This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.
This is a recording of my recent talk at the Environmental Humanities programme at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Thanks to Thom Van Dooren and Matt Kearnes for organising.
Water, and its protectors, are fighting for survival. As I’m writing, the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing historic legal challenges from the Chippewas of the Thames and the Inuit of the Clyde River. The Chippewas are protesting the reversal of and increased flow along Enbridge’s Line 9, which transports oil through more than 100 waterways across southern Ontario and Quebec. The Inuit of the Clyde River, Nunavut, are protesting seismic testing by mining corporations that threatens to disrupt or displace marine life forms on which they rely. Both parties are presenting evidence that decisions on these extractive processes were made in violation of treaty rights.
A matter of hours before these cases were heard, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two more major pipeline projects in British Columbia – the Transmountain and Line 3 projects – that will vastly expand the amount of oil transported from the Alberta Tar Sands to global markets. These pipelines will also increase the exposure of the province’s rivers and coasts to the threat of chemical spills from the pipes themselves and increased tanker traffic, whose possible negative effects on marine life have not been sufficiently examined.
The toxification of water in Canada, and especially in Aboriginal communities, is a constant threat to livelihoods and ways of life. Just a week before the Supreme Court Hearings, a report by the Toronto Star found that residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows) Ontario, are consuming fish containing 13 times the acceptable levels of mercury. This is the ongoing and neglected legacy of the dumping of 10 tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River in the 1960s.
And of course, further south, one of the most remarkable social movements of the this generation is taking place. Militarized police forces are using water cannons, rubber bullets, barbed wire and old-fashioned physical violence to protect pipeline developers against thousands of water protectors, composed largely of members of the Sioux Nation and their allies, camped at Standing Rock. Whether in court, in the camp or in their own communities, water protectors are putting their bodies on the line to demonstrate that ‘water is life’.
If water is life, can it die, can it go extinct – and does this matter? At the moment, I am working to re-think mainstream accounts of extinction so that they better reflect the enormity of what is at stake. Standard biological definitions – ‘the death of every member of a species’ – are fraught with exclusions and constraints that, despite feverish rhetoric surrounding a possible ‘sixth mass extinction event’, actually downplay the gravity of the situation. My (developing) ideas on global extinction are not conventional. I refuse to focus only on ‘species’ that are deemed to be ‘living’ within Western scientific frameworks of knowledge. Instead, I am examining how structures of violence – in particular, colonial and extractive modalities – destroy the continuity of worlds and the co-constitution of the beings that create them.
From this perspective, global extinction is not just an ‘(unintended) effect’ emerging from the actions of ‘humans’ as a whole. Instead, it is a mode of structured destruction, a large-scale syndrome of combined violences concentrated in particular places and sustained by the efforts and power of particular groups of humans. These structures are uniquely global – and I don’t use this term to refer to a ‘neutral’ measure of scale. Rather, it reflects a particular mode of large-scale worlding, rooted in European images of an encompassing globe, that seeks to elide itself with earth (for more thoughts on this, check out last month’s post). These structures fracture worlds, protocols, life forms and collective continuities achieved amongst them.
If we approach global extinction this way, how does water fit in? Can it die, and can in go extinct? In a recent book, Elizabeth Povinelli asks whether rocks can die. She has particular rocks in mind: Two Women Sitting Down, two female rat and bandicoot Dreamings in the Northern Territory in Australia. In 2011, the Two Women were fractured by OM Manganese, the mining company extracting minerals in the region for export to Chinese markets. Although this was the first legal suit in which destruction of a sacred site was successfully brought by Indigenous owners in Australia, the amount of the damages awarded ($150 000) was paltry.
More to the point, though, Povinelli stresses that the charge was not manslaughter, but rather desecration of a sacred site. Her work has long documented the ways in which state actors pay lip service to the animacy of Dreamings. In fact, they often demand that Indigenous communities perform certain ‘beliefs’ that confirm Western stereotypes and standards of ‘authenticity’. But at the same time, it is clear that the animacy of these beings is regarded by state actors as a matter of ‘belief’, ‘myth’ or ‘metaphor’, rather than knowledge. This explains why the destruction of Two Women Sitting Down did not ‘count’ as a killing, but rather a kind of offence against ‘beliefs’.
According to Povinelli, Two Women Sitting Down and other Dreamings challenge the basic foundations of geontology: the structures of power and knowledge in which ‘Life’ is divided from ‘Non-life’ within Western scientific culture. For Povinelli, geontology underpins all forms of bio-, necro- and thanato-politics. These are strategies used to manage life and death through, amongst other strategies, population control, security regimes, conservation practices and genetic engineering. Geontology also provides the foundations for the construction of resources, commodification and the circulation of capital by designating what does and does not have ethical standing – and therefore, what can be used as ‘resource’. ‘Non-Life’ almost always falls into the ‘resource’ category.
