A Common Sense

A Common Sense

Caroline A. Jones [3.15.18]

We need to acknowledge our profound ignorance and begin to craft a culture that will be based on some notion of communalism and interspecies symbiosis rather than survival of the fittest. These concepts are available and fully elaborated by, say, a biologist like Lynn Margulis, but they're still not the central paradigm. They’re still not organizing our research or driving our culture and our cultural evolution. That’s what I’m frustrated with. There’s so much good intellectual work, so much good philosophy, so much good biology—how can we make that more central to what we do? 

CAROLINE A. JONES is professor of art history in the History, Theory, Criticism section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Caroline A. Jones's Edge Bio page 


For most Americans the question is, on what level can we act to participate in the cultural evolution of our species? We have the obvious situation of a political system that has failed to act and, in many respects, even failed to acknowledge the questions that we’re all asking. Climate change is an enormous issue. We have produced a situation in which we imperil our own existence, so how can we confront that? We have had a profound impact on the planet. The average lifespan of a given species is about three and a half million years, so maybe we’ve just had our run. Humans have achieved this incredible thing called culture, called art, called literature; it would be tragic if there were no one to carry it on, or participate in it, understand it, or even care.

How do we confront global warming? How do we even name it? There are so many interesting sciences that are coming together around this problem. Johan Rockström has this concept of planetary boundaries, which considers how one can examine the situation from a rational economic point of view. For a culture worker, which is what I consider myself, the question is, how do we change ourselves?

For me, the question of the moment, philosophically and culturally, revolves around this problem of the common sense. I’ve done some thinking about that on the page, but it hasn’t been very satisfying to me. We have this understanding that we can come to a common sense, that we can use the apparatus of our bodies to understand what’s going on in the universe. We can agree about that. We call that agreement "truth" and proceed collectively as a culture, on that basis.

We evolved as small-group primates, so, unfortunately, we have this limit on the number of bodies we can care about at any one time and a limit on the kind of time that we can think about. Can we think about anything beyond the thirty years of a human generation? Can we conceive of that time span? We have these real hardwired limits. We’ve stretched a lot of our hardwired limits through culture and through the cultural pressures on evolution.

As an art historian a lot of my questions are about what kind of art we can make, what kind of thought we can make, what kind of ideas we can make that could stretch the human beyond what the Torah calls these “stiff-necked humans”—beyond our stubborn, selfish, only concerned with our small-group parameters. The philosophers and philosophies that I’m drawn to are those that question the Western obsession with individualism. Those are coming from so many different places, and they’re reviving so many different kinds of questions and problems that were raised in the '60s.

The obvious players include that whole domain of “left cybernetics,” as I’m calling it, that I’m very interested in right now—Bateson and Fritjof Capra—all of these guys who were trying to say, "Seriously, the cranium is not the limit of consciousness. Our life spans are not the limit of our impact." Our consciousness has the capacity to expand collectively and to respond in a way that Deleuze would call rhizomatic. We have the capacity to sense other minds in an ongoing lively way. Maybe those other minds are partly produced by the bacteria in our guts—there’s so much we don’t know. There’s more biomass in our bodies coming from bacteria than from cells that are ostensibly our own.

We need to acknowledge our profound ignorance and begin to craft a culture that will be based on some notion of communalism and interspecies symbiosis rather than survival of the fittest. These concepts are available and fully elaborated by, say, a biologist like Lynn Margulis, but they're still not the central paradigm. They’re still not organizing our research or driving our culture and our cultural evolution. That’s what I’m frustrated with. There’s so much good intellectual work, so much good philosophy, so much good biology—how can we make that more central to what we do?

I’ve recently tried to grapple with the history of cybernetics. I’ve come up with an inadequate division of left cybernetics and right cybernetics. What do I mean by left cybernetics? In one sense, it’s a pun or a joke: the cybernetics that was "left" behind. On another level, it’s a very vague and mushy political grouping that connotes our left coast: California, Esalen, Fritjof Capra on the beach, what Dave Kaiser calls the "hippie physicist."

Politics is a slippery business. What do left and right even mean anymore? What does it mean when the left anarchists are making common cause with the Libertarians? You tell me. The Libertarians tend to be Republican. The left anarchists maybe were former Democrats. The point is that they might be meeting in the middle. I don’t know. For me, the heuristic is we’re in a period of right politics, right wing nationalism, white supremacism, and these left cyberneticians are scholars who left us writings that were left behind, and it seems to support what we can think of today as left politics. It’s not an adequate term, but it’s a way of recognizing that there was a group beholden to the military industrial complex, sometimes very unhappily, who gave us the tools to critique it.

