rheomode

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

On the Possibility of an Ecological Dialogue

This is a short piece that I wrote for the Making Futures and Climate Care summer schools in Berlin’s Floating University and Haus der Statistik, running summer 2019, On the Possibility of an Ecological Dialoguechairsinmudfloatinguni

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching

Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

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Existential Territories: The Chemical Sign
by RCA School of Architecture

Are alternative modes of existence possible?

What form will they take?

Every architectural proposition embodies a form of sociality. Architecture is nothing if not a set of proposals for organising human attention, habit and ritual. Far from being a mere response to pragmatic needs, architecture is – and perhaps has always been – a tool for the construction of subjectivity.

An architectural project implies a model of the human character, a specific distribution of the innate and the cultivated, the desirable and undesirable, the normal and the pathological. At the same time, the relationship between subjectification and architecture is neither straightforward nor mechanical. The future’s infrastructure is a site of political conflict between financial, legal and semiotic forces. Today, the attempt to secure the fruition and dominance of certain models of human character through disciplinary institutions – the school, the hospital, the asylum, the barracks – has been supplemented by diffuse systems of control that act at scales that we do not recognize as architecture. And yet, as many have argued, contemporary forms of power have never been more impersonal, infrastructural and architectural.

Existential Territories is a series of events that will explore architectures capacity to propose alternative forms of existence. Territory is a term that refers to the exercise of power over a defined space. The existential aspect refers to way that the abstraction of design enters into a relationship with affective micro-political investments and semiotic processes. An existential territory is what binds a power over territory to a power over the soul while also pointing to the excess of life that resides within and beyond any system of power.

If the emergence of capitalism has charged architecture with the task of naturalizing social asymmetries, the existential territories series sets out to challenge existing models of human character and sociality including the normativity of gender roles, class construction, and labour exploitation, and perhaps rethink our agency as writers and architects.

Our second Existential Territories symposium, the ‘chemical sign’, will explore the limits of the concept of subjectivity by examining the way that chemicals, pathogens and microbes influence and transform what we mean by ‘human’.

SCHEDULE

Welcome by Adrian Lahoud,
Dean of the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art

Jon Goodbun (RCA),
Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

Hannah Landecker (UCLA),
The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism

Anna Tsing (UCSC),
Plantationocene: Life in Past and Coming Ruins

Alon Schwabe and Daniel Fernandez Pascual (Cooking Sections, RCA),
CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones

JON GOODBUN (RCA),

Its Own Metaphor: Ecological Calculus and the difference that makes a difference

‘…thinking in terms of stories does not isolate human beings as something separate from the starfish and the sea anemones, the coconut palms and the primroses. Rather, if the world be connected… then thinking in terms of stories must be shared by all mind or minds whether ours or those of redwood forests and sea anemones. Context and relevance must be characteristic not only of all so-called behavior (those stories which are projected out into ‘action’), but also of all those internal stories, the sequences of the building up of the sea anemone. Its embryology must be somehow made of the stuff of stories. And behind that, again, the evolutionary process through millions of generations whereby the sea anemone, like you and me, came to be – that process, too, must be of the stuff of stories.’ — Gregory Bateson (Mind and Nature, 1979) —

‘The atom… is nothing more than a relation’ — Frederick Engels (Dialectics of Nature notebooks, 1870s) —

Any attempt to think through the relationality of ‘The Chemical Sign’ begs a triad of questions: A sign of what? In relation to what? For what? In this paper I will sketch a series of attempts to approach these questions over the history of systems and process theoretic philosophy, and the critical significance of this question for an extended ecological politics today.

There have been a number of engagements with chemical and biological semiosis – Heinz von Foerster’s Biological Computing Lab at the University of Illinois which operated from 1958-1976, and contemporaneously Stafford Beer’s experiments with information processing in pond ecosystems, Gordon Pask’s work attempting to teach chemical systems how to learn in projects such as ‘How to evolve an ear’, and Humberto Maturana and Fransisco Varela’s recursive conception of cell autopoiesis. Earlier work, such as Alexandr Bogdanov’s tektology and experiments with blood transfusion, and Karl Marx and Frederick Engels’ speculations upon the meaning of metabolism in Moritz Traube’s protocell labours, also provide important insights. Most importantly, I will focus upon bio-anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s use of C. S. Peirce’s concept of abduction as the basis of an epistemology of pattern and perception.

