Hope and Struggle

DMF over at Synthetic_Zero has shared a nice quote from an interview with Brian Massumi:

From my own point of view, the way that a concept like hope can be made useful is when it is not connected to an expected success – when it starts to be something different from optimism – because when you start trying to think ahead into the future from the present point, rationally there really isn’t much room for hope. Globally it’s a very pessimistic affair, with economic inequalities increasing year by year, with health and sanitation levels steadily decreasing in many regions, with the global effects of environmental deterioration already being felt, with conflicts among nations and peoples apparently only getting more intractable, leading to mass displacements of workers and refugees … It seems such a mess that I think it can be paralysing. If hope is the opposite of pessimism, then there’s precious little to be had. On the other hand, if hope is separated from concepts of optimism and pessimism, from a wishful projection of success or even some kind of a rational calculation of outcomes, then I think it starts to be interesting – because it places it in the present.

The basis for my Struggle Forever philosophy is that the idea of Utopia as an end – a goal towards which we struggle – is misguided. When taken as such, utopia becomes fantasy and leads to frustration or, worse, fascism. Decoupled from the the teleological impulse, we can begin to see that the struggle itself is utopia and utopia exists as long as there are people engaged in the struggle (and moreso the more people are engaged). We will never reach a point where the world will be just as it should be for all time (or even for a brief moment), but as long as we continue to struggle we might make things gradually better for more and more people and keep the forces of fascism at bay.

Massumi’s notion of hope separated from optimism and pessimism is very much the point of my earlier post on faith. Removed from the optimistic context, hope or faith is no longer about reaching some desired goal, but rather a hope and faith in the struggle recognizing that the struggle doesn’t end. I believe that moving towards this notion of Utopia, faith and Struggle willallow us to get past many barriers that currently keep us from the possibility of making a better world.

Ecological Ethics

This is a topic that’s come up several times in the blogosphere, and I’ve written about it many times before – in particular, when I was taking a class on environmental ethics a couple of years ago. I’m not going to hunt down those links, but you can find them by searching this blog and my old blog if you’re interested.  The most recent contributions come from Levi Bryant and Michael at Synthetic_Zero. I find their cases compelling, and only want to add a little more to what they have to say.

Before I get into the ethics issue, there is a conceptual question that both Levi and Michael raise – the question of “Nature.” Michael poses the issue perfectly:

As Levi outlines, Tim Morton has done great work to deconstruct the concept of nature in its traditional and romantic guise. If we abandon the notion of Nature, as Morton suggests, we terminate the operating binary preventing us from further ecological revelation and thus open the conceptual field to begin to think about exactly how we are embedded and forever inside of the mesh of ecological beings and relations collaborating in the shell game of appearance and relation.

However, both Michael and Levi are reluctant to give up the concept of Nature, preferring instead to reconfigure the concept in order to allow for new possible connotations and associations to emerge. With this sense, both Levi and Michael talk about humans and human practices as being within nature. This is certainly not a new conceptualization – philosophers and activists from the earliest days of environmental awareness have promoted such a view. However, it concerns me. I know it’s not what Levi or Michael intend, but the conception of Nature as a container, in my opinion, conveys the wrong message. Containers delimit and define boundaries. They serve as a ground for the things that occupy them. My fear – perhaps unjustified – is that defining Nature as the new container for everything (as opposed to the dualistic containers of Nature/Culture) – no matter how open and undefined that container is depicted – will lead to an interest in defining the boundaries of the container. Nature becomes the new standard by which we measure everything. Again, this is not what Michael and Levi intend, but without a great deal of conceptual work to reconfigure the notion of Nature (as well as the idea of a container), there is a very real risk of misinterpretation in talking about Nature as a container. I prefer, instead, to think of existence as a continuous process of composition where beings come together in complex ways to build relations, form new beings, and construct new ways of existing. In this conception (and I believe that Michael and Levi share it), there are no containers, no boundaries, and no grounds except those which are constructed – always historical, always contingent, and never totalizing.  In that sense, I don’t know what to do with the concept of Nature. I am also hesitant to abandon it if only because every concept has its potentials and, in certain frameworks, could prove useful or beneficial – for much the same reason, I am reluctant to abandon the concept of culture despite all of its attendant problems. Perhaps we could talk of Nature as process rather than object (container).  I put that aside for now, because it’s not the question this post is meant to address and is, I think, peripheral to the question of ecological ethics. So, with that, let’s move on.

