“I don’t care if you recycle”: Why we need to rethink environmental responsibilities.

by Emilia Hermelin


Earlier in 2019, climate activist Mary Annaïse Heglar wrote an article in which she stated; “I don’t care if you recycle” (Heglar, 2019). Heglar explains how she, due to being active within the environmental movement, often listen to people ‘confessing’ their environmental ‘sins’ to her – how they still buy products wrapped in plastic, still consume meat regularly or still do not recycle. Heglar is concerned by such ‘confessions’ and argues that we need to stop believing that responsibility for environmental pollution lies within the actions of a singular individual. Instead, her argument suggests that there is a need to reveal societal structures that enables environmental exploitation. She argues that when responsibility for the environment is individualised, individuals are in fact made to “[carry] the guilt of the oil and gas industry’s crimes […]. And that that blame paves the road to apathy, which can really seal our doom” (Heglar, 2019). 

Heglar’s statement “I do not care if you recycle” will be my entry point into a deeper inquiry concerned with the targeting of individual behaviour within environmental policymaking. Prompted by her argument, this essay will examine how such policies may at times allow systems of power to be absolved from guilt and responsibility for environmental damage and exploitation. The text will begin by looking at how environmental policy can be seen to have turned focus onto individual behaviour in the early nineties. Of particular concern is how policymakers have largely centred their agendas around changing consumer behaviour by promoting ‘sustainable consumerism’ within a ‘green economy’.

The second section will look at arguments for and against eco-labelling and sustainability certification, which have been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001). However, I will argue alongside evidence from the wood and paper industry that suggests that simply providing consumers with a sustainable option does not enable real change. Partly because individuals do not have enough purchasing power to impact this type of industry. 

The third section will explore the extent to which neoliberal politics have influenced discourses that puts the individual consumer at the centre of environmental responsibility. Attention will be paid to how neoliberalism has contributed to projects of ‘individualisation’ (Maniates, 2002) that has been suggested to fragment the social tapestry and makes it hard to imagine a reality outside of capitalist frameworks (Fisher, 2009). I will argue that there is a need for policymakers to consider how this has contributed to the production of citizens as consumers, and that if we want to decrease environmental exhaustion, we may need to reconsider this discursive and political trend. The final section of this text will look at how individualisation of environmental issues has enabled governments to govern “at arm’s length” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). The discussion will at this point turn to consider the role that states play and how the concept of the “Green State” may be able to support the green movement. 

Changing Behaviour: Environmental Policy and the Individual

Facing the ever-more imposing challenges of climate change, policymakers have since long recognised the need to engage the public in order to mitigate environmental damage. Some of the first UK policies focusing on changing individual behaviour emerged in the early nineties, in the form of the government’s Sustainable Development Strategy (Lucas et al., 2008). The document introduces three main strategies for changing behaviour; 1) by informing the public about environmental issues, 2) introducing new environmental regulations, and 3) using taxes and charges to discourage damaging behaviour (ibid.). Throughout the last decade, the UK has seen a variety of public awareness campaigns based around this strategy, such as “‘Are you doing your bit?’ (OECD, 2002) and “Recycle Now”. The campaigns have largely focused attention around consumer behaviour and sustainable consumption. This follows a recognition of the fact that “[m]ost individuals in the developed world currently consume beyond sustainable levels” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.244).

In 2018, the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs published their Resources and Waste Strategy (UK, DEFRA, 2018), which introduces new policies that support further development of a Circular Economy, with the aim to “redesign value chains to support flows of materials in circular systems” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). The plan argues that in order to curb environmental degradation and resource exhaustion, we must adopt a better strategy for producing, choosing and reusing products. A major part of this strategy would be to change consumer behaviour by providing better information about sustainable product choices, encourage reuse of products and by promoting conscious end of use disposal, such as recycling. The plan can be seen to centre responsibility around the individual consumer, from the purchasing moment to discarding. It relies on the individual to make sustainable consumer choices by prioritising ‘Eco-labels’ and rejecting environmentally damaging products. 

Nationally and internationally, the goal has been to decouple economic growth and environmental impact. In 2011, “The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) made “green growth” its […] slogan” and “the 2012 United Nations Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development focused on the ‘green economy’ as its response to the consumption sustainability dilemma” (O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.235). In both cases, “green growth” and “green economy” have at their core an interest in reducing environmental “bads” whilst protecting economic growth. Which, if successful, could be a “win-win for the economy and the environment” (ibid). 

However, despite efforts, little has changed in terms of resource consumption (Hobson, 2004). In fact, throughout the nineties figures for both fossil fuel consumption and waste production went up (ibid.). More recently, international emissions from aviation has more than doubled (UK, Department for Transport, 2018), and in 2016 the total figure for waste generation went up by 4.2% (UK, DEFRA, 2019). Such figures suggest that at “the individual level […], the concepts of sustainable development and sustainable consumption have done little to promote changes to individual consumption practices” (Hobson, 2004, p.130). The government response to figures showing little uptake in sustainable consumption practices has been to suggest that there still exists a lack of information and environmental awareness amongst consumers. However, there now exists a considerable body of critique that argues that there are other reasons as to why we see significant limitations to what “green consumerism” can achieve.

Green Consumerism: Evidence from the Wood & Paper Industry 

“Green consumerism” fits the “green economy” model and has been said to allow consumers to ‘vote with their wallets’ (Brown, 2001), a concept that suggests that paying more for environmentally sustainable commodities encourages producers to invest in developing such products. These types of market-based approaches are said to put “pressure on upstream actors to implement more sustainable practices” (Konefal, 2012, p.336). However, significant evidence shows that policies endorsing eco-consumerism are limited in what they can achieve; not least because, even though 30% of the population reports that they care about companies sustainability record, only 3% reflected this in their purchases in 2000 (UK, DEFRA, 2005). 

In the case of wood and paper production, eco-labelling in the form of sustainability certification has faced extensive challenges, even though some positives have been recorded in terms of forest management (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Firstly, it has been difficult to establish trust and acceptance for certified forest products. Partly due to opinions amongst consumers still being divided over what counts as a sustainable product. Secondly, on the production side, producers have expressed fears that certification standards “would create a harmful trade barrier and unfair market disadvantages” (ibid., p.136). Thirdly, even though consumers often report that they would like to buy more sustainably, the reasons for choosing a certain product are a lot more complex and need to consider social, cultural and personal factors (Jackson, 2005).

