Gaurav Desai: Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity – Response by Brandon Jones

[On October 17, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Precarious Futures, Precarious Pasts: Climate, Terror and Planetarity” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Gaurav Desai (University of Michigan). Below is a response to the lecture from Brandon Jones (English)]

Toward Reparative Justice: Climate-Induced Migration, Postcolonial Studies and the Politics of Representation
Written by Brandon Jones (English)

Building on recent efforts by Rob Nixon, Elizabeth DeLoughrey, Dipesh Chakrabarty, and others to expand the purview of postcolonial studies to engage with pressing concerns of ecocriticism, environmental justice, and the Anthropocene, Gaurav Desai issued a rallying cry for the field’s continued political relevance. Framing the talk as a rare instance, for him, of direct political interventionism, he tackled the complex systems of national, social, economic, environmental, and representational factors and consequences involved in global processes of climate-induced migration. In doing so, he made a compelling and practical case for how developed nations can offer hospitality to ecological refugees—forced migrants that do not qualify for the rights and protections of international refugee law, which applies only to political refugees—through practices of reparative justice rather than neo-colonial benevolence and charity.

Desai bookended the talk with a reading of Amitav Ghosh’s Sea of Poppies (2008). In the novel, one of the main characters, Deeti, becomes a village pariah in the wake of her husband’s death and finds herself in indentured servitude on a ship bound for Mauritius. Her husband had worked in an opium factory in Uttar Pradesh, and when her companion on the ship hands her poppy seeds, she reflects on how much of her destiny has been shaped by this tiny crop. The seed comes to metonymically represent the range of forces, both natural and social, that have created the conditions of poverty, food scarcity, and displacement that made Deeti’s current plight possible. Not simply a symbol of Deeti’s vulnerability and forced migration, the seed is represented as a material-semiotic participant in the structural, causal chain of events that have brought her here.

Desai Blog image 1This moment in Ghosh’s novel, Desai contended, serves as a timely lens for helping us attend to the increasing impact of climate change and other ecological factors on conditions of forced migration today. Following Ghosh’s reflection on the role of the novel in understanding and engaging with the challenge of climate change in The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (2016), Desai thus began by introducing the climate crisis as “also a crisis of culture, and thus of the imagination” (9). As opposed to the relatively fast-pacing and short temporality that characterizes the human scale of novelistic plots, the natural disasters and climate-induced phenomena we experience today are products of “slow violence,” to use Nixon’s influential term, that have unfolded over long, nonlinear timelines that the novel genre was never designed to represent.

Critical and postcolonial thought, too, encounter a new challenge under the specter of climate change’s deep temporality in terms of what an emancipatory framework for subjects of the developing world might look like. Empire, it seems, may not have been the vehicle of global capital and environmental degradation as it has often been conceived; the uneven manner in which it distributed wealth, industry, and subjectivity around the globe meant that less humans and regions were extracting resources and polluting the environment than would have otherwise. The irony, in other words, is that if justice and equality were more common historically, our planet would be the worse for it. If emancipation in terms of freedom to exercise the autonomy and access the resources of the modern rights-bearing subject means exacerbating climate change, what alternative is there? How can we achieve justice both for those in the developing world who have been denied the opportunity to pollute, as well as for our asphyxiating environment?

Turning to contemporary instances of climate-induced migration, Desai suggested, could be a fruitful strategy for both novelistic representation and postcolonial thought to contemplate what such an alternative emancipatory framework might look like. Considering first the Syrian Civil War and refugee crisis, Desai pointed us toward two different types of narrative responses. The first is the humanitarian and charitable response epitomized in the virality of the image of a drowned Syrian refugee boy on a beach in Turkey. The iconography of the image employs the rhetorical appeal of the spectacle—quick violence resulting directly from a body’s exclusion from the protections of a rights-bearing subject.

The second is an environmental justice response that takes a longer look at how the slow violence of drought and crop failure in the Middle East from approximately 2006-2011 displaced a large rural population from the countryside to the city. This population influx exacerbated tensions between ethnic groups, made it possible for ISIS to control water as a weapon of war, and contributed to Syria’s overall descent into national fragility. Desai additionally pointed us to the ways in which the shrinkage of Lake Chad and subsequent reduction of arable land in Nigeria created conditions of resource insecurity that terrorist groups like Boko Haram could exploit to control and displace vulnerable communities. His point was that it matters which aspects of such conflicts involving forced migration we focus on and narratively represent, for visions of justice and emancipation look markedly different from what we’re used to when we consider the widespread but non-spectacular influence of climate change.

In particular, they shed a sharply critical light on the fundamental inadequacy of our current rights-based legal regimes, and advocate for listening to the discourse, demands, and experience of actual refugees to understand the types of grievances requiring repair. The president of the Pacific Island nation of Kiribati, for instance, which is at a high risk of disappearing due to advanced sea level rise, has rejected the label of “climate refugees,” and by extension the rights-based framework of international law under which the categorization of “refugee” would qualify his nation’s citizens for protection. The president objected to the label because of how it casts his people as victims and downplays their strength and resilience. He opts out of the new identity category because he understands that the citizens of Kiribati have a stake in how they become represented in an emergent discourse.

