Close Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘Gun Island’ (2019)

           My close reading, examines the chapter ‘High Water’ from Amitav Ghosh’s Gun Island (2019). In this chapter, Deen and Cinta are in Venice. They visit the gentrified Punta della Dogana (Customs House Point), which Cinta remembers was a ‘dilapidated old place’[1] when she was a child. It has become ‘like every other building in the city…an art gallery.’[2] Cinta’s memory emphasizes not only an economic pattern built on culture, but furthermore, that the memory of Venice is emphasized through various aesthetic forms.

          Inside the gallery, Cinta and Deen encounter an interactive artwork, positioned ‘at the far end of the gallery’[3], galvanizing Cinta’s memory, and in addition, establishing her cultural affiliation with her hometown Venice. The artwork is titled ‘Il mostro di Punta della Dogana – The Monster of Customs House Point.’[4] The monster, Cinta explains is a centuries long legend, with sightings being reported up until the 1930s. Cinta believes it to be a giant squid, and the composition of the artwork references this, with its ‘long tentacle-like forms.’[5]

          I will read the events and meaning of the chapter in alignment with Timothy Morton’s ideas, namely ‘interobjectivity,’ and its inclusion in the function and meaning of the ‘hyperobject.’ In addition, I want to connect this with Ghosh’s own thoughts on the role of nonhumans in Gun Island and by extension, the current ecological and political problems caused by climate breakdown, which Ghosh expounds on in The Great Derangement (2016). To do this, I will include Donna J. Haraway’s ideas on ‘Terrapolis’ and the ‘Chthulucene’, which I will show are synonymous with Morton’s ideas, as they attempt to realize ecological awareness and the role of nonhumans. Morton, Haraway & Ghosh, share political, ecological and ontological concerns, and their ideas inform and collaborate fluidly with each other.

          The conversation between Deen and Cinta, and the legend expressed throughout, are intersubjective moments of Venice’s history. However, the denouement of the chapter, urges us to expand the scope to what Timothy Morton calls ‘interobjectivity.’ Morton explains that ‘form is memory’, therefore, ‘there is no difference between causality and aesthetic appearance.’[6] It is easy to connect the causal and aesthetic in this chapter: the ‘aesthetic’ is the legend itself, causally influenced by Venice’s history. The resulting artworks and galleries, are aesthetic results of the form of memory. The interobjective telling of history is literary in form, which spills into an object, an artwork representing and referencing the legendary monster.

          Connecting Morton’s ‘hyperobject’ offers depth: ‘Hyperobjects provide great examples of interobjectivity—namely, the way in which nothing is ever experienced directly, but only as mediated through other entities in some shared sensual space.’ The hyperobject, put very simply ‘refer[s] to things that are massively distributed in time and space relative to humans.’[7] Venice itself is an interobjective assemblage, a hyperobject. We cannot see Venice in its entirety, because that entirety is inaccessible. This does not make Venice any less a thing because it is an inaccessible entirety, or entity. In the same way, we do not encounter the actual il mostro, nor the reports of people throughout history, through the artwork in the gallery; nor do we actually relive Cinta’s childhood because she can remember the dilapidated customs house. This does not make them any less real as what they are. They are summaries, aestheticized, very much objects in their own right that encounter other objects to construct history, which is the hyperobject. Histories are an assemblage of anecdote, legend, report, construction, destruction, material, thinking, acting, and encountering. Or what Morton calls ‘footprints of hyperobjects’:

    These footprints are signs of causality, and of here is both subjective and objective genitive. Causality and the aesthetic, the realm of signs and significance and sensation, are one and the same. Hyperobjects are so big that they compel us toward this counterintuitive view. Interobjectivity eliminates the difference between cause and sign.[8] 

Aligning the ‘subjective and objective genitive’ can be accomplished because interobjectivity, includes nonhumans in its impressions, in its footsteps of causality and aesthetics. Moreover, intersubjectivity—interactions between conscious beings—is not disentangled from interobjectivity. The difference is, that in an interobjective ecology, nonhumans and humans interact, as well as, importantly, nonhumans and nonsentient beings. Interactions aren’t reserved for humans with humans. This is suggestive throughout Ghosh’s Gun Island.

          What else is a city, or a person’s life, other than the interconnection of things? Ghosh understands this markedly, especially as we know that he is familiar with the hyperobject, telling us so in The Great Derangement: ‘We have entered, as Timothy Morton says, the age of hyperobjects, which are defined in part by their stickiness.’[9] This ‘stickiness’ is synonymous with Morton’s ‘viscosity’: ‘Hyperobjects are here, right here in my social and experiential space.’[10] This propinquity of hyperobjects is the reason they cannot be seen in their entirety, as Morton explains, ‘there is nothing to “get back to,” since the problem is not that things are truly distant, but that they are in our face—they are our faces.’[11] If we replace ‘face’ with ‘city’ we connect this propinquity to the habitation of people in the hyperobject ‘city’. Furthermore, human encounters with nonhumans, causally collaborate to produce aesthetic legends inside a hyperobject, spilling though the mesh-like structure of the hyperobject into ecological and political consideration. Things come out the woodwork literally and figuratively, in doing so, they reveal the ecological breakdown taking place. This is how Gun Island functions as a warning.

          I want to return to Il mostro. The ‘tentacle-like form’ is redolent of Donna J. Haraway’s ‘tentacular ones’ entangled with fiction, essential if we want to ‘tell the story of the Chthulucene.’[12] The Chthulucene is Haraway’s replacement term for the Anthropocene. Anthropocene doesn’t seem to be reactionary enough to the necessary presence of nonhumans and how, neither humans nor nonhumans, as Haraway emphatically explains, ‘nothing is connected to everything; everything is connected to something.’[13] ‘The chthonic ones’, live in the Chthulucene, chosen for its Greek etymology, meaning ‘of, in, or, under the earth and seas.’[14] These are the il mostro of Gun Island, which live in the memory of the people and city, devour the wooden infrastructure of Venice, as well as the inside of trees in the mountains of Oregon.[15]  

          Haraway’s Chthulucene is realized within a fictional space, called Terrapolis. Etymologically, she combines terra, or earth, with polis, the city. Terrapolis encourages an intimate space to exist between humans and nonhumans, between earth and city. The opportunity to distance each other, through habitation in radically different ecologies, is dissembled and reassembled as an inevitable, shared ecology. Gun Island could be read as an example of the aesthetic space, the poiesis of Terrapolis. The novel is a poietic world, designed to express multi-species interconnection, as is Terrapolis. Haraway explains:

    Terrapolis is a fictional integral equation, a speculative fabulation. Terrapolis is n-dimensional niche space for multi-species becoming-with. Terrapolis is open, worldly, indeterminate, and polytemporal. Terrapolis is a chimera of materials, languages, histories.[16] 

By ‘speculative fabulation’ I take Haraway to mean a fiction that confounds expectations by fusing the everyday and familiar, with the fantastical, mythic and nightmarish. Ghosh’s Gun Island is a speculative fabulation.  

          Ghosh constructs a novel, where legends emerge into something observable by the characters. Cinta and Deen, after the gallery, go in search of the monster out at the Fondamente Nove, where her uncle Ruggiero would go to catch squid and cuttlefish. Fondamente Nove, the narrator explains, ‘remains to this day one of the least frequented parts of the city.’[17] This peripheral space, is ideal for the emergence of creatures. The artwork Il mostro di Punta della Dogana, was also located in a peripheral space. The monster, the tentacular one they search for, mutates, into the chthonic ones. Cinta tells Deen, ‘I will show you a different kind of monster, much more dangerous.’[18] Cinta asks Deen to shine his cellphone’s flashlight on the piling, which functions similarly to Cinta’s uncle’s lantern, which he ‘hung over the water…so the creatures would come floating up to the light, needing only to be scooped up with a net.’[19] The darkness of the pier is a permeable boundary of dramatic tension, between expectation and the emergence into the light of a destructive ‘dangerous’ or ‘chthonic’ creature, which can only be captured with the use of a tool, the flashlight. Ghosh articulates the monster’s emergence as follows:

    Turning my own flashlight beam on the piling I saw that the surface of the indentation was pitted with holes, like the inside of a book that has been attacked by termites. Then suddenly Irealized that there was something alive inside the piling, not just one but many; they were wriggling, moving.[20]

The metaphor at work here, of the book attacked by termites, expands the event, through the agency of the aesthetic. The book is devoured, perhaps even the one we are reading, as are the pilings, and Venice.  Nonhumans in aggregation and collaboration with each other, are unleashed on the world of the reader.  For this to work, the city must be a thing, a hyperobject, ‘becoming-with’ (in Haraway’s phrasing) other objects, to form ecologies: ‘Ontologically heterogeneous partners become who and what they are in relational material-semiotic worlding. Natures, cultures, subjects, and objects do not preexist their intertwined worldings.’[21] There is no alterity of things, but instead, recognition of multispecies agency to affect ‘worldings’, synonymous with ecologies, except ‘worldings’ include the activities of nonhumans. The book becomes an ecological vehicle to show us ecological problems. It mimics, or rather it re-presents a world with the purpose of revealing a problem. In the process it becomes a habitat and ultimately open to being destroyed.

          Cinta explains that the creature she pries out of the piling, which is part of a pier, which is part of the infrastructure of the city itself, is ‘a ship worm’ which ‘are invading Venice, with the warming of the lagoon’s water. They eat up the wood from the inside in huge quantities. It has become a big problem because Venice is built on wooden pilings. They are literally eating the foundations of the city.’ The damage the ship worms are causing, becomes an event which happens to Deen and Cinta. This event is one of the causal ‘footprints of hyperobjects’, which are never the directly encountered hyperobject itself, but an interobjective encounter. Ghosh, in this event, is drawing our attention to an ecological problem, a problem caused by global warming. The warming of the lagoons, is an effect, non-local to Venice. The workers of Bangladeshi origin who we encounter in Part II Venice, are refugees from a place profoundly impacted by global warming. Their presence marks the continuity of global warming from one location, to another. The impacts differ aesthetically, however the cause is the same: global warming. The hyperobject as we know, forbids us from discerning the totality, we are able to witness only temporal manifestations, at various scales. Ghosh gives us imminent access, via the resulting collapse of the pier, to the impact of a process, which global warming causes to humans and nonhumans. Tacit in this local manifestation is the implication that this is a broader ecological problem. Nonhumans are the agents, acting discreetly, until they rupture the fluidity of the human, everyday. This is what Ghosh suggests, in a more simplified form when he says: ‘Who can forget those moments when something that seems inanimate turns out to be vitally, even dangerously alive?’[22] Returning to this, Ghosh later states this is, ‘one of the uncanniest effects of the Anthropocene, this renewed awareness of the elements of agency and consciousness that humans share with many other beings, and even perhaps the planet itself.’[23]    

          The word ‘uncanny’ is used by Morton, when he talks about the conjunction of human and nonhumans: ‘We are made of nonhuman and nonsentient and nonliving entities. It’s not a cozy situation: it’s a spooky, uncanny situation…We find ourselves in…the uncanny valley.’[24]

Just as Cinta and Deen, slip on the swarming worms into the rising lagoon, sinking literally and figuratively into the ramifications of interobjective encounters within the hyperobject. Morton, regarding the space of the uncanny valley, explains: ‘Everything in your world starts to slip [my italics] into the uncanny valley, whose sides are infinite and slick.’[25] The hyperobject enables us to ‘slip’ between scales, moving from the zoomed-out ecological scale of climate-disruption processes, to telescoping into singular events, such as Cinta and Deen slipping into the lagoon, or the migration of displaced people. 

