Tuesday, December 11, 2012

But does fossil fuel know it's the problem?

We know that fossil fuels are poisonous, that they cause myriad social and environmental crises.  Why then are we unable to stop using them?  Our inability to deal with the problem of fuel invites a perverse question: does fossil fuel know that we don’t need it?  This is a version of a joke told by Slavoj Zizek (regarding belief and commodity fetishism):  briefly, a man believes that he is a piece of grain; he goes to a psychologist and he is cured of this delusion.  Time passes, and he returns to the analyst and tells him, “There is a chicken outside of my house; I am afraid he will eat me.”  The analyst says, “But you are cured of your delusion; you know that you are a man, not a piece of grain.”  The man replies, “Yes, I know.  But does the chicken know?”  This joke helps us to understand how we could know that fuel is causing catastrophe, but because our survival is wholly dependent upon fuel, we could contain the contradiction; we could hold the two separate.  This was the way in which Zizek hopes to explain our relationship to money and commodities, and the same insight, that in spite of our ability to describe the commodity and its effect upon our lives, our enacted belief is in those commodities and relationships – our paradoxical affirmation of what we claim to deny – can help us understand what fossil fuels mean. 

The control of heat is a much more primal force than money (though for our empire they have become inseparable – what would happen if global oil transactions ceased to be conducted using US dollars?)  Heat is necessary in an absolute sense, and with the advent of modern fuel based technology, our relationship of dependency has become one of total humiliation.  This is a deep human humiliation under the strain of which we have uncoupled cause and effect, history and politics.  What is the power of a man and his thoughts in comparison to an airplane, or more to the point, what is the meaning of a “community” which is entirely dependent upon imported sources of fuel for all of its survival needs (for food, transportation, heat, etc.)?  We have internalized this craven dependency; it operates unconsciously even for those people who are consciously aware of climate change for instance, or the fact that their commute is ruining their marriage, etc.  In this reduction of ourselves, what remains held in common are sentimental images of human interaction, and similarly man in this humiliated state, with labor, now wholly machine and fuel, just the idyll of labor, is left only with romantic and sentimental relationships with other individuals.  This is the world of your town Christmas party and the play-date trips with your wife.    

Commonly our relationship to fossil fuels is called an addiction.  When we observe a drug addict or drunk doing the same thing to themselves that we all do with fuel, we alternate between hatred and pity of their apparent madness – ultimately their desire through addiction to transcend unto death.  Unlike fuel which is unconsciously accepted as beyond our control, the traditional addict abandons what control we are assumed to have; the addict intrudes upon our sentimental selves – our last pathetic gesture toward virtue.  Their rejection of control is our proof of their madness.  But as we have walled off the reality of our dependency on fossil fuels from our sentimentality, that which remains of our idea of humanity, we cannot recognize or even describe our true belief in fuel’s transcendent power. 

We have to replace combustion of fossil fuels for the generation of heat and power in almost every role in which they currently function.  Through politics and the reinvention of our infrastructure, we can resolve the joke – we can let the chicken know that we are men not kernels of grain.  The very act of this replacement of fuels is the process by which we will mature beyond pale sentimentality toward actual virtue and community.   

Sunday, October 14, 2012

I'll be coming for you...

Contained within the architecture of modern transportation networks are the plans of mass dislocation.  So while the driver, or commercial air passenger, feel they are given freedom, they are actually accepting the ease and facility of their dislocation.  Their mobility robs them of a fixed position, a locality.  As the global economy, a grandiose fantasy, collapsed, there was a spirit, promoted by business media, that we should or would have "six jobs in our lifetime."  When the crash happened perversely hopeful NPR radio essays told us of "permanent 'temps' who travel the nation" -- temporary job to temporary job.  A punishment from antiquity: for those men who wished of traveling freely over the face of the earth, to know the world, they have traded the ability to know their home.  

If Friedrich Kittler is correct, and Marshall McLuhan's idea of media as extension of self is a dangerously unexamined question (i.e. what is self?), that technology in fact imprints "self" (down to the very use of the word "imprint" as this word is not written but burnt onto silicon), that we are not in control as we imagine, that the technology defines us, then we can have our sanity, but we live in a terrifying world filled with endless vectors, real and not yet identified threats.  If McLuhan's argument is correct, then we are all insane, but the illusions and spectacles that are generated by our society can relieve us, however temporarily, of fear.  Said another way, technology is not a tool we pick up and use at our will, a separate entity that we take up and put down, but the lens through which we perceive what is real. The pair of glasses is not just an object, it is your vision.    

There is a false dilemma as well between a humanist, "we tell the machines what to do" and a supposedly anti-humanist view "the machines tell us what to do."  The truth is that we tell the machines what to tell us to do.  What if we change our infrastructure to limit the dislocation of population?  And what of globalization and its parallel fuel transportation system?  Put not in a reactive, but a radical way, if we build infrastructure and machines that by its nature, imparted by humans, privilege the local, what of that?  

In a sense, the 20th century was about connecting the whole globe, and this great technological feat permeated the entire culture of the west.  The New Age mantra, "We're all connected, man..."  was really hippies connecting with the spirit of President Eisenhower and the interstate highway system.  And while it is true that we are all connected, the appropriate response, to transportation infrastructure and cloying hippie bullshit, is "Oh no! We're all connected!"