Category Archives: Plants

(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.

 


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…)


Lifework

Over the last year or so, it’s been my privilege to help convene a wonderful collective of scholars, writers, thinkers and knowledge-keepers – the Creatures Collective. We are a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars (I am amongst the latter) who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis. Our conversations center plural forms of Indigenous knowledge and we strive to approach our work as a lived, experiential ethics – what Creature Noah Theriault has called ‘more-than-research’. This approach seeks not only to understand the protocols, laws and bonds broken by ‘extinction’, but also actively to help remake them. This is not only research – it aspires to be a lived, committed, embodied form of work.

I have felt disconnected from this kind of work for most of my career. Finishing my PhD as the global financial crisis ramped up, I entered a UK academic job market in which staying afloat meant producing large numbers of quantifiable, ranked outputs and generating constant flows of grant money (or at least applications). Achievements were not experienced so much as measured, assessed and compiled, calculated into averages and translated into floating numerical indicators of ‘excellence’. Conventions of value and prestige consigned entire categories of publication and modes of working to worthlessness. For instance, a colleague was told that many of her early publications were ‘CV pollution’. Working weekends and late into the night were so normalized that it was considered self-indulgent to take them off. Even if the actual expectations for outputs were not outrageous, I felt enveloped by the pressure to maintain whatever level of productivity I’d reached, constantly attempting to overshoot in the hopes of making some space to catch my breath. Of course, as soon as I did, new demands consumed my hard-hoarded time. As I ‘progressed in my career’, I watched my PhD students racing to publish at an even faster rate than I had found necessary, barely taking the time to settle into their projects before being consumed in frantic job-market strategizing.

This logic and lifestyle were not exactly difficult for me to internalize. If anything, I adapted to them them with an unhealthy degree of compliance. But doing so had deep implications for how work felt. The grating anxiety of quantification formed a thick callous, separating me from my work. I entered a kind of dissociative state in which the work I was doing passed through me without making much of an impression. The time or energy I felt I had available to commit to a piece of work was limited: as soon as a book or article was published, it dropped out of my circle of concern. I became prolific and promiscuous with projects, jumping from one to the next, phasing each one to match the machinery of deadlines, publication gaps and reviewing backups to ensure a constant feed of outputs. What this actually fed was my anxiety: any gaps in the assembly line became signals of failure. Getting promoted and achieving other ‘milestones’ didn’t remove the deadening buzz of pressurized momentum – if anything, they amplified it.

My experience is hardly unique: the culture of constant anxiety, strain, workaholism and wildly inflating expectations is the norm in neo-liberal universities. How are academics expected to deal with this? Well, we are encouraged to develop something called a ‘work/life balance’. At first glance, this sounds like a good idea: earmarking some time free from constant performance surveillance and production mania. But in reality, ‘work/life balance’ is a tool of neoliberal resilience – it encourages small periods of rest in order to sustain high levels of productivity. More than this, it installs a dichotomy between work and life that is harmful to both. It is not simply that ‘work/life’ balance frames ‘life’ as fragments of excess or waste – what is left over after work (if that ‘after’ ever arrives). Just as alarming is the fact that work is opposed to life – it becomes lifeless.

Collaborating with the Creatures Collective has brought me to a different understanding that I will call lifework (centring life, and opposed to the harsh severance of work/life or the disjointing of work-life). Within this group, we talk about work as ethics, as the embodied fulfillment of responsibilities, as relation-weaving and worldmaking. Work is lived, and work has life – one lives, and lives with, one’s work as one lives with other beings. This absolutely does not mean that formal, professional ‘work’ should be allowed to bleed into every aspect of one’s daily life. There are always aspects of working in a modern Western institution that produce abstraction and disconnection, and need to be strictly limited. It also does not mean shirking the duty to publish, write grant proposals or ‘produce’ in those conventional senses. It is still possible to operate in these worlds and to honour many of the demands that they make. Lifework is vigorous, creative and highly generative of a wide range of ‘outcomes’- but production is part of the life of the work, and not an end in itself. It involves recognizing the life (one’s ‘own’ and that of others) put into one’s work, being present in that work and in those lives. Lifework recognizes that work produces beings that affect worlds around them, deserve respect, and command care.

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Some members of the Creatures Collective co-writing. Clockwise from right: Zoe Todd, Erik Mandawe, June Rubis, Noah Theriault, Audra Mitchell. Other member of the collective include Sarah Wright, Tim Leduc, Vanessa Watts and Genese Sodikoff.

