Destroying the Treasure Map: Steps Beyond an Extractivist Subjectivity

In view of the systemically-conditioned climate crisis it is high time to question the predatory subjectivity that prevails in the Global North: the ideal, shaped in the colonial era, to seek our freedom and personal fulfillment precisely in decoupling from the environment and the responsibility for human togetherness, as Jaron Rowan argues in his contribution to the BG text series “After Extractivism.”


“We are partly constituted by a flow of activity with the world around us. We are partly constituted by the world around us. Which is just to say that, in an important sense, we are not separate from the world, we are of it, part of it.” (Alva Noë)

In the year 1570 the Brabantian cartographer, geographer, and cosmographer Abraham Ortelius published the “Theatrum Orbis Terrarum,” considered to be the “first modern atlas.” Composed of 53 maps, this work included many of the new lands “discovered” by European explorers and established a very specific view of the world that still persists.

The name of this epistemic artefact is not innocent: Theatrum Orbis Terrarum means ‘the theater of the world.’ The world was seen as a theater, a stage, on which humans could move about, conquer, mould, and exploit the natural environment. This was a very clear idea that came to pass. The entire world served as an open stage for the victories and tragedies of those who considered themselves to be the “humankind.” And as Walter Mignolo points out in “The Darker Side of Western Modernity” (2011): “Theatrum is the translation of the Greek word theatron (a place of viewing), in the same family as theoria (contemplation, speculation, looking at)”.

In short, this first world atlas established a privileged perspective of the world whilst establishing the idea that planet earth was there, at the feet of some privileged subjects, to be tread on, explored, and exploited.

Ideology of maps

Maps are more than just representational devices. They are performative objects that contribute to the production and shaping of the territory they are depicting. They do not portray the world, but co-found it, showing what region belongs to whom, what parts of the world are “known” and which parts are there to be “discovered.” They produce centers and peripheries. In this sense maps are intimately entangled with imperial and colonial enterprises and ideals. They materialize and perform commercial routes and extractive protocols. They transform worldviews into “neutral” instruments. Maps help to settle, codify, and materialize specific images of the world. And ultimately they reinforce the notion that this stage, the world, should be occupied, conquered, and tamed to meet human needs, or, to be more accurate, the requirements of a very particular group of people.

The growth of cartography as a discipline perfectly complemented the new view of the world as an untapped source of wealth. A tool to show what belonged to those who felt the world belonged to them and what was there to be conquered, e.g. how to access new reservoirs of goods, labor, and gold. In this sense some of these maps contributed to establish an extractivist world view. The economist Alberto Acosta has clarified that “extractivism is an accumulation model that started about 500 hundred years ago. With the conquest and colonization of America, Africa, and Asia a world economic system was developed: capitalism”. In this new mode of production “certain regions were submitted to the extraction and production of raw materials, that is primary goods, whilst other specialized in manufacturing” (Ramón Grosfoguel). Certain regions of the globe were pillaged and exploited in the name of others’ economic advancement and prosperity. Some areas of the globe were regarded as “raw nature,” which could be seized and turned into wealth. Others, far away, benefited from these brand-new prosperous sources. In an ill-defined gamble nature, that is resources, was traded for culture, whatever that means.

Suddenly, the whole world was there, waiting to be “discovered” and used. This conception of reality complemented and suited what the archaeologist Almudena Hernando has dubbed “the fantasy of individuality,” which is the notion that human beings are independent from each other who must struggle to assert their right to individuality rather than members of complex ecosystems, clans, and communities. This idea de-links the human from the context which it inhabits in order to create the sensation that the world is a smooth space always available to cover its needs. The world is the backdrop in which humans can flourish individually and independently from each other. A theater in which a few aim to occupy the center stage whilst other beings need to retreat to the backstage.

Colonial perspective of the world

This entanglement of worldviews, epistemic artefacts, discourses, and practices helped to shape a colonial perspective of the world, which according to Arturo Escobar is defined by the “primacy of humans over non-humans (separation of nature from culture); the primacy of some beings over others (the colonial divide between them and us); the idea of the autonomous individual separated from their community; the belief in objective knowledge, reason, and science as the unique ways to understand reality, and the social construction of “the economy” as an independent social practice and the market as a self-regulating entity disembedded from social relations” (Arturo Escobar). A point of view that has been contested by many, but still persists today and is difficult to change.

This idea of the independent subject that roams on a free world which is always there to suit their needs is, as feminist economist Amaia Pérez Orozco has exposed, clearly gendered. As Orozco explains in “Subversión feminista de la economía,” it can only work “on the basis of hiding his different dependencies and the subjects that solved them.” The cosmopolitan independent and free human subject sustains this fiction of autonomy by avoiding to recognize the debts, the resources, and the people with whom he is entangled: The invisibilized care labor and the natural resources plundered in order to maintain the fiction of individuality. The autonomous and self-reliant subject is a free-rider happy to navigate across the map as if the land was always there to sustain his needs and desires.

This has led towards the creation of a very specific subjectivity which seems to be present in our day to day. We can call it an extractivist subjectivity, that is, a subject who considers himself to be self-reliant and who exploits social contexts and natural environments for his own gain, hiding the dense networks of interdependence and care.

