Easy gesturing or inventing politics?
A conversation between Marisol de la Cadena and Casper Bruun Jensen
As a way to generate further reflections on the ideas proposed in Krøijer’s and Alcayna-Stevens’ chapters, but also seeking to avoid formats that might summarise or resolve the questions the chapters pose, we invited Marisol de la Cadena and Casper Bruun Jensen to have an open conversation about the chapters, in relation to the introduction to the book. We recorded the conversation, and then transcribed it verbatim. Afterwards we asked each scholar to edit the conversations, and only then did we lightly edit them ourselves – this in order to try to keep the stylistic effect of a conversational format, an exchange of ideas and a non-linear narrative. In so doing, rather than an ending, we hoped to provide readers with further open directions in which to think.
In the following conversation, de la Cadena and Bruun Jensen explore how the concept of environmental alterities offers the possibility for creating ontological openings involving the transformations, and destabilisation, of the concept of the human. They discuss how complicating the figure-ground distinction might be a way to point to how the ground (environmental but also conceptual) is always fragmented, unreachable and unknown, thus making environmental relations a subject that needs to be continuously invented. They consider how this shift can be understood politically, and how environmental alterities, as an analytical tool, does not respond to, but rather suspends, the temporalities and urgency embedded in politics as usual, or in concrete political environmental problems that usually demand opposition to the state, capital profit practices, and so on. Without reaching definitive answers, the conversation problematises the relation and existing tension between the need to act, politically, but at the same time, to think about worlds that are ‘not-yet’. Thus, the engagements with forests presented in these chapters are reflected upon through the political potentialities and limits that the concept of environmental alterities affords.
Casper: To start, I really like the project of exploring environmental alterities. It’s a great project and it speaks to so many things that many – our group here and far beyond – have been talking about, trying to comprehend for years already. In STS of course with the famous nature/culture divides, whether from Latour’s or Haraway’s side, with Anna Tsing’s ‘more than human worlds’, with Marisol’s ‘more than human, excessive earth-being’, with Stengers’ cosmopolitics and so on. Not to mention the controversial ontological turn that we have all been involved with in different ways. To my mind, the ‘alterities’ enter primarily via the literature of this ontological turn, but the environmental aspect is an obvious, urgent and poignant complement in the context of the Anthropocene. I’m sitting in Cambodia, which has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world and is also heavily hit already by climate change effects – and is in many ways a totally different place from Marisol’s Peru or my Denmark, or the UK or Chile. So, environmental alterities, and the different kinds of problem-spaces they create – conceptual and practical and political – are extremely pertinent. So, I’m excited and happy to be part of it.
Now, to turn to your way of organising the book – the introduction is structured around three kinds of engagement with environmental alterities. So, there’s the ‘outside’, in which alterities are something that’s basically a non-relational, untouchable, withdrawn space, resembling object-oriented ontology’s ways of thinking – more or less. Then there’s a series of reflections on other literature that has more affinity with the kinds of anthropology Marisol does, and the kind of STS-moving-into-anthropology that Latour does (and I do), which is about internal heterogeneities and how they are patterned. It raises immediate questions about how to think about what’s internal and what’s external to begin with, and how to separate them, to the extent that they can even be separated. But anyway, as a didactic device, that’s how the introduction is done, and it speaks to different literatures.
And then, towards the end, there’s another one which perplexes me more, a kind of Wagnerian figure/ground reversal in motion, which asks about the relation between the ‘relational ‘and the ‘outside’, which was previously said to be a ‘non-relation’. What kind of conceptual implications might follow from thinking about such weird spaces? I affiliate that with Antonia (because I’ve known her for a long time), with Marilyn Strathern to an extent – or a certain version of her – and with Roy Wagner who is famous for these kinds of chiasmatic relations and movements. This is all exciting, and I think we can relate it to the chapters – not in equal measure, but in various interesting ways. And then I have a few particular thoughts; one I would like to pose as a question to the writers of the introduction, and the other maybe more of a rant (or, as academics are not supposed to rant, perhaps it is a ‘provocation’. But since the subject is a hobbyhorse for me these days, rant is probably more precise).
So, early in the text, there is a recurrent theme of ‘mundanity’, the everyday, everyday entanglements. In some sense, there’s nothing extraordinary about climate change; we are starting to see all sorts of mundane ramifications. Keiichi Omura and the other editors of The World Multiple characterised their idea of the ‘world multiple’ along very similar lines in their introduction: the world multiple is made up of everyday practices and so on. As for myself, I’m not a huge fan of the mundane. I don’t know what it is, or what it means. Is the everyday, in fact, mundane? Maybe not. But maybe in these days particularly, things aren’t actually normal at all! In any case, I’d like to push the idea that things aren’t normal at all, that there’s nothing mundane about the situations we are in. I think they are quite mad, and I sure hope there is nothing mundane about where we are today. Of course, we continue to make cups of coffee, or chop firewood or go fishing if that’s what we need to do. We milk our cows. Of course, everybody has a sort of habitual practice, they do things every day. Yet all around us things are changing in very dramatic ways, which seems to me to be systematically minimised by those with a strong commitment to everyday practices in phenomenological life-worlds.
