Loving the Anthr*pocene

My previous post was a provocation on refusal.  How, I asked, might the Anthr*pocene concept naturalize and even magnify the violent, dispossessionary forces it purports to describe?  And how might refusing this concept relate to broader efforts to resist the global resurgence of right-wing authoritarianism?  My aim in this post is to practice what I’ve preached—to engage with concepts and practices that we tend to elide when we take the prospect of a human-dominated epoch as our starting point.  In particular, I want to think about relationships, obligations, and affective ties that bind us to one another and to the places in which we dwell.

Allow me to stipulate right at the outset that I do not wish to claim the ideas I discuss below as my own.  As with my previous post, my thinking here is inspired by conversations I’ve had with fellow members of the Creatures Collective and by reading the work of Indigenous and decolonial thinkers, some of whose insights I’ve discussed before.  I owe a tremendous intellectual debt to these scholars and offer this post as a bridge to their work for readers of this blog.

So, what of relationships, obligations, and ties?  For me, these are the domains of continuity and renewal that challenge an otherwise omnipresent politics of rupture.  Let’s begin, then, with the politics of rupture.

So much of what compels interest in the prospect of a new geologic epoch is the rupture that it signifies—a rupture with the past, with “natural” processes, with prior visions of the future, and indeed with the adaptive capacity of many species and systems.  Not everyone responds to these perceived ruptures in the same way.  Some scholars, including for example Earl Ellis and our own Zev Trachtenberg, interpret epochal rupture as an outcome of humans’ evolved capacity to construct niches and engineer ecosystems.  This is an optimistic outlook insofar as this capacity may, at least for some human societies, prove robust enough to overcome the adaptive challenges that arise from a rapidly changing Earth system.

Scholars like Clive Hamilton, by contrast, claim that we are witnessing a “rupture in the evolution of the Earth System,” criticizing everyone outside of Earth System science for failing to understand what this truly means.  “The Earth,” Hamilton declares, “has now crossed a point of no return; its great cycles have changed, the chemical compositions of air and ocean have been altered in ways that cannot be undone.”  From this angle, past and even contemporary experiences are of little use in addressing the problems of the future.  The challenge isn’t to engage more intentionally with existing capacities and practices; it’s figuring out how to live on what is in effect a new planet.

My aim here is not to side with either an optimistic or a pessimistic orientation to epochal rupture.  Instead, I want to think about what these perspectives have in common.  Insofar as it signifies various forms of rupture, our perceived epochal moment becomes an opening for lamenting, contemplating, even celebrating a new world in relation to which “humanity” must relearn how to survive (and die).  In fact, even those who condemn the political projects that have given rise to this situation ultimately find openings for hopeful novelty—a call, in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s words, “for a global approach to politics without the myth of a global identity” or, in Bruno Latour’s, an “opportunity to advance our common cosmopolitics.”  Indeed this moment of rupture seems to demand novelty as a condition of its existence–for the optimists, new ways of doing old things and, for the pessimists, new and yet unknown conditions that may exceed our capacity to change.

Several things concern me about this politics of rupture and the sense of novel possibility (and despair) found therein.  One is the conceit of cosmopolitanism. As I’ve argued before, many analysts envision some (implied) form of cosmopolitanism, whether it’s a push for global environmental governance or a call for global solidarity, suggesting that the flipside of epochal rupture is global agency and perhaps collective accountability.  And so I worry that the push to envision new global regulatory processes risks overlooking important forms of difference and erasing alternative cosmoses.  “New” institutions don’t develop in a vacuum; they interact with and potentially subsume those that precede them.  More troubling still, as I noted in my post on refusal, is how (some) epochal discourses resonate with autocratic narcissism and authoritarian necropolitics, while offering consolation to those whose privileges depend on the exploitative forces of epochal rupture.  Not only does our fascination with epochal change risk euphemizing the exploits of global empire, it also tends to obscure the endurance of practices that seek to protect particular peoples and places from the very ruptures we purport to fear.

Which brings me to yet another concern: the absencing of relationships, obligations, and affective ties from discussions of epochal change.  In these discussions, we hear plenty about the disappearance of lifeforms and landscapes as a result of extractive industry, climate change, and other anthropogenic forces.  And we hear plenty about how regulatory, technological, and territorial interventions are necessary to mitigate mass extinction and address other global environmental problems.  But we hear decidedly less about the more-than-human social relationships that have sustained diverse lifeforms and landscapes or about how the disappearance of the latter follows from the disruption of the former.  For such insights, we can (and should) turn to the work of Indigenous and decolonial scholars, who highlight extant practices that enact, repair, and remake relations among diverse forms of life.

In what follows, then, I want to briefly highlight three starting points for a conversation that can address epochal change but is not bounded by the politics of rupture or the internalized hegemony of creative destruction.

First, let’s spend a moment with the concept of “making kin,” one that Donna Haraway and Kim TallBear, among others, have put forward.  In her new book, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Haraway implores us to “make kin, not babies.”  She wants us to seek caring relations of mutual obligation with a wider network of human and other-than-human beings (as opposed to making kin by conceiving more fellow human kin).  These relations, Haraway suggests, should include not just our domestic companions (dogs, cats, etc.), but the organisms we use to feed our pets and those whose bodies are used to feed, shelter, and heal ourselves.  Just as we are compelled to do for our human kin, we can (re)learn to care for our other-than-human kin in the face of existential threats.  “One way,” Haraway writes, “to live and die well as mortal critters in the Chthulucene is to join forces to reconstitute refuges, to make possible partial and robust biological-cultural-political-technological recuperation and recomposition, which must include mourning irreversible losses.”

