Environmental infrastructural alterities and communicative possibilities
A conversation between Penny Harvey and Stefan Helmreich
As a way to generate further reflections on the ideas proposed in Course’s and Pauwelussen’s chapters, but also seeking to avoid formats that might summarise or resolve the questions the chapters pose, we invited Penny Harvey and Stefan Helmreich 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.
By considering the sea as a domain that exceeds human engagements, in what follows Harvey and Helmreich consider to what extent the sea portrayed in the previous chapters is a ‘domestic sea’, very close to land and the human engagements this vicinity affords; a sea that is thought and enacted through idioms of kinship and certain kind of reciprocity between humans and the environment. Moreover, and by critically thinking about the limits and possibilities the idiom of figure-ground affords as an analytical solution for engagements between humans and non-humans, Harvey and Helmreich explore how the concept of environmental alterities, (and the question of what comes after after-nature), can do interesting work if we put it in conversation with environmental infrastructures, or infra-natures. This move complements the domesticity of the sea discussed in the chapters and brings to the fore the political relevance of thinking about the plastic sea, radioactive oceans or our nuclear environments as historical outcomes producing unforeseen alterities that exceed and will survive human relationalities.
Stefan: I am interested in the question posed in this book’s introduction: ‘what comes after after-nature?’ It seems to me that there are at least two versions of ‘after-nature’ we would want to consider in pondering the question. Both are genres that Marilyn Strathern alerted us to back in 1992, in her book, After Nature. First is nature as a kind of aspirational form, something to take after. Another is a version that poses nature as something to be superseded or gone beyond. What comes after those after-natures? Well, not following nature as a model. But/and also not accepting that there are easy ways out of the cosmological histories we (or some of us, with the folk category ‘nature’) inherit.
It might be useful to try an additional angle into the question, to consider a classical (and ordinal) approach to genres of nature – to ask after first nature, second nature and third nature. What might it mean to be ‘after’ those – and then to be after those thoses?
First nature was and is that mythic nature understood as unmediated by human knowledge projects. Second nature – theorised by Cicero, Marx, Lukács, Adorno and any number of others – is cultural production that is reified as taking after nature or as human enterprise built upon nature. Culture as second nature. In After Nature, Strathern was pointing in part to the way nature has been taken as a foundation for warranting, or legitimising, or rationalising, human enterprise. But she was also pointing to the fact that recognising that function actually makes the very idea of ‘nature’ as a cultural category explicit. After that, it’s hard to have any sense of nature as outside history or as simply the frame that makes culture the natural condition proper to humanity. What comes after after-nature? Perhaps a politics of nature. Or maybe a jumping ship to the word environment?
But to keep counting: there’s also the idea of third nature. David McDermott Hughes published a piece in Cultural Anthropology several years ago called ‘Third nature: Making space and time in the Great Limpopo Conservation Area’ ; for him, third nature named bureaucratic articulations of nature as potential, speculative, conditional biodiversity. In the recent work of Anna Tsing, third nature has come rather to name contaminated diversity, to point to the organic and material substances that now appear as and in the ruins of capitalism. Jedediah Purdy’s 2015 book, After Nature, is pointing to that third nature, though coming, I think from a different place than Tsing or Hughes, much less ethnographically particular, more willing to ratchet the story up to a big Anthropocene.
So, I think the ‘environmental alterities’ frame and phrase, and the query that animates it – namely what comes after after-nature – asks us to go back and name the histories that have given us ‘natures’ in the first place…
Penny: That’s great because I came to the same kind of space but from a slightly different angle: I also thought that the question of ‘what comes after after-nature?’ was key, and the thing that the two chapters we were asked to comment on were explicitly picking up on as their challenge. It’s a great question, and it made for a really interesting introductory essay that unravelled some very complex arguments, and then put them together again. I’m interested in how things get put together again. So, following the way the introduction is structured around the dynamic relationship between limits and heterogeneities, I found myself thinking about the different kinds of limits. One limit appears as the autonomous outside, all that is just simply there beyond our means of knowing – (‘our’ being a moot point but referring in some vague way to the reach of Western science), but also – which I think is different – beyond the possibility of human relationality, and thus beyond any kind of mutual experience. I’m particularly interested in the one-sided quest for knowledge of all that is beyond our current capacities of apprehension. ‘We’ might be out there prospecting and looking for all kinds of ways to extract value, even from the deepest parts of the ocean, but that doesn’t mean that the ocean is looking for us; so that notion of a reciprocal understanding is absolutely not there. That’s a limit. In the introduction there is a nice phrase about the limit being ‘beyond our ground’, independent of us, which could be another way of thinking about this lack of reciprocal interest. And then there’s also the question of the limits of sensory perception. Those limits connect to some things I wanted to talk about with regards to the chapters by Course and Pauwelussen, both of which draw on narrative and myth as a particular way into these otherwise inaccessible spaces.
