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want to begin by thanking Emily Gilbert for organizing this collective response and writing such an erudite and eloquent summation of a book that refuses synthesis. It is very strange to hear one's own words reflected back at oneself. I have learned so much about my book from Emily, including from her description that the book’s prose reads “almost as if Grove is narrating his account while sitting right beside us.” Writing is very difficult, and often impossible for me because it means sifting through the damage that comes from a public school system engineered to alienate those who think and write in ways thought not to be useful for higher education. Whether with a computer or pen, it is a physically exhausting process because it scrapes at the joints where the various parts of my brain and body never quite fit together. When I can get to a place where my fingers feel entirely alien from my will, and my internal monologue can speak to some hallucinatory, imagined interlocutor, then I can get words down on a page. I can dictate to myself. The hack is not terribly effective for the exegesis that counts for the aesthetic of traditional philosophical writing but it does feel like what I mean. According to my students, my writing reads a lot like my classes sound, and likewise makes more sense when read aloud. I envy others who seem to be able to write with more ease. However, it fills me with a certain kind of joy to read that a colleague and friend I admire so much could feel like they were the imaginary friend I had hoped I was sitting across the table from when formulating what goes on the page. Emily is certainly one of the ghosts inhabiting my amalgam of fantasized philosophical comrades that I carry with me from chapter to chapter.
I am deeply grateful to the other respondents—some of whom I know and others I have only come to know since receiving their replies—for the time you took to think and write. However instrumental or incidental Savage Ecology was to the reply matters little to me. I just think it's cool you picked up something I wrote and took the time and care to respond. I hope my reply can mirror that generosity.
I will try to respond to the critical points raised by each reply, but I also want to do so in the context I now find me myself in. I am not proprietary about the book. None of the ideas are particularly mine and all of thinking is already finished. A book, like hair or finger nails, is already dead once visible. Savage Ecology is over. Sequels will benefit from the critiques offered here but there will be no prequels. I have no desire to produce a rectified Savage Ecology that attempts to justify my many omissions and errors, only to give birth to the atrocity of Jar Jar Binks. It is what it is. Instead what I hope to do is follow each critique where I would take it next in my research, rather than attempt to defend the territory of a country I have long since abandoned.
It has been almost three years since Savage Ecology came out as a book. In that time we have seen the rise and fall (and rise again?) of Donald Trump, the heroic eruptions of mass direct action in the name of Black lives, an attempted coup in Washington D.C., a planetary health catastrophe, the carceralization of every womb in the U.S., region consuming wild fires, and unrestricted war in Ukraine with the promise of nuclear retaliation against interference. And that is just on the news. Under the official frequencies of attention, the death toll in Yemen races to half a million, Palestinians and Uighur peoples languish in the shadows cast by our ceaseless panic, and violence against those who identify as women and girls is metastasizing in the enforced domestic spaces of lockdowns and social distance. In my home state of Texas, our trans children are openly hunted for sadistic sport under the guise of child welfare. Two years into the Biden presidency, the US border is still punctuated by kid-sized cages, and the reach and authority of QAnon seems somehow unbowed. And yet the market has rebounded for those who are in the market, people have adjusted to supply chain chaos, and joblessness has all but disappeared as a conversation. All the while, there is open war on our houseless friends and loved ones, parks are lined with residential cars inhabited by whole families, and the now ignored millions struggling with long Covid are celebrated for not being dead. We are back at our jobs, back in our classrooms, taking off our masks, and trying to learn how to be excited about rock bottom expectations. I even started meditating.
After the low flying panic attack of the last few years, it is hard to even remember writing the book. I often skim the pages before Zoom talks to find choice quotes that are good enough to get people’s attention, but the truth is I have read so little over the last couple of years of sickness and dread that I cannot possibly imagine trying to read something I wrote, making me all the more humbled that under such conditions, others would attempt the slog.
