Rethinking the Humanities: DH and EH

At the Digital Environmental Humanities workshop ( that took place September 7-8, 2013, in Montreal, Quebec and hosted by McGill University, colleagues came together from various environmental humanities disciplines to discuss with a smaller group of digital humanities colleagues the possibilities of harnessing methods and tools being established in the one field to the benefit of the other field. In the sense that discussions around new collaborations and new research projects began to form, the workshop was a success. At the same time, it clearly revealed some of the deeper issues around perceptions of the digital humanities. We became keenly aware of the need for a more general discussion about both the environmental humanities and the digital humanities in order to better understand what might exactly constitute a digital environmental humanities.

1) Similarities
A couple of points can be made about DH and certain disciplines within EH in terms of their constitution. First, a less positive take on this nature might emphasize the division between making (or doing) and critiquing (or theorizing) that has characterized both DH and EH. In DH, there has been much debate about the difference between theory and practice and which makes or break what it means to be a digital humanist. At the same time, calls have been made to go beyond this split and to embrace the “big tent” view of DH.  Within environmental literary studies, a similar divide has been made between those who do environmental activism and those who critique notions of nature, between those who reject theory in order to better embrace the urgency of environmental issues and those who insist that theory is a necessary part of doing. For many EH scholars, this tension is in fact what characterizes their work and they insist on the necessity of inhabiting “a difficult space of simultaneous critique and action” (Bird Rose, van Dooren, et al.).
This point can lead to a more positive interpretation of the division between making and critiquing in the humanities. Both EH and DH are redefining the humanities in their attempt to bring together these two types of scholarship and research. By extending humanities interpretation to environmental issues (EH) and by creating new tools and methods for humanities research (DH), both disciplines are advocating for a new way of thinking about the humanities. Moving beyond traditional work in the humanities, EH and DH are illustrating that the humanities matter for other reasons as well. It remains to be seen if other disciplines, such as the sciences in the case of EH, or digital design and gaming in the case of DH, will recognize the worth of such contributions from the humanities.
One final point to be made about the nature of humanities scholarship in EH and DH is that both are promoting models of interdisciplinary and collaborative work. They are thus moving away from the single authored monograph that has for such a long time characterized the evaluation of work in the humanities. This requires an important paradigm shift within the disciplines themselves to imagine new ways of determining the value of creative, cross-disciplinary contributions to larger public discourses on the environment and digital culture. By the very nature of the work they do, both EH and DH are reshaping the humanities at many different levels: administrative, academic, and more generally in the public life that research has once it moves beyond the walls of the university.

2) Differences
At the same time, this reshaping takes on different forms within DH and EH. For EH, rethinking the humanities means pushing beyond the human and including the non-human world in their field of study. Illustrating the need for humanities scholarship in areas that have previously been seen as belonging to the sciences has been a central way in which EH has been working to advocate for the humanities. The question may then be asked to what extent these new objects of study are being examined with the same interpretive approaches, in short, whether in fact the humanities are really doing anything differently by studying the environment. Scholars within Animal Studies have objected that the humanities remain in fact all “too human” (Wolfe). Even if EH is “posing fundamentally different questions, questions of value and meaning informed by nuanced historical understanding of the cultures that frame environmental problems” (Mistra article), it is not clear to what extent these different questions are being posed using a new methodological framework.
As for DH, it has largely promoted developing new tools and methods through quantitative research and approaches. In this sense, DH looks at the same objects of study (for the most part written texts but also images, film, art) but through a different lens. Because of this emphasis on new methodologies (distant reading vs. close reading, quantitative vs. qualitative), DH has been accused of stripping the humanities of its human side (read interpretive, critical, etc.). Yet actual applications of DH clearly illustrate that the computer never replaces the human being and that a hybrid approach is always required. So while it may be introducing methodologies that would have been foreign to the humanities in the past because of limits of time and scale, it is also illustrating what makes the humanities distinct from a purely qualitative approach for example.
To conclude, it is important to emphasize that the differences between EH and DH tend to converge when scholars articulate advocacy for the humanities. While highlighting the need for more cultural critique within DH, Alain Liu concludes that our responsibility is “to   show   that   the humanities   are   needed   alongside   the   sciences   to   solve   the intricately   interwoven   natural,   technological,   economic,   social, political,    cultural  problems  of the  global  age.”  This sounds in many ways like the types of statements made about the need for EH. This is even more so in the final sentence of Liu’s article where he asserts that there is no area of “energy, environment, biomedicine, food, water, education, and so on that does not require humanistic involvement.” The vague reference to “humanistic involvement” leaves open the possibility of scholarship that introduces new methods of analysis and scholarship that introduces new objects of study.

