Friday, April 1, 2011

Vulnerability and Gratitude

Here, at last, are some thoughts on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, events which bring sharply into focus the natural dynamics that give shape to the places in which we pursue our projects, but that can sometimes overpower us and overturn all our projects.

I begin with a quotation from Friedrich Nietzsche, taken out of context but still evocative:
Now, little ship, look out! Beside you is the ocean: to be sure, it does not always roar, and at times it lies spread out like silk and gold and reveries of graciousness. But hours will come when you will realize it is infinite and that there is nothing more awesome than infinity. (Nietzsche, p.180)
Nietzsche had metaphysics on his mind, rather than geology or oceanography, and "infinity" is too grand a term for the Pacific Ocean, however vast it may seem. Still, the image of "silk and gold and reveries of graciousness" is striking, especially in contrast to the ocean's roar, the rearing up of wave upon wave.

I take these as two aspects of our lived experience of natural dynamics in our built environment. I would suggest a third aspect to produce a rough taxonomy:

  1. Reveries of Graciousness: natural dynamics seem to be in harmony with human projects and with social and technological dynamics; for those so inclined, this may be cast as beauty, as providence, or both. (The dogwoods are in bloom in Atlanta, and the sky has taken on that peculiar deep blue of April.)
  2. Background Condition: natural dynamics do not rise to awareness; it has to be pointed out to us that our projects and our places depend on air, warmth, gravity, the hardness and impermeability of surfaces, water, food, soil, and even scenery. (This may be the default for human beings in ordinary life.)
  3. The Indifferent Other: natural dynamics are perceived as forces that, at times, seem to exceed even the possibility of human comprehension, let alone human control; they may rise up as a threat to the social and technological order we have created for ourselves.
I noted, in my last post, that it can be difficult to distinguish natural from social and technological dynamics in the built environment. This problem may be most pronounced in the first two modes of perception, when we either take natural dynamics for granted, or perceive them as beautifully harmonious. Events like the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, however, serve to emphasize the distinctiveness of natural dynamics and to remind us that they are constantly at work in and around our built environment, and even in and around our bodies.

Such events can also impress on us differences of scale. In ordinary life, the dynamics of our social and technological order loom large; in extraordinary events, natural dynamics can loom much, much larger. In ordinary life, all that we have built may seem very old and very stable; in extraordinary events, we may be confronted by processes that are much, much older.

Against the backdrop of extraordinary events, then, all that we have built for ourselves is revealed as small, and new, and transitory. In a word, we feel the vulnerability of the places in which we live our lives and pursue our projects.

I take the vulnerability of place to be an extension of the vulnerability of our bodies. I once attempted to elucidate the experience of vulnerability by way of the phenomenology of Merleau-Ponty, focusing on what he calls "'the fundamental narcissism of all vision' by which 'I feel myself looked at by the things.'" This is an odd notion, which I explain this way:
To acknowledge the narcissism of vision is not to fall into animism: the things of the world around me need not be themselves sentient for me to be visible and tangible before them. I see a brick wall, and I am at the same time made visible before the brick wall: it stands there in its brute facticity; I cannot walk through it, and it would hurt to try. I gaze down from a high balcony to a marble floor several hundred feet below, and in that moment of vertigo I am for myself a fragile being of bone and sinew and weight. A rusty nail, a broken window, a falling coconut, a flight of stairs, the water in a swimming pool, a bolt of lightning, a landslide - in seeing each of these things I am made more sharply aware of my own fleshly life and the ease with which I can be pierced, sliced, drowned, burned, and crushed (Kirkman 2007, p.24).
I go on, in that paper, to develop a rough taxonomy of threats (overt or covert, focused or dispersed, etc.), then to consider what sort of threat global climate change might be and whether, if at all, it is possible for us to perceive it as a threat, to "feel it in our bones."

Part of what makes climate change distinctive, I argue, is that it is theoretical, by which I mean a sophisticated scientific apparatus of theory and instrumentation is required even to become aware of it. This lends to climate change a kind of "plausible deniability": news of the threat can be diluted and distorted in all sorts of ways before it reaches our ears and, even if we come to believe it is a threat, it is difficult to say we ever really experience it as such, directly.

It now occurs to me that there is another distinctive feature of climate change: it is not so much a direct threat to us as embodied beings as it is a threat to the places in which we carry out our many projects. A change in climate at the global scale plays out at the local scale as a gradual shift in patterns of opportunity and constraint punctuated, perhaps, by more violent disruptions as storms become stronger, for example, and droughts more severe.

We care about the vulnerability of place, of course, because we come to rely on existing opportunities and constraints for carrying out projects, some of which are tied directly to maintaining ourselves as living organisms.

An earthquake and tsunami are far more concrete than climate change, and may have a dual aspect. For those killed or injured in the event itself, of course, the shaking of the ground, the collapse of buildings, and the surging water were all very direct threats. For those who survived, the challenge now is to make their way in a landscape that has been transformed, and not only in those places where whole towns were swept away. Old and vital projects may be frustrated, from securing shelter and clean water to keeping the lights on. At the same time, people may find themselves confronted by new and urgent projects that expose them to new dangers, as with the technicians still grappling with the reactors at Fukushima Daiichi.

People elsewhere have watched these events from a safe distance. Here, in Atlanta, the earth does not tremble (much) and the ocean does not rise up. But even in thinking this, natural dynamics that had receded into the background come to the fore. I've always taken it for granted that the earth here does not tremble (much), but now I am conscious of its steadfastness, and I find myself oddly grateful for it.

And so, out of vicarious horror I am pushed a little toward an awareness of reveries of graciousness. The next time I walk on the beach in fair weather, I may be more attentive to the silk and gold spread out to the horizon.

But having been a remote witness to calamity after calamity, gratitude for the steadfastness of the natural dynamics that shape this place should be tempered with humility. Yes, Atlanta is both geologically stable (mostly) and perched high above sea level. And yet, the city was all but paralyzed for nearly a weak after an ice storm back in January, and the drought that ended a few years ago seemed to threaten the viability of the whole enterprise.

Every place is vulnerable, in one way or another.

Kirkman, R. (2007). A Little Knowledge of Dangerous Things: Human Vulnerability in a Changing Climate. In W. Hamrick & S. Cataldi (Eds.), Merleau-Ponty and Environmental Philosophy: Dwelling on the Landscapes of Thought. Albany: SUNY Press.Nietzsche, F. (1974). The Gay Science (W. Kauffman, Trans.). New York: Vintage Books.

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