Category Archives: Posthumanism

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.

Photo Aug 25, 09 52 55.jpg

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.


Posthuman security: reflections

This month’s post comes courtesy of E-IR. It offers some reflections on the discussions related to ‘posthuman security’ that have been brewing over the past couple of years. It is part of a series that also includes contributions from Elke Schwartz, Matt McDonald and (coming soon) Carolin Kaltofen. Thanks to Clara Eroukmanoff and the E-IR editorial team for putting this series together.

This article has also been published on Global Policy Journal’s blog.  

 

Posthuman Security: Reflections from an Open-ended Conversation

 


No promises

Mass extinction, security and intervention in the Anthropocene 

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

About the talk: 

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

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

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

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


Not in the running

Why IR theory needs to join the ‘extinction marathon’

Extinction symbol - see http://www.extinctionsymbol.info

Extinction symbol – see http://www.extinctionsymbol.info

“International theory is the theory of survival” – Martin Wight, 1960

Recently, the Serpentine gallery in London hosted a timely and boundary-pushing event that they called the ‘Extinction Marathon‘ (the title seems to nod to the subversive ‘extinctathon’ network of Margaret Atwood’s ‘extinction trilogy’ ). This event was the latest in a series of annual ‘marathons’ exploring important public issues – in this case, the impending/unfolding sixth mass extinction event. It included films and installations, performance art and philosophical texts. Its impressive programme, curated by artist and activist Gustav Metzger,  was a roster of some of the most celebrated and ground-breaking artists, philosophers, writers, scientists, conservationists and campaigners working on the issue of extinction. Yet there was something missing from the list: not a single participant was a specialist in international relations (IR) theory.

This is clearly not because the Extinction Marathon’s organizers have it in for IR theorists or are deliberately excluding them. And I’m not insisting that every discipline must be ‘represented’ at every public event of this kind. On the contrary,  the absence of IR specialists illustrates an important point: almost none of us are confronting the problem of mass extinction (a notable recent exception is the new book by Brad Evans and Julian Reid). For a field rooted in the concept of survival, this is a very odd blindspot indeed.

Mass extinction epitomizes ‘existential threat’ : it may involve the destruction of many (eventually all) forms of currently-existing earthly life. It undercuts the possibility of survival as a normative horizon and a practical goal. If this is not a problem for a discipline concerned with survival, I don’t know what is.

Throughout its trans-formations and fragmentations, IR theory has been deeply, if not primarily, concerned with survival – although the term carries many different connotations. Within realism (both classic and neo-) ‘survival’ most often refers to the integrity and stability of the state within a brutal, hostile and anarchic ‘state of nature’. Within the state of nature, the subject of survival – whether the individual human or the state – is preoccupied with finding ways to sustain its existence. For instance in Waltz’s neo-realist account, survival is the bottom line for states, and the ‘ground of all action’, without which no other goals would be possible. Similarly for Morgenthau, it is the desire for survival that drives the formation of all structures and constraints on human action, including morality. Indeed, Odysseos  has argued that political realism is an “ethos of survival” – that is, a mode of relation to others based primarily on overcoming the threats they raise.

Despite the fact that it is usually associated with realism, ‘survival’ is actually one of the few concepts that links divergent theories across the gamut of IR. Perhaps most similar to the realist account of survival is its construal in constructivism. Much of Wendt’s ground-breaking argument about anarchy hinges on the survival of states and their ‘intersubjective conditions of existence’. Indeed, in this account, relations are not only sources of threat, but also of a state’s identity.  Recent work on ‘ontological security’ in IR (see Mitzen 2006, Steele 2005 and Rumelili, 2014) invoke the idea of ‘state survival’ in the form of the stable identities of states formed through reasonably predictable relations with, and recognition by, other states.

