Originally published in RCC Perspectives,

16 April 2014

Reading Time: 15 minutes

A Dialogue on Form, Knowledge, and Representation

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a crowd of distinct people walk across a bridge, showing how form, knowledge, and representation can take different forms but still walk together

Gregg Mitman: Disciplines impose a certain form and structure on the world. When we see calls for multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, or transdisciplinary work, what is the impulse behind it? Is it, perhaps, that the forms of knowledge are so stagnant that they are out of sync with, and unable to adapt and respond to, dynamic processes at work in a changing world? Forms are sedimentations of processes that have already been. Indeed the whole question of disciplinarity seems to raise an age-old question in the life sciences: which comes first, form or function?

I think it is useful to remind ourselves that the individuated self, which is core to a neoliberal frame of the world, is in fact contested, even within the life sciences. As a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences notes, genetic identity is hardly a foundation for the biological self. Organisms, including humans, are complex assemblages of interspecies interactions and communications. Symbiosis, once thought of as an aberration in biology, is turning out to be more the rule than the exception. The biological is social all the way down.

Genetic identity is hardly a foundation for the biological self. Organisms, including humans, are complex assemblages of interspecies interactions and communications.

It is useful to remind ourselves that a number of biologists at the turn of the twentieth century, such as Charles Manning Child, whose views were influential in the development of ecology as a science, adhered vehemently to such a symbiotic view of the world, gaining traction once again in biology. Working on highly plastic organisms like Planaria, Child regarded the individual not as “independent and self-determining in its origin” but instead as an outcome of the “relations between living protoplasm and the external world.” Echoing John Dewey’s suggestion that “it is through association that man has acquired his individuality and it is through his association that he exercises it,” Child and his colleagues argued that “living goes on in and because of an environing medium.” Form, in other words, is an artifact of function. Or, in Donna Haraway’s language, partners never precede their relating. Such a view has important philosophical and pragmatic consequences for questions of agency, representation, and activism in the arena of environmental studies.

I’ve been borrowing from contemporary biology and the history of twentieth-century life sciences to challenge questions of individuation and structure upon which disciplines rely. Rob, I know literary studies have a lot to say about form and the individual self as subject. Is there anything in this biological debate that resonates with recent moves in ecocriticism and postcolonial studies?

Rob Nixon: Thanks, Gregg. Scholars like yourself and Donna Haraway have done such essential work in drawing to the surface these earlier lines of inquiry within the life sciences, lines of inquiry that maintain that “the biological is social all the way down.” Absolutely, there are resonances in terms of postcolonial and Indigenous studies—two fields that are in increasing conversation with each other. These resonances span questions of agency, representation, and activism. We are witnessing across much of the Global South and among Indigenous peoples of the North a pushback against the neoliberal assumption that the individual consumer (even more than the individual citizen) is the building block of society, the foundational unit of “development” and “growth.” Many Indigenous struggles are animated by very different cosmologies, antithetical to any idea of atomized selves that, when aggregated, constitute society. More often these cosmologies embrace porous, symbiotic relations among the human and the more-than-human.

Marisol de la Cadena’s insightful work on the resurgence of Indigenous cosmopolitics in Ecuador, Bolivia, and Peru is pertinent here. She notes how some Indigenous activists, opposing a mine in Peru, did so primarily because they feared the wrath of the mountain in a way that’s not reducible to the non-Indigenous environmentalist position that the mine would poison pastures. And when in 2008 Peru’s neoliberal president Alan Garcia sought to deregulate Amazonian territories to admit more mining, timber extraction, and dam building, an Indigenous coalition went on strike, proclaiming “We speak of our brothers who quench our thirst, who bathe us, those who protest our needs—this brother is what we call the river. We do not use the river for our sewage; a brother cannot stab another brother.”

De la Cadena notes how “the indigenous-popular movement has conjured sentient entities (mountains, water, and soil—what we call ‘nature’) into the public political arena” as neoliberal deregulation encourages extractivist interests to push into Indigenous territories. The presence of such tirakuna or earth beings as political actors is now acknowledged in Chapter 7 of Ecuador’s 2008 constitution, which affords rights to Pachamama (Source of Life).

All this has profound ontological and epistemological consequences for the ways we delimit being and partition knowledge. The coexistence of multiple cosmologies within a community calls to mind the rural Irish woman who, when asked by a visiting US anthropologist whether she believed in the “little people,” replied: “I do not, sir. But they are there anyway.”

We should remember what forms of knowledge and being continue to be marginalized or misconstrued by the lingering impress of that hegemonic tradition of disciplinary rationalization.

This returns us, Gregg, to the question of symbiosis that you raised in relation to the way the categories “human” and “nature” are organized, a critical issue for the environmental humanities. Just as neoliberalism is premised on the civilizing mission of creating ever more consumer individuals—individuals free to “choose”—so the neoliberal university is premised on the apparently self-evident categories of disciplines and departments, which can be mixed and matched, freeing them from their disciplinary shackles. Yes, startling work can emerge from transdisciplinary encounters, but we should remember what forms of knowledge and being continue to be marginalized or misconstrued by the lingering impress of that hegemonic tradition of disciplinary rationalization.

