Panel 7: Feral Entanglements

Bridging human and non-human worlds through the co-creation of disease
Dr. Alison Dyke
Stockholm Environment Institute
University of York
With Trish O’Flynn (University of Reading), Hilary Geoghegan (University of Reading), Annemarieke De Bruin (Stockholm Environment Institute, University of York)

Robotic jellyfish blooms in Anthropocene oceans
Brian McCormack
PhD Candidate, Department of Humanities
York University Toronto

The bear in the thaw: Agency and entanglement in the Anthropocene
Liam Kennedy-Slaney
M.A. Candidate in Geography
University of Manitoba

Comments 7

  1. Dear all,
    I am looking forward to the panel! Will check out the presentations tomorrow and look forward to the online engagements!

  2. Dear all,
    I have listened to the three presentations, and they are all very interesting. As an opening question, I want to quote something that Liam states, namely that “Nature and society distinctions are ontologically impossible and analytically unproductive”. Based on recent literatures, this is becoming something of a hegemonic truism, but is also receiving more critique and push-back (See, for example, work by Malm, Hornborg, and others). I wonder whether all different presenters feel the same way, and why so exactly. Since analysis often works well by enlarging and emphasising distinctions between (perhaps ontologically entangled) entities, how and why would this be ‘unproductive’ and under what circumstances (all, some)?
    All the best,

    1. Hello Bram, Alison and Liam and thank you for the very interesting presentations and question!

      If I’m reading them correctly, Malm and Hornborg argue that the disruption of Earth systems by humans should not lead theorists to naturalize the idea that there is something about the human at the species level that can be identified as causing the Anthropocene. The “species level” argument would fail to take into account which humans and which practices are actually driving the crises. I agree that it is absolutely necessary to be able to analyze what Malm and Hornborg refer to as differentiated vulnerability. But doing away with strict human/nature dualism at an ontological level doesn’t prevent that; it can actually help expand our notions of vulnerability beyond the human. So I agree with Liam that human/nature or society/nature dualisms are ontologically impossible or at least unhelpful.

      As far as whether society/nature distinctions are analytically unproductive, I’m still in the process of trying to think about this via Barad’s work. For Barad, entanglement would not describe interactions between bounded, ontologically distinct humans on one hand and polar bears, oak trees or robotic jellyfish on the other. Rather, the relatedness (within what she calls phenomena) is itself ontologically prior to what may later get parsed in terms of categories like society and nature. We participate in (re)shaping phenomena, but not unilaterally, and never from outside them. From this point of view, wholesale distinctions between society and nature are too coarse-grained to address problems like differentiated vulnerability in any useful degree of complexity,


      1. Goodday Brian,

        First of all, thank you for submitting a fascinating paper about affect, ethics, and robotics. Thinking with your biomimicry case-study, how do you see open-source ethics/practices intensifying and/or resolving destructive anthropocentric economic practices?

        Turning to your response to Bram, when you say that “wholesale distinctions between society and nature are too coarse-grained” do you mean that analytical “productivity” is a question of scale? Or that these distinctions don’t generate new knowledge beyond classifying their constituent phenomena?


    2. Goodday Bram,
      Sorry for taking so long to respond to your comment. Thank you for zeroing-in on one of the bolder gestures I make in my paper. Certainly, it deserves some nuanced qualification. Afterall, what does I mean by “ontology?” And what is “analytical?”

      The spirited exchanges I have with my former colleagues from scientific wildlife management often come back to a question of what exactly is being managed. Many ecologists and biologists assert that they work on objects such as species and ecosystems for management, but I contend that programs such as the hunting quota or the conservation reserve target human and nonhuman relationships. My argument for this has found some theoretical grounding in the work of Mario Blaser or Eduardo Vivieros de Castro who posit that ontology arises from relationships. However, I concede that this thinking leaves two remainders: ontology becomes definitionally about entanglement; and it becomes almost impossible to imagine (or respect) a reality that might exist for the lives and entanglements in which humans have no part. I’m worried that my use of ontology is just a bid to make my research about or relevant to everything. I do not know how to conveniently resolve this.

      I’ll confess that a distinction between nature and society is indeed very productive: it produces boundaries that help make sense of whose lives should be valued; it produces a sense of historical trajectory between the natural past and the civilized future; and of course, it produces a convenient division of labour in places like geography departments and government bureaucracies. However, I want to start with the assumption that nature and society are themselves analytical terms. They describe fraught and complex processes rather than discrete objects. So their distinction is analytically unproductive because it ignores these contradictory internal dynamics. But more importantly, I think that analysis should dwell on the ways that the entanglement of nature and society is co-constituting. Brian’s statement makes this point, that it is only afterwards that reductive(/analytical) categories are applied. These distinctions may be helpful, but they conflate the objects of analysis with the methods of investigation.


