A-A-A-A-A-A-G

Animals, Apocalypse and the Anthropocene in the Annals of Association of American Geographers – that’s a lot of As, and a new article <pdf>

The Turin Horse (2:14:12). Directed by Béla Tarr. Copyright TT Filmmûhely.
The Turin Horse (2:14:12). Directed by Béla Tarr. Copyright TT Filmmûhely.
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‘Flight Ways’ by Thom van Dooren reviewed

Flight WaysBen Garlick and I were asked to review Thom van Dooren‘s lovely book, Flight ways: Life and loss at the edge of extinction, for Progress in Human Geography. Here’s the uncorrected, pre-proof text.

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We live in an era of great loss. A growing number of creatures and species hover between life and oblivion, and if trends continue the world will soon grow quieter in their absence. Van Dooren situates his work in the ‘shadow’ of this period of great loss. Taking his cue from Donna Haraway and Deborah Bird Rose, he understands species as storied ‘life ways’ unfolding amid embodied, situated ‘ways of life’, rather than as natural kinds. Creatures, he argues, are less representatives of than participants in their species story. Flight Ways keeps one eye on deep, evolutionary time, and the other on the work of the living, whose labour holds together the long chains of intergenerational species being. Since species are knotted ways of life, it follows that extinction is not some singular event but the slow unravelling of a particular geographically assembled ecology, as the work and relationships necessary to continue the species become harder to sustain. This is established in chapter one, where we learn how consumer plastics floating in the Pacific garbage patch clog up albatross digestive systems. These plastics – along with DDT, PCBs and the toll of death levied by fishing by-catch – disrupt the vital work of rearing the next generation of birds. This is Flight Ways’ central thesis: extinction is far from an acute event (the asteroid sealing the fate of the dinosaurs); extinction is more often a drawn-out process, a ‘slow unravelling of intimately entangled ways of life’ (p. 12).

The book contains five extinction stories of varied length and depth. Each draws on field visits, natural history, ethology, and biophilosophy. We meet crows that mourn their partner’s passing with an ‘inconsolable moaning’ (p. 125). We meet Sydney’s urban penguins: little birds so faithful to their remembered breeding grounds that, stubbornly, they return each year to brave roads, dogs and concrete sprawl, even as their colony dwindles towards local extinction. The longest and (as the empirically richest) most successful chapter tells the story of North America’s whooping cranes. Van Dooren exposes the violence inherent in conservation efforts to ‘hold space open’ for this endangered species: the violence of imprinting, artificial insemination, the sacrifices made by conservationists, and the violence of birds reduced to sperm and egg factories. We see how acting to ‘dull the edge’ of extinction for some usually entails harm for others.

The author stresses that ‘flight ways’ do not denote a generalised, holistic web of life, but historically and geographically situated knots of relating. This comes through most forcefully in the chapter on vultures. India has lost 97% of its Gyps vultures, largely due to the vulture-toxic antibiotic (diclofenac) used in rural areas to prolong the productivity of cattle, which is ingested by scavengers feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. The resulting disease and increase in rabid dog populations is felt hardest by the poorest in society, who become drawn into ‘amplified patterns of death and suffering’ (p. 58). Not all are bound up equally with other species, and this chapter proposes that we might think politically about just who is most at risk when life ways begin to unravel.

Yet at the same time as being grounded in specific lives, Flight Ways – like much work in the environmental humanities and ecocriticism – often invokes an abstract, universal ‘we’: extinction ‘remakes us’ (p. 5); if ‘we’ learn more about nonhuman place-making it might provide more space for ‘species’ (p. 85); ‘our responsibility for a shared world’ (p. 147); crows can remind us that if ‘we’ mourn we do not so alone (p. 143). The ‘we’ here seems not to refer to a pre-existing human community, but to want to call into existence a new form of Anthropocene species being. While many geographers remain skeptical of invocations of the universal human for the way they efface political difference, there might yet be some use for a human ‘we’ that emerges out of an epoch defined by great loss.

