Wednesday, 20 January 2021


What will remain of us after we are gone are our footprints, literally and figuratively. The imprint of a foot tells us a lot about a person. It is strangely intimate, although not more so than handprints are. Imprints tell us something of the contours of a life. More metaphorically, the footprint refers to the long tail of trace carbon that remains in the atmosphere, which might influence the climate many thousands of years into the future. But there are other, more concrete traces that we leave behind: plastics.

Plastic is magic. Dark magic. We conjure it into being without realizing how its consequences will affect us. Plastic does not seem to age. It disguises itself as other materials: vinyl, Formica, rayon, acrylic... It looks indestructible, and instead of decomposing, it just becomes particulate, pervasively finding its way into the soil, the water, and our bodies.

In chapter three of Farrier’s book Footprints, he paints of picture of plastic as “cut off from its past and absorbed by the present,” “oddly timeless,” “history slides off their impermeable surfaces just as single-use plastic slips from our hand into oblivion” (104). Plastic is strangely imperceptible, ranking below flowers and plants in the hierarchy of visibility. We struggle to sense it. But is this an inherent material quality, or does plastic’s timelessness stem from our use practices? In his deep dive into plastic as matter Farrier neglects to inspect the ways people engage with plastic in different ways. He does not ask how plastic came to be thought of as disposable. Or what it means to those who hoard plastic containers, washing and reusing them compulsively. Nor does he dwell on plastic’s enormous, glossy, sensuous appeal to children, an appeal that can only be overcome through years of conditioning, and ‘good taste.’ Having thought through plastic as an object, we need to start thinking plastic through practice.

In his Orion article “Hand in Glove” Farrier goes on to qualify his initial portrait of plastic, demonstrating how plastic falsely promises to separate us from the world, when in fact it has become our world. “[W]e confirm the world, and ourselves in it, by touch… Touch composes us: we metabolize it, drawing it into ourselves.” What does it mean for us to interact with the world through a film of plastic? To have our sense of touch so encased?

In Footprints Farrier refers to a passage from William Golding’s novel The Inheritors, when the Neanderthal Fa has a “picture,” i.e. a primitive idea. She struggles to put it into words, to think through the steps that would allow her to carry water from the sea to her people – essentially inventing a vessel. She stutters and fails. We never know how close we are to imagining something truly revolutionary, something that would break open time and space (91), the way the carrier bag did for our ancestors. In the meantime it is all we can do to have courage and keep stuttering.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Farrier, David. ‘Hand in Glove’. Orion Magazine 39, no. 3 (3 September 2020).

 Farrier, David. ‘Introduction: Traces of a Haunted Future’. In Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, 3–26. London: 4th Estate, 2020.

 Farrier, David. ‘The Bottle as Hero’. In Footprints: In Search of Future Fossils, 89–116. London: 4th Estate, 2020.

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Bad Environmentalism

Most environmentalist rhetoric comes in a select number of accepted repertoires e.g. indignant moralizing and sanctimonious nature worship. Although effective on some audiences, the sincerity and seriousness that pervades these responses puts many people off. Moreover, it can prove alienating for marginalised communities or the working class, who, with plenty of problems of their own – from to financial stress to police brutality – might balk at the idea of someone crying over the fate of a single polar bear. This does not mean that these communities cannot be reached, or that they do not have powerful environmentalist traditions of their own. But their traditions are rarely acknowledged in academic circles – being complicated, ambiguous, crass, or populist.

Nicole Seymour’s book Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age attempts to broaden the spectrum of environmentalisms acknowledged in academia by highlighting how humour, irony and irreverence provide different inflections of the same old discourse, but with occasionally more sensitivity to matters of class, race or sexuality. Although Seymour does not profess that such bad environmentalisms, as she calls them, are necessarily better than the middle-class sincerity we are used to (which can start to seem pretty radical in certain postmodernist contexts), they do serve a purpose: questioning the power of expert knowledge, exposing privilege, and building bridges between polarized communities, among other things.

For example, in her discussion of the documentary Peak, Seymour analyses the use of its comically uncomfortable long takes. In these moments, rather than rush on with the message, the film creates a space that becomes inflated with questions and ambiguous feelings by resisting the urge to narrativise, or to spell out the moral lesson. By lingering instead of moving on, suspended moments like these break up the narrative arcs that have become staples in environmental documentaries, drawing attention to the complexities of the present, instead of focusing on a set of futures in which utopia or ruination has already been achieved.

However, whereas humour can create moments of pause, and introspection, it can equally be employed to smooth over conflict, and to move the conversation on to less controversial topics. This just goes to show how difficult it is to make generalizations about comedic register – not that Seymour attempts any. She stays very close to the cultural texts that serve as the objects of her analysis, from films and cartoons, to stand-up and sketch comedy. Perhaps because she stays so close to the texts, the book is less explicitly involved in exploring their reception, or the in/out group dynamics of the different audiences that are hailed. When she does write about reader/viewer reception, she writes about affect in a more general sense. For example, she dwells on the circulation of shame – which, when evoked, may be reflected back and back again in wildly unproductive ways.

Instead of a shame-fueled environmentalism, Seymour advocates for a shameless, trashy, 'effluent' environmentalism. An environmentalism free of perfectionism and guilt, like the kind espoused in Elizabeth Stephens' and Annie Sprinkle's documentary Goodbye Gauley Mountain. Self-proclaimed eco-sexuals, Stephens and Sprinkle are experienced role-players. Because they juggle so many different identities (lesbian, environmentalist, but also - coalminer's daughter, Appalachian etc.), they can operate with a kind of self-reflexive, ironic distance that helps them engage with people based on shared values vs. differences. The benefit of distance demonstrates, once again why ecocriticism’s obsession with immediacy, immersion, and proximity needs to be questioned. We also stand to gain insight from stepping back, and out of yourself – to see how one fits into a larger social whole.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Seymour, Nicole. Bad Environmentalism: Irony and Irreverence in the Ecological Age

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Deep Time Walking

The earth is about 4.6 billion years old. An unimaginable age. How do we experience time at that scale? And what do we stand to learn from engaging with it? Deep time is simply so much bigger than human history, it can seem irrelevant or apolitical – even though historically deep time has been anything but, having been abused to legitimize racism, sexism, and environmental exploitation through pseudoscientific takes on evolutionary history, or by overstating the regenerative, regulatory capacity of earth’s systems. Clearly, deep time does not lack political application. The question is how do we apply it well? For example, can an experience of deep time, as a lesson in humility, reorient us to more sustainable ways of living?

