In their introduction to the Im/mortality and In/finitude symposium, Thom van Dooren and Michelle Bastian explain some of the thinking behind the workshop
Im/mortal Perspectives: The “Useful Dead” in Contemporary Fiction
This paper explores how contemporary novelists incorporate a range of im/mortal characters to confront conditions marked by what Deborah Bird Rose terms “double death,” and more specifically, to figure the future of traditional human-animal relationships at the crux of histories of genocide and extinction. It focuses on two contemporary novels, Linda Hogan's People of the Whale (2009) and Robert Barclay's Meļal: A Novel of the Pacific, (2002) both of which place indigenous hunters in scenes where a traditional chase of a whale and a dolphin, respectively, is botched. Within the narratives, the hunts are critiqued by not only people seeking protection for animal “victims.” The hunters’ long-dead ancestors and their gods also enter these scenes, and instead see ill-equipped people from tribal communities devastated by the colonial legacy injured or killed, and members of species whose future is likewise threatened and suffering prolonged, painful deaths, all as a result of radical ruptures to patterns of cross-species intimacy via massive-scale resource extractions and nuclear weapons testing.
To consider how the stories depict the influence of these supernatural – or, more appropriately, multi-natural – characters as highly contingent on the responsiveness of mortals to indigenous knowledges, I adapt Vinciane Déspret’s concept of “the useful dead” to literary analysis. As both immaterial specters and the stuff of history – things with a distinctly disembodied presence -- the useful dead people a category of thinginess that is distinct from all other things by nature of the response they inspire among the living. Their particular figurations in these novels suggests further a way of understanding how fiction itself participates in forming the response that is the thing that reanimates the useful dead in social life – that is, how it creates more hopeful ways of caring and knowing through what Steve Baker characterizes as “language that is somehow closer to its objects, enlivened by its objects,” especially “its dead objects.”
Susan McHugh, Professor and Chair of English at the University of New England, USA, is the author of Animal Stories: Narrating across Species Lines (Minnesota, 2011) – which was awarded the Michelle Kendrick Book Prize by the Society for Literature, Science, and the Arts in 2012 -- as well as Dog (Reaktion, 2004). She coedited Literary Animals Look, a special issue of Antennae: The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture (2013) with Robert McKay, and The Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies (Routledge, 2014) with Garry Marvin. McHugh serves as Managing Editor of the Humanities for Society & Animals, and she is a member of the editorial boards of Antennae, Animal Studies Journal, Environment and History, H-Animal Discussion Network, and Humanimalia: A Journal of Human-Animal Interface Studies.
Tagging turtles and chasing ghosts: exploring the times and spaces of extinctions
In this time of habitat pressures and a changing climate, the relationships that make time and space are shifting. This paper offers a creative reflection on the lives of leatherback turtles by drawing out the frayed threads of what Deborah Bird Rose has called 'multi-species knots of ethical time' (2012). I follow the rhythms and spacings that join turtles with jaguars and jellyfish as each attempts to recalibrate the time of life to new conditions and explore the efforts of these creatures to actively make new futures for themselves, even when larger cycles and rhythms might be working against them. Throughout I reflect on human modes of time-telling and ask how they might be re-tuned and re-entrained to the present moment (which one?).
Michelle Bastian is a Chancellor’s Fellow at the Edinburgh College of Art, University of Edinburgh. Her work focuses on the role of time in social practices of inclusion and exclusion. She has explored this in relation to feminist theories of community, local food, political apologies, more-than-human participatory research, clocks, leatherback turtles, transition towns and sustainable economies. Her work has been published in Time & Society; Theory, Culture & Society; and Environmental Philosophy.
