Matters of Concern All the Way Down



Isabelle Stengers




First, let me tell you how much this invitation means to me.1 I usually decline crossing the oceans for academic events, but in this case, I did it because I would be meeting and getting to know people who matter a lot to me.


When I first read Deborah Bird Rose, Wild Dog Dreaming, it was a shock, not only because of the content of the book, but because of the manner of its writing, of the love, compassion and outrage which it conveyed, in a remarkable welding of affect and scholarship. I remember thinking that maybe, if this is an outcome of it, it was not in vain that women now inhabit the academy.


And then I discovered Thom van Dooren’s Flight Ways. And again I was surprised. Species were no longer a disputed abstraction. Loss and extinction were no longer a matter of numbers anxiously collected by specialists. What was in the process of being destroyed was the long continuity of embodied albatross generations—generations, he writes, that do not just happen but must be achieved, through the ongoing work that ties one generation to the next.


I have now read other texts, and I have, for instance, realized the importance of Val Plumwood for both Rose and van Dooren. This genealogy matters for me. As if here, in Australia, the ecofeminist spirituality, marginalized elsewhere on academic grounds, had taken root in a new, generative way, conjoining gratitude and mourning.


In her famous Three Guineas, Virginia Woolf expressed the strongest doubts about women, who had just been allowed to enter an academic career, being able to change the institution. I would say that the dice are now thrown, and they are thrown at a time when we all know and feel the need for a deep change in a divided academic world.


Today, more than ever, we have to listen to Virginia Woolf’s plea, ‘Think we must’. And, as thinking is always situated, I wish to share with you my own situated thinking experience coming from this far away, very small country called Belgium.


French-speaking Belgium, by the way, is not France. There is no Belgian theory. I understood I was Belgian when I understood how important for me as a philosopher has been the local tradition of blasphemous laughter about sacred ideals and demarcations. We have no special pride about our past in Belgium. Yes, at school we learn that Julius Caesar wrote that Belgians were the fiercest people in the Gaul. But he wrote it about a people he had just vanquished, enslaved, eradicated. I do not feel a descendant of this people, I rather feel that I am probably a descendant from women raped by Spanish soldiers—mixed blood, the outcome of many occupations.


In Brussels, my town, ‘my place’, now known as the so-called Capital of Europe, people love to call themselves Zinneke. This term refers to mixed blood, valueless puppies thrown in the Zinne, the river which did flow through Brussels, and now flows in its underground.


Being born in a place where abstract ideals are not taken very seriously may be a reason why I have never felt compelled to accept the great causes which divide the small world of the academy. But I have known from very early on the difficulty of challenging the mutual ignorance and contempt which demarcates so-called objective sciences and humanities.


I was full of hope when, as a young philosopher, I co-authored with the chemistry Nobel Prize Ilya Prigogine a book which has been translated under the title Order out of Chaos. The French title of our book, La nouvelle alliance, was more outspoken about our claim that physics should be disconnected from the idea of a triumph of reason discovering the universal laws of nature. Physics, we proposed, was to be appreciated as a science among others, one which was now as open as others to becoming and uncertainty, and was as such able to participate in a dialogue between sciences in the plural.


The response to the book was rather different, however. The authority of physics was intact. The happy message was that physics now authorized other sciences to take seriously becoming and uncertainty. Paraphrasing Audre Lorde (Sister Outsider), ‘the master’s tools’ proved unable ‘to dismantle the master’s house’.


But the master’s tools were also operating some fifteen years later, when critical social sciences and humanities scholars claimed to dismantle the authority of ‘objective sciences’ and, first of all, of physics. Physics was not to be a science among others, with its specificity. It was to be reduced to a purely human construction about a mute reality. I am speaking here of the so called ‘science wars’ in the nineties—a disastrous confrontation between masters, which rigidified the boundaries.


I evoke this past confrontation because nothing has been resolved since. Relativism has become for many scientists synonymous with irrationality or demagogic doubt-mongering. If we truly think that today humanities and so-called objective sciences need each other, we have to take the risk of war seriously. This is why I will first briefly share with you what I have learned from this sad story.


