Redirecting Focus
12.13.2014, 5:10 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

13762000333_0a157fc40f_zFlooding in the UK (February 2014) cc image: UK Ministry of Defence

All of our basic institutions, especially those of higher education and art/design, need to stop in their tracks and redirect/rededicate themselves.  Because, as Rebecca Solnit put it in the NYT Magazine recently:

“Climate change is everything, a story and a calamity bigger than any other. It’s the whole planet for the whole foreseeable future, the entire atmosphere, all the oceans, the poles; it’s weather and crop failure and famine and tropical diseases heading north and desertification and the uncertain fate of a great majority of species on earth.”

The professional and personal futures that we have been imagining for ourselves, our students, clients and families, are no longer viable.  It’s becoming increasingly impossible for us to look another human in the eye and talk to them as if those imagined futures were viable.  Because, an entirely different/alter future is already here:

“Even with a deal to stop the current rate of greenhouse gas emissions, scientists warn, the world will become increasingly unpleasant. Without a deal, they say, the world could eventually become uninhabitable for humans.”

“The problem is that climate experts say it almost certainly will not happen fast enough. A November report by the United Nations Environment Program concluded that in order to avoid the 3.6 degree increase, global emissions must peak within the next 10 years, going down to half of current levels by midcentury.”

“The objective now, negotiators say, is to stave off atmospheric temperature increases of 4 to 10 degrees by the end of the century; at that point, they say, the planet could become increasingly uninhabitable.

If our job as artists, designers and educators is, in part, to prepare students and publics for the future, it seems that we must now prepare them to live and work on an “increasingly unpleasant,” perhaps “eventually uninhabitable” planet.  The Coursera Edinburgh-authored class on e-learning comes close to addressing this prospect, even if unwittingly.  It invites us to consider the interplay between media technology and education at a time when Western beliefs about what it means to be human are unraveling, in part, because of the loss of our habitat and because of our species’ self-loathing over our role in that loss.

The days of having the luxury to discuss and enact anything other than how to triage our responses to social, economic, environmental, ethical, and psychological emergencies at global scale are fast coming to an end.  Very likely, we’re in the last months of being able to conduct anything close to business as usual in higher education, or any other major social institution.

Wouldn’t it be prudent (maybe even psychologically, aesthetically, ethically, and educationally rewarding) to use the luxury we temporarily enjoy as artists and academics in New York City to turn toward and begin to teach and think in relation to “the story — the calamity that is bigger than any other”?   Where else to locate our teaching and knowledge production, than within the actual material conditions of contemporary life?  Those conditions are fast rendering concepts and ideals such as “sustainability,” “eco-friendly,” “saving the Earth,” and “climate justice” not only quaint but dangerously distracting.

As fields of study and practice, Art, Design and Media Studies know the means, powers, and desires of distraction.  They are well equipped to redirect attention to the story “that is everything … the calamity that is bigger than any other.”  Institutions and groups that support and benefit from makers and teachers of anything need to redirect themselves away from legacy knowledges and practices that distract us from that story.  We need to rededicate ourselves toward new curricula, pedagogies, modes of attention and imagination that begin with “the story that is everything … the calamity that is bigger than any other.” And then, we need to employ makers and teachers to use their skills and devices of attraction toward becoming contemporaneous with our current best guesses about what constitutes “the whole planet” and its “whole foreseeable future.”

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