Anthropocene Research Collective for Human, Animal and Interspecies Collaborations

Isabelle Stengers: Artfully Breaking the Spell of Blind Progress

An essay by Monique Peperkamp

In this essay, written after an Anthropocene reading group session on the book in June 2021, and as part of Monique’s PhD research on art, theory and environmentalism, Monique Peperkamp will discuss Isabelle Stengers’ In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism. In this book, Stengers proves to be an interesting and inspiring thinker for environmental and social movements, as well as for artists who align themselves with them. A sharp critic of the interlinking of capital, state and science, and of the anthropocentric myth of endless growth and universal progress, she argues for creating equality by actively producing heterogeneity. First of all, she stresses the importance of the art of paying attention to strengthen alternatives to the present and coming barbarism in these times of ecological catastrophes

Isabelle Stengers:

Artfully breaking the spell of blind progress

‘Learning to compose will need many names, not a global one, the voices of many peoples, knowledges, and earthly practices. It belongs to a process of multifold creation, the terrible difficulty of which would be foolish and dangerous to underestimate but which it would be suicidal to think of as impossible‘.[i]      

Movements for environmental justice have no lack of targets for action, but it appears to be difficult to envision appealing future perspectives. While there is every reason for fatalism, the world will however not end all at once. How we live together in these moments and years will therefore still matter, for times to come. Consciously or not, we will still compose futures in our everyday personal practices and in collective actions. So, what kind of thinking and attitudes help us to struggle, create and live together in a warming world of increasing inequalities? Technologically highly developed science cannot give us a design for life in which we have to learn, as Belgian philosopher Isabelle Stengers proposes, to compose with many participants and in many ways.

Science and environmentalism from space

In her book In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism (2015, first published in 2009), Stengers writes that ’the time of struggle cannot postpone the time of creation.’[ii] Implicating a contrast may suggest that creation is easy, but to Stengers, creation is a different kind of struggle. It challenges what we have learned to disregard. The main cause of the disregard of environmental concerns resulting in ecological catastrophes has been understood by many critics to be the primacy of the profit driven economy. While it has likewise been regarded to be the main reason for postponing appropriate action, short-term profitability, moreover, also determines to a large extend what are considered to be realistic responses and possibilities. Time and again, however, science and increasingly alarming IPCC reports present the need to rapidly and radically reduce fossil energy and other forms of environmental ruination. Thus, science supports the pressure on the state to act responsibly. The problem, as Stengers sees it, is that both Science and the State are subjugated to capitalism and accommodate Entrepreneurs by warding off public interference. The use of capital letters for these words expresses her criticism of their claim to an elevated status that distances them from common concerns. While the role of science as such is not to make politics or profit, the pivotal problem with the impact of Science on our own lives, is that it has cultivated the downgrading other knowledges and discouraged the art of paying attention. So, for those familiar with her name only in relation to her close friends and colleagues, physical chemist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher Bruno Latour, Stengers turns out to be a surprisingly sharp critic of the ‘State’ and ‘Science’.

But since we know that fossil fuel companies have funded denial of climate change science, is an attack on science a good idea? – Especially now that science is urging politics to act against short-term electoral and corporate interests, and even scientists themselves have expressed concerns that their professional language may have cultivated an emotional dissociative disorder?[iii] First of all, it is important to stress that science and scientific practices are important to Stengers, who calls herself ‘a daughter of the Enlightenment’.[iv] The problem she addresses is that the propagation of the ‘common sense’ – that there is no alternative to a profit driven, accelerating and upscaling technologization, to which the dominant scientific rationality is instrumental – mutes critical and other voices. Stengers’ criticism is relevant, because it explains what futures are being created for us and why the system itself is unable to hesitate and must therefore be changed.

Stengers’ criticism is especially relevant with respect to the new narrative of the Anthropocene. When atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and earth scientist Eugene Stoermer re-introduced the term in 2000, they stressed the ‘shocking’ insight that humans have become the major factor disturbing the relatively stable environment of the Holocene. To Crutzen, this also implied that scientists and engineers should ‘guide society’ to accept large-scale engineering.[v] His proposal to disperse sulfur in the atmosphere was only one possibility among the many other corporate-funded projects that are currently being developed outside of the sphere of public, democratic consultation. Crutzen’s later withdrawal of this specific proposal of sulfur dispersal changes nothing of the nature of these projects, which are, according to critics, not concerned with collectively taking care of life on earth, but instead, secure and upscale existing structures of power and control.