Inspired by the invitation at hand, however, I would say I wrote the book to try to make some sense of how so much could be going wrong, while provoking so little discomfort for those painting and repainting the traffic lanes of global order. I wanted to capture how angry I was that we are taught to approach all of these cruelties and more as exceptions to the international order, rather than its essential content. Genocides, nuclear bombings and nuclear testing, careless habitat destruction and species decimation, global markets for incarceration, hunters of the forcibly enslaved turned uniformed police, mass automated slaughter of billions of non-human animals, the perversity of law as a tool for sustainable warfare—all of it seemed to me like the point, not the failure of global politics. And the field I had wanted to be part of since I was fifteen years old, International Relations, turned out to be the Mar-a-Lago of arbiters and apologists for this global husbandry of cruelty and pain.
For obvious reasons to those who have waded through the introduction to Savage Ecology, I cannot help but smile at the thought of Mearsheimerʻs rotting intellectual corpus being dragged through the streets of Twitter, though a truly sick laughter escapes my lips when I see so many bragging about removing Mearsheimer from their syllabi. Until the bombs started dropping on Ukraine, tens of thousands of students were routinely required to read Mearsheimer’s book. But good thing we canceled the author just in the nick of time. For me, this is the parable of International Relations—outrage to mask complicity. One can only imagine the sucking sounds of what all of those wounded syllabi are calling for in his stead. Defensive realism? Hegemonic stability theory? Keohane and Nye? Slaughter and Moravcsik?
If the book was written out of a certain kind of anger it was also written with an equally animating curiosity. Discovering I was in the country club of horrors did not lead me to scramble for the exit. This is in part because I cannot imagine that anywhere else is much better in terms of the historical complicity of a field. Detailing the intimacies of peoples to leverage that knowledge against them (Anthropology), mapping and describing the contours of the arrangement of peoples and things for better targeting (Geography), and deciphering and comparing the languages of peoples for the Cold War imperatives of surveillance and intelligibility (Comparative Literature)? There is no bloodless discipline, no entirely safe space for thinking and writing, and no high ground in the war of position that is scholarship.
So, for me, global politics feels like the middle of everything. Slavery, war, environmental catastrophe, media subterfuge, intimacies and otherness—we get it all in our ambit of thought with little remark from our disciplinary cops. In fact, as many reviews of Savage Ecology suggest, sometimes we even get praise for ʻthinking outside the box’ as long as we are thinking about things that are important, like war, death, and destruction. If you are drawn to understand the sadism that thrives on this planet, IR is Club Med with all of the perverse, settler colonial trappings that analogy entails. This is not to say I am without hopes for the future or the desire for revolutions, but it is not why I write. At best, Savage Ecology could be wedged under the self-locking back door to the halls of power so that everyone can get in. This book does not offer any blueprints for what to do once you get inside.
There are two reasons for this. First, as I detailed in the book, I am tired of mostly privileged thinkers who want to set the agenda for those who struggle out of necessity. I find the selective editing and curating of oppressed and marginalized peoples’ voices by those that are anything but to be incredibly distasteful. The borrowed lightening of self-righteous revolutionaries is an academic pose I have no patience for. All too often Black and Brown scholars and activists are tossed around like stunt doubles for what turns out in the end to be yet another Marxist analysis of how to finally end capitalism, an improved Foucauldian case study, or [insert new critical turn here] that needs fodder for publication. How much field work amounts to a race to find the most immiserated communities so that a few choice pull quotes can up the research profile of analytic tools or intellectual turns that could not mean less to the lives of those rendered like fat into soap for impact factors and innovation grants? Ideas are not more provocative or radical just because you found exotic victims of violence to use in the endorsement ad.
Second, I believe thinking has value even when it accomplishes nothing. As passé as it is now to say, I still love philosophy. My love is not contingent on whether philosophy can save the world. My love comes from the pleasure of watching concepts unfold and mutate as they grasp at mysteries that never get solved. Before I had this job, I skipped meals to buy books and I relished getting sent to the library for detention in high school because there was an unread stack of philosophy books in the reference section. Growing up in Texas, Foucault and Said did not protect me from getting beaten up for not being straight enough, nor did they help me dodge bottles thrown at me from cars for not being white enough, but they were waiting for me in my backpack. After a lifetime of being told I couldn’t write and that I would never succeed in school, I love the books all the more that so many thought I had no facility for.
