Elaine Gan, Bettina Stoetzer, and Anna Tsing led “Feral Technologies: Making and Unmaking Multispecies DUMP!”, a two-day seminar at the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue. Tsing and Gan work together at Aarhus University’s Research on The Anthropocene (AURA)’s in Denmark, exploring the potential of ferality and unintended landscape design. Of parallel interest, and in preparation for her forthcoming book, Ruderal City. Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin (forthcoming) Bettina Stoetzer has been researching ruderal ecologies, examining urban life forms that emerge in inhospitable spaces. In the following conversation Gan and Stoetzer discuss the underlying principles of their seminar, including ferality, ruderality, and how those terms expand our concept of technology.
Caroline Picard: What are some key concepts from your seminar?
Elaine Gan: With the work of Anna Tsing and AURA, we are trying to think about what ferality is. That’s one key concept. Another is, what is technology? What is Technosphere? How do we think about disconnections because of human made infrastructures? Also not to forget that technologies come out of multi-species life experience; machines don’t grow on their own, but emerge out of different interactions to the environment. That is the second term we’re trying to unpack—what is a technology? What prosthetics do humans make in response to other things going on in the world? As an artist and also a researcher, I’m also trying to play with making and unmaking, asking not just how we make, but how do we make critically? And how do we make in order to unmake long lineages of great violence? How do we make better? The forest term is “dumps.” It’s a figurate conceptual device that we use to think about this landscapes that are created in the Anthropocene. This is where Bettina Stoetzer’s work on rubble and ruderal ecologies enters.”
Bettina Stoetzer: “Ruderal” is a botanical term that comes from rudus, which is the Latin word for rubble. It refers to organisms that spontaneously grow in “disturbed environments” usually considered to be hostile to life—the sides of train tracks, for instance, or roads, waste disposal areas, or literally rubble. I draw on this term and develop it as a conceptual device for thinking about landscapes in the anthropocene in my forthcoming book, Ruderal City. Ecologies of Migration and Urban Life in Berlin. The interesting thing about ruderals is that they aren’t really wild or domesticated; they are non-native species and they dwell in the gaps of urban infrastructures like invisible hitch hikers. If we follow their history, a “ruderal city” emerges within which nature is not “out there”—as a site to be managed or incorporated into anthropogenic urban landscapes via technology and infrastructure—but is rather an integral and unwieldy part of the city.
CP: I understand that you all went to a park?
BS: Yes. Rather than be distanced observers in the classroom, we wanted to ground our discussion in a particular site, to let our encounters with its materiality – its plants, the crumbling infrastructure, alongside its smells and sounds – guide our discussion. The so-called Schoeneberger Suedgelaende seemed like the perfect spot. It was an abandoned switch yard for trains during Berlin’s division after the war, and then became a nature park in 1999. The site is full of ruderal ecologies and feral fauna and flora. We invited seminar participants to explore the entangled histories, encounters and ecologies that shape the train yard’s landscape. Encouraging them to experiment with their own documentary practices, we asked what kind of story can we generate in a place like this?
EG: We’d been thinking through a short story that Ursula Le Guin wrote. It’s a carrier bag theory of fiction. The part that I really like is, how do we tell new kinds of stories? In our seminar, we use a sense of play amongst different people coming together for a brief period of time—what is a story they can tell from going on a walk? We went to the park in the middle of a thunderstorm, so we could have created what Ursula Le Guin calls ‘scullery stories.’ Life stories that are really open ended. Stories about fungi that might hitch a ride on a leaf, that’s fallen from a tree, that might be decomposing, but nonetheless that fungi is starting a whole new world.
CP: Doesn’t Shock and Awe (2004)—the book you co-edited, Bettina—look at how words build worlds?
BS: Yes. Shock and Awe is a collection of essays and vignettes that provided something like a dictionary of the world in the post 9-11 Bush era. We were interested in exploring the political life of words. For example, the word democracy, or freedom, or terrorist: the different entries in the book explored how politics and language are deeply intertwined, how words change their meanings and have the ability to alter our experience of everyday life in a world that is marked by imperialism and global war, hence the subtitle “war on words.” It also illustrates how words can be hijacked and reclaimed to enliven a different sense of the political. In other words, the question at stake there was also: what are the feral lives of words and how can we tell alternative kinds of stories about the political?
CP: I almost want to tie that into the idea of unintended design in landscapes, at AURA.
EG: Sure. AURA is housed within the Department of Anthropology in Denmark and grows out of a five-year Niels Bohr professorship awarded to Anna Tsing. It looks at unintended design in landscapes, or the idea that landscapes materialize because of a whole range of historical trajectories. They don’t come out of human mastery or planning—that’s human exceptionalism, actually.
BS: That is again, where the idea of ruderal ecologies comes in. What’s interesting about Berlin’s post-war ruderal plants and their larger ecologies is that they are the outcome of nationalism, war, environmental destruction, and trade. So there are all kinds of layers of the city’s histories, its economic, political and economic conditions that have materialized in the actual ecology and flora of the city. On top of that we have making, unmaking, and above all, we have growing here. And growth, in the ecological sense, is always dependent on other factors and unanticipated variables—it’s not a uni-directional, one-man, fully controlled, enterprise. Often there is unwanted growth and mutation.
CP: How does all this tie back into technology?
BS: By stressing the feral and ruderal, we ask: What happens if we don’t imagine technology only in terms of human forms of externalization, but also of internalization and unexpected proliferation and growth? That’s why Le Guin and feminist re-imaginings of technology matter: we want to get away from thinking of technology as the story of human omnipotence. Rather technology, the science of craft, is an open ended process and it’s always embedded in a particular locale and multispecies worlds.
EG: Human intention is in a way an illusion, so our approach is coming out of an anarchist politics. It’s an anarchist project to say, what if we decenter the role of humans in landscapes? That’s not to say humans are not part of the picture, but what if they’re one among many? What if we expand the notion of culture and nature and say that there are more than human socialities? What are those socialities? How do we combine multiple disciplines to find out, what are these new kinds of landscapes that are out there that don’t arise from human mastery or human technologies, but rather emerge from the messes that humans have made and particular humans have made?
CP: Didn’t you recently curate a related exhibition, Elaine?
EG: I’m actually the art director for AURA, which means I get to play with lots of interesting experiments and while I was in Denmark I proposed an art and science exhibition called DUMP! Multispecies Making and Unmaking at Kunsthal Aarhus. I co-curated the show Sarah Lookofsky and Steven Lam. DUMP! has a dialectical structure to it. One the one hand, we wanted to think about industrial ruin or the ruins of capitalism and specifically neo-liberalism. Second, we wanted to think about multispecies life that emerges, and how that might trouble this notion of a hero. A human hero that attempts to make the world. We brought together about 19 different artists, scientists, organisms, including self-healing concrete embedded with bacteria from researchers of Delft University. We also included Mycorrhizal fungi, which is based on the collaborative research between Anna Tsing anthropologist and Henning Knudsen. Basically the show was trying to explore the positive aspects of decomposition; without decomposing, we’d have a world stacked with rubbish, but because of other species, wood breaks down. We also featured Amy Balkin’s ongoing project, Archive Of Sinking And Melting, where she asks anyone who happens to be in a landscape that will disappear through climate change, to send in an artifact from that place, creating an archive of future disappearances. They’re a candy wrapper from Nepal. A discarded patch. Discarded ice shoes for example from somewhere. It’s a feminist exhibition in the sense that we wanted people to look at lives that make and unmake the world.
