Flashback: Coursework

It’s kind of sad that a lot (for me, most) of coursework doesn’t really find a second home, whether because of the direction your scholarship goes or just the structure/nature of the original writing. I was searching for a word in the hopes of finding a file I’d obviously not named well-enough to find it again years later, and this paper popped up. A throwback to Science Fiction and Posthumanism in the Anthropocene–one of my favorite classes. I enjoyed reading it again four years later (yikes!). I sound quite important 😉

Sarah Shelton

ENG 6370

Dr. Alaimo

23 January 2014

The Dust Accuses: Anxieties of the Anthropocene

Read together, [the articles pictured below] highlight the very instability of the “meaning” of Anthropocene. Each article explains the concept from its own angle—ranging from the debated physical evidence traced in the Zalaswiewicz article, to the “metaphoric” designation in the Robbins article, to everything in between. Several descriptions point to a change—already made or hoped for—in human understanding of our relationship to nature, one that collapses the Nature/Human binary and situates us not outside of or above a “pure,” or “wild” nature, but inside an intimately connected and now-threatened biosphere. In fact, the most interesting takes on the concept focus on how the very existence of the Anthropocene idea signals “a ‘reframing’ of normative traditions towards human and non-human life,” offering new language with which to speak about and new viewpoints from which to view human responsibility for our species’ impact on the Earth and to other species who also call it home (Alberts 6).

Along with such instability comes anxiety. What do we make of a concept that can be interpreted and used in so many different ways? Is it already defunct because of our inability to agree on a productive way to use it or is the very debate it inspires the very point and what really matters? Zalaswiewicz et al. warn that the Anthropocene “has the capacity to become the most politicized unit, by far, of the Geologic Time Scale” (2231). Are we doomed, then, to lose the positive and generative power that such a reframing offers to the quagmire of politics as usual? Will we become stymied as Robbins and Moore claim scientists caught up in anthrophobia* or autophobia** are, unable to make progress toward our desired goals because of anxiety over what it means that humans have become “geological agents” as well as biological ones (Chakrabarty 206)? Or will we find a way to come to terms with what is (despite what we think should be) and (though it requires a “human collectivity” or “universal” that Chakrabarty says we can never understand) develop a “global approach to politics without the myth of a global identity” (222).

Though Rigby claims that writing “in the mode of prophetic witness” is one way to overcome such anxieties, such endless debates and fruitless back-and-forths, or what she calls “idle chatter,” her article exemplifies the Edenic language that gave me pause in several of the articles (174). For instance, in Proctor’s review of McKibben’s book, McKibben refers to the planet as “violently out of balance,” implying that a planet older than my brain can comfortably comprehend has a “natural” and defendable “balance” that our human science can pinpoint and prove (88). Rigby, in analyzing Wright’s “Dust” as an ecoprophetic poem, determines that “the cry, which the prophet apprehends and mediates, is an indication of something drastically wrong.” “The speaker of Wright’s poem,” Rigby says, “hears the earth sighing all night” (181). Such a reading—and Wright’s own language—strikes me as an anthropocentric view dependent entirely on assuming we had—at some point—a harmonious and “good” relationship with the Earth. That there was an Eden-state where Nature was pure and wild and outside of our interference. Something can only be drastically wrong, the earth can only be violently out of balance, if we consider the Earth’s Edenic baseline to be the biosphere in which humans can survive, if we consider the “very conditions, both biological and geological, on which the survival of human life as developed in the Holocene period depends” to be the natural state of the planet (Chakrabarty 213). Considering the relatively short duration of the Holocene as compared to the other periods of geologic time, I find the human assumption of our time as the Earth’s “true” state incredibly problematic. How do we begin to take responsibility for ourselves and fulfill any ethical obligation (if we have one, which I think we do) to the other inhabitants of the current biosphere if we can’t get our heads around the idea that there is no going back on an always-already altered planet that won’t miss a step in its own evolution—no matter if we can’t speculate on a “world without us”—once we’re gone?

