Wallace Heim – “Can a site learn?”

[Posted on Wallace’s behalf. And with a big thanks to her for making this available. SB]

Steve very kindly asked if I would put up the notes from my talk on Friday 11th February at the Glasgow Symposium. They seem dated now by the experiences of the Saturday and Sunday at Cove Park, but I’m happy to have them here, as long as they are taken as informal; notes for speaking; as only somewhat philosophical; as an over-simplified and ridiculously vast sweep of ideas which have been consolidated from many – unnamed, unacknowledged – sources. They were meant in the spirit of offering ideas or problems from philosophy that might be taken on a week-end visit to a site, by an interdisciplinary group looking at environmentalism, learning, environmental change and developing site-based work.

So here goes, a mix of sentences and not-sentences, with the bits I cut out as I went along. With thanks, too to Steve, for the connection to Deleuze and Geophilosophy.

(And apropos of nothing, here’s a photo from the Fountains Abbey weekend that I rather like, as Mike touches Alan’s light…)

Background – rough guide to two facets of ecological philosophy:

Western philosophy has considered nature, in relation to the human, to god and to science, to politics, to ideas about reality since the Greeks. In the last hundred years or so, those ontological strands can be found in the process philosophy and relational theories – of, for example, Whitehead, Bergson through Naess, Deleuze, Guattari, Latour, Massumi, Elizabeth Grosz, and many others. These are familiar strands, and are at work across many disciplines.

There’s also been, in the last 30 years, a move to re-examine the conventional categories of philosophy and to consider how ‘nature’ and how environmental change forces them to reconsider how they are done and the concepts they engage with, the arguments they make. This is happening in aesthetics, ethics, politics, philosophy of science, phenomenology. Like we discussed last time  – with the questions of what aesthetic appreciation of a landscape means – what do you include and how do you make a judgment about it. This is also changing, for some, where philosophy is done; as applied philosophy – for example – people working directly in situations of environmental conflict, as ‘philosophers in the field’.

I’m offering some ideas broadly based within relational and process philosophies, and calling on some of the detail of environmental ethics and aesthetics.

When thinking about what to take along when visiting a site:

Some things already work very well –

Phenomenology and performance have already adapted to each other in devising the practices for approaching a place or site, by sensing it, moving in it, responding to it, by spending time with it, inhabiting it, perceiving the flows between the human subject and the other-than-human world.

From other directions – approaches from human historical or mythic or celebratory aspects – has been very productive. Adding scientific information or environmentalist perspectives or actions – are other ways that have been tried. A desire to make possible an ethical experience of place, or animal or element are others.

Too, artists work directly with the land, in remediation projects, and in social organisation in areas where issues of environmental justice are critical.

But I think what is missing, often, when putting together ecology and performance or ecology and art  – is ‘nature’, or a  more direct investigation or grappling with the difficulties of nature – human relations. And I’m not going to define ‘nature’ – but leave it in all its possibilities. There are exceptions of course – like works that involve the animal and human. But I think there are regions of nature-human relations that are not often explored in performance.

There is a bifurcation between theatre practices and nature – one is what humans do, and the other is something else. And yes – one can add knowledge about and experience of nature to performance practices. The frictions of environmental change can be presented and chewed over – while still being in the habit of separating nature and the human. What I’m trying to get to are patterns of thought and experience that do not replicate the bifurcation; or at least are attempts at not doing so. Whether these are overtly expressed in performance, or are influences, or are embedded in new forms of practice.

Or are just ideas to take along and see what happens.

This is in the spirit of Alfred North Whitehead, for whom abstractions were like lures – one develops them in response to a problem, and they lure one’s attention towards something that matters – they give a vector, a direction to experience.

And the four things are:

– the composition of nature-human relations;

– whether the other-than-human and the material have agency;

– the representation of matters of concern;

– and the question of whether ‘sites’ or places can learn.

starting with  –  nature-human relations

Of course, nature and the human are relational, or are part of a network of actors or actants, or are mutually co-dependent, tightly coupled in co-evolution, or are internally coherent, or are together collectives or societies, or are configured as part of a self-organising system, or are part of a complex of emergent properties – the languages of relationality are familiar.

Reality can be thought of as the mediating, assembling, gathering of diverse matters and complex and entangled entities being made and unmade.

But the juicy questions are what kinds of relations are these, how are they composed or configured, how are they experienced in collectives, and as individual entities. In the network analogy, where are the knots, conflicts, sags and over what kinds of timescales.

At the meso-level, of living beings, entities and elements, one can diagram relations like an extended food chain of dependence and influence. It is relational in the sharing of spaces, nutrients, and wastes.