One way to experience deep time is to walk it. The Deep Time Walk is a mobile audio experience with its roots at Schumacher College, developed, among others, by deep ecologist Stephen Harding. Delivered either in person, or through an app, the walk guides you on a 4.6 km trek from the past to the present, at a pace of 1 million years per meter. In the span of about 2,5 hours, prepare to experience the earth take shape underneath your feet; survive the Late Heavy Bombardment to see single-celled organisms emerge, and watch them try, and fail, again and again, to produce oxygen through photosynthesis, until – suddenly – they manage to crack it, causing the Great Oxidation Event which paves the way for multicellular life to develop. Then, in the last 100 meters of the 4.6 km walk, things suddenly move very fast. Vertebrates evolve. Flowering plants burst into being. You are nearing the end of the walk. Stretch out your arm. Point a finger at the future. Recorded history starts barely a couple of knuckles before the finish line, and the industrial revolution is no further than a hair’s breadth away.

The Deep Time Walk gives a rare, concrete sense of the scale of deep time, and of the incredible brevity of our species existence, a period in which we – and the app does tend to speak, problematically, of a universalized we – have nevertheless done incredible damage. If that makes us the antagonists of the story, the cyanobacteria who figured out how to produce oxygen from water are the true protagonists of the narrative. Almost half of the walk leads up to their monumental contribution, and the other half explores the awesome ramifications of the event. By producing oxygen, earth gained an atmosphere that could trap water, which otherwise would have been lost to space. And without water, nothing can live. Life thus begets life, in the story of deep time; and as a species we would do well to honour that tradition.

The Deep Time Walk is interesting for many reasons but certainly for its engagement with time. The steady embodied rhythm of walking forms the temporal backbone of the experience, with other temporalities layered on top of it, or coming into existence around it. The compressed history of the earth is one such a layer, and on top of that is the layer of narrative, a dialogue between a ‘fool’ and a ‘scientist’ with its foreshadowings, recollections, and playful linguistic metaphors. But there is also the temporality of the environment through which you walk. Listeners are encouraged to walk in safe, natural environments, where time is legible in rocks and trees. In urban spaces the deep time walk may yield a very different experience, however, juxtaposing deep time with the mania of rush hour for example. Because of the goal-oriented nature of walking (as opposed to wandering), however, there exists a tension between the teleological structure of the the walk, and the decidedly non-teleological way in which life on earth unfolds. The app frames single-celled organisms as trying and failing to produce oxygen for billions of years, but really what it means is that for a while they failed to produce us - until they did, and the rest is (human) history. 

Journalist Paul Salopek’s deep time walk, the Out of Eden project, strikes me as less teleological. As an exercise in slow journalism, Salopek ducked out of a tent in Ethiopia’s rift valley in 2013 in order to trace our ancestors’ footsteps who left Africa about 60 thousand years ago. Salopek’s journey will take him through the Middle East, down the old Silk Road, across the Bering Strait and into the Americas where he intends to end his walk in Tierra del Fuego at the tip of South America almost a decade later. As Salopek explains, what some may see as a “journey out of time” has been precisely the opposite.

“During the past six years, after planting nearly 16 million footsteps between my starting point at a human fossil site in the wilderness in the Horn of Africa and my current location on the cultivated plains of northern India, my days have been extraordinarily busy: crammed with incident and talkative people, immersed in modern problems and current events. In this way, the Out of Eden Walk has been more like a trek into a common future: After all, we’re walking together into the shared bottlenecks of the 21st century.”

The Out of Eden project is not a linear journey in which Africa stands in for the past. Rather, it is a walk set in a temporalized geography. Salopek walks in the present – and his route is impacted by present-day events, such as when the Syrian war forces him off his chosen route. But the past and future continuously weave and out of the story when comes across archeological sites, or speaks to people who share with him their hopes and fears for the future.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited 

The Deep Time Walk:

The Out of Eden Project:

Saturday, 24 October 2020

Tree Culture

These days my feed is saturated with news about trees. It seems like every week we learn more about their sociality, their longevity, and the vital role they play in upholding biodiversity and regulating global climate through carbon storage. Arguably, all this output suggests a shift in tree culture strongly influenced by ecological science. On the one hand, such a shift speaks more meaningfully to the current (changing) climate in the sense that it acknowledges trees as important actors in global and local ecosystems, whose complex multi-species entanglements demand that we rethink the way we manage our forests. On the other hand, this prevailing (pop)scientific way of looking at trees threatens to drown out their cultural history and the role they play in the formation of individual and collective subjectivities.

As Jared Farmer writes, “one of the innumerable minor privileges of American whiteness is the freedom to appreciate trees as just trees: anodyne features, ahistorical objects” (815). Doing so would be to misremember centuries of “arbonationalism,” during which American settler-colonists used trees as political and historical motifs to indigenize themselves, in order to legitimize their presence in a landscape from which they had displaced its indigenous people. Innumerable treaties with Native Americans were written under ‘treaty trees,’ only to be broken by the settler-colonists, who preferred to remember the ‘massacre trees’ instead, as it meant they could comfortably identify as victims and cast the Native Americans as violent brutes. During the Revolutionary War ‘liberty trees’ became places for patriots to assemble and speak their own law in the face of the English oppressors. Trees continued to function as silent witnesses to vigilante justice when, before and long after the Civil War they bore the weight of countless of Lynched African Americans. In short, “trees associated with the making of freedom referenced the taking of liberties” (816).

We may want to ask ourselves what narratives and identities contemporary trees serve. Apart from the heritage tree, can we speak of an offset tree? These are the trees ‘green’ airlines encourage you to purchase when you book a flight, or the trees corporations and governments pledge to plant, while refraining from scaling back their reliance on fossil fuels. In short, I fear a deracinated view of trees such as the one that threatens to prevail if we do not meet the surge of ecologically-minded arbo-science with an equally powerful, politically and culturally informed perspective, leaves the door open for colonial violence and greenwashing. 

Last year I nominated Barkskins by Annie Proulx, and The Overstory by Richard Powers as two of the best books I read that year. Though topically similar both novels take very different approaches to tree culture in North America. In provocation, I would argue that The Overstory is about trees and the individuals whose lives are tangled up in them, whereas Barkskins manages to see the forest through the trees. Written in a tone of scientific wonder, The Overstory is clearly a celebration of the way trees rally people together under the umbrella of environmental activism. Barkskins, on the other hand is decidedly more acerbic, and follows two families, indigenous and settler-colonial, with less love for the individual, but more rigorous attention to the systemic exploitation, and injustice suffered by the indigenous, and the poor at the hands of the timber barons. Whereas one induces wonder, the other induces outrage. Ask yourself which is the more politically useful emotion. 

