Critical Theory Essay

As a consequence of the constant progression of the digitization of our lives, we have been losing our primordial connection with nature, thus our ability to listen to its messages and understand its language. This essay focuses around the revaluation of encounters between human and non-human systems and explores the possibility of the restoration of a line of communication with our environment, challenging the role of the artist as a system thinker.

Starting from the era of industrialization, and the consequent abandoning of the rural areas, our quotidian landscape has been transforming so much that nowadays nature only represents an exception among buildings and artificial structures. This alteration of the environment has affected our process of thinking and behaving on a daily basis, thus making us perceive nature as a presence aside from our existence, instead of it being an active element in our lives.
We used to think about the natural realm as something that we have control over, a source for us to exploit for our benefit; this misconception has led us to the idea that, even if we are now trying to live with a sense of respect towards it, nature is still subordinated to us. We live in a society that aims at the supervision and comprehension of everything, we have transformed ourselves into our own gods, thus establishing a supremacy over any other living system. This established anthropocentric view of the world is one of the major causes of our detachment from the environment – with anthropocentric meaning the “attitudes, values or practices which promote human interests at the expense of the interests or well-being of other species or the environment.” (Koopina, Washington and Taylor, 2018).
To clarify, what is problematic is not the concern with human welfare itself, in fact, as Tim Hayward points out, every species has the right to put their own needs before the ones of others, (Hayward, 1997) but this priority becomes questionable when it results in something arbitrary that can potentially lead to a more general “planetary-scale subordination of nonhuman organisms that denies they have value in their own right”(Koopina, Washington and Taylor, 2018). This utilitarian view of our society is also considered one of the major causes of our current environmental unsustainability and unethical treatment of nonhumans.
In order for us to open a mutual dialogue with nature, we need to adopt an ecocentric view of the world and accept that there are bigger things than us and that our ignorance of how they function does not deny or decrease their existence and value. As Gregory Bateson argue, there is mind in nature and humans must think as nature does in order to live in harmony on earth (Bateson, 1987). The fact that we are often unable to do this demonstrates our incompetence in comprehending the non-human realm and our lack of education to its language. Furthermore, as the Deep Ecology movement sustains, we must develop a participatory relationship with the greater environmental complexity of the biosphere in a manner that is mutually life-exchanging (Dunn, 1988). We must face the fact that “if the biosphere is going to survive in a manner inclusive of human beings, then human beings must not only allow more room for the non-human, but face responsibility for the role of environmental maintenance that our technologies have already engendered”(Dunn, 1997). In other words, due to the current destructive effect operated by civilization and the disequilibrium it has engendered within the environment, the obvious human need is now to reaffirm a new connection with the non-human world (Dunn, 1988).
Most of what we live in nowadays is a technological environment that serves more as a constriction rather than an element for promoting interactivity amongst systems. The introduction of new technologies and social media in our daily lives enchanted our pre-existing anthropological view of the world, therefore making our reality even more individual and self-absorbed. All these new commodities we surround ourselves with only function as sedatives for our brains, confining us in our little comfortable realities built on virtual relationships. The society we live in is so human-focused that it may seem we only need ourselves in order to function, when actually we do depend on the environment; as David Dunn points out, in fact: “Our physical survival is dependent upon the preservation of wilderness, while our psychological health is dependent upon the reaffirmation of our connectedness to wildness” (Dunn, 1988).

A first step toward the revival of our relationship with this altered environment we live in would be to step out of our system of thinking and educate ourselves to nature’s language, which is mostly composed of sounds intended as a mix of vibrations.
Before we explore the importance of this element as a mean of communication, it is essential to understand its natural quality, which contrasts with the definition of music: a combination of artificially ordered sounds. The type of sound that needs to be rediscovered comes directly from the natural environment, thus resulting in a mixture of disorganized noises if we don’t know how to interpret them. It might be difficult at first to approach this type of language since we do not immediately possess the tools required for its comprehension. This sound, in fact, does not belong to the human realm, it is not a melodic composition, but the background noise that has always been there, the noise of the ice when it cracks, the vibrations of the sound waves on plants, the bio-acoustic signals of trees when stressed.
We are used to think about sound as music, and to think about music as a consecution of sounds aimed at the instant gratification of the listener. This misconception has only brought frustration among experimental composers whose work only “inflicts confusion upon an audience which cannot be expected to be educated to each unique language ” (Dunn, 1984) and led to the reduction of music to an exploitable commodity for commercial merchandising instead of it being seen as a form of art and language. Music may be a kind of conservation strategy, a way of making sense of the world from which we might refashion our relationship to non-human living systems,  but as Jacques Attali states : music now seems hardly more than an excuse for self-glorification of musicians and growth of a new industrial sector.”(Dunn, 1997)
Sound, on the other hand, has always been something that allowed us to both hear and talk to the world regardless of our comprehension of it; it reminds us of the “profound physical interconnectedness that is our true environment. “(Dunn, 1997). The simplest action of mindful listening, which is considered a deeply respected meditative practice, for instance, can allow us to become aware of our surroundings and feel a whole within the bigger presence of the non-human biosphere. These sounds that populate the environment are evidence of mind in nature and patterns of communication with which we share a common bond. (Dunn, 1997)

