The river and the steersman

Capital Circulation in the Anthropocene


The circulation of capital is a pattern of activity that flows through persons, things and natural environments. How could we characterize this pattern of global capital circulation today? What guides it and gives it shape? How in turn does it govern the development of the world that we live in? And finally, is there any form of agency that could resist this ruling pattern? If there is, from where would it derive its fundamental orientation and its force of conviction?

I will approach these questions through three artistic projects, each of which I have been involved in to some degree. Two of them retrace the patterns of exchange and the dominant kinds of agency that have given material form to the city where I live, Chicago. By engaging with this specific place, the investigations produce insights into global capital circulation. The third project is an ecological one, focused on the Paraná river basin in Argentina, Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil. Here, the artists pay close attention to the flow, not of money, but of a watershed. They attempt to let a vast system of wetlands become a guide to a new pattern of human organization.

This text will deal with massive effects of power, but also with subtler questions of orientation and steering. It is meant to be analytic, but above all, sensuous and suggestive. There is at present a tremendous need for an alternative aesthetics, to render ourselves more responsive to the world we live in. By contrasting the dominant patterns of global development to the far more uncertain promises of ecological activism, what I want to do is to open up a horizon of possibility.

1. The Canal


In the spring of 2014, Rozalinda Borcilă and I collaborated on an exhibition called Foreign Trade Zone. It was part of a larger research into the global transportation industries, entitled Southwest Corridor Northwest Passage.1 We began with an historical observation, which is that the early European explorers were not looking for America at all. They were looking for Asia. They wanted to find a “great river” constituting a Northwest Passage across the continent, and therefore, a navigable route to China. The imaginary figure of the Northwest Passage is the founding image of circulationist desire. It’s all about open water – or at least, it’s about liquidity.

In the case of Chicago we are talking about two explorers, Marquette and Joliet, who left French Canada in search of China in 1673. They failed to discover a westward flowing river and instead found themselves heading south on the Mississippi, confronted by hostile tribes. So they turned back, paddled upriver, and in hopes of finding a short cut home they let themselves be guided by indigenous people to a portage across the Continental Divide. The portage would take them from the watershed of the Gulf of Mexico to the watershed of the Atlantic Ocean. All they had to do was drag their canoes through a few miles of mud. That mud is now called Chicago. By digging a relatively short canal, the two explorers proposed, it would be possible to travel, not to the Orient, but at least from Canada to Louisiana – a voyage of great interest to the French colonizers. Well, it took almost two centuries to build the Illinois & Michigan canal, and those who did it were not French but Americans. Still, Marquette and Joliet’s failed trip to China marked out the pathway for what would become a major transportation corridor heading southwest, from Chicago to the ports of California. The Asian passageway was realized by rail, and the connection with container ships now brings a plethora of cheap products to all corners of North America.

Why make art about a transportation corridor? We wanted to grasp global trade as a local reality. We wanted to feel its pulse and get to know its metabolism. In particular, we wanted to grasp the patterns of flow linking the rail yards and warehouse districts on the city’s edge to the entire world network of just-in-time production and delivery. How does Chicago fulfill its role as a transportation hub today? Who handles the goods, and who controls their movement? What are the consequences when a country delocalizes its manufacturing to another continent? And why are labor relations in the United States reaching a breaking point, as extreme police deployments for a simple union action against the logistics corporation Schneider showed us so graphically? We wanted to intervene right here, where you can touch the machinery of capital circulation. Something crucial is at stake in the just-in-time delivery system. It’s like a social clock, setting our tempos, marking the flextime of the global economy. In fact, the just-in-time system is a form of government, shaping our environments and steering our daily activities.2

In the course of our research, contributor Steve Rowell used an off-the-shelf surveillance drone to obtain an aerial view of the BNSF rail yard on the outskirts of Chicago, near the WalMart warehouse. This giant facility is a temporary whirlpool in the great river of commodities that now flows from Asia to the West Coast ports, then throughout the continental US, like a Northwest Passage in reverse. From here the Asian goods will continue on in a capillary pattern, by truck, to distribution centers, conventional warehouses, individual stores and consumers. Gantry cranes lift the boxes from the rail cars; hostlers take them to storage stacks in the yard; toploaders place them on semi trailers headed for the freeway. What you see is the contemporary function of Chicago as a hub of global trade.

