Author Archives: StephenRCase

About StephenRCase

I write and teach about the history of astronomy. My research has appeared in Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Mercury, and is forthcoming in Endeavour. My dissertation examines the stellar astronomy of the 19c British astronomer Sir John Herschel. I also write fiction, which has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Lore, Shimmer, Andromeda Spaceways, AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and more. My first collection of short stories, Trees & Other Wonders is available on Amazon. For more on my research, see my Academia page. You can also visit my website @ www.stephenrcase.com.

Alien Phenomenology

Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a ThingAlien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing by Ian Bogost

What else is there, here, anywhere right now? Anything will do, so long as it reminds us of the awesome plentitude of the alien everyday. (134)

I have been interested in things for a long time. I remember on a visit to an art museum as an undergraduate being fascinated by a scuffed section of worn wooden floor in a corner that I thought deserved as much attention as the exhibits. It seemed to carry such a weight of narrative. Likewise at a conference in Wisconsin I found an old, painted heat register in a corner of a museum next to a forgotten chair, and I was struck by its quiet gravity. For me, objects became a way of connecting to the stories that had washed over them like waves. Who else had seen, touched, forgotten this?

I am attracted to environments in a similar same way: who has been here before? Wandering through the empty halls of the Union League Club in Chicago or the streets of Oxford or Venice, the details of pavement or chipping plaster or window or stone seem so heavy, so linked to human stories and remembering but so resolutely independent of me and my own. My photography often seeks to highlight these details.

In the natural world that human touch is more distant, but especially in my Midwestern home it is never absent: who else has walked this way or will again? Who else is weaving prairie, trail, ash tree, railroad embankment, rutted farm road, wind-turbined horizon, and cumulus into the human story?

All of these considerations though are intensely anthropocentric. I find significance and beauty in these things because I’m constantly linking them to the human narrative, even when they strike me primarily due to their distance to my own personal narrative: I’ll never know all the details of this particular grove of poplars or this weathered barn, but they would have no significance at all if I wasn’t here to wonder about them. Would they?

For Ian Bogost, this is just another example of our tendency to view everything through a correlationist lens: to see the ontological significance of things from an anthropocentric view. Bogost sees this reflected in both the scientific endeavor (which seeks to harness and utilize the universe for human use) and the humanities (which evaluate everything according to the human narrative):

[B]oth perspectives embody the correlationist conceit. The scientists believes in reality apart from human life, but it is a reality excavated for human exploitation. The scientific process cares less for reality itself than it does for the discoverability of reality through human ingenuity. Likewise, the humanist doesn’t believe in the world except as a structure erected in the interest of human culture. Like a mirror image of the scientist, the humanist mostly seeks to mine particular forms of culture, often suggesting aspects of it that must be overcome through abstract notions of resistance or revolution. “Look at me!” shout both the scientist and the humanist. “Look what I have uncovered!” (14)

I don’t know that I buy Bogost’s critique of the scientist, as I think it’s often the scientific endeavor that yields insights that do the most to challenge our anthropocentric views. For instance, during a show about exoplanets in the planetarium years ago, thick with scientific descriptions of stone and surface temperature and wind speeds, a friend of mine asked not the how do we know question of science but the what does it mean question of philosophy. What does it mean that there are these physical places where rocks are being weathered and clouds are drifting through skies that we will never experience? We want to maintain that they are physically significant (I might even say holy, in the eyes of an orthodox Christian materialism). But they are outside the mediation of mankind. This is part of my fascination with Bogost’s philosophical view, known as object oriented ontology (OOO): it seems a compelling way to grapple with some of these questions. What do I do with the reality of objects that have no bearing whatsoever on the human narrative?

