Sonic Realism / Wave #1 Planetary conversation April 2020

Interspecies Politics, Animality and Silence

Terike Haapoja and Pablo José Ramírez

Pablo José Ramírez

Terike, it might be good to briefly recall how we arrived here. In 2013 I visited your exhibition at the Nordic Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. The show was presented in a way that allowed a strong sensory experience. Despite its intrinsic political ethos, it didn’t place discourse at its core but featured installations that prioritized sensorial experiences. What especially caught my attention was your installation outside the pavilion, where audio and visual projections constituted the speculative proposal of The Party of Others: a political party that attempted to build a governmental agenda based on the participation of non-human beings, pushing the limits of what we have commonly come to understand as neo-liberal democracy and its system of bureaucracy and law. Later, we invited you to participate at the 19th Bienal de Arte Paiz, co-curated with Cecilia Fajardo-Hill. What would you say regarding the transition of the project from Finland to Guatemala in terms of what it represented to you, and in which way has this changed your original conception of the project itself?

Terike Haapoja

I originally started working on The Party of Others after I had finished the exhibition Closed Circuit – Open Duration, which was later exhibited in the Venice Biennale. I was concerned with the way in which artistic and academic theorizations around naturecultures – to use Donna Haraway's term – always seemed to remain prototypes within the framework of these institutions while having little impact on the power structures that de facto determine our relationship to the nonhuman world. My starting point for The Party of Others was simply to address the question of representationalism (historically discussed in art in relation to nature in aesthetic terms) from the point of view of representative democracy and the absence of representation of the nonhuman world on that front. This absence is of course deeply embedded in the foundations of Western political theory that defines the political community as exactly that which is more than zoe, and that is defined by notions of rationality, logos and so on. In other words, the exclusion of the nonhuman world is the foundation of political community in this framework. “This framework” being the Eurocentric, patriarchal white supremacy that has built the criteria in its own image. So to ask for the inclusion of this excluded element was from the start a paradox, and the project was a way to make this foundational flaw within our conception of democracy visible. However, in the face of climate change and mass violence against the nonhuman realm that is not only violently lashing back against humans but is also tightly entangled with it, we are facing a seemingly impossible task. How to deconstruct systems of governance in a way that can take into account and somehow represent these entangled “naturecultures”?

Taking this paradox as a starting point I began by interviewing people in my community in Finland who had been thinking about this problem: environmental and animal philosophers, lawyers, politicians, and activists. I asked them, who in their mind is present in our community, and what would be a system of governance that would somehow represent “everybody”, however they understand that word. Their responses showed how little consensus there was, but also how utopian many of these proposals seemed in contrast to the current political reality. I then wrote an agenda based on these interviews and organized a campaign for officially registering the Party of Others so that it could run in the parliamentary elections that spring. At this time – in 2011 – environmental issues were still considered secondary to “real” political questions in the mainstream - which only eight years later seems hard to imagine.

Another important note is that 2011 was also the first time when the populist right-wing really rallied prior to the elections in Finland, ultimately winning in a landslide, going from 5% to almost 20% of all votes. Finland has traditionally been a very egalitarian society but also extremely homogenous, and while the population diversified and the country was simultaneously impacted by economic globalism, the protectionist and nationalist front rose in defense of a projected threat to equality and identity that was defined exactly on the terms of the patriarchal, eurocentric white supremacist notion of community and humanity. This was the year that hate speech, explicit racism, misogyny, and xenophobia became mainstream cultural issues (it’s important to remember that discrimination of the Sámi and the Roma minorities has been rampant throughout Finnish history). The language of vilifying “the other” was omnipresent. What is crucial here is that both of these movements – the movement for including the nonhuman world and the movement of white nationalism – have to do with the limits of egalitarian, liberal democracy and its notion of “the people” as the core figure around which the whole apparatus is formed. In other words, both concern the question of who is the “we” that constitutes “the people” of a democracy.

The Party of Others became a way for me to tackle the problem of political representation of the nonhuman realm, as well as appropriate and claim the rhetorics of othering that the far right used. For me, the other is a fundamentally ethical figure in the Levinasian sense that it's exactly the unknown-ness and difference of the Other that shapes the world as an open being-with. On the other hand, it is not really the similarities and samenesses that decide political belonging but instead processes of naming and ideological grouping that escape the categories of species or nationalities. In the end, it's really about the power to decide who’s in and who’s out. Categories are always instruments of power. So for me, “the other” refers on one hand to the figure of the othered, in other words, those whose exclusion is foundational to the self-identification of a community (humanity, nation-state), but it is also the figure of the radical alterity that is the condition of possibility of an ethical encounter. The way I use the word “other” in this project refers to both possible interpretations.

