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.