Occupy on Ice

Air bubbles in Tenaya Lake, Yosemite

Breathe in. Relax. Do it again. You just engaged in time travel. In the air that you inhaled will have been molecules released by melting glaciers, ice sheets and tundra that previously circulated tens of thousands of years ago. There’s neolithic air in your blood, air that never before passed through a human body. A little uncanny, isn’t it?

Our bodies seem intensely singular at one level, uniquely “us.” At a different scale, they are assemblages of cells, microbes and atoms of varying provenance. These non-human “actants” (to use Bruno Latour’s term) engage with each other in ways that do not impinge on our consciousness but are cognitive actions. Think for example of the operations of what we like to call the immune system. White blood cells “remember” whether a virus or other form is a pathogen they have encountered before or not and act accordingly. You don’t know what’s happening but your body does.

Indulge me a moment. Let’s imagine that the previously frozen air and your body cells are talking: what are they saying to each other? Get your headphones now, preferably some good ones.

The ice, as we all know, is melting. Moving or melting ice generates a remarkable set of sounds. Artist Katie Paterson has created an installation that gives us the sound of the melting Vatnajökull glacier in Iceland–scroll to the bottom of the page and click play. It’s a harmless enough and familiar noise, trickling water, the clink of ice.

The Vatnajokull glacier

The voice of the moving, shifting ice is intense–Cheryl Leonard recorded it this winter in Yosemite–listen here but give it a moment to load, it’s a large file. Or listen to the sound of the Antarctic ice sheet posted by Andreas Bick–it’s the WAV file close to the top and make sure to be listening around 40 seconds in. Check out how DJ Spooky brings together the African-American concepts of “chill” and “ice”–Ice Cube, Ice-T–with the disappearing ice, the nation state, and climate change:

You might say that these sounds are pure signified–a cacophony of overlaid meaning about time, duration, space, human/non-human interactions, melting, movement and more. Or you could say: this is what climate change sounds like.

What does it say? It speaks back to the human empire. It has long been held that the colonized “cannot represent themselves, they must be represented.” So it might say:

"These Romans are crazy" Here’s Obelix from the Asterix cartoon (done before there were graphic novels) using his catchphrase “These Romans are crazy.” Some people see this as anti-imperialist pure and simple, others think it’s Gaullist, which at least has the merit of being anti-NATO. Let’s say that it represents anti-transnationalism. The ice is just saying, “these humans are crazy.”

What he said

Anglophone culture has a short answer to that.

In this view, the imperial project brings benefits to all, including the colonized. The muppet known as Rick Santorum has been saying that responding to climate change is wrong because that would be putting earth over humans (ok, he says “man”). For neoliberalism  that would be to put the People’s Front of Judea in charge of the Roman Empire.

Jane Bennet has suggested that a critical “division of the sensible” is the distinction between “life” and “matter,” the latter often qualified as “mere” or “mute” matter. We can no more hear what the ice in our bodies is saying than the Roman senators could interpret the “noise” made by the plebs.

Rome fell, of course. The human empire is teetering. No statistics: I am told that is depressing. Just breathe.