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The Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture, this afternoon – ‘Vital Materialism and Neoliberal Natures’ by Bruce Braun

*** You can now read Bruce’s recent Antipode paper, “New Materialisms and Neoliberal Natures”, online here***

Today’s the day: Bruce Braun will be presenting the 2013 Antipode RGS-IBG Lecture between 16:50 and 18:30 in the Ondaatje Theatre at the Society. The lecture will be followed by a drinks reception between 18:45-20:00 in the Map Room, and our colleagues at Wiley will be filming the lecture and will make it available as a part of our Lecture Series videos.

Bruce’s lecture is entitled Vital Materialism and Neoliberal Natures. Here’s the abstract:

This talk traces a relation between two distinct literatures that have largely ignored each other. First, a dynamic literature on ‘vital materialism’ that counts complex systems theory among its influences and proposes a non-dualistic and non-deterministic understanding of nature; and, second, a vast literature on ‘neoliberal natures’ that explores the commodification, monetization and financialization of nature within new modes of market governance. What relation might be drawn between the concepts developed in the first and the transformations examined in the second? While some have suggested that there is an intuitive ideological fit between concepts of non-deterministic nature and neoliberalism, or even that vital materialisms are complicit with neoliberal capitalism, this talk extends efforts to tell the story of their relation in a much different way. Such efforts not only seek to distinguish between the original critical impulses of complex systems theory and the form in which they are ‘captured’ or ‘redeployed’ by neoliberalism, they also offer an opportunity to raise pressing questions about historiography and critique in the face of claims that the latter has run out of steam. Drawing upon Marx’s discussion of ‘pre-capitalist economic formations’ and Deleuze and Guattari’s ‘universal history’, I argue for the continued relevance of a mode of historical analysis that is ‘retrospective, ironic and critical’.

To mark the occasion we’re pleased to be able to make the following collection of Antipode essays open access until the end of the year. Bruce’s work on eco-politics, political ecology, biosecurity, new materialisms, and the city will be well known to many readers of the journal, and here we have a virtual issue including some great examples as well as the work of interlocutors and fellow travellers. We move from materialist social theory, through theses on the production of nature, to neoliberal natures, environmental justice, climate change and capitalist conservation, before finishing with looks at fish, influenza and ‘waste’…

Virtual issuesEcologies

The intemperate rainforestIt’s 40 years since David Harvey’s Social Justice and the City was published. Chapter four, ‘Revolutionary and counter-revolutionary theory in geography…’ (which first appeared in Antipode 4:2), marks the transition from the ‘Liberal formulations’ of part one to the ‘Socialist formulations’ of part two, and is as forthright an essay as one could hope to see. It surges forward, ruthlessly criticising geography as it was then constituted: “There is an ecological problem, an urban problem, an international trade problem, and yet we seem incapable of saying anything of depth or profundity about any of them” (2009: 129, 1972: 6). Much has changed in those four decades, and radical geographers have a great deal to say about these (indivisible or inseparable, rather than individual, to be sure) issues, and here we’d like to celebrate Antipode‘s role as a forum for the development of some of this research and scholarship.

Political matterThe occasion is the 2013 Antipode RGS-IBG lecture, to be presented by Bruce Braun on Wednesday 28th August 2013. Bruce is Professor of Geography at the University of Minnesota. He is the author of The Intemperate Rainforest: Nature, Culture, and Power on Canada’s West Coast (University of Minnesota Press, 2002), and co-editor of Remaking Reality: Nature at the Millennium (Routledge, 1998) and Social Nature: Theory, Practice, and Politics (Blackwell, 2001) with Noel Castree, and Political Matter: Technoscience, Democracy, and Public Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2010) with Sarah Whatmore. He is also one of the editors of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers and the new interdisciplinary journal Resilience: International Policies, Practices, and Discourses.

