Mother as grave

I publish here the text I wrote for Ben Maier's photographic project Father as scale, in a slightly edited form. You can find more information about the project here. Thanks to Ben also for the pictures he kindly sent me. His website can be found here, and you should also check his instagram account.

What could be more like Mother or a fitter background
For her son, the flirtatious male who lounges
Against a rock in the sunlight, never doubting
That for all his faults he is loved; whose works are but
Extensions of his power to charm?1

If we think about the economic and technological progress of the past centuries, the one that brought to some of us – humans – incommensurable benefits at the cost of destruction of the environment and widespread ill exploitation of resources – human and not – one image might pop up in our minds. It is rather a clichéy image, of which coarseness strips down the jagged complexities of history, but it contains nevertheless many grains of truth: our Fathers have fucked Mother Earth so badly, and we are left with a degenerative progeny of unsustainable lifestyles that we are still fully embracing, in spite of all the rational analyses on our condition. We are captives of a system mostly relying on large-scale, profit-driven operations for the removal and processing of natural resources in a predatory way, a mechanism fully accommodating the logic of neoliberalism in which deregulation of industry and extraction is a common practice. The long list of effects caused by such a system includes climate crisis, the decline of biodiversity and unequal wealth distribution, to name a few. Regarding that image, there are many reasons to steer away from the gendering of Planet Earth, and fewer to no reasons to ignore the role of patriarchy in the dire process that led us to our present situation2. But this brutal allegory suggests also the generational aspect of the problem we must deal with: we find ourselves as victims and executioners of a sick machine we have inherited from our older ones. We see them – and some of the younger ones – performing a silly spectacle made of vain attempts to repair their mistakes, shouting empty promises that are good for marketing and upper-class social events, but worthless for any effective change. Having received this cursed gift, it is hard to not reduce our choices between resigned acceptance and total refusal. There should be more options than blindly following the steps of our Fathers, regardless of the current catastrophic circumstances, or retreating in denial, as an attempt to save our Mother from total destruction in a naïve, primitivist fashion. As beaten cogwheels, we swirl in a voracious machine, and the images fade away. Let us put things into perspective.

Father as Scale, © Ben Maier, 2022.

“Come!” purred the clays and gravels,
“On our plains there is room for armies to drill; rivers
Wait to be tamed and slaves to construct you a tomb
In the grand manner: soft as the earth is mankind and both
Need to be altered.”3

From dwelling in caves, humans have gone a long way to sustain themselves, finding solutions to accommodate their disparate needs. As populations grew in numbers, societies developed, and with them new necessities rose: more houses, more food, more infrastructures. Humans multiplied across the globe, and cities grew in size and quantity. For this, the increase of efficiency in digging up and managing resources was the main goal for prehistorical engineers. Technological advancement aided the fulfilment of such demands, and in a blink of an eye – from a geological perspective – the Earth became riddled with lumber mills, ore mines, stone quarries, oil drills, gas wells and any other large apparatus for the extraction, production and refinement of materials deemed necessary for the proper sustainment of a globally interconnected village. But from being the core of a liberatory project to ameliorate our species’ condition, it seems that technology, and its evolution over the ages, carried the unintended consequence of intensifying environmental degradation and human immiseration. We can find a similar thought in the writings of Martin Heidegger, a philosopher living in the early twentieth century in Germany. In his 1954 essay The Question concerning technology4 he lays out a reflection to explicate the essence of technology. After considering the instrumental and anthropological interpretations of it – a mean to an end, a human activity – he quickly discards them as misleading. As a philosopher concerned about our existence in the world and our stance towards it, Heidegger points out that the core of technology has nothing technological in itself, but it is rather a mode of thinking, a way to reveal the real in itself. In particular, the essence of modern technology, which differs from ancient craftsmanship by its strict foundation on exact sciences, is held sway by what the philosopher calls ‘Enframing’ (Gestell), or the unveiling of the world as a disposable stockpile of standing-reserve.

