Living with “Strange Strangers”
“I did not move to Minnesota for the north woods, … I had only the vaguest idea of what the term meant when I first saw them in early spring, the birch, aspen, and tamarack skinned of their needles and leaves. I thought they looked diseased.” (pg. 3)
“I moved there to try to leave behind — or at least, at a remoter distance — the plague that had consumed my life for the past six years.” (pg. 3)
— Jan Zita Grover, North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear Cuts
Prior to her move to Minnesota, Jan Zita Grover had been an AIDS worker in San Francisco during the 1980s. The Californian city was hit hard by the virus and Grover was undoubtedly present during pain and disease. Being a front line AIDS worker, at that time, meant sitting with the feeling of life ending — that moment of time when life leaves the material body — all the time.
Grover had made the move in hopes of an emotional (and ecological) reprieve. Under the impression that she would be met with that untouched, incessantly verdant landscape, she was confused about what she discovered. Grover found barren lands that had been etched into by the ghost of logging’s past. Beautiful seemed to be the wrong word. She writes that the north woods offered her an:
“…unanticipated challenge, a spiritual discipline: to appreciate them, I needed to learn how to see their scars, defacement, and artificiality, and then beyond those to their strengths — their historicity, the difficult beauties that underlay their deformity.” (pg. 6)
Writing on Grover’s work, environmental humanities scholar Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands writes that, “in her recognition of the ways in which AIDS influenced her ability to appreciate the natural environments around her, Grover demonstrates what I will call a ‘queer ecological’ sensibility” (pg.3). In other words, Grover’s work grabs at this idea of queer ecology. Mortimer-Sandilands writes:
“She [Grover] describes…changing the dressing on a dying friend’s leg macerated by Kaposi’s Sarcoma: ‘It did not look like a leg. It looked like freshly turned soil, dark and ruptured” (8). But Grover finds in the unlikely and horrific space of her friend’s dying a real appreciation for the plenitude of living. She can see in a festering wound the terrifying beauty of flesh turning to soil, and she can also thus see in a clear-cut both the ravages of capitalist extraction and the vivacity of jack pines, aspens, and poplars. (pg. 3)
Queer ecology is a still underdeveloped field. A simple, albeit perhaps too simple, conception of the discipline is the space where ecology and queer theory mingle and where they butt heads. It’s cultural and biological; chiefly it’s concerned with boundaries and their dissolution. Let’s spell this out more and describe the implications.
Ecologizing Queer Theory? Or, Queering Ecology?
Unlike many fields of study, queer ecology is young and has hardly any definitions. Descriptions of what a queer ecology might look like will be a much better guide.
“Judith Butler makes a case for queer ecology, because she shows how heterosexist gender performance produces a metaphysical manifold that separates “inside” from “outside.” The inside-outside manifold is fundamental for thinking the environment as a metaphysical, closed system — Nature. This is impossible to construe without violence.” (pg. 275)
This is a historical account of nature: a thing with boundaries. Things are either natural or they are not. Nature under this distinction, is metaphysically closed.
Queer ecology as Morton will go on to construct is a sort of camp-esque, but critical study of how boundaries in biology are not real at all. What’s more is that the maintenance of such barriers often results in metaphorical, emotional, and physical violence. Queer ecology is not radical as Morton writes:
“Just read Darwin. Evolution means that life-forms are made of other life-forms. Entities are mutually determining: they exist in relation to each other and derive from each other. Nothing exists independently, and nothing comes from nothing. At the DNA level, it’s impossible to tell a “genuine” code sequence from a viral code insertion. In bacteria, for example, there exist plasmids, entities not unlike pieces of viral code. Plasmids resemble parasites in the bacterial host, but at this scale it’s impossible to tell which being is a parasite and which a host (Dawkins, Extended Phenotype 159, 200–23, 226; paging Hillis Miller . . . ).” (pg.275)
A heteronormative ecology, perhaps what we call a standard ecology, is uncritical and serves to demarcate this thing from that thing. Queer ecology tells us this is but a semantic game, not a description of reality. Organisms are being born of others, being killed by others, feeding on others, evolving into and from others, going extinct because of others. That relational bit to others is the important part. Nothing exists alone. Morton writes:
In a sense, molecular biology confronts issues of authenticity similar to those in textual studies. Just as deconstruction showed that, at a certain level at any rate, no text is totally authentic, biology shows us that there is no authentic life-form. (pg. 275).
When we write of authenticity, we mean to say that our subject is the entity by which it is best described. That means nothing. Living things surprise us all the time. Humans are just describing things with blunt senses. According to us, animals could not feel pain. We know now that is not true. Once we thought animals could not use language. This seems outdated. Everytime we move the goal post of what makes a person, some animal somewhere proves us wrong.
