Possibilities within interboundary spaces in the anthropocene

This is the fifth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

There is a blurring of boundaries, or a movement that traverses a boundary, which perhaps represents a sense of self. This boundary crossing generates a certain disorientation, discomfiture or perhaps fear or even panic. The very sense of self seems to be compromised. In dealing with hybrids and cyborgs, creatures of the Anthropocene, we are continually being confronted by these small infractions on our sense of boundedness – whether these are bounds at the interface with skin, as in the case of toxicity (Chen); within disciplinary designations (Andrade et al); aesthetic boundaries between object and subject, nature and art, (Levine); the scientific delimitation between subject and environment (Shrader); the boundaries that define our positions with respect to communities or within the academy as insider or outsider (Tuhiwai Smith); or the question of ownership of genetic material (di Chiro). I’d like to explore how this state of unboundedness, or the trans-ing or queering of boundaries might be appropriated as a form of resistance to imposed hierarchies.

Lead toxicity in children’s toys troubles several different boundaries, according to Mel Chen – including perhaps what the media found most troubling, was that this story disrupted the normal racialized hierarchy of toxic burden within the US, with disproportionate burdens falling to poor communities and people of color. In this instance, white middle class babies were now threatened by Chinese toys. This failure of boundaries blurred this line between self and other, and opened up potential for other boundary-crossings, such as those of homosexuality and disability within the domestic sphere. Furthermore, Chen argues, it disrupts the animacy hierarchy, animating lead as an agent of harm able to attach itself to forms of life.  Another poignant challenge to the animacy hierarchy is invoked by Levine with the Buddha head that has been engulfed by a tree over the course of probably centuries. This represents the boundary crossing between nature and art, and positions the tree as the artist, using a found object to create its masterpiece. This natural art also draws attention to the colonial practice of clearing the forest away from archaeological sites or “ruins”. In this way, both lead and the prodigious tree can be seen as forms of resistance against human-imposed hierarchies, through the crossing of boundaries.

From Levine: Wat-Mahattha Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photograph: Drew Spicer
From Levine: Wat-Mahattha Ayutthaya, Thailand. Photograph: Drew Spicer

We also see a questioning of boundaries within academic research agendas and the production of knowledge. Andrade et al offer ways in which interdisciplinary research can traverse disciplinary boundaries in a way that is more productive and can be seen as a form of resistance to old academic structures and hierarchies. Tuhiwai Smith also offers up reflections on research methodology that trouble the boundaries between the researcher and the researched in indigenous communities. She examines the inherent inside/outside positionality of indigenous researchers, both within academia and within their own communities. By focusing research as a site of struggle and of boundary crossing, there is a potential for an emancipatory move from a research system that is linked to a long and violent history of imperialism and colonialism.

Although occupying inter-boundary spaces can be seen as a form of resistance to imposed binaries or hierarchical structures, the violation of boundaries is also at its core, violence. The blurring of boundaries can be healing, but as with the case of toxicities (Chen), and genetic biocolonization (Di Chiro), the disruption of boundaries as well as the demarcation of boundaries at the interface with an Other, is a hallmark of the colonial project that has generated so many hierarchies and binaries in the first place. By crossing these boundaries, they are rendered visible, often times in painful or uncomfortable ways, but this revealing may also have emancipatory potential.

 

Works Cited:

  1. Chen, Mel. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect. Durham: Duke University Press, 2012, Ch. 5, “Lead’s Racial Matters,” pp. 159-188; Ch. 6, “Following Mercurial Affect,” pp. 189-197.
  2. Bryan-Wilson, Julia. “Aftermath: Two Queer Artists Respond to Nuclear Spaces.” In Emily Eliza Scott and Kirsten J. Swenson, eds. Critical Landscapes: Art, Space, Politics. Berkeley: University of California, Press, 2015, pp. 77-92.
  3. Di Chiro, Giovanna. “Indigenous Peoples and Biocolonialism: Defining the ‘Science of Environmental Justice’ in the Century of the Gene.” In Sandler, Ronald; Pezzullo, Phaedra C., ed. Environmental Justice and Environmentalism: The Social Justice Challenge to the Environmental Movement. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2007, pp. 251-283.
  4. Andrade, K., et al. “Finding Your Way in the Interdisciplinary Forest: Notes on Educating Future Conservation Practitioners.” Biodiversity Conservation 23 (2014): 3405-3423.
  5. Levine, Gregory. “Silenced by Aesthetics? Conjecture on an Eco Art History,” unpublished paper, 28 pp. Not for citation or circulation without permission.
  6. Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999, “Introduction,” pp. 1-18.
  7. Schrader, Astrid. “Responding to Pfiesteria piscicida (the Fish Killer): Phantomatic Ontologies, Indeterminacy, and Responsibility in Toxic Microbiology.” Social Studies of Science 40, no. 4 (April 2010): 275-306.

