“The old as well as the new machines are already destroying the Earth, so much so that … ‘survivability’ has become a political demand. In this case as well, so much is daily heard on the topic, that we risk repeating the obvious.” (Silvia Federici)
At the beginning of the 21st century, the world pulsed with series of crises that seemingly had the potential to derail history. Perhaps the most bleak of these impacts was manifest in global warming precipitating from an abstract cloud of a potential dystopian future into a generalized (and often literal) storm of the now. From Hurricane Katrina and Sandy to the sweeping Yosemite wildfires and mass flooding in Colorado, climate catastrophe was no longer a speculative future crisis but rather is a generalized feature of the present, setting in motion new migrations, initiating new territorial conflicts, and reshaping the Earth itself.
Importantly, the ecological crisis is enabled by and differentially in motion with two other parallel crises which have been synchronously unfolding: the crisis of capitalism and of liberal democracy. As 5 years of the global financial crisis has made abundantly clear, capitalism perpetually overcomes its own limits and horizons, even when its markets are tumbling. The current economic system destroys the earth with one hand while it refashions the debris into capital with the other, marketing CO2 as carbon credits and sawing down rain-forests to make room for eco-resorts. It has come to seem as if the only true internal limit for capital is the material finitude of the Earth itself, and if left unchecked its dynamics will surely push it to that limit. The second crisis, that of liberal democracy, is entangled with the crisis of capitalism in the sense that liberal democracy has proved incapable of halting or even slowing the ecological devastation brought about by its markets. While liberal democracy and its institutions have proven to be incredibly capable of managing and disciplining populations that are increasingly materially threatened by these crises, it is now commonly understood that it will resolve neither.
Floods in Colorodo, September 2013.
As the quote from Silvia Federici points out at the beginning of this text, in a time of generalized crisis, survivability, or the potential to have duration and life over time, comes to form the ground of political and ethical theories and demands in our present moment. Survivability, duration, and endurance are of course not entirely new concerns and in some way have always been a central problem of political and philosophical thought, but rarely have they positioned the survival of ecology itself as their ground. The struggle for survival, and the preservation of ecologies that make survival possible, can be approached as a question of the relationship between order and chaos: how do some things manage to hold together in a world in which everything seems to be continuously falling apart?
The question of survivability is always-already political and immediately makes clear a multiplicity of ethical and aesthetic dynamics: How do things come to survive? What constitutes survival? What should/shouldn’t survive? Is simply surviving enough? The ongoing ecological crisis makes these questions urgently important, and any politics that takes itself seriously must also seriously entangle itself with the questions of ecology and survivability. Survival, of course, is deeply imbricated in the various systems of power: there are class, gender, and race dynamics at work that differentially grant or deny access to systems of care and protection that radically affect survivability. When approaching these questions, it is also necessary to challenge the anthropocentric nature of these frames, and urge ourselves to confront the survivability of heterogeneous forms that work across ecologies to allow for human life in the first place: these includes plants, animals, and bacteria, but also architectures, the atmosphere,and even concepts/ideas themselves.
Sandbags piled in front of Wall Street firms in preparation for Hurricane Sandy.
One of the struggles with engaging complex dynamic systems like the atmosphere or global capital is that their operations in part follow the (il)logic of chaos and resist any attempt at ordering or coding them. The chaos of these systems is an ineradicable terra incognita, a blank spot on our map of recognition that nonetheless haunts and affects us, the swirling winds of hurricanes and violent fluctuations of financial markets that only come to make sense once they seemingly have passed. While science and technology have attenuated us to the present actual state of the world, they are incapable of mapping the virtual chaos that always circulates within the real, just beyond capture yet radically intervening in history.
If we are to meaningfully approach chaos in the ethical interest of survival, we require concepts, creative inventions that differentially move with chaos as it unfolds its virtual capacities in the actual present. Here, Deleuze’s thought proves to be instrumentally valuable. For Deleuze, concepts were weapons we could wield in our movement within the world, novel techniques that allow for new approaches, actions and perceptions. As Elizabeth Grosz has convincingly argued, concepts are the weapons we use in our engagement with the virtual, with chaos. Concepts don’t serve to resolve chaos or allow us to recognize it, but rather they act as differential engines in our incessant entanglement with potentiality itself. This relationship between the ordered (the territorial) and chaos (the deterritorial), mirrors the relationship between the actual (the existing) and the virtual (the possible), and allows a dance to occur between our world, and radically-other worlds.
Bees make use of the chaotic turbulence caused by swarming to aid their flight.
The entropy of chaos, always threatening to undo the present, not only creates the conditions of a present politics predicated on the struggles of reproduction, survival, and duration, of ensuring that things are continuous, but also is the basis of the vibrating field of possibility which always sits just at the limits of the actual. Because order always entropically tends to drift towards chaos, order is only ever maintained given a steady flow of labor that regulates and give duration to things in the world. These labors, which culminate in the reproduction of the actual, form the politics of survival.
In the face of atmospheric crises (atmospheric in the sense of climate and ecology, but also atmospheric in the way that crises persist and come to form environments and temporalities of their own), we must attenuate ourselves to the play between the chaotic, the conceptual, and the continuous. Only by directing our thought to the reproduction of things over time is there a potential to reconfigure the formations of the present and give continuity to those things we value, while also introducing radical discontinuities into other structures and processes which diminish our collective capacity to survive.
The way in which things in the world are (re)/(de)composed provides a space-time within which we can act to preserve things in need of care, but also guarantees the chaotic possibility of different worlds coming/folding into being. Survivability, or the struggle against the possibility of death and extinction, is always equally entangled with the possibility of birth, of poiesis, of the line of flight, of bringing new things into the world. Nothing about death or birth is inherently liberatory; there are certainly things we would like to finally extinguish from this world just as the ‘new’ does not always do well. However, the field of possibility that exists between birth and death, between the actual and the virtual, between order and chaos, is a terrain of potentiality and a space of hope. If anything, the politics of survivability do not just ask us “should we live” or “what should live”, but rather demands that we ponder *how* we should live between birth and death, and how our lives can serve to enrich other lives and create the conditions for a flourishing that leaps beyond simply surviving.