The vivisection of oikeios: beyond the binary of nature and society

A felled tree

The common-sense distinction between nature and society was established through the bloody history of capitalist and colonial development, which brought about a real separation between the social and natural worlds.

What happens when the salmon people can no longer catch salmon in their rivers?

- Jeff Corntassel1

When I was a child I slept in a room at the back of my parent’s house. During the summer, the old wisteria would climb up the garden wall, over the window-sill and spill into my room. Great green crickets would crawl up the stems and find themselves suddenly inside, I can remember watching them pace my ceiling in the half-light before I fell asleep. I never thought it was strange that the wisteria, the crickets and I should share a room. It was the consequence of a simple arrangement, the wisteria shaded the house, and the house supported the wisteria, which in turn sheltered the crickets, who, admittedly, served no discernable purpose beyond distracting sleepless children.

There is a word in Greek which perfectly describes the old house and the straggling wisteria. Oikeios comes from oikia, home, it means; “that with which one is at home, it is one’s own.”2 The word does not mean “property” i.e an alienated thing made our own by some force, but that which we naturally inhabit, that which is favourable to our existence. It is a totality, a peaceful completeness.

THE DIVISION OF SOCIETY AND NATURE

Nature and society are not divisible things. The two live inside each other. It is a state of reciprocal immanence, one in which the existence of humans is inexorably entwined with the existence of non-humans. We are mutually dependent unto extinction.

If we look at hunter-gatherer communities we see a common understanding of this reciprocal immanence. Amongst those peoples who live thus it is usually understood that their water is of the rivers, their shelter of the forests and their food of the plains. From this conception springs a rich culture of reciprocity; a deep respect for the non-human life which makes human life possible. The people who live off the salmon think of themselves as the salmon-people, their existence is inseparable from the existence of that which sustains them.

Like Cherokee or Nishnaabeg peoples, Zapotecs have their own word to describe belonging as responsibility. The word guendaliza means that we all are relatives and as such we have reciprocal responsibilities. When we say thank you in Zapotec we say chux quixely, which means ‘I will reciprocate’. Reciprocity is not limited to human beings but extends to the land and other beings visible or not.

- Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez3

However the coming of agriculture helped spark the notion of property, setting in progress millennia of violent accumulation and appropriation. New agricultural productivity also made possible large settlements, towns and cities of ever greater size, a concentration of humanity which in turn facilitated the birth of industry. With the power from our increasing development we turned our gaze towards that which was not-human, and wondered how we may develop that too. Thus we othered nature, no longer could we merely live in it, now we had to stand atop it. Peaceful co-existence gave way to dreams of mastery and domination. Western civilisation has been as much about defining what isn’t us as what is. From the parts we have cut from oikeios we have made allotrios, that which is alien.

The symbolic distinction itself – ‘social power’ and ‘biophysical process’ – becomes possible only through the forcible separation of the direct producers from the means of production and its symbolic expressions, emerging during and constitutive of the rise of capitalism.

- Jason Moore4

Such an argument is not unusual amongst radicals in the colonial heartlands, but in these circles it often becomes entwined with deeply problematic assertions. Western radicals can easily fall into a fetishisation of hunter-gathering which nearly always involves a selective and orientalist reading of indigenous voices and struggles. One of the failings produced by such a reading is the common confusion of indigeneity with hunter-gathering. It is vital to remember the great diversity of indigenous societies, and that many indigenous peoples lived in metropolises that were reliant on agriculture. These indigenous metropolises often brought about a vivisection of oikeios every bit as deep and destructive as that found within the colonial heartlands.

