Nanotechnology, Anthropocene, and Education: Scale as an Aesthetic Catalyst to Rethink Concepts of Child/Nature
This paper is based upon the inspiration that I find, as an artist and educator, among areas of nanotechnology, art, and pedagogy in response to the Anthropocene. The notion of scale is paramount to this research: through a shift in scale to include the very large and the very small, dichotomous thought is eschewed for a concept of life understood as continual, material process. This awareness affords a pedagogy of creative imagination about the world that can confront current anthropocentric habits and attitudes. The nanoscale space between the atomic force microscope and a single atom is related to the vast geological time of the Anthropocene so that these extreme scales can function as catalysts for artistic imagining. Furthermore, I consider these extreme, inhuman scales with respect to the child in/of nature. Specifically, I examine the Western, educational norms of nature understood as a benevolent backdrop to human rejuvenation. In doing so, I look to a Deleuze-Guattarian concept of intensity within a rhizomatic concept of measurement as an artistic strategy. Current life requires a shift in ontological understanding to first identify established assumptions about planetary relationships and, second, to experiment with novel views offered by emergent conditions and technologies. This can begin with a reconsideration of ideas about the child and nature. Educators are poised to influence how this version of human/non/inhuman relationality will develop. Changes in the ways we live among other species and with the inhuman Earth must take into account a more geologically and ecologically sensitive perspective, and cultural connections between the sciences and the arts can help promote this necessity.
KeywordsAnthropocene Art education Scale New materialism Nanotechnology Child/nature Deleuze and Guattari Ontology
This chapter critiques the educational trend that considers the child and nature as a narrowly constructed dichotomy whereby the typical urban child is imbued with the loss due to a lack of exposure to nature (Louv, 2012). In considering alternative configurations of childhood in education, I expand to connect education to the larger society, something that is necessary to understand how change can be relevant within and beyond educational institutions. I theorize how the nanoscale can expand the imagination of what our human relationship with the planet might become. Given that ecological destruction is evident in this age of the Anthropocene, ways to educate children and the larger public with an ontological shift toward a greater sensitivity about the planet are desirable and necessary. I posit that through art making and viewing, the deeply tacit values with respect to human-non/inhuman relations can be examined and better understood.
Furthermore, the aesthetic approach can help to unpack the constructed duality of nature and culture with specific focus on the child. The expanding understanding of the world to include the tiny nanoscale affords a pedagogical moment to help formulate how humans are part of a material process of natural/cultural emergence. With this in mind, I probe what significance this might have for creative, cultural, and educational work. This fosters another avenue of investigation: what does it mean to be human within relationships fostered through imaginative considerations of materiality? Put differently, when anything can be created by manipulating atoms through nanotechnology, what might be made of ourselves in the face of this power? Specifically, I ask how nano-culture is explored so that an understanding of this scale develops with respect to social and environmental implications and so that students and teachers are able to take full advantage of the imaginative potential and the social implications of nanotechnology in the continued development of an entangled world.
As a form of education, meaningful aesthetic experiences that open up ideas about life occur when notions of self are linked to ways that social values are cultivated, communicated, and/or questioned (Emme, 2001; Pente, 2008, 2010). By considering a shift of scale, the ways that we, as educators, take the human scale regarding Earth for granted can be highlighted through imagining the world at the very small level of the nanoscale. By including consideration of this scale, I call into question the pervasive underlying assumptions of human exceptionalism, including an assumption of fixed identity that purports a superior self as contained within the world, yet separate from it. Variations of this position play out within education in the correlation of notions of the child with an idealized form of nature (Louv, 2012). This is the Anthropos-centered perspective of human experience. Obviously, different species perceive different ranges within scale, but the problem in which I engage is the implication of perceiving multiple scales of life at this contemporary Anthropocentric moment. When nanotechnology stretches scales of perception, the artist can catalyze movement into uncertain, new territories, and this has the possibility to change notions of what life might become and what the world might become.
