Monsters, catastrophes and the Anthropocene. A Postcolonial toolbox to rethink the Anthropocenic Anthropos

Lecture Series at WG “Decolonising Research” (23rd of March 2021)

Gaia Giuliani – Center for Social Studies, University of Coimbra, Portugal

The discussion drew largely from my last book Monsters, Catastrophes and the Anthropocene, where I developed a postcolonial critique to selected material and symbolic dispositifs that reproduce specific colonial discourses and power relations. Among other dispositifs, I applied my critical analysis to bordering to understand in a genealogical time scale the ongoing moral panic towards three apparently disconnected phenomena – human mobility, terrorism and catastrophes – interpreted in mainstream media and institutional narratives as though they were located Outside Europe and the Global Norths and moving Westward.

As confirmed also by my analysis within the collective FCT funded project (De)Othering: Deconstructing Risk and Otherness: hegemonic scripts and counter-narratives on migrants/refugees and ‘internal Others’ in Portuguese and European mediascapes (2018-2021), European and broader Western public discourses (forged by institutions and news media, as well as mainstream cultural productions) see people in mobility from the former colonized world as risky bodies (Aradau; Amoore and De Goede) against which a language of war is constantly deployed (Ticktin; Brown; Agier; Fassin; Jones) – as if people in mobility were heading exclusively to Europe and the West, generating insecurity and requiring national defence. Similarly, public narratives represent catastrophes like Sars-2-Covid19 as the result of the mismanagement of technology in places governed by a bad-version of capitalism only possible in contexts outside the so-called Global North, and terrorism as the outcome of backwardness and generated in a similar “Elsewhere”, which is rarely seen as a complex phenomenon that interrogates Europe and the West and its local and global power relations.

This interpretation has its origins in a specific positionality, which is that of a “we” located in the so-called Global North, whose mainstream narratives are at the core of my inquiry. It incorporates diverse political dynamics, social processes, and geographies, as well as those from transatlantic ties, from Europe to the rest of the West and the broader Global North. As such, the roots of the “we” lie in a vast realm of converging and diverging cultural elements, narratives, and self-narratives, which I observe as crystallising into a single voice at certain historical moments – when homogeneous narratives and policies on migration, the war on terror, and environmental catastrophes are deployed to structure the way the “we” conceives of and responds to threats. It is in times like those that the “we” is made into a consolidated ‘imagined community’. Just as in the wake of 9/11 or during the Covid-19 pandemic, a shared history and a common future are invoked to legitimise emergency measures. Based on certain political and international acknowledgements of a ‘common destiny’, the “we” can operate as a semiotic dispositif capable of developing converging strategies and common actions against migrants’ “invasion”, terrorism, and catastrophes.

Through a postcolonial critical lens, I see the “we’s” moral panic towards human mobility, terrorism, and catastrophes as interconnected and I consider this interconnection related to what I have called the semiotic power of borders. Since modernity, borders correspond to segmentation along cartographic lines that throughout the Anthropocene have been drawn for the purpose of absorbing and eliminating biological and cultural diversity and hybridity through Western “geography” and “history” (De Certeau), combined with the collective subordination to the logic of profit. As such, borders always served as meaning-makers – they hold a “semiotic power” – to reproduce the coloniality of Western (capitalist and heteropatriarchal) logics and ontologies that since modernity were legitimized through the “we’s” history, geography, and notion of humanity. These logics and ontologies separate the Anthropocenic Anthropos – that is, the subject of “Reason” in Western dominant epistemology – from its racialised, classed, gendered, non-human and not-living rest (Gilmore). The semiotic power of borders uses, re-articulates and produces specific “figures of race” (Giuliani) which, drawn from colonial and cultural archives of race (Stoler; Wekker), legitimise value extraction, extermination, environmental catastrophes, epistemic genocide, as well as hegemonic conceptions of disaster and policies of disaster management. At the same time, bordering contributes to a conception of a “right world” as goodwilled and innocent, yet constantly at siege, threatened by what is Outside, read in continuity with colonial ontologies and logics underpinning the Anthropocene as monstrous, criminal and inherently deadly (Giuliani in Baldwin and Bettini).

In this context, the “we’s” moral panic for the vanishing of borders signals a triple crisis that I would call “Anthropocenic” and that can be seen as one underpinned by the fear of the “end of the history, geography and humanity” of the Western “we”. This triple crisis is, at the same time, human-generated and intrinsically environmental. Assuming that the environment is a social phenomenon and that the interdependence and intra-activity of all biological, physical elements, as well as power relations structuring life on Earth, even terrorism, are intra-systemically generated by human and not-human factors – as Telford’s essay on the “climate terrorism assemblage” highlights. But the interconnectedness of biological, physical, and political elements is not only related to materiality: it is symbolic, tied to Western scientific epistemology of which the triple Anthropocenic crisis represents an inherent subversion.

In fact, the end of history and geography has to do with the perceived vanishing of those symbolic and material boundaries that the “we” created to legitimise its separatedness and ontological difference from and superiority over what is outside of it, while silencing the coloniality of its powers’ operation. A vanishing that would also dissolve Western identity and power, including hierarchies and inequalities that sustain the idea of the Anthropocenic Anthropos as the highest expression of humanness.

In conclusion, the “we’s” fears of the end of its “history, geography and humanity”, that seem to follow the subversion of the borders that constitute the “we” as such, is in fact the moral panic of the unveiling of the Global North “we’s” violent narratives of its ‘common destiny’, ‘inherent innocence’, ‘ontological separatedness’ and ‘political scientific and epistemological superiority’ that sustain the Anthropocene, together with its conception of geography, history and humanity.

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