The Peripheral Future
The Peripheral Future
In this introduction to her gathering on Digital and Natural Ecologies, Lisa Swanstrom pulls back from the tendency towards apocalyptic speculation that is commonplace in popular discourse of technology and nature. Instead, Swanstrom offers a more grounded discourse that addresses the impact of the digital on the natural.
“So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new…” —William Gibson, The Peripheral (2014)
“Call of the Wild”
On the October 23rd front page of CNN, a dramatic image of Hurricane Patricia dominated the news site. “It’s a monster,” the headline warned (Shoichet). Complete with a giant, fiery center and massively spiraling tendrils, this assessment seemed apt. The hurricane had the appearance of a sloppily but luridly rendered Turner painting—”Sunrise with Sea Monsters,” perhaps—or of a psychedelic, Woodstock-inspired version of the Eye of Sauron: monstrous, epic, apocalyptic.
Figure 1. CNN cover image of Hurricane Patricia
But in case this image did not do enough to suggest imminent environmental danger, another image, right below it, noted that the “Doomsday Vault” in Norway’s Svalbard might save us “After the apocalypse” (Damon).
Figure 2. CNN image of the Svalbard Seed Vault
These two images, which had nothing to do with each other in terms of currently occurring news coverage,This is not to say that they could not (or even should not) have been linked. While the first story was about Hurricane Patricia and the second about the war in Syria, both images speak to contemporary conversations about changing weather patterns. In the case of Patricia, this is perhaps clear. In the case of the Svalbard seed vault, however, the tie is less apparent but no less urgent. For example, the little media attention that has been paid to the way that the devastating drought that began in 2006 might have participated in political and social upheaval in Syria has been overshadowed by contemporary crises, but it is worthy of further investigative reporting. See, for example, the Smithsonian’s “Is Lack of Water to Blame for the Conflict in Syria?” (Hammer); “Syria’s Climate Crisis,” a beautifully illustrated cartoon about this subject published in Mother Jones (Quinn and Roche); the Independent’s “Refugee crisis: climate change affecting mass migration?” (Bawden); and, for a diametrically opposed position, the conservative news source Breitbart’s “For the last time, no, the Syrian crisis was not caused by climate change” (Delingpole). were rhetorically linked by the language of the apocalypse. And why not? That our shared natural environment is imperiled has become such a commonplace assessment that to reiterate it here seems redundant. Similarly, acknowledging the growing—if grudging—consensus that humanity is largely responsible for this state of affairs only adds a layer of noise to the already resounding din (or echo chamber). These are important concerns, but I highlight these images not so much to call attention to them as to call attention to how they get framed. All too often, ecological vulnerability is not framed as a complex problem that requires equally complex solutions. Very often critical discourse about ecological fragility instead follows the rhetorical pattern of religious apocalypse, eschatological finality, or, to invoke a phrase used by street-corner zealots of every stripe, the “End Times.” In many such stories, digital technology participates in this rhetoric, occasionally as a saving power, but more often than not as a—or, rather, the—destructive force that precipitates the apocalypse. In a recent article in The Guardian, for example, “How technology has stopped evolution and is destroying the world,” the title says it all (Confino). The story of “The End” depends upon swift judgment and cataclysmic retribution and is often predicated upon a sharp divide between nature and technology. From William Blake’s vivid description of smoke stacks in his “New Jerusalem” to today’s headlines about carbon emissions, human technology violates the pastoral scene and the structure of the apocalyptic narrative is such that it both punishes and cleanses the earth of these abominations. “[D]id the Countenance Divine / Shine forth upon our clouded hills?” Blake asks. “And was Jerusalem builded here / Among these dark Satanic Mills?” The answer to this second question cannot, yet, be “yes,” so Blake mobilizes in order to get the ball rolling, eager to change the world so that it will be a place more hospitable to the paradise envisioned by John of Patmos. The subsequent stanza (“bring me my bow…arrows..spear..[and] chariot” ) is a call to arms that conjures language from the book of Revelation and suggests that the apocalypse isn’t just going to happen by itself. The critical interpretations of this poem are legion, but whether one reads Blake’s powerful poem as a personal, individual (but transhistoric) response (see Ferrara), as a more social form of religious injunction (see Altizer), or as an effort of unification through its expression of “sublime labours” (see Schierenbeck), the poem provides an enduring template. It imagines Armageddon as a necessary step that must take place before we can enjoy harmony or renewal, be it in the past, present, or some as yet undetermined future. I will never tire of reading Blake’s radical visions, but I am weary of this particular pattern. We don’t have time for such narratives. Our chariots of fire have run out of gas. In popular culture, any number of literary and cinematic fictions visualize a poisoned future in which the few remaining humans fight each other for all-but-vanished natural resources (e.g., gasoline, water, sunshine). This tendency plays out, not merely in art, film, and literature, but in a great variety of cultural narratives—from contemporary news reporting to all manner of political maneuvering. The story of the “End Times” in our environmental narratives might not come from a judgment of god, but it is nevertheless figured as a form of deserved retribution for careless living, explosive population growth, and poor resource management. Anthropogenic global warming, rising sea-levels, oceanic dead zones, and melting permafrost collectively point to a day of reckoning when all of these problems will coalesce. In such narratives, the many dangers of the Anthropocene (or Anthrobscene, as Jussi Parikka refers to it in his aptly-titled book) cohere into a speculative but cataclysmic vortex that promises to remove human action from nature once and for all.