Last, but certainly not least, consumers who do choose sustainable options do not possess sufficient purchasing power in order to have a significant effect on deforestation rates (Dauvergne & Lister, 2010). Further, “markets for [Certified Forest Products] remain very small as a result of a low level of participation by the industry’s biggest consumers—ICI organizations” (ibid., p.146). This suggests that, even though individual purchases of certified products might send positive signals to producers, it is not reasonable to suggest that this alone can have a sufficient effect on global sustainability.

Even though the industry has seen a development in “technological efficiency of production and consumption there is a major debate in the literature about whether these efficiency initiatives have reduced overall negative environmental impacts“(O’Rourke & Lollo, 2015, p.237). It is then evident that the notion of “green consumerism”, in its individualised form, fails to provide real change in practice, and may in fact further contribute to damaging discourses and perceptions of what an individual purchase can achieve. We need to consider that market-based approaches have no power to change the system they exist within. Rather, they function within the constraints of capitalism; an economic system that has been recognised as being the “main engine behind impending catastrophic climate change” (Foster et al., 2009, p.1085). Konefal (2012) has therefore suggested that “in turning to market-based approaches [the sustainability movement] has become captured by the market” (ibid., p.337). 

Individualisation, Neoliberalism and the Environment

“When responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society” 

(Maniates, 2002, p.45)

In order to “illuminate the possibilities and limitations of contemporary environmental politics” (Coffey & Marston, 2013, p.180) we need to consider underlying discourses which may be influencing and shaping decision making. Particular attention has been paid to neoliberalism and its extensive influence on policy making (ibid.). It has been said that “neoliberalism seem to be everywhere” (Peck & Tickell, 2002, p.380). Yet, at the same time it has been argued that neoliberalism largely remains invisible in our daily lives (Monbiot, 2016). This dichotomy suggests that defining aspects of neoliberalism has become invisible due to the normalisation of its functions and effects.

Arguably, neoliberalism is difficult to pin down as the word itself works to describe a complex set of processes that have spatio-temporal variations (Peck & Tickell, 2002). However, the consensus within literature debates seem to highlight three main areas of change taking place in the 1970s to 1980s. Firstly, a change in global economics and trade. The term neoliberalism is often “understood to refer to the process of opening up national economies to global actors such as multinational corporations and to global institutions such as the IMF and World Bank” (Larner, 2003, p.9). Secondly, a societal change from “the traditional industrial culture that went before it” (Gardener & Shepphard, 1989, p.44), to a culture where new identities emerged “associated with greater work flexibility” and “the maximisation of individual choices through personal consumption” (Hall cited in Southwood, 2011, p.8). Lastly, a political shift which saw policies within the United Kingdom pushing for lessening the demands made on the state by promoting privatisation and deregulation.

It is easy to then reveal a set of common themes for neoliberal projects. One is the positive promotion of ‘choice’ and ‘freedom’. Although seeming enchantingly democratic and desirable, such freedoms arguably have a negative side, especially in the case of environmental policy and regulation. This is due to the way in which it continues to allow corporations the freedom to act without restraint, while rarely having to face the repercussions of their acts (Monbiot, 2016). This is evident when reading the CDP Carbon-Majors Report (Griffin, 2017) which shows that since the industrial revolution, just 100 fossil fuel producers have been responsible for over half of the worlds GHG emissions without facing any major consequences.

Further, embedded within this type of neoliberal projects is a certain type of individualism, often promoted and reinforced within public policy and political discourse. This is exemplified by Margaret Thatcher who once claimed that there is “no such thing as society, only individuals and families” (as in Patterson, 2005, p. 377). Neoliberal Thatcherism frames the individual as responsible for their own lives and fates; “If individuals fail to achieve particular goals in the market, it is their fault; the individuals are victims of their own irrational behaviours or have some deficit over which they have no control.” (ibid). 

In a neoliberalist society, ‘freedom’ seemingly becomes synonymous with alienation; from the production of commodities, from society and local communities, from politics and policy, and not least from our environment. This kind of alienation is implied by Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism (2008). Fisher argues that we live in a state of “capitalist reality” where it is easier to “imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism” (ibid., p.1). He argues that this is in part because, if unregulated, capital expansion has infinite potential and the “burning up of Earth’s resources is [seen as] only a temporary glitch” (ibid., p.18). This fetishization of economic growth demands that citizens continue to fulfil their main role as consumers. This is evident within environmental policy, where the question tends to be what to consume, rather than whether or not to consume it in the first place. Michael Maniates (2002) therefore argues that in order to address environmental responsibility, we need to return to seeing ourselves as citizens first and consumers second. The work of policymakers may then arguably have to do the same work.

Citizens and the “Green State”? Calling for Structural Change  

When the focus of environmental policymaking remains firmly rooted in a neoliberal idea of expanding individual consumption choice, it arguably “reduces individuals’ ability to make other, more important choices” (Hobson, 2004, p.121). It encourages individuals to take the problem of environmental exhaustion and pollution in ‘their own hands’ – a discourse that Heglar (2019) calls “not only preposterous; it’s dangerous” (ibid.) as it suggests that the world altering environmental issues that our generation is currently facing is down to individuals failing to ‘tweak’ their consumption habits. Kersty Hobson (2004) highlights how this allows governments to promote sustainability at “arm’s length” due to the way it passes responsibility for consumption patterns on to the consumer. Hobson (2004) continues to argue that we need to rethink the relationship between citizens and the state and division of responsibility between the two. She suggests that although citizens are responsible for paying tax and contributing to society, “the government has the responsibility to facilitate and enable citizens to make sound choices by providing strong services within a climate of mutual trust and healthy democratic dialogue” (ibid., p.133).

The lack of action on behalf of the state, and continued individualisation in the face of environmental issues leads to a “depoliticization of environmental degradation” (Maniates, 2002, p.47). Perhaps, then, we need to “re-think the political again” (Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6) and consider what a political system based on environmental concern could look like. We know that the climate crisis is already here; the UK government officially recognised this by declaring a state of climate emergency in Spring 2019. Yet, few seem willing to really “stir the pot” and commit to act on such an emergency. It has been argued that is seems as if we live in a state of post-politics, where everything can be discussed and politicised, “but only in a non-committal way and as a nonconflict. Absolute and irreversible choices are kept away […]” (Diken & Lautsten, 2004 as in Swyngedouw, 2013, p.6). 

Some writers therefore argue that perhaps environmental policy should no longer be limited to government policies (Jänicke, 1997), seemingly suggesting a “declining relevance of the state” (Duit et al., 2016, p.2). However, I would like to argue along with writers who suggests that within the current global structure it might not yet be possible to reject the idea of the nation-state completely. Rather, we should look at how the state could take on a new role as an environmental “steward”, centring regulatory ideals around the concept of an “ecological democracy” (Eckersley, 2004, p.2), creating what has been referred to as the “Green State”. This follows the arguments that states are currently best equipped to provide the framework and structure needed to create far-reaching, global change for the environment; “the green movement needs the state […] if it is to move closer toward its vision of a socially just and ecologically sustainable society” (ibid., p.11).

