Here a space opens for an artistic materialism

Here a space opens for an artistic materialism. Parallel to the Marxist tradition runs an aesthetic one, from Cezanne to Miro and the Bauhaus artist Paul Klee. Crucial to Jorn’s reworking of Marxist thought is his radical revision of the locus and significance of the aesthetic. Art belongs to the infrastructure of society, not to the super-structure. Art is a fundamental kind of social production. Marxism breaks with classical tradition by assigning priority to action rather than contemplation, but its error error is to consider art only as a form of contemplation. Art is action.

Engels wrote that “the economic structure of society always furnishes the real basis, starting from which we can alone work out the ultimate explanation of the whole superstructure of juridical and political institutions as well as of the religious, philosophical and other ideas of a given historical period.” Jorn would agree with this, but with the proviso that aesthetic practice is part of the economic structure, not just one of the “other ideas” within the superstructure. The qualitative practice of art is as much part of the base of the capitalist social formation as its qualitative production process. The ontological failure of capital, its inability to perceive and produce its own reality, stems from the domination of the quantitative over the qualitative process.

Jorn breaks with privileging of science that he finds particularly in Engels. Jorn distinguishes between what he calls a worldview and an attitude to life. Both, he insists, can be materialistic, but they do not always go together. Even when science has a materialistic worldview, it does not necessarily have a materialist attitude to life. It remains Apollonian…
Aesthetic experiment is the necessary complement to scientific experiment, but it is not an imitation of science. While science extends knowledge and expands the material worldview, art creates a way of life by shaping material characteristics according to desire. If science concerns itself with objective truth, then art will search for subjective truth. “Rather an entangled and chaotic truth than a four-square, beautiful symmetrical and finely-chiseled lie.” But, crucially, Jorn sees subjectivity as non-individualistic. The art that matters is a subjective realism that extends beyond the individual and invokes a collective practice: “art, therefore, is not a representation, a mirror, of nature but a direct transformation of nature. Art is experimental social practice which transforms nature into second nature, but without reducing nature to essence or order.

McKenzie Wark, The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Life and Glorious Times of the Situationist International

Ideas as intersections

When I try to think about thinking, for instance retracing where an idea of mine came from, the limitation of English force me to say that “I” produced and “idea.” But none of these things are stable entities, and this grammatical relationship among them is misleading. The “idea” isn’t a finished product with identifiable boundaries that one moment sprung into being — one of the reasons artists so hate the interview question, “So what was your inspiration for this?” Any idea is actually an unstable shifting intersection between myself and whatever I was encountering. By extension, thought doesn’t somehow inside of me, but between what I perceive as me and not-me. Cognitive scientists Francisco J. Varela, Evan Thompson, and Elenaor Rosch back up this intuition with fascinating scientific studies in The Embodied Mind, a book that draws comparisons between moden cognitive science and ancient Buddhist principles. Using examples like the coevolution of vision with certain colors that occur in nature, they fundamentally complicate the idea that perception mere gives information about what’s “out there.” As they put it, “Cognition is not the representation of a pre-given mind but is rather the enactment of a world and a mind.”

Jenny Odell, How to do Nothing, p. 142

Ecology as comfortingly anti-essentialist

I find something comfortingly anti-essentialist in the way ecology works. As someone who is both Asian and white, I am an anomaly or a nonentity from an essentialist point of view. It’s not possive for me to be “native” to anywhere in any obvious sense. But things like the atmospheric river, or even the sight of Western tanagers (a favourite bird) migrating through Oakland in the spring gives me an image of how to be from two places at once. I remember that the sampaguita, while it’s the national flower of the Philippines, actually originated in the Himalayas before being imported in the seventeenth cenutry. I remember that not only is my mother an immigrant, but that there something immigrant about the air I breathe, the water I drink, the carbon in my bones, and the thoughts in my mind.

Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing.

To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Redefining Energy Security

To arrive to a more accurate definition of energy security requires the concept to be defined, not in terms of commodities like kilowatt-hours of electricity, but in terms of energy services, social practices, or basic needs. 1 People don’t need electricity in itself. What they need, is to store food, wash clothes, open and close doors, communicate with each other, move from one place to another, see in the dark, and so on. All these things can be achieved either with or without electricity, and in the first case, with more or less electricity.

Defined in this way, energy security is not just about securing the supply of electricity, but also about improving the resilience of the society, so that it becomes less dependent on a continuous supply of power. This includes the resilience of people (do they have the skills to do things without electricity?), the resilience of devices and technological systems (can they handle an intermittent power supply?), and the resilience of institutions (is it legal to operate a power grid that is not always on?). Depending on the resilience of the society, a disruption of the power supply may or may not lead to a disruption of energy services or social practices.

… To improve energy security, we need to make infrastructures less reliable.

Keeping Some of the Lights On: Redefining Energy Security“. Kris De Decker. Low <– Tech Magazine.

Searching for a shared ethics

Common humanity and universal responsibility link us. But much of the time we act as if this is not the case — we are in denial as individuals and societies. In the past, our denial harmed those whose plight we ignored. Today it harms everyone, which is why we, the deniers, can no longer afford it — if, indeed, we ever could.