          The Bangladeshi migrant Bilal, one of those displaced by climate change in the novel, witnesses in part this temporal event of global warming, which is connected to the cause of his being there. Bilal is squatting in an abandoned building on the Fondamente Nove and comes to Deen and Cinta’s rescue. There is something uncanny about this. The happenstance of Bilal’s immiseration, which places him at the right place, at the right time, is indicative of the interobjective, viscous properties of the hyperobject to bring humans and nonhumans into alignment. In this alignment we can trace heterogeneous events and objects through the hyperobject.

          What Ghosh may be suggesting, is a challenge to the notion that nonhumans can’t have or create worlds. The ship worm’s habitat inside the wood of the pier, is an ecology, within the ecology of the book, which exists because it replicates a reality aesthetically, to show a reality to itself. This is because, as Morton tells us, ‘Worlds are perforated and permeable, which is why we can share them.’[26] The concept of a world is not singularly reserved for the human inhabited world. Morton explains further that, ‘human worlds are no different in value from nonhuman ones, and also that non-sentient nonhuman lifeforms (as far as we know) and non-life (and also by implication the non-sentient and non-living parts of humans) also have worlds.’[27] In this way humans form what Morton calls ‘solidarity’[28], even and especially between the host and the parasite. The host and parasite may change, but solidarity remains. Between the city pier and the ship worm, a world emerges, a world which shatters the human world. Regardless of negative impacts, it is still a form of solidarity.

          Ghosh, in The Great Derangement asks: ‘What is the place of the nonhuman in the modern novel?’[29] He answers that question here in this event in Gun Island. By extension, as the novel exists outside itself, within a hyperobject, it also asks the question to the reader, now part of it, ‘what is the place of the nonhuman in the Anthropocene?’ Its place cannot be assigned to it. It will take its place according to its own agency, in part, or so it will seem. Because as we have established, the hyperobject forbids us from seeing the entirety. So it will evade us, and it will be the continuing task of the ecologically aware author, to show us some aspect of it, or at least how to access methods for seeing aspects of it.


Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019)

Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016)

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016)

Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects : Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

[1] Amitav Ghosh, Gun Island (Great Britain: John Murray, 2019), p. 245

[2] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 245

[3] Ibid., p. 245

[4] Ibid., p. 246

[5] Ibid., p. 246

[6] Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects :Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), p. 91

[7] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 1

[8] Ibid., p. 88

[9] Amitav Ghosh, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2016), p. 62

[10] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 27

[11] Ibid., 28

[12] Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chtulucene (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016), p.31

[13] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, p. 31

[14] Ibid., p. 53

[15] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 119

[16] Ibid., p. 11

[17] Ghosh, Gun Island, p. 247

[18] Ibid., 250

[19] Ibid., 247

[20] Ibid., 250

[21] Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, pp. 32-33

[22] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 3

[23] Ibid., p. 63

[24] Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 130

[25] Ibid., pp. 131-132

[26] Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017), p. 14

[27] Morton, Humankind, p. 14

[28] Ibid., p. 14

[29] Ghosh, The Great Derangement, p. 66


I was browsing through the 30 or so poems I wrote—& agonized over the quality of—on my return to England & this one feels cogent to the circumstances we currently find ourselves groaning under. I have been writing about access to futures through the lens of queer theory and ecology. They share a common problem: both are concerned with closing a certain gap. This is the gap between the inside and the outside, or here and there. This manifests as alterity in queer theory. In ecology, as the erroneous perception that there is an ‘away’. Both these errors contribute to unstable futures. Because we fail to address difference we fail to be properly ecological, that is, properly understanding the symbiotic relationship we have with environments & the things that populate them sentient or not.

There is an ecological strata, a material turn in the matter of the poem. This was the nascent turn toward the object in my poems, which came at a time I was flooding (after a long absence) myself with theory. I think that comes through, in a necessarily aesthetic way…this is poetry after all. But I think it shows that theory functions in an aesthetic form. I appreciate that an appraisal of aestheticized theory is perhaps a heavily subjective niche. Nonetheless, as I find theory aesthetically pleasing, I may as well gaff about with it, as the ontological ruminations it produces are interesting if a little opaque. That’s poetry all over, right?


‘Save us! Save us! Betray us.’
The lithium in our batteries sucked through its carbon cap,
the light turned on us lanced.
Making transparency with bone; too unreal to butter us
up with soft entrailed work of the word-a-day-world.
We have glow-sticks instead of fireflies.
Cans of meat in gravy, breakfast in a can.
‘Save us! Save…Betrayal us.’
The bus moored, train, stranded. Little by little.
Damn our water. England too ancient to last out
the courage of an angry climate: one long whip of a gale;
one long yawn of the weather, once more than infrastructure can stomach.
Fold up & hope the tetrapods hold.
The church in armbands, submarines reach it.
The weather is no respecter of traditions.
The weather, no admirer of culture.
The climate emerges evil, scapegoat, pest
we can’t live with, nor live without;
like oxygen, radical, free, everywhere—poison.
Colossi beard cloudy horizons, speaking, loud speaking.
I don’t want to see them,—there flooding peripherals, beached & glum
ready to hold sad talks with allegories of themselves.
We will not get to have our say, there’ll be no anagogic fluid
in which we’ll set[tle] the score of sinew & cell.

A Brief Introduction to Object Oriented Ontology & Speculative Realism: The How of What

Object Oriented Ontology (OOO) challenges commonly held considerations towards what objects are and how they (inter)act in the world. Ecology, science, economics, art, architecture, and programming are core disciplines OOO utilizes. In OOO we encounter objects not only in rendered, physical, tactile modes, but in addition, processual, agentive & eventful modes. Human, a priori encounters with things, are radically altered when objects obtain equality, and hierarchies dismantled. My definition of ‘mode’ here, is taken from Jane Bennett: ‘What it means to be a “mode,” then, is to form alliances and enter assemblages: it is to mod(e)ify and be modified by others. The process of modification is not under the control of any one mode – no mode is an agent in the hierarchical sense.’[1] The polemic of whether things exist independent of the human mind (realism), or because of the human mind (idealism), resulted in the latter being firmly established in Western philosophy. OOO modifies this special ontological status of humans, encouraging a radical reorientation of all ontological statuses.

           This introduction condenses the dialogue between OOO thinkers Graham Harman, Timothy Morton, and Jane Bennett; as well as two thinkers from the Speculative Realism Movement, Manuel DeLanda and Tristan Garcia, and in addition, thing theorist Bill Brown. These thinkers are readily conversant, informing each other’s ontological ideas. They are often found in the bibliographies of each other’s books.

          How assemblages emerge out of various scales, from the microcosmic to the encountered reality of the everyday, is central to OOO. It is through assemblages that most of these thinkers express the importance of things in themselves, and further, how ecologies are composed by and compose themselves with assemblies of things. Objects and their processual ontologies, give things fungible properties, interchangeable within an assemblage. An atom, like qualia, moves between different things, yet things remain themselves.    

          OOO begins with Harman’s Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (2002). Harman’s reading of Heidegger, encourages him ‘to develop a ruthless inquiry into the structure of objects themselves.’[2] Harman’s ideas are a continuation of Heidegger’s discoveries into how objects are encountered in the world. I think it important to briefly outline Heidegger’s ontology.

          For Heidegger, objects are in one of two states, either they are ready-to-hand, which means they retreat into their function; or they are present-at-hand, which means they no longer function and no longer functioning, appear to us. Objects then, either function or are broken. Harman agrees there is no direct contact between things: ‘Reality is always radically different from our formulation of it, and is never something we encounter directly in the flesh, we must approach it indirectly. This withdrawal or withholding of properties from direct access is a central precept of OOO.’[3]  Timothy Morton talks more about this ‘central precept’, which

    Extends this irreducible darkness from subject-object relationships to object-object relationships. Objects encounter each other as operationally closed systems that can only (mis)translate one another. Causation is thus vicarious in some sense, never direct. An object is profoundly “withdrawn”—we can never see the whole of it, and nothing else can either.[4

Tristan Garcia interprets this ‘closed system’ similarly, but obtains access to the thing:

Being enters into a loop wherein being is not projected in itself, but cast outside itself. In our model, an arrow points inside to a circle – a thing – and then from this circle a second arrow points outside. Being comes inside a thing and being goes outside it. A thing is nothing other than the difference between being-inside and being-outside.[5]

Garcia allows ‘being’ to perforate ‘things’, so that it may oscillate between the outside and inside, of things. This access to the thing by being, is an attempt to access Harman’s ‘closed system’.

          Aesthetics, the arts and literature, are Harman’s methods (somewhat influenced by phenomenological speculations) for attempting to access the withdrawn (sensual) qualities of the real object. This is because they are not forms of knowledge, but rather, indirect means of expression. Harman uses metaphor as an example.[6] The terms ‘sensual qualities’ and ‘real object’ refer to Harman’s Quadruple Object,[7] which diagrammatically illustrates the tensions between objects.          

           Because ‘philosophy is not the handmaid of materialism’[8] Harman challenges what he calls ‘undermining’ in philosophy, which is the down-scaling of a thing to constituent parts, such as atoms or molecules. Because these scales are inaccessible to perception, they are discounted by Harman. He also dismisses ‘overmining’, which up-scales impact to anthropocentric influences alone. This resembles idealism, which problematically denies ‘any excess or surplus beyond such impact.’[9] The human holds the monopoly on meaning. This is especially problematic when it comes to nonhumans, considered in OOO to be integral and integrated into ecologies. Both ‘undermining’ and ‘overmining’ fail to render the potentialities of a thing or nonhuman, because they can’t express the tension between objects and qualities, which things and nonhumans react to.

          While Harman finds an effective means to access things through aesthetics and art, DeLanda’s access comes from materialism and science. Harman quotes DeLanda’s criticism of him in Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (2018): ‘I am not sure why Harman wants to stick to objects. I do not deny that objects exist…it is just that a full realist ontology must possess objects and events, with a process being a series of events.’[10]

          DeLanda has no problem with the withdrawn, indirectness of the thing, as things are assemblages. DeLanda’s influence is Deleuze & Guattari, who write about assemblages in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1988), explaining that, ‘an assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines.’[11]

          DeLanda finds assemblages penetrate everywhere, like the rhizome. It is not a containing principle, where parts play a secondary role to the primary assemblage, but rather an encompassing principle without the need for subordination of the secondary to the primary; there need be no primary-secondary relationship whatsoever. Because DeLanda is ‘conceiving of the components of an assemblage as themselves assemblages.’[12] His conception of the thing is energized, oscillating multiple temporal and spatial scales, because included in the potential of a thing is an inherent processual ontology. What we see here is,

    A view of reality in which assemblages are everywhere, multiplying in every direction, some more viscous and changing at slower speeds, some more fluid and impermanent, coming into being almost as fast as they disappear. And at the limit, at the critical threshold when the diagrams of assemblages reach escape velocity, we find the grand cosmic assemblage, the plane of immanence, consistency, or exteriority.[13]

The reality of a thing is a consequence of a ‘material [and] energetic substratum’[14], which is precisely what Harman challenges in his criticism of ‘undermining’ in philosophy. DeLanda, by positing that a thing must have material and energetic properties, implements the atomic and molecular scale of matter as evidence of these properties in the emergence of assemblages by assemblages. The essential difference between Harman and DeLanda is that the latter thinks philosophy a form of knowledge, so theorizes in a scientific mode; whereas the former thinks philosophy part of aesthetics, not knowledge. 

