Ecological Criticism in the Age of the Database

[Text of talk delivered at the CMS/W colloquium series on October 12, 2017.]

1. The Anecdote

The ecological principle tells us that everything connects with everything else. Environmental criticism necessarily connects our media with the energy, materials, resources and their extraction, the waste and pollution associated with them. Nonetheless, we must use media, which themselves connect us with one another and with the word, if we are to conduct politics in the 21st century. We need the ‘vast machine’, as Paul Edwards calls it, of meteorological instruments, and much more: the global systems of seismic sensing arrays, the vast energies of the Large Hadron Collider to understand fundamental physics, the enormous investment in neuroscientific observations of the brain to understand how we understand… In a global political economy, we can no longer rely on word of mouth.

We do however have to strive to understand what happens when media mediate, and when humans communicate. There are at least three levels to this: the material connections performed by any form of mediation, from sex to cellphone networks; the specificities of particular media such as speech or packet switching; and the idiosyncratic forms taken in the production of meaning when unique individuals encounter the unique instances of mediation for which we have the inaccurate but traditional term ‘texts’. It is without doubt the case that all communications are historical formations of primal mediation, engaging human and non-human agents into complex assemblages with their own combinatory agencies, but to say so gives us little purchase on the specifics of a fan’s encounter with a Red Sox game. We know we can not only make true statements about the affordances of print media but give highly specific analyses of their articulation of their historical, economic, political and cultural formation and reception. But again, though these give us legitimate ways to analyse important features like popularity, they still miss the joy of coming across a transfixing artwork.

I do not want to privilege extreme aesthetic moments. In fact, one of the key demands I want to raise this evening is for a criticism equally capable of giving an account of the banal procedure of flicking through your social media feed. I worry that big data analyses in digital humanities and social sciences, cannot reach through to the moment of encounter. I want to make the case for anecdotal evidence. By ‘anecdote’ I mean a method for producing truths from unique instances. The thesis is that where other professions and disciplines have a Good they promote (health, wealth, justice, knowledge…) the humanities and the sciences humaines more broadly engage with anecdotes – unique instances – where these Goods are in conflict: where for example freedom and equality cannot be reconciled. Neither argument from axioms nor statistical probabilities can answer these irreconcilables, especially if, as I propose, we abandon the utilitarian ethos of the greatest good for the greatest number when it requires, as it invariably does, an unsustainable sacrifice of life, liberty or happiness of even one person. In the ecocritical perspective, even the happiness of every human being is not feasible if it is based on the unhappiness of the environment in which we are all implicated. The anecdote insists on the interconnectedness of every force operating to produce the unique constellation that is an event. In investigating anecdotal evidence, the critic unpicks these forces in order to orchestrate an encounter between critic and event, and a reader with the encounter.

Ecocriticism will always demand of any text not only the media-theoretical question about how it is made, transmitted and received, but the ecological question of what it is made of. This is always extrinsic to the encounter itself. The lithium, copper, plastics and glass, the coal-fired or hydro electricity powering the capture, processing and transmission of the story are not the story, but without them the story doesn’t exist. They are the supplements that unravel the presence of the message to itself; they are in effect the encounter of the anecdote with its own materiality, that alternative and unwelcome demand which, like feminist and decolonial critiques, discomforts the state of the situation.

2. The Mass Image

Amazon tribe

From “The Uncontacted Indians of Brazil”,

This all works well enough on the traditional type of aesthetic encounter (and here I mean by ‘aesthetic’ the sensory encounter you can have with any form of anecdote – textual, ethnographic, archaeological…). Here for instance is an image from a recognisable genre of first contact images, this from a FUNAI helicopter shot of an uncontacted Amazonian tribe. The image is dialectical. They can only be ‘previously‘ uncontacted because they are in a photograph. There is a primal colonial fantasy at work: to meet the indigenous people before we ever met them. FUNAI’s dilemma was that they had to prove the existence of these people to stop logging, but in doing so they had to punctuate their isolation. The photo evidence is something that ‘we’ do not wish them ever to see. We have to protect them from becoming like us. But what do we gain from them? And by ‘we’ it is clear that we mean we who have access to this photograph, which unlike communication, in the sense of forming community, excludes ‘them’ as the pristine community imagined as unmediated, but whose very lives mediate their oneness, their communion, with their habitat. ‘We’ in this sense have acquired ‘them’ in the form of data, and they have acquired nothing.

