Achille Mbembe kicked off the JWTC 2012 ‘Futures of Nature’ workshop with a lecture entitled Climate Change and the Book of the Apocalypse. To begin, he sketched for us two caricatures of ‘life’: that of a certain Western ‘instrumental’ concept of nature and another from equatorial Africa, for which nature is understood as deep interconnections between a multitude of beings. For some, this introduction was a bit uncomfortable: seeming to reproduce notions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that anthropology has tried so hard to move beyond. This led us into a discussion centered around epistemological differences, which I won't get into here.
My own listening took me somewhere a bit different: the so-called ontological turn in anthropology which has destabilized a universal notion of nature and put forth a world organized by ontological difference rather than cultural difference. From his introduction, Mbembe continued on to make two points. First, he argued for plurality and the need for anthropologists to “deal with multitude of archives.” Second, Mbembe weaved in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s ‘Four Theses’ and the ways in which humans are part of natural life, that is are ‘species.’ This points to a need to rethink ‘the human’ and ‘human-nature’ relations. In the end, Mbembe’s argument joins others who have called for an ‘anthropology of life’ as way of approaching questions of climate change. To me, this was an ontological argument: asking us to consider the entanglement of our multiple ways of inhabiting the world. In Mbembe’s words: “A world of signification becomes visible for humans to experience.” Similarly calling for an ‘anthropology of life,’ Eduardo Kohn, has suggested a ‘semiotics of life’: that is (as I remember) a treatment of sign processes as part of all life forms, not just humans communication.
Another topic was raised in the discussion was that of ‘local’ knowledges or imaginaries. Here, my thoughts travelled to the work of Hugh Raffles who put forth the idea of ‘intimate knowledge’ collapsing the geographically-bound conceptions of ‘local’ for an idea of nature as something lived, something of which we are a part, something we are caught up in, and which is mediated by other places, needs, desires, practices, memories. Again I emphasize [perhaps over-emphasize] the ontological: the challenge, it seems, as we continue to discuss the futures of nature, is not only to shift the ways in which we approach nature, but how these various ontological orientations, then, encounter each other. How do we approach and address sites of ‘friction’ (to borrow from Anna Tsing)? How can rendering ontological difference be brought to bear in debates of land rights, conservation, resource extraction, and development?
Significantly, Mbembe emphasized in his lecture that these encounters are not confined to questions of space but also time. Our ‘horizons of responsibility’ are temporal as well as spatial. Our future(s) is(are) already present – as is, of course, our pasts. According to Mbembe, imagination and possibility have a particular role to play in addressing the futures of nature. In his words, it is through “wonder and awe that understanding of nature becomes a possibility.” And so I end this post by posing a question to all you dear readers: what is the place of wonder and possibility in critical theory? Daston and Clark, in their history of wonder, lead me to ask what if we think of ‘wonder’ as an ontological orientation as well as a cognitive one? To me there seems to be a need to think about ways of dealing with and inhabiting the world – even if/when we don’t fully understand or 'know' it.
Anthropology, New School.