Response-able Memory

By Deniz Gundogan Ibrisim, Sabanci University

Response-ability corresponds to the idea of relationality. It illuminates how we know our world and understand our responsibilities to one another. Response-ability indexes a radical re-configuration of socio-spatial and environmental issues as an ethical capacity to be able to respond. In this sense, response-ability is constituted through relationships of care, recognition, openness to vitalities of humans and nonhumans in equal terms. Generally, rooted in new (feminist) materialist and posthumanist research since the 2000s, response-ability is comprised of both accountable and responsive capacities that are crucial both for research and for academic work. Significant contributions of new feminist materialisms remodel how fundamental dependence is enacted in everyday practices of living in our more-than-human world (Haraway, 2008: Hayward, 2010; Barad, 2012; Hustak & Myers, 2012). The feminist ethic of response-ability focuses not on being responsiblebut on learning how to respond and opening up possibilities for different kinds of responses (Schrader 2010).

The emergence of the concept of response-ability is traced back to Karen Barad’s influential work in which she studies Niels Bohr’s readings of quantum epistemology and develops the perspective of agential realism. In agential realism, agency is not designated as an attribute of subjects or objects since they do not preexist as such. Thereby, agency is not a characteristic that someone possesses; it is rather “a matter of intra-acting; it is an enactment” (2007). While dominant conceptions of modern science are predicated on Newtonian physics, an assumption that everything is governed by set of laws, and thereby making predictability possible, Barad’s model relies on the ability to perceive the physical world through the affordances of the body, human and nonhuman entities, matter, tools, and other technologies. This radical thought challenges the anthropocentric view and construction of social and scientific research, and at the same time provides affordances for observing and interpreting the world as a part of an ethics of response-ability, rather than as a part of human-centric agency, values, perspectives, and experiences.

Response-ability then points to actual situated practices and culturally induced material arrangements and the ways these might invigorate eco-ethical modes of being and dwelling in the world, rather than a single focus on the universal, humanist, masculinist, and individual profit. InStaying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Donna Haraway advocates for response-ability as a mode of collective knowing and ecological web of practices (2016). In Haraway’s view, response-ability unsettles the anthropocentric conceit implied in an understanding of the political and the ethical as the pinnacle of human exceptionality. Response-ability emanates from relationships which are in flux, involving human and more than human bodies as its subjects, whose ability to respond to one another matters.

From this perspective, response-ability provides a rich framework for memory work and highlights how it disrupts some of our long held cherished beliefs about the politics and ethics of remembrance and unfolding mnemonic practices especially in the Anthropocene — our current geological era in the history of the planet in which humans as a collective are said to have become a geophysical force on a planetary scale, crossing multiple geographical and cultural boundaries. While this new geological epoch, combining the words for “human” and “recent-time” makes visible the profound changes to our relationship with the living world, it urges us to rethink its subjects of remembrance through a “derangement of scale” (Clark 2012).

Memory scholars have in the last decade produced a number of new studies and conceptualisations of how memory moves or is communicated beyond anthropocentric orientations, as environmental, ecological, or cosmological. Each of these conceptualisations contains within it the question of addressing the spatio-temporal magnitudes of the Anthropocene and introduces a significant shift in memory studies from the global to the planetary; from recorded to deep history; from the human to the nonhuman (Bond et al., 2017; Craps, 2017; Crownshaw 2017; Driscoll and Knittel, 2017; Kennedy, 2017). Stef Craps astutely argues that what we are witnessing at present is the advent of a new, fourth phase in memory studies: “a phase prompted by our growing consciousness of the Anthropocene that takes the gradual scalar expansion characterizing the previous phases to a whole new level” (2017).

This new phase with regard to concerns of the Anthropocene brings about different objects of study: memory and mourning in ecologically oriented conceptualizations (Albrecht 2007; Craps, 2017); memory in relation to the Anthropocene archive (Colebrook, 2107; Wenzel, 2017); memory in relation to environmental justice; memory, speculation, and the Anthropocene (Crownshaw, 2017). Some studies address the concept of relationality and response-ability more explicitly. One of the earliest examples is Rosanne Kennedy’s concept of “multidirectional eco-memory” which links link human and nonhuman animals and their histories of harm, suffering and vulnerability in an expanded multispecies frame of remembrance (2017). On a slightly different note, by emphasizing the power of aesthetic forms in memory culture, Astrid Erll shows how plot-structures, the distribution of information, and editing techniques represent and produce mnemonic relationality within mnemo-cultural repertoires (2017).

My concept of response-able memory aligns itself with the above-mentioned or “the fourth phase” in memory studies and seeks to enable a transformation of our understanding of the nexus of memory, agency, and care in terms of being-with and responding to the need of the ecological other in the Anthropocene. Response-able memory considers the vitality and dynamism of matter and more-than-human world, moving beyond the idea of historicity solely designated to the agency of human, language, or culture. Response-able memory is poised to question the monolithic formulations of remembrance, shifting our established understanding of accountability and responsibility from a pure focus on the idealized and abstract image of the Anthropos (of the Anthropocene, meaning “man; human”) something completely closed, already formed, and static, to an entangled arena of the multispecies belonging and dwelling as well as technologically mediated world. While it provides theoretical and methodological ways of dealing with the anthropogenic changes, response-able memory urges us to ask who gets to suffer, prosper, or die, who gets to live and enjoy the life within politically and culturally ingrained systems of inclusion and exclusion.

In the study and conceptualization of response-able memory, which is poised to connect with the more than human, it is crucial to both consider and practice the ethical corrective to the well-established assumption that it is only humans who are receptive and responsive. Response-able memory thus can serve as a basis for establishing transnational and transgenerational solidarity with human and other-than-human lifeforms who inhabit the Earth. If one traces back to Nikolas Kompridis’s significant statement, “The world – my kin, my twin,” (2009), it would be apt to suggest that response-able memory entails a vibrant thinking, involving altogether material, affective, sensory, and intellectual receptivity in terms of mutual and recognized kinship.

To be sure, we should also keep in mind that response-able memory might end up creating new forms of inequalities, and even disguise uneven experiences of and response-ability for anthropogenic environmental threats and climate change. Response-able memory is also deeply embedded in the neoliberal and extractivist logic of corporate responsibility that greenwashes banal, quotidian, and overlooked acts of violence. Thus, one should critically observe here the complexity and implication of these actions, which in an uncanny way negotiates between individual actions and institutional or state-corporate greenwashing claims.


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