IN RESPONSE TO THE APOCALYPTIC TENOR of the dominant discourses of the Anthropocene, I want to outline an alternative microvision: the prospect of a feminist counterapocalypse that takes seriously the geopolitical unfoldings on our planet while also rethinking our relations to and with it precisely as relations. Relationality, I suggest, offers a more compelling model of subjectivity. Instead of positing a human subject that is separate from the world he (sic) inhabits and in which he can make interventions, it acknowledges the prior existence of relations between clusters of matter and energy that temporarily stabilize for us humans into entities—on a molecular, cellular, and social level. The relational model of subjectivity, involving a critical transfer of scientific ideas into a cultural context by feminist scholars such as Donna Haraway and Karen Barad, challenges the de facto masculinist subject that disinterestedly looks at the world as his possession and playground. Recognizing that we are of the world, it also presents instances of differentiation between subjects and objects as ethico-political tasks for the human. These tasks involve having to account for asymmetries of relations, making “agential cuts” to the arrangements of the world, and trying to establish better—that is, fairer and more just—relations.
The concept of a feminist counterapocalypse builds Catherine Keller’s idea: “A ‘counter-apocalypse’ recognizes itself as a kind of apocalypticism; but then it will try to interrupt the habit. . . . If counter-apocalypse reveals anything, it does so in ironic mimesis of the portentous tones of the original—with which it dances as it wrestles.” The microvision I am presenting here reflects and diffracts from the work of many other feminist thinkers who have attempted to cut the anthropos of the Anthropocene down to size not just by engaging in an explicit critique of gender relations in science and culture but also, more important, by challenging human exceptionalism, with its foundational subject, as a key framework for understanding the world. One such author with whom I would like to begin my feminist counterwalk through Anthropocene territory is Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing, whose book, The Mushroom at the End of the World, I briefly referred to earlier. “Following a mushroom,” Tsing retraces the material and economic structurings of our “civilization” by drawing our attention to the relational ecologies developed from and around the fungi species called matsutake, both in the forest and on the market. A delicacy in Japan, matsutake is relatively rare and needs to be sourced from places as remote as Oregon in the United States and Yunnan in China, thus establishing an intriguing global network of growth, labor, and exchange. This socioeconomic network is woven into the already existent micronetwork of fungi ecologies that bind “roots and mineral soils, long before producing mushrooms.”
Tsing’s book is set against the horizon of what we might term, with a nod to Haraway, a naturecultural ruin: the aftermath of climate change coupled with the collapse of the dream of industrial progress. Yet, rather than just lament the passing of the world as we (or at least some of us) know it, she sets off in search of “life in capitalist ruins.” The socioeconomic context of her exploratory pursuit is provided by the situation of mastutake pickers in the forests of Oregon: a mixture of Southeast and East Asian immigrants from Cambodia, Laos, and China, as well as white Americans who have opted out, willingly or by turn of fate, of “what liberals think of as ‘standard employment.’” Reflecting on the precarious lives of the pickers, Tsing also lends an ear to the precarity of the ecologies, of various scales, in which they operate. Significantly, she then extends this idea of precarity, understood as “life without the promise of stability,” from the situation affecting those placed outside privileged, or at least stable, socioeconomic circumstances to the structuring conditions of life in postindustrial capitalist economies. In a similar tone to Bifo’s argument about the radically destabilized nature of employment in the era of semiocapitalism, she recognizes that “now many of us, north and south, confront the condition of trouble without end.” For Tsing, precarity encompasses not only such phenomena as the increasing insecurity of the labor market but also environmental threats on the level of individual species, as well as whole regions or even ecosystems, threatened with extinction. In what may seem like a surprising move, she then challenges the traditional view of precarity as “an exception to how the world works” and proposes we instead accept precarity as “the condition of our time.” This suggestion must not be mistaken for a sign of political resignation or withdrawal on Tsing’s part, a peaceful embracing of our life among postindustrial ruins driven by a naïve desire to reconnect with our nonhuman others: forests, fungi, microbes. It is instead a deeply ethical proposal that redrafts the standalone subject of ethics as always already multiple, strange, and strange-to-itself. Such a subject does not have to open itself to others because it is already invaded, or contaminated, by them. However, it does have to undertake the effort of grasping this relationship as potentially mutually constitutive and therefore entailing a call to responsibility for others. Tsing writes:
Precarity is the condition of being vulnerable to others. Unpredictable encounters transform us; we are not in control, even of ourselves. Unable to rely on a stable structure of community, we are thrown into shifting assemblages, which remake us as well as our others. We can’t rely on the status quo; everything is in flux, including our ability to survive. Thinking through precarity changes social analysis. A precarious world is a world without teleology. Indeterminacy, the unplanned nature of time, is frightening, but thinking through precarity makes it evident that indeterminacy also makes life possible. The only reason all this sounds odd is that most of us were raised on dreams of modernization and progress.
This responsibility for others and the willingness to be vulnerable to them should not of course be reduced to just being “nice” to other people, or pets, or accepting any encounter or intrusion passively, be it with fungi or cancer cells. Rather, it entails the necessary task of recognizing that entanglement with others is not just a matter of our acceptance or good will, because it precedes the emergence of the human sense of the self.
