Theater of Cruelty

Everything we love is transient, fleeting, temporary

ESSAY / It is our self-understanding that is at stake today. With their aggressive, partly inflated subjects, Western technologists, economists and artists have for centuries seen themeselves above nature. In the ecosystem, man is in nature, he is a part of nature, on which he is completely dependent. Can we protect biotopes, habitats, rivers, lakes, soils, oceans and commons? This essay looks at five books examining the ecosystem.


Se at the bottom for the film related to the essay.

A human body digests dead animals or plants and then goes to bed and reproduces; a lake exchanges death and living matter with itself and its surroundings; an empire occupies new land and initiates oil drilling: Common to these three events is that we are dealing with an ecosystem interacting with surrounding ecosystems. The world consists of such, small and large ecosystems.

Ecosystems are constantly changing, they are changing to withstand change – to sustain themselves. Its natural. We humans, just as naturally, want to stabilize ecosystems to have good, predictable lives. The more man takes control of the ecosystem nature in order to have predictable lives, the greater the consequences for man when the ecosystem breaks free from our temporary control to release energy and seek new stability. Man himself is nature. How are we to understand this?

The question of whether it is we who speak into nature, or whether it is nature that speaks in us when we use technology to break ground and build factories – when we intervene and change nature, form cultures and create art – has not been answered. It should not be answered here either, but remain the open, unpredictable space in which this essay is written.

To understand the protection of the ecosystem nature as the goal and meaning of all things.

To the question of who – or what – speaks, belongs the question of language: For with what images, with what symbols and with what grammar does man describe the ecosystem when he presents his way of being? With what conscious or unconscious linguistic structures and tools do we intervene in nature; our own nature and the nature that surrounds us?

Do I have insight into which lives I exclude with that form, that work of art, or with the essay I am now in the process of establishing? Do I know enough about the expulsion mechanisms that are built into my form formation – about the deep structures in the expression I use – and which are hidden from me because I am a part of it? Am I a liberator or an oppressor? Am I increasing or decreasing the silence in the world? Am I driven, even in my desire for change, by forces I do not see?

photo: pixabay

The self-understanding of art

The subject of this essay is: What does it mean for man to move from an anthropocentric – human-centered – way of being in the world, to an ecocentric way of being in the world. What does it mean, theoretically and practically, for the engineer, for the economist and for the artist (the author, the musician, the visual artist and so on) to go from an understanding of man as the goal and meaning of all things to understanding the preservation of the ecosystem nature as the goal of all things and meaning? What are we doing, and what is happening to us now that we are changing our way of thinking and behaving more radically than we have probably done since the Neolithic revolution? Who speaks, with what language, to whom – to what in the ecosystem?

In the midst of a high-tech culture that, like all cultures, sees itself as the ultimate in history, is a new and perhaps more intelligent way of organizing itself in the world in the process of taking shape. Questions are asked about what technology, economics and art in general are, questions are asked about the way technology, economics and art behave in the ecosystem.

All over the world, artists are trying to understand what it means to create art in the ecosystem. The self-understanding of art is reformulated here and now. It is not a question of art in the service of the ecosystem or of whether art should be relational or intervening and so on, but what should we understand as art at all? Does the author, musician and visual artist leave the old identity behind and create a completely new one? If so, where does the artist get the new language from, and with what – with whom does she communicate? With his new – or old – me? Is this self? Or does she communicate with the ecosystem? Which ecosystem?

Wild and robust growth

Panarchy: Understanding Transformations in Human and Natural Systems , arks, board / reason) describes Lance C. Gunderson and co-editor CS Holling. (Island Press, 2002) the behavior of the ecosystem. They try to portray it – not the way we humans want it to be, in harmony and balance – but the way it actually unfolds, whether the ecosystem is a colony of viruses, banana flies, a business, life in a lake, a forest or a society.

