Tag Archives: culture

FROM EXTINCTION: NINE STRATEGIES FOR A LEFT-HAND EXIT

by Michael Uhall, The University of Illinois

Extinction.png

The problem

As a political theorist, I often find myself submerged in the academic and professional details of my work. For example, I spend most of my time reading and writing, and much of what I write is addressed to an audience largely composed of other political theorists. The politics of knowledge production aren’t quite so simple, of course, and I think we political theorists should welcome the imperative to make our work speak to anyone who cares to listen.

In brief, my work addresses what I call the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis does not reduce to climate change – indeed, climate change is only a symptom of something much more intractable. Instead, the ecological crisis refers to a crisis of relationality that obtains at multiple scales – from the individual to the collective, from the local to the global. In short, the ecological crisis started when we started operationalizing the relationship between nature and politics in a certain way.

Call this way pathological modernity, which theoretically misconstrues nature as the ontological space of determination and necessity. If nature is necessitarian, then either the political also is determined by the principle of necessity, or else politics exists somehow apart from nature, even opposed to it.

This poses a ruinous conceptual dilemma that leads to extinction.

Politics as the unique synthesis of collective action and collective imagination becomes impossible both if nature determines it and if nature serves as its antagonist. If nature determines our politics, then this eliminates the possibility of free action. Without the possibility of free action, collective action ceases to be action. Action becomes behavior; decision is determined. On the other hand, if there is freedom – that is to say, if politics is possible, after all – then this produces an irresolvable antagonism between nature and the political. Hence, if nature serves as antagonist to the political, then politics transforms into sheer domination, and a politics of domination is no more genuinely political than is mere compulsion itself.

Think of it like this: either nature makes the political impossible, or politics is purchased at the price of eliminating or excluding nature, practically and theoretically. This dilemma drives pathological modernity forward, and it produces and sustains the ecological crisis as such.

In short, my work begins with the two intuitions: (1) something is terribly wrong and (2) the future will not resemble the past.

Rather than merely producing a critical theoretical diagnostic, however, I want to suggest alternatives and reasons for adopting such alternatives.

For example, in my work, I argue that the pathologically modern philosophy of nature to which we adhere can be replaced by an altermodern philosophy of nature that incepts a degree of freedom at the origin of nature itself. We rarely examine what we are talking about when we talk about nature. Instead, we simply assume that what is natural is deterministic and necessitarian. There are historical and intellectual reasons for this, but, these reasons, like all reasons, are subject to revision – else we are mere dogmatists and worshipers at the altar of modernity.

I also argue that such an altermodern philosophy of nature allows us to reconstruct how we conceive of human subjects – that is to say, of what it means to be an individual or collective agent capable of taking action and making decisions. In short, I conclude that subjectivity is – must be – an emergent property of ecologically embodied immanent relationality. In other words, agency emerges only in ecological conditions. Accordingly, I propose the concept of companion ecologies to help us understand better what and who we are. Companion ecologies name the composite, multimodal, yet entitative pluralities that constitute our ecological conditions, ranging from our gut and skin microbiomes to our habitats more generally, as well as the numerous agencies that compose and traverse such spaces.

Both the altermodern philosophy of nature and the theory of the ecological subject I propose allow us to intervene in the operation of commonplace political terms. Specifically, I look at identity, community, and normativity. In ordinary language, these refer to the ways in which we are concerned with ourselves, our companions, and our judgments. After contrasting securitarian and immunitarian dynamics (each modeled after different ways of understanding the formation of immunological functionality – i.e., immanent relationality), I conclude that we can recuperate a robust sense of human identity as creaturely, which is to say, radically dependent upon the companion ecologies in which we emerge. Likewise, community takes shape, then, as a function of ecotone – or, as the complex of companion ecologies that overlap and traverse each other at multiple scales. We do not have a community, because a community is not a form of identity. Instead, we are always already in a condition of community. As such, we are creatures – human animals – who depend radically upon the ecological conditions that first manifest us as distinctive agents. We are agents only by virtue of other agencies. This entails a new form of normative naturalism, a naturalism that says not “Do what I say because nature says so” (as with the old naturalisms), but, instead, “Act revisably in such a way as to acknowledge and preserve the metabolic and vitalizing capacities of your conditions of existence.”