There is much more to add to this anecdote. The metals and plastics that enable us to see the image are implicated in the toxins almost certainly in their bodies from mines and wells in the Amazonian foothills of the Andes. The ecological principle demands that we analyse the image in such con-texts, whereupon the image makes intellectual, affective, ethical and political demands on us.

I subscribe to the Aristotelean maxim that the purpose of ethics is to pursue happiness; that true politics concerns the pursuit of happiness for everyone; and of ecopolitics is happiness for everything. Not one pebble left behind. It is, I realise, a radical demand. We all know how unhappy the world is. Happiness depends on negating the world we have. That is what images do. They negate the world in order to produce something more startling, richer, surer, more filled with meaning and more desirable than what we have. Even images of unhappy events seek to heal them. A key task of anecdotal ecocriticism is to dig for the work of negation and healing that images and other forms of anecdotal evidence undertake. We know why those Amazonians look up at the lens in fear and loathing: this is a picture of us, not them. In this sense, the photo is not a picture of what is but of what follows from what is: it negates the event of its own capture in order to demand from us a restitution of happiness.

Any one image aspires to happiness. The proliferation of images is another matter. Today the multiplication and acceleration of recording and circulation sums up at stasis. When, in the eyes of the database that is its primary reader, any image is exchangeable for any other, there is no change, only agglutination. This mass accumulation of images cannot produce a lasting happiness because it replaces the unhappy but changeable world with a single object, the mass image, that grows but cannot change the underlying logic of the database. Instead of negating the world, the mass production and exchange of images reproduces it. The mass image is a project to produce a total synthesis of the world. In the mass, each image sacrifices its unique negation in order to contribute to a positive. A culture of compulsorily happy pictures – the culture of Facebook and Instagram – necessarily negates happiness by replacing happiness with pictures. If there is one thing we know about happiness, it is that it isn’t single. The aggregate, singular, mass image negates happiness a second time by re-imagining it as normative, coherent, stable and universal. From within the mass image, the becoming-other of pictures is decay; from outside the mass, this noise is the unpredictable generation of the new. The system demands both the constant (and typically unpaid) labour of producing innovations while at the same time debarring the invention of a new system that might liberate the mass image from its bondage to the profit motive. Perfection is by definition entirely predictable and therefore incapable of producing information; but the system requires manageable tremors of the new.

To understand this management we need a tiny bit of media archaeology. Photography extracts a single instant from the flux of time. The moving image arrives to heal the trauma of this excision by piling image upon image in a succession that at once emulates and organises time’s flux; but its addition of narrative and other formal strategies fails to contain the now endless pursuit of completion along the endless suite of frame upon frame. The scanned image reinstalls instability in each frame. Because no image is whole and entire unto itself, its instability produces the possibility of being otherwise. This is enshrined in the necessary erasure from display of the previous image before its successor can arrive. This is the secret temporality of any image, drawn, painted or photographed: it treats the past, filmic and pro-filmic, as an actuality out of which some other future can emerge. The present itself is the utterly ephemeral moment (and momentum) of this transformation.

In the database of the mass image, this temporality has been excluded in favour of structured storage. Difference occurs not within the image and its relations to the pro- and post-filmic moments but to its relation – relations of exchange – with other images. It strips the present of its transformative role in order to create a vast stability. The mass image can manage the instabilities of images by ensuring that in the instant of their assimilation they join the atemporal relations of the database.

There are two features of the mass image that articulate it immediately with environmentalism. The most obvious is that cloud computing, against the grain of its metaphorical name, is exceedingly heavy, demanding a vast infrastructure of materials and energy supply whose materiality and labours, human and non-human, are erased in the pure appearance of both images and relations between them. When powerlines, masts, cables and satellite transmissions are interrupted by storms and seismic activities, we become aware of how deeply implicated these systems are in the environment. The mass image is an attempt to build a total world-picture apart from its own dependence on a material infrastructure that inevitably ties it to what it most deeply wishes to avoid: the unpredictable noise of a nature which it meticulously excludes and externalises, economically, in engineering, and culturally as ‘environs’.

As ubiquitous photography approaches the state of all-seeing scientific instrument, human actions begin to retreat into the background hiss. Too numerous to be attended to singly, human events must be handled statistically. A different kind of attention attends to these diagrams of likely and unlikely activity. What used to be public knowledge now is a proprietary dataset. When we share on social media, we are also donating our images to a public realm that is no longer a res publica, a commons belonging to everyone and no-one. Like land before it our knowledge about one another and about hos to live in the world has been enclosed, in that paradoxical movement that simultaneously subjects land and knowledge to capital and renders it an economic externality that can be exploited without cost.

