Essay

Asking the relevant questions

A meditation on the work of three philosophers

THE FIRST QUESTION. Why European thinking – again?

My exchange with Europe goes back to the beginning: my father fled the country of his birth – the Netherlands – before the dust could settle after World War II. As a young boy, he was a direct witness to fatal military conflict in the streets of his own neighbourhood. As a teenager, he and 4.5 million of his compatriots nearly starved to death in the Hongerwinter (hunger winter) of 1944–45. At the age of twenty-­one, mostly recovered from a mild dose of polio, he left for Australia on the SMN Gaasterkerk with a work ticket for a job in a state-­run native-­plant nursery in Sydney’s West Pennant Hills. In a letter written in July 1952 to his mother back home in The Hague, he says: ‘The guys working at the nursery are “good blokes”, real Australians: the only problem is they are not easy to understand.’

Eighteen years after my father penned that letter, I was born in what’s now called Manning Hospital, on the traditional lands of the Biripi people. My first dwelling was a weatherboard house in Taree, a town whose name is derived from the Biripi word tareebit, meaning ‘tree by the river’. I was my father’s third and final child: he would never go back to Europe. As a primary-­school student, I exchanged several handwritten letters with my European grandparents, but I never had the opportunity to meet them in person.

European ideas – both highbrow and low – infused our household. My father read the work of Jean-­Paul Sartre and Albert Camus in the original French. My mother, who was born in South Australia, frequently referred to Europe as a place of fine quality (her emphasis). We would swoon over the food parcel with witte chocolade letters and De Ruijter chocoladehagel sent from the Netherlands each Christmas. My father, meanwhile, abhorred his parents’ deferral to the Dutch social hierarchy. He assimilated well, to use the language of Australian government policy at the time, in part because he genuinely believed in the Aussie principle of the fair go. His sister, my Auntie Wil, seemed differently positioned. Such a difficult place, my aunt said to me of Australia when I visited her in the Netherlands during my twenties. I sensed that this implied poor quality, and perhaps backward. She never quite recovered from an encounter with Australian customs officials at Sydney airport who’d confiscated a full wheel of cheese she’d brought in her suitcase on a rare visit.

When I left country New South Wales for university, the big thinkers who enthralled me were almost all Western European, mainly French and mainly male. Jean Baudrillard, Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, Luce Irigaray, Julia Kristeva. But my attraction to such thinking demands reflection. Much twentieth-­century European philosophy struggled to step out from the shadow of colonialism, which makes it as troublesome as it is enthralling. It could not step out, not really. And nor can I: European thinking is me, and is not me. Until now – and I will explain why – I have never felt myself quite the implied reader for those European thinkers I have chosen to spend my time reading. Having lived all my life on land never ceded by the Biripi, the Waradjeri, the Nungah and, most recently, the Wurundjeri people, many thousands of kilometres from Europe, I am also deeply aware of the damage European thinking has done and continues to do in this place – in this very minute, in this very breath, on this very soil. This makes me sceptical about its ongoing power and influence, and its legacy. I am not entirely confident about my own capacity to do no harm in employing more thinking from Europe. And yet I am drawn to it; I am caught up in it, still. I continue to read new European philosophy.

My aim in this essay is to share the thinking I have been doing of late with, and alongside, Rosi Braidotti, Vinciane Despret and Corine Pelluchon – three European thinkers whose work has the extraordinary potential to inform the way we think about the future. I am drawn to the work of these three women, based in the Netherlands, Belgium and France respectively, because their thinking acknowledges the most serious dilemma of our times – the climate crisis – and yet finds in our immediate reality not hopelessness but energy for collective rethinking in the spirit of shared hope. It is a philosophy and politics of togetherness in its broadest imaginable sense. Yes, this is thinking out of Europe, and yet its spirit of inclusivity seems to me astonishingly radical. It’s possible that their kind of thinking could help us out of the COVID-­19 mess, too.

 

THE SECOND QUESTION. What kind of humans might we become?

‘The life in you does not answer to your name,’ the Netherlands-­based philosopher Rosi Braidotti told a capacity crowd at Melbourne’s The Capitol in February 2020. She was giving a lecture based on her book Posthuman Knowledge (Polity, 2019). Since I interviewed Braidotti for my own book The Thinking Woman (NewSouth, 2019), her work has found a much larger readership and enthusiastic audience.