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Farmer, Jared. "Taking Liberties with Historic Trees." The Journal of American History. Vol. 105, No. 4, 2019, pp. 815-842.  
Image: detail from " The Sons of Liberty tarring and feathering John Malcolm under the Liberty Tree." Philip Dawe, 1774. 

Friday, 4 September 2020


We’ve all known that feeling of Infowhelm. I first experienced it in my high school geography class watching Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. I’m referring specifically to the scene where Gore unveils the hockey stick graph, for which he has to get on a platform lift to reach its upper right corner. I felt awe and fear, but with an edge of giddiness to it, at the ridiculous theatricality of the performance, and also in response to what felt like the fictionality of the future evoked by the graph. Infowhelm sets out to analyze moments like these, where the confrontation with climate change information arouses complex, contradictory affective responses. In order to do so Houser draws on scholarship of visual culture, literary studies, and science and technology studies – although remarkably, she leaves affect rather undertheorized. This means that even though the book paints a comprehensive picture of the way in which climate change information, and informational practices configure contemporary artistic and cultural expression, its exploration of the feelings and emotions involved in the reception of these narratives and images lacks a certain range.

It all boils down to mastery and humility. Before climate change data migrates to other (media) environments where it serves different purposes and audiences, it is usually conceived in scientific contexts where positivist epistemologies reign supreme. Positivism “holds that legitimate knowledge of real-world phenomena is based in logic, observability, objectivity, and universality and is verifiable, preferably through quantitative measures” (5). Positivism thus engenders a sense of informational mastery that says we are able to understand, map, and predict the course of events in a satisfactory manner. But “Data never stands alone” (32), and especially in its appropriation in art and culture, positivism is made to vie with other knowledge systems, be they speculative, affective, or anecdotal. The resulting entangled epistemologies, though not entirely dismissive of positivism and its methods, contribute a more situated perspective that emphasizes the biases of information technologies, its limitations, as well as its dangers.

That said, Infowhelm’s first chapter, which looks at carbon footprint calculators, climate change visualizations, and other means of concretizing data, or “making data experiential,” is a terrific read for those interested in a more generous take on the kind of media objects so quickly dismissed in the humanities for being questionably commercial and corporate. This is the chapter where Houser gets closest to explaining what data feels like in the day to day – which means engaging, albeit briefly, with other affects besides mastery and humility, for example boredom. The book’s other chapters are equally well-written and rigorously argued, but the range of affects discussed narrows down considerably after chapter one, most likely to ensure thematic cohesiveness across a diverse corpus – which includes novels, poems, films, satellite images, as well as works of visual art.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Houser, Heather. Infowhelm Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data. Columbia University Press 2020.

Image by Carbon Visuals. "New York City's daily carbon dioxide emissions as one-tonne spheres"

Friday, 26 June 2020


In order for William Weston, the protagonist of Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia, to fall in love with the place he needs to fall in love with a woman. It is all well and good for the Ecotopian principles of community, modularity, and frugality to make sense from social, economic and ecological perspective, but if they don’t enamour him, by speaking to his sense of aesthetics, the cause is lost. This seems to be the implication of Ecotopia’s romantic subplot. The book is set in 1999; 25 years after California, Oregon and Washington secede from the Union to form the state of Ecotopia. It is made up of Weston’s notebooks and reports, where the former are in cursive, and represent his private thoughts and experiences, while the latter are in regular font, meant for broader dissemination in the United States, on whose behalf Weston is reporting.

The reports are in a somewhat neutral register, although occasionally Weston’s condescending surprise at the ingenuity and agreeableness of the Ecotopian lifestyle shines through. In fact, these sections of the book read very much like the diary of an American in Europe: ‘pedestrian streets, public transport … How exotic!’ Perhaps because they are inspired by a kind of rose-tinted image of Europe, many of Ecotopia’s quirks are not implausible, and have even become commonplace in parts of the world. However, other elements seem to me much more radical. For example, when Weston takes the interurban train he gets off not at city hall or a courthouse, but at a factory. Whereas in Europe railway stations are essentially colonial infrastructures, shrines to capital and to empire, in Ecotopia they are built in service, and in reverence to the workers on whose labour Ecotopia is fully dependent, cut off as it is from the rest of the world.

Despite its evocations of Europe, Ecotopia is decidedly lacking in internationalism. Most surprisingly, there is no mention of the Soviet Union despite the book’s socialist politics. This may be a flaw of the genre. Utopias tend to be islands. But Ecotopia’s nationalism is also exclusionary of people of colour. Weston remarks that there are very few non-white people in San Francisco because they have all established their own smaller city-states within the territory, like Chinatown and Soul City. He describes Soul City as “having more hold-overs from pre-Independence days than Ecotopia as a whole,” still importing luxury items and cars. Whether it is true that they are “making up for lost time” or not, the description of Soul City perpetuates stereotypes of black people as materialistic and less concerned with the environment than white people are. This is the kind bias that the black birder Christian Cooper experienced in Central Park when a white woman called the cops on him because he looked out of place.

Unlike the reports, Weston’s notebooks offer a more psychologically nuanced image of his experience. They depict him increasingly questioning his individualistic lifestyle in the U.S., with an ex-wife he no longer speaks to, his kids he never sees, and his girlfriend to whom he cannot emotionally commit, and who serves more as a socialite ambassador to him than a lover. Enter Marissa ‘Brightcloud,’ a white woman who, like many Ecotopians, is problematically indigenized in an effort to emphasize her closeness to nature. Only through his relationship with Marissa, does Weston come to prefer Ecotopia. This illustrates that we do not relate to cultures and societies, and even technologies on purely rational grounds. Case in point, the way Weston talks about driving in the U.S. as opposed to using the much slower, non-privately owned, electric vehicles used in Ecotopia. “No one can be utterly insensitive to the pleasures of the open road, I told them, and I related how it feels to roll along in one of our powerful, comfortable cars, a girl’s hair blowing in the wind…” Weston’s allegiance to American car culture (and theU.S. more generally) here is both a matter affect, and desire. It is Ecotopia's task to envision an alternative aesthetics that is just as persuasive. Given the book's cult status and rave reception in the seventies, one could argue it was to some extent successful. 

