Category Archives: Faculty Fellows Seminar

“Shemittah (Sabbatical Year): the remission of debt, manumission, and the concept of home in relationship to the current disruptions and climate crisis in our world”

The Fall 2021 Faculty Fellows met for the first time on Thursday, August 26, led by Rabbi Neil Blumofe, our Community Fellow. Blumofe leads Congregation Agudas Achim, a synagogue in Austin. He presented the concept of “shemittah,” a sabbatical year, a time at which routine is disrupted and the land is allowed to rest. His project—which he is approaching as a spiritual autobiography—seeks to consider shemittah within the framework of land ethics and conservation. His reflections come just before the celebration of the Jewish New Year of 5782, a shemittah year which begins on the evening of September 6th.

Blumofe sees the sabbatical year as a way to disrupt routine and as a way to give poise. He began the session by sharing photos from a recent trip he made to the western USA: open landscapes populated by bison; mountains; and glacier lakes. The two final photos showed sites that mark depletion and the destruction of land, the Minuteman National Historic Site and the Sanford Underground Research Facility, located in an abandoned gold mine. He closed the introduction with song and an invitation to contemplation taken from Rav Kook quote found  in David Seidenberg’s essay on Jewish ecological thought:

“Contemplate the wonders of Creation, the divine dimension of their being, not as a dim configuration that is presented to you from the distance but as the reality in which you live. Know yourself and your world . . .”

Blumofe explained that shemittah is mentioned three times in the Hebrew Bible. Historically, it entailed a pause in the cultivation of land; remission of debt; and the release of enslaved and indentured persons.  The shemittah year resets the economy. Private property ceases to exist: plants and animals are given reign over land, and people may access it without restriction. Those in debt are amnestied.

Fellows explored what it means for land to rest. For what purpose?  Is it rested because of diminished productivity, so it can produce later?  Is it rested so that it may return to some previous state? If there are multiple users of the land, who decides when it should rest? What is the vision for the land after its rest period, and who determines that?

The discussion included different ways that humans interpret land at rest.  Human management of land often seeks to restore it to a previous state. Restoration implies modifications of some kind; perhaps the soil is amended, or trees are planted. The goal of restoration is to make the land function as humans think it should. Another way of “resting” land is through preservation, setting it aside and allowing nature to have its way.

Fellows suggested a third term: remediation.  Remediation is not a return to pristine state. Whereas restoration is an erasure of history, remediation doesn’t pretend to erase history. It leaves us with something less than pristine. It holds the trace of history and is a reminder of that.

Many classic—and some contemporary— environmentalist and conservationist texts ignore or idealize the perspectives of indigenous and other marginalized peoples and consign them to the past. Fellows grappled with how to read such works. How are these texts considered  historically and how do those conversations reverberate with current conversations?  How do we think about manumission during movements of abolition? What is the place of reparations?

For Blumofe,  the shemittah year provides sanctuary and allows a lessening of the hold of commodification. He understands it as a spiritual model, a perspective that is more than ours, regardless of privilege. To illustrate this, he turned to two texts, Leviticus 25:2 from the Torah, and a 2nd century commentary on that passage. The passage from Leviticus describes Moses on Mt. Sinai, receiving a message from the divine: “the land shall observe a sabbath, a sabbath of the divine.” The commentary focuses on why the concept of the sabbatical year is juxtaposed with Sinai.

Blumofe explained that the commentary asks, what does it mean to speak from a place that is Mount Sinai? It’s aspirational: Sinai is a place where everyone together was able to receive a revelation of hope and aspiration.  For Blumofe, shemittah is a way of thinking about reordering, a way to look at the world and find a way through. The  juxtaposition gives us a sense of how to live in the world, something to work in our everyday lives. We can also keep it ahead of us. We may not experience the shemittah, or know whose land it is, or even who we are, but we can move forward. The shemittah doesn’t just give you rest from exhaustion, it allows you to do the work.

 

 

Sinai mountains with a yellow. pink. and purple sky
The Sinai Mountains, photo by Mohammed Moussa, through Wikimedia Commons

Heather Houser: “Affiliating Reproductive and Climate Justice.”

Dr. Heather Houser, associate professor in the Department of English, led the February 11 session of the Faculty Fellows Seminar. Houser presented a new project she is developing, an exploration of the challenges and the possibilities of including reproduction as part of the response to climate crisis.

Influenced by her work as part of an interdisciplinary team at Planet Texas 2050 and the research and writing of her monographs Ecosickness in Contemporary U.S. Fiction (2014) and Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in the Age of Data (2020), Houser seeks to write outside of the frame of a traditional academic monograph. Both literary writing and visual art that incorporate scientific information open space for artists to question western epistemologies and to entangle them with other knowledges, a prospect that she finds stimulating and challenging.  Examples of  writing she finds compelling include Angela Saini’s Superior: The Return of Race Science (2019) and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (2020), by Isabel Wilkerson. She imagines writing shorter, more personal pieces, such as the work of Roxane Gay and Elizabeth Kolbert.