All of the foregoing, however, constitutes a theoretical intervention aimed at dissolving certain conceptual formations and replacing them with new regimes of description. Take up my terms, and you will see nature and politics differently. See nature and politics differently, and you will have the means to resolve the ecological crisis. The problem is that our conscious assumptions and unconscious attachments already are formed under the conditions of pathological modernity. They are not a superficial optics that can be easily swapped out for another, like you might switch a pair of glasses. Here we encounter the weakness of theoretical interventions. Theory can elucidate, impel, or inveigh, but it cannot compel material change by itself.

Accordingly, I have condensed and extracted nine strategic recommendations with the intention of illustrating how the theoretical interventions I propose translate into modes of practical action. Theory is a form of action at a distance. I say these recommendations are strategic, first, because strategy is the hinge between speculative inquiry into the real and experimental practice. Also, they are strategic not because they speak to specific material interventions (although I do refer to specific examples, when possible), but because my recommendations are able to cash out into a wide range of possible programs. Note that these recommendations are not derived formally from my theoretical interventions, and nor are they the only possible such recommendations. That being said, I believe that, in nuce, they embody the practical framework of departure for a politics of exit from pathological modernity.

In other words, if you want to survive the ecological crisis and flourish after the collapse it heralds, consider what follows.

Strategic recommendations

The figure

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Lucas Foglia: Human Nature. Jul 19 — Sep 30, 2018


Lucas Foglia, Esme Swimming, Parkroyal on Pickering, Singapore

Human Nature examines our relationship to the natural world and the human desire for “wild” places—even when those places are human constructions. Lucas Foglia’s lyrical, formally considered photographs challenge the concept that humans and nature operate in opposition, while highlighting the relentlessly uneasy, sometimes absurdly comedic juxtapositions of human technologies and nature.

From literal urban jungles to so-called untarnished wilderness, from the scientific realities of climate change to the poetic human longing for time outdoors, Human Nature is a nuanced exploration of the forces—internal and external—that both pit us against and bring us closer to the natural world.

The MoCP is supported by Columbia College Chicago, the MoCP Advisory Board, the Museum Council, individuals, and private and corporate foundations. The 2017-2018 exhibition season is generously sponsored by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Efroymson Family Fund, and the Illinois Arts Council Agency.

Lucas Foglia, Kenzie inside a Melting Glacier, Juneau Icefield Research Program, Alaska

Lucas Foglia, Kate in an EEG Study of Cognition in the Wild, Strayer Lab, University of Utah, Utah

Lucas Foglia, Troy Holding a Guinea Fowl Chick, GreenHouse Program, Rikers Island Jail Complex, New York

 

Lucas Foglia: Human Nature will be available as a traveling exhibition. Please direct exhibition booking inquiries to Karen Irvine kirvine@colum.edu.

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Filed under aesthetics, Nature, photography, Uncategorized

Beasts at Bedtime in Chicago Review of Books

‘Beasts at Bedtime’ Explores Environmental Themes in Children’s Lit

Liam Heneghan’s Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature conjures a world of natural magic and wonder. Animals are more than animals, trees are more than trees, the moon and the stars draw close, and they are all mysteriously intertwined.

This marvelous book is an introduction to environmental themes in children’s literature as well as a model of literary criticism accessible to a broad audience—because it must be. Such work must be accessible, because environmental issues are so critical and the need for increased environmental literacy so urgent. The genius of the work, however, is Heneghan’s ability to speak from a wide variety of experiences and perspectives with one exceptionally lively, congenial, and coherent voice. On the surface we encounter a scientist, teacher, and father; but in the depths we see flashes of a child, animal, and sprite.

Read more here.