Nanotechnology is about the study and manipulation of materials at the scale of billions of a meter: beyond what the eye can see without the prosthetic of electron microscopy. Such a specific size positions the nano-world between the physical properties and behaviors of quantum mechanics and those of the macro-world. In other words, unique events occur among and within materials at this range. In a sense, it is a hidden world within our everyday lives. Nano-science is a relatively recent influence within the public imaginary and will continue to have an accelerated, exponential impact on the world (Drexler, 2010). Given that visualization of phenomena is key in education and given that there exists a creative confluence of science and art within many contemporary art and educational circles, we have what philosopher, Gilles Deleuze, might appreciate as a perfect storm of generative possibility with regard to nanotechnology, art, and education. The eye of this storm is the ethical and social imperative to consider our relationship with the Earth and each other in these Anthropocentric conditions. As Jami Weinstein and Claire Colebrook observe, “what we know as ‘life’ and ‘nature’ is always given in multiple, fleeting, partial, haunting, and disturbing encounters” (2017, p. 13). I inquire into ways that aesthetic encounters with measurement and expanded scales might open up and “disturb” the multiple relationships among concepts of the child, nature, and education. Significantly, this kind of ontological thinking can support renewed educational practices in the classroom with respect to our ecological selves.
Accuracy of measurement is desired tremendously within all scientific and educational areas that use scales to seek exacting representations of the world. There is an unspoken quest for the empirical truth in such activities of measurement. As sophisticated instruments measure at the nanoscale, the data expands knowledge beyond the human, thereby extending thresholds of the known/unknowable regarding our material world. By rethinking the act of measurement as a process of differentiation, disruption, or interruption, rather than as a form of representation, the potential for the aesthetic and imagination to open possibilities for considering the human as integrated with the world is possible. The significance is the influence of difference, in a Romanticism (1994) sense, rather than the influence of identity: with such a focus, the world becomes strange and thus renewed in moments of perception. This parallels aesthetic experience and/or artistic acts of exploration.
In delving deeply into generative questions and answers to these probes, I organize the chapter with a critique of nature and child in education, followed by a discussion about nanotechnology. Next, I expand with comments about the Anthropocene. Finally, I will link the previous sections to opportunities within art, anticipating the future educational world that will continue to mix technical, physical, and virtual relationships as part of the material world.
Nature and the Child in Education
There is a customary division between nature and the child within educational circles that reflects a form of human exceptionalism: it underlies a perpetuation of “man” as manipulator of the land, as evidenced with his environmentally destructive planetary use of resources. This perspective underlies environmental and outdoor education in North America (Clarke, 2017; Malone, 2017). Specifically, these fields are based upon understanding of the child as a separate being who acts within a rural environment that is called “nature.” This has the unintended result of sustaining larger social, humanist assumptions that William Connolly (2017) identifies as “ghosts of mastery, sociocentrism, and human exceptionalism” (p. 13). Connolly warns that none of these social realities can be sustained over years if we are to adjust to and change our current, Anthropocentric realities of this planetary, climactic situation. With our continued mix of capitalism and planetary overuse, our educational systems in the West are complicit with these tacit values that continue to gird an understanding of childhood as a time of individual development where this separation of human and planet is maintained. For example, there are typical lessons surrounding sustainability where the phrase, “recycle, reuse, and reduce,” is common in North American schools. On the surface, this is, of course, a good attitude to introduce to children, yet this also maintains a division between human and the planet in terms of agency. The child is the agent in this scenario and is encouraged to act upon the planet through consideration of her environmental footprint. What is often missing in these practical assignments, however, is a consideration of our human and non/inhuman relationships. Alternatively, introducing a posthuman perspective situates children, along with adults, as ontologically invested with a relational world among other living and nonliving agents. This aligns with Weinstein and Colebrook (2017) who purport a renewed examination of life in a philosophical sense, and now that life in a biological sense has moved so far beyond the human into – for example – nanoscaled entities. In recent posthuman studies and philosophies of new materialism, this perspective is championed as a potential way of considering life. With respect to moving into a different relationship with the Earth, educator, David Clarke, draws upon a Deleuzian focus to envision an ontological middle in order to eschew the familiar, linear story of beginnings and endings. As he suggests, a middle “… may be one way to help engender new materialist and animistic ways of seeing with learners, demonstrating the intra-relational becoming of the world with students in any way we can” (2017, p. 317). Taking his lead, I consider the threshold between notions of child and nature as active and mobile, so that the relationship between these two can move toward a new understanding of our planet and our human selves in education. I build on work that has already begun in this area.
