Academia, English, and Eco-critical Thinking

I received this short-course invitation in my academic mail. The location and other information has been redacted, leaving the following description of what will be discussed and written about:

“Eco-criticism has in the last ten years been grappling with problems of massive scale. Concepts like the “hyperobject” refer to spans of space and time that encompass entire systems of interconnectivity, while the quantity of data to be analyzed threatens to engulf environmentalists in an “infowhelm.” Such sublime grandeur helps to conceptualize the magnitude of the problems with which climate researchers contend, while combating right-wing efforts to raise doubts about global warming by demonstrating the complexity and thoroughness of available data. At the same time, these large-scale ways of understanding ecological crisis distance it from the everyday ways in which crisis is experienced and exacerbated—as Timothy Morton argues, hyperobjects are by definition “nonlocal” in the sense that they can only be represented in their holistic manifestations. The politics of exploiting and caring for the Earth play out at local levels as, for example, art historian Lucy Lippard shows by highlighting activity around gravel excavation in her recent book Undermining: A Wild Ride through Land Use, Politics, and Art in the Changing West (2014). The international corporate mining and transporting of resources begins in the backyards of individuals seeking to survive on barren land…

This [class] proposes to return to the question of the everyday as a way of understanding how quotidian decisions and experiences accrue to form our current climate culture. A vast body of work emerged after WWII that explored the concept of the “everyday” in order to understand how culture reinforced the politics of fascism, and examined how unexceptional small-scale experiences connected to large-scale social change. This literature ranged from Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt, who confronted the specter of fascism and totalitarianism directly, to Henri Lefebvre and George Perec, who extended the analysis of the everyday to spatial experience and the life of objects. This literature—and Arendt’s analysis of totalitarianism in particular—has experienced a resurgence in response to the habits of thought that have colonized our civic discourse. President Trump’s recent appointment of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Project Agency highlights the way that ecological devastation today is imbricated with economic and racial discourses… Does the everyday establish a presentism that is counter to the long-term mindfulness necessary for environmental action? How is environmental thinking bounded by banal conflicts, by clichés, or by material limitations? How are environmental decisions tied into issues of xenophobia and nationalism? We hope that participants will interpret the categories of literature, art, and performance broadly to include everyday utterances, actions, and images that populate the landscape of environmental thought.”

Yes, it is in English, just a very specialized dialect of Academic. And it is one reason why I fear that environmental history is going to be fragmenting as a discipline much the way Western History (history of the US West) seems to be doing. I suspect, were I to put my hat back into the ring for college-level employment, I would not pass the first level of the process because I do not follow these kinds of analyses, nor do I put much weight on the theoretical material described above. Yes, I know what the individual (or committee) that wrote the description was referring to. Yes, I have read some of the critical texts in that sub-section of the field. No, I don’t believe that trying to see the world through them is the best way to either tell the stories of the places under study, or to deal with environmental problems like pollution, erosion, and other things.

There are other, similar invitations in my academic mailbox. And people wonder, aside from cost and scheduling difficulties, why I tend to focus on a limited number of meetings and conferences? Not to mention the risk of outing my politics when I either mutter “Bingo!” a little too loudly, or laugh in the wrong places.

8 thoughts on “Academia, English, and Eco-critical Thinking

  1. That made my head hurt, and I pretty much understood it. (I think.)

    • I can read it, and follow it, but I need black tea first and a headache pill after. It’s like reading a different language, but harder.

  2. 1) ‘complexity and thoroughness’ are effectively meaningless, compared to the measures that are really important. What is the error? What is the error from measurement, and from the processes the measurements go through? How readily available are the books to auditors? Who has audited the things, and what do they say? 2) All this global warming talk is made in the context of decisions that impact human welfare. We have a profession for making decisions from scientific data based on human welfare, it is called engineering. Global warming is a thermodynamics and heat transfer question, meaning the discipline of mechanical engineering. How many of the people testifying in favor of the modeling and recommendations are MechE PEs (licensed professional engineers) who have performed or supervised the work, and then signed and sealed it? I suspect very few of the academics behind this conference. Note that PEs can be audited by state boards. 3) I’m not convinced Arendt wasn’t a Nazi agent of influence. Certainly, I do not consider her any kind of reliable source on the matter. 4) Ah, it is all Trump’s fault. Of course. Recent pushes in environmental activism make the energy sector deeply relevant to the EPA. If the EPA is lead by someone who does not strongly disbelieve in perpetual motion machines, needless harm will be caused to humans in general and Americans specifically. Scott Pruitt, I am sure, is closer to a strong disbeliever in perpetual motion than many of the alternatives Trump’s enemies* would prefer.

    *Okay, yes, I probably do count as an enemy of Trump. And yes, I do know some thermodynamically literate people who are concerned about what Trump may do to their precious programs under the EPA and DoE, programs which I consider suspect. But I am not impressed with the bulk of them, who have been throwing hissy fits since the election. I started throwing my hissy fits May 3, 2016.

    • Very good points. Many academics in the ‘liberal’ arts (who are now decidedly non-liberal in the original meaning of the word, but that is a discussion for another time) like to claim science as a support for their position without knowing what they are talking about. Of course, they then misapply it and to anyone who complains they reply ‘Science!’ and act like that ends the conversation.
      As an ME PE, words, I know that there are specific things I can and cannot do, legally, and one of them is that I MUST practice ONLY in my area of expertise – which these people obviously aren’t!

    • Good points. My first difficulty with all eco-criticism is the starting point – applying techniques and theories from literature and philosophy to the hard sciences. I can see it fitting a little bit more with the history side of things, but only a little bit, and I start having serious concerns when people try to mold the historical record to fit the critical theory. To use one egregious example, applying the idea of “low-level resistance to colonialism and State power” to explain why peasant farmers were generally reluctant to rapidly accept new crops and farming techniques, instead of considering that “safety first” thinking might, just perhaps, play a role.

      • As an extension of “safety first”, perhaps the peasant farmers were thinking if it ain’t broke don’t fix it, since we don’t know if the fix will grow enough food to get us through the year. That is, show me the proof that this is better and easier, rather than just “new.”

  3. I would dearly love to send that to a REAL Climateologist who works for DRDC, and have her attend… She would probably burn the building down around them though… Sigh… She go disinvited from the glamorous world climate meeting in Fiji a couple of years ago, both as a presenter and attendee, when her abstract got to the committee… 🙂

  4. This is what happens when buzzword bingo and thesaurus’s get drunk together. The results of such synergization should never be inflicted on anyone.

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