Crocheting Coral Reefs

“Crocheting coral reefs to learn geometry and smash the patriarchy”

on The Science Show (Australian Brozdcasting Corporation, Radio National)

coral3

“When Margaret Wertheim and her sister began crocheting coral in front of the TV, they didn’t suspect it would turn into a global environmental initiative. But as the California-based science writer explains, the combination of mathematics and handicraft is empowering women around the world.”

Read more here.

Image: Green Crochet Coral Reef (Institute For Figuring)

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In an “Ecological Field”

Kind response to Radical Empiricism: Speculative Field Notes (complete)

by Jeff Tangel

I really appreciate this exploration of “pure experience”–for me, a helpful look at James’s thinking and how that can be employed to do the same work Speculative Realism aims at–namely reorienting ourselves, horizontally—as best we can—in the scheme of things. Our thinking in the Anthropocene is richer for it!

And too, of late I’ve taken to aimlessly wandering around my neighborhood in the evening. Wandering without purpose my perspective is, as you say, constantly changing and I am constantly surprised, made aware of things I would never notice on an errand. Sights, sounds, smells, my own mind, the wind—its speed, direction, how it moves the trees of different kinds, some of which hang low and brush against my head —stars, moon, the color of the sky and moving clouds; birds with distinct markings whom I see in regular places, rabbits, raccoons and the occasional surprised opossum; topography that I would have never noticed otherwise (going up heretofore undiscovered inclines are felt in my calf muscles, while going down has the distinct sensation of falling), voices of children playing, the glare of streetlights and headlights, to walk in and out of shadows. I am in an “ecological field”.

I have occasionally tried to combine aimlessness with an errand and it has always been a disaster. While the errand gets done (duh), the experience is shallow and frustrating, as if the necessity to “accomplish” something literally destroys the ability to experience. And so, I now always aim to avoid that muddying.

And I should mention, some other human beings in the neighborhood have noticed. One has called my wife’s sister and asked, “What’s up with Tangel? I saw him wandering around the neighborhood.” As if there was something wrong with me.

There is. But aimlessly wandering appears to be helping.

As has this lovely essay.

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Addressing Climate Change: In Focus, International Youth Photography Competition

“Addressing Climate Change: In Focus is a global photography competition, created to raise awareness on climate change amongst the youth of the world, giving them a voice that will be heard b…

Source: Addressing Climate Change: In Focus 
 International Youth Photography Competition

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Radical Empiricism: Speculative Field Notes (complete)

Grand Prismatic Spring

William James’s posthumously published Essays in Radical Empiricism is neither well known nor well understood for various reasons. The collection is not particularly coherent, the essays are uncharacteristically abstract, and the work is generally hard to understand outside of the context of James’s substantial corpus. However, a concept of radically inclusive, multi-dimensional fields, gleaned from James’s work in various disciplines, might be helpful in grasping, interpreting, and indeed applying James’s theoretical position in Essays. The ecological imagination can also help us envision such a field or fields. A three-dimensional, experiential field is categorically distinct from a two-dimensional “screen” field. One is akin to the experience of walking out of doors; the other is like watching television. Ecological imagination, in this sense, might be cultivated by spending more time in nature, moving through space, and without any particular goal or focus of attention.

A primary argument of James’s Essays is that the concept of pure experience ought to replace the given categories of subject and object. James asserts that these terms denote positions that are both relative and arbitrary. He also makes clear that any thing can be a subject—not only human beings or sentient creatures. And conversely anything can be an object[i]. This implies a kind of leveling of subjects/objects compatible with some trends in contemporary continental philosophy, at the same time that it anachronistically challenges both late twentieth-century critical theory and some millennial speculative realism and new materialisms.[ii] However I’d like to proceed, here, on a more common sense or pragmatic level.

An obvious challenge to including the subject in a field of experience, not related to contemporary philosophy, is the problem of the implied third person.   In conceiving a universe with neither subjects nor objects we may initially place ourselves in a new subject position regarding the “new world” as an object. How can we escape this dichotomy, given our inherited sense of biological coherence and ontological autonomy? How can we “back out” of the subject position, even if we realize that we are also objects?

