Tag Archives: multispecies

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.

Anthropocene: A problem of scale?

This is the second 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.”

One of the main challenges in delineating exactly what constitutes  the “anthropocene” is a problem of scale. The timescales of the effects of humans on the earth cannot be seen with the human gaze, nor by using the ordinary faculties of perception that humans are equipped with. Furthermore, the effects may only be perceptible on generational scales, and the effects of current events (e.g. warfare) may only be properly understood cumulatively, beyond the scope of current lifetimes. This week’s authors bring in concepts of visualization, through data (Cubitt) and art (Mirzoefff, Demos), that are able to capture some of these longer-term processes, but also the ways in which the use of these techniques reinforce existing hierarchies.

Mirzoeff argues that the aesthetic of the anthropocene is indeed an anti-aesthetic (or anesthetic), which takes away our ability to perceive and notice certain changes – e.g. the inability to see smog. Art, he argues, accomplishes this by normalizing the aesthetics of the anthropocene. The time scales of the anthropocene demand a view longer than the human gaze. Cave art, and art carved into trees (Chapela), through multi-species contributions, bear evidence and allow us to witness some of these larger timescales. Through long exposure photography, Darren Almond (Demos) is able to capture some of these visualities, displaying hybrid landscapes on film through long exposure photography. According to Demos, Almond’s work represents a paradigm shift in our ability to visualize ‘hyperobjects’ such as global warming, which are those that are massively distributed in time and space, a key aesthetic of the anthropocene. Cubitt focuses on data visualization as a tool that allows us to imagine and represent long time-scales.

Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos
Darren Almond, Fullmoon@The River of Turns (2013). From Demos

Although these strategies provide promise of allowing us to visualize longer timescales, Mirzoeff invokes visualization as a tool originally used in warfare, which can result in reasserting the war of humans against nature. Cubitt, too asserts, that although data visualization strategies seem to represent scientific neutrality and the populist masses, they are actually political tools which are capable of acting as voices of non-humans, while also serving to reinforce nature and non-human actors as objects of study and subjected to human authority. Chapela ultimately argues that to use the term “anthropocene” is a human arrogance, as if today’s form of humans were the only kind of humans there ever were. This echoes Mirzoeff’s assertion that part of capitalism’s success in colonizing our psyches has been in taking away our collective ability to visualize the world without capitalism. He argues that we have been conditioned to believe that our basic humanity lies in conflict as opposed to community. Chapela’s art relics from previous humans serve to remind us of other types of humanity, which were perhaps more accustomed to relating with non-human others.

Symbiotic Art from Chapela 2014
Symbiotic art (from Chapela 2014)

Nixon’s article on the rhetoric of warfare, points out that we are also lacking appropriate narratives that account for the long-term casualties of modern warfare, which are extending the spatial and temporal scales of health and ecological impacts of war. Nixon brings into relief the ability of time to act as camouflage for the horrors of war, and for the turning of nature – soil, air, and water – into weapons against human life. We are left with a sense of the stark inadequacy of human imagination and human tools (e.g. microscope, telescope, camera, narrative), for dealing with the timescales playing out over the era we are calling the anthropocene. If anthropocenic changes are happening at scales that we are unable to perceive and represent with ordinary human faculties, what technological, artistic, and spiritual means are available to us that unmask the camouflage of space and time and reveal our essential humanity? Perhaps, as Chapela and others allude to, the solution will not lie within human means. This leads me to wonder, who will be the survivors of the sixth mass extinction, and what is their agency in these anthropocenic processes?

Works Cited:

1. Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Visualizing the Anthropocene” Public Culture 26, 2 (2014): 213-232.

2. Demos, T.J. “Photography at the End of the World: On Darren Almond’s Fullmoon Series.”  http://www.imageandnarrative.be/index.php/imagenarrative/article/view/763

3. Chapela, Ignacio. “Symbiotic Art and Shared Nostalgia,” in Mihnea Mircan & Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, eds. Allegory of the Cave Painting. Milan: Mousse Publishing, 2015.

4. Davis, Heather and Etienne Turpin. “Art & Death: Lives Between the Fifth Assessment & the Sixth Extinction.” In Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin, eds., Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies. London: Open Humanities Press, 2015, pp. 3-29.

5. Cubitt, Sean. “Data Visualisation and Ecocriticism” in Stephen Rust, Salma Monani and Sean Cubitt, eds. The Ecocinema Reader: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge/American Film Institute, 2012, pp. 277-296.

6. Nixon, Rob. “Ecologies of the Aftermath: Precision Warfare and Slow Violence,” in Rob Nixon, Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011, Ch. 7, pp. 199-232.