Case Study in Manhattan

I have started following the story of Colin Beavan, ‘no impact man,’ a writer living in Manhattan. Along with his wife (a writer for Business Week) and daughter, he is attempting to live for a year with no or minimal footprint in terms of energy consumption and waste production, although his project guidelines include the energy to blog daily and publish a book at the end of the year. http://noimpactman.typepad.com/blog/

What i find so interesting about his project, is what it contributes to an aspect of our current state in an affluent, industrialized nation: self-experimentation becomes necessary because no one can trust the authorities or so-called experts.

Beavan indicates this in this passage:

“One really important point I want to make is that the science is confusing about a lot of this stuff. There are studies and counter studies. It’s easier just to consume less product than to try to figure out what is okay and what is not.”

Our condition of reflexivity at this point is such that the amount of commentary or information on what we do is overwhelming not only us, but it’s overwhelming the “experts.” The dams around science’s fantasy of objectivity are being breached. Science is more and more obviously driven by subjective interests. Even though technocratic knowledge still legitimizes a major portion of the spectrum of authority, our ability to rely on technoscientific pronouncements is crumbling under the weight of information and the light of examination. We have more tools for producing ‘information’ and fewer for making judgments; we have more networks for informing — press, publicity, publishing — so we have more opportunities for examination. The public, weary of conflicting authorities, constantly exposed to means of reporting on and reflecting on the claims of authorities, has to devise other means of producing information, i.e., their own experience, and also has to move further to self reliance, i.e., trusting their own observation, good “sense,” and decision.

What we have is the glimmerings of new kinds of subjectivity or person: a more and more fully autonomous subject. Someone who does some kind of work or experiment to produce knowledge of their own, and then feels they have some basis for making their own decision. There is almost no other choice when other authorities have lost all credibility.

This is not to say that the individual produces knowledge all by herself. In the course of creating and interpreting her own experience she avails herself of the immeasurable wealth of knowledge produced by other humans, which includes that put into transmissible form (reports, studies, journalism, fiction, film, press, etc,), as well as the feedback from other people in her face-to-face sphere. But in the end she is creating of herself a person who can trust her own resources to put it all together and accept the consequences of her own mistakes.

I love this part of what Beavan wrote in his March 20 post “I heareby sacrifice my teeth to the environment (kind of):”

“We’re moving and changing so fast that I may be making mistakes that we’ll have to correct later when some expert who knows a lot more than me tells me I’m an idiot, which of course I am because I’m just a schlub, like everyone else, trying to negotiate through spin and counter-spin to do the right thing.”

Of course he will make mistakes! He is on territory very inadequately explored or described; hence there is no other way to proceed into that territory. Trial and error. It’s always a collective thing, as evidenced by all the comments on his blog by people sharing their own experiments of the same order. I haven’t brought myself to make the moves he has made, but reading his trial and error gives me more confidence. He and his interlocutors are creating knowledge! Which includes mistakes — so that other experimenters can have the luxury to say, ” I’m not gonna make THAT mistake because I already KNOW about that one!”

As Beavan indicates, the experts contradict each other every day, so there is less and less reason to believe they can judge better than we can. Especially since, with information technology as it is, we are increasingly privy to all the information they use.

On Gut Reading

People are really freaked out now about the breakdown of authority but people are also showing each other ways to learn to rely on ourselves and each other. It’s a learning process, so we have to learn to love learning. And we have to be able to be wrong. At one point Colin Beavan locates his source of decision-making in his “gut.” Even thought i have an aversion to that concept, recently aggravated by Mr. Bush, our president, who likewise accounts for his disastrous decision meter, i understand that what one is often saying with that phrase is that they are relying on their own experience over conflicting information. Unfortunately the case of Mr. Bush is that his own experience is narrow and twisted even while so much of our fate depends on it, so it becomes inexcusable.

In this case Beavan produces a set of conditions in which we have what we need to assess the information he delivers, in other words, a respectable degree of transparency. We know he is getting a book out of this, but we also know that even he is not prepared for what he might learn by such an experiment. The conditions are such that we can examine his claims, query him when we see discrepancies and expect him to respond. Part of his motivation to respond truthfully is that getting a book deal is not just a promise of economic reward, but it is also a demand that the author live up to the terms of the experiment he is proposing; otherwise the book and Colin Beavan’s reputation as an author (an informant) are quickly discredited and become more garbage to our midden of confusing unreliable sources.

