Bees: An Opportunity for Recognising Abstractions and Hearing the Non-Human

By Robert Marns

13 Bob blog imageImage:Experimental visualisation of floral electric field using electrostatic dusting” (Clarke and Roberts, 2017)

What silliness to judge insects – so ancient, so diverse, so accomplishes, so successful, so beautiful, so astonishing, so mysterious, so unknown – by criteria they can never meet and about which they could not care! What silliness to disregard their accomplishments and focus instead on their deficiencies! What pitiful poverty of imagination to see them as resources merely for our self-knowledge! (Raffles, 2010, p. 169)

From dusting off my grandfather’s dog-eared beekeeping guide, to the crystallising honey in my cupboard, to the enthusiasm of a friend who watches a bumblebee fill their pollen baskets whilst visiting a flowering basil plant, to news of colony collapse disorder decimating populations of honey bees (Apis mellifera), to marvelling at beyond-ancient cave paintings of honey-hunting, to watching a solitary mining bee return to its dug out hole in the earth, to finding a swarm settled in a bush outside the Arts and Social Sciences library in late spring, it is hard to know where to begin, or indeed, enter, this hive of fascination, admiration, and the unexplained realities of the 25,000 different known species that we commonly name, in English, the ‘bee’. Indeed, what can geography bring to this varied and ongoing conversation with and about our worldly co-producers?

Bees are frequently encountered as canaries in the coalmine of the present. They are often invoked under representative schemas common to environmental activism and advocacy that frame speaking for as the limit of possible ‘speech’ of nature. Nature can’t speak, so we must; bees are passive victims of our violence (ex. herbicides, pesticides, intensive agriculture, etc) and so need defending. One risk, however, in speaking for bees, and, ipso facto, nature, is that we unknowingly reproduce ourselves, that is, humans, as somehow unique from and distinct to the worlds bees come to represent. We rely upon our abstractions to encounter these creatures, rather than learn to listen to them, and their distinctness from us, but also from the innumerable agencies and voices that make up other-than-human worlds. Speaking for them reminds one of Spivak’s ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’ where appeals to representative approaches re-commit a violence of silencing, an epistemic violence which makes nature—albeit through a care for the narrowing of the future in ecocide—the ultimate Other.

But, might the bee speak to us as we seek to understand the violence of our ecological present as a forceful claustrophobia of the future, a slow violence perpetuated, felt, responded to, and creatively mediated constantly by humans and nonhumans alike? Maybe, in asking such a question—and so following a continuous theme in the Society and Space course—we might begin to become aware of our abstractions, and perhaps even remedy, some of the “epistemological and ontological biases that are remnants of the colonial conquest of nature” (Sheikh, 2019, p.14) that provide the lens through which the bee (and nature) is often encountered and understood.

This question of the ‘speech’ of the bee, when introduced to the frame of the ecological witness, takes on a new significance, and provides the central question for this research.

Refusing this silencing, perhaps there could be a listening which would intervene in the teleological bureaucratic anthropocentric activism, of managing ecosystem ‘service’ management and of greening capitalism on the one hand, or certain extinction on the other. Becoming able to sense their active involvement and creativity in the present could force a stuttering of our certainties about either our hope or our doom, opening up a fragile liminal space where something new can be expressed and learned.

Several common narratives of bees ‘speaking’ suggest themselves as worthy of scrutiny. Self-evident, first, is the long marvelled communicative capacities of bees: their ‘waggle-dance’, which through a series of movements communicates distance and location of food sources. Moreover, pushing beyond a conceptualisation of this communication as mere automated , de-subjectified, non-creative and only reactive communication, the ‘spasmodic dance’ of the bee contains no information but something like the “dancing mood”, or again the ‘jerking dance’ which is considered as a expression of joy and contentment, or finally the collective nest dance which is concerned in a social process of shared decision making (Raffles, 2010, p. 167).

