Jacob Erikson – « Toxic Creativity, Deep Time, and Moral Pleasure »

Jacob Erikson

« Toxic Creativity, Deep Time, and Moral Pleasure: An Ecospirituality of Technology »

Linda Hogan, João J. Vila Chã, Michelle Becka

Concilium 2019-3. Technologie – Fluch oder Segen?
Concilium 2019-3. Technology: between Apocalypse and Integration
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnología?
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: tra apocalisse e integrazione
Concilium 2019-3. Technologie: entre apocalypse et intégration
Concilium 2019-3. Tecnologia: entre o apocalipse e a integração


1. Toxic Creativity, Deep Time, and Moral Pleasure: An Ecospirituality of Technology

Technology connects our planetary life together in haunting ways.  Scattered around our orbit, at this very moment, shells of satellites and debris abandoned by various space programs cling to planet earth like a hazy cloud.[1]  Fiber optic cables make possible near instantaneous global and virtual interconnection, all the while wrapping themselves around the body of the earth in routes first carved out as the transatlantic slave trade and colonial violence.  As Jenna Tiitsman notes, “Cyberspace explicitly promises a disembodied global village as the apex of Western colonial geographical expansion.”[2]  This debris and cables from space to cyberspace often hide from sight even as they embody histories into the present.  And, of course, we could go on listing the ghastly: energy drained by computer servers, exploited minerals that go into making your phone, and failed economic speculations of how we might “geo-engineer” the climate out of global warming.

Even as they physically wander a planet surrounded by material technological debris, human creatures create with an air of forgetfulness.  As Sean Cubitt observes in his book Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies, “What we imagine, in short, are consumer goods that have no history: no mines, no manufacture, no freighting, and no waste.”  The privileged live lightly with what he calls the “myth of immaterial media,” and the negative effects of environmental waste hit the global poor and indigenous hardest.[3]  What we need, Cubitt and others argue, is a reimagined geological sense of “finite media” or finite technology that properly locates contemporary technological creativity in the lively materiality of the planet and for the sake of justice.  New materialisms, environmental humanities, and ecological theology, we can note, now try to steer us in these directions and contexts.  New media studies scholar Jussi Parikka speculates, “Geology becomes a way to investigate materiality of the technological media world.  It becomes a conceptual trajectory, a creative intervention to the cultural history of the contemporary.”[4]  

As a brief, creative intervention here, my hunch is that what is needed is a new ecological spirituality of technology.  As ethicist Kate Ott argues, Christian theology needs to reimagine contemporary technological age with the affective, relational feel of the sacred earth in mind.  She writes, “Theological interconnectivity is a bit more abstract, yet no less real, and calls for an aesthetic relationship to creation can be disrupted by and also enhanced by digital technologies.”[5]  Various technologies behave similar to the digital in one’s discernment of the call of the sacred body of the planet.  What is needed in the midst of these disruptions and enhancements is an especially slow ecospirituality of technology.[6]  What I mean by slow is not necessarily that we grind to a halt to technological production, though there may be processes we choose to halt.  Instead, a slowed down attentiveness to the textures and earthly collaborations technology might make attending to the imaginative honoring of creation more possible.[7]  In doing so, we might in fact begin to pay spiritual attention to the ethical flows of human creativity, the deep material time of technology, the tragic beauty of the earth, and we may also cultivate, then, an attentive moral pleasure in our technological making.

2. Toxic Creativity

Ecological theology, in its multiplicity, remains suspicious of technological development in general.  In one of the most common cited genealogies of the field of religion and ecology, Lynn White, Jr. famously critiqued the anthropocentrism of humanity’s claims of power, dominion, and salvation in Christianity.  In doing so, he called for alternative ecospiritual models to be explored—a religious kind of remedy to a religious kind of problem.  Often overlooked, however, is his attention to technological development.  In his 1967 “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis,” White calls attention to the entanglement of the dangerous ecologic that disregards earthly life and “modern technology, with its ruthlessness toward nature.”[8]  White’s argument remains an over-cited but important touchstone in the genealogies of Christian attention to the earth.[9]  Asking, like he does, about how to reclaim a sense of the animate world in our ecologic redirects our technological creativity differently in planetary ways.

Indeed, a number of scholars in White’s wake worry that our technological waste is unravelling the planet.  Environmental activist Bill McKibben laments that, “We’re running Genesis backward, de-creating.”[10] And Lutheran theo-ethicist Cynthia Moe-Lobeda calls that backward pull “uncreating,” an unravelling of “life-generating capacity.”[11]  McKibben and Moe-Lobeda may very well be right, but when technological work comes into play, complex effects occur.  New technologies allow for more forms of intimate communication and action, and they often create new connections just as they participate in a form of violence to the earth.

