Humanities on the Edge Lecture Review: Ursula Heise
October 7, 2014
On Oct. 2, 2014, Ursula Heise [http://www.uheise.net/] spoke on “Biocities: Urban Futures and the Reinvention of Nature” to an attentive audience at UNL’s Sheldon Museum of Art. Heise, a professor of English and a faculty member of UCLA’s Institute of the Environment of the Sustainability, was the 17th invited guest of the Humanities on the Edge speaker series. Her lecture previewed ideas from her manuscript-in-progress, Where the Wild Things Used to Be: Narrative, Database, and Endangered Species, and drew on speculative fiction to imaginatively explore how humans and other species perceive and shape planetary nature in the Anthropocene.
Heise’s work is at the forefront of the “environmental humanities,” which she described as a relatively new field that brings together academic disciplines (history, philosophy, ecocriticism, anthropology, and others) and activists in an effort to collaboratively understand and respond to the significant global, social, and environmental changes currently underway. She recognized the difficulty of interdisciplinary work at a time when disciplines themselves are often divided. Yet the charge of this emerging field is to establish a critical focus on an overarching global crisis that—some argue—requires exceptional interventions.
“States of Exception” is this year’s Humanities on the Edge theme, and in a discussion with UNL graduate students preceding her lecture, Heise pointed out that so far the global environmental crisis hasn’t politically provoked the reaction of a state of exception. She also noted the implicit urge in states of exception to bypass democratic processes in order to effect social and economic shifts.
The concept of the Anthropocene—describing a new epoch, distinct from the Holocene, in which human activity for the first time causes planet-wide biological and geological changes—sometimes is used to signify an exceptional crisis. Heise described one approach to the Anthropocene, based on the work of Paul Crutzen and others, that uses the term to mark the “sum of environmental havocs wreaked by humans.” This Anthropocene invokes the sixth major extinction of species and calls into jeopardy the survival of humans. Recognizing the dire nature of the situation, Heise nevertheless questions how it establishes “the end of a narrative of decline.”
Another path is to see the Anthropocene as a productive turning point, or in Heise’s words, an “environmental orientation toward the future instead of the past.” Heise linked work by Erle Ellis, Peter Kareiva, Richard Hobbs, and Emma Marris—exemplified in such concepts as anthromes, domesticated nature, intervention ecology, and novel ecosystems—in an approach to the Anthropocene that celebrates human responsibility toward and management of nature. However, Heise cautions that much has in fact been lost. She was skeptical of how these stories might enact neo-Enlightenment thinking or might imply that all human management has had intentional effects (surely global warming was not in the plan).
Instead, Anthropocene humans might be knowledgeable of past mistakes, mindful of current complexities, and forward-thinking in charting new directions. And they will do this in and through urban places. Since the majority of humans now live in urban areas, Heise argued that the transformed nature of the city is the “quintessential Anthropocene environment” and the “future habitat of humankind.” Cities already generate their own temperature environments, and though Heise is concerned that their biodiversity is overlooked by scientists, biological city life teems with mixes and hybrids. The Anthropocene, said Heise, leads us to “rethink nature as city rather than other to it.”
This need to rethink or reinvent nature informs Heise’s emphasis on the trope of terraforming in speculative fiction (and in some recent environment literature, too, such as Bill McKibben’s Eaarth). Her lecture repeatedly drew from the science fiction novel 2312 by Kim Stanley Robinson, wherein the city of Terminator actually moves across the surface of the planet Mercury. Texts like 2312 give us cause to reconsider the potential of cities. Heise explained that the terraformed planets constructed in Robinson’s works (including the Mars Trilogy) are never perfect “utopias,” but they are inhabited by societies that struggle for a deliberate future. In some instances, these new worlds stand in contrast to a fictional Earth that continues to face environmental degradation and catastrophe.
Both 2312 and Paolo Bacigalupi’s Hugo and Nebula award-winning novel The Windup Girl imagine flooded, changeable urban spaces, and Heise traced multi-vocal and dynamic urban spaces back to modernist works by authors like John Dos Passos and James Joyce. For instance, Robinson’s sections of “quantum walk” draw from imagist poetry and stream of consciousness narrative techniques, and they present a kind of modernist flâneur moving through an urban space. Heise connected Robinson’s flâneur to the environmental hiker and emphasized the fact that Robinson’s quantum walker is trans-human.
In the third and final section of her talk, then, Heise took up a “politics of walking” in which the nature of urban spaces is remade not only by humans but also by post- and non-humans. Heise’s analysis of Harryette Mullen’s Urban Tumbleweed led her to conclude with a vision of urban nature that is mixed, in motion, and transgressive. (Here we can’t help but think of weeds, in the sense of plants moving into places they are not supposed to be.) Rather than a setting for flâneurs, urban nature is a hiker-flâneur, or rather an “assemblage” of many of them. Heise posed the question of who (and what) is allowed to participate in, and who is excluded from participation in, urban politics. An answer might begin with seeing movement and walking as political. The reinvention of (urban) nature that this answer draws on might then be, as Heise put it, “a first step toward more-than-human democracy.”
As evidenced by the lively question-and-answer session after her lecture, Ursula Heise sparked discussion about the environmental humanities that will continue here in Nebraska. Her fast-paced lecture gave everyone pause to recognize the complexities (and perhaps even impossibilities) involved in addressing the Anthropocene. If one considers how consistently humans have rejected responsibility for the godlike powers that some human cultures have already assumed, and if one also thinks of how speculative fiction has been telling us to consider our actions since before Mary Shelley penned Frankenstein, one might be led to despair. And certainly there is need for recognition of loss and actual grief regarding histories of oppression, trauma, and degradation as well as the contemporary global environmental crisis. Yet in the lobby of the Sheldon after Heise’s lecture, one of our students told us that he was leaving with a positive feeling. Heise reminded us to look forward; she reaffirmed the value of studying what narratives are being told, and why, in order to try to learn to tell new stories, we must participate in new conversations, communities, and processes of making decisions about the future.