Category Archives: plants

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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What goes extinct?

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Photo by Network Osaka. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.o Attribution, Non-commercial, No-Derivs.

This post explores in more depth the inspiration and driving questions behind my new article “Beyond Species and Biodiversity: Problematizing Extinction” just published in Theory, Culture and Society. For a copy of the full article, feel free to contact me: amitchell [at] wlu.ca.

Extinction must be one of the most under-theorized, under-discussed, and under-thought concepts in academic discourses. Although thousands of books and articles have been produced about extinction, it is rare to come across a deep, reflexive account of what extinction is(n’t), what it means, what goes extinct, and what it means to ‘go extinct’. In fact, one of the few statements available regarding the meaning of extinction comes in the form of a definition: “extinction is… the death of every member of a species”. Meanwhile, most mainstream narratives of biodiversity define extinction as the diminishing of resources, which are increasingly framed in financial terms.

Surely extinction is more, or different than this – it involves the irreversible elimination of unique lifeways, but also the creation of vacuums that are filled by new ones. It is a deeply ethical problematic, not only in terms of the ‘bads’ and ‘goods’ that it generates, but also in terms of the chains of dependency and responsibility that emerge between life forms as they emerge, speciate and go extinct. At the same time, its normative valence is complicated: on the one hand, we can point to immense harms that extinction causes to the entangled worlds that sustain earthly life. On the other hand, becoming too attached to these worlds in their existing form can produce a form of ressentiment towards future worlds and life forms. This, in turn, may result in the disavowal of connections to a profoundly plural Earth. Instead, it’s important to focus on the dynamic aspects of being and extinction.

To do that, we need to think more deeply about the idea of  ‘going’ extinct.  Extinction is fundamentally about about transformation, change, (un)becoming and evolutionary movement. It is a process, rather than a punctual moment – for instance, the death of the ‘last member of a species’. As scholars like Genese Sodikoff have eloquently argued, extinction is both a creative and a destructive process. This is not the Schumpeterian ‘creative destruction’ that fuels and smoothens the processes of global capitalism. Rather, it consists in the punctuation and rupture of histories and lifeways through the intrusion of non-being, or the eruption of ‘the void’ into the realm of human-dominated worlding. Indeed, scholars of the non-relational argue that it is crucial to pay attention to absences, excesses and the realm beyond what human thought can capture. Those beings that have ‘gone extinct’ inhabit this space. Some of them (dinosaurs, for instance) haunt and shape human discourses, while others (non)-exist well beyond the borders of human thought, but nonetheless affect the conditions of existence on Earth.

And the subjects of extinction are have not always ‘gone’ at all. In fact, amongst the most prominent subjectivities emerging from the current global extinction crisis is that of ‘humanity’. Contemporary discourses emerging in such different fields as existential risk and the posthumanities argue that ‘humanity’ must face its own extinction, in both figurative and literal terms. Rather than (just) obliterating subjectivity, confrontation with this possibility also produces new understandings of the limitations and transformations of ‘the human’. On the one hand, it might produce resurgent (trans-)humanisms that further entrench these norms and strictures, or accentuate them further, in the attempt to sustain ‘humanity’ at all costs. On the other hand, it may also open up new opportunities for transformation beyond essentializing constructs such as gender and race.

My new article opens up a conversation about the diverse subjects that are produced by extinction, and by dominant responses to the threats it raises. It examines a range of forces – abstraction, abjection, absence and (the lack) of love – that shape and distort these subjectivities. In so doing, it moves far beyond the claim that ‘what goes extinct’ is ‘species’ or ‘biodiversity’, and that the only register to measure this change is that of quantitative loss. Instead, it moves towards a much more pluralistic understanding of what extinction is, does, creates and destroys. It ends by calling for a cosmopolitical ethical-political framework that can help to attune humans to the diverse subjects of extinction and stimulate responsiveness to the various claims they make on us.

The image at the top of this post is from a project by Artist As Citizen – the full set of cards can be downloaded here. 


Planet Politics: Mass Extinction and Worldliness

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak. Licensed under CC 2.0 Attribution-NonCommercial http://bit.ly/1Rh0QkI

Green planet by Dejan Hudoletnjak http://bit.ly/1Rh0YR5

The following is part of a manifesto – “Planet Politics: A Manifesto for the End of IR” created along with my colleagues Tony Burke, Simon Dalby, Stephanie Fishel and Daniel Levine and first presented at the 2015 Millennium Conference on “Failure and Denial in World Politics”. We argue that international relations has failed to offer a politics that reflects the Earth, and that will enable humans to co-inhabit it in the long term. Departing from the standard formalism of academic writing, our manifesto calls for the abandonment of business, politics and ethics as usual, and for a ‘planet politics’ attuned to the biological and geological forces of a diverse Earth. My contributions focus on mass extinction and worldliness.

