Category Archives: Turtle Island

#colonial150

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‘Colonial Baggage’ A Mitchell 2017

As Canada gears up to mark 150 years of statehood on 1 July, a barrage of posters, events, advertisements, sales and other promotions urge to celebrate the country’s achievements. While there are many things to celebrate in this country, it is crucial that the congratulatory spirit of this event does not overshadow, mask or erase the violent realities of its history and present. Indeed, there are multiple occasions in which one can reflect on positive features of Canada and Canadians. July 1st specifically marks the founding of the modern Canadian state, and Canada 150 is, ultimately, a celebration of a century and a half of settler colonial statehood. Settlers – those of us whose presence on these lands is made possible by long-standing and ongoing colonial violence – need to recognize the injustices that have marked its emergence and transformation.

In particular, we, as settlers, need actively to confront the genocide that has been carried out throughout the history of the settler state, and whose manifestations shape today’s Canada.  An important part of this process is to recognise genocide for what it is: systematic, structural efforts to destroy entire peoples, the conditions of their survival and the possibilities of their resurgence. By emphasising the term cultural genocide, mainstream political discourses have softened the impact of the concept, making it appear as if the violence in question targeted ‘just’ cultures, and not whole peoples.  ‘Culture’ is not a qualifier, but rather a logic and means for carrying out genocide. To state that a genocide is ‘just’ cultural is similar to arguing that a murder was ‘just’ done with a hammer, versus a knife or a gun. By whatever means it is pursued, the deliberate effort to eradicate a people is genocide, period. It is also crucial to note that the continued flourishing and resurgence of Indigenous peoples, communities and cultures does NOT suggest that the genocide was any less severe or extreme than in other cases. Instead, this reflects the incredible power of Indigenous survivance –  that is, survival and/as resistance – in refusing eradication. Genocide is defined by the intention and effort to destroy entire peoples, not by the degree to which it is ‘completed’.

Genocide can be difficult to grasp in its entirety, so addressing and preventing it demands constant vigilance and careful attention. It is insidious, unfolds over long periods of time and assumes multiple forms – some spectacular and some more apparently subtle, and some which even appear to be positive or progressive.  A one-time recognition or apology for an aspect or act of genocide is not sufficient. Instead, daily work on a massive scale over decades or perhaps even centuries is required to dismantle the complex and enduring structures that enable genocide. To do this work, it is necessary to track, observe, bear witness to – and, of course, fight against –  the development of structures and logics that support genocide across spaces and times, on multiples scales and across diverse aspects of society.

With this in mind, for each of the 150 hours leading up to 11:59 on Canada Day – 1 July, 2017 – I will tweet one major development in the history of (settler) colonization in Canada for each year since 1867. I will tweet from @AudraLMitchell, on the hour, starting at 6PM on 25 June, with the hashtag #colonial150.

The tweets each reflect an event in the Canadian settler colonial state, society, economy and culture, each of which constitutes a significant contribution to Canada’s genocide. Some of these events have been magnified by mainstream history – for instance, the founding of the state or other institutions, or the signing of major treaties. Others have been marginalized in mainstream histories, including acts of violence and abuse against students in residential schools. In addition, some of these events are punctual (e.g. the suppression of the Northwest Rebellion) while others unfold over long periods of time and/or space (e.g. the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women that has spread since the 1980s). In no way is the list of events comprehensive. Instead, by focusing on manifestations of colonial violence at different scales and contexts, I aim to reflect on the often subtle but remarkably persistent transformations of settler colonialism into multiple forms, temporalities and expressions.

The focus of these tweets is the development and transformation of the settler colonial

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‘Colonial Baggage II’ A Mitchell 2017

state in Canada, its logics and cultures, and its manifestations across various dimensions of society. This focus is by no means intended to underplay the profound acts of survivance and resurgence enacted by Indigenous communities across Canada (and elsewhere), and still less to lock these communities into discourses of ‘victimhood’. Brilliant Indigenous writers, thinkers, artists and activists across the country are living and telling these stories of survivance and resurgence, which are not mine to share. Instead, I want to bear witness to the structures and forms of power that position me in this society and country, that are part of my (hi)story. I am not doing this as an apologia for white settler politics, nor as a move to innocence  (although, as Tuck and Yang argue, settlers should never be complacent about the possibility that even well-intentioned actions may be guided by this impulse). I do not for a second believe that this small act absolves me of the need actively to fight persistent structures of settler colonialism and genocide. On the contrary, this is simply one small hourly practice that can remind me of the profound violences that have made my life and my privileged status in this country possible, and my responsibility to fight against them everyday, not just on Canada day.

Thank you to Liam Kelly for his help with to compiling and checking sources, and scheduling tweets.

