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Liveliness of things

In this video, Stephen Muecke and Thom van Dooren discuss the liveliness and agency of the non-human world.
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Hi, my name is Thom van Dooren, and I’m here today with Stephen Muecke to talk about the liveliness of things. Hi, Thom. Let’s do that. So I guess that the obvious place to start is with the question, what do you mean when you say that things are alive? We are surrounded by stuff. And it all seems to be interacting with us and doing things. But I don’t literally mean that things are alive. I’m talking more about the liveliness of things. What have we got? Look at this marvellous stuff, water. Without it, there is no life on earth. And yet, here it is combined with a glass and two very different materials that behave in very different ways.
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I think we’re trying to get down to the specificity of what they do differently, as they go through the world doing their thing. So when you’re talking about the specificity of things, the differences between the glass and the water, do you mean something like the different molecular structures of the two things? Well, not exactly. Because that would be a kind of scientific reduction to the basic scientific properties, the atomic structure of the materials. Sure, that’s valid enough. But it treats everything as an inert material, as if everything were dead in the same way.
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But what we’re trying to get to is the ways in which these materials interact differently with other beings– materials, humans, animals, whatever, plants– and get to the specificity of all those different kinds of interactions, which are inevitably lively in their own ways. OK, so you don’t want to reduce everything down to the fact that it’s made of atoms or molecules of one kind or another. All of the material stuff in the world that we’re talking about has that same fundamental composition. But there’s a liveliness that they each have that’s different. Yeah, because to do that scientific reduction is relegating everything to the field of nature, where laws can be found for its behaviour.
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But in the Environmental Humanities we’re trying to pull things into relation to us as humans, and also to other living beings in that interaction, such that nature is not out there, but nature is part of us. And so, when we’re talking and thinking about the liveliness of things in the Environmental Humanities, we may well do that in conversation with chemists, or biologists, or geologists, different scientists who are themselves thinking about the different characteristics of these substances, these things, and how they are lively in different ways. And we may weave that scientific account into the stories that we tell. Yes, so even scientists, of course, are discovering new properties for even simple substances like water. It’s still got surprises for them.
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But in the Environmental Humanities, we want to take the behaviour of substances like water into domains that science wouldn’t cover. For instance, there are economic issues to do with water, right? There are political issues. How can that be? Yeah, that’s a good point. So we’re thinking about how the stories of water, the behaviours, the natural ways in which water flows and moves are woven through, into human lives in different ways. So we might think about rising sea levels, or floods, or access to clean drinking water.
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But all of those might be points of intersection between human lives, the kinds of traditional interests of the humanities in questions of ethics and justice and what makes a life meaningful, and the very particular behaviour, to use that word again, of water. It does make me wonder, though, what we mean– we both keep using this word behaviour. When we say that the water behaves in a particular way, what does that mean? Well, it means it’s going to do things. Water is going to do things that other substances just will not do. But I’ll go back to this question of it taking us by surprise— like, there’s too much rain, floods sweep away a whole town.
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People are thrown into a panic, as if they hadn’t been predicting that kind of thing. That, in a way, is strange behaviour on behalf of the water, though we should have known. We should have been prepared. So when we’re talking about behaviour, we’re talking about the way non-human things interact with human things. Now, human behaviour is affected by water, and vice versa. Water’s behaviour is affected by the way we build dikes, or construct sea walls, or whatever we’re going to do– pipes to carry it. And all of those infrastructures rely on the specificity of what water does and how it does it. If you’re wanting to move sand, you would use a different infrastructure to moving water.
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So this is all, when we’re talking about liveliness, it’s really– a lot of it is getting at that specificity. Yeah, so then we’re prepared to say that the water acts in a certain way. It’s not a kind of substance which is a servant for us. But we also act in relation to it. So we’re not fully mastering it. This is what I’m getting at with the unpredictability of floods.
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So this is, if I’m hearing what you’re saying, this is part of the reason why taking the liveliness of things seriously is so important– that it undoes this notion that humans are the masters, that we order the world in the ways that we want, and pays attention to the agencies of other non-humans, whether they are a train infrastructure, or water, or a bird. That they’re not all subject to, and infinitely malleable, being able to be put to work in any way that we might want them to be. That they push back, each in their own particular way. They need to be enrolled, each in their own particular way. Yes, I like the idea of the substance pushing back.
