Interview with Kathryn Yusoff on polar bears, archives and climate change


For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

In the third of a series of interviews with contributors to the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates, Simon Dawes interviews Kathryn Yusoff about polar bears, archives and the hybrid nature of climate change


Simon Dawes: Your article examines the polar bear as an example of a ‘star species’, one that is used to document the current and future state of the environment. To what extent do you think the polar bear can be considered an ‘archive’?

Kathryn Yusoff: My use of the term “archive” as a concept is obviously reworking the term, but in what I hope is an interesting way, which highlights how non-humans are entwined in the neoliberal economies at both the micro level as biological repositories for wastes and at the macro level in terms of living archives of the histories of environmental change. In a sense, we are all “archives” of environmental change, indebted in all sorts of complicated ways to the histories of encounter and practices that have borne us into the world and constituted our capacities.

I have recently been looking at prehistorical art made at the last glacial maximum, and reading about prehistory and climate change, and it strikes me that we hold within our make-up many extinction events and as well as exuberances of life. These archives of deep history are biologically part of our becoming human, in the same way that we are now increasingly a part of the possibility for other creatures becoming (or not). The point of thinking with polar bears was that here is a highly visible icon of global environmental change, and yet while there was a massive proliferation of these figures pre-Copenhagen, there was an invisibility of these creatures as anything other than ciphers for simplistic narrations of climate change (which did as much to misinform publics as they did to engage them). Much like Philip Pullman’s polar bear, Ifor Raknison in Northern Lights that wants a human dæmon, we seemed to want polar bears as dæmons to work out the dynamics of loss. What concerns me is the poverty with which we continually render non-humans as these vulnerable, sad creatures that need us to rescue them, rather than attend to the already complicated, interwoven histories that we already have with these creatures, which often suggest that rescue is not necessarily a thoughtful line of approach.

Thinking about a polar bear as a biophysical archive of industrial practices demands that we acknowledge the hybridity and responsibility of our nature-cultural relations, rather than reinstate the renderings of wild nature/wilderness under threat awaiting rescue. This seems an obvious point to make, given the amount of recent work in this area from posthumanist/STS (Science and Technology Studies) scholars, but I think it is sometimes useful to return to these familiar, banal figures, such as the polar bear, and realise that they are more strange and interesting than would first seem. Even the most overworked figure can reveal an amazing plurality of worlds that suggest other paths of engagement. While the arctic is often rendered as a place apart from western industrialisation, it is important to remember that the effect of those industrial practices have made the arctic into an atmospheric toilet, where all kinds of pollutants literally dump down, making a highly contaminated food chain that poisons both polar bears and Inuit women alike. It is these kinds of human-non-human inter-relatings that need our attention. Polar bear research literally, in the case of mercury poisoning, provided a way into understanding the hitherto unknown condition in Inuit women’s health (who, like polar bears, eat seal meat). If we start from a position of co-inhabitation rather than isolation (artefactual creatures in the archive or zoo) we are in a better position to learn about living in less destructive ways with other creatures. If we don’t make other creatures into repositories (or archives) for our narratives, we also have a better chance of recognising something beyond our limited imagination of and for them. At the same time, archiving is techne of the future in all sorts of complicated ways, so we might want to expand the doing and making of archives to encompass more exuberant artefacts that acknowledge both pleasure and violence.