As a cultural project, environmental historians Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz have therefore argued, the Anthropocene propagates dependency on an elite group of scientists, which enhances inequalities and overrules public and democratic consultation.[vi] The Anthropocene narrative makes the moment of its naming seem like a sudden awakening, to which the myth of the Bleu Marble evoking collective sentiment thanks to computer technology and space travel was a prequel. The most advanced science is presented as a necessary precondition for our superior knowledge of environmental degradation. This detached ‘view from nowhere’,[vii] however, is also part of the problem itself. The irony of what I call ‘environmentalism from space’ is blatantly evident since a ring of space junk now surrounds the Earth, and billionaires are competing in the race for commercial colonization of space. The Anthropocene narrative has no ground to criticize these wasteful expansions since it naturalizes technologization which it has presented as key to collective environmental awareness. It thereby demonstrated, however, its own ignorance of the multitude of historical examples of warnings, concerns and insurgences, both outside of, in the peripheries and at the heart of industrial modernity from its very beginning. The real shock of the Anthropocene is that modernity ignored this knowledge for more than two centuries. Even now, it is prone to ignore the risks of upscaling scientific ‘experiments’ and commercial innovations in order to expand and progress.[viii]

As economic interests prevail in the space of science and politics, Stengers calls it ’the worst of confusions between science and politics: that one ask them how to respond, that one trust in them to define what it is appropriate to do’.[ix] What we need, instead, is to reclaim the art of interfering and asking questions about common concerns from deliberately non-expert and non-scientific positions, because taking common concerns as a starting point engages people and creates common grounds. In order to gather the courage to ask the relevant questions, we need to break the spell of progress.

Progress is the ideological veil of capitalist industrial modernity, which obscured the ruination of the Earth’s ecosystems, and which, as Stengers would say, ‘evoked the intrusion of Gaia’. What we usually call ‘nature’ now questions us and can no longer be backgrounded. It has to be recognized as ‘a being (…) with its own regime of activity and sensitivity’.[x] By calling the Earth by her mythological name, Gaia thus challenges scientific compartmentalization and framing. Understanding her as a holistic living being sensitive to disturbances,[xi] but indifferent to human fate as such, counters the backgrounding of nature as merely the precondition for human culture. This simultaneously reverses the modern downgrading and ignorance of the many warnings and forms of resistance against environmental degradation by labelling them anti-modern, superstitious, merely subjective, romantic or simply ‘backwards’. In this sense, naming Gaia evokes respect by decentralizing and mitigating the human.

Progress is normative time. As a rule, questioning technological innovations has been ridiculed and considered ‘backwards’, just as the beliefs and practices of those considered to be ‘behind’ in time have been. To Stengers, radically giving up the position of superiority implies learning from non-hegemonic perspectives and non-scientific cosmologies. This challenges the modern normativity of time as progress.

Opening up of our categorizations entails learning to deal with the power of artifices such as symbols and rituals. They help to create bonds and deal with anxieties. But while they may be an important part of the ‘artful fabrication of trust’,[xii] they have also functioned as tokens and tools of domination. Experimental knowledges and practices are a pharmakon: both potentially poison and cure. Instead of evading this risk, Stengers argues we should carefully practice the art of the artifice in ’the mode of attention that every pharmakon demands’, precisely because of its power. ‘The pharmacological art is required because the time of struggle cannot postpone the time of creation.’[xiii] This experimental creation thus involves much more than the mere acceptance of different opinions; it evokes the active production of heterogeneity, which makes differences ‘present and important’. Stengers speaks of ‘divergencies’ which need to be honored. Instead of a personal property, the difference called ‘divergency’ is an unfolding of a dimension of ‘what the other makes matter, what makes him or her think and feel’.[xiv] If opening up to non-scientific knowledges entails the risk of the pharmakon, therefore, it should be accepted and faced, because it belongs to the art of ‘learning to experiment’ for ‘lives that are worth living’.[xv]

