Tag Archives: anthropocene

Planet Politics: Mass Extinction and Worldliness

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

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

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

** You can read the full manifesto here** 

Mass extinction is a problem of global ethics 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cosmology clash: Mauna Kea


Courtesy of TMT Observatory via Wikimedia Commons.

“Astronomy is about as pure and as clean as you can get, so what’s the big deal?”

– David Jewitt, quoted in the New Scientist 

The quote above is part of a well-known UCLA astronomer’s response to protests against the construction of the Thirty Metre Telescope (TMT) on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. From Jewitt’s perspective, proposals to build notorious polluters such as coal-fired power plants or factories on such a site might justifiably cause a ruckus. But why, he wonders, should the ‘pure and clean’ work of astronomers raise problems?  The assumptions behind this line of thinking are preventing proponents of the TMT from understanding and engaging constructively with the protests.

Since mid-April 2015, work on the planned 18-storey, $1.4 billion TMT structure has been non-violently disrupted by protests led by indigenous Hawaiians, who see the project as the desecration of a sacred site.  In indigenous Hawaiian cosmology, Mauna Kea is the place where two deities – the sky father Wākea and the Earth mother Papahānaumoku – married and gave birth to the Hawaiian islands. Mauna Kea itself is understood literally to be the eldest sun and navel of the living body of the islands. Its flesh is merged with that of humans, who for centuries have deposited cremated remains and the umbilical cords of newborns on its slopes. It a place where human and nonhuman, living and deceased, past, present and future co-exist. To the protesters, Mauna Kea is not an extinct volcano, but rather a vital being capable of being harmed.

While previous protests have contested the building of 13 existing telescopes on the mountain,  the current movement is notable for its international profile. Indeed, it has been propelled into the international spotlight by social media campaigning (for instance see @ProtectMaunaKea and hashtag #WeAreMaunaKea), including the notable interventions of celebrities. As a result of its global reach, the arrests of 31 protesters on 29th April drew widespread attention, and construction stopped for two months. By last week another dozen protesters had been arrested for allegedly placing boulders in the way of construction vehicles on the project’s access road. While it’s not uncommon to hear of the arrest of protesters, the circumstances surrounding this incident are unusual. According to activist Walter Ritte, many of the protesters deny that they (or any other humans) can be held responsible for the blockade. Instead, Ritte states, “the Hawaiians are saying that the rocks were put there by the Menehune”. In Hawaiian lore, the Menehune are small people who live deep in the forest and hills, constructing ponds, roads and temples during the night. From the perspective of these protesters, the Menehune, too, are joining in opposition against the construction of the TMT.

This statement might not make much sense to the scientists who want to see the TMT built quickly. Western secular science is not renowned for its openness towards worldviews that attribute agency or ethical status to nonhumans. It is based on a cosmology that understands humans to be the only sources of agency, creativity and subjectivity, and the rest of the universe to be material for human use. This set of beliefs makes it difficult to understand why the construction of the TMT is a ‘big deal’ because it obscures the root of the conflict. While it has been framed in terms of a confrontation between ‘science’ and ‘tradition’, ‘culture’ or ‘spirituality’,  this is actually a clash between cosmologies. For the scientists, too, Mauna Kea  could be understood as sacred –  albeit in a very different way. The unobstructed views from the top of the mountain offer a ‘crystal-clear window into the cosmos and the ability to look 13 billion light years into space. This kind of vision could transform human knowledge of the universe and the ability better to locate themselves within it. Moreover, planetary scientists believe that if they are able to study the formation of exo-planets, they may unlock the origins of the Earth – and potentially other Earth-like planets. So, in fact, both parties in this protest are concerned with affirming their beliefs about the origin and sustenance of the Earth and its inhabitants. Both seek to preserve and/or assert an explanation of how these beings came to exist by locating them within the broader cosmos. And for both communities engaging with the cosmos connects them to deep history and to the future of humans.

