Fall 2013 Colloquium Blog

Welcome to the blog for the UC Davis E&S Mellon Research Initiative fall 2013 Colloquium Series. The purpose of this blog is to extend the discussion of the issues and concerns spurred by each colloquium meeting in the fall quarter to a broader online audience with the aid of additional synthetic commentary and links to useful web resources or further reading.

We encourage readers to engage in the discussion by posting comments at the end of the blog. Please click the “Leave a Comment/View Comments” link at the end of the blog to post a comment on it or view previous comments on the blog. Comments will appear on the website after the moderator’s approval.

You may cite this blog as: Moore, S. Fall 2013 Environments & Societies Colloquium Blog: Uncertain Concern, Paradoxes of Planetary Politics, and Loving Nature to Death. Retrieved [date], from http://environmentsandsocieties.ucdavis.edu/category/colloquium-blog/

Uncertain Concern, Paradoxes of Planetary Politics, and Loving Nature to Death

January 13, 2014

By Sophie Moore, UC Davis Cultural Studies Doctoral Student and E&S Graduate Student Researcher

In fall 2013, four visiting scholars representing the fields of history, comparative literature, English, and geography participated in the E&S colloquium series. From diverse disciplinary locations, each scholar’s new work thinks through the theoretical and material sharing of responsibility for environmental change in the anthropocene. Problems of scale, of permeability, and of visibility connect this quarter’s discussions of how to be “ecologically minded” (Thornber) while also accounting for the delicate horizon of environmental caring. Participants engaged, broadly, with postcolonial, postmodern, and transnational concerns about the political and cultural disposition of ecological sensibility in a time of pressing uncertainty and dispersed responsibility, measured in both empirical and theoretical terms. The fall series guides us through an emerging paradigm of collective responsibility at the edge of understanding – at the cusp, or over the abyss – of planetary environmental consciousness. At this edge, theoretical frameworks drawing from science and technology studies, activist struggles, posthumanism, and political theory (see suggestions for further reading, below) test the methodological boundaries that delineate environmental knowledge from ecologically-minded caring – the border-zone of loving nature to death.

The fall series models the cross-disciplinarity of the environmental humanities in the diversity of its theoretical allies. By reading literary, historical, and cultural models, this quarter’s scholars engage us in thinking through the problems and possibilities of an ecological politics that depends on participation in planetary consciousness. E&S discussions focused on the eco-political commitments embodied in figures of contradiction, entanglement, and ambiguity that mark the precarious sharing of life on this planet. Chris Pastore’s drying of the colonial coastline and Stacy Alaimo’s ethical aesthetics of marine capture signal the emergence of structures of environmental consciousness concurrent with a new planetary horizon of environmental change. Karen Thornber’s concept of eco-ambiguity troubles the imagined futures stretched between humans and others in the negotiation of productive or progressive ecological disposition. Bob Wilson’s discussion of the tensions between factionalism, radical pasts, and diverse futures focuses attention on the scaling of climate justice activism to a planetary politics.

Chris Pastore‘s paper, “Clams, Dams, and the Desiccation of Seventeenth-Century New England,” presents an environmental history of Narragansett Bay. He investigates the ‘watery borderlands’ at which the relation between land and sea was negotiated between early American settlers, Indians, and colonial interests across the Atlantic. In Pastore’s analysis, the New England coastline becomes a zone of indeterminacy and impermanence, shaped by environmental change concurrent with the emergence of a uniquely American material network of exchange. Through the figure of wampum and the mollusks from which it was made, Pastore’s paper explores the materiality of exchange originating from the sea, while also connecting it with a distinctive affective engagement with coastal environments between 1636 and 1839. Pastore’s reframing of the New England coastline offers opportunities for rethinking environmental change in terms of environmental as well as economic actors.

