The impossible gaze of the ecological subject
Untitled, Alex Murdin (2009)
We are now living in the Athropocene. This informal term, coined in 2000 by Paul Crutzen is now common currency amongst scientists and describes the current time period in the geological scale where humankind has acquired the status of geological agent in the scale of its interventions. Some are sceptical but in environmental terms the impacts are demonstrable, melting ice caps, sea level rise, acidic oceans and increased extinction rates -the current extinction rate is the 6th largest ever (Zalasiewicz et al, 2010: p. 2228-9). These are threats to the survival of at least some or quite probably all of humankind; hence the rise of environmentalism as a political movement from the mid-20th century onwards. The environmental movement covers a broad range of issues and positions but can be characterised by two poles of thought.
At one end are those that perceive ‘earth’, ‘nature’, ‘ecology’ and so on, as a holistic system, the “deep ecology” of Arne Naess, or the Gaian thesis of James Lovelock that earth is a self-regulating entity would be examples. At the other pole is what Arne Naess calls “shallow ecology” in which the earth is externalised as a mechanistic system, a human resource or object of study. Genetic biologist Richard Dawkins is equally rude about deep ecology and what he calls, “the temptation of ‘Gaia’: the overrated romantic fantasy of the whole world as an organism; of each species doing its bit for the welfare of the whole” (Dawkins, 1998: p.222).
However both these poles can be said to share a position which requires a dialectic object, an ‘original’ state of the earth or nature, sometimes called wilderness.
Untitled, Alex Murdin (2009)
For science the original state provides a benchmark of how science, and its co-dependent technology, can ‘fix’ environmental problems with solutions. For the more holistic the original state is also required so that there can be a return to the past where all was harmony and the current imbalance can be rebalanced. Both require to some extent the ‘world without us’, an extrinsic Other that provides the measure of our action, or inaction.
In his new book, Living in the End Times, the controversial philosopher Slavoj Zizek contends however that any conception of this “world without us” is dangerous, both in theory and in practice. From a practical point of view he says:
“”Nature” on Earth is already “adapted” to human intervention to such an extent – that its cessation would cause a cataclysmic imbalance – Human “pollution” is already deeply implicated in the shaky and fragile equilibrium of “natural” reproduction on Earth “
From a theoretical or psychoanalytic point of view he suggests that both poles of thinking on the environment are flawed because they are founded on what he calls the impossible gaze, described as a: “fundamental subjective position of fantasy: to be reduced to a gaze observing the world in the condition of the subject’s non-existence…witnessing the Earth in it’s pre-castrated state of innocence, before we humans spoiled it in our hubris.” (Zizek, 2011: p80).
In my opinion this fantasy has become deeply embedded in some arts and ecology thinking. For example lets look at Herman de Vries’ “sanctuariums”, built in various cities from 1993 to 2002. These are brick walls or wrought iron railings that enclose in a circle a small plot of land in a park, or derelict suburban land, that exclude human presence. Some of them contain “oculi” holes in the wall that allow people to see what is within. It is obviously important from de Vries’ point of view that the sanctuariums are visually permeable in order to allow the audience to have an external perspective of the natural space being created within. De Vries’ states his intent that this gaze into the site will create the potential of “enriching experiences that might exist if nature were allowed to develop freely here”.
Just so we are in no doubt about this, the sanctuarium built for Skulptur Projekte Münster in 1997, says around the top “Om. This is perfect. That is perfect. Perfect comes from perfect. Take perfect from perfect, the remainder is perfect”. Images of the work soon after completion, show an immaculate brick wall capped with a light sandstone which contains beautiful wild grasses and other non-cultivated plants within.
However ten years on this perfection had changed. The wall had been covered in graffiti and within the walls natural succession had produced a bramble threaded thicket, liberally studded with plastic bags, drinks cans and other human detritus. As the non-human element of the ecological system has fulfilled its entropic destiny, so too have the users of this area, some at least seemingly unaffected by the potential or actuality of an “enriching experience” in the face of the current version of de Vries’ “perfect” nature.