In short, and very generally, any ecosystem occurs in wild and robust growth (depending on the way of life, growth can take hours or thousands of years) before growth stabilizes. In this stabilizing and more specialized phase, the ecosystem streamlines energy consumption to best sustain itself. The streamlining makes the system vulnerable to influences. Small changes in the form of external or internal events that may have built up over time – such as climate change or increased salinity in the groundwater, you often do not see it until after they have occurred – can in this energy-saving phase cause the ecosystem to suddenly pass thresholds and collapse. What happens is that the ecosystem releases energy to reorganize – dissolve, transform or innovate – in order to remain an ecosystem. In this liberating phase, creativity and new formations at the micro level can have major consequences at the macro level, something new can arise. But incorrectly "handled", a toxic algae bloom or a dictatorship can just as easily see the light of day as a new nesting bird species or an ecological way of life.

The instructive thing about Gunderson's and Holling's research is that they try to avoid transferring man's need for harmony and stability to nature. Instead, they try to describe the ecosystem as it actually behaves in the short and long term, without meaning and ethics, without thinking about humans or animals. This includes not only regional ecosystems and their local biotopes, but all ecosystems, from the individual microorganism to the major global ecosystems – including the technological, political, economic and knowledge ecosystems and their origins, mutual influence, collapse and innovation. We are in a world of continuous change and transformation where, for us, seemingly insignificant factors, on small or large scales in the system, have grown over time, can suddenly create unforeseen events and completely transform the ecosystem we inhabit and depend on.

Four main stories

I Beyond Nature and Culture (University of Chicago Press, 2014), beyond nature and culture, the anthropologist investigates  Philippe Descola# the various ways in which man throughout history has aligned himself in the ecosystem. Of the narratives with which humans have aligned themselves in the ecosystem (and which are often found in a mixture), he finds four main forms:

1) In an  animistic society, I and the animals around me have different external forms, but inside we are equal. We share, eat, recycle and transform the same plant and animal organisms (including each other). We share the spirit of life – that in nature that gives life – we see that one can transform into the other, we are part of the same, each species has its cultures, knowledge, customs and objects they sustain life with, such as housing and food . We do not overtax resources, we respect each other's boundaries.

2) Where I as an animist see myself in everything alive, I connect as  totemist to one particular plant, natural formation or animal to which I trace the whole group – or clan – history. In my origin story I maintain a binding moral and physical continuity to the origin, the nature I come from, and like the animist (but here there are exceptions) I make sure not to overtax nature. In the dream time, I relive, with Aborigines as an example, the creation of my world – and as I move through the landscape, I go through the stories of the landscape and the ancestors and ancestors. We share substance: Society, nature and my history are one and the same thing. I live as the animist "beyond nature and culture", beyond the distinction between nature and culture.

3) I do the same when I live in what Descola describes as  analogously society. There everything is connected – nature and people, objects and souls, microcosm and microcosm – together in the form of correspondences and gradations, as it was believed in the Middle Ages that human blood vessels corresponded to landscape rivers, bones corresponded to mountains, or where I with my amulet around my neck in Mexico can have direct contact with the spirits. A buckhorn in the ground at Vidaråsen in Vestfold can thus stimulate the growth forces. Everything has its place, its continuity and coherence in this strange universe which under fortunate circumstances can be read and influenced. The world is one big network of meaning. The downside: Since everything is connected to everything, whoever gains control of this network of meaning can also control society.

4) The scientific  rationalism According to Descola, it is the fourth main story that man has adapted to the ecosystem with. As a rationalist, unlike in the other three main forms, I create a marked distinction between myself and nature – or more specifically with the animals: I can think, the animals can not. My ability to abstract enables me to put myself outside, or rather of nature: By systematizing and classifying the world around me, by taking parts of it out of context and turning nature and myself into analyzable objects , I can make models and with my neutral, analytical gaze intervene in and transform nature – as if it were a lump of clay I can shape in my own image at my own discretion, like an almighty God, from without.

Desire, hubris and absolutes give blindness and pain, listening presence
hope for relief.

As a rationalist, I believe I am able to control organic life, I create an equivalent to it, the value of money, so that everything can be traded. He who controls the flow of money and desire in this society controls the world. In my special position, at the top of the food and science pyramid, I as a rationalist am convinced that in the long run I will do better than the animals. That is far from certain. By erasing my biological origin, separating myself from nature, objectifying it and instrumentalizing my relationship with the outside world, I may have given up the tools I need to survive in the long run, writes Descola. He concludes this incomparable work, which is not without blemishes, with the following, freely translated: that it must be allowed to hope that with a listening and respectful commitment we will manage to prevent a future point of "no return", and extinction of the human species , prevent us with our passivity from leaving to the cosmos a nature robbed of its narrators – solely because they failed to give it a genuine form of expression.