But if so then there needs to be much greater clarity about how this community comes about and how it relates to particular knots of humans and other creatures. Is a new ‘we’ formed among all those who read Flight Ways or similar books? By those who are caught up in painful, unravelling ways of life? Are conservationists involved, or do they cleave to the old stories of wild Nature? Such questions require detailed empirical investigation as well as artful eco-writing; too much is hidden, we fear, by tacking quickly between particular human knottings and a universal ‘we’.

Flight Ways parallels work in animal and more-than-human geographies (we say ‘parallels’ because the book doesn’t really engage with any of the rich geographic scholarship on nonhumans). This is unsurprising since the environmental humanities and covalent parts of geography both ply the winds of post-naturalism. Geographers will not be surprised by the book’s familiar conceptual arguments: overlapping circuits of care and violence, the entanglement of human and nonhuman lives, the idea that animals ‘story’ the earth. But the overlap shows the exciting potential for geographers working at the entangled fringes of the human to draw from the interdisciplinary project of environmental humanities, and vice versa.

Van Dooren writes appealing and uncluttered prose; we found Flight Ways both moving and profound. The book’s argument – that extinction is a slow unravelling of entangled lives – is compelling, novel, and important. Academic studies of the nonhuman too often get caught up by their own cleverness. Van Dooren, by contrast, has written a book that appeals to the heart as well as the mind and, we might hope, to the soul of the human to come.

Ben Garlick & Franklin Ginn, Institute of Geography, University of Edinburgh

 

Living with awkward creatures – special section

Our special section in Environmental Humanities on “Living with Awkward Creatures” is out, online and open access: http://environmentalhumanities.org/archives/vol4/ with wonderful pieces by Kelsey  Green, Sebastian Abrahamsson and Filippo Bertoni, Jeremy Brice, and Jamie Lorimer! With Uli Beisel and Maan Barua.
Wikicommons, Kentaro Ohno, http://www.flickr.com/photos/inucara/
Giant Isopod. Wikicommons, Kentaro Ohno, http://www.flickr.com/photos/inucara/

Zooland review

I’ve got a wee review of Irus Braverman’s Zooland: The Institution of Captivity over at the EPD Society & Space open site. Here’s the gist of it:

Braverman’s research really gets to the heart of the paradox that the institution of captivity is an expression of care, even if that care justifies death and suffering. The zoo’s love is the kind of perverse love that painlessly smashes an infant mammal’s brain with a steel rod and dissects its carcass for public spectacle in the name of a wider scientific conservation mission. Nowhere demonstrates how spaces of care and killing, life and death, overlap quite like the zoo.

Speculative geology in the Firth of Forth: Uri Geller’s cosmic island and other tales

This post is scaffolding for a small musing-project on the multinatural histories of a set of islands that lie in the Firth of Forth, the fjord sea inlet around Edinburgh.

The islands lie strung out along the coast.

Their patchworked histories incorporate Benedictine monasteries (Isle of May), dumping grounds for syphilitics and plague-carriers (Inchkeith), lighthouses to domesticate the choppy waters (Fidra), anti-Nazi gun emplacements (Incholm); they are places of murder and imprisonment, refuge and retreat for heretics, hermits and birds. I will try and land on as many as I can in 2014, be it in person, spirit, or through the archive.

But the island are no remnants, consigned to history.

In the last few decades fresh land has sprung, steely, from the deep: islands of metal scaffolding, serving new gods – North Sea oil and gas.

North Sea gas terminal, off Peatdraught Bay
North Sea gas terminal, , off Peatdraught Bay
DSC00030
Liquified Gas facility spilling down from hills at Braefoot Bay
http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/1364484
Braefoot Bay marine gas terminal © Copyright Simon Johnston and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons Licence

The islands of the Firth of Forth are a growing family, histories continuing to fold, one on another.

The gods of energy security may or may not bring fracking to the Firth of Forth. The pulse of geology ebbs and flows: for recently Braefoot was retrofitted to drink deeply of the North American shale gas boom, replacing its steady gorging of local, fossilised sea-critters.

Geology is not done with the Firth of Forth.

Lamb

In 2009, the Palestinian mystic and spoon-bender Uri Geller bought Lamb Island, an uninhabitable basalt lump some 20 miles from Edinburgh. He paid the knock-down price of £30,000.

