Tag Archives: control

Knowledge and collaboration across species and worlds in the anthropocene

This is the seventh (and final post) in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

Thinking beyond the human and the mattering of other worlds and of “others” is something that may be necessary to truly understand what it means to be human during the Anthropocene. Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller suggest that it is perhaps in the denial of humanity that we are able to assert our own existence. There is a sense that we need to escape ourselves in order to understand what we truly are. Is this not a reflection of our desire for objectivity, for what Haraway calls, the “God Trick”? This is also what Clark refers to as the “overview effect” in which, from a supposed “afar”, one is able to see the violence that “humanity” has waged on the world. However, as Cohen et al assert, there is not necessarily some reality that we can grasp if we can only somehow get outside of it.

This desire to grasp reality from an external perspective is precisely what Merchant speaks of when she refers to Francis Bacon’s desire to extract the secrets of nature through control and force. It is this desire for control and for forceful knowledge that gave rise to the myth of objectivity as attainable within science. The knowledge produced by science has been universalized to the point in which other ways of knowing (including the very ways that were perhaps practiced by the pagans and the witches, which the progenitors of the scientific method wished to extract secrets from), are denied as having any valid truth. This universalizing occurred with the help of European colonial expansion, which Lightfoot et al claim was the truer beginning of the Anthropocene. This European-based, imperialized, and violent way of gaining knowledge became the universal standard  for knowledge production. As Haraway says, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges”. Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill elaborate a decolonial feminism, which allows native feminist theories to stand on their own, without need for validation or inclusion from what they call “whitestream feminisms”.

From Haraway: A depiction of invertebrates by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, published as lithographic and halftone prints in Art Forms in Nature (1899).
From Haraway: A depiction of invertebrates by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, published as lithographic and halftone prints in Art Forms in Nature (1899).

In Haraway’s chapter on tentacular thinking, she opposes this desire for transcendence and any sort of outside knowing, in an imploration to move more deeply into the multi-species muddle, communing and communicating with the life that exists. This offers up a different type of knowing, and calls for collaborative ways of thinking, as well as a recognition of the humanity in other creatures, and the hybrid nature of ourselves as humans. With collaborative thinking that moves into the morass, instead of trying to escape it, we are able to partake in multiple worlds that are coming into being, coexisting, and interpenetrating each other, without ever attempting to grasp or control them. Knowledge becomes something personal, rather than objective. Perhaps the gift of being alive in the Anthropocene is the urgency that Haraway speaks of, allowing us to move more deeply into our own experiences, rather than trying to escape some future that we were never entitled to, and never had any control over in the first place.

 

Weekly Readings:

  1. Lightfoot, Kent, et al. “European Colonialism and the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene 4 (2013): 101-115.
  2. Merchant, Carolyn. “The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature.” Special Focus Section, Isis 97, no. 3 (2006): 513-533.
  3. Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections Between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 8-34.
  4. Haraway, Donna. Anthropocene or Capitalocene, Ch 2. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” book in progress.
  5. Cohen, Tom, Clair Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller. Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. London: Open Humanities Press, 2016, “Preface,” pp. 7-19; Ch. 2, “What is the Anthropo- political?” pp. 81-89.
  6. Lorimer, Jamie. Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, “Introduction,” pp. 1-18.
  7. Clark, Nigel. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2011, “Introduction, pp. x-xxii; Ch. 6, “Hurricane Katrina and the Origins of Community,” pp. 136-162.
  8. Clark, Timothy. Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. Bloomsbury: AbeBooks, 2015, “Preface,” pp. x-xi; Ch. 1, “The Anthropocene: Questions of Definition,” pp. 1-28.