Bateson first set out his conception of three ecologies in his 1968 position paper for a conference on ‘Human Adaptation’ which he had called through the Wenner-Gren anthropological foundation. Bringing together an small and unlikely mixture of biologists, anthropologists, Marxists and cyberneticians, Bateson wanted to test his thinking on the nature of the relation between informational-semiotic and material-energetic systems, a task which would consume his final decade in an attempt to propose a new kind of meta-science: a qualitative discipline organised around an ecological aesthetics. Bateson never completed this project, yet it remains a critical one for us today.

HANNAH LANDECKER (UCLA),

The Food of Our Food: Medicated Feed and the Industrialization of Metabolism

In 1934, nutrition scientist Clive McCay warned that children were being raised with an attitude to growth that he called “the butcher’s philosophy”: the desire to bring animals to market weight quickly and efficiently.

This talk excavates the butcher’s philosophy of the twentieth century and its consequences for the chemical landscapes of life in the twenty-first. While there has been some appreciation of the addition of antibiotics and hormones to feed as growth promoters, given worries about these as adulterations of the end-product that is milk and meat for human consumption, the systematic remaking of animal feed since the turn of the twentieth century has gone under-appreciated. This paper traces the science of the “animal as converter,” with metabolism and feed efficiency as work objects in the effort to make more with less. Vitamins, minerals, amino acids, fungal enzymes, short chain fatty acids, arsenical medicines, anti-oxidants, and many other substances are part of this story, many of which were also then used in human food fortification and engineering. As a result of the focus on feed efficiency in the science-industrial effort to promote growth, what we know about many of these elements is confined to how they affect growth, a positive knowledge that has obscured the many other questions one might ask about how these nutritional components affect animals, microbiota, environments, and humans.

This paper argues that a more systematic history of agricultural feeding points not toward the industrialization of discrete foodstuffs or activities (cows, farming), but toward the industrialization of metabolism: a major re-articulation of the metabolic interrelations of bacteria, fungi, plants, animals, and humans, in which flows of matter between organisms changed profoundly. The industrialization of metabolism has produced what we might call the anthropocene of, or in, the cell, a set of consequences that now register in terms of genome instability, physiology and metabolic dysregulation. Both philosophically and practically, this perspective allows us to ask what constitutes flourishing in the legacy chemical landscapes of growth, and to think through experimental and epidemiological approaches better equipped to take account of the historically-specific metabolic landscapes of human development and health.

ANNA TSING (UCSC),

Plantationocene: Life in Past and Coming Ruins

Landscape structure matters in constituting the Anthropocene.

This talk discusses the connections between the plantation form—a mode of modular simplification in which ecological complexity gives way to genetic homogeneity—and the “feral proliferation” of pests and pathogens. Modular simplification and feral proliferation work together, spreading the environmental dangers of the more-than-human Anthropocene. Attention to landscape morphology offers a necessary “horizontal” dimension to the discussion of “vertical” carbon circulations that have defined attention to our planet. Furthermore, the plantation form is not a matter of the amassment of individual human acts, the most common way of understanding environmental problems; instead, it directs us to infrastructures and assemblages. The plantation is both an allegorical form for reflection and a material structure that has reshaped our world. For those familiar with my earlier work: yes, there will be fungi. Pathogenic fungi, which gather, transform, and spread from plantations, form the heart of the descriptive material for this talk. Fungi are always good to think with.

ALON SCHWABE and DANIEL FERNANDEZ PASCUAL (Cooking Sections, RCA),

CLIMAVORE: On Tidal Zones

CLIMAVORE investigates how to eat as climate changes. In the case of tidal zones, the project has been specifically tackling the detrimental effects of salmon farm pollution in the Isle of Skye, Scotland. After two years of research and fieldwork, the project materialised first in a site-specific installation to gather cross-disciplinary knowledge and challenge the way in which corporate intensive farms ‘perform nature’. As a response, each day at high tide, the new structure works as an underwater oyster table to activate filter feeders in the polluted shores of the island. At low tide, the structure emerges above the sea and functions as a dining table for humans, with tastings of ingredients that clean the water by breathing: seaweeds like kelp or dulse, and bivalves like oysters, clams, scallops and mussels. Through a series of ongoing public workshops, it is activated in collaboration with local stakeholders, residents, schools, politicians and researchers. Aiming to divest away from salmon farming and develop a new cultural imaginary based on alternative aqua-cultures, a network of local restaurants has also been established as active agents in the process: each replaced farmed salmon with a CLIMAVORE dish. The long-term project aims to look at other understandings of ecology and water monitoring to consolidate human and other-than-human inhabitation on the liminal space of the coast. The tidal zone becomes then a space of opportunity for discussing the spatial construction of the ocean and its shores.

