The Uncanny Expo Milano 2015

Randall Honold

Computer game designers describe the “uncanny valley” as the place where the look of animated creatures becomes disconcerting to us. We’re okay with caricatures or extreme realism, but the narrow in-between can be downright creepy. Recall that well before the printed circuit, Sigmund Freud described the uncanny as the “strangely familiar,” which, once we start becoming aware of it, seemingly haunts us at every turn.

I was in an uncanny place recently, a place both not real enough and all-too real at the same time: Expo Milano 2015: Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life. Its intention is to be an axis mundi for sustainability. However, the genius loci of the place isn’t represented by the classical figure bearing a cornucopia, drinking bowl, and snake; instead, awaiting the visitor are twenty-first century symbols which perhaps reveal more than intended by expo organizers.

I had never been to an expo. One of the first gifts I can remember receiving though – as a four-year old – was a commemorative coin from the 1964 New York World’s Fair. My godmother brought it back just for me and I can still see its golden shine and feel its raised-line image of the Unisphere. It was a coincidence that my spouse and I were going to be in Italy this summer, and since Milan was on our itinerary, I figured why not check out the expo? Before leaving I had seen news reports about protests and read an article here and there reviewing the event (and this one appeared after my return) so I had a general sense of its context, contradictions, and controversy. I expected meh and got it aplenty. But it also delivered moments of disbelief, engagement, frustration, and hope. Not to mention awesome artisanal gelato flavored with single-source chocolate from the Ivory Coast, and a bar of ginseng soap from that most exotic of places to an American – North Korea. It was, overall, a singular experience of the ecological uncanny – a strangely familiar experience of neoliberal flat-world claims colliding with environmental realities.

A few riffs, pics, and recollections:

You still see graffiti like this in a lot of places around Milan, months after the protests that took place on the opening day of the Expo, May 1. (Protesters got an unexpected two-fer with this falling on May Day; it’s open to speculation whether corporate sponsors were sticking it in the eye of the counterculture or oblivious to the valence of the date.) Other popular images include the raised fist of solidarity against the expo and equating event organizers with Mafiosi.

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Milan was a pioneer in urban bike sharing with their “BikeMi” system. And thousands of residents are moving about the city all the time on their own bikes. So, naturally, I figured that biking to the expo would be the way to go. I asked the concierge about a rental for 10km trip from my hotel to the grounds but the shop he called refused, worried they’d lose their asset because there wasn’t a safe place to park it there. I found this perplexing, but when I exited the train stop – newly built for the expo – and headed toward the main entrance, I saw it was true. This is the inexcusable solution intrepid bikers had to resort to:

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I visited on a Tuesday, which I didn’t expect to be the day of the week with the highest attendance, but I was surprised when I entered and observed an approximately one-to-one ratio between staff/guides and paying guests. The situation inside the huge Zero Pavilion – a kind of introduction to humanity’s relationship to food by way of dioramas, jumbotrons, and interactive kiosks – was the same. Were the reports of dismal turnout I’d been reading true? Or were people ending it all here, like Edward G. Robinson in “Soylent Green,” in front of moving images of “nature?”

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I also puzzled over plastic livestock all apparently heading out the door…

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…but on the midway their meaning and destiny became clear.

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To do justice to all the participating nations’ buildings alone would take at least three full days; I admit I spent only five hours at the whole expo. The countries are grouped mainly by the predominant types of food produced there. “Fruits and Legumes,” for instance. But India, the world’s largest producer of legumes by far, aspires to a higher status than its cluster-mates Benin, Guinea, and Kyrgyzstan. Thus its pavilion stands apart. As do the structures that represent China, the U.S., and, of course, Italy as home team. The organization is loose, in other words. It all makes for randomized stroll, as if following a world map put through a blender. To my inexpert eye the architecture commonly displays vernacular elements (Qatar); often conveys emerging or power or aspirations thereto (Kazakhstan); sometimes pulls out all the stops (Angola); and occasionally fails at ground level despite its thematic ambition (South Korea’s is supposed to look like traditional ceramic cookware):

