Book Review: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, eds. Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt

Posted by on Jan 17, 2018
Book Review: Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, eds. Tsing, Swanson, Gan, and Bubandt

Tsing, Anna, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt, eds. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

What kind of thinking may help us live amid ecological destruction? The Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet collection edited by Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan, and Nils Bubandt brings together social theorists and natural scientists to think about the Anthropocene and ecological destruction through the figures of monsters and ghosts. Contributing to a growing conversation around more-than-human ecologies, landscapes, and histories, this book offers a rich collection of essays based on encounters ranging from the mundane to the extraordinary. For readers interested in the Anthropocene and our place in it, these pieces both provide instructive and concrete examples, as well as enact careful, intentional modes of representation.

At the heart of this collection’s intervention is the move to see monsters and ghosts as particular forms of storytelling, ones the editors suggest may help us tell stories in a better way than we do now. Monsters, they describe, are a mode of considering how beings are not strictly individuals, but rather multispecies entanglements with material and conceptual interdependencies. This is monstrous in two senses: first, in the way that symbiotic entanglements are abominably wondrous against the backdrop of conventional ideas of the human; and second, in the way that our entanglements terrifyingly amplify the threat of ecological disruption to what might have been previously considered merely one, small, disconnected niche. Ghosts, on the other hand, are a mode of thinking about the multiple, more-than-human histories of the landscapes that surround and produce us. Returning to these pasts makes them palpable as ghosts, which haunt with reminders of the possibility of life otherwise.

Such figures of monsters and ghosts work against what the editors refer to as the “double conceit of modern Man,” the duo of the Individual and Progress (M2). Monsters, emphasizing symbiotic, porous entanglements, work against the Individual as a distinct, bounded entity. Ghosts work against Progress by directing attention to the diverse, more-than-human pasts haunting ecological landscapes. In this way, monsters and ghosts, the editors argue, encourage us away from the conceits of Progress and the Individual, helping us notice things that we usually do not.

This practice of noticing finds motivation from not only ethnography and critical theory, but scientific observation as well. The collection blends essays from across the disciplines, with contributors from science studies, ecology, art, literature, anthropology, and bioinformatics. The book, entertainingly double-sided, is divided along the two figures of monsters and ghosts, with a separate (but not analytically disconnected) introduction for each. The essays in each section often do not explicitly center on their respective figure of monster or ghost, but are still guided by these figures as broader analytic themes.

On the monsters side, Ursula K. Le Guin begins with an essay on poetry and storytelling, followed by a few of her poems evoking images of stones, bones, fairytales, nightmares, greed, and silence. In Chapter 2, Donna Haraway considers art science activisms, such as the Crochet Coral Reef project, as sympoietic practices for staying with the trouble of living on a damaged planet. Chapter 3, by Margaret McFall-Ngai, looks at new understandings of biology ushered in by genomics, and how such understandings can speak to multispecies relationships in the Anthropocene. Scott F. Gilbert, in Chapter 4, thinks through holobionts, organisms plus the symbiotic communities within and attached to them, and the ways holobionts challenge conventional conceptions of animal individuality. In Chapter 5, Carla Freccero considers the queer couplings, twisted paths, and denatured temporalities of historical wolf-dog-human entanglements. In Chapter 6, by Marianne Elisabeth Lien, we hear about the domestication of Atlantic salmon and the additional, unexpected multispecies domestications required to appease the appetites of the fish, their feed, and their human purveyors. Chapter 7 offers an essay from Deborah M. Gordon on collective behavior in ants and the need to develop new language around multispecies groups, autonomy, and control. Peter Funch, in Chapter 8, recounts the entanglements between horseshoe crabs and some of their companion species, and how such entanglements challenge current conservation efforts. In Chapter 9, Ingrid M. Parker argues that we must address the challenges of amnesia and blindness when it comes to changes and evolution in ecological landscapes. Dorion Sagan then offers a coda reflecting on the roles of both connection and disconnection in multispecies entanglements.

On the ghosts side, Lesley Stern in Chapter 1 discusses the geological and ecological histories and landscapes that defy the US-Mexico border. Chapter 2, by Kate Brown, considers nuclear spelunking among the Chernobyl remains and the ways matter writes its own history, like through radioautographs. In Chapter 3, Deborah Bird Rose suggests that thinking through the concept of shimmer can help us consider the biosphere and our wreckage of it in new, urgent ways. In Chapter 4, we hear from Jens-Christian Svenning about ghosts of giant animals and the potential ramifications of further megafauna extinctions. Chapter 5, by Andreas Hejnol, examines changing metaphors of evolutionary thinking and how these are restructuring notions of hierarchy and complexity. Karen Barad, in Chapter 6, considers mushrooms of various sizes and kinds and unpacks what histories, ghosts, and haunting entail in the context of quantum field theory and the materiality of time-being, suggesting a rethinking of time and scale. In Chapter 7, Nils Bubandt explores mud flats, mud volcanoes, and the necropolitics of haunted geologies. Chapter 8 looks at forest histories with Andrew S. Mathews, who argues that tracing past forest-animal-human encounters can inspire imaginings of supportive environmental futures. Anne Pringle, in Chapter 9, recounts her scientific research on lichen communities that suggested to her alternative meanings of aging, death, and stasis. Finally, Mary Louise Pratt’s coda examines the role of concept and chronotope in thinking and writing about the Anthropocene, arguing that what is at stake is not “what the Anthropocene is but how it will be lived” (G170). Living in this sense will require further unsettling of currently operative figurations of time and space.

Engaging with a wide range of material, evidence, and modes of analysis, the Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet collection helps stretch our conversation around Anthropocene mattering and provides useful, concrete stories to return to as we continue to think about living amid ecological destruction.