For an ethnography of desire…
In today’s blog, Alice dal Gobbo introduces her current article on crisis and everyday socio-material relations in Environmental Values (August 2020, Vol. 29.4), Everyday Life Ecologies: Crisis, Transitions and the Aesth-Etics of Desire
As a result of the Covid-19 lock-down, everyday life is gaining an increasing degree of attention in the social sciences. The eruption of a global event breaking up existent political, social and economic orders produced a crisis that thoroughly reshaped daily existence. For instance, spaces normally identified as ‘private’ have been infiltrated by ‘public’ life, have become directly public. But this extra-ordinary condition makes visible something more generally true: the way in which small-scale experiences are always part of wider regimes, which they reproduce and simultaneously resist and reinvent.
But the pandemic, as symptom of a global ecologic crisis, also evidences the urgency of a socio-ecological transformation at all levels. When I approached the theme of everyday sustainable transitions a few years ago, the questions that this elusive space seemed to pose to inquiry were not too different from the present, although circumstances were. In a typically neoliberal vein, mainstream understandings treated everyday life as an individualised and private sphere to be managed and governed to reduce the environmental impact of daily practices, for instance through behaviour change campaigns, transition management strategies and information provision. Yet the sheer inefficacy of this approach seemed to suggest the need for a completely different approach.
Re-focusing perspective means to look at everyday life as part of wider socio-material relations. Seen from this angle, it no longer appears as the realm of free and sovereign individual choice: its privatised spaces, practices and rhythms are articulations of the capitalist organisation of existence, which they also reproduce. At the same time, as irreducible to formal organisation, everyday life is also constantly inventive, a source of difference, resistance and possibly transformation. For daily existence is also life in its most direct expressions: the search for flourishing, freedom, happiness. It produces more or less explicit critiques of the status quo if it does not enable these pursuits.
My investigation of everyday (un)sustainability thus started from capitalist socio-ecological organisation as embodied in micro-orders of being and from practiced tactics, inventions, alternatives but also suffering (understood as an immanent critique). No normative stance could be assumed (e.g. what a ‘right’ sustainable behaviour was) while meanings and practices were to emerge from the encounter with the lived experience of daily engagements among people, objects, energy and the wider environment.
As crises are always moments of reconfiguration, I was interested in how life was being transformed by the experience of the 2008 financial crisis and its aftermath, and whether this opened any opportunities for sustainability. Studying energy use was a way of entering the dynamic, flowing and becoming nature of daily reproduction. Ethnography looked the most appropriate method: putting at stake me as a subject(ivity) in the field, allowing to construct narratives that could deeply relate to situated encounters, but also to engage with non-discursive and non-symbolic, ecologically-relevant, aspects of existence (e.g. objects, spaces, time, affects…).
Fieldwork was constructed as a multi-methods and multi-modal participant observation of daily life (including the production of photographs and soundscapes), complemented with follow-up walking interviews. It took place in the area of my home town, Vittorio Veneto (Italy), and involved 10 people/families whom I followed in their daily living, often reshaped by experiences of unemployment and precarity.
Quite peculiar of my approach was a psycho-social sensitivity that investigated how affective intensities and desires give sense and profundity to energy assemblages, fixing habitual patterns but also rupturing them, opening them up to the unexpected and to trajectories of transformation. I tried not to reduce these dimensions to the expression of individual selves: desires and affects innervated more-than-human relations.
This perspective recast interpretations of choice, responsibility and ethics. Sustainable ‘behaviours’ or ‘choices’ are often seen to be guided by a moral commitment to nature or the environment, involving a self-denying attitude and the sacrifice of desire for a common and higher good (e.g. planetary health). A disembodied morality is set against a desiring bodily push and the “good” must be sought by denying the concreteness of life itself.
Immanently interrogating everyday life from the perspective of desire offered a very different view of what sustainable transitions in times of multiple crises might entail. During my fieldwork, more ecological ways of using energy appeared to be not the result of ascetic-like self-denial but part of the search for more intense relationalities with the proximate world. On the one hand, unsustainable opulent acquisitiveness often went together with the frustrated chase for life models that were not conducive to happiness; on the other, forms of valuing that responded to a will for plenitude rather than socially-sanctioned lifestyles often passed through the cultivation of materially thrifty and yet vibrant and joyous energy assemblages.
This stark contrast was particularly evident in crisis-related biographical transitions. Experiencing crisis unsettles desire from the dominant, unsustainable, forms that respond to the capitalist need for constant valorisation, profit making and accumulation. Spaces thus open for the construction of singular, more sustainable, assemblages of desire, guided not by morality and self-denial but by what I call an aesth-etics: an ethical way of relating to the world that does not do away with embodiment, senses and affects but fully involves them. Aesth-etics ‘knows’ the intimate link between the human and the non-human, constructs flourishing together with other beings.
The critique to capitalist unsustainability as enacted by these experiences is neither moral nor abstractly rational but part of a project of living (well). The cultivation of anti-consumption and non-commodified practices in the search for meaningful and intense relations is in itself a critique to a system that de-intensifies relations through alienation and the reduction of the whole world to a series of (buyable) equivalents. Certainly, this is not enough in terms of a complete socio-ecological reconfiguration of life towards greater ecological balance. Without a more thorough and collective transformation, material affordances are partial, unsustainable capitalist organisation of life remains the overarching scheme of existence, libidinal attachments to ecologically damaging assemblages keep hold.
Yet, close engagement with experience allows one to see that the desire for a plentiful life, indeed desire itself, far from being enemies, might be the closest allies in striving for more sustainable modes of living. Embodied experience is partially irreducible to appropriative, dominative and antagonistic relations that are typical of capitalist extractivist and exploitative regimes. Everyday dealings with proximate ecologies can thus be one of the roots for socio-ecological transformation, as they make space for concrete, affective, care-ful intermingling with other beings.
Lefebvre, Henri. Critique of Everyday Life: The One-Volume Edition. London: Verso, 2014.
Wallace, Rob, Alex Liebman, Luis Fern, o Chaves, Rodrick WallaceTopics: Agriculture, Capitalism, Ecology, Health, e Political Economy Places: Global. «Monthly Review | COVID-19 and Circuits of Capital». Monthly Review(blog), 1st May 2020. https://monthlyreview.org/2020/05/01/covid-19-and-circuits-of-capital/.
Shove, Elizabeth and Gordon Walker. ‘Caution! Transitions Ahead: Politics, Practice, and Sustainable Transition Management’. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 39, n. 4 ( 2007): 763–70.
I shall mention the work of Henri Lefebvre and André Gorz for their relevance in the fields, respectively, of everyday life critique and political ecology.
See: Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.
Dal Gobbo, Alice. ‘Everyday Life Ecologies: Crisis, Transitions and the Aesth-Etics of Desire’. Environmental Values 29, n. 4 (August 2020): 397–416. https://doi.org/10.3197/096327120X15868540131297.