 

Filed under: ecology, research

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

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching, ,

Mud and Modernity, in Arena Journal for Architectural Research

What is concrete? Loved and loathed in equal measure, this building material, as soon as we try to define it, to specify it, to describe it, becomes, well, not very concrete at all, but rather fluid and surprisingly abstract! Concrete is a material which has been going through an interesting intellectual and practical renaissance in recent years, in no small part driven by the convergence of several different kinds of technology-driven manufacturing changes – ranging from computer aided manufacturing of formworks, to photograph etching, to engineering software, to nano- and bio-chemistry to 3D printing – which have opened up new worlds of realizable, expressive and performance optimised form. The demands posed by anthropogenic climate change, energy use, resource scarcity, and the environmental question more generally, have equally transformed the technologies and industries that are now feeding into developments in this material. On its own though, that is not enough to understand the revival in interest. In this paper I will argue that there are indeed profound relationships between capital, modernity and concrete. However, I will suggest that in order to really start to grasp these relations, we will need to explore some ways of thinking about concrete that have not been developed so far within the recent literature on the material. Notably I will develop an ecological approach to thinking about what concrete is, and in so doing redefine this material as a particular form of mud, or mudcrete: a material which is deployed by both human and non-human builders. I will note the ecological energetics and extended materialities of mudcrete, and will reflect upon the conceptual ‘forms’ or ‘patterns’ of this matter as a particular modality of the production of nature. Mudcretes always internalise in particularly interesting ways I argue, their external relations, the extended networks of materials, skills, labours and energies that go into their production. Mudcretes frequently stage fascinating bio-semiotic performances, whichever species or processes are dominant. But when the mudcretes in question are the product of human labour, they always act as social media.

Full article available here: http://ajar.arena-architecture.eu/articles/10.5334/ajar.6/

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching

Some notes on the anthropocene (or, welcome to the pre-anthropocene!)