On the topic of the usual shaping of human/planetary or child/nature relations, educator, Karen Malone (2016), identifies and debunks three assumptions within current discourse regarding the child in nature as a movement that has developed within Western educational circles. Firstly, she observes the assumption that the child is separate from nature; secondly, that nature is romanticized as a backdrop, like an “inanimate object” for human use; and thirdly, that the ways the child is theorized hide a white, middle-class, male bias. All three points are key to analyzing a Western residue of Cartesianism (referenced as a mind/body division) that is maintained through the narrow perspective that there is a “thing” called nature that is benevolent, rejuvenating, and kind. This cultural depiction is reflected in popular forms of entertainment when notions of wilderness and untouched green spaces are presented as idyllic. The person is made whole through physical experiences within this utopian idea of wilderness. Identified as ecocriticism or green Romanticism, this view of nature is found in much Western English literature. As Vince Carducci (2009, p. 633) explains, “the ‘problem’ of ecocriticism is its putting nature on a pedestal, casting it as the pristine other of modern civilization and of the autonomous individual self….” This version of untouched nature as healer is also found in ubiquitous advertisements for various products, in movies and television, and in other forms of visual culture. It is so prevalent that the population tends to accept this perspective without question. However, in actuality, all of the land, air, and sea are worked, used, marked, and/or occupied by the human footprint in some way. The Anthropocene adds geological evidence of this fact (Crutzen, 2002).
I return to the idea of a benevolent nature as a Western male bias (Malone, 2016). What is missing in this normative assumption is the important fact that humans, male, female, or otherwise identified, are also part of nature, along with nonhuman and inhuman entities. It is more productive to think about all life anew through a Deleuze-Guattarian (1987) notion of mobile intensities and processual change within and of the world. The child understood as an emergent, material agent along with the rest of the living and nonliving agents reflects this perspective. Significantly, in reference to her research with children in La Paz, Bolivia, Malone describes how “these approaches allowed me to imagine a view of agency not tied exclusively to humans. Nonhuman entities became more than simply objects being directed by humans, but as subjects in their own right, they were shaping an exchange and co-merging with children” (2016, p. 48). Alas, this perspective is not yet as pervasive as the romantic idea of the child in need of benevolent nature to become whole and to have agency, which continues to perpetuate the notion of human domination over “nature” and at the same time limits the multiple ways that materiality presents as the world. The relationships among entities in/of the world are much more complicated than a simplified duality can accommodate. This becomes evident in various areas of knowledge. For example, in the development of nanotechnology, the division of life/nonlife at this very small scale becomes moot. These nanoscaled workings have repercussions for thinking about the reshaping of the terms human/child and nature in this time of the Anthropocene because they provide material force of the particle without the familiar macro-sized divisions (e.g., human and other).
Nanotechnology refers to the study and use of materials at the small range of 1–100 nm, where 1 nm is equal to 1 billionth of a meter. To put this into perspective, one human hair has a diameter of 80,000 nm. It is at this size that materials exhibit unique properties and behaviors. For example, melting points, magnetism, color, tensile strength, reactions to other materials, etc. are different at the nanoscale, and this allows for novel applications (Ramsden, & Freeman, 2009). Organic and inorganic take on new meaning. Although still experimental, scientists can manipulate and move individual atoms with the use of electron microscopy. Future applications continue to expand (Drexler, 2010). Industry and academia are very active and efficient in self-regulation (Rip & van Lente, 2013), but there is much that is unknown because discovery moves to application relatively quickly (Dorbeck-Jung & Shelley-Egan, 2013; Hunt, 2006). The drive for economic profit has produced items as variable as cosmetics, paint, and drug delivery systems (Khan, 2012). Importantly, nanotechnology may hold keys for stronger environmental sustainability: a goal that is increasingly becoming urgently needed (Newberry, 2012; Smith & Granqvist, 2011). Many scholars agree that nanotechnology is the most influential change of our times (Bowman, Stokes, & Bennett, 2013; Corner & Pidgeon, 2012; Feyman, 1960; Goldenberg, 2006; Hayles, 2004; Lively, Conroy, Weaver, & Bimber, 2012; Mehta & Hunt, 2006; Ratner & Ratner, 2003; Wolfe & Medikonda, 2012; UNESCO, 