Strange Affordances

Intro to research project on the NYC Dryline/dromohydrology/eschatoaesthetics


The Anthropocene can, at some level, be characterized by the failures of static (human and exo-human) systems. These failures differ wildly in their identity and scope,  Our world is increasingly defined by the contours of movement and distributions of both human and nonhuman actants. Perceiving the totality of the actions of these actants, it becomes clear that they answer to organic logics; they breed and, like termites, digest and weaken structures; every new tropical storm, monsoon, and draught sends rippling shockwaves through the social habitus leaving it weak and uncertain of the future, with nothing to do but desperately try to gird itself for the next ‘big one’. The homogenous ground of geopolitics, which has and continues to consider the planetary skin to be a relatively static multi-part lamination of territory,  tactical resource-matrices, and human population masses, has been revealed to behave (and to have been behaving) fluidly, possessed of languid movement and sudden seizures.

This new mutagenic capacity of these new, horrifying actants produces in states increasingly more manic attempts to consolidate and control that operate along bizarre new relational metrics of fortification and porosity. Watersheds, rivers, and aquifers have never answered to territorial boundaries, but now they must be made to answer to new logics of security and sovereignty. Urban coastlines and ports, heavily defended and mechanized, nevertheless are quickly swamped and undone by rising tides. Earthquakes produced by hydraulic fracturing rattle under city streets far from extraction sites. Atmospheric pollution issued from a factory in the Chinese Pearl River Delta chokes urban residents in Inner Mongolia. The Anthropocene is the time-space of a new, radically extensible volatility.

But there are still rules, it seems. For all the uncertainty, the geopolitical powers of the Global North remain in a privileged position: possessed of the luxury of “turning necessity into opportunity”, they can construct illusions of solidity, of uniformity, of ordered procession, and in doing so, reinforce themselves. In this new temporal colonialism, ideological constructs and infrastructural fortifications move together in delirious lockstep: the flooded coastline is not a diluvian catastrophe, but an opportunity for development. The Anthropocene, far from being the millenarian duration-entity of an emphatic and final deterritorialization, is quickly becoming reciprocally characterized by a twinned re-equalization—by market-forces rushing back in to the places they had been evicted by disasters, blindly and hysterically beholden to laws of pressure and development that dictate, like all things, capital must equalize and refill the void. The attritive scraping of the nonhuman on the human—100-year storms, rise of sea levels, decade-long draughts, et al.—does nothing to negate the fact that, under capitalism, territory is property, and property is to be built on, excavated, paved over, and secured. The devastated coastline left in the aftermath of the latest inundation is still beachfront property, and must be rebuilt, preferably as quickly and as spectacularly as possible.

In the eco(nomic)-eco(logical) danse macabre of property and development, capitalism has undertaken an auto-coronation, positioning itself as the only entity capable of acting on human behalf on ecological scales. Capitalism, and specifically, the hysterical cycle of development and redevelopment, has carved itself a comfortable ecological niche as the interlocutor between the human and the nonhuman. Capitalism is not just the provocation of the Anthropocene, or a catalyst; it now occupies an intercalary position, facilitating interface between worlds. What I mean by this is that capitalistic development has bootstrapped its own niche of the eco-eco, and in occupying it, recomposed the relationship into a combinatoric nebula-assemblage of trialectical engagement. In doing so, it leaves the human revealed and vulnerable, which with repeated claims of safety and stewardship, further entrenches development in its mediative role. We have not seen the dissolution of capital so much as we have seen its reassertion that it is the only possibility; that it is the only Grand Builder left, capable of responding to the seething diversity of actant-populations with massively-scaled projects of homogenization. This relationship is clearly legible in the suburban developments that dominate the peripheral zones of American cities, which offer the aestheticized idyll of the arcadian countryside in packaged, parcellized, and therefore marketable and sellable format. The minimal development of the pre-industrial house is made into a commodity product.

