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Building Dignified Worlds is the first in a series of works examining “Diverse Economies and Liveable Worlds” under the editorship of J.K. Gibson-Graham (among others). Tracing the making of such “worlds” by diverse forms of collective action, the book is interested not so much in documenting those forms according to a pre-set analytical template as eliciting the associations through which collective action enacts change. With an exploratory more so than explanatory tone, Roelvink’s writing effortlessly carries the reader from beginning to end. It’s a style or disposition that achieves its affective intensity in working away from the “thinking techniques,” as she calls them, of “strong theory.” These are the “habits of critique” that the opening chapters carefully show (after the likes of Latour and Gibson-Graham) derive their logic by exposing a singular oppressive force behind manifestly variable instances of neo-liberalism. She avoids, then, the familiar critical maneuver of exposing the “deep-dark-below workings” of an apparently inexhaustible global capitalism that centers the working class as the heroic subject of resistance. Taking the view that such modes of critique stunt the knowing, imagining and creation of alternatives—and so, paralyze not just intellectually-conjured options but also the actual embodied struggles of “concern groups”—she sets about tracking various situated projects of socio-economic transformation that convey precisely the vulnerability rather than the unrelenting stability of neo-liberalism.
This is the “reparative” stance of “weak theory,” which Roelvink defines as a mode or practice of “assembling and disassembling concerns, people and things in political space to generate new economic possibilities.” After Judith Butler, Eve Sedgwick, and Timothy Mitchell, among others, Roelvink emphasizes the performative, both in the constitution of social life and in the activity or practice of research itself. Specifically she wants to trace—and through research participate in convening—relationships as they bring “acts of concern” into being. This entails charting, and thus helping to enact, geographies as they are forged in ad-hoc and untested coalitions (more so than groups with traditionally clear political identities). Roelvink calls these collectives “experimental assemblies” that attempt to bring into being new economic agendas.
The book’s arguments unfold through wide-ranging examples, including a non-representationalist account of two recent films that perform and elicit cooperative forms of factory-worker organisation in the case of The Take, and new relationships to waste in the example of The Gleaners. Another is Roelvink’s own participation in the World Social Forum in 2005, an event she is not interested in “reading” for its “line” against neo-liberalism. Instead her aim is to amplify the sense in which the sessions on alternative economic experiments enact an affective sociality among the participants that energizes creativity over critique. The tone is a politics of affirmation more so than resistance.
A further chapter focuses on markets. These Roelvink conceives not as “instruments of domination and globalization,” nor in the anonymous language of Adam Smith’s “impartial spectator,” but, after scholars in Science and Technology Studies, as entangled gatherings of all sorts of embodied entities and agencies. Human and nonhuman, individual and institutional: these are the “hybrid collectives” that inaugurate markets. Here, Roelvink’s addition of more-than-human others to her conceptualization of “the collective” significantly enlarges the ambit of co-engagement out of which markets are thought to be framed and conducted. The (very) various concern groups and constituents whose distributed geographies forge the global Slow Food movement is one illustration. As for the market in scavenging, by way of another example, Roelvink tracks the circuits and collectives through which waste becomes a commodity. The gleaners, cleaners, sorters, their coming together in collective awareness and agency, the transformation of some scavengers into buyers and dealers, the waste materials themselves, are characters that populate a process. It is a framing that “dignifies,” she calls it, an otherwise individualized existence.
The final substantive chapter is perhaps the most ambitious. Here Roelvink develops the notion of “species” as a political-economic collective, and “species-being” as a “mode of living” that conceptualizes connection across species, human and nonhuman. Here she undertakes some deft building on, and working against, Marx’s humanist and modernist notion of “species-being,” also Ollman on “alienation” and “appropriation,” and Oliver on Animal Lessons (2009). Her objective is to elaborate the relational quality of a “species-being” in which humans and other species are conceived as co-transforming each other through shared dependencies and vulnerabilities. It is a departure point about relationships, then, rather than boundaries and borders—relationships that are inherently spatialized in the sense of being distributed geographies through which “we become human and our humanity is transformed.” The case of an unconventional Australian farmer exemplifies Roelvink’s approach: the farmer, who, concerned at the depleted state of his drought-ridden enterprise, sets about “appropriating” and “reinvesting” some of the “surplus” that he acknowledges the environment and its myriad species do themselves contribute to the farm’s productivity, so returning it to economic viability. Here, then, a “more-than-human” take is clarified on a more “dignified” economic enterprise.
Roelvink’s ambitious conceptual effort and diverse examples raise a few concerns. First is the language of “dignity” and “dignified worlds” that somewhat jarred (this reviewer at least) on reading the book’s title. The conception of dignity seems to be somewhat inconsistently applied across the book’s chapters, sometimes implying a vaguely normative kind of noble worthiness or goodness that is under-theorized; other times, more usefully, pointing to the otherwise invisible entities or co-presences that make and perform alternative economic experiments. This seems a more compelling, relational take on the terms “dignity” and “dignified” in suggesting an openness to more novel topologies of subject and object beyond the usual starkly oppositional ones of human/nonhuman, us/them, culture/nature, conceptual/corporeal, and so on.
A second issue relates to the idea of “multispecies being.” This is a potentially rich concept for thinking across the forked ontologies of, on the one hand, the “more-than-human” concerns of the environmental humanities and new materialisms, and, on the other hand, what has been dubbed the “all-too-human” in the identity-politics genre of cultural studies. Certainly the idea of “multi-species being,” in thinking across species boundaries, is a useful departure point from the familiar, overly human-centric and sociological conceptions of the subject, justice and the political. But, and keeping in mind the concerns of identity-politics scholarship, there are also difficulties with the figuration of “the human” in the idea of “multispecies being.” Acknowledging that Roelvink talks (in her words) of “a political collectivity without essence,” there remains a certain homogenisation of the “dignified humanity” envisaged in Chapter 5—that is, a tendency to universalize humanity as if the one species-figure that was made in the image of colonial modernity can be made to stand for the world’s diversely human “modes of living.” This risks negating precisely the openness the chapter wants to arouse in alternative “modes of living” with the earth in the Anthropocene, including, and perhaps especially on this continent (of Australia), with indigenous modes of living. So a significant challenge presents itself here: of how to rethink humanism for a diversely dignified humanity.
Third, I remain skeptical about the stated methodological aim to provide a technique for not only conceptualizing, but enacting, alternative social movements. Here the activist potential of the researcher is “thought” in the sense of actually convening new publics and staging more dignified worlds. For all its laudable ambition, however, not least at a time of immense public scrutiny of the academy’s research impact, one might query limits to such comprehensively-conceived knowledge collaboration. So while the book is strong on the promise of knowledge production at the academic/activist/community interface, what of its concrete, actual prospects? Yes, research is a “performation” of a kind, and narratively amplifying the “ground” from which more dignified worlds can be built can indeed creatively clarify and help position that terrain. But what are the measures of success across different audiences and platforms, and how to know when it has been achieved? And what to make of failures and incommensurate interests at this unstable interface, of which surely there must be some if not many? The book is suggestive, but somewhat silent, on these prospects.
Finally here, and very differently: in the contemporary world context of deepening disaffection with party politics, and intensifying polarities across many so-called advanced capitalist economies, one wonders whether we are witnessing a resurgence of resistance to the business of politics and economics that Roelvink aligns with traditionally “left” alliances and the “strong theory” that she opposes. Might these new solidarities and subjectivities be building coherence beyond the “dimmer” and “weaker” gatherings that this book, so richly and persuasively, presents for us? Is there an opening for fresh forms of class analysis in neo-liberalism’s multiply diverse exclusions and displacements?