Saturday, August 2, 2014

Book review: Sacred dirt - waste disposal and environmental degradation

Michel Serres: Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?
Reviewed by Susan Stewart

What is tragic about environmental degradation is not the degradation itself; to frame the ruin of the natural world as “tragedy” implies that intentions by supernatural forces — that is, forces other than human ones — are involved. If we follow such an assumption to its end, there’s little that could have been done, and can be done about the degradation we now witness or ignore. Instead, the worst aspect of this ongoing and deep-rooted sequence of calamities is a lack of self-knowledge on the part of its human protagonists. 
IF ONLY THE MAGICAL ETIOLOGIES of consumerism were true — oranges grow in the produce aisle, milk flows from the dairy case, shirts and shoes emerge online. However, a deeper look into the origins of these products is sure to darken your view. Take, for example, the cell phone. Its battery and other parts have likely been manufactured in the Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen, China, an area once known for its fertile, hilly farmland. The Shenzhen landscape has been bulldozed flat; the rain runs black with acid and, despite recent experiments with electric taxis, and state propaganda promising the greening of the city, it is often not safe to breathe outdoors. 
The air inside the enormous complexes, where cell phones, tablets, and other electronic devices are assembled for a variety of brands — including Apple, Hewlett Packard, Dell, Motorola, and Nokia — likely isn’t any safer. Migrant workers from the countryside reside in company-provided dormitories. Their performance is measured in seconds. The only way they can make a living above a subsistence level is by taking on illegal amounts of overtime. One worker perished of exhaustion after a 34-hour shift. At least 17 workers committed suicide in 2010 and 2011; one, as I write in late July, as recently as a few days ago. China’s overall suicide rate is high compared to other countries, but the factory owners’ decision to string nets around the upper stories of these industrial complexes indicates a different kind of business as usual.
Beyond this grim point of origin, your phone is likely to have a troubled afterlife. Use it in public in confined spaces and you’ll be sure to get attention from other people: you’ll be keeping them distracted when they would like to concentrate and awake when they would like to rest; your conversations at a distance will take precedence over their face-to-face conversations. Even if such “mental pollution” does not trouble you; your physical health will be answering to your phone. 
Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology issued a report this spring describing how cell phone signals can disorient bees and may be the primary cause of the widespread catastrophe of colony collapse that has been progressing since the 1970s. Sad for the bees, you might think, and you may even realize it has been a while since you have seen a honeybee. Some might argue that constant non-ionizing radiation next to the brain does not conclusively cause brain cancer or change brain glucose metabolism (counter to a recent announcement from the World Health Organization), but you and your fellow animals nevertheless need to eat to live: honeybees fertilize 70 percent of the 100 crops most often used for human food.

Finally, when a cell phone is traded in for a new one, consider where the plastic, lead, and lithium of the old one will go; someone is going to arrange for the outdated phone’s disposal — you may even yourself take the time to deliver it to a recycling center, but where and how will the recycling come about? If you take your old phone to a responsible organization, you could help reduce the disastrous environmental and human consequences of mining throughout the world; if you let it fall into less scrupulous hands, it may end up dumped in Nigeria or back in China.
Everything comes from somewhere and everything has to go somewhere: the cliché is true, and sounds conscientious, but in fact the vagueness of “somewhere” is part of the problem. What is tragic about environmental degradation is not the degradation itself; to frame the ruin of the natural world as “tragedy” implies that intentions by supernatural forces — that is, forces other than human ones — are involved. If we follow such an assumption to its end, there’s little that could have been done, and can be done about the degradation we now witness or ignore. Instead, the worst aspect of this ongoing and deep-rooted sequence of calamities is a lack of self-knowledge on the part of its human protagonists. 
Michel Serres’s Malfeasance: Appropriation Through Pollution?, a small-format paperback of less than a hundred pages published for the first time in English this year, aims at nothing less than fully to understand and to remedy this lack of self-knowledge. In France, where Malfeasance first appeared in 2008, Serres’s title was Le mal propre: a pun on le malpropre, which, written as one word, means “dishonest” or “despicable.” Separated into two words in his title, the phrase signifies “clean evil.” 

Serres’s groundbreaking, impassioned argument is that our “cleanliness is our dirt”: our desire to possess the world by “cleaning” or claiming it for ourselves and then throwing the consequent dirt and detritus beyond the bounds of what we deem “propre” has brought about, he claims, the ruination of ourselves and our world. He describes how we are severed from the rest of nature to the point that we suffer an accelerating, self-perpetuating, and alienating symbiosis between forms of material pollution — such as industrial waste and toxic dumps — and forms of mental, or metaphysical, pollution — such as the monotony of muzak, the squawking of mandatory televisions in public spaces, and the relentless commands and demands of advertisements in every view. 

If our dependence on cell phones presents a typical instance of the interrelations between material and mental pollution, their use is only a small part of what seems to be our universal and rampant desire to fill our environments with more and more manmade objects and stimuli.

Serres’s study of the interface between human nature and the rest of nature is the culmination of his career-long meditation on the relations between forms of life. From his foundational research regarding the interactions of parasites and hosts, to his numerous studies of subjects as diverse as myths of origins, depictions of angels, stories of Hermes, the functions of bridges and statues, and experiences of synesthesia, Serres has been preoccupied less with phenomena than with the connections between them: he is our great philosopher of mediation. With his emphasis on the tenuous, he continually underscores alternatives to culture as we have received it. His preferred form is the fable, yet the morals of his stories arrive on the wings of his slightly humorous, elliptical, and resolutely non-didactic style.

