Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey, eds.
The Promise of Multispecies Justice
Duke University Press, 2022
Reviewed by Debarati Roy
“ (…) languages patchy, partial, and out of place”: A bundle of syllables tumble through the page. This is the juncture of “Closing” by Craig Santos Perez, coda – brief-breath, playful-pause, following ten theoretically structured chapters in Sophie Chao, Karin Bolender, and Eben Kirksey’s edited anthology, The Promise of Multispecies Justice. Here, near the end of things, Perez contemplates human impact on “The S xth M ss Ext nction” in an excerpt from Alison Hawthorne Deming’s Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (2014). He imagines “an mal ty and hum n ty” in species-unison; yet damningly notes, “th an m ls ar leav ng th wor d and n t ret rn ng.” These lines, in reading, linger beyond conceptual contemplations of cohabitational failings in enmeshed species-lives. I lurch, tentatively, through lingering-language, missing vowels. “Patchy” syllables become babble–bird-song-like, half-remembered. I try parsing sounds/trillings into tidy language, human-determined. Language plays “fugitive” in unruly sounds, signification takes “flight” as form breaks law; human language becomes warbling. Perez’s “Closing” is cacophony, expressive-sound of species and specters that this anthology holds in tender embrace. Ghosts, “wily weeds”, extra-terrestrial life forms, feral-nonhumans, think through “justice beyond human domains.” The anthology allows “frayed edges”, “wild patches”, promises of “unruly poetic acts and artistic interventions”. It reimagines justice in “previously unheard voices of myriad insects, plants, waterways, forests, spores… outlaws, singing their own corridos – old songs of love and loss, daring escapes(…) little justices”. For languages and lives can be “fugitive”, asking “whose lives matter”; “justice for whom or what?” The anthology “embraces these alternative aesthetic sensibilities” as “coalitional thinking”.
At the edges of “poetics and “fugitive aesthetics” of contemporary Black feminist, Indigenous, and decolonial art, activism, and scholarship”, the anthology charts intellectual debts in conversations with Frederick Douglass and Black political thinkers. Tincturing intersectional conversations on race and Disability studies, it mediates environmental justice and new materialist thought with Western continental philosophy and political theories. Thinking with theorists, activists, “gardeners”, Indigenous peoples and global “urban and rural poor”, it puts pressure on anthropocentric hierarchies that “flatten” worlds. Kirksey and Chao trace Donna Haraway’s imprint on the phrase “multispecies justice” back to When Species Meet (2008). The study of multispecies worlds is traced to the 1980s environmental justice movement, whose now-outmoded definitions of ‘environment’ no longer tether these worlds. In imagining “a multi-optic vision” that allows different species, sentience and rights to speak, even without common ‘language’, the writers wrest hierarchies away from the human. This “methodological unflattening” allows imaginings of species beyond “flattened” oppressive categories. Reinvigorating environmental conversations, Kirksey and Chao animate species into throbbing sentient life, thinking through “transitional justice(…), multiworld justice(…), small justices(…), generative justice(…), and spectral justice.”; sometimes pausing for justices “open-ended, elusive, or impossible.”
Yet, as I read the theoretical meanderings, enmeshing Promise deep in histories of environmental, political thought, I found them knit in yarns of love. Ten chapters playfully tease academic definitions of their limits. Here, theoretical conversations are laced with story, anecdote (Chapter One), with poetry, immanently theory (Chapter Six) and with material descriptions of critters, lives that share this orb (Chapters Three, Four, Ten). These formal perambulations become praxis for mélanges, dialects “patchy”, material; sometimes memorial, affective, and sometimes perhaps “out of place” in traditional structures of academic writing. In these “fugitive” moments, we see, hear, smell, try to touch sounds, auras, and the lives of our critter-kin in shared ecologies.