Simply by existing as themselves, figures like Two Women Sitting Down unsettle the boundaries between Life and Non-Life – and, I would argue of the scope of harm (or something like it). This does not only go for rocks. Povinelli also writes about Tjipel, a ‘transgender creek’ whose multiple becomings – as human girl, river, resource, Dreaming, home, relation, possible fracking site and more – confound geontological categories.
Other bodies of water, too, are asserting themselves across geontological boundaries to transform politics. For instance, in 2012, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand was given a legal identity under the name Te Awa Tupua (claims to traditional ownership of the river are ongoing). This gave the river the same rights and interests long offered to corporations. In asserting its personhood in legal terms, Te Awa Tupua became the first body of water to receive this status. However, formal legal status is not required for water to disrupt entrenched, colonial political categories. The water protectors at Standing Rock, on the coast of British Columbia, all along Line 9, the Clyde River, Grassy Narrows and elsewhere are not just advocating for water, but as water. This constitutes another powerful challenge to dominant political regimes, and asserts water as a political and ethical being, that can live, die and experience harms.
But can water ‘go extinct’, and does this matter? If so, this might offer a way to bring the status of water as life into mainstream discourses – not as an alternative to recognising the political, ethical and legal status of water, but rather as a complement. Before exploring this question, it’s important to distinguish death from extinction, especially in the way I’m re-framing these terms. As Deborah Bird Rose has pointed out, life and death intertwine so that death is twisted back into life, in part through the collective efforts of the living, ensuring the continuity of multi-life-form communities. Extinction destroys both life and death – as such, it cannot be the same as death, or simply a scaled-up version of death. I would add to this that while death refers to the Western scientific definition for the cessation of life in an individual organism, extinction applies to multi-life-form collectives. That is, extinction is the destruction of plural modes of being, their deep histories and contingent futures. Also, as I have argued above, global extinction is not just an accumulation of deaths, or even of species extinctions, but large-scale structures of violence that sever the creative continuities of life.
Water is not included in mainstream discourses of extinction, except occasionally as a factor in the deaths of animal or, more rarely, plant populations. That is, water is not considered to be a being capable of going extinct, or a subject of extinction. This assumption exemplifies the kinds of geontological and biontological reasoning that Povinelli is concerned with. Unlike many other cosmologies, in Western science, water is understood as a form of Nonlife that relates to Life as a resource that supports its vital processes. However, a closer look at Western understandings of water show that these assumptions do not hold water.
This understanding of water imagines it as a pure, neutral medium that is somehow outside of, or an external medium for life (and its messy, colliding histories), a resource that life ‘uses’ instrumentally. Under the banner of H20, Western cultures frame water in terms of its chemical composition, as a ‘pure’ substance or theoretical abstraction. Jamie Linton calls this imaginary substance ‘modern water’. In fact, actual waters are co-constituted by beings that are usually coded as ‘life’ in Western terms. This includes not only macro-fauna such as fish, algae or kelp, but also the myriad bacterial and other microscopic beings, alive and dead, that constitute it. These beings cannot be meaningfully separated from water, so water is not just a ‘resource’ for them, but the condition of their existence. Similarly, the ‘modern water’ paradigm promotes an imaginary, generic idea of water that is ultimately the same in its physical properties wherever it appears, give or take differences in temperature, salinity, mineral content and so forth, and of course, the effects of ‘pollution’. In fact, waters are also made plural by the singular constellations of beings – classed as Life and Non-Life, organic and inorganic, by Western science – that co-constitute them. As such, the toxification, damming or other damaging of a body of water constitutes the destruction of unique worlds, not the manipulation of a generic substance.
At the same time, it is better known that water constitutes living beings. It is a well-worn cliche that water makes up most of the human body, including the structure of living cells. However, less recognized is the way in which water is the condition of the modes of being coded as ‘Life’ by Western science. Instead, it tends to be treated as a resource that is separate from organisms and brought into them through eating, drinking or absorption. On the contrary, water is as much a milieu for ‘land-dwelling’ creatures as air is. It is not outside of bodies, but always-already part of them. Beyond nourishing bodies, quenching their thirst and lubricating their movements, water conditions and transforms life. Moving through bodies and worlds, it leaves traces or concentrations of toxicity that inhibit life or force it into new modes of growth. Patterns of evaporation and rainfall creatively constrain the life forms that emerge in the effort for collective survival (for instance, the difference between rainforest amphibians and desert plants). The volume and direction of rivers affects not only access to water, but also the way that life orients itself in space towards or away from it. Water conducts sound – greatly intensified by shipping and mining – that can allow cetaceans to communicate, but also injure, disorient and displace them, along with other marine life forms and the communities that live in concert with them. In all of these cases, water is an inalienable condition of life, not a substrate that ‘Life’ uses instrumentally.
