Monthly Archives: January 2016

Urgency and Complexity: New Thinking

It’s the new year. The sun shines orange, veiled in vapour, and warmer than seasonal average, of course.


2015 was, for me, the year I came to terms with the real ending of the world. That is to say, the modern world that I was born in and grew up in and which, from my perspective, started unravelling when I learned about global warming at 14 but no one (including me) did anything about it. I greeted the financial collapses of 2008 with a kind of perverse hope that this would be the watershed event that would provoke the end of the world and the beginning of another.

Maybe it did.

But the planes still fly and make their vapour trails, and demand is still projected to increase. The machine rumbles on, into the abyss. The trees of the 70 year old woodlot across from my daughter’s daycare have been felled, the pond has been filled, and the birds have taken to the sky to protest. We haven’t heard from the frogs yet.

The End, but not yet Something New

We all know that it’s over – that capitalism’s promise of continous growth is impossible on a single planet of finite resources. But the next thing has not yet come. I spent much of 2015 being in quiet despair at the impossibility of ethical existence within a system that destroys humans and all other living beings, by its very design. But lately I have been moving into the place past despair, which is not hope but perhaps a fierce joy in existence, brief and complex. I can recognize my blue mood as deep grief, not for a person this time but for the world that I knew – the world that is still with us but which must soon, become something else. Donna Haraway writes that our responsibility at this point is to make the Anthroposcene or whatever it is called (she goes with Cthulucene, in line with the great makers and remakers Gaia, Medusa, Spider Woman) as short as possible, since it is probably best understood as the boundary between epochs.

So the new thinking I’m embarking on is dedicated to trying to make a path through the Dithering, a thread of some type (probably not linear, but maybe red) from the place we are to some other place where we can see ourselves. This is a task for all of those who have never liked disciplines, a good task for a grieving environmentalist (as I’ve always been) but also a good task for someone who wants to think about communicative relationships, humans and nonhumans.

Decentering humans; understanding complexity

In particular I have identified how mediation appears to be a crucial concept in linking two key lines of thinking: one focused on removing humans from their hubristically defined position as superior to other beings on earth, and the other identifies how complex adaptive systems can move past oppositional (or even dialectical) engagement. Since the earth environment is one of these complex adaptive systems, and since it is constantly in the process of changing, this set of thoughts is equally relevant for the project. It’s also at the heart of John Durham Peters’ excellent book The Marvellous Clouds.

In the first line of thinking, Haraway proposes an ethics of kinship that connects the human with many others, especially those who are alien or not alike. This development and sustenance of relationships outside of the known is an extension of her work on cyborg identities, and she, like others working in this area, calls for a renewed sense of connection with the other beings of the world. Simiarly, Robin Wall Kimmerar offers the insight that humans might, in gratitude to the rest of creation, pay attention. She writes, “Paying attention to the more-than-human world doesn’t lead only to amazement; it leads also to acknowledgment of pain. Open and attentive, we see and feel equally the beauty and the wounds, the old growth and the clear-cut, the mountain and the mine. Paying attention to suffering sharpens our ability to respond. To be responsible.”

However not all thinkers committed to decentering humans from the web of experience think that nature will respond in any way to our attention. Isabelle Stengers proposes in her recent work a Gaia that is powerful and implacable. There is no resource to this nature. It cannot be perceived or engaged with. Stengers writes, “we will have to go on answering for what we are undertaking in the face of an implacable being who is deaf to our justifications” (47). This means that none of the modes of mediation on which we have come to rely (including of course measurement and sensing) could bring humans closer to perceiving the natural world.

I need to spend some more time with Stengers to see whether there might be some new insights on media (although not likely communication) from her implacable Gaia, but I find it interesting that she also entreats us to ‘pay attention.’ Attention is what many media scholars spend time discussing, and media companies trying to measure. Attention, like so many things, has slid into being commodified. So paying attention to things outside ourselves that are also part of ourselves is a radical act indeed. Paying attention mens having to face the terrible realization that as I wrote this I cleaned the bathroom – and that the poisoned water I produced might kill the kin of the birds I watch out the window.  On the other hand, once one is really paying attention, all the analytic and creative energies that one possesses can be directed. And the consequences of that attention might invite creativity and solutions that apply not only to climate or ecological crisis but to all sorts of situations where the notion of progress has come undone, and the dyanic of opposition and dialetic no longer apply.

The second strand of my reading and thinking concerns how to understand the dynamics of complex adaptive systems. This is inspired by rereading Robin Mansell’s Imagining the Internet, where she identifies the multiple hierarchical and heterarchical levels that interrelate within communication systems. Rather than seeking to optimize or rationalize, systems processes tend towards self-maintenance,and can’t always be massaged into producing cause and effect relationships.

Consideration of complex adaptive systems doesn’t seem too difficult to fit with the first set of readings. If anything, it aligns with the notion of relationship that we value through ‘paying attention’. It also opens out the possibility for paradox and unintended (or unknowable) outcomes.

Again, while thinking this way might help to draw a thread towards the urgent and enormous quesitons of our time, it will also help to address any number of smaller (and no less pressing) questions of justice and the ‘good society’ that we need to address on the way.

Next post soon – more on complexity and some on ethics and relationships.