Undoing Urgency

Undoing Urgency
presented at Urgent Ecologies, Contemporary Arts + Social Transformation symposium, University of Wollongong 7th November 2014.
Danny Butt, Research Unit in Public Cultures, University of Melbourne

“You just keep on doing what you’re doing”, said our friend and guide Graeme Atkins. With that he wrapped up our conversation after a day of mahi kai, finding and gathering food for our group. It had been about five years that we’d been summer camping on the far East Coast of New Zealand, on the ancestral lands of my Local Time colleague, the artist Natalie Robertson. It had been long enough for us, with the guidance of the Atkins whānau, to get to know some of the ecological challenges that face the area, including the effects of deforestation, climate change, overfishing and pollution.

As we discussed these challenges, I had expressed anxiety about the urgency of the problems, and in keeping with my whitefella heritage described a range of potential actions toward “being part of the solution”, aka “helping”. While Graeme’s statement was off-hand, the effect was disorienting, in a way that anyone who undertakes intercultural work would recognise. To “keep doing what I was doing” would require a withdrawal of urgency rather than its escalation. The statement didn’t suggest that our ideas for action were incompatible. But it implied that the sense of urgency I felt after a mere five years of visiting did not match that of Graeme, who traces about fifty generations of ancestry to that environment. I had not yet understood how feeling an “urgent” responsibility to the future as I did differs from holding responsibility for that future as he does.

I later read Graeme’s advice as an invitation to share responsibility rather than take responsibility. But how does one learn to share in responsibility, across such different levels of commitment and accountability? Not urgently. Local Time’s collective practice started around this time (2007), and our name reflects our continuing effort to grapple with this problematic. Through working together with others, both at our home base out the coast and in the places we are fortunate to visit, it has become clearer that to learn to sense the responsibility of a host requires the visitor to put aside any attempt to manage time through the expression of urgency.

Anthropology – and here I include the various kinds of “social practices” in contemporary art that adopt the fieldwork method implicitly – is predicated on these irreconcilable differences in risk and accountability between hosts and visitors. There is no way for those of us who are visitors to bypass or diminish this difference. Echoing Fanon’s diagnosis of how intractable this difference is, Hawai’ian leader Haunani Kay-Trask famously identified natives vs anthropologists as “the colonial struggle”. Anthropologists for their part, often found their anxieties about role and responsibility would lead them to a battered, cynical retreat to the comforts of home, an option that always and only exists for the visitor. The impossible delusion of “going native” segues into indigenous politics being “too difficult”, “you can’t win”. At the core it is a difference in the temporal commitment, the length of the “project” versus a time measured through generations.

Spivak points to J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, where the magistrate stages the difference between colonial and indigenous time in relation to the land, saying to his colonial colleague:

“They do not doubt that one of these days we will pack our carts and depart to wherever it was we came from, that our buildings will become homes for mice and lizards, that their beasts will graze on these rich fields we have planted. You smile? Shall I tell you something? Every year the lakewater grows a little more salty. There is a simple explanation—never mind what it is. The barbarians know this fact. At this very moment they are saying to themselves, ‘Be patient, one of these days their crops will start withering from the salt, they will not be able to feed themselves, they will go.’ That is what they are thinking. That they will outlast us.”

Clifford expresses a similar kind of temporal awe in his recounting of Alaskan Alutiq (Koniag) elder Barbara Shangin’s lack of urgency about U.S. occupation of their lands, as she claims “All the troubles since the Russians arrived are like one long stretch of bad weather. Like everything else, this storm will pass over some day.”

These are non-indigenous accounts of indigenous time, and in recounting them I do not mean to sideline indigenous modernities or to make claims about indigenous temporality other than note their intergenerational experience of resilience.

In her essay “Acting Bits/Identity Talk” Spivak describes the life among traditional maintainers of land as “eco-logical” , a logic or rationality that is hyphenated with the biosphere. In the eco-logical frame, the scale of life is not the object of scientific or critical knowledge, but rather the author of it, one is born into this environment and through this reproduction we are formed as subjects and agents, generation upon generation.

Eco-nomics, on the other hand, understands the eco through nomia, the calculated taxonomy of naming and managing, rather than a default intergenerational logic that is birthed by the ecological [1]. The calculative mindset seeks to master time through a graph that becomes a model. This monitoring of evidence and proposition of compensatory actions differs fundamentally from the eco-logical as an inheritance, where one is born into the script of a time. This modeling is the logic of the Anthropecene and the climate movement, which as Haraway describes as born out of a modern systems theory that produces a scale called “the global”. It finds justification in its propositional future-oriented activity, as the historical activity of capitalism that births anthropocenic thought is cast as negative and something to be departed from, rather than something to be maintained.

I am not saying that propositional economy is bad and the traditional ecology is good, just that they are truly opposed in their temporality. I am also not saying that these distinctions map onto ethnicities in a straightforward way: the indigenous worldview can and does appropriate the calculative rationality of the climate movement (see e.g. the recent Pacific action in Newcastle), just as the European ecological movement adopts indigenous knowledge. But these are different rationalities whose languages must be learned, and this requires an apprenticeship, not a solution. And it also must always be remembered that historically it was the European propositional economy as “improvement” that always  sought to annihilate indigenous eco-logical existence, using assimilation and extermination to prevent the intergenerational reproduction of the natural world in indigenous communities.

My concern with the rush to make our action commensurate with our modelled timescale is that in doing so we forget the time it takes to learn what we need to in order to share effectively in responsibility to a part of the planet across that division, which is not the same as a responsibility to a global process. As the theorist Marina Vishmidt recently noted, “an ecological perspective, while imbuing us with awareness of the sheer ungraspability and recalcitrance of environmental disaster and decline to local or technological solutions, can also become obfuscating when translated into social and political discourses…. it tends to occlude the conflicts of interest, the structural inequality, the contradictions that structure our reality and its crisis alike. Crisis for whom?”

The eco-logic, as I understand it, gives us weather, not climate. Local weather is unpredictable and not at all banal, it always leaves its trace – accreting and marking as it goes, drop by drop, layer upon layer, and season upon season, and those who attend to it develop their skill in reading it and their practices of resilience through it. Keep doing what you’re doing, with a guide who has seen more storms come and go than oneself. That is learning. And if we are not learning the right thing, doing what we are doing, perhaps we are not in the right place, or are yet to relinquish the modernist hope that salvation is in the future when we find the right solution, somewhere else just out of reach.

To become an old person who has not forgotten what the weather does in a place is not a state to be achieved with urgency. It simply happens, as we are slowly institutionalised into the place where we live each day, whether we choose to pay attention to those who know our land or not. If we in settler culture are to learn something of the practice of survival from our indigenous leaders, who have survived ecological transformation and destruction that frankly dwarfs the anthropocenic doomsday scenarios, the only urgency we can have is negative: an urgency to release ourselves from thinking solutions without responsibility, an urgency to stop forgetting the knowledge that exists where we already are.

“One must not make history in a deliberate way”, Spivak cautions. To learn the forbidding temporal lesson of inter generational resilience, Spivak points us to that sad, impossible story of survival against economic colonisation, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which, she says, “readily points at absolute contingency. Not the sequentiality of time, not even the cycle of seasons, but only weather. Listen to this incredible passage [… from Morrison]”

“By and by, all traces gone. And what is forgotten is not only the footprints but the water and what it is down there. The rest is weather. Not the breath of the disremembered and unaccounted-for; but wind in the eaves, or spring ice thawing too quickly. Just weather.”

1. see Angela Mitropoulos’ excellent book Contract and Contagion for a full account of the oikos and reproductive heteronormativity.