From the Series: Keywords for Ethnography and Design
Rather than discuss the commons, as that which extractivism drains, I propose a neologism as keyword: uncommons, or that which seemingly unstoppable extractivist destruction routinely makes public.
Uncommons is an ethnographic concept, a concrete abstraction made manifest in the South American Andes at the historical moment of extractivism. Extractivism is a geo-techno-financial corporate complex that desiccates lagoons, transforms forests into plantations, redirects and contains rivers, irrigates deserts, replaces mountains with open-pit mines, and builds roads connecting oceans. Extractivism (allegedly) offers resources to development, a common good that (also allegedly) benefits all: mines create jobs, damming rivers produces energy, irrigated deserts become agricultural lands. Yet extractivism destroys commons, from collectively owned resources to the environment.
This feature of extractivism, which inspired the concept of uncommons, also comes from the Andes, where extractivism’s destructive force extends to entities and practices that are not only humans and nonhumans detachable from each other. I was prompted to develop my account of uncommons by Ausangate, a mountain that is also an earth-being emerging with humans in mutual undetachability. This emergence exceeds analysis in terms of “people and mountain,” each distinct yet linked to one other through a relation, such as property. Property requires the subject and object detachability that underpins both the common good allegedly sought by extractivist states and the commons that environmentalists rally around to oppose it.
Deep-seated within the modern state and its mandate for development—capitalist and socialist alike—the common good supposes ontological continuity among humans and ontological discontinuity between humans and nature; consequently, humans can be subjects in a relation that objectifies nature. Similar assumptions are at the basis of both enclosures and commons in political-economic history, with the former destroying the latter in processes of modernization, capitalism, and progress. Yet enclosures and commons converge insofar as they require relations—like labor and property—that connect resources (or nature) and humans, conceived as detached from each other.
These conceptual assumptions nest an ontological/political problem: when environmentalists propose the commons as an alternative to current extractivist enclosures, their proposal (articulated through a relationship between humans and nature that is discontinuous, but relational) ignores worlds of thought that do not assume such discontinuity. Such proposals also imagine difference via the relation required by a common world divided into nature and culture. Emerging through relational sameness, difference is explained away as it is being recognized. Eclipsed from analysis by the relation that provokes it, this paradox is intriguingly complex.
Uncommons does not work through sameness or its twin, difference; it does not emerge from constitutive commonality. Rather, participant entities may become into commonality without becoming the same. The conceptual condition underpinning uncommons is what Isabelle Stengers (2001) calls divergence: rather than a relation (of similarity or difference) between entities, divergence constitutes practices in their heterogeneity as they become together, even through each other, while remaining distinct. Like orchid and wasp, through an interest in common that is not the same interest, practices self-make with others as they diverge in their own positivity.
Articulating each practice as its own divergence precludes analytical grammars that use equivalences to gauge difference. Divergence allows me to think earth-beings and people taking place together as they both are with and diverge from one other. Their being together asserts itself in divergence with, rather than difference from, environmentalists’ relational notion of humans and nature. Both can also come together in negotiated political alliance to defend interests in common that are not the same interests, for example, earth-being and mountain. I can conceptualize these two as diverging from one other and occupying a space that is not only the same space.
Uncommons emerged out of ethnographic work with practices and entities that exceeded the grasp of state recognition and its requirement of sameness. The absence of sameness resulted in the disavowal of excessive entities—in its milder version, a translation into what could be recognized (e.g., “sacred mountain”). Capacious enough to house complex alliances against the destruction of no less complex entities—that which is not only what it also is—uncommons may inspire ethnographic designs composed in divergence and able to refract modernist impositions of sameness that deny possibility to that which does not reflect it.
Downplaying difference, as it results from comparing through sameness, and considering instead the partial connections of divergent forms of life as they emerge with one other, uncommons holds the possibility of a commons that is always emergent as divergent practices negotiate what their interest that is in common, yet not the same, would be. Uncommons recasts ethnographic design: rather than offering a (cultural) representational practice (of nature), design might be willing to compose with the uncommon to itself that emerges in the here and now of its process (see Verran 2001): design as an always emergent practice.
I propose thinking with uncommons through assemblages of life where nature and humans might be beyond the demand for an either/or distinction; such assemblages might be most visible on indigenous grounds. Yet my hope is that uncommons may also serve as an analytic beyond indigeneity to explore divergence among animate or inanimate forms of life, or indistinctions between what is alive and what is not. These indistinctions populate and may even be indispensable to the worlds of sciences, economies, and legalities, while exceeding their forms of recognition.
Another paradox, to close: having been inspired by indigenous/modern excesses—a mountain that is also an earth-being—uncommons might offer the possibility to think indigenous and nonindigenous practices on a plane that transforms what was seen as their difference into the shared condition of their constitutive divergence. Participating in that condition, indigenous and nonindigenous persons would not define themselves in a relation as separate others (relative to what they are not) but in consideration of their partially connected positive emergence, an intra-connection capable of reckoning excesses, rather than differences, as constitutive of the relation.
Stengers, Isabelle. 2011. “Comparison as a Matter of Concern.” Common Knowledge 17, no. 1: 48–63.
Verran, Helen. 2001. Science and an African Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.