…………………………the research base of jon goodbun

Steps to an Ecological Aesthetic in the Atacama

Here is the text I prepared for an workshop event co-hosted by the Atacama Foundation and Royal College of Art Lithium Triangle research project, held in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile last week.

Steps to an Ecological Aesthetic in the Atacama

Good afternoon. I am Dr Jon Goodbun. I am a part of the four year RCA Lithium Triangle research project.

I have a background in architectural theory, design research and practice, which over the last two decades has focused ever more on environmental and ecological research and practice, and what this means for how we think about space. or spacetime, as a semiotic mediating field of material, biological and mental worlds. This has led me to work with ideas and thinkers who present challenges to some of the very premises of modern science, and the divisions between both the natural, social and political sciences, and between the sciences and humanities… divisions which are the legacy of western enlightenment thinking. I have pursued this work both in mainstream academic institutions such as the RCA, but also non-orthodox institutions such as Schumacher College, the Pari Institute and Burning Man, as well as in activist political arenas, and a series of independent educational and research initiatives. I mention this both by way of introduction, but also as it will become relevant to my brief discussion here.

This afternoon, following Godofredo Periera and Adrian Lahoud’s ’s introduction of the Lithium Triangle research project, I want to present briefly some notes on the kind of methodological issues that are present, and some of the epistemological questions that emerge from this.. This is a brief reflection upon what is at stake in thinking about the environment, with reference to two ‘case studies’ (narrated through two theorists: Gregory Bateson and F. David Peat) and will be followed by short presentation by Nikos Katsikis who will introduce more specifically some of the GIS-based and other techniques of analysis and speculation deployed by the studio.

Before I start I should point out that the ‘aesthetics’ in the title does not refer to the search for a style. Rather, I am using the term in the philosophical sense… aesthetics as the study of structures of feeling and perception.. how we perceive what we perceive… how we empathise with, or feel alienated from, the patterns and processes which connect us all. (Remembering that in Hegelian aesthetics the concept of ‘empathy/einfühlung’ was developed to explain spatial experience as the specific form of ‘alienation’ by which we project ourselves into and recognise the geist (which in German usefully means both mind and spirit) present in the objects that surround us.)

SLIDE human and animal footprints in the desert

Ecological questions fascinate me as they involve thinking about the extended fields of socio-environmental relations, within which and through which human life is enfolded and expressed, as a part of much broader biological, geological and historical landscapes, combining large scale mineral and energy flows, and in communication and interaction with both networks of other life-forms and other economies and peoples. All (human) modes of existence are always both a part of a broader web of life, but are also apart from it! To say that our emerging understanding the more-than-dialectical complexities of these political ecologies and environmental histories requires the development of new concepts and multi-disciplinary working methods is an understatement. The environmental question, not just here in the Atacama but all over the world, forces us to think through issues of value, difference and of communication, in a way that no other question does.

So what are the kinds of tools, techniques, technologies and processes are required to undertake an extended socio-spatial ecological project like this, and what are the issues involved?

There are of course various kinds of spatial mapping practice… and these involve the use and manipulation of Geographic Information Systems produced through satellite mapping technologies, but also on the ground surveys, observations and measurement of all kinds of conventionally-understood environmental variables, including documentation of ecosystems, mineral resources, hydrological cycles, but also social rhythms and practices. It includes of course urban analysis, and an understanding of the local microclimates and extended regional climates.

To synthesise this mix of disciplines and knowledge requires a trans-disciplinary practice, and the creation of a meta-space which can bring together very different forms of knowledge and practice. We bring together in this project a multi-disciplinary team, and draw upon all kinds of specialists.

Even on a conventional/normative basis, building up these kinds of representations is far from simple, whether at a technical level, or even more so at a conceptual and as we shall see epistemological/ontological levels. There are questions regarding the ownership activation of information, and the  political histories of the social practices, technologies and indeed the scientific concepts deployed.

And of course the affordances and potentials that this project might uncover, in a context where there are large corporate and commercial interests which work through global, state and local laws and agreements, is full of complexity.

