Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Relocating: Yi-Fu Tuan’s Return to China

A few years ago when I was back in Dublin, visiting home from Chicago, I got into a mild altercation with an inebriate outside the Hairy Lemon pub on Stephen St. I was taking a photograph of the pub sign, being curious at the time about the large number of establishments in Dublin whose names referred to nature. The Stag’s Head, Cock Tavern, Red Parrot, Cat and Cage, The Greyhound Inn, The Swan Bar, The Bleeding Horse, The Boar’s Head, and so on. The drunk roused from the clumsy enjoyment of a cigarette, lurched towards me and asked, charmingly enough at first, if I was a CIA informant. I am not. Our conversation quickly descended into a request for royalty payments for the use of his image, a short sermon from him on trust, and then unpleasant accusations were made about how “yanks never pay for what they take”. I assured him I was not from the US. He looked me up and down a moment. I was wearing shorts, tee-shirt,and Birkenstock's — the international symbol of rootlessness — and had a Nikon on my shoulder. “Fooking Canadian,” he exclaimed.

I was a tourist in my hometown.

One metric of the geographical complexity of the age we are living in is how long it takes to answer the simple question: Where are you from? For years I would reply, quite simply, that I am from Dublin. Now I notice that I say I am “originally from Dublin” and then mutter something about having lived in Georgia for four years and have been in the Midwest for over a decade. The codicil communicates, I think, that if I am being honest I have been shaped by my long years in the United States, and that I do not quite belong in Ireland any more. More complex still is the case for my sons. One is born in Dublin, the other in Athens, Georgia. They have lived in Evanston, Illinois for longer than anywhere else. Where are they from? How long does it take them to explain?


In 2004 famed humanist geographer Yi-Fu Tuan was invited to talk to an international architecture conference in China. He had not returned to China since he left in 1941 at age ten. He is currently residing in Madison, Wisconsin. The invitation raised questions for him about where he was really from. “I have doubts”, he conceded, “about my identity and where I truly belong." Though he was accustomed, he said, to deflecting questions about his real home by claiming that he was from Earth, he recognized these interrogations about geographical origins are really about our deepest attachments, about where one is most comfortable. Compounding Tuan’s problem about his identity was the poor state of his spoken Chinese. He would have to deliver his talk in English with a translator. As a humanist, language is Tuan’s “working tool” — he should be at home in language. He felt ashamed of his deficits.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Nature Deficit Disorder and the *Next* Generation

The youth of America show consistent concern about the welfare of those even more youthful than they are. The youth themselves, it seems, are A-Okay. 

Such is the message I get from environmental science students when I present to them the evidence for Nature Deficit Disorder. The diagnosis of Nature Deficit Disorder stems from the observation that the past generation of children have been getting significantly less exposure to natural experiences than was the case for previous generations of children. In his widely read book Last Child in the Woods, journalist Richard Louv claimed that this reduction in contact with the great outdoors has had tremendous implications. Nature Deficit Disorder as Louv reported it, “describes the human cost of alienation from nature.” These costs include a diminished use of the senses, physical and emotional illnesses and a magnification of attention deficit problems. Louv’s work has has assembled the evidential support for and has now motivated a national movement to create more opportunities to bring children out of doors. This is fostered by the Children & Nature Network which Louv co-founded and by many regional initiatives such as the Chicago Wilderness Alliance's Leave no Child Indoors program. I am certainly all for it.

