Category Archives: anthropocentrism

Decolonizing against extinction part II: Extinction is not a metaphor – it is literally genocide

 

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Buffalo Calf by Mark Spearman Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic.

Extinction is not a metaphor…

Extinction has become an emblem of Western, and white-dominated, fears about ‘the end of the(ir) world’. This scientific term is saturated with emotional potency, stretched and contorted to embody almost any nightmare, from climate change to asteroid strikes. In academic and public contexts alike, it is regularly interchanged with other terms and concepts – for instance, ‘species death’, global warming or ecological collapse. Diffused into sublime scales – mass extinctions measured in millions of (Gregorian calendar) years, a planet totalized by the threat of nuclear destruction – ‘extinction’ has become an empty superlative, one that that gestures to an abstract form of unthinkability. It teases Western subjects with images of generalized demise that might, if it gets bad enough, even threaten us, or the figure of ‘humanity’ that we enshrine as a universal. This figure of ‘humanity’, derived from Western European enlightenment ideals, emphasizes individual, autonomous actors who are fully integrated into the global market system; who are responsible citizens of nation-states; who conform to Western ideas of health and well-being; who partake of ‘culture’; who participate in democratic state-based politics; who refrain from physical violence; and who manage their ‘resources’ responsibly (Mitchell 2014).

Oddly, exposure to the fear of extinction contributes to the formation and bolstering of contemporary Western subjects. Contemplating the sublime destruction of ‘humanity’ offers the thrill of abjection: the perverse pleasure derived from exposure to something by which one is revolted. Claire Colebrook detects this thrill-seeking impulse in the profusion of Western blockbuster films and TV shows that imagine and envision the destruction of earth, or at least of ‘humanity’. It also throbs through a flurry of recent best-selling books – both fiction and speculative non-fiction (see Oreskes and Conway 2014; Newitz 2013; Weisman 2008). In a forthcoming intervention, Noah Theriault and I (2018) argue that these imaginaries are a form of porn that normalizes the profound violences driving extinction, while cocooning its viewers in the secure space of the voyeur. Certainly, there are many Western scientists, conservationists and policy-makers who are genuinely committed to stopping the extinction of others, perhaps out of fear for their own futures. Yet extinction is not quite real for Western, and especially white, subjects; it is a fantasy of negation that evokes thrill, melancholy, anger and existential purpose. It is a metaphor that expresses the destructive desires of these beings, and the negativity against which we define our subjectivity.

But extinction is not a metaphor: it is a very real expression of violence that systematically destroys particular beings, worlds, life forms and the relations that enable them to flourish. These are real, unique beings, worlds and relations – as well as somebody’s family, Ancestors, siblings, future generations – who are violently destroyed. Extinction can only be used unironically as a metaphor by people who have never been threatened with it, told it is their inevitable fate, or lost their relatives and Ancestors to it – and who assume that they probably never will.

This argument is directly inspired by the call to arms issued in 2012 by Eve Tuck and Wayne K. Yang and more recently by Cutcha Risling-Baldy. The first, seminal piece demonstrates how settler cultures use the violence of metaphorical abstraction to excuse themselves from the real work of decolonization: ensuring that land and power is in Indigenous hands. Risling-Baldy’s brilliant follow-up extends this logic to explain how First People like Coyote have been reduced to metaphors through settler appropriation. In both cases, engagement with Indigenous peoples and their relations masks moves to innocence: acts that make it appear as if settlers are engaging in decolonization, while in fact we are consolidating the power structures that privilege us.

In this series, want to show how Western, and white-dominated, discourses on ‘extinction’ appear to address the systematic destruction of peoples and other beings while enacting moves to innocence that mask their culpability and perpetuate structures of violence. As I argued in Part I of this series, extinction is an expression of colonial violence. As such, it needs to be addressed through direct decolonization, including the dismantling of settler colonial structures of violence, and the resurgence of Indigenous worlds. Following Tuck, Yang and Risling-Baldy’s lead,  I want to show how and why the violences that drive extinction have come to be invisible within mainstream discourses. Salient amongst these is the practice of genocide against Indigenous peoples other than humans.

…it is literally genocide.

What Western science calls ‘extinction’ is not an unfortunate, unintended consequence of desirable ‘human’ activities. It is an embodiment of particular patterns of  structural violence that disproportionately affect specific racialized groups.  In some cases, ‘extinction’ is directly, deliberately and systematically inflicted in order to create space for aggressors, including settler states. For this reason, it has rightly been framed as an aspect or tool of colonial genocides against Indigenous human peoples. Indeed, many theorists have shown that the ‘extirpation’ of life forms (their total removal from a particular place) is an instrument for enacting genocide upon Indigenous humans (see Mazis 2008; Laduke 1999; Stannard 1994). Specifically, the removal of key sources of food, clothing and other basic materials makes survival on the land impossible for the people targeted.