Margaret Somerville, The Ethical Imagination, CBC Massey Lectures, 2006, p.1

Canada is 52nd out of the world’s 58 top CO2 emitting nations

And then there’s Germanwatch’s Climate Change Performance Index that currently places Canada 52nd out of the world’s 58 top CO2 emitting nations, in a ranking that evaluates and compares the climate protection performance for the nations that are collectively responsible for more than 90 per cent of global energy-related CO2 emissions…

…That puts us behind both China and the US, a somewhat ironic fact not lost on researchers with the Sustainability and Education Policy Network who’ve recently published their findings on climate change and Canadian post-secondary institutions

In the representative sampling of 50 institutions, the key findings are telling: less than half (44 per cent) have climate change-specific policies in place; those policies focus most often upon the built-campus environment with “underdeveloped secondary responses” to research, curriculum, community outreach and governance policies; and the “overwhelming” response of modifying infrastructure and curbing energy consumption and pollution, while important, risks masking deeper social and cultural dynamics which require addressing.

From “The politics of climate change“, CAUT Bulletin, June 2017.

The Comedy of Survival

Perhaps the major difference between pastoral and picaresque lies in the application each makes of human intelligence. The pastoral intellect uses the rational capacity of the mind to criticize the inadequacies of present experience and its imaginative talents to create alternatives to the present. It is characterized by abstract ideas — truth, justice, goodness, love — intended to lead toward a fulfillment of human potential at some future time. The picaresque intellect instead concentrates upon the study of immediate reality, and its imagination upon the creation of strategies for survival. Picaresque liberty is not escape from misfortune, but confidence in one’s ability to persist in spite of it.

Modern cities, like ancient Rome, are messy, expensive, chaotic, and dangerous. Those who flee them in search of rural peace and quiet are following a pastoral way that Western culture has endorsed since Virgil. The pastoral tradition also makes it plain that this quest is likely to fail, for the seeker of peach and simplicity is likely to carry inner conflict and anger, and these will govern his or her life more than the rural environment will. Escape into fantasies is not a workable solution to urban and existential ills.

What the picaresque tradition in dignity and respectability, it makes up for in clear-eyed practicality. In the picaresque eye, cities and wild places are all full of both danger and opportunity, and wherever one finds oneself is the place where life must be lived as well as possible. Picaresque life is infinite play, with no hope of winning much, but endless enthusiasm for keeping the play alive.

Joseph W. Meeker, “The Pastoral and the Picaresque”, The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic.


Cloud and Field

If ours is the Information Age, it is not the first. A “quantifying spirit” swept the educated classes of 18th century Europe, too, as they confronted the hyperabundance of data in an increasingly globalized world. 1 Explorers were returning from distant lands with new bytes of information — logs, maps, specimens — while, back home, Europeans turned natural history into a leisure pursuit. 2 Hobbyists combed the fields for flowers to press and butterflies to pin. Scientists and philosophers sought rational modes of description, classification, and analysis — in other words, systematicity.

That age belonged to Carl Linnaeus, whose methods we still use to name new species. (Swedish botanist, zoologist, physician: what box should we put him in?) Linnaean classification proved a “godsend to naturalists at sea in the quantity of their own discoveries,” 3 but that was just the start; its “rationality and practicality gave it entrée everywhere.” 4 Researchers applied its systematic logic to the study of everything from chemicals and diseases to machines and algebraic forms.

The craze reached its height, as ours does, with a most protean subject: clouds

Shannon Mattern, “Cloud and Field,” Places Journal, August 2016. Accessed 05 Sep 2016. <>

The comedic future

Alex Steffen—a futurist known for authoring Worldchanging among other sustainability work—is launching a documentary series called The Heroic Future. On the one hand, I am entirely on board with any exercise to imagine different futures, especially given the current paucity of positive scenarios that climate change presents us with. On the other hand, the language here gives me a great deal of pause. I don’t think anything resembling heroism is going to solve our problems or lead us into a new, sustainable future. If anything, we need healers not heroes, people who can adapt and evolve, who can assist others in need. Heroism is far too tainted by toxic masculinity and hubris to be of use to us now. If we’re going to imagine a better future, we’re going to have to start by imagining better models than the tragic hero.

Among the books I turn to again and again is The Comedy of Survival in which Joseph Meeker presents two modes for being in the world: the tragic mode, in which our hero tries to change the world in his (and it’s always his) own image, and the comic mode, in which a motley crew of men and women adapt to their environment, never quite succeeding in getting exactly what they want, but managing to get by nonetheless. Tragedies always end with the hero’s head carted off the stage; comedies end in weddings. Let’s imagine a comedic future instead of a heroic one.

from “The comedic future, 4.3 light years, never read the comments: A working letter” (Tiny Letter)

This spoke to me  as I live in a city in which one of its leading environmentalist now is in charge of a golf course. You have to laugh if just to keep from crying.

The Comedy of Survival: Literary Ecology and a Play Ethic is OOP (out of print) and so I’m ordering it via Interlibrary Loan.

William James’s Moral Equivalents

    “What difference would it make” is at the core of his philosophy, which was practical, or pragmatic, in its concern for what the consequences of a belief are rather than what its truth is. That is to say, most philosophy is geared toward finding out the existing condition of things. James focused instead on how beliefs shape the world. Rather than ask whether or not God existed, James might try to ascertain what difference belief in God would make to how you live your life or how a society conducts itself. What is the consequence of the belief, rather than the truth of it? It is a deeply American approach, directed toward the malleability rather than the immutability of the world, toward what we make of it, rather than what it is made of. This aspect of Jame’s philosophy is sometimes misinterpreted as a kind of easy solipsism akin to the contemporary New Age motion that we each create our reality (a crass way of overlooking culture, politics, and economics — that is, realities are made, but by groups, movements, ideologies, religions, societies, economics, and more, as well as natural forces, over long stretches of time, not by individuals alone).

Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disasters, 2009