Richard Louv draws optimism in talking with college students about his work. These students belong, as Louv sees it, to the “first de-natured generation.” Collectively, they are experiencing many of the symptoms of the affliction that Louv has identified. When the issue of “nature’s role in health — physical, mental, and spiritual — was introduced into the conversation the tone changed…”, Louv wrote. What began as more theoretically inflected discussions about environmental problems “quickly turned personal.” Here is a problem that one can do something about and the students responded warmly.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Uncanny Landscapes: Leaving Behind the Landscapes of Childhood

Savanna/Woodland, Lake Co, Illinois

On a spring afternoon in the early years of this century I took a stroll through the East Woods at the Morton Arboretum near Lisle, Illinois. The trees were still leafless and the light was very fierce, so much so that I shielded my eyes with my hand, as if I was saluting my companion. Christopher, who walked beside me, and I were admiring the ecological restoration work that had been accomplished in that woodland over the years since I had been visiting. Dominated by oaks and sugar maples the East Woods is about five hundred acres, the same as Ashdown Forest in England where Winnie-the-Pooh lived. In fact, the part in which we rambled was about 100 acres like that part of Ashdown Forest around Owl’s house known to Pooh and his friends as the 100 acre wood.
As far as anyone can tell the vegetation composition of the East Woods now converges on that found in the woods more than a century before. After the mid 19th century the woodlands of the Chicago area came under the influence of the huge numbers of new settlers in the area, altering hydrology, modifying fire regimes, selectively logging trees, introducing alien species and so on. Undoing these influences and restoring representative woodlands to their pre-settlement composition is a goal of some Chicago-area conservation organizations. Marlin Bowles, an ecologist at the Arboretum, is an authority on reconstructing the region’s pre-settlement vegetation, doing so by digitizing early land surveyors’ notes and creating regional vegetation maps for the 1800s. Bowles and his colleagues have applied this information to the ongoing restoration work at the East Woods.

Friday, January 11, 2013

My Question for Graham Harman regarding Scientific Materialism

Graham Harman spoke at DePaul today on “A New Look at Identity and Sufficient Reason" to a packed room.  His paper was a relatively straightforward account of some differences between his Object-Oriented philosophy and the work of Quentin Meillassoux.  These differences are, I expect, well known to those who are following the speculative realist literature so I am not interested in recounting them here.  Harman’s paper was structured so that he could provide a succinct and readily accessible account of his own thoughts on object-oriented ontology (OOO).  It was very helpful to novices such as I am.

The questions that followed were probing, querulous to some extent, but the exchange was good humored and Graham gave a stout defense in respond to any objections that were raised.  The only question that seemed to give him real pause, or so it seemed to me, was one from Will McNeill (who chaired Harman’s dissertation committee back in the day), who suggested (if I am getting this right) that Heidegger had abandoned his phenomenological approach of the 1920s and by the mid-thirties in, for example, The Origin of the Work of Art had been doing a type of philosophy that began with the object.  That is, McNeill was ratifying a certain distinction between early and later Heidegger that Harman is not prepared to concede.  Harman has called Heidegger “a rather monotonous philosopher”.  The exchange was fueled by a high-octane level Heidegger-speak that is above my pay-grade, so to speak, but if I followed the thrust of it, it hinged on the question of whether Heidegger himself took the object-oriented turn, thus blunting some of the claims that OOO is more out of the mainstream of continental philosophy than it might seem.  I did appreciate Harman’s taking this on board and he seemed to indicate that he’d give it some more thought. 

My main purpose in this short post is the restate a question that I asked and would like to hear more on at some point.  The question is a simple one, and may have been so simply stated that the question was not especially clear.  In the circumstances I cannot be dissatisfied with Harman’s response.  Noting that I am a scientist by training (an ecologist) I suggested that natural scientists were already, in some respects, naïve realists.  And if that is the case I asked what OOO does for or to science.  I had in mind here a couple of things.  Firstly, scientists generally would have little objection to the notion that inanimate objects should be given the same priority in our thinking about the world as the human-object relationship. They act, that is, as if they are outside a correlationist circle, mainly because most of us have never considered that we are in one in the first place!  Natural science doesn't have an ontology at all in the (trivial) sense that scientists typically proceed without systematically inspecting their ontological commitments!  Secondly, I also had in mind Harman acknowledgment that OOO seems to have something in common with scientific materialism (which is, of course, not the same thing as doing science).  In The Quadruple Object he finds a number of problems with scientific materialism.  One of these is that the object-object relationship in scientific materialism is “insufficiently realistic” because it “does not raise the genuine philosophical problem of how two entities can relate…”  This seems right to me, but I am interested then in how OOO might do a better job in relation to science than materialist accounts do.

