In Chapter Six of How To See The World by Nicholas Mirzoeff, the author discusses the rapidly changing world. Since the era of globalization, the industrial revolution, and the evolution of the increasingly complex network of the world, the Earth we understood and long held to be governed by certain rules has been changing at an unprecedented rate in ways we have not yet fully understood. This requires us to think outside of how we normally do, and to build a greater understanding of the modern world we live in – and how to live in that world as a global whole. Corresponding to these ideas and throughout the chapter, Mirzoeff focuses on six major points:
- Change is now occurring more quickly than ever before
- Our perception is shaped by the world and what we understand of nature itself
- Presentation of what we see is absolutely everything; presentation creates perception (indeed we are in love with the allure of the city)
- Coal and steel connect us all and are the building blocks of the modern (Anthropocene) era
- We must redefine the way in which we think and understand the networked globe around us to live in this new era
Mirzoeff begins this chapter by explaining the history of change. Change, he states, is usually difficult to see and occurs very, very slowly, as it has over the past millions of years. However, change is not occurring much, much faster than it did, ever since the dawn of the Anthropocene, or the New Human Era, which came about after the Industrial Revolution.
The Anthropocene came with many changes, including a dramatic change in humanity itself, and the hot button topic of climate change. As Mirzoeff explains, climate change, while widely agreed upon, is still subject to scrutiny because it is impossible to make an experiment about climate change – the world is simply too large a test ground. The most effective tool to document change is, at its core, comparison, as in films about the retreating polar ice caps. Knowledge, therefore, has changed as well, and has shifted to a group of computational models. On the more human-influenced side of the climate change debate, the world is growing into a network in which carbon emissions are affecting us all. This network is steeped in an inverse relationship between those who harm and those who are harmed; the highest emitters (U.S., EU, and China), will dramatically impact India and Africa.
Mirzoeff next explains the change in humanity which has occurred since the dawn of the Anthropocene. The typical interaction of our relationship with the world has been that there is nature and culture, and that someone can take nature and make it into culture, as an artist does with a painting. However, that relationship is no longer present, and the defeat of nature has taken its place. For example, the human race has greatly diminished the number of bird species on the globe, affecting nature and the sound and sight of the world as we know it though the generations. Simply said, we have changed from working with nature to believing that nature works for us.
Humans can and have very drastically changed a lot about the world in this way, and we have come to see a lot of this change as art and beauty, with the dawn of the new and artists capturing the changing world (changing both for the good and bad), in their ‘beautiful’ work. We have evolved to misinterpret the terrifying as the beautiful and the modern as the conquest of the world. Indeed, even the horrible can be interpreted as something good and beautiful, all according to how it is presented. Like the filthy New York Harbour, representations of the horrible change our opinion of them. Presentation is everything here.
Production and consumption have alsoredefined the industrialized world and our relationship to the beauty of it, in combination with our fascination with taming nature, like with the electric and gas lamps, which allowed us to tame darkness. On an urban level, we are in love with the allure of cities, and this makes us ‘unsee’ everything else of importance. For example, in London, the smog of pollution even became a tourist feature, missed when it wasn’t there, and very much expected as a part of cultural life. However, interestingly, in modern media, the ‘shining’ cities of the Western world are seen as faultless, even when the air quality of cities like London are declining, and those in the East and other nations are criticized, such as smog-ridden cities in China, popping up all over the news.
Because of this change, and especially the industrial revolution, we as humans have engaged in a new vision of the world based on the changing globe, which trains us to think the way we do. Indeed, the world itself alters the way we think and the way we perceive, Mirzoeff argues; we see as we are made to see by the world around us, both on a small and large scale. Therefore, in order to see differently in this new era of humanity, we must revolutionize our thinking to imagine a different way of being with the world. Mirzoeff also argues that we must look at what we consider art once more and determine how we have played a part in changing the world, and, in order to understand these changes and the new networks that arise from them, we have to relearn our sight and begin to see the world as an entire globe, not just as a collection of individual nations or ideals.
A key subject to focus on here is, as previously mentioned, the idea of the network. The world works in a system of coal, development, and energy consumption, connecting far-reaching places across the globe. And to understand the world visually, Mirzoeff argues, we need to understand these connections and how the network operates.
