Tag Archives: faculty fellows

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.

 

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.

Keeping Your Story Straight: Narrative & Storytelling in Dispute Mediation

By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant

The Faculty Fellows seminar for December 5th was led by Dr. Madeline Maxwell, Professor in the Department of Communication Studies in the Moody College of Communication. In addition to discussing her research on conflict resolution, Dr. Maxwell discussed her work as founder and organizer of the UT Project on Conflict Resolution and the graduate portfolio program in Dispute and Conflict Resolution. Maxwell’s seminar took an unusual turn into introducing her topic, adding a note of intrigue in the form of a game.

Maxwell began by describing the disputes she mediates as ones that can threaten clients’ well-being fundamentally because of the risk they pose to clients’ personal narrative. Solutions, she noted, are often secondary to the issue of having a story that clients can tell themselves about the dispute and its resolution. She also discussed her plans to eventually write about storytelling in mediation, as well as mediation and conflict resolution as educational modalities. Teaching negotiation tactics can often be effective ways of teaching people how to work together and how to compromise, pedagogy that she has into practice with the Global Ethics and Conflict Resolution Summer Symposium. The Symposium provides high school students the opportunity to learn conflict resolution skills that apply to everything from personal disputes to global issues. Maxwell stated she would like to further explore the benefits of communication and conflict resolution skills training in education alongside her current work.

Maxwell then informed the group that they would be doing a short exercise to demonstrate the ways in which storytelling often coincides with conflict resolution. Two Fellows selected by Maxwell read from a prepared script, telling a fragmented story of two seemingly separate, unconnected events. The rest of the group was permitted to ask the two readers any question they liked about the stories, with the caveat that the readers could only answer “yes” or “no.” The goal, Maxwell explained, was to uncover the full story connecting the two incidents. The Fellows had a lively Q&A, though several details still seemed unclear. Finally, Maxwell and the volunteered Fellows told the entire story.

Through this exercise, Maxwell provided further context for her work, noting the fungibility of words and the inexact science of interpreting disputants’ meanings. Maxwell explained that disputants in mediation will often have spoken or unspoken agreements about what is to be disclosed in the session, which further complicate the role of the mediator. The seminar closed with a discussion of Maxwell’s future projects and goals, as well as a discussion of mediating as a profession and the  relationship between leadership and mediation. Maxwell explained that teaching leadership skills isn’t a matter of teaching people to be assertive, or forcing people into a perceived best outcome. Rather, it’s a process of listening, compromising, and actively finding an agreeable outcome for everyone in a group–what might be called a common story.