From extinction: nine strategies for a left-hand exit

The problem

As a political theorist, I often find myself submerged in the academic and professional details of my work. For example, I spend most of my time reading and writing, and much of what I write is addressed to an audience largely composed of other political theorists. The politics of knowledge production aren’t quite so simple, of course, and I think we political theorists should welcome the imperative to make our work speak to anyone who cares to listen.

In brief, my work addresses what I call the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis does not reduce to climate change – indeed, climate change is only a symptom of something much more intractable. Instead, the ecological crisis refers to a crisis of relationality that obtains at multiple scales – from the individual to the collective, from the local to the global. In short, the ecological crisis started when we started operationalizing the relationship between nature and politics in a certain way.

Call this way pathological modernity, which theoretically misconstrues nature as the ontological space of determination and necessity. If nature is necessitarian, then either the political also is determined by the principle of necessity, or else politics exists somehow apart from nature, even opposed to it.

This poses a ruinous conceptual dilemma that leads to extinction.

Politics as the unique synthesis of collective action and collective imagination becomes impossible both if nature determines it and if nature serves as its antagonist. If nature determines our politics, then this eliminates the possibility of free action. Without the possibility of free action, collective action ceases to be action. Action becomes behavior; decision is determined. On the other hand, if there is freedom – that is to say, if politics is possible, after all – then this produces an irresolvable antagonism between nature and the political. Hence, if nature serves as antagonist to the political, then politics transforms into sheer domination, and a politics of domination is no more genuinely political than is mere compulsion itself.

Think of it like this: either nature makes the political impossible, or politics is purchased at the price of eliminating or excluding nature, practically and theoretically. This dilemma drives pathological modernity forward, and it produces and sustains the ecological crisis as such.

In short, my work begins with the two intuitions: (1) something is terribly wrong and (2) the future will not resemble the past.

Rather than merely producing a critical theoretical diagnostic, however, I want to suggest alternatives and reasons for adopting such alternatives.

For example, in my work, I argue that the pathologically modern philosophy of nature to which we adhere can be replaced by an altermodern philosophy of nature that incepts a degree of freedom at the origin of nature itself. We rarely examine what we are talking about when we talk about nature. Instead, we simply assume that what is natural is deterministic and necessitarian. There are historical and intellectual reasons for this, but, these reasons, like all reasons, are subject to revision – else we are mere dogmatists and worshipers at the altar of modernity.

I also argue that such an altermodern philosophy of nature allows us to reconstruct how we conceive of human subjects – that is to say, of what it means to be an individual or collective agent capable of taking action and making decisions. In short, I conclude that subjectivity is – must be – an emergent property of ecologically embodied immanent relationality. In other words, agency emerges only in ecological conditions. Accordingly, I propose the concept of companion ecologies to help us understand better what and who we are. Companion ecologies name the composite, multimodal, yet entitative pluralities that constitute our ecological conditions, ranging from our gut and skin microbiomes to our habitats more generally, as well as the numerous agencies that compose and traverse such spaces.

Both the altermodern philosophy of nature and the theory of the ecological subject I propose allow us to intervene in the operation of commonplace political terms. Specifically, I look at identity, community, and normativity. In ordinary language, these refer to the ways in which we are concerned with ourselves, our companions, and our judgments. After contrasting securitarian and immunitarian dynamics (each modeled after different ways of understanding the formation of immunological functionality – i.e., immanent relationality), I conclude that we can recuperate a robust sense of human identity as creaturely, which is to say, radically dependent upon the companion ecologies in which we emerge. Likewise, community takes shape, then, as a function of ecotone – or, as the complex of companion ecologies that overlap and traverse each other at multiple scales. We do not have a community, because a community is not a form of identity. Instead, we are always already in a condition of community. As such, we are creatures – human animals – who depend radically upon the ecological conditions that first manifest us as distinctive agents. We are agents only by virtue of other agencies. This entails a new form of normative naturalism, a naturalism that says not “Do what I say because nature says so” (as with the old naturalisms), but, instead, “Act revisably in such a way as to acknowledge and preserve the metabolic and vitalizing capacities of your conditions of existence.”