That joy is why I work at a collapsing and at times hostile University, because the privilege to read, teach, and think for a living exceeds every other possible fantasy I have ever had for my life. For me, philosophy is a form of life that is devoted to care for the world and everything in it. That any given philosopher or line of thought has not lived up to the full promise of that care is neither surprising nor disheartening to me. Rather, every failure of philosophy is, for me, a demand to think again and again and again.
We have all told the lie that critical thinking is important for the world and necessary for job readiness and democracy and revolution, and, and, and… It fills me with sorrow that so many of us have forgotten we were lying to protect something else much more precious that thinking can do. Philosophy is not for the privileged. It is not for the decadent. It is not for the learned. Like the Blues or poetry or art, in unlikely places and times, philosophy is the labor of making meaning on one's own terms, with the human and non-human people of one’s choosing, against every possible incentive and coercion to remain thoughtless and alone. Philosophy is for living together against all odds. For me that togetherness includes trying to understand war, slavery, octopi, nuclear physics, fascism, radically different cosmologies, novels, and being. I do not want a philosophy with guard rails or warning signs.
This is the moment when someone from the back accuses me of a performative contradiction: “Isn’t there a crypto-normativity throughout Savage Ecology that suggests you care about how things turn out too? Aren’t you just trying to be critical without taking responsibility for your own political and moral commitments?” Thanks, Habermas. My disdain and open hostility for Elon Musk, extractive capitalism, settler-colonialism, racism, nazis, private security guards, and anti-Trans religious zealots does not come from some kind of closet liberalism or disavowed humanism. I hate them all because they are, for me, enemies of philosophy. They are agents of homogenization. Each in their own way, they threaten the fecundity of the world I love and care for through thinking. There are many good reasons to punch a nazi, but for me philosophy is chief among them.
If that seems like a long aside to understand the context of the following responses, I understand the feeling of impatience. However, maybe, my effort to stir inside you a bit of what I feel when I think will imbue some sound to the tone of my reply.
I want to start with Mei-Singh’s generous and incisive response. I take her concern about the occlusion of the BRICS countries very seriously. I briefly address my ethical choice to focus on the Eurocene in the introduction of Savage Ecology. However, for me, there is a lot of the world to critique and I focus most where my responsibility for destruction is the strongest. Of course, that decision is both ethics and luxury. While I have plenty of fascism to fight at home, those reactionary forces are a global resonating network that stretches around the planet. I am not sure I have the research skills or the experience to provide an adequate answer to the BRICS provocation. However, I believe Mei-Singh is absolutely right when she says this is where key, future research for justice groups has to go. China and India in particular have recently incorporated the worst of what the Eurocene had to offer while eschewing the critical and corrective resources that have developed in opposition to violent homogenization. Despite empty rhetorical gestures harkening to anti-colonial pasts, these countries do not offer a political alternative. I am not sure I will live long enough to see the reversal of the Eurocene, but surely the shape of things to come rhymes with the last five hundred years vastly more than it makes a break from it. The particular governmentalities and martial mutations that develop in the BRICS countries to reorder the planetary system are troubling, but still not yet as destructive as those states we have long excused from the catastrophe we now face.
As for the book’s difficult line between solace and resignation, that line, for me, is a daily choice we make every morning when we wake up. In my experience, neither acceptance and vigilance nor nihilism and resignation are permanent paths or permanent partners, even for the most committed of us. However, if nihilism is the refusal to create new values, then the cynical optimism of things like the Green New Deal are vastly more nihilistic than anything in the pages of Savage Ecology. I appreciate that Mei-Singh can see the difference, while also being cautious of the allure of giving up. To borrow a formulation from the Xenofeminist manifesto, if the cosmos does not bend towards justice, we should probably learn how to bend the cosmos . The question, ethically, politically, and practically, for me, is what we are willing to break in the process. I do not have answers to those questions but I am confident of who will jump to the head of the line and try to answer them. And those people most confident and capital-invested to do so are the very people we have to stand against.