In Graham’s response he correctly pointed out that philosophy should not be in the business of being a handmaiden to the sciences (fair enough!).  Scientists will have to see for themselves how their practice might respond to emerging developments in ontology.  However, it seems unlikely that they will as most will remain happily unaware that they either are or are not on shaky ground as the philosophical landscape swirls and changes around them.  There are costs to this cavalierness - something I'll write about later.

Graham did make some potentially helpful comments about OOO and one branch of the natural sciences in particular – ecology.  Noting that Tim Morton (one of the OOO band) is doing interesting work in this area -- I am very enthusiastic about Tim's work, by the way -- , Harman indicated that with Morton’s notions of the mesh, strange strangers etc. that ecology would have to revisit its notion that "everything is connected."  This is interesting to me since as an ecologist I can assure us all that ecology as a scientific discipline is as much concerned with the limits of connection as it is with connections per se.  If everything was indeed connected this world would fall apart like a game of jenga!  I am not quibbling with Harman here, I just want to note that there is some potentially exciting work to be done in introducing object-oriented philosophers to natural scientists and vice versa.  This is not work that many philosophers or scientists have an appetite for, and most need not respond to the call, but for those that do, the results of the dialogue will be interesting.

It was a very stimulating afternoon and I thank Graham for it.

Art in Irrevocable Times

This essay is published in the Catalog of Climate of Uncertainty a must-see show at DePaul Art Museum.

If we are to have no future, consolingly, there will be no one to look back and blame us. If there is a future for us, however, those who reflect back from their future perch will recognize that which is hard for us to see: that we lived in times of irrevocable transition. The generations living right now are the first to live on a domesticated planet; undomesticating it is not an option. To put it another way, an undomesticated future planet is one without humans.

It is an urban planet besides — that which is not urban is in the resource shadow of our cities, or enjoys the benign neglect of those in cities in areas set aside as “wilderness.” This is a planet upon which the diversity of the biota is diminishing and its distribution reflects confusingly both natural and cultural forces, a planet on which the scale and amplitude of elemental cycles are vastly altered, a planet on which the winds now howl with an almost human voice.

Domesticated Earth is a planet partly of our own making; it is challenging, disturbing, and in innumerable ways beautiful. It is, in other words, the largest artwork ever made. And we now have to learn what it is to live inside this art. But what is the role of art-making from within the frame of Domesticated Earth? How well does it mirror this moment of transition? How does art determine the nature of the very future from the perspective of which it will be judged? Did it illuminate the transition prettily (not an inconsiderable thing to do) or, after our having paused under the lintel and reflected on the irretrievability of the past, did artwork illuminate the possible routes to be taken, routes that were otherwise unimagined?

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Quentin Tarantino: Author of the Gatsby

My piece from 3quarks:

I do not mean to suggest here that Quentin Tarantino set out in Django Unchained to revive in any sort of deliberate way the characters and themes of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The differences between these two projects are more substantial than their commonalities. One, after all, is a movie and the other is a novel. More importantly, Tarantino is self-consciously a genre re-configuring story-teller, whereas Fitzgerald wanted in The Great Gatsby to write something new using the form of the traditional novel. The Great Gatsby is that most brazen of beasts The Great American Novel. That being said both, in fact, are distinctively American works. Moreover, in both works the action is driven by a hero’s bid to rescue a gal. Both play games with time, though quite different ones as I will elaborate below. In both, injustices are addressed and resolved with varying degrees of success. To my mind the commonalities of revision, rescue, and redress, though these are perhaps the stuff of all great works, are so distinctively rendered in Django Unchained that one can say that Tarantino has re-authored Gatsby.

Read on at 3quarks