Pertinent here is Linda Hogan’s essay “Department of the Interior” in which she notes: “As American Indian people in the political body of the U.S. we are overseen and located under the governmental offices of the Department of the Interior, along with the rest of wilderness, forest, animals, fish. Like them, we are held in low regard.” The bracketing of Indians as “low lifes” with “lower” creatures resulted from settler racism. But ironically, that bureaucratic conflation was apposite for peoples who refused a categorical distinction between human and nonhuman sentience, including the sentient landscape itself. “Department of the Interior” brings together the existential question of interiority with both the Euro-American settler project of bureaucratic classificatory control and the geographical interior as a hostile, blank space of wildness (native, creaturely, and topographical) across which manifest destiny needed to be inscribed.

This brings us back to the issue of form and function that you raised, Gregg, a critical bridging issue that links the life sciences to the environmental humanities.

We’ve talked a bit about the relation between biological and bureaucratic forms, but what about creative form in the environmental arts? Among environmental activist-writers from the Global South the memoir has become a particularly favored form. But the memoir is premised on the exceptional individual life, whereas many Global South writer-activists have emerged from hybridized cosmologies that are not easily reducible to the kind of selfhood that the Western-based memoir industry expects. Nor are their forms of collective mobilization easily reducible to the exceptional individual story. Let’s ground this in the example of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt movement, a movement that planted over one hundred million trees in Kenya and beyond.

The ultrapoor are treated as disposable by neoliberal development ideologies, alongside the disposable ecologies on which they depend.

Maathai’s first book, The Green Belt Movement, has lots of “we’s” and almost no “I’s.” But by the time her memoir (Unbowed) appeared in 2006, Maathai and the Green Belt Movement had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. So, under pressure from her US and European publishers, she wrote an “I” book in which none of her cofounders or fellow organizers feature as textured characters with historical agency. She does make the point that the movement’s successes were collective, but that remains an abstract, largely unpeopled assertion. What the reader remembers is Maathai the exceptional individual who has triumphed over adversity, a story that fits the mold of Age-of-Oprah celebrity selfhood. This idea of celebrity selfhood feeds into the whole “yes you-can” ideology of heroic individual possibility that belies the deepening disparity, under neoliberalism, between the überrich and the ultrapoor, the latter treated as disposable by neoliberal development ideologies, alongside the disposable ecologies on which they depend. The Green Belt Movement arose among rural Kenyan women, the outcast poor, in opposition to forces of neoliberal globalization and national authoritarianism that were ravaging their environments. Yet their story, in Maathai’s memoir, morphs into a story much more compatible with a neoliberal developmental ideology. Thus we see how together the financial clout and dominant narrative traditions of the wealthy nations deeply skew the available forms of public memory.

I am wondering, Gregg, about your own experience—not only as a historian of science, but as a filmmaker, which must give you a whole different relationship to the question of form.

Gregg Mitman: You offer some telling examples, Rob, from different parts of the world of how dominant forms of knowledge and representation, sustained by global capital, set the rules of engagement. I wonder if history can be of some help here. Because we need to remind ourselves that disciplinary structures, literary forms, even scientific objects, have histories. They came into being by virtue of their power to do some type of work in the world for good or ill. But, as you so eloquently point out, other ways of being became marginalized or disappeared as those conventions took hold. What stories might we find of being in relation to the world that once were, might have been, or still exist, as your anecdote of the rural Irish woman so evocatively conveys? We need such stories to disrupt entrenched patterns of thought, challenge the comfort and complacency of our hyper-professionalized disciplines, and bring us closer to the lived realities of people whose livelihoods, cultures, and traditions are rapidly being consumed by our voracious appetite as future-eaters. We need stories, because we desperately need to listen, not out of a nostalgia for the past, but out of a sense of urgency for the future.

We need stories, because we desperately need to listen, not out of a nostalgia for the past, but out of a sense of urgency for the future.

Film is an important form in this regard. It does, of course, participate completely in and reinforce the standardized conventions of celebrity selfhood that you so compellingly describe. Even among nonhuman animals. One of my favorite examples is the killer whale, Keiko, the star of the film, Free Willy. When the US public learned the plight of this animal star, languishing in a tank in a Mexico City amusement park, the checkbooks opened up. Green philanthropy and consumerism is the measure of US environmentalism these days. In his time of need, Keiko attracted $8 million in corporate and financial contributions. Warner Brothers kick-started the campaign to rescue and rehabilitate the whale with a $4 million seed grant, a paltry sum compared to how much the animal star made for the studio as an unpaid actor. An elementary school in Kodiak, Alaska, raised $3,000, while the United Parcel Service donated a C-130 Hercules plane to transport the killer whale from Mexico City to the Oregon Coast Aquarium, where he was returned to health and trained in the ways of the wild. He died in December 2003, off the coast of Norway, one year after he joined the company of wild whales. Imagine mobilizing that kind of media attention and financial support for any one of countless Indigenous struggles over resource extraction on sovereign, tribal lands throughout the globe. Not likely, unless Bono comes to their rescue. And Keiko is just the tip of the iceberg. Dolphins, penguins, wolves, elephants, and pandas are just a few of the species today that trade in celebrity status, and have been made into stars through a long history of their interaction with the film industry.

