Leonardo, study Gandhi

By Prof Giles Jackson

In his book Excursions, Michael Jackson (the cultural anthropologist, not the late pop star) tells a beguiling tale about the Kuku Yalanji, a 50,000 year-old aboriginal tribe I encountered many years ago during my own far-flung excursion into the Daintree, the world’s oldest tropical rainforest. The story begins with the approach of the first thunderstorm of the rainy season, “when the sky turned indigo”. Tribesmen tracked the course of the storm, discussing where it had come from and where it was heading, identifying its sounds (kubun-kubun), observing its effect on the foliage and comparing it to storms of the past. The storm’s character was analysed in much the same way that people analyse strangers — trying to read their intentions, second-guess their motives, identify their mood.

Various members of the tribe then made forays into the bush in search of wild grape vines (kangka), ironwood bark (jujubala) and grass tree (nganjirr), knotted hanks of which were piled high and set ablaze outside their camp. As the smoke spread across the clearing, Jackson assumed it was meant to repel mosquitos, but he was mistaken. The storm would, he was told, smell the smoke, change direction and wreak havoc elsewhere.

Ironically it’s the fires burning in our own power plants, trains, planes and automobiles that are changing the earth’s climate, the effects of which are not fully known. Still, one thing seems certain: in the next 50,000 years of their existence the Kuku Yalanji will be making bigger fires, more often.

In her book Animate Planet, Kath Weston, a professor of anthropology at the University of Virginia who also happens to be my next-door neighbour, proposes a new form of animism. Hers is not so much one in which the elements are sentient, but one in which we relearn our fragile interconnection with life-forms around us as one animate community. This is ultimately a matter of life or death, because whether we know it or not, our environment is remaking us as much as we’re remaking it. Take the example of antibiotics in the food chain: by 2050 the global cost of antimicrobial resistance will be as much as $100 trillion and will account for 10 million deaths a year — more people than currently die from cancer.

Kath calls for a new kind of intimacy, an acknowledgement of our mutual intimacy with the animate world, along with a rethinking of our use of technologies old and new to protect and promote life, and a revitalisation of community and grass-roots action. In one poignant example, she describes how Japanese citizen-scientists bought Geiger counters after the explosions at Fukushima to monitor radiation levels, posting their data online. This empowered people to petition for decontamination and make informed decisions about where to live.

We are proud to be part of this global effort to revitalise community and grass roots action. Our work involves applying social and natural science in creative ways to advance progressive social causes. Our medium is textiles, whose latent power remains largely untapped.

The documentary Before the Flood is a good case in point. It was not the producer’s intent, but what impressed me most was the complete lack of imagination when it came to Leonardo DiCaprio’s wardrobe, which is more or less indistinguishable from that of any self-respecting climate change denier. We photoshopped in Scott Pruitt’s head to prove the point.

The film includes an except from his epic speech to the UN, delivered in the same nondescript suit.Our planet cannot be saved unless we leave fossil fuels in the ground where they belong”, he said. “An upheaval and massive change is required, now. One that leads to a new collective consciousness. A new collective evolution of the human race, inspired and enabled by a sense of urgency from all of you”. However the medium, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, was not the message. The disconnect is palpable.

Gandhi must be rolling in his grave. How could a major Hollywood actor, of all people, have overlooked the importance of dressing with conviction? “We hanker after symbolism” acknowledged Gandhi, and the display of his aesthetic lifestyle, including his wearing of the loincloth, were imbued with symbolic meanings intelligible within his culture. Crucially, while many of his contemporaries also dedicated themselves to liberating the downtrodden, none of them expressed their political strategy through the body the way Gandhi did. He understood the basic principle that outward action reflects inner action.

Prof Jane Bennett’s work is fascinating for this reason. The editor of Political Theory, Bennett calls for a greater attentiveness to the active power of things, including what we put on in the morning. The aim of her book Vibrant Matter is to rethink our habit of “parsing the world into dull matter (it, things) and vibrant life (us, beings)” and embrace the “vitality of matter”. Clothes, from this point of view, are active participants in a political ecology in which “human and nonhuman bodies recorporealize in response to each other; both exercise formative power and both offer themselves as matter to be acted on”.

Too often this power merely keeps us in a kind of stasis, as the artist Roger Hiorns has said. But all it takes is a tweak – say a Keeling tartan tie for Leonardo – to break from business-as-usual. Time to call his stylist.

The writer is co-founder of Liberation Kilt Co.

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