“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, March 30, 2011

Return to Uncanny Valley

Just got off the phone with Judy Natal, who tells me that 2500 PEOPLE showed up at Biosphere II in Tucson AZ for a series of talks on cosmology. Evidently there's a thirst for thinking about what exists in reality, even for ontology itself.

Judy was wondering why the same fascination isn't there for global warming. I was thinking about this too—I reckon it's because of the oppressive claustrophobic horror of actually being inside it. You can spectate “the Universe” as a kind of ersatz aesthetic object: you have the distance provided by the biosphere itself, which acts as a kind of spherical cinema screen. You can kid yourself that what's displayed on that screen (like projections in a planetarium) is infinite, distant—the whole Kantian shebang.

But inside the belly of the whale that is global warming, it's oppressive and hot and there's no “away” anymore. And it's profoundly regressing: a kind of toxic intrauterine experience, on top of which we must assume responsibility for it, and what neonatal or prenatal infant should be responsible for her mother's existence?

I was thinking about the “uncanny valley” phenomenon in robotics yesterday. Last time I posted on it a commenter talked about racism and I think yes, the uncanny valley explains racism quite well, and other forms of dehumanization. If an entity is different enough from you, you can regard them without a sense of the uncanny (which has to do with strange resemblance). So antisemitism for instance emerges in a culture (Nazism) in which beings such as Hiter's dog, Blondie, are treated with reverence.

The more we find out about our kinship with all lifeforms, the more uncanny they become—they all start to slip into the uncanny valley. So ecological ethics must be to do with how we confront the “inhuman”—precisely, the strange stranger that is us.

So perhaps global warming is in the uncanny valley as far as hyperobjects go. Just a theory, but maybe a black hole, despite its terrifying horror, is so far away and so wondrous and so totally fatal (we would simply cease to exist anywhere near it) that we marvel at it, rather than try to avoid thinking about it or feel grief about it. The much smaller, much more immediately dangerous hole that we're in (inside the hyperobject global warming), is profoundly disturbing. Especially because we created it.

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