Pagan insurgencies and com-post humusities: Re-visioning the commons as ‘commoning’ in a more-than-human world
Peer Value Conference, Amsterdam
September 2-3, 2016
I’m here to speak about serious stuff. About capitalist enclosures, environmental degradation, escalating poverty and an economics of despair, shopping malls and other gentrified spaces, and exhausted, thirsty people in Pakistan lined up behind a lone tanker making its first and last supply of water for the day. Perhaps the best way to begin, then, is with a hearty story – a story about a tortoise, his gourd and his quest for wisdom.
Growing up in Nigeria, I was immersed in folktales about thieving spiders, rewarding encounters with water spirits, and lengthy moral-of-the-story moments. I can’t remember when I first heard of the many tales of tortoise’s escapades. Tortoise’s adventures were as ubiquitous and as familiar to us as the ‘Golden Arches’ are familiar to, well, everyone. In one of his stories, tortoise sets out to gather all the wisdom of the world together – to strip the spider of his web-weaving expertise, to take to himself the sun’s ability to rise in the morning, to deny the mighty eagle the immediacy of his knowledge of flight, and to teach the tree how to grow. It’s an improbable quest, but he succeeds: all the animals and beings in the world consciously give their knowledges to this master trickster figure, and tortoise stuffs all of this into an earthen gourd.
Now he must preserve it, and keep his new treasure in a place where no one would expect him to. The tortoise, jealous for the gourd and its world-shattering contents, ties it to his neck, places the gourd right in front of his eyes where he can see it, and proceeds to climb an iroko tree; his desire is to hang it at the very top of the mighty tree, and camouflage it in its leaves. He doesn’t get very far because the protuberant gourd gets in the way and doesn’t allow his little limbs to clasp the tree. The tortoise tries and tries again and again, but keeps falling. Along comes a witless passer-by, the grasshopper, who in the spontaneity of the moment offers an offhanded remark, “You know you could just swing the gourd around your back”, and she goes away.
Tortoise suffers what to us must be a redeeming episode of cognitive dissonance: he realizes that his preoccupations with preserving knowledge and containing the world, and his apparent success at actually doing it, cannot explain grasshopper’s insights. Knowledge does not come from maintaining relations of exteriority with the world, but with situated, material engagements with its ongoing complexity. Realizing his error, tortoise eventually scrambles up the hardwood tree, and unfastens the leather skin he has tied around the gourd’s mouth, thus ‘releasing its contents’ back into the world – or so he supposes.
So you might say, in a way, the African communities that ‘occasioned’ this story and its prescient insights had already examined the business/philosophical model of Google and found it wanting.
But apart from an onto-epistemology of ‘not knowing’ – which means we can only know the world partially, because knowing is not ‘knowledge of the world’ but practices that are constituent in world-making (a co-constitutive negotiation with non-static others) – there is much more that a diffractive re-reading of this folktale brings into focus: namely, a queering of the fixed boundaries between the human and nonhuman, and a resituating of the commons as commoning or as the situated practices of a collective that always includes the more-than-human.
Today, as capitalist enclosures of corporate ownership and state-approved extermination invite social upheaval, as new strategies for contesting exclusion open up, as the orifices of neoliberal monoculture shudder with new energy, the promise of the commons glimmers in the near distance. This promise of a world that works for the many and not a few is what animates the Natives now fighting Enbridge and the Dakota Access Pipeline project in North Dakota; it is what textures the iridescent glow of computer screens on faces as digital programmers in India, in Nigeria or in a certain Ecuadorian embassy, hack the boundaries of information access. In a way, we are marching round the walls of Jericho, and those walls are falling.
But in the falling, old concerns and old habits of seeing remain resolutely present – much in the same way the French revolution might have gotten rid of kings and the bourgeoisie, but did not contest the thrones they sat upon, or the conceptual edifices that occasioned elite rule. It is the same with the discourse on the commons: rupturing ‘superstructures’ only give more room for the same ‘substructures’ to be elaborated differently. Patrick Bresnihan tells us that the most influential perspective on the commons is concerned with the rules, principles and insights we can adopt in governing access to ‘common pool resources’, a desire which in turn is motivated by what one might call the ‘tragedyist’ assumptions of liberal epistemologies – that ‘individuals’ need to be regulated or we risk overexposure to limited resources. Another perspective on the commons, one which feels alive in the framing of this particular aspect of the conference on P2P cultures, demarcates between the material commons and the immaterial commons, between nature and culture, which entrenches human activity (in the latter) as productive and creative, and stabilizes nature as something merely to be protected or preserved.
