Disasters, responses, networks


These are the notes from our March 27 class discussion (taken by KL, with a few minor additions by AI). The discussion focused on chapters 3-5 of Clark’s Inhuman Nature. Next we will move to Donna Haraway and geology (details TBA).

Chapter 3 discusses Naomi Klein’s use of the tsunami example to depict a leverage point where corporations can come in, land-grab, and pursue their capitalistic ventures. In-class examples: Sri Lanka and Detroit; these places are viewed as opportunities for “advancement” and less focused on social issues, and developing community. When market forces take-over, socially responsible groups and voters lose power and agency.

Clark’s response to Klein is: “Yes, and…” He adds more to the story. There is an asymmetry betweens humans and nature. Why subject these critiques to bracketed discussions, when there are many players involved. Clark uses Levinas, a Jewish ethicist that focused on human relationships, to probe beyond “otherness.” The tsunami and other disasters can provide leverage points for bad, but can also make way for positive relationships and community building.

Questions: How idealistic is Clark as he recognizes Klein’s argument, but also presents a positive spin? Is the role of the outsider to critique the injustices of disasters or to highlight the positive repercussions? These aspects can complement each other and don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Is Clark’s approach a gentle-realist one given that in future chapters he focuses on the dooms-day reality of impending future disasters? What would it look like for an experience with disaster to lead to an embracing of inhuman nature? Social connection is easier to accept than the “loss of ground,” that is characterized by disaster. We live in a world where we can always be crushed; always be destroyed. How do you trust nature?

Thomas Ligotti’s argument is that we carve our own lives on the remnants of God’s corpse. What do we do with all the nothingness? Clark asks: must that awareness lead to despair? Judaic ethics say that we must come together and help each other within this nothingness to create meaning.

We seem to be circling around Kantian ideas. Kant was fully aware about the vulnerability of human existence. The reason we need to build up human subjectivity to nature is that nature is unreliable. The Lisbon earthquake was the beginning of this subjectivity. The Holocaust and world wars were self-created and back up this argument.

We can think of nature as a placeholder for our bodies. Descartes and others promoted a masculine, mind-over-body approach so we can move away from nature. However, nature is inescapable, as is disaster. Disaster might be seen as a gift versus making the best of a situation. Responsiveness can manifest in different ways. The responsiveness itself becomes in effect a “potlatch” and an on-going gift giving event manifesting positive repercussions.

Disasters can be caused by nature and/or by people. This creates a dichotomy between the enemy being external and the enemy being “us.”

Lingis is all about relationships. For Levinas, it’s specifically about relationships to and with others. We are vulnerable as a species, but at the same time we have an opportunity to engage with everything. Levinas is criticized for his propensity for the exoticism of otherness. However, it could be said that this is part of his strategy to celebrate everything, including the unknown.

Atavism: Within us there are these dormant triggers, but when we enter into new ways of engagement these things can be activated. Disasters can serve as an opportunity to engage in mutual aid. The disaster functions as an activator for those triggers.

We have the leisure to think about these options because we are not forced to make immediate decisions because there is no immediate threat. We don’t have a global community to develop resolve and make pre-emptive decisions, but maybe we should. It would be helpful to prepare ourselves both with policy and philosophy. “We can see the flood coming and our just letting it come.” Information isn’t lacking; it’s resolve.

Temporality also comes into play. We don’t experience climate change on an everyday level. What is lacking is a sensory apparatus that can take the information from scientists and apply it to everyday life. We need to build an actor-network that would allow for translation between these: e.g., via public communication of science, individual decision-making, political process, etc.

For example, “The Day After Tomorrow” is a hokey movie, but renders an a visually/viscerally understandable message of the consequences of rapid climate change (“tipping points”). The popular media can play a role in dissemination of ideas. Is there a precedent for knowledge being dispersed quickly? Chernobyl example – repressed information by USSR, but coverage got out and got out fast. The GMO debate is another example as something that has brought many Americans together. What about a global consciousness? One theory is that we will only come together as a unified force when the meteor is heading toward earth; i.e. at the last possible moment.

