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Anthropological theory at the end of the world (as we know it)

Some of us have been living in the aftermath of apocalypse for generations; some of us have been living comfortably but now find our homes at risk of flooding; some of us only watch the life-threatening changes taking place around us on our screens. Some of us are rebelling and striking for the climate; some live off grid; some argue that climate change is a hoax. Whilst there may be a near enough consensus in the scientific community about the urgency of the situation we face, global public opinion is less unified, and governmental action is grindingly incremental at best, nihilistic at worst. Here I make a brief foray into this topic with the hope that anthropology has something useful to say about the mess we are in.

I take as my launchpad Bruno Latour’s thesis in chapter 6 of his recent book, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, which attributes Western climate scepticism to a deeply embedded philosophical outlook in which Moderns see themselves as living after the apocalypse – that is, the final revelation of modernity – and cannot quite process the idea that another (ecological) apocalypse is unfolding. I open with Latour not in order to present his thesis as my only subject of concern, but because it offers a helpful point of departure (and return) for considering complementary and contrasting ethnographic evidence. In Part 2 of what follows, I will argue that postcolonial and feminist theories are not secondary but central to an adequate understanding of the Anthropocene, and in Part 3 I explore how these are synthesised in Elizabeth Povinelli’s work on geontologies. My conclusion here is that some of the literature on the Anthropocene helpfully points to the precarious future of nation state politics. I hope that my discussion will highlight the opportunities anthropology has to help us face the Anthropocene constructively, with whatever little hope we may have left.

Part 1: Immanentization of the eschaton?

Let me start with a brief outline of Latour’s sixth (and most dense) Gaia lecture. Borrowing from Eric Voegelin, Latour traces the origins of the current predicament of Western thought to the theology of Joachim of Fiore, who in the 12th Century added a new epoch, the Kingdom of the Spirit, to the Christian understanding of history, previously divided into the epochs of the Father and the Son. This is said to have brought the end of times – that is, the transcendence of salvation, the hope of the Christian heaven – within historical time, making knowable and controllable that which previously was neither. This new ‘certainty that the Kingdom of the Spirit will be realized here below’ (Latour 2017a: 198) as a result of human action is the modern embodiment of what Latour terms “counter-religion”, specific to monotheism, that divides peoples from one another on the basis of certitude (‘our god is the only god’) rather than connecting peoples through relational analogy (‘our god x is like their god y’). This certainty facilitated the politicisation of religion as generations of monks following Joachim of Fiore sought to build the kingdom of heaven on Earth, or to realise a utopia in their temporal context. The previously unstable relationship between immanence, understood as the time that passes, and transcendence, understood as the achievement of the ends, was thereby transformed into one in which the transcendent was (unsuccessfully) inserted into the immanent, through a process of “immanentization” (Voegelin’s term) (2017a: 200). The Gnostic turn in Christianity flourished through these movements as the followers of a faith marked by fear and trembling succumbed to the temptation to find certainty; compounded by the new incontrovertible claims the sciences began to make in the 17th century, religion eventually became ‘nothing but an effort – obviously futile – to resemble assured and indisputable knowledge’ (2017a: 203).

What Latour implies, rather than describing at length, is that immanentization made it possible for Christianity to turn on itself in what is commonly understood as the secularisation process of later modernity, during which the certainty that the ends would be achieved within historical time was transformed into a certainty that the ends have already been achieved via modern secularism. This coincided with the absolute denial of transcendence whilst taking a transcendent view-from-nowhere of materiality, which became constructed as idealised “matter”. Such a distortion of materiality means that the Moderns lost both Heaven and Earth, and with them all meaningful contact with materiality which is now corrupted by ‘an overdose of ill-placed transcendence’ (2017a: 200). If modern atheistic secularism is the opposite to religion, it is because it is the modern manifestation of counter-religion which asserts its singular truth above and against all others, and therefore has much in common with modern fundamentalist religions. Some of this has resonances with Latour’s earlier work, with the politicisation of religion appearing as a hybrid of purportedly purified categories (Latour 1993). But rather than revisiting his previous work, Latour uses Voegelin’s theology to place his focus upon the Moderns’ position in their contemporary ecological context. Placing themselves after the certainty heralded by modernity that brought the achievement of the ends within historical time, Latour argues that the Moderns cannot come to terms with the message of the current Apocalypse of the Anthropocene – it cannot be thought possible for them since their apocalypse is already in the past. Here Latour is most clearly in his post-humanist mode as he discusses the de-animation of the Earth by scientific epistemology, which, compounded by the Gnostic denigration of materiality, underpins contemporary climate scepticism and inaction. The Moderns are “negligent”, in the counter-religious sense, towards ‘beings that belong to the realm of “nature”’ (2017a: 208).