These popular perspectives about the commons are occasioned by the sticky ideas that nature is something apart from culture; that nature is ‘resource’ that never really surpasses its dimensions of instrumentality – or of being a mere background – to the world-making practices of humans; that agency is properly human (and that the way it shows up is as ‘choice’ or human subjectivity); that knowledge of the world (often valorised in manifestoes and compulsions to ‘correct practice’) can be total if the right mediating conditions are present; that the generativity of nature (or its ability to reproduce) is not to be considered as creative labour or productive (just as the life-giving gift-work of women are not considered part of the economy and are elided by a corporate culture that pretends to sustain the whole), and that – all of these taken into consideration – the commons is therefore a human achievement…and the question of who gets what, when and how, or how to ensure equitable access for a larger population than neoliberalism could account for, is really going to be settled by the intricacy of our maps and models and management regimes. By the same logic of anthropocentrism.
Like the tortoise, I am learning otherwise.
Working as an ethnopsychotherapeutic researcher years ago, I was committed to exploring what for our present purposes you might call the psychological or wellbeing commons. In Nigeria, there are – as at last count – no more than 8 sparsely equipped, government assisted, regional psychiatric outfits and some moribund laws designed to facilitate protection for those who present with mental disturbances or need psychiatric care. At the time of my ethno-clinical research, there were escalating calls for government to throw more money into healthcare, and some even insisted on the need for a privatization of healthcare delivery – arguing that with competitive edge, the landscape of mental healthcare delivery would receive the political equivalent of a shot in the arm.
Motivated by the idea that our approach to the healthcare commons was entangled with deeper epistemological issues and worldviews, I decided to study Yoruba indigenous practices with caregiving. At first, my initiating questions were concerned with finding more efficacious means to the same outcomes that would have been celebrated by western psychology (meaning ‘recovery’, ‘sanity’, and ‘wellbeing’). As such, I was caught up with investigating how these healers and elders defined healing and oriented themselves in relation to their clients and their families and what they wanted help addressing. My central question was “What are the stories these healers tell, and how do these stories improve upon western narratives about healing and recovery?”
I expected to find well-established nosologies and diagnostic paradigms identifying and isolating patterns of psychopathological behaviour; I expected to meet well-formed answers to questions like ‘what do you do when a patient presents with auditory hallucinations?’, but what I encountered was an ‘in-the-moment’ aliveness and vulnerability. If I could create a mishmash of responses and reduce all the stories I was told to a phrase – which is not something I would ever want to do – that phrase would be “it depends”. I encountered non-reductionistic, descriptive, and situated knowledges that were just as sophisticated in their account about mental health. Instead of speaking of ‘illness’ as something that can be isolated and treated successfully based on our diagnostic systems, they spoke of mental illness as the effects of wind, as stepping on an eyelash, eating at the wrong time of the day, or having a person curse you. Their categories were spontaneous, with one healer telling me that there were mainly 3 types of sicknesses and then deciding later on in the interview that there could be as many as 30. This ‘not-knowing’ wasn’t a result of indifference or ignorance, but a situated embodied recognition that there were many other agencies impinging upon and crafting the outcomes of a healing encounter – or even the way one could speak about behaviour.
Mind you, their skillsets (which often attracted more traditional western-type psychiatrists to understudy) were highly developed, passed down from generation to generation, and yet a shrug of the shoulders was often the outcome of their work – which is not simply to be interpreted as benign resignation, but more as sacred recognition. From those interviews, I thought I’d get a new story that could carve a surer path to a psychological commons, one that sidestepped the frantic concerns about bed-spaces and poor psychologist-client ratios in the country. Instead I came out with a gasp – an eloquence of a different sort, one that reinforced what vital materialists, post-anthropocentric and feminist performativists like Haraway and Barad are speaking about, and one which reshapes our understanding of the commons…not as a boundaried thing that pre-exists the particular relations that bring it about, or the ways we speak about it, but the ongoing embodied practices and mutual negotiations of boundaries that constitute ecologies of care and exclusion.
This is the more-than-human commons that Bresnihan identifies as “a messier, entangled world…[that is] not simply ‘accessible’ to technical knowledge but unfolding, and thus changing, through practical engagements that tie humans and non-humans together (and thus shapes them) in different ways; not a reasoning liberal subject but a subject caught within a mesh of reciprocal relations that must be negotiated, usually imperfectly.”