Similarly, in the Copenhagen School’s key concept of ‘securitization’, “security means survival in the face of existential threat” (Buzan et al 1999,). Indeed, the referent object in situations of securitization is defined as a thing that is ‘existentially threatened and that [has] a legitimate claim to survival” . This marks an important transition in the meaning of ‘survival’ within IR discourses. For the Copenhagen School, a referent object need not be a state; it may be a social structure, an economy – or even an endangered species.

This shift in the subject of survival is strongly reflected in discourses on human security (rooted in liberalism) and emancipatory approaches to IR and security. For instance, Booth has famously described emancipatory approaches to security as a way to bring together Wight’s “theories of the good life” and “theories of survival”. In this vein, the 1994 UNDP human development report which introduced the term ‘human security’ into public discourses, hones in on the everyday survival needs of human individuals. Likewise, in a seminal report the Commission on Human Security describes human security as ‘empowerment to survive’. In both of these cases, ‘survival’ (glossed as physical existence) is ‘not enough’. It is the minimum requirement for a much wider range of goals: for instance, the self-realization of humans as autonomous, economically, socially and politically integrated, healthy, responsible individuals. But, despite the emphasis on these other goals, survival is no less important to these discourses.

The emphasis on survival is even more pronounced in biopolitical and resilience-oriented conceptions of security, both of which critique neo-liberalism. Within the former, the imperative to survive converges with the Marxian concept of ‘species-being’. That is, security interventions seek to manage the human species as a whole, largely through regulating the lives and deaths of specific human populations. In the  context of resilience, the survival of these populations is juxtaposed with, and exposed prophylactically to, ‘catastrophes’ that threaten the existence of bio-governed life. Indeed, Aradau and Munster cite a FEMA document that classifies threats on a scale of emergency-disaster-catastrophe-extinction. This suggests that proponents of resilience are aware of the possibility of human extinction, and that, at least to some extent, they use it as a horizon for imagining the worst. And as Aradau contends, resilience discourses make no promise that humans will survive this threat. Instead, they produce a mode of existence in which security is impossible and a form of survival-without-security is the only future on offer.

This brief and highly-glossed romp through IR and security theory suggests that the concept of survival is not only integral to the foundations of the discipline, but is also alive and well (pun intended) in the most recent debates. Yet at no stage in the history of IR, and in none of these schools of thought, has there been an attempt specifically to theorize the condition that negates survival: extinction. Even at the height of Cold War strategy, aimed at preventing the devastation of life through nuclear warfare, the concept of extinction did not receive any special attention. If it is used at all in IR discourses, it is used either as a metaphor for the dissolution of states, or as a synonym for  ‘mass killing’, ‘catastrophe’ or simply ‘the unimaginable’. Indeed, the idea that mass extinction is ‘unthinkable’ has helped to create a profound inarticulacy about it within IR debates.

One of the reasons why IR has been slow to enter the discussion of extinction is that this discipline is highly anthropocentric – that is, it tends to assume that only humans can be subjects of attention in their own right. That is, IR considers itself to be concerned with the survival of homo sapiens and its institutions. Of course, discourses on the sixth mass extinction are deeply concerned with the probabilities and possibilities of human extinction, which should attract the attention of even the most anthropocentric of IR scholars. But, for the most part, the term ‘extinction’ tends to invoke images of other species, whose survival (or not) is  assumed to be the remit of scientists and artists.   If nonhumans are addressed in IR discourses, it is most often as ‘resources’ to be sustained in order to ensure the continuation of particular modes of human life, and ‘extinction’ is filed away as a subdivision of ‘environmental security’, rather than a central issue for IR. Other disciplines – notably the humanities, anthropology, geography, literature, sociology and scientific fields such as ecology – have been questioning anthropocentrism for decades. More recently, an exciting wave of posthumanist IR  (see, for instance here , here  and here ) have begun to challenge the human/nonhuman dichotomy that underpins IR theory and practice. But there’s much more work to be done terms of shifting the parameters of IR theory if it is to become responsive to this phenomenon, which cuts right to its core.

