Friday, July 6, 2012

Reflections on why I did not squirm

Achille Mbembe kicked off the JWTC 2012 ‘Futures of Nature’ workshop with a lecture entitled Climate Change and the Book of the Apocalypse. To begin, he sketched for us two caricatures of ‘life’: that of a certain Western ‘instrumental’ concept of nature and another from equatorial Africa, for which nature is understood as deep interconnections between a multitude of beings. For some, this introduction was a bit uncomfortable: seeming to reproduce notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that anthropology has tried so hard to move beyond. This led us into a discussion centered around epistemological differences, which I won't get into here.
My own listening took me somewhere a bit different: the so-called ontological turn in anthropology which has destabilized a universal notion of nature and put forth a world organized by ontological difference rather than cultural difference. From his introduction, Mbembe continued on to make two points. First, he argued for plurality and the need for anthropologists to “deal with multitude of archives.” Second, Mbembe weaved in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses’ and the ways in which humans are part of natural life, that is are ‘species.’ This points to a need to rethink ‘the human’ and ‘human-nature’ relations. In the end, Mbembe’s argument joins others who have called for an ‘anthropology of life’ as way of approaching questions of climate change. To me, this was an ontological argument: asking us to consider the entanglement of our multiple ways of inhabiting the world. In Mbembe’s words: “A world of signification becomes visible for humans to experience.” Similarly calling for an ‘anthropology of life,’ Eduardo Kohn, has suggested a ‘semiotics of life’: that is (as I remember) a treatment of sign processes as part of all life forms, not just humans communication.
Another topic was raised in the discussion was that of ‘local’ knowledges or imaginaries. Here, my thoughts travelled to the work of Hugh Raffles who put forth the idea of ‘intimate knowledge’ collapsing the geographically-bound conceptions of ‘local’ for an idea of nature as something lived, something of whichwe are a part, something we are caught up in, andwhich is mediated by other places, needs, desires, practices, memories. Again I emphasize [perhaps over-emphasize] the ontological: the challenge, it seems, as we continue to discuss the futures of nature, is not only to shift the ways in which we approach nature, but how these various ontological orientations, then, encounter each other. How do we approach and address sites of ‘friction’ (to borrow from Anna Tsing)? How can rendering ontological difference be brought to bear in debates of land rights, conservation, resource extraction, and development?
Significantly, Mbembe emphasized in his lecture that these encounters are not confined to questions of space but also time. Our ‘horizons of responsibility’ are temporal as well as spatial. Our future(s) is(are) already present – as is, of course, our pasts. According to Mbembe, imagination and possibility have a particular role to play in addressing the futures of nature. In his words, it is through “wonder and awe that understanding of nature becomes a possibility.” And so I end this post by posing a question to all you dear readers: what is the place of wonder and possibility in critical theory? Daston and Clark, in their history of wonder, lead me to ask what if we think of ‘wonder’ as an ontological orientation as well as a cognitive one? To me there seems to be a need to think about ways of dealing with and inhabiting the world – even if/when we don’t fully understand or 'know' it.
Joella Bitter
Anthropology, New School.

Living in a Critical Position part two

JWTC interview with David Theo Goldberg, Director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI)continues…
The UCHRI, of which you are the Director, has initiated various modalities of collaboration with nodes of critical thought in various parts of the global South (Johannesburg, Beyrouth, Shanghai, Mexico). What is the purpose of these collaborative endeavours and to what extent do they differ from the old North-South models?
The question brings together threads from my responses to the initial two questions.  It has long been the case, as Ann Stoler has repeatedly reminded us in her own work, that metropolitan modernity--and what we now identify as the global north--has been constitutively produced and constituted in significant part through relational interaction with the colonies, and now the global south. We must complicate this view by insisting that the global norths and souths (each is plural) now more than ever find themselves in and through each other, stamping deep, visible and not so visible, constitutive elements and conditions on the making and remaking of each other. We cannot think and know ourselves without thinking with and understanding the other, the global north in the global south and the global south in the north. And engaged in this way, questions and responses to these overlapping and interactive conditions of our time are posed differently, provide insights, open up possibilities for thinking our world critically that would not be available, which would remain obscure, but for these ways of thinking productively, critically together. It is these conjoint, intersecting modes of "living in a critical condition" which I think demands this open and honest engagement together.

