Conceptual Quandaries – Identity and Difference in the Anthropocene

by Daniel Andersson

The environmental humanities, it seems to me, is a field of research perfectly suited for conceptual quandaries. I can think of few other playgrounds equally relevant, and with an equal array of philosophical tools available for conceptual analysis, than this assembly of traditions. The main reason for this, as I see it, is that it thrives in the in-between of identity and difference. The environmental humanities is caught in the dualism between nature and culture, and that is precisely its point, the way it works. But it also means that it faces a serious challenge: how do we negotiate these two so that, on the one hand, we can criticize that which is taken as “natural”, the transcendental within Western philosophy, but on the other hand, doing so without subjecting ourselves to what Stacy Alaimo has called “the echo chambers of skeptical critique”, that is, to relativize nature to the point where everything is arbitrary, even our own critique. We want to be able to assert things with certainty, but to do so without falling prey to Enlightenment reason; the problem being, as we know, that one cannot both have the cake and eat it. Yet, I think it is important to note that this antinomy between difference and identity runs both ways: it is not only so that difference is necessary for identity, but that identity is equally necessary for difference. I find it a little bit disturbing that difference, after post-structuralism, often has been spoken of as something inherently good, and where identity get to stand in for everything that is repressive. And so we tend to forget that resistance requires conviction, in other words, that it requires certainty about a specific thing, that we establish boundaries to claim that something is “this” way and not “that”, i.e. a delimitation, an identity. The universal subject of the working class within Marxism is an example of such resistance. In any case, the antinomy between identity-difference appears formative for the environmental humanities as such, and it is equally so, I would claim, for any type of research that is interested in concepts.

Dianne Chisholm has written an insightful and interesting take on Deleuze and Guattari’s geophilosophy and their rhizomatic approach. The originality of their approach, if we are to believe Chisholm, lies in how they structure their work, both methodologically and theoretically: instead of a linear analysis of dependent and independent variables into questions of causality, geophilosophy emphasizes non-teleological and unpredictable networks of assemblages, with an interest into how different forms of assemblages gets structured over time and how this creates the conditions of possibility for identifying causality and entities worthy as objects of study. For Deleuze and Guattari, according to Chisholm, the environment as a field of study (and environmental topics as an object of study) serves as a perfect platform for engagements with questions of the subject, especially questions of the subject beyond the human, problematizing or deconstructing assumptions about its sovereignty and autonomy. Subjectivity, then, is one of the most central questions for any environmentally informed research or politics – as the name environmental humanities gives away: to understand the environmental situation today requires, as one among several necessary activities, that we go back to study and ask questions about what we are and what our relation to the world is.

Subjectivity, of course, is one of the central topics also for Foucault – he has himself insisted that it is not power, but subjectivity, that has served as the general theme for his research. Power is not an object of study, thus we cannot have a theory of power, since any such theory in itself carries the constructive and/or restrictive effects of power. Therefore I read Foucault’s take on power as something that, in my mind, resembles Karen Barad’s intra-action: power is that which is expressed at the moment of structuration within a network of relations; a structuration of both meaning and practices, constructing certain modes of relation and behavior, and at the same time, constructing the entities which we recognize as necessary parts of the totality we call the world. So subjectivities, in Foucaults sense, is created through the specific practices regulating how we behave and relate towards each other – and the same is true on a larger scale, beyond the human, for Deleuze and Guattari, as is evident with their notion of the rhizome. To get to my point, then: the concern of conceptualization is inevitably a concern of identification, of establishing an identity. Moreover, an identity, or in other words, a subject-position, is the precondition for any production of knowledge. Before we can come to know anything, we are necessarily situated in one way or another.

Precisely as for Gregory Bateson, the rhizome of Deleuze and Guattari insists on an ecology of mind. Thinking is not the activity of some coherent, preconfigured individual, but always takes place in a network, a network which itself, in its totality, cannot be understood by simply reducing it to specific entities (objects or subjects), but still, whose only possibility to be understood, nonetheless requires a reduction, so that every understanding represents a certain determination of meaning. This last reservation – that the reduction of the immanent contradictions of the world is the condition for it to be comprehensible at all – is very important, I think, and here we can see further similarities between Deleuze and Guattari and Foucault. Because for Foucault, power is disciplinary. It is no coincidence that Foucault chooses the word “discipline” for what he intends to speak of, as it allows him to avoid putting value into his understanding of power. Power being disciplinary means that it regulates behavior, and so it is always undecidable between being violent and/or productive. Power itself is neither violence, nor is it consent, but both of these can be manifestations of power, yet it is always undecidable between both. Rather, power becomes the name for that which creates the conditions of possibility for certain ranges of action. Foucault even claims that the closest word to describe the character of power-relations is “conduct”, which he chooses because of the wordplay it gives rise to in the French language: as it has an undecided double-meaning between “to lead”, or “to be in control of something” (to conduct a choir, or being a train conductor), but also, “to behave” and “to conduct oneself” – which gives a hint of his understanding of power as being both constructive and affirming, as well as repressive and negating. Similarly, for Foucault, the act of conceptualization is simultaneously both reductive and productive.

Interestingly, even within some of the most sophisticated attempts, through systems theory, to establish patterns of relations in complex environments, who the subject (the autopoietic system) that consciously comes to know its environment is, remains a question that such a closed system itself cannot answer. And as we know, the question of subject-position is absolutely central for the result of any phenomenal experience. So when we approach the question of responsibility related to the concept of the Anthropocene – who is responsible and for what, or even the question of who distributes responsibility – this is a question of conceptualization. Many of the adherents of the Anthropocene like to point out that it is the human who is responsible, but then they go on to map the complex environment within which the human is interdependently situated, which ironically brings them back to the same question of identification, again. Thus, it is inevitable that they are led back to the starting-point: does the human really serve as a good working concept, or do we need to reduce it to smaller parts, to acknowledge the different patterns within the concept of the human, or to zoom out and holistically acknowledge that the human nonetheless only is a part of a larger ecosystem; and so the question of the subject, as second-order cybernetics points out, is always a question of the level from which we analyze specific phenomena, because relations do not have, at any single point in time, any clear boundaries inherent to them. Neither reductionism nor holism solves this problem, since we as subjects cannot get any wiser about who we are, and as causality changes with the level.

For that reason, I think Alaimo is absolutely right when she argues that science studies is one of the most relevant fields of research today. I find really pressing the work in philosophy of science by for example Isabelle Stengers, who questions whether we really can make a stable separation between physics and metaphysics, or between science, philosophy and religion. And, of course, this is not a new point that Stengers makes, instead she follows a number of Western philosophers and scientists, from Alfred North Whitehead to Emile Meyerson. But yet, it remains as relevant a question today as ever before, since science seems perpetually forgetful of its past – wanting to rid itself of its association with previous scientific theories – such as for example phlogiston – by ascribing to them spiritual or quasi-scientific status, disregarding the fact that they served as important working concepts for scientists at earlier points in history. Similarly, today, I think we need to accept that there is a degree of imagination and story-telling even to the most sophisticated methods we have for talking about the natural world. Concepts are necessary for any scientific endeavor, and thus humanities scholars should not be afraid of engaging with neither natural nor social scientists. In fact, as I have tried to argue, the environmental humanities is a research field perfectly suited for such exchanges, as it allows us to interrogate and contribute to the development of the concepts upon which the production of knowledge operates.


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