The Tiger Manifesto

Criticism with claws

Category: History

Staying with the Trouble and Earthbound Life

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“Chthonic ones are not safe; they have no truck with ideologues; they belong to no one; they writhe and luxuriate in manifold forms and manifold names in all the airs, waters, and places of earth.”

–Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, 2.

Figure 1: Snakes

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Snakes have difficulty holding onto things. Unlike humans, they have no limbs to speak of–maybe some vestigial nubs at most. They can hold things in their digestive tracts, in their reproductive system, from the mouth on down. These slithery reptiles also shed their skin in far more dramatic fashion than humans. Often coming off in whole pieces, the snake’s transformative shedding is a stark, frequent coming of age. For those who feel like they were only born after a great shedding, after removing so much undesirable cruft from their bodies, it’s a familiar symbol. Most importantly for our purposes here, snakes are tightly bound to the Earth. While there are snakes that can take to the air in dramatic fashion, even these snakes live in trees and slither close to the ground much of the time. Their whole bodies tend to be in contact with the earth while moving. They’re very horizontal beings, in other words, a 90 degree turn from bipedal walkers.

For Donna Haraway in Staying with the Trouble, the Earthbound, a term she borrows from Bruno Latour, are beings who “eschew the dubious pleasures of transcendent plots of modernity and the purifying division of society and nature.”¹ For Latour and for Haraway, becoming Earthbound (or Chthonic ones, from the Greek for earth) is a choice, a choice to align oneself with a complex, interwoven Earth or the convenient illusions of the Modern. Like the snake, the Earthbound or Chthonic one is not a skygazer or someone who takes a position above the weird and mundane world we inhabit. Instead, snakes slither through and around, and are inextricably bound to threads, are threads, of movement, consumption, creation, destruction, etc. For Haraway, becoming Earthbound is the only way for humanity to survive. Shedding the modern, authoritarian skin and walking closer to the ground, listening more closely–these are what is required of us.

Trouble invokes snakes and humans together in a section describing the Medusa as “the only mortal Gorgon,” who might “heighten our chances for dashing the twenty-first-century ships of the Heroes on a living coral reef instead of allowing them to suck the last drop of fossil flesh out of dead rock.” Notably, Gorgons are “dreadful” by definition, monstrous to “astralized” and patriarchal minds.² So we have a relatively complete picture of what the Chthonic/Earthbound ones do: they live and die, they align against Heroes and Gods, they defend the complex mess from which they came, and they narrate themselves within a mass of other stories in which they are not protagonists. Importantly, the Earthbound exist with the other beings of the Earth, the snakes they resemble so well. It matters dearly what we choose to do when we live and how we die, but we should neither be cynical and say our nature dooms the world to death nor arrogant and say our moral fortitude will be its salvation.

Figure 2: Acacias

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Acacias don’t just find themselves planted in soil. They don’t wake up in the dirt one day and accept their lot in life. Instead, they collaborate to make the earth they grow in. As legumes, they collaborate with fungi and bacteria to fix nitrogen into forms that plants can use. This process is a bedrock happening in all plant-bearing ecosystems. Moreover, they provide shade, seeds, chemicals like gum arabic, and, with the bees’ assistance, a prized kind of honey.³ They also grow rapidly and often push out native species where they were introduced by colonialists.

Like the acacias, human beings have a potent power to reshape the world. Transforming chemicals, creating solid structures, collaborating with bees, feeding other beings–we do these things daily, and in a fashion far more likely to grab our own attention. So being bound to the Earth, aligning with it as we must, involves a recognition that we are, with all other beings (bacteria being the most powerful, inside and outside our bodies) creators of the worlds we inhabit. We have an orientation–horizontal, earth-centred, non-ideological–and a deeply transformative way of life. It seems obvious that we transform the world, since that’s the basis of several prominent theories of social development and a cornerstone of humanist theories about human uniqueness and stature. But when we see our activity through the figure of the acacia, using the legume-tree as a map to explore ourselves in a new way, we understand that, like the tree, our connections are not always conscious, our impacts neither uniformly negative nor positive.

It would be anthropomorphizing the tree to directly compare us to it, but we should be able to see that, as Haraway puts it, we are both “world travelers and…homebodies…their ways of living and dying have consequences for terraforming, past and present.”⁴ Every way of existing involves us in a project of changing the soil from which we spring. This means that everything is dangerous, nothing is safe, nothing is pure. Wariness, attentiveness, and a recognition of risks and our potential friends and rugged companions on this earth are the qualities we Earthbound want to cultivate. Of course, our powers here are limited, especially as individuals (even moreso when we think of ourselves as contained and restricted to our skin), but even though we inherit a world that is damaged and broken in many ways, we can align our powers towards renewal and shelter rather than destruction.

Figure 3: The Tanuki

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Pom-Poko, the 1996 film from Isao Takahata and Studio Ghibli, ends with the tanuki, mythical raccoon-dog spirits, integrating into human civilization in disguise. They have period reunions in an isolated park, stripping off their clothes and practicing their old shapeshifting magic in secret. Their ways of life have been completely obliterated by the human need for housing and development. Their forests fell and burned, and their valiant defence failed. In one final cathartic moment for the film, however, they use their powerful magic to make an illusion of their old 19th century, pre-industrial life. This illusion shows their desire to live apart from and with humans in the old relative balance and harmony they once had. Antagonisms and pressures existed, but nothing like the accelerated devastation they have witnessed.

Although the relationship of Earthbound beings to those who seek the Sky and who emulate modern human nature is not quite like that of the tanuki and the humans they are imitating to survive, the fact that tanuki are shapeshifting creatures with close ties to the earth suggests a kinship. What Haraway suggests in her discussions of the Earthbound or Chthonic ones is that they are hybrids and mutable, ones who are exhausted by industrial discipline and the modern human body. In the final chapter of Staying with the Trouble, Haraway narrates a science-fiction speculation about the Communities of Compost, whose inhabitants are bonded to animals and other organisms during periods of rapid transformation and intense feeling.