2006). With this in mind, I question how nanotechnology is taken up in the consideration of our ecological relationships regarding the child and nature in education. Greater discussion about the concepts of nanotechnology in the public realm and in K-university education systems is necessary (Duncan et al. 2010; Light Feather, 2012). Firstly, with greater discussion about the natural/human world filtered through the nanoscale, students may make connections that take them beyond the conceptual separation of their physicality and their world. At the level of the nanoscale, commonalities and traits between living/nonliving take on new meaning. While careful not to fall into yet another romanticized version of life whereby all living and nonliving entities are viewed simply as various compilations of small atomic particles, as an initial perspective, the nanoscale is useful in opening conversations regarding the established dualities within child/nature. Importantly, these multiple ways of understanding the world differently emphasize the idea that nature is cultural: that a person’s point of view, bias, and upbringing all contribute to how nature is understood. As Congdon (2006, p. 50) notes, “we must ask questions about who has the power to make new knowledge, represent new ways of seeing the world, and participate in the construction of new cultures and a rapidly changing world.” In this regard, questions about the nature and reception of that knowledge are important. Consequently, scholars have cautioned against demonizing or deifying this emergent nanotechnology, where fantastic scenarios about products and effects of nanotechnology have instilled fear or hope in unrealistic ways (Gimzewski & Vesna, 2004; Rogers-Brown, Shearer, Herr Harthorn, & Martin, 2012; Siegrist, 2012). Ultimately, the ethical compass of policy is in the hands of individual governments, and so it is imperative to have an informed public who can guide and provide input for future direction (McGinn, 2012; Newfield, 2012; Peterson, 2004). This is not an easy task, however, if information about nanotechnology is minimal, distorted, or incomprehensible to the average person. Scientist, Ahmed Khan, notes, “as we design systems on a nanoscale, we develop the capability to redesign the structure of all materials – natural and synthetic – along with rethinking the new possibilities of the reconstruction of any and all materials. Such a change in our design power presents tremendous social and ethical questions” (2012, p. 25). Khan’s point brings to the forefront the urgency to examine the ways that education continues to support human exceptionalism in either covert or overt ways. Rather than considering nanotechnology as a tool that humans use to control the world, it can be employed in a philosophical sense to create linkages among entities along with the human: a distinctly posthuman (Braidotti, 2013) interpretation of nanotechnology.
Measurement as an Artistic Methodology
One interesting challenge for educators considering nanotechnology is the relationship of the “invisible” materials at the small nanoscale with the visible character of the human scale. This becomes an ontological question about the human in relation to other entities due to the fact that the electron becomes key in understanding “nature” at this level. The assemblage of electron scanning microscope – human eye – electron acts to dissolve barriers between nature and the human, opening thought to relationships among human/nonhuman/inhuman/posthuman. All of these prefixes indicate the expanded conversation within new materialism to reposition the human in relation with the Earth. One move toward this goal might be found through creative explorations of nanotechnology concepts of self-assembly, volume-to-surface ratios, electromagnetic forces, and electron spin: all of which focus attention on actions at the level of the electron – within and beyond the human.
Historically, we have always instinctively measured our positionality in the world through corporeal comparisons which are automatic responses to our bodies in/of place. However, as Nordmann (2006, p. 56) notes, the “inconceivability” of the complexity of nanotechnology results in a “decoupling of the technical control with causal representation.” This occurs, in part, when we attempt to understand the ramifications of nanotechnology capabilities that are so distant from our physical perceptions. The very small size and inherent complexities baffle human perception. A useful approach to this “lost sensibility” is found in the work of new materialism. In this body of literature, the mixtures of culture, nature, and technology can shift the hierarchy among entities in the world so that humans are no long at the ontological pinnacle (Bennett, 2010). Scholars highlight our embeddedness in the world through shared, material connections (Ahmed, 2010; Barad, 2007; Connolly, 2010; Coole, 2010; Grosz, 2010). This perspective aligns with Malone’s (2017) understanding of the complexities of the child enmeshed in daily encounters and historical experiences with other entities.
