Tag Archives: Biopolitics

Shifting toward an Ethics of Sanctuary

Shifting toward an Ethics of Sanctuary

“If Harambe and his gorilla family lived in sanctuary rather than on display at the Cincinnati Zoo, he would still be alive. No curious child would have been in a position to crawl into the enclosure and no care staff would have had to make the horrible decision to kill a highly endangered gorilla. The gorillas would interact with each other and caregivers when they decided to; would exercise their bodies and minds as they wanted; and would be free to make choices about how to spend their time. Many respectable sanctuaries report on the personalities and interests of the animals who live there, so the public can get to know them. Some sanctuaries have live webcams. Supporters may be invited to pitch in on site and special educational activities might be arranged, but the animals decide whether they want to be seen by the occasional visitors. Harambe’s curiosity could have been safely peaked in such an environment and he would have been able to continue to develop into a majestic silverback adult.”

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Source: Shifting toward an Ethics of Sanctuary

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David Roden: Accelerationism and Posthumanism II

. . . brought to you by Environmental Critique via Synthetic Zero and Alien Ecologies. (Pull back plastic wrap at a corner to vent and microwave on high for 10 minutes.)

Techno Occulture

David Roden just posted a new essay Accelerationism and Posthumanism II.In it he addresses the Leftwing Accelerationist’s like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams among others. A couple points he raised:

First, “that technology has no essence and no itinerary” (i.e., no autonomous structure or stable nature, nor a teleological or final goal toward which it is moving.) As he explicates it:

In its modern form at least, it is counter-final. It is not in control, but it is not in anyone’s control either, and the developments that appear to make a techno-insurgency conceivable are liable to ramp up its counter-finality. This, note, is a structural feature deriving from the increasing mobility of technique in modernity, not from market conditions. There is no reason to think that these issues would not be confronted by a more just world in which resources were better directed to identifiable social goods (See Roden 2014…

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by | April 29, 2016 · 14:01

‘What Is Grounding?’ Deleuze’s Journey through the History of Philosophy

Critical Fantasies

In this early 1956-1957 lecture previously unavailable to the public, Gilles Deleuze takes his students through a tour of the history of philosophy by using the red thread of the notion ‘grounding.’ What Is Grounding’ is unsurprisingly insightful and sweeping in scope, explaining the general thrust of many canonical philosophers and how the concepts of each prepares the way for the philosophers that follow them, forming a single story. The big attention-grabber for these lectures for those well-read in Deleuze’s oeuvre is that finally a published work in which he “positions” himself with respect to other famous philosophers of his day or era, especially Martin Heidegger. We also get a discussion of Hegel and his placement within the history of philosophy. But emphasis on this common thread of ‘Grounding’ has much more to reveal about the obsessive work of European philosophers than taking names and claiming lines of affiliation.

One…

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Climate Change and US National Security

Atalantic council

“The publication examines the past, present, and future of climate security in the United States. The term climate security implies that climate change ought to be seen as a threat to core US national security interests, both at home and abroad. Climate change is an environmental stressor that will have potentially serious effects on physical systems (Earth) as well as on human systems, including international relations and geopolitics. Under a climate security framework, US policymakers could use national security grounds to justify both mitigation and adaptation strategies: mitigation strategies to reduce the threat of a changing climate, and adaptation strategies to increase American society’s resilience in the face of that threat. Climate security has become a useful concept in a five-decades-old field tying environmental change to national and global security. The question going forward is whether climate security will remain restricted to discussions within academia, civil society, and a few dedicated places within the US government, or if it will acquire a more pivotal role in the formulation of US national security strategy.”

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Plant Theory: Biopower & Vegetable Life

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Jeffrey Nealon’s Latest: Read it and Reap

Read this book if you are interested in plant life, animal life, being human, philosophy, critical theory, political theory, environmental science and studies, Heidegger, Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari . . . the past, present, or future . . . but especially if you’re not particularly interested in any of the above and bored with “life.” In all seriousness, Plant Theory may be a cure for intellectual malaise, as well as seasonal allergies (read Primary season). Though this is certainly an academic book written for humanities scholars and philosophically-minded non-academics, its relevance is far ranging. It could be adopted as an entree into biology, ecology, critical theory, ethics, and empirical research for graduate students in various fields (including action research). I might also assert that Plant Theory should be required reading for seasoned scholars invested in the first dozen topics listed above, though this advice may be misleading because it’s also a book that scholarly audiences will enjoy.

Jeffrey Nealon, Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of English and Philosophy at Penn State, once a kind of prodigy and then “indy,” crossover rock star, will be more widely recognized as a world-class intellect in the expanded territory of this new book. This is Nealon’s fifth monograph and will surely appeal to fans of his earlier “Big Theory” publications. Nealon’s relatively modest public intellectual presence, to date, is partly a testament to his ethos as a serious theorist and his earnest, career-long engagement with a living, critical-theoretical canon. This is not an opportunistic book, but a timely and fortuitous (for us) masterwork from a responsible and hard-working meta-theorist, and truly exceptional writer.

