From coal to Diamond

steam engine from coal fired computing

I want to briefly reflect about a few considerations rising out an essay by the philosopher Cora Diamond, in the context of a response to a piece of work by YoHa called ‘Coal Fired Computing’. The response I’m interested in is not my own (I’m not attempting necessarily to explicate YoHa’s work here) but that of an audience members. The work itself consists of a coal powered steam engine that generates electricity for a computer. This computer interrogates a database of miners, and inflates a set of coal-blackened lungs each time it encounters a record of lung disease. (This viscerality is, I think, important - more on this in a bit). The context of the work is the displacement of coal production from the UK to China, India and other countries. As such, miner activists were involved with the work, and present with a stand with miner’s activist posters and other materials.

Coal is not only tied in historically to the industrial transformation that made possible modern computational culture. It also powers the electronics industries that provide the material substrate to our allegedly immaterial culture. This is not without cost. Aside from the environment damage caused by burning coal, the mining itself, according to the WHO, causes over 300,000 deaths annually through exposure of miners to coal dust.

What I’d like to think about now is the response of one member of the audience at the 2010 Newcastle exhibition of the work. As YoHa explained the issues surrounding the work, they asked (along the lines of): “Though what am I supposed to do? Stop using a computer? I need my computer to work.” (It was almost five years ago, so my recollection may be hazy).

YoHa’s response to this was (I think) that the work wasn’t about prescribing a particular course of action, but instead opening up a conversation around the complexities it raises. That seemed to satisfy the individual who asked the question. I feel, however, that this moment itself opens up certain difficult questions. I don’t wish to ascribe any particular intentions to the questioner, instead I’m interested in what such a question could be taken to represent. What happens when we take a complex political, social, or economic phenomenon, and attempt to encapsulate it in a rule for action that is measurable and verifiable in this manner?

There are two answers to this that seem immediately apparent to me. The first is to say that this is a possibly flawed, but nonetheless legitimate, attempt to think what it would mean to take the implications of this situation situation into lived practice. What would a rule for action mean, what are its limitations, how might it elucidate the problem that we face? Taken like this, it could almost be imagined as a kind of thought experiment, and in the differences between its outcome and what we might hope for, we might better understand the difficulties we face.

A second approach is less generous. Instead, it might view the attempt to formulate a rule for action as a form of ‘deflection’. This term is meant in the sense developed by Stanley Cavell, but my specific interest is in the turn it is given within Cora Diamond’s essay “The difficulty of reality and the difficulty of philosophy”. Here she characterises deflection as an unknowing strategy in response to a difficulty which:

“lies in the apparent resistance by reality to one’s ordinary mode of life, including one’s ordinary modes of thinking: to appreciate the difficulty is to feel oneself being shouldered out of how one thinks, how one is apparently supposed to think, or to have a sense of the inability of thought to encompass what it is attempting to reach.” (58)

We can then see the question as an attempt to meet this reality that misfires, or perhaps even an attempt not to meet this reality at all. For one response to the unanswerability of the question “am I meant to give up computers?” is to then say “well, there’s nothing I can do really”, and thereby acquit oneself from looking at the realities of global political economy head-on.

It is here that the form of YoHa’s work provides a point for reflection: the damage inflicted upon the workers lungs is presented in an extraordinarily direct and visceral way, by having extracted lungs present within the piece. Likewise, the cycling database records present us with a machine that many will have difficulty relating to or maintaining attention towards. There is a twin impulse to look away - from direct exposure of what the global economy inflicts upon human bodies, but also from the cold dull bureaucracy that underpins these processes.

It has been too long since I saw the work to recall if this was mine or others response to it. I think though it can provide a good starting point for thinking through the strategies we can use to deal with the gaps that open up between global economic forces and everyday lived practices.