Art in the Enlivenment with Andreas Weber

by Nandita Baxi Sheth

Cohort ’19

“Ecological citizenship is the extension of a life-giving cosmos. It connects us with the meaningfulness of the cosmos. It means that we can be confident to be given and we are constantly required to give” - Weber

Biophilosopher Andreas Weber presented the second talk of the IDSVA Spring 2021 Lecture Series On the Anthropocene: Either/Or, with the lecture: Culture as Reciprocity: Towards Ecological Citizenship. The online event took place on March 20th to a virtual audience of more than 100 participants from the IDSVA community and beyond. Combining perspectives from the biological sciences and philosophy, Weber offers a biopoetics of response to the existential problem of human survival during the age we are in, labeled as the Anthropocene. Weber suggests a shift from ecological terror to ecological citizenship that requires thinking beyond material, posthuman, and nonhuman turns in philosophy towards what he terms the reciprocal turn. Weber is inspired by a wide range of thinkers, including Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Karen Barad, Timothy Morton, Freya Matthews, and Eduardo Kohn, explaining how to think of objects, nature, and nonhumans as equivalent bodies in a world of bodies, dissolving definitive separations. Weber says, “Every material impact generates meaning, and every meaning engenders material consequence.”  Reciprocity, he claims, is something we already do, giving the example of breathing, a biological action that always intimately connects us with our surroundings.

Weber breaks down a shift from the Enlightenment to, what he proposes, the Enlivenment. He contrasts Western cultural beliefs of individuality and rationalism with indigenous beliefs of interconnectedness and participation. Weber also suggests a shift from analyzing objects to participating with the inner life of subjects as entangled processes. With Enlivenment thinking, self is self-through-other, and all beings are “participants in a common household of matter, desire, and imagination—an economy of metabolic and poetic transformations” (Weber 1).

The Art That Became a Science , Ephemeral Collage, Nandita Baxi Sheth, 2017.
The Art That Became a Science, Ephemeral Collage, Nandita Baxi Sheth, 2017.

During the IDSVA Q&A with Weber, a lively discussion emerged around how the Enlivenment might resonate with artist-philosophers seeking to understand art-making and aesthetic experiences in the age of the Anthropocene. Weber’s Enlivenment challenges Platonic idealism and Kantian artist-as-genius, allowing us to wonder if, as in indigenous cultures, there is no singular artist, but instead, entertain the idea that everyone is an artist. Broadly-used terms such as Anthropocene and sustainability were dissected, thinking through their origins and enmeshment within the language structures of the western cognitive empire. Weber critiques the human-centeredness of the terms and suggests shifts that provoke thoughtfulness about the ecosystem services provided by the earth, atmosphere, and nonhuman beings.

The discussion itself was an embodiment of Weber’s entangled Enlivenment as questions and responses engendered new connections. Memorably, a new term was forged between Weber and the participants: bioreciprocity. Thinking about bioreciprocity and art raised fascinating questions for the IDSVA community to explore:

How can art be produced in a way that sustains the other?

If sustainability is decentered from the human to include the life of materials, media, and contents of art, what does that new relationship mean for art and creative practices?

Addressing the lively relationship between artwork and viewer, Weber offered the concept of the shimmer or bir’yun from the Yolngu people of Australia as a way to understand the reciprocity of aesthetic experience (Tsing). Art is alive and resonates in a web of experiences. Weber writes, “Each artistic act is an act of aliveness. It cannot be demonstrated or represented; it can only be shared” (Weber 46). Despite the online platform, the interplay of ideas brought a shimmer of aliveness to the IDSVA community.


Works Cited

Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt, editor. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet. University of Minnesota Press, 2017.

Weber, Andreas. Enlivenment: Toward a Poetics for the Anthropocene. MIT Press, 2019.