Nehiyaw thinker Tasha Hubbard (2014) makes a qualitatively distinct argument. She points out that the Buffalo are First People, the elder brothers of the Nehiyaw people (and other Indigenous nations – see Benton-Banai 2010). Starting in the mid-1800s, the tens of millions of buffalo that ranged across Turtle Island were nearly eliminated through strategic patterns of killing carried out by settler-state-sponsored military and commercial forces. Their killing was linked to governmental imperatives to clear and territorially annex the Great Plains by removing its Indigenous peoples. As Hubbard points out, methods of destroying buffalo herds included large-scale killing, but also the disruption of their social structures, the destruction of the ecosystems on which they rely, and the removal of calves. These acts involve each of the components of the definition of genocide enshrined in the UN Genocide Convention: 

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

From Hubbard’s viewpoint, rooted in Nehiyaw philosophy and ethical-legal principles, the  systematic destruction of the buffalo is not like genocide, nor is it exclusively a tool for carrying out genocide against human peoples. It is genocide in its own right: an attempt to destroy a particular First People and the possibilities of its continuity. In other words, the deliberate and systematic attempt to eliminate the buffalo, enacted by settler states, simultaneously enacted genocide against Indigenous peoples and their nonhuman relatives.

Genocides of Indigenous peoples (human and otherwise) continue apace in contemporary settler states, transformed into multiple manifestations. For instance, they are integral to ‘biosecurity’ strategies designed to police the biological boundaries of these states and their citizens. Laced with racializing and xenophobic rhetoric (Subramaniam 2001), strategies such as culling or planned

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Flying fox and her cub by Richard Wasserman licensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Attribution-Non-commercial-Non-Derivs

eradications are intended to remove ‘invasive’ or ‘foreign’ life forms in order to protect ‘Native’ ones. Many of the ‘invasive’ life forms targeted for destruction were transported to unfamiliar lands through colonial patterns of settlement and global trade flows.

However, this logic of elimination (Wolfe 2006) is often perverted, turned against Indigenous* beings whose flourishing impedes the expansion or consolidation of the colonial state. For instance, Deborah Bird Rose (2011 a, 2011 b) shows how this form of violence is continually waged against flying foxes, who are framed by the settler state as “pest[s] whose extinction is [deliberately] sought”. This act of elimination involves explicit genocidal ideation, or the imagination of the destruction of a people. Rose characterizes it as a “matter of imagining a world without [dingoes or flying foxes], then setting out to create it” (Rose 2011a). The Australian settler state has used multiple tactics to induce terror and preclude flourishing amongst flying foxes, from the emission of high-pitched electronic signals to smearing trees with python excrement (Rose 2011b). Indeed, in 2014, I lived near to the roosting site of a group of flying foxes in Turrbal and Jagera Country (suburban Brisbane to settlers). Such nesting places are called ‘colonies’ , reflecting a Western scientific rhetoric that frames Indigenous peoples as ‘invaders’ of the settler state. The trees that housed the nesting site backed onto a municipal facility, whose fence had been covered with barbed wire, in which many of the bats snared their wings and starved to death.  This ‘security’ measure – designed to protect the facilities relied upon by urban settlers from the intrusion of flying foxes – is a powerful weapon for precluding ongoing flourishing of Indigenous other-than-human peoples. I learned from neighbours that this ‘colony’ had previously been ‘moved’ from several other sites around the city, suffering significant declines in population each time. Indeed, despite reported declines of 95% in flying fox communities in Queensland and neighbouring New South Wales, the Queensland settler state legalized the shooting of the bats in 2012 by fruitgrowers.

Of course, in some cases, the elimination of life forms is not as targeted or intentional – it may take the form of land-based extractive violence, the creep of ocean acidification, the decimation of rainforests by climate change. Proponents of a Eurocentric definition of genocide could argue that these events lack intention. Indeed, within international law, intention to commit genocide is a necessary criteria for conviction. However, theorists of critical genocide studies have long argued that this definition is inadequate: it brackets out a great many of the acts, logics and structures that produce the destruction of unique peoples. According to Tony Barta, definitions of genocide that focus on ‘purposeful annihilation’, and in particular on physical killing, have “devalu[ed] all other concepts of less planned destruction, even if the effects are the same” (Barta 2000, 238). For this reason, he shifts the focus from ‘genocidal intention’ to ‘genocidal outcome’ – that is, from the abstract assignation of genocidal agency to the felt and embodied effects of eliminative violence. It is the focus on intent, he contends, that allows white Australians to imagine that their relationship with Aboriginal people is non-genocidal despite overwhelming evidence of systematic and deliberate racialized destruction over several centuries. In contrast, an approach based on ‘genocidal outcomes’ makes it possible to account for complex causality and weak intentionality – that is, for myriad acts mediated by subtle, normalized structures that, together, work to eliminate a people. I want to argue that the same logic applies to nonhuman peoples: the destruction of a life form, its relations with other beings and its possible futures is a genocidal outcome, whether or not intention can be identified.