I am probably most ambivalent about Howell and Richter-Montpetit's intervention. Not because of the critique but because the critique lands exactly where I was most at odds with myself writing the chapter on blood. The concern as to whether there is Black agency in the piece, or as Howell and Richter-Montpetit locate it as ‘Black resistance,’ is a complicated question. It is true that the NAACP fought vociferously to end American blood segregation as did many others, including Dr. Charles Drew the Black doctor who developed and engineered the Allied forces blood program. However, for what are these voices of dissent owed? Drew was compelled to sign a humiliating document in which he swore he would not let his own blood enter into the life saving fractionation project producing plasma for the war effort. The NAACP’s demands for justice were completely ignored or worse yet patronized with excuses regarding the racism of the British to deflect responsibility from the U.S. War Department. And finally, once the decision was made to integrate the blood supply, it seems to have only taken place because of the necessity to differentiate American racism from Nazi racism. No responsibility was taken on the part of the U.S. government for its racism or for the lives lost because of blood shortages or racial preferences in receiving blood. Finally, the resulting ‘deracialized’ blood policy became pretext for the scouting and harvesting of blood from ‘enemy’ populations in a near vampire-like liquidation of local bodies proximate to combat zones. Not to mention the privatization and globalization of blood, fluids, and organs for which the global South has been subject to ever since.
Blood and organ farms are now common throughout the world for wealthy global North consumers for whom ‘not being racist’ simply means willing to devour the organs and fluids of those too vulnerable or too poor to hold on to their literal life blood. I would lay neither the end of blood segregation nor the planetary prospecting for human materials at the feet of the NAACP. However, I do not believe my reading of the archive deprives Black actors like Drew or other anti-racist activists of agency. But it also does not invent an efficacy in an effort to construct a kind of hero’s narrative where the hard work of activists successfully defeated the racist policies of the United States government. Instead it draws attention to what Jared Sexton sees as the counter-revolutionary and anti-Black character of multi-racialism, whereby the integration of the military in blood and bodies becomes a technique of silencing black critique rather than taking a step forward on the journey to racial reckoning. For me, I do not see this as a discounting of black activism so much as a highlighting of the perverse creativity of racist institutions to craft policy against the righteous demands of those who struggle. To put it very simply, it is true that blood is ‘the hero’ of the chapter but only the casual hero not the political or moral hero.
As for fracas about the “new’ materialism, that critique belongs to someone else. The empiricisms I follow are old and belong to too many traditions to fight over a proprietary claim about who noticed the world first. Being, that is ontology, is univocal but not flat. The cosmos screams into existence through a storm of dimensions, textures, modes, and temporalities that crushes any clever theory of what is is.
Toal’s critique finds its footing in a different but related problem of the book’s historical compression. As Toal says, many victories, resistances, and contingencies get lost under the crushing weight of concepts like the Eurocene or geopolitics. That point is well-taken. However, I am not sure the risk of determinism translates as easily to conspiracy or the elimination of chance. All stories appear inevitable in reverse, but I would like to think that chapters on the catastrophic and unlikely success of IEDs or the perverse luck of pandemic disease or the explosive plasticity of brains all point to significantly more and less than human operators in the making of historical change. And yet is there not importance in seeing the role of geopolitical will-to-power in the making of even highly disruptive and unexpected events? To take Toal’s prime example of COVID, while the virus is planetary in scope, the consequences of the disease are anything but universal. The distribution of death and suffering from COVID follow those peoples and regions deprived of resources. As I have detailed elsewhere , COVID has been leveraged by political leaders as a form of genocide by other means in places like Brazil, China, India, and certainly the U.S. It is not a coincidence that Trump abandoned efforts at COVID mitigation after it became clear that mortality was most prevalent amongst Black and Brown populations in the U.S. Facts that have little to do with some genetic racial character, and everything to do with how patterns of racism have deprived communities of nutrition, resources, and the trust necessary to combat our untimely planetary viral event. I certainly do not believe geopolitics is a master plan or under conscious elite control. However, as a pattern of what Gilbert Simondon called a logic of individuation, it is able to reproduce the racist character of distributed life expectations. To put another way, are we really so surprised and disrupted by the outcome of COVID? Or are the millions dead only more evidence that the geopolitical terraforming of planet earth patterns the future?
