Sunday, January 24, 2010

8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics--Part 2

Held at Lucerne's Swiss Museum of Transport, an interesting, relatively high-tech facility, the 8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics set out to address some of the big global problems facing humanity at the start of the second decade of the 21st century. The Biennale charged 90 Swiss francs for the weekend and drew an audience of several hundred people. With the notable exception of the first day's intervention by Latour and Stengers (about which I posted an entry last week), the tenor of the papers was mostly non-academic, which was presumably part of the design of Rene Stettler, who has organized these events from their inception. Or perhaps more accurately, the overall tone of the event was something like a self-congratulatory celebration of the possibilities of a socially conscious science to redeem the world. Indeed, for much of the weekend, science and technology were presented as the new religion and the new priesthood, offering an enlightened public a new age, pseudo-ecological theology of the inter-connectedness of humanity, nature, earth, and the cosmos.

Day 1 was devoted mainly to science, beginning with a lecture on Leonardo by Frijof Capra, whose book The Tao of Physics was hugely influential among intellectually inclined seekers in the 1970s and beyond. Capra's thesis, which made virtually no reference to any of the voluminous scholarship on Leonardo, was that Leonardo had anticipated many of the tenets of contemporary non-linear science, including fluid dynamics, organic form, ecological design, the Gaia theory, and so forth. All that was missing was the claim that Leonardo had invented the internet. Margaret Wertheim, an Australian science writer based in California, followed with a critique of the Pythagorean idea that mathematical equations could describe the natural world, ending with a critique of the misplaced priorities of such scientific projects as the Large Hadron Collider. The other lectures included a critique of the idea that humans were inherently warlike by science journalist John Horgan and a defense of systems theory as a way for science to account for conscious experience, by Michel Bitbol, a philosopher of science at the École Polytechnique in Paris, which was the most academic of the four talks. While all of the talks offered what one might characterize as "enlightened" critiques of science, none of them broke any new intellectual ground. Each talk could be seen to participate in the construction of something like a socially conscious scientific theology, belief in which could somehow lead the way to a more humane future.

This new religion was most evident on Day 2, which focused on art and science, particularly in the presentations of Kevin Kelley and David McConville. Kevin Kelley, not to be confused with the founder of Wired magazine and former editor and publisher of The Whole Earth Catalog, is "an artist, best-selling author, and entrepeneur," author of a 198 NY Times best-seller, The Home Planet, which featured photographs of earth from space coupled with inspirational prose from scientists, poets, and philosophers, among others. Kelley presented a new digital tool to visualize our place in the evolution of the universe. His hypnotic narrative of the digitally generated images was accompanied by songs and poems by Rachel Bagby, "an arts and social change innovator." The aim of their presentation of this visualization tool, which was received with awe and wonder by most of the audience, was to dramatize how brief humanity's time on earth was and yet how dramatic its impact had been. Kelley claimed that his plan was eventually to make his software into open source media and to make it ubiquitous--on computers, cellphones, watches, and so forth. At no time did he give any indication of the impact that networked digital media might have had on the planet.

The erasure of technical mediation was even more complete in the planetarium presentation by David McConville, a disciple of Buckminster Fuller and "noospheric researcher" at the Elumenati, a full service design and engineering firm specializing in the creation and deployment of immersive environments, located in Ashville, North Carolina. McConville presented a dazzling planetarium show of the observable universe, whose aim was to "invite" the audience members "to imagine stepping outside of their own perspectives to reflexively consider how suspending beliefs can enable new ways of seeing and knowing the world." While the display was impressive, what was most interesting about the planetarium presentation was the way it transformed the museum into something like a 21st-century cathedral, as the priests of a new-age scientific theology dazzled believers with powerful digital visualization technologies of mediation. Reclining in the dark among a crowd of fellow believers, looking up to the digitally projected heavens, the audience was invited to immerse itself in the power of these new technologies, which worked to erase all signs of their mediation in the presentation of a new cosmology. What wasn't reflexively considered was the role of computational and visualization technologies in producing this interactive display or the info-capitalist aims of the Elumenati.

With the exception of the intervention by Latour and Stengers, the weekend's presentations aimed primarily at feel-good solutions to complicated global problems. The 8th Swiss Biennale could be seen to represent a popularization of an interdisciplinary academic conference, one focused more on edu-tainment than education, more on celebrating a shared set of cultural beliefs about science and technology than on contesting and composing the complex interrelations among science, technics, and aesthetics today.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

8th Swiss Biennale on Science, Technics, and Aesthetics--Part 1

I don't usually use this blog to report on my travels, but I was recently in Lucerne, Switzerland, in the midst of a two-week lecturing tour in anticipation of the release of Premediation in April, so I thought it would be worth while to report on what proved to be a disappointing but nonetheless interesting event.

