Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet

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Nigel Clark

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  • Theory, Culture & Society

    Theory, Culture & Society caters for the resurgence of interest in culture within contemporary social science and the humanities. Building on the heritage of classical social theory, the book series examines ways in which this tradition has been reshaped by a new generation of theorists. It also publishes theoretically informed analyses of everyday life, popular culture, and new intellectual movements.

    EDITOR: Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University

    SERIES EDITORIAL BOARD

    Roy Boyne, University of Durham

    Mike Featherstone, Nottingham Trent University

    Nicholas Gane, University of York

    Scott Lash, Goldsmiths College, University of London

    Roland Robertson, University of Aberdeen

    Couze Venn, Nottingham Trent University

    THE TCS CENTRE

    The Theory, Culture & Society book series, the journals Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and related conference, seminar and postgraduate programmes operate from the TCS Centre at Nottingham Trent University. For further details of the TCS Centre's activities please contact:

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    Recent volumes include:

    Ordinary People and the Media

    Graeme Turner

    Peer to Peer and the Music Industry

    Matthew David

    The Media City

    Scott McQuire

    The Sociology of Intellectual Life

    Steve Fuller

    Race, Sport and Politics

    Ben Carrington

    Copyright

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    From the Reviews

    ‘Drawing on an impressive array of philosophical, social, and natural science sources Nigel Clark's magnificent Inhuman Nature provides a compelling account of the respects in which modern ways of living are perpetually exposed to unpredictable natural processes and transformations and the manner in which communities have responded with care and hospitality to the desperate plight of others.’

    Barry Smart, Professor of Sociology, Portmouth University, UK

    Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet is a watershed for social theory. Nigel Clark's engaging book brings together earth systems science, philosophy, and history to challenge the longstanding impasse created through the philosophical separation of humans from the world. This book does not simply ‘take nature into account’: fires, floods, volcanoes, climate change, and hurricanes take centre-stage in this thorough re-writing of the organic and inorganic. Inhuman Nature asks the most important questions of our time, and is a must-read for anyone who takes nature and our future on this planet seriously.’

    Myra Hird, Professor of Sociology, Queen's University, Canada

    ‘This is possibly one of the most important books you are ever likely to read, particularly if you have been duped into thinking ‘nature’ and ‘planet earth’ are merely benevolent forces at the mercy of an insane, disordered humanity. According to Clark this just-so story illustrates our twin bad habits of focussing almost exclusively on human powers (exaggerating them wildly) and developing a blindness to the agency and powers of non-humans. This book reveals what the world is like when we come to our senses, literally. You wont look back (the view is better).’

    Adrian Franklin, Professor of Sociology, University of Tasmania, Australia

    Dedication

    This book is dedicated – with much love and across too many miles – to my parents, Elaine and Derek Clark.

    Acknowledgements

    This book began in a different disciplinary home, in another hemisphere, in what is now officially a bygone geological epoch. It started out as a plea for the social sciences to take environmental issues to heart. Only gradually, haltingly, did it become a call for social thought to engage more deeply with the dynamics of the earth itself – an appeal not to allow the problem of our own impact on nature to overshadow the question of what nature can do of its own accord. A number of worldly events contributed, often brutally, to this change of direction. As did a great many conversations, more gently and generously – too many, I'm afraid, to get the gratitude they deserve. My thanks to those whose insights, promptings and invitations nudged me along the way, in no particular order: Myra Hird, Steve Hinchliffe, Doreen Massey, Mustafa Dikeç, Kathryn Yusoff, Nick Bingham, Joe Smith, Clive Barnett, Rosalyn Diprose, Nick Stevenson, Arun Saldanha, Sarah Whatmore, Bruce Braun, Tariq Jazeel, Beth Greenhough, Bron Szerszynski, John Urry, Mike Featherstone, Phil Macnaghten, Divya Tolia-Kelly, Dave Humphreys, Steve Pile, George Revill, Paul Harrison, Angela Last, Uli Beisel, Caitlin DeSilvey, Jenny Robinson, Michael Pryke, Lynn Margulis, Dorion Sagan, Graham Harman, Mark Brandon, Susanne Sargeant, Mike Petterson, Adrian Franklin, Barry Smart, Vicki Kirby, Wallace Heim, Olafur Eliasson Simon Rees, Anthony Krivan, Vicki Kerr, Heather Worth, Claudia Bell, and John Lyall. And for many things, thought provoking and enlivening, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Zac Gunaratnam-Bailey. Thanks to Katherine Haw and Jai Seaman at Sage for guiding me and my somewhat dishevelled manuscript through the various phases of the editorial process, and to Chris Rojek for his encouragement over more years and iterations than he probably cares to recall.