Inquiring into the essence of modern technology, its definition as an elaborate means for the extraction of resources from the environment is not sufficient. It only scratches the surface. For Heidegger, we have to regard modern technology instead as the very mode of revealing all the things in the world by bringing (or, as he writes, ‘challenging’) forth only their instrumental value or its potential purpose as a supply of available force or matter. Through this enframing, then, the forest is not a forest, but a stock of cheeseburger packages, the river an unpaid tireless worker to be coerced into endlessly spinning the turbines of a dam, and the mountain a locked storage to be pillaged in order to get combustible for factories, fancy jewellery and materials to build apartments too expensive to rent. The forest, the river, the mountain, the whole landscape disappears under the cold eye of technology: their unfathomable and enigmatic existence gets reduced to something on a par with a bottle opener rather than appearing as miraculous phenomena of Nature. It might be easy to dismiss Heidegger’s view of technology as a conservative approach rooted in romanticism and traditionalism. But it gives one shivers to realize that he has full rights to claim that in modern times even human beings are ‘enframed’, seen only as units of labour: and populations’ potential is to be activated, by rescuing them from unemployment, hiring, firing, managing and replacing in the most efficient way the miserable human resources available and disposable as diapers.

If Heidegger’s critique of technology is poignant in disclosing the threats in its modern deployment, it falls short in the proposition of alternatives. Of course, we cannot just pull a lever to suddenly transform all the harmful habits engrained in people’s behaviours. Modern technology, brandished around by the neoliberal horde, is an ominous machine that cannot be simply turned off with a switch. It has the power of influencing all life on the planet, and no wonder Heidegger would talk about a ‘destiny’, an inflexible fate, when he pondered over technology’s mode of revealing. At the end of the essay, he concedes that there might be a more authentic way to unveil the world through the frame of technology, even though it is shrouded in mystery. It will come for the man in the future, who will embrace the coming of presence of a new truth. We might indeed be blind to better usage of the exceptional technological tools available in our age, as we prefer to rely mostly on approaches that bring short-term advantages and poison our own wells. But Heidegger doesn’t show us a way to redemption. The philosopher stays ambiguous, as ambiguous is his subject. The shortcomings of his oeuvre might be actually found in his too modern approach, being inescapably anthropocentric. The ‘Human’ – or the ‘Man’ – is still seen as an exceptional character on the Earth, the special Being (or, in Heidegger’s words, “the Shepherd of Being”) among the other, less important beings. But maybe our Fathers are not so important, and Mother Earth could not care less about us.

Father as Scale, © Ben Maier, 2022.

Heidegger often retired in a little hut in the middle of the Schwartzwald, a lush, forested mountain range extending through a good part of Southern-West Germany, where the Danube springs out to start its long journey across the European countries. The forest and its terrains have always been a main source of timber, minerals and other geological materials for its inhabitants, who drastically altered the environment over the centuries with their extraction activities. Not so far away in the town of Meßkirch, below the Swabian alps, the philosopher had another residency5. He was born and died there, at a time when the surrounding landscape was already flecked by open-pit mines to dig out raw materials such as sand, gravel or limestone. According to his vision, he must have retreated in horror to see such large monstrosities ravaging his beloved land. The majority of authors critical of modernity, such as Heidegger, point at the industrial revolution as the main culprit for the ignition of what is now called the Anthropocene, the geological era in which humans are the main force bending the terrestrial shape. Others sustain that the logic of large-scale exploiting operations was already embedded in the activities leading to the burst of brutal colonialism some centuries earlier, in which the new “discovered” lands were seen only as a pool of resources to be abused for the benefit of their “discoverers”. Some others slide back to the dawn of human history, condemning the invention of agriculture as the first abuse that sowed the first human behaviours sprouting in the catastrophic activities of nowadays. What is certain, however, is that “life” has contributed since millions of years to the geoformation of our grain of sand spinning in space. As an example, take some of the quarries populating Heidegger’s homeland, the ones excavating carbonate sedimentary rocks. They would not be there if it weren’t for the slow, incessant activity of billions of organisms living about the reefs of archaic oceans. Layers and layers of remains of shells and molluscs, sedimented on the bottom of the seas slowly arching at a geological pace, formed calcareous landscapes scraped around by the sluggish movement of glaciers. Humans quickly realized that by burning at high temperatures these soft limestones, mixed with crushed gravel, they could produce a useful binding material: cement. This substance, of which concrete is the main derivative, is fundamental to build most of the structures we need in our present society, like roads, hospitals, bridges and ugly beach resorts, and its production releases massive amounts of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere, highly contributing to the climate crisis. But it is worth noticing that, creepingly enough, the walls of our homes are mostly made out of our long-distant cousins’ tiny houses and dead bodies, fragmented and compacted in millennia and burnt in the hot chambers of cement factories in seconds. Akin to bacteria that thrive on carcasses, we humans rely on the resources we find around us, matter that was in turn processed, digested, transformed, embodied by other forms of life like us. There is not much difference from this point of view: we are just a small part of a gigantic metamorphic process that started way before any of us could worry about our imprint on Planet Earth, a process that will irrefutably continue after the extinction of our species. In this regard, we find ourselves not special at all. We are trapped in the “Enframing” of technology, which pushes us to tear down trees and bore holes in the ground, as much as termites are driven to build moulds or earthworms reworking the soil structure. But that does not mean we are not responsible: quite the contrary, we are the sole responsible ones for the cure of our own environment – which includes ourselves, since we are not separated from it – and our very well-being. Bringing down the humans from their self-constructed pedestal doesn’t amount to discharge any accountability from them.