Perhaps this treatment is due a comparison by local people between what nature does on their doorstep with the spectacular nature portrayed in the media, nature documentaries on lions and tigers and bears (oh my). According to Zizek the popularity of nature documentaries, safaris and ecotourism is due to a nostalgic desire to experience a “natural order” where the subjective and social order is predetermined. It is also a reinforcement of distance, again this idea of observing a “world without us” watching nature with the “impossible gaze”.
Let us examine then what the impossible gaze actually is. According to Zizek:
“the fantasmic narrative always involves the impossible gaze by means of which the subject is already present at the scene of its own absence. When the subject directly identifies its own gaze with the objet a, the paradoxical implication of this identification is that the objet a disappears from the field of vision. This brings us to the core of a Lacanian notion of utopia: a vision of desire functioning without an objet a and its twists and loops. It is utopian not only to think that one can reach full, unencumbered “incestuous” enjoyment; for it no less utopian to think that one can renounce enjoyment without this renunciation generating its own surplus-enjoyment.” (ibid: p. 84)
In simple terms the objet a is a Lacanian term for what we desire in the Other, love, sex, comfort and so on. In this case we are talking about our desire as ecological subjects to be part of nature. The paradox though is that as soon as we try to identify with, or become part of the object, truly possess our desire, it disappears. Think of sitting next to a friend, turn and look at them. Now imagine that you are actually them and occupying the inside of their head with your consciousness. Imagine that you are looking out through their eyes – what you are now doing is looking out through their eyes, at yourself. Notice however that whilst you are looking at yourself through your neighbour’s eyes, that your neighbour has disappeared from your field of vision. What is being said here then is that what we desire in someone other than ourselves, or more widely “the world without us”, is ultimately unobtainable or utopian. This is the fantasy of ecology as “wilderness”, which is an enjoyment of nature unencumbered by ourselves.
Untitled, Alex Murdin (2005)
In case though we are tempted to therefore withdraw from nature, ZIzek goes on to point out that if we absent ourselves from environmentally problematic sites in order to enjoy our moral rectitude we are equally compromised – after all we should be doing something about the situation, shouldn’t we ? This is a core issue with restorative environmental utopias, such as that created by de Vries. It is the double bind of the environmental subject, existing at a point of moral oscillation (also known as cognitive dissonance) between absence and presence.
In the work of ruralrecreation (www.ruralrecreation.org.uk) we are particularly interested this point of moral oscillation. One example is a work from 2007 called Inclusive Path. This was an installation which took as its starting point the tension between the conservational remit of contemporary land management authorities and the economic driver of tourism. This tension is implied in the rhetoric of the organisation “Fix the Fells”, funded by the Lake District National Park, the National Trust and Natural England. The campaign says “Our high level paths are surprisingly fragile, and with millions of visitors each year, grass is compacted by feet, and worn away. You can help by treading more carefully.”
Inclusive Path as a project therefore proposed a “solution” to this problem with its implicit criticism of walkers and suggested an un-tourism where visitors will be able to visit sensitive sites like Scafell Pike without the need to walk on them, and yet still take away precious memories of the experience.
Inclusive Path at Keswick, ruralrecreation (2007)
The form of the project was a series of boards showing portraits as a standing male, a male in a wheelchair and two children set against a rocky backdrop. Holes were cut where the faces should be, reminiscent of old seaside attractions, which allowed the user be photographed as if at the top of a mountain. There were 249 direct participants in the Inclusive Path project who demonstrated a range of responses in their use of the photo panels. The project provided an outlet for participants to experience something of the impossible gaze, to enjoy the fun fair fantasy of being able to be instantaneously on top of a mountain without effort or environmental guilt.
BBC news website, 04/08/07
In ruralrecreation’s work there is a concern to have both tone and volume and therefore an intent to work within the media, to amplify the concepts involved. After all a tree falling alone in a forest does not make any sound. In this case the project was suggested to take place on the village green in Grasmere. The green looks like a public space but is in fact owned by the National Trust, who objected to the work on the grounds that it was anti-tourism. This was therefore reported to the media who responded with the headline “Artist banned by National Trust”. This amplification of the compromises involved in land management was a key point – the Trust is supposed to be preserving the environment but objected to this work as it looked as if it was against the economic driver of tourism which they simultaneously blamed for eroding the paths in the first place.