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The Union of Concerned Scientists maintains an interactive ‘Climate Hot Map’. The CHM is stock Google Maps satellite data, overlaid with a constellation of pinprick event-zones mapped on the planetary surface of the Earth. These event-zones are further distinguished by a color, corresponding to one of five umbrella categories. Use of the CHM offers to smooth climatespace into a global array of equally-weighted nodes, existing independently of each other in space and time. Each of these events is actually a wellhead: making legible, by their own de-occulted nature, the vast benthic, hidden system of aberrations that made them possible—including, naturally, the effects of other wellheads. What the CHM offers is the ability to apprehend the field of catastrophic event-zones and allow for a minor amount of digging into more discrete, granular scales. This approach of scale is the same I will be using for the following discussion.

Sea level rise is, in some ways, the face-pattern of the Anthropocene, or its leading edge. It is among the earliest effects discussed of the panoply of climate change effects when doomsaying first took off in mainstream political circles, and remains one of the most readily apprehended. The ephemera of the Anthropocene, such as the level of atmospheric carbon, limits to global temperature rise, snowpack quantities and so on, seem esoteric compared to the simple calculus of sea level rise: tides come in, and never go back out. The underpinning web of further effects and causes—glacier melt, the liberation of trapped methane, polar amplification, etc.—functionally does nothing to augment the urban resident’s reality of water in the street.

From the global scale, to the personal, and back again: the phenomena of the Anthropocene are massively distributed, but the intensity of their impacts is a function of geographic location and economic status. In the Anthropocene, true geopolitical power is expressed by “turning necessity into opportunity”. On the unstable, mutagenic trialectical ground that is now the substrate of global politics, power rests in not only the ability to roll with the punches, but the elegance of the vector away from harm. And as in prior political-temporal regimes, the most deft moves are strictly the province of the most privileged actors: those with the developmental resources (or capital expenditure) to risk-assess and legitimize their actions. In this way, geopolitical actors find that despite the myriad of changes undertaken and underway in the Anthropocene, the overall hierarchy of global politics and (perhaps even more so) economics is undergoing a reciprocal structural thickening. The ascendency of the Global North finds itself once again refortified—this time not by fiat, or juridical fiction, but by the very construction of our current reality. This effect is true not just of states, but of populations: global citizenship is a privilege reserved for those from the Global North, proving gravity—it is possible to move internationally and between territories always down or laterally, but never up. American students go to study in Rome, but Somalian refugees are left to float dead in the Mediterranean.

The yawning chasm between the Global North and South remains reinforced developmentally, militarily, and in terms of political agency. The advent of the Anthropocene has added new dualisms: access to remediative materials and technologies, and most importantly, the effects of nonhuman catastrophe-events themselves. In this sense, the division of the world no longer lies along the equator, but should be rehearsed as a separation between the torrid and extra-torrid geospace of the planet. It is in the torrid zones that the proliferation of catastrophe-events is most strongly felt, and where the resources to interface with the same are most lacking. Notably, Bangladesh, Kiribati, Haiti, and the Maldives—all sites located in the torrid zone—are early adopters of the desperate, uncertain, and vulnerable forms of life in the Anthropocene.

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The Attenuating Peninsula

It’s impossible not to be left with the feeling that we are digging into hell, or running headlong over cliffs. For the most part, we have finally become present and aware of our own movements—the locomotive tendency bearing us closer to oblivion—but have yet to stop or even slow down.

Kim Stanley Robinson writes about a concept that he refers to as the ‘attenuating peninsula’—a conceptual geography that grows smaller over its length. As a species, we tread (or are blown backward) down the length of the peninsula. The middle path is our current scenario, and so, while it seems rational to “stay the course” so to speak, a look even a short distance forward reveals a precipitous drop (or perhaps, a walk through an inundated downtown street until the lapping greycaps have swallowed us). However, there is a way to escape the vector of the peninsula: a utopian solution, which in this case, is expressed as a course correction down a gentle slope. All is required is a slight deviation from our current trajectory. KSR’s peninsula is a powerful utopia in its own right: an ontogeographic sigil. Were it to actually exist, we would not just walk down it calmly in a benign acceptance of our fate. The coastlines of the peninsula would be lined with condos and resorts, furred with manufactured sand to create beaches, and the interior would be drilled for oil. In our wake, devastated, sour earth; ahead, an increasingly shrinking scrum of territory, resource webs, and biomass that will be consumed on our way into the sea.

