A lot of 20th century art transfigures what is low, rough and dirty, in other words, the passage from aura to “animality” and low materiality, and reintroduces within the work of art, that which art and civilization, according to Freud, has removed and transfigured: “animality”, bodily desire, low and “dirty” materials, the uncanny dimensions1. As if these “low materials” were hermetically sealed away in Tartarus together with the Titans, in an “elsewhere”, a bit like what we imagine when we flush waste down the toilet. But there is no “elsewhere” for all our waste poisons the Biosphere. Tartarus is the divinity that generated the Typhoon that risked destroying Olympus. And Olympus is our moment of crisis.
Every year the wealth produced in the world increases, every year the number of people who control this wealth decreases, and the number of animals and plants destroyed increases. As Darwin explained long ago, the human species co-evolves and co-functions together with other animal and plant species. Darwin had already established this inseparability and the cohabitation of the human being with the animal and plant worlds which share a common space – and a common set of material relationships and evolutionary laws: the biosphere. What effects one species, influences ours. And it is this sense of inseparability which informs the multimedia installation A Leaf-Shaped Animal Draws the Hand by Daniel Steegman Mangrané, organized at Hangar Bicocca in 2018.
The exhibition stages this codependence and the co-evolution between the human form and the plant and animal worlds. Geometric and abstract forms intertwine with animal and plant life – in particular, the artist elevates the “stick – insect” as a hybrid form between animal and plant life.
More recently, and with constant commitment, Timothy Morton and others discuss the idea that the concept of sustainability doesn’t actually serve us and that sustainability discourse is a product of major corporations concerned with strategic self-preservation in a time of great upheaval in the extraction of energy sources. And in support of what? “Green capitalism”, another side of capitalism “proper” whichdestroys the earth while its green version speculates on the disaster.
Certainly, capitalism isn’t the only cause. We could revisit a certain Western mentality born during the Scientific Revolution when nature, the “mother” and Gaia – that which overflows and loves to hide – that which envelopes - becomes more prosaically, something to calculate and measure, use and reproduce in a laboratory, transform and enslave, etcetera. But overall it isn’t possible to think of reform plans with the same polluters and developers profiting from the extractive logic applied even to the environmental crisis.
And overall, it’s true that animals also appropriate the planet. Animals take possession of the spaces in which they live, marking territory with urine and droppings. Property, writes Serres, is something dirty: in french, “propre” means both “property” and “clean”. Not to pollute means to stop thinking in terms of appropriation, possession, and property, ectectera.
Serres articulates the passage from marking territory with excrement and bodily fluids to the invasion or occupation of space through signals, images, sounds, brands and symbols; from animality to humanity. “Soft” forms of pollution, distinct from – but also always correlating to – hard, more brutal forms of pollution such as industrial poisons. In general, as Serres writes, pollution is a way of appropriating the planet, a consequence of the Baconian-Cartesian-Enlightenment dream of ruling over the earth, mastering nature and – submitting and bending natural forces to our interests and whims – only to find they are beyond our control.
Since Aristotle’s time, the west has separated plant life, animal life and the life of human beings and an influential thinker from Stagira, Heidegger confirmed this position in a famous university course from 1929-30: the stone is devoid of the world, the animal is poor in the world and man is its shaper2.
Man is the result of separations. Although there have been sensational exceptions like Spinoza, Darwin, Marx (especially in Grundrisse) or Benjamin, modernity never broke with this tradition inaugurated by the Greeks. The construction of modernity, as Bruno Latour observed for many years, is founded upon a hierarchical correlationism between culture and nature, subject and object, in which the second’s terms are always a theater of experiments of the first.
In comparison with Aristotle and Heidegger, Agamben - on a more radical and philosophical level - would remind Latour that man in general is always the result of a division and articulation of an animal-human continuum- and he would also agree with Merleau-Ponty that this great misunderstanding needs to be clarified.
But in some way, even the most radical analysis of Agamben is a confirmation of this great division at the origin of modern man, which Latour suggests could be remedied through the concept of the hybrid, and more generally, his “actor-network theory”.