Laura op de Beke

Thursday, 28 May 2020

Being Salmon Being Human

In chapter 12 of Martin Lee Mueller’s book Being Salmon Being Human, Mueller juxtaposes two different stories; one he finds lacking in imagination and in its ethical orientation to the world, while the other, he argues, points the way to a more sustainable, more ecologically justified and spiritually fulfilling existence. The first story is a fairytale, and like many fairytales, the story is supported by a kind of magical thinking that dismisses ecological limitations, as well as cross-species kinship. This Norwegian Salmon fairytale frames salmon farming as a question of national identity and technological sophistication. However, just like most fairytales the story hides a darker, more violent version of itself, one that revolves around the suffering of the salmon in captivity, the industry’s degradation of ecosystems, and the impoverishment of our imagination as a consequence of the commodification of the salmon.

The other story called Salmon Boy is indigenous to the Pacific Northwest and although it too is magical in its enchantment of the world, it inspires a vastly more grounded, indeed more rational, relationship to the salmon. The story tells of a boy who learns the importance of reciprocity – of giving the annual, nutrient-dense gift of the salmon back to river, where it can continue to give itself to others. Taken up in practice, the story of Salmon Boy moves us closer to a circular, gift-giving economy, in which periods of privation necessarily precede moments of plenty. Its power can also be felt in indigenous social practices governing the use of technologies, such as the fishing weir, which although it could fish the river dry, is designed not to, and which by the end of the season, is given back to the river (i.e. destroyed). Mueller calls these technologies participatory tools because they “facilitate a circle of participation, in full membership with both the human community and the more-than-human world” (238).

Being Salmon Being Human can be read as a work of material ecocriticism. This approach posits that “every material formation, from bodies to their contexts of living, is ‘telling,’ and therefore can be the object of a critical investigation aimed at discovering its stories, its material and discursive interplays, its place in a world filled with expressive – or narrative – forces” (Iovino 70). However, as Serenella Iovino is careful to point out, “the narrative agency of matter acquires its meaning and definition not merely per se, but chiefly if referred to a reader” (77). This is where Mueller’s book is a little incomplete – perhaps due to the work’s disciplinary influences which are mainly drawn from philosophy, as opposed to, say, anthropology. The book suffers from an absence of any explicit reflection on the situatedness of the author’s perspective (Mueller cites Latour at length, but perhaps he needs more Haraway?). And yet the work is infused with a conspicuous kind of sincere, middle class sentimentalism that shows itself in the work’s emphasis on the harmony of ecological processes and of the societies of those people attuned to them, and its corresponding silence on matters of entropy which becomes especially noticeable when the work scales out in (deep) time and space.

In conclusion, the work demonstrates a desire to move between narratives, but it does not examine closely the way in which these narratives are essentially overlapping, or the way in which people can live with and in multiple stories at the same time. Finally, its understanding of the origins of these narratives, ecological determinism on the one hand (Salmon Boy) and Cartesian dualism on the other (Salmon Fairytale), could have been supplemented with a more thorough Marxist understanding of the economic and political circumstances of their creation.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited
Iovino, Serenella. “The Living Diffractions of Matter and text: Narrative Agency, Strategic Anthropomorphism, and How Interpretation Works” Anglia,  Anglia, 2015, vol. 133, no. 1, pp. 69-86.
Mueller, Martin L. Being Salmon Being Human. Chelsea Green Publishing, 2017.

Saturday, 25 April 2020

Studying Burgerland

Kathryn Gillespie’s book The Cow With Ear Tag #1389 is an ethnography of American dairy production replete with poignant reflections on the ethical complexity of this kind of animal studies scholarship. Nowhere is this complexity more obvious than in chapter five, in which Gillespie attends a cull auction, where ‘spent’ dairy cows are sold to slaughter at roughly 5-6 years of age, destined for ‘Burgerland.’ The natural life span of a cow is about 25 years, but as Gillespie writes, the cows sold at the auction looked “ancient,” “their bodies visibly destroyed by years of dairy production” (96). Then the cow tagged with ear tag #1289 enters the ring, emaciated, limping and clearly suffering from mastitis (udder infection, #1 cause of death in dairy cows, bar slaughter). Small as she is, no one bids on her, not even at 35 USD. But rather than be ushered out, out of sight, the cow succumbs to her injuries and sinks to the floor, where she is left to rest, close to death, while the auction proceeds.

Shocked with what they’re seeing, Gillespie and her research buddy (more on buddy system research here) share a look that communicates the kind of bind they find themselves in, which is one that is extremely delimiting in a number of ways. Firstly, they are keenly aware of the fact that they do not belong at the cull auction, which is an extremely masculine space that is not normally accessed by researchers, let alone female ones. Any display of grief or rage would single them out as outsiders, and potentially reinforce the barriers that make it so difficult for scholars to gain access to spaces of dairy production in the first place (more about this in chapter two of the book). Secondly, as an academic, Gillespie acknowledges how unprepared she is to make impulsive decisions – like purchasing a cow for 35 USD – when she almost naturally, and by training, complicates situations by throwing up questions, for example concerning logistics (does the cow fit in her station wagon) and ethics (why this cow, and not the others?). Her task seems to be much more narrowly delineated; “we just needed to focus on the animals in front of us, not thinking, not reacting, just watching” (96).

Yet, for all the ‘passiveness’ involved in her research, Gillespie’s book is a work of activism, in the sense that is an expertly crafted message with clear intent to move – emotionally, as well as politically. Her prose is deliberately unacademic, personal, and visual, thus mobilizing the politics of sight (cf. Pachirat), which seeks to expose the way both physical and media infrastructures conceal and normalize social and animal injustices. Equally savvy, perhaps, is Gillespie’s silence on vegetarianism and veganism, which she only mentions in passing. In a book as personal as hers, I find Gillespie’s silence remarkable, and for me it raises a lot of questions. Should scholars come out as vegetarians or vegans in academic work? What about in more activist writing? What happens, rhetorically, in such a coming out moment? What is at stake, for example in terms of scientific credibility, or moral persuasiveness? It seems to me, ironically, that many vegetarians and vegans share the burden of ‘consumer fragility’ with the proponents of meat and dairy production. Consumer fragility (a term suggested by one of the session's participants, modeled after the notion of white fragility), describes people’s extreme defensiveness when they are exposed to even minor stressors regarding their consumption of meat and dairy. Often, for the sake of diplomacy, or even advocacy, vegans and vegetarians attend to this fragility by mincing their words or by keeping quiet, knowing that their presence alone - especially at the dinner table - can easily be taken as an affront. Such a silence, however, perpetuates the illusion of capitalist realist animal agriculture, the illusion that there is no other way to eat and live, than to eat and live in Burgerland. 