The science wars were both predictable and unfortunate. It was very quickly forgotten that the crucial question was the general, unilateral authority of objectification conquering the world. Defining what really matters and what may, even must, be discarded. Blessing in the name of reason the destruction of innumerable other ways of relating, knowing, feeling and interpreting. It became a war between masters—that is a war waged on an epistemological ground about the conditions of valid knowledge.


The intention may have been good but good masters are still masters. Are indigenous peoples, for instance, interested by this general question of validity or is it the question of their self-appointed spokespersons? Also, are those scientists recognized as the masters of objectivity—I mean experimental scientists—really interested in this epistemological question?


This last question became important for me as I anticipated the coming clash. What if the production of experimental facts had been addressed not as the outcome of a so-called objective method, but as what may eventually result from a very peculiar definition of what matters, a definition specific to the experimental craft? This proposition may still be relevant, and I will briefly summarize it.


Against method and general epistemology, I would claim that, in order to produce objective experimental facts, it is not sufficient at all to obtain data, even reproducible ones. What must be achieved is a very particular and demanding ‘enrolment’. Experimental staging may be understood as an invitation addressed to phenomena, the aim of which is to have them endorsing the role of reliable witnesses for the way their answer should be interpreted. In other words, if they accept the invitation, they will have become ‘partners’ in a very unusual and entangled relation, giving to the scientist the power to speak in their name.


The first word of what we call now an experimental practice was passionately scribbled by Galileo in 1608, when the first experimental successful enrolment was about to be achieved—when balls rolling down an inclined plane were turned into reliable witnesses for the way they gain speed. Galileo noted on his graph Doveria—this is the result which should be obtained. He knew that if he obtained this result, no rival characterization of the movement which he had staged would be able to undo the created link, to reduce it to a human interpretation imposed on a mute reality! Objectivity means here the achievement of a definition which should resist objections, and which the objectors will then agree to endorse.


No wonder experimental scientists felt insulted when the critiques claimed that all attempt to produce reliable witnesses was a fiction. But it may be that if these critiques had emphasized the very singularity of experimental practices, some experimenters, instead of feeling insulted by the attack, would have realized that the worse insult against their practice is to use the same word, objectivity, in order to characterize both their own passionate attempt to create experimental situations and the general imposed reduction of any situation to objective terms.


How indeed to generally extend a practice which demands that what is enrolled, that is, extracted from its usual entanglement and actively staged in the terms of the question it should answer, be able to function as a reliable witness? Just think to pseudo experimental psychology—how easy it is to give diverging interpretations to the way an experimental subject, be it a dove or a human, behaves. Just think also that the relevance of experimental objective definitions is not warranted outside of the laboratory environment where they were verified. In different environments, surprises may be anticipated. Experimental objectivity is fragile.


What might be extended on the other hand is the experimenters’ passionate attempt to confer on what they address the power to make a crucial difference for what concerns the value of their own questions. If this had been the general commitment of so-called modern sciences, relevance and not authority would have been the name of the game. What would have been produced then is a positive, radical, plurality of sciences, each particular scientific practice answering the challenge of relevance associated with its specific field; each presenting itself in terms of its specific kind of achievement, and of the requirements and obligations this achievement had to satisfy.


This ‘would have’ may seem purely speculative, and it is indeed so. But speculation here connects not with a utopia but with what is the first word of any resistance against any essentialist definitions: what is presented as self-evident did not need to be like that! The institution we call Science, in the singular not in the plural, did not need to function that way. The history of the nineteenth century tells us that it has become what it is now because it has entered into a symbiotic relation with powers, that of the State and that of the industry, which are more interested in authority, the right to discard or ignore, than in relevance.


The question of relevance is at the centre of what I came to name an ‘ecology of practices’. Such an ecology would demand from different practitioners that they cultivate the active sense of the positive partiality of what I call their practice and which could also be called a craft. Each craft has its specific requirement and its obligations, and might accept being situated in such terms. And each craftsman or woman knows that they do not have the right to demand from what they address that it conforms to the requirements of their tools. The primary question is rather: how and under which conditions is the relation which these tools are able to establish relevant?