Obviously, some of that is a response to what is perceived to be the exoticising tendencies of the ontological turn. Nothing to see here: we are really all living mundane existences. But I personally think more is to be gained by pushing the idea further: the whole world is becoming more and more mad and exotic, even to itself. Of course, I don’t intend anything remotely resembling conventional colonial, supremacist fantasies of the Other. I mean that the world is becoming ontologically more and more exotic to practically everyone, in the sense that nobody has the least idea what it is going to come.
So that was an observation and a bit of a question. Leading on from that, the rant is about how mundanity becomes coupled with a particular critique of the notion of the Anthropocene and collapse, in what I think is a bad way. I mean, you, the editors, state that looking at unfolding climate disruption through the lens of the Anthropocene is highly problematic – for all the various and by now well-known reasons that the Anthropocene concept itself is criticised. And you add that thinking in terms of collapse is problematic because it obscures various other things that aren’t actually collapsing. Which of course it does. But then refusing to look at collapse also obscures other things. Concentrating on making visible all those things that are obscured by the Anthropocene, also obscures things. For one, it obscures the by now relatively established fact that things are really not normal. Many things are going downhill pretty rapidly and are indeed headed for many forms of… collapse. Which means that the invocation of the many possibilities of ‘life in the ruins’ – Anna Tsing’s phrase of course – the possibilities of finding other ways of life and so on, well, it sounds good but what would it mean? I would prefer to believe it, but what are the possibilities of living on a planet that has warmed by 6°c? What are the possibilities for living once the Antarctic ice has melted and water levels increased by 5, 10 or 30 metres? They appear terribly slim. So, I understand the sentiment behind rejecting the Anthropocene as a universalising label, but the backlash against the term and the idea of collapse seems to me to very quickly drift into easy gesturing towards vague, unspecified possibilities.
Those two points strike me as a way of framing the question of environmental alterities: mundanity versus what is definitely not normal; and how such practices play into politics and political imagination depending on whether one approaches the issues via an idea of Anthropocene collapse or in terms of continual change as something that is always happening. Basically, I’m very worried – so in the last few years I have become more inclined to think with Eduardo Viveiros de Castro in terms of rupture, which means, again, precisely that there is nothing normal about what’s going on. In my view the continuing academic debate about exactly what terminology to adopt, and the proliferation of competing ‘-cenes’ and counter- ‘-cenes’ detract from the major issues.
Marisol: So, I am not going to repeat the ways I like the project, because they are similar to what Casper has already said. I like the idea of environmental alterities, and I like the way in which those two words can implode each other. So, if ‘alterities’ implode ‘environmental’, some consequential fragmentation happens. And, if ‘environmental’ implodes ‘alterities’, something also happens that perhaps connects the fragmentation. I like the interplay of those two words, what those two words can do to each other which can also be fragmented (and connected!). The only thing I would add to what you are saying, is that I think what Antonia and Cristóbal have written is also a proposal for what I call ‘onto-epistemic openings’ – perhaps different from the ontological turn because it doesn’t propose jettisoning a concept, it does not suggest a method for an alternative end, it just proposes an opening. And what is being opened are concepts, which I think are worlding practices. My tool to perform openings is ‘not only’, a refrain that suggests things are more than what they are (or ‘not only’ what they also are.) But that is my tool – onto-epistemic openings, however you do them, are about working-at-the-cusp, edge work, signalling the limit not as the end zone, but as a starting line. I think that the mutual implosion of ‘environmental alterities, working at each other’s limits, performs those openings.
Okay. Now, engaging with what you, Casper, have said, about what you feel and think about ‘easy gesturing’. I would say that it depends. It depends because easy gesturing can also be a very difficult engagement. If you take ‘living within the ruins’ seriously – I also want to think, with Eduardo Viveiros, whose ruins – it’s easy gesturing perhaps if we think about the possibility of us living within our ruins. But, if we think of ruins as that which we have ruined, and that now we have to live with the awareness of those ruins only because we are being ruined too, that is not an easy gesture. If we write with the awareness of having been and continuing to be the coloniser – that’s not an easy gesture. It is not an easy gesture to think what you have said: the exoticising of the mundane to the point that we become exotic to ourselves, with all that that means. An equaliser that is not quite an equaliser. And here I would take some issue with figure/ground reversal. I think that figure/ground reversal is a great tool to think with, but one with very important limits too. There can be no figure/ground reversal when there’s no ground to reverse – it’s as if we are all figures now, figures in search of a ground that’s completely unstable. That instability can become mundane and then we – those who always felt stable – may become exotic to ourselves, also because we would be with those others who now appear not so exotic. None of this is necessarily easy gesturing if we want to think ourselves with those that we never thought ourselves with; this is very difficult to achieve – even in this volume. I was wondering how much the idea of the collapse is itself effecting collapse. Making ‘all’ the same without even being able to consider what ‘all’ is – I repeat, even in this piece.