TallBear, for her part, offers an Indigenous perspective on making kin, challenging (hetero)normative monogamy as a colonial erasure of Indigenous kinship and broadening the domain of kinship to include the spirit world.  She shows how relations of mutual care with one’s fellow human kin are inextricably bound up with caring for one’s ancestors and other-than-human kin.  Practices of tending to wider, more-than-human networks of kin, be they fellow humans, plants, animals, ancestors, or earth beings, is in no way a novel practice for many different Indigenous peoples across the planet.  So here, again, we find insight into the stakes of Indigenous resistance to extractive industry, such as we have seen recently at Standing Rock.  What’s at stake is not just water or natural resources or territory, vital though those matters may be.  What’s at stake is the ability of people to tend to their kin—living, dead, human, other-than-human—“whose bones are ground into the earth we walk on” (Tracey Lindberg, cited by Zoe Todd).  What’s at stake, more broadly, is a defiant enactment of continuity in a world of rupture.

For the purposes of white settlers such as myself, such kin-making practices cannot (and should not) simply be appropriated in pursuit of caring relations with our more-than-human others.  But to the extent that Indigenous practices provide a counterpart to the sorts of relations that Haraway is advocating, we can imagine ourselves moving toward a broader cultural shift that promotes tending to more-than-kin in the face of epochal rupture—but only if we also move toward allied resistance to the colonial extractivism that harms our kin whether we’re aware of it or not.

The next starting point for our epochal-but-decolonial conversation comes from fellow Creatures Collective member, Zoe Todd, whose work is having a profound impact on anthropology and Indigenous studies.  Todd is a scholar of human-fish relations, particularly among Inuvialuit of Paulatuuq in Canada’s Northwest Territories and among her own Métis family and friends in the Treaty Six Area of Alberta.  Human-fish relations, Todd shows, are ‘sites of engagement, negotiation, and conflict’, where contrasting moral, legal, and ontological principles encounter and transform one another.  Among her many important insights, Todd rightly insists that we see these relations not just as extant, as I emphasized above, but also as deeply rooted in local histories and intergenerational relations with the land.  Indigenous kin- and world-making practices cannot be reduced to vestiges of a disappearing past or strategic essentialisms invented for political purposes.  She writes that, “Although the tools, language, and technologies through which these relationships are mobilized may change over time, the underlying legal orders and cosmologies that they represent are rooted in long-term, reciprocal engagement between humans and a sentient, storied landscape.”

Todd’s observation that human-fish relations reflect “underlying legal orders” is also one to dwell on.  Here she is inspired by Cree legal scholar Val Napoleon’s writings, which challenge Western secularization of “law” as something separate from interpersonal, social, spiritual, and ethical relations among more-than-human beings.  To the contrary, Todd shows, many Paulatuuqmiut consider fish moral beings to whom they have social (and legal) obligations as fellow persons and as kin.  For this reason, fish are also political agents who participate in governance and in negotiations with the state (at times at the invitation of Paulatuuqmiut, other times on their own accord).  This insight is extremely important because it enables Todd to offer human-fish relations as an opening “to expand political notions mobilized by the State, such as reconciliation, beyond concepts of human redress.”

I have arrived, then, at my final starting point: what pitfalls do we encounter when trying to avoid the politics of rupture in favor of enacting, remaking, and repairing the sort of more-than-human social relations I invoked above?  Audra Mitchell, a political theorist who founded the Creatures Collective, has helped me think (at least preliminarily) about this question.  Her work on extinction calls attention not just to the severing of relationships that is implied by the dual concepts of species and extinction, but also to the affective hierarchies that operate in our relations with lifeforms.  I titled this post “Loving the Anthr*pocene” because I hope to suggest that pursuing loving kin relations with a wider network of beings can be part of figuring how to respond to (the obsession with) epochal rupture.  At the same time, though, I agree with Mitchell when she cautions against positing love as a sufficient motive for relating to other beings.  Some beings are decidedly unloved or unknown—relational only in their abjection or absence within our consciousness and governance (think most reptiles, insects, parasites, plants). Should these beings be excluded from our kindred simply because we are ignorant of or repulsed by them?  Rather than attaching all hope to affective ties, Mitchell envisions cosmopolitics, which she defines following Isabelle Stengers as “an orientation that works to create openness towards every being that may be affected by a political decision or action.”  A being needn’t be loved per se to have moral or political standing.  It does, however, need to be recognized as part of a set of social relationships through which consequences circulate.  This also takes some of the pressure off kin-making as the basis for accountability.  We need not love or even know in intimate fashion every member of our kindred; we need only be related through mutual kin.

It is here, I think, that the three starting points really come together.  Making kin is an approach to building relations of mutual care with a wider network of more-than-human beings.  Much of this can be inspired and sustained by different forms of love.  But we also need a basis for accountable more-than-human sociality that does not depend entirely on positive affective ties.  This is where the acknowledgement and/or establishment of more-than-human governance comes into play—what Todd refers to as “legal orders” and Mitchell as “cosmopolitics.”  These of course are not the same: Indigenous legal orders are actually existing, while broader cosmopolitics remains largely aspirational and de facto.  And yet each suggests a way to challenge some of the Western secular ontological binaries that underpin epochal rupture: human/animal, natural/supernatural, emotion/reason, secular/spiritual, etc.  None of these binaries can hold up if we hope to make kin with fish or honor our social obligations to mosquitoes.

And this, I agree with my interlocutors, is precisely what we need to do.

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