In the same way Niels Bohr and Karen Barad, queering the Cartesian ontology of fixed things and static givens, have said there is no ‘thing’ as light as such, only the apparatus or phenomenon or ‘assemblage’ of agencies and ongoing relationships that produce ‘light’. Using insights from her study of Bohrian physics-philosophy, Barad comes to the conclusion that the world is substantiated by relationships, not things (relata do not precede relationships) – and that it is only in the specific context of particular entanglements that boundaries and properties are negotiated. As such, there are no things, only things-in-the-making. This immediately calls into question the old Cartesian assumptions that situate the essence of the human within the human. But stepping back from this representational logic, we can notice a more troubling and deeply rich account of the discursive practices, the scientific traditions, the ecological and biopolitical frames, and the ethical matterings that need to be accounted for before we could speak about the human. This decentering of the human figure, this composting, this coming down to earth, undercuts the liberal humanist frames with which we valorize the commons as a sphere of natural resources to be protected or preserved.
One might also say that there is no commons as such, or that the commons is indeterminate and difficult to characterize; one might say there is only a commoning, a material-discursive doing that brings to our attention the myriad performances which constitute this more-than-human world. ‘The commons is not a resource, it is a cat-cradling activity through shared capacities. Recalling my earlier use of the metaphor of bringing down the walls of Jericho, one might say that the difference between liberal humanist epistemological framings of the commons and this quantum leap and queer vision for commoning is that in one story, the Jews brought down the wall of Jericho – end of story, while in another vision, where the significance of the agencies of nonhuman counterparts are not elided or made invisible, it was the ferocious blast of sound energy, the marching, the rebellious pounding of sandaled feet on ground, the time of day, the yearnings for place, the narratives of divine intervention, the materials of the wall, and even recent archaeological excavations and scientific readings that produced that event.
To practice the commons, which we always do whether we like it or not, is thus to queer our notions of agency, causality, knowledge and identity – and spacetime. We are dealing with no less than the composting of the humanities, or the dissolving of the figure of the human – a trend Rusten Hogness called ‘humusities’. We are coming down to earth, and this coming down to earth is not a coming down to romantic visions of the commons, it is not a revival of premodern notions of recovered edens. Not an incontrovertible restoration of ‘indigenous vistas’ in the sense some New Age groups are calling for a return to ‘what we really are’, as if that could be teased out from the myriad tensions and polyvocal eruptions that make up the world. It is a meeting with, a becoming-with, a sympoiesis, a recognition that we are always part of a grander becoming, and that commoning is not even about human survival or pre-made linear futures.
If one must deal other preposterous figurations to the table, I would call our moment a pagan insurgency. I imagine the conquest of Judeo-Christian and later Enlightenment thinking: the boundarying of the divine in sacred enclosures, and the simultaneous demonization and disenfranchisement of nature as mere resource or obstacle to be surmounted on the path of progress. Now, it seems, those enclosures are under siege and our walled off choir songs are being haunted by near-distant lurid tunes and drumming and noises that disturb the convenient harmony we seek. The halo is too small a circle to account for the profuse and preposterously ravishing enchantment everywhere.
Now, as cognitive psychologists are finding out, those qualities we attributed solely to humans or approximate species – thinking, remembering, feeling, intentionality – are now thought best as intersectional (or intra-sectional!). So thinking is intra-thinking, feeling is trans-affective, and free will or choice is an edited snapshot of a more-than-human murmuration or larger movement – or an exclusionary process central to how we perpetuate an autopoietic or stable sense of identity/self. To put it mildly, and to borrow the language of the times, we are at war but it is a war we must ‘lose’. The veil is pierced. Well, the tale is more scandalous than that: we were never pure to begin with. Never human to begin with. This is not a question of re-joining nature – this is a question of recognizing we are nature in its ongoing complexity.