So, how do we talk about collapse while locating the place from which we are talking about collapse, and acknowledging the limit of the collapse? I think that Kathryn Yusoff’s work is something to consider here. And that work is similar to Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s ‘ends of the world’, and their comment that ‘Amerindians have lived through many ends of the world’ or of their worlds. Engaging with those ends would not lend itself to collapsing histories, stories, places, worlds.
Anyway, that’s one point. The other point is that I feel there is one important figure that remains unmoved, untouched, and that is the historical figure of the human. I think that when we say ‘post-human’ or ‘beyond the human’ we are talking about a historical form of being a person which we have not even begun to think about provincialising. And it may only be this historical form of being a person – the human – that allows us to perform the collapse, to make it happen, and allows us to talk about the outside and the inside, and about what lies always within, even while questioning divisions like outside/inside or nature/culture. For several decades now we have been undoing mono-nature, opening it up to what’s not nature – and that has produced great work. But we have done all that without touching the figure of the human. We started and stopped with Foucault: the figure of ‘the man’ was an invention, he said, and we contented ourselves with that, the critique of modern man. But what about the figure of the human? The invention of ‘man’ that Foucault remarks on, needed the invention of the human. And that invention, that historical emergence, is ignored. At best it is a matter of paleontological inquiry. ‘The human’ usually appears as an unquestioned, ever-present figure.
So, there is that monolith that we have not touched, although some (like Eduardo Viveiros) have been talking about it in anthropology. Perhaps Wagner is the only one who makes a figure/ground reversal himself and becomes that which is not only human, through his acrobatic inventions – which I love, but which are more than figure/ground reversals when he becomes that which is not only human. So, the person that is the shaman who can become jaguar (pause) is not the human that we are if only because we cannot become jaguar! And of course, after centuries of colonisation, that person is also human, or as I would prefer to say ‘human, and not only’. But I feel that the human remains a monolith. There. Unmoved. It is as if it was invented to not be touched, and resists centuries of all sorts of sacred and secular thought. Now it is the Anthropos of the (s)cene that collapses all scenes. I feel ‘environmental alterities’ can have room for nature that is not only such, and also for the person who can be jaguar: human and not only.
C: This is very interesting to consider from the point of view of the book’s title –Environmental Alterities – because if you translate it [environment] into Danish [omverden, literally ‘surrounding world’] or Germanic, the Umwelt – same meaning – it is different for each entity, per definition, right? This is something Viveiros de Castro also touches upon in his discussion of perspectival Amerindian ontologies, but it is immediately evident back to von Uexküll, that the Umwelt is fundamentally relative: the Umwelt of a Danish hog farmer, a Mexican urban intellectual, a penguin and a fruit fly do not have much, if anything, in common. They are definitionally ‘uncommon’. So, once you recognise this, any change in Umwelt entails a reshuffling of environmental alterities, to the point of possible incompatibility. Maybe I am imputing, but this is what I hear you saying. If you don’t have one figure of the human, but rather as Kathryn Yusoff writes, a billion black Anthropocene figures, then you’re going to also have a billion alterities. This creates very interesting kaleidoscopes effects, which are not just conceptually but also politically and practically very important, because it means that divisions and hierarchies – of which there are always enough to go around – simultaneously proliferate and change patterns.
All of this is great and important. But those patterns and effects include the ones generated by scientists to give shape to environmental alterities via the figure of the Anthropocene. It was not constructed in the first place to think about politics, coloniality, race and so on – although it might have been – but rather with a view to dealing with other things that are nevertheless also very important and which are, indeed, the central concerns of those scientists. In other words, contrary to the impression one might get from reading the infinite set of heated critical rebuttals, the Anthropocene never came into the world with the hidden subtext to demolish colonial and capitalist history as well as most other important differences in the world. So – and I am no longer referring to Cristóbal and Antonia’s introduction, but to my feeling about the discussion as a whole – in my view, a lot of critical scholarship is in fact reading the Anthropocene proposal in a poor, and in fact very dumb way, because they have decontextualised it. They have moved it out of its Umwelt and turned it into grist for the mill for the nth round of critiquing Western hegemonies – critiques which would have been no less vigorous had the Anthropocene never become a buzzword.
So, to use Marisol’s own words, the Anthropocene has a universalising tendency but it is not only that. It was also an effort to articulate what these scientists perceived to be something brand new, a change of state in the world that is going to affect every – not human, then – let’s say every person – human or non-human.