Like me, Rosi Braidotti is an insider/outsider to European thinking. She grew up partly in Australia, attending the hard-­knocks Fitzroy High School in inner-­city Melbourne before studying at the Australian National University. Braidotti was born in Italy in 1954, and her family saw and directly suffered the effects of fascism. A migrant several times over, her early philosophy looked into the notion of global nomadism, and her multilingual, multinational outlook has had a clear influence on thinking about subjectivity, building on the work of Baruch Spinoza and Gilles Deleuze. That she chose to base herself in Europe for the majority of her working life as a philosopher is significant. Europe has taken her thinking seriously in a manner that Australia’s persistently anti-­intellectual culture perhaps never could. Her work as a philosopher is so highly valued in the Netherlands that she has received a Royal Knighthood from Queen Beatrix.

Braidotti’s philosophy has been an extraordinary influence on anti-­racist, feminist and materialist thinking over the last two decades. It has also had an extraordinary influence on me.

Her posthumanist thinking was perfect for the Australian audience gathered at The Capitol back in February: it firmly acknowledged the melancholic air in the room related to that summer’s bushfire crisis. Braidotti is consistently attentive to how much of the cultural imaginary wavers between despair about our state of dispossession (we are dispossessing ourselves through climate change) and euphoria about our capacity to overcome our dilemma with innovations (in, for example, new technology). She identifies this wavering as a deeply unhelpful manic-­depressive logic, and seeks instead to deliver us safely and confidently to a middle and ultimately more sustainable ground.

The reason Braidotti says that ‘the life in you does not answer to your name’ is because her thinking has completely left behind traditional Western European notions of selfhood. We have life in us, she contends, but it is not ours alone. Rather, it is deeply contingent and relational. This idea draws on the posthumanist notion of thinking with zoe. Braidotti understands the concept of zoe as a life – an impersonal force that moves through us and connects us to other living creatures, as well to our own bodies; a ‘mindless vitality of Life carrying on independently and regardless of rational control’. We are in this together even as we differ, she insists.

Braidotti’s work is a secular and grounded response to the daily commodification of life through the logic of advanced capitalism. Affirmative ethics are also central to her thinking. She asks us to move away from the stultifying bleakness of much established Eurocentric philosophy, affirming instead our capacity to find meaning, together. I am, because you are. This notion is particularly significant during pandemic times: ‘We are with you…we are stronger together,’ Premier Daniel Andrews told Victorians the day after Braidotti’s address at The Capitol. ‘We will get through this together,’ said our Prime Minister in March.

Ethics is suddenly very relevant. ‘Let’s discuss what kind of human we might become,’ Braidotti challenged her audience in Melbourne, responding to their sense of defeat born of the physical, emotional and political exhaustion of our recent Australian summer – ‘all too familiar conditions in our fast-­moving, cynically competitive world,’ as she said. Braidotti’s ethics are remarkable in being consistently affirmative: through exhaustion we can experience ‘an evacuation of selfhood’ that may bring unexpected results. Importantly, the thinking that foregrounds the relationality so crucial to flattening the coronavirus curve is also crucial to our capacity as a species to address the climate crisis. ‘You do need to recognise,’ Braidotti told her Melbourne audience, that ‘you are part of the problem.’ We are all implicated in the climate crisis by our relentless consumption – of laptops, mobile phones and iPads composed of aluminium and glass, heavy metals and other toxins. We must not see ourselves as either completely outside or completely inside the problem: ‘Exhaustion contains within the germ of regeneration,’ she assured us. Disaster narratives can prevent us from both active thinking and taking action.

It is also critical, Braidotti writes in Posthuman Knowledge, ‘that contemporary efforts to transform the human and to describe modes of thought that are adequate to the complexity [of our times] sit alongside a far older tradition of indigenous knowledges’. She sees a conceptual resonance between posthumanism and the work of Indigenous Australian academic Aileen Moreton-­Robinson, for example; for the Indigenous philosophical tradition is transversal in its understanding of the forces that shape earth and is also deeply grounded in embodied practices.

