October 14, 2013 § 21 Comments
[Photo: Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze]
Media theorist Jussi Parikka has a very interesting essay published in The Atlantic on the geology of media. The essay is part of the ongoing series of “Object Lessons” edited by Ian Bogost and Christopher Schaberg. In the essay Parikka draws our attention to the relations between media technologies and geological elements — for example, to the copper, gold, lead, mercury, palladium, and silver deposits that are transformed into the components of electronic devices. By foregrounding the relationship between material resources and communication technologies, Parikka’s essay offers an important commentary on the geopolitics of media. While this is certainly a worthwhile call to attention, the second half of the essay continues into equally important, though less explored, terrain. On the communicative agency of the Earth Parikka writes:
By realizing the geological importance of the Earth for media culture, we might also acknowledge that the Earth is a communicative object itself. Not only that we keenly visualize, talk and imagine the Earth as an object through media representations — but that there would not be any media without the resource base offered by its geology. Even that the Earth as living creature communicates via the assembled resources it fashions and provides.
Half of this statement is practically self-evident. Humans need Earth’s finite, geological resources to produce technology — a claim no one would dispute. The second half, on the other hand, will strike some people as entirely credulous. The objection might goes something like this: First, Earth is not a subject, it has no intentionality, let alone the ability to communicate anything; it’s an inert, intention-less sphere of rock spattered with a thin, fragile layer of lifeforms. Second, while Earth may create the possibility for lifeforms such as ourselves to emerge — and is certainly subject to the effects wrought by those lifeforms — Earth is not itself one of those intentional creatures. To think otherwise would be simple, unjustified anthropomorphism. It seems this is the only legitimate response to such a provocative statement, but this is not the case. There is another sense in which Parikka’s claim is entirely justified, but we have to wrest ourselves of the idea that all beings fall along a single, bifurcated axis between subjects and objects — or living and dead things — for this option to come into view.
What do I mean by this?
We want to know, following growing interest in earth system science (itself spurred on by the work of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis), whether Earth is alive or dead. The consequences of this question are straight forward: If Earth is alive we also want to know if it has some kind of subjectivity — something we can respond to — while if it’s dead we feel a bit better about doing with it as we please. But what if this is entirely the wrong spectrum of questions? What if what Earth is has nothing to do with being alive or dead, intentional or inert? I want to suggest that as long as we conceptualize Earth along this axis of concepts — as alive or dead, as subject or object — we will never really get a good grasp on what this thing we’re all standing in is. After all, what justification do we really have that subjects and objects are the only kinds of things out there, anyway? We need greater diversity in our descriptions of the kinds of entities that exist in the cosmos.
Parikka starts to get at this problem when he suggests Earth is a communicative entity. If we think of Earth outside the living-dead, subject-object straightjacket the idea of its communicability becomes more interesting and plausible. Earth communicates, but not like any human or other intentional subject. Earth has agency, but it’s not really a living being — nor is it a zombie (“charnal ground”), a cybernetic system (“self-regulating machine”), or mythic god (“Gaia”). Though each of these descriptions may have some truth to them, the point is these are all hybrids based on the same faulty ontology. I for one would prefer a strict dualism to such an awkward and noncommittal compromise. But if Earth is neither subject nor object, neither alive nor dead, what is it? I have started to sketch out an answer. In a talk I gave earlier this summer I suggested that media ecology needs to head in a new direction. In that paper I argued we need to develop a geocentric media ecology, which I later suggested could be part of a larger turn to a new geocentrism.
A key element of geocentric media ecology is attending to the relations between geology, media, and politics. This kind of analysis is already underway in science and technology studies, actor network theory, and political ecology, and is also noted by Parikka in his essay. With Parikka I am interested in developing the connections between geology and media, and also improving ways to conceptualize Earth’s communicability. Where I may differ from Parikka is in my conception that Earth is itself a kind of medium; in other words, Earth is not just what makes possible the production of media technology, it is itself an independently aesthetic entity — a planetary medium — and its geoevolutionary processes are driven in large part by aesthetic values. We can arrive at this impression through the work of Alfred North Whitehead. In one of my favorite passages to quote Andrew Murphie writes:
Whitehead presents a little remarked upon but comprehensive “media theory” that resituates media in the world (that is, media events are not “bifurcated” from the rest of the world, in for example a “signal [medium] versus noise [world]” configuration). More dramatically, Whitehead writes of the entire “world as medium.” Whitehead’s philosophy here pre-empts significant aspects of McLuhan’s media theory. The medium is the message indeed, but the medium is also the world. So the very complex signal mixing that is world is the message. In Whitehead’s media philosophy, there is no “bifurcation” between different types of signal (technical or natural, for example). It is all world(s) as medium.
Earth is a kind of medium, and we are inside of it. We are not just dependent upon Earth for its resources to produce media technologies, Earth is itself a medium involved in terrestrial evolution. As is the case with all ecologies, there is here a breakdown between structure and content — organisms are not evolving on Earth; rather, Earth is both condition and participant in what evolves. By thinking of Earth outside the subject-object ontology, we are freed from relating its identity to our own; Earth does not have to be anything like humans for us to treat it as an entity in its own right, issuing its own unique imperatives.
That’s not a full answer to the question of what Earth is, but it marks a direction worth pursuing and I’m glad to see others like Parikka pursuing it along similar lines.
