Blog Post #21

November 24, 2023

Aidan Zeissner

Imaginaries



These past weeks have been suspended in a world of coal, nuclear, and solar imaginaries. It is through these types of non-reality that real and physical worlds come about, an alchemy that transfers thought to Earth. A deeper look at these imaginaries revealed what is necessary to understand in order to understand our current moment, asking us to pay attention to the undulatory currents of history.

 

The United Kingdom’s preoccupation with and fantasy of coal during the 19th and 20th centuries unfolded through this week’s focus on the coal imaginary. This force moved the whole of a territory into the underbellies of the Earth, simultaneously shaping the politics, art, literature, and other limbs of society. Charles-François Mathis details this elemental history in the UK in his book La civilisation du charbon. In it, he links coal’s magical uses to that of something derived from “the grace of God” (Mathis 97). Such an elemental-religious relationship, bordering on fanaticism, underlines the dangerous features of imaginaries: taking these ideas to the extreme by denying the validity of anything else closes the door to valuable exchanges of knowledge. What follows is a sort of precarity rooted in a lack of perspectives, of forms of energy, or anything rendered unwanted by the imaginary.

 

During the conversation between Dr. Mathis and Dr. Stepanov, three parts that make up the coal imaginary were juxtaposed: the cult of progress, the culture of coal, and the civilization of coal (being the title of the book). It is here, in relation to progress - a concept that has become of interest to me - that threads of connection began to form in my mind. Progress as cult, which is a beautifully perverse phrasing, erases all that is external to itself. It is a shining star. A silver bullet set to save humanity. The key that will unlock the enigmas of the future. It promises that all desires will be fulfilled through its fictitious beauties. Yet, this progressivist cult is also dangerous, as it devalues history to nothing at all. The past is steeped in archaisms, unable to answer our modern problems, so temporally distant that it is anything but pertinent: this is what progress and progressivism would like us to believe.

 

This cult holds more. A person is made to obey rules, believing in the ways of our leaders. Through their fictional stories meant to convince, they manufacture inattention at large. In her book, In Catastrophic Times, Isabelle Stengers gives quite an evocative word to describe this type of phenomenon: stupidity. Even if debatable, this word captures the corrosiveness of only looking to those in power, those people who preach progress. They want us to not pay attention. 

To Earth’s textures. 

To our needs. 

To climactic disturbances. 

To the world’s problems. 

We are thus cultivated by the cult, absorbed into the daydreams of an imaginary.

 

But this is not to say that I think of imaginaries as solely terrible and useless. Quite the contrary. It has been through imaginaries that we have been able to dream up realities wherein the nonexistent has come into existence. Almost everything has come from some imaginary. Also, in imaginative and dream-like states, we are able to rethink life on this Earth and give hope to existence. Sometimes, it is only through our dreams and fictions that we can come into action, into movement, into living life more response-ably.

 

We must create and nurture intimate webs of life on this Earth, fixing ourselves on soil. There is a growing need to reengage in our very senses, to land in quilted communities, to recall histories and History. All this, yet not constrained by feverish dreams.

A large ear in the window of a store, Strasbourg, France (The ear is a replica of the Statue of Liberty's ear, whose sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi was born about 70km away in Colmar.)

An old "game of noses" in the Residenz Würzburg, Germany

In coal’s past

Fascinated by coal to a lesser degree than the UK, France carries wounds and traces of a carbonic past that haunt the Earth. Undeniably, their horrifying beauty marks the present.

The cult of progress, the civilization of coal, and the culture of coal physically punctures and litters the former coal-mining towns of Lens and Liévin, in a northern region of France, Nord-Pas-de-Calais, near Dunkirk. The slag heaps stand as false mountains. The headframes grow from the ground like prison watchtowers. The houses bear forgotten histories.

Base 11/19 in Loos-en-Gohelle, in the ourskirts of Liévin, France

Taken from atop one of the “twin slag heaps,” looking out on Loos-en-Gohelle, Liévin and Lens

“Twin slag heaps” in Loos-en-Gohelle, France

An unsettling emptiness accompanies these coal relics (read wounds). Progress’ brilliancy has forever shaped the histories, terrains, and currents of these two towns. They too were cultivated by the cult.


The planthrosphere

At the permaculture garden “Une terre et un jardin pour demain,” it is the time of year to sort through harvests. Dried plants are collected from the drying room, then placed in a pile on a table. When it’s time, we take a bundle to sort. The stinging nettle harvest turns into stalks, leaves, and seeds. The pile gradually lessens.

Last Wednesday, our task was to sort through smaller stalks. This time, avoiding near-invisible thorns while de-leafing. One pile of thorny stalks, another for the leaves. We repeated this again and again… picking, sorting, picking, sorting… but was I cutting and sorting the nettle, or was the nettle cutting and sorting me?

The process of sorting the stinging nettle

The pile of stinging nettle leaves

Reading Mathis and Emilie-Anne Pépy's La ville végétale, which describes the connection of urbanism, cities, and a planthrosphere in Paris over the course of the 17th to 21st centuries, reminded me of such an idea. Was it the plant itself that influenced how humans settled in Paris so that they would always be close to a green space? This may be somewhat weird or absurd phrasing, but I find value in such questionings of making with across species and physical forms. What happens when our modes of thinking transgress the normative hierarchies of this world? I think that our relation to this Earth and all critters within would change considerably through such dehierarchisation.

 

During this sorting, the stinging nettles helped me sift through my thoughts with the thorns picking at my deep unconscious. Who knows if this is true. But I would like to believe that we helped and sorted each other simultaneously.


Works Cited

Mathis, Charles-François. La civilisation du charbon. Paris: Éditions Vendémiaire, 2021.

Mathis, Charles-François and Emilie-Anne Pépy. La ville végétale. Ceyzérieu: Champ Vallon, 2017.

Stengers, Isabelle. Au temps des catastrophes. Paris: Éditions La Découverte, 2009.