A reply

I am immensely grateful to everyone who took the time to engage Self-Devouring Growth for this forum and to Todd Meyers and everyone at Somatosphere for the work they do.  Such work is always an act of generosity. But that is especially the case now, when everyone is already profoundly over-taxed after this bitter and grueling year of loss. The scholars gathered here include the authors of some of my most favorite books and essays of the past few years, people from whom I have learned a great deal, and I am thankful to have received such thoughtful commentary from them. Though I do not know all of these authors personally I have taken the liberty of referring to them by first name in the spirit of conversation.

My hope in writing this book was to map a system of relationships as relationships – a system that ties the problems of climate change, pollution, and loss of biodiversity together into a larger frame. I hoped that in leading readers through such a system, I could help them to think holistically about our ecological condition and counter any easy turn to technological fixes and new forms of consumption as the solution to complex political and economic problems. In doing so, I wanted to contribute to the collective politics of refusal that Radhika invokes.  This is a refusal that, to quote Radhika, “does not assume a parity of harm across bodies” but which instead shows readers how they are instrumentalized in ongoing processes of destruction, and how they are emplotted in relationships they cannot control, which depending on their location they might not be able to fully perceive. My hope is that once a reader sees a system of relationships like this, once one sees growth as an alibi for evisceration, they cannot un-see it.

Of course some people can already perceive these relationships all too clearly.  Abou’s collaborators in the Peruvian Amazon and Emily’s interlocutors in Guatemala like many others around the world, already understand all too well the nature of self-devouring growth and are seeking means for refusal. Emily asks directly what this book says to them, and suggests that at least in Guatemala there is no “we”, no human superorganism, no interspeciated collective, there are instead only predators and prey. In reply, I would say that this book may well fail to offer anything new to her Guatemalan friends and interlocutors or to others who have long been on the vanguard. As she suspects they were not my intended audience when I wrote. I had in mind undergraduate readers, who would be inheriting this destructive formation whole cloth. But nonetheless Emily’s question is an important one. I answer with my own question –  in such a Manichean world cleaved into predators and prey – who is the anthropologist?  The long history of our discipline (which Juno invokes in her comments) would suggest the answer is predator, extractor. But are those our only possible options?

Botswana’s position complicates a Manichean narrative of predator and prey as well as any singular invocation of racial capitalism as an explanatory logic. This is why, I think, it is a particularly useful location from which to approach these issues. The British colonization of Bechuanaland and its development as a labor reserve for South African industry was certainly an insidious expression of racial capitalism. But, unlike Guatemala, Botswana’s postcolonial diamond mining industry, Debswana, is a fifty-fifty partnership between DeBeers and the government of the Republic of Botswana. Debswana is the world’s leading diamond producer by value and the biggest contributor to DeBeers, giving Botswana substantial power in this relationship. The mines are operated by Batswana and they fund the national coffers helping to underwrite everything from education to food baskets to antiretroviral drugs. This is a formation that exemplifies the ethos James Ferguson refers to as a rightful share.  And yet Debswana also embraces and furthers policies that displace indigenous Africans, thus complicating the dynamics of racial capitalism at play. I direct readers to the work of anthropologist Pierre DuPlessis whose scholarship with indigenous people in the Kalahari takes up related environmental concerns to those I explore.

There are indeed explicitly predatory devouring forces at work in the world. Think of the US military, with its massive carbon footprint, toxic burn pits, trail of superfund sites, and long-term toxic and carcinogenic aftermaths, and its insatiable hunger for forever-war stoked by the profiteering of weapons manufacturing, oil, and other capitalist concerns. But I employ the rhetorical device of “we” in the spirit Radhika offers in her comments, as an encouragement to readers to locate themselves within relationships and to engage in processes of “mutual recognition and avowal, albeit across lop-sided terrain.” This is a lopsidedness to which Fanny also refers, where aeronautics and automobile industries are subsidized and health care workers cast adrift. But what I want readers to see is that even way far away from the zones of friction where the relationship can be obscured – it is still a relationship. Emily is right – specificity of context matters. But the climate is a planetary formation in which the relationships in one specific context can affect the weather in another. And global commerce is such that many people celebrate their engagement with a diamond, whose origins they know not, eating steak whose origins they know not. So I turn to the parable form as an experiment in contending with scale and time – which, as Alex notes, are central to the problem at hand. But I also acknowledge its limits, which her comments help to elucidate.

I am glad that Fanny sees this as a book that speaks to global health. Like Simukai, she points us to cancer as a powerful metaphor; she asks what other work can it do? I think it has the potential to do much, to open new sightlines. Just think, for example how the mutation-of-the-self nature of cancer directs attention differently, raises different questions from the immunity/infection paradigm with its focus on borders and invasion. I think a more generative and deeper answer comes from Abou’s new work, of which I have seen some early writing. His is an approach that scales up from cancer to consider terminality as a contemporary technoscientific eschatology, a secular condition for the end of the world.