All of the foregoing, however, constitutes a theoretical intervention aimed at dissolving certain conceptual formations and replacing them with new regimes of description. Take up my terms, and you will see nature and politics differently. See nature and politics differently, and you will have the means to resolve the ecological crisis. The problem is that our conscious assumptions and unconscious attachments already are formed under the conditions of pathological modernity. They are not a superficial optics that can be easily swapped out for another, like you might switch a pair of glasses. Here we encounter the weakness of theoretical interventions. Theory can elucidate, impel, or inveigh, but it cannot compel material change by itself.

Accordingly, I have condensed and extracted nine strategic recommendations with the intention of illustrating how the theoretical interventions I propose translate into modes of practical action. Theory is a form of action at a distance. I say these recommendations are strategic, first, because strategy is the hinge between speculative inquiry into the real and experimental practice. Also, they are strategic not because they speak to specific material interventions (although I do refer to specific examples, when possible), but because my recommendations are able to cash out into a wide range of possible programs. Note that these recommendations are not derived formally from my theoretical interventions, and nor are they the only possible such recommendations. That being said, I believe that, in nuce, they embody the practical framework of departure for a politics of exit from pathological modernity.

In other words, if you want to survive the ecological crisis and flourish after the collapse it heralds, consider what follows.

Strategic recommendations

Preface: Each of these strategic recommendations (affective dispossession, memetic warfare, material repurposing, institutional detournement, nexion formation, ludic experimentation, reputational economy, social encryption, and resilience practice) can stand on its own terms, but they are intended to function organically in such a fashion as to initiate cross-cutting feedback loops that ultimately enable such a thing as political exit. Political exit, or a politics of exit, means three things. First, it necessitates modes of action. Recall that, fundamentally, politics is about collective action and collective imagination. Action without imagination yields only reaction – that is, the simulacrum of action shaped entirely in response to the external seizure of initiative. Contrastively, imagination without action is mere woolgathering – that is, escapism, pure fantasy, or starvation politics. Next, a politics of exit shapes its alternatives with the materials it finds. It is a salvage mentality. The future belongs to the jackals and to the jackdaws; so become one. Lesson one: “There is no away.” Lesson two: “To be repurposed is to be redeemed.” Political exit is as much about practicing material and semiotic salvage as it is about locating new lines of flight. We are trying to reclaim what is ours, not to flee like locusts before the flame. Last, if you think things are fucked, but you’re not dead yet, then you’re interested in a politics of exit. Political exit is a form of realism. The civilization we’ve inherited is broken, so it’s time to build something else. To build something else, we first have to make an exit. Just like walking out of a sick building, finding an exit involves a passage to the Outside. “To make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.”

1. Affective dispossession refers to the process of decathecting our individual and collective modes of existence in the present – as well as their projection forward into a future we assume will remain familiar to us. We are unconsciously attached to modes of existence and to valorized imaginaries of security and sovereignty that serve primarily to intensify the ecological crisis. Ironically, most of our attempts to address the crisis only make it worse. We rely on the assumption of civilizational continuity because it legitimates the pathways of action we find most desirable (e.g., buy a house, get a job, have kids, travel). But there’s a big secret about the future: most people don’t actually want one. Instead, we want an eternal present – a post-histoire that ensures indefinite continuity. As such, we need to find ways of enacting strategies of affective dispossession. Such strategies require us to detach from irreal fantasies of sovereign selfhood and unbroken self-perpetuation. In other words, realize what you’re being told to care about, and learn to stop caring about it. “Your Oedipus is a fucking drag…” In the current configuration of the world, such care sows destruction. Instead, become what Sara Ahmed calls an “affect alien”: “to be an affect alien is to experience alien affects – to be out of line with the public mood, not to feel the way others feel” (157). She continues: “to be an affect alien does not mean you necessarily respond to the same [things] with a different affect […] Rather an affect alien might experience the same affect but in relation to different objects, which are judged by others as ‘the wrong objects’ for that affect” (171). Action has passional roots, which means that a change in our attachments will produce a change in what forms of action are possible for us. Counterintuitively – yet functionally – affective dispossession is a mode of futural projection because, by decathecting those futures that endlessly replicate the terms of our present, we free up our collective imagination to experiment with new forms of action and attachment alike.