          DeLanda has to explain how something can be both singular and multiple, both heterogeneous and homogeneous. He explains that ‘all assemblages are unique historical individuals.’[15] ‘Individual’ is synonymous with person, but DeLanda assures us ‘this is just a quirk of ordinary language.’[16] For DeLanda,

    As an ontological category the term ‘individual’ has no preference for any one particular level of scale. It is perfectly possible to speak of individual communities, individual organizations,individual cities. Similarly, we can, without invoking any undesirable connotations, speak of individual atoms, individual molecules, individual cells, and individual organs. [17]

          This ‘level of scale’ is important for constructing a realist ontology of assemblage theory, as what fills the scale is perforated and permeable. Everything accesses everything else in an assemblage.

          DeLanda, unlike Harman accepts reality as a consequence of an energetic substratum. Jane Bennett’s conception of assemblages is similar to DeLanda’s, Bennett is also influenced by Deleuze and Guattari. Bennett explains: ‘Assemblages are ad hoc groupings of diverse elements, of vibrant materials of all sorts. Assemblages are living, throbbing confederations that are able to function despite the persistent presence of energies that confound them from within.’[18] In Bennett’s work, elements of Harman and DeLanda fuse together. Bennett is more emphatic than DeLanda about things. Things for Bennett are ‘vibrant’, this registers aesthetically. Harman would call them ‘sensual qualities.’ Where Bennett closely connects with DeLanda is in the energetic ‘substratum’, which ‘confound[s]’ things. Harman is keen to maintain the ‘autonomy’ of things ‘despite their interrelations.’[19] Harman’s response, ‘is that OOO means ‘object’ in an unusually wide sense: an object is anything that cannot be entirely reduced either to the components of which it is made or to the effects that it has on other things.’[20]

          The assemblage is a mereological matter. Morton brings this into consideration with his challenge to the popular maxim, ‘the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts’. For Morton, this makes little sense if the whole is itself a thing. Therefore, Morton reorients the maxim to ‘the whole is always less than the sum of its parts’,[21] so that any primary containing principle is reinstituted according to the interconnections of things/parts. Depending on the scale of the ontological system, depends on how parts are conceptualized into wholes. If assemblages are assembled with assemblages, the relationship of the part to the whole is more complex than a mere whole containing everything, with its holistic connotations.

           ‘Flat ontology’ was first used by DeLanda.[22] However, Tristan Garcia’s extensive study of things in Form and Object: A Treatise on Things (2014), offers a more rendered treatment. I want now to connect flat ontologies to assemblages.

            Garcia’s mereological [formal study of parts and wholes] ruminations begin with a criticism of division and what he calls an ‘epidemic of things.’[23] There is an ethic at work here, applicable to ecology and politics, which both Morton and Bennett concern themselves with. Garcia explains, in a tone not dissimilar to Harman that, ‘No preference is given here to any one special kind of thing, since each kind is neither better nor worse than another kind. Real things do not matter to us here. Real things matter to us— and, for this reason, other kinds of things as well.’ [24] With this in mind, the rhetorical strategy of listing things, with seemingly different ontologies— all exercised by Morton, Bennett, Harman and Garcia— makes sense as an aesthetic exercise in flattening ontologies. It illustrates things are invariable in value. So lemons, sine waves, theodolites, cats and WiFi belong side by side, equally. Or to take Garcia’s list: ‘A human person is no more and no better something than a duck, a pebble, a dust particle, a chair, a word, or the sky.’[25] This is a rudimentary way of depicting a flat ontology. Assemblages similarly, align things. Take DeLanda’s human-horse-bow assemblage[26], which illustrates how parts are used to create an assemblage, while remaining assemblages themselves. A flat ontology unlike the assemblage is purposefully, maybe even radically aesthetic, because any thing can appear alongside another thing. Whereas the assemblage illustrates more familiar orders.  

          Flattening ontologies may provide a response to Bill Brown’s query: ‘how does the effort to rethink things become an effort to reinstitute society?’[27] Taken from his essay ‘Thing Theory’ (2001). Exercising flat ontologies enables the dismantling of hierarchies instituted into society and politics. Garcia calls this ‘no-matter-what.’[28] Garcia outlines this as:

    Quite simply the plane of equality of what is real, possible, non-existent, past, impossible true, false, or bad. It doesn’t matter. It concerns the possibility of being either real or possible,  or real and possible, or neither real nor possible, either constructed or given, either natural or  artificial, or natural and artificial, either true or illusory, of not being all of these at once, but  of equally being able to come under (or not) one of these determinations, any determination.[29]

          A reinstitution of society according to these principles of inclusion, including everything from the processual to the nonhuman and human, fundamentally modifies hierarchies. Ontologically, hierarchies restructure the importance of one thing over another. This is detrimental to a healthy ecology. Therefore, Bennett and Garcia agree that ‘reification’ or ‘anthropomorphization’ if they lead to radically dissembling hierarchies between humans and nonhumans, aren’t necessarily ‘the reduction of our world to a world of things…not an evil, the dehumanization, desensitization, or disenchantment of the world, but the precondition of a human understanding of the difference between things.’[30]

Rather than ‘desensitization’ we may take Bennett’s cue that ‘it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp.’[31] Bennett’s term risks seeming anthropocentric, however, I interpret her usage as a means of turning the anthropic in on itself.

What emerges from a familiarity with OOO and speculative realism is a radical reorientation of the degrees of agency that objects have in an assemblage. Note that assemblages are everything, everywhere and do not conform to a particular measurement or set of limits. What this means for us is, a familiar world filled with familiar things, suddenly becomes populated with beings, things that have affectivity. Things can affect each other and us. Nothing is inert in reality. A simple object has a bundle of reactive properties with us and likewise with other objects, differing sometimes in degree and sometimes in kind. This does not mean that objects can articulate dissatisfaction and rebel against us, though sometimes they may fail to work inexplicably or do odd things we don’t expect. What it finally means for objects is that they are included into the world as the world: there is nothing in the world if not things. Just as we come into the world, so do objects. The influences they have are—regardless of the common objection that ‘we put them there and can remove them’—pronounced and do explain how asymmetries occur: we always want control. If someone has access to a thing which makes them powerful, it is owing to the existence of that thing itself, and the manipulative impulses it effects in the owner, which is a major contributing factor to an asymmetry of power acting on the person. Nothing is to blame, we must still hold those in power to account, however, the thing’s affectivity tells a rich history of how the powerful individual came to access the thing’s potential. Or consider a map, a person and territory. Without the territory there is no reason for the map to exist, nor a place for the person to exist. The attempt to co-ordinate a person through a terrain demands a map. Therefore the existence of a map is indicative of not only important terrain, but also a person navigating that terrain. This is the inception of a place of importance and what follows is civilization: more things. Therefore the relationship of man to terrain creates the encounter between map and territory. This is called the material turn and it encourages us to pay attention to the way we encounter and interact with things and what follows from those encounters. Now, as a little exercise, pick up a thing and tell it what it does for you.


Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009)

Bruno Latour, ‘From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik or How to Make Things Public’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009)

Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2019)

Graham Harman, Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (UK & USA: Pelican Books, 2018)

Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (United States of America: Open Court, 2002)

Igor Kopytoff, ‘The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process’, in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. by Arjun Appadurai (UK: Cambridge University Press, 2008)

Isabelle Stengers, ‘Including the Nonhumans in Political Theory: Opening Pandora’s Box?’, in Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life, ed. by Bruce Braun and Sarah J. Whatmore (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)

Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010)

Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 3rd edn. (UK & USA: Bloomsbury, 2005)

Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (UK & USA: Zero Books, 2009)

Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (UK & US: Pelican Books, 2018)

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People (London & New York: Verso Books, 2017)

Timothy Morton, Hyperobjects :Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)

Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE

Tristan Garcia. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. by Mark Allan Ohm & Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014)

[1] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: a political ecology of things (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010), p. 22

[2] Graham Harman, Tool-Being: Heidegger and the Metaphysics of Objects (United States of America: Open Court, 2002), p. 15

[3] Graham Harman, Object Oriented Ontology: A New Theory of Everything (UK & USA: Pelican Books, 2018), p. 7

[4] Timothy Morton, ‘Here Comes Everything: The Promise of Object-Oriented Ontology.’ Qui Parle: Critical Humanities and Social Sciences, 19.2 (2011), p. 163-190. Project MUSE p. 165

[5] Tristan Garcia. Form and Object: A Treatise on Things, trans. by Mark Allan Ohm & Jon Cogburn (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 11

[6] See, Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, pp. 66-73, for a full discussion of metaphor. Harman dedicates all of chapter 2 to aesthetics.

[7] Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, p.160

[8] Ibid., p. 40

[9] Ibid., p. 49

[10] Ibid., p. 41

[11] Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. by Brian Massumi (London & New York: Bloomsbury, 2019), p. 7

[12] Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2016), p. 6

[13] DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, p. 7

[14] Ibid., p. 139

[15] Ibid., 140

[16] Ibid., 140

[17] Ibid., p. 140

[18] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matte, pp. 23-24

[19] Harman, Object Oriented Ontology, p. 41

[20] Ibid., p. 43

[21] Timothy Morton, Being Ecological (UK & US: Pelican Books, 2018), p. 92

[22] Manuel DeLanda, Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy, 3rd edn. (UK & USA: Bloomsbury, 2005), p. 51

[23] Garcia. Form and Object,  p. 1

[24] Ibid., p. 4.

[25] Ibid., p. 29

[26] DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, pp. 68-83

[27] Bill Brown, ‘Thing Theory’, in The Object Reader, ed. by Fiona Candlin and Raiford Guins (USA & Canada: Routledge, 2009), p. 143

[28] Garcia, Form and Object, p. 30

[29] Garcia, Form and Object, p. 30

[30] Ibid., p. 29

[31] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. 122

[32] Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative? (UK & USA: Zero Books, 2009), p. 54

Actor Rosie Race

My friend Rosie is an actor in Devon. Due to the coronavirus lock-down, Rosie’s first solo show Cycle, written & performed by Rosie & due to be performed at the Theatre Royal Plymouth two days ago, was unfortunately cancelled. I can’t imagine how it must feel to work & plan something two years in the making, only to have such unforeseeable circumstances put a stop to so much hard work & dedication. Rosie’s show, interestingly, is about isolation & the desire for intimacy, exacting subject matter considering our current lockeddown-circumstances. To compensate for this cancellation (ultimately only a delay), Rosie has set up a Youtube channel, on which videos will be uploaded of Rosie’s improv & maybe even some scenes from Cycle, which will be filmed under the social distancing measures, in Rosie’s home by Rosie. So if you’d kindly lend a hand by subscribing, liking & commenting, you’d be providing a small kindness in what is a precarious time for creatives, who already struggle to eke out a livelihood from their talents. Now go watch some acting & be supportive of all the creative types you know, because how dull would sitting at home be without people freely sharing their creative endeavours?

Crown of Air

This poem should be read as the poetic companion piece to my essay Covid-19: Agent of Change, which I posted last week. I haven’t wrote a new poem for ages. I expect on finishing my MA I will write poetry enthusiastically, I still think in it at least, I just don’t stop, as I inveterately did before my MA, to jot down what abracadabras from a visual: idea: implausibility: discombobulation: event… I really hope everyone is coping under these peculiar, trying circumstances. I recently spoke with the poet Tim Miller, who mentioned in his email that writers & poets were feeling a sense of guilt about writing under Covid-circumstances. I agree with him that now, as much as any other time, is a ripe time to be writing. This whole episode needs documenting in as interdisciplinary a form as possible. Let’s make a hyperobject of our response to these hyperobject-circumstances.

