The Brief for a Symposium with Clive Dilnot, Timothy Morton, Karen Pinkus, Allan Stoekl, Cameron Tonkinwise, Damian White
Friday, April 8th; 10:30am-3pm
Klein Conference Room, A510
66 West 12th, New York, 10011
Current unsustainability comes in large part from the perception that the cosmos and its earthly ecosystems are perpetual gifts. Collapsing ecosystems belie this sense of the cosmos being inexhaustibly available for human projects.
However, at the same time, conceiving of nature as something deserving recompense, even sacrifice, re-places nature in a set of economic relations.
By contrast, the domain of artifice, of design, is rarely conceived as a gift, allowing the concentration of resources into long lasting materials and products to be treated as disposable.
These situations are being complicated as it is acknowledged that design’s capacity to facilitate human existence involves a kind of thingly agency. By extension, speculative realism begins to grant this kind of power also to materials themselves.
How then best to understand the fourfold of (post)sustainability: ‘nature’, design, gift and sacrifice?
Allan Stoekl has done a nice job (in Bataille’s Peak) revealing the deficits (in regard to the ec-static nature of human being) and contradictions of the dominant efficiency-based sustainability. Post-sustainability therefore becomes the project of promoting actions that result in reduced ecological impacts, but only as byproducts of excessive affects. This is obviously more than an issue of Lakoffian cognitive reframing, as it realigns the projects of sustainability and posthumanism, something that seems to me to come from thinking through the fourfold relations of:
As I write this Mike Beard (State Senator, Republican, Shakopee, Minnesota) is getting media coverage for saying, “God is not capricious. He’s given us a creation that is dynamically stable. We are not going to run out of anything.”
I was thinking more of Heidegger’s deliberately ancient-Greek-so-anti-Christian appropriation of ‘Nature Loves to Hide.’ Whilst this deconstructs any sense of nature as eternally present (in the Megarian materialist sense), it nevertheless grants a certain infinity to the absently-harbored Being-as-physis – or ‘mesh,’ if Timothy Morton would allow that use of his more expansive term for the ecological.
This suggests that sustainability concerns are Holderlinian; it is not that the gods are dead, but that they have turned away; it is not that nature is finite, but that nature is capricious, or at least self-interestedly protectionist. Though this is a too anthropomorphic extrapolation of the post-panpsychist tenets of Objected Oriented Ontology.
Tim Ingold has argued that hunters share their catch not out of economic necessity (the meat will otherwise spoil) but in acknowledgement that the hunted is a gift (echoing Lewis Hyde’s characterization of gifts as that which demand re-gifting).
An important opportunity in relation to the development of more sustainable futures (because less materials intense, but also with different socialities) is the re-emergence of sharing systems, whether community-based or even commercial – see for instance collaborativeconsumption.org and shareable.net). This is perhaps related to the gift economy that has characterized internet culture more generally (see for instance, on the one hand Yochai Benkler’s work, and Clay Shirky’s on the other).
Clive Dilnot, in a nearly ancient essay called ‘The Gift” drew on the final chapter of Elaine Scarry’s The Body in Pain to suggest that the essence of designed artifacts is to be gifts, anonymous (once mass-produced) donations to others in the name of making the world less insensitive (less capricious) to human being
This suggests that societal unsustainability derives from a surfeit of humanism materialized as intractable hyperobjects (again a misappropriation of Timothy Morton’s term), what Rich Gold in a strange little book called The Plenitude (2007). As Clive Dilnot has frequently argued, we are still appalling at being able to understand, let alone account for, the designing that makes up our naturalized environments.
It is clear that no-sacrifice versions of win-win sustainability are undone by rebound effects. There is no easy green as Michael Maniates has argued (see his edited collection on The Environmental Politics of Sacrifice, 2010). But versions demanding greater sacrifices, by downshifting households, appear very neo-liberal. Of course, a sacrifice made in the name of a belief does not feel at the time like a sacrifice…
Design thinking often promises that its lateral abductions proffer work-arounds to the need for sacrifice, ‘tunneling through the cost barrier’ as it was put in Natural Capitalism for example (but see Damian White’s early critiques of that kind of ecological modernization).
Tony Fry once characterized design ethics as the negotiation of the fact that every creation requires destruction: is the value created by a design worth what it destroys. But is this too economic? Or is this the sort of de-externalization of costs that leads to a general economy?