When Rigby claims that (in such contemporary places as sub-Saharan Africa) “the dust accuses,” she’s transferring to the planet human nostalgia for the past and human fears that we can’t or won’t adapt in time to the new world our actions have triggered. The desert doesn’t accuse us of anything. It doesn’t care what we’ve done. We care. We don’t want to be buried beneath elements we can’t survive. But the Earth itself doesn’t deal in human emotions. Personification here is certainly a powerful, persuasive tool when trying to convince others of “the catastrophic consequences of continuing on our current ecocidal path and…the possibility of another way of thinking and being” (Rigby 173-4). But to imply through figurative language that the Earth itself emotes in a way that any species could understand, to romanticize nature via the human construction of “natural,” seems too much like the human hubris/essentialism that brought us to this point in the first place.

Perhaps I have a touch of autophobia myself. I certainly don’t disagree with the arguments Rigby sets out; borders between human and non-human others must be breached if we’re going to live according to and move forward with an interspecies ethics that I can get behind. But I also see Earth’s agency as beyond any personified relationship with us. Suggesting the Earth is angry with us or seeking revenge seems too much a convention of a species only concerned with its own recorded history and not aware of its deep history. A species that needs to realize it is “dependent on other species for its own existence, a part of the general history of life,” not the origin of it (Chakrabarty 219, my emphasis).

~

* “a fearful response to … the negative normative influence of humans on the earth” (Robbins and Moore)

** “a fearful response to … the inherent influence of normative human values within one’s own science”  (Robbins and Moore)

This weekly paper response was created with Dr. Alaimo’s curation of texts as pictured below in our syllabus:

ALaimoWeekThreeCuration

Sketch: Rain

IMG_2015

Things are still just a little side-ways, a bit elsewhere, a neither here-nor-there. And the rain isn’t helping–days and days of it leaving puddles of what-‘s-up to walk on, to stride through with big, determined thwacks of pleather rain-boots (rarely worn yet all that’s worn this week). But still, aren’t they lovely? These unstill pools of nowhere made herenow, real as the originals, gathered (as-is) together in this frame, a wholly created  world, a spacetimemattering, a chronotope unfolded, time-through-rain. I’d like to go there. Perhaps I am there. Things do seem to still be just and maybe there.

~

 

Inspired by the 5-minute-sketch daily exercises many artists suggest for those working on drawing skills, “Sketches” on this blog are brief write-throughs diffracted through a particular image, moment, feeling (the list goes on). I set the timer for five minutes and play with language until it goes off. Whatever it is when the timer beeps is what you see on the screen now. 

Flashback: nov·el·T Writes the Apocalypse

I fell down a rabbit hole today, combing through old computer files to curate a project I want to work on later, and found so many old writings I had forgotten about. Some are cringe-worthy, some surprisingly good, some hilariously melodramatic (I blame the genres). Then I came across this. And the nostalgia hit me hard enough that, no matter the quality of this piece, I had to share it here.

So, back in the day, when I was a brand new high school teacher fresh off the assembly line, I opened up my classroom after school for student writers to try NaNoWriMo and, after November was over, they stayed and we formed the nov·el·T club (our school’s name was Timberview). As a club, we decided to write a novel together. We world-builded as a group, loosely sketched an over-arching plot, and then assigned chapters to singles or pairs who wrote their chunks before passing what they wrote to the next group to continue the story and so on and so forth. The students asked me to write the “Intro,” the sort of preface that set the scene, explained a little bit why our brand of the Apocalypse occurred, and that they could all refer back to to keep the story on track. No pressure.

Do keep in mind, this would have been around Aught 9, the very height of The Hunger Games (book) craze and my students (OK, me too) ate those books up and devoured anything Amazon might have spit out under Customers who bought this item also bought…

I share this “Intro” as an artefact of a younger, idealistic me who would have written anything–no matter how wacky or nerdy or anime-inspired–those kids asked me to and had a blast doing it. I loved those students. While there are many things about teaching high school I don’t miss, they aren’t one of them.

I wish I remembered the name of the novel or had any of the other parts (we never did finish it), but this was all I found in my searching today, and it’s time to climb out of the rabbit hole and plan my American Lit class for tomorrow in which we will discuss, as one of the authors we’re reading says, that “Stories are a wondrous thing. And they are dangerous.”* That they very much do create our world with us and that it’s not such a stretch, or speculation, to say that, one day, they will help us end it too.

How’s that for melodrama? Even if it is true.

