An interview with Stefanie Fishel
Our guest this week is Stefanie Fishel, a lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Australia. Stefanie's research interests include the gendered and racialized experiences of environmental harm; new materialism and posthumanism; critical animal studies; science and technology studies; and global environmental theory and law focused on climate change, biodiversity, and the Anthropocene. Since earning her doctorate from The Johns Hopkins University in 2011, Stefanie has been an assistant professor at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the University of Alabama. She is a Rector’s Fellow at UNSW, Canberra (2018-2019) and has been a visiting fellow at Griffith University. Dr. Fishel’s book, The Microbial State: Global Thriving and the Body Politic (2017), is available through the University of Minnesota Press. Her other publications have appeared in Millennium: A Journal of International Studies, Critical Studies on Security, Mobilities, Contemporary Political Theory, and Critical Military Studies.
Hello, Stefanie, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in human-environment relations and the kinds of methods and theories you deploy in researching this theme?
First of all, thanks so much for inviting me to this exchange with you. It’s always so heartening to feel part of a scholarly community with shared passions and interests.
Thanks for this provocation; it gave me an opportunity to look back and think about how I got here. I realized that I have always been interested in more-than-human worlds. That kid who spent rainy days transporting worms from the sidewalk to the grass, running and barking at the door in solidarity with my grandparents’ dogs, sunny days chasing after bugs and snakes, and every hike climbing every rock and wading in every stream grew up and went to grad school. There is a certain inevitability to being here and writing what I write. I am now the grown up who metaphorically transports worms from one place to another—a multidisciplinary researcher who always keeps the things themselves close in her research and writing. I endeavor to write about my love of and connection to this material world in everything I do.
A less whimsical answer is that after beginning my studies in Political Science and International Relations, I very quickly came to the end of their vocabulary for explaining the world itself. I struggled to find a place for environmental thinking in the dominant dichotomies of my field: nature/culture, agent/structure, state/nonstate, individual/community, human/animal. Even more of a struggle was the entrenched anthropocentrism that is dominant in most theory and philosophy; an uninterrogated humanist center to nearly every approach to ontology, epistemology, and methodology.
Donna Haraway writes in Staying with the Trouble that “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with” and “it matters what stories we use to make worlds and that “It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories.” I couldn’t tell the stories I wanted and needed to tell—I didn’t have the matter I could craft into stories about the worlds I saw and experienced. I turned to anthropology, sociology, and science and technology studies, and later I discovered the environmental humanities and critical literature studies. These helped to create a picture of the world teeming with actants, a rich panoply of the human and nonhuman where agency became actancy and inter- and intrarelations between actants becomes diffuse, enigmatic, and rhizomatic. Translations, connections, and relationality come to the fore, leaving hierarchies, stasis, and atomism in the background.
In a recent book chapter published in the edited volume Anthropocene Encounters: New Directions in Green Political Thinking, you highlight the limitations of power politics and the figure of state sovereignty in addressing the ecological crisis of the Anthropocene. What alternative models or framings of power do you believe can better capture the complex power relations at play in the relationship between humanity and planet Earth?
This is a great example of the limits of anthropocentric thinking when responding to ecological crises. My co-author Anthony Burke and I wrestle with the fact that anthropocentric theories of power insist that there must be a conscious actor with intent and purpose; therefore, non-human things may have effects and be active, but they do not have power. Power is then understood and traded in “blocs” along with “things”—resources like coal, grain, or uranium that increase an actor’s ability to influence others based on wealth, trade, or ability to wage war. For those working with critical theories (especially Foucault’s oeuvre), we know that power among humans and human institutions aren’t only homogenous and oppressive, but also productive and positive, and that the addition of complex natural systems and processes only complicates this traditional telling of power. To add to this complexity, human domination of and power over “nature” need to be rethought and reversed.
Of course, concomitant with this extraction of resources and the burning of fossil fuels have affected earth systems through collapse of planetary limits in multiple biological systems, climate change, sea level rise and acidification, extreme weather events, and food shortages and violence due to drought and flood. This ensures that we cannot restrict power relations to those between actors with self-conscious intent, especially when nonhuman processes form into dynamic and complex assemblages of human and nonhuman actants which have profound, beneficial, and sometimes destructive effects in toto. When bound into such assemblages, nonhuman actants and processes have enormous, wide-ranging, and cascading effects that are changing the nature of life on earth. I think it is worthwhile to quote our original words here to layout our argument in detail:
“They [nonhuman species, life forms, and processes] can nurture multiple forms of life;
they can destroy forms of life; all while undergoing the degradation and change of their
own life systems. They are forms of power in themselves because they are wreaking such
profound and irreversible change, and because they are producing effects that traverse
and transcend all the category divisions (political, economic, cultural, social, technological,
and environmental) that theorists have used to restrict power to matters deemed “political.”