The movement of shipping containers across oceans and continents was the first aspect we wanted to understand. But through Rozalinda Borcilă’s research, we also became intensely interested in the historical process that separated land from water, so as to transform a former wetlands inhabited by native peoples into a series of dry ownership parcels traversed by a deep canal. There were so many questions: How does marsh become farmland? How does a city lot gain value through a speculative property boom? How is the earth literally remade by the transportation and real-estate industries? What happens to our understanding of commerce if we think of it as an extension of the high seas into the dry continents? And where do the wetlands linger on in the present? What lives in the mud? Could we grasp the place we inhabit as an ecology, and not as a giant supermarket?

These questions became more pressing when we observed how the city had solved its sewage problem in the late nineteenth century, through the construction of a much larger canal. The entire Chicago River system was reversed by the power of engineering. The Continental Divide was breached by the Sanitary and Ship Canal, and the water of Lake Michigan was made to flow toward the Gulf of Mexico, in order to carry Chicago’s shit away from the financial district. We realized that the Southwest Corridor was very literally part of the city’s metabolism, with vast effects on the environment. In fact, the reversal of the river system situates Chicago within the present geological age, the Anthropocene. This is the age when human activities have become the decisive shaper of the landforms of our planet.3

To understand the separation of land from water, and therefore, the emergence of both the dry city and the liquid corridor, we realized that we had to understand the agency of property speculation. The first canal was dug with money derived from the sale of newly created property that would only become valuable in the future, after the digging of the canal. The tracing of private property was necessary to offer the promise of a payback for the canal. However, the state also had to back the builders in the present, by subscribing to the debt they incurred. At the same time, it had to force the indigenous inhabitants from the land they occupied, in order to clear the way for the settlers who would buy the property – not from the state, but from the speculators who bought it first. The double movement of incentivizing subsidy (for the canal builders and property speculators) and exclusionary violence (for the indigenous peoples) is what made possible the completion of the canal in 1848. And it also made possible the founding of the Chicago Board of Trade in that same year.

The CBOT was erected by its members, the traders, in anticipation of the flows of grain that would arrive from the new dry land created alongside the canal. Marshland was transformed into salable lots and navigable waters. Farms supplied the product that in turn produced a commercial city. And that was the origin of today’s global futures markets, which took on their contemporary form in Chicago’s financial district. Throughout this process of colonization and transformation of the territory, real constructive activities were guided by the calculation of future profits, for which someone was always willing to pay a price in the present. How does this kind of transaction happen? Where does the price come from? And who – or what – actually steers the transformation of the territory?

According to the economists Bichler & Nitzan, capitalism is structured around a central ritual. The future earnings of a given asset are estimated using all available information, then this future value is discounted by subtracting a “risk premium” that reflects the chances of losing on the investment. In this way, a price is obtained in the present. That’s called capitalization. The ritual of capitalization, initially performed in exchanges and now increasingly performed online by computers, is the decisive moment in the organization of global capital circulation.4

As part of our project, we took people out into the city to look at the terrain where this calculation of future values and present risks used to be performed. In the early twentieth century, after the new canal had been dug, the older one was covered up by railroad quays, which themselves have now disappeared. The railroads came straight to the feet of a huge modernist grain elevator, which is now a squatted ruin. This is where information was obtained, at the very site where the abstract values of finance were founded on physical commodities. The grain elevator functioned not just as a storage bin, but also as a kind of bank. For each standardized quantity of grain, the farmer received “elevator tickets,” which served as a kind of money. The tickets could be lent or sold to a futures trader, who in turn would sell to others the right to buy a given quantity of grain for a fixed price at a future date. The farms, the canals, the railroads and the elevators had given rise to a new river: the flow of capital representing future harvests of grain, whose actual value remained uncertain, risky, and therefore speculative. From the top of the ruined elevator, the squatters told us, the financial district looked like an island, surrounded by the glittering lake and the engineered canal.