From this perspective, life is co-constituted by water and vice versa (to say nothing of how water co-constitutes other forms of ‘Non-Life’, including place, climate, air and soil). Changes in water alter the conditions for the flourishing of life forms and can drive their extinction. But at the same time, the elimination or displacement of life forms that co-constitute water undermine its conditions and the singular worlds it forms. Of course it is possible theoretically to imagine an abstract version of H20 without any traces of ‘Life’ or other forms of ‘Nonlife’, but this would not be the concrete, plural waters on which multi-life-form worlds rely. So, even from perspective rooted in Western science, water co-constitutes, is co-constituted by, and therefore is life. Carried to its logical conclusions, Western science finally, arrives where multiple bodies of Indigenous thought have dwelled for millennia.
Viewed in this way, water can go extinct, in the sense that I have described above. That is, water is a co-constituent of multi-life form worlds whose integrity and continuity is severed when any of them are destroyed. Another way of putting this is to say that it is impossible to understand global extinction without including water (or air, or soil, but those require a separate discussion). The harm and destruction of global extinction are distributed across bodies, boundaries, ‘species’ and geontological categories in such a way that their full impact can’t be grasped if any of these beings are excluded. From this perspective, the harms and violences of global extinction accrue directly to water in itself, not just as an indirect resource for life.
What is the advantage of understanding water as a subject of extinction? First, this approach helps to break down divisions that impose particular ontologies and denigrate forms of being that don’t ‘count as Life’. In so doing, it provides another fulcrum for destabilising dominant modes of politics that exclude ‘Non-Life’ (including forms of life categorised as such). This can complement the powerful efforts of Indigenous groups and their allies around the world to assert the living status of water. Second, this approach offers a much more comprehensive account of extinction and the enormity of the damage it inflicts across worlds. In a similar sense, understanding the destruction of waters as part of global extinction underscores the importance of water for the continuity of life on earth in a broader, more-than-human ethical sense. Third, understanding threats to water in terms of global extinction offers another way of highlighting, diagnosing and resisting the structured destructions, slow and fast violences advancing across the earth. It is important to stress that this argument is indebted to Indigenous knowledges about water and not intended to displace them with yet another ‘Western’ approach. On the contrary, my aim is to show Western knowledge systems and political powers cannot avoid facing the consequences of their arbitrary distinctions between ‘Life’ and ‘Nonlife’, and the violences carried out in order to maintain them.
This is a full recording of a talk I gave at the New School for Social Research in New York on 27 October, 2016, including perceptive and generous comments by Rafi Youatt. It was part of a workshop entitled “Global Politics Without Ignorance” organised by Anne McNevin, Erdinc Erdem and others at the New School. The workshop focused on different understandings of knowledge and ignorance within global politics, drawing on critical race theory and embracing a wide variety of approaches, including decolonial and posthumanist thought.
A couple of notes. First, whenever I use the terms ‘human’ or ‘humanity’ (or emphasise something weirdly), assume I’m doing air quotes. Second, I refer to a few others in the room by first name only – they are: Anne (McNevin), Rafi (Youatt), Patrick (Jackson) and Zuleika (Arashiro). Because I can’t include embedded quotes in audio form, I’d like to cite the sources of a couple of things I mention. My discussion of refusals by plants is drawn largely from the work of Wendy Makoons Geniusz and Robin Wall Kimmerer; while the discussion of the Sedna and the withdrawal of animals is drawn from the work of Tim Leduc . I also want to thank the Creatures’ Collective for inspiring and co-incubating many of the ideas discussed here.
The imagery in the background is called ‘Transversals’ and was produced during the workshop as I began thinking through this alternative to ‘(the) global’ or ‘universals’ (more on this to follow…)
Extinction is the total, irreversible end of a life form – or is it? The claim of irreversibility is often used to highlight the stakes of extinction, and the danger of following courses of action that one cannot repair. I’ve used this argument myself to drive home the seriousness of the global extinction crisis. But something doesn’t sit quite right with it. It is too totalizing, too final, too certain a claim to reflect the plurality and uncertainty of the turbulent Earth. What’s more, it might pre-emptively, and figurally, extinguish life forms in a way that exceeds the biological sense of extinction.
One of the major problems with dominant scientific and public understandings of extinction is that it is equated with death, either in aggregate or writ large. In the first case, extinction is understood as the biological death of every member of a species, and mass extinction as the accumulation of species deaths past a particular threshold. In the second case, extinction is understood as a scaling-up of death – that is, the metaphorical ‘death’ of species, constituted by the biological deaths of all their members.
First of all, extinction isn’t death: the two concepts are, and need to be kept, distinct. As Deborah Bird Rose has insightfully argued, extinction is the severance of processes of life and death that sustain each other, and the life forms they encompass. But what really causes problems with mainstream accounts of extinction is that they conceptualize death in Western secular terms. Within contemporary Western secular cosmologies (which I have written about extensively here), death is literally a ‘dead end’. Western secularity, in fact, has almost no place for death – it is understood as a superlative evil, an irreversible absencing and loss from which there is no return. It is this concept of death that underpins framings of extinction as the total and irreversible elimination of a life form.
