Laudato Si': Hearing the cry of the world in the Anthropocene

By Lieve Orye

Last Thursday we had the pleasure at the faculty of Theology and Religious Studies at KULeuven to welcome and listen to a public lecture by theologian and biologist Celia Deane-Drummond: 'Laudato Si’ and Pope Francis as prophet and priest in the Anthropocene'. Her lecture was part of a two day interdisciplinary expert seminar on ‘Laudato Si' and progress’, organized by the Centre for Catholic Social Thought in collaboration with CAFOD, Catholic Agency for Overseas Development.

Channeling a cry, Speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene

Photo by  Christus Rex .

Photo by Christus Rex.

Laudato Si’ is receiving much attention. Its audacity, philosopher Bruno Latour writes, “is equaled only by the multiple efforts to deaden as much as possible its message and effects”(251). He sees two major innovations behind this audacity, the link between the ecological and injustice and the recognition that the earth itself can act and suffer. Both these innovations, he notes, are associated with the strange word cry: to hear the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor, writes Pope Francis, a true ecological approach must always be a social one, integrating questions of justice in debates about the environment (§49). A cry, Latour notes, is not a message, a doctrine, a slogan, a piece of advice or a fact but rather something like a signal, a rumor, a stirring or an alarm. Something that makes you sit up, turn your head and listen. 

Deane-Drummond recognizes this deep cry of the earth in Laudato Si’  as a cry in the epoch of the Anthropocene, our current geological age, characterized as a period in which human activity emerges as the dominant influence on climate and the environment. Unlike scientists who see the human impact on climate and environment as a problem that can be fixed by means of a technological solution, Pope Francis speaks from a different imaginary that gives science its proper place but invites a cultural revolution, a shift in lifestyle. He has, Deane-Drummond noted, given us a sketch of a different and open social imaginary, one that resists an imaginary in terms of human dominance through a call to inner transformation and the nurturing of ecological virtues.

Listening to birds in the Anthropocene

Though Pope Francis does not use the term, hearing the deep cry of the heart in Laudato Si’ as a cry in the Anthropocene is illuminating. Though scientists still discuss the particulars of the Anthropocene, it is already more than just scientific fact. As anthropologists have started showing, it is what people hear and sense and worry about, for instance in their listening to the birds.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Creative Commons by Deanne Fortnam.

Saint Francis of Assisi spoke, preached to the birds. It is said that he preached to a flock of almost a hundred sparrows, which only left when he said they could. They were as much a part of his brotherhood as the pope. But if, as Andrew Whitehouse suggests, the Anthropocene started with the industrial revolution, ushering in the epoch of anthrophony in which human sounds and human-made sounds of industry, machinery, electronic amplification and so on started drowning out the biophony and geophony in many parts of the world, Francis’ speaking to the birds was clearly still an anthrophony of the pre-Anthropocene kind. We can understand his speaking, in other words, as characterized by an attentiveness that made resonance possible. It integrated more closely with the sounds and attentiveness of other beings rather than disrupting or dominating these (57).

In his article ‘Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World’ Whitehouse’s informants do not so much speak, nor preach to the birds. They do listen attentively and respond in resonance. But unlike Saint Francis they listen in the Anthropocene and, in the silence they hear more and more, the cry of the earth resounds. Whitehouse points out that the concept of the Anthropocene simultaneously draws humans and non-humans together and separates them out:

According to Lorimer, “The recent diagnosis of the Anthropocene represents the public death of the modern understanding of Nature removed from society.” Human and non-human worlds can no longer be conceived as existing in separate realms, and nature, at least in the sense of that which is separate from society, struggles to be convincing as a concept. And yet, as Crist has argued, the Anthropocene also appears to place humans on a pedestal as the only species in the history of the planet powerful enough to be deemed the primary Earth-shaping force (54).

The notion furthermore emphasizes anxieties that we humans have caused the ‘end of nature’, the disappearance of birds, butterflies and bees. That we are responsible for silent springs, for springs no longer announced by birds singing. The notion indicates both the interconnectedness of human and non-human lives as well as the potential for their destruction and silencing by humans.

Anxious semiotics and ethical relating

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

house-sparrows-on-branch-by-martha-de-jong-lantink-ccl

Though there is nothing inherently new about the experience of anxiety in relation to environmental conditions, the Anthropocene, Whitehouse notes, brings with it particular configurations. It “relates to real and observable changes in the local worlds people perceive around them and to semiotic elaborations on those perceptions that draw together local and global, human and non-human, present and future, into anxiety-laden narratives” (55). Though there is growing desire to attend to and to care for birds and their ecology, these seem continually outstripped by our capacity to disrupt and endanger.