Posthumanist thinking departs significantly from much of the intellectual work that has come out of Western Europe in my lifetime. We have heard the prefix post many times – postwar, postmodern, poststructural, postcolonial. But, what does it really mean to be post a certain kind of thinking? Perhaps to think of ourselves as capable of being post is in some ways to delude ourselves. And yet to believe ourselves incapable of being post something is to lose all hope. Loss of hope seems particularly dangerous (and also pressing) in the Anthropocene, especially considering the vehement destruction of Australia’s recent summer and the global fear attending COVID-­19.

I find myself deliberating on the post in Braidotti’s Posthuman Knowledge precisely because things are different now. Things are difficult. This was so when I began writing this essay at the end of the bushfire summer; it is even more so now, in the months since the rise of the pandemic.

 

THE THIRD QUESTION, then. What would animals say if we asked them the right questions?

Belgian philosopher Vinciane Despret’s similarly named book, What Would Animals Say If We Asked the Right Questions? (University of Minnesota Press, 2012), is shot through with the very useful question of what if? Her twenty-­six themed vignettes – catalogued A through to Z – are each framed by a specific question. ‘Can one lead a rat to infanticide?’ ‘Why do we say that cows don’t do anything?’ ‘Is it all right to urinate in front of another animals?’ Despret takes us to the border between philosophy and creative writing, and also beyond the borders of human-­centric thinking.

She asks us to imagine, for example, a scientific laboratory in which animals who have been the ‘subjects’ of experiments are completely reconfigured as a kind of public exhibition and credited with agency and intelligence. She draws inspiration from the comedian Bobby Berosini, famous for working with orangutans in his shows. ‘We are comedians,’ Berosini once explained when asked how he motivated his ‘talent’, the curtain between human and non-­human apparently long collapsed. In the spirit of her project to question interspecies relations, Despret says of her imagined laboratory-­turned-­exhibition-­space, ‘What if the animals could show us what they are capable of when we take the trouble of giving them propositions that are likely to interest them?’ In turning this over, Despret writes, disarmingly, ‘There are multiple ways to construct a “we” and we never stop experiencing it – and failing at it – every day.’

Back in February, I was sitting at a table in a backstreet Melbourne café contemplating Despret’s notion of an interspecies ‘we’ when I witnessed a three-­year-­old at the next table contemplating, in her own way, the same kind of question: ‘Do dogs drink babycinos?’ she asked her father, as they watched a white bulldog drinking water from a bowl under the next table. The girl’s father treated the proposition as a fair question. ‘Dogs don’t usually drink babycinos,’ he said, ‘but I suppose it’s possible that they could.’ The bulldog, somewhat overweight, finished his water and bellyflopped on the floor, splaying all four fat, stumpy white legs. He glanced up at his two human companions, one of whom, I noticed, had a large tattoo of a bulldog just above his knee. The dog then looked with interest at the little girl across the room, directing at her a broad smile (was it?) at the very idea of sharing her warm, frothy milk.

Ultimately, for Despret, ‘the question of whose way of knowing and acting is shaped by whom, remains open’. But it’s an important question to contemplate. I can’t help thinking, when setting Despret’s work alongside that of Braidotti and Pelluchon (to whom I will come shortly), that there are clear implications for denying the so-­called ‘non-­scientific’ approach: one of them is to distance human from non-­human, species from species. And this has clear implications for the way we humans continue to damage an increasingly fragile planet, and potentially for our very survival.

It is significant that COVID-­19 is a virus thought to have spread from bats to humans, a case of interspecies transmission. It is also significant that the transmission most likely resulted from humanity’s poor treatment of caged wild animals destined for our own consumption. What would animals say if we asked them the right questions? If we credited illegally trafficked wild bats with agency and intelligence, what might we learn from them about ethics? Bats make up about a fifth of the world’s mammalian species. They live everywhere on Earth but Antarctica, and they are hugely ecologically important, helping to maintain forests and pollinate numerous plant species. Further, they are not unlike humans in their behaviour patterns. They’re typically a long-­lived species who reside in very high-­density communities not unlike the way humans live in cities. Viruses do particularly well in communities of bats. One key question scientists might have for bats right now is: why do you so rarely, if ever, get sick? The pangolin, a species of small anteater widely thought to be the carrier species for SARS-­CoV-­2 from bats to humans, is another reluctant frequenter of wet markets, and is already on the brink of extinction. What might be the right question for the particular pangolin who passed SARS-­CoV-­2 on to Patient Zero in Wuhan? Perhaps: are you still alive?

