Decolonizing for the Planetary Community
A Counterpoint Conversation at the conference of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture (ISSRNC)
Please join us online for a Counterpoint Conversation and panel discussion at this year’s ISSRNC conference!
Conference theme: “After Earth? Religion and Technology on a Changing Planet”
Location: Tempe, AZ, USA, and Online
Date: 3 February 2023, 1:00pm – 2:30pm (US Mountain Time, MST)
Student registration is free. Recordings of all the online sessions will be posted on the ISSRNC website so registered viewers can watch at their convenience. For more information about the conference and to view the online program, please visit the organizer’s website.
Sylvia Wynter has argued that the idea of human and subsequently what the “humanities” are, grew out of a colonial context. The Human was made in the image of the European, western, white (and straight and wealthy) male. All other humans are classified as more or less “like animals” or more or less “civilized” according to how well they match the ideal human. This hegemonic regime is closely tied to the system of patriarchy against which feminists, womanists, queer theorists, and many others have been arguing for years.
In addition to the colonial concept of humans, what constitutes the humanities and social sciences, and also the natural and physical sciences, emerge from this colonial understanding of what it means to be human. In this sense, the human (and all things human) is separate from the rest of the natural world, which is only as good as it is useful or beneficial to the human. Our humanity, then, is automatically tied up with an origin that is somehow out of this world: whether the imago Dei in theology, or ideas of Reason and rationality in philosophical discourses, or both. In addition, the replication of modern western academic disciplines the world over furthers the colonization of minds and bodies.
A whole host of theories—postcolonial, decolonial, liberation, critical race, disability studies, deconstructive thought—have weakened colonial thinking and all its isms. However, much of this theory is still part of the anthropocentric regime and focuses on human bodies and social justice in human societies. Nonhuman bodies in all life forms tend to be a blind spot of these theories. Looking at the (de)colonization of the nonhuman needs a conversation with, for instance, Critical Animal Studies, New Materialisms, and Critical Post-humanities. The context within which one is doing the decolonizing and deconstructing is not outside of the ongoing evolving relationships that eventually make up “the planetary.” The planetary is not a pre-made container, but rather is the collection of linked together worlds (human and non) that at any one time make up our planet Earth. We are planetary creatures, and this provides us with common grounds from which to deconstruct, decolonize, and then reconstruct “better” worlds that are more just and promote the flourishing of more planetary bodies.
Whitney A. Bauman, Florida International University: “Planetary Thinking in a Post-Human World”
In his book, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Walter Mignolo outlines several options for a future of the planet beyond the western, modern colonial world. He spends most of that book talking about the decolonial option, with only fragments spent on what he calls “the spiritual option.” In brief, the spiritual option is about decolonizing religious traditions through more embodied spiritualities that focus people on the human and more-than-human communities in which they live. As such, the spiritual option has affinities with both “liberation” style religious strands and with animisms found in indigenous communities. In addition, recent scholarship around “New Materialisms” also suggests that there is agency and value in the rest of the natural world: much like in animist traditions, everything on the planet is alive, acts, and is acted upon. In my contribution to this discussion, I make an argument for the ethics of a post-human world from animist and new materialist perspectives. Such an argument depends on something like a planetary spirituality, which may be a supplement to Mignolo’s “spiritual option.”
Jay Johnston, University of Sydney: “Prosaic Shamanism: Sensory Ecology and ‘Everyday Ethics’”
Is the refusal, unconscious or otherwise, to ethically engage with the diverse sensory skills and worlds of individual animal species a form of sensory colonialism? Taking the development of sensory ecology as its foundation (a subfield of behavioral ecology which considers the types and range of specific animal species sensory capacities in the design and application of conservation programs (Fernández-Juric 2016)), this paper explores the ethical imperative and perceptual reorientations that arise from the acknowledgment that other-than-human animal species simply do not experience the world within the same perceptive repertoire as human animals. This includes having a greater range within a given sensory category (seeing in the ultraviolet range for example) or centrally utilizing senses considered as limited or undeveloped in humans, for example echolocation or magnetoreception. In this reflection upon the unthought presumptions of human sensory capacities which categorize and direct human–animal interaction the problematic category of ‘shamanism’ (commonly delineated as a type of spiritual experience or practice) will also be interrogated. In taking the sensory alterity of animals seriously this paper asks human animals to reflect upon their own (culturally specific) prescriptions of normative sensory regimes and their role in limiting or engendering interspecies ethical engagement.