To hear the cry of the earth in the Anthropocene, attentiveness is key. Whitehouse’s point is that it is to those least alienated from other forms of life that the wounds caused in the Anthropocene become more apparent. It is in them that these wounds provoke a moral disquiet (63). The anxious semiotics, Whitehouse notes, only emerges through active listening.

“The more we care about our world and the more we pay attention to it, the worse things seem to get… the more we listen to birds the more we notice the loss of birds from pesticides, the destruction of habitat, the encroaching dominance of Anthrophonic sounds, the sounds that are out of place and ecosystems that are dissonant”(69).

photo by  James Brush

photo by James Brush

“All ethical relating, within or between species, is knit from the silk-strong thread of ongoing alertness to otherness-in-relation” wrote Donna Haraway (50). This is an ethical relating that, as Whitehouse points out, is importantly grounded in the same kinds of semiotic processes through which birds listen to their own world. Through listening, through paying attention, we can no longer think, indifferently, of birds as part of a separate mindless Nature. Rather, Whitehouse notes, such listening should ground the development of relations of companionship. “It elicits not simply a narrative of encroaching loss and the ever present threat that humans pose to non-humans, but one of enskilment, of how we learn to listen to birds and to the rest of our world…”(70). Precisely in our worrying, in our hearing the cry of the earth, lies hope. In those little daily actions, as little as listening to the birds and worrying about them occurs the nurturing of a different relation.

The song of birds, the song of fellow humans

 As Latour notes,

Laudato Si’ is a funny kind of text – wordy, busy, contradictory, repetitive – but this is because it is itself channelling this immense cry, which is impossible to decode rapidly, which makes one prick up one’s ears, turn one’s head toward those other actors, so different from nature and from humanity: a Sister Mother Earth whom we had almost forgotten was herself capable of suffering, like the poor who are tangled up with her. It is up to the readers now to channel, in turn, this immense cry (255).

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Dark-eyed Junco (Photo: William Majoros/Creative Commons)

Laudato Si’  is speaking into the heart of the Anthropocene, urging those indifferent to live attentively. It emphasizes moreover that we should not pay attention to the wounds of the earth as if these could be separated out from the wounds of fellow human beings. Just as we care about the singing of the birds and worry about their disappearance, we must care at least as much about the singing of fellow human beings, being attentive, listening to what their sounds are telling us. Do we hear the sounds and silences of dominance and suffering or the lively chatter of everyday attentiveness, care and hospitality, the songs of human flourishing? Do anxious semiotics also arise from our listening in and do we allow this anxiety to encourage our enskilment in ethically relating to them?

 

Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press, 50.

Latour, B. (2016) 'The Immense Cry Channeled by Pope Francis', Environmental Humanities, 8(2), 251-255.

Whitehouse, A. (2015) 'Listening to Birds in the Anthropocene: The Anxious Semiotics of Sound in a Human-Dominated World', Environmental Humanities, 6(1), 53-71.

 

 

Constellations: Street Art Project

By Jared Schumacher

As one of the more ancient disciplines, theology has gained a reputation in the public imagination for being either a nostalgic or a sectarian practice.  There are clear historical reasons this prejudice has developed, and, truth be told, it is not altogether inaccurate.  However, those who see theology in line with the Second Vatican Council know it can be much more than this––it can offer fresh perspective on the signs of the times by reading them in light of the Good News of Jesus Christ.  But in order to do this, theologians must engage the creative arts and artists of their age, seeking therein expressions of the profundity of the human condition.  

Knowing that it is a theological imperative to plumb the depths and surfaces of the human soul, I was happy when asked to contribute to an art project last year. The Lithuanian street artist AWK was kind enough to encourage my participation in his recent project entitled "The Constellations", which was a multimedia installation in Penang, Malaysia. The piece was conceived to reflect on the integration and interpenetration of technology, biology, and cosmology in the Anthropocene.  It consisted of stencil work, 3D rendered images and animations projected on walls, with accompanying atmospheric audio.  My contribution was to offer a theologically-inspired "reading" of the installation, which functioned as a kind of script for the audience's encounter and interaction with the work,and was handed out during the event. 