In this initial exploratory stage, she wishes to get a sense of how conversations around family, reproduction, and climate develop. She began her inquiries with a set of questions: what are the frameworks within which climate conversations happen? What  ideas galvanize those conversations, and what  ideas or themes are taboo?

Houser decided on the term “affiliation” to link her areas of inquiry both to avoid prescriptive framings and to deflect the tendency to subordinate one form of justice to the other.  The point is to think of reproductive justice and environmental justice together. For her, affiliation gets at creating conditions for thriving, one of the central concerns of the reproductive justice movement.

Both the climate justice and the reproductive justice movements have thorny and complicated racial histories. Houser intends her work to bring a critique of white dominance to both. At her current stage of inquiry,  she finds the critiques provided by the history of Black feminism and the Black women’s health movement most valuable, citing works such as  Harriet Washington’s Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present for their engagement with racial histories of science in the USA. She’s interested in thinking about particular ideas of justice, and what justice means in different communities. The project requires self-reflection and awareness of her own positionality as she works in and with traditions of thought, advocacy, and expression without being appropriative.

Houser also directs attention to the concept of “choice.” A key point for the reproductive justice movement is the ability to have—or not have— children according to one’s own terms. Her initial impression is that  “childfree” is a position predominately held, or more publicly owned and capitalized upon, by white women. However, under conditions of racial injustice and health inequities, the choices of some are limited or completely removed: communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental toxins that disrupt or impair human reproduction, and are also targeted by racist policies that pathologize certain family structures and seek to control reproduction, including through forced sterilizations.

Fellows suggested several avenues for further exploration. One possible trajectory is to question the relationships between justice and choice. How does justice differ from choice?  Is justice about making an individual choice with knowledge of the structures that shape that choice?  What would it mean to reframe the notion of self-determination in a collective sense?  The work of Eve Tuck proposes justice as an important, but limited, meeting place. Justice works within the confines of the state. It provides a space for movement building and advocacy, but the end goal of these movements is not necessarily redress within the state.

Another approach is to think along the lines of labor and care as they apply to reproduction and sustainability. What are the ideas of family and community that make care more or less sustainable? What are other versions of family? Both Silvia Federici and Maria Mies provide accounts that reconsider domestic and family labor. Perhaps different communities of care and support open new possibilities for reproductive justice and environmental justice and sustainability.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jason Cons: “Delta Temporalities: Time, Territory, and Capture on a Climate Frontier”

At the second meeting of the Faculty Fellows seminar, Dr. Jason Cons,  associate professor in the Department of Anthropology, introduced the Fellows to Bangladesh’s Southwest Delta Zone. Physically, the zone is part of the Bengal delta, an area divided by the border between India and Bangladesh and edged by the Sundarban,  mangrove forest, a protected habitat of the Bengal tiger. Its human inhabitants include small scale farmers, fishers and shrimpers, landless people, game wardens, NGO workers, pirates, and bandits. 

Over the last decade, the border itself has been reinvented as a climate borderland, a locus of international attention as a front line of sovereignty in a warming world. The delta is often described as a wasteland, its once fertile lands becoming increasingly saline, its fishing and shrimping industries collapsing. Governmental agencies and NGOs attempt an array of projects meant to contain the effects of climate change and keep the region’s population in place.  At the same time, it’s the site of a new industrial corridor and an epicenter for new energy and power plants. The existence of these incommensurate futures drew Cons’s interest. His work in progress is a broad investigation of the delta emerging from the desire to understand what happens when so many future-making projects accumulate in one place. 

Cons thinks of the delta as a “climate frontier,” a space in which multiple temporal and spatial projects co-exist.  The metaphor of “capture” serves as a useful analytic to convey the particular sets of relations he wishes to bring together in his thinking. Capture here refers to a set of processes of seizure that secures rents, bodies, and  territories in order to hold and control them. It provides ways to think about the relations between the politics of conservation and piracy, a framework for understanding new forms of banditry along with new ways of conservation. Capture is an animating force, causing people and institutions to act. 

Frontiers are processes of capture of different kinds opportunity,  and a way to see how things in constant flux are connected. A characteristic of frontiers tends to be the production of new predator/prey relations. For example, fisherman are the prey of various humans looking to capture them: pirates, game wardens, and others. Frontier relations are not meant to be sustainable. The particular kind of dynamics that emerge in frontiers may cause ecological shifts that change behaviors. As resources within their territories dwindle, the tigers begin to prey on livestock.