The Tweets:

1867: British North America Act gives the federal government responsibility for Aboriginal peoples and their lands.
1868: Wikwemikong Catholic residential school opens.
1869: Transfer of Rupert’s land to the federal government of Canada sparks Red River rebellion.
1870: Northwest Territories created and placed under federal control as Canada’s first territory.
1871: Treaties 1 and 2 transfer land in southern Manitoba from the Anishinaabeg and Swampy Cree to federal control.
1872: Metlakatla Anglican residential school opens.
1873: Treaty 3 transfers land in southern Ontario and Manitoba from the Saulteaux tribe to federal control
1874: Treaty 4 transfers lands from the Cree, Saulteaux and Assinaboine to to the fedearl government.
1875: Treaty 5 which transfers land in Northern Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Ontario to federal control
1876: Indian Act is passed, making Indigenous people wards of the Canadian state
1877: Treaty 7 transfers lands from the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Stoney-Nakoda and Tsuut’ina peoples to federal control.
1878: JS Dennis advises PM John A. MacDonald that Indigenous peoples should be trained in farming and mechanical trades to assimilate them.
1879: Emmanuel College (residential school) opens.
1800: UK gives Canada control of the Arctic islands.
1881: Canadian railway is incorporated; PM JA MacDonald deliberately starves thousands of Indigenous people to clear a path for it.
1882: full turnover of teachers at Fort Simpson residential school reflects poor conditions in these schools.
1883: PM JA MacDonald calls Indigenous parents ‘savages’, calls for students to ‘acquire the habits and modes of thought of white men’
1884: Aboriginal potlatch celebrations are made illegal under the Indian Act.
1885: Canadian Federal government puts down the Northwest Rebellion, extending Canadian law to the West and executing leader Louis Riel.
1885: Indian Pass system requires Indigenous people to carry a pass when entering or leaving a reservation.
1886: Election Act of Manitoba disqualifies ‘Indians’ or persons of ‘Indian blood’ from receiving annuities from the Crown.
1887: being an ‘Indian in a state of intoxication’ made punishable by a fine, imprisonment or both.
1888: St. Catharines Milling and Lumber v Regina states that Aboriginal title allowed only at Crown’s pleasure, can be revoked any time.
1889: New Brunswick elections act disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting
1890: Indian Commissioner Hayter Reed proposes that ‘native language’ teaching in residential schools be discontinued as soon as possible.
1891: Jean L’Hereux, employee of Indian Affairs, allowed to resign after accusations of sexually abusing children in residential schools.
1892: Onion Lake Catholic residential school opens (closes 1974)
1893: Indian Affairs “Programme of Studies for Indian Schools” states that residential school students must be induced to speak English.
1894: Duck Lake residential school opens, not to close until 1996.
1895: Indian Agents instructed to seek permission of Department of Indian Affairs to allow residential school students to marry.
1896: Canadian Government funds 45 church-run residential schools across Canada.
1897: Kah-pah-pah-mah-am-wa-ko-we-ko-chin deposed from his position at White Bear Reserve for his vocal opposition to residential schools.
1898: Saddle Lake Roman Catholic residential school opens, not to close until 1990.
1899: Federal government signs Treaty 8 – the largest treaty by area in the history of the Canadian settler state.
1900: Crowfoot, St. Joseph’s, St. Trinité residential schools open, not to close until 1968.
1901: Proposals to construct a hospital at the Regina residential school are rejected.
1902: Duncan Sticks freezes to death after running away from the Williams Lake, BC residential School.
1903: principle of Red Dear, AB residential school scolded for allowing use of Cree language.
1904: Department of Indian Affairs issues two policies to quicken Indigenous assimilation, end native customs and improve ‘Indian education’, and pressure Indigenous groups to cede land to settlers.
1905: Federal government signs Treaty 9, which transfers much of current northern Ontario from the Ojibway and Cree to federal control.
1906: Federal government signs Treaty 10, which transfers lands in northern Saskatchewan and Alberta to federal control
1907: Dr. Peter Bryce conducts study that shows extremely high rates of tuberculosis in residential schools.
1908: Saskatchewan Elections act disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting.
1909: Athabasca Petroleum Syndicate forms, begins drilling in oil sands north of Fort McMurray.
1910: Indian Affairs signs contract with churches to set standards for residential school diets and ventilation – it fails to make impact on TB crisis.
1911: Songhees Reserve (Victoria, BC) is relocated.
1912: Cross Lake, St. Joseph’s, Norway House, Notre Dame Hostel, Jack River Hostel (Cross Lake) residential school opens.
1913: police are called when a mother removes her daughter from Fort Resolution residential school.
1914: a father successfully sues the Mohawk Institute residential school for locking his daughter in a cell for 3 days.
1915: a report on the Roman Catholic residential school at the Blood Reserve states that education is merely ‘memory work’
1916: BC members of Indian Rights Association travel to Ottawa to express grievances over land rights to federal government.
1917: parents of children at the Shoal Lake residential school refuse to return their children when principal does not resign.
1918: Indian Agent John Smith reports lack of nutritious food at Kamloops residential school
1919: Yukon Territory Ordinance Respecting Elections disqualifies ‘Indians’ from voting.