    Sections of Chapter 3 have been adapted from ‘Living through the Tsunami: Vulnerability and Generosity on a Volatile Earth’ (2007) Geoforum, 38 (6) pp. 1127–39, and parts of Chapter 5 from ‘Volatile Worlds, Vulnerable Bodies: Confronting Abrupt Climate Change’ (2010) Theory, Culture and Society, 27 (2–3) pp. 31–53. Smaller fragments were aired in Space and Culture (Chapter 6), The International Journal of Urban and Regional Research (Chapters 7 and 8) and Parallax (Chapter 6).

    Introduction

    There still remains a difficulty in the combination of freedom with the mechanism of nature in a being belonging to the world of sense: a difficulty which, even after all the foregoing is admitted, threatens freedom with complete destruction. (Kant, 1967 [1788]: 194)

    I don't understand why doubters claim and believers deride the idea that it isn't man made. If global warming _isn't_caused by man, doesn't that mean we're even more fucked? (Ivan, post on http://Boing-boing.net, 4 March 2008)

    Ivan's Question, Everyone's Problem

    A strange thing happened on the way to the apocalypse. Just as we were beginning to get our heads around the idea that our species is responsible for transforming nature in its entirety, another shock came our way. A truth perhaps even more ‘inconvenient’ than the one about global climate and the rest of the natural world becoming a human product.

    To assess the extent of ‘our’ transformations of global and local environments, and in order to have a sense of how physical systems might respond to these incursions, we need to have a rough idea of what the earth would be doing in the absence of any anthropogenic influence. This is what has been asked of scientists in regard to the issue of human-induced climate change. There are many ways to assemble a record of past climate, with some of the clearest evidence coming from boring into the sedimented ice of Greenland and other polar regions. Earth scientists have known for a long time about the rhythmic movement in and out of glacial epochs and its significance for environmental conditions across the earth. But in the two-mile deep, 110,000-year-long, ice archive they came across something unexpected.

    By analysing the layers of ice, researchers can tell how cold Greenland was in any year. They can gauge the composition of the earth's atmosphere, how much rain fell, wind patterns and the intensity of storms, levels of volcanicity, and even the global extent of wetlands (Alley, 2000: 4). The story the ice told was not the anticipated one of a succession of long slow clamberings in and out of ice ages, not the grinding, inching change we usually associate with the word ‘glacial’. What the ice cores showed were the signatures of sudden transformation (see Broecker, 1987; Alley et al., 2003). Each long wave movement in and out of an ice age turned out to be rent by multitudes of rapid warmings and coolings, vicious see-sawings that saw the temperature of Greenland transformed by around 15 degrees Fahrenheit in a decade, and global weather tipped into a completely different state in as little as a few years.

    As glaciologist Richard Alley reflects: ‘for most of the last 100,000 years, a crazily jumping climate has been the rule, not the exception’ (2000: 120). If scientists have it right, this tells us that the reason why global climate is susceptible to being changed by human ‘forcings’ is because it is inherently instable: ‘The real point is that not only is climate change natural, but it's also easy to set in motion’ (Matthew Huber cited in Purdue University, 2006). This shouldn't be taken to imply, as Ivan's post might suggest, that what's happening to the earth's temperature at present can be put down to extra-human causes. There is now overwhelming evidence that once natural variation has been accounted for, only human impact can explain observed trends in global climate. But in other respects, Ivan's logic is sound. What he is pointing to, with admirable candour, is the broader issue raised by the emergent understanding of climatic volatility. Whatever ‘we’ do, ice cores and other proxies of past climate profess to us, our planet is capable of taking us by surprise. With or without the destabilizing surcharge of human activities, the conditions most of us take for granted could be taken away, quite suddenly, and with very little warning (Clark, 2010a).

