Tim Ingold’s Correspondence with Taiwan

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By Paul Jobin

Recently British anthropologist Tim Ingold has been trendy in Taiwan. In March this year, Gong Jow-Jiun, who teaches philosophy at the National Tainan University of Arts and curates several art exhibitions, invited Ingold to give a series of online lectures with a focus on ecology, all of which were translated by a professional, so the lectures went smoothly in Chinese in spite of Ingold’s sophisticated thoughts. I was among those who Jow-Jiun Gong invited to give a response to Ingold. Below are some notes reflecting on Ingold’s lectures and our discussion.

This short piece aims at corresponding with Ingold as he himself defines correspondence: not a confrontation face-to-face but going along together side by side.[1] This does not exclude walking a few steps away to check his ideas from different perspectives.

Ingold’s lectures departed greatly from what we generally see in Taiwan’s academic sphere of social sciences. He completely skipped the presentation of his methodology or of any fieldwork to offer nothing but a poetic yet very rational presentation of an argument. This was punctuated with examples apparently borrowed from his previous field research, or the work of other anthropologists, or seemingly nuanced examples like the difference between cutting a log with a saw and splitting it with an axe.

In his first conference on The Earth, the Sky and the Ground Between, Ingold departs from the perception of the ground as a flat surface or interface between the earth and the atmosphere, as defined by ecological psychologist James Gibson (see diagram 1).

Diagram 1: The ground seen as flat surface between the earth and the atmosphere. ©Tim Ingold

Instead of the ground as a flat interface, Ingold proposes the notion of a non-measurable deep surface: “Formed as the earth’s ‘rising up’, or eruption, meets the atmosphere’s ‘beating down’, or erosion, this ground has depth, but is of no measurable thickness. Should we attempt to measure it we would find that starting from the lower, atmospheric horizon, there is no limit to how far up we could go and that, conversely, starting from the upper, earthly one, we could keep on going down without ever reaching rock bottom”, as in diagram 2.

Diagram 2: The ground seen as a deep surface of interactions between the earth and the atmosphere. ©Tim Ingold

Such perception resonates with the concept of the Critical Zone, the thin layer of life beneath and beyond the ground, studied by geologists and underlined or reinterpreted by Latour.[2] The study of this Critical Zone is crucial for understanding the transformations of the carbon cycle at the global level, and Taiwan plays a very important role in that cycle as it records the world’s highest erosion rate due to frequent earthquakes and heavy rainfalls.[3]

Ingold’s second conference, The World in a Basket, aims at “restoring ways of telling currently relegated to the peripheries of social life, to its very core. This entails a renewed focus on the practices of craft, and on the stories and skills they engender. Of all human crafts, the interweaving of flexible cords, wickers, or roots to form containers, traps, cages, hats, and a host of other everyday utensils is perhaps the most ancient and widespread, as common to humans as nest-building is to birds.”

Against the fetishism of mathematics and other core curriculum academic subjects, which are wrongly conceived as floating above the realities of bodily experience only to reproduce existing patterns, Ingold advocates that better mathematics can be nurtured through the crafty operations of folding, twisting and weaving baskets, for they teach the “most basic concepts of number, line, surface, symmetry and pattern”. Learning such skills which is much more complex than it seems as it takes years of laborious effort to master, also trains to become patient with slow processes. It further shifts the axis of education from the computational logic of the algorithm and robotic intelligence that numbs our minds to the practice of exploration; it restores life and feeling to the world. 

The third conference On Not-Knowing and Paying Attentionwhich Jiow—Jun Gong invited me to comment on—started by making a distinction between the self and the soul. The former, Ingold argues, is a modern invention that cannot “engage in lively intercourse with the real world”. Whereas the soul, “far from being locked up within the body, is like the air we breathe, cast upon the current of life,” as we can learn from the so-called indigenous peoples.

Moreover, “as the self is distinguished from the soul, so knowledge is distinguished from wisdom. (…) Where knowledge protects, wisdom exposes; where knowledge makes us safe, wisdom makes us vulnerable. Knowledge empowers, wisdom does not. But what wisdom loses in power it gains in existential strength. For while knowledge may hold the world to account, it is wisdom that brings it to life.” The truth of wisdom does not lie in objective fact and ‘data’, but in an experience with the presence of things. Wisdom is not knowing, but paying attention from a vulnerable position.

One of Ingold’s most famous books is about the concept of line.[4] He worked it into this lecture with a couple of examples such as drawing and playing the cello. Drawing is not connecting points on a map (as on Diagram 3). Playing music does not consist in connecting the dots on the score. The drawn line and the music are the traces of a continuous movement made of gestures and inflections.

Diagram 3: A drawn line is not a connection between dots. ©Tim Ingold

Walking, drawing and playing are all forms of exposure, which take us ‘out of position’ (from Latin ex and positio) and put our very existence on the line. Every step we walk, every line we draw or every musical phrase we play begins in exposure and ends in attunement. This is all about attention as a deliberate exposure to phenomenological experiences and encounters.[5] Ingold concluded the third lecture by noting that contemporary liberal societies arm us with certain knowledge so that we can remain safe and secure, protected from the existential risks of exposure. This happy ending left me skeptical.

