Thursday, July 05, 2012

The Deep and the Personal: The Earth, Time, and Thought

by J J Cohen

Despite my hopes in this post, many of us who lost power during the derecho didn't get it restored until last night. Many of my friends, in fact, still do not have electricity ... and the temperatures are supposed to be in the triple digits today. It's absurd. I could tell a long story about how we finally got power restored to our neighborhood that includes attention-getting signs, massive media outreach, and waylaying two work crews, but I'd rather not think about the labor required simply to get our power company to believe that we did not possess electricity. The Cohen children still lack power in West Virginia, but they are at camp, and they have water and food, so all seems OK. The camp has also been good about maintaining contact.

So now my brain can think again.

Below you will find the abstract for a co-delivered plenary for the BABEL conference in Boston this September. Linda Elkins-Tanton (director of the Carnegie Institution’s Department of Terrestrial Magnetism) and I composed it together, and we're looking forward to creating this hybrid thing we've envisioned.

As always, your comments are most welcome.


The Deep and the Personal: The Earth, Time, and Thought

In all disciplines researchers approach common questions: Where are we from? How do we comprehend nonhuman scales of time and being? What is the relationship between Earth and life on Earth? Do our all too human limitations compel us to apprehend the world only in anthropomorphic terms? Critical theorists, historians, observational scientists, and artists use tools so different as to be unrecognizable to each other, and as they reach each increment of new understanding they describe their conclusions with incompatible vocabularies. To surpass the barriers of understanding between disciplines, various frameworks and conclusions can all be assessed together by answering the meta-questions, What interpretive power does your theory convey? What does it reveal that previous theories did not? And what critical confusions does it clear up? Does knowledge progress in a linear fashion? Can supposedly surpassed modes of knowing the universe offer insights that resonate with and perhaps even advance contemporary modes? What is the most effective way to convey knowledge about time scales and distances too vast to be easily understood? Can art (which often works on an affective register) and science (which generally relies upon a more cognitive method) ally themselves in a project of thinking beyond the local and the merely human?

In this question-and-answer format, Cohen and Elkins-Tanton will take turns asking these common questions, and answering them with attention to the meta-questions that allow us to bridge and compare their seemingly remote disciplines. Elkins-Tanton will explain her research and the state-of-the-art in planetary physics in understanding the timeline and mechanisms of the formation of our solar system, and Cohen will speak about his recent work on medieval understandings of the animate nature of matter (especially stone), the complicated ways that “deep time” have been historically imagined, and the recent philosophical movement known as object oriented ontology.

1 comment:

Eileen Joy said...

Fantastic! I can't wait to see/hear this in Boston.