Table of Contents
Capitolo 3
Human responses
Nature as the pooling of a society
Capitolo 3: Human responses

Nature as the pooling of a society

The queer ecology look makes us appreciate nature in its purest sense, in terms not of a mere use-value concept

Conversation between Matthew Gandy and Tiziana Villani

[Matthew Gandy]: I became aware of Tiziana’s work almost twenty years ago along my way, an extremely interesting work in Italian that some colleagues translated and brought to my attention. So it is really nice to be able to have a direct conversation and I think to link it up to my work on queer ecology, especially in relation to an area in north London where I have done a lot of research. This also led to a very interesting French translation of that particular set of works. The question of queer theory and in particular its relationship to urban space has been a constant or recurring theme in my work for a while.

[Tiziana Villani]: Good to see you Matthew. With Edizioni Eterotopia France we published Ecologia queer for a very important reason, to relate the concept of queer to the urban space. Specifically, to a space that changed, Abney Park in London, where not only nature changed, but the subjectivities changed. Matthew made an important reference to Foucault’s work on heterotopias here. But the most important thing is the view of political ecology Gandy offers us, because it is an ecology that is no longer dualistic, no longer binary, but an ecology of relationships: social, political, of the urban, at a time when technology is modifying our life systems, but also of what pandemics and catastrophes suggest. So what he questions is a metamorphosis, and he uses the queer concept as hybridisation, but in a positive way, as the possibility of a very positive change, very resistant I dare say, to the changes determined only to be conflict. Conflict is creative, it is artistic.

[M.G.]: I think it might be useful to clarify how to conceptualise the role of queer theory in relation to the analysis or understanding of the urban space. Clearly I see the contribution of queer theory as much more than an investigation of, for example, sexual identities. I see it as something that relates to complexity in its fullest socio-spatial form. I see queer theory as something that challenges or dissolves existing taxonomic categories; something that can enrich the research imagination and also inspire artists and ecologists, social activists. And I think it partly relates to my long-standing view that lesbian and gay politics have the potential to set everyone free, to liberate the whole of society. So this challenge to existing norms and categories has very profound implications. I also see queer theory as a way of destabilising subjectivities, so as to go beyond the limited individual human subject and define new configurations, not only constellations of human agency but also the non-human. And for me the question of queer theory also serves to destabilise various non-scientific ecological categories. The ideological notion of the indigenous cultural landscape, for example, can be directly challenged by taking an intellectual or political point of view. I take into consideration Gayatri Gopinath’s work on the queer regional conception, for example, and have tried to link it to my own conception of cosmopolitan ecologies in the urban space. This issue of complexity and challenge to strictly nativist conceptions of landscape is therefore another part of my conceptualisation of queer theory. I have also been broadly influenced by the work of Sarah Ahmed and her concept of queer phenomenology, which I have found incredibly useful as an analytical observation point, essentially through a double meaning, because it is the orientation between human subjects and the other that can be extended to the non-human or from the other-than-human to the human. But also because, at least in the English language, they show certain orientations that indicate this relationship to the spatial and cultural Other and to the concept of the East, and that once again I think feed this notion of destabilising existing norms and categories. So, for me, queer theory clearly goes far beyond conventional understandings of the human being or the individual human subject, which is part of my ongoing interest in queer ecologies.

[T.V.]: Thank you. This clarification is very important because the term queer arose in a specific context and then became, as we know, rejection, sexual offense. I think that Gandy’s work is fundamental because it allows us to link up to a consideration, which is beginning to be better known in France and Italy too, concerning so-called decolonial or post-colonial ecological thinking, which has behind it many activists who have declared themselves queer precisely because of this move away from categorisation. I would like Matthew to return to this aspect, to a sexuality that is no longer categorised, rigidly schematised; to how the space breaks its squaring, its perimetrication as Foucault would say. I am thinking of some unfortunately little-known authors of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa, who wrote Borderlands, a very important work on the conditions of the frontier as a space but also as a gender. She, a militant lesbian feminist activist, thinks in relation to a space that constructs its subjectivity and also questions it. Or to other important people like Audre Lorde. In short, there is a constellation that breaks with all binary forms and, importantly, this is expressed in a space. Ecology is expressed in a spatial dimension, where nature is conceived within these relationships, it is not the Other than subject, the Other than man. We are nature and we are also the technical disposition of nature. In this the constellation becomes very large.

