PRINT Summer 2017


Edward Burtynsky, Tyrone Mine #3, Silver City, New Mexico, USA, 2012, C-print, dimensions variable. © Edward Burtynsky.

IT’S HOT AND IT’S GETTING HOTTER. As the machinery of capital extraction, industrialism, and consumption refuses to relinquish its grip, temperatures rise and chemical hot zones spread. Tipping points threaten to alter the nature of the earth’s biosphere. But until that happens, and even after that happens, the shifts are not and will not be uniform. In reality, hot zones form like rain clouds over specific places. The New York Times recently reported that “changing weather patterns linked to rising global temperatures have resulted in a dearth of wind across northern China,” and this in turn is “exacerbating a wave of severe pollution that has been blamed for millions of premature deaths.” Just three years ago, a Chinese scientist described the pollution in Beijing as a nuclear winter. Not surprisingly, another neural accelerant is spreading—anxiety.

How are critical political concepts holding up amid this swelter? Marx thought the social dialectic was leading toward the clarification of the fundamental opposition of classes: bourgeoisie and proletariat. A great deal of evidence can be mustered to support the claim that we are nearing this moment. The world seems to be splitting into two ever more starkly demarcated groups: the 1 percent and the swiftly growing precariat. But many believe we are actually witnessing a new form of antagonism, one that demands new modes of solidarity. The new conflict seems less fundamentally a war of class—although it is also a class war—than a clash of existents, although definitely not a clash of civilizations. And in this new war of the world, each of us must decide with whom (or what) we are making ties of solidarity. With whom or what will we stake our claim to politics?

A variety of new political movements and academic theories—new anarchism, radical green fronts, Left accelerationism—are busy modeling answers. Take, for instance, the media theorist and activist Franco “Bifo” Berardi’s proposal for a retooling of the Autonomist movement. Autonomist Marxism is a dispersed set of theoretical positions and activist interventions that emerged in the 1960s, in the industrialized Italian North, and that targets the zone where the assumptions and desires of capital and organized labor converge. Some Autonomists, such as Silvia Federici (see page 282), have insisted that capitalism and unions be reexamined with a new emphasis on women’s unpaid labor as a continuing, and necessary, source of primitive accumulation. (Glen Coulthard has more recently posited a different source of ongoing and necessary accumulation—not primitive accumulation of a precapitalist or feminine value, but an ongoing original accumulation of indigenous lands and resources.) All insist on the workers’ autonomy from the demands of capital and the hierarchies of organized labor.

If Autonomism is to succeed now, Berardi argues, the Left must understand the form and nature of the antagonism that exists in contemporary capitalism, namely semiocapitalism (or informational capital)—the predominance of the technological instrumentalization of immaterial signs as the principal objects of contemporary capital production and appropriation. In semiocapital, affective-informational loops are oriented toward the capture of different spheres of human knowledge and the immanent desires of subjects, and the object of this capturing shifts from labor power to soul power. Capitalism seeks to consume not only human labor but also human spirits—it becomes pneumaphagic, a spirit-eater. For Berardi, the contemporary antagonism is between those who seek to capitalize and consume souls, and those souls who refuse to be devoured.

The antagonisms of pneumaphagic capitalism demand a form of solidarity that stretches beyond humans who seek a common exit from semiocapitalism to encompass all life-souls being pulled into semiocapital’s voracious logic. Solidarity must be made not only across new classes of work and workers emerging in the precarious silicon knowledge factories but also across the dispersed and fragmented nodes within which information-desire is being produced, elaborated, amplified, distributed, and consumed. This vast assemblage includes things Western theory has considered to be self-evidently human—geologists, geneticists, biochemists, miners, and software coders—but also things it has considered self-evidently not human, including human–nonhuman interfaces: biocircuitry, algorithms, massive data-storage facilities, air conditioners, satellites, human fingers and rare-earth-powered screens, legislation for appropriating gas and minerals, ships and canals and the teeming life and toxicities discharged in their wake, and species and chemicals that cross territories, sink into soils, and are ingested in the shrinking global supply of drinking water.