If we don’t leave behind us the fantasy that we have a special status on Earth, that we are separated from the rest of Nature, we will forever be bound to the idea that our technological means drive us away from an “authentic” connection, theologically inspired, with our surroundings. There was no fall of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden: rather, the Garden was already a mess of predatory behaviour. If we see us always already part of our environment and its processes, we have more other choices than solely condemning our species to have abandoned a “true” relationship with Nature, which is usually depicted as a romanticized version of the lives of peasants residing harmonically with nature – peasants that instead were already burning down forests and grinding mountains. There’s no idyllic harmony here, and we might rather refer to it by using Werner Herzog’s words: “it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”6. Accepting this fact clears away a belief depicting humans as unable to wash away their sins, and hence forever doomed. Yes, we are sinners, and will continue to be, towards ourselves. But that shouldn’t be a paralyzing aspect that offers only the two choices of begging for absolution or blindly riding towards hell at full speed. Instead, we can look at how life – which, again, includes us – made its way across shifting eras, catastrophic changes and mass extinctions. We can adapt.

The main problem here is that the adaptation required by now is equal to a massive shift in our habits, to be accompanied by a drastic reconfiguration of the unstoppable terraforming machine of modern technology. We found ourselves in the embarrassing position of not really knowing how to deal with this devastating heritage that is slowly killing our species, starting from the less fortunate ones. Can we also adapt our stance toward the ones that have come before us? Or, more precisely, could the judgement against our careless Fathers inform the actions we should partake to adapt our lives on indifferent Mother Earth?

Father as Scale, © Ben Maier, 2022.

If sins can be forgiven, if bodies rise from the dead,
These modifications of matter into
Innocent athletes and gesticulating fountains,
Made solely for pleasure, make a further point:
The blessed will not care what angle they are regarded from,
Having nothing to hide.7