Crown of Air
Like photons hurtled unabated from the crown of the sky
this virus shaped like blotches of rain
on glass, or lotus breaking soft filmed ponds,
perforating our bodies, finding entrances, ailing us.
Our response-ability reliant on health. It comes from the air.
The wind we hasp to in the sweep of leaves.
The habitude of touch, our propinquities each day,
clobbered into reflection: the peck on the cheek;
the temperature of a hug scaled back
like the pollutants casually, business-as-usual,
which clamber the arms of photons concatenate to godhead
—smutting the ceiling of the sky with conveniences.
Spaces have been locked-down. We are in uncanny territory.
We will find out why we laugh when we do
& why we cry & are fearful, when we are.
We have plenty to think about…
We must not grow, in this drawn out,
fragment-unfurling-history, too far from one another.
We can call each other’s names from our windows & desks. 
The rhizomal virus, even while it parts us,
creates an interlocking-care, of love incalculable.
We are vowels in a diphthong, you & I.
I want to see you in real time. I want to lie
on your floor, with warm in my skin & bones.
I want your smile, your fleshy lips, your love...eyes!
I want time itself to feel love & sunlight.
History will be kind, torqued in our anecdotes.
There is nothing to dissemble us, no
roborant sickness to steady away copula of heart
& heart, one person, their neighbor, a stranger
: love is a virus too.    

Covid-19: Agent of Change

Peering through a lens at the fluid, substratum scale Covid-19 moves through, I can’t help note their physical body’s semblance to World War 2 naval mines, drifting in swells of ocean current. But Covid-19 doesn’t drift, it has agency. It isn’t conscious, doesn’t think, but it does have agency to perform one function: propagate. In our ship of skin we collide with them as much as they collide with us. At the scale of the pathogen there is a whole geography traipsed. They move through valleys of matter, alongside other agents regulating that landscape. The inhabited landscape of both these microscopic agents, is our body. We are their ecology. Their world is the corporeal bulk of muscle & fluids our personality inhabits, which we sense the world with. The same corporeal bulk we kiss, hug, interact, encounter & share being-in-the-world with., to borrow Heidegger’s terminology.

As Tim Morton explains, ‘the problem is not that things are truly distant, but that they are in our face—they are our face.’ (Morton, Hyperobjects, p. 28) Because I am their world, they become my world. This is what a symbiotic relationship is. Symbiosis is not only between us & the bacteria regulating their ecology (our body) so we can love, watch TV, learn, & profit exponentially from apperception (our awareness we are aware). As discomfiting as it is, we are in a symbiotic relationship with Covid-19: our actions caused it to build an ecology. We get the word ‘ecology’ from the Greek word oikos meaning ‘home’, & logos, which means ‘study’. Ecology at different magnitudes are being altered & created. The emergence of Covid-19 is radically altering our ecology as we enabled Covid-19 the pluck & courage to sow seeds & plow on the fertile valleys of our pulmonary apparatus.

Since the virus stopped us being productive in our world, in our constructed societies, the world of biotic variety reemerges. Pollution clears, making way for cleaner skies, which birds return to. Waterways clarify & marine life returns. The world, which in tandem with our constructed world, actually props up our wellbeing, convalesces. I am avoiding using the word ‘natural’ because I don’t agree with it. I prefer the idea of worlding, borrowed from Heidegger & more profitable I find when talking about ecological assemblages. You cannot work in tandem with organic agents such as plants, trees, animals, & the technological innovations required to cultivate them responsibly, if you decide to think of a return to nature as the better option than cooperation with all things. When I say this I mean it literally. You have to cooperate with a tool, animal, person, tomato.

The transformations, while small are noticeable. This is because we are currently witnessing what a less harmfully productive world does for the world of nonhumans: flora & fauna, skies, bodies of water. ‘Ecological awareness is coexisting, in thought and practice, with the ghostly host of nonhumans.’ (Morton, Humankind, p. 63) Business-as-usual, taking objects for granted & failing to acknowledge the precipitation of calamity because we want cheap holidays, cheap clothing & lots of meat—because we can’t help ourselves commodifying everything—seriously needs addressing in the context of this pandemic.

The compensation for this knowledge is unfortunate. Our habits of proximity have been radically & very quickly challenged. We pause before embracing each other, pecking each other on the cheek, shaking hands, receiving an object. We are accustomed to doing this without a second thought, even on love’s worst ugly day. But for now we have become the same poles of a magnet. But feeling repelled isn’t, broadly speaking, our reaction. We may be quarantined in isolation, but we aren’t lonely, only viscerally starved. We are pining for one another’s physical presence. We cannot live without each other. This is why people in Italy came out onto their balconies. This is why the decision to close bars & restaurants is such a difficult one. We are glad in these unique times, for digital space, where we can connect. Covid-19 cannot breed in the Wi-Fi; in cabling & code the biological cannot propagate.

The errors of our neoliberal economic system could be radically altered because of this habitual change to the circumstances with which we encounter each other. We are realizing the world we have made, encounter & interact with, relies entirely on our capacity to be in close proximity to one another. It furthermore, requires us to be in safe proximity to animals. Animals we use for nutrition. We know the habit of eating animal based products is problematic. It produces an industry that staunches any appetite by nonhumans to diversify outside of the worlds we create: things die off because we choose something else to exist in their place, for our use. The cattle we farm-to-fork are detrimental to diversity. Eutrophication, caused by defecating/micturating cows, starves rivers of oxygen, kills off fish & plant life, making these bodies of water no better than sewage. Irresponsible actions connect directly, through degrees of separation, to something that is happening, somewhere. We have to steer away from any belief that there is an ‘away’. When we begin to see & realize how disparate phenomena interlock, we also begin to see & realize the necessity of eradicating methods & behaviour that cause harmful repercussions.

Reality is perforated at various scales by different agents. Covid-19 perforates our microbiome, as does food, which must be farmed, which effects ecology, not only local ecology, but global ecology, which effects temperature, cleanliness, & diversity.  The scale at which the thing exists physically, doesn’t let it off the hook from being effected. Assemblages of various sizes exist within other assemblages. We have to see reality as a rhizome. This is how Deleuze & Guattari perceive reality:

An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions in a rhizome, such as those found in a structure, tree, or root. There are only lines. (Deleuze & Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, p. 7)

We all know this… Don’t we? Action/reaction, that’s a thing. Between us & the doing of anything is a thing made of other things, or process being proceeded upon by some thing else. It’s matter-of-fact, but we don’t have the habit of seeing something where we usually put a gap. Now throw poverty in the mix & action/reaction is very different. Throw poverty in the mix: informal settlements, informal markets, there you have breeding grounds for trouble, or what Rob Nixon calls ‘slow violence’. A problem that has always been there, but materializes after fomenting for decades, exacerbated by uncommon, unanticipated pressures. This is what we are seeing happen after 4 decades of Neoliberalism. What I mean by ‘informal’ is the existence of slums or poor districts & their markets, DIY, fringe economies produced out of desperation (this is what Mike Davis talks about at length in his book Planet of Slums). You may say informal economies/ecologies have always been around. Yes, but not in a world where there are multiple people with multiple billions of dollars/pounds to easily fix this problem. This is not a holier-than-thou situation. It is a taking-responsibility situation. The west cannot point the blame to an ambivalent, ever changing there; to China or wherever the next pandemic materializes. By its own admission the west must realize its avarice is a contributing factor to poverty, to the struggle to make ends meet, which is what the existence of informal settlements & markets means. We created capitalism & neoliberalism, they did not emerge from nature. They are ideologies of the west, which persuaded other countries to adopt them. The teleology of history isn’t neoliberalism. It shouldn’t be ‘easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.’ (Mark Fisher, Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative, 2009)

Action/reaction is a feature & function of connection into the mycorrhizal structure of reality at every intersection of encounter. What is interesting is that, for Deleuze & Guattari,

A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determination, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature (the laws of combination therefore increase in number as the multiplicity grows). (A Thousand Plateaus, p.7)

It is important to note that the stratification or superimposition of multiplicities in multiplicities, breaks down the dichotomy of subjects looking out on objects to manipulate them irresponsibly. The relationship isn’t dependent on who has hegemony, but rather on the process of multiplication itself. Process is the name of the game. When it is we must have, to borrow Donna J. Haraway’s term ‘response-ability’ (Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, p. 16) It is precisely this structure, which rigidly materializes in us as habit, that makes the ‘changing in nature’ so jarring. Habits are very difficult to break. But I attribute this to us being unfamiliar with factors that are now becoming more pressing: how do we exist in such close proximity to invisible things?

Reading Svetlana Alexievitch’s book Chernobyl Prayer, the parallels, while certainly differing in many respects, do share similarities: contagion & with it a new habit of proximity, an invisible enemy, a feeling of being at war in peacetime, a workforce that must struggle on regardless. The undetected enemy makes the switch to a new habit of proximity, difficult. We know why, but we can’t see the why that is presenting us with the challenge to our habits. It becomes an ontological problem, a problem of what is being. We can only take precautions, we cannot stand fast in the face of a fearsome but ultimately, approaching & thus revealed enemy. The people with coronavirus are faced with ostracism, as those from Chernobyl remain, referred to as ‘Chernobyl-people’. This defines them, rather than a cultural or national identity. Contagion quickly eradicates the common boundaries we accept & redraws boundaries around those who are contagious, & those who can be made contagious. To think there is anything inter se is erroneous. There just isn’t. When the proximity of that which affects you with contagion is either in another body or so close to your body it is your body, then how can there be anything but the fact of being a receptacle to contagion? If your neighbour is infected, so are you. The ‘between’ is a vector, another agent. It must be understood if only so we can see what it is & think about it.

I have been thinking about being human for over a decade, & with it all the interdisciplinary subjects that have assembled over that time, in order to think more accurately about everything. I have much to learn still & it will never end. But in all this time, after all these insights & books, I have never thought there’d be a moment in lived history, where things might radically change after an event. This pandemic must open our eyes to the interlocking vectors of events & systems in our ecology, which lead to problems such as the one we face. We have no reason to assume this is the last large scale problem we will face globally.

These problems, rely on us being fully invested in a capitalist system, which is cruel & vulnerable, because it relies on us being well enough to prop it up. If we’re unwell it crumbles. No social role in the assemblage of capitalism, as we are witnessing, is worthless or less than any other. Society is the rhizome & failures mean compensations; compensations which we are not in the habit of doing. Wouldn’t it be better if we lived the compensations? Foresaw them in full prophetic mode, which really means, not assuming they can’t happen, & taking greater precaution beforehand. Basically, if we stop wanting futile, useless stuff & are finally bright with each other, we’ll evade what Theodore Roethke states as ‘the immense immeasurable emptiness of things’ (Theodore Roethke, They Sing, They Sing). That ‘emptiness’ must be filled by an imperative, indelible requirement to be in close proximity to each other. Ultimately, only our affection & love for one another makes life worth living.

A Critical Inquiry into the Natural/Unnatural Tensions of Manipulative Technologies

(This is arguably too long for a blog post, but I wrote it in Word & it was honestly just easier due to time constraints to dump it in one, especially owing to the footnotes. I think the ideas in here, if a little dense, are worth bearing with & attempting to absorb. I have probably shot myself in the foot putting it all here. Hope it generates some good discussion).

   Life emerges from combinations of ingredients. Evolution is processual, perpetuated by natural agents in tension and cooperation. Humanity is complex, as far as problem solving animals go. If nature faces problems, we face problems. In this essay, I will explore the axiological judgements dividing what is natural, from the unnatural. Anything we create is synthesized with a raw element from nature. Yet we erroneously assume something synthetic or fake, despite being synthesized by a naturally emergent intelligence, with organic bodies, reliant upon natural agents to propagate food, shelter, meaning, and culture. Our relationship to nature continues to change. We are beginning to discover the plasticity of organisms, for example mosquitos, which become resistant to insecticides. If there is to be continuity to our progress, we must consider the ability to technologize our ecologies and bodies, both cogent factors in our evolution. The natural world has been deeply affected by human interference. Rapid advancement in technology has blurred the delineations between the corporeal & synthetic; nature, how we relate to it as something beyond us, is being challenged technologically in the sciences, and wrestled with theoretically in the post-humanities.

