Myra Hird’s work is in many ways the fulcrum of the “Boundaries” series, the point at which our explorations of the life sciences intersect with our investigations into the concept of climate justice. Like a lot of scholars in the human sciences, she became frustrated at the limitations of social constructionist thought– eventually deciding, as Cary Wolfe once put it, that for social constructionism, the human is the measure of all things, the sole assigner of value to objects not only in the social worlds created by humans but in the natural, pre- and non-human world as well. As Hird writes in The Origins of Sociable Life: Evolution after Science Studies, her life– and her understanding of “life”– took a decisive turn one day in 1999 when she came across What is Sex? by Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan. That took her career on a trajectory the most recent point of which is her contribution to the “Lynn Margulis Was Right” caucus we have managed to establish in this series.
Taking her cue from Margulis’s “big like us” criticism of accounts of evolution that emphasize the emergence of large animals (especially large mammals like us), Hird tries to tell the story of life from the point of view– so to speak– of bacteria. Not only does this allow us a more adequate understanding of symbiogenesis; it also reminds us, soberly, that for the vast majority of our planet’s history– over three billion years– “life” on Earth was single-celled.
What I found most interesting in Hird’s presentation, and in the following seminar, was the care she took to distance herself from things like actor-network theory (following Latour) and notions of “entanglement” (after Barad). These ideas are almost good enough, Hird suggests, but they still have too much to do with us.
And this is a hard thought to think. I know enough, by now, to be suspicious of the discourse of “sustainability,” which really does seem to be all about us– and how we in the industrialized nations can sustain our standard of living with 10 percent less guilt. The Anthropocene is a bit better, insofar as it puts the emphasis on the state of the planet, but of course the anthropos is still all about us. So when I read this passage in Hird’s essay, “Waste, Landfills, and an Environmental Ethic of Vulnerability”–
Conceptualizing world-making as the co-enactment of human and nonhuman relations reveals instead the myriad relations upon which all life intimately depends. At the same time, however, we are challenged in our analyses to consider relations between nonhumans that do not somehow, at the same time, also involve humans (109)
– I almost laughed out loud, thinking that this would involve something like a Bechdel Test for thinking about the nonhuman. The Bechdel Test, of course, asks whether a movie contains at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man– and it is profoundly depressing how many Hollywood movies fail to pass. The Hird Test, then, would ask if a study contains at least two nonhuman actors whose intra-action does not involve humans.
It is apparently very difficult for humans to think of such things– and even the bacteria are no help, because they make up so much of what we are and what we do. But it seems entirely necessary if we are to try to think usefully about the meaning of “life.”