Just as his diagnosis of the problem is theological or philosophical, Latour’s suggestions for change involve reforming the Moderns’ worldview around the new figure of Gaia. Gaia here is the third figure in the triangulation Latour has discussed elsewhere (2018a), offering a sustainable destination as against the (parochial, pre-globalised) Land of old, on the one hand, and the impossible Globe of modernity, on the other. We must learn to become “Earthbound”, or to return to “the soil” (Latour et al 2018), which makes us uncertain about what we are, unlike the present Moderns. Latour argues that to do this we need to “reterrestrialize” ourselves, to re-acquaint ourselves with the Earth(-as-Gaia), which is to rediscover materiality rather than abstract “matter”, and to re-situate ourselves within rather than after the apocalypse (2017a: 212-3, 217-9). Facing Gaia is a process of rehistoricising ourselves and the rest of the Earth, and therefore finally means ‘restoring autonomy, temporality, and history to all forms of agency and their distribution’ (2017a: 212). Actor network theory (ANT) and the “new animism” are given new fuel in the Anthropocene – the Parliament of Things from We Have Never Been Modern finds a new incarnation today as Latour argues for the representation of non-state, non-human bodies in climate negotiations. The Gaia concept itself as originally put forward by James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis has been variously interpreted; Latour is convinced that it should be understood not as a giant organism, or a system of superior governing laws to which Earth beings are subject (a new kind of deity), but a looser system of a collection of Earth beings that are mutually interdependent and always participating in creating their localities. Latour does not use the term, but as far as I can tell from his formulation, Gaia is a network.

Unsurprisingly, these ideas have been well received by Latour’s fellow post-humanists: Anna Tsing has described the lectures as a ‘revelation’ and a ‘moment of emancipation’ (Latour et al. 2018: 18) to be able to use apocalypticism as something positive and necessary; Donna Haraway thought the lectures were “fun” (Haraway et al. 2016: 546). As ever, Latour’s ambition in retelling the history of European modernity is impressive – although to me, Facing Gaia reads like an impressionist artwork: more inspiring viewed from a few steps back than when scrutinising the detail. Literary scholar Barbara Herrnstein Smith has suggested more diplomatically that whilst Latour’s work has much to offer, ‘scholars in [many varied] fields… are likely to be perplexed by various aspects of [his] writings and to find them, to various extents, intellectually or experientially alien’ (2016: 340), largely due to the way his work is shaped quite explicitly by his Catholicism. I would add that it is frustrating reading a contemporary anthropological text on the Anthropocene which has only around 12% of its cited texts authored by women (my estimate) and that only alludes to indigenous experience of apocalypse under colonialism as an afterthought (see Latour 2017a: 212). We should avoid being too quick to defend Latour and move on from these points. Without a doubt, it is EuroAmerican anthropology for EuroAmericans, and perhaps only a subset of them. Whether or not we consider this fundamentally objectionable (the same might be said of this essay, after all), it is worthwhile to probe with whom Latour engages and to whom his theories offer useful insight for surviving in the Anthropocene. Later I will discuss the extent to which his approach does and does not complement postcolonial and feminist approaches in this vein, but first I would like to consider more closely the thesis of the sixth Gaia lecture to evaluate the limitations of his focus on political theology.

