Potency & Partial Knowledge: An Exercise
Making sense of where, what, and how we are in the technosphere defies simple comprehension. Earth scientist Peter Haff voices a common concern in claiming that our habitual attention to immediate experience risks distracting us from the often diffuse and inaccessible meta-complexities of the Anthropocene condition. Our human-scale perceptions distort our perception of the whole. The question for aesthetics in the technosphere, then, is how humans as “subordinate parts” can take part, participate, and use their partial, experiential knowledge to gain perspective on the systemic whole that constitutes and powers the Anthropocene. How might modest, embodied practices help attune our collective awareness, expanding the reach of our (physical) senses as well as our (conceptual) sensibility? We propose a small exercise, a miniature anthropotechnique presenting an alternative to the abstractions of magnitude and scale through which the Anthropocene is so often perceived.
Potency and Partial Knowledge: An Exercise (script of part 2)
What are the limits of embodied inquiry? The technological objectivity of instrumentation is meant to be a prosthetic for my own subjectivity, and objective knowledge about our vast, phenomenal universe (that is, making scientific sense of what otherwise cannot be sensed) reveals hidden unities and complexities that elude our habitual awareness.
At least, this was the quasi-sublime insight that the Charles and Ray Eames film, Powers of Ten, seemed to offer me when I was a young biochemist. It begins on a fair autumn day in my home city of Chicago. The couple picnicking on the grass are strangers to us, nobodies, just as we the viewers seem to be of no particular body. Instead we are somehow perfectly dis-embodied with a picture perfect vantage from above, the view from no-where. As we begin to float and zoom out and out, we begin to also to pass through abstract windows of size and scale – the world framed as graph paper.
Soon we are going faster than the speed of light, to the very outer limits of the observable universe, and then to a full stop. Then we reverse and collapse back onto our planetary and urbanized frame, slowing down on our approach to the body of the man on the grass, but then simply entering him without pause – through microstructures of cells, onto DNA, and then further still to the material fundaments of the cosmos on the subatomic scale.
The View from Nowhere is the ultimate access to everywhere, freeing us from our fickle, fleshy, subjective perspective. Without this no-where view we are stuck in being simply now-here, feeling the weather without knowing the climate, being a part that has no sense of the whole.
Theorist Peter Haff claims that: “As parts of the technosphere, a rule of inaccessibility distorts our perception of the Anthropocene,” and that, “The clarity and immediacy of our experience tend to overshadow the importance of the more diffuse and harder-to-visualize technosphere.”
This can be true, but I don’t believe true enough to abandon techniques of embodied imagination - the most intimate of materialisms that are latent and potent within my human frame - a body that is as speculative as it is physical. To be physical is to be discerning. The aesthete, she who is committed to aesthetics, is like the athlete who is committed to athletics – both train at the limits of their embodied capacities, at high altitudes and in the thin air of possible self-knowledge.
We inhabit something beyond our conceptual reckoning and yet live through it all the same. As parts, how can we make best use of our partial knowledge?
Take the raisin that you have and hold it in the palm of your hand.
Notice its size, notice its color, and the different shadows upon its surface.
Pick it up out of your palm with two fingers and gently close your eyes and roll the raisin between your fingertips.
Take a few moments to feel its texture, its firmness, its weight.
What does it feel like on your skin? Keeping your eyes closed, pay some attention to how your hand and arm move through space as you slowly bring the raisin to your nose.
Breath in. Make note of the raisin’s scent, its fragrance. What about its smell is familiar? Is there anything about it that is new, or perhaps unexpected?
Now slowly bring the raisin to your softly closed lips and gently place the raisin against them. Breath in again, taking in more smells. Feel the shape of the raisin skin on your skin, and also make note of any sensations taking shape in your mouth or in your stomach.
Now open your mouth and place the raisin on your tongue, closing your mouth. Without chewing, feel the raisin on your tongue and the space it takes up. Then begin to move the raisin around your mouth, pushing it along your gums, teeth, and inner cheek.