Lamb island viewed from Berwick Law

The spoon-millionaire ordered his island direct over the telephone from Japan, presumably in a peak of late-night shopping.

I like to imagine Geller’s perplexed reaction when the title deeds arrived on the doorstep of his Berkshire mansion months later, much like the unexplained book that arrives weeks after you’ve forgotten you even ordered it. In any case, Geller gamely declared that “I can’t believe that the Scottish Government let it go. But it’s mine now!”

Geller had read that, apparently, an exiled ancient Egyptian princess buried treasure somewhere on the island, as part of ancient pact between Scotland and Egypt.

According to press coverage at the time, Geller’s purchase was influenced by an article in Atlantis Rising [a journal of the occult…].

The gist of the article is that Lamb is one island in chain of three that matches the crooked line traced by the Egyptian pyramids at Giza (you can read Uri’s account here)… Even more mysteriously, Lamb itself sits at the confluence of two crucial ley lines. The author, ‘historical investigator’ Jeff Nisbet, asks:

“What are the chances that the freemasonic numbers 23.5, 33, and 47 would lead us to a small patch of the globe containing three islands laid out in the pattern of Orion’s Belt, near a very pyramidal hill just three feet shorter than the Great Pyramid, only 20 miles to the east of a Sphinx-shaped extinct volcano with Arthurian connections, in a city that is the acknowledged world capitol of Scottish Rite freemasonry — all in a land with an much-decried Egyptian foundation legend?”

Quite. Atlantis Rising does a good line in occultist marginalia and conspiracy. In any case, Geller became convinced that Lamb Island was animated by a cosmic energy.

It’s easy to ridicule though. But these occult histories animate the island as much as the now-settled geological controversies surrounding their birth, and have come to direct Lamb Island’s future: for they hooked Uri Geller. Such histories need not be true (or even barely credible) to have an effect on the world.

Uri on Lamb
Uri Geller (left) on Lamb

Certainly, Geller was a step up from the Brazilian businessman who owned Lamb Island before him. Although, we should have more democratic control over who gets to own Scotland’s land.

Having bought his island, and determined to visit, Geller scheduled a helicopter ride.

Luckily, he was persuaded by the local Seabird Centre to land instead by boat, to avoid upsetting the many protected bird species nesting there.

Landing on the island on a cold February in 2010, Geller exclaimed:

“How incredible it is to own an island. It’s just mind-blowing – look at it! Look at all these seagulls. Are these seagulls mine? … What are these called?”

He then spent one night on Lamb Island, feeling “the energy of the place”.

He has not been back since. The birds are still there.

Bass Rock

Bass Rock
The Bass Rock, June 2013

The gannet, a bird adapted for diving into the sea after fish, is anchored to another of these basalt islands, which lies a little over five miles to the east along the coast from Lamb. The gannet is anchored by a name, Morus bassanus; the ‘bassanus’ following the ‘Bass’ in Bass Rock.

No incarnation of eternal, universal nature, this beast of the sea/air borders is freighted with our desire for epistemic rooting, flying gamely through our scientific and naming  histories.

Each Spring, gannets flock to Bass Rock, returning from their winter hunting grounds off the coast of West Africa, or the balmier parts of the North Sea. The colony, 150,000 strong, makes its seasonal homes every year to raise chicks. Or just have a lot of ‘unproductive’ sex.

The dark rock is turned white by feathers and shit. Biology overwhelms geology.

And every year 280,000 human tourists sail out and around the island, each entering for a short time a world thick with caw-cawing divers, their smell, and their aerial energies.

Bass Rock skies
Bass Rock skies

On such a trip, when the boat approaches the Bass Rock the anticipatory tourist babble ebbs away, the commentary becomes more reverential: a sense of something different creeps over the boat. Reaching the Bass Rock we enter another world, becoming – perhaps – differently human: sharing some part of another creature’s life-world by enhancing the powers we have, or getting newly sensitive, if only for a time. The visitor enters a zone of proximity. In the gannet we glimpse a way of being that while radically different to our own, involves sharing territory: sharing the earth.