Berardi’s discussion of the antagonism of semiocapitalism, and the solidarities that must be formed to combat it, leans against a much broader shift that has occurred on the critical Left in recent years. This shift has three main components, or points of orientation, for conceptualizing the world: the extimacy (namely, the internal exteriority and external interiority of all existents relative to one another) of existence; the distribution of the effects of power among and between human and nonhuman entities, and thus the affective powers of the other and the otherwise; and the multiplicity of event forms and horizons (quasi events and megaevents).

Not surprisingly, all three of these general positions have multiple specific meanings depending on whom you are reading. Take the extimacy of existence. In her 2007 book Meeting the Universe Halfway, Karen Barad explores the concept of entangled existence with the understanding that “to be entangled is not simply to be intertwined with another, as in the joining of separate entities, but to lack an independent, self-contained existence.” Building on the work of the radical microbiologist Lynn Margulis, Donna J. Haraway prefers the term symbiogenesis to stress that the “ordinary is a multipartner mud dance issuing from and in entangled species.”

No less variety can be found within discussions about the distribution of the effects of power and the affective powers of the other and otherwise. Everyone agrees that the effects of power are not distributed equally, nor are the affective powers of the other and otherwise the same from a practical standpoint: Just look at Flint, Michigan, where postindustrial privatization and racism combined to inject poison into the city’s water supply, or at Chile, where related legacies—imperialist expropriation and displacement of indigenous populations—created conditions under which mining tailings have massively polluted the groundwater and soil, and thus food and air. In both of these places the affectus (in Spinoza’s sense of a body’s ability to maintain or increase its powers of action and activity relative to another body) of indigenous people and persons of color is situated in the structures of racial (and racist) and settler discrimination and dispossession. This differential of power, based on the imaginary separation of others from the dominant powers of society and this separation’s embeddedness in the infrastructures of everyday existence, is nevertheless continually producing an otherwise to the system itself—the otherwise to this imaginary of a separate and contained other. But many theorists—Timothy Morton, for instance—emphasize a more abstract and general problem that all existence faces in the shadow of an anthropogenic ecological catastrophe. Similar differences within the discursive region of eventfulness are apparent.

Oceti Sakowin Camp, Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, North Dakota, February 22, 2017. Photo: Dark Sevier/Flickr.

BUT HOW DO THE political concepts at hand—precarity, antagonism, and solidarity—depend on some of the very theorizations of existence that these new tenets challenge? Take, for instance, changing theorizations of “life.” What does this concept hold—what does it embrace and, in embracing, insist on as the qualities of its being? How do antagonisms based on pneumaphagic capitalism and the solidarities across all forms of life square or collide with the trio of critical points of orientation described above, or all of these with the concept of precarity? That term has a straightforward meaning: lack of predictability, job security, material or psychological welfare. Some (such as Rosalind Gill and Andy Pratt, in their 2008 paper “In the Social Factory? Immaterial Labour, Precariousness and Cultural Work”) have differentiated precariousness from precarity, reserving precariousness for “all forms of insecure, contingent, flexible work—from illegalized, casualized and temporary employment, to homeworking, piecework and freelancing” and precarity for “the multiplication of precarious, unstable, insecure forms of living and, simultaneously, new forms of political struggle and solidarity that reach beyond the traditional models of the political party or trade union.” Another strand of thinking about precariousness comes from the philosophical work of Judith Butler, who seeks to ontologize precarity for all life-forms, and specifically for humans, who come into the world and stay in the world vulnerable and reliant on others. Thus, for Butler, precariousness, as described in her 2009 book Frames of War, means to live “socially, that is, the fact that one’s life is always in some sense in the hands of the other. It implies exposure both to those we know and to those we do not know; a dependency on people we know, or barely know, or know not at all.” Precarity, by contrast, is where power intrudes and emphasizes or overrides the onto-condition of precariousness. In Frames of War, precarity refers to the “politically induced condition in which certain populations suffer from failing social and economic networks of support and become differentially exposed to injury, violence, and death.” Precarity becomes an ontological condition; it creates an antagonism of social positions but also an opening to new forms of solidarity with what is, or can be, precarious. As many have noted, a strong humanism underpins Butler’s work (see, for example, Timothy Clark’s 2015 book Ecocriticism on the Edge). For Jane Bennett, by contrast, new vitalism may have many of the fundamental qualities of life, but the solidarities of new vitalism are entangled in and across assemblages without distinction between life and nonlife.