A thousand years ago, a great city flourished on the floodplains of the Mississippi river. Estimates of its population vary hugely, as only 1% of the site has ever been excavated, but as many as 40,000 people may have lived there.5 Even taking the lowest estimate, the city of Cahokia was not exceeded in population by a settler city until the 19th century.6 The scale of the metropolis is extraordinary; over 120 mounds cover an area exceeding 13 square kilometres, with the precision and layout of the groundworks indicating careful planning.7 The mounds, which functioned as places of burial and ceremony were huge structures; the largest was 100 feet high “with a rectangular base longer than that of the Great Pyramid of Egypt”.8 The city’s expertise was not limited to monolithic construction projects however; amongst the artefacts from the site is a funeral blanket of exquisite artistry.9 It is made from twelve thousand shell beads.10

Of course, such a metropolis required great quantities of food to sustain it, and the greatest part of this demand was met by the huge fields of maize to the east of Cahokia.11 Without maize Cahokia would never have become a metropolis, but its dependence on the crop proved to be its downfall. As the city grew, the forests surrounding it shrunk rapidly. The construction of a wooden rampart all the way around the city in about 1200 significantly increased deforestation, as did a boom in house building.12 As the forests vanished so too did their capacity to slow and store rainfall runoff, and soon Cahokia began to experience serious flooding.13 The maize fields were either submerged or stripped of their topsoil, either way they became impossible to cultivate.14 Deprived of its staple food, Cahokia collapsed. By 1350, the city was nearly deserted.15

THE CREATION OF WILDERNESS

...an exorcism of social activity from universal nature [is enacted] in order to attenuate the contradiction between external and universal nature. The possibility of the socialization of universal nature is ultimately denied not on the basis of historical experience but by the contradiction with external nature.

- Neil Smith16

Colonialism saw the creation of wilderness at a continental level. Africa and America became places of nature, in which humans lived so primitively that to the colonialists they still appeared connected to the land. The definition of this land as wilderness, and these people as primitive, legitimised the greatest process of enclosure and dispossession in history. For Locke, it was that there was an unexploited surplus, a waste in the wilderness, which demonstrated the primitive nature of the indigenous Americans and thus the right of the colonialist to take their lands. Wilderness was described as non-productive space;

If either the grass of his inclosure rotted on the ground, or the fruit of his planting perished without gathering, and laying up, this part of the earth, not withstanding his inclosure, was still to be looked upon as waste, and might be the possession of any other

- John Locke17

The destructive drive of manifest destiny owes itself in no small part to such statements of colonial intent. The wilderness was rendered productive through rituals of enclosure and extinction; the plains were bisected by barbed wire and railroads, whilst settlers roamed the claimed lands, hunting flights of passenger pigeons, herds of bison and tribes of indigenous people.

It is important to note the entangled relationship of colonialist ecocide and genocide. The ideology of dominating and purifying the land in order to make it productive ensured the extinction of humans and non-humans alike. To prove this let us look first at the discourse applied to the non-human; in this case botanical life;

Maison Rustique employed rhetoric of sickness and cleanliness to describe fields. The farmer’s first job was “to cleanse arable ground of stones, weedes, and stubble.” Rocks and natural vegetation represented a kind of filth, polluting the ground. The rhetoric became even more intense when describing “wilde grounds or desartes.” There the farmer needed to cure “the disease of your fieldes.” Surflet recommended, “If you desire with more haste and certainty to destroy them, you shall burne the ground the two first yeeres.” Natural vegetation, rather than a source of potential sustenance, was an illness that the farmer cured through total immolation. Even valued plants, such as trees, were only appropriate in specific locations, such as gardens or planned woods. If there were too many woods, then farmers needed to employ the same solution as they would on weeds: fire.

- Keith Pluymers18

To the last sentence we could easily add “if there were too many indigenous people, then the farmers needed to employ the same solution as they would on woods”. The efficiency with which the settlers cleared the non-human elements of the land was matched only by the efficiency with which they cleared the human elements. When the British landed in Australia in 1788 they found an aboriginal population of between 250,000 to 750,000 people.19 By 1911 there were just 31,000 left.20 The barbarity and efficiency of their extermination shocked even that most blood-soaked of nations, Britain. A shaken High Commissioner, Arthur Hamilton Gordon, wrote to Prime Minister Gladstone;

The habit of regarding the natives as vermin, to be cleared off the face of the earth, has given the average Queenslander a tone of brutality and cruelty in dealing with "blacks" which it is very difficult to anyone who does not know it, as I do, to realise. I have heard men of culture and refinement, of the greatest humanity and kindness to their fellow whites, and who when you meet them here at home you would pronounce to be incapable of such deeds, talk, not only of the wholesale butchery (for the iniquity of that may sometimes be disguised from themselves) but of the individual murder of natives, exactly as they would talk of a day's sport, or having to kill some troublesome animal.

