Part I: “Staying with the trouble[d]”: an ontology of the anthropocenic present

1.01. Stansvik. Helsinki, Finland.

1.0. Quasi-modern quasi-human

This chapter poses the question, how have modern humans called those other-than-them? Some responses are: nature, landscape, environment, object, matter, nonhuman, Other, etc. These modes of naming, and the practices that they afford, have had massive impact on bodies, of both human and extra-human origin. To even start imagining environmental justice requires working through and against these hegemonic modes of thought.

Before moving on, it is important to understand what/who ‘modern humans’ refers to. This is a very complicated noun, but, to begin with, there is an intimate link between moderns1and humans2. ‘Modern human’ is not an identity category, it is an (ongoing) historical process. “We have never been modern” (Latour, 1993), the project has never been accomplished. On the other hand, “[n]ot all of us can say, with any degree of certainty, that we have always been human, or that we are only that.” (Braidotti, 2013: 1). Thus, ‘we’ are never fully modern humans. However, in twenty first century Europe, and the world more broadly, it is difficult to ignore modern humans and their conceptual and material operations.

1.02. Office. London, UK.

Bruno Latour describes the process of modernity as a work of ‘purification’, an apportioning of culture by way of cutting off nature. However, by instituting subjects through a manipulation of objects, moderns have also been “proliferating hybrids” (Latour, 1993: 7-8). Through their scientific and technological practices, moderns have entangled themselves more and more with ‘nonhuman’ agencies and powers creating mixtures of natures and cultures, ‘natures-cultures’ (ibid.: 104). In the process, moderns have become something between ‘quasi-subjects’ and ‘quasi-objects’. Clearly, the separation between nature and culture is a discursive boundary-making protocol, and a particularly consequential one. This chapter will follow some of the procedures of purification of the social from the natural, whilst trying to outline transgressions from and hybridisations of these normative protocols. The core claim of this chapter is that the formation of modern humans is grounded in a process of othering, or identity affirmation by way of negation. This construction of the ‘self’ as oppositional and independent of the ‘other’ is the ‘foundational fantasy’ of the modern subject (Brennan, 2000).

Purification can be interpreted as a protocol based on the ‘logic of dualism’ (Plumwood, 1993). Following ecological feminist analysis of Val Plumwood, in the logic of dualism, “contrasting concepts (for example, masculine and feminine gender identities) are formed by domination and subordination and constructed as oppositional and exclusive” (1993: 31). Dualisms are thus not horizontal binaries or dialectical pairs. The superior side of the dualism performs a number of oppositional moves to separate his identity against the other side: ‘backgrounding (denial)’, ‘radical exclusion (hyperseparation)’, ‘incorporation’, ‘instrumentalism (objectification)’, ‘homogenising (stereotyping)’. The ‘other’ is thus turned into an inferior other by instituting a norm or a standard against which to measure the difference or the degree of abnormality3. Some dualisms in question are, beginning with the superior side on the left: “culture/nature, reason/nature, male/female, mind/body, civilised/primitive, subject/object, master/slave” (ibid.:43).

1.03. Stockholm, Sweden.

Dualisms are “not just free-floating systems of ideas”, they are also material practices “closely associated with domination and accumulation” (Plumwood, 1993: 42). In fact, Plumwood calls the logic of dualism also the “logic of colonisation” (ibid.: 41). “Domination must be seen as material and cultural, not as happening just at the level of ideas” (Plumwood, 1992: 228). Another crucial finding of feminist thought that is particularly relevant to my research is that dualisms do not operate in isolation from each other, they form a “web or a network” of “linking postulates … which create equivalences or mapping between the pairs” (Plumwood, 1993: 45). For instance, by mapping ‘order’ onto human, nature becomes a domain of ‘chaos’. In the words of Black feminist sociologist Patricia Hill Collins, dualisms constitute “the interlocking nature of oppression” (Collins, 1986). The inferiorised are backgrounded, hyperseparated, objectified, incorporated and stereotyped in a tight mesh of material and discursive practices. Moderns have thus spun a “network of oppressions” (Plumwood, 2008:227-30) that has been historically extended to capture multitudes of natural- or “earth others”4. In this line of thought, “difference-from” the norm is inherently inferior to the standard identity (Braidotti, 2011).