I think the lines in the sand are being redrawn, and with this redescription of the world as non-anthropocentric, as material-discursive, as polyvocal, negotiated, imperfect, partially encountered, fragile, dispersed and everywhere already enchanted, the potential of commoning is in “shifting our attention away from anthropocentric accounts of world-making towards the situated relations and knowledge practices that characterize the commons as an ongoing, difficult, and more-than-human achievement. In this account, what is shared, by whom, and how, are not questions that can be settled by institutional regimes or techno-scientific expertise…What is shared, who is sharing, and how it should be shared, are not just ‘technical’ questions that can be resolved through the application of more detailed knowledge about the bio-economic interplay of the resources and resource-users.” In a sense, we are not witnesses to the machinated outcomes of our well-oiled regimes of control, we are with-nesses, not outside the rolling, toiling, tearing, regenerative agency of the world we suppose we can cure from a distance.
It is here that I want to consider, in conclusion, the question of inclusive activisms and what the practical import of redescribing the commons as a multi-species, multi-agential, mycelial, messy, nonlinear, collective, ecopoetic, performative, imperfect, non-teleological, queer act of negotiating boundaries and territories and reimagining care or questions about survival. What to do with it? What does it mean for emancipatory politics and our visions of a more just future?
There is widespread acknowledgement that this ethics of intersubjectivity, of intra-action, of commoning – if you will – is political stultifying. There is an ambivalence at the heart of this redescription. It is not clear where to go when directions themselves are now queer…or if we expand the commons to be more than human, not just peer to peer, but particle to particle, parasite to parasite, and place to place. The resolute linearity we can chart out from where we are to where we would like to be now encounters obstacles and riddles along the way, and we are no longer in charge of our destiny. Perhaps it is helpful to echo Deborah Bird Rose’s comment: “[t]here is nothing ’natural’ about the continuity of life on earth, nor is continuity a process which can be taken for granted” In short, dissolving the astral figure of man means sophisticating an ethos of limits – limits not only to what we can do, but also limits to what we can know and how to think about the future. A thicker ‘we’ is and has always been at play, and the image of the technocrat tinkering with nature’s levers eases away to honour a startling, still-in-the-works portrait of more-than-human happenings that – if we are to take Ivan Illich’s suggestion – are often best characterized by awed silence.
As such, it is not clear what ethical imperatives shine in our posthumanist context. An invitation to be humble? A curiosity about nonhuman others? A reimagination of our broader political structures along ecopoetic and biosemiotics lines? New enclosures? Bresnihan writes that “it is important to pay attention to the novel material and discursive practices that are opening around the commons – producing worlds in commons, shared worlds, that have an immanent power, an internal logic, that are radically different to the value and knowledge practices of capitalist production and liberal, techno-scientific regulation (as we have known them).” He affirms that “what is clear…is that the re-invention of the commons, understood as the making of new subjects and “values that are grounded in material practices for the reproduction of life and its needs” will be necessary for any future, emancipatory politics”, and that this does not mean “a ‘return’ to a ‘pure’ pre-capitalist time, nor even a valorization of subsistence while wealth continues to be accumulated…”
This is what informs and animates my work with curators on ‘the emergence network’ (www.emergencenetwork.org) – not so much the articulation of a different activism or the creation of a giant manifesto for inclusive activism, but a vocation to lean into the specificities, to cultivate power-with not power-over, to cultivate new ways of responding with the world.
This ethos of sympoiesis of less than linear futures (or ‘becoming-together-with’) brings us to acknowledge the liminality of our tragic and (simultaneously) stunningly hopeful circumstances. Perhaps in resituating ourselves in postures of curiosity, we queer the liberal humanist ideals that motivate our presents practices of commoning, and allow for new possibilities, some of which may be conducive to our flourishing, to thrive. This is not the same as throwing one’s hands in the air, as if to say nothing matters, it is saying what matters is more interesting than our present frames of analysis could account for. It is saying that there are wilds beyond our fences and cultivated crop monocultures. It is saying there is wisdom in surprising places. Just ask the tortoise.
 This talk is heavily indebted to Karen Barad’s insights on intra-action and agential realism, and – more specifically – Patrick Bresnihan’s excellent paper ‘The more than human commons: from commons to commoning’.
 I do not presuppose a predetermined distinction between sub- and super-structures; this is just by way of elaboration.
 The More-than-Human Commons: From Commons to Commoning [an earlier version of this article appeared in Space, Power and the Commons: The Struggle for Alternative Futures. Kirwan, S., Dawney, L., & Brigstocke, J. (Eds.). New York: Routledge, 2015]
 Bresnihan, Patrick [The more-than-human commons]
 Val Plumwood’s Philosophical Animism: attentive inter-actions in the sentient world. Environmental Humanities, 3, 93-109.