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Imagining the Eco-Social—Speaker Series

29 August 2018


‘Imagining the Eco-Social: New Materialist Reflections for the Anthropocene’—A Speaker Series wrestling with the need for a new way of being-in-the-world

There is no doubt that human beings—and all other ‘Earthlings’—face an uncertain and risky future. Everywhere in the news, intimations of ecological collapse seem to arrive like an incoming tidal flow—while the Earth system has endured its hottest ever year since formal records began. Hothouse Earth is forcing movements, drifts and collisions—human, animal, insectal, vegetal, aqueous, and atmospheric—that increasingly force a confrontation between the ecological and the socio-economic-political. The vectors of encounter seem increasingly convergent and increasingly densely entangled. Geologists, struck by the sense in which ‘humanity’ has become a geological force incontrovertibly marking the Earth system record in unprecedented ways and at unprecedented scale, have named the epoch as the ‘new age of the human’: The ‘Anthropocene’.

What if, however, the crisis of the Anthropocene is precisely born of a mistaken sense of the centrality and unique agency of the human? What if making the human so central to the epoch reflects a kind of over-reach—a kind of humanistic arrogance and misguided hubris—albeit of a complex and ambivalent kind? And what might it mean—for law, politics, economics, science, the arts, for, indeed, the entire span of ‘human’ social endeavours—to confront, at last, the monumental and microscopic agencies of multiple non-human partners in the forging of pasts, presents, futures and worlds?

This speaker series in the Cardiff School of Law and Politics engages with one of the most imaginative, daring and boundary-transgressing responses to the problematic, outdated centrality of the human: new materialism. New materialism, in many ways, renders the traditional sense of human agency impossible—with complex implications for law, politics and the construction of the eco-social. New materialism embraces complexity, hybridity and entanglement—pointing towards the inescapability of intra-relationality, all the way down.

Hosted by the Centre of Law and Society and the Environmental Justice Research Unit, this series takes participants on a dazzling intellectual journey, in a series of encounters with various lively agentic forces: sand, air, algorithms, water, insects and drones. An entangled world—and its implications for law, property, urban landscape, spatial justice, ecological security, and international humanitarian law—forms the scene of our prospective encounter with new materialist thinking—and each other’s responses. All are most welcome.

19th September 2018: Opening Event: ‘Encountering the Entangled World’: 9-1pm Law Building 2.29/2.29a

 This event is the opening event for the series. There will be two papers (details below) and a chance for in-depth discussion and engagement with the themes of the papers and the series as a whole.

Can Property be Justified in an Entangled World?’ Margaret Davies, Matthew Flinders Distinguished Professor of Law, Flinders University, Australia

For some decades property theory has emphasised questions about the nature of property, and focused upon redefining it in such a way as to rebalance it toward responsibilities, or to find ways of strengthening common and public interests rather than individual rights. The issue of whether property can be justified at all—once a staple of moral and political theory—has been submerged in this necessary but limited emphasis on redefinition. However the basis for liberal property theory, the presocial individual and its differentiation from a world of objects, is utterly dissolved in posthumanism. Private property is, moreover, at the centre of global ecocide. For these reasons (and many others), the question of the ethical foundations for property can no longer be ignored. Is property justifiable at all, and if so in what form, in an entangled world? What does the codependence and indeed interchangeability of subjects and objects mean for the future of property?

A Hyena’s Laugh: Sand, Suspension, and Urban Form’ Dr Julian Brigstoke, Lecturer in Human Geography, Cardiff University, UK

This paper critically engages with new materialist debates through a consideration of an everyday material: sand. Sand is a vital material of power. Its force emerges from its granularity, its roughness, its consistency and absorbency. This enables it easily to form suspensions in water and air. Sahara sand keeps the Amazon alive. Sand transgresses borders and thresholds. It connects the elemental to the global, and the distant past to the present. Sand’s power is ghoulish: shifting form, moving boundaries, deceiving travellers. It has a hyena’s laugh. It marks time, decay, and death. Yet when taking forms such as concrete, asphalt, and glass, sand is also the most important material of the world’s urban landscapes. There is a global shortage of construction sand, and the geopolitics of sand mining and land reclamation is becoming increasingly contentious. This paper argues that thinking the geopolitics and geopoetics of sand requires questioning the granular materiality and non-human temporalities of cities, urban form, and the flows of matter across water, land and air. 

Please indicate your attendance at the workshop on our doodle list.