Chinese understanding of nature

I from Being to Living, a Euro-Chinese lexicon of thought (Sage Publications, 2020), draws the philosopher and sinologist Francoise Jullien up the lines where Chinese and European understanding of nature diverges. He shows how Europe has developed a transcendent understanding of nature by considering nature from the outside, through concepts, such as the abstract "concept of being". China has over several thousand years, completely independently of Europe, developed an immanent understanding of nature by observing nature from within, by living i it and with it. In classical Chinese knowledge tradition is nature what happens. Nature, the world, is neither created by any spirit nor external god, it creates itself, every day, all the time, without any external or internal cause, power or will. Humans, plants and animals are an inseparable part of nature, they are neither above nor below it, they sense and live in it, here and now, while it changes.

Classical Chinese understanding of nature is about preparing to live well in and with nature mens it changes. Cold gets hot and hot gets cold, life gets dead and death gets life, the river floods and it settles down, drought and bad years come and go. The art is to understand the change in its germ before the change becomes known; to be able to see that something is about to end long before it is at height; to see that something is in the making, in its beginning, long before it begins, to be able to influence and regulate the events, and to adapt to the changes, before they are there. The art is to understand nature's complex processes as they go on.

Migration into the big cities, capitalization of the sphere of life, mass production of identity-leveling consumer goods, totalizing world wars, identity-crushing
genocide and depersonalizing IT technology.

Every event, every situation is new: The wise, the wise, the engineer, the economist, the artist, does not sit with his abstractions over nature and step his preconceived understanding over it, but listens, once again, with his experience, to what now happens, to be able to interact, interact. The subject (the understanding of an isolated subject does not exist in classical Chinese) is not created by settling over the event, nature, but by emptying itself and becoming a part of it.

Vigilance, presence and humility are the key words, interaction the imperative. Awake and present in the silent transformations that take place at all times, man is a listening part of nature, a compassionate part of the world. Desire, hubris and absolutes give blindness and pain, listening presence hope for relief.

The subject is erased

Living in understanding – and interaction – with the ecosystem, as presented here, is not a solution to the "problem of life". It raises more problems than it solves and in the first instance probably also creates more pain. But is that perhaps the only way we can preserve our livelihood, the ecosystem of nature, the only way we can grow as human beings? And find a reason for our passions.

Western case law is implemented in a people-centered manner.

The icons of the Middle Ages depict the God of Christians, the creator, in an inverted perspective. It is not we, the viewer, who see the depicted creator, but the creator who sees us: We are seen. In the Renaissance, the perspective is turned degrees. From being the one who is seen by God, the Renaissance artist takes God's place to be the one who sees and rules the world. Far into the th century, this as dominant as the sovereign subject rises up in European art, only to gradually weaken. Ongoing migration to the big cities, capitalization of the sphere of life, mass production of identity-leveling consumer goods, totalizing world wars, identity-crushing genocides and de-personifying IT technology make modernity the European subject slowly lose body and contour in art. It is gradually erased, without a marked, new subject replacing it. Maybe is the something to resort to.

In the ecosystem, man is neither a supernatural metaphysical being seen by his creator, nor a dominant colonialist with a God-given right to rule over nature. In the ecosystem, man is in nature, it is a part of nature, on which he is completely dependent. Man will never be able to master nature, at best he will be able to hope to understand it in order to adapt to it.

An ecocentric society

Roy Rappaport describes in Ritual and Religion in the Making of Humanity (Cambridge University Press, ) how man – in a world that in principle will always be without meaning – constructs meaning through religion and rituals. This in turn gives rise to conventions for behavior – for how we relate to each other and the world around us. His concrete example is isolated tribes in Papua New Guinea and their ingenious religion generated to regulate the wild pig population and grass growth in the region. At regular intervals, through rituals, society restores the balance – and meaning – between grass growth, humans and pig populations. He shows how a society can create meaning, make laws and regulate behavior in interaction with the surrounding nature, in interaction with the ecosystem of which it is a part.

