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

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


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, , , , ,

Ecological Urbanism: Re-imagining the Project of Planning for a Post-Capitalist World

I am happy to have been one of 20 researchers invited to present their work at the launch event of the new Graduate School of the University of Westminster. Here is my poster:

Ecological Urbanism: Re-imagining the Project of Planning for a Post-Capitalist World

Dr Jon Goodbun

We are today, according to the UK government’s chief scientist John Beddington, facing a ‘perfect storm’ of social, political, economic and ecological dimensions. The full extent of our problems is yet to be determined, but one thing seems certain: our foreseeable futures will not be like our recent pasts. Leading analysts of all the major resource domains – water, food, material resources and energy – tell us that our global industrial and financial models, driven by the short-termism of market forces, are stressed and close to systemic failure.

Our economic naiveté is compounded by the widespread disregard of science’s warnings regarding our planetary environment. Biologists tell us that we are in the midst of the biggest mass extinction event in 65 million years, whilst in recent weeks atmospheric monitoring stations in the Arctic have recorded levels above 400 ppm CO2e for the first time. The built environment is responsible for around 60% of carbon emissions, yet a recent report by engineers Ove Arup declared that global attempts by governments and industry to self regulate and reduce emissions have been ‘a near total failure’.

In fact, our economic and ecological problems are interconnected, and the production of the built environment straddles both domains. My work explores new models for thinking about the complex interactions between buildings, cities, and the broader social and ecological networks within which we exist. I argue that we can develop new conceptual, political and design tools out of the legacies of several centuries of systems theory research, which can help us think about buildings and cities as processes more than objects – as complex and interconnected multi-scalar systems and hybrids of human and natural ecologies. I argue that such a project suggests not just a rethinking of architectural practice, but a renewal and expansion of the social project of planning more broadly. Yes, we need to start planning smart ecological urban infrastructures, but that shift in political priorities can only be delivered through a democratic planning of the global economy.


I have a book contract with Ashgate to publish my PhD (completed last summer): ‘The Architecture of the Extended Mind – Towards a Critical Urban Ecology’. Since completing my doctorate I have set up a design research practice called Rheomode (see www.rheomode.org.uk). Rheomode is currently involved in 4 main research projects, including

1. Scarcity, working as a part of the SCIBE AHRC/HERA European research team, based at the University of Westminster. I have recently co-guest-edited (with Prof Jeremy Till and Dr Deljana Iossifova) a special issue of the journal Architectural Design on ‘Scarcity – Architecture in an age of depleting resouces’.

2. A RIBA funded teaching and research project looking at the political ecologies of concrete and digital fabrication.

3. Re-imagining the project of planning, a broad urban ecology teaching and research project (and book in progress).

4. Space and Mind, an ongoing research interest in thinking about the role that ecological, technological and spatial environments play in our cognitive processes.

Filed under: ecology, research

Something I wrote four years ago…

In a conversation at the RCA last week the Oxford Conference on architectural education in 2008 was briefly mentioned. It reminded me that I wrote an open letter to the conference with Karin Jaschke, which was published on by BDOnline at the time. It is interesting to reread this article now – especially in the light if the current discussions at the RCA with Alex de Rijke and Charles Walker and other staff and students, regarding rewriting the architecture course.

The article (pasted below) was written towards the end of the Labour government,  and before the Lehman Brothers crash. Clearly the economic crisis and the new right wing UK government have shifted priorities and political debate enormously, but it is still remarkable how much the discussion around the environment has moved in the wrong direction. There is of course also a lot in this article that I would not say in the same way today. We seemed to be fairly comfortable using the word ‘sustainability’ without too much qualification. This was partly in response the Oxford conferences use of the term, but today I would be much more critical of that term. I would also not use the term ‘autonomy’ in the same way regarding architecture. We were obviously referring to some of the more myopic design studios, but today I think have a much more dialectical conception of architectural autonomy, and would state much more strongly the way that a certain way of working with and thinking about architectural autonomy is key to grasping architecture’s political dimensions – following in particular recent writing by Victoria Watson and Pier Vittorio Aureli (and in a different sense Patrik Schumacher). In general I would make more of the usefulness of urban political ecology in thinking about cities and the environmental question, following more recent work by for example Erik Swyngedouw and Matthew Gandy, and would avoid some of the more eco-apocalyptic language.