DSC00381Yet, at the same time we feel our distance and the impossibility of ever meeting in the same world, even as our different worlds come together, briefly, boating round the Bass Rock.

Something taints this meeting: The skies, immediate and full of birds, juxtaposed against an injunction to worry about the fragility of abundance, and the possibilities of extinction.

Leaving the Bass Rock, we can answer Uri Geller’s question:

No, these gannets are not ours.

CFP Uncomfortable companions: living and dying with awkward creatures, AAG 2014

Session(s) call for papers: “Uncomfortable companions: living and dying with awkward creatures”

Association of American Geographers Annual Conference, 2014 Tampa, Florida

Organisers: Franklin Ginn (Edinburgh University), Uli Beisel (Lancaster University), Maan Barua (University of Oxford).

Sponsored by the Animal Geography Specialty Group.

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This session invites papers on uncomfortable nonhuman companions and more-than-human relations marked by ambiguity, radical alterity, alienation, conflict, violence, or more subtle forms of the ‘uncomfortable’, such as detachment, distance or withdrawal.

There is now an extensive corpus of work on the ways non-human creatures come to matter in technological assemblages, urban spaces, bio-capitalism, global networks of production and consumption, as well as in intimate co-relation to humans, and animals have carved niches in health, historical, and political geography, as well as political ecology and eco-Marxism (Buller, 2013; Urbanik, 2012; Lorimer, 2012; Johnston, 2008). Animal geographies have shown how nonhumans come to exhibit vitality, a will for than mere survival and capacities for resistance and transgression (Braun, 2008). Moreover, the more-than-human has been worked back to the very foundations of traditional political and ethical thought, with increased scepticism that systems of thought rooted in Human exceptionalism are up to the task of earthly cosmopolitics in this Anthropocene age (Haraway 2008; Latour, 2013).

The session seeks to supplement animal geography’s focus on animals that are ‘big like us’ (Hird 2010), and open up spaces of inquiry beyond what Buller (2013) has labelled the ‘mammalian hegemony’. We therefore invite papers that engage with what Serres calls ‘other others: belling or howling living things and resonating things’ (2012: 196). In particular, while noting the vitality, liveliness and complex inter-weavings of humans and nonhumans in shaping our world(s), this session invites papers that scrutinize the spaces between ‘species’ and between attachment, non-human inscrutability and difference-in-relation (Candea 2010; Morton, 2010; Lulka 2012; Yusoff, 2013).

We welcome papers that engage with:

  • Insects, bacteria, fungi, molluscs, plants, viruses
  • Extra-terrestrial, mythological or speculative creatures
  • Non-humans as disease vectors
  • Individual animal biographies
  • Dangerous or aggressive beasts
  • More-than-human geographies beyond Euro-American settings
  • Dilemmas of killing and preservation
  • Non-human death or finitude

We especially encourage conceptual or position papers. We also welcome empirical papers with contemporary and/or historical foci and/or employing experimental methods.

Abstracts (250 words) should be submitted by 21 October 2013 to Franklin Ginn (franklin.ginn@ed.ac.uk).

References

Braun B 2008 Environmental issues: Inventive life Progress in Human Geography 32 667-679

Buller H 2013 Animal geographies I Progress in Human Geography

Johnston C 2008 Beyond the clearing: Towards a dwelt animal geography Progress in Human Geography 32 633-649

Latour B 2013 An inquiry into modes of existence Harvard University Press, Cambridge

Lorimer J 2012 Multinatural geographies for the anthropocene Progress in Human Geography 36 593-612

Lulka D 2012 The lawn; or on becoming a killer Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 30 207-225

Morton T 2010 The ecological thought Harvard University Press, Cambridge & London

Serres M 2012 Biogea Univocal, Minneapolis

Urbanik J 2012 Placing animals: An introduction to the geography of human-animal relations Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MY

Yusoff K 2013 Insensible worlds: Postrelational ethics, indeterminacy and the (k)nots of relating Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 31 208-226

“The connoisseuse of Slugs”

When I was a connoisseuse of slugs

I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the

naked jelly of those gold bodies,

translucent strangers glistening along the

stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies

at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel

to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,

but I was not interested in that. What I liked

was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the

odor of the wall, and stand there in silence

until the slug forgot I was there

and sent it antennae up out of its

head, the glimmering umber horns

rising like telescopes, until finally the

sensitive knobs would pop out the ends,

delicate and intimate. Years later,

when I first saw a naked man,

I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet

mystery reenacted, the slow

elegant being coming out of hiding and

gleaming in the dark air, eager and so

trusting you could weep.