And it is all relational with concepts, histories, institutions, power, the whole apparatus of human society.

At this level, one can somehow assemble elements within some boundary or scale, and analyse, even negotiate or change, the assemblage of relations.

But there’s also relationality expressed more intimately in terms of human perceptions. That is, that there is not a world out there, measurable by science but devoid of qualities to which the human subject adds sense perceptions –  the redness of a tomato, the scent of jasmine, the heat of a stone in the sun. Instead, what is there is the relation between the sensing human and world – the redness of a tomato, the scent of jasmine, the heat of a stone in the sun. And from this, the habits of considering the human as a single, autonomous, separate entity, even at the level of consciousness, break down. That separation that allows one to draw or mark the connections is a device. The accustomed considerations are temporary manifestations.

There are many ways to refer to relationality. Getting in there, into relational thinking – is very difficult to sustain and express. For example –  a problematic example –  to see oneself always in respect of another. Or to not see one’s hand as identifiable segments, but as the relations between the parts. Another familiar example is whether one sees the tree as an entity or as the patterns of 200 years of wind, soil and rain, given shape through the tendencies and the tact of the oak.

I’m starting with this large subject as a way of offering basic questions to ask when visiting a site: what relates me to this? what is the composition of the relations that can be perceived? where, at what scale?

whether the other-than human and the material have agency

The next questions are to do with whether the other-than-human and the material have agency – the ability to act, to move, to alter a surrounding world.

There’s a long tradition – in philosophy – of vitalists and organicists finding that something of life inheres in all things. Currently, questions about whether the material – the non-human, the not-animal or other life form  –  has agency or is in some way animate, are generating ideas and polemics. I want to think here – very briefly – only about agency.

One way to consider this is whether entities other than the human could be sources of action. Can they be things that do things, things that alter the course of events? They might act as quasi-agents or forces with trajectories or propensities seemingly of their own. This may or may not mean that they are animate or alive, but even if they are not, does that mean they are merely instruments awaiting human or animal intervention?

Things like – elements, metals, weather patterns, waste matter, waves, electricity, instruments, fabricated artefacts and commodities, granite and slate.

Another way to look at it is not that the things in themselves have these capacities – they don’t have agency in the way it is conceived of for humans, but that within the network of associations or the assemblage, there is the capacity for things to act or do things. There is a relational field, within which, matter influences the actions of other entities, and affects the course of human actions.

I’m presenting this – not to argue whether it is correct or not – but because these are enticing questions.

There’s interesting critical work in theatre and performance studies on materialities – developing from theatre’s special associations with the inanimate. What’s interesting here is the intersection of performance-making and ‘natural’ environments and the material.

The agency of matter is wonderfully descriptive, and evocative for experimenting with – and not to be explained away. How does one see – for example – nuclear material not as a resource or commodity or weapon – but as having agency, even in its state of reserved potential.

More philosophically, what forms of action and commitment are implied by this? What are the nodes of conflict, where are the vortices of power or the aggregates of care? To what or where do humans then ascribe ethical significance?

Again to refer to Whitehead – he saw human agency and material agency as entwined, and asked the question of how to capture that entwining, and how to intervene in what he called  –  the dance of agency.

representation of matters of concern

I want to switch to a different use of the word matter.

Whitehead recognised what he called matters of concern – in the flux and process of reality, there are matters that have more effect, that are somehow ‘close’. Human experience has variations in it – it isn’t smooth, and those variations matter. Again in Whitehead’s words – ‘Have a care – here is something that matters.’

Bruno Latour also uses the phrase ‘matters of concern’ in a different way – but to indicate similarly that some things are differentiated out of the flatness of a network; the ‘network’ doesn’t account for all of human experience.  Some things matter, they deserve care and protection. Matters of concern evoke emotions, and may call upon us to act, to do something.

Environmentalism has been one of the ways in which matters of concern about environmental conditions and change have been recognised, and represented. [It’s one of the themes of the week-end – why it’s included here.]

I want to talk here no so much from philosophy, but from experience watching 15 years of environmentalism and performance, and from some experience with activist – artists.

We’ve had 50 or 100 years of environmentalism, depending on where you start – and its history is varied and diverse, as are the contexts in which it happens, the forms which it takes, and the critiques of it.

I’m taking environmentalism to mean groups or individuals who in some way act in the interest of ‘nature’ –  generally other-than-human living beings and the ecological niches, corridors, territories, habitats which are necessary for the continuance of life. Those actions may be specific to a geographic place, or within human social organisation. Actions have a purpose – to protect, conserve, value the environment or nature, to speak for it or in defence of it, in ways informed by social and political conditions, science, intuition, and activist ideologies.