Lisa Stenmark, San Jose State University: “Decolonizing ‘Planetary Thinking’”
When those of us in the Western academy speak of the need to “decolonize,” we too often skip the actual process of decolonizing, moving right on to the concepts, methods and approaches that purport to be decolonized. This is understandable, given that decolonizing is a messy, long drawn out process for which there is no set blueprint: all of us occupy different positions within the colonial matrix and the process of decolonization is similarly different for each of us. What does this mean for those of us who occupy positions of privilege—epistemic, ontological, institutional, and otherwise? More importantly, what does it mean for planetary thinking? At the most basic level it means that we have to start by asking to what extent “planetary” thinking is itself in need of decolonization. The answer to this is not straightforward, because planetary thinking is not straightforward. But certainly to the extent that it is—or becomes—universal, abstract, divorced from particularity, context and place (and so on) then it is, or has become, part of the colonial project. In addition, we might ask how “planetary” relates to the many worlds that constitute the planet. And what is the connection between the “planet” and the “earth,” and those ways of understanding that arise out of a community’s relationship to a particular place? Ultimately, decolonizing planetary thinking might not mean defining “planetary” (planetaries?) or making arguments about it, but instead exploring our connection to a particular place (places) on this planet and developing a communal relationship with that place (those places) and the people who live in and on it. It may be that by speaking from our particular place(s) on this earth—from our particular worlds—that a planetary perspective can emerge from this world of many worlds.
Carol Wayne White, Bucknell University: “Decolonizing Matters: Envisioning BLM’s Contributions to a More-Than Human-Politics of Nature”
In aligning the Black Lives Movement (BLM) with the tenets of religious naturalism, I explore BLM’s unique positioning as a materialist discourse with potential contributions to more-than-human politics. As a materialist epistemology, religious naturalism re-frames the category of the human as embedded within materiality, inextricably in relationship with other natural processes. With its resistance to white supremacy and the binary ordering of existence upon which it is built and advanced, the BLM movement’s uncompromising demand that black lives be viewed and treated as intrinsically valuable life forms reflects religious naturalism’s relational ontology. Accordingly, in my reading, this contemporary protest movement is uniquely positioned to contribute to a more-than-human politics, or, more eloquently, a decolonizing politics of nature that affirms the intrinsic worth of all materiality. Drawing on select themes found in BLM writings, I discuss its potential to offer a robust view of our entangled, embedded humanity in which concerns about black bodies and identities besieged by white supremacy in the U.S. are never divorced from those matters addressing justice for myriad nature. While encouraging humans’ transformative engagement with each other and with the more-than-human worlds that constitute our existence, this expanded view affirms the agential vitality cohering within all material processes; all materiality matters, it insists.
Kocku von Stuckrad, University of Groningen: “Postcolonial Thinking and Human Regimes of Exploitation: Toward a Biocentric Postcolonial Ethics”
The debates in postcolonial studies and related intellectual fields have significantly raised our awareness of deeply ingrained colonial structures and the need to decolonize our regimes of exploitation at all levels. At closer inspection, it seems that most of these debates focus on the human species and its “internal” hegemonies and exploitative regimes, while colonial theories are rarely applied to nonhuman organisms and life forms. As Bron Taylor remarks: “I have often wondered why scholars who are alert to and even outraged by human on human imperialism are so often indifferent to the ecocidal domination of humankind over the rest of the living world.” At times, we even see ridicule and disdain toward environmental activism, for instance when Edward Said called environmentalism “the indulgence of spoiled tree huggers who lack a proper cause” (cf. Nixon). In my contribution, I will look at postcolonial thinking and its dealing with interspecies and non-anthropocentric justice. I will then raise the question of what postcolonial theory and decolonization would look like if they were built on a bio- or ecocentric ethical perspective. This means an active merging of postcolonial thinking with insights from Critical Animal Studies, critical posthumanities, ecofeminism, and related fields of inquiry.
Fernández-Juricic, E. 2016. The role of animal sensory perception in behavior-based management. In: Conservation Behaviour: applying behavioural ecology to wildlife conservation and management. D. Saltz & O. Berger-Tal, Editors. Pp. 149-175. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
Ko, Aph. 2019. Racism as Zoological Witchcraft: A Guide to Getting Out. New York, NY: Lantern Books.
Mignolo, Walter. 2011. The Darker Side of Western Modernity: Global Futures, Decolonial Options. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Nixon, Rob. 2013. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Taylor, Bron. 2013 “It’s not all about Us: Reflections on the State of American Environmental History,” in Journal of American History 100.1(June 2013): 140-144.
Wynter, Sylvia. 2003. “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation,” in The New Centennial Review. 3.3(Fall 2003): 257-337.
Photo credits: “Broken brickwall with freedom path” — © charnsitr. Free download.