Geoffrey Bennington “Politics in Deconstruction” – Response by Robin Sudanan Turner

[On October 2, the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Geoffrey Bennington (Emory) entitled “Politics in Deconstruction” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern and Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Robin Sudanan Turner (French & Italian).]

“If it worked, we wouldn’t need it”: On the Politics of Deconstruction
Written by Robin Sudanan Turner (French & Italian)

Prof. Geoffrey Bennington, professor of philosophy at the European Graduate School and Asa G. Candler Professor of Modern French Thought at Emory University, returned for his second consecutive year to the Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series on October 2, 2018.  He began his talk “Politics in Deconstruction” with citations of Rousseau’s The Social Contract (1762) which described the intrinsic failure of sovereignty in the political system. If the sovereign could be sovereign and self-same, he explained, politics would fall away because we would not need it. Politics exists because sovereignty is bound to fail. For instance, the existence of laws is indicative of the absence of justice. Moreover, the figure of the lawgiver, who symbolizes the creation of the legal system, is a foreign body. Therefore, the laws that are administered upon us are impossible to fully understand, given that they originate from a foreign body. Similarly, the executive body inevitably ends up supplanting the sovereign power, which it originally served, again resulting in the failure of the sovereign system. Sovereignty – its structure, implementation, and continued necessity in society – follows what Bennington phrases as the concept of “If it worked, we wouldn’t need it.”

In a quick recap of his lecture from last year, Bennington reviewed the three “threads” or ways into understanding the general structure of the trace as Derrida outlines it: “The general structure of the unmotivated trace has communicate within the same possibility, and without one’s being able to separate them except by abstraction, the structure of the relation to the other, the movement of temporalization, and language qua writing” (Of Grammatology, 47). Bennington explained that at the core of Derrida’s thought from 1991 until his death in 2004 were three key strands: writing, temporalization, and the relation to the other (described by the term différance, coined by Derrida in his 1963 “Cogito et histoire de la folie”). In his lecture last year, he had focused on language qua writing, so this year he would look at the relation to the other. With respect to the latter, by using the example of ‘x’, Bennington shows that this letter derives its definition – either as a letter of the alphabet, an algebraic symbol that stands for another element, etc. –from its differentiation from others and its relationship with other system elements. This type of distinction refers back to the Derridian concept of hauntology, developed in Spectres of Marx (1993). Hauntology describes how the origin or, linguistically, the etymology of the word – or ‘x’ – depends on an exterior, already existent set of factors.

Hauntology can be further extended to demonstrate the Derridian idea of the “necessary structural possibility.” The concept is best demonstrated by the example of the personal signature. The act of assigning a signature to mark the individual’s consent, acknowledgement, or presence, for example, can only function in the context that by some token, the signature contains the potential for it to be forged or imitated by another party. The ‘threat’ of imitation gives the value of the signature: there is never an absolute certainty that the signature is authentic, that it is produced in the same identical way, or that it is produced by the same individual. In other words, the signature is ‘haunted’ by this necessary structural possibility. The conditions of this relationship between the possible and the impossible can be thought of using the model of the relationship described by Aristotle as the accident and the essence. The connection between the accident and the essence is unnecessary and the state of accidental properties does not affect the essence. Similarly, the form of the signature may change, but the essence of the signature continuously relies on the set of conditions that it may not be an authentic signature but rather, an imitation.

Bennington ended his lecture with a discussion regarding the trace of politics. Represented by ‘x’, politics becomes ‘digne de son nom’ or ‘worthy of its name’. Humans inherit the capacity or the methodology of thinking; ‘to be is to inherit’, according to Derrida. Names and concepts never come alone. They come into conceptualization with established definitions and conditions. ‘X’ – in this case democracy – is left to interpretation in individual reading. The concept of democracy as practiced involves multiplicity and dispersion and goes against the sovereignty described in classical philosophy. Democracy is never realized; it is a part of ‘avenir’ – the French word for future –, which can be also deconstructed into the phrase ‘a venir’ indicating ‘what is to come.’  The present form of the democracy is what society can achieve, not the vision of democracy in the future. The end of ‘x’ – the endgame of democracy – cannot be realized by a society.

Jana Sawicki on “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living” – Response by Patrick Kimutis

[On October 9, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted a lecture by Jana Sawicki (Williams) entitled “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living” as part of the Fall 2018 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. Below is a response to the lecture from Patrick Kimutis (English).]

Jana Sawicki on “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living”

Written by Patrick Kimutis (English)

Reading Foucault as a scholar-activist can be an experience as frustrating as it is eye-opening. If we accept his insight that power is not merely a repressive tool exerted downwards from the top, but rather is a force that characterizes all social relations and interactions, the path to a more liberatory society appears before us not as a straight line but a winding road fraught with detours, dead-ends, and backtracking. Even if the long-awaited revolution were to come, Foucault asks, aren’t we likely to create as many new problems and injustices as we solve?

