Interview with John Tresch on cosmograms

SONIC ACTS RESEARCH SERIES #20 American society and nature, cosmograms and matter By Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld Sonic Acts was very happy to welcome John Tresch to the 2015 festival The Geologic Imagination, where he presented a lecture Fiat Lux and Earth’s Answer. John Tresch is an historian of science and technology and is Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. In his lecture he elaborated on the notion of humans playing a role in nature’s creation as having roots that long precede discussions of the Anthropocene. Very compelling are the Romantic era’s personifications of a living, growing earth, whose latest blossoms are humans and their technologies. After his lecture Tresch talked to Sonic Acts' Liesbeth Koot and Menno Grootveld, publisher at Leesmagazijn. In the interview Tresch elaborates on the idea of cosmograms as examples of people making an effort to represent the totality of the universe in a concrete way. He also discusses examples of cosmograms and their implications when thinking about the Anthropocene. John Tresch, Sonic Acts Festival 2015 at Paradiso, Amsterdam, Photo by Julia ter Maten MENNO GROOTVELD (MG): In your lecture you spoke in detail about Brian Wilson and the music of The Beach Boys as an example of a cosmogram. What is the connection between Brian Wilson and the Anthropocene? JOHN TRESCH: The idea is that The Beach Boys are the incarnation of two episodes of thinking about American consumer and technological society and nature. The first episode involves a kind of confused innocence, like the innocence of the early Beach Boys – California Girls, Fun Fun Fun – which is this party at the edge of the world. But while The Beach Boys are supposed to be all about the sun, surf and sand, this ‘nature’ only exists because of the process of settlement and industrialisation, the process of seizing and transforming the land and the water, and the electricity that makes the eternal daylight of California. There is no real endless summer in California. The only reason that it is possible to live there – on the scale that people do – is because of this artificial industrial transformation of the land. So, although The Beach Boys had a very intoxicating vision of the California dream, which Brian Wilson actually helped to create, just a few years later we see the second episode of thinking about American society and nature, and the innocence of the early Beach Boys dissolves. That was when Wilson caught another side of that dream: its crash and closure. This crash happened partly because Wilson was trying to do too much. With his last album, Smile, he was competing with the Beatles, trying to outdo Sgt. Pepper’s. It was a really grandiose and fantastic plan, but he broke down trying to do it. He couldn’t complete it. Nevertheless, there are a few marvellous songs that were released in this sunset moment, the fading of the sixties, 1971. In my talk I played a couple of songs from the 1971 Beach Boys album Surf’s Up. In the earlier vision, that phrase meant: ‘Come on, let’s ride these waves’, but now it’s ironic, melancholic: Surf’s up, the dream is over, the waves have gone out and ‘we are adrift atop of a tidal wave’ – that’s a line that Brian Wilson uses in the title song. This album has a very different feel, a very different emotional tone in which the California dream is shot through with pessimism and disappointment. The album came out in 1971, and the pessimism includes the acknowledgement that the dreams of the sixties are being corrupted and co-opted. And this is where Thomas Pynchon comes in, because his book, Inherent Vice – and the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson captures this tone perfectly – is all about the setting of that sun. There is a sense of that dream having collapsed. But also, and this is no coincidence, it’s the moment of the birth of a widespread environmental consciousness. That is really the connection to the Anthropocene.

'There is a sense of that dream having collapsed. But also, and this is no coincidence, it’s the moment of the birth of a widespread environmental consciousness.’