Plant Theory illustrates that animal studies, while it has drawn attention to the abject status of non-human animals has also reinforced a Modern paradigm of the human as noble animal, and illusions of the self-sovereignty of animals in general. Because animals arrive in often cute and typically mobile packages (to paraphrase for a general audience and oversimplify Nealon’s argument), we tend to think of them as independent and fun-loving, and thus worthy of our consideration and protection. (The social media have confirmed “they know how to party.”) And while this inclusion of non-human animals in our clique is certainly a step in the right direction, identification with animals also blinds us to our own ecological co-emergence, co-dependence, and co-experience. In other words “being animal” without sufficient reflection on our non-animal non-origins reinforces our illusion of autonomy. If Elsa was “born free,” as some of us learned at a young age, then surely we too are free, autonomous, sovereign.

Cue Nealon’s vegetable entourage.  Plants, so obviously dependent on soil, air, sun, water, and minerals, remind us that we too rely, categorically, on these elements, and are also dependent on plants, the only real “producers” at the party. When corporations like Monsanto “own” plants as intellectually property, they own our food supply . . . and they own us. We become pesticide-tainted, genetically-modified, and spray-painted produce, planted, cultivated, and harvested by transnational corporations uninterested and unconvinced by our sense of autonomy. This may still be consumer capitalism, but we are not at the top of the food chain by dint of being human.

Nealon is not another naïve critic of big agriculture, big pharma, or transnational consumer capitalism, however. His focus throughout is on theoretical biopolitics. Resuscitating Foucualt, qua Foucault, he reminds us that change is not as simple as the next social revolution. (Certainly not how we imagine it.) A radical redistribution of power, as Nealon points out, undermines traditional modes of speaking to power. Decentralized, agile, irreverent, rhizomatic power is not only impossible to locate but reigns us in through the play of potential rather than limitation. The media, institutional, and (sometimes) political embrace of alterity (a kind of group hug), not only blinds us to increasing local and global injustices, but recruits us in a ubiquitous quasi-ethical performance. (Quasi grass-fed, process-verified, cage-free, vegetarian, and vegan . . . we are not so much free, as anxious and angry at ourselves for leaving the reusable bags in the trunk again, as if this were an ethical act.)   Nevertheless, as Derrida, Foucault, and Judith Butler (marginal here, but not elsewhere in Nealon’s corpus ) have argued and illustrated, even decentralized power can be redirected, iterated with a difference. Academics are still not quite sure how this is accomplished for practical purposes (obviously), but “diagnostic” studies like Jeffrey Nealon’s may be a big phototropic move in the right direction.

Beginning to understand and appreciate plant life helps us to understand animal life in ecological context, and the ecology of life in general. Plant Theory alternatively charms and embarrasses us out of the illusion that life is contained within charismatic, tedious, mobile, and even deeply-rooted single organisms. Indeed Nealon, like his sage friend Richard Doyle, is involved in the general project of redefining life, for ethical as well as intellectual purposes. As we begin to chronicle the decline of our own species, it seems we may be ripe for reflecting on our legacy. Though life after human being may not be literate in a sense that we can appreciate, it will surely read our collective will and inherit our degraded estate.

Image Source: Amazon

 

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Southern Reach I: Cosmopolitics and Area X

by Michael Uhall, University of Illinois (Copyright © Michael Uhall)

Michael Uhall is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, with an M.A. in Philosophy from the same institution. He is currently interested in the applications and implications of developments in political theory sometimes termed the new materialisms – particularly insofar as they relate to theories of nature and politics and to our contemporary era of environmental devastation.

 

As we navigate the unfolding ecological catastrophe in which we reside, we need increasingly to elaborate and occupy a cosmopolitical stance toward the world. We can find resources for articulating such a cosmopolitics in many places. Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach novels (Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance) provide us with exactly such a resource. Let’s see why.

Southern-Reach-paperback-covers

The term “cosmopolitics” stems from the Greek word κοσμοπολίτης, itself from κόσμος (meaning “the world conceived as an ordered whole”) and πολίτης (meaning “citizen,” or “one who belongs to a political community”). As such, κοσμοπολίτης refers to a citizen of the cosmos, to a citizen of some bigger, broader collective or order rather than to a mere citizen of some specific state – or state-of-affairs – in the here-and-now. We can follow easily the association of κοσμοπολίτης, then, with the discourses of cosmopolitanism that emerge in the modern period with Kant and onward.