Fig. 1. Foucault and Chomsky debate in 1971. If you’re frustrated with Foucault, you’re at least in good company. Source.

For this reason, Foucault’s writings may feel vexing, even counterproductive, to activists—Noam Chomsky once said that for all his concern about power, Foucault actually ended up reinforcing it more than undermining it. Foucault, we might conclude, is great at pointing out problems, but has much less to say when it comes to what to do about them. In her lecture, “Foucault, Biopolitics, and the Importance of Experiments in Living,” however, Professor Sawicki provided a different understanding of Foucault, someone she claims was “concerned with ethics from the beginning.” Foucault, Professor Sawicki argues, may not provide us with answers, but he does lay out a method by which we may undertake our own “experiments of living” in search of the good—or at least better—life.

This Foucauldian method begins when we suspend a taken-for-granted concept, like madness or sexuality, and turn to the archive to see how it emerges and what dispositifs are brought to bear on it. A dispositif, often translated as “apparatus,” is a “heterogeneous ensemble” of discourses, laws, norms, and so forth that afford certain attitudes and behaviors while limiting others. The lecture hall, to use one of Professor Sawicki’s examples, makes it easier for a large group of people to listen to one individual at the same time it makes multiple small-group discussions more difficult. What Foucault finds in the archive, then, is that things that we take as a given are historically contingent, and thus not fixed—we can change them in order to emphasize or eliminate certain affordances or constraints.

Fig. 2. Foucault confronts the police during a protest in 1972. Source.

And this extends not just to the external forces we encounter in the world but to ourselves, our very subjectivity. For Foucault, ethics are primarily a self-relation, so not only can we change ourselves, if we want to change the world we ought to start by doing so. “The role of Foucault,” Professor Sawicki said, “is to teach us that we are freer than we feel.” The frustration that I identified early, then, may stem from the fact that Foucault proves unwilling to tell us what to do with that freedom. The onus is on us to  be, as Professor Sawicki put it, inventors, constantly trying out new experiments in living and forming “communities of resistance” which seek to identify and remove unnecessary constraints on what people may choose as a good life. These experiments will necessarily always be incomplete, demanding constant revision, as we will find that in attempting to do away with some constraints we may inadvertently create others. But then again, as Professor Sawicki noted, that is exactly how Foucault conceived of his own work. “I don’t write a book so that it will be the final word,” he said, “I write a book so that other books are possible, not necessarily written by me.” Indeed, the way his work has been taken up and taken in new directions by feminist and postcolonial theorists, such as Penelope Deutscher and Ann Stoler, as well as Professor Sawicki herself, is evidence that the incompleteness of our experiments need not be seen as something to regret, but rather celebrated. To paraphrase Beckett, our experiments in creating a better life and a better society will fail—but if we keep trying, we may at least hope to fail better.

Experiments in Collaboration: A Conversation with Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis – Response by Angela Baldus

[On September 15, 2018 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory and the School of Art + Design hosted a conversation between Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis (Art + Design) as a part of the symposium Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable. Below is a response by Angela Baldus (Art Education).]

Experiments in Collaboration: A Conversation with Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis
Written by Angela Baldus (Art Education)

There is something happening in the conversations between difference. Take the prefix co and sit with it for a moment. Feel, in this moment, something happening – coexisting, conspiring, conversing, collecting, and collaborating. Consider this text, counter expectations of what it will be, and the materiality of its becoming. In the basement of the Krannert Art Museum there is a technology enhanced classroom known as KAM62. Here, situated in this place, I will attempt to convey an experience of the conversation between Anna Tsing and Ryan Griffis on Saturday, September 15th, 2018 and all that contributed — human and nonhuman.

Baldus - Fig 1
Figure 1 : KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds. Digital collage.

The image above pictures KAM 62 uninhabited by an audience or presenters. Pay attention to the screen. This screen places us in a landscape, on land granted to the university in 1862 with the signing of the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act. The land grant eventually lead to the opening of the University of Illinois in 1868 making it the second oldest land grant public university in the state. The image on the screen documents a site specific public artwork by indigenous artist and scholar Hock E Aye VI Edgar Heap of Birds. The exhibit “Beyond the Chief”, which ran from February 2009 to December of 2009 at various locations around the University of Illinois campus, featured signs naming the Peoria, Piankesaw, Kaskaskiam, Wea, Potawatomi, Ho-Chunk, Odawa, Myaamia, Quapaw, Meskwaki, Sac, and Kickapoo peoples. The university occupies the land of these peoples. The artwork names these peoples, who lived here before and who continue to live, learn, and work on campus. What has and has not changed since is a curious consideration we should critically engage.