    On a crowded, densely settled and heavily worked planet, that's about as inconvenient as it could be. For all their initial surprise, the unfolding trajectories of abrupt and oscillating climate change are in accord with what scientists are learning about a whole range of natural processes. Intricate physical systems have dynamics of their own, and this often includes absorbing pressures or changes of input up to a point then lurching, quickly and unstoppably, into a new state. This in turn folds into a bigger story about the way our planet operates that has been taking shape over the course of five or six decades of intensive research in the earth and life sciences. The vision that has been emerging, through a succession of discoveries, controversies and convergences, is one in which instability and upheaval, rhythmical movement and dramatic changes of state are ordinary aspects of the earth's own history.

    In this way, the realization that there are patterns of variance at almost every scale at which we view climate resonates with evidence from most other physical systems on earth and even beyond our planet. If terms like ‘capricious’ and ‘crazily jumping’ are suitable evocations of climate, so too are they starting to sound like apt descriptors of the earth as a whole. All of which suggests that the experience of ‘living without guarantee’ that social theorists talk about as the condition of the latest phase of our modernity might go a lot further and deeper than most of us have assumed (see Bauman, 1991: 257; see also Smart, 1999: 16).

    Return to Earth

    Over two centuries ago, Immanuel Kant looked closely at the scientific accounts of the terrestrial and celestial processes that were then on offer. What he saw both thrilled and terrified him. Gathering evidence suggested that the earth, like other planets, periodically went through ‘revolutions’ (Kant, 1993 [1938]). On our home planet, these upheavals appeared to have extinguished earlier forms of life, and this implied that paroxysms still to come might similarly obliterate current inhabitants. This was a moment when the full implications of the Copernican revolution were sinking in, and the whole idea of deep, geological time was taking root. Kant recognized that the temporal and spatial dominion of our species was disturbingly inconsequential when viewed in the context of the earth's eventful history or the vastness of interplanetary space. ‘A being belonging to the world of sense’, a creature with the capacity to absorb and process the phenomenal productions of physical reality, was at the same time one which was at risk of being overwhelmed by the exertions of the earth and cosmos. Humankind, the only known efflorescence of thought, or proper freedom, was thus vulnerable to being swept away – which would leave the universe utterly devoid of any way of making sense of itself.

    In response to this literally unthinkable predicament, Kant set about developing ways of bolstering the human subject, so it might draw strength from its confrontation with the powers that threatened its annihilation. For most of the intervening centuries, Western philosophical and social thought has pretty much accepted Kant's injunctions to steer clear of what the turbulent forces of the universe could do on their own account, and fix our attention on our own interface with the world around us. Eschewing the threats and allures of deep time or interstellar space – or any other domain where elemental forces thrash it out among themselves – we have busied ourselves with the best and the worst that our own species has to offer. Philosophical thought, social and cultural thought, critical thought has kept its focus firmly on the various achievements and potentialities of human agency, both in terms of our capacity to engage with each other and to articulate with the physical world around us. By and large, we have left the rest up to physical science to sort out, even as we've maintained our suspicions about their apparent success in doing so.

    But once again the raw physicality of the world is rising up the agenda. Once more, the inherent forcefulness of the earth and cosmos, nature's capacity to be a great deal more or a lot less than what we would ask of it, is weighing upon us. ‘Long ignored by the humanities, and traditionally seen by society as simply the supplier of raw materials for the industrial machine’, philosopher–geologist Robert Frodeman observes, ‘the Earth sciences today are moving to the center of public consciousness and conversation’ (2000: viii).

