Category Archives: art

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…)

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. 


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.


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…)


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.


Death/metal by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Planetary Boundaries by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Subcommittee by Audra Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

Eco-fragments: (re)presenting mass extinction

How can one represent extinction, or the possibility of mass extinction? It’s always difficult to find ways of (re)presenting abstract ideas, but extinction seems to pose an additional challenge. Rather than an event or an object, it’s an unhappening, an unbecoming, an accumulation of absences, whether acknowledged or ignored. And how can one represent a phenomenon that’s unfolding at a planetary level (even a cosmic one, if we consider that the only known life is on Earth), and at the level of genes? It may be difficult and not entirely possible to do so. However, I think it’s crucial to multiply the modes of engagement with extinction if humans are to engage responsively with it. So I’ve been grappling with these questions in my latest art project, as my own small contribution to the project of multiplying responsiveness.

I started by exploring how extinction is depicted in various popular sources. I looked at the photos that accompany statistics on rates of extinction in newspapers and policy reports, as well as the covers of popular books on extinction. What most of these sources had in common was that they used organisms – and almost always animals – to represent extinction In other words, they focused on the positive presence of the creatures whose (impending) absence they are intended to draw attention to. What’s more, they tend to provide figural depictions of these organisms, reflecting them as whole, integral bodies.

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.45.55

Images from the MEMO website:

The most (literally) monumental example of this is the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory (MEMO) project currently being built on the island of Portland off the south coast of Dorset. The structure is ostensibly inspired by the fossils of extinct arthropods found on the island, and will be hewn out of the granite in which these fossils are embedded. It is intended to function as a ‘cathedral of biodiversity’, a ‘place of mourning and warning’ (and a fee-charging tourist destination). The building comprises an inner atrium housing a bell that will be rung each time a species is declared extinct. Visitors will ascend to the top of the building on a spiral walkway, whose walls will be inscribed with stone carvings of extinct beings.  As the photos of some of the plaques suggest, these organisms are presented as stylized, figural, whole individuals, each meant to represent an entire species. This representation of extinction creates an impression that species go extinction ‘one-by-one’, that they disappear fully-formed. It does not reflect profound processes of fracturing, partial survival and inter-mingling that result in the fragmentation of life through extinction.

Riffing off the idea of a memorial-type response to (mass) extinction, but rejecting the idea of figural, monumental, representations, my project focuses precisely on fragmentation. It consists of a series of images produced through the projection of light through layered, painted glass fragments. To create the images, I started with pieces of broken glass (donated by my friends at Bon Papillon in Edinburgh). Each piece was painted not with the image of a whole, organism, but rather with a shard – a series of cells, a colony of bacteria, a swatch of feathers or skin. This produced around 35 fragments, which can be layered together to produce unique images – indeed, no two projections are exactly the same. Using slide projectors or mini-projectors, the images can be superimposed onto any surface in a darkened room. They work especially well on statues and the sides of buildings. In fact, one of the advantages of using projections is that they can be used as temporary graffiti, literally flashing images of extinction onto everyday urban structures and subverting the permanence they seek to embody. Indeed, in contrast to the MEMO carvings, these projections are deliberately not made to last. Like the forms of life they represent, they are ephemeral and constantly transforming; this is the source of their ability to subvert.

This project is one modest attempt to contribute to the burgeoning of artistic representations of (mass) extinction. Although it engages critically with some existing projects, its aim is not to undercut their value, but rather to provide a different interpretation and mode of response. Indeed, my goal is not to provide a definitive image of mass extinction. Rather, it expresses a desire to multiply and pluralize the ways in which people engage with this world-altering phenomenon.

Some examples of the eco-fragments projections: 

Eco-fragments 1

Eco-fragments 1 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 2. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 2 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 3. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 3 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 4. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 4 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.


Eco-fragments 5 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 6. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 6 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 7. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 7 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 8. All rights reserved.

Eco-fragments 8 by Audra Mitchell. All rights reserved.

No promises

Mass extinction, security and intervention in the Anthropocene 

This video is a full recording of my paper, given on 2 December 2014 at the international symposium (Im)mortality and (In)finitude in the Anthropocene, organised by Thom Van Dooren and Michelle Bastian. Please see the symposium’s website for recordings of the other talks and keynotes. 

