I - The unnoticed and the rule of disguise
Perception of reality, defined as a primal understanding of the world,1 could be considered the generating cause of every social principle of behavior, where patterns of response are enacted in terms of answers to what is perceived, or considered as real. Even though it takes on different forms among cultures and moments in history, some general principles of its functioning can nevertheless be grasped. Concerning what is familiar, perception of reality can be thought of as being characterized by a particular kind of illusion that makes its constitutive rule become invisible: it is the very paradigm, or model, of the real to remain unquestioned, taken for granted, disguised as the normal (characteristic of the norm2).
Archetypal figures and symbols in religious or mythological concepts function as a key to introducing a different way of understanding, of making sense of the structures and rules which shape the experience of the world,3 in which understanding of reality has its own symbols: the opposition between eidos—form, essence, or the thing in itself—and the perceived real appears in Plato's myth of the cave, which describes the physical world as illusory when compared to pure ideas. This image, representing a polarization, could easily mislead one to think that reality could be perceived, or grasped through the power of the mind to generate abstractions. On the contrary, these same abstractions are indeed embedded in the very process of illusion-making, as they shape a path apt at guiding perception to recognize what is named (and through the characteristics of the given name) while excluding or ignoring what is not represented. Originating from this opposition between appearance and idea, a paradigm of separation between body and mind has shaped the history of Western culture, to the point of reaching an experience of the world characterized by a sense of disembodiment.4 In her transpositional, diffractive reading of physics through philosophy and vice-versa, Karen Barad has highlighted how the idea of separation, of a finiteness of a body as it is commonly perceived as being delimited by its surface or skin, results from a re-iterated reading of reality which is culturally or historically specific.5
Looking at Eastern culture, the concept of Māyā in Vedic philosophy is often described as the appearance of the world which does not resemble its true form,6 as represented by the image of a veil that prevents perception from adhering to the truth. It has been claimed that such a description could be also read as a dichotomy between the concept of the 'absolutely real' and reality as empirical perception,7 which sees the 'absolutely real' as bearing the quality of total inclusion, in contrast to the idea of partiality. However, when considering dichotomy itself to be an abstraction, or to be one of the many ways of simplifying form, this reading proves the impossibility of the human mind to grasp the very sense of what constitutes experience outside of a reiterated description of it.
The tension between opposite forces experienced as a dichotomy, or dialogical opposition, represents indeed a central theme in Western culture. Philosopher Yuk Hui has analyzed Greek aesthetics in comparison to Chinese Daoist philosophy, highlighting how an oppositional thinking can be found at the core of both logics, even though it is resolved differently. Hui describes Greek thinking as "tragist"(authors' italics), because it originates from a contradiction between "the necessity of destiny and the contingency of human freedom", and thus is based upon a conception of time marked by ruptures. In Daoist thinking, on the other hand, time is conceived as circular, based upon the principle of oppositional continuity:
"In Daoist thinking, contradiction doesn't mean there is need for reconciliation, since contradiction is only a manifestation of the Dao. Dao is neither being nor nothing, but rather a way of comprehending the relation between being and nothing as an oppositional continuity and unity." 8
The binary opposition of Western thought is thus dismantled into the circular vision of oppositional continuity, where a polarization represents only a fragment in time, caught in the process of becoming something else. Albeit with substantial differences, the idea of concealment is thus described in both philosophies, and in the understanding of reality as such.
Following this incarnation of the metaphor of concealment, its movements can be untangled in two simultaneous directions: on the one hand, everything which resides outside of what is perceived (and named) as real tends to disappear; social understanding of reality indeed creates a context to contain what is accepted within the spectrum of the possible, excluding in many different ways everything that does not belong to this realm: impressions have to fall into pre-existing categories in order to exist/be acknowledged, while the process of remembering is written and unwritten according to the waving movements of consideration of what is deemed to belong to the real or possible, or not.9 Simultaneously, on the other hand, social rules or norms tend to remain unquestioned, to the point of being overlooked: the codes of conduct inherent in a given social system are indeed defined by the norms that characterize the respective perception of reality. Dissonant voices also find their space within this system, like in the artistic context where norms are often questioned, bringing subtle revelations: although aesthetic perception can foster ways of understanding differently, changes in collective perception mostly occur unnoticed, even when they bring about major impacts. Philosopher Federico Campagna has compared reality to the scenery of a puppet theater where, in the moment when its background changes, the glimpse of an empty stage uncovers how each reality system, or conception of the world, is arbitrary and subject to radical shifts. With this analogy, the idea of the veil is evoked again, taking on a different form: that of a scenery that changes only to hide the black hole, the emptiness of the stage/truth.