    The implementation of technologies is ethically mitigated publically and politically by ascribed values. These ethical evaluations are debated in the media, based upon preconceptions of what interference we should have over ecologies and our own bodies. Recently, in China, a scientist called He Jiankui, has been jailed for using CRISPR Cas9 to recode the DNA in the embryo of twin sisters.[1] My interest is not only in such ethical conundrums, but moreover, in whether there is any substance to separating ourselves from what nature is and does. Gregory Bateson tells us, ‘we are rapidly, of course, destroying all the natural systems in the world, the balanced natural systems. We simply make them unbalanced—but still natural.’[2] We are forgetting this, which I think is detrimental to our capacities to make earth and ourselves stable, ontologically and ecologically. Humanity and nature are never independent from each other.

    Two technological extremities tend to be stained with the criticism ‘unnatural’: CRISPR Cas9 gene editing and nanotechnology. These technologies manipulate subterranean levels of reality with precision instruments. Concealed manipulation, is potentially, the source of concern for critics: we fear what we cannot see and do not understand.

    How we assemble networks into ecologies, and implement technologies in these ecologies; moreover, how we improve ourselves, overhauls our perception of what nature is and our propinquity to it. Especially when we realize our structural systems, providing us with energy, food and shelter, cannot be replaced by a powerful, inviolable nature we have no influence over. We are our environment. Regardless of whether we are able to manipulate subterranean levels of reality, we remain undeniably natural beings, indistinct from nature. Everything is composed of the same foundational things: atoms, genes and DNA. Manipulating them is not necessarily unnatural, if anything, it is the opposite. What I am submitting is that when we manipulate something we are nature manipulating itself. Evolution is self-correction, this I understand is theoretically problematic as Sylvia Wynter outlines[3], but nonetheless may be cogent for realizing how entangled we are with nature.

    As the authors of the Nuffield Council of Bioethics analysis explain: ‘Ideas about nature can incorporate notions of wisdom, purity, sanctity, balance and harmony. The natural can also be perceived as involving power, danger, chaos and disorder.’[4] Nature gives and takes. We are comfortable manipulating ‘nature’ for the benefits of agricultural efficiency, environmental living spaces, and pleasure, but manipulation in the form of nanotechnology and CRISPR Cas9, which can replace what is lost, or fix what threatens, stirs an ethical maelstrom. Much of this stems from the prevailing episteme, which has not caught up to rapid alterations in, critical theory, race[5], technology, identity and gender, ecology, ontology and philosophy.

    Opinions on whether something is natural or unnatural, in public and political polemics, are assigned axiological values.[6] Something is good or bad, real or fake. The reality is more complex than value judged discrepancies, can satisfactorily assess. They are informed by precursory knowledge still catching up to current ontological and ecological dilemmas. Axiological considerations, applied critically to the dangers of technologies like gene editing are cogent and need to be addressed to avert monocultures and a monohumanist[7] teleology. The ramifications are demarcated by Jurgen Habermas in The Future of Human Nature (2003). Habermas begins with identity, isolating the individual-I, explaining:

    What ought I, or what ought we, to do? But the “ought” has a different sense once we are no   longer asking about rights and duties that everyone ascribes to one another from an inclusive we-perspective, but instead are concerned with our own life from the first person perspective and ask what is best “for me” or “for us” in the long run…Such ethical questions regarding our own weal and woe arise in the context of a particular life history or a unique form of life. They are wedded to questions of identity: how we should understand ourselves, who we are and want to be. Obviously there is no answer to such questions that would be independent of the given context and thus would bind all persons in the same way.[8]

     The individual curates an identity in tension with prevailing and precursory effects, which shape different cultures in different ways. Our individual ethics cannot be assumed to be that of all people. The ‘what is best for me’ is easier to reconcile than ‘what is best for us.’ Who decides for us? At what point does technology, attempting to perfect us, for profit, to (use Wynter’s term) dysselect demographics or entire cultures, turning our differences against us? Habermas cautions:

    The depoliticization of the mass of the population and the decline of the public realm as a  political institution are components of a system of domination that tends to exclude practical questions from public discussion. The bureaucratized exercise of power has its counterpart in a public realm confined to spectacles and acclamation. This takes care of the approval of the mediatized population.[9]

    Domination is emotionally informed, as in jingoism. Yet, ironically, depoliticized (jingoistic) media consumers do not critically engage complex topics, they only passively encounter them. If people are to be informed about the beneficences (and ethical dangers) of manipulative technologies, then more than the occurrence of their happening must be communicated. Systemic alterations to the schooling system to inform people acutely are required.

    Habermas, discussing eugenics and gene editing, explains, the ‘extension of control of our “inner” nature is distinguished from similar expansions of our scope of options by the fact that it “changes the overall structure of our moral experience.”’[10] This ‘extension of control’ is ‘what is so unsettling’ because of ‘the fact that the dividing line between the nature we are and the organic equipment we give ourselves is being blurred.’[11] Suggestive here is manipulation of our ‘organic equipment’ which would be to use a technology to improve a minority, selected by privilege and economic advantage.

    The word cyborg is made up of cybernetics[12] and organism. Donna J. Haraway uses the cyborg as a liminal being, to exemplify a genderless hybrid of machine and organism. For Haraway the cyborg is utopian, ‘we are cyborgs. The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics.’[13] Haraway realizes,

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher reality. In a sense, the cyborg has no origin story in the Western sense – a ‘final’ irony since the cyborg is also the awful apocalyptic telos of the ‘West’s’ escalating dominations of abstract individuation, an ultimate self untied at last from all dependency, a man in space.[14]

     Haraway’s cyborg solves Wynter’s problem of Man’s overrepresentation (see footnote 15), it is also an opportunity for a fresh narrative. I acknowledge becoming a cyborg differs from eugenics, however, it remains a technological enhancement (Haraway implements theoretically), which Haraway suggests as a means to a better future, whereas Habermas warns us pragmatically when he explains:

    Eugenics interventions aiming at enhancement reduce ethical freedom insofar as they tie down the person concerned to rejected, but irreversible intentions of third parties, barring him from the spontaneous self-perception of being the undivided author of his own life. [15]

    Habermas and Wynter share the same concerns: that the ‘over-representation of Man’[16] informs ‘what is best for us’. Wynter advocates human as narrator, a homo narrans[17], which is not dissimilar to Habermas’s ‘undivided author.’  The ramifications of Wynter and Habermas’s ideas, reorient humanity away from what is tacit in Darwin’s natural selection: we compete rather than cooperate. Evolution (The First and Second Event) are not to be conflated with humanity as it exists in the Third Event, because of our unique properties to tell stories. In this Third Event, we become homo narrans; in tandem with this term, we are also, as Keekok Lee (using a Marxian term) refers to us, homo faber:

    In other words, the concept of homo faber in defining “species being” or human essence  embodies two interrelated themes which give in turn the key notion of the humanization of nature, these are: (a) that humans realize themselves through fabrication, that is, through imposing their ends and values on nature via their labor and their tools/technology; (b) that nature itself is bereft of being, of value, until humans work upon such a blank canvas to endow it with being and with value.[18]

    This is to repeat Heidegger: ‘Technology is a human activity.’[19] Lee formulates tacitly, a cogent argument for the replacement of nature using nanotechnology. Homo sapiens are justifiably homo faber[20], as they are the technology using animal. Values cause dichotomies, which are a hurdle to ameliorating ecological and economic imbalances, damaged by extant technologies. There is an argument tacit in Lee, for technological optimism being an option for achieving stable ecologies. What is, is already here, keeping society running. Technological pessimism and rescinding to ‘natural’ systems, is an impossibility: our society is too complexly populated for nature alone to maintain.

    Lee devises a meticulous taxonomy of ‘The Natural: Different Senses of ‘Nature’[21] in order to outline discrepancies between our perceptions of the natural, and the particularities of natural processes. Lee outlines that, ‘extant technology has been perceived to have had an adverse impact on the environment’ which ‘nature has evolved no known solvents for.’[22] The ecological impact of things already in existence are a factor we must confront.  Lee summarizes our predicament and a solution, as follows:

    The threat amounts to its [nature’s] elimination, both ontologically and empirically, via the science and technology of our modern civilization, especially when its most recent technologies—bio-technology and computer technology—will combine with certain others promised in the near future, such as molecular nanotechnology, to produce powerful synergistic effects in profound transformation of the natural to become the artefactual.[23]

    Extant technologies are ‘iatrogenic’[24], but ‘from a historical perspective, the present predicament is a mere hiccup in the long march forward to progress.’[25] Lee’s concern is that if technology becomes the answer to our ecological quandaries, it becomes artefactual. As an artefact, it is a designed, immutable thing; it cannot improvise, working only for our sake. But this isn’t so dissimilar from natural things anyway, except, as technologies belonging to us, we could maintain them effectively. For example, if we created swarms of nano-bees[26] which pollinated our crops, they can be fixed, ethically improved up in their production. The results from concerns for ourselves, no longer proves problematic. It is a discomfiting thought, it would obviously be better if we changed our habits, but what if swarms of nano-bees becomes easier to produce than overhauling our entire media, political and educational institutions in order to persuade people not to eat as much meat, spray pesticides, drive their cars to work or take budget flights?

    Nanotechnology, the manipulation of atoms, is a green technology. Atoms are the compositional building blocks of all things, manipulation of them is the manipulation of what nature uses to construct itself. If we are in trouble, nature is in trouble. It is then conceivable that as manipulators of these essential, ubiquitous building blocks, we are not outside of nature, being unnatural, doing something erroneous. We are nature in control of itself. Nature controls itself through our intelligence. There is no ontological priority to any one thing, but rather to potentiality. When we no longer split our actions into natural and unnatural, through value determined dichotomies: good/bad, right/wrong, ethical/unethical, what we endeavor to alter is our perception that there is any way of stepping outside of what is. What is, is what exists and what can be discovered through the potentials of human-beings to exercise consciousness. There is no denying realities. This is of course problematic. We maybe have to revise who gets to decide to, why do we get to decide? If humanity is faced with a conundrum, and there is a solution to that conundrum, it is not reasonable to assume that because we created the problem, we must therefore revert to what we assume is natural? We have no conception of nature without us, to access any such conception is to tinge it with the palette of our consciousness, becoming an anthropocentric value judgment. There is an impasse in making decisive judgements about technological progress and its natural/unnaturalness.

    Habermas in his essay The Scientization of Politics and Public Opinion, sets out to rationalize how we might regulate technological progress. Habermas’s cautions reinforce Lee’s own. Habermas cautions our assumptions about, ‘the imminent necessity of technical progress, which owes its appearance of being an independent, self-regulating process only to the way social interests operate in it.’[27] According to Lee, we know extant technologies need replacing and that the problem is beyond the reclamation of ‘nature’ as we have extolled it traditionally. Thus the ‘social interests’ are becoming motivated by our own technological capacities as they improve. The political and the practical are inseparable for Habermas: the practical informs the political and politics implements the practical where necessary, or popular. I agree with Habermas when he states:

    In the pragmatistic model the strict separation between the function of the expert and the politician is replaced by a critical interaction. This interaction not only strips the ideologically supported exercise of power of an unreliable basis of legitimation but makes it accessible as a whole to scientifically informed discussion, thereby substantially changing it.[28]

    A salubrious relationship between the two is essential. However, there is a power play more often than not. And though the public is cogent in any debate which affects it, the means to disseminate information to large numbers of people, is problematized by biased agents. In addition, ‘critical interaction’ through educational institutions, is not adequately rendered during peoples’ formative years.

