Having just got off the Skype session with my thinking-partners (today it was Alice and Laura, but in the past it was Laura and Sandra and in the future it might be Alice and Laura and Sandra)* I’ve decided to “write madly, write now”. If I put it off until later, it’s not going to happen. This isn’t a report on what we discussed, so much as a report on what and how I’m thinking after our discussion. (Three people – three different versions!)
We were gathered to pay some respects to Gregory Bateson, author of Steps To An Ecology Of Mind – Collected Essays In Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, and Epistemology (1972). It would be nice to say I’d read the whole book, but what I’d actually read was the first part of the chapter titled “Conscious Purpose versus Nature”. And loved it. I copied and pasted slabs of it for future reference. It was a beautiful antidote to Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth (2017) which I’d read and reviewed recently (a ridiculously tactful and tactical review, but more of this another time, perhaps). Anyway, I loved Bateson’s simple set up, which was to start with the revolution in western thought that came when Lamarck traced taxonomy upwards from the “crudest” of living organisms to the most complex (guess who) instead of downwards from the “highest” to the lowest. At each point on the way “up”, organisms get more organs. Bacteria can’t do mathematical equations because they don’t have the organs to support such an activity. Bateson’s ecology of mind grows out of this simple inversion. Clive Hamilton, unlike Bateson, maintains a thoroughgoing and unapologetic spot on the top of the tree for Man with a capital M. In Defiant Earth, he makes a case for the New Anthropocentrism to hold against the rising tide of the deeper green eco thinkers.
I particularly love these two sentences from Bateson:
What is true of the species that live together in a wood is also
true of the groupings and sorts of people in a society, who are
similarly in an uneasy balance of dependency and competition. And
the same truth holds right inside you, where there is an uneasy
physiological competition and mutual dependency among the
organs, tissues, cells, and so on. (p.438)
The word “uneasy” is particularly striking. The uneasiness is there in the system all the time; it’s not as though it reaches any final point here or there, one way or the other. It’s always uneasy, and this uneasiness is a productive space, perhaps the productive space. The reference in the second sentence to organs, tissues and cells makes me think of my tumours, my two big meaty cancer tumours, one eleven centimetres wide, the other 5 centimetres wide (yes, I’m oddly proud of them and like to repeat their vital statistics). The tumours lived and grew inside me, in uneasy tension with other aspects of the system; they were vigorous and successful. They were beaten back a little by chemotherapy but overall they remained pretty lively until surgical removal.
In our Skype discussion, we admired the way the word “uneasy” carries with it a sense of struggle, of difficulty. Laura said she’d been to the launch of a new book on extinction studies at Gleebooks and heard a filmmaker refer to the “flourishing” of nature. She’d been uneasy with the idea of “flourishing”, with its overtones of goodness or positiveness. When really nature is in a state of unease. There is so much unease.
If we accept the unease, that this is what life is, then perhaps we will find life easier to cope with. We are no longer trying to stand against the waves (after Ingold); we are going with the grain of life. It makes life more bearable because to surrender to unease is to cease to struggle against the struggle. That takes away at least one layer of struggle. Those attracted to “solutions” (like me) go mad trying to bring the solutions into being on earth despite the fact of recalcitrant human beings who don’t get it. At the extreme end this makes you a terrorist running into pedestrians on London Bridge. The Perfection of death is preferable to this miserable world. Better to go with a more ecological frame of mind, in which one accepts that there is always more in the system than one can know, and this is all right.
Laura said that Deborah Bird Rose had said, at the book launch at Gleebooks, something like: What the world needs is spaces for the things we can’t and will never understand.
On top of the madness of trying to capture and account for “everything”, there is the madness of also trying to be good.
If one accepts that life is uneasy, one might accept that it is not possible to be good. As Donna Haraway (2016) says: No-one is innocent.
