Tag Archives: animal studies

Eco-fragments: (re)presenting mass extinction

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

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

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 11.45.55

Images from the MEMO website: http://www.memoproject.org

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

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

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

Some examples of the eco-fragments projections: 

Eco-fragments 1

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

Eco-fragments 2. All rights reserved.

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

Eco-fragments 3. All rights reserved.

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

Eco-fragments 4. All rights reserved.

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

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

Eco-fragments 6. All rights reserved.

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

Eco-fragments 7. All rights reserved.

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

Eco-fragments 8. All rights reserved.

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

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Re-Branding Mass Extinction?

Is the ‘Sixth Mass Extinction’ a genuine threat, or an overblown buzzword that distorts public debate about the state of the planet? Stewart Brand has recently weighed in on the latter side of the argument in an article in Aeon. He contends that “viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat is simplistic and usually irrelevant”. According to Brand, talk of mass extinction leads to the misdirection of public opinion and resources, and it may cultivate ‘panic and paralysis’. Is this a straightforward case of extinction denial, or does Brand have a point?

Well, it’s a bit of both. I find much to agree with in his polemic against mainstream discourses of extinction. Frightening prognostications of mass extinction need to be tempered by balanced debate.  That said, much of Brand’s argument is contradictory, misleading or simply too narrowly framed to reflect the scope and complexity of the issue. His intervention is certainly not outright denialism based on blind ideology and irrationalism (the kind we often witness amongst climate change deniers). Nonetheless, it makes some glaring assumptions that can distort debates just as thoroughly as the discourses at which it takes aim.

What he gets right

Securitization

Brand’s article takes a well-deserved swipe at what us IR theorists would call the securitization of extinction and mass extinction. Specifically, he points out that these phenomena are framed as inevitable and intractable problems. As Brand puts it, news headlines that underscore mass extinction frame our whole relationship with nature as one of unremitting tragedy. The core of tragedy is that it cannot be fixed, and that is a formula for hopelessness and inaction. Lazy romanticism about impending doom becomes the default view.” This, he claims, has “led to a general panic that nature is extremely fragile or already hopelessly broken. That is not remotely the case. Nature as a whole is exactly as robust as it ever was – maybe more so, with humans around to head off ice ages and killer asteroids.”

Brand certainly has a point about this. There is a real risk that viewing all issues related to the biosphere in terms of worst-case scenarios can suppress creative thought and responsive action. This is precisely the goal of security entrepreneurs: to bypass political debate in order to ensure the swift and reactive implementation of ‘solutions’. In order to maintain nuanced, pluralistic engagement with issues that affect the planet, it is important to contest such approaches and to create spaces for innovative political action. As the second quote above suggests, this involves having a clear (but not over-stated) sense of one’s ability to cope with the challenges one faces.

However, I fear that Brand has overstated his case: while humans have developed technology that helps them better to locate asteroids and evade strikes, they have not yet eliminated the problem. And if ‘heading off ice ages’ involves warming the planet, then Brand has a point, but it is something of a moot one. Brand’s argument is stronger when it turns to the language and semiotics used to frame extinction and mass extinction. In particular, he singles out the IUCN’s continuum of threat, claiming that:

Source: IUCN Red List

“Least concern’ is strange language. What it means is ‘doing fine’. It applies to most of the 76,000 species researched by the IUCN, most of the 1.5 million species so far discovered, and most of the estimated 4 million or so species yet to be discovered. In the medical analogy, labelling a healthy species as ‘least concern’ is like labelling every healthy person ‘not dead yet’.Source: US Dept of Homeland Security

This is a fair point. The IUCN Red List categorizes its subjects in negative terms, framing their identity (and much of their value) as a function of their scarcity or proximity to non-existence. In visual terms, its rankings are colour-coded, moving from green to bright red to represent increasing levels of threat, and black to mark the ‘dead end’ of extinction. With this image, the IUCN draws on a common trope – the thermostat – that is instantly recognizable as an indicator used to communicate the risk of terrorist attacks (amongst other things). It is a textbook artefact of securitization: this symbol can prompt strong and immediate reactions amongst publics conditioned to associate it with urgent threats. In so doing, it can produce an overly-negative impression of the existing state of affairs.

By drawing attention to these problems, Brand highlights the need to resist overly pessimistic, black-and-white accounts of extinction and mass extinction. In this, he is joined by Brad Evans and Julian Reid, who show how fears about extinction can be mobilized by powerful actors to engender submission to biopolitical forms of control. By treating extinction as a fait accompli, these power regimes preclude the possibility of other forms of politics – and life. In contrast, resisting subjugation to such regimes involves embracing inventiveness and the possibility of real novelty in the face of crisis.