Relevance, on the other hand, may be associated with Donna Haraway’s motto ‘Staying with the trouble’. Indeed as situated by the specific demands they have to satisfy, practices, including ‘sciences-as-they-might-have-been’ would have been disconnected from the claim of authority. They would have contributed to the exploration of disputes, troubling situations, but never have defined trouble as what should be clarified, never have claimed to bring the light of reason able to dispel perplexing obscurity. Staying with the trouble challenges the very idea of reason as what should overcome trouble.


As a philosopher I have to recognize the philosophical root of this idea of reason. However, if I did become a philosopher, a minority one, it is because of a learning process which has connected me with philosophers for whom reason had no authority whatsoever, philosophers like Leibniz, William James, Alfred North Whitehead, and Gilles Deleuze. Whitehead wrote that Western philosophy can be considered as a series of footnotes to Plato, but those philosophers wrote footnotes creating active antidotes against the urge to dispel the trouble.


I am obviously not the only one to have kept alive the memory of the science wars as that of a disaster but also to have accepted it as a call for radical rethinking. And I will now think with the challenge which Bruno Latour addressed to his critical colleagues in his paper published in 2004, ‘Why Has Critique Run out of Steam?’ For many years I had played with Bruno something like a cat’s cradle game, as Donna Haraway would characterize it, borrowing, transforming, hijacking each other’s attempts to make sense of the authority attributed to scientific matters of fact. But he then proposed a game-changing string figure pattern, with which I am still thinking.


Invoking the way in which the critical, deconstructivist argument against what scientists call ‘matter of facts’ has been captured by those whom we now call ‘merchants of doubt’, Latour asked: ‘Can we devise another powerful descriptive tool that deals this time with matters of concern and whose import then will no longer be to debunk but to protect and care, as Donna Haraway would put it? Is it really possible to transform the critical urge in the ethos of someone who adds reality to matters of fact and not subtract reality?’ (‘Why’, 232).


To protect and care for matters of concern. This may be a key, a demanding key, for our present-day question. What is the Earth, today but a matter of multiple, entangled, fearsome concerns? We, academics, are certainly unable to protect the Earth and the earthly beings who inhabit it from what threatens them. But we may learn what is both meant and required by the demand to protect and to care for the way such matters of concern are addressed.


We have to learn a version of reason, then, that resists being identified with what has the power to dispel troubles. As associated with the task of protecting and caring, reason would rather demand the practical exploration of what it takes to become able to relate with perplexing, troubling, situations, that is also, to resist any operation the aim of which would be to tame the trouble. In other words, reason would demand learning what it takes to give to such situations the power to have their concerned protagonists thinking together, recognizing each other’s diverging voices as legitimate, even necessary if the concerning situation is not to be mutilated.


Here it is not sufficient to state that the future of this Earth and of its inhabitants should obviously be a matter of concern for everybody. And it is also not sufficient to consensually agree that, in this juncture, so-called objective sciences need critical social sciences and the humanities. We have to wonder: why this need?


I will begin with a counter-example. In Europe it is now felt needed that social scientists take in charge the question of the acceptability by the public of techno-scientific innovations. This need is answering what has been a ground-shattering event for involved scientists, state powers and the industry—the determinate and obstinate public resistance against genetically modified cultures. In this case, the reference to a progress which nobody can resist did not work as usual. Worse, people got more and more recalcitrant as they learned together the many distinct but convergent reasons to refuse this so called progress.


This was what I call a political event, people getting a voice, objecting in a way that made reassuring experts stutter and falter. But for those who feel responsible for public order and economic growth, it was a disaster, the repetition of which should be avoided at all cost. This is why they needed social scientists—not to participate in a matter of common concern but to try and convince people that their misgivings had been heard, and that henceforth innovation would be a responsible process, integrating ethical concerns. Social scientists have been embarked in what is in fact an attempted project of socio-technology.  


I would claim that proposing to name our epoch the Anthropocene is also a socio-technological attempt. Such an attempt is less easy to criticize, as it followed not from capitalist entrepreneurs but from the honest and anxious concern of some climatologists for the lack of effective answer to their alarmed call for action. It is hard to criticize them. When they realized that the climate was a ticklish, ominous, and fearfully complex reality and that it was bound to answer very dangerously to the reckless burning of fossil fuels, it was a duty for climatologists to sound the alarm and have it heard.