Love is not about goodness, we said. It’s about response-ability. And sometimes our responsibilities – our cares – mean that we can’t be good (ie a type of good that contains shades of perfection, an absence of hypocrisy). There is humility in this and also, to me, a doability that is absent from the giant task of winning – mind to mind – an ethical argument à la Hamilton.
We discussed Isabelle Stengers (2015) and her concept of the pharmakon. There’s always this drive to look for the good solution. But that’s not the craft of being alive. Lives are experimental; it’s not about applying a cure.
We discussed Annemarie Mol (2002) on the body, the logic of care; about having diabetes. For Mol, “doctoring” means accepting the reality that you can’t just apply a cure and that’s the end of it. With diabetes, you are endlessly rejigging your insulin levels. It’s an ongoing experiement in which you (or the patient) can’t be sacrificed.
I spoke about living with colostomy bags. My bags are made from non-biodegradable plastic and excellent adhesives that create a perfect seal ensuring a hygienic and hopefully odorless experience for all concerned. Without these advances my life would become pretty miserable very quickly. If you have periods, you can go for “greener” alternatives like sea sponges or washable pads. But with a colostomy bag, there are no socially acceptable green alternatives. To be a colostomate is, at this point in history, to create a giant pile of noxious, long-lasting, methane-producing landfill. As long as I live, I can never again entertain an illusion of myself stepping lightly on the earth like a dunnart leading its skittering little life. There is a gentle thud at least once a day as my bruise-coloured, tightly tied-off plastic bag is thrown into the wheelie bin.
Tim Morton, Laura says, is big on shit. Something to look forward to.
Alice had a story about the logic of care relating to her fronds. Her little experiment – she’s writing an essay based on this experiment – is to carry her precious little seedlings with her wherever she goes, a little like the high school girls who carry dolls to explore the 24/7 duties of motherhood. The logic of care of these seedlings means that she is not obeying the rules of her own experiment. She has decided not to take them with her on, for example, the anti-Adani action at the Commonwealth Bank on Thursday, because they might not survive the rough-and-tumble of it.
But does such acceptance – the letting of oneself off the hook – lead to to quietism? Hamilton worries that the Harawayites (my term) are leading “people who should know better” (his phrase) into the sort of acceptance that makes one sit on a rock contemplating a tree rather than taking an active role in politics.
Laura quoted Tim Morton: “Don’t just do something! Sit there!”
That’s funny, but there’s something in it. There’s an uneasy tension between activism and the human need for rest, replenishment, joy and obliviousness.
Let us embrace our hypocrisy, dispense with the tension of pretending it doesn’t exist or trying to entirely overcome it. And by embracing it, there might be more energy for some considered action in the world. Let go of Hegel’s “beautiful soul” (“as cultivated by Moravians”).
On my toilet wall there’s a fading Leunig cartoon. Vasco Pajama is on the sea in a little boat with a duck, reading a letter. The letter says: You must rest, Vasco, otherwise you will become restless.
I wander back to the couch. There I find red and white wool. I’m crocheting the word “STOP” by sewing together lots of little red and white granny squares. Originally I was going to add “Adani” but I will not get there for this Thursday. I’ll be lucky to finish Stop.
You can see the work in progress P of it in the image at the top of this post. P is the last letter in Stop. It is the first letter in Poo.
Bateson, G. (1972). Steps to an ecology of mind: Collected essays in anthropology, psychiatry, evolution, and epistemology. University of Chicago Press.
Hamilton, C. (2017). Defiant earth: the fate of humans in the Anthropocene. Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Haraway, D. J. (2016). Staying with the trouble: Making kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press.
Mol, A. (2002). The body multiple: Ontology in medical practice. Duke University Press.
Morton, T. (2013). Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press.
Stengers, I. (2015). In catastrophic times: Resisting the coming barbarism (p. 156). Open Humanities Press.
Wolfe, C. (2017). Extinction Studies: Stories of Time, Death, and Generations. Columbia University Press.
* I have other thinking partners of course, including my supervisors Bruce Fell and Margaret Woodward.