Within nano-measurement, divisions are shaken as the logic of dichotomy is re-tasked. Dualities at the nanoscale are physically softened as borders and membranes become permeable at the size of the particle. While this is an unnerving possibility for many, it also loosens thought toward a metaphorically thinner skin. Thus, subject/object, child/nature, or culture/nature is eschewed for a Deleuze-Guattarian (1987) middle of emergent subjectivity (Braidotti, 2011) that focuses on notions of surface (Deleuze, 2003) and manifests in opportunities for wonder. By thinking the act of measurement differently, not as a quest for truth and/or confirmation of existence as it currently plays out within a stationary, corporeal positionality, but rather, as a creative act of continual emergence as the surface of the Earth, measurement shifts from a scientific act toward one of philosophical and artistic inquiry. Such a renewed consideration of measurement can be pedagogical, suggesting a deterritorializing of attitudes, identities, and possibilities. By rethinking the act of measurement as art praxis, the artist pushes out from within the norms of the human scale. Thus, in aesthetic exploration, measurement becomes a line of flight, as the artist “becomes” surface through a shift in scale (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). This focus on the surface of the Earth, and on the skin of the body, sets up a commonality that functions to think other than the separation of the body and world. Both are surface, albeit with different textural qualities. The “ontological gap” of dualities, Karen Barad (2003, p. 802) suggests, is sometimes better addressed without language. Thus, artistic moments influenced by the nanoscale provide opportunity to think about one’s place in the world metonymically as part of the surface of the Earth. This is significant because surface areas, so key in nanotechnology, become the “between” or middle when two surfaces touch through electron force.
This way of thinking about one’s “place” as a continuation of the surface of the Earth not only erodes the separation of self and others but also works as a form of smooth space. Deleuze and Guattari (1987) describe the smooth and striated as ever changing, always connected, and open to possible ruptures within normative behaviors. In this case, normative considerations of the body are fixed in a particular place as striated space remains within dichotomous forms of representation. Like the nano-surface, however, the psychological, aesthetic middle space is active and continually changing in unpredictable ways so that to consider surface as smooth space can be an inroad toward thinking anew. The human/nonhuman duality is reconsidered. The advantage might be a more responsible attitude or outlook toward the Earth and to children with whom we, as educators, teach/share/connect as part of this convoluted surface. It is in creative thought such as this that the child/nature machinic assemblage can emerge and be transformative for education.
Deleuze (1994) thinks through the significance of repetitions that are found, not in representation (identification of one thing as being different from another) but in the activity that is repeated through, in this case, creative linkage of nanotechnology to concepts of the self in relation to the world. Following Deleuze, rhizomatic linkages among extremes of scale offer a very different approach to measurement than what is normally assumed as the metaphor of linear sizes that move from larger to smaller, or the reverse. Instead of this nesting metaphor, so ingrained in approaches to measuring natural phenomenon, the rhizomatic metaphor allows for divergent sizes to affect each other and to work randomly. This is nearer to the function of materials at the nanoscale and to their influence on the macro-world.
This is not to suggest that educators become familiar with and use the materials and/or processes of nanotechnology in depth, for this suggestion would negatively feed into the illusion of human exceptionalism with respect to affordances within new technologies. As a heuristic strategy, however, educators can look to phenomena highlighted by nanotechnology with its focus on the unique activities at this size, and consider what it means to be a child who is emergently living in/with/as the Anthropocene.
Much has been discussed and written regarding the Anthropocene. As the term suggests, it refers to the levels of human activity that are evidenced in the geological layers of the Earth. For example, rising ocean levels, high carbon dioxide levels, extensive overuse of fossil fuels, species extinction, ozone depletion, and many more destructive changes – some irreversible – are the result of human activity: typically, activity that maintains or drives a lifestyle of affluence (Colebrook, 2016). Atmospheric chemist, Paul Crutzen, along with colleague, Eugene Stoermer, used the term, Anthropocene, to denote these permanent signs of human activity that stand out as a layer of geological strata upon the Earth (Crutzen, 2002; Crutzen & Stoermer, 2000). Currently, the Anthropocene is entrenched within popular culture through disaster cinema, TV, and other forms of culture (Colebrook, 2016; Jagodzinski, 2015). There are many ways that the Anthropocene presents to the public: websites that focus on it as a form of public education, artists who consider the Anthropocene (Anderson, 2015), scholarly journals about the Anthropocene, and advertisements that exploit the term to promote “greener” consumerism. The ways that this term and its connotations are taken up within education are of concern here.