The IPCC was created in order to obtain facts and predictions which even the most recalcitrant states would have to accept, and the accusation of meddling with politics was thus to be strictly avoided. Paul Crutzen, along with his IPCC colleagues, may have sincerely taken for granted the official scenario: we, scientists, bring the facts and ‘society’ decides. But the general mobilization which they were hoping for, comparable to what happened when the US entered World War Two, with the heroic decision to reorganize industrial production and the citizens’ way of life, did not follow.


I can only imagine how horrified they were by the tepid, dithering way in which the States and the public reacted to the alarm while their own working life, and probably nightmarish nights, were permeated by more and more threatening data and models. The Anthropocene motto cannot be dissociated from this distressing situation. It follows from the hypothesis that guilt and renunciation did not make for a good mobilizing story. People would consent to sacrifices only if these were the price of a possible victory. But there is no victory against the climate; what has been triggered will not fade away.


The Anthropocene story proposed by Crutzen (‘Geology’) fits the bill. It downplays this ‘inconvenient truth’. It conforms to the apolitical stance scientists felt required, but it spins a new invigorating message: the epic story of the ‘Age of Man’, of Man having ‘attained’ the status of a geological force, and being now required to shoulder the corresponding responsibility, learning to rationally govern the earth.


The Anthropocene theme will not help to question the imperative of economic growth, the freedom of the markets and the right claimed by corporate industry to extract any resource it appropriates. It seems that whatever responsible governance of the Earth may mean, this governance will have to comply with these sacrosanct, imperious constraints. But in the humanities and the arts, the success of the idea of a geological turn has been amazing, an explosion of sophisticated embellishments, of reflexive or speculative announcements. As if the Anthropocene was a great, daring opportunity!


I know that critical voices are now proposing different names, such as Capitalocene or Plantationocene, telling other stories, pointing to the logic of social-ecological-cultural devastation which has ruined, and is still more than ever ruining, our worlds. However, proposing alternative names and diagnoses for our epoch is not sufficient in order to formulate a generative matter of concern. If the Anthropocene has a meaning, it is that of an immense destruction, the possibility of a global system collapse. We may well point to those who are responsible, but those responsible cannot be asked to repair the damage. They are only equipped to turn it into new and profitable speculative operations.


Moreover, even if we escape what is looming, that is, the prospect of geoengineering, of Anthropos fulfilling its destiny by attempting to tame the climate, and even if, very hypothetically, the emission of greenhouse gases was to be successfully reduced, the climate change would not stop. A runaway, self-amplifying process might be avoided but there will be no so-called ‘return to normalcy’ for many centuries.


Here at last is the formulation of a matter of concern which, I would propose, demands to be shared—the prospect of living in the ruins, to borrow Anna Tsing’s formula (Mushroom). Anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro has rather sarcastically reminded us that what I am calling a prospect is what indigenous peoples have already experienced and know only too well (see Danowski and Viveiros de Castro, Ends). And even in the rich Euro-American part of the world, more and more people experience precariousness, the loss of the kind of safety they took for granted in the past. This includes many of those whom we, academics, have trained, and whom we now see living hand to mouth lives.


The feelings of distress are certainly not to be compared. While indigenous peoples never took safety for granted, we may still imagine struggling for the rights and entitlements which have come to be considered as normal in the rich countries. But the kind ecological devastation which is coming is not due to an enemy you may fight and eventually defeat. This may also be the reason why the prospect of living in the ruins is so frightening to us. It is the prospect of barbarity, the rule of the Vae Victis, the struggle to survive whatever the price. The way we have been captured and anesthetized by the dream of unending growth and progress makes us helpless, that is also, more vulnerable to anger, cynicism and resentment.


Living in the ruins has thus nothing to do with a promise. It is also not a global prospect, or if it is, it will be a very ugly one. Taking it as a matter of concern now is rather accepting the hard fact that ruins will be our legacy to the next generation and the following ones. And that the stories we tell, the experiences we taste, the crafts we learn, the imagination we entertain will matter for those generations. All of that will inescapably be an active part of our legacy to these generations, to poison or sustain them.


