HOTB2020 Panel 4.2: Toxic Mediations



Panel 4.2: Toxic Mediations

“’Destruction Is a Real Hidden Investment’: Waste’s Modernity in the Urban Pastoral”

Orchid Tierney (Kenyon College)

“Cinematic Wasthetics: An Empirical Eco-critique of Slow Violence and Plastic Pollution”

Nicolai Skiveren (Aarhus University)

“On (De)Familiarizing Toxicity: Getting Intimate with Polluted Soil”

Ruby de Vos (University of Groningen)



Q & A

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10 replies
  1. Nicolai Skiveren says:

    Ruby and Orchid, thank you both for your very engaging talks. Your discussions about the entanglement of human culture and toxicity and the close relationship between waste and modernity raise – I think – a number of very timely and crucial questions about the world we live in today. Watching your two talks in succession, it seems to me that what connects both of your research is a focus on waste in art (in its various forms) as a kind of vehicle for defamiliarizing (Ruby) or foregrounding (Orchid) of the socio-ecological consequences of toxicity and wasting (not to mention your shared attention toward the urban environment as a material and semantic site brimming with wasteful processes that can be read and experimented with in a number of ways). As I watched your talks, a number of questions arose – questions that I have been and continue to struggle with in my own research…

    For instance, in exposing the fact that we are always already entangled in processes of toxicity, as you, Ruby, convincingly show us, I cannot help but wonder where this fundamental condition leaves an ethics of waste. It is not a temporary situation (a momentary catastrophe or event), as you say, but rather an ongoing/unfolding reality. I agree. But what do we do with this knowledge? What is the end-goal of defamiliarization (if there is one)? I think you provide good initial suggestions, such as the need to accept impurity and to historicize our current predicaments, but I struggle to see where we might move on to following these insights. Is recognition enough? A related question or remark that I also wanted to make was spurred by your passing question about whether toxins might have a voice in their own right. If possible, could you elaborate on how, in your opinion, such an attribution might impact our ways of thinking about toxicity as a potentially harmful substance/process – what would the rhetorical, ethical, political advantages be of giving voice to waste?

    In response to Orchid’s presentation, I also wanted to ask you to follow up on one of your final comments. Towards the end of your presentation, you argue that:

    “Certainly focusing on waste by attending to the way whiteness permeates throughout environmental discourses in language and policy is going to be an important urgency in the context of converting pedagogy and research into action.”

    I think that your discussion here of the racial dimensions of neo-liberal and post-colonial discourses on waste and environment are very convincing. In that context, I wonder if you could elaborate on how you see the processes of ‘foregrounding’ as something that can contribute towards converting these theoretical and poetic discourse into action. What is it about art – or perhaps poetry especially? – that makes it an effective vehicle for transforming concrete lived practices (political, social, affective, perceptual, etc.) that take place ‘outside the text’, so to speak? Do you see art such as literature/poetry as intersecting with various forms of activism practices or is the ‘conversion’ you allude to of another nature? What is the potential of poetry in the context of the destructive tendencies of neoliberalism that your outline? Does/can/should it go beyond the realm of representation/foregrounding? And if so, how?

  2. Orchid Tierney says:

    Hi Nicolai. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I will return and fully flesh out your questions later, but I want to begin to productively muse about your generative inquiries. And I may push with your queries and then pull back from them with my answers.

    You ask “What is it about art – or perhaps poetry especially? – that makes it an effective vehicle for transforming concrete lived practices (political, social, affective, perceptual, etc.) that take place ‘outside the text’, so to speak?”

    I find myself frequently stumbling over the limits of language as a vehicle for articulating (rather than transforming) lived practices, but I am also aware that focusing on language’s failures doesn’t always get us very far, especially from a social justice perspective. I think what is exciting about Ed Roberson’s work (and I am a very novice scholar of this work) is that he doesn’t necessarily engage with this question, but he does embrace language’s stickiness that yokes culture/nature and human/animal together to erode the artificial separation of multiple worlds and experiences.

