Domestic wild: book cover

book cover

My book has just gone to print. Routledge did a very nice job on the cover…with thanks to Andrea Ø. Ofstad for the cover image of a Spanish slug (Arion vulgaris), first spotted and formally identified in Britain 2012; they probably arrived on imported salad..

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CFP: Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time – Enchantment | Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network

Source: CFP: Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time – Enchantment | Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network

Call for Papers: Unexpected Encounters with Deep Time: Enchantment

Thursday, 26th November 2015

Andrew Grant Lecture Theatre, Evolution House, West Port, Edinburgh College of Art

Organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network

 Earlier this year the discovery of homo naledi propelled enchantment into a framework of deep time. The speculation is that early human ancestors, perhaps from as much as 4 million years ago, may have ritually buried their dead in the dark Rising Star caves. The questions of when, where and for whom the world first appeared as enchanted have abruptly shifted from the 200,000 or so years of homo sapiens into a much longer past. Elsewhere, the deep future of enchantment can be gleaned from discussions around the future of nuclear waste. Will future descendants still be enchanted by this ‘new immortal’? If so how do present humans protect them from their own curiosity when conventions of communication are so closely embedded within shallow time? Looking closely at the implications of these questions reveal cracks in the shell of human exceptionalism. After all the questions around nuclear waste are often accompanied by the caveat that these descendants we seek to protect may no longer be human.  Yet enchantment is a concept tied to the core of the humanities. Stories of the loss of disenchantment remain central to definitions of modernity and the rise of secularism, and enchantment’s return, via claims of the rise of religious fundamentalism, is central to contemporary geopolitics. Within environmental literatures enchantment has been seen as a way of mobilising ethical responses on an increasingly damaged planet (e.g. Abram; Bennet) and critiqued for contributing to the forgetting of countless ‘unloved others’ (Rose & van Dooren).

Our series focus on ‘unexpected encounters with deep time’ emphasises the way that deep time is encountered in materiality of the everyday. Likewise Jane Bennet has stressed that enchantment arises, unanticipated, in the moment, in the “active engagement with objects of sensuous experience” (5).

The aim of this workshop is to explore what enchantment might become within a framework of deep time. We hope to explore questions such as:

  • How might deep time and enchantment reframe or challenge each other?
  • How are their ties to the everyday world to be understood?
  • How might deep time trouble the humanist frame within which enchantment has primarily been situated?
  • How might it disturb current understandings of the promises and perils of enchantment for environmental thought and action?
  • What are the political and ethical implications, positive or negative, of ‘enchanting’ deep time?
  • How might deep time queer the temporalities of enchantment (cf Burlein & Orr)?

Papers of around 15-20 minutes addressing these and related questions are very welcome. Please submit your proposal by the 19th of October using our online form. Responses will be provided by the 26th of October. Proposals for alternative presentations/formats are welcomed. Please contact the organisers to discuss.

Contact:

Michelle Bastian (michelle.bastian@ed.ac.uk) and David Farrier (David.Farrier@ed.ac.uk)

Writing Place in the Environmental Humanities: Five Ideas – EEHN

As part of our series on key practices in the environmental humanities, around twenty members and guests of the Edinburgh EH Network spent an afternoon discussing approaches to writing. We listened to readings by Hayden Lorimer, Maria Fusco, and Fraser MacDonald. Subsequent discussions focused on the ethics, techniques, constraints and demands of writing place. Here are five points distilled from these conversations and our speakers’ reflections:

  • Place can be like a broken tooth – it can demand response, and draw the writer in. Bearing witness or giving voice or to the animals, memories, or geotic powers that animate place is a popular goal for place-writers. Good place writers are aware of the risks of misrecognition – of getting writing wrong – that inevitably come with attempts to represent these powers. Writers persevere nonetheless, and can play with the risks of getting things wrong in their writing. Good writers will also beware the implicit dominances of writing about place. Writing for the world assumes a hierarchy that may not be present in writing with or of the world.
  • The place-writer attends with care to their own presence in the text. Our group preferred writers who avoided hubris and steered clear of self-aggrandisement. While one can write in the first person, one should not write ‘about me’: place should be written through the author, rather than being about the author.
  • The writer thinks about how their voice will travel. Writing words to be read is not the same as writing words to be heard – attend the difference, push at the edges of legibility with wild experimentation. Think about the rootedness of accent, approach, vocabulary; how can the writing make the specificities of lived place travel? Recently, writers have expanded the traditional tonal range of place-writing with melancholia, domestic rapture, nostalgia, and more. We might widen the list to include sentimentality, speculation, sarcasm, comedy – depending on the place itself.
  • Straining for novelty can be a drag. We felt that genre and convention are not always restrictions to be overcome: they can be enabling, as well as constraining. Hybrid writing that combines, say, an academic with a lyrical place essay, is not always desirable. The most powerful writing can often be stylistically or formally conservative (just think of a seminal journal article in your field). Hygiene can be helpful!
  • There can be something indecent in extracting academic transcendence from a story (that moment when we go “academic” or “analytic” and away from the place). The need to meet the expectations of academics trained to read and react in certain can be restrictive. Several writers spoke of the “sinuous essay”; an essay that weaves large and small, near and far, insight and detail. The sinuous replaces the swooping, when the writer zooms giddy fast from empirics to theory and back. Moving across registers demands significant care and skill.