In any case, I include the original article below unedited:

Dear conference,

We apologies for not being with you in person. We are writing in response to the short opinion piece by Iain Borden on this Oxford Conference, sustainability and architectural education, which is circulating amongst delegates, and which is going to be published in the September issue of Blueprint. We are also writing to report back on the major international pan-disciplinary design research conference held in Turin earlier this month, ‘Changing the Change’, to which we contributed.
In his piece, Iain refers to ‘a certain sense of unease’ that he feels at the ‘clarion call’ of sustainability. His uneasiness is shared by many colleagues. Indeed, we have been watching with some fascination the real sense of fear that the ‘environmental question’ has instilled in many architectural educators in recent years. For many design tutors this fear is well founded, as they are in no way intellectually equipped to deal with the practical demands of students, nor the critical demands of the issues at stake. We find ourselves in the curious position of watching design tutors demanding their right to autonomy, that is to say, demanding their right to social irrelevance, and we wonder with Marx, who will educate the educators?
Yet the challenges ahead might prove to be architectural and design education’s greatest moment. To understand why this is, we need a sober reflection upon where we are now, and the nature of the intellectual, social and political struggles that we face.
Firstly, let us be clear, the ‘environmental question’ is of a completely different order to any other issue that we are facing. This is because the environmental question forces us to confront the question of value production in capitalism head on, in a way that no other contemporary issue does. Iain wonders whether, “global health, intercultural interaction, and well-being”, might be “other challenges of equal or perhaps greater significance.” These are all important issues, and indeed for many thinkers they are inseparable and fundamental to the question of sustainable living. However, they will all be completely determined by outcome of the confrontation between ‘the environmental question’ and capitalist production. Period.
The kind of scientific reports on climate change that have been coming out over the last year are of a different order to what has come before. Benchmarks that had been thought to be fifty years away in a worse case scenario are now, it seems, upon us. In the coming weeks the North Pole will be navigable to normal shipping for the first time, whilst Australia has already shifted to a new pattern of seasons and rainfall. The recent Stockholm Networks report suggested that even if we were to meet Kyoto plus standards, which we certainly will not, there will still be fast and massive negative change to the world that we know. The kinds of discussions that we are having in construction, which are almost exclusively around carbon emission control (ie a tiny part of the environmental impact of building), will at best slightly delay change. Considered as technical solutions alone, they are irrelevant. There is after all nothing special about carbon – it is the most currently pressing of many natural cycles that have been distorted as capitalist growth hits planetary limits, but we are also losing control of our food, water, material and energy futures too. We need to start asking, exactly what scenarios are we designing for, and for whom?
Naomi Klein in her recent book has brilliantly exposed how some of the most criminal and un-progressive forces in global capitalism use crises to dominate entire areas of the global economy. On the basis of our current situation, we have to conclude that by far the most likely scenario that we are heading towards, is that of a degraded planet, with huge regions becoming increasingly uninhabitable, producing massive migration shifts, whilst even the wealthier areas struggle to meet energy and material needs, and have significant problems with food crops and supplies.
These are unfortunately exactly the kind of conditions that ‘crisis capitalism’ loves. In the absence of any popular shared vision of a new way of being on the planet, an atmosphere of real fear will emerge. In this situation, the corporations with for example interests in nuclear power and GM foods will put pressure on governments to give them full access to global markets. These will even seem like common sense solutions.. indeed to our current Prime Minister they already do. Increasingly, the only food that will grow is from the seeds of privately owned and centralised GM corporations (with proprietary pollinating GM insects already being developed!), and the main energy supplies will come from centralised nuclear ‘big power’ interests. This is not centuries away. This is being put in place now. This is Green Capitalism!
So what does this have to do with architectural practice, education, and the Oxford Conference? Well, firstly, we need to understand that the questions confronting us are not about avoiding climate change – it is already far too late for that. It is about damage limitation and amelioration. It is about creating positive visions of alternative futures, as a form of resistance, and to counter the fear that will come. It is about designing properly local-global decentralised network structures of power, food, information and infrastructure that are both robust enough to exist on their own in a worst case scenario, and which take power away from the criminal centres of capitalism today. It is about properly training designers in systems theory, ecology, cybernetics etc… training designers to be social facilitators and political activists, designers of processes and economies as well as beautiful objects. It is about producing new kinds of design schools, which are active agents of local and global change. It is about producing new kinds of professionals, and facilitating new kinds of participatory design.
If architectural and design education is to meet this historic role, then it will need to free itself from the constraints of the professional bodies to which it is shackled, or it will need to transform those bodies entirely. Let the students redesign the curriculum, and not only will you find that sustainability issues are suddenly at the core of all subjects areas, but that some very interesting shifts in pedagogy, content, and indeed definitions of architecture and architectural work would materialise. Indeed, among the first critiques that properly sustainable architectural institutions will make will be concerning the many relationships between professional architecture and capitalist criminality.
Iain’s unease is then understandable. Sustainability is in its broadest form grounded in values that are antithetical to those underpinning the architectural profession and architectural education in most institutions today: the importance of authorship, the premium on individualism, an idea of creativity that is still fundamentally rooted in 19th century romantic and idealist artistic thought. Instead sustainability thinking, at least tendentiously, foregrounds co-authorship, co-creation, and an agency oriented rather than ego-centric approach to design.
Last week’s ‘Changing the Change – An international conference on the role and potential of design research in the transition towards sustainability’ conference in Turin, chaired by Ezio Manzini, demonstrated the breadth of definitions that are active in current sustainability discourse, ranging from environmental and carbon-focused thinking to socially and psychologically oriented research; from highly theoretical systems thinking to hands-on, bottom-up engagement. Manzini’s research project, ‘The Sustainable Everyday’, is grounded in designers going out into the world and looking for progressive grass roots activities to network, up-scale and support. It is a living demonstration of real design research in action. It has wide geographical spread and enormous trans-cultural and co-operative potential. Designers (architects were invited but thin on the ground) have clearly caught on to the fact that sustainability is an infinitely sensible, realistic, and energising proposition in a world with obvious and potentially lethal flaws in its structural (economic, material) and, arguably, philosophical (social, spiritual) set-up. Yes, sustainability is a systemic cultural critique.
Ultimately Iain’s unease is in defence of a plurality of approaches to architecture, and with this we concur – diversity is fundamental to the robust health of any ecology. We would also join him in resisting any overly ambitious common declaration of intent. There is very little consensus or understanding around what sustainability is or means in architecture, and we should not pretend otherwise at this stage. And above all, architectural education should be in the business of critiquing definitions of sustainability provided by the profession, for reasons that we hope are by now clear.