Teaching experiences, environmental thought

Since I’m attending a teaching workshop later today related to engaging students in the writing process through term paper design, it seems like a good time to reflect on teaching experiences in light of my current course on environmental thought. A fourth year capstone course in the McGill School of Environment, the ENVR400 course is described more generally as follows: “Students work in interdisciplinary seminar groups on challenging philosophical, ethical, scientific and practical issues. They will explore cutting-edge ideas and grapple with the reconciliation of environmental imperatives and social, political and economic pragmatics.” In the course syllabus designed by a colleague, the description is slightly different: “Environmental policy is not only informed by science, but is also represents cultural values as revealed in such diverse disciplines including philosophy, political science, environmental economics, literature, poetry and art. This course examines these cultural factors that shape the societal worldview, which in turn is what helps determine effective environmental policy.” In different individual seminar groups, students work with one of the three professors reading and discussing the two books that the professor has chosen.  I’d like to spend some time examining my own objectives in choosing what turned out to be two extremely challenging books for the students.

When I initially presented these books to students, I pointed out that contemporary solutions to environmental problems have for the most part failed to get people to change their actions and that part of the problem might be the use of old models or the “wrong” language to echo Bill McKibben’s argument (“When Words Fail”). What might be, I asked, the metaphors and images that we need to get rid of and what new metaphors and images might we consider? Each of the two books I describe below answers in very different ways this question: one by critiquing a sense of place and appealing to a sense of planet (Heise) and the other by deconstructing the idea of nature and proposing a dark ecology (Morton).

Ursula Heise, Sense of Place, Sense of Planet (Oxford UP, 2008)

Given my own background in environmental literary theory, I wanted to expose students to some of the “cutting-edge” work in this area. Heise’s book challenges traditional understandings of place and the local that characterized environmentalist discourse for quite some time. She proposes an interesting new concept of “eco-cosmopolitanism” for rethinking the relationship between the local and the global and for highlighting the complexity of global systems as well as the importance of cultural differences. In terms of the course’s objectives, I felt this book exposed students to the “cultural factors that shape the societal worldview” (or rather the Western worldview) while also pointing to a possible alternative. Interestingly, many students were not convinced by Heise’s arguments possibly in part because of her use of literary texts to illustrate her points. At times, they found the text difficult to read because of the style and tone. I agree that Heise is writing for an academic audience, largely her own peers, who adopt (possibly too quickly) complex terms without necessarily defining them. Yet her thoughts on deterritorialization (where cultural practices are no longer tied to place) and risk theory (where new risks transcend local and national boundaries, creating new types of world communities) are well-illustrated, well-argued and extremely relevant.  Even if Heise’s examples are largely drawn from the Western world, she nevertheless convincingly critiques and deconstructs this worldview “from within.”

Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature (Harvard UP, 2007)

Steeped in philosophy, aesthetics and literary poetics, Morton’s text is difficult to understand to say the least. My own experience with the book definitely includes moments of complete frustration and yet further readings have revealed some valuable insights in terms of an alternative viewpoint and method for dealing with environmental writing. As the title of the book clearly points out, Morton believes that the idea of Nature is itself getting in the way of our living ecologically. His theory of perception (as differential) and his theory of aesthetics (as a problem of distance) both draw widely on philosophy, literature and (some) science. Intriguingly, Morton does not want to do away with Cartesian dualism and instead asks us to move less quickly in our rejection of this Western philosophy in order to remain in the moment of difference a little longer. It is upon this principle of difference that Morton constructs a “melancholy ethics” that instructs us to love the strange creatures we have created and to mourn not some lost environment from the past but the gap that is always present between self and other. Students found such a dark ecology much too negative and felt disenchanted by the lack of solutions. They felt the writing was inaccessible and the book far too difficult for the general public. Yet I’m not sure that Morton is writing for his colleagues or peers. In fact, his use of sound bite sentences and quick-fire ideas seem very much aimed at his own students, both undergraduate and graduate. Which brings me to the reading experience itself since this is one of the things I had hoped that students would take away from this book – maybe the problem is not that Morton should have used clearer language in order to convince and mobilize people around his theory of dark ecology; maybe this expectation on our part is part of the problem. Morton forces us to acknowledge the labour of reading as also physical; this in itself breaks down the theory/action or reading/doing dichotomy. Maybe through our frustration with the book we begin questioning our own constant need for solutions. By not giving us one, Morton forces us to experience his dark ecology to some extent – we remain caught in the paradoxes and contradictions of environmental thought, caught in the viscosity of language and the play of writing itself. In terms of the course objectives then, the book very much pushes students to “grapple with the reconciliation of environmental imperatives and social, political and economic pragmatics” in its very refusal to offer a pragmatics or set of easy to apply solutions. The book also to some extent questions such a need for solutions and actions. Might we not slow things down rather than always looking forward to new ways of living? I agree that this is not possible interminably but it might just be what we need right now.

