Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Review: Gut Gardening

March 24, 2017

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Ewan Davidson reviews Gut Gardening, Food Phreaking:issue 03 from the Center for Genomic Gastronomy, published Oct 2016.  You can order copies here.

Ewan Davidson is a blogger and self-identified psychogeographer (riverofthings.wordpress.com). His recent wanderings have taken back into familiar territories, those of ecology, natural metaphors and causality, he first visited as a student thirty years ago. He is also really fond of lichens and birdwatching.


It is only about a decade since the microbiome became a thing. Fuzzy boundaried notions collect all kinds of aspirational, utopian fluff, and the microbiome – a paradigmatic concept of the cyber-age – has the capacity to multiply these as quickly as (aerobic) bacteria grow on a Petri dish.

The role of microbiologists is to culture the useful part of these into something that might grow and become valued. The Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health in Aberdeen has been involved in this research effort and the artists/designers known as The Center for Genomic Gastronomy have been Leverhulme Artists in Residence involved in the dissemination of the stuff.

The most recent publication in their Food Phreaking series of pamphlets, Gut Gardening, reaches for a compromise between populist publicity, sober accounting and dis-illusion. Most writing about the microbiome oscillates between potential and entropy in this way. For example the story which most of us will have heard in some form concerns the microbial base for obesity. This is drawn from a research programme described at length in I Contain Multitudes (Yong 2016) where generations of lab mice have been grown in a sterile environment, gnotobiosis, and are used as receptacles of cultures of microbes from obese or normal humans. Fat gut microbes produced fat mice, which in turn produced the headlines about gut microflora creating obesity, which in turn received the ‘Overselling the Microbiome Award’, which has at least 38 former winners for extrapolations from interesting test results (others including cures for IBD, diabetes and mental illness, as well as jeremiads about the harm of antibiotics).

This particular replication keeps happening because the scientists had to move beyond the simple correlation of one thing with another, and see if there were links which might be predictable or causal. This has proved much more complicated – in the case of our mouse, food, genetics and the developmental stage all matter. The gut microbiome, when studied closely, stopped being one thing and became many.

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To improve the chance of establishing causality in the lab, anaerobic chamber cultures of the various bacterial species are grown in separate wells. They are mixed by a robot into different recipes, which are then transplanted into the gnotobiotic mice. The conclusions drawn from extensive trials are that 11 bacterial species are involved in some way in promoting obesity (in mice, and perhaps humans) and two other species seem to inhibit. But only if certain other factors apply, and only, so far, under controlled conditions.

Meanwhile in the outside, more chaotic world (what the scientists I trained with used to call ‘the field’, with heavily inverted commas) the Human Microbiome Project, collecting submitted poo samples, has established that there is no such thing as a typical US volunteer gut community. Nicola Twilley, blogger and gastrophile, writes in Gut Gardening,

‘It now seems our gut microbiome is not a single organ,that can function well or badly. Instead it is a series of negotiations and trade offs, in which distinctions between good and bad have been increasingly difficult to extract from the white noise generated by up to a thousand different microbial spp, all interacting with each other in ways that we mostly don’t yet understand.’

The Scottish biologist D’Arcy Thomson’s 80 year old view that ‘we have come to the edge of a world of which we have no experience and where all our preconceptions must be recast’ (1992) still seems apt.

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Dr Wendy Russell, lead editor of Gut Gardening and a Senior Research Fellow at the Rowett, acknowledges that research into the microbiome creates a new set of challenges to scientific method (isolation, refinement, replication). In short the basic tools of instrumentalism are not effective in explaining or predicting the functions of microbial ecology. New forms of research which can deal with complexity might involve technologies like the anaerobic machine, but also strands of maths which can assess the relative contributions of parts of systems that can’t effectively be separated. And beyond those, new ways of thinking about causation.

It is not that utility can’t be found. One of the contributions to Gut Gardening is the story of Lactobacillus rhamnosus. Following observations that l. rhamnosus proliferate in a healthy vagina, Gregor Reid’s team cultured the GR-1 strain of this, and found it was linked to defence against Urinary Tract Infections and other types of immunity. Preparation and trials in yoghurt and capsule forms and have been developed commercially (sidestepping the restrictions involved in creating conventional medical products) and as part of a development project producing probiotic yoghurt in Tanzania. The efficacy comes from accepting the rough pragmatic tools of correlation and amelioration, without the poesis of understanding the nature of the thing and the process.