So, that was my initial response to the idea of limits, but then the simultaneous presence of heterogenia produces a contrasting sense of expansive relationality that constantly multiplies itself, and it is in these contrasting ways of making difference that we might find new possibilities for thinking about the politics of coexistence, the possibility of articulating different terms of coexistence, the ‘making with’ idea. This idea is recognisable in the contemporary focus on relationality or the current preoccupation with thinking about what exists in the world and how it comes into being. These are preoccupations with a long history of anthropological concern. And I think that, in some sense, Strathern’s position grows out of that kind of space. I really liked the move in the introduction to think about ‘heterogeneous limits’, but the more I thought about it, the more I wondered: I completely get the figure/ground reversal and I think that the dynamic relationship between figure and ground offers an interesting starting point for analysing this relationship between limits and heterogenia – it’s an idea that Kregg Hetherington explores in his work on infrastructure which I have found very useful; but of course in a sense the possibility of figure/ground reversal also hinges on the possibility of relationality, a point that Strathern has explored in very creative ways. So I began to wonder about whether the notion of ‘heterogeneous limits’ requires an interdependence of some kind, and if that interdependence gets posited from the human point of view, do we then find that we have somehow erased the limits of the autonomous outside? And that got me thinking about the limits of this ‘heterogeneous limit’ – which starts to get very abstract and confusing, but which might perhaps be more interesting when we look at specific cases. When thinking about how limits and heterogeneities coexist, is it enough to talk through the idiom of figure/ground? Or is it possible that there might also be a politics of erasure in play? I think this possibility comes to the fore when we introduce the Anthropocene as a space of extinction as well as of new possibility.
So, I’m not sure – the concept or image of figure/ground maybe provides us with an analytical solution to how to think about or describe the relationship between limits and heterogenia, but I’m not sure how far it goes in offering the basis for an alternative practice with respect to how human beings engage the wider non-human environment. I was just listening to a really scary report on the radio about the ‘resources’ of the deep ocean – which I’m sure Stefan knows all about: apparently there are five times more precious metals in the deep ocean than under the existing land mass, and a huge number of species, including bacteria, living in the vents of the deep-sea volcanoes, that could be used to cure all human illnesses. Two huge companies already have prospecting licenses to exploit this potential source of value. Faced with this kind of scenario I feel less sure about whether the figure/ground analytic is going to be powerful enough to provoke delay, or indeed where the politics of this approach might lie. But maybe it’s better to discuss this kind of thing through the examples.
S: Are you thinking about the figure/ground story as necessarily always implicating a human interpreter?
P: I suppose so, yes. I feel that this relationship between limits and heterogenia does posit a human interlocutor. The limits are the limits of the human, and the heterogenia are the various ways in which the human might fold into all kinds of diverse relationalities which extend well beyond the human. So, I suppose I do read it like that, I don’t know if that was the intention.
S: I think I read it like that too. I do struggle with attempts to get beyond human relationality in ethnographic representation. I like Timothy Morton’s notion of hyperobjects – those objects or processes too big to get our heads around, like plutonium and its long, long life – but there’s still a part of me that wants to say, ‘well, understanding such things inevitably gets us back to questions of how we represent them!’ There’s that really interesting conversation in the ‘limits’ section of the book’s introduction about the differences and similarities between what Nigel Clark and Kathryn Yusoff are up to. Clark is trying to consider some kind of beyond-human-relationality and (but?) finds that scientific language is a satisfactory tool for articulating that consideration. As somebody who thinks in STS and history of science ways, I’m sceptical of taking on scientific terminology without qualifying or historicising it. For the same reasons, I’m also unconvinced by new materialisms when they are articulated – as in Diana Coole and Samantha Frost’s framing in New Materialisms – in terms that sound like they come from nineteenth-century thermodynamics, that take that historical formation in the discipline of physics as disclosing the ontology of the world. I like Yusoff’s call to not settle the question.