[ PS: You’ll notice I made the President a woman. Back then I thought, Surely that won’t be a thing of fiction for long. Almost a decade later and alas. One day. ]

[ PSS: I dare you to not love that last line. Genius. 😉 ]

~

silene-virginica060708-3539bncmbz

Intro

The world ended because of a poem about flowers.

Nationwide, students rallied behind symbolism the long-dead poet probably never intended. They plastered his lines on buildings and shouted them in mobs and set them to music and strummed them with guitars. The President took offense and the Congress didn’t back her, though the House certainly did, and the Prime Minister across the sea seized the opportunity to poke fun and open old wounds and the tension built until one diplomat at one dinner said the wrong thing and…well.

The poem seemed like such a small thing at the time.

The war isn’t worth mentioning. Or, maybe, it’s too much to mention. One war is like another, after all. Regardless of time or place or instigator or victim or beginning or end.

People rebelled. People took sides. People enlisted. People protested. People burned the poem. People tucked the poem away in their hearts for another, safer, time.

People, too many people, died.

What is worth mentioning is that, in the end, it was North America versus the world. The US, Canada, and Mexico. Strong. United. Holding a hungry, angry world at bay. But then our President chose the unthinkable; she unleashed what should never have been unleashed.

One bomb: a seemingly normal missile in a seemingly everyday barrage. Except this one contained just one thimble-full of a disease that had been dormant since the Ice Age, that no one but the American scientists who’d discovered it knew existed, much less had a cure for. Silene Fever, extracted from one of the frozen flowers Russians revived and American scientists stole…though no one knew anything about that story until far, much too far, later.

One target: Great Britain herself.  From the heart of the country that spawned ours, the Fever spread. House to house, city to city, county to country. And, like dominoes, the world fell one continent at a time. Except for North America, the Alliance, who’d all been sharing rations, who’d all been drinking the same protein shake pushed on us by a government trying to keep us healthy when trade embargoes cut off our resources  We didn’t know they’d been inoculating us and our allies. We didn’t know they’d planned this strike for longer than any of us could have possibly imagined. Neither did the other Alliance governments.

Horrified, Canada and Mexico turned on the United States too. Our borders shrank as the remaining Alliance herded us, north and south, killing and overrunning as they went. All to get to the President and her Cabinet hiding from the allies they’d thought would be grateful, would fall at their feet and unite under the President’s leadership.

We fought back, but we were divided—fighting among ourselves over who was right and who was wrong. Fracturing into dozens and then hundreds of factions. Banding together where we could, with who we could, just to survive our own infighting.  We didn’t have the horror and disgust the Alliance had to unite them. We were, instead, the cause of their anger; our country’s crime was their rallying point.

Our numbers dwindled until we were crammed into the heart of what was once an expansive nation. We became a sad amalgamation of what was once South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa, Oklahoma. What now has no real name except for what whoever holds the land in that moment chooses to name it.

The Alliance contained us here and destroyed the rest of our nation. With biological and chemical warfare. With fire and pollution and flood and any other conceivable punishment they found that would scar the land around us and leave it unusable. Out there beyond the scorched and decimated land, the Alliance moves on, repairing the world or licking its wounds. None of us knows.

We are isolated. The ravaged remains of a nation, imprisoned by what’s left of the world for the sins of a government we now hate. Trapped in an island of bare-civilization among a sea of wasted land that stretches far beyond where our strongest could walk and still make it back alive. Within our little reservation boundaries shift, alliances form and fracture. The Gangs roam and conquer and die out and are reborn.

The Fever is still free in the world.

We are immune but not all of our children and grandchildren are. There doesn’t seem to be a pattern, genetics and fate are equally harsh. Some survive, some don’t, some live so deformed it frightens even those meant to love them the most.

We are immune, but the animals weren’t. At the best, whole species died out. At the worst they mutated into things that hunt us now, that walk the Wastes between our land and the Alliance beyond.

Resources are scarce. Worth dying for.

Poetry is shunned. All but forgotten except among those with hearts strong enough and dreams crazy enough to overcome the pain and fear now associated with what everyone believes destroyed the world.

As for the flowers the poet sang of…Well, there are none.

