Climate change is materialized through a racialized praxis, and those materialities of race produce racialized climates of survival.
“Whenever we think about material relations (water, air, fuel, food, matter as resource etc.) we are also talking about historical structures of racialization.”
In this series, we ask acclaimed authors to answer five questions about their book. This week’s featured author is Kathryn Yusoff. Yusoff is Professor of Inhuman Geography at Queen Mary University of London.Her book is A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None.
Roberto Sirvent: How can your book help BAR readers understand the current political and social climate?
Kathryn Yusoff: The racialization of environments is intensifying in the context of climate change and proximity to the toxic ecologies. These interrelated processes of global environmental change and racial capitalism are being grouped under the universalizing concept of the Anthropocene. A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None engages with the discourse of the Anthropocene but does so in a way that looks at how geology was a technology of colonialism that produced a racializing stratum which historically structures environments in the first instance. For example, looking through this lens we might see how climate change is materialized through a racialized praxis and how those materialities of race produce racialized climates of survival. Scientific work on the Anthropocene has been interested in locating the start of the Anthropocene (or the “Golden Spike”) to craft narratives of the planet’s past to operationalize desired futures. Beginning with the same geologic origin stories, a different narrative could be told about these events and the violent affective life of colonialism. Colonialism instituted and normalized an extractive relation; it is a relation applied to both people and land through genocide and slavery. This praxis of material accumulation and desirous subjugation builds new geographies of time and subjectivity. Black and brown bodies were and are caught in the wake of this material and ontological geology of extraction.
“Colonialism is a relation applied to both people and land through genocide and slavery.”
The praxis of geology rearranged the forests in the Americas, the weather in the Caribbean and Gulf States, and the ecologies of much of the world. It also instigated the naming and classification of bodies as racialized subjects or matter through the geologic subdiscipline of paleontology. Geology’s narrative of race was used to both justify the extraction of personhood from the enslaved and the extraction of land from indigenous peoples. The grammars of geology literally made the identification and material categories of gold and slave in the same historic and epistemic moment. Historically, then, colonialism enacted a geologic sub-division; a propertied cut into the earth and personhood. The cut into the earth made land and resource as property. The cut into personhood made race. Both these material processes were part of a universalizing geographic machine that erased earth and relation, and instituted a praxis of extraction, accumulation and waste. It established modes of valuation that created hierarchies of life (nonhuman and inhuman), where black and brown bodies were enclosed in the strata of extraction. This is the same dynamic we see today, which establishes climate change and the toxification of ecologies as racialized.
What do you hope activists and community organizers will take away from reading your book?
I set out to write something about white geology and I ending up writing about rocks against racism. What I didn’t realize when I began this project, was how foundationally race is inscribed in the grammars of inhuman matter and whenever we think about material relations (water, air, fuel, food, matter as resource etc.) we are also talking about historical structures of racialization. Whereas rocks are often considered impolitic until they become property or resource, the very politics of enclosure in a signifying extractive language is tied up with the violence of colonialism and the hierarchical organization of bodies. This was clearly recognized by the politics of refusal at standing rock for example. How we think about a relation to matter has everything to do with the possibility of subjectivity, survival, and it is racialized from the get go. Blackness is coded into orders of materiality as inhuman. This grammar of geology considered as foundationally racialized has consequences for how we think about extraction and environmental change, and the embodiment of those processes in proximity to black and brown bodies. If settler colonialism is an structure not an event as Patrick Wolfe argues (and the same is said for anti-blackness), then the forms of racialization that produced indigenous genocide and enslavement can be seen to be part of an extractive infrastructure to steal land, minerals and people. This extraction was propertied (about land and resources) and it was about extracting properties (value, labor, supremacy) through subjugation. These modes of extraction happened through the grammars of geology, in the codification of land as resource and of people into racial hierarchies. Blackness was literally placed in a different strata in time. A strata that was diagrammed to subtend white supremacy. This position was a political economy of who has a right to the present, materially and ideologically, but it was also used as a geographic strategy that justified the right to take other people’s geography (and all that means for the embeddedness of ecological and social relations). This white supremacy of matter is as active today as it was during colonialism. We only have to look at whose bodies labor in the risks of extraction and whose absorb the force of environmental disasters. Thinking about how the grammar of matter encodes and positions bodies in relation to harm and possibility, exposure and toxicity changes how we understand the coming storms of environmental change. That is to say that the materialities of race are structured through historical geologies of race.
We know readers will learn a lot from your book, but what do you hope readers will un-learn? In other words, is there a particular ideology you’re hoping to dismantle?