Laura op de Beke (a vegan)

Works Cited
Gillespie, Kathryn. The Cow With Ear Tag #1389. University of Chicago Press, 2018. 

Sunday, 5 April 2020


“Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?” Starting with this provocative bumper sticker quote, historian Richard White reveals the extent to which work, especially outdoor physical labour and environmentalism have become opposed in the American imagination, giving rise to various unkind stereotypes. Environmentalists are privileged urbanites who preach sustainability from the comfort of their armchairs, failing to link their habits of travel and consumption to the extractive industries laying waste to the environment, while blue-collar, productive work in the woods, on the farm, or at sea is associated with wilful ignorance, greed, and destructive glee. In order to overcome such dualisms, White argues we need to rethink the notion of labour – even beyond the reconsiderations offered by New Agrarian writers (see previous post), who value only certain types of premodern, low-tech physical labour as ways of knowing, and living ethically with the land. Instead, White claims, “The choice between condemning all work in nature and sentimentalizing vanishing forms of work is simply not an adequate choice. I am not interested in replacing a romanticism of inviolate nature with a romanticism of local work. Nor am I interested in demonizing machines. Environmentalists need to come to terms with modern work.” What this means is that we need to realize that “all work … intersects with nature,” whether performed on an oilrig, or university campus. Indeed all life is embedded in nature and dichotomies between culture (leisure) and nature (labour) only work to obscure this fact.

Insightful though it is, White’s text is plagued by a conspicuous absence: consideration of the most important 20th century theorist of labour, Karl Marx. Bringing Marx into the picture allows us to comment more critically on White’s understanding of labour and his trivialization of play. White argues that through work we extend ourselves into the world, which allows us to acquire knowledge. “Work entails an embodiment, an interaction with the world, that is far more intense than play. We work to live. We cannot stop. But play, which can be as sensuous as work, does not so fully submerge us in the world.” This is up for debate of course, but the point I want to emphasize that the world to which work connects us, is a world dominated by capitalism. Modern-day waged labour is geared to produce not use-value, which is indeed something we rely on to survive, but exchange value which only keeps the cogs of capitalism turning. This focus on exchange value corrupts the knowledge that labour imbedded in capitalism allows us to acquire. To use White’s own examples, we have come to know animals from working with and alongside them for thousands of years, but in a capitalist system this relationship, this knowledge, whether gained on the farm or at the circus shifts in favour of a different, more alienated and alienating understanding. Capitalism makes us know animals primarily as commodities, as suppliers of milk, meat, eggs or fiber. On the contrary, when we get to know animals in play, as peers, we get to know them very differently because play, precisely because it is unproductive, operates outside of capitalism (unless co-opted by it cf. “playbor” in Games of Empire). The knowledge gleaned from play is more forgiving than lessons of life generally are. Play leaves room for failure, thus allowing more creative experimentation, and this is exactly what enables us to see beyond hegemonic ideology, Play should therefore not be dismissed so easily. 

White’s neglect of Marx’ was, until recently, representative of a more general reluctance among environmentalist to engage with Marxism. Eco-Marxists like John Bellamy Foster, however, have started  redeeming Marx’s Ecology. Foster argues that “what is being questioned in most of these criticisms is Marx's materialism” which from a value ethics perspective can seem utilitarian, anthropocentric, and even Baconian in comparison (cf. Francis Bacon who argued nature ought to be subjugated for the good of mankind). But as Marx would argue, values are derived from material circumstances, which means that in order to understand (and change) the way we relate to the world, we need to understand how our material circumstance came about  – and is where Foster’s notion of “metabolic rift” comes in. He argues that for Marx the process of primitive accumulation which gave birth to capitalism did not only alienate workers from the products of their labour, but also from the land itself, which they no longer owned, or worked for their own benefit. The appropriation of poor people’s land and the enclosure of public property caused a rift between the country and the city, between the few who stayed to work for wealthy landowners, and the many who were forced to relocate to the city to become capitalism’s cheap, precarious labour force. Crucially, this sociological rift had destructive, environmental consequences as it meant that human waste, previously used as fertilizer, no longer found its way back to the field. This, according to Foster, is at the heart of Marx’s ecology – the fact that human history coevolves with environmental history, a metabolic process that describes both the limitations and possibilities of change.

Laura op de Beke 

Works Cited
Dyer-Witheford, Nick and Greg de Peuter. Games of Empire: Gloal Capitalism and Video Games. Minnesota UP, 2009. 
 Foster, John Bellamy. Marx's Ecology: Materialism and Nature. New York, Monthly Review Press, 2000. 
White, Richard. "'Are you an environmentalist or do you work for a living?' Work and Nature." Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature ed. William Cronon. Norton, 1996. 

Saturday, 22 February 2020

The Blue Humanities

One could almost be forgiven for thinking of the ocean as timeless, or empty – aqua nullius. National borders often stop at the shoreline, which means that national histories rarely engage ocean spaces. Even in the case of countries with long-established stakes in transoceanic trade or fishing, the ocean is too often understood as a mere trade route, or resource, rather than a space whose materiality and history is worthy of scholarship in and of itself. All this is on the verge of changing. As Elizabeth Deloughrey writes, “we are witnessing an interdisciplinary transition to what might be called ‘critical ocean studies’  that reflects an important shift from a long-term concern with mobility across transoceanic surfaces into theorizing oceanic submersion” (32). Before going deeper, however, it is important to acknowledge two traditions that laid the groundwork for much blue, or oceanic, scholarship: geopolitics, and globalization and diaspora studies.

Politics cannot be divorced from geography, that much is obvious from Philip Steinberg and Berit Kristoffersen’s discussion of two recent maps, one Canadian and one Norwegian, in which the artic ice edge has been moved 200km southwards, and 70km northwards respectively. Whereas the Norwegian map conveniently clears up the Southeast Barents Sea for oil development, Canada benefits from presenting their northern waters as ice-covered, and dangerous to traverse, because otherwise they would have to open up the Northwest Passage to international shipping according to UN legislation. However, Steinberg and Kristoffersen point out that in order for the ice edge to become a discernable line which can moved to suit national interest, it has to be constructed as such. Generally, this process of abstraction goes against the more informed understanding of environmental scientists, who argue that the ice edge “is mapped … only because it serves as an indicator of the approximate location of water temperatures associated with the polar front, which is in turn associated with higher biological productivity” (i.e. it is where algae and plankton grow and where marine life flourishes), and that it really ought to be understood as an amorphous zone (632). The abstraction of the ice edge as a line also flies in the face of indigenous people for whom the sea ice is an environment crucial to their way of life and not a mere demarcation on a map.