“In 2025, the community felt ready to birth their first new babies to be bonded with animal symbionts…Other children in this cohort became symbionts with fish, birds, crustaceans, and amphibians…The animals themselves were not modified with human material; their roles in symbioses were to teach and to flourish in every way possible in dangerous and damaged times.”⁵

This narration, while not without its flaws and bizarre tangents,⁶ is strong in that it integrates the somewhat disparate essays that precede it and give a dreamlike glimpse into a strange world of humanity expanding and redefining itself. Beauty lies there, in the proliferation of different forms, of individuals stranger and more loving than any we could imagine before.

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And if we get animal symbionts within our time, I’ll take tigers. It’s on theme.

Notes:

1. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Duke University Press, 2016), 41.

2. Ibid, 52-3.

3. Ibid, 123.

4. Ibid, 125.

5. Ibid, 146-7.

6. Note 18 on page 221, in particular, betrays or at least suggests an impaired view of transgender people and how they identify themselves, in particular the odd usage trans-female and trans-male and the categorization of those two as genders in and of themselves, which does not describe the feeling of most trans people I know. Nor mine.

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Cyberpunk and Hope in Environmental History

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Flooded Chinatown – John Wallin Liberto

“We believe if you have a serious critique of capitalism and the state (along with the related oppressions they spawn), it might be wise to reclaim their fortresses-the cities. The cities are the home to modern capitalism and state power. They are the engines of the modern economy and the places where their devastating policies are made. We have to confront the enemy at their fortress, if we take away their fortresses they will cease to exist.

For too long, anarchists have surrendered where 3/4 of the world lives to these corrupt and corrupting powers. We believe urban anarchists must organize and create militantly radical infrastructure in the very belly of the beast, if we wish to have substantial victories. Retreating to the forests and wildernesses will not stop the dual juggernauts of capitalism and state power.”

Curious George Brigade, “Liberate, Not Exterminate”  

Cyberpunk is a fascinating genre that doesn’t seem like it has much to do with environmental history at first glance. After all, the entire genre is about the negation of nature, the creation of soulless megalopolises and the heartless domination of corporations, tyrannical states, and ganglords.

Put that another way, however, and it’s obvious that cyberpunk is far, far better when informed by an ecological and historical framework. I’ve been working on a fun side-project in the last couple of weeks. I’ve been developing a cyberpunk RPG setting alongside a group of friends and have been responsible for laying the groundwork for the setting’s geography, culture, and overall history.

The setting, Los Angeles in 2067, is besieged by rising sea levels on one hand and the intensification of heat and smog on the other. Injustices committed by corporations and mercenaries affect not only the human beings in the city, but the aquatic and terrestrial life as well. Fish and seals die off in large numbers, feral dogs roam the streets, plants and trees warp and twist under the stress of the new environmental conditions. This is cyberpunk influenced by a view of human and animal bodies, and the cities they inhabit, as natural systems. Complexity, information, and a high level of entanglement define everyday life for the (thanks Donna Haraway) Chthonic denizens of the new world.

The city itself carries an air of melancholy, especially in quarters that haven’t be renovated into walled-off, antiseptic Arks designed to insulate the wealthy, white population from masses of climate refugees and furious locals. Urban zones are full of life struggling with the weight of machines, automation, and the jackboots of mercenaries for space and air. Every urban ecosystem, though, spites and outgrows the imaginary limitations put on it by engineers and design perfectionists. Groves of trees split abandoned bunkers in two, groups of citizens cultivate crops in now-desolate suburbs, fish and other aquatic beings recolonize flooded cityscapes. Cyberpunk today should be without hope, without the optimism of a final revolutionary cleansing, but also! fundamentally about people who struggle in harsh daylight and in the shadow of the capitalist nightmare for sustenance. Cyberpunk is about people who modify their bodies for pleasure, who steal every happy minute from ruthless employers or anti-loitering robocops. Cyberpunk is stripping away the comforting and deadening dream of North American imperialist capitalism.

Recently, to diverge from the topic slightly, the Network in Canadian History and Environment (NICHE) ran a miniseries about hope in environmental history. My field of environmental history is often decried for its “declensionism,” which in layperson’s terms means an obsessive focus on the declining state of ecosystems and the terrors humans have inflicted on the natural world. Many of the authors describe cases of limited environmental renewal and some ways that scholars of ecologies past can integrate hopeful narratives into their writing. For instance:

“Contemporary conceptions of hope as an expectation for an axiomatically better and brighter future are, of course, a historical construct. Hope’s progress-oriented cousins—optimism and expectation—should be seen as an outgrowth of an industrial society which assumes robust economic growth, the right to commoditize nature, and constant technological advance. This idea is embodied in E.F. Schumacher’s quip: “Just wait another minute—we shall all be rich and happy.”

Philip Wright, “Hope Beyond Progress” 

I would argue that hope, optimism, and expectation are all tied into the same idea of potential miraculous deliverance or at least spontaneous victory over adversity. In my upbringing, hope was always connected to the miracle of the Resurrection and the expectation of the Second Coming. Though many people integrated this idea into a practice that cared for the world and hoped to heal its ills in the present, many used that hope/expectation as an excuse to throw the material sphere onto the trash heap and watch, sometimes gleefully, as it burned.

So, although cyberpunk is, I would say, often condemned to be fetishistic and oddly sentimental about its technologies of control and surveillance and its aesthetics (embodied by the weird nostalgia infecting products like the Shadowrun tabletop game), environmental history also has something to learn from a no-futurism like cyberpunk. At its best, cyberpunk is not dystopian, utopian, or even overly pessimistic. Instead, cyberpunk can be a logical extension of present-day issues in a more concentrated and antagonistic setting. It is speculation that arrives at the sobering conclusion that things will probably get harder and worse, but not to the point of absurdity. It shows that our lives constitute a struggle, a campaign of attack, defence, and retreat against systems of oppression, capitalist violence, cisheteropatriarchy, settler fascism, naïve techno-messianic hopes, and so on and so on. So environmental history informed by cyberpunk and other techno-pessimist projections is one that can embrace a certain degree of positivity while noting that, in the Cthulucene and Anthropocene/Capitalocene era, there are no technical solutions and the systems that degrade the resilience and health of ecosystems are only going to be better-armed and fiercer in the future.