Here are a few of the things I’ve learned and principles I’m trying to live up to since working as part of this collective. Because we are a collective, these ideas are ours and not ‘mine’ – but I would not claim to speak for the group as a whole. Instead, I would say that these ideas are inspired and fostered by our collaborative work and relations.  These ideas are also deeply influenced by Indigenous research methods, and by the approaches of Indigenous scholar-friends, but they are not, strictly speaking, Indigenous methods. Instead, they are reflections about the lifework I’m engaging in with others, and how I’m learning to care for it:

Lifework is a responsibility. By virtue of being who and what I am, on this land and planet, as a being that harms other beings in my existence and actions, I have responsibilities to them. The work I do should clarify these responsibilities and help me to live up to them.

Lifework is a commitment that goes far beyond production. I need to make the commitment to every piece of work I do, with all that entails: obligation, care, humility and patience. Regardless of pressures, norms or incentives, I should not begin any piece of work that I am not willing to commit to care for in this way.

Knowledge, ideas, wisdom, creativity and inspiration are gifts. I work with them, but they are not mine in a proprietary way: they are always given, and maintained, by plural others. I need to recognize and receive them as gifts, and wherever it is possible, to reciprocate. I also need to understand lifework in the form of gifts. This does not mean assuming that my work is so excellent that I consider it a ‘gift to the world’. On the contrary, it means having the humility to think about how it can serve others and meet their needs, how it can be given without demanding reciprocity (which would involve exchange, not giving – see Rauna Kuokannen’s excellent work on this subject).

Lifework should not be rushed. It requires building community, living with ideas, changing one’s mind, allowing experience and relations to shape me. All of this takes time; it richens and ripens over time. Lifework needs to be lived with.

Putting something into words – especially shared words – has power and impact, no matter how small or indirect. It may be necessary to wait patiently until I can speak or write about something with integrity before I try to do so.

Just because I can master a subject, form of knowledge, or practice does not mean that I should. I need to be careful, respectful and attentive about what is ‘for me’ and what isn’t. I need to know the limits of my knowledge and place limits on what I expose, take, transport to other spheres or transform.

I need to be concerned about the lives of ideas, words and knowledge that I work with. That means that I need to think carefully about what might be done with those beings, how they might be received, interpreted, instrumentalized, abused, commodified or otherwise co-opted. This does not necessarily mean refusing to write or speak about them, but rather committing to care for them after they are put into different worlds (e.g. in print, online, or into antagonistic forms of academic discourse). It also does not reflect any fantasies of control over the lives of ideas once they leave me, or a stubborn refusal to allow them to be changed, hybridized, hacked, or remixed. Instead, it calls for a commitment to care for those ideas, to defend and protect them when needed, but also to embrace their transformations. This responsibility does not end with publication: it simply enters a new phase.

Keeping secrets, holding knowledge, is as important as disseminating it widely. The imperative to ‘mobilize’ knowledge amongst wide public audiences is a part of academic life. It can be serve a lot of worthy purposes – for instance, fulfilling one’s duties to communities and broader publics, raising awareness of important issues, helping to decolonize knowledge, and creating beneficial networks. However, it can also expose knowledge to predation, instrumentalization, (willful) misinterpretation or violation. Concepts like ‘impact’ and ‘knowledge mobilization’ suggest that knowledge is beneficial to the extent that it is made public. This suggests that all of ‘humanity’ should have a claim to particular knowledge. In fact, sometimes protecting knowledge means keeping it secret, helping to nurture modes of transmission that are closed to outsiders (and respecting this in one’s own actions). It might mean refusing to divulge information that could result in harm, or in cases in which exposure is harm in itself (Simpson 2014). Even if this means that much of the knowledge shared in co-researching is ‘off the record’, this kind of work makes important contributions to the nurturing of knowledge.

When I learn from others, I am taking something and I owe something in return – if only the necessary respect. I may not always be allowed to take what I want. There are obligations involved, permission to be asked, negotiations to be carried out. Others (human and otherwise) can always refuse, and I need to honour and learn from, rather than resent, those refusals.

Lifework must embody my ethics, not just comply with them. Of course, any action compromises my ethics (aside from, and sometimes in conflict with, codes of institutional or professional ethics) should not be part of the work I do. But beyond this negative account, the work I do should help to realize my ethical commitments in the world. My work and ways of working must be ethical acts in themselves.

If I ever find myself working on something that I find boring, repetitive or uninteresting, I should not be doing it. To work with ideas or beings that I don’t actively care about is disrespectful to those things. I should be the right person to make each argument I’m making. If I am not inspired or called by it, then I am not the right person.