I would add that there is no nostalgic or romantic conception of nature. Nature is something that is changed like we human beings, like all living forms, but we need to find more satisfactory conditions of life, including natural ones, at a time when technology (I started with the work on the cyborg) is becoming too independent of us and we risk finding ourselves in a condition of expropriating knowledge, consciousness and practices, which are spatial practices but, I think, with a focus on cities and the urban, because the urban is our field of experimentation.

[M.G.]: Yes, I think a queer ecology helps us dispel the notion of nature as a kind of fixed ideological apparatus, and nature itself becomes a space of becoming and possibility. And I think this is very important because ideological constructs of nature are repeatedly derived in relation to conservative or reactionary, nostalgic or almost romantic conceptions of landscape and so on. So destabilising these views and challenging them has very profound political implications.

[T.V.]: We wanted to publish Queer Ecology with Alessio Kolioulis’s help and advice because we made a research, but also militant, choice about ecology, a term that has become, as Matthew said, abused and reactionary. People talk about greenwashing, environmentalists do it, but there is worse. There is the idea of nature as part of a right-wing, racist, conservative, discriminatory way of thinking. On the other hand, the field of queer and political ecology also has its own very important critical positioning, which is that of thinking about a condition that concerns our world, our society, our development model. We cannot get out of it with moralistic, decorative or consolatory actions. When Matthew talks about nature also in the city, it is not the garden that adorns the city, which consoles us before the constantly worsening living conditions: pollution, the expropriation of common goods and water. Nature means the pooling of a society, of its most important liberating needs. It means liberation from need, from narrow, often reactionary identities. So I would like to ask Matthew if he can tell us about his latest work on nature and the urban.

[M.G.]:I think the first thing to remember is that queer ecology is also a way of challenging speculative urbanisation and strictly instrumental views of nature; that through the look of queer ecology we are able to appreciate nature in its purest sense, in terms not of a mere use-value concept, but simply in terms of its prosperity, in terms of the multispecies cities or what I have recently called the ecological pluriverse. In my latest book, Natura Urbana: Ecological Constellations in Urban Space, I have tried to develop a number of my arguments in more detail in relation to what we understand as urban nature and to clarify some of the main analytical points of view for studying urban nature. And one of the arguments I put forward is that there are four main points of view: there is the systems approach, which is actually dominant in the whole environmental field and relies very much on quantification in controlling the measurement of urban environments; then there is a second very interesting strand, certainly dating back to the nineteenth century, which I can describe as observation or paradigm, with the early work of botanists, ornithologists and the like, who were simply fascinated by urban ecologies, by their conditions, in terms of the unusual flora they found for example among ruins and other interesting microspaces in the city; a third strand, which I would call urban political ecology, has emerged strongly since the 1990s, influenced by neo-Marxist ideas, the Frankfurt School and radical lines of study on technology, racism and toxic environments within cities, which have been very important to my work. More recently I have been thinking there is a fourth area, for which I have been using terms like “multispecies city” and “ecological pluriverse”, which bring the non-human or the other-than-human more directly into the analysis framework. And this is where I think a queer ecology provides a number of very interesting conceptual bridges between some of these areas, connecting with the paradigm of observation in terms of attention to the interesting, the unusual, the out of place in an urban space, connecting with urban political ecology and the importance of urban social movements and social justice in relation to the urban scene, and so reaching out to post-phenomenological concepts of other-than-human agency or multiple agency configurations in the urban space. Queer theory and queer ecology are thus part of my attempt to explore, to navigate the intellectual terrain of urban nature and the urban scene.

[T.V.]: Matthew’s clarification is important, because there is a very important aesthetic-political problem open today concerning the environmental question, the ecological question, which relates to communication systems. Matthew rightly mentioned the Frankfurt School, but there is also a large component of French critical thought, not only Foucault, but also Deleuze and Guattari. Today, though, I think it central that this alarm about the environment and paradoxically also certain parts of the environmental movement have given voice to a new aesthetic paradigm, a paradigm in which ecology is played out on a moral level, I would say with the American-derived sphere of political correctness. In other words, we have to make certain gestures and adopt behaviours that actually though prevent us touching on the real ecological problem, which is a crisis on a global scale, called by many the extractive model (I don’t know if this is the right word), but which affects entire communities, not just any community, re-proposing a problem of social inequality, which is of sexual marginalisation, of placement within affiliations, communities, identities. In my opinion, communication is now erasing this, and there is a constant reference to a moralistic awareness that it is urgent not to waste, not to pollute in everyday life, to use energy well. All this is a small story compared to the current seriousness of the problems, of the actions of multinationals, which Vandana Shiva also recounts in her work.

