Does hierarchy kill nature?

After reading Freya Mathews’ article “A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry”, (see my summary here)  – which I find very inspirational – I feel the need to further investigate some of the paths she’s laying out. Particularly I would like to dig more into her framework for a ‘deeper philosophy’ based on the two concepts conativity and least resistance. However, I also sense some internal contradictions in her arguments. Before addressing her conceptual framework in more detail, I would like to clean up my thoughts, by dealing with these latter.

The thing I can’t quite get to fit, when reading (and hearing) Mathews, is what I perceive as an inherent contradiction in her argumentation. On the one hand, she stresses the problems with modern civilization’s ‘impose and control’ behavior, that “effectively places us ‘outside nature’”, and has made us “ravage the living constituency of the biosphere”. On the other, she professes a “setting of optimal ecological targets for human population.” My point is that Mathews equates the coercive behavior of a collective with negative impact on the environment, while at the same time advocating for population degrowth, in a language that implies large scale coercion on human societies.

This raises two questions. First of all: Can we take for granted that a given society (human or not) which is organised according to hierarchical principles will necessarily have a negative impact on it’s surroundings? In the article “Social Ecology Versus Deep Ecology” from 1987, Murray Bookchin writes:

“Decentralism, small- scale communities, local autonomy, even mutual aid and communalism are not intrinsically ecological or emancipatory. Few societies were more decentralized than European feudalism, which in fact was structured around small-scale communities, mutual aid, and the communal use of land. Local autonomy was highly prized and autarchy formed the economic key to feudal communities. Yet few societies were more hierarchical.”

Following Bookchin, there doesn’t seem to be a direct correlation between a society’s degree of authoritarianism, and it’s negative impact on its environments. This brings to mind our current situation, where China – a country which we Westeners like to consider as authoritarian – seems to take the front as a green super power, leaving far behind the US, (formerly?) seen as ‘the leader of the free world’

This bridges to the second question that Mathews’ argument raises, which has to do with “setting a target for human population”. Bookchin writes – rather bluntly – about “the mistakes of the early 1970s with their hoopla about ‘population control’, their latent antifeminism, their elitism, their arrogance, and their ugly authoritarian tendencies”. Again, China comes to mind with its one child policy (1979 – 2015).

Since Mathews subscribes to “targets for human population”, is it fair to count her among the authoritarian, antifeminism, elitist etc. stances, Bookchin is rallying against? That Mathews is concerned with environmental as well as social issues, shines through in her comparison between the impose-and-control mode of our modern times with their extensive use of energy supplies, external to our own life-force, and earlier civilizations’ use of slaves “who have been treated as external to the social corpus”. However, reading Mathews, I haven’t sofar come across any particular spelled out strategy of hers for the implementation of a policy for population degrowth. Her focus seems to be on the ways in which we can educate ourselves to become attentive to nature. The implementation of these educational strategies seems to have to do with small scale endeavours, based in communities or educational institutions. In this way, Mathews’ thinking is leaning more towards panpsychism than ideology critique. Mathews’ panpsychism is inspired by Norwegian deep ecologist Arne Næss, and can be describes as a thinking , “in which the world (not just nature) contains many kinds of consciousness and sentience. For [Mathews], there is an underlying unity of mind and matter in that the world is a “self-realizing” system containing a multiplicity of other such systems”. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Mathews is building on Næss and through him, Spinoza, but she doesn’t make this connection very explicit, at least not in the text I am referring to here. The problem with Mathews’ argumentation is, as I see it, that she doesn’t manage to apply Spinoza’s thinking to its fullest, and thereby, she lands in some middle ground, where her effort ends in a kind of spiritualistic impasse. And the problem with that, is that in order to have an impact on the current dominant ideas about ecology, nature, climate etc., a vague spiritualism doesn’t speak with a very efficient voice. If I suggest a typical Dane that we solve our current ecological crisis through a ‘musical encounter’ with birds or whales, he would probably at its best have a good laugh.

