With this post, the Blog of the APA is starting a new series that interviews authors of recently published books. The series seeks to disseminate information about new scholarship to the field, explore the motivations for authors’ projects, and discuss the potential implications of the books. If you have a suggestion for the series, please contact us here.
Gerard Kuperus is Associate Professor in the Philosophy Department and the 2018-2019 NEH Chair at the University of San Francisco. His research focuses on philosophy of nature/environmental philosophy from a continental perspective and with special attention to the topic of place. His publications include the edited volume (with Marjolein Oele) Ontologies of Nature: Continental Perspectives and Environmental Reorientations (Springer 2017) and Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World (Routledge 2016). This interview discusses the latter book.
What is Ecopolitical Homelessness: Defining Place in an Unsettled World about?
The book is about our contemporary situation as human beings in the context of globalization and the ecological crisis. I analyze this situation with the aid of historical and contemporary thinkers and then suggest a move towards ecopolitics. I describe both our contemporary situation and the future of ecopolitics as homeless, but they are fundamentally different kinds of homelessness. The first is a negative one, and is a homelessness inspired by Nietzsche’s analysis of the herd mentality. It is a situation in which we lack an identity tied specifically to place.
The book discusses today’s ecological crisis in terms of our lack of a sense of place. As global citizens, we move around so much that we have lost connection with specific places. What do we know about the places where we live? Without wanting to say that knowledge about good restaurants, cultural venues, and commercial sites is unimportant, I argue that we have little knowledge beyond that. What do we know about the climate, native plants and animals, and traditional sources of food? In the Western world such knowledge is mostly shallow at best, certainly in comparison to indigenous knowledge of place. Many Native American cultures, for example, identify themselves as a culture through the place in which they live. Stories and names play a significant role in this practice of identification. Even while we collect so much data and know so much, the wisdom of a place is mostly lost upon us in the contemporary world. Through Foucault’s criticism of the capitalist production of places, and Marx’s insight that capitalism produces a world after its own image I argue that globalization is producing homogeneous places all over the world. An English speaking person with some money can relatively easily move anywhere and feel at home. Yet, at the same time we are utterly lost. This being lost, or homelessness is, as I already suggested similar to Nietzsche’s sense of the herd mentality in which we as global citizens all act in the same way. It is also reminiscent of Heidegger’s structure of Das Man (“the they”) in which everyone is a no one. It is a situation that lacks a philosophical curiosity about the world and a being lost without even recognizing that one is lost. In addition, global movements also lead to the displacement of others (often non-whites and always those without money). With the displacement of these others, local knowledge is often destroyed.
The second kind of homelessness is a philosophical homelessness, and the more positive one. It is also inspired by Nietzsche, particularly by his demand to become who you are. While the first form of homelessness does not even involve the recognition that one is lost, this second one is an existential homelessness. It is the moment that Heidegger describes as a fundamental attunement and which can function as a wake-up call. Nietzsche tells us to become something else (expressed through the contradictory statement “become who you are”). In the first (negative) form of homelessness we remain who we are. In this second form we actually recognize our homelessness and while it might be an unpleasant experience to discover that we are in many ways lost, we can use it as an opportunity. I take up this call and I indeed argue that we have to become something else, beings of the future, if you will. I suggest that these human beings of the future (Nietzsche, of course, uses the term Übermensch) are not merely political animals dealing with human affairs, but ecopolitical beings: humans within a larger context of all the living and non-living things that make our existence possible in the first place. It is partially a challenge of the dualism of self and other (a challenge we also find in Buddhist traditions) and a challenge of the boundaries we have set up between the human and the non-human (or “other than human”) world. We have set up boundaries in our thinking that suggest that when humans destroy forests or rivers it might seem we are destroying something that is not us. Yet, we drink the water that streams from the river (and mountain) and we breathe the oxygen that is released by the forests. When humans get sick because of exposure to chemicals, a lack of fresh air, or the release of toxins as the result of mountaintop removal, the dualism between the human and the non-human world is challenged. To take a step further and overcome that dualism, which makes us think we as humans are invincible, is a very significant step in the direction of ecopolitics. This is not exactly what Nietzsche intended and I do not argue that Nietzsche is an environmental philosopher. Yet his work is full of references to nature. He even tells us to be true to the earth and emphasizes that we ourselves are natural beings (even while we tend to be anti-natural and act against our own nature). Thus, his oeuvre can be a great inspiration for an environmental thinker and the idea of ecopolitics is developed in the spirit of his thought.
How do you relate your work to other well-known philosophies?
Besides Nietzsche, the other philosophers that play a major role in the book are Heidegger, Deleuze, and Foucault. Those are arguably some of “the usual suspects” when working in continental philosophy, but the book takes a perhaps somewhat unexpected comparative turn. I really felt the need to draw on some other philosophical cultures besides the Western canon. Even while all thinkers mentioned here are critical of the direction of the West, the criticism “from within” seemed to fall short, especially in thinking about place and identity. Thinking itself can become a place and it seemed that by sticking to the philosophers I know very well, I avoided a true philosophical homelessness. In short, I decided to take a step outside of my comfort zone and the next to last chapter discusses the 13th Century Japanese Zen Master Dōgen, another Japanese thinker Watsuji Tetsuro, writer and poet Gary Snyder, and indigenous thinking, in particular that of the Pacific Northwest tribe of the Tlingit. All these traditions, albeit in different ways, show us how we are completely interconnected with the place in which we exist and provide radically different ways to think about our relationship with the world. For example, Dōgen discusses walking mountains, a seemingly absurd claim. Yet, it is an invitation to rethink who we are. Compared to the walking of mountains measured in geological time, our own walking is put into perspective, not necessarily as insignificant, but as a small part of a much bigger universe. In the end, I am very happy to have included these so-called “non-western” perspectives in the book. It provided me a different set of concepts and ideas to rethink the same problem in different words. Lastly, I used the work of Bruno Latour, since his work on the Actor-Network Theory provides another way to think about interconnectedness.