1920: Duncan Campbell Scott (Indian Affairs) recommends Bill 14, which restates Canada’s right to force attendance at residential schools.
1921: Federal government signs Treaty 11, which transfers a massive parcel of land in the present-day Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavat to federal control.
1922: after deaths of students at Kitimaat residential schools, parents withdraw children, demand better food and care
1923: former industrial school principal RB Heron reports on inadequate education, excess labour in residential schools.
1924: reports of inadequate isolation facilities for tuberculosis patients in Mission, BC residential school.
1926: parents of children at Elkhorn residential school fail to send their children back due to poor food, clothing.
1926: Balfour Report declares Canada a fully independent country, confirming the sovereignty of the settler state.
1927: Indian Act is amended to make it illegal for First Nations peoples to raise money or retain a lawyer to advance land claims.
1928: Mt. Elgin residential school principal claims that ‘in the case of the Indian, a little learning is a dangerous thing’
1929: Big Trout Lake signing of Treaty 9, which ceded land around James Bay to the federal government.
1930: 75% of all Aboriginal children between the ages of 7-15 are in residential schools.
1931: Statute of Westminster grants the Canadian settler state full legal freedom.
1932: 8213 Aboriginal children are in residential/industrial schools.
1933: amendment to Indian Act enables federal gov’t to order forced enfranchisement of First Nations for assimilation purposes
1934: first of six residential schools established in Québec on Cree, Algonquin, Attikamek and Innu lands.
1935: Métis of Ste. Madeleine, Manitoba, relocated under the authority of the Prairie Farm Rehabilitation Act.
1936: Report by D.A. Stewart states that deaths of Aboriginal people from tuburculosis in the West 10 x higher than non-Aboriginal people.
1937: Dr. HW McGill, director of Indian Affairs, limits Indian health-care services to ‘those required for safety of life, limb or essential function’
1938: The per capita grant issued for Aboriginal students was $180 compared to $294-$642 for white students.
1939: police officers conclude that runaway boys from Kuper residential school in BC were escaping sexual abuse.
1940: RA Hoey (formerly of Indian Affairs) reports on ‘dilapidated’ conditions, fire hzards in residential schools.
1941: named and unnamed combined death rate at residential schools is 4.9 x higher than general death rate
1942: First Nations Nutrition Experiments conducted on children in residential schools.
1943: Federal government declares compulsory military service for all ‘Native’ men of military age, despite lack of voting rights, benefits, etc.
1944: 31% of school-aged Aboriginal children are in residential schools.
1945: Indian Affairs shifts policy towards day schools as residential school system faces economic collapse from under-funding.
1946: Special Joint parliamentary Committee on the Indian Act explores possibility of extending suffrage to First Nations, despite worries abt loss of treaty rights, tax exemption.
1947: Canadian Citizenship Act grants citizenship to Aboriginal people registered under the Indian Act, with residency requirements.
1948: Special joint committee on the Indian Act recommends extending suffrage to Aboriginal people.
1949: Canada signs the UN Genocide Convention, yet residential schools continue to operate for 30 years after this date.
1950: Federal policy forces Aboriginal people to give up tax exemptions in exchange for the federal franchise.
1951: Bill C-31 defines a woman’s ‘Indian’ status entirely through her husband; and federal gov’t takes control of Indigenous child welfare.
1952: First Nations Nutrition Experiments conclude after 10 years.
1953: Trans-mountain oil pipeline completed on Indigenous land – to be approved for expansion in 2016.
1954: Construction on St. Lawrence Seaway begins, involves displacement of Akwesasne community.
1955: 23% of teachers at residential schools have no teaching certificate.
1956: Sayisi Dene in Northern Manitoba are relocated.
1957: Federal government makes Thanksgiving a national holiday, entrenching an official narrative about colonization.
1958: Senator Gladstone (Blood) appointed to the upper house, but could not vote in federal or provincial elections.
1959: Inuit of Hebron, Labrador, are relocated.
1960: Aboriginal people become the last group in Canada to attain the right to vote.
1961: National Indian Council is set up by federal government to represent non-status ‘Indians’ and Métis people.
1962: Father Houston of Grollier Hall residential school convicted for the sexual abuse of five boys in his care.
1963: Federal government commissions HB Hawthorn’s report, which concluded that Aboriginal peoples are ‘citizens minus’ in Canada.
1964: Gwa’Sala and ‘Nakwaxda’xw (British Columbia) are relocated.
1965: Federal-Provincial Child Welfare Act mandated Ontario to provide welfare services on reserves as part of assimilation policy.
1966: Federal government and government of Manitoba begin the strategy of forced adoptions of Indigenous children (the Sixties Scoop)
1967: Centenary of the Canadian settler state.
1968: after 102 years, Len Marchand(BC)   becomes the first status ‘Indian’ sit in the House of Commons.
1969: Federal government White Paper proposes abolishing Indian Act and treaties, assimilating all Aboriginal people in the Canadian state.
1970: Indian Association of Alberta (led by Harold Cardinal) rejects 1969 White Paper as ” a thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation”
