Timothy LeCain | “A Thousand Dead Snow Geese: The Matter of the Non-Human in the Age of Humans”
See video of LeCain’s informative and moving talk here.
See video of LeCain’s informative and moving talk here.
by Jeff Tangel
My son Jack is a nice young man. I haven’t been nice since I was a young man. Hopefully he’ll have more stamina. Isn’t that the kind of thing we wish for our children? Or ought to anyway.
Last weekend we drove downstate, to Farmington—a place just like it sounds—to see his grandmother who, after many years of sharing her talents with the people thereabouts, now lives in what we Americans call a “nursing home”. She taught 5th Grade for 31 years and raised six children. Now she has Alzheimer’s and can’t take care of herself, her memory a flickering flame.
On the way down Jack and I talked. He said that he had been thinking about the number of ways he could be contacted, nowadays, with all the technology. He counted out for me about fifteen: Facebook post and message, Facetime, cell phone call, cell phone text, email (2 accounts), g-chat, Skype, i-message . . . well, that’s ten, the others I’m forgetting right now. Maybe I’ll remember later.
Though I had some idea about this, hearing the list was eye opening. In my class I require students to watch the The Matrix—the well known, 1999, action packed allegory of our modern lives by Chicago’s Wachowski brothers, who, it must be said, are fans of Jean Baudrillard’s Simulations.[i] Me too. I won’t recount the whole idea here, but the upshot of the film is that human beings have become the power source for the ruling AI machines. That is, super-intelligent machines now raise humans in test tube cells, farm-like, to capture the energy that we naturally produce. Every-body is connected by a multitude of wires and tubes—like a terminally ill hospital patient with great insurance—monitoring functions, making corrections and delivering nutrients all to collect the product of the cell, energy, which is food for the machines. We humans, in our tubes, see and experience everything as simulacra—so real-like we can taste it, and so we are placated and unaware, while the AI machines are able to harvest that energy to continue both their own, and our simulacrum existence. Think of it as a form of levitated permaculture.
When Jack started describing all of the ways that he could be contacted, I thought of the movie. Isn’t each of these new technologies that “connect” us like tubes and wires running into our bodies? Sure they connect us horizontally. Humans in the movie have all sorts of intercourse. But aren’t we all connected to central servers? And it’s unclear to me who is being served even as technology seems to be satisfying our needs.
The heroes of The Matrix, and specifically the reluctant Neo, aim at setting humans free from the chains of their manufactured existence—from manufactured illusion and slavery—to exit the cave and reclaim our humanity.
Steven Shaviro explains “accelerationism” as, “the idea that the only way out is the way through.” In a recent online interview he characterized the controversial hypothesis just so: “If we want to get beyond the current social and economic order and reach a post-capitalist future, then we need to push through all the messy complications of capitalism, rather than revert to something supposedly older and purer.” [ii]
This seems a pragmatic and sage response to intractable socio-economic forces. But I’m not convinced.
“Accelarationism” may be a new and catchy name for a not terribly new idea. “Back” in 2008, UC Berkeley sociologist Peter Evans published an insightful essay along these lines titled, “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” [iii] in which he argues well for employing the tools of capitalist globalization to render the world more hospitable for humans. This means, more than anything, recovering the power of technology and repurposing it towards better than profitable ends. As Shaviro says, “If computational technologies are eliminating millions of jobs, then the best response is not to demand the jobs back, but to spread the wealth—to give back what the 1 Percent has stolen from everybody else—so that people can afford to lead comfortable lives without always worrying about the cost of housing or the size of their credit card bills.” [iv] So we can live contentedly, the fruit of our technology.
And yet I can’t recall ever being so tired as I am now. Maybe I just can’t keep up. So Godspeed to that century-long promise of progress. Or has it been longer?
For me, the most interesting thing about capitalism is its creation of a capital as a concept with ontological status. This fictional disembodied spirit now roams the world without restraint and wherever it goes it recreates the world in its own image. What is that? Well, in a phrase: reproductive efficiency. That’s what capital does. Messy is bad, so it finds the most efficient path for its reproduction. And to do this it has to simplify the world into neat productive interconnected silos. That’s what globalization is.
Interestingly, that’s also what technology does. Long ago we dropped the “ought,” question. “Ought we aim at doing this or that?” Instead, we just do. Why? Because “we” are not the deciders anymore. Nearly all technology now serves its makers, not its users, and its makers serve capital. In fact technology creates its users as University of Pennsylvania Professor Joseph Turow explains in his insightful book, The Daily You[v] as if we were cultured in a lab. All that data collection is not to provide better stuff to human beings, for which they may or may not clamor. Instead it’s a means of creating a clamor. It’s about creating better, more efficient consumers of technology so that capital can continue to reproduce itself in the most efficient manner possible.