Cyberpunk is something like an antibody, a way of looking at fiction and at the future that insulates us, makes us cynical where we ought to, and cherish the beauty of the world. It’s a reminder that, in order for us to continue to struggle and attack, and help each other, we all need lives worth living, and that we have a long list of networked and heavily armed and well-funded oppressors who stop us from having those lives. When writing environmental history, we should not only be critically hopeful, but be critical of hope as well as sentimentalized despair. We need to acknowledge that, as academics or as activists, our words will only reach some ears, and that it’s not our job to make hope. Hope happens in communities of resistance and struggle, in the deserts, cities, forests, and beaches, scrublands and marshes. We cannot summon it from words alone.

Now We’re Thinking with Webs: Spider Cognition and Political Work

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A recent article in Quanta magazine discussed some fascinating new findings about spiders. At least part of their cognitive capacity, that is, their ability to process information, is embedded not in their brains per se but in their webs. This is sometimes called “extended cognition,” with the web acting as an external “organ” that can store information and help the spider interpret the environment. The part of the article on which I want to focus right now is this bit right here:

Whether this kind of engineered information-processing happens elsewhere in nature is likewise unclear. Laland is a high-profile advocate for the idea of niche construction, a term from evolutionary theory that encompasses burrows, beaver dams and nests of birds and termites.

Proponents argue that when animals build these artificial structures, natural selection starts to modify the structure and the animal in a reciprocal loop. For example: A beaver builds a dam, which changes the environment. The changes in the environment in turn affect which animals survive. And then the surviving animals further change the environment. Under this rubric, Japyassú thinks, this back-and-forth action makes all niche constructors at least candidates to outsource some of their problem solving to the structures they build, and thus possible practitioners of extended cognition

Even if webs don’t fit a strict definition of a cognitive organ, as some of the opponents of “extended cognition” argue, I appreciate this insight into how various nonhuman animals interact with their environments. Deleuze and Guattari, for one (or two, or many), have asserted that human beings are integrated into machines just as machines require human intervention to operate. Inorganic and organic assemble together and knowledge that was produced in brains from generations ago remains somehow embedded in the built environment for generations afterward. Just as the spider “thinks” with its webs, using its structures to “read” the environment, human beings have built up our many niches, tools, and symbolic forms of communication allow us to offload cognitive functions like memory and vision to artifacts outside ourselves.

Though the article, and the scientists, want to avoid drawing out too many philosophical conclusions from these spider studies, I think thinking about extended cognition, niches, and the natural/artificial divide can help us ask better questions about ourselves and our place in both physical and social spheres. Our cities, art, and language are all ways in which we embed ourselves in niches within the natural world–and these niches shape not only how we can work and move, but how we think and feel as well. Every city is a way of dealing with nature, of trying to make our part of the world more hospitable for human beings (and some select animal friends), just as much as other human structures attempt to order nature in certain ways. So there is feedback between how we build our niches, how we think, and how we reorder and continue to build further.

This is why we, as individuals who are always embedded in webs of cognition and activity with others and with our environments, have to remake our built environment if we are going to establish a better society. It’s not just the social relations in which we are embedded, but the physical spaces themselves that create and concentrate misery and alienation for some and opulence for a few others. For human life to flourish, we need a comprehensive approach to revolution, changing how we think, how we build, and how we think through our machines and niches.

Flourishing in an Impure World

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“The delineation of theoretical purity, purity of classification, is always imbricated with the forever-failing attempt to delineate material purity–of race, ability, sexuality, or, increasingly, illness.”

–Alexis Shotwell, Against Purity: Living Ethically in Compromised Times, p. 4.

Health has recently been on everyone’s mind for all the wrong reasons. The dismantling of the few health protections available to American citizens is a catastrophic outcome, another heavy link in a long chain of misery that has cast a pall over my mind for some time now. Nevertheless, it’s important to maintain a wider perspective. Our situation as human beings is now urgent and complex enough that moderate and “sensible” answers are now nothing but. Climate change and other impending crises transform caution and conciliation  into forms of delirium. Meanwhile, hallucinatory and seductive visions of a new world seem more solid and attainable than ever before. If we have fallen so far, it stands to reason there are heights untold to which we can rise, or else something beautiful and precious in the depths we are now exploring.

And, unfortunately, the legacies of capitalism, racism, colonialism, and other persistent forms of oppression and exploitation are built not just into ordinances and constitutions but into bridges, roads, and tunnels. Our electricity grids, water systems, and food production systems are “dripping head to toe in blood” as Marx would have it. Consequentially, even if we could end capitalism tomorrow with no resistance, we would be coexisting with the ruins of the old world for generations. So although utopian thinking is often associated with purity or cleansing–especially but not only when that utopia implies genocidal practices–the reality of anarchism, communism, and other yearnings for a new world is that they require grappling with an awful mess. This mess overruns the global and the personal, making our planet, our towns, our food, our bodies impossible to purify.

On a material level, we have to grasp the fact that our bodies can’t be purged of chemicals and artificial substances that are omnipresent in our world. Air, water, and other people carry these substances in their bodies, and no one born today is exempt from them. People’s endocrine and immune systems might be affected in unique ways by this–and I’m quite familiar with the consequences of endocrine disruption–and our response can either be purgative or productive. One’s politics, I think, have a lot to do with how one formulates the problem and, therefore, what kind of solution it requires. For someone consumed by an obsession with material purity, the problem of pollution and low-dosage chemical intake might be to purge all those who are most obviously affected. After all, they are such a burden, they might reason, and the healthy people should not be responsible for them. This is a purgative response, common to juice cleansers and neo-Nazis alike, albeit with much different levels of ethical and political gravity.

Meanwhile, the productive response is, quite simply, to see that the world as a whole is compromised and complex and to remake that world into a better one. When we realize that our problems cannot be subtracted from the world like arithmetic, that we have to build a better world if we want to live in a better world, we can start to wrestle with the more detailed ethical and political questions that impinge on us. Coexistence and acceptance might look like a form of nihilism, and some have adopted nihilism as a name for their attempts to prefigure a better world and cope with this one. But for me, I think it implies a commitment to flourishing, a commitment to a set of norms and ethics that are qualitatively different from the negative, purgative ones we so often encounter.

