I felt it would be useful for me to pause and consider where I am at this juncture, and where I came from in order to arrive here. The OCA has been an immensely useful container but the journey I’m on, the desire to understand something fundamental but hard to pinpoint began long before 2014. Perhaps as long ago as when I was a child watching how strangely the grown-ups behaved and wondering why. Or noticing how we (I) emulated others; accents, behaviours, tropes, and then absorbing these actions and making them ours (mine).
This will be a long post and is for my benefit rather than anyone else’s – it feels necessary and important to get these thoughts outside my head as a part of a process in relation to CS and BOW. And also, that it should be more conversational as opposed to confined by the rigours of academia although the habit to identify quotes is strong nowadays. Ruth (previous CS tutor) had suggested experimenting with form for CS and so I won’t rule out including sections of this, or developing it, if down the line that seems like a route I would like to take.
I started making notes for this blog yesterday as I marched along the street, sweaty because it was very mild and I was dressed for the artic, muttering to myself about what exactly it is I am exploring here in this work; I began to formulate a narrative that linked my life with the theories and ideas I am looking at.
Right now, I think it always starts with digitisation. I am fascinated by the revolution we are currently living through, by the assumptions people make about it. About where it comes from, what it’s doing, why we’ve contrived to arrive at this point (without volition – is that possible? Or is contrived the wrong word?)
Groups used to be smaller. For most of our evolutionary history, we lived in manageable extended families. Across cultures, there were some basic similarities. Nikolas Christakis covers these in his book Blueprint (2019). He talks about a social suite, which ‘includes individuality, love, friendship, co-operation, learning and so on’.
He also talks about the dyadic nature of humans. I really like this. It’s a word I came across when I was reading about babies and their primary carers. In the baby literature, it implies living in this secondary invisible placenta; it contains mother and child. Both are deeply connected within and even shielded from something outside the dyad. Not all mothers experience this. And modern culture seems to makes it challenging for genuinely dyadic relationships. Some people suggest the high numbers of post-natal depression are related to this failure to connect – and I suspect there is some truth to that although it can also be down to a lack of support, which is of course, another connection with other mothers/parents/helpers – or allo-parents, a term used by Sarah Blaffer Hrdy, a socio-anthropologist who writes about mothers.
I was lucky. I did experience a deep connection with all of my children. During my divorce, I seemed to be able to protect my youngest in this little bubble from all the toxicity outside of it. It also taught me that symbolic language isn’t always necessary (I should have been far more consciously and intellectually aware of this given my acting training!)- that we can communicate without it, even while we are asleep. And that has been very important throughout this course. I’ve learned that symbolic language is a distancer. It helps us to distance ourselves from ourselves, never mind anyone or anything else! “Use your words” is a constant refrain to toddlers who prefer to lash out when angry. We ‘otherise’ ourselves, remove something and in the process de-intensify it – be it rage or love – through the use of symbolic language whether it’s written down or simply spoken. We send our thoughts out into the world with language; a little bit of ourselves leaves our bodies and lands elsewhere. It can land as a caress or a weapon and it has an effect but, while wounding with words can be devastating and the cause a chain of fatal events, it removes us from direct violence. Again, Christakis discusses this, as does Richard Wrangham in his book The Goodness Paradox (2019)
A little bit of us – a thought that gets heard is something that can affect others.
In a dyad between a mother and child, something else is going on. Physical reactions take place that don’t need words, not even as thoughts. A baby wakes in one room and your breasts start leaking in another. The prickly sensation of your milk ducts filling up is what alerts you and you check in to see your infant’s beaming face – and they seem to have known you were on your way. I’m painting an idyllic picture – it’s not always like this, obviously. And some women and babies have a really terrible time. There is so much in modern culture which gets in the way of the connecting behaviours that evolved to help us survive. But somehow most mothers (although not all) and also fathers overcome the many, many obstacles. When your child falls over, a jolting sensation takes place in your own body as if you too have fallen. The theory suggests mirror neurons are responsible, which apparently exist in all primates (and beyond no doubt). It happens with other relationships too but it’s very noticeable in parent/child pairs.
Christakis discusses the hyperdyadic nature of the human species. In other words, we are all connected, that is how we operate. Hegel talked about collective consciousness. Edward O’ Wilson has spent a lifetime investigating the hive and applying it to human behaviour. Social contagion or mimetics are other words to describe this phenomenon. Despite sounding so modern, it seems plain as day to me that we are networked creatures and always have been. Christakis’s earlier book is indeed titled Connected (2009). These connections mean that ideas spread around cultures and groups even when there has been no physical contact. Wilson discusses this strange ability seen throughout history when inventions take place in more than one place at the same time.