Production is the master. Consumption the servant.
Aren’t nearly all the solutions offered by technology aimed at solving problems created by it-self—created by capitalism? I call this the economics, and metaphysics, of duct tape and bailing wire. Sure some amazing things can be done with those rudimentary tools (think ones and zeroes), but it can’t, and never will be able to offer an “ought” idea.
Embracing technology as a means of breaking through to the other side is like someone who’s had too much Guinness trying to sober up with a shot of Jameson. Neat.
Steven Fraser tells us in his book, The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, that the reason we’ve had so much trouble battling back, or reforming capitalism is because we have forgotten a time when it didn’t make all our decisions. [vi] We can’t collectively recall our past. And lacking recall, we can’t imagine another way to live. We’re stuck.
What use is the past to capital? What use is the past to technology? Doesn’t technology now mean obliterate the past? Back in the 1940’s Schumpeter called it “creative destruction”. Today Silicon Valley calls it “disruption”. Whatever. New duct tape. We’ve naturalized Alzheimer’s because it’s good for business. That’s all the “ought” we have.
I haven’t yet remembered those other five ways my son can be contacted.
But I do remember many years ago my elderly neighbor saying, “If you find yourself in a hole, first thing to do is to stop digging.”
Image Credit: ” A Gene for Forgetting” <http://www.kurzweilai.net/a-gene-for-forgetting>
[i] Baudrillard, J. (1983). Simulations (P. Foss, P. Patton, & P. Beitchman, Trans.). New York: Semiotext (e).
[ii]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050
[iii] “Is an Alternative Globalization Possible?” <http://www.learningace.com/doc/57794/dfa1e8c1c7a26773e2bdd42973d1935c/evans-alter-globalization-pol-soc-v36n2-june08>
Peter Evans: <http://sociology.berkeley.edu/professor-emeritus/peter-evans>
[iv]“What is Accelerationism?” <https://environmentalcritique.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/what-is-accelerationism/> partial repost from: <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/is-consuming-like-crazy-the-best-way-to-end-capitalism-050>
[v].Turow, J. (2012). The daily you: How the new advertising industry is defining your identity and your worth. Yale University Press.
<https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Daily_You.html?id=rK7JSFudXA8C&printsec=frontcover&source=kp_read_button#v=onepage&q&f=false> Book TV Interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zt2KwcsMbks> (8:27)
[vi] Fraser, S. (2011). The Age of Acquiescence. Little Brown.
by Eoin O’Neill
Author details: Dr. Eoin O’Neill is a tenured Lecturer in Environmental Policy at University College Dublin and is visiting at DePaul University for the Autumn Quarter, hosted by the Department of Environmental Science and Studies.
Whilst visiting at DePaul and as an urban dweller in Chicago, I’m somewhat unusual; I don’t have a car and can be seen with my wife walking the streets at all hours pushing a large red buggy, which we have been told is a rather ‘awesome stroller’ and ‘like a red Cadillac’. While it takes us longer to get everywhere, walking allows for an intimate acquaintance with hidden nooks of Chicago that I may otherwise never have seen. It also allows for time to reflect and appreciate the diversity to be found within and between its neighbourhoods.
As I walk (or sometimes travel elevated on the ‘L’), I often wonder whether the difference in the types of ‘nature’, crudely assessed in terms of observable trees/vegetation, experienced by people in various neighbourhoods is in anyway attributable to some form of interplay between environment and cultural factors. On one of our walks, for example, one moves across an invisible boundary and the intensely green and manicured grass verges, the street trees, shrubs and flowers in a highly maintained urban setting give way to a relatively un-manicured urban environment, and a different cultural influence clearly apparent along the streetscape. Whilst the type of ‘nature’ on the street is visibly different, seemingly limited to occasional window boxes and less well maintained street planting (with different biodiversity potential), I wonder whether the influence of culture is a significant factor influencing how communities express environmental preferences or appreciate nature; or whether the manner in which nature is revealed locally is predominantly resource driven? Or maybe they are inextricably linked with both having an influence in combination.