Ryan Griffis, associate professor and chair of new media at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, continues to present grounds for conversation through the intimate telling of a story. As an artist, scholar, writer, and activist Griffis has worked alone and collaboratively on different projects which explore the political ecology of the midwest. With the artist and activist Sarah Ross, he co-founded Regional Relationshipswhich encourages artists, writers, and thinkers to engage in projects like their collaborative documentary “A Great Green Desert.” When Griffis begins the story, the screen changes to operate more like a silver screen featuring footage from one the artists’ collaborative projects. Reading aloud to the audience, Griffis provides a narrative to the silent moving image. The place predominantly occupying the screen is Beardstown, Illinois. Images provide evidence that the industrial production of soy is continually creating new landscapes. Griffis explains that the effects have regionally lead to land consolidation, skyrocketing rents, generative means for hog farming, and extract mining.

Baldus - Fig 2
Figure 2: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Still from collaboration between artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis. Digital collage.

While (on screen) a lone buffalo slowly traverses the landscape, Griffis recounts an early European settlers’ description of being, “lost in an inland sea” rooting this settlers’ individual experience, one of awe and frustration, a response to the land which situates this settler’s position apart from the things which make and made the landscape before his arrival. By also situating himself as a migrant to the region, Griffis acknowledges his own relationship to these histories. This acknowledgement challenges us to consider the whole process of the land’s becoming. What sits both in and outside of this process? Griffis connects the laboring of the land to the process of collaboration. The soil so fertile for farming became this way by nonhuman collaborators. The major nonhuman collaborator Griffis refers to is the Wisconsin Glacial Period — the most recent glacial period. What happened in these thousands of years is what is largely responsible for the geography of the midwestern states, especially the formation of the flatlands and rivers. Key nonhuman collaborators here are glaciers, flatlands, rivers, soil, soybeans, and pesticides.

Baldus - Fig 3
Figure 3: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Still from collaboration between artists Sarah Ross and Ryan Griffis #2. Digital Collage.

The story continues in relation to a similar occupation and use of land in Brazil. Griffis draws comparisons between the changing landscapes in the United States and Brazil. The industrialization of farming links both countries to the desired tropical soybean developed to supply crops to China and expand the use of biodiesel. Introducing these bioengineered crops to the landscape introduces new pesticides and nutrients which change and alter what was, threatening indigenous species. Connecting collaboration between industry, land, peoples, art, and science, Griffis offers a context in which to view our possible futures in relation to the past and present. Futures that things nonhuman and human collectively make. Snickers are heard from the audience at the naming of one of these sites where science, food, and resources are capitalized – Ingredion Incorporated. Griffis jokes this place, “sounds like a name for a science fiction evil corporation” which seems opportunely appropriate as these ideas situate the conversation within the possible disasters and mysteries which these things warrant.

Baldus - Fig 4
Figure 4: KAM 62, What’s on the Screen? Screenshot of Bach, “Great” Fugue in G minor YouTube video. Digital collage.

After Griffis’s brief presentation, Anna Tsing enters the conversation by saying that if you are going to be in a collaboration, you should take it very seriously. Tsing, is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz and a Niels Bohrs Professor at Aarhus University in Denmark. Author of books including The Mushroom at the End of the World, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, and In the Realm of the Diamond Queen, and co-editor of several groundbreaking anthologies, Anna Tsing came to campus as a Nicholson Distinguished Visiting Scholar and the honored and celebrated keynote speaker for the Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable conference. As a prelude to the conversation between research practices, artists, social scientists, scientists, and the things we study and make, Tsing criticized the science model of collaboration as being not really about collaboration at all, but rather about doing things jointly in a top-down style. In saying this Tsing is not implying that collaboration is impossible between scientists, or scientists and artists, or scientists and social scientists, but rather that it is only possible through dedication to knowing that, “you are going to be changed in the process.”

Baldus - Fig 5
Figure 5: KAM 62 What’s on the Screen? Anna Tsing & Elain Gan collaborate with “How Things Hold”. Digital collage.

Anna Tsing discussed her collaborative piece “How Things Hold,” an article written by Tsing and artist Elian Gan. This work studies participants in an anthropocentric forest in Japan and considers how humans and nonhumans work together in the landscape. As part of their collaborative effort, Tsing proposed using the fugue as an analogy  to describe a type of co-composing happening on and with this landscape. This musical composition illustrates the coming together of things, combining one melody and then the next: sometimes there are moments of harmony and at other times, moments of distance. Tsing explains that Gan was not convinced by this analogy and yet that did not lead them to discontinue their work together. The work of collaboration can be done only through an agreement to stay with and struggle through things. Their work resulted from several years of struggling together and figuring out what part of the collaboration is “the thing that cannot be done by the other.” In this becoming, Tsing explains, “the art is in this way functioning differently and together.”  Relationally, Tsing shared experiences of teaching graduate students who were brought together by common interests in a subject. Yet, they had completely different expectations for how the class should be and function. These differences call us to question which spaces and methods should be shared. The size of the questions being asked influences the feasible collaborative relationship; and the seeming impossibility of the differences in the size of these questions is what Tsing suggests is the major reason why we have to try and keep on trying when we collaborate.

