A public talk at the Institute of Social Ecology, Vienna, Austria
Abstract: Our understanding of what it means to be human has changed radically in recent years, yet we “humanists” have scarcely begun to grapple with the profound consequences for our disciplines. Humanists have long taken it for granted that their subjects of study (which is to say, themselves) were special and largely immaterial creatures who were entirely distinguished and distinct from other organisms and things in the environments around them. Yet in recent years such an unapologetic anthropocentrism has suffered one crushing blow after another. We now know, for example, that there is more non-human than human DNA in our bodies, courtesy of the one to two kilos of microbiotic organisms that live within and on us. Are we then solitary organisms or rather symbiotic amalgams of many living creatures? Likewise, almost weekly the results from another animal (or even plant) investigation challenge the once proud claims of a human monopoly on intelligence, consciousness, morality, and even a capacity to create and appreciate beauty. Most broadly, we’re now discovering just how deeply embedded humans are in a vibrantly creative material world, whether through the myriad synthetic chemicals that affect our basic physiology or the countless new technological environments that shape our brains and minds. We humans, it appears, do not use a passive material world so much as we think and act through a creative material world that both shapes us and often simply is us. Now, as the old immaterial humanism falters and fades, the challenge and opportunity we face is to discover and create the theories, methods, and philosophies that will guide us in the emerging post-anthropocentric age: a New Material Humanism.
“Silkworms, Longhorns, and Power: How the Immaterialist Delusions of the West Fueled the Exploitation of the Global South”
A public talk sponsored by the Global South Study Center at the University of Cologne. Here is the abstract:
By understanding power as a phenomenon that emerges from the human engagement with material organisms and things, we can ask why some nations of the Global North were able to exploit material things whose origins were often in the Global South for their own benefit. Specifically, I argue that it was the European (and in a related manner, Japanese) embrace of a radically immaterial understanding of human culture and power that fueled this differential success—a success that has now reached a new pinnacle of immaterialism with the neo-liberal faith in the virtues of a supposedly frictionless global capitalist markets. The advent of global warming and the (unfortunately named) Anthropocene Epoch is now, however, revealing the self-defeating illusions of western immaterialism, pointing us towards a profoundly egalitarian conclusion: that since all power fundamentally derives from the material non-human world, its benefits (and responsibilities) should logically accrue not to any nation or group, but rather to the human species as a whole.
Key note presentation at the conference, Boom-Crisis-Heritage, Bochum, Germany.
Object Matters Workshop, Tallinn, Estonia
The Matter of History: Uniting the History of Science, Technology, and the Environment Through the New Materialism
Keynote presentation at the History of Technology and Science Workshop, Linköping, Sweden
Center for Advanced Study
The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters
I will be offering a public talk at Harvard University's Mahindra Humanities Center discussing the latest mass killing of snow geese in the toxic waters of Montana's Berkeley Pit copper mine this past November. As the title suggests, I will examine the meaning of the non-human in this supposed "Age of the Human" or the Anthropocene. As much as the snow geese were clearly victims of global climate change, reckless mining, and other anthropogenic changes, even in death these extraordinary animals defy any anthropocentric claim to human preeminence and power. To the contrary, I argue that the snow geese teach us that we live not in an Age of Humans, but rather in an age of things, fellow creative beings both living and non-living who are constantly entangling and empowering our very existence. Today more than ever, our goal should be to escape our reflexive anthropocentrism in order to better understand the multitude of ways in which the non-human things around us make us human.
