Monday, July 13, 2015

Ethics and Animation

A talk given at the animation symposium organised by Esther Leslie recently at Birkbeck. Here's a sample from the introductory movement. The paper is mostly on Rango, and on the weirdness of voice synchronisation, and is rather unsatisfactory, in the sense that it poses a problem, then wanders round it poking at the places where it looks vulnerable, but without actually helping. In the conclusion, I made a too familiar and inadequate move, requiring an ethics of reading. Still, there does seem to be a real problem here, and it is in some respects that the solution to an ethical challenge may well be political, rather than ethical.

Applying existing codes to specific, often explicitly didactic or exploitative animations only tells us that the normal norms apply. I wonder whether there is anything that is more specific to animation as such, to the process of animating the inanimate. Should we, as makers or spectators, take responsibility for animated characters and worlds? Do we owe anything to the inanimate, to the resources we use in animating, as design ethics still considers truth to materials? That question is fundamentally ecological, addressing our connectivity with the whole universe. Against both the implicit human exclusivity of utilitarianism and the rationalist individualism of Kantian freedom, animation ethics speaks to what Simon Critchley (2007: 37) calls 'this moment of incomprehensibility in ethics . . . with the subject is faced with a demand that does not correspond to its autonomy'. If, as Critchley (2007: 91) also argues, the accelerating dislocatory power of capitalism does not lead to the emergence of a unique political subject, but rather to the multiplication of social actors', then the unique encounter with the inanimate is not experienced by a subject definable as human, but as a unique constellation of sexuality, ethnicity, class, gender, indigeneity and so on. Consideration of the unique individual and the unique encounter concerns then a uniquely mutual dependence, which however one of the parties at least is capable of rejecting. Ethics normally places us in relation to other people and occasionally animals, but in the Anthropocene, are we confronted with the limits of individual and species autonomy, and does animation give us a laboratory for conducting moral experiments in the relations of control, contingency and autonomy in the frame of universal connectivity proposed by ecology?

Revolution Earth (take 2)

We did a major redesign for a hardcopy relaunch of Revolution Earth at the wonderful Barton's Bookshop in Leatherhead.

All thanks to my wonderful co-author and partner of 30 years Alison, who has also rebuilt the Lambert Nagle website.


I've been very lazy about this blog: apologies to both my fans.Here however is the link to the video of my inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths, with thanks to Stefan Zambinski for production.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

16 Theses on Meteorology

Kant noted that innocence was a splendid thing, but didn't keep well, and tended to be misled. We cannot afford to be innocent about the weather, but we do not know where to go for wisdom. The blasphemous desire to see the spectacular extremes of weather is not innocent, but neither is it wise.

There was a collective sigh of relief breathed in the middle of the nineteenth century when Sir Thomas Huxley, the doyen of British science, announced that the oceans were to all intents and purposes infinite. We might take from and dump into them as much as we wanted: they would be forever fecund and forgiving. It took the spectacular collapse of the Atlantic fisheries, even more than the near-extinction of several species of whale, to persuade anyone otherwise.

Water and air: the facts of the south are oceanic. As refugees from the dead Atlantic ply further south to feed the gourmets of Paris and New York, what price our islands and shores, what price our ice and swelling El Niño?

The iconic weather maps with their sweeping curves decorated with triangles and semicircles were inspired by maps of battlefields. The language of 'fronts' comes from the same source. The weather, for almost as long as there has been anything like a science of meteorology, has had its metaphorical roots in war. The satellite technology we use now puts the weather under surveillance. Defence against the elements: we have made the climate in our own image, and it has become our enemy.

1962: the year of the Cuban missile crisis, also saw the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, the book that launched ecology as a global political movement. In less than fifty years, we have moved from the fear that politicians would annihilate us through their actions to the fear that they will annihilate us through their inaction.

The Saturday papers in late May 2007 carried a brief notice of the opinion of a group of researchers that the terrestrial biomass may have passed the point at which it is capable of sequestering the carbon that the human population produces. The catastrophe may already have happened, while we dickered over blame.