The dualism of human and planet, or as discussed earlier, child/nature, exists in assumptions concerning the Anthropocene. Discussion often results in urgent calls for the human to fix the planetary woes that are the result of continued human consumption. While stopping such glut is necessary, care must be taken that the call does not lump all of humanity together in a way that reinforces a form of humanism whereby “man” is in control of the planet: as Colebrook and Weinstein note, “what has now been referred to as the Anthropocene seems to chasten humanity by noting a destructive impact that reaches geological intensity, but the Anthropocene also invites projects of geoengineering and uncritical uses of a once multiple but now reunified humanity” (2017, p. 22). Such a complicated reaction to this current state of planetary stress reflects an all-too-human desire to fix and stabilize the environment. However, this may only exacerbate the separation of the human from the world. The relationships among entities on/of the planet are much more complex. The threat of extinction of the human as a species has further united the human, which has had the unfortunate result in strengthening this divide in some instances (Colebrook, 2016).
Politically, such an urgency to act toward a more sustainable relationship with the Earth, while necessary, also entertains a negative side. Colebrook (2016) warns that this perspective opens the door to institutional action that impedes the voicing of multiple, contradictory positions. This dissention and discussion are necessary for healthy democratic process. She notes that the fear of species destruction and other dire consequences surrounding the degradation of the planet can give governments a tool by which they act unilaterally, with the populous in fearful acquiescence. In this scenario, the Anthropocene flattens out all possible differences into the narrative of privileged humanity with respect to the rest of the planet. It erodes theoretical efforts to build new, more symbiotic relations with living and nonliving entities (Colebrook, 2016).
The very large scale of geological time that is brought to attention with discussion of the Anthropocene leaves most of us humanly incapable of deeply internalizing its significance. While opposite in size, the nanoscale suggests a similar incomprehension. There are unique affordances and limitations in every scale, but it is noteworthy that both the inhuman geological time scale and nanoscale emphasize our all-too-human limitations with respect to understanding the complexities of the planet. Within nano-measurement and within geological time, the norms that orient the human on the Earth are shaken. As Weinstein and Colebrook propose, the “…inhuman orients us to all that is not human, not just that which comes after the human. It also pushes us to scales beyond the human-temporalities and spatialities both deep and astronomical” (2017, p. 5, italics in original). As scale moves from kilometric to nanometric spaces and as time moves from the hour or year to the eon, it raises questions regarding the very notion of what it means to perceive: a very human activity that begins a child’s entry into her world.
Art and Education for the Anthropocene
Imagination and perception of the observable world are two poles upon which an art curriculum often is built. Children are encouraged to tap into both of these methods of understanding their lives through various activities with art materials. Typically, in education, concepts quickly turn to application in the practical school setting. Thus, it can be difficult to maintain a force of inquiry that reveals new ways of considering life and the world. However, through the creative force of art, alternative approaches to the creation of new problems to be investigated are encouraged. It is important to open avenues for children to think about life in new ways such that success in dealing with the complexities within the term “nature” can be broached. As Weinstein and Colebrook advise about approaching the current climate crisis, “this approach must be creative and experimental, expansive and self -overcoming, insofar as an analysis of life that utilizes traditional methods and concepts risks an unwitting return to the predictable, universal, habitual, and hegemonic” (2017, p. 12). Art within the child’s life can be such an avenue, and there is, with its potential for affect, opportunity to reach deeply into ontological thinking about life.
The failure to fully recognize the value of creating and viewing art for the pleasure of exploring the imagination and for making connections between art and the world leaves the child missing important understandings about her place in/of the world and about her abilities to act in public situations that demand her voice. This reality is particularly troubling at the level of the young child, whose imagination is at its most formative, expansive, and vulnerable phase. Part of the responsibility of educators is to help students make connections between their creative efforts and their relationships with the world and with others. Art education can be a form of affective, continual interruption in normative assumptions about the multiple, concurrent aspects of our planetary systems. Art can generate the education that is needed to participate in conversations regarding events, activities, and objects hitherto unknown – like the advent of nanotechnology and the Anthropocene. Influenced by the artistic encounter (O’Sullivan, 2006), there is a powerful opportunity for learning within emergence from familiar, artistic forms to unfamiliar, uncertain ones. Consideration of the nanoscale offers artists, teachers, and children avenues that deviate from the norms of skill-based art education trajectories that often lack thoughtful discussion and learning about our contemporary relationships with/as nature. As art educator Jan Jagodzinski notes, “Nature will continue to enjoy in its own “meaningless” way. It is perhaps part and parcel of the fetishistic disavowal of an ecological crisis that is already here. We need an ecology without Nature” (2013, p. 279, italics in original). For art educators who might be stuck in a representational cycle of defining art as self-expression that primarily romanticizes nature as beautiful, the discovery of concepts that move beyond these traditional forms can be daunting. However, it is this unique aspect of art that can generate new thinking about social responses to the human/non/inhuman (Garoian, 2014). The magnitude of the problems of the Anthropocene requires this kind of consideration.