There may be various approaches, but perhaps none is an absolute solution in the sense of evacuating our sense of self. This should not be a dead end however. James was not fond of absolutes; indeed, eschewing absolutes may be a necessary condition for moving beyond given subject/object dichotomies. As a critic of absolutes, both philosophical and scientific, James prompts us to explore gray areas and liminal spaces. The irreducibility of organism and environment, for example, is a strong challenge to the “black hole” of subjectivity. As surely as we can never escape our subject positions, we can never escape the influence of the environment. To argue that the result of such interactions (which result?) is ultimately all subject, all environment, all continuity, or all discontinuity, is merely to fall back into late Modern and early poststructuralist political camps. (Thus I continue on my politically naïve and institutionally undisciplined trajectory . . . )

Perception and judgment always occur in a complex field, or fields, characterized by interference patterns. Conventional ethics, critical literacy, and current-traditional “Eastern” philosophy, however, still focus on subject/object dichotomies. Ethical systems are generally based on perceiving the human other as an image of the self; race and gender equity and are critiques of capitalism are still conceptually based on binary oppositions; and Western yogic, meditation, and mindfulness techniques seem to begin and end with objectifying subjective states. Though we move or oscillate along this line between the subject/object nodes, and often try to negotiate much more complex dynamics, this linear subject/object model, even when complicated, is an insufficient response to our most pressing contemporary problems.

Dualism, with which James struggled throughout his career, may be a result of this habitual oscillation. Perhaps when we truly attend to an object we cannot be fully aware of our selves, and when we are fully aware of ourselves we cannot be truly attentive to the object. (Certainly one or the other must be foregrounded.) This oscillation may create the impression that the object is both out there and in our heads. However, this may also be an effect of ignoring the space in between. I don’t mean to imply a monistic “everything is connected” perspective, here, but rather a pluralistic “everything (merely) is” perspective, including the unseen media through which we co-experience. Also, by “field” I don’t mean merely what appears in our field of vision, though visual context is certainly relevant, but a far more basic and far more complex ecological field.

James psychological works and his philosophical works both point to the idea of fields rather than linear trajectories of experience.[iii] Neurological pathways, for example, are parts of complex fields of mental associations and/as physical networks. Perception is a complex operation in which previous experience including unconscious memories modulate every moment. Social institutions and communal values, too, are complex structures or networks, situated within even broader and more complex structure and networks.

Within this context one cannot properly say that any autonomous subject perceives any autonomous object. There is no separate experience of the subject apprehending the experience of an object, but an inconceivably complex network of co-experiences. The very act of perception implies a plural, unstable field. Universes reflect on themselves, in a sense. Experiences experience themselves through each moment, and thus experience is radically pluralistic.

This is not a mystical thesis, however. It doesn’t require mystical inspiration or insights. Because I would like this argument to be common sense and pragmatic, the category of the mystical is, in some sense, irrelevant. Practices defined as mystical, religious, philosophical, or contemplative might help us to cultivate our ability to experience “real” fields, but typically posit alternative/spiritual realities, and this results in another unproductive dichotomy.  I don’t mean that we should exclude mystical experience (James would not approve). Rather, we should strive to frame our perceptions and judgments within broader contexts for “merely” ethical and pragmatic purposes.

Pushing beyond a subject position requires us to virtually shift our perspectives. We cannot simply stand back from ourselves, because standing back enlarges the frame without changing our role as spectators. Rather we could adopt multiple positions at once, in quick succession, or in our imaginations (virtually), to discover that neither subject, nor object (nor context) is stable.[iv] Perhaps thus we can become productively disoriented, and (on various levels) realize a three-dimensional moving field. James often refers to the chaos and flux of the universe, though chaos is not really a goal or threat of such experimentation, as sheer habit guarantees a degree of stability and discrimination.

Walking in nature, once a common practice, has long been identified with cultivating the imagination. Both scientists and artists immerse themselves in nature, in order to understand the world. Such understanding may be a kind of dynamic hypostatization of both subject and object, by which the distinction begins to break down. On the most obvious level, walking illustrates that our perspective is always changing. (As a subject we are always changing, moment-to-moment, whether or not we are in motion.) It reveals various aspects of various objects, and usually leads to some form of (dare I say) “altered” state, in which we enter a flow of experience. While we might have a sense of connection or wellbeing, this should not lapse into an illusion of mastery. The wilder the context, the more aware we should be of “interference patterns”: obstacles, unexpected twists and turns, and the presence of various creatures walking their own, seen and unseen paths. Walking in nature also allows our attention to wander, undirected toward a particular goal. Such aimless attention is healthful and creative, and, I propose, a quality of “pure experience.”[v]

Perhaps such dynamic, pluralistic experiences must remain “alternative” for urban and suburban dwellers, and in this sense my desire to ground “pure experience” in the quotidian may be futile. However, I would like to suggest that such an experience is available to everyone through the simple practice (if not “practice”) of walking in a natural setting. I am not naïve in assuming this opportunity is available to everyone on a regular basis, though I suspect many of us willingly if not consciously trade this “luxury” for various commodities, every day.