- Colin Tatz21

Gordon provides us with all the evidence we need. This is the ideology of the colonialist, which sees the indigenous human as “vermin”, a “troublesome animal” which needs “to be cleared off the face of the earth”. The reciprocal immanence of the indigenous peoples and their land was alien to the colonialists, and thus they sought to bury the one in the other. Oikeios became a state found only in the killing fields and the mass graves. Only there were people “at one with nature”.

The colonised lands saw nature and man split apart, but only under the force of countless gunshots, infections and enslavements.

There is no ontological divide between social nature (developed, degraded, managed) and external nature (wild, pristine, ecological), yet it is precisely this divide which the conservation biology proponents relentlessly forge and defend.

- John Hintz22

Environmentalism remains trapped in the thought of colonial-capitalism. Nature is something which happens in foreign lands, amongst barbarous people, who are now found to be incapable of protecting it. Neo-colonialism finds the indigenous community guilty of the mirror-crime of that for which they were condemned by colonialism; rather than too connected to their environment, they are now too disconnected. This time they shall be thrown off their land so that civilisation may save it from them, rather than them from it.

In west Kenya the Sengwer people are being chased from their homes. Thousands of them flee before the military police, who tear apart their huts before setting them on fire.23 The government calls them squatters, blaming the Sengwer for the degradation of the forest they inhabit.24 They neglect to mention that the Sengwer have lived as hunter-gatherers in the Embobut forest and the Cherangany Hills for thousands of years. 25 Why are these people being made homeless? Part of the blame at least falls on the UN's Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) programme.26 The World Bank has been funding the Government of Kenya’s new Natural Resource Management Programme (NRMP), which includes "financing REDD+ readiness activities". In practice this means the forest is being readied for market, to be sold to whichever company which needs to offset its pollution and habitat destruction.27 The idea that corporate ecocide should be rewarded with cheap land stolen from the global south embodies all that is wrong with modern environmentalism.28 We are supposed to believe here that the environmentalists are those that are colonising indigenous land and that the Sengwer people, who have lived sustainably in the forest for millennia, present its gravest threat.

RECLAIMING OIKEIOS

Thus we come to the present state of things. As we look out across the killing fields, where corpses mingle with felled trees, it is hard to see a reason for hope. Indeed, sometimes it is hard to even see a reason to live. However the genocide is incomplete, the ecocide, as yet unfinished. The land is not yet dead and neither are those who live within it. Three hundred years of murder have not seen the death of the last indigenous person, nor the settling of the last piece of indigenous earth. This is only true due to the indefatigable bravery of the indigenous resistance. Outnumbered and outgunned, they have refused to except their own extinction, and have fought back with a ferocity that has denied the colonial states the luxury of forgetting them. From the Zapitistas to the Miqmaq, the indigenous resistance, continues with a ferocity that still terrifies the colonial states. Even more worrying for them is the revival of indigenous culture, most recently seen in the US, where indigenous artists are fusing hip-hop and dance with the old songs of their people.29

The actions of western governments and non-governments give us no reason to hope. But the struggles of the indigenous peoples do. In these we find the understanding of oikeios still alive, still expressed, still fought for. "The fact that over eighty percent of the world’s biodiversity thrives on Indigenous lands is not a coincidence."30 The indigenous peoples are not “closer to nature”. To say they are is to speak in the tongue of those who saw the nations and tribes as stones or weeds, to be cleared with force or fire. We cannot get closer to nature, for we already live within it. Nothing demonstrates this better than the reality of climate change; there is no escape from that which constitutes the totality. What is there is an understanding, and an understanding we must learn ourselves.