Latour’s argument suggests that beliefs about the end of the world determine how people respond to threats they experience to their world. In fact, the relationship between eschatology and social behaviour is not self-evident. There are, of course, examples of groups for whom beliefs about the end of the world and their action in the world are closely linked, as shown by Harding’s (1994) analysis of the opening of dominant dispensationalist evangelical narratives to postmillennialism, and Robbins and Palmer’s (1997) volume on diverse apocalyptic movements. The potential for strong narratives to give rise to radical, even extremist and violent, action is clear, so we might be tempted to reason with Latour that getting the “right” narrative about the mess that is the Anthropocene should mean enthused positive action for a liveable future. However, there are important nuances that Latour doesn’t take into account. First, having a strong narrative about ecological breakdown doesn’t always entail the necessary transformation, as Peter Rudiak-Gould has shown (2014): in the Marshall Islands, a widely prevalent narrative of social and ecological decline and self-blame for climate change has not resulted in Marshallese people changing their behaviour. Second, other factors besides an acceptance of climate change as a real existential problem can be transformative for social action. Candis Callison’s (2014) ethnography of climate change discourse across North American publics includes an exploration of the evangelical “creation care” movement and emphasises that religious leadership and hermeneutics can be as vital for evangelicals to engage with climate change as believing the science, if not more so.

Moreover, whilst an appraisal of political economy is clearly indispensable for understanding and planning for the Anthropocene, Latour subordinates this to political theology. Latour claims to have his theological argument validated by Pope Francis’ celebrated encyclical Laudato Si’, stating that his argument ‘is exactly [Pope Francis’s] argument’ (Latour et al. 2018: 15). Looking at the encyclical itself, the connection is less clear. On a handful of occasions, Pope Francis does come close to blaming Gnosticism for our present situation. Yet beyond this, the Pope gives more attention to the relationship between ontology and political economy, arguing that humankind has moved from a relationship of mutuality with nature (‘receiving what nature itself allowed, as if from its own hand’ (2015: 79)) to a rational scientistic paradigm of ‘possession, mastery and transformation’ (2015: 79). Importantly, he links this paradigm to an indefensible overreliance on economic growth and profit maximisation that exploits natural resources beyond what the Earth can bear and perpetuates poverty – a move which Latour commends (Latour et al. 2018: 15) without attempting anything similar himself. Latour’s inattention to political economy, corporate lobbying power, and psycho-sociological explanations for climate change inaction (e.g. Hulme 2009) stems not from a disbelief in the relevance of these factors (since ‘[t]hose arguments may well hold up’ (Latour 2017a: 191)) but from a conviction that the political theology of modernity by which the Moderns came to denigrate Nature set the stage for these phenomena:

Why do ecological questions not seem of direct concern to our identity, our security, and our property? …Don’t tell me that it’s the scope of the threat or the distance from our daily preoccupations that makes the difference… No, reactivity and sensitivity are what have to be considered… In this case, it is as though we had decided to remain insensitive to the reactions of beings of a certain type – those who are connected, broadly speaking, to the strange figure of matter. In other words, what we have to understand is why we are not true materialists. (2017a: 191, emphasis in original)

But if, as we have seen, eschatological narrative is not in itself sufficient to explain climate (in)action, Latour’s confidence in a polemical argument focused on political theology is misplaced.

Whilst we may not see Facing Gaia as offering a complete explanation for climate scepticism and the emergence of the Anthropocene, Latour’s ideas do have a contribution to make, which I draw out through the rest of this essay. In the following section I consider vital framings of the Anthropocene which I feel Latour largely overlooks, those of postcolonialism and feminism, since these offer so much to work with in imagining how we might endure.

Part 2: Contextualising the eschaton

Postcolonial politics in the Anthropocene

There is a germ of a postcolonial project in Latour’s ideas which can be taken further with a more rigorous approach to ontology. Building on his long-standing argument for recognising human and non-human ontological status with greater parity, in Facing Gaia Latour leads us towards an ontological instability that recognises nature as an enemy with the potential to ontologically eradicate us. The New Climate Regime demands new ways of being in the world that the Moderns need to be open to. Latour’s interest in understanding peoples in certain idiosyncratic ways, asking questions such as, ‘By what supreme authority do they believe they have been convoked?’ and ‘In what epoch are they confident they are living?’ (Latour 2017a: 151), is motivated by a desire to ‘make room for other peoples, other occupations of the ground, other ways of being in the world’ (2017a: 216). He says we need to struggle for a politics that helps us ‘shatter the Apocalypse… to keep it from falling on us as we have fallen, we Westerners, as an apocalyptic rain on other cultures’ (2017a: 212).