This is different than even a decade ago when those from global north might be invited to China and other sites to discuss the question of modernity, of modernization; to bring the truth of the north to the south, when knowledge production would emulate political and economic power and be overwhelmingly unidirectional, arrogant, and ultimately close down as much as it opened up. It produced all sorts of embarrassing expressions.  Clearly the world has in many ways been turned upside down. Thinking our overlapping and intersecting conditions together, with, in and through all their unevenness, has become imperative. It entails a very different set of dispositions, a modesty, an openness, different modes of critical engagement, working out together what the themes will be, what questions are productive, how to proceed critically, what modes of inquiry and indeed experience and sensitivities are most productively revealing.

The title of the Platform you and Meg Samuelson have crafted for the 2012 Session of the JWTC is Oceans|Islands|Littorals|Beaches. Why do you think a critical analysis of these formations might tell us something about the futures of nature in general?

Meg, to her credit, has taken the lead on this. There is a small but growing body of work on oceans, a longer if still small tradition focused on islands, and very little critical work on littorals and beaches (I think of Mick Taussig's wonderful fictional essay on the beach). Ocean and sea water make up something like 70 percent of the earth's surface.  Islands and their "clean" beaches have long been these outposts of supposed civilization, exotic sites for modernity's self-making or recreational excess. Today islands have assumed a doubled importance. For one, they have become the sort of "canary in the coal mine" of the effects of global warming. We see this most obviously in the case of the Maldives, threatened literally (and perhaps littorally) with drowning. Islands and beach coastlines are most vulnerable to these impacts. Oceans and seas represent both effects of our lack of stewardship of nature and the agentive intervention in response, interactive effect and cause. Attending to these formations will reveal the critical conditions in which we find ourselves: the brittleness of the food chain; the dramatically changing weather patterns and devastating "natural" events (which now are deeply "naturalcultural," as Donna Haraway has put it); the threat not just to ways of life but to life itself on very large scales; the wastefulness of those who have overwhelmingly at the expense of those who don't; the impacts on futures and natures of work, ways of being in the world and on the world itself; the signal of the range of vulnerabilities we face and the deep relation of these vulnerabilities to each other across spaces, places, and scales. It is so often the case that the least attended condition turns out to be the most deeply revealing, and I think a focus on the earth's water surface, which we have taken for granted for so long, bears this out. 

In your view, can current debates on the futures of nature help to refigure our understandings of the futures of race?

This is a terrifically provocative way of posing the question.  Across the long duree of modernity until at least the mid-twentieth century, race was taken up variously as either natural or naturalizing condition, as a condition of nature itself. Critical work on race in the last quarter of the twentieth century came to see race not just as social product but as helping to reveal how nature and naturalizing processes were deeply culturally inflected and constituted. So in one sense it could be said that Haraway's provocative formulation of "naturculture" comes out of these insights about race, sex, and gender, about their co-constituting natural-cultural condition. Nature is constitutively culturalized and culture likewise naturalized. At the same time, to some degree the deeply cultural focus on racial makings and workings lost sight of its naturalizing condition. Race and nature, as conceptions, are thus deeply tied up with each other, the one revealing of features of the other.  Thinking about the futures of nature--not just its cultural constructedness but what forms nature will assume, what worlds it gives rise to, what potentialities it opens up and what it closes down, how all of this is connected to political economy as both cause and effect, and so on--all of this cannot but help have an impact, is already having an impact, on how we think or ought to be thinking about the racial, about race-making and its possibilities and what it closes down, about the significance and limits of postraciality and the work the notion of "the postracial" performs as racial condition, and how all of this is related, as cause and effect, to political economy as well as to the postcolonial and the postcolony.

There is no doubt we live in interesting times, as the Chinese proverb exhorts. What the proverbs silently hints at is that the most interesting of times are likely also the most unsettled and unsettling, and so too also the most troubling and challenging. The challenge of critical theory today, as it has generally been in times past, is to rise to the occasion of comprehending and so possibly helping to work out what it means to intervene productively in the troubling times we face today.