Environmental Humanities Pests

On Ferals

This blog post is the text of a discussant paper that I was delighted to deliver at the 2015 meeting of the American Anthropological Association in a panel called Gaia Strikes Back: Feral Landscapes of the Anthropocene.

The piece responds to four fantastic, provocative, papers (listed below). It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to think about and discuss these topics with these talented scholars and Laura Ogden (the other discussant on the panel). To find out more about this feral work you might visit the Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) website (the centre where most of these people are based at least some of the time).

“Tegu Trouble: Corporate Landscape Ecology and the Unraveling of a Chelonian World”
Zachary Caple (University of California, Santa Cruz)

“Rhythms & Cycles:
Aleatory Attunements of Miracle Rice”
Elaine Gan (University of California, Santa Cruz)

“Dairy Indigestions: The Proliferation of Manure and Unruly Organisms in the Anthropocene”
Katy Overstreet (University of California, Santa Cruz)

“Free-Range Fish Production: The Uncontained Consequences of North Pacific Salmon Ranching”
Heather A Swanson (Aarhus University)

I’d like to focus my comments here entirely on the concept of the feral which frames this panel, making some connections and posing some general questions. Ferality is central to each of the papers. Overstreet describes E. Coli as feral; Swanson refers to hatchery salmon, hatchery production itself and industrial capitalism all as ferals, as having “gone wild” in some sense; Caple tells us about feral tegu and feral capitalist landscapes of extraction. While Gan does not use the term explicitly, reading her paper through the same lens we might certainly describe the phenomenal spread of miracle rice farming systems, of super abundant nitrogen and of the brown planthoppers in this way.

Ferality opens up a range of questions which I’d like to pose to the panel – although we probably won’t have time to take them up today.

6186794956_a7798f39d1_zThe feral is the one that does not fit, that refuses to conform to dominant standards of propriety, order and culture. In this respect, it might be understood to be part of a larger set of monsterous figures (in Haraway’s sense of the term): the cyborg, the pest, the femaleman – all figures that problematize easy dualistic distinctions.[i] In my favourite chapter in Friction, Anna Tsing introduces us to a set of similar figures, exploring various forms of “weediness” that emerge in the cracks of dominant systems of classification and ordering.[ii]

And so my first question for the panel is a big one. How do you see the feral sitting amongst this larger collective of disorderly figures? What is special or particularly helpful about it? In short, a question about kinship.

But this close association with other monstrous figures also makes we wonder about “the promises of ferals” – to appropriate another concept from Haraway.[iii]

In a similar vein I have written elsewhere, with Emily O’Gorman, about the promises of pests. As transgressive creatures that haunt conceptual borderlands, problematizing the supposed purity of categories like ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, they reveal the inability of our dualistic imaginings to reshape the world in any absolute or final way. But they also remind us that peskiness – or in this case ferality – only exists in the eye of the beholder, from within the context of particular projects and their conceptual schemes. Paying attention to ferals is one way of highlighting, and perhaps questioning, these modes of ordering and inhabiting the world. The pest, the feral, the monster, help us to see that other modes of relating and inhabiting are needed. The term monster, Haraway reminds us, shares a common root with ‘demonstrate’: “monsters signify”, pointing toward other possibilities.[iv]

And so my second question is whether the feral is also a hopeful, or at least a promising, figure? In other contexts, “feral” species are not the products of industrial agriculture, but the ones that refuse and challenge the agricultural remaking of the landscape to suit dominant designs and interests. Is there room for these kinds of ferals – or for this kind of reading of some of the ferals discussed in these projects? Perhaps, alongside threatening ecological wellbeing in the form of endangered tortoises (Caple) and the salmon of Norton Sound (Swanson), these creatures might also threaten the capitalist projects that are spawning them? I wonder, for example, whether tegu numbers on Mosaic lands might one day create a public relations mess leading to a redoing of what Caple calls the corporate geobody, perhaps a relaxing of exclusive private property rights. This is a question about hope in ferals.

Following on from this we might note that there is a strange tension here in the fabric of modernity. Deborah Bird Rose discusses modernity’s dreams of a hyper organised and controlled world and the chaos and disorder that necessarily arises from this project (she is here drawing on Walter Benjamin).[v] In this context it is hard to know how to respond to the world. Do we want more order and control, or more wildness? At least some of the time, Rose argues, we need a healthy dose of what she, adapting Lev Shestov, calls a “world craziness” which “immerses us in the power, resilience, connectivity, and uncertainty of the living Earth.”[vi]

But what of love? While many of the forms of ferality described in these papers are pretty hard for me to “love” – especially the diverse forms of capitalism run wild (which I’ll return to in a moment) – such a response is not impossible in all cases.

In the spirit of Bruno Latour’s call to “love your monsters,” I wonder about the celebration of the feral.[vii] Although there is a great deal of ambivalence in parts of these papers, overall it seems to me that the things labelled “feral” are things we might be better off without – given the choice. But is the feral, at least in some of its forms, the new unavoidable world order? Who else can survive, let alone thrive, in what Tsing and others have called “blasted landscapes”?[viii] Perhaps these forms of unruly, imperfect, “feral life” are the best that we can hope for in certain times and places?