The rhetorics of deep ecology with its insistence on humans’ parasitic abuse of Nature, as well as discussions of invasive species, etc. comes dangerously close to the imagery of right wing populism. The difference being that whereas the latter refers to specific ethnic or religious groups, and use natural science as a repertoire of metaphors for the unwanted ethnic group’s behavior (“jews/muslims multiply like rats”), the former refers to humanity as a whole (“we are a cancer to the planet”), and their reference to natural sciences is literal. What is common to both, is the expression of hatred. Hatred towards the other or to one self. In the end of the day, it’s no wonder that some people have a hard time telling the difference.

An argumentation that would have a much stronger impact is Bookchin’s assessment, that “throughout most of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in Europe, [improvements in the quality of life and the status of women] reduced rates of population increase, in some cases leading to negative population growth rates.”

This is a pretty straight forward argument for how people’s taking care of each other can have a positive impact on their environment. Whether intended or not. In this sense, Bookchin seems to be giving a much stronger argument about a possible correlation between how we as humans treat each other and how we treat our surroundings.

To return to the somewhat primitive question in the title, I might conclude by saying that hierarchy does not in it self kill nature, or sustain it for that matter. On the one hand there is the Chinese model of population degrowth, imposed on the population through a top-down, authoritarian strategy and on the other hand there is a, let’s say, Italian or Japanese (non-)strategy based on cultural, socio-economic factors with the consequence that people do not (want to) reproduce. Does welfare lead to sustainable living? Well, in the West we might have a declining population growth, but it wouldn’t make sense to assert that our way of life is sustainable for the planet. In other words: hierarchy or not, welfare or not, at the end of the day, an ecological, economical and social sustainability must be based on cultural sustainability.

References

Bookchin, M. (1987). Social Ecology versus Deep Ecology: A Challenge for the Ecology Movement. In Green Perspectives: Newsletter of the Green Program Project, nos. 4-5

Brennan, Andrew and Lo, Yeuk-Sze, “Environmental Ethics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/ethics-environmental/&gt;.

Mathews, F. (2011) A deeper Philosophy of Biomimicry. Organization and Environment. Volume: 24 issue: 4, page(s): 364-387

Sharp, H. (2011). Spinoza and the politics of renaturalization. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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Uddrag fra mit speciale: Om handlingsvalutaer

[uddrag fra mit speciale, s. 90ff]

“Handlingsvaluta -­ et begreb til at begribe mellemrummenes mellemrum

Centralt i begrebet handlingsvaluta er det, som jeg med Deleuze kalder affektøkonomien. Det er en meget enkel model, som Deleuze har fra Spinoza. Iflg denne model udgøres en krop127 af en række forbindelser, rapports, og disse forbindelser er det, som konstituerer kroppen. Idet to kroppe møder hinanden, præsenterer de sig på forskellige måder for hinanden. Visse af de måder ­ de facetter under hvilke en krop præsenterer sig for en anden, virker til at svække den andens konstituerende forbindelser (Deleuze 1980). Andre til at forstærke dem. Denne vekslen mellem styrkelse og svækkelse af de konstituerende forbindelser kan beskrives som affektøkonomi. Med dette begreb kan jeg beskrive en række af de processer, jeg har observeret, som fx i det forløb med de to børn der hopper i vandpytter, fra de møder kvartetten til de råber “Casper, Casper” (se afsnit 6.0). Her er affektøkonomien kommet ud af balance. Men det er ikke sket fra det ene øjeblik til det næste. Der er en lang række små styrkelser og svækkelser der er gået forud. Derfor kan affektøkonomi som konceptuelt værktøj bruges til at fange nuancerne i samspillet, på en anden måde end fx en tilgang, der fokuserer på kategoriseringer af adfærd (Olesen 2015 op.cit).