Our culture and our laws have not sprung from an interaction with nature, they have sprung from pure predation on nature. Western case law is implemented in a people-centered manner. In Christian ethics, in Roman law – in the legal conception of the Renaissance, the bourgeois industrial revolution and the last century – man, with few exceptions, is at the absolute center of the legal understanding. In an ecocentric society, the conservation of the ecosystem as a whole will be at the center of culture and legislation. It is possible to imagine that engineers, economists and artists in an ecocentric society will form practices and poetry to protect biotopes, habitats, rivers, lakes, soils, oceans and commons, and where the engineer, economist and artist, who also is changing, innovating, like nature itself, and preserving, like nature itself. Preventing totalitarian ways of thinking and governing will obviously be a major task.

A deep understanding of beauty

The road from a human-centered to an ecocentric way of life is, after all, probably a struggle against the fear of death of man – its urge to dominate. IN Autobiography, Ecology, and the Well-Placed Self (Peter Lang Publishing, ) Nathan Straight – and the authors he analyzes – dispels the American myths of crossing borders and heading west to create a free and happy life on the prairie. Behind the myths of the Free, Wild West lies the murder of indigenous peoples, the encroachment of plundered property, the digging, drying out and use of insecticides hand in hand with the uninterrupted oppression of women in an extremely violent, masculine, fear-based and phallus-centered universe. Liberation of women and of nature is in America, as in the rest of the world, a great and long-term decolonization work. The transition from a people-centered to an ecocentric society is also about becoming fewer. Probably man must give large areas back to the plants and animals, the ecosystem of the earth should have hope of getting some of the health back. Nature will continue to ravage us anyway, but perhaps to a lesser extent if we manage to play on a team with it.

In the walls and the trees, the floor and the forest floor, the car and the poison puddle, in the neighbor and in us
even, in the meal and love.

Leonardo da Vinci observed how much easier it is to cross a strait river with a canoe at an angle – downstream – than to spend a lot of energy and risk your life by going up against the forces of nature – and crossing the river across the countercurrent. François Jullien adds how much more beautiful it is to cultivate intimacy and the presence of the loved one than the abstract and totalizing love. Nothing can be owned. Everything is changing. Everything is in process. We are part of the nature that is changing. Life, just like everything we love, is transient, fleeting, temporary. In it lies a germ of deep understanding of beauty.

It is demanding to relinquish power and dominion – to abandon the illusion of being at the top of the pyramid of knowledge and industry. In the ecosystem, what is at the top the next day may be at the bottom. Our culture does not know much about seeing and expressing life, the fragile, the transient, the non-victorious, the lasting, with cracks, bursts, with traces of time in, to show the time, the changes, what is created and that which ends – to be a war, sensory part of nature, a humble interlocutor in the ecosystem.

With their aggressive, partly inflated subjects, Western technologists, economists and artists have for centuries sat over nature, defined it in their own image and plundered it. Leaving this position, creating art listening in and with nature, including our own fragile nature, is perhaps still easier than we think?

Maybe there is no more than one decisive step to the side that is needed to open eyes, nose, ears and hands to what is here, now, everywhere, in us and around us, in the walls and the trees, the floor and the forest floor, the car and the pool of poison, in the neighbor and in ourselves, in the meal and the love.

Maybe it's just a farewell to an immature and death-ridden consumer culture that is needed to accept the realities of life, its ephemerality, its fundamental silence and a changing nature – to understand ourselves as part of what lives; to let us be prosecuted by that which has no speech, and act and create in it.

It is our self-understanding that is at stake today. Leaving the illusion that nature exists for us, instead of understanding ourselves as an interwoven, listening part of nature – this is ultimately a question of education, of refinement and sensitivity, of maturity..

The essay comes in another and expanded edition of the book To decolonize nature, by editor Nina Ossavy and co-editor Marius Kolbenstvedt

DO NOT MISS conversation with Erland Kiøsterud: The ecocentric man

Film The ecocentric human being

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Erland Kiøsterud
Erland Kiøsterud
Author and essayist. Residing in Oslo. See also his website or Wikipedia

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