How to qualify and quantify an environment is a political ecological project in the broadest sense (way beyond the institutionalised academic discipline of Political Ecology)…We ask you: What we should be looking at? What qualities and what values need to be quantified, measured and managed. And indeed what qualities and values should never be quantified and measured, as to do so is to bring them into a system of logic an control which will only ever ultimately destroy them? Whilst there is no ecological project which is not political, even the more critically aware forms of political ecology all too often fail to reflect upon the abstractions of modern science. It is clear that one of the things that is needed today is a radicalisation of the ecological idea… an ecology of ecology… a second order ecology, as the act of observing is always an act of performance, and the act of representation is always a mode of participation, and must always be an act of collective collaboration.

Nonetheless, of course, in a context like this there are all kinds of defensive uses  to which this work might legitimately be put by local Atacamenian communities, to counter representations produced by other actors – specifically the extractives industries active within this environment. So on one level we need to work with the language, concepts and epistemological objects produced by the state and by the various multi-national mining companies, and of course other international organisations such as the ILO (International Labour Organisation).

However, as well as defensive project, there is a much more active and positive project implicated within this work… a project which in fact demands a complete re-imagining of modern western concepts of science and objectivity.

SLIDE networks of internal and external relations

The epistemology of the modern scientific project acts as if, or pretends to be, a neutral observer: an invisible and objective measure.

This is not true, and in fact is what the ecological anthropologist Gregory Bateson described as an epistemological error, or an epistemological pathology.

What the methods of modern science actually tend to do is to take the complex differentiated dynamic unfolding and indeed semiological whole which is the cosmos, and CUT IT UP. Normative science acts as if its acts of cutting are neutral, inevitable, fundamental and so on, but this is only true within the context of the specific techno-scientific practices themselves. As the quantum physicist turned ecological theorist (and Bateson student) Fritjof Capra described the observations of quantum physics:

‘… in modern physics, the image of the universe as a machine has been replaced by that of an interconnected dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interdependent and have to be understood as patterns of a cosmic process. In order to define an object in this interconnected web of relationships, we cut through some of the interconnections – conceptually, as well as physically with our instruments of observation – and in doing so we isolate certain patterns and interpret them as objects.’

SLIDE CERN ‘observatory’

Ecological thought and systems theory, in its broadest conception, tends to challenge the biases and reductive quantitative methods of modern science, even whilst it also uses and deploys these methods. The reductive methods of physics, chemistry, biology and so on, are so successful precisely because of their reductive search for fundamental objects and concepts (atoms, quarks, cells, genes and so on). But if you cut up a dog to study it, you kill the dog. You can no longer observe and participate in its morphogenetic unfolding within a field of more-than-doggy relations. Thus in parallel with the reductive sciences emerged a series of more holistic systems disciplines: ecology, cybernetics, dialectical materialism, tektology etc. (In fact, as I have argued elsewhere, a particular conception of architecture emerged in renaissance Florence which acted as the paradigm for holistic systems thinking in general… but that is another story..).

What is at stake here then, is a challenge to the specific abstractions of objective science and the kinds of objects it produces, and the possibility of reframing the construction of ideas, concepts, objects and worlds.

It presents the possibility of a practice which adopts subject positions other than the ideology of third person objectvity.

In fact, it demands the formation of an ecological aesthetic… by which, as I’ve already said, I don’t mean some ‘style’, but rather an aesthetic project in the sense of the practical-theoretical study of how we perceive through a living engagement with a world (where, in the words of the young Marx ’the senses become theoreticians in their immediate practice’) … I mean the exploration of an entire structure of feeling (to develop a concept from the Marxian cultural theorist Raymond Williams) of the ecology of mind (to develop a concept from Gregory Bateson) which allows an empathetic relation with an environment… in fact what the Atacameni describe as a Cosmovision.

So to conclude this section of the paper, yes the local Atacameni communities need to both engage with, and contest, the techno-scientific methods and metrics of the global extractivist corporations, and we can help with that. But that isn’t the end game… that is just the start.

