Eco-Thoughts: An Interview with Joanna Zylinska

Feminist Counter-Apocalypse, Now!

“For me there is something disabling about the way the apocalypse is used as a tool that allows us to mediate the catastrophe and wallow in it at a distance, on the screen. It becomes a displacement affect.  Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay in The New Yorker, ‘What If We Stopped Pretending?,’ which opens with the lines: ‘The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it’ is an excellent (and depressing) example of this (immobilizing) mode of narration. It is also a great candidate for the Men Explain the World to Me 2.0 prize.”

The Existence of Man:
Depends on relationships with the non-human
Historically has been told from the perspective of white Christian men
Would be better off portrayed from a variety of viewpoints and identities

Nothing grabs my attention like an eerie short film proposing a feminist counter-narrative for the apocalypse. And this is what Joanna Zylinska has dished up for us with her six-minute video,
Exit Man. The film serves as companion to The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, a succinct 69-pages of intense thinking, challenging the prophecy of the end of humans. In the film, black-and-white images slowly dissolve: a sign reads, “the lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock;” miniature plastic animals sit askew; and ancient toothy skulls flash from different angles. It’s a video with a Tarkovsky vibe, and a haunted pitch-shifted voice that says: “Under the current conditions, we all need to ask, if unbridled progress is no longer an option, what kinds of coexistences and creations do we want to create in its aftermath?”

Before I met Joanna Zylinska, I’d bumped into her thinking across her six books, including Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, and in the recent catalogue for the climate-art show The World to Come: Art in the Age of Anthropocene. A photomedia artist and professor of new media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, Joanna offers a powerful and provocative counter-narrative to the Anthropocene/apocalypse/we’re-all-doomed conversation, instead proposing an alternative “microvision.” While still taking seriously the current alarming geopolitical unfoldings, she urges we rethink our relationship to and with our planet. Rather than imagining humans as separate, offering planetary interventions (or tech bros shooting us all off to Mars) she asks us to see that these relationships already exist—on a molecular, cellular, and social level. This worldview also embraces the work of Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” among other feminist scholars, and invites the establishment of  fairer and more just relations—across ecologies, human and non-human.

Joanna Zylinska’s compelling eco-thoughts embrace theory and art as well as contemporary writers including Margaret Atwood, Rebecca Solnit, and Guardian journalist Kate Raworth, who famously and hilariously asked: “Must the Anthropocene Be the Manthropocene?”

I caught up with Joanna over Skype in her London home, after corresponding via email. What’s she doing when not writing books and teaching and making art about ecologies? A devoted urbanist, London nourishes her in particular ways and she enjoys wandering art galleries. Walks in the park, too, I wonder? No, she laughs. “I prefer my nature remanufactured.”  Then she added, with a nod to Haraway, “I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”

—Leslie Carol Roberts

THE BELIEVER: Your work is a fresh counter argument to the “we are all doomed” positions taken by so many male ecological philosophers, and probes the fascination with and desire for apocalypse?

JOANNA ZYLINSKA: Absolutely! I am very intrigued by the ongoing fascination with stories of our human collapse as a civilization and as a species. For me to challenge this mode of engagement does not by any means amount to promoting climate change denial or burying our heads in the sand in the face of ecological destruction. But it does mean raising questions about the modes of knowledge and the paternalistic articulations related to them that come from some contemporary prophets of doom and gloom. At the end of the day, many such prophets seem more interested in peddling their wares, be it the latest techno-fixes or the latest Great Ideas, than in developing more workable ways of collaboration and coexistence on our planet, for humans and non-humans alike. Finally, we need to remember that the apocalypse itself is not distributed equally. Many groups, tribes, people, and nations through our human history have already experienced extinction, via environmental or socio-political means, so there can also be something politically disabling in adopting this all-encompassing apocalyptic tenor to describe the fate of the world for “us all.”

BLVR: You mentioned how you channel Rebecca Solnit a bit, her work, Men Explain Things to Me. Your work points towards varied books and media and how they instantiate a particular set of apocalyptic views, really without any questioning of them.

JZ: Indeed, I was very interested in the emergence of the apocalyptic tropes and narratives in recent times in response to reports about the catastrophic state of our planet. We can see this in popular culture, in films such as Armageddon or TV shows such as Survivors and Life after People. For me there is something disabling about the way the apocalypse is used as a tool that allows us to mediate the catastrophe and wallow in it at a distance, on the screen. It becomes a displacement affect. But it’s not just popular culture that treats us to these sorts of immobilizing stories. Jonathan Franzen’s recent essay in The New Yorker, “What If We Stopped Pretending?,” which opens with the lines: “The climate apocalypse is coming. To prepare for it, we need to admit that we can’t prevent it” is an excellent (and depressing) example of this mode of narration. It is also a great candidate for the Men Explain the World to Me 2.0 prize.

BLVR: Your fascinating short film, Exit Man, is a photo-film building a “local museum of the Anthropocene.” The words and images raise provocative questions about this newly established epoch—and issues and problems it raises. Before we dig into your work, maybe briefly frame the Anthropocene conversation for our readers. It starts with the Atomic Age?

