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Savage Ecology is an ambitious book. It seeks to analyze connections between war, ecology, and technology in novel and inter-disciplinary ways in order to forge an ecological theory of geopolitics that foregrounds war’s world-making capacities. Simultaneously, it seeks to challenge anthropocentric conceptualizations of agency underwriting existing critiques of US empire and European settler colonial projects. While the empirical material presented in the book focuses on relatively recent sociotechnical developments, its conceptual contributions are mapped out with a view to accounting for five centuries of colonial violence, particularly in the coinage of the term ‘Eurocene’. These wide-ranging, experimental ambitions can make the book hard to pin down to one consistent argumentative through-line (something which readers may experience either as a bug or a feature depending on their preferences for rigidly structured argumentation or willingness to engage an experimental style). In this review, we contextualize the book’s contributions within broad shifts in the social sciences and particularly in International Relations (IR), deploying discussion of Savage Ecology as a springboard to ponder the turn to new materialist perspectives in the study of global in/security.
Savage Ecology aims to wrestle the concept of geopolitics away from orthodox American IR liberal and realist theory, while acknowledging “three decades of critique” (21). Though the book is not framed as an engagement with critical IR literatures, its concern with war’s world-making capacities, its troubling of war-peace and civilian-martial binaries and its attention to the (settler) colonial genealogies of contemporary war can productively be situated within longstanding debates in overlapping subfields of critical war and security studies, postcolonial security studies, and feminist IR. It can also be situated in IR debates about how to study the materiality of the world, including historical materialist, feminist political economy, postcolonial, critical race analysis, and broadly new materialist approaches. Savage Ecology joins these subfields in challenging the grip of Foucauldian critique as the ostensible ‘critical end’ in the study of global security, liberal war and scientific rationalities, and in considering the limitations of analyses centered on universalized, narrow and/or anthropocentric conceptions of violence, governmentality and biopolitics.
Although Savage Ecology does not belabor any claim to make a new materialist intervention in critical war and security studies, in its centering of ecology and of nonhuman entities, its contribution sits squarely in this emerging and contested conceptual landscape. One central contribution of the book, then, is its exploration of what new materialist thinking (forged primarily outside IR, especially in STS) can do for the discipline and for the study of war and security. While the term ‘new materialism’ is contested (and sometimes disclaimed), in broad strokes two claims are hallmarks of new materialist approaches: that they offer new ways of thinking through both methodology and ontology.
In terms of methodology, taking aim at the ‘linguistic’ or ‘cultural turn’ (modes of analysis that place discourse as their central object of inquiry), new materialists argue that because it treats discourse as a solely human artifact, ‘post-modern’ discourse analysis ironically abides by the modernist human/nonhuman distinction. Although not all fully reject discourse analysis, new materialist approaches typically argue that discourse analysis alone is insufficient for studying materiality and networks of humans and nonhumans. Instead, more empirical, even realist modes of investigation are required, sometimes drawn from the natural sciences, though without (necessarily) reverting to modernist positivism.
In IR, new materialism has been deployed to challenge or “radicalize” (Schouten and Mayer 2017) Foucauldian security studies, by moving beyond discourse, to the materiality of ‘things’ (see Aradau 2010). Savage Ecology (15) parallels this methodological move:
“Things are material and they are creative... Such formative attributes are variable among different things but importantly are not restricted to language, meaning, or the brain” and as such “discourse analysis is too restricted in what it will consider as the constitutive material of meaning”.
Like other new materialist security studies writings, the book challenges Foucault’s approach to war and politics, including the concept of biopolitics, simultaneously seeking to push beyond binary conceptions of the social/technical (cf. 8; 23; 79; 94).
In terms of ontology (again, in broad strokes) new materialism claims that the analytical separation of humans from nonhuman entities is artificial and that agency cannot be ascribed solely to humans. Human agency is decentered in favor of a wider context of the vitality or agentic capacity of matter. This is sometimes described as adopting a flat ontology. Savage Ecology (13) similarly espouses an analytical expansion of agency beyond the human (a relatively flat ontology) by forwarding an “ecological approach to security” which “expects a world of highly distributed and complex agencies.”
Critiques of new materialism are numerous and complex. It is worth briefly highlighting a few. The ‘newness’ of new materialism has been challenged by scholars arguing that such claims to newness have proceeded on the basis of caricaturing not only Marxist historical materialism and its postcolonial interlocutors, but also postcolonial and feminist science studies. New materialists have sometimes denigrated these latter fields as ‘cultural studies’ (despite their long-standing inquiries into materiality, for example, of the body), implicitly (and worryingly) presenting research on race, colonialism or gender as passé (see Ahmed 2008; Irni 2013; Willey 2016). In response Willey (2016, 993), for example, points to the “implicit whiteness and Eurocentrism” of feminist and other new materialisms.