Jon Goodbun (University of Westminster) and Karin Jaschke (University of Brighton), 2008

Filed under: ecology, research, teaching

Gregory Bateson – An Ecology of Mind documentary film

I am co-organising (with Kevin Power (Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School) and Wallace Heim) the London premier of:

An Ecology of Mind: A Film by Nora Bateson
Monday 27 February 2012, 18:30-22:00 pm
Old Cinema, University of Westminster, 309 Regent Street, London W1B 2UW

Tickets: £9.50; £3.50 (student/unwaged/Westminster staff)
Book your ticket from: http://anecologyofmindlondon.eventbrite.co.uk/

The Institute for Modern and Contemporary Culture (IMCC) at the University of Westminster is proud to host the London premier of Nora Bateson’s An Ecology of Mind: A Daughter’s Portrait of Gregory Bateson. The screening will be followed by an interdisciplinary panel and audience discussion with Nora Bateson, and will end with a wine reception in the Regent Street foyer.

Panel with Nora Bateson; Iain Boal (Birkbeck College); Jody Boehnert (Brighton University); Ranulph Glanville (American Society for Cybernetics); Peter Reason (Action Research); and Wendy Wheeler (London Metropolitan University). Chaired by Jon Goodbun (IMCC and Architecture, Westminster)

“Tell me a story” … of life, art and science, of systems and survival. Gregory Bateson’s way of thinking – seeing the world as relationships, connections and patterns – continues to influence and provoke new thinking about human social life, about ecology, technology, art, design and health. Nora Bateson, Gregory’s youngest daughter, introduces Bateson’s ideas to new audiences in her film An Ecology of Mind, using the metaphor of a relationship between father and daughter, and footage of Bateson’s talks.

