dinsdag 12 maart 2019

Next meeting: Interspecies Ethics on 25 March

The next meeting will be held on 25 March, at 19:30 in Leiden. We are meeting in the Lipsius building central hall. This session we’ll be talking about interspecies ethics, and reading texts by Donna Harraway and Patricia MacCormack, paying particular attention to McCormack's posthuman ethics of "leaving be"/grace and Haraway's idea of "becoming with.” There to introduce us to the framework of posthumanism is Michelle Henriquez, who is currently writing her thesis in literary studies.

For questions about the group, the reading material, or future meetups, email lauraodbeke@hotmail.com<mailto:lauraodbeke@hotmail.com>

vrijdag 8 februari 2019

Ecoambiguity in Japanese Literature and Culture


“Environmental ambiguity manifests itself in multiple, intertwined ways, including ambivalent attitudes towards nature; confusion about the actual condition of the nonhuman, often a consequence of ambiguous information; contradictory human behaviors toward ecosystems; and discrepancies among attitudes, conditions, and behaviours that lead to actively downplaying and acquiescing to nonhuman degradation, as well as to inadvertently harming the very environments one is attempting to protect.” (Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crises and East Asian Literatues, 6).

Although Karen L. Thornber uses the notion of ecoambiguity to analyse a huge corpus of East Asian literatures, it is applicable to human cultures all over the planet. However, in some cultures the ironies do seem a little sharper. For example, the myth of Japan that is backed both domestically and exported abroad is of a people who live in harmony with nature, a people who honour the spirits that reside in the landscape. Myths such as these make it hard to acknowledge the environmental degradation that the Japanese too have a part in, because it compromises their sense of cultural identity.

The result is a kind of uneasy hypocrisy, which is called out by authors such as Nobel prize winner Kenzaburō Ōe. In his 1994 speech titled ‘Japan, TheAmbiguous and Myself’ he laments the Western-style modernization of Japan, which he argues has isolated it from other Asian countries, as well as its own traditional Buddhist and Shinto philosophies. In his speech, Ōe addresses what he calls “Japan’s ‘ambiguity’ [which] is a kind of chronic disease that has been prevalent throughout the modern age. Japan’s economic prosperity is not free from it either, accompanied as it is by all kinds of potential dangers in the light of the structure of world economy and environmental conservation. The ‘ambiguity’ in this respect seems to be accelerating. It may be more obvious to the critical eyes of the world at large than to us within the country.”  

This ambiguity also plays a role in many of his novels, as is the case in Somersault (1999). Throughout the novel, the feeling of a looming nuclear disaster that could possibly bring about the already on-going ‘falling’ or dying of the environment is a constant reminder of human responsibility in environmental degradation. Humans are those “who’ve destroyed […] the totality of nature and given [it] an incurable disease” (Ōe Somersault 221). Human carelessness is polluting and killing the non-human, therefore bringing about the ‘end of the world’. In this novel, as in the rest of his work, Ōe makes readers uncomfortable by exposing this Japanese ambiguity towards the environment and ‘nature’. In this way Ōe deconstructs the ‘dream’ of coexisting in a harmonious and respectful ways with nature, by creating a constant feeling of insecurity and doubt. Somersault has become even more relevant after the Fukushima disaster of 2011 when the Japanese myth of national safety and security was challenged by the nuclear accident.

Rereading Somersault with Thornber’s concept of ecoambiguity in mind, especially after the Fukushima disaster enables a new layer of analysis. It is as Ōe writes, if “[this] exact thing is happening everywhere around the globe, doesn’t this scene show us the human race becoming extinct?” (Ōe Somersault 145).

Laura op de Beke and Giulia Baquè


zondag 20 januari 2019

Dark Ecology in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim on Tinker Creek


“Partly as a result of my terrible dream, I have been thinking that the landscape of the intricate world that I have painted is inaccurate and lopsided. It is too optimistic. For the notion of the infinite variety and detail and the multiplicity of forms is a pleasing one; in complexity are the fringes of beauty, and in variety are generosity and exuberance. But all this leaves something vital out of the picture. It is not one pine I see, but a thousand. I myself am not one, but legion. And we are all going to die.” (Pilgrim on Tinker Creek, 163)

In “Fecundity” Annie Dillard dwells on the horrific and alienating aspects of ‘Nature’ and in doing so she prefigures Timothy Morton’s notion of dark ecology. The episode is sparked when, after a big flood, a “terrible yellow plant” is unearthed, “fleshy and featureless” (161). This tells you the this chapter won’t be about flowers, but about roots, and fungus, and everything else that grows in the dark, moist corners of our gardens. Dillard’s focus on luna moths and their “horrible animal vigor” is also telling, as moths may be considered the ‘goth’ equivalent of butterflies. This is certainly the vocabulary Morton would use, for whom dark ecology is “embodied not in a hippie aesthetic of life over death, or a sadistic Bambification of sentient beings, but in a ‘goth’ assertion of the contingent and necessarily queer idea that we want to stay with a dying world” (Ecology Without Nature 185). Fecundity is essentially about Dillard learning to reckon with this desire, while she explores what Morton would call the “strange strangers” that make up the “mesh.”

“The more you know about the origins of the First World War, the more ambiguous your conclusions become. You find yourself unable to point to a single independent event […] The more we know about life forms, the more we recognize our connection with them and the stranger they become” (The Ecological Thought 17). Dillard illustrates exactly what this means in her account of the lives of several insects – whose “ordained paths” are nothing less than “preposterous” (174). The more Dillard tracks the stages of their lives – from hatchling to sexual maturity – the more it feels like the stars need to align in order for these creatures to even stand a chance, and the more mystifying they become. It’s comical, as well as wasteful.  Nature is anything but efficient.

Dillard’s approach consists of a series of thought experiments, in which she asks you to inhabit a number of strange strangers:  “You are an ichneumon,” “you are the manager of the Southern Railroad,” you are the horsehair worm (172, 177, 174). And yet she steers clear of anthropomorphism, which for Morton is also an issue. He explains that what is important to dark ecology is “Loving the thing as thing, not as a person in disguise, […] on the condition that we preserve the artificiality [or monstrosity] of the other and do not try to naturalize or collapse otherness” (Ecology Without Nature 196). In other words making presumptions about the inner world of a parasite is  futile and misguided. All you can do is respect their utter opacity while sustaining an attitude of radical openness – which manifests in the refusal to look away. Towards the start of the chapter Dillard’s acknowledged that she “brought it upon [her]self, this slither, this swarm” by looking at the two luna moths mating; “By watching them I in effect permitted their mating to take place and so committed myself to accepting the consequences – all because [she] wanted to see what would happen. [She] wanted in on a secret” (162).

The secret is that the ‘Nature’ is meaningless, and ugly, and that it doesn’t care about humans. “Evolution loves death more than it loves you or me” (178). It is characterized not by design, but by automated processes, “a mindless stutter” whose mindlessness is exactly what terrifies. By dwelling on this Dillard is making strides into one of the “three direction for ecological art [which] emphasizes automated processes such as evolution” (The Ecological Thought 105).

Laura op de Beke