Sie sind auf Seite 1von 28

Theory, Culture & Society

Biopolitical Economies and the Political Aesthetics of Climate Change

Kathryn Yusoff
Theory Culture Society 2010 27: 73
DOI: 10.1177/0263276410362090

The online version of this article can be found at:

Published by:

On behalf of:
The TCS Centre, Nottingham Trent University

Additional services and information for Theory, Culture & Society can be found at:

Email Alerts:





Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 73

Biopolitical Economies and

the Political Aesthetics of
Climate Change

Kathryn Yusoff

As environments and their inhabitants undergo a multitude of abrupt
changes due to climate, in the aesthetic field there has been a hardening
of a few representational figures that stand in for those contested political
ecologies. Biodiversity loss and habitat change can be seen to be forcing an
acceleration of archival practices that mobilize various images of the ‘play
of the world’, including the making of star species to represent planetary
loss, and the consolidation of other species into archives implicitly organ-
ized around the category of their destruction. The first section of this article
looks at Jacques Rancière’s concept of political aesthetics in order to extend
an argument about the importance of aesthetics in multispecies living
beyond a concentration on practices per se and into a more excessive
engagement articulated by Georges Bataille. I argue that aesthetics must be
considered as part of the practice of politics and a space that configures the
realm of what is possible in that politics. This is to suggest aesthetics as a
form of ethics or an ‘aesthetics of existence’, as Foucault put it. The conclu-
sion considers how a biopolitical aesthetic comes into being through such
archival practices, and asks what aesthetic shifts would make the ‘play of
the world’ more present in its absences.

Key words
aesthetics ■ animality ■ Georges Bataille ■ climate change ■ ethics ■ Jacques

■ Theory, Culture & Society 2010 (SAGE, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Singapore),
Vol. 27(2–3): 73–99
DOI: 10.1177/0263276410362090

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 74

74 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

Aesthetics refers to a specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts:
a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their correspon-
ding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relation-
ships (which presupposes a certain idea of thought’s effectivity). (Rancière,
2004: 10)

If, for example, you were to think more deeply about death, then it would be
truly strange if, in so doing, you did not encounter new images, new linguistic
fields. (Wittgenstein, quoted in Saramago, 2008: 1)

The Absence and Presence of White Bears

N THE contemporary political aesthetics of climate change, the polar
bear has become a mythic and biophysical storyteller, figuring the
complexities of changing climates and habitat loss, and conjoining the
biophysical and emotional worlds of humans and animals. This figuring
through the political register of environmental change is at once: (1)
biophysical – the polar bear literally absorbs the wastes of modernity that
sink in the Arctic to make it one of the most toxic creatures alive;1 (2)
cultural – the polar bear is a boundary object that negotiates climate change
across scales for publics (Slocum, 2004);2 (3) adaptive – the polar bear
predicts one possible story of climate change told through reproductive
adaptation to changing habitat conditions (a polar–grizzly bear hybrid was
recently shot);3 and (4) symbolic – the polar bear is a guardian of future
scenarios in as much as it is estimated that the polar bear may not exist in
50 years time. This visibility of polar bear futures and their entanglement

Figure 1 Churchill Eskimo Museum, 2007 (Photo by Kathryn Yusoff)

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 75

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 75

with the futures of communities of human and non-human others is no doubt

due to their charismatic proliferation through aesthetic orders. The polar
bear, then, is the key figure through which the entanglement of the loss and
the flourishing of the biophysical world, and the politics of life and energy
turn. This article takes the polar bear as a central figure through which to
trace the political aesthetics of climate change and crucially as a figure that
co-joins both human and non-human lifeworlds in a shared experience of
climatic change.
Men in bear suits turn up to G8 and climate change summits,
swimming bears make it to the front of Time Magazine and Harpers, bears
are photoshopped in to reinforce star power and green credentials for Arnold
Schwarzenegger and Leonardo DiCaprio. And in the climate change talks
in Bali, Oxfam protesters dressed as bears venture that ‘climate change
makes poor people poorer’ and ‘we are all in this together’ – as if to suggest
that this obsession with polar bears might have gone too far. Among inter-
national conservation organizations, such as the Worldwide Fund for Nature,
polar bears top the charismatic megafauna index. Both Canada and the US
have been involved in highly contentious votes on the admittance of polar
bears to the endangered species list (Canada voted against inclusion, the
US voted for). The admittance of polar bears onto the endangered species
list in the US can be seen as a form of future-oriented politics that implic-
itly puts polar bears in the endangered category based on a perception of
their future survival, rather than the usual designation of current survival.
In indigenous politics, members of the Inuit Circumpolar Council (ICC)
have protested about the admittance of polar bears onto the endangered
species list because it threatens community revenue and cultural practices.
And furthermore, the ICC argues, it obscures the central issue of (and
responsibility for) climate change emissions. In Arctic energy politics, oil
and gas development in the Barents and Chuchki Sea have been plagued
by polar bear politics; at the microscale this entails problems over polar
bear interactions with offshore oil rigs, and at the macroscale, the retreat-
ing ice offers new fossil fuel opportunities, and thus increased consump-
tion, which leads to further ice depletion and loss of polar bear habitat
(which facilitates more oil and gas development).
As environments and their inhabitants undergo a multitude of abrupt
changes due to climate change, in the aesthetic field there has been a hard-
ening of a few representational figures that stand in for these contested polit-
ical ecologies. Iconic species have become a shared human–non-human
assemblage through which to encounter climate change, where aesthetics is
a crucial space for the visibility and invisibility of species depletion and
biodiversity loss as a consequence of climate change – a space of plurality
and diversity one would think. Yet the default visual languages have
hardened into a repetitive practice where polar bears rule. That is to say, in
Donna Haraway’s terms, that polar bears have been made into our ‘compan-
ion species’ par excellence in the discourse of climate change. As compan-
ions in the experience of abrupt environmental change, polar bears have

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 76

76 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

become a space in which to project, negotiate and comprehend a shared

fate. More discreetly, polar bears have become a prosthetic emotional device
for testing the water of loss. This coupling reassembles a concept of animals
not as something in need of protection (outside of the human) but as collab-
orators and companions, albeit in a rather negative possibility. Animals are
our companions in the sense that they not only extend our emotional
relations into the world, but they have historically been the prosthetic of our
understanding of environmental change (through migration and movement).
In this sense, animals extend our sensory capacity to both notice and
respond to environmental change. At the last Ice Age, the migration of
people was nothing more than the migration of animals. Understanding
animals was vital when undergoing and surviving abrupt climate events. The
fracturing of our relationship with animality in late capitalist modernity
hastens a loss of our extended sense of environments, as well as the defining
historic relation of how, as a species, we have responded to historic climate
If, as Haraway says, ‘Animals are everywhere full partners in worlding,
in becoming with’ (2008: 301), what kind of colleagues are we to be in our
shared experience of climate change? And, furthermore, how might we be
better colleagues with the life forces of the biosphere? In the ubiquitous
iconography of polar bears, our colleagues might seem to be getting short
shrift in the presenting and practising of their complexity. Polar bears have
become somewhat generic, ordered into taxonomies, ranked by perceived
importance, isolated from the habitats that make their worlds, and the lively
relationalities in which they are already situated. Or they are too located in
our narratives of their worlds (forever swimming in the sea of melting ice)
to allow them any other spaces to practise in. Yet, if nothing else, to repre-
sent is to assume responsibility for, to decide not to occlude, and thus, in
some way, to care. And this care, or non-human charisma as Jamie Lorimer
characterizes it, provides ‘the vital motivating energy that compels many
people to get involved in biodiversity conservation’ (2007: 927). But, making
present is a tricky business (and only half of the ethical story). How to make
those significant others that are the silent recipients of violence in an era
of anthropogenic-induced climate change present and visible to the
imagination is a question for all who are concerned about the barely visible
sites of destruction that constitute the experience of climate change. In this
equation of absence-presence, the archive and archival impulses are impor-
tant because they represent the prevalent attitude towards the diversity and
dynamism of life on earth. The archival impulse is a well-established histor-
ical cultural practice, which has consistently been used to approach and
respond to life, predominantly through the organization of its dead subjects.
Attention to how biopolitical worlds are ordered through the archival
principle is crucial to the possibility of ethics, of living with rather than
against (in-)significant others. So aesthetics clearly does matter in the
biopolitics of multispecies living, with often remote and absent communi-
ties of human and non-human others. But, how does it matter? What and

