Framing and Task

Below is an edited excerpt from a position paper by Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw that has been sent out to the speakers.

“Democracy, in the sense of the power of the people, the power of those who have no special entitlement to exercise power, is the very basis of what makes politics thinkable.” Jacques Rancière (2011, p. 79)

The task

While we have certainly improved our ability to describe and critically analyze just how unequal and unsustainable the world has become, we have less to offer in terms of what to do, in terms of thinking with radical political activists about new political imaginaries. Needless to say, it is exactly these imaginaries that are urgently needed across different conditions in the world, from the Global North to the Global South, from the East to the West.

Our event is part of a book project that aims to intervene into the field of urban political ecology in particular, and critical theory in general. While urban political ecology has grown rapidly since the seminal article on “cyborg urbanisation” in 1996 by Erik Swyngedouw and asserted itself as a key mode of critical enquiry in a world with deepening socio-ecological crises, the field is also in crisis. Although it has helped to understand the environment and urbanisation in political terms and challenged mainstream approaches that tend to be overly managerial and technocratic, such as ‘green urbanism’ and ‘resilient cities’, more work is needed to think about real socio-ecological alternatives and emancipatory politics, a crisis it shares with other urban (and social) theory.

This meeting and book project revolves around this task: What new possibilities for emancipatory transformations are unleashed by a combined and uneven planetary urbanization? What are ‘politically performative theory’?

Below we have summarised a position paper we have sent out to the speakers. It revolves around three tectonic shifts that our speakers need to address: 1. Planetary and uneven urbanisation, that emphasises how wider economic, capitalist and socio-ecological dynamics shape and are shaped by local conditions; 2. Multipolar world order, with the rise of new economic power but also includes postcolonial critique of knowledge production about ‘the city’ and ‘the urban condition’; and 3. Pervasive ecological change, which (finally) destroys any fantasy of separating ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ in action and analysis. We link these shifts to our search for politically performative theory, and we make an an argument about ‘the obscene’ as a playful but maybe necessary aesthetic position to start thinking about equality and freedom anew. Below follows an edited excerpt of our position paper.

Three tectonic shifts

To ground participants’ political imaginaries and speculations in a material, historical and diverse world, we place the seminar and the planned volume in relation to three ’tectonic shifts’. These shifts are ongoing, interrelated, and of great magnitude and uncertainty of where they take us, which only underlines the importance of grounded political imaginations that are adequate to the present condition. The shifts are truly transformative as they change not only those material flows that constitute a key dimension of urbanisation and any mode of production, be that capitalist, eco-socialist, or small-scale alternative economies, but also its politics, including the politics of knowledge production and the categories by which we think critically about urbanisation and theories of emancipatory change.

1. Planetary and uneven urbanisation

Henri Lefebvre’s argument has become our reality. To understand capitalism we should not only focus on ‘the city’ (la ville), but have to consider ‘urban society’, and ultimately planetary urbanisation, as a key driving force. What does this new scale of urbanisation provoke in terms of theory, empirical and comparative work — and in practice, in activism and resistance? Importantly, our interest in ’the planetary’ is counterbalanced with emphasizing ’the uneven’ in urbanisation and capitalism. Any radical democratic response need to link everyday struggles and movements to wider processes across cultural and regional differences. What are the political promises that planetary and uneven urbanization bring?

2. Multipolar world order

The world is going through extraordinary geopolitical changes with China, India, Indonesia, Russia and Brazil amongst others (re-)asserting themselves. What does this mean in relation to how urbanisation unfolds, for critique and struggle, and for theory-making? What were and are the legacies of critical theory-making from different parts of the world, from Europe, North and Latin America, Africa and Asia, and what can they offer in terms of fresh insights and thoughts on how to grasp such shifts and its effects on urbanisation, cities and struggles. How are real struggles interconnected across diverse settings and world regions; not just as socio-ecological movements, but as politically performative movements that experiment with the production of political subjectivities and alternatives.