P: I work on the nuclear at the moment, so I’m quite happy with the hyperobject, and the idea of something absolutely beyond the human capacity to address, and yet we have no option but to address it. So, there is an absolute limit and at the same time a need to address that limit in ways that might bring to the fore, or figure, notions of relational possibility. But then we might want to draw on the notion of environmental alterities to posit other imaginings. I like the idea that came up in the chapters, that we might use environmental alterities as theoretical devices or as conceptual or theoretical machines. I still feel this space of the inaccessible has to be kept in mind (which as you say requires some form of representational practice), and thus to some extent frames the struggle to act in meaningful ways. As I watch the nuclear industry I’m always intrigued by how quite uncontroversial, established nuclear science is often sidelined in debates about the politics of nuclear power, to the extent that ‘science’ doesn’t figure in conversations. I felt the spirit of the introduction was that you could actually hold the Nigel Clark-type position at the same time as acknowledging that that wasn’t going to be the only or even the most relevant possibility.
S: There’s also the question of the affective charge of the hyperobject, and how much of the notion of the hyperobject is bound up with it being scary.
S: Is the hyperobject a genre of the sublime? If that’s the case, then there’s this affective charge to it is still very much about human relationality – even if it’s about the impossibility or difficulty of representation.
P: Yes, I really agree with that. I think that’s exactly it: the space is produced by the human. I’m always fascinated by how the nuclear rushes to the top of the chart table of scariness while there are many other things that are equally destructive. The environmental effects of mining, for example, don’t seem to produce the same affective force as the spectre of nuclear accidents – despite the tangible and ongoing damage produced by routine, non-accidental operations! So yes, in that sense I totally agree that the affective charge is historically and culturally specific. And yet, we could all drop dead tomorrow, and these material forces would still exist, so the notion of a beyond or an autonomous outside remains important even as we recognise that awareness of the relevance of such forces can only be produced through human concern, fear or even excitement. And this raises another question about what provokes concern, fear or excitement. I’m living now in a community right on the edge of a nuclear site, and on the whole people show very little concern and no fear of the nuclear materials on their doorsteps. When then, are concerns provoked, how do they come to appear and disappear? The answers to these questions of course always register both contingency and specificity – and that’s where an ethnographic (and historical) mode of enquiry becomes so important to see when and how things get configured as problems, and to follow the kinds of things that appear and disappear over time and in different contexts. So, I guess I don’t have that much trouble in holding the limit and the heterogeneity together at the same time – the challenge is not to collapse them.
S: That’s interesting about the alterity that continues to exist, because it seems – well, it’s different than the sort of alterity that Michael Taussig wrote about in Mimesis and Alterity where it’s always about a kind of cultural...
S: A projection, yes. And a relationality within structures of social inequality – hierarchies, for example, between self and Other. The Other becomes the surrogate self. The subaltern speaks, but only in the language of the orienting self. It occurs to me that the word ‘alterities’ should never leave out those questions of inequality. I also think of Michelle Murphy’s recent work on what she calls ‘alter life’, – life in the wake of toxic dosage, poisoned land, poisoned bodies. ‘Alter life’ might suggest that we think, too, about alter nature. I wonder: is environmental alterity a synonym for Murphy’s ‘alter life’?
P: I read ‘environmental’ as a medium of life, in the way that John Durham Peters talks about elemental media. ‘Nature’ does carry all these ideas; as you were laying out before, there are at least three dominant ‘nature’ concepts in circulation. When you were talking about the idea of alter life, I began to wonder about toxic thrivings as being not only after nature, but also as pre-human – if we think about environmental histories and all the ecological happenings that shaped the planet before human life took over.
P: The wipe-outs and things that happened before humans ever even appeared on the scene. The deathly antagonisms, if you like, of which the story of evolution is also an example. I always think ‘well, ok we blow ourselves out with a nuclear bomb, it’s not necessarily the end of the planet’. There are many possible and plausible after-human thrivings – some of which come into view in the wake of human destruction. And so, in that sense, I think all these scenarios are quite thinkable without the human, except obviously we wouldn’t think them because...Why would we?
