Arie Altena

Dark Ecology Reading List III

Arie Altena


This reading list was published in May 2016 as a 'Field Note' on the Dark Ecology website:

Less than three weeks before our third Dark Ecology Journey we present our third theory ‘Reading List’. The first one and the second one are still as relevant to our subject as they were in November 2015 and October 2014. I will not repeat the reading suggestions mentioned there, so might want to take a look at them too – if you haven’t already. In this list I will focus on some of the books that I read in the past few months.

Of all the books that I read or dipped into, the one that impressed me most was certainly Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World: on the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015). This book about the matsutake mushroom is both an ethnography of the community of matsutake pickers, and a study of the matsutake’s ecology. Through the lens of the matsutake Tsing looks at the devastation of our world, and outlines a path of possible survival. Tsing investigates life on the margins of capitalism, fungal ecologies and the history of forests, and points out the crucial role of symbiosis and collaboration in both the ecology of the matsutake mushroom, and the human economy. Tsing describes a life among the ruins of capitalism. She argues that we have to pay more attention to assemblages of human and nonhuman actors if we’d like human civilisation to survive in the Anthropocene, in the wreckages of capitalism. Precarity is central to her view of survival. She writes: ‘What if, as I’m suggesting, precarity is the condition of our time – or, to put it another way, what if our time is ripe for sensing precarity?’ She defines precarity as something positive, a way to escape from the pitfalls of neoliberalism and capitalism: ‘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.’ Praise for the book came from Bruno Latour: ‘If we must survive in the “ruins of capitalism” – what some call the Anthropocene – we need an example of how totally unexpected connections can be made between the economy, culture, biology, and survival strategies. (…) Tsing offers a marvelous example with the unlikely case of a globalized mushroom.’ And if this doesn’t convince you, Timothy Morton wrote a favourable review too. Read it here.

Of course I have to mention Timothy Morton’s new book Dark Ecology, For a Logic of Future Coexistence, which was published a few weeks ago. It’s a book-length explanation of dark ecology, often very witty, and sometimes pushing the theoretical envelope just a little bit further than you’d think possible. His rollercoaster account of ‘how the logistics of agricultural society resulted in global warming and hardwired dangerous ideas about life-forms into the human mind’ (I’m quoting the blurb here), is what makes the book a bewitching read. Morton’s trip to Nikel on the first Dark Ecology Journey (2014) is described at the end of the book too.

If you don’t have time to read all 180 pages of Morton’s book (including the notes), you can opt to read his essay in our own new book Living Earth. Field Notes from the Dark Ecology Project 2014–2016, which will be available from early June 2016 on the Sonic Acts website. Morton’s essay is an adaptation of one part of his argument in his book, this time starting from his experience in Nikel. Living Earth. Dark Ecology 2014–2016 contains essays and articles written in the context of our Dark Ecology project, and features contributions on almost all commissioned works. Besides Morton’s essay there are pieces by Britt Kramvig & Margrethe Pettersen, Berit Kristoffersen, Graham Harman, Susan Schuppli, Espen Sommer Eide, and an interview with Heather Davis. An extensive interview with the whole curatorial team of Dark Ecology provides insights into the development of the project and the ideas that motivate it.

Michel Serres wrote his book Le contrat naturel (1990) already at the end of the 1980s. The English translation The Natural Contract is from 1995. I recently picked up the Dutch translation from 1992, which I somehow had never read – though it was readily available to me on the bookshelves at V2_. The book begins with a description of a painting by Goya of two fighting men slowly sinking into the Earth. Serres then describes the possibility (remember this was written in 1989!) that we are in the middle of global climate change, and asks what this means for philosophy. In this book we find – for the first time? – the idea that the Earth is no longer the stable ground on which dynamic human history unfolds, and that this constitutes a fundamental change for philosophy. Earth itself is changing, the destinies of human history and Earth history are intertwined and we humans realise that they cannot be conceptualised as being separate. The blurb for The Natural Contract states: ‘Serres believes that we must now sign a “natural contract” with the earth to bring balance and reciprocity to our relations with the planet that gives us life. Our survival depends on the extent to which humans join together and act globally, on an earth now conceived as an entity.’ 1990 was a vastly different time, also for theory, and this is also evident in The Natural Contract. Reading it now is a good reminder that the philosophical challenge of global warming is hardly new.

The Shock of the Anthropocene, The Earth, History and Us by Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz was recently translated from the French (L’Evenement Anthropocène is from 2013). If you want to just read one book on the Anthropocene, this is the one. It offers a clear explanation, different perspectives, and lots of historical information and documentation. Bonnieul and Fressoz use a wealth of information about the history of industrialism, capitalism and environmentalism to show that the Anthropocene is not something that suddenly happened to us in the twenty-first century to awaken us from our ignorance. The devastating effects of industrialism, the use of fossil fuels, and capitalism were known for a long time, but were mostly deliberately ignored, in favour of other interests (money, capital, power). In a sense, Bonnieul’s and Fressoz’s analysis is also precedes Anna Tsing’s ideas on precarity and survival. Verso Books often has interesting readings lists connected to their publications, like this one.

McKenzie Wark’s Molecular Red, Theory for the Anthropocene, which was published last year, has a great line-up of subjects: the philosophy (or, as he called it ‘Tektology’) of Alexander Bogdanov – rival of Lenin, all-round scientist, philosopher and SF-writer; the novels and other writings of Andrey Platonov; Donna Haraway’s theory of the cyborg; and the Martian trilogy by Kim Stanley Robinson. Verso has put a Molecular Red reader online with texts about all the subjects. McKenzie Wark claims to develop philosophical tools for the Anthropocene in this book, but somehow his effort impresses me less than the approach offered in Anna Tsing’s book. Partly this has to do with the fact that Wark’s treatment of, for instance, Platonov is simply not as thorough as Anna Tsing’s ethnography of matsutake pickers in Oregon; partly is has to do with Wark’s heavy reliance on hardcore Marxism. (Though the fact that he makes labour the focal point is extremely valuable).

By the way, if you read Dutch it is worthwhile to pick up a copy of issue of the Belgian literary magazine nY. It contains some more texts that relate – in very different ways – to the Anthropocene discussion and ‘dark ecology’, for instance, a long review of Molecular Red by Pieter Vermeulen and Tom Chadwick.

To wrap up this reading list, let me announce the forthcoming new book by Donna Haraway Staying with the Trouble, Making Kin in the Chthulucene, which will be published in September 2016. Quoting from the description: ‘She eschews referring to our current epoch as the Anthropocene, preferring to conceptualize it as what she calls the Chthulucene, as it more aptly and fully describes our epoch as one in which the human and nonhuman are inextricably linked in tentacular practices. The Chthulucene, Haraway explains, requires sym-poiesis, or making-with, rather than auto-poiesis, or self-making.’ It’s the argument that she has been making in the lectures and articles that have appeared online over the past year; see, for example, ‘SF: String Figures, Multispecies Muddles, Staying with the Trouble’ or ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene: Making String Figures with Biologies, Arts, Activisms’.

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Arie Altena &: Dark Ecology