To understand how the 'rule of disguise' functions one needs to trace what is being effaced, or what is disappearing from the common reading of reality. A glimpse of it may be grasped by looking at what could be deemed as obvious, or hiding in plain sight. I would claim here that the effacement of contamination and of what revolves around it is one of the main characteristics of this specific historical moment. The concept of contamination along with that of pollution (and purity) appeared in religious contexts in the form of a prescription of something to be prevented way before the discovery of the possibility of contaminating substances through bacteria, or polluting the environment emerged.10 Before referring to radioactive contamination, this word has been used to indicate corruption by mingling: in Latin the semantic origin of the word contamination contains an explicit connection to the idea of touch, from the root tangere.11 An abuse of touch perpetuated through a radical misplacement of natural elements has reached contact with the constitution of matter itself at a subatomic level, thus generating those highly radioactive particles that are now spread in contaminated places. But far from being denoted only through negative assumptions, contamination represents a rather rich and multifaceted concept. In biology, a recently acquired perspective acknowledges that bodies are not to be understood as isolated entities, but they constitute instead “multispecies landscapes”12 where contamination comes to define the system of relationships or interconnections that make life possible. In considering bodies as isolated entities, although they are quite evident, these interrelationships have been conceptually ignored.
Although some aspects of contamination are obviously manifest, it is important to notice how the discourse on environmental contamination remains detached from the perception of daily life, thus moving towards its effacement: in perceiving human-triggered environmental changes, the responsibility of the single individual’s behavior or impact remains difficult to acknowledge, as it becomes effaced or diluted in a social system in which a change would often imply not being part of the given system. This can, for example, be seen in the way it is difficult to have a clear idea of the origin of what we define as 'material' in the industrial process. Material is prepared and handled in such a way that it can lose any connection with what its origin was, through the very act of reading it as 'material'. Plants and animals become products through the effacement of their individual characteristics and prior relation to life: a specific plant that was growing in a determinate field is read as 'cotton', an animal becomes 'leather', and so on, dissociating the consumer from possible empathic reactions. Artists and researchers such as Julia Lohmann and Ionat Zurr have investigated this topic, seeking to reactivate through their work the missing empathic responses.
The process of reading life as inanimate, where every element is considered replaceable, is inscribed in this paradigm. The problem of sustainability embedded in postindustrial society constantly faces its own effacement, regulated by the very values society is built upon (which in the Western World are often market rules). One can notice how political decisions which do not produce immediate profit appear impossible to make. Short-term profit as the main goal leads to the acceptance of the many 'necessary evils', accepted because of their effacement. Between others, the daily abuse of natural, human and animal resources, where the very word 'resource' is itself part of this process of effacement.
According to Hui, today's "transhumanist optimism of biotechnology and space technology" is to be considered the final derivation of an attitude of solutionism that characterizes the Western scientific paradigm, which has originated from "Socratic optimism"—an attitude towards or belief in the possibility of progress. Unconcealment thus rising from the dominant Western system of thought which is based on a tragist opposition, for Hui, cannot but lead towards an "apocalypse without revelation."13
Among the list of effacements and disappearances which characterizes this particular moment, the missing relationship with the sacred marks a major change in human perception of environmental space.14 As Lefebvre pointed out, space was once connoted as sacred, or inhabited by mythical presences (Lefebvre, 1991). The desacralization and disenchantment15 of the world could perhaps be placed at the starting point of the chain of transformation that represents the paradigm of the current state of reality, which Campagna calls technic. But going back to the concept of the veil as effacement, by examining it more closely we can see that in the etymology of the word Māyā this image, seen as a representation of the power of the gods, also relates to the idea of creation, and consequently of form and measure.16 It is indeed in between this double bind movement of concealing and shaping that reality operates.