Saldanha frames his reading of Savage Ecology along two lines of critique. First, he emphasizes the absence of slavery and the Radical Black Tradition in Savage Ecology’s argument. Second, he questions whether the book finds itself at odds between a claim to inevitability, and an ontology of becoming and creativity.
The first line of critique follows from a claim that a section on the emergence of violence entrepreneurs during the first decade of 16th century conquest of ʻNew Spain’ ignores slavery and race. The historical period and the region that the section recounts does not substantially engage because slavery as we understand it was not yet in existence. Neither the Anglo plantation system nor the Spanish equivalent structure were established in the American Southwest at that time. History matters for thinking about a period of encounter and war when the Spanish still had hopes of enslaving indigenous peoples for labor. The ʻmatters’ here is not to argue that the oppression of indigenous peoples of the America’s take precedence over the horrors of the middle passage. Instead, the genealogy from the conquistadors to contemporary counter-insurgency is meant to situate the longstanding continuity of these practices, particularly in the American borderlands as a particular set of debates from Las Casas forward.
It is here, unfortunately, that Saldanha is betrayed by his methodology of ʻcritical index studies.’ In addition to looking for a discussion of the Atlantic slave trade in the wrong region and century, he overlooked the discussion of the Middle Passage much later in the book as well as several engagements with the significance of the Haitian revolution and slave revolts. This is because the word ʻslavery’ is not in the index. Instead, in the rare times I discuss ʻslavery’ as such, rather than specific historical processes, revolts, forms of torture, or forms of life, I choose to use the proper name Maafa. In part, this is because ʻslavery’ means too much and too little across space and time. I wanted to engage a name not just for the slave trade itself, or the plantation system or the specific institution of social death created in what would become the United States of America, but also one that includes the devastating wars and depopulation that took place on the African continent. The martial understanding of slavery I was seeking to understand was transcontinental, and collapsed empires in Africa as well as leaving tens of millions dead en route to the Americas. This martial understanding of slavery also resulted in blood theories of race, as well as fights for dignity that placed Black folks in the perverse position to defend their humanity at the same time they were defending their countries and sometimes their colonizers—whether in the UK, France, or the US in World War II. But those are other genealogies in the book that take place in chapters about apocalypses and blood economies rather than the stories of how counter-insurgency began as a process of Spanish settlement and conquest.
I doubt the combination of those chapters would produce the satisfactory definition of ʻwhite supremacy’ that Saldanha is looking for. However, that absence is by design. The book is not about white supremacy. The book is about a form of life in which white supremacy emerges and thrives. I wanted to sketch out how a form of being devoted to purification—homogenization—came to dominate the making of global order for the past five centuries. We could call that form of life ʻwhite supremacy’ or the Eurocene, but calling it either would not answer the question of how the infrastructure, metaphysics, and terraforming of such a world got made. In fact, I would say the term ʻwhite supremacy’ would quickly become anachronistic as it was stretched beyond the 20th century into earlier epistemes of race science and racial knowing. I am not sure Savage Ecology pulls off the 500 years history I had hoped for. However, that is the adventure the book sets out upon.
As for citational failings, I am not exactly sure what Saldanha means by the ‘Black Radical Tradition.’ It is true that I did not know the work of Christina Sharpe, Saidiya Hartman, Calvin Warren, or most valuably Hortense Spillers when I wrote Savage Ecology for my dissertation back in 2010. Given how important Sharpe, Spillers and Hartman are at the core of my next book on violence to help me question the often accepted antinomy between politics and violence, I can only imagine they would have reshaped the book. For instance, I think there is, at least I hope there is, a kinship between the Eurocene and Sharpe’s concept of ‘the weather’ . There is understanding of the ubiquity of Black pain in the making of normal politics would most definitely have resonated and influenced how I was trying to rethink war. But that opportunity was missed.