However, the term comes well into its own in the work of Isabelle Stengers and Bruno Latour. Stengers explicitly distances herself from the Kantian sensibility of cosmopolitanism, preferring instead to examine and valorize the numerous relations between ecologies of practices and those “new immanent modes of existence” that arise therein.[i] Likewise, the early Latour proposes a flat ontology in which he foregrounds the symmetrical relationship between human actants and inhuman actants that takes shape in ANT (Actor-Network-Theory), and which he folds into his recent modes of existence project.[ii]

Crucial, then, is the expanded sensibility of the political that attends the cosmopolitics articulated by Stengers and Latour. If politics is about collective action and collective imagination, as I think it is, the collective in question opens up to include a much wider range of agencies. This greater inclusiveness does not occur simply for the sake of inclusiveness, nor to effect a mere expansion of our ethical sensibilities. Rather, in it, what qualifies as political becomes, itself, a matter of political claim and contestation – that is to say, a politics about the makeup of the cosmos. As Kyle McGee puts it, “The politics of the cosmos describes the practical problem of living together, or better, the challenge of building a world in which we, humans and nonhumans, can live together in durable association.”[iii] For Stengers and Latour, then, cosmopolitics exceeds the merely or only human. Institutions, practices, and subjectivities must also engage and overlap with the inhuman. We must think conjunctively: animals and atmospheres, technics and territories, flesh and firmament.

Principally, such a cosmopolitics indicates the degree to which conventionally political categories and practices are themselves both products of, and constituents within, the ecological materiality that throngs around us and makes us possible.

In the Southern Reach novels, Jeff VanderMeer takes even further the cosmopolitical vision that he shares with Stengers and Latour, and taking it further allows him to make contact with the ecological more directly than can either Stengers or Latour. The novels elaborate upon the cosmopolitical stance by unfolding a dramatic, uncanny narrative of affective transformation and material negotiation between landscape and subject. Indeed, I argue that the relationship between landscape and subject dominates the Southern Reach novels, and they articulate this relationship by enacting a weird psychogeography. Psychogeography, Guy Debord writes, refers to the “study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals.”[iv] The psychogeography of the Southern Reach is weird precisely because it simultaneously undercuts and produces new subjectivities. It is in this psychogeographical frame that the narrative unfolds.

The primary setting of the novels is Area X, a tract of land found along the Florida coast, seemingly isolated by “an ill-defined Event” and, now, “a pristine wilderness devoid of any human life,” at least superficially (Annihilation, 94; Authority, 9). Area X “lay beyond a border that still, after more than thirty years, no one seemed to understand” (ibid.). The first two novels revolve around two characters: a biologist who goes on an expedition into Area X, and Control, the newly minted director of the Southern Reach organization, “a backward, backwater agency” established in order to contain and study Area X.

Policing the boundary between Area X and everything else is Control’s responsibility, although it is soon revealed to be an impossible task, as the landscape behind the boundary inexorably, albeit slowly, expands, resisting all attempts at comprehension. However, this expansion does not exactly threaten destruction, as whatever exists within Area X finds itself transfigured, rather than destroyed. Nor does Area X embody a classical depiction of vengeful nature, bearing down violently upon the human race in reprisal for poor environmental management or general lack of character.

To the contrary, Area X is precisely a space of unmitigated natural being, self-expressive beyond the conceptual bondage of theorized natural law or function – it is the active, motile embodiment of what the late Merleau-Ponty calls “être sauvage.[v] Merleau-Ponty articulates the savage being of the world in terms of what he calls its flesh. The flesh is his term for the entirety of the immanent distribution of the sensible, which is to say, the body of existence as such. It encompasses both “my flesh,” as in the body in its lived experience, and “the flesh of the world,” as in the continuum that preserves and produces entitative singularity precisely by virtue of its seamless contiguity. He writes of the flesh that it means “that my body is made of the same flesh as the world (it is perceived), and moreover that this flesh of my body is shared by the world, the world reflects it, encroaches upon it and it encroaches upon the world” (248). This allows us to start fleshing out what exactly Area X does

Area X embodies the truth of landscape as such. It is not a nostalgic depiction of a natural world untrammeled by the human. Nor is it the romanticized wild at issue in the so-called “wilderness debate.”[vi] Rather, the seething being-singular-plural of Area X, which always somehow just avoids our conscious apprehension, captures what it means to be a landscape altogether – that is, to be the ecotonal space composited by distributed agencies and interleavings.

Consider the recurrent imagery VanderMeer employs regarding samples taken from Area X by researchers at the Southern Reach, writing:

Not a single sample had ever shown any irregularities: normal cell structures, bacteria, radiation levels, whatever applied. But [Control] had also seen a few strange comments in the reports from the handful of guest scientists who had passed the security check and come here to examine the samples, even as they had been kept in the dark about the context. The gist of these comments was that when they looked away from the microscope, the samples changed; and when they stared again, what they looked at had reconstituted itself to appear normal. (Authority, 125)

What emerges from this passage is the uncanny sense that there is always a pretense performed by the natural, a pretense that comprises part of what it means to be natural in the first place. One need only imagine the eeriness of feeling that a terraced garden is only pretending to conform to our desires and techniques of control – that catching it by surprise might reveal a green inferno of writhing, clamorous, and underlying wildness (as opposed to wilderness).