Intersubjective explorations: autonomy and control in the anthropocene

This is the fourth in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

The autonomy of the natural world, inclusive of and not subservient to humans, is something that many people already recognize individually, but this stance is not seen in dominant and global scientific, economic and political structures and discourse. Carolyn Merchant calls for recognition of the autonomy of nature, using chaos and complexity theory to underscore the unpredictable, uncontrollable, and perhaps willful aspects of the natural world. She asserts that acknowledging the autonomy of nature could lead to new (and better) ways of engaging with the world. It would also lead to different understandings of humanity, and ways of conducting ecological science. The intrinsic value in the natural world, inclusive of humans, is independent of valuation by an external valuer. Intrinsic value implies only that there is value to the subject in itself, as stance that may require a generous view of subjectivity. Thomas Heyd claims that any argument for intrinsic value hinges on the recognition of autonomy. Both of these terms imply that the thing in question is self-determining. According to Heyd, the recognition of autonomy also marks the thing in question as a candidate for moral consideration, and this recognition is dependent on a capacity for intersubjective exploration, requiring different and new ways of knowing. Here, I am reminded of Viveiros de Castro’s description of Amazonian perspectivism, and the idea that in order to know, one must embody the perspective of the other (a way of knowing I am developing within my own work). Heyd asks, which ways of knowing do not objectify the very nature we wish to know?

Present-day land management, restoration, and other environmental sciences tend to view nature paternalistically, as if it were our duty to decide what is best for it, viewing nature as an object to be managed rather than as its own autonomous subject. Management plans often operate under the pretense that they are acting in nature’s own interest, when they are really imposing human interests onto landscapes. Peterson’s chapter was exemplary of this point of view, whose management foci were on increasing control, and limiting uncertainty. This goes counter to the recognition of nature as autonomous, uncontrollable, and unpredictable (Merchant), and instead strives to keep it within the bounds of human control “so we can produce a world that we want rather than the world we will otherwise get (Peterson 391).” Katz, cited by Heyd, has a different ethical stance on land management, and believes that liberating nature lies in withdrawing human interference in natural processes, including limiting management interference.

Peterson’s anxiety about losing control of these managed systems, is perhaps related to the Ecological Anxiety Disorder discussed by Robbins and Moore. Peterson’s fearful response to the “negative normative influence of humans on the earth (anthrophobia) (Robbins and Moore 4), seems to be expressed as a grasping for control, which is linked to a nostalgia that desires to return to some prior “edenic” state. The prescription for this anxiety, according to Robbins and Moore, is to express the truth of our desires, and to be radically and explicitly honest about the stakes of differing outcomes for the various actors involved. This requires acknowledging the entanglement of politics of control over the natural world, even within the sciences. Soule’s article on conservation biology begins to do this, acknowledging the normative aspects of the science. Soule also acknowledges the disconnect often present in the natural sciences of scientists who believe in the intrinsic value of nature, while their funding is often only concerned with human benefits from natural resources.

“In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8
Illustration by Michael Harney from Margolin’s The Ohlone Way, 1978. “In the days before the nineteenth century whaling fleets, whales were commonly sighted within the bays and along the ocean coast. An early visitor to Monterey Bay wrote: “It is impossible to conceive of the number of whales with which we were surrounded, or their familiarity; they every half minute spouted within half a pistol shot of the ships and made a prodigious stench in the air.” Along the bays and ocean beaches whales were often seen washed up on shore, with grizzly bears in “countless troops”—or in many cases Indians—streaming down the beach to feast on their remains.” – Margolin p. 8

Margolin’s piece on the Ohlone way provides a glimpse of what it might have been like to live in a society in which nature and other species were considered autonomous, and not within the domain of human control. Perhaps, however, this edenic view is something that is no longer attainable, and we have to look for futures embracing hybrid landscapes, in which the autonomy of nature and the autonomy of humans are not opposing forces. For me, a crux of the issue remains that the political, scientific, and economic systems within which we operate do not allow for the inclusion of non-humans as autonomous political subjects, nor do they necessarily reflect the moral stance of human individuals, including politicians, scientists, and economists, but instead force us into certain exploitative moral configurations and value systems.

Works Cited:

  1. Merchant, Carolyn. Autonomous Nature: Problems of Prediction and Control from Ancient Times to the Scientific Revolution. New York: Routledge, 2016, “Introduction: Can Nature be Controlled?” pp. 1-17.
  2. Heyd, Thomas, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, “Introduction,” pp. 1-22.
  3. Keekok Lee, “Is Nature Autonomous?” in Thomas Heyd, ed., Recognizing the Autonomy of Nature: Theory and Practice. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005, pp. 54-74.
  4. Peterson, Garry D. “Ecological Management: Control, Uncertainty, and Understanding,” in Kim Cuddington and Beatrix Beisner, eds. Ecological Paradigms Lost: Routes of Theory Change. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2005, Ch. 17, pp. 371-395.
  5. Robbins, Paul and Sarah A. Moore. “Ecological Anxiety Disorder: Diagnosing the Politics of the Anthropocene.” Cultural Geographies 20, no. 1 (2012): 3-19.
  6. Soulé, Michael E. “What is Conservation Biology.” BioScience 35, no. 11, “The Biodiversity Crisis.” (Dec. 1985): 727-734.
  7. Margolin, Malcolm. The Ohlone Way: Indian Life in the San Francisco-Monterey Bay Area. Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books, 1978, pp. 1-12.
  8. Brashares, Justin, et al. “Wildlife Decline and Social Conflict.” Science, 345, no. 6195 (25 July 2014): 376-378.

Limits of grieving for ecological losses

This is the third in a series of posts in response to weekly readings from a seminar I am participating in called “The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene,” a critical and interdisciplinary seminar exploring ideas about being human on a changing planet.

“The Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene Collaborative Research Seminar brings together faculty and graduate students from the humanities and environmental sciences to develop a theoretical framework for the environmental humanities and to examine possibilities for an integrated approach to the recent environmental turn in the humanities.”

The ecological devastation that we bear witness to during these times is difficult to come to terms with. The stakes of ecological conflict, as Beck points out, are losses and threats that do not distinguish neatly between perpetrators and victims. The nature and scale of these losses has made it challenging to hold any one source accountable, which has led to a dynamic of shifting blame, and claiming the lesser of evils on the parts of major players. These losses make us all, though unequally so, victims – and by “us” I mean all humans and non-humans living on the planet. Yet, many of us have trouble recognizing, confronting, and reconciling these losses. Authors this week use queer perspectives to come at a greater understanding of how to come to some sort of reconciliation.

Mortimer-Sandilands has called these ecological losses ungrievable within the current confines of society – ungrievable, because we are not accustomed to attending to relations beyond the human. Yet, she argues that there is grief at the very core of the modern age, which unprocessed, leads us to an internalized grief, or melancholia. I would also add that in this dominant American culture, grief has been pathologized and made into a sickness in itself. When losses are not able to be grieved properly, it becomes displacement (Mortimer-Sandilands). I would agree that this unprocessed grief is one of the major ills of our time – that we are surrounded by evidences of loss, but with few ways of actually experiencing it. Mortimer-Sandilands intimates that part of processing this grief involves dropping a romanticized nostalgia, and learning to love and praise even the wounded and devastated landscapes. This, she argues, is an ethical stance that resists fetishizing our losses and commodifying grief. This ethical stance, according to Mortimer-Sandilands involves active remembering of violence, and accepting the simultaneity of death and life.

Kier asks us to attend to these more-than-human relations in ways that recognize our shared fates that connect us across species boundaries, queering what it means to be human. Kier uses the reconfiguration of reproductive relationships into transgender, or transsex to look at these interconnected ecologies of human and non-human actors of relational reproductions. Like the protagonists in the article by Mortimer-Sandilands, forging these connections allows us to create a shared grief between humans and landscapes, humans and plants. On the other hand, Beck calls for accountability and recognition of the victims and perpetrators of these losses. Only when polluters begin to be responsible and offer compensation to victims (on local and global scales), will anonymity be broken. Beck highlights the need to question the types of lives we want to be living, and shift the academic focus from the horrors of the world toward directing accountability.,

These three authors take very different approaches to the problem of coming to reconcile with the ecological losses we are facing during the anthropocene.  Kier’s forging of connections between humans and the ecology of non-human actors that support human reproduction is a good place to begin the work of grieving called for by Mortimer-Sandilands, which we can all participate in. Beck, however, is calling for more external solutions to direct blame and demand compensation for those who are marginalized in these global processes. All of these strategies may have their place in reconciliation, but I think part of the acceptance that Mortimer-Sandilands hints at is that there may be no way to neatly wrap this up, or to reach a conclusion, and that part of this process of grieving is learning to accept uncomfortable partialities and incomplete endings.

Weekly Readings:

  1. Beck, Ulrich. Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society. Trans. Mark A. Ritter. Atlantic Highlands, NJ: Humanities Press, Ch. 1, “Politics in Risk Society,” pp. 1-18.
  2. Kier, Bailey. “Interdependent Ecological Transsex: Notes on Re/Production, ‘Transgender,’ Fish, and the Management of Populations, Species, and Resources.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 20, no. 3 (Nov. 2010): 299-319.
  3. Mortimer-Sandilands, Catriona. “Melancholy Natures, Queer Ecologies.” In Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson, eds. Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2010, Ch. 12, pp. 331-358.
  4. Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, CRIP. Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 2013, “Introduction: Imagined Futures,” pp. 1-46, and Ch. 3, “Debating Feminist Futures: Slippery Slopes, Cultural Anxiety, and the Case of the Deaf Lesbians,” pp. 69-85.
  5. Anne-Lise Francois. “Shadow Boxing: Empty Blows and Practice Steps from Wordsworth to Benjamin;” and “Remarks at Workshop on Climate Change and its Challenges to the Scholarly Habitus,” Muséum National d’Histoire Naturelle, Paris, Dec. 12, 2015; “Poems for “Vulnerability and Damage,” Fate of Nature in the Anthropocene course, selections.