Tag Archives: environment

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.


Three HI Affiliates Featured in Latest Issue of “Life and Letters”

In the latest issue of Life and Letters, several faculty from the College of Liberal Arts offer their perspectives on “Rebooting Our Lives After COVID-19.” Among the faculty included are two of our Difficult Dialogues professors: Robert Crosnoe, Associate Dean of Liberal Arts and Professor of Sociology, whose Difficult Dialogues course is called “Race and Policy in the U.S.,” and Ken-Hou Lin, Associate Professor of Sociology, who teaches “Two to Tango: The Sociology of Interpersonal Relationships” for the program. Another faculty member who contributed to the article, Heather Houser, Associate Professor of English, is collaborating with the Humanities Institute on our new theme, The Humanities in the Environment/The Environment in the Humanities.

Controversy & Conversation Staff Selections: Earth Month Documentaries Available on Kanopy

By Zack Chatterjee Shlachter (Austin Public Library), Louis Gill (C&C Volunteer), and Kathryn North (UT Humanities Institute).

Since 2015, the Austin Public Library has partnered with the University of Texas Humanities Institute to present the Controversy & Conversation Documentary Film Series. On the first Thursday of each month, an award-winning documentary film on a controversial social topic of the day is screened at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library and is followed by a community discussion of the issue. Each season, the APL/HI team chooses 5-6 films to screen, and directors of the documentaries or community leaders are frequently present to participate in the discussion and answer questions. Now in its sixth year, the Controversy & Conversation Program has shown over 50 films and has featured guest speakers from local and international organizations such as Austin Justice Coalition, Circle of Hope International, Common Cause Texas, the Environmental Defense Fund, Keep Austin Fed, People’s Community Clinic, SAFE Austin, Sierra Club, and Texas After Violence Project.

In this collaborative blog post, the organizing team of the Controversy and Conversation Documentary Film Series has compiled a list of recommended environmental films available to view through Kanopy, an on-demand video streaming platform for public and academic libraries. With thousands of titles, Kanopy is available to Austin Public Library cardholders and to University of Texas students, staff and faculty.

To sign up through your Austin Public Library account, follow the instructions here. You will need your library card number and pin/password. Don’t have a library card, or need to renew your account? You can still apply for an eCard in order to obtain access to the Austin Public Library’s Virtual Library at http://bit.ly/3b4bxao. If your card has expired, you can renew it at http://bit.ly/2Wlzrdz.

To access Kanopy through the University of Texas Libraries, visit https://utexas.kanopy.com/ with your UT EID and password ready.

Once you have accessed Kanopy through either your APL account or UT EID, you will then create an account on Kanopy itself. Kanopy is presently providing APL cardholders 5 viewing credits a month, in addition to a slate of “credit-free viewing” titles; folks with access via the University of Texas have unlimited streaming.

C&C Staff Selected Environmental Films (alphabetical order):

Angry Inuk (2016)
(English, Inuit)
This documentary complicates our understanding of mainstream animal welfare and “environmental” campaigns by looking at sealing bans from the perspective of the Inuit. Filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril simultaneously paints a loving portrait of her multi-generational community, bears witness to its ongoing activism, and makes us consider the anti-indigenous racism and misleading impact of feel-good, consumer-oriented campaigns. Angry Inuk is the winner of a Top 20 Audience Favorites Award and the Canadian Documentary Promotion Award at Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch – How Humans Have Impacted the Planet (2018)
A cinematic meditation on humanity’s massive reengineering of the planet, Anthropocene: The Human Epoch is a four-years-in-the-making feature documentary film from the multiple-award winning team of Jennifer Baichwal, Nicholas de Pencier and Edward Burtynsky, the award-winning team behind Manufactured Landscapes and Watermark. The film follows the research of an international body of scientists traveling to six continents and 20 countries to document the impact humans have made on the planet. Narrated by Alicia Vikander, Anthropocene has been nominated for 14 awards with 7 wins including the Robert Brooks Award for Documentary Cinematography, the Toronto Film Critics Associations’ Rogers Award, and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle’s Best Canadian Documentary Award. 

