CLIMATE CHANGE AND KNOWLEDGE PRODUCTION
by Patricia Ticineto Clough
In Susan Kassouf’s essay “A New Thing Under the Sun” (ROOM 6.21), she writes of her dismay in finding that there would be no mention of the more-than-human environment during her psychoanalytic training. I want to expand Kassouf’s premise about the importance of the more-than-human to psychoanalysis by addressing the relationship between climate change and digital media/technologies, which are dramatically altering the way we live and communicate and, perhaps most importantly, the way we know. Like Kassouf, I didn’t find it easy to bring my academic thinking as a media studies scholar in line with my psychoanalytic training. Even now, when most psychoanalysts have spent a good deal of time working with digital media/technologies, it seems difficult to face the challenges they pose to psychoanalytic theory and practice at a time when human knowing is becoming intimately linked with the more-than-human “cognition” or “thinking” of algorithms and datafication.
Climate change, in particular, urges psychoanalysts to take up these challenges due to the unique way that most of us come to understand its effects. After all, climate scientists analyze massive amounts of data utilizing profoundly complicated earth system models to target long-term trends and patterns across vast temporal and spatial scales to make assumptions about the presence and trajectory of climate change. But most of us are not equipped to understand these models. We are more convinced by reports like the recent IPCC report that strongly link climate change to extreme weather and its cascading destructive effects. This is because while we cannot directly or consciously experience climate change as such, we can experience weather. A gap is opened between weather—which we consciously experience through our senses—and climate change—which becomes available to us mostly through digitalized data that only provide a range of probabilities, rather than strict knowledge of cause and effect, including the probability of the improbable, which we have come to nervously await.
For example, a recent New York Times article reported on the weakening of the turnover in the Gulf Stream called the Atlantic Meridian Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and described this weakening’s possible “monstrous effects.” AMOC can be studied directly only by gathering massive amounts of data drawn from an array of sophisticated sensors moored to the ocean floor between Newfoundland, Greenland, and Scotland. So far, the article reported, the data is inconclusive, or at least inconclusive about whether this weakening of the Gulf Stream will become “a climate tipping point” signaling climate catastrophe. The article concludes that deep ocean currents are more complicated than envisioned and, as a result, produce more complicated data. While some climate tipping points have been crossed, and others are nearing being crossed, what the data of climate change mostly report are the future risk of monstrous effects for humans and the more-than-human.
In this sense, the digitally produced data of climate change do not represent or mirror a reality so much as they are a part of it. Climate change is an ongoing modeling of tendencies that involve massive amounts of data calculated outside the time frames of human experience, consciousness, and perception. This is made possible because computation now is a matter of algorithms that self-
adjust the parameters of their operation beyond what they were originally programmed to do. They can keep on calculating, or informing, more data beyond the initial inputs. Media studies scholars have come to refer to algorithmic computing as a “form of cognition or thinking” that is “inorganic” (Parisi).
This “inorganic” thinking is different from human thinking and, no doubt, limited in comparison. Nonetheless, it informs what and how we know, displacing consciousness, perception, and experience as the hub of human knowing. While we consciously continue to experience reality through our sense perception, our conscious experience is more and more disjoined—both temporally and operationally—from the experiences presented to us with the data produced with digital/media technologies. Yet this displacement of human consciousness, perception, and experience, while surely a matter of deep concern, also brings with it a challenge to human exceptionalism in relationship to the more-than-human. In the algorithm’s capacity to take measure of and make us aware of the more-than-human, we are faced not only with the impact of human activity on the more-than-human but also with the capacity of the more-than-human for liveness and affectivity, if not a kind of agency.
This double-edged effect of inorganic thinking, especially about climate change data, has profoundly disrupted the link of individual experience, judgment, and good action that has been supported by the Enlightenment’s privileging of the human knower with an emphasis on the senses as a primary source of true knowledge. Digital media/technologies have thrust us into a post-Enlightenment regime of truth-making, again double-edged in its impact: on one hand politicizing data, such as climate change data (not to mention COVID-19 data), and on the other, calling attention to the need to reevaluate Enlightenment discourse by addressing the changing relationship of technology and knowledge as well as attending to the long-excluded more-than-human-centered ways of knowing, including indigenous and anti-racist knowledges (See Gentile; Byrd; Jackson). I am proposing that human responsibility for climate change, as well as human responsibility more generally, cannot be realized without critically engaging this shift to inorganic knowledge production in relation to a post-Enlightenment regime of truth-making.
Recently, psychoanalysts have turned their attention to the relationship between the psyche and matters of race, sexuality, gender, class, ethnicity, and ableism—factors all usually referred to as the “social” or “larger” environment that have not always been considered directly relevant to psychoanalysis. While deeply entangled with these matters, climate change data also are redefining what we take the social or the larger environment to be. They are urging us to recognize the embeddedness of the human and the more-than-human in media/technological processes of what we know and how we know. Psychoanalysts have much to offer in addressing these processes, facing the challenges posed by them to rethink the unconscious, denial, trauma, mentalization, and more in the relationship between the psyche and the social.
Patricia Ticineto Clough, PhD, LP, is a professor emerita of Sociology and Women’s Studies at CUNY and a practicing psychoanalyst in New York City, working with individuals and couples. She teaches at the National Institute for the Psychotherapies and the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, where she is also a member of the Training Committee and the Diversity Task Force. She is the author of several publications, most recently The User Unconscious: Affect, Media, and Measure, and coeditor of Beyond Biopolitics: Essays in the Government of Life and Death.
Byrd, J. The Transit of Empire, Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (University of Minnesota Press, 2011)
Gentile, K. “Kittens in the Clinical Space: Expanding Subjectivity through Dense Temporalities of Interspecies Transcorporeal Becoming,” Psychoanalytic Dialogues (2021)
Jackson, Z. I. Becoming Human, Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World (New York University Press, 2020)
Parisi, L. “After Nature: The Dynamic Automation of Technical Objects,” Posthumous Life: Theorizing Beyond the Posthuman, ed J. Weinstein and C. Colebrook (Columbia University Press, 2017)
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