Tag Archives: ethics

Lifework Part II

Macquarie Mural Leanne Tobin

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

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

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

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

What follows is a co-composition amongst:

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

And, in alphabetical order:

Sophie Adams

Tasmin-Lara Dilworth

Sarah Judge

Kate Lloyd 

Patrick McEvoy

Audra Mitchell 

Harriet Narwal

Emily O’Gorman

Jo Anne Rey

Sandie Suchet-Pearson

Sabiha Yeasmin Rosy

Thomas Wicket


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



Can water go extinct?



Water, and its protectors, are fighting for survival. As I’m writing, the Supreme Court of Canada is hearing historic legal challenges from the Chippewas of the Thames and the Inuit of the Clyde River. The Chippewas are protesting the reversal of and increased flow along Enbridge’s Line 9, which transports oil through more than 100 waterways across southern Ontario and Quebec. The Inuit of the Clyde River, Nunavut, are protesting seismic testing by mining corporations that threatens to disrupt or displace marine life forms on which they rely. Both parties are presenting evidence that decisions on these extractive processes were made in violation of treaty rights.

A matter of hours before these cases were heard, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau approved two more major pipeline projects in British Columbia –  the Transmountain and Line 3 projects – that will vastly expand the amount of oil transported from the Alberta Tar Sands to global markets. These pipelines will also increase the exposure of the province’s rivers and coasts to the threat of chemical spills from the pipes themselves and increased tanker traffic, whose possible negative effects on marine life have not been sufficiently examined. 

The toxification of water in Canada, and especially in Aboriginal communities, is a constant threat to livelihoods and ways of life. Just a week before the Supreme Court Hearings, a report by the Toronto Star found that residents of Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation (Grassy Narrows) Ontario, are consuming fish containing 13 times the acceptable levels of mercury. This is the ongoing and neglected legacy of the dumping of 10 tons of mercury into the Wabigoon River in the 1960s.

And of course, further south, one of the most remarkable social movements of the this generation is taking place. Militarized police forces are using water cannons, rubber bullets, barbed wire and old-fashioned physical violence to protect pipeline developers against thousands of water protectors, composed largely of members of the Sioux Nation and their allies, camped at Standing Rock. Whether in court, in the camp or in their own communities, water protectors are putting their bodies on the line to demonstrate that ‘water is life’.

If water is life, can it die, can it go extinct – and does this matter? At the moment, I am working to re-think mainstream accounts of extinction so that they better reflect the enormity of what is at stake. Standard biological definitions – ‘the death of every member of a species’ – are fraught with exclusions and constraints that, despite feverish rhetoric surrounding  a possible ‘sixth mass extinction event’, actually downplay the gravity of the situation. My (developing) ideas on global extinction are not conventional. I refuse to focus only on ‘species’ that are deemed to be ‘living’ within Western scientific frameworks of knowledge. Instead, I am examining how structures  of violence – in particular, colonial and extractive modalities – destroy the continuity of worlds and the co-constitution of the beings that create them.

From this perspective, global extinction is not just an ‘(unintended) effect’ emerging from the actions of ‘humans’ as a whole. Instead, it is a mode of structured destruction, a large-scale syndrome of combined violences concentrated in particular places and sustained by the efforts and power of particular groups of humans. These structures are uniquely global – and I don’t use this term to refer to a ‘neutral’ measure of scale. Rather, it reflects a particular mode of large-scale worlding, rooted in European images of an encompassing globe, that seeks to elide itself with earth (for more thoughts on this, check out last month’s post). These structures fracture worlds, protocols, life forms and collective continuities achieved amongst them.

If we approach global extinction this way, how does water fit in? Can it die, and can in go extinct?  In a recent book, Elizabeth Povinelli asks whether rocks can die. She has particular rocks in mind: Two Women Sitting Down, two female rat and bandicoot Dreamings in the Northern Territory in Australia. In 2011, the Two Women were fractured by OM Manganese, the mining company extracting minerals in the region for export to Chinese markets. Although this was the first legal suit in which destruction of a sacred site was successfully brought by Indigenous owners in Australia, the amount of the damages awarded ($150 000) was paltry.

Two Women Sitting Down

Two Women Sitting Down

More to the point, though, Povinelli stresses that the charge was not manslaughter, but rather desecration of a sacred site. Her work has long documented the ways in which state actors pay lip service to the animacy of Dreamings. In fact, they often demand that Indigenous communities perform certain ‘beliefs’ that confirm Western stereotypes and standards of ‘authenticity’. But at the same time, it is clear that the animacy of these beings is regarded by state actors as a matter of ‘belief’, ‘myth’ or ‘metaphor’, rather than knowledge. This explains why the destruction of Two Women Sitting Down did not ‘count’ as a killing, but rather a kind of offence against ‘beliefs’.

According to Povinelli, Two Women Sitting Down and other Dreamings challenge the basic foundations of geontology: the structures of power and knowledge in which ‘Life’ is divided from ‘Non-life’ within Western scientific culture. For Povinelli, geontology underpins all forms of bio-, necro- and thanato-politics. These are strategies used to manage life and death through, amongst other strategies, population control, security regimes, conservation practices and genetic engineering. Geontology also provides the foundations for the construction of resources, commodification and the circulation of capital by designating what does and does not have ethical standing – and therefore, what can be used as ‘resource’. ‘Non-Life’ almost always falls into the ‘resource’ category.