Because technology is creative, ecotheology needs news way of framing our technological thinking.  Only then might we passionately trace technology’s creative transformation in, with, and as earth.  Creativity is not intrinsically good; sometimes creative acts and materials exact moral ambiguity and painful transformation.[12]  Sometimes creative technologies hone an art of violence.  As a placeholder, these days—instead of decreation or uncreation—I propose something like a concept like “toxic creativity.” That our technological waste is the aftereffect of a form of harmful creativity that might be able to better reflect on our current complexity.  Or, to use classical language, human creativity can be distorted by sin.

Ecospirituality often focuses on the values of connection in an ecological world, cultivating resilience for doing the work of justice.  It might, too, practice a richly slow attentiveness to toxic creativity, ask how creative forces are being used, ask about wise use, and work spiritual life cycle analyses on the flows of technological production.  Instead of the quick desire for a technological future, we need an ethic that reimagines technological living and justice in the context of geological deep time.  In practicing spiritual attentiveness to toxic creativity, one might begin to see the complicated origins, use, and ends of our technology differently.

3. Deep “Timefulness”

Much of our technology revolves around the toxic creativity of fast and expanding capitalist production.  Phones and computers last for a short period or shopping season until a new device floods the market.  Newer devices, while sometimes more efficient, sometimes require new infrastructures and better or more sources of power.  Older devices become obsolete quickly and this obsolescence creates massive amounts of waste.  Such devices can be difficult to dispose of and their design never took into account their disposal to begin with.  Many folks, uncertain what to do, simply throw these materials away.  Everything from phones to coffee pods begin to populate landfills.

Like Cubitt, Parikka, and others, geologist Marcia Bjornerud argues that we begin to consider the geological material of our technology and ecological living.   The very minerals elements that make up our phones have geophysical lives that can be tracked across history.  The practices of mining, extraction, and chemical reaction that make these minerals and elements into contemporary technological use also bear within themselves the marks of geophysical change.  Toxic creativity can level mountains, shift atmospheric conditions, make air unbreathable, unleash pesticides into ecosystems, and can exploit other human beings in various forms of environmental racism, colonialism, sexism, and heterosexism.

Bjornerud argues that people, especially shaped in North American forms of capitalism, live with a concept of “timelessness.”  Things will go on, regardless of one’s actions.  Media images of youth imply the desire for living forever, or that an ecosystem or geophysical feature is permanent and unchanging.  One feature of toxic creativity is technological action with that precise notion of timelessness—companies aim for “progress,” better development, and don’t necessarily plan for the disposal of new technologies even as they plan to make old technologies obsolete.

Theologically, we might see the dangerous lure of timelessness in the ways that Christianity speaks about eschatology. Life after death, redemption narratives, and a tendency towards disembodied spirit all shape everyday patterns of timelessness that disregard of the finite materiality of our planet.  Dominion is imagined as a timeless human right given by a timeless Divinity.

Rather than timelessness, however, Bjornerud suggests “timefulness” (a word that might evoke associations with “mindfulness” or “mindful attention”).  She argues that practices of attention to the long histories of the geophysical world matter. Setting our ecological thought in the context of and in collaboration with that planetary time might help make our creativity more timely and full of present time.  To pay attention to the long transformation of the minerals that make up products like phones and computers is to pay attention to all of the forces that bring those things into being.  To pay attention to the patterns of decay and disposal of goods is to plan for their return to the earth in healthy ways. As Bjornerud helpfully states, “In other words, it is time for all the sciences to adopt a geologic respect for time and its capacity to transfigure, destroy, renew, amplify, erode, propagate, entwine, innovate, and exterminate.  Fathoming deep time is arguably geology’s single greatest contribution to humanity.”[13]  And those fathoms might be an important dimension to delve in ecospiritual work.[14]

Attention to geologic time dominates current environmental thought.  Eugene Stoermer and Paul Crutzen popularized re-naming our current geological era as the Anthropocene—the time of pervasive human influence (and that includes technological) upon the earth.[15] Nothing remains untouched by human history or anthropogenic activity around the planet.  We face, then, the sixth great mass extinction (caused by humans), ocean acidification (caused by humans), and global warming (caused by humans).

The concept of the Anthropocene instigated a multiplicity of other temporal namings: the “Plantationocene” and the violent impact of the slave trade, the “Pyrocene” and the burning of fossil fuels, and the “Capitalocene” and the time of global exploitative economies.[16]  Attention to earth and time is slowly exposing the entanglements of planetary change and human exploitation.  In her stunning A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yusoff notes that geology is anything but neutral.[17]  The language of the Anthropocene can make it seem like our present technological and climatological situation on the planet is uniformly caused by the human species. The extractive economies of geology also aligned themselves with extractive and violent logics of White supremacy, human slavery, and European colonialism.  

