that he could possibly desire. Marcus, however, was a Stoic philosopher, so he knew that the law of life is change and that one should never let oneself become too attached or invested in material things. To maintain his composure in the midst of plenty, he would seek to transform the way that he saw the things that he desired. This helped him get a grip on his desires and achieve Stoic peace of mind.

Marcus’ approach to consumables and other possessions provides a handy guide for modern consumers who seek to overcome the allure of products that they want but don’t need. Instead of looking at clothes, jewelry, food, and art through the lens of desire, Marcus advises that we view these things as pure material objects and evaluate them accordingly. He outlines this technique in The Meditations as follows:

When we have meat before us and other food, we must say to ourselves: “This is the dead body of a fish, and this is the dead body of a bird or of a pig, and again, this Falernian [wine] is only a little grape juice, and this purple robe some sheep’s wool died with the blood of a shellfish” … so that we see what kinds of things they are. This is how we should act throughout life: where there are things that seem worthy of great estimation, we ought to lay them bare and look at their worthlessness and strip them of all the words by which they are exalted. For the outward show [of things] is a wonderful perverter of reason, and when we are certain the things we are dealing with are worth the trouble, that is when it cheats us most (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.13).

The best way to follow Marcus’ approach is to treat it as a practical exercise. This is the approach that I take to philosophical concepts in Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide.

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Socrates as social entrepreneur: what is poetic truth?


The story of Socrates is a kind of fiction. This is not to say it is untrue. The story represents one of the great half-truths of Western civilization. It is a story that is recounted time and time again in undergraduate classrooms and introductory texts – the self-congratulatory tale of a simple man with a sharp mind and an aversion to nonsense, made all the more poignant for the fact that Socrates was condemned to die for his activities. Socrates is the Christ of philosophers. As with Jesus Christ, there is a tendency among the faithful to see Socrates in an apolitical light as a humble teacher and sage. Yet Socrates, like Christ, was a revolutionary of his time. Through his way of living and speaking to his fellow citizens, and through his constant quest to test the truth of the oracle’s statement and to settle the matter for himself, Socrates dealt hammer-blows to the cultural cement that had grounded Greek society for centuries.

This is the story that I want to unearth. My aim is to bring Socrates down to earth, so to understand him, as he was, as an innovative thinker at war with his society and time. [Read more…]

Human beings are valuing animals

Valuing things makes us human. If we admire people who have acquired the art of valuing things (even while we complain of their snobbery), it is because valuation (and the act thereof) is part of what defines us as human beings. Valuation is what enables our moral and aesthetic sensibilities. Without the ability if evaluate, for example, a good book, a great piece of music, a film, some perfume or a glass of wine, we would be incapable of making many of the judgements that we take for granted everyday.

Valuation is the determination of the value of something. This could be anything: a car, building, painting, or idea.

There are four basic kinds of valuers:

* Professional valuers who gauge the price or market value of an item
* Connoisseurs who reflect on aesthetic value
* Moralizers who adjudicate moral value according to a rule or set of rules
* Gurus who muse on ethical value (in terms of happiness, profit, success)

What is common to these activities is the reckoning itself, the assessment of value. The activity of valuing this item or that item, be it a landscape, an ecosystem, a society, a community – this is a human activity. [Read more…]