As much as the ocean is a wellspring of life – the original one – it can also be understood as an archive of the dead, subject to its own strange submarine temporalities. The ocean compresses time and defies linear thinking. It is home to countless of species that don’t seem to have evolved much beyond their primitive ancestors, which means they can be perceived as living fossils. Death goes hand in hand with life. This is at the heart of ecology, and I can think of no better demonstration than a particular deep-sea event scientists know very little about: so-called ‘whale falls.’ When a whale carcass sinks to the deep ocean floor, it decomposes much more slowly then it would in the shallows, forming an extremely localized, biologically diverse feeding site for a host of rarely sighted species. Sleeper sharks for example, which are some of the oldest known living vertebrates (the Greenland shark’s slow metabolism grants it a lifespan of up to 500 years). 

Moreover, the ocean floor is littered with shipwrecks, and the bodies of the drowned, like the corpses of enslaved people who jumped, or were thrown overboard during the Middle Passage. “[I]n the Caribbean the enormity of the transoceanic history of slavery and indenture has created an aesthetics that imaginatively populates the sea in an act of regional historiography and ancestral memory” (Deloughrey 35). Jason deCaires Taylor’s underwater sculptures (see photo) can very much be read in this tradition. He sinks textured, PH-neutral concrete casts of real people to the bottom of the ocean floor, where in time, they will be colonized by marine life to become artificial reefs. Once these complex ecological assemblages have settled in, the cast’s gender and ethnicity becomes unrecognizable. These sculptures can thus also be read along afrofuturist lines, memorializing historical events, while at the same time gesturing at strange, multispecies futures. Thereby adding to the past what the future might hold. 

Inspired by the ocean's narrative-defying powers of connection and assemblage, we spent the final minutes of the session practicing some "Blackout Poetry" using (recycling) Mandy Bloomfield's "a Poetics of Ocean Plastics" as raw material. Here is some of the poetry we found:

From p. 517

words and phrases
final found through polluted present.
image of waste, continues
the invisible future, his fear performs
new kinds of now above the voids,
plastic reminder of industrial cruelty.
However, her poem, works. In contexts.

From p. 502-503

Images transform into objects
Throw away the figures
Forms will be our lasting legacy
To memorialize the history of the world
Demand that this process be understood

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited
Bloomfield, Mandy. "Widening Gyre: A Poetics of Ocean Plastics." Configurations, vol. 27, no. 4, 2019, pp. 501-523. 
Deloughrey, Elizabeth. "Submarine Futures of the Anthropocene" Comparative Literature, vol. 69, no. 1, 2017, pp. 32-44.
Steinberg, Philip, and Berit Kristoffersen. "'The Ice Edge is Lost ... Nature Moved it': Mapping Ice as State Practice in the Canadian and Norwegian North." Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, vol. 42, no. 4, 2017, pp. 625-641.  
Photo: Jason deCaires Tayler:

Friday, 17 January 2020

New Agrarianism and Permaculture

In his introduction to The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture and the Community of Life, Eric Freyfogle summarizes what he considers the ethos of the New Agrarian movement, which, although many don’t call it that, is gaining popularity inside and outside of the U.S., as droves of people are moving back to the land, choosing agricultural subsistence farming, over a life lived as an office drone. In his effort to find a common narrative however, Freyfogle’s text, which is far more normative than it is descriptive, glosses over difference in favour of a more undividuated philosophy that values traditional knowledge, family, community, (ecosystem) health, and independence from market forces. Essentially, Freyfogle conceives of New Agrarianism as a reactionary movement, one that turns away from the profit-hungry, short-term thinking of industrial capitalism, in favour of a more sustainable, albeit more austere existence. Although New Agrarianists argue for more interdependence on a community level, what they seem to cherish much more is independence from government and legal bodies – in whom they have lost all trust. New Agrarianism’s concept of community is thus framed in opposition to an ‘outside’ that is corrupt, immoral, or just beyond redemption. The movement, as described by Freyfogle, can therefore be argued to lack a global, intersectional perspective. 

New Agrarians are luddites, and their lifestyle can be perceived of as backwards. Ecofeminist criticism has called out New Agrarianism’s sexist historical roots, its heteronormativity, and its lack of sensitivity with regard to race and class issues. One brave attempt to dispel ecofeminists’ concerns  comes from William Major. In his call for reconciliation between the two philosophies, he focuses especially on the cult of domesticity that New Agrarianism is presumed to cultivate, arguing that “A novel understanding of home and domesticity is necessary if we are to bring these two worldviews together” (150).  Major  points to a common project between feminism and New Agrarianism, namely breaking down the walls between the private and the public spheres, both of which are political spaces, and, crucially, economic spaces.  For New Agrarianism the home is understood not just to be a centre of consumption, but a centre of production as well, which makes man and wife (here’s the heteronormativity) business partners as well as spouses. Major writes that

“[this] different kind of domesticity deserves a second look if only for the fact that its alternative, global industrial market economics and a widely accepted abuse of the land—which in the short run has provided so much to liberate women from the fetters of a repressive domestic division of labor—has done exceedingly little to foster a more moral, ‘kindly’ world where cooperation between the sexes and with the earth’s limitations is the governing principle.”

Perhaps the most interesting juxtaposition, however, exist between Freyfogle’s ‘manifesto’ and an autoethnography about the permaculturist network in Edmonton (EPN), Alberta, written by Randolph Haluza-DeLay and Ron Berezen. In this article permaculture is perceived first and foremost as a practice, not a philosophy. As such, it may prove far more helpful in the face of clime change, than a philosophy like New Agrarianism (which is eerily quiet on the topic). Time and labour intensive as it is, permaculture might not scale up to where it can provide for a growing global population, but it certainly scales down well enough to speak to individuals whose lives are still very much implicated in the capitalist market economy (and thus considered forfeit by by New Agrarianism).

