Elemental Thinking, Alternative Carbon Imaginaries, and Living Matter at the Edge of Life
(University of Exeter)
Paper short abstract:
Reading ancient elemental theory together with scientific accounts of ecologies of marine microbes and their viruses, and their importance for the global carbon cycle, this paper seeks to develop a less anthropocentric 'carbon imaginary' that no longer opposes life and non-life.
Paper long abstract:
This paper explores how an elemental thinking interrogates what anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli calls our 'carbon imaginary' the governance of life through a fundamental distinction between life and non-life or bios and geos. According to Povinelli, the 'carbon imaginary' can no longer adequately account for power formations in an age of climate change. The anthropocentric figures that emerged from a Foucauldian biopolitics are in need of replacement with figures that e.g. are indifferent to a distinction between life and non-life, such as the virus. Viruses can be viewed as alternating between living and non-living phases (Dupre and O'Malley 2009) between chemical substance and living process. Similarly, ancient elemental theory (based on the four elements: earth, air, water, and fire) offers a mode of understanding materiality that does not center the cosmos around the human (Cohen 2015); rather than revealing the vitality of inert substances an elemental thinking - thinking from within entanglement of humans and nonhumans - challenges the opposition between substances and processes and organic and inorganic life. Reading elemental theory together with scientific accounts of ecologies of marine microbes and their viruses, their lively and deadly interactions, and their importance for the global carbon cycle, this paper seeks to develop an alternative carbon imaginary that figures carbon not as a substance but perhaps as an 'elemental relation' in transformation.