10-11 October 2014, Munich, Germany
The 2014 Workshop of the Postgraduate Forum Environment, Literature, and Culture (ELC) with a focus on “Ecological Othering and Biopolitics” set out to investigate the manifold intersections between biopolitical inquiry in the tradition of Michel Foucault and the environmental humanities – particularly through the figure of the “ecological other” developed by Sarah Ray. To this end, an international group of twelve scholars at various stages in their academic career met in the Rachel-Carson Center in Munich from October 10-11, 2014 in order to discuss salient theoretical texts on this topic, their own work concerned with questions of biopolitics in environmental discourses, and also personally engage with two renowned experts in the field, Dr. Clare Barker (Leeds) and Dr. Sarah Ray (Humboldt State).
In order to outline the range of the workshop topic, and clarify, or possibly complicate, its key terms, the workshop began with discussing two main theoretical texts, the introduction to Ray’s The Ecological Other: Environmental Exclusion in American Culture (2013) and Achille Mbembe’s “Necropolitics” (2003). Ray’s text was recognized for its intervention in the field by linking environmental humanities, especially environmental justice, biopolitics, and disability studies, so as to mount a critique of exclusion in American mainstream environmentalism that seeks to remove the “disabled body” from nature perceived as pristine, pure, and therefore only to be rightfully inhabited by the “fit body.” In the lively discussion of the text, a number of critical points were also raised, for instance if Ray’s overall claim makes use of too broad a term of “environmentalism” in order to account for its varied history, and if some forms of “ecological othering” are not more closely associated with “classism” than Ray’s analysis suggests. In conclusion, the “ecological other” was judged as a helpful way of framing some of environmentalism’s “blind spots,” and the ways these are used to justify exclusionary policies in contexts of racism, imperialism, and ableism. Mbembe’s text, read in dialogue, convincingly demonstrates how bio- and necropolitical structures manifest, particular in (late) colonial contexts in forms of architecture and infrastructure, thus forming also a particular environment in these biopolitical terms. Furthermore, the discussion of bio- and necropolitics in tandem with Ray’s Ecological Other made clear how the principle of racial biopolitics, to justify exclusion and killing based on the notion of purifying a population, is transferred in Ray’s work to the idea that a pure environment can only be attained by excluding and removing the “unfit body” from it. The discussion of the texts was followed by Clare Barker’s keynote address “Environment, Disability and Postcolonial Health,” that shed further light on the workshop’s key concerns, and also brought to mind its political and activist significance. Demonstrating with reference to Anthony Carrigan how postcolonial environments are also disabling environments, Barker explored in her reading of Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People, dealing with the lasting effects of the Bhopal disaster in 1984, in which ways the disabled body can also be configured as a site for political enablement and activism in a postcolonial context. Sarah Ray responded to the lecture via video-chat and used the opportunity to raise central questions about the biopolitical conditions for ecological othering, the dimensions of temporality, spatiality and corporeality involved in these processes, and also the importance of the humanities’ work in more general terms, which all provided a very fruitful ground for a lively discussion afterwards. The evening concluded with a poster session, in which Devon Grissim (Bern) presented her work on the “Ironic Other in Environmentalism” in regard to Paul Kingsnorth and the tactical discrepancies between his Dark Mountain Manifesto and his eco-fatalist essays and interviews, and Katja Rüping (Cologne) presented her work on “(Human) Nature and the Potentiality of Healing – Environmental Postcolonialism in Contemporary Indigenous Australian Narratives,” which seeks to investigate how a more relational view troubles the concrete distinctions between self/other, inside/outside, body/environment in texts by Kim Scott and Alexis Wright; both projects provided added perspectives to the topics discussed and nicely rounded off the first day.
The second day was dedicated to discussing texts contributed by the workshop participants. Corinna Lenhardt (Münster) introduced the group to an excerpt of Mel Y. Chen’s Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (2012), which prompted questions on how the text complexly negotiates the terms of animacy, animality, the inaminate/animate, and acting/acted-upon. The following discussion of Sebastian Huber’s (LMU) chapter on “Set Theoretical Ecology,” enriched this debate by outlining Alain Badiou’s set theory as an object oriented ontology that can be made use of to articulate a “political ecology.” In the second session, the workshop discussed René Dietrich’s (Mainz) essay on settler colonial biopolitics and an Indigenous politics of life founded on the interrelationality of all life-forms in Linda Hogan’s poetry volume The Book of Medicines, and Lenka Filipova’s (FU Berlin) chapter on localized cosmopolitanism based in a “progressive sense of place” (Doreen Massey) in Kim Scott’s The Deadman Dance and Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide. After lunch, the workshop participants went on talk about Karsten Levihn-Kutzler’s (Frankfurt) chapter on nuclear annihilation in the context of global risk scenarios in Neville Shute’s On the Beach and Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7; and Basak Agin Dönmez (METU Ankara) provided in her contribution a perspective on “posthuman ecologies” and forms of ecological othering in the animated films Happy Feet, Wall-E, and The Lost Thing. All of the contributions discussed demonstrated the range of projects invested in the workshop’s key issues and contributed further intriguing perspectives on these questions. A closing discussion with a focus on the situation of young academics in the (environmental) humanities, and a final thanks to Hanna Straß and Antonia Mehnert for organizing this workshop and making it such a rewarding experience for everyone involved, concluded then these two days of fruitful and inspiring conversation that may serve as one example of how to set the stage for more, much needed work that interrogates the connections and tensions between biopolitical configurations and environmental politics.
~ René Dietrich (Mainz)
We as organizers of this year’s ELC workshop would like to thank all of the participants for making the workshop a wonderful experience with stimulating and productive discussions. We also thank EASLCE for their financial support as well as the Rachel Carson Center for providing us with a perfect workshop location. A special thanks goes to the research training group “Globalization and Literature” at LMU who made it possible to invite our keynote speaker, Clare Barker from the University of Leeds.
~ Antonia Mehnert & Hanna Straß (München)
Thanks to this year’s sponsors and supporters