BS: I see a lot of overlaps here. In my book, I am in a way, giving a “ruderal tour” of Berlin. This tour doesn’t follow the neat lines of neighborhoods, communities, urban infrastructures, or institutions, but looks at what emerges in the cracks alongside or between them. What interests me is the unexpected neighbors, the things that may at first glance not have anything in common: what happens if we juxtapose different inhabitants of the city? What interests me is the unexpected neighbors, the things that may at first glance not have anything in common: what happens if we juxtapose different inhabitants of the city? For example, and this comes out of my fieldwork, how do Turkish barbecuers, rubble plants, German environmentalists, East German bunker enthusiasts, sunflower seeds, and East African refugees inhabit the city and connect or disconnect with one another in different ways? What are the material traces of various kinds of social interactions in the city, among both humans and nonhumans? I am excited about exploration and gathering—like Le Guin’s story: you don’t do the god trick of observation, but instead gather, and allow yourself to get a little lost while collecting things you find on the way. If we look closely, cities—and this is also true for the technosphere— are much more interesting and odd than we might think.
CP: What it’s like work in such multidisciplinary modes. Like what’s the difference between an artist and curator, for instance?
EG: Yes, this is the interdisciplinary question. It’s always very hard to answer.
BS: I think, it’s important to not get tied down to the dividing lines between art, curation, creative writing, and scholarly analysis. We re-assemble things as critics, we connect the dots and create new lines of inquiry, new modes of seeing and inhabiting the world. But I also believe it’s essential to redefine existing standards of what constitutes “scholarly analysis” and rigor today. In the case of the ruderals that I mentioned earlier, and I think this is also true for all things feral, the interesting thing is that you often don’t find them with the usual rules of (scholarly) structured observation—but rather, since they emerge by chance, you don’t know exactly where to find them. The kinds of worlds we inhabit today—crowded with unexpected toxins and invisible forms of violence—therefore require us to sharpen our peripheral vision or to practice what the artist Lois Weinberger has called “precise modes of inattention”: you see feral beings as you pass through a place, on the way to somewhere else,. We need to take these kinds of risks (of not knowing in advance where to look) and to engage with multiple things at once in order to understand the complexities of what is going on in the anthropocene.
EG: It parallels my work with rice, maybe. At the moment I’m researching six different types of rice, not to put rice at the center of each study, but to actually say, “What happens if we follow the world by looking for a specific type of rice?” The six different studies use rice as an entry point and then examine different companion species gathered around rice. What are these assemblages that come together because this kind of rice has to be cultivated and has to live in the world in a certain way? It’s assuming that the local is always an already global. It’s always an already historical, as well as emergent narrative. By looking at rice, you start to trouble or at least take a more expansive view on spaces and times.
CP: That makes me think about something you said earlier, Elaine, how you can look at technology as a kind of responsive prosthetic—like, human identifies a problem, say, the limit’s of an average person’s encyclopedic knowledge, and say the internet or Wikipedia emerges to expand that limit. I guess I wonder if, in the same way, one could look at social and political policy as a kind of technology too?
BS: Yes, absolutely, that’s a great thought. That’s also what I gestured at earlier when I said it’s interesting to look at what emerges alongside institutions, infrastructures, and formal economies. It’s the same with policy making: there is always an excess and unexpected outcomes that are not anticipated and cannot be fully governed. In the context of migration, we see this happening now in Europe and across the world: the scrambling to control national borders against so called “floods” of refugees and migrants (note that refugees in the much debated refugee crisis in Germany right now are likened to waves and tsunamis, and thus to natural disasters). And yet there is an excess of people’s resilience, their desire to survive and make things livable. That is also the Anthropocene.
CP: Do you all think the Anthropocene is a fad? Of course I believe in the seriousness of our ecological times, but I also notice a high amount of fervor around the word. What is the world-building around that word?
BS: I think the Anthropocene is a tricky term. It’s both good to think with but it also has its limits. It gets humans to reflect on their own accountability and pushes one to reflect on how we have gotten ourselves in this mess. We live in a world in which humans have so profoundly altered the geological and material development of the planet that its entire survival is at stake. But I also think there is a risk in the current proliferation of the term: First of all, the word “we” characterizes a lot of talk about the Anthropocene. Who is this we? Certainly not everyone is affected in the same way. So it’s important to come up with alternative stories that don’t gloss over power imbalances. Then there is also what Donna Haraway has pointed out: the Anthropocene easily turns into a very Christian narrative of “Man” contemplating his own death. It’s capitalism that got us into this mess after all.
EG: I think we’re still in the Holocene. Although there are many landscapes that are definitely in the Anthropocene, the Anthropocene is a proposed term. I want to say it’s a conceptual device that allows us to say that human disturbances have reached such a massive scale that we’re changing planetary conditions in very uneven ways, that there are what Rob Nixon calls, slow violences, and we need a way to tag them.
We need a way to mobilize around these huge destructive machines of neoliberalism. I think it’s useful to call that the Anthropocene. People like Donna Haraway for example wants to think about the Capitalocene, Anna Tsing wants to say Plantationocene. There’s also the Chthulucene. In all those terms I think there’s an attempt to name how we got here.
There’s an attempt to say, what is a dominant figure that might tell us more about our contemporary condition? Is that plantations? Is that capitalism? Is it the figure of Anthropos, which is the Greek word for human, but it’s in a way making that figure visible, whatever it is so that we can unmake it, so that we can undo certain agencies that it’s managed to unleash into the world.
In saying that it’s Anthropos, in saying that it’s the human that has caused planetary disturbance and it’s basically knocked the earth off its axis, so that sunlight has changed, photoperiods have changed, wind directions have changed. We’ve changed the temperature of the earth. That’s crazy. If it’s a figure of a human that allows us to say, “How do we undo that?” Then become more human, then I think it’s useful. I hope it’s not a fad because we’ve heard these warnings since the 70s.
BS: Yes, I agree with Elaine: the potential of the term is that it creates the possibility to get out of former anthropocentric thinking and modes of being in the world. But we need to combine a discussion of the Anthropocene with a sensibility for the limits of human omnipotence and its colonial trajectories. And that’s why ferality and ruderal ecologies are important.
EG: We’ve heard the warnings since 1920, so we can probably say we’ve been hearing about this for very long periods of time. We haven’ heard them enough, and so we’re in the situation. I think it’s a useful term in that sense. My worry about is if we use it so much, we might stop hearing what is useful about it; we might get desensitized, though I hope we don’t. I’d also add that the world has ended for many groups, depending on what point of view you have. The image of Earth Rise—from the Apollo missions—give us a sense of the blue earth. We’re able to say we’re in the Anthropocene because of that image, but for some groups, a river was the world, a forest was the world. For certain species, a leaf might be the world, and so we’ve ended those worlds many times before.
CP: Like, whose Anthropocene?
EG: Yes, definitely which is I think one really important seminar that’s here. There’s also a certain level of identity politics that invokes, as somebody in one of the input statements said, I think Lesley Green said, “How do you not go back to that, but then at the same time how do you have politics without that?”
BS: It’s unsettling to see how easily earlier feminist and postcolonial critiques of identity politics and the nature culture divide seem to be forgotten in discussions of the Anthropocene. I think the key challenge is to reconnect these critical interventions with the concerns raised by the Anthropocene. The question is not simply a matter of standpoint of who is speaking. But who or what do we connect with and who gets represented and what bodies come to matter as we engage the Anthropocene?
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
In his latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) Speculative Realist philosopher Graham Harman differentiates Object Oriented Ontology from New Materialism and Actor-Network Theory, using the Dutch East India Company as a primary example. In the following interview, we discuss some of those nuances, how they relate to art, the Anthropocene, and Harman‘s articulation of Object-Oriented Social Theory. Harman is the author of several books including Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Circus Philosophicus (2010), Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political (2014) and more.
CP: In your latest book, Immaterialism: Objects and Social Theory, (Polity, 2016) you articulate how object-oriented ontology differs from Actor-Network Theory and New Materialisms. Would you talk a little bit about those differences?
GH: Let’s start with Actor-Network Theory, to which I’m much closer. I first encountered Bruno Latour’s work here in Chicago, as a student working on my PhD at Depaul in the late 1990s. What I immediately liked about Latour is that his tone was much more optimistic than Heiddeger’s. Latour is much funnier. He also provides more resources for talking about specific objects. For Heiddeger, all objects seem to be treated as faces of technology and miserable instantiations of presence. Meanwhile. Latour actually talks about individual technologies, each different in its own way. Yet what bothers me about the Actor-Network approach is that It defines things solely by their actions. That’s too limited; ultimately, you need to be able to talk about things outside of their actions because things are capable of multiple different actions.