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 77

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 77

where are the spaces of this biopolitical aesthetic? And what kinds of careful
aesthetic practices open spaces to configure a more exuberant and full
politics of climate change? And, finally, in being careful, can we afford to
repress the violence that is so clearly part of this relating? Might violence
open another unexpected route into an ethical relation?
If we know anything about abrupt climate change from ice cores and
paleo-records, the impact of change has been experienced as a series of
mass extinction events: the Holocene, Cretaceous-Peleogene, Triassic-
Jurassic, etc. To imagine the world without us – as one possible climate
future – is to imagine our own extinction event, much as Beckett did in
‘Imagination Dead Imagine’ (1965). But before we ever get to such an end
game, we must imagine the world as it is: as a world of diminishing non-
human others, a world in which certain songs and calls and whoops are
quieting. As the force of these animal entities lessens, in the creative and
destructive acts that constitute the ‘play of the world’, this means not just
their extinction but also the extinction of the aspects of our lives that are
co-constituted through these aesthetic experiences of the world. That is to
say, while climate change is the big narrative of the anthropocene, with
carbon as the central player, there is not an adequately developed discourse
that describes the interdependence of multispecies flourishing and destruc-
tion within climate change. Furthermore, the conceptualization of climate
change as a human-centred, human-instigated global practice (i.e. a world-
forming practice) does not properly represent the biophysical world as an
already full space of that which is not exclusively ‘ours’ to make.
I want to argue for an aesthetics that is playful, pertaining to sensuous
perception of the ‘play of the word’ and an aesthetics that is politically
engaged as a practice in politicizing ecologies and structuring what ecol-
ogies enter politics (i.e. the political organization of life).4 Whereas Frederic
Jameson went searching for the ‘political unconscious’ that haunts aesthet-
ics (Jameson, 1981: 17; see also Jameson, 1992), following Michel Foucault
(1990[1984]; see also O’Leary, 2002), I argue that aesthetics must be
considered as part of the practice of politics; a space where things are made,
both materially and semiotically (to paraphrase Haraway) and a space that
configures the realm of what is possible in that politics. Foucault referred
to this as the search for an ‘aesthetics of existence’ (1990[1984]: 49).
Aesthetics is, in Foucault’s terms, fundamentally biopolitical. Alongside
this connection between aesthetics and politics as a space in which ecol-
ogies are made, there are various kinds of loss and violence that are an
attendant part of anthropogenic-induced climate change, which generate a
social urgency to these questions of representation and violence, aesthetics
and existence.
The article, then, is organized into three sections that question the
perception, production and spheres of action that the political aesthetics of
climate change articulate for multispecies living. The first section looks at
Jacques Rancière’s concept of political aesthetics in order to extend an
argument about the importance of aesthetics in multispecies living beyond

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 78

78 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

a concentration on practices into a consideration of how the distribution of

the sense experience is crucial to the political spaces of biopolitics. This is
followed by a discussion of Bataille’s more energetic ontology on the exuber-
ance and destructiveness that inheres in biological life on earth. The second
section looks at a range of archival practices that are employed to order and
represent the loss of biodiversity as a consequence of climate change, partic-
ularly the animal species and animal spaces where biopolitics are made.
Against this scene of animal destruction, I want to look at George Bataille’s
more chaotic ledger for approaching our archives of destruction. His
energetic thinking suggests how to make the ‘exuberance of presence’ part
of the intimate and ethical contract we have with destruction. As such, if
we consign the violence of climate change to the archive – our normative
economies of representation – we might forgo the possibility of a proper rela-
tionship with that violence that might yet moderate its scope. To paraphrase
Bataille (1991a: 23), what is at stake here in a restricted framing of
economies (of life) is that we are forced to undergo violence rather than to
bring it about in our own way, if we understood that violence more fully.
The conclusion considers how a biopolitical aesthetic comes into being
through such archival practices, and asks what aesthetic shifts would make
the ‘play of the world’ more present in its absences during a time of abrupt
climatic change. The strange couple of Rancière and Bataille is brought
together here, because Rancière articulates a way of thinking about aesthet-
ics as crucial to creating spaces of politics, and Bataille gives us the fullness
of aesthetic experience as a corporeal expenditure that bears on our every
ethical relation to and in the world. Their thinking is by no means commen-
surable, but it does create a (shaky) bridge between the intimacies of expe-
riencing loss in the ‘play of the world’ and biopolitical understandings of the
distribution of sense experience in the politics of climate change. Further-
more, Bataille’s archival or taxonomic approaches to thinking (discussed
below) show us one space where we can begin making other biopolitical
futures. And Rancière’s thinking on the distribution of the sensible as a condi-
tion of the visibility and invisibility of political aesthetics suggests a way to
practise this. For both thinkers, political aesthetics are configured around
fidelity to the event or experience, which means in the context of climate
change an engagement with the banal violence of systematic destruction.
There are three themes that situate this discussion of animality in the
context of climate change. First, the consideration of aesthetics as a form
of ethics, that is, an ‘aesthetics of existence’ (Foucault, 1990[1984]).
Second, the dual economy of excess as articulated by Bataille, that pitches
the restricted economy of banal, unthought excess of late industrial moder-
nity that participates in the wholesale destruction of environments against
the excess of exuberance (and experience) that is both violent and vital to
the generosity of life, but is often excluded.5 The form of this article attempts
a fidelity to the aesthetics of excess and existence; thus it seeks to discreetly
break off from academic critique into other forms of engagement with

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 79

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 79

Aesthetics and the Biopolitics of Multispecies Living

For Rancière, the space of political aesthetics is:

the system of a priori forms determining what presents itself to sense

experience. It is a delimitation of spaces and times, of the visible and the
invisible, of speech and noise, that simultaneously determines the place and
stakes of politics as a form of experience. (2004: 13)

Rancière considers aesthetic acts ‘as configurations of experience that create

new modes of sense perception and induce novel forms of political subjec-
tivity’ (2004: 9). What is important about Rancière’s understanding of
aesthetics is his rejection of the field of thought that has, he comments, for
the last 20 years seen critical thinking ‘metamorphosed into deliberation on
mourning’ (2004: 9). While Rancière’s redirection of aesthetics away from
mourning and into practices and acts of experience that potentially config-
ure new forms of political life might seem at odds with the discussion of loss
that is the concern of this article, his thinking suggests (along with Bataille)
that a deliberation on loss cannot be an elaborate funeral march but must be
a radical cut in the fabric of experience that changes the way we make and
do things. This thinking has much in common with recent moves in the soci-
ology of science to see representation as a form of practice alongside a whole
range of other practices that are part of an on-going politics of how we make
and recognize a fuller world (Haraway, 2008; Hinchliffe, 2008). But I want
to go beyond this concept of ‘practising better’ to suggest how rupture is
crucial to the redistribution of the sensible in how we continue or break with
the destructive logic of industrial capitalist modernity that commits us to
widespread extinction from climate change (Thomas et al., 2004).
One crucial sphere in the politics of climate change is that of the
decisions around what is ‘protected’, ‘saved’ or simply allowed to be in the
world, and that which is laid to waste, as an unthought, unrepresented,
expenditure of anthropogenic-induced climate change. In the context of
nature conservation, Steve Hinchliffe has argued that, in theory, nature
conservation is concerned with revealing presence and rendering that
presence eternal as an archetypal category. In practice, however, the spaces
and times of conservation are less clear, and presence is a precarious form
of practice and something that has ‘to be made and re-made’ (Hinchliffe,
2008: 88). This approach of looking into practices does not assume in
advance what is and is not political in ecologies, but looks at how politics
is configured through different figures (or figurations) of the same species.
This re-categorizing of aesthetics as a practice rather than representative of
some other socio-political ‘thing’ considers aesthetics in terms of what it
does in the world rather than what other experiences or thoughts it might
give space or time to. Both approaches (aesthetics as practice, aesthetics as
constituting the forms of political representation) offer an idea of aesthetics
as a future-oriented practice that is implicitly political but do not conceive
of this within the utopian/dystopian mode which strives to offer new images