Norbert Wiener had crises. He may have had a little breakdown when he realized his war work was being put to things like the atomic bomb and Hiroshima. That was a very difficult realization. He swore to the president of MIT he was never going to do that kind of work again. But he was stuck there, versus people who were left out, who were—again, Dave Kaiser’s hippie physicists—stuck doing theory and pondering quantum mysteries, who did not have a giant lab to create uranium derivatives to make the atom bombs for the future. They were a very different group, and to them became allied some of the biologically minded cyberneticians who also didn’t have a place then in the military industrial complex. Someone like Margaret Mead or Gregory Bateson, these are complicated characters. On the one hand, they were complete cold warriors, working for MoMA. They were figuring out how to make exhibitions that would lead Americans away from communism. On the other hand, they were there as inspiring figures for hippies and radicals, people who were trying to reconceive society in a completely different way.

I’m struck by these rhythms of our concern for the climate. I haven’t figured them out. The rhythm of the early '70s, Earth Day, and the environmental movement in the US—what happened to that? The '80s and '90s seemed to just have culture wars. Of course, then we had 9/11 and it was all terrorism all the time. We seem to be in another moment when we can discuss these concerns with the environment again, partly because there’s simply a crisis. There’s a crisis of extreme weather, there’s a crisis of bad distribution of income, income disparity. And these are all coming together so that the people who are impoverished are suffering the most from climate instability.

As I see it, the problem is that with these dramatic crises and these dramatic catastrophes, again, the human is limited. The human is not thinking that we have an opportunity to rethink Florida, or to rethink Houston, which has no zoning laws and is run completely on cowboy capitalism. No one is asking if we should rebuild the same way. Well, maybe there’s someone saying it. No one in the news is asking if we should rethink Houston, if we should rethink petroculture, if we should rethink having an oil refinery on the side of the coast. No one is prepared to ask this. According to our current government, it’s insensitive to mention the problems of climate change in the midst of catastrophe.

Again, we’re confronted with our human limits. What I’m trying to do from my tiny position as an art historian, as sometimes curator and critic, is think about forms of art that help us think in the longer term. Are there forms of culture that help us think across the boundaries of the human individual?

I’m thinking through artists who are working with biology, not in the sense of the positivist, "Oh, I’m a scientist, too." That doesn’t interest me very much. There are artists who are working with the frankly phantasmagorical edge of bio-art, making what I’m calling "bio-fiction" to get us thinking about species limits. For example, in a recent conversation I was having at the Guggenheim with a bio-artist and a science fiction writer, I just playfully asked what each of us would have from another species if we could splice it into our genes. Our cells turn over in our body every seven years, so you’d start small by splicing in a few genes and cells, and maybe after seven years they’d kick in all over your body and you could genuinely be part of another kind of creature. The artist Anicka Yi wanted tentacles. She wanted a kind of octopoid capacity. The science fiction writer Jeff VanderMeer wanted echolocation, bat capacities. I want the temporal sensibility of the sequoia. I want to know what it would be like to have all of your offspring be clones, to potentially live a thousand or more years. There’s some spruce in the Northern Hemisphere that has lived 10,000 years or something. What would that be like? What kind of consciousness would you have of the planet as something you were part of?

The plant family fascinates me because plants were the first terraforming force. Maybe not the first, but when the first oxygenation happened and the entire planet cascaded from what we selfishly call anaerobic—there was some kind of air, but it had no oxygen in it—when it cascaded through photosynthesis into this oxygen-rich environment, it poisoned a lot of bacteria, but it made possible our own evolution. What kind of consciousness would that allow those species? I don’t think of consciousness in an Anglo-American analytic philosophical tradition. I don’t think of it as the trolley problem. I think of consciousness as a much more diffuse participation in the energies of the universe, as some kind of sensing of the energies of the universe.

When I speak to a biologist and they say, "You’re interested in interspecies stuff? There are papers on that, you know, theories of mind in chimpanzees." Yeah, but those theories of mind are incredibly limited. For example, they don’t take into account the intelligence of smell, what it’s like to get information from smell. Humans get information from smell, but we’re not conscious of it. We acknowledge it, but we don’t have a vocabulary for it. We don’t even have a word for it. We have a noun and a verb, smell and smell. We can’t even distinguish between the active smelling for something and the passive smelling of something. We have no language for that. So, we’re limited. I’m hoping that somehow culture can help us, that somehow visionary artists can help us.

The extraordinary artists of our day, like Pierre Huyghe, and Anicka Yi, who is just starting out but has great potential—these are profoundly interesting thinkers who help us on so many different levels of intelligence and cognitive processing think about our place in the universe. That’s what has to happen. Art is a laboratory of consciousness, and these are artists who are helping us to get there.