S: Right. At the same time that it’s interesting to think about the historical production of those different kinds of worlds without humans (which would also be worlds without some other species, like variously domesticated organisms and other entities that have adapted or exapted around hominin being). I’m now thinking back to what Donna Haraway says in Modest Witness, about the transuranic elements and the production of the Periodic Table, which offered up these empty spaces that later got filled with things like plutonium – which was posited as possible prior to it being wizarded up by human enterprise. And so, the world after humans – which will come – has plutonium in it in a way that the world without humans, before humans, didn’t. And so, there’s this interesting question of how to think about the world after humanity as still inheriting, for example, nuclear humanity’s history.
P: Yes, I think it is really important.
S: And so, thinking too about limits as limits that unfold within history … The limits during the Jurassic are not the same as the limits during the Holocene…
P: Yeah, and I guess that’s part of the work that Anthropocene tries to do...
S: Right! Exactly.
P: To suggest that we produce new limits now.
P: And I suppose one of those limits is this one very specific form of ‘after nature’ that is nature destroyed, and the lack of possibility of a thriving biodiverse world that the humans are destroying.
S: Yeah, and that’s where it may be generative to bring together heterogeneity and limits. Because that section of the introduction about heterogeneity points to all of those historically produced, historically various arrivals at limits, from Donna Haraway’s Chthulucene to Marisol de la Cadena’s Anthropo-not-seen. And now I’m thinking of a piece I just read by Karen Barad about nuclear waste in the Marshall Islands and the idea that the end of the world has already happened in many different ways for many different people, at different speeds. I think that the notion of heterogeneous limits is a compelling way of actually pointing to history, to how various limits have already been arrived at. 1945 is one marker…
P: Yeah. So, I guess that in a way what you are saying connects to my starting point, which was to think about how this heterogeneous limit does depend on the possibility of relations, so that kinds of stands against...
P: ...the kind of thing that Karen Barad is talking about, in that sense.
P: Yeah, that kind of fits nicely.
S: I’m thinking too of various Indigenous articulations of environment and land that offer very heterogeneous apprehensions of when things happen, when the world ended, when the world might yet begin again. I’m thinking of the marine ecologist Max Liboiron and her lab in Canada working with plastic pollutants in First Nations and Indigenous ecologies. Liboiron, who locates herself as Michif (Métis)-settler, argues that pollution is colonialism. Colonial enterprise produces the idea that there are available sacrificial landscapes into which trash can be placed, thrown ‘away’. That then means that the experience of things like toxic leakage from plastics in the sea is totally part of a history of settler colonial dispossession. I think of that as one example of the kind of heterogeneity in environmental politics to which Antonia and Cristóbal are pointing.
P: I think that’s a good point… and we should talk about the sea.
S: Oh, yes, right.
P: You mention landscapes, but I was quite struck that Antonia and Cristóbal asked us to talk about the sea as a particular kind of environment and as a specific domain of coexistence. And given that I don’t work on the sea – although I do have one good story about the sea – I was struck by a sense that the sea, as it appears in the chapters by Course and by Pauwelussen is very domestic and close to land. It wasn’t like your sea [Stefan], and it wasn’t like the kind of sea that I worry about, the water that is dragged in and out of the cooling systems of coastal nuclear power stations, ‘sea’ that is close to land but where the speed and height of the tides and the relationships between marine life and toxicity produce the sea as both a limit and a relation. I was thinking particularly about plastic – and the notion of the limits posed by things that are inaccessible to the senses – stuff like microplastics or isotopes. I don’t know what you felt, but I found the sea in their chapters was quite domestic?
P: But there was also danger, and there were certainly important forms of life beyond the human and in many ways beyond human control – that was all perfectly clear. But the sea still felt very close to land, it felt like the sea of ‘land people’, despite the fact that they were fishermen. It wasn’t the sea of the deep-sea diver, it wasn’t the alien ocean, or sacrificial spaces which are sometimes deemed to be nowhere, when of course they are never nowhere.