Pushing this critique of ‘newness’ further, Indigenous scholarship has noted that claims to newly discover the agentic capacity of matter have proceeded on the basis of ignoring Indigenous epistemologies and cosmologies (see Tallbear 2015; Todd 2016) or worse, casting them as the primitive irrational limit-point against which new materialist analysis is figured as rational. Sundberg gives the example of Bennett’s work, where vital materialism is established as political theory by distinguishing it from animism, which is reduced to superstition and the pre-modern (Sundberg 2014, 37, on animacies see Chen 2012).
Black feminist research, meanwhile, has pointed out that while new materialism does entail critiques of Eurocentric ideas of autonomy and mastery over material worlds, its expansion of agency proceeds by decentring/displacing a universalized ‘human’. Such universalization occludes the gendered raciality and coloniality of the human, and specifically the generative relations between racism and the human-animal distinction (see Jackson 2013, 2020). While new materialist thought is frequently cast as a maverick move beyond left and right, positivism and post-positivism, methodologically and ontologically white forms of new materialism may engender analytically and politically regressive intellectual movements.
What is fascinating about Savage Ecology is how, in its engagements with new materialist thought, it traverses this terrain of insights and potential pitfalls, teetering on these precipices of debate and contestation. It attempts to re-think geopolitics by attending to the world-making violences of Euro-American settler empire whilst simultaneously moving beyond anthropocentric methodologies for understanding their planetary consequences, committing to “relaxing the focus on human actors in the process of global change” ultimately maintaining that “we can decenter the human without letting go of the very specifically human and often national assemblages that broke the planet” (10). In its empirical chapters, Savage Ecology leans into a flat ontology, emphasizing the agency of things, and concomitantly risks losing sight of questions both of responsibility for war and violence, and of anti-imperial and anti-racist resistance. By tantalizing contrast, the conceptual frame of the book seeks to emphasize five-centuries of (settler) colonial violence by Euro-American actors and thus uneven responsibility for building the current ‘global savage ecology’ (7).
This set of tensions is evident in the empirical chapters on Bombs, Blood and Brains. ‘Bombs’ offers an in-depth account of the agency of IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. By leaning into a flat ontology, the chapter elucidates the “arrogance of humanism at war” (134). The focus on the agentic capacities of ‘things’ means much of the agency entailed not only in the exercise of imperial power, but specifically of insurgents deploying IEDs, may fall out of view. What insights into war’s world-making capacities, including its “topographies of race” (138), could be generated by an analysis of the IED that also accounts for resistant agency and the racialized production of certain spaces and populations as non-sovereign and thus ‘open’ to imperial military occupation?
Similar tensions regarding agency and resistance are tangible in the empirical chapter that deals most directly with racism: on the logistics of the US military’s segregated blood supply during World War II. ‘Blood’ embraces “object-oriented thinking” contending that “[a]ll things are constrained and enabled by capacities and relations and so are ontologically equal” (143, 142). Though it discusses human agents (for example Charles Drew, the African-American surgeon who pioneered techniques of blood plasma storage, and directed US and UK blood plasma systems in WWII, and who resigned in protest in 1942 due to the US military’s segregation of the blood of Black donors), it is blood itself that takes a starring role in political and scientific advances:
“The decision was made to end the segregation of blood in part because of the political mobilization to end the practice, but that mobilization was significantly aided by blood’s properties, which had insisted, empirically, that race was superstitious animus, not reality” (150).
It was blood that “provided a challenge to racial thinking” (152). Here racism is treated as a personal belief, rather than a global system of expropriation, exploitation and violence, and blood’s seemingly self-evident and scientifically knowable properties are configured as agency. This risks underplaying not just general human agency, but specifically Black political agency, not just in terms of the ‘domestic’ politics of civil rights, but also the wider geopolitical context in which desegregationist and abolitionist movements developed transnational solidarities with anti-colonial resistance struggles in the global south before, during and after WWII. The relatively flat ontology of this chapter constitutes an inventive thought experiment, but risks leaving readers with the impression that the agency of blood itself was the crucial lynchpin in political change. ‘Blood’ demonstrates there is analytical purchase in casting aside ontological hierarchies (human/non-human, animate/inanimate, subject/object, etc) in our approaches to security, but leaves open the question of whether this purchase comes at the cost of potentially eliding the uneven materiality of imperial terrain, including the agency of peoples resisting colonial and racist regimes.