Intersubjective explorations: autonomy and control in the anthropocene

This is the fourth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

The autonomy of the natural world, inclusive of and not subservient to humans, is something that many people already recognize individually, but this stance is not seen in dominant and global scientific, economic and political structures and discourse. Carolyn Merchant calls for recognition of the autonomy of nature, using chaos and complexity theory to underscore the unpredictable, uncontrollable, and perhaps willful aspects of the natural world. She asserts that acknowledging the autonomy of nature could lead to new (and better) ways of engaging with the world. It would also lead to different understandings of humanity, and ways of conducting ecological science. The intrinsic value in the natural world, inclusive of humans, is independent of valuation by an external valuer. Intrinsic value implies only that there is value to the subject in itself, as stance that may require a generous view of subjectivity. Thomas Heyd claims that any argument for intrinsic value hinges on the recognition of autonomy. Both of these terms imply that the thing in question is self-determining. According to Heyd, the recognition of autonomy also marks the thing in question as a candidate for moral consideration, and this recognition is dependent on a capacity for intersubjective exploration, requiring different and new ways of knowing. Here, I am reminded of Viveiros de Castro’s description of Amazonian perspectivism, and the idea that in order to know, one must embody the perspective of the other (a way of knowing I am developing within my own work). Heyd asks, which ways of knowing do not objectify the very nature we wish to know?

Present-day land management, restoration, and other environmental sciences tend to view nature paternalistically, as if it were our duty to decide what is best for it, viewing nature as an object to be managed rather than as its own autonomous subject. Management plans often operate under the pretense that they are acting in nature’s own interest, when they are really imposing human interests onto landscapes. Peterson’s chapter was exemplary of this point of view, whose management foci were on increasing control, and limiting uncertainty. This goes counter to the recognition of nature as autonomous, uncontrollable, and unpredictable (Merchant), and instead strives to keep it within the bounds of human control “so we can produce a world that we want rather than the world we will otherwise get (Peterson 391).” Katz, cited by Heyd, has a different ethical stance on land management, and believes that liberating nature lies in withdrawing human interference in natural processes, including limiting management interference.

Peterson’s anxiety about losing control of these managed systems, is perhaps related to the Ecological Anxiety Disorder discussed by Robbins and Moore. Peterson’s fearful response to the “negative normative influence of humans on the earth (anthrophobia) (Robbins and Moore 4), seems to be expressed as a grasping for control, which is linked to a nostalgia that desires to return to some prior “edenic” state. The prescription for this anxiety, according to Robbins and Moore, is to express the truth of our desires, and to be radically and explicitly honest about the stakes of differing outcomes for the various actors involved. This requires acknowledging the entanglement of politics of control over the natural world, even within the sciences. Soule’s article on conservation biology begins to do this, acknowledging the normative aspects of the science. Soule also acknowledges the disconnect often present in the natural sciences of scientists who believe in the intrinsic value of nature, while their funding is often only concerned with human benefits from natural resources.

“In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8
Illustration by Michael Harney from Margolin’s The Ohlone Way, 1978. “In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8

Margolin’s piece on the Ohlone way provides a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in a society in which nature and other species were considered autonomous, and not within the domain of human control. Perhaps, however, this edenic view is something that is no longer attainable, and we have to look for futures embracing hybrid landscapes, in which the autonomy of nature and the autonomy of humans are not opposing forces. For me, a crux of the issue remains that the political, scientific, and economic systems within which we operate do not allow for the inclusion of non-humans as autonomous political subjects, nor do they necessarily reflect the moral stance of human individuals, including politicians, scientists, and economists, but instead force us into certain exploitative moral configurations and value systems.

Works Cited:

  1. Merchant, Carolyn. Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution. New York: Routledge, 2016, “Introduction: Can Nature be Controlled?” pp. 1-17.
  2. Heyd, Thomas, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, “Introduction,” pp. 1-22.
  3. Keekok Lee, “Is Nature Autonomous?” in Thomas Heyd, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 54-74.
  4. Peterson, Garry D. “Ecological Management: Control, Uncertainty, and Understanding,” in Kim Cuddington and Beatrix Beisner, eds. Ecological Paradigms Lost: Routes of Theory Change. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, Ch. 17, pp. 371-395.
  5. Robbins, Paul and Sarah A. Moore. “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene.” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 1 (2012): 3-19.
  6. Soulé, Michael E. “What is Conservation Biology.” BioScience 35, no. 11, “The Biodiversity Crisis.” (Dec. 1985): 727-734.
  7. Margolin, Malcolm. The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1978, pp. 1-12.
  8. Brashares, Justin, et al. “Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict.” Science, 345, no. 6195 (25 July 2014): 376-378.