Simply by existing as themselves, figures like Two Women Sitting Down unsettle the boundaries between Life and Non-Life – and, I would argue of the scope of harm (or something like it). This does not only go for rocks. Povinelli also writes about Tjipel, a ‘transgender creek’ whose multiple becomings – as human girl, river, resource, Dreaming, home, relation, possible fracking site and more – confound geontological categories.

Other bodies of water, too, are asserting themselves across geontological boundaries to transform politics. For instance, in 2012, the Whanganui River in Aotearoa New Zealand was given a legal identity under the name Te Awa Tupua (claims to traditional ownership of the river are ongoing). This gave the river the same rights and interests long offered to corporations. In asserting its personhood in legal terms, Te Awa Tupua became the first body of water to receive this status. However, formal legal status is not required for water to disrupt entrenched, colonial political categories. The water protectors at Standing Rock, on the coast of British Columbia, all along Line 9, the Clyde River, Grassy Narrows and elsewhere are not just advocating for water, but as water. This constitutes another powerful challenge to dominant political regimes, and asserts water as a political and ethical being, that can live, die and experience harms.

But can water ‘go extinct’, and does this matter? If so, this might offer a way to bring the status of water as life into mainstream discourses – not as an alternative to recognising the political, ethical and legal status of water, but rather as a complement. Before exploring this question, it’s important to distinguish death from extinction, especially in the way I’m re-framing these terms. As Deborah Bird Rose has pointed out, life and death intertwine so that death is twisted back into life, in part through the collective efforts of the living, ensuring the continuity of multi-life-form communities. Extinction destroys both life and death –  as such, it cannot be the same as death, or simply a scaled-up version of death. I would add to this that while death refers to the Western scientific definition for the cessation of life in an individual organism, extinction applies to multi-life-form collectives. That is, extinction is the destruction of plural modes of being, their deep histories and contingent futures. Also, as I have argued above, global extinction is not just an accumulation of deaths, or even of species extinctions, but large-scale structures of violence that sever the creative continuities of life.

Water is not included in mainstream discourses of extinction, except occasionally as a factor in the deaths of animal or, more rarely, plant populations. That is, water is not considered to be a being capable of going extinct, or a subject of extinction. This assumption exemplifies the kinds of geontological and biontological reasoning that Povinelli is concerned with. Unlike many other cosmologies, in Western science, water is understood as a form of Nonlife that relates to Life as a resource that supports its vital processes. However, a closer look at Western understandings of water show that these assumptions do not hold water.

This understanding of water imagines it as a pure, neutral medium that is somehow outside of, or an external medium for life (and its messy, colliding histories), a resource that life ‘uses’ instrumentally. Under the banner of H20, Western cultures frame water in terms of its chemical composition, as a ‘pure’ substance or theoretical abstraction. Jamie Linton calls this imaginary substance ‘modern water’. In fact, actual waters are co-constituted by beings that are usually coded as ‘life’ in Western terms. This includes not only macro-fauna such as fish, algae or kelp, but also the myriad bacterial and other microscopic beings, alive and dead, that constitute it. These beings cannot be meaningfully separated from water,  so water is not just a ‘resource’ for them, but the condition of their existence. Similarly, the ‘modern water’ paradigm promotes an imaginary, generic idea of water that is ultimately the same in its physical properties wherever it appears, give or take differences in temperature, salinity, mineral content and so forth, and of course, the effects of ‘pollution’.  In fact, waters are also made plural by the singular constellations of beings – classed as Life and Non-Life, organic and inorganic, by Western science – that co-constitute them. As such, the toxification, damming or other damaging of a body of water constitutes the destruction of unique worlds, not the manipulation of a generic substance.

At the same time, it is better known that water constitutes living beings. It is a well-worn cliche that water makes up most of the human body, including the structure of living cells. However, less recognized is the way in which water is the condition of the modes of being coded as ‘Life’ by Western science. Instead, it tends to be treated as a resource that is separate from organisms and brought into them through eating, drinking or absorption. On the contrary, water is as much a milieu for ‘land-dwelling’ creatures as air is. It is not outside of bodies, but always-already part of them. Beyond nourishing bodies, quenching their thirst and lubricating their movements, water conditions and transforms life.  Moving through bodies and worlds, it leaves traces or concentrations of toxicity that inhibit life or force it into new modes of growth. Patterns of evaporation and rainfall creatively constrain the life forms that emerge in the effort for collective survival (for instance, the difference between rainforest amphibians and desert plants). The volume and direction of rivers affects not only access to water, but also the way that life orients itself in space towards or away from it. Water conducts sound – greatly intensified by shipping and mining – that can allow cetaceans to communicate, but also injure, disorient and displace them, along with other marine life forms and the communities that live in concert with them. In all of these cases, water is an inalienable condition of life, not a substrate that ‘Life’ uses instrumentally.