Despret’s book has been read in philosophy circles as an important first step towards conducting interspecies philosophical examinations. This underlines the really radical edge of Despret’s project, for twentieth-­century science in the Western tradition has effectively stripped animals completely of their agency and worked hard to ridicule anybody who made the perceived ‘error’ of attributing to them qualities understood to be uniquely human. Curiously, I was left knowing less when I finished reading her book than I knew before I started reading it. I was less sure about the aim of knowledge, for example. I knew provocatively less about affect, perception and being in relation to the non-­human. I was less sure, too, about the interspecies ethics of scientific progress. And it seems to me that we inheritors of European thinking need more than ever precisely these kinds of undoings. We need to urgently unknow the notion of ‘we’ in order to more deeply interrogate what is meant by it. This was demonstrated so clearly in the recent bushfire crisis, the latest analysis of which, four months on, marks some 400 plants and nearly 200 invertebrates as in desperate need of protection. COVID-19, which has infected three million people globally as I conclude my work on this essay, provides further evidence, for those of us who needed it, that the line between human and non-­human is philosophical to a significant degree and therefore utterly collapsible. We continue to ignore this at our peril. Vinciane Despret’s work brings home to us the dangers of failing to think. We might instructively reword her title differently: what if we were to go on failing at asking questions? What else might we risk?

 

THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION, perhaps. What does it mean to love life?

At home of late, my eleven-­year-­old son has constituted daily evidence – right in my face – of the unerring energy of what Braidotti would call zoe. He is a noisy, active energy in our tiny inner-­city apartment. He loves silly songs and acting out ridiculous dramatic skits that he composes morning and night, calling me frequently to witness or partake in the hilarity, or to join the latest invented game. Recent weekends – prior to the autumn lockdown phase of the pandemic – would find me retreating into my bedroom so as to give over the full breadth of our living space to him and his visiting friends. Board games soon transformed into larger, more boisterous displays of raw physicality or the chaotic throwing of soft objects – pillows, small beanbags – during which, at any moment, a treasured pot plant might go over, a half-­full glass become upended. I would call out occasional warnings – rarely heeded – in an attempt to have things settle down. The place felt full and ripe with their presence.

One weeknight in early March, I said goodbye to my son and one of these friends as they set out on foot along the river’s edge towards the local scout hall. Refreshed by philosopher Corine Pelluchon’s call for moving through space without being sealed off in a capsule (a car, a plane), I too set off on foot. Darkness soon fell, and a light rain turned to gloss the black surface of the inner-city streets. The water gave a light sparkle to a passing public bus, and because I had been reading Pelluchon, my midweek urban neighbourhood appeared new to me – or rather, I had begun to recognise its distinct ecology in a new way.

Pelluchon’s thinking is a phenomenological approach to nourishment. She is serious and single-­minded in ‘insisting on the corporeality of the subject who is born and who is hungry’. Thus, she places the concept of nourishment at the ‘originary site of ethics’. For her, ecology and ‘the animal question’ are at the heart of the social contract. Seen this way, protecting the biosphere and protecting any living being’s right to enjoy its own life in its own way are understood as duties of the state. If we were to organise our social structures and agreements in the service of nourishment, she argues, rather than in the service of ‘resources’ upon which the capitalist system places an exchange value or price, we would effectively ‘insist on the dimension of enjoyment attached to the fact of being alive’.

Pelluchon’s Nourishment (Bloomsbury, 2019) distinguishes itself from the works I’ve discussed by Braidotti and Despret in that Pelluchon’s branch of philosophy is political philosophy: she sets out to effect evolutionary change in our political outlook. She not only shows how freedom depends on the ‘love of life’, but actively seeks to reimagine our democratic institutions in such a manner that they sustain an ethics of life. In this book I can trace the line from my mother and father to me, and onwards to my son and my son’s potential child and grandchild. In this book is the nourishment I give and receive from my lover, as well as other forms of sustenance. Time is expansive here; existence is (as with Braidotti and Despret) profoundly relational. ‘As soon as I eat, I am in a relationship with other human beings, past, present, and future, living here or there, and with other species, and the fact of being born means that there are many existences behind my own,’ she writes, for ‘it is the existence of others in their materiality, their hunger and their thirst, that calls me into question.’