Thinking Cultural Difference (take 1)

After spending much of the day reading book reviews on, a portal for French literary scholars, I need to take a few notes before most of what I read disappears into the ether of my oh-so-forgetful mind. I have been thinking for some time about the introductory chapter for my book on a French écocritique and have decided that I will need to spend some time explaining the adjective “French” in the introduction since my analysis will be working from the premise that there is something different about representations of nature and environment in French literary texts. Two of the questions that are key to the concept of “French” that I am trying to articulate are:

– am I talking about France as a nation or a culture?

The idea of nation has the advantage of being an entry point for discussing how national identity has resisted some of the homogenizing processes of globalization (although some might say the same for culture). The concept of nation has also been theorized in interesting ways, in particular by Benedict Anderson in his work on “imagined communities.” While in France, it may be more appropriate to talk about l’État rather than la nation, I will at some point need to reference such institutional entities in order to reference the history of conservation/preservation policies in France. On the other hand, the notion of nation is so closely associated with nationalist ideology and seems outdated in the context of today’s transnational economic, communications, political systems (see for example Wallerstein’s work on ‘world-systems’). More specific to the French context is the fact that many authors have refused the category of “French” and instead identified with the concept of littérature-monde (Le Bris, Rouaud, et al.). This concept is rooted in the use of the French language rather than in a common national identity and offers a way of undoing the centre-periphery model that has characterized France’s relationship with its former colonies. While this idea of littérature-monde has been the subject of much debate, it also raises the question of literature’s role in constructing and deconstructing national identity.

What distinguishes one from the other for me is the fact that nation is a more recent and less diverse concept/construct than culture. And once we begin talking about language and literature, it seems that we are already beginning to move from nation to culture. I like the notion of culture because it allows for a bridging of the human and the animal in a way that the idea of nation does not. Moreover, culture can be imagined both individually and collectively, both in the singular and the plural, both historically and geographically. Thinking about culture also brings literary studies closer to the work of anthropology (that I happen to find particularly useful when attending to the question of the (human) animal). The problem, I suppose, with the notion of culture is that it can become too vague, too general, representing everything from reading habits to lifestyle choices. But focusing on the relationship between literature and culture may be one way to avoid this generalization. Another key to delimiting culture is by adopting a comparative perspective. Comparative studies and translation studies are both extremely useful for arriving at a more concrete idea of culture and the role of language and literature in culture. Cultures never evolve in isolation and so it will be necessary to weave into my focus on French literature the question of cross-cultural exchanges and dialogues.

how is a French écocritique also not French?

So another problem I am anticipating in discussing a French écocritique is that ecocriticism, the literary theory that takes as its object of study the relationship between literature and environment, originated in a North-American, anglophone context. In response to the contemporary ecological crisis, ecocriticism explores how literature might point to new ways of understanding environment and nature. Such an approach that adopts an explicitly political perspective to analyze the literary text does not necessarily align with the traditions of French literary studies whose three main methodologies are framed by la poétique, l’historique, and la critique (see for example Florian Pennanech’s introduction to L’aventure poétique). In other words, building a French écocritique means to some extent developing an approach that is not endemic to literary studies in France and in French Departments. This is, of course, changing thanks to the work of other politically motivated approaches such as queer studies, cultural studies, race studies, feminist studies, etc. that have begun to burgeon in France over the last few years. But coming back to the question above, one possible response is that I will  construct a French écocritique that is not simply a translation of ecocriticism’s concepts, ideas, approaches (that are in passing become more and more diversified) but that is instead an attempt to draw on difference within the literary texts being studied.  The texts will thus serve to identify cultural difference while also complicating the idea of a French identity. Moving back and forth between these two perspectives will illustrate that an écocritique is and must be to some extent both French and not French.



Interdisciplinary studies and the non-humanities?

This blog post will explore the nature of interdisciplinary studies and the concept of the non-humanities. I’ll be responding to a question that is part of the round table I am participating in at the “Navigating Complexity Across the Humanities” Conference organized by the Graduate Students at McGill University’s English Department. The question is based on an introduction I sent to the round table organizers. Since I will only have 5 minutes to develop my ideas, I figured a blog post would be about the right length.

