Newsletter Issue:
Spring 2024

The Blazing World, Or the Climatological Imperative: From Inaction to Reimagination

by Dr. Samantha Jones, PhD 2024

Emmanuel Kant’s categorical imperative has been subsumed by a new inexorable force, bubbling up from the molecular: that of the climatological imperative. No longer is it safe to think of a world outside, separate from and organized by the perceptions of the anthropocentric self; rather, it is crucial that human ontology begin to acknowledge its deeply inextricable relationship to the habitat which we constantly reshape, and in which we constantly leave traces.

Organized and hosted by core IDSVA faculty member Dejan Lukic, the groundbreaking three-part conference series The Blazing World, Or the Climatological Imperative: From Inaction to Reimagination, brought together a constellation of voices that reach across aesthetic, philosophical, and ontological spaces. Drawing from the vision of seventeenth-century natural philosopher Margaret Cavendish’s science fiction novella The Blazing World, this series looked to address the urgent need for action amidst a world increasingly inflamed by climate change.  

The plenary session kicked off with international climate change scientist and policy advisor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Bruce Glavovic, addressing the looming question: “How is it that we know the findings and projections of climate change science and still cannot act, even in the face of pending extinction?” His lecture “On the Horns of the Climate Change Dilemma: Re-imagining the Knowledge-Action Nexus” seeks a community-based solution to the stymying inertia present in current climate policy. His proposed activation of a “Climate Change Truth and Reconciliation Commission” would at once hold current scientific and governmental bodies accountable, while also bringing the power of indigenous knowledge to the global table. As Glavovic argues, it is these marginalized local indigenous voices, exemplified by the Maori of New Zealand and others, who offer the most critical path to reorienting the human relationship to climate change, as these communities exist at the most volatile edges of the climate change dilemma, and are therefore most deeply aware of and affected by changes in their habitat.

Weaving Maori language with the emancipatory words of the post-apartheid era in South Africa, Glavovic synthesizes historical, anthropological, geological, and spiritual realms to create a new language of equity that allows a river to achieve “legal personhood as an indivisible being,” surpassing the artificial dichotomies imposed by political-scientific thought. In doing so, Glavovic not only offers new language to discuss these issues, but opens the possibility for new inclusive thought and action in addressing the climatological imperative.

The second webinar took up the challenge of inclusionary thought, extending the dialogue beyond human voices and into the molecular realm. IDSVA faculty Elina Staikou and Howard Caygill in the UK joined artists Wayne Binitie and Johan Thom in South Africa, and finally Bruce Glavovic in New Zealand, drawing upon indigenous, chemical, and elemental ontologies, allowing them to percolate into climate consciousness as active, emergent voices.

Staikou opened the session with a climatological turn, offering an updated lecture entitled “Thinking from The Nitrogen Anthropocene to The Nitrogen Imperative,” which highlights the shift in emphasis from the anthropocentric to a focus on the elemental, as the dynamics of nitrogen represent all that humans have done in our drive to domesticate all animal, vegetable, and mineral life. Instead of carbon, her speculative fiction asks the audience to turn from the political fixation on carbon capture to the potentially devastating implications of the nitrogen cascade — an imbalance in a cycle has the capacity to affect ecosystems irreversibly and fundamentally, literally from the ground up. From the soil, through the water, into the biome, and out through the atmosphere and back again, the nitrogen cycle has been deeply altered by what Staikou calls “The greatest single experiment in global geo-engineering” — that of the invention of industrial fertilizer. As a possible way forward, Staikou references the work of artists such as Pamela Singh’s images of Chipko Tree Huggers of the Himalayas (1994), Agnes Denes’s Wheat Fields — A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill at the base of the Twin Towers (1982), and Ana Mendieta’s immersive Siluetas series (1973-80) — as examples enacting the “nitrogenic imagination,” which call for us to “re-indigenize” ourselves as active bodies within the ecosystems to which we belong.

Fig 1. Agnes Denes, View with NY Financial Center, Wheatfield - A Confrontation: Battery Park Landfill, Downtown Manhattan, 1982

Staikou’s call to action was answered by the interactive work of Wayne Binitie and Johan Thom, who engage with the breath and movement of ice to address the the question of praxis —the possibility of movement, of changing minds and hearts, and of how to take action in the face of this seemingly insurmountable problem of climate change. Binitie first shared his works 1765 -Antarctic air, a glass sculpture which encases a sample of air extracted from an ice core (exhibited in 2021 ahead of COP26) and IceFloor (2019), which captures in video and sound the release of air trapped for millions of years in Antarctic ice. He describes this ice as a “container of unspoken narratives,” which present as the escape of certain non-human histories even as we encounter them. This sense of slippage is then echoed in Thom’s live recitation of literary fragments alongside melting ice blocks in Pretoria, South Africa, where poetry engages the urgency of the ice directly in real time, as Binitie contends, collapsing the distances between disciplines and concepts with art and poetry.