Perhaps these landscapes might be celebrated, each in their own way, as “emergent ecologies” (to borrow the title of Eben Kirksey’s new book).[ix]

This is a dangerous question. One that is definitely in need of detailed, case specific, responses. At its core is the terribly difficult issue of whether we celebrate and accept the world we have, or demand something better. In some cases celebration can definitely be an excuse for the business as usual destruction of the world (and I think we see this in the positions of various eco-modernists[x]). But in other cases the most flourishing possibilities for life will only be possible through forms of co-habitation that find ways to love what others will call “degraded” or “broken” creatures and places.[xi] So my third question is about celebrating ferals.

My fourth question concerns some of the more loveable ferals in these stories: perhaps the tegu and hatchery salmon in particular. While paying attention to ferals holds within it the promise of some fascinating and productive border confusions, the use of this terminology might also be taken to buy into those same conceptual divisions in troubling ways. In other contexts I – like many others – have explored how labels like “introduced,” “pest” and “vermin” work to position living creatures as “out of place” and so legitimately killable. These terms are part of a complex “ethical taxonomy” that, in many cases, means that animals are killed in contexts with no real conservation outcomes and in ways that would be unacceptable for less vilified lives.[xii] And so, alongside the valuable work that the term ‘feral’ does in your thinking and writing, I wonder if its use also carries these kinds of dangers. This is a question about rendering killable.

This brings us to what I take to be one of the most interesting aspects of these papers. Namely, the way in which you are positioning systems of capitalist production – from fisheries and agriculture to mining – as themselves feral. The way that these systems replicate and spread is fascinatingly disturbing. In addition, each of the papers highlights how the destructive impacts created by these systems of production themselves spread out into the world – rippling through and piggybacking on ecological systems and processes. As Swanson puts it: “destruction moving not only through its own mechanisms of spread, but also by mutating or mutilating the multiplicity of webs that make life possible.”

In addition, to a greater or lesser extent, each of these papers – and certainly their larger projects – practices an attentiveness to the particular “ways of life” of some focal organisms. Drawing on the natural sciences and a range of other empirical resources, you’re providing “thick” accounts of who these beings are, and how they craft their lives in relationship with others. In short, these are all projects that at least dip into the space we might call “multispecies studies” or “multispecies ethnography”. In this context, another important thing that ferality does is to provide a useful link between organisms and capitalist systems of production. It is a link in both a conceptual and a causal sense: that is, a lens for thinking about the wild, about destruction and control, that works across these domains; and a set of relationships whereby organisms and systems of production tangibly and consequentially shape each others possibilities and consequences. On this last point, Kirksey (drawing on Sarah Franklin) reminds us that “Life has a tendency to go wild in spaces of hyper cultivation.”[xiii] This wild is not a space outside human impact, but one spawned from it – an understanding related to the Indigenous Australian contrast between wild and quiet country explored by Rose.[xiv]

My fifth question then is: How important is multispecies studies in your efforts to chart these new wilds? Does getting a sense of the ways of life of the organisms in question – how they move, proliferate, impact and why – enrich our understanding of capitalist world making projects? I think the answer to this question is definitely “yes” – and the papers demonstrate this – but it’s a topic that I would really like to think more about with you all. So, a question about multispecies studies.

What this kind of intimate attention to the lives of others also reveals though is that these feral landscapes are definitely sites of thriving for some forms of life – at least for now. Tegu (Caple) and brown planthoppers (Gan) are doing very well; so is e. coli (Overstreet). On what grounds do we prefer some ecologies over others? On what grounds do we even get to label these ones as “feral”? What are the systems of valuation that underwrite this labelling and can they be made explicit and defended?

In short, my sixth question is to ask you all to say a little more about whose worlds are being upset by these feral incursions and why we should care about them. Should we preference tortoises over tegu? Should we preference the wellbeing of cows over e. coli, of dairy consumers over dairy farmers? The maintenance of rice diversity over rice production? Obviously each of these choices are more complex than I’m making them; often both parties seem to actually be losers, at least in the long run (appreciating this complexity is the value of ethnography and of doing ethics from the field). So, what I am asking for, in short, are more explicit statements about how and why you think we should “cast our lot” (to borrow yet again from Haraway). So a question about the ethico-political.

In the Australian context, the feral is set apart – to some extent – from other animal figures through its close association with reversion. That is, the term feral is usually reserved for individual animals or species that were once domesticated, once cultured, but have now reverted to an earlier state and run wild. Cats, dogs, donkeys, cows, camels and horses are the kinds of animals commonly labelled in this way. So-called “pest” species without such a history – like foxes and cane toads – are generally not described as feral.

This leads me to my seventh question: Does the use of the term feral aim to capture something inherently, we might reluctantly say ‘naturally’, wild about these entities? A prior, or more proper, state?