As extractive, industrial, and informational capitalism continues to generate climate change and toxic hot spots, the governance of biopower is fraying and revealing a kind of governance that I call geontopower. Geontopower does not operate through the governance of life and the tactics of death but is rather a set of discourses, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the relationship between life and nonlife. I do not see geontopower as a power only now emerging to replace biopolitics. Instead, biopower (governance through life and death) has long depended on a subtending geontopower, a mode of power that polices and regulates the difference between the lively and the inert, and that has operated openly in settler colonialism and its related forms. In English, nonlife equally refers to the dead and their remainders—the corpse and the fossil, for instance. But geontopower regulates these, and those things that are represented as coming into existence without the potential to be born, grow and reproduce, and die. Geontopower concerns how humans and nonhumans are governed when a separation of being is made between the stone and the fossil embedded in it. An inability to differentiate the kinds of things that have agency, subjectivity, and intentionality of the sort conventionally associated with life has been attributed to various colonized peoples. And this attribution in turn has been the ground for subjugating these people under liberalism’s governance, a process abetted by the concepts of a premodern mentality and a liberal politics of cultural recognition in which different beliefs about the liveliness of nonlife are celebrated without being allowed to govern Western epistemologies and disciplines.

If colonialism works via these naturalized distinctions between modern and premodern, alive and not, capitalism works by simultaneously claiming to abrogate and animate across the life/nonlife division, while maintaining that very division as a means of endlessly expanding capitalism’s reach.

Banaba Island, Republic of Kiribati, 2010. Photo: Ricardo Rodrigues/Flickr.

THESE DISCUSSIONS ABOUT concepts of life and nonlife matter insofar as they advance or impede the power of other conceptual emergences. Are any of these concepts needed, if, paraphrasing Gilles Deleuze, a concept opens understanding to all that is around but outside our field of vision? Or, put a different way, what would be the concepts that emerged from our three tenets—the extimacy of existence, the distribution of effects of power and affective powers, and the multiplicity of event forms and horizons—if we did not have the concepts of precarity, antagonism, and solidarity at hand? And what do we want these concepts to do, under the precarious conditions of anthropogenic climate change and toxicity? First, I think they should linguistically signal the material fields in which they mean to make themselves visible and thus reveal possibilities for action. Second, I do not think the concepts that we deploy should allow us to tack back and forth between forms of life, nor between forms of life and nonlife. Rather, the concepts need to tack back and forth among regions of existence without collapsing all of those regions into one general thing or one simplistic, binarily structured system. Third, the concepts should not elevate the qualities and materialities of one region of existence as a defining characterization of all regions.

As an exercise, we can ask: How would our focus and our practice change if we thought about the conditions of anthropogenic climate change and toxicity as they operate on forms of existence through the concepts of tailings, embankments, and strainings—three ways in which existence relates to itself extimately, produces unevenly distributed forms and powers, and continually generates new relations of otherness and the otherwise—above and beyond precarity, antagonism, and solidarity?

Take tailings. Tailings are usually defined as the residue of whatever valuable material has been extracted from a mine. But tailings are also the portions of a beam, brick, or other architectural element embedded in a wall. For my purposes, tailings are the physics of things when viewed from their indefinable, crumbling, and corroding edges where they become quasi things, where dead things on live things enter nostrils and topsoil. The living things on nonliving things burrow and spring forth. Tailings are the material trails that Katerina Martina Teaiwa follows as Banaba Island in the Pacific is gutted for the mineral phosphorus, which is crucial to manufacturing the fertilizer that powers the so-called Green Revolution. She follows these trails as mining spews dust into the atmosphere and as winds spread the particles like settler-colonizers, as airplanes spread phosphorus across previously infertile fields. As Banaba is dispersed around the world in the form of tiny motes combined and recombined with other substances, the island itself is made uninhabitable for Banabans, who in turn become displaced. But the dissipation of the island in the form of agricultural fertilizer entering the soil, plants, and human and nonhuman bodies and in the form of tailings of dust entering the atmosphere is mirrored by the extension of Banaban sovereignty in the form of an ever-vaster set of lands and relationships. Tailings and trailings are the made and remade, the recomposed and decomposing conditions of local existence and of existences and concepts far afield of them.