[M.G.]: Yes, I think it is very interesting to raise the question of aesthetics and politics in relation to urban nature, and I would like to point out that when we consider the aesthetics of nature we are often dealing with aesthetic categories such as the beautiful or the sublime. One of the interesting things for me about marginal urban spaces and urban wastelands is that they unhinge the aesthetic categories of beautiful, ordered nature and introduce different kinds of aesthetic experience, different ways of culturally interacting with nature. I think this is extremely important because when you think about the intersection of ecology and the speculative dynamics of capitalist organisation, this also relies on the resources of nature both aesthetically and in purely material terms, of resources, through the design of architectural landscapes and so on. One thing I am very interested in is what alternative aesthetic resources can be provided by these messy or wild spaces of nature within the city, which also point to different potential modes of social or cultural mobilisation. We have mentioned cosmopolitan global ecologies and how these formulations challenge nativist or racist conceptions of nature, but I think our wild natural spaces also destabilise very narrow conceptions of ecological relationships. These wild spaces within the city are indicative of alternative socio-ecological constellations, alternative ecological conceptions, and provide potential cultural resources for thinking about new ways of urban living and new ways of living with other non-human presences in the urban space. And I would add, perhaps, that when we think incisively about the greening of capitalism and the use of ecological justifications, some of the most ecologically damaging landscapes, such as lawns or golf courses and spaces of this kind, are part of this tightly controlled paradigm that uses nature to allow the movement of capital and so on within the urban space.

[T.V.]: Precisely on this issue, in my opinion the problem with ecology and queer is that it indicates a possible path, also aesthetic (we will come back to this), towards the multiplication of possibilities, towards openness, the diversification of spaces and subjectivities. In the meantime, however, what is happening is that we are actually moving towards ever closer forms of standardisation, both of nature and the spaces and above all the urban. Gentrification is a process that organises space, nature, human beings, classes, identities and sexual orientations. So while queer indicates the areas of possible rupture of this cataloguing, the truth is that since we are in very complex societies we are witnessing control mechanisms that need to be standardising.

[M.G.]: Yes, I think it is very important to understand the way in which the queering of ecology involves a question of openness, multiplication and multiplicity. And we can promote these arguments, as Tiziana suggested, against this drift towards homogeneity in relation to natural cultures. And also in architecture and design, with the concept of generic ecologies, where simplistic concepts like green walls and so on are used in any context with simplicity, without reference to the ecological complexities of the place. And I think this concept of generic ecologies has spread under what I call the Adaptive Anthropocene, a discourse related to the Anthropocene that is closely aligned with the speculative dynamics of capitalist urbanisation, arguments of resilience, geo-engineering and the like. But a queer ecology questions these instrumental, simplifying or reductive relationships. I also wanted to go back to a comment Tiziana made about extractive models and extractive frontiers. The violence manifested towards nature and its defenders is often based on the characterisation of remote spaces as empty or devoid of any kind of value. And, of course, this can also be seen within the urban setting with respect to some lively marginal spaces, which are very important both ecologically and culturally, and are usually described as empty, dangerous or ugly spaces that need to be removed or eliminated in favour of urbanisation of the landscape or some other paradigms that seek to bring marginal spaces into the circulation dynamics of capitalist organisation. So we see this tension, as it were, between order and disorder, and we see attempts to control nature in the urban setting.

[T.V.]: There is another suggestion that Matthew can go back to, that of Foucault’s heterotopia, but which he takes up in a very original way. For the sake of clarity, we should say that Foucault developed this concept during an architecture conference and identified those spaces that can be defined as other spaces, “through” spaces. Matthew has applied it to some of his analyses, and used it in a creative, theoretically precise way. I would like you to clarify this reference to Foucaultian heterotopias, because I think that even today, in the midst of a standardisation, fractures, cracks always open up in which something absolutely other is born.

