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Black Box: A Curriculum of the Unhuman


Précis – In December 2021 ad agency Clemenger BBDO announced a collaboration with art collective Glue Society and the University of Tasmania for Earth’s Black Box, a large steel vault recording ongoing climate data much like a plane’s flight recorder. Drawing on this project, I reconceptualise the ‘black box’ – as container of knowledge but also as the record of failure. Perhaps the ‘blackness’ of our unknowing. The black box can also be seen as a form of restraint, the black boxes of entries in an annotated bibliography. The annotated bibliography as an artifact of the attempt to graft scientific rigour onto the humanities. The ‘boxed in’ formal logic of the essay, article or fiction that presupposes a rational unfolding, a progression of logic to a revelation/argument/resolution. This seems, increasingly, as structurally reliant on an anthropocentric and humanist bias that insists on the superiority of human thought. How can we challenge the ‘authority’ of the text, hesitate in our mark-making and inscription? How do we recognise our own over-confidence in post-Enlightenment thinking as having led us to the point of environmental collapse? We must look to works that decentre the human and put us into communication with a form of radical unknowing. A curriculum of the unhuman.

Abe, Kōbō. The Woman in the Dunes.
Vintage, 1991.

In Kōbō Abe’s tale, Niki, an amateur entomologist visiting a small village, is trapped with a woman at the bottom of a sand dune, where they are forced into the Sisyphean task of keeping the encroaching sand at bay.

While the tendency is to understand the novel as an existential fable on freedom and the ‘human condition,’ Abe’s descriptive devotion to the sand itself invites us to see the text as collaborative with inorganic materials. The wind, sand flows and nomadic dunes attest to processes of desertification. These gradations of environmental flux register not only the ‘sands
of time’ of human life but also ‘geological time’ or ‘deep time.’ Deep time is used to refer to time scales vastly outside human experience. The recognition of a time periods anterior to human life forces us to contemplate a planet and a universe that is fundamentally unhuman.

The continuous inter-relationship of sand and skin in Abe’s text implicates humans in this unhuman reality. The scientific knowledge practices of Abe’s entomologist are insufficient to accommodate the dune ecology. Rather than an image of humans objectively relating to nature, the novel, with its images of sand-caked, squinting eyes, acknowledges the myopia of human perception.

Ballard, J. G. ‘The Voices of Time.’
In The Complete Short Stories, 169–95.
Flamingo, 2002.

First published in 1960 in New Worlds magazine, ‘Voices
of Time’ foreshadows the dystopian climate catastrophism
of Ballard’s first four novels. Protagonist Robert Powers is
a neuroscientist experiencing rapid biological and mental decline. Fast becoming a ‘Sleeper’ – humans devolved into an unresponsive state – Powers spends more time asleep than he does awake. Whitby, Powers’ colleague, theorises that the pervasive catatonia marks the end of evolution and the decline of the human race. Meanwhile, Kaldren, a former patient, is stalking Powers, leaving a series of descending numbers for the neuroscientist to decode. When Powers confronts Kaldren he learns that the numbers are a countdown relayed via radio from outer-space, a ‘signature’ found in matter itself. Kaldren has been assembling a series of ‘Terminal Documents’ to act as an obituary for humanity. Powers, meanwhile, has been constructing a mandala-like device out of concrete among the ancient hills and desolate salt lakes. He is overwhelmed by a sound that reverberates from the structure, seemingly connected to the cosmic ‘voices’ beyond, and feels himself obliterated by waves of time.

Powers is our ficto-critical avatar of deep time, a speculative witness to the unhuman on the edge of human finitude. Like all Ballardian protagonists from the 60s, Powers is unconcerned with recuperative action, complicating any presumed self-preserving drive for human civilization. Rather, Powers’ detached estrangement from social demands decentres the ego, and the human, amidst a pervading feeling of inevitability. The psychological, physical and social regressions accompanying climatological chaos here challenge the misconception that we are separate from planetary ecosystems. Ballard’s early fiction brims with time-scales anterior to human development, while demoting human exceptionalism to mere pathology.

The correlation between signals, signatures and inscription will haunt our endeavours. The geological ‘writing’ of human capitalism onto the planetary strata implicit in the so-called Anthropocene is twinned by an impulse to record or imprint our presence in the face of our impending absence. A black box recording of our own demise is itself an instantiation of the ‘voices of time’. As we attempt to speak back to our extinction, are we just relaying a countdown? Thus, the potential futility of gathering together a ‘curriculum of the unhuman’ to prompt us to think beyond human limits may itself fall into the category of ‘Terminal Documents.’