Bringing the project to Guatemala provided a challenge that has been very important to my thinking around these questions. When we decided to do interviews with local scholars and activists in a similar vein to the Finnish version, we also exposed an epistemic friction between my very West-centered project and the perspectives of the Guatemalan participants, who, even if they were not all Indigenous, were aware of and influenced by Indigenous-Mayan cosmologies. What I realized was that even if The Party of Others was not a cynical project, the limits of the Western notion of democracy were really what made it resonate artistically, beyond just being a straightforward utopian proposal. While confronting Mayan cosmologies and the political initiatives that emerged from them, I was confronted with the fact that they were not limited by a rigid nature-culture divide as the only way to participate in politics, or by the idea of personhood as something that only applies to humans and human-made constructs. So while in Finland the project showed something of the limits of the political theory of the West, in Guatemala, the Mayan-influenced political theory showed the limits of my own project.

The questions regarding the foundations of our political system and of our conceptualizing of what constitutes a community are truly urgent. In fact, the campaign of The Finns (the right-wing populist party of Finland) is dismissing climate change as a device to differentiate themselves from other parties. I’m working on a new iteration of the Party of Others in the US context for 2020, with the aim to reflect on the current state of this polarity, but also to juxtapose the materials of Finland in 2011, Guatemala in 2014, and the US in 2020 in order to see how time and context effects this question.

I'm wondering what has changed in Guatemalan politics in this regard? What is the situation regarding other initiatives that could have proposed paths towards more zoe-centered politics in Guatemala?

Pablo José Ramírez

During my years studying political science in Guatemala, there was an astonishing lack of access to theory outside of the liberal tradition or state-oriented orthodox marxism. This was perhaps a symptom of a bigger issue: to think of politics outside the enlightened notion of governance and democracy requires a radical onto-epistemological enunciation, which jeopardizes the very notion of politics (rooted in a Western tradition of thought) - of which academic institutions have been faithful temples. The State and Representation as the foundational myth of politics are at the core of our ideals of citizenship and humanhood.

However, when thinking about non-human beings and indigeneity we find that a planetary belonging is a fundamental form of consciousness for thinking and feeling outside the State (to use Benedict Anderson’s words), and this is crucial: indigeneity doesn't make a distinctive separation between the natural and the human world, and as you pointed out, its organization of communality has never answered to the nation-state. For a critic of Western political theory and its manufacturing of dystopian realities, we need to overcome these deeply rooted distinctions.

In Guatemala, after the 1996 peace accords signed between the government and the revolutionary movement, the social forces that historically protected the land (farmers and indigenous communities) faced the unprecedented violence of neoliberal reforms – the violence of military dictatorships was replaced by corporate extractivism and systematic repression. The social struggle shifted from illegality (the revolutionary project) to legality (social movements and political representation), which was also accompanied by some institutionalization of the indigenous-Mayan movement, for instance.

Taking into account that the political infrastructure of democracy still acts as the normative form of politics, while neo-liberal multiculturalism depoliticizes the othering, pointing to a global order where human and non-human beings are mathematized as work-cognitive forces, commodities and light representations of diversity, I’d like to call our attention to perhaps some of the most suffocating questions regarding our current political situation: With the current political crisis in Latin America for example, it seems that the only predicament after left-leaning controversial governments and proto-dictatorships, is the return to either old liberal politics or white-creole xenophobic nationalisms. Is the future of non-human and indigenous representation being shaped by the logos of neoliberalism (and its infrastructure of bureaucracy? Is that perhaps the paradox that a project such as The Party of Others faces?

Terike Haapoja

For me, the figure of the animal has been useful for thinking about what you describe as “a global order where human and non-human beings are mathematized as work-cognitive force, commodities and light representations of diversity”, I’m thinking specifically of “the animal” as the binary opposite of humanity in western imaginary, not the general field of nonhumans, which opens up all kinds of other relations too. First, of course, it’s generally acknowledged in posthumanist theory that humans (in the western tradition) have humanized themselves through rejecting animality, including and foremost their animality. But as the philosopher Syl Ko argues, we need to also take into account how the human-animal binary was transfigured in the 16th century during European colonialism and the invention of race. Race as hierarchies within the figure of the human became in a way a novel strategy (in Western imaginary) for constructing human proper, which means, in Ko’s argument, that the binary opposite of human was not anymore the literal animal but the racialized human other, the so-called subhuman. Indigenous people were the first to be racialized, and during the transatlantic slave-trade blackness signified racial inferiority within colonial frameworks. This entanglement of race and animality as co-constitutive – nonhuman animals are racialized, while the racialization of humans happens through animalization – is paradigmatic to contemporary biopolitics and also interspecies politics. So I see the field of neoliberal (bio)politics as a kind of pyramid where persons are on top with things on the bottom, while notions of humanity and animality function as switches that transport beings between the top and bottom. The pyramid is also color-coded, of course, the top being white and the bottom black, or maybe better yet blackened. What’s important is that “human”, “person”, “thing” or “animal” do not signify essentialist beings but are merely labels that define a being’s relationship to law. That’s why we can concurrently have what you call “light folk representations of diversity” and a movement to elevate charismatic megafauna to the status of persons, AND masses and masses of humans and nonhumans living disposable lives in factories, at borders, and in camps, amidst slavery-like conditions. None of this has to do with species divides per se, as animality never really did: it’s just a label to mark a realm where violence in full daylight becomes possible, and it is exactly this violence that constitutes humanity as that-who-is-untouchable. So this is why I think an anti-racist and de-colonial analysis of animality is essential for thinking of interspecies politics – and vice versa.