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 80

80 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

of the world, but, in turn, does not attend to the form through which things
become visible (that have previously been invisible) and, crucially, through
which we derive new thoughts of the possible.
It is the question of visibility that Rancière specifically takes up to
suggest that ‘artistic practices are ways of “doing and making” that inter-
vene in the general distribution of ways of “doing and making”, as well as
in the relationships they maintain to modes of being and forms of visibility’
(2004: 13). What is key here is that:
aesthetics refers to a specific regime for identifying and reflecting on the arts:
a mode of articulation between ways of doing and making, their correspon-
ding forms of visibility, and possible ways of thinking about their relation-
ships (which presupposes a certain idea of thought’s effectivity). (2004: 10)
This attention to modes of articulation between forms, ways of doing and
making and their in/visibility offers a politics that ‘revolves around what is
seen and what can be said about it’, where what can be seen and experi-
enced is already predetermined by the common forms of aesthetic practice
– ‘a parcelling out of the visible and invisible’ (2004: 19). Thus, these ways
of ‘making and doing’ are forms of arrangement and distribution in percep-
tion that constitute the social and its possible spheres of social action and
forms that inscribe a sense of community. So, aesthetics can be thought of
as ‘a mode of articulation between forms of action, production, perception
and thought’ (2004: 82). In other words, as Ben Higham suggests, in
reference to Rancière: ‘aesthetics is the condition of possibility of politics
and society’ (2005: 456). Rancière’s model of aesthetics is ontologically
social (as aesthetics is about senses), so it does not suggest how the
experience and politics of climate change can be made fuller with regards
to multispecies living. But if we push this sensibility further to include other
encounters with the world that are in excess of the common modes of percep-
tion and the social, into the realm of experience that Bataille calls non-
knowledge6 and those practices that do not have humans at their centre,7
Rancière’s thinking becomes useful in articulating the ways in which
aesthetics circumscribes the space of politics (Rancière, 2006). Reconsti-
tuting the social with any number of non-human things is one way to let
some other things into our consideration of the political aesthetics of climate
change; another is to follow Bataille into a more energetic engagement
(inspired by Nietzsche’s ‘play of the world’) that searches for the experi-
ences and things that bring us into contact with the depth and complexity
of the world (i.e. to think about what constitutes the experience of change
that climate shifts instigate; see Bataille, 1988, 1989). But, while we might
add to the multiplicity of things, it also becomes increasingly difficult to
account for what is taken away in climate-induced biodiversity loss and the
mass extinction events that characterize climate change. This difficultly
arises because some of what is lost is never so still or so present as to enter
a space of representation, and because absences in the ‘play of the world’
are always hidden in the overwhelming presence of things (in both the

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 81

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 81

fullness of representation and experience). Aesthetics, then, can be seen as

a form of ethical discourse on the play of things in the world, the politics of
which demand that we notice both multiplicity and subtraction.
Ironically, in the aesthetic orders of species protection and extinction,
an inverse relation exists between multiplication and subtraction: the more
we see of a thing stabilized in the archive of protection, the less likely we
are to see it in the play of the world, and vice versa. In writing a biopolitics
of multispecies living, then, such multiplicity can restructure the terms of
our aesthetic engagement (by adding more things), so long as subtraction
interrupts that ordering to open the play of the world to the possibility of
irreversible loss. As E.O. Wilson puts it:
. . . the sixth mass extinction has begun. This spasm of permanent loss is
expected, if it is not abated, to reach the end-of-Mesozoic level by the end
of the century. When we will enter what poets and scientists alike may choose
to call the Eremozoic Era – the Era of Loneliness. We will have done it all
on our own, and conscious of what was happening. (2006: 91)8

In a parallel moment of potential global annihilation (the Atomic Age),

Bataille saw the restoration of intimacy with animality as a form of experi-
ence that was key to the possibilities of realizing an aesthetics of existence
(Bataille, 1985). His notion of intimacy is far more destructive, demanding
and sacred than the kinds of caring stressed in conservation practices,
which currently structure our encounters with loss. As Lucio Angelo
Privitello comments about Bataille’s sensibility: ‘The exuberance of living
matter, real life or animal experience, is not reducible to its utility, nor can
it be neatly conceptualised within an ontological machination from human
aspirations or anguish’ (2007: 168). If we are to take seriously the destruc-
tion of the play of the world, care is one aspect of the story, but exuberance
and destruction is another, and these terms are not in opposition. Locating
ethical understanding in the co-joining of human–non-human practices or
in their situatedness is not satisfactory in and of itself, as we practise
together intimately with non-humans in ways that are destructive, cruel and
far from respectful. We ingest, ignore and stoke the pyres of animal destruc-
tion in multiple ways that suggest that better practices are only part of
securing a less destructive engagement (as Haraway acknowledges in her
recent book, When Species Meet [2008]). Responding to this aesthetical-
ethical call of taking stock of other life-forms, Bataille’s thought offers an
energetic ontology that dispenses with the dominant modes of conservation
in favour of a full engagement with the exuberance and destruction of bio-
logical life (life as necessarily wasteful and excessive). Paradoxically, if we
are conscious enough of loss and violence, it can provide the rupture that
instigates a redistribution of the sensible, making us mindful of such loss
in other arenas of experience. Furthermore, unlike any other thinker, the
only limits Bataille perceives are located in the biosphere – more specifi-
cally, the biosphere’s openness to the sun, that is the basis of all biological
life, whose gift, Bataille argues, is a model for how to give without receiving.

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 82

82 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

This gift of energy is distributed through biological life and constitutes

another sort of gift of abundance that flows across all species. Such gifts are
constituted through both generosity (an aesthetic of experience) and
sacrifice (a mindful violence). Reading climate change through a Bataillean
lens, the abundance of solar energy co-joins the long dead bodies of animals
and plants (in the form of fossil fuels) and our present sacrifice of animal-
ity and their habitats. From both ends of the historical relation, the economy
of dead animality fuels climate chaos.
For Bataille, a restricted economy centred around human aspirations
or anguish in the face of destruction creates forms of invisibility that neglect
the intimacy that we have with both the exuberance of life and its destruc-
tion (i.e. to stress conservation over destruction is a form of blindness to our
transactions in the world). He suggests that ‘[w]e need a thinking that does
not fall apart in the face of horror, a self-consciousness that does not steal
away when it is time to explore possibility to the limit’ (1991a: 69). Further-
more: ‘[we] need on the one hand to go beyond the narrow limits within
which we ordinarily remain, and on the other somehow bring our going-
beyond back within our limits’ (1991b: 14). This bringing back is part of
the ethical responsibility for that knowledge of the limit. We must, in a
sense, change our images of the dead and renew our language of experi-
ence. Access to this intimacy resides, for Bataille, in the sacred and
sacrificial, as openings to experience (Bataille characterizes these openings
to animality as a lost form of human experience). The sacred, he says:
‘makes visible on the outside that which is really within’ (1991a: 189).
While an over-proliferation of polar bears may speak of banality – a
grotesque over-exposed image of our lack of imaginative exploration of the
loss of the play of the world – it also speaks to the craving for intimacy and
communication with that flow of energy. That we choose to concentrate this
connection to such depth in a hunter, specifically a man-hunter, says some-
thing of the dance of death and imagination that is already in play in that
relation (albeit one that is repressed).