S: I agree with that. The seas in both Course’s and Pauwelussen’s chapters are very domesticated. Each chapter is about a coastal place, a meeting place between land and sea, a site of encounter that is also a zone, for some, of homemaking. The ocean in these pieces is not simply a mirror – not simply a medium – that reflects landed social relations. It animates them. Given the kind of cross-species and cross-medium relations under discussion in both Course and Pauwelussen, I kept thinking of kinship diagrams. These sorts of mappings are usually rendered as rectilinear lines that tie together kin groups ‘across’ and ‘down’ generations. Reading Course and Pauwelussen, I kept imagining kinship diagrams taking the form of rectilinear lines that become refracted as they cross the water’s surface, as they move into that mirror space where they become angled and tangled – like seaweed. I was interested in Course’s reporting on Gaelic stories about family members entangled in seaweed, and in Pauwelussen’s recounting of crocodile and octopus kin stories in Indonesia. Crocodile-octopus twinship is both intimate and alien. It’s about family and consanguinity while simultaneously excessive to it. I agree that the ocean is quite domesticated in the cases treated in Course and Pauwelussen; it’s also interesting that one of the ways that happens is through the kinship imaginaries, the kinship practices, that organise this crossing over the surface.
P: Yes, and I was struck how in the two chapters, it happened in quite different ways in terms of this notion of what, or who captures whom? The seals get captured by humans and that sets off a fascinating account of the relationship between form and recognition. This connects back to the discussion of limits and heterogeneities, and the notion of alterity as a form of life that’s different from one’s own, and yet it is recognisable as such, and a relationship can be made on the basis of that recognition. But some life forms are not recognised as beings with whom one would or could have a relationship, let’s say, of care. And then in the case of the seals there is a narrative of capture, a sense of colonisation which dominates those narratives, in the way that the humans keep the clothes of the seals, and thereby prevent them from re-assuming the form in which they can thrive, or even take control. The relationship rests on that sense of capture, which might nevertheless linger on and make other associations, so relations can form, but capture is somehow at the heart of it. Although, I like the fact that there’s also the curiosity. I’m very intrigued by the fact that these seals are interested in humans. So, they’re popping up, having a look, and laying themselves open to capture. While with the octopus and the crocodile, it is the other way around, it seems to me: that they impose themselves more literally upon the body of the human and in various ways, when they turn up and repossess the – their – human body.
So, I quite like that play between the two case studies. There is kinship in the twinning and definitely a kind of mutual interest, but what I think is really interesting to think about is whether the mutual recognition is primarily about a communicative possibility or whether it’s about the right to life. Pauwelussen’s chapter seems to be built around this sense of communicative possibility, but the question of who dictates the terms of that communication is quite different from Course’s discussion of the human/seal interactions. Environmental politics is often not particularly concerned with communicative possibility, it’s about the kind of recognition that underpins a sense of the right to life. I was trying to think of it in terms of the difference between an acknowledgment of interdependence, or its denial, and the sense that human thriving relies on an acknowledgment of interdependence, and the fear that denial is going to catapult us into the worst extremes of the Anthropocene. But then there is also this recognition of communicative possibility, which is what is often most fascinating to people. What kind of communication is possible between species and across alterity? And that seems to be quite a different kind of thing – and kinship idioms play on that question, I think – somehow it’s not just about the right to life, it’s about communicative possibility.
S: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I wonder then if the concept of humble anthropocentrism that Course proposes, kind of actually answers that. I wasn’t fully convinced that the anthropocentrism was scaled down or innocent...
P: No. I feel that could only work if you assumed an environment of mutual interest, which isn’t usually assumed. So, the fishermen can assume it to a certain point, because they don’t want their fish stock to disappear, and they realise they have a vulnerability to the sea. The Indonesian case felt different: there the mutual interest was on terms that the humans couldn’t necessarily understand.
P: And these twins turn up in your body.
S: Right, right.
P: It’s initiated by the non-human twin, that’s what I thought was really different between the two examples; it was quite fascinating actually, and it seemed what was being suggested was a different theory of how humans might consider their place in the world, and what it meant to be human.
P: And how do they then mobilise that possibility? It goes back to my original question of what you actually do with that awareness, in relation to the kind of threat that gets posed by the other models...