Behemoth – A Mediation on China’s Coal and Iron Industries (2015)(Chinese, w/ subtitles)
Behemoth is a  gorgeous and ugly look at the impact of China’s rapid industrialization on the environment and people of Inner Mongolia.  Minimal and poetic narration that pushes the film closer to a tone poem than a traditional documentary, but you won’t see these scenes in any other movie.  Directed by Zhou Liang. Screened at the 2015 Venice International Film Festival; banned in China.

The Island President (2011)
A month before this film’s theatrical release in 2012, Mohamed Nasheed resigned under gunpoint as president of the Maldives. (He has subsequently returned from exile and last year resumed office as the speaker of the Maldives’ legislature.) Repeatedly arrested in the 1990s for his human rights journalism, Nasheed later came to international prominence for his work in the fight against climate change and to hold wealthy countries accountable for the disproportionate impact that will be felt across the Global South. The Island President won the Sundance Institute Hilton Lightstay Sustainability Award and the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Landfill Harmonic – A Symphony of the Human Spirit (2015)
Landfill Harmonic follows the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura, a Paraguayan musical group that plays instruments made entirely out of garbage. When their story goes viral, the orchestra is catapulted into the global spotlight. Under the guidance of idealistic music director Favio Chavez, the orchestra must navigate a strange new world of arenas and sold-out concerts. However, when a natural disaster strikes their country, Favio must find a way to keep the orchestra intact and provide a source of hope for their town. Winner of a number of film festival awards including the SXSW Audience Award, the film is directed by Brad Allgood, Graham Townsley, and Juliana Penaranda-Loftus.

Right to Harm – The Public Health Impact Caused by Factory Farming (2019)
Through the riveting stories of five rural communities, Right to Harm exposes the devastating public health impact factory farming has on many disadvantaged citizens throughout the United States. Filmed across the country, the documentary chronicles the failures of state agencies to regulate industrial animal agriculture facilities known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs). Fed up with the lack of regulation, these disenfranchised citizens band together to demand justice from their legislators. Directed by Annie Speicher and Matt Wechsler, the film was nominated for the Best Global Health Film at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

Films Selected for Controversy and Conversation:

Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things (2016)
We will be holding a virtual Controversy & Conversation screening of Minimalism on Thursday, April 23. (Details can be found HERE.)
How might your life be better with less? Minimalism examines the many flavors of minimalism by taking the audience inside the lives of minimalists from all walks of life—families, entrepreneurs, architects, artists, journalists, scientists, and even a former Wall Street broker—all of whom are striving to live a meaningful life with less. From director Matt D’Avella, Minimalism had the largest indie documentary box-office opening of 2016.

RiverBlue (2017)
Riverblue was originally scheduled to be screened on April 2 at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. We plan to screen the film in a future season.
Following international river conservationist, Mark Angelo, RiverBlue spans the globe to infiltrate one of the world’s most pollutive industries, fashion. Narrated by clean water supporter Jason Priestley, this groundbreaking documentary examines the destruction of our rivers, its effect on humanity, and the solutions that inspire hope for a sustainable future. Directed by David McIlvride and Roger Williams, RiverBlue won Best Feature Documentary at the Raindance and Madrid International Film Festivals as well as Best Environmental Film at the Eugene International Film Festival. 

How To Change The World – The Story of Greenpeace (2015)
This film was screened at the Terrazas Branch on April 6, 2017.
This astonishing documentary chronicles the adventures of an eclectic group of young pioneers – Canadian hippie journalists, photographers, musicians, scientists, and American draft dodgers – who set out to stop Richard Nixon’s atomic bomb tests in Amchitka, Alaska, and end up creating the worldwide green movement. From filmmaker Jerry Rothwell, the film won the Editing Award and was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. 

Sushi: The Global Catch (2011)
This film was screened at the Terrazas Branch on April 7, 2016.
In this meticulously researched documentary, filmmaker Mark Hall traces the origins of sushi in Japan to its status today as a cuisine that has spawned a lucrative worldwide industry. This explosion in demand for sushi over the past 30 years has brought with it problems of its own, as fish stocks have steadily depleted, threatening the balance of the ocean’s ecosystems. Directed by Mark Hall and winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2011 Seattle International Film Festival, the film raises some pressing questions that all sushi lovers should seek to address.

Note on Austin Connection: the film focuses on the ecological collapse through the lens of the sushi industry, but is also from a local Austin Director who takes a broader scope than its premise suggests, swirling through overfishing, the ethics of hatcheries, and the power of consumer demand.  All this, plus a thoughtful appearance from the Executive Chef of Uchi.