1971: between this year and 1981, c. 3400 Indigenous children in Manitoba are forcibly adopted, over 80% to non-Indigenous homes.
1972: first time ‘Indians’ served on a Canada jury.
1973: Federal government Statement on the Claims of Indian and Inuit People retains extinguishment of title as central policy.
1974: Federal policy reiterates that not statutory or treaty rights exist to provide health care to Aboriginal people.
1975: start of Comprehensive Claims Policy: Aboriginal Rights & title transferred to the Crown through agreements that define rights and benefits for signatories.
1976: Founding of Saskatchewan Indian Federated College as the only university in Canada under Aboriginal governance.
1977: Canadian Human Rights Acts excluded matters under the Indian Act (and therefore people with status)
1978: by this year, only 5 of 57 land claims had been settled by the Office of Native Claims (DIA)
1979: Federal Indian Health Policy is developed to recognizably ‘intolerable conditions of poverty and community decline which affect many Indians’
1980: beginning of a period in which more than 1200 Indigenous women are murdered or go missing #MMIW
1981: 45-55% of Indigenous children forcibly removed from their families are adopted to the US.
1982: Constitution Act protects a range of rights (e.g. customary practices), but not claims to land itself or assertion of Aboriginal title.
1983: term ‘Sixties Scoop’ coined to refer to unusually high numbers of Aboriginal children removed from their parents during that decade.
1984: Pope John Paul II addresses Aboriginal peoples in Yellowknife – mentions their gratitude for the work of Church, missionaries.
1985: the last large residential school hostel closes in the Yukon.
1986: United Church of Canada makes a formal apology for the destructive role of its missionaries in relation to Aboriginal culture.
1987: PM Mulroney proposes Meech Lake Accord; Cree MLA Elijah Harper leads resistance due to lack of attention to Aboriginal issues.
1988: Calgary Olympics organizers suggest staging an ‘Indian attack’ scene in the opening ceremony; medals depict ‘Indian’ headdresses
1989: Temagami First Nation and Algonquins of Barriere Lake blockade to stop development and clear-cut loggin (respectively) on their lands.
1990: Sûreté de Québec deploy teargas and grenades to break down Mohawk barricades at Oka to ensure building of a golf course.
1991: Report of the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Committee (Manitoba) reveals serious concerns about effectiveness of policing.
1992: Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples established to address issues of Aboriginal status brought to light by Oka, Meech Lake.
1993: Nunavat Agreement marks the conclusion of the largest land claims settlement in the history of the Canadian state.
1994: Presbyterian Church apologizes for its role in operating residential schools.
1995: Nora Bernard, residential school survivor, starts registering survivors for Residential School Survivors Association
1996: Gordon residential schoo (Saskatchewan)l, the last federally-run residential school, closes.
1997: Delgamuukw vs. British Columbia supreme court decision states that Aboriginal land rights can be overridden for reasons such as economic development, conservation and other public projects.
1998: Syncrude becomes first producer to ship one billion barrels of crude oil from oil sands from territories of 18 First Nations and 6 Métis communities
1999: in Corbiere v. Canada, the Supreme Court declares unconstituation Indian Act provision that that denies band election vote to members living off reserve.
2000: after 111 years of negotiation and campaigning, the Nisga’a treaty (including $190 million in compensation)is the first modern treaty in BC
2001: Unemployment rate of Aboriginal youth twice that of non-Aboriginal youth; only 8% of 25-34 age group of Aboriginals have university degree (28% for non-Aboriginal people)
2002: James Bartleman, First Lieutenant Governor of Ontario of Aboriginal heritage, is appointed.
2003: 52.1% of all Aboriginal children living in poverty; only 24% of Aboriginal peoples under 25 able to converse in an Aboriginal language.
2004: Amnesty International releases report ‘No More Stolen Sisters’ drawing attention to national crisis of MMIWs
2005: it is estimated that 18000 law suits have been filed by Survivors of residential schools.
2006: Median income for Aboriginal peoples is 30% lower than median income for other Canadians.
2007: United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is passed – Canada withholds full support until 2016.
2008: PM Stephen Harper states at a G20 news conference that Canada has ‘no history of colonialism’/
2009: in McIvor v. Canada, the BC Court of Appeal forces federal government to Amend Indian Act to eliminate discrimination against wives and children of non-status Indians.
2010: Vancouver Olympics games use ‘Inukshuk’ image as logo despite protests from several Indigenous leaders.
2011: Aboriginal Affairs Minister John Duncan says that residential schools were simply ‘education policy gone wrong’
2012: Idle No More is founded to oppose Bill C-45 on the grounds that it violates Aboriginal sovereignty, removes protections from rivers and lakes.
2013: Enbridge refuses request by Missisaugas of the New Credit to have archaeological monitors present at Line 9 sites.
2014: RCMP report “Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Weomen” identifies 1181 MMIWs
2015: Truth and Reconciliation Commission report finds Canada responsible for cultural genocide.
2016: PM Justin Trudeau approves Kinder Morgan’s trans-mountain expansion and Enbridge’s Line 3.
2017: RCMP attempt to block reoccupation movement of youth organisers and water protectors from erecting a tipi on Parliament Hill.

