Histories of Lived Experience

August 8, 2014 § 14 Comments

tumblr_n7v7s4CrVw1qzngato1_1280[Image: Edward Burtynsky]

Earlier today I delivered a talk on ethology, ecology, and aesthetics as part of a panel on Cosmopolitics at the International Big History Conference held in San Rafael, CA. I am posting my talk below, which you can also find in .pdf form here.

Histories of Lived Experience: Intertwining Ethology, Ecology, And Aesthetics

Adam Robbert, San Francisco, CA

Paper presented at the International Big History Conference, Dominican University, San Rafael, CA, August 8.

What is the significance of meaning in Big History? There is a great diversity of opinion on this issue. For example, Eric Chaisson, one of the original board members of the IBHA, holds that Big History must let go of concepts such as intentionality, subjectivity, and, presumably, meaning, in order to understand evolution objectively.[1] Conversely, the focus of my talk is that an understanding of meaning is necessary for an understanding of evolution at its most fundamental level. A central claim of my talk is that we have to understand that which is meaningful to organisms if ever we hope to comprehend the history of evolution on Earth. My talk thus offers a non-anthropocentric and aesthetic account of meaning in the context of geological history. Ecology from this view is an ongoing entanglement of meanings, concerns, and decisions, and it marks the space where the division between matter and meaning breaks down.  « Read the rest of this entry »

Ecology and Time

September 17, 2013 § 3 Comments


Image: Felix Salazar

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. « Read the rest of this entry »

Proposal Summary for Volume on Vulnerability and Ontology

May 6, 2013 § 16 Comments


A few weeks ago, Jeremy Trombley brought up the idea of publishing an edited volume on vulnerability. The idea generated a lot of interest, and, since then, Jeremy and I have been working in the background to write up an abstract to submit to Punctum Books, and to share with others who might be interested. Our aim in this project is of an interdisciplinary nature, and therefore we welcome constructive suggestions from people working in the humanities, social sciences, ecology, and more. As we continue to improve upon and finalize our manuscript proposal we welcome feedback in the form of comments or emails. Your suggestions will help us to deepen and complexify the final form of this volume. « Read the rest of this entry »

Making the Geologic Now

February 26, 2013 § 1 Comment


In the 1870s Italian geologist Antonio Stoppani made a radical argument: we can no longer justifiably call our geological age the Holocene. Instead, Stoppani argued, geologists must concede that human behavior had caused enough radical change in the functioning of the Earth to warrant the naming of a new era. He suggested the term “Anthropozoic” to describe this new world. The name did not stick. But in the year 2000 something similar happened with quite different results. Dutch Chemist and Nobel Prize winner Paul Crutzen began to publicly admonish his colleagues use of the word “Holocene.” Again, Crutzen argued that humans had caused enough change to the Earth’s geological systems to warrant a new epoch. He called it the “Anthropocene.” This time the notion struck the scientific community with greater weight, and Cutzen published a paper on the idea in a 2002 issue of the journal Nature. Where Stoppani’s colleagues had found the idea of the “Anthropozoic” unscientific Crutzen’s were willing to investigate. Since then the Anthropocene has become an increasingly used term to describe the intersection of human behavior with the deep structures of the Earth’s evolving dynamics.

« Read the rest of this entry »

Speculative Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene

December 12, 2012 § 6 Comments


[Image: Junya Ishigami]

It’s a sort of experimental title that begins to explain itself simply by unpacking each of its terms. “Speculative” (or “speculation” more generally) means “contemplation,” “seeing,” or “observing.” It’s also a term used when transactions involve a considerable risk or unknown outcome. So one could say that “speculation” is the art or practice of risky contemplation. The second word, “ecology,” likewise has a variety of meanings. As a whole the word refers to the branch of science dealing with organisms, environments, and their coevolution. Of course the “eco” comes from “oikos” which is greek for “home” or “dwelling place,” and the “logy” usually means something like the science, discourse, or theory “of” something; sometimes the “logy” refers to the verb “legein”—“to speak”—which of course relates to the greek “logos” which can variously mean “reason” or “divine word,” and so forth. So “ecology,” then, is the logos of dwelling—perhaps almost always in a coevolutionary context—for what are beings dwelling in besides other beings! We could then define “Speculative Ecology” as the risky contemplation of the coevolutionary logos of inter-dwelling beings. Good things at work here.

We could perform a similar exercise with the word “Anthropocene.” “Anthropos” commonly means “man” (yes, how ridiculously gendered), and, more appropriately, “human being.” But it also has a more interesting history, because it can also be explained as a combination of “aner” and “ops” or “eye” and “face” so that the “Anthropos” is that which has a face and can see. I suppose, then, that the very concept of “Anthropos” could be extended to nonhumans, and, by extension, could afford something like “personhood” to all those other creatures as well—but it would have to be a kind of ecological personhood not limited to human likeness. “Cene,” on the other hand, refers to geological periods in the Earth’s history. So “Anthropocene” could mean something like the epoch in Earth’s history when ecological personhood emerges on a global scale. Taken together, then, “Speculative Ecology in the Age of the Anthropocene” would literally mean the risky contemplation of the coevolutionary logos of inter-dwelling beings in the age of ecological personhood. I think this is an entirely appropriate description of the task at hand: As the environmental humanities begin to realize that the face of the other is just as present in nonhumans as it is in humans I think we could use a bit more Speculative Ecology!

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