JZ: Scientists have proposed the term “Anthropocene” to take account of the dramatic transformation of the Earth’s environment over the recent decades, as evident in the rise of the sea levels, deforestation, massive urbanization and the rapid extinction of multiple species. More broadly, the Anthropocene also describes accelerated climate change and the consequences this will have for life on our planet. Scientists are still debating which moment in time can serve as the so-called golden spike, a point in the geological record that shows when this radical change actually became noticeable. Some are indeed suggesting the first atomic bomb blast in 1945 as the start of this epoch, while others are referring to the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th/early 19th century, or even to the early days of agriculture.

What’s interesting for me is that the Anthropocene is more than a scientific descriptor. Indeed, this act of naming a new epoch articulates an urgency and a demand, aimed at all of us, to start taking climate change seriously—and to understand our planet as our shared responsibility and task. Naturally, not all humans across history have contributed to the destruction of the planet in the same way. Nor should we reduce this responsibility for our earthly habitat to individual acts of resistance and change. The Anthropocene also raises the question of scale, of what can and can’t be realistically achieved on an individual level—and what needs to happen at the state level and also more globally. But it’s not just a matter of individuals and states doing (or not doing) something. As mass activist movements such Extinction Rebellion or Wretched of the Earth have shown, it’s also about what can and should happen at the “citizen assembly” level.


BLVR: You also note that the end of man—that is the white, Christian constructs that have dominated all other human and non-human life, might not be such a bad thing.

JZ: My project talks about the end of the white Christian man as the key subject of history. So I’m not predicting, or even desiring, the extinction of all white men! Rather, I suggest we need to reposition the perception of who and what matters in the world, in history, in culture, and to recognize that stories need to be told from a variety of viewpoints. But we also need to recognize that the assessment of what matters in life, and of whose lives matter, needs to go beyond the old-style notion of universal humanity which was really premised on the idea of the white Christian man as supposedly representative of that humanity. We currently find ourselves in a cultural moment when different voices, from different generations, genders, ethnicities, classes and geopolitical locations, are contributing to the reshaping of the dominant narrative about the world. My work both recognizes this moment and aims to make a modern contribution to that shift in political and cultural agency. The Exit Man photo-film is basically an attempt to “unsee” ourselves, in all our human-centric grandeur and glory, and to look at ourselves and our surroundings from some new vantage points.

BLVR: And that in a Feminist Future, you posit that there would be more collaboration, different systems for how humans and non-humans relate?

JZ: Absolutely. It’s very important to recognize that our human existence in the world depends on a whole lot of other non-human beings, from various kinds of animals and plants through to mycelium networks, microbes and even rocks. To say this is not to promote some kind of utopian blissful coexistence of all things, only to acknowledge that we humans are also a little bit non-human because we carry in us bacteria from remote past—and that we depend on other species and non-living beings for our existence and survival. That realization then demands a new model of ourselves and of what we humans call “the world.” You can call this model feminist, collaborative or “entangled,” to borrow a phrase from quantum physics.

BLVR: Exit Man is linked to your little book, The End of Man: A Feminist Counterapocalypse, which is part of a series little books that invites scholars to share ideas faster than traditional peer review allows.

JZ: Yes, that’s right, although those books, published by the University of Minnesota Press in their Forerunners series, are actually peer-reviewed. But what’s different about them is that they belong to a genre that could be called “grey literature,” which is located somewhere between traditional academic research, exploration and speculation. They are also produced and brought out much faster.

Maybe this is a good moment to offer a little bit of context for where I’m coming from with this project in terms of my intellectual and creative background. I originally trained as a theorist in the areas of literature and philosophy. Then, while already working as a professor at Goldsmiths, I did a master’s in photography. This completely changed the way I work and think, encouraging me to incorporate visual practice into to the theory but also to develop a hybrid mode of engaging with the world through words as well as moving and still images, while also getting me to explore a little more the very idea of “the book.” So The End of Man is a bit of an experiment in that it contains that photo-film within it, which readers can access via a link or a QR code, but you can also enter the project by arriving at the film first. The two are kind of stand-alone entities which are also complementary. The reasons for this experiment lie also in recognizing that, to really grasp what’s going on climate-wise, we need to adjust our senses, and to open ourselves to other forms of expression, beyond impassioned scientific argument or media hype. For me, literature and art can serve as particularly potent modes of engagement, in that they are capable of recalibrating our modes of thinking and feeling about the world.

BLVR: You point towards Silicon Valley “tech bros”—I live in their midst so appreciated this reference, they are their own ecology—and how modern technology narratives include how we will be redeemed through escape to another planet or enhanced through technologies, creating god-like humans.

JZ: I was thinking here of the current quest that many Silicon Valley “visionaries” have embarked on to “upgrade the human” through technology—all the way to immortality. This is not a metaphor: there are a lot of people in tech who are working on “hacking death,” presumably because the idea of not being able to spend all these insane amounts of money received from investors within a human lifetime seems preposterous to them! They are making all these incredulous promises about the future even though, as we know, Big Tech has not only failed to solve the majority of current problems our world is dealing with, from racism and poverty through to climate change, but has in fact actively perpetuated them.