Berg, Aase. Dark Matter.
Translated by Johannes Göransson.
Black Ocean, 2013.

The darkly luminous, linguistic permutations that populate Aase Berg’s poetry collection leak contamination. From the imagined hallucinatory emergence of conscious onwards, Berg traces the interpenetration of the ‘dark matter’ of the universe with the murky, mucky, babbling and bubbling darkness that is matter itself. Her parasitic text subverts and perverts the scale of the cosmic and the micro, the human/nonhuman and interiority/exteriority. Recurring throughout is the motif of the black shell, intimating emergent awareness but also the sense of an enveloping darkness, a monstrous hatching. She repurposes the English mispronunciation of her name as the poetic persona ‘Ice Berg,’ as though infected by the same cold Lovecraftian horror of her poems.

The speculative, science fiction atmospherics of Aase Berg’s poetry collection can be traced to her fellow Swedish poet Harry Martinson’s 1956 epic Aniara, which relates the misfortunes of a passenger spaceship en route to Mars as it veers off course, propelled irreversibly into the yawning abyss of space.

Berg’s ‘black shell’ is the co-conspirator and co-genitor of the conceptual ‘black box.’ Its fractious becoming and miasmic walls divine the sepsis of our containment stratagems.
We acknowledge language as polluted: a grotesque mammalian sounding incapable of accounting for the unhuman. Berg’s lingual play mimics the decay, corruption and mutation of the deep space materiality that is the focal point of these poems.

The insufficiency of language to contain the erotic toxicity of life instructs us to see the mechanical and mangled forms of human thought as a stitched-together Frankenstein monster. To make matter ‘matter’ we must allow thinking to become ‘weird.’

Blackwood, Algernon. ‘The Willows.’
In Best Ghost Stories of Algernon Blackwood, 1–66. Redwood Editions, 2004.

Canoeing down the Danube River en route to Budapest, two friends encounter turbulent winds. The pair seek refuge on
a sandy island populated by dense gatherings of willow trees. Over two nights, they encounter a peculiar humming and shapeless figures emanating from the trees, leading the pair to suspect that the willows are ‘unearthly’ and, more disturbingly, ‘absolutely nothing to do with mankind [sic],’ filling the pair with an almost mystical foreboding.

An important example of the speculative fiction subgenre, weird fiction, the 1907 story was hugely influential on H. P. Lovecraft and the emergence of cosmic horror, which postulates an unknowable and indifferent universe. The Cthulhu-like imagery of tentacles and cephalopod bodies have become a readily identifiable iconography of the weird. Evident in Donna Haraway’s ‘tentacular thinking’ and ‘Chthulucene,’ the imagery conjures up a primordial strangeness undulating beneath the surface of reality. Like the more recent Southern Reach Trilogy (2014) from Jeff VanderMeer, ‘The Willows’ is concerned with the ‘weirding’ of the world. By endowing the apparently banal trees with an ambiguous sense of agency, the story presents its characters and its readers with an uncomfortable, epistemological limit-point. ‘Nature’ becomes unnatural and uncanny, exceeding the limited categorisations ascribed to it, resisting human knowledge formation and instead sharing a glimpse of the world as more than just human.

Blackwood’s tale is vague on whether the willows are terrestrial or inter-terrestrial. Or rather, the interpenetration and confusion between the two states as presented by Blackwood threaten to dissolve any such distinctions. The willows are presented as eluding classification, casting doubt on human cognitive capacities and inviting us to reconsider the self- privileging project of post-Enlightenment humanism. In the story it is not vegetation that is inert, but human knowledge practices. It de-territorialises and de-familiarises the Earth as an object of study, the misrecognition of the planet as ‘our’ home, ‘our’ world. We do not inhabit a human space, the story tells us, but an unhuman one. All the narrator and his companion can do is flee the island. But how do you flee the planet?

Byron, Lord. ‘Darkness.’ In Selected Works, edited by Edward E. Bostetter 30–31. Rinehard, 1972.

Byron’s 1816 poem ‘Darkness’ recounts a ‘dream’ where the sun perishes, resulting in the collapse of all life. The poem denies any salvation narrative or sublime feeling. Instead, civilisation crumbles and the natural world is thrown into disorder until ultimately ‘all was black’ and ‘void’ for the ‘icy earth.’