Beyond this, however, Facing Gaia does not extend to any serious engagement with non-Western ontologies that potentially model already existing different ways of being in the world. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro have picked up on this theme in their text The Ends of the World (2017), which they suggest should be read alongside Facing Gaia and was written with Latour’s original Gifford lectures in mind. The authors object to his earlier dismissal of non-Modern ontology as not being “scalable” for cities and states, or more specifically, that indigenous groups are not ready to scale their ways of living for such contexts (see Danowski & Viveiros de Castro 2017: 95). Whilst this quote, as far as I can tell, is not reproduced in the (heavily revised) 2017 text of Facing Gaia, it remains the case that Latour does not indicate that a better understanding of and engagement with indigenous worldings might be of help in exploring different modes of being and enduring our Apocalypse. Danowski & Viveiros de Castro in contrast argue that there may be lessons to be learned from peoples who have been surviving the end of their worlds for so long already; in particular, they laud the Zapatista movement of Chiapas as the best example we have of a sustainable politics that resists the nation state and the Market. Perhaps alluding to post-growth and de-growth arguments, and explicitly opposing the ecomodernists who argue that more growth and technological fixes will help us adapt to climate change without any politico-economic change, they suggest that the rest of us need to find a way to scale down, slow down, and re- (or un-) civilise ourselves (2017: 96-97): we need a ‘cultural insurrection against the zombiefication of the citizen-consumer’ (2017: 98, emphasis in original). They invite us in turn to imagine ourselves as the first to have been invaded by the Humans (Latour’s Moderns), the aliens we have become, and to rediscover our indigeneity and become Terrans (Latour’s Earthbound) once more.

Clearly drawing on Viveiros de Castro’s work on Amerindian perspectivism, The Ends of the World takes a clearer position on ontology and situates itself in its postcolonial context in a more satisfying way than Latour’s text. Viveiros de Castro has been a key figure in the ontological turn, as described by Holbraad and Pedersen in their recent volume (2017) on the subject. The political potential of the ontological turn as they see it is that through taking ethnographic informants seriously and allowing informants’ concepts to transform their own, the ethnographer generates alterity having first encountered it. Alterity can then challenge dominant ways of thinking, making the anthropology of ontology “analytically anti-authoritarian” (2017: 297). Such an approach comes through in Danowski & Viveiros de Castro’s text through their analysis and their evident support for indigenous self-determination and politics beyond the nation state. Exploring Amerindian stories on the birth and death of the world, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro remind us of the universal personhood ascribed to all beings within Amerindian perspectivist cosmologies. The primordial humanity latent in all other beings raises the possibility of humanity outlasting humans as we understand them; this offers an interesting counterpoint to contemporary literature asking us to imagine “a world without us” (Weisman 2007; see also Chakrabarty 2008; Zalasiewicz 2008). Whereas a world without humans might at first feel unthinkable to many of us, for Amerindians, a world without humans as we know them may not mean a world without persons or relationality. Danowski and Viveiros de Castro imply that thinking with Amerindian perspectivism could transform our understanding of our future in the Anthropocene, and I suggest that in so doing they invite us to practice the politics of the ontological turn by welcoming alterity and disrupting established EuroAmerican thought. Their advice to “re-become indigenous” seeks to disrupt the now familiar but still deep-seated logic of progress, opposing those who would accuse such a suggestion of “moving backwards”, “returning to the past”. Moreover, their contribution offers a latent invitation to imagine our future differently – with more possibilities, and perhaps more hope that could fuel more action.

