Category Archives: reflections

Knowledge and collaboration across species and worlds in the anthropocene

This is the seventh (and final post) 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.”

Thinking beyond the human and the mattering of other worlds and of “others” is something that may be necessary to truly understand what it means to be human during the Anthropocene. Cohen, Colebrook, and Miller suggest that it is perhaps in the denial of humanity that we are able to assert our own existence. There is a sense that we need to escape ourselves in order to understand what we truly are. Is this not a reflection of our desire for objectivity, for what Haraway calls, the “God Trick”? This is also what Clark refers to as the “overview effect” in which, from a supposed “afar”, one is able to see the violence that “humanity” has waged on the world. However, as Cohen et al assert, there is not necessarily some reality that we can grasp if we can only somehow get outside of it.

This desire to grasp reality from an external perspective is precisely what Merchant speaks of when she refers to Francis Bacon’s desire to extract the secrets of nature through control and force. It is this desire for control and for forceful knowledge that gave rise to the myth of objectivity as attainable within science. The knowledge produced by science has been universalized to the point in which other ways of knowing (including the very ways that were perhaps practiced by the pagans and the witches, which the progenitors of the scientific method wished to extract secrets from), are denied as having any valid truth. This universalizing occurred with the help of European colonial expansion, which Lightfoot et al claim was the truer beginning of the Anthropocene. This European-based, imperialized, and violent way of gaining knowledge became the universal standard  for knowledge production. As Haraway says, “it matters what knowledges know knowledges”. Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill elaborate a decolonial feminism, which allows native feminist theories to stand on their own, without need for validation or inclusion from what they call “whitestream feminisms”.

From Haraway: A depiction of invertebrates by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, published as lithographic and halftone prints in Art Forms in Nature (1899).
From Haraway: A depiction of invertebrates by German biologist Ernst Haeckel, published as lithographic and halftone prints in Art Forms in Nature (1899).

In Haraway’s chapter on tentacular thinking, she opposes this desire for transcendence and any sort of outside knowing, in an imploration to move more deeply into the multi-species muddle, communing and communicating with the life that exists. This offers up a different type of knowing, and calls for collaborative ways of thinking, as well as a recognition of the humanity in other creatures, and the hybrid nature of ourselves as humans. With collaborative thinking that moves into the morass, instead of trying to escape it, we are able to partake in multiple worlds that are coming into being, coexisting, and interpenetrating each other, without ever attempting to grasp or control them. Knowledge becomes something personal, rather than objective. Perhaps the gift of being alive in the Anthropocene is the urgency that Haraway speaks of, allowing us to move more deeply into our own experiences, rather than trying to escape some future that we were never entitled to, and never had any control over in the first place.

 

Weekly Readings:

  1. Lightfoot, Kent, et al. “European Colonialism and the Anthropocene.” Anthropocene 4 (2013): 101-115.
  2. Merchant, Carolyn. “The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature.” Special Focus Section, Isis 97, no. 3 (2006): 513-533.
  3. Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections Between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 8-34.
  4. Haraway, Donna. Anthropocene or Capitalocene, Ch 2. “Tentacular Thinking: Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene” book in progress.
  5. Cohen, Tom, Clair Colebrook, and J. Hillis Miller. Twilight of the Anthropocene Idols. London: Open Humanities Press, 2016, “Preface,” pp. 7-19; Ch. 2, “What is the Anthropo- political?” pp. 81-89.
  6. Lorimer, Jamie. Wildlife in the Anthropocene: Conservation After Nature. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2015, “Introduction,” pp. 1-18.
  7. Clark, Nigel. Inhuman Nature: Sociable Life on a Dynamic Planet. Los Angeles: Sage Publications, 2011, “Introduction, pp. x-xxii; Ch. 6, “Hurricane Katrina and the Origins of Community,” pp. 136-162.
  8. Clark, Timothy. Ecocriticism on the Edge: The Anthropocene as a Threshold Concept. Bloomsbury: AbeBooks, 2015, “Preface,” pp. x-xi; Ch. 1, “The Anthropocene: Questions of Definition,” pp. 1-28.

Weaving collective imaginaries in the anthropocene

This is the sixth 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.”