The mining companies and the mines, and indeed the San Pedro tourists, are now a part of (and dialectically apart from) the ecology of the Atacama… there is no simple going back in evolutionary ecological systems… However the environmental history and practices of the First Nations communities are also still alive and active too… the interesting question now is how to radicalise this field… how might a confrontation/conversation between industrial techno-science and First-Nations cosmovision be productive and transformative for us all…

SLIDE David Peat Blackfoot Physics book cover

At this point I am reminded of a series of conversations that I had with another renegade quantum physicist – F David Peat – when I was fortunate enough to spend a short period as a scholar-in-residence at his Pari Institute for New Learning a few years ago. David Peat was a collaborator with David Bohm, an extraordinary thinker who similarly was pushed through his understanding of quantum theory towards the development of a theory of enfolded developmental systems (his classic text is ‘Wholeness and the Implicate Order). Amongst other things, Bohm developed the thesis that many of the apparent paradoxes of quantum theory (such as wave/particle duality, and the apparent effect of the observer on quantum events) were more epistemological than ontological. Specifically, he argued that the processes that could be well described in mathematics (a much more process based ‘language’), were incomprehensible when described in our noun-based language which endlessly divides the world up into subjects and objects. He speculated that if only we could create a verb-based language which might be better equipped to engage with a world of mutually implicated processes of observation and performance, then many of the paradoxes of quantum theory might take on a different appearance. He called his imagined language the rheomode (Greek: flowing mode). In a seminar one time with Bohm and Peat, a student whose family were from the Blackfoot Nation suggested that their language might be of interest, as it was indeed largely verb based. Bohm died before he could explore this line of enquiry, but Peat took it up, and his engagement with Native American cosmologies produced amongst other things his book ‘Blackfoot Physics: A Journey into the Native American Universe’, and when I was working with him we spent some time talking about this. Of course, he showed to a Western academic audience that there was a sophisticated, rigorous and coherent cosmology here (this was the 1980s remember!), which indeed was more of a rheomode. More importantly for this discussion, he told me a series of stories about how some of the Blackfoot language had been recovered or regrown, through a mindful embodied engagement with various socio-spatio-ecological practices.. in particular building things and moving through landscapes… there are surely lessons in this case study for what an Atacamenian Physics might be?

I want to close these thoughts with a return to Bateson and the idea of an ecological aesthetic and the reformation of science that he called for. Bateson claimed to have trained his sensorium and widened his field of perception, through both rigorous and sensitive observation methods, and his students have supported all kinds of socio-participatory scientific projects (such as observing changes in ones own environment). For Bateson the incorporation of multiple perspectives was key to any ecological aesthetic, as an ecological aesthetic requires an abduction of affordances and empathic relation to the higher order patterns that connect multiple perspectives.

And on that note I will leave you with two quotes, two perspectives, which seem relevant to thinking about the situation and possibilities here in the Atacama, even whilst remembering that something much bigger than the Atacama is at stake here. The abstractions of modern science and technology are not just affecting the First Nations… these effects of our epistemological error are creating a pathologically schizophrenic planet, and is damaging the eco-mental systems within which our and other species beings and becomings unfold… the project of an ecological aesthetic involves us all.

‘You decide that that you want to get rid of the by-products of human life and that Lake Erie will be a good place to put them. You forget that the eco-mental system called Lake Erie is a part of your wider eco-mental system – and that if Lake Erie is driven insane, its insanity is incorporated in the larger system of your thought and experience.’

Gregory Bateson

‘for Marxists, there can be no going back, as many ecologists seem to propose, to an unmediated relation to nature (or a world built solely on face to face relations), to a pre-capitalist and communitarian world of non-scientific understandings with limited divisions of labour. The only path is to seek political, cultural and intellectual means that ‘go beyond’… The emancipatory potential of modern society, founded on alienation, must continue to be explored. But this cannot be, as it so often is, an end in itself, for that is to treat alienation as the end point, the goal. The ecologists’ and the early Marx’s concern to recuperate ‘in higher form’ the alienation from nature (as well as from others) that modern day capitalism instantiates must be a fundamental goal of any eco-socialist project. The idea of ‘re-enchantment’ with the sensuous world through a more sensitive science, more sensitive social relations and material practices, through meaningful labour processes, provides a better language than that of alienation with all of its essentialist overtones.’

David Harvey


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