Each piece of work I do takes a great deal, not only from me, but from all of the others that co-work with me: time taken away from other things, care, energy, resources, input, patience, calories, bytes, printed paper, emotion, and so on. For this reason, no project should be considered a ‘throwaway’, or a quick job (this calls to mind the recent idea of the ‘quick monograph’ now circulating in UK academia). Rushing to produce something and then abandoning it is deeply wasteful and contemptuous of the value of all of these beings that co-create it.

Sometimes lifeworking in this way means starting from scratch. No matter what I have done or achieved, if I am entering into a new place or body of knowledge, or interacting with beings who are new to me, I need to start from the ground up. There is no shame or loss of stature in this – it is a privilege to be allowed to begin again and renew as one moves through different worlds. This learning takes the time, energy and commitment of others, which all need to be respected, and should not be taken for granted or treated as an entitlement.

 

These are a few of the ideas I am reflecting on – and living with – as I try to move from work/life to lifework. I am not claiming that I live up to these principles  completely, or every day. Instead, they are intentions that are guiding my work, helping me to find – and hopefully to nurture – the life in and around it. I would love to hear from others who are trying to do the same.

 

*Note: I want to recognise that it’s relatively easy for me to write these things from the privileged position of tenure. Colleagues who do not (yet) have this security, and/or are working against structural forms of exclusion, may find it much riskier to talk about their experiences, let alone to criticise the power structures that lock so many of us into unhealthy work-lives. For that reason, I strongly believe that it falls on those of us with tenure (or equivalent job security) do everything we can to create a culture in which all of our colleagues have the time and space to take care of themselves and others. This not only means trying to achieve wellness, kindness and reciprocity in our own lifework, and being a source of support for others, but also talking about these issues in order to make healthier ways of working acceptable in our workplaces.

 

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Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis

 

Eco fragments 6On Wednesday, 1 June, I am honoured to host some of the most fascinating  scholars working at the intersection of Indigenous philosophy and ecological crisis, both here in Canada and around the world, at the event Indigenous Visions of the Global Extinction Crisis . If you happen to be in the Waterloo area, please join us  for the opening event, which will include Haudenosaunee remembrance and condolence ceremonies, a talking circle featuring workshop participants and all attendees, songs from the Waterloo Aboriginal Students Association  and an art exhibition/ spoken word performance featuring the work of the very talented Cara Loft and Zoe Todd . This event will mark the beginning of a collaborative project that features contributions from (in alphabetical order):  Tim Leduc, Genese Sodikoff, Makere Stewart-Harawira, Noah Theriault, Zoe Todd, Vanessa Watts and Sarah Wright (joining us on behalf of the Bawaka Country Research Collective)  Special thanks also to my colleagues at the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University (especially Jean Becker, Melissa Ireland and Kandice Baptiste) for their guidance, input and teachings. I am grateful to the gifted (and tireless) Tahnee Prior for her help in organising the event, and to the Balsillie School of International Affairs, Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation for funding this event. 

For those of you who can’t join us in person, I’d like to share an abridged version of my opening talk for the event, to give you a sense of the community and projects we are aiming to build. Please note that the text has been edited to remove personal and/or ceremonial aspects of the event out of respect for these people and traditions. 

This workshop marks the beginning of an ongoing, collaborative project, so please get in touch if you are interested  in finding out more.

 

Thank you so much for coming today. I am honoured that you could all join us for the opening of this new project, and I look forward to learning from and with all of you over the next hours and days .I hope that this will event will mark the beginning of many rewarding relationships and new collaborations.

We’ll begin by acknowledging that we are on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnawbe and Haudenosaunee peoples and offering a formal expression of gratitude to them as our hosts.

[distribution of tobacco twists to elders and invited participants]

… Before handing over to William Wordworth to begin the remembrance and condolence ceremonies, I’d like to say a few words about why we have come together for this few days of sharing, learning and envisioning.

Western science tells us that the Earth is in the midst of a global extinction crisis. The biological extinction of life forms is accelerating rapidly and across the planet as a result of human activity. We are warned that this may be the beginning of a ‘6th mass extinction’ in which most existing life forms may be eliminated in a few centuries.

Yet there is little discussion of what ‘extinction’ means – it is simply assumed to mean the death of ‘every member of a species’. There are so many problems with this definition: not least the Linnaean mode of classification that has given us the concept of species or the more recent construct of ‘biodiversity’, both of which exclude myriad forms of life and relations and draw sharp boundaries between ‘living’ and ‘dead’ that confound the basic principles of so many living cosmologies.