These brief notes were given by me at an event on the anthropocene at the University of Westminster on Tuesday 25th November 2014. (see http://instituteformodern.co.uk/2014/the-anthropocene-cities-politics-law-as-geological-agents)
I should probably start by saying that I claim no particular expertise in this area. The anthropocene is a concept that I have to deal with… mostly in the context of students who want to use it. Occasionally I use it myself, though generally in a heuristic sense, to explore the ways that the concept is being deployed, the political stances and potentialities that it contains. The following is a series of notes that have emerged from my engagements with the concept (in teaching both design studio, and history and theory, as well as recent research projects that I have been involved with, notably the scarcity project, and more recent work around questions of energy)). Hopefully this will provide some material to discuss what is at stake in the concept. how is the concept being deployed today and by whom, and perhaps most importantly for us this evening, whether the concept of the anthropocene might actually be conceived in such a way that it has useful conceptual structure that we can all do some work with, in our different fields.
The basic proposition of the concept of the anthropocene is a simple one: that the collective productive labour of the human species has become a global, geological force. The evidence can seem compelling: humans move more rock and earth than all of the Earth’s glaciers and rivers combined, we fix more nitrogen in the soil than microbial activity does, we consume in various ways vast quantities of the biological, material and energetic resources of the planet, and of course, we have our own sedimentary layer, what has become known as ‘Anthropocene rock—the concrete, steel and bitumen of the planet’s cities and roads’.
One of the biggest problems encountered with the anthropocene concept is that it is too easily adopted in a simplified form, as simply referring to this quantitative aspect, often all too enthusiastically by those who seem to take a rather adolescent male delight in the idea that at last (or once again) mankind has overcome his imagined nemesis in mother nature. We might start by saying that this is by far the most trivial and conservative reading of the term, and one which none of the initial authors (Paul Crutzen 2002) or primary users of the concept actually deploy. Nonetheless, one often encounters this kind of boosterish reading  – which of course, is particularly ironic, given that the anthropocene – should we chose to accept the term – could well be the geological era in which humanity becomes extinct! Paradoxically, we need to be careful that the anthropocene concept does not in fact naturalise, in terms of political ideology, our current way of being in the world.
But one of the problems with the concept is that it can seem to promote a naive and one-dimensional mode of Prometheanism, there are other problems too. Its is, it is hardly worth saying, a anthropocentric concept. Yet one wonders what it even means to say anthropocene when we learn that only 10% of the cells in the human body contain human DNA – is it already anachronistic, a legacy of outmoded ways of thinking about life. Concepts such as anthropocene often obscure as much as they illuminate, making us forget that every other living process on the planet also feeds into the anthropocene, and that this is an unfolding process that that ecological systems theory tells us we can in no viable way control.
There is perhaps also a danger that the concept acts to underplay more important categorisations. It might be more useful to think in terms of the difference between a biotic and abiotic planet, or a pre and post language planet. The anthropocene concept can act to compound our broader difficulty in recognising the complexity of other forms of species-life and who knows, other forms of species-being that are in the world.
One often hears that the anthropocene designates the first time that a single species has had such a global effect. Again, this is dubious.
We are certainly not the first species to have had a transformational geological affects at the scale of the planet. We might note for example that the Earth’s atmosphere is a non-equilibrium mixture of 21% oxygen and 78% nitrogen, and 1% other gases (mostly argon), including the all important carbon dioxide which makes up a mere 0.4%. However, 2.4 bn years ago the Earth was a very different place, there was no free oxygen in the atmosphere, and a great deal more carbon dioxide. This condition was transformed into the kind of atmosphere that were have today through what is known as the Great Oxegenation Event – the fundamental transformation of the oceans and atmosphere brought about through the photosynthetic activities of phytoplankton, such as cyanobacteria in the ocean, which produced sugars from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight, with oxygen as waste.
In this process the anaerobic life forms that had existed on the planet were wiped out in the first great mass extinction event, but which opened the way to the explosion of oxygen based life that we have on the planet today (well..) . Right now, 98% of the oxygen in our atmosphere is produced on an ongoing cyclical basis, through the photosynthetic labours of plants, trees and still primarily sea based organisms.
If we are impressed by our sedimentary activity in anthropocene rock, then we might do well to remember how much of our own landscape here on this island was directly produced out of the bodies of other species, producing limestone, and granite.. materials that we might think of as geological, but which are absolutely organic too. These materials of course, have provided the basis for our own anthropogenic building activity, both directly in the form of stone structures and claddings, but also indirectly as concrete.
Nor do we have the biggest structures on Earth. There is an ant colony that stretches 6000km from the Iberian peninsula through France to Italy in what National Geographic journal has described as ‘the largest cooperative biological unit ever discovered’.
And we would do well not to forget the global production of soils by microbes… I could of course go on…
So on one level, the concept seems to mark the last gasp of a particular mode of anthropocentric thought, the end of a way of thinking. However, beyond the trivial claim that human activities have changed the planet, there is a bigger, and more interesting claim, which doesn’t depend upon sedimentary activity, but is rather a question concerning consciousness. For example, we might concede that yes, many species have had, and continue to have, as profound a geological and atmospheric impact upon the planet as we have, but, as Marx famously noted, what distinguishes the worst of architects from the best of bees is that the human has a plan. Now, we might look at the world today and wonder ‘where’s the plan’, but in a sense, this is precisely the point in what I think is a more useful construction of the conception of anthropocene.
In fact, right from the start, the concept is tied to our emerging understanding of complex systems theories, of the material-energetic complexity of physical and natural systems, and humanities metabolic relations with those systems. Rather than an adolescent Promethean glee, the anthropocene can offer a more of a sober acknowledgement of both the real complexity of our inorganic body in ‘non-human’ nature, and accepts and works with the reality of our ecocide practices. Perhaps the most important, though still problematic intended use of the concept was to foreground an attempt to create a new kind of ecological literacy, and a global subject capable of perceiving its interdependencies with other life forms and systems, in the words of Paul Crutzen, one of the co-authors of the term.
Dipesh Chackrabarty developed an influential post-colonial critique of Crutzen’s formulation, focusing on the kind of universal human subject implied. Chackrabarty was also significant in pointing out how the concept had the potential to entirely reorganise the task of historiography, and called for a new kind of history writing that would work through the old distinctions of natural and human history… work which became useful in thinking about a lot of the practical and written work that has been developed in architecture schools in recent years. And more recently, a new wave of work on the anthropocene has taken the consciousness question further… Ben Dibley’s work on Marx’s conception of species-being and the anthropocene is particularly suggestive I think.
The concept of species-being is introduced by a young Marx in the Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, and although it reappears in various forms in his later writings it remains a concept that has caused some controversy of interpretation, which I do not have the space to go into here. But we can say that for Marx species-being is a potential, the potential of human existence to consciously reflect through practice on its own conditions of life as a mode of life, or in Marx’s words: ‘making life activity itself an object of will and consciousness’. However for Marx we do not yet experience life as species-being… we are as yet alienated from it:
‘The universality of man manifests itself in practice in that universality which makes the whole of nature his inorganic body, (1) as a direct means of life and (2) as the matter, the object, and the tool of his life activity. Nature is man’s inorganic body – that is to say, nature insofar as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature – i.e., nature is his body – and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature … Estranged labor turns . . . Man’s species-being, both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him . . . It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect’
So if for Marx the natural world is our extended body, but one which is alienated from us. I will conclude these brief notes by suggesting (following Dibley) that the progressive reading of the anthropocene – framed as a question of raising our self-consciousness of our deeply implicated order with the non-human world – might be rethought through species-being. But I would have then to conclude that today we live in the pre-anthropocene. We could of course move into the anthropocene, but this would be a necessarily revolutionary act. To paraphrase the young Marx, to do this, we would need to make ourselves, including our extended body in nature, the historical subjects of the anthropocene, as the form of our species-being.