CP: How does that relate to the main example in Immaterialism, The Dutch East India Company?
GH: I chose that example because Leibniz made fun of the Dutch East India Company as a pseudo-object, in his correspondence with Antoine Arnauld. As concerns the Company, Leibniz basically says: “How silly to think of it as a unified substance. It’s just a bunch of different people and different ships. How can it be considered one thing? There is no monad here.” Yet the fact remains that the Dutch East India Company lasted nearly 200 years, longer than any known human being has survived. Even if it changed its ships on a regular basis, it was a real object that exerted pressure both on its internal components and the outside environment. It remained roughly the same thing throughout that time, even when ships, people, or its operational strategies were replaced.
CP: But you are interested in the way it, as a single thing, nevertheless changes over time?
GH: Yes, but not according to the usual pseudo-cutting edge model in which everything is in a constant flux of becoming. This merely levels out everything in such a way that all moments become equal, which does not match what experience teaches us. In Immaterialism I try to identify five or six particular moments that were crucial for the life of the Dutch East India Company. My major source here is the Serial Endosymbiosis Theory (SET) of the biologist Lynn Margulis, who is only just starting to catch on in the humanities: Luciana Parisi at Goldsmiths in London and Myra Hird at Queen’s University in Canada come to mind as two authors working in neighboring areas to my own who have grasped the importance of Margulis for all of us. For those who haven’t read her but are interested, the book Symbiotic Planet is a good starting point.
Margulis had an important idea in the 1960s, during her years as a graduate student and assistant professor, that life forms evolve primarily not through a gradual process of survival of the fittest, but through intermittent symbiosis with other life forms. Consider the human cell and its numerous organelles. Her theory was that these organelles did not originally belong to the human cell, but came from the outside. Originally, there was the prokaryotic cell, which has no nucleus or internal membranes. According to Margulis, these organisms were probably infected by cellular parasites that fed on the nutrients inside the cell. Eventually, the parasites became important for our cells to survive when atmospheric oxygen drastically increased.
Margulis hypothesized that if we were ever able to run adequate tests to analyze the DNA in the nuclei of human cells, we would find that the cellular DNA does not code for all the organelles, thereby proving their extra-cellular origin. In the 1980’s those tests became possible and it turned out that Margulis was right. What she had proposed went from being a laughingstock of a theory to standard textbook biology.
CP: Is there another example of how that would work?
GH: Yes. Around the same time, Margulis asked, “Have we ever seen evolution happen in a laboratory?” They told her there was one such case, and it involved fruit flies in a tank, if that’s the proper term. Researchers split the tank down the middle, slowly turning the heat up on one side and down on the other. After however many generations, the two sets of fruit flies could no longer mate., and thus had effectively become different species. After dissecting them, they found that there was a virus in the hot fruit flies. The orthodox reaction to this might have been: “Damn it. The experiment is contaminated by a virus. It’s useless.” But the reaction of Margulis was different: “No. That’s the whole point. The point is that the virus allowed the fruit flies to survive in the heat.”
CP: What made you want to apply that approach to history?
GH: I was thinking first about human biography, because Levi Bryant and I had an interesting dispute. He claimed that since I think objects have fully formed essences, this would entail that a thing could never change, and that only combinations of things could change. I took this objection seriously, though it’s not inherently problematic given that everything for me is a combination in the first place, since there are no ultimate objects that consist of no further parts. But then the further observation occurred to me that we don’t really change internally as individuals anyway. We don’t sit around in our bedroom, brooding, and then suddenly our lives are different. Instead, this happens through symbiosis with some other object: a person, an institution, a career, a city, a favorite author. These are the things that can change our lives irreversibly. And furthermore, I don’t think these life changes are infinite in number. A typical person has maybe half a dozen in a lifetime.
And then it occurred to me just before writing this book that we could apply the same idea to history, by saying that the real changes in history are sudden and symbiotic, not gradual or internal. There are amazing moments leading to big changes, and mediocre moments that exist in the midst of long stable periods. I was looking for symbioses in the history of the Dutch East India Company, with the idea that the Company evolves by creating new objects in fusing with others. The resulting change is irreversible because the total object has a retroactive effect on its parts, even if the object isn’t irreversible. The Dutch East India Company eventually ended as all historical objects come to an end, but things did not revert to their previous state. A married couple can always get divorced, but in most cases the marriage —as a larger object containing two individuals—will have left retroactive effects on those individuals even if they decide never to speak to one another again. And you can always get married again, but you can never have a first marriage again.
CP: It reminds me of co-evolutionary theory, where things develop reciprocally within a specific niche. For instance, the Dutch East India Company continues to specialize until it only trades in spices and nutmeg—like a hummingbird whose beak evolves to get longer and longer…
GH: That’s right. Certainly, that is a disadvantage and why species disappear suddenly: they become over-attached to situations that do not endure. What happens to the Dutch East India Company in the 18th century is that nutmeg and cloves and other spices become less desirable on the market. In the 1700’s it was tea, coffee, and chocolate that were on the rise, and the British were in a better position to supply those goods, especially tea.
So, the fate of the Dutch East India Company goes hand in hand with the fate of nutmeg and cloves. Yet there are also cases without reciprocity. For example, I definitely had a symbiosis with Cairo. I arrived there at the right moment in my life. I worked there for sixteen years, lived there for thirteen, and will never be the same person I was before Cairo. At the same time, Cairo didn’t have a symbiosis with me. Cairo has an ancient history, and was barely affected at all by my presence there. I’m not a symbiosis for that city in the way that the arrival of Islam was, or that the Romans were, or whatever happens next.
CP: That’s where you bring up metaphor—
GH: —because not only does metaphor not give literal comparisons, it also does not give reciprocal ones. If we say that two things are alike in a literal sense, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two terms: the pen is like a pencil, or Chicago is like Toronto. There’s a reciprocal exchange of properties in such cases. That’s not what happens with metaphor. Here, one of the terms is in the object position and the other in the quality position. It’s an asymmetrical pairing. One object strips qualities away from the other, but not the reverse. In the new book I was trying to say that symbiosis is a metaphorical relation rather than a literal one, and therein lies its power.
CP: Using the Dutch East India Company as your main example brings out a political aspect in your discussion. There is so much violence and exploitation inherent in the company’s history.
GH: One of the paradoxes of the company is that the Dutch were the most liberal and humane nation in Europe at that time, and yet they created in the Company a very efficient monstrosity. It should not be forgotten that the Netherlands at the time was a newly independent nation, in true existential peril from their former Spanish masters, who committed a number of atrocities on Dutch soil. In this situation the Netherlands needed the huge monopoly profits promised by Jan Pieterszoon Coen’s vision for the Company, which entailed not only shutting out other European powers with violence, but even dominating trade among the Asians themselves. Yet there were limits to Dutch power, as seen by their failure to make inroads with Tokugawa Japan and Qing China. Japan in particular humiliated the Dutch, making representatives of the company go and bow before the Emperor, who as a rule would make the most minimal concessions. There were also occasional threats from local potentates, first in Java and later (and more seriously) in Malacca, where the Dutch Navy eventually had to come and save what was supposed to be an autonomous corporation.
Yes, there was a horrible amount of violence connected with this vast and powerful corporate monopoly.
