continent. maps a topology of unstable confluences and ranges across new thinking, traversing interstices and alternate directions in culture, theory, biopolitics and art.
Issue 5.2 / 2016: 15-19

Bronislaw Szerszynski

a continent. inter-view

(image by Nina Jäger, continent.)

Bronislaw Szerszynski is a Reader in Sociology at Lancaster University in the UK. Szerszynski’s work has developed across several themes, including the role of Western religious history in shaping contemporary understandings of technology and the environment—typified by his book Nature, Technology and the Sacred (Wiley-Blackwell, 2005). He has also developed a significant body of research about the role played by public participation and science in the regulation of agricultural biotechnology. With John Urry in 2010, Szerszynski co-edited the “Changing Climates” special double issue of Theory, Culture, & Society. Combining the social sciences, humanities and earth sciences, his research places changing human, technological, and environmental relations against the background of the longue durée of human and planetary history. His collaboration with Bruno Latour, “Anthropocene Monument, was staged at Les Abattoirs, Toulouse in 2014"[1] How did you get here?
BS: I got here by train from the south of France, which involved quite a long journey, via Paris, and then the Moscow Express. I got off in Berlin, and so I did not end up in Moscow by accident. That worked well. What technical systems are operating on us right now?
BS: Very interesting. If you are talking about us in this room, they are obviously multiple. There is clock time, and we are going to hear some big gongs going off in HKW. HKW is a technical system in some sense. And obviously we have the media around us. I suppose it partly depends how you define "technical," and this is what Peter Haffs concept of the technosphere is forcing us to think about. By the technosphere, he does not only intend things that we would recognise as physical technologies. Human beings, domesticated animals, and canal water are also part of the technosphere, for him.

I think it becomes quite difficult to bind what is technological, but some of the interesting questions that arose in the discussions about the technosphere, about agency, and about spaces for non-technical thinking are really important. While Peter, as a physicist, cautions us not to be over-optimistic about the possibility of non-technical ways of acting, nevertheless it's really important, especially for humanities and social science scholars, to really try to push back against the idea of the ubiquity of technical thinkingto say that, even when we use technical devices, we are not necessarily using them technologically; and that goes back to Heideggers notion of a free relation with technologies as a possible way forward.[2] 

"Disciplinarities" HKW Anthropocene Campus, November 15, 2014. What pieces of the technosphere do you have on you?
BS: Does the technosphere decompose into pieces? I suppose you could say, if you model it compared with the biosphere, you could talk about parts or pieces of the biosphere; but if you take any isolated cell of my body, is that part of the biosphere? What is the naming of parts[3] with the technosphere? I mean with the biosphere, obviously we could divide it up into kingdoms, but also in terms of genetic similarities, or morphologically, or in terms of the function of things, whether they are primary producers, primary consumers and so on; presumably we can also divide the technosphere up in lots of different ways.

Have I got anything of the technosphere on? If I take anything and name it as an individual element, is it part of the technosphere? Because the technosphere, in a sense, is a process, isn't it? But certainly I have devices on me, and obviously my clothes and my body; I am a part of the technosphere, depending on which way you look at it. Is that a useful way to think about it? In a way, I preferred your earlier question about how we are determined by it, I think that's more in the spirit of the technosphere concept.[4] What is the technosphere?
BS: The technosphere is a candidate concept for thinking about what the earth will be next. Which is the big question that I'm focusing on at the moment. If we understand the earth as this self-organising system, the physicists might (maybe) think that it becomes less ordered and chaotic, goes from order to chaos. But in fact it has become so incredibly rich and complex, and not just life but in other ways as well; it has evolved all these new systems and spheres, and forms, entities, modes of existenceincluding life, but not just including life.