The ‘Unbroken Animal’

his coat resembles the snow
deep snow
the male snow
which attacks and kills
silently as it falls muffling
the world
to sleep that
the interrupted quiet return
to lie down with us
its arms
about our necks
murderously a little while
(Williams, 2000: 222)

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 83

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 83

If our key climate change compatriot is a polar bear, what kind of sensibil-
ity are we embracing in the face of death? The polar bear is what Bataille
calls an ‘unbroken animal’ (1991a: 133), an untrained and undirected
energy that represents the internal and external visibility of animality or ‘a
network of exteriority within’ (Privitello, 2007: 173). This notion of animal-
ity is a form of seeing that is transgressive, precarious and extends the
human into the limits of the biophysical world with all its abundant, exces-
sive, destructive energy. The presence of this ‘wild beast’, according to
Bataille, is part of the recognition of limits, of what it is to be human and
what is in excess of that. He says:

The animal opens before me a depth that attracts me and is familiar to me.
In a sense I know this depth; it is my own. It is also that which is familiar to
me. It is also that which is farthest removed from me, that which deserves
the name depth, which means precisely that which is unfathomable to me.
(1992: 22)

Presence here, for Bataille, is about immanence, and hence not something
that can be utilized (as utility imposes its own structures on experience),
but something wildly transformative and poetic that re-stitches the tissue of
consciousness. It is not sociologically verifiable and does not permit an
opening into a policy arena, but permits an opening to thought about what
is possible. What is at stake here for Bataille is that we can reduce the
animal to an object of science or a thing, but it is never entirely reducible
to that ‘inferior reality which we attribute to things’ (Yusoff and Gabrys,
2007). For Bataille: ‘something tender, secret and painful draws out the
intimacy which keeps vigil in us, extending its glimmer into that animal
darkness’ (1992: 23). This precarious vision into the darkness appears ‘only
to slip away’ (1992: 23), leaving a cut in the visible.
Out on the tundra the polar bears are hungry. Their bodies are lean.
The ice is late. The trucks have driven across the tundra up into little terri-
tories with isolated bears herded between buggies for the promised photo
opportunities. Some other locals are worried about the tracks encroaching on
the fragile arctic tundra. Some of the locals are not so concerned; this tourism
of ‘edge species’ is big business,9 ‘The last show on earth’. Gold rush – eye
rush – every experience an image, and then a more primal rush, the rush of
bear, and nearness to bear – the rush of experience. This encounter that makes
our bear–human world is directly linked to the cataloguing of them. It is
about a category of experience that is bound up in the image. There is the
taking for oneself, seeing for oneself, before they are gone, the ‘last
witnesses’, the photographer at the catastrophe, all looking for the iconic
image, in polar bearness, poster child for Arctic and climate change narra-
tives. But here we might pause a while, take a breath, and ask what becomes
of this witnessing? How do lives change by the rub with these creatures?
What responsibilities might emerge from being present and seeing into that
animal darkness?

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 84

84 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

One male bear has approached the tundra vehicle, much to the delight
of its occupants, who search for the searched for National Geographic shot.
As a man leans over, eager to get his shot, he is inattentive. We watch, our
buggy suddenly transfixed by this human–bear encounter. The bear is
watching too. He has seen and fixed upon the dangling camera strap that
the man, who watches his screen for the perfect shot, has momentarily lost
sight of. As he leans over to get even closer, the bear gives nothing away. The
man’s sight resides fixedly on the screen before him. His prosthetic medium of
capture belies other spaces in which the image will travel. The bear has made
a connection too, from strap, to arm, to food. He has not eaten in three months
and is waiting restlessly for the ice to freeze, and the seals that will come to
rest upon it. We watch captivated, waiting for a crucial encounter. Suddenly,
someone on the truck realizes that the bear is not just there for photographic

Figure 2 Tundra Tours, Churchill, 2007 (Photo by Kathryn Yusoff)

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 85

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 85

opportunities, and pulls him back up. The words of the taxi driver in
Winnipeg come back to me: ‘Them bears, like watching your house burn
So what of this intersecting gaze that captivates and makes captive?
One thing that was apparent was the modalities of strategic ‘distancings’
that a real time substitute – the camera – facilitated, coupled with the
‘hunger’ for those images that had propelled many people’s trip to Churchill
in the first instance. To look was hard, moving and intensely terrifying. Polar
bears are the only animal that will repeatedly stalk and attack humans. They
have hungers too, but not of the aesthetic type. Don Ihde (2002) suggests
that technologies use us as much as we use them, as we are enfolded into
the modalities of seeing that the technology prescribes and the networks and
memory structures that it animates. In Haraway’s terms it is cohabitation.
What does it mean to meet the gaze of a polar bear prosthetically or other-
wise to pay attention to the polar bear’s future possibilities in a changing
climate – what is the protocol for such an engagement up close and, as most
of us are situated, at a distance? We might look to a more situated history
at the Eskimo Museum, Churchill, to see another kind of aesthetics of
engagement, one that is based on looking eye to eye, up close, with polar
bears as a companion species. The relationship of Inuit to the polar bear is
of hunter and hunted – in which respect proliferates through the frequent
reversal of these roles, in ‘a dance of relating, not from scratch, not ex-
nihilo, but full of the patterns of their sometimes-joined, sometimes-separate
heritages both before and lateral to this encounter’ (Haraway, 2008: 25).
If we look at the aesthetics of this death dance, it is one of incorpora-
tion and shamanistic intimacy with the polar bear. The shaman summons
transformation through a chaotic revealing to inform changes in state, where
a magic crossing of understanding takes place. The shamanistic ‘dances of
relating’ challenge the unity of isolated objects/subjects, causing a slippage
between them in which there is both mimesis and alterity (Taussig, 1993).
In Bataille’s terms, the summoned appears, only to slip away; but in the
movement between aesthetic forms a communication is made. The hunter
sees the hunted to know it and himself more fully. Of all the animals the
Inuit traditionally hunted, Nanuk, the polar bear, was the most prized.
Native hunters considered Nanuk to be wise, powerful and ‘almost a man’.
This dance of ‘yielding to’ and ‘becoming with’ is ambiguous and sensuous.
It is ambiguous because it is about a form of entering into and becoming
dominant over a certain other nature, yet it is sensuous because it does not
manifest an urge to deface or render absolute such cross-inhabitations
(Taussig, 1993). Traditional knowledge systems in the Arctic are used to
describe such an encounter:

A traditional hunter plumbs the depth of his intellect – his capacity to manip-
ulate complex knowledge. But he also delves into his animal nature, drawing
from intuitions of sense and body and heart; feeling the winds touch, listen-
ing for the tick of moving ice, peering from crannies, hiding himself as if he

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 86

86 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

Figure 3 Man-Bear, Churchill Eskimo Museum, 2007 (Photo by Kathryn Yusoff)

were the hunted. He moves in a world of eyes, where everything watches –

the ear, the seal, the wind, the moon and stars, the drifting ice, the silent
waters below. He is beholden to powers greater than his own. (Alaskan Native
Science, 2008)

In the world of eyes, a precarious vision appears in the darkness that goes
beyond the narrow limits to bring back that going-beyond into the realm of
the visible.