September 17, 2013 § 3 Comments
Cognitive ethology is the study of animal minds, and it provides essential insights into the ontology of ecosystems—most recently in regards to the relation between ecology and time. Throughout history, human beings have been captivated by animal minds. We have, for example, writings from Plutarch, Hippocrates, and Pythagoras musing on the nature and status of animals. In the case of Pythagoras, many of these writings date back to c. 530 BCE; however, given that we know humans have lived in deliberate multispecies societies for at least 100,000 years (as is the case with human-canine relations, which have existed for almost as long as the human species itself has), it is uncontroversial to claim that humans have been speculating on the nature of nonhumans for at least as long, and certainly much longer than the philosophers of ancient Greece.
In terms of recent history, the situation is more straightforward. Properly “scientific” studies into the lived experience of animals have been ongoing since the emergence of the analytic and experimental values associated with the enlightenment. Descartes’ infamous analogy between animals and machines is probably the most recognized expression from this period. This caricature suggested that animals have no sentience or internal life of their own, only the functional gears of a machine operating a mindless automaton. In a sense the mechanical approach to animal studies carried on well into twentieth century sciences rooted in behaviorism, which dominated practices of ethology at the time. However, behaviorism—which suggests that neither mental life nor internal states can be studied—is slightly different from sheer mechanism. Rather than suggesting that animals have no mental life or internal states to speak of, behaviorism more modestly suggests that we do not know whether animals possess such states—let alone what qualities such states might exhibit—and therefore studying external behavior is the most sensible approach. (An important exception to this trend was Jacob von Uexküll who was very interested in the perceptual worlds generated by an organism allowing it to exist and act as a subject. Uexküll also helped lay the groundwork for biosemiotics).
More recent approaches, however, have begun to include a broader range of attributes such as sentience (i.e., thoughts, feelings, and emotions), experiences of joy, pleasure, pain, and fear (including specific psychological conditions such as schizophrenia), and complex functions such as memory, mindreading (“theory of mind”), sense of future, and personal preferences. A milestone in the study and acceptance of animal sentience is The Cambridge Declaration of Consciousness (“CDC”) published in 2012, which, among other important claims, argued that “The neural substrates of emotions do not appear to be confined to cortical structures” (para. 3). Why is that claim important? By reaching consensus around the fact that nonhumans feel—but not necessarily in a way physiologically or qualitatively similar to how humans and other mammals feel—the CDC goes a long way towards combatting the anthropocentrism (or what is sometimes called “mammalcentrism”) that leads scientists and philosophers to interpret nonhuman modes of sentience in terms of their proximity to those of humans or other mammals. (Here an important exception is cellular biologist Lynn Margulis, who has long offered a helpful, nonanthropocentric view of cognition. Taking the lived experience of the microbe seriously, Margulis writes: “I can point to conscious, actively communicating, pond-water microscopic life . . . The processes of perception, awareness, speculation, and the like evolved in the microcosm: The subvisible world our bacterial ancestors” p. 114).
In particular reference to the role played by memory and a sense of future, other researchers have pointed to the diverse and divergent temporalities made manifest by different physiological types. This is where things get really interesting. It is not just that nonhumans feel the same world in a different way, but that they actually generate different temporalities operating at multiple scales. Thus in addition to a breakdown between structure and content at the level of spatial organization, there is also evidence to suggest that temporality is itself enfolded into the physiology of the organism, breaking down the distinction between structure and content at the level of time and event as well. The insights of cognitive ethology thus have significant ontological import: The organism is not an entity acting from within space and time; rather, the organism is an active generator of space-time, enfolding both into a complex ecology that flows from organisms and their behavior. The ecosystem, when viewed from this ontological perspective, is a dynamic and evolving zone of space-time generated in part by the activity of organisms. Ecosystems are not in space or time, they differentially construct multiple entangled layers of both.
July 14, 2013 § 3 Comments
In my last post I introduced a new concept I’ve been working on called “geocentric media ecology.” The addition of “geocentric” to “media ecology” is a move inspired by Bruno Latour’s recent Gifford Lectures wherein he stressed the importance of what he called “The Sublunary Matrix” — the planet earth, in simpler terms. In my view, Latour’s aim in highlighting the sublunar dimension of human existence is precisely to re-situate our matters of concern towards the fact that we are not heading for the stars — there is no escape from our earthly drama, at least not anytime soon — and if we are to break with modernity and form an ecological polis we must once again forge a new perspective on human life. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 26, 2013 § 5 Comments
One of the most important insights we gain from ecology is the break down of structure and content. The most evident example of this is the need to re-think the distinction between an organism and its environment. An “environment” from the ecological view is not a container that exists somewhere “out there” surrounding an organism. Rather, an environment is itself one of the entites produced by the activity of other entities — both living and nonliving — and is only composed of other kinds of entities (e.g., other species, particular geological features, or other chemical agents). We see this most clearly articulated in what is called Niche Construction Theory, which posits that organisms in part modify their own selection pressures by tampering with the ecological dynamics in which they participate. In other words it’s not strictly the case that organisms are *in* the environment; the structure (the environment) and the content (the organism) exist as blurry zones of interactions between specific entities. “Environment” from this perspective is a kind of pseudo-concept that hides the complex relations between what is called structure and what is called content. « Read the rest of this entry »