Sunday, May 12, 2019

A New narrative for a Flourishing-Creative World and a Generative Future - Part 2 - Earth as co-creator of a human-made container


Earth as co-creator of a human-made container


I want to remind ourselves of McLuhan pithy aphorisms:
When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form. The globe became a theatre enclosed in a proscenium arch of satellites. From that time the “audience” or the population of the planet became actors in a new sort of theatre. Mallarmé had thought that “the world exists to end in a book.” It turned out otherwise. It has taken on the character of theatre or playhouse. Since Sputnik the entire world has become a single sound-light show. Even the business world has now taken over the concept of “performance” as a salient criterion.
“Roles, Masks and Performances” New Literary History 2:3 1971
When we put satellites around the planet Darwinian nature ended. The earth became an art form subject to the same programming as media networks and their environments. The entire evolutionary process shifted, at the moment of Sputnik, from biology to technology. Evolution became not an involuntary response of organisms to new conditions, but part of the consensus of human consciousness. Such a revolution is enormously greater and more confusing to past attitudes than anything that can confront a mere culture or civilization.
FROM CLICHÉ TO ARCHETYPE, 1970
The planet is now the content of the new spaces created by the new technology. Instead of being an environment in time, the earth itself has become a probe in space. That is, the planet has become an anti-environment, an art form, an extension of consciousness, yielding new perception of the new man-made environment.
Marshall McLuhan Unbound, p.10. 2005

The Earth become surrounded by a man-made container. Bruno Latour almost 50 years later frames the situation in the following way:
Humans have always modified their environment, of course, but the term designated only their surroundings, that which, precisely, encircled them. They remained the central figures, only modifying the decor of their dramas around the edges.

Today, the decor, the wings, the background, the whole building have come on stage and are competing with the actors for the principal role. This changes all the scripts, suggests other endings. Human are no longer the only actors, even though they still see themselves entrusted with a role that is much too important for them.

What is certain is that we can no longer tell ourselves the same old stories. Suspense prevails on all fronts.
Go backward? Relearn the old recipes? Take a new look at the age-old wisdom? Learn from the few cultures that have not yet been modernized? Yes, of course, but without lulling ourselves with illusions: for them, too, there is no precedent.

No human society, however wise, subtle, prudent, and cautious you may think it to be, has had to grapple with the reactions of the earth system to the actions of eight or nine billion humans All the wisdom accumulated over ten thousand years, even if we were to succeed in rediscovering it, has never served more than a few hundred, a few thousand, a few million human beings on a relatively stable stage.
Bruno Latour. 2018.  “Down To Earth: Politics in a New Climate Regime” p.45
Technology is not about the thing-as-noun, but rather it is a form of knowledge - as described by Greek thought - as know-how - Techne. And most often tacit embodied knowledge.
All life forms embody knowledge-as-know-how and therefore actively work to shape their environment - birds build nests, insects build colonies, mushrooms create an inter-plant mycelial network of exchange.
Each individual, each species and each ecology is a world - built by relationships. Often these relationships are made invisible by a perceptual orientation that separates wholes into atomistic, isolated parts. From a holistic approach we can ask whether the bee is the flower’s technology for fertilization or whether the flower is the bee’s technology of food production?
Embodied know-how is deeply entangled with living in relationships within evolving ecology-environments. Some species embody know-how for living in specific species-environment conditions - other species embody know-how enabling survival and/or flourishing in many environments. Ultimately, survival requires the embodied know-how for evolving with changing environments. Perhaps, humans could be called terra-sapiens.
Apprehending evolving environments for any species, is beyond anticipation - simply because so many important variables and scales of change are beyond the perception of species. Timothy Morton discusses what he calls ‘Hyperobjects” - objects so massive and distributed that they remain beyond the grasp of perception.
Climate is a hyperobject. While weather is somewhat graspable - extending weather over seasons takes time and good memory (and record keeping) to establish seasons with basic local precision. But climate is beyond local and regional weather/seasonal change (but influences the local/regional). It has taken humans many decades, tens of thousands of scientists and others, vast technologies (including sensors, recorders, satelites, computational capacities and more) to grasp climate (including ozone holes and acid rain).
The earth is also a hyperobject and like climate, we are still in process of growing our understanding of it (for example, the theory of tectonic plates as a conventional wisdom, is only a few decades old). There is a growing awareness of ‘spaceship’ earth and certainly we are becoming aware of human action on the earth. However, humans remain far from having developed a concrete sense of the earth as a single environment. Overwhelmingly humans as individuals grasp their home in the local situation - the particular urban or rural ecology where they live and the geography that is the foundations of their national identities.
For the purpose of this discussion, a final hyperobject is related to our earth as a single environment. How does a single species in a single environment grasp a collective existence and agency? Such 'grasping' is more than the current general acknowledgment that all humans are in fact members of the same species (it is a sad reality that even this realization is not universally accepted). What it means to be a species-as-hyperobject is a sense of conscious grasping of how all members of the species ultimately act as a single agency in relation to the-species-in-environment. The recent memes about collective intelligence may be weak signals of a possible emerging of consciousness of earth as a whole - a living entity with humans action as a new co-creative force of its evolution?
While McLuhan saw this challenge of human consciousness emerging as a weak signal in the revelation of Sputnik’s moment - the need to awaken terra-humans who had the know-how to live anywhere and everywhere. Bruno Latour has advanced McLuhan’s insight in his recent book  “Down To Earth: Politics in a New Climate Regime”. Latour explores an understanding of the earth as an agent with an agency for its own becoming.
As long as the earth seemed stable, we could speak of space and locate ourselves within that space and on a portion of territory that we claimed to occupy. But how are we to act if the territory itself begins to participate in history, to fight back, in short, to concern itself with us - how do we occupy a land if it is this land itself that is occupying us? The expression ‘I belong to a territory’ has changed meaning: it now designates the agency that possesses the possessor?