Bogost’s work is short, compelling, and more engagingly written than any piece of philosophy I have read in a long time. I won’t be able to do justice to his treatment, which also provides a helpful introduction to the handful of other philosophers that are pursuing this line of thought. In short, Bogost argues for a flat ontology, a way of perceiving the world in which objects and their relationships are given as much ontological significance as possible, regardless of their relationship with the human perspective:

In a flat ontology, the bubbling skin of the capsaicin pepper holds just as much interest as the culinary history of the enchilada it is destined to top. (17)

And quoting Harman: object-oriented philosophy holds that the relation of humans to pollen, oxygen, eagles, or windmills is no different in kind from the interaction of these objects with each other . . . For we ourselves, just like Neanderthals, sparrows, mushrooms, and dirt, have never done anything else than act amidst the bustle of other actants. (39)

There are some obvious issues with such a view, for one thing the apparent paradox that Bogost never really qualifies what he means by “thing,” so that at times he’s talking about discrete physical objects but at other times he discusses ideas or even systems or institutions (“criminal justice system”) that are human constructs. It’s difficult to see how one can argue for the independent significance of objects that clearly only arise through the human narrative itself. Likewise, it’s hard to take seriously a philosophy that discusses how objects might perceive each other or that tries to deconstruct objects into their smaller units when those units at times only have conceptual existence in the human mind.

To be fair, Bogost recognizes both the alienness and the difficulty in his task, and he qualifies much of what he is doing as speculative analogy or even poetry, with an intention more of challenging the way we think about the world than arriving at actual insights on the nature of things.

Speculation isn’t just poetic, but it’s partly so, a creative act that beings conduct as they gaze earnestly but bemusedly at one another. Everything whatsoever is like people on a subway, crunched together into uncomfortable intimate contact with strangers. (31)

This is why Bogost’s work is interspersed with poetry, which ironically returns us to the anthropological centricism of humans interpreting their universe. Yet that’s okay for Bogost, as long as we recognize the creative endeavor of attempting to interpret the universe but without stubbornly maintaining ourselves at the center. It’s a sort of philosophical, ontological Copernican revolution, and its results of course will inform our poetry and our expression, as Bogost provides multiple examples of.

Bogost more than anything wants us to be aware, to appreciate the things for themselves, as he appreciates antiquated computer systems not simply for what they represent about human ingenuity or design but because (as offered in some of his most compelling examples) they have intrinsic value and they are worth the effort expended in analyzing their function for its own sake. Bogost is an engineer-mystic, and he writes what a philosophical treatise should be at the core, a discussion of things that are, of ways to see the world.

Object oriented ontology is compelling to me because it emphasizes the reality of the world, of distant galaxies and the axial spin of the quaking neutron stars in those galaxies, the condensation of methane and the whorls of cloud and the fragmented feldspar on the moons of gas giants in those galaxies—the reality of those things outside the reach of my own knowledge. A flat ontology says they are all equally significant, utterly regardless of human cognition. They must remain alien, as alien and unknowable in their essence as the plastic molded Lego lid or the woven textile couch cushion or the jadite cup and saucer beside me. They have their own existence, yes, but also their own unknowable stories, tensions, and relations beyond me. And why not? I am after all one who rides largely unaware of the processes in my own body and mind, a sliver of consciousness in a rambling, unknown house. Everywhere there is wonder and ignorance.

Bogost again, quoting lines by Zhdanov:
Either the letters cannot be understood, or
their grand scale is unbearable to the eye—
what remains is the red wind in the field,
with the name of rose on its lips.

Yet I can’t go as far as Bogost because I can’t give up the human role of mediating the universe, of the primacy of human experience. Aspects of OOO suit my ideas of an orthodox Christian materialism but at the same time undermine the theological role of humans. Every person brings you Christ. Every place, every object, holds God. This might be where the flat ontology of Bogost is at odds with an orthodox Christian materialism. They agree that all is significant, but OCM says because everything is holy, where OOO simply says because everything is.

Son of Laughter

The Son of LaughterThe Son of Laughter by Frederick Buechner

The beautiful always surprise us. Everything else in the world we expect as we expect weariness at the day’s end and sun at waking. (171)

I’ve read a bit of Frederic Buechner, though not nearly as much as he deserves. Godric remains a favorite. In that novel, I especially love the way Buechner writes the prose with a cadence that makes it feels like I’m reading a poem or a song.