Extinction opens up possibilities

In a related sense, Brand points out that extinction isn’t all bad news for everyone. Instead of succumbing entirely to the processes of extinction, he contends, “Life becomes different, and it carries on”. In other words, extinction transforms ecosystems, but whether for the better or the worse depends largely on one’s perspective, interests and the context in which one is situated. Brand claims that the ‘inexorable’ direction of evolution is towards greater diversity. In so doing, he quotes some of the pioneering research by my colleague at the University of York, Chris D. Thomas. He refers to Thomas’ recent finding that climate change is driving not only decline, but also a ‘global acceleration of evolutionary rates’, including a marked increase in speciation by hybridization.

Moreover, he cites the work of the conservation biologist Dov Sax,  who has suggested that so-called ‘invasive species’ may actually be enriching ecosystems. This is a refreshing rejoinder to the dominant tone of xenophobia and speciesism that shapes most discussions of these jet-setting organisms (see this previous post).However, as we shall see shortly, Brand wants to argue from both sides of the debate about ‘invasive species’ – a few paragraphs later, he is cheering on their wholesale slaughter.

The argument that extinction brings creativity along with destruction is an important tool for resisting the vice grip of securitization and maintaining a politics of possibility. By emphasizing the creativity of evolutionary processes, and the integral role of extinction in fuelling them, this kind of argument can engender openness to the potentialities of life. That is, instead of attempting to capture the biosphere in a freeze-frame, this kind of approach makes it possible to celebrate new and radically different life forms. This, in turn, can lead to an affirmative politics of solidarity transformation-with other life forms, as Rosi Braidotti has recently suggested. In addition, authors such as Elizabeth Grosz and Genese Sodikoff have shown that extinction is culturally productive and destructive.

Where he’s off-base

Extinction has its compensations 

On the other hand, the element of hope or even wonder produced by this argument should be tempered by an awareness of the very real, irreplaceable relations that extinction severs. Brand’s argument suggests that it is possible to occupy a ‘view from nowhere’ in which the appearance of ‘new life form Y’ can compensate for the loss of ‘old life form X’. On this basis, Brand treats as a non sequitur the claim that “with the past two mass extinction events there were soon many more species alive after each catastrophe than there were before it”. Simply put, the more (biodiversity) the better. This argument confuses difference in kind with difference in degree. The latter mode of difference treats beings as if they are interchangeable, or at least comparable against a common measure. In other words, it frames ‘species’ in its second etymological sense: as a kind of currency that can be measured, made equivalent, and exchanged. In this sense, the amount of species, and the quantifiable differences between them is what matters. For instance, Brand argues that the important fact regarding the current cod population off the coast of New England is not that it is close to extinction, but rather that it is “just 3 per cent of its historic size and therefore probably way out of whack with its ecosystem.”

This point is useful in that it departs from the binary (extant/extinct) produced by most discourses on extinction, drawing attention to those species that may survive for long periods of time in a kind of existential limbo. Moreover, instead of artificially isolating certain species, it highlights the effects of large-scale deaths on whole communities. However, it also treats the issue as a matter of numbers: the ‘health’ of the ecosystem is determined by a particular, historically specific proportion of one species in relation to the others. In a similar sense, Brand argues that the loss of a particular species is not really so important provided that there is another one that can occupy its niche and perform its function within the ecosystem. For instance, he focuses on the case of Lonesome George, one of the world’s most famous endlings. Specifically, he claims that while much was made in the international media about George’s death and the demise of his sub-species, several other species of Galapagos tortoise perform exactly the same role of removing excess understory vegetation. Brand contends that, in such cases, the extinction of a subspecies or species might be inconsequential.”

This is a prime example of difference-in-degree thinking. It suggests that all life forms that perform the same function are ultimately interchangeable, erasing the singular relations forged between particular species in specific times and places. In contrast, difference in kind refers to the irreducible, positive forms of difference embodied by unique multi-species communities. As Grosz argues, these differences cannot be quantified, but they are experienced by living beings. Differences in kind entail the singular relations that emerge between species within and across particular conjunctions of space and time. They are embodied in what Thom Van Dooren has called ‘flightways’: the unique multi-species histories that are usually classed as ‘species’. From this perspective, each flightway – and each extinction – is singular and cannot be replaced or compensated for. I would argue that this idea much better reflects the way that many human communities experience their relationships with nonhumans – as integral and irreplaceable. From this perspective, it is cold comfort to argue that a treasured species will be replaced by something new.

Of course, such arguments can be used to support highly conservative, often nationalistic narratives in which particular species come to represent human groups. But they need not be taken to such extremes. My point is that it is important to embrace new differences, but this needs to be carefully balanced with a respect for the unique worlds that are destroyed with each extinction.

