Ecologies of Practices and Thinking

2015

Introduction

How does a new materialist film practice look? To approach this question the practice-driven research investigates relations which intensify affinities and bonds with the other-than-human. It connects the matters of film with theoretical and philosophical propositions that challenge a human-focused rationale and explicitly acknowledge the doings of nonhumans. These propositions, often a patchwork of speculative onto-epistemological research methodologies, provide a different path into materiality and knowledge production. Aiming for dynamic social, political and ecological relations, their discussion reflects that procedures of othering do not only refer to class, ethnicity, gender or sexual preference, but also to material and thought.[1]

To gain an ecological conception of knowledge production, the research engages in human and other-than-human perceptions, sensations and interconnections without linking those capabilities to the direct benefit of humans. It disengages from procedures of representation and signification by focusing on processes, which enhance heterogeneity and suspend clear-cut divisions. Conceptual binary oppositions or barriers, such as human and nonhuman, as well as organic/inorganic, mind/matter, thought/practice, reflective/intuitive, knowledge/belief, living/dead, foreign/familiar, order/chaos and so forth, often nourish zonings and limitations. Classical philosophy, according to Jacques Derrida, defines meaning in terms of dualism, “a violent hierarchy”[2] where “[o]ne of the two terms governs the other.”[3] The epistemic legacies of binary oppositions were enforced by the rationale of colonialism and capitalism, defining what is human and what is not, what is productive and what is not, trapping any critique in those dichotomizing oppositions. As guardian of privileges, the dual-set hierarchy gave birth to many forms of exploitation and exclusion. Despite this, and of much greater importance, these powerful conceptual oppositions might not be mutually exclusive and much easier to traverse as they seem at first.

When explaining how to leave dualisms behind, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari refer to the writing of Virginia Woolf and her method of passing between, stating that “[t]he only way to get outside the dualisms is to be-between, to pass between, the intermezzo — that is what Virginia Woolf lived with all her energies, in all of her work, never ceasing to become.”[4] Bearing this in mind, the research neither discuses Self/Other mechanisms developed by anthropological, geographical, biological or historiographical sciences, nor their negative outcomes, since postcolonial studies, gender theory and critical ecology have analyzed many questionable theories of these disciplines. While appreciating critical investigations, the project does not focus on critique, but instead outlines processes and events that pass through oppositions, forming overlapping and uncertain individuations. Accordingly, the terms of ‘nonhuman,’ ‘other-than-human’ and ‘more-than-human’[5] in this text are not to be understood as part of an oppositional dichotomy, but shall signal a detachment from anthropocentric conceptions or interpellations — these terms may in fact coincide completely with ‘human.’

Further, the research is informed and formed by three films — companions, planted closely together in order to benefit from each other:

No, I am not a Toad, I am a Turtle!, 16 mm film, color and sound, 44 minutes 01 seconds, South Korea and China, 2012.

prendas — ngangas — enquisos — machines {each part welcomes the other without saying}, 16 mm film, color and sound, 25 minutes 58 seconds, Cuba, 2014.

Shape Shifting, 16 mm film, color and sound, 18 minutes 26 seconds, Japan, 2015. In collaboration with Mikhail Lylov. 

All films subsist and enrich the initial inquiry of how does a new materialist film practice look? One of the most significant responses is that the practice acknowledges the involved materialities, apparatuses and their agencies documenting and transforming the world in the same time. Film, as new materialist practice creates an awareness of the vitality of the so-called inanimate and its processes as an ecological, connective force. It relates to the nonhuman as an active participant, rather than a passive object of inquiry. This requires more than just mastering or observing the material processes, it requires active involvement in the mutations and becomings of matter from the practitioner. I have learned from the affective forces and expressive qualities of matter itself, how to take seriously the process of matter. Organic, inorganic, natural, artificial, and everything between, matter nurtures itself from the connections with its surroundings and searches for new encounters. Or said differently, matter exchanges matter by way of becoming other. Thus filming, turns into a process homologous to the construction of a crystal or a snowflake, capable of producing geometric configurations, or to a plant that is able to produce flowers by contracting matter in response and as an excitation for its surroundings. Like matter, the films emerge from their environments, from specific events, communities, encounters and practices. Practices that are equipped with unique aesthetic, linguistic, biological or material properties and modalities, where the detachment between human and nonhuman are less structured and the dichotomies of animate and inanimate are less strictly installed, where affective forces and abstract conceptualizations coincide. In case they are human practices, they share particular modes of acting on matter, plants and animals and in turn allow them to do the same, assigning nonhumans properties and powers, worth interconnecting with.