2. Kybernetes


Chicago is also the place where I met Beate Geissler and Oliver Sann, and began collaborating with them on the book Volatile Smile.5 We exchanged our investigations of the financial sphere, and as we discussed their art in the light of my theoretical models it became clear that they had constituted the entire operational diagram of the financial ritual. This kind of diagram was first proposed by Félix Guattari. It includes four components: aesthetic impulses, existential territories, organizational forms and abstract concepts. The interrelation of these components gives rise to a transpersonal agency, including territories, machines and ideas as well as animals and humans. It’s crucial to realize that in a complex society, all forms of agency are transpersonal: they are assemblages, concatenations.6

Let’s see how agency takes form in the financial sphere. At the upper right, on the subjective side of the diagram and in the place of what Guattari calls the virtually possible, we can locate the first-person shooters of computerized video games whom Geissler/Sann portrayed in the early 2000s. Caught with a strange rictus playing over their faces at the moment of the fictional kill, these figures express the affects of predatory desire within a closed-loop information environment. On the same side of the diagram, at the lower right and in the place of what Guattari calls the virtually real, we can put the devastated existential territories of the apartments whose market value was destroyed by the 2008 crash, which occurred just as the two artists arrived in Chicago. As one reads in the book: “These spaces run the gamut from the crisply resurfaced housing commodity to the abjectly decayed ruin, with ample traces of lived experience, poignant memory and human tragedy in between.” The real-estate photos have everything to do with the video-game shooters: they express the feast of creative destruction on which the desire of neoliberal finance thrives. Yet clearly there can be no agency unless some new social form emerges from this ruined existential territory.

Now we move to the objective side of the diagram, at bottom left, in the place of the actually real. The thrill of imagined possibilities, galvanized by the existential anxiety of risk, leads forward to a new pattern of technological organization: high-speed algorithmic trading. Geissler/Sann took these images in 2010, just shortly after the “flash crash” when algo-trading showed its capacity to paralyze the entire market. What we see are the empty desks of the algo-traders and their lugubrious arrays of darkened screens. At these desks a new generation of golden boys fulfills the dreams of the first-person shooters – but only on the condition that the old figure of the individual trader in the open-outcry pits should first disappear, fractured into an actor-network complex of analysts, strategists, mathematicians, programmers, super-fast computers and low latency fiber-optic cables. In fact, algo-trading only emerged as a dominant force after 2008, under the conditions of tremendous volatility generated by the real-estate crisis. Ironically, the destruction of so many homes, that is, of so many existential territories, coincided with the closure of the pits themselves and the shift to fully electronic trading almost everywhere in the world. In these last few years, a new form of agency has crystallized.

Just one thing was missing to complete the diagram – and it couldn’t be replaced by the strange, Dühreresque image of a rhinoceros that appeared in the exhibition version of Volatile Smile at NGBK in Berlin. What was missing, at upper left, were the abstract concepts on which every concrete action in a complex society depends. The conceptual moment of the diagram, or the place of what Guattari calls the virtually real, can be filled with the cybernetic theory that Beate and Oliver had encountered in their work on the military, and that I had been studying in the global communications nets and the financial markets. At stake here is the mathematics of feedback loops, whereby a machine or an organism transforms its inner states in order to adapt to changes in a flow of information coming from an outside environment. Feedback is the key concept of the information era.

Cybernetic theory enters finance by way of equations like the Black-Scholes formula, which treats all price information as a single field in a state of dynamic equilibrium, such that changes in one set of prices are inevitably balanced out by opposite changes in others. Flows of money can then be organized by a speculative agency so as to take advantage of the volatility that surges through this unified field. And that’s exactly what algo-trading does. New price inputs, now matter how small, are registered with sensors; and sell or buy offers correct the equation to obtain the desired output. That output is profit, of course. In the diagram of financial agency, cybernetics loops the loop: it provides the operational theory for ultra-fast confrontations between dueling algorithms, and it’s also at the origin of the feedback environments inhabited by the video gamers.