No Promises: Mass Extinction, Security and Intervention in the Anthropocene
The concept of ‘security’ is paradoxical. It acknowledges the fragility of life and promotes strategies of ‘survival’ to mitigate this condition. Yet it also presumes that human interventions can guarantee survival – that is, ensure that life and death ‘go on’. This belief in the power of human agency to shape the conditions of being is epitomized by Anthropocene security interventions, ranging from military invasions to conservation norms to massive geo-engineering projects. But does the concept of security have any meaning in the face of mass extinction? I argue that the temporal dimensions of mass extinction undercut the possibility of security in several ways. First, extinction is not simply an aggregation of deaths; it marks the cessation of both life and death. This undermines the biopolitical logics that contemporary security discourses, especially notions of ‘resilience’ that emphasise the persistence of life processes through time. Second, mass extinction is an what I call an ‘enormity’: a phenomenon that is massive in its spatio-temporal dimensions, and which has profound but largely unarticulated ethical significance. It vastly exceeds the frameworks of security – from the human calibrated dimensions of international ethics to the linear temporality of intervention. Third, mass extinction is a multi-temporal process of becoming that problematizes two aspects of security: inattention to the emergence and destruction of worlds; and the drive towards stability. In articulating these arguments, this paper suggests that mass extinction negates the possibility of security, and calls for modes of response more attuned to the time, space and enormity of extinction.
Audra Mitchell is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at the University of York, UK. She is currently a visiting fellow in the School of Politics and International Relations, University of Edinburgh, and in 2015 she will be a visiting fellow in the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne. Audra has published widely in the areas of international security, philosophy and ethics, including her books International Intervention in a Secular Age: Re-enchanting Humanity? (Routledge, 2014), Lost in Transformation: Violent Peace and Peaceful Conflict in Northern Ireland (Palgrave, 2011), and (with Oliver Richmond) Hybrid Forms of Peace: From the Everyday to Postliberalism (Palgrave, 2011). She has published articles on a range of interdisciplinary subjects – from process thinking to cosmology to posthumanist conceptions of harm – in journals such as Security Dialogue, Review of International Studies, Millennium, Third World Quarterly, Alternatives and other journals. She also writes the blog ‘Worldly IR’ (www.wordlyir.wordpress.com). Audra is currently working on a major research project (funded by the Independent Social Research Foundation) exploring the ontology, ethics and security dimensions of mass extinction through the lens of posthumanist thought.
From Life to Life Support: Ecotechnological Futures in Space
During the Environmental Era of the 1960s and 1970s, visions of ecologically balanced worlds stimulated high hopes. Systems stability and equilibrium became key concepts. Particularly prominent was the vision of creating closed self-sustained ecological life support systems. The space capsule provided the blueprint to experiment with materially closed cycles. The paper will explore how at the intersection of space research and ecology “life” was transformed to “survival” based on “life support”. Holistic and selective views on life support systems will be discussed that merged sufficiency and efficiency solutions to environmental sustainability. The paper argues that the minimalist principle of survival collapsed images of recreation and creation, of paradisiacal pasts and ecotechnological futures.
Sabine Höhler is an Associate Professor of Science and Technology Studies at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. Originally trained as a physicist she received her PhD in the history of science and technology. Her research addresses the history of the earth sciences in the 19th and 20th centuries in a cultural and global historical perspective: aviation and atmospheric physics; ocean exploration and physical oceanography; space flight and ecology. Her work on “Spaceship Earth: Envisioning Human Habitats in the Environmental Age” studies the discourse of environmental life support between 1960 and 1990. The book will be published with Pickering & Chatto Publishers, London, in spring 2015.
Shattering Seeds: Temporalities of Miracle Rice
In the 1970s, farmers in Southeast Asia began planting "miracle rice" developed by agronomists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines). Within a decade, miracle rice varieties came to dominate almost 90% of rice fields, fueling a Green Revolution in agriculture. Looking like ordinary seeds, they gave higher yields within shorter growth periods. But they depended heavily on fertilizers and pesticides, and thus may be considered as technoscientific organisms engineered for the forward-marching time of modernity. They enacted unprecedented collisions between life, markets, and progress.
This paper focuses on IR36, the most widely planted of the miracle rice varieties, in order to attend to the specificities of these collisions. Specifically, I look at temporalities of more-than-human agroecological practices that have been domesticated into food supplies or genetic resources for human use. Crossbred from 13 varieties in 1976, IR36 produced yields six times higher than a reported average of one ton per hectare. It could also be harvested in 107 days, two months earlier than the reported average. Its reliance on nitrogen fertilizers had unintended consequences. Accelerated and planned growth, chemical saturation, and biodiversity loss triggered the spread of insects and viruses that deformed grains and fields, particularly in the Philippines. IR36 was pulled from distribution in less than a decade, but the market logics that conditioned the temporality of miracle rice continue to structure agriculture today.