By framing ‘extinct’ beings in this way, these discourses may erase evidence of the refusal of extinction – that is, creative, collective modes of survival beyond the scope of Western (secular) science. To appreciate this, we need to look beyond the hard boundaries of this cosmology.
“What if extinction isn’t really extinction?” asked my colleague Tim Leduc in one of the rich and challenging discussions that made up the first meeting of the Indigenous Visions research collective. His careful and nuanced research on Inuit and Haudenosaunee cosmologies in dialogue with Western cultures of climate change has given him an alternative perspective on this idea. Tim points out that within the Inuit Qaujimautuqangit framework, there are ample stories of the disappearance of animals. They relate to the Sedna, an indweller of the deep seas who controls all of the animals and plants, both in sea and on the land. When the Inuit break the protocols of daily life – including hunting – negotiated with the Sedna, she causes the animals on which the Inuit rely to withdraw from the land and sea. Tim’s research shares the observation of Inuit people living in Nunavat who have seen evidence of Sedna’s discontent in the decline of Arctic char and the changed behaviour of polar bears, amongst other signs. Vanessa Watts pointed out that there are similar stories of withdrawal in the Anishinaabe tradition, also related to the breaking of laws and protocols between forms as a result of human actions. She stressed that, from this viewpoint, the animals are not extinct in the scientific sense, but have withdrawn. It is possible – although by no means guaranteed – that the restoration of protocols would enable the animals to return.
From the perspectives shared by both Tim and Vanessa, the global extinction crisis is about the breaking of laws, rules and protocols that have sustained life amongst multiple kinds of beings for millennia. In fact, it involves a dominant group of people breaking bonds carefully nurtured and sustained by others – a feature of the colonial forms of inhabitation that are integral to global-scale ecological rupture. This approach inverts standard accounts of extinction, which frame it as a problem of technical control and economic management, and seek to prevent Western secular notions of death. Instead, the disappearance of life forms understood as the grievous violation of an agreement, a harm to be actively and humbly mended. Such a perspective is promising for re-visioning the global extinction crisis as a crisis of global ethics.
This framing removes the reprieve of finality. In short, if one believes that extinction is irreversible, one is let of the hook when it comes to dealing with the extinct life form. Treating extinction as the breaking of a protocol places an onus on all humans – but especially those who are most responsible for driving forward this crisis – to restore, maintain and, crucially, create new multi-life-form treaties for sharing the Earth. This only becomes possible if one moves away from an understanding of extinction as an irreversible process immune to human action. This assumption is upheld by homogenous ideas of human action that focus on instrumental control rather than reciprocity and negotiation.
The idea that extinction is total also erases the traces and presences of the extinct within the extant. For instance, by treating a life form as ‘extinct’, these discourses ignore their persistence in human communities – whether in the collective imagination or the names of clans. I (and the other members of the collective) are also not sure what happens to animals that occupy v spirit worlds once they are extinct in biological terms. This is a question that we’ll have to explore with the help of the elders and knowledge-keepers with whom we’ll be working.
A total and irreversible concept of extinction also obscures genetic legacies, which forge living links between the extant and extinct. As Nigel Clark has pointed out, all currently existing life is indebted to forms of life that went before, to their striving and collective efforts of survival that enabled evolution. This relationship continues not only in the form of DNA and shared histories that transgress the boundaries of species, but also (to name just a few) in morphology, histories of habitation and migration and instinct transmitted and transformed through evolution. To adopt, as Clark encourages, gratitude towards these beings is to acknowledge the impossibility of total extinction.
As long as the concept of extinction refers to total and irreversible elimination, it erases these, and many other, acts of survival and of the refusal to go extinct. Critics might argue that this line of thought undercuts the seriousness of the problem and might create a moral hazard. That is, if we don’t understand extinction as total and irreversible, will it not give license to those driving the crisis to continue with business as usual? This is not at all the argument I’m making. On the contrary, what this approach suggests is the need for careful attention to the securitizing, totalizing, dichotomizing language of Western secular science, which draws as sharp boundaries between ‘extinct’ and ‘extinct’ as it does between ‘living’ and ‘dead’. This approach can erase powerful acts and processes of continuity, of the transversal of these boundaries, of presencing against the accumulation of mass absence described by experts on extinction. Crucially, this presencing may not be visible or sensible, at least not in the frame of Western secular science. It may take the form of hiding or withdrawal, and it makes no promises of reversal, but always holds open the possibility – and the imperative – of the renewal of broken bonds.