Concluding Remarks 

At the time of writing, newspapers and social media pages are starting to fill up with disappointing reports from the 2019 COP25 meeting in Madrid. As countries fail to agree on Article 6 from the Paris Agreement (UNFCC, 2015) that guides ambitions for reducing GHG emissions, some people say that “governments have turned their backs on raising ambition, at a time when we need more than ever to heed the scientific warning” (Mathiesen, 2019). Further, many express the urgency in addressing how such failure continues to see “the people who have contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most while those who have gained the most from emitting greenhouse gases will suffer the least.” (Irfan, 2019). 

I have argued that decisions to target individual behaviour within environmental policy is therefore largely misguided. This is not to say that individual behaviour does not need to change in order to adapt to a changing climate – it does. But individuals should not be made to carry the entirety of the problem on their shoulders whilst governments and organisations carry on “business as usual” and keep an “arm’s length” away from any real commitments for change. I have argued that we have reached a point within global and national politics where we need to rethink the role that states play, and have suggested alongside Robyn Eckersley (2004) that we need a state that recognises how it is “implicated in ecological destruction” (ibid., p.5). Perhaps this could be in the form of Eckersley’s ambitious “Green State”, where ecological critique informs decision making. 


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Derrida, Deleuze and difference in the Sumak Kawsay debate

by Dylan Inglis

As governments worldwide struggle to find alternatives to unsustainable modernist models of progress, a glimmer of hope flickers by way of the integration of the Andean cosmovision-cum-concept of Sumak Kawsay – under the denomination Buen Vivir [living well] – into Ecuador’s national constitution. An alternative cosmology which confers rights to the more-than-human and is based on axioms of responsibility and reciprocity, Sumak Kawsay (SK) swims against the general global current of neoliberalist individualism and its integration into policy has provoked much debate over its semantic and epistemological contours. It is demonstrated that the calls to preserve a faithful working understanding of the Andean philosophy in theory and policy are in delicate (perhaps incommensurable) tension with contrasting accusations that defending a certain version of the concept runs the risk of re-creating romanticised or archaic essentialisation of indigeneity. I take Cuestas-Caza’s (2018) article on epistemic communities in the Sumak Kawsay debate as an example of how scholarship can enrich discussion on issues of meaning and the legitimacy of knowledge but can also contribute to impasses in the academic episteme around the legitimacy of research and knowledge about Sumak Kawsay. As the moralistic nature of such work is totalising and often destructive, I instead follow recent speculative scholarship (Alonso González and Macías Vázquez, 2015) in suggesting the potential force of a turn to ontology in the Sumak Kawsay debate. Viewing the notion of ‘difference’ as key in this context, I outline how the scholarship of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida can offer a reappraisal of ontological difference. Pursuing post-structural difference reasserts the responsibility of academic work to suspend judgement around the integrity of interpretations of Sumak Kawsay and instead stretch the uneasy aporia of the incommensurability of these debates. Rather than staying debate based on static essences and binary structures, a post-structuralist view of difference points to the immanent multiplicity and absence of being and shifts interest from the identity of Sumak Kawsay as an essentialisable floating concept, to a view of it as a dynamic assemblage whose transformative potential should be maximised.

Sumak Kawsay

Although humans have always altered their environments, current global consumption rates are endangering the very life systems upon which humans depend (Daszak et al., 2000). Growing recognition of the limits to ‘progress’ has precipitated political allegiance to sustainable development, which allies improvements in quality of life with the recognition that these improvements must respect the finiteness of natural resources (Parris and Kates, 2003, Sachs, 2012). Nonetheless, it is widely recognised that pledges towards sustainability uphold a notion of progress incommensurable with maintaining the health of natural systems (Banerjee, 2003). It has been posited that ways of understanding ‘the human’ and ‘nature’ in asymmetrical binary terms is at the core of the socio-environmental crisis, and a slew of alternative projects have emerged since the 1970s that re-work this binary, with degrowth and feminist movements adopting strong anti-modernity discourses, although these movements have seldom been embraced in mainstream politics (Demaria et al., 2013, Warren, 1990; Escobar, 2015).

One notable exception in the political arena is Sumak Kawsay and its adoption in Ecuador’s 2008 Constitution (Conaie, 2007). Translated into Spanish as Buen Vivir, Sumak Kawsay has its roots in non-Western Andean cosmologies based upon principles of communitarian, ecological and cultural harmony (Gudynas, 2011). Also defined as ‘living in plenitude’, Sumak Kawsay must thus be understood bearing in mind the cosmovision and political project of indigenous populations based on an intense reciprocity of kinship between human and more-than-human beings (Macas, 2010; Viteri Gualinga, 2002). This means that the Ecuadorian constitution confers rights to nature alongside the rights of Ecuadorian human subjects and thus gives legal standing to environmental health and equilibrium (Martinez and Acosta, 2017; Estermann, 2013). Although the lack of a political voice has historically furthered the marginalisation of autochthonous Andean populations in the Ecuadorian constitution, a combination of the impending environmental crisis, pledges from foreign actors to assist monetarily in Ecuador’s protection of natural resources and a wider discontent with the unkept promises of modernity and progress, have culminated in Ecuador becoming a symbolic standard-bearer for the protection of nature (Acosta, 2015). Sumak Kawsay is also a post-colonialist venture: following a history of violence and marginalisation of indigenous populations, recognising local ways of knowing hopes to restore justice to indigenous populations and foster social equality (Santos, 2015).

However, despite early euphoria around the political attention afforded to Sumak Kawsay, academic research has highlighted contradictions between the maxims of Sumak Kawsay and the devastating extractivist agenda of the Ecuadorian government (Beling, and Vanhulst, 2014). It has been argued that in translating the way of living of Andean people into a part of the national constitution, Sumak Kawsay has become something else altogether, and that rather than underpinning care and reciprocity, it has been used as a smokescreen for a business-as-usual approach on the part of political leaders (Hollender, 2012). Thus, it has been posited that Ecuador is engaging in ‘cognitive extractivism’ of certain aspects of Andean cosmology and appropriating it to gain and retain political power (Simpson and Klein, 2017; Vanhulst and Veling, 2014). Academic research has also identified problems on a conceptual level, with Fierro (2009), for example, criticising political and academic efforts to equate Sumak Kawsay with Western philosophies of self-realisation such as Eudaimonia, which makes the human subject the core centre of concern and thereby invisibilises the Sumak Kawsay’s emphasis on communitarianism and relationality with the more-than-human (Ryan and Martela, 2017; de Zaldívar, 2013).