The question is, what is an ecological ethics for the anthropocene? First of all, why an ecological ethics and not some other kind of ethics (deontological, virtue, utilitarian, etc.)? The answer is that these forms of ethics are not equipped to deal with the complexities of life in a world where human existence has become so imbricated with the existences of non-human others. Prior ethical formulations depend upon some kind of ontological grounding, and such groundings, in our world, do not exist. So how do we think of ethics without a ground? How does an ecological ethics differ from those prior ethical formulations?

First of all, an ecological ethics is profoundly relational. It’s not about “being good” or even “doing good,” but about the way we interconnect with others and the effects of our actions on others.  Secondly, it can be neither proscriptive nor prescriptive – there are no “thou shalts” or “thou shalt nots” (at least, not in specific form), because these depend on a ground to define right from wrong. Instead, an ecological ethics is about the processes of forming relations rather than about the specific kinds of relations that are formed. Furthermore, it recognizes that all actions are problematic – there is no action that is free from negative consequences, and there is no standard by which negative consequences can be weighed against one another (e.g. in utilitarianism).

All of this seems to imply a breakdown of ethics, and the potential for an “anything goes” attitude. If there is no ground for judgement, no pre- or proscriptions, and everything has some negative potential, then why should we not do whatever we like? And, in some sense, this is true – an ecological ethics would open us to experimentation and exploration. It would make possible new forms of interrelation and connection, allowing us to figure out what works. But an ecological ethics also makes demands. Living in a world of interconnection, lacking any ground except that which we compose – a world that is profoundly collaborative and constructed, in other words – demands a degree of humility. In spite of the connotation of “anthropocene”, we cannot consider ourselves the center of existence as we have before – we are beings among beings, and we share this world with myriad others. Furthermore, we depend upon these others for our own existence – nothing exists in a vacuum, and the individual is an illusion of Modernist ideology. In order to exist in such a world, we must have humility. This is an injunction, but not of the kind mentioned above. Instead of focusing on specific forms of relations, this injunction forces us to consider the way we go about engaging in relations with others. We must be always aware of and empathetic towards the others with whom we are relating. We must be open to those connections, must make ourselves vulnerable so that we might feel their reactions and responses. We must be willing to communicate – to let others know how we are experiencing our relations. It’s through this process of opening, communicating, and being sensitive to others that we can work on composing relations that are mutually beneficial. We might never avoid doing harm, but harm might be accepted willingly and voluntarily if there is a flow of communication and a sense that something better will come of it.

An excellent example of this kind of ethic comes from Donna Haraway’s book When Species Meet. Haraway’s approach to animal ethics is profoundly different from other approaches I’ve encountered. Rather than exploring the ontological grounds for ethics and attempting to extend human ethics to animals, Haraway argues that the basic tenet of an animal ethic is the injunction “Thou shalt not make killable.”  Now here we have a “thou shalt not”, which I said earlier was not part of an ecological ethics, but, again, this is not about a specific form of relation but about the way we go about relating in general. To make something killable is to define an arbitrary boundary and disregard the problematic nature of such decisions – “we can kill animals because their lives are not as important as our own and we need them for food and medicine.”  What Haraway is asking is not that we do not kill animals, but that we recognize the problematic nature of that action, and that we are sensitive and vulnerable to the pain and suffering of the animals we use. Clearly defined boundaries make us insensitive – they justify and absolve us of guilt. But, in some sense (and when not abused), guilt is a good thing. It makes us slow down and think about what it is we’re doing and how it affects other beings. In some sense, that is all that can be asked from an ecological ethic – an attentiveness to others and avoiding the premature closure of connection.

I think there is much more to be thought through as we approach an ecological ethic. The work that Michael, Levi and Haraway are doing is an excellent start. With time, and more discussion and contemplation, we might craft an ecological ethic that will bring us through the anthropocene and into a new world of interconnection, collaboration, and sensitivity. This is my hope, at least.

In Search of an Anarchist Anthropology

David Graeber coined the phrase “anarchist anthropology” to designate an anthropology that was focused on the study of stateless societies with the goal of understanding the mechanisms by which these groups propagate themselves over time, even in the face of global colonization by state-based systems. This would counter the common argument that an anarchist society isn’t possible by documenting and detailing cases where it is actually being done. It would also provide some insight into how we might move towards a more anarchist system ourselves, despite the obstacles associated with overcoming our existing state system. These are both very valuable and worthwhile ends, and I fully support the project. However, I wonder if this is the real anarchist anthropology we might be seeking.