Baldus - Fig 6
Figure 6: KAM 62 What’s on the Screen? Same faces. Digital collage.

The conversation continued with questions from attendees such as “How do you get farmers to invite you to ride with them on the tractor?” “What methods are used to address the question of objectivity within collaboration?” “What does it mean to push past the sciences and start fixing the world?” and “How do we address the gap between those conversations that happen in academia but are not heard by those making government policies?” Griffis described the process of getting to know the land as being linked to a sort of radical openness and curiosity which his collaborator Sarah Ross comes to with ease. In the same sense that Ross and Griffis were open to sharing the intentions of the project with the people they were interacting with, Tsing expresses the importance of working across and with difference to appreciate the confusing and interesting ways that collaboration can surprise you and prove fruitful. Referencing both her work with Feral Atlas and Leslie Green’s work with chemists and students who with the help of local kayakers took water samples off a desalination plant to discover the water was full of pharmaceuticals, Tsing reminds us of success stories – projects which call for change. In these references, Tsing expresses our need for scientists and social scientists who refuse to go off into philosophy about disaster. Criticism alone does not begin processes of action towards solution. However, Tsing also emphasizes the patchy nature of things. This patchiness is important to the solutions and recognition of the areas where we can make a difference. To Tsing, different kinds of work can be interconnected to recognize similarities between environmental concerns and social justice as exemplified by Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which caused a huge shift in the political conversation about pesticides. It is impossible to know when these shifts will occur, but according to Tsing, “we cannot afford to not find out!”.

Baldus - Fig 7
Figure 7: KAM 62 What’s on the screen? Seen. Digital collage.

While this text does not attempt cover the entirety of the conversation which happened, it does strive to synthesize a feeling of being, hearing, and seeing what unfolded. It is important to note the conversation turned to consider how these ideas can be heard beyond KAM 62. How do we echo these ideas in different ways both inside and outside of academia? How do we become a fugue of sorts? In the gap between this place and the next, Tsing and Griffis both express an interest in and a call for making things newsworthy as an important part of creating new imaginaries. These new imaginaries require engagement, reworking, and possibly a certain jutting of narratives, methods, languages, and representations. How does excitement caused by disaster, entangled in both fear and the possible solutions to their happenings, create openings for different fields to collaborate, converse, and reconsider ideas of labor, audience, and action? We need to collaborate within and across the fields.

Angela Inez Baldus is an MA candidate in Art Education at the University of Illinois and founder of the collaborative mobile gallery spaced called The Confessional.
Digital collages function as text written by Baldus.

Richard Keller and Stacy Alaimo at Unnatural Disasters – Response Brian F. O’Neill

[On September 14, 2018 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted Stacy Alaimo (UT Arlington) and Richard Keller (UW Madison) on a panel moderated by Zsuzsa Gille (Sociology) a part of the symposium Unnatural Disasters: Climate Change and the Limits of the Knowable. Below is a response to the panel by Brian F. O’Neill (Sociology).]

Of Asphalt and Aquatic Snails: Tracing the Precarity of the Anthropocene
Written by Brian O’Neill (Sociology)


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Dr. Zsuzsa Gille moderated the discussions (Image 1) by Dr. Alaimo (Image 2) and Dr. Keller  (Image 3) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Images © Brian F. O’Neill

What can the seemingly disparate stories of urban heat islands and ocean acidification tell us about the Anthropocene?  To what extent has the Earth shifted to a novel geologic epoch concomitant with human domination of the planet? Does the term “Anthropocene” itself lay too much emphasis on the human dimension of the processes involved?  In what ways might this era be “more-than-human,” as Anna Tsing has argued, and be imbricating non-human forces and actors such as asphalt and aquatic snails?

