Of Pond Brains and Humanity 2.0 Part I: Theoteknosis

You’re not going to take people who lack skills,’ says Steve Fuller, ‘you’re not going to take homeless people, though that’s not official policy.’(i) Fuller is sociologist-in-residence for the Space Ark, a craft in conceptual development by Icarus Interstellar to take nature with us when the earth becomes a no-go zone. Given vast ecological change, Fuller and colleagues are getting restless about our earth-bound future.

The Ark is envisioned to take the form of a ball of genetically-engineered soil, an artificial biome 15km in diameter, inhabited by 50 to 500 humans deemed worthy of saviour and building on work into artificial, closed ecological systems started in the early nineties at the $200 million Biosphere 2 complex — now owned and operated by the University of Arizona. This audacious, though disappointingly terrestrial, ‘vivarium’, when originally conceived, boasted a miniature rainforest, mangrove wetlands, savannah grassland, desert, coral reef and an agricultural zone complete with goats, hens and pigs, all on a three-acre site. It was home to eight ‘bionauts’ for over two years who lived a hermetically-sealed existence in a radical experiment in self-sufficiency.

The ark’s theological inspirations are far from incidental. Fuller, a professor at the University of Warwick, as well as a Christian and proud transhumanist, argues for what he dubs theomimesis, the act of playing God. After all, he writes in his latest book The Proactionary Imperative, we are ‘aspiring deities’ with ‘divine potential’, and ‘not simply one among many species’. Welcome to Humanity 2.0, Fuller’s break away from boring old Humanity 1.0, with its human rights, creaky knees, and reactionary moral aversion to eugenics.

The Proactionary argument holds that the precautionary principle, much beloved of environmentalists, has become an impediment to our innate brilliance, lowering our aspirations and placing us amongst other lowly animals. This precautionary belief in ‘do no harm’, now built equally into policy and the popular consciousness (albeit, one should add, to little avail), should be replaced by the anti-Darwinian proactionary imperative. This would enable a departure from our evolutionary past, taking genetics into our own hands (Fuller is a proponent of non-authoritarian eugenics, a term which he deems wrongly maligned), hopefully taking leave from this space rock we call home, and ultimately replacing our weak bodies ‘with some intellectually superior and more durable substratum’. Phew. ‘Better to give hostage to fortune,’ writes Fuller, ‘than be captive to the past.’

Of course, if work on Humanity 2.0 were the writings of a lone maniac, this rich, heady vision of space ships and discarded corporeality could be laughed off as a fevered delusion, a Unabomber-style manifesto in a different key. Lone and isolated, though, this is not. Rather, transhumanism sits as the logical conclusion of much thought falling under the category of ‘ecomodernism’, ‘ecopragmatism’ or ‘postenvironmentalism’, embracing techno-fixes, Progress and our inheritance as unique beings to cultivate a ‘good anthropocene.’ It is high-priest of the ecopragmatists, Stewart Brand, after all, who reminds us that ‘we are as Gods and might as well get good at it,’ and the king of the transhumanists Ray Kurzweil who wrote, in his work, The Singularity is Near, that ‘one cubic inch of nanotube circuitry, once fully developed, would be up to one hundred million times more powerful than the human brain.’

Before proceeding, however, allow me to slow things down with a hint of schadenfreude. As the film-maker Adam Curtis noted, the Space Ark’s inspiration, Biosphere 2, should strike us as a somewhat tragicomic tale:

The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces… Then millions of ants appeared from nowhere and waged war on the cockroaches… At the end of Biosphere 2 the ants destroyed the cockroaches. They then proceeded to eat through the silicone seal that enclosed the world. Through collective action the ants worked together and effectively destroyed the existing system. They then marched off into the Arizona desert. Who knows what they got up to there.(ii)

Returning from Arizona to the lush British countryside, let me now introduce another fanciful, failed biological experiment, long forgotten, which I would like to compare and contrast with both the Space Ark and Biosphere 2. In the 1950s an Englishman called Stafford Beer founded a field called management cybernetics, given its most famous instantiation through Beer’s Viable Systems Model. Management cybernetics took its place as part of a transatlantic cybernetics movement which aimed to study regulation, control and communication in both living and non-living complex systems. Cybernetics itself, from the Greek word kybernetes, is a term translating as ‘governor’ or ‘steersman’.(iii)

While the American incarnation of cybernetics, which Steve Fuller draws transhumanist inspiration from, became embroiled in military uses such as intelligent anti-aircraft gun mounts, the movement in the UK, based around the close-knit Ratio Club, developed a seemingly more countercultural, almost pervasively spiritual approach, even developing some tenuous links with British anarchism at the time.

Beer, in exploring how organisations, from factories to communities and governments, could better adapt to the complex environments in which many of them failed, developed an interest in biological computing. Standard computers, he found, particularly the early forms that confronted him, do what their human programmers intend, but struggle to reconfigure themselves to emergent, chaotic and unpredictable phenomena.

Turning his back on them, Beer envisioned replacing human management, and all its attendant failures, misjudgements and foibles, not with computers, but with the lively agency of natural, exceedingly complex systems. He experimented with colonies of insects, mice, even the play of his own children, ultimately settling most attention on pond ecosystems.

If this sounds Space Ark-style crazy, so far, stay with me.

