New Materialism, Environmental Justice, and Digital Sites of Resistance: Figuring the Cyborg Activist
Below is a shortened version of Annie Culver’s essay that won Honorable Mention in the 2017 Greene Prize for Environmental Writing. Annie is a PhD student in English at Rice University.
Endowed by the family of alumnus David Greene (’93), the Greene Prize was established in 1998 to encourage the creation, dissemination, and recognition of original environmental writing by students at Rice. In 2016, the competition was expanded to include Rice graduate students for the first time, with the aim of offering prizes at both the undergraduate and graduate level to reward excellence in environmental writing. All Greene Prize submissions this year were nominated by Rice faculty who taught courses with substantial environmental content. Nominations included outstanding coursework, creative writing, thesis projects, research reports and writing oriented toward a public audience.
In August of 2016 the Standing Rock Sioux tribe began what would be a six-month long protest against the construction the Dakota Access pipeline. Its construction threatened the tribe’s sacred sites and their water source. The water protectors, as the tribal protesters are known, successfully delayed, but ultimately could not stop the Dakota Access pipeline from being built on their sacred land. The protests threw into sharp relief the state violence that underpins corporate control of public lands. According to Nick Estes, a Sioux academic and activist, hundreds of protesters were arrested, beaten, and pepper sprayed. They had their cultural objects like medicine bundles as well as personal property like cars confiscated. They endured extreme cold and shortages of food and water. Access to the Internet was limited at the Standing Rock camp. There was, however, one spot known as “Facebook hill” where protestors could update their families, fellow activists, and the public about what was happening. Facebook hill draws an explicit connection between the land, protest efforts, and the importance of social media as a place to express a counternarrative to the often skewed story that police and other state and corporate agencies were telling to traditional media outlets. The indigenous peoples who mounted these protests come from a philosophical, theoretical, spiritual, and practical place of interconnection between the human and the nonhuman.
Current scholarship in New materialism is catching up with what these indigenous peoples have known for centuries in concepts like Stacy Alaimo’s “transcorporeality, in which the human is always intermeshed with the more-than-human world, [underlining] the extent to which the substance of the human is ultimately inseparable from ‘the environment’” (Alaimo 2). Simultaneously, as changes in the ways that activism is done, primarily through the Internet, new modes of resistance to environmental injustice are being built. In the first part of this paper, I seek to contextualize the contemporary environmentalist movement. In pointing to some of the key insights in new materialism I will show how the previous era’s environmental activism is being updated in this moment of heightened public concern about climate change. Following Donna Haraway’s breakdown of human/nonhuman and human/machine boundaries, I will posit the cyborg activist as a figure of multiplicity, relation, and porosity as a model of political resistance to ecological and social injustice in online spaces in the era of environmental crisis. This figure’s reliance on the Internet and social media as tools for organizing actions, shaping messages of political resistance, bringing publics to environmental and social justice consciousness, and disrupting common narratives about what activism is, who participates in it, and what it can achieve are what set this figure apart from the mid to late twentieth century figures of environmental activism. I will then turn to Standing Rock as a case study in how some of the insights of new materialism are being borne out in the sites of political resistance to policies of environmental destruction through the diffuse network of cyborg activists employing new technologies.
Confronting issues of environment in the age of the Anthropocene and the emergence of posthumanism in the humanities disciplines is producing perhaps some of the most pressing and innovative work in these fields. New materialism is a body of theory that connects issues of gender, the environment, and science among others. Not to be confused with but certainly intimately tied to historical materialism, New materialism is chiefly concerned with matter in its ontological, epistemological, ethical, and political dimensions. These theoretical interventions focus on the relations between human and nonhuman in light of a three-pronged confluence of historical events: the ever-increasing effects of global warming and climate change, the rapid proliferation of neoliberalism and its policies of deregulation of private and corporate interests in the political sphere, and the advent of the Internet and digital communications technologies. Obviously, these are large-scale and incredibly complex events that will require equally large-scale and complex responses. Here I aim to focus in on the way that environmental consciousness is being expressed online and its relation to already existing and currently developing theoretical frameworks in New materialism. This will aid in understanding the potentials (and, of course limits) of digital and social media as tools for confronting issues of environmental justice. Viewing social media as a nonhuman actor in a human/nonhuman web of relations allows for a new space to develop political resistance to the vast and interconnected policies that degrade the environment and violate the rights of the human, nonhuman animal, vegetable, and nonorganic matter that occupy our shared ecosystem. Attending to the Internet’s simultaneities, contradictions, and tensions as a resource for activists opens up space to think through the most effective ways to employ social media in resistance efforts.