We can no longer consider rice as plant or commodity, a unit of ecological or economic relations. Rather, it is a coordinating device, a time machine that is constituted by, as well as constitutive of, a/synchronicities that materialize into worlds. It is not a mixing of nature and culture, but a technology that enacts the conditions of possibility through which both nature and culture become distinguishable, as if they inhabit different worlds. In this paper, I draw on Deleuze's figurations of time—difference and repetition—to unfold the temporalities of miracle rice. Understanding the domestication of particular bodies as disruptions of life cycles and species synchronies that remake vast landscapes suggests an analytical tool for studying environmental and economic crises as breakdowns in coordination. Articulating IR36 as an assemblage of rice, insects, viruses, nitrogen, and humans begins to move away from unilinear clock time calculated solely by humans to temporal coordinations across incommensurable difference.
Elaine Gan is an artist who plays at the intersections of digital media, environmental anthropology, and feminist science & technology studies. She is the art director of Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) and a fellow in Architecture & Environmental Structures of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Through writing, web-based projects, and art installations, she makes diagrams and clocks that enact temporalities of multispecies coordinations. Her doctoral research at University of California, Santa Cruz attempts to map the timing of organisms, landscapes, and machines. It is a search for speculative and hybrid methods for mapping worlds otherwise.
Life and Death in the Plastisphere
Plastic is often thought of as a malleable material, its metaphorical connotation, plasticity, implying movement and shape shifting. However, with a projected lifespan of 100,000 years, plastic is actually one of the most durable compounds on earth. By existing outside of the time frame of biological life, plastic brings with it a kind of undead quality that exists in opposition to the biological binary of life and death, and spreading this reign throughout all the ecosystems it interacts with. Most of the plastic produced ends up in the ocean, offering itself as a food source to from everything from plankton to whales, slowing sealing off the exchange of nutrients, starving animals though its abundance.
For humans, the many chemical plasticizers, such as Bisphenol A (or BPA), mimic natural hormones, rendering us less and less fertile. Plastic, and its associated plasticizers, are among the many anthropogenic compounds that are heralding in an increasingly infertile future, or future filled with strange new life forms. Plastic is also becoming the anthropogenic substrate of a whole new ecology of viruses and bacteria, termed the plastisphere. While this situation is certainly horrific, what might be learned from queer theory, disability studies, and theoretical approaches to the notion of toxicity? In other words, if instead of running from these toxic and infertile futures, as Mel Chen, Claire Colebrook and others suggest, what might we learn if we began to embrace the nonfilial progeny that plastic, and the plastisphere, might produce? How might we organize a politics around nonreproduction, a politics that moves beyond the cyclic processes of life and death to correspond and prepare us more adequately for the plastic future?
Heather Davis is currently a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University, where she works on the ethology of plastic. She is the editor of Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Politics, Aesthetics, Environment, and Epistemology (Ann Arbor: MPublishing/Open Humanities Press, forthcoming 2014).
Please note that there is some sound interference (rattling glasses) at the beginning of this presentation, but this stops at 01:35.
Wisdom of the rocks: Art and the organic after a geologic turn
Drawing on Manuel Delanda’s concept of 'wisdom of the rocks' understood as "a way of listening to a creative, expressive flow of matter for guidance on how to work with our own organic strata”, I will discuss recent art projects by Katie Paterson, Oron Catts and Hideo Iwasaki, Adam Brown, Michael Burton, Oliver Kellhammer, and Ilana Halperin, which employ a geological perspective in their considerations of living and nonliving matter. Such perspective demands the use of scales which are far beyond those of humans, hence, these artists work not only with fossils as evidence of long-gone life and the immensity of time, but also with life to come in the future as a result of both bioengineering and geoengineering. Minerals co-evolving with life as they pass through life forms (including humans) in metabolic processes are a focus of the artists’ attention, especially when themes concerning the deep future are introduced with questions such as: what kind of geological strata do we expect to leave behind on the planet and how – if at all – should we promote carbon life in the Universe. I will argue that taking a deep time perspective allows for an attempt to avoid “organic chauvinism” and reconsider questions such as the origin of life as well as organic and mineral evolution but also critically approach biotechnological challenges such as efforts to create synthetic life or the promotion of carbon life in non-terrestrial contexts.