  3. Excellent panel everyone, I really enjoyed all of your presentations and I think the focus on oak trees, jellyfish, and polar bears respectively mobilized some provocative contrasts, and also revealed some important common themes. Together they made for an interesting intervention in our thinking about non-humans and their situatedness in the world, as well thinking about the agency of non-humans and what even defines agency in the first place. The panel got me thinking a lot, and I just wanted to share my thoughts—there are some questions in here as well that are not quite as well-formed as they could be but I’m posting them anyway! Feel free to respond, or just read and ponder.

    Alison, I really enjoyed your way of encouraging us to think about trees (and the oak trees in Greenshire forest in particular) as less inert fixtures in the environment and more as situated beings in complex relationships with other beings, as well as geographies (local, global), histories, and cultures. You mentioned in your presentation that management of oak trees is a form of domestication, and domestication denies agency (in your quoting of Callicot (1995), I’m not entirely sure if you are agreeing with this statement or not? You do make an excellent point about how it’s hard to imagine oak trees as domesticated because they are not fully within human control. But I also wonder if anything can be said to be truly domesticated? I wonder if the idea of domestication itself is something far more complicated and nuanced than simply a process whereby humans bring non-humans under their full control. I’m thinking of Stephen Budiansky’s (in his book The Covenant of the Wild) take on domestication here, as something that was not done to non-humans but rather something certain non-humans participated in because it was beneficial for them as well to enter into this relationship. The fact that we can’t domesticate everything suggests that certain species simply aren’t interested in living with us. You talk about the way you can’t separate the oak tree from its multispecies entanglements, and I wonder about the oak tree’s participation or implication in these entanglements. Is there something about its species or its phylogenesis that makes it amenable to developing such relations? Feral managers “harness” the oak trees agency, but I wonder if the oak tree “enacts” its own agency prior to being harnessed by forestry managers? This may be a perverse question, but I’m curious nonetheless!

    Brian, I liked how you considered aesthetics and affect and their relationship to the ethical. Also, you talk about the ways in which digital technologies are mediating our relationships with non-humans, and specifically the effects that robotic jellyfish are having on our understandings of jellyfish and how we relate to them. I’m curious what you think about non-humans mediating our relationships with digital technologies and robotics, especially around innovation. In this particular case, the jellyfish has clearly inspired and acted as a catalyst for the technological and particularly, robotic imagination. I wonder if this form of biomimicry might be another site where intra-action is amplified: the ways in which non-humans are largely the starting point for the exploration and development of technological (and environmental) possibilities. Or do you think this instrumentalizes the jellyfish (as a source for inspiration for humans) and undermines the project of non-anthropocentric ethical relating?

    Liam, I think your presentation paired very nicely with Arian Wallach’s keynote on Feminist Ferals (they all did but yours especially). She talks about the ways in which conservation has its roots in chauvinism. As such it tends to take a paternalistic approach to engaging with non-human others, undermining their agency and freedom by overstating their passivity, their lack of resistance, and taking an almost fetishistic approach to itemizing their victimhood. You identify this in conservation logic as well with regards to the polar bear. There is something very unseemly (and as you show, ultimately unhelpful) about the ways in which we are so preoccupied with the endangerment and suffering of polar bears. I remember seeing that image of the starving polar bear last year quite vividly. This negative attention seems to further the notion that these are vulnerable and passive victims without any resistance to the forces acting upon them. It naturalizes their demise and makes it seem like it is inevitable. It’s so bizarre how much we seem to loathe resilient animals (like jellyfish!, rats, pigeons, and antibiotic resistant bacteria) and obsess over the ones we deem “helpless.” I really liked how your presentation focused on the ways in which polar bears refuse to be “helped” and in doing so we must acknowledge them as reactive and responsive agents, which is really necessary because the continued emphasis on their sufferings seems only to reaffirm and emphasize human power over them. At the same time this also encourages us to open up our understanding of what “agency” actually is, showing that the definition we currently operate with is very anthropocentric, limited, and ultimately damaging.

    1. Hi Sarah,

      Thanks for your comments and taking such an interesting perspective. I’m not agreeing with Callicot, but I think the quote illustrates domestication thinking quite well. If you deny that an organism has agency, it makes intervening in a way that disrupts the behaviour of that organism easier to justify. To consider domestication to be possible, a separation of nature and society based on agency seems necessary. I do think you are right that domestication can never be total, because agency will always be enacted. Maybe the issue is variability in how much force is needed to make an organism to behave in a way that is advantageous to humans? for organisms where there is mutual benefit, less ‘force’ is needed. The human aspect of domestication is so often violent. I talk about interspceices relationships of care between forest managers and trees, but that ‘care’ can take quite a violent form – uprooting and transplantation, removal of limbs… I’ll take your tip to view Arian Wallach’s keynote.

      It is interesting that you make the point that perhaps oaks have a predisposition to entanglement, being involved in so many interspecies relationships – I think you may be right, they don’t need humans as much as humans need them!

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