The art of lives worth living

Stengers’ argument resonates with an increasing number of interesting art practices that creatively dissolve and move beyond existing frameworks that divide politics, science, nature and art. An interesting example is Latour’s proposal for a Parliament of Things,[xvi] which evoked what I would call a prolific category mistake. Unlike his intentions to emancipate science, the name has been taken literally to become a prolific source of inspiration for a group of artists, poets and others, resulting in an Embassy of the North Sea, which aims to practice the art of listening to the sea first, in order to then speak with and eventually ‘negotiate on behalf of the North Sea and all the life that it encapsulates’.[xvii] Although the flavor of settings such as Parliaments and Embassies may differ from Stengers’ more rebellious stance, acknowledging that non-modern and Indigenous knowledges have often been an inspiration for the revival of attention for nature in such artistic practices creates a fundamental shift in perception. Moreover, potentially, it opens up to ‘honoring divergencies’ and to the divergent connections she promotes. I would argue that art itself, especially in the context of (post)modernity and in times of the intrusion of Gaia as outlined by Stengers, is a pharmakon, which also – possibly, partially, unstably – enables us to cure the mental and environmental destruction of a barbaric machine.

Within the (post-)modern context, art evoking attention and curiosity characterized by conscious attempts at non-anthropocentric perception and understanding is neither scientific nor anti-scientific. Provided that knowledge is not understood in the narrowest sense, calling such art creative or artistic ‘embodied knowledge practices’ seems useful to connect and inspire scientific and non-scientific ‘Objectors to Growth/Economic Objectors’.[xviii] Likewise, artist-initiated places such as art, nature, biology and food venue Mediamatic and social design lab for urban agriculture Urbaniahoeve in Amsterdam have, as Stengers advocates more generally, learned ‘concretely to reinvent modes of production and of cooperation that escape from the evidences of economic growth and competition’.[xix] No less than the products – an art object, food, an edible work of art – situated and entangled social processes of creation, consumption, paying attention to environmental responses matter and inform creation in such art.

Accordingly, the ongoing struggle to stop ecological destruction elicits the creation of both heterogeneous and egalitarian modes of organizing, which has been a matter of everyday practice within grassroots movements. While Latour, who is, outside the exact sciences, probably the most preeminent voice in the academic discourse of the Anthropocene, has proposed that we need to come down to Earth, this is where Stengers has already begun to think and pay attention. In Catastrophic Times was itself, as she explains, inspired by experiences of public disobedience. Her proposal, therefore, is not a theoretical advice. The task for theory, as she sees it, is instead to articulate, connect and strengthen the exemplary practices that break the spell of blind progress.

Reclaiming the art of paying attention

A crucial inspiration for Stengers was the so-called ‘GMO event’ in France in 1997, when citizen juries said ‘NO’ to genetically modified organisms. While the event laid bare the interests involved in science and politics (Stengers refers explicitly to multinational ‘superweeds’ and herbicides producer Monsanto), it also inspired possibilities of resistance and alternatives to the ‘realism’ of politics ruled by the market. In this case, citizen juries were organized whose interferences shocked the representatives of the State, for they moved beyond the limited space assigned to citizens to merely marginally adjust plans that had already been made. Instead, people became actively engaged in changing the way in which the problem itself had been formulated and framed, thereby prompting both State representatives and scientific experts to struggle openly with certainties they had previously assumed to be secured by vested interests.[xx]

The event and the stories about it are also relevant to inquire how destructive power can be resisted and for the purpose of connecting heterogeneous forms of resistance. Obviously, the event did not stop the spread of GMOs.[xxi] – It led to restrictions, but the political compromise of the ‘precautionary principle’ is too weak a tool to prevent the devastating consequences once unforeseeable risks are accepted in an open milieu. What nevertheless made the event itself a success, Stengers states, is that it shifted the historical perception of future possibilities. The consultation of citizens crucially disrupted the system of limits imposed on ’the collective capacity to meddle with questions that concern the common future’.[xxii]

