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.

 

“Toni Morrisson: The Pieces I Am” opens Fall Controversy and Conversation series

The first Thursday of the month usually finds Controversy and Conversation meeting at the Terrazas branch of the Austin Public Library to watch and discuss a documentary film. This fall, however, we’re gathering virtually through Zoom to discuss films selected for our theme of “Racial and Social Justice.” The series began with “Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am,” a powerful documentary about the life and work of the celebrated author. For our conversation, Dr. Helena Woodard shared her insight on Morrison’s work. Dr. Woodard’s expertise and passion guided an illuminating discussion.

In our virtual version of Controversy and Conversation, participants screen the film on their own, ahead of the discussion. The virtual format makes it possible for people outside of the Austin area to participate. One participant joined us from Australia!

On September 3, we’ll be discussing Ava DuVarney’s film, 13th. We hope you’ll join us, whatever part of the globe you’re on.

Provocative Works on Racial Injustice and Health Inequity from Recent HI Visitors

By Dr. Sarah Ropp, HI Difficult Dialogues Program Coordinator and Andrew W. Mellon Engaged Scholar Initiative Fellow

The Humanities Institute is privileged to welcome outstanding visiting scholars, performers, and activists to UT each year as part of various programs, including the Cline Centennial Professorship in the Humanities, the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series, and the Difficult Dialogues Public Forums, among others. We have gathered together a few resources by recent visitors that speak to racial injustice and health inequities in a number of different formats, from books and articles to video and music.

Rita Charon, MD, PhD

In September 2016, the Humanities Institute welcomed Rita Charon as its ninth C.L. and Henriette Cline Centennial Visiting Professor. Charon is Professor of Medicine and founder and Executive Director of the Program in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University. Her Distinguished Public Lecture for the Humanities Institute, entitled “The Shock of Attention: Bodies, Stories, and Healing,” can be viewed at this link

Upcoming Event: On Thursday, July 16, 2020, at 1pm CDT, Charon will be participating in an online conversation hosted by the Modern Language Association entitled “Medicine, Narrative, Power, and Pandemic,” along with physician and fiction writer Aakriti Pandita. They will respond to the questions, “How can narrative and the humanities help us understand this pandemic? And how can they make medicine smarter, more equitable, and more effective?” Register for the event HERE.

Alondra Nelson, PhD

In 2018, Alondra Nelson delivered a Humanities Institute Symposium keynote lecture on her book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Beacon Press, 2016) as part of the Distinguished Visiting Lecture Series. President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) and the Harold F. Linder Professor of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, she has produced a number of recent works that speak to intersections between race, social inequality, health care, and activism:

Article: In “Society after Pandemic,” Nelson asks, “How do the social conditions exposed, exacerbated, and created by the novel coronavirus demand that we substantively rethink our ideas of society and, therefore, some of the prevailing assumptions of social science?” This is the inaugural essay in the SSRC’s “Covid-19 and the Social Sciences” series.

Teaching resource: The #coronavirussyllabus is an open-access, living list of texts for teaching about Covid-19 in social, historical, and political context, from scholarly books and articles, to music, visual art, and film, to podcasts and videos. Nelson initiated this crowdsourcing effort with the Twitter hashtag #coronavirussyllabus, inviting contributions from around the globe and across a wide variety of disciplines.  

Video: Recently, Nelson participated in a virtual roundtable hosted by the Modern Language Association entitled “Is Higher Education Learning from the Pandemic?” along with Cathy N. Davidson and Christopher Newfield. 

Book: Nelson’s contributions to scholarship on health equity and racial justice date to at least 2011, when she published her first book, Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press), which argues, “The Black Panther Party’s understanding of health as a basic human right and its engagement with the social implications of genetics anticipated current debates about the politics of health and race.”  

(Photo credit: Daniel Cavazos)

Eric Klinenberg, PhD

In fall 2018, Eric Klinenberg was the featured speaker for a Difficult Dialogues Public Forum on “Climate Change, Social Infrastructure, and Inequality,” hosted by the Humanities Institute and Planet Texas 2050. Klinenberg is Helen Gould Shepard Professor of Social Science and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge at New York University. Klinenberg’s work explores the failures of social infrastructure in moments of crisis, especially for historically neglected populations.

Video: “The Chicago Heat Wave, 20 Years Later” is a talk given by Klinenberg at the 2015 Chicago Humanities Festival that picks up the ideas presented in his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago (University of Chicago Press). In this book, the publisher writes, “Klinenberg uncovers how a number of surprising and unsettling forms of social breakdown—including the literal and social isolation of seniors, the institutional abandonment of poor neighborhoods, and the retrenchment of public assistance programs—contributed to the high fatality rates” of the record-breaking 1995 Chicago heat wave. 

Book: In Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life (Penguin Random House, 2018), Klinenberg argues that “the future of democratic societies rests not simply on shared values but on shared spaces: the libraries, childcare centers, churches, and parks where crucial connections are formed.”

Article: “Worry Less about Crumbling Roads, More about Crumbling Libraries,” a September 2018 Atlantic article, presents Klinenberg’s basic thesis for Palaces of the People

(Photo credit: Daniel Cavazos)

Martha Redbone 

The Humanities Institute, in partnership with Native American and Indigenous Studies and Texas Performing Arts, was honored to host Martha Redbone for a fall 2019 Difficult Dialogues Public Forum entitled “Indigeneity, the Land, and Storytelling” along with Angelo Baca and Anne Lewis. Redbone is a Native and African American multi-award-winning musician and storyteller celebrated for her roots music embodying the folk, indigenous, and mountain blues sounds of her childhood in the Appalachian hills of Kentucky. 

Theater: This clip presents “Caught My Eye,” a song from Bone Hill, Redbone’s interdisciplinary theater work, which premiered in 2015 at Joe’s Pub in New York City (Redbone also presented Bone Hill: The Concert at Bass Concert Hall in February 2020.) Redbone explains, “Bone Hill is the true account of my ancestors, of post-slavery, and people of color working in the coal mines of Appalachia amid the laws of Jim Crow and our survival as the original people of that land as the world changes around us through the generations.” 

Album: Redbone’s most recent album is Garden of Love: Songs of William Blake. Of the album, Anastasia Tsioulcas of NPR writes, “Martha Redbone’s music chronicles the crossroads of the American experience. Born in Kentucky and of Cherokee, Choctaw and African American descent, Redbone combines folk, Appalachian, soul and Native tradition in a group of settings of poetry by William Blake – a startling idea, perhaps, but one that brims with potency and freshness.” 

“On Another’s Sorrow” is a song from the album that resonates particularly deeply at the current moment, asking: “Can I see another’s war and not be in sorrow too?”

“How Sweet I Roamed” is another song from the album that, Redbone writes, could have been the prelude to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” 

Other Songs: Redbone performs her version of “Drums,” originally written by Peter La Farge, at the 2018 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. The song is a testament to the violence of forced removal and state “education” and is a part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. “You may teach us of this country’s history,” the song goes, “but we taught it to you first.” 

Redbone performs the slave spiritual “No More Auction Block” in 2017 in the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Howard Gilman Opera House in association with Voices of a People’s History of the United States.  

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.

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