Only when the diagram is complete can you finally grasp its starting point. The force of the shooter-aesthetic is to set this predatory agency into motion. In the cybernetic dream, every territory becomes a moving target, every facet of existence becomes a dynamic variable in a patterned flow. The governing technique of capitalization is really very simple. You just aim and pull the trigger.

In Volatile Smile, we have created a portrait of the modern-day kybernetes, a Greek word which means governor or steersman. This is the composite agency that carries out the financial ritual. The kybernetes is not an individual, but a socio-technical assemblage, whose distant ancestor is the operations research group configured by the military and the giant corporations during WWII. In the book, I describe the kind of stripped-down operational team that you find in high-speed trading firms: “a quant on the lam from particle physics; a strategist with a broad grasp of the financial markets; a technologist with her fingers on the keyboard; and of course, a billionaire backer or an investment fund with a fortune to win or lose.” Bring these desiring figures together in a computerized network and you have the kybernetes, who navigates society’s course through the great rivers of money unleashed by the printing presses and bond markets of today’s debt-financed “sovereign” states.

Now, exactly how “sovereign” are the nation-states of the information era? When one observes how the flood of money created by central banks in the wake of the crisis has served only to lift the boats of speculative investors, it begins to appear as though the cybernetic steersman were at the origin of the very river he navigates. Sovereignty, in other words, is on the side of the banks. Clearly we are not living in the era of the gold standard anymore, nor even less, in the industrial economy that Marx described in the nineteenth century. In fact, for the economist Richard Duncan, we are not even living in capitalism anymore. Duncan claims that since the gold standard was finally broken with the end of the Bretton-Woods treaty in 1973, we have been living under creditism.7 Creditism is the system where governments create money on the basis of central bank debt, i.e. Treasury bonds. This freely created money is then lent out, twenty to thirty times over, via private loans under the rules of fractional reserve banking. The lending, that is, the credit, creates both investment capital and consumer purchasing power. This means that not the profit and loss of industry, but instead, political power is at the basis of capital circulation. And this really could lead to the end of capitalism, since money, whose scarcity is the disciplinary element of the system, is now created at will by national collectivities. But where does the credit money flow? The problem is that governments are not steering this monetary creation to transformative ends. They are not channeling it into infrastructure, social reproduction, or the redress of ecological damages. Instead, all that fresh credit money is flowing into the asset markets of finance, where it is managed by the ritual of capitalization. And so we all bow down and pray, not to democracy, but to the kybernetes, which is the figure or entity that binds our civilization together.

At this point I think one has to ask a basic question. Doesn’t this ritual of capitalization amount to no more than an illusion? For Marx, the sums invested in finance are nothing but “fictitious capital,” mere pyramids of paper money divorced from any concrete production. Yet the essence of fictitious capital, I would argue, is not just to spin out of control during periodic crises that reassert the power of the so-called “real economy.” That’s not what has happened since 2008. Instead, the primary role of credit money is to govern material production and reshape that production in its own image, which is the image of circulation and speculation. And that has definitely been going on, at least since 1973 when financially driven globalization began. We can see the image of finance expressed around the world in the mirrored skins of skyscrapers, in the shimmering advertisements that adorn them, and in the coded information that skims over their surfaces, emerging from the vast tapestry of fiber-optic cables that has girded the planet over the last few decades. The aesthetics of capital is right there, and it’s called the global city. All high-value urban properties are, of course, governed directly by the logic of real-estate speculation, which the 2008 crisis did nothing to eradicate. If this is fiction, then it creates what it feigns to be. It embodies its own illusions.

Capital is power, as Bichler and Nitzan say. It is the power to create order, to “creorder” society. We can see this power at work on all the intimate stages where the gaze of capitalization comes to rest on the speculative performances of human beings. The subjects of the gaze – that is to say ourselves, the cognitive and affective laborers – seek to demonstrate our future value to possible employers or investors, while at the same time minimizing in their eyes the risks of breakdown, cynicism, treason and revolt that are always hidden in our own potentials. As a social order, finance capital is made or destroyed in these speculative performances, carried out by those who are called upon to embody in their own flesh some tiny quantum of the entire system’s future possibilities. The index of capital’s psychic power is that there has been, so far, no decisive social change – despite all the turmoil of 2011. The force of resistance has not yet composed its own agency. It has not yet forged its own ritual. It has not yet gathered its own people.

