Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Priscilla Wald reviews Animate Planet

Kath Weston. Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2017. 264 pp.

Review by Priscilla Wald.

In the more than a century and a half since Darwin made his great origin story public, we can trace the trajectory of a gradually increasing evolution of an ecological world view in the West. Ecology, that is, in its broadest sense: the interdependence of all things.  Ecological thinking might find expression in the link between a fluttering butterfly and a subsequent tsunami half-way around the world or, in time-travel speculative fiction, the connection between the protagonist’s accidentally crushing a toad in the prehistoric past and his returning to a dystopic unfamiliar present.  These scenarios rehearse a way of thinking through which we gradually prepare ourselves to accept the deepest Darwinian lesson: humanity’s interconnection with the organic (and inorganic) world, hence our unexceptionality and finitude.

In Animate Planet: Making Visceral Sense of Living in a High-Tech Ecologically Damaged World, Kath Weston turns an intense eye on the current phase of this process, evident in a contemporary flirtation with the concept of animism—somewhat embarrassed, she suggests, but persistent even in the most sophisticated efforts to “decenter the human.”  Dubbing this contemporary variant “animacies” to distinguish them from their earlier articulations, Weston turns her attention to the changing conception of the human they represent.  Twenty-first-century animacies “literally reconceive humans as the products of an ‘environment’ that has itself taken shape through embodied human action, often in pursuit of profit” (p. 4).  In elegant prose, Weston illustrates the animation “of a world infused with life, down to the pavement caressed by our feet as we walk down the road and the exiled wildflowers finding a way back to the sun through crevices in the asphalt” (p. 5).

Weston’s objective in this work is not to enter the debates surrounding “post-humanism, new materialities, or what anthropologists have dubbed ‘the ontological turn’” (p. 4).  Rather, she is interested in how “the twenty-first-century fascination with ecologically infused animacies and intimacies” constitutes “a symptom—perhaps a sign—worthy of investigation in its own right” (p. 4).  Through her carefully chosen vocabulary—animacies and intimacies—she seeks to capture the affect of this turn: how, that is, humans’ gradual adaptation to the world feels in the current moment.  While “intimacies” provocatively signals the growing recognition of our bodies’ intricate corporeal immersion in every aspect of an environment, “animacies” names the struggle to understand the coconstitution of bodies and environments, from mechanisms to implications.

Animate Planet offers four case studies in three sites—in the US, Japan, and India—through which Weston asks how the contemporary awareness of bodily intimacy with an animated world registers a changing understanding of “what it means to be human when damage to ecosystems has muddied any interior/exterior divide” (p. 31).  Weston’s vocabulary—intimacy, animacy, enchantment—troubles easy assumptions about ecological thinking.  New surveillance technologies such as RFID (radio-frequency identification), used to keep track of livestock and sometimes schoolchildren, have changed our sense of intimacy with animals, with food, and with the processes that maintain our food supply—but how?  And what exactly did Japanese citizens learn about connectedness when, frustrated with the lack of information following the meltdown at the Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear power plant, they availed themselves of technologies that measured the radiation levels to which children in playgrounds or the food supply for a large city had been exposed?

Condemnation is beside the point in Animate Planet, which asks instead that readers consider the inevitability of intimacy, animacy, and enchantment and ask what those look—and feel—like at present.  The effects of Cesium-137 on the eco-system (including the human body) are of course undesirable, but they change how we imagine our relationship to our environments.  These changes represent not a disenchantment but a re-enchantment, a new understanding of the terms of existence that form their own mythology—that is what Weston documents in this work.  Pieties come under scrutiny in the process, especially in the second half of the book, in which Weston explores how “embodied empiricism” (the use of bodies as technologies) can foster climate change skepticism and how water parks in desert areas may not be solely reducible, as critics claim, to irresponsible wastefulness but might also promote a playful and productive intimacy with one’s surroundings.  That intimacy, she suggests, may engender a different kind of investment in the environment.

The complexity of these readings promotes compassion but also a richer understanding of how humanity inhabits our world.  We cannot predict the new directions in which our affects may take us.  Through such precarity, and the intimacies, animacies, and enchantments accompanying it, Weston reframes the debates on which the health of our animate planet depends.