Understanding the situation as a clash of cosmologies helps to explain why the two ‘sides’ are failing to find common ground. Most importantly, the TMT’s proponents have not engaged with the cosmological claims of the protesters in their own terms. They have not ignored these concerns entirely, but they have reframed them in terms of Western secular cosmological beliefs. Specifically, they have framed protestors’ concerns in terms of two issues: ‘environmental impact’ and ‘cultural impact’.

These concerns are reflected in the 379-page Environmental Impact Statement produced as part of the seven-year process in which approval for the project was obtained. This report gives a brief account of the beliefs associated with Mauna Kea, as well as the ecosystems that will be disturbed if the project proceeds as planned. It acknowledges that “the impact of past and present actions on cultural, archaeological, and historic resources is substantial, significant and adverse” (and that it will continue to be in future). In particular, the project will involve transforming one of the mountain’s unique cinder-cones (as have the construction of the other telescopes before it).

The Statement addresses these concerns in two ways. First, it claims that the site has been designed to minimize (not to eliminate the risk of) damage. According to Sandra Dawson,  TMT’s Hawaii Community Affairs representative, the structure was carefully sited so that it did not displace archaeological shrines, is not visible from holy sites, and is designed to minimize ‘visual disruption’, including particular views of the mountains.


Nene goose by Benjaminkeen via Wikimedia Commons.

In some cases, ‘limiting damage’ takes the form of re-classifying the objects in question so that they are not understood as subjects of damage. For instance, the Statement claims that areas disturbed by construction are ‘not determined to be historic properties’. One site believed to be a historic shrine is thought to have been constructed 10 years ago. Another, it claims, is ‘likely to be a natural geologic feature’. From this perspective, damage is only done if the site in question is deemed to be both ‘historic’ and ‘manmade’. This approach assumes that history is something that happened in the past (or at least more than 10 years ago), ignoring its continuities with the present and future, and their sustenance within living communities. It also devalues sites on the basis of their being ‘natural’ rather than human-made, which ignores the entanglement of human communities and geological forces (see Nigel Clark’s seminal work on this subject). Similarly, while the project could affect two endangered species (the Nene Goose and the Silversword plant) and endanger a third (the Weiku beetle), the report determines that the species and ‘resources’ damaged “are not unique or critical to the survival of any species in that area”. In other words, these creatures are understood not as the co-constituents of a unique world, but rather as replaceable units of a generic category (species).

Second, and in a related sense, the Statement suggests that where damage cannot be avoided, what is destroyed will be replaced or traded for something else. Along with the numerous economic benefits it outlines, the TMT promises to be a bastion of ecological sustainability, as the first zero-wastewater producing facility on the site. It also proposes to replace every displaced mamane tree with with two more, and to introduce a program to limit the incursion of ‘invasive species’ (a hot-button issue in Hawaii ).

In terms of ‘culture’, the Statement suggests that significant funds should be earmarked for a ‘community benefits package’ to include exhibits exploring the “links between Hawaiian culture and astronomy”. Those working at the facility will be given training in cultural and ecological ‘sensitivity’ and the facility itself is to be furnished “with items to provide a sense of place and remind personnel of Maunakea’s cultural sensitivity and spiritual quality”. Moreover, stemming from the protests, Hawaii’s governer David Ige has demanded that the construction of the new telescope be offset by the decommissioning ¼ of existing telescopes by the time the TMT is operational. All of these measures appear to minimize, trade-off or compensate for the harms feared by protesters. From the perspective of the project’s proponents, the TMT offers fair trade-offs: what is lost will be replaced, so no harm no foul.

This kind of reasoning only works, however, if one is immersed in a cosmology that understands the nonhuman universe as disenchanted. From such a perspective, material goods (including living things) can be replaced or traded for other goods. This logic does not hold, however, in a cosmology in which a place is unique and irreplaceable – in short, a living being that cannot be disassembled and reassembled at will. Within the latter worldview, the sacredness of Mauna Kea cannot be reduced to the minimization of ‘environmental damage’ or by trading it for economic benefits. And it certainly cannot be compensated for by fetishizing ‘native Hawaiian culture’ as a museum-object, a topic for ‘sensitivity training’, or a motif for interior decoration. On the contrary, this approach seems only to compound the colonial strategies which have marginalized the Hawaiian people since the late 19th century.

