Pre-Extinction Follies, pt. 4

Posted: October 5, 2014 in Education, Ethics, History, Industrial Collapse, Philosophy
Tags: , , , , , , ,

This is the fourth of four parts discussing approaches to the prospect of NTE, specifically, “Digital Humanities in the Anthropocene” (DH in the A) by Bethany Nowviskie, which is a transcript of a talk given at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference in Lausanne, Switzerland. Part one is found here; part two is here; part three is here.

Of the three articles reviewed in this blog series, DH in the A is the most confounding. It offers what I thought might be the best approach to the prospect of NTE, which is to confront it openly and hash out some sort of meaningful action to take in the time remaining us — but from a humanities perspective. However, as Nowviskie’s comments indicate, she is refraining from endorsing most of what she wrote about in favor of the measured, meaningless mumbles of empty academic speech. But before I get to that, let’s have a look at (some of) what Nowviskie covers in her lengthy article. The profusion of people cited and links littered throughout the transcript is pretty impressive, though I daresay few would bother to explore them in much detail. She begins by laying bare the stark reality of mass extinction:

To make plain the premise on which this talk rests: I take as given the scientific evidence that human beings have irrevocably altered conditions for life on our planet. I acknowledge, too, that our past actions have a forward motion: that we owe what ecologists like David Tilman call an “extinction debt” — and that this debt will be paid. As the frequency of disappearance of species leaps from its background rate by a hundred to a thousand times the average, I accept — despite certain unpredictabilities but with no uncertain horror — that we stand on the cusp of a global mass extinction of plants and animals, on the land and in our seas. We are here to live for a moment as best we can, to do our work, and to help our fellow-travelers muddle through their own short spans of time — but we are also possessed of a knowledge that is sobering and rare. We, and the several generations that follow us, will bear knowing witness to the 6th great extinction of life on Earth. This is an ending of things, a barring of doors, not seen since the colossal dying that closed the Mesozoic Era, 66 million years ago. [link in original; emphases mine]

That Nowviskie says, in effect, “it’s coming” rather than “it’s begun, we can already see it happening” is of little consequence; hardly anyone regards dying (or extinction) correctly as a process rather than an event. Indeed, scientists say mass extinction is a protracted, incremental process scaled outside of human time, but this one is advancing alarmingly fast in evolutionary and geological time compared to previous mass extinctions. That’s the premise, then, and extinction includes humans among the targets. I can’t be certain whether Nowviskie’s audience in Lausanne took as given her framework, but I suspect they did not. In my experience, even among well-educated professionals, only a few possess the curious combination of character attributes needed to acknowledge NTE, much less make it the centerpiece of their work (or blog, as I have). Furthermore, even at venues such as Nature Bats Last, where people gather specifically to discuss NTE, there are always newcomers who must get up to speed, repeating the painful process of information absorption, developing emotional honesty, and coming to final acceptance. (See this link for a recent, worthwhile statement why these discussions are ongoing.) Because it’s such a sobering, horrifying conclusion, the number of people willing and able to say openly “we’re cooked” is by my estimate still only a tiny fraction of the population, though the number increases every day. The likelihood of a whole room full of DH doomers strikes me as silly.

Nowviskie goes on to provide definitions (some accurate, some not so convincing) and historical contextualization demonstrating that more than a few 19th-century writers besides Malthus grasped that humans are a geological force on the Earth, and extrapolated into the not-so-distant future, we would end by unbalancing nature and wrecking everything. She then takes her audience on a survey of what DH (“archivists and librarians … guardians and interpreters of cultural heritage”) offers in response to NTE. Nowviskie profiles two organizations: The Long Now Foundation and The Dark Mountain Project. I apparently erred in believing that by focusing attention on a variety of schemes Nowviskie endorses any of them. They include (1) etching onto nickel discs some 13,000 pages documenting 2,500 human languages (the Long Now’s Rosetta Project), (2) building two mechanical computers to keep time across millennia (Clocks of the Long Now), (3) coming to terms via art, craft, and philosophy with the “unraveling … of the world” (Dark Mountain), (4) doubling down on use of technology to steward, manage, and engineer the world as we see fit (Bruno Latour), (5) repairing and making do rather than building anew (Steven Jackson), and (6) empathizing and adapting as examples of “ecological fitness” (Susie O’Brien). I could list quite a few more Nowviskie profiles but am stopping here.

