Water is a Bottomless Subject

Vents Vīnbergs

Thoughterritory — 14.07.2020

On the feminist and scholar Astrida Neimanis

Culture is the result of careful and purposeful thinking, as is the environment that emerges from such, evolving and developing over time. In this sense, culture is inseparable from ecology, as both are characterized by the interaction of the environment and organisms or bodies. Thus, any thinking about the interconnectedness and interdependence of these elements to each other is cultural and ecological, but the separation of specific objects and the construction of their hierarchies is neither one nor the other. Recognizing that every organism is an open system and a process subject to perpetual change, it is becoming increasingly difficult to accept that some bodies may be more privileged than others, and that other bodies and the environment in which they exist are simply a resource for the consumption of the first.

Conventional practices do not, in themselves, constitute culture; that happens where other ways of thinking about being in the world are sought. Conventional thinking creates stagnant, lifeless dogmas; truly ecological thinking is always unconventional and fluid.

Within the RIBOCA2 Public Program, examples of such thinking have already been discussed in a conversation with Tobias Rees, who opposes the state of human exceptionalism using the microbiome and the existential dependence of all living beings on it, and also with Michael Marder and his efforts to include plant life in the realm of empathy.

Sophie Lewisalso spoke about the impact of the environment and the extended kinships that gestate and make up every organism and are free from the repressive concept of the nuclear family, while Boaventura de Sousa Santos reiterated the need to return to the collective “mother-earth” idea well known to indigenous peoples yet hated for so long by Western colonizers. Astrida Neimanis, a Canadian of Latvian origin, who is currently a lecturer at the Department of Gender and Cultural Sciences at the University of Sydney and a researcher at the Sydney Environmental Institute, will also join these voices. At the heart of her work and interest is water, or rather, the fact that it is the basis of all life known to us; it is the womb of life and the medium of interaction of all living beings. Water makes up 60-90% of the chemical composition of living organisms (about 80% for humans), which in turn determines the circulation of both nutrients and pollution between the environment and bodies, as well as climatic and geological processes.

The widest resonance amongst ecologically-thinking audiences so far, has been created by Astrida Neimanis' book Bodies of Water. Post-human Feminist Phenomenology (2017), which she wrote because: “I hoped to explore the ways that how we know the world directly relates to how we act in the world. So, how we know water, and what we think water is, directly influences how we treat water. If we think of water as a commodifiable resource, if we think of water as something out there, if we think of water scarcity or water contamination as something that happens to certain communities, this will affect the way we treat water in our quotidian, everyday existences. Water isn’t something out there, it’s us. How we treat it is how we’re treating ourselves, our kin, our more-than-human kin.”[1]

Unlike her sister, who specializes narrowly in marine biology, Astrida's studies of philosophy, feminism and queer theory allow her to look at water in an interdisciplinary way. "My initial plan was that I would look at how the human body is made up of air, food, soil, water. But, luckily, I started with water and I never left. There was more than enough right there. It was an accidental environmentalism. In my personal life, I often had environmental interests. But as a scholar, it was feminist theory that led me to think environmentally in a really direct way. And then that opened up a whole different way for me to think about environmental concerns and issues in the world, starting from our own personal embodiment.”

Astrida says that water entangles our bodies in relationships of gift, debt, theft, complicity, differentiation and connection. To demonstrate its all-encompassing significance, she uses all sorts of genres and practices, from natural sciences and socio-economic considerations to the sensual experience of the private body, water-related mythology and various art forms in which water is both a theme and a medium.

The resourcefulness of modern technology, water management policies, metering, purification and quality control do not in themselves mean environmentally friendly thinking if ecological justice and the availability of water for the benefit of all living things is not taken into account. The same goes for the fact that our own and other species' bodies are not the final destination of global water circulation, but merely a temporary stop. Therefore, not only does the privatization, distribution, consumption and sanitation of water become an ethical issue, but so does the "used" water that leaves every organism at any given time, for the body's aqueous fluids can be a source of new life or a threat of death.

(Queer feminism has long had objections to biologically essentialist female and normative reproductive morphology, which enclose bodies in gender roles. Male bodies are no less seeping with fertility or dripping with toxicity.)

Lack of knowledge about the global water cycle leads to unconscious forms of colonialism. For example, climate change and water pollution have a much greater impact on those bodies that are not responsible for the side effects of the global economy at all. (In addition to the rapid melting of Arctic glaciers, Neimanis also cites studies showing elevated levels of toxins in Inuit mother's milk. It gets there from the pollution in rivers, oceans and precipitation as well as from the poisoned seafood they ingest.) 

Both literal and metaphorical drowning, thirst, floods and droughts are a constant reminder of colonialism and the exploitation of nature.

Moreover, the specificity of the rock-hard categories of phallogocentrism (a concept introduced by Derrida, which Neimanis has carried over from Hélène Cixous’ texts) is constantly questioned by clichéd water metaphors such as political waves, refugee inflows, capital flight, and the like. Here it occurs to me, that my enthusiasm for the enthusiasm of astrophysicists for searching for and discovering exoplanets suitable for life, is also masculine imperialist.

The main feature of this research is the presence of water, which is many times more abundant in other celestial bodies in other solar systems than in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere. In contrast, feminist thinking is much more focused on caring for what is happening here, at home and on Earth. (Here, I enter the controversial territory of "man - scout and hunter, woman - guardian of the hearth", but equally awkward areas occur in thinking about the destructive nature of water, such as man's inability to survive in water, and Neimanis does not shy away from studying that too.)

The fluidity of the water, the relentless circulation and the flexible ability to adapt to the shape of any given vessel, seem to be characteristic of Astrida Neimanis' own work, like the way she dives into other texts, merges different disciplines and is attracted by interdisciplinary projects. She deftly navigates the hazardous underwater rocks of dogma in a driven quest to discover what lies beyond the horizon. The constant interaction and mixing of bodies and different experiences is also important for her as an academic researcher, because one can never know everything, so she deals with all possible practices of being together. Advocating for someone's rights or speaking on behalf of someone else without knowing about alternative ways to feel or think is also a patronizing and colonial practice. Astrida Neimanis shows that water does not comply, and that it is an inexhaustible topic.

Astrida Neimanis reading We Are All at Sea took on July 19, 2020 place within the framework of the online lecture and discussion cycle organized by RIBOCA2.

RIBOCA2 website


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