The year 1971 is when people started to say: ‘All of this consumption and industrialisation, which makes it possible for us to live in this eternal festival, in this endless summer, is actually bringing waves of garbage back to the shore.’ We have oil spills and there aren’t any forests anymore – in California they’ve all been covered with freeways. I think at that later moment Brian Wilson, and especially the kind of allegory told by his own life, starting with innocent hope and then his devastating crash, captured some of where we are in the Anthropocene. There was an earlier dream of being closely tied to nature, and then the recognition that some of the nostalgic versions of that Romantic naturalism actually weren’t connected to nature at all. They were fantasies produced by high industrialisation, by the mass media. And there is a price to pay for the industrialisation that made that romantic fantasy possible. Confronting the way in which we are outside of nature, but also connected to it, we now have to deal with what we have done. That is the Anthropocene. And the song ’Til I Die by Brian Wilson, The Beach Boys, captures that sublimity of being a rock in a landslide, a leaf in the wind, or a cork on the ocean – he goes through all these identifications in the song, and the sound is this overwhelming ocean, a chorus that’s like an ocean. We are connected to this thing, which is much bigger than us and there is something quite beautiful and inspiring about that, but also something very menacing too. Because who we thought we were as humans and individuals, disconnected from nature, no longer stands. We are connected to it and in one way that’s inspiring, but it’s also something that’s very uncanny and difficult to deal with. And I think that where we are at in the Anthropocene, is likewise uncanny. MG: You know that Brian Wilson was actually afraid of the ocean? JT: Yes, I think partly why he wrote the song was because of his experience of being terrorised by the ocean wile swimming. LIESBETH KOOT (LK): In your lecture today you talked about your concept of the cosmogram, defined as ‘inscriptions of the cosmos as a whole’. How is the cosmogram connected to the concept of the Anthropocene? JT: Cosmogram is a neutral concept. It does not bring with it any specific metaphysics, or specific cosmology. It is just a general class of things that humans make: representations of the universe as a whole. And it has taken many, many different forms in history, and cross-culturally. All cultures have cosmograms, which are attempts to say: ‘This is how the world works, this is how everything fits together’ – humans, all the divisions of nature, all the divisions within human society, and then the divinities around it or above it, the metaphysics underlying it. In order to convey cultures and beliefs, to teach them, to re-inscribe them and make them true and activate them, they need some kind of form to embody them. And I call anything that takes that form a cosmogram. It can be a building, a painting, a poem, or a book like the Bible— or a song. It can apply to many, many different kinds of human products. LK: Today you elaborated on why we need to bring cosmograms from art, humanities and religion into debate with cosmograms from science. As you explained, it shows for example, how science not only brings facts into the world but also produces narratives, structures and feelings. JT: I think it is a useful term because it removes the obligation of saying: ‘This is what nature is actually like, and here are the representations of it’, which is this kind of modernist split, where we put nature on one side, and our interpretations of nature on the other. In the modern period, for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we thought that the sciences would provide the answer to what nature really is. And the sciences do provide observations, tested proofs and facts, of what the world is. But by introducing the notion of the cosmogram and saying that it is not just religions and cultures and belief systems that produce cosmograms, but also the sciences, what I am actually trying to say is that everyone has always been caught in that same state of being in-between. We never escape the fact that we are in the world with other people, in an intersubjective or interobjective world, that we deal with inscrutable and unstable things and have to make some kind of sense of them with whatever methods we might use. Science is one way of capturing certain kinds of regularities in the natural world, but so are all the ways we have of structuring our relations to nature and to each other. Cosmograms are what realise that in a big picture.
'[...] ... which is this kind of modernist split, where we put nature on one side, and our interpretations of nature on the other’
The modernist cosmology was founded on the division between knowing subjects, and a stable world of objects that is outside of us. What people are saying with ‘the Anthropocene’, by focusing on this term, is that the natural world outside of us is actually not outside of us. This is why Latour – the first philosopher to get how important this is – is so obsessed with the Anthropocene, as it means the scientists themselves, the great modernisers, are finally realising that the constitutive split of modernity between nature and culture doesn’t hold anymore. Nature now bears the marks of human activity, permanently. People a million years from now will see on the surface of the globe the effects of what humans have done to it. And the evidence is extinctions, changes in the chemical makeup of the water, global warming and everything that follows from global warming. Nature is no longer this thing in an entirely different ontological category from us; it is now invested with our intentions, with our plans, our actions. Anything we chose to do has been realised and come back to us as an answer, in very unexpected ways, in the form of nature. We are living in a form of nature that is reactivated and unstable in a way that it was not before. So taken to its ultimate conclusion, thinking about the Anthropocene teaches us that the cosmology of modernism-active subjects confronting passive objects is now gone. And the question is, what comes to fill its place? – which is what I think this conference is trying to ask. How do we represent this new state of affairs? Because the way in which things were done before has produced these potential catastrophes and imbalances. We are trying to answer: What is the cosmos we are in now? And how do we represent it? And not just represent it, but how do we use that idea of the cosmos and that representation as a way to institute, to really put into place, a better way of living with each other and with the world that could be more sustainable, less destructive, less violent, less hurtling from catastrophe to catastrophe. A cosmogram for the Anthropocene is something that people are trying to realise. In my talk, the last example by Panda Bear, the song and video Boys Latin, is a musical attempt to do this, and we are going to hear and we have seen many, many versions of a cosmogram for the Anthropocene at this conference. LK: You also gave the example of William Blake’s work. JT: Yes, the second half of my lecture’s title, ‘Earth’s Answer’, is from Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, from