Fig 2. 1765 - Antarctic air (video still). Wayne Binitie, 2021

If one is to consider sediment, air, water, and nitrogen to each have their own voice and agency, containing their own wordless narratives, how important is it for humans to make meaning of it? Might it be enough to recognize the urgency of the climate imperative to engage beyond, or outside of human reason? Howard Caygill addresses this question through Robert Smithson’s Proposal for a Monument to Anartica [sic] (1966), in which he shows both the positive and negative images together of the same photograph of maritime labor on the Antarctic shelf. Originally only present as a negative in 1966, Caygill offers a new insight on this work, presenting the positive (rediscovered in 2001) along with the negative, which results in what he calls “a flickering glimpse of a climate future in which the polar snow covering has disappeared.” This placement presents the flicker-as-monument between the memory of the past and premonition of the future, and also between geo and logos. Here, geology itself, as evident in the presence/absence of the ice, offers a compelling resistance to human perception and reason, clearly speaking in its own uncanny language to the urgency of climate change.

Fig 3. Left: Untitled SF Landscape, Robert Smithson, 1966 (Rediscovered in 2001).
Fig 4. Right: Proposal for a Monument to Anartica [sic], Robert Smithson, 1966 (Smithson’s original spelling).

The third installment of this comprehensive series was taken up by German biologist Andreas Weber in Italy, Apache chef-artist-philosopher Nephi Craig in Arizona, and Maori artist Piripi Waretini in Aotearoa, New Zealand, in a dialogue on humans as shapeshifters.

Weber opened the discussion with a biopoetic exploration of humans as clouds, imploring us to not underestimate ourselves, to embrace the ecological self which, as he contends, “is extended into the whole biosphere.” Employing imagery like rivers running through veins, and breath as the cycle of cresting waves, he describes the human body as a temporary substantive form that is always in the process of transformation. Weber outlines three major Buddhist aspects of being: sunyata, or the emptiness of ego as a fixed form, lalita, or the luminosity/spark/intensity, and karuna, or lovingness, each of which “conspire,” or breathe, together in a mutual process life-giving. Like a flower breathes into the bee, as Weber states, it is a gift “to breathe their body into the bodies of others.” While acknowledging that “our heart is colonized by heartlessness,” he remains hopeful that the life-giving act of love is a choice. As he states, “But we can unlearn this. What we have to learn…is to create a culture which…plays with our life-giving potential.”

Illustration of the Cycle of Breath. Andreas Weber, 2024

Nephi Craig’s provocative “dispatch from the underground” both enriches and builds upon Weber’s call to become clouds, framing the climatological imperative as the colonial infiltration of indigenous bodies by intoxicating substances. As an Apache farmer in the White Mountains of Northeastern Arizona, as well as an artist, father, cook, and clinician, Craig has had to negotiate this trauma at every level, working from farm to table, fostering the growth of his children and the recovery of himself and his clients, all while voicing this experience in the language of his oppressor. His very presence as a speaker at this conference, he contends, is an act of resistance.

Finally, Piripi Waretini’s powerful invocation described a cosmic umbilical cord connecting heaven to the womb of the earth, generation to generation, and this moment to all of time, as the spirits of his ancestors are manifested in the architecture of his sacred tribal meeting house. His prayer is, as he states, a “spiritual mental physical and personal connection to the land and to the people - beyond darkness into the light of awareness - and then into growth and development -and then onto humility.”

Sacred meetinghouse, photo courtesy of Piripi Kingi Waretini, 2024

Thus the “climatological imperative” is not one imposed by the human mind onto an external, statistically manageable universe; rather, it is one that sublimates from the biogeochemical and then precipitates through the cosmopolitical as the mounting pressure of emergent-cy. The possibility of such an imperative is that, regardless of our social, political and scientific paralysis, material being continues to reshape the dialogue, even as we try to make sense of it. From this rich series of conversations, one thing is clear: the climatological imperative cannot be approached from a single position, rather it is only through a constellation of voices, resonating through all kinds of material being, that we might begin to embrace real change.

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