Thinking about the artists who have begun to generate this type of thinking that interests me, a lot of it connects with cybernetics and systems. The art of Hans Haacke in the early to mid-'60s, before he became the father of institutional critique, interests me very much. First of all, he was coming out of post-war Germany. He was very suspicious of humanism, thinking that it had been corrupted. This is my intuition. My intuition was that he felt, in Germany, humanism had taken a horrible path and had been used as an excuse for Nazi terror and degenerate art. For him, humanism was a bankrupt ideology.

He was not explicit about his position on humanism, meaning, he didn't write a statement saying that he rejected humanism. My work as a scholar has been to try and understand where he was in the early '60s when he came on a boat from Germany to the New York Harbor, arriving with a Fulbright and then getting a job and staying. He’s coming from a place where his entire education as a boy in Germany is steeped in German humanism and romanticism and the greatness of the German language. It’s inside a fascist regime that is making a horror of that commitment.

It’s toxic to him at that moment . . . . Later, he makes this amazing site-specific installation at the German Parliament, where the newly unified Germany commissioned him to do a piece. The piece was called Der Bevölkerung ("The Population") in critique of the earlier, late 19th-century slogan "Dem Deutschen Volk" ("To the German People"). He wants it to be to the population—immigrants, anyone, rather than the “folk.” And then the members of Parliament had to come and bring their soil and dump it in there and see what would grow. And when a blue flower grew, he couldn’t help thinking of Novalis and poetry from the medieval era and German Romanticism. It’s in him, but he fights it with what I think in 1961 felt like the rigor of science, the rigor of a secular understanding of natural systems.

He had a very interesting exchange with Jack Burnham, a brilliant theorist of systems art, whom I think you probably knew. Burnham was in colloquy with Hans. He gave him a very important early show and he said, "I’m thinking of Thoreau and nature …" and Haacke responded, "No. We’re not thinking of Thoreau. I won’t have anything to do with that 19th-century naturalist stuff. I’m thinking about plastics," or something like that. He wanted to say, "I’m thinking about the new technologies and I just don’t want anything to do with that."

These are the kinds of fragments we have of this anti-humanist compunction. And it was very brief. By 1968, 1969, he was there in New York with the Art Workers’ Coalition, he was marching against Vietnam, he was deep into institutional critique, he was studying the social as a system, he was meeting Pierre Bourdieu. Bourdieu was writing about his work. Everything then shifted towards the social.

You can’t very well be anti-humanist if you’re thinking about the social. Although, he still brought to it this stringent sense of the system and secular rational critique of the system. Part of my effort as a scholar has been to disambiguate these two phases of his career, because he wants the early to be seen as a kind of pre-history of institutional critique, and I think it’s actually quite distinct. It has interesting lessons for us today.

Haacke was interested in systems because he felt they could redirect our attention away from the human, toward this profoundly beautiful cyclical time-based event that was happening without us. The classic instance of this is his Condensation Cube. When we did a reinstallation of an exhibition that he had at MIT in 1967, I discovered that he called it Weather Cube, which is super interesting. There's a difference between condensation, which is a kind of thermodynamic category of matter, and weather, which is something we all experience. This is a plexiglass cube, very beautifully fabricated, with about an inch of water in it. Essentially, what is on display is the water cycle between droplets of condensation on the side, a little rain that comes down on the side, maybe a little fog. And if you stand in the right place in the gallery, you can see a rainbow through the drops that are condensed on the side.

This modest gesture in 1963 to ’65 generated a tremendous amount of thought and continues to generate a tremendous amount of thought. Consider the artist Trevor Paglen, who has done Autonomy Cube, which is another interesting piece.

Haacke was reading Wiener, he was reading Bertalanffy, and he was interested in nature as an isolated system. He hadn’t gotten us to the point at all where the human was part of that system. Literally, the fact that if I brought my sweaty body up next to the Condensation Cube, I could change the thermodynamics of that closed system simply by temperature which is communicating across the plexi. He hadn’t gotten to that point, but it was a tremendous advance in the thought of how art could direct our attention to a durational process, a system that was going on without us, an autonomous cycling through energies. That was huge.

A few years later, when he was given the chance to have an exhibition in Krefeld, Germany, he did the Rhinewater Purification Plant, which was literally bringing into the gallery a bunch of carboys of disgusting, polluted water. You could see them in the edge of the gallery. They were going through carbon filters, scrubbing things, and coming into a big tank on the floor of the gallery that had a lot of fish in it. The fish were living, they were eating little plants, they were excreting, and they were oxygenating themselves; they seemed to be doing quite well. This purified water was then coming out of the bottom of the tank and going out of the gallery and into the garden behind the art museum in Krefeld.