Large Numbers

Ingold’s interest in the soul and what he calls “not-knowing” bears similarities with the “learned ignorance” (De Docta Ignorantia) of 15th-century German philosopher and theologian Nicholas of Cusa. Nowadays, learned ignorance might consist in taking distance with neo-positivism, which increasingly plagues social sciences as a result of the commodification of algorithms, artificial intelligence, big data and academic metrics (such as KPI and journal impact factors). Actually, before the market imposes its regime on algorithms, there was already a fascination for what French sociologist and statistician Alain Desrosières calls “large numbers”. As Desrosières shows through his history of modern statistics, the knowledge based on large numbers has meant more power and all sorts of policies, bad or good.[6] And as Ingold highlights, this increased power comes also at the cost of diminished wisdom.

In the fourth and last conference on The Sustainability of Everything, Ingold starts by observing that sustainability is “a term that paradoxically combines the idea of an absolute limit with the limitlessness of carrying on forever.” He then invites us to imagine the world as a plenum, so that it has room for everyone and everything, for all time. “In the rationale of sustainable development, the world is understood not as a plenum to be inhabited but as a totality to be managed, much as a company manages its assets, by balancing the books, living off interest without eating into capital reserves. Sustainability is thus defined in terms of goals or targets to be achieved, along an axis of progressive development.” To add things up, the world must be rendered discontinuous. But soon or later we discover that some things such as clouds, waves, trees, or fungi cannot be translated into enumerable quanta. We need therefore to take a break from the mesmerizing power of large numbers. Ingold’s invitation to a sustainability of everything aims not to progress by addition but to allow the continuity of life.

Nevertheless, in the age of post-truth politics and repeated attacks on science by conspiracy theories, I think we should be careful how we put large numbers at a critical distance. For we need also large numbers to check our “carbon footprint” as well as to challenge right-wing xenophobia and capitalist neglect of astronomic social inequalities. Moreover, we need large numbers to debunk the production of doubt and ignorance from Big Capital.[7] This “agnotology” as Robert Proctor coined it does not mean full lies, but a subtle mix of facts and lies, which aims at generating apathy and more ignorance of what is going on. Decades of such regime have blocked control and policies and perpetuated business as usual, leaving us terrified by the current ongoing climatic mess.

Exposure 

Another hesitation I have with regards to Ingold’s work deals with the notion of exposure. Though I fully acknowledge the stimulating strength of Ingold’s poetic approach, the corporate production of doubt and ignorance compels me to keep in mind another form of exposure: the large variety of industrial toxic pollutants, which I and many other scholars have been struggling with. As this third lecture occurred on the eve of March 11, I had in mind two specific coincidences.

The first was the 11th anniversary of the Fukushima nuclear disaster. In Japanese, exposure can be translated by hibaku 被爆, which is the root of the word hibakusha 被爆者, which was coined to describe the survivors of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. With the same pronunciation but a slightly different kanji [Chinese character] 曝, hibaku is used for the victims of chronic nuclear radiation such as nuclear plant workers or the victims of Fukushima disaster.[8] This notion of hibaku as exposure to nuclear radiation can apply to many contexts such as for the exposure to nuclear waste in Lanyu or the Navajo nation, or to the many nuclear tests all over the world.[9]

March 11th this year was also marked by a decision from the Taiwan Supreme Court on the case of electronic female workers of RCA, a collective lawsuit started in 2004, and which takes so much time to proceed due to the corporate production of doubt. The workers have been exposed to a cocktail of 31 toxic products, provoking miscarriages, cancers and other health damage not only to themselves but also, possibly, to their children and grand-children.[10]

Another example in Taiwan, which echoes Ingold’s correspondence with indigenous forms of wisdom, is the case of Asia Cement’s mine in the east coast of Taiwan. For decades, this township has been exposed to dust, daily explosions and the geological risk of landslides. The mountain literally threatens to collapse on the village.[11]

I therefore wondered how Ingold would integrate these sorts of risk into his system of thought. Reflecting on the specter of a nuclear apocalypse with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, or the potential devastation that the Chinese army might bring to Taiwan one day. I was afraid that Ingold might misunderstand my concerns as a cheap attack based in the geopolitical crises of the moment. But he reacted very gently by making helpful additional comments.

Ingold admits that the current world context is extremely polarized between different giant threats and we thus find ourselves divided; if we criticize big science, we are at risk of being associated with populism. So if we want to tackle such a phenomenon, we have to find its reasons. “The rise of populism partly lies in people’s sense that the responsibility for their own community and their own environment has been taken away from them”, and this includes exposure to industrial and military toxicants. “But we need to ask why people’s wellbeing depends on protection from such exposure instead of developing their ability to inhabit the world. We are thus torn between, on the one hand, our belief that science will protect us from current crises, and on the other hand, the need to address the deep cause of that situation.”

