So yesterday I was at “Nordic Environments,” the opening conference of the Oslo School of Environmental Humanities.
Oslo School of Environmental Humanities (OSEH)[i] is the Faculty of Humanities and UniOslo’s flagship 5 year research and education initiative for the environmental humanities (EnvHum). While OSEH has been in operation for nearly a year, under the leadership of director Ursula Muenster (Associate Professor at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages) and some of the coolest people at the Faculty of Humanities, UniOslo, the opening conference[ii] was a celebration of the different kinds of initiatives and dialogues that OSEH has facilitated or participated in both at the university level and the wider public level over this year, as well as a statement of its goals and projects over the next years. The conference was held at SALT,[iii] which was an unusual location for an academic conference for those outside Scandinavia, being a “nomadic art project”, sauna, and exhibition space. However, it fit well with the Norwegian celebration of nature, the environmental focus of OSEH and its desire to promote interdisciplinary knowledge production including the arts, as well as the general academic goal of increasing public participation and bidirectional knowledge transfer. OSEH has also been doing it with a number of cool events, such as their EnvHum lunchtime discussions (check out the OSEH webpages for more!), so in that sense having a venue outside the university space made sense.
Due to other commitments, I was unable to attend the post-lunch panel, but I did manage to attend the morning sessions as well as the full evening program. So what follows are some general and haphazard thoughts on the event, and some of my takeaways from the opening day.
* Heather Swanson’s keynote: this was an amazing keynote, not only because Swanson is an engaging speaker, but because the topic was “failure”, which is an increasingly relevant theme for our times. The failure ranges from the personal (managing precarity; reviewer two etc., themes that came up during the Q&A session as well), to the disciplinary (true “interdisciplinary” exchanges between humanities, natural sciences, and social sciences; having an actual impact on the state of affairs in the world etc.), to the academic-political (increasing corporatization of public sector institutions; failure to facilitate meaningful and progressive political change in these times of political crisis; balancing research responsibility with other kinds of political activity, balancing environmental, queer, and left activism, etc.). Swanson’s talk brilliantly and beautifully captured all these failures, and went beyond them.
There was one issue for me however and that was the notion of genre and breaking genre. But it was “more a comment than a question” so it was better to write it out than bring it up in the conference space. From my literary training standpoint, genres are always already broken. There is no such thing as a “pure” genre, and therefore breaking genre doesn’t make sense. This goes as much for an academic lecture as it does for academic writing, or self-presentation, or performance. It also brings up another issue, as visual anthropologist and my friend Moumita Sen puts it: there are many occasions where it makes no sense to subvert the subversion, because it only serves to bring us back to the status quo. This is particularly an issue when constant subversion becomes the norm to such an extent that the only way one can “subvert” is by being apolitical, or by being strongly against political correctness. In the last few years, we have seen some strong instances of “breaking genre,” such as dressing informally for an academic talk which have been nothing more than reinstatement of the status quo in different forms. Take as example Matt Taylor’s misogynist t-shirt which sparked quite a debate a few years ago – because on the one hand it did subvert the genre of serious academic talk, while reinforcing the general misogynistic problem within STEM and academia.[iv] At what point do we set the limits of subversion, at what point is breaking genre a valid exercise, and when does it become yet another capitalist way of marking the path of progress: innovation as the continuous breaking of genre? The question of failure can also lead one down the same path – what really constitutes a failure if it is a “productive failure” (after all, science and knowledge progress through failures), or if it is the seed of something else (particularly true of political revolutions, when we talk about the “failure” of Occupy or the Ukrainian Orange Revolution or the Arab Spring)?
Swanson did distance herself from the problems I raise here, especially during Q&A when she emphatically asserted that her objective to bring up “failure” was not a call to abandon political struggle, or academic work, or any of those things, nor was her call for productive failure a Silicon Valley-esque call for innovation. And I agree with her that they are not, but they are connected and the problems raised by using the same strategies towards progress and conservative ends are not easy to ignore. This, and the problem of genre and breaking genre, are also at the heart of the CoFutures argument, so a lot of these are thoughts that came up due to my own preoccupations rather than Swanson’s talk alone, but I raise them to point to the richness of her talk and the concerns she brought up. I am not sure some of these contradictions can be resolved. I will just mention in context the epigraph by Nic Pizzolatto in Caitlín R. Kiernan’s Agents of Dreamland, which is on top of my tbr pile at the moment, that an answer isn’t the same thing as a solution.[v]
*Another question that Swanson raised was the point about “Environmental Humanities” as a problem term, and how “environment” serves as a boundary object that allows negotiations with other disciplines, while humanities serves to exclude interdisciplinary collaborations. Somehow, she argued, we are stuck with it, even though EnvHum should perhaps be called not- environment, and not-humanities. This was a fun idea to think with, because a lot of us have similar problems with the term science fiction.
*Speaking of SF, Muenster ended her introduction with a list of six powerful women who have transformed our way of thinking, and she included two people those of us in the SFF field are proud to think of as our own in some ways: Ursula Le Guin and Donna Haraway.[vi] SFF and EnvHum have never been far apart, and CoFutures will also focus on these connections, including eco-fiction, environmental literature, climate fiction, anthropocene fictions, etc. There is a lot to say and I will write about it at some other point, but it was really wonderful that she brought it up.
*Interventions: the evening programme is worth focusing on. Muenster and OSEH created a packed but extremely engaging programme with speakers from public organizations, artists, architects, and finally, a concert with Sami Joik artist Vassvik.[vii] In brief presentations, we learnt about GrowLab which stages urban interventions in the Oslo city space, marine creatures in the inner Oslo fjord, the popping and crackling sounds of oxygen escaping the slowly declining iceshelves of the Arctic from the Future North project, about Natur og Ungdom and the anti-oil drilling climate lawsuit brought about by children, youth, and others against the Norwegian government, a supremely tragicomic performance by Kristy Kross (dressed as a fish) about extinction adapted to “Don’t Worry Be Happy”, and a presentation of the weird Anthropocene Cookbook. The broad range of topics and presentations, with the common theme of anthropogenic climate change but focusing on it from a variety of lenses from legal perspectives to aesthetic concerns to overconsumption to neoliberal capitalism to settler colonialism, offered us a snapshot of academic, political, and artistic ways of strategizing for a common cause, and the ambition of OSEH to work across disciplines and initiate different kinds of discussions going forward. And the concert that brought it all to a close was out of this world.
Altogether, it was a perfect day. Many congratulations to the organizers and OSEH putting this amazing event together! I am really excited about the next years!