Planet as Prefix IV
Accumulation is a hard problem to solve. Our overlords would be sweating buckets if all it takes is cutting off a few wires, grabbing a few guns and going after the bad guys. Accumulation is much more insidious.
First, it's not a value of the enemy; it's all of us. Second, it's not us being bad, but us being good. Who doesn't like living in a pleasant neighborhood with a plush house and two cars? Who doesn't like a society which makes those luxuries available to everyone?
Doesn't development mean replacing farm and forest with factory at an ever increasing pace? Let me also admit the hypocrisy in these statements - for I am very much a beneficiary of the transition from carbon to metal and silicon. Isn't the computer on whose metallic surface I am typing these words made in a factory built out of the ruins of some forest? The core problem: accumulation makes a lot of sense at the individual scale but is catastrophic at the planetary.
A while ago, a colleague recounted a conversation with the director of our then institution, who said: ‘knowledge is power, but money is even more power.’ That was the director’s way of saying ‘better raise more money for the institute or else.’ I find the language of the story interesting; not the juxtaposition of knowledge and money and power which is cute, but the ‘more,’ for that word indicates the spirit of accumulation. Crudely speaking, it says:
We are here to accumulate.
Power is the best thing to accumulate, but we can’t do so directly.
Money is a better surrogate for power than knowledge.
Or even more crudely:
Stuff is good.
More stuff is better.
Some stuff helps you get other stuff.
While we haven’t reached the level where there’s a universal measure of success, global society affords rough translation between the various markers: citation metrics and grant applications, song downloads and video views, stock holdings and bitcoin hoards. OK, maybe not the very last one, but the rest are comparable.
One way to organize our study of stuff qua stuff by subdividing it into three buckets which we can label as figure, lens and ground respectively.
The figure is the theme being investigated, i.e., accumulation and its main subdivisions (knowledge, money, power….).
Lenses are the artifacts through which accumulation is made visible and available for exchange: cities and markets for me.
The ground consists of the flows of energy and information that make accumulation possible.
Philosophical aside: I used ‘stuff qua stuff’ as a tongue in cheek reference to Aristotle’s famous definition of metaphysics: the study of being qua being. If metaphysics is the first science, accumulation is the first act. There are hints of metaphysics in other parts of the Figure-Lens-Ground triad as well, like how Energy and Information are conditions of possibility of accumulation, which is how Kant articulated his metaphysical project. Unlike the Kantian forms of sensibilty and his categories of the understanding, energy and information aren’t transcendental, a priori, ‘necessary’ conditions of possibility but immanent, material conditions. They are as much in the world as stuff is.
In one of many signs that the planetary moment is upon us, here’s a blurb about an upcoming exhibition of Leonard Pongo’s work:
Conscious of the limits of photography, Léonard Pongo seeks other ways of giving form to the superhuman force of the Earth. For him, letting go, getting lost and subordination are the only means of becoming part of the environment, and it is from this angle that he sets to work in the Congolese landscape. In Primordial Earth he lets nature speak, without trying to translate. From the traditions and cosmologies of the Kasai region, he introduces us to a world in which humankind is not the protagonist, but a character, secondary to plants and animals.