The very bottom of this system are the mining communities scattered across the world, which power the creation of steel and the intensely grand modern structures we know today, such as the Bird’s Nest stadium in China. These building blocks of the Anthropocene face a difficult juxtaposition as a direct result of this world network. On one hand, there is hardship, exploitation and pain, as artist Sammy Baloji explores through his series Mémoire, in which he juxtaposes images of colonial cruelties against a modern industrial backdrop. Mining and coal have contributed to great levels of corruption, hideous denials of human rights, and harsh exploitation. This leads to an landscape ravaged and ruined by the quest to defeat nature and rob her of the goods that lie on or beneath the surface (note: this is also seen very clearly in humanity’s conquering of the birds, deforestation, and below-ground mining). However, the human toll has another side; shutting down mining would destroy the pride, community, and identity of those that work in the industry.
Mirzoeff continues the chapter by next exploring the power of visualization to redefine our thought processes. Mirzoeff notes that we can begin to understand the new changes in the world through visuals, such as the flood plain map of the U.S. Mississippi River. This shows the deep history of the river’s path through millions of years, and illustrates time and change, also, in effect, showing the immense power of the river and the inability to change it through human means. However, a different visualization, which defined the river in a straight line and cities alongside it as a set of data points, created a situation in which humans believed they were in control. This representation corresponds to the previously mentioned human idea that nature is their own, and therefore made the populace entirely unprepared when the river tore through the defences they thought would most adequately contain it, which, of course, would not work because the river is not a straight, data-defined line.
As seen in the previous example, in development and in culture, methods of controlling nature are seen as far more favourable than those methods which coexist peacefully alongside it. However, these are the methods which are far more likely to work on the long run. And, in order to relearn how to work within this system and within a constant set of changing boundaries, we as humans must learn to redefine this relationship, and the networks, time, and space that affect us all.
The World Shapes Our View of the World
The idea that the world itself shapes our world view is a facet of this argument which often goes unmentioned. You never think that climate change and what you do and do not understand about the world shaped how you see everything you know. For you, something is just taken for granted, something normal, while for someone else, it may be a luxury, a danger, or a fascination. Take GPS tracking for instance. There is an app called Life360 which allows a group of people to sign on as a closed network and, given everyone’s phones are on, each person can track the members of the group, even receiving alerts when they arrive and leave specific locations. Personally, I find this app has many useful purposes, like making sure kids get home safe from school, knowing when parents have arrived to pick you up, etc. However, something very interesting occurred when I showed this app to my grandparents. Having grown up in an era where this was still wholly impossible, and not fully understanding the degree of independence of the modern youth and simply the changing culture (keep in mind my grandparents live in Austria and I grew up in the U.S.), they were horrified by the app. My grandmother even thought it made it easier for my parents to control me and my actions, something which I had never even considered, but which made sense for their generation, as the connection between children and parents was entirely different in their day. This was incredibly interesting to me and just went to prove that your view is a product of the world you grew up in, and how that world taught you to think, on both a large and small scale. Even climate change falls under the same degree of difference. For some of us, like Mirzoeff says, we do not know a world without climate change, so it becomes more of a twisted normality for us, simply because this is how we have been subconsciously taught to think.
Perception Through Representation
We can change our perception through representation. Tone is everything. This is similar to the eBay and Museum texts we did in class; when we portrayed an object in one light versus another, the connotation of the object changed entirely. The same goes for New York. As mentioned before, having lived near NYC for most of my life, I see New York as a dirty city I personally feel rather uncomfortable in, and, apart from the amazing things you can see there, I would personally rather not go. A lot of my friends who have not been to New York believe the world of it, holding the image of the shining city of lights to their hearts. For that, I will have to give New York credit. It’s branding is immaculate. However, this just proves the point. A place is what you represent it as.