However there is another form of usefulness in new knowledge. The art work in Gut Gardening acknowledges this in background chaotic patterns of tangled and unfamiliar overlapping shapes with occasional highlighted (and even dayglo) squiggles. The publication gently lays down the challenge to its contributors to imagine and speculate.
One of the interesting speculations of the Center for PostNatural History is that the human gut flora, like our pets, will ‘reflect human desires and anxieties which influence them’. It’s a good trope, although so far most of us have been interested in the influences pulling the other way – that our bodies, lifestyles and consciousness are subtly directed by the growth and byproducts of our microbial partners/symbionts, through biofeedback loops between the flora, hormones, organ development and appetites.

Post natural and post human are spirallingly anthropocene ways of thinking about the world. For those of us whose interest in cultures is not mainly probiotic this is the great re-envisaging potential of the microbiome.

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Jamie Lorimer’s jovial piece (2016), Gut Buddies about the related interest in re-infestation of humans with hookworms demonstrates the continual crossover between enthusiasts, scientists and entrepreneurs (sometimes the same figure in different guises) opening up an area of interaction with biota (or domestication if you will). What was once vermin is now a product or a pet. We should know that this happens – this replicates our human history. Are there new possibilities for envisaging being raised by the way we have to understand the microbiome..? Moulders and shapers need to understand things as material – as something with predictable usefulness. But time and again with the microbiome, there are ways in which our methodologies fails us. We retreat to scratch our head. The ways we come to understand the microbiome will have to challenge scientific paradigms too.

In a way which is less dystopian than the control metaphors of the yellow science press we are indeed being subtly influenced by our microbes.


References

Lorimer, Jamie (2016) Gut Buddies – Multispecies Studies and the Microbiome, Environmental Humanities, 8.1

Yong, Ed ( 2016) I Contain Multitudes – The Microbes Within us and a Grander view of Life.  New York: Ecco Press.

Wentworth-Thompson, D’Arcy (1992) – On Growth and Form ( abridged ed). CUP.

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Reviewer needed: Gut Gardening

December 16, 2016

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Issue 3 of the Center for Genomic Gastronomy’s Food Phreaking Journal, entitled Gut Gardening, is all about the bacteria in our guts – our own personal microbiomes.

This issue explores some of the bacteria that populate the human gut and body. We asked a handful of the world’s leading experts to write a few words about their favorite microorganism, and we asked other contributors to reflect on their current relationship to the largely invisible and undiscovered world of the human microbiome. Food Phreaking Issue 03 assembles these short texts, which collectively provide a snapshot of a field in transition. How will this research into the mysteries of our internal ecosystems change the relationship between our brains, guts, and diets?

If you’re interested in reviewing Gut Gardening email chris at fremantle dot org telling us why and provide us with some examples of previous writing and reviewing.

Meghan Moe Beitiks reviews Soil Culture

August 18, 2016

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SoilCulture: bringing the arts down to earth, from the Centre for Contemporary Art in the Natural World (CCANW) and Falmouth Art Gallery published in collaboration with Gaia Projects is the culmination of years of work—comprehensive documentation of a significant exhibition, nine curated artist residencies, and a Soil Culture Forum. It includes photographs and essays detailing the contributions of the artists involved, as well as personal reflections on the Forum, and descriptions of events held at Plymouth University, and at Create, Bristol City Council’s environmental centre, all coordinated to coincide with the United Nations International Year of Soils in 2015.

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Floodplain soil developed in sand, North Wales.  Photo: Bruce Lascelles

After a brief introduction by the directors of the CCANW, we are, fittingly, introduced to soil – both in an “Homage” by Patrick Holden, and more in-depth, in “What is Soil?” by Dr. Bruce Lascelles. It’s really refreshing to pick up an art book about a given subject and begin reading about that subject from the point of view of a scientific researcher. We do not begin with say, soils’ depiction in art through the ages, or with some overly poetic meandering about the modern cultural meanings of soil (though Daro Montag gives a good overview of soil in culture in “Speaking of Soil,” detailing soils’ relationships to language). Instead, we begin with a very practical overview of what soil is, on a scientific level, after an extended essay from Holden about the importance of microbial communities, comparing the function of the soil to that of the human gut.