‘Pull the humans out of the factory, plug in a pond instead’ as Andrew Pickering summarizes the project, allowing the pond, the factory and the business environment to ultimately find some performative equilibrium. In an attempt to get pond ecosystems to care about us and our organisations, to act as a homeostatic controller, one idea was to induce small water fleas, called Daphnia, to ingest iron filings, and then apply magnetic fields which would represent industrial variables in their adapted environment. Another was to use light in a similar manner, with the light-sensitive aquatic protozoa, euglena. Though perhaps holding unfulfilled potential, Beer’s projects basically failed — the Daphnia simply excreted the filings, Beer moved on to other things, and pond organisms do not run organisations on our behalf. It’s interesting to note, however, that the project remains with perhaps unfulfilled potential. After all, Beer’s colleague Gordon Pask, another leading cyberneticist, had much-overlooked, though significant success with biological computing in the form of self-organising electrochemical threads that in effect developed an ear, the ability to intelligently respond to specific sounds as well as magnetic fields.(iv)

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Daphnia. Source: Wikimedia (User: Fritz Geller-Grimm)

At a glance, Beer’s out there experimentation could certainly be deemed naïve, hubristic, and anthropocentric; comparable in this way to Fuller’s theomimetic techno-project of an ontologically separate and transcendent Humanity 2.0 discarding their human meat sacks, not to mention the Space Ark, and Biosphere 2. These projects certainly all project the aura of a culture where anthropic pseudo-control pervades every significant human-ecological interaction. I would perhaps not even call the projects which opened this essay primarily technological, or theomimetic, however, but rather theoteknotic. Teknosis, a term coined by John Biram, in a now largely forgotten work by the same name, stands for the ‘disease of technical thinking,’ so chronic in so-called advanced societies. This disease, in a summary by Michael Shallis, ‘is an attitude of mind, part hacker syndrome, part Narcissus complex, whereby man worships idols of silver and gold and becomes like the objects of worship.’

And indeed Adam Curtis, in an accompanying piece to his documentary All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, quoted from above, critiques a version of this teknosis, which he calls ‘the ecosystem myth’. Ecosystemic thinking which, he argues, culminated with cybernetics in the fifties, and Biosphere 2 in the nineties, commits a fallacy in thinking of nature as a computer, a stable machine of wholes tending towards equilibrium. Rather, Curtis posits that ‘nature is never stable, it’s always changing.’ For the film-maker, not only is this myth dangerous in itself but it is also grounded historically in the colonial thought of Jan Smuts, a racial segregationist, brutal militarist, and academic pioneer of the term ‘holism’. Smuts turned to a ‘scientific’ vision of wholes ‘to create a vision of a static world where everything is stable,’ racial inequalities included of course, ‘and your moral duty is to make sure that nothing ever changes’.

While Curtis is certainly on the right track here, there is some conflation of ideas, leading to a premature dismissal of holism, homeostasis and conceptions of the ‘ecosystem’. Even if ants do us the favour of vandalising our utopian experiments instead of obediently running our factories, I would still like to temper such judgement, and explore instead the different story and vision of the world acted out by Beer. For now, let’s call one version of this story closed holism, and the other open.

Biosphere 2 is a prototypical example of closed holism, as one presumes the Space Ark will be also. It performs a parable of what happens when the scientist or innovator assumes that they can build a picture of complete knowledge of a complex system, interacting with it in predictable ways. You seal off a portion of the world, replicate and represent what you think is necessary to the experiment, and try to intervene when things go wrong. Oxygen disappears, and you don’t know where it’s going. Humans suffer psychologically. Ants find their way in and you’re helpless in dealing with their vast power in numbers. The gene you self-eugenically tamper with turns out to control for something you didn’t expect. The world kicks back against this closure and its open complexity stymies every attempt at getting to grips with it.

Beer’s pond brain, and his other experiments, on the other hand, skip this stage of closedness, predictability and complete knowledge; instead, theoretically, placing the human in much more firmly humbled position. It realises that humans aren’t the only intelligence, let alone a transcendent or divine one, but instead this is a feature that pervades the world. As Pickering puts it, ‘Beer and Pask realized that the world is, in effect, already full of […] brains. Any adaptive biological system is precisely an adaptive brain in this sense.’ And not just any brain, but a brain beyond straightforward human comprehension:

Biological systems can solve these problems that are beyond our cognitive capacity. They can adapt to unforeseeable fluctuations and changes. The pond survives. Our bodies maintain our temperatures close to constant whatever we eat, whatever we do, in all sorts of physical environments. It seems more than likely that if we were given conscious control over all the parameters that bear on our internal milieu, our cognitive abilities would not prove equal to the task of maintaining our essential variables within bounds and we would quickly die. This, then is the sense in which Beer thought that ecosystems are smarter than we are—not in their representational cognitive abilities, which one might think are nonexistent, but in their performative ability to solve problems that exceed our cognitive ones.

Such radically alternative ways of seeing the world undermine Fuller’s false antinomy of precautionary and proactionary. You are neither presuming knowledge of likely outcomes and taking a complete precautionary step back from a world of flux, for pond brains are operative, changing, performative, intervening and learning all the time anyway. Nor are you attempting to escape involvement in the dirty, messy, Darwinian world by theoteknotic proactionary modernism.