    The findings of the geosciences are escalating in importance, according to Frodeman, primarily because of the irruption of concern over the ways in which human demands are pressing against the physical limits of the earth and threatening to transform the major systems and subsystems upon which we rely (2000: ix). As Michel Serres suggests, in one of the first full-length philosophical engagements with the modern environmental crisis, our understanding of earth processes is being radically shaken up by way of our dawning recognition that we ourselves have become a force of geological magnitude. Whereas the human species was once distributed across our planet's surface in small pockets and minor assemblies, ‘lightweight in body and bone’, we now gather in vast conglomerations: ‘colossal banks of humanity as powerful as oceans, deserts, or icecaps, themselves stockpiles of ice, heat, dryness, or water’ (1995: 17).

    The awareness that humankind has grown into a preeminent force in planetary nature – and all the associated questions about how to deal with this situation – is undoubtedly one of the most momentous events our species has ever had to cope with. And we should not make light of the effort it has taken to get it up there on the agendas of social thought and practice. But I want to wager that what the earth sciences have been telling us lately about the way the physical world operates of its own accord, alongside or in spite of our hefty surcharge, is no less significant. And that it makes little sense to agonize over our own contributions to earth processes without as full an understanding as we can get of the dynamics and potentialities that are constitutive of material reality in and of itself.

    This book is about coming to terms with a planet that constantly rumbles, folds, cracks, erupts, irrupts. It's about living with earth and cosmic processes that have gone on since long before our species made its appearance, look likely to go on long after us, and continue to happen all around us. It explores some of the issues that arise out of the condition of being sensuous, sociable beings in a universe that nourishes and supports us, but is forever capable of withdrawing this sustaining presence. And it begins to ask how better we might live – with other things and with each other – in the context of a deep, elemental underpinning that is at once a source of profound insecurity.

    It is not a guidebook, however. There is already a thriving literature which presents various threats to human life in their full nihilating intensity, only to draw back, take stock and put forward eminently sensible suggestions for living more sustainably and securely. But a good case has already been made that it is our very attempts to step back from the world, gather our resources together, and then advance into projects of improvement and securitization that have got us into some of our more fearful predicaments in the first place (see Beck, 1992). And in some senses, this is what we have been doing ever since Kant first offered his counsel.

    Instead of beginning with what we believe to be our powers and capabilities, I set out from the position of our susceptibility to the earth's eventfulness, from our all-too-human exposure to forces that exceed our capacity to control or even make full sense of them. I want to work with and through our vulnerabilities, rather than trying to find a way around them. As fleshy, sensuous creatures, we have always been exposed to the energy and the inertia, the flow and the congealing, the mobilization and the halting of the earth. It is constitutive of our humanness, I argue, that we are inherently liable to being thrown off course by the eventualities of our planet. But just as the earth can perturb and excite us, so too are we receptive to the incitements of others who have been shaken up in some way by the inconstancy of the ground they depend upon. A volatile world can impinge upon our selves directly, or it can present its demands and allures by way of others who turn to us in times of need. This too, I suggest, is part of our constitutive openness to a forceful cosmos.

    Worlds beyond Us

    One of the major developments in social thought over recent decades has been the growing acceptance that what we have called ‘the social’ is a much more heterogeneous blend than we may have previously imagined: the idea that society is composed not only of human beings but of an array of other-than-human things. As actor-network theorist Bruno Latour would have it: ‘Things are everywhere mixed with people; they always have been’ (2003: 37). Because these multitudes of things do not simply do our bidding, but have agency or forcefulness of their own, we need to be judicious in the way we incorporate and rearrange them. Problems like ozone holes, global warming and pathogen outbreaks, by this logic, ought to be viewed as the unsurprising outcome of not taking enough care in the way we assemble our worlds.