S: The threat posed by the other models?
P: Well, the threat posed by this idea that you may or may not recognise interdependence. Because the Indonesians do posit this idea that connects to Viveiros de Castro’s discussion of Amerindian commitment to the possibility of a common humanity; there’s some sense that things are connected in that way through ideas of something which humans call human, but which would fit with what Course was talking about, as a kind of condition of moral possibilities, set against this idea of whether you recognise the interdependence of things that don’t necessarily appear to have that connection at all. I think that the analytical separation of limits and of heterogenia in the introduction helps to think about that kind of complication, and the two chapters demonstrate that limits and heterogenia can come together in quite different ways.
S: Yes. It’s useful to multiply the kinds of kinship being imagined here, now having brought in the Viveiros de Castro story. In the Gaelic case, the kinship is very much about lineage and genealogy, whereas, with the Indonesian case, it’s much more about incorporation and feeding and those kinds of lateral productions of relationality that aren’t only about the heteronormative, patriarchal, patrilineal family.
S: Which so much of the selkie story is...
P: Yes, definitely.
S: I just read a science-fiction book by someone called Becky Chambers. It’s a book called To Be Taught, If Fortunate and it’s about exobiologists travelling to other planets, who, in order to accommodate themselves to these other worlds, engage in a practice that they call ‘somaforming’. Rather than terraforming and making the environments like Earth, they undergo treatments in which their bodies are transformed to fit within the ecologies that they’re going to be examining. I think Chambers means to create a frame for humble anthropocentrism in the way that Course writes about. And it is all about what you’re talking about, Penny, this communicative possibility that permits going elsewhere but that also always needs to somaform. And I kept thinking of the cases in these two chapters as kinds of amphibious multispecies somaforming. But then I also do wonder to what extent such somaforming is still on some people’s terms rather than others’. I fall back into the old Taussig mimesis and alterity question, thinking that the kind of alterity that seems to be at stake here is one in which mimicry ultimately secures the centring of the person doing the mimicking.
P: Yes, but it makes me think of your deep-sea scientists actually. They kind of somaform themselves through their technology, they produce environments, their bodies, they become part of these things that can then do something that nobody can do without their casings...
P: So, in that sense it feels like a colonial move to get right down there to the deep ocean and find out what’s there so you can take it away. Whereas the octopus is different, in the way they move into the body of another who is also not other, this suggests a different form of somaforming, because the twins are a part and parcel of each other, and they have to find ways to mutate that are not predatory. Maybe that is what is surprising to me, coming from an Andeanist background where beings constantly shape-shift and you can’t trust the external form of anything or anybody, because that’s the least trustworthy thing. But the transformations are always predatory, so it’s always about stealing and killing and getting life force out of another body, as something for your own end. While in this Indonesian case, there’s a kind of mutuality to it that’s not under control of the humans, which makes it quite interesting – it happens to people. Yet at the same time it doesn’t seem to damage them unless they make the mistake of not attending to what’s going on.
S: Right. I mean, the language that Pauwelussen uses – but I guess is also in circulation among the people she’s talking to – is the language of twinning and twinship. So, going back to your observation about domestication, does twinship keep that alterity legible?
P: I suppose there was that sense that you never quite know your twin.
S: Right! Wow.
P: So that the twin is you, but not you, it has that kind of ‘but not only’ you, in Marisol’s terms. It kind of is you, but isn’t.
P: Because there’s also a sense that if you don’t acknowledge your twin, then that could destroy you in some way or other. In both of the chapters there’s a sudden moment where the absolute force of the sea as complete limit in terms of this autonomous outside does appear; it’s kind of lurking in the background, and so the focus ethnographically is on the relations, but the limit on the relation also exists as a threat, I feel, in both of these pieces.
S: That’s interesting to put back into dialogue with limits and heterogeneity: twin and then this kind of outside...
P: This twin that isn’t you, so it’s not under your control – that’s how I was reading it – so that you can kind of seduce it – but I could be just laying the Andean stuff on top of this because this is how they deal with these kinds of issues there – you can treat other kinds of being well, but you can never be sure that you actually really have treated them well. If you do your utmost then things should work out ok, but when you don’t – or worse, should you deliberately disrespect – then you’ve had it, you know, because there’s this whole other force that’s not you, and could never be you because then you become simply human and this other stuff isn’t – so I wonder whether this kind of partial twinning or...
