Hackney Marsh Crow

Theories and interventions between Nature and Politics
(and what gets left out)

As the summer ends, the white chalk lines of football fields slowly take over much of Hackney Marsh. The goalposts become a part of the field of vision, like the rectangles from renaissance drawings with their two point perspective and vanishing points that once defined a world view. But now of course the perspective comes from modern space, the universal space that's an extension of all the tools we take for granted in contemporary life. This post is about the place of us and the crows on the marsh in these moving perspectives.

 

To begin with, this doesn't involve a communion with the crows, as in the magical sensory world of David Abram's Becoming Animal. The post is more about exploring the moving goalposts of Nature itself along with the 'humans becoming what we don’t know we are becoming' narrative that Donna Haraway explores in her essay The Promises of Monsters. Haraway creates an expanded field for Nature in the coming age with new perspectives opening up to rethink human agency within it. In the new paradigms of space we would no longer be the actors, authors and activists we once were. Instead Haraway outlines hybrid forms of agency, such as actants which includes humans and non-humans. These emerging forms of agency would change the field for action and interaction though Haraway maintains that "actants are not the same as actors. Non-humans are not necessarily "actors" in the human sense, but .. part of the functional collective that makes up an actant."

 


The actant role suggests new practical possibilities for our everyday interactions in the 'cave of the real world' that we are confined to. It offers a way of coming out, to re-align the coordinates outside the web of entanglements that is society, so we are free to meet the crow as co-actants on common ground.
But alas this may be old school, or thinking that contributes to the status quo. I may be on the marshes with the crows but still in the cave of humans- as Bruno Latour, a sociologist of Science, might say. In the Politics of Nature he describes what he calls the divided houses of Society and of Nature, the two Houses of the modern form of the political, the one house which speaks and one house which is silent.
"The first house brings together the totality of speaking humans, who find themselves with no power at all save that of being ignorant in common, or of agreeing by convention to create fictions devoid of any external reality. The second house is constituted exclusively of real objects that have the property of defining what exists but that lack the gift of speech".

In this imaginary and order of things, the crows, goalposts, the marshland are in the second House; whilst in the first House are society and its political structures. Latour claims that only a new form of politics can get us out of this separation - and that would emerge when we overcome the Subject-Object divide, and so come out of the 'politics of the Cave'. The new politics would require new kinds of processes with collectives that truly represent the multiplicity of associations between humans and non-humans in a new parliament he calls the Parliament of Things.
Latour effectively sets out a polemic against existing forms of environmental politics: "My hypothesis is that the ecology movements have sought to position themselves on the political chessboard without redrawing its squares, without redefining the rules of the game, without redesigning the pawns."
What does that mean practically? To start with, Latour says, ecology has to let go of nature: "political ecology has nothing to do with nature." Stuck in what he calls the mononaturalism of the Modern age, Latour implies that ecological activists can only exacerbate the paralysis of politics, or as he puts it, "use Nature to abort Politics".

 

I turn to the crow with such thoughts. Somehow, the crow doesn't belong to the marshes in the same way as birds like the heron, the moorhen, the swan, the kingfisher; even across the Subject-Object divide, the crow can seen as the 'alter-subject' of the Commons.
But the crows are an intrinsic, if anonymous, part of the marshes, pock-marking the vast space as black dots. They too have their parliaments in group circles on branches and one can speculate about the nature of their politics. Most likely they would be about territory, mating and hierarchy so perhaps not unlike ours. But beyond that there is as much of a connection between me and the crows, as between the crows and the white lines and goalposts on the marshland. On the Commons, all are free to follow their own rules, play their own games.

 

I zone in on a crow (as in the shaky video of my Crow Run #4). Each time it's the same, sideways glances from the crow, look up, turns of head, then a few shuffles with the feet. Then when I get too close, the wings open up and off goes the crow flying close to the grass, barely off the ground. Then it settles down gently a few dozen yards away. The geometry always seems so calculated. Without breaking my stride, I can do this many times but it takes an enormous amount of commitment to see a crow off its turf, the boundaries of which were once invisible to me. It might have been 'invisible' though it's now very concrete. Having entered the orbit of the crow, it's very clear the trail of its space goes a long way.

 

Maybe this exercise is really about different notions of space. As humans in the modern age, we have evolved concepts of mobility and forms of spatial geographies which bear little relation to past ages. The coordinates that shape social life today have changed along with complex patterns of communication, the new flight lines and escape lines of modern desire. In Becoming Monsters Haraway points out the Nature as topos, the commonplace that we all inhabit. Nature as the Commons where we can somehow return to our 'default settings' if they exist. But Haraway also introduces nature as tropos, Nature as a trope, a turning, a Nature that can not pre-exist its own construction. A Nature that is increasingly dependent on our technology decontextualising yet producing Nature.
As agents we are caught inbetween these two, between what is the topos, the ground that we are on, the only Common place we know, and the tropos the ground we are coming to, turning to, yet also turning away from – and as things stand we are in an existential timezone of neither; existing in one space, living in another.

 

If these create mental bridges for us to cross, Felix Guattari phrases things differently in his Three Ecologies, in terms of developing everyday practices: the reconstruction of social and individual practices through linking the separated strands of ecology, the ecology of the social, the mental, and the environmental. But like Latour, Guattari maintains "Ecology must stop being associated with the image of a small nature-loving minority or with qualified specialists. Ecology in my sense questions the whole of subjectivity."
Guattari's approach as a working psychiatrist and as a theorist was based on the forms of subjectivity that make us the humans we recognise ourselves to be. But he asks how new forms of practice can enable the segregated strands of ecology to converge in the human subject:
"Instead of the 'Subject', we should perhaps speak of components of subjectification, each working more or less on its own. This would lead us, necessarily, to re-examine the relation between concepts of the individual and subjectivity." Guattari is expressly saying that the individual person and the human Subject of today are no longer the same as in the past as "the vectors of subjectification do not necessarily pass through the individual".

 

Perhaps this can help lead us to what Latour refers to with his 'collectives of things' whereby objects and subjects can form wholes, displacing the old modern ways to how things would connect in a new legislative council, the Parliament of Things. That no longer feels so far fetched.
Haraway puts it another way: "Nature may be speechless, without language, in the human sense; but nature is highly articulate. Discourse is only one process of articulation. An articulated world has an undecidable number of modes and sites where connections can be made. The articulate are jointed animals; they are not smooth like the perfect spherical animals of Plato's origin fantasy in the Timaeus. The articulate are cobbled together."
This is somehow suggesting that we needn't worry, that we may not need to develop a discourse for what we are becoming as the cobbling will happen in other ways. But through the cobbling, currently unrelated entities will connect to release us from fixed ideas of nature and society irrespective of the political perspective we take. And whilst these processes can not be pre-determined, as new things, new articulations, we may at last overcome the cycle of reproducing the status quo which binds our agency to self-mirroring exercises and prevent us from progression.
On a basic practical level, we can certainly take what Latour says, that "the terms “nature” and “society” do not designate domains of reality; instead, they refer to a quite specific form of public organisation. Not everything is political, .. but politics gathers everything together, so long as we agree to redefine politics as the entire set of tasks that allow the progressive composition of a common world."
On these old commons, between the crows and the shifting goalposts is the space to visualise pathways for 'the progressive composition of the common world', the merging of Politics and Nature for a renewed commons.
 

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