There are several other screenings around the country – see www.anecologyofmind.com Each screening, too, hosts a discussion between Nora and a wide range of people working in depth with Bateson’s ideas: artists, architects, action researchers, ecological activists, mental health practitioners, scientists, urban designers, cyberneticians. These screenings and discussions intend to show a way of thinking that crosses fields of knowledge and experience, one that can lead out of the ecological crisis and towards a more sound way of living.

Awards for the film:
Gold for Best Documentary, Spokane International Film Festival, 2011
Audience Award Winner, Best Documentary, Santa Cruz Film Festival, 2011
Winner, Media Ecology Association, John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis, 2011

Event organised by Jon Goodbun (Westminster), Wallace Heim, Kevin Power (Centre for Action Research, Ashridge Business School) and Eva Bakkeslett

To book a ticket go to: http://anecologyofmindlondon.eventbrite.co.uk/

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

PhD viva interview, 2nd August 2011

Jon Goodbun’s PhD viva interview, 2nd August 2011

Department of Architecture, University of Westminster

Notes by Murray Fraser



Present: Jonathan Hale (JH), Jeremy Till (JT), Jon Goodbun (JG), Marion Roberts, Murray Fraser


JH: Would you like to begin by saying something generally about your thesis subject and how it all started?

JG: I was concerned with how to think about environmental questions, in their broadest sense, in relation to architecture. But it has been a complex journey depending on different stages of my career and the issues I have been thinking about (e.g. digital architecture/aesthetic theory/tools and prosthesis/ecology/etc.). The importance of ecology for instance has only truly become apparent to me over the last few years. I came to realise that all these questions are inseparable and can be thought about together by looking at architectural space and architectural technology. This mixture of ideas can then be used in turn to illuminate the internals relations thinking within Marxism and also to update cybernetic theory. For me the key figure in all this is Gregory Bateson.

JH: You mention that your thesis began as a PhD by Design and that in some ways you think it still is. Can you explain this more?

JG: My thesis needs to be seen as design research because it mixes moments of critical theory, architectural history and scientific analysis in a broad-based interdisciplinary manner. And the way in which such different types of knowledge have been deliberately and laterally combined — just like architects do in their work — has to be seen as a design research model. I don’t mean that it is about producing designs as such, but I am talking about the general intellectual approach. Capitalism is obviously a non-disciplinary phenomenon, and so the design research approach offered me a way to grasp together distinct kinds of knowledge.

JT: Are you saying that it is analogous to design research, or is it actually design research in itself?

JG: I would say that it is actual design research.

JH: But did your research begin more explicitly as a process in which you intended to produce design projects?

JG: Yes, that’s true — my thesis was always framed in an open way to collect together many things, and in order to allow its path to develop according to what I discovered.

JT: I agree that parts of your thesis are based on design research, but this is not applied consistently in every chapter. Could you not have more explicitly used the design research method in, for instance, your chapter on nature?

JG: I agree that some chapters are less based on the design research method, but I see the latter as working its effect across the thesis as a whole, not in every chapter/section.

JT: However, this means it is harder for the reader to follow. If you take the 6-stage analysis of Marxist thinking given on p.29, could you not have used that as a structure, or something similar? Don’t you need a clearer ‘road map’ of what the research methods are across the thesis in order to meet the requirements for a PhD?

JG: Yes, I could have done that, but I decided early on that I didn’t want to follow just one linear research method due to the complexity of the subject matter.

JT: OK, but what then is your actual research question? That is essential for a PhD, surely.

JG: I see my research question as having two aspects: What does it mean to think about architecture within a set of different disciplines? And how can we then establish a framework of terms which arise out of those disciplines that can be used to illuminate architecture?

JH: What is the relationship between Part 1 and Part 2 in your thesis? How important is that division? And does it not work against your intentions by appearing to categorise things in binary terms?

JG: I must confess that the very first page of the thesis, which clusters the list of chapters into those two parts, was only added hurriedly on the morning of printing! There had previously been a hint in my conclusion that there might be seen as two parts to the thesis, but it wasn’t really worked out properly. On reflection, I probably shouldn’t have included that Part 1/Part 2 on the first page.