In beginning with these scientific facts and research on soil, the book reminds us that soil is a global entity, and something upon which we are interdependent. It acknowledges that within the UK there are several hundred varieties of soil, and opens up space for potentially complex dialogue. While there are a diverse number of approaches to making art with/and/about soil included in the book, they remain rooted in conceptual methodologies and approaches. A workshop described later in the book as replicating a Japanese technique for making soil-balls is one of the rare non-Western perspectives that the book holds. It makes sense, to a certain extent, that a UK-based exploration of soil would be culturally- and site-specific in nature, and the examination of work within the contemporary conceptual is in-depth. But the potential for an even more global, expansive dialogue is sometimes lost.

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Stills from ‘Alma Silueta en Fuego (Silueto de Cenizas)’ 1975.  Super-8 colour silent film transferred to DVD. Photo: The Estate of Ana Mendieta Collection

From its material, scientific beginning, the book goes on to detail a major traveling exhibition, Deep Roots, featuring the works of known artists like Mel Chin, Richard Long and Ana Mendieta, as well as potentially less internationally known names, such as Paolo Barrile. Within these works, we see soil positioned as a pigment, a currency, and as a site for research.

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Claire Pentecost, Soil Erg, installation in dOCUMENTA(13) in Germany 2012. Image courtesy of the artist.

It’s great to see Claire Pentecost’s work Soil Erg featured, a re-imagining of soil as a currency, complete with soil ingots and soil-paper currency notes (full disclosure: I was a student of Pentecost’s at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago). Each artist is given a two-page spread in the book, with large images and text. The work is primarily contemporary conceptual: there’s no attempt to incorporate, say, more traditional clay sculpture, or other folks forms of making art with soil. But overall, the exhibition documentation gives a good overview of soil as engaged with by a series of contemporary, established artists.

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Mel Chin, Revival Field, 1991-ongoing

One point of disappointment, especially given the books’ promising relationship to science, is the treatment given to the research connected to Mel Chin’s Revival Field. This work is so singularly important to environmental art it has become a kind of sacred cow. While it’s true that Revival Field has a significant impact on research in phytoremediation, Sue Spaid has noted previously that it was concerns about perceptions of the validity of the science that prompted subsequent re-plantings.* In SoilCulture, these re-mountings are referred to simply as other versions of the project. There’s a limited amount of space given to each artist in the book, but it’s a shame that more time wasn’t taken in this volume to unpack the relationship between the scientific research and this project over time, as this is a less-often discussed but important aspect of the legacy of the work. Moments like this represent opportunities lost for a more expansive, critical discourse, especially since this art/soil/science relationship proves to be consistently important to the documented programming. If this was something that was expanded on in the live events, it isn’t made clear in the publication.

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Karen Guthrie, Residency 2014, Hauser & Wirth Somerset

The book moves on to focus on nine emerging artists who were given the opportunity to embed themselves in various context to explore soil with scientists, at farms, and in a botanical garden, in a section called Young Shoots. These explorations include a distilled soil work by Karen Guthrie, a “Brest Plough o’ metric” by Paul Chaney, and an attempt to manufacture soil by Something & Son. The works bridge the scientific and the artistic in engaging and effective ways, and speak to emerging interdisciplinary practices. In these projects, soil and its culture are regarded as inspirational material in-and-of-itself, a further remove from historical art cannons, informed by science, engineering, and ecological imperatives.

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Detail of ‘Breast Plough’o’metric’. Photo: Martyn Windsor.

This bridges very well into Soil Culture: Dig it, a chapter based on an exhibition of the same name, in which the studio and the scientific laboratory are brought into the same space. Residency artist Lisa Hirmer (DodoLab) worked alongside Dr. Rob Parkinson, an Associate Professor in Soil Sciences and some colleagues from the School of Biological Sciences in Plymouth University, exploring peat and atmospheric carbon, among other collaborations, and the exhibition space displayed research tools and samples from scientific as well as creative explorations. A fitting exploration for the arc of the project.

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It’s followed by Soil Culture at Create, an overview of live and educational programming at Bristol City Council’s environmental centre. A series of “Soil Saturdays” framed workshops, talks, culinary demonstrations, performances, and artistic interventions around the theme of soil, in temporary explorations. It serves well as documentation (each Saturday has a photo and a summary), but is probably best read by itself in a separate sitting, since at that point the reader has been steadily subsumed in the art/soil/science exploration, and it is a condensed format.