Will the extinct return if those bonds are mended? This cannot be predicted, and the renewal of bonds shouldn’t be undertaken in such a conditional way. This is akin to techno-scientific attempts to evade Western secular death by forcing the extinct back into being, whether through coercive breeding, de-extinction or mourning. From the perspective I’ve sketched out here, these strategies add insult to injury: they respond to the violence of broken protocols by coercing life forms into the sphere of bio-political control.
And the ‘return’ of large numbers of life forms is not always the sign of a repaired bond. Indeed, Tim and Vanessa both spoke about stories within the Anishinaabe tradition of the return of large raptors, other birds and animals as a sign of major, perhaps catastrophic change. Since I moved to southern Ontario in late 2015, I have seen these kinds of phenomena: groups of as many as 20 or 30 red-tail hawks circling together as they moved north; and the gathering of what I am told is nearly 30 000 crows in a local park every evening (see the short film posted above).
We need to pay attention to these forms of presencing, whether they are warnings of disaster or the sign of slowly repairing bonds. Moving away from an understanding of extinction as large-scale death, as total and irreversible, takes away the easy option of consigning the extinct to oblivion. Instead, it calls for the hard work of confessing and addressing broken protocols, and working to create new ones, with no guarantee of a return, and no relief from responsibility.
This online mini-exhibition is presented in advance of the initiation of the Anthropocene Re-working Group (with Zoe Todd), which will take place at the Conference “Landbody: Indigeneity’s Radical Commitments” at the Centre for 21st Century Studies, Milwaukee, 5-7 May 2016.
The full text of our presentation is available here: Earth violence text Mitchell and Todd
Since this is a work in progress, please let us know if you would like to reproduce it. For the same reason, all rights are reserved for the use of these images. . Contact me if you’d like to share, reproduce or alter them.
Since the early 2000s, there has been a scramble amongst scientists to define the boundaries of the ‘Anthropocene’. In the rush to mark and claim this era, hundreds of scientists and some social scientists are racing to find a definitive ‘golden spike’. The golden spike is a discursive, imagined, yet very real placetime in which scientists intend to drive a stake, claiming the conversion of the Earth into a human dominion. Most notably, the ‘Anthropocene Working Group’ of the subcommission on Quarternary Stratigraphy is planning this year to announce where/when the spike should be driven. It will choose amongst numerous proposals, including the detonation of the first nuclear weapons, the Industrial revolution, and the beginning of large-scale agriculture.
In so doing, this group of overwhelmingly white, male scholars of the physical sciences, whose meetings are closed to the public, plan to make a claim on behalf of ‘humanity’ over the history, future and fate of the planet.
Critics of the Anthropocene are producing excellent work on the domination of scientific perspectives amongst Anthropocene discourses,on Anthropocentric narratives that magnifies human agency and entrenches the human/nature divide, and the inaccuracies of claims that ‘humans’ as a whole are responsible for the phenomena transforming the Earth. Yet there has been little focus on the role of foundational violence in the Anthropocene and the distinctively colonial violence enacted through the forces re-shaping the Earth and the discourses arising to describe them. Recently, the geographers Mark Maslin and Simon Lewis have made an important contribution to this discussion. They argue that the beginning of the Anthropocene should be placed in 1492, the year when the colonization of what would become the Americas resulted in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Maslin and Lewis focus on the ecological outcomes of this period of mass violence and expropriation.
Building beyond this, Zoe Todd and I are initiating a new artistic/performative/collective thought experiment focused on role of violence in the Anthropocene. We will be looking at multiple modes of violence, including the detonation of nuclear weapons and the slow violence of capital accumulation, industrialization and extinction. Each of these phenomena, central to the concept of the Anthropocene, are rooted in the historical/geological moments and trajectories of violence that are colonisation. To this end, we are inaugurating a public ‘Anthropocene Re-working Group’ whose goal is to explore the violences shaping the planet in open-ended, multi-media, multi-disciplinary ways (more on this to follow…)
To begin this project, I wanted to get my hands on some actual spikes to think and feel through the discourse of a ‘golden spike’. Engaging with these spikes allowed me to reflect on their materiality and their potential for violence. Handling them enabled me to sense their weight and shape, their utility as weapons, the intention of penetration with which they were forged, their appropriative nature, as the stakes through which claims to land and ‘resources’ are made. These particular spikes, salvaged from a defunct stretch of railroad, also evoked the violence of industrialisation, the expropriation of Indigenous lands across North America and the near-extinction of the American buffalo as a result of hunting from trains. Even their material basis is poignant: it brings to mind and hand the metals torn from soil and stone to fuel the demand for industrial resources and capital speculation.
I composed these images in order to encourage contemplation of the ‘golden spike’ as a central and meaning-multiplying embodiment of the impulse to mark and bound the Anthropocene. These are my initial responses to the idea of the golden spike and the intention to tell different stories about the violence of the Anthropocene. I hope that this nascent project will encourage and foster the exchange of many alternative stories, images and ideas.
