Too Big To See


[Another essay from my series on the psychology of powerlessness. The shot was taken in Kiama last year.]

Too Big to See ‒ On Systemic Invisibility

Thesis: ‘…you can’t sock a system’. People find it challenging to think in non-concrete, abstract, societal, global, systemic terms because we are not ‘hardwired’ by evolutionary experience to do so.

According to some accounts, when in 1770 Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour sailed into Botany Bay, the indigenous Australians fishing there apparently showed neither surprise nor concern. There was no reaction. ‘In the experience of these people nothing so monstrous had ever been seen upon the surface of the waters – and now it seems they could not see it when it came.’ The sight of the Endeavour was simply too ‘big’ or overwhelming to cognitively and emotionally process as ‘real’. This hypothesis is strengthened by the fact that they then did strongly react with alarm and looked to their weapons when Cook put down his small rowing boats.

In a similar way, problems of a global nature like nuclear war or climate change may be just ‘too big’ to even perceive or feel, much less act on. A perceptual and emotional gap has opened up between ourselves and the complex social environment in which we live. That environment has radically changed while our perceptions and emotions have not. Our environment, our reality is now to an increasing extent global, abstract and mediated in nature. However, our basic perceptual, cognitive and emotional apparatus is for the most part still as it evolved in the Palaeolithic, that is primarily sensory, primed for fight or flight, and thus geared to the fine differences and changes in our immediate environment.

Thus, just as we cannot perceive sub-liminal influences like bacteria or sub-sonic sounds, we also cannot see, feel or process global abstractions like ozone depletion, global warming, ubiquitous chemical pollution, capitalism, unfair trade patterns and global markets, nuclear weapons and the nuclear energy cycle, although they may all severely and disastrously impact on our everyday lives. They are all in that sense ‘super-liminal’, i.e. above the threshold of our possible awareness.

The term ‘super-liminal’ was first used in this sense by the German social philosopher Günther Anders in the 1950s to describe our inherent perceptual deficit in regard to nuclear weapons. He saw Hiroshima and the invention of weapons of mass destruction as an axial turning point in human history and consciousness. Henceforth there was a ‘Promethean gap’ between human doing (herstellen) and human imagining/feeling (vorstellen), between knowing (Wissen) and conscience (Gewissen), between technology and the human body. Humans could no longer imagine what they were producing. The difficult but necessary task for human consciousness was now to imagine the completely unimaginable: its own total elimination.

Beyond the post-Hiroshima ‘Promethean Gap’, it could in fact be argued that any ‘system’ at all is in some sense ‘super-liminal’, i.e. an abstraction which cannot be directly perceived. We can only directly perceive the elements or parts of a system.

For example, we can see trees but not the manifold and complex relationships between the trees (and millions of other biota), i.e. the whole system we call a ‘forest’. The forest system is itself a cognitive abstraction and cannot be directly grasped by the senses alone. Our mind has to rationally, systemically, think through and/or aesthetically imagine (or spiritually ‘intuit’) the complex connections and relationships of these parts that make up the whole system. The ‘forest’ is in that sense an abstract idea, a conceptual and imaginative construct. (And whether this idea ‘really exists’ or not has of course made all Western philosophical debate between ‘idealists’ and ‘materialists’, ‘nominalists’ and ‘realists’, ‘rationalists’ and ‘empiricists’ etc. – in Bertrand Russell’s apt phrase’ – ‘one long footnote to Plato’.)

Although produced exclusively by humans, social systems may be just as difficult to grasp as natural ones. British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s notorious neo-liberal dictum about there being ‘no such thing as society’ succinctly expresses this perceptual (self-)limitation.

This may apply not just to petty-bourgeois laissez-faire Prime Ministers but to anyone, including workers. For example, we may directly perceive and suffer under various forms of capitalist exploitation and oppression like work speed-up, under-payment or lack of power and control over our work and life. We cannot, however, directly perceive the whole capitalist system and its inherent economic driving principles that are the root cause of these specific oppressive conditions we experience.

However, the good news is that we can, with discussion, study and use of the ‘sociological imagination’ (C. Wright Mills), begin to ‘connect the dots’ and develop a more systemic concept of it. We may also develop an increasing understanding of the system’s principles in the experiential learning process of struggling against them together, especially if this is a collective process together with other affected workers at home and abroad. However, even if a factory worker should conceive of his oppression as systemic rather than personal, there then still remains the resultant problem of this system’s apparent ‘unattackability’ as a system, in the words of one US factory worker:

Hell, if you whip a damn mule he might kick you. Stay out of my way, that’s all. Working is bad enough, don’t bug me. I would rather work my ass off for eight hours a day with nobody watching me than five minutes with a guy watching me. Who you gonna sock? You can’t sock General Motors, you can’t sock anybody in Washington, you can’t sock a system.

In a similar way, we cannot directly perceive, and usually have little motivation to imagine, the ambivalent technical infrastructure of the industrial system that literally under-girds our lives in developed societies. In that sense this technical matrix is also super-liminal. The fact, however, that this infrastructure is not only an assemblage of dead objects but the embodiment of the labour, skills, sweat and suffering of millions of workers and coordinators, makes its usual invisibility not only a perceptual but a moral issue as well.