The only way we may save the world is to realise our own place within it, to recognise our state or reciprocal immanence. We do this in fleeting moments now, perhaps when we swim in the sea, or gaze at the green crickets that wander our ceilings, but we must make this understanding solid and constant. Once we see ourselves as part of the earth we will finally be able to summon the energy to save it. No longer will we invest our hopes in alienated others; in conferences or anti-conferences, but instead act directly to preserve that which we relate directly to. Then we may stand in solidarity with those who have been fighting to preserve non-human life for as long as we have been trying to destroy it. Then we may build a world we may live within. Then we may reclaim Oikeios.

Posted By

Out of the Woods
Sep 25 2014 08:54

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  • Environmentalism remains trapped in the thought of colonial-capitalism. Nature is something which happens in foreign lands… The idea that corporate ecocide should be rewarded with land stolen from the global south embodies all that is wrong with modern environmentalism.

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Comments

simiangene
Oct 4 2014 17:35
Khawaga wrote:
simiangene you're barely coherent

Oh really! Well then why don't you exhibit some imaginative flare and discuss,,,,umm,,,OK, I have it, the similarities which exist between neo-Malthusian population self-regulation by starvation and Lovelock's Gaia ice-age purge of excess atmospheric C02. A bit too mathematical for you?!

simiangene
Oct 4 2014 17:39
Khawaga wrote:
simiangene you're barely coherent

PS Also I'm translating from an indigenous Hunter/ Gatherer mentality (no really) thus my cynicism and bitter reparteé!

simiangene
Oct 10 2014 13:30

I'm looking at the big picture here Joe, and what astounds me is the glaring contradiction which exists between a culture's presumed ethical purity as regards its maintaining a non-Western belief system, yet without the adoption of the Western political method and the luxuries and increased longevity that this compromise provides,,,well, I'm sorry to say this really, but the indigenous peoples would have had to endure a miserable and violent existence battling nature and other vicious tribes. Ever seen the movie "Apocalypto"? Hey, existence is what one makes of it, whether in East LA or on an idyllic Pacific Island, cultural mythologies are merely veneers and masquerades trying to give the appearance of diversity but actually hiding the globally existent and rather brutal dog eat dog human tendencies. One culture is not more pure or deserves more praise than any other one, and it particularly sickens me to see these new-age yuppies praising indigenous cultures, harkening back to that horrible 19th century Romantic 'Noble Savage' creation, its like its come a full circle, looking for a pure symbolic cultural representative which can be a substitute for the modern dystopia. Truly 19th C!

Fleur
Oct 10 2014 14:01

simiangene
Just out of curiosity, may I ask you what part of the world are you from/living in?

Caiman del Barrio
Oct 10 2014 14:07

OK Simian, so what, the best thing for indigenous cultures - however imperfect they maybe - is wholesale robbery, expropriation, assimilation, genocide? Indigenous cultures shouldn't be idealised, but refusing to allow a space for different values systems and lifestyles is de facto the idealisation of Western monoculture.

simiangene
Oct 10 2014 14:53
Fleur wrote:
simiangene
Just out of curiosity, may I ask you what part of the world are you from/living in?

I don't think its relevant where I am geographically on this messed up mud ball, but I will admit to living in the Southern Hemispherical Zone.

simiangene
Oct 10 2014 15:26
Caiman del Barrio wrote:
OK Simian, so what, the best thing for indigenous cultures - however imperfect they maybe - is wholesale robbery, expropriation, assimilation, genocide? Indigenous cultures shouldn't be idealised, but refusing to allow a space for different values systems and lifestyles is de facto the idealisation of Western monoculture.

I never approve of exploitation of anyone, I disapprove of double standards or values. Western monoculture is a misnomer, rather it is a social system which allows for excessive individuality and thus dissolves the quintessential qualities of culture, being uniform adherence to one ideological system. Western 'social design' is not really specifically a cultural social vision with sustainable outcomes, rather it is anti-culture, materialist and militaristic, what appears to be a system or form of order is actually an authoritarian social prison posing as a culture. Don't you see that!!
Is not a culture based on a mythological framework equally unsustainable, and only its low population and technological simplicity the real reason why it did not proceed to an environmental catastrophe? Take a look at Easter Island, the first paradise to be wiped out of existence!