It cannot be denied that such assemblages (forest burning–palm oil–extinction–transboundary-
pollution assemblages; tsunami–nuclear accident–insecurity assemblages; climate change–
hurricane–poverty–failing state assemblages) exert enormous influence on social–natural–
economic systems, but in ways that are chaotic and complex and reflect no single strategic intent.”
We term these assemblages “thing-systems” power inspired by the work of Jane Bennett. This is theory of distributed agency across assemblages, which Bennett describes as “ad hoc groupings of diverse elements,” with global emergent properties. Therefore, as we wrote in the chapter, it may still be possible to see human-exercised power as a means to an end (such as earth system and biodiversity protection, climate change mitigation, social justice, and ecological security), but such efforts create great challenges of coordination and cooperation across myriad actors and spheres, and across societies and ecosystems.
In your earlier work, you drew on the metaphorical and material relations of humans to microbes and other micro-organisms to reframe the body politic of the state as one that exists in dense entanglement with other communities and forms of life. What, in your view, can be learned of interspecies entanglements in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, and how has this global event changed or reaffirmed the findings presented in your book?
I suppose one of the most difficult feelings I had at the beginning of the pandemic was a sense of resignation that this had finally happened.When you study bacteria and viruses, even from a non-science or non-medical viewpoint, you are well aware of the risks that humans face every day at the microscopic level. Our overuse of antibiotics, invasive destruction and misuse of the nonhuman natural world, and torture and murder of the nonhuman has consequences. Species jumping viruses are one of the most serious.
Taking these lessons from the pandemic very seriously is one way of moving forward. There is no normal to which to return. This is a moment to rethink how humans arrived at this place. At the theoretical level, one thing that is vital to reconsider in the time COVID is freedom. In my book The Microbial State, I write that freedom is a concept that begs to be redefined in the 21st century. Freedom, from a microbial viewpoint, is less about individuality and more about finding connections between diverse actors; freedom is about being more connected, not cut free from our bonds to others. The debate over masks and personal liberty in the wake of public health orders is a troubling example of how individual freedom can be a malignancy in the body politic. The individual in this case demands its separateness from all others with personal choice as unrelated to other individuals’ interests and safety. What has become quite clear in this pandemic is that individual freedom must be guided by community needs. Further, it is increasingly clear from my perspective that it is just as important to recognize that those communities are not just human in composition.
At a disciplinary and policy level, SARS-Cov2’s appearance as a global actor demonstrates
the danger of, as I wrote in The Microbial State, pushing so many earth systems to the verge
of collapse through human terraforming and resource extraction. The explicit linking of
capitalism and colonialism to ecological decline needs to continue, and the humanities and
the social sciences should turn a critical eye to all concepts that found final form in the
nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Humans can no longer live in their “tiny skull- sized
kingdoms” and expect to survive into the next century” (The Microbial State, fn. 58).
In my work I have argued that attention should rest on collective world building from something other than the anthropocentric “rational” egoist model that currently pervades our thinking and acting. We must nurture positive attachment to the world and consolidate a belief in the world beyond its use value. This will in turn foster pluralist and generous attachments to a living and nonliving earth system where all are dependent on the whole for health and vitality. Not a small ask, of course, but I believe it is one worth fighting for in what ever small way we can. I donate much of my time to fight deforestation in Queensland and to support wildlife carers who aid animals in need of medical care and protection. If we all love one thing, to paraphrase Haraway, we can change the world—we live in multiple overlapping worlds that are always in need of attention and love.
Finally, Stefanie, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds?
Wow, what a great question. Firstly, I would say that you really must follow where your research project leads you. This will often take you into different disciplines and approaches—be brave and willing to give up your desire to be an expert! More-than-human research doesn’t always fit in our “human, all too human” institutions, but it is crucial that we incorporate the more-than-human into all our institutions, models, and theories. Mixed methods, trans/multidisciplinary approaches and putting the problem first (ante disciplinary) are in my toolbox.
I started in International Relations (a subfield of Politics) and over the course of my doctoral study found my way into all sorts of literature so I could find the elements to tell my whole story. This new generation of scholars are reorganizing the university and our traditional disciplines in exciting new ways—in necessary ways. We need to understand and be able to respond to the challenges of this century.
Secondly, be imaginative and creative and filled with love for the world. In 2014, Ursula LeGuin said in her address at the National Book Awards that in the hard times coming we will need and want voices of writers who can see other ways of being, to imagine real grounds for hope. We will need “Poets, visionaries — the realists of a larger reality.”
"[W]e know that power among humans and human institutions aren’t only homogenous and oppressive, but also productive and positive, and that the addition of complex natural systems and processes only complicates this traditional telling of power. To add to this complexity, human domination of and power over “nature” need to be rethought and reversed."
"Freedom, from a microbial viewpoint, is less about individuality and more about finding connections between diverse actors; freedom is about being more connected, not cut free from our bonds to others."