From this perspective, life is co-constituted by water and vice versa (to say nothing of how water co-constitutes other forms of ‘Non-Life’, including place, climate, air and soil). Changes in water alter the conditions for the flourishing of life forms and can drive their extinction. But at the same time, the elimination or displacement of life forms that co-constitute water undermine its conditions and the singular worlds it forms. Of course it is possible theoretically to imagine an abstract version of H20 without any traces of ‘Life’ or other forms of ‘Nonlife’, but this would not be the concrete, plural waters on which multi-life-form worlds rely. So, even from perspective rooted in Western science, water co-constitutes, is co-constituted by, and therefore is life. Carried to its logical conclusions, Western science finally,  arrives where multiple bodies of Indigenous thought have dwelled for millennia.

Viewed in this way, water can go extinct, in the sense that I have described above. That is, water is a co-constituent of multi-life form worlds whose integrity and continuity is severed when any of them are destroyed. Another way of putting this is to say that it is impossible to understand global extinction without including water (or air, or soil, but those require a separate discussion). The harm and destruction of global extinction are distributed across bodies, boundaries, ‘species’ and geontological categories in such a way that their full impact can’t be grasped if any of these beings are excluded. From this perspective, the harms and violences of global extinction accrue directly to water in itself, not just as an indirect resource for life.

What is the advantage of understanding water as a subject of extinction? First, this approach helps to break down divisions that impose particular ontologies and denigrate forms of being that don’t ‘count as Life’. In so doing, it provides another fulcrum for destabilising dominant modes of politics that exclude ‘Non-Life’ (including forms of life categorised as such). This can complement the powerful efforts of Indigenous groups and their allies around the world to assert the living status of water. Second, this approach offers a much more comprehensive account of extinction and the enormity of the damage it inflicts across worlds.  In a similar sense, understanding the destruction of waters as part of global extinction underscores the importance of water for the continuity of life on earth in a broader, more-than-human ethical sense. Third, understanding threats to water in terms of global extinction offers another way of highlighting, diagnosing and resisting the structured destructions, slow and fast violences advancing across the earth. It is important to stress that this argument is indebted to Indigenous knowledges about water and not intended to displace them with yet another ‘Western’ approach. On the contrary, my aim is to show Western knowledge systems and political powers cannot avoid facing the consequences of their arbitrary distinctions between ‘Life’ and ‘Nonlife’, and the violences carried out in order to maintain them.


*Please also see Lifework Part II*

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

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

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

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

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

Photo Aug 25, 09 52 55.jpg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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






Gendering extinction

"Improvisation 7.09" by Dominic Minichiello (Cover image for Sex After Life by Claire Colebrook (http://bit.ly/1N4IUbg)

“Improvisation 7.09” by Dominic Minichiello (Cover image for Sex After Life by Claire Colebrook (http://bit.ly/1N4IUbg)

Extinction and mass extinction are complex phenomena that entangle multiple dimensions of life, ethics, politics, economics and art. But how do they relate to gender and sexuality? A few months ago, I was asked to write a chapter for a textbook on gender and nature that would address this question. This was a welcome and stimulating challenge, which gave me the opportunity to dig more deeply into the crossings between feminism, gender studies, queer theory and studies of extinction – fields which are connected in multiple, sometimes not-so-obvious ways. In many ways, this is a project of bridging, extending and teasing out resonances between literatures. Decades of eco-feminisms, feminist environmentalisms and environmental feminisms have produced rich discussions on the relationships between gender sexuality and the ecosphere. However, with the notable exception of Claire Colebrook, very few scholars of gender and queer theory have engaged directly with extinction. The concept does appear in eco-feminist works, but it is almost always invoked rhetorically, as an opaque worst case scenario used to underscore the enormity of destructive power structures and relations. In these discourses  (like many others), the concept of extinction is something of a black box, and it most often treated as a non sequitur: it is assumed to mean “the death of every member of a species”, and there is rarely discussion of its many other dimensions, relations and implications. At the same time, emerging work in the humanities on extinction and mass extinction holds great potential for exploring the links between gender, sexuality, survival and extinction that can be nurtured further.

Reflecting on the connections between these fields is not only a promising way of theorising extinction in a more robust and plural way, but it can also contribute to feminist, gender and queer scholarship in rich ways. To this end, I’ve tried to tease out some of the most potent intersections between these fields, bringing them into direct confrontation with extinction, and with existing modes of response to it. Here are a few of the nodes that I think have great potential for further development.

Feminist critiques of neo-liberal conservation

One of the most integral arguments within ecological feminisms is that patriarchal, extractive logics underpin the destruction of ‘nature’. Carolyn Merchant popularized this argument by tracing the roots of the current ecological crisis to the scientific revolution and the rise of capitalism in the early modern period of European history. For Merchant, the transition from a belief system in which the Earth was understood to be a living ‘mother’ to one in which it was refigured as a passive female body removed constraints on destructive activity. From this perspective, the logics and resulting cultures of extractive patriarchy underpin destructive relations between humans and the Earth. Subsequently, authors such as Kay Warren and Val Plumwood have argued that the converse is also true. That is, that the separation of ‘man’ and ‘Earth’ entrenches relations of superiority, subordination and instrumentality that have helped to sustain oppressive gender categories – along with other exclusive categories such as race and species (see the work of Greta Gaard on this subject).