[M.G.]: Yes, of course the notion of heterotopia was very important for me in trying to conceptualise Abney Park, thinking of it as another space. But I too have been very interested in the notion of a simultaneity of multiple modes of existence within an urban space and also the notion of complexity and time. In some of my recent work on the Abney Park site I have been looking at the ecology of centuries-old trees that host incredibly complex spatial forms, which in turn support very high levels of biodiversity. I sometimes define these as saproxylic ecologies, ecologies of decay and death that, paradoxically, support thriving lives and, more importantly, rare invertebrates. This is also a source of great fascination for me, because those ancient trees are out of place within the bureaucratic and managerial urban space structures, because they are deformed, distorted; people are afraid they might fall on someone and lead to insurance claims, or feel uncomfortable about what to do with trees that are nevertheless extremely important for urban biodiversity. This was my most recent work on Abney Park. I should add that the park is about 100 metres from where I live in London, so at times I have had the chance to go there every day just to look around. From a methodological point of view, referring to a concept of the French author Perec, I am very interested in the sense of being in a place and observing very carefully, without rushing, taking time to notice the unusual, the complex and developing conceptual ideas about unusual spaces, but at different scales. In some parts of my latest work I have been carefully observing a very rare insect, a fly that mimicks a bumble-bee, imitates it. I studied it for a couple of years and it was only after two years of regularly observing a tree that one morning in May I actually saw the thing I had focused on in my research, and it was a moment of great joy. But I am very interested in the concept of ecological mimickry, I find it fascinating, particularly Batesian mimickry. They are completely innocuous mimics, much rarer than the poisonous or stinging insects they resemble. This particular fly that moves and makes the same sounds as a bumble-bee has a scientific name, Pocota personata, indicating its extraordinary ability to impersonate another organism. But I was also very intrigued by the question of time, because the metamorphosis of insects is extraordinary, so much so that if I explained it to someone they might not even believe that such a life cycle exists. And one of the strange things about the Pocota personata and many of these extraordinary saproxylic invertebrates is that the larval phase takes place inside a deep hollow or rotten places in these deformed trees; the larvae are like grotesque, multi-segmented aliens with the strangest of breathing organs, adapted to these strange environments, and extraordinarily beautiful and spectacular insects sometimes emerge from these alien forms, some of which live for only a couple of days, though the larval phase can last for several years in some cases. So for me the question of ecology, time and mimicry in relation to saproxylic ecology is extremely interesting and also ties in with some of my literary interests in relation to Nabokov and the concept of mimicry.

Going back to my initial observation and methodology, the chance of studying a space very carefully, in several visits over time, with what could be called a longitudinal study, which allows us to look at changes in specific areas or localities over a long period of time and particularly for invertebrates, which are my area of specialisation, is very rare. It is therefore a real pleasure for me to be involved in citizen science initiatives and to collect data and contribute to large monitoring programmes, to recognise and in some cases even protect aspects of biodiversity.

[T.V.]: This is a very beautiful passage, thank you. I would like to add one last thing. I agree with what Matthew very poetically underlined because what we perhaps need to recover is the idea of being capable of sensoriality, of looking, listening, touching, when so much contemporary art lately (I have groups of students working on this) starts from a closed body, not an open one. What Matthew has just described is precisely an idea of seeing bodies (I use one of Benjamin’s concepts) as porous. We are bodies inevitably connected to everything else, and we are also bodies in the making, for better or for worse; the constrictive conception prefers rather an identified corporeality, it is very rigid. I think that one of the segments that art could make explode is that of the senses, put back at the centre of a look also at apparently banal spaces where life teems and changes. Moreover, this is what the pandemic has told us, in many respects.

[M.G.]: Yes, I think multisensory methods are extremely important and in my teaching work I like to take students out of the classroom and into the street. Many have experienced extreme isolation or anxiety, particularly in the last two years, so getting them outdoors is very important. More generally, urban nature has been recognised as a vital aspect for human happiness and well-being. And in terms of methodology, of multisensory methodologies, I think it is also very exciting to alter the conventional conception of, for example, nature and landscape, which is only perceived within an observation or paradigm, often at a distance. With a multisensory immersion in nature we have the phenomenon of sounds, which is very stimulating because of the way it can take over spaces and resonate in many interesting ways. And, of course, smell, which is a visceral aspect of all sense organs and stimulates memory or reactions very profoundly. From a theoretical point of view, as far as my conception of the body in space is concerned, I found Teresa Brennan’s book The Transmission of Affect really important. It is interesting to note that Brennan does not take an analytical view closely aligned with neo-vitalist conceptions of the body in space and that for Brennan there are, for example, in relation to smell, very real physiological dimensions of affect and of how bodies interact in different configurations, including the experience of fear, desire and so on. And essentially for me this is very interesting in terms of re-observation, beyond the contained human body as a focal point for understanding different forms of subjectivity. I would perhaps add, in relation to my last comments on patience in ecological ethnography or site specific fieldwork, that in relation to my work on urban nature, on urban ecologies, I would characterise the moments of encounter as a kind of ecstatic encounter, when for example I finally see the rare invertebrates that I had been waiting to see for two years. But it is only through that sense of patience that one is then rewarded with a particular experience. And perhaps there is a broader meaning, in terms of creative work, of the concept of taking time for ideas and creativity to develop and flourish, and also not being afraid of complexity. I think we are under enormous pressure to be able to communicate almost immediately or with just a couple of words or sentences, the epistemological equivalent of an elevator pitch or something. And I really want to resist that pressure and get back to the concept of things that are obscure or ineffable, or contradictory, difficult or complex. I want to hold on to them.