The Internet is a response to a lack of connection, perhaps in particular relation to population growth. As groups got larger, we stopped being connected. Social fragmentation, evident in the artwork of the early 20th century is one expression of this loss of connection between people and in relation to how reality felt. We humans then ingeniously came up with a way to address that. We dug down into reality and found a way to emulate it. Despite its relative technological advancement our code is still a crude copy. And there is a problem. The code we use to make these connections is a language. It underpins all the forms and media that we see on our screens, which is also another layer of language. So inherent and embedded in the anatomy of the Internet is a process of distancing. What’s even more difficult, as my lovely and intelligent friend rages about often, the people writing the code are very frequently a certain type. “They are the nerds!” she states angrily. “The people who aren’t naturally social, who don’t understand relationships, who are on the spectrum and can’t communicate. The ones who don’t have any empathy!” This is blatant stereotyping but the people writing the code are aware there is a problem. They know they need to write empathy into the code. They know this. However, for now, empathy is missing and the fact the whole thing is structured on language which is itself a distancing process means there is a structural problem which we may never be able to overcome, although I have faith in humanity
We can be optimistic because while we have collectively tried to re-connect using digital technology, which emulates natural linkages, today we’ve not even begun to see just how powerful our technology will be. This is both frightening and exhilarating. Once quantum computing moves out of its infancy we will not only emulate ‘hyperdyadicness’ (not a real word, I know), we will reach a point where simulation and nature are interchangeable. There are many, many foreseeable and unforeseeable problems but we will go on an incredible journey as our clever people look for the solutions.
We have begun the process though. So far it has wrought terrible consequences in the form of nuclear war. But what we’ve lost over time as language developed and civilisation grew is currently being rediscovered through quantum science and systems theory (which is interdisciplinary – don’t underestimate how crucial that is). People often see similarities between Eastern philosophies and the newer sciences. But I am wary of spouting racist claptrap. However, it is well documented that the Dalai Lama is interested in quantum mechanics and Luigi and Capra (2007) devote a carefully written chapter to the relationship between spirituality and science.
Karen Barad’s book Meeting the Universe Halfway (2007) deals with the philosophy of quantum science. She cannot stress the importance of entanglement enough. She explains how ideology and worldviews are embedded in the apparatus’ and the framing of our experiments and subsequent related objects and behaviours. This embedding is also explored in Vilém Flusser’s Towards a Philosophy of Photography (2012). The ideology is in the apparatus and photographers (all except experimental ones!) are flunkies or to use his word, functionaries – they ‘are inside their apparatus and bound up with it’ (loc 2086).
What stops us from seeing this is our ‘Cartesian habit of mind’ (Barad, 2007). Both Systems Theory and quantum science urge us to move away from the strictures of a Newtonian/Cartesian worldview where isolated objects exist in a void universe and nothing is connected or relational. Entanglement has been lost in our understanding of reality and we are working our way back to incorporating it now. But there is a long way to go and it’s on the fringes of society – although arguments to suggest it is becoming embodied through our interactions with digital data.
The problem with arbitrary lines around isolated objects is that it too often engenders a simplistic, black and white of view of the world. (And that is being kind.) This can be seen across disciplines and in photography it is endemic. Photography which claims so loudly to be a ‘caller out of injustices’ actually constantly reinforces that unhelpful mentality, undermines any attempts to move away from hierarchical thinking, narrows down meaning, oversimplifies complex issues, attracts monism, flattens nuances, strips away context and relationships. Still photography entrenches all of that. It isolates and insists on objects in a void. It suggests the opposite of a ‘dynamic and shifting entangling of relationships’ (Barad, 2007: 35) no matter how hard people point out, and writers such as Ariella Azoulay have done, that history and the objects we construct are forever subject to re-examination, are alive with possibility and liveliness.
There is something inherently unavoidable and entrenched, in particular in still and analogue photography. I look at the ontology of a photograph and see that at its core, still and moving image are one and the same thing. We may intervene and add lots of frames together or else we isolate a single frame but they are both an agential cut (a Baradian term which I will explain more fully in my extended essay and in BOW). It’s the isolating that offends.
I find it hard that people fail to appreciate intra-relatedness. My interactions with a secondary school shocked and enraged me too as my child was being so badly affected by their entrenchment in an out-dated reality, in a constructed and ludicrous simulation of the past that is no longer relevant and entirely inappropriate to its surroundings, and that they seemed utterly oblivious to emergent changes to the world or else angrily against them. This is especially unhelpful for young people who have grown up with the problematized Internet which, despite its many issues engenders a networked view of reality. It is frustrating beyond belief that so many want to drill down into detail so tiny, they leave no room and can only focus on single issues, which they hope will somehow communicate something greater, rather than simply isolating themselves and their ideas in the void. It astounds me how this habit of monism fails us but is still so prevalent and is taught in schools and colleges and universities; but then I recall the citation which I begin CS A2 (draft) with by Capra and Luigi: ‘It [this habit I’ve described] derives from the fact most people in our modern society, and especially large institutions, subscribe to the concepts of an outdated worldview, a perception of reality inadequate for dealing with our overpopulated, globally interconnected world.’ (2014) Inadequate is the key term here. Inadequate. This old way of seeing and being will not serve us going forward. That is not to say we should forget history. We can’t. Because in an intra-related world the past is enmeshed with the future and the present. We must, as Azoulay recommends, re-evaluate our Cartesian linear view of time. (2019)
In my work I am, like the child who watched and noticed the adults and my friends all copying each other, performing roles, connecting. We have always done this. The Internet makes it visible. It somehow speeds the process up (See Virilio (2008) on speed and technology). The breaks are no longer on. But we will write them into the code again. In the meantime, I do believe we need to find ways to communicate and explore intra-relatedness. We must challenge linear understanding, flat thinking, monism. Not everyone I value or follow agrees that there are no objects, that process supersedes things. However, we have lived with that myopic view for so long in the West and it has taken us to a very dangerous place. And so it behooves anyone who has the capability of addressing and deconstructing it to do so.