The GMO event thereby demonstrated the power of citizens practicing ’the art of paying attention’ and of asking the right questions. We may add that, although in a different setting from the citizen’s juries, the historic Milieudefensie legal case against fossil fuel multinational Shell, which was completely financed by citizens, similarly shifted the framework the company assumed would safeguard it from collective claims. The verdict of May 26 2021 stipulates that Shell must act immediately to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions in order to reach a 45% reduction in 2030 compared to 2019, to help reduce global warming. The case has already inspired new cases, for example against Total in France. Thus, the art of paying attention has successfully led to the conclusion that firms should do the same and take responsibility. Like in the case of the GMO event, citizens challenged the primacy of economic interests and questioned the propagated corporate benevolence for a generalized humankind. With critical mistrust, they practiced the conscious building of trust in a collective care for common concerns. Such examples of experimental and deliberate fostering of collectivity should be connected, memorialized and celebrated, in order to inspire others.

Making divisions for common care

What especially made the GMO event a historic source of inspiration to Stengers was that it importantly created a new dynamic and connection between previously divided groups. Stengers’ insistence on the need for heterogeneous and egalitarian connections nevertheless also entails clear divisions and exclusions. One such exclusion is the refusal to identify with those in power, which Stengers illustrates by recalling the revolt of 1968. The hope that it raised was betrayed by those who represented the protesters but came to side with the State. Accordingly, they have argued that there is no alternative to what they call ‘realism’ and warn that every alternative to the rule of the market will be even worse.[xxiii] To remind our representatives that they should, instead, act responsibly, Stengers proposes that we refer to them as ‘nos responsables’ which is translated as ‘our guardians’. Something is lost and gained in translation, because ’to guard’ means both ’to protect’ and ’to fence in’, to police. And indeed, according to Stengers, the State accommodates Entrepreneurship by warding off public interventions that could disturb their plans. Thus, especially in the context of the Anthropocene discourse that has unfolded in and has been shaped by the mental mode of these neo-liberal decades, Stengers pushes back against the lack of critical attention to its upscaling of ‘progress’ and joined scientific and corporate freedom to experiment with innovation. States should not be trusted for they ‘have given the globalized free market control of the future of the planet’[xxiv] and turned politics into a matter of management.

Learning to compose, in these catastrophic times, according to Stengers, thus also requires a critical mistrust to empower the conscious care for common concerns. Part of this is the politics of naming divisions to take and attribute responsibilities, as she demonstrates and observes: ‘What we are now living is the waking nightmare of a predatory capitalism to which States have handed, in all opacity, the control of the future…. In short, it is more and more blatantly obvious that the oligarchy of the super-rich has acquired the power to put the world in the service of its interests. Many ecological activists today have become as radically anti-capitalist as militants of the Marxist tradition’.[xxv] While adopting Marxist criticism of capitalism, Stengers simultaneously opposes to a homogenizing political strategy of resistance as well as to top-down state power distributed by its institutions. Whereas Latour aimed to emancipate the role of science in politics and asks us to trust institutions, Stengers plainly states the State should not be trusted, for like Science, the State is subjugated to capitalism. Capitalism, to Stengers, is ‘barbaric’, as Rosa Luxemburg wrote in 1915.[xxvi] It is a virtually transcendent machine, which is ‘fundamentally irresponsible’ and ‘incapable of hesitating: it can’t do anything other than define every situation as a source of profit’.[xxvii]

While writing this essay in September 2021, new (and by nature conservative) IPCC reports have again presented more and more alarming arguments to urgently resist the power of corporations and press the state to act responsibly. Stengers’ mistrust of Science may therefore seem untimely. In my view, however, her essay In Catastrophic Times is of great value, because it foregrounds that a cultural transformation towards more sustainable politics and ways of living should also be radically socially just. Moreover, she foregrounds how to creatively approach this major challenge with care.

Reading Stengers also made me think how current, notably post-humanist and new materialist strands of philosophy have left the Anthropocene narrative unchallenged, by leaving the historical dimension unaddressed. The myth of environmental awareness as privilege and achievement of industrial modernity, its economics, science and technologization functions to maintain the self-confidence of the project of progress, which is damaged by the more and more evidently devastating results of its logic. Questioning the idea of progress and endless growth on a limited planet alone has evoked the deep modern fear of entropy, which it nevertheless provokes. It demonstrates, as Stengers sees it, the system’s incapacity to hesitate and learn.

In these times of ecological collapse and the revival of (white, male) supremacist ideas, and the Anthropocene ‘perspective from nowhere’ discouraging the art of paying attention, Stengers’ criticism is spot on and timely. Reclaiming the art of questioning and paying attention refutes the contradiction between politics and the personal, between struggle and creation. The urgent need to stop the destruction of the nature we inhabit and the nature we are and care for, requires the ‘honoring of divergencies’ in collective and artful fostering of confidence and trust. It calls for the sharp distinctions Stengers makes, and for the connections she proposes. Reclaiming one’s own actions as choices means things can be changed in order to live up to one’s values as well. It motivates and is motivated by collective action.

[i] Isabelle Stengers, In Catastrophic Times: Resisting the Coming Barbarism, trans. Andrew Goffey, Open Humanities Press in collaboration with meson press, 2015, p. 50, Italics are Stengers’.’
[ii] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 104.
[iii] Interview with Susanne Moser, scientific expert on psychological and social reactions to climate change, in: Marcel aan de Brugh, Wouter van Noort and Paul Luttikhuis, “Ja, er is angst: we zien welke ramp er gaande is,” NRC Handelsblad (August 13 2021).
[iv] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 108. See also p. 73: ‘we need researchers able to participate in the creation of the responses on which the possibility of a future that is not barbaric depends’.
[v] Paul J. Crutzen, “Geology of Mankind,” Nature 415, no. 23 (January 2002), p. 23, ‘A daunting task lies ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management during the era of the Anthropocene. This will require appropriate human behavior at all scales, and may well involve internationally accepted, large-scale geo-engineering projects, for instance to “optimize” climate.’
[vi] Christophe Bonneuil and Jean-Baptiste Fressoz, The Shock of the Anthropocene: The Earth, History and Us, trans. David Fernbach (London and New York: Verso, 2013).
[vii] This characterization of the Anthropocene as a ‘view from nowhere’ is taken from Bonneuil and Fressoz, Shock of the Anthropocene.
[viii] The term ‘experiment’ is specifically treacherous in the context of geoengineering and geo-design, because it obscures that the impact of ‘experiments’ in an open milieu is unpredictable and irreversible. Therefore, as a rule, they are part of active ecological degradation. ‘One could perhaps associate the moment when one can really talk about capitalism with the moment when an Entrepreneur can count on the State that recognizes the legitimacy of his demand, that of a “riskless” definition of the risk of innovation”.’ – Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 66.
[ix] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 49.
[x] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 44-45. Stengers has adopted the name ‘Gaia’ from James Lovelock Lynn Marguillis. She stresses, however, that to her Lovelock’s focus on ‘overpopulation’ as the core of the problem relates to ‘murderous and obscene abstraction’. – p. 47.
[xi] Gaia is not a caring mother; she is ‘a ticklish assemblage of forces that are indifferent to our reasons and our projects.’ Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 47.
[xii] As an example of this, Stengers mentions American activists, who practice what could be called ‘democratic artifices’ to learn pragmatic and experiential techniques such as roleplay, to face, for example, the risks of police provocations. Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 139, 145-147.
[xiii] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 104.
[xiv] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 143, 140-144.
[xv] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 156.
[xvi] Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).
[xvii] The Embassy of the North Sea,
[xviii] Stengers prefers these names instead of the rationality of the word ‘degrowth’. Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 24.
[xix] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 24.
[xx] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 39.
[xxi] This is illustrated by a film about the global cotton industry by ‘visual storytellers’ Uwe Martin and Frauke Huber from the international art and media project World of Matter, featuring the Indian scientist, ecofeminist and activist Vandana Shiva, who is aligned with Extinction Rebellion and who spent her life fighting back against the ‘slow violence’ of agroindustry. See: Uwe H. Martin and Frauke Huber “White Gold – Killing Seeds”, World of Matter:; The phrase ‘slow violence’ is taken from the title of the book by Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor, Harvard University Press, 2013.
[xxii] Stengers, Catastrophic Times p. 54.
[xxiii] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 18, 33, 56, 120, 127-128.
[xxiv] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 29, 66.
[xxv] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, p. 11.
[xxvi] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 22, 51.
[xxvii] Stengers, Catastrophic Times, pp. 8-9.

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