frog on a lily pad

Multispecies justice series: Amphibious justice

22 June 2020
Herpetological worldings point to the importance of imagining justice as metamorphic, says Sophie Chao, requiring a nomadic ethics that can move across and through elements and ecosystems.

By Sophie Chao, Postdoctoral Research Associate, School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry

Multispecies justice decenters individualistic and anthropocentric conceptions of rights and responsibilities by recognising as subjects of justice the array of other-than-human entities with whom we share the planet. This expansive vision of justice calls for a recognition of the vital role that other-than-human beings, ecosystems, and elements, play in the making of livable and shared futures. It counters assumptions of human exceptionalism that so often undergird humans’ assumed mastery over “nature” as a passive resource – one that matters only to the extent that is useful to us.

Importantly, reimagining multispecies justice invites us to theorise with more-than-human worlds and their diversely situated protagonists, rather than just about or for them. In these organisms’ biotic and ecological affordances lies the potential for unearthing unexpected forms and possibilities of justice as principle and practice. Amphibians will be my guides and companions here. What, I ask, can amphibian beings teach us about amphibious justice?

Amphibians first appeared about 340 million years ago and were among the first species to evolve from strictly aquatic forms to terrestrial types. This class of vertebrate animals includes frogs, toads, newts, salamanders, and caecilians, and is found throughout the world and up to the northern fringes of the Arctic circle. Members of the amphibian community possess a number of physiological and physical traits that together distinguish them from many other species. The most obvious one is their capacity to inhabit both land and water. The term amphibian, derived from the Greek amphibios meaning “living a double life,” reflects this dual mode of existence across both aqueous and terrestrial milieus.

Amphibians are able to sustain a multi-elemental existence thanks to cutaneous respiration, or circulatory and respiratory systems located within their skins that facilitate gaseous exchanges and the diffusion of water between the organism and its environment. The skin, or integument, of amphibians, is therefore porous and permeable. It at once delimits the body of the organism from its environment and enables the organism to absorb from that environment what it requires to survive.

Alongside their capacity to move fluidly across multiple elemental worlds, amphibians themselves are also beings of metamorphosis. They transform in physiological, biochemical, structural, and behavioural terms as they mature from embryos to juvenile and then mature organisms. These transformations are characterised by heterochrony, whereby the timings, rates, and rhythms of development differ from one organism to another. Finally, amphibians distinguish themselves by their highly evolved auditory system. Their sensory tissues can absorb extremely low-frequency sounds and capture a range of airborne and seismic signals indetectable by humans and other mammals.

The biotic affordances of frogs, newts, and salamanders welcome a reflection on justice itself in an amphibious mode, or what I call “amphibious justice.” Like amphibians that constantly hop among and across environmental worlds, amphibious justice demands a transversal movement across elements and ecosystems – from air to water, through soils and sub-soils. It calls for a nomadic ethics that resists any singular standpoint from which to envision justice. Rather, amphibious thinking demands that we consider justice through seemingly apposite concepts (like livability and killability), through different yet mutually dependent substances (like earth and water), and at the complex yet necessary intersections of principle and practice, imagination and action, abstracted theory and lived reality.

In the image of amphibians’ developmental metamorphosis, amphibious justice also calls for a practice of self-transformation in the forging of less violent distributions of suffering across species lines. It invites us to speculate in an active mode on our relations of care and violence with more-than-human worlds, how these might be reconfigured for multispecies flourishing, and what forms of response-ability can render us accountable to our diversely situated other-than-human companions. Such transformations can be individual or collective, affective or political, every day or eventful. They demand both an awareness and openness to our bodies and skins as permeable and porous membranes – as the literal and symbolic tissues that connect us to our environment. In this regard, self- transformation calls for risk-taking and experimentation in reframing what it means to become-with, fellow dwellers of multispecies worlds both local and global.

The heterochrony of amphibian life also asks us that we attend to the multiple temporalities of multispecies justice – its precedents in human and geological time, its hopeful manifestations in the present, and its emergent contours in the future. Much like the polyrhythmic development of amphibians, justice need not be bound by unilinear notions of time arranged as past, present, and future. Rather, the polytemporality of amphibious being draws attention to diverse and sometime co-existent temporalities of justice – justice lost or redeemed, cyclical or spiralling, latent or emergent. In this process, time reveals itself the very embodiment of more-than-human worlds made and unmade, and not an empty and homogeneous arrow always, ever driven and defined by and for the human. Attending to the multispecies temporality of justice, in turn, demands a literal attunement to multispecies worlds – an active listening to more-than-human stories, species, and sounds that are so often relegated to the inconsequential backdrop of our everyday lives, and yet that speaks to the sensory richness of worlds in the making and beings in relating.

Amphibious justice, then, invites us to think about justice from concomitantly aqueous, aerial, and terrestrial standpoints – human and other-than-human, biotic and elemental, emerging and submerged. It operates transversally across multiple atmospheres, milieus, mediums, and energies. It attends to transformations in bodies and relations, towards a non-unitary and non-static vision of species as subjects of justice. Importantly, amphibious justice recognises how one’s location shapes one’s perspective – whether on land or in water, as human or other-than-human. In this regard, amphibious justice at once recognises its own perspectival partiality and strives through its multi-elemental dwelling towards a multi-optic vision – a way of seeing, in Claire Kim’s words, that “takes disparate justice claims seriously without privileging any one presumptively.”

Herpetological worldings point to the importance of imagining justice through notions and practice of metamorphosis and mobility at once ontic, imaginative, and epistemic. Other critter communities will have other things to teach us about multispecies justice through their own specific affordances. These insights may be grounded in species particularities, but they can also enable the articulation of broader, multi-being, visions of justice. Here again, tacking back and forth between justices local and planetary calls for amphibious thinking and being – that is, a capacity for attentive listening, for ethical transforming, and for multiple and shifting ways of perceiving and enacting justice across space, species, and substance.

Sophie Chao is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry and the Charles Perkins Centre. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Oriental Studies (First Class) and a Master of Science in Social Anthropology from The University of Oxford and a PhD (Cum Laude) from Macquarie University. Sophie’s research explores the intersections of capitalism, ecology, and indigeneity in Indonesia, with a specific focus on changing interspecies relations in the context of deforestation and agribusiness development. Her current research deploys inter-disciplinary methods to explore the nutritional and cultural impacts of agribusiness on indigenous food-based socialities, identities, and ecologies.

Header image: Photo by Andrea Junqueira on Unsplash

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