Learning, building, relating, and cooperating are types of transformation. So are rupture, revolution, iconoclasm, and trauma. Transformation is a nebulous word within which a whole spectrum of processes, from the extremely gentle to the extremely violent, are contained.
In a text for last year’s Extinction marathon Federico Campagna wrote: “Extinction is a euphemism for annihilation.” Transformation has the same euphemistic qualities, but rather than obscuring meaning, in this context the theme allowed meaning to dissemble, refract, expand. This is the double power of a shifting signifier: it can both obscure and illuminate. The incredibly wide variety of presentations during the marathon attested to that potential.
Whereas a title like “Rupture” would have indicated a call to action, inviting/inciting manifesto-like presentations, Transformation asked for quieter consideration. And it suggested that individual activity is only one facet of processes of change. While a single actor loses agency within large and complex systems, when those systems are spun into action by collectives and networks their potential energy is astronomical.
Understanding processes of transformation requires patience, deliberation, contemplation. Occurrences may seem organic, unexpected, unexplainable. These are situations where analysis falls short and other types of comprehension must be found. This shift in tone from urgency to contemplation reflects the uncertainty in cultural discourse today about what type of rhetoric to use as we attempt to transform ourselves and the world; no one wants to be alarmist, but no one wants to sit passively aside. We all realize the extent to which we are complicit, no matter how critical we are, with expanding systems of power and control. Individual participation becomes increasingly fraught. Does planetary transformation demand or even allow participation, or are power scales so stratified as to render participant-led change irrelevant?
Making transformations visible is the first step in understanding and altering their courses, and many presentations throughout the marathon took on this task, particularly those in the design series led by Alice Rawsthorn. Visibility is essential, because as Saskia Sassen said later in her lecture concerning global finance, invisible processes have deeply material consequences.
But along the lines of quiet contemplation in the face of unthinkable complexity, this year’s marathon was as much about volume as about vision. In his talk “The Silent Transformations” (based on the book of the same name) François Jullien described transformation as an essentially silent process. As an example he described the process of watching a child grow up: the change is not invisible, because you can see it every day, but you’re so close to it that you can’t register what’s happening until the child is suddenly an adult. The childhood is gone—but when, exactly? When was the announcement? To Julien, transformation is often visible, but it is always quiet.
This is why the radio marathon formed such an appropriate bookend to the live presentations; it pared down the stimulus, asking the listener to become more attuned, to exist at a different sensory speed, to perform a minute re-ordering of the hierarchy of the senses. As Rosi Braidotti put it in her radio homage to the power of the voice, in our society “the eyes are absolutely at the top of the pyramid,” which leaves us to forget to listen not only to the words we say to each other, but the voices we speak the words in.
In 2000 the cultural critic David Brooks wrote: “If you sit down and read through a series of books or essays with titles like ‘The Spirit of the Age,’ you’ll discover that no matter when they were written, they almost always contain a sentence that says, ‘We are living in an age of transition.’ Whether it is the 1780s or the 1850s or the 1970s, people tend to feel themselves surrounded by flux.” While certain processes are singular to this point in history, transformation and the feeling that we are in the thick of a big one is in fact a historical constant. The question is how the transformation is formally framed. Transformation is not particular to any one age—but the Transformation Marathon very much is.