Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity

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Samantha Clark, artist and currently Phd student of creative writing, attended Camp Breakdown Break Down this summer at SSW and has responded to Brett Bloom’s book ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self’ in the following text.  Drawing on variously Ursula Le Guin, mysticism and Deep Ecology, Henry David Thoreau and Murray Bookchin, Clark’s riff on the complexity of our essential 21st century petro-subjectivity meditates on the difficulties of ‘extracting’ ourselves.

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Brett Bloom is an artist, activist, writer and publisher who works mainly in collaborative groups, and has recently returned to the US after several years based in Denmark. This summer, Bloom organized a series of workshops, events and training sessions in London and at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop in rural Aberdeenshire. These were part of an extended project ‘Breakdown Break Down’ that seeks to mobilize others to collectively consider a series of open questions around our relationship to fossil fuels: how our all-pervasive use of fossil fuels affects the way we see ourselves and experience the world around us, how deeply petroleum penetrates our bodies, minds and ways of being in the world, how we might begin to de-industralise our individual and collective sense of self, and how we might begin to think about the future in terms other than those that oil has forced upon us.

In his essay-length publication brought out to coincide with these events, ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-industrializing Our Sense of Self’ (2015), Bloom sets out his terms of reference for these questions, motivated by ‘a growing frustration with the ways in which humans respond – or mainly do not respond – to climate breakdown’ (Bloom, 2015: 16).  His use of the term ‘climate breakdown’ as opposed to the more neutral ‘climate change’ is deliberate and pointed. Bloom defines ‘petro-subjectivity’ as the sense of self that arises in the industrialized world, and asks how we might begin to unravel it. He challenges us to come up with any aspect of our life that is not shaped by oil. ‘Oil’, he points out, is ‘in your food, your housing, your health care, your sex, your thoughts, literally everything’ (18). Emphasizing the pervasiveness and power of oil in every aspect of life in the industrialized world, he goes on: ‘The conditions oil (fossil fuel) creates, through massive accretions of habit and influence from great to small, repeatedly over the course of seconds, minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years, generations, in all of us gives immense force to our collective subjectivity’(18). ‘Oil produces our daily lives, our daily selves, our daily communities and everything else in a primary way’ (19). Shaping us from birth to death, ‘it becomes more natural, more normal to us than the things we really need – that is a healthy, functioning global ecosystem – that we destroy to get it’ (20). This begs the question of exactly whose ecosystems get destroyed by whom and for whose direct or indirect benefit. Those of us who campaign against fracking in the UK may well be happily filling our car’s fuel tanks with oil from the Niger delta laced with ethanol biofuel derived from eucalyptus plantations in the Amazon basin. Oil is sticky, stains all it touches, and is hard to wash off our own hands. Fracking, at least, brings the destructiveness and violence of fossil fuel extraction right home onto (some of) our own doorsteps, and shows us all too starkly the power inequalities at work. It’s an ugly lesson that we in the UK are only just starting to learn.

Renewable electricity generation does not escape Bloom’s taxonomy of oil dependency either, as it remains dependent on oil-based infrastructure, resource extraction and the exploitation of people and land. Whether powered by wind, tide or water, every turbine needs a magnet to generate electricity. These ‘rare earth’ magnets are mined and refined at great environmental cost, mainly in poor, rural China. The minerals themselves are not in fact ‘rare’, but relatively common in the earth’s crust. What is ‘rare’ is the lax environmental and employment legislation that permits such hugely toxic and destructive processes to take place in lands far removed from the countries that are pushing to develop renewable technologies. Bloom argues that turbines and solar panels are just as extractive as fossil fuels. They continue to shift the burden of pollution away from the point of energy use, and, by making us feel like we are doing something, merely compound the problem.