My attendance at the Biennale was due to a coincidence of circumstances. First, I found myself with a free weekend between talks at University of Warwick and Anglia Ruskin University last week and a workshop at University of Durham this coming Tuesday, followed by a keynote address I will deliver on January 21st at a conference in Amsterdam on "Futures in Finance and Security." During the months before the conference, I began receiving emails publicizing the Swiss Biennale, which is designed as something like a gathering of public intellectuals--scientists, philosophers, writers, and so forth--to address the question of The Large, The Small, and the Human Mind, a theme based upon a 1997 book by Roger Penrose. Normally I wouldn't find such an event of much interest, but I noticed that the first day of the Biennale featured an "intervention" by Bruno Latour, chaired by Isabelle Stengers. I have great respect for the work of both Latour and Stengers, and I have known Bruno for more than twenty years, since my early days at Georgia Tech (though I don't think I had seen him for more than a decade before this weekend). Given the coincidence of my free weekend and the opportunity to renew an old friendship and perhaps to start a new one, I decided to give the event a go.

The highlight of the Biennale for me was the “intervention” on the first day by Latour and Stengers. Designed as something like a dialogue, with Latour addressing the audience and Stengers interrupting him with questions which helped move the argument along, the intervention represented an early attempt at what Latour is calling his Compositionist Manifesto.

Latour’s lecture was of interest to me for several reasons. First, he framed his talk with a reading of James Cameron’s Avatar. In fact Latour joked that if he had an agent he would sue Cameron for plagiarism as the ending of the film, in which the planet Pandora asserted itself in Gaia-like fashion to repel the colonialist invaders and to transform the crippled Marine into a full-fledged N’avi, could be seen as a cinematic depiction of a possible way forward out of the modern dilemma which Latour sketches out in Pandora’s Hope. Insofar as I have been working on a short piece on Avatar tentatively titled, “We Have Never Been Avatars: The Last Film of the Twentieth Century,” this claim was of interest to me. Latour’s compositionist manifesto was also interesting because of the distinction he invoked at the end between “le future” and “l’avenir,” a distinction that bears some relation to the distinction between the two different understandings of the future entailed in prediction and premediation, respectively, which I develop in some detail in my forthcoming book.

But what does Latour’s Compositionist Manifesto consist of? He begins with a definition of what he sees as the new spirit of our time, in which the modern belief in time as an inevitable forward progression has begun to give way to a recognition among non-moderns that progress is fully reversible. Compositionism transforms what it means to progress or to go forward, issuing a warning or call for attention so that we will stop going further in the same way as before, the way in which moderns have tried to do ever since the great divide instituted by Descartes and fortified by Kant.

Compositionism distinguishes between progress and progressiveness, taking up the search for universality without believing that universality is already there in the future waiting to be discovered by the progress of modern science. Composition conceives of universality as composed of utterly heterogeneous parts that will never make a complete, uniform whole, but at best a fragile, barely held together whole.

Stengers replied at this point, contending that the fact that this universality will never make a whole means that it will never be at rest, but must be continually maintained, must be composed and constantly kept together through activity and motion. Any composition must always be maintained and attended to. Different kinds of care or physical attention are always required.

Latour then explained that composition is the opposite of critique, which depends upon the fundamental opposition between illusion or delusion and reality. In so doing, Latour maintained, critique creates a massive gap between what is felt and what is real and must depend upon a belief in a world beyond this world on which to base critique. Composition, on the other hand, is completely mundane, and entails a question of having the right tools for the right jobs. So while a hammer may be a good tool for destroying idols it is less good at stitching together heterogeneous elements that make up a composition. Iconoclasm depends upon a sturdy or juvenile belief in the beyond, which can only be reached by destroying the idols that stand between the critic, the iconoclast, and reality. We must leave the 20th century behind, Latour proclaimed, let the dead bury the dead.