the transition between the ‘Innocence’ and the ‘Experience’ phases. Writing all the way back in the late eighteenth, early nineteenth century, he anticipated the shift from a narrow, innocent but deluded Romantic view of oneness with nature to one that is more experienced but pretty frightening, where we’re part of nature but where it’s both responsive to us and beyond our control. And in the history of Western cosmology and cosmograms, Romanticism plays a really important role. To better understand what kind of functions today’s cosmograms might have to fulfil, what I’m proposing in my research is to look at earlier cosmograms from the history of Western science, culture and religion and see how they carved up the world: how did they divide humans, nonhumans and divinities; how did they establish their relations; what kinds of objects did they have for doing that dividing, for doing that mapping – what kinds of buildings or artworks or rituals; how did they understand that work of representation? We have to try to track how modernist cosmology came into being and the different stages it went through and the different kinds of configurations that science itself has had. So I think that science does make cosmograms, but there isn’t a single, simple, scientific cosmogram. It consists of many, many different elements and the default common sense version of science as being materialist, mechanical, objective, took a long time to build from a lot of different elements. Looking at the history of cosmograms in Western culture and science shows how little by little those elements were put into place, but also – and this what I’m interested in – while that default, naturalist cosmology was built and instituted, alongside it were many minor natures, many minor cosmologies, which had very different views of what the world was like and where humans fit in that world. Romanticism, for instance, can be understood as one such minor cosmology. Studying how it tried to institute itself or how other minor cosmologies have emerged, and what they contributed, how they dialogue with the major cosmologies, is a subject of my research. The history of ‘dialogical cosmograms’, how they have interacted over time, is something that to me is fascinating as a history of ideas and practices, but it’s also interesting and useful for thinking about the cosmopolitics of the world we now live in. MG: For me, one of the most interesting things you talked about in your lecture was the Bridgewater Treatises. MG: I think the great irony of where we are now is that what we take as the clearheaded, rational view of the natural world is that it is made up of matter that is passive. And that the only kind of causality we can think of is efficient causality, or mechanical causality, particles interacting with each other. Something like final causality, teleological causality – if we go back to Aristotle – is seen as preposterous. The book Mind and Cosmos by the philosopher Thomas Nagel came out three years ago; in it he says that the idea that the world has come into being only by means of mechanical causality is totally implausible. And we need, in some way, to start thinking about other types of causalities such as teleology. He received the most violent reactions. Biologists and philosophers all said: ‘Oh, he’s lost his mind. How can he say something so scandalous and insane?’ It really showed that the common sense of philosophers, the people who see their job as defending what the rational world is and what the real world is and how we know it, says that any kind of causality that involves other elements besides stable particles that more or less mechanically interact, is an insane one. Many of the people making this argument also say that it is necessary to have that kind of vision of what the real, rational world is in order to preserve a rational, secular society, so that religion and individual idiosyncrasies don’t invade scientific knowledge, so that we can have neutral, objective science, and rational government. Another great irony that I noticed while studying the nineteenth century – and this is really following Simon Schaffer’s work on natural theology quite a bit – is that that notion of matter as passive, stable, mute, dead and only subject to mechanical causality was the invention of people like William Whewell, who was a philosopher and astronomer, but also a theologian, an Anglican minister. The Bridgewater Treatises of the 1830s, which were cosmological tracts and cosmograms, were written to ensure that despite all the new knowledge coming from geology, astronomy, physics, and biology, there would still be a need for free will, the human soul, and above all, an all-powerful God. Passive matter, dead matter and mechanical causality go hand in hand with an all-powerful God who, providentially, maintains those laws, and can, by his will, by fiat, suspend them if necessary, and bring other kinds of causes into nature. But only He can do that. In the Bridgewater Treatises, you saw that God’s role, first of all, was to sustain that world. If not, matter would just collapse, nothing would hold together, there would be no laws, there would be absolute decay. So it is God’s grace that preserves all of this. Also, if there were no God, life would not have been created from matter. All the different species had to have been made through God’s intervention, because no mechanical cause could explain them. Whether we’re talking about the first creation – the seven days – which is one example of God’s miraculous powers at work, or about what had just been discovered at that time in the stratographic record, in the geological record of extinctions – catastrophic extinctions followed by the appearance of new species – they can only be explained as coming into being through an act of God. We have the idea of natural selection; we have all kinds of arguments about geological change that don’t require miraculous intervention by God. And yet, our common sense idea of matter, which is now taken for granted, comes directly out of that theological conflict. That’s a fascinating irony: our secular, demystified, disenchanted common sense is the invention of a religious, conservative, defensive movement, from the fairly recent past, just 200 years ago. But, if we want to rethink matter and incorporate what all the scientists tell us matter is, it doesn’t actually match that view of matter as being passive and stable and dead. Matter as explained by quantum physicists is a very strange, quirky thing that shimmers and oscillates in and out of existence. It’s very hard to get one’s head around it; matter is not stable Lego building blocks. Science tells us that we have to discard that view of passive matter and somehow incorporate our new view into our understanding of the world we are in. And the Anthropocene is telling us that too. The world itself is reacting to us in a way that means it no longer makes sense to see it as this dead, inert architecture. If we want to rethink matter, it’s probably worth going back and realising how much we still borrow from this theology, which in terms of our public discussion at least, we claim to have abandoned. We are still trapped in this late eighteenth-century theology because we continue to believe in this late eighteenth-century concept of matter.