As several strains of contemporary theory direct us towards discussions of the nonhuman (animals, plants, ecosystems, even bacteria), how might we think about redefining some of the basic assumptions about “The Humanities?” In what ways do these theoretical shifts (accompanied by new forms of information technologies) impact our research methods? And how do we approach our pedagogical responsibility to communicate/promote these redefinitions?

As I reflected on the theme of this round table “Navigating Academics,” images of dank, dark corridors leading to dead ends, kept running through my mind. For the most part, the humanities are an indoor discipline, rarely interacting  with the physical, material world of non-human living beings.  According to Michel Serres, the humanities have a difficult time coming to terms with “le dur” (the hardness) of the sciences since they deal mainly with “le doux” (the softness of the immaterial world of ideas and thoughts). New questions about the non-human world are however beginning to change this. Animal Studies and Environmental Literary theory, the two areas I work in, are keenly aware of the need to engage with scientific discoveries that illustrate the similarities between animals and humans or that emphasize the multiple, complex relationships between ourselves and our environments. What does it mean to study, for example, Kakfa’s ‘The Report to an Academy,” in light of the fact that primates have their own culture, language and moral lives? How does knowing that other animals are capable of consciousness and have their own world (Umwelt) affect the concepts and frameworks of philosophical thought? To what extent do these questions trouble the assumptions of the humanities in terms of humanist thinking, human specificity, and disciplinary foundations? Or are the humanities still, as Cary Wolfe puts it, “human, all too human”?

To further explore how we might do the humanities differently, I’m going to ask that we take a stroll down the dark hallways of Hegelian dialectics (or maybe these would be brightly lit, depending on how you feel about Hegel!) and ask what a “non-humanities” might look like. I realize that the idea of the “non-humanities” is untenable practically speaking (can you imagine trying to get university administrators to promote the “non-humanities”?!), but it might just allow us to come back to the humanities with a different conceptual framework. Exploring the idea of a “non-humanities” momentarily shifts some attention away from the sciences-humanities, two cultures, debate. To study the non-human, the humanities do not need to become more like the sciences. (Note in passing:  Some scholars reject the concept of the non-human and prefer the expression more-than-human but for this exercise and in my own work, I use the term non-human in order to maintain a dialectical tension.) So could they become more like a non-humanities? By this, I do not mean what the humanities are not – i.e. they are not a business, they are not empirical, they are not … fill in the blank. Rather, I am proposing a non-humanities that takes its lead from the non-human. While we can never shed our human perception of the world, we might model our work on the imagined complexity, density, intricacy, depth, interconnectedness of the world, whether this be the healthy bacteria living in our intestines, the maple tree’s root system, the rising levels of CO2 in the atmosphere. This passage through the perception of non-human others does not mean we shed the humanities but rather that we come back to them changed, less sure of our disciplinary practices and knowledge claims.

As for the implications for research and teaching, I don’t think we’ve come to terms yet with how the animal question and the ecological question require us to do things differently. I’ll first start with teaching. While I would love to claim that interdisciplinary studies are necessary and useful at any level, my personal experience has shown me otherwise. Students in a first year animal studies literary class had difficulty navigating the labyrinth of interdisciplinary studies and so the connection between the humanities and the non-human remained unclear at best to them. On the other hand, in the fourth year environmental thought class I am currently teaching, students from a wide variety of disciplines have clearly captured the links in this case between literature, culture and ecology. This makes me wonder whether some grounding in a discipline is not first necessary to then be able to do interdisciplinary studies. As for navigating the labyrinth of academics, here too, interdisciplinary studies have at times lead to dead ends. Looking for a publisher for my doctoral thesis (nature and ecology in the work of an anthropologist, a novelist, and a philosopher, all three French thinkers, no less, and a text written in French!), I realized that the book did not fit in the categories of catalogues of traditional, academic publishers. So I ended up publishing with a European non-academic publisher with no peer review process. This has been a dead end as far as academic standards are concerned. The rise of animal studies and environmental studies has opened up to some extent the possibilities for publishing texts that do not fit into one, single disciplinary category. The book I am currently co-editing on French thinking about animals includes contributions from many different disciplines and has been welcomed with open arms by the editor of the Animal Series at the Michigan State University Press.

This brings me to my (rather too hasty and hopeful) conclusion that the animal question and the ecological question will somehow reconfigure the hallways and corridors of academics so that there will be more possibilities for interdisciplinary studies.