Thankfully, the next section is a series of short essays in response to the Soil Culture Forum, a three-day symposium converged by Research in Art, Nature & Environment (RANE) at Falmouth University. This section of the book is both satisfying and frustrating. Its personal tone and short form makes the reader feel a bit like they were in a room with a bunch of well-informed folks reminiscing, reflecting both on soil and on the event of the Forum. Valid questions are raised about culture’s relationship to soil: one of the most satisfying passages comes from Mat Osmond’s report on Richard Kerridge,

The heroic notion of the artwork as a driver of cultural change is both a distraction, and an unsupportable inflation, one that places a weight of expectation on creative practice that it can never live up to. We need to set aside the artwork as monumental icon of the paradigm shift we seek, and look instead to creative practice as a quiet turning of the soil: to the artwork, poem and story as micro-organism, as connective mycelium—the manure that feeds and renews the myriad invisible life of that soil.”

Of course, this comes after Holden’s assertion that the micro-organism is drastically important to the soil, so rather than reframe the arts as small, humble, or insignificant, this statement has the effect of positioning the arts as deeply embedded, important, in dialogue with its surroundings. I personally deeply appreciated this reframing.

Unfortunately, it is followed in other shorter essays by familiar tropes in sustainability culture, like the demand for a universal spiritual connection to the Earth, or a singular definition of love that includes the non-human (Stephen Harding’s assertion, for instance, that ‘the only way we can address these problems is through love’). These demands do much to flatten the attempts at diversity in the dialogue. It’s a common problem in the creation and discussion of environmental work that the overwhelming impetus to celebrate has the effect of universalizing, normalizing, and undermining safe spaces for questioning or critical discourse. It’s easy to make such beautiful statements—who can argue with love? But they unintentionally undermine a greater diversity of respectful relationships to soil.

SoilCulture is, ultimately, the documentation of a strong collection of artists exploring soil at a time when its importance and preciousness is politically and ecologically pressing. This puts some artworks in the position of celebrating or propagandizing. While these efforts may be needed, the conversation that SoilCulture frames also points to the importance of diversity and critical discourse in ecological/cultural work, largely because such elements are sometimes lacking in its own curation. Regardless, the projects put forth solid juxtapositions of scientific and artistic research with soil, including artist/scientist collaborations, and research processes reframed. It is a fascinating snapshot in time of artists engaging with a crucial issue.


* 2002. Ecovention: current art to transform ecologies, Cincinatti, Ohio: The Contemporary Art Center, p.7

Full disclosure: the author is colleagues with one of the residency artists, formerly worked for one of the Soil Culture Forum presenters, and was, as noted above, a student of Claire Pentecost, one of the professionally exhibited artists featured in the book.

All images provided by the publishers.

BIOGRAPHY
Meghan Moe Beitiks is an artist and writer working with associations and disassociations of culture/nature/structure.  She analyzes perceptions of ecology though the lenses of site, history, emotions, and her own body in order to produce work that analyzes relationships with the non-human. She was a Fulbright Student Fellow, a recipient of the Claire Rosen and Samuel Edes Foundation Prize for Emerging Artists, and a MacDowell Colony fellow. She has taught performance at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited her work at the I-Park Environmental Art Biennale, Grace Exhibition Space in Brooklyn, Defibrillator Performance Art Gallery in Chicago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, the House of Artists in Moscow, and other locations in California, Chicago, Australia and the UK. She received her BA in Theater Arts from the University of California, Santa Cruz and her MFA in Performance Art from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. www.meghanmoebeitiks.com

Reviewer Needed: Exchange by Chris Drury and Kay Syrad

April 29, 2016

We’re looking for someone to review Exchange by Chris Drury and Kay Syrad.
From Chris Drury’s website, “Exchange was produced in collaboration with Kay Syrad and was commissioned by Cape Farewell to look at sustainable ways of living and farming in relation to three farms in Sydling St Nicholas and Godmanston, West Dorset. The two farms in Sydling St Nicholas were Huish sheep farm and Dollens organic dairy farm. The other organic dairy farm was Manor Farm which is the other side of the downland watershed in Godmanston.”
Contact chris @ fremantle . org. Let us know what relevant expertise and experience you have. We are interested in this project both because of the collaboration between a visual artist and a poet and because of its duration and locality.