The connections between the recent developments in the strategies of capitalism and the Anthropocene are complicated and extensive. The corrosive effects on the environment due to corporate actors’ increasing influence in nation states across the globe are well-documented and have been at the source of environmentalist activism for decades. For example, in his book, Slow Violence, Rob Nixon recounts the relationship between Royal Dutch Shell Oil and the Abacha regime in Nigeria in the 1990s. The oil giant was able to use the state military force to quell resistance to its corporate objectives in drilling for oil on the land belonging to the micro-minority of Ogoni people. In response, Ken Sara-Wiwa, an Ogoni writer and activist, published books and articles as a way to mount protest against the oil company’s “ethical absenteeism” and Abacha’s militaristic policies. Nixon asserts that Sara-Wiwa sought to strategically turn “‘The deadly ecological war against the Ogoni’ into a struggle emblematic of our times” (Nixon 105). The struggle over oil in the 1990s in Nigeria is exemplary of Nixon’s concept of “slow violence” whereby the spatiotemporalities of environmental destruction aid in corporate and state regimes of occlusion that actively seek to displace through time and space the damaging effects of their commercial practices. Because environmental destruction is slow and often disproportionally shouldered by communities of color, people in the Global South, women, and other marginalized groups, it is (by design) invisible to publics in the Western world. Oil and the corporate and state powers that continue to create systems of reliance on this environmentally degrading commodity continues to be one of the key sites of struggle for today’s environmentalist movement.
The figuring of online environmental discourses and forms of resistance as happening within digital spaces aids in understanding the spatiotemporal dimensions of the Internet and how activists can best employ these tools in their efforts to confront systems of oppression. In embodying the writer-activist, Saro-Wiwa became a symbolic figure of resistance to the acts of violence perpetrated by Shell Oil and the Abacha regime. In the same way, new forms of resistance happening online are becoming emblems of environmental and social justice movements in the Internet era. Online temporalities make the “slow violence” of climate change more immediate, persistent and at least discursively present in the public imaginary. The Internet is pervasive and diffuse; immediate and projected into the past and future. In coming to terms with these realities as social media becomes a dominant force in social and political life, it will become clearer how the theoretical approach of a New materialist perspective can link up to the activisms being expressed online to participate in (to borrow Nixon’s phrase again) a “struggle emblematic of our times.” To be emblematic of the contemporary moment is to be multiple and adaptable. Here, I would turn to Karen Barad’s contribution of intra-action as, “a relationality between specific material (re)configurings of the world through which boundaries, properties, and meanings are differentially enacted.” This constant reconfiguring of the material world mirrors the constant unfolding of online information flows and social interactions. As the Internet perpetually reconfigures the social world, the diffusion of political agency across multiple bodies, groups, and social justice projects opens up space for mounting resistance.
For instance, the mediating presence of journalists or publishers is significantly diminished in online spaces. Therefore, the figure of the cyborg activist is a rich site for figuring a voice that does not mediate but instead is able to contend with the pressure that immediacy presents in the digital age. The cyborg activist is one who lives in and through the ever-shifting narratives and spatiotemporalities of online life. This figure is not a singular hero or martyr figure like Saro-Wiwa. Contemporary social justice movements with a strong Internet ethos are underpinned by an ethics of cooperation and anti-authoritarianism, stressing the importance of collective rather than individual leadership. They are diffuse but organized movements showing how digital communications technologies like the hashtag can rapidly mobilize networks of activists and thinkers to respond to interconnected social injustices in real time. The cyborg activist must be able to navigate the territories of traditional forms of activist rhetorics while simultaneously being plugged in to constantly-evolving ways of communicating and organizing through online media.
To see how the cyborg activist is contending with the terrain of Internet potentials and limitations, it is important to look to currently developing resistance movements where social media is working as a force for political change.