    His poem “City Eclogue: Words for it” is a wonderful example of this erosion, as I mention in my talk, for the city trucks *are* in nature as the birds and trees themselves. How do we make sense of this overlap when the practices of gentrification, waste, and waste management invoke (even require) clean binaries? Either something *is* waste or it *is not*. That building *is* derelict. This building *is not*. What I believe Roberson’s poems propose (at least in this collection) is a series of linguistic nuances that retain the slipperiness of such categories. An abandoned building or neighbourhood is still a home or a set of homes. Waste is still nature. Nature can be trash. I wonder then if these poems offer us a way to think against the “destructive tendencies of neoliberalism” as it relates specifically to rigid language usage and categorisation.

    As I was writing this paper, I felt a great deal of hesitation over using “wasted lives” as Bauman does (from a sociological perspective) because this too feels like an artificial binary that fails to adequately articulate the structural and infrastructural failures in gentrified spaces (and the wasters/waste-makers who are producing such binaries). I think I may want to underscore this line of inquiry further as I redevelop this paper, and I’d certainly welcome thoughts and critiques on this topic.

    I intend to muse over your question “Does/can/should [poetry] go beyond the realm of representation/foregrounding? And if so, how?” a little more, as I think it gets to the heart of my broader project. This question cogently foregrounds a kind of urgency lurking behind more activist poetry. But in the meantime, I certain welcome any additional questions to my rudimentary answers.

    • Nicolai Skiveren says:

      Orchid, thanks for your reply. I am not very familiar with Ed Roberson’s work myself, but it seems that you have found a collection that really articulates – both in content and in form – some of the generative slipperiness that I also find associated with the motif of waste, in literature as in film. I also agree that one of the main ways in which the aesthetic work that we as ecocritics analyze hold the potential to intervene in the world is through language – and, of course, the associated cognitive, emotional, and structural aspects that language carry with it.

      I’m curious that you mentioned feeling tentative about employing Bauman’s concept of Wasted Lives as part of your paper, as I found it quite persuasive, both as it figured in your talk and in his own work. I’m not entirely sure I understand your reservations in this regard; isn’t his work on the concept also a critique of this very category (and perhaps also a critique of category-thinking in more general terms)? The parts of his ‘Wasted Lives’ that I have read figure, in my reading anyways, both as a form of mapping of the structures that serve to produce categories of otherness and wastedness whilst also being a critique of those very structures. Or is your concern rather that the concept is derived from sociology and thus difficult to integrate within a methodology of literary criticism? I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

      • Orchid Tierney says:

        Hi Nicolai, this is a great question. I find myself stuck not on the category of “wasted lives” per se but on the term “wasted” as a metaphor to describe othering and the structures of othering that leave certain demographics vulnerable. If I’m blunt about it, I’m concerned that “waste” as a metaphor becomes a racist euphemism for people of colour, the poor, the disabled, and the intersections within, so it ends up obscuring and harming the very communities targeted by gentrification policies. Bauman’s category is neat, but I think he lost some of the nuances in his analyses because of it.

  3. Ruby de Vos says:

    Hi Nikolai,
    thanks for your wonderful questions! They bring up points that I feel I did not have enough time to discuss in my paper, so I’ll be glad to do it here. 

    “But what do we do with this knowledge? What is the end-goal of defamiliarization (if there is one)?” you ask. I think here I personally do not believe that it is necessarily art’s job to save us or to solve the problem (even though there is exciting and important activist work being made, of course) – this is ultimately the task and the responsibility of the institutions and governments that continue that pollute. In that sense, recognition is not enough – but I am also hesitant to demand actual (concrete) change from art. Instead, I am inspired here by Donna Haraway when she writes “it matters which thoughts think thoughts” – and this is where I think art can come into play, as something that can offer us “new thoughts” to think with. This I think can function to shift normative perceptions of the body, for example, in terms of its relation to the environment, sexuality, or disability. What kind of space does toxicity open up, in addition to closing off? I don’t think this is in contradiction to activist work concerned with regulation or remediation or compensation – I think these two can sit together. In that sense, recognition is not enough – but grappling with recognition and what that might mean is a complementary, necessary practice, in my opinion. (I think this entire discussion also resonates with some observations in your paper, which I haven’t been able to watch fully yet due to some pressing deadlines, but I’ll come back once I have done so!)

