zaterdag 29 juni 2019

Summer Recess

After the summer this reading group will continue, but instead of Amsterdam the meetings will be moved to Oslo, Norway in collaboration with the Oslo School for the Environmental Humanities.

vrijdag 28 juni 2019

Let’s talk Petroculture

Highway #1, Intersection 105 & 110, Los Angeles ...

The study of petroculture assumes that modes of energy production influence culture, and that art and media function as a kind of “dream catcher” registering implicitly or explicitly the particularities of these modes of production (Yaeger 309). In the case of oil, however, there exists a tension between its ubiquity and its invisibility. Oil saturates modern life, that much is sure. It is essential in the production of food in the form of industrial fertilizer; we wear it on our bodies as polyester clothing; and it is fundamentally responsible for the level of mobility and prosperity enjoyed in most developed nations. Not to mention the way oil drives geopolitics. And yet it seems strangely missing from the public sphere except perhaps in places where the local economy relies on it – like Fort McMurray in Alberta, Canada.

One of the biggest blind spots of petrosubjects, people whose lives are subject to petroculture, is realizing to what extent fossil fuels enshrine certain freedoms. In the words of Raymond Williams, industrialization brought “the gift of power that is everything to men who have worked with their hands,” and while it also came with disadvantages, “in the new conditions there was more real freedom to dispose of our lives, more real personal grasp where it mattered, more real say” (qtd. in Szeman 15). And yet some people may reject this freedom to move around unfettered and to consume indiscriminately, in favour of a different kind of freedom – the freedom from dependency on oil in favour of the more independent and sustainable way of life presumed to be fostered by renewables.

Efforts to uncover or rematerialize oil range from mapping its chain of production down a multitude of kaleidoscopic pathways as the raw material changes hands, names, and forms, to deconstructing the specific desires petroculture has normalized in the 21st century. Another way of revealing the matrix of oil that underwrites modern life is to try and think other energy cultures. What would a renewable energy culture look like and how is it different? What politics would such a culture nourish, what habits, what art, and what infrastructure. This is where worldbuilding genres like sci-fi and utopian fiction may prove helpful. But while it is important to imagine different kinds of energy cultures, thinking of them in isolation risks distorting the way in which sources of energies interact and overlap. Moreover in the current age we not only need to envision renewable energy cultures, but also how to get there – which means thinking of cultures in transition.

Another way to attend to the impact of energy systems on culture is to consider the different phenomenologies they bring about, and how they make their way into artistic expression: “The touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light magic of electrical power, the anxiety engendered by atomic residue, the odour of coal pollution, the viscous animality of whale oil, the technology of chopping wood: each resource instantiates a changing phenomenology that could recreate our ideas about the literary text’s relation to its originating modes of production as quasi-objects” (Yaeger 309-310). Reading like this, for symptoms instead of content, may yield more various results and may also serve to bring the abstract hyperobject of oil within the scope of human experience.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Yaeger Patricia. “Editer’s column: Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil, Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” MLA, 2011.

Szeman, Imre. “Introduction.” On Petrocultures: Globalization, Culture and Energy. Morgantown: West Virginia UP, 2019.

Image: Highway #1 by Edward Burtynsky

Handy dandy resource:

maandag 6 mei 2019

Time and Memory in Alice Oswald’s Dart

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Alice Oswald’s Dart is a book-length poem that maps the flow of the river Dart and all the lives it touches. Although it reveals an intricate network of connectedness, that connectedness does not imply sameness or transparency. In fact the poem’s refrain-like “who’s this” suggests that there is distance to be bridged all the time, a mystery surrounding who’s who and who these different voices are to each other.

Aside from connectedness the poem is also thematically concerned with time. It plays with the association between rivers and (linear) time, of which the best example from the English language is Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, in which the Congo River and the Thames bear people back in time, to a primitive past. Dart too performs this trick of time travel. The poem’s first section features a walker “An old man, fifty years a mountaineer until [his] heart gave out” (1), who wanders the wilderness of Dartmoor, where the Dart surfaces “a foal / of a river," during a kind of primeval dawn, when the earth is still soft and malleable “your feet sinks right in, it’s like walking on the / bottom of a lake” (2). The walker, representing mankind, is lonely, humbled by the vastness of the moor, and afraid of the dark, “[making] a little den of his smells and small thoughts” (3). 

But as time passes the river widens, encompassing more and more space, not just between its banks, but also underground and beyond. Its water is “cooped up in moss and moving / slowly uphill through lean-to trees” (12-11). As the river matures so do its appetites change. In the section that features the woodman the Dart becomes a flirtatious waternymph, to whose lascivious gestures and suggestions the woodman remains hilariously clueless. Even though, in juxtaposition to the formal, rhyming quatrains of the waternymph, the woodsman’s prose poems are unassuming, there is something very gentle about the way he describes the woods and how he serves the ecosystem. His is the exact opposite of the kind of rape of the earth rhetoric that is often presumed to motivate extractors of natural resources.

