Making Things Speak

by Arie Altena The enormous smelter in Nikel, an industrial town in North-West Russia, just across the border with Norway, immediately makes its presence felt. It is visible from almost every street, its noise is inescapable, and so are its fumes; up close you can even taste it. In Nikel it is unequivocal who/what has the loudest voice: the smelter. Lacking eloquence, it instead makes its presence felt brutally. There is no escaping its voice.

The smelter in Nikel. Photo: Ketil Nergaard
The smelter also speaks about politics and profit, about jobs and economic survival, and it speaks volumes about pollution. Without the smelter and the mines Nikel would not exist as a small city. The majority of its residents depend on it – if not directly, then indirectly – for their livelihoods. The smelter is part of a huge economic network: it is connected to mines, to transport lines, to factories that process the ore, and to the world market. It is directly connected to daily life in Nikel, and connects Nikel with the rest of the world. Speak What do we mean when we say that this thing, the smelter, ‘speaks’? Is it just a metaphor for ‘making its presence known’, or does it imply more, or something other than that? When the smelter ‘speaks’ politically, it is because someone – a politician, a businessman, a worker, a resident of Nickel, an activist – refers to its economic effects, or the amount of sulphur it emits over the course of a month. The smelter speaks through its physical appearance and the smoke it emits. It also speaks through data. If the factory is articulate, it is because it is equipped to speak. We are able to sense, translate, and interpret the data it produces because we have installed an apparatus that enables the smelter to speak in more ways than just through its physicality. This huge apparatus consists of measurement devices, sensors, networks, and theories that enable the factory to speak more eloquently. The data also makes it possible for us humans to imagine what the world looks like to the smelter, and how it is concerned with its own role in that world. Ultimately it is we humans who make the smelter speak. There is nothing new here. We ‘read’ the world to understand what is going on. The sky speaks to us of fluctuations in temperature, approaching rain, changes in wind direction. We have learned to read the weather. We have become so adept at it that we can forecast the weather locally for the several days in advance. We have gathered so much data over the past decennia and centuries that we know something about the behaviour of the Earth. The bore-cores from icecaps in Greenland and Antarctica speak of the history of the Earth. The sensing network that covers the Earth – the meteorological stations, the air-quality sensors, the satellites that look down on the planet – supplies us with data that enables us to ‘hear’ the ‘voice’ of the Earth. What we have learned from it is that the Earth is warming up and that Arctic ice is retreating. This ‘voice’ of the Earth tells us that human behaviour has irreversibly changed the atmosphere, that although we are a forceful actor, we are not at all in control, and that the changes we have set into motion are threatening our own civilisation. Thing What is a ‘thing’? Without becoming overly entangled in the contemporary philosophical debate, we could start with Bruno Latour’s description in Making Things Public (Latour & Weibel, 2005), and the etymology of the word. ‘Thing’ is usually taken to derive from ‘Ding’, or the old English ‘þing’, which means ‘gathering’ or ‘assembly’. ‘Interests’ come together in a thing: a thing can be seen as being composed of attachments. Calling an object a thing means acknowledging its ‘network’ aspect. Indeed throughout his work Bruno Latour – sociologist of science and philosopher – stresses the network aspect of the world. In Prince of Networks (Harman, 2009) the object-oriented philosopher Graham Harman has described the ontology implied by Latour’s work. For Object-Oriented Ontology (OOO) everything is an object, and there is nothing else besides objects. OOO and Latour agree on the idea that quarks, nation states, electromagnetic radiation, unicorns and Super Mario are just as much objects as a chair or a table. But whereas for Latour objects are assemblages of many interests and relations, Harman argues that an object is always partly withdrawn from the world. Harman and other OOO philosophers do not want to reduce objects to relations, or to the sum of their qualities or properties. For OOO nothing but objects exist. These objects do not even exist in an environment. Timothy Morton, a theorist who has aligned with OOO writes in his book Realist Magic (Morton, 2013a): ‘(T)here is no such thing as an environment: wherever we look for it, we find all kinds of objects—biomes, ecosystems, hedges, gutters and human flesh.’ The objects do not exist in ‘something’ or ‘nothing’. There is nothing but objects. Morton again: ‘There are objects: cinnamon, microwaves, interstellar particles and scarecrows. There is nothing underneath objects. Or, better, there is not even nothing underneath them. There is no such thing as space independent of objects (happily contemporary physics agrees). What is called Universe is a large object that contains objects such as black holes and racing pigeons.’ (All quotes from Morton, 2013a, n.p.). Morton also comes up with the idea of a ‘hyperobject’ in his book Hyperobjects (Morton, 2013b). Hyperobjects are nonlocal and viscous. They are so large we cannot grasp them. Climate change is such an hyperobject. In the context of the Dark Ecology project it’s not so relevant to establish if we should align ourselves with Latour’s, Morton’s or Harman’s position. It is their conceptualisations that are fundamental to the idea of ‘Making Things Speak’. These ideas challenge us to look at the world and our state of affairs with new eyes. Things Matter & Equipping Things to Speak We have ever more and better equipment to make the voices of things ‘come out’. Sensor networks harvest data relating to many phenomena. The weather speaks constantly, not only, for example, through the heat of the sun on our skin, but also through data, gathered by sensors, and read, analysed and interpreted by software, and made into knowledge – and thus into the voices of things – by humans. These networks sometimes act autonomously, which means that software algorithms determine an immediate, specific response (by machines) to received data. In this sense things act. This can be as simple as a sprinkler turning on when smoke is detected, or plants equipped with sensors that indicate when they need water, and in response irrigation begins. Regardless of whether these are good developments or not, such examples do indicate that in our electronically networked world, things have been given more agency. ‘The idea that objects actually matter – ethically, politically, esthetically – is today taken seriously by a much broader range of people than before. (…) Political theorists of many different stripes, designers, metaphysicians, developers of the internet of things, legal scholars and so on (…) have taken an active interest in the normative qualities and capacities of things: in what things might be capable of, when it comes to enactment of citizenship, and the transformation of the world.’ (Marres, 2013, n.p.). Dutch sociologist Noortje Marres describes how political theorists and social scientists have proposed to recognise things as being capable of political and ethical intervention, and ‘that things, too, act in normatively significant ways.’ In her work Marres researches how things are equipped to speak, also in the political arena. Coming from a Latourian background, she calls this ‘material participation’ (Marres, 2012), and she looks specifically at how the sensor networks we have installed enable things to speak up, and allow their voices to be heard in the formation of political issues. Marres’ idea is indeed closely related to Latour’s proposal of a ‘parliament of things’ in his book Politics of Nature (Latour, 2004). In Politics of Nature Latour defines an ecology without the Romantic notion of ‘Nature’ – a notion that is central to Timothy Morton’s thinking. In the first chapter, entitled ‘Why Political Ecology Has to Let Go of Nature’, Latour states: ‘(i)f “nature” is what makes it possible to recapitulate the hierarchy of beings in a single ordered series, political ecology is always manifested, in practice, by the destruction of the idea of nature.’ (Latour, 2004, p. 25). The idea of nature that political ecology has to relinquish is not nature as a sphere of reality. It is the result of a political division that puts the indisputable and objective on one side, and the subjective and disputable on the other. According to Latour, we have to escape from this division to be able to make a common world. Latour sees the process of human development ‘as neither liberation from Nature nor as a fall from it, but rather as a process of becoming ever-more attached to, and intimate with, a panoply of non-human natures.’ (Latour, 2012, n.p.). Dark Ecology What is at stake in Latour’s philosophy is a fundamental rethinking of our world. It’s the categories that we use to order and understand the world that have to be redefined. It isn’t only a different game we have to play; we have to fundamentally alter our understanding of how the game is structured and what its rules are. This rethinking has been going on for a while in philosophy, anthropology and the arts. One such example is Timothy Morton’s ‘Dark Ecology’, an idea he develops in his books Ecology Without Nature (Morton, 2007) and The Ecological Thought (Morton, 2010). Because ecology is usually seen as good and green, ‘dark ecology’ sounds at first like an oxymoron. ‘If we could only manage to live ecologically, the future of the world would not seem so dark.’ It’s a meme that is pretty much ingrained in our minds. Ecology is usually not seen as dark and certainly not as sinister – but it is. To think ecologically, in Morton’s terms, means taking the idea of the entanglement of everything with everything, of the living with the non-living, seriously. In The Ecological Thought Morton writes: ‘The ecological thought realises that all beings are interconnected. This is the mesh. (…) All life forms are the mesh, and so are all the dead ones, as are their habitats, which are also made up of living and nonliving beings.’ (Morton, 2010). Consequently the human viewpoint is not taken as primary; dark ecology demands that we view the world from a non-human perspective. For Morton this is necessary in a world in which climate catastrophe is not closeby, but has already happened. Thinking ecologically does not mean reverting to a natural state in which these connections are in balance. Such a state does not exist and never has. In Morton’s view, ecology should therefore distance itself from a naive belief in an originary natural situation. Dark Ecology thinks outside the modern divide between culture and nature. In his later books Morton connects these ideas with Object-Oriented Ontology when he writes: ‘there is no such thing as Nature. I’ve seen penguins, plutonium, pollution and pollen. But I’ve never seen Nature.’ (Morton, 2013a, n.p.). Dark Ecology conceives of our world as a ‘mesh’ of objects. It has abandoned the strict divides between Nature and Culture, Technology and Politics, and Nature and Society. It’s dark, because it invites us to think about how humans are intimately attached to and interconnected with, for example, open iron ore mining, trains, and fruit flies… Morton writes that in an age of ecological awareness we will conceive of art as ‘a demonic force, carrying information from the beyond, that is, from nonhuman entities such as global warming, wind, water, sunlight and radiation. From coral bleaching in the ocean to the circling vortex of plastic bags in the mid Atlantic.’ (Morton, 2013, n.p.). In other words, in our ecological age, art is the force that lets things speak to us. Nature/Culture It begins to be clear that the separation between the concepts of nature and culture – on which the Western ontology largely depends – cannot be upheld. Our current predicament requires that we reconsider our view of the world, yet it is not so easy to overcome this separation in our thinking. Latour’s collaborative project An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (Latour, 2013) is one attempt at ‘building’ a different view of our world. In his recent books Latour repeatedly acknowledges the work of the French anthropologist Philippe Descola as an important influence. Descola’s most important book Beyond Nature and Culture (Descola, 2013) is an attempt at structural anthropology. Descola describes four basic ways in which humans conceive of the world, four basic ontologies: animism, totemism, analogism, and naturalism. Naturalism is the ontology of the modern Western world – also of Descola himself – the ontology that the scientific worldview adheres to. Descola does not set out to directly criticise naturalism; the task he sets himself is to describe and analyse the four modes. Descola shows that ‘the opposition between nature and culture is not as universal as it is claimed to be.’ (Descola, 2013, p. xviii). He shows that for both the indigenous inhabitants of the Far North, and South America, ‘nature is not opposed to culture but is an extension of it and enriches it in a cosmos in which everything is organized according to the criteria of human beings.’ (Descola, 2013, p. 14). These people ‘regard themselves, not as social collectives managing their relations with the ecosystem, but rather as simple components of a vaster whole within which no real discrimination is really established between humans and nonhumans.’ (Descola, 2013, p. 16). In this conception there is no environment that functions as a background to objects and humans. In contrast, the modern way of looking at the world has set up a strict division of subject and object. ‘(I)t creates a distance between man and the world by making the autonomy of things depend upon man; and it systematizes and stabilizes the external universe even as it confers upon the subject absolute mastery over the organization of this newly conquered exteriority.’ (Descola, 2013, pp. 59, 60). Descola does grant that modern science has led to many insights, such as the development of the natural sciences. The idea that we could, or should take the other three seriously, and that naturalism is in many ways as strange or as ‘natural’ as the other modes, implies a major shift for our Western view of the world. This also means that for anthropologists like Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, and for many others, the indigenous viewpoint no longer occupies the blind spot of modernity; it has suddenly become very relevant in the context of having to reconceptualise our ties to the world (Marques, 2015). We need to shift away from only taking naturalism seriously, as Descola makes clear on the very last page of his book: ‘Every type of presence in the world, every way of connecting with it and making use of it, constitutes a particular compromise between, on the one hand, the factors of sensible experience that are accessible to us all, albeit interpreted differently, and, on the other, a mode of aggregating existing beings that is adapted to historical circumstances.’ He continues: ‘The fact is that none of those compromises, however worthy of admiration some may be, can provide a source of instruction valid for all situations.’ (…) And he concludes with a call: ‘It is up to each one of us, wherever we may be, to invent and encourage modes of conciliation and types of pressure capable of leading to a new universality that is both open to all the world’s components and also respectful of certain of their idiosyncrasies. (…) We might then hope to avert a distant point of no return when, with the extinction of the human race, the price of passivity would have to be paid in another fashion: namely by abandoning to the cosmos a nature bereft of its recorders simply because they failed to provide it with genuine modes of expression.’ (All quotes Descola, 2013, p. 405–6). So we have to provide nature – whatever that is – with genuine modes of expression: we have to make things speak. Descola does not provide ‘any architectural plan for a new communal house that would be more accommodating to nonmodern cosmologies and better adapted to the circulation of facts and values.’ ‘Yet,’ he adds, ‘it is reasonable to wager that the time is not far off when such a conceptual construction will begin to rise from the ground.’ (Descola, 2013, p. 405). We need it in this new geological era, the Anthropocene, with global warming and climate change. Anthropocene ‘What is ending is the modern world—a very particular world invented in 1492, animated by a naturalist ontology inside of which nature and culture were not to be confused. Which is to say that humanity can no longer be taken as the solution to anything—at least not alone, in its enlightened cosmo-ecological ignorance. On the contrary, from the perspective of the earth, humanity looks increasingly like the problem.’ (Marques, 2013, n.p.). The Anthropocene is the age of ecological awareness. If it’s not, it should be. The Anthropocene, as a new geological era, doesn’t mark a glorious victory of humanity. It does not indicate the moment when humans – having become a geological force – finally mastered the Earth. It is not an occasion for celebration. The Anthropocene is not anthropocentric. Quite the opposite. What our increasing knowledge of the human impact on the Earth shows, is that humans are not in control at all. The Anthropocene hypothesis is a final wake-up call to the human species and to humanity to realise what is happening to Earth. The conditions that made human civilisation possible are severely threatened. Global warming, caused primarily by the burning of fossil fuels, has already deeply affected the planet, is transforming our economy, and will have devastating effects in the near future: flooding densely populated areas, mass migrations, hunger, and massive disruption of economic and ecological systems. The knowledge we have gleaned from all the data about the continuous transformation of Earth demands that we ‘face Gaia’ – to use Latour’s wake-up call. We have to reconfigure our ideas about the world. Bruno Latour, who has involved himself deeply in the discussion about the Anthropocene and who has become more outspoken over the past few years, states this in different ways, for instance: ‘At the time of the Anthropocene, now that history has become geostory, the very shape of humans and non-humans have all to be remixed.’ (Latour, 2014, p. 23). Modern man always assumed that nature was a static background on which a dynamic human culture developed. But nature is not a slowly changing support system for human culture. Our human culture has come to a standstill, bewildered by the fact that natural phenomena we thought were stable are transforming much quicker than ever imagined. We are stunned by the change of perspective: history, the unfolding of human deeds, has become geostory. Humanity has been decentred. Ecologise No longer can we uphold the distinctions on which Western philosophy has been based since the Enlightenment as separate domains: Nature versus Culture, of Society, Science and Politics. Latour writes: ‘If geologists themselves, rather stolid and serious types, see humanity as a force of the same amplitude as volcanoes or even of plate tectonics, one thing is now certain: we have no hope whatsoever—no more hope in the future than we had in the past— of seeing a definitive distinction between Science and Politics.’ (Latour, 2013, p. 9). What we have to do – according to Latour and many others – is to ‘ecologise’ instead of ‘to modernise’. ‘If it is a question of ecologizing and no longer of modernizing, it may become possible to bring a larger number of values into cohabitation within a somewhat richer ecosystem. (Latour, 2013, p. 11). Taking the hypothesis of the Anthropocene seriously also means that capitalism has to come to an end, as capitalism, and certainly financialised hypercapitalism, depends on a worldview in which nature is something to be exploited for it richnesses. Latour again: ‘The modernizers knew how to survive a nature indifferent to their projects; but when Nature ceases to be indifferent, when the Nature of the anthropocene becomes sensitive, even hypersensitive, to their weight, how is anyone to define what it is looking for, when in fact it is not even interested in us, but in itself? Go ahead, try to talk about mastery and possession to something that can master and possess us without even attaching any importance to our survival.’ (Latour, 2013, p. 485). The move from Economy to Ecology is not an easy shift, according to Latour: ‘The whole world has been forced to move into “The Economy,” which we now know is only a utopia—or rather a dystopia, something like the opium of the people. We are now being asked to move suddenly with our weapons and our baggage into the new dwelling place called “ecology,” which was sold to us as being more habitable and more sustainable but which for the moment has no more form or substance than The Economy, which we are in such a hurry to leave behind.’ (Latour, 2013, p. 23). Therefore we have to explore new descriptions of the ‘state of affairs’. Why should we do this? At the end of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, Latour emphasises the need again: ‘While we wait for Gaia, it isn’t the sense of the absurd that threatens us now, but rather our lack of adequate preparation for the civilization to come.’ (Latour, 2013, p. 486). To prepare for this civilization, we have to explore ‘new descriptions’, ‘in order to ward off the worst’. (Latour, 2013, p. 486). With new descriptions we can explore different ways of making sense of and understanding the world. Making Things Speak, to See with New Eyes To imagine the world anew. See the world with new eyes. To confront Gaia by making things speak. The challenge is to reconsider our attachments, with human and nonhuman agents, with nature, with technology, with objects, to imagine and conceive of another ontology, if not cosmology. Then we can also conceive of a different cosmopolitics – in the sense of Isabelle Stengers (Stengers, 2012 and 2013) – and better understand the diplomatic links between the different fields that make up our world. Experimenting with making things speak also contributes to a better understanding of the different forces and agents that through their interaction make up the ‘network’ of our world. Some phenomena and things speak with a flow of data; others just make their presence felt. The question is also: what are the things (phenomena) that we need to hear better? If we make things speak, what kind of talk will ensue from them? What will the effect of what they say be? References Descola, Philippe (2013), Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Originally published as Philippe Descola, Par-delà nature et culture, Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 2005. Harman, Graham (2009), The Prince of Networks. Bruno Latour and Metaphysics, Re:press: Melbourne. http://www.re-press.org/book-files/OA_Version_780980544060_Prince_of_Networks.pdf. Accessed 18 August 2015. Latour, Bruno (2004), Politics of Nature, trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. –––––– (2012), ‘Love Your Monsters. Why We Must Care for Our Technologies As We Do Our Children’. http://thebreakthrough.org/index.php/journal/past-issues/issue-2/love-your-monsters/. Accessed 8 December 2013. –––––– (2013), An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. –––––– (2014), ‘How Better to Register the Agency of Things Tanner Lectures, Yale, http://www.bruno-latour.fr/sites/default/files/137-YALE-TANNER.pdf. Accessed 18 August 2015. Latour, Bruno & Weibel, Peter (eds.) (2005), Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy, Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press. Marres, Noortje (2012), Material Participation: Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. –––––– (2013), ‘Nothing Special’, in De dingen de baas. Wijsgerig festival DRIFT, at http://festivaldrift.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/03/Publicatie_Drift_ebook.pdf, pp. 24–34. Accessed 19 August 2015. Marques, Pedro Neves (2015), ‘Look Above, the Sky is Falling: Humanity Before and After the End of the World’, in E-Flux’ Supercommunity at http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/texts/look-above-the-sky-is-falling-humanity-before-and-after-the-end-of-the-world/. Accessed 19 August 2015. Morton, Timothy (2007), Ecology Without Nature. Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. –––––– (2010), The Ecological Thought. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press. –––––– (2013a), Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality, Open Humanities Press, at http://openhumanitiespress.org/realist-magic.html. Accessed 12 September 2013. –––––– (2013b), Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. Stengers, Isabelle (2010), Cosmopolitics I, trans. Robert Bononno, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. –––––– (2015), ‘Matters of Cosmopolitics: On the Provocations of Gaïa. Isabelle Stengers in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin’, in Turpin, Etienne (ed.), Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy, Open Humanities Press, at http://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/12527215.0001.001/1:19/--architecture-in-the-anthropocene-encounters-among-design?rgn=div1;view=fulltext. Accessed 19 August 2015.

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