~

*The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative by Thomas King

Photo: Fire Pink (Silene virginica) © Jeffrey Pippen

 

Presentation: SCMLA 2017

Agential Composition: Intra-Active Pedagogy and Writing as an Onto-Epistemological Act

SCMLA2017

Cited in the presentation:

Writing as a Way of Being: Writing Instruction, Nonduality, and the Crisis of Sustainability / Robert Yagelski

Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning / Karen Barad

Mentioned in the Q&A:

Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor / Lynda Barry

Intro and End Music:

Saturday Night / Ryan Anderson  88x31

Excerpt: Center for Theory Talk

CenterforTheory

“The Agential Classroom: Tuning to a Posthuman Pedagogy”

In taking the material turn, posthumanism as characterized above and which I calibrate my teaching and work to doesn’t abandon the work done in the linguistic turn or through social constructivism, feminism or post-colonialism, but takes the theories already working through the posts and recalibrates them to the more-than-human. The decentering of the human in both posthumanism and its application to education, then, is not a symbolic move (Pedersen “Is the ‘Posthuman’ Educable?), but an actual recalibration of the way we understand our relation with the world, a recalibration that understands human skin is as porous, as permeable a boundary (Alaimo) as the one Schulz penned in ink. (Re)entangling the material with the discursive, ontology with epistemology, and the human with the nonhuman, posthumanism and posthumanist education as my teaching and work uses them are, Snaza and Weaver argue, “a continuation of the radical democratic, even utopian projects of the twentieth-century … [that] seek not only schools that are less authoritarian and oppressive, but also a global social formation that is not driven by [the] exploitations, dehumanization, and asymmetrical violence.”

 

Dissed: That Self-Congratulatory Anecdote from MLA

Dissed are excerpts from the dissertation that have been cut, killed, excised, burned on the altar of common sense and distance before being left here to not die…

At the 2017 MLA conference I was set to talk about this very project in a roundtable called ‘Teaching as Theoretical Practice.”* There were four papers on the panel—the first and second papers were co-authored and, therefore, got a few extra minutes. I went last and had been, along with the other single author, allotted a shorter-than-usual twelve minutes. I admitted defeat before I even got up to the mic. You saw the length of the last chapter. You’re looking at the length of this one. It wasn’t going to happen. But a funny thing happened while I was listening to my fellow panelists go before me and scribbling notes on their talks in my ever-present journal. Another talk emerged. And tapped me on the shoulder. And said, “Hey, do you mind sharing me with the group?”

So I did.

In my very first time at MLA, I winged it. But that was ok, because I was supposed to talk about a posthuman classroom, about posthuman education and what it could be, and so, being tuned to the posthuman after working in my hotel room for days on that dead-in-the-water talk, I knew posthumanism at work when I saw (felt? heard?) it and I leaned into the intra-action. What I’d noticed as I scribbled my notes

[my fellow panelists’ theories and thoughts materialized (with countless other actors I’d never know about like computers, texts, other readers…) in words on a page and then sent back out (material still, waves of sound in air) via voices (some accented, some nervous, some quiet) moving through a small room where a full audience (pretty diverse, from younger than me to late sixties, more women than men) sat in hotel conference chairs (all in rows, aisle down the middle of two sides, regimental) blinking or moving or nodding or dreaming or any other number of things while these new thoughts touched their own theories here or slid by them there and I took in the words myself too (flavored with the audience’s reactions and the speaker’s intonations and a healthy dose of you’re-not-really-considering-winging-this nerves that got worse as it became more obvious what kind of cool pattern was emerging) and through an amazing series of instantly (to my human perception of the work my body-machine can do) embodied actions materialized my own thoughts on the matter at hand with a pen with maroon ink on a lined white page (starting right below my shopping list for this very trip) in a hardbound journal I’m never without]

or rather, what I’d noted as I intra-acted within the phenomenon of our roundtable (all that described above and surely more that I’m missing) was that, as the panel went from that first co-authored panel on hybrid teaching/performed theory/collaborative pedagogy to the next on collaborative teaching/collaborative research/collaborative student writing to the one before me on theater-based pedagogy/language as performance/embodied movement, the presentations dealt more and more with posthumanism and posthuman strategies in the classroom. Indeed, the presenters’ ways of talking about their pedagogy sounded more and more posthuman. The mind and the student became less and less cut off from the body and world. Relations between actors in the classroom—not all of them necessarily human—became more and more important. Movement and space played more and more of a role in the consideration of what was taught and how.