The ‘Play of the World’: Bataille, Nietzsche and Aesthetics

In another realm of playfulness, the infinite play of the world that is multi-
species living, the presence and absence of white bears configures not just
political futures of Inuit hunters and oil development, but biopolitical
futures; a politics of configuring life. The ‘play of the world’ implies both
motion and engagement that for Nietzsche is part of ‘becoming what one is’
(i.e. constituting life). Jim Hans comments that the word play (for Nietzsche
and for Bataille, 1992) is not merely a substitute for ideas like ‘process’ and
‘flux’. ‘It is a structuring activity, the activity out of which understanding
comes. Play is at one and the same time the location where we question our
structures of understanding and the location where we develop them’ (Hans,
1981: x). For Nietzsche, play is a fundamental activity of aesthetics, which
is about ‘actively questioning old structures and interpretations and devel-
oping and trying on new ones out of the multiplicitous and contradictory’

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 87

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 87

(Luck, 2008: 12; see also Nietzsche, 1974, 1989a, 1989b). For Nietzsche,
this play of and with the world is an aesthetic relation, aligned to a mobile
form of nature, a biocomplexity that is boundless, multispecies, changing
and corporeal (for Bataille too, inner experience is always corporeal). This
world play (rather than world-forming) suggests an ongoing re-centring, a to
and fro between things, what might be called, in Isabelle Stengers’ (2005)
terms, a form of cosmopolitical experimentation. What is crucial to this play
is abundance, or what Bataille calls an excess of energy and animality (the
generosity of the sun). As we enter a mass extinction event instigated by
anthropogenic-induced climate change, this play – ours and the world’s –
is vital to the possibilities of all experience and every politics. In Foucault’s
terms, it is an aesthetics of existence that we are both witness to and
participating in.
For Bataille ‘the history of life on earth is mainly the effect of wild
exuberance’ (1991a: 33), not of careful accumulation. The experience of
this exuberance, like cosmopolitanism, is synonymous with experiment
(Privitello, 2007: 171). Part of Bataille’s play of the world is configured
around what it means to allow other things and events into experience,
without restricting this experience to that which is deemed to be useful or
purposeful (i.e. something to be conserved). Furthermore, how we fend off
loss through various practices is vital to how we break with the destructive
logic of industrial capitalist modernity. Bataille’s argument is made, like
those made more recently by Haraway (2008) and Karen Barad (2007), by
understanding aesthetic communication as something that is tied together
through wounds or cuts in the fabric of utility. This play, according to
Bataille (1985: 250), only communicates when we are lost and losing
ourselves, and utility dissipates. There are several cuts that are important
here in an ethics of engagement with climate change: the loss of the
abundant play of the world (biodiversity loss and extinction) and the loss of
meetings with that animal intimacy that extend our human world. Rather
than retreat into a careful ecology (discussed below through archival prac-
tices), Bataille (1985) wants to meet this violence, death and expenditure
through visions of excess.
These visions of excess seek to study ‘the very matter whose unjusti-
fiable, a priori exclusion makes possible the coherence of rigorous, hierar-
chical systems of classification and thought’ (Stoekl, 2007a: 21). Thus,
Bataille’s approach to disrupt a priori forms, and his strange chaotic ledger
of expanding restricted economies (1991a, 1991b) and non-knowledge
(2001), suggest archival practices of the world that address both the form
and the visibility of aesthetics. And, crucially, he acknowledges the vitality
of an engagement with animality as destructive, intimate and part of what
opens the possibilities of the human, but also what has been entirely
restricted by quantification, ordering and stockpiling nature (see Stoekl,
2007a: 131). Bataille’s reordering of archival impulses in Encyclopaedia
Acephalica (1995) and Documents (1929–30) suggests that a museological
approach to biological life simply fends off loss, rather than understanding

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 88

88 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

its place and force. And, in a bizarre play, the repression of loss forgoes the
realization of the ethical potential of that loss to redistribute the sensible.
It is a repression of violence in this relation that contributes (through its
lack of recognition) to the continuance of structures of banal violence. And,
more importantly, it is the impact of those sense-experiences which Bataille
champions that can bring about intimacy with knowledge. For Bataille, this
is the ethical rub: how the world is ordered through archival principles acts
on the possibilities of experience and ethics. Thus Bataille’s aesthetic
engagement with the forms of experience and spaces of action in multi-
species living suggests a radical departure from the careful conservational
approaches that define our current response of accounting for biological life
and the loss of the world. And, if the distribution of the sensible is what
constitutes the very possibilities of making politics, as Rancière argues, then
our spaces of sensing climate change in the biophysical world (the archive
and animality) need to be examined. Clearly the news media and science-
in-public are two spaces in which the aesthetic sense data of climate change
is configured. However, the archive is more prevalent, since it informs the
stockpile of communicative strategies for both. It is thus to the archive that
I now turn

Archiving Life
There was the familiar gateway: EXTINCTATHON, Monitored by Madd
Addam. Adam named the living animals, Madd Addam names the dead ones.
Do you want to play? (Atwood, 2003: 251)

In Margaret Atwood’s imagining of a technoscientific future, Oryx and Crake

(2003), her characters adopt the names of extinct creatures to play the global
extinction game, EXTINCTATHON. Biodiversity loss and habitat change
can be seen to be forcing an acceleration of archival practices that mobilize
various images of the ‘play of the world’, including the making of star species
to represent planetary loss; and the consolidation of other species into
archives implicitly organized around the category of their destruction. These
burgeoning media archives are filled with the spectral orders of represen-
tation – images, animations, recordings, negative inscriptions of communi-
ties of the dead and soon to be dead – reordering the site of the political
aesthetics of climate change into what Tom Cohen calls a ‘negative place
holder’ (2004: 84). Many of these programmed encounters of the aesthetic
are still reliant on the technological apparatus of accumulation and control
over ‘natural histories’, ordering (and thereby disciplining) spaces of
mourning, loss and irreversibility. A few illustrations will suffice here:
‘ARKive is the Noah’s Ark for the Internet era . . . leading the “virtual”
conservation effort . . .’ (see: One of the stated reasons
for the existence of ARKive is that: ‘Continued habitat destruction and the
rise in extinction rates also mean that for many species, films, photographs
and audio recordings may soon be all that remains.’ According to their

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 89

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 89

Over the past few decades a vast treasury of wildlife images has been steadily
accumulating, yet no one has known its full extent – or its gaps – and no one
has had a comprehensive way of gaining access to it. ARKive will put that
right. It will become an invaluable tool for all concerned with the well-being
of the natural world. (

The Encyclopedia of Life ( uses a similar accumulative

approach to give full multimedia representation to the biological world. For
the Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) archive, gawky,
strange creatures take the edge on the domesticated, familiar critters that
slowly fade from view, because of their rating on the evolutionary ladder
( These flourishing ‘archives of loss’ have a sharp
edge of species destruction, in which there is an inverse relation between
aesthetic proliferation and species depletion. The more we ‘see’ of a species,
the less it is likely to be seen. Thus, the image is indexical to destruction,
enacting, as Derrida (1996: 3) says, a future technology of ordering loss.
What is hidden from this view of the game of rankings on the ladder of
EXTINCTATHON are the silent snakes of rapid extinction so beautifully
satirized by Atwood. But how should we account for this loss?
Recognizing multiplicity is, as Haraway suggests, ‘a mode of attention’
(2008); a distribution of the sensible that broadens our thinking about how
we meet and mingle with otherness in the world. It is not just a strategy of
accumulation that multiples life through different categories of species or
multimedia. For Michel Serres, this mode of attention requires a loosening
of the utility of thought. He says: ‘I’m trying to think the multiple as such,
to let it waft along without arresting it through unity, to let it go, as it is, at
its own pace’ (1995: 6). That is to say, aesthetics structures orders of
knowing, and these structures have consequences for the possibilities of
what kinds of biopolitics are made. For Foucault, aesthetics is a weapon to
bring down the tyranny of modern morality that represses and orders its
violence (O’Leary, 2002: 1). Seeing and witnessing makes us responsible in
all kinds of ways that interfere with the forms of responsibility and reciproc-
ity that are generated when we encounter the phenomena called ‘climate
change’. As Haraway suggests, aesthetics is part of ‘nurturing an entangle-
ment and a generative interruption called response’ (2008: 20). In short,
aesthetics is a space of politics and of ecological understanding, a space in
which to make a more liveable politics. ‘Once we know, we cannot not know.
If we know well, searching with fingery eyes, we care. That is how respon-
sibility grows’ (Haraway, 2008: 287). Animals on the edge of extinction have
special powers, a kind of ‘now you see us, now you don’t’. This frisson of
the edge challenges the viewer to not look away and to acknowledge with
that look both responsibility and violence. The animals do not always face
the camera, but we always do, and with that look we are implicated in a
meeting. As we look, we are enfolded into the technology of the archive and
its power over the future; we must consider fates – generative or destruc-
tive – alongside these animals. They are our sidekicks now in planetary