The same goes on a much larger world scale. The East and other regions are often represented as ‘lesser’ than the West, even though pollution may be rising in cities like London and New York. I believe this, at least in part, goes back to the course of world history; the Europeans and the Chinese were major conquering forces of history (for now disregarding the later U.S. conquering spree), and once China became communist, I believe they won the title of ‘enemy’ of the West (while not too large, they are very loud in their opinions) and, no matter their rich history, were delegated to the status between a first and third world country. Not to defend any one country or action in any way, but simply as an example, and completely objectively speaking, this focus on the ‘shining, perfect city’ in the west and the tendency of pointing out what is wrong with everywhere else shows the overwhelming existence of very, very real prejudice which has, essentially, been engrained in our daily lives and mind-sets, particularly from my own experience in Europe and the U.S. Of course, this goes both ways; no prejudice on any side is ever the most moral course of action, but that constant thought, “because they are (insert classification here), they are (insert societal conclusion here)” is still very much alive and well in the world today. Finding a way to challenge this and to understand the network we are living in will be a key to making it more equal, and maybe we can even get to a point where the argument does not become ‘you do not have this, therefore we are better’, but ‘we have this, how can we help’.
Perception by Understanding
If our perception is shaped by the world and by nature, is that why the ancient people so believed their world to be shaped by gods and many modern peoples to believe very strongly in science? Also, birds are, as Mirzoeff points out, integral to every mythological and cultural system we know. Why was this? And is it still like that in modern society today? Or instead of worshipping birds, do we worship drones and airplanes?
Lack of Comparison
In London, the smog of pollution even became a tourist feature in the Industrial Revolution, missed when it wasn’t there, and very much expected as a part of cultural life. This again shows how, if you have never known anything else, even the horrible seems natural, because you have no pre-existing standard to compare it to.
The Symbolism of Dominance
The symbolism of pollution even grew so far as to suggest that it was a natural effect of the division between the ‘civilized’ and the ‘savage’ and the conquest of nature, essentially, European order and foreign chaos. That symbols like this can come to mean something entirely against what they are is arresting, fascinating, and horrifying all in one. Did this come about because of a kind of carefully controlled perspective displayed to the people? Pride? Disillusionment and false definitions of power and strength? Ignorance? All four? And how is it possible to reverse these perceptions to more accurately represent the truth? Or is that just as bad as changing the perspective to fit one person’s version of events?
In fact, “The International Exhibition was an unabashed celebration of the conquest of nature and the rise of Western ‘civilization’ in its place.” (p.243). This is wholly false; every single place on this globe has a unique culture and an important human and social impact to our global society. So, the question is now, if there were a true international exhibition, exhibiting all internationally, and it were held in Africa or South America (traditionally conquered continents), what would happen?
The Evolution of the Modern Era
The bird’s nest building. Designed by culture and grandeur, connected by mines and factories, and realized by power, this showcases the evolution of the modern era.
The Bird’s Nest Stadium: https://www.roselinde.me/beijing-olympic-green-park/
Fear of Seeing
It is often the most human toll which people want to ignore. We would rather turn a blind eye and go about our own troubles than allow ourselves to be exposed to the plight of others. It is something we do not know. And we are afraid of what we will find.
Change and the Course of Nature
We have no doubt contributed to climate change, and we must bear the consequences of that. But really, it is a fluctuation of the world based on events set in motion by something major. When the ice age occurred, it was because of the meteor dust blocking out the sun. When entire ancient civilizations disappeared, it was a result of climate, attackers, and sickness. When the world continues to get warmer, it is a result of the industrial revolution and the resulting Anthropocene era. We are part of nature, whether we like it or not. And now, it seems in trying to conquer it, we are running headlong to the destruction of our world. What was that famous phrase? Fate so often meets those that are running to avoid it.
Thoughts and Additional Short Comments
Holocene. Quaternary. Neogene. I just think they’re cool words.
How far are people willing to go to prove they are right? How much will people ignore to think they are? Why?
We gradually see more or less of the world than the generations before us. Less birds, less ice, less privacy. More people, more machines, more digitalization.