Even the concept of extinction as the irreversible elimination of a life form effaces the ways in which relations ‘extinct’ life forms may continue through relations with the spirit world, through genetic entanglement, and through lived histories that extend across the imposed boundaries of ‘species’.

Crucially, all of these concepts embed deeply colonial ideas of ‘nature’ and human relations with it – from the early roots of conservation in the creation of national parks and the violent eviction of their human inhabitants, to contemporary forms of hyper-capitalist conservation in which ‘species’ and ‘ecosystems’ are traded, offset and financialized as commodities, severing relations of kinship and care.

These concepts furnished by Western secular science cannot capture the enormity of the global extinction crisis – and they mask the violent erasures that they create, including the crowding out of alternative accounts and ways of being-knowing.

Talking to colleagues and friends from different Indigenous communities, I’ve learned how loaded the term ‘extinction’ can be: it evokes colonial beliefs that Indigenous peoples are ‘extinct’, or headed for extinction. I can’t think of a less appropriate way to describe communities whose powerful, collaborative acts of survivance in the face of waves of crisis and violence epitomises the vibrancy of life and strength.

So, we need new terms, concepts and frameworks, but also stories, songs, images, dances, communities of intention – in a word, visions.

These visions must be expansive enough – both in timescale, geographical scale and the complexity they can embrace – to address the global extinction crisis (or whatever we want to call it!) They must reach back into the deep, ancestral past – and far forward into plural possible futures, while remaining grounded in the everyday experiences of multi-species communities in which we are all, differently, enmeshed. They must address the entangled vulnerabilities of Earthly life, rejecting sharp distinctions between humans and nature, living and dead, tradition and modernity.

What better place to look than the rich, vibrant multitude of living Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies?These cosmologies have survived, adapted and nurtured plural life-forms across millennia, negotiating and fostering life in the face of crisis. Indeed, for many Indigenous peoples, the apocalypse has already happened, with the advent of European colonisation. For several centuries, they have been responding, adapting and creating in the face of violence, rupture and destruction – not least the expropriation of their ancestral lands and the severance of their fundamental relations with specific places and beings.

This workshop builds on the intuition that Indigenous philosophy and cosmology can offer radically different approaches to understanding the global extinction crisis. It rejects the Cartesian, rationalist logic of classification and scientific management, instead embracing plural understandings of how humans and other beings form, sustain and care for multiple worlds here on Earth.

While ‘Traditional Ecological Knowledge’ – localizes Indigenous knowledge,  Indigenous philosophies and cosmologies have much to offer in terms of wrestling with the global nature of this crisis, and should not be parochialized against the backdrop of apparently ‘universal’ Western scientific and governance perspectives. I certainly do not want to downplay the importance of connection to specific places and beings, but rather to explore the global significance of contemporary, living Indigenous thought. As Vine Deloria Jr and Rauna Kuokannen (amongst others) have argued, Indigenous knowledge tends to be instrumentalized, treated a source of empirical material that can be used to substantiate the claims of Western science and policy-making. Yet diverse bodies of Indigenous knowledge offer profoundly distinct cosmologies, frameworks, philosophies and spiritualities that are also abstract and transcendent, while remaining grounded in place and concrete experience. Moreover, the idea of ‘traditional’ knowledge imposes a linear, progressivist view of time which parcels it out neatly into past, present and future – and relegates Indigenous thought to the past. Instead, embrace multiple temporalities and are energised by Indigenous visions of multiple possible futures.

Our goal in this project is to engage a wide range of forms of Indigenous knowledge in order to identify resonances amongst them – NOT to find one universal, over-arching theory. In so doing, we hope to generate new insights and visions for apprehending the multiple dimensions of the global extinction crisis, decolonizing the structures of knowledge that dominate the way it is discussed, researched and governed, and cultivate creative, visionary responses to it.

Art exhibition

The following images are from the exhibition “Cultural Projections” by Cara Loft. Cara is Aboriginal Recruitment and Outreach Officer for the Office of Aboriginal Initiatives at Wilfrid Laurier University. She is a Mohawk Woman from wolf clan and her home community is Tyendinaga First Nation. Cara holds a BA in Health Sciences and a postgraduate degree in International Development, with a focus on community development in First Nations communities in Ontario. She is an avid beader, a women’s traditional dancer and hand drummer. Cara is  passionate about supporting aboriginal youth in Canada in all capacities possible, and her current work focuses on  bolstering education, leadership & cultural pride. “Cultural Projections” highlights Cara’s experiences travelling through Aboriginal communities in Northern Ontario, with a focus on pathways and passages. 