Image Source: <http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.com/Grand%20Prismatic%20Spring.jpg&gt;

[i] See “A World of Pure Experience” and the summary of “The Notion of Consciousness” in the Essays.

[ii] Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects describes such a level playing field, but academic philosophy, in general, may still be invested in assuming mastery. http://www.openhumanitiespress.org/books/titles/the-democracy-of-objects/

[iii] I am moving between the singular “field” and the plural “fields” here partly because this is a sincere essay (exploration). I do want to assert the abstract concept of a “field” as opposed to a “line” of experience, at the same time that I would prefer to eschew the idea of a unified, transcendent field as a proxy for anything.

[iv] The idea of virtually occupying multiple positions at once may resonate with notions of probability waves and parallel universes, though I hesitate to invoke popular physics for obvious reasons.

[v] For a discussion of the “restorative” value of being in nature as a rest from directed attention See Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods. In “The ‘Restorative Environment’” section of Chapter 8, “Nature-Deficit Disorder and the Restorative Environment,” Louv cites the work of Stephen and Rachel Kaplan, not coincidentally inspired by William James.

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How Growing Sea Plants Can Help Slow Ocean Acidification

by Nicola Jones

Researchers are finding that kelp, eelgrass, and other vegetation can effectively absorb CO2 and reduce acidity in the ocean. Growing these plants in local waters, scientists say, could help mitigate the damaging impacts of acidification on marine lif

Source: How Growing Sea Plants Can Help Slow Ocean Acidification

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Fieldwork Studios: “cuts across mediums”

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See more at Fieldwork Studios and Sedimental.

Image from  South Superior .

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HAUNTINGS IN THE ANTHROPOCENE

An Initial Exploration

by Jeff VanderMeer

 

long exposure

 

1.

Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects, which sets out a series of thoughts about “dark ecologies,” has become central to thinking about storytelling in the modern era, in my opinion. Morton’s central idea of a hyperobject is in a sense a way of using a word as an anchor for something that would be otherwise hard to picture in its entirety–it is an all-encompassing metaphor that also has its own reality, both literal and figurative, here and there. The word therefore is a very important signifier for any fiction writer wishing to engage with the fragmented and diffuse issues related to the Anthropocene.

What is a hyperobject? Something viscous (they stick–to your mind, to the environment) and nonlocal (local versions are manifestations from afar). Their unique temporality renders them invisible to human beings for stretches of time and they exhibit effects in the interrelationship of objects. In the instance of most interest to both Morton and to me, global warming can be considered as hyperobject. And even with just this bare context given, it should be clear why the term is of use. Because a hyperobject is everywhere and nowhere, cannot really be held in one place by the human brain, reaction to it by the human world is often irrational or inefficient or wrong.

If global warming in the Anthropocene can be identified in general as a hyperobject, there is perhaps further value in describing it specifically as a kind of haunting. At least, this is of extreme interest to me as a fiction writer and someone who wants to find new ways of telling stories that better fit the extremes of our era.

As Maria de Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren write in “Possessions: Spectral Places” in The Spectralities Reader (Bloomsbury), “Repetition of events, images, and localities is one of the recurrent motifs of the uncanny.” What is global warming but repetitions bound by laws of cause and effect that come to feel uncanny because no one can see the entire outline of a hyperobject (i.e., elements of both cause and effect seem invisible)? Global warming is an inherently destabilizing force for this reason, whereas the uncanny is neutral because it can be used to either destabilize the reader’s perception of the world, or, by story’s end, to reinforce the status quo.

Rather than creating escapism, mapping elements of the Anthropocene via weird fiction may create a greater and more visceral understanding (render more visible)—precisely because so many of the effects of this era are felt in and under the skin, as well as in the subconscious (whether manifesting as a denial of civilization’s death or in a more personal manner).

In the introduction to the anthology The Weird, coedited with my wife Ann VanderMeer, I wrote that the weird tale “represents the pursuit of some indefinable and perhaps maddeningly unreachable understanding of the world beyond the mundane—a ‘certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread’ or ‘particular suspension or defeat of . . . fixed laws of Nature’.” [i]

In the modern era, the hyperobject of global warming makes such a mockery of what our five senses can perceive that the “fixed laws of Nature” seem more and more, through, for example, extreme weather events, to have become un-fixed, the compass spinning wildly. The laws of science, which often seem resolute, begin to seem less so, even if this is just our faulty perception.