Camilla Nelson: An Oakwoods Almanac in Review

February 22, 2016

 

There is much to explore in this Almanac of entries, some more sculpted than others, compiled by the poet Gerry Loose as he wandered the familiar and foreign oakwoods of Sunart and Saari in 2007, 2008 and 2010.

An Oakwoods Almanac is arranged in two parts. The first, ‘Sunart’, takes its name from the Scottish oakwood and contains entries made in and around this area from September 2007 to June 2008. ‘Saari’, the second, shorter and more focussed section, contains entries made in and around the Finnish oakwood (from which this section takes its name) between September and November 2010. These two parts have very different qualities and characters. The first, ‘Sunart’, is a fog of place names and organism activity that weave in and out of an oakwood that you may or may not be inhabiting at any one time. There are no maps. Dates are partial. And it feels like Loose is only partly committed to this text as a publishable piece of writing. You are as likely to be treated to reflections on the conflict in Israel as you are to a detailed observation of ants. The mind wanders and the text, correspondingly, disorientates. In contrast, ‘Saari’ has no maps, but the structure is clear. This section provides days, dates, months and place names with which to orient the reader. In ‘Sunart’ you are never quite sure where you are or what time it is. In ‘Saari’ you even get subheadings. ‘Saari’ is a series of highly focussed snapshots and polished reflections. Loose’s entries shine hard and bright, like the ‘diamond pointed minds’ (136) of the raptors he references. If ‘Saari’ is something to share, ‘Sunart’ is for himself.

If I wasn’t interested in the dynamics of writing in and about place, Loose might have lost me with ‘Sunart’. In this first section, Loose is so much a part of his surroundings that he is largely absent to himself and the reader. He forgets that his audience are strangers both to him and to the oakwoods he inhabits. His account is intimate. We find his thoughts and language in a state of disarray. We are mainlined into his stream of consciousness; we inhabit what Loose inhabits, unedited. The partiality of flitting from one thing to another is set down faithfully, in the moment, with the result that the writing may only make partial sense. We are half-blind. Loose is fluent in these woods and takes this knowledge for granted, making no allowance for our ignorance. In this section, we get a sense of our guide more through his patterns of thought than through any direct detail; he is mostly speaking to himself.

There are two entries that, together, give a good sense of what it is like to read ‘Sunart’. The first, written on the 10th October 2007, describes Loose’s relationship to words:

I have too many words. What’s written here is spontaneous, I’ve nothing to lose but the words. It may be a broadcloth journal, from cutout bits from poems; the poems are the holes in the cloth from which they’ve been cut. Like the Jain image of the released spirit, a negative, because they are not yet written. In the surrounding material are many repetitions in pattern, like speech. (23)

This almanac ‘may be a broadcloth journal’, a word hoard, or spontaneous site of notes that fill the store cupboard from which future poems might later ferment. This is both suggested and immediately counteracted as a possibility. It is not that the poems will later be cut from this broadcloth of spontaneous jottings but that this broadcloth is already a collage, formed ‘from cutout bits from poems’. The journal is less a continuous piece and more of a patchwork quilt; a quilt made from the leftover fabric from which these poems have been already cut. Except this is not quite it either because the poems do not yet exist, or exist only in negative, ‘because they are not yet written’. But if they are not yet written, how have they formed holes in the text? I’m pushing the text, perhaps more than is warranted, in order to excavate what it is Loose is delivering for the reader. This excerpt shows how ‘Sunart’ can be both suggestive and confusing, a combination that can be frustrating – it gestures towards what it could give you, but doesn’t. ‘Sunart’ rewritten would be a very different oakwood. There is something to be gained from the honesty of setting down words as they arrive but this act of recording unstructured thoughts and leaving the reader to make sense of them could also be seen as presumptuous; other writers have to rewrite and restructure but this writer doesn’t have to – why? Is publishing a work before it is fully-formed an act of laziness on the part of an author who won’t rewrite or an act of generous vulnerability, exposing prose in its ‘purest’ formation, only just out of the mind? It is these questions that makes this text an interesting work to study, but not always an easy one to read. ‘Sunart’ is a word store, pre clear-out, and we are often lost in its midden.