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 90

90 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

overhaul. But to know intimately, according to Bataille, we must allow the

disruption of those experiences to disrupt us, not simply to be an accumu-
lation of experience that mimics the accumulation of experience that we are
sold in the marketplace; we must redistribute our senses to reform our
These traces of animals trapped inside natural history forever are
arranged through reification, the abstraction and quantification of experi-
ence as if it were money: ecosystem services, carbon providers, industrial
ecology, etc. Bill Burns’s art practice, Safety Gear for Small Animals (2005),
attends to this microscale of endangered animals while invoking something
of what Broswimmer (2002: 59) calls in Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass
Extinction of Species the ecological juggernaut of modernity. His incorpo-
rated company makes a range of safety gear for animals forced into a state
of ecological crisis. In his photographic works, How to Help Animals Escape
from Natural History (in Burns, 2005), we witness animals making their
escape from the destructive categories of natural history’s tableaux. Like
escape artists from a Foucauldian taxonomy, the animals try to elude the
entrapments of the tabula that is implicit in their destruction (aided in some
cases by their safety gear). In these plastic endeavours, the abstraction and
extraction of animal-objects from the ecosystems in which they are located
is reversed. Like Jorge Luis Borges’s (2002) fantastical encyclopaedia of the
unthinkable, which disrupts and throws into relief the taxonomy of things
(Foucault, 2002; Maciel, 2006: 47), Burns’s animals are performing the
unthinkable, escaping from the representations/orderings that have been
part of making such uninhabitable habitats. At this point the questions
emerge: ‘Are individuals (animal and human) solely responsible for protect-
ing themselves from the toxicity in natural and cultural environments?’
(Sloan, 2005: 40). Survival skills are no longer presumed. Safety is no longer
something to be taken for granted. Whose responsibility is it, the work
prompts us to ask? And what is the meaning of ‘escape’ that is being
provoked by this work? There is an echo of the sense of ‘escape’ that we
have come to know through capitalism as the dream of escape to a better
world, whether through products, travel or the application of techno-
scientific fixes. This is a form of escape that is enabled through the very
same machinations of toxicity and pollution that have been active in creating
the conditions and need for escape (hence plastic animals). Sloan, comment-
ing on Burns’s safety gear, rightly suggests: ‘These are made available in a
manner that mimics the logic of capitalism, whereby every social need is
ostensibly solved through the introduction of new productions and the
establishment of new markets’ (2005: 46).
We archive to store, collect and to discharge the ‘thing’ from our
present into another order – a perpetual presence – so, we might ask, what
is it to make an archive of extinction? What kinds of responsibility are
entangled in those acts of making, seeing and experience? The archive is
already located in an ambiguous relationship to destruction and care, most
notably articulated by Jacques Derrida, who says:

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 91

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 91

Figure 4 Bill Burns, How to Help Animals Escape from Natural History, 1995
(Courtesy of the artist)

As a wager [gageure]. The archive has always been a pledge, and like every
pledge [gage], a token of the future. To put it more trivially: what is no longer
archived in the same way is no longer lived in the same way. Archivable
meaning is also and in advance codetermined by the structure that archives.
(1996: 18)
Derrida asks us to consider how the archive is always posed between
destruction and conservation, decommissioning and commissioning new
materials, and thus it is a suitable metaphor for the organized processes of
memory and forgetting that we institute into our structures of knowledge (see
also Featherstone and Venn, 2006: 5). He continues:
. . . the technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the struc-
ture of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 92

92 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records

the event. This is also our political experience of the so-called news media.
(1996: 17)

An archive is not a concept in isolation that refers simply to a particular

device of accounting for, it is an accumulative technology of forms and
orders of knowledge, places and spaces of encounter and experience.10
Thinking of the archive as such a technology, we can begin to think how it
is practised and how these spaces often act as an interface in which ideas
of political ecologies are generated. These orderings are implicitly political
ecologies because animals are ordered and ranked, and need is assigned
based on charisma and neediness (this is an aesthetic practice too). Depend-
ing on its configuration, the presences and absences of the archive are oper-
ative forces shaping natures in remote and often unknown places. The polar
bear is thus always emerging through these archival technologies, being
made and remade within climate change discourses as the political aesthetic
of our age. Yet, as I have said, these archives have a sharp edge: the more
we ‘see’ the less we should expect to ‘see’ of these animals on the edge;
reproduction is no guarantee of retaining a purchase in the world, nor of the
possibilities of encounter.
Derrida also links the Freudian concept of the archive with the death
drive – a destructive aggression that is about pure loss (1996: 9). This is
what Bataille has called the accursed share (1991a, 1991b). The drive to
archive, Derrida says, ‘destroys in advance its own archive’ (1996: 10), or
the very thing it wants to make present in the world in a systematic, ordered
relation. This is, he says:

. . . because the archive, if this word or this figure can be stabilized so as to

take on signification, will never be either memory or anamnesis as sponta-
neous, alive and internal experience. On the contrary: the archive takes place
at the place of originary and structural breakdown of the said memory. (1996:

Derrida calls this force between the conservation and destruction the
archival drive or archive fever (1996: 19). The archive of ‘presence’ (or
aesthetic representation) is poised between representation and loss, between
protected permanence and the peril of time (Featherstone and Venn, 2006:
8). Hinchliffe has suggested that a careful political ecology ‘is one that is
intent on making spaces for others that are not simply about presence, inclu-
sion or accumulation. It also involves uncertainties, precautionary measures
and looser forms of assemblage’ (2008: 88). Like Serres’s understanding of
complexity and Bataille’s concept of animality, we must meet the fullness
of the world on its own terms, at its own pace, in the form that we encounter
it, faithful to that encounter even as it slips away in the ever-changing play
of the world. This may be a glimpse into the depths of animality, a fleeting
image, an interruption, a silence, the cut of a paw print through mud.

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 93

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 93

What would an ethics be like that, instead of seeking a mode of equivalence,
a mode of reciprocity or calculation, sought to base itself on absolute generos-
ity, absolute gift, expenditure without return, a pure propulsion into a future
that does not rebound with echoes of an exchange dictated by the past?
(Grosz, 1999: 11)

Elizabeth Grosz’s provocation for an excessive ethics, in part, finds an

answer in Bataille’s energetic ontology. Taking the energy of the sun as his
absolute gift, Bataille articulates a circuit of cosmic energy, of expenditure
and exchange, that stresses the importance of recognizing and being faithful
to the limits of the biosphere while simultaneously expanding experience to
encompass this generosity. Limits, for Bataille, are places to be visited, so
that an understanding of those limits is brought back inside our economies
of experience rather than repressed as extraneous to them. When we think
about the oncoming experience of climate change and the commitment to
violence that is a consequence of the commitment to global heating and
extinction, we can choose to know that violence more fully or we can turn
away from it (with the knowledge that it will be something that we will be
forced to undergo if we do so). By exploring these limits better, we might
know the extent of our full relation with the world, and have new thoughts
of the possible in those arts of relating (be they violent or exuberant or both).
The ethics that can be read in Bataille’s excess suggests that the corporeal
experience of limits marks a depth and space of communion with the
universe and animality that inadvertently imposes recognition of real
biophysical limits. Bataille recognizes that transgression brings about a
visibility of animality as something that is both external and internal; it is
without purpose, but inadvertently this intimacy secures a relation that may
overflow and make the limit visible (if only for a moment). As Stoekl clearly
states it: ‘The limit is ignored in the restricted economy only at the risk of
reimposition of an absolute limit, cataclysmic destruction, or ecological
callapse’ (2007b: 264; 2007a: 49). By expending and losing ourselves with
animality, we conserve, not out of purpose, but out of the necessity of that
engagement: we are bound to that depth, out of fidelity. The irony of this, to
quote Alan Stoekl, is that the ‘transgressive and “human” ethics will
inevitably be sensitive to ecological questions – respectful of carrying
capacity’ (2007a: 264) through its recognition of limits.
The implications of this thinking are that we must attend to Rancière’s
distribution of the sensible, to attack the a priori forms that govern what is
visible in experience and politics, and to reconstitute our political aesthet-
ics of climate change with figures that make visible both the play of the
world and the evacuation of that play from the world. In order to make this
argument of continually unworking restricted categories of experience,
Bataille descends into the archival orders to bring to thought those experi-
ences that are excluded, and are crucial to the parcelling out of the visible
and invisible. What is at issue in Bataille’s archival forays is the ‘double