Current work on AI is also very much positioned in those god-like terms, as the future development of a superintelligence which will transcend the human. The task then becomes to ensure AI ends up being benevolent rather than malicious—and that it doesn’t want to wipe “us” out. In the process, the “tech bros” position themselves as both creators and saviors. Meanwhile, far less godlike AI-driven solutions are being implemented worldwide: the deskilling of large groups of the population as a result of roboticization; the emergence of the global surveillance system as a result of the data we are all willingly uploading to tech platforms.

BLVR: I know you said you are not a fan of origin stories, but can we talk a bit about how you built your career—I think people will find it inspiring—how you are equally an artist and an academic theorist?

JZ: I have always been interested in different forms of thinking. As mentioned earlier, when I was already working as a professor, I went to another university to get a degree in photographic arts. I have also always been interested in practice—that is, in different modes of making knowledge, not just with words but also with things, with media, with images.

I was born in Poland, but I have spent a good part of my life in England. As a result, I’ve always known that there are smart people in different parts of the world, in different layers of the world, and that academia is a privileged place that offers people a space to think—but it’s not the only space where thinking happens. Having lived my life in two, or actually three languages—as well as being bilingual in English and Polish, I have Spanish—I’ve been acutely aware that interesting knowledge is being produced in different parts of the world, often those that are not considered mainstream or privileged. So I am keen to reach out and find knowledge in different locations. That sense of knowing that interesting forms of discovery, interesting ways of looking at the world, happen as much in, say, Romania or Thailand as they do in Britain and North America is something that I’ve carried with me for a long time. So I’ve had this sense of being what could be described as a mainstream academic and yet I’ve also been looking at this position, and at the world at large, slightly askew.

As for my daily influences, they are very much about cities, technologies and machines. I don’t idealize cities, but I do find them a site of nourishment. I also love airports, train stations, metro stations. I am intrigued by the new visuality of cities: with the omnipresence of screens in the city space, it seems we all now live in Times Square!

BLVR: And they were dominant in Male, the Maldives, where I was this past summer!

JZ: And then there are the small screens we hold in our hands.

BLVR: Sometimes it feels like we are being taught that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine a new form of capitalism and market sustainable market economy.

JZ: Echoing literary critic and political theorist Fredric Jameson, in the book I went so far as to suggest that it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism—and not just its readjustment. One of the key points of discussion within the environmental activist movements today concerns what position they need to adopt towards future economic models. And thus Extinction Rebellion (XR) is being accused by some as being too bland, as not offering enough of a critique of capitalism as ultimately an unsustainable model of survival. But it could be said that this reluctance partly explains their success. Putting aside the political differences between abolitionists, reformists, reparationists and anarchists, XR have decided to focus on what they see to be the most urgent issue: planetary survival. Time will tell whether this decision has been correct on a strategic level, although I think that in the long run any meaningful planetary politics will need to offer a more radical vision of a post-capitalist world, while also taking onboard issues of intersectional politics around identity and belonging for all its members, as individuals and as citizens.

BLVR: This man of the new apocalypse, you argue, is a condition for a preservation of man’s self-appointed dominion over the air, the fish, the cattle. That they are part of our current political landscape with our procession of strongmen, from the Trump phenomenon to Brexit.

JZ: I’ve been fascinated by the hysterical responses on the part of many self-appointed strongmen to environmental activism. Greta Thunberg seems to have riled so many of them! Their reaction is obviously a sign that all those old-school guardians of our political and cultural systems are feeling that things are changing and that the old ways of doing things, on the level of governance and on the level of just living, are no longer either acceptable or sustainable. This is why the confluence of movements—some focused on the survival and recognition of individuals, others on the life of whole groups, still others on reconfiguring the relationship between humans and non-humans—is fascinating because it promises to shift radically the organization of the world as we know it. To me, this is also a source of hope.

BLVR: You also ponder the unspoken desires and fantasies and the finalism linked with the Anthropocene—the gendering of the epoch, which is a big shift away from the Gaia concept and James Lovelock’s thinking.

JZ: The concept of Gaia has actually returned in much of ecological thought, under the guise of systems theory which explains how different systems of the Earth are interconnected. This mode of thinking is still very much influenced by Lovelock. What’s changed today, however, is that we have much more of a critique of this unquestioned feminization of the Earth and of the positioning of women as somehow being closer to nature. So the new Gaia is seen as quite a dynamic and complex system rather than as benevolent Mother Nature. Here, many are inspired by this idea of “ecology without nature” proposed by philosopher Timothy Morton. Others are channeling Donna Haraway, who in her celebrated 1985 “Cyborg Manifesto” quipped that she would rather be a cyborg than a goddess. This repositioning of ideas means that any meaningful planetary engagement has to come from a position of technology, of being involved in the world with its apparatuses, machines, and networks. To understand this is not to invite any gung-ho techno-fixes, only to abandon a fantasy of a pure moment in time to which we can return, and of nature as something that we can recover and reconnect with if only we leave behind this whole civilizational mess.

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