Nature is not natural and can never be naturalized — Graham Harman

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Beautiful Soul Syndrome 7" remix

For the stressed, modern, go-go lifestyle people:

Evil is the eye of the beholder.


I started a YouTube page. I'm into the Haeckel drawings of radiolarians and used them as a background. Haeckel coined the word ecology.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Mesh

I'll be presenting this talk at a very interesting conference in Santa Barbara on friday. It's called Beyond Environmentalism. Elaine Scarry and Ursula Heise are keynoting. My talk is based on a concept from my new book The Ecological Thought. The complete video is now uploading to iTunes U, in my podcast class Literature and the Environment. You can already download three smaller file versions from the same place.

The Mesh

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Beautiful Soul Syndrome

In “Talks and Stuff“ in the right hand column, I just uploaded a pdf of the talk I was scheduled to give at UCLA this wednesday (May 20). Unfortunately I won't be able to make it in person—but I'll be podcasting the talk for my Romanticism course on iTunes U. Let me know what you think if you read it or hear it. It's for a seminar called “A Cultural Prehistory of Environmentalism.”

The talk is about the way in which some forms of environmentalism are caught in Hegel's dialectic of the beautiful soul—an attitude towards reality that sees the world as evil.

Beautiful Soul Syndrome

Beyond Environmentalism

I'll be talking at the Beyond Environmentalism conference at UC Santa Barbara this friday. Lots of speakers—promises to be a great do.

Friday, May 15, 2009

All the corners of the buildings

...Who'd but we'd remember these? Yeah, it's David Bowie's “New Killer Star.” (See the video below.) So first up the song and video seem to be doing the same thing: talking about 9/11 by not talking about it but instead kind of miming about it, gesturing about it. The lenticular printing gimmick in the video is a flashback to the 70s when 3D postcards were all the rage. And the Twin Towers are a 70s kind of an artifact (finished 1970–1971). And there are two of them. And you see them kind of like you'd see a lenticular image, flipping from one to the other with a slight turn of the head. So the position(s) from which we see the imagery in the Bowie video is the position(s) of the Twin Towers themselves. This puts us in the awkward, ahem, position of seeing things from the point of view of an object that doesn't exist, as if we were able to peep into a world from which we were excluded—say we are voyeurs, like Mitch in the famous peeping Tom scene in Vertigo, or dead, like Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense, or the denizens of the Towers.

This means that parallax is built in to the way we are meant to interpret the song. Parallax means that something appears to be moving against a seemingly static background, but really we are moving and are seeing our movement inscribed “over there” in what we seem to see.

Moreover, it's as if this parallax view (good phrase of Slavoj Zizek's) were directly built into the architecture of the Twin Towers. So that the view of the Towers (“of” in both senses) is a view of a digital age in which the logic of binary difference means that there's no single privileged viewpoint from which to view things properly—there's no original tower; not only that, but how we are to look at things is inscribed directly into them (user-friendliness). David Simpson's book 9/11 is the best analysis of the Towers as a digital spectacle. If you were looking at reality from the point of view of the Towers, it wouldn't add up to a nice gestalt but would constantly flip from one perspective to another, undermining the Renaissance logic of the vanishing point simply by doubling it (and thus appearing to reinforce it on another level). Surely this parallax logic was designed into the Towers themselves, which stood as a monument to the deconstructive energy of global capital.

If you have two lenticular viewpoints, both viewpoints are “wrong”—and two wrongs don't make a right. And there's no position half way between the two viewpoints that reconciles them.

Depth perception is a function of parallax, because our two eyes see things from slightly different points of view. Lenticular images mimic this in a gratifyingly crude manner. Each vision refuses to be fudged into the other one, unlike the way “normal” perception fudges the view from our two eyes. Perception is thus radically de-realized, removed from the normal boring platitudes about how we always perceive in a “world” that our perception co-creates. In Bowie's song and the video, there is no “world” as such. This makes the song profoundly ecological (though not traditionally environmentalist). The notion of “world” is a kind of stereoscopic illusion of depth based on parallax—the way our twin eyes see things slightly differently gives rise to a sensation that we are embedded within something. But this is only because we are primates with two frontal eyes. A spider would do a very different 9/11 video. This is far more drastic than saying that there are as many “worlds” as there are species. It means that there is no world as such. “World” is purely a projection based on a certain technological setup (in our case, frontal stereoscopic vision). If you still think this is a “world” then you've practically eaten the concept away to the bone. And worlds are supposed to be rich and chewy.

Far things and near things seem to shift differently. The optical illusion of parallax suggests that our perception of a “world” in which we are embedded, our perception as such, is intrinsically illusory. For any optical illusion to work, optics as such must be something of an illusion. It almost looks real, yet we know it's an illusion (“See my life in a comic, like the way they did the Bible, / All the bubbles and action, the little details and colors”).