Sharon Olds, 1983, The Connoisseuse of Slugs

A nicely read version is here

Animals and apocalypse, part one

This post reflects on a few recentish post-apocalyptic films, but in particular on the role of animals therein…

As a great, great many people have noted, apocalyptic imagery, narrative and revelry are circulating with a certain dull, frenetic energy: it’s hard to get away from zombies (figuratively anyway), zoonoses, or environmental collapse. Apocalypse is a rejoinder to the pervasive risk management of late modernity, in which the future becomes something mouldable through action in the present: all this management won’t do any good, apocalypse implies; accounting and governance are not sufficient to avert disaster, nor are they the proper response. As the old man in The Road, Ely, puts it:

“Even if you knew what to do, you wouldn’t know what to do”.

Of late, it’s the post-apocalyptic that is in the ascendency. In such fictions the world doesn’t end with either a bang or a whimper, but continues interminably on, in slow entropic decay. Post-apocalypse abandons traditional narrative form – no story, no prospect of a conclusion, instead we have a fascination with being on the verge of an end that never comes.  This is a vision which offers no ‘cosy’ after-fall gathering but instead a slow, uncomfortable, and above all gloomy future.

If the light of modernity was about highlighting our own animality that we might better manage it, in order to become political beings, that light was acquired from the sun. Since the sun bequeathed us oil, and in turn fossil fuels made possible the Anthropocene and carbon humanity, then the sun must also, to follow Timothy Mitchell, set its limits. That is to say, the anthropos of the Anthropocene is not a self-sufficient subject – it has been made out of a willing together of flows of geology, biology, materials and energy

Thus the absence of the sun in The Road (which while a bit old now [2009] was such an instant classic that it is still impossible to ignore), brings the dark animality of North American humans into the light. Thrust from deadening routine and habit, from their pre-fall introspective bubbles of egotism and meek supplicancy to capital, post-apocalyptic life on the road forces its characters (and us) to affirm what they want to live for – to affirm their (and our) desire for something positive. Not to be cannibals. The Road’s moral lines are starkly drawn: do they eat babies? This question becomes the basis for a new ethics for the Child in a world with no justice, no accounting or law, just interminable survival. Throughout The Road, the Man looks back to his past, a past the Boy cannot share – the Boy’s burden, meanwhile, is the future, carrying forward the ‘fire’. Thus what lurks on the far side of apocalypse is our own animality, let loose from a political subject constituted by geological networks of fossil fuels. There is a new project of on-going enlightenment (small E) in which the challenge is not just to survive, but to surpass that which we were before.

The Road - bug

But while the film version of The Road is largely faithful to Cormac McCarthy’s novel, there is one striking addition: a bug. The bug of course embodies that weird combination of fear, instrumentalism, disgust and fascination, but above all radical alterity, so wonderfully traced by Hugh Raffles. The Boy discovers a beetle in a metal container, which flies heavenwards into dark cloud. On one hand, this could be seen as an attempt to recoup some possibility for redemption – that not all animals did die, and that other beings, too, struggle towards a precarious future. Life continuing is a supposed consolation against pain and loss of certain beings. But the bug does not show that nature has survived the Fall after all, for it too will surely die. Instead, it heightens the feeling of loss, showing how we recognise, belatedly, that the absence of non-human others limits our own possibilities of becoming with. But at least its final flight takes the film beyond an anthropocentric tragedy – we are robbed of allies for world-making loops, denied the ways of being human-in-connection, through companion species of all kinds, be they commoditised forms of life, domestic critters, or ingested food. This reading of the Road still leaves us, however, in a landscape where the line is drawn too simply, with non-humans as victims.

In other films animals are behaving more oddly, and more interestingly.