We walk through a path called history, guided and bewildered by the legacy of our ancestors. Thanks to them, we abandoned the caves and threw away the spears, having achieved other means to protect our naked skin from the harsh environment and to nurture our fragile bodies with the fruits of the Earth. It looks like we can worry less about mere survival, now that we can rise skyscrapers and connect distant lands with invisible bridges. But the benefits of what is called progress were never universal. Furthermore, they came with several drawbacks, so that from our perspective the parade of history appears no more like a string of triumphs, being overshadowed by a colonnade of traumatic events. Standing on the shoulders of giants, we can observe a grim panorama from up here. Since the first structured societies, centralized administrations managed a large swathe of territories to prey on their resources and populations. Empires rose and fell, but their techniques were coded, regulated and refined by the following regimes, exerting rapacious colonialism and horrible exploitation, to result in the current standardized human species’ mode of survival, backfiring on its originators. Accelerating a process of which consequences would not be visible for centuries, our ancestors pretty much didn’t know what they were doing. Well, the ones in power, they might have known that they were causing suffering and destruction for their own benefit. But what about the miner, the logger, the fisher, the harvester? Shall we forgive our Fathers, because they didn’t know what they were doing?8 Some authors have reflected on similar issues when, after the Second World War, most of the German population seemed to be accountable for contributing in one way or another to the growth of the Nazi regime. Needless to say, genocides are not comparable to resource extraction activities – although it is possible to find thinkers sustaining a hidden symmetry between the two. But there are similar traces to be found when we put side to side the train driver who led innocents to extermination camps without knowing it, and the miner who is participating, unwillingly, in the steady destruction of the environment. The main concern in the aftermath of the war, however, was to find a way to coexist with the unbelievable tragedies that had just happened, staining forever history with irreversible actions that cannot be undone. Hannah Arendt spent a lot of words reflecting on the topic. She was a philosopher, a survivor of the Holocaust, while being also quite close to Heidegger, who instead had been on the other side of the trench with his affiliation to the Nazi party. In her main work The human condition, Arendt wrote: “without being forgiven, released from the consequences of what we have done, our capacity to act would, as it were, be confined to one single deed from which we could never recover; we would remain the victims of its consequences forever”9. Forgiveness leads the path to a new adaptation, and we better follow that road if we refuse to be stuck in the rigid frame of perpetual condemnation and ceaseless destruction.

Father as Scale, © Ben Maier, 2022.

Terminating the judgement towards the past generation, accepting the fact that our existence goes along with annihilation and predation, we find ourselves walking in a dilapidated landscape. We are facing a terrible fate provoked mostly by a lifestyle that came as a blessing for our closer Fathers, who were healing wounds caused by total wars, which were followed by an abundance of wealth and misery never seen before in history. Its tragic costs were concealed and – surprise! – only disclosed when they were too old, and it is too late, to find any easy solution. They tried to maintain a fatherly attitude – “everything is going to be ok, son” — even if they hardly believed in what their own words were trying to communicate. We don’t believe this bullshit either, but we are not less clumsy by descending this scree slope coated with sharp stones cutting our feet. We haven’t found yet another way of living, different from the one that our Fathers (and governments, cheap entertainment, the tight harness of the market logic, you name it) had taught us. But the Fathers will be gone, and to be forgiven and forgotten, and the Mother is not a Mother, but the indifferent body we are a part of, with all the living and defunct beings, turned in dust and fossils. Pressed by the circumstances to reiterate corrosive conducts, in a frantic research of alternatives to inhabit the planet, we are just pebbles that are going to be smoothed out by the lazy motion of terrestrial forces. Some of us will descend from the declivity gracefully, others will fall and crumble. Some will survive, others will be justly pushed down and too many innocents will perish. In the next geological era, the bones at the bottom of that pit will be parts of other homes – be they shells, exoskeleton or, again, houses of concrete. Life adapts, as it is flexible, and even the rocks composed by calcium can respond to external forces, bending their shape in mountain ridges. And when we have to imagine the life to come, we should follow the poet’s words:

what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.10

  1. W.H. Auden, In praise of Limestone (1948), 11-15. ↩︎

  2. Amongst many others, Donna Haraway reflected on both points. See her Simians, Cyborgs, and Women (London: FAB, 1991). Check also Adele Dipasquale’s article Careless mothers, sterile goddesses and ungrateful offspring, available here on Eurozine, in which this exact point is articulated thouroughly. ↩︎

  3. In praise of Limestone, 50-54. ↩︎

  4. In Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology, and Other Essays (New York: Garland, 1977). ↩︎

  5. Which is, by the way, in the same area where these pictures of quarries were taken. ↩︎

  6. From the documentary by Les Blank, The burden of dreams (1982). Here’s the clip of Werner Herzog expressing his moderate view on Nature. ↩︎

  7. In praise of Limestone, 84-90. ↩︎

  8. “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing”, cried Jesus from the cross on the Golgota Hill (Luke, 23:34). As a matter of fact, Romans were the first to deploy massive infrastructure, being the inventors of numerous building techniques with innovative materials. For sure they knew nothing about carbon emissions. ↩︎

  9. Hannah Arendt, The human condition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 237. ↩︎

  10. In praise of Limestone, 92-3. ↩︎

previous: After the high tide