“..the Biosphere” as Morton writes, “is permeable and boundariless … if anything life is catastrophic, monstrous, nonholistic, and dislocated, not organic, coherent, or authoritative” (pg. 275).
Adopting “Strange Strangers”
Queer ecology would seek to revise antiquated notions of what is means to be alive on the planet in light of uncomfortable evidence. What I mean by this is that we are going to have to, perhaps, throw out some terms — some really useful terms — because they don’t make sense in some cases. Let’s consider “animal.”
What is the difference between human and animal? “Human” makes sense; it’s that bipedal species Homo Sapiens with the protruding sniffer, single stomach, and two eyes. Okay, what about animal? In common terms, “animal” is everything else. That hardly means anything at all.
Morton proposes “strange stranger” working off of philosopher Jacques Derrida’s term arrivant. He writes:
“Instead of reducing everything to sameness, ecological interdependence multiplies differences everywhere.
Strange strangers are uncanny, familiar and strange simultaneously. …They cannot be thought as part of a series (such as species or genus) without violence. Yet their uniqueness is not such that they are independent. They are composites of other strange strangers. Every life-form is familiar, since we are related to it. We share its DNA, its cell structure, the subroutines in the software of its brain. Its unicity implies its capacity to participate in a collective. Queer ecology may espouse something very different from individualism, rugged or otherwise.” (pg. 277)
Meeting the strange stranger is coming into contact with another, the others on this planet. Strange strangers are in fact strange precisely because you are strange to them as well. Your bodily constitution is in direct opposition to them as well as in a melodic dance of similarity. Rabbits are not rabbits in name, they are rabbits because of their relationship to us humans. We just call them rabbits after the fact.
“Queer ecology would … show how beings exist precisely because they are nothing but relationality, deep down — for the love of matter” (pg. 277).
Leaving the World Behind
Queer ecology, like its parent (or sibling or cousin…) queer theory, will undoubtedly take familiar structures down with its acceptance. Morton tells us that community based environmental worldviews are violent in the sense that communities are always of higher value than its members. “Instead of insisting on being part of something bigger, we should be working with intimacy,” (pg. 278) Morton writes.
He also tells us that: “Worlds have horizons: here and there, inside and outside; queer ecology would undermine worlds” (pg. 278).
In a community based ecological outlook, there is no room for individuals, disability, weirdness, or spontaneity — there is only the average. Many individuals will stray from the average and is precisely the reality that queer ecology seeks to pull out. The things of this world only look as if they make sense because “we don’t perceive them on an evolutionary or geologic time scale” (pg. 279).
Papers with scientific methods that do not include a large enough sample size, 1000 fire bellied toads for example, will often be marked with characteristic incredulity. If you don’t have enough fire bellied toads, you will not be able to draw any representative conclusions about the species as a whole. For statistics this a must; for queer ecology it is the issue. Representation becomes more important than the actual organisms being studied. Whereas your study might elucidate that amphibians generally breath through their skin, you might forget that you interacted with 1000 individuals for which the results are just their experience.
The Implications of Queer Theory: “Nature dissolves when you look directly at it.”
All is not lost for science just yet. I remember in college being told that nature hates boundaries and would rather settle for a gradient. Whatever scientific discovery, there is an outlier. This is proof of what I see as a scientific discipline being informed by queer ecology.
Another example is the concept of species. I learned about three in college. Turns out that there are at least 26 in modern literature. These span the gamut of disciplines: ecology, genetics, morphology, etc. Identifying species is difficult and will perhaps always be. Sitting with uncertainty is what queer ecology helps us do better.
Queer ecology teaches us to critically look at what is going on in the biological world. It urges us to shift our paradigms about what humans are, what animals might be, and how we are to interact with the strange strangers. I think we are supposed to recognize that boundaries just make us comfortable. Taxonomic groups separates us from them. We are all a part of what Morton calls a “mesh.” He writes:
“Queer ecology requires a vocabulary envisioning this liquid life. I propose that life-forms constitute a mesh, a nontotalizable, open-ended concatenation of interrelations that blur and confound boundaries at practically any level: between species, between the living and the nonliving, between organism and environment. Visualizing the mesh is difficult…” (275–6).
When writing about AIDS and the north woods Jan Zita Grover discovered that mesh. She discovered that her friends dying of AIDS were undergoing a transformation akin to that of the north woods being clear cut. She saw that the bloody wounds of HIV positive people were the same as those deep bare spots carved out of the pine trees.