    Mother-nature cannot be cruel to us. Potentially, when we face existential threats from nature, we can manifest an, us versus it position. This is unhelpful. Tacit in Lee, is that we are part of a network in and of nature. Nature in its various manifestations (see footnote 16), looks taxonomic, with identifiable properties. A literary example could be pastoralism[29]. Pastoral literature extols an idealized nature. An artefactual nature, could in theory bring equilibrium, not dissimilar in emotional buoyancy from the pastoral writer’s: man as working through nature. It is only nature itself (i.e. traditional and inviolable) if it is nature as I am attempting to identify it: as anything in existence created by us as it. Nature is a series of parts forming a whole.[30] Otherwise it is only a synthetic interpretation of limited, subjective ideas and interpretations about what nature is to culture; this is pastoralism’s error. My definition of nature encompasses everything, ontologically and existentially. Nothing is omitted and so everything is given meaning in the proper existential sense. When we are nature manipulating its selves we cannot disentangle ourselves from the environment, nor from that which we create—we take responsibility for them as if in self-preservation of our own bodies. An evaluation of the meaning of life is to value it regardless of the measure of its importance.  

    Lee’s ideas are speculative, as nanotechnology is still an emerging technology. But they anticipates a world technologized, a world where all processes are discoverable and manipulated. To inform the debate further, a theoretical justification, further encourages reconsideration of the natural and the unnatural. Levi. R Bryant uses the concept of the machine to reconceive how we fix ourselves as the subject in relation to objects, or we might say, nature. This is imperative if I am to properly inform my argument that we are nature manipulating itself.

    For Bryant the, ‘being of a machine is defined not by its qualities or properties, but rather by the operations of which it is capable.’[31] Rather than being defined by its material, or its position in space or time, beings as (abstractly conceived) machines are regarded by their processual capacities. Anything whatsoever, can be determined by how it operates, regardless of the capacities to which it can operate. What this first of all establishes in regards my argument, is that we operate, as do all the parts that assemble together to form the environment. While these operations maintain their own individual outputs, they nonetheless at some point intersect, something not too dissimilar from a seven degrees of separation.

    In a machinic ontology, there is a split between a thing’s power and what it produces. This is what Bryant calls a machine’s ‘virtual proper being’ and its ‘local manifestations.’[32] Bryant explains:

    The virtual proper being of a machine is the operations of which it is capable. These constitute the “proper being” of the machine in that machines are what they are capable of doing. They are “virtual” in the sense that a machine can possess these operations without exercising them.[33]

    Humanity is able through technology to manipulate its environment and itself; there is no law designated to disable this ability, in fact it is essential to each thing within the machinic ontology to manifest outputs. We may not have done it, but the very fact that we can realize it theoretically insists on it being a potentiality, thus it is virtually potential. The theoretical and the virtual are not dissimilar. An analogy to machines, enables a theoretical reorientation of emerging, ethically questionable technologies. The ethical dilemma is no longer whether nature is other than us, and therefore inviolable to certain interference. When we conceive of ourselves as enmeshed in a machinic ontology (an assembled network), understood as processing outputs, manipulable at an atomistic level, then I think we have a justification for no longer [m]aligning our actions outside of nature. Nature becomes the network because reality as an ontology of processual beings, usurps the conception of nature as something inviolable and other. The ethical dilemma, is that nature stands outside of us as an ordering agent. The attack on this order, is the breaking of precursory, natural laws, such as interference in the code that life, without interference makes what is, like it is. But what is and what is possible, can be conceived anew if only because new potentialities emerge. These should not be considered indelibly unethical, simply because they do not satisfy ethical precursors.

    Bryant’s ontology would posit the alteration of an ethical norm as a change in manifestation, of which Bryant outlines three: qualitative, agentive and material.[34] Qualitative manifestations are physically transformative: shape, texture, colour. Agentive manifestations are behavioural transformations. Material manifestations are products of operations which are outputted and leave the machine which produced them. All of these are processual and are not exclusive to our manipulation of things, but also to the processes of nature as commonly conceived. I see this system of manifestations as useful for determining the outcome of our interference.

    An example from the work of evolutionary and ecological engineer Kevin M. Esvelt provides context. Esvelt developed, using CRISPR Cas9, what he calls gene drives[35], which can be used to engineer ecologies. There is a plasticity in life forms that allows them to evade that which tries to kill them. Mosquitos have evolved to resist our insecticides. New technologies are needed to combat this, as we know the production of more powerful insecticides only leads to mosquitos developing resistance. Nature is not necessarily efficient according to Esvelt, therefore interference can be justified a necessity. Esvelt uses the examples of trees and solar panels[36]. A tree doesn’t grow tall because it is efficient, but because it must compete, which is why solar panels are flat: competition is not cooperation, or efficacy.

    One of Esvelt’s interventions involves the removal of the malarial code from mosquitoes, which can potentially rejuvenate communities such as those in Burkina Faso[37], where malaria is a constant threat. Despite the potentially regenerative, life-saving potential, and the efficacy of the technological, social factors have proved more troublesome than the actual science.[38] It is cogent to note that Esvelt does not advocate the removal of the species, but the modifying of it. His work involves removing the infectious capacities of a mosquito, mating it with a wild mosquito, until the replication through breeding removes the infectious potential. It is manipulating a characteristic of a thing in nature with technology to improve people’s lives, whilst enabling that thing to continue to exist.

    Using Bryant’s paradigm of machinic manifestations, the qualitative manifestation of manipulating mosquitoes so they no longer infect people with malaria, is not clear. This is why Esvelt communicates transparently with communities, simplifying the science and admitting the unknowns. His methods are potentially problematic, as the effects are ecological and irreversible: the malarial mosquito cannot be recoded. The agentive manifestations are clearer: mosquitos no longer transmit malaria, meaning communities no longer live in fear. The emotional and economic effects are ameliorative. The material manifestations are the ability to move into a clearer, more certain future. People are healthier, they do not suffer at some stage in their life, either themselves or for loved ones.

    To return to Lee, she outlines for us the intrinsic value of abiotic agents. The non-human, bacteria for example, have intrinsic value, as they regulate systems in our body, without them there is no life. Man too, like bacteria can regulate an ecology. Bacteria have their necessary procedures in order to maintain their own life, which is doing what they do. Humanity processes at a higher level of functioning, which must be considered selectively. There is no convincing argument for letting humanity off the hook because of its higher functioning privileges. Nevertheless, humanity does function at a higher level, it is then, more likely than not to exercise this anomalous privilege. Non-humans may not have what Lee calls ‘recognized-articulated values’, but do have, ‘mutely-enacted values’[39], meaning they may not generate awareness to their actions, but do produce actions that have consequences, which affect contexts. It is reasonable to suggest humanity cannot be suppressed but must be provided with reason, through education, to sensibly regulate its actions. Therefore, is the trade-off of a deadly insect’s capability to infect us, not worth considering? We think nothing of eliminating cancer[40], which in a machinic ontology, is another processual, nonhuman being. The difference is that the elimination of cancer is not the elimination of a species’ characteristics. Nevertheless, there is a case that bacteria, and infections, are nonhuman agents. The axiological valuation interferes because we endow some things with agency and others without. When in fact, in a ubiquitous ontology like Bryant’s, everything is processual.   

    Inviolable nature, stems from natural history, fed to us as a countervailing narrative to progress. The narrative of progress is currently at risk of being dramatically deemed eschatological. But this risks rescinding what we truly are and compensating for it with something we have never really known: a pristine, inviolable nature, without us. Nature as a dawning, Arcadian paradise, probably never existed, thus the reason pastoralism was written. Nature has been us since we started using it and it interfered to provide for us. It is often assumed we interfere with nature, but if we are to separate ourselves from it, it is just as likely it interfered with us. Things find ways to attract agents to care for them. Wheat was a simple grass, which we took a liking to, as we recognized its usefulness. Is it not as likely wheat in fact has an agency to affect other things? If we begin to realize the ontological effect of things toward/on things, rather than relying on the special status of consciousness, we begin to reexamine the status of agency. Agency is not something special to us, it is a natural product of the parts in an assemblage, which make up an ecology. Humanity interferes in itself as an ecology of things. The reincarnation of a lost or losing species with a nanotechnology is not dissimilar. Before it is too late, we might realize that playing God in a godless world is a viable option toward salvaging nature.



Ben Rogers, Jesse Adams & Sumita Pennathur, Nanotechnology: Understanding Small Systems, 3rd edn. (Boca Raton, London & New York: CRC Press, 2015)

Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Free Association Books, 1991)

Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2016)

Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000)

Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Humanity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003)

Jurgen Habermas, The Habermas Reader, ed. by William Outhwaite, (UK: Polity Press, 1996)

Keekok Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual: The Implications of Deep Science and Deep Technology for Environmental Philosophy, (United States of America: Lexington Books, 1999)

Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014)

Manuel DeLanda, Assemblage Theory, (UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2016)

Martin Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. by William Lovitt, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1977)

Michel Serres, The Natural Contract, trans. by Elizabeth MacArthur & William Paulson, (United States of America: The University of Michigan Press, 1990)

Stephen Jay Gould, The Richness of Life, (London: Vintage Books, 2007)

Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. by Katherine McKittrick, (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015)

Terry Gifford, Pastoral, (New York & London: Routledge, 1999)

Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edn. (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 1970)

Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, (London & New York: Verso, 2017)

Journal, newspaper articles & documentaries:

See, Casás-Selves, Matias, and James Degregori. ‘How cancer shapes evolution, and how evolution shapes cancer.’ Evolution, vol. 4,4 (2011), 624-634. doi:10.1007/s12052-011-0373-y

Ian Sample, ‘Chinese scientist who edited babies’ genes jailed for three years’, The Guardian,  31 December 2019,

Jason R. Ambroise, ‘On Sylvia Wynters Darwinian Heresy of the “Third Event”’, American Quarterly, 70.4 (December 2018), pp. 847-856

Kevin M. Esvelt, Andrea L. Smidler, Flaminia Catteruccia, & George M. Church, ‘Emerging Technology: Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild population’, eLife, (2014), 3.e03.401, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.03401

 Max Hantel, ‘What is it like to Be a Human?: Sylvia Wynter on Autopoiesis’, philoSOPHIA, 8.1 (Winter 2018), pp. 61-79
Megan Scudellari, ‘Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives’, Nature, 09 July 2019,

Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine’, pp. 5-109, (accessed 0ctober 2019)

Sylvia Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument’, The New Centennial Review, 3.3 (2003), pp. 257-337

Unnatural Selection, dir. by Leeor Kaufman and Joe Egender, documentary series, Netflix (Radley Studio, Reel Peak, FilmTwist and Turn Films, 2019), [accessed November and December 2019]


[1] Ian Sample, ‘Chinese scientist who edited babies’ genes jailed for three years’, The Guardian, 31 December 2019,

[2] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, (Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press, 2000) p. 436

[3] ‘If humans are conceptualized as hybrid beings, you can no longer classify individuals, as well as human groups as naturally selected (i.e. eugenic) and naturally dysselected (i.e. dysgenic) beings.’ From, Sylvia Wynter and Katherine McKittrick, ‘Unparalleled Catastrophe for our Species? Or, to Give Humanness a Different Future: Conversations, in Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, ed. by Katherine McKittrick, (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015), p. 17. Wynter’s concern is that cultures can be left out of the selection, similar in kind to Habermas’s concern in eugenics.