Practicing a deep timefulness—attentive to flows of creativity and creation—is a spirituality rooted in solidarity with the materiality of the earth.  That solidarity with the earth is also, simultaneously, solidarity with and resistant to ongoing flows of extractive colonialism.  A spirituality of deep time practices a form of incarnational solidarity, revelling and celebrating a timeful finitude that Divinity delights in throughout creation.  Might one reimagine Divinity becoming flesh as an affirmation of the “timeful” and finite ways the planet flows in life?  Divinity’s delight in creation is an approach of timefulness itself, affirming each creature and each day as good while empowering resistance to extractive economies.

4. The Moral Pleasure of Making

The moral dimension of emotion and affect is utterly vital here.  For many, the moral complexity of environmental problems overwhelms human moral agency, personal and collective.   In her important piece “Working Through Environmental Despair,” Joanna Macy observes the immense emotional strain those in tune with ecological collapse face. Practicing timefulness with our technology sets us face to face with our worst nightmares—social injustice, the uncertainty of global warming, and the loss of places we love.  The losses exceed our own understanding.[18]

Environmental despair is a something we must, according to Macy, “work through.”  The double meaning of that phrase is important.  We must work through, get through the overwhelming despair that plagues our moral imaginations.  And we must use that despair to recognize the tremendous power and agency of human compassion.  Macy writes that, “We urgently need to find better ways of dealing with this fear and repression.  Can we sustain our gaze upon the prospects of ecological holocaust without becoming paralyzed with fear or grief?  Can we acknowledge and live with our pain for the world in ways that affirm our existence and release our power to act?”[19]  Attentiveness to grief, sadness, concern, memory, or loss opens up a kind of political empathy that can be channelled into personal and collective action. Working through this pain, releases mental anguish and offers a way forward through connection.

As environmental writer Trebbe Johnson writes in her book Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places, “until we allow ourselves to grieve, we will keep shutting ourselves off from the emotional bond we have with the living world and try to persuade ourselves that our concern is purely rational.  And if it’s reason that stanches our tears, reason can also prevent us from doing something bold, wild, and passionate to express our love.”[20]  Reason will tell individuals that ecological loss is “too big” a problem to meaningfully address.  A wild and bold attentiveness, a care for the “lives” and “uses” of technological objects urge creative and expansive shifts of moral imagination with a lighter touch on the earth.  The argument, reasonable so, that causes everyday moral agents to convince themselves nothing can be meaningfully needs emotional intelligence, grief, and the moral daring of loving action.

Finally, however, grief is not enough for our making.  Environmentalists are often accused of being too serious or morose.  Ecological despair often sucks the pleasure of moral creative work out of the room.  But, as Nicole Seymour argues, sometimes we need to sit with, in our moment, “the absurdities and ironies, often through absurdity and irony, as well as related affects and sensibilities such as irreverence, ambivalence, camp, frivolity, indecorum, awkwardness, sardonicism, perversity, playfulness, and glee.”[21]  Pleasure must be reframed in a moral fashion to lure us to new ways of enjoying the deep time of technological objects and their afterlives.  We need to cultivate resilience by learning to laugh at ourselves from time to time, feeling through the pleasure of creativity when acts of care and acts of justice result.

Environmental activist and writer Naomi Klein writes in her book No is Not Enough that folks concerned about earth, including those engaged in religious traditions, need to engage in a more holistic program. She notes, “What we need are integrated solutions, concrete ideas for how to radically bring down emissions while creating huge numbers of unionized jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been abused and excluded under the current extractive economy.”[22]  Integrated solutions in the hazy cloud of our moment require the whole of our making, the moral pleasure of our making, the moral emotions of what we create and what we love.  We must immerse our lives in the timefulness of a vibrantly creative divinity and a vibrantly creative earth.


Notes

[1] This space trash served as the inspiration for the fictions of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2013 film, Gravity, whereby orbiting space debris sets off a chain reaction imperilling astronauts and a cascade effect that destroys various satellites and space stations.  The image of a “littered” Earth surrounded by a debris field can also be seen in the final shot of Disney’s 2008 film WALL-E, where Earth is rendered inhabitable by various hinted-at human made catastrophe and dirt hangs around the planet like a cloud.  In real life, NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office tracks tens of thousands of larger pieces of debris and hundreds of thousands of pieces of “space junk” of all kinds.

