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Empathy for Robots in Space (Veronica Vold)

March 2, 2010

I’ve often imagined what it might be like to be alone in outer space: the loneliness, the vastness, the un-homeness of it. Perhaps this is why the recent xkcd comic, “Spirit,” affects me so deeply. Cartoonist Randall Munroe gives NASA’s robot thought bubbles and the capability to hope. A feeling of loss radiates through these bursts of robot voice: his confusion and despair at being abandoned recalls Dug the dog in Up (“I was hiding under your porch because I love you”). Yet it’s his silence in the final panel that really evokes the sadness of dislocation for me; Spirit is alone, embedded in the alien landscape of Mars. And: he’s still out there right now! Munroe’s conception of Spirit makes me think of Wall-E; why is it so easy to identify beings in machines that are initially meant to be dutiful drones? Such robots cross a boundary to become cyborgs of emotional depth, capable of friendship and companioning with people. Reading Munroe’s comic, I want to step into this foreign landscape, look into Spirit’s goggles, and tell him to come home: we’re all waiting.


“Trailhead”: E.O Wilson and the ants

January 27, 2010

“The instincts of the are very unimportant, considered as the ant’s; but the moment a ray of relation is seen to extend from it to man, and the little drudge is seen to be a monitor, a little body with a mighty heart, then all its habits, even that said to be recently observed, that it never sleeps, become sublime.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nature (1836)

E.O. Wilson’s first novel Anthill attempts to do something that Wilson (as he explained in this interview with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman) thinks no novelist has done before: “describe the natural world as it actually is, in fine detail—indeed, maybe as it could best be seen by a biologist who’s spent a substantial career studying it in fine detail—but put it as part of the human experience.”  Explaining the project further, Wilson continues; “I actually tried to make the natural world—that contested lot of old-growth forest that’s the center of the novel—of equal importance, almost equal importance as the human protagonist.”  Wilson’s description seems to fit the guidelines of what makes an “environmental text” as first laid out by Lawrence Buell in The Environmental Imagination (1995).  However, whether or not it is environmental, the novel’s success as a piece of literature is another question.

The novel won’t be out till spring, but Wilson recently made his début in the New Yorker as a fiction writer with an excerpt from the book: this short story titled “Trailhead.”   Infused with human drama reminiscent of the Iliad and other epics, the story follows a single ant colony through its birth and eventual siege and destruction by an “enemy” colony.  As Wilson notes in the interview, ants live in “the most advanced social system that exists on Earth outside of human beings.”

Blog Shout-out and CFP

January 11, 2010
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Over the break, I was a hyperlink fiend, following up on blogs that I’d put off reading all term, but also discovering new ones. Here’s my top five that relate to our interests:

5. Origins Sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, this yearlong blog celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. Though the year and the blog have ended, the site may be a good future resource.

4. Bioephemera. An art and biology-focused blog by Jessica Palmer, who practices both.

3. Mapping the Marevlous. Marion Endt’s blog explores natural history, taxonomy, and surrealism. The site features beautiful pictures and consistently intriguing rare archives.

2. We Have Never Been Blogging. A Bruno Latour blog managed by Evan Kindley, Mike Johnduff, and Paul Ennis. Born roughly the same time as our blog, this blog explores theoretical questions surrounding Latour and other Speculative Realism.

1.The Book of Barely Imagined Beings. A highly accessible digital bestiary, featuring a wide range of macro- and micro-fauna. Caspar Henderson navigates ecology, evolutionary biology, natural history, folklore, and literature, providing memorable quotes and images along the way.


Call for Party: Robot Love
Eugene, OR, Janet Smith House

St. Valentines Day is fast approaching, but why should humans hoard all the good feelings?  Taking cues from Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto,” other course readings, and 1980’s prog-rock meditations, this party seeks participants willing to groove, perform, and celebrate the physical and emotional connections (whether fleeting or enduring, generative or inconceivable) between human and robotic kinds. “Love,” broadly conceived, includes friendship, fetishes, altruism, romance, affection, obsession, etc. Costumes may explore  human loving robots, robot loving robots, and robot loving humans. Android, cyborg, cylon, and a.i. partners are also welcome expected.

Deadline: Saturday, January 23, 2010
For further inquiry, drop me an email.

Looking forward to 2010: Cyborgs, Copenhagen, and Calamity

December 31, 2009

Rebecca Solnit, in her recent brilliant piece up on the HuffingtonPost, draws interesting comparisons between the film Terminator 2 and what the recent events (failures would be a better word) at Copenhagen say about where we are right now with the climate crisis.  The essay is definitely worth reading if you have the time as it alludes to many of the topics we discussed in 670 this past term: risk and disaster, apocalypse, climate change, cyborgs, and environmental justice.   As we move forward into the new decade, let’s hope that Solnit’s tempering of anxiety with hope, her mixing of apocalyptic rhetoric with more empowering emotions, is a sign of things to come and of new environmental imaginations, whether mainstream or subcultural, that can help people make sense and take meaningful action on our complex environmental realities, like climate change.  And hopefully the “next” Copenhagen (if there is one) will not be such a failure.  Happy New Year!

Parliament of World Religions Statement to Copenhagen

December 15, 2009

A clip of the statement by Bishop Geoff Davies of South Africa, a prominent preacher, activist, and environmentalist, calling for the 350 target and for a renewed ethical stance towards climate change.  It was delivered at this month’s Parliament of World Religions, which is being held in Melbourne.  The parliament is the largest interreligious conclave on earth.

The buzz…

December 11, 2009

I have never heard so much about Copenhagen in my entire life…

Of course, this is because the current climate conference is probably the most newsworthy thing happening right now. And I’m not complaining. There are so many levels, in terms of science, economics, globalism, etc, that pretty much any report I hear on NPR or read on the Internet is fascinating.

Read more…

The Human in Natural Sacred Landscapes

December 10, 2009

Croagh PatrickRecently I’ve been thinking about manmade landscapes in relation to my research on the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much human interaction with the mountain and its surrounding area has been essential to its status as a sacred site.  On its own, Croagh Patrick has a striking and imposing presence which is likely why it has attracted pilgrims for thousands of years (pre-Christian and later on, Christian).  But once that initial engagement began, human interaction with the mountain began to change it.  One way in which this occurred was the creation of three cairns on the shoulders of the mountain, which may be burial cairns or simply monuments erected by ancient peoples (they have never been excavated, so it is hard to tell).1st Cairn These cairns have now been incorporated into the Catholic pilgrimage experience as penance stations, and its easy enough to imagine them as part of the mountain itself since they are constructed of the same stone that covers the entire trail to the summit.  The trail is another manmade structure that is easy to overlook as a part of the ‘natural’ landscape. Read more…