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This World is Full of Monsters

This World copy

Cover image by Armando Veve

Jeff VanderMeer’s corpus renders the conceit “science fiction that rises to the level of literature” obsolete if not absurd.  His work is obviously literary.  His vision is original and far-ranging, and his writing, masterful and perennially astonishing.  However, one really must read a varied selection of his stories and novels to understand the sheer force of his imagination.  Though I’ve been reading and following his work only since he published the Southern Reach Trilogy, I’ve also been immensely rewarded by delving backward into his beautiful, utterly convincing, and hypnotic Ambergris trilogy.  And still, I am stunned by the imaginative range of work that VanderMeer publishes in one calendar year.

Last year, for example, VanderMeer published This World is Full of Monsters, a long and elaborate story or “novelette” about alien invasion and planetary transformation.  The story is a kind of successor to Area X, as well as a new kind of Area X in its generic and stylistic transgressions.  Much more than an extension of previous work, This World is a kind of Fibonacci series of iterations, as if every turn in VanderMeer’s imagination was followed by another, which occurred on a higher level because his psyche was somehow expanding in an organic though not quite natural manner.  I begin with a pedantic summary, but only because I think it might be of use to future readers and commentators.

At the beginning of This World, a creature disguised as a story enters the home of the narrator.  It cuddles up to him but then invades his body and psyche.  In the first part of his transformation the narrator becomes a plant creature, part human and part tree.  The story-creature plants him in the earth, and the narrator falls asleep for a hundred years.  He wakes to a transformed and utterly ruined landscape, finds his way back to his old street, and lives in the exposed, flood-damaged foundation of his former home.  There he meets his doppelgänger and learns that the “other” had taken his place and lived with his family while the narrator was asleep.  His “brother” is a monster, from which the narrator cannot extricate himself, but he eventually withers away so that the narrator can live.

Lonely, and utterly disoriented in an unrecognizable, hostile landscape, the narrator wanders aimlessly trying to decide, in an existentialist mode, when and how to end his life.  He then enters a slightly more coherent environment.  It’s wildly surrealistic and troublesome but somehow aesthetically whole.  Eventually, the hero realizes he is inside a kind of leviathan, or giant worm, where he is being schooled against his will.  What initially appears as a landscape through which the narrator moves and suffers, is actually the interior of a giant beast, sampling and digesting him in a sense.  He manages to escape, but is nearly drowned when the beast, pursuing him, falls into a lake and creates a great wave.  The narrator holds onto a single-celled creature as a life raft, but kills the creature when they reach the shore, as it becomes apparent the cell is trying to consume him.

Exit Eden

Exit Eden No. 14 by Doug Fogelson

At what seems like a turning point in the narrative, the hero settles into a kind of temporary home, the dead shell of a turtle-like creature, and crosses the lake, very slowly because of a “glacial” current, resolved to die when he reaches the other side.  However, Dead-Shell grows a mouth and begins to speak, once again transforming the narrator.   His interior flows up and out of him and hardens into a golden “honeycomb” exoskeleton.  Now, part insect, part marine creature with fins, and part astronaut with a large glassy eye like the helmet of a space suit, he begins to accept his transformation.  (I won’t say what happens at the very end.)

Though I would not dare to assert the purpose or meaning of the story, partly because I believe it has no conventional purpose or meaning, I will mention some obvious thematic threads.  This is clearly a story about an invasion, though like the Southern Reach Trilogy invasion may be a response to gross human transgressions.  If Annihilation was prompted by the Deepwater Horizon disaster, as VanderMeer has suggested, the ocean expelling humans in This World would seem to follow suit.

The narrative is also obviously about radical transformation.  By radical I mean not only that humans and other creatures are transformed, as organisms, but that there is a violation of almost every biological category.  Humans become plants, rocks become beasts, landscapes  and bodies of water are sentient creatures, and everything merges, or attempts to merge with everything else.  VanderMeer has mentioned that the story is influenced by weird biology.  This World seems not only an expression of natural weirdness, but the inability of human beings to understand and appreciate what already exists on the planet, including radical and pervasive symbiosis, because of the limitations of our analytic schemes.