The research appears to prioritize the other-or-more-than-human and their practices. This impression probably stems from the fact that established procedures of knowledge production and other stories often have a propensity to highlight mainly human activities — they tend to make humans the main reference point for everything. In other words, they construct a (human) ‘subject.’ Anna Tsing analyses this in her forthcoming book as “not just ordinary human bias; [but] it is cultural agenda tied to dreams of progress through modernization,”[6] whereas an ecology of practices and thinking aspires to contribute to an inclusive and involved way of sensing and knowing. Created by very different “knowledge worlds”[7] as Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt puts it, a new materialist film practice, or research emerges from and intensifies collaborative interrelations and by this expands its possibilities of acting. In short, cooperating with other-than-human increases ones scope, or power of action.

To contribute to an ecological epistemology of entanglements, the research employs an animist methodology. This methodology makes a significant difference to conventional academic and disciplinary procedures, since the processes of matter are not observed but entangled and enfolded into the study. Moreover, as a performative and mobilizing inquiry it seems the most adequate procedure to grasp the rhythmic and animated movements of film itself.[8] An animist methodology explores styles of thinking and acting that recognize form-taking processes disconnected from the centrality of the human species and representation with its dualism and replaces them by a sense of bonding and belonging to a multiplicity of existences. It seems that only through an animist methodology one can sufficiently understand how more-than-humans, with their relational and affective engagements, cooperate in the becomings of art and knowledge production. The approach hopefully leads to a less twisted way of sensing and knowing, where animism, as a colonial European invention, is modified into a decolonizing methodology.[9]

Thus, the films and the writing strive to get familiarized with the heterogeneous visual and material transformations, they often unaware actively participate in — processes that pass through, embrace, construct and sustain human and not-so-human bodies, as well as organic and inorganic matter and everything in-between. Processes of transformation which can be best understood in terms of modes. I am referring to Gilles Deleuze’s reformulation of Baruch Spinoza’s work on modes as affections or expressions of attributes contained in substances. His understanding rejects the idea of a denominating recognizable ‘substance,’ which can be politically addressed, for example in racist or misogynous ways. In contrast, the ‘real’ in Deleuze’s work remains unknown, thus attributes and their modes are infinite and cannot be identified either.[10] Modes, like affects are shared by humans and nonhumans. Modes act and modify things in accordance with their specific capacities and forces. They might lack the coherent characteristics, distinct forms and purpose of scientific methods, but for this project modes are more suitable, since they are more common and prosaic while they allow the unexpected and surprising to happen. Methods demand respect, whereas modes are involving as well as expressing. Modes are descriptions and at the same time “unfoldings of what expresses itself.”[11] Modes are not only ontological, they can also be epistemological. According to Deleuze, ideas and knowledge, for example are “modes of Thoughts.”[12] Scientific objectivity and rational thinking have long been critiqued for their reductionism and inability to relate and to deal with environmental concerns — with modes one can neither create binary oppositions, nor an objective reality — they are neither rational nor irrational and persistently refer to the multiplicities of the world with their dynamic becomings.