The environmentalisation of knowledge simultaneously includes and excludes it from account. This is the second feature lining the mass image to ecocriticism. Like all machinery the apparatus consisting of capture (photographers and cameras), processing (software, hardware) and transmission (codecs, protocols, displays) has been built up on generations of common knowledge and skills, gathered together as machinic behaviours, and congealed into machinery, a process Marx described in the industrial era as ‘dead labour’. In Maori culture, working in traditional methods always includes a dialogue with the ancestors whose techniques you use. The difference between western and traditional technology is that we do not know the names of the ancestors we owe for our knitting, weaving, glass blowing, lithographic, metals extraction or any of the hundreds of other skills embedded and embodied in our devices. The anonymous ancestors continue to be exploited in the operation of machines. Like the natural environment, ancestral labour is externalised economically, as engineering, and culturally as a technological and data environment.

The most frightening aspect of this second feature is that today, our posts to Instagram and Baidu anchor not to the form of the unique image and its rituals of memory, family formation and identity, but to the anonymity of Facebook’s News Feed, Google quality analysis and similar relational algorithms. To this extent, while we believe in them as proofs of self and identity, from the point of view of their major user, uploaded and aggregated images are merely digital behaviours to be processed once more as data and mined for their potential redeployment in production, service and financial sectors. In this sense, we act increasingly as if we were dead labour, anonymised ancestors, anonymous, concatenated into the black boxes of rule and expropriation. But perhaps, for that very reason, we are that much closer to annihilating the modern alienation of humans from machines, and thence the alienation of both from the naural environment.

3.Exit Strategies

Initially my response to the massification of the accumulated image was to assert the power of the anecdotal method to rescue images one by one from the mass, bit giving individual images this kind of attention merely restores an older way of looking and in choosing the inevitably tiny minority of images to attend to, also restores the hierarchy that haunted the old aesthetics of close reading. The question then may not be how we liberate images but how we liberate the database, and thereby ourselves, from its regime of truth, to turn the database from storage towards processing. Te question then hinge son another: what does the database want? Who or what is the subject of the mass image?

The historical subject, of the kind analysed by Freud, was produced by the repression of biological drives in processes of socialisation that marked the self as subject of desire shaped in the conflict between these forces. Network capital prefers a non-self whose desire is not repressed at all but plugged into and permanently receptive to an unstemmed offer of tailor-made satisfactions. The consumerist non-self is doubly alienated – from its biology and from the social framing of its desire. Satisfaction is no longer indefinitely postponed but imaginarily instantaneous, and the repression that forms desire is itself repressed in favour of a compulsory orgy of consumerism.

The Amazonian image appealed to a nostalgia for an epoch when the tribe and its environment formed one communion. The emergence of the modern subject involves dissolving the bonds of community (through enclosure and urbanisation, for example) to produce the nuclear family as the core of reproductive labour. After Keynesianism, the family becomes more oriented to consumption, and begins to crumble under the weight of the new demands, with soaring divorce rates and the emergence of an increasingly individualist ethos. Now the individual is beginning to crumble in the mental health crisis affecting the developed world. The new subject has responded to Lacanian and Deleuzean demands to end the Cartesian ego by splitting spontaneously into behaviours, the gestures and uploads that now figure us to the network.

At the same time, the subject that knows has also changed. For Christian Europe, and far earlier, for example in Euclid’s diagrams, God knew. In Renaissance perspective and cartography, Man usurped that position. In the Enlightenment, that gendered, still phenomenologically grounded and so restricted agent was refined and replaced by the collective commons of Science as the Subject that knows – whose knowledge guarantees the truth status of any other knowing. The implication was still that there was an end-stop in a human or divine knower. Now however knowing belongs to these vast databases where our snapshots mingle with X-ray repositories, CCTV records, earth-observation satellites and every other network of scientific instruments. In the same way that The Market, as ‘invisible hand’, knows every act of exchange, this cyborg intelligence knows more than any individual, any group, even whole societies can possibly know. This is the limitation of Big Data methods: they can account for the state of databases but cannot replicate the database as Subject of knowledge, or translate that knowledge into forms other than ones that conform to its logic by modifying behaviours in a closed biopolitical loop.