The stakes of displacing ‘the human’ become apparent in ‘Brains’, which focuses on the materiality of human brain plasticity to consider (histories of theorizing) “what we can become as a species” (169). In particular, it examines the political implications of three later-20th century conceptualizations of the brain: neuroelectric, neurochemical and informatic. New materialism often seeks to move beyond an automatically skeptical attitude to scientific rationalities (often associated with Foucauldian, feminist or critical race work) to treat scientific fields of knowledge as potential resources for political theory-building. A challenge in studying brain science is to reckon with what brain science can (and cannot) now do, while also maintaining skepticism regarding its (geopolitical) emergences and applications. The key empirical example given in the chapter is the administration of oxytocin for troop bonding:
“in the space of war, the artificially induced bonding is not universal; oxytocin is not love. Instead, those hormone-tightened bonds also provoke extreme hostility toward enemies seen to threaten the in-group. Oxytocin fuels militarily useful rage and violence where once it intensified care” (185).
What remains unclear is whether this psychopharmaceutical intervention represents a totally new era of brain plasticity, or whether it could be placed in the historical context of, for example, the British military’s centuries-long use of rum rations, or Nazi use of methamphetamines. How are the agentic properties of these different substances important in the particular forms of warfare in which they were administered to induce courage, suppress the need for sleep or fuel rage? These histories surely contextualize futurities of brain plasticity in war.
Similarly, in thinking through the broader geopolitical context, it might be fruitful to historicize how ideas of life plasticity emerged from eugenic thought, in which plasticity was “imagined and scientifically practiced through race and ability” (Brown 2015, 327) or how Blackness was constituted simultaneously in terms of a lack of plasticity (an inability to learn) and as ontological plasticity, wherein “the slave is the discursive-material site that must contend with the demand for seemingly infinite malleability” (Jackson 2016, 119). As Brown (2015, 237) emphasizes, such historicization is “key as scholars go forward in the project of decentering the human. A trust in scientific knowledge must be interrogated, and the ‘we’ of new materialist thinking situated historically. Scholars must remember not to assume a universally shared positioning in relation to the material world.”
If these empirical chapters lean far into flat ontology emphasizing the agentic capacities of ‘things’, then Savage Ecology’s conceptual discussion of the Anthropocene moves in another direction, emphasizing not a universal (if decentered) human, but an understanding of geopolitics as marked by an unequal distribution of “survivors and sacrifices” (38). The question raised here is how to draw lines of agentic responsibility for geopolitical crises, whether to analytically privilege (settler) colonial agency, or the world-making capacities of war, and/or of matter, if these can even be held separate.
Savage Ecology seeks to answer this question in part by coining the concept of the Eurocene, to highlight “how climate change, species loss, slavery, the elimination of native peoples, and the globalization of extractive capitalism are all part of the same global ordering” (38) and to account for five centuries of “Europeanization, now led by U.S. imperial power” (40). This coinage can fruitfully be read in conjunction with other works that have sought to amend the generalized ‘Anthro’ in ‘Anthropocene’, both those the book engages, such as Marxist conceptions of the Capitalocene (cf. 199-201; Moore 2016) and those it does not. These include efforts to rethink the Anthropocene in relation to the materiality of historically specific racial-colonial processes, including Indigenous dispossession and genocide (H. Davis and Todd 2017), racial capitalism (Pulido 2018) and the geologic color line (Yusoff 2018) as well as alternative conceptions of “racial capitalocene” (Vergès 2017), “plantationocene” (Haraway et al. 2016; see also J. Davis et al. 2019) and “White supremacy scene” (Mirzoeff 2018). Placing Savage Ecology in these intellectual contexts broadens possibilities for materialist analyses of ecologies of war, security and geopolitics, keeping sight of questions of power and hegemony in ways that are consistent with the book’s stated aims. To do so is to take seriously its vast ambitions, operating simultaneously at the levels of grand theory of geopolitics, ecology and war and of micropractices of cells or neurons. Savage Ecology sets itself a seriously challenging, possibly unattainable task which it works through in its insistence on an experimental approach, one that does not, in the end, provoke its readers towards definitive answers, but a set of open questions and tensions concerning how to study war, geopolitics, ecology and security from a (new) materialist perspective.
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Alison Howell is Associate Professor in Political Science at Rutgers University—Newark, where she is also an affiliate of Women’s and Gender Studies, the Division of Global Affairs, and Global Urban Studies.
Melanie Richter-Montpetit is Senior Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sussex, where she is also Director of the Centre for Advanced International Theory (CAIT).