On Friday, September 14, 2018, Richard Keller and Stacy Alaimo provided an engaging discussion to explore and problematize contemporary thinking about the Anthropocene and rethink certain “natural disasters.”  Each traced the often-precarious positions that humans hold in planet earth and across diverse societies.  Perhaps surprisingly for a conference about climate change, their investigations do not lead us to a networked vision of the globe that seeks to encompass and assert a common human predicament; rather they speak to an Anthropos embedded in often unforeseen consequences, even the smallest moments of which have global importance.

scaling up final image.jpg
Alaimo argued that scholars must consider “scale shifting,” to see humans and other species within the landscape if we are to develop a “trans-corporeal ecological political practice” that can converge with the world, various species, and vulnerabilities.  Referencing Donna Haraway, she argued that the inundation of totalizing visions of the world seen from an omniscient point in outer-space is a “god’s eye trick,”  which has the delusional effect of placing humans apart from their world.  Composite image from and

Richard Keller began the event with his talk based on his 2015 book Fatal Isolation: The Devastating Paris Heat Wave of 2003.  Keller argued that the issues of urban heat islands and heat waves remain extremely relevant. They represent “perfect storms” at the intersection of extreme heat, contemporary urban living, and social vulnerability in an age of unpredictable, often volatile climatic change.  When nearly 15,000 people died in France in August of 2003, it was not merely from an anomalous climatic event.  They died of extreme heat, but also of their precarious social positions.  Furthermore, it is a problem of extreme heat, reaching 100°F (40°C) and higher during the day, but also of abnormally high night-tine temperatures (e.g. 72°F or 22°C), such that there was no abatement during the nights. The daily absorption of heat into the concrete, asphalt, and buildings during the long summer days kept the temperatures high even during the night.  Indeed, Paris apartments are designed to retain heat during long winters, a design feature that exacerbated the problem of extreme heat.  Although the human body can withstand very high temperatures, it must have at least some small reprieve from the heat periodically.  In Paris in 2003, some residents were bombarded with heat day and night.  Nighttime temperatures in some Paris apartments were reported as being as high as 110°F (43°C).

Who is at risk?  Keller explained that women and the elderly are especially vulnerable, but other crucial factors to consider are poverty and social isolation.  Keller argued that in part due to the biopolitics of aging, whereby the elderly are construed as societal leeches, as having a certain lack of citizenship, they have increasingly become estranged from their social networks.  Women who were elderly were less likely than men to be married, which made them more socially isolated.  In addition, the lack of running water in older apartments, where bathrooms were located down the hall or on another floor, made it difficult for residents to find relief from the heat by taking a shower. Finally, social ties assist in one getting through such extreme events, and without them, cities face devastation like that of Paris in 2003.  Rather than tracing social vulnerability along a horizontal geographical axis, Keller found that vulnerability during the Paris heat wave corresponded to a vertical one.  Grey market rentals, with zinc roofs, lack of water, and cramped spaces facilitated the devastating outcomes that Paris experienced.

In the end, though, Keller argued that we must be hopeful.  Sociability and social networks among urban populations are the way to a better future.  When people learn to rely on one another in their often dense urban environments, these “unnatural disasters” might be avoided or alleviated.

Stacy Alaimo took the audience from the world of the contemporary city to the deep sea, where aquatic snails are dissolving due to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is caused by a reduction in the pH of the ocean because of increased oceanic CO2 uptake from the atmosphere.  Ocean acidification, she explained, occupies something of a twilight zone. It is a serious threat lurking silent and largely unseen by the world.  In a literal sense, it lies outside of “the terrain of human concern” and remains “unthought” within a global climate change debate that prefers the imagery of the “god’s eye,” like a Google Earth globe seen from nowhere, but able to see everywhere.  However, the dissolving calcium carbonite shells of aquatic snails show us the precarity and fragility of life.  Alaimo argues that such problems should invite us to “scale up our thinking.”

Alaimo stated that natural scientists and marine biologists are terrified by such observations, even though they are trained in a scientific paradigm of objectivity. These findings raise the question of how one can change the course of these events, rather than providing formal documentation of the catastrophe? Does ocean acidification, like climate change, like the energy crisis, etc. necessarily call for global transcendence?  For Alaimo, the task is to build an environmentalism that at once encapsulates the multi-scalar and multi-species lives of these problems, while not obscuring environmental devastation.  The problem with the god’s eye trick, and the concept of the Anthropocene is that one cannot simply “scale up,” and transcend in order to leave everything else behind.  Instead, if these problems can be faced, it is through an engagement and intimacy with all earthly species and within the messy, material world that the Anthropos shares with other species.

Both Keller and Alaimo showed that climate change is becoming manifest in novel and unexpected ways.  However, such problems do not call for a transcendent globalized environmentalism.  Rather, they call for attention to the corporeal manner by which humans become enveloped in myriad material processes.  Indeed, in Anna Tsing’s keynote address she argued for studying the “feral,” unplanned effects and “betrayals” of nature to humans.  Nature often proceeds in its own directions fed by the projects and programs of human ingenuity.  Rather than being entranced by more typical scientific objects, creatures such as the aquatic snail or objects like the heat trapping asphalt of the big city can yield insights into the dynamics and agencies of the “more-than-human Anthropocene.”