Instead, what we see in the world, beyond the glittering cities, is a tremendous development of highly automated extractive and productive industries, along with an unprecedented acceleration of the technologies and organizational forms of capitalist distribution. This too is the image of the kybernetes. Ships, canals, container ports, railroads, trucks, airports, endless continental corridors: all of Asia is being pushed to the same excess of overdevelopment as the US and Europe. The Anthropocene is this excess, spurred on by creditism. In China, Korea, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia they are literally choking on industrial production, drowning in chemical and radioactive effluents, staggering under the weight of new and alienating cities whose destinies over the next twenty or thirty years no one can really imagine. And this great polluted river of production and distribution runs in reverse. It is piloted not by labor or even less by democracy, but by credit money: by “fictitious” capital.

3. The Wetlands


Imagine yourself on a river bank in the middle of Argentina, with the giant Rosario-Victoria bridge rising up out of a flood. Torrential rains poured down on Brazil about three weeks ago; now the water is rushing before your eyes, carrying its cargo of debris and river weeds and mud. You’re on the outskirts of the city of Rosario, at the heart of Latin America’s Southern Cone, and in the most fertile part of the Pampa Humeda, which is one of the world’s great grain-cultivating regions. You’re also somewhere near the southern edge of the largest surviving wetlands system on the planet. From here to Paraguay and on to Bolivia and Brazil extends the second major watershed of Latin America, the Rio de la Plata basin, which takes its name from the great estuary which the Paraná river forms before pouring into the sea. The vastness and biodiversity of this river system makes it comparable to the Amazon; but it flows through the most populous and developed part of South America, and its banks are surrounded by vast GMO soy fields rather than forest, so its political economy is quite different.

The new bridge, and the causeway behind it that acts as a sixty-kilometer dam in the middle of the wetlands, is just one among hundreds of megaprojects whose construction is orchestrated by IIRSA, the “Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America.” IIRSA is a transnational economic forum, launched by the Inter-American Development Bank in the year 2000. From its viewpoint, almost everything that was formerly called “nature” appears as a resource to be extracted or an obstacle to be surmounted. As the Uruguayan sociologist Raúl Zibechi writes:

IIRSA is a multi-sectoral project that aims to develop and integrate transportation, energy, and telecommunications infrastructure… The goal is to reorganize the continent’s landscape based on the development of a physical infrastructure of land, aerial, and river transport; oil and gas pipelines; waterways; maritime and river ports; and power lines and fiber optic cables, to name a few. These projects are organized in 12 integration and development axes – corridors where investments can be concentrated to increase trade and create chains of production connected to global market…. This transformation is linked to the emergence of “global factories” that operate under the just-in-time premise. A sort ofglobal automaton” has been created by large businesses that employ remote-control operation techniques and cover the planet in the form of a network.8

Rosario, with its giant new causeway-bridge over the Paraná River, is located at the cusp of two of IIRSA’s major development zones. From east to west runs the so-called “Mercosur-Chile Axis,” linking the densely populated southeastern seaboard of Latin America to the crucial Pacific ports of Chile, notably through a road-rail link over the Andean mountains known as the “Bi-Oceanic Corridor.” Here we can see a reiteration of the pattern of North America’s rail corridors to Asia. From north to south, however, there is something else going on: IIRSA envisages the Paraná river system as a kind of liquid superhighway, a “hydrovia,” which could potentially be interconnected with the Amazon basin to form a single circulation system for heavy industry. The kinds of corridors that emerged around Chicago over the course of two hundred years are now being planned at continental scale for realization in less than two decades. This is the expanded scale and accelerated time-frame that we have to imagine if we want to face the reality of capital circulation in the Anthropocene.