[2] Jenna Tiitsman,”Planetary Subjects after the Death of Geography” in Planetary Loves: Spivak, Postcoloniality, and Theology. Eds, Stephen D Moore and Mayra Rivera. New York: Fordham University Press, 2011: 162.

[3] Sean Cubitt, Finite Media: Environmental Implications of Digital Technologies. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017: 13-14. 

[4] He continues, “The stories we tell imply more than just their words; they tell stories of media and mediation, of materiality and the earth.”  See: Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015: pages 4 and 20, respectively. 

[5] Chapter 4 DRAFT, pre-copy edit, used with the author’s permission. Kate Ott, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2019.

[6] I’m in deep sympathy with Marvin M. Ellison’s approach to his book on sexual ethics here: “Just as the slow food movement offers a creative alternative to fast food consumption, this book is a project in slow-down ethics, asking us to sit with perplexing, even discomforting questions, listen to fresh and sometimes challenging perspectives, and patiently work out matters the best we can.” See Making Love Just: Sexual Ethics for Perplexing Times. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012: 3.

[7] I’ve written about such collaborations elsewhere as “theophanic attunement” or “epiphanic attentiveness” in my current writing. See my “Theophanic Materiality: Political Ecology, Inhuman Touch, and the Art of Andy Goldsworthy” in Entangled Worlds: Religion, Science, and New Materialisms. Eds. Catherine Keller and Mary-Jane Rubenstein. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017: 203-220. 

[8] Lynn White, Jr. “The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” Science, New Series, Vol. 155, No. 3767. (Mar. 10, 1967): 1205. 

[9] See Matthew Riley’s important work in reclaiming a larger sense of White’s sense of technology and democracy. See Riley’s essay “A Spiritual Democracy of All God’s Creatures: Ecotheology and the Animals of Lynn White, Jr.” in Divinanimality: Animal Theory, Creaturely Theology. Ed. Stephen Moore. New York: Fordham University Press, 2014. See also Willis Jenkins’ essay, “After Lynn White: Religious Ethics and Environmental Problems” Journal of Religious Ethics. June 2009.

[10] Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet. New York: Times Books, 2010: 25.

[11] Cynthia Moe-Lobeda, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as an Ecological-Economic Vocation. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013: 56.

[12] Of course, on this feature of creativity, see Catherine Keller’s Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming. New York: Routledge, 2003.

[13] Marcia Bjornerud. Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018: 16.

[14] Indeed, it already is in many thinkers from Joseph Sittler’s theology of the earth to Ivone Gebara’s multiplicity in creation to Thomas Berry’s universe story.

[15] Andrew C. Revkin recounts part of this history in “Confronting the ‘Anthropocene’” The New York Times.  Online: http://dotearth.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/05/11/confronting-the-anthropocene/ Published May 11th, 2011.

[16] See, for example, Donna J. Haraway’s important recent work, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2016.  And Steven J. Pyne’s writing on “The Fire Age” Aeon Magazine. Online: http://aeon.co/magazine/science/how-our-pact-with-fire-made-us-what-we-are/

[17] Kathryn Yusoff. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

[18] The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht called this feeling “solastalgia,” for the pain of a loss of a comforting place.  It’s a neologism of the Latin “solacium,” which means “comfort,” and the Greek “algia,” which means “pain.”  See his “Ecoparalysis,” Healthearth blog, January 31, 2010. Web: http://healthearth.blogspot.com/2010/01/ecoparalysis.html

[19] Joanna Macy, “Working Through Environmental Despair,” Ecosychology, Roszak, Gomes, & Kanner, eds., Sierra Club 1995: 10.

[20] Trebbe Johnson, Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2018: 48.

[21] Nicole Seymour, Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2018: 4.

[22] Naomi Klein, No is Not Enough. New York: Penguin Books, 2017: 238.


Author

Jacob Erikson is Assistant Professor of Theological Ethics in the School of Religion at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. His work attempts to evoke an ecotheology of planetary conviviality–the playful and just cherishing of life together–in the midst of current ecological crises, emerging perspectives in the wake of global warming, and new challenges in energy production.  Erickson’s writing meditates on the complex relationships of earth and divinity, contemporary environmental ethics and queer theory, classical Christian theologies and contemporary constructive theopoetics.  With Marion Grau, he co-chairs the Sacred Texts, Theory, and Theological Construction Unit and serves on the Steering Committee for the Martin Luther and Global Lutheran Traditions Unit for the American Academy of Religion.  Erickson is currently working on an extended project on the intersections of global warming and theology called A Theopoetics of the Earth: Divinity in the Anthropocene.

Address: School of Religion, Trinity College Dublin, Dublin 2, Republic of Ireland.