Volume 1


Deborah Rose, Thom van Dooren, Matthew Chrulew, Stuart Cooke, Matthew Kearnes and Emily O’Gorman (Editorial Team):
Thinking Through the Environment, Unsettling the Humanities


Timothy Morton: The Oedipal Logic of Ecological Awareness

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The Anthropocene is the radical intersection of human history and geological time. Humans have belatedly realised that they have become a geophysical force on a planetary scale. This creeping realisation has an Oedipal logic, that is to say, it is a strange loop in which one level of activity—industrial agriculture and the swiftly ensuing industrial revolution—crosses into an entirely new level of planetary force and, following from that, an uncanny recognition of this force. This essay argues that the Oedipal logic is embedded in the technical, logistical and philosophical framework of agriculture as such. Indeed, the Theban plays (of which Oedipus Tyrannus is one) dwell on the fact of agricultural society as a form of uncanny existence. This essay argues that the principal reason for the uncanniness is the reduction of being to non-contradiction. Exit strategies from this logic (and its concomitant logistics) cannot cleave to a view of beings that is reductionist in any sense. Thus the potential for using Deleuze and Guattari to exit modernity is limited. What is required is a deconstruction of existing (agri)cultures and logics, rather than an attempt to push past them or avoid them, since as in the story of Oedipus, the attempt to push past and avoid is precisely what brings about the cataclysm.

Eben Kirksey: Living With Parasites in Palo Verde National Park

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Bruno Latour has tried to bring a parliamentary democracy to the domain of nature. Wading through the swamps of Palo Verde, a national park in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica, and wandering onto neighbouring agricultural lands, I failed to find a central place where people were speaking for nature. Departing from a failed attempt to speak for another species (the fringe-toed foam frog), this paper considers how diverging values and obligations shape relationships in multi-species worlds. As spokespersons articulated competing visions of nature on the borderlands of Palo Verde, multiple social and ecological worlds went to war. The haunting specter of capital joined the fray—animating the movements of cattle, grasses with animal rhizomes, rice seeds, and flighty ducks across national borders and through fragmented landscapes. Amidst this warfare, the fringe-toed foam frog was just one tenacious parasite, a noisy agent eating at the table of another, which began to flourish in worlds designed with the well-being of others in mind. Cattails, charismatic birds, and a multitude of insects began interrupting human dreams and schemes. Final solutions to the problem of living with parasites failed in Palo Verde. Humans and parasites, who became para-selves of one another, maintained an abiding presence in the landscape.

Tom Lee: Burrows and Burrs: A Perceptual History

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Knowledge has no proper homeland. It is scattered among disciplines and genres. A novel is filled with events, described in a particular manner, which might be translated into objects of scientific worth. Science makes new discoveries that find their way back into literature. Philosophy questions starting points and adds nuance to grey areas between disciplines. Science contributes to philosophy’s repertoire of relevant ideas. This article is an effort to account for the dynamism and complexity of the relationship that exists between differing kinds of knowledge. It uses an essayistic form of narration to pull together contrasting examples that suggest hard and fast distinctions between subject and object tend to provoke misleadingly abstract descriptions of place. The specific place under investigation is a farming property in rural New South Wales. It has played a significant part in the author’s perceptual history. Burrs and burrows are two of its key features.

Libby Robin: Global Ideas in Local Places: The Humanities in Environmental Management

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Land management has become a multi-faceted enterprise, with professionals, locals and others contributing variously to the outcomes, increasingly working in partnership arrangements all over the world. However, each local place has a different suite of ‘experts’ speaking for its future. This paper explores four key drivers of conservation initiatives: place, landscape, biodiversity and livelihood, and how these shape environmental management in the Desert Channels region of south-western Queensland and in the Quantock hills in Somerset, England. The aim is to show how the question of who is an authority on place contrasts in these two ecologically distinct places, and at different times in the period from 1945 to the present. The two cases demand very different scales of management, and build on different cultural traditions, but they share a surprising number of commonalities, particularly about who are the experts in managing the future of the natural world. The commonalities reflect global forces that are changing the environmental management of local places. The paper considers the value of art, history and the broader humanities in enriching and critiquing global scientific and management ideals and in empowering communities to engage in dialogue about managing their local places.