The question is, how could anyone do that? How could anyone think, imagine, desire and act on such scales? How could you “face” an entire continent? Or, to ask a variation of the same question, how could you interact with a bioregion of such vast dimensions as the Rio de la Plata watershed?

I’ve been to Rosario before; but in July of 2014 I had the good fortune to return in the company of Ala Plástica, an art group which has been working with eco-social issues since the early 1990s. Ala Plástica is just two people, Silvina Babich and Alejandro Meitin. Yet there always seem to be many more people in everything Ala Plástica does, intricate tapestries of people with many interconnections. Along with Critical Art Ensemble, Sarah Lewison, Eduardo Molinari, Joan Vila-Puig, Pio Torroja, Marcelo Miranda, Fabiano Kueva, Graciela Carnevale and many others, we traveled from the coastal zone of La Plata to the River Delta on the edge of Buenos Aires, then up the Paraná to Rosario and across the bridge to the flooded wetlands between Rosario and the town of Victoria. The theme of our journey was “Watersheds as Laboratories of Governance.” What we were doing was recapitulating – and in some way becoming part of – the aesthetic, territorial, activist and ecological experience that Ala Plástica has been co-creating with inhabitants of the Rio de la Plata basin over the last twenty years.

Ala Plástica emerged as the “visual arts wing” of a public-space collective that took over an abandoned library building in the university town of La Plata, near the banks of the estuary, in 1991. From the beginning it was a resistance project, both against the lingering repression of the 1976-83 dictatorship and against the organized abandonment of neoliberalism. Gradually the group felt the necessity – both artistic and economic – to extend beyond the traditional conceptions of urban public space, and in 1995 they began planting bulrushes along the coastline of the locality of Punta Lara. Once planted, the reeds would spread rhizomatically, contributing to water purification and offering a living model of emergent collectivity to those who worked with them. Planting bulrushes and willows was a way to meet other inhabitants, to participate in the ecosystem itself, to develop new economies and also a new artistic practice. These activities led to collaborations with many local cooperatives, notably on Isla Paulina, which is a tiny farming and grape-growing community near the port and petrochemical complex of Ensenada. They also led beyond the immediate locality, to the Delta region north of Buenos Aires, where the Paraná river flows into the estuary through a dozen different channels, creating a labyrinthine world of forested and inhabited islands. And the Delta itself, of course, was the gateway to the immense system of wetlands leading north into Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil.

All of this was not just pastoral, however. The Delta was and still is threatened by the installation of gated communities on artificially raised platforms that profoundly alter the cultural life of the river, as well as the very flow of the water. In 1996, a treaty was signed between Argentina and Uruguay, calling for the construction of an immense bridge across the estuary, from Punta Lara to the Uruguayan city of Colonia, which would have caused incalculable damage to the ecosystem. And in 1999, a Shell oil tanker ran into a freighter near the town of Magdalena, releasing what at the time was accounted the largest fresh-water oil spill in history. Ala Plástica used cultural activities as a vector of relatively successful grassroots organization in the face of all these threats and disasters. At the same time they developed the concept of an artistic practice that is transpersonal and consists of public thinking, debate and action, all founded on “the right of communities to develop visions more sensitive to their own situations, and to propose alternative realities for the social construction of a territory.”9

“Who designs the territories? And for whom are they designed?” These are Ala Plástica’s basic questions. Today they are asking them in collaboration with a transnational network of grassroots organizations called the Alliance for the Wetlands System of the Paraguay-Paraná River. In 2008 they created a hand-drawn map to express the current scope of their activity: what you see is a tapestry of local and regional relationships that suddenly jumps scale to encompass the entire river system of Latin America. In effect, the group is not afraid of scientific instruments such as Geographic Information Systems offering a satellite view. Whether the connections are made through word of mouth, art or advanced electronic means, the issue is always that of deepening peoples’ participation in a vast territory that turns out in the end to be not so irremediably complex, because, as Alejandro Meitin often says, you find out that you are already part of it.