    Then you pick up on something I have to admit I didn’t fully think through, when you ask: ” what would the rhetorical, ethical, political advantages be of giving voice to waste?” I assume this refers to my quick comment on that the poem could be read through the lens of toxins themselves. I think for me it is important that that observation was made in the context of the work, and thus co-existed with the possibility that it was the landscape, or a human speaker. I have to say I am not really into OOO – for me, these are different levels of consciousness and – especially! – responsibility, and it is important to acknowledge that. However, within the context of Silbersee, the possibility that the toxins may be speaking does make visible that toxins are not static either – they, too change across space and time, and through interrelations. I need to think more, then, about what it might mean to give voice to waste in general, but within this context, I think it allows for a way of thinking about toxins as more than just purely evil tiny particles, and in doing so, they allow us to think new thoughts about them, in the way I outlined above. 

    I very much welcome further thoughts on this! The question of what we want art to do in these contexts of ongoing crisis is very interesting to me, so I’d love to hear your (and anyone’s!) thoughts on this.

    • Ruby de Vos says:

      Dear Nikolai, as promised I would come back – thanks so much for your talk! I really enjoyed the intersection of theory and empirical research here. Your study very nicely demonstrates, among other things, the tension between individual responsibility and the impasse people experience in relation to it (I was quite struck by the one viewer’s remark about not feeling responsible – it is their country’s responsibility.) I have to say I have trouble formulating my question here, so excuse the clunkiness here, but do you see particular ways in which empirical research can aid us not only in further understanding that impasse, but also possibly in moving beyond it? Or do you think this question is perhaps too ambitious (per Clark)/not the right question altogether? 

      • Nicolai Skiveren says:

        Dear Ruby, thank you for your reply. I, too, think the experience of feeling powerless in the face of structural forces is becoming increasingly common, especially in my own region of Scandinavia, where the notions such as climate anxiety and flygskam become more and more widespread. In my view, empirical work carries a number of advantages, though these do not necessarily only pertain to the impasse of structure versus individual, but more generally to simply understanding how people – outside academia – respond to the texts that we analyze and discuss. In that sense, empirical work, in my view, attempts to take a first step in going beyond readings of potential and toward discussions of what actually takes place, when readers/viewers consume literature and film. This is a necessary first step, I think, to understanding the actual potential of environmental narratives in film and literature. But from then on things of course start to get more difficult and complicated. As you mentioned yourself, it is not necessarily art’s job to save us. I agree. But the perceptual shifts that they produce – although far from being a guarantee every time – nevertheless remains (as you also mention) a necessary (but insufficient) condition for mobilizing significant social change. In that sense, I agree with Clark, when he voices his skepticism about the impact of ecocritical engagements on the world outside the text, but that of course doesn’t entail that ecocritical engagements can’t be part of this impact (albeit one amongst many). In that sense, I don’t think the question is too ambitious or misguided – heck, I’m all for it! – though what I am advocating is also that the judgments we make about the capacity of art to move people be grounded empirically rather than simply on anecdotal or hypothetical evidence, as has often been the case.

  4. Robert Geal says:

    Dear presenters, these were all fascinating talks, but as a film scholar I am particularly interested in (or perhaps just more informed about!) certain aspects of your paper, Nicolai. I wonder to what extent you think that the empirical data you have gathered merely confirms your preferred theoretical lens? After all, this is a criticism that has been made of other reception studies – I’m thinking particularly of the way that research such as Jackie Stacey’s has been criticized for reproducing her psychoanalytic method. The detailed example you gave, which was very powerful, of the moment where your interviewees commented on how the spatial gap between them and the subject matter suddenly collapsed when they saw the paper from the Danish supermarket, for example, potentially confirms a certain established film studies method – this particular piece of detritus functioning something like Barthes’ punctum that pierces through the veil of the otherwise anonymous and non-specific grey piles of rubbish. You mentioned that ecocriticism should use empirical methods to test assumptions, and this may be an example of that – audiences DO respond to such a punctum in the manner we had theorized they would! But as I say, reception studies has the potential danger of finding only what is being looked for, so perhaps my question can be simplified as follows: Does the empirical reception method you are advocating have the potential to produce surprising responses from audiences which problematize our theories?