Thinking of art and the nanoscale not only suggests alternative ways to investigate this realm of art and science, but more importantly, it opens the possibility that there may be deeply ontological shifts in the child’s understanding of her world through these kinds of activities. Importantly, art educator, Thomas Barone, links art and agency when he states, “Art is connected to a political act – to think otherwise is doing a disservice to society, to students, to artists – there is no private aesthetic imagination” (Barone, 2001, p. 147). Art that lays bare, resists, or intervenes in social norms to draw attention to the peculiarities and paradoxes of contemporary life is glimpsed through cultural moments of affect. As a method of inquiry, affect can be a powerful moment for teachers and children to consider their lives in new ways (Hickey-Moody, 2013). Educators can reach for this kind of ontological surprise through experimentation in creative activities along with their students and communities (Pente & Beaton, 2015).
Consideration of nanotechnology can stand as one example of this process. Witness, for example, the work of artist, Les Bicknell, who explores the thinking processes of scientists working with nanotechnology. The unique interdisciplinarity of these technologies lends themselves to creative thinking so that the borders between art and science tend to meld and blur. In his project, Unfolding the Thinking, Bicknell captures, through image and film, the ways scientists move. Their physical gestures are the focus of this work. His artistic investigation is also inspired by the specific capacities of the machinery used in nanotechnology. Much of this work is being completed in a residency at the University of Cambridge (Bicknell, 2017). Furthermore, in work that I am currently exploring, after spending time in a similar residency at the Canadian Institute for Nanotechnology (The Canadian National Institute for Nanotechnology can be found using this link http://www.nint-innt.ca/), the behaviors such as molecular self-assembly are the inspiration for a series of GPS drawings that are underway. This type of artistic work offers insight into the ways that interdisciplinary projects can uproot traditional dualities (such as child and nature) that stifle new approaches to life. Art projects that are informed by the nanoscale can be incorporated into education through an interdisciplinary approach.
In this research, consideration of what might become of education if the child’s world is expanded through an aesthetic exposure to the discoveries and processes of nanotechnology is pursued. Based upon the affordances of electron microscopy, rethinking notions of nature/culture (Haraway, 2016) and the child raises questions about what humans might create with their bodies in space and time if the perceptions of the world stretch to the nanoscale and geological time. Teaching and learning with the invisible force of electron activity informing perceptions of bodies on the surface of the Earth can extend a sense of materiality: an ecology that moves toward a greater aesthetic connection with the entities of the Earth – living and nonliving. As Clarke describes such consequences for education, “in this way the student is not urged to ‘connect with nature,’ as there is no ‘nature.’ Rather, they are urged to consider how they are materially manifested of the world” (2017, pp. 313–314). Influenced by qualities and behaviors of particles within nanotechnology, a shift to an idea of the body as part of the surface of the Earth is helpful in disturbing social and educational norms that situate the child as detached from a “backdrop” of nature. Furthermore, if children are offered artistic opportunities to imagine materials and locations with/in the surface of the Earth – to imagine that which they cannot see – the scales of nanotechnology and geological time may suggest to them alternate ways of becoming in the world. This expansion of measurement and scale may afford a different kind of perception and an increased awareness of ways that the Earth is linked to/as life in all its shifting permutations.
In closing, the realities of the Anthropocene will instigate a renewed exploration of life that can bring children and their education closer to a more intimate connection with/among entities of the world. Unfortunately, fear and urgency may channel individual agency too far onto the State through a misguided interpretation of the human acting to correct past ecological wrongs. Current life requires a shift in understanding to first identify established educational assumptions about planetary relationships and, second, to experiment with new concepts offered by new conditions and technologies. This can begin with a reconsideration of the concepts of the child and nature. Educators are poised to influence how this version of human/non/inhuman relationality will develop. Changes in the ways humans live among other species and with the inhuman Earth must take into account a more geologically and ecologically sensitive perspective, and cultural connections between the sciences and the arts can help promote this necessity. With this in mind, I continue to explore the ways that philosophy inspires at the edges of materiality and science pushes at the edges of art to generate educational change.
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