Too much focus on formal definitions 

As my comments above suggest, it’s a good idea to maintain an open and skeptical mind regarding statistics published about the possibility of a 6th Mass Extinction Event. The leading scientists studying the issue confirm that it is not currently possible to determine with any certainty whether it will happen. Brand labours this point, pointing out wide variances in reported rates of extinction (from 0.01 % to 1 % of species being lost per decade). He also quite logically points out that extrapolations from current rates assume their consistency across several centuries – and what are likely to be a very tumultuous few centuries for the planet. Only if this were to occur, he contends, “we might be at the beginning of a human-caused Sixth Mass Extinction”.

While this appears to be a reasonable position, I can’t help but think that there is a bit of sophistry at play here, and that Brand is missing the point. His argument revolves around whether or not processes of extinction result in the elimination of a certain proportion of species existing at a given time (the standard is 75%, although Brand gives the figure of 70%). It is quite possible that the current global patterns of extinction will not produce this result. And of course one could only declare a mass extinction with absolute certainty retroactively. (The same, unfortunately, goes for genocide.)

However, the threshold at which many extinctions are declared a mass extinction is determined by the need for a functional definition; it is not an ontological fact. The ethical stakes of extinction do not hinge on whether 75% or 74% (or 3%) of currently existing species go extinct. Rather, they are rooted in the fact that many of the species with which humans have co-evolved are being eliminated, and largely due to alterable human action. No one, including Brand, seems to be disputing this point (in this sense, discussions of mass extinction differ from those of climate change). Despite Brand’s claims that extinction is localized (and it is, in part), it is also happening on a global scale, and matters to numerous communities in many different ways. Whether or not what is happening fits the biological definition of mass extinction does not change this situation.

Furthermore in focusing on the exactitude of predictions, Brand seems to be throwing the precautionary principle to the wind. This principle, which is enshrined in the Convention on Biological Diversity (amongst other major international agreements) states that “Where there is a threat of significant reduction or loss of biological diversity, lack of full scientific certainty should not be used as a reason for postponing measures to avoid or minimize such a threat.” This certainly seems to be the case in relation to current patterns of extinction. It is important to ensure that this principle is not abused in such a way that it flouts scientific consensus and the public good. But it suggests that, given reasonable evidence that something momentous is happening in relation to extinction, it makes sense to think about various scenarios – from the best to the worst. This includes seriously contemplating the possibility of a mass extinction event, or at least a global surge in extinctions. The alternative is to risk being entirely unprepared – ethically and practically – for what might come.

Don’t get so emotional – it’s not a cosmic problem

In one of the more impassioned sections of his essay, Brand insists that “Viewing every conservation issue through the lens of extinction threat…introduces an emotional charge that makes the problem seem cosmic and overwhelming rather than local and solvable.” First of all, what exactly is wrong with having an emotional reaction to extinction? As discussed above, the relations between Earthly life-forms are based on histories of violence and care, love and abjection, co-flourishing and exclusion – all of which produce, and are driven by, profound emotions. To view extinction (or indeed, any form of change that amounts to the severing of these relations) without emotion seems like an improbable scenario, and one that poorly reflects the relations between humans and other life forms.

Second, I take Brand’s point that dealing with extinction may not be entirely beyond the scope of human efforts and ingenuity. But, whether they create changes for the ‘better’ or the ‘worse’ (and this, once again, based on positionality), the extinctions occurring now will reshape life on Earth. In short, these processes could alter the entire structure and conditions of life on this planet – and, as far as we know, the universe. Furthermore, the structures, conditions and relations between life forms are central to most, if not all human cosmologies. So, in order to understand what extinction means and what its stakes are across various multi-species communities, it is necessary to look to cosmologies. So, if anything, extinction is precisely a ‘cosmic’ matter.

The eradication of ‘invasive species’ is a ‘good news story’ 

As mentioned above, Brand seems to want to have his cake and eat it when it comes to so-called ‘invasive’ species. On the one hand, he argues that the transferal of species around the world can enrich or even restore damaged ecosystems (see above). But on the other hand, he narrates several stories in which human ‘heroes’ protect cherished ‘native’ species by systematically

'Judas goats' used on the Galapagos islands. Source: BBC News.

‘Judas goats’ used on the Galapagos islands. Source: BBC News.

eradicating unwanted life forms. For example, he discusses the efforts of some New Zealanders in the 1980s to destroy populations of rats in order to protect ‘native’ kakapos through ‘relentless poisoning and trapping’. In addition, he recounts the multi-year extermination project carried out with high-powered rifles, hunting dogs, helicopters and ‘Judas goats’ on the goats of the Galapagos.  Brand also celebrates the fact that “More than 800 islands worldwide have now been cleansed of their worst extinction threat, with more coming [sic]. Some [eradication processes] are pretty spectacular”.  And he enthusiastically greets new plans in New Zealand systematically to remove all cats, rats, goats and other species not deemed to be endemic to the island.For Brand, these stories are evidence of the ability of humans to ‘solve’ the ‘local’ problem of extinctions.