10th October 2018; 1.00 pm: ‘The World is Rooted in Air: Atmosphere, Lawscape, Spatial Justice’

Andreas Phillipopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Professor of Law and Theory, University of Westminster, UK; Founder and Director of the Westminster Law and Theory Lab, 1-3pm: Law Building 2.30

Air brings together but also sets apart bodies by facilitating a division between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, continuum and rupture. Taking inspiration in Tomas Saraceno’s glasshouse installations, this talk looks into the way air (and other elements) are partitioned in ‘glasshouses’ of atmospheric affect. Partitioning comes from material boundaries (walls, pavements, apertures) but also from immaterial, legal and political delimitations, such as private property, urban commons, public access areas and so on. Atmospheres (especially urban) tend to be tightly regulated in order to avoid uncontrolled and unpredictable revolts, thus pushing bodies in specific, pre-fabricated directions. Building on his previous work on the lawscape (namely the tautology between law and space), Andreas Philippoulos-Mihalopoulos, with the help of Wagner’s leitmotifs, the writings of Sloterdijk, Irigaray, Deleuze, Negarestani and Serres, as well as posthumanism, gender studies, ecology, new material and vitalist ontologies and critical legal theory, will speak on reconceptualising current understandings of atmospheres within a context of an embodied, conflictual and fully contextualised spatial justice.

14th November 2018; 4.00 pm: ‘Out of hand: Biological and artificial intelligence in the crafting of ecological security’

Elizabeth Johnson, Assistant Professor, Department of Geography, Durham University, UK 4-5:30pm, Law Building 2.29/2.29a

Current global environmental conditions indicate a world decidedly ‘out of hand’. While modernist fantasies of a planet fully subsumed by machinic forces continue to hold sway in the geoengineering imaginary, news of climate change, the circulation of microplastics, and coral bleaching —to name just a few indicators—speak of the ways that industrial production has degraded the conditions of life. Increasingly, technologically-driven responses to ecological precarity reflect a growing distrust in those conventional forms of human ingenuity, as scientists and innovators are increasingly turning to nonhumans as resources for sustainable innovation. Growing fields such as biomimicry, biosensing, and even some areas of robotic engineering suggest that humans do not maintain a monopoly on creative design. In these more-than-human strategies for eco-governmentality, processes of nonhuman evolution and algorithmic learning—rather than human design—take center stage. In this presentation, I consider the political ramifications of these trends, exploring how attempts to take technological innovation further ‘out of hand’ displace humans as agential actors in our future imaginaries.

29th November 2018; 4.00 pm: ‘Ethics and the Unfathomable’ 

Astrida Neimanis, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney, Australia, 4-6pm, Law Building 2.30

We are all bodies of water; like all living organisms, most of our bodily matter comprises water that we inherit from other bodies, and in turn pass on to other bodies, both nearby and faraway. In this way, to imagine ourselves as bodies of water inaugurates us into a planetary hydrocommons: all of the water that makes up all of our cells has been part of another watery body, somewhere, sometime before. Water connects us all. This material intimacy can thus lay the groundwork for a profound interspecies planetary ethics. Despite this watery communion, however, water still remains ungraspable, unknowable—literally unfathomable. Due in part to its particular material ontology—fluid, shapeshifting, always hybrid, always becoming-other—but also to the geophysics of our earthly habitat and our lived capacities as terrestrially-bound humans, water will always still elude our powers of (epistemological and material) containment. In this talk, I address this paradox of intimate unknowability. I draw on feminist and decolonial theories to consider how water offers powerful lessons for practices of ethics, politics and knowledge in the Anthropocene, where addressing water-related environmental crises must be an urgent priority.

5th December 2018, 1pm: ‘Life and Death by Bugs: International Humanitarian Law, Transgression, and Swarming “Insect Drones”’ 

Matilda Arvidsson, Postdoctoral Researcher in International Law at the Department of Law, University of Gothenburg, 1-3pm, Law Building 2.30

During the last seventy-odd years the US Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) has launched programs aiming at enhancing, imitating and incorporating insects, insect biomass, and insect technologies in military equipment for intelligence and combat purposes. A recent example is the Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (HI-MEMS) program from 2005. The US Army Unmanned Aircrafts Systems Roadmap 2010–2035 specified insect swarming capacities as a field of development for Unmanned Aviation Systems (UAS). While international legal scholarship on warfare has paid substantial attention to new military technologies such as drones, autonomous weapons systems (AWS), and artificial intelligence (AI)—and concerns arising from humans being replaced by autonomous ‘machines’, developments within this field based on insect and swarming technologies has been largely ignored. This presentation takes the insect and emerging insect-simulating swarming technologies in military warfare systems as its starting point. It asks what significance the insect has as a figure and materiality of technologies superior to those of the human animal and as a means for human domination, exploitation, and of killing. Drawing on contemporary international humanitarian law scholarly debates on AWS, as well as contemporary queer feminist ecology, critical insect studies and posthumanist feminist scholarship, the paper seeks to contribute to a posthuman turn in international humanitarian law.


Image Credit: Anna Grear: Painting Detail ‘Grey’.