Artwork: Colnate Group (cc by nc)

But theaters are more than just the spotlight. Just as behind the scenes of a theater there are infrastructures and relations that invisibly contribute to the spectacle which plays out on stage, so to, behind the subjects performing their individual and true selves, lie the mostly unacknowledged complex ecosystems on which they rely on: Networks of care aimed at sustaining fragile and vulnerable lives; animals, plants, gas, oil and water whose voices have been silenced; an intricate pattern of interdependent entities overshadowed by the autonomous, independent and self-relying subject. In this sense the map hides the territory and specific modes of extraction that overshadow and devastate complex ecologies and interdependent forms of being.

Patterns of interconnectedness

In the year 1979 in order to find ways to get through what he considered to be an epistemic problem, Gregory Bateson proposed the need to find the “pattern which connects”: the epistemological link between the natural and the cultural realms, that helps to identify how a system inhabits and is part of another system. Bateson, who is known for thinking in terms of relationships, connections, patterns, and context, considered that it was an epistemic mistake to think that biological beings could be understood outside of their environment. Instead, ecological niches help explaining biological traits: there is a pattern that connects the biological subject to the environment it inhabits. It also links the individual to the social group they belong to. And it links societies to the rules, regulations, codes, and infrastructures they build to sustain their lives. And, moreover, the lives of the subjects with the territories they produce.

The idea that a subject is beyond or free from the context it inhabits is just an epistemic mistake. There is always a pattern that helps to show how systems are embedded and shape other systems. How there are rules of determination and causation that go across levels of being. That no subject can be understood or exist outside a system of systems. These can be biological, social, technical or political. In that sense Bateson encourages us to seek for the “pattern which connects the orchid to the primrose and the dolphin to the whale and all four to me.” This means exploring the lines that bind together larger structural trends to individual patterns of behavior, and individual desires to collective myths and beliefs, organic and economic systems, genetic to epigenetic phenomena, forms of justice to forms of desire and expectations, micro to macrosystems. In short, beings are always embedded in other systems. The fantasy of individuality is just that: a mere fantasy if not a pure epistemic mistake.

Only by avoiding to recognize these patterns that connect can we believe that the subject lives hovering over the map and is not densely interwoven into the territory. The extractivist subjectivity will perpetuate the idea that the world (social, biological, mineral, etc.) is there to serve his needs. The extractivist subject will treat the world as a set of resources, expecting other subjects to provide forms of care, ideas or energy, without returning anything to the communities it exploits; will expect the natural world to behave according to his needs and expectations; will loot and ravage environments and communities, perpetuating extactivist practices by ransacking societies and environments, placing individual priorities over collective needs, and prioritising affluence over what has been termed “el buen vivir.”

Mental, social, and environmental ecology

In order to overcome this tendency the psychoanalyst, political philosopher, and activist Felix Guattari proposed that we needed to go beyond the idea of a single ecology in order to start thinking in terms of a triple ecological system. He proposed a notion of ecology that comprehends a mental ecology (subjectivity, culture, sensibility, desires, etc.), a social ecology (social relations, forms of inequality, institutions, etc.), and an environmental ecology (water, air, land, non-human beings, etc.).

Guattari considers that these three systems are embedded into each other and shape and co-define each other constantly. They can not be considered as separate entities. The environment shapes social flows and tendencies which define mental or subjective positions. Subjectivities can perpetuate or challenge social constructions which can perpetuate or change ways of living in this world. Structural forms of inequality shape individual human lives which in turn, subjectify and naturalize these behaviors, ultimately perpetuating them. These very behaviors and subjectivities shape environments, generating production modes and material infrastructures that in turn project these ideas into the future. Thus, nature is not outside the modes of production designed to exploit her. These modes of production depend on subjectivities and social desires. These are shaped by material conditions and mental ideals. The three ecologies keep shaping and defining each other.

Guattari invites us to ditch the map and start working through diagrams. Instead of fixed cartographies he thinks through processual diagrams that can be rearranged. Diagrams that show how different levels of ecology intersect and shape each other. Diagrams in which lines of flight can be introduced and imagined, and in which new subjectivities can be put into practice. Conceived thus, diagrams are epistemic artefacts designed to allow radical forms of imagination to flourish and to enable innovative intersections and forms of embeddedness. In this way, diagrams help explaining that no individual action can be considered outside deeper social rules, imaginaries, infrastructures or institutions; that no natural environment can be considered without understanding the ideas and modes of production that shape it.

Last but not least, such diagrams allow us to understand that the idea of independence is a fiction and that the neoliberal idea of a self-relying subject is a myth that perpetuates extractivist and selfish subjectivities. Here, the world stops being a stage, and a theater for a few privileged subjects to enjoy a show. Instead, the world becomes a dense system of systems in which humans are deeply embedded. Thus, ultimately, the diagrams ins question help us redefine our desires and needs, and visualize the pattern that connects, that connects us all. Humans and non-humans. Beings and environments. Matter and meaning.

Editor’s note: This text is a contribution to the Berliner Gazette’s “After Extractivism” text series; its German version is available here. You can find more contents on the English-language “After Extractivism” website. Have a look here:

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