This insight accords with a general insight about ecology. The more we find out how everything is interconnected, the less we can imagine things existing in a “world” that somehow surrounds and supports them. If “We Are the World” then there is no world—it's just us, no? Even worse: once we include our subjectivity in our world, as good ecological citizens, we eliminate the possibility of “world” as such, because this depends upon a sort of conceptual upgrade of the optical illusion of depth that only exists as a function of our physical separation from the things we are looking at. The view from the World Trade Center turns what appeared natural into a lenticular fantasy image that we immediately recognize to be a stereoscopic illusion. Depth is only possible because of a fudged switching beween twin points of view. There is no depth as such. Depth is simply part of our phenotype, the way our DNA expresses itself. The World Trade Center acknowledges the fact that we are primates with eyes in the fronts of our heads, making this fact appear in a somewhat humiliating way, as if we were drunks seeing one tower split into two. It mocks the illusion of depth. Perhaps it's not surprising then that the 70s remake of King Kong had the giant primate straddling the Twin Towers.

Double vision is when the cognitive system isn't functioning properly, revealing the clunkiness of the two frontal eyes—and hence the unnaturalness of the whole setup. Likewise, the actual music of “New Killer Star” is a sort of double hearing. The wonderfully iterative chord sequence on the guitar, mindlessly chugging up a bit, down a bit, and back again, reinforces the sensation of being locked in a twin groove that is demonic because it isn't chosen and keeps returning. It lurches forward like some artificial monster, relentlessly. The riff is marvelously both rock 'n' roll and glam, as if we were flipping, in lenticular fashion, between 1960 and 1974. If rock 'n' roll is “natural” pop music, then glam is surely “artificial”—so there's a both/and logic going on at this level—more on this theme later.

I like how there are twin verses and twin choruses. This twinning is how the song parodies elegy, the genre to which it refers in the lyrics. Elegies do what canned laughter does: they automate an emotion (grief) so that we don't have to undergo its burden. Their nature imagery is strictly sadistic—nature returns (normally it's the spring following winter) unlike the dead person, who remains dead while flowers sprout from his grave. Bowie's parody delivers a swift one-two punch to grief, the only appropriate reaction in an age of ecological catastrophe and spectacular politics (such as 9/11 and its aftermath). It thus reveals the ideological function of elegy (and boy wasn't that on display on all channels after 9/11?), to steal any semblance of an inner life and slap it together in a nice lenticular image where death is everywhere and nowhere.

In the video this elegiac parody of elegy (we can't move forwards, we're stuck in a moment) is imaged by staging each phase of the lenticular image as a moment in time. So up in the clouds, the flight attendant is forever burning his hand with hot coffee and wincing. The bluebird is always chirping in the dead artificial landscape down below. The satellite is always just about to crash to Earth. The plane is always just beginning to shift its course (has it just been hijacked?). Another sunny day in neo-pastoral suburbia, whose mindless repetitions exude a sense of imminent threat. It's not that there's a disaster waiting to happen—of course there is, on my reading—but that there's already a kind of disastrous, bright positivity to everything we see. (Surely this is David Lynch's territory, hence perhaps the mechanical-seeming bluebird, an obvious allusion to Blue Velvet with its menacing suburban lawns.)

It's as if we are witnessing a suspended moment in time between two moments. This moment is truly impossible—it takes place “between” each guitar riff, each phase of the image, and as we've seen, there is no between. Yet the song appears to insist that there is indeed this utopian (no-place) viewpoint.

It's that Matrix or Google Earth point of view (see the previous post on Google Earth art) that visually performs what in poetry is called ekphrasis, the vivid description that suspends time through its loving lingering on exquisite details. The video evidently internalizes Google Earth, giving us a series of multiple lenticular views as if we could assemble them all into a composite image—hey look, there are the twin factory towers in the shot of the girls playing ball...And the video includes a shot of the Earth from space.

This loving repetition is also, of course, the compulsion to repeat, which seems to get ever stronger in a world of touch-screen rewind controls, which coupled with the sadistic desire to see everything and record it, seems perversely to have reimagined Benjamin's dreaded aura for a contemporary age—what could be more auratic than the cheap lenticular gimmick? Isn't it the case that there are lenticular winking Christs out there? Far from demystifying reality, as Benjamin thought the close-up and other cinematic techniques would do, the desire to see and see again has remystified it in another way.

When the first plane hit the Tower on 9/11, it wasn't recorded (well, perhaps by a few cameras). When the second plane hit, all the cameras in the world seemed trained on it.

Hegel: for an event to occur, it has to occur twice.

This “event”-fulness was built into the terrorist action, and the Bush Administration fell for it hook line and sinker. As did the media, who couldn't stop playing and replaying the event as if it were on a loop. The constant repetition became pornographic. Like the meaningless shifting back and forth from one lenticular image phase to the other. Back and forth, back and forth, impotently.

The lyrics appear to deliberately evoke spectacular events in a recursive way, such as the 60s pop show “Ready, Steady Go” and the more recent “Stars in Their Eyes.” (Other shows are “Face the Music” and “Dateline.”)

But of course, this is not an event—it's just an idiotic, horrifying pulsation between two singularities. And a one, and a two, and a one, and a two...

