The Nature Institute
The following article is based on Craig’s presentation at the 2014 Techno-Utopia Teach-In in New York City, which included a viewing of the short video below of a fox hunting in snow. We advise watching the video without sound, as it was presented at the teach-in.
The following article is based on Craig’s presentation at the 2014 Techno-Utopia Teach-In in New York City, which included a viewing of a short video of a fox hunting in snow. You can find the video at http://natureinstitute.org/txt/ch/techno-utopia.htm. We advise watching it without sound, as it was presented at the teach-in.
The fox is a remarkable creature. It’s very interesting to consider how we can participate in such a video and see something of the remarkableness of the fox. Because we ourselves are embodied beings, just as the fox is an embodied being, we can augment what we don’t actually perceive. We know what it’s like to breathe in the cold and to see our breath. We know what it’s like to walk through snow. And we definitely know that we probably could not catch a mouse underneath the snow.
So we ground what we see in the video through our own experience. Our appreciation of the fox—its beauty, those fluid movements, its focused attention, the snowy landscape that is part of its world—is all the greater the more we have embodied experiences as beings on this planet who also live within the elements. Without that personal experience, watching the video would be pure sensation, or boring, or just something “neat” to look at. So being able to appreciate what comes towards us on such a screen—which has no depth to it and where there is really no fox behind the screen—has to do with what we bring to it, how we fill out those images through our own experience and imagination. And the more embodied experience we have had in the world, the more we can appreciate what the video suggests about the fox’s tail, the pattern of its fur, its shape, its movements, the world it lives in.
Here we are dealing with the real and the hyperreal. This video was constructed. In many ways, it is something very unreal. No fox would let us get that close. How did we get close to the fox? With a telephoto lens. You can find the video on YouTube, and you can look at it anytime and anywhere. The person who took those photos waited a long time. That person waited in the cold and had a lot of patience—some of the patience of the fox—in order to perceive the fox appearing in the landscape and doing what it did. And then an editor pieced together what might have been hours and hours of movements of a fox into the 2 minutes and 48 seconds of a beautifully crafted video.
So where is the fox in the video? What we’ve seen is an art form created out of the interaction of human being, technology, and fox. But as viewers we are actually onlookers. Do we think, after viewing the video, that we were actually sitting in that snowy landscape or somewhere in the landscape behind it? No. We weren’t there. We are onlookers. And yet we are at the same time participants. Otherwise, the video is meaningless. So we have a constructed image that allows us to appreciate something of the fox if we bring experience and imagination to it. And yet it’s at the same time an absolutely strange phenomenon. To use the words of Albert Borgmann, the University of Montana philosopher of technology, the video dissolves the constraints of space and time (Borgmann 1984).
In looking at this technology, this unreal reality—the hyperreal or we could also say, hyporeal—the question is: How do we as human beings relate to the video, and how do we relate to what is real? What do we mean by “real” anyway?
For me, real is actually seeing a fox near my home in upstate New York for five seconds trotting across a field. For me, real is going out of this building into the sunlight and being warmed and having a very different air come into my lungs. For me, the real is having a conversation with another person. These real experiences come in moments that are like gifts, you can say.
And the reality is not simply something “out there.” I am participating in that which I call real. Otherwise it is not real. I have to be there. I have to perceive it. All reality, then, is in this way relational. Everything else is just a fiction.
But so also is that video a reality. However, it’s of a very different nature than the fox I experience trotting across the field near my home. Again, we come to the question of reality. Albert Borgmann has some wonderful words to characterize the real and the hyperreal:
Today the critical and crucial distinction for nature and humans is not between the natural and the artificial but between the real and the hyperreal.... What is eminently real has a commanding presence and a telling and strong continuity with its world.... Whatever is devoid of contextual bonds and is hence freely, that is, instantaneously and ubiquitously, available is therefore subject to our whims and control and cannot command our respect in its own right. Conversely, whatever engages our attention due to its own dignity does so, in important part, as an embodiment and disclosure of the world it has emerged from.... This distinction is moored by clear cases at the end points of the spectrum: wilderness at the one end, videos at the other. And there are many interesting and intricate intermediates. (Borgmann 1995)
So he suggests the idea of commanding or genuine presences as characterizing the real—when you perceive that something is rooted in a larger context of which it is revelatory. For example, a leaf in the fall, loosed from its tree and floating through the air, is revelatory of the whole context of wind and temperature at that moment. The fox moving across the landscape is revelatory of its larger being in that world that I get a glimpse of for a moment. What is real is an opening into a deep and rich world that we do not fully fathom, and yet when we meet it we know we’ve met something significant.