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National pride is everywhere expressed primarily through food, secondarily through energy, and after that anything counts. The French have a lingerie display. Indonesians perform dance routines, the Czechs blast europop, and the Dutch exude cool charm with their caravan food trucks. The tension between sustaining the whole earth and rational use of the one world’s resources is omnipresent, to wit:

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The inside of the model supermercato looks like any other high-end grocery, alas:

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And there were people actually buying food to take home! Mind you, it was 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the nearest exit was a 45-minute walk away, and out the door was going fresh dairy and meat, frozen convenience food, etc. Incomprehensible.

It was at about this point that I began to search for redemption. Like an oasis came the Iranian pavilion. It’s a lovely, modest, light structure that shelters garden plots of herbs essential to traditional Persian cuisine. Rice, spices, and cookware are for sale. They got it just right.

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Then I found, tucked away in the “Islands” cluster, the poignant Maldives display. It’s a lone room, silent, with photographs of indigenous undersea life and island culture. The message was obvious: all of this beauty will be gone soon, when the rising oceans inundate the lands. Nothing more needed.

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Heartened, I trekked to the Slow Food section, what I wanted to see most of all. Nearly off the map at the far end of the park – marginalized in every sense – are its three open-air, destined-for-reuse, wooden structures. Resembling the shelter buildings we see in U.S. public parks, they housed a library, performance space, café, and meaningful displays that summarize extraordinarily well the effects of mechanized agriculture on the earth and its citizens.

I couldn’t help reflecting on how slow food was anomalous yet central to the expo – perhaps the most uncanny experience of my day. I sat in the library for a good while wondering again: Who is this expo for? Are any hearts and minds being changed? What can the already the converted (like me) get out of it? Is this venue the right medium for these messages? Can it scale? Could it travel? Does ROI as a measure even apply here, and how would it be calculated? It was sitting here that it occurred to me the concept of the “uncanny” might be the best one to capture the experience of Expo Milano 2015. The expo’s sensual excesses reminded me that the uncanny comes to us aesthetically, today. It’s there, haunting us, in the what’s always around us – plants, animals, water, air, sunlight, fossil fuels. We coexist with these familiar things so intimately that, strangely, even though they touch our lives in multiple ways every day, we don’t pay attention to them.

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I got up and headed to the exit thinking, if nothing else, I want a big fat corn dude at my side from now on.

 

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BRUNO LATOUR: REASSEMBLING THE POLITICAL, BY GRAHAM HARMAN

Will the real objects of politics please stand up?

by Adrian Ivakhiv

Excerpted by permission.   Keep reading at Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought,  04 Mar. 2015.  (See link beneath article.)

BRUNO LATOUR: REASSEMBLING THE POLITICAL, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991

Bruno Latour: Reassembling the Political continues Graham Harman’s project, begun with Prince of Networks (2009), to present anthropologist of science Latour as an important philosophical figure for our time. As the first book devoted to Latour’s political philosophy, Harman’s is a groundbreaking work that carefully situates Latour’s thinking amidst an array of political philosophers of the left and right. As with his earlier volume on Latour, Harman writes judiciously here, carefully weighing out alternative interpretations while positioning both Latour’s and his own as pointing toward a sensible ‘middle way.’ While the writing occasionally deviates into caricatures and sideswipes at rivals – from Ray Brassier and the process-philosophical wing of speculative realism to the trendy hard left voices that dominate today’s Continental philosophy scene – the larger argument is presented cogently.

As with his writings on object-oriented ontology, or OOO – the philosophical movement that Harman has spearheaded over several books, numerous interviews, countless articles, and an endless stream of blog posts – Harman begins here with a useful, if oversimplified, schematic mapping of a complex terrain. With OOO, the mapping takes the form of two binary pairs: one distinguishing the real from the sensual, another distinguishing objects from qualities. The result posits four types of things in the universe – real objects, sensual objects, real qualities, and sensual qualities – and four ‘tensions’ between them, which he labels time, space, essence, and eidos. In Reassembling the Political, Harman also presents a conceptual fourfold, but here it is made of two axes rather than binaries: the first counterposes the political Left from the Right, and the second counterposes Truth to Power. Left is defined as belief in the goodness of human nature, and Right as its opposite, the belief that human nature must be curtailed by law; Truth is defined as belief in the accessibility or knowability of Truth in some form, and Power as its opposite – a belief in the lack of Truth and the consequent need for Power alone. These are, of course, false dichotomies: either in the sense that their existence belies the truth of the middle (human nature is neither good nor evil, but is simply what it is – an evolved, partially stabilized yet still-changing set of capacities for surviving together socially in larger-than-social environments), or in that they are not necessarily opposites (the accessibility of truth does not negate the possibility of power-in-itself, nor does the latter eliminate the possibility of truth).

If the dichotomies are overly schematic, the positions ascribed to notable thinkers – from Hobbes and Rousseau to Schmitt, Strauss, Žižek, Badiou, Lippmann, and Dewey – make for productive discussion. But they raise the question of whether or not these two axes ought to define political philosophy. Harman’s leap is to propose a new, third axis – that between human-only and human-plus-nonhuman – and then to point out that Latour’s innovation is precisely in charting out this third frontier and making it central to his work. The case for the novelty of this ‘Object Politics,’ as Harman calls it, is straightforward. None of the other thinkers Harman mentions make much of the nonhumans. This is not to say that such thinkers don’t exist: environmental philosophers like Val Plumwood and Arne Naess, animal ethicists like Peter Singer, Tom Regan, and Cary Wolfe, and even some better known for other work but whose forays into these areas are substantial (Haraway, Derrida, Macintyre, and others) have already paved the way for a political philosophy that makes space (and time) for nonhumans. But Harman’s task is not to make the case for these other thinkers, but for Latour. That case, alas, becomes a little muddy, in part because of the slipperiness of the word ‘object,’ which serves to obscure an important difference between Latour and Harman.  [Continued]

Adrian Ivakhiv (2015): Bruno Latour: reassembling the political, by Graham Harman, London, Pluto Press, 2014, 216 pp., £19.99 (paperback), ISBN 978-0745333991, Global Discourse: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Current Affairs and Applied Contemporary Thought, DOI: 10.1080/23269995.2015.1018663

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/23269995.2015.1018663

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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part II

LARRMP

Popular neuroscience suggests that affect underlies ethical decision. Though not all of the contemporary brain-obsessed arguments are compelling, traditional psychology, at least since William James, has forwarded similar hypotheses. Scholars of rhetoric also recognize the force of the pathos appeal, and have done so for thousands of years. If our emotional responses impact our ethical decisions and aesthetic response is also related to the emotions, then ethics and aesthetics may be more closely related than contemporary scholars in the liberal arts and sciences have generally assumed or asserted.

But what do we assume about the basic nature of the relationship between aesthetic response and affect? Do we merely love the beautiful, or do we find beauty in that which we love? For example, do we become attached to a natural place, because it is picturesque or because we associate it with meaningful events and other attachments?   Or, if such responses are “inherited,” either because they are instinctual or culturally conditioned, do ethical and aesthetic values co-emerge?

Related to these questions are the backward and forward looking problems of environmental degradation and generational amnesia. On one hand environmental degradation suggests that we may become less attached to wild places in the future as they are diminished and or degraded. On the other hand, generational amnesia suggests that our aesthetic standards may also be degraded. In a twenty-first century urban environment, for example, a small, roof-top garden may have more value (affective and aesthetic), by sheer contrast with its surroundings, than a large vegetable or flower garden in a more traditional, rural environment. Still, as we become increasingly overwhelmed with technology, it may also be that our appreciation for place and natural beauty is diminishing overall, as our early memories and attachments are less likely to be formed out of doors. And this trend may be contrary to an ethical imperative of caring for more places and more creatures. But what if an ethic of inclusiveness included caring about, even loving the ugly?