There is both an aesthetics and a theory of territory in this work. Clearly it constitutes another diagram of agency, where the sensitivity developed in the work with willows and bulrushes helps to generate caring relationships with territories wounded by industrial development, and then transforms the energies of that care into more mediated forms of cooperation that can set up the fractal relationships of scale called for by contemporary ecological thinking. The question, it seems to me, is whether this kind of activism could constitute a force of resistance to the all-consuming capitalist market and the guiding figure of the kybernetes that we saw earlier. Could the river itself become a governing force, a “figure of regulation,” as the artist Sarah Lewison suggested during our trip? Could the river, and beyond it, the planetary ecology itself, constitute a figure, an original entity, around which hitherto unknown kinds of agency could gather, to perform quite new rituals?

To conclude, I want to bring one more rhinoceros into the room. It’s Bruno Latour, with his recent series of lectures “Facing Gaia: Six Lectures on the Political Theology of Nature.”10 Here the founder of actor-network theory lays out the conditions for an aesthetic sensitivity to the responses that the planet is now giving to our actions; and he suggests a new kind of responsibility that arises from that sensitivity. Borrowing from James Lovelock and Carl Schmitt, and completely renewing the concept of cybernetics, Latour claims that the feedback effects of climate change implicate us within an agency that nonetheless stands apart from us as individuals. Through its responses to our actions, it indicates the new territorial order of the Anthropocene and calls us to assemble as a people on this territory. The agency is Gaia, and Latour believes it should be recognized as a political entity – indeed, as a contemporary Leviathan. Let’s listen to him as he considers the ecosystem’s responses to the climate-transforming actions of human beings:

Behind” those cumulative responses, it is hard not to imagine that there exists a power that does listen and answer. To grant it a personhood, is not to imply that it may speak and think or that it exists as one single substance, no more than you would do with a State, but that in the end it has to be recognized as a politically assembled sort of entity. What counts is that such a power has the ability to steer our action, and thus to provide it with limits, loops and constraints, which is, as you know, the etymology of the word “cybernetic.” In that sense, Gaia is indeed a cybernetic sort of being even though, as I have shown in commenting on Lovelock, it is not a technical system, a space station. It is cybernetic in an old and frightening sense of the word: such a power exerts a sort of sovereignty.

Is there any chance that some of the earth’s population will come together as a new people, “the Earthbound,” “the People of Gaia,” who can break away from the rituals of capital circulation and recognize another principle of responsibility? Is it possible that actual ecosystems, and particularly watersheds, could become the fundamental units of a new kind of governance, where society steers its development according to the demands, not of capital, but of a river flowing through a territory?

These kinds of questions loom large in the era of the Anthropocene. But they point beyond anything that could be said at the present. I don’t think we will be able to answer them before environmental conditions become more radically challenging, perhaps in the near future, after the long-desired Northwest Passage opens up a liquid channel through the formerly frozen polar oceans. In the meantime I do believe that one can recognize, in the artistic practice of Ala Plástica, a very original and very promising diagram of ecological agency.





1The website contains full documentation of the research process, the exhibition and the associated walks:

2For the just-in-time system, see Brian Holmes, “Do Containers Dream of Electric People?” in Open 21 (2011).

3For the term’s origin, see P. Crutzen and E. Stoermer, “The Anthropocene,” IGBP Newsletter 41 (2000). For a full treatment, Mark Whitehead, Environmental Transformations: A Geography of the Anthropocene (Routledge, 2014).

4On the ritual of capitalization, see Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder (Routledge, 2009).

5Geissler/Sann and Holmes, Volatile Smile (Moderne Kunst Nürnberg, 2014).

6On Guattari’s four-fold diagram and its use for understanding socially transformative agencies, see my text, “Activism / Schizoanalysis,” in Clemens Apprich et al., eds., Provocative Alloys: A Post-Media Anthology (Mute Books, 2013).

7See Richard Duncan, The New Depression: The Breakdown of the Paper Money Economy (Wiley, 2012).

8Raúl Zibechi, “IIRSA: Integration Custom-Made for International Markets” (2006), published by América Latina en Movimiento, at

9Ala Plástica, virtual catalogue, p. 33, at

10For links to the pdf and the videos of Bruno Latour’s six Gifford Lectures, “Facing Gaia,” see and

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