2. Memetic warfare refers to the manufacture and use of memetic materiel in the ongoing symbolic conflict over meta-values, a conflict that may or may not ever become explicit. The conflict in question (a form of late modern Kulturkampf) has little to do with accuracy, facts, or truths. Instead, it’s about what qualifies as a fact, as legitimate, or as true. Differends proliferate. Hence, factions in conflict may appeal superficially to the same standards or values in seeking various advantages. Either they do not realize it is precisely these standards or values that are in question, or else obscuring this question provides some strategic benefit. Stop assuming that your opponent wants to converge or reconcile with you. A “meme” has two connotations. First, a meme is an abstract unit of culture; a memeplex is a complex of memes that “hang together” in some propitious way. Second, a meme is a reified ideological move, often presenting itself as an anonymous, easily transmissible, rococo pictogram that signals affiliation, affinity, critique, derogation, skepticism, solidarity, etc. In this latter regard, memes function as tools, or weapons, that exist as the products of rapidly evolving semiotic armamentarium. Accordingly, the strategy of memetic warfare requires, first, that we acknowledge the degree to which channels of communication in a network society – “media” – are theaters of semiotic warfare, not dialogic oases. Control of a channel entails control of the meme stream, although the iterability of memes always undermines in principle the fantasy of total control. Second, such an acknowledgement produces a fundamental change in comportment: we are not fighting over the control of information, we are fighting with information. Information itself is a weapon; das Mem ist Krieg. Truths, like deceptions or falsehoods, have an array of possible uses in memetic warfare. Sometimes delegitimating a source, or shutting a discourse down, is more important than any concern for accuracy or persuasion. It depends on what you’re trying to do.

3. Material repurposing refers to the creative seizure of material goods and services in order to assign these goods and services to ends other than they were intended originally. Consider this strategy an intensified version of something we already do on an everyday basis. It is a commonplace that technical artifacts are underdetermined, no matter how specialized they might seem, and we constantly repurpose artifacts for an array of ends. Rather than viewing this as an accident or a temporary shortcut, look for the underlying principle and turn it into a strategic imperative. What can a technical body do? How multifunctional and how plastic are the goods and services we employ? The point here is not merely that artifacts have multiple uses, but that our pathways of action should not be determined by the material infrastructure that makes them possible. There are constraints, of course, but constraints possibilize. Hence, it is necessary to experiment with material repurposing in order to see what functions and outcomes can be reclaimed from a commodity culture that purports to provide highly telic “objects from nowhere.” Repurposing is always a form of material speculation. To understand this requires that we expand how we understand the category of the speculative. First, speculation is a form of material practice. Consider technical practices of salvage and tinkering. To repurpose an artifact entails an experiment or a gambit insofar as it is an attempt to test what an artifact can do beyond its apparent purpose. No artifact exists as an isolate, and we tend to forget (or we never even notice) that artifacts exist only as temporally extended complexes that emerge within machinic ecologies. Even the most independent, privileged artifact relies necessarily upon networks of maintenance, production, and support. Consequently, to repurpose an artifact means two things: (1) we transform its purpose into another purpose, materially, and (2) we thereby change its functional position within the machinic ecologies at large. This requires the intervention of imagination, of speculative reason – that is to say, of positing a different world than the world we think is given. Second, even the mere exercise of imagination or speculative reason itself is a material practice insofar as it serves as a kind of ontological mapping. Speculative reason maps modal distributions. A modal distribution is a set of alternative possibilities, and possibilities exist, even if they exist in a different way than do actualities. Because thinking is not a ghostly operation that supervenes upon the world without touching it, speculation remains a form of action – or, rather, it irreducibly accompanies what we identify as action in every case.