These arguments provide an important basis for critiquing dominant political framings of and responses to extinction and prospect of mass extinction, in particular neoliberal logics of conservation. They suggest that the androcentric, extractive logics that gave rise to early capitalism undergird human activities that may lead to extinction. Yet, as Sian Sullivan’s excellent work attests to, the very same logics of accumulation, extraction and financialization are central to contemporary conservation efforts. In fact, since the inception of the term ‘biodiversity’ in the late 1980s, conservationists have sought to incentivize the protection of diverse life forms by emphasizing their resource value. In these discourses, even non-monetary forms of value – for instance, spiritual, scientific or aesthetic value – are treated as dwindling resources. Conservation, in this context, is framed as a means of accumulating, securing and managing capital in the hopes of a future profit. This logic has become particularly pronounced in discourses of ‘ecosystems services’, which attempt to re-evaluate ecosystems in terms of the ‘free’ services they provide to economies, and incentivise forms of development based on leveraging this ‘capital’.

Ecological feminist arguments focus attention on the cultures, norms and logics that underpin destructive human activity. They also historicize the convergence of the rise of capitalist economic organization, modern patriarchy, the separation of ‘humans’ and ‘nature’ and cultural frameworks that produce the destruction of ecosystems. This line of analysis helps to identify how neoliberal forms of conservation that understand ‘biodiversity’ in terms of capital and resources, in the nature of creative/destructive flows of capital, propel the exact same forces they resist. As a result, extinction is becoming an important propellor of neo-liberal capitalism. So, existing discourses and practices around extinction and the ‘management’ of biodiversity need to be understood as being enfolded in the processes of capitalism, sometimes quite literally. Emerging financial instruments such as ‘biodiversity banking’ and biodiversity derivatives epitomize this framing, but it is also reflected in the broader language and political economy of conservation. By highlighting the historicity, continuities and transformations of the central logics of capitalism and its embeddedness in relations of hierarchy, feminist critiques have an important role to play in re-thinking dominant frames of extinction and the commodification of biodiversity.

The reproduction of survival/ the survival of reproduction

Extinction is almost always understood against the horizon of survival and the imperative to sustain it – at least for life forms deemed to be of value to humans. In many cases, this imperative takes the form of deliberate strategies for enforcing existence. Donna Haraway’s influential book When Species Meet devotes considerable attention to the logics, practices and politics of Species Survival Plans. These plans monitor and enforce reproduction amongst ‘endangered’ species, not least by collecting data on populations, genetic profiles and genetic materials to enable selective breeding. This strategy assumes that all organisms can, should, and can be made to exercise their reproductive capacities in order to resist extinction, and it actively mobilizes members of ‘endangered species’ into this project. In so doing, it helps to entrench norms regarding gender, sexuality and reproductive labour that are deeply entrenched in modern, Western human cultures.

Attention to these programmes highlights an important way in which extinction is gendered in dominant scientific and policy frameworks. Specifically, strategic breeding programmes share in the belief that reproduction is an imperative for those capable of reproducing if ‘the species’ is at risk’. This belief is directly related to Western norms of the reproductive imperative for women. Indeed, Haraway points out that it is precisely “‘woman’s’ putative self-defining responsibility to ‘the species’ as this singular and typological female is reduced to her reproductive function”. In a similar sense, within SSPs and other strategies of enforced survival, entire life forms are reduced to their reproductive capacities. Moreover, programmes of enforced survival can, in the context of sexual reproduction, disproportionately burden female organisms with the task of avoiding extinction. This logic is particularly fraught in discussions of the possibility of human extinction, in which female fertility (captured in the standard policy language of ‘births per woman’) is framed simultaneously as a threat to survival, and the only hope for escaping extinction (see, for instance, Alan Weisman’s comments on this).  In these ways, the securitization of survival entrenches the intersectional categories of gender, species and race discussed above.

Dominant discourses of extinction and conservation also entrench and privilege sexual reproduction, in ways that entrench heteronormative assumptions and norms.

Sea anemones reproducing asexually. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1MI842n)

Sea anemones reproducing asexually. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (http://bit.ly/1MI842n)

This is reflected in the way that the subjects of extinction and conservation are framed.  The standard object of conservation is the biological ‘species’, a term which is defined by the ability of organisms to reproduce sexually. As Myra Hird has pointed out, this conception of ‘species’ makes it appear as if sexual reproduction is the ‘best’ means of sustaining the existence of a life form. However, Hird’s work demonstrates that Earthly life forms actually engage in myriad forms of reproduction, from the free exchange of DNA between bacteria to the hermaphroditic practices of some fish. The upshot of these arguments is that Earthly life is sustained through a huge variety of reproductive activities that do not conform to biological understandings of life processes or species. Crucially, Hird argues that there is no necessary hierarchy between forms of reproduction. In Darwinian terms, all species that manage to survive are equally successful. However, by conflating survival with sexual reproduction, existing discourses of extinction embed hetero-normative frameworks that devalue other forms of reproduction. They also reduce reproduction to the imperative to survive, ignoring the myriad cultural, political, aesthetic, sensual and other dimensions of reproduction.

 Extinction can be a mother….

In a related sense, feminists and eco-feminists have long problematized the implicit link made between the practices of mothering (attributed uncritically to all females) and ecological sustainability. Indeed, some eco-feminists – Mies and Shiva amongst them – make this a central plank of their arguments and political projects, calling for the mobilization of maternal care as a means of protecting future (human) generations. However, as Cate Sandilands  has pointed out, aside from presuming that mothering is a fundamental feature of females in general, this approach does not cross species borders. Instead, she argues, it constrains women’s political action to the private sphere of the family and inter-human interactions. This, in turn, may enact severe cultural constraints on women’s sense of ethico-political agency in the face of the multi-species (perhaps pan-species) phenomenon that is extinction.