It was composed in the ‘Year without a Summer,’ so-called because the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia induced a volcanic winter and sent summer temperatures plummeting in Europe. These conditions are thought responsible for the inclement weather that forced Mary and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron and John Polidori indoors at Villa Diodati near Lake Geneva to share ghost stories, which ultimately spawned the novel Frankenstein (1818).

The environmental collapse envisioned in the poem is laced with a pessimism and finality at odds with Romanticism’s usual reverence and idolisation of nature. Life dwindles and humans revert to pitiless creatures. ‘Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless,’ Byron’s depiction of a blackening planet is one of accumulated absence. Mount Tambora’s eruption is unlikely to have registered as temporary by unknowing Europeans half
a world away. The poem’s speculative apocalypse paired with 1816’s real-life dimming of the world cannot help but lend
itself as a primary text for our own finitude amidst the Sixth Extinction and climate change. The intersubjective and human/ nonhuman negotiations that Byron describes suggest a multi- species breakdown. The poet’s attention towards the disordered Earth systems of ‘waves,’ ‘winds,’ ‘clouds’ is scaled up in the wayward, ‘pathless’ stars of a black universe. Compare this with Jean-François Lyotard’s essay ‘The Inhuman’ (1988) where he posits that we must think of solar catastrophe not as a distant future but, philosophically, as having already happened. A foreclosure of the future where not only humans but the very thought of humans ceases to exist.

The Glue Society,
University of Tasmania and Clemenger BBDO, Earth’s Black Box, 2022, West Coast, Tasmania, earthsblackbox.com.

Announced at the end of 2021, Earth’s Black Box will be a 10-metre-long structure located in remote western Tasmania, deliberately calling to mind the sturdy black boxes of aeroplane crashes that studiously record details of the disaster in the name of prevention. Art installation-cum-social provocation, the Earth’s Black Box will record the unfolding catastrophic climate change via scientific measurements as well as contextual material such as government policies and the outcomes of global summits, holding to account those directly involved. Solar-powered storage devices have the current capacity to record continuously for fifty years at a geopolitically and geologically stable site.

The Black Box has already drawn obvious comparisons to the cool and austere alien monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Unlike the commanding and awe-inducing verticality of Kubrick’s black monolith, the Black Box’s horizontal monumentalism gestures towards the fallen monoliths of forgotten epochs. The fictional cradle of civilisation is replaced by an all-too-real time-capsule of its decline, the rare-earth minerals compressed over eons of time transmuted into the technology to record the effects of our overindulgence of fossil fuels compressed over eons of time. Rock, mineral, element, metal. A memorialising impulse in the face of extinction. Digital inscription of human absence as if to say, ‘at least we were here, at least we tried.’ The compensatory, consoling fantasy that even as we vanish the thought of us will endure, someone will miss us or mark our demise. Terminal documents accrued for ... who?

Kapoor, Anish and Semple, Stuart.
Vantablack vs. Black 2.0. 2016–ongoing.

This art feud first erupted when sculptor and installation artist Anish Kapoor announced in 2016 that he had acquired exclusive artistic rights to ‘Vantablack,’ a material developed by Surrey NanoSystems who say the material absorbs 99.965% of visible light: the world’s ‘blackest’ black. This caused the ire of artists around the world, including British artist Stuart Semple who retaliated by releasing, first, the ‘pinkest pink’ and later, Black 2.0 and Black 3.0, both of which approach the same level of blackness as Vantablack but without the exorbitant price. There was a catch, however. Anyone buying these pigments had to declare they weren’t Anish Kapoor.

Aside from banal art antics, the aesthetic power of black has been of continuous fascination for art since at least 1915 when Ukrainian Kazimir Malevich unveiled his Black Square. Malevich’s suprematism sought out the ‘non-objective world’, the world of thought and abstraction. Kapoor has built his career on explorations of the void, not what might be considered non-spaces but rather a summoning of the spaces we cannot see. Kapoor’s recent works Descension (2015) and Descent Into Limbo (2016) utilise the allure of void spaces as a horizon for human thought. They are concerned with the formlessness beyond human senses, the emptiness beyond being, that we instinctively attempt to fill with ‘content’ – philosophical, empirical, political, spiritual, mythological. The black of our unknowing.

The blackest black would then have huge appeal for those artists wishing to explore these themes. Vantablack (Vertically Aligned NanoTube Arrays) is excessively difficult to manipulate, requiring heat furnaces, incubators and pressure. It is as if it were a black that materially realises the difficulty of imagining the ‘blackest’ black.