Rather, you learn something more complex; that is to respect the reality of the nonhuman as entangled with the human, recognising itself in you and you in it, and neither in a position of dominance. We are part of the world’s becoming, as Feminist Karen Barad puts it succinctly, and part of a universe that we are trying to understand. The world is not a closed jar, but an open ecosystem of intelligence, always changing as Curtis correctly noted, and we can neither control nor remove ourselves from this. This, after all, is the core of its beauty. So why would we even want to?

Endnotes

(i) See http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/may/22/stars-in-their-eyes-architects-scientists-ponder-designs-ark-space
(ii) http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/may/29/adam-curtis-ecosystems-tansley-smuts
(iii) The account of cybernetics presented here draws strongly on papers and monographs by the sociologist of science Andrew Pickering, particularly his book The Cybernetic Brain: Sketches of Another Future
(iv) See Cariani’s (1993) article To evolve an ear: epistemological implications of Gordon Pask’s electrochemical devices in the journal Systems Research.

The Interrupter

Extract from Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization (City Lights, 2015)

You’ve heard the call: We have to do something. We need to fight. We need to identify the enemy and go after them. Some respond, march, and chant. Some look away, deny what’s happening, and search out escape routes into imaginary tomorrows: a life off the grid, space colonies, immortality in paradise, explicit denial, or consumer satiety in a wireless, robot-staffed, 3D-printed techno-utopia. Meanwhile, the rich take shelter in their fortresses, trusting to their air conditioning, private schools, and well-paid guards. Fight. Flight. Flight. Fight. The threat of death activates our deepest animal drives.

The aggression and fear that arise in response to perceived threats are some of the most intense emotions we ever experience. For human society to function at all, these instinctive reactions have to be carefully managed and channeled. Outbreaks of panic and hate are dangerous, but lower levels of aggression and fear help keep a population controllable and productive. Restrained aggression keeps people suspicious of collective action and working hard to overcome their fellows, while constant, generalised anxiety keeps people servile, unwilling to take risks, and yearning for comfort from whatever quarter, whether the dulling sameness of herd thought or the dumb security of consumer goods.

Since at least September 11, 2001, people in the United States and across the world have been subject to an unprecedented terror campaign — not from Al Qaeda, but from the United States government. National domestic policy transformed ‘security’ into constant fear, threatening its citizens at every turn: first with alarms of explosions and anthrax, then with prison, austerity-produced structural unemployment, and harassment, and finally with torture, SWAT tanks, snipers, drones, and total surveillance. Owing to the racial logic of US politics, in which white/black is the definitive semiotic distinction structuring American society, most of the government’s violence against its own citizens is directed against those with darker skin, but in subtler ways its terror campaign targets every single person who flies coach, watches the news, or uses the internet.

Fear comes to us every day in our encounters with increasingly militarised police and our humiliating interactions at metal detectors and body-scan machines. Fear comes to us in the absence of job security, in our want of appeal when confronted by institutionalised inequality, and in our mistrust of corrupt institutions. Fear comes to us in widespread surveillance, in the form of a homeless woman or a hospitalised friend without adequate financial support, and in the constant nagging worry that we’re not working hard enough, not happy enough, never going to ‘make it’. Fear comes to us in weather porn, unpredictable shifts in formerly stable climate dynamics, and massive storms.

More than in any other way, fear comes to us in images and messages, as social media vibrations, products of cultural technologies that we have interpolated into our lives. Going about our daily business, we receive constant messages of apprehension and danger, ubiquitous warnings, insistent needling jabs to the deep lizard brain. Somebody died. Something blew up. Something might blow up. Somebody attacked somebody. Somebody killed somebody. Guns. Crime. Immigrants. Terrorists. Arabs. Mexicans. White supremacists. Killer cops. Demonic thugs. Rape. Murder. Global warming. Ebola. ISIS. Death. Death. Death.

Sociologist Tom Pysczynski writes: ‘People will do almost anything to avoid being afraid. When, despite the best efforts, [fear and anxiety] do break through, people go to incredible lengths to shut them down.’ Sometimes when these vibrations shake us, we discharge them by passing them on, retweeting the story, reposting the video, hoping that others will validate our reaction, thus assuaging our fear by assuring ourselves that collective attention has been alerted to the threat. Other times we react with aversion, working to dampen the vibrations by searching out positive reinforcements, pleasurable images and videos, something funny, something — anything — to ease the fear. We buy something. We eat food. We pop a pill. We fuck.

In either passing on the vibration or reacting against it, we let the fear short circuit our own autonomous desires, diverting us from our goals and loading ever more emotional static into our daily cognitive processing. We become increasingly distracted from our ambitions and increasingly susceptible to such distraction. And whether we retransmit or react, we reinforce channels of thought, perception, behaviour, and emotion that, over time, come to shape our habits and our personality. As we train ourselves to resonate fear and aggression, we reinforce patterns of thought and feeling that shape a society that breeds the same.

Fight-or-flight is compelling because it serves essential evolutionary purposes. It increases alertness and adrenaline flow, and generally works to keep the human animal alive. As we proceed into the Anthropocene, though, capitalism’s cultural machinery for balancing fear and aggression against desire and pleasure is grinding and sputtering sparks. What cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has identified as the ‘cruel optimism’ of a system sustained by hopes that can never be fulfilled mixes dangerously with an atmosphere of beleaguered anxiety, increasing frustration with working-class and middle-class economic stagnation, and a pervasive sadistic voyeurism that grows by what it feeds on. While our fraying social infrastructure holds together, our fear and aggression can be channeled into labour, consumption, and economic competition, with professional sports, hyperviolent television, and occasional protests to let off steam. Once the social fabric begins to tear, though, we risk unleashing not only rioting, rebellion, and civil war, but homicidal politics the likes of which should make our blood run cold.