With the permission the artist, the video and music of the project are posted here below, as well as the text of my "reading".  (NB: The video is a little over 15 minutes in length.  For the full experience, be sure to turn your speakers on. )

“Constellations”: an interpretation

Compelled by a primordial sense of wonder, humanity has long sought direction and inspiration among the stars. In ancient cosmologies, the heavens were associated with divinity, the stars with gods and goddesses to be feared or worshipped. More than physical phenomena, the greater and lesser lights were embodiments of social mythology. Heaven’s dome was the pantheon of the gods whose machinations governed terrestrial affairs. Clever minds sought to chart the course of history by the declinations, eclipses, and ascensions of the celestial spheres. The revolutions of stars foretold revolution on earth, wars contracted and suspended on the authority of heavenly warrant. In the premodern frame of mind, microcosm imitated macrocosm, and the key to that subtle analogy could only be found, with the meaning of the universe, among the stars.
A paradigm shift occurred at the dawning of the modern era. Social theorists often describe this change as a process of “disenchantment” whereby the microcosm becomes a thing unto itself, a surface laid flat. The heavens no longer “declare the glory of the Lord”; the vertical horizon is severed. As if the stars had all fallen to earth, the heavens lost their luster and spoke no more.
Some lament the loss of transcendence, while others view it as the necessary prerequisite for the next stage of evolutionary development. Divine providence is replaced by poetic license, the meaning of existence now bears the sign: “Under Construction”. Technological developments, no longer mere innovations external to the human, carry with them the future hopes of mankind; they are instruments through which man reaches for dominion over the stars that eluded his grasp in infancy. The modern was not, after all, a loss of faith as such. It was the loss of faith in human powerlessness.
The last two centuries have seen the rise of the Anthropocene, an era in which human artistic and mechanical production has achieved such scale as to influence substantially the basic environmental conditions of the habitable world. From the Industrial Revolution through to today, mankind has come into its terrestrial kingdom by achieving greater control over the cosmos in which it lives, seemingly dictating terms to life itself.
But this mastery has yet to fulfill its promise to usher in man’s halcyon days. The metanarratives of unimpeded progress, like the constellations of old, have been brought low, and a new disenchantment has arisen: modern malaise. We sit like W.H. Auden,
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth
AWK’s “Constellations” is an exploration of this bright and darkened landscape. Its foci are surfaces, fissures, and fractal articulations of the light and shadow, form and formlessness. Like all art, it is a search for meaning based on an intuition: ‘There is something here, some connection, some pattern or meaning that must be named and brought into view.’ It looks to the structures, both natural and manmade, that undergird reality, as if in search of some clue – the secret index by which the world might again become intelligible to us. That index, whatever shape it might ultimately take, must inevitably be a constellation.
At their most basic level, constellations are points of light standing out against an undulating surface of darkness. What is of interest with respect to the Anthropocene is that they are at once both natural and man-made, both real and imaginary. Without man projecting his experiences and understandings onto the heavens, what are stars but pulsating clouds of gas, the deaf and dumb carnage of some pre-historical accident? And yet, we know that we are not dreaming their deeper significance. It is the same activity of mind that sees purpose in the world which re-collects the scattered light into some cognizable form. Stars are natural phenomena, but the imaginary lines of the constellation that connect them are the product of the human ingenuity. Constellations are embodiments of human imagination seeking to render nature intelligible.
The images that compose this project were “found” scattered on the internet, a fact which provides a twofold insight: first, it speaks to the nature of art as an alternative economy, as a collaborative and interactive exchange of meaning. Second, it indicates the fact that nothing is without meaning, not even the detritus of yesterday’s dreams. The act of recycling these images constitutes a radical denial of the throw-away culture all to frequently encountered today. The windmills and solar panels stand as totems of what is possible to achieve when mankind seeks harmony with nature.
In this respect there is a subtle irony in the project’s concluding depiction of the solar panels: what hope there is for a better future for ourselves will depend on our ability to reorient ourselves to the stars. For this is the basic meaning of “con-stellation” ––with the stars.
“There will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth dismay among nations, in perplexity at the roaring of the sea and the waves, men fainting from fear and the expectation of the things which are coming upon the world; for the powers of the heavens will be shaken…But when these things begin to take place, straighten up and lift up your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”
~Luke 21:25-8.

For more on the art project, click here.

For more information on AWK, visit here.