Monday, March 2, 2015

Practising ‘flat ecology’ in everyday life. Proposal and questions (Part 1)

This text was recently published in Prova 2, Humanities Research Forum Journal, Royal College of Art. It was shaped starting from a presentation i gave at the RCA Humanities Research Forum titled Speculative Thinking: On Object Oriented Philosophies and Science Fiction, organised and led by Nina Trivedi. Thanks to Nina for the invitation and opportunity to develop this piece of thinking.
 



In my artworks and research, I aim to put to practice an ontological framework I call ‘flat ecology’. It is an ontology based on a conjunction of several new materialist and object-oriented philosophies that share a ‘flat ontological’ stance (DeLanda, 2002: 46). Aim of this framework is to act as a method for creating aesthetic situations which can be thought to operate “in and for a more-than-human world” (Whatmore, 2006). ‘Flat ecology’ thus endeavours to provide ground for the making of aesthetic situations in which humans and nonhumans engage in flat relations, thus in which no entity holds an ontological (and, by extension, epistemological, or any other) privilege over any entity involved. However, working with this ontology and trying to deploy it in real-life contexts opens up a number of questions and problems.
 


1. Proposal. Outline of a ‘flat ecology’

A ‘flat ecological’ approach begins by assuming that humans hold no special position in the universe. Therefore, it accepts one of the theses of ‘flat ontology’, as formulated by Levi Bryant:
 

All entities are on equal ontological footing and . . . no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects. (Bryant, 2011a: 246)
However, entities are not disposed on a flat homogeneous plane; “‘to be’ is to make or produce difference” (Bryant, 2011b: 263) which means that flat ontology is populated by “unique, singular individual[s]” (DeLanda, 2002: 46). “Nothing is, by itself, either reducible or irreducible to something else” (Latour, 1988: 158). Since each entity is unique and mutually irreducible, therefore “the world or the universe does not exist” (Bryant, 2011a: 246). Flat ecology implies a “pluriverse” (Latour, 2004: 246) ― individual entities engage with the world in different ways, they are not unified a priori under any umbrella term such as ‘nature’ or ‘society’ or ‘world’. Each entity “makes a whole world for itself” (Latour, 1988: 166), which also means that it is a “strange stranger” to any other (Morton, 2010: 46-7). There is no pre-given mesh which brings everything together, bridges need to be laboriously constructed.



The first characteristic of the ecological subject is that it is able to make a difference; it performs actions. Therefore, at the beginning, I will call the ecological subject an actor (Latour, 2005: 46). Actors never act in a vacuum, they are always “in the middle” of other agencies, thus they ‘intra-act’ (Barad, 2007: 139-40). In other words, they establish, maintain or unmake connections, conjunctions or disjunctions with other entities.
 

In order to ‘intra-act’, two entities, since they are mutually irreducible, always need a third one which performs ‘mediation’ or ‘translation’ (Latour, 1988: 162). This ‘third person’ can be called either ‘intermediary’ or ‘mediator’, depending on how it ‘transports’ the message (Latour, 2005: 39). Because of the mediators, ‘irreducible’ entities are able to connect, but, because of the uniqueness of each of the three entities involved, every ‘translation’ involves “misunderstanding” (Latour, 1988: 168) ― a surplus or deficit, a difference in meaning, or a certain degree of unknowability. Instead of imagining this inevitable misunderstanding as leading into the darknesses of chaos, this is the soil from which stems and flourishes the becoming of entities. Were they to be fully transparent or deployed, the world would come to a standstill, there would not be any becoming nor time and space.

An actor is never fully actualised, it is “split” between its “local manifestation” (actual) and its “virtual proper being” (Bryant, 2011a: 114). The virtual dimension of an actor is shaped by its affects, which indicate “unactualised capacities to affect and be affected” (DeLanda, 2002: 62), in other words, its relational capacities or openings. Virtual dimension can be imagined as a “phase space”, defined by attractors or structural gravities, virtual trajectories that an actor can potentially actualise or perform (Bryant, 2011a: 89). Importantly, the actual and virtual are not two disjoined levels of being ― “[t]he virtual is fully real in so far as it is virtual” (Deleuze, in DeLanda, 2002: 37), it is a withdrawn thus not present but nonetheless equally real dimension. The virtual conceals all the responses to the question Spinoza posed: “what can a body do?” (Deleuze and Guattari, 1987: 256). In an ecology, we can't ever fully know what one can do, not even about ourselves. Entities emerge only through ‘trials’ (Latour, 1988: 158) or ‘intra-actions’.
 

When taken together, the virtual and actual dimensions come to identify the ecological subject as a singular ‘actor-network’. ‘Actor’ is the lieu of momentary action (topographical timespace, ‘here’ and ‘now’ of the actor), and ‘network’ is a configuration of its affects (topological timespace of its capacities to ‘intra‒act’). Between the two dimensions, affects are trajectories of intensity that actualise and virtualise action. The notion of phase space moves away from the division interior/exterior; ‘actor-network’ is a multiplicity of trajectories that shoot both centripetally and centrifugally from the ‘actor’.
 


Actors are situated among other actor-networks, actually and virtually. An actor’s topographical, thus physical, location is determined by and with others, and an actor’s topological timespace is equally configured by the constellation of topologies of other actors. Bodies co-exist in proximity or at distance from each other, and they can perform certain actions within the current state of things and the respective networks of capacities of other adjacent actors. Through intensification of particular affects, topologies of different actors can criss-cross and hence get entangled. This ‘meeting’ or ‘gathering’ of two entities originates in the virtual as it is mediated by affects of actors involved. Counter to the system/environment approach which posits a ‘selective openness’ and ‘operational closure’ of organisms, in a totally ‘flat ecology’, any entity can potentially be affected by any one else. It only depends on the number of mediators necessary between them, and times and spaces of mediation. This does not mean that “everything is connected to everything else”, but it can be. There are no definite firewalls or tax-free havens, everything is exposed to influence.
 

Based on this brief exposition, one starts seeing the difficulties and possibilities for thinking and making meetings among ‘strange strangers’. There are very different types of meeting or relations that can be forged. Practice of ‘flat ecology’ is interested in a special case of ‘meeting’ which induces two actors into coexistence on equal terms ― flat relation among equal but irreducible subjects (or objects). In this type of conjunction, none of the actors has its virtual capacities or actual manifestation cut down or restrained, their respective capacities are either maintained or increased. The question that ‘flat ecology’ tries to address is whether it is possible to create such associations among irreducible entities. “What would a truly democratic encounter between truly equal beings look like, what would it be―can we even imagine it?” (Morton, 2010: 15). How to make and enact assemblages “where each singularity can live out its own strangeness to the extent of its possibilities” (Raunig, 2013)? 


. . . to be continued . . .