Review of Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2017
368 pp., illus. 57 b&w. Paper, $27.95
Where the 20th century created and sustained the fiction of individuality, the 21st century shows that a (renewed) awareness of the entanglement between the human and nonhuman is unavoidable if we want to survive the damaging effects of our self-inflicted Anthropocene. Individuality understood as consisting of single, independent entities, whether human or nonhuman, might not have to be thrown completely out of our frame of understanding as long as it is understood that it can only exist in relation to the other. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, the fascinating outcome of the conference of the same name that took place at UC Santa Cruz in 2014, makes this very clear. As a publication, it can be ranked alongside Textures of the Anthropocene – Grain, Vapor, Ray (2015, see my review in Leonardo Reviews, January 2018) in the way it raises our attention not only via its content, but also through its design. Where Textures of the Anthropocene literally played with textures through the choice of paper and font for each of its four volumes, Arts of Living exists out of two parts within one volume that are printed in opposite directions. One half is dedicated to the key theme Monsters and the other to Ghosts but not necessarily in this order. Both halves are interchangeable, entwined and entangled, they refer to one another and thus one finds oneself regularly turning the book upside down to switch between one or the other part, with page numbers either starting with M or G. Each part has its own insightful introduction and coda, that however refer to each other and thus form yet another form of entwinement. Arts of Living is in this way not only able to engage the reader intellectually, but also physically and tacitly, making it clear that intellect and body are equally entwined and entangled.
The editors Anna Tsing, Heather Swanson, Elaine Gan and Nils Bubandt are all in one or another way connected to the Anthropology department of Aarhus University, but the contributions to their book come from a wide range of exciting authors of various backgrounds, most combining several fields of knowledge. With essays by Ursula K. Le Guin, Karen Barad, and Donna Haraway as the more obvious highlights, those by the other, possibly lesser known authors are certainly of equal interest. Arts of Living is an explicitly trans- or cross-disciplinary book, confirming that we need the intertwining of disciplines to find solutions for the rut we got ourselves into. As stated in the introduction of the Ghosts part “to survive, we need to relearn multiple forms of curiosity. Curiosity is an attunement to multispecies entanglement, complexity, and the shimmer all around us” (G11). For the curious there is plenty to learn – from mysterious mud volcanoes to the entanglement of horseshoe crabs and red knots birds, lichens or new ways of evolutionary thinking, spanning from the tiny to the universal. Where the Ghosts part discusses various spectres from the past that haunt our present in unexpected ways, the Monsters part illustrates that any I is in fact a We as all of life exists out of interdependent entities. In his book Humankind: Solidarity with Non-Human People (2017) Timothy Morton phrases how every human being consists of a considerable nonhuman amount and is thus a collective in itself. Scott F. Gilbert, eminent in the field of developmental genetics and embryology, uses the phrase holobiont in his contribution to Arts of Living to show how all creatures are symbioses of one sort or another. In the last essay of the Monsters section professor of ecology and evolutionary biology Ingrid M. Parker shows that it is urgent to deal with our amnesia and blindness towards things happening in the far or nearer past. In that sense, it is interesting that the concept of ghosts and monsters was quite present in a not too distant past that we seemingly have forgotten, namely that of the 19th century. Where the “vampires, mummies, doppelgangers, ghosts, and zombies as well as Frankenstein’s monster, the Jabberwock, Helen Vaughan, and the Invisible Man” (Internationalgothic.group.shef.ac.uk, 2017) haunted literature as threatening aliens, the ghosts, and monsters of Arts of Living however turn out to be very real and everyday threats. They occur mostly in what we overlook, as in the meadow of Ingrid M. Parker but also in the borderland between the U.S. and Mexico as described by Lesley Stern who writes “in the interstices between cultural studies, memoir, and environmental history.”
The ecosystem of our planet does not particular need us humans to survive and would probably be better off without us. As shown in the past it will no doubt generate other life forms. If we want to stay part of the equation we will have to come down from our high horse and start paying attention to what we form part of. Arts of Living gives an excellent indication of where to start with. The Ghosts and Monsters part meet in the middle of the book where they state “Arts of Living are necessary because of threats to our survival. On a Damaged Planet monsters and ghosts are figures hiding in plain sight.”