At the same time, the maternal archetype is often applied to the Earth as a whole. In some cases, this metaphor has a positive normative valence. For instance, indigenous and campesino-led movements in Ecuador and Bolivia have succeeded in creating new laws which recognize the rights of Pachamama (an Amazonian deity whose name is often translated as ‘Mother Earth’). These movements frame the Earth as a beloved female figure reliant on the protection of her (human) children.

representation of Pachamama. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons (http://bit.ly/1MI7GRj)

representation of Pachamama. Courtesy of Wikimedia commons (http://bit.ly/1MI7GRj).

A very different narrative can be found amongst the (predominantly male, especially in the field of human extinction) scientists who study extinction. In their discourses, the Earth is often presented as a ‘bad’ mother: that is, a volatile, withholding or even vengeful figure who cares little for humans. For instance, James Lovelock’s famous image of Gaia depicts the earth as a single, living organization that self-regulates myriad complex processes in order to ensure her life, while being indifferent to the comings and goings of the forms of life who compose her. Peter Ward  proposes a different planetary avatar: the (once again, ancient Greek) figure of Media, “sorceress, a princess – and a killer of her own children”. In these two cases, extinction (of humans and other species) is understood to be a sign of ‘bad motherhood’. The Earth has shirked, or even subverted, the norms of nurturing and care to which ‘she’ is expected to confirm. Her indifference to the well-being of her ‘children’ is understood to be both cruel and capricious, and her fluctuations are interpreted as acts of revenge. Perhaps surprisingly (given that these arguments are made by self-identified scientists), extinction is presented as the product of emotion, the result of poorly-constrained female subjectivity crying out for the rationalised discipline historically associated with occidental notions of maleness.

These images draw on dominant Western gender stereotypes to portray the female planet as irrational, unstable, or capricious. From one perspective, such images might be subverted in order to unsettle the dominant conceptions of motherhood discussed above. However, in their current form, they gender extinction in a blunt way, framing it as the devastating outcome of allowing female subjectivity free rein. This calls for a re-appraisal of Merchant’s claim (see above) that the rise of modern European society marked the death of the Earth as a mother figure, particularly in industrial and scientific discourses. In these latter discourses, ‘she’ is not only presented as very much alive, but also as destructively deviant. Instead of inspiring care, ‘her’ persistence – her unwillingness to die, perhaps – prompts calls for increased instrumental control amongst these influential scientists. In this sense, ‘mother nature’ is made into the subject of exploitative control, whether dead or alive. Paying attention to this ‘undead’ version of the ‘Earth mother’ highlights the deeply gendered nature of dominant conceptions of extinction itself.

The death of (sexual) difference and the evolution of politics

Extinction does not just involve the death of organisms, but also the destruction of the forms of difference produced by evolution. Elizabeth Grosz  re-reads the seminal works of Charles Darwin through the ideas of Luce Irigaray, arguing that evolution has given rise to irreducible sexual difference. Indeed, she argues that

“sexual selection ensures that sexual difference remains…irreducible to and impossible to generalize into a neutral and inclusive humanity. Sexual difference entails that…the human exists in two nonreducible forms… whose interests cannot be assumed to be the same, but may negotiate a common interest in collective survival”

For Grosz, these forms of irreducible difference each produce ‘endless variety’ on each side of the sexual bifurcation – including variations or intersexes that lie between its categories. She contends that Darwin’s notion of sexual selection anticipates one of Irigaray’s central claims: that the irreducibility of sexual difference makes possible the productive inventiveness that yields diverse forms of life as evolution moves through time. Attentiveness to the role of sexual difference in evolution, she claims, can provide the basis for a new feminism rooted in respect for radical otherness. In contrast, we can understand extinction as the ending of these processes, and of the vital, open-ended creativity they embody. From this perspective, extinction destroys the open-ended, creative processes of differentiation made possible by sexual difference. However, it might also form the focal point for new politics based on the recognition and cultivation of qualitative difference in kind – rather than (just) the commodified, financialized units of ‘biodiversity’.

Indeed, scholars of feminism and queer theory who have engaged directly with extinction argue that it can open up new horizons of ethico-political action. The possibility of mass extinction – and human extinction in particular – is often presented as the negation of all political possibility. However, the ‘figural extinction’ (see Colebrook, above) of gendered and hetero-normative conceptions of ‘humanity’ may also open up unprecedented opportunities to transform social norms and power structures that enforce inequalities of gender, sexuality, race and species. It is important to note that ‘figural extinction’ need not involve the biological elimination of homo sapiens or any other species; contemplating it does not require harbouring an extinction-wish. Instead, it points to the dissolution of the idea of a bounded, separate, superior ‘humanity’, and of the socio-cultural frameworks that sustain it.