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 94

94 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

use’ of everything: an elevated use and a low use, which throws into relief
the topology of the archive through this ‘de-class(ify)ing’ operation (Bataille,
1997: 47). The de-classification both interrupts the archive, because there
is literally no place for these experiences, and signals the limits of such
modes of accounting. In his refusal of the stable order of destructive things
(collections of natural history have always been collections of the dead),
Bataille opens knowledge up to the wound that can connect us to the imma-
nence of the universe, be that through earthworms or spit, wild beasts or
our own animality. While we might acknowledge our co-evolution with lots
of non-humans as an important step in understanding various forms of co-
habitation and forms of historical indebtedness and inheritance (Clark,
2005, 2007: 63; Diprose, 2002: 42), in the end (and in the experience) this
is not what is at stake in losing the play of the world. As Bataille argued,
what opens before us in animality is both interior and external to us – it is
a line of communication between two worlds. He says: ‘We calculate our
interests, but this situation baffles us: The very word interest is contradic-
tory with the desire at stake under these conditions’ (1991a: 30). Desire, for
Bataille, is bound to and by the intimacy of that experience – it must be
bound to experience as a possibility of politics and it must be bound by the
form of that aesthetic experience which forces a rethinking of the dominant
pre-ordered forms of experience. In short, categories of experience must be
faithful to those experiences. Climate change must force new images full of
loss and rage that scream through our aesthetic orders to break with the
stockpiling of nature in neat categories of extinction.
At a time when so much is at stake, a thinking that does not shy away
from the limits of an exchange with animality, both exuberant and violent,
is surely needed. This desire to endlessly accumulate and fend off loss and
destruction ultimately inflates the likelihood and magnitude of catastrophe
and loss. This is what is so paradoxical about strategies that exude care, but
return to a ledger of accounting so stultified that they imprison loss in a
restricted economy, endlessly suppressing the force of that biopolitical
exchange (be that with polar bears or the long-dead animal fossils that have
fuelled our carbon-climate experiment). The restricted economy, which
Bataille articulates, shares everything with the logic of industrial capitalist
modernity that has been so destructive to other forms of life, and nothing
with the intimacy of experience that can open up possibility in a politics of
biopolitical living. What is crucial here in the constant ‘bringing down in
the world’ of accumulative categories is an attack on conservation itself as
a practice that ignores the limits of the biosphere (for Bataille these are the
only real limits). How the biopolitical is ordered through archival principles
is key to the possibilities of intimacy and ethics. As Grosz asks: ‘what would
an ethics be like that did not rebound with echoes of an exchange dictated
by the past?’ (1999: 11). By conserving and accumulating our archives of
destruction, we continue ordering and spending destruction without ever
transgressing the limits (to transgress the limit is to become aware of the
limit) in ways that bring catastrophic loss and wholesale destruction,

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 95

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 95

because violence and generosity are systematically repressed. The blindspot

in archives of extinction is that they use the very same machinations and
forms of thought to rank and discipline loss as those practices that are part
of the destruction – the slow accumulated loss and encroachment of late
capitalism that sees no limits to its accumulative capacity. As Stoekl
comments in his discussion of Bataille and energy politics: ‘The qualified
mechanized destruction of the Earth becomes the quantified, mechanized
preservation of the Earth’ (2007a: 133). In colloquial terms: greenwash.
If the political, then, is about the enunciation that claims a place in the
order of things, while simultaneously rupturing that order, then the political
aesthetics of climate change would sound something like the torrent of animal
noise unleashed on the polluting inhabitants in Ted Hughes’s Iron Woman:
‘the otter came twisting and tumbling towards them, up the fiery tunnel, in
a writing sort of dance, as if it were trying to escape from itself. And as it
came it was crying something . . .’ (1993: 28). We might never be able to
hear, in conventional terms, the otter’s dance, but we might heed a warning
in that fiery tunnel that the world is less playful in the absence of animality.
As anthropogenic climate change commits us to mass extinction events, we
might spend a while in the embrace of such violence to hear its dark secret.
I wish to acknowledge the support of the Open University and Churchill Northern
Studies Centre for funding fieldwork in Churchill, Manitoba, and to thank Lorraine
Brandson, curator of the Eskimo Museum, for assistance during that time. This
article was first presented at the ‘New Sciences of Protection: Futures’ seminar,
Institute for Advanced Studies, Lancaster University, in May 2008, and has since
benefited from the editorial comments of my former colleague Nigel Clark and
Bronislaw Szerszynski.
1. The polar bear, at top of the food chain, literally ‘collects’ the material waste of
technology, making it one of the most toxic creatures alive. Atmospheric pollutants,
modern synthetic chemicals and contaminants entering rivers and seas from agri-
cultural run-off, untreated sewage and chemical-laden discharge are all archived
in polar bears. Studies indicate that high levels of PCBs in the blubber of polar
bears appear to hamper their immune systems. This can lead to greater suscepti-
bility to parasites and disease. High PCB levels in bears have also been linked to
reproduction failure and malformed organs. The headlines of scientific papers (all
from 2006) read: ‘Xenoendocrine Pollutants May Reduce Size of Sexual Organs in
East Greenland Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus)’, in Environmental Science &
Technology; ‘Are Pollutants Shrinking Polar Bear Gonads?’, in Science News;
‘Observations of Mortality Associated with Extended Open-water Swimming by
Polar Bears in the Alaskan Beaufort Sea’, in Polar Biology; ‘Trends in Mercury in
Hair of Greenlandic Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) during 1892–2001’, in Environ-
mental Science & Technology; ‘Recent Observations of Intraspecific Predation and
Cannibalism among Polar Bears in the Southern Beaufort Sea’, in Polar Biology;
‘Composition of Chlorinated Hydrocarbon Contaminants among Major Adipose
Tissue Depots of Polar Bears (Ursus maritimus) from the Canadian High Arctic’, in
Science of the Total Environment.

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 96

96 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

2. For Rachel Slocum:

The polar bear is a boundary object that attempts to translate the immensity
and distance of climate change into something more meaningful to a number
of publics in Canada. It is a temporary bridge that allows communication and
understanding among the constituencies of scientists, policymakers, and
citizens . . .

Following Haraway, she goes on to suggest that:

Polar bears are made from the mythic, organic, textual, technical, historical,
political, and economic (Haraway, 1991), which must be recognized along-
side the important facts about weight loss from fossil-fuel-induced climate
change. Boundaries from which societies derive knowledge about polar bears
and climate change are necessary for making meanings. (2004: 431)

3. There are already signs that polar bears are becoming not just physiological
hybrids, but spatial hybrids too, as the first polar/grizzly bear hybrid was recently
discovered (in 2008). Normally, grizzly bears and polar bears do not mix, either
sexually or in terms of habitat, as polar bears mate on the sea ice and grizzlies
on land. The hybrid bear is evidence of increasing changes in the bear’s patterns
of behavioural and spatial patterns.
4. That is to say, to reiterate Eric Swyngedouw (2007: 13–40), there is nothing post-
political about the discourse of climate change and the spaces in which its politics
are fought.
5. For a discussion on economies of excess see Yusoff (2009).
6. Ulrich Beck picks up the term ‘non-knowledge’ (without reference to Bataille)
in his book World at Risk (2009) to talk about the space of knowledge that exists
between knowledge and unknowing in the discourse of climate change (2009: 115).
7. As Jamie Lorimer argues about non-human charisma:

. . . ontologically, nonhuman charisma blurs the modern subject–object

dualism to provide a new approach to understanding nonhuman agency. . . .
Instead, an awareness of nonhuman charisma opens analysis to nonhuman
difference and to the vast diversity of agency potentials performed by
different organisms. (2007: 927)

8. For a discussion of the discourse of the Anthropocene and the collapse of eco-
logical systems within and beyond the climate crisis see Crist (2007: 61).
9. Each tourist is worth roughly $400, each buggy holds 25–30 passengers and the
season is short (but getting longer each year). The maths is compelling to a small
town, constructed, and then deserted by the military.
10. For a discussion of archives, classification and knowledge systems see
Featherstone and Venn (2006).

