CENHS Symposium 2014 – Recap

Posted by on May 25, 2014
CENHS Symposium 2014 – Recap

The Third Annual CENHS Spring Symposium – Recap by Trevor Durbin and Derek Woods

Photo Credit: Judy Natal

The third CENHS symposium was a strong meeting, and our biggest yet. We held the symposium in Rice’s new Bioscience Research Collaborative, which is a useful space for this kind of event. Dominic Boyer and Ellen Grodjesk, our director and administrative assistant, deserve the credit for bringing the event off in style. Our steering committee did a fine job of selecting this year’s participants—a group with its roots in the disciplines of anthropology, English, art history, American studies, climate science, history, and religious studies, and which also included several non-academic participants.

Starting this year, we have recorded the symposium and made selected video available here. This will continue to be our practice, so that people in the field of environmental human sciences, and anyone who’s interested, can learn from the symposium without being present.

Infrastructures, the first panel of the symposium, considered the historical development of key energy infrastructures, with papers presented by Jacob Hamblin, Cyrus Mody, and Rebecca Slayton. Each of the papers demonstrated the importance of understanding the social and political contexts in which energy infrastructures develop for thinking about emerging situations and energy futures. Jacob Hamblin argued that nuclear non-proliferation should not only be seen as a security issue but also understood in the context of national energy strategies. Cyrus Mody explored the failure of military R&D infrastructure to adapt to the civilian need for solar energy by looking to a failed venture by inventor Jack Kilby and Texas Instruments to develop a solar energy cell during the 1970s-1980s. Rebecca Slayton analyzed the unexpected consequences of digital technology and digital utopianism on the electricity industry during the 1980s and 1990s.

The next panel included a presentation by the photographer Judy Natal, with commentary by Timothy Morton. Natal showed us images from her Biosphere 2 project, “Future Perfect,” and from her project on robots and artificial intelligence. Natal set up a repeating artist’s residence at Biosphere 2 (in Arizona) during her stay there. Recently, she has been concerned with addressing climate change in art and encouraging other artists to do so too. In the future, she said, people will look back on the present moment and wonder why so few artists actually had anything to say about this world-historical process called climate change. Her comments were reminiscent of the poet Christian Bok’s expression of amazement, in an interview in Macleans magazine, that so many poets are still writing about their divorces while rovers are exploring methane lakes on Titan. Natal advocates an unsentimental human relationship to climate change, one that stresses adaptation and a necessarily posthumanistic transformation of the culture and infrastructure we know today. In this connection, she cited Paul Kingsnorth’s recent article in the New York Times, which provocatively suggests that we accept our despair about global warming. Natal’s fascinating work is also concerned with artificial intelligence and the possibility of a second industrial revolution, one based around technologies that mimic nature rather than trying to control it.

Timothy Morton’s commentary on Natal’s work began with the question what makes us human. For him, the answer is all kinds of nonhumans, from gut bacteria to computers to companion species to furniture to DNA. The nonhuman is always already at the core of the human, which is one of the reasons why it is so difficult to say for certain what it means to be human. At this moment, we need to get much more used to the fact that finite nonhumans enable everything we do, and avoid lumping them into total categories like Nature, Animal, or Matter. The initial ecological affect is a feeling of depression at being surrounded by life and permeated by beings that we can’t completely understand. For Morton, Natal’s work makes it clear that shame is not an effective environmentalist strategy. Shame is the stuff of “completely useless ecological goads.” Knowing that we must now act in relation to future people makes a mockery of utilitarian ethics. Imagination takes on a new role, given this focus on incalculable future externalities, because imagination and art come from the future. They are messages about the ‘future perfect’—what will have been. Morton also raised the concern that, in the future, there might be a category future of environmentally ‘proper’ art, where improper art is considered a pest or parasite.

In the first panel on Friday, Affect in the Anthropocene, we heard papers by Sarah Fredericks, Matthew Schneider-Mayerson, Lisa Sideris, and Noah Toly that explored the diverse ways in which affect, broadly understood, is implicated in our engagements with large-scale environmental problems. Sarah Fredericks explored the role of collective guilt in thinking about ethical responses to anthropogenic climate change. Matthew Schneider-Mayerson analyzed Paolo Bacigalupi’s novel The Windup Girl as a way of bringing together energy and affect as areas of research that have rarely been linked in the environmental humanities. Lisa Sideris offered a critique of ecospiritual movements that tend to enshrine science-based sacred myths as a basis for new forms of social life. Noah Toly’s presentation explored how contemporary energy technologies have hidden, but also illustrate, the tragic dimensions of human existence, an existence in which it is impossible to secure all non-trivial goods at once.