It has been motivating and has had an educative force, across many publics – and been uncomfortable, successful for some, ineffective for others; it’s been a source of meaning, and of highly imaginative and intuitive performative strategies.

As rich as it is, I want to argue gently – not strongly –  against starting with environmentalism as the – or as a main source for indicating of matters of concern, or as a guide as to how those concerns could be represented.

Firstly – rather like with the presentation of results from science, there is a tacit black box to environmentalist actions –  the public is shown the results. The actions follow already chewed over thinking and analysis, and packs up a lot of undisclosed assumptions and purposes, I think even when those actions are long term and based on discourse or negotiation.  Viewing an action or intervention  as ‘the expression of an issue’ – can leave deeper questions of understanding and knowledge behind.

The second area is to do with privilege. For many environmental organisations, the development of issues and methods proceeds in different ways and with very different motivations to that of academia or of performance-making. For some, this is the chosen way of operating. But for some, it is because they do not have access to the knowledge that academia or institutional science provides – or do so only on an ad hoc, advisory basis. Some global corporate environmental organisations have access to this. But many don’t.

We – this group – is based in academia, in the humanities – although not composed entirely of academics. And I would argue that the epistemological privilege of academia be used better – there are to hand more sources of information, knowledge, methodologies, and funding for looking into matters of concern than many environmentalist groups could ever dream of. It is a privilege that could be exploited.

The third area is a warning against falling into a deficit model of communication. This is when the ‘information’ is data or facts – but can also be when the subject matter is about feelings and the motivations for actions. The assumption here is that if one can just make the public feel what they should feel, value what they should value, the desired changes will follow. It doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work predictably, and what does or often can happen is that the range of emotions and motivations becomes shrill and narrow. Environmentalism in the arts seems to bring this tendency out – the current example is the excruciatingly bad Greenland at the National.

Having said all that, environmentalist issues may point the way to matters of concern – but so may many other directions of enquiry, and so may experience of a place or site. And these matters of concern involve representation – in ways not defined only by environmentalism. How can nature-human relations be represented aesthetically and politically. The dilemmas of representation are not going away.

can, how sites learn

The last of these sets of questions is the most speculative – and it’s about learning.

If you go along with the ideas that reality is relational, that agency is not only within single individuals, but is, in some way, dispersed through the field of relations, and that there are matters of concern, motivational nodes within those fields – then one might start to ask questions about change, about how change comes about – in the relational field of human and other-than-human, in environments.

There are many ways into this.

Process philosophies look at change as being continual. There are theories of events as modes of change. Change is explained, too, by theories of evolution, of improvised or random variations occurring over time, and adaptation. And then, too, ideas about human interventions, politically, scientifically, in and with environments, which go some way to explaining both the problematic conditions that have been caused by those interventions and actions taken to remedy them. Change – for the human – can happen through trial-and-error, experimentation, haptic experience, revelation.

But what I’m curious about is learning.

This is not just about how human education could alter perceptions, change values, affect behavioural and political change – as important as these things are. Or how an artistic intervention can make a change in the environmental dynamics of a site. Or about the encompassing arc of evolution.

It’s also about whether, if agency is dispersed, then why not learning? Is it possible that learning is not only within human and animate capabilities, or even in a tightly coupled co-evolution of organism and environment?

Can a site, or a place, learn? Or do something that approximates what we think of as learning – not just a back-and-forth response and adaptation – but invention and improvisation at the level of the relational field?

Which I suppose means – can there be surprises in the nature-human relation?

If it is possible, then it’s probably happening, but has been invisible to – or not widely articulated by – human theory.

And what has been being learned, is toxic.

So I have a normative, optimistic, idealistic subtext here. There is an impetus to learning that feels like agency – it’s not merely variation and response. There are differences that make a difference.

There is a lure to this idea which is not just trying to change perspective or perception, but to find a juncture, a point to intervene in what seems like closed or self-replicating systems of toxicity. To learn in another way.

If it’s possible, what difference would it make, to one’s perceptions of nature, and of oneself? to how one intervenes in an environment? to how one might know or inhabit a place? to the urgency of environmental change?

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1 Response to Wallace Heim – “Can a site learn?”

  1. Steve Bottoms says:

    Wallace comments that these notes from her Friday talk seem dated by the experience of the subsequent weekend. For my own part, though, looking back at them, I feel that seeing them again functions as a crucial lens on – perhaps a key to – so much of what followed in our thinking and our making that weekend, and indeed a lot of what’s been posted since. Thankyou Wallace! So much to turn over here…

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