“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Scottish Opera wouldn't let me publish this Program Note

...because it was "too controversial" (what) so I'm reproducing it here. If you happen to be seeing them soon I guess it might help. 

Opera in the Anthropocene
Timothy Morton

Everywhere on earth—everywhere—there is a growing layer of human-made materials. Everything else depends upon this fact—that humans have become a geophysical force on a planetary scale. That is all and only what the scientific term Anthropocene means. It doesn’t mean humans are the best. It doesn’t mean humans won. If anything, it’s a symptom of humans losing it in all kinds of ways, including just trashing stuff and ignoring it. 

When you scale up to Earth magnitude, there most definitely is a ‘we’: the human species, humankind. That’s true even if humans find that hard to accept, for all the right reasons: the last time European and American humans said things like ‘humankind’ what they meant was white people and what they mostly called it was Man. Paging feminism, will feminism please come to all ecological writing. 

When you scale up to the time of “civilization” (it’s not just a Western thing, it happened all over at about the same time, 12 500 years ago), you see humankind doing something weird. You see humankind responding to the global warming of that moment by setting in motion social and agricultural and architectural (and so on) programs, recipes for making stuff happen—algorithms if you want to speak computer—and these programs resulted in…much, much worse global warming. That’s the one sentence sick joke version of what just happened: ‘just’ on a geological timescale, that is. In order to avoid global warming, we created worse global warming. Our lunch ran away to somewhere cooler, so we settled down, made cities and created the hierarchies that still plague us: patriarchy, racism, class division and speciesism—some lifeforms are ‘cattle’ (where we get the word capital from) and cattle are part of ‘our’ world, others are beasts and part of ‘nature’. Try to ignore the cats, they seem to slip around the boundary. 

And the net effect of all this, which was done in the name of increasing happiness, is global warming, or to give it its really truly scary name, mass extinction. 

You do something that makes you happy on at least one scale. You start your car. It gets you to the cinema. You did nothing wrong. You’re not guilty. Your carbon emissions were statistically meaningless at Earth magnitude. But billions of those car startings, along with other things, are exactly what is causing global warming. Realizing you are part of humankind means realizing you are part of a strange whole that doesn’t swallow you entirely like Pac Man. It’s good to know this. It means this level of awareness will help to combat the structures such as patriarchy that keep the programs running. It means realizing you’re not guilty. You are responsible. If you can understand something you are responsible for it. You don’t even have to prove you did it. You don’t have to prove you pushed that child into the street in order to save him from an oncoming bus. In fact, that might be a deadly waste of time. 

If you have five hours I can prove this to you logically, by the way, no really, I can. 

Ecological awareness is realizing that things happen on more than one scale at once. There is at least one scale on which an action fails or malfunctions or sucks in some way, whether it was done by a single human or by billions of them or by trillions of bacteria. You can’t save everything all at once. But knowing this keeps you safe from being a know-it-all cynic, who in this age of ecological emergency, is about as useful as a chocolate teapot with tar in it. 

The word opera means actions in Latin. Opera as an art form is voluminous, multidimensional, expansive. What could be a better format in which to start proclaiming our responsibility (not guilt), the fact that as humankind, we’ve got this? We’d better have got this. Dolphins don’t have fingers to operate the keyboards that turn off the oil pipes. 


Larrea said...

This sounds like a mission for Annie Gosfield or John Adams. Those two composers come immediately to mind.

amanda vox said...

I am not usually an opera person but now I'm interested. there is so little about the opera itself on the scottish opera website though, shame.
your program note is a punch in the face, I guess, for someone not acquainted with your thinking. a good punch, a wake up punch, that would take a while to make sense of - or the 5-hour step-by-step logical path you mention. again, a shame it was deemed controversial!

Unknown said...

PB Shelley would hire some people to leaflet it.