  • For example:

4. Institutional detournement refers to the infiltration and occupation of existing institutions in order to subvert their capabilities and purposes to new ends. Detournement is a term borrowed from the Situationist International, where it referred to various strategies of cultural hijacking or semiotic rerouting, largely effected by means of bitingly ironic or satirical inversions and juxtapositions. To detourn an institution, then, means to alter its actions or functions, or else the outcomes that institution produces, in such a way as to use its own form, laws, mission, or resources against its stated aim. This strategy suggests ways in which political exit never reduces to an escapism. If there is “no away,” then there also isn’t any “over there.” The various institutions we inherit are not overdetermined, and history is in no small part the story of how concepts, customs, and institutions mutate into other shapes. By hook or by crook, repurposing always wins. Accordingly, institutional detournement consists of conscious experiments in how to turn elements and offerings of the status quo – like institutions – into sites of radical mutation. Remember, first, that there is nothing that can’t be contested. Remember, second, that performative or visible contestation is often less effective than the invisible work of committees, conspiracies, and vanguards. To paraphrase Graham Greene’s Dr. Hasselbacher: “Be careful. Take their money, but don’t give them anything in return. You are vulnerable to the Leviathans. Just lie and keep your freedom. They don’t deserve the truth.”

  • For example: Adoption as a means of protecting queer relationships, alternative economies, forming corporations in order to secure healthcare or legal protections for stakeholders, non-reproductive or universal civil partnerships, open source families, plural marriage or post-marriage as frameworks for civil association.

5. Nexion formation refers to the intentional formation and adaptive maintenance of elective affinity groups on the basis of crafted and voluntary obligations. A nexion is a novel form of association, then, grounded in a mode of individual and collective affective dispossession. In other words, to join or start a nexion – however this works procedurally in a given instance – it is necessary first to leave behind the culturally inherited framework of what a lasting or meaningful association is supposed to be (or, crucially, to not be). Consider the example of the traditional family, which is assumed widely to be the most natural form of association. It is irrelevant that, empirically, families often fail, or else serve as vectors of dysfunction. As a civilization, we have decided almost unconsciously that blood is thicker than water. Even many critics of the family form hold this assumption, and challenging it tends to provoke a variety of defensive responses, from the anecdotal assertion (#notMYfamily) to base scientism (e.g., invocations of some supposed genetic imperative) to kneejerk social conservatism. However, on any analysis, there is something fundamentally accidental and necessarily nonconsensual about the family form. For example, it is impossible to consult a child prior to her arrival. Metaphysically, family formation involves random assignment, and, therefore, the traditional family form can be in nowise elective. By contrast, consider the nexion, first, in formal terms: (from the Latin) nex-, meaning “a binding together” or “a coming together” and (from the Ancient Greek) ion (ἰόν), meaning “going” or “going along.” Therefore, nexion: the coming together of a going, or a confluence in departure. The withdrawal of libidinal attachment from the traditional family form as a primordial form of association frees up our ability to form elective affinity groups that can last. If blood is thicker than water, then water is thinner than blood. In other words, our attachment to the family form undermines the ability to form novel associations that cohere firmly or reliably. Hence, the emphasis on crafted and voluntary obligations, rather than accidental and nonconsensual obligations. If we find it difficult to imagine a nexion surviving – perhaps because our culture rabidly perpetuates the narrative that all forms of elective affinity ultimately fail, whereas only family and (especially) property endure – then recall the degree to which nexion formation is ultimately a political strategy. It is only through politics that forms of association install themselves as lasting fixtures, and political action necessarily involves courting the risk of failure. Therefore, you have a choice to make: either endorse the extant failures of our civilization (they’re features, not bugs!), or else try your best to write new programs.