Indeed, for Colebrook, contemplating the demise of homo sapiens forces one to think about what other kinds of life forms might evolve from, or instead of, ‘humanity’ as we know it. She also questions whether the dominant norm of ‘humanity’ can justify its existence, which is usually simply presupposed to be a cosmic good.  Rather than an expression of misanthropy, Colebrook’s question urges humans to think how they might become otherwise. For instance, questioning the survival of humanity-as-it-is might pave the way for “a radical feminism could provide a genuine thought of life beyond the human. Here, there would be no woman who remains close to the earth, life, and cosmos: no woman who provides man with the other he has always required for his own redemption” (see Colebrook 2014).

In a similar sense, Rosi Braidotti ponders concrete, everyday forms of action that can connect the figural extinction of ‘humanity’ to political transformation. Specifically, she suggests that thinking and writing as if ‘humanity’ were already extinct is the ‘ultimate gesture of defamiliarization’. This, in turn, can help humans “think critically about who we are and what we are actually in the process of becoming”. Braidotti believes that engaging in this kind of ethico-political action can produce new modes of community and solidarity based on an “enlarged sense of inter-connection between self and others, including the non-human or ‘earth’ others”. This, in turn, can lead to an understanding of life that affirms and accommodates not only those forms of life that currently exist, but also those to come. Adopting this attitude, she contends, may counter-act the oppressive and often depoliticizing messages of catastrophe, and retrenchments of existing, exclusive forms of humanism, that are often prompted by public discourses on extinction.

For all of these authors, contemplating human extinction need not be a purely morbid or nihilistic pursuit. Instead, it can open modes of being to radical alterity, making possible transformations that are blocked by the firm normative boundaries that bolster modern humanism. Transcending these boundaries can open up diverse forms of life and flourishing that enable wholly new ways of being. From this perspective, extinction need not be simply a matter of death and destruction, but also of creativity, rejuvenation and the realization of possibilities – including radical conceptions of feminism, gender and queer theory.


This brief discussion suggests that there are multiple nodes of intersection between feminisms, queer theories and the concept of extinction. By exploring these intersections, it is possible to begin to open up the conceptual black box of extinction by deploying the tools and perspectives developed by decades of research in these fields. However, confronting extinction may also provide rich opportunities for advancing and deepening studies of gender and sexuality. My current research seeks to pluralize conceptions of (mass) extinction and possible responses to it. Instead of attempting to ‘(re)define’ extinction as a unitary concept, its goal is to proliferate public sources of inspiration for understanding and grappling with this phenomenon. I think that further exploration of the intersections briefly outlined here is one important pathway towards this goal.


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.




Apocalypse then: worldliness after the end of the world

Image by Matthew Holland  Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

Image by Matthew Holland
Licensed under creative commons attribution 2.0 no-derivs generic

A (re)view of Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects (University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

The opening montage of Lars Von Trier’s film Melancholia ends on an arresting slow-motion image: viewed from outer space, the earth crashes into, and is obliterated by, a larger planet (the eponymous Melancholia).  This planet, or so the narrative goes, is on an inevitable collision course with the earth, but has been concealed behind the sun. Although intimately close to the Earth, Melancholia is simply too large in scale for humans to see or fully comprehend until they are about to collide. This collision marks the end not only of the Earth, but of all life in the universe and every trace of its existence.

The fact that the film starts at the end (of the Earth) puts the viewer in an unusual position. It cuts short the sense of anxiety produced by most disaster films – that is, the fraught hope that the protagonists will survive, or even save the day. We know from the outset that everything will end, and are plunged into a cool, meditative space of certainty and, indeed, melancholy.

We are also forced into an eerie counterfactual mode of thinking that inverts standard understandings of time. Even though we watch  quite ordinary human events unfold – a wedding, quarrels between siblings, the habits of home-making – they are taking place in a world that has already ended. In other words, the present is already in the past. We are forced to see ourselves as immersed in the middle of processes so vast in scale that by the time we are aware of them, they have already happened.

This is precisely the kind of temporal shake-up that Timothy Morton’s new book Hyperobjects seeks to achieve. The book explores entities that are so large (or micro)  in scale and that so exceed  human temporality that we simply cannot grasp them, despite the fact that we are ‘in’ them, and they are in us.  Although we can never see them in full, these objects – whether global warming, nuclear materials or evolution – are always intimately enmeshed with us, and inescapable to us. One of these objects, Morton claims, is the end of the world, and, according to Morton, we are already in the midst of it.

Like Von Trier, Morton uses the end of the world as his opening gambit. This is a bold move that pulls the rug from under apocalyptic discourses, ecological or otherwise. These discourse impel us to ‘act now!’ in order to stop the world from ending. Apocalyptic narratives generate fear that can easily be channelled into reactionary politics. But they also propagate the myth that humans can, through their agency alone, ‘save the world’ (at least for themselves).  Instead, like Melancholia, Morton’s book asks how humans should act in a world that is (always-) already ending.

Melancholia gives us an account of four archetypal responses to ‘the end’, each represented by one of its central characters.  John (Kiefer Sutherland), the wealthy husband of Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), one of the two protagonists, engages in a kind of scientific denial. He encourages his wife and young son to dispel their fears of the end. Indeed, he urges them to view the confrontation between earth and the planet Melancholia as a scientific marvel that is ultimately subsumed under human knowledge and powers of prediction (only to kill himself when he discovers that he is wrong).