This latest, Son of Laughter, was recommended by a good friend, and it tells the story of the Biblical patriarch Jacob, the son of Isaac (whose name means laughter), the son of Abraham, who was a friend of God. The story is familiar—or at least the bones of the story are—to anyone who has read the Old Testament account. But what is truly wonderful about this book is the way Buechner takes the familiar Sunday school account and restores the foreignness and the strangeness that our familiarity with the story has worn away.

Buechner takes the reader back to the earthy, alien, near-savage, almost pagan reality of a dusty tribe of desert nomads who have a peculiar relationship with an unusually singular deity. And he does this while remaining true to the source material yet simultaneously resisting the urge to color the entire account with an obvious Christological teleology (as would no doubt be the case in your standard Family Christian Bookstore retelling).

Instead Buecher tells the story of a tribe learning about this deity they call only “The Fear,” trying to understand (in the midst of great pain and violence) what the Fear’s promise that they will grow to be a great “luck” to all the people of the earth means to them. Along the way, Buechner’s perspective continually reverse-telescopes the view of Jacob and his situations, reestablishing distance between our world and theirs. Surprisingly, this helps explain some things (like circumcision) that seem inexplicable to our modern sensibilities.

The moon is a shepherd with a pitted face. He herds the stars. (56)

The narrative becomes strained in the second portion of the book, where the reader moves from the perspective of Jacob/Isreal to follow Joseph’s time in Egypt. Buechner still tells the story through Jacob’s perspective, which enhances the dream-like distance. Yet this portion remains integral to the story, because the consummation of the promise is so wrapped up in what happens to Joseph in Egypt.

The book ends without any sentimental reassurances about God or his promise to Israel. In fact, in one conversation Jacob admits to his son that the Fear’s promise is only for the living and that Jacob does not know what the Fear has in store for the dead. Buechner leaves the reader with only the glimmer of a greater hope on the horizon. Along the way though, he expertly shows the story of the patriarchs through eyes that make them simultaneously incredibly alien and richly alive.

The Fear gives to the empty-handed, the empty-hearted. In return it is only the heart’s trust that the Fear asks. Trust him though you cannot see him and he has no silver hand to hold. Trust him though you have no name to call him by, though out of the black night he leaps like a stranger to cripple and bless. (184)

The Dancing Bees

Dancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee LanguageDancing Bees: Karl Von Frisch and the Discovery of the Honeybee Language by Tania Munz

In his retirement, my father has begun keeping bees. Last year he had four or five hives, and if you let him he will talk to you for hours about the structure of the hive and the division of labor and the life cycle of the bees as he worked to naturally control the pests that threatened them. This year he is trying to go even more natural. He is not purchasing the domestic hives that seem less resilient to colony collapse disorder but instead is catching wild, native swarms. Learning along with him, I’ve come to realize how much of our agricultural system depends on the work these millions of bees do. I joke with my dad that he has a hundred thousand pets, though of course there is no way to keep them all straight as they fly in and out of the hives.

Yet that’s exactly what Karl von Frisch did in his studies to discover and understand how bees communicate with one another. Tania Munz’s study of the life and work of this Austrian naturalist is a surprisingly effective combination of my father’s hobby with my field of the history of science. Munz offers an accessible and somehow universalizing account of an individual who may not be well known to the wider public. Through an exploration of his career and influence, Munz explores not only the skill of a naturalist and the theoretical questions of communication among animals but also what life as a scientist was like in Germany during the Second World War.

Karl von Frisch discovered the “dance” of bees at their hive to communicate food finds with other bees. This might seem like an esoteric and rather minor discovery, but it had huge implications for the study of animal communication and the debate as to whether animals could actually think or simply acted on impulse and instinct. But Munz’s work and his directorship of a laboratory in Munich were threatened with the rise of the Nazis when it became known that he had Jewish great-grandparents on his mother’s side. One of the most fascinating aspect of Munz’s story is the narrative of von Frisch and his allies navigating the dangerous and complex Nazi bureaucracy to try to save his work and career. Ultimately, Frisch’s work was declared vital to the Reich, and Frisch began studying a parasite that was decimating bee colonies and threatening German agriculture.