But what of Nature, Stengers asked? What about the 19th century idea of the natural as a foundation for narratives of the modern of the 20th century. Even life, if it is composition, is not natural ini this 19th-century sense. Latour replied that while “post-natural” has some currency as a term to address the end of nature, compositionism is perhaps more comfortable with the term pre-naturalism. Nobody has ever lived in nature, Latour maintained. Ever since the bifurcation of Descartes between the cogitating mind and the objective world, nature has always been something made, constructed, composed. How, then, can we move forward without the engine of progress? Perhaps by recognizing that we are closer to the 16th century than we are to the 20th. We’re now more familiar with the time before the modern bifurcation. Everything is now in some sense post-natural.

Stengers then suggested that we need to take seriously the idea of breaks, of a succession of breaks in the 20th century, so that we can see that each time an old alliance was broken it was taken by the moderns as a sign of progress or science. We were beyond the break—breaking science is beyond the break. If we are closer to the 16th century, it is a different 16th century, a different point. To return to the animated cosmos of the 16th century we must take advantage of this idea of animation without thinking about intention. Lovelock’s idea of the revenge of Gaia is a problem if it’s understood that Gaia is intentional. It’s better, Stengers said, if Gaia doesn’t know us. Agency only operates within assemblages. There is no agency without composition, no anime without connection.

Latour picked up on Stengers’ point, claiming that the invention of the inanimate was more remarkable than the invention of the animate. The inanimate is not to be taken as the given state, with the animate developing or evolving out of it, but rather is the more interesting phenomenon, which can only be invented or composed by animate agents. In practice all agency has to be distributed at each step, in theory this is not necessarily the case. Realism is dependent upon the contradictory, irrational idea of action without agency in which inanimate objects act on their own—nature is already assembled. For Latour (and for Stengers) the agency of the natural world is distributed among animate and inanimate, human and non-human agents.

Latour then took up the question of the continuity of cause and consequences. Compositionists, he maintained, cannot rely upon continuity, which is a given to realists or naturalists, but which for a compositionist must be composed slowly and progressively from discontinuous pieces. The concept of matter, Latour claimed, is too anthropocentric and especially too idealistic. We need a more mundane, materialistic definition of matter, if we are to compose the material world.

Stengers then responded that consequence always overflows the material cause (much as affect overflows intention or cognition). For Stengers, everything we do must be disputed, discussed, imagined, and reimagined. We must slow down, but to do so is seen as a betrayal of modern ideas of progress in which we must feel this imperative to go quickly, to advance—and feel this deep anxiety if we slow down. Rationality ignored consequences—don’t worry about them, let them take care of themselves.

Latour then introduced the idea that modernists never actually run to the future, but only run from the past. Benjamin’s Angel of History looks behind, not ahead. Modernity, Latour claimed, flies backwards from the past. At this point, Latour began moving humorously backwards across the stage, demonstrating how the modernists move into the future while facing the past.

Only recently by a sudden conversion have moderns finally realized how much catastrophe has been left behind by the progress of science, technology, and society, because for the past century or so moderns have never looked to the future because they have been so busy fleeing from the pat and now begin to realize that they have in fact been creating the destruction they have been fleeing in the first place. Moderns have never contemplated their future until a few years back, that is, their future of fleeing their past backwards.

Here, Latour introduced the distinction in the French language between two kinds of futurity, le future” and “l’avenir.” “Le future” is like the English term and denotes a predictable determined future into which one is moving in a linear, progressive way. “L’avenir” means something more like prospects, which are not determined, and which have to be composed from many potential future directions or paths. The moderns had “le future” but did not have “l’avenir.” But now they have begun to have one—the future and the prospect of things to come have really no connection with each other. The moderns, Latour now seems to hope, have no future, but many prospects—but prospects very different from the future teleological development of progress that they had imagined while they were moving forward while facing behind.

Stengers ended her remarks by asking about the relation between the Communist Manifesto and the Compositionist Manifesto. Both she and Latour agreed that the search for the common is what the two have in common, though they insisted that this search had to be slowly composed rather than taken for granted, or revealed in a sudden revolutionary action.

Latour ended by returning to Avatar as a sign of Pandora’s Hope, the hope for a new prospect, for the composition of a fragile assemblage of humans, technologies, and nature in a heterogeneous network of animate and inanimate actants.

What was perhaps most astounding about this intervention was how at odds it was with every other presentation over the course of the weekend. I hope in the next couple of days to post the second part of this report, on the ways in which the Bienniale's mystification of science, coupled with the erasure of practices of technical mediation, not only served as a 21st-century version of the cathedral but also suggested a different reading of James Cameron's Avatar, one less hopeful than that offered by Latour.