Materialist social theory

Bruce’s work on eco-politics, political ecology, biosecurity, new materialisms, and the city will be well known to many readers of Antipode. His essay in David Harvey: A Critical Reader (a title in the Antipode Book Series) is a powerful examination of the ‘strange proximity’ between the materialist social theories of Harvey and Deleuze and Guattari (the former dialectical, the latter immanentist), exploring ontologies and their political consequences, and his contribution to Antipode‘s review symposium on Sarah Whatmore’s Hybrid Geographies is as clear a statement on materialist and immanentist philosophy, and why it matters, as you will find. Read it before tackling Ozan Karaman’s An immanentist approach to the urban – an accomplished piece of scholarship putting Louis Althusser to work to think about capitalism and the city in important new ways. Much like Bruce, Ozan argues that “[a]n adequate conceptualisation (production) of this object has profound political implications…” (p.1302).

The production of nature

We welcome materialists both new and historical in Antipode and you’ll find some classic essays on the production of nature in the archive, including Neil Smith and Phil O’Keefe’s Geography, Marx, and the concept of nature, which contains ideas later developed in Neil’s seminal Uneven Development: Nature, Capital, and the Production of Space (3rd edn, University of Georgia Press, 2008), and Noel Castree’s The nature of produced nature: Materiality and knowledge construction in Marxism, which considers the limits to some of these ideas and sketches out (still) interesting directions for future research.

Neoliberal natures

More recently there’s been a series of special issues of Antipode as green as they are red, including James McCarthy and Julie Guthman’s Nature and Capital in the American West (which is home to George Henderson’s gripping essay, Nature and fictitious capital: The historical geography of an agrarian question, looking at natural processes as both obstacles and opportunities for capitalist development, nature as both invitation and barrier to capital); Becky Mansfield’s Privatization: Property and the Remaking of Nature-Society Relations (which includes essays by Scott Prudham on new biotechnologies and the commodification of life itself [individual genes, biological processes, even whole organisms]; Karen Bakker on the governance of water and anti-privatisation activism [looking at the deployment of ideas about the human right to water and ‘commons’]; and Morgan Robertson on the marketisation of ecosystem services and the possibility of progressive intervention); and Erik Swyngedouw and Nik Heynen’s Urban political ecology, justice, and the politics of scale (don’t miss Erik and Nik’s [often-cited] programmatic introduction).

Environmental justice

We return to questions of justice in another special issue, Spaces of Environmental Justice (edited by Ryan Holifield, Michael Porter and Gordon Walker). As well as Hilda Kurtz’s Acknowledging the racial state: An agenda for environmental justice research, standing out is Ryan Holifield’s Actor-network theory as a critical approach to environmental justice: A case against synthesis with urban political ecology – an essay assessing two different materialist philosophies (namely, Marxism and actor-network theory) for environmental justice research. (And for a not unrelated argument that reaches rather different conclusions, see Noel Castree’s False antitheses? Marxism, nature, and actor-networks.)

Climate change and capitalist conservation

Capitalism’s self-presentations as saviour, rather than cause of injustices, are anatomised in two, more recent special issues: Emily Boyd, Max Boykoff and Peter Newell’s The ‘new’ carbon economy (which examines the constitution, governance and effects of carbon markets, asking “[a]re we witnessing a routine attempt by the social forces of capital to render the challenge of climate change non-threatening to, and even profitable for, its accumulation objectives, or is there evidence of deeper processes of transformation at work? What limits are suggested by the nature of carbon itself…? How do people resist, engage with and imagine the new carbon economy?” [p.610]); and Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy’s Capitalism and conservation (which explores alliances between capitalism and conservation where, in these neoliberal times, problems become opportunities and would-be obstacles become accumulation strategies). (For more on new carbon economies and capitalism and conservation, see Patrick Bond’s Emissions trading, new enclosures and eco-social contestation and Sian Sullivan’s Banking nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation.)