Let me add that it was not my intention to single out the Netherlands for bad behavior. At a recent conference in Cincinnati, I received a rather emotional reaction from a Dutch reader who had appreciated the book but felt that I had focused on the absolute worst aspects of the Netherlands during that period. He offered some counterexamples of Dutch Liberalism, such as the de Witt brothers. What he was forgetting is that my case study was the Dutch East India Company, not the Dutch in the Netherlands, and the Company was largely autonomous of the Netherlands itself, a measure necessary to allow quick decision-making on the other side of the world in a time of slow communications. And I tried to stress the fact that the Netherlands was a young and vulnerable country at the time, despite its wealth, and was truly in danger from Spanish invasion. Moreover, the Portuguese and British were hardly models of fine behavior in the East Indies. The reason I focused on Dutch atrocities is simply that I was focusing on a period of relative Dutch dominance in the region. The Portuguese were much worse in at least one respect: religious bigotry. Ironically, the concerted efforts of the Portuguese to destroy Islam was one factor in the rise of the Dutch, who cared less about spreading religion than about securing profit for the Company.
CP: At one point you quote the archaeologist Ian Hodder saying “Anthropocene civilization cannot easily rid itself of disposable plastic trinkets and their ultimate Pacific Ocean dumpyard, because too many jobs depend on such trinkets.” It drew a parallel for me between the Dutch East India Company and a contemporary corporation—
GH: That was a paraphrase rather than a direct quote from Hodder, but that’s certainly his idea. He calls it “entanglement” and he wrote an entire book about this interesting topic not so long ago. Hodder’s point is that human activity is so path-dependent that we often become trapped by decisions made long ago. His chosen example is Christmas tree lights. They generate a lot of waste and use a lot of electricity, and so it’s conceivable that government under a Global Warming State of Emergency might choose to ban them, among other things. But so many jobs around the world depend on a thriving Christmas tree light industry that it’s hard to get rid of them.
I see that we both have iPhones. How many people scraped metal in mines and polished the phones in Chinese factories, perhaps getting horrible lung diseases to make these? Hodder says that an iPhone uses as much electricity as a small refrigerator, though I have no independent verification of that. It’s easy to say that it’s “capitalism’s” fault, but what then? How do we dismantle capitalism without people starving and the environment becoming as bad as it was in East Block communism?
Perhaps gold mining companies are the world’s most vicious corporate entities today. There have been cases of mining companies that use attack dogs on local citizens. The conditions in their mines are appalling and hideous. The temperature down there can run to 120, 130 degrees fahrenheit. You have to shimmy on your stomach because the tunnels are so low, according to my journalist friend Graeme Wood, who has visited one of these mines. And then of course there are the toxic chemicals they use, and the tiny wages people earn from mining gold. In fact, some observers have labelled AngloGold Ashanti “the most evil corporation in the world.”
CP: Within that frame, though, it feels as if the system propagates itself; it’s almost impossible to identify personal agency within this massive economy of extraction.
GH: I think it’s true that in some cases the remaining human agency is fairly minimal, and the corporations themselves become agents with their own inhuman interests. Occasionally, I’ve been puzzled to receive the criticism that Object-Oriented Ontology must agree with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case that corporations are people. Frankly, this is a rather stupid misunderstanding of my position. My position is that corporations and individual humans are both objects, not that they have equal political rights. According to OOO, Popeye, unicorns, and square circles are objects, but obviously we would not insist that these things deserve human rights. The ontological and political questions are completely different. We don’t give votes to mosquitoes, and I’ve never even heard an animal rights activist say that mosquitoes should not be smashed, though I suppose Jainism would say that. Nor should we obviously give corporations political rights in the sense that the Citizens United decision granted them.
CP: Going back to symbiosis, I started to wonder how humanity might itself be a global object. I don’t want to reduce the complexity of our species into one unit, but if we are tied together in an evolving global system, where would the Dutch East India Company sit on that trajectory?
GH: The Dutch East India Company was the first modern corporation. It had to monopolize in order to function as it did. Fernand Braudel talks about this in his three-volume Civilization and Capitalism, as does Manuel DeLanda later on. Capitalism is really about anti-markets. It’s about international monopolies and cartels, because if you look at what the trade was like in the East Indies before the Europeans came, or more specifically before the Dutch came (because the Portuguese were unable or unwilling to stifle free trade in the region), the ports were completely open to Turks, Arabs, Chinese, Ethiopians—it was a multicultural paradise in terms of trade.
But those ports were eventually monopolized by the Dutch. Controlling everything was their specific innovation. The spices in question were very rare at the time, coming only from specific and limited points on the globe. At the time, nutmeg, mace, and cloves came only from a small number of East Asian Islands: the “Spice Islands,” as they were known, which lie midway between Sulawesi and New Guinea. The Dutch would actually chop down the trees on certain islands to make sure they only grew on the islands they controlled, in order to keep monopoly prices high. It works, and that’s a sobering lesson: anti-markets work.
CP: At the end of your book, you propose to develop an object-oriented social theory?
GH: I was trying to test the waters here for something different from Actor-Network-Theory, a theory I cherish but which has obvious problems, such as over-emphasizing the actions of a thing as opposed to its mere stable existence. ANT does not deal well with counter-factuals, and thus is most useful in describing things that have already happened, not things that might still happen. Furthermore, it doesn’t give us the proper tools to distinguish between important and unimportant actions, whereas Margulis’ notion of symbiosis does. ANT is also perhaps a bit too blithe about the reversibility of relations: for it, everything looks like a fragile and symmetrical assembly of different actors. This is one place where the Left does have a point in its critique of Latour: some relations are actually quite asymmetrical and difficult to reverse.
Along with ANT, I also made criticisms of the so-called New Materialism in this book. A lot of people group OOO with New Materialism, but I do not feel at home with the latter camp. What people overlook is that New Materialism has no interest in objects, and OOO (in my version, at least) has no interest in “matter,” a concept I would like to see abolished.
Materialism can be one of two things—both of them bad, from my standpoint. One of them reduces things to their pieces. That’s the old classical materialism. The other reduces objects upwards to the social practices or language or events in which they are manifest. I call these two strategies undermining and overmining, though they are usually combined in a joint assault I’ve termed duomining. Both of these materialism are not quite object-oriented theories, because obviously they eliminate objects in favor of an upward or downward effect.
CP: Part of what you’re talking about is how difficult it is to concentrate on an object; a kind of awkwardness or insecurity emerges about exactly what the thing is: is it a set of atoms—but if so, why would atoms be the smallest unit? Or if it is a net assemblage of effects—then still we have to explain why we prioritize one scale over another. One’s encounter with an everyday mug, for instance, becomes very peculiar.
GH: We should resist the temptation to know too quickly. When somebody asks you what something is, there are two possible kinds of answers: you can either say what it’s made of, or say what it does. These correspond to what I just called undermining and overmining, and they are the two forms of knowledge that human beings have.
But I argue, in the Immaterialism book and elsewhere, that philosophy and art are not forms of knowledge. Knowledge means paraphrasing the thing in terms of true properties that can be ascribed to it. This is precisely what science does. Science has of course been the gold standard of cognitive activity in modern civilization. For 400 years, it has been the ultimate authority. It has replaced the Church as the place where we all go for ultimate reassurance. Great. But there have also been some great artists over the same time period, and I would resist any tendency to downplay their cognitive impact and view them as mere decorators and mood manipulators. Should we really rank Picasso lower than Einstein or Newton? That would seem to be going too far. But we have to see Picasso as doing something different. I wouldn’t say Picasso gives us knowledge, as if I learned something about horses or acrobats from looking at Picassos (though this seems to be Alain Badiou’s position, oddly enough). That’s not what’s happening. It’s something else. An artwork cannot be paraphrased. Art critics have to swerve in from the side and deal with things obliquely. That’s how they should do it. Yes, it can slip into pretension sometimes. That is the professional risk of philosophers, criticsm and artists: we all risk falling into pretension in a way.
CP: I wonder if part of the anxiety that I feel—at least as it’s connected to climate change or major global corporate investments—is connected to how the landscape is stepping its traditional background position into the foreground—
CP: That we’re not in control, maybe.