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On the Capitalocene

I can’t help but wonder if the wavering between anthropocene and capitalocene as the proper distinguishers of our current epoch obscures the fact that the distinction is unnecessary. What is humanity, at the present period, if not a hive of workers to perpetuate capitalism? This is a rather Landian digression (capitalism as xeno-entity, powered by humans; a hyperstitional visit from outside time) but bears exploration.

If we say Anthropocene, it must come with qualifiers that distinguish human activities that have shaped our current milieu; that is, activities undertaken without capitalistic provocation. I would argue these don’t exist, and that capitalism has territorialized human notions of technological progress but what’s more, the quotidian to such a degree that any activity is indistinguishable from a capitalistic process.

That said, I still believe capitalocene is somewhat reductionist and revisionist, rewriting history prior to the genesis of the xenomonster of capital in the long 16th c. as a transcendent, teleological run-up to the full force of capitalism’s hideous emergence. Prior to the 16th c., we were in the anthropocene. After, the capitalocene. This proposes a new dyadic schema (Pre- and Post-Era Vulgaris): Anthropocene and Capitalocene, all bound under the name Chthulucene, taken from Haraway. The beauty of Haraway’s moniker is that it distinguishes the substrate upon which both the Anthro- and Capital depend: the creorder and further manipulation of telluro-temporal systems: processes, magnificent in their breadth and depth, invisible in their benthic occultation, only tangentially viewed and even then never in full; the shoggoths of our planetary existence, only perceived generationally. These practices and networks silently exist outside the perception of the human; Haraway is correct in identifying in them a certain cosmicism or horror.

Regardless, the human project on Earth has been defined by the attempts to interface with the telluro-temporal. The beginning of these activities place us in the Chthulucene.

Finding the World-without-Us

In Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of this Planet, Thacker draws up a tripartite secular cosmogeny consisting of three spheres identified by their divergence from humanoid/anthropocentric optics: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us; or, humanity’s world and environs, the world as understood empirically, and the unhuman—that which we cannot experience.

Obviously, it is hardwired within us to increasingly push outward, to mount colonization efforts and invade the world-without-us. This is a failing preposition: considering the world-without-us causes it to vanish. In the Dust of this Planet proposes that we interact with the sublime unknowable of the w-w-u through horror, which offers a “non-philosophical” way to think ourselves out of existence.

There is, however, another way, residing in the atmospheric record and as imparted to us from ice cores (added bonus: reading ice and air, a kind of material logos-system of inhuman processes, seems very in fitting with the attempts to exhume the asymptotic that define the search for the w-w-u). Over the course of human history, there are instances where the atmosphere improves and things (‘things’ used as a general catchall for nonhuman planetary systems) snap back to ‘normal’ (‘normal’ being a hypothesized vectorization of the world’s ‘things’ if we had never existed.  Stewart Brand in Whole Earth Discipline names some of these resets: the great diebacks after the collapse of ancient Rome, the genocide of Native Americans be the ass-backwards pathogenic warfare of the colonizing Europeans, etc. It’s happening again, too: the Middle East, eaten whole by conflict, is the only region of the world where air quality is improving. Will this be inscribed on the aerologos? Impossible to say.

The point of this post is to maintain that the world-without-us is not simply or even predominantly a tool of critical literature, but a useful heuristic that throws harsh light on the eschatology of our discourse. The apocalypse is a complete deterritorialization, but the world-without-us is more helpful because, while asymptotic, it possesses a sickening gravity; one can’t help by feel we are being pulled to it, breaking through thresholds the whole way down. It is only asymptotic because once we arrive there will be no hominids left to perceive it, of course. The world-without-us is not a technique of literature or theory – though both are doubtlessly useful, and I’m not attempting to shit on either – but is a geo-ontological reality. It’s what lies at the bottom of the slope.