Of course, our conversations ranged much more widely than this short summary can convey.

read more Writing Place in the Environmental Humanities: Five Ideas – Edinburgh Environmental Humanities NetworkEdinburgh Environmental Humanities Network.

Writing the Environmental Humanities – workshop

On Wednesday 25th February the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network will host the second in our series of workshops on key areas of academic practice within the Environmental Humanities.

Writing the environmental humanities

Wednesday 25 February 2015, 50 George Square, Room 1.06, Edinburgh, 14:00-17:00, followed by wine

In conversation:

  • Hayden Lorimer, Geographical and Earth Sciences, Glasgow
  • Maria Fusco, Edinburgh College of Art
  • Fraser MacDonald, Institute of Geography, Edinburgh

Discussion topics: The ethics of story / Writing nature well / Writing across disciplines / Can words change worlds?

This half-day workshop, the second in a series organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, will reflect on scholarly writing and its role in responding to ecological crisis. Short readings from our three guests will be followed by extended group discussions addressing topics including the ethics of story, craft, audience, transformation.

To book a place email franklin.ginn@ed.ac.uk

via Writing the Environmental Humanities – Edinburgh Environmental Humanities NetworkEdinburgh Environmental Humanities Network.

The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm

Caring for the Future Through Ancestral Time | The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene by Bronislaw Szerszynski; Thurs., 27 Nov at 6pm.

You are cordially invited to a special evening performance and dialogue with Bronislaw Szerszynski (Department of Sociology, Lancaster University) this Thursday, Nov 27 at 6pm in the Martin Hall, “The Onomatophore of the Anthropocene: Commission on Planetary Ages Decision CC87966424/49″:
 
“Earth scientists have proposed that the Earth may be entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which the human species is the main geological force. In this performance for voice and animated graphics we will hear the declaration of an official decision from an imagined body which has the legal power to determine the names of the ages of all planetary bodies or ‘worlds’ across the galaxy. The decision considers the claim from Homo sapiens that the new geological age of the Earth should be named after their species.  It places this claim in the context of what is known about the evolution of worlds and what it means to be decreed the onomatophore or ‘name-bearer’ of a planetary age, and concludes with a dramatic rewriting of the future evolution of the Earth.”

Seating is limited, so we recommend that you obtain a free ticket through event brite at this link.

Marder’s vegetal philosophy

Plants: we know them. Green stuff, just hanging out.

Not really. Though there are lots of places to read about plants’ full craziness, two recent books are really very good. One is Matthew Hall’s Plants as Person  (2011, SUNY Press). The other is Michael Marder’s Plant thinking: A philosophy of vegetal life (2013, New York: Columbia University Press). Hall’s book is the more accessible and the more predictable, though by no means lesser of the two. Marder’s is undoubtedly more ambitious, more original, more self-consciously clever: by turns one of the most irritating and one of the most head-bangingly brilliant books I’ve read this year.

Both are courageous attempts to think plants. They also both make much more sense read alongside the work of scientists like František Baluška and Stefano Mancuso (e.g. Plant-environment interactions; plant robots in space anyone?), key thinkers in the emerging plant intelligence paradigm. Or a short-cut via this essay in the New Yorker by the Michael Pollan.

Anyway, here follows some not-terribly-coherent-or-edited thoughts on Marder’s book. Cutting room floor sweepings from a book chapter………

*

Michael Marder proposes a far-reaching ‘vegetal philosophy’. Most of his readers will agree when Marder argues that ‘metaphysics and capitalist economy are in unmistakable collusion’: both, we are told, reduce plants to a meaningless mass – Aristotle and Riceland Foods Inc in unwitting nefarious alliance. Marder spins it that we humans have interposed ourselves between the plant and its environment, taking the place of the sun in the prospects for plant growth. (These humans remain unmarked by specificities of time or place in Marder’s book; the nadir arrived on p149 with the phrase ‘in African cultures’ – I threw the book down in disgust at such racist, sloppy, scholarship, but picked it up straightaway again as he is citing someone else/he’s a philosopher).