Fellows responded to Cons’s figuring of the capture metaphor by suggesting he consider different modalities of capture. In HI director Pauline Strong’s work, Captive Selves, Captivating Others: The Politics and Poetics of Colonial American Captivity, captivity emerges as a practice through which people forged multiple kinds of relationships. Predator/ prey is one specific form of capture; too much focus on it leaves aside more relational forms of capture. Capture can also be a creative act, as in the capturing of a  recording or image. This “softer” side of capture provides a means to call attention and and bear witness.

The delta is being constituted as a particular kind of space with relation to other places, a climate ground zero. It’s also a space of competing temporalities, with different ideas of the future unfolding in the present all at once, without a shared timeframe of when that future is: the annual farming cycle, the three year fishing cycle, the development agency timelines of 25-50 years.

The discussion closed with Cons sharing some of his intent for the book. Development imaginaries often start from a dystopian vision of the wrong bodies in the wrong  places. For Cons, one of the most alarming things is that problematic imagination of what development is and does. It’s racialized, it furthers inequalities, and  also doesn’t do what it claims to do. It’s horrifying. Interventions should be understood through this lens.

Introducing “The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities”

 

On January 28,  Humanities Institute Director Dr. Pauline Strong led the first session of the 2020-2022 Faculty Fellows Seminar, “The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities.”  As an introduction to the theme, she presented the Humanities Institute’s successful proposal to the Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes to conduct a Global Humanities Institute in Summer 2022 on the theme “Climate Justice and Problems of Scale.” Three of the 2020-2022 Fellows—Heather Houser, Katherine Liebernecht, and Adam Rabinowitz—also participated in the proposal process.  The proposal provided a starting point for the discussion of two broad and intersecting themes: the possibilities and complications provided by an environmental humanities perspective, and the role of scale in identifying and analyzing environmental issues.

The environmental humanities both offers opportunities for interdisciplinary inquiry and presents challenges. Fellows identified multiple tensions presented by the effort to construct a common interdisciplinary project. Some tensions revolved around the relationship of the humanities to other disciplines. Questions arose as to whether a common project even exists. Speaking of  “the” environmental humanities or “the” natural sciences implies a unitary focus that elides difference not just between but within disciplines. Unitary conceptions of the human also came under scrutiny. How is the “we” in documents such as the United Nations report “The Future We Want” constituted? Colonialism shapes understandings of what is human, making it imperative to attend to projections of “the human factor” or “the human condition.”

Tensions between the specific and the general carried into methodological questions. Interdisciplinary work requires translation across disciplinary practices within the academy. What methods are best suited to the production of environmental knowledge?  Humanities disciplines share a reliance on interpretive methods. Should the humanities be more accommodating of quantification? Practices such as close reading, with its intent focus on particular works, are a product of a culture that values the private individual over the collective, a factor in the current environmental crisis. Perhaps methods such as Franco Moretti’s “distant reading”—which uses tools developed in the digital humanities to focus on trends rather than singularities—provide a more relevant mode of inquiry  at a time of environmental crisis. Research design focused on environmental and social justice often calls for new ways of structuring research, highlighting the need to build internal institutional capacity.  To affect policy, this work must also move outside of the academy. What tools do we need to translate it into policy applications?

As an analytical tool, scale facilitates thinking across space and time; it enables us to connect the dumping of pollutants in one place to the appearance of toxins in ecosystems thousands of miles away, and allows disparate communities damaged by the actions of a single multinational corporation to stand together in solidarity (Sze 2016). However, scale is culturally situated and technologically mediated. We inhabit multiple scales simultaneously; environmental catastrophes can also be experienced and observed in multiple scales.

 The concept of “zoom” illustrates the harm that can be done by scalar thinking.  Zoom gives us the ability to pull back or hone in. Either extreme presents difficulties: not everything is visible in the service of the scale. Pull out too far and difference disappears; hone in too closely and you risk overemphasizing  a singular detail.  What is set aside or ignored to allow scale? How does the scale of “the local” enable the exclusion of histories of displacement and migration? The entanglements of scale and privilege can allow people to focus on individual actions rather than collective approaches to identifying and addressing social and environmental crises.

A focus on story or narrative emerged as one way to mitigate the damage done by scalar thinking.  Both qualitative and quantitative disciplines use story to communicate their findings.  Rachel Carson relied on story to convince the public of the dangers of DDT; engineers use story to promote particular solutions or projects.  Fellow Heather Houser’s book, Infowhelm: Environmental Art and Literature in an Age of Data, explores the ways visual artists and  writers create new ways of understanding the overwhelming  amount of information available to us in an age of climate crisis. The session provided a broad review of topics with which the Fellows will engage this year.