Or consider colony collapse disorder. Contained within this framing and storying of whole bee hives suddenly dying is already a recognition that the hive is itself a nervous system which responds to its contexts and represents itself. Yet, this is often narrated as a sort of computational response to a virus or ecological disturbance, which the bee is not actively engaged in responding to, but only merely undergoing an automatic reaction towards.

Another example is the assumption of individuality, where the ‘bee’ is understood as individual insect, a singular organism encased in their singular body rather than the recognising the bee as the superorganism of the hive, this fact, once again, demonstrates the projection of colonial abstractions of the interior and exterior, which the bee in its very being undermines.

A final example is how work on bees often focuses on the social bees,yet 90% of bees are solitary and non-social, and so less productive for humans as they do not make honey.  They are categorized as less evolved using categories of sociality, communication and complexity to measure their place in nature. Such categories overlook the differences they express, like being  efficient pollinators, which is now understood to involve a process of the bee sensing the electromagnetic field of the flower, possibly to assess the desirability of individual flowers (Clarke and Robert, 2017) from one another.

These examples bring first an awareness of how we are continuously caught up in categorizations and abstractions, which have very ‘real’ and practical outcomes as these notions determine how Western beekeeping literally ‘frames’ bees, directing their activity towards human hands, tastes and desires. Whilst Western science has directed research at the most charismatic species of the bee, the point I wish to highlight is a move to recognise the non-human as resolutely creative rather than only reactive, shifting from only representing ecological distress to where some of the bees representations, and how it shares these with us, come to matter in politics. Here, an ethics of recognition of abstractions is sought to enable different encounters with the nonhuman other.  Furthermore, developing a sense of this active involvement shakes sedimented understandings of power and agency within this crisis. Perhaps, traversing from disregard to appreciation and intimate recognition could change what we understand is at stake, a new listening beyond abstractions may provide some assistance of how to respond to ecological unravelling.

 

References

Clarke, D., Morley, E. and Robert, D., 2017. The bee, the flower, and the electric field: electric ecology and aerial electroreception. Journal of Comparative Physiology A203(9), pp.737-748.

Povinelli, E.A., 2016. Geontologies: A requiem to late liberalism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Raffles, H., 2010. Insectopedia. New York: Vintage.

Sheikh, S., 2018. The Future of the Witness: Nature, Race and More-than-Human Environmental Publics. Kronos44(1), pp.145-162.

 

Sinking Islands and the Loss of Origin in the Anthropocene

By Warefta Murshed

In this blog, I attempt to weave together some of the conceptual themes I’m exploring in my dissertation by examining the challenges that the island nation of Kiribati faces at the forefront of climate change. Climate change is perhaps the most visceral manifestation of the Anthropocene, confronting Kiribati with the very reality of extinction for its people, more-than-human entities and traditional ways of living. I argue that, in order to cope with the inevitable loss that the Anthropocene will bring, we must engage in acts of ecological mourning in order to move forward.

In his short essay ‘Desert Islands’, philosopher Gilles Deleuze (2004: no page) writes that islands are the ‘consciousness of earth and ocean’ and that ‘humans cannot live, nor live in security, unless they assume the active struggle between earth and water is over, or at least contained.’ Here, a Deleuzian logic mediates that islands are existentially a space of contention between earth and water, where survival is depended on the victory of land over sea. Thus, as the archipelagos that make up the nation of Kiribati begin to sink beneath the sea, this logic rings true, threatening its inhabitants with the very reality of possible extinction.

Made up of 33 islands, Kiribati has been called a ‘Nation of Water’ (Chappell 2016: 8) and is one of the first countries in the Pacific that is slowly disappearing because of sea-level rise due to anthropogenic climate change. The catch-all term to describe these forms of environmental crises and degradation is being referred to as the ‘Anthropocene’, a new geological epoch in which humans are the biggest driving force behind the planetary crisis we are facing today. The Anthropocene has placed the ecological crisis on a planetary scale, posing new challenges to temporalities, geographical imaginaries and survival on Earth. Yet the planetary thinking in the Anthropocene tends to obscure the inherent geographical inequalities that define where environmental catastrophes are occurring and who eventually pays for its consequences.

