[I teach in Goddard College’s MFA in Interdisciplinary Arts program. As part of my advising practice, I regularly send my advising group a preface letter — which comes before a second letter that speaks directly to a student’s individual work — in which I speak to some element of pedagogy, art theory, art practice, or the program’s degree criteria. From time to time I share the letters here.]
At the Rhode Island School of Design, I sometimes teach a seminar called Queer Ecology: Disrupting Normative Practice. I spent part of the summer preparing to teach it this fall, only to learn earlier this week that it had insufficient enrollment to run. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about queer ecology a lot these past few weeks and preparing my introductory class. I used these thoughts and notes to construct a preface letter for my Goddard advising group, too; and this post reflects much of what I shared with them.
When I’m asked casually what I mean by “queer ecology,” I explain that it’s a mash-up of Environmental Studies and Queer Theory. This vernacular response is both reductive and a little oblique, enough perhaps to satisfy cocktail conversation, but not enough to reveal queer ecology’s vibrant possibility. As Timothy Morton has written, queer ecology has the potential to create a “fantastic explosion” in how we think about ecology and what it means to be human, but he’s clear, and I’m prone to agree, that as a field queer ecology doesn’t quite yet exist. It’s a provocative idea and interesting lens through which we can reflect upon some critical questions facing us, but it’s still in formation.
Returning to my vernacular response, when I offer it I’m intentionally being provocative, and trying to engender some sparks of imagination. For me, the splicing of Queer Theory with Environmental Studies creates a space for discernment and discovery that’s unusual and yeasty. I stumbled across this terrain when I was asked to teach a Queer Theory course a few years ago. I wanted to connect it to the work I’d been doing on sustainable design, and I was pleased to discover that others were thinking about this hybrid. For me, climate change profoundly disrupts of my assumptions about normality, because it calls into question the viability of the built environment in which I live and challenges my assumptions about what I need to live well. It asks me to consider how I might imagine living in a profoundly different way from the ways in which I’ve become acculturated.
Before I get too far into my thinking about applying queer ecologies’ possibilities, it might be useful to define my terms, and to offer some perspectives on what queer ecology is.
By Queer Theory I don’t mean “gay studies.” Rather, I’m referring to a field of critical theory (a philosophy that emphasizes reflective assessment of culture through the application of knowledge from the social sciences and humanities) that applies a queer reading to culture and theorizes queerness. Queer Theory compels us to ask what we think is “normal”, how we came to believe it, and who is included, excluded, or oppressed by the definition. And finally, in my mind, it asks us to consider how by transgressing or defying normalized culture we expand the possibilities of human potential. When I refer to Environmental Studies, I’m most interested in how we understand ecology and our place within it; and I’m particularly interested in understanding how our metaphors around the environment (and the many fictions that a term like “nature” creates) affect our ability to more fully understand ourselves and the world.
Catriona Mortimer-Sandilands and Bruce Erickson explain queer ecology in the introduction to their volume, Queer Ecologies: Sex, Nature, Politics, Desire, in one particular way:
The critical analysis of [ideas and practices of nature, including both bodies and landscapes, located in particular productions of sexuality and sex] is what we mean by ‘queer ecology’: there is an on-going relationship between sex and nature that exists institutionally, discursively, scientifically, spatially, politically, poetically, and ethically, and it is our task to interrogate that relationship in order to arrive at a more nuanced and effective sexual and environmental understanding. Specifically, the task of a queer ecology is to probe the intersections of sex and nature with an eye to developing a sexual politics that more clearly includes considerations of the natural world and its biosocial constitution, and an environmental politics that demonstrates and understanding of the ways in which sexual relations organize and influence both the material world of nature and our perceptions, experiences, and constitutions of that world. (p.5)
Alex Johnson takes a slightly more direct approach in presenting the tension between our conceptions of both sex and nature. In an article he published in the March / April 2011 issue of Orion, Johnson states:
We have come to believe, over our Western cultural history, that heterosexual monogamy is the norm, the natural. People who call gays unnatural presume that Nature is pure, perfect, and predictable. Nature intended for a man and a woman to love each other, they say. Gays act against Nature. And yet: we rip open the Earth. We dominate the landscape, compromising the integrity of the living world. We act as though civilization were something better, higher, more valuable than the natural world.
And in a March 2011 interview in Grist, Johnson offers a set of progressive equations and a way forward:
Queer ecology begins by questioning our understanding of sexuality in relation to Nature, but it certainly does not end there. As I suggest in my essay, if straight identity means “I am,” and gay identity means “I am not,” then queer can mean “I am also.” I see no end to the application of I-Am-Also as we work to protect the integrity of the world’s ecological whole.