The symposium’s second art panel grouped papers from Georgiana Battiana, Amanda Boetzkes, and Mona Damluji, all of which addressed twentieth and twenty-first century visual art engaged with energy, oil, and power technologies. Battiana linked twentieth-century oil photography with Walter Benjamin’s theory of the “inorganic” beauty of fashion models. She made a fascinating connection between the enervated, anemic appearance of many contemporary models and historical phenomenon of energy crisis, suggesting the aesthetic category “oil chic.” Her paper went on to discuss the relation between industrial and pastoral landscapes in American energy art by Charles Scheeler, Ed Ruscha, Jeff Brouws, Mitch Epstein, Ed Tabuchi, and Richard Misrach. For her, this art is about thermodynamics, the death drive, and the exhaustion inherent to all energy systems and rhetorics. Amanda Boetzkes’s paper also addressed the relation of the industrial and pastoral aesthetic, but here with a focus on plastic and the recent proliferation of plastics in art. Boetzkes discuss the frequent use of plastics, especially sculptures made of collected plastic commodities, in works by Choi Jeong Hwa, Melanie Smith, Gayle Chong Kwan, Portia Munson, Tara Donovan, Ursula Biemann, and Allan Sekula.  In these artists, Boetzkes sees an alternative paradigm from the aesthetics of decay and exhaustion that has been paradigmatic since WWII at least, an alternative that forefronts sensibility and hollow affect. Relating art’s new obsession with plastic to Catherine Malabou’s work on plasticity, Boetzkes convincingly argued that this artwork constitutes a reaction formation bound up with the denial of environmental crisis. Mona Damluja’s paper dealt with oil media as well, addressing the cinematic world of big oil in the form of PR documentaries from the oil industry. Her reading of films like Shell’s Oil for Aladdin’s Lamp and the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Ageless Iraq emphasized how those films correlate oil with a national narratives of modernization. Damluja also discussed how big oil cinema represents gender roles in relation to their signal resource, and outlined an imaginary that relates disparate commodities back to their petrochemical sources.

In the last panel on Friday, Calculating and Communicating Climate Futures, the presentations considered different ways of perceiving and communicating climate change. Katherine Hayhoe explored polarizing effects of climate change science on politically and religiously conservative communities in the United States. She focused on the need to shift from climate change information to messaging based on the values people already have. Myanna Lahsen challenged the common belief that Brazilians are better informed and more responsive to climate change issues. Her analysis of Brazilian media shows that there is very little discussion of a major contributor to GHG emissions, the beef industry. Wendy Parker presented a paper exploring different forms of, and recent changes in, climate change modeling. She talked about the motivations for different approaches, including the differences in probabilistic and scenario driven models. A common thread among the presentations was the need for different forms of communication about climate change moving forward.

Our first panel on Saturday (Energy, Space and Materiality) contributed to the ongoing engagements within the environmental humanities with critical projects of re-imagining the environment. Marina Peterson explored how air is materialized through the category of “noise pollution.” By tracing the emergence of the concept as an environmental concern in the 1960s and 1970s, she showed how noise pollution is always slipping beyond the bounds set for it by legislation, regulation, and systems of knowledge. Joy Sleeman presented cases in which industrial sites have been re-appropriated as works of art that challenged and reconfigured how we think about human impacts on the environment. She presented examples from the work of John Latham and Richard Long.

Dominic Boyer and Imre Szeman’s panel addressed the politics of energy—or in Boyer’s term, “energopolitics.” Szeman opened by asking why, when we talk about climate change politics, we don’t talk more about capitalism. He pointed out that “capitalism” had not been a common category of the analysis at the symposium. Moving to his own specific comments, Szeman went on to argue that we need a better understanding of the relation between political power and energy in order to think the social theory of energy. He criticized the notion that a biopolitics focused on species or “life itself” could be goal for environmentalism, arguing that this approach fails to recognize the limits of biopolitics. We need to begin a utopian ecopolitics at the level of the planetary, and not put credence in the state system. The ecological commons are the key to this moment in which we have all become oil subjects. Climate change could be the needed motivation for a political response to capitalism at a planetary level. Boyer’s presentation was an experiment in using the concepts, language and performance of energy humanities to generate emotional as well as ideational breakthroughs in our relationship to the Anthropocene. He argued that what Tim Morton has identified as our hypoactive “hyperobjective” condition can only be countered through hyperactive hyposubjectivity. He suggested that in the hyperobjective condition, we should be looking to hyposubjects—“smaller” people and political microcosms. In this connection, he discussed several examples, including the recent election of the anarchist leader of “Iceland’s Best Party” as the mayor of Reykjavik. Boyer also warned against the sometimes desire in the environmental human sciences to privilege public outreach over research. This is important, but if we focus too much on being public intellectuals, the field can get vacuous—thus the need for specialized research that can found this emerging field on more than facilitating communication between the environmental sciences and the public.

A roundtable with comments from Elizabeth Long, Richard Johnson, Kristin Wintersteen, Derek Woods, and Trevor Durbin closed the symposium with a conversation on pedagogy, outreach, and theory in the environmental human sciences.

An undergraduate poster competition was held during Friday’s lunch break. The participants were all students in the course “Culture, Energy and the Environment: An Introduction to Energy Humanities” that was taught for the first time by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson. Three winners were recognized as part of the closing remarks of the symposium on Saturday.  See the following blog post for more details.