When we look out at the sky at night, we’re also looking back into the past. The light from distant stars takes so long to reach us that we cannot be sure that, in reality, they’re still there.
Although the myriad things that surround us on Earth – rocks and rose bushes and panda bears and grapevines and pigeons and people and rivers and grass and grasshoppers and bluebottles – are each much closer to us than the stars, there is also a sense that, in catching sight of them, we are seeing them as they were, not how they really are. There is a sense in which we are surrounded by ghosts.
A ghost species is one that, while its members might seem plentiful today, has already accumulated an extinction debt. Extinction debt is a term ecologists use to describe the unavoidable future demise of a species due to events in the past. And so we are haunted, by the ghosts of orangutans, black rhino, Rufous-headed hornbills, blunt chaff flowers, candelabra trees and a million other species we do not yet even know. May never know.
Even if the struggle to preserve these species was not massively impeded by corporate and state hegemony over the natural world, even if we could shut down all the fracking and logging trucks and feedlots and coal-fired power plants and tar sands operations tomorrow, even if every single car was removed from the road, these accumulated debts must still be paid. For many species, countless billions of living beings, it is simply too late already.
To fully comprehend this is to be struck by a profound sense of hopelessness, coupled with dread. If we cannot tell ghost from living being then how many other species might be haunting us. Are butterflies still real? African elephants? Bonobo chimps? Us?
The night sky suddenly seems a whole lot darker.
We also harvest ghosts, in time and in space. Ghost acreage – millions of years of accumulated decayed matter transformed into fossil fuel along with millions of acres of still-fertile land in the poor but resource-rich areas of the world – has given us an entirely false sense of the sustenance available to us. And so there is a phantom carrying capacity that haunts us too – a vast, amorphous emptiness that we seem almost compelled to try to fill, not recognizing that it expands in direct relation to our hubris. Like a housing bubble.
And the bubble continues to expand, past fundamental planetary boundaries: stratospheric ozone, land use change, freshwater use, ocean acidification, aerosol loading and chemical pollution, climate change, biological diversity and nitrogen and phosphorus inputs to the biosphere and oceans. We have already overstepped the last three, and all the boundaries are deeply connected.
There is also one other thing that haunts us. Something that gives rise to all these other ghosts. We are haunted by possibility.
In some ways this is the curse our species carries: to be aware of not only the immediacy of the material world around us but also of the intensive flows and processes underlying this world; of the possible connections we might make between things in order to create something new; of the infinite becomings we can set in motion. As human beings, then, we see not just the actual world but also an intensive world of lava flows and climactic variations and social unfoldings and extinction debts, and also a virtual world, consisting in the real possibilities embedded within each thing, each being, each connection.
It can be exhilarating to think of the world in this way – to be imbued with this creative power of affect. Lately, however, we have largely forgotten how to be affected. We have learned to change the world without in turn being changed by it. And when we stop being changed by the world our creative capacities are stifled and stratified. We begin to entrench one set of pathways of change between us and the world and assume that this is the full range of possibilities. As these pathways become more regulated, we define structures and systems and regulatory mechanisms, and to support them we construct abstractions – complex philosophies and tortuous justifications; finally, in our artifice and confusion, we cede our power to all these.
The singular capacities we each have to create, to change, are sublimated into an acquiescence to the power held over us by spectres. By Capitalism. By the State. By progress. By the dominator myth of a homogeneous humanity ruling over the natural world.
As we learn to become subservient to power, as through discipline and control we become its loyal subjects, we also reproduce our relation to it in our engagements with everything and everyone around us. Wherever there is a field of difference between us we turn it on its side to form hierarchies – between genders, between races, between species – and we are forced by the structures we form part of into yet more hierarchies: of class, of ability, of belonging.
But remember, these structures, even these highly elaborate, seemingly infinitely extended loci of power, are themselves little more than particularly enduring hallucinations. There is always an outside, always an excess of creative power and power cannot help but produce its own resistance, its own lines of flight away from the overcoding and axiomatizing of the whole of society and towards the open field of possibility. Even other animals resist. Even gorillas have taken up rocks against encroaching humans. Even elephants have liberated captured buck under cover of night. Every history of power and control is doubled by a history of resistance.