I suggest that if the ontological turn as described by Holbraad and Pedersen is marked both by a radicalising of anthropology’s longstanding commitment to reflexivity and by encountering alterity, Danowski and Viveiros de Castro uphold both of these principles, whilst Latour places the emphasis on reflexivity. One might argue that this is inevitable when conducting an anthropology of the Moderns as a Modern, but given anthropology’s inclination for cross-cultural comparison, this is not a satisfying explanation. Overall, Latour’s ideas, especially as they concern finding our way through the Anthropocene, are wanting in an exploration of alternative ways of being – and there is no shortage of examples. It is likely that work from elsewhere within the anthropology of ontology and literature on the Anthropocene will prove more generative in reimagining our possible futures moving forward; Marisol de la Cadena, as just one example, has put forward rich ideas on the summoning of non-humans into politics across the Andes (2010; 2015).

The unique contribution of Latour’s work might, however, be seen as a complementary project. By focusing on the self-understanding of the Moderns, i.e. through his commitment to reflexivity, his critical analysis destabilises the Moderns’ sense of our place in history and creates the opportunity to reimagine our past – or at least, consider our past with greater attention to contingency, aware that things might have been otherwise. It is on this basis that I hope Latour’s analysis has some potential to contribute to the ongoing work of decolonising that is being carried out in Anthropology and beyond.

Anthropocenic feminism and kin-making

Feminist ethics of care have been theorised since the 1980s to centre the moral experiences and interests of women, initially within philosophy by scholars such as Nel Noddings and Carol Gilligan (see Tong & Williams 2018 for an overview), and the valorisation of care retains an enduring relevance for social theory. Feminist ethics appear with fresh conviction in cross-disciplinary literature on the Anthropocene, especially as an ethic of care intersects with post-colonial discussions of kin-making. The core of this approach is an effort to find a new way of being in the world through relating differently to other humans and non-humans, a way of being that breaks from patriarchal and colonial capitalist modernity. Of course, devoting a separate section of this essay to feminist theory is somewhat misleading given its intertwining with post-colonial thought, but I create a separate space for this discussion to emphasise the contribution that feminist thinking can make to considerations of ways to live in the Anthropocene; moreover, I suggest that in order to develop a feminist approach to the Anthropocene, we need to draw together an ethic of care and kin-making on the one hand, and attention to post-humanist networked agency on the other.

We can see an ethic of care and kin-making, and more generally the mobilisation of affective attachment, being put into practice by environmentalist efforts to encourage climate action through developing people’s attachments to the natural world: examples from the UK include the Climate Coalition’s “Show the Love” campaign (see Climate Coalition n.d.) and the BBC’s documentary series Blue Planet II (for an overview of the series and its emotional appeal, see Jenkins 2018). Whilst these kinds of climate campaigns may not use an explicit discourse of kinship, they often use one of love, care, and belonging – the Climate Coalition’s video speaks of changes to “our beautiful home”, a home shared with other creatures, for example. If this is not quite a statement of shared kinship, I would argue it is making-more-kin-like, and thus part of the same effort. In a scholarly context, a similar impulse can be seen in the work of Donna Haraway, who devotes a whole book to making kin (2016), and in work from various contributors to the recent edited volume Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet (Tsing et al. 2017), for example from Deborah Bird Rose who acquaints us with the Aboriginal Australian idea of the “shimmer of life” and how it sustains us, and even Jens-Christian Svenning’s more cerebral claim that ‘[a]wareness of ecological history will be one key factor here in making people notice the absences, the ghosts—a crucial step in realizing what has been lost and what could come back’ (2017: G81, in Tsing et al 2017). The use of the term “ghosts” suggests the ecological education needed is not a cold question of teaching people the scientific facts, but rather something closer to kin-making that recognises (what was once) life and potentiality. However self-consciously or not, kin-making is now appearing everywhere.

