In this post, I continue my thinking about how to present my research in book form by considering the work of Thomas Nagel and how his thinking relates to my practice.
Over the last three years, my photographic practice has focused on catching a glimpse of the Being of another and latterly revealing a sense of a deeply entangled reality that I term allure. My aim has been that these glimpses, revealed by the lone silver birch tree, for example, and captured by the camera, might provide me with a trace of the inner world of another object, a natural object. But how can I as a conscious human being, understand or speculate on another’s Being or am I simply reflecting on my view of what it is like to be that lone tree on a rocky outcrop in the shadow of the Cuillin? For an explanation, or at least an articulation, I turned to the seminal work by Thomas Nagel (1974), What is it Like to be a Bat?
Nagel explains that:
“Conscious experience is a widespread phenomenon. It occurs at many levels of animal life, though we cannot be sure of its presence in the simpler organisms, and it is very difficult to say in general what provides evidence of it. . . But fundamentally an organism has conscious mental states if and only if there is something that it is like to be that organism – something it is like for the organism.” (op cit p436).
He then turns to what it is like to be a bat – a mammal that experiences the world through sonar, a sense that we as humans do not possess. He questions whether we can experience, imagine, or extrapolate what it is like to be a bat given that our ability to understand what it is like to be something else must be based upon our own experience and therefore we can only consider what it might be like for us to be a bat. Thus, we turn to explaining relevant concepts such as sonar and consider whether bats experience feelings that we have such as hunger, pain, or fear. Nagel goes on to explain that the problem of understanding another specie’s being is not only relevant when considering different genera but also applies when understanding the experience of other humans such as those who are deaf or blind. Furthermore, because we are limited by the constraints of our nature and language, some facts are simply inaccessible to human beings. For example, as humans, we have a particular understanding of natural phenomena such as lightning, tsunamis, or cloud formations based on visual perception while bats on the other hand we must assume have a different experience without visual capability.
To summarise, Nagel’s view was that as humans, we can only experience and understand what it is like to be me. That is the only thing we know for certain. Indeed, this is the only knowledge of which we can be certain, all other knowledge is, to a greater or lesser extent uncertain. We cannot understand what it is like to be another human being or another species.
What does this mean for my photographic practice? On many occasions in the company of the lone silver birch tree, I have wondered what it would be like to be that tree. What would it be like to experience a southerly gale perched on a rocky outcrop with a slender trunk and delicate canopy? What would it be like to be rooted to the ground out of necessity and what would it feel like to lose leaves in the autumn and regrow them in the following spring? As Nagel suggests, these are not questions that we can answer through the filter of human experience and understanding.
In an early post to this Critical Research Journal, I wrote of my experience of Being aware of the Being of the silver birch. This is the aim of my practice-led research – rather than seeking to experience what it is like to be something from the non-human world through the eyes and other senses of a human, I am seeking a glimpse of another Being and its entangled reality, captured by the camera. I am not seeking to experience their experience or be like them, but to capture a sense through awareness rather than attention.
Nagel, T. (1974). “What is It Like to Be a Bat?” The Philosophical Review 83(October 1974): 435-450.