Published in  
December 3, 2019

Thinking outside the box

I recently happened upon a Trevor Noah video showing all the “crazy” solutions being proposed for climate change.

From dimming the sun to creating elite floating islands, the race is on for the next “outside-the-box” solution.

What often slips away in our quests to out-think the problems in our environments is that thinking itself is an ecological habit, a shared vocation between humans and non-humans. We have inherited the sticky myth that thinking happens in our heads, that creativity is a mental thing, and that if we pushed ourselves a bit further than usual we will suddenly discover new ideas. This unfortunately leaves out the surprising materiality of ideas, and leaves us with a view of cognition that doesn’t take into consideration the shocking porosity of humans. In other words, we think-with the contexts we are in. We think-in assemblages that always includes others, human and non-human.

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Thinking is such an entangled affair that it really shouldn’t appear as a single word, but as a hyphenated portmanteau of words to illustrate the fragility of what goes on. As such, the solutions we are creating to counter the creeping effects of climate chaos are products of not just “human minds” but sticky and largely unexamined concepts, myths, and nonconscious material networks that includes an assortment of apparently non-related ‘things’ like bacteria, memes, phone towers, and electrical currents. If thinking isn’t as independent as we suppose, if we are always caught in webs that stretch beyond intelligibility, if the prized ‘thinking subject’ of modern lore is dead, and if the “thought-about” are not passive objects of our thinking, then we face a significantly different challenge than the one that is curtly subsumed in the exhausted invitation to think outside the box. It’s obvious now: we can’t think outside the ‘box’. The dream to think outside the box is exactly how boxes think.

Maybe new possibilities are articulable when we deem the box worthy of encounter, worthy of touch. Maybe there’s delight and joy in feeling the box. And maybe when we touch the corrugated surfaces and grooves and depths of this so-called box, we will be touched back by something we presently have no name for. And maybe that makes all the difference in the world.