I could not have predicted, when I first finished reading Nourishment several months ago, that the systemic confidence of the global marketplace would so soon be drastically challenged by a novel virus, and that presently our conservative Australian Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, would choke up before the television cameras, remembering stories of his own grandmother’s struggles during the Depression and appealing to the Australian population to ‘stay connected and together’, to ‘sustain’ one another and to ‘try to imagine a world on the other side of this’, to find hope. Morrison’s choice of the word ‘sustain’ would have been noted by any discerning reader of Corine Pelluchon.

Many of us surely know that as humans we can do better for one another and for other species: Nourishment arms us with the thinking to enable ethics-­inspired political transformation. Reading Pelluchon, we can no longer say that the end of communism has closed off futures of collectivity, or that life beyond capitalism cannot be imagined. And where Heidegger, for example, sees death as being like the end of the world, Pelluchon sees it as part of the collective character of human existence. ‘Life is not characterised by negativity, but by enjoyment, which is an insouciance regarding existence; it is a game in spite of the finality and of the tension of instinct,’ she writes. Here, Pelluchon’s phenomenology of nourishment – which includes things both cultural and natural, the ecology, whether urban or non-­urban, from which we draw our sustenance – ‘suggests that conviviality is the horizon of a just social organisation…it places aesthetics at the heart of ethics, while also rehabilitating the pathic dimension of feeling that is a being-­with-­things-­and-­with-­the-­world’. While the classical social contract is drawn up on the basis of reciprocity between symmetrical persons, the phenomenology of nourishment presupposes the interest of future generations, both human and non-­human. Even if these need to be approximated, the point is that they must be integrated into the definition of the common good. So, again, we are back to this very useful question, asked constantly as part of our turn towards posthumanism: what does it mean to be human at the present time?

 

‘POLITICS IS INSEPARABLE from the hope for a better way of life,’ writes Pelluchon in her conclusion to Nourishment. On reading this line, I am reminded of my reaction to the results of Australia’s May 2019 federal election, twelve months ago as I write this, when I attended the Labor election-­night function at Hyatt Place Melbourne in Essendon Fields. There, in a room bustling with Labor leader Bill Shorten’s campaign supporters, I cried openly as the results appeared on the screen. I was not then a member of the Australian Labor Party, nor a political staffer. I had not had anything directly to do with Labor’s campaign. Most other people around me in the room had had an awful lot to do with it – and they were holding their emotions from view.

But not me: I could not hold back my tears. I saw in those numbers on the screen a future in which the still-­coming summer’s bushfire catastrophe was already implicated, and the racist, anti-­feminist aspect of Australian politics given further sustenance. My emotions could not be disguised. The tears fell and fell. My partner shielded me from the television cameras that filled the room, but he did not cry with me, at least not then. In the relative privacy of the women’s toilets, I found many other women in the stalls in tears, out of public view. The shame of this closed-­door policy of emotion has stayed with me. If we cannot openly grieve for politics as it is, what have we (and politics) become? If we cannot share our grief, how can we begin to share our hope?

By early March 2020, the extremes of summer behind us, the Yarra River was flowing through our neighbourhood at an unusually rapid pace: for the first time in five years, local riverside tracks were closed due to flooding. My son and I watched as all manner of detritus sailed past beneath our apartment windows: a white plastic barrel, a fence post, a tall wad of freshly unearthed bamboo, its brilliant tropical green a vibrant contrast to the muddy brown of the river water. That plant could not have originated here, I caught myself thinking. But it was here, as we all are here now.

It was in those early days of autumn that my mother let me know she was cancelling her forthcoming annual visit from Adelaide to Melbourne due to concerns about COVID-­19. She was eighty-­two. And then the news arrived that Elizabeth Warren, the last remaining female Democratic candidate, had pulled out of the 2020 US presidential race. ‘Her departure,’ wrote a journalist at that time, ‘sets up what is effectively a contest between two white men in their seventies.’ I ordered another of Despret’s books: Women Who Make a Fuss (University of Minnesota Press, 2014).