Marder argues that life is less developed in plants than other creatures, that plants are distinctly other with their own ways of being and that this is their message. Marder wants to reclaim plants from the realm of biology; he wants to ask not just what philosophy can do for plants, but also what plants can do for philosophy. Brilliant! He calls for a weakening of the self in line with the weakness of self in plants.

DSC05464

Life’s principle is still too weak in the plant, the soul of which is neither differentiated in its capacities nor separate enough from the exteriority of its environment. But what is weakness for metaphysics marshals a strength of its own, both in the sense of passive resistance it offers to the hegemonic thinking of identity and in the sense of its independence from the fiction of a strong unitary origin” (Marder 2013, 34).

The plant is radically open to its environment and lacks any interiority. In contrast to human and animal life, the plant does not ‘stand under the injunction … to cordon itself off from its surroundings, to negate its connection to a place’ (p69). This injunction to differentiate self from other is the basis for non-planty subjectivity. Such subjectivity begins (Marder channels some Levinas) from this cordoning off, and then proceeds to pull the energies of others to its own formation. Subjectivity involves imposing will on matter, changing matter and folding what lies beyond into the self (Marder channels some Deleuze/Grosz). Since indeed life is seen in this way, as underwritten by a will to power, an impersonal drive to enhance the self’s capacities and connections, as well as secure the means to subsist into the future, then, as Marder writes, plants have classically been seen as ‘weak’ for several reasons.

First, plants are not really unified, autonomous beings, but rather emergent entities made up of many parts. The unity of a plant is comprised of a ‘non-totalizing assemblage of multiplicities’ (p85), by which Marder means that bits can be removed without reducing the unified whole. A cutting can be taken, but the plant remains whole; roots can die, but the plant remains whole; leaves can be shed, but the plant remains whole. Moreover, the parts of a plant are not in hierarchy: there is no ‘brain’ or ‘head’ command and control centre; roots and shoots communicate in complex ways but neither is in charge (one of the current questions in plant science is therefore: what mechanisms enable the plant to operate as a whole organism?).

versus
But how do plants know????

Second, plants lack any kind of interiority. They rely completely on others for their existence, endlessly vulnerable to the elements and to light. The role of light and elements remains external to the plant, but yet they remain utterly and irreducibly dependent on these external forces; external forces which remain completely disinterested in the plant. The plant fails to bend the energy and matter of others to its own will, in other words. ‘The plant’s self’, Marder writes, ‘bound to the universality of the elements and of light, is always external to itself’ (p89). Because they are sessile plants are embedded in their milieu, reliant on the other with only very limited capacities to shape their circumstances [though yes, plants are sessile they can move in reproducing or colonising bits of the earth if you look at it over a long time-scale (Angela was animated on this point)].

Third, even though plants resemble humans by existing in webs of body, place and narrative memory, their time is that of the other. Their time is made up of their actual growth out of the possibilities presented to them for growth. The past is inscribed in plant tissue and morphology, and they can ‘remember’ – continuing to react to past stimuli – in ways not yet fully understood. But plant time is the time of the other: the seasons, the diurnal rhythm of sun and cloud. Plants live in cycles of growth and decay determined by forces external to themselves; thus they do not have a time of their own. More, plants do not – like subjects with a will to power for enhancing themselves – struggle against this repetition, but inhabit it fully. Plant temporality is the outcome of ‘the absence of identity that forces it to obey the law and the time of the undifferentiated other’ (p105). Others like goats:

Goat in tree, Morocco. Why NOT ALL PLANTS ARE THE SAME AND GEOGRAPHY MIGHT BE IMPORTANT!

Plants, then, are traditionally seen as weak in life. Marder’s philosophy is to turn this own its head and argue that the plant is indeed weak, but that instead of thinking that this makes them inferior, we should instead marvel at their powerlessness and ‘primordial generosity’. If plants lack any interiority or self, then they enjoy true freedom. Yes! Neither passive nor active, in responding to forces beyond them, they express an intention without intelligence or goal. Not having a telos or a self to perpetuate should not be seen as a lack, but rather as part of the plant’s gift to the earth, a gift that makes life on earth possible on a large scale. The way plants tend to light, to nutrients, to other plants in an intentional but unconscious way, Marder suggests, is their particular ‘sagacity’ (p12). The plant can shake up our ideas of self, by weakening our idea of the self’s boundaries, by showing life lived post-relationally without boundaries: plants offer a different metaphysics of being from which we should learn. What critique needs, Marder concludes, is not ‘a more powerful criticism, but an infinite loosening up, a weakening of the self’s boundaries, commensurate with the powerlessness (Ohnmacht) of the plants themselves’ (p150).