As I implied above, I start with these definitions to trouble the waters of our everyday metaphors, and to bring into question those ways that we’ve come to think about both who we are and our relationship to the world we inhabit. If we think of our social practices as “natural” our understanding of how we live is limited to those practices. Classically, Queer Theory has brought into question the normality of heterosexuality, and the conceptual application of it to the non-human world. The stories we tell about non-human creatures, anthropomorphize them and apply heterosexual norms (think of any Disney cartoon that uses animals, or children’s books). But as Bruce Bagemihl, a biologist and linguist, documented in his book, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, many hundreds of species (Bagemihl documents 300 species and others cite 460) engage in sexualities that defy heterosexual norms. The conflict between these perspectives is profound. When we are trained to think about the non-human world in ways that simply projects upon them a culturally constructed theory of sexuality, we not only limit our understanding of ourselves, but we also enable metaphors that enable destructive actions upon the non-human world. Using another example, when we believe that humans have dominion over the non-human world, we enable widespread destruction of species and habitat.
As I’ve thought about these matters, I’ve come to understand queer ecology as a set of lenses through which I can investigate issues of human sexuality and both social and planetary ecologies. In many ways these lenses build off of Johnson’s equation, which I have come to understand as defining normative states as being singular and limiting, states of difference as being oppositional and tethered to the normative states they resist, and queer states reflecting life’s implicit and explicit plurality and diverse subjective potential. The three sequential lenses I propose are: 1.) Recognizing Normative Abnormality; 2.) Imagining Transgression; and 3.) Envisioning Plurality. I’ll spend a little time illustrating each of these before connecting this approach to other epistemic models.
Recognizing Normative Abnormality
In the immediate aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe, Derrick Jensen, writing in Orion, takes on the claims that life without electricity is unimaginable. He begins with this statement from government officials:
In late March, an official with the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency told the Wall Street Journal that Japan is not reconsidering nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, because “Japan couldn’t go forward without nuclear power in order to meet its demand for energy today.” He said that a significant reduction in nuclear power would result in blackouts, then added, “I don’t think anyone could imagine In late March, an official with the Japanese nuclear regulatory agency told the Wall Street Journal that Japan is not reconsidering nuclear energy in the wake of Fukushima, because “Japan couldn’t go forward without nuclear power in order to meet its demand for energy today.” He said that a significant reduction in nuclear power would result in blackouts, then added, “I don’t think anyone could imagine life without electricity.”
The failure of imagination at work here is stunning. Humans have lived without industrially generated electricity for nearly all of our existence. In fact we thrived on every continent except Antarctica without it. And for nearly all those years the majority of humans lived sustainably and comfortably. And let’s not forget the many traditional indigenous peoples (plus another almost 2 billion people) who are living without electricity today. The Japanese official is so lacking in imagination that he can’t even imagine that they exist.
Why is it unimaginable, unthinkable, or absurd to talk about getting rid of electricity, but it is not unimaginable, unthinkable, and absurd to think about extirpating great apes, great cats, salmon, passenger pigeons, Eskimo curlews, short-nosed sea snakes, coral reef communities? And why is it just as accepted to allow the extinction of indigenous humans who are also inevitable victims of this way of life (many of whom live with little or no electricity)? This failure of imagination is not only insane, it is profoundly immoral.
In other parts of the piece, Jensen points out that electricity is a public utility that’s a little more than a century old. For hundreds of thousands of years human beings lived sustainably without it (many still do). In little more than a century it’s become unimaginable to live without it in the West, and our need for it is killing the planet at a rapid speed. There is nothing “normal” about electricity in the history of our species. There is nothing “normal” about the impending extinction of polar bears. And yet, we accept both as normal.
How we learn to ask questions about our context, beyond the ways we’ve been trained to see it, is an act of recognizing normative abnormality.
On New Years Day 1998, my boyfriend and I were on a plane, flying home from Charleston, SC. The boarding process and transfer had been particularly bumpy, and I was feeling more like cargo than a human being. This flight came after a year of flying a lot, mostly to conferences and meetings at which, I’d become convinced, people were more interested in having me attend for my title than my ideas. Flipping through a magazine, my boyfriend turned to me and said, “Flights to London are really cheap, maybe we should go to London for a weekend this winter.”
In that moment, all I could imagine was never flying again.
The thought stayed with me, and over the coming months I stopped agreeing to go to meetings beyond a short drive or train trip. Within a year, I started to say, “I don’t fly,” to which people responded incredulously—implying or outright telling me that it was impossible for me not to fly and have a good life. I started to think about this more, both my experience of feeling like chattel each time I flew and my newly emerging environmental sensibility about my carbon footprint. The implication that I’d be barred from having a good life became a challenge; and the challenge required me to think about ways of transgressing the ecological catastrophe that is presented to me as “normal.” If a weekend in London is our barometer of fulfillment, if putting tons of carbon into the atmosphere is the measure of a good life, something is desperately wrong.