GH: Or maybe we’re still too much in control. One or the other. In a few essays I’ve used “Anthropocene” as a technical term for philosophy, referring to any object in which humans are a necessary ingredient. Things like arts, chess, and basketball obviously have been Anthropocene from start. But now the climate is becoming Anthropocene for the first time because humans are an ingredient in it. There is some disagreement about when this first happened. Was it 1945? Was it the industrial revolution? Was it way back in the Stone Age? At the advent of agriculture? At some point, we became a crucial ingredient in the planetary climate. We’re part of it now. We have responsibility for it now. That in and of itself is anxiety-inducing.
CP: I wonder if the theoretical structures Western thought has used thus far to understand the world—philosophies, mathematics, sciences etc.— aren’t positioned to accommodate that shift.
GH: Certainly the kinds of philosophy and science we’ve had were probably not adequate to account for the shift. Climate and earth science are, of course, crucial in helping to identify what is going on. But these are very different kinds of sciences from the precise modern ones that we relied on for so long. To take one especially sinister example, the Nagasaki bomb in 1945 required the perfect implosion of a ring of plutonium so that all portions of the ring reached the center at precisely the same moment to create a critical mass. That is extremely precise weapons science.
But that’s not what climate science is like: they are not the kind where you have 100% indubitable evidence, which is precisely why there is more politics involved in such science than in the previous kinds. Bruno Latour is one of the first philosophers to have picked up on all those themes. He already wrote one book on ecology and will surely be writing more. I think Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is the most important philosophical book since the Second World War. I’m probably still the only one saying that, but Latour drives a stake in the heart of Modernism with this book, and I don’t see that anything more important has happened in philosophy. As Latour teaches us, modernism is about the attempt to purify subjects and objects from each other. Within this paradigm, there are just two kinds of things: (1) people and (2) everything else. Nature becomes the cold realm of calculable automatic action and culture becomes merely an arbitrary projection of values with no reality principle behind it. People swing back and forth, choosing nature or culture depending what suits them at the given moment. Conservatives hold that war is a natural and ineffaceable fact but that domestic gun violence is “socially constructed” by violent movies and videogames and inadequate mental health treatment. Liberals say that the current status of women is socially constructed and thus revisable, but also say that homosexuality is a natural fact found in some people from birth and not something that can or should be changed by treatment. Whichever political tribe is yours, nature and culture are your two basic weapons, drawing first on one and then on the other to argue your point. But what if neither of the two is a good weapon? What if nature and culture are just two separate domains amongst trillions of others? Latour will try to say that most objects are hybrids, most of them involve humans and non-humans entangled, so you cannot tell which is which. The ozone hole is both natural and constructed. Global warming is an even better example. But there’s still a danger with this concept of the hybrid, which is that people might think that every object requires a hybrid of nature and culture. No, that’s not the point. The point is that neither nature nor culture is a good concept.
In any case, four or five centuries from now when the end of modernism seems as obvious a historical fact as the birth of it, I think Latour will be seen as the one who really put his finger on what is central to modernism: an artificial taxonomy of natural and cultural (or world and thought) in which the two realms are supposed to be purified from one another. The reason so many philosophers have a hard time appreciating this is that philosophers are still pursuing a modernist project even as other disciplines have been compelled to move beyond it. The Owl of Minerva flies at dusk, so it must not be dusk quite yet. We are still in the late afternoon of modernism.
CP: Does formalism tie into Latour’s account?
GH: Formalism can mean a number of different things, but perhaps the most relevant way to define it is in Kantian terms. He uses it in his ethics to refer to ethical principles that are autonomous of any reference to the material world and refer solely to the categorical imperative. Similar principles are at work in Kant’s aesthetics and ontology. I deal with this in my just completed book Dante’s Broken Hammer, which will be published by Repeater Books (London) in October 2016. Max Scheler makes a helpful start for us by opposing Kant’s formalism in ethics. Whereas formalism assumes (just as Latour argues against modernism) that self and world are two ontologically distinct zones that must be purified one one another, Scheler effectively argues that the ethical unit is not the human, but rather the human in conjunction with the world. One practical consequence is that Scheler has greater sensitivity to the different personal vocations of different people. If someone has a calling and a wish to a be a great viola player, there is an ethical imperative to follow this path that is not merely “hypothetical,” as Kant would put it. The ethical unit here is actually person plus viola, not just a person with a sense of duty.
The same holds in Kant’s theory of art, where both the beautiful and the sublime are actually about us, not about the world. Ironically, this gets flipped in twentieth century formalism, in which Clement Greenberg, Michael Fried, Cleanth Brooks, and other formalists want to say that art is all about the art object, not about us. Though it’s the exact inversion of Kant’s position, it’s still a formalism, because it still involves the notion that self and world must be mutually purified, and it’s still in search of an objectivity of taste that is binding on everyone. Here again, I argue in the book that the aesthetic unit is neither the person nor the object, but both in conjunction. One consequence is that just as there can be an individual vocation to become a plumber, painter, or parent, there can be an individual vocation to respond intensely to Schopenhauer (like Nietzsche did) or to Nicolas Poussin (as Cézanne did). Perhaps this is even easier to see if we look at cases in history where someone was especially inspired by a relatively minor figure. The one that’s always in my mind is how enthusiastic T.S. Eliot was about the poetry of Jules LaForgue, who by no means ranks among the greatest French poets of his time. Another example is how the young Heidegger was set on his path of the thinking of being after reading the doctoral dissertation of Franz Brentano on the many senses of being in Aristotle. Now, Brentano is in my view one of the overlooked great philosophers, not a minor figure, but his dissertation is not one of his obviously greatest works. It took Heidegger’s special sensibility to see something potentially world-changing lying in germ in Brentano’s thesis. Many others read it, but no one else saw it as crucial to the future of philosophy.
I’ve not yet mentioned Latour, who was the point of your question. But perhaps it will now be clear why Latour’s attack on the nature/culture taxonomy of modernism also gives us the resources to escape Kantian formalism, and its variants.
CP: So this goes back to my question about how knowledge production might have to change to accommodate the Anthropocene—
GH: Early on in his career, Latour was working with Shirley Strum on baboons for their paper “Redefining the social link: from baboons to humans.” What Latour learned from working with Strum is that baboons are more social than we are (and by the way, I owe my recognition of the importance of baboons for Latour to Peer Schouten). Baboons are constantly watching each other: who’s grooming whom today? A baboon has discovered a rich food source, and sees the rest of the baboons wandering off: now there is no alternative but to run after the others, because baboons are too social to be alone. Each day, baboons are keeping a close eye on the pecking order of their society as it shifts; they are constantly renegotiating their place in that order. And though we might tend to think of humans, in respectably cynical fashion, as cagey, social-climbing, manipulative beings, that’s really not true at all when you compare us with baboons. After all, humans wake up to a relatively stable world each day. We have birth certificates, driver’s licenses, jobs, names, wedding rings, bank accounts, titles, and family histories. All of these give us a relatively stable place in the world that changes only in moments of life crisis, such as professional or marital problems or financial catastrophe.
CP: So, objects help stabilize our world-position.
GH: Yeah. Inanimate objects stabilize us. We have homes. My wife and I have an apartment, and if somebody breaks in, we can call the police. The police will arrest the person responsible, if they can be found. My home is not available for anybody to come in and crash. It remains my home until I decide to move or am evicted due to non-payment of rent. If anyone doubts who I am, I can prove it with a birth certificate. I know that I have some money in the bank that I can withdraw when needed: nobody else can take that money out, and it will be available at all times unless there is a global financial crash. Baboons have none of these luxuries. Inanimate objects are the mediators that stabilize human society: this is one of Latour’s most important political insights. He rightly complains that there’s not much about inanimate beings in Machiavelli or Hobbes, who talk mostly about other people. Machiavelli speaks a bit about fortresses and guns, but he’s mostly concerned with out-foxing of overpowering humans. Latour is really the guy who has made inanimate objects part of politics.
CP: You always make lists when you’re giving examples of different types of objects. I was wondering if you have advice about …
GH: How to create them?