Indeed, the Mauna Kea protest highlights an important new development in the history of colonization. It is marked by a clash of cosmologies in two senses: not only the conflict described above, but also the link between ‘cosmology’ as space science and the lifeworlds of indigenous peoples. The struggle unfolding around the TMT is a decolonial one – and it is oriented not only to the colonial history of indigenous peoples, but also to a potential colonial future.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC  Attribution-Non-Commercial.

Peak of Mauna Kea by Wolfram Burner http://bit.ly/1U16tXu. Licensed under CC

To appreciate this, it is necessary to place the protest in the context of emerging projects of space colonization. Crucially, one of the scientific benefits of the TMT is that it will enable scientists better to identify and study exo-planets. While some planetary scientists pursue their work primarily in the interest of furthering knowledge, recent anthropologies (see for instance, the work of Valerie Olsen, David Valentine and Lisa Messeri) suggest that many are driven by a vocational desire. Namely, they want to identify other ‘Earth-like planets’ orbiting other stars, where humans might one day make a home. While there are important differences between the science carried out at observatories like the TMT and the goals of space entrepreneurs, planetary science cannot be neatly separated from the goal of space colonization.

Elsewhere, I have outlined some of the continuities between Earthly colonization and the ambitions of ‘NewSpace’ entrepreneurs. One of the key claims of these entrepreneurs is that their projects differ from historical colonial projects because they are victimless. This claim is based on the belief that there are ‘no natives in space’. I argue that this hardly guarantees a lack of victims. On the contrary, humans (let alone other beings) are harmed when they are subjected to the disciplinary processes of colonization. Although this is not the explicit aim of protesters, the Mauna Kea protest highlights two additional dimensions of this argument.

First, it shows that the attempt to colonize other planets can generate harms on Earth. As Messeri’s rather brilliant doctoral thesis suggests, planetary scientists simultaneously occupy virtualized places in outer space and very real spaces on this planet. The places in which these real structures are located – mountaintops, deserts, forests – may appear to be as isolated as the lunar, Martian and other surfaces they allow humans to survey. But modern history suggests that claims about ‘empty space’ can rarely be trusted. Indeed, as Peter Redfield’s work suggests, the development and testing of the European and American space programs was largely enabled by the use of (previously) colonised territories. In other words, the colonisation of outer space rests on the further (or continuing) colonisation of parts of the Earth. This certainly seems to be the case in Mauna Kea, where the desire to colonize outer space further displaces groups originally marginalized by the colonization of the Earth. In this sense, astronomy may be relatively ‘clean’ in terms of its ecological impacts but its practitioners and funders do not have entirely clean hands.

Second, careful attention to the issues raised by the Mauna Kea protesters helps to contest the idea that outer space is ‘empty’ and devoid of life. On the contrary, many indigenous communities understand outer space and its bodies to be a continuous part of what Western secular science usually glosses as ‘nature’ and limits to the Earth. To give just a few examples, a piece by M. Jane Young from the late 1980s explains how many Inuit and Navajo people believe that the moon is either a living being or the home of deceased ancestors, while the Skidi Pawnee believe that human beings originated in the stars. More recently, Debbora Battaglia has described how the communities she worked with in Papua New Guinea believed the moon to contain a woman with a child on her back. According to Battaglia, when one of her respondents encountered one of the moon rocks distributed by the Nixon administration as a diplomatic gesture, he was dismayed by the claims of returning astronauts that it was ‘only a rock’. I am certainly not an expert on Hawaiian cosmology, but it seems clear that a similar belief system animates the current protest. That is, the sky is understood to be a being – the Sky Father – whose integrity and relations with other beings (the Earth, humans, other living beings) is harmed by the building of the telescope. From this perspective, space is not empty and lifeless – and it can be harmed by colonization, even before would-be colonisers lift off from Earth.