Today philosophers who recognize themselves in “OOO theory” (Object-Oriented Ontology), such as Graham Harman and Timothy Morton, propose a “flat ontology”, similar in many ways to Latour’s theory, in which humans and non-humans exist at the same level. In this worldview, nature and culture, humanity and the animal world are no longer framed as distinct poles. Morton explained that separating human from nonhuman, culture and nature - the basis of which the Westerner has separated himself from those who are not Westerners - means establishing detestable forms of racism. For Morton, racism is also to separate man from animals, and man from plants. Racism is drawing a divide between “us” and “them”- we versus those who speak, dress, pray differently, etc., between us human beings and other animal and plant species.
The real objects that surround the human being and the real object that is the human being, the “other” that is different from me, isn’t ever reducible to the effects they produce or to the parts of which they are composed. They are more complex, impenetrable and unreachable even, no matter if man tends to take possession of them - to cut away the mysterious veil they possess. Man, animals, plants and all other “objects” of the Biosphere form the ontologically dynamic fabric Jane Bennet3 calls, vibrant matter.
Radical ecological thought and antagonistic practice could only evolve out of a critique of separation (man / woman, humanity / animality, socialization of production / privatization of profits, etc.).
By the time the 1980s arrived Donna Haraway had criticized a certain humanism based on an idea of the subject inaugurated by Descartes and modern science by proposing the concept of the cyborg - not to celebrate technology naively, but as a critique of the dualisms and divisions of western, phallocentric, male chauvinist culture, etc., between body and soul, human and animal, nature and culture, man and machine, etc. The cyborg is a hybrid that surpasses separations, in those years, Gilles Deleuze would speak of becoming-animal, becoming-machine, etc., all hybrid forms linked by the enhancement and feeling of life. It is to this co-belonging, to this overcoming of divisions, that is, of racism, to this co-belonging of human and nonhuman, humanity and animality that we should look to safeguard life of all kinds.
Timothy Morton has, on numerous occasions in his books, underlined the positivity of art in the ecological project. First, because, as he writes in The Ecological Thought, all art integrates the environment into its shape or form (for instance, a poem’s layout creates a milieu, with stanzas linked in multiple ways). More broadly, Morton establishes the ecological character of all art because all art is fundamentally made of materials which exist in the world. Secondly–and this point is particularly unexpected–art is essential to the ecological project due to its capacity to produce negative work (what Morton has theorized as the dark side of ecology, which takes into consideration the irony, the ugliness and the horror of all ecology)4. Finally, the importance of (the study of) art for ecological thought is signaled by its heuristic faculty, by its capacity to express a “real” which words are struggling to grasp.
The articles gathered in this issue of La Furia Umana tends to confirm this thesis: they aim to question the aesthetic means by which cinema strives to figure and fashion ecological phenomena into a more relevant image than landscape arts based on a more classical pictorial model can.
Shortly: ontology of our present. It means, at the same time, ecological and political approach. Art made by materials that exists was already a vocation promoted by Constructivism. Art is made by living labor, that is, as Toni Negri5 said, invention of singularity, new subjectivities, figures, objects, imagination that becomes action, invention and co-invention that circulates through the multitudo. This kind of living labor, artistic labor, has a metabolic relationship with the vibrant matter.
Stoffwechsel, Marx’s Grundrisse concept, is the key, the horizon, the praxis. Metabolic interaction between man and nature, man and technology, human and nonhuman. Criticism becomes a making kin, as Donna Haraway6 would say: mixing and generating connections between cinema, art, philosophy, ecology, politics...
(thanks to Sophie Lécole )
(Translated by Marian St. Laurent)
1 Cfr. Yve-Alain Bois – Rosalind Krauss, Formless. A User’s Guide (1997)
2 Cfr. Martin Heidegger, Fundamental Concepts of Metaphysics (1929-30, 1983)
3 Cfr. Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter. A Political Ecology of Things (2009)
4 Cfr. Timothy Morton, The Ecological Thought (2010)
5 Cfr. Toni Negri, Art et multitudo (2005)
6. Cfr. Donna Haraway, Staying with the Trouble - Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016)