Jeg har endvidere bemærket, hvordan børnene, når de mødes med én slags måde at præsentere kroppen, en facet, har en tendens til at reagere tilbage med den samme slags facet. Når nogen tysser, tysser de andre. Når én spytter, spytter de andre, osv. Disse mønstre kan beskrives som mimesis, forstået som “the public (motoric) display of perceived or remembered episodes” (Hurley and Chater se fodnote 99). Børnene giver tilbage af samme mønt, så at sige, ­ og det er bla. med udgangspunkt i denne etymologiske pointe, at jeg har valgt begrebet valuta. Den gangbare mønt, valutaen, kan forstås som “what has been sanctioned by custom or usage”. Når jeg kobler valuta til handling, er det for at kunne sætte fokus på, hvordan visse slags handlinger i en given situation tæller, imens andre lades ude af billedet. I det lærerorganiserede er det således primært verbalsproglige ytringer der tæller. Imens de handlinger, det tæller i børnenes indbyrdes samspil, kommer til udtryk gennem en lang række modaliteter, som udover verbalsproglige også gælder kropslige, nonverbale, og materielle udtryksformer. Og når jeg siger, at en handling tæller, mener jeg, at det er en handling, med hvilken det er muligt i en given kontekst at konstituere forbindelser. Når Mathias (7 år) argumenterer (i en situation, hvor gårdvagten griber ind) med, at hans gruppe havde vandpytten først, indgår hans talehandling som et led i konstitueringen af en ny social virkelighed: i det her tilfælde én, hvor børnenes leg bliver udparcelleret (gårdvagten deler børnene op, så den ene gruppe får én vandpyt, og den anden en anden). Havde han i stedet spyttet eller sparket ud efter gårdvagten, ville det ikke kunne indgå som konstituerende, men ville blive opfattet som en forstyrrelse, som støj. Her er der altså tale om, at verbalsproget er den gældende handlingsvaluta. Mellem børnene, derimod, indgår nonverbale handlinger, herunder bla. sparken og spytten, som mulige elementer i konstitueringen af sociale virkeligheder. I vandpyt­legen er det at sparke med vand på hinanden således et element, som medvirker til at konstituere den sociale virkelighed.

Begrebet handlingsvaluta bidrager til analysen på to måder. For det første muliggør det en analyse af, hvilke slags interaktionsformer, som indgår i konstitueringen af (nye) sociale virkeligheder. For at begribe hvad disse (nye) sociale virkeligheder indebærer for dem, som er del af dem, handler det, med et affektøkonomisk blik, om at undersøge, hvordan de konkrete handlinger påvirker de medvirkendes konstituerende forbindelser. Dermed skal en given handlingsvaluta ikke forstås som noget, som har en bestemt værdi, i sig selv, men det er hvordan den bliver brugt 128, som er afgørende.

For det andet gør handlingsvaluta som analytisk værktøj det muligt at have at gøre med ting, som ofte ikke tænkes sammen, idet begrebet dækker over en bred vifte af former, der kommer til udtryk gennem lyd, gestik, mimik, materialer, mm. Det er således ikke handlingens beskaffenhed, men snarere, hvordan den indgår i en given kontekst som er i fokus. Dermed kan analysen skærpe blikket for, hvilke slags handlinger, der tæller, og hvilke slags der ikke tæller. Dette er vigtigt ifm analysen af, hvad der går for sig i mellemrummene, i det upåagtede børneliv, hvor jeg med handlingsvaluta som konceptuelt værktøj kan identificere en stadig kodning og omkodning af, hvad
der tæller.

Movement, sound and people – a transnordic dialogue in progress

At the seminar The Role of Culture in a Sustainable Society – Sustainability in Art and Cultural Projects, composer Casper Hernández Cordes did a workshop, and choreographer Kenneth Flak had the role of reflecting on the workshop. This started a really interesting discussion, that we would like to continue, this time in a ‘plugged’, online version, for everyone to join, commentate and share.

Welcome!!!

Casper:  “Hi Kenneth, thanks a lot for a great collaboration / confrontation at the seminar on culture, art and sustainability. I felt we embarked on some really relevant issues, and I would like to invite you for a further development of some of the topics.

You said you liked the fact of a composer (me) choosing to only use gesture as a means of expression, as I did in the workshop/experiment. Usually I get the opposite reaction, people saying: “but what about sound??”. In fact my choice is based on the assumption that you can’t have sound without movement, so somehow movement is something more fundamental to human expression. At least, I have this idea, that non-artists are more comfortable in general using gesture as a means of expression than sound. What are your thoughts?”

Kenneth: “Hi Casper, I thoroughly enjoyed your intervention in the seminar, and, as you mentioned, a lot of it had to do with the use of compositional principles applied on different areas. Obviously, the principles you used in the seminar (mainly to do with mimicry, repetition and variation) are as fundamental to choreographic composition as they are to the organization of sound. For me as a kind of dual creature, working both as a choreographer and a composer, I am always looking for these kinds of principles that can be applied to both areas.