The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. What, for example, is William T. Vollman’s Imperial, a thousand-page rumination on the psycho-ecological cost of the ruination of the Salton Sea, other than a vast and apocalyptic haunting?

It is a haunting first of the author, who confesses at one point he could not remove his personal perspective because he was too affected by what he was observing. It is a haunting second in the reader through the repetition of description of ecological impact and loss, which begins to manifest as physical stress or nightmares. The book is an especially potent example of purgatory in the uncanny, because it provides a glimpse of mid-Collapse in the Anthropocene—a transitional state in which those affected may not even realize the progression of decay in the moment. This kind of haunting in progress dislocates and relocates both the mind and the body. The value of such a book lies not in its facts or its adherence to ideas about science, but in conveying the totality of this mid-Collapse condition.

Extrapolating outward from the epicenter of the Salton Sea, we find the visible in the invisible and the same repetition across other bodies of water and water in general—which has become the ultimate uncanny element. The consequences of our actions in even the deepest parts of the ocean lie hidden from us, “out of sight, out of mind.” Plastic bottles of water are also part of the visible invisible, the repetition of idea and ideology we don’t often acknowledge or don’t know what to do with—a bottle of water is at this point life and death packaged in the same object. We, in our millions, like a cute octopus hiding in an open soda can on the sea bed, surrounded by a desolate landscape denuded of life without acknowledging we’re looking at trash. Only when the evidence is too visible or extraordinary to be overlooked or subsumed by the landscape does this kind of haunting become noticeable—as when toxic algae bloom on the coast of Florida in part because of the untenable practices of large-scale agriculture. Otherwise, it is an unpleasant hum in the background that continues to colonize our bodies and our lives despite our inattention to it. Even as the pumps being built on Miami Beach to keep the water out make sounds as they work like a dark absurdist laughter from an unseen specter.

 

2.

Reading about hauntings and thinking about them in terms of Vollman’s book helped me understand where the idea for Area X in my Southern Reach trilogy came from . . . something that was not immediately apparent. Yes, I had a dream of walking down into a tunnel-tower and seeing living words on the walls. Yes, I woke up and the biologist character was in my head and that next morning I wrote the first ten pages of Annihilation, which would remain more or less unchanged in the final draft.

But for a long time I didn’t realize what irritant or issue or problem had lodged in my subconscious to force Area X out. Finally, though, I realized that the Gulf Oil Spill had created Area X. It wasn’t something I said out loud at first because it sounds vaguely or not so vaguely pretentious—overly earnest. But it’s true. By the time of the Gulf Oil Spill I had lived in North Florida for over 20 years and through my hiking and experiences in the wilderness along that coast I felt for the first time in a wandering life like I belonged in a place, in a landscape.

Then suddenly the oil was gushing out in the Gulf, and it couldn’t be contained, and for many of us in the area it was gushing in our minds, and we could not get away from it. It was haunting us day and night, always there—a phantom sound, a phantom thought. For a time, for more than a month it wasn’t clear the well would ever be capped. For more than a month, many of us thought this catastrophe would last for years, and the Gulf and Gulf Coast would be, in essence, gone.

But even after they capped the well, it was still somewhere in the back of my mind, and eventually that dark swirl coalesced into a dark tunnel with words on the wall, and an invisible border and Area X: a strange place in which nature was always becoming more what it had always been without human interference: less contaminated, less compromised. Safe. Where the oil was being taken out.

Oil, like water, creates a particular kind of haunting. The best recent example might be the airport scene in Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island. The narrator fixates on the scenes of oil that haunt the backdrop of news reports as he walks through the transitional space of the terminal and the details about oil not only place it in the foreground, leaking out over fellow travelers but, in the descriptions, oil attains a kind of agency or power—and an intentional fetishizing—that is, indeed, almost uncanny. McCarthy’s hierarchy in the scene inhabits both the surface and subtext, providing a view of oil as a more ubiquitous and over-arching definition of planet Earth than humankind. After reading this scene, it would be impossible to view oil as “inert” or unalive ever again, or as non-political. Supposedly we already know these things, but sometimes fiction can make us feel them in our bones.

 

3.