What changes are there in your mouth, moment by moment? What textures or sensations are changing?
Now, very consciously, take one or two bites into the raisin and notice what happens:
What flavors appear?
How does the rest of your body feel? Are their waves, peaks, or ripples?
Continue chewing with your eyes closed. Experience the sweet sensation of the fruit’s sugar on your tongue.
Its sweetness is molecular - the sugar a lattice of carbon and oxygen derived from carbon dioxide that was pulled from the air and into the grapevine’s leaves.
That carbon dioxide came from the exhaled breath of a bird, of a fish, of a bat, and from the mouth of a coal smokestack on another continent.
Reflect on this as you continue to chew and feel your breath push softly through your nose, puffs of carbon dioxide formed from sugar stored in your own muscles –
Muscles that are now pumping your heart in your chest, if you can feel your heart beating in this moment.
No doubt many of you already swallowed the raisin, perhaps without even knowing you were swallowing it. Did you detect the feeling and intention to swallow as it rose up within you?
If you haven’t swallowed the raisin and now feel ready to, watch for this impulse as well as the feeling as it moves through your throat.
Imagine how the carbon dioxide in your own breath will now be taken up by a tree, or ten trees, where those molecules will be biochemically fashioned –
Into wood – and maybe then into paper,
Into sap – and maybe then into maple syrup.
What things had to happen to turn last year’s Californian grape into this Berlin raisin now?
Where are the seeds of this former grape anyway? Did you sense any trace of them in your mouth? What is a fruit without a seed?
How much did the raisin cost? What was its value in calories? How much longer could you now live - minutes or hours - if this raisin was the last thing you were to ever eat?
What if you ate everything this slowly or with just half this attention? How much less money would you make, how much more sleep would you unexpectedly get?
The raisin is now deep inside of you and will become you in the next few hours.
And then it will become something else… and then something else... and then something else...
Take a deep breath in - oxygen for your inner combustion. Then take an atmospheric breath out. When you are ready, please open your eyes.
This raisin exercise is an expansion of a meditation devised by American medical professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who had himself modified it from a Buddhist exercise.
Re-investing in the potential of immediate and embodied experience is not merely sensory, it is a way to make sense of things more complexly. It is training to reduce the unforgiving abstraction if our Reductionism, to seek expansive meaning without denying all the holes in our Holism.
A scientific understanding is meant to be impartial understanding. But as parts of an inescapable, technospheric whole, it is important to consider the virtues of being partial, and what potency partial knowledge can have for parts, and participants, like ourselves.
The raisin is itself just a small part, but perhaps with coaxing it can also function as an access to the inaccessible - as a holographic part of a whole. I borrow this conception of the “holographic” from philosopher Thomas Kasulis and his analysis of particular ritual objects and sites in Japanese Shinto practice. Unlike the externalized relations between things, creatures, and events that dominate our conventional view of complexity - nodes connected through networks - Kasulis points towards the view in which parts within a whole are internally related to each other - as forms whose identities overlap as well as differentiate. Holographic relations go further still, recognizing how the whole can be evident - and present – in every part - be it a person, a raisin, a cloud, the ocean.
As Kasulis writes: “The part reflects the whole; the whole is in every part. To see this form of connectedness, the vantage point is not at a distance but through close examination of a single piece of evidence that functions as a holographic entry point opening to a grasp of the whole.”
These exercises are intended to be experiments in the recognition of the potent, interpenetrating, and holographic relations among all things, as physical as much as they are metaphysical.
Instead of falling for the overwhelming character of the technosphere and its view from no-where, perhaps we can take advantage of the partial view of the now-here to make sense, and sensation, of this emerging everything.
Eames, Charles & Ray. Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero. Distributed by IBM, 1977.
Haff, Peter. 2014. “Humans and technology in the Anthropocene: Six rules.” The Anthropocene Review, 1(2): 126-136.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Penguin Random House. 2013.
Kasulis, Thomas P. Shinto: The Way Home. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004.
Nagel, Thomas. The View From Nowhere. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1986.