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Attawapiskat Catholic Church by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

52.9259° N, 82.4289° W

Attawapiskat First Nation lies on the western side of James Bay. It is an isolated Cree community with a population of 1,549. Each December a Winter Road is constructed to connect the remote communities of Moosonee, Kashechewan, Fort Albany and Attawapiskat. Attawapiskat being the most northern and remote stop on the James Bay Winter Road. When driving on the Winter Road, the first view you see on the way into Attawapiskat in the Catholic Church sitting high on the hill top. This serves as a reminder of the colonization that took hold of the ‘People of the Parting Stone’ and continues to grip this community. This is reflected in the flagrant natural resources extraction from the open pit Victor Diamond Mine, located a mere 90 km from Attawapiskat.

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Beausoleil Ferry by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

43.7418° N, 7.4230° E

Beausoliel First Nation is spread across three Indian Reserves, the one pictured here is Christian Island located in Georgian Bay. The peoples of Christian Island largely depend on the ferry system to move back and forth to the mainland; and also move supplies onto the island. Recently one of the main passenger ferries, the 57 year-old M.V. Sandy Graham, was deemed unsafe and had to have $500, 000 worth of repairs to make it usable again. The other ferry, the Indian Maiden, is also in need of repairs as well. Pictured here, we see a community member using their own barge to transport equipment to Christian Island. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People’s: “Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or other-wise used or acquired.” Without access to a working ferry, the peoples of Christian Island are at risk of losing their traditional territory and way of life.

 

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Pike, Pic Mobert by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

48.6833° N, 85.6333° W

Pic Mobert is an Anishnabeg First Nation community composed of two small reserves located along the White River in Ontario: Pic Mobert North and Pic Mobert South. These rural communities have roughly 400 band members living on reserve. One of the staple foods in this community is the fish; providing both a practical source of food and cultural connection to the land and waters. Pictured here is a pike caught through the traditional practice of netting. An oasis in North Western Ontario; Pic Mobert is still considered an impoverished reserve without the proper health, education & social resources to address the issues within their communities. Despite these gaps, the cultural connection to land and water is strong and speaks to the resiliency of these communities.

Serpent_River

Serpent River by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

46.183°N 82.550°W

Serpent River is an Anishnabeg community located along the North Shore of Lake Huron. The traditional territory of these peoples extends from the North Channel of Lake Huron, to just past the city of Elliot Lake. In 1847, uranium was discovered near Elliot Lake prompting the Chief at the time to demand protection from mining exploitation. Thus began the era of natural resource extraction from the Serpent River territory. Today, Serpent River is a modest community of 373 on reserve band members that sits quietly on the banks of Lake Huron. Despite a history of land misuse, the natural beauty of this territory is not lost today. Pictured here are the tree’s mid-fall in Serpent River.

 

This_Is_Indian_Land_Garden River_2015

Garden River First Nation by Cara Loft. All rights reserved.

Garden River First Nation is located near Sault Ste Marie and is a largely Anishnabeg community. With roughly 1,100 band members, this community sits mainly along the St. Mary’s River and Highway 17B passes through their traditional territory. There has been dispute over Highway 17B and its passage through the Garden River Community, mainly due to the deaths of community members on this road. In April of 2016, band members from Garden River closed down highway 17B for a day to highlight the meaningless accidents and tragedies that happen along this highway. Pictured here is the old rail bridge over Garden River, and a written affirmation of who the traditional title holders and protectors of this territory are.

Fish Friday Images by Zoe Todd

Zoe Todd is a lecturer in Anthropology at Carleton University. A Métis scholar from amiskwaciwâskahikan (Edmonton), her work spans the subjects of human-fish relations, Indigenous philosophy, feminism, art, and the important role of Indigenous legal orders within the legal pluralities that shape Canada. Her series of ‘Fish Friday’ images (posted every Friday on her website and Twitter account) explore the fish stories that and creatures that have shaped her more-than-human relations web of relations. 

 

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Northern Pike by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 7

Whitefish by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Larry the Lamprey by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Lake Trout by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Eric the Walleye by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

Arctic Char by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved.

 

 

My Ideas - 52

Image by Zoe Todd. All rights reserved


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.


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: http://www.memoproject.org

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.

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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.