    To help us think about how we might organize our transactions with diverse objects and elements more carefully, Latour (1993) has proposed a ‘parliament of things’. His ‘parliament’ is an imaginary forum for bringing together processes of political representation – people voicing their interests about what kind of world they would like to live in, and processes of scientific representation – the act of speaking for or about nonhumans. In Latour's proposed re-constitution of people and things, we will all ideally have the opportunity not only to confer about the sort of social order or cultural life we desire, but about the kind of other-than-human objects we wish to acknowledge, join forces with, or exclude from our lives. In this way, it is no longer simply a matter of how we engage with a world already given to us that is up for grabs, but the whole question of how to make or assemble the realities we will be dwelling in.

    There's a nice twist on this ‘constitutive’ approach to society and nature in the introduction to the recent Making Things Public exhibition. Here, Latour speaks of the thousand-year-old ‘Althing’, in Iceland – reputedly the world's first parliament: ‘the ancient “thingmen” – what we would call “congressmen” or MPs – had the amazing idea of meeting in a desolate and sublime site that happens to sit smack in the middle of the fault line that marks the meeting place of the Atlantic and European tectonic plates …’ (2005: 23). Latour tells this story to drive home the point that political questions are also questions of nature: to remind us that how we put social and physical things together requires rigorous and sustained attention.

    Today, when Haiti's Government Palace has been reduced to rubble along with much of the rest of Port-au-Prince, the logic of siting parliaments – or any other human edifice – on active tectonic plate junctures has a bleaker undertone. In their midst, forces that are sublime from a distance or in the abstract tend to be utterly shattering. A major upheaval of the earth, survivors tell us, not only takes the ground out from beneath your feet, but unravels the very fabric that holds things together and allows us to make sense of the world. There is a moment towards the end of the Natural Contract where Michel Serres recounts his personal experience of an earthquake in a way which evokes this sudden coming apart of reality:

    All of a sudden the ground shakes off its gear: walls tremble, ready to collapse, roofs buckle, people fall, communications are interrupted, noise keeps you from hearing each other, the thin technological film tears, squealing and snapping like metal or crystal; the world finally comes to me, resembles me, all in distress. A thousand useless ties come undone … (1995: 124)

    The fearsome capacity of the earth to undo our sustaining connections and footings, in this way, serves to remind us that all is not equal in the world of mixing and mobilizing things. Like Haiti's seat of government, the ancient Icelandic parliament is much more vulnerable to the geo-tectonic movements beneath its foundations than tectonic plates would be to any motions passed in the parliament. In other words, there is an asymmetry here: the impression that deep-seated forces of the earth can leave on social worlds is out of all proportion to the power of social actors to legislate over the lithosphere.

    It is not only seismic upheaval which draws us into realities that seem to be beyond the reach of ‘negotiation’. Climate change takes us on a similar journey. As soon as we move past the slender horizon of human-induced global heating and confront the issue of climate change as an integral and ongoing aspect of our planet's variability, we are drawn into regions where there is only the nonhuman. Where everything is most definitely not mixed with people.

    A lot of pressing contemporary issues which at first seem to reside comfortably in the realm of human–nonhuman interaction soon take us to these other zones. Whether we are dealing with the cyclicality of cyclones, the rhythms of wildfire, the emergence of novel pathogens, the availability of mineral or energy resources, or the fate of biological diversity, we find ourselves parting company with any significant human presence. Follow the threads that weave in or out of these matters of concern, trace their lines of causality or ripples of consequence and they lead us back to epochs before humans emerged, take us deep into micro-ecologies too tiny and too multitudinous to even imagine, drag us down to the molten and lifeless interior of the earth, whip us up into the stratosphere and out into the solar system.

    In fact, if we take seriously the injunction of some recent critical approaches to track all the relevant material linkages that converge on the field that interests us, then it's difficult to conceive of any issues that will not sooner or later hive off into regions of existence utterly alien to the human.

    It is vital that we continue to inquire into those aspects of nature that are sensitive to our impingements and compositions. But almost everyone knows this. It is no longer controversial. Central to this book is the insistence that social scientists and humanities scholars need to push through this zone of inter-mixity of human and nonhumans and press on into regions where we are absent. What was once the defining interest of the physical sciences – dominions devoid of human imprint – is now opening up as a topic of importance for all of us. Increasingly, crucial decisions about how to live on, live well, or deal with loss of life on this planet are dependent on notions of how things work in the universe, irrespective of our influence.