Another conceptual problem highlighted in relation to Sumak Kawsay revolves around the issue of essentialism and binary difference (Acosta, 2013: Gerlach, 2017). The idea that there is an essence to the concept of SK is a core assumption that anchors debate, and it is suggested that the retention of the ‘original’ meaning of the term in policy is crucial to avoid surrendering the concept’s identity to an unfaithful or over-diluted application in mainstream neoliberal government (Bretón et al., 2014). Yet, over-ardent fidelity to the ‘indigenous essence’ of the term is problematic on various levels, most notably because it reproduces a staunch binary between Western and Indigenous epistemes (Radcliffe, 2017). There is no simple divide between cosmologies in Ecuador, and the loose categories of indigenous and non-indigenous populations can rarely be simply drawn. Emphasising the primacy of indigenous knowledge and definitions over Western re-appropriations is an important part of social-justice movements (Valverde, 1999), but is haunted by the risk of re-creating the indigenous ‘other’ as existing in a pre-Modern vacuum, rather than as a highly heterogeneous group of people that challenges simplistic notions of indigeneity (Hornberger and Coronel-Molina, 2004). This essentialisation of the origins of Sumak Kawsay and indigenous Ecuadorians has disdainfully been labelled ‘pachamamismo’ by some local academics, as it serves as a warning of the dangers of prioritising indigenous knowledge and an over-zealous search for origins in Sumak Kawsay (Recasens, 2014). More recently, the seminal criticism levelled by Cuestas-Caza (2018) against the political and academic appropriation of Sumak Kawsay challenges the legitimacy of much of this scholarship on the grounds that the authors’ linguistic background and conceptual interpretations contradict the ethos of SK.

The contribution of Cuestas-Caza

While the critiques are numerous, Cuestas-Caza’s important 2018 article on the semantics and epistemology of Sumak Kawsay constitutes the intellectual springboard of this essay, informing the angle of my theoretical approach in three ways. First, the case made that scholarship under the banner of ‘Buen Vivir’ is more compliant in ‘epistemic neo-colonialism’ (Gudynas, 2011) or in the ‘intellectual liquidity’ of a worldview borne in the Quechua language led to me employing Sumak Kawsay to refer to Ecuadorian ‘living well’. Cuestas-Caza develops a rigorous epistemic categorisation of actants or positions on the issue, specifically suggesting that socialist-statist and post-developmentalist epistemic communities dilute the meaning of SK according to their dominant desires and narratives. But Cuesta-Caza’s approach was also heavy-handed in criticism, be it through reducing the multiplicity of academic scholarship into Sumak Kawsay into two largely pejorative epistemes, or through undermining scholarship using the term ‘Buen Vivir’. This latter point ignores the fact that most literature on the Andean philosophy has preferred to use the Spanish translation, and that the diversity of motives under which it was employed and varying conclusions drawn defy totalising simplification. Thus, the second way in which Cuestas-Caza’s article has affected my own work is that it has alerted me to the dangers of broad-brush moralistic judgement of scholarship on Buen Vivir. Adopting his vocable ‘episteme’, I believe that an ‘academic episteme’ composed of Western and Andean academia can be a fertile ground of debate and knowledge production about Sumak Kawsay and wield significant political significance (Haas, 2015). However, rather than focusing on the epistemological and semantic aspects most fiercely debated, I follow Alonso González and Macías Vázquez (2015) in looking for different theoretical angles to challenge the current epistemological impasse. This is because, for all their merits, such studies looking into Sumak Kawsay invariably draw upon previous scholarship, but – reflecting the authors’ own transcendental moral codes – re-organise the meanings and relations between the components of Sumak Kawsay and claim a new totality of ‘truth’, or the closest approximate to adequate and correct meaning. Such a stalemate in value terms is recognised by Jean-Paul Sartre as the barrier to all constructive debate, as actants’ conflicting value systems foreclose cooperative decision (Sartre, 1946).

Ontology and post-structuralism

In the face of this theoretical cul-de-sac, joining Alonso González, Macías Vázquez (2015) and Gerlach (2017), I advocate for a move to ontology or ‘from words to things’ (Husserl, 2012). The turn in philosophy from epistemology to ontology (that is, to the fundamental substances or aspects of being) has been made by many ‘post-structuralist’ thinkers in the face of the inadequacy of the dominant structures of thought historically shaped by Rene Descartes and Saussurian structuralism (Garber, 1992). Structuralist thought is underpinned by ‘Western metaphysics’, which entrenches differences between human essence and non-human essence and between the agential subject and the static object, therefore rendering humans as the all-knowing observers of reality from a neutral pedestal provided by their transcendental capacity for ‘reason’. Although alternative non-transcendental ontologies have been explored since Descartes (Spinoza, 1992), it was not until Martin Heidegger that Western thought committed to the study of being and ontology (Heidegger, 2014). For Heidegger, things are not defined by their essence, but by their intrinsic absence and thereby the irreducible relational formation with all other ‘beings’ over space and time (Berciano, 1992). This simple premise undermines metaphysical assumptions that things are stable and codable. Various post-structuralist thinkers deepened Heidegger’s work, and although they build upon the core principle of structuralism that ‘signs are defined by their relationship with other signs in a system’ (Saussure, 2011: 67), they emphasise the interminable play of signs by which meaning and being are forever suspended and unstable (Wiley, 2006).

In the second half of this essay, I will mine the re-thinking of ontology developed by post-structuralists Deleuze and Derrida, with specific focus on how their conceptualisation of ‘difference’ can inform the Sumak Kawsay debate. The concept of difference is chosen as the focus here because it is inextricably linked with how we interpret change and repetition and because its re-formulation by Deleuze and Derrida offers powerful new conceptual tools through which to reappraise the potential and future of Sumak Kawsay (Cisney, 2018). This approach will constitute a primary effort to parse Sumak Kawsay through the explicit introduction of post-structural difference, while also being the first ontological venture in the debate to wed the aporic finality of Derrida’s deconstruction of language with Deleuze’s materialist project of immanent becoming.