And unfortunately, our own movements are often host to attitudes of self-righteousness and purging. There are healthy forms of purging–removing ourselves from blatantly unsafe situations, excising abusive people from our lives–but our constant attempts to police our own purity of thought often come at the expense of others’ flourishing and health. Recognizing ourselves as fundamentally compromised and the problems we are collectively working on as inescapably complex takes an active life. Intervening in the world, seeing it shift and give you feedback, being attentive–these are the ways we can build viable movements and worthwhile relationships with each other. Call-out culture, which is intensely purgative and purity-obsessed, can prevent us from moving past recognizing the potential for a new world. Gnosis and language become the ultimate arbiters of someone’s worth, which generates bitterness and resentment. These feelings can infect and demoralize many while actively hurting others in more serious ways.

To paraphrase Jennifer Wells, when we look at the world we increasingly see that all the things we once saw as passive are in fact part of active and dynamic systems. Every particle, bacterium, animal, building, storm, and so on push on the world in their own ways. Various other systems, then, push back. In this constant and evolving loop of actions and feedback, we can find the meaningful connections. Having done so, we can imagine new connections. These virtual worlds, these possible places where there is room and time enough for our free development, are already coming into existence. Only time can tell if they will find a permanent foothold here, or if they will remain just glimmers. But there is no escape into purity. And the sooner we act in accordance with the real complexity of our situation, the sooner we can remake our environments instead of resenting them.*

Note: I struggle with depression and anxiety and certain self-destructive habits and tendencies. I do not mean to invalidate real anger or harm, only a sense of resigned bitterness and complacency. Feeling paralyzed and broken is not bad, and indeed is also inescapable for most. My point is that we should do what we can to remake the world around us, to make it so its complexity is no longer oppressive and toxic. Everyone can do this in tiny ways even if our capacities are limited for whatever reason.

Out Like a Lamb: Day 14: Let’s Talk Chaos

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OK, what does a trans person in academia like? Well, if you were to ask that question about me, I would reply with something resembling this post. It’s time to lay back and discuss some of my most cherished personal interests. In particular, I’ll be focusing on a couple of intellectual topics that are both interconnected and drive a lot of the scholarship I do both for school and for pleasure. Neither of them is directly related to my trans experience, but they both inform how I see myself, my body, and my place in the wider world.

1: Chaos and Complexity

This has been a preoccupation of mine for a few years now, though I am just starting to get a decent grasp of what theories of chaos and complexity mean for historical studies. This is mostly because I had not read as deeply in environmental history and the mathematical and scientific basis for complexity as I have now. In a nutshell, the reason I am interested in chaos (ways of describing very sensitive, non-linear systems) and complexity (mostly around the issues of predictability and what exceeds human control is because they are useful concepts for linking my sense of an unruly or unpredictable body to a larger set of relationships.

I find this especially pertinent since we are living in an age that is beyond purity. Our bodies are collectives formed not just of human bits but also of synthetic chemicals, organic agents, micro-organisms, and other products of a permeable and open body. Our skin, as it turns out, is not a good separator, but rather a bridge that, while it does filter out certain kinds of environmental detritus, also links us with the wider world, especially where chemicals are concerned. Learning how to think about humanity’s place within energy systems, air and water circulation, and other structures that we have built but have become an imposition or alienated from us like pollution is a vital task. We have to learn to cope with our own fundamental impurity and integration into our surroundings, as well as with fellow human beings and other forms of life. The politics of purity, exemplified by border security, policing, Christian morality, and racial logic, have bared their fangs, and defeating them requires a robust sense of how to live with and thrive with impurity.

Complexity and unpredictability are also an important aspect to this. Advancements in scientific studies of complexity and chaos, as well as biological and social applications of these concepts, have led to a greater understanding of just how much human beings could control even in an ideal scenario. Attempts to reshape the natural environment, or centralized attempts to reorganize human society and its relationship to nature, are often reckless and ill-considered. Even with perfect information, however, the sensitivity and chaotic nature of open systems makes planning every outcome impossible. Even acknowledging the value of large-scale social organization in some cases, as well as some forms of centralized coordination, our interventions require careful consideration and a more pronounced emphasis on flexibility and decentralized social power.

2: Oceans!

Environmental history is overall pretty great. It contributes some of the most vital perspectives within the entire discipline. Despite its many advances, however, most of its thinking has been dedicated to terrestrial landscapes. Since my heart yearns for the sea, I have taken on the challenge of studying the ocean, which is a challenging task for a variety of reasons. With some numerous but isolated exceptions, most human beings do not make permanent dwellings on the ocean. Though there are examples of oceanic nomads in history (golden age pirates being the most well-known in my circles) oceans are typically seen as transit points rather than places where events or large-scale processes unfold. Or else, as in a lot of spatial theory, the oceans and seas are treated as social or cultural metaphors. One or the other.

Oceans are, however, the site of both extensive resource extraction and scientific investigation as well as warfare. Though I haven’t read too deeply in oceanography or more humanistic oceanic studies, I think these bodies of salt water remain some of the least studied despite how vital they have been throughout recorded history. Not just as transit, but as sites of sacred fear or reverence, war, flight, and technological development. In other words, oceans are screaming at us to pay attention, but relatively few of us do. Rather than resent this fact, we’ll see what I can do about rectifying that.

OK, time for the next three posts! Getting into the home stretch:

March 25: Here I’ll be musing on about some issues related to how trans and queer people relate to each other as well as the concept of relationship anarchy. Serious issues, but full of potential hope for the future.

March 26: City mouse here talks about my affinity for cities and my struggles when I lived in a more rural area.

March 27: Left-wing politics have been a cornerstone of how I live my life for the last several years, so it’s about time I gave them their due with a journal entry.

Socialism in the Wasteland

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Propaganda image of Dazhai, China, the site of an agricultural project that became the focus of a national campaign during the later Mao years.