However, from a different perspective, they embody the same chilling logic that underpins programs of systematic mass killing. Deborah Bird Rose argues that the deliberate extirpation of flying fox communities in Australia bears a striking resemblance to genocide. Such strategies, she claims, may be

“…primarily about destroying the possibility of the enemy’s on- going existence in the area you’ve defined as yours (whether that be a continent, a state, a region, or an orchard). Such efforts are integral to modernity’s eradication of the ‘useless’ in the pursuit of perfection. Lethal measures are designed to free one’s environment of the presence of unwanted others. To accomplish this, extermination involves terror as well as death; it involves a boundary of exclusion which will cordon off an area, keeping it ‘free’ of the unloved and undesired.”

In other words, such responses to the fear of extinction are deeply aggressive. They seek to protect loved or favoured life forms by destroying others. Of course, the animals to which Rose refers are endemic to Australia, but this does not change the logic of the act. Strategies of deliberate eradication erect subjectively-defined boundaries between those species that are deemed to be ‘native’ and ‘invasive’, relegating the latter to the ultimate form of exclusion from a community: death.

What’s more, strategies of deliberate extirpation assign universal values to ‘native’ versus ‘exotic’ life-forms that might vary substantially across different multi-species communities. An interesting example of this can be found in Sodikoff’s work on conservation in Eastern Madagascar. She recounts how international conservation plans intended to remove ‘invasive’ species such as feral boars and skinks. These projects undercut existing systems of Malgasy fady (ancestral taboos) that ensure relations of respect and restraint between species, including these ‘invaders’. Although technically not ‘native’ to Madagscar, the life forms in question had become entwined with human communities and enfolded in their ethical systems. To destroy them was, in this case, to commit a major ethical breach. This example shows that it is highly problematic to assume that eradication is a ‘good’ thing except from an extremely narrow and exclusionary conception of ethics. 

Over-optimism:

Finally, much of Brand’s argument hinges on the assumption that technological development can transcend whatever conditions and problems emerge from existing patterns of extinction.  He is particularly excited about the possibility of ‘precision conservation’ techniques based on minimalist tweaking of wildlife gene pools’ that could enable ‘applied evolutionary biology’. Moreover, Brand is probably best known today for championing projects of de-extinction. Indeed, researchers at his Long Now Foundation are working to re-create the extinct passenger pigeon, and, in the article, Brand writes with admiration about projects such as the Pleistocene Park.

The core of his argument is that  With every increment of improvement in scientific tools, data and theory, and every single project expanding the breadth of conservation practice, we learn more about nature’s genius, and we increase humanity’s ability to blend in with nature, to the everlasting benefit of both” This statement is delivered with very little qualification or definition of what this ‘everlasting benefit’ might be. It expresses a variety of techno-optimism founded in faith in technological change, which tends to bypass nuanced discussion of its implications and limitations.  I would argue that this approach is just as misleading as the unproductive nihilism of the mass-extinction-mongers. What’s more, it is just as deeply rooted in the mobilization of emotion that Brand wants to condemn.

*** 

It’s important to be critical about any claims to certainty, whether nihilistic or optimistic in nature. In this sense, Brand’s article helpfully calls out simplistically pessimistic predictions of mass extinction invoked for their shock value. But it does not argue or explain away the very real, multiple ethical and practical challenges raised by the patterns of extinction that are transforming the planet. In fact, it swings too far to the other side, creating a binary between these two poles. Instead, what is needed are nuanced discussions of extinction that reflect its multiple meanings, the variety of experiences it engenders, and the (sometimes irresolvable) ambivalence of the creative/destructive change it brings.


Posthumanist post-colonialism?

In 1987, a group of leading conservation biologists called for a “new age of exploration and classification of the biosphere on a scale to rival that of the colonization of the new world”. And indeed, scientific-political responses to mass extinction have taken

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

Baby rhinoceros in ex situ conservation programme. Photo by Ritu Raj Konwa, TheHindu.com.

markedly colonial forms. For instance, huge effort and resource has been invested in the collection of comprehensive data on existing species, as reflected in projects such as the IUCN’s Red List and the ‘Encyclopedia of Life’. These projects employ the distinctly colonial strategy of using taxonomic knowledge to subjectify and control the Other (see, for instance, Said 2003). Indeed, the objective of these data collection programmes is to support biopolitical efforts to ‘make life live’, or, in Achille Mbembe’s words, to ‘abolish mortality’. This goal is most directly reflected in ‘ex situ conservation’ programmes. In these contexts, life forms classified as endangered are entered into global breeding programmes and made to reproduce in ways that are often indistinguishable from coercion (see the work of Van Dooren and Chrulew). These strategies exemplify a colonial logic in which billions of beings are suspended between being and nothingness “dwel[ling] close to death” in a state of “half life” (Mbembe 2001). In this context, all life on Earth is imagined as wretched: driven to the edge of extinction yet (selectively) forced to remain in existence.