In The Life of Pi (which is not properly apocalyptic because we assured of a happy outcome by the Hollywood flashback) Pi is trapped on a lifeboat with a (CGI) tiger, with seemingly no possibility of co-existing peaceably. Life of PiHowever, a moment of connection is made, but not until the boat’s life-sustaining processes have been exhausted and the pair face imminent death – it is only then the tiger rests its head on Pi’s lap. After the pair are miraculously saved, however, the tiger just wanders off into the jungle without looking back, without saying goodbye, rejecting any chance of friendship or shared kinship. Similarly, in Melancholia, Kirsten Dunst’s horse seems to refuse to carry on when they come to a bridge – it seems to be the first creature in the film to realise that the planet is going to hit the earth after all (as suggested by Bruno Latour in his Gifford Lectures).

A horse is also a key character in Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s 146-minute epic The Turin Horse – a gruelling film shorn of the sentimentalism of The Road and which replaces McCarthy’s natural theology (typical of American apocalypse and largely absent in this and other genres of apocalypse – these will be the subject of post no.2!) with a bleaker cosmic un-making.

The Turin horse - horse

The Turin Horse describes six days on a wind-swept, dusty farmstead. After the first opening scene, a mesmeric close-up of the journey home from the village, which seems to stress how family and horse are bound together in suffering to a blasted scrap of land, the horse is packed away in his damp stable. The old farmer and his daughter begin their daily routines: they stare out the same windows, eat the same meal (one boiled potato) each day. On day two however, despite being whipped, the horse refuses to move. On day three a neighbour warns them of the encroaching final darkness, and on the fourth day the horse refuses to eat or drink, or to respond to the woman’s entreaties, and then the well runs dry. The farmer and daughter try to escape. They load up their possessions on their cart and disappear over the horizon, the daughter pulling the cart, the horse following meekly. But they are forced to return, even more desperate and exhausted than before. The horse is shut away again, and does not reappear. On the sixth day, the wind and storm has ended, but a great darkness has descended; their lamp can be lit, but only for a short while before it gutters and dies. The film’s closing shots are of the man desperately clawing at a raw potato; although we don’t see the final breath, the end is inevitable.

The Turin Horse - the horse

On one level Tarr’s film is an all-too human Nietzshcean vision in which the farmer and daughter fail to break out of their lives and drown in repetition, even as the cosmos slowly slides back to its dark origins: “What is all this?”, the woman asks, “I don’t know, let’s go to bed,” the man replies. By the time they realise what they have to do they cannot leave – change comes too late. But attending to the horse takes us further. The farm’s residents are a companion species knot bound together on a journey into darkness. The horse, their more-than-human ally in farming and with whom they inherit a shared history stretching back to the Eurasian steppe, although it shares unequally with humans in the suffering of a hard life, seems to want to go it alone. But it is far from the dumb beast of burden who can only accede to demands, as described by Nietzsche. Instead, the horse becomes more than that, it betrays the man and daughter and embraces the inevitability of decline and death. Crucially, it is when the horse refuses to eat that any possibility of escape is extinguished. The final terror here is not any historical calamity; the final terror is that that ‘we’ are deserted by our non-human allies.

Three slugs?

DSC00349

Slug 1

When preparing dinner yesterday, my fingers parsed a vegetal fold between the crusty yellowing head and the fibrous green leaf of a cauliflower. In so doing I squidged against – something moist.

Only the firm discipline of academic enquiry let me press on and record the encounter. Which was short and brief.

I threw the slug out my window.

Slug 2

Recently I mentioned a forthcoming article on slugs (ok, my piece that is slowly crawling to the relative light of online early) to a ‘new person’ at a conference and they suggested – at an academic conference, I re-emphasise – that I look at Warhammer 40,000’s representation of the Tyranid ‘slug-like beasts’. Madness!

TyranidShell1    73615-Mawloc, Menelker, Tyranids, Tyrgon, Tyson Koch, Warhammer 40,000

I was taken aback. The Tyranids are, admittedly, awesome. They are extragalactic baddies that come from the depths of space to destroy humanity, the orks, eldar, necrons and all other inhabitants of the Milky Way in the 41st millennium. They are inscrutable bugs – think Starship Troopers but slimier and spikier. Fear not, the Tyranids are not real. They are made up by Games Workshop geeks, although I grew up with them through all three of my adolescences.