** You can read the full manifesto here** 

Mass extinction is a problem of global ethics 

In late 2014, the Worldwide Fund for Nature (2014) reported a startling statistic: according to their global study, 52% of species had gone extinct between 1970 and 2010. This is not news: for three decades, conservation biologists have been warning of a ‘6th mass extinction’, which, by definition, could eliminate more than three quarters of currently existing life forms in just a few centuries (Barnosky et al, 2011). A possible (and likely) mass extinction event threatens all life forms on earth – humans included – whether through direct extinction or through its effects (for instance, the collapse of food chains). It does not simply involve the death of organisms or the ‘disappearance’ of ‘species’, even in very long numbers. Rather, it entails the irreversible destruction of their lifeways, histories, worlds and the possibilities of their being. Moreover, it challenges the basic possibility of survival, providing its fundamental boundary condition.

International relations has utterly failed to take account of extinction. As one of two disciplines concerned explicitly with survival (biology is the other), IR cannot continue to ignore its limiting condition and ultimate horizon. Within IR theory, there is simply no conceptual framework for confronting extinction. Cold-war era concepts such as ‘nuclear winter’ (Sagan 1983), ‘omnicide’ and genocide each refer to the possibility of large-scale harm that could lead to extinction. However, they do not attempt to explain what extinction is, but simply treat it as a form of death writ large. In contemporary IR discourses, extinction has been subsumed within security discourses, where it is bracketed as a ‘business as usual’ problem of scientific management and biopolitical control (Aradau and Munster 2011; Evans and Reid 2014). These approaches are ultimately futile: extinction is an ontological event that concerns the destruction of possibilities of being; it cannot be managed through the manipulation of life and death processes. But as long as this belief persists, mass-mediated scare stories about extinction can only bolster and enhance biopolitical power.

Instead, extinction and mass extinction need to be understood in onto-ethical terms. This means acknowledging that extinction involves an ontological rupture – that is, the destruction of modes of existence – and confronting the ethical implications of this. Just as the concept of genocide was created to confront the seemingly unthinkable – the total destruction of peoples – we need ethical concepts, frameworks and sensibilities that can address the enormity of extinction. This means asking what it means to lose or destroy a life form.

The question of what is ‘lost’ in extinction has, since the inception of the concept of ‘conservation’, been addressed in terms of financial cost and economic liabilities (see, e.g., McAfee 1998; Sullivan 2010). The dominant neoliberal international political economy of extinction has radically reduced and distorted perceptions of ‘what is lost’: not capital or profit, but distinctive, irreplaceable worlds, and the diverse possibilities of being embodied in each life form (Grosz 2011). Beyond reducing life forms to capital, currencies and financial instruments, it homogenizes understandings of extinction, imposing a globalizing, Western secular worldview on a planetary phenomenon. Along with this worldview comes a range of assumptions – that humans are separate from other beings; that life forms can be counted and accounted for as clearly-defined ‘species’; that protecting other life forms needs to be rooted in anthropocentric forms of ‘value’. To address the enormity of mass extinction, we need to draw on multiple worldviews – including those emerging from indigenous and marginalized cosmologies that understand the relations between humans and other beings in profoundly different ways. Doing so not only allows us to understand better what is at stake in extinction, but will also multiply the repertoires of responses.

At the same time, even within the Western secular framework (which dominates IR), we need to think more clearly about the ethical implications of extinction. The current escalation of extinctions is in large part a result of anthropogenic causes – global warming, habitat destruction, direct killing and the transportation of species around the earth. Since human action is involved, we can think in the ethical terms that apply to it. For instance, we can trace the forms of violence that contribute to these trends, as well as the chains of exploitation and oppression that underpin them. We can also begin to frame extinction in terms of harm – or, if it proves to exceed existing concepts, to develop new normative frameworks for responding to it. In either case, it is crucial and urgent to realize that extinction is a matter of global ethics. If it does not fit within the existing parameters of global ethics, then it is these boundaries that need to change: (Mass) extinction carries an ethical weight and force that humans can no longer ignore.

We need a worldly sensibility towards politics, and a political sensibility towards worldliness

 Humans are worldly – that is, we are fundamentally and inextricably part of a world. It is not ‘our’ world, as the grand theories of international relations have it – an object and possession to be appropriated, circumnavigated, instrumentalized and englobed (Sloterdijk 2014). Rather, it is a world that we share, co-constitute, create, destroy and inhabit with countless other life forms and beings.

To be worldly is to be entangled. We can interpret this term in the way that Heidegger (2010) did, as the condition of being mired in everyday human concerns, worries and anxiety to prolong existence. But, in contrast, we can and should reframe it as authors like Karen Barad (2010) and Donna Haraway (2008) have done. To them and many others, ‘entanglement’ is a radical, indeed fundamental condition of being-with – it suggest that no being is truly autonomous or separate, whether at the scale of international politics or of quantum physics.