Entangled

Entangled, by Joshua Mason

There is also a strong theme, throughout, of stories having autonomous existence.  The “story” line is, perhaps, the most provocative and important creative and philosophical thread.  The topic is so pervasive and the story so insistent on the ontological status of stories, it seems the reader is being provoked to consider the concept at face value.  It is generally known that VanderMeer has been thinking about story telling in the Anthropocene.  And while Humanities and Social Science scholars constantly assert that culture influences nature, they are less likely to consider stories as nature—that stories are not only tools but creatures, with some kind of unique ontological status.

VanderMeer has also suggested the post human as a descriptor for This World, and while the story certainly resonates with Borne and the Borne story, Strange Bird, VanderMeer’s work here is even more radical than that critically-acclaimed biotech fantasy.  While biotech as we imagine it might be regulated and contained, at least for a time, the biotech of story-telling in an age of information warfare and renewed American culture of lies is far more of a threat.  Genetically engineered insects and self-aware robots may become another downfall, but the world is already under siege if not defeated by malignant stories.

Echoing Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhhood’s End, VanderMeer’s surrealistic, apocalyptic narrative plays with biblical themes and ends in ecstatic release.  The ending may be poetic justice for a race ill equipped to survive on a planet demanding certain types of restraint, or a conclusion so mythic it must be followed by a new beginning.  In either case, this is a narrative about beginnings and ends capable of transforming our existing stories about beginnings and ends.

As an experimental work of fiction, This World of Monsters is a resounding success.  It’s wildly imaginative, philosophical provocative, and plays authoritatively and productively with literary themes, forms, styles, and voices throughout.  Though I consider it a significant literary work, I’m not certain that it must be read as literature.  I imagine it can be appreciated by those who understand science fiction as a categorically experimental genre.  It may be that This World is less likely to be appreciated by readers who bring preconceptions about VanderMeer’s work, what counts as a story, or even what counts as literature, to this remarkable oeuvre.  This is a story about stories, and about the transformative power of stories, that strives to transform everything we know about them.  And to the extent that it suggests the world is full of monsters posing as stories, it may strive to transform everything we know about the world.

Circling back to literature, This World is Full of Monsters is teeming with allusions to epic poetry, scripture, and surrealism in various media and historical moments.  Ultimately, VanderMeer’s genius here reminds me of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights.  It cannot be accounted for by the artist’s time, place, or culture.  It’s a kind of weird, living organism we didn’t know existed.  A work this audacious and ambitious is more than a story, or story about stories.  It’s a new world colliding with the old.

Hieronymus_Bosch_-_The_Garden_of_Earthly_Delights_-_The_exterior_(shutters)

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch. Exterior (shutters).

 

Read This World is Full of Monsters at Tor.com.

Image Sources:
Armando Veve, Doug Fogelson, Joshua Mason, Bosch.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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How cities are driving animal evolution

Reposted from WHYY

 

Guest: Menno Schilthuizen

Our fast-paced crowded cities aren’t just impacting our lives, they are shaping animal evolution, even accelerating it. To survive the noise, smog, traffic, light and heat of our urban jungles, wildlife has had to quickly adapt. In his new book, Darwin Comes to Town, evolutionary biologist MENNO SCHILTHUIZEN explains how cities are driving natural selection in animals all around the world, including in mosquitoes in London, spiders in Vienna, and mice in New York.

Thanks again and always to Dirk Felleman at Synthetic Zero

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Heneghan Book Launch Event and Reception: Wednesday May 2nd

RSVP for reception so we can order enough food.  However, everyone is welcome to attend the event, whether or not they RSVP.

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by | April 2, 2018 · 15:34

Non-human Strangers and Climate Refugees

Iiwi_BrettHartl_FPWC.0

 

Conversations about climate change generally focus on human activity, suffering, and solutions. They often include or imply a critique of anthropocentrism, and yet our attention to the seemingly infinite variety of life forms on the planet remains extraordinarily limited and superficial. Earth is not only our home, and humans are not the only climate refugees.