Consider: once among the most modern, Westernised nations in the Middle East, with a robust, highly educated middle class, Iraq has been blighted for decades by imperialist aggression, criminal gangs, interference in its domestic politics, economic liberalisation, and sectarian feuding. Today it is being torn apart between a corrupt petrocracy, a breakaway Kurdish enclave, and a self-declared Islamic fundamentalist caliphate, while a civil war in neighboring Syria spills across its borders. These conflicts have likely been caused in part and exacerbated by the worst drought the Middle East has seen in modern history. Since 2006, Syria has been suffering crippling water shortages that have, in some areas, caused 75% crop failure and wiped out 85% of livestock, left more than 800,000 Syrians without a livelihood, and sent hundreds of thousands of impoverished young men streaming into Syria’s cities. This drought is part of long-term warming and drying trends that are transforming the Middle East. Not just water but oil, too, is elemental to these conflicts. Iraq sits on the fifth-largest proven oil reserves in the world. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has been able to survive only because it has taken control of most of Syria’s oil and gas production. We tend to think of climate change and violent religious fundamentalism as isolated phenomena, but as Retired Navy Rear Admiral David Titley argues, ‘you can draw a very credible climate connection to this disaster we call ISIS right now.’

A few hundred miles away, Israeli soldiers spent the summer of 2014 killing Palestinians in Gaza. Israel has also been suffering drought, while Gaza has been in the midst of a critical water crisis exacerbated by Israel’s military aggression. The International Committee for the Red Cross reported that during summer 2014, Israeli bombers targeted Palestinian wells and water infrastructure. It’s not water and oil this time, but water and gas: some observers argue that Israel’s ‘Operation Protective Edge’ was intended to establish firmer control over the massive Leviathan natural gas field, discovered off the coast of Gaza in the eastern Mediterranean in 2010.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the north, Russian-backed separatists fought fascist paramilitary forces defending the elected government of Ukraine, which was also suffering drought. Russia’s role as an oil and gas exporter in the region and the natural gas pipelines running through Ukraine from Russia to Europe cannot but be key issues in the conflict. Elsewhere, droughts in 2014 sent refugees from Guatemala and Honduras north to the US border, devastated crops in California and Australia, and threatened millions of lives in Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia, Sudan, Uganda, Afghanistan, India, Morocco, Pakistan, and parts of China. Across the world, massive protests and riots have swept Bosnia and Herzegovina, Venezuela, Brazil, Turkey, Egypt, and Thailand, while conflicts rage on in Colombia, Libya, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, and India. And while the world burns, the United States has been playing chicken with Russia over control of Eastern Europe and the melting Arctic, and with China over control of Southeast Asia and the South China Sea, threatening global war on a scale not seen in 70 years. This is our present and future: Droughts and hurricanes, refugees and border guards, war for oil, water, gas, and food.

We experience this world of strife today in one of two modes: either it is our environment, and we are in it, or it comes to as images, social excitation, retransmitted fear. People are fighting and dying in ruined cities all over the planet. Neighbours are killing each other. Old women are bleeding to death in bombed rubble and children are being murdered, probably as you read this sentence. To live in that world is horrific. Constant danger strains every nerve. The only things that matter are survival, killing the enemy, reputation, and having a safe place to sleep. The experience of being human narrows to a cutting edge.

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I remember living in that world many years ago as a soldier in occupied Baghdad. Today that world seems impossibly distant, yet every day it presses in on me in a never-ending stream of words, images, appeals, and reports. I see videos. I read stories. I see pictures of this or that suffering or injustice and I am moved. To act, perhaps, but more accurately to emote. To react. To feel. To perform. We do not usually ask where these feelings come from or who they serve, but we all know that the cultural technologies transmitting these affective vibrations are not neutral: news outlets shape information to fit their owners’ prejudices, while Facebook, Twitter, and Google shape our perceptions through hidden algorithms. The specialisation and demographic targeting of contemporary media tend to narrow the channels of perception to the point that we receive only those images and vibrations which already harmonise with our own prejudices, our own pre-existing desires, thus intensifying our particular emotional reactions along an increasingly limited band, impelling us to discharge our emotions within the same field of ready listeners, for which we are rewarded with ‘Likes’ and ‘Favourites’. Our consciousness is shaped daily through feedback systems where some post or headline provokes a feeling and we discharge that feeling by provoking it in others. Social media like Facebook crowdsource catharsis, creating self-contained wave pools of aggression and fear, pity and terror, stagnant flows that go nowhere and do nothing.

Pictures of children killed by bombs or police, or pictures of the devastation left in the wake of a tropical storm may move me to sadness and horror. Retransmitting such images will pass along that sadness and horror. My act of transmission will mark me as someone who has feelings about these things and who condemns them. I can rationalise my retransmission by saying that I am ‘raising awareness’ or trying to influence public policy: I want my fellow citizens to be as horrified as I am, so they’ll think like I do, or so they’ll vote for a representative who works to prevent such horrors from happening, or maybe so that if enough of us all think the same way and feel the same way, the organs and institutions of power will be forced to hear us and align themselves along our vibrations, the way a honeybee colony will pick a site for a new hive through the dance of its advance guard scouts.