A growing concern

What plants can tell humans about violence, harm and ethics

Spread Leaf by Stefan Sager (http://bit.ly/JQIOZp) licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs (http://bit.ly/1ldMcMT)

Spread Leaf by Stefan Sager (http://bit.ly/JQIOZp) licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No-derivs (http://bit.ly/1ldMcMT)

 “I sprouted, thrust into this world without anyone consulting me.  I am not one of the beautiful; I am not one that by any other name instills flutters in the human heart… I am utilitarian, hearty vegetative matter that can thrive under harsh conditions.  I am zucchini – and I am in space”

These are the opening lines of US Astronaut Don Pettit’s quasi-fictional Diary of a Space Zucchini (listen to a dramatized version here):  an account of ten days in the life of a plant growing on the International Space Station. Through a series of short entries, the zucchini writes about its growing awareness of the people with whom it interacts, including its knowledge that its ‘kind’ is regularly eaten by them. It discusses its feelings and sensations, such as its embarrassment at having it roots exposed, its enjoyment of light and a good view, or its distaste for the nourishment it is given. The zucchini communicates with its human companions – and of course its audience – and tries hard to understand its surroundings. By taking on the voice of a vegetable, Pettit goes beyond talking to plants, and talks as a plant. Is he crazy?

In Western secular cultures, the ways in which humans relate with nonhumans often function as markers of the boundary between sanity and insanity.  In a supposedly disenchanted universe, it’s regarded as a sign of mental illness to imagine mere ‘things’ as being capable of having a perspective, of speaking or being spoken to. And it’s considered crazier to think this about some things than others. As Val Plumwood argued, it’s more or less acceptable to speak to animals that are known to respond to human language – perhaps because of the widespread human affinity for them, the fact that they display forms of intelligence that remind us of our own, or even the success of animal welfare activists in convincing some humans of their sentience. But talk to a tree and you’re bound to provoke strong and negative reactions.

So it takes a brave soul to admit that one has been talking to, let alone thinking like, a plant. Luckily, in their recent books, Michael Marder and Matthew Hall have been courageous enough to do just this. Both authors challenge the Western (and, in Hall’s case, the non-Western) traditions which have cemented plants as mere resources to be dominated, manipulated and exploited for the use of humans and other animals. From the perspectives they develop, Pettit’s vegetable-eye view is a bit zany, because it attributes human (or at least zoological) forms of subjectivity to a plant – not because it treats a plant as a subject.

In the proverbial nutshell, both Marder and Hall provide persuasive arguments and evidence that we should consider plants as beings with their own forms of subjectivity, which are distinct from, but linked to, our own. Marder’s work is a challenging re-thinking of the being of plants through the lenses of phenomenology and deconstruction. Instead of evaluating plants in human terms, he focuses on their unique ontological conditions. These include total openness to their environment; the fact that they are multiplicities instead of selves, simultaneously singular beings and instantiations of a species; their ability to express and communicate through their embodiment; and the unique forms of temporality and freedom they experience. He also argues convincingly that plant-being is deeply entwined with human being – in other words, plant being is a dimension of human being – an argument that dissolves the human/nature duality imposed by Western metaphysics. Marder’s intriguing claim is not (only) that plants should be given consideration within the scope of human ethics, but also that plant-being can offer an alternative ethics from which humans can learn.

Hall takes a slightly different approach, focusing on the zoocentric tradition in Western thought, but also in other systems of belief such as Buddhism. He shows how judging the ethical status of plants on the basis of animal physiology and capabilities sets plants up to lose, literally disqualifying them from ethical consideration. Indeed, Hall demonstrates how the dogmatic backgrounding of plants, often in the face of contradictory empirical evidence, has been deliberately used to underwrite and defend exploitative practices. But he also shows how a range of cultural and spiritual systems – from new animisms and Jainism to European paganism (ancient and contemporary) – have treated plants as subjects worthy of ethical treatment – including as nonhuman persons. In these cultures, treating plants as subjects isn’t (or wasn’t) considered crazy.

Green Leaf by @Doug88888 (http://bit.ly/JQIOZp) licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial-ShareAlike (http://bit.ly/JQK66Q)

Green Leaf by @Doug88888 (http://bit.ly/JQIOZp) licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial-ShareAlike (http://bit.ly/JQK66Q)

In framing plants as ethical subjects, both authors bring us to a crucial problem. If plants deserve ethical consideration, then we cannot go on destroying them without a second thought. This problem strikes right to the core not only of ethics, but also of our understandings of violence and harm. This, if you were wondering, is why someone concerned with international security should care about the ethical status of plants.

