Multispecies Rituals is a side-scrolling platform game—a speculative world (and accompanying essay) that holds open the definition of "species" and "ritual" to include nonlife, hybridities and artificialities, geologic and hydrologic forces, spirits, ancestors, and the unruly agencies of plant and animal bodies. In gameplay, an avatar runs and jumps to navigate a series of platforms, collecting talismans. Each talisman prompts the player to write out a sequence of doings, recitations, or gestures that implicate nonhuman entities. User rituals are collected and catalogued (below) as a generative resource and performative repertoire for multispecies worlds, for telling better stories—rock-stories, plant-stories, stories about cities, microbes, genetically modified salmon, smartphones, or space debris—with religious feeling.
Daily, our screens flood with news of anthropogenic disasters, species extinctions, urban sprawls and decays, massive-scale extractive policies, projects, or protests, and technoscientific moves hatched to clean up the mess we are in. Harvard biochemists developing a bionic leaf to harvest solar energy say, “we think we can do better than plants” (Biello 2015). To finance the global uptake of this “frontier” technology, the same scientists recommend the World Bank (Faunce et al. 2013)—an institution whose development lending programs are conditional on policy reforms including trade liberalization and mass privatization (Kovach and Lansman 2006). In discoveries and developments, ecologies are parsed through institutionalized modes of making subjects of knowledge and objects of trade to instantiate new modes of territorialization and landscapes are remapped to exclude their inhabitants (Brockington and Igoe 2007). It is in this context that rising sea levels, extinctions, and the creeping edges of desert are met with “frontier” solutions, even as Indigenous peoples and their millennia-old technologies of relationship to land, water, air, and spirit hang in the balance of... Read essay
Daily, our screens flood with news of anthropogenic disasters, species extinctions, urban sprawls and decays, massive-scale extractive policies, projects, or protests, and technoscientific moves hatched to clean up the mess we are in. Harvard biochemists developing a bionic leaf to harvest solar energy say, “we think we can do better than plants” (Biello 2015). To finance the global uptake of this “frontier” technology, the same scientists recommend the World Bank (Faunce et al. 2013)—an institution whose development lending programs are conditional on policy reforms including trade liberalization and mass privatization (Kovach and Lansman 2006). In discoveries and developments, ecologies are parsed through institutionalized modes of making subjects of knowledge and objects of trade to instantiate new modes of territorialization and landscapes are remapped to exclude their inhabitants (Brockington and Igoe 2007). It is in this context that rising sea levels, extinctions, and the creeping edges of desert are met with “frontier” solutions, even as Indigenous peoples and their millennia-old technologies of relationship to land, water, air, and spirit hang in the balance of climactic disaster and ongoing dispossession (UNPFII 2008).
This is the strange new world of the final frontier—a world of lines and borders, of pushing the limits of settled land into the “wilderness” beyond, of monomania for the extremes of achievement or progress, and of new fields of extractive and developmental activity. I am reminded of an Atari game from my childhood called Supremacy: Your Will Be Done. The goal: in interplanetary conquest, bring all worlds into commensurability. The player terraforms “lifeless” worlds, running them through an atmospheric processor to make them habitable and profitable. If I had to put a body to the world I have been describing, it would be Supremacy’s fleet commander—a character who figures and is figured by colonial makings of authority that include terms like “science” and “technology.” In the ubiquitous world of screens and triggers, the commander (any player) confronts the complexity of multiple worlds as interface, as decisions already coded into experience, and as the logic of dominance naturalized in representations, narrativizations, practiced repetitions, and gestures or pauses. This is a world ordered into being by what Donna Haraway (1985, 161-162) calls the “informatics of domination”: modes of tracking, data-gathering, analyzing, codifying, cloning, making ubiquitous, and submitting precarious ecologies of existence—living or not—to quantifications, virtualizations, or predictive simulations predicated on stacked histories of authority, of articulating agency, identity, and utility through natural or social sciences.
The game’s fiction of “uninhabited” worlds cuts to the heart of matter, how materialities are cleft and ordered into those entities—quarks, stones, spores, subjects—worthy of inhabiting or being inhabitors. In “uninhabited” worlds, entities show up coded by the vertical indices of anthropomania: humans, resources, test subjects, tools, scenery, trash. In scalar keeping, and starting at the top of the list, rights are produced for some bodies (specied, raced, gendered, propertied) and not others. Modes of world-making called “science” and “technology” (or “technoscience”) parse, graph or model, optimize, verify, then interject themselves in human and nonhuman flesh—asymmetrically agitating the conditions of living, dying, or keeping on. And, investments in maintaining orders of people, places, ideas, and things are as wide-ranging as basic notions of usability as “functional simplicity in the face of structural complexity” (Bolz 1998) to definitions of sovereignty and the governance of difference in consensus politics or policies of state multiculturalism and the regulation of economies and ecologies hinged to the existence of some actors and not others.