About the talk: 

How can and should humans respond to mass extinction? To ask this question is to inquire into the nature and capabilities of human agency – in particular, its ability to intervene in the conditions of earthly life. In Western secular cosmology, humans are expected to intervene in being – that is, to determine the conditions of their own existence and that of the other beings with which they cohabit the Earth. This expectation has produced a powerful image of agency, one in which humans are capable of interposing themselves into spatio-temporal trajectories and channeling them in desired directions. For instance, they may absorb these trajectories within existing structures and conditions, or harness them to bring about new states of affairs. In all cases, human agency is understood to be capable of intervening ontologically to create conditions favourable to human life, and other forms of life valued by humans. The concept of intervention is most often discussed in the field of international relations, where it refers to the acts of states and international organizations to interpose themselves in trajectories of violence. However, intervention is not always an exceptional or disruptive event; increasingly, it has become an aspect of everyday life. In discourses and practices of contemporary security, interventions to predict, contain or defuse threats to human life are embedded within the mundane aspects of collective life. Crucially, these interventions are intended to keep a promise (see Aradau 2014) that the continuity of life as we know it can be maintained indefinitely.

Mass extinction raises a significant threat in terms of this notion of security and the interventions designed to achieve it. By negating entire modes of being, it precludes any possibility of their continuity into the future. Yet most contemporary responses to mass extinction follow the model of security interventions. They are reflected in techniques such as conservation, the collation of ‘big data’ on biota, the identification of ‘endangered’ species, forced breeding and other mechanisms to regulate the tempos of life and death. All of these interventions assume that it is possible for humans to intervene effectively in processes of mass extinction in order to ‘fix the problem’ – that is, to halt or at least slow it down, in order to keep the promise of security.

However, I argue that this imaginary of agency is complicated and ultimately confounded by the conditions of the Anthropocene. Within this understanding, what we tend to think of as human agency is in fact an unstable amalgam of agentic forces: biotic, geological, chemical, physical and cosmic. I argue that the conditions of the Anthropocene undermine the temporal basis of intervention: the notion that humans can stand outside of the processes into which they intervene, entering and exiting at will; the belief that humans can instrumentally redirect these processes; and the human ability to consolidate their interventions around new or previous trajectories. Instead, in the conditions of the Anthropocene, action is reflexive – there is no temporal distance between the ‘subject’ of the act and its ‘object’. Moreover, Anthropocene processes such as extinction unfold over periods and scales (both massive and miniscule) that evade human-calibrated notions of time. As such, humans cannot inter-vene in these processes. Instead, they are always-already intra-vening (Barad 2007). This means that the instrumental, linear promise of security offered by the image of intervention is replaced by the nonlinear, unpredictable, self-magnifying processes of intra-vention.

The upshot of this analysis is that humans cannot expect attempts at intervention to keep the promise of security. Does this mean that human agency is hamstrung – that is, that we can do nothing in the face of mass extinction? On the contrary, I conclude by arguing that recognition of the conditions of the Anthropocene, and of the effects of intravention, open up a range of different possibilities for facing mass extinction. Facing up to extinction without making or demanding promises can multiply the possibilities of ethical response to mass extinction, and the forms of life that they enable.

CFP: More-than-human Worlds of Violence, Sicily, 23-26 September 2015

Call for papers, panels or roundtables: P1060005

More-Than-Human Worlds of Violenceat the European International Studies Association’s 2015 Convention in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, from 23-26 September 2015. 

Violence is almost always framed as a dynamic that arises between human subjects. Nonhumans are usually treated as its instruments, its passive objects, and/or the background against which it unfurls. For instance, nonhumans may be instrumentalized as weapons, backgrounded as conditions of combat or identified as sites of damage (as opposed to harm). However, emerging discourses on ‘posthumanist’ international relations challenge the anthropocentric ontology that produces these assumptions. Insights from new materialism, animal studies, the environmental humanities, science and technology studies, and other fields have helped to reframe nonhumans as ‘lively’ presences in world politics. From the role of animals in warfare to drone surveillance to the ethics of mass extinction, they illuminate the ways in which nonhumans are integral to various modes of violence. Specifically, they suggest that nonhumans embody, transform and produce specific forms and modalities of violence that cannot be reduced to human agency or subjectivity. This line of thought raises a number of important questions, including, but not limited to:

  • (In what ways) can nonhumans be subjects, objects, actants or sites of violence?
  • What specific forms of violence do nonhumans participate in and produce?
  • What ethical implications might arise from an ontology of violence attuned to the capacities of nonhumans?
  • How might a more-than-human ontology reshape the concept of violence?