Rich and rooted discussions of kin-making can often be heard from critical postcolonial scholars, who emphasise the impact of colonisation on indigenous relations with Earth others and the extension of these consequences in the Anthropocene. Heather Davis and Zoe Todd have been critical of the term Anthropocene itself, arguing (2017) that the universalising logic underpinning the term is structured to sever relations between mind, body, and land through “eras[ing] difference”, and as such marks a continuation of indigenous genocide, dispossession, and the imposition of Western ways of life (2017: 769). If we squint our intellectual eyes, we might see a resemblance between Latour’s idea of a need to reterrestrialise ourselves and Davis & Todd’s of severed relations with the land; but Latour stops short of the latter’s implication that part of the solution is to find ways of nurturing those relations: ‘We call here for those studying and storying the Anthropocene to tend to the ruptures and cleavages between land and flesh, story and law, human and more-than-human… we call here for a tending once again to relations, to kin, to life, longing, and care’ (2017: 775). I wonder whether Latour would shy away from these kinds of calls, fearing them too reminiscent of what he understands as the misinterpretation of Lovelock’s Gaia concept as a spiritual, animistic Mother Earth figure of deep ecology – an interpretation put into practice by Lovelock’s friend and colleague Stephan Harding and his Schumacher College (see Latour 2018b), which teaches holistic Earth Sciences in a commune setting. Latour rejects a deep ecology interpretation of Gaia in order to emphasise the wider distribution of agency; for Latour, the vital aspect of the Gaia concept is that it describes a collection of interdependent agents that are not subordinated to a law or system any higher or greater than themselves (Latour 2017b). Important as this is, I would suggest that we can distinguish between an arguably misleading notion of Gaia-as-Providence and calls for an ethic of care and kin-making.

The following offers us an example of the Gaia-as-Providence concept at play in the midst of a discussion of care and kin-making: ‘Each form of belonging offers a sense of relief – it is not all up to us – something else is caring for us and the earth, or contributing vitality to our complex co-being’ (Gibson-Graham 2011: 3). In their final lecture before Julie Graham’s death, J.K. Gibson-Graham drew on their career of feminist work to explore belonging and regional development in the Anthropocene. They discuss, on the one hand, environmentalist care and kin-making, putting forward what they describe as an ethical project of connecting with the more-than-human and responding to non-humans’ attempts to connect with us, delighting in the example of whales in the Gulf of California, Mexico who voluntarily greet whale watchers. They background this project of connection with Jane Bennett’s vital materialism, which locates agency across assemblages rather than in individual subjects, presumably to facilitate greater attention to the limits of human autonomy and our interdependence with others. Bennett’s interest in the assemblage as a whole seems to allow the Gaia-as-Providence idea to creep in, as Gibson-Graham take comfort in the idea that “something else” contributes to our “vitality” (2011: 3). I do not object to the quasi-religious inflection of this idea as such, but I do hold that both the theoretical and political implications of the idea require drawing out.

Although environmentalist attention to non-humans encourages affective attachment, which we might see as kin-making, it runs the risk of ignoring certain aspects of non-human agency, namely their capacity to refuse to connect with us. Some whales may not want to watch us watch them. Part of the legacies of feminism and post-colonial theory should be to remind us of the importance of respecting the self-determination of marginalised groups. By focusing on building tangible connections with non-human others, Gibson-Graham centre our attention on community building, and translate this into post-capitalist social organisation, without offering a robust metaphysics to support this endeavour. A more Latourian post-humanism, in contrast, offers a metaphysics that emphasises the wider distribution of agency within and between individual networked subjects (or “actants”, to use the ANT term) rather than at a higher level of reality, and which therefore can better accommodate principles of respecting the self-determination of non-humans. Nonetheless, without consciously incorporating feminist and post-colonial ideas, it has no praxis to encourage (how exactly do we “reterrestrialise” ourselves?), no way of generating attachment to Earth others (which might help revalorise materiality), and at worst risks undervaluing the kinds of labour historically coded as feminine – care and kin-making – which Gibson-Graham rightly value.

Whilst I take as given that cultivating intersectional liberation is a moral imperative, I hope to have shown here that postcolonial and feminist perspectives can improve both the quality and social utility of a critical theory of the Anthropocene.

