No Longer at Ease / The Life of Lines – Interview with Beth Povinelli

Frontier Imaginaries Poster from QUT/IMA exhibition in Brisbane

Frontier Imaginaries is an exhibition currently being held across two sites in Brisbane: ‘No Longer at Ease‘ in the Institute of Modern Art and ‘The Life of Lines‘ at Queensland University of Technology.

Beth Povinelli is one of the artists featured in ‘The Life of Lines‘  – she is also Franz Boas Professor of Anthropology at Columbia University.

Beth’s research forms a critique of late liberalism – she dubs it an ‘anthropology of the otherwise’ – which I find vital to current debates about Australian identities and our visions of the future, both here and around the world.  At the launch of Frontier Imaginaries, she argued that Australia is on the front lines of a crisis in Western thought, brought about in part by the pressures of climate change and the rise of digital technology.

Originally a philosophy student, Beth’s love of Australian movies led her to visit the country on a grant application in 1984. She eventually found herself working as an anthropologist and advocate for Indigenous communities. As she says, her career has been less about “explaining” Indigenous culture and society to others, more about helping to analyze how late liberal power appears from an Indigenous perspective.

Matt: Tell us about your piece A Symphony of Liberalism in the Frontier Imaginaries exhibition at QUT. It uses musical staves to create a timeline of geopolitical events at different levels, from the broadest to the most local – and visitors can draw their own additions to the timeline with pens provided in the gallery.

Beth: The symphony began as I tried to create a visual mode of an argument I have been making about liberalism—that liberalism doesn’t exist as an abstract form that various places and peoples conform to better or worse. Rather liberalism is a set of diasporic practices that people then describe as “liberal.”

Beth Povinelli, "A Symphony of Liberalism"

This diagram reflects a call to make visible what late liberalism “is” and what it means to “do.” Take the upper and lower stanzas. One can imagine readers taking the upper stanza as the global order and the lower stanza as the local one—so Australia in the lower is a local variant of the global events provided in the upper. But the upper stanza is a retrospectively formed echo of the lower stanza—the specificities of the Australian formation and deformations of liberalism project a “global” citational ground. “From here that looks like this.”

I was hoping others would add not merely additional series of lower stanzas (a stanza from Honduras, Brazil, France, Chechnya, etc.) but also additional corresponding projective upper stanzas. Across these multiple upper and lower stanzas, which elements overlap? Why? What are the temporal lags and spatial formations?

My gut feeling is that, if we add all our stanzas and re-stanzas, late liberalism will appear as the geographical assemblage of a social project—and we would begin to see the glimmers of a multitude of immanent alternative social projects across the variants of late liberalism.

The symphony helped me see environmental and ecological movements as demanding a new way of thinking power—geontopower rather than biopower—for instance. So I am fascinated by what might emerge, what might become visible, if people added their own stanzas.

Excerpt from Beth Povinelli's "Symphony of Liberalism"

How do visual communications and alternative forms of presentation help you to communicate and engage with a broader public?

I am a very visual thinker. I often tell people that language is a very difficult medium for me. I have published five books and numerous essays, and I have been terribly lucky to find a wide audience for my thought. But human language is a struggle—I am no doubt dyslexic and periodically aphasic! But perhaps more fundamentally, I think through diagrams, through architectural spacings. An idea is three dimensional—four, I guess given change over time. So how one transfigures this way of conceptualizing into what is basically a line—grammar as syntax—has always been a huge puzzle for me.

Working within art contexts has allowed me greater freedom to work in both forms, i.e., not to use diagrams to illustrate an argument but rather make the argument in a different form.

I am nearly done with a memoir of my grandparents in graphic form. The memoir is based on a set of non-correspondences between my paternal grandparents’ social imaginary and mine. They moved to the US after the First World War from a village in what is now the Italian Dolomites. But prior to the war, the village was within the Austrian Hungarian Empire. So for them the world consisted of one’s village—for them that meant the five families that had rights to their village—and a broader empire. Nationalism was not a form they recognized as legitimate. This created all sorts of affective and discursive gaps between them and their grandchildren raised in the American south. I was trying to use the graphic nature of the memoir to create the feelings of such semantic gaps by foregrounding the visual rather than explicative. A visuality that provides enough sense to follow the story but creating a set of rhyming foreclosures.

