Performing Measure: Endurance at the Interface Between Technology and Nature

This essay reflects on a possible relation between technology and nature today in light of a notion of endurance understood as a distinct form of sustainability. It employs the category of performance to theorize measure (the right measure) as aesthetic procedure and form of knowledge that has the potential to make the assumed technology-nature incompatibility productive. Such a concept of measure is grounded in a rethinking of rationality/reason along the lines drawn by Jacques Derrida.

Endurance – the capacity of continuing through time in spite of difficulty – can be seen as a distinct form of sustainability. Sustainability and sustainable development, defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs” (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987: 43), are key concepts in terms of which discourses on nature have been often framed in recent decades. Underlying such discourses has been a longstanding concern with the relation between nature and technology, premised upon an incompatibility between the two.

In one iteration of it, this concern takes the form of the argument regarding “the disenchantment of nature” – “die Entzauberung der Welt,” a term introduced by Max Weber (Weber, 1989: 14, 30) – performed in technology. In the story of the disenchantment of nature, as Bronislaw Szerszynski explains (2005: 5), “as technology’s powers advance, those of nature withdraw.” Technology renders nature fully explainable – calculable and predictable: in a disenchanted world, “there are in principle no mysterious, incalculable powers at work” (Weber, 1989: 13). Disenchanted by technology, nature becomes “a standing reserve” (“Bestand,” in Heidegger’s terminology; 2003: 257) to be used (up). At stake here is the issue of rationality/reason, for calculation is in fact the essence of reason (this, for instance, is the point of Heidegger’s critique of modern technology).

It is precisely this link between rationality/reason and calculation that must be undone according to Jacques Derrida (2005). Derrida undertakes to rethink reason beyond teleology – beyond (and without) necessary determination and certainty. “A reason must let itself be reasoned with” (Derrida, 2005: 159). Unlike teleological reason, which annuls the eventfulness of what comes, “beginning with … the technoscientific invention that ‘finds’ what it seeks” (Derrida, 2005: 128), a reason that lets itself be reasoned with makes possible the unconditioned event (contingency).

To build on Derrida’s thought, I suggest that reasoning with reason is linked to measure (rather than calculation) – to the performance of finding and keeping (the right) measure. “Measure” here means limit, proportion, and standard of comparison. It is the site on which – through the practice of care – seemingly incompatible things and beings can be fittingly brought together and put in relation to one another in ways that make possible the emergence of the event. As such, measure becomes an aesthetic procedure that embraces unpredictability and a form of knowledge that grows from uncertainty, from a place of not (fully) understanding – a place in which, it is worth noting, we often find ourselves in our daily encounters with media technology today.

What difference could such conception of reason make? I would like to propose – perhaps as a thought experiment – that it potentially opens the way for another idea of technology, different from the modern one emphasizing the power of technology to overcome contingency and offer the certainty characteristic of reason (as calculation). This idea would be closer to the one of the classical thinkers (Plato and Aristotle, among others), according to which “technai” – “intrinsically uncertain and unpredictable in their outcomes” – “were activities involving the making of things in a way which was guided by logos, by reason” (Szerszynski, 2005: 52). At the interface between such a conception of technology and nature the possibility of endurance potentially emerges.

 

Addendum [A Confession]

The last time I felt close to nature was at the Watermill Center, a laboratory for performance and for interdisciplinary research across the arts and sciences founded by multimedia artist Robert Wilson in Long Island, NY. I was there in the summer of 2011 as part of the Watermill international summer program. When I gave voice to my experience (of feeling close to nature), someone remarked: “Funny that you should feel this way here.”

It is funny, indeed, if “nature” means a place unspoiled by human hand. For Watermill is undeniably a (re-)made space, or, rather, a site of constant re-making: it brings together a former industrial facility and various grounds (including woodland, gardens of flowers and of grasses), all redesigned under the artistic direction of Robert Wilson. The inhabitants of this site live amidst and engage with various art pieces, ranging from artifacts of past and present cultures to rocks collected from all over the world. The pots from which they eat and the chairs on which they sit are artworks, too.

Spatially, the Center recalls the (mega)structures of Wilson’s artworks, in which various objects are made to hang together in unexpected ways that make possible different modes of seeing and thinking in the audience. These structures call attention to details and relations among things that otherwise would remain unnoticed. Relatedly, living amidst the artifacts on site challenges the inhabitants of the Center to practice constant care and, thus, to acquire an-other rhythm of being in their environment. Rhythm, the use of time as structuring element, and gesture (the materialization of care in expression), are distinctive marks of a Wilson artwork and instances of his endeavor to find the right measure in performance. In a way, thus, the Watermill Center embodies Wilson’s aesthetic vision and becomes the site of his experiments in rationalizing space and time – reasonably so.

I insist here on the word “site.” As performance theorist Alice Rayner notes, “a site is a creation, not a discovery” – a creation that implicates the pun of site as citation (2002: 352). Indeed, the Watermill Center can be described in such terms. For instance, Andrzej Wirth, co-creator of a video-essay on the Center, observed that Watermill is “architecture quoting theatre, or rather the memory of theatre inscribed in architecture” (Wirth, 2008: online). This act of citation is a matter of performance, which, in turn, is a matter of rendering spatially a present moment elongated in-between the past and the future. In a way, it is a matter of endurance, in its double sense: of that which is capable of being endured (transformation, a process of change), and of that which endures (a structure, a specific mode of being). This concept of endurance is what interests me in this essay.

Works Cited

Derrida, Jacques. “The ‘World’ of the Enlightenment to Come (Exception, Calculation, Sovereignty).” In Rogues: Two Essays on Reason. Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. Ed. Werner Hamacher. Stanford, Ca.: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” In Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology. Eds. Robert C. Scharff and Val Dusek. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2003, pp.252-265.

Rayner, Alice. “E-scapes: Performance in the Time of Cyberspace.” In Land/scape/theatre. Ed. Una Chaudhuri. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002, pp.350-370.

Szerszynski, Bronislaw. Nature, Technology, and the Sacred. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2005.

Weber, Max. “Science as Vocation.” In Max Weber’s Science as Vocation. Eds. Peter Lassman and Irving Velody. Trans. Michael John. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989, pp.1-31.

Wirth, Andrzej. “Andrzej Wirth and Thomas Martius: Architecture/Theater/Memory.” Accessed October 20, 2011. http://vimeo.com/4515982.

World Commission on Environment and Development. Our Common Future. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.

 

 

 

8 thoughts on “Performing Measure: Endurance at the Interface Between Technology and Nature

  1. You have composed a extremely thought-provoking article. Your composed content speaks to me and I write about in your views. many writers do not compose original material, but you have genuinely carried out a outstanding duty with this information.

  2. i think we’ll have a lot to discuss when we meet in berlin and many overlapping thoughts. really looking forward to seeing you!

  3. I appreciate a lot that you inspire to rethink rationality with Derrida. Your first paragraph also reminds me Adorno/Horkheimer.
    What I find very striking about your paper is the notion of the event as emerging from your conception of reason that subverts the modern idea of prediction/countability and calculation – if I understand you correctly. I`m looking forward to discuss the relation of mutual constitution of the possibility of event and the possibility of endurance.
    And I furthermore find it quite interesting to conceptualize the linkage between the practice of care (which needs further investigations in my opinion), creation and measure.