JT: Could it perhaps be read as meaning that Part 1 is based on more grounded knowledge whereas Part 2 is more speculative? In any case, I would have liked to see more sections in the thesis that related your argument back to typical architectural approaches. Your structure could have been far more synthetic in always returning to your stated research question of what all of this means for architecture.

JG: Yes, I would agree with that.

JH: What you have produced is in effect a sort of Deleuzian-style marshalling of a ‘constellation’ of analytical tools which haven’t been brought together in this way by other writers before. My sense is that there is not a Part 1 or a Part 2, and indeed the different sections could have been organised in a different order and it wouldn’t really matter. The problem with that approach, however, is that there tends to be a lot of repetition of points and cross-referencing to other chapters.

JG: But that was deliberate — I introduced the cross-referencing to link the material together as it was so complex and interconnected.

JH: This however means that the thesis has become perhaps too long? It also means that certain other aspects maybe have been squeezed out. Jeremy has mentioned the relative lack of architectural analysis; I would like to point out the missing aspect of the human body.

JT: To follow that point up, i.e. in terms of the thesis length, could you not have taken out Chapter 6 and the whole thing still wouldn’t collapse?

JG: Perhaps that chapter might have been omitted, but I do feel that its content is necessary for my overall argument. In terms of your point, Jonathan, I wanted very much to take bodily relationships in hand and show the relation to the human brain and neuroscience. I aimed to give a different reading of the relations between body/space/technology than is found in the usual texts on the body in architecture. I also felt there were key innovations in cognitive science which are helpful in thinking about space/architecture, and so Chapter 6 is there to build a bigger picture of analysis.

JH: But that only highlights a missing middle-ground around the human body in your thesis, as otherwise the reader has to make a major leap between the stuff about the brain and the stuff about the ecosystem. Perhaps bodily practices could have been brought into your analysis, such as by looking more at Merleau-Ponty? I just feel the subject of the ‘body schema’ has been omitted.

JG: My view was that there has been a lot of work done in that subject area, so I just wanted to let it stand. Also, my chapter on empathy does include a lot about the body, human perception, etc.

JH: But your explanation about empathy is still too much about the brain! My view is that even the subject of empathy can be explained a lot more through bodily studies .It’s worth thinking about.

JT: For me the big question around your subject is that of intentionality. In other words, do such theories always lead to a certain inevitability about our aesthetic understanding/experience? The danger of cybernetics, surely, is that it turns us into passive subjects. So I want to ask where or what is the difference between human agency and precious subjectivity?

JG: Yes, that is a major issue which animates my thesis. Bateson was indeed a co-founder of cybernetics and systems research, but his intellectual project was always about showing the dangers of such thinking in its tendency towards conceiving closed systems. He, plus a few others, wanted to show that human systems are always open and can never be fully controlled; thus they can be directly affected by human agency. My thesis also argues that too much systems theory has been incorporated into thinking and policies that are closed systems, and hence are too technocratic. Instead, following Bateson, my aim was to formulate ways of thinking that reinforce the open systems method. This, when coupled with Marxism and political ecology, gives my project a radical edge as well as a clear purpose and sense of agency.

JT: That’s a very good answer, but how then does your thesis link it back to the analysis of the human mind and aspects such as ecology? How can one possibly look at empathy in terms of the radical systems approach that you advocate?

JG: I share your concerns. A major problem is the reductive nature of the language that we have available to ask these questions. Both the terms ‘mind’ and ‘matter’ are insufficient, yet they are the necessary terms to use because they are the words that we have. However, we can also start to question them. In fact, this was what Marx and Engels were doing; for instance, they declared that they were materialists while at the same time they questioned the existing meaning of ‘materialism’, since they could see its weaknesses. In my thesis I therefore looked at Bateson, Bohm and others to see how they had attempted to get over these conceptual problems. And what I am arguing is that architectural knowledge can contribute to our understanding of terms like ‘mind’ and ‘matter’, and the problematic distinctions we try to make between them, because architecture enacts the division of labour between ideas and buildings in its very practices. We can also realise that our complex understanding of architecture is very much based on the physical and spatial embodiments of the problematic mind/matter dualism that we have inherited.