The people of Kiribati are what Isabelle Stengers calls an “objecting minority” or “objecting public.” Objecting publics exercise “not as their aim but in the very process of their emergence the power to object and to intervene in matters which they discover concern them” (Stengers 160). Instead of being considered “climate refugees,” the people of Kiribati prefer to be trained as “skilled migrants” (Farbotko and Lazrus 383). Rather than charity, benevolence, and modern rights, they are asking those offering hospitality for aid in reconfiguring local practices so they can endure environmental displacement and establish new lives elsewhere. They are asking, in other words, for what Desai termed a more “reparative” form of justice than international refugee law and charitable hospitality allow. They are asking, as were those suffering in the wake of Hurricane Katrina objecting to the connotations of foreignness attached to them through the term “refugee,” for new options of practicing citizenship. These are grievances not against individual acts of spectacular violence, but against a now debunked social contract based on nation-state geopolitics.

Desai concluded by returning to the figure of Deeti in Sea of Poppies. He notes that there is no evidence in the text that she makes use of the poppy seed gifted to her. If only momentarily, it seems she finds a way of moving forward without succumbing once more to the environmental and political conditions of her displacement that the seed represents. These are the figures, and the manner in which they are represented, that Desai calls us to attend more closely to—those “refugees […] without refuge” that force us out of habits and feelings of charitable benevolence toward the displaced (Haraway 100). With more diligent vigilance over who cultivates what parts of the environment and in what ways, we may be able to envision a planetary future that adheres to more reparative principles of justice.


Richard Keller: Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond – Response by Michael Uhall

[On October 10, the Unit for Criticism & Interpretive Theory hosted the lecture “Life After the Nation-State: Biopolitics and Beyond” as part of the Fall 2017 Modern Critical Theory Lecture Series. The speaker was Richard Keller (University of Wisconsin). Below is a response to the lecture from Michael Uhall (Political Science)]

Living with Biopolitical Nightmares
Written by Michael Uhall (Political Science)

Richard Keller raises an urgent question for everyone who wants to understand politics today: Is biopolitics obsolete?

When we talk about biopolitics, we’re talking not only about Michel Foucault’s ambiguous, yet remarkably fertile foray into the historical mutations of power. We’re also talking about an entire research paradigm addressing itself to the capacious and idiosyncratic set of cross-cutting political theories that both criticize and integrate questions about biology and the life sciences. Our biopolitical archives consist of diverse fields ranging from the history of eugenics and racialization to contemporary problematics in bioethics, the medical humanities, and posthumanism. For Foucault, biopolitics refers to the partial transformation of sovereign power into various modes of biopower. He describes sovereign power in terms of direct political authority over death – characterized by him as the power to let subjects live and to make subjects die – whereas biopower articulates itself through anthropometric regimes exemplifying the obverse power to make subjects live and to let subjects die.

Other theorists approach and expand upon biopolitics in a variety of ways: in terms of philosophical narratives exceeding the constraints of modernity’s advent (e.g., Giorgio Agamben, whose eight-volume Homo Sacer series maintains that an originary conceptual distinction between βίος, or bios, and ζωή, or zoe, leads to globally disastrous biopolitical consequences), as a potentially affirmative site of interaction between our largely deracinated political communities and the vital materiality of the body itself (e.g., Roberto Esposito, who describes biopolitical modernity in terms of a self-consuming immunitarian dynamic), and through a broadly postcolonial lens (e.g. Achille Mbembe, who argues that biopower generates itself by imposing conditions of material and social death upon colonial subjects).

Figure 1Figure 1: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

For Keller, however, the question about the relevance of biopolitics today takes shape in a very specific context – namely, in our context, in the conditions of brutal austerity, ecological crisis, political decay, and state failure we observe around the world today. After all, for Foucault, biopower appears as an apparatus or a function of the changing state form, and modernity heralds the transformation of the state into an increasingly biopoliticized regime. Hence, Keller’s questions raises some very interesting additional questions for us to consider. Can or do biopolitical regimes outlive the states that birthed them? Is it meaningful or useful to speak of biopolitics when “traditional” modes of biopower might appear to be eroding? How does biopower articulate itself across torched landscapes and wastelands, through populations that states have lost or failed to track? (A multitude of speculative possibilities suggest themselves here, for we can imagine such failures of mapping either as occasions for the intensification of security regimes or as opportunities for rebellion and refusal. Might we not then read Jorge Luis Borges’s “On Exactitude in Science” as a parable of liberation – and its “Tattered Ruins […] inhabited by Animals and Beggars” as a testament to the failure of biopower to tame or trap the wildness of the world?)