This is why the discussion pro et contra Anthropocene always reminds me of the Confucian proverb, ‘When the wise man points to the moon, the fool looks at the finger’. Everybody wants to debate terminology: ‘the Anthropocene is universalising and a-historical, so let’s dust off Marx: clearly the Capitalocene is far more appropriate. But no, it remains imperfect… how about Plantationocene. No, Chthulucene. No, really AnthropoObscene’! As if which finger is doing the pointing matters more than what they are all, from different angles, attempting to point at. This is, of course, a game which academics enjoy and at which they are skilled, no matter how inconsequential it may be. But to me, anyway, it seems that there are presently far more important things to do than continue to flog the already severely injured Anthropocene horse. And many of those things can only be done by accepting that scientists formulated that concept to at least try to grasp something quite novel in our planetary experience.
M: I think that’s what I meant when I asked, ‘is talking about the collapse itself effecting the collapse?’, and collapse as I am using it refers to the practice of ‘making the same again’. This sameness may be (re)done by practising the term (Anthropocene) through geo-engineered solutions to the problems it creates, and also in critical opposition to the term Anthropocene and the forces that continue to create what it names. To avoid sameness a politics has to be reinvented, and that reinvention I want to say provocatively may even be post-political. The ‘post’ would be to politics as usual, perhaps unrecognisable to the latter, certainly in opposition to it and, in that very way, it would itself be especially political. And that reinvention, daring to even slightly imagine it, I would say, again, ‘is not easy’, Casper.
C: Yes, of course.
M: Of course. Inventing politics is not easy. It may be easy to talk about ‘ruins’ or ‘the uncommons’ academically. That can even be pleasant, a challenge to relish. It makes us think, it positions us at the limit, and opens – I’m talking about myself and how I relish doing it – obliges us to open concepts to what those concepts cannot grasp. Of course, this conceptual work needs to be done, but, again, not only. It has to be done along with a reinvention of politics, or as a practice of politics, perhaps starting with – in a sense – an initial figure/ground reversal, where if we are ground we become figure and vice-versa. But an initial one only, because then things would unfold that would make us reinvent ourselves: for example, if we become figure, we may discover that the ground is fragmented and does not hold as ground, or that our epistemic tools cannot know the ground, or that there is no ground. And we have to start relating to each other in ways that we do not have any idea about. We don’t know what ‘the relation’ would be! Or, if we have been relational (using relations of any kind), what would we do if groundlessness – or the eccentricity of ground – places us in a non-relational condition?
C: This reminds me of the Wagnerian endpoint to the introduction, which evokes this wonderful figure – was it called the tabapot?
M: That is a great concept.
C: And then hearing you talking about this kind of reversal – which then reveals somehow that there isn’t any ground to begin with, and then the space of environmental alterities is totally transformed as a consequence. After we’ve been in more or less a Deleuzian and Latourian space for twenty years, where everything became assemblages and relational networks, suddenly we are in a realm of tabapots and chiasmatic reversals that sound positively Derridean…
C: Roy Wagner actually reminds me quite a bit of Derrida – these undecidable, vibrating, ambivalent relations that won’t stand still. It’s interesting because in some sense it’s so close to Latour and Deleuze and yet the momentum is totally different.
But, hey, maybe we should talk a little bit about the chapters? I think you should start that Marisol…
M: (laughs) I liked both papers and there were things that I disagreed with in both papers. I think that Stine Krøijer’s paper offered a great ethnographic situation. The idea that the palm oil trees are to be engaged with in ways that are different, yet the same, and the ways in which the people Krøijer works with engage with the forest; yet these ways are also different because the trees are unknown. Are the trees going to be known? This question brings in the forest in a way that proposes symmetry and difference with the newcomer trees. Symmetry because knowing is a relation with the forest, and difference because palm oil trees are unknown. I like that a lot. I also liked how her analysis presents otherness without exoticisation – for example the shaman has a son who is just a guy, not a shaman. In the analysis ‘others’ and ‘us’ are family – like the shaman and his son. Another way of saying it, to extend it beyond ‘the case’, is that I like this analysis because it makes ‘otherness’ and ‘sameness’ familiar.