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But of course, with water, humans do try to control it. For instance, they put a price on it. They try to make the economy, something humans have constructed, be the master of water. But it’s not always going to work. For example, with the flood, it might not just be a natural disaster, but it might also be a political disaster for the government that didn’t have enough preparation for that sort of eventuality in place, to protect people. They are voted out of the next election. And so in that sense, the water will be written up in the history books as an actor for that period of political history.
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And so a lot of this agency that you’re talking about, this liveliness, is very relational. It’s about the ways in which we’re all moved by, and shaped by one another. I think that’s one of the strengths of what we do in the Environmental Humanities, is to quite often talk about relationality. And in that relationality, humans adopt a more modest, a more humble position in relation to these huge forces like– I mean water on this planet, for goodness sake, it’s the major substance, and so on. OK, Thom, so we’ve been talking about the relationality of humans and non-humans, living things and non-living things. And we’ve been talking about how they’re both lively in their own ways, and interacting with each other.
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But how can we take this relationality further? What does it do? What can we do with it? Yeah, I think most of what we’ve been talking about is about how understanding the liveliness of things might help us to understand the world better, understand these interactions better. But what it also does, I think, or the other big thing that we might do with this, is to learn to tell new kinds of stories, to be attentive to the world in different ways, to be respectful of the agency of water, to be respectful also of the different kinds of liveliness between a table and a dog, that they’re each lively in their own ways.
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And as a result of those differences, that perhaps they each make different demands on us. I think this is where the liveliness of things really connects to questions of ethics. And it raises for us the question of how we might learn to be responsible for others, to respond to their needs better, if we take seriously the particular ways in which they live their lives. Yes, I’ve learned things from my indigenous friends about seeing the world as full of life. For instance, they might talk about the life of a river, and really respect it as a living thing giving life, but also living in itself and having rights.
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So the story they’re telling about the river is quite different from the story that an irrigator, a farmer using the water for growing things, would tell about the river. I think that that’s exactly the kind of thing I’m thinking about. How do we become differently implicated in the world as a result of paying attention to the liveliness of things? One of the examples that I’ve been thinking with is around little penguins that actually live here in Sydney, in Sydney Harbour. And many people who live in Sydney don’t even know this. But they have a very particular kind of relationship with that harbour foreshore landscape.
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They return to the place where they were hatched, to themselves try to find a mate and lay their first eggs. So in my work, thinking about the specificity of that relationship with that place, that that place matters, that this species, these little penguins interact with that place in a very particular kind of way. Taking that all seriously, I think, draws us into a different kind of an ethical responsibility, not to disturb that relationship, to understand the importance of that relationship, to understand that breaking up or limiting penguins’ access to that foreshore places them in risk, risk of extinction in really serious ways.
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So again, understanding that a little penguin is not a crow, is not a whole lot of other different birds. That they all do place in their own specific ways. It’s about attention to that kind of specificity of the liveliness of different things, whether they’re an animal, or a plant, or a table, or water. Yeah, so the little penguin, then, has got a story to tell that contributes to the bigger story about Sydney, and Sydney Harbour. And I think people are probably very willing to accommodate a cute creature like that. You’d be surprised, but a lot of the time they are, yeah.
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They do have very noisy parties at 3:00 in the morning, as they head down to the water. But other than that, I think they’re pretty good neighbors. Yeah, OK. I think that leaves us with a lot to think about. We’ve talked about the way that the liveliness of things might help us to understand the world better, understand relationships between things better, but also might draw us into new kinds of ethical responsibilities, make us accountable in different kinds of ways. I think so, yeah. Absolutely. Yeah, OK. So maybe there’s something we can all go forward from here, think a bit more about. So thank you very much, Stephen, for having this chat with me. Thank you, Thom.
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And think you all for watching.
In this video, Stephen Muecke and Thom van Dooren discuss how a thing can be lively and why it’s important to talk about the agency of things in order to move beyond a simplistic, human-centred understanding of the world.
They propose that a thing has agency when it moves into a relationship with other entities — human and non-human — and address the implications of cultivating new modes of attention, to learn to understand these consequential relationships in new ways.

What do you think?

  • What are Stephen and Thom’s central arguments in this video? Do you agree?
  • How might this concept — the liveliness of things — be useful in tackling environmental concerns that arise from an anthropocentric worldview?

Further optional reading

Thom van Dooren and Deborah Bird Rose, “Lively Ethography: Storying Animist Worlds,” Environmental Humanities, 8, 1 (2016): 77-94
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