  • For example: Doubtlessly, numerous proto-nexions already exist insofar as human subjects are incorrigibly social. That being said, terms like assemblage, assembly, band, coven, family, gang, group, pack, tribe, and troupe all fail to capture what this strategy prescribes, due either to connotative excess or to counterproductive historical denotations. Nevertheless, we can find proto-nexions in all of these places (e.g., in the so-called “post-nuclear” family) – and elsewhere, too. In sum, if you want to find examples of formative nexions, look for elective affinity groups where often subterranean or unspoken obligations cement social ties in stronger terms than you might expect. Forming a nexion involves making these ties explicit and opting in to their structuration.

6. Ludic experimentation refers to combinatorial, counterintuitive, and creative efforts to postulate new cultural, social, and theoretical rulesets, as well as the attempt to break and restructure old ones. By rulesets, I mean both the formal requirements and the implicit heuristics we employ – consciously or unconsciously – to maintain the appearance of civilizational continuity. One way to think of this strategy is as an attempt to re-inscribe or shift our symbolic formations (e.g., arguments, concepts, imperatives, injunctions, laws [“One day humanity will play with law just as children play with disused objects, not in order to restore them to their canonical use but to free them from it for good”], metaphors, phrases, prohibitions, texts, words) into jarring or novel contexts. In at least one minimalist sense, we already do this whenever we coin a new word, craft an idiolect, mix a metaphor, or even commit a malapropism. What remains underexamined – especially in the domain of the political – is the degree to which such symbolic translocations can break up established and unexcavated patterns of acting, feeling, and thinking. For example, William S. Burroughs experiments extensively with a literary form he calls the cut-up, a technique used to rearrange the elements of a text randomly in order to produce novel effects: “The cut-ups can be applied to other fields than writing. Doctor [John von] Neuman in his Theory of Games and Economic Behavior introduces the cut-up method of random action into game [theory] and military strategy: assume that the worst has happened and act accordingly. If your strategy is at some point determined by random factor your opponent will gain no advantage from knowing your strategy since he can not predict the move.” Consider additional connotations of the term: to attack or criticize, but also to behave like a clown or a joker. For Burroughs, the cut-up is a form of ludic experimentation intended not merely to produce some funky prose, but, specifically, to intervene in the structure of our political consciousness and to disrupt the orders we are given. For him (as for Walter Benjamin), ascriptions of linear causality are a function of linear narrative form, and such a narrative form serves primarily to erect and enforce a kind of sociopolitical determinism that traps human subjects within the limits of Control.

  • For example: Constructing “cities in thought,” cut-ups, experimental or stochastic action, playing with gender, redefining affective and relational forms, refusing silence or voice when it is inappropriate to do so, savage mimesis, test nexions, valorizing alternative pathways, vocalizing affective dispossession or class hatred.

7. Reputational economy refers to the construction of alternative means and metrics by which to track social value. Currently, the primary indicator of an agent’s social value is media exposure and financial worth – the latter of which, in turn, gets operationalized strategically in order to manage media exposure. Under conditions of media market capture, a reputational economy is hard to kickstart or maintain because of the high noise ratio. Accordingly, reputational economies need to be heavily encrypted at first. What is a reputational economy, then? It is both a communications channel and a medium of information and service exchange. As to the former, it provides a metric and a vocabulary of social value grounded in considerations of function and multilateral utility, with an eye to resilience. As to the latter, it suffices to provide an alternative media by means of which individuals and nexions can voice various bids and contributions. Such participation builds an alternative base of distributed social capital. Ideally, the position of an agent within her reputational economies supplants all other considerations for those who remain apprised. There are two further incentives to utilize reputational economies, even apart from the strategic framework I propose. First, a reputational economy affords its members with social capital on the basis of ability, commitment, and probity, rather than assigning disproportionate value to financial worth. Second, a reputational economy has the capacity to attenuate or even obviate the impact of media manipulation.