Derrida’s negative difference

Following Heidegger, Derrida understands all being as defined and composed by absence – that is, the essence or meaning of any thing is always deferred through differentiation over time and space (Derrida, 1982: 13). Derrida’s negative difference is perhaps best understood in the context of his deconstruction of transcendental philosophy and specifically through the conferring of primacy and vibrancy to speech over writing in Western thought (Garrison, 1999). In the asymmetric binary between the written and spoken word, writing has been framed as the cause of distance and miscommunication due to the way in which it fixes language, thus constituting an obstacle to clarity of thought and transmission of ideas (Derrida, 2003). This view chimes with the modernist view that meaning obtains its authority from its originary [past] being, and consequently differentiation from the essentialised form is seen as an undesirable loss of the identity of the thing or concept in question (Grillo, 2003).

This negative view of change and difference characterises the view of many academics on the origins and evolution of concepts because the debate is in large part informed by notions of binary between indigenous lived orality and Western written codification (Kamuf, 1991). Derrida counters such a binary, however, by attacking the insipient ‘logocentrism’ that defines it (Lamont, 1987), with logocentrism referring to the idea that concepts possess an essence independent of the semantic context of their relationship with other words and things (Wortham, 2010). Yet rather than absolute truth being locatable in language, Derrida emphasises that signs are constructed in dynamic relation, and are thus defined by novelty – not by their substance or stability – and by their ever-changing positioning in language (Moati, 2014). A word or concept always retains a ‘trace’ of the semantic meaning it has possessed in the ‘passed’ (passé), but this trace is itself always foregrounded by the absence of essence, rather than by the presence of any concrete, irreducible form (Derrida, 1994; xviii). Indeed, for Derrida, the systematic tracing of differences between signs in time and space is never-ending, and even if thorough study can allow one to better comprehend a concept’s conditions of existence, any resultant privileging of certain meanings never attains absolute truth, as any transcendental judgement is the fruit of an ultimately arbitrary conferral of a fictitious ‘absolute’ presence over time or space (Derrida, 2003: 367). This ‘moment of madness’ (Derrida, 1990: 968) where one traces a totalising line of representative difference is both disastrous and crucial. It can never be avoided, only delayed.

Derridean deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence is a powerful critique of the mystical authoritarian foundations conferred to essential origins of things and ideas (Herzfield, 2001: 70). One great virtue of Derrida’s appraisal of negative difference is that it does not culminate in a transcendental judgement, rather its finality is characterised by aporia – Derrida’s term for logical paradox (Derrida, 1993: 1). This aporia must be overcome through making an informed decision, but the focus on aporia in this approach can act as a catalyst for more stayed critical thinking which delays judgement, as well as kindling an ethos of theory premised by the impossibility of ever attaining absolute truths – thereby rendering the theorist more cautious with their conclusions. Nevertheless, and without forgetting the import of Derrida’s negative difference in the quest for amore stayed critique of ontology, I believe that the linguistic critique of difference can, and perhaps must, also be informed by a more positive project of immanent difference which may foster an unstable, speculative ontological foundation through which to re-think issues of representation. This will be provided by Gilles Deleuze’s materialist ontology of becoming.

Deleuze’s immanent difference

Drawing upon Spinoza, Deleuze emphasised the monism and relational becoming of all things on earth. This immanent ontology is often contrasted with transcendentalism, as it collapses the subject-object divide and posits that all beings are situated on a plane of entities which cannot be fundamentally separated, with all possessing the ability to affect and be afforded the role of ‘subject’ (Bryant, 2008). Like Derrida, Deleuze focuses on the fundamentals of reality prior to representation, but the foundation for Deleuze is multiplicity. Through this lens, true difference is foundational to all being and thus always existent prior to essence. Although Deleuze concurs with Derrida in judging difference as ontological, the concept of difference-in-itself contrasts with Derrida’s difference-as-deferral and negative-differentiation because it constitutes a core concept on which Deleuze forms an affirmative ontology focused on the relational becoming of being rather than the impossibility of knowing the world, which is the theoretical conclusion held by Derrida (Sokoloff, 2005).

Deleuze’s immanent ‘difference-in-itself’ has revolutionary potential for thought (Cockayne, 2017). Firstly, rather than differentiating between process and product, a Deleuzian approach foregrounded by immanent difference posits that process is product (Deleuze and Guattari, 1977; 6). As such, the prevailing view in traditional Western metaphysics of reality as ontologically ‘static’ is replaced by the affirmation that being is constantly ‘becoming’ and would be better defined in terms of movement (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 385). Following this logic, the change of a concept could be considered as inevitable and potentially positive. Second, and in conjunction with the first consequence, immanent difference means that concepts are understood in terms of an irreducible multiplicity as opposed to any single transcendent sovereign form, with Deleuze claiming that the constant repetition of things entails the re-assembling of the assemblage of related things and meanings which compose them (Deleuze, 1994: 11). Therefore, this differential repetition brings the negation of the previous version and of its copy, ensuing the endless creation of novelty (Deleuze, 1994: 55). This diverges from critiques that judge the adequacy of a representation according to criteria of faithfulness to an ‘original’ version. As a result, the wriggly maxim proposed by Deleuze in his political project of immanent difference is to ‘maximise the force of bodies’, where a body is not defined by its form or essence, but by its relationship with other bodies and its capacity to create more forceful, vibrant confluences of energy (Deleuze and Guattari, 1988: 125).  

Post-structural difference in Sumak Kawsay scholarship

The exposition of difference in the work of Derrida and Deleuze provides analytical tools that can reinvigorate the debate round Sumak Kawsay, and Derrida’s immanent difference has the added advantage of presenting an alternative ontology which could further novel understanding and critical scholarship, imagining alternative meanings and criteria for success (Smith, 2007). It is a philosophy based primarily not on opposition, but on mapping new worlds (Boundas, 2006). Thus, in addition to exercising paradox in the Derridean line, post-structuralist appraisals can also be mobilised to map more powerful relationships that can maximise the affective capacity of politicised semantic-material assemblages like Sumak Kawsay. It is thus not a question of working for the reactionist protection of concepts or of installing sovereignty around language. Rather, the kind of power or affect advocated by Deleuze can be broadly represented by the distinction in French between ‘pouvoir’ and ‘puissance’, which both translate as ‘power’ (Pelbart, 2002). ‘Pouvoir’ is understood as force over human or non-human subjects and is broadly understood as finite. In contrast, ‘puissance’ is theoretically infinite as it is the process-product of relations between bodies (Phillipe, 2006). Therefore, whereas for ‘pouvoir’ to be claimed it must be subtracted by other actants, the force of ‘puissance’ is sourced from the coming-together and intensification of assemblages of bodies of all kinds.