Similarly, Christopher Powell (2007) argues that, since a ‘genos’ is a

“network of practical social relations, destruction of a genos means the forcible breaking down of those relationships…these effects could be produced without a coherent intent to destroy. They could result from sporadic and uncoordinated actions whose underlying connection is the production of a new society in which there is simply no room for the genos in question to exist. They might even result from well-meaning attempts to do good” (Powell 2007, 538)

As I have argued elsewhere, extinction is defined by the breaking of relations and the systematic destruction of the conditions of plurality that nurture co-flourishing worlds. Whether inflicted out as a deliberate act of extirpation, or as the convergent effect of eliminative logics expressed over centuries and enormous spatial scales, extinction is the destruction of relations and the heterogenous societies they nurture.

Understood in this way, ‘extinction’ is not a metaphor for genocide or other forms of large-scale violence: it is a distinct manifestation of genocide. Masking the genocidal logics that drive extinction involves several moves to innocence (Tuck and Yang 2012). Treating extinction as something short of genocide entrenches Eurocentric understandings of personhood that are limited to homo sapiens, which is itself an act of violence against these peoples. Ironically, the entrenchment of this dichotomy also enables the logic of ‘dehumanization’, in which human communities are likened to reviled nonhumans (for instance, cockroaches) in order to motivate violence against them. As I have argued elsewhere (Mitchell 2014), the logic of generalised ‘dehumanisation’ is uniquely effective in Western frameworks in which the lack of ethical status for beings other than humans removes obstacles to their mass destruction. Within worlds in which human and nonhuman persons are linked through complex systems of law, treaties, protocols and long-standing relations, this claim is illogical. Within Western settler states, however, it functions as a means of justifying ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples and their relations.

In addition, by framing extinction as a problem for a universal figure of ‘humanity’ (more on this to follow…) mainstream discourses of extinction obscure its profound entwinement with race and racializing structures.  These examples make it clear that eliminative violence is targeted on specific groups of people and their other-than-human relations, as defined by the aggressors. Indeed, patterns of genocidal violence extend racializing categories, hierarchies and eliminative impulses to other-than-human peoples. Just as approaching gender violence separately from race effaces their intersection, understanding extinction as distinct from race is deeply misleading. This is not only because racialized people are more likely to suffer from the effects of ‘extinction’ and other forms of environmental racism (which they are). It is also because the eliminative violence that drives extinction extend and enact race beyond the category of homo sapiens by defining particular groups against white settler norms and as threats to the settler society. To approach extinction separately from issues of race is, therefore, to miss one of its most defining features.

Extinction is not a metaphor – in many cases, it is quite literally genocide enacted against Indigenous peoples and their other-than-human relations. To treat it as a metaphor is to obscure and participate in the structures of violence that drive it. From this perspective, in addition to active decolonisation efforts, and the resurgence of Indigenous peoples, addressing extinction also requires attacking the genocidal, racializing,  eliminative logics that are diffused throughout settler (and other) states. It also requires honouring the unique relations, worlds and peoples that are targeted by these discourses and practices.

*In this context (referring to flying foxes and other non-human peoples), I use the term ‘Indigenous’ to refer to the historical inhabitation and co-constitution of a particular place, and enmeshment in meaningful relationships with the other beings that co-constitute that place. Within this perspective, life forms deemed ‘exotic’ or even ‘invasive’ in Western science could potentially become part of that place if accepted by, and in mutually beneficial relations with, existing communities. I use the term in contrast to narratives of ‘native’ or, sometimes ‘Indigenous’ species, which make dichotomous distinctions between those beings deemed to be ‘endogenous’ and ‘exogenous’.

 

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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.

(Bio)plurality

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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.

 


Can water go extinct?

 

 

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.

Two Women Sitting Down

Two Women Sitting Down

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.


Ignoring Extinction/Refusing Global Politics

 

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 end – or is it?

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.


Spiked: violence, coloniality and the Anthropocene

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. 

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Strata by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

 

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.

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Spiked by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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…)

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Entanglement by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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.

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Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

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Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.


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