These are perfectly reasonable human assumptions, because that is how physical human collectives function. Anyone who has been in a crowd, a basketball team, a nightclub, a choir, or a protest knows how bodies resonate together. But politics is the energetic distribution of bodies in systems, and we live in a system of carbon-
fueled capitalism that we shouldn’t expect to work in physical human ways for several reasons, especially when it comes to responding to the threat of global warming. First, our political and social media technologies are not neutral, but have been developed to serve particular interests, most notably targeted advertising, concentration of wealth, and ideological control, and the vibrations that seem to resonate most strongly along these channels are envy, adulation, outrage, fear, hatred, and mindless pleasure. Second, the more we pass on or react to social vibrations, the more we strengthen our habits of channelling and the less we practice autonomous reflection or independent critical thought. With every protest chant, retweet, and Facebook post, we become stronger resonators and weaker thinkers. Third, however intense our social vibrations grow, they remain locked within machinery that offers no political leverage: they do not translate into political action, because they do not connect to the flows of power. Finally, while the typical collective human response to threat is to identify an enemy, pick sides, and mobilise to fight, global warming offers no apprehensible foe.

That hasn’t stopped people from trying to find one. The Flood Wall Street protestors say the enemy is American corporations. Tanzania’s Jakaya Kikwete and Nauru’s Baron Waqa say the problem is the United States and Great Britain. Shell Oil and the Environmental Defense Fund seem to think that it’s intractable UN bureaucracy that’s holding us up. Barack Obama has implied that it’s China. Tea Party Republicans would blame Barack Obama, I’m sure, if they admitted that global warming was actually happening and caused by human activity. Meanwhile, NPR-listening liberals want to believe that Tea Party Republicans are responsible, so that they can frame the problem as one amenable to solution by moral education and enlightened consumerism, as if it were all a matter of convincing people to eat more kale and drive electric cars. One climate activist has argued that just 90 companies are responsible for almost two-thirds of all historical greenhouse gas emissions, which conveniently absolves billions of automobile drivers, airline passengers, meat eaters, and cellphone users of responsibility. The enemy isn’t out there somewhere — the enemy is ourselves. Not as individuals, but as a collective. A system. A hive.

How do we stop ourselves from fulfilling our fates as suicidally productive drones in a carbon-addicted hive, destroying ourselves in some kind of psychopathic colony collapse disorder? How do we interrupt the perpetual circuits of fear, aggression, crisis, and reaction that continually prod us to ever more intense levels of manic despair? One way we might begin to answer these questions is by considering the problem of global warming in terms of German thinker Peter Sloterdijk’s idea of the philosopher as an interrupter:

We live constantly in collective fields of excitation; this cannot be changed so long as we are social beings. The input of stress inevitably enters me; thoughts are not free, each of us can divine them. They come from the newspaper and wind up returning to the newspaper. My sovereignty, if it exists, can only appear by my letting the integrated impulsion die in me or, should this fail, by my retransmitting it in a totally metamorphosed, verified, filtered, or recoded form. It serves nothing to contest it: I am free only to the extent that I interrupt escalations and that I am able to immunize myself against infections of opinion. Precisely this continues to be the philosopher’s mission in society, if I may express myself in such pathetic terms. His mission is to show that a subject can be an interrupter, not merely a channel that allows thematic epidemics and waves of excitation to flow through it. The classics express this with the term ‘pondering.’ With this concept, ethics and energetics enter into contact: as a bearer of a philosophical function, I have neither the right nor the desire to be either a conductor in a stress-semantic chain or the automaton of an ethical imperative.

Sloterdijk compares the conception of political function as collective vibration to a philosophical function of interruption. As opposed to disruption, which shocks a system and breaks wholes into pieces, interruption suspends continuous processes. It’s not smashing, but sitting with. Not blockage, but reflection.

Sloterdijk sees the role of the philosopher in the human swarm as that of an aberrant anti-drone slow-dancing to its own rhythm, neither attuned to the collective beat nor operating mechanically, dogmatically, deontologically, but continually self-immunising against the waves of social energy we live in and amongst by perpetually interrupting their own connection to collective life. So long as one allows oneself to be ‘a conductor in a stress-semantic chain’, one is strengthening channels of retransmission regardless of content, thickening the reflexive connective tissues of mass society, making all of us all the more susceptible to such viral phenomena as nationalism, scapegoating, panic, and war fever. Interrupting the flows of social production is anarchic and counterproductive, like all good philosophy: if it works, it helps us stop and see our world in new ways. If it fails, as it often and even usually does, the interrupter is integrated, driven mad, ignored, or destroyed.

What Sloterdijk helps us see is that responding autonomously to social excitation means not reacting to it, not passing it on, but interrupting it, then either letting the excitation die or transforming it completely. Responding freely to constant images of fear and violence, responding freely to the perpetual media circuits of pleasure and terror, responding freely to the ongoing alarms of war, environmental catastrophe, and global destruction demands a reorientation of feeling so that every new impulse is held at a distance until it fades or can be changed. While life beats its red rhythms and human swarms dance to the compulsion of strife, the interrupter learns how to die.