Munz has done a fantastic job of interweaving the personal and political with the scientific. In the midst of her narrative she provides a series of “Bee Vignettes” illustrating different aspects of life in the hive and the history of apiary science. Just as fascinating as the portrayal of the rise of Nazi power and the war’s effect on working scientists like Frisch, Munz outlines the careful experiments Frisch performed to discover and then confirm the bee’s form of communication and how Frisch communicated this proof to other observers. The work is a powerful account of how field work is done, made even more compelling by not ignoring the things that were happening in the background. After the war, Munz explores how Frisch’s unique position (as a one-quarter Jew persecuted by the Nazis though still allowed to continue his work) helped him repair scientific relationships between Germany and other countries, particularly the United States.

For me though, Munz’s work was less important for the story it told than as an example of how to tell the story. The work balanced careful treatment of the science with understanding of the context in which it was done and returned a figure who might otherwise be obscure to a primary role in the development of theories of animal intelligence. My only regret was that while it did all this with an eye to Frisch’s personality and life, it was less biographical than one might have hoped. We learn about the beginning of Frisch’s career and his childhood, but we’re left with only a sketch of his final days, and though we’re told his wife struggled with depression we never get a complete domestic view. Though the world outside his lab affected his work and is handled deftly in Munz’s treatment, the domestic sphere was certainly just as important and was treated much more superficially.

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God

With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to GodWith: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God by Skye Jethani

I don’t often read contemporary devotional books. The market seems a roar of shallow, consumerist noise, and I don’t know enough about contemporary Protestant popular theology to know who is speaking well. But occasionally a book will fall into my hands, and I would like to believe that sometimes the books you get by happenstance are the books you are meant to read. Skye Jethani has spoken on my university campus in the past, and copies of his book were given to some of the faculty. Which is how (after it sat on my shelf for about six months) I found myself reading With: Reimagining the Way You Relate to God.

In this book, Skye takes an important look at a set of four contemporary heresies regarding how we understand our relationship with God in Christian practice today, and he packages them in a very clever (and effective) metaphor built around the prepositions over, under, from, and for. He never uses the term heresy, but that’s what he’s discussing: four postures that we take regarding God and that twist, undermine, or corrupt what our relationship with God really should look like. I found the analysis and critiques of these four postures to be the most helpful and insightful portion of the book, as we all live into different aspects of these in our own lives to some extent. In this respect, the book was good for some sharp self-reflection.

Skye summarizes the four positions as these:

Life under God: seeing God as an arbitrator of certain moral guidelines that we must follow to be rewarded with salvation. We are sinners, and our relationship with God is about satisfying these rules and obligations.

Life over God: related to our approach to scripture or the natural world from a perceived position of power or knowledge. In either case, there are certain God-ordained principles (for obtaining wealth, happiness, influence, or security), and we must find and apply to life.

Life from God: seeing God as there to supply my needs and desires as a consumer. My relationship with God is a posture of approaching God for what the divine can provide me with.

Life for God: the mission that God gave me is central, and I evaluate myself and my relationship with God in terms of how well I am fulfilling or accomplishing that mission.

As Skye points out, there are aspects of truth in each of these postures, which is what makes them dangerous. When taken too far, they subvert a proper understanding, a right orientation, with God. All of them put the emphasis on things beside God; they all use God as a means to address what Skye calls the basic aim of religion, trying to address our fears and insecurities with a source of power. Against these four, Skye argues for an orientation that is centered on life with God.

And here’s where the book begins to get fuzzier. It’s easier to explain what things like God and our relationship with God are not (as Skye does in the insightful first portion of the book) than it is to say what they are. It’s easier to diagnose heterodoxy than define orthodoxy. This is the apophatic tradition: the ability to say what God is not but the inability to define God’s essence. The portions of the book where Skye tries to really examine what life with God looks like, taking a chapter each on the qualities of life with God—faith, hope, and love—fell a bit flat to me. They were gesturing toward something beyond a system of information that could be passed along in a text. They were pointing beyond the text itself.