Being worldly, and being entangled, means being plural – more specifically, being ‘singular plural’ (Nancy 1997). Beings-in-worlds co-constitute one another, so that all beings are a multitude. At the same time, world itself is singular plural: what we refer to as ‘the’ world is a multiplicity of worlds that intersect, overlap, conflict, emerge and dissolve. Worlds are not ‘just’ places, and they are not the same as planets. Planet Earth fosters a multiplicity of worlds at multiple scales and across various time scales – from the current multiplicity of social, technical and economic natures-cultures to the extinct worlds of deep time.

Each world emerges from, and consists in, the intersection of diverse forms of being – material and intangible, organic and inorganic, ‘living’ and ‘nonliving’. World emerges from the poetics of existence, the collision of energy and matter, the tumult of agencies, the fusion and diffusion of bonds. These are the conditions of worldliness.

Because of their worldliness, ‘worlds’ are not static, rigid or permanent. They are permeable and fluid. They can be created, modified – and, of course, destroyed. Indeed, concepts of violence, harm and (in)security that focus only on humans ignore most of what constitutes the harm: the destruction and severance of worlds (Mitchell 2014). Indeed, the destruction of worlds is what separates the concepts of genocide (see Nancy 1997) and ecocide (Higgins 2010) from other forms of violence. To destroy worlds is to sever the conditions of worldliness.

To respond to worldliness, and to our own role in its destruction, we need a politics that is worldly, and a worldliness that is political. This requires acknowledging these basic ontological features of worlds, and transforming them into ethical principles that make us responsive to our basic condition of worldliness.

First, we can acknowledge and embrace the conditions of worldliness. Being worldly means understanding that we are nurtured, threatened, nourished and harmed by profound forces – and that our movements, responses and poetics make a difference to worlds. We also need to understand that being-worldly means being-vulnerable along with the other co-constituents of the worlds we inhabit and traverse. Instead of attempting in vain to escape this co-vulnerability, as the global rich attempt to insulate themselves from the worst effects of global warming suffered by the poor – we need to acknowledge its inescapability. Specifically, we need to think about how our world-vulnerability can be embraced as a source of positive solidarity, rather than simply the, fearful, clinging, negative solidarity (Braidotti 2013) forged by survival anxiety.

This means acknowledging that being worldly is not an option or a choice, nor is it an obstacle to human ‘progress’ that can be overcome, whether through major projects of terraforming or emerging projects of space colonization (Mitchell, forthcoming). Instead of confronting worldliness with resentment that prompts nihilistic violence or apathy (Connolly 2011) – or, on the other hand, the instrumentalizing optimism of eco-modernism (Ecomodernist Manifesto, 2015) – this ethico-politics would embrace the conditions, possibilities and limitations of being-worldly. This does not mean that humans can never leave the Earth, but we are always-already in worlds (whatever planet they appear on). Being-other-worldly – whether on Earth or on other planets – means respecting and nurturing the multiplicity and unicity of worlds instead of imposing a ‘master world’ upon them.

Second, we can cultivate gratitude for worldliness and the gifts it confers upon us. We can learn from Nigel Clark (2011) and other post-Levinasian thinkers, who urge us to acknowledge that humans owe their existence to chains of beings stretching back to the Big Bang (and beyond), and outwards in every direction, across the boundaries of species and all other categories. And, in turn, we can attempt to give back – to inhabit, protect, nurture, and, yes, kill and consume other beings and worlds – without expecting them to conform to our demands, or exacting promises from them. Being-worldly means embracing the collective risk of being: engaging in this complex and ultimately finite project with gratitude, attention, resolution and, above all, amor mundi.

REFERENCES

Aradau, C and Munster R (2011) Politics of Catastrophe. London: Routledge.

Barad, Karen, 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Barnosky, A, N. Matzke, S. Tomiya, G.O. U. Wogan, B. Swartz, T. B. Quental, C. Marshall, J. L. McGuire, E. L. Lindsey, K. C. Maguire, B. Mersey & E. A. Ferrer (2011) “Has the Earth’s Sixth Mass Extinction Already Arrived?” Nature, Vol. 471, pp. 51-7.

Braidotti, R (2013) The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Clark, N (2011) Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. London: Sage

Connolly, W  (2011) A World of Becoming. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Evans, B and Reid, J (2014) Resilient Life: The Art of Living Dangerously. Cambridge: Polity.

Haraway, D (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Heidegger, M (2010 [1953]) Being and Time. Trans. Joan Stambaugh, revised and with a foreword by Dennis J. Schmidt. Albany: State University of New York Press.

McAfee, K. (1998) “Selling Nature ? Biodiversity and Green Developmentalism” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space. 17: 133-54.

Nancy, J., 1997. The Sense of the World. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Sloterdijk, P. (2014) Globes: Spheres II. Los Angeles: Semotext(e)

Sullivan, S (2013) “Banking Nature? The Spectacular Financialisation of Environmental Conservation” Antipode Vol. 45, No. 1, pp. 198-217.


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.

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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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