As Lawrence Buell writes in the Environmental Imagination, the “apocalypse is the single most powerful master metaphor that the contemporary environmental imagination has at its disposal” (285). The journal ISLE seems to grapple eternally with this problem (see, for example, fantastic articles by Burke, DiCaglio, Oliver, Wright in the most recent issue alone). The allure of the apocalypse makes sense for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is due to its promise of renewal. Who knows what Edenic gardens might spring forth once humans (or at least most of us) are out of the picture? The frozen seeds in the belly of the Svalbard plant ark may well sprout fresh tendrils outside once the apocalypse has occurred. Such narratives promise revitalization after the Scourge. But if the story of environmental judgment and retribution seems a little too familiar to be palatable, isn’t it because we have heard this tale before—lion and lamb side by side; wolf, lamb, leopard, and goat perambulating in post-apocalyptic harmony, with a small child to guide them—in film, in fiction, in the visual and plastic arts, in the book of Revelation and in the prophecies of Isaiah?
This special gathering of ebr aims to re-frame this issue in two important ways. It does so firstly by refusing to indulge in post-apocalyptic speculation. And secondly, in contrast to the large-scale rhetoric that associates technology—all of it, but particularly digital technology—with the “End Times,” it seeks to examine the ways that digital technology is, already, participating in environmental discourse, neither as an agent of ecological devastation nor a figure of salvation. Instead, the essays in this special gathering demonstrate the ways that the digital is always already overlaid with the environment and interwoven with environmental aesthetics.
And yet the concept of “apocalypse” remains useful. Apocalypse in its etymological sense does not suggest a cataclysmic showdown but, instead, an uncovering, a revealing, a disclosure (“Apocalypse”). This more modest definition shifts the conversion to a much smaller, but less speculative, scale. In that vein, I’d like to turn our attention from these macro-scale narratives of the apocalypse to the micro-moments of personal and aesthetic revelation, by recounting three small events I experienced in the past year. This is a risky rhetorical move, but each relates in some way to the intersections between digital and natural ecologies that this cluster of essays helps illuminate. Each also has the virtue of brevity:
1. A few months ago, my husband and I were hiking in a nearby state park when we heard some rustling noises in the brush. In spite of twenty-plus years of experience hiking together across a variety of terrains, we froze with the excitement of the amateur naturalists that we are. Was it a deer? Was it an otter? Was it a coral snake? Was it a boar we would pretend not to see so we would not feel compelled to report it to the overly zealous park ranger who we both knew would add it to his kill list on account of its status as an invasive species? To our surprise and amusement, the creature was an entirely more common invasive entity: A young boy, eight or nine years old, was rustling through wild coffee and using his iPhone to hone in on a geocache that was shallow-buried by a nearby snag, about a quarter mile north of the Loxahatchee River. We watched him pocket his phone after photo-documenting his elusive quarry with it.
2. A few weeks later, we were exploring the base of a local landfill, or, as it is more colloquially known, one of Florida’s many “Mount Trashmores” (these form some of Florida’s highest terrain; much of the Sunshine state is, already, at or below sea level). It may sound like an odd choice for an outing, but this particular summit forms part of West Palm Beach’s SWA Greenway Trailsystem, which intersects with water treatment centers, nature preserves, and a variety of hiking and biking and birding trails: a thriving, living space, in other words, but also a stinky one. It took us about an hour to forget the smell, but once we did we enjoyed slogging through the preserve and noting healthy populations of wading birds—herons, egrets, and bitterns—as well as moorhens, woodstorks, and, my nemesis, the elusive limpkin.There is nothing elusive about this bird when it is chasing you down a busy road, flapping its pterodactylic wings and shrieking at high velocity. After a couple of hours of violent sun exposure, we returned wearily homeward. But on our way out of Greenway we confronted an unusual sight: a father and daughter stood at the edge of a field of sawgrass, waving their smartphones in the air like Kirk and Spock taking tricorder readings on an alien planet. Curious, I asked them what they were doing. Their reply was friendly but terse. We were interrupting their focus. They were trying to get a good signal, they said, so they could play “Call of the Wild,” a geo-caching gameAlthough it has the same name, this is not the Vermont-based game described in Geocaching.com. Games local to Greenway include “Beneath the Pines” and “Mr. Turtles [sic] last stand,” among many others (Geocaching.com). that had them moving through the trail system with great attention to detail.They suggested that if we were interested we ought to look for the game online or, even better, get started playing immediately, and with that the girl pointed to a distant, solar-powered emergency communication station that had afforded them a prior clue. There, secreted beneath the station’s light source and above its speaker system, a magnetized box held a key to their quest.