Since 1999, two of the inhabited islands in the archipelagos, Tebula and Abannuea, have disappeared underwater (Kwa 2008). Dispossession due to disappearing land is not simply a hypothetical future for this island nation, but rather, a very tangible one. Dispossession of course, is no stranger to Kiribati. Though now mainly inhabited by Samoan descendants, the islands have been occupied from as early as the 16th century by Spanish seamen, followed by British settlements in the 18th century and a brief Japanese seizure during World War II. Even after independence from British colonisation in 1979, political autonomy did not mean freedom from the structures and obstacles inherited from the colonial period. Decolonisation still relied on formulating constitutions that complied with a prefabricated version of the nation state which endorsed the ‘European-derived model as universal’ (Chappell 2016: 15-16). The leaders of newly formed Kiribati had to ‘syncretise those alien frameworks with indigenous values and customs.’ (ibid: 15). The implicit coloniality in adhering to global bureaucracy became that indigenous ways of living and knowing were slowly dispossessed by a hegemonic world system that valued economic development over environmental sustainability, leaving Kiribati to now pay the price for the ‘ecological limits to capitalism’ (Chakrabarty 2009: 200).

Dispossession, therefore, has had ‘many unhappy returns’ (Abourahme 2018:109) for these islands, and the Anthropocene poses its latest eviction notice. Like many countries in the South Pacific, Kiribati has begun to take policy and legislative measures to mitigate the ongoing effects of sea level rise. Citizens from Kiribati have already claimed climate refugee status and migrated to New Zealand and in anticipation of a larger exodus, the government has also bought land from Fiji in hopes to give its people ‘migration with dignity’ (Chappell 2016:15) when the time comes.

Moreover, as Kiribati’s impending disappearance captures the fascination of the global community, other, more ambitious, technocentric solutions to the issue also emerges. A Japanese engineering firm, ‘Shimizu’ has designed a hypothetical underwater ‘floating island’ that has the potential to house half the inhabitants of Kiribati (Rytz 2018). Shimizu argues that developing the deep sea like space would be a solution to the disasters that plague the Anthropocene because it would minimise the risk from weather phenomena such as typhoons and create a new space for human existence (ibid). Yet at a cost of $450 billion per floating island, Shimziu’s project is an example of the ways in which the Anthropocene is being used to ‘revive fantasies about humans’ ability to control nature’ (Hecht 2018: 111). It is also a reminder that survival in this new epoch comes with a hefty price tag. As former president of Kiribati Anote Tong puts it ‘…we don’t think in those terms [in Kiribati]. We keep thinking that we can continue to destroy this planet because we believe we can fix it with our technology, in our arrogance to believe we have control over everything’ (Rytz 2018).

12. Warefta image 1Image 1: Shimizu’s artificial islands (Rytz 2018)

What none of these solutions account for is the incommensurable loss that will be experienced by the inhabitants of the island nation. In following a Deleuzian logic, to find a desert island is to find a place ‘ready to begin the world anew’, a place of origin (Deleuze 2004: no page). The reversal, therefore, would indicate a loss of origin. Making loss, in the case of Kiribati, ontological. Not only will islanders lose their ancestral homes, they will lose their sense of belonging and indigenous ties to the land, sea and sky. Beyond this, the more-than-human loss that befalls ‘animal, vegetal and mineral bodies’ (Willox 2012: 139) will also be felt deeply by Kiribatians due to the inextricable human and non-human entanglements that exist in their cosmologies.