Where questions of “existents” (Povinelli 2016) crop up, theologies and religious feelings are never far. And, it is divisions and distinctions forged in couplings of theological anthropologies, scientific taxa, economic aspirations, and nation-building projects that scar the “frontier” world in which I have become an uneasy theologian. I inherited the obligation of theology as a fact of acknowledging Indigenous territory, through theology’s antagonism to “animism” and its persuasive role in fuelling doctrines of discovery, manifest destinies, missionary endeavours, and Indian residential schools (Tinker 1993). I inherited theology as a set of capacities: as bodies excluded or built into bodies of knowledge, as the normative ontological edges of mainstream scientific knowledge production, and as the attribution of agency to some “beings” and not others. Theology has even colonized the bones of language: in English, its logic organizes subjects and objects and chooses to animate certain “beings” and de-animate others. Or, as Mel Chen writes, animacy hierarchies—the varied scales of a noun’s grammatic and semantic ability to function as an agent—have “settled into their current life [through] Christian great chains of being” (2012, 223). So, I am stuck with monotheism because its forms and figures—its limits or frontiers—have been and continue to be colonially formative in both techniques of observation and verification (Schneider 2007, 74-90) and conceptualizations of political sovereignty (Schmitt 1988)—both invoked to discredit Indigenous story and ceremony.
But, there are other worlds, other theologies and technologies: millenia-old practices—the everyday empirics of planting, hunting, honouring, gathering, feasting, treaty-making, and responding ceremonially to the spirited qualities of matter. Usually gathered under the word “animism,” these worlds erupt in systems of governance based in ongoing self-determinations where “self” always already includes the promiscuous co-makings of human and nonhuman persons and “determination” is a process of affording consent and continuity to all life and nonlife (Corntassel 2008; Simpson 2011, 144; Justice 2016, 352-353). By canonical anthropological account, “animism” names the attribution of “individual life” or anima to plants, animals, accumulations of water, and geological or meteorological phenomena as a fact of primitive culture (Tylor 1924). So, animism—a name—occasions the relentless infantilizing and invisibilizing force of “primitive” as a pretext for dispossession on every front: territories, languages, kin and models of kinship, bodily sovereignty, multispecies relationships and practices, ceremonies, technologies, and ideas. Animism also demands that Indigenous practices conform to loaded schemata like “religion” or “spirituality,” as if animisms, monotheisms, or atheisms could be held to the same standard in their mutual task of making sense of a world. Accordingly, I take the many missteps of “animism” as markers of eurochristian-colonial history, as distancing ethnographic designs to apprehend difference, but also as calculi which blur innumerable local human-nonhuman relational practices while also (maybe accidentally) drawing attention to their actuality. Despite any incidental work a word does to give airtime to Indigenous presence, unlike Isabelle Stengers (2012) I am not trying to “reclaim animism.”
What am I trying to do? With an almost religious intensity, I want to press into the materialities, movements, knowledges, sovereignties, dispossessions, and kinships that get made or unmade as strange climates beat down and shorelines are swallowed up. Like Haraway (2000, 132), I have imagined “how like a leaf I am”—how I share the molecular architecture of plants and how this knowledge itself is contingent on layered histories of “things” coming into coherence. To capture the religiosity of this feeling (and to theoretically tether my thinking), I have chosen “ritual”—a word that catches on questions of identity, belonging, allegiance, or affiliation and swells with intimations of doings that carry meanings, a word that is capacious enough to include Indigenous and non-Indigenous worldings, religious feelings, and scientific “facts.” Where frontiers and limits or liminalities are concerned and when worlds and “beings” are on the line, a performative understanding of ritual contests practices enacted as universal and the easy givens of theology or science coded into interfaces, habits, urban grids, doctrines, or textbooks.
While definitions of ritual abound, funded predominantly by anthropologists and religious studies theorists, I find Vicky Singleton and John Law’s (2013, 265) characterization, laid out in an STS ethnography of cattle farming, most useful to the question at hand: how might ritual intervene in the composition of a world to come? For Singleton and Law, rituals are “structured mechanisms of repetition that work by resonating with, and reproducing patterned—and patterning—relations.” If this is true, small gestures, recitations, or talismans, performed or laid out according to inherited design as acts and accoutrements of worship, sacraments, or rites of passage and purification, carry “macrocosmic fates.” Identities, Singleton and Law propose, are generated in patterns of recurring, heterogeneous relations; the repetition of certain relations—between subjects, objects, spaces, or ideas—structures the constituent parts and wholes of that which is being “done” together. By this logic, ritual, as a means of producing stability through reenactment, is like an “identity machine” (262). Further, some identities and their attendant normativities are enacted locally and as local and others are performed broadly and as if universal; Singleton and Law point out the politics implicit in the performance of identities: some practices are permissive of other practices and the identities they enact, while others are intolerant (267). Ronald Grimes, too, conceives of ritual as a matter of boundaries: both the theoretical definition of ritual and ritual practices are “acts of marking-off” (2006, 12). Grimes writes:
Ritual helps people figure out, divine, even construct a cosmos. A cosmos is not merely an empty everywhere. It is an everywhere as perceived from somewhere, a universe as construed from a locale. A cosmos is a topocosm, a universe in this place, an oriented, “cosmo-sized” place, a this-place which is also an every-where (146).