C: What I most enjoyed about the paper was quite similar. There’s something neat about two sets of contrasts running in parallel, and they just keep running in parallel, but never really meet. On the one hand you have this jungle…
M: Jungle is a great image …
C: …and on the other hand, you have mono-crop palm trees. One appears man-made and the other is natural, the situation fully dual, and so it lends itself to this kind of classic environmentalist critique. Of course, you should not destroy the jungle for mono-cropping, and, anyway, almost nothing is worse than the damn palm trees. And then the problem is that it’s not – for once – the nasty white people that have really ‘done it’. It’s the nice, local people. According to this…
C: …you know, the indigenous, and perhaps animist, ‘relational people’, must be contrasted with the dualist Western people. So, you have that standard normative and profoundly binary view of the new animism debates, where the white modern reductive dualist will do all the bad things, but then ‘nature’ or the environment will be protected by the loving, caring, relational locals. And that scenography is immediately ruined in this chapter because the locals decided ‘well, sure there’s a trade-off here but we’re going to do it, it’s probably better for us’. Up go the palm trees. There are of course internal disagreements, and not everybody even sees it as a question of the ‘plantation versus a forest’, so you have a second contrast – very Bruce Albert and Davi Kopenawa – that raises the question of what is even the problem here? We know we can’t control the forest in any case, but we have some way of communicating with stuff in it, right? We know there are spirits, they build spirit houses, and we have some ways of getting in touch with them. The problem is, what are we going to do with this new palm tree quasi-forest? Probably it’s like a spirit graveyard, probably there’s nothing. But on the other hand, we don’t know. So the scenographies of thought are totally incompatible. It doesn’t have to do with palm trees or non-palm trees, or relational locals versus reductive Westerners, but it has everything to do with the inhabitation, or lack of habitation, of spirits. That’s cool. I really enjoyed that the text plays a double track, where on the one hand, the plantation versus non-plantation resembles the kind of discussion you find in Anna Tsing and others, who take very seriously certain scientific modes of describing forests and other places and try to engage these ideas in new ways. It’s like a new natural history, and it leads to questions about how to characterise and differentiate good and bad landscapes, and how they are inhabitable. But then, the chapter implicitly juxtaposes this type of approach with the completely different discussion of spirit cohabitation. That part originates in an Amazonian tradition – I’m thinking about Eduardo Viveiros de Castro and his colleagues – of perspectival forests, where the problems are entirely different. In this chapter, these incongruent forms are put right next to each other, which generates a very interesting double contrast for thinking about environmental alterities. The question then arises, of course, what are you going do with this scene of incommensurability and non-relation?
M: Yes, and where does the non-relation appear? Because I have a very hard time when what becomes the non-relational is a dualist relation or the absence of the ‘traditional’ relation –those are just different kinds of relation. The subject/object relation is also relational, right? So, when people talk about capitalism as non-relational, I have a huge problem. We started thinking critically about the subject/object binaries and then, I do not how it happened that we have ended up denying the relationality of subject/object rather than thinking that binary was not all that this relation could be, that it could also house complexities of its own. An analysis about relations between palm oil plantations and forest could, for example, highlight the trial of force between the (capitalist!) palm oil trees and the rest. For example, (and here I am just inventing a situation that is not in the chapter) plantations may effect an imposition of relations that makes impossible relations between human-person and tree-person, and this impossibility may occupy the forest even in the absence of deforestation. In that sense, deforestation would not be the absence of trees – of jungle, as Casper called it – but the absence of the forms of relations between human-persons and tree-persons. In that situation the force of the capitalist relation would have undone the possibility of symmetrical relations – if you want to call it something, I don’t have the word right now – but symmetrical relations between tree- persons and human-persons.
C: I agree. And even if something is non-relational, why should that worry or excite me? How would or should the recognition change my orientation?
M: What you are also pointing at Casper, the evaluation of the non-relational as bad and the relational as good, is important too. That is the point when the relational is transformed from an epistemic tool, or a tool of analysis, into an ethical condition to be desired. And that type of commentary happens frequently, whether implicitly or explicitly. I have dear friends who think like that too; they desire the relational because it is good. And that’s where we all become (laughs) positivists again: because then, the non-relational and the relational stop being analytical tools and become what is out there... But going back to the chapter: I liked that she opens it with one of her interlocutors being at home fighting the grass that might damage the plantation trees – not caring about the forest, but caring about the palm trees and their production, ‘for now I’m only at war with the grass’ – I loved that. It was as if he was mocking the anthropologist – not necessarily Krøijer, but any of us anthropologists, if we practise the ‘other’ and ‘us’ relation. I would also propose that this relation bothers him, and maybe that is why he repeats that he is at war only with the grass. This is also a relation; even if it cancels the possibility of relations (even his own relations) with forest tree-persons, killing the grass is a relation of care of the palm tree. Not a bad relation, not a good relation, although perhaps creating a non-relation with tree-persons – this guy is still relational.
A: I just want to explain that we actually asked our contributors to try to engage with this idea of the non-relational. The question was whether there is there any mileage in bringing a relational perspective together with a putatively non-relational one – with all the impossibilities and contradictions this implies? And that’s where our tabapot comes in, as it does not allow us to settle on one nor the other – it’s the movement between them that we are interested in. It would be good to maybe reflect on this in the second paper as well?
C: Sure. This is, in many ways, a very different piece. It is about thinking in forests, not like a forest, as for Eduardo Kohn. We are no longer in Ecuador but in Congo – if I remember correctly – situated amid scientists who are tracking troops of bonobos. And – in contrast with Matt Candea’s ethnography of scientists studying meerkats – a significant part of the interest this holds for Alcayna-Stevens is that the bonobos disappear into the forest all the time. It is really nice, very enjoyable – its mode of execution is quite far from what I could do, but I really enjoyed it. Imagine being in your laboratory, and the experimental subjects just vanish, get the hell out of there, and you have to spend half of your precious research time tracking them down. And of course, the bonobos are far more mobile and know the forest far better than you do, so it’s a big problem.