When we talk about the mind of the environment, we refer to the very species that inhabit it and that together constitutes something which has an organization to it, described by David Dunn as a “purposeful minded system of communication.” (Dunn, 1999).
The demonstration of the existence of an emergent intelligence in non-human systems has been a recurrent topic amongst musicians and artists of the past century, who have been trying to deconstruct the attributes of music in order to set up an interaction with the environment using sound as a vehicle.
Artists, intended as system thinkers, are the best assets society dispone of to investigate our relationship with nature and propose alternative solutions to our issues of incommunicability. Experimental art, in fact, functions as a development resource that can provide the needed dialectic between ecologists and industrialists, from whom innovation is then selected (Dunn, 1988). It is essential, though, to point out that the role of the artist does not merely end at the collection and display of evidence; artists do not only have the power to introduce new systems of thinking, but with this authority comes their responsibility to educate their audience to these new systems.

Leading figures in this field, such as the composer and sound artist David Dunn, have dedicated years of their practice to the research and exploration of new ways to increase communication between humanity and other living systems. Within this context, Dunn has formulated an experimental practice called “environmental language”, which he defines as “an experimental dynamic process that explores whatever tools and metaphors are available toward a greater understanding of the profound interconnections between sound, language and the environment.”(Dunn, 1997).
Experimentation in system integration and application of musical structures toward real-time interaction with non-human living systems is what characterizes Dunn’s artistic practice (Dunn, 1988).
In addition to his experimental activity, he also researches and investigates evidence of the presence of mind in nature in order to discover and listen to the environment’s changing messages and pass them along to others. Dunn’s ability to merge art and research is evident in all his works, for example, in his piece “Chaos and the Emergent Mind of the Pond”, which is composed entirely of underwater sound recordings of vernal pools in North Africa and America, he discovered a pattern to their underwater sound-making, a sort of “collective voice”, which showed proof of the presence of a mind that is beyond our comprehension (Dunn, 1997). This work represents just one of the many evidences that suggests that “thinking does not require language in human terms in order to happen and that each form of life may have its own way of being self-aware” (Dunn, 1997).

Every system has its own process of thinking and its own codes of communication, and some of them are not accessible to humans, therefore our interactions with them may be limited. Most of them, however, can become available thanks to the aid of new technologies. Technology does not necessarily need to be something that restricts us to our own realities, it should be used instead as an extension of our senses; it should be an element that we can exploit in order to improve our communication skills instead of it being something that has control over our behaviour. Technology does not have an intrinsic power that operates beyond humans, we are the ones giving it a purpose, therefore, we must not be afraid to use it to our advantage since it does not make our work less natural nor less authentic, it just allows us to access elements that are not naturally available to our senses. There is no such thing as uncontaminated nature nowadays so we might as well try to integrate these technologies within the environment, since they already play a big role in it, instead of shutting them off pretending they do not affect our relationship with the non-human realm.

Exploitation and integration of new technologies within wilderness are recurrent concerns in Dunn’s artistic practice and represent essential tools for the collection of evidence for his researches.
In his investigation on bark beetles, conducted with Jim Critchfield, for example, the two of them reordered acoustic emissions produced by the insects, most of which occurred in the ultrasound range (20- 200 kHz and above), therefore inaudible if it wasn’t for a custom-built device that allowed them to pick up the vibrations produced by the creatures. The microphone would be inserted into the tree populated by the insects at a specific distance and was able to record what is believed to be a system of communication operated by the beetles through sounds and substrate vibration. The analysis of the data collected through this innovative device, in addition to Dunn’s field observations, showed the presence of a much more complex system of communication than what was previously believed. Without the aid and knowledge of advanced technologies, Dunn and Critchfield would have never been able to know that these creatures actually possess organs capable of hearing ultrasound for non-specific communication, which led them to the assumption that bark beetles would be able to listen to  diverse auditory cues from trees, and then use them to decode which one would be the weakest and best to attack (Systems, 2015).

