Disrupting alienation, embracing happenings

The most apparent thread found across this week’s readings (list below) is rejecting the alienation of human and extra-human nature upon which our socioeconomic structure relies in favor of embracing precarity and interconnectedness of beings.

Tsing lays out the issue of alienation succinctly:

Through alienation, people and things become mobile assets; they can be removed from their life worlds in distance-defying transport to be exchanged with other assets from other life worlds, elsewhere… The dream of alienation inspires landscape modification in which only one stand-alone asset matters; everything else becomes weeds or waste… Simplification for alienation produces ruins, spaces of abandonment for asset production. (pp. 5-6)

Kimmerer complements this description, sharing stories that illustrate the unspoken core of the issue: alienation (in particular, for a commodity economy that abstracts wealth from its human/natural sources) is antithetical to our existence - using the term “our” loosely enough to not set us apart from our environment, that which we affect and which affects us. At some point, speaking of axioms leaves little to no room for an empirical debate but plenty for demonstrations of life flourishing outside the confines of alienation.

Of all the wise teachers who have come into my life, none are more eloquent than these, who wordlessly in leaf and vine embody the knowledge of relationship. (Kimmerer, p. 140)

Kimmerer tells stories to make Tsing’s intellectual argument a sensible one, something the reader can feel beyond knowing. From the account of the interplay between corn, bean, and squash (and human) in a non-colonial agriculture, a worldview radically different from that of the dominant Western culture emerges that dignifies rather than objectifies.

Myers in a way pulls together the best of these two authors’ work, shining a light on the roots of our alienating perspective while offering an approach to challenging it:

We hack in to our cameras to disrupt the conventional ecologist’s desire to capture clean, clear, legible data… Our kinesthetic images blur the distinction between animator and animated. (pp. 12-13)

Returning to Tsing, anticipating a world post-capitalism, what are we to do? How do we exist with the precarity after contributing to and relying upon a system that prizes stasis? Imagination is surely due, and it does not seem easy.

I think back to Donella Meadow’s Leverage Points from a few weeks ago. Consistent with her ordering of places to intervene in a system in order of effectiveness, it is more effective to critique (and change) the mindset or paradigm out of which the system arises - alienation, commodity fetishism - than the system itself - capitalism, colonization. Our socioeconomic perils are ultimately the manifestation of sorely misguided philosophies. Changing minds and hearts might be a good place to start.

Anna Tsing, 2015, The Mushroom at the End of the World
Robin Kimmerer, 2015, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Natasha Myers, 2017, Protocols for an Ungrid-able Ecology: Kinesthetic Attunements for a More-than-natural History of a Black Oak Savannah
Donella Meadows, 1999, Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System


Thank you Vince, for your thoughtful synthesis of this week’s readings. I always enjoy reading your words. In this way, I am also grateful to Robin Kimmerer for her words. She describes her relationship with strawberries as a gift she doesn’t deserve, but a gift for her nonetheless. There is nothing she can do to earn the strawberries. In order to foster the relationship, she must simply eat them. I think about my own strawberry plant back home. No matter what I do, it barely survives. It produces one or two strawberries a year. I always feel guilty eating that singular strawberry; the plant barely managed to produce it. But in the end, the fruit is for eating, and so I eat.

I realized while reading Braiding Sweetgrass that I was being given a gift. Kimmerer’s beautiful storytelling style was like a warm blanket around my mind after a difficult week of pre-break cramming. I have done nothing to earn her stories, her wisdom. She doesn’t know me, yet she has given me this gift of knowledge woven into a beautiful imagining of what the world could be, of what it once was. All I can do is read it.

Kimmerer presents the idea of a gift economy as the antithesis to a commodity economy. A gift cannot be alienated from the relationships that created it and that it creates. A gift assumes reciprocity but not always in linear ways. I am reading Kimmerer’s words now. One day I must use this knowledge to give a gift to someone else. This gift economy is dynamic just as a commodity economy is, but time and space function differently.

I’ve often been taught that capitalism is transactional rather than reciprocal, and I feel like I finally understand that distinction. Kimmerer explains this in her example of buying socks. When her grandmother knits the socks, they are more than socks. They become a representation of the relationship between grandparent and grandchild. They hold the promise of a return gift to come. Buying socks from a store is entirely different.

“I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged “thank yous” with the clerk. I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money. The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange. They become my property. “ (26)

Kimmerer leaves us with a challenge to engage in a gift economy. She recognizes that we have lost an important part of our shared identity at the hand of colonialism and capitalism.

I want to emphasize this powerful passage as a way of ending this post that has dragged on too long:

“The commodity economy has been here on Turtle Island for four hundred years, eating up the white strawberries and everything else. But people have grown weary of the sour taste in their mouths. A great longing is upon us, to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze.” (32)