Powerful Species

[comments for the 2015 AAA Roundtable: Force and Power in the Anthropocene: Muse Words,  by John Hartigan]

The Anthropocene posits a very powerful species, one whose presence has registered even on the densely slow scale of the Earth’s geology. But how singular is this species, and what does such a premise suggest about our capacity to think about species? These questions matter because the crisis named by the Anthropocene impels both an accounting of the global impact of our species but also an effort to break from the myopia of our species being—the monomania that makes us the motor for the sixth extinction. How can we analyze “beyond the human” in an age defined by the planetary scale of humans’ impact on everything? By beginning to transpose our key concepts, like power and force, across species lines.

Try it. Can a species be powerful, can it act with force? If humans are powerful enough to alter all life on the planet do other species have similar capacities? Perhaps on less grand a scale, but certainly yes. Consider two examples. In my hometown of Detroit, where the Industrial Age crested and broke, much of the city lies under dense mats of flora—much as with ancient Mayan cities, plant species have taken over former human abodes. If you want to imagine what the end of the Anthropocene might look like, Detroit is the place to start. Here is an image by Andrew Moore to consider: bindweed overgrowing an abandoned home.

bindweed house Andrew Moore Detroit

Any of its individual tendrils may be intent on “the struggle for existence,” but cumulatively and collectively they demonstrate the power to overcome the dominance humans once displayed in the epicenter of Fordism.

Now for another species, wild horses in Galicia, Spain; a tribe that is the focus of my current fieldwork. With these horses, I am asking how basic concepts like “face” might be applicable to understanding their sociality.

horses in Galicia

But horses also highlight how our species power is dependent upon harnessing our domesticates. To think the Anthropocene properly means recognizing that “we” are only possible through “them,” and together we make up 90% of the vertebrate biomass on the planet. Horses, then, highlight how transposable a concept like power is: our very notion for defining power in terms of work—horsepower. James Watt coined the term to compare the rate of work of his steam engine, which fueled industrialism, to that of a team of draft horses. As with many of key concepts—“hybrid,” which we get from botany, or the “roots” and “branches” of our computational imaginary—“power,” in a mechanical sense, is predicated on transposing the capacity of one species to exert sustained force to another. Power certainly operates in other species, as primatologists would quickly point out. They have a great deal of experience working such concepts across species lines, but this is a matter of scaling up from interactions between conspecifics to thinking of the species as a whole.

The challenges of scale are considerable, as species is a problem of scale. Across the phyla our answers will change, especially if we are considering social specie or not. The trick with such transpositions—as with a variety of challenges in the Anthropocene—is to deploy them without anthropomorphizing but also without redrawing the line of “uniqueness” around our species. We don’t need an entirely novel set of analytics to analyze nonhumans, but we also don’t want to use terms in a way that just reproduce projections of the human. So power and force should start to look and function differently. Does power entail both objects and subjects? Certainly objects, upon which it is applied, but maybe the notion of operating subjects is not useful. This works best by shearing these concepts off from some of their correlates, like “personhood” or “agency,” which rely upon anthropomorphisms.

But, “species,” too, has to be thought differently. For cultural anthropologists, they seem relegated either to the realm of representation (“good to think”) or to the domain of the natural sciences. Either principally in our heads or off in “nature” somewhere. This is a division we’ve faced with race for some time, so racial theory offers a great resource (and great caution) in making such transpositions, because the same question is asked of both races and species: “do they exist?” The best answer we’ve come up with for race is the concept of “racial formation”: temporary composites of meanings and their effects, a formulation predicated on the earlier concept of “social formation.” I’m trying out the transposition of “species formation,” which construes these life forms as assemblages, continuously in the process of reformation and reconstitution. Species formation is a means for transposing these analytics, and for not acceding to authority of natural scientists in their designation of species as ‘fixed’ objects. Species formations also assails the problematic “line” between human/nonhuman by attending to the alignment of one species with other in meaning-laden relations predicated on forms of sameness. Try it.

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