A Balancing Act for the Human and Environment Interrelation

Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative

I would like to pick up discussion from my last post about McLuhan’s “medium.” I realize that by pointing out the twofold perspective on “media” I do not address their importance to try to verify the applicability of the famous imperative “the Medium is the Message.”  Objectivity of the physical medium and cultural media does not simultaneously stress their importance. Important for whom, when?

The 21st century, and notably, the second decade of it has really started to take the Western world out of its comfort zone. And one of the questions is about the kind of cultural practice we need. We live in time of ongoing wars and anticipation of catastrophe – whether ecological or economic, when we can visually correlate all these phenomena – wars, capitalism, environmental destruction. This time is filled with a lot of confusion but also thinking, and reconsideration of values. I will not discuss here the new wave revolving around the theme of climate change that we hear in cultural institutions on daily basis; more interesting is the question about what should now be the philosophical formula for art if it is considered as cultural work.

This formula, in my opinion is a balancing act. This means a cross-over of philosophical perspectives. If we go back to McLuhans medium as total interconnected world – even if it may not be necessarily interesting or even immediately relevant from the position of subjective experience we need the view of objective world to start understanding the relationship between the human and environment: to seriously address the stakes for sustainability. Environment which is physical and cultural as McLuhan’s media. On the other hand, contemporary art has been traditionally, in the postmodern era, getting its inspiration from phenomenology, linguistics, structuralism. I believe that the idea of “the extensions of man” in McLuhan’s sense has something in common with phenomenology / studies of perception but they seem to have different purposes or perhaps practical implications.

The balancing act seems to be needed between the subjective and objective in order to be able to extract meaning, the particular meaning which works in current conditions. I cannot resist mentioning the politics of media art and fine art that have built two different camps for art histories. One of these camps is new media art, which through the means of technology or social practice, considers and confronts environment – physical and digital. Until recently this has been perhaps too “unhuman” for the governing mindset in fine art. Of course, in fine art also the artists have played with the “absence of subject” as something that has been produced by the Anthropocene condition (see my earlier post about art in the Anthropocene). My point is that the aspect of objectivity-as-environment (although imperceptible at its extreme) is required for the subject to mirror oneself or mark a distance – impossible as it seems – necessary for reassessing the values.

If we consider the interrelation – human-environment then “subjectivity” which was the focus of Félix Guattari, indicates this dynamics and possibilities for practice. Guattari purposefully excluded the term “subject” from his theory – and dedicated his whole attention to the matter of subjectivity production. It was about mutation, shifts and imagination, which pushed human existence out of scientific reference system towards other ecological horizons [1]. And finally McKenzie Wark has been expressing a similar thought to what I mean by balancing between philosophical perspectives and inclusion of the aspect of objectivity-as-environment. In Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene he suggests that the early 21st century critical thought has desire for life in two main ways: one is a kind of “revolutionary subjectivity” – the other is a kind of “speculative absolute, a theory purified of any merely human phenomenal dimension” – in other words, radicalized subject and absolutized object; yet he further seeks the middle cut, the media which mediates between and delineates object from subject [2].

 

Image: Alberta, Canada, 1966. Vintage photo from National Geographic Archive. Source: https://m.forocoches.com Author: JAMES L. STANFIELD. © National Geographic Creative.

[1] See – Guattari, Félix. Chaosmosis: an Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm, 1992 [translated by Paul Bains and Julian Pefanis]. Sydney: Power Publications, 2006.

[2] McKenzie Wark. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene, 2015. London, New York: Verso, 2016, 122.

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