Figure 3. Photo of a geocache clue
3. After hiking solo a few weeks ago in Yamato Scrub, I was making my way to the parking lot when I spotted a small gopher tortoise bee-lining it towards a busy road. If he’d continued in that direction, things could have gone badly for him. When struck by a speeding car, a turtle or tortoise will go flying in the air before spinning out, koopa troopa style, on the pavement. I have seen this happen more times than I care to recall. It is a heartbreaking sight of slap-stick horror. It is also nearly always fatal for the reptile. So, keeping one eye on the tortoise, I pulled out my smartphone and downloaded a “citizen scientist” app, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s “Florida Gopher Tortoise” (FWC Developer). I used this to confirm that the tortoise was, indeed, a young member of a threatened species, probably too small to bite me too hard, and made the decision to relocate him. I picked him up, ignoring his hisses of outrage as he tucked himself inside his carapace and scowled at me, and walked him back into the scrub, where I delivered him to gopher tortoise paradise: a patch of thorny, snake-infested saw palmetto. (The FWC app mentioned that gopher tortoises like the berries.) My good deed done, I pocketed my phone and went home.
This special gathering of ebr was motivated by a desire to highlight the continuities between digital and natural environments that these moments illustrate. In these three instances, hand-held smartphones—essentially small computers—were contingent with, rather than disruptive of, natural spaces. At the state park and the landfill both, the phones provided children a means to access and navigate natural spaces. At the same time, they did not seem to determine their experience; the phone was merely one component of a larger communication system. For both children, this was a game that required that they explore natural spaces, gain familiarity with geo-location and coordinate systems, cooperate with fellow players, and share their findings through a public system of communication and documentation. In the second encounter, in particular, the geocache clue’s position within a different mode of communication entirely (the solar-powered speaker box, itself nestled in Florida scrub, which formed a part of a complex water reclamation and waste management system), suggested a nested media ecology that included both natural and technological agents in its makeup. And for me, my smartphone offered a way to help a vulnerable animal without relying on potentially hazardous guesswork.I like to think I know the difference between a turtle and a tortoise, but sometimes they have overlapping territories; often they are covered in dirt and look alike. It is better to take the time to identify an errant terrapin, lest you harm the animal you were hoping to help, by water-logging a tortoise who is ill equipped to swim or dehydrating a turtle who needs water to survive (Butterfly). In all instances, far from cutting off nature, cordoning off nature, or negating nature, the phone was contingent with nature or acted as an access point to it.This is not the same as claiming that the smartphone is a force of salvation, although I admit I have purposefully highlighted moments that speak to a more friendly relation between the two than is typical. And, perhaps more importantly, by enabling a communication circuit that included the technological, the social, and the ecological, the digital interface in such instances managed to expand and complicate a vision of nature whose sanctity depends upon its absolute separation from culture.
Broadly but historically speaking, these types of encounters, i.e., ones in which some highly-evolved technological device or other surfaces in a natural setting, usually have the opposite effect of enforcing or reifying such a divide. “On the morning of July 27, 1884,” Leo Marx recounts for us in The Machine in the Garden, “Nathaniel Hawthorne sat down in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts to await (as he put it) ‘such little events as may happen’ ” (11). On that morning, in a posture of contemplative but purposeful repose, Hawthorne attempted to document the landscape, using its natural features, as Marx suggests, “to convey something about a human situation” (12). But this quiet harmony did not last. Hawthorne’s scene of contemplation was wholly ruined by the intrusion of a train—not of the train itself, but the noisy whistle that announced it: “But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive—the long shriek, harsh, above all other harshness…it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace” (qtd in Marx, 13).Such experiences are not unique to Hawthorne. Marx identifies several moments in American literature alone in which a monstrous technological entity—train, steamboat, automobile—violates the pastoral scene.