Thinking about plants as ethical subjects forces humans to confront a disturbing and poignant fact: harming other subjects is not incidental to our form of being. Harm is the very condition of our existence. This is probably the most important problem that concepts and practices of ethics, violence and security must contend with.

And it’s not something that most people would like to admit. Most people recognize that other kinds of animals rely on doing harm to other beings, and normally excuse them for it. Think of the myriad nature programs in which children are told not to cry for the antelope being devoured by the lion because ‘that’s how it goes in nature’. But one of the many ways humans have tried to distinguish themselves from other animals is by believing that we can choose not to harm others, or at least control our urges to do so. As I’ve argued elsewhere ,Western secular societies in particular abhor violence – both the idea of being its victim and its perpetrator. A human who ends up in either of these positions is treated as a dehumanized being. Andrew Linklater argues that the entire history of human efforts at security and civilization has sprung from the desire to minimize harm and regulate violence.

This doesn’t mean that Western secular societies don’t commit violence. On the contrary, like the many other cultures that Hall explores, they define violence and harm in ways that make their norms and actions appear to be non-violent. One of the most effective ways of doing this is to disqualify certain kinds of beings from ethical consideration – whether plants, other animals, or ‘dehumanized’ humans. If a being isn’t capable of being harmed, then how can destroying it be considered violence, and why should we worry about the violence we do to it in our everyday lives?

Plant-thinking, as Marder calls it, forces this violence into the foreground in a unique way. Certainly, other approaches draw our attention to the suffering of others and our violence against them (animal studies in particular). But recognizing plants as ethical subjects shows not only the violence we do, but also the impossibility of escaping this violence.

To understand why, simply compare plants to two other beings: water and nonhuman animals. Humans and most other life forms absolutely need to consume water in order to survive. However, by consuming the water, we do not destroy it (although we change its form). In contrast, humans do not, strictly speaking, need to consume the bodies of animals in order to survive (veganism demonstrates this point, and the development of lab-generated meat opens new horizons for it). Even those who eat animal products need not necessarily harm or kill the animals involved (for instance, if one is a vegetarian who uses free range animal products). In contrast, we cannot live without consuming plants, and in order to consume them, we need to destroy them, at least in part (e.g. by consuming their fruit, roots, leaves or flowers). So unlike the other two examples, plants are both necessary to our form of being and must be harmed in order to support this form of being.

Thinking of plants in this way also shows us that everyone –including many other kinds of animals- is part of this harm. Even the dedicated pacifist and committed vegan must harm plants in order to live, and therefore, from this perspective, must do violence against ethical subjects. Moreover, plants offer us no easy escape route. Short of opting for voluntary extinction – which, as Peter Singer argues, is an option, but not a desirable one – we have no choice. We have to harm plants in order to be human.

Understanding this is crucial in understanding the ethical problems of harm and violence. If we recognize as subjects many of the beings we habitually instrumentalize – animals, landscapes, other humans – then suddenly the world appears as a much darker place, and we appear as much more violent beings than we might have thought. By recognizing the ethical status of previously disqualified others, we multiply, amplify and deepen every instance of harm, all the while knowing that we can’t completely remove ourselves from it.

Does the inevitability of this harm mean that we should just throw in the towel and embrace our violence? Yes and no. None of this suggests that we should glorify the violence we do or accept it in an unthinking way. And the amount of effort to which human societies have gone over centuries and across multiple contexts to disqualify certain beings from ethical consideration suggests that there is little appetite for revelling in it. We’d much rather pretend it’s not there by instating a kind of amnesty toward the other. This is quite like futural amnesty, but it is applied to beings that we share the present with. It involves giving ourselves permission to render certain things unthinkable so that we can get on with our daily lives without guilt or horror. It is precisely this kind of amnesty that has led to blindness and irrational denialism in the face of ecological breakdown and the ruthless exploitation of billions of living beings, human and otherwise.

Roots by George L Smyth (http://bit.ly/1ldR1G9)Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 2.0 (http://bit.ly/JQK66Q)

Roots by George L Smyth (http://bit.ly/1ldR1G9)Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial-ShareAlike 2.0 (http://bit.ly/JQK66Q)

But we should own up to this violence to the extent that it forces us to confront the full enormity of the harm that is bound up with our existence. Here, we should listen to Zizek’s call for the citizens of Western democratic states to acknowledge their violent histories (and presents). He disdains the unwillingness of these people to recognize either the violent roots of their own ‘peaceful’, liberal orders or the virtues of totalitarian regimes. In short, he is disgusted at their disgust at the very conditions which have made their lives possible, and urges them to face up to these. One needn’t accept Zizek’s political programme as a whole in order to benefit from this message: that we need to confront the full enormity of the harm in which we are implicated.