A digest/categorization of chapters would belie the tenor of this ambitious and endearing anthology. I speak, instead, to some of the stories that stayed with me in reading – dialogues-in-justice with the nonhuman, in community, also contention. Each story whispers vulnerable hope, within tenuous, brittle realities. In Chapter One, relationships between matriarch Bina chachi and her pet cow, Gattu in rural Uttarakhand, India are ties of familial care. They transcend oversimplified human-animal interactions as part of capitalist “rural livestock economies”. Author Radhika Govindrajan’s lived engagement with the agents of this interaction is familial, communal, wrapped in networks of storytelling; memories we tell each other, sometimes woven through borrowed structures of anthropology and theory. Abandoned, killed in a forest, the embodied specter of Gattu haunts Bina chachi, nightly, in breath and flesh. He seeks “nyaya”–“social justice” demanding “the work of repair”, “as opposed to merely “procedural” forms of justice”. Ultimately, chachi refuses modernity’s naming of hauntings as Freudian subconscious guilt; she is convinced in “superstition”–Gattu has returned, an errant ghost, seeking justice. For chachi, Gattu is agential in love, one who can “feel sorrow” and whose affective-agential life she never questions, even when her justice-project remains incomplete.
Alyssa Paredes’s interactions with civilian-activist protests “chemical drift from crop dusters” in Mindanao, Philippines, thinks through exclusionary justices where “the more-than-human” might “limit political action”. Paredes draws out complex/shared transcorporealities (a term she borrows from Stacy Alaimo) of toxicity in human, plant and animal bodies; even when we transcribe the nonhuman as “sentinels,” “shields,” preserving anthropocentric hierarchies of a superior “us” against “Other.” Paredes charts “racist violence” in “interspecies competitions for justice.” “Black edibility (…) eroticization and exoticization of Black bodies as food,” compounds racial violence as capitalist markets treat Black bodies as subhuman, as “pests.” This racism begets suspicion, fear, and drives towards rigidity in species-categories in anthropocentric hierarchies. Yet, against the anthropocentrism inherent in the civilian-activist slogan, “We Are Not Pests,” Paredes suggests, (following Frederick Douglass’s “kinship forged in the midst of unthinkable violence (…) mutual subjugation”) crying out for mutuality –“We Too, Are Pests!”
Elizabeth Lara contemplates this mutuality as she thinks of “abolition geographies” and their “liberatory gestures” within “carceral geography,” following Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definitions of prison-ecologies. In describing prison gardens as spaces of “co-becoming,” Lara’s ‘justice’ imagines tenderness for vulnerable incarcerated species, humans, and plants. In imagining ecological relations between incarcerated peoples, their kitchen gardens, critter companions and agricultural labor, carceral spaces are reimagined. The chapter envelopes a letter from Ben, “incarcerated elder” who has lost these garden-relations during COVID-19, as part of the Insight Garden Program, San Quentin State Prison. In a vulnerable description of loss within a prison-space that determines racist “state-sanctioned” deaths during COVID, Ben writes, “although we’re unable to visit the garden, (…) I get as close to the fence as possible to hold conversation with the garden (….) I like to think that her dirt and insects’ home remains intact.” Tender longing colors vulnerabilities in spaces unreachable for both humans and plants in carceral-ecologies. “Fugitive gardening” allows relations of love, care. This mutuality “reject[s] the instrumentalization of the comparison between racialized human beings and animals,” after “Bénédicte Boisseron’s refusal to read Black bodies and animals “exclusively” equated in “their comparable state of subjection.””
In Chapter Ten, Zsuzsanna Ihar claims acts of tidying ecosystems (“nature-making project (…) landscaping”) arid and adrift, as acts of “governability and assumed harmony.” Against erasures of “necessary disputes” into “monolithic” cultures of standardization, Ihar chooses “feral” gatekeepers of boundaries, the dogs and weeds of Baku, Azerbaijan. Here, justice waits in agential interactions, often determined by dogs who threaten, yet to keep humans away from territories of toxicity, uninhabitability. They are concurrent predator-protectors, often community “babysitters.” Camelthorn shrubs grow in parts of Baku, stubborn to displacement, protecting displaced, vulnerable communities from “planned demolition.” Here, “hospicing” justice emerges; “palliative attitude” in make-shift communities of the displaced, surviving broken structures, instead of those “in repair and rehabilitation.”
Ultimately, Promise is interested in conversations/languages, that captivate scholars of ecocritical studies, social rights, but kindle hope for anyone yearning for stories in/of inter-species languages. Craig Santos Perez approaches a Micronesian kingfisher (Chapter Six):
“i see a living [sihek]/for the first time/at the san diego zoo/(…)
“hafa adai”/i whisper/
into the cage/
“guahu si craig/familian gollo/
ginen mongmong/but I live here now/