Several key sources consulted in compiling the list are:

Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

Online archives of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada

Library and Archives Canada 

APTN Archives

Canadian Encyclopedia

Moss, Wendy, Elaine Gardner O’Toole, 1987. Aboriginal People: History of Discriminatory Laws

University of British Columbia Wiki

The Toronto Star

The Vancouver Sun 

The Globe and Mail

The Winnipeg Free Press

 

 

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Lifework Part II

Macquarie Mural Leanne Tobin

This mural at Macquarie University, by acclaimed Darug artist Leanne Tobin, expresses Darug Eel, Goanna and other Dreamings that shape and sustain Wattamattagal Country

Last autumn, I published a short piece – ‘Lifework’ – that reflected on my ongoing journey towards more committed, responsible, meaningful and respectful forms of research. The post provoked some wonderful responses that gave me the opportunity to learn from others’ journeys towards honouring the life of the work they’re engaged in, and of the other beings with whom they learn and create.

On a recent research visit to Darug Country (Australia), on the land of the Wattamattagal/Wallumattagal[1] clan, I had the pleasure of facilitating a workshop on the theme of ‘Lifework’ with a talented group of Masters and Doctoral students from Macquarie University and the University of New South Wales. The workshop was jointly hosted by the Environmental Humanities programs at each of these universities. Special thanks to Sandie Suchet-Pearson, Kate Lloyd and Emily O’Gorman for organizing this session. This research visit was possible thanks to funds from Wilfrid Laurier University and the Independent Social Research Foundation.

During the workshop, we had the chance to share our research projects and to talk about the callings, commitments, responsibilities and aspirations that enliven our lifework, and we decided to write down our thoughts as a collective response to the ‘Lifework’ piece. Since we affirm knowledge as living, embodied and in constant motion, I am delighted to see the conversation thrive and grow.

What follows is a co-composition amongst:

Wattamattgal/Wallumattagal Country – with our gratitude to the Elders, past, present and future, who have and always will care for this land.

And, in alphabetical order:

Sophie Adams

Tasmin-Lara Dilworth

Sarah Judge

Kate Lloyd 

Patrick McEvoy

Audra Mitchell 

Harriet Narwal

Emily O’Gorman

Jo Anne Rey

Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy

Thomas Wicket

 

Communication is central to our lifework. The ways we communicate, and with whom, matter deeply. We need to refuse expected modes of communication, expressing ourselves in ways that are congruent with, and respectful of, our worlds and the worlds we work with and within.

We also need to acknowledge that language cannot be reduced to written or spoken word. Instead, it is expressed by multiple bodies, relations and places, not only in marks or sounds, but also in movement, in presence and absence, in sensations that make themselves felt through all of the senses, through dreams and Ancestral knowledge. Communicating well means attending care-fully to many kinds of beings and to all the different ways they communicate with us.

It is also important to think about the ways that we communicate with plural others. This is not simply a matter of clarity or the efficient transmission of information. On the contrary, it means interacting in ways that respect and amplify the expressions of others, rather than imposing our own perspectives. This may mean confronting familiar and encouraged patterns and habits of communication that curtail the expression of others. For instance, written English, and academic writing in particular, prioritizes nouns. Meanwhile, many of the languages (human and more-than-human) with which we work are driven by verbs or by gerunds, which are noun-verbs. Working with gerunds means recognizing the constant co-becoming of beings and worlds. Resisting the priority of nouns means rejecting the fixture of identities, ways of knowing, doing and being. This also makes it possible to open ourselves more fully to other beings, whether humans, goannas, snakes, stories or waters.

Simply being able to see or recognize – without necessarily identifying, or pinning down others – is essential to our lifework. This requires cultivating our skills in noticing and our plural registers of perception. It also means suspending, as much as possible, our expectations about every encounter.

Creativity is integral to our lifework. We recognize that all forms of creativity are co-creativity, and affirm the intention of making worlds together with plural others. Lifeworking creatively means embracing playfulness and fun, not always being serious, and making expansive room for the unexpected.

Embracing co-creativity also means working to create openness and to inhabit uncertainty with purpose. It means resisting completion, or the attempt to close the trajectories of being, doing, knowing and relating. We aim to make ourselves vulnerable to uncertainty, doubt and the openings they create within ossified systems of knowledge production. This also involves accepting complexity, including working with multiple narratives, paths and questions that do not always resolve into a single theme or category. Instead of working to simplify or reduce, we welcome the complication of our lifework by the many beings who contribute to it.

Creativity is a form of resistance and a powerful political act. It entails rejecting the reduction of our relations and interactions to simple, static models and facts. An ethos of co-creativity is oriented world-affirming and world-creating; it understands everything as expansive and incubating multiple futures.

We lifework with love. This does not only mean showing care and taking pleasures in the beings and experiences to which we are oriented and with which we are familiar. It also involves accepting and even embracing what we feel we cannot relate to. This does not mean relinquishing our critical perspectives; we resist and reject through love just as much as we embrace with it. It means that our lifework is animated by attachment and affection for the worlds in which we are embedded.

Trust is essential to our lifework, but it cannot be demanded or taken for granted. We need to understand the risks and privileges that come with trusting, being trusted and being able to trust – or the inability to do these things. The risks surrounding trust differ between different beings – amongst humans, between humans and other beings, and between other beings. Becoming sensitive to the risks of trust is fundamental to life-working respectfully. At the same time, we need to recognize that not trusting others is a privilege not available to everyone as a result of structures of oppression and dependency that generate radically unequal relations. Building trust in our work means recognizing its nuances, its inequalities and the forms of power that shape it for different beings entering into co-creative relations.

We oppose violent totalisms. In particular, our work confronts the unwillingness to share space that has become integral to Western political and economic logics. In some cases, these logics take concrete, large-scale forms such as genocide, white supremacism and settler colonialism. Although our projects differ and do not all focus directly on these subjects, our ways of working contest the logics of power and stuctures that generate them.