As the biologist notes of Area X: “I had the unsettling thought that the natural world around me had become a kind of camouflage” (Annihilation, 98). And VanderMeer emphasizes that those who visit Area X come back changed and transformed – both “utterly human and inhuman” (139). You could say that they have been re-inscribed as a part of the living landscape. It is fitting, then, that it is the biologist who attunes with Area X, embracing its weirdness and becoming transformed by it into such an uncanny creature herself, whereas Control endeavors to combat its effects and even its very existence (“[h]e liked the word enemy – it crystallized and focused his attention more than ‘Area X.’ Area X was just a phenomenon visited upon humanity, like a weather event, but an enemy created intent and focus” [Acceptance, 80]).

There lurks here, in VanderMeer’s novels, a cosmopolitical vision other than that suggested by Stengers and Latour. It is a much weirder vision, I think – but, as Eileen Joy notes, the weird can be seen as “an ethical act, one invested in maximizing the sensual and other richness of the world’s expressivity.”[vii] This, I claim, is precisely how the ecological apprehension of the world’s flesh that VanderMeer makes possible gives us a cosmopolitical landscape worth preserving – what we might call an Area X to be conserved.

Image source: The Southern ReachJeff Vandermeer

<http://www.jeffvandermeer.com/2015/04/29/southern-reach-vandermeer-event-schedule-summer-fall-2015/&gt;

 Notes

[i] Isabelle Stengers, Cosmopolitics I and Cosmopolitics II, trans. Roberto Bononno (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010/2011).

[ii] http://modesofexistence.org/

[iii] Kyle McGee, Bruno Latour: The Normativity of Networks (New York: Routledge, 2014), p. 77.

[iv]Guy Debord, “Introduction to a Critique of Urban Wandering,” Situationist International Anthology, ed. and trans. Ken Knabb (Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets, 1981), p. 5.

[v] Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1969).

[vi] J. Baird Callicott and Michael Nelson (eds.), Wilderness Debate Rages On: Continuing the Great New Wilderness Debate (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2008): http://www.ugapress.org/index.php/books/wilderness_debate

[vii] Eileen Joy, “Weird Reading,” Speculations: A Journal of Speculative Realism IV (2013), p. 30.

 

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The Sustainability Delusion?

year-of-the-monkey-2016

 

Here is the position “paper” I delivered earlier this month at the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts (SLSA) conference, After Biopolitics.  The paper tile is “Vegans Mock Humans Who Don’t Eat Gods.” Thank you so much to Tim Morton, Randy Honold, all the organizers, and all the participants for a great conference.  (See below the call for next year).

The human species is a set that defines itself through multiple and diverse acts of self-reflection. Among these acts is regarding ourselves in other species, though we also see through, or don’t see through, our misconceptions of ourselves and others. One technology we tend to elide, of late, is the comparison of humans and gods. We’re embarrassed by the association. If self-definition is multiple and diverse, however, why would we dismiss a category of non-human beings by which many human beings define themselves?

And maybe we protest too much. I wonder if we don’t secretly carry a torch for gods. Whether or not humans are particularly creative or destructive, many of us still feel inspired, at times, and at other times, possessed. Gods, archetypes, ghosts, emotions, and unconscious drives—I don’t meant to collapse these species into one another, but I do see common threads—alien invasion, alien intimacy, alien birth. (Thank you Dirk Felleman at synthetic zero for suggesting gods as emotions.) Few of us would deny that we have unconscious drives, but if so, then, could it be that we are still attached to gods?

Is belief in the reversibility of global warming and an infinitely sustainable society like belief in a coherent god? (This is Stoekl in Pettman’s Human Error). I think it is. Some of us are credulous in this sense. But sustainability, like balance, need not be universal. We don’t have to be Modern, monotheistic, or dogmatic in our attachments. Self-defining “right action,” including cultivating good habits and “gracious relationships” (thank you Bill Jordan at Environmental Prospect), may have some intrinsic value and broader influence.

CS

P.S. I really like the trope of gods as tools or machines. I find it genuinely persuasive and productive. Gods, demi-gods, and idols are surely products of metallurgy and alchemy.  I do believe we fashion gods. But this doesn’t preclude the possibility that we are tool-making tools, also fashioned, by industrious monkey gods (for example).

Call for Papers: Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts.  Atalanta, November 3 – 6, 2016.  Creativity.

 

 

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