To stimulate and to entertain dynamic interconnections with the environment is a decisive concern of the research and comes with the gravity of what Haraway calls “becoming worldly”[13] or “becoming with.”[14] Thus, the applied procedure for the study to comply with the complexities of the inquired processes, and at the same time change together with them can be best understood as modes of “becoming with.” “Becoming with” allows for various and heterogeneous ways of expression and knowledge production. As a mode of creative friction, torsion and deterritorialization, it draws from interspecies learning experiences, material forces and their form-taking and knowledge producing processes. It venerates unforeseen, intensive encounters and shaping relations with other bodies and their habits. Taking the collective inclusions of the other-or-more-than-human world seriously turns “becoming with” into a gay and pleasurable procedure. Knotted, or banded together in this manner it helps the study to circulate better, building passages and new kinds of geographies by way of interbreeding, by submerging and emerging somewhere else.

In order to adequately respond to the environments of the films and their situated histories, the writing employs long unwritten, orally transmitted farming practices, storytelling and applications of sorcery in Cuba, South Korea, China, Burkina Faso, Japan and elsewhere. It follows various epistemic communities and their diverse practices and thinking — all actual, that is lived modes of production. What links them is their concern with the increase of biologic, material, linguistic, and aesthetic heterogeneity. They connect the multiplicities that sustain world through which we are. Isabelle Stengers refers to applications that aim to enhance the production of interconnections to ones environment as “ecology of practices.”[15] While still using the biological terminology, she states that there is a “belonging to a species,”[16] which is not defined by biological classification, but by a sense of attachment to ones environment and since the practitioner doesn’t fully know the impacts of her actions on the environment it must be a tentative learning practice. She must act like an “interacting living species”[17] in order to create new connections within her surrounding and towards the outside. When exploring ecology of practices the underlying assumption is that it also has to be a practice of ecology, too — it has to create a bond of equality between thinking and being, between things and persons and their collective assemblages.[18] But Stengers warns, “[y]ou can’t mimic attachments, you can’t replace them with collaborationist good will.”[19] Attachments cannot be simulated, yet Stengers’ “ecology of practices” in itself demonstrates that one can learn attentiveness and create bondings together with the “agreement”[20] of the other-than-human entities. An “ecology of practices” includes all kinds of participation — natural as well as unnatural ones. Reopening Pandora’s box of witchcraft and animist ‘belief,’ Stengers questions scientific and technical ‘knowledge,’ exposing it as a glossy answer to any kind of phenomena. To be able to smell the smoke of the burned witches, is a matter of reactivation and “[t]o think practices is an attempt to situate ourselves, starting from the way in which practices were destroyed, poisoned, enslaved in our own history,”[21] she states. Her “ecology of practices” withdraws animism from being an anthropological category, without placing it on ‘the other side’ of science. In animism, Stengers clarifies, the question whether or not certain things really do exist is shifted to the investigation of their powers and capacities. Animism challenges other knowledges by actually arranging and achieving a “strange bonding”[22] with the other-or-more-than-human world.

Further important reference points for the research are specific concepts by Deleuze and Guattari described in the two volumes of Capitalism and Schizophrenia: Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. A Thousand Plateaus is one of the most convincing cartographies of advanced capitalism with its capacity to capture relations, movements and positive differences. Inspired by a wide range of nonacademic practices, A Thousand Plateaus injects fresh thinking into natural history, art, ethnography and psychoanalysis. There are similarly transversal approaches in their last book What is philosophy?, which at first sight, seems more constructive, endowing disciplines, such as art, philosophy or science with independence and autonomy. Furthermore the writing refers to theoretical propositions by Isabelle Stengers, Donna Haraway, Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt, Erin Manning and Brian Massumi, crossing similar lines of thoughts. Their diverse accounts and wide knowledge that positions the human equally amongst other beings and matter has affected, animated and sometimes even dramatized this research profoundly.