American Society for Environmental History, Chicago
The massive increase in the human consumption of animal flesh in the United States and other nations during the second half of the nineteenth century depended heavily upon the ability of highly social and intelligent animals to accept and adapt to a brutally efficient system of mechanized growth and slaughter. Historians have long recognized that the industrialization of the livestock industry created a powerful system for extracting energy from plants and other foods and concentrating it in the flesh of livestock. However, we have given far less attention to the many ways in which this depended heavily on the intelligent ability of the animals themselves to cooperate with human beings and their deeply disorienting industrial systems for animal growth, transport, and slaughter. This paper explores the neglected role of one ungulate species in particular, Bos taurus, the domesticated cow. Historians have explained how cattle bioconcentrated the sparse plant energy of the western range and carried the resulting caloric energy to cattle towns with their own bodies for further transport via trains to eastern slaughterhouses. However, we’ve said far less about the essential role played in all this by these extraordinary animals. Had Longhorns, for example, simple refused to cooperate with their “cowboy” handlers during “round ups” or “cattle drives,” the process of growing and extracting flesh for human consumption would have been vastly less efficient, perhaps even impossible. The same might also be said of the ability of other breeds to adapt to railroad “cattle cars” for transport to slaughter facilities that were themselves increasingly designed to manipulate their social natures. In this paper I propose to explore some of the many ways in which humans depended upon and manipulated the intelligence and adaptability of another social mammal in order to most efficiently kill it.
Ecological Challenges Workshop, University of Oslo, Oslo, Norway
At least from the time of Lynn White’s seminal 1967 paper, “The Roots of Our Ecological Crisis,” scholars have recognized that the western Christian tradition has often worked against the idea of sustainable ecological civilizations. Yet both western religion and science were similarly rooted in the belief that humans are special because they alone are creatures of spirit and intellect. In this paper, I examine the evolution of these ideas as they have persisted into the present, evident in the assumption common to both humanists and scientists that cultural phenomena—ideas, technology, power—are largely immaterial in their origins. There can be no natural history of ideas and creativity, while power is too often understood primarily solely a social construct. However, neo-materialists and post-humanists have begun to explore the ways in which human culture and society emerge from and with material environment or nature, while a growing body of scientific evidence suggest how the way we think and act are influenced by everything from the microbes in our guts to environmental chemicals in our brains. In sum, science and the humanities are now beginning to converge to offer a more compelling way of understanding the human relationship to the world, thus offering new potentials for creating a more ecological sustainable future.
As part of the "After Discourse" project, I will be presenting an informal discussion of how the concept of the "wild" might be used to bring the environmental humanities into a closer dialogue with the recent scholarly turn to things, objects, and animals.
Center for Advanced Study, Drammensveien 78, Oslo, Norway
I will be offering a public lecture and teaching a graduate student seminar as part of the Tallinn University Winter School, in Tallinn, Estonia. My public lecture on January 23rd will be on:
“The Matter of Humans: Putting Nature Back Into Culture Through the Environmental Humanities”
For much of the previous century, culture has often been defined in opposition to nature, a tendency that only deepened as the cultural and linguistic turns came to stress the centrality of human discourse in shaping and perhaps even creating reality. More recently, however, new scientific and humanistic insights have begun to suggest a far more complex view of culture, one predicated on two key propositions. First, that human bodies and minds are much more deeply embedded in the natural material world than previously believed. And second, that this natural material world is much more dynamic and creative than previously understood. These propositions, if accurate, together suggest a compelling need to develop what we might term a post-anthropocentric “deep culture” that emerges not in distinction from a passive nature, but rather with and through a dynamic nature. This radical new understanding of what it means to be human logically demands a new humanism, and the environmental humanities, post-humanism, and neo-materialism are pointing the way.
Water & Extractivism Workshop, Ojnare Forest, Gotland, Sweden, Department of Thematical Studies, Technology and Social Change, Linköping University and Riksbanken Jubileumsfond.
The Consumption of Humans: Commoditizing the Danger of Wild Grizzly Bear Attacks in Post-War America
Workshop on Commoditizing the Wild at the University of Köln, Köln, Germany
Panel on "What's Next In Environmental History?" the annual conference of the American Society for Environmental History, Seattle, Washington
Featured plenary presentation at the meeting of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture, Gainesville, Florida
Gellner Seminar, Institute of Ethnology, Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic, Prague
Object Matters Workshop, The Villa Lana, Prague, Czech Republic
Public talk at the Montana Tech Copper Lounge, Butte, Montana
Workshop on Human Niche Construction, Münich, Germany.
European Society for Environmental History, Versailles, France
Workshop on "Making Resources Speak: Themes and Methods of the New Materialism," Institute for Advanced Studies, Birmingham, England
Grant-Kohrs National Park, Deer Lodge, Montana
After Nature Workshop at the University of South Carolina, Columbia, South Carolina