Feeling Together: a Talk

The following is a recording of a talk I gave during PCC’s retreat to Bishop Ranch last week. Below that you’ll find the transcript!

The ideas I’m sharing today are not my own, but at the same time it’s true that I am here filtering them through the convergent point that is my unique perspective. In particular, I want to acknowledge a discussion that took place last Thursday at CIIS between Sam Mickey, Sean Kelly, Julie Morley, and Matt Segall during PAR’s first panel discussion, for it is especially informing what I share with you now.

One of the things I love most about PCC—and which seems to be true of ESR as well—is the variety of people who are attracted to it. Many ages; miles; languages; talents; and aspirations gather here. And for me, at least, there is a taste of homecoming about our community—something common that brings us together. I think that commonality is a shared intention, a notion I think I recognize in the words “re-imagine the human species as a mutually-enhancing member of the Earth community,” words that appear on PCC’s webpage. Put another way, we here are dedicated to multi-species flourishing on planet Earth, a deeper kinship with the other creatures we enmesh with. What would it take for that dream to become reality? Latent in our dream, I think I see the image of a cosmopolitics—a politics I’ll define in this context as one purged of human exceptionalism and in which nonhumans are extended representation.

You’d think that more people might be concerned by the sirens set off by climate scientists, but as the alt right movement has shown us, so-called neutral facts and figures aren’t always enough to move the human heart. How else might we make our appeal? As Sean Kelly and my cohort have taught me so well this year, we must do many things—anything less at this point would be a missed opportunity. I came to CIIS driven by the conviction that an appeal to feeling was the most potent and pragmatic appeal to make in a culture so anesthetized to the reality of our ecological interdependence. To me, art-making was the primary route to feeling, the key for change to be realized. Shortly after beginning my journey through PCC I was quickly purged of that dogmatism. It was just my means to meet the injunction to have a solution, a capital T truth to rest in. Deep down, I don’t think I ever believed it. But I do still think that feeling is primary (and not apart from thinking).

That specter called Utopia lures me forth—I so badly want a cosmopolitics. My imagination, thick with visions of creaturely diplomats; fungal-human-housing collaborations; a silk road of food forests weaving through boundaryless country.

Close your eyes a moment.

I can almost feel it.

We might try, but not everyone has the time or privilege to humor such things. This semester I’ve been entangled with thinkers, ideas, fellow students and teachers, wandering—feeling blindly through the dark—grasping for metaphors that stick, words we can hold on to in this time of radical change. The work of realizing a cosmopolitics is the reworking of what it means to be human after descending from the pedestal of Modernism. We must ask—what does it feel like? And for that we need an aesthetic—a cosmopoetics.

One of the repercussions of bifurcation—the separation of mind from matter, culture from nature, etc.—is that we (and this “we” is an invitational one) have largely become anaesthetized to the effects our lifestyles have on the fragile Earth system. Of course, not all of the human species fits into this category of alienation. Peoples who live closer and pay better attention to the land have been speaking out for centuries. Bruno Latour thinks that part of the problem is our tendency to think in terms of Wholes (capital W) and parts (lowercase p), where parts are subsumed by a Whole that is thought to be greater than those parts. Thinking with these terms results in a premature unification “of what first needs to be composed.” The Earth as Globe—as Sphere—we assume, has always been this way. Mama Gaia will take care of us if we just shape up. But it was not until the development of technologies sensitive enough to detect things like carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, the salinity of our seas, and the poverty of our soils that we began to piece together the delicate connections that keep our Earth system thriving in a dynamic state of disequilibrium. Though I do not deny the possibility of intuiting the Whole as concrete—say, the embodied soul of Earth as Gaia—I do think that it is the fragile connections delineated by climate science that allow us the most accessible semblance of that whole. Pragmatically speaking, it is about time that the parts take precedence over that mysterious Whole, so that we—privileged enough to recognize what is at stake—can begin to better attune ourselves and others to its fragility rather than taking it for granted. Only when we feel what’s at stake will we be driven to the kind of transformations that are necessary for our urgent times.

But how? How do we feel more into deeply what’s at stake?

To draw a sphere, one must first draw a circle, a loop—like the feedback loops we are sensing through climate science technologies. To quote Latour (and this is a long one), “we have to slip into, envelop ourselves within, a large number of loops, so that, gradually, step by step, knowledge of the place in which we live and the requirements of our atmospheric condition can gain greater pertinence…But we all have to learn this for ourselves, anew each time. And it has nothing to do with being a human-in-Nature or a human-on-the-Globe. It is rather a slow fusion of cognitive, emotional, and aesthetic virtues thanks to which the loops are made more and more visible. After each passage through a loop, we become more sensitive and more reactive to the fragile envelopes we inhabit.”[1]

Latour calls for us to “aesthetisize” ourselves “in the old sense [of the word as a]…capacity to “perceive” and to be “concerned” – in other words, a capacity to make oneself sensitive that precedes all distinctions among the instruments of science, politics, art and religion.”[2]
Donna Haraway calls this becoming “response-able.”

I’m inspired by the perspective of the late performance artist, teacher, political activist, and general shapeshifter, Joseph Beuys who conceived of social sculpture, an art that defies regular boundaries and encompasses everyday life. We might call this aesthetic activism. Each of us, an artist, a partial-maker, in the weaving of our social nexus that is ultimately the whole of cosmic history. The term co-creator might ring a bell. But what the ecological crisis has signaled—if we are so bold to face it—is the extent to which a swollen human hubris has absorbed so much agency that it has deanimated the rest of the world. Anthropogenic climate change pulls the plug as what was once an inert background—the “environment”—springs to life and acts back. As Isabelle Stengers says, “Gaia is touchy!”

