The Journal of You – Ginger Coons Workshop
The Vulnerable Distance
Exploring distances of post-human places, paying deep attention to the vulnerability of that experience. I question whether by making acknowledgement of that precarity (both personal and environmental) I can generate a deeper attentiveness to conditions of the anthropocene?
Vulnerability, distance, precarity, diminishment, openness, personal ingress, sublime and anthropocene (are these terms fit for purpose?)
Description of journal
The Vulnerable Distance is a journal dedicated to investigations of vulnerability within places redolent of the sublime anthropocene, with the aim of outlining potential uses of moments of ‘peak experience’ as a conduit for greater understanding of the precarity of the human condition in a post-human landscape. We are interested in submissions which playfully explore the beauty and horror of the sublime anthropocene, as a method for greater engagement and vulnerability. We are not limited by established academy definitions of the theories of the sublime and the anthropocene, rather we question their primacy and suggest new interpretations which we feel can be used more appropriately in this endeavour. We do not presume to speak on behalf of communities or non-human agents subjected to the destructive realities of an anthropocene, rather we suggest an attentiveness to a shared vulnerability, and an awareness of our own embodied subjectivities or privileges which affect our position.
We particularly welcome investigations of scenarios which use digital tools to facilitate possibilities for this and review the potential of using digital tools to mediate this experience for dissemination to a wider audience. These could include:
Context: Creating a site-specific VR art work at five locations along the south coast of the UK.
Bearing the sublime – what purpose can the sublime serve in the age of the anthropocene?
As Diana Taylor has observed:
Western culture, wedded to the word, whether written or spoken, enables language to usurp epistemic and explanatory power. Performance studies allows us to take seriously other forms of cultural expression as both praxis and episteme. Performance traditions also serve to store and transmit knowledge. Performance studies, additionally, functions as a wedge in the institutional understanding and organisation of knowledge. (Taylor in Schechner, 2002:7)
In Search of Mary Shelley: The Girl Who Wrote Frankenstein – Fiona Sampson
They glimpse the Alps for the first time near Neuchatel, and Mary takes typically Romantic care to note the effects the mountains have on their human observers: They were an hundred miles distant, but reach so high in the heavens that they look like those accumulated clouds of dazzling white that arrange themselves on the horizon during summer. Their immensity staggers the imagination, and so far surpasses all conception, that it requires an effort of the understanding to believe that they are in fact mountains.
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We come to know so much about institutional life because of these failures of residence: the categories in which we are immersed as forms of life become explicit when you do not
quite inhabit them.
However, my distrust is well-founded: Swedish scholars Andreas Malm and Alf Hornborg, among others, highlight the manner in which the current framing of the Anthropocene blunts the distinctions between the people, nations, and collectives who drive the fossil-fuel economy and those who do not. The complex and paradoxical experiences of diverse people as humans-in-the-world, including the ongoing damage of colonial and imperialist agendas, can be lost when the narrative is collapsed to a universalizing species paradigm. As Malm
and Hornborg state, “a clique of white British men literally pointed steam-power as a weapon—on sea and land, boats and rails—against the best part of human-kind, from the Niger delta to the Yangzi delta, the Levant to Latin America.”8
Not all humans are equally implicated in the forces that created the disasters driving contemporary human-environmental crises, and I argue that not all humans are equally invited into the conceptual spaces where these disasters are theorized or responses to disaster formulated.
John Hartigan recently examined the prevalence of the terms “multispecies” and “Anthropocene” at the recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association in Washington, D.C. in December 2014. Noting the “overlapping concerns highlighted by these two keywords,”33 Hartigan was struck by the dominance of the word Anthropocene, rather than the term multispecies, throughout the conference presentations. Hartigan deems the Anthropocene a “charismatic mega-category,”34 which sweeps many competing narratives under its roof.