But Skye got there in the end, in the very end. In the appendix, actually. I think maybe the paradox of any book about spirituality is that the truths it is trying to communicate can only be experienced beyond the book, in the context of practice and community. For Skye, the centerpiece of life lived with God, in communion and relationship, is a life with regular periods of quiet contemplation. He hit on this tangentially in examining the motivation for lives of love in some examples of contemporary saints, but he spelled it out more explicitly in the appendix, where he outlined three types of contemplative prayer.

The paradox of the book I think can be summed up in this: in the first half I can understand intellectually what’s wrong with the four heterodox postures Skye so convincingly discusses, but in the second half I can only experience the rightness of life with God through practices and prayers that the book itself (or really any book) cannot contain.

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret WorldThe Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben

If trees could speak, what might they say? I’ve written stories about this. I’ve grown up in their company, with a forest stretching out behind my home that I’ve still never fully explored. I speculate on what the trees might say, but Peter Wohlleben, a German forester turned conservationist, insists in the doubly subtitled The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World, that they most certainly are talking. Primary to this argument is the discovery that seems expected and unsurprising if you grew up watching movies like Ferngully or reading fairy tales: that trees, of all species, in a healthy forest are connected, that they work together as a linked super-organism, and that they together contribute to the overall health of the forest in a way greater than the sum of its parts.

Of course, today we would want to understand a mechanism for such a claim, and Wohlleben (“good life” in German) provides one from recent studies. Beneath the ground, the roots of trees are connected in a vast fungal network that allows them to share resources and pass chemical signals (in other words, communicate). Unfortunately, scientists can’t resist the parallels and insist on calling this the “wood wide web.” Awfulness of that label aside, the observed implications are remarkable: trees between different species can share resources, they can pass messages, and older trees can even “teach” younger trees. All of this, Wohlleben argues, is part of how the forest survives and flourishes.

This form of connectivity is central to Wohlleben’s book, though the book does not focus exclusively on this topic. The work is a series of short chapters that offer vignettes on different aspects of the forest. But though they don’t all treat the nature of the “wood wide web” (ugh), they all do emphasize the connectedness of the forest, for instance how it moderates temperature by creating a microclimate or tempers the wind velocity of storms, how it collectively adds to soil health or controls pests. Wohlleben brings a keen eye for detail in his descriptions of the traits and growth patterns of species in his old-growth European forests, where he worked first evaluating forests as economic resources as a forester and now views them through the lens of conservation.

I think our descendants will rightly think us idiots for the assumption that organisms are isolates, that they can be conceptually reduced to living machines that operate more or less individually. It’s the assumption that you could plant an oak alongside a city sidewalk and expect it would grow into the same organism that it would in a forest. People, animals, plants—I think our descendants will chide us for approaching these things as individuals first and only secondly in respect of the systems in which they are a part of, instead of starting the other way around.

This is what Wohlleben does in his book of rather (pleasantly) scattered information and anecdotes: see the forest first, as an integrated system, and only secondly analyze the trees within it. As just one example of this, he talks about the development of trees inside and outside a forest. Inside a forest, they grow slowly, shielded, sometimes nurtured, sometimes stunted by the shade of their parents, maturing gradually over several decades before they reach the crown and have a chance at gathering large amounts of light. Yet this slow growth, regulated by the forest, Wohlleben argues, is essential for ensuring that the tree will have a long and healthy life.

In contrast, “street kids,” as Wohlleben refers to trees planted outside of forests, for example along streets in cities or suburbs, grow too fast for their long term health. More than this though, they grow outside the networks that connect trees in a forest. They don’t have the same support structure or learn the same chemical codes. They are deaf and dumb. Plantations and nursery trees are like this as well, Wohlleben claims. They are orphans, not knowing how to live or speak in community with other trees.

Wohlleben, moving from forestry to conservationism, makes a case for a radically different way of managing and harvesting forests, but more than this, for the lay reader he makes a strong case for conceptualizing the forest in a different way, for seeing it as an entity with cooperative connections, both beneath the ground in ways outside our perception that science is only now bringing to view, but also by highlighting simple things anyone can see in the forest if brought to attention by a careful and watchful eye.