User’s Guide to “a book of hours for the chthulucene”
sarah falkner, 2018-2019, ongoing.
A Book of Hours for the Chthulucene presents for contemplation a series of diptychs whereinone drawing documents the transformation of written language into abstraction and symbol via a process known as the “sigil method” --in each case ashort quote, precis,or paraphrasefrom a variety of textsources--and the process drawing is paired with the resulting sigil recontextualized and ornamented for meditative contemplation within a schema grouped bythe Classical elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. The project is ongoing, and periodically small printed reproductions of series of the drawings are created in both handmade and mass-produced editions scaled to mimic average smartphone sizes and intended to accompany and distract from our phones.Abibliography for the text sourcesis found at the end of each portable book.
A Book of Hours for the Chthulucene (referencing biologist-philosopher Donna Haraway) is an evolutionary hybrid, a recombinatory mashup whose kin include the almanac, the manual, the primer, and the grimoire—similarly mixing theory, practice, and aesthetic in an illustrated compendium presented for a layperson to contemplate and integrate into quotidian life. Investigating the interdependent historicities of art, science, and magic, AboHftC engages both contemporary neuroscience and ritual technologies as well as historical ontologies and epistemologies.
Like medieval Books of Hours—an ‘hour’ in the Middle Ages being defined as an inexact space of time allotted either to religious or business duties—AboHftC is both a work of art and also a personal tool. Where medieval Books of Hours assisted their owners in monotheistic spiritual devotion with cycles of prayers, images and readings tailored to the hour and season, ABoHftC is both aware of its historicity and built to enhance its beholder’s life from within a dialectical synthesis of what are often divided into false binaries of the scientific/spiritual and self/collective. Its contemplations draw from diverse source texts and are tailored to the concerns of what some might call the Anthropocene or Capitalocene Epoch (and which Donna Haraway, biologist and philosopher-scholar of science and technology studies, University of California Santa Cruz, calls the Chthulucene); the ‘hours’ and seasons of the Chthulucene are collective timespace events arising from ongoing dynamics such as climate change, Big Data surveillance, resource depletion, and human alienation from other lifeforms, and its compendia are grouped according to typologies first articulated in the Classical era and made use of by various practitioners of science, medicine, and magic in subsequent eras up through the present: the four elements Earth, Air, Fire, and Water.
Using the book form as a deliberately slow media format the way urban planners deploy obstacular infrastructures for traffic calming or durational performance art challenges both artist and audience to elongate attention in order to experience a rupture from everyday overculture reality, ABoHftC also employs a specific drawing and occult consciousness-shifting technique, Sigilization, wherein written language is morphed into symbolic and abstract shapes and the potential for subconscious/transpersonal-level imprinting; it is based on the method first codified by Edwardian-era British artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare and later popularized by contemporary artist-chaos magicians such as performance artist/musician Breyer (Genesis)-P-Orridge and graphic novelist Alan Moore. The personal palm-sized contemplative component arose purpose-built to the circa-2019 median average scale of handheld devices, to act as complement and countertechnology to smartphones—which, as, Byung-Chul Han says “Represent digital devotion… As a subjectivation-apparatus, the smartphone works like a rosary—which, because of its ready availability, represents a handheld device, too.” (1)
AboHftC’s relationship to ubiquitous personal digital devices is one of critique and harm reduction. Recent work in neuroscience indicates thatreadingnecessitated a new circuit in Homo sapiens’ brainsmore than 6,000 years ago. The research of Maryanne Wolfe (Director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice in the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies at UCLA) “depicts how the present reading brain enables the development of some of our most important intellectual and affective processes: internalized knowledge, analogical reasoning, and inference; perspective-taking and empathy; critical analysis and the generation of insight. Research surfacing in many parts of the world now cautions that each of these essential “deep reading” processes may be under threat as we move into digital-based modes of reading.”(2)
As Wolfe writes, “We know from research that the reading circuit is not given to human beings through a genetic blueprint like vision or language; it needs an environment to develop. Further, it will adapt to that environment’s requirements – from different writing systems to the characteristics of whatever medium is used. If the dominant medium advantages processes that are fast, multi-task oriented and well-suited for large volumes of information, like the current digital medium, so will the reading circuit.” ResearchersAndrewPiper,KarinLittau and Anne Mangen (University of Stavanger, Norway)“emphasize that the sense of touch in print reading adds an important redundancy to information – a kind of “geometry” to words, and a spatial “thereness” for text. As Piper notes, human beings need a knowledge of where they are in time and space that allows them to return to things and learn from re-examination – what he calls the “technology of recurrence”.” (3)
Wolfe also notes, “MIT scholar Sherry Turkle has written thatwe do not err as a society when we innovate, but when we ignore what we disrupt or diminish while innovating… There’s an old rule in neuroscience that does not alter with age: use it or lose it. It is a very hopeful principle when applied to critical thought in the reading brain because it implies choice. The story of the changing reading brain is hardly finished.”
Other recent work in neuroscience affirms what many of us have already noticed, that digital devices-- especially when used to imbibe in social media—can also negatively impact our moods, psychological states, and mental health (4) and affect our eyesight (5). Given neurological plasticity, it seems we could engage with digital innovations with less diminishing of our overall everyday experience if we first accurately quantify the impact and effects of the technologies we engage with and then choose also to deliberately exercise a complementary variety of brain processes and somatic experiences throughout our days and hours. While stepping away from screens and into outdoor environments, and engaging in mindful realtime realspace with diverse sensory experiences both alone and with other sentient beings should all be part of a well-rounded life, in keeping with a harm reductionist worldview, I have turned my attention to how to better mediate the times when we all reach for our handheld devices, and how to create transformative and subversive objects which are as convenient and compelling as smartphones but initiate different experiences. Mindfully converting some of the time I have spent engaging with digital media into visual, poetic and philosophical contemplation of non-glowing surfaces has already been helpful in diminishing my own ADHD symptoms as well as eyestrain, which are both greatly exacerbated by excessive smartphone use.