The logic of colonisation has made a world that we inhabit, and these modern discursive and material operations cannot be wished away. I recognise, with McKenzie Wark, that:

Pretty much all of our political, social and historical theories were made on another planet and may describe only that other planet. The differences may turn out to be significant. It was a planet with a different atmosphere, for example, one containing less carbon and methane. … The theories of that other planet assumed certain constants about the planet which on this one don’t hold. (2015)

1.04. Frihamnen port area. Stockholm, Sweden.

We need new theories and new practices to make our way through global warming, but, we must not forget that pretty much all of our political, social and scientific practices “made on another planet” are still determining this planet. It is possible to envisage other futures, but these cannot materialise without an analysis of the present. This type of situatedness is what Michel Foucault called the critical “historical ontology of ourselves” (Foucault, 1984), or an “ontology of the present” (in McHoul & Grace, 1993: 60). In his essay What is Enlightenment?, following Kant, Foucault asks for an philosophical-experimental ethos of “permanent critique of ourselves” and “of our historical era” (Foucault, 1984: 49). This should not be interpreted as a negative stance of “rejection”, instead:

This philosophical ethos may be characterized as a limit-atittude. …. We have to move beyond the outside-inside alternative; we have to be at the frontiers. … a practical critique that takes the form of a possible transgression. [my emphasis] (ibid.:52)

This approach is in tune with Rosi Braidotti’s call for ‘critical-creative’ posthumanist enterprise (2013). Alternative worlding projects must be situated in the middle of the present, yet diagonally to the hegemonic narratives. In this chapter, while practising a critical ontology of ourselves, I attend to the multiple ‘other presents’, frontier stories, nonmodern alternative narratives that have emerged over the last 10 to 20 years. For an ecological praxis, it is crucial to embody a “double vision”, to “learn from the outsider-within” (Collins, 1986), and perhaps to become an insider-outside the current mode of socio-political organisation.

Recent critical theory suggests that “there is no outside” to the Empire (Hardt and Negri, 2000), to global warming (Morton, 2013), to lawscape (Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, 2015). This might be true for modern humans but, from the point of view of more-than-human universe, there is a sheer infinity of outsides, of existential territories inhabited by other beings. There are also many different insides, such as noncapitalist, postcapitalist and nonmodern territories, differently positioned and (dis)connected with centres of capture (Gibson-Graham, 2006; Tsing, 2015). The logic of colonisation can never be fulfilled, it is incessantly seeking for new frontiers of appropriation (Moore, 2015). It is crucial to insist on immanent heterogeneity of modernity and capitalism and a multiplicity of world-making projects (human and nonhuman) in order to ‘notice’ and learn other possibilities of cohabitation (Tsing, 2015). “Kant defines Aufklärung [Enlightenment] … as an Ausgang, an ‘exit’, a “way out” (Foucault, 1984:41). For Kant, it is a process of “daring to know” beyond the constraints posed by the arbitrary limits of the present. To test the arbitrariness of these limits is a primary task for an ecology oriented towards posthuman justice.

1.05. Falun disused copper mine. Falun, Sweden.

In this first Part of the text, modern dualistic protocols are dealt with under singular headings (nature, environment, object, etc.). However, in each section, the critique draws in other concepts that operate through intersectional and networked patterns. In parallel with this critical ontology, I examine how these ideas were adopted or contested in visual arts. My analytical approach follows concepts “transversally” (Guattari, 2000) across different domains and fields, examining their material effects, especially on other-than-human bodies. Interweaved with a critique of dualistic modernity, I will emphasise a number of alternative practices in arts and thought that shape the transversal field with which I engage.

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  1. I take that modern age starts with Humanism and Renaissance in medieval Italy, as well as Columbus’s conquest of America. There is an uninterrupted trajectory of thought and material practices over these 500+ years, and roots of the present fallout of things must be sought having in mind that a certain set of ideas have been sinking into brains and bodies for a long time.
  2. Here I am not referring to anthropos, or the species. The figure in question here is ‘human’ in the humanist and Enlightenment tradition, the subject position based on cogito, rationality that thinks itself (Descartes): res cogitans (‘mental substance’) as different from res extensa (‘corporeal substance’), or things of the world.
  3. I am transposing here from Foucault’s analysis of disciplinary power which proceeds through the production of anomaly (1977). His analysis was grounded in the social context of modernity, but I will go on to claim that it may apply to the operations in the nature-culture continuum.
  4. The multi-faceted intersection of oppressions has been discovered by feminist intersectional analysis. ‘Intersectional theory’ as praxis of critique and politics traces its origins in the Black feminist thought of the late 1970’s and 1980’s, to subsequently get adopted in other strands of feminism (see Górska, 2016:114-31). This mode of analysis has been transposed into ecofeminism to great results, as, for example, in the mentioned work of Val Plumwood (1993). Doing intersectional analysis is closely related to the feminist politics of location, speaking from an experience of oppression. I believe there is work to be done in order to productively transpose intersectional analysis in the naturalcultural context. This is beyond the scope of this thesis, however I do learn from and stand in solidarity with intersectional theory and politics.