Karen Thornber‘s book chapter, “Paradoxical Green: Literature and Environment” offers East Asian literary examples of what she calls “loving nature to death.” Thornber’s framework of “ecoambiguity” defines the space in which nature is ‘loved to death,’ a zone of material-ideological discrepancy between attitudes and actions. As Thornber writes, “individuals who love, respect, or show fascination with nature often contribute, deliberately or inadvertently, to damaging or destroying it.” Thornber’s far-ranging chapter works to debunk romantic notions of Eastern ecological consciousness held in the West. Thornber’s work explores the environmental epistemology of contradiction, opening a path for thinking through the material effects of imagining nature. Colloquium discussion centered on degrees of ecological affect in loving nature to death, raising the question of being ‘less wrong’ as a stance within processes of environmental change.

Robert Wilson‘s paper “Forging the Climate Movement: Environmental Activism and the Keystone XL Pipeline” illuminates some of the actors engaged in the emergence of a 21st century American climate movement surrounding the Keystone XL pipeline. Wilson puts Keystone XL activism in conversation with earlier environmentalism, asking “What has changed since the early 1970s and how have these changes helped or constrained the development of a climate movement in the United States?” As do the other participants in the fall E&S series, Wilson investigates the dangers and the possibilities emergent at the intersection of known risk and unknowable future. Wilson thinks through the scaling of climate justice commitments against global ‘green’ neoliberalism, paying particular attention to the emergence of key figures in a moderate, middle-class movement around Keystone XL. Wilson’s paper provoked a thoughtful discussion of moderate and radical approaches to acting on an emergent field of environmental change.

Drawn from her current book project Composing Blue Ecologies, Stacy Alaimo‘s paper, “Visual Captures: Aesthetics, Politics and the Census of Marine Life” investigates contemporary possibilities for figuring the deep sea as a space of concern. Alaimo untangles the configuration of environmental concern in the anthropocene by examining the massive Census for Marine Life project, which “captured” and “framed” images of deep sea creatures discovered from 2000-2010, and made that research public. Alaimo’s inquiry challenges the appropriateness of ‘discovery’ as the organizing principle driving conservation, asking how to generate an “ethical sense of wonder” that allies scientific knowledge with abyssal concern in a new conservation model. For Alaimo, such concern is deeply political (after Rancière), raising possibilities of perceiving abyssal creatures as “citizens of the sea” despite their ‘alien’ status at the edge of anthropocentric understanding. Alaimo’s work invites a far-ranging discussion of planetary citizenship and its implications for non-terrestrial thinking.

A very brief list of suggestions for further reading:

Actor-Network Theory and material semiotics:

Law, John. http://difi.uniud.it/tl_files/utenti/crisci/Law 2009.pdf

Law, J. (2009). Actor network theory and material semiotics. The new Blackwell companion to social theory, 141-158.

Law, J., & Mol, A. (2008). The actor-enacted: Cumbrian sheep in 2001. In Material Agency (pp. 57-77). New York: Springer US.

Cultural Studies without cultures:

Blaser, M. (2009). Political Ontology: Cultural Studies without ‘cultures’?. Cultural Studies23(5-6), 873-896.

Haraway, D. “A game of cat’s cradle: science studies, feminist theory, cultural studies.” Configurations 2.1 (1994): 59-71.

Conservation and the (cosmo)political:

Li, T.M. (2007). The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development and the Practice of Politics. Durham: Duke University Press.

West, P. (2005). Conservation is our Government Now. Durham: Duke University Press.

Activism and the management of difference:

De la Cadena, M. (2010). “Indigenous cosmopolitics in the Andes: Conceptual reflections beyond “Politics”.” Cultural Anthropology 25.2: 334-370.

Escobar, A. (2008). Territories of Difference: Place, Movements, Life, Redes. Durham: Duke University Press.


Alaimo, Stacy. “Sustainable This, Sustainable That: New Materialisms, Posthumanism, and Unknown Futures.” PMLA 127.3 (2012): 558-564.

Wolfe, Cary. What is posthumanism?. Vol. 8. U of Minnesota Press, 2010.


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