Subjects may include – but are not limited to: the weaponisation of nonhuman; the impacts of various forms of violence in/on nonhumans and multi-species communities; violence in the Anthropocene (e.g. extinction, climate change); complexity and violence.

Please note that this is an interdisciplinary section and conference participation is strongly encouraged from all subject areas, including the arts and humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Even if you do not normally present your work at international studies conferences, this section will provide an open and welcoming forum for engaging in interdisciplinary work on violence and the more-than-human that has an international and/or global dimension.

This section aims to represent the best new work at the intersections of more-than-human scholarship and violence, and will include participants at all career levels – postgraduate students and early career researchers are especially encouraged to apply.

Participants may submit a proposal for an individual paper, panel or roundtable (if you have an idea for a different kind of session, please email me). The deadline for all submissions is 15 January 2015. Please note that if you have already agreed to participate in this section, you must still submit your abstract through the online system.

If you have any questions about the panel, feel free to get in touch with me. Also, please circulate this CFP to networks, colleagues and students who might be interested.




Posthuman security: a virtual workshop

KAt the end of June, I organised a workshop at the University of York to explore the intersections of posthumanist thought (broadly construed!), international security and ethics. I was lucky to be joined by a stellar list of scholars from several disciplines, including IR, philosophy, geography, sociology, robotics and political science (see a full list below) and from across the UK, US and Australia. The result was a fascinating set of papers and discussions. I’ve put together a ‘Virtual Workshop’ where you can read posts from the authors and listen to the talks – just as if you were at the workshop itself. 

You can access the Virtual Workshop here. 

This workshop is the beginning of an ongoing interdisciplinary conversation around these themes, so please get in touch if you’d like to get involved in future events. 

About the posthuman security workshop 

International security is not solely a matter of securing human lives and bodies. Whether other animals, machines, networks, minerals, water, ecosystems or complex assemblages thereof, a wide range of beings other than humans shape the contexts of (in)security. But how can and should they be accounted for within security discourses? Is there a ‘posthuman’ conception of security – or should there be? And what are the ethical implications of thinking beyond the human in the context of security and ethics?

Pioneering work in the area of ‘posthuman’ thought (broadly construed) offers a starting point for answering these questions. For instance, new materialists, complexity theorists and proponents of object-oriented ontology challenge ontologies that privilege an exclusively human perspective. On the other hand, theorists in areas such as critical ecology and animal studies call on humans to expand their ethical imaginations to include nonhumans. In another sense, work by scholars of global catastrophic risks and human extinction probe the very limits of the notion of security. So far, these lines of thought have developed more or less independently of each other, and have intersected with very different aspects of security studies. How do these approaches ‘speak to each other’, and how do they conflict? Can they (as discourses or as a swarm of diverse critiques) unsettle the anthropocentric basis of security and security ethics?

The ‘Posthuman Security Ethics’ workshop brought together leading proponents of a more-than-human approach to security from across several disciplines. Contributors come from a range of disciplinary backgrounds and theoretical traditions. Each offers a different account of what ‘posthumanism’ means and how it intersects with security.

With the diversity of these approaches in mind, the workshop  focused on three main questions:

1)     Is there a ‘posthuman security’, or a ‘posthuman security ethics?’ Should there be? 

Scholars concerned with a more-than-human approach to security work in very different fields and traditions, from theoretical physics to continental political philosophy. What kinds of debates exist within and amongst these approaches? Is it possible to bring together insights from these various fields, and can/should their claims be reconciled? Or, alternatively, what fruitful gaps and tensions can be found amongst these approaches?

2) Do ontological shifts have ethical implications?

To date, there has been ground-breaking work aimed at developing more-than-human ontologies, and on the extension of ethics to some nonhumans. But, in most cases, these remain separate endeavours: work focused on ethics tends to retain an anthropocentric ontology; and the ethical implications of more-than-human ontologies remain under-developed. How can work in both areas be brought together? How might this transform ideas of security, harm and protection?

3) Future research agendas

What are the priorities for future research at the intersection of posthumanist thought, security studies and ethics? What kind of collaborations (and on what kinds of projects) can best facilitate the development of these agendas?