Experimental Forms of Objectivity

The promise of the fantasy of objectivity is that we will gain a broader perspective than what we currently have. This is called understanding, which is not opposed to knowledge but accompanies it when a transparently motivated inquiry is undertaken. Under the conditions Beavan has constructed, he is substituting something different from the scientific brand of objectivity, but which functions in the same way to broaden his perspective and to test his biases. His objectivity is in the rules that he set for himself: to live according to what we currently understand as a no- or low-impact existence, and in his commitment to follow those rules. The objectivity of this experiment is equally dependent on the assemblage of people, most of them anonymous to him and surely of widely differing opinions, who have become invested in the experiment he is conducting in public.

Even though he has his own interests in the project, we can take those into account, and can believe that he really is “a schlub like everybody else” IN THE AMBIT OF THE EXPERIMENT ITSELF. In other words, he really is starting this as another complacent, convenience-addicted consumer who just finally crossed the line so many of us feel everyday and may be able to tell us more about what is on the other side. This is information relevant to us, to the denizens of the everyday, who have to decide which toothpaste is best for us, if a company is capable of telling the truth about its own product, if one decision is more toxic than another, if we could stand to give up our cars…

Projects like this provide us with reality-based food for our IMAGINATION, which is actually at the source of all knowledge. The ability to think beyond one’s physically and historically limited self.

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4 Responses to “Case Study in Manhattan”

  1. brianholmes Says:

    The self-experiment is a fabulously interesting idea because it suggests at once the personal conviction of an ethical decision and the uncertainty of the grounds it’s based on. To call it an experiment is to acknowledge the need to test it out out, not only in a trial-by-fire where the whole issue is whether you can endure through the test, but also in a kind of fidgety and uncomfortable methodological way, asking whether this is even the good question, whether one is using the right measurements, looking at things from the right angle, against the right backdrop and so on. But then again, this is not just a strictly personal thing (like you and your soul in the typical Protestant case of conscience) but instead it has some objectivity as an experiment that needs to be validated, tested out by others, so that its truth is extended and elaborated, gaining ground by its variations. There’s a kind of secularization and individualization of authority to it as well: rather than telling you what to do, the person is asking whether you too are prepared to find out by yourself and in your own case, whether you are prepared to take the steps, not exactly towards a solution but at least toward discovering the right way of posing the problem….

    Of course one can imagine what some will say: “There are no individual solutions to social problems. We are being lied to and only with a broad collective program can we start doing the obvious and effective things: eliminating automobiles, reestablishing local food-supply lines, creating durable rather than deliberately short-lived goods, and so on.” OK, for sure, I believe that, but the whole problem of transmitting the desire for change seems to be the primary one. How do people tear themselves away from the daily routines where abstract social power structures become singular and concrete? How do they maintain a commitment over time, despite the welter of judgments, opinions, directives and “truhts” to which society subjects us? The self-experiment puts these questions on view, out in the public. It puts them to the risk of the TV cameras as well. Today on his blog, the No Impact Man is talking about his invitation to appear on not one but 2 TV channels. For all those who are disgusted with a media-driven society, this immediately looks bad; but isn’t the whole question one of successfully navigating through all the shoals and reefs that the experiment puts in your way? To do so successfully is to help build up a kind of social knowledge. I constantly see that at work among activists. Everybody knows you can “cash in” on your personal challenge by taking to the media, and thereby becoming important, gaining a certain kind of privilege. But everybody also knows that so doing, you can lose the gaze of those who matter in the long run, those who helped you begin your personal experiment, and who helped you believe that it was not just personal, that it could be shared and thereby have a meaning. All of this seems like more than a “case study,” because it’s pretty hard to keep the case at a distance and not apply it to one’s own quandry. Both a predicament and a paradigm, I’d say….

  2. publicamateur Says:

    thanks to brianhomes for such interesting thoughts…

    brianholmes says:

    “Of course one can imagine what some will say: “There are no individual solutions to social problems. We are being lied to and only with a broad collective program can we start doing the obvious and effective things: eliminating automobiles, reestablishing local food-supply lines, creating durable rather than deliberately short-lived goods, and so on.”

    That is true, but obviously there are many ways to generate what can be recognized as social solutions. If we are thinking that there is nothing to do until we can get a large enough group to do it with we are just throwing down more obstacles. What would be large enough to qualify as not an “individual solution”? What is a significant size? 2? 3? 20?