GH: We call them Latour Litanies. Ian Bogost coined this term because Latour does these lists especially well, though they’ve been around for centuries. Perhaps Latour’s finest litany moment comes on page 316 of Pandora’s Hope, when in one list he invokes golden mountains, phlogiston, unicorns, bald kings of France, chimeras, spontaneous generation, black holes, cats on mats, black swans, white ravens, Hamlet, Popeye, and Ramses II. Another brilliant one is when Richard Rhodes in The Making of the Atomic Bomb lists all the different types of objects that were destroyed in the Hiroshima bombing. Then there is Georgius Agricola in his De Re Metallica, when he lists all the different ways that people can be killed without metal, in order to absolve metal of the claim that it is used to make too many weapons: an early sort of “guns don’t kill people, people do” argument. And of course, Francis Bacon’s mind-blowing list in the Novum Organum of “instances agreeing in the nature of heat,” including “fire erupting from the cavities of mountains,” fresh animal dung, and “all flame.” Some critical readers of OOO claim to despise this technique, but I see no reason to stop using it. It’s an excellent rhetorical method for reminding us of the plurality of entities against any attempt to tame that plurality by privileging one specific type: usually the human mind.
As for practical methods of creating good Latour litanies, here are my own tips. Generally the human mind gravitates towards lists of three, so I try to use at least four at a time in order to get the mind out of that natural rut. Bogost tends to like alliterative litanies, whereas I prefer not to use them because I want the feel of randomness about my lists, and to that end it’s important not to have all the words begin with the same letter. I also want my litanies to cover a wide range of entities, so for that reason I always try to include at least some humans, some non-humans, some natural things, some artificial things, some live humans, some dead humans, some fictional objects, and maybe some impossible or self-contradictory ones. And then you have to pull out before it gets too long and you try the reader’s patience: I’m talking about sincere readers, of course, not the sort of people who pretend to be annoyed by litanies. And they are many— insincerity is one of the most abundant productions of modernism.
Steven Shaviro also noticed that I often include tar on my lists.
GH: Yes, tar. T-A-R. At one point I was listening to Shaviro gives a lecture, and he said something like: “I want to know why Harman is so fascinated by tar.” Part of it is simply that I like the sound of the word, and always remember that it rhymes with “star.” There’s probably a psychoanalytic resonance here, as there is with most habits and obsessions: “yellow star” was reportedly one of my first compound spoken phrases as a child. My bedroom as a child was next to the top of the garage. At one time it was being tarred, and of course my parents wouldn’t let me go out there while the tar was still hot. But I did eventually walk out there, barefoot, when the tar had cooled but was still a bit soft and mushy to walk around in. I’m not sure why that’s such a pleasant memory, but maybe that’s why tar makes frequent appearances in my own litanies.
Jeremy Bolen, Heather Davis, Emily Eliza Scott, and Andrew Yang pooled their efforts to lead Sensing the Insensible: Aesthetics In, Through, and Against the Anthropocene, a group seminar at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s (HKW’s) 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue. In the following conversation, I meet with three of the four conveners to explore how aesthetic and political concerns are embroiled in conceptions of the Anthropocene and how we determine it’s origin.
Caroline Picard: It’s the last day of the HKW’s 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum and I am with three of four conveners from the Sensing the Insensible Seminar, Emily Scott, Jeremy Bolen, and Andrew Yang.
Andrew Yang: The fourth being Heather Davis.
Emily Scott: The four of us met at the last Anthropocene campus in the fall 2014.
Jeremy Bolen: Andy actually came up with the title for this seminar proposal because Emily and I were working on some projects together. Then Andy and I were working on some projects together so it happened in a very organic way.
AY: Yeah, I mean [Jeremy’s] artistic practice in photography combined with Emily’s background in art history and critical studies, plus my own sort of scientific/art/whatever interests, and Heather’s perspectives from women studies and literature: our collective fields gave us a unique way to consider what it means to represent something. In a visual or aesthetic sense of course, but also addressing the politics of representation, and visuality versus the many other ways that one might sense. We really wanted to also engage that possibility also.
ES: I actually remember a moment from the first campus during a really wonderful performance by the Otolith Group. At one point in this performative lecture, Kodwo Eshun mentioned, I think he was quoting Bruno Latour, though I bet others besides Latour have said this: Eshun made a link between aesthetics and sensitization. I remember thinking, “Oh I love this!” Their whole talk and art project—exhibited at the same time, Medium Earth—was about people who believe that they can sense or predict earthquakes by feeling it in their bodies, sometimes across the world. There was one woman in particular, Charlotte King, who had different parts of her body that tied to different geographies. There are actually a lot of people that believe that they can predict earthquakes. I thought that was an interesting way to think about embodied sensing. It wasn’t until a bit later that we came up with this idea of taking up “aesthetics” and going back to its original Greek meaning: “to perceive or feel.”
CP: Do you find the Anthropocene to be a useful frame for aesthetics?
AY: You can pose the question as you did, so that the Anthropocene is a frame for aesthetics, but we are also interested how aesthetics might be a framing tool for the Anthropocene. That also reveals my own background in the natural sciences, but assuming there is an Anthropocene condition, how does an aesthetic approach give you different access to considering that whole scheme, that whole concept, that whole material and temporal reality? My own view is that our cultural production, as well as the ways that we engage the world, should address “the reality of things.” I was thinking more about aesthetics for Anthropocene as opposed to Anthropocene for aesthetics.
CP: Do you mean to say that shaping and developing the Anthropocene is an aesthetic question?
AY: I think both and that really came out of the seminar with some sophistication. The concept of the Anthropocene is premised on the fact that humans have been these causal agents on a planetary scale. The question is, given that we’ve had that effect, what kind of new causes can we be, what kind of agency can we bring to it? This question of understanding, of shaping the metaphor but also like shaping land, shaping the air, shaping our representations to ourselves and to each other about what all of those things are…We are at a stage now where images have a geological impact as far as I’m concerned and so everything kind of counts in that way. I think it’s all the above.
ES: Yeah, I’ve thought a lot too about the term “Anthropocene” and a number of counter-terms, or terms that critique the Anthropocene—and what kind of work they do. In many cases because, the term itself has so many problems it’s paradoxical; the term could either signify the ultimate centering of the human or the ultimate de-centering of the human depending on which perspective you come from. Then of course there is an obvious problem with lumping all anthropos into one and the flattenings that come along with that, and what kind of geographical biases might come up. The Anthropocene term becomes a key…It’s a framing device for the world.
AY: Yeah, it’s true.
ES: It opens certain kinds of stories and I think a lot of people are very invested in what kinds of stories are being built. What the political material effects of those stories are and what the Anthropocene as a term either opens up or shuts down. Others have created the term “Capitalocene,” for instance—Jason Moore’s term originally, but Donna Haraway also took it up—which provides a different frame of course.
CP: Is the question of aesthetics related to how we decide when the Anthropocene officially began?
ES: Sure. One thing that Heather and I discussed is the considerable amount of weight on around dating the Anthropocene. This year the International Stratigraphic Commission will make a decision about whether or not it’s an official term; they are also tasked with assigning a date. Whatever date is chosen will really inform what kinds of stories are told. There are a lot of people like Heather who—and I tend toward this direction as well—think framing the Anthropocene through colonialism would be an important designation.
CP: Wait, why?
ES: Because it would frame understanding about these complex, Anthropocenic interactions in a politicized way. If the officially-designated Anthropocene start date becomes the first nuclear explosion in 1945, that offers a geopolitical and technological framing, one that opens up another particular set of narratives. Heather made a great point in her introductory input, which came straight out of the introduction to a book she co-edited with Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene. They argue that the Anthropocene is an aesthetic event.
JB: It’s interesting to go back to the origins question in aesthetics. I agree with you, Emily, but the Stratigraphic Commission is also looking for a trace that impacts the entire earth at one moment and leaves a permanent trace. That’s why 1945 becomes a strong contender. If we rely on their criteria, I wonder what role aesthetics play in deciding the origins.