Chair and organizer: Audra Mitchell, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, University of York, UK

Anthony Burke, Associate Professor of International and Political Studies, University of New South Wales, Australia

Martin Coward, Senior Lecturer in International Politics, University of Newcastle, UK

Erika Cudworth, Reader in Political Sociology and Critical Animal Studies, University of East London, UK

Stefanie Fishel, Visiting Assistant Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, US

Nick Gane, Professor of Sociology, University of Warwick, UK

Jairus Grove, Assistant Professor of Political Science, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, US

Stephen Hobden, Senior Lecturer in Law and Social Sciences, University of East London, UK

Carolin Kaltofen, PhD Candidate,University of Aberystwyth, UK

Bradley Lineker, Research Associate/ PhD Candidate, University of York/ King’s College London, UK

Matt McDonald, Senior Lecturer of International Relations, University of Queensland, Australia

Alan Winfield, Professor of Robotics, University of the West of England, UK

Confronting the North Pacific Garbage Patch

A virtual installation

AIn a stretch of the North Pacific Ocean, hundreds of miles away from any territorial state boundary, floats a massive object known colloquially as the ‘North Pacific Garbage Patch’. The term ‘patch’ is a euphemism; this object is so large as to be indeterminate in size, despite the best efforts of marine scientists to measure and model it. Billions of plastic objects and fragments are drawn together in the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, a vortex effect created by the large-scale clockwise rotation of ocean currents, high atmospheric pressure and the whirlpool effect created by westerly winds on the north side and easterly trade winds to the south. In 1997, Captain Charles James Moore encountered the ‘garbage patch’ while crossing the North Pacific on his way back from a yachting race and, struck by its immensity, attempted to measure the density of plastic particles within it. He  estimated that the visible plastic amounted to about half a pound for every 100 square metres, or 3 million tons of plastic total, a figure corroborated by US navy calculations.N

The ‘garbage patch’ is the site of numerous harms. Seabirds, turtles, cetaceans and plankton, mistaking fragments of plastic for food, ingest them and feed them to their young, whilst playful marine mammals or fish become tangled in ‘ghost nets’ where they drown and decompose. Although synthetic polymers are bio-inactive (that is, they cannot decompose in the stomachs of these animals), they can cause harm to these animals by blocking internal organs, preventing the intake of calories or causing internal injury. It is difficult to estimate how many animals die in these ways as most of their bodies sink to the bottom of the sea or are dispersed  Even though the plastic itself is bio-inactive, it acts as a sponge for toxins such as heavy metals or resilient poisons like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) and DDT which, although banned since the 1970s, still permeates Mplastic waste today. Plastic fragments also carry POPs (persistent organic pollutants), which can cause a range of harms in animals from endocrine disruption to mutagenesis or carcinogenesis. There is substantial concern that these substances may bio-accumulate as they enter and pass up the food chain. Toxins are not the only things carried long distances by pieces of plastic – they also transport micro-organisms that might disrupt the balance of the ecosystems they enter. In addition, the accumulation of plastics may cause the smothering of the sea-bed, a process which can prevent gas-exchange and harden the sea floor, or change the composition of sediments in ways that alter the reproduction of marine species.G

I recently presented a paper (read it here) arguing that the spatial, temporal and ethical boundaries of the concepts of harm need to be challenged, and I used the ‘garbage patch’ as a central (if counter-intuitive) example. To make my points further, I wanted to visualize what it might be like literally to confront the ‘garbage patch’, as if one were directly immersed within it. I like Ian Bogost’s claim that academics can and should make things, and thought I’d give it a go. The result was an installation called ‘Gyre’, which was placed in the School of Political Science and International Studies at the University of Queensland, Australia in April 2014.IMG_6652

The installation is made entirely of plastics consumed or found by myself and co-creator Liam Kelly. It is intended to confront the viewer with the idea that the objects we treat as garbage may not ‘go away’ – instead, they remain, indefinitely, in a shared medium in which we, too, are immersed.  This point is underscored by transposing the mass of suspended plastic into the orderly environment of the university, the suburban neighbourhood – and, of course the air which composes so much of the terrestrial space that humans inhabit. The sculpture and accompanying photos are also intended to perform a ‘cosmopolitical‘ intervention, ‘forcing thought’ about the nature of harm, disrupting the boundaries of ethics and resisting its closure to a diverse cosmos.   But it also reflects the strange, eerie beauty of plastic ‘waste’, when the light filters through its glassy fragments or its filaments spin in a breeze. In this sense, it represents the powerful, abject magnetism of harm.


Thanks to the department of POLSIS, University of Queensland, for hosting this project.

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