Derrida and Deleuze’s rejection of structural sedimentation of thought based on form, essence and sovereignty of meaning undermines the most frequent debates about the successes and perils of the precarious socio-political project of Sumak Kawsay. In addition, both philosophers stress the intrinsic multiplicity of existence, be it through the essence defined by absence of being according to Derrida or through the irreducible multiplicity of intensities of Deleuze’s difference as immanent to being. I argue that Derrida’s oeuvre can challenge the modus operandi of the morally premised academic work that contributes to the semantic and epistemological impasse in scholarship about Sumak Kawsay. Derrida’s work is highly divisive in the social sciences and humanities and has often been discounted and rejected as nihilistic (Powell, 2006: 136) or applied in a ‘light’ model of deconstruction. This ‘light model’ approach has been adopted already by Hildago-Capitan and Cubillo-Guevara (2017) in the Sumak Kawsay debate, but arguably misinterprets the praxis of Derrida’s project, as it misconstrues the term Derrida’s ‘deconstruction’ as mere synonym of ‘critique’. While such scholarship contributes to the debate, it is problematic in that by creating new transcendental typologies through which to understand Sumak Kawsay and then enacting moral judgement regarding them the authors make precisely the move that a more Derridean analysis would bemoan, by divorcing the sign from its semantic context and ‘floating’ it in a different analytical context underpinned by a specific approach of epistemological critique. In contrast, I believe that a productive post-structural critique of semantics and epistemological debates around Sumak Kawsay as outlined in this essay could benefit from pursuit of the uneasy aporia at the heart of a debate defined by incommensurability.

Conclusion – an ontological turn towards more synergetic scholarship

In conclusion, although issues of epistemology and semantics as described by Cuestas-Caza (2018) dominate discussions of Sumak Kawsay in academia, I have suggested that a re-appraisal of the ontological foundations of the debate through post-structuralist critique could engender more constructive and rigorous approaches to debate. The turn towards ontology through Deleuzian and Derridean notions of difference is advocated in the knowledge that the intricate socio-political context surrounding Sumak Kawsay perpetuates the need for debates on the semantic contours of Sumak Kawsay and the legitimacy of its employment in policy and public discourse (Quijano, 2010). The issue of legitimacy is at the core of the debate. Drawing from the corpus of two white, Western, bourgeois philosophers to further theoretical commentary on the nature of Sumak Kawsay may elicit critique, as Deleuze and Derrida’s projects emerged in the same lands and intellectual traditions that justified the attempted genocide of non-Western peoples and which inform the current manifestations of unsustainable consumerism and individualism that are accelerating degradation of the natural conditions of life. Nevertheless, greater focus on ontology implies more rigorous, affirmative notions of difference and may promote the much-needed suspension of implicit or explicit transcendental judgement based on a semi-arbitrary moral code. Therefore, Deleuze and Derrida’s post-structuralist thought beckons a potential alternative way of approaching the sensitive and saturated debate around Sumak Kawsay.

Debates around what constitutes the ‘true’ meaning of an indigenous concept in the academic and political arena can also be a highly complicated venture, as preservation of indigenous difference has been accused of being based on essentialism. An ontological turn in academic focus on the issue augers productive theoretical work, although in practice it will complement semantic and epistemological research undertaken in a contemporary context that is tensioned with conflicting interests and propelled by an underlying institutional push for concrete, measurable work. A post-structural focus on ontology reserves judgement on issues of legitimacy of definitions and applications of Sumak Kawsay or its relationship with indigenous people. Thus, rather than being premised on the protection of an imperilled concept, a turn to Deleuze and Derrida foregrounds the affirmative role of the theorist to map out new affective potentialities in the debate. Although the emphasis on generative force or ‘puissance’ as the monist material at the centre of such a project may appear overly abstract, it has the potential to direct scholarship to a more adventurous, innovative avenue of study by enabling the concept to gain traction through emphasising the primacy of difference. This approach is based on a staunch resolve to resist the moralistic circumpossession of theoretical exploration of the issue in scholarship that is based on preconceived moral codes and designed to transcend previous scholarship in rigour and pertinence. Rather, a post-structural approach will, in theory, delay the ‘moment of madness’ in positing one’s opinion about the ‘legitimate’ semantic and epistemology topography of Sumak Kawsay, and has the potential to re-map the entangled web of beings and meanings as possessing an inherent dynamism that is indicative not of despair, but of hope.


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Illuminating the nonhuman through audio-visual storytelling; a political actor invoking hope and resilience in yet another lockdown. An experimental process of creativity, reflection, and critique.

by Hannah Williams

Throughout this second lockdown I was tasked with telling my story. An opportunity to reflect on my own experience and, through audio-visual storytelling, relay my experience to my friends and peers. Throughout this process we, a Human Geography master’s cohort, intended to critically reflect on our peculiar and personal stories, the role of methods in creating and telling these stories and, adopting Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical method, the political processes present during lockdown. This process of pre-production, filming, editing, sharing and reflecting has been an insightful and creative experiment to research the COVID-19 pandemic.

This blog post acts as the final stage to this experimental research project, a chance to reflect, critique and analyse the individual stages of this process. In doing so, I hope to move between scales, from the intimate and personal subject, to the collective, and to the political (Pratt, 2009). This processual reflection and critique will be carried out in three parts. Firstly, a critical discussion of audio-visual methods as a posthuman methodology and their potential to contribute to researching the pandemic. Secondly, a reflection of the methods used to tell my ‘topography’ (Katz, 2001) and the political role of storytelling in bridging experience and expression (Cameron, 2012). Before finally, connecting my story with those of my peers through
Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach. Additionally, imbedding stills of my own and other’s stories aims to interweave the analytical and critical with the reflective, demonstrating both filming as a material and embodied process and the event of sharing and watching our films as affective (Ernwein, 2020).

These three phases highlight the potential for audio-visual storytelling to illuminate the presence of the nonhuman and consequently the nonhuman’s role as a political actor during the pandemic (Lorimer, 2010). Through both topographical and counter-topographical analysis, connecting to wider social, cultural and political meaning, the transformative potential of the nonhuman to invoke hope and resilience across disparate experiences is evident.

Creating my story
Choosing to use audio-visual methods to express my experience of lockdown was a new and slightly daunting endeavour, with no prior experience or knowledge beyond ‘point-and-shoot’ I was conscious not to bite off more than I could chew. Therefore, I decided to create my small story using nothing other than an iPhone. Thus, adopting a non-representational and posthuman approach that regards filming as an embodied material process. This process illuminated me to audio-visual method’s potential to make visible the nonhuman and highlight the multiple affective actors involved in my everyday practices during lockdown.