What will it do next? What will be the next surprising thing that the earth will do in its contingent, billions-of-years of self-organisation? Is the technosphere a new, major transition for the earth, or actually, will the technosphere not establish itself as an autonomous sphereis it a temporary phenomenon produced by the contingencies of human history? It could be a big deal for the earth, but it might be that the earth will do something else and surprise us in some other way. I say it is a candidate concept for whatever the earth does next. Please pick one image that resonates with your idea of the technosphere.[5]
BS: I'm going to choose the tornado. Partly in the spirit of Peter Haffs concept of the technosphere from the point of view of physics,[6] because the tornado is a dissipative system in the sense of Ilya Prigogine.[7] It is a self-organising system which maintains itself over time, but it's not being ordered from outside, it just emerges out of the choreography of all the different things in it that have been swept up into particular kind of mode of self-organisation. And so it has become, in a sense, autonomous from its surroundings; but also its incredibly consequential for its surroundings, in terms of how it sucks things up into itself, and obviously also how it maintains its order by exporting entropy.

One of the things we have not talked about today is that self-organising systems persist over time by exporting entropy, by exporting disorder around them, so to what extent is that whats happening with the technosphere? It has this beautiful self-organising logic to it, this sort of cold, inhuman self-organising logic, but at what cost? Notes

[1] Learn more about “Anthropocene Monument” at Les Abattoirs

[2] EDITORS’ NOTE: “We let technical devices enter our daily life, and at the same time leave them outside, that is, let them alone, as things which are nothing absolute but remain dependent upon something higher. I would call this comportment toward technology which expresses ‘yes’ and at the same time ‘no,’ by an old word, releasement toward things. Having this comportment we no longer view things only in a technical way. It gives us clear vision and we notice that while the production and use of machines demands of us another relation to things, it is not a meaningless relation.” (Heidegger, Martin. Discourse on Thinking: A Translation of Gelassenheit. Translated by John M. Anderson and E. Hans Freund. New York: Harper & Row, 1966. 54.)

“Today we have naming of parts. Yesterday
We had daily cleaning. And tomorrow morning,
We shall have what to do after firing. But today,
Today we have naming of parts. Japonica
Glistens like coral in all of the neighbouring gardens,
And today we have naming of parts.”

(Reed, Henry. "Naming of Parts." New Statesman and Nation 24, no. 598 (8 August 1942): 92.)

John Law’s (1997) essay “Topology and the Naming of Complexity” begins with this as an epigram. In this draft, published by Lancaster University, Law discusses the development of Actor-Network-Theory. He concludes this essay by asking,“Is it too dramatic to say that despite the best efforts of many of its practitioners actor-network theory has been broken on the altar of transparency and simplicity? Of rapid transportability? I don't know. At any rate, the God eye is alive and well and seemingly incurable in its greed for that which is flat and simple and may be easily brought to the point. It is greedy in the performance of its own invisibility. But, or so I firmly believe, the best chance of making differences that are good lies elsewhere. It lies in the performance of irreducibility. In the oxymoronic. In the topologically discontinuous. In that which is heterogeneous. It lies in a modest willingness to live, to witness, to know, and to practice in the complexities of tension.”

[4] EDITORS’ NOTE: “Late twentieth-century machines have made thoroughly ambiguous the difference between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed, and many other distinctions that used to apply to organisms and machines. Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.” (Haraway, Donna J. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century." In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. (New York: Routledge, 1991) 152.)

[5] EDITORS’ NOTE: During the discussions, interviewees were asked to pick from a set of images. A rather random collection of different phenomena that served as a prompt for thought on forms of appearance and the visuality of the technosphere. You can view the set here The discussion here refers to

[6] EDITORS’ NOTE: Peter Haff chose the same picture when prompted to select an image.

[7] EDITORS’ NOTE: Viscount Ilya Romanovich Prigogine was a Belgian physical chemist. From the U.S. Department of Energy, Research and Development:
“Prigogine developed the concept of ‘dissipative structures’ to describe the coherent space-time structures that form in open systems in which an exchange of matter and energy occurs between a system and its environment. Ilya Prigogine received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977 for ‘his contributions to nonequilibrium thermodynamics, particularly the theories of dissipative structures.’ Prigogine’s primary interest was in nonequilibrium irreversible phenomena because in these systems the arrow of time becomes manifest. Prigogine viewed the arrow of time and irreversibility as playing a constructive role in nature. For him the arrow of time was essential to the existence of biological systems, which contain highly organized irreversible structures.”