Petro-subjectivity, Bloom writes, is so fundamental to our way of being in the world, so omnipresent, so totalizing that we scarcely recognize it. Bloom is keenly alert to the hidden violence that oil-based society is based on: ‘How to convey the oily sheen everything has, my comfort, my sense of well-being is so deeply dependent on oil that it gives me a tremendous amount of anxiety’ (35). It is as intimate as his own clothes that ‘cloak me in oil and exploitative labour relationships’ (35). Bloom highlights the uselessness of individualistic responses to climate breakdown: ‘You may think you are an individual with the attributes of freedom, free will and a host of other nice conceptions, but this is incorrect and fantasies that distract from closer attention to how your very understanding of everything is prefigured for you. You are an individual, but your life depends on taking the resources of another landscape and using those things in the one where you live…there seems no way not to exist in it without an enormous effort to take it apart’ (46-47). As Derrick Jensen has also argued, placing the responsibility for dealing with climate change onto individual consumer choices distracts our attention from the real culprits – the power elites, global corporations, the military-industrial complex (Jensen, 2006). Kept busy rinsing out yoghurt pots and feeling mildly sanctimonious about our cloth shopping bags, we are encouraged to forget we are not just individualized consumers choosing how to spend our money, we are also citizens capable of collective action that might wield real power. ‘The changes’ argues Bloom, ‘cannot come from individuals and consumers, but must be collectively realized’ (70).

The mismatch between the urgency and scale of the challenge climate breakdown presents and the urgency and scale of the actions we are encouraged to take to meet it reveals something about the peculiar psychology of our collective response to climate change. A pervasive sense of powerlessness and dependency on the very systems that threaten us results in a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, entangling us in a psychological attachment to the status quo even as it threatens us. Bloom has developed a powerful visual map of oil relationships, (Bloom, 2015: 26-27 and below) and teases these out further in his essay. But, as he himself notes with frustration, more information just doesn’t seem to help.

Sometimes the clear light of facts travels in too straight a line, and to help us think our way around corners and into dark spaces, we need another approach. Wearing the mask of fiction uncomfortable truths can be spoken that we would otherwise not hear. In Ursula K. Le Guin’s classic short story ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ (2013: 1-7), the gilded city of Omelas offers its citizens a smooth, untroubled life, filled with every comfort, pleasure, joy and gratification. But upon reaching adolescence each citizen learns a terrible fact, a sudden loss of innocence; that all of their prosperity, peace and happiness depends upon the suffering of one miserably neglected child imprisoned in a windowless cell. In Le Guin’s fable, if this child is set free, or even shown the smallest kindness, the city will crumble and all of its people suffer terribly. And so the citizens, when they learn of this child, and even go briefly to see it, are perhaps troubled for a time, feeling angry and helpless. But eventually ‘their tears at the bitter injustice dry when they begin to perceive the terrible justice of reality, and to accept it. Yet it is their tears and anger, the trying of their generosity and the acceptance of their helplessness, which are perhaps the true source of the splendour of their lives. Theirs is no vapid, irresponsible happiness. They know that they, like the child, are not free’ (Le Guin, 2012: 6-7). But, every now and then, a citizen of Omelas will be shown the child-prisoner, or will recall its presence and fall silent for a few days, and they will then walk quietly, alone, away from Omelas, out into the unknown. No-one knows where they go. They do not come back.

When I first read this story it stayed with me a long time, a slow drip feed, wheedling at my conscience. It felt like Le Guin had seen right inside me into a place I didn’t really want to look. The story seemed to tell a deep and uncomfortable truth in the masked and sidelong way that great stories do. I wondered, as I read it, ‘what I would do?’ Later, I realised that I am myself, of course, a cossetted citizen of sleek and pleasurable Omelas, and that the locked-away child is all the distant places, people and other living things that bear the cost of my affluent lifestyle; my smartphone, my central heating, my clothes, my car. The question became not ‘what would I do?’ but ‘what do I do?’ I know the answer, and it is not a comfortable one. I mostly go on with my comfortable life, my path smoothed by oil, all the while carrying in me a terrible knowledge; I am dependent on a system that has violence and exploitation at its very heart. Signing online petitions does not change this, though it makes me feel better. I do not walk away from my Omelas. I tell myself it is because I am not free, and find some consolation in the refinement and sensitivity that my troubled conscience reveals about me. What Bloom’s thoughts on petro-subjectivity reveal, like Le Guin’s parable, is that the work that needs to be done is at a very deep level indeed.

Thus, the final part of Bloom’s essay explores the practice of ‘Deep Listening’, a contemplative method developed originally by composer Pauline Oliveros. Deep Listening cultivates a heightened awareness of our sonic environment, both external and internal, listening not just with the ears, but with the whole body. ‘The main problem’ Bloom suggests, ‘is how we relate to the world and the ways we see the world are not tuned to receive the damage, let alone the tremendous loss as we continue thinking the world through oil relationships’ (17). A practice of re-sensitisation is necessary. Bloom argues that our sensory world in urban spaces is limited, with ‘no unscripted, wild behaviour, encounters or other experiences allowed’ (70). ‘Paying attention to, and creating the conditions for our full range of perceptual capacities gives us a tremendous leap into what it will mean to expunge petro-subjectivity from our selves and our landscapes’ (71).