Tsing’s proposal can therefore be read as a radicalization of Judith Butler’s ethics of precarity, developed from the work of Emmanuel Levinas. For Butler, ethics derives from the apprehension of the precariousness of the life of the Other: war victim, refugee, but also media-proclaimed enemy of the state, who is somewhat harder to empathize with. This precariousness is manifested in the face or, more broadly, the figure of a vulnerable human who both threatens my sense of security and places a demand on me. The Other’s demand is a form of accusation because it requires a justification of my relative comfort and stability when that Other is facing a political or even existential threat. It thus introduces precarity as a shared condition of being human while also highlighting the fact that under particular sociopolitical circumstances, different humans experience precarity in different ways. The denial of precarity leads to the drawing of various lines of differentiation such as gender, race, class, or bodily ability. Levinas’s ethics, and Butler’s reworking of it, is no doubt humanist in that it adopts the human figure and voice as articulators of an ethical demand. Yet it also lends itself to a posthumanist opening because it poses a radical challenge to the self-sufficient and self-centered subject of moral theory. In the ethics of responsibility toward the alterity of the Other, the moral subject is always already exposed, invaded, or, to use Tsing’s phrase, contaminated. “Self-contained individuals,” argues Tsing, are in turn “not transformed by encounter. Maximizing their interests, they use encounters—but remain unchanged in them.”
Tsing’s implicit proposal for a nonnormative ethics of encounter—in which we are not told what to do but are faced with a call to responsibility—finds its most direct articulation in the invitation she issues to humans to embrace cross-species coexistence as an ethical way of being in the world. Learning the lesson of “collaborative survival” in precarious times from the matsutake mushroom, she argues that “staying alive—for every species—requires livable collaborations. Collaboration means working across difference, which leads to contamination. Without collaborations, we all die.” What is at stake in this model of understanding human–nonhuman relations is not the development of a flat yet ultimately banal ontology in which everything is connected with everything else, or the decision, as some may derisorily claim, of whether “I” am more (or less) important than a mushroom. Instead, what is really at stake here is the possibility of cutting down to size the supposedly unique human “I” by showing that this “I” is already, literally, made up of others. But this possibility must also involve those capable of adopting the human “I” pronoun as theirs being able to recognize their ability to develop conscious ethical responses to this situation of ongoing material and ethical entanglement, beyond mere instinctive reactions to stimuli, and then being able to consolidate those responses into an ethical framework. Indeed, there is no way to unthink ourselves out of our human standpoint, no matter how much kinship or entanglement with “others” we identify. It is also next to impossible to abandon our human mode of perception and suspend the material and epistemological subject–object divisions we humans introduce into the flow of matter (including our primary positing of what surrounds us and makes us as “matter”)—notwithstanding the misguided even if well-intentioned attempts to think like a bat, walk like a sheep, or float like a jellyfish. Rather than fantasize about some kind of ontological “species switch,” the ethical task for us humans is not only to see ourselves as contaminated but also to account for the incisions we make in the ecologies of life, the differentiations and cuts we introduce and sustain, and the values we give to the entities we have carved out of these ecologies with our perceptual and cognitive apparatus.
A feminist counterapocalypse therefore unfolds from accepting the material condition of precarity without submitting to the “portentous tones” of the precarity discourse. In parodying apocalypse as the Armageddon for the White Man, it also embraces the “intensity” and the “drive for justice” entailed by its affective setup. The feminist counterapocalyptic framework creates a space for an ethical opening onto the precarious lives and bodies of human and nonhuman others—including the male bodies and minds that have been discarded in the downsizing process of disruptive semiocapitalism. In doing so, it promises liberation from the form of subjectivity pinned to a competitive, overachieving, and overreaching masculinity. It also prompts us all to ask: If unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and collaborations do we want to create in its aftermath?
Isabelle Stengers’s concept of Gaia could perhaps serve as a model for, or figuration of, this mode of being (in) the world. Gaia is derived from interdisciplinary Earth systems thinking, which adopts the dynamic interaction between the Earth’s spheres—such as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere, and biosphere—as its unit of analysis. Not to be mistaken for a peaceful coexistence of entities under the banner of an unreconstructed and benign “Nature,” Gaia, at least in Stengers’s use of this term, merely entails an attempt to shift the human observation point from the center of the action to its margins while simultaneously reducing in scale, scope, and significance the outcomes of human activity—without relieving humans of responsibility for the activities they do enact or participate in. Indeed, there is something rather demanding or even violent about Gaia, whose mode of appearance is that of “intrusion,” because it reminds us that the Earth, in all its “systems,” is not arranged for our pleasure or benefit. In this sense, the notion of Gaia could be seen an alternative to the masculinist Anthropocene fantasy that ends up aggrandizing Man in the process. For Stengers, Gaia
makes the epic versions of human history, in which Man, standing up on his hind legs and learning to decipher the laws of nature, understands that he is the master of his own fate, free from any transcendence, look rather old. Gaia is the name of an unprecedented or forgotten form of transcendence: a transcendence deprived of the noble qualities that would allow it to be invoked as an arbiter, guarantor, or resource; a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects.
The adoption of this form of philosophical humility is only the first step, though. It needs to be followed up, according to Stengers, Tsing, and other counterapocalyptic thinkers of the end of the world, by embracing precarity as a political horizon against which the dream of infinite linear progress is presented as expired. For this horizon to be political rather than just aesthetically mournful, it needs to be inscribed with the aforementioned “drive for justice,” which is not merely eschatological or pointed toward a celestial future. A political response arising out of this horizon may entail, after Stengers, working toward “the possibility of a future that is not barbaric” here on Earth while also giving up on a fantasy of peaceful coexistence between individuals, species, or systems. Indeed, Tsing reminds us that opening the political horizon “to other beings shifts everything. Once we include pests and diseases, we can’t hope for harmony; the lion will not lie down with the lamb. . . . The best we can do is to aim for ‘good-enough’ worlds, where ‘good-enough’ is always imperfect and under revision.” A feminist counterapocalypse that reworks finalism as a structuring condition of being in the world, while also issuing a responsibility for our entanglements with and in it, presents itself as both a less tragic and a less comical response to the Anthropocene narrative.