What do we do when change is gradual? Especially when looking at different time scales, e.g. the deep future, and the past before humans. Multiple temporalities have to be taken into account. Subjectivity doesn’t matter when zooming out. How bad do things have to be to make change? Let’s not slow down the process; acceleration of issues will accelerate response.

Our tools are not up for the tasks. Religion is probably one of the largest motivators we have for change, but how do you harness that leverage point? What we need in these climate debates is cultural understandings of climate, and an ongoing definition of self and surrounding, environment and peoples.

So where do we go next with our exploration of the anthropocene and surrounding issues? Continue Clark? Karen Barad? Haraway? Latour? Read parts of the 6th extinction by Elizabeth Colbert? Claire Colebrook? TBD…

Follow-up (AI): we will all try to watch the lecture part (can skip intro and Q & A) of Donna Haraway’s talk “SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble.” Haraway begins speaking at about the 12-minute mark. (Note: there is an earlier version of the talk from the U of Arizona; Haraway starts at @ 8’30”. I haven’t compared the two — if anyone would like to do that and report back, you can let us know which is better. But the Alberta talk is more recent.)

Reading for next week TBA. Stay tuned.

5 responses to “Disasters, responses, networks

  1. Thanks, Katrina, for compiling these notes.

    Regarding the two Haraway talk versions, the most recent one at Univ. of Alberta also features slides, which are pretty handy.

    There’s a bit in her lecture where she features the following melancholic, but beautiful comic from xkcd: http://xkcd.com/1259/

    Looking forward to Thursday!

    • Harlan,

      Nice comic find- nerdy yet apropos. It definitely captures the driving point of
      “Involutionary momentum.”

    • Oh! I just got to the point in Harraway’s lecture where she displays the comic. I thought it was your own find. I guess I should learn to read more carefully, and give credit when credit is due.

  2. Thank you for the great notes Katrina!

    It’s rare and exciting to see Bruno Latour addressing capitalism so directly. His main point here is to demonstrate how our first nature, Earth, has taken a backseat to secondary nature, capitalism. In the former, laws, systems, and processes are immanent, mortal, and materially fragile, while in the second, economy, globalization, and capitalism seems transcendental, universal, and obdurate. This quote captures the spirit of Latour’s speech quite well, I think:

    “We begin to see how difficult it is to disentangle the contradictory affects created by an appeal to the concept of capitalism: it generates a prodigious enthusiasm for seizing unbounded opportunities; a dystopian feeling of total helplessness for those who are submitted to its decrees; a complete disinhibition as to the long-term consequences of its action for those who profit from it; a perverse wound of smug superiority in those who have failed to fight its progression; a fascination for its iron laws in the eyes of those who claim to study its development, to the point that it appears to run more smoothly than nature itself; a total indifference to how the soil on which it is rooted is occupied; a complete confusion about who should be treated as a total stranger and who as a close neighbor. And above all, it marks a movement towards modernization that delegitimates those who stay behind as so many losers. Actually now that capitalism is thought to have no enemy, it has become a mere synonym for the implacable thrust forward of modernization. From this tangle of effects, I get no other feeling than an increased sense of helplessness. The mere invocation of capitalism renders me speechless.. It might be best to abandon the concept entirely.” (p. 9)

    Yet Latour’s aim is not to grow complacent, like the radical Left that feels right (in showing capital’s real affects) but that failed nonetheless. He wants to reveal the man-made laws that drive this secondary nature that can feel more primary and loftier (in terms of change) than the primary nature that earth scientists, activists, and natural catastrophes occupy. Latour’s eleven theses, modeled after Marx’s famous critique of Feuerbach, are intended to reverse this secondary-over-primary impasse, and indeed to show that secondary nature is not governed “as a law of a transcendent world in the hands of an invisible deity.” (p. 10)

  3. Pingback: Haraway’s string figures, Latour’s theses | A(s)cene·

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