12. Warefta image 2Image  2: Indigenous Traditions (photo David Gray/Reuters, available at https://widerimage.reuters.com/story/that-sinking-feeling [accessed 23 August 2019])

Perhaps the only real solution to navigating Kiribati’s disappearing present is to remain open to the loss. Besides the logistical implications of dispossession, to create recognition and humility when encountering loss on this scale, there must be personal, national and global acts of mourning. Willox (2012) argues that the only way to navigate the multi-scalar consequences of loss in the Anthropocene is by grieving the change. In mourning, she writes, ‘we can share our losses and encounter them as opportunities’ (ibid: 157) to understand our own vulnerability, fragility and interconnection to this planet. Mourning allows us to remain exposed to our losses and ‘affectively’ binds us together with both human and more-than-human entities so that in remembrance, we can move forward. Moreover, mourning in the Anthropocene is particularly important because it highlights the responsibility, we share for one another and ‘reconstitutes human and nonhuman others as grievable subjects’ (ibid: 153).

Of course, extending grief to global discourse means opening up the question of ‘what counts as a liveable life and a grievable death’ (Butler: 2004: xvi). The homosexual body, the indigenous body, the black body, the poor body, the woman’s body and especially the non-human body has historically been denied the right to grief and existence in various ethical and political domains. Yet, for the sake of optimism, haps public acts of remembrance and mourning to cope with loss in the Anthropocene will create new opportunities to share the ecological grief in our current planetary crisis and emphasize that ‘intimate and transcorporeal connections [are] shared across species boundaries and spatial and temporal scales’ (Willox 2012: 154).

Even as global anxieties about loss in the Anthropocene heighten, Kiribati’s future remains unclear. Perhaps there is hope for survival. But as present-day Kiribati disappears into the sea, the ontological loss that will be experienced by its human and nonhuman inhabitants is a stark reminder of ‘who pays the price for humanity’s planetary footprints’ (Gabrielle Hecht 2018: 135).

 

REFERENCES

Abourahme, N. 2018. ‘Of monsters and boomerangs: Colonial returns in the late liberal city’, City, 22:1, 106-115, DOI: 10.1080/13604813.2018.1434296

Butler, J. (2004) Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. New York: Verso.

Chakrabarty, D. (2009) ‘The climate of history: four theses.’ Critical Inquiry (Winter), pp 197 – 222.

Chappell, D. (2016) ‘Water Nations: Colonial Bordering, Exploitation, and Indigenous Nation-Building in Kiribati and Tuvalu.’ Pacific Asia Inquiry 7, pp 8–25.

Deleuze, G. (2004) ‘Desert Islands’ in Desert Islands and Other Texts: 1953-1974. Semiotext(e)

Hecht, G. (2018), ‘Interscalar Vehicles for an African Anthropocene: On Waste, Temporality, and Violence’, Cultural Anthropology 33, 109–141. doi:10.14506/ca33.1.05

The Commonwealth (2019), Kiribati: History | The Commonwealth. Available at: http://thecommonwealth.org/our-member-countries/kiribati/history. [Accessed 12 July 2019].

Rytz, M. (2018), Sinking Islands, Floating Nation: Can Artificial Islands Save This Country? |  New York Times Op-Docs. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhLEzrzOPKY. [Accessed 12 July 2019]

Kwa, E.L. (2008). ‘Climate Change and Indigenous People in the South Pacific’ in: International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Academy of Environmental Law Conference on “Climate Law in Developing Countries Post-2012: North and South Perspectives.” pp. 1–15

Willox, A.C. (2012) ‘Climate Change as the Work of Mourning’, Ethics and the Environment 17, pp. 137-164, doi:10.2979/ethicsenviro.17.2.137