IR theory needs to jump into the ‘extinction marathon’ –  not the specific event discussed above, but rather the broader set of debates, discourses and interventions surrounding this issue. IR is a promising terrain in which to talk about extinction, not least because it is already oriented to debates about the meaning of ‘survival’ and could help us to think through what this concept means in an age of extinction. In addition, the increasingly global (rather than statist or inter-national) nature of IR means that it is focused on a scale that is calibrated to large-scale, complex events. Moreover, IR is already partially oriented towards planetary challenges such as climate change and global economic crises, so it offers a cognitive environment that would be (relatively) conducive to the scale and complexity of mass extinction. It is also deeply future-oriented (for better or for worse) and set up to foster discussions of future contingencies. As such, it can provide a distinctive set of intellectual and practical tools for imagining futures and responding ethically to a threatening present.

But perhaps most importantly, IR theory is one of the few disciplines that has made survival its centrepiece. If it can’t engage creatively with mass extinction – a profound challenge to Earthly survival – then its own survival as a means of navigating the present and future should be challenged.


Human insecurities

Posthumanism as a new line of critique in international security 

This is the text of a talk given at the ISRF- ReCSS Workshop on Critiques and Critique, 12-13 May 2014. It  very briefly introduces several key strands of post humanism and makes the case for a post humanist critique of international security.  

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial http://bit.ly/1i20mQs

Handprints by Trent MacBride. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution Non-Commercial http://bit.ly/1i20mQs

The capacity for critique is considered to be one of the unique and defining characteristics of humans, and a keystone of the humanities. So, one of the most radical ways to advance critical thought is to critique humanity itself. This is the basis of what is being called  ‘posthuman turn’ in philosophy, ethics, social theory and, more recently, international relations.

‘Posthumanism’ is an umbrella term that really describes a syndrome of critical interventions, each arising from, and ending up in, a slightly different place. For me, the common thread is that a normative, naturalized idea of the human must be challenged if humans are to acknowledge the ontological conditions of the universe they inhabit with other beings, and the ethical demands that flow from these conditions.

As I have argued elsewhere, ‘posthumanism’ may not (and need not) entirely escape anthropocentrism. It is very much about asking how humans can and should exist in relation to the rest of the universe. Indeed, it has earned the prefix ‘post-‘ not because it has left humanism behind, but rather because it is troubled by, and works upon, the fixtures of humanist thought.

‘Posthumanism’ is a problematic term, and many of the thinkers who are regularly cited as examples might protest their inclusion in this category. Part of the problem is that the term ‘post-humanist’ is negative: it doesn’t do justice to the many positive, genuinely innovative alternative modes of thought that are included within it, and it suggests a greater unity than actually exists amongst them. So, I’d like to briefly (and very incompletely) talk about a few of these approaches and highlight the distinctions between them.

One such approach focuses on making space within existing ethical frameworks for beings other than humans. Such debates have been going on for decades within analytic philosophy and applied ethics, especially in the work of scholars like Peter Singer and Paola Cavalieri, both of whom call for the extension of ethical status to many (but not all) animals. Retaining an emphasis on human-centric ethical reasoning, these approaches remain within the remit of humanism.However, recent contributions drawing on continental philosophy have tried to extend the ‘circle’ in different ways, for instance, by advocating the extension of ethical consideration to plants or artefacts and human habitations. They argue (variously) that this status depends not on meeting abstract, human-determined criteria (e.g. the ability to suffer), but rather on the basis of possessing a distinctive form of being, or co-constituting other beings.  Ultimately, though, they stick to the strategy of attempting to expand or transform existing ethical structures and the ontologies on which they’re based.