Claire, suspicious of John’s certainty, furtively downloads predictions about the apocalypse whilst maintaining the day-to-day running of the house and caring for her family. Her initial reaction to the certainty of the collision is to plan a ‘nice’ ending, complete with a glass of wine on the veranda. Yet, as her own worst fears become realities, she quickly descends into despair.  Leo (Cameron Spurr), the couple’s son, is insulated in a series of small, enclosed worlds: the remote estate where the family lives, the cocoon of his parents’ reassurances, and even the imagined ‘magical caves’ he hopes to build with his aunt.

Only Justine (Kirsten Dunst) knows from the outset that the world is ending. She dwells in a calm state of depression, unable to participate in social rituals that she knows to be pointless. She even refuses to mourn for a world that she sees as ‘evil’. When the end comes, she resists attempts to deny or palliate it and simply inhabits it.

Morton’s work elegantly deconstructs three of these positions. He undercuts scientific denialism by demonstrating that hyperobjects are neither the result of human cognition, nor subject to it. In fact, he avers, the more we know about hyperobjects, the stranger they become. Hyperobjects, he claims, are distributed across time and space, and emerge in a variety of manifestations – for instance, as a patch of spilled oil here, and an instance of cancer in humans there. Because they are so widely distributed, it is almost impossible to prove their causes through scientific evidence – a fact which gives free rein to denialism. Just like John’s expert calculations, the attempt to grasp hyperobjects through conventional science ends only in delusion.

Morton is also deeply suspicious of those who try to aestheticize ‘Nature’ in order to uphold a stable order in which humans are safely divided from their ‘environment’. According to Morton, ‘there is no there’ into which humans can banish dangerous objects such as toxic waste. Instead, he claims, we are interspersed with nuclear particles, biological waste, and everything else that we try to ‘flush away’. These objects, he suggests are ‘viscous’: they ‘stick to us’ and no amount of scrubbing can remove them.

Indeed, one of the main fallacies that Morton explodes is the idea that we can cleanse ourselves of hyperobjects.  Just as Claire attempts to maintain the aesthetic distance from the advance of Melancholia by continuing daily rituals (meals, bedtimes, and so on), Morton claims that those who believe in Nature are simply denying the fact that they are intertwined with everything else. They tend to adopt the problematic position of the Hegelian ‘beautiful soul’ who shields herself from the horror and harshness of reality, and criticizes others who acknowledge them and act upon them. This attitude, Morton contends, has contributed significantly to anthropogenic global warming and the threat of nuclear disaster.

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by Jo Christian Coterhals. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

Perhaps the most vehement argument in Hyperobjects is waged against Leo’s position: the child cloistered from danger by the fantasy of enclosure and an ‘inside’ to which humans are admitted. Indeed, as discussed above, Leo is ensconced in a variety of small, seemingly stable, human-made ‘worlds’, which Claire seeks to protect right up until the end of the world.

For Morton, ‘worlds’ are akin to carefully-constructed scenes in fantasy films, simulacra that throw only a thin and misleading veil over reality. He uses the macabre image of the charnel ground to describe the conditions from which humans try to shield themselves with these ‘worlds’. According to Morton, the only truly ecological act is for humans to actively inhabit this charnel ground, to confront directly the other beings that help to constitute us and may simultaneously corrode us from within (whether toxins, viruses or the decaying bodies to which the metaphor refers). He urges us to stop trying to save a rigid and groundless notion of world and instead to accept that we are embedded within objects that are constantly changing, and which may be indifferent to our existence.

In other words, Morton places us in the position of Justine throughout most of Melancholia. He asks us to dwell in the contemplative space of the melancholic. But, in so doing, he takes a dangerous gamble and does not quite win it. Morton states from the outset of Hyperobjects (and in his other writings) that he is not an evangelist of hopelessness – in fact, he claims to be the opposite. Yet for all of its rich and textured thinking, Hyperobjects fails to carry out a promise hinted at in its first pages: to offer an ethos for living in a world that has ended, or is in the process of doing so. I take Morton’s point that neither apocalyptic scare-mongering nor scientific candy-coating is likely to produce sufficient human action to respond to the threats that face Earth. But he offers almost nothing concrete to replace these approaches. Specifically, he tells us what kind of conditions we exist in, but offers little indication of how we should be and act in them (aside from some suggestions regarding artistic practices).

What’s more, he works hard to dissolve one of the few concepts that could form a basis of an ethics for the end of the world. He focuses much of his attack on the concept of world, one of the few ideas powerful enough to harness human attachment and care on a large scale and to translate these affects into ethical action.

In fairness to Morton, he uses the term ‘world’ in a highly specific and well-delineated way – albeit one which is almost the diametric opposite from my own understanding of it. Morton adopts a Heideggerian notion of world as sphere to which humans have privileged (if not exclusive) access. ‘World’, from this perspective, is a reified object which floats in a metaphysical ‘void’, immune to the extrusions of other objects and to change. This is, from my viewpoint, an extremely limiting notion of ‘world’.