Plants as Teachers, Researching with Plants: an Experiment in Method

By Stanley Connell-Longman

My research stems from a curiosity about what can happen when theoretically engaged scholarship encounters the possibility of plant teaching. My understanding of plant teaching stems from my learning with Nathaniel Hughes, a practitioner and teacher who has developed a School of Intuitive Herbalism, based in the Stroud valleys. Intuitive Herbalism is an approach to and philosophy of herbal medicine premised on the healing potential of communicating and forming relationships with plants. Plant-human relationships and communication is an experiential, holistic and embodied process. Sight, smell, taste, sound and movement as well as colour and drawing are ways to challenge habits of perception and communicate with plants. Attending to these non-linear, subjective, processual, heterogeneous and uncertain experiences as valuable forms of knowledge forms a key tenant of intuitive herbalism. As such, these find resonance in a number of methodological and philosophical turns affecting the arts and social sciences, and which also resonate with the MSc Society and Space curriculum. Both scholarly and herbal practices then, challenge perceptive habits through which understandings of subjectivity, materiality and spirituality, non-human communication and thought itself are made. These challenges extend to broadening what is considered knowing and research beyond the predominance of linguistic-cognitive[1] forms of representing experience: language, symbols, text, rationality. The philosophy of intuitive herbalism and the philosophies encountered in my scholarly training find much sympathy, but there is also a great difficulty in pursuing plant communication as a form of research. The following reflects a process of struggle in which I think through and sketch the (firstly) methodological challenges of researching with plants and (secondly) the political and ethical considerations these demand.

11. 20190630_131515Image: Painted stinging nettle, which may symbolise strength and fortitude, resilience and resistance. I found this on a wall of a squatted, self-sufficient community in Barcelona that has frequently and successfully defended itself against state eviction. (Photo author”s own)

Beginnings …

The recurring question I am turning over is: what would it mean to take a plant as a teacher?

The second question immediately arising out of this runs: what does it mean to ‘research this’? What are the methodological, ethical and political responsibilities, limits and uncertainties?

A third nagging doubt emerges from these two: academic scholarship and plant teaching are at odds. Despite what I read I don’t believe plants can be heard from within the academy. So why attempt this translation?

The two preliminary questions stand in tension together, with and against each other. They are productive of each other. I want to explore this tension. I might thus better formulate these questions together as: what would it mean, indeed what is required, to engage – that is, to listen and recognise – plants as teachers and then represent that encounter within scholarly limitations (conceptual, textual, methodological)?

Yet, this formulation is only partly helpful. The tension my research hinges upon is still inadequately formulated here. The scholarly is still imprisoned within the very frameworks that constitute its encounter with the ‘non-academic’ as ‘problematic’, indeed that constitutes the possibility of such a strict divide. The matter of communicating between worlds and categories – the academy, a human, a plant, a medicine garden – no doubt warrants caution. Yet it is important not to limit what academic inquiry and its concomitant categories of understanding could become in such an encounter with plant teaching.

A third formulation might run thus: what could it mean to take plants as teachers and how might such an invitation demand, challenge, and engender different scholarly understandings and practices?

Within these intuitions further caution arises. Asking what the academic can learn from  (i.e. gain)  studying alternative knowledge practices is to slip into a logic both appropriative and undermining (of itself and the plant as teacher). Indeed, it is not a question of research on plant teaching. The assumptions of from and on run counter to the spirit of encounter and gift, two understandings significant to understandings of plant teaching. Therefore, to extend the prepositional analogy further, I am seeking to research with plants. Exploring how this methodological engagement engenders different sensibilities and understandings of human-plant relations from other engagements – such as botany, ethnobotany, anthropology – will form a significant part of my research.

After all these revised sketches I am still left wondering: but how do I make sense of and communicate my (past and potential, future) experiences of being taught by plants as part of or in tandem with scholarly practice and research method? Furthermore, why seek such an uncomfortable confrontation? The point of my inquiry is not to resolve this predicament. Nor is it an attempt at a most accurate representation (even if we broaden what is permissible beyond linguistic analysis to include prominent bodily sensations and awarenesses).  Making sense of an experience of and relationship with plant teaching must necessarily also be about making sense of sensemaking itself. This is becoming a thought experiment in method (and a methodological experiment in thought?).

To take plants as teachers – to engage in somatic communication and healing with plants – is already to assume their agential capacity as lively communicators. How, if at all, can their agency, communication, and capacities be recognised, listened to, and understood? What is at stake? Asking these questions leads me to question my own assumptions about our commonality and difference. This space of encounter will prompt me to be sensitive to my categorial understandings and habits of perception, communication and representation in relation to other forms of life. This sensitivity is methodological, political and ethical all at once, for I acknowledge that ways of making sense carry consequences (they matter both literally and figuratively).