    Fidelities

    The idea that there is political significance and intrigue to be found in decisively extra-human domains has been rumbling away in the social sciences and humanities for some time, especially in extrapolations from certain strands of French post-structural thought and in the feminist concern with biological embodiment. It has recently received a timely shove from a new brand of philosophical realism that refers to itself as ‘speculative’1 (see page xxii). A cohort of philosophers who have grown impatient with the legacy of Kant's restrictive concern with human access to the world have been re-opening the question of what the rest of reality gets up to in the absence of a mediating human subject. Rigorously rebuking many of the sanctions that held philosophical or social thought back from any consideration of ‘things in themselves’, these theorists are encouraging us to liaise with ‘the most colourful details of the earth’ in ways that exceed the warrants of much critical thought and practice (Harman, 2002: 237).

    While there are pleasures to be found in this new intimacy with the ‘world-in-itself’, it also smoothes the way for social thinkers to engage more directly with the findings of the physical sciences, including their more perturbing discoveries. With the easing of the requirement to endlessly circle back through the co-relation of thought and world, we find ourselves increasingly free to join natural scientists in their contemplations of a ‘universe … packed with fateful revolutions: the emergence of the heavier elements from hydrogen; the birth of solar systems; the breakup of Pangaea into multiple continents; the emergence of multicellular life …’, as philosopher Graham Harman envisions (2005: 243).

    It is, of course, crucial for social scientists to maintain a critical attitude towards the premises, practices and products of the physical sciences. We know this well enough by now that it need not be rehearsed at every meeting or reading. But critique is no longer enough. And it never was. Science is one of the most important ways we have of gaining an understanding not only about the ways our activities interweave with the rest of the world's doings and happenings – but about what the world does in our absence. By collapsing the world's own functions and operations into a side-effect of our access to the world or our inscriptions on the world, we have too often convinced ourselves that the realm of autonomous goings-on is a non-existent or dubious category. And besides blinkering us from many wondrous events, that's a very dangerous thing to do.

    The sort of issues, problems and risks that I've been talking about and will be saying a lot more about demand ontological commitment as well as political commitment. They ask of us that when we are done with our critique, or while we are performing our critical manoeuvres, we add our weight to specific models or visions of how the world actually works. This is more or less what Stephen White (2000) refers to as ‘sustaining affirmation’ and Alain Badiou (2005) terms ‘fidelity’. If critical social, cultural and philosophical thinkers shelter behind the issue of ‘access’ to reality, with all its admittedly intriguing epistemological complexities and political vexations, then the question of what sort of planet and cosmos we inhabit and what kinds of imperatives arise out of this inhabitation will continue to be under-examined.

    But I am also insisting that we cannot simply assume that all of reality is up for re-negotiation. Some moves to hitch ontology to politics seem to want so much two-way traffic between these terms that the entire universe ends up looking as though it is amenable to the collective deliberations and contestations of human actors. Conceding all of extra-human material reality to the physical sciences may be an option that critical social thinkers are no longer content with. But assuming all of existence now comfortably resides within the domain of the ‘negotiable’, the ‘co-enacted’ and the ‘could-be-done-otherwise’ is just as unsatisfactory. And perhaps just as dangerous.

    The ‘colossal banks of humanity’ that have assembled themselves over recent centuries, and at an accelerating rate over recent decades, have not been around long enough to sample anything like the full range of variability that their environments have to offer (Davis, 1998: Ch. 1; Clark, 2003a; Kaika, 2005). Indeed, there is no ‘full range’, for there are always new, untried possibilities in any region, or physical system – including the earth in its entirety (see De Landa, 1992, 1997). We do not yet know, cannot know, precisely what human-induced climate change has in store for us. Or what the ordinary, ongoing rhythms and movements of the earth will deliver us into. But it is fairly clear that most of our current living arrangements, our patterns of settlement and provisioning, have not evolved with enough attention to natural variability and volatility. And that puts billions of us – all of us, in fact, in a globalized world – in a very precarious position.