Part 3: Theory for enduring the end of the world

One approach that navigates these different tensions can be found in Elizabeth Povinelli’s most recent book (2016) and related work on “geontopower” or “geontology” (e.g. Boyer & Howe 2016; Povinelli 2015). In this closing section I discuss how as an anthropology of the otherwise, Povinelli’s ideas on geontopower precipitate from encountering alterity in a postcolonial context, even as Western politics (late liberalism) is the subject of analysis, and show attention to and care for non-human others without restricting what we might expect of them in terms of their nature and agency.

Povinelli presents geontopower as a complement – perhaps a precursor – to Foucault’s biopower to analyse late liberal governance in the light of the histories and experiences of her aboriginal colleagues in northern Australia. Geontopower is the structure through which colonial and settler societies have governed Indigenous peoples through defining and managing the relationship not between life and death but beyond that, between life/death and non-life, or bios and geos. Geontopower has been felt in aboriginal Australia through the marginalisation of that population on the basis of their supposed inability to distinguish between life and non-life, leading the settler state to construct them as ‘animists’ who see life in places where life cannot be according to the late liberal worldview.

The book Geontologies (2016) explores the governance of geontopower through interactions between aboriginal Australians and both the state and organisations such as mining corporations. Alongside this, Povinelli presents the “dirty manifesto” of Karrabing analytics as an alternative to late liberal geontopower that might allow us to start thinking beyond our inherited life-nonlife division. Key aspects of these analytics are that rather than dying, the Earth is ‘turning away from certain forms of existence’ having ‘withdrawn care for the kinds of entities humans are’ in some places, and that we need to “de-dramatize” human life and death as we take responsibility for the consequences of our ways of living on the Earth in order to evaluate what formations of existence we are permitting and “extinguishing” (2016: 28). Critiquing the life-nonlife division is not just a matter of taking her colleagues seriously for Povinelli in the manner of the ontological turn; she argues that now more than ever in the Anthropocene we see the long-held distinction between geos and bios breaking down, including in the natural sciences. The very fact that bios must have emerged from geos in the evolutionary timeline should be enough to challenge our valorisation of life over nonlife, and the binary itself.

Importantly, it is not just state and corporate action that Povinelli implicates in the workings of geontopower, but also contemporary social theory. All current theories around ontology, including object-oriented ontology and Bennett’s vital materialism, she describes as being too preoccupied with bios and thereby reproducing late liberal governance. Returning to the ethic of care and post-humanism, then, Povinelli combines these in a unique way. Firstly, she shows concern for all kinds of existents on Earth and how they might be suffering under late liberalism. Secondly, she probes what different kinds of existents (such as rock formations) might be alongside her Karrabing colleagues rather than assuming what they are within the late liberal framework, exhibiting the openness to conceptual transformation after encountering alterity that marks the ontological turn, even as she distances herself from that project. Thirdly, she allows that the Earth and all kinds of existents are capable of showing or not showing care that supports the endurance of other existents – which is not to say that non-humans experience or show care in the same way as humans, but it does remind us of the contingency of human (and indeed all) life. As for post-colonial consciousness, by exposing the bias against geos within ideas of biopower – a bias that has been used to govern indigenous peoples since the colonial era – Povinelli’s ideas on geontologies affirm and build on the work of ‘many authors across the global south’ (Achille Mbembe and W. E. B. Du Bois are mentioned by name) who ‘have insisted that it is impossible to write a history of the biopolitical that starts and ends in European history, even when Western Europe is the frame of reference’ (2016: 3, emphasis in original).

Latour’s insistence on Gaia being a “secular” figure appears compatible with Povinelli’s arguments since Latour’s Gaia is not presented as a transcendent power or a superorganism, which would serve to render an assemblage in too human a likeness. A key concern for Povinelli is that to exit late liberal geontopower, as we pay closer attention to non-humans to recognise their interests and secure their representation in Latour’s Parliament of Things, we must not expect their voices or desires to be like those of humans, or we will limit their opportunity to make a “demand of the political order” (Povinelli 2016: 143). This approach that probes the nature of non-human existents and assemblages in their own right rather than reabsorbing them into our preconceptions of life and political order may further explain Latour’s objection to the spiritualisation of Gaia by other Gaia theorists: a quasi-deity figure makes no demands of the late liberal system and its hierarchisation of forms of existence.