Then another aspect of the question of the animal is that they have what Syl Ko calls “epistemic resilience” to white supremacist oppression. Their animality is created through the same mechanism as the oppression of racialized humans (to serve as the negated other of white human proper), and they feel that in their bodies. But they do not internalize their dehumanization the same way humans do because I think we can safely say that they do not desire to belong to humanity. I think of this also as the nonhuman world’s resistance to the sovereign field: in contrast to human groups, which can be assimilated into the (white) spaces of global neoliberalism or the framework of a nation-state, most nonhuman animals do not assimilate. Some do, like pets, and some are captured into it, like those in animal agriculture. But most of them do not fit into the matrix of identity. They are ungovernable in the fundamental sense of the word, or “in exile beyond exile” as Ron Broglio has written. This should make them powerful allies in fighting the mechanics of the State and the nation-state and anthropocentrism of democracy, which I agree are the roots of the problem. This I think is also why identity politics are not sufficient to address ongoing forms of oppression -- as we’ve seen, the fragmentation of the left is (partly) a result of identitarian thinking that in the end is hostile to difference while it claims otherwise. Like nonhuman legal personhood or The Party of Others, I think of identity-based struggles for recognition as strategic devices that aim to secure lives by any means currently available. Humanity is, of course, the mother (or I guess we should say the Daddy) of all identities, and should be thought of in the same manner. The longer-term goal should be, however, to dismantle the whole system and work on a notion of humanity that is not based on a binary opposite to the animal, subhuman, the inhuman.

So to your question about liberal democracy and neoliberalism, they have clear limitations precisely because capitalism requires “animals” and “subhumans” to be able to operate. The excess value that is generated is literally pulled out of someone’s body. So (neo)liberal democracy can speak on behalf of interspecies equality only when it doesn’t really challenge the white supremacist foundations that also dehumanize the whole nonhuman realm. This means that, as you said, it is merely a theatre of representations of diversity and false promises of equal opportunity. I also only believe in socialism as a bridge, not as an endpoint, for the exact reason that whatever is bound to State and anthropocentric notions of democracy can never truly transform the world the way we need to. But I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

It is a difficult question, but where do you see seeds of other kinds of worlds emerging at the moment? I was talking with my collaborator Laura Gustafsson about this and she said that the current global situation is like a huge – sorry to swear here – “pile of shit,” but whatever new paradigm is to come, has to grow out of that pile. I like the metaphor because it acknowledges that we are part of a natural process that is cyclical and transformative by – exactly -– nature. Children of Compost, as Donna Haraway writes. So what emergent futures or paths forward can you see, especially in a Latin American context, or in your work in the arts and academia for that matter?

Pablo José Ramírez

The metaphor of the pile of shit is powerful. To think of it as the only place for the emergence of a beyond-reality is strangely comforting. We cannot go back, it is too late. The past won’t save us, and the future will not arrive. The only thing that we have is a shit present from where we need to create, and as you have correctly pointed out, we need to think about ourselves in a paradoxical way, both as part of the problem and the solution.

Before replying to your question, I'd like to address one crucial point that you brought up before the human-animal binary in relation to coloniality. In the last few years, I've been working on notions of translation, counter-translation, and silence to think about the processes of semantic recoding and ontological mutations, which are entangled within colonial configurations of the world, and which are also accomplices of our curatorial repertoires and the narrations of art history.

I've been particularly interested in understanding the regimes of translation as a colonial process of configuration of the mind and the world, which operates within our very contemporaneity. Your interpretation of coloniality through Syl Ko echoes this argument in a fascinating way. If coloniality was the transmission of a notion of animality to read indigenous populations as uncivilized, primitive, pagans, that is to say, non-humans, translation was then the original sin of coloniality – if you’ll allow me some Christian jargon.