The first idea is “ethical relationality,” which in a 2010 talk he defined as: an enactment of ecological imagination. Ethical relationality doesn’t deny that we’re different, so it’s not a way to say we’re all the same. But it seeks to understand more deeply how our different histories and experiences position us in relation to each other. It puts those at the forefront: who you are, where you come from, what your commitments are, what your experiences have been. So, it’s a desire to acknowledge and honour the significance of the relationships we have with others, how our histories and experiences position us in relation to each other, and how our futures as people in the world are similarly tied together. It is an ethical imperative to see that despite our varied place-based cultures and knowledge systems, we
live in the world together and must constantly think and act with reference to those relationships.48
“ethic of historical consciousness”: This ethic holds that the past occurs simultaneously in the present and influences how we conceptualize the future.
Ultimately, what I am contesting are the ways in which well-meaning contemporary artists and academics recreate exploitative patterns from the past. The Anthropocene, like any theoretical category at play in Euro-Western contexts, is not innocent of such violence.
In order to resist the hegemonic tendencies of a universalizing paradigm like the Anthropocene, we need joyful and critical engagement through many forms of praxis. I see Indigenous thought and practice—including art—as critical sites of refraction of the current
whiteness of Anthropocene discourses.
It is interesting to consider moments at which one experiences the sublime - for me, my most intense and visceral moment was triggered several years ago, when I fell whilst walking in the Austrian Alps, which handily still offer the perfect backdrop for a taste of sublime terror and overwhelmed-ness.
I still have feelings of horror when I think about that moment, the ‘what-ifs’, but I also am drawn by the vertiginous glamour of those drops, and the thrill that we managed to survive it. My vulnerability, both physical and mental, mutates over time into bravado and aesthetic swooning.
What is time doing here?
It is removing me from the incandescence of the immediate moment, back from the literal edge and by doing so, it rewrites the story in my head. If I try hard to remember the actual moment or immediate aftermath of falling, I can remember a gauzy grey visual, a sweating of palms, symptoms akin to the moment preceding fainting (syncope). This version of events is deeply enmeshed in the physical sensation, the failing of overloaded senses and the inability to process.
With temporal distance, I can piece together the lurch in the stomach with my gaze down the scree to the valley below, the shaking in my legs with the dust on my boots and the hot grip of my daughter’s fingers in my hand with the horror that we might both have fallen. Now I have constructed a story to recount, I am removed from the danger, I can laugh at my audience’s worried looks and wait their turn to recount the time that they nearly died.
That moment, that glimpse of vulnerability is shrugged off and a carapace of self-assurance fills its place. And so, another traditional tale of the sublime enters the cannon: lowering alpine cliffs: check, moment of near death: check, jolly retelling of the tale: check, child involved: umm okay, we don’t normally let these ones through, check, and so on…
So what relevance does this theory, or this cannon, have today? Well, apart from being a woman and mother, not much in this story challenges Burke’s idea of the thrilling terror of the sublime, and the distance of time which hones this episode into an anecdote illustrates perfectly Kant’s preferred notion that the position of sublime experience was one of safe remove. This moment of clumsy alpinism, this experience of landscape doesn’t really speak to today’s global concerns, but rather seems lodged in a nineteenth century aesthetic.
What if we relocate the sublime? After all, this is a purely subjective idea. The historical constructs of landscape appreciation that I arrive with will not necessarily be shared by others. What if I find the sublime in a landscape of ruin, of ecological crisis, of man-made destruction?
If the 18th century readings and aesthetics of the sublime appeal to western mankind’s desire to feel small or insignificant, or powerful and contemplative, they still place mankind at a distance: separate from the immense indifference of nature, at the mercy of this vengeful force, or removed from the quotidian grime of industry, above it all. In this reading, the sublime indicates a quasi-colonial landscape redolent of Conrad’s Heart of darkness or a landscape to be subjugated. If, however, we locate the sublime within a post human milieu, we see that any recognition of a sublime moment must also reckon with the entanglement of humans with other species, technology and the environment.
We really enjoyed talking to you about your proposal last week and are delighted to confirm that we would like to commission you for b-side 2018. This offer is contingent on us being able to confirm access to the stadium site, establish power supply options and discuss any subsequent budget implications. We will be in touch in the new year to discuss and confirm details.
Assuming at this stage that we can use the site, please can you confirm if you are happy to accept our offer and will be available to join us for the R&D days (23&24 March - further details soon).