JT: But are you not selling yourself short by saying that? On p.335 you offer a quote about the act of design being something which ‘reveals’ an understanding of the world, but is that really enough of a purpose for architecture? What about the act of creation or changing the world?

JG: I was quoting Pickering at that point, and what you ask for is in fact what he was talking about — i.e. that humans need to be active and creative in the world to survive. So he was using the term ‘revealing’ in a wider, active, creative sense, and not just about mere passive understanding. And I also meant it as an affirming embrace of the act of design that is not about closing down things. Systems in the end are always reductive, even in architecture, and so far more interesting is the continual need to open them up again.

JH: Once you talk about agency as a distributed system, then what is the role of the individual designer? Where is free will in all of this? Does what you argue take away the scope of the individual person — in this case the architect –to be creative?

JG: I agree that the problem of the role (or indeed existence) of the individual designer becomes a problem in the systems theory approach, but I would argue that this in fact helps to open up the issue of creativity and how it can be enacted.

JH: How does this impact on what it means for the individual agent/architect to act in the world? Might your thesis have talked more explicitly about our notions of self?

JG: Again I agree with you, and that is why I tried to keep away from the fuzzier and more generalised versions of open systems, which tend to omit the role of individuals.

JH: In terms of tracing the history of systems theory in architecture, is your use of Alberti as the first one — due to his uses of ‘part’ and ‘whole’ — really supporting the idea of open systems? Does not their very openness and fluidity refute any notion of a whole? Also, if you are following that particular historical trajectory back in time, could you not have gone even further to interpret Vitruvius, or even certain pre-Socratic thinkers, as the original systems theorists on subjects like architecture?

JG: I agree that Alberti is not perhaps a major example, and that one could possibly trace these ideas to earlier writers. However, it was just that when reading Alberti I was especially struck by how much he had thought in proto-systems theory terms, and how he had used this approach to link buildings to aesthetics and cities and the cosmos. As to the relationship between ‘part’ and ‘whole’, I regard it as the first systems problem in philosophy!

JH: Elsewhere in the thesis you say that you see Maturana and Varela as providing a ‘labour theory’ of living matter and human cognition. Can you explain this a bit more?

JG: If you are trying, as I am here, to update Marxism, ecological thinking and cybernetics, one comes to realise that they are all trying to think about how people live and sustain themselves. They all end up with a similar model which holds that, within a system, any actor that is able to recognise the need to act is a link between life and mind. In other words, the act of impacting on one’s environment in order to produce oneself — and this doesn’t matter what species one is — is akin to Marxist labour theory. So one arrives at a labour definition whenever one tries to define or describe metabolism. I think it’s an important point, but I don’t think anyone has written it before me!

JT: Yes, it seems to me that the passage on p.58 is the real change in the thesis. That is where you say that autopoesis is not just a closed process, but that it is always framed in terms of its relation to external systems. Hence it is always essentially dialectical. Is that too an original insight?

JG: I think so, and what I am arguing here is that autopoesis is not just a closed loop of self-generation as it is so often written about. Any process of self-generation can only occur if matter and energy are present, and produces itself in contact with them; therefore all production only exists in relation to external forces. Therefore one can say that in some ways that architecture is a closed loop, but that condition is only sustained as a result of production by, and interaction with, a whole host of external matters such as economics, ecology, etc.

JT: In that case, how does what you say relate to the current theory of autopoesis being promoted by someone like Patrik Schumacher?

JG: As far as I understand it, Schumacher’s work is heavily derived from Luhmann, who is a third-generation neo-cybernetician interested in social sciences, and who in turn took much of his analysis from Maturana and Varela and also Stafford Beer. What Schumacher writes is of interest as he is someone who happens to be returning to neo-cybernetic analysis to ask questions such as what is the nature of architectural knowledge, and what constitutes the architectural profession? However the real disappointment in his book is that ‘parametricism’ is somehow the answer to all of these questions! I therefore don’t think that Schumacher gets us anywhere.

JH: I was struck by the diagram that you reproduced on p.57 which has a chair that is seemingly expressing feelings or emotions. Does a chair have agency?

JG: In my thesis I use a really good quote from Latour about how the objects around us should be seen as a continuum of agency, and in this sense every object can offer affordances.