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching,

Radical Theatre: Staging the Dialectic of Emergence and Planning

makingarchitecturepolitically

In the last few weeks I have had some great discussions around questions of planning, architecture and, for want of a better term, ecological urbanism. I have attempted to give two long lectures on the subject – at Umea in Sweden 2 weeks ago, in Vienna last week. In both cases the following seminars and discussions were good, even if my lecture keeps overrunning. I have just given a couple of short papers which inevitably touched on similar issues at the

We live in paradoxical times. We are told that we are dominated by free markets, yet multinational corporations such as Tesco and Wallmart are organising planned economies at level of scale and sophistication that the old Soviet Union could barely have dreamed of. The problem of course, is that these privately planned economies are obscure, undemocratic and unsustainable. Yet at the same time many on the left appear to have abandoned any talk of planning at all, and have become spell-bound by systems-theory-based conceptions of ‘self-organisation’, ’emergence’ and ‘flat ontologies’. Yet these concepts, whilst powerful, in many respects embody neoliberal ideology, and need to be treated with some caution. The very concept of planning at an urban and democratic-economic level, has it seems, never been weaker, even whilst what is at stake in planning – especially regarding ecological justice etc – has never been greater. In this session I will reflect upon these questions, and the role that architecture can play in self-consciously staging a dialectic of emergence and planning.

This is the very clear text from Roemer van Toorn for the Umea lecture series:

With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of Eastern European communism, the emergence of Third Way politics, and the subsequent rise of neo-liberalism, society became post-political. Discourses and practices of architecture not only suffered, but also enhanced this culture of de-politicization. The problem today is clearly not to make political architecture – neoliberal architecture is everywhere –, but to make architecture politically.

Now that the current economic crisis acts as late capitalism’s moment of truth architects should develop new visions, and help create projects that activate emancipation, surpassing the failure of neoliberalism. What we look for is a new beginning, an optimism – not another pessimism – of the architect as public intellectual that engages the optimism of the will and opens doors towards new social practices.

Architecture cannot, of course, conduct parliamentary politics. Spatial constellations can deliver no advice on how to vote or convey messages about social and political problems, but architecture is political precisely because of the distance it takes from these functions. Architecture is political in the way in which, as a space-time sensorium, it organizes being together or apart, and the way it defines outside or inside. Architecture is political also in the manner in which it makes the many controversies of reality visible by means of its own spatial and aesthetic syntax, and can enacts new spatial and aesthetic formations of sociability from within.

What we need in order to make room for the civil in our society is, according to Ariella Azoulay, ”the capacity known as political imagination, that is to say, the ability to imagine a political state of being that deviates significantly from the prevailing state of affairs“ What kind of political imagination – rethinking the political – can the practice and theory of architecture mobilize when it makes architecture politically is the focus of the UMA Spring lecture series of 2013.