Bloom’s argument here is not an especially new one. It falls within a tradition of environmental thought that recognizes the environmental crisis derives from how we think of our self, and the relationship this self has to the natural world. Deep ecologists like Arne Naess, Joanna Macy and Bill Devall have long argued that a more ecologically sustainable way of being needs to be rooted in an expanded ‘ecological Self’, while eco-phenomenologists from David Abram to Ted Toadvine have also tried to tackle the question of how the human self is situated and enfolded within the natural environment as an embodied, experiencing being. Bloom’s project is therefore part of a growing trend in environmental thought that seeks to ground environmental action in a commitment to contemplative practice, a discipline of attention to the natural world, even as we are witnessing its degradation. It is not just a way of thinking about things, but a shift to our way of perceiving that must be consciously and painstakingly cultivated.
This shift can be brought about through a set of contemplative practices most commonly associated with spiritual traditions, but which are not exclusive to them. Purposeful, transformative contemplative practice that aims to breaks down the sense of self is most commonly associated with Buddhist meditation, but it is also proposed by the early Christian mystics. In ‘The Blue Sapphire of the Mind’, Douglas E. Christie suggests that this contemplative sensibility is no longer confined to spiritual traditions but is ‘emerging with increasing frequency in contemporary ecological literature which boasts a striking similarity to an attitude in many traditions of spiritual discourse’ (Christie, 2013: 62). Bloom’s project of deep listening is an example of how this sensibility is also emerging within contemporary art practice.

Christie draws upon the ancient Christian contemplative tradition to propose a ‘contemplative ecology’ in which a practice of cultivating careful attention to the natural world offers a way of recalibrating our senses to a renewed sensitivity to the world and our humble place within it. In particular he draws upon the apophatic theological tradition of the via negativa which asserts that the Divine is essentially and unknowably beyond human concepts or attributes. In this tradition of ‘negative theology’, early Christian mystics such as the unknown author of ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’ (Wolters, 1961) focused on achieving direct experience of the divine reality beyond the realm of ordinary human language and perception through contemplative practice. Christie suggests that practicing this ‘contemplative ecology’ can lead to a more mindful way of living that arises from a transformed awareness of our relationship with the natural world, a ‘direct intuitive awareness of its endless power and mystery: and the need for this to become enfolded within an ongoing practice’ (Christie, 2013: 59). It is an awareness that ‘what we know or experience will always be exceeded by the immensity beyond and within,’ and that we also possess both longing and capacity for cultivating a more all-encompassing awareness of the wild world (Christie, 2013:69). The response to this transformed awareness is one of humility. The inadequacy of our knowledge is a gap that cannot and should not be bridged. ‘Instead, this lack of certainty about who or what we behold begins to seem fruitful, important, necessary. We are invited to relinquish our assumption of knowledge’ says Christie, (2013: 62), and in so doing, to develop our capacity to manage our own fear and uncertainty without lapsing into defensiveness, aggression, dogmatic fundamentalisms or the urge to control.

The perceptual exercise that Bloom describes in detail involved deep listening, with a group of other participants, in an immersive natural environment of rain, wind and sea, to the entire Baltic Sea (Bloom, 2015: 75).

In his essay, Bloom does not, I think, spell out quite clearly enough how a contemplative practice of deep listening in nature connects with a commitment to activism and real change, not just at the individual level, but also collectively. Just how do we come back from the oceanic experience of immersion in nature, and become effective change agents in the societies we actually live in. It is here that I suggest Bloom’s profound distrust of cities, which he sees as ‘machines for stripping us of our desire to live, feel and be free’ (71) is an impediment to making this link clearly. Most human beings now live in cities, and in a context of climate breakdown, any redefined post-petro-subjectivity will have to be able to be a self that can be anywhere, not just in the solitude of wide, wild spaces immersed in the sound of the ocean, but also in difficult, perhaps crowded, urban places, in difficult relationships with sometimes difficult people, able to empathically connect with other human beings and to work with them. Cities are where our ancestors first learned to tolerate ‘strangers’, to live harmoniously with and among those who are not blood kin, who may have different beliefs, and to build a sense of commonality based not on tribal blood group or myths of common ancestry, but on mutual benefit and co-operation: in other words, to become citizens. The polis is, after all, the birthplace of the political.