Another goal of AboHftC is to interrogate received notions of technology and science. For many Americans in 2019, to utter the word “technology” is to conjure a vision of a highly specialized device-dependent practice the existence of which depends entirely upon a confluence of massive amounts of capital, physical, andmaterial resources. There is often a false binary of “technology” vs. “nature,” or “human,” and capital-I Innovation—like his brother with the Invisible Hand, the Free Market--is often blindly submitted to like a cruel god whose sacrificial demands are not questioned (pertinent to ABoHftC: smartphones can only be built with cobalt, which is largely mined by child slaves in Democratic Republic of Congo, and are assembled by suicidal laborers in brutal Foxconn Cities; it is easier to buy “cage-free” eggs than a cruelty-free smartphone)
If we embrace technological innovation but with critical thinking and an eye to minimizing harm and diminishment of quality of life alongwith equitable distribution of benefit to all sentient beings, we need to interrogate the metrics that have brought us to our current condition and see where we can do better. We can consider measuring innovation as increased quality of life forincreasinglymore beings--not just fasterbrightershinier. We can consider that what is frequently labeled innovation in a capitalist society is often not improvement but compulsive change for the sake of planned obsolescence and the economy’s complete dependence on consumers always buying evermore things. The analog handmade book itself was a radical technology when it first began appearing, and we can consider whether, ifa technology has already endured, it might not need to be changed so very much from its first iteration; we can develop a more diverse repertoire of expectations for change, and look to timescales of biological evolutionary processes, such as the move from quadrupedal to bipedal locomotion, and linguistic adaptations, and see that some things are worth largely sticking with; we can avoid throwing babies out with the bathwater, to use an idiom still in use in English and which linguists first date to 1512, in German.
We can also consider that our allegedly technologically-advanced society is often comparatively backward when it comes to what Michel Foucault termed technologies of the self (where individuals, by their own means or with the help of others, act on their own bodies, souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being in order to transform themselves and attain a certain state of health, perfection, wisdom, happiness, and social/collective improvement). We have delegated so many of our powers of observation and measurement to machines that we begin to trust them more than ourselves though they, may too, be fallible. The practice of industrialized medicine’s fetishizing of laboratory testing to achieve diagnosis has resulted in failure to care properly for patients whose afflictions are not easily or reliably mapped through known testing, or who may be victim to testing error—my own experience with tickborne disease educated me in the limitations of doctors behaving as oracles for automated deities--and the dependence on expensive infrastructure makes high-tech laboratory diagnosis out of reach to many people on the planet. As a Tibetan medicine practitioner friend--whose tradition, arising in a vast and specific ecosystem, teaches subtle and sophisticated clinical diagnosis through sharpening the doctor’s skills of sensory perception and observation—says: you can’t do an MRI on a mountain, with no electricity. We can consider that cultures besides Western Industrialized ones have refined technologies of the self to extreme sophistication that we would do well to see as equal if not superior in many situations.
The timespace this Book of Hours arises for I first encountered so named in Donna Haraway's Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Haraway conceptualizes our current epoch not as some would, the Anthropocene--its climax, the planet's Sixth Extinction; its center, humans--but as the Chthulucene: a post-anthropocentric affirmation of the interdependent relations between the earth and all of its inhabitants, recognizing the process of sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making, as the primary biological process. I’ve chosen to take Haraway’s conceptualization deeply to heart, and it informs AboHftC on multiple levels.
In Staying with the Trouble,Haraway writes,
“I insist that we need a name for the dynamic ongoing symchthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake... I am calling all this the Chthulucene—past, present, and to come. These real and possible timespaces are not named after SF writer HP Lovecraft's misogynist racial-nightmare monster Cthulhu (note spelling difference), but rather after the diverse earthwide tentacular powers and forces and collected things with names like Naga, Gaia, Tangaroa, Terra… “My” Cthulucene, even burdened with its problematic Greek-ish rootlets, entangles myriad temporalities and spatialities and myriad intra-active entities-in-assemblages—including the more-than-human, other-than-human, inhuman, and human-as-humus.”
“Chthulucene is a simple word. It is a compound of two Greek roots (khthon and kainos) that together name a kind of timeplace for learning to stay with the trouble of living and dying in response-ability on a damaged earth. Kainos means now, a time of beginnings, a time for ongoing, for freshness. Nothing in kainos must mean conventional pasts, presents, or futures. There is nothing in times of beginnings that insists on wiping out what has come before or, indeed, wiping out what comes after. Kainos can be ful of inheritances, of remembering, and full of comings, of nurturing what might still be. I hear kainos in the sense of thick, ongoing presence, with hyphae infusing all sorts of temporalities and materialities. Chthonic ones are beings of the earth, both ancient and up-to-the-minute… Chthonic ones are monsters in the best sense; they demonstrate and perform the material meaningfulness of earth processes and critters. They also demonstrate and perform consequences. Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth… No wonder the world's great monotheisms in both religious and secular guises have tried again and again to exterminate the chthonic ones.
The scandals of times called the Anthropocene and Capitalocene are the latest and most dangerous of these exterminating forces. Living-with and dying-with each other potently in the Chthulucene can be a fierce reply to the dictates of both Anthropos and Capital.” (6)
Sarah Falkner, 2019.
1 Byung-Chul Han, Psycho-politics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power,2017: Verso. p12
2 and 3
6 Donna J. Haraway, Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene, Duke University Press, 2016.