One sympathizes with Hawthorne (to a point).Isolated, this moment speaks to Hawthorne as an individual, attempting tune himself to the landscape and startled by the sound of the train. But in relation to his larger oeuvre, this moment too ties to larger-scale apocalypse, to the finality of judgment. As Marx notes, “That Hawthorne was fully aware of the symbolic properties of the railroad is beyond question. Only the year before he had published ‘The Celestial Railroad,’” a satire of both Pilgrim’s Progress and an American notion of progress that was so tied to this mode of transport and its ever-expanding terrain. “Like the hero of The Pilgrim’s Progress, the American pilgrim thinks he is on his way to the Heavenly City. As it turns out, however, the same road can lead to hell” (27). One hundred thirty-one years later, with the advent of the smartphone, one could argue that the shrill, disruptive potential of the train has been distilled into something that fits in the palm of a hand. And yet the quiet repose that the noise of the train destroys is hardly itself “natural.” It is something that Hawthorne has staged, composed even, as constructed and human as the obnoxious whistle of the locomotive that startles him. In this moment, the technological does not disrupt the natural so much as artifice disrupts artifice. And yet this tendency, to partition human culture from the natural environment, to pretend they are mutually exclusive domains, and to cleanse, in a way, one from the other, through language of apocalypse, judgment, and divine retribution, remains a defining aesthetic tendency of our time. It demonstrates, even as it predates, Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin’s explanation of “the double logic of remediation…in which media sought simultaneously to erase themselves and proliferate” (Grusin, Premediation).See Timothy Morton’s “Framed: The Machine in/as the Garden,” his review of Roderick Coover’s documentary Canyonlands: Edward Abbey and the Defense of Wilderness for ebr a few years back. Morton argues here that the film’s modern aesthetic sets up a similar divide. Through its formal arrangement, it “causes the viewer to forget the intricate aesthetic strategies that go into producing something powerful and plangent. Indeed, one of the strategies is to erase all trace of technological production.” Like Morton, I am “ambiguous about this aesthetic strategy that erases all strategic traces” (Morton). But once one is trained to see them, such attempts at transparency merely call attention to the artifice. As WJT Mitchell asserts in Imperial Landscape, “like money, landscape is a social hieroglyph that conceals the actual basis of its value. It does so by naturalizing its conventions and conventionalizing its nature” (5).
The works of digital art that this gathering attends to move beyond the desire for medial transparency and aim instead for visibility. They include video games, works of interactive fiction, viral poetry, data visualizations, and algorithmic art interventions, all of which foreground the digital in its relation to the vulnerable natural spaces that each work expresses: Superfund sites, areas of viral transmission, polluted landscapes in the process of recovery or environmental remediation, and ancient and intricate subterranean cave systems. To be clear, however, these are not utopian projects that hold up the digital as an example of some kind of saving or emancipatory power. Instead, they make visible the relations between the digital and the natural in order to grapple with they way they are complexly intertwined. It would be grossly naïve to hold up digital technology in such utopian terms, especially given the contemporary vulnerability and global turbulence of so many natural systems. But by excluding digital art and technology from an otherwise urgent and complex discussion, we do little more than add digital detritus to an ever-growing junk heap within ecocritical discourse, an ironic complement to the real-world digital dumps that haunt contemporary landscapes and that so urgently require attention. Along these lines: Disney’s WALL-E becomes less cute and comforting when we think of his real-world counterparts in, for example, Guiyu, China, where human beings, not OSX robots, sift through dangerous materials in order to “[eke] out a living from dissecting cell phones, computers, televisions, and other toxic debris of the electronics industry” (Chen).
Additionally, the problems of energy consumption related to information technology remains largely unexplored. A few years ago the digital artist and electronic literature (e-Lit) pioneer Eugenio Tisselli explicitly responded to this problem in a way that was forceful and important but also in a way that seemed initially to exacerbate this problem of invisibility. The evolution of his artistic practice is instructive. In 2011, Tisselli decided he would no longer create e-Lit because of the environmental costs of digitally-based production. In his manifesto, “Why I have Stopped Creating e-Lit,” Tisselli writes:
By its own definition, electronic literature “lives” within electronic media. But have we, as an academic community, realized what electronic devices are doing to the environment? Do we know where the minerals that are necessary to manufacture computers come from, and under what conditions they are extracted? What about the slave labor involved in the manufacturing process? Have we deeply studied the economic implications of using computers as literary tools, in a time in which all our economic systems are collapsing? In one word, are we being responsible?