I am interested in the question of: what’s got to break before the possibility of a permissible “we” can begin in understanding environments? The environmental humanities and sciences are haunted by an unacknowledged liberal white subject that curates the epistemic categories and concerns of knowledge production, spheres of concern, diagnostics of the issues and terms of address. Or, futurity. This invisible white subject is the foundational subjective position that structures the normativity of racialized violence against black and brown bodies (in its gendered, sexualized, heteronormative forms). If we start from a point, following the work of Katherine McKittrick and Christina Sharpe amongst other black feminist scholars, that anti-blackness is centered as normative, then we start from a different location than a collective, universalized “we” that must save its racially hierarchical world; a world that is underpinned by colonialism and its structures of racial capitalism; a world that was born through the mines and plantation of an invasive and extractive geography. These historical inequities configure future possibilities. This means challenging who gets to make theories of the earth and where it gets to be made. Climate change needs colonial change! This racialized organization of a hierarchy of subjectivity (which is a consequence of geologies of race) is an inheritance that is shared. It is these extinctions and their survivals that brought the world we differentially contend with into being. As contemporary environmental survival levers theatres of concern and aggregates spaces of intervention, survival also salves the originary racial cracks in the human as a unified, universalizing concept by parsing these rifts by way of a collective speciesism or humanism. We live in racialized environments, which means unlearning the idea of a neutral language of the inhuman and shaking the amnesia about how the world was built and in whose interests.
Who are the intellectual heroes that inspire your work?
This small book is very much a love letter to Black Feminist Theory. Central to my thinking was the amazing work on the foundational inscription of race in the production of global space by Denise Ferreira da Silva. Hortense Spiller’s work on grammars shapes the way I thought about the geo-logics of geology. Sadiya Hartman’s work on subjectivity was in my mind throughout. Reading Sylvia Wynter’s Black Metamorphosis was captivating and showed a way through Humanism when I thought there was none. Katherine McKittrick’s work on black geographies should be on every geography reading list. Dionne Brand’s writing woke another geography and language of stones.
In what way does your book help us imagine new worlds?
If we think of race as a geologic force, how might this change the way in which the exposure of bodies is conceptualized? When climate change policy is about the comfort levels of the neoliberal subject, it is not interested in racial or social justice. What kind of new geophysics and world-making do we need to counter the current anti-blackness of this world? Encountering environmental rifts is not about individuals and attempts to individuate are counter to collectively building a liveable world in ways that do not reinforce the nation state, capital or white supremacy. State power and racial capitalism together provided black and brown zones of rupture and geotrauma. These zones or black and brown strata are positioned to absorb the shocks of environmental exposure; from the everyday entanglement with toxic chemicals by cleaners, grounds staff, waste workers, miners and those located in poor (often black and brown) neighborhoods in proximity to toxic residues to the impacts of storm events, changes in climate, sea level inundation, and the extraction of coal, diamonds, oil, uranium, lithium, rare earth minerals etc. I think there is a need to think racial formations alongside shifts in geologic formations and climate change. The term inundation captures something of the ways in which black and brown bodies are imagined as an absorbent frontier in environments. That is, black and brown bodies are never individuated, worthy of being noticed, recognized and grieved, while they are simultaneously enclosed and incarcerated as a buffer to extraction and environmental impacts. Blackness in its colonial form is as stratum or mass to be worked, cultivated and used up as resource, disappearing personhood into a collective body of properties and as property. It is a geologic stratum that protects white liberal environmental needs. So, maybe there is a need to think about how the terms of the liberation and survival are offered and crafted within the context of the Anthropocene. To think about the forms of proximity and distance, and exposure and protection in relation to environmental events, but also their subjective forms and relational assumptions. An assumption underlies colonial climate strategies that promotes the idea of the porosity of some bodies and not others, and the right to open up that porosity in the negative accumulation of environmental harm, while excluded the possibility for accumulation of wealth, health, security, possibility, belonging, futures etc.
“What kind of new geophysics and world-making do we need to counter the current anti-blackness of this world?”
There is a need for the creation of forms of valuation that challenge racial environments and their older and no less insidious historic grammars of extraction that formed in the color line of geology. As the Anthropocene and other diagnostics of planetary futures plot a course for a singular world of survival, racialized geosocial formations alert us to the multiplicities of worlds and the many other extinctions that allowed this world that is being offered for up for saving into being in the first instance. Rather than alternative futures providing a salve for late liberal contemplation, there might be a campaign for the end of its world; a world that is built through the pain of others. Historically and contemporaneously, the end of black and indigenous worlds were just routes into other people’s wealth and well-being. In context of black and brown lives, survival can be an on-going state of not being extinguished, as well as the collective strength of resisting that extinguishment; refusals that reassemble the possibility for contingent liberatory acts. One of those acts of unlearning might be to dismantle the current valuation of the material world and colonial ordering of matter which is making the world increasingly unliveable. I guess I’m not interested in liveable worlds that are built on erasure.
Roberto Sirvent is editor of the Black Agenda Report Book Forum.
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