Institute for Nature and Culture co-founder and theorist of restoration ecology, Bill Jordan has raised the issue of restoring species that pose a threat to human interests, even a threat to human life—rattle snakes, for example (Making Nature Whole, 5). Jordan’s approach contrasts significantly with the idea of restoring “natural capital.” Is the latter approach truly ethical if it primarily serves human interests? Can we be sure that we even understand our own interests—that we can predict the future in this sense? Could a more inclusive ethical approach address this problem? And how would such an ethic relate to aesthetics?

The concepts of generational amnesia and degraded environmental brought to my mind the example of the L. A. River. The river (qua river) ceased to exist when it was replaced with a massive concrete channel built in the 1950’s and 1960’s.   Angelinos literally forgot the river because it disappeared, almost without a trace. Instead water flowed into and out of “the wash.” The mostly dry, concrete channel became an icon of the apocalypse, in Hollywood films such as Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) and Escape from LA (1996), and indeed complex ecosystems, as worlds, were destroyed by this massive human intervention. But somehow the river was not completely forgotten.

In the late 1990’s a group of visionary citizens conceived of the absurd notion of restoring the river in a hybrid fashion. From these early initiatives emerged the Los Angeles River Revitalization Master Plan.[1] What I found most remarkable about this plan, when I examined it, were the rich renderings (future simulations) of the river as an ecosystem, a place for recreation, and a cultural venue—a place in which to form attachments. In the past few years the restoration has achieved gradual but marked success with Angelinos now actually kayaking in certain areas.

So how did such an ugly place become the object of attention and care? Did citizens become interested in the “river” because they saw a potential for beauty, or did it become beautiful because it received care and attention? I’m not sure these are answerable or even meaningful alternatives.   What may be meaningful, though, is the implication that ethical decision and action require us to look beyond surface features to the spirit of a place—the spirit of a creature. The potential for beauty may be in everything we behold, as a function of our care and attention.

Image Reference: Los Angels River Revitalization Master Plan: Chapter 2, page 4

http://boe.lacity.org/lariverrmp/CommunityOutreach/pdf/

[1] LARRMP, http://boe.lacity.org/lariverrmp/

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The Sound and The Sample

The DePaul Humanities Center

“LEND ME YOUR EARS: THE SOUND OF THE HUMANITIES” SERIES

presents

THE SOUND and THE SAMPLE

 What does it mean to take a sound and remove it from its original context, place it into a new moment, and generate novel meaning from that? Capturing a percussive beat, a bit of an old LP, the vibration of a stringed instrument, a stolen moment of a bird in a meadow—all of these instances of sampling something and then doing something unique with that sample raise issues about what a sound is and what it means for a sound to be taken up and used anew—for art, for science, and for everything that is both or neither.

Join an interdisciplinary panel of scholars and artists for a night of innovative performance and analysis that sounds the depths of the ethics, ontology, and aesthetics of what it means to hear and what it means to sample a world that sounds.

FEATURING:

  • The Speers, “Mrs. Dalloway Excerpt”
  • Liam Heneghan, “Echoes from the Little Stream of Death”
  • Beverly Fre$h and The Wild American Dogs, with Greg Scott

“Inside of the Night—The Crooner, The Bingo Caller, and You.”

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

7:00 – 7:30 p.m.

Cortelyou Commons

2324 N. Fremont St., Chicago

(1/2 block east of the Fullerton L stop)

This event is free and open to the public.

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Shifting Ground

(photo by Randall Honold)

(text by Christine Skolnik)

low tide

At low tide

This shifting ground

shaped by water

wind

astral and other bodies

calls and responds

reflects on our image

reflecting our days

marvels at the seeming source

of distinctions

What numberless

wondering worlds

are obscured

by this

bright orb?

What grounds them?

Image Source: Dylar Addict, low tide

https://dylaraddict.wordpress.com/2014/10/22/low-tide/

Dylar Addict, Home

https://dylaraddict.wordpress.com/

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After Biopolitics: Society for Literature Science and the Arts, Houston 2015

November 12-15, 2015

Paper/Panel Proposal Due Date: extended to April 15, 2015

Please see below conference description and call for papers.  This is a very intelligent, thought-provoking, and congenial event frequented by friends of INC and EC.