And so, in line with the anthropological conception of oneself as the instrument of knowledge, whether you like it or not you just cannot be a neutral, passive observer. You have got to get off your ass and move around in the jungle for large periods of time. And because you don’t know it so well, you’re basically located in a kind of twilight zone. Between your knowledge and ignorance, but also between activity and the passivity imposed on you by the bonobos, since you can’t find them. You are surrounded by foliage, inside what Alcayna-Stevens quotes Myers as calling a ‘lively sensorium’, which puts you on edge, perceptually and bodily. You get tired, yet you must stay keen and alert. She describes the state as being on edge, doing ‘edge work’ or ‘cusp work’, a very fine idea. Interestingly, the focus is hardly on what the scientists do when they find the bonobos – we actually know almost nothing about that. We hardly even know anything about what the forest looks or smells like, you have to imagine it yourself. And yet, it’s a very lively description of the feelings one must have fumbling around after vanished bonobos in a dense forest. On the one hand, you are upset about it, but on the other hand it is also exciting. To revive an old term, it is a liminal space; you’re not really doing anything and yet at the same time you are doing everything. Your mind is roaming freely, and you are trying to focus. It is a scene of intensity. It evokes patterns emerging as scientists wander the jungle, trying to create relations with bonobos that continuously elude them. But meanwhile, having to negotiate relations with all kinds of other entities – insects, mud, or snakes, and getting exhausted or perhaps sick.
Now, I suppose one could also view the chapter as grappling with the relational and the non-relational, or even, given a certain interpretation, the non-relational, per se. So, one might observe that scientists are spending an awful lot of time not actually making any relations with the bonobos. The bonobos are doing their own thing, and meanwhile scientists are in fact continuously detaching from an enormous number of relations with various parts of the forest in order to try to trace them. From this point of view – and this is with a nod to Antonia’s ‘data as relation and non-relation’ – the ethnographic scene is paradoxically full of relations that are continuously severed. This is part of a deeply Strathernian mode of thinking relations. For me, the problem with ‘non-relation’ has more to do with the object-oriented ontology of people like Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, and I think there is some confusion in the introduction because these versions are not sufficiently differentiated.
C: For the object-oriented ontologists of the world, of course, the big error of anthropology and indeed all human sciences since Kant, is that they stopped believing in their ability to deal with things in themselves, or that there even are things in themselves. So, they affirm that the recognition of such things is in fact very important, because they are always there, even if inherently withdrawn from, or in excess of, relationality. But philosophically pertinent as the point may be, as soon as you have scientists frantically running around in the forest in search of missing bonobos, it just doesn’t matter very much because the forest in fact interferes ‘relationally’ with you at every point…
C: …Whether the entities are in some sense truly withdrawn, disengaged and beyond correlation with anything in human experience is, anthropologically speaking, pretty much a moot point. It may be that climate change is a withdrawn ‘hyperobject’, for example, but only philosophically speaking. In any particular environmental context it has immediate relational and experiential dimensions. And that includes for scientists, whether they depend on satellite data, or whether they are chasing bonobos.
So, when Alcayna-Stevens is playing with these ideas it has very little to do with the object-oriented sense of non-relationality. It is much more like what you described, Marisol, where everything is a relation and a non-relation at the same time. Indeed, everything sounds Derridean, once again, doesn’t it? Things will not stop being non-relational at the same time as they remain relational. You are severed from the bonobos, in the same go as you connect with them, like you are severed from your lover in the same moment as you are connected with them. Nothing is either purely relational or non-relational, because everything happens in some other weird topology. Alcayna-Stevens, I think, uses the term ‘interstices’, doesn’t she? Like patterned ‘gaps’ and Strathernian fractals, this notion is very useful for thinking about these patterns of relations and non-relations. Again, perhaps we are not too far from the tabapot.
M: I also liked the way the chapter is written. I was very attracted to the way she invents the scientist as a knowledge chaser. This person is chasing knowledge, she is after the bonobos because she wants to know, she wants to know, she wants to know. She relentlessly chases her object of knowledge and is packed with gadgets to allow her to capture knowledge. The pen, the pencil, the backpack, everything... ‘Do I have my notebook? Yes, do I have my second notebook?’ All her tools are tools to capture knowledge, but knowledge escapes and keeps escaping. At the same time, she is surrounded by conditions that are intriguing to her, but she is not interested in those, even though they also present a knowledge challenge in a different way. She relates to those, but she’s focused on her object of knowledge, which she keeps chasing. I found that figure extremely intriguing, along with the figure of the writer, or more precisely of the author as both the scientist and the writer of the chapter. Moving between them allows her to be both the scientist that chases knowledge and the writer that reflects on chasing knowledge. As the author looks at the chaser of knowledge and describes what she does, she releases what the scientist cannot capture: knowledge. I really liked that movement as an analytical method that yields through writing what it is after. The shift she achieved, the shift that Cristóbal and Antonia talk about in the introduction, as a method yields knowledge, and it is also a pleasant story achieved through good writing. A pleasant story that makes us know in a different way, in a way that is exacting of the inclination to think through engaging with fun reading. I feel that you, Casper, are saying something similar when you say, ‘this is not the kind of writing that I would do, but I learned a lot through this’.