 

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The Island That Never Was

Extracts from the book published in December 2015

I felt strangely at home in this abandoned, isolated district of a foreign city. They say no man is an island, but I must admit that at times I’ve felt like a peninsula. The no-man’s-land down near the point, especially, seemed to resonate in me with some private strain of toxic melancholy. Industry had moved on; life was moving in. Weeds in the gutter reached up as tall as a wrecked car. Cooling ponds atop factories were crowned with waving bull-rushes; cracked pavements sprouted pampas grass, brambles and buddleia. A corrugated shed roof had all but disappeared beneath a living rug of bracken and moss. The river wall was carpeted with stonewort and samphire, attended by little darting lizards. Fat carp nosed along the river bottom, and a collapsed wooden landing-stage, choked with debris, had become a sparrow chapel. Cormorants fished in the river, wagtails bobbed and dipped on the canal bank, and herons and egrets could sometimes be seen wading the mud-flats at low tide. One day, riding the bus into town, I was jolted out of my doze by the bolt-from-the-blue of a kingfisher, shadowing us in mid-river. And one time I saw a royal couple, king- and queen-fisher, holding court in the gothic vault of a shattered factory, with vines and creepers hanging down through gaping wounds in its concrete floors. There was perhaps more of life’s diversity, certainly more of its wild spirit ― the holy grail of creative inspiration ― in this ravaged wasteland than in all the city’s manicured parks. If nature and the man-made world were supposed to be separate, nature didn’t seem to have got the message.

From the point, the views were outstanding. On a clear day you could see the city in a true light: as the embodiment of ancient stories, coded instructions copied from clay tablet to compact disc; symbols channelling through minds and bodies into steel and concrete, glass and rubber. A gargantuan machine, deranged in its Byzantine complexity; a heat exchanger dissipating fossil energy and human dreams, a mill grinding souls into frangible currency. The city, Babylon; but also a city, Babylon–Bilbao, with its own distinct identity, re-founded over the centuries from the melted-down scrap of the masses. Bilbao, Bilbo ― a name that was part dagger: a knife to the heart, in the back, in the dark, dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed; part mind-forged manacle: the handcuffs of wage-slavery, the bondage of a mortgage, the massive anchor chains of language, identity, family; but also part hero: unwitting at first, later unwilling, but able, in the end, to claim the ring, outwit the dragon and bag the gold.

*

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The everyday life of the barrio took place mainly in the central district, revolving around the church, the bars, the children’s playground, and the meetings of several different groups including the neighbourhood association, youth club, women’s club, retirees’ club, and the traditional gastronomic club or txoko. Throw together a few hundred people of varied origin; steep in a culture that emphasises conformity, tradition, the local and the collective; leave to stand for a generation in isolation and official neglect; result: a community with an extraordinary degree of autonomous organisation.

There was also a small arts foundation, la Hacería (the Foundry), in the barrio: a space for theatre, music and art events. Then there were the squatters, who occupied half-a-dozen different buildings, including a disused sailcloth factory at the beginning of the peninsula. Their graffiti art spoke of the Incas, a punk tribe bound by ideals of freedom, anarchy and resistance. Many of the pieces were tagged by ‘House’; he turned out to be a scrawny, scruffy young man from Valencia, who said he was planning to go back there soon because his girlfriend was expecting a baby. Other squatters came from Russia or Argentina, or were native to Bilbao. On the whole they kept themselves apart from the locals: sometimes they would turn up to social events with free food and drink, but never for dull meetings.

Elsewhere in the city, however, meetings were being held to which the residents, scruffy or otherwise, were explicitly uninvited. In 2002 the major landowners, construction companies, and various levels of government got together to form a development commission for the Zorrozaurre peninsula. There was no masquerade of public consultation; the neighbourhood association were refused permission to attend, much less join the commission. Soon the developers announced that Zorrozaurre’s new fairy godmother would be the internationally renowned architectural superstar and Pritzker Prize winner Zaha Hadid. She would wave her magic wand and conjure up a sparkling Master Plan for the peninsula. Word in the barrio was that a few buildings would probably be retained for their architectural quality; legal means would be found to raze the rest and, where necessary, rehouse the inhabitants somewhere cheap. Both common knowledge and local history proved that when money talked, people walked.

And indeed, soon enough they came for the squatters. Vans full of police in red berets rolled up to evict them, house by house; the squats were declared unsafe and torn down by big yellow diggers. With the squatter tribe driven into exile, the quality of graffiti in the barrio went into decline. Over time, the ardent designs of House and the Incas were effaced by scrawled ego-tags like the piss-markings of dogs. One of the last houses to be evicted was on the small plaza at the heart of the barrio, facing the art-deco palace (which was being renovated in opulent style by Catalan investors). On demolition it revealed a previously hidden graffito on the wall of the adjoining house, painted from the roof of the squat. Alongside an elf playing maracas and a man dancing in the heavens was the phrase ‘We shall build dreams.’

*

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A decade on from the presentation of Zaha Hadid’s first Master Plan, the construction boom has come and gone without a single new building going up in Zorrozaurre. The planners are still struggling within the cage of Zaha’s design, which put aesthetic appearance in first place, and where boring things like sun, green space, social space or mobility were barely even considered. And despite the improvements, the new future is essentially still the same as the old: Zaha’s dream of sharp skyscrapers, on glossy paper from a sales prospectus. Even the developers admit that this vision is going to take quite a few decades to build; many other people see it as an absurdity in the current economic climate.