Blue Gold: World Water Wars (2009)
Blue Gold was screened at the Terrazas Branch on February 5, 2015.
This award winning documentary directed by Sam Bozzo is based on the book BLUE GOLD: THE FIGHT TO STOP THE CORPORATE THEFT OF THE WORLD’S WATER by Maude Barlow and Tony Clark. The film examines the problems created by the privatization and commoditization of water.

About the Controversy and Conversation Team:

Zack Chatterjee Shlachter is a library associate at the Terrazas Branch of the Austin Public Library. Still teased by friends for helping start a recycling club in high school, Zack is involved these days with social justice and mutual aid projects in town. He is currently reading The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin.

Louis Gill is a professional analyst, former mathematician, and long-time volunteer for Austin Public Library, working with C&C since their second screening.  He gets his love of books from a long line of rural Oklahoma librarians and his love of cinema from moving to Austin. He is still upset about Vulcan Video.  

Kathryn North is the Administrative Program Coordinator of the UT Humanities Institute. Prior to joining UT, she was an ESL teacher in New York and then a teacher trainer in New Delhi. Working for 5 years in India and experiencing resource scarcity first hand, Kathryn’s interest in environmentalism grew, and she strives to maintain a sustainable lifestyle. Kathryn graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in Cinema Studies and is pleased to revisit her love for documentary films as part of the C&C team.  

For a list of previous films and speakers and to find out about upcoming screenings, please visit the Humanities Institute website. Information about upcoming films can also be found on the APL’s event page

Soldiers, Kings, and the Ethics of Ethnography

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

On October 24 the Faculty Fellows seminar was led by Jason De León, Professor in the Department of Anthropology and Chicana/o Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and author of the prizewinning book, The Land of Open Graves. Previous to the seminar, Dr. de Leon gave a Distinguished Visiting Lecture on his work titled “Soldiers and Kings: A Photoethnography of Human Smuggling Across Mexico,” covering research for an upcoming book and a range of topics including masculinity, representation, radical reflexivity and anxiety, and the ethics of ethnography. 

Dr. De León began the seminar with an introduction to his evolving research methodology, beginning with his early career as a Mesoamerican archeologist studying volcanic glass tools. While working in archeological excavations, De León became interested in the narratives and stories of the workmen digging alongside archeologists, including stories of the border and migration. De León’s work evolved into documenting material culture around the border, particularly in the Arizona desert, taking stock of material goods people take to cross the border, and noting what is left behind in the journey or in makeshift “rest stops.”  Having archived 8,000 different objects at UCLA, De León’s work developed into the Undocumented Migrant Project, a multidisciplinary research project that includes his most recent artistic collaboration, Hostile Terrain 94. This latest project is a participatory installation composed of roughly 3,200 handwritten toe tags representing migrants who have died trying to cross the Sonoran Desert between the mid-1990s and 2019. De León noted that his most recent book project will further explore issues at the border, focusing on smuggling and smugglers. 

Fellows questioned De León’s stated uneasiness with both ethnography and exhibition, which he had expanded on during his introduction. He admitted that though he currently views the exhibition and museum space as a place of potential experimentation, he initially worried that museum spaces presented too neat of a narrative, a problem he similarly faced in anthropology. Additionally, he wanted to avoid fetishizing the objects he archived, or setting migrants at a remove from the curator or audience. Yet he noted that the art space provides an opportunity for people to be made uncomfortable, or to be moved, allowing De León more freedom to craft a specific message or statement than in a written narrative. 

Fellows additionally interrogated De León’s depiction of smugglers, namely, how he would avoid either slipping into stereotyping or valorizing his subjects. De León stated that his aim is to undermine the typical narratives of smugglers made by the U.S. federal government and border patrol, presenting smugglers  as people who have done bad–even terrible–things, but also as people responding to a complex set of circumstances, from economic hardship to labor pull to interventionist policies on the part of the U.S. itself. He discussed the issues attendant on choosing to craft this book as one for a more general audience, noting that he wanted to write a book that would have the impact of fiction with the theoretical heft of academic ethnography. Fellows remarked on the clarity and compelling quality of his work, and the seminar closed with anticipation for his book and exhibition (which may be mounted in Austin–stay tuned!).