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching, , ,

Spatial Thinking II conference Innsbruck

Two weeks ago I gave a paper entitled ‘Mediating the Ecological and the Neurological: An Architecture of the Extended Mind’ at the Spatial Thinking 2 conference at the University of Innsbruck. It was a great conference – highlights including keynotes by Thomas Metzinger and Deborah Hauptmann. I paste the introduction to my paper below. The full paper can be read here

Mediating the Ecological and the Neurological: An Architecture of the Extended Mind

Despite the widespread turn to various conceptions of embodiment in contemporary theory across the arts and sciences, many thinkers continue to default to the habit of assuming a tight and reductive correlation between mind and brain – or at least between mind and brain-plus-body. Yet as Alva Nöe has made clear, “not only can we not explain mind in terms of brain alone, we can only explain the brain, and its role in helping give us minds, by thinking of the place of the brain in the context of our interaction with the world.” Drawing upon the work of thinkers ranging from Gregory Bateson to Alva Nöe, from Marx and Engels to Clark and Chalmers and others, it seems today that that mind and consciousness must be understood as irreducibly extended and relational processes which are played out through ecological, social and neurological spaces. It is not then simply the case that new insights from the cognitive sciences can help us to ask new questions regarding how and why architecture is produced and spatial environments are experienced. Rather, I argue that much stronger questions can now be be framed regarding the roles that space itself plays in the construction of mind (rather than reducing architecture to neurology as some neuroaesthetic thinking tends to do). Indeed, we might suggest that the production of space necessarily precedes modern human consciousness (as Julian Jaynes anticipated). In my broader work in this area I have reflected upon a series of recent insights concerning the multiple neurological mappings of active bodies in space, and have offered some architectural interpretations of this material through frameworks provided by Gregory Bateson, JJ Gibson, Evan Thompson and Tim Ingold in particular. Following Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ observation that “consciousness is from the very beginning a social product”, I conclude that architecture today can be re-defined as a social interface which mediates the ecological and the neurological.
Above all, I note that the claims that we can legitimately make concerning our minds, bodies and environments, and the attempt to define an architecture of mind, is not an abstract and neutral scientific or philosophical endeavour, but always a live political project; it is a way of making claims about who and what we are, individually and collectively.

Filed under: ecology, research

Department of Ontological Theatre at RCA

There have been some changes in ADS5 at RCA over the summer. My teaching colleagues from last year – Justin Lau and Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui – have moved to the Bartlett, and instead this year I will be joined by Dr Victoria Watson (and later in the year Aran Chadwick from Atelier One). The studio will be known as the Department of Ontological Theatre.

Ontological Theatre: time-lapse image of Earth perceived by ISS International Space Station (NASA 2012)

ADS5 Dialectical Ecologies: Ontological Theatre

‘The language of architecture rests on the dialectic between memory of past architectural forms and the experiences of the present… [these] contradictions are thought of as being derived from ambiguity between real and virtual structure which is inherent in all architecture.’

Alan Colquhoun, Reflections on Complexity, Las Vegas and Oberlin (1978)

This studio will confront the contradictions of the present – ecological, economic, social, political, cultural, technological – but will attempt to do so through a strategic re-engagement with specific moments in the history of architecture. Rather than starting from surface level phenomena in the present, we will adopt a dialectical approach, tracing those contradictions back in time, identifying earlier dynamics. From here we will stage Ontological Theatre: architectural experiments into the nature of order, planning, design, and technology, and speculations about how we might think of matter, mind, social collectivity, and ecological systems in the future.

 

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching

ADS5 at RCA Show 2012 and ‘Between the A12 and River Lea’ exhibition.

It has been a great first year teaching MA/diploma studio at the Royal College of Art with Justin Lau and Kenny Kinugasa-Tsui. The (rather out of date) studio blog is at http://ads5.wordpress.com/

Particular congratulations to final year students Jack Wates, Joseph Deane (who will represent the RCA in the RIBA Silver medal awards) and Emma Emerson (who was awarded the NLA prize by Peter Murray).

The work is on show at the RCA Show 2012 until July 2nd, and at the exhibition ‘Between the A12 and River Lea‘ at Assemble’s studios, which is open until July 8th as a part of the London Festival of Architecture.

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching, , , , , ,

Architecture Today: Review of Project Japan by Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist

The review (by David Cunningham and me) of the Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist’s book ‘Project Japan’ on the metabolist movement in post-war Japanese architecture is available free online at http://www.architecturetoday.co.uk/?p=23259

Filed under: ecology, research, , , , ,

About

rheomode is the research lbase of Dr Jon Goodbun
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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.

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Contact

You can reach me:
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jcgoodbun (a) mac.com

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