Concatenated Oikoi: Human Nature and the Anthropocene


There is no ecology without economy. Marshall McLuhan famously quipped

“When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form.”[1]

McLuhan pleaded for an ecology among the media that would save literacy. [2]

“For the first time the natural world was completely enclosed in a man-made container. At the moment that the earth went inside this new artifact, Nature ended and Ecology was born. “Ecological” thinking became inevitable as soon as the planet moved up into the status of a work of art..” [3]

Sputnik was a simple radio transmitter sent up higher than human beings had sent anything up before, and it stayed up, as was expected according to the calculations programmed by Georgy Grechko [4] into the USSR Academy of Science’s mainframe computer. It orbited the earth 1440 times for 3 months at the end of 1957.  Radio hobbyists around the world eagerly scanned the spectrum to hear its distinctive status beeps. These beeps were the only information it sent back to earth about its experience in orbit.  Sputnik, as the first satellite, was earth’s orbit’s original contamination,  a technical interface between human beings and the planet they shared and a new dimension of its pollution.

Computation is central to our understanding of our environment, at the same time computation powers ever-accelerating industrialization which ecological science has determined to be generating dangerous climate change effects. The reason ecology cannot save humanity is because in order to it must not privilege humanity but rather reinterpret humanity as a figure in an infinitely (uncomputably) expansive and heterogenous ground we might call Nature.  Against such an effort is the discipline of economy. Our difficulty confronting fundamental challenges to anthropomorphic omnipotence in anthropogenic climate change, ocean acidification and other effects of techno-industry, is due to the deep interrelated roots of our concepts ecology and economy in the the oikos or household.

The house of household implied an already domesticated (domus = house) realm, a realm overdetermined by human needs and technologies to provide for these. Everything that happens within the household is thus already overdetermined by anthropocentric priorities and anthropomorphic epistemologies. The wall around the household, like the wall around the ancient city, or the contemporary national frontiers create new, distinct environments within which “civilised” behaviour can take place. The envelope of knowledge and technological infrastructure symbolised by Sputnik creates a household out of the entire planet, thus an ecology

The second half of the word “household”, the “hold”, indicates the ownership, title and dominion over the home. In ancient Greece, this was a deme, a patriarch a hegemon who was the political representative of the household, the smallest political unit of the polis. Under the deme laboured any number of slaves, women including wives and concubines and often children. The economic benefit of their activities were subsumed into the household and the personal, private wealth of the deme. The household is “private” property in the most radical sense of the term, a nascent and prototypical realm of patriarchic autonomy connected to the “public” sphere through his democratic tributes and responsibilities.  The oikos is thus an architypal private space, private property, which implies that ecology is not a public natural resource, but a domain of proprietary or privileged knowledge.  Ecology is an interplay of economically motivated human activity within an imperfectly accessible and knowable realm referred to as Nature.

Under capitalism, environmental sensors are designed specifically to provide data necessary to coordinate commercial activities through networked computation.  There are no sensors for that which is not understood to contribute to economic growth, or greater efficiency in the production chain.  Until some extraneous phenomena such as climate change can be seen to impact globalized productivity in some way, it remains non-sense, little or no data is collected.   Bringing phenomena into what Jacques Rancière calls the “distribution of the sensible” will always be a political act. New dimensions of sensibility externalized in sensing technology will have to be developed. This historically has always required government funding.[5] New sensing regimes can revolutionize our environmental understandings, but if they are based on industrially produced sensor data they will only produce a new anthropomorphic concatenation.

Today’s sensor-data-based environmental science is completely beholden to and overdetermined by computational industry which produces sensing technology through the global electronics production chain. It is well known that this production chain is not only intensely polluting in the production phase, but also in the disposal phase. Therefore the contemporary practices of ecology informed through digital data itself produces dangerous waste as it helps justify the deleterious human and environmental impacts of the electronics production chain. Can ecology integrate the technical reproduction of its own practices into itself?

concatenated oikoi

Disaster capitalism [6] wraps around this ecological excess as a second layer of economic concern. So-called “green” technologies promise to address the threats detected through techno-ecological sensing regimes with profitable innovations.  Though the operation of these green technologies may generate less harmful emissions it is unlikely that their production is any bit easier on the environment or on the people and places which produce them than is any other technology. Environmental clean-up, waste processing and storage needs have spawned enormously profitable industries which struggle to deal with the deleterious “externalities” of ordinary techno-industry.

Enclosing the concatenated oikoi is the ecumene, the known or inhabited world. What happens outside the ecumene is irrelevant to us until it isn’t (the point when something enters the ecumene, it anthropomorphs). We live in a fundamentally anthropomorphic epistemology which sets sociocultural priorities we cannot feel or act out of.  The only Nature we know is the Nature we encounter, the Nature we hope to control through technical means.   Study of natural processes with the intention of confining them to serve human purposes has unleashed enormous technical power.

Proprietary politics through monopolistic inheritance, IP, patent and land ownership laws mean that the dividends of technology remain unevenly distributed. This produces the contemporary computational leisure society whose cultures ritualize the management of remote workforces and resources.  The conditions under which these workers must reproduce their value for the ownership classes begin to merge in the concept “environmental justice”.   We need ecumenical modeling which elaborates the interplay between the concatenated layers of oikoi.

Whatever happens outside the ecumene is obscene, taboo and terrifying because it threatens the fragile order we have cobbled together to enjoy and understand each other. We accept all the compromises, hypocrisies and trade-offs of our societies because they are better than being exposed to the whims of unsublimated Nature. Unlike other traditional belief systems, the great rationalism of Western civilization has made a sharp distinction with the greater unknown within which it has conjured a new Nature, a Human Nature of enormously satisfying and technically wondrous effects. Nevertheless always beyond the ever expanding frontiers of the Empire of Knowledge, unsublimatable otherness persists.

Understanding of our planet provided through our technologies will always be anthropomorphic artwork. Just like art work, the effects on the (human) environment, the interactions with (human) Nature with always be incompletely foreseeable, and knowable. Techno-industry organizes the environment in orderly arrays of human activity, the domestication we refer to as peace. However, even in the domain of human affairs, we can see that the peace is won at the expense of the dominated, and that the domination of the (human) environment creates unacceptable consequences of pollution, destruction and war which can not be externalized. The refugees surging at the illegitimate borders drawn across the world are part of, and must be given a fair share in the ecumene.

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NOTES

[1] Marshall McLuhan from “McLuhan Unbound” (2005) Ginkgo Press, Corte Madera (USA) p.22

[2] ibid, p.4

[3] https://youtu.be/a11DEFm0WCw?t=4m40s

“the hidden aspect to the media are the things that should be taught because they haven’t irresistible force when invisible when that these factors you remain ignored an invisible a they have and absolute power over the user so yes the sooner that the population or the young or old can be taught the effects of these forms the sooner we can have some sorta reasonable ecologies among the media themselves what is desperately needed as a kind of understanding in the media which have been implemented to program the whole environment so that’s a literal values would not be wiped out by new media”

[4] Georgy Mikhaylovich Grechko (b. 1931) trained as a mathematician, later became a cosmonaut himself, making the first spacewalk in an Orlan space suit on December 20, 1977.

[5] Marianna Mazzucato is a prominent researcher on the theme of public sector innovation, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p4DhbjZ74IQ

[6] Klein, Naomi, (2008) The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Metropolitan Books, New York.