The poem ends at the mouth of the river, with a sealwatcher moving from sea-cave to sea-cave, in whose moist, tomblike depths he finds “The fur, the hair, the fingernails, the bones” that one might find in a grave (48). But unlike the cast of human characters that the poem features, the river never dies, and is born again in “the musky fishy genital smell / of things not yet actual” (48). It is common parlance that brooks babble, but Oswald suggests water also speaks itself. Water is a “self-maker” – it runs from mountain sources to the sea, where it rises as vapour before raining down again on those same mountains, feeding itself (48). Thus the linearity we ascribe to rivers, and to time, is undermined in Dart.

In confirmation, the poem features subtle images of spirals, gyres, and whirlpools. This notion of time as a spiral or a gyre is connected to the voices of the characters, which ultimately construct the flow of the river Dart in Oswald’s poem. It is only through the voices of the people that we move down the river and the sound of the voices is echoed in the sounds of the river. As the rememberer says: “I remember when I was a boy / born not more than a mile away from where I am now / a whole millennium going by in the form of a wave” (45). The voice is moulded by the movement of water and the way it remembers follows the natural flow of water; the voice guides us further towards the sea. It is through this oral/aural nature of the poem that Oswald constructs the Dart as a material and cultural landscape. The two are intertwined and flow with each other.

Laura op de Beke and Stephanie König

Works Cited

Oswald, Alice. Dart. Faber and Faber, 2010. 

dinsdag 12 maart 2019

Interspecies Ethics: Becoming With and Leaving Be

The notions of Becoming With (Donna Haraway) and Leaving Be (Patricia MacCormack) represent two ways of imagining interspecies interaction. In her chapter “Posthuman Ethics” Patricia MacCormack argues, after Spinoza, that “The gift of liberty is allowing the power of the other to expand toward unknown futures” (2). In our everyday dealings with non-human creatures, it is therefore essential that we preserve a space for the free and unhampered unfolding of life, in all its myriad forms. MacCormack’s philosophy is also inspired by Deleuze and Guattari in its emphasis on the body, and in its hostility towards any kind of humanist structuring and theorizing – which merely aims to regiment, and categorize unruly bodies. Her preference is instead for attention to be paid to affect, and how it infuses the relationships between humans and non-humans.

In the section Unspoken Friendships MacCormack draws on the French philosopher Maurice Blanchot’s for an interpretation of ethics as a way of “seeking to resist that [regimenting, categorizing] compulsion towards the other” (5). She writes “Ethics is the madness of the doing/not doing, of passivity of a certain kind as activism, silence as allowing the other to be heard” (5). But what is this ‘passivity of a certain kind,’ this Leaving Be, and how does it hold up when non-human creatures reach out to us, reaching out their hands, claws or paws, to engage us, soliciting a response? 

This is what happened in 2001 in Nootka Sound when a baby Orca called Luna was separated from its mother and its pod. Social isolation drove the orca to seek out interaction with the people in the bay, endangering itself and others. Scientist quickly demanded for a kind of tough love to be practiced, for fear of domesticating the animal, while they worked on a plan to reunite the orca and its pod.  However, locals and especially the Mowachaht/Muchalaht First Nations people questioned the practice. They saw the orca as a reincarnation of their late chief, and considered the practice a cruel one. Rumours about Luna also drew journalists and tourists to the area compounding the danger inherent in whale/human interactions. This made the prescribed passivity more and more problematic. Plans to save Luna came too late and in 2006 he was killed in a tugboat accident.  

The situation is emblematic of what Donna Haraway would call a multispecies string figure, tying multiple perspectives together in one complicated knot: the scientists preaching tough love, the locals who enjoyed Luna’s company; the journalists hoping for a good story; the tourists who flocked to the bay for pictures; the Mowachaht/Muchalaht  for whom Luna carried spiritual importance. But where was Luna’s perspective in all this?

Unfortunately, unravelling the knot – as far as that’s even possible – wont give us an answer. Rather, the knot, the various ways in which people and non-humans come together mutually determines their being, which Haraway would call their becoming, and becoming  is always a Becoming-With. “Becoming-With, not becoming, is the name of the game […] Ontologically heterogenous partners become who and what they are in relational material-semiotic worlding. Natures, cultures, subjects, and objects do not pre-exist their intertwined worldings” (13).  

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

MacCormack, Patricia. "Posthuman Ethics." Posthuman Ethics: Embodiment and Cultural Theory. Ashgate, 2012. pp. 1-17.

Haraway, Donna. "Playing String Figures with Companion Species." Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene. Duke University Press, 2016. pp.9-29.

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.” (Thornber 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 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 145).

Laura op de Beke and Giulia Baquè

Work Cited

Thornber, Karen Laura. Ecoambiguity: Environmental Crisis and East Asian Literatures. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2012. 

Ōe, Kenzaburo. Somersault. Grove Press, 2013. 

zondag 20 januari 2019

Dark Ecology in Annie Dillard's Pilgrim on Tinker Creek

Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, by Annie Dillard | Blogging for a ...

“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.” (Dillard 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” (Morton, 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” (Morton, 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” (Morton, 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” (Morton, The Ecological Thought 105).

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Dillard, Annie. Pilgrim on Tinker Creek. Canterbury Press 2011.

Morton, Timothy. The Ecological Thought. Harvard University Press, 2007.

Morton, Timothy. Ecology Without Nature. Harvard University Press, 2012.