It seems to me that what the above summary describes is an anthropology of anarchism and not necessarily an anarchist anthropology. What would an anarchist anthropology be then? I think it’s an open question, but, to me, an anarchist anthropology would be one that takes the principles of anarchism and applies them to anthropological practice. In other words, it would be an anthropology that seeks to minimize or eliminate discrepancies in power relations, one that seeks mutual aid, and voluntary association. What would that look like specifically? I don’t know. I think it would involve the anthropological study of power as much as it would the anthropological study of marginal, stateless societies. I think it would also involve a change in methodology – not a change in methods, but a change in the way we conceptualize methods and what it is that we do as anthropologists. Finally, I think it would involve a change in the institutions in and by which anthropology is practiced. Could a truly anarchist anthropology exist in the Academy? I suspect not in the long run, but in the world we live in today, the academic structure may prove useful in countering the excesses of power in other institutions (financial, political, military, etc.).

Those are my thoughts, and now I’m posing the question to you – what would an anarchist anthropology look like? How would anarchist principles force us to reconceptualize the way we do anthropology, whether it’s with stateless societies, marginal groups within state systems, or bureaucrats and scientists? Is that something we can/should work towards? Please, share your thoughts.

Androids Dream of Janelle Monáe

From the song:

“Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City
Mixing masterminds like your name Bernie Grundman
Well I’mma keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman
You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly
And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie
Yeah keep singing, I’mma keep writing songs
I’m tired of Marvin asking me +What’s Going On?+
March to the streets ‘cuz I’m willing and I’m able
Categorize me, I defy every label
And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope
We rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?”

From an interview with Monáe:

I have songs on “The Electric Lady” – from “Sally Ride” to “Electric Lady” to “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and the list goes on – where I definitely thought of the gay community in terms of a community that is oftentimes discriminated against and marginalized. Again, when I speak about the android, it’s the other. And I think, again, you can parallel that to the gay community, to the black community, to women – we have so many things in common, and we sometimes don’t know it when we allow small things to get in the way. So this music is meant to inspire and bring wings to those who are weak and grace to those when they are strong.”

And another excellent music video:

All this talk of androids reminds me of Donna Haraway:

By the late twentieth century, our time, a mythic time, we are all chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism; in short, we are cyborgs. Ths cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centres structuring any possibility of historical transformation…This chapter is an argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries and for responsibility in their construction.”



You can’t escape. Ultimately, and like every other being, you are embodied and situated. Your attempts to get beyond this fact of being are only one more way of being embodied and situated – never a genuine escape. These attempts are doomed to fail, lead ultimately to further conflict and frustration, and are supremely self-centered and unethical. “You mustn’t go to heaven,” Huxley realized (while himself seeking liberation through the embodied and situated use of psychedelic chemicals). Elsewhere, he adds:

The Yogin and the Stoic—two righteous egos who achieve their very considerable results by pretending, systematically, to be somebody else. But it is not by pretending to be somebody else, even somebody supremely good and wise, that we can pass from insulated Manichee-hood to Good Being.

Concentration, abstract thinking, spiritual exercises—systematic exclusions in the realm of thought. Asceticism and hedonism—systematic exclusions in the realms of sensation, feeling and action.

But that’s not to deny the value of practices such as meditation, yoga, prayer, and even the use of psychoactive chemicals – it’s just to shift our understanding of their purpose. They are embodied and situated practices. They do not lead to transcendence or escape. What they lead to is awareness and a deeper immersion in and acceptance of the embodied and situated experience:

Good Being is in the knowledge of who in fact one is in relation to all experiences. So be aware—aware in every context, at all times and whatever, creditable or discreditable, pleasant or unpleasant, you may be doing or suffering. This is the only genuine yoga, the only spiritual exercise worth practicing.

This goal is not perpetual happiness through the experience of Nirvana, but an awareness and acceptance of every kind of experience that one might encounter. And, ultimately, the goal is compassion – for one’s self and for all of the other embodied and situated beings who are moving, thinking, and feeling, living in this world full of both incalculable pain and unrelenting beauty. If you can’t have compassion for yourself – for your own embodied and situated experience – and instead are constantly seeking to transcend it, then how can you possibly have compassion for others?