How might ritual intervene in the mess and possibility of worlds to come and trouble the colonial markings-off of human/nonhuman or life/nonlife? I suspect our nominally Christian but operatively syncretic ritual assemblages are stretched to their serviceable limits by the comings and goings of technoscientifically-mediated bodies and their living and dyings—let alone the extractions and abstractions of place into colonial nation-building narratives. Furthermore, while such an inventory of liminalities concerns, at first glance, human bodies and their ethical imbrications alone, I wonder who we are taking into account in our ritual enactments. As a non-Indigenous scholar thinking and writing on stolen land and attuned to the responsibilities of Indigenous sovereignties and kinships, I want to ask: what world might be made in multispecies rituals? Do nonhumans have rituals?
In the coming into coherence of terms like “species” and “ritual” theology is not easily disentangled from—or bracketed out of—philosophy and science as they lay claim to the ontic, epistemic, ethical, and everyday and act as gatekeepers of what is allowed to be and be known. And, while “multispecies” is not adequate to capture unruly tidal currents or the geometry of lava flows—it affords an opportunity to stay with the trouble (Haraway 2016), to stay with the discomfort of colonial natural histories (Pratt 1992, 31), scientific racisms, and the theological warrants of anthropocentrism. My thinking is broadened by a distributed understanding of language and cognition, what Alastair Pennycook (2016) calls “posthumanist applied linguistics,” wherein the multimodal and multisensory semiotic relationships of all life and nonlife are distributed across human and nonhuman entities, places, practices, and artifacts. In this way, ritual can be construed as a biosemiotic or geosemiotic storying practice affirming that all relationships are awash in the production and exchange of meaning. Likewise, my understanding of species has been broadened by Thom van Dooren (2014, 27), who describes species as “flight ways” or lines of movement through evolutionary time—lineages that embody a particular way of life and an “ongoing intergenerational process[es] of becoming.” As they aggregate minerals and mineraloids across time and place, do rocks have rituals? It depends how far we want to hone our definitions of practice, performance, construction, language, or semiosis—how far down we want to go with the agency of matter. It depends on which systems of knowledge we inhabit when we grasp at agency or how far down we want to do or undo science.
To attend to the polyvalence of ritual and to contest the supremacy inherent in practices performed as universal, I am accompanying this paper with a speculative world of my own, a world very much inhabited. Multispecies Rituals is a side-scrolling platform game built with Processing.js (Resig 2008) and “OMG, Mario!”—a sprite-based video game engine (Kamermans 2013). In gameplay, an avatar runs and jumps to navigate a series of platforms, collecting talismans. Each talisman prompts the player to write out a sequence of ritual sayings, knowings, or doings that implicate nonhuman life and nonlife. User rituals are collected and catalogued on the website as a generative resource and performative repertoire for practicing better rituals—where better is worked out in relationship with a crowd of human and nonhuman others. These performances, I hope, will inspire better stories like Marisol de Cadena’s (2015) mountain stories, Thom van Dooren’s (2014) extinction stories, Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2016) rock-stories, Anna Tsing’s (2015) mushroom-stories, and millennia-worth of Indigenous stories. While this mode of multispecies storying offers new rhetorical strategies, it also demands attention to a politics of representation: who gets to tell what on behalf of whom?
In the pixelated, chromatic world of this homespun online game, you'll meet four guides: a feminist science studies theorist, an Indigenous theologian, an anthropologist of ritual, and a rogue ethnographer of other-than-human worlds. Each of these figures bodies multispecies worlds in particular ways—and religiously so. Donna Haraway’s (1988; 1991; 2003; 2012; 2016) practices are chimeric, tentacular, and entangled, they stay with the trouble of thorny colonial pasts and asymmetrical capitalist presents by following the threads of situated knowledges to relay patterns of relationship back and forth, provoking responsibility between co-constitutive “companion species.” For Standing Rock Sioux historian and activist Vine Deloria Jr. (2003, 65-66), multispecies worlds are emergent places formed in and informing land-practices and processual modes of attentiveness—sometimes spiritual—that are inseparable from complex interrelationships between living or nonliving material forms. Ronald Grimes (2006, 132-146) sees religious practices as performances of identity that shape matter—and what matters in a world—and are, as such, ecologically entangled. Working to make sense of the myriad relationships that human inhabitants of the Peruvian Amazon maintain with host of nonhumans, Frédérique Apffel-Marglin (2012) proposes that Indigenous rituals hold “true” in that they stabilize relational patternings (which include organic and inorganic bodies, spirit-beings, and bodies of ecological knowledge as names and narrative histories) and are thus reality-making performances.
So, my gameworld—its theorists and theories, bodies, knowledges, modalities, and practices—tries to hold open the definitional space of "species" and "ritual" to include what is multiple: nonlife, hybridities and artificialities, geologic and hydrologic forces, spirits, ancestors, and the unruly agencies of plant and animal bodies. Perhaps my modest challenge to the fiction of uninhabited worlds can help rephrase and rechoreograph what entities count in the makings of identities, sovereignties, and kinships and provoke, expand, or remix ritual fluencies for multispecies worlds.
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