A Series of Steps
by John Feely

AustraliaQueensland College of Art, Griffith University
Published online
March 20, 2014

In this assignment students map an issue they want to explore, anything from the intimately personal to the social. The map must be typographic in nature, and the role of metaphor as a tool for understanding and engagement must be considered. Tutor: Jason Grant

As humans become increasingly separated from the natural world, the linguistic relationships between phases of evolution are gradually discarded, mapping a potentially terminal alienation.

John writes: “Our current unsustainable existence is the result of a series of unknowing actions. Our ‘development’ from an anthropocentric to an increasingly techno-centric mode of being ensures that we move further away from a reality that supports the natural resources that sustain us and, therefore, our own well being. Throughout modern history the world that we have designed has also designed us, resulting in a series of unconsidered steps that have lead to this point of instability and ungroundedness. A Series of Steps aims to chart this journey and the ramifications this unthought process has left us with in the present and, potentially, in the future.”

John’s posters map the diminishing similarity of the words labelling our evolving modes of existence. A few letters are introduced and substituted but there is a discernible continuity: animal > human > manual > manufacture, until we get to technology, which breaks from these relationships.

The first poster is blank and the final poster has no words, just abstract diagrammatic marks, an indecipherable technological code. This absence of typography is in itself unsettling for its sudden absence of humanity.

No shirking the big themes here. And the outcome is so assured and restrained. There is an imperative to render critical ideas in an accessible and engaging form, without flattening them altogether.

  1. Guest comment
    by Tony Fry

    My response to John’s project is first to turn his account of linear evolution around. Rather than end up with technology the evidence, it is the reverse: it was technology that transformed the animal into the ‘animal human’.

    Here is a story that began 2.3 million years ago when our earliest ancestors first picked up a stone and used it as a tool. From this point on, human evolution, the transformation of the material world and the development of technology all relationally commenced (this is all presented in detail, and with available evidence in my Becoming Human by Design). Now it is not as if our animality was transcended. We remain animals, however, the line that divides our animality from our humanity is extremely hard to draw, not just because of the repressive force of our humanised qualities). Thus we Homo sapiens arrived 160,000 years ago in an environment of stone, wood and bone tools that in minor ways had already started to transform biophysical environments as well as us.

    Along with these developments our social ecology emerged – in very difference climates and environments. As a result our proto-cultural differences increased, including how we saw our selves and our life-worlds. What this produced was a plural understanding of exactly what we thought our selves to be. ‘The human’ being in difference is just one of the results of this process. This is to say that what ‘we’ believed our selves to be, was by no means uniform. The creation of the appearance of uniformity has large been the result of modernity. Effectively we remain the same in our animality. But at the same time we are changed in our created humanness by ‘the world within the world’ of our dependence – this as it, in turn, depends on the biophysical world. The division between the natural and the artificial is an indistinct as that between the human and the animal.

    Against this background the human has to signal mark. In the very coming out of animality and into anthropos (the foundation of the human) a mark was made upon itself – this by the hand with a tool. Here was a mark claiming difference from others (animals). Here equally was the birth of the act towards the coming of the inscribed word.

    One of the most enduring phrases of philosophy is that ‘language is the house of Being’. To lose language is to lose everything. Yet of course language transmutes. What we now see is that as technological beings (a state of mind) our language is being rendered ever more to align to a universal standardised mode of exchange (linguistic difference is diminishing). In this context, what is the typographic sign a sign of? Is it a sign under erasure? What relation does it (now) have toward memory? What ever answers are given to these questions what can be said is that neither typography nor the human are under threat from technology because both already are technological. But what is really at stake is the form of the technology (be it as a singular production of sameness, a force of mono-cultural reduction), or as contested domain of diversity – one that allows ‘the contradiction that we are’ to continue to unfold. Herein we find a challenge to think and thereafter thoughts to communicate. Here is a challenge to newly mark.

  1. Comment
    by Sue Foley
    May 18, 2014

    This is an interesting and ambitious project that I think deserves more than Tony Fry's misplaced critique. Not that I think Fry's comment isn't in itself compelling, but it doesn't allow that John's argument and his own are not at all mutually exclusive. The idea of an indistinct division between the natural and artificial and between the human and the animal does not necessarily negate the alienating impact of escalating technology.

    The idea that technology is a defining characteristic of the human, paradoxically does not mean that the intensification of technology makes us more human. Indeed, as a myriad of specific technologies increasingly limit our agency (not just our diversity), as John contends, it may mean the opposite. Our inventions are intervening beyond our control and comprehension, from market trade algorithms to social media to military drones.

    While humans have never necessarily understood the effects of our designing, the consequences of this ignorance has been limited for most of human history by relatively small populations using relatively few resources. For us to remain human now we at least need to remain.

Join the discussion