S: Is that a tarrying with limits then? I guess?
P: Yeah, I’m wondering, there is a limit to what twinship is, the limit to the humanity of twinship, let’s say. Because the human doesn’t become octopus or crocodile, they’re quite uneven relationships, I think in both cases. That’s why I started, I didn’t say so clearly, but I feel the seals are at a bit of a disadvantage… but somehow in Indonesia, the humans seem to be at a disadvantage, in terms of where the power lies. And in the Andes, it’s definitely the case that, in this very sentient environment that requires a lot of care, humans can definitely damage the other-than-human beings, but at the same time humans are ultimately more vulnerable, more likely to be wiped out, this kind of apocalyptic thought is very strong there.
Antonia: One of the things that we did want to get around to talking about, if possible, was something, Penny, that you started with, which was the extent to which this kind of thinking does or doesn’t have a political element to it, and the extent to which this kind of slow thought and slow thinking that we’re proposing here, that kind of figure/ground conceptual choreography, is up to the task. And the question that that begs is, what is the task? We’re proposing this in a highly charged context of environmental politics that has only accelerated since the time that we first started writing this. So, we’re interested in people’s reflections on the extent to which this kind of conceptual work is or isn’t political, and in what sense it is political, and what kind of politics it might speak of or speak to. Getting together a whole lot of people to talk about the everyday alterity of the environment in a time of urgent crisis, you know... and this is a broader question for academics, I think.
S: Right. Well, I think there’s the calling attention to a moment of crisis but also the recognition that there have been many moments of crisis. This is maybe where the analytic of heterogeneity seems super useful – calling attention to the ways in which the world has already ended, as a way of attuning to environmental politics. So that it’s not that suddenly there’s THE Anthropocene and everything has changed, but rather that there are longer histories of dispossession, of radioactive colonialism, of the Plantationocene, of all of this – and all of these stories that need to constantly be kept visible and constantly remembered.
P: I think something else on that question I wanted to pick up on was this: we’ve kind of talked about it, but instead of talking about the sea as being domestic, I was also thinking about how the sea is home, the ‘sea home’ to the seals and the octopuses, but also to the fisherman in a kind of a way, and I was thinking about this relationship between home and displacement because that seems to be a massive human crisis, which is part of the problem with the Anthropocene. There is a massive displacement of humans, the millions of people on the planet who have no home, so the whole notion of the home, and what happens when the home is taken away or destroyed. And there’s also this notion of human invasion and colonisation, all these histories of how the colonising impulse places the limits on who has a home and what kind of home gets attended to.
All these questions that we’ve already discussed, of who or what will thrive, the sort of thrivings of non-humans versus thrivings of humans – most of our concerns are about human thriving. But in fact, our concerns have become about a very limited number of humans busy thriving away, while most humans are displaced. So, I think there is a way in which these questions do raise this as something to think about… I can quickly give you my one example of thinking with the sea, that is really to do with this relationship between species or populations and living beings. The nuclear industry is very sensitive to issues of environmental impact, as are its critics. The particular case I’m referring to arose with respect to the humongous amount of water that is sucked out of the sea, every single hour of the day. These water-cooling systems kill tons of fish. I recently began to follow the case of an energy company that had promised to install acoustic fish deterrents, a specific infrastructure of environmental protection designed to scare fish away from the inlet tunnels. What I found interesting in the light of our current discussion was that these infrastructures could be seen as a kind of place-making technology – enabling fish to remain at home in an environment that was otherwise being made deeply alien to them.
But in the move from the design to the construction process, the company decided that maybe these deterrents were not going to work after all. To drop the idea they had to consult with the public, and demonstrate why they had changed their minds. All kinds of things then came into view. The complexity of this specific estuary – the strengths of the tides, the dangers to those who would have to install and maintain the systems, the complexity of the ecosystems, the many different kinds of fish – fish that can hear, fish that can’t hear, big fish, little fish, fish that would never get sucked in anyway, and fish that would get sucked in even if the deterrent was installed. In the end the argument rested on the claim that the fish in question are not in danger, there is no need for these measures because the affected fish are not of ‘endangered’ species. They’re only in danger as individuals and, do we care about individuals? I am fascinated by the concerns that start to appear when the company start messing with the proposed infrastructures of protection. And I began to think about this, about what these human interventions actually mean in relation to whether you are trying to design an environment that in some way is going to maximise a particular possibility, and how at the same time every design is also an improvisation, so everything is both designed and improvised. It’s experimental in the one sense of being very controlled, and in the other sense of being experimental in the sense of ‘well it’s a bit open ended, we’ll see where it goes’.