Urban meteorology

One of the most exciting possibilities of a new materialist approach to architecture and urbanism lies in the divorce of form & space within the architectural diploid-construct. Though Levi Bryant fuses the two with his term “hylospatial” to denote the architectural act (a term I have taken and ran with), this phrase still allows us to dilate upon a contradistinction: “architecture” is a linguistic rarification, processed, smoothed, curated; “hylospatial” is a nasty compound kluge of word. This is what architecture is: the inaccurate and poorly-undertaken fusion of matter and energy, to use De Landa’s slightly mystical terminology. It is an unfortunate chimera – unfortunate because we can never talk about all of architecture all at once: only about space or form. There’s always a catalyzing agent and a subservient one.

In attempting to formulate a new architectural optics in a new materialist vein, I’ve begun thinking of architectural as atmospheres. The architectural atmosphere is the collision between space and form. It is space, but space that is itself thought of as full (with compositional differences etc.) and heavy (what is the weight of the column of air that is constantly crushing us on the planetary surface?), both of which are typically properties of matter; following these reasons, it has form, but a form that is highly defined by exteriority (the void, the solid) and conditional behaviors (an atmosphere is never static from one moment to the next). If we think of architectural atmospheres in an array, we produce an urbanism through agglomeration. These atmospheres have a multiplicity of traits – some are massive and low, spindly and tall; they can be joined into fields of startling density or left disparate. This makes an urbanism a meteorology, reacting on us by making our focus the nature of the atmospheres (and their interstitial exteriorities) and paraverting the dialectical figure-ground. All becomes a flat field, with intimations of structure and population to uncover as analysis of the totality continues.

Occulted architectures; or, a shiver along the planet’s spine

The intention of Laka’s REACT competition is left refreshingly ambiguous: to create an “architecture that reacts”. This ambiguity rehearses intriguing possibilities to go beyond what is typically considered architectural reactions—passive phenomena that are a direct communication between the building and the visitor. Light, space, movement, etc. These reactions are the common pidgin of modernist architecture vernacular and produce a linear sequence of preprogrammed evental and discrete moments that insist on recuperating ecological relations in rarified Euclidean space. Architectural reaction in this vein is a mechanical, strictly curated sequence of events occurring between populations of hominid organics and rigid hylospatial structures, using environmental phenomena as its engine.

Reaction can no longer follow a cybernetic/modernistic paradigm that leaves us pushing buttons and watching lights and claiming to be moved. Modernity’s hackneyed interpretation of the machine as a model for architecture has enforced a shallow bottom. We want to interact deeply with our machines, not stare at them; to dip our hand into the water and watch solitons and saltations cascade around our fingers. Pushing a button is no longer enough; its time to recuperate the architectural machine as an architectural ecology.

The architectural ecology is transcalar and emergent. It can be many pieces, or one structure; it can be newly built or retrofitted to existing structures. Whether planetary or local, the architectural ecology is an infinity of potentially moving parts—a bristling biome of seething possibility and interpretation. The movement I’m describing does not have to actually take place, but will always be implied—constantly moving outward, a rarified explosion, a gordian knot of vector rays and axis mundi offshoots that terminate cloudily in an occupied space. It is an animal, with life pulsing beneath an operable exterior. Architectures of flesh are no longer for demonic cathedrals or parasitical infestation. The bleeding tunnels are our own, and as we recapitulate them, they will lose their alien quality. Their twitches, their shivering, their musculature, their teratology is our own.

Sinking down deep into the loam of the planet, the architectural ecology buries itself—or maybe its a planting?—only to grow forth or be exhumed at the proper moment. This moment is one of pure function, a distinct hinge point, in which the architecture announces itself out of the swarm-void to become of use. Instead of reaction functioning as the mouthpiece for an architecture that sits hollowly and lets environmental and operational use define its tongue, it withers vestigial. The architectural ecology is the environment, is the mouth—allowing hylospatial practice, the planet, the operator, and especially the reaction to go alchemic, to commit autophagy. Reaction and architecture become indistinct, inseparable, twinned.

