Sunday, January 29, 2017

#3 vulnerability

Keywords: vitality / global forces / ecosystems 
Literature: The Three Ecologies, Felix Guattari
Lecturer: guest lecturer; Kristine Hognerud Træland

"There she breaches! there she breaches!" was the cry, as in his immeasurable bravadoes the White Whale tossed himself salmon-like to Heaven. So suddenly seen in the blue plain of the sea, and relieved against the still bluer margin of the sky, the spray that he raised, for the moment, intolerably glittered and glared like a glacier; and stood there gradually fading and fading away from its first sparkling intensity, to the dim mistiness of an advancing shower in a vale (Melville 1922: 517).

The most enduring hunt ever in literature is the iconic battle between man and nature described in detail by Herman Melville in his classic novel about Moby Dick. Captain Ahab, the late 19th century whaler, almost insane by anger and agony against the great White Whale that had taken his leg, has only one goal in his mind; to kill the whale – chasing it for months over half the world’s oceans. 

"Great God! but for one single instant show thyself," cried Starbuck; "never, never wilt thou capture him, old man- In Jesus' name no more of this, that's worse than devil's madness. Two days chased; twice stove to splinters; thy very leg once more snatched from under thee; thy evil shadow gone- all good angels mobbing thee with warnings:- what more wouldst thou have?- Shall we keep chasing this murderous fish till he swamps the last man? Shall we be dragged by him to the bottom of the sea? Shall we be towed by him to the infernal world? Oh, oh,- Impiety and blasphemy to hunt him more!"(Melville 1922: 521)

The encounter with Moby Dick brings a tragic end to the affair, killing both captain Ahab, the crew and the whale, with only one of the sailors; Ismael surviving, using his friend Queequeg’s coffin as a floating device. 

The scene is evocative and pictures the extremely exposed position of the sailors on a small vessel alone on endless stormy oceans – in addition they are fighting a gigantic powerful sperm whale that has shown its devastating aggression at several occasions. It is a classic depiction of human vulnerability and mortality - and how humans have exposed – and have been willing to sacrifice them selves, and others, to deadly threats encountering strong natural powers. But it is of course also – seen on the basis of contemporary experiences – an example of human ignorance and arrogance, and the never ending urge for battling and prevailing nature. 

Captain Ahab’s fight against the great Leviathan can be read literally as a fight for survival against strong forces, but is for us more useful as a metaphor for how humanity has to fight todays Leviathan in the picture of evolving global, ecological crisis.

According to Bruno Latour the deep contemporary crises are based in a western ignorance to nature – rooted in Christianity and liberal capitalism, and where man has abandoned the idea of being part of nature, and ascended into a state of distance or superiority to nature; we [the modern western man] are the only ones who differentiate absolutely between Nature and Culture, between Science and Society, whereas in our eyes all the others (…) cannot really separate what is knowledge from what is Society, what is sign from what is thing, what comes from Nature as it is from what their cultures require  (Latour, 1993).

The fact that we are facing innumerable and incalculable crisis is something that we all are aware of. This reality will influence our profession and our existence to an increasing degree the coming years and will also demand a high level of complex understanding - because the systems evoking the problems are complex, and the causal connections are not always obvious. Researchers monitoring changes in ecological systems – like changes in ocean ecologies in the North Atlantic due to heating and acidification - more often, not only talks about thresholds and tipping points, but of points of no return – which means extinction or total changes in known ecosystems. 

In the culture of the Tersky Pomors (before the Russian revolution) at the white sea on the Kola peninsula, there was a far developed system of religious beliefs and taboos connected to over-exploitation of natural resources. For centuries the Tersky Pomors were dependent upon nature for survival, and developed a unique traditional system of resource use that made it possible to balance the needs of both man and nature. The community regulated the use of its natural resources on two different levels. First, there were direct limitations on hunting and fishing. But the Pomors also relied on hunting and fishing charms, and this reliance on magic created a mystical respect for nature and a special gratitude for all that it provided. Their traditions enabled the Pomors to live in such a manner that the natural landscape which they inherited from the Urgo-Finnish peoples remained unaltered (Lyapaeva et al. 2007: 14).

With the Soviet expansion on the Kola Peninsula in the beginning of the 20th century, and also further east in Siberia and Yamal, the brutalism of a dogmatic industrialized culture, have through mining, metallurgic industry and oil and gas exploitation, erased most of the inherited knowledge from the Pomors, the Nenets, the Sami and other indigenous entities. 

Vulnerability can be an abstract and vague concept because it has so many connotations – but it is at the same time extremely concrete and tangible experienced on a personal level. This is also the reason why an increasing amount of scientists and scholars demand a shift, using Latour: From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern (Latour, in Critical Inquiry 30, 2004: 225). Knowledge calls for awareness where we can not claim that we don’t know or understand the consequences of miscalculations or defaults – and that what ever small effects in separate parts of a system, it might have the potential of endangering the whole system with a self-reinforcing effect. Most scientists believe that [global] warming is caused largely by man-made pollutants that require strict regulation. Mr. Luntz [a Republican strategist] seems to acknowledge as much when he says that “the scientific debate is closing against us.” His advice, however, is to emphasize that the evidence is not complete. “Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled,” he writes, “their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue.”(Latour in Critical Inquiry 30, 2004: 226).

In an article in El País, March 10, 2007 the Spanish architect Iñaki Ábalos elaborates the essence in Herman Melville’s essay about the clerk Bartleby that has a recurring habit of saying; I would prefer not to (Mellville 1853), when asked to perform certain tasks. Ábalos points at the obvious that now there is a need for consolidation and not for expansion – which is the track the world has been on since the enlightenment. He shows how architects can play an essential role in a new and possible post-capitalist world-order where: Architects must refuse to bow before all the pomp and fuss [and must rise the] dimension of sustainability by questioning the very need for action (Ábalos in Natural Metaphor III, 2007: 162).

Ábalos formulates a critical approach that can count for all planners with an encouragement; 
A credible map of sustainability has yet to be drawn, but there can be no doubt that other aspects already trailed and trialled have run out of whatever credibility they had (Ábalos in Natural Metaphor III, 2007: 163).


Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, 1991
Bruno Latour, Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern, Critical Inquiry 30, 2004
Herman Melville; Moby Dick or The White Whale, 1922
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener, 1853.
Iñaki Ábalos, I would prefer not to in Natural Metaphor 2007, Architectural Papers III, Pp. 161-163 (originally published as ‘Bartleby, the Architect’ in El País, 10 March 2007.
Olga Lyapaeva, Irina Zaitseva and Lada Kalinina, Tersky Pomors, Traditional ecological knowledge, 2007.

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