I don’t know Eugenio Tisselli, but I remember being, in equal portions, impressed by the conviction of his stance and irritated by the futility it suggested. Tisselli’s refusal to participate, it seemed to me then, was less an act of artistic defiance than a gesture of capitulation to the very aesthetic of erasure he criticized. However, one look at his current projects suggests that Tisselli hasn’t abandoned digital technology at all. “Sauti ya wakulima” (“The voice of the farmers”), for example, a project that Tisselli participated in as a programmer and designer, is a “collaborative knowledge base created by farmers from the Chambezi region of the Bagamoyo District in Tanzania by gathering audiovisual evidence of their practices using smartphones to publish images and voice recordings on the Internet” (Sauti ya wakulima). Additionally, the project’s companion piece, an Android compatible app named ojoVoz, is “una caja de herramientas de código abierto para la creación de memorias comunitarias - an open source toolkit for the creation of community memories” (ojoVoz). Both of these projects are vital and important and dedicated to preserving, through digital technology, the very landscapes that such technology was purported to destroy in his earlier manifesto. It would be easy, I suppose, to cry foul and point to hypocrisy, but it seems to me that this work is entirely keeping with that earlier manifesto. Although Tisselli has neither stopped making art nor stopped using digital technology to do it, his artistic practice has evolved so that it no longer obscures the ecological problems that so many digital artworks and pieces of electronic literature—in keeping with the modernist aesthetic of transparency that is typical of our time—tend to do. This is, to me at least, a relief. As I have written elsewhere, we need art and aesthetics in our discussions of ecological turmoil (Swanstrom). Art helps us express things that doomsday statistic cannot convey. And, as the essays in this gathering suggest, art enables juxtapositions that other modes of communication do not.
The separation of nature from technology, through the attempt to “naturalize” technology by erasing it, rendering it invisible, or by over-determining its role in the apocalypse, is an impediment to environmental progress, whichever form that progress might take. Instead, then, of following this pattern, this special gathering of ebr is committed to foregrounding and making visible the extensive relationships that already exist between digital and natural ecologies.
In this objective, ebr joins a recent wave of scholarship that attempts to expand the notions of both “media” and “environment” in important ways. In “Environmental Remediation,” for example, Alenda Chang draws from the Environmental Protection Agency’s notion of remediation, which refers to environmental rehabilitation, and contrasts this to the way the term is used in media studies. As Chang writes, “Although media ecology in its earliest historical manifestations explicitly borrowed biological concepts and has since stimulated a welcome materialist attention to the origins and organization of media systems…media ecology obeys only the spirit, not the letter, of ecological law.” Acknowledging that highlighting the materiality of both technological and natural ecologies marks a crucial first step in aligning them, Chang suggests that the term “media ecology” itself has the potential, although heretofore unrealized, to position “nature and culture in a nonhierarchical, or at least ambiguous, relation.”
Throughout this essay, Chang offers site-specific, concrete counters to a media theory that would divorce natural features from a media ecology, not in order to obscure the relation between technological detritus and vulnerable natural environments but, on the contrary, to bring it into relief. Chang argues that “the EPA’s online tools and documents work to make visible governmental scrupulousness in addressing hazardous waste,” and, hence, “demonstrate that media are contiguous with, not distinct from, geographic space.” In this Chang is in explicit dialog with past notions of remediation, pushing the term into new terrain from its use in Bolter and Grusin’s landmark text of 2001. Chang asserts that “environmental remediation reminds us that environments are also media, able to transmit, conceal, and come between other entities in significant ways; so too, our usual media are environments, which inevitably frame our understanding of the natural world and thus have the capacity to remediate beyond their representational margins.”
By demonstrating clear connections between media, remediation, and the challenges of ecological recovery, Chang joins other contemporary critics who attempt to demystify technology by viewing it on its own material terms. In A Geology of Media, for example, Jussi Parikka (U of MN P, 2015) argues that “there is such a thing as geology of media: a different sort of temporal and spatial materialism of media culture than the one that focuses solely on machines or even networks of technologies as nonhuman agencies…the geological sciences and astronomy have already opened up the idea of the earth, light, air, and time as media” (3). Again, both Chang and Parikka identify natural environments as media environments and, conversely, media environments as part of natural ecologies, not in order to gloss over the harmful ways that digital technology participates in environmental destruction, but, on the contrary, to make such relationships visible.In this Chang is also in conversation with Tung-Hui Hu, who in A Prehistory of the Cloud (MIT, 2015) notes that “the legacy of the cloud has already begun to write itself into the real environment. As one of the largest consumers of coal energy, for example, the cloud’s infrastructure was responsible for 2 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions in 2008, and data centers have grown exponentially since then. The long-term consequences of the cloud are worlds away from the seductive “now” produced by its real-time systems. It is our job to catch up with this legacy” (xxv).The idea that natural features function as media environments is also a concept that John Durham Peters introduces in The Marvelous Clouds (U of Chicago P, 2015). In this text, Peters, like Chang, calls for the need to see natural features as media objects in their own right. While Peters offers important insights in terms of recovering natural features in our discussion of media, he is reluctant to engage with the most dominant communication medium of our time, i.e., digitally enabled technology. As Peters confesses in his introduction, “The reader will already have noted that this book, while a defense of the idea that technics is central to whatever it is that makes us humans, is not especially utopian about our digital technofutures,” although he concedes that “[c]omputers and their spawn have, of course, reshaped much about how many of us work, play, and learn” (49). In the 387 pages of The Marvelous Clouds, there is no sustained conversation about digital technology.