Soon, very soon, I will review Judith Shapiro’s Mao’s War on Nature. Tonight, however, I’m going to write frankly and personally about a topic that’s dear to me. I can’t write a blog entirely about other people’s words, after all! I mention the book, however, because it has sharpened my thoughts and feelings about what I value and dream about. Because although analysis and rational thought inform my goals, my affiliations, and my ethical choices, human rationality is inescapably linked to physical structures of my own body as well as my social contacts and personal tastes. Fantasies and desires, emotional satisfaction, and physical security inform and permeate my decision-making process. Coming out as trans could be construed as a purely rational decision, but that decision is only rational if my desires for personal freedom, for recognition, and for living truthfully outweighed my desires for conformity, social peace, or keeping secrets.

Shapiro’s book notes that Mao’s conception of both human/human relations and human/nature relations was one of struggle. Common metaphors and fantasies conjured by Mao’s speeches and writings often revolve around the power of sheer numbers of people to overcome greater or more concentrated power. Filtered through a mind steeled by military leadership, these metaphors and narratives included the ability to win against American nuclear attacks through sheer population size and the infinite creative power of labour infused with ideological enthusiasm. A proper political line, mobilized among a gigantic population, could master nature entirely. This mindset, of course, was not enough to wreak the devastation of watersheds, lakes, hillsides, forests, animal life, and, often, human life that Shapiro describes. Rather, Mao won many over to his side, operationalizing a programme through administrative teams and cadres capable of mobilizing (voluntarily or otherwise) millions of people for often ill-conceived engineering projects.

Moreover, due to a somewhat understandable mistrust of experts and intellectuals, scientific critics of these projects were often criticized and silenced, even branded as pariahs. Even as Mao broke with the Soviet model and attempted to direct the state to pursue less concentrated forms of industrialization, the organic world was conceived in antagonistic and instrumental terms. Socialism, meanwhile, was supposed to solve issues of subsistence, population growth, and environmental protection by its very nature. Only capitalists could be despoilers. For Shapiro, the key enablers of the dramatic environmental destruction that went on in the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution’s Dazhai model projects, and the erection of the Third Front in the Chinese interior as a hedge against Soviet invasion, was not socialism itself but rather a cluster of factors. The suppression of minority ways of life and knowledge about the environment, practical silencing of dissent, and militaristic disregard for natural systems’ own value all contributed to these tragic events.

Yet, as Shapiro notes and as I observe in news stories about the suppression of the EPA and National Parks Service in the United States––not to mention the wastelands being created by capitalist Chinese mining and construction industries–-socialism and capitalism have similarly dismal records of neglecting the protection of resources and the delicate dependence humans have on resources.

Given this, I wanted to take inventory of my own fantasies, desires, and reasons for being a Marxist. It’s a myth that bad people destroy natures, whether human or beyond our particular genetic group. Every individual, every social group, every mode of production is capable of spinning ecosystems and energy systems into chaos, causing local or global deprivation and destruction. One apt criticism of Marxists that I’ve had to wrestle with is that we tend to think that because we think correctly we are insulated from error. Adventurists and worshippers of spontaneity rush in ill-prepared while we lay long-term plans and create organizations of considerable scope and complexity. Political line is everything, we think, and we go to considerable lengths to enforce a certain mindset and a certain style. What the history of Marxism and the environment (and LGBT people, for that matter) shows is that well-intentioned and deeply committed and wise people can be just as hurtful and dangerous as those who are out for profit or self-interest. To an animal or tree or a mountain or wetland, the politics behind its destruction don’t matter.

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The Aral Sea, 1989 on the left and 2014 on the right. The Soviet Union and its successor states have used this inland lake for irrigating cotton fields with disastrous and toxic results.

Often, the fantasies that animate Marxism, in both academia and in power, are fantasies (not in the genre sense but in the sense of hopes and desires) about harmony and control. Chaos and “anarchy of production” arise as some of the worst aspects of capitalism. Everything under socialism will be nationalized, centralized, made orderly and neat. Everyone will have a basic living and we will gradually but inexorable solve the great problems capitalism has left us.

What our history tells us, though, is that fantasies about control and order are some of the most dangerous. I know that I’ve caught myself fantasizing about leading this-or-that enterprise or managing people, making a name for myself. Deleuze and Guattari’s discussion of how fascism and obsessively conformist modes of desiring and action can proliferate even among those who most desire freedom resonates with me because of this. While it’s obviously preferable and necessary to have a correct and well-reasoned political line and to gather and organize the people necessary to perform these goals, we have to remember to avoid fetishizing the purely rational. I don’t mean that we adopt a skepticism of any rationality of science, but rather that we don’t mistake our reason for something better than what it is. We have to remember that collective decisions can be pushed through because of fear and insecurity, people’s desires to avoid rocking the boat, and not necessarily because more minds will be more right than one.

Being a pro-ecological Marxist means we have to avoid pretending that revolution will fix our problems. Revolutions have brought great terror and suffering ––to intended and unintended victims––as well as joy and enthusiasm. In practical terms, it means living well, building a sense of your own ethics, of pursuing your own path, of organizing with people who will be creative and constructive and not just destructive and gloomy. Revolution might be necessary, now more than ever, but reaching that “other side” is worthless if we are not prepared, indeed if we have not already partly built, the new society that will arise. It means accepting a certain level of chaos, the contingency of your own body and those of others, and the fact that progress is not a matter of more control but, because it will involve more people reaching their potential, more complexity and a recognition that our actions can have unforeseen consequences.

Marxists value history greatly, which is valuable. But we are often either so fixated on our mistakes or so defensive and resistant to negative lessons that we lose sight of its real complexity. Unfortunately, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Criticism and self-criticism are not in themselves great solutions because they are only formal procedures that can twist into grotesque self-negation and bullying. This is about the ethics and ethos of the movement, and will involve a process of conversation, of building alternative and non-alienating spaces for contemplation and pleasure, of decisive action, of recognizing that we have to respect the power of the world beyond our species. Socialism in the wasteland is not much better than capitalism in the wasteland. So it’s socialism or barbarism––for sure––but as we know, barbarians aren’t the only ones who can destroy.