I prefer the non-metaphysical (and post-Heideggerian) conception of world developed by Jean-Luc Nancy (see my previous post on this topic). Nancy also believes that (the) world is being destroyed, or at least exhausted, by the processes of globalization and the over-saturation of meaning. But at the same time, he is concerned with understanding how a new world can emerge without metaphysical grounding. Like Morton, Nancy suggests that the ‘event’ (like the object) ultimately ‘withholds’ itself or ‘withdraws’, leaving a strange ‘absence of presence’. It is from this ‘nothing’ that ‘world’ cultivates itself, as a form of creation-as-being.  ‘World’ from this perspective, is being-with, or the direct relation of beings to one another. It has no outside, no metaphysics and no teleology.

It is also the condition of ‘being-toward’ – that is, the co-constitution of plural beings – rather than a metaphysical plane in which beings are separated. This seems to be very much in line with the object-oriented ontology that Morton espouses.

For me, a ‘world’ is an instantiation of the conditions of worldliness discussed here – just as, for Morton, what we see of hyperobjects  are instantiations of conditions like viscosity, nonlocality, temporal undulation and phasing. In other words, there are conceptions of ‘world’ that seem to fit very well with Morton’s notion of hyperobjects.

But I don’t want to gloss over Morton’s rejection of ‘world’ as a matter of a difference in rhetoric or interpretation. When Morton says that ‘the world’ has ended, he is certainly referring to the notion of ‘a’ metaphysical world. This is also the case in Nancy’s work. But Nancy also urges humans should address themselves to (not produce) a new world emerging in the wake of this ending. If I understand him correctly, Morton argues that humans should do away with worlds and world-making altogether – in other words, that world can only be a metaphysical concept.

This, I think, is throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Certainly, we can and should do away with the idea that there is ‘a’ stable, unchanging world, a separate ontological plane reserved for humans. But can we really exist without the notion of attachment to and care for other beings that shapes  non-metaphysical notions of world?

I think not. One of the main reasons is that, even if we are able to grasp, at least to some extent, other temporal and physical scales (whether macro or micro), we still experience ourselves, along with other living beings, in a meso-level in which we perceive some degree of stasis or consistency. In other words, even if we can try to see our lives from the perspective of a planet (like the fictional Melancholia), we cannot actually live in that spatio-temporal scale.  Instead, we live in a scale that allows, and also forces, us to overlap with the lives of other beings.

This means that we can experience attachments to other beings, even if these attachments are temporary. Simply because these beings (and we) will not exist in the future does not mean that we should not care for them as they are now.  This is akin to saying that we should love in the full knowledge that we will lose the beings we love, or that they will change irrevocably.

In other words, we should not try to ‘save the world’ by attempting, in vain, to arrest change, or by denying finitude from behind the windshields of fantasy worlds. But there is nothing wrong with remaining attached to our world(s) in a melancholy way: that is, caring for them in the full knowledge that they are finite.

From this perspective, it is crucial to hold onto a sense of worldliness at the end of the world. This enables us to avoid the two horns of apocalyptic reasoning: the reactionary and futile desire to capture the world in a freeze frame; and the nihilistic attitude that nothing matters unless it is ‘forever’. Instead, we need an ethics of care for finite and dying worlds, and for the attachments between beings that constitute them.

At the end of the day (world?), it is these attachments that save us from falling into the paralysis that grips Justine in Melancholia. She spends a great deal of the film inert, unable to eat, move or think. She even plunges into a dark mood in which she claims that ‘no one will mourn the Earth’ or the ‘evil’ life that it fostered. In short, she is aware of her conditions but can not find a way to be within them. I worry that banishing world as a concept will produce precisely this mood.

Image by  NASA's Marshall Space Flight Centre. Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs  generic

Image by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Centre (shows the ‘collision zone’ in north Sudan). Licensed under creative commons 2.0 attribution non-commercial no-derivs generic

That’s why it’s interesting to follow Justine’s arc throughout the film. At various points, she tries to merge with the Earth, whether by lying naked in the moonlight or immersing herself in a creek.  And at the end of the film, as Earth is pulled into Melancholia’s gravitational field, she mourns the planet to which she initially denies any attachment. This is reflected in the tears running down her face in the final scene, and the force with which she grips the hands of her sister and nephew. Despite her attitude of fatalistic acceptance and her rejection of redemption, she faces the end of the world by building a small world – the ‘magical cave’. She co-constitutes this tiny world with her loved ones  –  along with some sticks, soil, trees, grass and air which are just as integral to the magical cave as the humans that sit inside it.  In so doing, she makes one final attempt to co-constitute a world in the face of absolute finitude.

I suspect (although I may be wrong) that Morton would see this  as a collapse into the fantasy of world-building in the face of terror. But I think it’s something quite different. Justine creates this world, and fully experiences it, knowing fully that it will not save her or anyone/thing else. It is an ethical act without instrumentalism, without an end. It is an expression of love for, and in, an ending world.

This, from my perspective, is an attitude that can ground ethics in the face of radical finitude. Only with a melancholic sense of the world, and love for it, can humans confront the enormity of the challenges that face them without being paralyzed by fear or nihilism.

So I leave Morton’s work puzzling over several questions. Namely, what does it mean to act ethically in a world that is (always) ending? What forms should ‘protection’ take in these conditions? Can we still love (in) a world that has already, at some temporal scale, ended? And how can we maintain ethical attachment and openness to other beings in these conditions?  These are the questions that will need to be answered if Morton’s brave and dangerous work is to make good on its promise of waking us up in the middle of the void without putting too strong a damper on hope.

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