So, I was thinking about the relations that come to the fore when you apply this frame of heterogeneous limits. What limits are in play? What are the limits between species? And between lived lives, whether of fish, or of fishermen, or of nuclear industrialists or whoever? And then also what multiplies in that space? When you start to think about that, you get this massive multiplication which does, I think, pose serious political questions about which fish, or which thrivings we care about, and how we balance energy production against the life of specific fish, or the lives of particular fish species versus our own species. And as the engineers try to work out if there is an optimal way to combine sound and light to scare away particular fish, we find ourselves at the limits of the sensible, with fish that cannot hear, and with humans who cannot know what else they are affecting as they set out to protect fish, either as species or as living beings. Might you kill some other species that you haven’t even bothered to think about by interfering with the ecologies of predators and prey, for example? So that kind of multiplication of the field of intervention then brings up all this stuff about the logics of what kind of care is actually being posited here and how you limit the intervention. Does the political require you to actually limit something in order to know what are you being political about?
I think the example does actually raise loads of interesting questions, but I don’t think it gives an easy answer, but maybe that doesn’t matter – maybe it’s opening new fields of enquiry that people should stay attentive to. I’m constantly trying to think about this relationship between the engineered solution, the conscious intervention, and the unconscious effect or the kind of fortuitous outcome that you may or may not be attentive to.
S: And the openings and closings that infrastructures are for, because while they do offer certain kinds of openings, they also offer closings. So now I’m thinking back to a piece that Corsín-Jiménez and Willerslev wrote about limits. I pulled out a quotation from them, about limits: ‘at the moment of their conceptual limitation, concepts capture their own shadow and become something other than what they are’. They’re talking about different modes of subsistence, and the concept of a particular kind of hunting, or a particular kind of gathering – when it’s pushed to its limit it becomes something other than what it is. Which is what I’m hearing you say, Penny, with respect to these kinds of acoustic infrastructures: when they’re pushed to their limit, they start to become something other and open up these different possibilities. But then I’m also interested in the ways that they close them down as well, or they ossify certain social relations and install those as environmental infrastructures. And I’ve been feeling that the conversation about environmental infrastructures and the conversation about environmental alterities will be interesting to put together... environmental infrastructural alterities and their discontents. Who are the infrastructures for?
P: It’s also how the infrastructures become environments, you know?
P: I’m interested in that as well because I think that opens another set of questions about what the sea is, again, because the sea in these chapters is very stable. It’s not full of previous interventions that are still just there, but not recognised, you know? That’s what takes me back to the very beginning, that made me think about the existence of isotopes and microplastics, and things that are just what the sea is made of, let alone how the currents are moving or the sea itself as a temporal environment, which has all kinds of infrastructural histories. I suppose we’re both saying in the end that these historical questions are incredibly important to thinking the politics of how we got to be where we are, and where things may go next, I guess.
S: Yeah, and trying to surface what those histories are, because thinking with notions of after nature and infrastructure together, I think of the possibility of theorising something like infra-nature, like the nature that has become so worked upon that it is taken to be nature itself. So, the plastic ocean is the infra-nature that we live with now. And that’s a historical arrival and it’s useful to constantly push that notion of infrastructure as a query into what counts as the environment. How does infrastructure or infra-nature produce kinds of alterities, or certain kinds of environmental alterities? The environmental alterity that we live in now of a radioactive ocean that’s acidifying, that is rising – those are all kinds of alters, these are alter natures to what the ocean was prior to 1920.
P: Definitely. And I guess infrastructures do produce moral architectures, in the sense of opening a space to think about this relationship between human and other species as an issue of moral and ethical recognition… Maybe that’s something that connects.
P: Yes, that’s a cool place to end.
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