Summer Reading List | Caroline Byrne
Summer Reading List | Caroline Byrne
Ursula K. Heise
I thought this book was going to be depressing, but it is not really about endangered species. It is about people.
The early chapters are okay… I liked the first chapter which suggests using comedy instead of a mournful or elegiac form to deal with the subject of endangered species; this is obviously counterintuitive, but the arguments are good. Chapter four, about halfway through the book, is where it starts getting really good. Here, Heise begins to break down our collective dealings with the environment into three groups: animal welfare people, conservation people (“environmentalists”), and environmental justice people. The activists among these groups do not see eye to eye, and Heise describes their points of contention as well as their overlaps. The arguments that leading thinkers in these fields make are logical and powerful. You may even find yourself swayed in one direction when you thought you were firmly planted in another camp. A chapter focusing on three works of literature further fleshes out these gaps and intersections.
Heise is a critic, not a theorist. That said, Heise embraces the "multispecies ethnography” and “multispecies justice” of Donna Haraway and many other post humanist thinkers. Like Haraway, Heise devotes a section of her book toward speculative fiction and its insights into living on multi-specied and terraformed planets. Considering we have always been living in imaginings of the future, often unconsciously—platonic philosophy, christianity, technoscience, etc.—and here we are on the verge of catastrophe, it makes sense to take these imaginings seriously and deliberately.
How does the zeitgeist shift exactly? Who knows. But maybe there are clues here. After reading this book, I thought about the video of the sea turtle with a straw up its nose and how that video galvanized the anti-plastic straw movement. I imagine it is at an intersection of ideologies (in this case it would be conservation and animal welfare) which feel distinct to those of us inside of them. In a more literal way, this book is overflowing with references to critical and creative writers, visual artists, and philosophers. It could easily guide the reader for years to come.
Is this even in print? (Err... easy enough to find in our connected computer-ed world.)
At the center of this text is a critique of rationalism and the logic of dualism—mind/body, male/female, subject/object, etc. In Plumwood’s analysis, dualism is the primary basis for connections between different forms of oppression, including environmental oppression. The journey begins in Ancient Greece, moves through the Enlightenment age, and winds up in the contemporary period with “Ethics and the instrumentalizing self” (self under liberal capitalism). Plumwood is not the first philosopher to traverse and critique this history of rationalism, but she expanded this critique beyond human relations to include all of nature within a rigorous academic text. In the chapter “Plato and the Philosophy of Death”, Plumwood asserts that it is the inability to accept death as both a continuation of nature (life) and a discontinuation of life (as individual self) which is the root of this nihilistic bender we are on. In the last chapter, Plumwood writes of nearing the final “Devouring the other” stage in the colonization process, a stage where “reason is increasingly constructed in the sphere of the global economy”. Mom, are we there yet?
Plumwood spends much of the book critiquing ecophilosophy movements that lean too heavily toward either human culture or nature because she sees them as enforcing dualism. Plumwood’s main beef seems to be with ecofeminism itself (even though she was a great ecofeminist). Still, the romantic version of ecofeminism which posits that women are somehow closer to nature than men is out of line with feminist philosophy by enforcing culture/nature dualism. The clarity and urgency of Plumwood’s writing is admirable for an academic. I imagine her bold and unconventional life influenced her “art”; she spent much of her time deeply involved in both environmental activism and her home in the forest, and survived a serious crocodile attack (which she wrote about, of course).
Environmental Culture: the Ecological Crisis of Reason, written by Plumwood 10 years later in 2003, is more contemporary in its analysis of neoliberalism, specific environmental issues that have only gotten worse, and interspecies justice. A line can be drawn from Plumwood’s “interspecies” justice to current “multispecies” justice. Still, if you have a weak background in feminist or anti colonial theory (as I do!), the eye opening intensity of Feminism and the Mastery of Nature is the bigger thrill.
Last summer (or the summer before?) I was in NYC for an anti-anti immigration protest. At one point I saw a small group of people off to the side, huddled over a lifeless baby bird baking in the sun. It seemed like overkill, this attention, especially considering the matter at hand. Later on that day I was on the subway and a girl, maybe 10 years old, panicked over a fluttering moth and swatted it to the ground. A young woman nearby got angry at the girl for overreacting and (possibly) killing the moth. The young woman's intense response showed an equal lack of nuance and sophistication.
How forests think is—as you may have guessed—different than how cities think. In this book, Eduardo Kohn examines the Runa people in Avila, Ecuador, who are centered between the “white mestizo” world on the one side, and the forest on another. The Runa buy clothes, guns, and other goods, inside of a market economy, but they obtain their food outside of it. They are hunters. Paying attention to the present moment can mean the difference between being predator or being prey for both human and animal selves. The present moment itself is no simple affair; it is born out of omnipresent histories and predictions of the future. And becoming prey, as tragic as it may be, is not simply the end. The death of mortal life is the beginning of spirit life (or a jaguar’s life, or life in a christian heaven).
This is a complicated world and this book, appropriately, is not an easy read. Frankly, I almost gave up as Kohn uses semiotics to break down the nature of thinking and becoming among the animals and humans who live in Avila. I’m glad I didn’t quit it, this thinking about thinking leads to a remarkable account of the author’s own anxiety attack and his subsequent calming down (and this is all in the first chapter). By the penultimate chapter “Form’s effortless efficacy”, Kohn has scaled up his examples. He recalls the Amazon rubber boom economy which enslaved and killed many. The landscape: the rubber trees, the parasites which killed the trees, and the distribution of water through the amazon, played a critical role in this brutal colonialist endeavor. It is interesting to see this all laid out in words as if it were a multidimensional map.
Then I have to ask, why don’t I/we think like this more? Why this radical act of pulling apart what obviously fit together in the first place? Kohn argues that humans’ feelings of distance and superiority to nature is natural. It is who we are, and it is not a construct grounded in a specific historical moment. It is our rootedness in distinctive properties of human symbolic thought that leads to these “thinking in twos” dualisms, and we began this journey by literally considering our right and left hands. That said, amongst the Runa, shamans, psychedelics, dreams, and myths are all practical tools which can help humans begin to see where the “others” are coming from without losing sight of various hierarchies the selves may be grounded in (and there are many). It is in this process of “decolonizing our thinking,” trying to think like forests instead of like humans, where we can begin to get at both the bigger picture of the world and a more accurate picture of who we are.
Caroline Byrne received a Bachelor of Science degree in Textiles and Apparel from Cornell University in 1998 and a Master of Fine Arts degree in Fiber from Cranbrook Academy of Art in 2011. Byrne’s practice includes environmental installations, narrative speculative futures projects, and photography. The aesthetics and critical themes that run through her work are inspired by years spent working in the clothing industry. She currently lives and works in Ithaca, NY.
carolinebyrne.com | email@example.com
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