Arie Altena

Dark Ecology Reading List II

Arie Altena

Reading suggestions for the second Dark Ecology Journey, published in 2015 on the Dark Ecology website:

This is a continuation of the Dark Ecology reading list that was posted on the Dark Ecology website last year. It contains pointers to books and articles that were an inspiration for the Dark Ecology project, this time focusing specifically on the idea of the agency of the nonhuman and 'making things speak' as they feature in the work of thinkers like Bruno Latour and Noortje Marres.

One of the places to start reading is our own Sonic Acts / Dark Ecology book, The Geologic Imagination. It includes Timothy Morton’s keynote speech for the first Dark Ecology journey, an interview with Noortje Marres about ‘equipping things to speak’, and material relating to several Dark Ecology commissions.

The thoughts of Bruno Latour continue to loom large in this project. His books, articles and lectures certainly ‘push’ thinking forward. In the context of the theme ‘Making Things Speak’, I have to acknowledge the large tome Making Things Public. Atmospheres of Democracy (Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (eds.), MIT Press: Cambridge, Mass., 2005) – which was also an exhibition at the ZKM in 2005. That’s ten years ago already, yet there are plenty of proposals in this book that still resonate. (45 pages of it are here.).

Apart from Latour’s intriguing but also quite complex An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (trans. Catherine Porter, Cambridge Mass., London: Harvard UP, 2013, with website), there are several shorter essays and lectures by him that deal directly with the issue of ‘facing Gaia’, climate change, ecology, and the Anthropocene. For example the Gifford Lectures video links at the bottom), and ‘How Better to Register the Agency of Things’. All Latour’s essays can be found at his owm wesite. For those who missed it: Latour’s 2015 lecture in Utrecht as part of BAK’s Anthropocene Observatory is on vimeo.

Someone else whose thinking has had quite an influence on our project is the London-based Dutch sociologist Noortje Marres, a close collaborator of Latour. Much of her work concerns the issue of ‘making things speak’. She looks for instance at how technology equips ‘things to speak’. She calls this ‘material participation’, which is also the title of her book from 2012: Material Participation, Technology, the Environment and Everyday Publics. There is a transcription of her presentation at the 2013 Drift Festival in which she clearly outlines her ideas. She’s also present in the book The Prince and the Wolf, Latour and Harman at the LSE (2011), which is a discussion between Graham Harman and Bruno Latour on the differences between their philosophies.

Marres also features in the background of one of Graham Harman’s recent books: Bruno Latour, Reassembling the Political (2014), which deals with Latour’s political ideas. For a short recap of this book, read this Sonic Acts interview with Harman.

The ideas of Isabelle Stengers are also highly relevant. If you don’t have time to read her book on Whitehead (Thinking with Whitehead: a Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard UP, 2011), or the complete Cosmopolitics series (in English: Cosmopolitics I, The Science Wars, the Invention of Mechanics, Thermodynamics and Cosmopolitics II), there’s a good interview with her entitled “Matters of Cosmopolitics: On the Provocations of Gaïa”, Isabelle Stengers in Conversation with Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin. Stengers also wrote an interesting article on animism, ‘Reclaiming Animism’.

The anthropology of Philippe Descola is an important influence on Latour. Descola’s 2005 book Beyond Nature and Culture finally came out in an English translation in 2013. In it he describes four fundamentally different ways of conceptualising the world. These four ontologies are naturalism, animism, totemism, and analogism. Western ontology – the worldview of modern science – is naturalism. Descola does not directly criticise naturalism; he just describes the four ‘modes’. It then becomes clear that naturalism is in many ways no stranger than the other modes. The idea that we could, or should, take the other three seriously implies a major shift for our Western view of the world. It is a shift that has to be made, as Descola makes clear on the very last page of his book: ‘Every type of presence in the world, every way of connecting with it and making use of it, constitutes a particular compromise between, on the one hand, the factors of sensible experience that are accessible to us all, albeit interpreted differently, and, on the other, a mode of aggregating existing beings that is adapted to historical circumstances. The fact is that none of those compromises, however worthy of admiration some may be, can provide a source of instruction valid for all situations. (…) It is up to each one of us, wherever we may be, to invent and encourage modes of conciliation and types of pressure capable of leading to a new universality that is both open to all the world’s components and also respectful of certain of their idiosyncrasies. (…) We might then hope to avert a distant point of no return when, with the extinction of the human race, the price of passivity would have to be paid in another fashion: namely by abandoning to the cosmos a nature bereft of its recorders simply because they failed to provide it with genuine modes of expression.’ (Phillipe Descola. Beyond Nature and Culture, trans. Janet Lloyd, Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013, pp. 405–6).

There is a lot of anthropology that is interesting in the context of ‘Making Things Speak’ – especially since the idea of things speaking ‘smells of’ animism, and implies at least a correction to the scientific worldview of Modernity. Anthropologists whose work is often mentioned, also in the context of contemporary art, are Eduardo Viveiros de Castro (e.g., Cosmological Perspectivism in Amazonia and Elsewhere, Eduardo Kohn, (How Forests Think), and Anna Tsing.

If you prefer to approach all these ideas more from the context of contemporary arts: a number of essays published by e-flux in their project for the 56th Venice Biennale are relevant, especially in the Apocalypse-category. For example, Pedro Neves Marques, ‘Look Above, the Sky is Falling’.

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Arie Altena