Alaskan Native Science (2008) ‘What Is Traditional Knowledge?’, URL (consulted
January 2010):

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 97

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 97

Atwood, M. (2003) Oryx and Crake. London: Virago.

Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the
Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Bataille, G. (1929–30) ‘Documents’, in D. Ades and S. Baker, Undercover
Surrealism: Georges Bataille and Documents. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bataille, G (1985) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927–1939, trans. A. Stoekl.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bataille, G. (1988) Inner Experience, trans. L.A. Boldt. Albany: State University of
New York Press.
Bataille, G. (1989) Theory of Religion, trans. R. Hurley. New York: Zone Books.
Bataille, G. (1991a) Accursed Share, vol. 1, trans. R. Hurley. New York: Zone
Bataille, G. (1991b) Accursed Share, vols 2 and 3, trans. R. Hurley. New York: Zone
Bataille, G. (1992) On Nietzsche, trans. B. Boone. London: Continuum.
Bataille, G. (1997) ‘Formless’, in Y.A. Bois and R. Krauss, Formless. New York:
Zone Books.
Bataille, G. (2001) The Unfinished System of Nonknowledge, trans. M. Kendall and
S. Kendall. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Bataille, G. et al. (1995) Encyclopaedia Acephalica. London: Atlas Press.
Beck, U. (2009) World at Risk. Cambridge: Polity.
Beckett, S. (1965) ‘Imagination Dead Imagine’, pp. 33–8 in Six Residua. London:
John Calder.
Borges, J.L. (2002) The Book of Imaginary Beings. London: Vintage.
Broswimmer, F.J. (2002) Ecocide: A Short History of the Mass Extinction of Species.
London and Sterling, VA: Pluto Press.
Burns, B. (2005) Safety Gear for Small Animals. Montreal, QC: ABC Art Books.
Clark N. (2005) ‘Ex-orbitant Globality’, Theory, Culture & Society 22(5): 165–85.
Clark N. (2007) ‘Animal Interface: The Generosity of Domestication’, pp. 49–70 in
R. Cassidy and M. Mullin (eds) Where the Wild Things Are Now. New York: Wenner-
Gren Foundation.
Cohen, T. (2004) ‘Climate Change in the Aesthetic State (a Memory [Dis]Order)’,
Parallax 10(3): 83–98.
Crist, E. (2007) ‘Beyond the Climate Crisis: A Critique of Climate Change
Discourse’, Telos 141: 29–55.
Derrida, J. (1996) Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression, trans. E. Prenowitz.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Diprose, R. (2002) Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietzsche, Merleau-Ponty,
and Levinas. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Featherstone, M. and C. Venn (2006) ‘Problematizing Global Knowledge and the
New Encyclopaedia Project’, Theory, Culture & Society 23(2–3): 1–20.
Foucault, M. (1990[1984]) ‘An Aesthetics of Existence’, trans. A. Sheridan, in
L. Kritzman (ed.) Michel Foucault: Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and
other Writings, 1977–1984. New York: Routledge.

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 98

98 Theory, Culture & Society 27(2–3)

Foucault, M. (2002) The Order of Things: An Archaeology of Knowledge. London:

Grosz, E. (1999) Becomings: Explorations in Time, Memory and Futures. Ithaca,
NY: Cornell University Press.
Hans, J. (1981) The Play of the World. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Haraway, D. (2002) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Signifi-
cant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm Press.
Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Higham, B. (2005) ‘Jacques Rancière: The Politics of Aesthetics’, British Journal
of Aesthetics 45(4): 454–6.
Hinchliffe, S. (2008) ‘Reconstituting Nature Conservation: Towards a Careful
Political Ecology’, Geoforum 39: 88–97.
Hughes, T. (1993) The Iron Woman. London: Faber and Faber.
Ihde, D. (2002) Bodies in Technology. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Jameson, F. (1981) The Political Unconscious. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Jameson, F. (1992) The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World
System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Lorimer, J. (2007) ‘Nonhuman Charisma’, Environment and Planning D: Society
and Space 25: 911–32.
Luck, J. (2008) ‘Ecce Homo: Nietzsche’s Aesthetic Autobiography’, unpublished
paper, Indiana University, URL (consulted January 2010):
Maciel, M.E. (2006) ‘The Unclassifiable’, Theory, Culture & Society 23(2–3): 47–50.
Nietzsche, F. (1974) The Gay Science, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.
Nietzsche, F. (1989a) Beyond Good and Evil, trans. W. Kaufmann. New York:
Vintage Books.
Nietzsche, F. (1989b) On the Genealogy of Morals and Ecce Homo, trans.
W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books.
O’Leary, T. (2002) Foucault and the Art of Ethics. London: Continuum.
Privitello, L.A. (2007) ‘S/laughter and Anima-lethe’, pp. 167–96 in S. Winnubst
(ed.) Reading Bataille Now. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University
Rancière, J. (2004) The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. G. Rockhill. London: Contin-
Rancière, J. (2006) ‘Thinking between Disciplines: An Aesthetics of Knowledge’,
trans. J. Roffe, PARRHESIA 1: 1–12.
Saramago, J. (2008) Death with Interruptions. London: Harvill Secker.
Serres, M. (1995) Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time, trans. R. Lapidus.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Sloan, J. (2005) ‘The Great Escape’, in B. Burns, Safety Gear for Small Animals.
Montreal, QC: ABC Art Books.
Slocum, R. (2004) ‘Polar Bears and Energy-efficient Lightbulbs: Strategies to Bring
Climate Change Home’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 22:

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010

073-099 TCS362090 Yusoff_Article 156 x 234mm 30/04/2010 09:00 Page 99

Yusoff – Biopolitical Economies and Political Aesthetics of Climate Change 99

Stengers, I. (2005) ‘The Cosmopolitical Proposal’, pp. 994–1003 in B. Latour and

P. Weibel (eds) Making Things Public. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Stoekl, A. (2007a) Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion and Postsustainability.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Stoekl, A. (2007b) ‘Excess and Depletion: Bataille’s Suprisingly Ethical Model of
Expenditure’, pp. 252–82 in S. Winnubst (ed.) Reading Bataille Now. Blooming-
ton and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.
Swyngedouw, E. (2007) ‘Impossible “Sustainability” and the Post-political Condi-
tion’, in D. Gibbs and R. Krueger (eds) Sustainable Development. New York:
Guilford Press.
Taussig, M. (1993) Mimesis and Alterity. London: Routledge.
Thomas, C.. A. Cameron, R.E. Green, M. Bakkenes, L.J. Beaumont, Y.C. Colling-
ham et al. (2004) ‘Extinction Risk from Climate Change’, Nature 427: 145–8.
Williams, W.C. (2000) William Carlos Williams, Selected Poems. London: Penguin.
Wilson, E.O. (2006) The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. Cambridge,
MA: W.W. Norton.
Yusoff, K. (2009) ‘Excess, Catastrophe, and Climate Change’, Environment and
Planning D: Society and Space 27: 1010–29.
Yusoff, K. and J. Gabrys (2007) ‘Bear Life’, FOCAS: Forum on Contemporary Art
and Society (Regional Animalities) 6: 66–83.

Kathryn Yusoff is Lecturer in Human (and Non-human) Geography, and

Director of the MA in Climate Change at the University of Exeter. She is
currently working on a book project, ‘The Political Aesthetics of Climate
Change’, which is concerned with how we understand dynamic earth
processes and environmental change through aesthetic experience, and how
these experiences configure our political relations to human and non-human
worlds. [email:]

Downloaded from at Australian National University on September 5, 2010