The answer to any of these doubts is not a foregone conclusion. Another intuition, which I have tried to demonstrate through my toing and froing, follows: I am reluctant to engage plant teaching through conventional critical scholarship. I am afraid, indeed anticipating, that I will not be able to ask these questions. I am uncertain from the outset how to ask them and whether they can be answered. What if my experiment does not succeed? What if the difference between worlds is incommensurable? But what do I think I’m trying to communicate and what could constitute failure to that end?

If so much of plant communication is non-verbal[2], and if entering into common communication requires inhabiting largely non-linguistic modes – such as smell, sound, taste, movement – then textual limits are soon reached. My inquiry extends then to how I navigate these limits. It further extends, following theoretical turns towards a ‘new’, materialist semiotics[3], into how attention to non-linguistic representation can inform our very understandings of the limits and boundaries of representation, language and the symbolic. In doing so I draw on plant teaching as a guide. I do this whilst engaging ideational theory itself as a form of sensemaking. Plants and ideational theory then, in guiding me, might speak to each other. In a holistic and cyclical way, this dialogue has the potential to disrupt and reconstitute the very terms of the dialogue itself. Herein lies a potential to challenge what we or I understand by research method – to experiment in its creative sense – and especially resist the assumptions of success, certainty and intelligibility that so often underpin it.

The invitation to ask: what does it mean to take plants as teachers demands a response in keeping with the ethic of plant teaching itself. In this way, the inquiry, if it is to be honest, if I am to respect my not-knowing, becomes an ethical and political endeavour, for there is a responsibility in answering this question. As I have said, it is not research on plants for the academy, but rather with plants and through theory. I do not yet know for whom[4] . This responsibility encompasses not only reformulating the very terms of the problem of research and representation, but also attending well to the tensions that inevitably and necessarily arise. Plants may teach acceptance of not-knowing, of uncertainty and intuition if one is receptive. How do I reconcile intuition and ambivalence with formal academic requirements while simultaneously engaging a theoretical craft rigorously and creatively? Can concepts in fact enable a receptivity to non-human teaching and communication? What would it mean to hone that as a method? These are some of the questions I want to explore and experiment with in this project.

Here, I have given a sense of my dissertation research through an explicit methodological framing. Grappling with some of the methodological challenges it presents and appreciating this grappling as a constituent research process will be a central refrain in this thesis. It reflects the holistic approach of intuitive herbalism allowing the plants themselves to act as guides to the methodological processes. Thus, the research understands itself as a dialogue whereby researcher, research, theory and practice are aligned (distinct but in continuity). Challenging the terms of engagement – the assumptions that underpin these distinctions and their consequences – might just enable alternative understandings and practices to emerge. The challenge may also be too great. It is a risk and I do not yet know what is at stake in trying to bring plant wisdom into the academy. Nonetheless, I am curious to try.

[1]  Linguistic and (‘rational’) cognitive forms of representation are usually understood as correlative with the ‘symbolic’ or ‘semiotics’. There are however, a number of theoretical turns that are concerned with broadening the remit of the ‘symbolic’ beyond such forms of representation. These seek to find not just alternative modes of representation to the symbolic (which would reinforce its linguistic-cognitive domain) but more fundamentally challenge the predominance of linguistic representation by incorporating other forms of representation within and as symbolic too. Crucially I am not interested in rejecting language but rather appreciating it as a form of symbolic representation among many.

[2] I may be guilty of conflating the verbal with the linguistic. A challenge and intention of my research will be to grapple with such representational nuances and try to articulate them through language, well.

[3] see footnote 1.

[4] That is, other than my supervisor and board of examiners, whom I hope to convince of my experiment. Yet is it even permissible to research for myself, with, and to some extent on myself? I wish to make these ambivalences central to the research process and the inquiry itself.