In these histories, some still untold, resistance has taken countless forms and delineated routes of escape across all scales: mass uprisings against the injustices of the current order, personal refusal, utopian poetry, the carving out of small niches of temporary autonomy, the creation of unprecedented artforms, the mapping of subterranean liberatory networks, struggles for recognition by those cast lower down on abstract hierarchies, the pulling up of genetically modified crops, the smashing of automated looms and the torching of bulldozers by the elves in the forest. Occupy and occupations.
Yes, we also resist. We are eclectic in nature: in age, race, class, gender and opinion. We undermine everyday notions of what ought to constitute affinity with our prefigurative, leaderless ethic that emerges so naturally from our everyday interactions. We remain a conundrum for anyone who insists on describing us in the language of left or right, social democratic or neoliberal, socialist or capitalist, reformist or revolutionary. We are a fundamental challenge to the hegemony – the very reality – of these a priori terms and categories, a call to extend the range of social and (anti-)political possibilities beyond arbitrarily imposed limitations.
Noam Chomsky once observed that “the smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate,” and so our resistance does not fall in line with a party line. We do not have ideological unity. We are not just countercultural. We are not born of privilege. Our identity, our lines, our countercultures, issue from resistance itself. Resistance to the life that has been set out before us, resistance to the dull alienation of the spectacle, resistance to this culture of separation, specialisation, compartmentalisation, domestication. And in resisting we enter, however tentatively, into the field of possibilities that for some of us haunts our waking moments more and more.
Our resistance is a defiant act of togetherness. It is not based on the logic of calculation and acquisitiveness. It does not share the ends of the dominator culture but instead locates and expands the countless cracks within it. It is not an act of submission. It is solidarity. It is an invocation of the intensive flows and processes underlying the actual, a destabilization of the current regime, a shift away from equilibrium through which we might catch sight of the virtual.
To resist, then, is to confront headlong the crisis of imagination between what is and what could be. To challenge the assumption that what currently exists should necessarily exist. It is to subvert the paradigm of capitalist social relations, of forced participation in our own oppression. To question the legitimacy of the institutions that stand in for us. To deny their hegemony. To no longer countenance the injustice of representation.
At our very best, when we are aimed in the direction of what could be instead of pandering to what is, our individual and collective resistances turn hierarchies back on their sides in order to acknowledge the productive differences between us; to see what emerges from their intersection. Our resistance allows us to explore the creative tensions between what today is and what tomorrow could be. Our resistance is solidarity. Mutual aid. Voluntary relations. Equality. Freedom. A reclamation of our personal power. Anarchy.
And so we come together, more of us every day, to recreate the real community we have all but lost, to remind each other of our shared being, our togetherness on this fragile planet. We come together to answer the call, to join in a vital conversation about where we – as individuals, as communities, as a species and as one small but highly consequential part of a once-thriving, now severely threatened bio-community – should go from here.
Or, as the Chilean poet Jesús Sepúlveda says, to plant the first seeds in our cultivation of a garden of peculiarities. Whatever grows out of our coming together, whatever new forms of resistance arise, we should all heed this call to cultivation, whether we choose to plant in the full light of day or illuminated only by the ancient light of distant stars.
Contributor: Aragorn Eloff
Aragorn Eloff is a long time-time anarchist with a keen interest in different forms of grassroots struggle, ecological activism and animal liberation.
He is also an independent researcher working at the intersection of radical politics and continental philosophy, with a focus on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari.
He currently works for New Frame, a progressive media non-profit, as a technology manager and occasional writer, and is the co-convener of the biannual South African Deleuze and Guattari Studies Conference. When he is not reading, writing or arguing with strangers on the internet, Aragorn can be found running long distances through natural landscapes.
More Articles by Aragorn
Interviews with Aragorn