Attending carefully to these beliefs illuminates why the TMT is such a ‘big deal’ to indigenous Hawaiians – and why this is so difficult for its proponents to understand within their own frames of reference. Many proponents of the TMT have expressed surprise at the fact that the measures they have taken have not assuaged the concerns of the protesters and a desire to engage respectfully with protesters. If they are serious about this, it will be necessary for them to change tack. At the moment, their efforts involve translating the concerns of the protesters into the terms of Western secular cosmology – that is, language of replaceable, compensable environmental or cultural damage.  Instead, it would be better for both parties to engage in what Bruno Latour  and Isabelle Stengers (amongst others) have called ‘diplomacy’ and ‘cosmopolitics’. This would require that none of the parties make a claim to universality and dominance.  In contrast, it demands the creation of political fora in which drastically different worldviews can be expressed without subsuming one into another. Instead of ‘rushing towards universalisation’, as Stengers puts it, cosmopolitics provides an opportunity for the expression of incommensurable difference. In this context, ‘diplomats’ are those who are able to travel back and forth between worlds, recognizing and conveying profound difference, rather than simply imposing the norms and structures of one world on another. In short, cosmopolitics means that multiple world views and forms of being need to be considered on their own terms rather than translated into a dominant paradigm.

Cosmopolitics, however, does not just happen. It requires work, the ability and willingness to peek beyond one’s own cosmological assumptions (if only partially), and above all, patience. By slowing down the process of the TMT’s construction, the Mauna Kea protest creates a profound opportunity to reflect on the conflictual co-existence of multiple cosmologies and the ongoing, subtle and not always intentional violence of colonization. It will remain to be seen whether the parties involved will seize this opportunity to engage in cosmopolitics. By publicly articulating and embodying their worldviews, the protesters have taken the first step in doing so, and  it’s now up to the TMT’s supporters to reciprocate. The collision of cosmologies currently unfolding on the slopes of Mauna Kea offers these parties a chance to inaugurate a politics attuned to the multiplicity of worlds on Earth (and beyond), and to the brutal but subtle, sometimes unintentional, violence of colonisation.  Let’s hope they take it.

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.


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.

Decolonising the Anthropocene

Last month I argued that a posthumanist orientation to colonization can help humans to face the challenges of the Anthropocene. And just last week, I read a fascinating article that offers new opportunities for developing this line of critique.

The piece, “Defining the Anthropocene” by Simon L. Lewis and Mark A. Maslin, assesses several of the possible ‘golden spikes’ (more accurately, Global Stratographic Section and Points, or GSSPs) that might mark the advent of the epoch. It engages with several of the better-known options: the beginning of agriculture; the start of the industrial revolution and the first detonation of nuclear weapons. But it also introduces a new candidate: the 1492 Columbian expedition that initiated the intensive European colonization of the Americas. In short, this paper puts forward the novel thesis that colonization is a driving, perhaps even defining, element of the Anthropocene.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick (http://goo.gl/GKHraX). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Colon Pointing by sfgamchick (http://goo.gl/GKHraX). Licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Attribution-Non-Commercial-NonDerivs.

Specifically, it foregrounds the decimation of the human population of the pre-Columbian Americas – the authors cite estimates of 54-61 million people in 1492, which was reduced to a minimum of about 6 million as a result of exposure to diseases, war, famine and enslavement. This period of mass death and killing, they explain, led to the almost comprehensive cessation of farming and a reduction in the use of fire to terraform landscapes. In turn, this sparked the regeneration of over 50 million hectares of forest, woody savanna and grassland, which vastly increased carbon uptake. Drawing on two sources from two Antarctic ice cores, the authors state that this resulted, by 1610, in what was probably the most significant dip in pre-industrial atmospheric CO2 levels of the past 2000 years. According to the Lewis and Maslin, this event can function as a GSSP because it constituted a global event and has several auxiliary markers (including pollen records showing regeneration, proxies indicating anomalous Arctic sea-ice extent, a reduction in coal deposits and others). The authors refer to this approach as the “Orbis hypothesis”, a name chosen to emphasize the globalization of trade and the modern world-system.

