Opening the ISSRNC conference on Mountains and Sacred Landscapes with a set of images from anti-pipelines and indigenous solidarity events, Karenna Gore (daughter of Al and founding director of the Center for Earth Ethics) said something that struck me as an evocative distillation of what’s really at stake in the world.
The Trump administration’s Inquisition-like demolition of environmental governance, she suggested, is “no match for a metaphysics of humanity interconnected with its sacred landscapes.”
Let’s think about this for a bit. What’s at stake, she is saying, is metaphysical.
All the “ontological turns” of recent years (especially among anthropologists) have tried to make this case, but as long as it’s about a turn (yet another one) of theory, it becomes mostly about us, the theorists. (And as long as it’s about “new materialism,” or “speculative realism,” or some other take on the world that’s as disembodied and non-obligatory as all the rest, it’s just more intellectual contortions for the sake of the contortionists.)
The metaphysics we seek and need, Gore is suggesting, is one that takes humanity seriously — because we are humans — but that finds that humanity thickly entangled in and with a larger world of places, of landscapes, of spirits and territories and folds in time and space that are not merely random or happenstance, but that are morally and ontologically loaded.
Here’s where the affective and the ontological come together.
And it’s where the political Left likely does not have the resources to take on Trumpism, or capitalism, or late industrialism, or the Anthropocene in toto. The reason it doesn’t is because it restricts itself to us humans, moderns who are either individuals with some potential to form contractual collectivities (at best) or who are collectives defined by nothing other than human history (the proletariat, the march of progress, etc.).
What’s required is more than this — it’s something that takes its force from relations that are morally obligatory and that far exceed us in time and in space — relations that require us to act on behalf of the contracts we have with the land and its spirits. What’s required, in other words, is a decolonization of our understanding of ourselves and the world.
The fear here (and I understand it well) is that such a “decolonization” involves a return to some prelapsarian innocence where we still believed in spirits, or in essences, or in capital-n Nature or capital g-Gods. But what I hear in Gore’s phrase, and in the cosmopolitical proposals of Latour, Stengers, and others, is not that there’s any possibility of return to such a state, but, rather, an acknowledgment that we can neither remove ourselves from such obligations nor accede to any one set of them fully. They are all still at stake with no guarantees either way — whether of any one set of ontological entities being the “correct” one or of any enlightened transcendence of all of these options.
Instead, we are caught in a world riven with multiple obligations — whether to the sacred waters of south Dakota, or to the mountain hollers of Appalachia, or to “the economy” and “infinite growth,” to “the nation” or some “revolution,” to the ancestors, and so on. (And once we put it that way, we’ll see how few of us are actually ready to put our lives on the line for “the economy.”)
One of my favorite passages in Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern is this one:
“All natures-cultures are similar in that they simultaneously construct humans, divinities and nonhumans. None of them inhabits a world of signs or symbols arbitrarily imposed on an external Nature known to us [westerners] alone. […] All of them sort out what will bear signs and what will not. If there is one thing we all do, it is surely that we construct both our human collectives and the nonhumans that surround them. In constituting their collectives, some mobilize ancestors, lions, fixed stars, and the coagulated blood of sacrifice; in constructing ours, we mobilize genetics, zoology, cosmology and hæmatology.” (1993:106)
The point, however, is that there is no privileged vantage point for sorting through these semiotic worlds, and the sooner we acknowledge that, the sooner we’ll be able to get down to the work of carving out a viable understanding of how to proceed in the diffractive interstices between them all.
We can choose our “sacred landscapes” (up to a point), but the only way they’ll actually be sacred for us is if we let them choose us, too. If we don’t know how to do this, there are no better guides for us than those among us who still do. They are the ones over whose bodies and sacred lands the war for the future is already well underway.