I have a new piece in a special issue on “Afterlives of Systems,” edited by Christina Vagt and Florian Sprenger, which has just been published in the open-source journal communication + 1. Christina and Florian based the issue around the idea that “in order to understand present technologies, we need to account the systems thinking that fostered their emergence, and that we cannot gain insight into the afterlives of systems without exploring their technologies.” The issue includes a number of interesting pieces approaching the topic from different directions and disciplines.
My contribution focuses on a 1972 installation, Army Ants: Patterns and Structures, by the environmental artist Alan Sonfist, which I use to think through the relevance of systems-thinking for the modern environmental movement:
This paper examines the role of systems thinking in environmental(ist) art and activism through a close reading and contextualization of Army Ants: Patterns and Structures (1972), an installation by Alan Sonfist, one of the leading figures in U.S. land art and environmental art of the 1960s and 1970s. It challenges a commonly held retrospective understanding of “environmental art” as being inherently about bringing nature into art (or into the gallery) by showing how important systems thinking, which blurred the natural-cultural divide, was to Sonfist and other artists of the time. It suggests that these two understandings of the environment — one focused on nature, the other on systems — were both allied and in tension, and that the unexpected technical problems faced by Army Ants can be attributed at least in part to a failure to acknowledge those tensions. Similarly, the paper suggests, the legacy of glossing over these different understandings of the environment has been at the root of broader conceptual problems with environmental art and activism.
A couple of weeks ago I gave a talk — well, really an extended sound-bite — on the idea of the Anthropocene. It was part of Penn’s School of Arts and Science’s 60-Second Lecture series, a somewhat ridiculous, slightly nerve-wracking, potentially embarrassing, but mostly fun way of sharing ideas and research in very small bites in an open, public setting.
Here’s the “lecture” in its entirety, delivered from 11:55am to 11:56am, April 9, to an ambulatory audience on Penn’s Locust Walk:
Recently the idea of the Anthropocene has been sweeping through environmental thought, raising new questions about humanity’s place in nature. The idea is that our environmental impact has grown so huge that we’ve entered a new geological era, the ‘age of man’, of Anthropos. Our CO2 emissions, for example, are warming the planet and acidifying the oceans. The idea of the Anthropocene encourages us to take responsibility for these kinds of world-changing effects.
But it also risks feeding our narcissism. By taking our planetary dominance at face value, we may be entering not just a new geological era but also a new cultural era, the Anthropocentrocene, where we forget how dependent we are on the forces of nature. Like the butterfly that sets off a hurricane, our local interventions have global effects precisely because they’re embedded in powerful systems beyond our control or even prediction. If we lose sight of this interdependence, these limits to our power, we may be forced to embrace another uncomfortable term: Anthropsolescence.
Having asked students in the class on ‘Cyberculture’ that I’m currently teaching to try coding something in Processing that relates, in some way, to the themes of our first few weeks of reading and discussion, I figured it was only fair to try it myself.
We’ve been reading Fred Turner, Gabriella Coleman, Steven Levy, and others on the origins of free software, the countercultural roots of Internet ideology, and the idea of a ‘hacker ethic’. Perhaps the sketch below has something to do with those themes, or perhaps not.
Click below to start, and again to stop. Code is here.
Below are some wonderful images of human-squirrel interactions in urban parks around the turn of the 20th century, found in a Dec. 4, 1904, article in the Washington Post titled “Squirrels Come at the Bidding of Stranger in Central Park: Every Day He Is to Be Seen Holding Communication With Them and Giving Out the Supply of Nuts and Dainties Which His Generosity Supplies.” The gentleman in question is depicted in the two photographs at the bottom; the illustration of a girl feeding a squirrel captures perfectly the ideas about charity that guided humane understandings of squirrels and certain other urban animals, such as pigeons, at the time.
I recently spoke with Ed Linenthal, the editor of the Journal of American History, about my article on “The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States” for JAH’s podcast series. (mp3)
My review of Greening Berlin: The Co-Production of Science, Politics, and Urban Nature by Jens Lachmund is now online at H-Soz-und-Kult. Lachmund’s book is a fascinating account of how West Berlin ecologists helped create the new field of “urban ecology” in the rubble fields left behind by World War II.
One of my goals in the article was to show that the presence of these ubiquitous and highly visible mammals in North American cities was the result of a very intentional, sustained, and widespread project of late-nineteenth-century urban reformers and nature enthusiasts. It was not an accidental or “natural” process in any conventional sense of the term, although it was also not purely a human project. Squirrels too were crucial participants.
Many of the urban residents who released, fed, sheltered, and protected gray squirrels thought that by doing so they were beautifying the city and elevating the moral character of the community (as well as entertaining themselves). Even though the ideas about charity and community that they held have since largely been discarded in favor of an ecological perspective, the squirrels remain, in part due to their remarkable capacity to adapt to a changing urban environment.
“The Urbanization of the Eastern Gray Squirrel in the United States,” Journal of American History 100, no. 3 (2013): 691-710.
Further thoughts on using new media to make regulatory matters visible, accessible, and “public” in new ways: my “New Media and New Publics: An Example with Polar Bears” has just been posted to Ant Spider Bee, a blog about the digital environmental humanities co-edited by Kim Coulter (Rachel Carson Center, Munich), Wilko von Hardenburg (UW Madison), and Finn Arne Jørgensen (Umeå).
Review of Animals and Society: An Introduction to Human-Animal Studies by Margo DeMello and Animal Encounters: Human and Animal Interactions in Britain from the Norman Conquest to World War One by Arthur Macgregor, Environmental History 2013. doi: 10.1093/envhis/emt073
I think there are two reasons that I didn’t become a programmer or computer scientist despite some enthusiasm in that direction at one point. One reason is that I wasn’t particularly good at programming. The other is that, despite not being very good at it, I found it addictive. Once I had a problem and a goal in mind — a little machine of code I wanted to build within the bigger machine of the computer — it was difficult to let go until I was able to watch all its little gears and cogs whirling around. When I’m building one of these machines, time seems to vanish. Suddenly it’s 3 a.m., I have bags under my eyes, and I haven’t eaten for hours. Somehow that never happens to me when I’m trying to finish writing an article.
My recent attempt to recreate the logic and aesthetic of a computer simulation of animal movements written in the mid-1960s sucked me into one of those time-holes. At each step of the way, I realized there was some language or tool I needed to learn how to use or some new feature I had to add, and what was initially intended to be a modest experiment ended by chewing up an amount of hours that I am too embarrassed to estimate. I’ll just say that I didn’t get out much for a couple of weeks. If you want to take a look at the code that eventually resulted, it’s available for perusal via Github. The following is a partial reconstruction of how it was produced.