AY: I suppose as a trace it has to be something that we can be aware of, that can be measurable not just for a snub of a minute but for the lasting future. Maybe as a corrective to what I said before, I think the Anthropocene is a concept but maybe more than that, it’s fundamentally a story, it’s real. Because it writes human history into natural history and a human perspective into a geological, deep time framework. There are a lot of political stakes and importance for the term, but I also think there are metaphysical and existential ones; and those are political as well.
CP: I’m excited by how the constructed and agreed-upon narrative would be as important, somehow, as the material and scientific events themselves…
AY: A narrative gives you self awareness; it’s the story you tell yourself. It is fundamentally an aesthetic proposition because it’s creating a story for oneself that’s built into another much, much deeper story.
ES: People want official determination to legitimize the Anthropocene, and although there’s a feeling that stratigraphers have to find a material trace, that’s nevertheless a very particular way of framing something. It emphasizes geologic matter as a determining factor, representing the way in which science is seen as the defacto authority. I think there a lot of people want to question that assumption. Is it stratigraphers that should be the ones to ultimately decide if the Anthropocene exists or not based on their material findings?
Our seminar explored questions about how the Anthropocene has, to a large extent, been imaged through or represented via a regime of data, scientific language, and a set of representations. Whether it’s the hockey stick graph of climate change, or images of melting glaciers or lots of climate models et cetera, or the emphasis on this geological uniform kind of layer. A lot of people coming from art, culture, politics, or history backgrounds see their expert perspectives as equally important.
JB: This is relevant to the question of origins because it’s become a truly extra-disciplinary investigation, where so many different fields of research are involved. I’m interested to see what they come with up for the origins and who exactly is involved in that decision when it’s finalized.
AY: I think like the –cene in the Anthropocene, asserts a sense of recency, but you wouldn’t know what’s recent without first determining what’s past. That deep past is structured around scientific sensing. I’m not saying that the past and the present—as science constructs them—is always the best approach, but that’s the frame we know and use.
CP: It’s amazing to recognize how deeply scientific thought is integrated with conceptions of past and present.
AY: This new awareness about the true scale of impacts humanity is having on the planet are only sensible and could only be realized through scientific abstraction, reduction, remote sensing. I don’t want to throw that out as if that’s something that’s overly reductive, and abstract and de-humanizing. I still want to defend the virtue of a scientific knowledge but it just can’t be the end point.
JB and ES: Yeah, I agree fully.
CP: Is there a difference between aesthetics and ethics in a way that you are thinking through cross-disciplinary, framing, and narrative?
ES: We didn’t plan to talk explicitly about ethics but it’s interesting how many of our discussions were absorbed by that question. How much can I do, what can I do, where should I position my work, what kinds of practices will lead to material effects in the world.
JB: I feel like we are at a such a different point today than we were two years ago. It feels like information about the Anthropocene has been metabolized; now there’s a want for action more than just discussion. A discussion occurs but what comes up is what do we do and what are the ethics surrounding those actions? I think that overarching themes are the politics of whatever that action might be and the politics of sensing.
ES: Heather opened up her talk with something from Art in the Anthropocene which—I’m paraphrasing but—said that basically art offers a non-moral approach. The virtue in being non-moral is that allows one to hold contradictory perspectives. Her framing of the moral is that it’s rule driven and prescriptive and it can define what’s allowable and what’s not.
That was a controversial statement and that led to this question about whether we want to distinguish morality from ethics and what kind of difference that was. That’s a philosophical rabbit hole, but in her view, the moral was this space of basically hierarchical closing down of new and complex possibilities.
CP: Is an ethical space any different?
ES: I think we accepted that the ethical is the space of ongoing exploration that is not necessarily centered on what’s right or what’s wrong, but rather what’s of value and how you determine or cultivate notions of value. In that regard, I think I would say inherently aesthetics is an ethical proposition because this is a question of why do you even bother to commit yourself in terms of awareness or in terms of representations. Because now, materially or otherwise, every artistic or aesthetic gesture is basically a gesture of production, whether it’s physical, psychological, or energetic—those have real costs. They spend real energy, they absorb people’s attention, sometimes away from things that they could do otherwise. I think for better or for worse it’s fundamentally an ethical consideration for all fields now.
This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.
Last April I had the opportunity to go to Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, a ten-day conference at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin; I attended as a journalist working jointly for Bad at Sports and the HKW. My intentions were twofold: 1. To conduct a series of interviews with participants. 2. To make a comic about my experience and some of the seminar conversations. The comic will take some time, but the interviews will appear on Bad at Sports this August, along with additional interviews I have since conducted after the conference ended. The topic at hand is The Anthropocene: a contested term, according to which humanity has a direct, geologic impact on planetary systems and cycles. Is it a fad? What does art have to do with it? And how might we conceive of a sense of agency?
Those questions came to mind with great urgency last spring. It’s uncanny, after all, to sit in a room with 30-100+ academics—all with impressive and various credentials ranging from evolutionary biology, philosophy, physics, law, economics, art, colonialism, activism, etc.—as they discussed our dismal prospects for the future through interactive presentations about agriculture, land grabbing practices, data mining, and oil pipelines. To paint a crude picture: we live in the Sixth Great Extinction (for a list of the preceding five mass extinction events go here), a very small group of individuals hold the majority of the human wealth, stock markets operate at a furious rate without any ethical sensibility, and—often in the name of progress—a methodology of subjugation, extraction, and consumption has dominated humanity’s interaction with itself, its environment, and all forms of life and materiality between for last century at least. It’s no secret that our reliance on fossil fuel is detrimental to long term survival, yet it seems beyond any current collective ability to extricate ourselves from relying upon the sludge of dinosaur bones to power skyscrapers, cars, or grow corn. Plastic, similarly, ends up in the Pacific Ocean, swirling around like a tiny ethereal cloud-island, filling the bellies of fish, birds, whales, et al. with tiny microscopic particles…but to stop using plastic would upturn the order of an entire global economy. Think also of the alternative energy sources: nuclear power plants that store nuclear waste indefinitely and not very well because no one can agree on where to put it. As such, it remains in short-term storage facilities of company lots—like bizarre packages of sleeping trauma, vulnerable and waiting for some rupture to burst out, actualize, and what then?
The extent to which our world is about to change is phenomenal and it’s easy to feel helpless upon the disintegrating stage of co-existence. As some have suggested, the end of the world has already happened and the present moment we share is that delay between the sound of the explosion and the consequence of its blast. But, let’s resist resigning to fantasies of the apocalypse. They are too seductive and simplistic. And perhaps the worst form of privilege is that one that abdicates responsibility in the face of suffering. How instead to walk the line between awareness and humility? To study post-heroics and remember that many worlds have ended already. During a CSTMS panel discussion with Eduardo Kohn and Colin Hayan, Donna Haraway asked,”What is it to write in a time of great extinction?…The questions that often come under the label of the Anthropocene—that is to say, the accelerated rates of extinction, the accelerated writing into the waters, into the earth itself, into the fossil record, into the gases, into the species assemblages, into the molecules, the accelerated writing of the earth in accelerated extinctions and accelerated threats of serious system collapse of all sorts—truly is the situation in which human beings and other critters must figure out how to ask each other, how or if to go on. These are not sentimental questions, though I am not against sentiment…but the question that joins us today is posed by Thom van Dooren and [Deborah Bird Rose], What is it to write in a time of extinctions and exterminations and iterative conquests, permanent war, and genocides at all sorts of scales, that include other critters..as well as human beings?”