The uncanny has infiltrated the real, and in some sense that boundary is forever compromised. There may be only one way into Area X, but there are a thousand ways out. As Michel de Certeau explains in The Practice of Everyday Life, “Every place has its own . . . proliferation of stories and every spatial practice constitutes a form of re-narrating or re-writing a place . . . Walking [into a place] affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects . . . haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”

In the second Southern Reach novel, Authority, the hauntings are smaller and more intimate. The size of rooms inside the Southern Reach building often doesn’t match their insides and lines of dialogue from Annihilation spirit across the hallways the main character Control walks down and a member of the twelfth expedition comes back as someone called Ghost Bird and the psychological overlays of some of the characters, across both the landscape and fellow employees, form a haunting with multiple sedimentary levels. The obsolete tech of past decades haunts the present.

With that sanctuary left behind in Acceptance, manifestations pour out across the sky, birds “trailing blurs of color that resemble other versions of themselves and the air seemed malleable, or like it could be convinced or coerced . . . In the lengthening silence and solitude, Area X sometimes would reveal itself in unexpected ways. Standing in a clearing one evening, I felt a kind of breath or thickness of molecules behind that I could not identify, and I willed my heartbeat to slow, hoping to be so quiet that without turning I might hear or in some other way glimpse what regarded me. But to my relief it fled or withdrew into the ground a moment later.”

“The correlation between movement and progress is broken [in a haunting] and progress is broken and the subject succumbs to a feeling of ungroundedness and spatio-temporal disjointedness,” Blanco and Peeren write.

“Time runs on time,” writes the great dark ecologies poet Aase Berg, “Time runs on time and starvation and the weakness carries me in across the gray regions. And the soul’s dark night will slowly be lowered through me. That is why I now slowly fold myself like a muscle against the wet clay…I will sleep now in my bird’s body in the down, and a bitter star will radiate eternally above the glowing face’s watercourse.”

Thomas Hardy writes of a fallen soldier, “Yet portion of that unknown plain/Will Hodge for ever be;/His homely Northern breast and brain/Grow to some Southern tree,/And strange-eyed constellations reign/His stars eternally.”

In Authority, my main character, Control, hung-over and definitely not in control and caught in the grip of horrors, stares from the window of a café, bleary-eyed at the liquor store that in his youth had been a department store and reflects.

“Long before the town of Hedley was built, there had been an indigenous settlement here, along the river and the remains of that lay beneath the liquor store. Down below the store, too, a labyrinth of limestone cradling the aquifer, narrow caves and blind albino crawfish and soft-glowing crickets. Surrounded by the crushed remains of so many creatures, loamed into the rock and soil, pushed down by the foundations of the buildings. Would that be the biologist’s understanding of the street—what she would see? Perhaps she would see, too, one possible future of that space, the liquor store crumbling under an onslaught of vines and weather damage, becoming akin to the sunken, moss-covered hills near Area X.”

In the Anthropocene, hauntings and similar manifestations become emissaries or transition points between the human sense of time and the geological sense of time, “Earth magnitude” as Morton puts it. In a very real sense, the weird can convey a breadth and depth that otherwise belongs to that land of seismic activity inside of a geologist’s brain.

“Yeah, this place is haunted,” Giant Sand sings, “but only by a ghost.”

The things that haunt us in this age are often the things we care about or have some connection to, no matter how slight, and if they are also the things that matter we either need to become cynics or hedonists and change the things we care about so we don’t care when they’re destroyed, so the hauntings cannot affect us . . . or, more bravely and with more effort, let them haunt us even if it is painful, and through that haunting find some kind of act or sense of the truth that is meaningful. No matter how large. No matter how small. All while the hyperobject I am trying to pin down looms over me and shines through me and is all places and in all ways is shining out and looming over.

 

Author’s note: In exploring these ideas, I may be retracing some of Timothy Morton’s own ideas as expressed in interviews and essays. For the moment, I’ve avoided reading the bulk of this possible influence, while planning to come back to it, so as to first emphasize my own perspective as not a philosopher but a writer of weird fiction. Some portions I gave as a lecture at Vanderbilt University earlier this year. Some sentences are reworked from related essays I wrote for Electric Literature, but are here redeployed in the service of different concepts. This essay constitutes an excerpt from a nonfiction book in progress.

 

[i] Examples abound locally. Governor Rick Scott’s psychopathy treated as a localized manifestation, once independent, now controlled by a hyperobject wraith generated by the Gulf Oil Spill. Governor Rick Scott’s Department of Environmental Protection re-envisioned as a haunting transformed under the skin by malignant storytelling and infiltrating Florida—an invisible pollution of hauntings released into the world like the natural gas leak that went untreated near Porter Ranch outside of Los Angeles.

 

Image source: Making the Invisible Visible <http://www.svrdesign.com/blog/2013/08/making-the-invisible-visible>  CS

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