Getting started…

So rather than put this off for another year or so, I’m taking one of my student’s advice and starting a blog (probably not the best reason to start a blog, actually). I’m hoping that writing regularly will become a habit as I move into book writing mode.

Starting this first blog feels a little like trying to get that first waffle just right – you don’t want it too thin, you don’t want it to overflow the waffle iron, you don’t want to open the iron too soon. No doubt, I should have spent some time reading about how to create great blog posts. But I’m not actually expecting anyone to read this blog, so I will not follow all the good advice about how to attract the most readers, how to be entertaining, in other words, how to serve up great waffles. Instead, I will outline the function of this blog for my own academic and research needs. Initially, this will be a process of putting ideas on paper, making my own research goals and interests clearer to myself. Eventually, I may use the blog for book reviews, exploring new course ideas, etc.

Some of the subjects that I will explore and that I have been mulling over for a few years now are:

1) The relationship between culture, literature and environment – This is a broad subject that I will narrow down by focusing on the comparative work I’ve been doing, examining French ecological thought in light of North American environmental philosophy. This comparative framework has been a way for me to begin articulating a French écocritique, that is a literary approach to analyzing representations of nature and environment in French contemporary literature. Insisting on cultural differences is easy to do on the surface, while identifying these differences often leads one down the path of stereotypes and caricatures. Ah, yes, French culture: cheese, baguettes, wine, cinema, etc. Fortunately, the literary text complicates any simplified understanding of culture as a homogeneous collection of characteristics or habits or customs. So why even use the adjective “French” if it does not map back onto something tangible and concrete? One response might be that contemporary French literary texts are inscribed – however vaguely or incompletely – in a literary tradition that has its own history (naturalism, realism, surrealism, Nouveau-Roman, etc.), its own set of key characters (Saint-Beuve, Proust, Valéry, Tadié, Brunel, etc.). While this literary history obviously did not develop in isolation, there is a reason French literature is called French literature. Written in French, these texts contain a way of structuring or seeing the world that has something to do with being French. Despite its circularity, this argument outlines a notion of culture that is bound up in language but that remains quite nebulous. This formless entity begins to take form through the work of comparative studies (see Kerry Whiteside’s Divided Natures, or Catherine Ford’s work, or my overview of the state of environmental literary theory in France, etc.) and through the analysis of individual literary texts.

2) The relationship between human animals and non-human animals – Again, I approach this broad subject from a specific perspective by examining the ways in which French contemporary thinkers are currently writing about the ‘animal question.’ The Anglophone world has picked up on work done by more well-known French philosophers such as Jacques Derrida (“L’animal que donc je suis (à suivre)”) and Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (“Devenir animal”) while less attention has been paid to the equally original yet less often translated work of philosophers such as Florence Burgat, Vinciane Despret, Elizabeth de Fontenay, and Dominique Lestel to name a few. What seems particularly interesting about this work is the emphasis on developing a framework for thinking about animals that does not use the discourse of animal rights (Singer) or animal ethics (Regan). Moreover, there seems to be careful attention paid to the need for thinking about animals in a larger continuum that includes the living world more generally and/or the world of newly created artificial beings (biotechnology, cloned animals, etc.). In order to make this work more accessible, I am currently co-editing with Dr. Louisa Mckenzie a volume of translated articles from thinkers in France and North-America, tentatively titled French Thinking about Animals.

3) The state of interdisciplinary studies and academia today – Having done a double major in French literature and mathematics, I am well aware of the institutional and intellectual difficulties in bridging the ‘two cultures’ (C.P. Snow). At the same time, I am convinced that finding ways to cultivate ‘le tiers instruit’ (Serres), or students versed in both the sciences and the arts, is crucial to the university mandate of producing critical thinkers who are capable of speaking more than one disciplinary language and who are mindful of the ways in which research and results are embedded in specific methodologies. Some of the best students with whom I have had the pleasure of sharing ideas have been in Arts & Science programs. Yet one can certainly raise the question: am I truly interdisciplinary? While I enjoy reading books that popularize  complex scientific theories and have taught a course in literature and science in the French novel, I do not do research, nor do I publish in the area of mathematics. Moreover, my work on environment and literature does not mean that I do any empirical work on the state of ecosystems or disappearing species. If I am aware of disciplinary differences, does this make me interdisciplinary? I’m sure some would reply ‘no’ but I have come to recognize the value of such awareness in classes where students from different programs (management, law, biology, political science, philosophy, etc.) to discuss environmental issues. Knowledge of disciplinary differences goes a long way when trying to converse in other ‘languages’ about such a complex subject.

I’m sure other subjects will come up but for now these will be the three main branches of the blog.