The ‘Great Devourer’ has three terrors:

  1. They come from the void. Pesting their way here from beyond our galaxy, they share no evolutionary heritage with humanity, post-humanity or any other ‘local’ critters.
  2. They come from below. A bit like a pan-galactic sequel to the classic film Tremors, you can be shlurped down anywhere.
  3. They devour you from within. All ammunition/forms of attack involve parasitism, living bullets and appropriation of your genetic self. Eeech.

But the true horror of the Tyranid menace is not that they are moral-less villains intent on destruction, but rather that they show the vacuum of what passes for human civilisation in 40kA.D. By then, while still alive, (post)humanity hangs on by the thinnest of administrative and psychic threads (the lore of this particular universe is vast and complex). By the time these inscrutable villains arrive, the sprawling empire of post-Humanity has nothing left to survive for.

Actually, given that they are gaming models a few inches high, the really really true horror is that you can’t realistically beat an army with three Carnifexes and a couple of Hive Tyrants in a sub 3000-point game. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Slug 3

slow slug hofman

I’ve been cataloguing slug imagery for a while, and in particular these resonate: giant slugs parading around France, each made of tens of thousands of plastic bags.

According to the artist they represent the suffocating nature of consumer capital, the prismatic form of slow death, stuff like that.

They don’t show actual slugs being killed by Bayer chemicals, their bodies dehydrated ferociously as a matter of course on fields across our agricultural planet. After all, who cares about slugs?

Just another form of the banal, routine violence needed to bring me my cauliflowers.

Cox vs. Attenborough

I’ve just finished watching the BBC’s Wonders of Life series, an exploration of life fronted by physics champ Brian Cox. This has been queued up in my “background watching pile to do while ironing” since it aired last month. I detest ironing; thus the month-long delay.

My conclusion is that – like most of Britain’s national treasure – David Attenborough is tainted coin, and he needs to be retired: immediately.

But if we are to accept his anointed successor, Brian Cox, there is surely a high price to pay. The choppy haired one may try to hide it, but most people I know cringe at his messiah complex. He may wear shades and t-shirts, but a disguise can’t obscure the traditional marks of privilege: white, male, scientist. He is also a fundamentalist, reducing all he shows us to the laws of physics. His style is already a (truly hilarious) parody of itself. But these costs would be worth paying if we could get rid of the old nature toff, Davey A.

For Cox’s 6-episode Wonders of Life did something new. It showed us a glimpse of what the natural world might look like without Nature. Nature, here, is that hackneyed fantasy of wilderness. Exotic lands emptied of people (or at least cleared out while the cameras roll). Programmes full of strange beasts which, despite their radical difference to us, seem to live out very anthropomorphic dramas.

tumblr_mie6ztnbJu1qiryaxo1_500
Hmm… renowned biophilosopher Brian Cox unleashes his reductionist powers on Deleuze et al…

Attenborough’s Africa – the series (Jan 2012), certainly not to be confused with the real place – was dire. It was mired in old stereotypes of conflict or survival of the fittest, and seasoned with dashes of old-school colonial racism. Attenborough is leftover plunder from an era when Nature dared not speak its name.

Instead of a mythic dream of Nature, Cox’s series showed us a thrumming circuit of energy. Entropy, scaled adaptation to gravity, water, shared-but-different sense perception – each of these showed a world made of diverse beings, but united. This wasn’t the same old “we’re just like chimpanzees”. The Wonders of Life showed us beings with different interests, living on different worlds, but who must learn to get on. We need to understand these things. We need to let go of the old myths of the wild.

Cox’s series held out the prospect of a truly insightful nature programme. What is missing is of course politics. Since he is so obsessed by energy, what Cox needs to do is to front a programme dedicated to showing how modern capitalists, in all our greedy, magnificent, ugly, world-bending hunger, have oriented a staggering 24% of the energy of the globe’s forms of life into our service. Starting in Cox’s world, the BBC could make such a programme really count for something. It would be revolutionary. Sticking to Attenborough’s world will doom us all.