I’m puzzled that Nowviskie shines light on so many projects but disavows most of them in a comment on this blog. Indeed, even her refocusing remark is a series of generalities, contrasting with the specific embodiments she disfavors:

My paper urged them [DHers] to become more philosophically and politically engaged with these issues — indeed, in part by using new humanities tools and theories, which lend themselves to analysis of nature and culture in the longue durée; to grappling with massive datasets like those through which we can best understand climate change and extinction; to understanding fragility, degradation, loss, and decay through attempts at recovery; and to experimenting with alternate visualities, ways to foster immediate communication, and frameworks for imagining the future, while acknowledging inevitable diminishment and obliteration.

This statement reads like a course description from a university catalog. Plucking just two from her remark, immediate communication and acknowledgment, I can only wonder who the target audience of the message might be. The density of information she provides might be suitable for an academic crowd, but the general public would treat this style of presentation with the same indifference as a Cassandra walking the streets wearing sandwich boards proclaiming the end is nigh. I am comfortable with her style of presentation, but I am an atypical man-in-the-street, which is the audience that matters. And even I mistook her message, as shown by my initial comment at her blog:

… Quite a bit of highly provocative content you pulled together. I especially appreciate that you uncovered a couple (more) authors who recognized in the middle of the 19th century that collective human activity would accumulate unavoidable consequences that are now manifesting in the world (shades of Malthus) …

Contemplation of evolutionary, geological, and (I daresay) cosmological timeframes for DH work in light of our prognosis is puzzling to me … your presentation seems to be bizarrely concerned with making such a deep mark (scar?) on history that whatever evolves on Earth (hundreds of?) millions of years after humans have breathed their last breaths can search the geological record and know we were once here. You clearly understand that such evidence will reveal “our darkest sin[s],” but I can’t see how this bid for proxy immortality is other than a grand and futile gesture of hubris, essentially stamping one’s feet … and demanding to be noticed …

I realize that you are an archivist, wrestling continuously with the idea of permanence and impermanence of cultural artifacts, both digital and analog, as well as their repositories. Yet there is a lack of grace in refusing to be content with our impermanence, our limited time, and our limited physical constraints, which we can transcend no more than our permanent psychological adolescence …

So what is the proper takeaway from DH in the A if one isn’t unduly distracted by the extensive survey Nowviskie conducts? The conclusion of the presentation mentions even more projects to be tackled by DH, including (another abbreviated list) (1) recovery of “texts, objects, and traces of human experience,” (2) contending with hyperobjects of inhuman scale, (3) designing DH tools to penetrate history beyond algorithmic analysis and visualization that emerge from massive datasets, (4) reorientation of the humanities from history toward possible and positive futures, (5) communication with broader publics, (6) bringing “technological savvy and deep historical conscience more squarely into the politics of 21st century life,” and finally, (7) dwelling with extinction, which means developing an empathetic and perhaps aesthetic response. Nowviskie admits it’s daunting and immobilizing. Indeed, among the first responses to NTE many have is dumbstruck paralysis, which is an emotional response, not a cool analysis undertaken with academic objectivity. Emotionalism is where the general public dwells. And as events swell in size and reach (such as the ebola outbreak now threatening to become the 21st century’s first global pandemic, with potential to far exceed the 1918 influenza pandemic that killed 3–5% of world population — that is, before additional and even bigger crises develop), the irrelevance of these initiatives in the face of what probably ought to be called Big Death is notable. Listmakers make lists, I guess.

A default, unthinking response to Big Death (thus, a preferred response for most who can’t wrap their minds around something so outsized) might be simply to go down with the ship, which is to say, ride industrial civilization as far down to its eventual demise as one can. But that’s not a humanities response. Moreover, carving out a digital humanities response as some sort of subset or branch of a broader humanities response (always suggestive of a humane response) makes little sense except perhaps to DH practitioners who believe their tools somehow superior to the task. Responses driven by data, information, knowledge, wisdom, emotion, empathy, and aesthetics have considerable overlap yet divergent flavors. None of them amount to much when the likelihood is one will confront violence and mayhem as conditions deteriorate and the masses strain to find the next meal. How far one is willing to go to survive and at what expense to one’s humanity are questions many will have to face if not swept away in the first waves of disaster. For instance, a basic determination to either hoard or share will have far more immediate consequence on all levels than will anything Nowviskie brings forward. In The Plague (Fr.: La Peste), Albert Camus wrote about a range of responses to a quarantined pestilence, which had been known in history to run its devastating course and leave no few survivors. What prepares us to respond to the devastation of Big Death running its course but with the likelihood of no survivors except a few nonhuman extremophiles?

  1. Clem says:

    Thanks for the Bruno Latour link. You’re the best!

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