Meanwhile, a network of upstart projects has taken root among the disused factories, empty warehouses and vacant lots. Theatre and circus, flea markets and crafts, ukulele workshops and urban gardening, painting and jazz and flamenco, printing and electronics and bike maintenance, a climbing wall and a skate park… These initiatives are loosely inspired by a vision of Zorrozaurre as an evolving work in progress, rather than following a plan handed down from above. In short, they are less ostentatious, more vital and infinitely more interesting than the official future.

But what if ‘meanwhile’ became a permanent condition? What if the official future was cancelled? What if the destiny of Zorrozaurre were guided, not by the egos of planners, politicians and superstar architects, but by human creativity and the subtler, slower, yet ultimately more potent forces of nature?

For the time being, until the bulldozers move in, the inhabitants of Zorrozaurre cling stubbornly on in their diverse niches. Despite its many wounds, the place endures. The point is still there, in its lovely loneliness, its decaying beauty. Perhaps next year the kingfishers will return.

front cover-smThe Island that Never Was, published December 2015 in print and online by Zorrozaurre Art Work in Progress,  is a personal memoir by Robert Alcock. The book tells of 15 years in the dream life of a unique neighbourhood ― the post-industrial Zorrozaurre peninsula in Bilbao, the island that never was ― with its diverse characters, including lizards, kingfishers, Bertolt Brecht, a make-believe cowboy, Gargantua, squatters, developers and Zaha Hadid; its ruins, its graffiti, its decaying beauty, and the divergent visions for its future.

The text is loosely based on two essays that first appeared in Dark Mountain: ‘Beyond Z’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 3, summer 2012, and ‘Thin Blue Line’ in Dark Mountain: Issue 6, autumn 2014 (also published here on the blog).

You can buy the book online here.

Robert Alcock is a writer, self-builder and ecological designer based in northern Spain.

 

Snow vs. Suicide

Sitting on the patio at the Park City Library on a crisp September afternoon, I admire the beauty of this season’s new dusting of snow on mountains awash in the golds, reds, and greens of fall. I arrived in Park City last week thinking I would live in Utah again for the first time in almost ten years.

It’s been ten years since I packed my parents’ 1992 black Chevy suburban on a cold December night in Cedar City before making the long drive to Iowa to be closer to my family in the Midwest. The joy that the sight of new snow has always produced for me makes it hard to believe it’s been that long since I last watched the good, thick Utah snow gather behind me to cloud the scene from my rear-view mirror as I pulled away, softening the reminders of what and who I left behind.

Almost immediately after recognising this beauty, I feel a deep pang of anxiety. I have been reading about the impacts climate change will have on Utah’s snow. I know, for example, that many scientists agree with Porter Fox, the author of DEEP: The Story of Skiing and the Future of Snow, that there will be no snow in Utah by the end of this century if climate change cannot be stopped.

My memories make it incredibly painful to imagine a Utah without snow, but this is the reality confronting us. Loving the snow as I do and understanding what the snow means to both humans and non-humans in Utah, I cannot help but call human-produced climate change ‘suicidal’.

*

I am intimately familiar with suicide. Sometime in the ten years after leaving Utah, I developed what my doctors have called ‘major depressive disorder’. When I was a public defender in Kenosha, WI, I tried to kill myself in April, 2013 and, again, in August, 2013.

I have spent the last two years trying to understand the darknesses that lead me to attempt to take my own life those two times. I’ve always possessed a certain type of melancholy, but it takes more than a simple disposition for melancholy to develop into suicidal depression.

Many theories exist for why I took the road to attempted suicides. First, I have a history of traumatic head injuries including a brain contusion I suffered in a high school football game. I cannot remember what happened, but the next morning I do remember watching the game film and seeing my head bounce like a ball on the turf after being knocked completely off my feet. I do not know if I suffered full-blown concussions playing college football at the University of Dayton, but I do remember my head hurting an awful lot. My doctors tell me my brain struggles to recycle serotonin and this could be a result of the head injuries.

Another theory roots the depression I experience in my history of disconnection from place. I’ve never lived anywhere for long and this perpetual moving creates a feeling of spiritual vertigo for me. I was born in Evansville, IN, moved to Bedford, IN, moved to Salt Lake City, went to Cedar City, re-joined my family in Waterloo, IA, headed to Dayton for college, then Madison, WI for law school, and on to Milwaukee to work in the public defender’s office. I lived in all of these places before I was 26. Each uprooting came with its own specific pains. Eventually, however, like a plant who will not take to new soil, I rejected the idea I could ever grow roots anywhere.

The final theory for my suicide attempts — and the one that makes the most sense to me — points to the overwhelming mixture of exhaustion, guilt, and despair I built as a public defender watching client after client dragged away to prison while I woke every morning to read news reports of ever more environmental destruction. I worked 60 and 70 hour weeks and it never seemed to matter. I could not keep my clients out of prison. I brought my case files home and some nights woke up at 3am to get a head-start on the day. The more I lost, the stronger my feelings of guilt grew. It was my fault. I needed to work harder. The harder I worked, the more exhausted I became. The more exhausted I became, the harder it was to fight the guilt. The more guilt I felt, the harder I told myself I needed to work.

On top of this, I recognised the fact that the planet’s life support systems are under attack by forces like climate change, causing a growing number of scientists to predict human extinction by as soon as 2050. Carcinogens have seeped so deeply into the earth that every mother in the world has contaminants like dioxin in her breast milk; humans have successfully poisoned the most sacred physical bond between mother and child.