    For many of us whose subjectivities were formed in practices favoring individual sensibility and action, the jump to collective action may be across too broad a gap. A gap in which all we can see are inherited, conventionalized forms of collective action: strikes, demonstrations, cooperatives, collectives, movements, etc. These forms may be familiar but remote from our own experience. What’s more, we may not really be able to believe in them precisely because of this combination of familiarity but inaccessibility. Even if they do appear as compelling goals we may have no idea how to bring them to life, to our lived life.

    So I think we need to respect these forms that mediate between the individual and the social. If I am moved to try some action or refusal or form of living, the thought that “I’m just an individual and individual action is what we must surpass,” can be deeply disempowering. I think it much better to take the actions, risk exposing my aims and methods and of course do it in a way that creates some level of visibility and exchange. In that kind of framework my action has the possibility to become part of broader social effort and perhaps even evolve into collective action. Think for instance of Cindy Sheehan in the context of protest.

    brianholmes says:

    “Today on his blog, the No Impact Man is talking about his invitation to appear on not one but 2 TV channels. For all those who are disgusted with a media-driven society, this immediately looks bad; but isn’t the whole question one of successfully navigating through all the shoals and reefs that the experiment puts in your way? To do so successfully is to help build up a kind of social knowledge.”

    Although I respect people’s divergent choices in dealing with media, I think media purism begins to seem like a good way to stay marginalized. I certainly don’t think everyone should stage the performance of her experiment for mainstream media; even as we suffer unprecedented monopoly of big media, other networks of visibility and exchange have proliferated offering many ways to produce sociality in knowledge and activated desires. There are countless people and groups who have been doing “no impact” experiments for a long time and many much more radical than noimpactman’s (see for instance the Allium Collective‘s electricity fast for much more explicit political content). It just so happens that noimpactman is conducting his in a mainstream publicity hook-up and doing it now, in the midst of an explosive reality-check on the human involvement in earth’s systems. The pervasive expression of anxiety and calls for action we now witness is long overdue and comes upon us with the force of the repressed. It’s such a relief to me that big media’s fortress of denial has begun to show it’s breaches!

    brianholmes says:

    “Everybody knows you can “cash in” on your personal challenge by taking to the media, and thereby becoming important, gaining a certain kind of privilege. But everybody also knows that so doing, you can lose the gaze of those who matter in the long run, those who helped you begin your personal experiment, and who helped you believe that it was not just personal, that it could be shared and thereby have a meaning.”

    That may be true for activists, but for people who really don’t have a clue about activism, or whose identities disallow or refuse that paradigm, or who have no sense of a group that helped them start their experiment, the predicament is different. It’s more a question of how to make the first step, a step that begins as individual action and moves to the social. It certainly seems possible that for many only by taking that step, using whatever media and communication they understand, can they develop engagement and experience the potential of a shared project.

    brianholmes says:

    “All of this seems like more than a “case study,” because it’s pretty hard to keep the case at a distance and not apply it to one’s own quandry. Both a predicament and a paradigm, I’d say….”

    This is my point. And from what I read in the comments on noimpactman’s blog this is what many people are doing. Any new paradigm in the making has to pose predicaments. The predicaments expose more and more precisely just what has to change. In the field of shared knowledge clearer predicaments may attract clearer experiments. So forth!

  3. LeisureArts Says:

    Happy to see the public amateur continue to evolve and find new forms of articulation…

    The discussion around individual vs. collective action is obviously important…we have been thinking through and operating within the notion of “micro-publics,” or, in the extreme, the social as inflected in the individual. We are specifically interested in how what has been termed here as an ‘individual solution’ operates politically. It is especially noteworthy that you (publicamateur) reference ‘form of living’ as an example of individual experimentation as the notion of the “art of living,” is a driving concern of ours. Richard Shusterman’s Practicing Philosophy has an interesting take on all of this discussing whether Foucault’s aesthetic self-fashioning was merely “radical chic” or something more substantial. Shusterman answers in the affirmative:

    “…[Foucault was not self-indulgent] because he saw the ‘private’ self as intrinsically a site and political battleground of the political. This self is both the effect and the enduring, reinforcing presence of the socio-political forces that constitute and shape us as individual subjects. Just as socio-political institutions mold us into disciplined, docile selves, so the ‘normalized’ selves serve in turn to reconstitute and sustain those very institutions.”

    Forms of living, even when undertaken at the individual level, are still operating socially, if not collectively. The key then is following through with making public in as many appropriate contexts as possible this artful living so that it might become collectively or collaboratively pursued- something you address quite nicely within the notion of public amateur…

  4. blog Says:

    greatings

    agree

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