    For sociologist Ulrich Beck, the motivating force in what he termed ‘risk society’ could be encapsulated in the phrase ‘I am scared’ (1989: 95; see also Clark, 1997). But that was some time ago. What should we now make of a situation in which it is the scientific experts who are scared – and who desperately wish that publics could be even more worried than they already are? There is nothing new about scientists with worldly concerns, but clearly, climate change and related issues are drawing scientific ‘witnesses’ into unfamiliar ethical–political quandaries and affective intensities (see Frodeman, 2000: vii–x). ‘On the record, they use very conservative scientific language; they speak in terms of estimates and trends and probabilities’, reports journalist Ross Gelbspan of his encounters with climate scientists. ‘Off the record, they told me this stuff is scary as hell’ (2006: unpag.).

    This is why we need fidelity to the stories that physical scientists tell us. For these and a host of other reasons, those of us who study ‘the social’ and ‘the human’ are finding ourselves, as never before, ‘called to science’, to use a formulation from cultural theorists Adrian Mackenzie and Andrew Murphie (2008: 89). And with this summons comes a new pressure for the social sciences and humanities to engage substantively with scientific findings – to move through critique towards dialogue and collaboration (Mackenzie and Murphie, 2008: 89). As well as being interested in what scientists actually do, we need to be interested in what scientists are interested in: our critical rituals must lead on to decisions, allegiances and, especially, to commitments.

    This book draws upon both scientific and philosophical evidence about the ways in which mostly other-than-human elements and events compose the worlds we inhabit. In fact, my argument depends utterly on the ‘substantive’ findings of the earth sciences and on the recent philosophical re-activation of the question of ‘things-in-themselves’. Though fascinated by questions about what nonhumans get up to when we are not around, my focus is – conventionally enough – with the way that our own species catches the fallout of this extra-human universe.

    My pressing concern is about how we might get by, and get on with each other, in the full knowledge that most of material reality is not ours to make over. So while we certainly need to hammer away at the ethical and political implications of those aspects of physical existence conducive to recomposition, we must also account for forces, events and objects that can't be done differently or done away with – or things that will be otherwise whatever we chose to do. These too are political questions. But they are also questions about the limits of what usually counts as politics, about the limits of any kind of human action, doing or making.

    Planet of Strangers

    An earth or a cosmos which human beings rely upon for the basal conditions of their existence is also one which can withdraw its vital support. This is Ivan's point, put more politely. It is my rationale for hitching the issue of earthly volatility to that of bodily vulnerability.

    The idea that much of our humanness might lie in our sensuous and somatic susceptibility to a violating exteriority has been on the agenda of philosophy and social thought for some time (see Turner, 2006: Ch. 1). As a way of taking issue with modernity's championing of sovereign, self-asserting subjects, the stress on the precariousness of embodied life serves as a reminder that there are things that happen to us which we can't anticipate or avoid, events that wrench us from the course of our daily existence. ‘Beneath the surface of ordinary life – the surface of productive, functioning, busy lives – there lurks an abyss’, writes ethical philosopher John Caputo. ‘Beneath the surface of healthy agent bodies the abyss of flesh stirs, an abyss of vulnerability that can swallow every joy’ (1993: 235).

    The thematization of human frailty and perviousness has taken place predominantly in response to tragedies of our own manufacture. Indeed, some have argued explicitly that the forces of the earth, now demystified by their scientific deciphering, are totally overshadowed by the inherently unfathomable horrors we inflict upon each other. And yet, even when we know earthly upheavals to be ordinary agents of geomorphology, their impingement on the soft tissue and impressionable psyche of the human organism can be as unforgiving as any socio-political atrocity.