we need a term that encompasses the stupefying originality (the stupefying longevity) of this agent. Let us call it, for now the Terrestrial, with a capital T to emphasize that we are referring to a concept, and even specifying in advance where we are headed: the Terrestrial as a new political actor.

If the Terrestrial is no longer the framework for human action, it is because it participates in that action. Space is no longer that of the cartographers, with their latitudinal and longitudinal grids. Space has become an agitated history in which we are participants among others, reacting to other reactions. It seems that we are landing in the thick of geohistory.
Bruno Latour. 2018.  “Down To Earth: Politics in a New Climate Regime” p.40
The challenge he proposes is a shift in our analysis of the earth from a system of production toward an analysis focused on a system of engendering.
The two analyses differ first of all in their principles - freedom for the first, dependence for the second. They differ next in the role given to humanity - central for the first, distributed for the second. Finally they differ in the type of movements for which they take responsibility - mechanism for the first, genesis for the second.
Bruno Latour. 2018.  “Down To Earth: Politics in a New Climate Regime” p.82
In his book, Latour outlines the reaction of many of the new libertarian-techno-utopians as a drive to abandon the pretense of a common future and prepare to find a new home elsewhere (from gated communities to the ‘offshore’ flight to Mars). While others continue to orient their organizations toward investment in local values and the protection of national and ethnocentric borders as others continue the pursuit of hopeful techno-globalization.
Latour argues that another attractor - one that is orthogonal to the local-global axis. The task is to shift our efforts to define our politics toward the Earth - to belonging to the terrestrial. This is what is - most in need of rethinking and careful redescription; learning new ways to inhabit the Earth is our biggest challenge. Bringing us down to earth is the task of politics today.
Shadows of Change
Timothy Morton in his book “Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence” explores some of the undercurrents that shape the shadows of adapting to the new conditions of human existence highlighted above by McLuhan, Latour and others. He argues that the paradox of the anthropocene is the mobius like relation of humans-as-nature-vs-nature - a mobius loop of self-as-other as non-self-as-non-other. This two-dimensional-one-dimensional conundrum is imbued in the logistics of agricultural society that has not only colonized history but is a root cause of the Anthropocene.
Morton calls this the agrilogics which implanted a epistemological seeds that shaped the aesthetic framework of our knowledge. A foundational axiom agrilogic is the law of non-contradiction and the ‘excluded middle’. Essentially stating that if something is P then it can’t also be Not-P.
Morton argues that it is agrilogics that directly leads to global warming - Vilem Flusser in Post-History, arguing in a very similar line of thought, states that agrilogics reached in ultimate fulfillment in Auschwitz - as the complete objectification of the human.
But the fundamental nature of what Morton calls ‘dark ecology’ is the rise of an uncanny and radical self-knowledge. The 21st century is collapsing the certainties promised by agrilogics and forces us to embrace the mobius over the excluded middle. Humans must accept the reality that other is deeply imbued in self - whether it is as a microbial ecology, a mosaic psychology, or a species-in-environment ecological being.
This realization has a profound consequence - the objective self suffers a melancholy and negativity of not only coexistence - but of other within. Morton offers hope however by pointing out this depression is the first stage of an evolving into a playful and anarchic beingness.
This realization has a profound consequence - the objective self suffers a melancholy and negativity of not only coexistence - but of other within. Morton offers hope however by pointing out this depression is the first stage of an evolving into a playful and anarchic beingness.
Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Coexistence
Paradox may be a bug in all systems of formal logic - but in may be a key feature in any living system. Every light casts shadows - as Morton points out. As we grasp our co-creative co-existence with evolution we find a sense of self that is both an ecology including ‘other’ deep within and a form of unity. One can argue that this dilemma is as old as we have human records. But certainly with the birthing of science as a new way of knowing the sense of encountering ‘otherness’ - the sense of becoming displaced, seems to have accelerated.
Everything nowadays is ultra, everything is being transcended continually in thought as well as in action. No one knows himself any longer; no one can grasp the element in which he lives and works or the material that he handles. Pure simplicity is out of the question; of simplifiers we have enough. Young people are stirred up much too early in life and then carried away in the whirl of the times. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires…. Railways, quick mails, steamships and every possible kind of rapid communication are what the educated world seeks but it only over-educates itself and thereby persists in its mediocrity. It is moreover, the result of universalization that a mediocre culture become common [culture]....
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - 1825 - Goethe’s Letters to Zelter.
Quoted in Geoffrey West’s - Scale: The Universal Laws of Life, Growth, and Death in Organisms, Cities, and Companies. p238
Vilem Flusser was a McLuhanesque writer. Writing in France in 1983, in Post-History,  discusses the sense of displacement from ‘Our Dwelling’ He argues that we are undergoing a profound change comparable to the onset of the Neolithic (the birth of agrilogic in Morton’s sense). Now we are abandoning the agricultural sedentary life and as individuals and groups we are on the move.
However this new mobility is not the retrieval of another nomadism.
Gypsies are not on the move; they are rooted in the tribe. To dwell does not mean to sleep in a fixed bed, but to live in a habitual setting. The home is not a fixed place, but a place of support that deserves trust. To have lost a home does not mean to have abandoned a place, but to have to live in a non-habitual place, therefore uninhabitable. Or to have to live in a place where we do not recognize ourselves. We are on the move, because our world has been so radically transformed that it has become unhabitual and uninhabitable. We do not recognize ourselves in it. And we cannot habituate ourselves to that.
…. The habitual is imperceptible. Habit is an opaque covering that conceals the environment. Within our home-landscape, we only perceive events and not the foundational structures. If the foundational structures are currently that which is shocking for us in the environment, then it is because there has been a structural transformation.
The new apparatus of technology, culture, politics, has made our world uncanny and unfamiliar. Tectonic shifts have uprooted us - we are all refugees from our own childhoods. We have become distanced and now assume either a critical or a restoratively nostalgic viewpoint toward our environment - we are as foreigners.
But as Kant used to say, critique or doubt, is not a dwelling. The reason for our critique is the longing we feel. Due to our radical alienation, we are reactionaries, anti-reformists: we no longer dwell.