Image: Bill Burns, How to Help Animals Escape from Natural History, 1995 (Courtesy of the artist)
SD: Is there a difference among star species in how they are used as archives? Could we construct a league table of them, or are they used in different ways in different contexts?
KY: As I suggest in the paper, I think the construction of star species as icons (akin to celebrities) is exactly what is being done in the news media and the ranking of animals in danger in archives is the approach used by many environmental organisations. Ironically, being top of the archive is a mean achievement, because it tends to portend extinction. Once a species has made it into the top ten, they aren’t likely to make it, so to speak. The Yangtze River Dolphin springs to mind here. To me this seems a perverse kind of reckoning. As I suggest in my paper, the familiar approach of archiving these creatures negates a confrontation with the loss of the ‘play of the world’ that is imbued in extinction. The extinction event that we are party to, suggests that a banal kind of violence (in Hannah Arendt’s usage of the word) is at play, which is hidden in our practices and partially neutralised by archiving. I’m not sure there is much difference in the archiving of star species; I think that maybe the point is that they are all subject to the same structural violence, which is indifferent to their difference, dead or alive. We could try to imagine what a livelier archive might look like….
SD: Moving on to the theoretical aspect of your article, you draw on both Jacques Rancière and Georges Bataille (as well, of course, as Foucault and Nietzsche). You yourself describe Rancière and Bataille as a ‘strange couple’. Could you tell us a little about these two thinkers, and how you’ve built ‘a (shaky) bridge’ between their (seemingly incommensurable) views on aesthetics?
KY: For me, Bataille and Rancière are two thinkers that have extremely different approaches to aesthetics, but together provide an important spectrum of aesthetic engagement that pays attention to the political and the experiential (for want of a better word). Foucault brings these two approaches together in the “aesthetics of experience”, but unfortunately (as far as I know) does not extrapolate further. Rancière’s contribution is his concept of the “sensible” (that which is given to sense) as a way to think the possibilities inherent in political discourse, and he offers a very practice-based approach to think about interventions in the doing and making of the world. Bataille, on the other hand, is one of the few thinkers who really reckoned with ideas of extinction, loss, and the demands of thinking those dimensions of life. Until recently, Bataille has been a fairly marginalised figure, but I think his understanding of energy is very interesting in relation to climate change. Bataille, Walter Benjamin and Maurice Blanchot all lived in a time of great rupture, when landscapes in France and German were literally being ripped apart and social systems were collapsing under the weight of betrayal, death and ideology. In a sense, they all write into the space of the disaster and have much to say on radical social and environmental change. One of the thinkers though whose work really brings together this bridge between the energetic and the rigorous in the political aesthetics of nature is Elizabeth Grosz. Her recent work, The Nick of Time, combines a sustained critical investigation of ideas of nature and time with poetic intensity. It quietly, but radically, moves to suggests a new theory of life that is very important for biopolitical thinking (I say quietly, because she does not “pronounce” in all the usual ways in which ground breaking scholarship is often delivered. It is radically feminist).
SD: As an online supplement to our Special Issue on Changing Climates, you’ve very kindly provided us with an extensive reading (and viewing) list of all things related to climate change. Could you introduce this bibliography (available on our Changing Climates extra material page), and tell us about the MA in Climate Change that you run at the University of Exeter?
KY: I started the MA in Climate Change at Exeter because it became increasingly clear that the humanities and social sciences had, until recently, been evacuated from the discourse of climate change. In research programmes, European and International frameworks and political decision-making, “Human Dimension” was something that was tacked on at the end of scientific research to answer social problems arising from climate change. Normally this “Human Dimensions” research was understood as a utilitarian form of social science that was about behavioural change. So what we had, and continue to have in many large scale research frameworks, is an episteme of scientific understanding that still continues with a concept of a physical world and earth systems problems on one hand, and a human world with social problems on the other. This kind of framing utterly fails to acknowledge the hybrid nature of climate change. If we’ve learnt anything about anthropogenic climate change it is that humans are very much implicated in the making of new climates, and climate change is as much of a social-cultural-political phenomena as it is a physical problem. It also became clear that the politics and histories of science had much to teach us about how climate change was done and who was included/excluded in that doing and making, and the implications of that for public engagement. It was for these reasons that I wanted to start a program that specifically looked at the cultures, politics and histories of climate change, as well as climate futures and scientific practices. Students undertake climate change modules in the social sciences and humanities as well as in the climate sciences. My hope is that they will be able to undertake the interdisciplinary work that climate change demands, but also understand the implications/politics of these interdisciplinary approaches. A link to the course outline can be found here
Kathryn Yusoff is Lecturer in Human (and Non-human) Geography, and Director of the MA in Climate Change at the University of Exeter. She is currently working on a book project, The Political Aesthetics of Climate Change, which is concerned with how we understand dynamic earth processes and environmental change through aesthetic experience, and how these experiences configure our political relations to human and non-human worlds. (email:]
Simon Dawes is the Editorial Assistant for Theory, Culture & Society and Body & Society, and the Content Editor of the TCS Website
The article ‘Biopolitical Economies and the Political Aesthetics of Climate Change’ by Kathryn Yusoff, and the rest of the TCS Special Issue on Changing Climates (TCS 27.2/3, May 2010, edited by Bronislaw Szerszynski and John Urry) is available here
The issue will be available for free until 31st July 2010.
To find out more about climate change, browse our Changing Climates extra material page.

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