Laurel Peacock: SAD in the Anthropocene: Brenda Hillman’s Ecopoetics of Affect

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This article focuses on three collections of poetry by California poet Brenda Hillman, Cascadia, Practical Water, and Pieces of Air in the Epic, reading for the ways in which the poems model an affective interrelation between human and environment. These three works each focus on a traditional element (earth, water, air) in order to explore its co-constitution with the human, treating the element as active, or, in Jane Bennett’s term, “vibrant matter.” In the Anthropocene, it is no longer an “intentional fallacy” to attribute human emotions to the environment or its elements. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is used throughout the article as a way to conceptualise this interrelation of human with environment; SAD suggests that in this era human and environment alike are disordered. I argue that, rather than staging a lyric subject regarding a landscape, Hillman’s poems create a confusion of subject/object and foreground/background relations in which the origins of affects are impossible to determine and harms circulate. Affect is vital in understanding human motivations in relation to climate change, and Hillman’s ecopoetic practice is an example of how we can shift our understanding of our affective relationship to the environment. Linguistic experimentation can shift awareness toward an understanding of the link between “what it felt like to have been a subject” and “what it felt like to have been earth” as well as what it feels like now to be indeterminately both, intertwined and in crisis.

Natalie Porter: Risky Zoographies: The Limits of Place in Avian Flu Management

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Global anxieties about avian influenza stem from a growing recognition that highly-virulent, highly-mobile disease vectors infiltrate human spaces in ways that are difficult to perceive, and even more difficult to manage. This article analyses a participatory health intervention in Việt Nam to explore how avian influenza threats challenge long-held understandings of animals’ place in the environment and society. In this intervention, poultry farmers collaborated with health workers to illustrate maps of avian flu risks in their communities. Participant-observation of the risk-mapping exercises shows that health workers treated poultry as commodities, and located these animals in environments that could be transformed and dominated by humans. However, these maps did not sufficiently represent the physical and social landscapes where humans and poultry coexist in Việt Nam. As such, farmers located poultry in environments dominated by risky nonhuman forces such as winds, waterways, and other organisms. I argue that these divergent risk maps demonstrate how ecological factors, interpersonal networks, and global market dynamics combine to engender a variety of interspecies relationships, which in turn shape the location of disease risks in space. I develop the term risky zoographies to signal the emergence of competing descriptions of animals and their habitats in zoonotic disease contexts. This concept suggests that as wild animals, livestock products, and microbial pathogens continue to globalise, place-based health interventions that limit animals to particular locales are proving inadequate. Risky zoographies signal the inextricability of nonhuman animals from human spaces, and reveal interspecies interactions that transect and transcend environments.

Alex Lockwood: The Affective Legacy of Silent Spring

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In the fiftieth year since the publication of Silent Spring, the importance of Rachel Carson’s work can be measured in its affective influence on contemporary environmental writing across the humanities. The ground broken by Silent Spring in creating new forms of writing has placed affect at the very centre of contemporary narratives that call for pro-environmental beliefs and behaviours. A critical public-feelings framework is used to explore these issues and trace their passage from the private and intimate, where they risk remaining denuded of agency, and into the public sphere. The work of Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart and their focus on the struggle of everyday citizenship in contemporary life is helpful in illustrating how Silent Spring mobilised private feelings, particularly anger aimed at environmental destruction, into political action. This template is then explored in two contemporary environmental writers. First, The End of Nature by Bill McKibben is examined for its debt to Silent Spring and its use (and overuse) of sadness in its attempt to bring climate change to the public’s attention. Second, Early Spring by Amy Seidl is shown to be a more affective and effective descendant of Silent Spring in its adherence to Carson’s narrative procedures, by bringing attention back to the unpredictable and intimate power of ordinary, everyday affects. As such, Silent Spring is shown to occupy a foundational position in the history of the environmental humanities, and a cultural politics concerned with public feelings.

Anna Tsing: Unruly Edges: Mushrooms as Companion Species

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Human nature is an interspecies relationship. In this essay, Haraway’s concept of companion species takes us beyond familiar companions to the rich ecological diversity without which humans cannot survive. Following fungi, we forage in the last ten thousand years of human disturbance history with feminist multispecies company. Cereals domesticate humans. Plantations give us the subspecies we call race. The home cordons off inter- and intra-species love. But mushroom collecting brings us somewhere else—to the unruly edges and seams of imperial space, where we cannot ignore the interspecies interdependencies that give us life on earth. There are big stories to tell here, and they should not be left to the human triumphalists who control the field. This essay opens a door to multispecies landscapes as protagonists for histories of the world.

Cover image by Andrew Gill (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Complete volume (vol. 1)