'That’s a fascinating irony: our secular, demystified, disenchanted common sense is the invention of a religious, conservative, defensive movement, from the fairly recent past, just 200 years ago.’
LK: In the political sense, in the societal discussion about the Anthropocene and climate change, would there be a fundamental change if we thought differently about matter? JT: Certainly. In changing the way we think about matter, we also change the way we think about science. It’s not as though there is this stable world out there and science comes in and tells us what it consists of. If we change our understanding of what the world is like and what matter is like, then we also change our understanding of what knowledge is like. And as we heard from geologist Mark Williams yesterday, he spends most of his time not originating facts about nature, but establishing what the limits of our knowledge are. He’s defining thresholds of plausibility and probability. Scientists could be more explicit about the fact that they deal with statistical phenomena, and that they depend quite a bit on chance, on relative likelihoods. If we recognise that science does not descibe the eternal stable structures with absolute certainty, then the politics of science and climate change and human intervention and our ability to make statements about what is true and what is good and where the society should go, changes. Because there isn’t this external scientific authority proclaiming: ‘We’ve got the answer once and for all’. There is no absolute authority for what the answer is. And this means that the work of creating good and stable facts is still very, very important, but we need to recognise how much that is an interaction and how much it already is a social process. Many actors who are involved in making a common world would then have to be involved in making decisions about what policy would be. I’m not studying the politics of climate change, but I absolutely believe that the way in which these kinds of debates occur now is reliant on a view of science, and a view – a kind of default understanding – of how science works and what the world is like that gets in the way of actually making a true politics of nature, a real cosmopolitics, as Isabelle Stengers calls it. That is why, in interrogating the history of this conception of matter, it is very important to see, first of all, where it comes from, what are the different elements that go into it – and analyse it and break it down into its historical parts. Isn’t it odd that it took theologians to insert and solidify this understanding of matter? But we also need to realise that within this tradition that we call science there have been many, many other ways of knowing, and methods{methodologies?}, and also conclusions about what the world is like and about how we know the world. Those conclusions can be resources that we can draw on for rethinking what the world is like now, and what role science has to play in it, and what roles people who aren’t scientists have to play in building a common world. And that is where history – and thinking about the history of cosmograms with a view to creating new cosmograms – can play a role; including helping us to escape from this restricting view of matter as this dead thing that we can do with as we will. LK: So that truly means ‘geologic imagination’. That’s great! JT: Yes, although I don’t think I knew that when I received the invitation to give a talk here. Another thing to add is that – alongside Whewell and the natural theologians and the cosmograms that they built – what I did in the talk and have done elsewhere, is point to the alternative cosmograms, and the other universes that are being built. Not by denying science and technology, but really rethinking it on the basis of a different cosmology. For instance, Romanticism, where there is usually an assumption of some kind of connection between the imagination and activity and growth of humans and the imagination and creativity and growth of the world. That is a real alternative to the early nineteenth-century concept of dead nature. Blake and Shelley imagined a world that is alive and that we are part of, and both we and the world have to awaken. But this isn’t expressed as propositions. It is expressed very much in a prophetic and imaginative mode. That doesn’t mean it’s just imaginary, though. In my book The Romantic Machine I wrote about the concept of matter a couple of decades later: a very different view of matter, matter that is alive, self-organising and can generate life and thought, those ideas that are there in Blake and Shelley were put to work in Paris in the 1830s and 1840s. They were incorporated into public action, arts, science, and politics. They were among the revolutionary demands to reorganise knowledge and society, to reorganise the benefits and products and conditions of labour. MG: If I’m not mistaken you even claim that in some measure they led up to the Revolutions of 1848? JT: Yes. They set the conditions for the idea that the people could redefine the social order themselves – which is how we usually think of revolutions. That absolutely applies to 1848. It’s what I call mechanical romanticism, a new way of thinking about machines and technology that is shaped by Romanticism, its organicism, aesthetics, its emphasis on imagination and novelty. Underlying that is the view that matter, and nature too, has its own intentions, activities and powers of organisation. The kind of republic that was imagined and planned in 1848 was one where nature’s interests, nature’s demands and nature’s activities would also be woven into a better, or changed, society. That’s a different take on the history of socialism, which played a role in the Revolutions of 1848 – the people deciding to make a society for themselves. When you look at the Saint-Simonians, or the Fourierists, or Auguste Comte, even the young Marx, the theorists of social transformation were also theorists of natural transformation and did not see the social and human on one side and nature on the other. A new conception of technology, or romantic machines, was what connected all the different concepts. So now, just like back then, the actions we do individually and collectively, the way we organise labour and consumption and waste, the tools we use to connect to the environment: all those have to be rethought to reorganise society. But rethinking nature— our relations to the earth, and what the earth itself is like— is also a factor in that transformation of thought and action. And that can happen through arguments, but also through the arts.

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