And commanding presences are not only the presences of the natural world. Being a biologist, I have a great bias towards them. I think they’re the most fantastic commanding presences one can seek, find, enjoy, and honor.
But there are other commanding presences. This is important to acknowledge in our technological world, where many people live in cities, and there is very little of what one would call the commanding presences of nature. Sensing the air, the wind in the canyons of New York City as I walked down here this morning was quite interesting. It was, in its own way, something commanding for me. So you have very many different types of commanding presences.
And I want to just mention a few, because I want to come to the question of education and the value of commanding presences for our children. Consider, for example, conversations with other people, conversations about things that matter. We are, or we can be, commanding presences, each and every one of us. And in our cultural activities, in conversation, in dialogue, we have such a meeting, face to face, unmediated by something in between. Think too of our cultural heritage of stories, the realm of story. Even children today, who are so embedded in technology at such an early age, still drop their jaws when they listen to stories told by a human being. There’s still something there that is experienced in a deep way.
Borgmann speaks about the culture of the table—of cooking, preparing a table, sitting down to eat, saying a grace, and speaking together. Those are all commanding presences. Creating works of art, the commanding presence of the color, or of the clay, or of the wood, or of the instrument that we have to deal with—also commanding presences.
So in many realms of life we have them. And a central question for me is how do we orchestrate or facilitate experiences with commanding presences today for children in education? Because we all know and perceive how today, from an early age on, the experience of children is often mediated through so many gadgets and devices. We really need to concentrate, then, on how we can help children still come into contact with commanding presences. How could we make that the main focus of their existence for the first 10 or 12 years of their lives?
It would mean that school would have to become very different in our technological age and less what we typically imagine school to be. Tests would have to go away; 45-minute periods would have to go away. Meeting with people, meeting with nature, meeting through meaningful work in the world, such as gardening—all of that would become the heart of education.
Why? Because the commanding presences give us roots in the world and help form the way we think about the world. They are in the best sense of the word formative and can inform our being. If there is to be a future in which human beings form ideas that are rooted in reality, it will be in part because they’ve been allowed to participate in commanding presences as children. And they will have experienced that reality is relational, that as a person you are active and you are being acted upon by commanding presences.
My focus here is not the issue of the negative impact of children being over-exposed to so many advanced technologies. It’s the question of how we can facilitate the positive impact of commanding presences. How can we help children participate in commanding realities so that the ideas that sprout up in the mind of future generations can be ideas that are rooted in the world and not in the fantasies of the cyber world?
Borgmann, A. (1984). Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Borgmann, A. (1995). “The Nature of Reality and the Reality of Nature.” In M.E. Soulé and G. Lease (eds.), Reinventing Nature? Responses to Postmodern Deconstruction. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Craig Holdrege, Ph.D., is the director of The Nature Institute in Ghent, NY. The Institute works through education, research, and publications to inspire a new paradigm for science and technology — a paradigm that encourages us to strive for a healthy future by embracing nature’s wisdom. Craig is also author of Thinking Like a Plant: A Living Science for Life (Lindisfarne Books, 2013) and co-author of Beyond Biotechnology: The Barren Promise of Genetic Engineering (University Press of Kentucky, 2008). He can be reached at email@example.com.
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Copyright 2015 The Nature Institute
For other articles from The Nature Institute on the relation between humans and nature, visit http://natureinstitute.org/nature/. And for articles relating to technology, visit http://natureinstitute.org/tech/.
Copyright 2015 The Nature Institute
For other articles from The Nature Institute on the relation between humans and nature, visit the section of our website entitled Seeing Nature Whole: A Goethean Approach. And for articles relating to technology, visit Technology and Human Responsibility.
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