Undercommoning

Gong then raises the issue of how should we translate in Chinese Ingold’s notion of “undercommoning”. In his text, Ingold introduced this neologism as one form of not-knowing wisdom, or “joining with other souls in the adventure of undergoing.” It is like finding yourself lost while walking in the hills: “All at once, the ground no longer feels so certain beneath your feet. Yet at the same time, you become hyper-attentive to everything around you that might possibly afford clues to your whereabouts.”

As Ingold further explained, what he means by undercommoning is closer to the French equivalent of understanding, which is comprendre, literally “taking with” (or seizing, from the Latin comprendere). To make the difference between understanding and undercommoning clearer, Ingold found a metaphor: “if we stand on land, we have a common understanding, we take the land as a granted foundation for our existence, a granted condition that allows our interacting with one another. If we are at sea on a boat, we cannot take that foundation for granted, we know that the relation we form in the little community of our boat is necessary to prevent us from sinking. Undercommoning is to form a common bond that is necessary for us to hold on and avoid drowning.”

In his own lecture thereafter, Jow-Jiun Gong offered an enlightening example of what Ingold means by undercommoning.[12] For the preparation of his next exhibition, Gong and a team of artists have been conducting field trips in the mountains of Taiwan under the guidance of indigenous hunters (Photo 1).

Photo 1. Jow-Jiun Gong’s team of artists “undercommoning”
with aboriginal hunters. ©Jow-Jiun Gong

One night, after killing a Reeves’ muntjac (Photo 2), a hunter asked Gong to carry the dead animal back to the village. As he carried the animal on his shoulders, he could smell it, feel its body still warm and its blood pouring on his neck and chest. This was obviously a test or a rite of passage.

Photo 2: Taiwan’s Reeves’ muntjac ©Kinmatsu Lin (https://www.inaturalist.org/guide_taxa/1403197)

What did he learn through it? Like average middle-class urban-based ecologists, Gong doesn’t like hunting; he much prefers watching those wild animals. But what moral lesson do we condescend to teach those aboriginal hunters, what laws are we to impose on them? The species is not threatened with extinction. They are hunted in very limited numbers and only killed with deep respect for the animal.

In the meantime, industrial slaughterhouses perpetuate everyday a bloody mass murder of millions of pigs, ducks, and other animals to provide city-dwellers with countless tons of meat. The problem with this economy is not only its heavy carbon footprint, but perhaps even more terrifyingly, it reduces other species to meat. We have a long way to go to undercommon ourselves with other living creatures.


Thanks to Eric Karchmer for kind editing.

[1] See also Tim Ingold, Correspondences, Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2021; and Imagining for real: essays on creation, attention and correspondence, Routledge, 2022.

[2] Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel eds., Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2020.

[3] This fast erosion was interpreted into an artwork by Yung-Ta Chang for the Taipei Biennial: “scape.unseen_model-T”.

[4] Tim Ingold, Lines: a brief history, Routledge, 2007 (new ed. in 2016).

[5] For the idea of exposure, Ingold borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, as well as educational philosopher Jan Masschelein. The idea of attunement comes from Gibson. Ingold further explains: “As the stage awaits the actor, so the world awaits the perceiver, whose perceptual skills are primed to notice and respond to it, and to take advantage of what Gibson calls its ‘affordances’. (…) For Masschelein, on the other hand, the world is continually coming into presence around the perceiver. Thus it is the perceiver who waits upon the world, attending to it in the sense of abiding with it and doing its bidding.”

[6] Alain Desrosières, The Politics of Large Numbers: A History of Statistical Reasoning. Harvard U. Press, 2002.

[7] Robert Proctor and Londa Schiebinger, eds. Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance, Stanford U. Press, 2008; Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming, Bloomsbury Press, 2010.

[8] See Paul Jobin, “The Hermeneutics of Radiation and the Three Tsunamis”, The Asia-Pacific Journal Japan Focus, Volume 19, Issue 17, Number 6, 2021.

[9] See Dana Powell, The Landscapes of Power: Politics of Energy in the Navajo Nation, Duke University Press, 2018; and Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters, Oxford University Press, 2013.

[10] At last, the plaintiffs obtained a fair decision from the court: “Supreme Court reverses judgment denying damages to ex-RCA workers”, March 11, 2022. And Paul Jobin, “The Valuation of Contaminated Life: RCA in Taiwan and the Compensation of Toxic Exposure”, East Asian Science, Technology and Society: An International Journal, 2021.

[11] Paul Jobin,“Extractivism in the Critical Zone”, in Bruno Latour & Peter Weibel, eds., Critical Zones. The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth, Cambridge, MA: MIT, 2020, pp. 80-83.

[12] Jow-Jiun Gong, “Hunter-Gatherer Leading the Route: Toward the vanishing paths of the world”, lecture (in Chinese) at the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica, 21 March 2022. The exhibition is forthcoming in October 2022 at Tsung-Yeh Arts and Cultural Center, in Tainan.

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