With that in mind, I appealed to the generosity of others: friends, strangers, artists, educators, philosophers, and scientists through a series of interviews with the hope that we might talk about these questions and, at the very least, concentrate on the uncertainty of our times as soberly as possible. Perhaps in that meditation we can, together, amplify our awareness, attending to the many acts of disappearance and the energy it takes to bear witness. Every day for the month of August, I’ll be sharing a new conversation with you, plus comics on Sunday. Stay tuned. Email me if you want to discuss and thank you for reading. Caroline@lanternprojects.com
February 10, 2014 · Print This Article
This interview has been long in the making â€” it began months ago after I visited Robert Burnierâ€™s solo show at Design Cloud in the West Loop. It began because Iâ€™d seen Burnier’s work over the preceding summer at Andrew Rafacz Gallery, and again at Chicago Art EXPO; it began because I kept wondering about his crumpled aluminum wall sculptures â€” what to me have always seemed like the wreckage of a minimalist object, still pristine, still auratic, and yet all the more difficult to resolve somehow. The following interview, conducted largely by email, paralleled other conversations we had begun about what is and is not considered natural â€” a conversation embedded in my own curatorial research at the moment â€”Â and how our understanding of digital space is influencing our understanding of a material landscape. Not surprisingly, Burnier yielded a wealth of insight and Iâ€™m happy to share at least some of that dialogue here.
Caroline Picard: How do you think about landscape? Does that question emerge when you’re composing your abstract aluminum works?â€¨â€¨
Robert Burnier: I definitely have to be conscious of landscape in the sense that anything for the wall can be seen in that way. Beyond this, though, I’ve often made work that hovers or vibrates between the categories of landscape and figure, or landscape and terrain. By “landscape and terrain” I mean a difference between pictorial space and experiential space.â€¨ For the sculptures, specifically, the idea of terrain is very important. As opposed to a more direct kind of construction and mark making, I think about operating within something that comes with its own history and peculiar spatial configuration. As I move through these spaces, I look for something interesting to emerge. They also essentially operate on me as they proscribe certain actions through their boundaries and character, and by how every move simultaneously closes some pathways as it opens others. And yet they don’t completely dictate what I will actually do with them as a whole.
CP: You’ve mentioned the situationist dÃ©rive in conjunction with your aluminum pieces â€” as though to suggest that the ways in which you improvise, negotiate, fold and crumple the material is a kind psychogeographical exploration of that same material. Would you agree with that?
RB: Yes, I would agree with that to a large extent. In retrospect, I think I’ve been interested in something like that for a long time, actually. I’ve always had a penchant for wandering urban spaces in a way reminiscent of what Guy Debord describes in his essay on the theory of dÃ©rive. So it’s made its way into my practice more or less consciously. While dÃ©rive was a response to physical urban spaces, we also experience our contemporary urban geography through virtual structures, with populations acting in concert with communications networks and sets of common interfaces and devices, etc.â€¨â€¨In my work, I’ve put virtual and physical spaces on par in certain ways. They are both material for use. I might use off the shelf CAD systems, readily available physical materials and commercial paints. What I do with them resembles a dÃ©rive in the sense that I “walk” through prefigured fields of shapes â€” or terrains as described above â€” while translating between virtual and physical mediums. Certain complexities play out on their differences. For example, a form in a CAD system may be contradictory or at least untenable in the physical incarnation. So I’m discovering certain things as I “test” them [those digital systems] in, say, sheet metal. I start out by following the lines, by scoring and cutting by the potentially “problematic” drawing, but then I take detours and make other choices that go against the line, and ultimately still produces something that contains and expresses that original trajectory. In a very general way, I like to think that whenever I use a CAD system, a can of spray paint, or a gel pen, I’m definitely handing a lot of what happens over to the nature of that system or material. Its not exactly collaboration, but its a kind of acceptance of mass technological culture in the work. At the same time I try to make these things go beyond themselves rather than have them pass unfiltered.â€¨
CP: Is your background in computer science present to you when you are working artistically?
RB: More than anything right now, certain states of mind that come from working with computer technology and software have a bearing on what I do. I am focused on process and algorithms as ways of approaching art where the steps I lay out matter to me as much as whatever actually happens. I should add: “as much as”, but “not more than”. Often what I’m trying to do is come at these things from a decidedly different vantageÂ â€” by taking something precisely, mathematically defined and putting it through the vagaries of some physical challenge, or employing techniques that are at cross purposes with straightforward execution, or by making two things interfere with each other somehow. But its also critical that I be me in the studio doing something. Its not just about a fascination with wreckage or a glitch, or winding up elaborate systems that plays themselves out.â€¨
CP: How has minimalist sculpture influenced you?
RB: The direct and experiential aspect of minimalism always attracted me. One thing I take from it is the idea of art as a demonstration; a thing put forward as a concrete suggestion. But I never think about this concrete presence as some completely stable, impenetrable unity. â€¨â€¨I like to see what is real, in front of us being what it is and also something else. It can be a material that is made to appear like a different material, for instance â€” something that creates an impression that goes beyond itself. I get excited when a sculpture appears simple or decisive in some way, while being difficult to add up. Minimalism often worked to achieve a kind of wholeness that I sympathize with, and at the same time I try to complicate that.
CP: Do you worry about scale at all?
RB: There are current tendencies toward the non-monumental I can identify with, though I don’t feel especially constrained by them. Right now I am making generally smaller work that enters painting dialogue and exists in a somewhat more intimate individual space. I like to think someone can enter into a piece and follow me when they are presented with what happened as much or more than they would if they were confronted by something especially sizable.â€¨â€¨What a minimalist approach does for me is increase my focus on small moves and their potential significance. Of the few elements I do bring together in the work, however, I like them to play against each other subtly rather then be simply aiming toward the same whole.
CP: Do have expectations for what a work of art should do? Where do those come from?
RB: Minimalism turned over a lot of fundamental things about what constitutes a work of art. Is it supposed to absorb or repel a viewer? Be autonomous or relative to its environment? Instantaneous or durational? However I answer those kinds of questions now, thinking about Minimalism has made an indelible mark on the way I approach my work even if only in the kinds of questions I ask of it.
CP: You work in other mediums as well, which require their own strategiesâ€¦
RB: â€¨â€¨I like the term “strategy”, which implies a consideration of means to an end. I like to try different things out. Hans Haacke’s “project based” approach comes to mind. But I also have a thing for the ineffable surprises to be found in the arrangements of an artist like Richard Tuttle and how he can burrow in on an investigation through as series of objects. When it comes down to it, though, I actually think in a very physical and experiential way about what I do and source things from experimentation and a process of discovery. I remember Terry Myers telling me of his impression that I was “tinkering” around in the best possible sense. That sticks with me.â€¨â€¨
CP: You have Â series of line drawings on plywood where you reproduce wood grain. Where did that body of work came from?
RB: So with the drawings on plywood panel, I wanted to see what would happen if I took a few elements, thoughts and actions and wove them together. Plywood is interesting as a kind of hybrid, something natural that has been made artificially stable through geometry and chemistry, like a prepared and preserved food. And yet it has this natural wood grain. I thought the most direct approach would be to have a square of the material, and to work within the boundaries of that space by drawing something equally basic â€” a series of lines from edge to edge. The lines get very complex when you draw enough of them next to each other freehand. I could have predicted the moire pattern, and I chose a color that was a really good not-quite-match for the Baltic Birch, hoping it would “sink” into the wood visually. But it turned out even better than I imagined, judging by the way you read the lines as virtual wood grain.
CP: Do you feel, regardless of medium, that your work addresses related themes? Is that important to you?
RB: Yes. A culturally situated identity or a logically constrained action are important touchstones, for example. Mediated marks, subsumed images and ruptured natures are important, such as in the plywood drawings or a fully representational, painted sky scape I separated onto multiple panels and turned sideways to transform into a minimal color grade. I always try to confuse and mix these things. In all of it I hope a little bit of expression will sneak out from under a pile of process, enter through the back door of an algorithm, or emerge from a bunch of repetitive doing. On the subject of constrained identity, I’ve been thinking about and talking with a number of Chicago artists who may share some of my mixed cultural and racial background. The more time I spend on that the more I think there’s something I have to find in that. Along those lines, choices like the use of Baltic Birch and African Mahogany plywood for my drawings resonate, given my 50/50 Northern European and African genetics. African Mahogany, I’ve discovered, also has something called chatoyancy which causes its color toÂ change appearance depending on the angle of view.