[T.V.]: The question posed by Matthew has been addressed, in a somewhat strange way for me, and I wanted to ask him as well, by Donna Haraway in her latest publication [Chthulucene. Surviving on an Infected Planet, translated by Claudia Durastanti and Clara Ciccioni, Nero editions, Rome 2019, ed.] where she talks about alliances, “compost babies” and the disappearance of monarch butterflies. The last part of her book is almost a science fiction story. My impression, in this very beautiful bestiary that Donna Haraway draws, is that compared to Manifesto Cyborg of some years ago she has developed a thinking on good rules; it is no longer so much thinking on complexity, opening up to complexity, but it is as if she has already acquired the end of a world and is trying to coexist with what is left of it. I wondered whether Matthew had also had a chance to see Haraway’s book and that strange transition that many thinkers are having with resignation to the state of things.

[M.G.]: Yes, it is a very interesting observation. I am not very familiar with this essay, but I have a more general knowledge of the field of anthropology in the Anthropocene, and besides Haraway we could add Anna Tsing, another important figure for her attempts to make sense of the contemporary world in a state of crisis or decline. I have reservations about some of these recent contributions from anthropology, and also ecology, which as you say seem to be almost at ease with the level of ecological destruction and decline. And in some cases these phenomena have been recast, for example, as new ecologies emerging within the ruins of global capitalism. But, and this is something that worries me, within this particular ecological and anthropological discourse I miss the sense of politics. As I mentioned earlier, in the current context we are seeing an escalation of violence against nature and nature’s defenders, and I think we need to be prepared to understand and confront it. One of the examples I give in my new book is the Khimki forest, north of Moscow, the scene of a bitter conflict over the construction of a motorway through a nature reserve, and I point out that activists have been the victims of violence and brutal aggression. One prominent journalist even died as a result of his injuries. But for me, the neo-vitalist perspective of fields like anthropology does not respond to political questions about violence and nature protection, so I don’t find some of these recent contributions in the literature very satisfying in relation to the need to develop critical ecology perspectives. You mentioned monarch butterflies; I read recently that some prominent ecologists who were trying to protect these butterflies in Mexico were killed. The way we conceive of violence leads me to what I have called forensic ecology and an engagement of critical legal studies to try to systematise the institutional possibilities for protecting nature. And also to take seriously our ethical duties towards the non-human. In this respect I have been interested in what is sometimes called eco-constitutionalism, the extension of legal rights to nature; it is a difficult but very interesting area. And certainly the concept of assigning a legal personality to the non-human is not that strange because even businesses, for example, have a legal personality. So from a philosophical point of view, extending the concept of personhood to the non-human is not such a strange idea, at the level of critical legal discourse.

[T.V.]: Thank you. I hope to find time to be with Matthew again, to keep in touch. Thank you for the opportunity you have given us to be able to see each other again, to exchange ideas and projects, to treasure. Thank you all very much, thank you Matthew.

[M.G.]: Thank you very much. I just wanted to add that I really appreciate Tiziana’s long-standing engagement and interest in my work. It was a real pleasure to have a conversation directly with you. Thank you very much!

Conversation between Matthew Gandy and Tiziana Villani

Matthew Gandy, geographer, town planner and cultural critic, teaches geography at Cambridge University. He previously taught at University College London, where he was director of the UCL Urban Laboratory. He has also been visiting professor at several universities including Columbia University, New York; Università Humboldt, Berlin; Università Tecnica, Berlin; UCLA; and UdK, Berlin. His publications on urban and environmental subjects include: Concrete and Clay: Revealing Nature in New York  City (The MIT Press, 2002), Urban Constellations (Jevis 2011), The Fabric of Space: Water, Modernity and the Urban Imagination (The MIT Press, 2014).

Tiziana Villani, philosopher. HDR, carries out research and teaching at the Doctorate College “Environment and Territory” DICEA, University of Rome – La Sapienza Dept. of Engineering. She is an associate at the University Paris 8 UFR. Professor of “Phenomenology of contemporary art” at the Department “Visual arts and Curatorial studies”, NABA Academy of Milan. She is the director of Edizioni Eterotopia France and of the series/magazine “Millepiani” and Millepiani/Urban”