We also contest and seek to dismantle acts of hatred against beings other than humans, including hate campaigns against particular beings (for instance, ibis, bell birds, flying foxes, magpies, foxes and lantana). We are acutely aware of discourses on ‘invasive species’ and the very real effects of the movement of beings across worlds. However, instead of mobilizing hate towards these beings, we seek to direct attention towards the conditions in which they have been displaced, and the conditions of their co-existence. Many of these beings are defined as ‘nuisances’, ‘vermin’ or ‘weeds’ by dominant settler colonial cultures because they fail to fit within instrumental logics of usefulness. Instead, we affirm their powerful efforts to survive across multiple times and spaces, and the respect this demands. In some cases, these beings even help to protect and nourish worlds. For instance, although it is considered an ‘invasive weed’ in Australia, the lantana also provides critical habitat for small woodland birds that would otherwise be threatened by habitat loss and cat predation. We affirm and respect the conviction that Country should decide whom and what flourishes with/in it, and which relations are possible.

Our lifework comes with the responsibility to recognize, call out and dismantle structures of violence. We feel powerful obligations to deconstruct dominant forms of authority that make claims to universality. At the same time, we are inspired by and learning from multiple other forms of authority, knowledge, wisdom, law and guidance.

A crucial part of this process is to reflect on the power and possibilities that come with being researchers. We need to pay close attention to the acts of amplification and erasure that our framings, theories and questions enact. In addition, we need to be aware that we must often go to meet others – in their worlds, their country, their knowledge systems – instead of expecting them to come to us. However, we need to go to others as invited guests, rather than entitled intruders. All of us – whether Indigenous or members of settler communities – need to reflect on how colonial violence shapes our worldviews and patterns of thought, how and whom it privileges and oppresses, and how we can combat it.

Although we are committed to critique of existing structures of dominance, we also affirm the need to emphasize the positive efforts, acts and relations that we are privileged to be part of in our lifework. More than this, we commit to strengthening, amplifying and contributing our energies towards these positive assertions of co-be(com)ing.

 

 

[1] Darug scholar and co-author Jo Rey points out that, since most clan, place and other names are transmitted orally, spellings can vary. She derives the spelling in the following way: Wallumai: Black Snapper fish; matta: place; gal: people –> Wallumattagal: Place and people of the Black Snapper Fish

 


Lifework

*Please also see Lifework Part II*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

 

 

 


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.


Making a ‘cene’

Image

Image by Samovaari (http://bit.ly/1drmtcr) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution Non-commercial (http://bit.ly/1fIYVEV )

Looking to become less self-centred and more reflective about the harm you do to the world? Interested in adopting a broader perspective, considering the well-being of others and maybe even gaining some humility about your place in the universe? What better way than to name an entire geological era after yourself?

The concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a warning to humans that they must acknowledge and mitigate their destructive effects on the Earth. Its coiner, Paul Crutzen, has used it to draw attention to how human action  has shaped the planet and its complex systems in ways that are unpredictable, long-lasting (in geological timescales), and potentially threatening to humans as well as many other kinds of beings.

‘Anthropocene’ is not just a descriptive term. It is meant to function as a mirror held up to humanity, enabling it to reflect on the long-term damage our species has wrought. So, it should be a valuable concept for anyone interested in critiquing  human dominance and its effects.

But in fact, the existing concept of the ‘anthropocene’ magnifies and sometimes even valorizes radical anthropocentrism, reverence of human agency and the desire to gain mastery over nature.  In fact, instead of calling for an end to the logics that have created potentially irreversible change, it expresses an anxiety that humans have not yet made the world in their own image. In other words, it does not so much reflect an appeal to move beyond a world shaped by human agency, but rather to achieve one.

Although the concept is hotly debated, a scan of the literature suggests that much of the controversy surrounds when it can be said to have started (see some recent contributions to this debate, for instance here , here and here ), how it can be measured, or whether it exists at all (the position of climate change deniers). I think that the concept itself should be controversial, not for the empirical claims that it makes, but rather for the ontological assumptions it entrenches – and for the fears and desires it projects.

First, as scholars like Bruno Latour and Phillippe Descola have pointed out,  the dominant concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is rooted in a radical dichotomy between ‘nature’ and ‘the human’. This is evident in Crutzen’s claim that the major marker of the anthropocene is the deviation of the climate from ‘natural behaviour’ as a result of human actions.  Indeed, Crutzen and Steffen argue that, although the Earth’s climate is subject to variations, human activity has shifted it “well outside the range of natural variability exhibited over the last half million years”. In a similar vein, scholars concerned with restoring ecosystems to correct for these changes aim to return to a ‘natural state’ (for these researchers this is problematically defined as the states existing before European colonization). In each of these cases, human activity is treated as an independent force that acts on (rather than in, or as part of) the Earth and its complex systems, glossed as ‘nature’.

Aside from its ontological and ethical implications, this divide it is also a powerful source of securitization. ‘Nature’, in these discourses, is often treated as a threatening force that is at best indifferent, and at worst hostile, towards human flourishing. For instance, Zalasiewicz et al claim that if human terraforming stopped entirely, that “nature would soon take over these constructions, reducing them to ruins in a matter of centuries. After a few millennia, perhaps only a patchy layer of concrete and building rubble would remain”. A similar argument is made by Alan Weisman in his fascinating counterfactual book, The World Without Us. Weisman argues that, if a human-specific virus wiped humanity from the planet tomorrow, everything from houses to subway systems may be destroyed in a matter of decades by the ‘return’ of nature. Likewise,  James Lovelock claims that, when the energy crisis he predicts for the next couple of decades occurs, cities will not only be destroyed, but also consumed. As he puts it, “within a week, all that was alive is dead. The corpses are slowly repossessed by the natural world” (89)

In these cases, ‘nature’ is presented as a quasi-hostile force that would destroy humans if they were to relax their grip on the controls. In fact, these narratives draw on a notion of malevolence that echoes the animism that is so often maligned by Western secular science.