Moreover, the authors draw attention to the so-called Columbian exchange of biota endemic to the ‘new’ and ‘old’ worlds. According to their analysis, this inter-mingling led to a “swift, ongoing, radical reorganization of life on Earth without geological precedent” and, ultimately, has helped to produce the “unprecedented homogenization of the world’s biota”. The unique signature created by the transferral of species during this period, they contend, is “comparable to the appearance of new species as boundary markers in other epoch transitions”, and thus a suitable marker for the Anthropocene. In pointing this out, the authors make important connections between the European project of colonization and the current mass extinction event. This linkage demonstrates the tendency of colonial violence to resonate across species boundaries.

The Orbis hypothesis is a novel development in Anthropocene thinking, and not only because it adds another possible golden spike to the existing array. Crucially, it also makes links between the forms of agency, power and violence that have contributed to the Anthropocene.

One of the most striking contributions that Lewis and Maslin’s argument can make to critical discourses on the Anthropocene is that it introduces violence into the picture. In short, drawing on the Orbis hypothesis, one can reframe the ‘golden spike’ of the Anthropocene as a foundational moment of violence. For political philosophers from Arendt to Zizek identifying and confronting foundational moments of violence is crucial to understanding the relations of power, violence and oppression that constitute a society. This makes it possible not only to understand why and how a polity has arrived at a particular state of affairs, but also to confront the violence upon which it perhaps uncritically rests. For instance, numerous authors have highlighted the links between democratic lifestyles and the effaced histories of genocide and/or terror that gave rise to them (see, for example, the seminal work of Michael Mann).

In existing discourses of the Anthropocene, there little mention of violence, let alone of constitutive violence. Instead, these discourses tend to be preoccupied with the unintended adverse effects of human interventions into ‘natural’ processes. For instance, most discussions of climate change focus on the effects of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels in interaction with processes such as atmospheric change, ocean acidification and a rise in global temperature. These approaches draw attention to the political, economic and social relations and processes that help to produce these interactions – for instance, the adverse impacts of damaging levels of consumption. But in these cases, the relationship between the harm and the behavior in question is indirect, and sometimes extremely so. It is notoriously difficult to establish intention or responsibility in the case of climate change due to the number of actors involved and their distribution across time and space. On the contrary, colonialism involves direct modes of violence in a concrete historical context: the forms of killing, enslavement, war, rape, political oppression and other acts that constituted the European colonial toolkit. Lewis and Maslin’s argument draws a direct link between the constitutive violence of colonialism and the profound changes in the conditions of earthly life brought about by the Anthropocene. Indeed, both of the possible GSSPs that they suggest (the Orbis hypothesis and the onset of the nuclear age) are rooted specifically in the human capacity for violence. By establishing the relationship between concrete practices of violence and the onset of the Anthropocene, the authors open up a new register for critique.

Another important contribution of this approach is that it expands notions of the violent legacy of colonization, offering evidence that it has altered the entire Earth system. From this perspective, the wounds inflicted by colonization do not pass away with the human bodies it directly enslaves; they are engrained in, and integral to, very lively Earth systems that persist today and will continue far into the future. Moreover, the hypothesis suggests that this legacy of violence has produced global conditions which ultimately encompass and affect all life-forms on Earth. This calls for a re-thinking of the argument developed by Aime Césaire and Frantz Fanon that colonial violence rebounds back to the colonizer. In this interpretation of the Anthropocene, the violent legacy of colonization redounds not directly on the original colonizers, but on the global, interspecies populations of generations that followed the moment of colonization. In other words, the ‘boomerang effect’ of colonial violence appears not so much as a dynamic that ricochets between subject and object, but rather a feedback loop that amplifies as it expands through space and time. And of course, it bears emphasizing that the communities hardest hit by current effects of Anthropocene climate change are those already shaped by a legacy of colonial violence.