It’s not often discussed, but accompanying that was a full-scale catalog with a map of the Rhine with all of the untreated sewage plants that were jettisoning human waste into the Rhine along the course of the river. That was the first instance in which he brought the human directly into the system. That was the first instance in which he said the human is changing this natural ecosystem. Here is a system made by humans to deal with that human role in the system. That, too, was a very interesting innovation. It was around 1972 I want to say. It has inspired a range of artists, from Helen and Newton Harrison to others like Mel Chin, who use their art to beta test a reparative or reclamation of a certain environmental system. That was an interesting development.

The artists of today certainly are indebted to that systems mentality. Our times now have become so desperate. We’ve almost left an enlightenment model where "the truth will set you free" for this much more agonistic and contested model where we hear things like "Scientists are still debating whether tobacco causes cancer.” Or, “This isn't climate change; these are 'extreme weather events'"—this idea that truth is a silly putty that gets mangled around by politicians. It’s a much more desperate time. In addition to this systems mentality, this very rational data-driven analysis of the situation, artists are turning to surrealism.

What you’re finding are these eerie installations and sculptures that put you, the viewer, into a very peculiar relationship with the art object. Let’s take Anicka Yi, for example, who uses scent. In her most recent 2017 exhibition at the Guggenheim, she tells you that she’s made a scent that includes the pheromones from the carpenter ant and the scent of an Asian-American female in lower Manhattan. You get into the gallery and the smell enters your body. The squeamish among us may be thinking, "Are these ant pheromones doing something to me? Am I going to turn into The Fly, like Jeff Goldblum?"

There’s that uncanny penetration of your own boundaries as you think about this biological material. In her vitrines and installations, she has ants in one of them and bacteria in the other. Part of the interesting process of doing these installations was dealing with the museum, which staged a lot of hysteria around putting bacteria into the gallery, which you can imagine. I’m totally grateful to them for taking precautions and isolating this bacteria in the vitrine of the exhibition. While they were hassling her about that, the next gallery was being spray painted with some incredibly toxic paint and nobody was doing anything about it going into the ventilation system, going into everybody’s body. It’s her way of forcing us to contemplate our separations and our boundaries and whether they need to be renegotiated or rethought. That’s an interesting recent artwork.

Pierre Huyghe is an artist from France who’s doing extraordinary things with the same combination of squeamish, creepy, frightening surrealism, combining aspects of the undoubtedly real. For instance, you'll see a real dog walking around, or a real beehive with bees buzzing around, but they’re combined with strange notes and tones that you have to recalibrate. They’re extremely mysterious.

A recent installation that I wish I had seen but did not—I’ve seen the photographic documentation—was a series of fish tanks in which are suspended volcanic rocks that are lighter than water. You have this enormous boulder that’s floating in the tank, and then there’s an artwork that he’s crafted, which looks a lot like Brancusi, that he has offered to a hermit crab in the tank, and the hermit crab is choosing the Brancusi sculpture to become its home. Aside from echoing classic surrealism, like Magritte with the floating rock in the middle of the sky, aside from that classic art historical reference, this tableau inevitably leads us to think about the post human. Our Brancusis will tumble into the sea, the hermit crabs will find them very useful, and we’ll have no concept whatsoever of their cultural significance. They will be attractive and available homes.

This calls up the recent revival, myself included, of Jakob von Uexküll, a great theoretical biologist of the '20s and '30s who was thinking about systems, who viewed species as inhabiting incommensurate life worlds. He called them Umwelt, the surround world of the individual species. While we’re fascinated by that, we’re also frustrated with it. I’m frustrated with it, because it implies incommensurability—where I’m interested in symbiosis and interpenetration.                                 

There’s also a frustration because as humans we want the capacity to penetrate those alternative worlds and to understand them. Frankly, now is the time when we want the capacity for those worlds to penetrate us, too, give us more of their consciousness. How can we sense the intelligence of the ant hive? How can we know the language of the honeybees so that we can begin to speak it instead of just carting them around hundreds of miles to be industrial workers for our farms? How can we begin to be more conscious of this humming life scrum on the outside of our planet that is so important to our survival? How can we sense that?

Jakob von Uexküll virtually founded theoretical biology by hypothesizing that each species, each individual creature, lived in its own Umwelt, its own surround world, that was largely incommensurate with any other creature. And this is because he looked at it in terms of biosemiosis; he looked at it in terms of communication spheres. The tick, which is his classic example, has a communications sphere that the human cannot understand. The human triggers the communication, but completely unconsciously. Our bodies exude butyric acid, and as we move through the forest, the tick, who might have been sitting on that stick for eighteen years, reacts: "Oh my god, butyric acid, I’m jumping." It’s a signal that the tick receives, jumps on to the warm body, finds the warmest, nakedest spot, digs in, has the one meal of its life, goes, breeds, and lays eggs.