Or take embankments: raised walls or masses. There are two asbestos-storage sites in Australia close to where my Karrabing colleagues and friends grew up—and where all of us hunted and camped. These storage units provide an imaginary of embankment, namely, the promise of a clean and contained future in which existence can be separated into autonomous, discrete forms. But all embankments touch two terrains—they are a form of liminal boundary, open on both sides. Embankments are the sandbags meant to keep a flood at bay. But so is skin a kind of embankment made to keep all kinds of things away from the inner organs. All are only temporary scaffoldings in constant need of reinforcement and repair. And all embankments have tailings. They strain. They must be kept in place by other embankments.

I have before spoken of embankments and strainings in the context of the thought of William James. James proposed that concepts are forms of effort.The source of concepts would never be found, he argued, by burrowing deeper into the mind in search of ever more abstract forms. Mental life is—and thus all concepts are—a cacophony of “efforts of attention.” There are three results of understanding the concept in this way. First, it demands we pay attention to the actual world in its vast multiplicity. Second, it demands we pay attention to the potential explanatory figurations (concepts) that might provide not so much an account of this world but an experiment in constituting it. Third, it demands we pay attention to where these constitutive figurations are able to emerge and why, and whether or not they are able to endure the conditions of their emergence. Understanding concepts as a form of effort, James argued, demands that we place mental life in the social worlds in which it exists—in which it is given dimensions and qualities, and in which it spreads. In other words, concepts aren’t merely situated in the social world. They are the social world—and this is not the social world of meaning, but the social world of distributed energies and abilities to focus on the tasks at hand. Thus, mental effort is of a kind with other forms of tailings, embankments, and straining.

SO WHAT HAS HAPPENED to our political concepts and conceptualizations in the movement from precarity, antagonism, and solidarity to tailings, embankments, and strainings? First, in the place of the antagonism of self and other, we find the struggle to maintain or disembank regions of existence that are neither fully inside nor outside one another. The purity of water for some is filtered through the toxicity of water for others, and the changing of these filtration systems will not be neutral to those who have and that which has benefited from the previous arrangements. In this sense, antagonism merely marks the affect of extimate regions under strain, and the affective powers of various regions to withstand the straining push and pull of each other. Second, solidarity here is not with this or that group, but is an activity and effort of lending support to an infrastructure that is immanent to how existence is entangled and untangling. Finally, no particular form of existence has a specific claim on precarity as an ontological or sociological category, even as the specific material qualities of a region of existence—an embankment of existence—can and must be acknowledged and supported.

The materials used as embankments between asbestos and soil, lead and water, and toxic oils and aquifers provide different temporalities, materialities, and eventualities of tailings and strainings than the materialities that compose a line of people protesting the extension of a pipeline through their sacred lands on the one side, and fire- and baton-wielding people on the other. And here we can move from the embankment of various forms and bodies (police, the Sioux and their allies, rock, dirt, and signs) to their power to affect others and constrain their affects. If we think via tailings, embankments, and strainings, then we see with Standing Rock not life or nonlife, but the extimacy between water, person, place, ground. We see this as an effort to embank in lines of humans, ridges of ancestors, forces of pumping and tunneling. At the straining, extimate interface, new forms are coming. The question is what efforts and energies are directed toward which regions of our entangled existence.

Elizabeth a. Povinelli is Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology and a Professor of gender studies at Columbia University and one of the founding members of the Karrabing Film Collective.