What framework can one use to engage critically with these kinds of responses to mass extinction? On the one hand, they are clearly linked with the maintenance of boundaries, hierarchies, violence and power dynamics used to separate humans and other beings. From this perspective, they look like issues for posthumanist critique. On the other hand, the particular logics and strategies used in response to mass extinction owe much to the repertoire of colonial thought and practice, and therefore demand insights from postcolonial and decolonial thought. Engaging critically with responses to mass extinction seems to call for a form of engagement that synthesizes the two. And this is far from the only issue that makes such a demand. To name just a few, the logics and practices surrounding geo-engineering, synthetic biology, and space colonization all cry out for this kind of response. Why, then, do the two bodies of thought remain so separate?

Rob Nixon and Graham Huggan have each helped to explain why proponents of environmental thinking and postcolonialism have been reluctant to join forces. For Nixon, US-dominated environmentalist narratives have traditionally clashed with the aims and ethos of postcolonial thinkers in several ways. For instance, he argues that where the former stressed purity (e.g. of ‘wildnerness’) and connection to place, the latter has tended to place more value on hybridity and cosmopolitanism. Moreover, he contends that the anti-humanist strains of some strands of environmentalism jar with the postcolonial commitment to humanism and equality. By framing certain groups of humans as ‘excessive’ (primarily in terms of population), they appear to reproduce the violent logics of colonial power. For his part, Huggan points out that environmentalism is viewed by some postcolonial theorists as yet another means for extending neocolonial forms of control. The example of colonial conservation, discussed above, does little to dispel this fear. From these perspectives, the orientations and normative commitments of the two approaches seem to pull in different directions.

However, it is crucial to note that Nixon and Huggan are writing about environmentalism, and not posthumanism (for a brief introduction, see this post). Posthumanists might be environmentalists, or not – and vice versa. Rather than espousing a particular ideal of an ‘environment’ to be preserved, posthumanism does precisely what it says on the tin: it attempts to decentre and deconstruct dogmatic forms of humanism. While many variations of posthumanist thought focus on the relations between humans and other beings, they do not necessarily espouse the notion of an ‘environment’ (let alone ‘nature’). Instead, they are concerned with the boundaries and hierarchies constructed between beings, and with what these structures efface. However, for precisely this reason, the integration of posthumanism and postcolonialism might be an even harder sell.

There are good reasons for posthumanists to engage with postcolonial thought in order to contest the erased histories and power dynamics that have entrenched exclusive norms of ‘humanity’ and its planetary dominance. In other words, it is quite logical to imagine decolonial or postcolonial posthumanist approaches, and some authors have already begun to elaborate them. For instance, Erika Cudworth and Stephen Hobden have shown how norms of ‘civilization’ underpin assumptions about a firm boundary between humans and other animals, and of the dominance of the former over the latter. Deconstructing these standards, they claim, denaturalizes claims about both the superiority of humans over ‘nature’, and of certain groups of humans over each other. In making this argument, Cudworth and Hobden call for the exploration of “new possibilities for humanism without the imperialist baggage of a civilising mission”. Nonetheless, their work seeks to unsettle the humanist ethos that lies at the heart of postcolonial theory.

However, the central place of humanism in postcolonial theory prevents an easy reconciliation with posthumanism. This raises a crucial question: could there be a posthumanist postcolonialism? Moreover, are there good reasons for postcolonial theorists to adopt a posthumanist perspective? What’s in it for them? I want to argue that there are, indeed, very strong reasons for adopting this kind of perspective. Most importantly, posthumanist perspectives can help to resolve a perennial tension within postcolonialism: the tendency of humanism to entrench the conditions of dehumanization. Several of the key texts of postcolonial theory identify dehumanization as one of the primary tools of colonial rule. In his introduction to Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre contends that violence in the colonies does not only have for its aim the keeping of…enslaved men at arm’s length; it seeks to dehumanize them”. Dehumanization is said to occur when biologically human subjects are socially constructed as any one of a range of nonhuman beings: threatening animals (lions, hippopotami, ants, gorillas, even zombies or tribal masks) (Mbembe 2001); ‘things’ (Césaire 1955); or ‘vegetal’ forms (Fanon, 1963) that can be harvested like the ‘fruits of the trees’ (Arendt, 1976). Moreover, Aimé Césaire contends that dehumanization applies not only to the subjects of colonialism, but also redounds onto the colonizers. As he puts it, “colonization…dehumanizes even the most civilized man”.

SMH PIC ED ROCKETS IN LAMB LAND

‘Dingo-proof’ fence, Australia – a literal expression of the boundary between humans and other animals. Photo by James Woodford Sydney Morning Herald.