Detritus and Data
As Chang’s analysis suggests, the most successful way to grapple with ecological vulnerability is to dive right into the things themselves. In her essay, “clusterMucks# Iterating Synthetic-Ecofeminisms,” Melanie Doherty does precisely this, as she considers Jamie Skye Bianco’s digital art interventions within the context of one of the most prominent theoretical frameworks to pay heed to the power of things since antiquity: “Object Oriented Ontology” (OOO). Broadly conceived (there is no other way to conceive of it; its scope is totalizing), OOO both includes and is informed by Speculative Realism and Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory; its key texts include Alfred North Whitehead’s Process and Reality, Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and Levi Bryant’s Democracy of Objects, among others. As Doherty notes in her essay, in spite of the varied approaches and manifestations of OOO, all share a desire to expand the notion of philosophy so that it is no longer the human subject who sits at the center of the ontological web, like a spider, pulling all the strings. Instead, OOO is interested in the way all objects exhibit agency, the way they participate in, expand upon, and disrupt a strictly human notion of culture. “Things keep their secrets,” Heraclitus notes, in the first century BCE (Fragments 10). By re-positioning subjects as objects, and vice versa, OOO helps us recover this ancient insight.
And yet OOO, for all of its egalitarian language of inclusion and hierarchical flattening, is problematic. In the first place, much of the OOO writing, is, somewhat ironically, so focused on reconciling or rejecting OOO’s relation to continental philosophy that the very things they purport to champion are lost in reams of dialectical abstraction. Perhaps a more pressing (but likely related) problem, however, is, as Alexander Galloway writes in his recent summary of the contemporary movement, the fact “that speculative realism was always a rather small clique centered around a group of white, Euro-American philosophy dudes.”The years-long argument between Graham Harman and Pete Wolfendale, for example, which centers on OOO’s relation to continental philosophy, offers a fairly clear encapsulation of both of these problematic tendencies, i.e., of abstraction and exclusion. It also seems to be in no danger of ending. In 2012, Harman writes, “Some people are asking if I’m going to respond to Wolfendale’s critical piece about me in Speculations III. The answer is: of course! How can you not respond to a 76-page critique of your ideas, especially when it’s subtitled “Part One”? The drama continues in the form of both Wolfendale’s 400-page Object Orient Ontology: the Noumenon’s New Clothes (2014) and Harmon’s rebuttal, “Notes from a Naked Emperor,” on his own blog.
In her analysis of Jamie Skye Bianco’s art work within the context of OOO, Doherty engages with this second problem directly, noting several moments in recent discourse that have tended to re-inscribe or re-affirm gendered hierarchy, and by demonstrating how Bianco’s work comments self-reflexively, even playfully, with these problems. By focusing on sites of environmental ruin, such as New York’s Dead Horse Bay and California’s Salton Sea, Bianco, Doherty argues, highlights the disconnect between the lofty abstractions of scholarly writing and the all-too-visible evidence of ecological devastation. “Even as we approach a topic like geology or ecology through a lens that purposefully critiques cultural and semiotic constructs, that strives for a “nonhuman” position,” Doherty writes, “there are still so many ways that information remains inscribed and prioritized along patriarchal lines.” Doherty does not abandon an OOO approach, but through her analysis of Bianco’s artistic interventions she complicates it, highlighting both its continuity with feminist theory, especially Donna Haraway’s articulation of it, and its failure to acknowledge its complicity in the very hierarchy it seeks to overcome. Additionally, Doherty suggests that beyond Bianco’s performances move us beyond OOO, both calling attention to the peculiar isolationism of OOO philosophy and “[pushing] eco-feminist theory beyond reductive biological essentialisms. As Donna Haraway and others have long argued, there is no clear line between nature and culture, and there is clearly no inherent “natural” link between woman and nature in eco-feminist inquiry.”
In “Sublime Latency and Viral Premediation,” Kim Knight also expands the notion of media, “in order to elucidate an eco-poetics of the viral.” Drawing from Burke’s articulation of the sublime and Richard Grusin’s Premediation: Affect and Mediality after 9/11 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), which demonstrates the primacy and power of affect to “[perpetuate] an almost constant low level fear or anxiety” (2), Knight connects the aesthetic strategies of digital and viral contagion to biological mutation, making the argument that the affective state of anxious premediation that Grusin identifies actually helps both biological and computational viruses proliferate.