In exchange for seeing, I must be seen, must inscribe myself in the field of the visible. Databases, like paparazzi, break this contract by hiding from their subjects. Being is always doubled by appearing. This implies both that being is never simple and unified – no thing is self-identical because it appears – and that there is a subject to whom it appears. Far from asserting the pre-eminence of the subjective ego promoted in Romanticism, however, the subject in the presence of the apparent must realise its own subordination to what appears. It is this form of the encounter that makes anecdotal evidence possible: it places an eternal demand on the subject to respond to the Other. This is precisely what the database is incapable of to the extent that it withdraws from the encounter.

From the point of view of social media databases, there is no difference in the ‘when’ of all the stored images: every image is precisely equal to every other, and every image is therefore indifferent. The device can be taught to recognise faces or patterns of behaviour, but it has no sense of what the date stamp on each recording signifies. It remembers everything as if it were permanently present. The certainty of ‘this once occurred’ no longer holds. Since there is no time in the database of images, the negation of the present cannot occur. In one sense this means that the mass images collated and stored by social media networks and surveillance cameras are more true than other images. They concern themselves only with the actual appearance of anything whatever along with its coordinates in the four dimensions of space and time. As data, those vast hoards of unregarded X-rays and unwatched CCTV footage are affirmations of the world’s existence. They state the facts. It is they rather than the tiny number of photographs we actually pay attention to that constitute the record of reality. They are the catalogue of the billions of instants seen and unseen, conscious and unconscious, that constitute the world as data. Precisely because they are true, they cannot exploit the disparity between being and appearance. As it stands, the mass image is debarred from the ethical demand for happiness.

4. The Threshold of Encounter

From our previous explorations we concluded that the database externalises knowledge, nature and now human behaviours as environments to be exploited – and we might add here the increasing colonisation of human, animal and plant biomass as repository of information that can be capitalised without cost, save only investment in the machinery designed to exploit it. There are then three modes of subjectivity excluded from the database through their externalisation. If the hypothesis is correct that every exclusion from the totalising and perfection-oriented pictorial account of the world experiences everything outside itself as noise, then the environmentalisation of technology and human behaviours gives a possible method for disruption of the normative functions of the database. It is questionable whether disruption is an adequate technique however, unless it is possible to specify how it might be possible to encounter the mass image in some way equivalent to that at the heart of anecdotal method. The task of criticism is to engineer that crisis that will allow the encounter to occur.

The schiz of the post-Cartesian self is less liberation than intensified division of labour as we transition into a finance economy: the triumph of a hyper-individualist affective prosumerism over an older identitarian politics. Not so much dissolved as distributed, the performance of identity through observable and quantifiable behaviours throws itself open to the characteristic management of distribution, logistics, not least in the form of biopolitical governance. The long historical movement from productive to cognitive labour, factory discipline to disciplined consumption, and from tasks to behaviours depends on the logistical management of materials and now information. The first electronic infrastructure – the telegraph – becomes global at the beginning of the crisis of the Westphalian system and the definitive construction of nature as other to industry and the industrial city, beginning its descent into accountable resource until it arrives at what Jennifer Gabrys calls the programmable planet. The parallel histories of the enclosure and externalisation of nature and the production of the planet as a world system articulated through global communication networks maps onto the histories of subjectivity traced just now. This matters because the nascent eco-political revolt against nature’s hypostasis and subsequent expropriation provides elements of a model for any future encounter, and therefore any future solidarity between the logistical subjects of data sovereignty and our naturalised and technologised others.

Contact with the ancestors in ancient times demanded a specific place. Odysseus is sent by Circe ‘to the point where the rivers Phlegethon and Cocytus flow into the Acheron’; Orpheus ‘used the passage which opens at Aornum is Thesprotis’. By the time of Malevich’s Black Square, the passage to the spirit of non-objective sensation which pervades everything’, the threshold lies in a painting which is itself an object whose function was to negate but which was not itself non-existent. The cinema, where the image is entirely separate from the screen that supports it, is even less dependent on its actual place. Network social media are even more ubiquitous and even more permeable. Like the posthumous world of ancestors they permeate our world, requiring no perilous voyage, no blood sacrifice, not even the ‘kind of timidity bordering on fear’ that Malevich experienced on leaving the ‘world of will and idea’. The threshold is everywhere and nowhere so that those of us who pass between physically connected existence and an ostensibly dematerialised existence online no longer know who is haunting whom. Transition signals nothing more ritual than a slight change of behaviour and we cannot tell whether the transition triggers the ritual behaviours of social media or the behaviours trigger the transition. The question of network subjectivity then is no longer where but when transition occurs.