As I have argued elsewhere, dehumanization functions only when it is possible to posit a sharp boundary between the onto-ethical category of ‘humanity’ and everything else in the universe. In order for it to be effective – that is, in order for dehumanizors to get other people to treat another being as ‘dehumanized’ – two conditions must be in place. First, there must be a widespread belief that anything that does not fit the normative criteria of ‘humanity’ has no ethical standing and can be disposed of with impunity. It is only on this basis that dehumanization functions as an expeditor and justification of violence. Second, it must be assumed that there is a firm boundary separating ‘humans’ from ‘nonhumans’, and that simply categorizing a being on one side or the other is enough to determine its onto-ethical status. As Samera Esmeir puts it, this logic underpins “the idea that humanity can be given or taken back”. In short, the functionality of dehumanization utterly relies on the positing of a firm boundary between humans and other beings.

One of the most important normative tools of postcolonialism is to assert the humanity of the oppressed in the face of the peoples and structures that would dehumanize them. For instance, Fanon interpellates colonial subjects to ‘rehabilitate mankind’ by demanding their rightful membership in the category of humanity. Similarly, Said undermines the claims of dehumanizing colonial logics by invoking universal humanism based on shared rationality. Yet their calls have ironic consequences. Paradoxically, by asserting one’s ‘humanness’, one entrenches the set of beliefs that renders it revocable.

There are several ways of countering the logic of dehumanization without entrenching its basic onto-ethical principles. One is to invoke a transcendental notion of ‘humanity’, rooted in a divine realm that is not subject to the transformations and manipulations of human agency. This type of belief underpins Christian (and other transcendental) systems in which humanity is endowed by the divine. This kind of argument helps to address the second condition of dehumanization: the belief that humans (or their social structures) can invest or divest beings with humanity. However, it may also entrench rigid and timeless norms of ‘humanity’. And, as Neta Crawford  has argued, it is the ability to extend or otherwise alter the boundaries of ‘humanity’ that has enabled the recognition of the ethical standing of many peoples. A posthumanist account, on the other hand, offers an immanent means for addressing this problem that retains, in fact affirms, the fluidity of being and becoming on Earth.This approach rejects both of the conditions of dehumanization, undermining its possibility. It requires embracing the idea that there is no such thing as a ‘pure’ human – just as there is no such thing as a ‘pure race’, or ‘untouched nature’. Esmeir  identifies the embryo of this idea in Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth. He argues that dehumanization (and (re-)humanization) will always be partial processes, “because the nonhuman coexists with and within the human”. The force of Fanon’s argument lies in the assertion that a being can retain its ‘humanity’ – that is, its ethical core – even when the boundaries between it and other forms of being are dissolved.

Adopting this orientation would involve recognizing the multitude of ways in which human beings are entangled and co-constituted by other beings – animals, plants, metals, machines, and matter of all forms. Crucially, recognizing the entanglement of humans with other beings does not mean yielding to attempts to degrade the status of humanity. On the contrary, as Jane Bennett puts it, recognizing the liveliness of all matter not only minimizes differences between objects and subjects, but elevates all materiality such that “all bodies become more than mere objects”. In such a context, it would be nonsensical to claim that a being was disposable or inferior simply on the basis of its being ‘non-human’, and the rug would be pulled from underneath the logic of dehumanization.

I want to be very clear: this argument is not intended to let perpetrators of dehumanization off the hook, or to downplay the violence that their actions involve. And I am certainly not advocating that the targets of dehumanizing violence accept or capitulate to these violent acts. On the contrary, I am arguing that they can radically neutralize the process of dehumanization by removing the basis on which it operates. Dehumanization functions only insofar as people believe in its effectiveness – that is, to the extent that they accept the two conditions discussed above and act accordingly. A posthumanist postcolonial approach makes it possible to undermine this logic.

There are multiple other ways in which posthumanism and postcolonialism could be fused in mutually strengthening ways. In fact, this would be less a matter of joining separate discourses than of drawing out existing affinities – or, simply put, following through key principles of each discourse to their logical conclusions. There are a few obvious starting points for such a project.

First, one of the most important values of postcolonial thought is the recognition and embrace of heterogeneity. As Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak argues, “the colonized subaltern subject is irretrievably heterogeneous”; it is figured as a homogeneous mass only by the essentialist, taxonomic categories imposed upon it. Indeed, Chandra Talpede Mohanty contends that 14367854917_ed681fe74b_zsubaltern groups such as ‘women’ are constructed on the basis of a perceived common experience of oppression. These arguments are mirrored in Jacques Derrida’s treatment of the ‘animal’: a category used to homogenize an almost unthinkably diverse set of beings, and to construct them through their shared subjection to industrialized violence. Each of these approaches acknowledges the violence of erasure and homogenization enacted by ontological categories, whether the distinction between ‘subaltern’ and colonizer, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, or ‘human’ and ‘animal’. But instead of arguing for the inclusion of the second term in each pair within the first, these approaches call for the celebration and expression of diversity.