Bubbling time and potemkin corporealism in speculative worlds

I’ve recently noticed a bizarre exotemporeal tendency—for lack of a better word—in science fiction (and other speculative fictions, for that matter). Perhaps the best/most egregious example of this is in the movie i, Robot, Will Smith’s character comments on his “vintage 2004 Converse”.

Bear with me. Obviously, beginning with i, Robot is a little unfair, but this example is nearly the Platonic ideal of what I’m trying to identify and critique.

Though the reasons for this particular bit of commodity fetishism are likely reducible to the transfer of money from Converse’s accounts to some Hollywoodian entities’, this type of historical pandering is present constantly throughout SF (to borrow Haraway’s excellent encapsulation, SF can be any type of speculation here). In i, Robot’s case, the simple mention of the vintage 2004 Converse seems immediately absurd—in a world that is populated with a flaccidly post-Gibsonian ethos and autonomous/sentient A.I., it seems unbelievable that Converse from 2004 would have any cachet. Taking into account technological advances present in the world, it would be analogous for me to wear solid-rubber boots, mold-poured (or some similarly absurd, outmoded, and useless anachronism)—sure I could do it, and I’m sure someone would, but it would seem immediately strange. Meta-textually, of course, the presence of the Converse immediately destroys any sort of cohesive world-building. i, Robot’s entire future milieu is revealed as highly, parasitically dependent on our own present reality, sharing the same brain, connected tenuously by corporately-privatized dendrites.

Of course i, Robot is ultimately just a shitty, overproduced mid-aughts film, and should not be discussed further. But exploration of this throwaway line brings me to my argument, which is: there is a serious lack of imagination, in most SF works, in producing the worlds they depict. By producing, I don’t mean setting up a Potemkin corporealistic terminus-world that is umbilically and clearly derived from our own—such is a hallmark of SF. The issue lies in the creation of believability by entertaining an interim history; if not fully formed, at least loosely sketched and hauntingly contoured, like shining a flashlight onto mist. (I’m reminded here of Thacker’s concept of the black illumination, an occulted unveiling that remains unnamable, peripheral, contingent, and largely unseen – revealed through persuasion rather than perception.) The works of Kim Stanley Robinson and the novel A Canticle for Liebowitz both perform this excellently, though arguments for their disqualification can be made due to the sprawling extensibility of both, which use epochal time to construct narratives.

Obviously most works of SF get a pass through either time or spatial distance. No one expects The Culture novels or Dune to offer a history with its novum in our present day (though in some ways, Dune does exactly that). Heinlein’s novels don’t need a history, because they obviously occupy a Fallout-style alternity of perpetual American Empire, and to a degree, a sort of cosmopolitanized flavor of white supremacy and shitty gender politics that can be seen as the obvious ouroborous-vomit of the post-war era. The important thing with most SF is that they don’t frame the window between our time and the time they depict—a distinction which places the SF firmly in a temporal bubble.

Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves sits at opposite sides of this type of bubble. First set in our current day, normalcy is interrupted when the moon is destroyed. The Kessler Syndrome-style fallout results in a ‘Hard Rain’ as the moon’s debris liquifies the Earth’s surface, killing all of humanity save those that fled into LEO in the ISS and an ark-swarm of habitats. The survivors of the survivors—seven of them, all women—land on the largest chunk of moon and rebuild civilization by birthing new races mitotically. These are, obviously, the Seveneves.

Title card from Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves
At this point the novel jumps 5,000 years.

5,000 years after the seven Eves used themselves as the genetic foundation for a new race, the resulting neo-humanity has fought back. Though constrained by the hard vacuum and limited resources, the population arising from the Eves has produced wonders, foremost being a continuous ring of habitats around the earth, the Eye (a roving satellite), and the nascent stages of a massive terreforming project in the wake of the Hard Rain’s subsiding.