Being willing to do this is an ethical act, and it is the first step towards a powerful, confrontational ethics. Confrontational ethics is responsive: it requires that we open ourselves to the ethical callings of the others that we encounter rather than following strict, abstract rules about ethical conduct.  But it is not passive, in the sense that it does not involve waiting to come into contact with the other. Instead, it requires that we seek out the other who is the subject of harm and face this other directly – even as we are harming it.

It also demands that we look for harm even where it is well hidden, breaking through the various forms of amnesty that allow us to live our lives in ignorance of it. We needn’t immerse ourselves in thoughts of violence in every waking moment, but we should reflect on the harms that we do as we are doing them – for instance, when we sit down to eat or choose fruit at a supermarket.  This kind of ethics acknowledges that we must do harm to other ethical subjects, but impels us to do it in a way that is thoughtful, and attempts to minimize the harm wherever possible. Most importantly, perhaps, it demands that we have the guts to look straight at another being and to own up to the harm that we do to it.

This is precisely the conclusion that Marder and Hall come to, in their own separate ways. Neither of these authors asks humans to stop eating plants or harming them completely. I have to admit that I downloaded Marder’s article ‘Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?’, then ignored it for several months for fear that it might peg my own (vegetarian) diet as unethical.  I preferred to cling to amnesty towards plants than to face an even more restrictive diet, or the gloating of carnivore friends. But Marder doesn’t suggest that we abstain from vegetables. Instead, he urges us to think about just how much harm it is really necessary for us to do in order to support our forms of life, and what harms can be minimized. For instance, he suggests that we should think carefully about the plants that we eat and the processes by which they end up on the ends of our forks. For instance, instead of supporting bio-engineering processes that maximize the value of plants for human consumption, we should find ways to ‘let plants be’. This might mean allowing them to adhere to their own temporal cycles, or leaving uncultivated spaces for them to grow.

In a similar vein, Hall suggests that we should adopt something like the ‘new animist’ approach, which acknowledges that we must kill nonhuman persons in order to live, but that we should treat them with respect. This involves working actively towards the flourishing of the others who we kill, not for our instrumental purposes, but rather as a sign of solidarity. It also involves ensuring that we do not waste the lives that we take (for instance, in the well-documented phenomenon of food waste that accounts for up to 1/3 of food produced for human use in Western countries). In short, both authors argue that we need to be responsive to, and respectful of, the subjects that we harm.

At first glance, it seems that both of the positions outlined here retain  the very hierarchies they are trying to dissolve. We will go on harming plants, they suggest, but we should be thoughtful and ethical in how we do so. Surely, if we were truly to treat ‘plants as persons’, then this proposition would sound a lot less reasonable. Imagine if we said that it was ok to maim or kill humans, provided that we tried to minimize it and only killed for good reasons. In fact, this is the basis of the logics of killing and ‘saving’ that currently underpin international politics, in particular the ethics surrounding military intervention rooted in the just war tradition.  So perhaps the message to take from this is that all persons – human or otherwise – remain subjected to ethical hierarchies, no matter how hard we try to level them. This is another unpalatable truth that plant-thinking can help us to see.

So, as it turns out, plants can tell us a great deal about violence and harm. Traditionally, plants are considered to be amongst the weakest and most vulnerable beings in relation to humans. But look at the power they have to force humans to confront their own violence and reflect on their ethics if we are receptive to them.

If Marder is right, then we can also draw on aspects of plant-being in order to act ethically. The confrontational ethics I discussed above can draw a great deal from this approach. Despite the connotations of the term ‘confrontational’, I am not looking for a violent, aggressive form of ethics. In fact, the kind of ethics I’m advocating draws on several of the qualities that Marder attributes to plant-being: radical openness to one’s surroundings and the other beings within it, receptivity to the multiplicity of one’s self and others, resistance (however weak) against the forces of instrumentalization it and receptiveness to multiple possible futures. This kind of ethics does not just involve adding plants to an increasingly long list of beings that we need to consider in our existing ethical terms. It also means that we can reshape our ethics by being, and thinking, a little bit more like plants. To the close-minded, this might very well seem crazy, but it is a powerful – and, I think, a courageous – way of addressing the violence and harm at the roots of human existence.


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