How did watching Australian cinema contribute to your career and area of interest?

In 1984 I arrived at Belyuen, a small Indigenous community on the Cox Peninsula in the Northern Territory of Australia. I was not an anthropologist then, nor was I a wannabe anthropologist. I had an undergraduate degree in philosophy. I had studied in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and interspersed Plato with films at the local art film theatre.

They ran a series of Australian films—if I remember correctly, Walkabout, The Last Wave, Picnic at Hanging Rock, Gallipoli, and Where the Green Ants Dream. These were my introduction to Australia and shaped a grant I wrote that allowed me to visit Australia for the first time in 1984.

Becoming an anthropologist became a trajectory for me at the request of the older residents of Belyuen who, at the time, were engaged in one of the longest and most contested land claims in Australia. The dictates of the land right legislation demanded that if they lodged a land claim that they had to be represented by both a lawyer and an anthropologist.

Highlight from Beth Povinelli's Symphony of Liberalism

Since then, although I have engaged in countless little and larger projects with these older men and women, and now with their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, great-great-grandchildren and onward, my academic life has primarily consisted not of producing ethnographic texts that explain their culture and society to others but of helping to analyze how late liberal power appears when encountered from their lives. My object of analysis, in other words, is not my colleagues—who are some of my closest friends—but settler late liberalism.

What’s happening to the distinction between living and non-living things in Western thought?

For a very long time the West, both in its center and its frontiers, organized the governance of people around the drama of life and death. The renowned French historian Michel Foucault believed that the governance of life and death had two great forms. On the one hand, in the age of kings and emperors power was expressed through the sovereign’s right to kill and let live. Think here of a Roman Emperor standing before the Colosseum, his thumb hovering between up and down. This public gesture and its carnivalesque setting were quintessential of this mode of power.

With the rise of democracies and capital, a new organization of power emerged, suturing capitalism and its critics, namely the obligation of states to enhance its subjects’ lives and to kill them only in order to defend the health of the population. And this killing had to be done humanely. Foucault called the first mode of power, sovereign power, and the second mode, biopower. For the last twenty odd years, intellectuals across the globe have been exploring how biopower has expanded and altered as state security and capital have changed. The point is that states gain their legitimacy by demonstrating their capacity to provide a better more productive life rather than demonstrating their capacity to kill on a whim.

In my new book, Geontologies, A Requiem to Late Liberalism, I argue that over the last decade, as anthropogenic climate change and toxicity have become more apparent and pressing, and as the geological concept of the Anthropocene has gained traction, the drama of human life and death has simultaneously been intensified and provincialized. It has intensified because the deadly effects of human made climate change and environmental toxicity have become clearer and pressing. And it has provincialized these effects insofar as the whole earth and all its existences seem at stake.

It would seem then that biopower would not only continue to be relevant but even more so. And yet, the struggle to stem, let alone reverse the tide of these malevolent forces has suddenly made a mode of power that was always underpinning biopower visible. For lack of a better term I am calling this power geontological power, or geontopower.

The simplest way of sketching the difference between geontopower and biopower is that the former does not operate through the governance of life and the tactics of death but is rather a set of discourse, affects, and tactics used in late liberalism to maintain or shape the coming relationship of the distinction between that which comes into existence with the capacity of life and death (organic material) and that which arrives inert (inorganic). Suddenly this difference is not as relevant—climate change depends on an entire assemblage of things—sands, clouds, plants, micro and macro organisms, fresh and saltwater. Organisms depend on nonorganic matter. Moreover, it is not less apparent where the organism begins and ends—if I depend on the air to breath am I inside my body or outside in the toxic clouds over Fukushima? If I am dependent on ingesting water does my body stop at my skin or is it part and parcel of the lead poisoned pipes in Flint, Michigan? If the planet breathes are stones part of its organic nature?

So it’s partly about anthropogenic climate change and toxicity. But it is also about how everything we do is now understood relative to a framework that is no longer working as it once did. This includes digital archives and projects. Governments and their critics and the natural and philosophical sciences could both assume that there was an obvious difference between this with life and things without, things that could suffer death and things that could not. Rights, duties, knowledges and affects were organized on the basis of this decision. Geology was distinct from biology. Humans had the most rights, then down the organistic scale until one hit “rock” bottom!