Meanwhile, nearly 50% of all other species are disappearing. Between 100-200 species a day are going extinct around the world. One quarter of the world’s coral reefs have been murdered. In the United States, alone, 95% of old-growth forests are gone. In 70 countries worldwide there are no longer any original forests at all.

I often try to apologise for listing off these facts, or explain that perhaps I fixate on these things because I have a mental illness. I will not do that any longer. These atrocities are happening. Unless you are a sociopath, to truly contemplate these facts, to understand what they mean, to feel their implications comes with a profound emotional cost. I might have a mental illness, but it is natural to feel despair when confronted with the possibility of the destruction of all life on the planet.

*

I return to Utah after spending two years on the road supporting indigenous-led land-based environmental struggles. Why, just months after trying to commit suicide, did I set out for the front lines of the environmental movement?

Well, my experiences tell me that emotional states like despair, by themselves, are illusions and cannot hurt me on their own. Despair cannot kill me. I can kill me. Feeling the despair, I can grind several pills into powder, snort the powder to numb the pain, and then drink down the rest of the pills. Similarly I could put a gun to my temple or jump from a bridge. But, in each of these cases, it will not be the despair that kills me, it will be a physical action.

I find this realisation to be deeply empowering. While I cannot always control my emotional state, I can control my actions. No matter how much despair I feel, I can refuse to act on that despair. Following this idea, I started to understand that I was not going to heal my mental illness with thoughts alone. I was not going to think my way out of depression. In order to heal, I needed to take tangible steps to alleviate the despair I was feeling.

First I went up to central British Columbia to volunteer at the Unist’ot’en Camp, an indigenous cultural centre and pipeline blockade on the traditional, unceded territory of the Unist’ot’en clan of the Wet’suwet’en First Nation. I helped to build a bunkhouse on the precise GPS coordinates of a pipeline that would carry fossil fuels from the Fort McMurray tar-sands in Alberta over Unist’ot’en territory to a refinery in Kitimat, BC where the fossil fuels would be processed and shipped to be burned in markets worldwide. I broke trails and walked the trapline on Unist’ot’en territory in the winter.

Soon afterwards, I was encouraged to head to Hawai’i to write about Kanaka Maolis’ (native Hawaiian’s) efforts to prevent the Thirty Meter Telescope from being constructed on the summit of their most sacred mountain, Mauna Kea. I spent 37 nights at 9,200 feet sleeping on the cold ground. I saw more snow than beaches in Hawai’i and was present when the police tried to force a way through 800 Kanaka Maoli as they blocked the construction equipment from gaining Mauna Kea’s summit. The police arrested 12 people that day, but were forced to turn back when boulders were rolled into the one road leading to the construction site.

There’s a darker side to my decision to give up on a mainstream lifestyle to support environmental causes. I quit my job, gave up my apartment lease, sold my car, and broke up with the woman I was dating (a woman who stayed with me through the suicide attempts) in order to take off for Canada. It was not long before my money ran out and I was relying entirely on the generosity of others to help me along the way. There are times when I wonder if it really is all that brave to turn my back on the normal responsibilities adults in this culture must attend to for basic survival. Getting a real job terrifies me. Maybe all I was doing on the road was avoiding putting my life back together after the suicide attempts?

*

While I ponder the snow from the Park City Library, I am reminded that I should be working on several of the online content writing gigs I have taken in an effort to rebuild a sustainable income for myself. While I was on the road, I got sick of being broke. I became profoundly lonely for familiar places. I began to crave consistency in my day-to-day life. I would be lying if I did not confess the despair I sometimes feel when I realise just how out of control I let my personal life get. My student loans did not pay themselves. My resume can not magically produce an explanation for the hole in my work history. I still do not have enough money in my bank account to pay a first month’s rent and deposit to secure my own place to live.

Looking at my situation, the darkness begins to creep back in. I feel a deep sense of guilt wondering if I’ve sold out the environmental movement in order to build a community for myself. What right do I have to slow down right now? How can I look the Unist’ot’en Clan or Kanaka Maoli in the eye while their homes are under attack and I’m writing content for personal injury lawyers? Seeing the beauty of the snow on Park City’s peaks, knowing Utah may soon be too hot for snow to exist, why am I not running back to the front lines?

When these thoughts begin to spiral, I know I am in danger. I begin to hear that old whispering suggesting a way out. I remember that there is a route to numb this confusion. It would not take too much of an effort to make it all fade away.

There the snow is again, though, and I know I will never try to kill myself again. I see the dark, heavy clouds weighing on the mountains’ shoulders. The chill in the air is a comfort because it brings the promise of water. As the powder spreads down the mountainsides, I know for another season, at least, there will be snowmelt, the streams will swell, and life will flourish across the land.

The snow in Park City brings a lesson. The snow is the future. Where there is snow, there is water and where there is water, there is life. Despair is the inability to see a liveable future. Those who are destroying the planet are also destroying our future. When they clear-cut a forest, they clear-cut the future for those living in the forest. When they dam a river, they dam that river’s future. When they burn their fossil fuels and boil the Earth’s temperatures so that the snow in Park City disappears, they’re burning and boiling Park City’s future.

I cannot help the snow if I am dead. The snow is too beautiful, the joy I feel seeing the snow is too strong, and the first stirrings of a feeling of belonging in Park City are too compelling for me to ever give in like that again.