The monoliths of our Understanding give out, closing the chasm between Subject and Object. What was once Other is in me and now I can only ask—

“Who am I?” According to Lynn Margulis, mostly bacteria.

It’s important to accept that by understanding, we mean translation, and by concept, we mean metaphor. How we interpret reality is a fiction among fictions. Our time is one where changing the story becomes a matter of life or death. Some stories are better told than others.

The figure of a feedback loop implies repetition; habit; ritual. A process-relational perspective shifts the emphasis from what is, to what is happening. Things are understood according to what they do, how they perform. Human identity becomes on ongoing creative act—what defines us can change. It reminds me of Aristotle’s virtue theory. In that schema (and here I am simplifying it) to become virtuous, one must act virtuous until the loop becomes habit, second-nature.
Like our guiding ideal of cosmopolitics, Latour tells us that once upon a time, “it took many decades to agree that the definition of democracy as the will of a sovereign people corresponds, even vaguely, to a reality, and it was necessary to start with a fiction.”[3] Nation-states were once on par with the prospect of nonhuman political representation we dream of today.  In general, the ritual of political representation is never more than a poetic gesture, but some poets hit closer to home than others. That there is a world we make together, I have no doubt, but consensus in a process-relational cosmos is a constant work in progress.

In May of 2015, Bruno Latour collaborated with students and faculty from the school of political arts at Sciences Po in Paris to create a simulation of the approaching Paris Climate Agreements, but in this scenario the United Nations were accompanied by representatives of nonhuman interests. Together, they called their performance the “Theater of Negotiations.” Unlike the historical fuss made over agreeing to fall under One Nation, Latour observed that the performers had no issue imagining into the role of Forest or Ocean representative, “I very much enjoyed observing that the negotiations were never impeded by that sort of objection.” Latour tells us, “rather,” The tireless president Jennifer Ching addressed “Lands” or “Amazonia” just as politely and straightforwardly as she addressed “Canada” or “Europe.”[4] The “Theater of Negotiations might seem like a silly, fruitless exercise in imagination, but only to those who forsake the imaginative basis for the politic farce we take for granted today. On the contrary, a seminal stunt like this—if looped through enough—could establish itself as a ritual with as much mythic force as the United Nations has.

For an example of response-ablitiy in the sciences—biological fieldwork specifically—Donna Haraway attunes us to the epistemological position of ethologist Thelma Rowell—what the latter calls her “virtue of politeness.” Rather than assume “that beings have pre-established natures and abilities that are simply put into play in an encounter,” “politeness,” Haraway tells us, “does the energetic work of holding open the possibility that surprises are in store, that something interesting is about to happen, but only if one cultivates the virtue of letting those ones who visit intra-actively shape what occurs. They are not who/what we expected to visit, and we are not who/what were anticipated either. Visiting is a subject- and object-making dance, and the choreographer is a trickster.”[5] Haraway goes on to describe an enchanting situation between an ornithologist and a group of Arabian babblers “who defied orthodox accounts of what birds should be doing, even as the scientists also acted off-script scientifically.”[6]

Sym fiction / science fiction / speculative fiction — these, in different ways, refer to a practice of storytelling as a model of conscious art-making, what we might call with Beuys, social sculpture. In our time of collapse, invoking Haraway again, “we need to write stories and live lives for flourishing and abundance.” This kind of fiction would be “committed to strengthening ways to propose near futures, possible futures, and implausible real nows” so that we can begin “cultivating the capacity to re-imagine wealth, learn practical healing rather than wholeness, and stitch together improbable collaborations without worrying overmuch about conventional ontological kinds.”[7] This is what Haraway means by her slogan “Staying with the Trouble.” We have to rebuild from the ruins we find ourselves in.  Future-telling, the telling of futures we dream of, brings those futures closer into view. I’m aware that professor Elizabeth Allison has written something like this. I am also in the midst of a project, writing the journey of a protagonist whose consciousness is as industrial as mine is, but who lives in a future where human norms have become made over by the radical reorientation we are just beginning to face. My intention in writing this is to re-work in the process—as much as I can—my own assumptions, in hopes that—once finished—it might serve the same end for others when they read it.

Though the examples I gave might conveniently be categorized—political, scientific, artistic—each of them honors the originating force of imagination, has a common ground in the crowning of metaphor. Each is an attempt to modify the collective aesthetic, to shape our social sculpture. Closing the gap between Nature and Culture means letting go of capital T, engaging us in an ongoing practice of translation as we feel our ways through worlds. It has always been hard for me to define what makes something a work of art beyond the basic “rightness” I feel in its gesture. But that there is sometimes that feeling of “rightness,” and even more, that sometimes I might find resonance with another about that “rightness” goes to show, as Haraway echoes, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories.”[8] Because some stories are better told than others.

[1] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia, (Cambridge, Polity Press, 2017), 139-140.

[2] Latour, Facing Gaia, 145.

[3] Latour, Facing Gaia, 263.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, (Durham, Duke University Press, 2016), 127.

[6] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 128.

[7] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 136.

[8] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 35.

Bibliography

Haraway, Donna Jeanne. Staying with the Trouble. Durham: Duke University Press, 2016.

Latour, Bruno.Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2017.

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