[4] Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine’, pp. 5-109, (accessed 0ctober 2019).

[5] See, Sylvia Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation–An Argument’, The New Centennial Review, Volume 3, Number 3, Fall (2003), pp. 257-337

[6] See, Nuffield Council on Bioethics, ‘Ideas about naturalness in public and political debates about science, technology and medicine’, pp. 15-17, for an in–depth discussion of this. 

[7] Wynter and McKittrick, Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis,  p. 23

[8] Jurgen Habermas, The Future of Humanity, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2003), p. 3

[9] Jurgen Habermas, ‘The Scientization of Politics and Public Opinion’, in The Habermas Reader, ed. by William Outhwaite, (UK: Polity Press, 1996), p. 51

[10] Habermas, The Future of Humanity, p. 28

[11] Ibid., p. 22

[12] See also, Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, pp. 405-416

[13] Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, (London: Free Association Books, 1991), p. 150

[14] Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, pp. 150-151

[15] Ibid., p. 63

[16] For a full discussion see, Sylvia Wynter, ‘Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom’, pp. 283-303

[17] ‘In my own terms, the human is homo narrans. This means that as a species, our hybrid origins only emerged in the wake of what I have come to define over the last decade as the Third Event. The First and Second Events are the origin of the universe and the explosion of biological life, respectively. I identify the Third Event in Fanonian terms as the origin of the human as a hybrid-auto-instituting-languaging-storytelling-species: bios/mythoi. The Third Event is defined by the singularity of the co-evolution of the human brain with—and, unlike those of all the other primates, with it alone—the emergent faculties of language, storytelling.’ Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis, p. 25

[18] Keekok Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual: The Implications of Deep Science and Deep Technology for Environmental Philosophy, (United States of America: Lexington Books, 1999), p. 128

[19]Martin Heidegger: The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. by William Lovitt, (New York: Harper Perennial, 1977), p. 4

[20] Lee cautions expose homo faber’s narcissism, which ‘may be considered to be a pathology or, at the very least, a form of immaturity.’ Lee recognizes that ‘a healthy, mature civilization, like a healthy, mature person, recognizes different others and respects them’ (p. 201). Such a recognition of the value of the non-human would not wish to eliminate them, which is Wynter’s concern. See, Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual, pp. 201-203.

[21] Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual, pp. 82-86

[22] Ibid., p. 107

[23] Ibid., p. 81

[24] Keekok Lee’s definition of iatrogenic is, ‘they may cure a particular environmental ill but they in turn bring forth another.’ Ibid., p. 108

[25] Ibid., 108

[26] What I am suggesting are artificial bees produced using nanotechnology.

[27] Habermas, ‘The Scientization of Politics and Public Opinion’, p. 45

[28] Ibid., p. 46

[29] My general idea is taken from, Terry Gifford, Pastoral, (New York & London: Routledge, 1999)

[30] I am advocating a nature of autonomous ecologies each with a function. I subscribe to Timothy Morton’s dislike of the maxim the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, rather agreeing that ‘the whole is always smaller than the sum of its parts.’ See Timothy Morton, Humankind: Solidarity with Nonhuman People, (London & New York: Verso, 2017), pp. 101-121

[31] Levi R. Bryant, Onto-Cartography, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014), p. 40

[32] Bryant, Onto-Cartography, p. 40

[33] Ibid., p. 40

[34] Ibid., pp.42-45

[35] See, Kevin M. Esvelt, Andrea L. Smidler, Flaminia Catteruccia, & George M. Church, ‘Emerging Technology: Concerning RNA-guided gene drives for the alteration of wild population’, eLife, (2014), 3.e03.401, DOI: 10.7554/eLife.03401

[36] Unnatural Selection, dir. by Leeor Kaufman and Joe Egender, documentary series, Netflix (Radley Studio, Reel Peak, FilmTwist and Turn Films, 2019), [accessed November and December 2019]

[37] Unnatural Selection, dir. by Leeor Kaufman and Joe Egender

[38] See, Megan Scudellari, ‘Self-destructing mosquitoes and sterilized rodents: the promise of gene drives’, Nature, 09 July 2019,

[39] Lee, The Natural and the Artefactual, p. 165

[40] See, Casás-Selves, Matias, and James Degregori. ‘How cancer shapes evolution, and how evolution shapes cancer.’ Evolution, vol. 4,4 (2011), 624-634. doi:10.1007/s12052-011-0373-y. Note that we developed no capacity to eradicate cancer naturally, because we never lived long enough generally, in the past, to develop combative agents in our bodies.

Bye bye EU—Brexshit Day

England has exited, mic drop & all that drama. Smirky Boris looked very pleased with himself in his speech, saying nothing of any value other than…well, fucking hot air & a wagging paw, like a weak handshake. Big Ben got a cheap digital ring, a gesture, cheaper at least. We had it holographically printed on Downing Street, yip jump. O dear.

The clientele I serve beers, in the magnanimous taproom down by the quay in Exeter, despondently purchased shots of whiskey or rum to down on the stroke of 11 & who can blame them. A few tables were really drinking heavily to compensate their disgruntlement, from the time they got off work, to last orders. The taproom had no quarreling which side are you on, in our taproom, we have a safe haven from Brexiteers, boasting their triumphs against the ill pairing of their jingoistic effluvia with the economic powerhouse & neighbor over the pond, who has provided & paired with us on issues of importance: maternity leave, trade, co-operation, economic opportunity, freedom of movement, somewhere decent to go on holiday.

But we have learned little from 3 years, other than that we are a divided nation. Not only that, a divided world, because within the neoliberal catalogue of abuses is its own disavowal, which maybe even encourages critique if only to be able to turn around & say “you see, you have a voice…you don’t get that everywhere.” But then, what is the point of speaking out when protest isn’t ubiquitous, when outrage is confined to pockets of passive resistance, too tempered by the precariousness that is being middle class, with our terror of being poor, destitute. The precarity of subsistence urges us to genuflect at the foot of capital. O, the horror.

I went to the Brexit marches here & saw that it was students & those who have a 9 to 5, freeing them to take action on the weekend, who attended. Better than nothing, but never enough. What needed to happen is for the weekend staff in Boots & H&M to walk out, without fear that they’ll lose their jobs, if only because they couldn’t sack the entire staff. But that is not how capitalism tames us, & the act of protest against something as self-harming as Brexit is inextricably tangled with the capitalist blase attitude of passivity that has inveterately conditioned us to such erroneous, uncritical decision making. But of course, Brexit had to be done democratically, it had to be a choose-a-side moment.

What chance did we have really when this whole fiasco began because of the egoism of individuals, assembled like clowns in a hatchback (without the funny illusion) vying for control of the narrative that Britain still has any clout in the world? They knew pride would spill into error & the fed historical narrative of greatness would bend ears, it always has, always will. History died & yet it lives like a recorded message misinterpreted due to the wrong context, same as God, dead as a door nail, but like the recording of the dead, plays over to spool the hopeful momento that It is still out there with Their history & teleology for the faithful. To want history to repeat itself is probably the silliest effect to be re-energized out of this whole scrum. The irony is, by stepping out, we step into the unknown, despite the belief of those who voted for this, that it is a step toward the past.

What now? For those of us in disagreement, “go on high ship” or something to that effect, by which I mean, form your own society. Why is this helpful? Just feels like there is so much fragmentation that we might as well chip off the old block of wholeness more & encourage ourselves into formative resistance against the greater threat of dissolving whatever rights & privileges the EU provided us. But there’s the rub as well: it was speaking of the EU as a distinct body from ourselves that enabled resistance to it. The money paid into it, was paid into something we were part of. This wasn’t a bully pushing us around for pocket change. This was a collective of nations pooling together to purchase better community. This is what irritates me about it most of all. So I suppose the parts really are greater than the sum of the whole, or they must become so, if only so we can collect in lumps the strengths to countervail what may turn up for the worst. Things may get shitty.

Dunno if any of this makes sense. Brexit doesn’t, so maybe it has infected my own sense making capacity. Bollocks.

Belated Call for Submission

While studying toward my MA, I am doing assistant editor work for the University of Exeter postgraduate journal Exclamat!on. If you are a postgraduate & want to submit, the guidelines are below. You’ll need to be fast, so hopefully you have something hiding away in a folder somewhere. If you miss this round, keep us in mind for the next issue. Daniel.

Call for submissions 2019/20

Submissions are now being sought for the fourth issue of Exclamat!on, to be published in the summer of 2020. The focus for this fourth issue is ‘Borders, Boundaries, and Margins’, and we welcome submissions on any aspect and interpretation of this theme. Areas might include, but are not restricted to:

Borders of memoryThe frontier (land, sea, space)
Travel, exploration, mappingBoundaries between the real and imaginary
National identities and marginalisationSub-cultural margins
Disputation and reconciliationMarginalia in books
Diasporic literature and filmEthnicity, national and racial and boundaries
Migration in fictionBoundaries between life and death
Permeability of bodily boundaries (disability, relationships, body politics)Narratives of oppression, marginalisation and/or activism
Hybridity and duality (bodily, geographical, fictional)Topographical and political boundary formation/breakingPhysical and geographical boundaries/bordersCirculation of texts; censorship and suppression of movement    

We would be delighted to consider long articles (5,000-8,000 words), short articles (3,000-5,000 words), short stories (3,000-5,000 words), and poetry (up to 100 lines). We would also be delighted to receive book, film and performance reviews (c. 500 words).

Submission guidelines

All submissions must be the original, previously unpublished, work of the author and must adhere to the following:

  • All word limits must include footnotes and bibliography
  • Submissions must have permission for the use of images
  • References must use MHRA referencing: submissions which do not conform to this are unlikely to be accepted (
  • Submissions should be in 12 point Times New Roman and single spaced
  • Submissions should use British spelling; alternative forms are permissible in direct quotations

Submissions, along with a 100-word biography, should be sent to Please address any queries to this email address.

The deadline for submissions is 13th January 2020.

We are also keen to hear from anyone interested in acting as peer reviewer for the journal. Please email us at the above address with details regarding your discipline and specialism.

Read more at:

Gift Exchange in Willa Cather's 'My Antonia'

A noun matters, it signifies implicit meanings, enabling those who understand what the noun is signifying, to utilize it for axiological, praxeological and ontological assessment, which furthermore, can have material socio-economic and cultural repercussions, as I hope to illustrate.

    Somebody asks if we like the taste of something, a mushroom, for example. The word mushroom evokes experiential sense data, which we have assessed axiologically. We have tasted mushrooms, smelled them cooking, we may know a little about foraging them, or their biological peculiarities. Without having the thing-to-hand, we can make an accurate judgement if told that a particular mushroom is delicious.

   If two people do not speak the same language, the signifying essence of the noun, essential to identification is in jeopardy. Chris Tilley explains “It is only through the use of words that we can claim, assert, investigate and understand why things matter and why a study of them is important, why it makes a difference to an understanding of persons and their social worlds.”[1] This opportunity is missed during an exchange between Mrs. Shimerda and Mrs. Burden in Willa Cather’s My Antonia.