At least, however, this understanding of malevolent ‘nature’ nods at the agency of nonhumans, but it does so in a very limited way. Weisman’s book teems with beings that crowd, thrust, crack, wind, pound and burn their way through human-made artefacts. In this one sense, it is very attuned to the ‘actancy’ of beings other than humans. But, oddly, Weisman focuses almost exclusively on their destructive potential vis a vis human civilization. He doesn’t mention that, or how, their actancy was just as crucial in processes of worldmaking – including those in which humans are not a significant presence. As a result, the causal force of most other beings is treated as largely hostile.

It’s no coincidence that many of these discourses predict a future in which humans are  gone, decimated or severely reduced in capabilities. The upshot of all this is that future counterfactuals about the anthropocene often reflect a deathly fear of the end of the anthropocene. This is often linked, however subtly, to the demise of the human, which suggests that humans must control the planet in order to survive in it.

This highlights a paradox at the centre of the concept of the ‘anthropocene’: although the concept is supposed to help us to critique human dominance, it does not encourage humans to relinquish their grip on the control panel. On the contrary, it offers images that make it seem all the more necessary and urgent for humans to redouble their control over ‘nature’ in order to avoid being destroyed. This places the desire to gain control – that is, to self-consciously bring an ‘anthropocene’ age into being – at the heart of this concept.

This desire  has produced conflicting images of nature as a piece of inert matter for humans to control (an image which is not at all new). Indeed, the powerful idea behind anthropocene thinking is that humans have made their own geological epoch, turning our ‘redesigned atmosphere’ into a ‘human artifact’ (Weisman, 2008).

Image by Steve Lynx (http://bit.ly/1fIZMWh) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

Image by Steve Lynx (http://bit.ly/1fIZMWh) Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

Proponents of the concept offer different images of human planetary craftsmanship. For some authors, ‘nature’ is shaped like raw materials by human tools (Zaliewicz et al, 2011 – see above), while for others, human activity is akin to a natural force – but not actually counted as one (Crutzen and Steffen, 2003 – see above). Steffen et al cite Vladimir Vernadsky’s treatise Geochemistry, in which it was claimed that the Earth had entered a ‘psychozoic era’,  in which human consciousness and reason had reshaped ‘living matter and inert matter’. Similarly, Lovelock has called humans the ‘nervous system’ of the planet, as if mind were a unique property of humans, which they project onto other beings.

From this perspective, nonhuman beings are either dead matter to be hewn, or living matter to be manipulated. Indeed, Steffen et al go on to claim that one of the key features of the anthropocene in the 21st century is the human mastery of ‘living matter’, or ‘life itself’, through the engineering (or commandeering) of its molecular and genetic bases. The idea that ‘nature’ is inert suggests that humans are the only source of agency or force acting on a  motionless, dead Earth, ignoring the multiple sources of agency to which Latour (amongst others) draws our attention.

This raises another red flag with the current concept of the anthropocene: it vastly overestimates, and valorizes, human agency as the dominant force in the universe. Indeed, the crux of Crutzen’s argument is that human activity has usurped ‘natural’ forces as the primary determinant of the Earth’s future. Simon Dalby argues that “the much-quoted line from Genesis about humanity as having dominion over nature…can now simply be read as a statement of fact – that is the point of the Anthropocene” (p. 164).

The idea of dominion is key. As in other narratives focused on human exceptionalism, the point is not simply that humans can change the planet on a massive scale, but also that they are the only ones capable of doing it. Smith and Zeder acknowledge that other animals can engage in niche construction, but humans are the only beings to make the entire planet their ‘niche’. The upshot is that human agency is treated as unique, as a form of meta-agency that supercedes – or at least can match  – all other forms of causality and force.

This, in turn, effaces the role that other beings play in the emergence of the phenomena in question. Millions of processes – chemical reactions, the adaptation of species in relation other living and non-living beings, geological processes and so on – have interacted with human agency to produce them.  Of course, scientific discourses of the anthropocene mention these processes, but they treat them as features of nature, rather than co-actants in the formation of worlds.

Dalby’s reference to the Biblical notion of human dominance also reflects a powerful idea: that humans have literally usurped roles once assigned to deities or higher powers. Donna Haraway suggests that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ is a secular version of the old Christian story in which all of the Earth labours to give birth to humanity, its ultimate destroyer. I would argue that the Western secular transformation of this story has also added something new to the mix. Elsewhere, I have argued that a hallmark of Western secular belief is the transferral to humans of tasks and capabilities once assigned to the divine. This includes the duty to intervene in the lives of humans and other beings, and even to define their forms of being.

This belief is reflected clearly in notions of geo-engineering – one of the proposed solutions to the threats faced by humans in the ‘anthropocene’ – which elevate human agency to a deity-like status.  As Stephen Schneider puts it, “in literature and myth, only gods and magicians had access to controls over the elements” (p.3844), but geo-engineering places this task squarely in human hands. This is a textbook example of the Western secular belief that divine agency has been transferred to human hands.