Connecting the activity of the solitary, contemplative listener with that of social and political activism is not a new idea by any means, and there are examples we might draw upon to help us make the link. We might, for example, look to Henry David Thoreau. In ‘Thoreau’s Nature’ (2000) Jane Bennett argues that Thoreau’s project at Walden, and in his other writings and journals, speaks to the fears of our own time; that social life in techno-industrial societies is too regulated and exerts powerful pressures to uniformity, that privacy is under threat, the world overpopulated and the state intrusive and controlling, that the alternative space of nature has become polluted, threatened, even toxic, that our consumerist way of life breeds violence and injustice, and that the economic imperative has become overwhelmingly rapacious. These fears generate a reactive demand for certainties, fundamentalisms and patriotisms (Bennett, 2000: xxii). Thoreau’s aim in secluding himself at Walden pond, Bennett argues, was not escapist nature-worship but a project of ‘building an individualised self capable of social criticism’ (2000: 34). Bennett sees Thoreau’s project as an attempt to give the wild its due, ‘to respect that which resists or exceeds conventional cultural impositions of form, to preserve the element of heterogeneity present in any entity, to imagine institutions and identities that do less violence to heterogeneity, and to engage in exercises that help to actualise that imagination. The project, in short, is to develop ways to cope artfully, reflectively, and carefully in the world understood as neither divine creation nor docile matter’ (Bennett, 2000: xxiii). According to Bennett, Thoreau ‘was less concerned to articulate the conditions under which disobedience would be legitimate than he was to explore those conditions under which one could render oneself capable of disobedience. Civil disobedience was rare because nonconformity was rare. Both were scarce because the process of forging oneself into a deliberate creature was arduous and precarious, requiring continuous effort’ (Bennett, 2000: 13).

In his account of his sojourn at Walden, Thoreau describes specific practices of mindful, ‘deliberate’ living, which help him to achieve his aims. For Thoreau, slowing down, listening, and seeking periods of solitude in nature is a tactical move designed to create a space whereby he might extract himself from the normalising forces of the busy social sphere, and achieve the independence of mind necessary to challenge the status quo. When we are immersed in busy community life, ‘we are inclined’, unfortunately, ‘to leave the chief stress on the likeness and not on difference’ (Thoreau, 1980: 264)⁠ and to blindly accept received wisdom. In solitude and silent reflection Thoreau finds an ‘intelligence above language’ (Thoreau, 1980: 273).

Like the windswept Baltic seashore where Bloom carried out his deep listening experiments, the world of Thoreau at Walden Pond bears little resemblance to the urban world most human beings at this time inhabit. Projects like these require a level of physical security, material comfort, and educational attainment that are the product of a highly favourable set of circumstances. What relevance do practices like these have to the vast predicament that is climate breakdown, and the challenge Bloom presents us with, of ‘de-industrialising’ our sense of self? Thoreau’s project was to ‘front’ the Wild, and to place himself at a physical and psychological distance from the ‘They-world’ of social, political and economic life, so that he might live more consciously. His aim was not so much to escape from the world of the town and political life as to be better able to dissent from it upon returning. His example suggests some methods that we might use to break the cycle of ‘self-othering’ that occurs when we acclimatise ourselves to living in the industrialised world and yet feel a lingering unease that something is wrong, that we have become alienated from some important part of ourselves and of the wild world. Thoreau’s tools of stillness, silence, inwardness and attentiveness to the living world may be most easily cultivated in a place of seclusion in nature, but they can be practiced anywhere. Once we deliberately cultivate this awareness, it can, as Christie proposes, ‘be achieved anywhere and by anyone committed to the work of listening’ (Christie, 2013: 121). ‘It is in this sense’ argues Christie, ‘that one can see that the primary value to us of Thoreau’s contemplative witness to be found less in his particular form of life…than in the quality of awareness he assiduously cultivated over his entire lifetime’ and this quality of awareness is adaptable to our very different world. How do we develop this capacity, this sensitivity? Regular practice. ‘Thoreau recognised that cultivating the capacity to hear the music of the world must become part of a sustained practice, that one must learn to orient oneself and become sensitive to the myriad ways the world is always expressing itself” (Christie, 2013:214).