Even as the Weddell Sea divulges a hundred new species in the dark depths below the ice, the ice is melting and their habitat expiring. Was our species the only great experiment of consciousness? Will the universe bother trying it again?

A catastrophe is not a crisis. It occurs as often as not quite quietly, while we walk the dog, or pickle lemons. It is only days, weeks, months later that you realise that somewhere back in the past the crucial nail fell out of the roof, the vital pipe began its slow leak. A crisis, by contrast, is a sudden loss: we recognise a crisis because, suddenly, the news reports have no images to show us. A crisis is a moment for which the response is pure action. There is no ecological crisis: only a catastrophe. Now is not the time for action. Now is the time for talk. And for images, songs, perfumes, pretty clothes and good cuisine.

Political inaction may have brought about this state of affairs, but political action is probably the most dangerous of all possible tools to apply to rectifying it. Ecofascism is also fascism.

It is enormously difficult to see the planet, even with our iconic photograph from the Apollo moon lander (the last true photograph ever taken in space). "Free the human six billion" is not a slogan that will rally the world. The portentous music and slick graphics of news programs on TV are there to persuade us that the world is knowable, exactly because in our hearts we know that it is not.

Weather is definitionally what we cannot know as a whole: this is why it is the commonest example of emergent behaviours in chaotic systems. We consider the butterfly effect, and begin to retrace its logic: how does a hurricane in New Orleans effect the butterfly in China? (If Milton Friedman had read Kipling's Butterfly That Stamped instead of The Wealth of Nations things might have gone better, or at least otherwise). The interconnecting turbines of the four southern oceans are as unknown to us as galaxies on the far side of space, but no longer so distant.

Because the weather is our enemy, we have been cowering in artificial caves for millennia. We have the technologies that would allow us to turn our houses inside out, to publish our intimacies in ubiquitous networks. Instead we have invested in smaller artificial caves with wheels, which we use to transport the three-piece suite of the frightened living room around streets on which we no longer care to walk because of all the other frightened caves rolling around them. In the age of instantaneous communication, we sit gridlocked and fuming.

In the information economy, human creativity is held, like Huxley's oceans, to be effectively infinite. No matter what we dump in it, and how much we extract, will it forever produce energy and ideas from calories? Creativity may yet turn out to be a finite resource. We must nurture it, because we do not know what it is for. This is not an analogy with Huxley's oceans: it is the same case.

We do not know what oil is for. In 1856, then aged eighteen, William Henry Perkin extracted the first aniline dye from coal tar. We have no notion what riches, what cures, what marvels lie hidden in the long-chain organic compounds formed in the Earth's crust. So we set fire to it. Saddam Hussein merely cut out the middleman.

Climate change has become the cause célèbre of our times, so much so that politicians can reanimate what we all had hoped was the decaying corpse of nuclear power. I write this sentence of a machine whose built-in obsolescence would have embarrassed Detroit in 1962, and which is destined for the miserable recycling villages of the Philippines. "Kyoto" has become a slogan for the ecofascist tendencies of the society of control. The only way to avoid catastrophe is to want less. Art is not very good at that. Art is not a way of avoiding catastrophe, but a way of defusing crisis.

"A poem should begin in delight and end in wisdom" wrote Robert Lowell (the best thing he ever wrote). What we call creativity is the struggle between reality and the imagination. To the extent that that struggle has no end, it will never achieve wisdom. It may never escape from innocence. But without creativity's start in innocent delight, we will never truly recognise the dangers of innocence.

These hypotheses first published in The Trouble with Weather: A Southern Response, curated by Norie Neumark and Maria Miranda, UTS Gallery, Sydney 2007; online at

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why subsidise low wages?

The UK Tory party enters the election promising to lower taxes for workers on the minimum wage : “With the Conservatives, if you’re on minimum wage, no income tax".