The value of the EPN is not in its concentration, but its distribution. Unlike a “geographically concentrated lifeworld,” like a New Agrarian homestead or an ecovillage, practitioners of permaculture, from novices to experts, don’t tend to “lose their bridges to nonmembers” (139). Practices which haven’t solidified into full-flown philosophies remain much more flexible and approachable, and in a climate-changed world, this flexibility is precisely what we need because transition demands compromise. Moreover, New Agrarian’s emphasis on ‘appropriate’ land-use often involves a return to native flora, or heritage breeds, but such a holding on to the past neglects to face the irrevocable change wrought in this world by climate-change. Some ecosystems are dying, and the only way to save them is to resort to innovative but arguably alien (as in foreign, or non-native) new practices – such as the ones developed by syntropic farmers. Permaculture, as a practice, embraces such experimentation, because it isn’t bogged down with ideology. It asks what we can do here, and now, never mind how humble, to better the world.

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited
Freyfogle, Eric. “A Durable Scale” in The New Agrarianism: Land, Culture and the Community of Life. Island Press, 2012 (ebook).
Haluza-DeLay, Randolph, and Ron Berezan. “Permaculture in the City: Ecological Habitus and the Distributed Ecovillage” in Environmental Anthropology: Engaging Ecotopia: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillages. Eds. Joshua Lockyer and James R. Veteto. Berghahn, 2013.
Major, William H. “Reconciliation: New Agrarianism and Ecofeminism” in Grounded vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy. University Alabama Press 2011.
More about syntropic farming:

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Octopus Imaginaries

“What a world is this we have stumbled across,” thinks the microscopic hive-mind from Andrew Tchaikovsky’s novel Children of Ruin, as it is making itself comfortable in the brain of its hapless human vessel. Bodies are entire worlds to this organism, worlds to be explored, and conquered from the inside. But there are other, more benign ways to explore such 'body-worlds' – for example through fiction, play, and scientific research. Perhaps the strangest and most alien of all worlds is that of the octopus. Cephalopods “are much more familiar as metaphors and in representation than as living animals” writes Helen Tiffin in an article that lists the many cultural representations of the octopus: from sea monster to sex object. Our closest common ancestor was a worm that lived some 600 million years ago. Since we parted evolutionary ways both of our species have managed to develop eyes, nervous systems, and surprisingly big brains. With some effort, we can use those big brains of ours to imagine what it is like to be an octopus: to have eight tentacles that can do much of their own thinking and decision-making, to have a skin like a canvas that emotes the  slightest nuance of our subconscious thought, and to live in a watery world full of hidey holes, snacks, and predators.

Melissa Bianchi argues that videogames can aid us in rediscovering our kinship with cephalopods. Octodad: Dadliest Catch, for example, “trouble[s] the conventions of anthroponormative play” by simulating the ungainliness of octopus physiology on land, making challenges of dexterity out of normal human acts like walking, dressing, and interacting with items. Moreover, Bianchi argues that videogames foster a kind of tentacularity (a term she borrows from Donna Haraway), by asking the player to distribute their subjectivity across a number of different digital platforms and avatars, thereby calling attention to the nature of videogames as player-machine assemblages (147). “Playing as Octodad offers a sort of speculative experience,” facilitating a becoming-animal that decentres anthropocentrism (138).  

Such speculative experiences can also be gleaned from science fiction novels. Children of Ruin, the sequel to Children of Time, adds a sentient octopus civilization to a multispecies intergalactic partnership that already includes spiders, humans, ants, and AI. Extrapolating from their unique biology, Tchaikovsky constructs an octopus society that is both like, and unlike our own. Because of their decentralized nervous system, there exists a massive chasm between the seat of their conscious mind, “the Crown,” and the “sub-minds” of the tentacles, which form a “black market of calculating power” called “the reach.”  The Crown demands and the Reach delivers. This is one way in which octopus society echoes our own, if we take the Reach to stand in for the power of personal computing – after all, most people do not understand how their smartphones work, they just expect them to obey.

Other aspects of octopus society are decidedly more alien. The octopuses are natural terraformers, and they take to virtual environments with the same ease with which they slip into, and form themselves after, physical environments (by the grace of what Bianchi would call their tentacularity). Their malleableness also informs their politics.

“This, then, is octopus governance: an assembly of whoever feels inclined to turn up, organized into dozens of factions whose boundaries are infinitely permeable – literal floating voters moving from one allegiance to another constantly without their disloyalty being seen as anything exceptional or worthy of shame”

As a result of their unstable social and political networks, the octopuses soon run into environmental trouble. Their cities become overpopulated and they lack the political infrastructure to tackle problems of this scale. Instead they encroach on the forbidden zone, where a disease carrying space ship once crash-landed, and was quarantined. Living as they do with not much thought about either the past, or the future, they disturb the site and unleash the virus: the microscopic hive-mind I mentioned earlier. The entire planet becomes infected, but because the decentralized subjectivity of the octopuses resists the singularity of the virus, instead of becoming puppets, the octopuses tear themselves apart and dissolve into formlessness, and neither species is left in charge.

Looking down on the watery planet from up in space, Helena, a human character, tries to grasp the scale of the catastrophe – a global environmental crisis caused by the myopia of an imperious species. Sounds familiar does it not? Throughout the series questions of scale are essential. How do individual traits and decisions scale up – from biological instinct, to social policy? How do species become geological, even cosmological forces? Helena can hardly comprehend it - which gets at the heart of the challenge posed by the Anthropocene. She sees "things, vast, unformed, like the decaying carcases of leviathans," and ultimately she can make out "something of a face [...] trying to vomit forth meaning before collapsing back into formless nothing." Putting a face on the Anthropocene, on the actions of a single species, creates an image that dissolves almost as soon as it takes shape - back into the more appropriate writhing mess of tentacles and slime. 

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited
Bianchi, Melissa. "Inklings and Tentacled Things: Grasping at Kinship through Video Games." Ecozon@ vol. 8, no. 2, 2017, pp. 136-150.
Tchaikovsky, Adrian. Children of Ruin. Pan Macmillan, 2019. (Ebook, hence no page numbers).
Tiffin, Helen. "What Lies Below: Cephalopods and Humans." In Captured: The Animal Within Culture ed. Melissa Boyde. Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.

The Belly's Ocean by Matt Rota (

Sunday, 24 November 2019


The world is a “macrocosmic musical composition” to which we are becoming increasingly less attuned, writes Raymond Murray Shafer in his book The Soundscape (1977).  Our environments have become so loud we are constantly tuning out the noise pollution we don’t want to hear, through practice, desensitization, or technology (e.g. noise cancelling headphones). Instead of filtering out noise, however, Shafer calls for a positive acoustics that asks “which sounds do we want to preserve, encourage, [or] multiply?” (4). His understanding of acoustic design takes after the industrial design of the early twentieth century, which brought aesthetic considerations to bear on an industry primarily concerned with mass production. In order to empower listeners to become composers of soundscapes, not just consumers, Shafer offers a basic vocabulary to help analyze and describe them.