3. Pervasive ecological change

The dynamic biophysical condition under which capitalism and our societies have developed is in a state of profound change. We often think about global warming researched by big science institutions like the IPCC. Another example is the incredible speed by which new chemical compounds are invented by corporate firms and circulated in our medicines, food and bodies. The IT sector’s rise have produced the constant humming of millions of computers and the production of electronic waste shuffled around the world. How do these gargantuan changes during the last 50 years relate to political imaginaries of change? What takes us beyond doom and gloom towards emancipatory imaginaries and politically performative alternatives?

The anthro-obscene: speaking to our political crisis

In bringing these tectonic shifts in conversation with a search for radical political possibilities, we suggest that the seminar works through the figure of the anthro-obscene in an explicit effort to both attest to and undermine the performativity of the utterly depoliticized concept of ‘the Anthropocene’. The obscene and vulgar signifies that which is cast aside and placed outside reason. For the reasonable, the obscene is ugly and degenerated and can be pushed off as noise. Therefore, to cry for and search intellectually for a politics of equality and freedom from oppression today is by many seen as without hope and in vane. We counter the gloomy and pessimistic to inaugurate a subversive aesthetics towards imaginaries of equality.

Indeed, the birth pains of the politically sanitized term ‘the Anthropocene’ raise urgently the specter of the obligation to consider what sort of environment we wish to live in, how to produce it, and with what consequences. It calls for a political project that fully endorses human/non-human entanglements and takes responsibility for their nurturing. We know that the environmental catastrophe is already here, that geo-climatic changes and other environmental transformations are already such that they are inimical to the continuation of life in some places and for some people, as well as for animals and other species, and this will undoubtedly get worse as climate change intensifies. Nature as the externally conditioning frame for human life — an externalization that permitted the social sciences and humanities to condescendingly leave the matter of Nature to their natural science colleagues — has come to an end. This forces a profound reconsideration and re-scripting of the matter of Nature in political terms.

The central question, therefore, is not any longer about bringing environmental issues into the domain of politics as has been the case until now but rather about how to bring the political into the environment.

Political philosopher Alain Badiou has recently suggested that the growing consensual concern with nature and the environment should be thought as a contemporary form of opium for the people. This seems, at first sight, not only a scandalous statement, one that conflates ecology with religion in a perverse twisting of Marx’s original statement, it also flies in the face of evidence that politics matters environmentally. Ulrich Beck (2010: 263) concurs with this:

“In the name of indisputable facts portraying a bleak future for humanity, green politics has succeeded in de-politicizing political passions to the point of leaving citizens nothing but gloomy asceticism, a terror of violating nature and an indifference towards the modernization of modernity.”

In our opening remark and position paper to the seminar, we wish to take Badiou’s statement seriously and consider how exactly — in the present configuration — the elevation of environmental concerns to the status of global humanitarian cause operates as “a gigantic operation in the depoliticization of subjects”. Furthermore, by drawing on radical democratic thought and Ranciére’s distinction between politics and the political — the moment when the established distribution of functions, names, obligations and expertise is disturbed and made visible — we wich to explore tactics and strategies of the political as a radical emancipatory socio-ecological process. Challenging as it may be, we want to force thought to think how emancipatory politics can be formulated that is both ‘local’ and interconnected across diverse settings and world regions, and that moves towards politically performative movements that experiment with the production of real alternatives.

To conclude, we hope that the figure of the anthro-obsence can rupture an established order of how global-to-local problems, ecological crises and urbanization should be talked about, framed and dealt with. We hope this can be exploited by our participants and provoke reflection beyond reality-as-we-know-it and habits of thought and action. We hope this will take our seminar and public event into “unbridled imagination” and “theoretical searching” to build a vocabulary to sharpen our thinking of what is of importance, how to research, and how to struggle.

/Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw

This is an edited excerpt from a position paper by Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw that has been sent out to the speakers. Suggested citation could be: Henrik Ernstson and Erik Swyngedouw (2015) ”Framing the Meeting: Rupturing the Anthro-obscene! The Political Promises of Planetary & Uneven Urban Ecologies”, Conference at Teater Reflex 16-19 September organized by KTH Environmental Humanities Laboratory, Stockholm. Position Paper Version 2.
Kajsa Nordin at Teater Reflex (+46 70-461 09 40,
or Henrik Ernstson at KTH (+46 70-044 82 04,