‘Life as Relation not Dividuation’
Queering the Nonhuman: Engaging International Environmental Law
A deepening climate crisis.
A failing legal framework.
A search for alternative imaginations.
In this reflection on Feminist Theory and International Law: Posthuman Perspectives by Emily Jones, I will engage with chapter 4 ‘Queering the Nonhuman: Engaging International Environmental Law’. The chapter invites readers to consider the anthropocentric, colonial, and extractive capitalist underpinnings of International Environmental Law (IEL) as a site of knowledge in practice. By interrogating its binarized categorization of entities into human/nonhuman with the human as hierarchically superior and its invisibilization of the differential impact of the climate crisis on differently situated individuals with unequal power in mitigating it, the chapter offers an understanding of the discontents of the discipline. Amidst discontentment with the status quo, against the backdrop of a deepening climate crisis, Jones visualizes alternatives. This is a process characterized by ‘wondering’ — both, about what the law could be if viewed differently and about the possibilities of viewing it differently offered by posthuman feminist theories including queer theories of the nonhuman. Queering the nonhuman begins in this moment of ‘wondering about wondering’ (Giffney and Hird, 2016, p. 44).
Given the centrality accorded to theoretical inquiry in the chapter, in undertaking which it serves as a critical review of literature that transcends disciplinary bounds, I found myself thinking about Jones’ conception of ‘theory’ and its role in re-imagining IEL. Her application of posthuman feminist theories including queer theories of the nonhuman in conjunction with critical environmental legal scholarship to the rights of nature (RoN) movement in chapter 5, the foundation for which is established in this chapter, embodies the idea of ‘theory’ as an actant in or dynamic process that alters lived realities (Davies, 2002; Haraway, 1992, p. 299). With faith in the potential of theory to generate tangible outcomes, Jones outlines the framework through which IEL can be re-imagined in chapter 4. Centrally, this activity requires the differential treatment meted to entities on the basis of differing degrees of subjectivity afforded to them by law to be scrutinized. Through the use of select posthuman feminist theories that are attentive to inequalities between the human and nonhuman as well as within the human, the chapter urges for the subject/object binary that encapsulates and perpetuates these concerns to be dismantled. To ensure that the subversion of the subject/object binary does not yield a nature/cultural binary in IEL — wherein feminist theory is considered appropriate for a re-imagination less for its ideas and more due to a typification of women as inherently more connected to nature than men — Jones emphasizes on the use of queer theories of the nonhuman that avoid such typification.
In putting forth these ideas as suitable for application to IEL, I thought that the chapter prompted much needed contemplation into the limits of law’s conceptualization in binaries — from its essentialization of entities (e.g., in terms of the presumed exercise of their agency or lack thereof, or in terms of the value attached to them as sites of knowledge) to its bifurcation of the space occupied by them (e.g., in terms of the power to wield and benefit from the law). It also encouraged a visualization of all entities as interconnected and interdependent, paving the path for a reassessment of the oft-hierarchical legal relationships between these entities. As convincing and full of promise as I found these ideas to be, I sometimes struggled to position them within the corpus of IEL as we understand it today. A few examples of these ideas in operation in IEL — even if elucidated in detail only in relation to the RoN movement in chapter 5 — would have enriched the text of chapter 4. More explicit engagement with the manner/ mode of uptake of this re-imagination by actors in IEL and the tensions to be navigated by them in the process could have also contributed towards a more realistic account of a possible future.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that the re-imagination of IEL proposed in chapter 4 is tantalizing. With its challenge to embedded ideas that have for long ordered the world as we know it, its appeal lies in the terms on which it proposes to re-order this world. By dismantling demarcations between entities to recognize material oneness as universal but without compromising on recognizing the differences (or, multiplicities) within that context, the terms on which Jones proposes the world be re-ordered is ‘life as relation not dividuation’ (MacCormack, 2009, p. 113). This transition — from a world replete with divisions that hierarchize and essentialize to a world in which ‘relations are tangled, tentacular and co-emergent’ (p. 117) — demands unlearning and re-learning. Without expressly stating as such, Jones demonstrates this by interrogating the master narrative of IEL and the ideas/structures engendered by it. Her emphasis on the need for the theories being utilized for the re-imagination to be carefully selected, particularly through an examination of their assumptions and with a view towards their synergization, is also deeply revelatory of this. Failure to do so would render the re-imagined law susceptible to a perpetuation of hierarchies and/or invisibilization of difference, a risk Jones’ re-imagination cautions about and endeavours to safeguard against. An aspect I was left wondering about, that I wish had been engaged with more dedicatedly, is the role of legal language in the re/imagination of our world through the medium of IEL.
To ensure that the re-imagination produces a ‘more liveable law’ (p. 117), it also demands interiority. Jones’ reflections on the caution to be employed while applying posthuman feminism to IEL range from a reiteration of the continued relevance of human inequalities to posthumanism, to the need to treat categories and meanings as contestable, to the dilemma of being caught between resistance and compliance. Such reflexivity not only guards against the replication of the errors of other theories in re-imagining a discipline but also reveals the dialogue that is undertaken during conceptualization. This inaugurates generative spaces for continuing discourse that are non-negotiable in dynamic disciplines requiring recurrent interventions. It also reaffirms that ‘posthuman philosophies are not utopian thoughts for the future but, […] are available here and now as techniques of existence within modern culture,’ (MacCormack, 2009, p. 114) meriting operationalization for more adequate solutions and our reposal of faith — before it’s too late.