Keynote by Anna Tsing, “The More than Human Anthropocene” – Response by Michael Uhall

[On September 13th, 2018 the Unit for Criticism and Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “The More than Human Anthropocene” by visiting scholar Anna Tsing (UC-Santa Cruz). Below is a response to the lecture by Michael Uhall (Political Science).]

Salvaging the Feral
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science) 

Most of Anna Tsing’s presentation on the “more-than-human” Anthropocene speaks to the methodology and substance of her latest project, a multimedia online endeavor entitled Feral Atlas, hosted by Aarhus University.

Central to this developing project is its focus on feral agencies and feral dynamics, topics that will be somewhat familiar to anyone who has read Tsing’s recent work, especially The Mushroom at the End of the World, which sketches out the embeddedness of matsutake mushrooms in various cultural, historical, and political economic webs of relation.

Mushroom at the end of the worldThe “feral” here refers to the numerous inhuman actors that détourn, participate, and transform (or potentially undermine) the various components and trajectories that contribute to our strange new epoch. Take note that Tsing does not want to condemn or valorize the concept of ferality. To the contrary, she adopts a largely descriptive or diagnostic approach to the action of feral actors. What can a feral body (or a feral dynamic, or a feral interaction) do?

Blizzards of examples of ferality compose the project: emerald ash borers hitching rides in globally ubiquitous wooden shipping pallets, hungry storks changing their migration patterns to pick organic waste from trash dumps, microplastic-saturated cows eating garbage bags, mosquitoes stowing away on slave ships during the triangle trade , Chernobyl blueberries carrying deadly payloads of hard rads hidden in their sweet flesh … It is a stampede of hybrids.

Heidi Taillefer
© Heidi Taillefer  

Theoretically speaking, Tsing offers us seven insights or “methods” intended to serve as guidelines for studying the Anthropocene. She wants to show us how the very topos of the Anthropocene consists of far more than just humans. Rosi Braidotti, Bill McKibben, Jedediah Purdy, Steven Vogel and so many others direct our attention to the fact that, in the Anthropocene, “the trail of the human serpent is thus over everything” (William James). But Tsing is more interested in exploring the degree to which feral, inhuman actors penetrate and possibilize every human activity and endeavor – even now, during the sixth mass extinction of life on earth.

In this mode, consider a recent, morbidly amusing bit of clickbait a kind of icon or synecdoche of the world of the human today: “Mummified human corpse filled with bees, wasps and a squirrel discovered hanging from a tree.”

adrian cox
© Adrian Cox

First, Tsing says, the Anthropocene is patchy. In other words, despite the focus on planetary dynamics characteristic of so much discourse about climate change, for example, actual processes of carbon emission and ecological destruction alike are concentrated in specific localities, or “patches.” The ecological crisis is a combined and uneven apocalypse. 

Second, these patches are organized by “imperial and industrial infrastructures,” or the material means of production that maintains the patchwork politics of world-ending. In turn (and third), these infrastructures emerge within programs of “invasion, empire, capital, and acceleration,” all of which are drivers that Tsing calls “Anthropocene detonators.”

Fourth, these infrastructures show us what Tsing calls “landscape structures,” or the specific material composition of sites in the patchwork that sustain our Anthropocene machine even as it bleeds to death. These sites interact at a distance, both with other sites and with every other actor. Recall a core principle of ecological reason, namely, that everything is connected to everything else – by hook or by crook, both in space and time. Or, as Tsing puts it, “Co-temporality is a necessary framework for critical description.” Things happen together.

Tsing proposes two final methods: ontologically appropriate mapping and digital architecture. Both of these methods offer ways of cutting through, cutting up, and rewiring traditional modes of knowledge presentation and production.

Regarding maps, as Tsing clarifies, they can take many forms other than the God’s eye view that conventional or unifying maps suggest. Here Tsing’s analysis recalls ecological or phenomenological perspectives, ranging from Jakob von Uexküll’s biosemiotic concept of Umwelt to Bryan G. Norton’s emphasis on the value of multiscalar analysis in adaptive landscape management.

Similarly, digital architectures allow a more “playful and performative” presentation of information, with anchor texts and inline links enabling nonlinear associations and redirecting the reader’s attention in novel ways.

All in all, Tsing’s new project sounds like a fascinating contribution to Anthropocene studies.

That being said, at least one concern comes to mind.

Is it truly possible to characterize the feral in the non-normative terms that Tsing adopts? Critiquing George Monbiot or John Zerzan  for romanticizing the feral is fine, but, insofar as we avoid assigning ferality any particular normative valence, the concept seems to lose some of its use value.