Other approaches focus more on disrupting accepted ontologies and ethical categories. New materialisms, exemplified by the work of theorists such as Jane Bennett and William Connolly challenge the idea that human agency and mind are the only forces that shape the universe. Instead, they argue that nonhuman beings of many kinds – from weather to metal – can shape the course of events. Contributions drawing on complexity theory offer another image of how various forces and objects combine to create unexpected, emergent effects within IR. Both of these approaches offer radically different explanations of causality and force within the universe, which has important implications for how we think about human action and its ability to shape events.

Another approach might be called cosmological pluralism, and includes the work of anthropologists and historians such as Bruno Latour, Phillippe Descola, and Tim Ingold. Drawing attention to alternative cosmologies, these approaches challenge the Western secular divide between ‘animate’ and ‘inanimate’ objects, ‘enchanted’ and ‘disenchanted’ beings, and persons/nonpersons. This disrupts the boundaries of the ethical ‘circle’ and the sometimes very arbitrary exclusions it enforces.

Still another pathway focuses on the potential for transcending the human that may emerge from technological developments such as robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology. Some approaches, like those of Donna Haraway are open to the diversity of lifeforms and hybrids that these developments might produce, offering a vision of plurality and radical relationally. Others, such as  Francis Fukuyama worry that the hybridisation of humans will, in fact, spell the end for the human species as we know it – an outcome which is treated unproblematically as a ‘bad’.

Another strand of posthumanism is quite literal: it assesses the potential for the destruction of humanity by any number of ‘existential risks’, from long-term astrophysical processes to sudden, acute and imminent effects of climate change. Largely based on empirical modelling, contributions in this field tend to be oriented towards pragmatic actions to prevent human extinction – that is, to avoid a literally post-human cosmos.

The proliferation of  images and narratives of extinction, loss and transformation associated with the ‘posthuman’ have also inspired a new line of critique, the ‘post humanities’, led by scholars such as Claire Colebrook, Rosi Braidotti and Tim Morton. Their work investigates how the category of humanity is formed and sustained – largely through literary, artistic and social practices. They actively question the validity of this category and the extent to which it should be protected or retrenched.

As this very brief survey suggests, ‘posthumanism’ is less a unified line of critique than a sensibility that finds multiple expressions which, in posthumanist imagery, ‘swarm’ the structures of humanism. My work contributes to this ‘swarm critique’, drawing from amongst these approaches to question conceptions of ‘security’. Recently, international relations (IR) has seen a number of interesting interventions from ‘posthumanist’ perspectives. These tend to focus on the ability of nonhumans – from ‘drones’ to infrastructure – to contribute to stability or insecurity at the international scale. However, to date, there has been little research on the implications of these approaches for security ethics. To address this, my project applies a broad posthumanist sensibility to the questions: ‘what is harm?’ and ‘what should be protected?’ Empirically, it engages with the problem of extinction (including the possibility of human extinction), which pushes the boundaries of existing notions of security, both physical and ontological.

This intervention comes at a time when humanism is arguably stronger force than ever within IR, as exemplified by the rise of humanitarian discourses and the rise of principles such as ‘human security’, which place a specific norm of human life at the centre of ethics. If, as I argue, international security has become an expression of humanity writ large, then a fundamental critique of this field must be rooted in a critique of humanity itself.

In its relatively brief history, IR and security studies have been transformed by several waves of critique, including those of feminism and post-colonialism. I want to think about whether post-humanism – in its rich variety, outlined very briefly above-  can offer a similar line of critique, or perhaps even a much more radical one, given that it breaks with the humanist tradition within which even these critical approaches have remained. This is not simply an attempt to formulate a ‘posthumanist-flavoured’ version of security. Rather, by examining the fragile bases of ‘humanity’ as a category, it raises the question of whether security  – for humans and other beings – is really possible.

In IR,  the term ‘insecurity’ refers to an uncomfortable state, one that human institutions are designed to reduce. Instead, I argue that we should embrace the fundamental insecurity of the category of humanity as a powerful form of critique and an opportunity to open ourselves towards uncertain, but not necessarily tragic, futures.


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