This month’s post comes courtesy of E-IR. It offers some reflections on the discussions related to ‘posthuman security’ that have been brewing over the past couple of years. It is part of a series that also includes contributions from Elke Schwartz, Matt McDonald and (coming soon) Carolin Kaltofen. Thanks to Clara Eroukmanoff and the E-IR editorial team for putting this series together.
This article has also been published on Global Policy Journal’s blog.
In 1987, a group of leading conservation biologists called for a “new age of exploration and classification of the biosphere on a scale to rival that of the colonization of the new world”. And indeed, scientific-political responses to mass extinction have taken
markedly colonial forms. For instance, huge effort and resource has been invested in the collection of comprehensive data on existing species, as reflected in projects such as the IUCN’s Red List and the ‘Encyclopedia of Life’. These projects employ the distinctly colonial strategy of using taxonomic knowledge to subjectify and control the Other (see, for instance, Said 2003). Indeed, the objective of these data collection programmes is to support biopolitical efforts to ‘make life live’, or, in Achille Mbembe’s words, to ‘abolish mortality’. This goal is most directly reflected in ‘ex situ conservation’ programmes. In these contexts, life forms classified as endangered are entered into global breeding programmes and made to reproduce in ways that are often indistinguishable from coercion (see the work of Van Dooren and Chrulew). These strategies exemplify a colonial logic in which billions of beings are suspended between being and nothingness “dwel[ling] close to death” in a state of “half life” (Mbembe 2001). In this context, all life on Earth is imagined as wretched: driven to the edge of extinction yet (selectively) forced to remain in existence.
What framework can one use to engage critically with these kinds of responses to mass extinction? On the one hand, they are clearly linked with the maintenance of boundaries, hierarchies, violence and power dynamics used to separate humans and other beings. From this perspective, they look like issues for posthumanist critique. On the other hand, the particular logics and strategies used in response to mass extinction owe much to the repertoire of colonial thought and practice, and therefore demand insights from postcolonialism. Engaging critically with responses to mass extinction seems to call for a form of engagement that synthesizes the two. And this is far from the only issue that makes such a demand. To name just a few, the logics and practices surrounding geo-engineering, synthetic biology, and space colonization all cry out for this kind of response. Why, then, do the two bodies of thought remain so separate?
Rob Nixon and Graham Huggan have each helped to explain why proponents of environmental thinking and postcolonialism have been reluctant to join forces. For Nixon, US-dominated environmentalist narratives have traditionally clashed with the aims and ethos of postcolonial thinkers in several ways. For instance, he argues that where the former stressed purity (e.g. of ‘wildnerness’) and connection to place, the latter has tended to place more value on hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, he contends that the anti-humanist strains of some strands of environmentalism jar with the postcolonial commitment to humanism and equality. By framing certain groups of humans as ‘excessive’ (primarily in terms of population), they appear to reproduce the violent logics of colonial power. For his part, Huggan points out that environmentalism is viewed by some postcolonial theorists as yet another means for extending neocolonial forms of control. The example of colonial conservation, discussed above, does little to dispel this fear. From these perspectives, the orientations and normative commitments of the two approaches seem to pull in different directions.
However, it is crucial to note that Nixon and Huggan are writing about environmentalism, and not posthumanism (for a brief introduction, see this post). Posthumanists might be environmentalists, or not – and vice versa. Rather than espousing a particular ideal of an ‘environment’ to be preserved, posthumanism does precisely what it says on the tin: it attempts to decentre and deconstruct dogmatic forms of humanism. While many variations of posthumanist thought focus on the relations between humans and other beings, they do not necessarily espouse the notion of an ‘environment’ (let alone ‘nature’). Instead, they are concerned with the boundaries and hierarchies constructed between beings, and with what these structures efface. However, for precisely this reason, the integration of posthumanism and postcolonialism might be an even harder sell.
There are good reasons for posthumanists to engage with postcolonial thought in order to contest the erased histories and power dynamics that have entrenched exclusive norms of ‘humanity’ and its planetary dominance. In other words, it is quite logical to imagine postcolonial posthumanist approaches, and some authors have already begun to elaborate them. For instance, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden have shown how norms of ‘civilization’ underpin assumptions about a firm boundary between humans and other animals, and of the dominance of the former over the latter. Deconstructing these standards, they claim, denaturalizes claims about both the superiority of humans over ‘nature’, and of certain groups of humans over each other. In making this argument, Cudworth and Hobden call for the exploration of “new possibilities for humanism without the imperialist baggage of a civilising mission”. Nonetheless, their work seeks to unsettle the humanist ethos that lies at the heart of postcolonial theory.