In the same spirit, Césaire rejects a both ‘narrow particularism’ and ‘disembodied universalism’, seeking a “universal rich with all that is particular…the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all”. These ideas are mirrored in Isabelle Stengers’ notion of ‘cosmopolitics’, which involves involves attending to the multiple, diverse and constantly transforming beings that constitute the cosmos. Although it does not advocate treating each being as equal (normatively or ontologically), it insists on acknowledgement and responsiveness to modes of being that do not necessarily fit with a universal ideal or common form of measurement – for instance, the category of ‘humanity’. Crucially, this includes finding ways of attending to the “shadows of that which does not have, cannot have or does not want to have a political voice” (Stengers 2005, 996). In a context in which the subaltern is too diffuse and heterogeneous to ‘speak’ as a unified subject, it is necessary to engage in “measuring silences” (Spivak 1985, 92). Indeed, Stengers argues that, in a cosmpolitical context, all beings can ‘force thought’ in a manner similar to what Homi Bhabha has called ‘presencing’. That is, they can slow the universalizing process by unsettling existing assumptions, boundaries and patterns of political action. Drawing on this principle, a posthumanist postcolonial ethos can cultivate responsiveness to the multiple forms of presencing. Instead of pursuing a humanism made to the measure of the human world, cosmopolitics calls for an ethics responsive to the universe in all of its heterogeneity.

Various postcolonial positions also call for a relational ethics across the boundaries that define ‘humanity’. They encourage genuine forms of ‘contact’ (Césaire 1955) not based on violence and subjugation, but instead generative of “solidarities across class, race and national boundaries” (Mohanty 2003, 19). A posthumanist postcolonial ethos would involve extending these affinities and connections across the boundary of species and forms of being. Mbembe (2001) recognizes how colonial violence encompasses a range of humans, plants, animals and objects. Indeed, he argues that colonial violence annihilates subjects by forging a “close connection, both venal and convivial, among slave-being, animal-being, native-being, and thing-being” (Mbembe 2001, 240). In other words, colonial power does not only makes slaves of humans, and animals of slaves, but also slaves of animals and so forth. This is a mode of ‘being-together’, but not of ‘existing together’ (Mbembe 2001, 27) in the sense of recognizing the other as a full participant in being. A crucial means for resisting this kind of negative conviviality would be to convert it into a positive form, as Donna Haraway’s recent work suggests. This entails cultivating a sense of responsiveness and accountability to the other beings with which humans interact – not by humanizing them, but rather by understanding the multiple ways in which we cohabit with them. For Haraway, living well with others does not involve aspiring to an impossible ideal of nonviolence. Instead, involves cultivating a “responsible relation to always asymmetrical living and dying, and nurturing and killing” (Haraway 2008, L751- 759). This, in turn, demands a form of ‘becoming-with’ as ‘becoming worldly’: building sites of attachment with other beings, and tying ‘knots’ which bind humans into patterns of “response and regard that change the subject- and the object” (Haraway 2008, L4588). In other words, Haraway calls for the diametric opposite of dehumanization and its boomerang effect: a mode of interaction in which each being is enriched in its trajectory of becoming through contact with the other.

As this brief discussion has suggested, there are numerous shared nodes of postcolonial and posthumanist thought. Cultivating them would not involve ‘exporting’ ideas from one into the other, but rather on amplifying existing resonances. At its root, this is a move to recognize not only shared aims, overlaps or similarities, but rather the fact that both bodies of thought contest and struggle against the same logics, violences, structures and repertoires of action. Although I have analyzed the issue in terms of ‘postcolonial posthumanisms’ and ‘posthumanist postcolonialisms’ to reflect existing perceptions, I don’t intend to suggest that either approach should dominate. What I am proposing is a mutual co-extension , of postcolonial thought and ethics beyond the boundaries of the normatively ‘human’, and of posthumanism into the realm of global ethics. Even better, a decolonial ethos that centres Indigenous and other non-Western cosmovisions that do not rely on Cartesian dichotomies, holds huge promise (more on this to come…)This kind of approach can better equip us to confront an Anthropocene epoch in which ‘humanity’ and colonial power are increasingly conflated.

 


The meaning of extinction: ABC National Radio interview

What does it mean to go extinct? And what does the prospect of the sixth mass extinction mean for global ethics? In this interview with Joe Gelonesi on ABC National Radio’s The Philosopher’s Zone, Thom Van Dooren and I discuss the ontological, ethical and relational aspects of mass extinction. The discussion ranges across a number of topics: the difference between extinction and death; the challenges mass extinction raises to global ethics; and  the modes of violence involved in conservation practices. It draws on my new project on mass extinction and global ethics, and on Thom’s recent work on relations of ‘violent care’  established between humans and endangered bird populations around the world.