Monika Bakke works in the Philosophy Department at the Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznan, Poland. She writes on contemporary art and aesthetics, with a particular focus on posthumanist, gender and cross-cultural perspectives. The author of two books: Bio-transfigurations: Art and Aesthetics of Posthumanism (2010, in Polish) and Open Body (2000, in Polish), co-author of Pleroma: Art in Search of Fullness (1998), and editor of
Australian Aboriginal Aesthetics (2004, in Polish), Going Aerial: Air, Art, Architecture (2006) and The Life of Air: Dwelling, Communicating, Manipulating (2011). Since 2001 she has been an editor of the Polish cultural journal Czas Kultury (Time of Culture).
Unsettling Life/Death: Living with and as jellyfish
In light of climate change and new threats to life on earth, questions of mortality and immortality in marine organisms have become an increasingly pressing concern. As harmful algae and jellyfish blooms threaten fisheries and put human health at risk, heightened attention has been paid to their extraordinary life cycles in attempts to protect coastal economies. But the study of ‘strange’ marine life cycles also seemingly offers more than the promise of ecological security. Research on the so-called “immortal jellyfish”, Turritopsis dohrnii, for example, has provided scientists with hope of eliminating the ultimate risk to human life: that of 'natural' death. Drawing on the work of Frederic Neyrat, I consider how the awareness of our mortality in the face of climate change is in tension with scientific practices that continue to pursue a ‘fountain of youth’ through research on the bodies of marine organisms. The presentation reflects a portion of emerging research in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Exeter and elsewhere, in which we are exploring how a-typical life-cycles of nonhumans might help us to rethink “struggles for survival” beyond desires for immortality and biopolitical drives for power over life.
Elizabeth Johnson is a research fellow with the Science, Technology, and Culture Research cluster and Department of Geography at the University of Exeter. Her work centers on emerging connections among the bio-sciences, technological innovation, and environmental change. She explores how these trends open up new avenues toward life’s privatization and weaponization while also recasting nature as a participatory actor in the process. Her work has been published in the journals Ephemera: Theory & Politics in Organization, Acme, and Progress in Human Geography. She has papers forthcoming in Theory, Culture, Society and Society and Space. She is working on a book entitled Life’s Work: Biomimesis and the Labor of New Natures.
Cosmo-ecological Sheep and the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet
In recent decades, some young people from urban backgrounds have chosen to become shepherds and to learn to reconnect with the herding practices that many livestock breeders had abandoned under the pressure of agricultural modernization policies. In some cases they have found themselves entrusted with sheep that are as naïve about herding as they themselves were. Before their introduction to transhumance – a process of seasonal movement between pastures – these animals were primarily confined and fed indoors or in small fenced areas. The shepherds had to learn how to lead, how to understand other modes of living, how to teach their sheep what is edible and what is not and how to form a flock; the sheep had to learn how to compose with dogs and humans, to acquire new feeding habits, new ethos, and moreover, new ways of living in an enlarged world. These practices do not amount to a livestock economy, shepherds consider herding as a work of transformation and ecological recuperation — of the land, of the sheep, of ways of being together. Learning “the arts of living on a damaged planets”, as Anna Tsing has termed it, humans and animals are making their own contributions to a new cosmo-ecology, creating cosmo-ecological connections, and therefore contributing to what Eduardo Kohn (relaying Ghassan Hage) calls “alter-politics”: “a politics that grows not from opposition to or critique of our current systems but one that grows from attention to another way of being, one that involves other kinds of living beings.”
Vinciane Despret is philosopher of sciences and Maître de conferences at the University of Liège and at the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. Her first fieldwork was in the Negev desert, Israel, where she explored the possibility of making an "ethology of the ethologists." She has since worked with animals, and with the humans who observe them, live with them or simply know them. From September 2007 to January 2008 she was the scientific curator of the exhibition "Bêtes et Hommes" held at the Grande halle de la Villette, Parc de La Villette, Paris. She is the author of numerous books and articles - most of them not yet available in English. Her most recent book Que diraient les animaux si… on leur posait de bonnes questions? will be translated into English in