Follow the Curves: Anti-Area Studies and Environmental History

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“[B]oth the traditional disciplines and area studies often incorporate similar underlying assumptions about the nature of social space. Both, in other words, tend to take for granted the reality and integrity of entities like `Latin America’ or `Southeast Asia’. They also incorporate similar ideas about the relationship between scholar and subject of study. That is to say, disciplinary as well as area studies often embody an implicit image of `the West’ as the fountainhead of theories with which to interpret the rest of the world.”

–Tessa Morris-Suzuki, “Anti-Area Studies,” Communal/Plural 8, no. 1 (2000), 19.

Here Morris-Suzuki, a well-known veteran of Japanese studies, challenges disciplinary and area studies from one angle. She goes on to recommend a remedy in the form of an “anti-area studies” that would locate global forces to examine comparatively as they work in areas that are quite distant from one another.

This is necessary because traditional area studies are built around those rickety blocs of earth-space called “regions” which, when we’re talking about territories as large as “East Asia” or “North Africa,” tend to lure scholars into the trap of exaggerating the commonalities that just so happen to pervade a given pre-constructed region. One example might be “individualism” for North America or “Confucianism” for what we would call East Asia. The problem is twofold. First, the way a social process like Confucianism operates within a certain region changes depending on how we draw the boundaries for a region. The “Middle East,” for example, is notoriously impossible to map in any coherent way, sometimes being limited to the Arab-Persian-Kurdish-Turkish-Jewish-Azeri-etc. core around the Mediterranean and other times stretching as far as Libya, Sudan, and Afghanistan. Second, the fact that a set of ideas or institutions and practices are prevalent within a certain space does not make those ideas or institutions and practices core to those areas. Christianity has adherents throughout many regions but does not simply “define” those areas because it’s there and happens to occupy a contiguous territory.

Environmental history can take Morris-Suzuki’s challenge and carry it still further. We’ve already seen sprawling environmental histories of the world that look at multiple dispersed reactions to global phenomena (ice ages, solar disruptions, El Niño events) that cannot be contained by region. Even studies of national entities or states and their relationship to the environments within their territories, disease-causing organisms, ocean tides, and other nonhuman processes and beings are blind to the nation and state. A comparative study of, for example, British and Japanese responses to urban cholera epidemics will consider both countries within their particular “regions,” of course, but it also allows for an appreciation of similarities and differences that do not map onto proximity or distance. Two countries at opposite ends of the world deal with the same problems of trying to preserve particular human bodies from particular germs. Used with a critical eye, the environmental-historical approach can shake both disciplinary complacency and the often-imperialistic projections of area studies.

Inherent in the environmental approach, of course, is the risk of attempting to explain too much or assuming consistencies on a species-wide basis that might not exist. Comparisons cast across huge distances can also come up with little relevant information if there are not enough bases for comparison or the researcher has not framed their questions in a productive way. But I see the entire ecological approach to politics and scholarship a powerful tool for avoiding these pitfalls, since the approach can integrate to divergent spatial and temporal scales, finding how more universal, slow-to-change processes interact with localized and singular events. Seeing the world as more opaque and less “hieroglyphic” and “readable,” as Suzuki puts it, we can confront the difficulties of an ecological approach to history and anti-area studies with a renewed awareness that our frameworks and theories will disintegrate in translation more often than not.

New Year’s Smorgasbord: Three Thoughts to Carry into 2017

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Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings #30

Happy New Year to all of my patient regular readers! I wanted to start off 2017 with a post that was more freeform than usual. Because my predominate mood the past few months has been healthy but painful uncertainty, I have been stretching out to find new insights and creative approaches to the problems I’ve been encountering. And to give the blog a loose and sketchy overture for the year, I will put down three brief snapshots of where my mind has been at lately. To make it more meaningful, I plan on revisiting these three core ideas and refining them a few times throughout the year. Maybe by the end of this coming December I’ll have settled into a more solidified mental state. Or maybe not, but at least I’ll have this post as a time capsule to dredge up in the future.

Vignette #1: The City Woman

The LGBT movement is an urban movement. Cities like Toronto are the only places where we can gather in large enough numbers to forge our own affinities and communities, at least offline. We don’t have one role in the concrete-and-glass thicket––some of us are prisoners, some are upwardly mobile, some are homeless––but the city is our shelter, our environment. Solidarity in urban neighbourhoods differs greatly from the alliances that are possible among subsistence producers in rural areas. Everything we do winds through the so-called cash nexus, leaving us without the option of “dropping out” or trying to be self-sufficient. Only visions and plastic dreams of self-reliance can persist here.

For our movement to thrive, though, it must grow out of the sidewalks and alleyways. Vitally, we have to cultivate groups of LGBT readers, eaters, walkers, lovers, and workers who can deal with fear. Our fears haunt us, but our politics are blind if we let fear tell us what to do. And as long as we see our problems as problems for the state to solve, our petitions will be cursed wishes. Forcing the state to make our lives easier has not been in vain, but as prisoners of the status quo we can only formulate our problems in terms that we think the state can solve. When the state solves problems it does so with armies of soldiers, teachers and bureaucrats. More of the same, more of the same. And then the curse takes hold, as our desires, filed with special officers, become requests for cops to take our sisters to jail, to “clean up the streets,” to ultimately squeeze ourselves out of the cities on which we depend.

We need a city consciousness––Municipalism is one word we could use. While I’m not suggesting that LGBT people of all sorts abandon national or revolutionary aspirations, we have to recognize what we can do in organizing and improving our neighbourhoods, apartment blocks, and cities. We have a global vision, and perhaps a national programme, but we would not survive in a city if we let it die and rot. Nor is survival the ultimate goal; rather, we have to build a new world within our reach. Not everyone is inspired by lofty and abstract goals, especially at first, and solidarity is often starts with proximity and coincidence rather than intellectual agreement.