By tracking “the operations of the viral across and between contexts as it deterritorializes and reterritorializes between the digital and the biological,” Knight demonstrates how this latent, affective-aesthetic state manages to complicate several boundaries. The viral not only troubles a simple distinction between the digital and the biological, but also problematizes easy divisions between the geographic and the cartographic: “if we push harder against the bio-computational join,” Knight writes, visualizations that attempt to map contagion “might prompt us to think about ways in which biological disease also belies shared geography. We might think about the ways that global travel patterns and the movements of animals complicate the representation of person-to-person transmission of the biological virus.” Knight’s essay also calls attention to the porous border between the pathological and the social. Knight argues that “when a viral structure self-replicates, its users are engaging in unconventional reproduction via acts of replication, iteration, or discussion.” This has intriguing implications for artistic and activist practice. As Knight notes, “self-replication of the viral structure can be considered one of the modes of participatory culture. Not all participatory media are viral structures, but all viral structures are participatory.”
The question of affect in relation to digital media is also something that Sharalyn Sanders discusses in her review of Heather Houser’s Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction: Environment and Affect (Columbia UP, 2014), as well as something that informs the artistic practice of Matt Kenyon, a 2015 TED Fellow. As our interview with Matt Kenyon suggests, his focus on empathy to elicit an emotional response from his audience is one of this most successful aesthetics strategies.
Finally, in “Cave Gave Game: Subterranean Space as Videogame Place,” Dennis Jerz and David Thomas speak to literal contingencies between digital and natural environments. Building from Dennis Jerz’ previous work in Digital Humanities Quarterly, “Somewhere Nearby is a Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther’s Original ‘Adventure,’” Jerz and Thomas offer a meticulously researched account of how subterranean cave spaces are co-extensive in important ways with video game places, not merely as sites that inspire metaphoric or symbolic interpretations (although they do this too), but also as places that form the literal blueprints for some of our most popular games and gaming structures. “Cave space,” they write, “entered the vocabulary of computer games very early in their development, thus linking at a deep level the idioms, metaphor and structures of gaming and caving. A reading of cave space as a form of videogame space enables a better understanding of the qualities of those digital experiences.” Jerz and Thomas’ distinction between cave space and “sandbox space” helps clarify the relation to these particular features, i.e., caves, caverns and other subterranean spaces, of the natural environment: “The two terms describe a difference between configurable and non-configurable environments. Unlike the forest and fields, which can be configured to suit human needs, or the sandbox, which invites endless reconfiguration, the cave has, since antiquity, been seen as a non-configured (or perhaps less-configured) environment. Above ground, where stone walls can be moved, humans adapted the environment to themselves. Below ground, humans added paintings to the walls, but had to, or were willing to, live within the walls themselves.” Jerz and Thomas shed light on the history of gaming by demonstrating continuities between cave spaces and early works of Interactive Fiction, especially through their explications of Adventure, but also they also demonstrate continuity between real-world cave spaces and one of the most popular video games played today: “At its heart,” they note, “Minecraft is a resource management and crafting game.” The formal structure of Minecraft follows the same cave-inspired architectures as early video games—a structure shared by games as varied as Doom and Grand Theft Auto III—but it is also narratively a game about cave spaces. As Jerz and Thomas note, “Discovery of coal, seams of the valuable material often lacing the walls of cliffs and cave entrances on the surface…Underground exploration is essential in Minecraft. Because if the name of the game did not make this clear, the majority of resources necessary to enjoy the game are underground.” And, just as geographic caves motivate digitally-authored game environments, the cultural practices of video games inflect real-world spelunking: “The collaborative effort to explore, survey, map, and protect the Mammoth Cave System,” for example, is itself something that its participants have referred to as “a grand multi-player game.”