We are in the period of the primitive accumulation of information. The form under which information is gathered and commodified is data Data are not realities: they are statements about the world. Data abstracts from behaviours only those instants that can be quantified in unit form. The only requirement is that the data be well-formed – isolable, countable and accumulable. Other modes of data propose themselves as fictions while others still are clearly fantasies. One way to distinguish these formations is diagrammatic:

Sean Cubitt truths diagram

It is of course possible to falsify data: we call such well-formed formulations lies when the speaker does not believe them. Voluntary fictions are also disbelieved but express a feasible or desirable state of affairs; while involuntary fantasies similarly express non-existent states of affairs but ones that are believed, at least for a short while (a dream, or a gambler’s faith in his luck). [truths1.png].   The moment of network transition operates in the central area of the second diagram, at the risk of pathological neo-populism, but with the opportunity too of the utopian axis, torn between the wishful and the paranoid. This is also the terrain of highest productivity mined by cognitive capital.

Constant transitioning as the state of the experiencing subject points towards thresholds as critical passages which, in attempting to form commodifiable units of behaviour, are vulnerable not so much to excess, which it can account as free labour, but absence in varying forms. Cynicism and bad faith, instead of being failures of authenticity, become tactics of the weak. Doubly alienated, the weakened subject seeks an infinite freedom in the network, which is incapable of supplying it. Only the experience of transition into a new world provides that instant of self-identity which however is betrayed by the quality of the transition: that it is an static instant rather than a moment of becoming. Nonetheless the repetition provides the subject with a sense of its own dissatisfaction, the dissatisfaction of an already dissolved subjectivity that nonetheless finds itself neither reunited with its primal environment (womb, mother’s arms, nature as all-embracing union of bodily and world) or permitted possession of its own behaviours (symbolic and social destiny), already algorithmically isolated from them as data. At the threshold of (another) network subjectivity arises the intuition that the lack is fundamentally social: not my possession of things, capacities or knowledge but my possession by them. This is the satisfaction that network capital cannot assuage and that therefore becomes a profound, existential demand of the distributed subject.

Every point in a network is its centre. At present, the data-generating subject feels itself being exploited from all points of the compass, rather than nurtured and remediated. Today the pressure to inauthenticity generates profit for online capital and mental illness for its proletariat. The same contradictions begin to indicate the possibility of a post-individualist resolution. In itself this position risks the status of mere ideology, unless it is clear that what is at stake in network subjectivity is no longer (or not only) the truth or falsehood of the data subject, but instead the subjunctive mode of existence which the very move to information capital has made central to human experience. The mass subject of the network is in process of releasing itself from nostalgia for a lost, and never satisfactory, Self, seizing the condition of massification that is our inheritance as the basis for a new sociality beyond its gross expropriation. The difference between this proposal and oceanic oneness with the world of both primal fantasy and the free market model is the proliferation of inauthentic pseudo-selves, a tactic of proliferating subjunctive actions and statements whose very inauthenticity undercuts the possibility of there being, within the regime of commodification, self-identical particulate behaviours. The ideological construction of an ‘I’ (at the pathological and utopian intersection of belief and the subjunctive) has become a unit of reward. The fact that this ‘I’ has not yet earned the right to say ‘we’ drives its profound unhappiness, thus its demand for more, for better, and most radically of all for happiness. But happiness can never be assured against a background of others’ suffering. The challenge of the present moment is to create a shared trajectory towards a ‘we’ that cracks the structures of property in order to embrace all that has been enclosed, the environment, dead labour and human nature. The database wants to heal the continuing rift between image and world instigated in photography and unhealed by cinema. That desire has been, like all desire, perverted in its accommodation to the demands of capital. Is it possible to free this ancestral want without unleashing some other madness?

It has become clear in the last twenty years that ‘medium specificity’ – the underpinning approach in the foregoing – is an inadequate mode of analysis. Just as ‘films’ are no longer all produced using the same set up, so databases and algorithms have idiosyncratic functions. Advancing towards the encounter demands the same detailed approach to these idiosyncracies as textual analysis demands of our encounters with texts. This is a new trajectory for me, but one required, since happiness can only ever be mutual, if we are to secure their happiness along with our own and that of the similarly alienated natural world.


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