Geo-engineering  takes the basic idea of the anthropocene – the alteration of the planetary system by humans – and packages it as a virtue, perhaps even a necessity for human survival. Whether schemes to artificially whiten clouds, create massive algae blooms to sink carbon or even implement a massive sunshade in space to deflect solar radiation, these mega-projects all rely on concentrated, magnified human domination of other beings to sustain anthropocene conditions. Many scientists have raised doubts about geo-engineering, but they focus primarily on the uncertainty surrounding its effectiveness or its effects. Very few, if any, have raised questions about the wisdom of accentuating anthropocentric logics in order to solve the problems they have helped to create.

Indeed, the idea of geo-engineering prescribes one of its most potent sources of the ‘anthropocene’ crisis as a cure. That is, they almost invariably call for more, and more massive,  anthro-instrumental action, the bottom line of which is keeping the Earth comfortably habitable for humans. Granted, Lovelock argues in his typically controversial way that one way of responding to climate crisis is to, like a 19th century doctor who knows little about the disease with which his patient is grappling, ‘let nature take its course’. But in the same breath, he argues that large-scale geo-engineering projects may be necessary to ensure the survival of the human and many other species. In either case, these discourses return to the deep anxiety that the conditions for human life will end, and the powerful desire to create an era in which they can be preserved.

A major alternative response to the problems of the ‘anthropocene’, the ‘planetary boundaries approach’ reflects a wariness about placing too much faith in god-like projects whose outcomes we can’t confidently predict. Instead, it seeks to return human beings to the conditions of the Holocene. Proponents of this approach argue that this is possible if we can find thresholds ‘intrinsic to nature’  (for instance, freshwater use or oceanic acidification), and either return below them or refuse to cross them. This, they claim, will “offe[r] a safe operating space in which humanity can pursue its further development and evolution” (Steffen et al, 2011, 860 – see above). The planetary boundaries approach seems to avoid the worst anthropocentric excesses of geo-engineering. But ultimately, its goals are the same: to ‘return’ to – or perhaps to  create for the first time conditions – that are ideal for humans. Again, the single-bottom line of anthro-instrumental thinking lies at that heart of this approach.

Image by Derringdos http://bit.ly/1drmtcr Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

Image by Derringdos http://bit.ly/1drmtcr Licensed under Creative Commons Generic 2.0 Attribution-Non-commercial ( http://bit.ly/1fIZleo)

In sum, existing discourses of the anthropocene promote a quite strident form of anthropocen( e) trism. This means that adopting and using the concept is problematic for anyone who wants to challenge the major pillars of human dominance and exceptionalism: the human/nature divide, the notion of an inert and/or hostile ‘nature’, and the deification of human agency. In its current form, the term ‘anthropocene’ is also problematic for those who want to see a movement away from the deification of human agency.

So should weak or non-anthropocentrists  boycott the concept of the anthropocene? On the contrary, we should struggle to shape it. Most importantly, we should try to expose the fear and desire that drive the current calls to amplify human control and to complete the human domination of the cosmos.

Crucially, its emphasis could shift toward a kind of ‘multiple-bottom line’ in which human survival (or comfort) was one amongst many considerations.  Yes, this might involve contemplating – and I don’t mean welcoming, let alone celebrating –  the idea that the human population might take a big hit or even disappear. This, in turn, would mean accepting that the planet would not, in fact, end as a result of our demise. Thinking about these scenarios is a good way of exploring the outer boundaries imposed by human fear and desire. But there are also many less extreme scenarios, which might involve emphasizing the needs of other species when thinking about ideal planetary ‘conditions’ and understanding that change does not affect all forms of being uniformly.

To explore the possibility that humans could live and even thrive in a geological era they don’t dominate is not necessarily to call for a return to a pre-industrial or ‘primitive’ form of human life. On the contrary, it involves distinguishing between the concept of flourishing and that of domination, and finding ways of life that reflect the former.

Finally, a re-jigged concept of the anthropocene might challenge the dictum that the efforts of humans to (re)shape the world are uniformly ‘bad’ for ‘nature’ (a notion which is even reflected in critics of geo-engineering). As Rosi Braidotti points out, terraforming (or directed world-building) is one way in which humans intersect with other beings and, in Deleuzian language, ‘become-Earth’. It might be that the best way forward is to look for forms of terra-forming that are more aware and respectful of the other beings with which humans co-constitute worlds, that acknowledge and draw on various forms of agency, actancy and complex causality.

Most people  who use the term ‘anthropocene’ want to see an end to the enormous damage that may result from human interventions in the Earth system. But do they call for an end to an era of human domination? Not very often. While the conditions associated witht he anthropocene are treated as deeply undesirable, the image of an anthropocene – an age controlled by humans – is the subject of desire lying beneath this discourses . To make this argument is not to deny the catastrophic events and phenomena described by those who subscribe to the concept of the ‘anthropocene’. Rather, it is to contest the ontological and affective underpinnings of the concept, and the subtle ways in which it pushes us into highly damaging logics and beliefs. We should not assume that the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ automatically performs a critical function. It needs to be appropriated – perhaps even subverted – in order to do this.

 

 


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