Instead of focusing technology as a disruptive force or cataclysmic agent of the apocalypse, Jerz and Thomas, like Chang, Doherty, and Knight, include natural features as a part of the media ecology and, conversely, demonstrate how media technology itself is co-extensive with the natural environment. By way of conclusion, I’d like to turn to a work of fiction that provides an interesting, if provocative, model for a future of environmental discourse that would similarly refuse to surrender to apocalyptic grandeur. It does so somewhat counter-intuitively, not only by keeping technology always visible and present, but also by holding the apocalypse out as something that simultaneously a) has already happened and b) need not ever happen. This is William Gibson’s dystopian science fiction novel, The Peripheral (2014). This might seem an odd choice. Gibson is no Kim Stanley Robinson, after all. While Robinson focuses overtly and expertly on the importance of environmental protection, confronts ecological precarity head-on, and imagines bold, sweeping environmental change on every scale—planetary, as in his Mars series, epistemologically, as in Antarctica, and more locally, with his Three Californias—Gibson is, still, perhaps most famous for imagining in the mid-1980s a virtual technology that allowed its users to abandon the polluted and corrupt real world by giving them access to the “bodiless exultation” of a virtual one. This hardly makes him a forerunner of ecological sensitivity. And yet The Peripheral does something different from Robinson’s grand and visionary ecological narratives, and different even from the intricate and technologically dense fictions that make up Gibson’s own oeuvre, namely, it keeps the present in play with all of our speculative futures. In it, his first novel in four years and his first foray in twenty into the immersive virtual spaces that made him famous in the 1980s and 1990s, Gibson introduces a near-future world that is at once eerily similar to ours and weirdly adjacent to a near-future world of its own.
In the first future, the novel’s “present,” the shared features with our own time are remarkable: stark divisions exist between economic classes; monolithic corporations control all stages of labor and production; privatized warfare plays out globally and locally, with freelance mercenaries training for combat in immersive virtual environments; polluted natural scenery dominates the landscape; and volatile weather patterns, caused by anthropogenic global warming, wreak havoc on every scale of lived experience. In the second future, which is much more speculative, Gibson envisions a lush, thriving world-ecology, one that has emerged in the wake of a catastrophic series of events that have caused the death of 80% of the world’s population, a cataclysm that the surviving 20% dub “The Jackpot.”
But neither the apocalypse nor the recovery from it is cast in singular terms. The Jackpot itself, in spite of its name, does not occur nearly as suddenly or dramatically as it sounds: “No comets crashing, nothing you could really call a nuclear war. Just everything else, tangled in the changing climate” (321). Similarly, the book offers no singular salvation narrative. Instead, it is the forced dialog between these two time periods that makes a space for progress. In the distant future The Peripheral imagines, the Jackpot has already happened; yet it also simultaneously exists as a possibility for the novel’s present day (and our own). The plot of The Peripheral is intricately crafted, but at its base it fosters a sustained conversation between these two times, developing an impulse in the present to forestall or avoid hitting “Jackpot” in the future. The novel’s “novum,” i.e., the science fictional Maguffin by which subsequent communication across time occurs, is a bio-digital uplink which allows a person to control an avatar—a “peripheral”—that is both spatially and temporally distant. Although it is the more remote of the two future worlds that introduces this innovation to the earlier time, neither period dominates the narrative. Indeed, the formal structure of the book doesn’t allow it. Even when the novel explicitly pits characters from different times against each other, its structure is both cinematic and metronymic in its allegiance to the cross-cut. Gibson alternates between present and future with relentless regularity (many chapters are only a few pages long) and refuses to privilege one time over the other. Instead, the novel forces the two into sustained relation, forces the characters in the pre-Jackpot United States to grapple with environmental uncertainty, forces the characters in the more distant future to struggle with their own responsibility for the world they have inherited, and forces the reader to contemplate questions about potential futures that lurk all too vividly on our shared event horizon. But by putting present and future into dialog, this catastrophe is no longer assured.
But while the novel offers no single solution for complex and catastrophic problems, it does allow for the possibility that technological innovation might, at least, be a participant in recovery. As the protagonist from the distant future explains it to his counterpart in the present: “With everything stumbling deeper into a ditch of shit, history itself become a slaughterhouse, science had started popping. Not all at once, no one big heroic thing, but there were cleaner, cheaper energy sources, more effective ways to get carbon out of the air…So everything, however deeply fucked in general, was lit increasingly by the new, by things that made people blink and sit up” (321).
By forcing us to have a sustained engagement with our possible future, The Peripheral defers the eschatological tendency that dominates so much of our conversation about the environment. This gathering on the topic of digital and natural ecologies for ebr has emerged from a similar impulse. This is, namely, a desire to contain questions about the present and possibilities for the future in the same conversation, without falling prey to narratives about eschatological finality or transcendent intervention. We can no longer pretend that digital technology doesn’t exist or that it is not, somehow, “natural” or that it, somehow, exists outside of material culture. The techno-fetishism that dominated both popular and critical discourse of the 90s and early 00s has run its course. But so too has the conception of nature as something that ceases to exist outside of the boundaries of a national park or an arbitrarily constructed notion of wilderness. The essays in this cluster highlight juxtapositions and adjacencies between the here and the now, in the overlaps between the natural and the technological, between the human and the nonhuman, between the virtual and the real, and in the hair-line divisions that exists between our vulnerable present and our nearly-present peripheral future.
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