Audio-visual methods, within a posthuman paradigm, have the potential to engage with nonhuman difference and demonstrate qualities of non-representational practice: “vitality, performativity, corporeality, sensuality and mobility” (Lorimer, 2010; Vannini, 2015: 318). A posthuman methodology decentres the researcher which makes room for “alternative subjectivities” (Cameron, 2012: 575) and aims to capture “novel aspects of contemporary social and cultural life” (Williams et al., 2019: 637). It is a methodology that is both experimental and creative in its becoming, that awakens new ways of producing geographical knowledge but also stimulates our geographical imaginations to the material (Gerlach and Jellis, 2015). Being sensitive to the transversal requires a reconsideration of practice, theory, empiricism and
specifically new ways of creating and recording research encounters (Williams et al., 2019). With technology offering new ways of seeing the world (Rose, 2016), audio-visual method’s sensitivity offers potential for this “sensuous observation and reflection” (ibid: 322), acting as a micropolitical tool for engaging with the nonhuman.

“An ethnographic gaze aided by the new technologies of photographic reproduction could portray and indeed create ‘specimens’ with precision” (Crang, 2010: 5)

Taking my iPhone with me in the everyday was both an intentional and experimental practice, allowing the camera’s own agency to help govern and bring to life material and empirical data. Enabling the participant to research themselves, as I did, transforms visual methods into both a decolonial and feminist form of research (Crang, 2010), overcoming the principal critique of visual methods as representational. Representative and constructive filming reproduces positivist knowledge and dictates who and what can be seen (Gregory, 2003; Crang, 2010). This is a colonial act that further separates individuals and creates concern over produced and reproduced power relations (Haraway, 1991). However, this was overcome by viewing my iPhone as an extension of my own subjectivity and material form (Haraway, 2010 (1985)). Filming became an instinctive affective activity, a lens through which to see the world and capture my everyday material social practices, where my urges to film and record were valuable data in themselves; “deciding where to point the camera at any particular moment was part of the process of learning in the field, becoming a tool for thinking, seeing and representing materialities”(Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 295). This understands the body of the researcher to comprise of the individual and the filming technology, regarding the camera itself to have agency (Lury and Wakeford, 2012). Be it coming close to a squirrel (Fig. 1a) or feeling the wind on my face cycling over the bridge (Fig, 1b), or listening to the birds sing along my road (Fig. 1c), these moments were recorded impulsively rather than intentionally and thus are more reflexive and embodied in practice; a reaction to my more-than-human encounters (Williams, 2020). This posthumanist understanding, that deciding what to be filmed is an affect of material assemblages and beyond
our full control, renders audio-visual methods as an experiment that brings to the fore “cocreation experiences” (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296). Through making visual what sparks attention, “evocative ways of communicating more than human materialities” are enabled (Richardson-Ngwenga, 2014: 296).

Figure 1: Stills from my iPhone footage (Williams, 2020)

Telling my story
Reflecting on the footage I’d captured during my week of filming, it was clear how my life had transformed during the pandemic: increased monotony, far less socialising and a lot more outdoors. Using audio-visual storytelling to relay my personal topography, an “accurate and detailed delineation and description of any locality”, the value of the nonhuman in my everyday experience became evident (Katz, 2001: 1214). Using only iMovie, this revelation was made even more apparent by using a montage technique. This process has illuminated the role of audiovisual storytelling in disrupting hegemonic narratives and has made visible the transformative
potential of the nonhuman to invoke resilience and hope in everyday practices of lockdown.

With no former film or production experience, I decided my story was to be experimental and creative, acting as an additional means of discovery. Storytelling, as posthumanist knowledge production, regards a story as a “heterogenous assemblage of memories, practices, and materials within which one can identify particular narratives” (Lorimer, 2003: 577), or more simply the “relationship between personal experience and expression” (Cameron, 2012: 575). This offers interpretation and insight into the social, cultural and political, understanding storytelling as
performing a political ontology (Gibson-Graham, 2008; Lorimer, 2003).

My main goal in writing my story was not to transform or recompose meaning, but to translate how I felt, what I experienced, and the processes involved (Cameron, 2012; Rose, 2006; Whatmore, 2003). Filtering through my weeks’ material, I was hesitant to manipulate, edit or remove footage, eager to remain non-representational and avoid reproducing knowledges. However, given the constraints of my institution’s ethical requirements, all footage containing human participants (audio and visual) had to be removed, greatly reducing my data. Whilst frustrating, this intentional removal of the human increased awareness of the presence and role of the nonhuman.

To ‘tell’ my story, I used a montage process, “a cinematic rearrangement of lived time and space” (Suhr et al., 2012: 287). Using a montage as a sensory mode of writing, combining raw unedited footage in chronological order maintained a balance between the visual and visuality (Rose, 2016). This makes visible what is previously invisible, “moving away from humanised cinema” and highlighting alternative realities (Suhr et al., 2012: 284; Williams et al., 2019). Using this method thus mobilised the nonhuman and engaged with vital materialities, making us more
attuned to these encounters; “imagines nonhuman materialities as animated by dynamic and lively capacities to affect change and to participate in political life” (Richardson-Ngwenya, 2014: 294).

“As a representational art, film screens nonhuman nature as both revelation and concealment” (Pick and Narraway, 2013: 2)

Through embodied and intersubjective experience, stories produce knowledges, which in my instance illuminated the role of the nonhuman in a national crisis. The nonhuman as an actor has promoted hope and resilience; from the constant companion of my single paned Georgian window and house plants (Fig. 2a), to interacting with a swan (Fig. 2b), the more-than-human has played an expansive role in being a friend, a mediator, a social space, a gym and a place of refuge (Fig. 2c) over the last month (Williams, 2020). Whilst my singular story is just one lockdown account of billions, for Cameron (2012) this knowledge that I have created still has
political power, “it is precisely in small, local storytelling that political transformation becomes possible” (p.588). It is through these small and individuated stories that knowledges can be disrupted and imaginaries awoken and materialised. An audio-visual story, through being told and being embedded in wider culture can demonstrate social difference, through the “interweave with the social, structural or ideological”, with potential for “transforming dominant narratives” (ibid.: 574). In expressing my story, the transformative potential of the nonhuman, encouraging
and enabling my adapted practices, demonstrates the nonhuman to be a micropolitical actor that has been highly influential in my lockdown experience. This has the potential to produce knowledges that disrupt nature-culture divides and promote imaginaries that are vulnerable to the multiple affective forces that have been present during lockdown.

Connecting my story
Sharing, connecting and analysing my lockdown experience with my peers was an affective and emotive experience, enabling us to reflect on what for many has been an uncertain time of change and transformation but also growth, gratitude and appreciation for what remains. Incorporating Katz’s (2001) counter-topographical approach, we could identify the rhizomatic threads between our individual stories, connecting our disparate experiences to bring to the fore wider processes happening across scales. Adapting this methodology to the confines of just our master’s cohort, the politics of resilience and hope that was first observed in my own topography
became prominent in others. Whilst the micropolitical actors involved in these processes varied, the significance of the nonhuman as a transformative force remained prominent.