Learning to see is just as much about seeing as it is about ‘unseeing’
- “The human relationship to the world is going to change fundamentally as a result of our having fundamentally changed the world. Simply put, everything will look different.” (p.215)
- “Global understanding is, by contrast, based on computational models supported by a knowledge infrastructure: in the case of climate, these would be weather observations, satellite data, radar readings, and so on, calibrated against past measurements. It is not something that one person can do by themselves, as could the heroic scientists of the past. Knowledge itself is now a model based on an Internet network.” (p.219)
- “The change revealed by these models is so thoroughgoing that geologists have named the period since the Industrial Revolution as the Anthropocene: the New Human Era. This means that we have changed the planet’s fundamental geology…and that means a change in the way we measure ‘deep time’, the way the planet’s immensely long history is understood.” (p.219)
- “What used to take millions of years to change now takes decades.” (p.219)
The Revolution of Speed and Mechanics
- (In relation to the human conquest of nature during the Industrial Revolution) “The battle against nature was won but is now being followed by its slow collapse under the consequences of its own efforts (Nixon 2011).” (p.220)
- “We have already not only long absorbed the costs of this conflict but learned to find them beautiful. Modern beauty was often the product of climate change…the Romantics used the term ‘sublime’ to refer to a kind of beauty that would be terrifying to experience personally but was intensely moving to see depicted in art, such as a shipwreck or storm of the kind we see in the paintings of the Romantic artist J.W.M. Turner. (pp.220-221)
- “If you are under twenty-eight, you have never known what the pre-climate-changed world was like. Your body knows nonetheless that the drought, the floods and the rising seas are out of joint with past experience. It just feels wrong. So we have to imagine that past, ‘unsee’…how it has taught us to see the world, and begin to imagine a different way to be with what we used to call nature. That will be seeing the Anthropocene.” (p.221)
- (In relation to the idea of natural selection versus extinction by human involvement) “The dodo has been a fixture in popular culture since the nineteenth century because it was the first modern sign that humans could change change itself.” (p.222)
- “Science is represented as reason triumphing over sentiment, gendered as masculine and feminine respectively.” (p.223)
- (In relation to the ban on DDT, the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson, and the attempt to save nature) “We might wonder if Americans today, living in cities behind double-glazing and plugged into their headphones, would be so moved by a threat to birdsong.” (p.227)
- (In relation to Audubon and the declining species of birds.) “We live on, and look at, a different, emptier, less song-filled planet than he did.” (p.227)
- “The city has become the habitat for the majority and we have naturalized it in art, photography and film. We can learn to look again at these works to see how humans have changed the world, and then we could develop ways of seeing the planet which might be part of the solution. To do so, however, we have to ‘unsee’ the ways in which we have come to see this change as beauty.” (p.228)
- “The modern idea of beauty transformed the sensing of the colour and smell of coal smoke into an indication of the continuing conquest of nature.” (p.230)
- “The degradation of the air is again seen as natural, right and by extension beautiful. The changed world is now so built in to our senses that it determines our very perceptions, and so it has become beautiful and aesthetic.” (p.232)
- “If beauty is what is known as the aesthetic, art here produces a sensory anaesthetic to the actual physical conditions. Whereas watching coal being unloaded on a smoggy day might not be an elevating experience, looking at Monet’s painting of such a scene is exactly that. Just as nineteenth century art had pictured storms and mountains as beautiful rather than threatening, Monet changed our perception of the modern city. Indeed, the invention of medical anaesthesia in the nineteenth century was one of the most dramatic reductions in human suffering ever known, so the dulling of the senses was not always perceived as a bad thing.” (p.232)
- “In the eyes of the imperial culture, law separated the ‘civilized’ from the ‘savage’, the result of the conquest of nature. Fog was the visible by-product and symbol of that conquest.” (p.235)
Coal and the Modern View
- “When the world is changing, it makes little sense to measure results nation by nation. We have to think in terms of cause and effect planet-wide, meaning we have to relearn how to see the world as a whole. We cannot see from the partial viewpoint of our own nation or region, but need to bring together different points of view so as to see the Anthropocene. Perhaps we are still anaesthetized by our pleasure in modern urban living, unseeing what its costs are at home and elsewhere.” (p. 237)
- “Chinese smog is very visible in Western media, whereas first-world failings are ignored.” (p.239)
- (In relation to the Bird’s Nest Stadium in China) “The Stadium adopted the concept of nature as a resource for human need and turned it into a monument to Chinese progress.” (p.240)
- (In relation to mining communities and the effect coal and mining has on the world network) “These interconnections and networks are part of what made the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Orbit possible but remain unseen, the material side to globalization that most prefer to ignore, just as the Anthropocene landscape is experienced only by those who have to work there.” (pp.244-45)
- “We need to compare across time and space and learn to see from other people’s perspectives as well as our own…we also have to change our understanding of time. Deep time is changing in front of our eyes. If we don’t take into account the worldwide situation, we will constantly be taken by surprise…we are now all connected and change itself is changing.” (p.252)
Cover Image courtesy of https://coalandice.org/about/