C: That’s true (laughs).
Cristóbal: I have the feeling that these three conceptual devices, or themes of concern we had in our introduction – the first, limits; the second, heterogeneities; and finally, the tabapot –, I have the impression that in our conversation today you’re somehow bringing the tabapot into the second kind of alterity, ‘heterogeneities’. It looks like now, in this conversation, we could work with two sections in the introduction, we have limits and heterogeneities, and within heterogeneities we have the tabapot. That’s my feeling in this conversation. And what we were trying to do in the introduction is to put the tabapot in a third place, because we were also trying to think about how to encourage collaboration among scholars and the way we can make contrasts between different (epistemic?) understandings of politics, relationality, and its limits. In this respect it’s interesting to note – this is a footnote – that every time you mentioned the tabapot, Marisol, you needed your hands to draw circles that allowed you to talk about this shift. And you as well, Casper – you were making other kinds of gestures with your hands, as if there was something, Derridean perhaps, you cannot reach. The shift itself is beyond any kind of epistemic possibility of being embraced or fully grasped, but there is a reason why we didn’t put that in the heterogeneities section. There is an implicit concern in the book about how we think collaboration is not happening between scholars talking about limits and others talking about heterogeneities, and thus, building a dialectic between these domains. So, if we think seriously about the very force of the tabapot, do you both think it has any potentiality for rethinking politics and collaboration? Marisol, you made a contrast between what we do in academia and what we do at the limits of academia, how we engage in a kind of politics that goes beyond academia. Do you think that the tabapot can do something new? Or do we just need to embrace it as if it were a method of this ungraspable movement that we cannot fully embrace?
M: I think it’s very difficult for me to think tabapot other than analytically – it is hard for me to practise tabapot, and even harder to do it politically. Perhaps I am being a realist – or am I? But I feel that there’s a divorce, between the easiness that the tabapot offers to my analysis – it allows many thought possibilities, an important movement between possibilities – but it’s harder for me to want to use tabapot to think and do politics – both practices: not only thinking politics but also doing politics. Not because it’s impossible, but because what makes me feel the difficulty, and eventually makes me think about doing tabapot as impossible, is the ‘stuff’ that makes politics, its temporality for example: the now-ness that the need to act politically imposes, and that this now-ness prevents all shifts – which is precisely what the tabapot offers to thought. So, perhaps if we want to think about politics, we have to displace its demand of now-ness, suspend it as it were, to imagine politics (its thinking-doing) in a very longue durée that would allow us to open up politics to something like alterities, to possibilities that relate to the now-ness of – sorry I have to say it once again – not only. That longue durée would be very dense and unsmooth because it would also be emplaced, and perhaps ‘change’ would not be one of its main analytical motifs. The difficulty of coupling tabapot and politics is the quality of each of their temporalities: the stuff that makes the former enables agile shifting; its now-ness is dynamically acquired in that shift – I think that is not the case with politics. But of course, it depends on who is talking about politics and what we are talking about when we use that word. I can easily imagine a conversation about tabapot among academics talking political analysis – even if they are as different as Marxists or object-oriented ontologists. It would be a rough conversation, but it is not hard to imagine that conversation. However, when I think about the recognised politics that make our worlds (formal or informal, organised or not, against the state or by the state) and my (or our) conceptual thinking about politics, I feel a gap between both practices. The gap (which undoubtedly has to do with the now-ness of politics) is so tangible that I even bifurcate my practice into two kinds of activities. The one where I work with my politician friends and strategise concrete actions with them regarding allegedly pressing problems; and the other one – the politics that we are allowed to think when we suspend the urgency and imagine possibilities for a world that is not yet. So, how do we align thinking the world that’s not yet, with political action in the world that is? I know it is doable, but it requires very specific circumstances, usually absent. That absence generates the question I just made and that I want to live as a problem that prevents complacency with my bifurcation of both practices. And that is probably why I search for thought partnerships with people like Mariano and Nazario Turpo or Davi Kopenawa – because, their worlds are, even against the history that decreed their impossibility. Through that mode of being (one that is but that cannot be) they participate in making worlds that are not yet, and clear space for thought. Those worlds practise a temporality that can ignore the urgency of politics, while also participating in this urgency, of course. Instead, the world of my friends from Lima is occupied by the temporality that makes those urgencies; more importantly (I think) it does not know how to not be. Maybe that is why my friends (and I) cannot dispel urgencies: would we risk not being? I think that that this politics requires not slowing down. So, ‘slow down thinking’ (the refrain that I use to think) doesn’t work – over and over again, it does not work. And this is extremely depressing; the impossibility has to be slowed down or displaced. Caveat: when I say ‘displace’ – I have said it more than once now – I am conjuring Strathern, or my interpretation of her: not replace, but suspend the condition – in this case impossibility – or push it from centre-stage, make it be not the only option. So… perhaps instead of bifurcating my practice, I could practice tabapot through a constant shift between thinking a politics that is not yet and participating in the politics that wants to change the world that is. Thus, the tabapot would be both concept and practice, and I would not live in the divorce between these two possibilities. Moving between both in a way that also connects, without that connection undoing the separation and thus maintaining the need to shift. At this point I might have resolved the bifurcation, but the other side of the problem remains: how to lure my politician friends to seriously think without the pressure of the world that is? How to lure them to suspend the urges of this world and think worlds that are not yet and, of course, those that are in spite of their historically decreed impossibility? Perhaps if they think the latter, they may think their/our own ‘not yet?’