Figure 2
Figure 2: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

Keller addresses some of these questions by examining several intriguing texts, all of which highlight the role and significance of liminality for any new biopolitics after the state. Specifically, he highlights recent work by John M. WillisDebarati Sanyal, and Peter Redfield. In various ways, all of these scholars direct our attention to novel forms of biopolitics that exceed the “normal” conditions of state biopower. Indeed, these three examinations of refugeeism, religious securitarianism, and state failure raise the question of whether or not this strange thing we call biopolitics (it is by now almost a platitude that “biopolitics” is too polysemic to be defined) was ever as European, state-centric, or Western in its diagnostic structure as it appears to be in the Foucauldian discourse.

Something to consider, however – and Keller does discuss this – is the degree to which the fetish for privatization in modern Western culture inflects the domain of biopolitics as we find it. The concern here is that state failures prove vulnerable for corporate opportunism. However, it is certainly true that Foucault himself always sutured together biopolitics and political economy into various hideous historical hybrids of domination. Indeed, even Foucault’s late lectures on the “Birth of Biopolitics” largely concern themselves with the emergence of neoliberalism as cultural form and norm. In this regard, we should wonder about the degree to which biopolitical liminality offers avenues of escape rather than more opportunities for market segmentation. (Potential examples abound: compare Google’s provision of emergency balloons intended to provide Internet access in Puerto Rico with stories of United States soldiers calling firearm customer service hotlines for technical advice during the heat of battle.)

Figure 3
Figure 3: “Untitled” by Zdzisław Beksiński.

I’m reminded of nothing so much as K. W. Jeter’s nightmarish imaginary of future human subjects so biopolitically constrained that they are not even allowed to die – those he refers to in his dystopian cyberpunk novel Noir (1998) as “the indeadted.” The near-future world Jeter depicts could easily be ours, and in many ways, it is. Consider only the afterlife of e-waste and the practices of shipbreaking>. There is no functional government, no state that has not collapsed; the de facto sovereigns of this dying Earth are massive corporations that do not “rule” so much as they sequester themselves within the high temples of profit. All products and services come at a price no one can afford. Consider the following as a snapshot of that future, a future where the wolf flow of climax capitalism binds everyone and everything together in a surveilled economy of infinite productivity from which there no longer appears to be an escape:

The entire economy of the dead – the indeadted – and of the dead territory in which they existed […] varied: there were high-functioning corpses such as McNihil’s wife, and low-level scrabblers such as the ones he had seen from the window of the train coming down here. A lot resulted from whatever shape the particular deceased was in when the reanimating transition was made. If some poor bastard had scoured out his neural pathways with various pharmaceuticals, reduced the cortex in his skull to a red sponge squeezed down to its last endorphins and catecholamines, then all the batteries and add-on sensors and motivational prods that could be retrofitted onto his chill-cased spinal column weren’t going to make him into anything more than a shambling scrap-picker. The little scattered herd of unfortunates out along the tracks used their low-grade but effective skills to pluck out recyclable metals or anything else of possible value from the rubbish heaps that the garbage-laden trains dumped off twice a day. Cheaper to let the idiot dead scavenge and collect, in their slow, hunched way, than spend the money for automated scanning machinery to do the same thing. Which proved that being in trouble was a relative thing. McNihil felt an old horror, familiar enough to be almost comfortable, deep at the floor of his gut, when he saw the pickers and scavengers going about their black-fingered rounds, like crows minus even a bird’s intelligence. But they didn’t seem to mind it. Rooting around for scraps of aluminum foil, the still-shiny tracings off busted circuit boards, probably didn’t even bring in enough to service the interest on whatever debt load they had died carrying. “Died” in that other world, the one the officially living inhabited. So most of them – short of coming across some lucky find, maybe an ancient collectible Lone Ranger and Trigger lunch-box at the bottom of some unexplored slag-pile – were actually just scrabbling themselves deeper into debt, becoming more truly indeadted with every bent-spined raking of splintered fingernails across the mulching discards of the world they were no longer part of. They could go like that for decades, McNihil knew. With no cellular regeneration, the scavengers would wear away their hands against the corrosive, sharp-edged trash, until they were poking through it with the stumps of their forearms, their backs permanently fused into perfect half-circles. And beyond: dismaying rumors circulated, of the torsos of unlucky deadtors scrubbed free of all limbs, chests dryly flayed to breastbones and spidery ribs, the exposed batteries draining down to the last feeble amperage fraction. […] Being in the territory of corpses made it difficult to put away the grim images. Of worse things yet, of poor bastards worn down to ragged skulls, trailing an umbilicus of batteries after them as they inched their way across the bleak landscape with little motions of their dirty-white jawbones. Digging out glittery bits of old gum wrappers with their eroded incisors, nudging like dung beetles their little wads of recyclable detritus to the redemption center at the zone’s border, making another meaningless nick at the tab they’d accumulated in that other, pre-death life. Like Marley’s ghost, dragging around a chain whose links were instead forged out of the enticing perishables of the cheap-’n’-nastiverse… (87-88)