In Interspecific politics: nature, borders, States, Rafi Youatt explores examples in which the relationships between human and non-human beings complicate and transform our conventional understandings of politics. It is an important contribution to burgeoning transdisciplinary research that demonstrates not only the injustices anthropocentrism inflicts on human and non-human worlds, but also how it systematically causes us to misunderstand ourselves, writes Philip Conway.
Interspecific politics: nature, borders, States. Rafi Youatt. University of Michigan Press. 2020.
It is now 22 years since Paul Crutzen and Eugène Stoermer proposed “Anthropocene” as the name for a new geological epoch brought about by the effects of human industrial activity and consumption. Over the past decade, the Anthropocene has gone from niche jargon to popular buzzword — and perhaps, these days, even a bit of a cliché. However, as the hype wanes, academic studies of the intensely holistic, interconnected, relational, and more-than-human qualities of planetary politics continue to thrive. At Rafi Youatt’s Interspecific politics: nature, borders, States is a case in point.
Like many in the humanities and social sciences, Youatt laments the anthropocentrism and implicit colonialism of the “anthropocene”, preferring the term “ecocene” instead (3). Moreover, its focus is not so much geological as situational, investigating a number of geopolitical, international and – above all – international issues.species circumstances where relationships between human and non-human beings complicate, and perhaps even demand the transformation of, our taken-for-granted understandings of politics.
Youatt’s analyzes of concrete circumstances are intertwined with wide-ranging theoretical reflections, revolving around what, for many, will surely be a provocative central thesis: namely that “political life involves the interactions of many species on the conditions of shared life” (1 ). Politics is “interspecies”, not only in certain circumstances, but at its heart. It is, however, a very special kind of policy. It is “thin politics”: “politics in the absence of government”. Consequently, interspecies politics, and therefore politics as such, finds its model in “the close political relations between nation-states” (9).
Image Credit: photo by Cameron Raynes on Unsplash
The first of Youatt’s case studies—focusing on the US-Mexico border (27-50)—is, to me, the strongest for advancing this argument. The border is a racial and ideological barrier, crucial to the imagination of American white nationalism. It is also, albeit incompletely, a technological barrier, constructed from walls, fences, guns, surveillance techniques and raw physical violence. In some regions, this technological barrier takes advantage of given or “natural” obstacles to movement. At others, the walls and fences are themselves subverted by the often harsh and ever-changing landscape.
However, at every step, the border is also a porous frontier, crossed by both humans and an array of non-human species – jaguars, ocelots, nilgai, ticks, white-tailed deer – all of which participate in the construction and challenging practices. of sovereignty; all of which have their own complex and overlapping sovereignties. The argument is compelling: no adequate political and/or international account of the boundary seems possible without considering interspecific relationships. Human history necessitates non-human history, and vice versa.
The second case study, which I found fascinating but less compelling: on the ecological circumstances of the infamous US torture base at Guantánamo Bay (51-69). The chapter particularly focuses on so-called “banana rats,” or hutia — an otherwise endangered species of rodent that thrives in and around the US base. National security, argues Youatt, is already “cross-species”: it requires eliminating and managing threats across species lineages. Indeed, the very relationship of the human to underthe human—as the institution of torture necessarily supposes—is itself produced by interspecific practices.
It seems true. However, the relationship of humans to the hutia at Guantánamo, which can encompass both systematic slaughter and a kind of ironic celebration, seems less than essential to the dehumanization that occurs within the confines of the base. Unlike the US-Mexico border, where no adequate narrative seems possible in ignorance of local interspecies entanglements, an adequate narrative of torture at Guantánamo seems entirely possible without ever mentioning the hutia, however richly emblematic that relationship is. of the multi-species reality of security. practice.
The fourth chapter brings us to Isle Royale National Park and the case of wolves (73-96). A more perfect example of the territoriality and sovereignty of a non-human species than one could wish for. Indeed, there is a reason why wolves are deeply embedded not only in human security practices, but also in mythology – an untamed and mysterious other, lurking at the margins of safety and order. However, at this point, Youatt’s book begins to demonstrate certain patterns, which put its central arguments to the test. With few exceptions, it is less a book about interspecies or interanimal politics than about interspecies politics.mammal Politics. We are only dealing with some very specific species – and therefore we may be coming to rather predetermined conclusions. An investigation of the interspecific relationships of migrating birds or microbial life, for example, might require an entirely different perspective.
Chapter Five takes a slightly different turn, focusing on the question of more-than-human personality as manifested in legal covenants made on the basis of Indigenous cosmological and political principles. Pachamama in Ecuador and iwi-Whanganui in New Zealand are the two main examples (97-113). The recognition of the personality of the Whanganui River, for example, constitutes an inter-collective agreement reached precisely on the type of “thin political relations” (9) – extended not only to “interests” but also to ontologies – that political theory de Youatt heads towards. Unlike the standard humanist all-in-this-together narrative of the Anthropocene, it is a politics grounded in the irreducible reality of politico-existential diversity and division (110-13). The answers to the problems of the present time must therefore come from negotiations between such collectives, and not from presupposing a prior identity which would already unite them, in principle.
Anthropocentrism makes bad anthropology. by Youatt Interspecific politics constitutes an important contribution to a burgeoning transdisciplinary academic literature that demonstrates not only the injustices that anthropocentrism inflicts on the human and non-human worlds, but also how it systematically makes us misunderstand ourselves. The international, Youatt implores, “is not a space above but rather a constitutive element of societies everywhere”—societies, that is, both human and non-human (18, 145). These arguments, while primarily directed at Youatt’s colleagues in the discipline of international relations, have ramifications that reach – and are worth reading – far beyond that community.
The book is not without limits. Its emphasis on inter-mammal relationships, I have already mentioned. Its reference theorists, meanwhile, are largely confined to the superstars of the poststructuralist canon – Jacques Derrida, Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, etc. Despite the seemingly anarchic presuppositions of Youatt’s political theory—which bases politics itself on “the absence of government” (9)—anarchist political thought is notable for its absence.
I approached this review as a chance to take stock. by Youatt Interspecific politics is, in many ways, typical of a now well-established cross-disciplinary genre. Its crucial value is that it demonstrates the importance of the international as a concept and a problem not only for scholars of international relations but also for anthropologists, geographers and posthumanists of all fields. Its crucial limitation is perhaps that the book continues to rely so heavily on the very traditions of thought that it seeks to go beyond. While theorists write on the Anthropocene are legion, it may be that our theorists of the Anthropocene – or Ecocene – has not yet arrived.
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Note: This article gives the point of view of the author, and not the position of the USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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About the Examiner
Philip Conway – Durham University
Dr Philip Conway is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Geography at Durham University. His research focuses on the relationship between critical thinking, conspiracy and environmental knowledge. He tweets @PhilipRConway, while an overview of his research and publications is available at philiprconway.net.