Omelas is a self-sufficient organism composed by the entanglement of plants and humans. #Re-designing Infrastructures
Being responsible means being able to respond. In other words: having the ability to react properly to the solicitations of one’s surroundings, and being capable to answer for one’s actions. This implies two elemental things: embracing the fact that any action necessarily impacts what we may call the rest of the world, and crafting one’s behavior accordingly. It all sounds pretty straightforward, easy.
Yet, we, humans, tend to mistake responsibility for a nagging burden weighing on our shoulders. The many loads of our responsibilities seem dull, annoying, far-remote from any sort of fun, scary, and potentially draining. Better not to deal with any of this. To step aside, it may seem convenient to disclaim any liability for what is happening (ecological fallouts, increasing of precarious lifestyles, sick bodies, and distressed minds, to name a few). — And consider that these misfortunes are only happening to us while negating the fact that these very things may be coming from us just as well.
Economically speaking, we are living on the edge of a contradiction: we are very materialistic, but we work hard to de-materialize things nonetheless — money becoming digital fluxes is just one example of this phenomenon. This resonates with the paradox of responsibility: responsible we must be, in order to fully inhabit the world by responding to it, and yet we are turning our backs to our worldly duties as often as we find the opportunity to do so. Likewise, we feel, and yet, we often prefer to neglect our feelings.
These paradoxes work as so many crippling dichotomies. They are usually fueled by repressed, unspoken feelings of fear and guilt towards what we may have to do, or may have done, may have to face, and towards the matching consequences. And they often lead to a dis-abling state of avoidant denial, which leaves us unarmed, incapable of finding appropriate responses to our many crises, regardless of whether they are personal, economical, environmental, or planetary. In order to regain vital response-ability, it is now urgent to put an end to this way of (mal)functioning.
Reclaim, Restore, Re-feel
We are approaching the end of the year 2020. Over the past few months, manifold events, from out-of-hand wildfires to global health and systemic long-overdue crisis, have made it very obvious: there is a lot to reconsider, reclaim and restore in the world we inhabit. Forests burning to the ground, misbalanced bodies, and centuries-old racist systems are urgent to be taken care of and fixed. But still, they are only symptoms of a more insidious pandemic: a disconnection between humans, their inner worlds, their bodies, and their surroundings. As we are standing on the edge of a steep cliff, I want to suggest that, to handle things, first, we have to let ourselves feel.
As we get more and more crippled by our old ways, we have to put up with a pretty serious handicap: it is almost as if we were collectively experiencing a locked-in syndrome. In this context, restoring our economy must start by restoring our own relationship with ourselves and gently getting attuned to our surroundings. Our ability to feel is not trivial nor incidental, but rather fundamental, to the people we are, and to the things we make, and to the realities we create. It is now time to reclaim it.
But how to do just that? The concept of feel-thinking may give us a helping hand. Feel-thinking (originally sentipensar in Spanish) has been introduced in the late 80s by sociologist Orlando Fals Borda and re-actualized since by anthropologist Arturo Escobar 1. More than an idea, this concept is a way of behaving. It implies thinking simultaneously with the heart and the mind, while getting attuned to the specifics of a given environment, instead of resonating solely from rational but decontextualized concepts, abstractions, which often induce feel-less goals (such as current economical growth and development).
Abstraction vs Sensoriality
Emotional and sensory behaviors have been disregarded for a very long time. We have been dislocated, separated from our incarnate selves and our surroundings, in favor of rational, decontextualized, and de-sensitized systems. growth and development pay very little attention to the actual materiality of what they exploit. Instead of caring for our own flesh vessels through ethical healthcare systems, we rather dedicate or sacrifice them, through labor for (and addiction to) big corporations, which we consider as actual bodies. Our advanced societies have a profound disdain for feelings, but they do repeatedly stimulate human emotions for the sake of their economies, based on impulsive, partly unconscious reactions. 2
Deep into our paradoxes, we live through a codified network of abstractions, which have become more and more remote from materiality overtime. But these systems cannot remain sustainable if they persist in operating without feelings and senses — without organic direction.
In troubled times especially, it is crucial to keep track of how we process the world, internally. Of what we project into it, of the way we make sense of it, and from which perspective we perceive it. To do so, we must urgently start to take on a basic responsibility towards how we feel. But there is more to it. The internal feel-think responsibility should expand, to encompass our bodies and their sensory perceptions. To responsibly make sense of the world, we need full access to our senses indeed.
Making sense implies taking directions: navigating our surroundings, and consciously drawing meaning from this journey. For this crucial endeavor, our bodies certainly work as sailing ships. As philosopher Maurice Merleau- Ponty put it in his Phenomenology of Perception: “The body is our general medium for having a world” 3, meaning that it is our main source to collect and create knowledge.
In fact, sensing appears as a primary channel to finding sense in the world around us and consequently deciding which posture to adopt and which direction to take next. — That is, to design an appropriate, embodied response to the world we are surrounded by.