Another example of working with the impossible gaze was an unrealised proposal by ruralrecreation, One Mile Wild (2009). The proposal was made as part of an open competition for “Re:place”, a programme of site specific work being commissioned by the Derbyshire Arts Development Group from 2008 to 2011 in that county.
Trespassers on their way to Kinder Scout, 1932
It started from a similar point to Inclusive Path but also dealt with the political heritage of the countryside and access to it. Derbyshire is surrounded by some of the largest conurbations in the UK and 1932 was the site of a mass trespass on private land at Kinder Scout. The mass trespass was part of on-going process of political conflict in the countryside, stemming from enclosure of common land which dates back to the industrialisation of agriculture in the 18th century. The trespass was organised by the British Workers Sports Federation as a protest against the laws which forbade them to walk on hills and moors in the area, preserved at the time for the recreation of wealthy landowners such as the Duke of Devonshire, e.g. for hunting, shooting and fishing. The trespass was successful in asserting the right of access of this group to what they described as this “fine country presently denied us”  and still resonates today as it appears in leaflets as part of walking tours. It is interesting to see this political act as an aesthetic one. To quote Jaques Ranciere:
“By making themselves spectators and visitors, they disrupted the distribution of the sensible which would have it that those who work do not have time to let their steps and gazes roam at random; and that the members of a collective body do not have time to spend on the forms and insignia of individuality. That is what the word ’emancipation’ means: the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of a collective body.” (Ranciere, 2009: p. 19)
However, the aesthetics of the political act continue to compete with traditional landscape preservationist aesthetics, ecological sensibility and environmental politics. The result of Kinder Scouts’ popularity has led to a physical inscription onto the landscape through the actions of walkers. In the same fashion as in the Lakes and Fells the site has now been eroded by its popularity.
Mike Innerdale, the National Trust’s project manager in the Peak District says ‘If we don’t act now the whole place will be bare rock in 50 years. Kinder Scout holds a very special place in people’s hearts. The Mass Trespass is historic. And it really cannot be lost to the nation…’… Today it is believed to be the worst degraded area of blanket bog in Britain. “
The word “degraded” is interesting here. Common in landscape management terminology, its meaning is an empirical reduction in quality or value. However it also has the subjective sense of moral characteristics which are corrupted or depraved. In this case the depravity of the bog cannot be attributed to its own inclination and therefore, by association, the responsibility for it’s the corruption rests with the moral subjectivities of human users of the site. Walkers and climbers at this site are sensible of freedom of gaze, movement and so on, at the same time as being morally culpable for acting to its detriment in environmental terms. We therefore have another site of moral oscillation where the impossible gaze kicks in.
The penitentiary act required by the “conservationists” and land managers is the restoration of the bog to its previous state, implicitly of greater aesthetic and biophysical value than bare rock. What this means is that the area will exist in a closed loop, a permanent state of managed-naturalness. It will be restored to the state as it was before the Mass Trespass occurred, as the event of the Trespass itself marks the point of expansion of access and therefore becomes the start of erosion. Then presumably it will be degraded again, then restored and so on. As the visitor is caught in a eco-ethical singularity so is the actual site caught in an eco-political one.
The irony of course is that the emancipatory act of the Trespass has created what is now regarded as an offence against the environment. It is what ensures this interminable cycle of ecological “degradation” and restoration; the rights of access created are now enshrined in the Countryside Rights of Way Act of 2000 and therefore are politically ineradicable, at least at this point. What alternatives are there then to the impossible gaze in this case ?
One Mile Wild: proposal for enclosure of Kinder Scout peak, ruralrecreation, (2009)
Similarly to Inclusive Path, One Mile Wild extended the logic of ecological restoration to one of its extrapolated end points.
The proposal was for a process to enclose a square mile of land encompassing Kinder Scout: which would
- “Establish the legal & planning framework required for disowning land e.g. in trust, or as “commons”…
- Set out who will manage the unmanagement of the land.”