    Those who have been caught in an earthquake, seen a wall of water surging towards them, felt the air they breathe turn to flame, can feel as thoroughly abandoned as anyone whose social supports have been dismantled or turned against them. They speak of the shock of being forsaken by an earth or an ocean or a sky whose sustaining presence they once trusted, and bear witness to the difficulty of re-embracing a world that has betrayed a basic faith. ‘Before the Tsunami the sea was my friend, my livelihood, the backdrop to my life’ recounts Arjunan, a fisher from Tharangambadi village in Tamil Nadu. ‘Now if there is even a slight storm I become afraid that the same thing might happen again’ (cited in Kwatra, 2005: 10).

    While there may be no permanent respite from the pressures of a fitful and fluctuating world, there is more to the issue of our fleshly exposure than the potential for harm. To be vulnerable to otherness, theorists of embodiment insist, is not just to be open to being unmade, but to being remade into something other than what we are. It is to be liable to diversion, to being propelled in new and unforeseeable directions. As cultural theorist Pheng Cheah would have it, ‘(i)t is precisely this internal vulnerability of any present being to alterity – its pregnancy with the movement of altering – that allows something to alter, change, or transform itself in time, or to be changed, transformed, or altered by another …’ (1999: 191).

    Like any other organism, we humans have become what we are over time, through countless generations of tussling with environmental challenges and opportunities. In this way, most of the physiological, cerebral and social capacities we take to be our own come to us from others who have gone before us. Or as philosopher Judith Butler puts it, ‘the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever our own’ (2004: 26). But our susceptibility to the effects of natural variance is not limited to those events which we or our ancestors have directly experienced. It can come to us by way of others whose links with ourselves are less direct. Recent disasters like the Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti Earthquake serve as reminders that ordinary people can be moved by the plight of strangers, even when far afield. The visible inequalities and injustices that positioned certain bodies in the path of these catastrophes should not obscure the fact that these events also inspired outpourings of generosity. To be an open body, in this way, is also to be able to sense the need of others, to be touched, moved, swayed by the plight of strangers.

    The ‘strangers’ who populate this book are not simply those who come from someplace else, but the ones who have been made strange by events – those who have been estranged from their world, their own former selves as much as from fellow humans. Nothing dictates that the victims of natural disaster or environmental extremity will meet with sympathetic responses, just as nothing predetermines that a ‘fateful revolution’ of the earth or cosmos will necessary find human targets in its path. But I want to make the case that the asymmetry of the human relationship to the rest of nature resonates in the asymmetrical relationship of self and other.

    Just as the earth and all its constitutive physical systems have a tendency to veer away from the regularity of a strict orbit – with unpredictable effects, so too are human beings susceptible to being wrenched out of their usual circuits by an encounter with an other – in unforeseeable ways. As natural forces act upon us with no expectation of a return movement, so too is there a possibility of an offering or welcome to one who has been laid low by the forces of the world that does not wait upon a reciprocal gesture.

    Today, on top of the already fraught matter of all those who are pushed and pulled across the globe by turbulent social forces, comes the problem of how to deal with the vast populations who are likely to be displaced by human-induced climate change. But even as the question of justice for the uneven causation and disproportionate consequences of global heating presents itself in all its diabolic complexity, it is already cut across by the raw fact of deterritorializations which belong to the earth itself. Our planet is not going to stand still while we do our sums and stage our tribunals. This juncture zone, where the inherent excess of the earth crunches into a social imperative for equity and moderation is the point where many of the issues raised in this book converge.

    There is nothing close to a way out of these dilemmas in the chapters that follow. But there is a kind of faith that there already exists a vast reservoir of experience – inscribed in communities, bodies, landscapes, stories, objects – about how to make it across the inconstancies that belong to the earth itself. And an equally hopeful sense that there are, taking place at any moment, a great many acts of care and support for those who have been struck by forces beyond their tolerance. An intimation that, along with all the dispute and contestation so prized by critical thinkers, there are also deep, ordinary and extraordinary dispositions of generosity to others coursing through everyday social life.

    Note

    1 ‘Speculative realism’ was an early place-holder term for this philosophical current. Other terms in play include ‘object-oriented ontology’ and ‘speculative materialism’.

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