In his phenomenology, Merleau-Ponty develops an ethics based on the flesh, as the material quality which binds all beings together. I want to take this reflection further. Whether sensory or emotional, feelings are physiological too: they occur to us through nerve impulses and hormonal reactions.
The flesh is intelligent, conscious, porous, sensitive, and non-dissociable from its feelings. Body and mind, sensations and emotions — matter and energy, so to speak — are intrinsically interrelated, as different facets of one single, sentient thing. Bodies are not just empty vessels or crusts, from underneath which the mind can process the external world; bodies are the world.
The world is one sentient body, just as well. This simple realization might have been easier to come to terms with before our societies got industrialized and digitalized as they are nowadays. Perhaps agrarian societies, closer to their material context, primarily cultivating living matter to live from, were more attuned to this worldly-shared materiality. It is straightforward to imagine that peoples working in close connection to nature were also attuned to our own human nature. But in fact, any kind of production is necessarily linked to the matter of the world — the very same matter which we are made of, and which we inhabit.
Oïkos and Dwelling
As design historian, Catherine Geel explains with a very simple etymology twist: “Ecology and economics share the same greek root: oïkos, which refers to the way a habitation is managed. Economics (nomos) transforms or administers this. Ecology (logos) discusses it and builds relationships with it.” 4 Thus, both disciplines are inextricably linked. Not in the form of carbon taxes, but because they refer to the same thing: the sensitive, material space, the habitation which we inhabit and interact with.
It is through our emotions, bodily sensations, and perceptions altogether, that we can start dwelling in this material world. According to the teachings of anthropologist Tim Ingold, the dwelling is a way of inhabiting, through a constant process of co-construction with, and within the world 5. It is an ongoing response to it. I want to add to this theory that, in order to dwell, respond to and be at home in the world, we must feel like a part of the sentient world, so to process, understand — make-senses of — it.
An Ecology of Perception
When we choose to dwell via our senses, we can switch from a narrow point of view to what I call an embodied point of feel. To understand what this may, well, feel like, let’s take a short dive into the ecology of perception. Lead by eminent cultural ecologist and philosopher David Abram, this field of study aims to restore our sensory and perceptual connections with our direct environment. Abram considers that we have been treating the environment as an empty void, and have been treating our bodies and minds in the same way. That is, as a disincarnate abstraction. Instead, he suggests, we should participate in our environment while being “fully awake, alive and aware” 6, through the wondrous channel of our sensations.
In and Out, a Simple Flow
Doing so, we start perceiving the world as a constant, wholly animated flow of energy exchanges. Even in a dark period where contact is being forbidden by political authorities, it is possible to engage in this form of interconnectedness. Even the simplest sensory encounters — food, touch, melodies… offer the chance to experience this flow. They have the power to reveal the world as an ongoing economy of interactions.
Thanks to these simple encounters, we can also understand that the world resides inside of us too. Food, touch, melodies, go through our flesh, creating a multitude of sensory reactions. Just like we go through the world, the world penetrates us, in a constant conversation. To this thought, dichotomies suddenly seem irrelevant, scales and species start merging — almost like companies sometimes do. There is no rest of the world anymore, only an immense, evolutive flesh with us included in it.
Sensing is interaction. A dialogue, a response. When we dialogue with the world through senses and emotions, our sentient flesh and “the flesh of the more-than-human-Earth” 7 become one and the same. And we become more and more capable to formulate accurate responses to our world. No more pushing responsibility back onto some external being, event or misfortune: if the world is just one flesh, which we are a part of, then our old dualistic ways of separating to and from fall apart. They appear to be the very same thing. A true feeling of care and responsibility is bound to arise from this sensitive interconnectedness.
— AN INTER-FELT DIALOGUE
HEADING TOWARDS SYMBIOTIC
The sensory-felt kinship of all the beings and phenomenons in the world implies that we are equally linked with and responsible to the human and nonhuman, near and also distant. And thus, equally responsible in front of them, as well as they are regarding us. This relational intermingle is a form symbiosis: an interaction between different organisms living in physical (and thus sensitive) association.
To create economics which are attuned with the world, in conversation with it, we must celebrate this non-negotiable, sentient diversity. From being sensitive and responsive, we become truly response-able: capable of sensitive, inter-felt, symbiotic designing. From biological organisms to corporations, here is a fundamental opportunity for our current value systems to take on a healthy shift: recognizing emotions and sensitiveness as non-negotiable essentials for the world to carry on.
This essay aims to analyze the importance of feeling for healthy economics. Through the intermingling of anthropology, philosophy and ecology, it develops the concepts of feel-thinking, making-senses, and point of feel, and advocates for an economy of inter-felt interactions, based on the recognition of feelings, bodily perceptions and interconnectedness.
Anaïs Hazo is an artist and a researcher. Her transdiciplinary practice currently revolves around the question: what feeds, what nurtures?