So, I stood up. Took my notations and the idea that had tapped me on the shoulder up to the mic, told the audience I’d decided to talk about the panel instead and then asked the panel how many of them considered what they were doing posthuman. Reactions ranged, in almost direct proportion to how “posthuman” I’d felt their talk was, down the line from 1) blank stares only at me to 2) smiles and exchanged looks between presenters to 3) a smile and a nod to me. The looks in the audience as I rolled out my plan to talk through how I saw posthumanism working in the classes they’d already been briefed on while adding a bit about my own at the end were about the same—although there was more of an equal distribution between blank stares and nods/smiles. None of this surprised me.

Nor did the last intra-action with the audience. A man in the back—middle-aged or older, white, obviously well-versed in theory/criticism (he was a name-dropper)—asked Anna (the presenter before me working with theater-based pedagogy in a foreign language classroom) about a particular theory she was using (I forget the exact question). In trying to explain her answer, she looked at me and brought up posthumanism as she talked about movement and a student interacting with a bike while I nodded and mentally prepared to engage…

At which point Man-in-Back raised his hand in a half-wave, said there are many types of humanism, perhaps a more Vygotsky humanism in this case of language development, and, looking at me, finished the wave with a “This posthumanism makes no sense.”

As I said, this isn’t surprising. This—indifferent or (sometimes) disgusted dismissal—is the most common response I get when I bring up posthumanism in a conversation with colleagues and fellow academics not immersed in the conversation. And I am 100% sure Man-in-Back was expressing the thoughts of at least half the people in the room, including the first two authors on our panel. And yet posthumanism played in that room, in those presentations, in my understanding of the phenomenon that was our roundtable. I tuned in to a different station, still in the same room, just working on a different wavelength and saw the knowledge-in-being emerge differently.

I had an opportunity, to either listen and respond to the meaning being made or to stick with the original plan and impose that dead-in-the-water talk on the room, changing the trajectory of the conversation and missing the opportunity for a more productive moment. “Winging it” here, for me, wasn’t the irresponsible move of someone who didn’t like her talk anymore but an intentional movement into intra-action, much like a listening or surfing pedagogy that decenters the teacher (in this case, speaker) and moves continuously between what was planned and what, once all actors are engaged, their intra-action needs in order to be truly productive and meaningful. It was, in a sense, though I didn’t provide this meta-commentary to the panel in the moment, performative. I was giving a talk on posthumanism, so I made a posthuman move.

The room didn’t make it easy (or, more accurately, the human arrangement of the room). Those rows of uncomfortable chairs held the audience in a state of desk-broken attention (or inattention) learned long ago in school: quiet, polite, still, ready to receive the knowledge. As academics we’re more likely to push back at that knowledge via questions (or statements framed as questions) but that’s another layer of learned behavior for learning—conference-broken. We know the drill when we come into those rooms of rows with the table/podium/screen up front. But posthuman strategies, theories, practices, thoughts, being, etc. already exist/move/are in such humanist (or designed-for-humanism) spaces. It’s like the light paradox Barad theorizes her own posthuman theories from—light, this supposed “thing” or observable object is wave and particle depending on the apparatus you use to diffract it. That room: knowledge disseminated and meaning made. Humanist and posthumanist, depending on what lens you use.

Rockysteps

Me, the day after said presentation, on the Rocky steps recreating that iconic film moment in a blizzard. Magic. Photo credit to the complete stranger strangely dressed in shorts and a thin t-shirt who asked me to take his pic for him, thereby inspiring me to ask the same.

~

 

*January 6, 2017. Sponsored by the MLA Committee on the Status of Graduate Studies in the Profession and chaired by Caroline Eagan. The papers were as follows: “Hybrid Teaching, or the Performance of Comparative Theory” by Germán Campos-Muñoz (Appalachian State U) and Mich Nyawalo (Shawnee State U); “From Practice to Theory: Collaboration in the Composition Classroom” by Joanna Grim (Lehigh U) and Dana McClain (Lehigh U); “Performance and the Foreign Language and Culture Curriculum: Theory and Practice” by Anna Santucci (Brown U); “English Remix: Curating and Enacting a Posthuman Classroom” by Sarah Shelton. Our abstracts can still be found at https://mlagrads.mla.hcommons.org/2016/12/20/abstracts-for-csgsp-roundtable-teaching-as-theoretical-practice/