(SLSA is particularly interested in recruiting more scientists, artists, and philosophers at this time.  However, contributions from all disciplines are welcome.)

AFTER BIOPOLITICS
“Over the past thirty years, no paradigm has become more central to understanding our own moment than the paradigm of biopolitics—a fact that has left hardly any discipline untouched, resulting in new formations such as bioart, bioethics, biotechnology, biomedia, biocapital, bioinformatics, biovalue, and biocomputing, among many others. The reasons for this are not far to seek: the engineering, canalization, domestication, and commodification of “life” in the era of “synthetic biology,” at a level scarcely thinkable fifty years ago; rapid depletion of the earth’s resources in the context of global warming in what used to be called the “first world”; seemingly endless debates over the political and economic complexities of healthcare, social security, lengthening retirement ages and dwindling personal savings rates in the developed West; confrontations over abortion and immigration in the United States, in which the concepts of “life” and “race” are never far from view; the unequal global distribution of access to medical care and medical technologies at the very moment when pharmaceutical industries have never been more deeply woven into daily life in the developed West (or more profitable); and the post-9/11 context of the “war on terror” and ongoing anxieties about security and borders resulting in the normalization of spaces and practices of juridical “exception” such as Guantanamo Bay, drone warfare, and electronic surveillance at a level heretofore unknown, all revolving around a logic whose biological underpinnings reach back to the very origins of the biopolitical in the concept of the “body politic.” Add to these an increasing awareness (in no small part under the pressure of global warming and the emergent paradigm of the “Anthropocene”) of the plight of non-human life (whether in discussions of animal rights, factory farming, and the bioengineering of non-human creatures, or in the increasingly undeniable fact of the sixth major extinction event in the history of the planet) and how deeply imbricated t is with the plight of the human and its technology, and you have ample grounds to understand why “life” (in the broadest sense) has become the central object of politics over the past few decades.

In the face of such developments, the conference theme, “After Biopolitics,” seeks to reexamine the theoretical, cultural, social, and political underpinnings of the biopolitical paradigm, and to explore conceptual resources (both within and outside of the biopolitical paradigm) for the possibility of thinking what has been called an “affirmative” biopolitics that views the intersection of “Life” and the political as a potential space of affinity, community, and creativity, rather than the “thanatopolitics” that has dominated the biopolitical paradigm thus far.”

CALL FOR PAPERS
POTENTIAL TOPICS

  • The concept of “Life”
  • Immunitary and autoimmunitary paradigms of biopolitics
  • Race, species, and biopolitics
  • States of exception: theoretical and historical dimensions
  • Bioengineering life
  • Biomedia and bioart
  • Biopolitics and the Anthropocene
  • The politics of medicalization and the Medical Humanities
  • The biopolitics of foodways
  • “Letting die”: the biopolitics of extinction
  • Biopolitics and the ecological paradigm
  • Biopolitics and genocide
  • “Making live”: biopolitics, health, and hygiene
  • Neoliberalism and biopolitics
  • The concept of sovereignty in biopolitical thought
  • Biopolitical histories of race, gender, and sexuality
  • Genetics, epigenetics, and biopolitics
  • “Flesh”: concepts of the body and embodiment in biopoltics
  • Imagining affirmative biopolitical futures
  • These and other topics related to the theme will be welcome. As always, the conference of the Society for Literature, Society, and the Arts is open to wide range of related topics drawn from a broad array of scholarly and creative disciplines and practices that are relevant to the mission of the organization.

SUBMISSIONS

For individual paper contributions, submit a 250-word abstract with title. Pre-organized panel submissions, which might include three or four papers per panel, should include an additional paragraph describing the rubric and proposed title of the panel. Roundtables, alternative format panels, and the like are encouraged.