Vignette #2: Proliferating

As I mentioned in the introduction, whenever I try to think or act lately I’m dogged by an unfamiliar ambiguity or uncertainty. I can ascribe some of that to a long period of inactivity during the winter, but not all of it. Problems I thought I had solved continually re-present themselves to me. Partly, this has to do with the fact that my graduate school demands mingle with the anxieties of gender transition. Learning goes in stages of proliferation and consolidation as early experiments give way to solidity, which again dissolves under the stress of new and potentially contradictory information. Here is a form of movement that is not exactly progressive. It’s expansive and twisting, with abrupt changes in speed that can throw the thinker into unexplored terrain.

The wrong response to this change is to batten down and resist it. For now, I am in the proliferating stage, seeking answers in unknown areas for questions I was unable to solve in the last time of apparent certainty. Political and intellectual certainties––not even mentioning sexual or personal identities––tend to self-destruct over time while leaving remnants of themselves. I suppose I was due for another storm. Change is usually good, but it helps to confirm this with a tight group of confidants who can challenge and shape your development in productive ways. After all, when one individual changes, the connections that person has will inevitably shift as well.

Vignette #3: Four-Act Stories

On a more creative level, I have been writing a loosely linked series of stories in my spare time. Studying Satoshi Kon’s films and reading traditional Japanese poetry, I stumbled on the concept of kishotenketsu, which is a four-act mode of storytelling found in China, Japan, and some other countries in that cultural sphere. Kishotenketsu is obviously the Japanese name for this structure. In any case, however, my interest in it is that it is a form of storytelling that does not revolve around central conflicts between characters, themes, or ideas. Rather, it puts them into chaotic tension with each other, somewhat like the structure of a Western musical symphony with its scherzo, expositing premises and themes  and then introducing a twist that radically changes how the reader views the the established elements. While not for everyone, the form appeals to me because it shows that you can write plot without prioritizing conflict.

In fact, attempting to produce writing in this form-–poetic and prose––triggered questions about my own approach to politics. Though Marxism is traditionally explained in terms of a strong narrative conflict––different core groups of people within a society struggle over the allocation of power and resources, and this drives history forward. However, I’m increasingly skeptical of historiographies that are purely linear and can’t account for forms of (metaphorical) historical motion that are neither forward nor backward. Perhaps it’s possible to restate Marxism in terms that account for non-linearity and degrees of chaos and order, the tensions and twists that are not necessarily antagonistic but that nonetheless reshape history and our understanding of it.

***

Closing:

I’d like to wish all of my friends, friendly readers, and comrades a New Year overflowing with possibilities. With so much uncertainty suspended in the air this January, we can all use reassurance and solidarity as an antidote to fear. May all our order be tranquil and all our chaos be creative. And let us together build things we have not yet imagined.

A Hundred Thousand Names: Against Fear, Against Hope

Hundred Thousand Names cover

“It follows from the definition of these emotions, that there can be no hope without fear, and no fear without hope”

–Baruch Spinoza, Ethics  (Project Gutenberg)

Trans people’s fears are near, named, sure as battery acid. Clocking, trans panic, side effects, anaesthesia, Mum, Dad, the ex, the camera, the old book of photos, Dr. So-and-so down at the shrink’s office. For good measure,we can add Donald Trump’s name to that list. Not one of my conversations with trans and even cis queer people since the 8th has carried on a steady pace. They fibrillate, that is, they tremble like a failing heart. Everyone feels the fear. We feel it alone, and we feel it together, that electrical shiver. Everyone I know is going to one protest or another, icing friends who voted for the mockery of flesh, urging their companions to get name changes before what we know will be a long winter sets in.

My agenda here is neither to diffuse this fear nor to stoke anger. I would be a fool for trying the first, and our righteous anger hasn’t yet dimmed enough to need stoking. Instead, I want to present a map that will provide my friends and comrades a very, very cursory understanding of our present situation. We don’t need the people Spinoza calls prophets, who manipulate fear and hope. We starve for Confidence, that sense of assurance that our bodies are capable, that we can throttle our nightmare and shake some truth out of it! Trans people, especially our black and indigenous kin, are told every step they take is out of line, that all we can count on is our own disposability. This is true regardless of who sits in the White House. When drawing up this map, I want to rely on truths like this, reminding myself and the rest of us that we are hell-bent on the destruction of a machine that passes from thief to thief. It is this process of inheritance, of the birth and rebirth of death in the form of capitalism, that we have to kill.

More often than not, on the grand scale, exactly whose face we’re kicking in doesn’t matter so much, right?

I’ll begin, as all life did, with the earth. Before November 8 capitalism was slowly killing us. For trans people in imperialist countries, “our” states were assaulting Lumad, Oceti Šakowiŋ, Afghans, Okinawans, Brazilian peasants, Hondurans, our own urban proletarians for profit. Imperialists and capitalists don’t just decapitate mountains to look for coal. The people in Flint were denied clean water in the middle of the Great Lakes. The Dakota Access Pipeline and its brood multiplied and continue to multiply. Unfortunately, we white middle class “greens” retreated into nihilism––or into the organic food section, whichever was closer. We somehow imagined that we could cure the Earth without the workers and indigenous and racialized people whose islands were sinking and whose water was corrupted! Hope is our accomplice: we hold out the vague wish that some techno-paradise will emerge like a God to save us. Before November 8, maybe we had some hope left that the “good king” could lead us back to the Great Valley or the Promised Land. Unfortunately, our liberal kin seem to be difficult to teach on this matter.

In essence, capitalism is doing what it must to survive: grow, exploit more and more resources and people, blind itself to everything except profit. If you can be profitable, you are valuable. If not, not. How long can we live with a cancer like capitalism that sees us and all our living and nonliving companions on this Earth as nothing more than means to its own growth?

Even the “good” Obama did nothing to prevent this. The “good” king expanded base building in Africa, deportations, and resource extraction backed up by drones, cops, and liberal newspapers. These political-electoral-criminal machines our liberal trans kin trusted keep crushing them underfoot. Let’s learn from this. Forget the trite fantasy stories, because we know that in real life the “good king” never changes anything for the vast majority who are oppressed and exploited. Capitalism has many faces, beautiful and ugly, and the crucial thing is to see the thing in its monstrous entirety rather than be distracted by a pretty façade.

