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  • Austin Miles

(ESSAY) “Letting a Thousand Ontologies Bloom”: On Nuala Loges' ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE



In this essay-review, Austin Miles surmises the colonial "logic of domination underpinning information sciences" as revealed through Nuala Loges' hybrid critical-poetic text ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE (Inside the Castle, 2021). From epistemic violence to place-thought, the physicality of virtualisation to 'anti-sunshine machines', Miles finds in Loges' work "the infrastructure taking over the lives of so many, and what needs to change.".


Computers and information are shot through with an airy aesthetic of cleanliness. “Our best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile” writes Donna Haraway in her manifesto for cyborgs. [1] In ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE — Volume 2 of Inside the Castle’s Internet Energy Intensity and Efficiencies series — Nuala Loges excavates the logic of domination underpinning information sciences previously obfuscated by its spectacle of ethereality. The sunshine machines Haraway wrote about were a matter of “immense human pain in Detroit and Singapore.” Likewise, Loges shows information itself is a matter of immense human pain for the indigenous peoples of Turtle Island.


Loges writes with a tone redolent of the methods section of an academic STEM journal article, or protocols for data analysis. This anti-poetic register is appropriate for a settler writing about colonialism. The catastrophes indigenous peoples have and continue to suffer as a result of the advent of Europeans should not be aestheticised or beautified (at least not by a descendent of those settlers) — it’s not beautiful.


Instead of gentrifying catastrophe, the book searches for an opening toward an elsewhere beyond expropriation. “I am a settler on the continent / and am concerned about the physical / space my work takes up.” (13) Loges writes.


I’m looking for a way of writing environmental justification to guide bibliographic ecologies. Literary description, allowing for multiple senses of a word like ecology, to describe the relationship of cataloging standards and environment, and expropriation, outside the conventional environmentalist purview. (15)

The “Physicality of Virtualization,” as one section of the book words it, is a consistent preoccupation for Loges. “How does Information Science / see and articulate appropriate / land use?” (35) The data servers that are the fundamental infrastructure for information science sit on colonized land, use substantial amounts of electricity for power (“80% from coal” (84)) and water for cooling. So land and its constituents are a resource, and the resourcing of land is synonymous with its exploitation, and information depends on this resourcing for its survival. “Complicity with / the state/city energy policies / means complicity with extractive regimes.” (38).


Nor are conventional environmental approaches adequate to confronting information’s entanglement with settler domination for Loges. “Regulating electricity and / water use is not enough.” (17). The regulation of ecological destruction under the settler project amounts to its reorganisation and its legitimisation as environmentally friendly. Instead, “What / the Anthropocene calls for is abolishing / the notion of the Earth as non-agential / and exploitable.” (34).


This assertion hints at the other kind of violence ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE is preoccupied with, aside from exploitation of land. “Although land is central to understanding settler colonialism, it is not the only register of domination” write the anthropologists Paul Berne Burow, Samara Brock, and Michael R. Dove. [2] For information science, the settler project orbits around epistemic violence. Loges characterises the issue as such:


A philosophical idea of orders of epistemological exclusivity, from the organization scheme to its historical development as a system, the world of shared knowledge systems maintained by cataloging technologies is compromised due to inadequate system effects, that I interpret as epistemic oppression (50)

Epistemic oppression is the phenomenon of “a culture / that inherently includes a violent / sense of ownership and excludes possibilities / of multiplying identification” (51). Just as land is alchemized into property, so too is information. Loges’ response to this issue forms the crux of ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE — “My interest is in advocating / for multiple local ways, or Indigenous / information systems” (39). For information workers, this involves considering “how they abstract their work from its physicality” (52), which Loges characterises as “abstracting concepts from environments.” (52).


A key element for the re-establishment of indigenous information systems involves the re-placing of information, by “acknowledging places / as embedded in systemic meaning-making” (105). This call echoes the indigenous studies scholar Vanessa Watts’ notion of Place-Thought, in which “place and thought were never separated because they never could or can be separated.” [3] In this worldview, the land is living and has agency — it’s a mode of being Loges advocates for.


What Loges calls for involves the annihilation of the epistemological-ontological divide. For Watts, the division of ontology and epistemology “provide[s] evidence that humans are assumed to be separate from the world they are in, in order to have a perception of it.” [4] This is abstraction of concepts from environments. Place-thought, or whatever else Loges may have in mind, denies that perception is even possible without place. Taking this thought to information science, Loges asserts information is impossible without place. The idea that anything is possible in the airiness of nowhere is a trick of the settler mind. What’s needed instead is “honoring situatedness in virtualization” (104). The end of this situatedness is allowing for diversity in being rather than the totalisation of the settler information science, or “Letting a thousand ontologies bloom” (103).


The proliferation of ontological diversity would entail an expansion of what forms information retrieval takes, beyond the primarily text-based practice dominant under settler colonialism. Loges recounts a brief history of how knowledge systems shifted because of the advent of colonisers that offers a glimpse of what diversity in information systems could look like:


Since Spanish colonizers entered and occupied Anahuac, setting up the modern state of Mexico, text-based systems of knowledge were privileged, excluding the information of ceremonies, songs, dances, stories, hunting and growing and healing practices, painting, pottery, weaving, carving and imaginal work.

Admitting all these practices as forms of information admits information as not just written, recorded, and mentally known, but embodied throughout everyday life.


ONTOLOGIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL COLLAPSE is primarily a text for information professionals. The book contains recommendations and invocations specifically targeted to information workers and fairly technical descriptions of cataloging technologies like BIBFRAME and MARC, or at least descriptions of that tech with gaps that an information worker in the know would not need filled. Nonetheless it’s a text that anyone should read. As the internet continues to colonize every crevice of everyday life, Loges’ work uncovers the toxic logic underlying the infrastructure taking over the lives of so many, and what needs to change.


References


[1] Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 149-181. New York: Routledge, 1991.


[2] Burow, Paul Berne, Samara Brock, and Michael R. Dove. "Unsettling the Land: Indigeneity, Ontology, and Hybridity in Settler Colonialism." Environment and Society 9, no. 1 (2018): 57-74.


[3] Watts, Vanessa. "Indigenous place-thought and agency amongst humans and non humans (First Woman and Sky Woman go on a European world tour!)." Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 2, no. 1 (2013): 20-34.


[4] Ibid.


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Text: Austin Miles

Image: Austin Miles

Published: 24/12/2022

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