Submit all proposals to http://litsciarts.org/slsa15/slsaproposal.php

Paper/Panel Proposal Due Date: extended to April 15, 2015

Notification of Acceptance: June 1, 2015

Click here to download the full CFP

http://litsciarts.org/slsa15/call-for-papers/

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Ethics, Aesthetics, Ecologies: Part I

biodiversity2

In November of last year the DePaul Department of Philosophy Department hosted Ted Toadvine, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at the University of Oregon, who spoke about the politics of biodiversity (“Biodiversity and the Diacritics of Life”). Toadvine argued that the concept of biodiversity is poorly understood by experts as well as the general public; nevertheless, it is consistently wielded as an argument against commercial development, for example. Some of us in the audience were wary of the neoliberal implications of this argument. If biodiversity, like climate change, is considered a hard concept to grasp, does this give the public license to ignore the environmental impacts of unbridled development?

I was personally more interested in Toadvine’s argument that maximum biodiversity is neither ecological desirable or aesthetically pleasing. Invasive species for example contribute to diversity, but are not ecologically desirable. Aesthetically we appreciate diversity, but in a context of harmony and balance. Toadvine offered a clever and memorable example of a table setting; we wouldn’t want every single piece of china and silverware to be different. He also pointed out that biodiversity is linked to our concepts of “nature,” and often stands in for a vague idea of an aesthetically pleasing landscape.

Toadvine also discussed biodiversity in relationship to identity politics. He reminded us that the concept of biodiversity arose with a focus on diversity in socio-cultural contexts, and argued that the value of social diversity undergirds arguments for biodiversity. While I agree that “diversity” as a social concept is doing rhetorical work in this context, I’m more interested in the broader genealogy of diversity as a value. Toadvine mentioned Darwin, for example, but I’m also reminded of Linnaeus and Enlightenment fascination with biological variation.

Toward the end of the talk, Toadvine adopted a sublime mode, making references to the relationship of human beings to much larger scale phenomena, up to and including the cosmos. I noted, then, that I was emotionally swept along, and subsequently reflected on the relationship between affect and aesthetics in this context. In the Q & A, I commented that the aesthetic may warrant greater attention, in environmental philosophy, because of its relationship to affect, and the arguments from neuroscience that affect underlies judgment. In other words, if our ethical decisions are influenced by our (emotional) attitudes, and our emotions are closely tied to our aesthetic responses, then ethics and aesthetics may be lost cousins—contiguous rather than opposing concepts. I assume that they are opposing concepts in some quarters for two reasons: the tendency in our culture to oppose surface qualities (the aesthetic) to deep truths (ethical), and the academy’s devotion to ethics at the seeming expense of aesthetics.

In the mid eighteenth century Edmund Burke articulated a popular set of assumptions that connected aesthetic response with feeling. The sublime was connected with pain, and the beautiful with pleasure. Burke’s A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful built on the psychological theories of his time and particularly the association theories of John Locke. Burke’s work reminds us that aesthetics has occupied philosophers for millennia, and his major arguments “consummate” the relationship between psychology and aesthetics. Though Burke’s argument was not overtly ethical, his interlocutor, Mary Wollstonecraft made the connection between ethics and aesthetics clear. In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, for example, Wollstonecraft performatively modulated the masculine sublime to her own feminine rights discourse. In the same work Wollstonecraft denounced superficial, feminine beauty and championed intellectual beauty in women. Indeed she redefined beauty in this context.[1]

MWBBC

Circling back to the idea of biodiversity as a proxy for picturesque landscapes, I wonder about the nature of our attachment to the picturesque in nature? Does love follow beauty, or does a judgment of beauty follow attachment to place? Can radically inclusive, neighborly love makes us see landscapes differently and appreciate biodiversity beyond our current, iterated aesthetic conventions? And if our experience of love/beauty became radically inclusive, how would this modulate given aesthetic principles? More in the next installment.

Image Sources:

MarineBio http://marinebio.org/oceans/conservation/biodiversity/

BBC Radio 4 In Our Time

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00pg5dr

[1] Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.

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