This idea of the separateness of the Umwelt is what contemporary, I would say, post-Margulis, post-Varela, post-Maturana post-poiesis biologists are trying to get away from. Are we really so separate? It’s only recently, like in the last two years, that scientists are beginning to study how bacteria, for example, contribute to consciousness. The NIH just approved a major study of gut bacteria and its relationship to mental illness, to depression, to sense of well-being.

Gut bacteria are participating in consciousness. We are just at the cusp of beginning an entire new realm of science, and culture is pointing the way in an interesting sense. How does the hermit crab inform our thinking about this poorly named Anthropocene? The Anthropocene brings up a whole other set of questions because, of course, it’s named after man, which we can't seem to get away from.    

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How does the non-scientist contribute to these discussions? I will never pretend to be a scientist. I’m a fascinated consumer of science. I am the public, in some sense, for science. I am attempting to be informed about what scientific theories and studies are motivating the artists that I study. This is my position. My terms of understanding for science are deeply value-laden, because in my work and in my understanding of culture, there is no culture without ideology. There is no culture without politics. And I don’t mean politics like whether Andy Warhol was a registered Democrat when he put Nancy Reagan on the cover of Interview. I don’t mean politics in that way. I mean politics as in the polis. I mean politics as in how is whatever we’re talking about embedded in culture and in a political reality that it finds itself in.

Today, we cannot imagine science as being ignorant of that reality when scientists are being asked to change words in their abstract, when they are being asked to redescribe their experiments. We are in a deeply political moment. My love of Uexküll is simply an affection. I’m not a scientist, so I’m not there to use it as a tool. I’m there to appreciate it as a cultural manifestation. My love for Uexküll is tempered by this frustration with this concept of the Umwelt, which is plural and incommensurate. So, there’s the Umwelt of the tick, the Umwelt of the human going by, the Umwelt of the mollusk buried under the sand, the Umwelt of the seagull going by overhead; they don’t intersect.

I’m that child of the '60s that’s asking whether we can find another set of concepts that shows how each of these are almost gears in a larger machine. I’m not allergic to the machinic or the systematic; I’m deeply attracted to them. I want them to encompass more and to admit more of what we don’t know. Part of what frustrates me about systems theory is the black box. It’s rarely addressed, like where you’ve put the box on your system.

What you see in Shannon’s beautiful early diagrams is: box, box, circle, message, message, noise. It’s rarely discussed how that box gets drawn around the message. Is the person receiving the message the same kind of person that’s sending the message? Is it noise if the word doesn’t mean the same thing?

Haacke's Condensation Cube is a perfect metaphor for me of the interesting problematics of systems theory. For him, the plexiglass formed a perfect box around a system that was autonomous. But he had to drill a tiny little hole in the top so that the humidity and temperature could equalize. The box has a little hole because it’s part of a larger environment and it needs to communicate with that larger environment or it won’t do the weather cycle. The box will not hold; the black box will not hold. And I don’t mind that. That’s a heuristic. You have to black box things to get any kind of answer. What I mind is the arrogance that the black box describes the universe.

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The most interesting aspect of the cluster of ideas that are circulating around this book is the question of intelligence. As a cultural worker, I feel restrained by contemporary models of intelligence as AI is defining them. Howard Gardner’s work on multiple intelligences was a beginning. But questions of sensing outside the cranium, we’ve barely touched. We’re obsessed with our neocortex. And it’s just part of the human vanity. We need to not make machines that would express the id. I don’t think that’s the point. The point is to think more thoughtfully about what goes into decision making, for example, besides Bayesian networks or "rational economic judgments."

As an educator, there’s also an interesting response to all this work. Learning is not about binary decisions or facts that can be written into algorithms. Learning is a collective enterprise by which we determine how to be better creatures on earth. This idea of intelligence as something in a box driving a car, that’s just not intelligence to me. Intelligence is something that is utterly dependent on our engagement with each other in coming to a common sense.

We have to make a commons. That’s what’s such a challenge. We have to make a commons or recognize a commons, agree upon a commons, protect a commons. Kant took it for granted. For Kant, it was simply sensus communis. It was just out there and we all knew what it was, so we didn’t have to discuss it.

Now we know how fragile it is, how much of a collective enterprise it is, who we will include in it, and even what creatures we will include in it, which is an important question for right now.