Monthly Archives: May 2017

A politics of worlds – ‘Planet Politics’ forum

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Below is my short response to the question “Can world politics save planet earth?’, published in a forum on the Planet Politics Manifesto hosted on Professor Joseph Camilleri’s website. You can read the full forum, including responses from Tony Burke,  Shannon Brincat, Joseph Camilleri Olaf Corry, Cara Dagger, Stefanie Fishel, Cameron Harrington, Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, Daniel Levine, Stephen Muecke, Simon Nicholson, Margi Prideaux and Aubrey Morgan Yee. Thanks to everyone involved for organising the forum!

Instead of trying to save ‘the’ world, we need a politics of worlds, plural

Earth, and the multiple, distinct worlds, it sustains, are performing a powerful critique of International Relations (IR, along with many other fields) by refusing to conform to the categories, predictions and methods of analysis that it offers. The phenomena mentioned in the introduction – global warming, global patterns of extinction, polar melting and more – are embodiments of this critique, and IR scholars (amongst others) need to attend to them. However, this is not the revolt of ‘the’ earth against ‘human activity’ in general. Instead, these phenomena reflect the responses and conditions of plural, distinct worlds sustained on and by earth to particular, deeply destructive modes of organization and relations. Burke asks how a ‘different kind of world order’ can be imagined and created. From my perspective, the challenge is to become receptive to the existence and expressions of plural worlds. In our original argument, the authors of the ‘Planet Politics Manifesto’ wrote about the irruption of a ‘planetary real’ that is shattering the abstract structures of International Relations, both in theory and practice. I would argue that there is not one ‘real’, and it is not the expression of ‘a’ planet. Instead, what the Manifesto points to is the force-fulness of worlds, which extends far beyond the status of mere background conditions or material substrates for ‘human’ action. In trans-forming, colliding, merging, co-existing and being extinguished, these multiple worlds each express their own ‘reals’. If there is friction between the forces of reality and the abstractions of IR, it is the expression of the plurality of these worlds as they are traversed by the totalizing, homogenizing forms of worlding associated with the formation of ‘the globe’ as a sphere of action.

From this perspective, addressing the crises of today involves not simply formulating a new way of knowing ‘the’ world, but rather becoming sensitive to other worlds. My own research is pluriversal in its grounding and normative commitments. Engaging with Indigenous knowledges and cosmo-visions from across Turtle Island, Australia, Hawai’i, southeast Asia and other distinct places, it seeks to understand the transversal structures that engender global patterns of extinction. As such, it requires attunement to the various worlds that are disrupted or destroyed by Western forms of worlding that seek to elide earth with an enclosed globe. I am concerned that some of the proposed approaches to narratives of planetary crisis reinforce this impulse. For instance, the ‘planetary systems’ framework discussed in the Manifesto offers a vision very different from those embraced by traditional IR; yet it reproduces the idea that there is one, unified planet and that any single worldview can reflect it. Similarly, the concept of the ‘Anthropocene’, in its attempt to gain critical purchase on global crises, ironically encloses earth within the homogenizing envelope of ‘human’ activities, erasing the specificity of the relations and modes of organization that it encompasses. Instead of imagining ‘another’ world, I argue for a politics and ethos of co-existence that honours, expresses, protects and nurtures the plurality of worlds.

Postscript:

I am often asked to define the term ‘worlds’. I am happy to do so, or at least to give an account of how I deploy the term in my own work. For me, ‘worlds’ refers to plural constellations of beings that co-constitute one another and, in so doing, create and sustain the conditions for their collective existence.

However, I find it interesting that I’m so frequently asked to explain, and often to defend, the use of the term ‘worlds’, yet the use of the terms ‘the ​world’ or ‘world politics’ are rarely questioned.  When used in the (grammatical) singular, the term ‘world’ seems to be passively accepted as a generic, universal term that requires no further definition or justification. This is despite the fact that it carries very heavy baggage, stemming in particular from European continental philosophy. Indeed, from my perspective, and that of many of the people I collaborate with, the idea of ‘a’ world is just as idiosyncratic and non-intuitive than the idea of multiple worlds.  Alternatively,  the term ‘world’ is  allowed to retain a constructive ambiguity that enables it to take on multiple significations depending on the context and intentions of the speaker/writer. In some cases, this produces bizarre paradoxes – for instance, when quantum physicists refer to ‘the world’ (by which they mean something like a general field of existence) while arguing for the co-existence of multiple worlds.
Pluralise the term ‘world’, and many people (Westerners in particular) find it alien, unfamiliar or even somehow ‘mystical’. One way or another, they usually feel that it requires further definition, explanation or even justification. To me, this reflects the degree of discomfort that plurality generates in Western intellectual discourses. On the one hand, the defamiliarising power of the term ‘worlds’ strengthens its radical potential. On the other, it suggests that the the default universalism (and monism) of Western thought needs to be destabilised so that the mention of multiple worlds does not demand justification.
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