Katz’s counter-topographical approach, as a metaphor, was designed to analyse the broader socio-political and environmental processes emergent with globalisation and capitalism. It extends her principle of ‘topography’ as a material concept to be able to critically analyse across geographic scales, developing a “translocal politics” (Katz, 2002: 710).

“countertopographies involve precise analyses of particular processes that not only connect disparate places but also in doing so enable us to begin to infer connections in unexamined places in between” (Katz, 2002: 722)

By connecting distant sites or experiences analytically we are able to form a “spatialised understanding” of processes as “simultaneous and intertwined” (ibid.: 725). This provides a three-dimensional analysis whereby “contour lines” insight new political imaginaries (Katz, 2001: 1229). By constructing a counter-topography, individual topographies are placed into broader context “offering a means of understanding structure and processes” and to render visible “intersections with material social practices at other scales of analysis” (Katz, 2001: 1228). This
process of connecting and drawing lineages is often critiqued for being a positivist homogenising process which totalises knowledge production. However, such critiques misconstrue Katz’ intention, for her endeavour is to highlight degrees of commonality to promote learning, a “transnational politics”, and “insurgent change” (Katz, 2002: 719; Katz, 2001: 1232). By ensuring a highly detailed topography, a counter-topographical comparison “retains the distinctness of the characteristics of a particular place and builds on its analytic connections to other places along
contour lines” (ibid.:721).

Whilst on a much smaller scale, the process of sharing and connecting our individual
topographies, or stories, follows the principle of Katz counter-topographical method. Through sharing our individual films, we were able to glean more about the similarities and differences in our transformed material social practices in light of the disruptive pandemic. Combining methods of audio-visual storytelling and counter-topography, the political value of our new knowledge and geographical imagination became apparent.

“in other words, the way in which an image can ‘open up’ – an emotion, a memory, a new understanding, a new critique, even a new subjectification, a new politics- is a process that cannot be captured as a positivity for social science not least because it is not something that is in our control.” (Vikki Bell in Lury and Wakeford 2012: 161)

Connecting my story with my peers, I was able to envision the ‘contour lines’ between our lockdown experiences. Most evidently, the nonhuman as an agent of discovery, adaptability and comfort linked our individual practices. For many of us the second lockdown had been a period of discovery; Nianmei (Yang, 2020) trying new recipes (Fig. 3a), Ceara (Webster, 2020) searching for closure and new joys (Fig. 3b), Reuben (Grivell, 2020) using cycling to explore new parts of Bristol, and Emilia (Hermelin, 2020) allowing herself to pause and reflect.

“I’m enjoying the silence, enjoying the stillness, hearing other sounds of the city, it’s not just getting on the bus or being in a busy supermarket… I’m sitting with my own quiet… it’s a different landscape”- (Hermelin, 2020)

In addition, this disruption to our daily lives has tested and proven our master’s cohort to be adaptable. The showcase of our films demonstrated everything from using halls of residences as indoor gyms and turning cleaning into daily exercise (Fig. 4a), to using the supermarket as a way of seeing friends (Fig. 4b) and using social media as a platform to reach out to others and stay in contact (Fig. 4c) (Costa, 2020; Yang, 2020).

Whilst our films all valiantly depicted lockdown in a courageous and brave light, it was clear how each individual had resorted to individual comforts. Courtenay’s (Crawford, 2020) reflection on light as a way of making abandoned places still feel alive with human presence (Fig. 5a) demonstrated how these small forces of the nonhuman have created some stability and normality whilst all our other everyday practices have changed. This was echoed in Joel’s (Davies, 2020) experience, where through erratic transitions between shots, he interspersed moments of stillness and tranquillity created by the nonhuman throughout images of masks, instructions, rules, regulations and constraints (Fig. 5b, 5c); showing the potential for the nonhuman to provide refuge and companionship. It is this companionship that Ceara (Webster, 2020) speaks of in her reading of ‘Nature-Cure’, for when in assemblage with the nonhuman there can be strength in isolation, for we are never truly alone (Fig. 5d).

These individual stories/topographies, whilst different, inform the same subject. They’ve drawn contours between the transformed material social practices that have emerged in light of the second lockdown. Through discovery, adaptability and finding personal comforts we have all offered examples of how the nonhuman, a constant during lockdown, has been a political actor in invoking resilience and hope. We have all connected, rather emotively, on the different affective assemblages we’ve been a part of, and most importantly, have been so reliant upon.

“There is optimism in this break from hegemonic times… hope and optimism created in the interdistance of the pandemic” (Grivell, 2020)

“I am not as anxious as I thought I would be, I just try my best to stay happy and healthy but when your life and your things become unusual it is really a strange feeling. However, I hope and believe we can go back to normal again soon” (Yang, 2020)

The political value of our individual stories is extended by a counter-topographical approach, as across broader socio-political and environmental scales “just getting by in the face of the oppressive and increasingly mean-spirited circumstances” demonstrates resilience on the powerful level of the collective (Katz, 2004: 244). Transforming and reworking, overcomes “structural constraints” and offers the potential for hope as an antithesis of fear (ibid.: 251). Hope is a force that paves the way for new possibilities, a political affect that can transform practices. As illuminated through our audio-visual stories, the nonhuman has proven to play a
powerful transformative part in keeping us going and smiling during another very bizarre month of uncertainty, isolation and change.

This blog brings to a close a two-month process of self-reflection, creation, experimentation, and sharing, by offering a critical and analytical reflection of the three stages involved. It has been yet another opportunity for discovery, applying academic explanation to what in the field was instinctive.

Analysing my research experience through a posthuman philosophy, this final means of discovery has exposed the potential for audio-visual storytelling to make visible the nonhuman. Through embodied filming, use of visuals, and a montage compilation, I was struck by the significance of the nonhuman in my new transformed material practices. It was only by seeing my own experience in front of me on a screen did this knowledge become accessible.

Finally, analysing the counter-topographies of our shared experiences illuminated the political force of the nonhuman as an instigator of hope and resilience during lockdown. Sharing our experiences of discovery, adaption and comfort illuminated the role of the nonhuman as a constant companion. Throughout the turbulence of this ongoing pandemic, from closures, to isolation, to cancelled plans, the nonhuman has been a stable presence. Using individual audiovisual storytelling and collective counter-topographical analysis, the political role of the nonhuman has been exposed, broadening our geographical imagination and knowledge.

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