The question of our legacy to the coming generations concerns everybody, and eco-activists are already at work a bit everywhere, both struggling and reclaiming, learning what it takes to live a life worth living in a precarious world where matters of concern will be all the way down. But I will address more specifically the way it concerns us, academics, as we are, and will be, dealing with these coming generations. Defining ruins as bound to be ugly or promoting them under the guise of a new utopia will not help them, and our poisonous academic divides generate stories which are certainly not worth transmitting.


And here is where Bruno Latour’s plea that we devise ways to add reality to matters of fact is both timely and challenging. Indeed we have to learn to address issues which we would prefer to avoid, because they risk situating us in dangerous company.


As we know, these last few years, Donna Haraway has taken the hard, difficult decision to face such a challenge. She now has to accept the insults of many of her feminist colleagues because she advocates taking seriously, in spite of all scholarly and politically justified critique, the globalizing numbers that indicate the demographic trouble we are in. She has accepted being forced to feel and think by the ‘sheer here-ness of more than 7 billion human beings in the early years of the 21st century’ as well as by ‘the unimaginable but all too countable near certainty of more than 11 billion human beings living on this earth at the end of the century’ (Haraway, ‘Making Kin’; see also Staying). We cannot, she writes, leave to others the ‘dirty work’ of being concerned by these numbers.


It may well be that the success of the Anthropocene was a way of leaving to climatologists the ‘dirty work’ of producing globalizing numbers. Geological speculations are far less compromising. And, as with the demographic numbers, the danger of the numbers associated with global warming is obvious. The globalist slogan that we are all ‘equally’ concerned by the coming climate disorder, or even that this is a ‘state of exception’ justifying an imposed unanimity transcending political conflictuality is to be anticipated. But as with the globalizing demographic numbers, the global character of climate models should not be a reason for ignoring them. Climate models must be global because it is simply the only scale at which they have a meaning. As such, the facts they produce are calling for an added reality.


The distinction between the objectivity which climatologists obtain and a world-conquering pseudo-objectivity matters here. Like all tools climate models are not neutral but actively partial, privileging and discarding. But they are not to be defined as the master’s tools. What those models discard is not disqualified as illusory or ‘only subjective,’ but remains a matter of ongoing concern. Climatologists ceaselessly rework and complicate their modelled scenarios in order to test the stability of the outcome when the role of this or that intervening process is taken into account and incorporated. Their concern is about the relevance of their working abstractions, given all that these abstractions abstract from.


Climatologists do not thus need to deny what their power to ‘see’ what is globally happening makes them unable to look at. But they must resist the temptation to ally with those who claim to take seriously what they are seeing, and who will refer to their authority in order to conclude ‘we have no choice but to…’. Climatologists, in this sense, need our help just as we need climatologists who are acutely aware that if their knowledge enables them to ring the alarm, it is nevertheless mute with regard to the manner of answering this alarm. Mute when the question of living in the ruins is concerned.


To qualify the perspective of living on a ruined planet as a matter for shared concern is not however an innocent proposition. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa thoughtfully wrote, matters of concern should not have us forget what she called ‘matters of care’. A shared matter of concern implies and demands situated protagonists who give to what gathers them the power to have them thinking together. This may communicate with a politically satisfying version of reason, but it is not an inclusive one.


Let us not forget that the term ‘protagonists’ in Greek meant leading characters in a drama, and meant by extension proponents for, or advocates of, a cause. This excludes non-humans as well as many human beings, who may be concerned but are unable or unwilling to propose and advocate, or who are not recognized as having a voice, or who do not recognize themselves as having such a voice.


This point is not an essentialist one. On the contrary, I would claim that the primordial event in politics is the irruption of new voices, of game changing protagonists—obviously the voice of the working class yesterday, then that of feminists, today that of indigenous peoples. And others will follow, each coming with their own worlds and claims. But this ongoing process is still a partial one. Caring for those whose worlds we ignore while they enable ours to thrive (and even if they do not do so) is both a learning and a demanding affective experience. This is why what I called reason must be acknowledged as not-innocent, which does not mean guilty, rather needing to be haunted by the absence of the absent ones.