But increasingly not only can’t critical theorists demonstrate the superiority of the human to other forms of life—thus the rise of posthumanist politics and theory—but they also struggle to maintain a difference that makes a difference between all forms of Life and the category of Nonlife.

Informational capitalism is a great example of the new geontological problems we face. Workers are not the precarious laborers within the silicon knowledge factories, but all the dispersed and fragmented nodes within and across which information-desire is being produced, elaborated, amplified, distributed, and consumed. This vast assemblage includes geologists, geneticists, biochemists, miners, software coders, biocircuitry, computer algorithms, massive data storage facilities, air-conditioners, satellites, human fingers and rare earth based screens, legislation for appropriating gas and minerals, ship and ship canals and the teaming life and toxicities carried and discharged in its ballast that cross territories, sink into soils, are ingested in drinking water, et cetera.

Why is Australia at the front lines of this collapse?

I think it is globally illuminative for three reasons. The most obvious, of course, is the dry nature of the continent. It’s hard to afford the luxury of denial that the human is irreducibly inside its environment rather than external to it—although, as we know, that hasn’t stopped various vested interests in trying. Tethered tightly to this climate problem is mining. The gaping holes, toxic spillage, invasive species, nuclear testing, and carbon markets all point to the way in which nonlife has been governed quite differently to life—has been.

On the tip of everyone’s tongue: there should be humane mining in the sense of treating nature humanely whether a rock, river, or sandy plain, in a similar way many demand humane slaughter houses. Of course, we’re still slaughtering, but we’re now not differentiating as sharply the destruction of an environment from the killing of various life forms. Nonlife forms are beginning to be granted rights.

Finally, the Australian settler state gained its legitimacy by assuming that there was a self-evident difference between Life and Nonlife when it came to subjectivity, intentionality, and self-organized action.

In the early settler period the invasion of Indigenous lands was justified on the basis of a primitive mentality and society—people who were unable to differentiate such “fundamental” differences as living things and nonliving things. Instead, rocks were alive, river, sand banks, et cetera.

The mid 1970s through the mid 2000s saw what seemed to be a dramatic shift under the banner of self-determination. The state and public celebrated the cultural beliefs of Indigenous people, including their refusal to differentiate between life and nonlife according to Western paradigms. But, for the most part Western knowledge disciplines were untouched by Indigenous analytics. These analytics were reduced to cultural beliefs, that is, the law demanded that Indigenous people believe that rocks listened, for instance, but it did not itself believe. This strange split emerged within the politics of mining and thus the politics of anthropogenic climate change and toxicity.

After all, one of the first battlegrounds for Indigenous land rights in Australia was over bauxite mining on Yolngu country in Arnhem Land that threatened to transform verdant wetlands into toxic deserts. Wali Wunungmurra was one of the original signatories of the “Bark Petition” to the Australian parliament, which demanded that Yolngu people be recognized as the owners. So, climate change, mining, and an Indigenous insistence that Western epistemologies were radically wrong-headed provided, and provides an incredibly important perspective from which to view the unfolding of geontopower globally.

How could institutions and communities be listening better to Indigenous people?

One of the first things would be to stop thinking about Indigenous understanding of the world as cultural. Culture and cosmology interpret Indigenous world-making as in their heads, as belief, rather than a mode of truth. What is interesting about the emergence of geontopower is that the Western sciences are now struggling to re-suture the cut between biology and geology, biochemistry and geochemistry.

Indeed, a new interdisciplinary literacy is the only hope for finding a way to square our current arrangement of life with the continuation of human and planetary life as such. Scientists, philosophers, anthropologists, politicians, political theorists, historians, writers, and artists must gather their wisdom, develop a level of mutual literacy, and cross-pollinate their severed lineages. Entirely new disciplines in the natural sciences are emerging—geobiochemistry—and Western philosophies are returning to the question of ontology, but now through Indigenous multinaturalisms.

Frontier Imaginaries is currently on show in Brisbane.

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