By excluding any possibility of a human excess behind, within or beyond the relentless, rocking-horse duality of the idiotic rock-n-roll riffage and the lenticularity of the video, this artifact serves a truly politically progressive purpose. It doesn't allow the comforting illusion that there is a “right” or “human” way to bear witness to idiotic violence. In this it's a searing indictment of the Bush Administration, far more so than the Romantic pap that passes for progressive such as Rage Against the Machine or Michael Franti.

And by including Nature, in full ideological dress, on “that” side of the imagery (“The sidewalks and trees...” in the lyrics, the view of suburban idylls in the video, the knowing, happy-happy joy-joy imagery of workers in suburbia/countryside, a homage to Stalinist cinema), “New Killer Star” observes correctly that there's nowhere to which to escape, nowhere from which to mount a criticism of current social conditions that is outside of those conditions. Nature is as much a part of the perverse enjoyment-factory as the twin towers of the power station exuding polluting smoke within the emerald landscape of the video.

I actually love how suburbia and the countryside are also a kind of duality between which the video flips in lenticular fashion, just as Battery Park (mentioned in the lyrics) is a sort of faux utopian urban garden right by the Twin Towers site. That double decker train is surely pulling in to some suburban station, and the power station is there in the hills to send power to the city that is never directly seen yet totally present—as I've argued, we are looking at the scenes in the video from the point of view of the Towers themselves.

Suburban nature (and its “wilderness” remix, National Park campsites), can't decide whether it's artificial or natural. We flip like a lenticular photo from artificial nature to natural artifice. We crave those landscaped dry creek beds in front of our houses, and the Parks need trash cans and toilets. Suburban nature in a sense is more natural than natural—hyperbolically lush and carefully managed, nowadays without too many pesticides and herbicides (if you're being ethical). That initial bluebird is just right—it's just a little bit more than natural, so it slips into being super-natural. (Supernatural, like 30% extra natural...) And those two girls throwing the ball across the pool—twin towers of suburban beauty—locked forever in their meaningless display of sculpted body tissue.

The video shows us a complete “world” with factories, trains, gardens, and hills, and houses, planes, satellites—a picture postcard of modern life. Yet it successfully conveys that this world is simultaneously totally nonexistent and horrifyingly hyper-real.

It's not a perfect world—the hammer falls on the poor coworker's hand and the flight attendant spills the coffee. That image of the flexing hand—is it an allusion to Laurie Anderson's video for “O Superman” (“This is the hand—the hand that takes...Here come the planes, / They're American planes, made in America—Smoking or Non-Smoking?”) (Anderson performed that in NYC one week after 9/11. Wow.)

Proletarian clumsiness seems to comment on the lenticular form itself. Of course the beauty of lenticular photos is that they don't seem to “work” properly—in an age of digital animation we can smile at these clunky kitschy products. But in another way the photos don't lie—there is no point that is magically in between different moments. Any movement can be broken up into a sequence of still images, so in a sense there is no movement as such (Zeno). We only observe things happening retroactively. Thus the song and the video appear to swing on a clumsy hinge between past and future, wanking time (for want of a better phrase) back and forth like a DJ trying to beat match. And failing. Of course the DJ is revolution, and revolution is trying to find a point in the groove at which to insert a whole new tune. But that point never arrives, so the DJ keeps sliding the needle to different points on the disc, only to rediscover the same thing. There is no exit from this bright non-place, this horrible utopia.

So all lenticular photos are obviously staged for a camera, like 9/11. You'd have to set up the shot of the falling hammer. Failure is successfully staged as a kind of obscene comedy. (The wincing workers, caught in their pain like cartoon characters we can sadistically watch being hurt over and over again.) So there is an uncanny sense that what we are seeing has been predicted and preprogrammed. That what we are witnessing is a prefabricated event, seen from an impossible point of view—Ground Zero.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Communication and the Environment conference

The 10th Biennial Conference on Communication and the Environment will be held June 27-30, 2009, at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. There will be some 80 presentations on public participation, media criticism, social construction, risk assessment, and policy applications. Check out the conference website.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Statistics versus mystics

Head on over to this entry on Nate Silver's extraordinary Five Thirty Eight site and you'll learn a lot about people's beliefs about global warming.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Does the Environment Have a Right?

This looks like it's going to be a wonderful do in Chicago. Hope you can come if you're near.

This, roughly, is what I shall say:
Ecological ideology (the various “environmentalisms” for want of a better word) is either fully embedded within capitalist ideology; or, when it strives to escape, it only achieves a kind of geostationary orbit. Is it possible for us to imagine a postcapitalist ecology? Yes—ecology intrinsically transcends capitalism. My project Ecology without Nature argues that in order to develop this idea we will need to drop the idea of nature, and the numerous “new and improved versions” derived from environmentalism, systems theory, Spinozan Deleuze-and-Guattari-style imagery, and so on. In so doing, ecological politics will have to move beyond consequentialism and towards something more like Kantian duty.
Here's a full text of my talk.

Morton Chicago Talk

Friday, May 1, 2009

The little details and colors

I'm sure it hasn't escaped anyone's attention how environmental this is.

In the next post or two I hope to do an ecocritique of this extraordinary text.