It is actually becoming more and more of a challenge for me finding principles that are exclusive to one domain. Right now I can’t really think of any. Obviously, dance probably has a stronger spatial component than sound, in the way that it moves around the space, but this is an advantage that has largely been obliterated by the development of music technology, with the advent of different surround sound formats. And of course, live music on actual instruments has always had this strong spatial component, especially when there are no microphones or cables around to hinder movement.

Of course, I totally agree with you that sound is impossible without movement, but then we still need to think a bit about what kind of movement we are dealing with: is it movement of the human body or for example the movement of your home stereo speakers that do what your computer tells it to? Both represent physical movement, but the difference in perception is enormous. When it comes to sound that is produced by the human body, there is absolutely no question that movement precedes sound, and then merges entirely with it for as long as the sound is produced. It is a very intimate connection, to the point where it becomes impossible to separate. And the really interesting thing (which was demonstrated very clearly in your workshop) was that even when the sound is absent, we tend to “fill in” sound where there is none. I think every dancer does this intuitively, “singing” the movement as s/he performs it, sometimes out loud. This was actually becoming a bit of a problem for me at some point, so I had to consciously unlearn it. It just didn’t look very good on stage, me hopping around providing my own soundtrack to the movement with various crappy sound effects, not even aware that I was doing it.

For the average non-artist I certainly think gesture is a slightly more comfortable area to explore than sound, but I think this depends very much on the kind of sound and movement we are talking about. I could easily picture non-artists happily whacking two sticks together, but once you ask them to use the voice things get much, much more difficult. Vocal sound abstracted from any meaning is a very tricky area for a lot of people (many artists included), somehow there are so many taboos, conventions and emotions connected with the use of the voice that most people are very careful about how they use it. This is, of course, also the case with movement. I think this is why it is important to start out with ways of moving that are socially acceptable, like the use of simple, pantomimic gestures. And even this is very difficult to deal with for people that have no training in contemporary dance or performance, as was evidenced in the seminar: there was this running commentary going, trying verbally to make sense of what was happening, what was expected of them.”

game of thrones, jamie lannister, nonverbal interaction

Non-verbal cacophonia in the North

As for Jamie, it seems he has two possible faces. He has a neutral, expressionless face, that he puts on, when he is somehow taken aback (which seems to take a lot). The other – which he puts on here – is this shrewd fox-like smile, which is saying something along the lines: “I know what you are trying to do, and I do have my own thoughts about it, but don’t you think I will reveal them to you. (Ha!)” The fact that the actor behind Jamie Lannister, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, is a Dane might shed some light this binary facial language.

jamie lannister with two interchangeable faces

It is no wonder newcomers to Denmark have such a hard time adjusting to the culture. One thing is the language itself. The phonetics are so complex, that the language is a hobby horse for many linguists around the world. Danish kids seem to learn the Danish words later than other kids growing up with other languages learn their words. In consequence, learning Danish as an adult is a major challenge. On top of that, as I was saying, we have this arbitrary relationship with non-verbal interaction, where we are cautious to let as little as possible slip through.

The Danish language use, the pragmatics of spoken and written language, can be really efficient, when it comes to collaborating, and getting things done. In Danish, we have a rather small vocabulary – maybe because of the work it takes to learn the words – and a single word usually has a very limited range of meanings. Her is here. Der is there. No mistakes. A culture of efficiency, of accountability and of getting things done.

When it comes to emotional content, to person-to-person interaction, it’s another story. It is as if we had a radio jammer implanted in our bodies, that will obstruct the appropriate coding of our inner states and bodily emotions, washing the other person over with a rain of non-verbal white noise.

Danes are experts in reformatting whatever happens inside them into something unrecognizable, when it reaches the outside world. This is a culture of irony, sarcasm, and non-verbal cacophonia.

No wonder that the Danes’ divorce rate is among the highest in the world.

elleria sand not toasting to tommen

The un-toast – or how “the social stomach” can save humanity

game of thrones, dorne, jamie lannister, kingslayer, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau,

Cheers. Or what?!