Kneale, Nigel (writer) and Sasdy, Peter (director).
The Stone Tape.
British Film Institute, 2001. DVD.

Nigel Kneale’s BBC ‘television play’ sees an electronics company move into an old Victorian mansion as part of research and development for a new recording medium that will prove more durable than magnetic tape. Engineers soon discover a stone basement in original condition. One of the team starts hearing eerie screams emanating from the room. They ascertain that the stone itself is a recording medium carrying an imprint of past events: in this case a violent death. Like a tape playback but instead one that is ‘played’ by the ‘instrument’ of the human nervous system itself.

Taking its name from the play, ‘stone tape theory’ posits that trauma is etched into the material environment. It is also notable for popularising the idea that sound remnants can build up like sedimentary layers. Aural landscapes have informed the nascent interdisciplinary field of archaeoacoustics, which investigates archaeological sites through their acoustic properties. Here, correlation between resonances, ritualised psycho-acoustics and evidence of acoustic engineering are found.

Stone, as site of sonic inscription, captures the ‘voices of time.’ Like Ballard’s concrete sigil that amplifies the ‘signature’
amid ancient hills, the attention to the material in The Stone Tape teases out geological and temporal implications. These implications allude to both deep time and the potential for collaborative human and mineral entanglements.
Stone, whether ‘earth’ or interstellar rocks, inclines us to mistakenly think of it as a stable foundation, or ‘ground.’ The denouement of The Stone Tape is that the terrified scream heard by the team is the ‘record’ of someone attempting to escape a much older malevolent presence. This ambiguity overturns what we thought of as a human drama and instead underwrites it with an unhuman one, entering humans and stone into a strange communication.

Thacker, Eugene. In the Dust of This Planet:
Horror of Philosophy, Volume 1.
Zero Books, 2011.

Philosopher and renowned pessimist, Eugene Thacker’s seminal Horror of Philosophy series recognises supernatural horror texts as both philosophical and mystical. For Thacker, horror is the ‘non-philosophical attempt to think about the world-without-us philosophically,’ ‘the thought of the unthinkable.’ Thacker’s schema proposes distinctions between the World: the world-for-us, Earth: the world-in-itself, and Planet: the speculative world-without-us. The latter being a radically unknowable world that exists forever outside our perception and, paradoxically, our thought.

From Thacker we adopt not ‘posthuman’ with its utopianism, but instead the ‘unhuman’ with what remains non-anthropocentric and non-anthropomorphic: the hidden, anonymous, indifferent, absolute otherness. Through negation we proceed: negating the consoling fantasies that we arm ourselves with to navigate life on this planet, negating our humanist exceptionalism, negating a language that pre-proposes a ‘self’ acting upon an object world and, finally, the prospect of our own negation from the planet through climate change.

von Trier, Lars, dir. Melancholia.
Madman Entertainment, 2011. DVD.

Justine’s wedding reception at her sister Claire’s country estate is marred by a severe bout of depression – alienating her husband, her boss and herfamily. While she is convalescing, scientists discover a rogue planet dubbed ‘Melancholia,’ obscured by the sun and on a collision course with Earth. Unlike Hollywood productions, von Trier forgoes a last-minute escape for humanity. Instead, the film stages the inevitable confrontation of human life with an indifferent universe and without recourse to salvation, memorialisation or recuperative meaning.

The melodrama of Justine’s wedding exposes the shams of human social rituals that enforce arbitrary hierarchies: connections, relationships, power, capital, family, class privilege and love. These facets of life only serve to distract us from our own evolutionary disposition and to seek out patterns and meaning where none exist. For von Triers, human systems are not enough.

Melancholia’s ‘dance of death’ is a cosmic choreography of deep time, ‘weirding’ and planetary annihilation. It estranges the world-for-us and the world-in-itself. Like ‘The Willows’ it de-territorialises our perceived ownership of nature. The film recalls Byron’s ‘Darkness’ while peering into Kapoor’s voids. It rebukes our knowledge systems and meaning-making. It obliterates the rock of our Earth and the stone of The Stone Tape or Earth’s Black Box. However, it withdraws the possibility of our memorialisation, our signal or signature, preserved for some possible future. It literalises Thacker’s world-without-us. It invites the unhuman universe in. This is the zero point of my practice.

Michael Brown is a writer and media scholar based in Brisbane.