But we’re already tired! How does recounting all these terrible, huge processes give us Confidence?  So things were bad before and keep being bad! Is that Confidence?

Of course not! But a traveller cannot be sure of their path unless they have a map made as truthfully and accurately as possible. A surgeon can’t remove a tumour unless they know with confidence the difference between cancerous and healthy tissue. Just the same, we have the need to lash out. If we are lashing out in the dark, without the sure knowledge of who our enemies and friends are or where we’re going, how do we know we won’t hurt the ones we need to join with and help the ones we’re trying to destroy? Confidence is the knowledge that we are capable of victory. It’s not the blind optimism that says we will win for sure. It’s the calm resolve that imperialism and capitalism are fragile and that we can and must bring them down. Even if we don’t know the future, we know what we need and we know what we have to do to get it. This is the knowledge, the love that will sustain us at times like this when all our traditional comforts (for those who had them at all) are being eroded.

It can’t sustain us by itself, of course. We all need to belong to strong, revolutionary organizations that can nourish us and sharpen our work. Confidence is not something we can have alone, since individuals are frightfully weak and unsure beings. We have confidence in and through our comrades. Communism means taking the knowledge that all of us have accumulated through experimentation and practice and transforming that knowledge into a means of actually destroying the source of our greatest sickness.

If we try to do anything of this scale alone, our defeats will push us into surrender and Despair. But with Confidence to keep us level-headed through victories and resilient to failures, we can start to build a movement that can actually abolish capitalism, the living nightmare. Watch for organizations and parties doing good work in your area, learn voraciously, always be vigilant. Especially us, trans people. We know something about uncomfortable transitions, planning for the long term, and relying on a network of mutual supporters instead of uncaring parents or the state. Our tasks are urgent and the times are desperate, but with a razor-sharp understanding and the Confidence of strong organizations that we will help build, we need not rely on hopes.

Insights from Richard Grove: Imperial Conservationism

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Reading history in academia often means gutting and flaying a book like fresh snapper. The practice transforms an object with intrinsic worth and literary integrity into a utilitarian conversation piece. Analogies like “strip-mining” and “gutting” try to capture some of the violence of this practice, which is conditioned by necessity and enforced by convention. Only rarely, therefore, do books read for class have an immediate emotional impact on me.

Richard Grove’s Green Imperialism: Colonial Expansion, Tropical Island Edens and the Origins of Environmentalism, 1600-1860, or Green Imperialism to its friends, made an unusual impression on me as I read it. Hastily turning pages and searching for topic sentences, I lamented that I was not able to get a more comprehensive understanding of the book and its argument. Nonetheless, I wanted to present some excerpts from the book with light commentary with the intent of sharing its virtues.

Insight 1: Physiocrats and Bureaucrats

“The environments of tropical islands thus became even more highly prized, so that it may come as no surprise to discover that it was upon one of them, Mauritius, that the early environmental debate acquired its most comprehen- sive form. Under the influence of zealous French anti-capitalist physiocrat reformers and their successors between 1768 and 1810, this island became the location for some of the earliest experiments in systematic forest conservation, water-pollution control and fisheries protection. These initiatives were carried out by scientists who characteristically were both followers of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and adherents of the kind of rigorous scientific empiricism associated with mid-eighteenth-century French Enlightenment botany. Their innovative forest-conservation measures were based on a highly developed awareness of the potentially global impact of modern economic activity, on a fear of the climatic consequences of deforestation and, not least, on a fear of species extinctions.”

–Richard Grove, Green Imperialism, 11.

For those without the patience for blockquotes, I’ll summarize: tropical islands became on of Western environmentalism’s first theatres of struggle. Under the influence of the Physiocrats, early political economists who thought agriculture was the only truly productive economic activity, French intendants in places like Mauritius implemented conservation regimes. Tropical islands were especially important areas for the development of Western imperialist environmentalism because it was there that the contradictions between colonial resource extraction and the vitality of natural systems was the most obvious. In other words, islands are small, vulnerable places that are both more easily experimented on and more easily drained of resources.

So much for a brief summary of the material contradictions that incited these attempts to design and implement conservation policies. Another aspect that Grove emphasizes is the European association of tropical islands with Eden and paradise.

The increasing empiricism of travel literature derived simply from the greater frequency and regularity of long-distance travel. During the seventeenth cen- tury, as the work of John Donne suggests, the axis of interest began to shift away from the Americas towards the East, where a growing intellectual and Orientalist curiosity was developing alongside commercial concerns…Because of their geographical position astride the trade routes, St Helena and Mauritius became naturally prominent in this literature. Both islands were important staging posts on the Cape and Indian trading routes. Being uninhabited, they were peculiarly amenable to the kinds of projection and Edenic treatment described above. To sailors exhausted and weakened by long voyages, they were veritable paradises, bowers of untouched woodlands made up of plant species and inhabited by birds never before seen by man.

Green Imperialism, 42.

Tropical islands, especially uninhabited ones like Mauritius, embodied the aspirations of people who wanted a clean break from a morally unclean world. Aside from the real relief they provided to sailors, they also captivated travellers and writers, including Shakespeare. It now seems apparent to me that ideologies of protecting untouched nature or an edenic paradise and the “empty land” ideologies of settler-colonialism share a common nature. That is, they fabricate an ideal to which the land must conform and produce that imagined space in the real world, displacing previous inhabitants where they exist. Indeed, liberal and reactionary environmentalism often dominate over the radical kind, and even the physiocrats put up a stronger anti-capitalism than many present-day green activists we’re familiar with.

I plan on reading Green Imperialism more thoroughly over the next few weeks. At some point, I may produce a full review of the book. For now, I have presented some of its key insights, which are developed with rich detail and an admirable attention to method in the book. I am still grappling with its underlying thesis, but I feel fairly sure of its relevance to us: the periphery of the colonial system was the place where the contradictions of capitalism and the environment first became apparent. That thesis is just as true in the era of climate change as it was when the dodo was just going extinct.

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