But in this fertile new environment, Stephenson constantly looks backward, working up a secular hagiography of the new humans that is hopelessly dilated upon the actions of the Eves 5 millenia ago. The geopolitics of the day is entirely a reproduction on societal scales of the same rifts and allegiances that existed between the original 7. Visits to spaces around the ring include long passages tying them back to the actions that took place in our present day. To do the same now would be analogous to defining our modern lives by the actions of ancient Sumerians.

Seveneves, and other fictions, are engaging in Janus-worshipping SF that is not content to create a world, but must similarly ratify it by placing it in the present. This is not a praxis of world-building—a world is generated, must grow like a fungus. It is this which SF sometimes misses, and what to me would be most exciting. Showing point A and point B is not enough anymore. The long arc of history, the new understanding of the world as an autocatalytic, messy system of processes, creates new possibilities of an SF that nurtures itself, that teases itself hyperstitionally into existence. Within the vacuum of the temporal bubble—the lacuna between the present and the present-spore future—lies the possibility of true speculative fictions. With opposing termini, writing here would be like writing through a maze, albeit one hand-drawn by a drunk. There is a potential here for fictions that serve as connective tissues. Populate the rhizome.

Optics for the continued existence of planet earth: the paintings of Thomas Cole

The American landscape painter Thomas Cole traded in bizarre monotliths, hypnagogic cartographies, and perhaps most importantly, a mutual distortion practiced between the landscape vistas he painted and the hominid ecologies he populated his scenes with.

This mutualism tautologized the existence (and end) of the human within the sublime, to the degree that the landscapes of Cole’s work often seemed to be merely temporospatial sigils for the actions of the humans rendered within. At first glance, this would seem to enforce an entirely holocentric, scare quotes—bookended “modernistic” optics of ecological space and time: the small, finite human, somehow able to write on epochs, climates, systems, etc.

However, I believe Cole was worrying at an aesthetics that went much deeper than that of a prevailing Anthropo-primacy of the type that dominated his milieu. An avowed naturalist and fierce critic of the becoming-Europe of North America, Cole (and his comrades in the Hudson River School cabal of artists) were engaging in archival work. The subject of their paintings was, in the 19th century, being rapidly deterritorialized by a seething onrush of development shaggoths, dragging rail tracks, trade routes, factories, deforestations, and residential developments in their wake. The Hudson was eventually relegated to a utilitarian causeway. Scenes like that in Cole’s The Oxbow were evaporating before his eyes. Cole’s response was to rehabilitate a natural world so unknowable and chthonic, so chaotic and autocatalytic in its self-assured perpetuation, that one couldn’t even imagine human fetters on it lasting any longer than it allowed them. Cole painted nature as a slavering, roaring angel; beautiful to behold, horrible to think about. Cole’s ecologies utterly envelop, swallow, and expel.

TheOxbow

This context is what is most important about Cole’s painting. Previous landscape scenes at this scale had featured humans and nature as equal subjects upon the canvas, or both as recipient parties for the emenations of gods or other divine visits. Cole’s work places nature at the head of the pantheon; the human is nothing, but becomes everything. In Cole’s Voyage of Life (or his other sequential work, The Course of Empire) series, the human warps the landscape around them in accordance to the rules of some strange attraction. Instead of static poses and impeccable timing (capturing lighting, a sunset, or other perfectly staged environmental condition), Cole presents a scene as a ephemeral blink in time—in ictu(s) mundus. His sequential works are keyframes of a fatalistic shuffle towards oblivion, either in the case of a single human life, or an allegorical neo-Rome beset by barbarians and hubris alike. And as the human contingent in the painting exits the scene, the environmental context does too—as the sun sets, as night falls, joining in solemn requiem with ghostly mourners. But as Cole depicts the death of the human and humanity as twinned to the end of all things, he also firmly recuperates the hominid in his ecology—having effected changes on an environmental scale, the human has disappeared, and the sun will rise on a refreshing new world, scrubbed free of the vainglorious pests that plagued it the day before.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/77/Cole_Thomas_The_Course_of_Empire_Desolation_1836.jpg
Thomas Cole—The Course of Empire: Desolation. 1836.