At the time I was writing Savage Ecology, my education in the Black Radical Tradition was limited to people like CLR James, bell hooks, Sylvia Wynter, W.E.B. DuBois and my advisor Siba Grovogui for whom the Haitian Revolution was the most important event in the history of egalitarianism (and not the French Revolution). Of all of those thinkers, DuBois probably plays the most significant part in the book’s conceptual thinking on war and the books central preoccupation with genres of humanity is indebted to Wynter. In particular, I was following the way DuBois attempted to understand the relationship between war and politics through the process of the American Reconstruction. Much of my distancing from Foucault comes from DuBois’ much earlier inversion of Clausewitz, and also DuBois’ insight that the global color line was at the heart of global order rather than a byproduct of the emergence of security, or worse yet as some kind of ʻboomarang effect’ from 19th and 20th century colonialism brought back to Europe . For Foucault, the classical geopolitics of the Concert of Europe was about balancing, sovereignty, and equality of kind. If we follow Foucault’s account in Security, Territory, and Population, this ʻclassical era’ is displaced by a biopolitics of race that emerges from the cities and their maladies, and a reconceptualization of power that shifts from the sovereign right to the productivity of the body. For DuBois, the state itself was formed by race wars in and outside of Europe, and was always dependent upon the production of bodies and labor. DuBois did not have to wait for the rise of German fascism to see racial biopolitics as the curse of Eurocentric politics. Neither did DuBois try to separate historically or analytically the sovereign right to kill and the biopolitical investment in populations in the making of global order.
Wynter’s conceptual understanding of humanism and her historical account of 1492 as a bio-scholastic event rather than merely a historical one is to my way of thinking a claim we still have not fully come to grips with intellectually or politically . However, this argument alone animates the entire decision to develop form of life as a way at understanding the emergence of race as a technology of world making rather than merely an ideology. Without her intervention the stakes of what I ultimately called homogenization would be meaningless. Ultimately, Wynter and DuBois saved me from writing a narrowly Foucauldian account of techniques of war and global security in favor of a story attentive to the remaking of earth, biome, sentiment, labor, species, and consciousness in the pursuit of global terraforming.
However, the majority of Saldanha’s intervention does not concern the Black Radical Tradition of which no proper names or concepts are mentioned anywhere in his response. Instead, the overarching concern beginning after the third paragraph of the intervention is whether Savage Ecology is or is not consistent with the Marxist tradition of Deleuze and Guattari as read primarily through Antonio Negri and Gramsci. I don’t have much to say about this, mostly because it is hard for me to imagine in Saldanha’s words that “radical politics is crying out to be theorized.” One lesson I do take from Foucault is that no revolution has ever needed the universal intellectuals that claimed to know the secrets of their successes. In fact, insofar as radical politics has a particular voice at all right now, mostly I think it rightfully tells me to get out of the way. I am thrilled to do the work of radical politics, but not its theorization or agenda setting. I will make food, do dishes, pick up the extra classes radicals need covered during crises. I will gladly watch the loved ones that need extra care when their caretakers need to be on the frontlines. I don’t cross picket lines and I am committed to solidarity in the classroom and in the streets. I am inspired by radical politics and I hope I even contribute to radical politics, but I hope I never offer a theory of radical politics. I think the arrogance of that is the cul-de-sac of the will to power.
As for whether Savage Ecology rests too heavily on negative images or pessimistic outlooks, I can only say I wrote what I think is true, but I never expected that what is true places any limit on what is possible—only what is probable. Thankfully the probable has no sovereignty over the futures.
Du Bois, WEB and Gates HL (2014) The World and Africa: Color and Democracy.
Grove J (2020) From Geopolitics to Geotechnics: Global Futures in the Shadow of Automation, Cunning Machines, and Human Speciation. International Relations 34(3): 432–55.
Laboria Cuboniks (Collective) (2018)The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation. Brooklyn: Verso.
McKittrick K (2015) Sylvia Wynter: On Being Human as Praxis. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Sharpe CE (2016) In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham: Duke University Press.
Jairus Grove is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.