Another line I have carried with me from Nourishment is this: ‘Justice realises the alliance between interest and happiness.’ There is often a poetics to the kind of philosophy being generated by those European thinkers whose work I have discussed here – thinkers who are attentive to our contemporary circumstances. But it is not just the poetics of such writing that rewards the reader. The more I read the likes of Braidotti, Despret and Pelluchon, the more I feel I understand what’s really going on. I am reading for pleasure, yes, but also, in a genuine way, I am reading because there is a sense of urgency to my wanting to understand: as Braidotti would say, what it is that we are becoming. In their different ways, each of these thinkers underlines the importance of empathy and joy – and entwines them with intellect and valour. Each calls for a mode of being with and among all life/forms that is deeply relational and life-­loving. This kind of thinking is deeply political, and it demands that we be conscious of our own responsibility towards those spaces, places, lifeforms and institutions from which we draw our sustenance.

I feel energised by this kind of engagement, and genuinely changed by it. I have long given up on television. More recently, I have found it necessary to pull back from social media, too – for the constant bouncing between euphoria and despair that Braidotti explores in Posthuman Knowledge is all too evident to me there.

Of course, as I have explained above, it is not lost on me that the writers from whom I am drawing courage at this time come directly out of Europe. But I am approaching the idea and the value of European thinking from a different angle now. As I conclude this essay, my father’s homeland, like many Western European nations, is reeling from the deaths of thousands of its citizens as a direct result of the pandemic. In mid-­March, the extreme nature of the government’s measures to close down social contact and ‘hibernate’ the economy in the Netherlands caused Prime Minister Mark Rutte to note that such conditions were ‘unprecedented in peacetime’. Suddenly, Australia’s relative distance from the northern hemisphere, its small population, its island nation status, seemed starkly unfair advantages on a global scale. It is Europe that has become, once more, ‘a difficult place’.

With the late-­autumn light trickling through the windows of our locked-­down Melbourne apartment, my son – no longer able to attend school, nor have his friends around – reads out loud to me. Of all the books in our collection, the one he has taken a shine to right now is a title about childhood experiences of World War II published by the Dutch Resistance Museum. Some of the children in the book have gone into hiding. One becomes a leader with the Nazi youth. Others struggle with the sudden disappearance of their playmates or family members. At the end of each chapter, we are given a glimpse of several of those profiled as octogenarians, seven decades later: Henk, Eva, Jan and Nelly. My son reads the advice of each profiled elder as they explain a few things they have learnt about life, not just because of their experience of wartime but also as a result of their survival beyond it. ‘I like Henk,’ my son declares. Henk is a boy from Haarlem, the son of a mathematician; he is not unlike the maternal grandfather who died before my son was born. For a time, we amuse ourselves by comparing the portraits of Henk reprinted in the book: a photograph of him aged ten, another aged eighty-­two. Funny, isn’t it, we muse, how so much about Henk looks to have changed and yet so much about him has also stayed the same.

In these politically volatile times, still early (no doubt) in the evolution of this particular pandemic, I fear the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobia and the too-­rapid toppling of the powerful in a manner that will lead to violence. And yet, these three works by Braidotti, Despret and Pelluchon have shown me already the possibility of a way through. They have shown me that the future is possible.

Such thinking has come from Europe, but it is not necessarily particular to it. Perhaps exchanges of a philosophical nature – international, interspecies and intergenerational – have never been more necessary.

5 June 2020

REFRERENCES

Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. Polity, 2019.

– The Posthuman. Polity, 2013.

Despret, Vinciane. What would animals say if we asked the right questions? Translated by Brett Buchanan. University of Minnesota Press, 2012.

Pelluchon, Corine. Nourishment: a Philosophy of the Political Body. Translated by Justin E.H. Smith. Bloomsbury, 2019.

Van Loon, Julienne. The Thinking Woman. NewSouth 2019.

https://www.politico.eu/article/dutch-pm-mark-rutte-we-wont-impose-national-lockdown-coronavirus-covid19/

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review