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Research Seminar - Dr Daniel Matthews, University of Hong Kong

Location: Room S2.12 Law School, Social Sciences Building

Title: Earthbound: The Legal and Aesthetic Challenges of Anthropocene

Abstract: Mass extinctions, the melting of ice caps, the acidification of the oceans, and extreme weather events all signal the gravity of the contemporary ecological crisis. The severity of our current condition is pithily captured by the Anthropocene thesis which holds that the earth system has entered a new climatic regime quite distinct from the previous geological epoch (the Holocene) in which human civilisation developed. Amongst other things, the Anthropocene presents an aesthetic challenge in that it calls for a new sensitivity to the multiple relations between human agency and the so-called ‘natural world’. Aesthetics is understood here not to refer to a judgment on the beautiful nor to artistic, literary or filmic practices and texts. Instead, the aesthetic – as the root aesthesis suggests – is a matter of our sensory perception, referring to how we order the sensible domain. The Anthropocene has an aesthetic power in that it challenges the ordering of the sensible that has defined the modern ethos and worldview, overturning presumed dualism between the biotic and abiotic, and the ‘human’ and ‘natural’ worlds. If climate mutation remains a strangely unreal phenomenon, it is, in part, because of an inability to properly sense the new climatic condition in which we find ourselves. What the Anthropocene demands, then, is an aesthetic transformation in which we become sensitive to the multiple bonds that traverse human and nonhuman life, the geological, ecological and atmospheric.

I find resources for thinking through the challenges of the Anthropocene in a critical reading of obligation, a legal term that, in the contemporary context of an ever expanding ‘rights talk’, might appear antiquated. Obligations refer to those legal and political ties that are the obverse of ‘rights’ and that both exceed and precede their meaning. These terms denote legal forms that are material, sensed and affective in ways that ‘rights’ seldom are. Drawing on Simone Weil’s account of the primacy of obligation ahead of right – and the ‘rootedness’ of the human condition to which this priority points – I argue for a reimaging of the vincula juris (the bonds law) as crossing a range of human, nonhuman, geological and infrastructural actors. It is to such relations and to a re-articulation of the human as a primordially ‘bound being’ to which legal thought must (re)turn as we confront the challenges of living in the Anthropocene.

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