Doran brings out a toast for Tommen, to which Ellaria gloomily reacts by emptying her glass on the floor, sending a defying look to Jamie Lannister, creating in the teenage lovers, Myrcella and Trystane, one of these wtf-moments about the adults being SO embarrassing.

The non-verbal element is of course very strong here, very brutal, very simple, and completely on the symbolic level. Drinking together means: we are in on this together. Refusing to drink is a very strong protest reaction.

I can’t help thinking about the role that consumption plays in our society, in Denmark particularly, it is very strong, at least. Not wanting to share a meal means you can really piss off the host. This is of course particularly accentuated when the reason for not eating or drinking is based on religious, cultural, health related, ethical or political reasons.

This is why I suggest we invent “the social stomach”. This is an implant in the body that includes

  • a valve in the throat, controlled by our thoughts (or to begin with, an iPhone with the new app “iSwallow”)
  • a plastic tube, parallel to our gullet
  • a plastic bag, next to our stomach, and finally
  • a second valve, in a hidden place, accessible while at the toilet

This way, we wouldn’t have to create these awkward situations, when with the family, where we’d have to remind them for the hundredth time that we don’t eat this or that. We can simply swallow it, and with a big fat smile on our face let the bad, unhealthy, unethical stuff pass through the body without and side effects. Then at an appropriate moment  simply going to the bathroom and flush it out. Completely acceptable and legitimate behavior. Or better: find an excuse to get a lonely moment in the kitchen, find a clean tupperware container, drop the completely untouched food there, and place it safely in the fridge. Now that is recycling!!

A positive side effect from the social stomach implant – aside from the extremely beneficial effect on the social balance in our society – is of course that we can do our duty as citizens and consume more and more, without having any impact on the health system. What with our innate digestive system, we can simply use our for what it’s there for: nutrition.

Non-verbal communication, – a world of valuable information

At Christmas I was with my kids for a four day trip to Berlin. I gave my thirteen year old son a basketball, and while the kids were sleeping the whole morning of the 25th, I went exploring the unfamiliar neighborhood. Back home, the kids were up, and we all wanted to play some basketball. I explained to my son that I had seen two places where we could play.

– “There’s one place here”, I said pointing to the north, “and another place here”, I said pointing to the south. “Which one do you prefer?” These were the words I used.
– “I prefer that one”, he said, pointing to the North.
– “Why?”
“Because it’s closest”
“How did you know that?”
I actually hadn’t said anything that would indicate the distance to the two places.
– “Because of the way you said it”, my son finished. Off we went to the nearest basketball court.

What’s interesting here is that not only didn’t I use any words that would indicate distance, I actually didn’t have any intention of communicating anything about it. What more is: I hadn’t even come to any conscious conclusion in my mind about it, only realising the fact about the proximity of one of the places the moment my son expressed it in words.

I think it is possible to draw three conclusions from this little story:

  1. our non-verbal communication is a source for precise information about spatial relations between physical places, people and objects. Our bodily and vocal gestures are adding valuable gradient information to the conversation, where words – in their binarity – fall short
  2. we are carrying a lot of information in our bodies from daily experiences, – like an imprint in flesh and bones – but we are not necessarily conscious about how and when we are conveying the information.
  3. of the vast amount of non-verbal knowledge we are bringing in to the interaction, only a small portion will surface, and only when someone has an interest in that specific information. It seems that the idea of wasting too much energy walking towards a basketball court is more important to a teenager than to his 43 year old father

Also read How can sound help us building our collectives?

Cultural-sustainability-via-non-verbal-communication

How can sound help us building our collectives?

A contact wrote a message to me on facebook, saying that he didn’t want to collaborate any more on a project we had been working on together. He suggested that we meet face to face. This made me glad. We met and we talked our way through, and though we didn’t continue the collaboration, at least we cleared the air, and we both learned what had to be learned from that experience.

Had we finished our interaction via Facebook messenger, we probably wouldn’t have come to an understanding, and the issue would have been left unresolved, – or worse. Why is it that we keep misunderstanding each other when communicating through social media, sms and emails?

Is it because  text is not the right medium to solve complex problems? I say that no matter how many emoticons we add up in an sms, it is never going to convey all the nuances of our feelings.