Is the feral that which interdicts our habits of linear causal storytelling and thereby transforms those habits (e.g., we thought pallets were just packaging materials, but actually they are a mechanism by means of which ash borers are now devastating American ash populations)? Or is it a dynamic that occurs when the latent “resistentialism” of the world manifests itself in the form of various disruptions of human efficacy or intent? After all, while some disruptions may challenge the human imperium in desirable ways, disruptions can also be disastrous. How does the concept of ferality differ usefully from ideas about unintended consequences, which have, in fact, massively inflected environmentalist discourse since Rachael Carson’s Silent Spring? When we talk about the feral, are we talking about something detrimental (like the ash borer invasion), or are we talking about the rambunctiousness of nature’s so-called rambunctious garden?

On the one hand, Tsing’s refusal to play the “let’s reenchant the world!” game is extremely refreshing. There are already enough books that try to do this, and it’s reasonable to worry that many such projects are only preaching to the Deleuzian choir. On the other hand, serious questions about normative and practical orientation continue to haunt the Feral Atlas. As subjects of the Anthropocene – and as hybrid humans, literally built out of writhing inhuman materialities – how are we to relate to a feral Outside and, indeed, to the ferality of our very flesh?

That is why these questions matter, because how they are answered determines whether or not we get to have our feral cake and eat it, too – or else be eaten by it.

Artist Talk – Joana Moll – Response by Asiya Ikhsanova

[On April 12th, 2018 artist Joana Moll delivered an artist talk for Technocultural Futurisms, a symposium affiliated with the university-wide initiative Illinois 150: The 21st Century University and Research for the Public Good. Below is a response to Moll’s artist talk by Asiya Ikhsanova (Comparative and World Literature).]

Response to Joana Moll’s Artist Talk
Written by Asiya Ikhsanova (Comparative and World Literature)

There exists a long tradition of art reflecting on social and political anxieties of its time. Meet Joana Moll, an artist and researcher based in Barcelona and Berlin, whose work critically engages with some of the most contentious issues in today’s world, such as surveillance, online tracking, and digital communication. Although some of Moll’s research concerns U.S. border politics and American corporations, this brilliant and, at the same time, fascinatingly depressing artist talk was Moll’s first presentation of her work to a U.S. audience. The talk was co-organized by the Unit for Criticism, Art + Design, and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

Two of Moll’s projects, AZ: Move and Get Shot (2011), cleverly titled to evoke parallels between reality and video games, and The Virtual Watchers (ongoing), examine the subject of US/Mexico border surveillance. Despite the similarity in the subject matter, the two projects are strikingly different in their approach. AZ: Move and Get Shot is essentially represented by six cameras placed at the border that are programmed to record any movement and that Moll can access. The Virtual Watchers on the other hand, is a kind of meta-surveillance, with Moll observing those who observe others. This second project was inspired by the effort of the Texas Border Sheriff’s Coalition to engage civilian populations in border surveillance, thus crowd-sourcing national security. In 2007, the Texas authorities created the website “Blue Servo” which provides its visitors access to a network of surveillance cameras and sensors placed at the Texas-Mexico border. Visitors to the website are encouraged view the live streaming video feed from the cameras and report any “suspicious criminal activity” to the sheriff.  The website inspired emulation in Britain with the crime surveillance project titled “Internet Eyes,” which did not survive in Britain, but recently made its way to Brazil. Unlike “Internet Eyes”, which had the intention to pay the “watchers,” Blue Servo relies on free labor. In fact, the Texas website presents surveillance almost as entertainment by stressing that the network “feeds live streaming video FREE-OF-CHARGE to the user’s computer.”  Driven to learn more about the website visitors, Moll joined the Facebook community of the Blue Servo users, which allowed her to gather material for her project. Presented as a collage of Facebook exchanges, The Virtual Watchers is ultimately a study of the human psyche, and, more precisely, of the effects of intoxication that the illusion of power gained by playing the role of “Big Brother” yields.

Samir Rafi's Pastel.jpg
Samir Rafi, Untitled, year n.a., pastel, 50 x 70” via Picasso Art Gallery, Egypt.

In Algorithms We Trust

Moll’s media art goes beyond being simply politically conscious. It is also keenly conscious of its own modes of production and operation, that is, of its dependence on technology and the ecological impact of those technologies. In search for a new aesthetics that would reflect the changes in today’s world, Moll’s media art both utilizes algorithms and exposes the questionable effects of our reliance on them. Initially introduced to facilitate making small decisions, algorithms eliminate the necessity for human intervention in many areas of today’s life. Yet delegating minute work to algorithms requires, as a payoff, that we give them agency, which ultimately allows them to affect important decisions.