That flight in 1998 was my last. I don’t fly. My life is good.
I’m a pescetarian, which means that I eat fish, but not other forms of meat. It’s a position that tends to be unsatisfactory or confusing to meat-eaters and vegetarians alike. Meat eaters sometimes see my position as suspect, a step toward their dreaded ideas about vegetarianism; and vegetarians have told me that it’s a cop out. So it’s a strange space to inhabit.
I stopped eating meat in 1992, after a particularly virulent case of meat-borne food poisoning. I’d flirted with being a vegetarian before that, after meeting Frances Moore Lappe and reading Diet for a Small Planet, but after eating bad meat it was easy to step away. I don’t miss it, and realize than I never particularly liked meat to begin with. And I understand the economics of meat, which convince me that the centrality of meat in our diet has nothing to do with the traditional ways people have eaten. Our cultural consumption of massive amounts of meat is a construction of the twentieth century—and one for which we are beginning to see the dire consequences in terms of health and environmental impact.
I don’t have problem with people eating some meat. I don’t have a problem with people eating no meat. I can imagine a plurality, where we eat what we want and need, and don’t negatively impact the planet or wantonly subject other creatures to cruelty.
Of course, this plurality of subjectivity can be applied to a lot of other ways of being, sexuality and gender being prime examples in Queer Theory.
Earlier in this letter, I stated that my interest in queer ecology is grounded in my curiosity about diversity of human identity and my concerns about climate change. I have another interest, too. How might we begin to intentionally create queer spaces that exist beyond the rhetoric of mere tolerance? Can we imagine ecologies in which the full plurality of human and non-human subjectivity might sustainably flourish? Can we imagine spaces in which we can live good lives without impressing limiting metaphors and unsustainable practices on others and on the planet? This is a central challenge that’s always operating within my practice.
I offer these thoughts not to inculcate you in queer ecology, but rather to offer you a perspective on epistemic lenses—by which I mean a theory of discerning knowledge. Understanding critical forms of assessment and theory is a central part of the degree criteria—both in the sense of articulating a personal theory or art and in terms of embodying or enacting praxis. The models I’m offering here are models that work in my practice and within my context. I imagine that your practice and context are different than mine, and that you’re searching for models that help you discern meaning from your location. In an effort to broaden things a bit, let me offer two more models. I assure you that there are many more than these three examples.
For those of you who have participated in one of my workshops on Progressive Pedagogy, you’ll remember that I often share John Dewey’s model of learning, which is another epistemic model. Dewey’s model looks like this:
- Become aware of the problem of question
- Define the problem of question
- Propose a possible solution
- Evaluate the possible consequences of the solutions you’ve proposed
- Test the likeliest solution
- Repeat the process as necessary
A third model I’ll offer, that I’ve learned from teaching designers, is design thinking, which many people agree has five sequential modes:
Dewey’s model and design thinking are more general approaches to thinking about problems and applying knowledge to the world. Queer ecology as well as its starting points, Queer Theory and Environmental Studies, begin with particular points of reference and have specific intentions. You’ll notice that all of these models echo each other methodologically, utilizing the action-reflection model inherent in Western thought. You’ll also notice their similarity to the Scientific Method that many of us learned in high school.
If you’d like to pursue a conversation about any of these methods, I’d be happy to take it up with you in our next exchange.
At the residency, when we were talking about the ebb and flow of the semester, you may remember that I said packet one is always robust and packet two often begins with the concern that “it’s not my best work.” My experience is that we tend to put a lot of energy into packet one, using the four weeks between residency and the deadline and also packing into packet one our reflections on the residency. In comparison to all that time, energy and thinking (an intense six weeks of it, really), nothing done in three weeks can compare. So, be thoughtful about what you can accomplish for packet two and give yourself space to present it well.
I’m reminding you of this to suggest that you begin thinking about the pace of the semester, too. Returning to your study plan, can you map those places where you’ll need significant, focused time to complete a project? Are there other times when you can complete things in the spaces between other activities? With a packet under your belt, are there ways that you better understand the adjustments you might need to make to your schedule to achieve your aspirations for the semester?
From my end, it’s been a good month since the residency. I’ve spent most of it in Provincetown, reading and writing, as well as exercising a lot. It’s been a good way to wind down the summer and prepare for a busy autumn.
I hope this finds you well and enjoying the day.