Ultimately, while compelling, Marder’s work teaches us more about what Levinas, Aristotle and Michael Marder think of plants than about plants themselves. I know he’s a philosopher, not an empiricist (Jim), but I couldn’t get Haraway’s critique of Derrida’s failure to be curious about his cat out of my head. Why is Marder not curious about the diversity of plant morphology and life ways? He lumps them all together as a green, planty, mass:  the plant kingdom reduced to the model of a deciduous tree! Parasites, epiphtyes, insectivorous, sea-dwelling, evergreen – none of these and their particular ways of converting external energies and materials to perpetuating their own particular forms of plant subjectivity are mentioned.

Marder also draws on very selectively on the new plant biology, which indicates that plants do perhaps have rudimentary ways of distinguishing self/non-self (their roots especially), and ways of transacting nutrients between individuals – if so some of his claims would need to be modified. He also ignores the long-running intertwining of plant and human life. The history of wheat, for example, shows how plant and certain poltico-economic collectives have mutually calibrated through the last 11,000 years.

Finally, following from the way he eschews the worldliness of plants, Marder’s critique of human/plant politics is both odd-verging-on-naïve and rather opaque. Marder argues that capitalism has inserted humans in the place of what is ‘other’ to plants – namely sun and all the other material ingredients for growth: ‘Standing in for the other, in which the plant’s being accomplishes itself without reflectively returning to itself, capital eclipses the sun and power the the nutrients contained in the earth’ (p102). He seems to prefer autonomous plants growing in classic wilderness over their domesticated kin. He argues against genetic modification and plant breeding for no clearly articulated reason. Elsewhere, in “Is It Ethical to Eat Plants?” he’s written that we can eat plants, but that we should minimize violence, harm and death. This sounds just like an extended Peter Singer position: in which case, why the detour?

Now, if I understand him correctly (not sure I really do), and plants do have an irreducible openness and primordial generosity, then really what is the case to oppose their use for human needs? Without a self to be appropriated, what is to be appropriated? Surely it then becomes all about us humans and what we do – thus ‘we’ have to become more like plants – but we can’t, argh! we’re move-y…  The prescription seems to be that we shouldn’t mistake plant’s generosity for an eternal reserve that can never be depleted, but should attend to the plant and leave it to its autonomous interaction with the natural environment. Again this doesn’t make sense as there is no plant, only plants, and no natural environments left! One can only conclude he’s left this for other people to think through properly.

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Marder seems to eschew relational ties and mutually intertwined histories in favour of recognising and widening the gulf between planty and human earthlings. Recognising the plant as being ‘weak in life’ should lead to deeper and more entangled relations and not, as Marder wants, to withdraw and leave plants alone.

Ok, I’ll stop the grumbling! The central thesis of Marder’s work – that plant are subjects much more radically open to flows of energy and matter than animals – is convincing and radical. It meshes well with the new plant biology paradigm; plants are subjects with their own breed of intelligence and a complex semiotic life. We also now realise that much of what happens in a plant’s life is happening in a virtual sphere, beyond our senses’ capacities to track or apprehend directly. But we no longer have the luxury of what Marder would like us to do: to pull back, to retreat, and to let plants alone to live autonomous, independent lives. They may be different to us animals, but across that gulf our fates nonetheless entwine.

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities – workshop

On Tuesday 16th December the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network will host the first in a series of workshops on key areas of academic practice within the Environmental Humanities.

Teaching in the Environmental Humanities

16th December 2014, 12.30-5.00pm
50 George Square, University of Edinburgh

Speakers:

  • Richard Kerridge (School of Humanities and Cultural Industries, Bath Spa University). Author of Cold Blood (2014); Writing the Environment (1998)
  • Francoise Wemelsfelder (Animal and Veterinary Sciences Group, Scotland’s Rural College)
  • Peter Higgins (Outdoor & Environmental Education, Moray House School of Education, University of Edinburgh)

As the sense of ecological crisis builds, a new field of interdisciplinary enquiry has developed in the form of the Environmental Humanities. This half-day workshop, the first in a series organised by the Edinburgh Environmental Humanities Network, will address the issues faced by teachers in this new field, including the competing demands of diverse bodies of knowledge, both theoretical and practical, and the ethical contradiction between the need for urgent action and the need for spaces of reflection. In doing so it will bring together academic teachers and practitioners from literary studies, animal studies, and outdoor education, to reflect on what constitutes effective and innovative teaching in the Environmental Humanities.

The workshop will feature a keynote from Richard Kerridge, followed by responses from our two other speakers, all of which will form the basis for group discussion. The workshop is free to attend (lunch included) but spaces are limited: anyone wishing to attend should book a place via event brite.

Future workshops in 2015 will look at other areas of key academic practice in the environmental humanities:

  • Writing in the Environmental Humanities
  • Creating in the Environmental Humanities
  • Collaborating in the Environmental Humanities

For more information, keep an eye on the EEHN webpage. To join the network mailing list, please email david.farrier@ed.ac.uk.