C: What Marisol just said resonated with the point in the introduction where the editors say something like ‘maybe it sounds counterintuitive, but really what is most important right now is slowing down our critical thoughts’, and that’s obviously with a view to opening up to new concepts, politics or practices, and... how could you disagree? There are, after all, lots of quick and easy analyses of everything, so you must slow down. But at the same time, the invocation of slowness – often via Stengers – is also driving me a bit crazy, because evidently for many purposes you should not slow down at all. In fact, you have to speed up to try to prevent all kinds of horrors even though you can’t be sure what you are doing. Since we are talking about environmental alterities, it should be obvious that there are different temporalities. Why would we think that slowness is the one guiding value? Of course, politics has different contexts, and therefore different speeds, different types of urgency and different figures for opening thought and action. I don’t think you need tabapot to impeach Donald Trump, and it needs to speed up.
M: (laughs very hard) I think you do!
C: Maybe that is, after all, the missing piece! (laughs). But anyway, there are many different contexts for thinking and action, and that goes for forests too, right? I mean, there are questions about indigenous lands within what are now nation states, questions about big shady logging operations; there’s questions of the knowledge practices of forestry, and of collaborations and battles across the planet…
M: Yes, of course, Casper, of course. But the problem is that many different kinds of politics are not, also.
C: Yeah, but I think that is a really good question, right? The extent to which it is and is not, and how to ‘measure’ that in some sense, right? Marisol, I think we’ve talked about that before in terms of John Law’s argument about the ‘one-world world’. About the extent to which that characterisation of one single, massive division is helpful or not. And I think it is, mainly, not. In contrast, Stengers’ insistence that ‘we have to realise we are already quite different from what we think we are’ is something I find extremely appealing, because it enables you to see that there are alterities even close to hand, and there are always many more things going on than you think.
M: Yes, I think you are right, and I think that we should end on the point that what we have to do is assert rather than propose – or propose assertively – that politics is not only what ‘we’ recognise as such. That many political practices are without recognition and do not even need recognition – they alter cognition. What I would change in what you said is the idea that there are different urgencies of different politics; I would say something like ‘Now our proposals have to go beyond the assertion of ontological politics. Ontological politics are. Period’. How do we practise political ontology publicly? How do we make a public for politics that are beyond recognition? There are people who are making that politics … and that may make us realise that ‘we are already quite different than what we think we are’ – like the palm trees that are both like the forest trees and not.
C: This is perhaps a complementary point, but one of the things that strikes me – coming out of STS – is that forests are full of all kinds of stuff not touched upon in these chapters. This is not a criticism, because obviously nobody can cover everything, but it is nevertheless an observation. Forestry is a data science these days. You know stuff about forests from satellites and advanced technological equipment, as Antonia has written about. Acquiring knowledge about forests depends on distributed knowledge infrastructures. There are many people making forest knowledge in many, many other ways than searching for bonobos. And the ability to roam the forests in search of monkeys in the first place is enabled by vast transport, financial and scientific networks and infrastructures that reach into the world’s forests without always being immediately visible there. Conversely, the tentacles of palm plantations like the one described by Krøijer, stretch outwards in many directions. This sense of extended networks in and out of forests is missing in both chapters. Which is really a political issue too. Because if you ask how new ‘problematic elements’ enter places like the Amazon, the answer is that they do so via all kinds of infrastructural work.
Often, this does not take the form of high-level ontological politics of the kind you [Marisol] have analysed: should earth-beings be taken seriously or relegated to the status of primitive superstition – but rather as the banal ontological politics of infrastructure: ‘are we going to build an extra stretch of road here? Are we going to allow the foreigners to cut this much further into our land?’ This is ontological politics as silent infrastructural transformation. It is a realm of ontological politics that is often under the radar. It matters a great deal, but not in the same way as the struggles with earth-beings. So, I can’t help thinking it would have been nice to include a third paper with an STS angle, articulating the infrastructures that produce forests as spaces of intervention and knowledge making. And I think that’s not detached from the questions of political ontology that you raise either. But I guess we will have to save that for another time…
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