The full podcast can be downloaded here, or on the Philosopher’s Zone website .

You can also read Joe’s blog post about the broadcast here.

Bird Silhouette by Pontla. Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivs 2.0http://bit.ly/1HA2WJj

Bird Silhouette by Pontla. Licensed Under Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivs 2.0http://bit.ly/1HA2WJj


A world of harm

ImageA few words on my new article, Only human? a worldly approach to security‘, Security Dialogue, Vol. 45, 1, pp. 5-21.

It’s hard to get a handle on harm. Almost any act of harm we can think of  – from full-scale wars to the gradual erosion of ecosystems – impacts on multiple beings and forms of being. This means that harm is always worse than we think it is, and perhaps more complex than we can ever grasp. But my new article argues that this is no excuse for ignoring the depth and multiplicity of harm – or for not trying to grasp it.  International relations, and the field of security, are largely pragmatic, operating in a context of limited resources, competing demands and entrenched interests. So they tend to respond to harms by simplifying them and making them actionable within this context. Usually, this means focusing on just one (or at most a few) subjects: humans, or states, or occasionally objects such as the artefacts designated as ‘heritage’ and protected under international law. Even highly critical and generous conceptions of harm such as those of Andrew Linklater, usually draw the boundary line around humans or the animals with which they identify.

But if we really want to get a handle on what harm is and what it does, we need to keep two things in mind. First, harm happens to multiple beings. Second, these beings cannot be treated separately or simply added up. Rather, the beings harmed are inter-twined and co-constitute each other, so what is harmed is not a single being or a group thereof, but a whole, unique world. So, if we want to respond ethically and practically to harm, we need to see worlds and the conditions of worldliness as what Rob Walker calls the ‘subject of security’. “Only Human” is my first stab at addressing this problem. I argue that we should understand harms not in terms of human subjects (however broadly construed), but rather in terms of complex, co-constituted worlds. Then I explore a series of approaches (largely from philosophy and applied ethics) to dealing with harm beyond the human.

First, I ask whether we need to ditch anthropocentrism entirely in order to understand harm. Drawing on weak anthropocentric ethics, I argue that there it’s not possible fully to escape an anthropocentric perspective. But there is nothing wrong with a perspective that starts from the human, as long is it is not one that instrumentalizes all other beings to human needs. But I also argue that we need to rethink humans as part of worlds – that is, as beings that co-constitute and are co-constituted by, a range of other beings.

Second, I explore the ‘expanding circle’ approach to ethics that has been popularized by Peter Singer, Paola Cavalieri and many other key thinkers in the area of animal studies. But I also discuss arguments to protect artifacts and made objects on the basis that they help to make us human, put forward by authors such as Hannah Arendt, Elaine Scarry and, more recently, Martin Coward. This approach allows for some other beings to be protected within existing laws and norms of security. But it also means that myriad other beings are excluded, and that harm is treated as an aggregate, rather than the property of a whole. So this approach can’t help us to understand harms to worlds, either on an ontological or an ethical level.

Third, I discuss the more recent contributions of ‘new materialism’ (especially the work of William Connolly and Jane Bennett). This includes the notions that all material beings participate in be(com)ing, and that humans should cultivate responsiveness to the quasi-agential powers of other beings. New materialism, I argue, offers a powerful ontological challenge to existing practices and norms of security by forcing us to look more carefully at causality and to reconsider the inertness of the ‘stuff’ of security (and of being). But it doesn’t expand enough on what kind of ethics this shift might entail, which makes it hard to think about security ethics – that is, about what we harm and what we should protect.

Taking all of this into account, the article reconciles aspects of all three approaches. It goes on to show that there is no need to throw out categorical thinking entirely in order to comprehend harms to worlds, and that there is no inherent inconsistency between weak anthropocentrism and new materialism or ‘expanding circle’ approaches. Rather, I argue that a ‘worldly’ approach to security involves transforming existing concepts of harm to reflect the ontological conditions of worldliness. This approach offers a new concept – ‘mundicide’- to capture harm through this lens. Mundicide is not intended to be a legal category, but rather a phenomenological concept to help us think harm to worlds and worldliness.  Instead of going into detail here, I’ll let interested readers see how I approached this – and whether or not they think I’ve succeeded.

An important caveat: I’m still convinced that it’s impossible to grasp harm in its full enormity, whatever its scale. And it’s definitely beyond the capacity of humans to prevent or respond adequately to all forms of harm.  But I think that we can still make more of our (limited) human perspective and capacities to gain a better sense of what harm entails and how we might respond to it. In fact, I think that our current understandings of harm can be expanded massively, and in multiple directions – for instance, through awareness of other forms of being, of multiple timescales, of multiple physical scales and properties, and so on.  And I think that discussions of security (international or otherwise) are an important place to do this. Let me know what you think!


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