This, by the way, is the meaning of what I called Cosmopolitics—but maybe I would call it now Earthpolitics. It expressed the need for political deliberation to learn to proceed in the presence of those who are mute, or who present no argument which protagonists with a voice are able to take into account. For me, Cosmopolitics was echoing a plea quoted by Whitehead and which he attributed to the most improbable protagonist. Whitehead wrote: ‘Oliver Cromwell’s cry echoes down the ages: “My brethren by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink that you may be mistaken”’ (Science, 16). This plea indeed echoed down through me.


The Cromwellian possibility of being mistaken is not a cognitive one, it is not a matter of error or misjudgement. Cromwell was a Christian but the bowels of Christ which he invokes give no reason, produce no argument; Cromwell rather beseeches that they might disrupt the discursive power of argumentative reason.


I heard Cromwell’s cry as a call to slow down, that is to suspend the authority of our judgments, to allow our reasons to be contaminated by what they cannot define or articulate. I heard it as, maybe, Thom van Dooren hopes that he himself might be heard by the caretakers of the breeding program of captive Whooping Cranes, who sacrifice so many living cranes to the project of saving cranes as a species.


Adding reality, that of the voiceless ones, is indeed what Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, Anna Tsing or Lesley Green, to quote but a few, are doing. And reality in this case does not refer to something we can argue about, or argue for, promote or advocate as its spokespersons. The added reality is entangling. Its efficacy is tentacular, to use Donna Haraway’s term. It demands allowing oneself to be touched and be forced to think by the touching, facing the danger which goes with it, to be grasped and captured.


It is important here to avoid rather worn out, tiring oppositions, such as the abstract/concrete one. The authors I have just named are not proposing some concrete reality against an abstract definition. The albatrosses’ ongoing work tying one generation to the next is not the concrete truth behind the abstract definition of species. Both are equally, but differently, the outcome of a working imagination. Both are related to knowing practices.


Etymology may be precious from this point of view. In French, tâter, that is to palpate, to explore by touching, is kin to the English taste, to explore by the mouth. Also, I would signal the famous Horace’s word, ‘Aude sapere’. It has been taken by Kant as the Enlightenment motto, ‘Dare to know’, or ‘Dare to use your own understanding’, but it could also be translated as ‘dare to taste’, since sapere in Latin may refer to the practice of tasting.


Such a practice is vital. Taste matters. Learning to taste is learning to discriminate, a transversal capacity which we attribute without hesitation to animals. But it is a capacity which has an indeterminate relation with both reasons, or motivations, and causes. This is why French speaking people go on repeating that ‘des goûts et des couleurs on ne discute pas’—there is no accounting for taste. Also Plato opposed the craft of the cook who knows how to flatter the taste, and the rational knowledge of the physician who has access to the logos. Finally tastes and colours were related to secondary qualities, of which human subjectivity is responsible, as opposed to primary, objective ones.


Cosmopolitics or Earthpolitics or Bruno Latour’s call for us not to indulge in the debunking of matters of fact but add reality to them, all imply that such oppositions need to be questioned. However, if an addition may be envisaged, it should not be an addition in the usual sense, an addition of homogeneous quantities. Maybe it could be thought of as an operation of composition.


It is such a composition Cromwell cries for. He does not ask his brethren to recognize that their reasons are wrong, he asks them not to blindly trust them, to accept being touched by, or entangled with, other ways to address the situation they are confronting. He asks them to slow down, not to rush towards the conclusion justified by their reasons but to accept that their reasons do not define the situation—to accept the test of staying with the trouble, the need to think in the presence of a Christ who has no message, but silently suffers.


Slowing down and composition are connected. It may well be that I would never have imagined what I now call cosmopolitics if I had not participated in mixed gatherings associating Belgian natives and African migrants, gatherings which conformed to rules imported from Africa, and probably similar to what Spanish and Portuguese colonizers called, with some derision, ‘palavers’—long, slow, seemingly repetitive, exchange of words around a matter of common concern. My precarious trust in a future worth living cannot be dissociated from this experience and this is why I wish to briefly share it with you.