In his recently published book Humankind, Tim Morton argues that we are severed from other forms of life through agriculture and industrialization. He calls it “The Severing,” a Game of Thrones style trope. One aspect of this split is a very passive relationship to animal and plant life. Unless we are directly involved with animals, in agriculture or wildlife management, for example, we simply don’t appreciate the activity, suffering, and creativity of non-human beings. We also tend to view animals as passive. Though animals must be actively adapting to climate change, we don’t generally observe or appreciate their adaptive behavior.

We have also lost our emotional connection to animals, in various ways. Contemporary animal ethics are typically founded on rational, legalistic arguments. Animals should be afforded consideration or rights because they are like us—intelligent, emotional, and self-conscious. But these arguments miss the most basic and common foundation of human ethical behavior. Love.

If reproduction is the key to species survival, and animals form emotional attachments as humans do, then various forms of love are likely a common characteristic of animal life. But is love only reserved for members of our own species? What does it mean that human children love non-human animals? When and why do children stop being fascinated by animals? It seems that society cultivates an interest in and love of animals in children, and then (for no apparent reason) expects adolescents and adults to stop loving and caring for them.

Why do pet-owners love their pets as if they were people? Is it because they engage with them—in person? Anyone who has had a pet has experienced getting to know the pet. We form personal relationships with them. They become part of the family. If we spent more time engaged with non-human animals could we cultivate or reclaim the capacity to love all animals?

We remember the principle “love they neighbor” but often forget the origin and end of this principle is to love the stranger, the “alien.” Surely non-human animals, however strange or alien, are also our neighbors.

Colleagues in academia and beyond have cautioned me, on more than one occasion, against appearing to prioritize animal welfare over human welfare. Focusing on animal rights in impoverished areas, for example, can be interpreted as a challenge to human dignity. Recognizing animals a climate refugees is out of line (out of order), in the midst of multiple and ongoing human refugee crises. This advice is pragmatic and rhetorically savvy, but is it ethically defensible?

A Guardian article recently posted on Environmental Critique gives a moving account of a refugee, Mansour Shoushtari, who occupies himself caring for animals while detained in Manus prison. (He has been waiting four years to be resettled.) While being treated as a less than human stranger, he has retained his humanity, or should I say his sense of solidarity with other animals. Here is an illustrative quote from the Guardian interview:

I asked him: “Do you love animals more than humans?” He smiled once again. He responded in a humorous way: “You’re asking some really tough questions today! The question you ask is similar to asking the question: do you love your father more than your mother? It’s an extremely tough question to answer. I love human beings and I also love animals. But I have a special affection for birds.”

Why should human suffering tacitly give us permission to abuse animals or to shut down conversations about animal welfare? Who among us, well-fed and literate, deserves consideration if sympathy can only be afforded the most downtrodden humans? Can suffering justify suffering? Returning to the subject of love, is there ever a reason not to extend love and compassion to another living creature?

“The Severing” also results in a dark underworld of violence against non-human animals. Factory farming, habitat destruction, and mass murders that are never reported in the evening news. Is there any relationship between human violence against animals, and a general culture of violence? Again Shoushtari offers insight: “It’s love. In my opinion one does not need to give reasons for love. Love is a personal matter, love is an existential state. But in my view if a human being does not love animals they are incapable of loving human beings.” Human beings do love selectively, of course, as do cultures. Sadly, we are not only taught but also encouraged to love selectively, and even to hate.

Love thy neighbor. Love the stranger. Love all living creatures. These are certainly not pragmatic solutions or policy guidelines. But neither pragmatism nor policy should prevent us from questioning and exploring ethical, dare I say moral, principles.

So I do say, impudently, non-human animals are climate refugees, as are plants, and future generations of every kind. And we have no right to destroy their home.

 

Image Source: https://www.theverge.com/2017/9/19/16334652/endangered-species-list-sonoyta-mud-turtle-iiwi-pearl-darter-protection

 

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Filed under Animals, Tim Morton