….We are all on the move. It is not only the Hindus in London that have lost their homeland: Londoners have also lost theirs. And it is not only the Nordestinos that have lost theirs, in Sao Paulo: Paulistanos have also lost theirs. That is because London and Sao Paulo have become unhabitual and uninhabitable. The current migration of peoples has shuffled history and geography. The Hindus’ mystical time and the Nordestinos’ magical time, have become synchronized with the Londoners’; and the Paulistanos’ historical time. We are experiencing Sao Paulo and London with a kind of quad-dimensionality of shuffled space-time. Historical categories are not enough in order for us to grasp this. And this is turning such cities unhabitual and uninhabitable. We no longer recognize in them the products of our history and therefore no longer recognize ourselves in them.

….This situation is unhabitual: that we have the future at our backs. That nowadays ‘to progress’ does not mean to demand the future, but to avoid the past. That, in the case of an apparatus-like progress, it is no longer the case of opening the field for the future, but to ‘resolve’ the problems created by the past ... That our progress, is a method to avoid being devoured by the past that chases us. This is unhabitual: that progress has become a form of reaction. That we are reactionaries precisely for being progressives.
A half century after Flusser wrote this, it is clear that there is no ‘going back’ to a pre-digital world. The majority of humans now live in urban environment and the largest minority in domesticated agriculturally built environments. What most humans experience as nature today, is already domesticated - parks (national and otherwise) and agricultural lands. Very few of us actually have spent time in primordial wildness and even fewer without some form of technological safety line (including gps, maps, fire, advanced equipment of some form). In achieving success in efforts to mitigate and stabilize our climate - we will have attained the knowledge of some broader order of planetary governance. The environment is and will continue to be radically transformed. There can be no ‘sustaining of what was’. Our challenge is to enable continual creative generativity for future flourishing of life.
The aim of this post, was to establish a possible sense of a broader ‘zeitgeist’ of our times that may contextualize some of the human reactions (including many reasons for denial) to the challenges involved in facing climate change. The 20th century has shattered the sources of certainty - whether they were religious or scientific. It also introduced an acceleration of change that is itself an unprecedented challenge and finally with the advent of the digital environment we are facing unprecedented and unpredictable new challenges. For the human species we are perhaps more displaced than ever before - facing new uncertainties, fears and a deep sense of homelessness feeding a sense of loss of our identity and dwelling.
The next post will explore the concept and challenges of generativity.

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