Book Review: 'Exposed' by Stacy Alaimo
Exposed isn’t a manifesto. It also isn’t a metaphor. Stacy Alaimo’s most recent book, Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures in Posthuman Times, argues from the first sentence that “the Anthropocene is no time to set things straight” (1). This pun, as readers of the book quickly deduce, relates to the use of the word straight. On one hand, straight, meaning right or correct, refers to the impossibility of stopping or adjusting course now that the Anthropocene, the sixth great extinction, is underway. But straight also denotes heterosexuality—or heteronormativity to be more precise. In other words, we cannot rely on previous patriarchal-reinforcing paradigms to negotiate the troubled terrain of the Anthropocene as it is those structures (even the ones we think of as helpful) that have both led to and continue to foster this predicament. Alaimo argues that a bold reconsideration of the human as non-human offers opportunities and pathways for material change:
“…it may be useful to point out that posthumanist new materialism, trans-corporeality, and some modes of environmental activism muddle the categories of the ethical and the political, not only because they insist that nonhuman life is a matter of concern but because they demonstrate that even the smallest, most personal ethical practices in the domestic sphere are inextricably tied to any number of massive political and economic predicaments, such as global capitalism, labor and class injustice, neoliberalism, neocolonialism, industrial agriculture, factory farming, pollution, climate change, and extinction” (10).
Since the human—bound up in its own ethical and political practices—is itself a patriarchal construct that is removed from the “natural” or non-human world, then the posthuman turn must be one that is definitionally queer. Of the many different permutations in Exposed, perhaps the most efficient distillation is an advocacy that we recognize ourselves as already “exposed” as non-humans. According to Alaimo, who “resists the temptation to engage in any sort of grand mapping or utterly lucid conceptualization” (1), we are at risk in the Anthropocene of losing something much more dear to us than our constructed humanity.
Alaimo divides her six chapters into three parts. The first addresses issues of space and sex for the non-human world. In addition to addressing the complexities of naked protesting, part two also offers a consideration of masculinity and the supposed feminine fragility of the environment. Finally, Alaimo turns to currents of catastrophe in the quickly acidifying oceans, for it is by troubling arguments about these already-troubled waters that we understand our role and our fate in this hour of the sixth great extinction.
The first chapter recounts the role of numerous artists, theorists, authors, and activists in reconsidering the physical space occupied by humans and non-humans. What is striking in this chapter is Alaimo’s advocacy for a reconsideration of the role and use of architecture. Specifically, she argues that “scholarship on architecture has, historically and for the most part, restricted itself to the domain of the human” (31). Alaimo then recounts projects that bring non-human life back into urban areas. Chapter two, a version of which was published in Queer Ecologies, draws heavily on the work of Bruce Bagemihl, whose research revealed a massive cover-up by researchers concerning the presence of non-reproductive sexual activity between same-sex animals. By excluding this information from published research, scientists and zoologists enshrined patriarchal tenets upon the “natural” world of non-human animals. Moreover, certain non-human animal communities use these non-reproductive sexual encounters in surprising ways: “By eluding perfect modes of capture, queer animals dramatize emergent worlds of desire, action, agency, and interactivity that can never be reduced to a background or resource against which the human defines himself” (60-1).
Chapter three explores the roles and permutations of naked protesting regarding environmental issues. Among her concerns is the caveat that “nakedness” itself is already complicated by the social and cultural markings of any given body. Alaimo argues that “despite the radical incommensurability and the jarring disjunctions between the historically saturated meanings of flesh, to bracket or avoid the question of race, and to ignore the black feminist writings on historical and performed flesh when interpreting these scenes of exposure, would reiterate the presumption that the human (proper) is white” (72). As the second half of the second part of Exposed, “Climate Systems, Carbon-Heavy Masculinity, and Feminist Exposure” establishes perhaps the most overt connection to Alaimo’s previous work on Material Feminism. After a critique of the destructiveness inherent in masculinity and acknowledging studies demonstrating that women are more at risk by climate change, Exposed cautions against emphasizing female vulnerability for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the reinforcement of a patriarchy structured on reckless masculinity.
The penultimate chapter addressing the plastification of the oceans and the resulting collapse of food chains makes for dread-inducing but necessary reading. The last chapter engages extensively with Dipesh Chakrabarty’s essay “The Climate of History,” which argues that human activity equates to a geological force, that though humans are biologic, “we can become geological agents only historically and collectively” (149). Against this rocky analogy, Alaimo argues that better considerations are available:
“Thinking the human as a species does not preclude analysis and critique of economic systems, environmental devastation and social injustice. In fact, if we shift from the sense of humans as an abstract force that acts but is not acted on, to a trans-corporeal conception of the human as that which is always generated through and entangled in differing scales and sorts of biological, technological, economic, social, political, and other systems, then that sort of human—always material, always the stuff of the world—becomes the site for social justice and environmental praxis” (155).
Alaimo’s conceptualization of ever-shifting advocacy responding to ever-changing circumstances causes her to call the whole “sustainability” operation into question because, similar to the rhetoric of climate change, it foregrounds the human experience while ignoring the prescient peril of non-human animals. It assumes a sustained stability in the environment that is only recognized from a human perspective—other non-human creatures now dwindling in population remain largely ignored.
When I started reading Exposed, I kept thinking about biopower, especially as introduced by Michel Foucault and explicated by Giorgio Agamben. I realized pretty quickly that Alaimo’s concern is for the bare life, the existence associated with zoe, the shell of the pteropod dissolving in the acidic ocean as we speak. It is that life that is utterly excepted from (or exposed to) the law and subject to its full force. Our disregard hastens their destruction. But we fail to recognize it is the extinction of that bare life that precipitates our own. Though Alaimo draws on the work of numerous critical theorists, she also populates Exposed with countless artists, authors, and activists. The cumulative effect demonstrates a stunning panoply of possibility and resistance. I would propose some new neologism like zoepower, but it too clumsily stumbles from the tongue. Though as humans we will never shed our social and political lives as those activities and concepts define our species, Alaimo’s wealth of evidence indicates that also recognizing ourselves as non-human humans affords us affiliations and alliances with other non-human species. When the social and political dissolves along with our material bodies in oceans of acid, it will be too late to realize that we were always already Exposed.
Alaimo, Stacy. Exposed: Environmental Politics & Pleasures in Posthuman Times. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2016. Print.