Moreover, the article opens up scope for exploring the diachronic relationship between potential markers of the Anthropocene. Most attempts to identify a ‘golden spike’ tend to focus on the synchronic: that is, they isolate a particular ‘moment’ in which the epoch began. In contrast, by arguing that “colonialism, global trade and coal brought about the Anthropocene”, Lewis and Maslin point out that the annexation of the Americas made the European Industrial Revolution possible. Specifically, this colonial project allowed European states to expand beyond their existing resource base and to develop economically, freeing up labour for industrialization. Highlighting the causal and temporal relations between pivotal moments in the emergence of the Anthropocene can help to illuminate the continuities between forms of power, technology, violence and politics that create seemingly disparate results. For instance, the line drawn by Lewis and Maslin can of course be extended further: the Industrial Revolution made possible the developments in nuclear technology and the ‘Great Acceleration’ that have also been mooted as possible ‘golden spikes’. This, in turn, allows for a more coherent analysis of the driving forces of Anthropocene conditions, their sources and their transmuting manifestations.

For these reasons, Lewis and Maslin’s article offers important opportunities for enhancing and bolstering the important claims of critical theory, and particularly the posthumanist/postcolonial ethos I am proposing. Lewis and Maslin’s hypothesis can help to expand the understanding of the impacts of colonization and its victims, both spatially and temporally. Moreover, it opens up new interpretations of the manifestations of violence, which can help add to the ethical repertoire available to those seeking to understand the causes and effects of the Anthropocene.

Crucially, this approach also suggests that it is crucial to criticize and resist proposed ‘solutions’ to the Anthropocene that involve overtly colonial logics, including many forms of geo-engineering and the colonization of space. It stands to reason that if colonial violence is a major driver of the Anthropocene and its more deadly effects, it is foolhardy to reproduce this logic. The implication is not that such projects should be ruled out, but rather that careful reflection is needed to ensure that they do not reproduce colonial violence, but rather focus on alternative forms of (in)habitation.

However, the article is equally significant because it points to the contribution that postcolonialism, posthumanism and other key critical debates can make to discourses of the Anthropocene, particularly those surrounding its definition. Lewis and Maslin dangle an important idea:

“The Orbis spike implies that colonialism, global trade and coal brought  about the Anthropocene. Broadly, this highlights social concerns, particularly the unequal power relationships between different groups of people, economic growth, the impacts of globalized trade, and our current reliance on fossil fuels”

I say ‘dangle’ because the article points to the co-constitution of political, social, economic, cultural, atmospheric, mineral and many other processes, but does not develop it fully. Fair enough – this is a paper that focuses on the stratigraphic evidence for the temporal definition of the Anthropocene. However, the article hints at ample opportunities for more robust and fruitful collaboration between postcolonial (and other critical) theorists and scientists researching and defining the epoch. Indeed, viewing the argument through a postcolonial lens can help to identify some of its potential drawbacks.

First, the ‘flip side’ of marking European colonization as a driving force of the Anthropocene is that the former may become naturalized. More generally, the risk of equating human forms of agency with ‘natural forces’ is that they come to be seen as inevitable, determinate and less contestible than ‘political forces’. As discussed above, one of the most promising aspects of this article is that it opens up a new arena for the ethico-political critique of the Anthropocene: attention to the role of violence and its fusion with planetary processes. However, it is important to maintain the tension between recognition of the fusion of forces traditionally treated as ‘human’ and ‘natural’ and the political contestation of their ‘naturalness’. This is essential if the Anthropocene is not to become another shorthand for deterministic depoliticization.