However, the central place of humanism in postcolonial theory prevents an easy reconciliation with posthumanism. This raises a crucial question: could there be a posthumanist postcolonialism? Moreover, are there good reasons for postcolonial theorists to adopt a posthumanist perspective? What’s in it for them? I want to argue that there are, indeed, very strong reasons for adopting this kind of perspective. Most importantly, posthumanist perspectives can help to resolve a perennial tension within postcolonialism: the tendency of humanism to entrench the conditions of dehumanization. Several of the key texts of postcolonial theory identify dehumanization as one of the primary tools of colonial rule. In his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre contends that “violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of…enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them”. Dehumanization is said to occur when biologically human subjects are socially constructed as any one of a range of nonhuman beings: threatening animals (lions, hippopotami, ants, gorillas, even zombies or tribal masks) (Mbembe 2001); ‘things’ (Césaire 1955); or ‘vegetal’ forms (Fanon, 1963) that can be harvested like the ‘fruits of the trees’ (Arendt, 1976). Moreover, Aimé Césaire contends that dehumanization applies not only to the subjects of colonialism, but also redounds onto the colonizers. As he puts it, “colonization…dehumanizes even the most civilized man”.
As I have argued elsewhere, dehumanization functions only when it is possible to posit a sharp boundary between the onto-ethical category of ‘humanity’ and everything else in the universe. In order for it to be effective – that is, in order for dehumanizors to get other people to treat another being as ‘dehumanized’ – two conditions must be in place. First, there must be a widespread belief that anything that does not fit the normative criteria of ‘humanity’ has no ethical standing and can be disposed of with impunity. It is only on this basis that dehumanization functions as an expeditor and justification of violence. Second, it must be assumed that there is a firm boundary separating ‘humans’ from ‘nonhumans’, and that simply categorizing a being on one side or the other is enough to determine its onto-ethical status. As Samera Esmeir puts it, this logic underpins “the idea that humanity can be given or taken back”. In short, the functionality of dehumanization utterly relies on the positing of a firm boundary between humans and other beings.
One of the most important normative tools of postcolonialism is to assert the humanity of the oppressed in the face of the peoples and structures that would dehumanize them. For instance, Fanon interpellates colonial subjects to ‘rehabilitate mankind’ by demanding their rightful membership in the category of humanity. Similarly, Said undermines the claims of dehumanizing colonial logics by invoking universal humanism based on shared rationality. Yet their calls have ironic consequences. Paradoxically, by asserting one’s ‘humanness’, one entrenches the set of beliefs that renders it revocable.
There are several ways of countering the logic of dehumanization without entrenching its basic onto-ethical principles. One is to invoke a transcendental notion of ‘humanity’, rooted in a divine realm that is not subject to the transformations and manipulations of human agency. This type of belief underpins Christian (and other transcendental) systems in which humanity is endowed by the divine. This kind of argument helps to address the second condition of dehumanization: the belief that humans (or their social structures) can invest or divest beings with humanity. However, it may also entrench rigid and timeless norms of ‘humanity’. And, as Neta Crawford has argued, it is the ability to extend or otherwise alter the boundaries of ‘humanity’ that has enabled the recognition of the ethical standing of many peoples. A posthumanist account, on the other hand, offers an immanent means for addressing this problem that retains, in fact affirms, the fluidity of being and becoming on Earth.This approach rejects both of the conditions of dehumanization, undermining its possibility. It requires embracing the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ human – just as there is no such thing as a ‘pure race’, or ‘untouched nature’. Esmeir identifies the embryo of this idea in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. He argues that dehumanization (and (re-)humanization) will always be partial processes, “because the nonhuman coexists with and within the human”. The force of Fanon’s argument lies in the assertion that a being can retain its ‘humanity’ – that is, its ethical core – even when the boundaries between it and other forms of being are dissolved.
Adopting this orientation would involve recognizing the multitude of ways in which human beings are entangled and co-constituted by other beings – animals, plants, metals, machines, and matter of all forms. Crucially, recognizing the entanglement of humans with other beings does not mean yielding to attempts to degrade the status of humanity. On the contrary, as Jane Bennett puts it, recognizing the liveliness of all matter not only minimizes differences between objects and subjects, but elevates all materiality such that “all bodies become more than mere objects”. In such a context, it would be nonsensical to claim that a being was disposable or inferior simply on the basis of its being ‘non-human’, and the rug would be pulled from underneath the logic of dehumanization.
I want to be very clear: this argument is not intended to let perpetrators of dehumanization off the hook, or to downplay the violence that their actions involve. And I am certainly not advocating that the targets of dehumanizing violence accept or capitulate to these violent acts. On the contrary, I am arguing that they can radically neutralize the process of dehumanization by removing the basis on which it operates. Dehumanization functions only insofar as people believe in its effectiveness – that is, to the extent that they accept the two conditions discussed above and act accordingly. A posthumanist postcolonial approach makes it possible to undermine this logic.
There are multiple other ways in which posthumanism and postcolonialism could be fused in mutually strengthening ways. In fact, this would be less a matter of joining separate discourses than of drawing out existing affinities – or, simply put, following through key principles of each discourse to their logical conclusions. There are a few obvious starting points for such a project.