Equally important for this dissertation are the films of Danièle Huillet and Jean Marie Straub, specially the ones made between 1978 and 2001 in Italy, for example: Dalla nube alla resistenza (From the Cloud to Resistance, after Cesare Pavese, 1978), Fortini/Cani (after Franco Fortini, 1976), Trop tôt, trop tard (Too early, too late, after Friedrich Engels and Mahmoud Hussein, 1980) and Operai, contadini (Workers, Peasants, after Elio Vittorini, 2001). Huillet and Straub’s unique and complex approach to the matter of film, supplemented with strong historical vibrations empowered the research to concretely engage with the materiality film, as well as the encountered practices and their communities. Filming in actual locations, Huillet and Straub pronounce all components contributing to a film as equally important, be it the wind, air, light, text, people, birds, notebooks, snow, stars, petrol — ricotta making, and treat them as if they were inseparable. These films facilitate complex lyrical, archeological, geological, ethnographical and ecological encounters, which Jacques Rancière describes as a type of “peasant, or ecological communism.”[23] Their materialist film practice is based upon agreement and affirmation. It taught me how to break loose from codified ideas of nature and human, of representation and film language, and how to replace them with blocks of intensity, with an immediate awareness and direct approach to the materialities sustaining human processes.


[1] Some key contributions were made by Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), Modest_witness (1997), When Species Meet (2007), Rosi Braidotti, Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory (1994), Metamorphoses: Towards a Materialist Theory of Becoming (2001), Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt, Friction. An Ethnography of Global Connections (2005) Elizabeth Grosz, Chaos, Territory, Art (2008), becoming undone (2011), Manuel DeLanda, A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History (1997), Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (2006), Karen Barad, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning (2007), Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern (1993), Isabelle Stengers, Order out of Chaos (1985), Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (2010), Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, (2002), What Animals Teach Us about Politics (2014), Erin Manning & Brian Massumi, Thought in the Act (2014), Jussi Parikka, Insect Media (2010) The Anthrobscene (2014), Lynn Margulis, Acquiring Genomes (2002) Symbiotic Planet (1998).

[2] Jaques Derrida, Positions, (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), 41.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press, 1980), 277.

[5] D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensous: Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World (New York: Vintage, 1997).

[6] Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt, The Mushroom at the End of the World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015).

[7] Anna Tsing Lowenhaupt, “Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet,” (paper presented at the Anthropocene Conference, Santa Cruz, USA, May 8-10, 2014).

[8] The way I use the term relational here and throughout the text does not refer to Nicolas Bourriaud’s ‘ism’ of Relational Aesthetics.

[9] The practice of animism has long been locked up as a consequence of its colonial connotations but recently has been revisited, for example by Nurit Bird-David (1999, 2011), Philippe Descola (1992, 2013), Viveiros de Castro (1999, 2012), Anselm Franke (2010, 2012), Tim Ingold (2000), Maurizio Lazzarato and Angela Melitopoulos (2010), Isabelle Stengers (2010, 2013), Graham Harvey (2005, 2013) and others.

[10] Gilles Deleuze, Spinoza: Practical Philosophy (San Francisco: City Light Books,1988) and Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza (New York: Zone Books, 1990).

[11] Deleuze, Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, 16.

[12] Ibid., 14.

[13] Donna Haraway, When Species Meet (London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 41- 42.

[14] Ibid., 23-26.

[15] Isabelle Stengers, “Including nonhumans into political theory: Opening the Pandora Box?,” in Political Matter : Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life (Minneapolis–London: University of Minnesota Press, 2010), 25.

[16] Ibid., 26.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Assemblages, in Deleuze and Guattari’s reading, are multiplicities that exceed the power of each part, but nonetheless retain their distinctive difference.

[19] Isabelle Stengers, “History through the Middle: Between Macro and Mesopolitics,” Inflexions: A Journal for Research-Creation 3 (2009), http://www.senselab.ca/inflexions/volume_3/node_i3/stengers_en_inflexions_vol03.html

[20] Isabelle Stengers, “Actor-Networks and Cosmopolitics,” (paper presented at the Sawyer Seminar, University of California, Davis, May 20, 2013.

[21] Isabelle Stengers, “The Care of the Possible: Isabelle Stengers interviewed by Erik Bordeleau,” Scapegoat 1, 12. http://www.scapegoatjournal.org

[22] Stengers, “Actor-Networks and Cosmopolitics.”

[23] “Politics and Aesthetics in the Straubs’ Films,” https://mubi.com/notebook/posts/politics-and-aesthetics-in-the-straubs-films