Bloom describes his group’s experience of deep listening to the Baltic as hearing the sea ‘talking to us’. One of the participants describes a vivid sense of being exposed to immense forces, a feeling of unprotectedness that seemed to key to an understanding of the reality of climate breakdown, a situation in which ‘we are no longer sheltered’ (87). But the message from the Baltic can’t stay there on the sea shore. It needs to come back into the urban. It is not anthropocentric to acknowledge that any redefined post-petro-subjective self must recognise that we exist within a web of interdependencies of which other human beings form a significant part. In a recently published collection of late essays, ‘The Next Revolution’ (2015), Murray Bookchin outlines a case for direct democracy in the form of a libertarian, municipal ‘Communitarianism’. In Bookchin’s model an active and engaged citizenry becomes an effective agent of change. As a political thinker who moved away from the anarchism of his earlier work, here he plots a careful route between individualistic libertarianism on the political right and an equally individualistic, radical anarcho-primitivism on the left. Seeking a political structure that might provide long-haul stamina to energies currently poured into short term phenomena like the Occupy movement, Bookchin puts forward the case for the city’s progressive potential, not as the power-capital of a centralist state, but the city as municipality, town or ‘commune’. Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells also recognises the progressive potential of urban space. He notes a common pattern among current social and political movements in that they comfortably straddle both cyberspace and urban space (2013). Born online, these embryonic social and protest movements empower and raise awareness at grassroots level, moving rhizomatically in cyberspace to then erupt periodically into urban spaces, where they create real social networks in physical places. The hybrid social space that Castells identifies here breaks down stark binaries between ‘place’ on the one hand and cyberspace on the other. In these developments we see an erosion of dualistic binaries such as nature good/internet bad, ‘place’ good/cyberspace bad, forest good/city bad.

Cities are a recent phenomenon in human evolutionary terms but they present in great abundance one aspect of our environment that we have long co-evolved with; other human beings. As contemplative traditions have long known, retreating to solitude in nature enables the cultivation and refinement of awareness and presence, but the real challenge is to bring this cultivated skill of deep listening to environments that usually encourage a sense of alienation, even fear. Can we stay open and ‘unsheltered’ even when we’d rather not? Or do we retreat into anger, aversion, fear, or numb indifference? This is the real test. To realise the progressive potential that Bookchin sees in the city, the work of cultivating non-exploitative and non-extractive relationships towards other human beings, as well as towards animals and places, is work of the most important kind, if we are to move from individualised responses to collective action on climate breakdown, and harness the insights of contemplation to the work of social change.

 

 

 

Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth [Accessed 28/8/15]

 

Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications

 

Bennett, Jane (2000) Thoreau’s Nature, Politics, Ethics and the Wild. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press

Bookchin, Murray (2015) Popular Assemblies and the Promise of Direct Democracy, London: Verso

Castells, Manuel (25 Mar 2013) ‘How modern political movements straddle urban space and cyberspace’ Available online: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2qSIHZaxN14 [Accessed 7 Sep 2015)

Christie, Douglas E. (2013) The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Jensen, Derrick (2006) Endgame: The Problem of Civilization, New York: Seven Stories Press

Le Guin, Ursula K. (2012) The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. Le Guin Vol 2 Outer Space, Inner Lands Easthampton Mass. : Small Beer Press

Maughan, Tim (April 2nd 2015) ‘The Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust’ BBC Future. Available online: http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402-the-worst-place-on-earth [Accessed 28/8/15]

Thoreau, Henry David (1980) The Writings of Henry David Thoreau: A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, Carol, F. Hove and Textual Centre Staff: William H Howarth and Elizabeth Witherell (eds) Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press

Thoreau, Henry David (1995) Walden; or, Life in the Woods, New York: Dover Publications

Wolters, Clifton [Trans] (1961) The Cloud of Unknowing and Other Works, Middlesex: Penguin Classics

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2 Responses to “Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity”

  1. chloeuden Says:

    Reblogged this on power culture and commented:
    Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity
    By Chrisfremantle
    Samantha Clark, artist and currently Phd student of creative writing, attended Camp Breakdown Break Down this summer at SSW and has responded to Brett Bloom’s book ‘Petro-Subjectivity: De-Industrializing Our Sense of Self’ in the following text. Drawing on variously Ursula Le Guin, mysticism and Deep Ecology, Henry David Thoreau and Murray Bookchin, Clark’s riff on the complexity of our essential 21st century petro-subjectivity meditates on the difficulties of ‘extracting’ ourselves.

  2. Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity | The CSPA Says:

    […] This post comes to you from EcoArtScotland […]

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