Here we can bring our exploration of the Anthropocene to its logical, if potentially radical, conclusion. Nation state politics are quickly becoming untenable. Discussions of the distribution of agency and incorporating non-humans into the demos aside, this is evident in the lack of progress made by climate negotiations and state planning for a changing climate. Latour ventures that the new climate regime will serve to build solidarity even between the victims and perpetrators of climate change since people across every part of the world are becoming affected (Latour 2017a: 216). This is partly true, but it underestimates differential experiences under climate change. First, some parts of the world are clearly more sensitive to climate shocks than others and have multiple vulnerability factors aggravated by climate change (Crate & Nuttall 2015: 13); second, whilst things might be different were we all experiencing dramatic environmental changes for the first time, given the continuity between the experiences of colonisation and climate change for indigenous peoples, we cannot assume solidarity will be forthcoming between these peoples and people of settler states.

Extending their postcolonial argument, Davis & Todd (2017) argue that nations states will increasingly impede people’s efforts to sustain their kin relations with non-humans as climate change affects ecosystems. As temperatures change and certain animal or plant populations migrate, for example, their human kin who depend on them for material and existential survival will not be able to freely follow them across state boundaries. This adds to Povinelli’s argument for indigenous self-governance from a North American perspective – after all, ‘decolonization is not a metaphor’ (Tuck & Yang 2012). And if our concept of the demos needs transforming by a posthuman awareness of the distribution of agency, we might wonder whether Gaia (as per Lovelock via Latour) is a democratic figure as Latour (2018b) suggests, or rather an anarchic one given contemporary democracy’s predilection for representation and controlling systems – the kind of transcendent authority which has no part in Gaia.

If the new climate regime requires a radically different kind of politics, existing structures are not going to be up to the task. Even with his commitment to democracy and defence of representatives (1993), which Povinelli may not share, Latour acknowledges the impossibility of nation states finding a solution to the climate crisis, the absence of any arbiter that might govern the process, and the inability of modern science (“the Science of Nature”) to promote consensus (2017a: 259-260): ‘we can no longer let the nation-states occupy the stage all by themselves. It is precisely to avoid this utopia that we have to add non-state delegations’, with delegations for Oceans and Land suggested as additions (2017a: 262). And yet the postcolonial perspectives from North America and Australia mentioned above problematise the idea of a nation state representing even all its human constituents, raising the question of whether nation state delegations should be replaced with something resembling anarchic co-operative collectives. This is the struggle we face now, that our institutional structures do not reflect the distribution of agency many of us now recognise as at play in the world: our Assemblies do not represent assemblages.

In concluding, I wish to restate my argument that we are ill equipped to produce the kind of theory that challenges the status quo in ways that could help us endure the Anthropocene without centring post-colonial politics and processes of care and kin-making. The Anthropocene forces us to question how long nation states can (or should) last, not least because nation states habitually define themselves as against, and in competition with, one another. We should have confidence in arguing that life in the Anthropocene evidences that national borders are a hindrance, not a help to human (and non-human) flourishing. Finally, I would be doing Latour a disservice if I didn’t highlight that his most recent short book (2018c), Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime, responds at least in part to the critiques I have offered here, likely influenced by Danowski and Viveiros de Castro (2017). Building on Facing Gaia and other work (Latour 2018a), Down to Earth is a more explicitly political, future-oriented contribution; space prevents a full summary here, but I warmly recommend it to all those interested in theory for the Anthropocene. (If it whets your appetite, Latour describes President Trump’s withdrawal of the USA from the UNFCCC Paris Agreement as ‘a declaration of war authorising the occupation of all the other countries, if not with troops, at least with CO2, which America retains the right to emit’ (2018c: 84).)

In this time of crisis, I have confidence in very little. But I do have some confidence that anthropological theory is generative in ways that can help us through. Still, we need to act. I know, we don’t know what to do – but let’s do something. Let’s find ways to attach ourselves to Earth others and to welcome travellers across borders. And let’s take our theory with us, learning as we go, so that we might generate more diverse and precise descriptions of who we are, whom we live with, and what we need to survive.


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