In a continuously fossil-fuel driven economic system like ours, George Orwell’s 1930s remarks on middle class attitudes towards northern English coal miners still ring very true, even if we today might want to place more emphasis on many more workers than coal miners alone. In The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) Orwell memorably drew attention to the uncomfortable fact that

You and I and the editor of the Times Lit. Supp., and the Nancy poets and the Archbishop of Canterbury and Comrade X, author of Marxism for Infants – all of us really owe the comparative decency of our lives to poor drudges underground, blackened to the eyes, with their throats full of coal dust, driving their shovels forward with arms and belly muscles of steel.

And as he also surmised in regard to the invisible work of coal miners, in fact ‘probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it’, to ‘seldom or never remember what coal getting involves’ and that ‘even now, if coal could not be produced without pregnant women dragging it to and fro, I fancy we should let them do it rather than deprive ourselves of coal.’

In brief, we usually simply do not want to know about the real human and eco-systemic costs of our middle class lifestyles in affluent capitalism. Courtesy of the apparently impersonal market and complex, mostly invisible infrastructures, the costs are transferred out of sight to people of other classes and regions or to suffering future generations. This super-liminality suits most of us fine. Out of sight, out of mind.

Yet the uncomfortable fact is that this super-liminality is, in Wolfgang Sachs’ phrase, an ‘optical illusion.’ Sachs illustrates the invisibility of the ‘gigantic transfer of costs’ and the ‘optical illusion’ of the modern technological matrix using the common experience of driving a car:

The speeding power of the car excites the driver precisely because its prerequisites (pipelines, streets, assembly lines) and its consequences (noise, air pollution, greenhouse effect) remain far beyond the view from the windshield. The glamour of the moment is based upon a gigantic transfer of its cost: time, effort and the handling of consequences are shifted onto the systems running in the background of society. So the appeal of technical civilization often depends on an optical illusion.

It would seem that this pervasisve ‘optical illusion’ is, usually, only shattered in some form of social crisis: oil crises, the Chernobyl or Fukushima disasters, increasingly chaotic extreme weather events occasioned by global heating, workers’ strikes and protests, even, sometimes, revolutions. Like landed gentry suddenly confronted with the ‘red cockerel’ of burning manor houses and rebelling peasants, the usual beneficiaries of the ‘gigantic transfer of costs’ of industrial capitalism then suddenly experience the violent shock of a kind of psychoanalytic ‘return of the repressed’. The previously abstract global and ‘supra-liminal’ abruptly and unexpectedly intrudes into the ‘liminal’ and concrete everyday. The chickens come home to roost, the debts are called in, the temporarily suppressed feedback mechanisms of the eco- or social system resurface with a vengeance.

Psychological, physiological and social crises thus seem to follow similar patterns. Just as in an individual’s psychological or physiological health crisis, previously background and ‘unconscious’ patterns or systems may become fore-grounded and conscious as now ‘malfunctioning’, ‘painful’ or ‘negative’ ones.

And again as in any psychological or relationship crisis, people then have a choice. They can either solve the crisis in a mature way by acting responsibly and trying to finally face, understand, accept, deal with and integrate the resurfacing ‘feedback’ in its systemic roots and functions. Or else they can ultimately deepen the crisis by acting in fear and panic and attempting to further deny, escape from, drown out, compartmentalise, buy off, or suppress the unpleasant ‘feedback’ and thus regress to an earlier, pre-adult state.

So far, it would seem that the former option is not being taken up by all too many, and thus it would also seem inevitable that the crises will deepen and general suffering increase. Could it be that the planet is calling us as a species to ‘grow up’, to redefine our notions of ‘the good life’, to transcend the juvenile, high-energy/high-entropy and super-growth phase of our civilisations and construct a dynamic, constantly evolving, ‘steady-state’ civilisation within the final limits of the biosphere? Beyond the daily distractions and busyness and noise, deep within, will enough of us sufficiently hear and actively, collectively, respond to this call?


~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on January 28, 2013.

4 Responses to “Too Big To See”

  1. Thanks Peter. You are bang on about the ‘super-liminal’ nature of our global predicament. Too few are even aware we face a crisis of civilisation, let alone that consumer-capitalism has no chance of solving it. Our best bet is to start building those local economies as a means to raise awareness among participants about the big picture and why we need radical change.

    • Thanks for the comment, Johnny, much appreciated. I agree with you and at the same time would say it ain’t that simple. ‘Building those local economies’ in my experience is no easier than raising awareness about the big picture and why we need radical, systemic change. Most people do not see the need to build local economies at all precisely because they do not see, or want to see, the big picture and the need for radical change. So it’s much of a muchness whether you stress localisation or systemic change of economic and political power relations and the implementation of grassroots self-management. Most people do not want to know about either. Even at this stage. That’s our point of departure.

  2. Thanks Peter. I agree with you, but then what IS our best bet? To clarify I am saying we should start (initially in tiny/small ways) to build those local economies as a MEANS to build the radical awareness. This is both because localisation is a huge and neccessary part of the revolution and because, in my view, it is the best arena to build that awareness. It is positive and enjoyable and there are lots of people interested in this type of thing now.

  3. Peter; further thought. True that, for most of us, the scope for local projects of any kind are limited or non-existent and most people are not at all engaged. So the task for us then becomes raising awareness among ordinary people, particularly in our local areas, about the need for change and alternative visions. That is what we have to focus on. YOu are obviously working hard on that…keep it up!

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