Juno has pointed to the structural situation in the African academy that deprives African scholars of time and resources to produce their scholarship, and that requires many to sustain themselves through consultancies and report writing for development partners. The opportunity to write an academic parable or some other sort of experimental humanistic work is rare indeed. This is also true in the American academy as we all are painfully aware. Private universities (and privatized, nominally public ones as well) are their own sites of self-devouring growth, consuming adjuncts and other poorly remunerated staff and students with debt while growing its footprint, its middle management, its sports franchise etc. I am one of those fortunate few who is tenured at a research university, and thus in a position to experiment with form.

Thinking alongside Juno, in effort to underscore the politics of knowledge production to which she points, I want to encourage openness to discipline and form. While it is difficult for African anthropologists to find the institutional support to write parables, formal experiments abound. My own book finds inspiration in and follows the lead of African-American authors like Nnedi Okafor or Octavia Butler, whose work I hail. They have been producing speculative fiction that is analytically brilliant and rhetorically exciting on these issues for decades. In another vein, African journalists are producing so much important work. In my book, for example, I rely heavily on the work of Batswana journalists– many of whom have done the heavy lifting here — to establish my evidentiary base. There are some brilliant, intrepid, and tenacious journalists working in Africa. Though the same funding issues prohibit much of the kind of long-form journalism that would allow them to write parables, their insights and analysis are vital. And of course, there are also long-form American journalists like Sarah Kendzior or Brian Goldstone who began as anthropologists and moved to journalism and in the process are blurring genres and forms. Lastly, there are African scholars who are doing really interesting and important thinking in short-form pieces. For example, Divine Fuh at University of Cape Town, has been helping produce the Corona Times and Sean Jacobs’ project Africa is a Country is a must-read site for short-form essays by African scholars and journalists.

Abou draws our attention to the substantial role of debt and global finance capital in driving self-devouring growth.  As he notes, I fail to address it in the book, and I see this as a real shortcoming of my analysis. At one stage I began to draft a chapter for the parable that was about money (madi in Setswana, also the word for blood), but I could not figure my way through it and eventually abandoned it. I had previously researched and written about consumer debt in Botswana and knew this was a part of it, but I failed to fully trace that debt up the food chain to the massive formation in which it operates. In the years since I have been reading much more about debt and finance capital for a different project and now am beginning to grasp the microphysics of how debt and credit animate self-devouring growth, strongarm it into place.

As I hope is clear, I am profoundly troubled by our unfolding planetary predicament. And yet as Simukai rightly suggests, I do not offer a solution or much in the way of guidance. The fact is I do not know what to do. But I write in the hopes that some readers of my parable will find lessons there as they go about forging solutions. I hope, in particular, that the parable will show them why technological solutions are not only insufficient, but also must be understood within the systems in which they are deployed. Simukai suggests I find some hope in the figure of the animated ecology. My intention, actually, though I did not articulate it well, was to offer some hope in the highly imperfect political form that maintained that ecology. That was a political form that was based on regular face-to-face public debate, that assumed responsibility for the animated ecology as a commons and not a mode of private property, and that operated through a moral imagination and moral economy that began with the premise that humans are directly responsible for the climate as a collective project one that offered a litmus test for the viability of political leadership.

Alex asks what makes “our” imagination collective at this moment — and why is imagination the central political vehicle for generating other futures? I think the profound damage to our planet – our collective home fosters and underscores the need for collective imagination. I think the global commonsense of the growth imperative among so many policy makers underscores the need for an alternative collective imagination. This is a problem that is highly localized in dry wells and toxic landscapes, regionally manifest in great swaths of fire or the damage of massive storm systems, and which exceeds the nation-state in its necessary politics of address. I use the term imagination, because I think it is the necessary bedrock of change not just at the level of policy – but metaphysically (a term I prefer over cosmology – the term Abou uses), and as a move against fatalism. The collective nature of imagination to which I refer is not intended to be singular. As the authors of a new Degrowth manifesto remind us, across the world right now there are experiments, in organizing and maintaining commons, in debt forgiveness and jubilees, in climate organizing and action, in the creation of sustainable communities, in the refusal of the consumptive push etc. Some are still thought experiments, some have been put into action, some have failed (for now) – but all begin with imagination. As academics we spend a great deal of time engaged in critique; we are trained to critique. But we can also help to imagine new worlds, different relationships in concert with those who are struggling to bring those worlds into being. It is my hope that (with thanks to Radhika for my new favorite quote) experiments with form can, as Ricoeur says, “disorient only to reorient us.”

Julie Livingston is Silver Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and History at New York University. Her work is at the intersection of history, anthropology, and public health.  Her other books include Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic (Duke University Press, 2012), and Debility and the Moral Imagination in Botswana (Indiana University Press, 2005).

One reply on “A reply”

unless someone imagines an effective new means of mass conversion and political re-organization this kind of parable/theory remains in the realm of fiction, good for academic projects and entertainment but…

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