This “unmanagment” of the location is the repair of the boundaries and policing of them in order to keep people out. It is this un-managed and dis-owned land which proposes a resolution for the moral ambivalence of the ecological subject and the impossible gaze. For the viewer of One Mile Wild at its boundary, it would exist simultaneously in a state of wildness (absence behind an enclosure) and as an object of land management (the presence of a barrier) at the same time. It is a bit like the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat where two states of quantum matter can be said to be in superposition, coexisting as states x and y at the same instant, until observed. The project would then create a stabilised moral point where the ecological site is manifest in its visually unobtainable state as an object of pure desire.
What becomes though of the heritage of the site in One Mile Wild if it is based on exclusion? How does this respect or maintain fidelity to the “revolution” of access that took place here? It does this as a radical subtraction. “Subtraction” is a term used by Alain Badiou and Steven Critchley to describe a strategy of resistance to hegemonic, capitalist practices. Badiou describes each revolutionary Event as “something that can occur only to the extent that it is subtracted from the power of the State.” (Badiou, 2010: p. 244). In social and environmental terms we can think of a range of artistic and other practices; nomadic lifestyles, alternative communities, subsistence smallholders and living “off grid”. Subtraction here “withdraws and disconnects; reduces complexity to minimal difference; and in this way attempts to destroy the existing order” (Zizek, 2011, p 129). The subtraction of One Mile Wild follows all of these paths and is therefore true to the radical intent of the mass trespass, which was to create a new common landscape for the people.
80 years ago landscape was valued aesthetically for its ability to restore the senses of the new urban majority. Recently we have a new type of common land – landscape + : the accessible aesthetic landscape along with its soil, air and water quality, its value for bio-genetic diversity and so on. One Mile Wild on the other hand is the future commons. It is landscape – held inaccessibly in common for the future world, preserving all life, generating oxygen, capturing carbon and so on.
The question is though whether acts of subtraction are enough to escape from the fantasy of the impossible gaze. Zizek is dismissive of subtraction as a strategy and says ”to address forthcoming energy, food and water shortages it will be necessary to invent new forms of large scale collective action; neither the standard forms of state intervention nor the much-praised forms of local self-organization will be up to the job.” Zizek, 2009, P.84)
Submergency, ruralrecreation, 2012
Ruralrecreation enjoys enhabiting this point of dissonance, somewhere between presence and absence. In their latest project Submergency they created a portable lifeguards chair which could be used by wild swimmers for self-surveillance. Legal advice though was that as soon as it is used, the person occupying the chair is liable for any injury or deaths that occur as it implies the river or lake or sea being watched is safe. This chair is therefore fitted with an FM transmitter which fills in for a lifeguard and narrowcasts music, safety advice and relaxing new age whale song….
BBC News website 18 06 12
As in previous projects the work is encouraging an audience to be safely at risk. Also as in previous projects, due to the uncertainty as to whether a subtraction can actually be heard by anyone else, there is again the use of the media to amplify the point of moral oscillation, with the work featured on BBC news and so on.
These works are points of oscillation not vacillation, and function as tools for the excavation of new tropes. As Žižek’ concludes in his discussion of the impossible gaze, with the injunction “not to abandon the topos of alternate reality as such”, that’s to say new ways of thinking our lives and environment but that, “…the task is rather to unearth the hidden potentiality (the utopian emancipatory potential) which was betrayed in the actuality of revolution and its final outcome (the rise of utilitarian market capitalism).” (Zizek, 2011: p.84)
Untitled, Alex Murdin (2011)
Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Steffen, W. & Crutzen, P. The new world of the Anthropocene, 2010
Dawkins, R., Unweaving the rainbow, 1998
Zizek, S., Living in the end times, 2011
Zizek, S., First as tragedy, then as farce, 2009
Ranciere, J., The emancipated spectator, 2009
Badiou, A. The communist hypothesis, 2010
 The Observer, Sunday 20 April 2008, Caroline Davies https://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/apr/20/conservation.wildlife?INTCMP=SRCH Accessed 19/01/2009