Shape of a Practice

30 Oct, 2020

Moderation and introduction for HKW’s Shape of a Practice: Coordinating Practice event, streaming online 30 October, 2020. Details available on the anthropocene curriculum website.

Script from Introduction (not footnoted):

While the term “Anthropocene” is used to designate the general consolidation of human, technical, biological, economic, chemical and geological histories, we ought not to lose sight of the fact that such a scientific designation is only possible through the coordinated stitching together of particular and diverse phenomena. The planetary-scale of the Anthropocene does not designate a uniform object despite its epochal status, but rather the consequential condition of heterogeneous histories and entities asymmetrically entangled in a common meta-space. Such a condition poses an unprecedented demand to create, construct, and learn to navigate practices for coexistence within such dimensions as embedded creatures who cannot simply look on indifferently, or impassively observe from the impossible site of nowhere.

There is no precedent to navigate such an uncommonly lived, meta-space in common cracked open by the recognition of planetary reality. And yet if other, more just, humanly and non-humanly inhabitable forms of coexistence are to be invented, one must begin somehow, somewhere, somewhen with whatever tools one has at hand. Which is to say, one begins with particular processes of localization, despite the daunting scales known to affect, and be affected by a planetary condition. In various ways, in divergent geographies, and with distinctly collective practices, this is what our guests have taken up in their work – the question of inhabiting, and not just knowing about, planetary coexistence.

The transits between knowing and doing, between knowing and inventing ways to live-out the ramifications of that knowing are often a sore spot for us theorists. Gayatri Spivak captured this well with her coinage of “planetarity,” which is used to indicate transformed forms of life that concretely inhabit worlds, since the planetary or the global in her example, only exist as abstract models on screens. This is not to devalue theory, nor to romanticize concrete existence as if it is separate from conceptual abstractions, on the contrary, but it is to recognize that the translation between knowing and doing is not an immediate, nor self-evident process. It requires creative, material experimentation, embodied by the figure of the “critical thinker doer” – to borrow the expression from Chakanetsa Mavhunga. If we are to take lessons from the past, seeing an image of the whole earth was not sufficient in transforming configurations of coexistence, despite idealised projections. The brief answer to this failure, is that an image alone provides little orientation for practicable localization beyond the sense of momentary, humbling awe. If the common meta-space of the planetary is to yield social, infrastructural, economic and political transformations at the level of everyday coexistence, naming it on a scientific, or theoretical register alone is simply not enough. It is a question of translating and drawing practical ramifications of the planetary into some inhabitable configuration, materially, relationally and semantically. Without this step we may very well know of the planetary, but remain entrenched in globalizing configurations of life.

There are three thematic points I’d like to briefly highlight that our guests tonight are negotiating in various geographies, assorted methodologies, and always in collective ways.

First concerns the epistemic register. Since the planetary picture is an aggregate of heterogeneous elements, human and non-human histories, there is not one singular field that can claim authority on this condition. Knowledge-making for this condition must be approached in multi-disciplinary, collaborative ways through a diversity of techniques and processes, including the de-hierarchization between propositional knowledge and tacit knowledge, or knowing through doing. This entails an ecology of knowledge practices, to borrow the concept from Isabel Stengers, which serves as a direct influence upon the research of Fernando Silva e Silva and his group. What is useful about Stengers’ formulation is that it preserves the potential knowledge specificity of certain fields, but places emphasis on how they can form relevant connections to other fields and present contexts, that is, local conditions, in what amounts to as knowing in a “minor key” and not “major key”. While computationallu driven, globally transmissible holistic-models are indispensable in mapping planetary probabilities, risk assessments and climactic monitoring, an ecology of practices compliments, and sometimes complicates an enclosed monopoly on knowledge-production from within a laboratory or university setting exclusively. As Lewis Gordon noted, if there is to be a shift, and not abandonment, from a monopoly of geographic knowledge production bound only to the university, this also entails shifting the very geography of reason, a diversification of reasoning unbeholden to Euromodern epistemic cosmologies.

Second, on a structural level, the proliferation of relations and interdependencies between things and bodies inherent to the planetary condition, points to an increased complexity of coexistence, one that outstrips anyone’s ability to fully cognize it. This raises urgent practical, ethical and political questions as to how to create modes of access to such complexity from the bottom up, in order to better understand causality, agency and accountability for this condition in common that determines uncommon conditions of livability – both locally and extra-locally. In many cases with our guests, this question of access is enacted through the use of narration – be it in collective work, or through moving images, in order to nurture both libidinal attachments and community engagement with sites, geographies and issues of local urgency, that are a consequence of globalizing, political-economic tendencies. It’s through the creation of such narrative access that these projects are able not only to coordinate geography-specific epistemic contributions in various forms, but that they become a basis for collective political traction because of the stake-holder relationships that emerge in the research process.

Third, on a spatial level, the question emerges as to how we are to orient ourselves within planetary-dimensions? How are our pictures of “being located” transformed, or made “leaky” by extra-local relations or interdependencies, for better and for worse? From what relative perspective are the borders of a location drawn? Through what other materialities or life-forms do new cartographies of the planetary emerge, and how do these interface with anthropogenic territorially-biased sensibilities? How are spatial imaginaries of the inhabited world, that is the world as it is practiced, altered by imaginatively placing the Senegal River next to the Seine? By mapping the common aquatic artifacts of nuclear testing from a lake in China next to San Fransisco Bay? By mapping the desertified former lake Bodélé in Chad, next to the Brazilian rainforest, for which it serves as a crucial fertilizer? These are the types of operational spatial distortions at work in planetary space – whether organic or not, that radically undermine the insufficiency of familiar Mercator projections, not simply because they are proportionately inaccurate depictions of landmasses, but because they reveal little of living dynamics of the planetary. Namely, how things hang together in coexistence for which a geographic coordinate system (longitude and latitude) is only one genre of diagram from which to understand relational distances and proximities.

While grounded in field-based contexts – including aquatic “fields”, our guests take up methods that resonate with Guerino Mazzola’s notion of “productive navigation.” He coined this term in distinction to receptive navigation, which amounts to moving about an existing body of knowledge in a predetermined search space, like the alphabetic organization of Encyclopedic knowledge that, furthermore, asserts the appearance of completeness. Productive navigation, on the other hand, is about reworking what an existing body of knowledge even is, and it’s methods disturb the very space of search, provoked by inventive techniques that often result from the generative frictions across disciplines and forms of knowing. It is through the reconfiguration of search spaces where collective agencies emerge to define what and where problems are in the first place – and it is in that empowerment to define problems where new ways of navigating can be constructed. Seeing as the question of reconfiguring coexistence within planetary space is an unprecedented demand, there is likely an impoverishment of existing methodological cues for us semantic-creatures to point to as an orientating marker. Yet it because of this lack, because of momentary disorientation that an opportunity arises to ignore Wittgenstein’s maxim that instructs: “That whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must remain silent,” as Mazzola suggests. Rather “That whereof we cannot speak” reveals limitations endemic to existing search-spaces, compelling the invention of other methods, gestures and organons for thought to construct access to hitherto, unknown spaces of search when confronted with the dead-ends of existing grammars belonging to codified knowledge procedures.