Monday, April 3, 2017

The world-(that’s)-to-come(-to-an-end): a ‘subvival’ guide. Some comments on Déborah Danowski and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro 2017. The Ends of the World (trans. Rodrigo Nunes). Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.

It was just a brief reference, a single word, made kind of en passant, in what is a critical survey of the way human thought is trying to come to terms with the ecological crisis and the end of the world as we know it. Yet that word somehow captured what to me was the issue that is at the core of the book. Talking about the environmental crisis and noting the various ways in which people are trying ‘to survive’ it, the authors stop after ‘survive’ and add, or rather to ‘subvive’. They added the word and kept going without dwelling on it as if there was nothing to it.  Yet, it is precisely what the whole of this book dwells on. The fact that the very notion of ‘survival’ even when used with a recognition of the importance of the ecological crisis such as in a formulation like ‘can we survive the Anthropocene?’ lacks reflexivity. The usage of the prefix ‘sur’ which denotes the capacity to transcend, to rise above, etc… is so full of that very macho sense of omnipotence over ‘Nature’ that got us where we are in the first place that the usage of this ‘sur’ is no longer adequate. While ‘vive’ we must, we can forget about ‘surviving’. It will be wonderful if we can manage to subvive given all that is stacked against us. The prefix sub does not only reflect being ‘under’ but also the capacity to be content with ‘imperfection’, with a diminished state of being. In fact, it can be said that the whole politics of the book lies in drawing a battle line between survivalists and subvivalists. Those who still believe in a modern, technological overcoming of ‘nature’ and those who are happy to negotiate a minimal deal with the earth so as to secure our continued existence in some diminished way or another. For this is not just an analytical book. It is a book that does not shy away from drawing battle lines, or from categorizing and even naming the enemy. In this sense this is also a book for warriors and in search of warriors suited for an end-of-the-world politics. Environmental activists will learn a lot from it, indeed, I would say: they must read it. It is heavy but lightly and beautifully written which takes me to another important dimension of the book.

Beside helping delineate the analytical and political domain examined throughout the book, the minor inclusion of this ‘subvive’ word also points to the fact that we are dealing with authors of the highest technical caliber. A point that hardly needs to be made about Danowski and Viveiros de Castro but, still, as fellow writers/craftspeople we need to stop and marvel at this capacity to embody so much critical thinking and reflection in so little. Indeed, this is an exceptionally well written book in this regard. Another point to admire from a ‘craft of writing’ perspective is the clarity and heuristic ethos of a book that is dealing with seriously difficult material. One learns a lot about the social, political and ecological issues raised by the ecological crisis. One learns a lot about the various schools of thought that are grappling with it. Most importantly we have an exemplary mode of reviewing and critiquing the works of other writers such as Dipesh Chakrabarty, Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers. It is really an admirable skill to read, explain and in some way augment the work of fellow authors, clearly laying out the central arguments they are presenting, acknowledging the various ways in which they help you construct your own argument, and once this is done, engaging in a critique that, because of what precedes it, becomes far more powerful as it becomes centered around the capacity of a certain strand of thinking to achieve the specific tasks set for it. I have an ongoing interest both as a writer and a teacher in ‘how to use theory’ (see Hage, Towards an Ethics of the Theoretical Encounter. Anthropological Theory, 2016). This is one book that I will be using in my teaching as an example of how an ethical reading and critique of other writers should be done.

As far as the content of the critique goes, at one level, it can be said to be simply an attempt to bring a colonial critique to bear on authors such as Latour and show some of the persisting Euro-centrism in their thought. This is indeed done very convincingly including a funny reflection concerning the theoretical fixation of European thinkers on Greek words. Even Dispesh Chakrabarty, in what I thought was a good moment he must have himself appreciated (he has written a blurb for the book), had his previous ‘subaltern studies’ thrown back at him. It was a reminder that even when aiming at capturing the geological impact of humans, analytical thought does not itself become ‘geological’ but remains structured by class, colonial, gender, etc. relations of power. But in some ways there is more to Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s critique than your usual attempt at introducing a de-colonial/indigenous thought. Taking for granted the many possible ways in which indigenous people relate to modernity and capitalism, and going way beyond the usual simplistic arguments about the fear of ‘essentializing’ and romanticizing indigenous people as anti-modern etc… Articulated to reflections on the Maya as ‘end of the world experts’, the book works with a genuinely liberating and politically powerful conception of ‘indigenous’ agency as a form of subvivalism. I’ve not kept it a secret that I have a soft spot for Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s thought. Now I have to say that I have a soft spot for Danowski and Viveiros de Castro’s thought as well. Nonetheless, soft spot or not, it is hard headedly that I say that if you are a thinker or an activist concerned with the ecological crisis the issues raised by this book are unavoidable. If you think they are avoidable, it is yourself who is totally avoidable :) Voila.

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