Why did you work on the Tlingit?
Many Native American tribes are gone altogether; most have lost their language and culture, resulting in traumas, alcoholism and substance abuse. Although the Tlingit are not entirely free of problems, they are successfully reviving their language and culture. Their culture has been well studied by anthropologists and I myself had a chance to teach a course up in Sitka, Alaska, which is Tlingit territory. I spent two summers there and although I am far from an expert I learned a lot about their culture that inspired my own thinking. In particular, it made me realize how little I know about any of the places where I have lived. The landscape is for a Tlingit alive, full of stories. Many geographical features have names that tell a story, often entailing practical knowledge of the place. “Subsistence” is often simply understood as living of the land and taking only what you need. Indeed, a Tlingit can walk on the beach at low tide and gather enough food for a tasty dinner that will feed the whole family. Yet,”subsistence” also has much deeper epistemological and ontological dimensions. It tells a culture who they are and provides what Thornton (quoting a Tlingit fisherman) describes as “our sense of being.” For a Western person it is very difficult to understand what is meant by this. As I understand it, it partly has to do with a different sense of ownership. The tribe does claim the area as their territory and different clans have fishing rights to certain areas, but this is where the ownership relation stops. To state it simply: in the Tlingit sense of being, the land does not belong to anyone; we (as individuals and as a culture) belong to the land. I do not want to romanticize their lifestyle and it would be incredibly arrogant for any outsider to claim to fully understand the Tlingit sense of being. Spending two summers in their territory certainly made me recognize that this culture possesses an inherent wisdom of the place in which they live, and recognize the place as essential to who they are.
Why did you feel the need to write this work?
The emphasis on place has, first of all, a personal background (And yes, I am in this sense also a Nietzschean in recognizing that philosophy is a personal confession). I grew up in Friesland, The Netherlands, moved to Amsterdam for college, to Chicago for my PhD and I now live just North of San Francisco. I love all the places where I have lived and have a deep connection with those places. They are part of who I became (and become) to be. Friesland, Amsterdam, Chicago, and San Francisco are radically different in terms of geography and climate, yet it is surprising how easy I could feel at home in any new place. Of course, my story of movement is far from unique and questions regarding place and identity are bound to arise when you move between continents. I contextualized those questions in a world in which we witness displacements of unprecedented proportions. While my moves should be considered voluntary and happy ones, many displacements are tragic and often the result of a globalized world (which made my own movements possible). Relating specifically to the United States, while injustices involving slavery and land stolen from indigenous tribes still linger, we are now also facing a refugee crisis (which is likely only starting) and gentrification that pushes families and individuals out of cities and neighborhoods that have been their homes, in some cases, for generations. Within the context of such displacements and my personal history, I felt a strong need to analyze our contemporary relationship to, and sense of, place.
How have readers responded?
Readers have responded very positively. I aimed to write an accessible book, in the sense that it is not over-technical and can be read by a diverse audience, and not just a few specialists. It is difficult to accomplish this without simplifying things too much. The comments from readers that stood out to me the most said that the book is very clear, even while it discusses some authors who are notoriously difficult to read.
What writing tips do you have?
Although it is not always possible I try to write every day. Even if it is just 20 minutes, it will keep me focused and then I am ready to go when I do have a few hours or even a day to write. I highly recommend setting up particular hours each week and writing with (a) writing partner(s). My university has a weekly writing program (as well as occasional one-day writing retreats). I often write with a few other academics for 2 to 4 hours per week. The advantages of writing with others are numerous. It, first of all, keeps all writers involved honest: it is not a time to read (or answer) emails and if one of us cannot make it, they better have a good excuse! It is interesting to learn what others (often in different disciplines) are working on, and telling others briefly about what you work on is in itself a great exercise.
What’s next for you?
I am working on another book on ecopolitics. In this second work I am asking whether we can find political communities in non-human realms. Many animals work together and form communities, yet can we speak of a polis, or a politics in this realm? Can we think about the earth’s forces in terms of politics? One perspective is that a term such as the Anthropocene emphasizes the effects of our activities on the earth. It is itself a political term, and it does connect our politics to what happens to the earth. Yet, do we “listen” when the non-human “speaks”? For example, hurricanes, droughts, fires, flooding, and all these extreme weather events tell us that we are running up against a limit, that our climate is changing, and this should be taken up in our political deliberations. My overall project tries to redefine the political within such a broader context. The whole earth, including all other species, geological and organic processes, the weather, and so forth, should be given a voice in this new politics. This does not mean we should give up on what we now consider the political, nor should we give up on caring for one another. Quite the opposite: as suggested earlier, we have to recognize the impact globalization has on others in terms of displacements and environmental justice issues. Furthermore, by recognizing that we are one of the earth’s creatures, interconnected and dependent, we also recognize the need to care for those who are in need. Those others can be fish, trees, mountains, and certainly humans.
You can ask Gerard questions about his work in the comments section below.