Gathering under palaver rules is not an exercise of democracy, with each participant being equally entitled to present and defend an opinion about the issue. Those who palaver are rather recognizing each other as knowing something about what I would call ‘the order of the world’, and are empowered to speak as such. Of course, if a gathering is needed it is because divergences exist about what, in this case, the order of the world demands. But the aim of the gathering is not to discuss the divergences. On the contrary the constraint is that nobody should display his or her disagreement with others or deny their legitimacy. As a result, arguments defending a position and discussing others have no place.


I tasted the efficacy of this constraint as it forced me to suspend my argumentative habits but not my thinking. It rather gave way to an experiential knowledge I did not know I could reach down to, while generating impersonal formulations, avoiding the use of ‘I’ or ‘you’. And I felt that the other European native participants were experiencing a similar transformation. Then, in the slow course of the thoughtful, seemingly repetitive, succession of versions of the situation, something strange happened, without anybody emphasizing it. It was as if the diverging versions were developing a mutual sensitivity, as if they were contaminating each other. Slowly, a kind of sensing together, or tasting together, was coming into existence, generating an agreement which belonged to no one.


Protecting and caring, in this case, is what is asked from all participants. It is the meaning of what entitles them to participate. ‘Knowing something about the order of the world’ means that they know that they are participating in a process of composition which must be protected from argumentative reasoning because the order of the world will not be enrolled as an arbiter. What is at stake is the way each relates with his or her own reasons. The point is not ‘changing one’s mind’. It is rather, in Donna Haraway’s words, allowing ‘contact zones’ to be generated between what initially was defined in mutually exclusive terms.


I have learned from this mode of gathering—which is probably close to the consensus technique fostered by some Direct Action activists—that in order to participate you do not at all need to believe there is an order of the world. You may consider the constraints which such an order entails as an artifice, but it does not affect its power to induce the tentacular generation of mutual sensitivity, of the double ability to touch and be touched, of the intensification of what Alfred North Whitehead called the ‘compulsion of composition’ (Modes, 119)


Obviously, the obtaining of such ‘sensing together’ offers no warrant. The cry of Cromwell still echoes. The obtained consensus may be mistaken, and the price to be paid may then be hard. But asking some enlightened expertise to produce warrants has not proved more reliable, to say the least. Further the point is not to exclude experts but to demand that they participate in the composition, that is, that they do not defend the soundness or rationality of their position, not even in a tolerant manner, listening to objections and taking into account some of them.


But most importantly, to the authority of experts corresponds the production of people waiting for the solution of problems which concern them to come from elsewhere. As such, it is liable to fester impotent humiliation and resentment against this expertise which ignores them. I felt the need to write these lines just after the electoral victory of Donald Trump. Rational arguments and the denunciation of obvious lies did not work. They have been defeated, or rather swept away, and wilfully so, by a large part of the voters. Rationality as a defence against irrational passions is inappropriate if it fosters what it is meant to subdue. As Berthold Brecht famously remarked, we often speak of the violence of the river, but never of the violence of the banks that confine it (‘Über die Gewalt’).


Tentacular affects as intensified by ritual constraints such as those of palavers, are not the ground for some miracle solution. In the ruins there will be no miracle solutions anyway, but troubles and matters of concern all the way down. I would rather say that that tentacular affects are the soil whose generative power we have to learn to cultivate, which we have to protect and to care for. As Maria Puig de la Bellacasa wrote, we have to grow the soil and grow with the soil as living communities—regenerating and growing contact zones which associate becoming with and becoming together (‘Making Time’; Matters).


The stories and experiences we need to weave for the next generations should certainly be about such regenerative processes. But they also should tell about the attention due to tentacular powers able to nourish but also to capture and devour.


I have learned from ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan that, for many indigenous peoples, the risk of dealing with transformative, metamorphic powers is obvious—‘you have to feed your gods, or else they will devour you’, he taught me. Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead would agree. After telling the importance of Plato’s proposition, in The Symposium, that ideas are the erotic power animating the human soul, Whitehead concludes that Plato should have written another companion dialogue, called The Furies, which would deal with the horrors lurking within an imperfect realization of ideas (Adventures, 148).