JH: I think that’s important, but could you not have written more about agency and affordances, especially in relation to the idea of bodily presence put forward by Merleau-Ponty, Gibson, etc? In other words, humans have a bodily grasp of the world before we even start to think about it in intellectual terms. Such a view would help to link your ideas more to architecture.

JG: I certainly tried to do this when I was writing about the idea of affordance as being part of our relationship to the surrounding world.

JH: Yes, but are not the detailed kinds of affordance that you talk about in your thesis — i.e. surface pattern and texture — too much of a side-step when dealing with this aspect? Surely there is a more basic and broader, and thus more important, reading that can be made of affordances in architecture, especially in their influence on how people relate to and understand architecture?

JG: I did have some material on that point in relation to Van Eyck’s Amsterdam playgrounds, but I took it out. I probably should have kept it in, given that what you say is correct.

JH: If I can pick up on another point, was Bateson not too influenced by the idea of information flows — in cybernetic terms, of how information had ‘lost its body’ — and as a consequence he undervalued physical, lived, bodily reality?

JG: Yes, but that in a sense what all the cyberneticians were trying to do in focussing on information streams as the expression of language differences in their dispersed modern state.

JH: Is there not a real danger in splitting off the mental concepts in language from the body, even if one also acknowledges that language at an early stage of human development came out of bodily practices? Surely we still need, even today, a much tighter embodiment of language as a social practice in which bodily practice is equally vital. For me, this is the point where cybernetics falters.

JG: I agree that we need to put the body back into our thinking, especially in light of the impact of prosthetics and other forms of extension. Interestingly, this kind of integration seems to be returning into the latest theories and designs in robotics, which hitherto had tended to be very mechanical in conception.

JH: The issue is how to avoid becoming trapped in the kinds of binaries that language presents us with, such as the matter/pattern division that you criticise. Can one not look at the information systems that create pattern while always keeping in mind the actual ‘stuff’ of matter? In other words, embodiment always encompasses information, and hence practices of information flow — even in our digitally enhanced age — inherently have a bodily construction and a form of bodily participation. I guess what I am suggesting is that there is a danger in an over-emphasis on language!

JG: I totally agree, and in my thesis I was trying to state the dialectical process of recognising the separation of ‘part’ but always returning to the ‘whole’, which would include bodily practices.

JH: I think your thesis should definitely become a book, but in that instance I would suggest that you mention more about the bodily schema and associated social practices. You could for example take Bourdieu in the way that he extended Merleau-Ponty to include the analysis of economics, social systems, etc. This would also help to get your thesis away from the science laboratory set-up that is perhaps too strong in some chapters. I also think you should link the insights from neurology far more closely to your ecological readings.

JT: A final point I would make is that you should stress more that what you are saying offers a chance to deal with, and impact on, systems in the world if indeed the political control over us is really as intractable as writers like Harvey and Swyngedouw claim. These urban pessimists seem to be saying that there can only ever be change if there is full-scale social revolution! Does not your more integrated reading offer us more hope for action?

JG: I admire Harvey’s co-evolutionary strategy as it complexifies the idea of struggle/resistance, and thus gives us a sense that at any moment one can act and labour in such a way that contributes to potentially disruptive changes in capitalism. Hence left-wing thinking needs the sort of intellectual work that I have carried out in my thesis, as otherwise it can be accused of not having progressed much in recent decades. Fundamental epistemological work needs to be done even before we start to think about politics, which is what Bateson said. I would like to take this strategy but also make the political critique far more explicit.

JT: We need to take seriously the links between the political and the ecological, and indeed one can argue that it is the latter aspect which tends to be downplayed in the work of Swyngedouw and others in the field of urban political ecology. In other words, they have too much of the politics and not enough of the ecology!

JG: Again, I couldn’t agree more.






JH/JT: We think that this is an excellent, indeed amazingly original, piece of work and so it is clearly a pass. It should definitely be developed into a book; bearing that in mind, we decided against asking you to add in more text about the methodology of your thesis, since that is precisely what would then be taken out by the publisher when it becomes a book! However, there are (as ever) some minor typos which we will notify you of and which need to be corrected quickly before the thesis is bound and put into the library.





Filed under: ecology, research


rheomode is the research base of Dr Jon Goodbun

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.



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

Twitter Feed @jongoodbun

%d bloggers like this: