In this series of essays and interviews, Distributaries spotlights scholars, instructors, and students engaged with public-facing environmental humanities projects across the City University of New York. The aim is to explore that term—“environmental humanities”—by talking with some of the people who are shaping its meaning.

For this initial essay, I reflect on my own experience this summer as the writer-in-residence at the University of Bern’s Transhumanities Summer School, themed “The Ecological Imperative.” There, I met artists and scholars who were similarly concerned with how the humanities might play its part in progressive climate action. The idea I encountered repeatedly was that for the humanities to become truly environmental, it might take a total re-structuring of the disciplines.

I’d nearly forgotten I had a body. I said this aloud to those around me as if I were joking. (I wasn’t joking.) I was eager to return to it, to myself. I stripped to my swimsuit, walked the length of the dock, and, steeling myself, slipped into the cold lake. As the water closed over my head, I remembered the sense of a sentence, the exact wording of which I would look up later: “Submerged, from below, seeing out from underwater, how do we think about the complexity of ecology, humanity, and the conditions of other beings from the fish-eye point of view?”(1) How fitting, I thought, after our morning, to come straight here.

“Here” was Lake Constance, the Switzerland side. I was lucky enough to be admitted to the University of Bern’s Transhumanities Summer School, a symposium that sends emerging scholars like myself to dialogue with distinguished academics. We were spending the week together in Schloss Wartegg, a 16th century castle-turned-hotel atop sprawling English gardens with a view of the lake. Lectures and seminars filled our days. Candle-lit feasts with local ingredients took our nights. You could do far worse for academic gatherings.

Gratitude for our surroundings mixed with increasingly anxious and progressively depressed talks about injustice inflicted unevenly by a swiftly heating planet. The dissonance made me think, more than once, of Lars von Trier’s 2011 film Melancholia, in which Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg play sisters (depressed and anxious, respectively) who experience a violent apocalypse on a lavish country estate. Should I even be here? And yet I also watch academics who downplay their labor as labor too often, who are told to feel grateful for things that, in many professions, are unquestioned, like job security and a living wage—neither of which, we doctoral students are told regularly, we can expect after graduating, or ever.

I’d met some two dozen fellow grad students the day before, a few of whom were bobbing in the clear water next to me. Toronto, Vienna, Berlin, Bologna. Literary Studies, Performance, Social Anthropology, Art History. What we shared was an “ecological imperative,” the theme of that summer’s meeting. We came, in part, to stake a claim for what those words meant and how we might enact them.

I say I’d nearly forgotten I had a body because I’d spent hours living a life of the mind. That morning, we’d listened to Professor Macarena Gómez-Barris talk about “submerged perspectives.” (It was the sense of her words, from The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives, that had come to me underwater). “Submerged perspective” is Gómez-Barris’s term for a decolonizing viewpoint that rejects the surveillance of land from above (e.g., military satellites) and sees a place in an embodied way (her insistence on a “femme, queer, decolonial” approach). We heard about Zuma Beach and oyster infrastructure. We learned about a “fish-eye episteme,” a way of reading art and landscape that takes the perspective of, well, a fish. Fish see the water not from above, as on Google Maps, but “into the muck of what has usually been rendered in linear and transparent visualities,” as Gómez-Barris puts it (2). The resulting view can be unsettling and cloudy, but opacity makes it difficult to commodify and control.

The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives, by Macarena Gómez-Barris. Duke University Press, 2017.

Her work lifts up Indigenous and Afro-descended cultures that “are organized below the modern colonial order, and that go undetected by the regime of state power” (3) in a way that doesn’t reinforce the violent power dynamics that can easily arise between local residents and official governments, between scholar and subject. Likewise, the embodied perspective diminishes the distance between scholar and landscape, between culture and nature. It calls attention to threatened ecosystems as part of our own experience, however distant and tangential, rather than something studied separately in a lab. In short, Gómez-Barris’s work creates, in her own words, a “space of solidarity with those who refuse the material and symbolic arrangements of racial and extractive capitalism” (4). As the lecture ended, I felt I had a new tool for reading the world, one that used my body rather than ignored it.

And now, needing a break after such a lively discussion, many of us took Gómez-Barris at her word. Enough abstract thinking from above. Time to submerge.

Lake Constance joins the borders of Switzerland, Germany, and Austria. On that clear day, I could see the mounds of each on the far shores, visible through the haze. The German word for this body is “Bodensee,” which means, as one of my new friends informed me, something like “ground lake.” Strangely enough, I did feel grounded here, even though I couldn’t touch the bottom. After hours debating claims and analyzing theoretical knots with my colleagues, I was reminding myself that I had a body that could pant and shiver and that could just barely paddle to the floating dock. I was not just a thinking thing. I was breathing, hungry, bobbing strategically (so as not to drown), an animal with an empty stomach and who wanted, against all logic, a cigarette. By the time I dried off on the rocky shore, I felt integrated—or at least more aware of my disintegration.

Over the course of the week-long Summer School, I kept returning to this question, of how to overcome mind-body duality. As a writer and doctoral candidate in the English Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY, my work in the Environmental Humanities frequently knocks against this ancient philosophical debate. My dissertation analyzes contemporary American personal essays with ecological themes. The “nature essay” has a long tradition in American letters, from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s 2013 Braiding Sweetgrass to Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and far before. I’m curious about the different ways nonfiction literature represents a sense of self as it relates to the non-human world. What can the first-person essay do that other forms of literature can’t? Is the personal essay too anthropocentric to think ecologically? Can paying close attention to the ways we narrate a sense of self grant insight into our current ecological devastation—namely, the climate crisis? I suspect that the essay genre is central to Western notions of what it means to be a human, to possess personhood. For a long time, “human” has not meant homo sapiens sapiens so much as “white man who owns property and whose thinking is highly regarded.” While this narrow definition has broadened some, “human” still fails to encircle us all. What’s more, the radical separation of “human” from the rest of the world is, I’m afraid, part of our ecological dilemma. I worry that we’re defining ourselves out of existence. The essay has been instrumental in sorting people into categories of intelligence and, thus, hierarchies (think of the dreaded five-paragraph form, the least literary of its kind). And yet I find in the personal essay a potential to struggle with the mind-body problem that might prove expansive for ecological thought—if, that is, we know how to read it.

It can sound odd, at first, to count the separation of mind and body as an issue of ecology, but mind-body duality is one the most powerful ideologies driving our current environmental devastation. Often traced to the philosophy of René Descartes, whose famous “I think; therefore, I am” enshrined the act of cognition as primary, mind-body duality names consciousness as a necessary element of personhood. In turn, it dismisses non-human life under the assumption that thought (or a certain narrowly defined version of it, anyway) defines the form of life that’s most worthy of value.

We respect monkeys, dolphins, and octopuses more than, say, slugs based primarily on our perception of their intelligence—but why? By this same logic, many humans whose thinking we don’t recognize as “good enough” are demoted to “animal” (or even “vegetable”). It takes little imagination to conjure historical examples of whole groups of people defined as “rodents” or “vermin”—as animals—in order to justify violence toward them. But we pay less attention to the logic inherent in that hierarchy: 1) that it’s our right to exterminate non-human animals we deem “stupid” at our discretion and 2) that the extermination of these non-humans will not hurt us in turn. Why judge who is worthy of life by intelligence (or our perception of it, anyhow)? And as for the second assumption, to heed the most fundamental concept of ecology—that all life is connected, is interdependent—is to recognize that our disregard for non-human life now threatens us considerably. In fact, our disregard for the inherent value of non-human life has shrunk thousands of populations of species across the planet by about 70%, on average, since 1970, according to a recent report from the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Index. Certainly, this calls for us to mourn the loss of non-human life, but less obvious is the fact that this mass extinction is threatening to humans. With non-human life dwindling at unprecedented speeds, food systems are collapsing. We rely on many of these dwindling populations for survival directly (e.g., salmon, trout, and tuna, who are threatened by warming water, ocean acidification, and overfishing) (5) and indirectly (e.g., wild bees, who pollinate apple, cherry, and coffee trees) (6). Climate change, driven by industrial emissions that disregard all views of prosperity except those that are narrowly human-centered, is eliminating opportunities to feed growing populations of humans. In short, the uncritical privileging of human life has ironically wound up humanity’s greatest threat.

I mention this brief, brutal example to give evidence for how an idea can transform the material world or justify the sustenance of, say, industrial-scale meat processing. Climate change and environmental degradation is often thought of as a problem for science and technology. But just as important are the disciplines that define who we are and how we make meaning of the world—that is, the humanities. This, I think, is the potential power of the Environmental Humanities, a growing interdisciplinary focus that seeks to use the strengths of the humanities (and the social sciences) in order to work with the hard sciences and address the climate crisis and violence of extractive capitalism. As with the work of Gómez-Barris, scholarship in the Environmental Humanities is not, as Robert S. Emmett and David E. Nye write in their critical introduction to the field, “an expression of the triumphalist conquest of nature and the division of knowledge but reflect[s] the discovery that excessive specialization has accompanied species extinction, pollution, global warming, and other human-driven interventions that collectively threaten the biosphere.”

Mind-body duality, then, reflects this division of knowledge. The most ambitious work in the Environmental Humanities challenges that division. The “ecological imperative” is not just to include more nature-themed content in the work of the humanities; it is to reorganize, rethink, and re-engage with our disciplines in ways that transform them completely, into more ecologically-conscious practices. “The environmental humanities are part of a larger rediscovery that the world needs to be understood neither through Cartesian dualism [i.e., Descartes’s mind-body dualism] nor as isolated fragments nor as interchangeable parts but as a vast ensemble,” write Emmett and Nye. “The university of the future may well be based on the principle that research must be interdisciplinary, in which case the departmentalization of knowledge will weaken or disappear.” This is not without its fierce opposition from scholars and department heads who cling to more traditional notions of their disciplines. But the importance of the Environmental Humanities to university scholarship is now far more apparent than it was even just two decades ago.

During my week on Lake Constance, the Summer School gave me a taste of what the interdisciplinarity of the Environmental Humanities might look like and how that might influence life outside academia. The day after the swim, literary studies scholar Hubert Zapf lectured on the force of cultural ecology. Literature is not simply a means of conveying environmental narratives and ideas, Zapf argued, but “an ecological cultural force” in and of itself, regardless of content. The study of language—which includes any semiotic system, including body language, the interactions of different life forms, and more conventional, text-based language—is unique in this respect. All disciplinary knowledge communicates through language, but only literary studies examines the form of communication itself. By turning to aesthetic analysis, we study the form of communication that links all disciplinary knowledge. “The aesthetic mode in this view,” writes Zapf, “challenges the deep-rooted divide between mind and body, self and other, culture and nature that has shaped the dominant anthropocentric narratives of linear civilizational progress.” The critical study of literature, then, is important for anyone in that it mediates the consciousness of the mind through the visual and sonic matter of the text. Literature is always ecological, whether it speaks of trees and birds explicitly or not, because its “transformative semiotic force…opens up closed circuits of communication by reconnecting mind and body, internal and external environments, the cultural memory to the deep time memory of culture-nature coevolution” (7). Paying attention to the stories we tell about ourselves is part of the ecological imperative, even if the content doesn’t appear to be obviously “environmental.”

The next day, art historian, critic, and curator Caroline A. Jones demonstrated the urgency of Art History for our present ecological crises. In a talk on the “anthropocene image-bind,” Jones called attention to the way that modern art has “cloaked—as aesthetic—our insanely extractive relations to earth” (8). Painters like J. M. W. Turner made the smog of London beautiful. “We make images that show us what we want to look at,” she said. Some of the most compelling images of the climate crisis are ones that fit within our expectations of what such a crisis should look like. How, then, do we see otherwise? How do we see an unprecedented crisis, whose images we don’t yet have a way to frame? “How,” she continued, “can we sense an ecological imperative when Earth is always framed for our conception?” Jones offered several ways to “pry open” the bind “at its seams”: perhaps, for example, by handing the reins over to natural processes that “image themselves.” Susan Schuppli’s video installation Nature Represents Itself (2018) documents the iridescent film of oil from the 2009 BP Deepwater Horizion spill as it shimmers on the surface of ocean water. Jones points out that oil on water is a kind of “photosensitive emulsion,” casting sunlight into the atmosphere, which makes an ephemeral photograph. Schuppli’s filming of it is, in a way, a moving picture of a moving picture, as well as “forensic” evidence of corporate violence. The result might wander outside the typical boundaries of “beauty,” but that’s exactly the point. Framed less as images for human enjoyment and more as “material witness,” the visual documentation of human impact on the non-human world begins to amass like exhibits in a murder trial. The very function of art and image-making is beginning to shift.

These are just a few of the energetic conversations that took place in the castle that week. I felt moved—emboldened, I suppose—to think beyond the discipline of literary studies. Before, I described the Environmental Humanities as “interdisciplinary,” but perhaps it’s best to call it “transdisciplinary,” which Zapf describes as “both includ[ing] and transform[ing] the various frames of disciplinary knowledge that go into it and that make up their cognitive material” (9). The Environmental Humanities are not just additive; they’re transformative.

In the final pages of his 1966 work The Order of Things, philosopher Michel Foucault writes that what we conceive of as the “human” in the 20th century is “the effect of a change in the fundamental arrangements of knowledge,” beginning in the 16th century. Strangely, this figure of the “human” is “an invention of a recent date,” he writes. “And one perhaps nearing its end.” By this, Foucault does not mean that we are facing possible extinction (though we are). Rather, he means that the entire way we conceive of ourselves—in large part through a realm of disciplines we call “the humanities”—might be about to transform entirely. Employing a metaphor that’s uncannily suggestive of rising seas, Foucault writes:

If those arrangements were to disappear as they appeared, if some event of which we can at the moment do no more than sense the possibility—without knowing either what its form will be or what it promises—were to cause them to crumble, as the ground of Classical thought did, at the end of the eighteenth century, then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in sand at the edge of the sea. (10)

The arrival of the Environmental Humanities—somehow both a new venture and a return to a more integrated knowledge—must be poised to enact or to harness the force of this fundamental change.

Notes

1. Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 103.

2. Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone, 124.

3. Macarena Gómez-Barris, “Submerged Perspectives: The Arts of Land and Water Defense,” Submerged Perspectives: The Arts of Land and Water Defense, January 1, 2020, https://www.academia.edu/45292..., 3.

4. Gómez-Barris, “Submerged Perspectives: The Arts of Land and Water Defense,” 4.

5. NOAA Fisheries, “Understanding Our Changing Climate | NOAA Fisheries,” NOAA, January 27, 2021, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov....

6. Oliver Milman, “Loss of Bees Causes Shortage of Key Food Crops, Study Finds,” The Guardian, July 29, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/en....

7. Hubert Zapf, “Cultural Ecology, the Environmental Humanities, and the Ecological Archives of Literature,” Colloquia Germanica 53, no. 2 (2021): 127.

8. Caroline A. Jones, “Atmospheres and the Anthropogenic Image-Bind,” In The Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change, edited by T. J. Demos, Emily Eliza Scott, and Subhankar Banerjee (New York, NY: Routledge, 2021) 243, https://doi.org/10.4324/978042....

9. Hubert Zapf, “‘Cultural Ecology, the Environmental Humanities, and the Transdisciplinary Knowledge of Literature,’” in Environmental Humanities: Voices from the Anthropocene, ed. Serpil Oppermann and Serenella Iovino (New York, NY: Rowman and Littlefield International, 2017), 67.

10. Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (New York NY: Vintage Books, 1994), 387.

Contributors

Eric Dean Wilson

Teaching Fellow
Eric Dean Wilson is a writer and educator in Brooklyn, NY. His essays have appeared in Tin House, Heavy Feather Review, DrDOCTOR, Music & Literature, Seneca Review, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. He's currently writing a book on the connection between ...

Media

Related