The dangers of a weird essentialism aside, there is something strangely compelling about the notion that as they run amok and destroy the world, capitalist systems of production are revealing their fundamental character, doing what they will always do if they are freed from constraints and given the chance. A question about reversion.

Finally, there is a strong focus on temporality in some of these papers. Although Gan draws these threads out most explicitly, in all of the papers we see how ferality might emerge through the operation of particular temporal practices; particular ways of managing and “doing” time. Specifically, efforts to accelerate and standardize production – reliably producing ever more in an ever decreasing period of time.

My final question then is to ask about how time might be done differently. Many scholars have warned about the dangers implicit in efforts to wind the clock back to some previous age. In a related vein, Michelle Bastian has warned against the simplicity of responding to speed with slowness – as found in calls for slow food. If neither the past, nor a radical slow down, offer a simple solution to the hyper acceleration of the Anthropocene and the feral possibilities that are spinning off from it, then where should we look? What might an attentiveness to overlapping, haunted, folded, temporalities look like? (which I know is a key part of Elaine’s work). Both Gan and Caple raise these issues explicitly in their papers, so my question is just to ask them to draw out a little more how it is that they see the relationship between temporality and our understandings of and responses to ferality. So, a question about what Bastian might call “feral clocks.”[xv]


[i] Haraway, Donna. Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan©_Meets_OncoMouseTM: Feminism and Technoscience. New York and London: Routledge, 1997.

[ii] Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt. Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton & Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2005.

[iii] Haraway, Donna. “The Promises of Monsters: A Regenerative Politics for Inappropriate/d Others.” In Cultural Studies, edited by Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, and Paula A Treichler. New York: Routledge, 1992.

[iv] Emily O’Gorman and Thom van Dooren. “The Promises of Pests.” Paper under review. Available online: http://thomvandooren.org/2015/11/07/the-promises-of-pests-wildlife-in-agricultural-landscapes/. This paragraph is lifted, pretty much word for word, from this co-authored paper.

[v] Rose, Deborah Bird. “What If the Angel of History Were a Dog?” Cultural Studies Review 12, no. 1 (2006).

[vi] Rose, Deborah Bird. Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011. Rose says: “I fell in love with Lev Shestov when I discovered his stunning essays that rail against rationalist-dominated modernity and offer a “crazy” vision of a world in which life exceeds knowledge, and in which mutability and uncertainty are blessed emanations of life.” Writing to Shestov, she later asks: “May we not respond to your call by joining in the craziness and mystery of Earth? In my vision of turning toward Earth, we engage in dramas of encounter and recognition, becoming “crazy with” others as well as “crazy for” others. I imagine world-craziness as a strong call for us to cherish birth and growth, and to love that which is perilous. The others we will become crazy with are here with us; they/we are Earth others in relation to each other.”

[vii] Latour, Bruno. “Love Your Monsters.” Breakthrough Journal 2 (2011). Also see Latour, Bruno. “50 Shades of Green.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015).

[viii] Tsing, Anna. “Blasted Landscapes, and the Gentle Art of Mushroom Picking.” In The Multispecies Salon: Gleanings from a Para-Site, edited by Eben Kirksey. Durham: Duke University Press, 2015. Kirksey, S Eben, Nick Shapiro, and Maria Brodine. “Hope in Blasted Landscapes.” Social Science Information 52, no. 2 (2013): 228–56.

[ix] Kirksey, Eben. Emergent Ecologies. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015.

[x] See the five short responses to “An Ecomodernist Manifesto” published in Environmental Humanities. Latour, Bruno. “50 Shades of Green.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015). Collard, Rosemary-claire, Jessica Dempsey, and Juanita Sundberg. “The Moderns’ Amnesia in Two Registers.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015): 227–32. Crist, Eileen. “The Reaches of Freedom: A Response to An Ecomodernist Manifesto.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015): 245–54. Hamilton, Clive. “The Theodicy of the ‘Good Anthropocene.’” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015): 1–7. Szerszynski, Bronislaw. “Getting Hitched and Unhitched with the Ecomodernists.” Environmental Humanities 7 (2015): 239–44.

[xi] There is a connection here to Cameron Muir’s effort to learn new forms of care for what he calls the “broken” places of agricultural “progress.” Muir, Cameron. The Broken Promise of Agricultural Progress: An Environmental History. London & New York: Routledge, 2014.

[xii] van Dooren, Thom. “Invasive Species in Penguin Worlds: An Ethical Taxonomy of Killing for Conservation.” Conservation and Society 9, no. 4 (2011): 286–98.

[xiii] Kirksey, Eben. Emergent Ecologies. Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2015.

[xiv] Rose, Deborah Bird. Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2011.

[xv] Bastian, Michelle. “Fatally Confused: Telling the Time in the Midst of Ecological Crises.” Environmental Philosophy 9, no. 1 (2012): 23–48.

Image: “The Forgotten Veteran 1920 x1200” by Artiom P