Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about refusal and resistance. What is the difference between them? And what implications does this distinction have for individual and collective action? In part, my preoccupation reflects larger conversations in anthropology, philosophy, and Indigenous studies. And, in part, it stems from my efforts to grapple with the resurgence of right-wing authoritarianism in the US and elsewhere–a phenomenon that I think has important implications for how we engage with the Anthropocene. This is a preliminary effort to work through some of my thoughts.
Two days after the election, the New York Times Magazine published a short essay that helped me connect some of the dots that I had been tracing more or less in isolation. In “A Time for Refusal,” Teju Cole calls upon Eugène Ionesco’s allegorical play, “Rhinoceros,” in which “an epidemic of ‘rhinoceritis’” overruns a town as the people deny, rationalize, and quarrel over what’s happening to them. What at first appears monstrous and frightening soon becomes the norm. “Evil,” Cole writes, “settles in when people are unable or unwilling to recognize it.”
Rhinos strike me as rather unsuitable for symbolizing the evils of fascism. (No rhino is as brutish as the being who would mount its taxidermied head on the wall.) Regardless, Ionesco offers an important insight, and so does Cole: when facing epochal change, we too readily normalize the monstrous figures who use such moments to consolidate their power. We respond in ordinary ways to extraordinary events, and in no time that “extra-” drops off, leaving us with a new sense of ordinary. The challenge, Cole implies, is to refuse the new normal—to refuse it before we find ourselves resisting it. But what again is the difference?
For me it comes down to a question of acceptance. To resist something, we must first in some way accept it—as a fact, as a circumstance, as a reality. This is not a simple question of will. Acceptance is cumulative and intergenerational; we inherit it. Nor is it a question of volition. We can be forced to accept things or, rather, we can be forced to perform acceptance. Refusal, for its part, is no less cumulative or intergenerational. Our capacity to refuse rests on the accreted decisions and ontological assumptions that prefigure our existence. But if resistance implies some form of (forced) acceptance, refusal entails a starting point of rejection or negation—a point around which stark differences of power often make total refusal impracticable. For this reason, acceptance, resistance, and refusal are mutually constitutive rather than exclusive.[*] We refuse what we hope never to accept, and we resist what we can no longer refuse. Realities in the United States, for example, force us to accept race and racism as extant social phenomena even as we resist racial discrimination and refuse its pseudoscientific justification.
We should also, I submit, think about refusal in relation to the Anthropocene. Late last year I joined a collaboration known as the Creatures Collective, “a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars […] who are working together and as part of broader collectives, families and relations to contest dominant narratives of the global extinction crisis.” In our engagements with different accounts of how and why lifeforms withdraw or disappear, we have returned repeatedly to the concept of refusal. Many Indigenous philosophies hold that lifeforms withdraw from fellow lifeforms who mistreat them. By tending to such acts of refusal and to the broken protocols leading thereto, we are exploring whether and how we, as part of more-than-human collectives, can refuse the dystopian future augured by the threat of a “sixth mass extinction.”
Working with the Creatures Collective has inspired me to rethink how Anthropocene narratives relate to other features of our contemporary moment and why we may want to refuse this conjuncture. The Anthropocene is supposed to mark collective human impacts on our biosphere and to promote accountability for them. But from certain perspectives, including some I have engaged in past posts, the Anthropocene is a geological euphemism for a social system that runs on exploitation, dispossession, and violence. Does the Anthropocene, then, inevitably signal the triumph of this system? Is geological time itself the latest “frontier” in its expansion?
Such critiques have taken on renewed urgency in my mind as governments around the world, including some of the most powerful, have (re)turned to(ward) authoritarianism. What relationship might this global pivot have to an epochal discourse that centers the planetary dominance of humans? When so many authoritarian regimes take root in narcissism and feed on necropolitics, I cannot help but connect their logics with those that inform our fascination with humans-as-geophysical-force—and with all of the known and unknown upheavals that this entails for specific groups of humans and nonhumans. For whom is the Anthropocene an invitation to experimentation and ferment, as I myself have suggested it might be? And for whom is it an invitation to a totalitarian dystopia wherein all beings are not just impacted but also governed by technologies over which they have little if any control?
In a forthcoming paper, Neshnabé (Potawatomi) scholar-activist Kyle Powys Whyte observes that “[i]n the Anthropocene, […] some indigenous peoples already inhabit what our ancestors would have likely characterized as a dystopian future” (1). A defining characteristic of this dystopia is the absence of particular lifeforms. Whyte specifies, however, that what concerns many Indigenous thinkers and conservationists about this absence differs from what concerns most settler conservationists. For the former, lifeforms matter because of the local histories, social relations, and economies in which they are embedded. It is, then, the disruption of these relations that makes the present epoch, whatever we choose to call it, phenomenologically dystopian.
Indigenous acts of what Whyte calls “resistance, refusal, and resurgence” (3) are a direct response to these disruptions. Of course they are also about sovereignty, territory, and power relations more generally. But even these seemingly “human” concerns have profound, high-stakes implications for more-than-human relations. From this perspective, we can better understand what particular acts of refusal mean in a broader context and why they often provoke such violent responses, including for example the militarized suppression of opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Acts of refusal do more than protect particular places from immediate harms. They do their part (and then some) to refuse a dystopian system that benefits the few at the expense of the many.
Whyte goes on to argue that, because his ancestors’ dystopian future has by now been emergent for hundreds of years, the Anthropocene is a less threatening proposition for many Indigenous peoples than we might expect. In no way do I challenge this contention. As a white settler, however, I have a somewhat different perspective on the work that this concept often does as a source of consolation. It consoles us with the suggestion that we are in control of our planet and therefore of our destiny. It consoles us with the promise that the disruptions we have brought onto ourselves and others are manageable within the current system. It consoles us by normalizing our dystopian condition.
In her 2016 essay on “Consent’s Revenge,” Audra Simpson asks, “How […] do those who are targeted for elimination, those who have had their land stolen from them, their bodies and their cultures worked on to be made into something else articulate their politics?” (328). Her answer: “They refuse to consent to the apparatuses of the state.” Though Simpson is referring here to specific people in specific circumstances, her insight helps us think more generally about how more-than-human collectives might experience and respond to campaigns of elimination and dispossession, such as those associated with militarized extractivism and resurgent authoritarianism. This is what I had in mind when I suggested that we consider what refusal might mean for/in the Anthropocene. By consoling ourselves with this nomenclature, we risk silencing efforts to refuse the world it portends and finding ourselves limited to a stance of resistance.
In sum, then: just as we must refuse to normalize the new authoritarianism, we must also refuse to normalize the totalization of our claims to the planet. We needn’t look far for models of what this looks like on the ground. The water protectors at Standing Rock have shown us the way.
[*] In August 2016, Cultural Anthropology published a series of essays on refusal, including an excellent introductory essay by Carole McGranahan. This series has been extremely helpful to me in sorting out my own thoughts on these matters.