First, one of the most important values of postcolonial thought is the recognition and embrace of heterogeneity. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues, “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”; it is figured as a homogeneous mass only by the essentialist, taxonomic categories imposed upon it. Indeed, Chandra Talpede Mohanty contends that subaltern groups such as ‘women’ are constructed on the basis of a perceived common experience of oppression. These arguments are mirrored in Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the ‘animal’: a category used to homogenize an almost unthinkably diverse set of beings, and to construct them through their shared subjection to industrialized violence. Each of these approaches acknowledges the violence of erasure and homogenization enacted by ontological categories, whether the distinction between ‘subaltern’ and colonizer, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or ‘human’ and ‘animal’. But instead of arguing for the inclusion of the second term in each pair within the first, these approaches call for the celebration and expression of diversity.
In the same spirit, Césaire rejects a both ‘narrow particularism’ and ‘disembodied universalism’, seeking a “universal rich with all that is particular…the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”. These ideas are mirrored in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of ‘cosmopolitics’, which involves involves attending to the multiple, diverse and constantly transforming beings that constitute the cosmos. Although it does not advocate treating each being as equal (normatively or ontologically), it insists on acknowledgement and responsiveness to modes of being that do not necessarily fit with a universal ideal or common form of measurement – for instance, the category of ‘humanity’. Crucially, this includes finding ways of attending to the “shadows of that which does not have, cannot have or does not want to have a political voice” (Stengers 2005, 996). In a context in which the subaltern is too diffuse and heterogeneous to ‘speak’ as a unified subject, it is necessary to engage in “measuring silences” (Spivak 1985, 92). Indeed, Stengers argues that, in a cosmpolitical context, all beings can ‘force thought’ in a manner similar to what Homi Bhabha has called ‘presencing’. That is, they can slow the universalizing process by unsettling existing assumptions, boundaries and patterns of political action. Drawing on this principle, a posthumanist postcolonial ethos can cultivate responsiveness to the multiple forms of presencing. Instead of pursuing a humanism made to the measure of the human world, cosmopolitics calls for an ethics responsive to the universe in all of its heterogeneity.
Various postcolonial positions also call for a relational ethics across the boundaries that define ‘humanity’. They encourage genuine forms of ‘contact’ (Césaire 1955) not based on violence and subjugation, but instead generative of “solidarities across class, race and national boundaries” (Mohanty 2003, 19). A posthumanist postcolonial ethos would involve extending these affinities and connections across the boundary of species and forms of being. Mbembe (2001) recognizes how colonial violence encompasses a range of humans, plants, animals and objects. Indeed, he argues that colonial violence annihilates subjects by forging a “close connection, both venal and convivial, among slave-being, animal-being, native-being, and thing-being” (Mbembe 2001, 240). In other words, colonial power does not only makes slaves of humans, and animals of slaves, but also slaves of animals and so forth. This is a mode of ‘being-together’, but not of ‘existing together’ (Mbembe 2001, 27) in the sense of recognizing the other as a full participant in being. A crucial means for resisting this kind of negative conviviality would be to convert it into a positive form, as Donna Haraway’s recent work suggests. This entails cultivating a sense of responsiveness and accountability to the other beings with which humans interact – not by humanizing them, but rather by understanding the multiple ways in which we cohabit with them. For Haraway, living well with others does not involve aspiring to an impossible ideal of nonviolence. Instead, involves cultivating a “responsible relation to always asymmetrical living and dying, and nurturing and killing” (Haraway 2008, L751- 759). This, in turn, demands a form of ‘becoming-with’ as ‘becoming worldly’: building sites of attachment with other beings, and tying ‘knots’ which bind humans into patterns of “response and regard that change the subject- and the object” (Haraway 2008, L4588). In other words, Haraway calls for the diametric opposite of dehumanization and its boomerang effect: a mode of interaction in which each being is enriched in its trajectory of becoming through contact with the other.
As this brief discussion has suggested, there are numerous shared nodes of postcolonial and posthumanist thought. Cultivating them would not involve ‘exporting’ ideas from one into the other, but rather on amplifying existing resonances. At its root, this is a move to recognize not only shared aims, overlaps or similarities, but rather the fact that both bodies of thought contest and struggle against the same logics, violences, structures and repertoires of action. Although I have analyzed the issue in terms of ‘postcolonial posthumanisms’ and ‘posthumanist postcolonialisms’ to reflect existing perceptions, I don’t intend to suggest that either approach should dominate. What I am proposing is a mutual co-extension , of postcolonial thought and ethics beyond the boundaries of the normatively ‘human’, and of posthumanism into the realm of global ethics. This kind of approach can better equip us to confront an Anthropocene epoch in which ‘humanity’ and colonial power are increasingly conflated.