Second, while marking a key moment of European colonization as the golden spike of the Anthropocene draws crucial attention to the links between these phenomena, it is important to temper the potential Euro-centrism that such a view might promote. On the one hand, it helps to underscore the idea that the Anthropocene is not the product of ‘humanity’, but rather particular segments of it, as Andreas Malm and Alf Hornberg perceptively point out. On the other hand, it may entrench the notion that Europe is the primary mover and originary source of the more expansive forms of power associated with the Anthropocene. In other words, interpreted in an uncritical way, it may suggest that the hyper-magnified form of agency associated with the Anthropocene is another expression of the power and dominance of Europe and its colonial legacies. In a similar sense, the proposed approach might give the impression that colonization is the marker of the ‘human’ and its manifestation in the Anthropocene. The many statues of Christopher Columbus, including the one pictured above, emblematize this image of colonial agency quite literally inscribed into the stone. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the concept of the Anthropocene is not always employed as a tool for critique or reflection. Indeed, it is often lauded as the condition for a hyper-inflated notion of human agency and enhanced control over the planet. For this reason, it is necessary to temper claims about the colonial origins of the Anthropocene with a pluralistic understanding of the other significant, if less dominant, forces and current that shape the planet and social life.

The promise – and the challenge – raised by this article is that this power, and the narratives that surround it, be engaged with critically. Indeed, Maslin and Lewis argue that “the power that humans wield is unlike any other force of nature, because it is reflexive and therefore can be used, withdrawn or modified”. While this statement tends to attribute more autonomy and objectivity to human agency than is likely to be the case in the conditions of the Anthropocene, it makes an important point. Namely, if adopted and elaborated in a critical and pluralistic way, the Orbis hypothesis can contribute to the important task of decolonizing the Anthropocene – as a discourse, a set of present conditions, and a source of possible futures.

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”.


‘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.


No promises

Mass extinction, security and intervention in the Anthropocene 

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

About the talk: 

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

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

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

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

CFP: More-than-human Worlds of Violence, Sicily, 23-26 September 2015

Call for papers, panels or roundtables: P1060005

More-Than-Human Worlds of Violenceat the European International Studies Association’s 2015 Convention in Giardini Naxos, Sicily, from 23-26 September 2015. 

Violence is almost always framed as a dynamic that arises between human subjects. Nonhumans are usually treated as its instruments, its passive objects, and/or the background against which it unfurls. For instance, nonhumans may be instrumentalized as weapons, backgrounded as conditions of combat or identified as sites of damage (as opposed to harm). However, emerging discourses on ‘posthumanist’ international relations challenge the anthropocentric ontology that produces these assumptions. Insights from new materialism, animal studies, the environmental humanities, science and technology studies, and other fields have helped to reframe nonhumans as ‘lively’ presences in world politics. From the role of animals in warfare to drone surveillance to the ethics of mass extinction, they illuminate the ways in which nonhumans are integral to various modes of violence. Specifically, they suggest that nonhumans embody, transform and produce specific forms and modalities of violence that cannot be reduced to human agency or subjectivity. This line of thought raises a number of important questions, including, but not limited to:

  • (In what ways) can nonhumans be subjects, objects, actants or sites of violence?
  • What specific forms of violence do nonhumans participate in and produce?
  • What ethical implications might arise from an ontology of violence attuned to the capacities of nonhumans?
  • How might a more-than-human ontology reshape the concept of violence?

Subjects may include – but are not limited to: the weaponisation of nonhuman; the impacts of various forms of violence in/on nonhumans and multi-species communities; violence in the Anthropocene (e.g. extinction, climate change); complexity and violence.

Please note that this is an interdisciplinary section and conference participation is strongly encouraged from all subject areas, including the arts and humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Even if you do not normally present your work at international studies conferences, this section will provide an open and welcoming forum for engaging in interdisciplinary work on violence and the more-than-human that has an international and/or global dimension.

This section aims to represent the best new work at the intersections of more-than-human scholarship and violence, and will include participants at all career levels – postgraduate students and early career researchers are especially encouraged to apply.

Participants may submit a proposal for an individual paper, panel or roundtable (if you have an idea for a different kind of session, please email me). The deadline for all submissions is 15 January 2015. Please note that if you have already agreed to participate in this section, you must still submit your abstract through the online system.

If you have any questions about the panel, feel free to get in touch with me. Also, please circulate this CFP to networks, colleagues and students who might be interested.




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