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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Andrade, K., et al. “Finding Your Way in the Interdisciplinary Forest: Notes on Educating Future Conservation Practitioners.” Biodiversity Conservation 23 (2014): 3405-3423.
- Levine, Gregory. “Silenced by Aesthetics? Conjecture on an Eco Art History,” unpublished paper, 28 pp. Not for citation or circulation without permission.
- Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples. London: Zed Books, 1999, “Introduction,” pp. 1-18.
- 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.