But for translation to happen, there must be something left outside; there must be something unsaid to actually say something – some political residue must be the part with no part in the equation. Translation is never absolute. If animality belongs to the place of the non-human, we can certainly affirm that it cannot be completely translated. Its potency – in the sense that Bifo Berardi attributes to the term – rests on something that cannot be read by the neoliberal logic or transformed into a financial surplus, and here I believe rests a crucial point in our discussion around animality and race.

For example, Maximón is a colonial indigenous saint in Guatemala who performs miracles and plays different communal roles in the Tzutuhi’l Mayan town of Santiago la Laguna. A popular story is that he is the reincarnation of an important indigenous leader assassinated by the colonial regime, holding together the memory of anti-colonial resistance. Maximón is basically a wooden carved mask enveloped in threads, which function as a sacred wrap while simultaneously presenting him as a Catholic saint. His translation into a saint by the indigenous community sought to fit the Christian grammar as a strategy to not be forbidden by the colonial regime, while at the same time worked as a disguise that allowed the community to protect their memory. What we see behind Maximón is actually a set of Mayan-Indigenous spiritual and communal practices that are many things, and Christian is perhaps the least important of them.

Translation was, in this case, a strategy that hid something else: the historical resistance of the indigenous population against the Spanish colony. However, there is something around the colonial saint that remains a mystery, something inaccessible to the white mind, a becoming–alien that the community holds with jealousy. This is what could be understood as an enigma, which – contrary to a secret – is not something that hides an ultimate truth (for that reason is post-identitarian), but something coded in such a way that it cannot be completely translated, some kind of silence that vibrates. Silence cannot be represented and it cannot be racialized.

Indigenous populations are ungovernable, their ways of social organization are communitary and anti-state. The space of the untranslatable is a silence that vibrates not just as an abstract idea, but also as something embedded into the social fabric of everyday life. I think about how Maximón is also a point of social cohesion, of conversations, of togetherness. I could then say that beyond the nation-state we find other forms of reproduction of life – as Gladys Tzul puts it – that are based on communitality beyond the state and despite humans.

Returning to the problem of the white mind as the imperative global-colonial regime that is both ideology and political infrastructure (the nation-state, democracy, capitalistic extractivism), what could be the forms of strategic representations that are somehow anti-racial and that emerge from the non-human animal world? Is the anti-racial also a form of anti-representation? I’m asking this because The Party of Others is a project that I believe allows us to measure the possibilities and limits of some of these theoretical cliches.

Terike Haapoja

Yes, it is necessary to stray from the Western canon. This is an ongoing challenge for post-humanities and humanities, to break from the West-centered perspective where everything returns to the same white men. The philosopher Zakiyyah Iman Jackson points out that perhaps the “beyond” human that posthumanism proposes is not so much a temporal but a geographical move – suggesting that there exist canons and traditions that have always questioned the eurocentric notion of humanity, and which also live by a more holistic and ecocentric understanding of community – namely in the African diaspora and indigenous worlds. The separation of these fields (such as ecology from postcolonial studies) has been systemic, really, in Western academia, including the arts. Now eco-everything is booming in the arts, and everybody is raving about octopus brain and slime mold, which is great, but the overlap where the politics of these issues are really worked out together is still narrow, unfortunately. And that’s why I think we can’t only work on the level of representations within the arts – engagement with and commitment to social justice work inside and outside institutions has to be real, hands-on. Otherwise, these good-will gestures become merely another act of intellectual extraction.

I like the notion of “speaking nearby” by Trinh T. Minh-ha, and it’s something I’ve found very useful when thinking about my relationship to these issues – to speak of my experience in relation to the experience of the other, finding resonances and points of contact, and also to do the work of deconstructing the apparatus from within, and to find and think of solutions and questions that emerge out of the terrain I myself am standing on. I don’t think these are mutually exclusive approaches.

The question of representation is interesting. I find that a lot of my work, and my work with Laura Gustafsson, ends up being about language, which is also what I believe connects our work. Somehow language is central not only in terms of the words we use to describe things but also how language and notions of language are so central in understanding what a political community is or can be. So renewing and exploring the limits of language is definitely where anti-racist and interspecies politics meet, on the threshold of hard, real politics – politics that have consequences on the body. You mentioned silence, and that’s also something I’ve been thinking about recently. What sounds emerge in my silence, and also, how can I use silence as a form of resistance. Also: whisper, intimacy, nonlinguistic communication, all these other ways of making community. Perhaps representations are always a problem or at least an open question with no answer. But I don’t know a better vehicle than art for keeping these kinds of open questions active.

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