In this second part of the paper, I look to the protests at Standing Rock to unpack some of the ways that activists and academics are thinking through the use of the Internet as a tool for resisting the forces that lead to ecological destruction. Looking at the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock aids in understanding how the environmental theories of New materialism, in which the human and nonhuman are intimately connected, links up with an activist politics with a strong online presence. In an episode of the Cultures of Energy Podcast discussing the events at Standing Rock, Kristen Simmons and Nick Estes outlined some of the ways that social media can aid environmental activists in their engagement with the broader public. They point out the way that traditional media outlets have ignored or obscured the existence and objectives of activist projects. They posit social media as an alternative whereby the activists themselves can relay information and narrate events as they happen in real time (Cultures of Energy 30.00-35.30). The powerful potential for activists to control the narrative of their protest activities and clearly spell out their aims and objectives gives these political movements unprecedented access to the publics they seek to galvanize. While the Internet is a place where “spin” is immediately created in reaction to any political resistance movement in an effort to neutralize or obscure the intended message, the ability to get information to targeted activist groups and broader publics should not be looked at as an insignificant step towards effective organizing tactics.
Another positive political potential of internet activism is the way that it unites social justice movements, creating webs of relationality between and among social and environmental justice movements. For instance, the Black Lives Matter website prominently states solidarity with and links to websites supporting the efforts at Standing Rock. By literally and figuratively linking these movements, the digital space is one where intersections between race, gender, environment, and others become explicit. This allows a variety of social justice movements to create a united front while also having space to voice their specific historically and socially located differences.
While these powerful potentials are cause for celebration among environmentally friendly and socially conscious publics, the drawbacks associated with online iterations of activist discourses must not be underestimated either. Simmons and Estes express concern about the way that the security state may use social media to track and monitor individuals associated with activist movements. Indeed, the way that I was first exposed to the conflict at Standing Rock was through a Facebook campaign encouraging users to “check-in” at the reservation to disrupt police efforts to identify and locate protesters at the camp. While this clearly points to the way that state agencies and forces may use corporate platforms like Facebook or Twitter to disrupt and quell activist efforts, it also shows how creativity in the way these platforms are used can counter such forces.
Other criticisms of “hashtag activism” focus on the ways in which the Internet allows people to feel connected to or engaged in a social problem without actually presenting any real threat to the power structures that create oppression or injustice. Essentially, an ever-widening gulf between discourse and praxis emerges in online spaces. This is a valid criticism as thousands of Twitter users can jump on a hashtag bandwagon, alleviating their guilt by voicing their concern. Anyone using the hashtag “NODAPL” could feel connected to the Standing Rock effort without ever setting foot on the tribal ground or putting their bodies, comfort, and freedom on the line. This sense of displaced connection effectively disables the political engines that fuel resistance efforts. If online activism stops at the hashtag it is indeed ineffectual in confronting incredibly powerful hegemonic structures. That being said, however limiting to activist efforts the Internet may be, it may also be equal in its potential to allow for political organizing, providing pathways for protest and disruption, and building discourse between and among disparate but ultimately connected movements.
By taking seriously the way that digital media spaces and the practices that define activist efforts within them in tandem with the way that those in power are pushing back against such efforts, the cyborg activist can better attain their goals of environmental and social justice. At the same time, the theoretical tools developing in New materialism in coming to more ethically considered ontological and epistemological models can help academics and activists alike to understand the material-discursive entanglements that come into play in creating and sustaining these digitized forms of resistance. I conclude at the hopeful horizon of political possibilities open to environmental activists through new configurations between human, technology, and other nonhuman assemblage.
1. “Standing Rock 2 (feat. Nick Estes and Kristen Simmons).” Cultures of Energy Podcast.
Alaimo, Stacy. Bodily Natures. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2010.
Barad, Karen. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
Boyer, Dominic and Cymene Howe. “Standing Rock 2 (feat. Nick Estes and Kristen Simmons).” Cultures of Energy Podcast. Center for Energy and Environmental Research in the Human Sciences @ Rice. 23 November 2016.
Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Routledge, 1990, pp. 291-324.
Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Harvard University Press, 2011.