The second entry I want to look at, written on 29th December 2007, describes Loose’s perceptual approach to Sunart oakwoods:

There is a need to approach Sunart oakwoods obliquely. Like sitting. Sitting very still, alert and relaxed, waiting for something to arrive: a deer, maybe, or an owl. If I look at trees in the dusk directly, they dance in vision; it’s the way our eyes are physically made. Look to one side and the tree is clearer. I approach the tree sideways, a little nervous of their history and presence. I count geese, deer, list mosses, enumerate spiders, look out to sea with my back to the woods, holly and birch and alder all around. It’s as if to look directly is somehow to obscure a latency, a voice that I want to listen to; but it’s not enough to be attentive, scientific; it’s necessary to be receptive. I’m impatient. I’ll not live as long as an oak. (61)

This entry provides the rationale for ‘Sunart’s mode of delivery. It also sheds light on Loose’s decision to leave this section so unreconstructed, and potentially offers a guide to the reader. Loose’s approach to understanding this oakwood is oblique, perhaps our reading method should be similar? Loose is wary of disturbing the oakwood’s fragile voice with the violence of direct attention. Perhaps the violent kind of truth-searching to which I subjected the word-store excerpt is an example of precisely what Loose is trying to avoid. I can identify with this feeling. It is something I felt when working with a tree for three years in Cornwall. There is a different logic among trees. A human cannot contain the expansiveness of the relationships at work there. We have to insert ourselves into the network – to be rather than do – in order to feel how these relationships work, and even then we have already disturbed something. The counting of geese and deer, the listing of mosses, the enumeration of spiders are gestures, fine-fingered attempts to store fragments from which to reconfigure a whole. Loose has tried to capture a sense of these threads without pulling a hole in the fabric, but the oakwood is no clearer as a result. In response to William Carlos Williams, Loose writes that ‘Things have their own ideas, they’re […] an event, walking their own way’ (39). The event that is this oakwood evades capture in ‘Sunart’, despite Loose’s best efforts. ‘Inside a wood, it is hard to see it for the trees which overwhelm with their forms, twisted, broken, growing one in the other […] I find it hard also to see the trees for this reason’ (22). Loose cannot see the woods or trees, and neither can we.

‘Saari’ is a different species. As a stranger, Loose is more attentive and committed to his note-making; he is more focussed in Finland. His prose is a poetry: alert, more consciously placed, more settled. Here, Loose writes, ‘I go to the woods because they do not need me’ (111). He is clear-sighted and precise. After enduring the fog of ‘Sunart’ (for almost one hundred pages), ‘Saari’ sparkles and all forty-eight pages are equally brilliant.

And so we are left with the question, should Loose have made ‘Sunart’ sparkle in the same way as ‘Saari’? Or is there more for the reader in the unfinished, warts-and-all structure of ‘Sunart’ than in ‘Saari’s polished prose? Or, finally, does the value lie in their comparison? This Almanac poses many questions, the responses to all of which will be different depending on how and what you like to read. For myself, having braved the wilds of ‘Sunart’, ‘Saari’ was a welcome reward. But Loose’s Almanac certainly offers much to think about.


 

An Oakwoods Almanac is available from Shearsman Books.

Camilla Nelson is a language artist, researcher and collaborator across a range of disciplines. ‘Tidal Voices’, a collaboration with Welsh poet Rhys Trimble, was short-listed for the Tidal Bay Swansea Lagoon World-First Art Commission (Cape Farewell) and her first full collection Apples & Other Languages (forthcoming with Knives Forks and Spoons) was long-listed for the 2015 Melita Hume Poetry Prize. Camilla completed her practice-based PhD in Reading & Writing with a Tree: Practising ‘Nature Writing’ as Enquiry, funded by Falmouth University, in 2012. This research involved working intensely with a series of trees over a three year period, with particular attention paid to an apple tree in the walled garden of Tremough Campus. Excerpts from this and other projects can be found on her website. Camilla is the founding editor of Singing Apple Press, contributing editor for The Learned Pig and poetry editor for The Goose, the official publication of ALECC (Association for Literature, Environment, and Culture in Canada).

Samantha Clark on Brett Bloom’s Petro-Subjectivity

October 9, 2015

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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