What about a phone call? Well. Am I the only one experiencing that the connexion is horrendous most of the time? “Did you hang up?” “No, no! It was the connexion!!”

It seems that nothing beats real life face to face communication.

Also read this: Can social media help us build our collectives?

Gestures with our faces, bodies and voices are all intertwined channels of communication, and it makes a lot of sense to regard them in a holistic way. For a moment, however, let’s look at what happens in the interactions we have through sound alone. And how this affects our capacity for building sustainable collectives.

When speaking, we are not only simply saying words. We accompany our words and other utterances with certain ways of using our voices. We are capable of expressing and perceiving very intricate patterns in melody, breaks, volume, quality of voice and rhythm. In other words: We rock at prosodyTweet:

First of all, sound has to do with our voices. Since the voice sits in the body, it reflects what’s going on in there. All the processes and rhythms of my body are influencing the way I sound. My heart rate, the rhythm of my breathing, and the degree of tension or release I am feeling, – it will all affect the tempo, timbre and volume of my utterances.Tweet:
Let’s look at it this way: I make a sound. The vibrations of my body make the air vibrate. And these waves of air will reach you, causing vibrations in your body, creating a similar kind of feeling in you. In other words: we have an innate capacity for empathy.

Empathizing is fundamental when it comes to building sustainable collectives. Tweet: Still, our societies fail at it. Why? Group dynamics based on social control, competition and exclusion teach us to control our voices, making sure nothing slips through. And if it does, the recipient has learned to suppress his or her natural physical reactions.

Also read this article: What Is Empathy?

Secondly, the way we distribute time in our interactions is staged through sound. Breaks, pauses, hesitation are all markers of how you react to what I am saying. It tells me something about the extent to which you are taking me seriously. Are you giving me space in the conversation? Are you snapping off my words? Are you RAISING YOUR VOICE so that you can conquer space and impose your points in the conversation? Therefore timing in conversation is about power and hierarchy. Tweet:  When building a collective, the question of power and hierarchy is important. I believe that in a sustainable collective, there should be an equal amount of space for each member. It’s a place where we all have an equal right to be heard.

A third aspect of sound as a means of expression is our capability of establishing a link with movement through sound. We are excellent at mimicking movement, acceleration, and physical volume with our voices.
This allows us to bring aspects of our bodily intentions into the dialogue in an abstract form. I might feel the urge to punch someone in the face, but there might be many reasons for not doing it. What I can do, legitimately, is to give life to this wished for movement through sound. “Aaaaaaaarr-he-is-simply-so-aaaaaNOying!”. A crescendo and a raise in pitch with a full stop. No need for broken knuckles there.

Also read: Non-verbal communication, – a world of valuable information

In many situations we are not using the words that correspond to our intentions. Think about flirting, which is all about NOT saying what we intend to do, with words. Here, words are simply marionettes for a whole performance in sound and gesture about all kinds of hinted at activities.

Read about one of my workshops here.

Aggression and love are a few out of an unlimited number of forms of interaction. We need to be able to handle these in ways that don’t challenge the cohesion of the collective.Tweet:

By imitating real or imagined bodily movements through sound, we are capable of staging actual as well as possible scenarios, and it enables us to test real or imagined outcomes of our social interactions, in a safe way, before proceeding to actual action. In other words: A sustainable collective is capable of handling controversy.Tweet:

Let’s sum this up:

Our voices are.. through (primarily)… This helps the collective … while establishing a relation to …
 conveying our feelings  timbre  Building trust  the body
timing our utterances  rhythm  Establishing equality time
giving an abstract form to our physical intentions  melody  Handling controversy space

Does this make sense? Please contribute with your comments below!

For my part, I think that these questions are relevant for a further discussion:

  1. Does the table above make sense? Is there a relationship between specific characteristics of sound,  and the way we use them in specific modalities of building collectives?
  2. Can we create better collectives by training our capacity for using sound as a means of expression?
  3. Does our current conception of musical practices and learning strengthen our capacities for interaction through sound? Or is it merely teaching us to become good consumers?
  4. Which kind of practice would help us become experts in building sustainable collectives through sound?