Soundscapes are characterized by a “keynote,” or the tone that forms the backbone of every soundscape, for example the oceanic sound of the freeway, which, if you were to remove it, would render that soundscape unrecognizable. Then there are “signals,” which are sounds that calls attention to themselves, like alarms, sirens, or melodies. Finally, he introduces the term “soundmark” (cf. landmark), which is a sound that is significant historically or culturally, like the call of the common loon in the Northern U.S. and Canada, or perhaps a advertising jingle that evokes a highly specific time and place. Good acoustic design, Shafer argues, seeks to preserve soundmarks because they “make the acoustic life of the community unique” (10). 

In the natural sciences, recording and preserving soundscapes is a task taken up in the field of soundscape ecology. What Shafer would call soundmarks are often indicators of ecosystem health, and they are easier and cheaper to monitor than many visual indicators. Moreover, studies in bioacoustics have exposed the extent to which humans may be considered acoustically disabled in comparison to some nonhuman animals, for whom acoustic design may not be merely a matter of beauty or aesthetics, but of survival. Think of marine mammals whose sensitivity to sound makes it possible for them to endure actual trauma from extreme sonic disturbances, endangering populations in the long term.

Ecomusicology, which is a relatively recent field that emerged in the 2000s, incorporates insights like these to include the nonhuman in the study of music, whether this means designing soundscapes with multispecies communities in mind, thinking through the material implications of music production, or studying the use of environmental aesthetics and rhetoric in music. We must, however, be reminded that auditory experiences usually occur in multisensory contexts. But sound or music may lead us to explore these other senses more closely: in the (rare) case of synesthesia; or at lower frequencies, when it becomes obvious that “hearing is a way of touching at a distance” (Shafer 11).

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited
Shafer, Raymond Murray. The Soundscape. Rochester: Vt. Destiny Books, 1977. 
Two podcasts about bioacoustics and soundscape ecology here and here
For a local UiO researcher who studies environmental aesthetics in contemporary music see Tore Størvold's homepage.

Thursday, 24 October 2019

Eco-Horror: "The Willows" and "Vaster than Empires and More Slow"

Although they were written decades apart, Ursula Le Guin’s short story “Vaster Than Empires and More Slow” (1971) and Algernon Blackwood’s horror classic “The Willows” (1907) seem to be in dialogue with each other, especially in their reflections on fear: where it stems from, and how it might be overcome. Both stories involve an alien encounter in which the alien is somehow ecosystemic. In Blackwood’s story the willows that line the shores of the Danube river come alive at night, channeling a kind of supernatural power that demands from two hapless travelers a sacrifice. In Le Guin’s story, the trespassers are a group of misfit scientists, exploring a planet-size organism that does not respond well to this disturbance. Fear, the stories suggest, is always a response to otherness.

Although few people alive today would bat an eye at the notion of willow trees being alive (a biological fact), their ‘aliveness’ is a source of horror for the narrator of “The Willows,” and his companion. What makes this vegetable agency horrifying is its perceived difference from a more familiar animal vitality. In fact, the entire wetland ecosystem seems alien to the narrator: “a separate little kingdom” (1), “an alien world” (4), a different planet (16, 17). Consequently, he struggles to place himself in the landscape except as trespasser, and the only way he seems to be able to conceptualize the landscape is through aggressive anthropomorphism and the idealization of nature. But the habit of projecting personified, idealized, or even rationalistic conceptions of nature onto the environment, which is derived from the narrator’s self-professed gift of “imagination,” becomes problematic when it starts obfuscating things as they really are, for example when the narrator mistakes the body of a drowned man for an otter. Fortunately, the narrator’s companion, a stoic Swede whom he considers “devoid of imagination” realizes the mistake (4). When they are stuck on an island with a leaky canoe, the willows encroaching on them with malicious intent, the Swede warns him: “we must keep our minds quiet,” (18), “our insignificance perhaps may save us” (18), and “above all, don’t think, for what you think happens” (19). The Swede understands that they have to become one with the landscape if they are to escape from the horror that they seem to have themselves spoken into existence, for “to name is to reveal […] especially in thought” (19). Blending in with the landscape entails a kind of ‘becoming vegetable’ – it forces them to acknowledge an aliveness, and a presence that is also mindless. It means adopting a radically nonhuman way of being.

Le Guin’s story “Vaster than Empires but More Slow” demonstrates what such an existence might look like, but instead of imagination the operative theme in the story is empathy. Among the group of scientist-explorers is Osden. He's an empath, a sensor whose particular form of autism cannot help but make us think of Greta Thunberg, another eco-martyr whose autistic superpowers enable her to do what others cannot, but which also make her an unpalatable figure to some. Similarly, Osden’s cruel honesty does not win him any friends, but it does allow him to connect with the planet’s super-organism. Left bleeding to death in the forest after being attacked by a fellow explorer, their blood and soil mingle, and the planet finally takes notice of the virus that the humans essentially are to it. Like Osden himself, for whom interaction is traumatizing, the planet’s acknowledgement of an Other, something rootless and alien, is equally terrifying, and that fear only breeds more fear. Soon the explorers are caught in a vicious feedback loop, infected by the planet’s paranoia and sending it back in double force. In order to heal the wound, and overcome the fear, Osden suggests a kind of Kierkegaardian leap of faith, presented as a literal leap out of a helijet into the heart of the forest where he intends to give in to the fear, absorb it, and thus transcend it: “an unreserved surrender, that left no place for evil” (132). The story admits that there is no rational way of understanding this sacrifice but it seems to suggest that by acknowledging, and accepting fear, we can overcome it. Denying it, denying that encounters with otherness breed anything but compassion and harmony, is presented as naïve and potentially fatal.  

Laura op de Beke

Works Cited

Blackwood, Algernon. "The Willows." 1907. Find it here.
Le Guin, Ursula K. "Vaster than Empires and More Slow." 1971. Find it here

Friday, 28 June 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:

Monday, 6 May 2019

Time and Memory in Alice Oswald’s Dart

Buy Dart by Alice Oswald With Free Delivery |

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. 

Tuesday, 12 March 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.

Friday, 8 February 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.