Natura naturans

We close with three essays looking at what Bruce might call nature “…in the making,…an effect of the forces and practices that constitute it, in ways that cannot simply be ‘undone'” (2006: 206). Becky Mansfield’s Is fish health food or poison? Farmed fish and the material production of un/healthy nature considers “the material production of fish…the multiple and interacting biochemical and social processes that make individual fish bodies what they are” (p.415) – and not just fish bodies but aquatic environments and human bodies also – as aquaculture (as opposed to capture fisheries) has grown in recent decades leading to the production of “a materially different” (p.423), and not unproblematic, fish. In Breeding influenza: The political virology of offshore farming, rather than a straightforward narrative of nature versus science, of a conflict “between viral evolution and humanity’s capacity to produce adequate vaccines and antivirals” (p.919), Robert Wallace tells a more complicated tale, charting recent developments in poultry production; explaining why bird flu emerged when and where it did; and offering some radical solutions to a global problem. “None of the broader factors shaping influenza evolution and drug response can be found underneath the microscope” (p.944); what we need, he effectively argues, are analyses of ‘multiple and interacting biochemical and social processes’. Finally, Vinay Gidwani and Raj Reddy’’ The afterlives of ‘waste’: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalist surplus attends to “the things, places, and lives that are cast outside the pale of ‘value’ at particular moments as superfluity, remnant, excess, or detritus; only to return at times in unexpected ways” (p.1625). Via a detour through Lockean political theory, British colonial rule, and discourses of ‘wasteful’ Indian natures, we’re confronted with a present in which practices of ‘eviscerating urbanism’ render certain bodies and spaces superfluous and excessive; some to be salvaged and incorporated, others placed beyond the limits of political life, expelled, abandoned, irredeemable.

Thanks are due to Wiley’s Rhiannon Rees for all her help with the lecture and reception as well as this virtual issue.

References

Braun B (2006) Towards a new earth and a new humanity: Nature, ontology, politics. In N Castree and D Gregory (eds) David Harvey: A Critical Reader (pp191-222). Oxford: Blackwell

Harvey D (1972) Revolutionary and counter revolutionary theory in geography and the problem of ghetto formation. Antipode 4(2):1-13

Harvey D (2009) Social Justice and the City (new edn). Athens: University of Georgia Press

The papers

Bruce Braun (2006) Towards a new earth and a new humanity: Nature, ontology, politics. In Noel Castree and Derek Gregory (eds) David Harvey: A Critical Reader (pp191-222)

Bruce Braun (2005) Writing geographies of hope. 37(4):834-841

Ozan Karaman (2012) An immanentist approach to the urban. 44(4):1287-1306

Neil Smith and Phil O’Keefe (1980) Geography, Marx, and the concept of nature. 12(2):30-39

Noel Castree (1995) The nature of produced nature: Materiality and knowledge construction in Marxism. 27(1):12-48

George Henderson (1998) Nature and fictitious capital: The historical geography of an agrarian question. 30(2):73-118

Scott Prudham (2007) The fictions of autonomous invention: Accumulation by dispossession, commodification, and life patents in Canada. 39(3):406-429

Karen Bakker (2007) The ‘commons’ versus the ‘commodity’: Alter-globalization, anti-privatization, and the human right to water in the global South. 39(3):430-455

Morgan Robertson (2007) Discovering price in all the wrong places: The work of commodity definition and price under neoliberal environmental policy. 39(3):500-526

Erik Swyngedouw and Nik Heynen (2003) Urban political ecology, justice, and the politics of scale. 35(5):898-918

Hilda Kurtz (2009) Acknowledging the racial state: An agenda for environmental justice research. 41(4):684-704

Ryan Holifield (2009) Actor-network theory as a critical approach to environmental justice: A case against synthesis with urban political ecology. 41(4):637-658

Noel Castree (2002) False antitheses? Marxism, nature, and actor-networks. 34(1):111-146

Emily Boyd, Maxwell Boykoff and Peter Newell (2011) The ‘new’ carbon economy: What’s new? 43(3):601-611

Dan Brockington and Rosaleen Duffy (2010) Capitalism and conservation: The production and reproduction of biodiversity conservation. 42(3):469-484

Patrick Bond (2012) Emissions trading, new enclosures, and eco-social contestation. 44(3):684-701

Sian Sullivan (2013) Banking nature? The spectacular financialisation of environmental conservation. 45(1):198-217

Becky Mansfield (2011) Is fish health food or poison? Farmed fish and the material production of un/healthy nature. 43(2):413-434

Robert Wallace (2009) Breeding influenza: The political virology of offshore farming. 41(5):916-951

Vinay Gidwani and Rajyashree Reddy (2011) The afterlives of ‘waste’: Notes from India for a minor history of capitalist surplus. 43(5):1625-1658

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