    Mrs. Burden after hearing the Shimerda’s hardships from her husband takes a “hamper basket”[2] to alleviate the pressure. In exchange, Mrs. Shimerda gives them some “little brown chips that looked like the shavings of some root.”[3] Neither Jim, nor his grandmother trust the unidentified things; Mrs. Burden stating, “I’m afraid of ‘em.”[4] Fear of the unknown is caused by the thing not being unidentified. At the close of the chapter Jim, narrating from the future, explains, “I never forgot the strange taste; though it was many years before I knew that those little brown shavings, which the Shimerdas had brought so far and treasured so jealously, were dried mushrooms.”[5]

    Antonia and her mother’s desperately physical articulation of their value, is cause for Jim’s use of the word treasured, “She clasped her hands as if she could not express how good—‘it make very much when you cook, like what mama say. Cook with rabbit, cook with chicken, in the gravy—oh, so good!’”[6]

    Determining the axiological and ontological ramifications of the unidentified thing, why it is “treasured”, it is necessary to identify it. From the description of “a salty, earthy smell, very pungent”[7] thing, which makes stews taste better, I would identify them as Boletus edulis. Roger Philips in his comprehensive book Mushrooms describes Boletus edulis as having a “taste and smell” which is “pleasant”[8] adding, “Note this is perhaps the most important edible mushroom because of its excellent flavor, large weight and size, and the way it keeps its flavor when dried.”[9]  To further this identification, that Mrs. Shimerda has a “flour sack and half as wide”[10] filled with dried mushrooms, suggests a large quantity, which means the mushroom must be common.

From Marek’s reaction, that he “began to smack his lips”[11], this is an exchange of equal values, despite the quantity of one being more than the other. What the Burden’s gift, despite having being worked for, is easily given, but the Shimerda’s gift the only thing they have, a small amount, but nonetheless their most treasured victual. Theirs is a sacrifice.

    Despite Antonia and her mother’s efforts to imbibe the mushrooms with value, they are discarded by Mrs. Burden, which I read as metaphorical of the conservative argument in Americans’ contemplation of foreigners during the Americanisation debate, which I will go into later in the essay. First I want to look into the praxeology of gift exchange.  

    The reciprocation of gifts is important in praxeology as it provides an act through which peoples and cultures come together. Marcel Mauss’s work on the forms and functions of gift giving can, if the context of his ideas is extended beyond primitive and archaic cultures, provide us with a paradigm with which to talk about gift giving in any society. Karen Sykes makes this extension, clarifying that “Marcel Mauss began to think about gift exchange as a totally human social act.”[12]  Sykes, extending this context to the ‘human’, suggests we may expand Mauss’s theory beyond the parameters of the primitive and archaic, to human social acts in general. She goes on to say:

Mauss also poses a central question in what it means to be human by asking why a person should feel obligated to give back what he or she had received from another. The problem of ‘the gift’ comprises two kinds of questions: how people keep their social life at the centre of consciousness, and why it should seem meaningful for them to do so.[13]

    We find this obligation in Mrs. Shimerda giving the only thing of pleasure her family possesses: reciprocation is a meaningful social act, bringing potentially beneficial returns. If she were to give them nothing, it would be charity and charity is undignified. Her hysteria is owing to her being taken out of her culture, where she had equal status to the Burdens; we learn from Antonia that “My mamenka have nice bed, with pillows from our own geese in Bohemie. See, Jim?”[14] Antonia is trying to persuade, through objects brought from Bohemia that they are on an equal social footing. Objects mark status. A social group, without the accuracy of language to tell their history and their autobiography, is left to rely on things. Unfortunately, in their current context (a dark cave), the objects aren’t persuasive without autobiographical authority. That Antonia speaks only broken English, illustrates the ontological tension of language and thing to provide sufficient evidence of an equal social standing.

    All Antonia’s efforts are thwarted by Mrs. Burden failing to follow her instructions. If she had, the mushroom may have proved revelatory, as the sensory satisfaction would have indicated to her that these were cultivated people. This is the capacity of the immaterial to be discovered through material, for properties of cultural knowledge to be learned through the understanding and enjoyment of an object.

    Mauss talks about “the spirit of the thing given”[15], which, borrowing Maori a term, he calls the hau (spirit). Mauss explains:

Suppose you have some particular object, taonga, and you give it to me; you give it me without a price. We do not bargain over it. Now I give this thing to a third person who after a time decides to give me something in repayment for it (utu), and he makes me a present of something (taonga). Now this taonga I received from him is the spirit of the taonga I received from you and which I passed on to him.[16]

    In my example, the mushroom is the taonga, but it is the taste, which must be tasted, which is hau. It would not be a material thing that is passed along, as the Burdens are gifted too few mushrooms, but rather, information. Word of mouth in the prairie is paramount. An anecdote from the Burdens to another family as to the rare value of the mushrooms, would return the hau of the taste back to the Shimerdas in the form of compliments (utu), which may turn to a further exchange of mushroom for commodities (also utu); there is the potential for a cyclical return of the material, passing through the immaterial (word-of-mouth) returning again to material form. Imbibed with hau, the thing (taonga) is memorable, and the giver remembered until the spirit of the thing returns. The taonga in our example, has the capacity to develop changes that are socio-economically beneficent and diversifying for the prairie community. Jaco Kruger further clarifies the reciprocity inherent in gift giving:

To speak of the interest involved in the giving and receiving of a gift is to speak of some kind of interaction. The interpretation of the logic of the gift under consideration is therefore adamant that gift implies the invitation to gift exchange, whereby relation is precisely maintained. This is in line with Marcel Mauss’ original observations that the giving of a gift, which is at the same time the receiving of a gift, brings with it some kind of obligation to give in turn, or in return. [17]

    Sykes explains that “How people give and receive is a matter of what kind of relationships they imagine they make and keep with each other; immediately immaterial or ideal concerns become a part of the issue.”[18] Gift giving is obligatory if there is to be conservation of pride. Pride of character is not itself a material thing, it is only through a thing in exchange, and that thing having significance to the person giving, that the immaterial can be discovered through the material. Both rely on each other. Mrs. Shimerda gifts in hope that the compensation of material for material will bridge misunderstanding (the absence of language’s specificity) and create a concrete understanding of the immaterial: that her family is domestically knowledgeable. Status matters to them, because they have none.

    What takes place between the two families is, in addition to a gift, a form of transaction; a promise to help each other. Theirs is a barter economy of sorts, self-regulated according to necessity and moreover, annexed to a growing albeit, peripheral consumerist culture. The economy of those living on the prairie is an admixture of economic forms. The Shimerdas must, even by sacrificing their paucity of victuals, endeavor to engage in this economy. As Rebecca Colesworthy explains regarding Mauss, through quotations from David Graeber:

If there is a keynote of Mauss’s essay that my authors also register, albeit in varying styles and contexts and to differing ends, it is mixture: a shared sense, sometimes welcome and sometimes resisted, that seemingly antithetical impulses and social phenomena—generosity and interest, freedom and obligation, persons and things—in fact intermingle: “Everything holds together, everything is mixed up together” (G 46). The mingling of persons, things, gestures, symbols, and lives—“This is precisely what contract and exchange are” in archaic societies, according to Mauss (G 20). Yet this is also what contract and exchange are increasingly becoming in modern capitalist societies at the time of The Gift’s publication in 1925—a mixture.[19]

    As a Modernist text, My Antonia falls into this ‘mixture’, a mixture not only of economic forms, compensating for regular access to goods, and being at the clemency of the elements (as the exchange between the Shimerdas and Burdens illustrates); but furthermore we can extrapolate from this ‘mixture’ the polemic of Americanisation, a debate which flared between conservative and liberal camps, who were nonetheless united by how to integrate a rising immigrant population, with their own unique culture: the melting pot of America. The intersubjective polemic, pivoted on whether their inclusion would be a boon to America’s rendered axiology, or whether it would dissolve the identity rendered up to that point. In the historical period of the novel, America’s identity remains, arguably, nascent, but the period in which Cather is writing My Antonia, America is a player in global politics and Cather is suggesting American identity centers around not misunderstanding the role exchange played in the formation of America, even simple misunderstandings caused by stray nouns.

    Cather said in a 1924 interview that “This passion for Americanizing everything and everybody is a deadly disease with us.”[20] Guy Reynolds outlines the two sides of this polemic. In the conservative corner was Royal Dixon who “In Americanization (1916) discussed ‘hyphenates’, the term he used for recent immigrant into the United States.”[21] Dixon’s prescription was “the teaching of English”[22] from which “the immigrant would be acculturated and lose his or her foreignness.”[23]

    In the above scenario, we can see Dixon’s point, however, Cather’s view is not so simplistic as to express the failings of language, but that the reciprocal failings of the native Burdens to embrace the offering is a case in point of the Americanisation debate. The boletus edulis are a cultural oblation for a kindness, bridging the social imbalance the Shimerdas suffer due to not being in their country of origin. The liberal position in the Americanisation debate was that “the new world could only be created with due appreciation of the European heritage.”[24] It is “through similarities with the world that was left behind”[25] the immigrant and the American will benefit and come to understanding. It is through pride in culinary proficiency and work ethic that the Burdens and Shimerdas can find common ground. Cather pointedly illustrates the break down of trust, which is made easier with the familiarity of language. She creates a position liminal between the liberal and the conservative. Tacit in the actions of the Burdens is a criticism of distrust and the necessity of the native to listen, even if the clarity of the message doesn’t meet with the immediate sensory impulse toward a thing; they can try. The ingenuity of Cather’s choice deserves mention.

    Regardless whether Cather knew much about mushrooms, they are a suitable metaphor. Philips explains “woodland areas would fail”[26], if the “intimate relationship of fungi with the roots of trees and plants, the mycorrhizal relationships,”[27] didn’t make their “important contribution.”[28] This, for me, works as a metaphor for the liberal Americansation argument. In this microcosm of that debate, the boletus is utilized to try and form social “mycorrhizal relationships” through taste.Taste is visceral, my point in revealing the identity of the mushroom as boletus edulis, I hope exposes that it was a minor leap of faith for the Burdens to connect the impoverished Shimerdas to their own proficiencies. Language aside, what Cather has us consider is how close we are to each other if we countervail our intuitions, and open ourselves to the cultures of others. The potential results are, metaphorically, a good stew. The Burdens’ missed opportunity of a good stew becomes a metaphor of the utopian potential of an America that embraces itself as a melting pot. America discovers its strengths are the differences that define it.

[1] Chris Tilley, “Metaphor, Materiality and Interpretation”: The Material Culture Reader, ed by Victor Buchli (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2002), pp. 23-26 (p. 23)

[2] Willa Cather, My Antonia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006) p44

[3] Cather, My Antonia, p. 48

[4] Ibid., p. 48

[5] Ibid., p. 48

[6] Ibid., p. 47

[7] Ibid., p. 47

[8] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[9] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 276

[10] Ibid., p. 47

[11] Ibid., p. 47

[12] Karen Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology: An Introduction to Critical Theories of the Gift, (London: Routledge, 2004) p. 2

[13] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 4

[14] Cather, My Antonia, p. 46

[15] Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies, 5th Ed (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), p. 8

[16] Mauss, The Gift, p. 9

[17] Jaco Kruger, ‘Human Dignity and the Logic of the Gift’, South African Journal of Philosophy, Vol 36 Issue 4 (2017), 516-524, p. 520 (I think it cogent to add as an aside my interest in Kruger’s focus on dignity, which does play a minor role in my argument, namely, Mrs. Shimerda’s purpose in sacrificing a cup full of mushrooms is an act to rescue her dignity).

[18] Sykes, Arguing with Anthropology, p. 59

[19] Rebecca Colesworthy, Returning the Gift: Modernism and the Thought of Exchange, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), Oxford Scholarship Online

[20] Guy Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context: Progress, Race, Empire, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996) Springer Link, p. 73

[21] Reynolds, Willa Cather in Context, p. 74

[22] Ibid., p. 74

[23] Ibid., p.74

[24] Ibid., p. 77

[25] Ibid., p. 77

[26] Philips, Mushrooms, p. 6

[27] Ibid., p. 6

[28] Ibid., p. 6