- On the Risk of Gaia for an Ecology of Practices
The work of Isabelle Stengers engages a baffling number of topics and includes collaborators from across many disciplines and practices. For this reason, there is perhaps no set of terms or concepts that easily encapsulates her work. Nevertheless, in recent years concepts such as “cosmopolitics” and the “ecology of practices” have gained a special currency in the context of humanities and social science research (e.g., Blok and Farias; Yaneva and Zaera-Polo; Gabrys). While cosmopolitics is not a new term, and Stengers is certainly not the only one to employ it today (e.g., Latour and Beck), her use of it, and in conjunction with the ecology of practices, seems to have sparked the critical and speculative imaginations of many. This should be good news given that these concepts are not exclusive to “professional philosophy.” Stengers very specifically refers to them as “tools” to be put to use in practices (Stengers, “Introductory Notes” 185).
One of the attendant risks of calling these concepts “tools” is that they may be treated as all-terrain theories capable of being applied to any and every situation. While I will not criticize current applications of the concepts here, I will demonstrate how the ecology of practices in particular is an instance of thinking par le milieu in Gilles Deleuze’s sense of the term, and how achieving it is a hard-fought struggle that is unique to each situation. In what follows, I suggest that “staging a scene” for thinking par le milieu involves tremendous risk, not only financial, social, and physical risk as activists clearly testify to, but also a risk for thinking: that is, we must resist the temptation to apply our well-worn habits of modern thought to a situation (as Alfred North Whitehead was fond of saying).
It is the latter form of risk that will form the crux of my argument, which is that Stengers’s frequent appeal to non-modern practices (such as animism, magic, and witchcraft) attempts to challenge our modern dispositions of thought and activate modes of thinking par le milieu. To demonstrate this, I draw explicitly on her use of Gaia worship in the English translation of her work, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming [End Page 96] Barbarism, and argue that it functions as a reclaiming practice (inherited from Reclaiming Witchcraft) that stages a scene for thinking according to what our epoch makes matter: namely, the threat the Earth poses to human and non-human life. Along the way, I draw on Deleuze’s notion of the problematic in order to contend that Gaia is a proposition that makes all modes of response an opportunity for learning and paying attention to problems. Ultimately, thinking par le milieu today involves resisting the protection that our modern references and citational practices afford us, and being lured into feeling the efficacy of what we cannot accommodate within these modern fortresses.
I. Risking The Middle
In her 2005 essay, “Introductory Notes on An Ecology of Practices,” Stengers insists that the ecology of practices is not a general metric that can be applied widely; instead it is a “tool for thinking” in the middle of divergent and incommensurable worlds. The metaphor of “tool” is helpful only if we recognize that although a tool can be “passed from hand to hand” each instance of taking the tool in hand is a “particular one” (185). Thus, to treat the ecology of practices as a tool means that it acquires its meaning in and through its use (185). We do not know what this tool means until it is put to work and gives the “situation the power to make us think” (185). Stengers maintains that the situation’s power is a “virtual one,” in the full sense that Deleuze intends this concept, and so the tool is what actualizes this power: “The relevant tools, tools for thinking, are then the ones that address and actualise this power of the situation, that make it a matter of particular concern, in other words, make us think and not recognize” (185). What this means is that the ecology of...