But film can also challenge narrative conventions, make visible relations not easily seen, and bend entrenched perspectives of the Other. I am particularly intrigued and heartened by the creative work of Indigenous communities in the US, Canada, Australia, and elsewhere to harness the power of film to tell stories that represent their traditions, meanings, and needs and to bring different voices to the struggle for intergenerational equity. Film is a technology of time; it can both compress and expand the time scales through which we comprehend and see the interaction and lives of human and nonhuman beings. Isuma TV, for example, a network of Inuit and Indigenous communities based in the Canadian Arctic, are using multimedia platforms “to express reality in their own voices: views of the past, anxieties about the present and hopes for a more decent and honorable future.” Their “goal is to recognize and respect diverse ways of experiencing” the world, and to “honor those differences as a human strength.” Films like Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, Before Tomorrow and Inuit Knowledge and Climate Change trade in and work against the conventions of mainstream Western cinema. Similarly, in films like Ten Canoes, Australian aboriginal communities have appropriated scientific photographs and films taken of their people in the colonial era to reclaim the past and tell stories on their own terms and in their own voices across deep time. Viewers from Western traditions find ourselves forced to confront our expectations of fast-paced stories and hyper-energetic editing that accompany the increasing speed of capital’s movement across the globe. Such films give us alternative worlds in which to comprehend and ponder past realities and possible futures that shape our environmental narratives of the present moment.

In films like Ten Canoes, Australian aboriginal communities reclaim the past and tell stories on their own terms and in their own voices across deep time.

It is important to remind ourselves, especially after the science wars of the 1990s and the postmodern turn, that film, along with other forms of storytelling, including science, has material effects on the world. It matters, literally, what kind of stories we tell. Your own work, Rob, has wrestled with bringing materiality back into literary studies. Where do you think this impulse for new materialisms arises from? Would you agree that it is being driven, perhaps, by a recognition of the need for the academics, particularly in the environmental humanities, to “dirty” their hands and make their work useful and meaningful to the high-stakes struggles of environmental justice being fought across the globe?

Rob Nixon: I’m glad you’ve emphasized the upsurge in cinematic creativity arising from Indigenous communities in North America, Australia and elsewhere. What we desperately need are other times, other ways of representing suppressed or forgotten pasts and futures, alternatives to the rampaging forces of what Idle No More writer Leanne Betasamosake Simpson calls “extractivist time.” Together, the theology of unregulated growth (guided by the “invisible hand” of the “free market”) and the creed of consumer individualism have left us stranded in the short-lived, shortsighted present. Often when one mentions Indigenous visions of alternative times, one is accused of romanticizing the archaic. But I stand by an observation made by Daniel Wildcat, the author of Red Alert, an account of native responses to climate change. For sheer romanticism, Wildcat remarked, nothing Indigenous activists have advocated can compare with the neoliberal delusion that we can persist with business as usual. Essentially, the extractivist position is: let’s just kick the can down the road until we run out of road.

How does all this impact the relationship between the environmental humanities, community stakeholders, and policymakers? As we have been emphasizing in our exchange, storytelling—scientific, cinematic, digital, literary, and historical storytelling—has material effects, but also emerges from material circumstances. Out of this frictional dialectic, new possibilities are constantly emerging. Within the environmental humanities, the materialist turn is, I believe, partly a response to changing social pressures. One of the defining stories of the twenty-first century is rising, unviable levels of disparity, within societies that range from Spain and Italy and Russia to the US, South Africa, Nigeria, China, and India. In environmental justice terms, we’re witnessing increasingly skewed access to resources and increasingly skewed exposure to risk. This has heightened the need to connect the kinds of stories we tell and analyze in the humanities to the stories emanating from embattled communities and policymakers, stories that are often not easily aligned. Certainly in the US, post-9/11 we’re inhabiting a different intellectual world from that of the 1990s. Back then—during the dot-com Clinton years—there was far less bridgework between the environmental humanities and societal concerns with inequality, empire, militarization, and climate change. In fields ranging from postcolonial studies to science studies, we are witnessing a new materialism that rejects the rarefied extremes of a constructivist tendency that was often narrowly professional, willfully opaque, and sealed against worldly pressures.

Originally published as: Mitman, Gregg and Rob Nixon. “A Dialogue on Form, Knowledge, and Representation.” In “Minding the Gap: Working across Disciplines in Environmental Humanities,” edited by Robert Emmet and Frank Zelko. RCC Perspectives, no. 2 (2014): 61–67. View it here. View it here.

Gregg Mitman is the Vilas Research and William Coleman Professor of History of Science, Medical History, and Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rob Nixon is the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Family Professor in the Humanities and the Environment at Princeton University.

© 2014 Gregg Mitman and Rob Nixon
This refers only to the text and does not include any image rights.

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