    • Nicolai Skiveren says:

      Dear Robert, thank you for your very relevant question; it goes straight to the center of one of my main concerns about empirical work like this. Is it objective? Am I begging the question? Am I only identifying the answers that I want to see? How do I remain open to new insights and contrasting evidence? I struggled myself with these question throughout the entire reception study, both in terms of the overall research design (who to interview, how to recruit them, what to ask them about, how, when and where), the actual interview process (where iterative in-the-moment responses were necessary to make the respondents provide rich descriptions of their experiences without of course guiding them toward “all the right answers”, as it were), and the subsequent analysis (in which viewer testimonies were coded in ways that were necessarily interpretive and thus subject to subjective evaluation).

      On the one hand, I of course had my hypotheses about the film’s impact on its viewers – choosing this film over another was not a random choice, but a specific interest what kind of emotional and perceptual responses certain scenes (such as the one you pointed out) would lead to. In this sense, I of course had a theoretical lens (specifically related slow violence) that I wanted to investigate closely. On the other hand, I tried very hard to design my case study in ways that didn’t guide the viewers toward specific answers. In other words, I wasn’t interested in EVERYTHING but in SOMETHING, though at the same time I didn’t want my presence (or my questions for that matter) to shape the viewer’s responses too such as degree that they no longer became reflective of their actual experience. Here, it was question of navigating – often from moment to moment – the fine line between keeping the interview FOCUSED and not GUIDED. This is of course difficult, and requires a lot of practice, though there are also certain structural elements that can put in place to minimize (but of course never eliminate) my presence as a research. For instance, in my interviews I used mainly open questions (e.g. “Can you describe for me what you have just seen?”) and they followed a semi-structured format (meaning that whatever came up in the interviews on the viewer’s own accord came to define the direction of the interview). In the final article, I include my interview guides for transparency in terms of exactly this point. That being said, qualitative research like this is never entirely objective; it involves subjective interpretation (and in my case also interaction), and this of course introduces ambiguity and risk of misrepresentation. No method is perfect, but in my view, these shortcomings are outweighed by the richness in description that the qualitative research interview allows.

      In terms of your remark about whether such method in fact allows for “surprising responses from audiences which problematize our theories”, then I think that was indeed the case in my study. I expected viewers to respond to the advert, but I didn’t not foresee the many ways in which my viewers would attempt to make sense of its presence – let alone engage in extensive justifications of their (lack of) emotional responses to the scene. I did not expect to identify what eventually came to call “the affective lure of disentanglement”: Often viewers would engage, on their own accord, in extensive meta-cognitive descriptions of why they didn’t feel responsible for what they had been shown. In this kind of meta-cognition, viewers would openly talk about how they felt the documentary made demands on them after which they would immediately try to distance themselves from these demands by interpreting the documentary in a number of ways, such as comparing it to other documentaries they had seen, other issues they were aware of, their sometimes essentialist presumptions about Chinese culture, and so on). These kinds of interpretations differed significantly from viewer to viewer, and also revealed a number of different reactions to the formal aesthetic style of the documentary, which – as I mention in the video – follow an observational mode. Some were for instance annoyed by the absence of a voice-over while others cherished the silence; some longed for a more didactic voice whilst others felt that the documentary’s amoralism was liberating. Other avenues that showed surprising audience responses could be found in the many descriptions viewers would provide of the moments that had passed in the week that followed, where for instance the face of the Yi-Je had come to people’s minds before going to sleep. All of these pointed in the direction that it was the individual atmospheres, situations, and interactions that viewers faced after watching the film that caused it to reemerge in their consciousness – the micropolitics of viewer’s everyday lives came to be central when talking about the impact the film had made on them. These, again, differed significantly from viewer to viewer and was not something I was able to predict would happen prior conducting the study. There were many more examples, but I’ll leave it here; as I’m interested to hear whether you feel I have adequately answered your question or if you think there are other more obvious methodological inadequacies that I might have failed to take into account?

      • Robert Geal says:

        Thanks Nicolai, you’ve absolutely answered my question. I don’t have any experience conducting reception studies, although I am planning one, so that’s part of the reason I’m asking, I suppose. As you have noted, there are limitations to any methodology, and I think that unexpected responses are a good sign that these limitations are being ameliorated, in a reception study. Keep up the good work!

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