Serres’s project in Malfeasance is typically both descriptive and prescriptive. As a descriptive account, it is designed to be as a “Stercorian Atlas” of the “hundreds of marks, stains, and signposts” left by the growing human appropriation of nature. As a prescriptive treatise, Malfeasance extends the argument of Serres’s 1990 book Le Contrat naturel, where he posited that to survive, and thrive, human beings would have to overcome their internecine hostilities, imagining themselves as one species, unified by the necessity to establish an accord with nature. Stating that we now find ourselves at a crossroads as a species, he plaintively explains that he is writing for “the next generation.”

In this new meditation, Serres makes specific suggestions, both “practical” and ideological, toward pursuing a way of life that would make a “natural contract” possible. Above all, he recommends the dissolution of property rights and a fresh commitment to “uncover” nature’s particular beauties. In one of his few concrete proposals, he asks that we pursue a “triple liberation”: “let us liberate space, let us liberate our souls, and let us liberate at least one site.” Although Serres is not often specific, this aphorism is hardly utopian. Every day there are examples of liberating space, soul and site: someone restores the native species of a local stream damaged by chemical run-off; or turns a vacant lot of trash into a community garden; or home-makes the necessities of life whenever possible, and purchases only goods manufactured under non-exploitive conditions.

Sweeping as Serres’s account is historically and geographically, his suggestions of this kind are strangely intimate. His first concern is to develop a change in our attitude toward nature. His negative prescription to abandon property and his positive prescription to reveal the earth’s beauty, compelling as they are, suggest not broad social or political commitments, but something closer to a Stoic’s self-possession. In his concluding pages, Serres speaks of the continuity between the temporary dwellings of the exiles in the Hebrew Scriptures and the “homelessness” of Christ, who must find shelter in the “privacy” of the believing follower. He suggests that in a world that belongs to no one, Mundus, res nullius, man belongs to no one, homo nullius, and thus we now find ourselves governed by self-given laws. If this is a lonely prospect for humankind, it is also one that, unlike theodicy, places the solutions to our dilemma in our own hands.

As this brief survey of religious accounts of human dwelling suggests, Serres’s historical framework is loosely presented: the first half of the book, “Urine, Manure, Blood, Sperm: The Lived Foundations of Property Right” sets out a narrative of the development of property. The second half, “Garbage, Images, Sounds: Matter and Signs” has a vatic agenda as Serres explores the intersections between pollution’s hard, material, and soft, mental states. His method is not based in analytical philosophy, sociological research, or environmental policies. He constructs his survey from the perspectives of both “hard” sciences and “soft” cultural analyses, yet he owes far more to the visionary historical reasoning of thinkers like Giambattista Vico, Fustel De Coulanges, and his contemporary colleague at Stanford University, René Girard.

Like these thinkers, Serres often relies on etymological arguments and historical parables. Exploring the roots of “le mal propre,” for instance, he finds a number of source words. He begins with lieu (place), a term that he claims, following a nineteenth-century dictionary of Latin etymology, is derived from the Latin locus and, before that, the Greek topos, and alludes to female genitalia: Sic loci muliebres, ubi nascendi initia consistent (“woman’s places, where the beginnings of birth are situated”). Serres thereby traces the boundary-making activities of families, tribes, and villages to the birthplace of individuals. Two further terms preoccupy him: lustrare, which suggests going around a periphery in order to inspect such boundaries; and closure, signifying to clean, to shut a space and throw unclean phenomena out beyond its edges. Out of this cluster of meanings he builds his arguments regarding the human propensity to create significance through practices of inclusion and expulsion.

As for parables, according to Serres, the history of property goes as follows: Like most animals, human beings use their bodily excreta — urine, manure, corpses, and sperm — to appropriate places. Sacred places are “polluted” by such excreta and must be bounded off from it, just as they are concurrently defined by being vulnerable to it. Men in particular deploy their urine and sperm to establish the outlines of their property, including their women, in order to mark and claim it. Property then passes to the family and tribe. Sacred spaces require blood sacrifices and the spilled blood of sacrifice in turn defines the limits of such space. As part of this sacrificial expenditure, monuments to the dead are built that “celebrate the shame of the massacre of innocent children by unspeakably cruel fathers.” These excreta — urine, sperm, blood, corpses — are used to mark and claim more and more space as they accumulate; they in turn increase the number of “subjects of appropriation” — individuals, families, and nations that come under proprietary claims.

Natural law becomes positive law, according to Serres, by evolving from these practices of sacrifice, invasion, crimes, and stinking, excremental trash to the “soft signs” of the signature on paper, the logo, the brand, and the re-appropriation of what has already entered the economy. He describes us at the end of this long process of rationalization, sporting the logos of those corporations that have ruined our air and water and exploited the labor of our bodies: “the victims stand in line to multiply the advertising that targets them.” And he points to how our “data,” held by the state, banks, cell phone companies, internet providers, hospitals and department stores subjugate the rest of our agency, holding us hostage to the soft realities of consumerism and, although he does not mention them, so-called “social” networks.

Serres’s argument about the origins of material pollution raises disturbing implications that remain unconsidered. Throughout the book, he reveals that pollution is not merely a by-product of industrialization, but a fundamental human, indeed animal, activity: a practice at the heart of our establishment of the sacred and our desire for meaning. If these practices are indeed rooted in the depth of our animal nature, it is unclear how we could expect to overcome our fierce instincts to mark and claim territory and instead adhere to an ethic of withdrawal and refusal of ownership. Yet, these are the solutions Serres poses to our current predicament. .. read more: