One of the most important developments in International Relations theorizing is the increasingly shared understanding around the concept of the Anthropocene, understood as a new geological epoch, where humanity becomes a crucial planetary actor and the boundaries between society and nature become destabilised. The key contemporary critical framings of the discipline – post humanist, new materialist and decolonial approaches – share much in their critique of the foundations of the modernist episteme and a modern ontology, constituted amid histories of resource extraction, coloniality and, increasingly, climate change. In these approaches, the Human is no longer separate or apart from Nature or was never apart except in the modernist imaginary. The understanding of the Human as an agential subject is transformed as critical approaches seek to read agency and subjectivity – intentionality, feeling, responsivity and information production and exchange – across the human into the sphere of the nonhuman. In this way, nature or the nonhuman sphere is ‘humanised’, i.e., given human characteristics, anthropomorphised or animated; matter is given ‘vitality’.
Critical Indigenous and decolonial approaches have offered critiques of new materialist and post humanist approaches, by highlighting their unacknowledged debts to non-Western forms of thought. Decolonial approaches also question the temporality implicit in contemporary concerns over environmental catastrophe, as much recent work neglects the fact that other peoples’ worlds were and are still being destroyed in order to produce the Western modernity now considered to be under threat of its own extinction. However, more recent scholarship has openly acknowledged these debts, and sought to draw together decolonial and Indigenous work and new materialist approaches into a united conversation on “planetary social thought”, grounded in relational ontologies, entangled nature and culture and the recognition of nonhuman agency. Thus, the approach of the critical consensus to the Human/Nature divide seeks to extend ‘human’ attributes into nonhuman forms of life in order to transcend modernist framings, in a new Anthropocene imaginary.
In our forthcoming paper, Farai Chipato and I argue that redistributing capacities across the Human/Nature divide, and establishing a new ‘relational’ understanding of the Human, does little to undermine the power/knowledge hierarchies that the shape IR as a disciplinary practice. The argument draws on a long tradition of work in Black studies and Black feminism, which engages in critiques of race and modernity from a different ontological and epistemological perspective. Drawing on Black Studies and Black feminist approaches allows us to unsettle and disrupt the ontological foundations, grounded in the divide between being and non-being, to offer a deeper and more comprehensive critique of contemporary social thought. In doing so, we highlight an approach, we call the Black Horizon, drawing on the work of Nahum Chandler, which focuses on problematising the concept of the Human/Nature divide from the starting point of antiblackness. We suggest that more critical attention should be paid to the attributes of subjectivity which are being extended beyond the biological human to nonhuman life, diffusing allegedly human capabilities down to the smallest bacteriological and molecular levels. We suggest that an alternative, Black Horizon, approach to relationality and entanglement could focus upon understanding how these ‘capabilities’ are, in fact, historically denied to those considered to be non- or less-than-human.
We argue that Human capacities and capabilities can only exist on the basis of their denial to the other; without this denial or disavowal ‘human’ capacities and capabilities disappear. Without slavery there can be no ‘freedom’, without dehumanisation there is no ‘human’, just as without the inequality of the worker and the owner of capital there could be no ‘equality’ of the market. Human capacities and capabilities thus are dependent upon a series of hierarchical cuts and distinctions in which they are denied to the other. Historically these hierarchical cuts and distinctions have been made in relation to antiblackness, therefore analysing the stakes involved in placing antiblackness at the heart of an alternative approach to the problem of the Human/Nature divide is the goal of our paper. Crucially, this requires a critique of relational ontologies from a place of paraontology, which rejects the call to set out new forms of being but focuses on deconstructing or desedimenting the modernist ontology that has created the current predicament. We argue that the Black Horizon and its paraontological approach provides an important alternative to the relational calls to move beyond the nature/culture binary in International Relations.
This blog piece draws upon material from the article by Farai Chipato and David Chandler, ‘Critique and the Black Horizon: Questioning the Move “Beyond” the Human/Nature divide in International Relations’, forthcoming in the Cambridge Review of International Relations. More information about the Black Horizon as a distinct approach can be found here
Author: David Chandler is Professor of International Relations. He was the founding editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding and currently edits the journal Resilience: International Policies, Practices and Discourses. He also edits two Routledge book series, Studies in Resilience and Advances in Democratic Theory. His research interests focus on analysis of policy interventions in the international arena, including humanitarianism, statebuilding and the promotion of resilience.
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