Our connections within a multi-species web are what make us part of earth’s living ecology, and arguably what make us human. Strengthening these connections, and becoming integrated into the life and death cycles of nature seem to be key in ensuring the future of our ecosystems, by way of binding our human fates more closely to the fate of the nonhuman species of the planet. Yet the humans that are already the most bound within the multi-species web, often poor and rural populations, already feel ecological effects with disproportionate severity compared with those who have more of a buffer. Forging tighter multispecies connections may not need to entail becoming more vulnerable to ecological impacts, but it may mean that through collective imaginaries, we allow ourselves to become sensitive to existing vulnerabilities to the collective web that we exist within.

Jacob E. Lange, Flora agaricina danica, 1935–1940, Volume 1, Plate 7A,C from Tsing
From Tsing: Jacob E. Lange, Flora agaricina danica, 1935–1940, Volume 1, Plate 7A,C.

According to Tsing, her goal in writing about connections between human and non-human well-being is to open “new spaces in the public imagination”. What does this space do? This public or collective imaginary seems to be the birthing ground for the future. For example, Rose uses an example of the desire for destruction to also be a product of an imaginary e.g. without dingoes. According to the Australian aboriginals, their country (land) comes into being through dreaming creation. It is through this dreaming creation that connections are made across species boundaries. Rose’s implicit message is that these two imaginaries (that of death and destruction, compared with connection and creation) are antagonistic to one another. Furthermore, her assertion is that the imaginary of destruction creates a double death- as corpses pile up, connectivities in the web are destroyed, which takes away the ability for death to nurture new life. This process of double-death is demonstrated by the poisoning of dingoes in Australia (Rose) and of vultures in India (van Dooren).  In both of these cases, dead bodies which formerly offered nourishment to the ecosystem are transformed into further agents of death. In the case of India, these deathly effects ripple out into the human and social realms, with the societal function of the vultures no longer able to keep disease at bay. In this case, we see the interdependence between humans and the multi-species web, and also the disproportionate impacts that this ecosystem disruption has on the country’s poor and rural communities. We see a similar trend in Fiorella’s article about the fish-for-sex trading industry around Lake Victoria. In this case, the linkages between humans and fish is quite direct. We see declining fish populations not only disproportionately affecting the poor, but also women.

Conservation biologists offer an alternative imaginary, with rewilding projects. These propose to restore earth’s ecosystems through reintroducing animals to areas where they have been extirpated, or to introduce analogous animals to perform similar functions as extinct animals. Soulé and Noss assert that the greatest roadblock to these rewilding efforts actually happening is the “unwillingness to imagine it,” and that this might be able to “save nature”. Perhaps they are right, but I wonder whether potential unforeseen (and foreseen) consequences of rewilding would also disproportionately burden the poor populations in the regions where species are introduced. Quammen illustrates that one cannot remove one piece of the ecosystem without it fraying. I would extend his metaphor to caution that putting all the pieces back in one place does not necessarily reweave the web either. I would agree, however, that weaving this web of multi-species connections is work for the collective imaginary, and that making these connections visible and understood publicly will be necessary in order to live in the best way for the future humans and nonhumans of earth.

Works Cited:

  1. Tsing, Anna. “Arts of Inclusion, or, How to Love a Mushroom.” Australian Humanities Review, 50 (2011): 5-21.
  2. van Dooren, Thom. “Vultures and their People in India: Equity and Entanglement in a Time of Extinctions.” Australian Humanities Review, 50 (2011): 45-61.
  3. Rose, Deborah Bird. “What if the Angle of History were a Dog?” Cultural Studies Review, 12, no. 1 (Mar 2006): 67-78.
  4. Quammen, David. “Thirty-Six Persian Throw Rugs.” Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinctions. New York: Scribner, 1996.
  5. Soulé, Michael and Reed Noss. “Rewilding and Biodiversity: Complementary Goals for Complementary Conservation.” Wild Earth 8, no. 3 (Fall 1998): 19-28.
  6. Donlan, Josh et al. “Rewilding North America.” Nature 436 (18 Aug 2005): 1-2.
  7. Danielsen, Finna … Justin S. Brashares…, et al. “A Multicountry Assessment of Tropical Resource Monitoring by Local Communities.” Bioscience 64, no. 3 (Mar 2014): 236-251.
  8. Fiorella, Kathryn… Justin Brashares, et al. “Transactional Fish-for-Sex Relationships Amid Declining Fish Access in Kenya.” World Development 74 (2015): 323-332.

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.