Moll’s project titled Algorithms Allowed demonstrates that algorithms are not only allowed, but are most welcome anywhere, regardless of political borders and economic considerations. It focuses, specifically, on the websites of the countries embargoed by the U.S. government to demonstrate that certain products and features (especially those offered for free, like Google Fonts) cross political borders. William Gibson’s 1996 vision of the web as a “post-geopolitical meta-country” is certainly true today. What Moll is trying to demonstrate is how pervasive and at times stubbornly stupid–despite their intelligence–algorithms are. Her experience with trying to sell Google trackers found on a North Korean website, on EBay as a txt. file, which resulted in a failure due to the “product’s” lack of compliance with the U.S. policy, inspired Moll to reflect, through media art, on the idea of “algorithmic governance.”

Screenshot of DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST, a net-based piece by Joana Moll which depicts the amount of trees needed to absorb the amount of CO2 generated by the global visits to every second.

The Costs of Googling

The last project I will mention is concerned with the environmental costs of technological progress. Titled DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST , the work reflects on the amount of CO2 emissions generated from the global use of Google every second. We are addicted to Google. With the average of 52,000 visits per second, the use of Google generates 500kg of CO2 every second, which, according to Moll’s estimation, would require 23 trees per second to absorb the emission. To help visualize the issue, Moll has created a web page that generates the image of 23 trees per second needed to compensate for the global use of the search engine. Conscious of the irony of both ostensibly “solving” the problem of CO2 emissions and contributing to it, Moll’s DEFOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOREST is certainly successful in reframing and defamiliarizing the issue of ecological impact of technology. This and similar projects create new (media) space for reflecting on the ecological costs of the big data, as well as a new aesthetic approach to representing them. Most importantly, they prevent us from forgetting about environmental issues and, one can only hope, inspire action.

Keynote by Amitav Ghosh, “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean” – Response by Dilara Çalışkan

[On April 10th, 2018 author Amitav Ghosh delivered the keynote address entitled “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean,” for the university-wide symposium Illinois 150: The 21st Century University and Research for the Public Good. Below is a response to the lecture by Dilara Çalışkan (Anthropology).]

Response to Amitav Ghosh’s lecture “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean”
Written by Dilara Çalışkan (Anthropology)

How do we discuss the relationships between continents across time through following the histories of trade wars, colonialism, and liberalism?  How can we talk about the centrality of the Indian Ocean in the histories of trade wars, recent shifts in climate change and its relation to the global impacts of neoliberal economies? How can we listen to the violent histories of the past and present that emerge through the commodification of desire for a clove tree? These questions were at the background of Amitav Ghosh’s talk “Embattled Earth: Commodities, Conflict and Climate Change in the Indian Ocean.” His presentation started with a brief history of the commodification of desire exemplified in the trade of clove and continued through the histories of other commodities such as tea and pepper emphasizing their role in trade wars that defined Dutch and British colonialism. While looking at the violent histories of trade wars that emerged from colonial desires to control the circulation of certain commodities like sugar and opium, Ghosh revealed how this history still affects and dominates our everyday life. He encouraged us not to understand climate change as a purely science problem, but to recognize the intimate relationships between power, liberalism and empire in the Anthropocene.

Clove Tree
Clove Tree – Andrew Zaga – Sunday Spotlight

Taking a global perspective on the first and second Opium Wars between China and United Kingdom, Ghosh identified these wars as turning points in world history that created the close correlation between military force, modernity and economic growth. Pointing to the relation between the carbon economy and western forms of production and consumption, Ghosh argued that it launched global processes of the homogenization of desire on a scale that was never seen before in the history of the world. Today, while we desire homogenized commodities (though clove is not really one of them anymore) and look for ways to connect countries to one another in understanding climate change, we do not give much attention to the crucial historical role of militarization.

Andries van Eertvelt, The Return to Amsterdam of the Second Expedition to the East Indies, 1599

Why, he asked, are we not talking about military forces when we talk about carbon footprints? Why do we not see the relationship between climate change, the global circulation of oil and  securitization? In opening a space to ask these questions, Ghosh looked closely at the political reconfigurations taking place around the Indian Ocean now. Examining the recent changes produced by the global trade and logistics revolution, he discussed the links between massive movements of people due to economic changes, the desire for a better life (as he said “whatever that means”) that propels them, and the negative impacts of these movements on climate change. He observed how certain governments like the United States and its military intervene in the name of “humanitarian aid” while being one of the biggest contributors to climate change and political upheavals that cause the massive movements of people in the first place.

Ghosh closed his talk by coming back to the question of desire and example of the clove trees with which he had started his lecture. He noted that clove trees, which were once only found in the Moluccas, are now dying because of climate change. Pointing to the tendencies that create complex causal relationships between capitalism, climate change, wars, and acts of migration, he said “climate change is an important factor in this relationship but the uncanny realities of the Anthropocene cannot be explained through simplistic cause and effect relationships.” In a talk that ranged from the medieval period to the 21st century, Amitav Ghosh revealed how empire and power still continue to be one of the most important factors shaping the flow of people and change in climate.