To my untrained eye, culture does not seem to be a hugely significant factor; however, the impact of the distribution of financial resources is visibly a significant influencing factor on the type of nature evident in parts of Chicago. Some neighbourhoods look like they are entering into a period of significant transition (or transformation). Extreme examples include extensive areas of abandoned or derelict homes and lots etc. with a less structured nature re-emerging apparent in some neighborhoods (see http://57thandnormal.com/ – although this is a drastic case). I imagine that neighhorhoods losing their sense of urbanity might generate negative feelings and a sense of uncertainty for residents in an otherwise regulated urban setting. Such feelings may come from recollections of experiences attached to the place as it was; and perhaps from efforts to exclude, and avoid, risky aspects of ‘authentic’ nature from the regulated environment. Moreover, the emergence of multi-generations of urban dwellers (a global phenomenon) has probably increased the level of disconnect between people and nature.
These ‘abandoned’ parts of the Chicago urban landscapes (see also, for example, http://abandonedchicago.tumblr.com/) are in a state of flux – sufficiently managed to avoid emergence of much of a sense of wilderness; but at the opposite end of a spectrum that might be signified by Grove at al. ‘ecology of prestige’. However, it seems that some new ideas are emerging within the policy community about using this change to bring about prospects for a more purposeful yet beneficial experience of such nature for affected residents. Whilst thinking about Green Infrastructure solutions (such as rain gardens, urban agriculture, parks etc.) is not unusual, with some examples apparent as I walk around, perhaps the systemic thinking being applied by participants in the Calumet Stormwater Collaborative, to (amongst other efforts) strategically coordinate repurposing of parcels of vacant land to better manage stormwater is innovative. (I recently attended a meeting of this group, in an observer capacity. The collaborative model in this case comprising c. 30 stakeholder agencies and non-profits looks like it may be worthy of replication beyond Chicago.)
An improved ‘vacant’ lot in Pilsen generating ecosystem services.
From a policy perspective such circumstances present opportunities for such innovations; however, the period during which an individual’s neighborhood becomes re-defined is at least socially disruptive and a ‘messy’ experience for residents who have to live through the transition. But perhaps other places can learn from these experiences.
Sticking to the water-related theme, the newly developed (and developing) riverside walk along the Chicago River provides a pleasant break from the immediate hazard walking alongside city traffic and the stop-start of pedestrian crossings, generating feelings of relaxation as noise levels are abated at the lower level of the water. Similarly the walk alongside the lakeshore gives an even greater access to an unbroken, authentic, and sometimes wild vista. Alternatively, the recently opened Bloomingdale Trail, developed on a former rail line, provides an enjoyable elevated perspective within the urban environment. However its appearance differs from my expectations with the trail being a concrete pavement rather than a beaten path.
A section of the Bloomingdale Trail passing Bucktown
More generally, and apparent to me no matter where I walk, is the extensive amount of street-trees, bringing with them various environmental benefits in addition to well-established wellbeing and stress-reduction benefits, which must surely be welcomed by most city residents. On the other hand, and as a consequence, the lack of any green planting on most back-alleys and laneways off main streets provides a harsh setting, especially against the backdrop of tall buildings with limited direct sunlight.
I must admit that my reflections are influenced by my background, where there is a much more homogenous society (predominantly white and of Irish and European origin), and limited evidence of any significant contemporary non-European cultural influences imprinting itself on the Irish landscape so far, of which I am aware. The pie chart below portrays the ethnic or cultural background of all people (Irish and non-Irish) resident in Ireland at the time of the most recent census (2011).
Source: Central Statistics Office 2011. Available from www.cso.ie Accessed 10/29/2015.
Maybe the scale of the City of Chicago, being just under three times larger (by population) than Dublin, and with a far more extensive and vastly more culturally diverse and populous metropolitan region, means the landscape in all its guises is reflective of the environmental preferences of its various constituent communities. Somewhat contrary to my elementary musings here, some recent findings from New York (Grove et al. 2014), suggest that socio-economic factors alone are not sufficient to explain which neighborhoods have the most exposure to nature (assessed by vegetative cover measured by tree canopy and lawns). Perhaps this type of analysis may be an important consideration when advocating for green infrastructure and ecological restoration initiatives more widely across Chicago in the future. Indeed the Great Rivers Chicago initiative (GreatRiversChicago.com) seems to be a good example of engaging with communities to establish their preferences for a better relationship with, and improved access to, an aspect of nature.
Attendees and facilitators at the Great Rivers Chicago public open-house meeting at the Ping Tom Memorial Park Fieldhouse in Chinatown (10/28/2015).
Meanwhile, I’ll continue to enjoy my walks around the city and its neighborhoods.
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.
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.
BBC Radio 4 In Our Time
 Skolnik, Christine M. “Wollstonecraft’s Dislocation of the Masculine Sublime: A Vindication.” Rhetorica 21.4 (2003): 205-223. Print.