The essential role that technology can play in the interaction among living systems, however, does not make it exclusive. The comprehension of other systems of communication, in fact, requires time and dedication as much as the access to the right tools; for instance, it took Dunn around two years of listening to his underwater recordings of the ponds in order for him to recognise a pattern within the mixture of noises. What could be done to facilitate people’s education to nature’s sounds would be to provide them with the basic tools for the comprehension of this language (such as essential knowledge, directions on how to behave and what to pay attention to…) so that to ease their struggle and allow them to enjoy the experience of discovering these new codes of communication.
On a practical basis, taking Dunn’s work as a reference again, he created a guide for people for listening to natural environments in which he tries to explain the meaning of the sounds of nature and to sensitize people to the process of hearing life in general (Dunn, 1999).

The sensibilization towards listening is just one of the many possible solutions that need to be promoted in order to allow us to connect with the non-human biosphere without altering its course. A major issue with the need of humanity to establish a participatory relationship within the environment, in fact, is that the physical approach is not always the right choice, even if it may seem the best for us.  In order to create a line of communication with the natural realm, we first need to respect it and treat it as a living being, therefore we cannot pretend to impose our presence anywhere we want if that means altering the natural course of that place.
If we want to live in communion with wilderness, we need to consider its rights. This should not limit our possibilities of exchange and encounters, but it should indeed push us towards the research of new and more sustainable ways of restoring our bilateral relationship with it.

Within this context the artist’s role is to provide alternative experiences while enriching people and letting them explore their connection with nature in its respect and preservation.
Artworks have the great potential to increase interactions between living systems and humanity, and they should be able to do so through the creation of systems that could benefit the both of us. Alternative solutions that may apply to these parameters could be the construction of electronic parks for sensory refreshment or the creation of wilderness encounters within the city landscape (Dunn, 1988). It is important to keep in mind that, in order to establish an interdependent relationship with the environment, we do not necessarily need to be physically immersed in complete wilderness. We could just start by focusing on those natural elements we encounter on a daily basis, trying to listen to them and to understand what kind of messages they are trying to convey.
Because of the incessant acoustic pollution provoked by human activities, which is almost everywhere on this planet, the idea of getting immersed in pure nature is no longer realizable. No matter how far from civilized areas we go, there would always be the background noises of cars, or airplanes passing over. We should indeed consider sound as a powerful alternative and primary mean through which we can immerse ourselves into a deep sort of meditative state. Sound has the great potential to make our brains travel and bring us to places we have never been to just by hearing the noises that populate them; through attentive listening we can learn even more things about a place than if we were physically there: how it functions, how its different components interact with each other…

If we really aim at the restoration of a mutual relationship with the non-human biosphere, we need to stop addressing the idea of nature as a pure entity and understand that what we need to get in contact with is this altered set of living-systems with which we share our existence. In order to do so, we need to open our minds and senses to new systems of thinking and accept the fact that we belong in an interdependent relationship within the environment that surrounds us, thus, we have the “responsibility to respect its web of life and heal the damage caused by the ideological dominance of anthropocentrism (Washington, 2017). Within this challenge, artists need to assume the leading role in the proposal of creative solutions since art is one of the most powerful tools for the re-shaping of people’s mind and process of thinking. Leading figures such as David Dunn, have demonstrated the potential of sound and innovative technologies to act as an expansion of human language into the domain of the non-human, and have proposed alternative systems of communication aimed at the re-enaction of our participatory relationship with nature.
The redefinition of humankind’s connection with the non-human biosphere represents an urgent matter that is going to affect our future and determine our survival on earth. Nature has been on this planet for a much longer time than humans have, adapting to any kind of circumstances and developing ever-evolving strategies of survival to hostile situations; maybe it’s time to stop using it just as a physical resource for our purposes, and start treating it as a proper living being that has a lot to teach us, we just need to start listening.



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Available at: http://www.davidddunn.com/~david/writings/mle.pdf

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