  • For example:

8. Social encryption refers to the refusal of legibility or transparency in the face of the dominant political paradigm, namely, the universalist politics of recognition. The politics of recognition requires that individual and collective agents, first, voluntarily self-identify and, second, submit to a regime of corporate, institutional, or state verification. Self-identification is voluntary because the underlying assumption is that we are structured libidinally to crave recognition from the manifold Leviathan – either in order to attain social status (e.g., conspicuity), or to obtain minimal security or welfare. Constantly, we are encouraged to identify ourselves with our various social and virtual personae, to stand up and be counted. After all, you can’t have your voice heard if no one can hear you, or if no one speaks your tongue. To the contrary, the strategy of social encryption suggests that we develop diverse means of obscuring our actions, affiliations, and identities. “Be the gray man;” go back into the closet; hide your data; practice camouflage; start living in the Dark Forest. If you’re being hunted (attentionally or physically), then accurate representation is preface to capture. Lie to power.

9. Resilience practice refers to the adoption and valorization of any and all practices that successfully foster resilience in a desired organization (e.g., a nexion). Resilience has a specific meaning. It means the ability of a system to absorb or survive shocks without forcing either a functional or processual breakdown, or an abrupt shift to some ad hoc reactive regime. A resilient system is built to survive tribulations. Practicing resilience entails both a relentless commitment to limited experimental methods and a conditional retention of backups and redundancies. It also implies a total refusal to capitulate to the various destinal or romantic fantasies of election or linearity that corrode resilience practice. Everything can fail, so assume that everything will fail. Therefore, the first premise of a good resilience practice is to remain clear about the immanent possibility of collapse or destruction. Indeed, resilience functions immunologically: a resilient system incorporates elements of disruption into itself as part of a continuous process of structured responsivity to the new. Turn extinction sideways, and you have resilience.

The figure

Here’s a take on the ecological crisis: “The symbol below represents extinction. The circle signifies the planet, while the hourglass inside serves as a warning that time is rapidly running out for many species. The world is currently undergoing a mass extinction event, and this symbol is intended to help raise awareness of the urgent need for change in order to address this crisis. Estimates are that somewhere between 30,000 and 140,000 species are becoming extinct every year in what scientists have named the Sixth Mass Extinction. This ongoing process of destruction is being caused by the impact of human activity. Within the next few decades approximately 50% of all species that now exist will have become extinct. Such a catastrophic loss of biodiversity is highly likely to cause widespread ecosystem collapse and consequently to render the planet uninhabitable for humans. In order to spread the message as widely as possible, please create this symbol in any location you feel able to. Thank you.”

Figures and diagrams are useful artifacts insofar as they allow us to depict visually a set of relations. As a general type of sign, the figure is especially information rich. Figures are what they mean. They do as they signify.

Consider, then, the following figure, which depicts the nine strategic recommendations I propose. The general structure of the figure replicates the extinction symbol – only turned sideways. So the hourglass stops. Indeed, an hourglass on its side suggests infinity. From extinction, postponement. The circle signifies resilience practice, which is both a constraint upon its eight companion strategies and that which their interaction generates and sustains. Inside the circle, the two labeled obtuse angles (ludic experimentation and material repurposing) indicate an external orientation: we inherit constraints, we occupy a material world. Inside the two congruent triangles, we find six remaining strategies. In the rightmost triangle, we find a constructive complex: these strategies are about crafting and projection. In the leftmost triangle, we find a destructive complex: these strategies are about conflict and evasion.

The figure is rudimentary, as if drawn hastily in chalk. Visually, it evokes a runic invocation, a threadbare witch project. You might find this figure crudely carved into a tree deep in some strange forest, or briefly glimpse it sketched on the underside of a concrete overpass as you drive by. It flashes up on the television screen when you look away, accompanied by a static scream. The labels on the figure occupy acute and obtuse angles, but not all angles have labels. This is because the figure does not make visible every strategic possibility it implies. Likewise, the lines of association remain underdetermined. This is because the figure is also a machine, a machine for the production of novel strategic recommendations. All you have to do now is open up and let the devil in.

In order to make a left-hand exit more likely, please create this figure in any location you feel able to. It will then begin to reproduce itself. Thank you.

This piece has been partially reproduced at the DePaul University Institute for Nature and Culture‘s website, Environmental Critique. Thanks to Dr. Christine Skolnik for the invitation to contribute.