In the inaugural Fisher Center Speaker Series lecture of the 2015-16 academic year, Elizabeth A. Povinelli brought her background in anthropology and gender studies to bear on this year’s theme, “Gender, Climate and the Anthropocene,” exploring the connections between human planetary impact and the systems through which societies reproduce themselves.
The Franz Boas professor of anthropology and gender studies at Columbia University, Povinelli is best known for explorations of intimacy, indigeneity and abandonment. Her writings have focused on developing a critical theory of late liberalism – the governance of difference in markets, which relies on the distinction between life and non-life – that would support the anthropology of the otherwise.
“She was, by overwhelming consensus, our first choice for a first speaker,” says Robert R. Maclean, a 2015-2016 Fisher Center Research Fellow. “We all wanted her to come because although we’re all working in such radically different areas, her work crosses so many different boundaries in terms of fields and disciplines, and theoretical programming. We thought that her work had something that could speak to all of our different concerns.”
In her talk, “Before Biopower and After: Geontopower,” – geontopower defined as power organized around the distinction between life and non-life – Povinelli argued that climate change and the Anthropocene – the present epoch in which human actions began to have geologic impact – are causing the division between life and non-life to become increasingly indistinguishable. As a result of this convergence of the living and the non-living, late liberalism as a mode of governance can no longer operate, she argued.
“One of the things late liberalism absolutely depended on was the distinction between life and non-life,” Povinelli said. “With climate change and the Anthropocene, we don’t know how to distinguish the two anymore. And if you can’t distinguish between existent forms, the basis of life and non-life, how do we approach existence and modes of existence, and how do we manage politics that can no longer treat certain things in certain ways?”
To explore the topic further, Povinelli shared two clips from the films she recently co-directed, “Karrabing! Low Tide Turning,” which was selected for the 2012 Berlinale International Film Festival, Shorts Competition, and “When the Dogs Talked,” which premiered at the 2015 Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) and earned Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation the MIFF 2015 Cinema Nova Award for Best Short Fiction Film. Much of her recent work, including these two films, has focused on late liberal settler colonies of Australian indigenous worlds.
“She’s doing really cutting-edge work and has been giving lectures internationally on this for the last few years,” says Professor of Political Science and Director of the Fisher Center Jodi Dean. “One of the things that makes her so interesting and important is the way she grounds her philosophical perspective in activist work with Aboriginals in Northern Australia, who have been her friends and comrades and artistic co-workers for 30 years.”
Povinelli earned her B.A. from St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M., and her Ph.D. from Yale. At Columbia University, she has also served as the director of the Institute for Research on Women and Gender and the co-director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture. In addition to her film work, Povinelli is the author of “Labor’s Lot: The Power, History, and Culture of Aboriginal Action” (1994), “The Cunning of Recognition: Indigenous Alterities and the Making of Australian Multiculturalism” (2002), “The Empire of Love: Toward a Theory of Intimacy, Genealogy, and Carnality” (2006), and “Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism” (2011). She has published numerous articles on topics like settler colonialisms; sexuality, difference and power; and semiotics and technologies of the otherwise.
The Fisher Center Speaker Series will continue on Wednesday, Nov. 4, at 7 p.m. with a discussion led by Frédéric Neyrat, lecturer in comparative literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison, French philosopher and former program director at Collège international de philosophie in Paris.
In his talk, “Cosmophagy, Cinema and Anthropocene,” Neyrat will argue that the truth of the Anthropocene is cosmophagy. Jennifer Cazenave, a Fisher Center research fellow and postdoctoral teaching fellow in French and Francophone Studies, will deliver a response to Neyrat, “Cinema in the Aftermath of the Catastrophe.” Cazenave will consider how cinema and philosophy were impacted by the experience of the Holocaust.
On Wednesday, Nov. 11 at 7 p.m., the Fisher Center will host the Brooklyn-based arts collective, Not an Alternative. The group will present its project, “The Natural History Museum,” a work of socially engaged art that functions as a political campaign and a counter-institution. Concluding the series on Dec. 9 will be Nicholas Beuret, a doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester, U.K., and Visiting Professor of Environmental Studies and Fisher Center Research Fellow Elizabeth Johnson. Beuret will discuss the political and aquatic aspects of climate change, and Johnson will lecture on the pivotal role jellyfish have recently taken in visions of the future of life on Earth.