But why should taxpayers subsidise employers who don't pay a living wage?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

How to connect everyone with everything

Shortly before I'm due to visit Brazil to do some talks, Guilherme Kujawski has done a swift interview available in Portuguese here. For those restricted to English, here's the text:

1. McKenzie Wark is wondering what is the role of critical theory in the Anthropocene era. Do you think somehow film theory (or cinema studies) can contribute to this debate? I ask this inspired by your excellent book Eco Media... If ecology is the science that undertakes to understand the connections between everything, and media are the connections between everyone, the question is how to connect everyone with everything. By media let's understand every channel we use to connect: language, money, sex as well as films and phones. Mediation is older, deeper and wider than communication. Communication arrives when there is a gap between sender and receiver. Mediation is the connection between them. Sunlight for example mediates the sun and the earth. Ecological critique works when it works at the level of mediation: how does the world mediate human life and how does human life mediate the world? Historically this has become the question: how does the world communicate to us and how do we communicate with it? Communication as a splitting of primordial connectivity creates humans as subjects and world as object: the task of critique in the Anthropocene is to advance beyond this relation, on which is founded both our exploitation and our sentimental and nostalgic view on the world. 2. Videogame designers are mired in issues such as high resolution imagery and hyperrealism. And in the world of moving images people only talk about very-high-quality digital media over photonic networks. But narratives experiments are stucked for decades, in my opinion (films are each day much the same as games, and vice-versa). Do you think experiments in narratives could be the next frontier in the moving images realm? Hi-definition and its transmission means using more materials and more energy. New forms of narrative do not. That is a positive. Our dominant media - the ones used to dominate - today are spreadsheets, databases and geographic information systems. What they share is their emphasis on space: a graph, for example, pictures time as space. Time-based media, whether narrative or otherwise (for example a logical argument or an essay-film) are important because they are not exclusively based on space and spatialisation. It is the reinvention of time that is the most significant aspect of new modes of narrative, and shared with other ways of expressing and experiencing time. Primordial mediation is without both space and time. Communication is characteristically spatial - it divides, which is a spatial act. Time in communication is a function of space - "a difference that makes a difference at some later time" as Bateson says. Critical work - including here invention and reinvention as creative practice - has to find a new mode of mediation, after communication, that is capable of including space and time. The obvious first "deconstructive" action is to prioritise time over space. That is what eco-critical thought looks for in temporal media 3. When artists from French Artistic Mission arrived in Brazil in 19th century - loaded with a Neoclassicism way of look at the landscape - they met resistance from local artists interested in Baroque. That is, the imposition of a way to look at things is not always assimilated. Do you think the same thing can happen in the field of data visualization? For instance, can you imagine an alien proprietary software company impose to scholars its technology to analyze data from recent political demonstrations in Brazil? I am sure it is already happening: I have an MA student researching graphical representations of twitter feeds from Gezi Park in Istanbul during the protests. Data visualisation belongs with the spreadsheet etcetera as a spatial medium, at least in its dominant form. Simulations for example envisage the future as a continuation, not as a radical break. They attempt, by redefining action as behaviour, to change historical acts into data which can then be worked on biopolitically. To that extent data visualisation presumes a viewer who has power (if only imaginary) over the data. There are three weak spots: the conversion into data (selections, exclusions); the visualisation process applied to that data; and the modelling of the person or institution for whom that data is prepared. Many strategies are possible: to insist on the complexity of the unique instance or experience; to create alternative (ironic, creative) datasets; to contest what is left out of data; to contest the implicit humanism of data presentations, given that machines can read the data without visualisation; to emphasise the processing and transport of data rather than content or form; and many more. One thing all critical data visualisations have in common is that they resist the formation of the supreme subject, machinic or human.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Practice of Light

Gratefully acknowledging the Sächsiche Landesbibliothek- Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Dresden (the delightfully abbreviated SLUB) for the beautiful engraving of Wenzel Jamnitzer's geometric figures from the 1568 Perspectiva Corporum Regularium
the cover of The Practice of Light is now set, with a publication date of September this year. I just saw the endorsements, which genuinely brought a tear to my eye. Eight long years in the making, and many many people to thanks. Very much looking forward to turning it out into the world to see what you all make of it.
As some of you know, this was long called "Glory: The Practice of Light". MIT's marketing people, after some hard work, persuaded me that the risk of attracting neo-con religious types (and driving away the more militantly secular) wasn't worth the candle. "Glory" is still how I think of it: somehow we polytheists have to recapture the high ground from organised religion.