I remember a lecture where I spoke about the idea of a heroic, furious duty not to regress and about the power this idea holds over moderns.2 Taking animism seriously would then be something like a sin, being seduced into betraying this duty. After the lecture, Donna Haraway told the audience that, in order to understand me, they had to accept that for me ideas were not some cognitive contraption but critters, real critters. And she was right of course since it was the ideas which I encountered in Whitehead’s or Deleuze’s texts that had the transformative power to turn me into a philosopher. It is this power which I have learned to honor as real but also fearsome.


When did people begin dying or killing in the name of ideas? When did we begin to associate truth with what demands, and is verified by, an utter disregard towards consequences? When did we come to despise those artisans of peace who cleverly disarm causes that seem to ask for war, or to characterize as betrayers those who negotiate principles instead of honoring their unbending demands?


Such questions belong to what would be an Earthstory because ideas are earthly tentacular beings among others. They should not be critical questions denouncing the devouring power of ideas claiming the right to rule over reality. They should rather add reality to this power, the reality of a practical concern. The point indeed is to refrain from attributing such a power to ideas as detached or extracted from the milieu which entertains them. As any tentacular beings, ideas cannot be characterized independently of a milieu. Their power cannot be approached independently of the entanglements which their milieu enables.


I would wish that philosophers read and take seriously eco-activist David Abram, who, in his Spell of the Sensuous, relates the power of ideas to a milieu in which alphabetic literacy was in the process of enabling new questions. And primordially so, the ‘what is?’ questions with which Socrates challenged the citizens of Athens, demanding that they produce definitions of courage or justice, for instance, extracted from situations whereby they made sense till then. He demanded tasteless definitions, we may say, soil-free or off-ground, the power of which was fed by the disqualification of what they were extracted from as proliferating, valueless weeds.


A Chinese proverb tells that when the wise one points to the moon, the foolish one looks at the pointing finger. Thinking by the milieu, to use Gilles Deleuze’s formula, would lead us to question our own academic milieu, which has routinely turned this proverb into a great polemic about who is the fool and who is the wise. Do we have to accept that the pointing gesture is neutral, that ‘reality itself’ is responsible for the moon we see? Or should we rather concentrate our attention on the pointing finger as the one responsible for the way it defines the moon as a sensible reality?


When so-called objective matters of fact are concerned, it is certainly wise to look both at the finger and at the moon. But it might be still wiser to pay attention to the working of the academic master’s question: who, or what, is responsible? In our academic milieu this is the tool for extracting from its soil and dismembering any generative situation. It is the tool that smothers the cry of Cromwell—maybe we are mistaken. It seems to me that the academic milieu concurs on one thing only, denouncing as suspects those who try to say that maybe the situation deserved better than such a dismemberment into rival attributions of responsibility. No contact zone is allowed between rivals. Devouring ideas are jealous ones.


Today, if this milieu is to be regenerated, we have to trust that mutual sensitivity may be muted but cannot be destroyed, that, as Whitehead, claims, it is the first and last word of reality. But we need to reclaim what was effectively destroyed, the art of collective, tentacular thinking and imagining, as the milieu which our ideas require in order not to turn into furious powers. We need to practice together what I have learned from Donna Haraway, the figure of cat-cradling as a figure of composition through divergence, as well as what I have learned from Deborah Bird Rose, or Thom van Dooren, the craft of growing tentacular narratives inducing new compositions between thought and feeling.


I hope that my practice as an irreverent Belgian philosopher may be part of the practices which Donna Haraway gathers as SF. But SF must begin among us. We may well speculate about multi-specific alliances, but we have to think with and by our milieu, this milieu being the one which claims to teach coming generations how to think. Here, on the academic ground, our first task may well be to grow multi-academic alliances. And this requires trusting that contact zones may be created with those whose job is to define, learning with them the demanding art of thoughtful and situated tentative definitions.


Let us never say that we do not matter, that what really matters is elsewhere. We have to work where we are, regenerating and growing a devastated soil, growing with it as living communities. Enabling it to help sustain the fragile possibility of a future worth living. Without warrant but not without joy.




1. This paper was originally presented at the Ctrl-Z research symposium, geo- (the earth and the earth sciences in humanities inquiry), Curtin University, Perth, November 28-30, 2016. #back


2. The comment was made during discussion following the Sawyer Seminar on ‘The Challenge of Animism’. #back




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Ctrl-Z: New Media Philosophy

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