Review of Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative and Anthropocene Feminism

Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative
by Alexa Weik von Mossner

The Ohio State University Press, Columbus, OH, 2017
271 pp. Trade, $149.95; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-8142-1336-0; ISBN: 978-0-8142-5401-1

Anthropocene Feminism
by Richard Grusin, Editor

University of Minnesota Press, Minnesota, MN, 2017
248 pp. illus. 18 b/w. Trade, $112.00; paper, $28.00
ISBN: 978-1-5179-0060-1; ISBN: 978-1-5179-0061-8

Reviewed by
Edith Doove
October 2017

Alexa Weik von Mossner has given her book a seductive title, in full Affective Ecologies: Empathy, Emotion, and Environmental Narrative. The seductiveness is relevant as she argues that narratives can play an important role in seducing an audience into empathy. It certainly lured me into picking up this title in which the term ‘ecologies’ plays a double role. On the one hand, they point to the ecologies that are built in narratives and that can entice the empathy with the Other that Weik is after. On the other hand, it is our existing world ecology and environment plus the bad state it is in, that she wants the empathy specifically to be directed to.

Weik von Mossner divides her book in three parts that discuss respectively Place, Others and Future. As Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Klagenfurt, Austria, Weik takes the examples she discusses not surprisingly from an American context. Part I thus “explores the sensory and effective experiences cued by the American environments … in literature and film (p.13), while part II “focuses on the moral dimensions of our empathic engagements in environmental narratives that are concerned with issues of exploitation, abuse and injustice” (p.14). Part III claims to “investigate our embodied experience of speculative future environments in eco(dys)topian narratives and the negative and positive emotions cued by such narratives in order to promote sustainable lifestyles in the Anthropocene” (p.15).

Weik’s useful introduction on ‘Environmental Narrative, Embodiment, and Emotion’ opens strong with a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s dark, post-apocalyptic novel The Road and its equally dark film adaptation by John Hillcoat from 2009. It allows Weik to make a case for embodied cognition in relation to environmental narratives that she defines as “any type of narrative in any media that foregrounds ecological issues and human-nature relationships, often but not always with the openly stated intention of bringing about social change” (p. 3). Narrative as a sense making means, both in fiction and in real life, is thus foregrounded and brought in relation with so-called ecocriticism of which history Weik gives a short but insightful overview. So far, so good. Part I subsequently looks at two forms of environmental narrative – nature writing and environmental fiction – in written fiction that can have awareness-raising abilities before moving to examples in film. Here it becomes already clear that Weik seems to equate ‘empathy-raising’ literally with ‘sweeping’ as she chooses Jan De Bont’s movie Twister (1996) as her main antagonist although she also brings in Josh Fox’s fracking documentary Gasland (2010) to set of fact and fiction against each other.

Part II ‘Feeling with Others’ includes specifically nonhuman others through the discussion of amongst others Michael Apted’s Gorilla’s in the Mist (1988) although setting it off against the animation film Happy Feet (2006) to explore “trans-species empathy” raises questions. Where the book however completely loses its credibility is in Part III when Weik unfortunately falls for the charms of the Avatar franchise, starting with James Cameron’s hit film from 2009. Praising its “alluring 3-D world” and “the sheer beauty of the images and sadness for a vulnerable ecological space that is at risk” (p.187), Weik is enamoured, but she fails to ignore that extremely high grossing movie, apparently bringing in $2.8 billion, is in the first place a very expensive commercial undertaking, the environmental merits of which can be more than questioned. Although Weik brings up the comparison with films like Pocahontas herself, she further fails to recognise the postcolonial problems the film raises, which is surprising given her concern for Others in Part II of her book. While stating that Avatar “has [also] been read as advocating more emphatic engagement with the victims of (post-colonial violence and subjugation” (p. 189), others like Gautam Basu Thakur in his Postcolonial Theory and Avatar (2015) compares Avatar with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to state that “both narratives enact habitual rhetorical excisions of the other, the fetishization of the Other, and the circumscription of the other in a moralist-humanist universe of European provenance” (p.159). Further questions can be raised about the effectiveness on environmental issues of such a large-scale undertaking when brought in relation to its audience. In other words, how exactly is Avatar “promot[ing] sustainable lifestyles in the Anthropocene”? Despite the film’s worldwide success and the larger number of people who have seen it, surely the world has not become an impressively better place in environmental terms since 2009. It is doubtful that the four sequels planned by Cameron will bring any change to that.

A completely different tone, under a maybe at first glance much less enticing title, is used in Anthropocene Feminism, edited by Richard Grusin. To make the link with Weik von Mossner’s book, it is useful to first look at Stacy Alaimo’s contribution, “Your Shell on Acid: Material Immersion, Anthropocene Dissolves,” before discussing the volume in its entirety. In this essay, Alaimo makes a strong case for “scale shifting that is intrepidly – even psychedelically – emphatic rather than safely ensconced. Contemplating your shell on acid dissolves individualistic, consumerist subjectivity in which the world consists primarily of externalized entities, objects for human consumption” (p. 114). In this sense, her essay is thus the perfect answer to Weik’s undertaking. Instead of escaping to a fictional world far away in the future, Alaimo descends in the very real but largely unknown world of the oceanic deep seas to reveal the effect of ocean acidification. True enough, James Cameron’s documentary Deepsea Challenge (2012) also explored the deep sea but was mainly set as a personal record breaking challenge with matching soundtrack. Alaimo on the contrary draws our attention to a much smaller scale. In line with the agential, entangled vision of new materialisms but also the work of “[f]eminist theory, science studies, and environmental theory hav[ing] long critiqued the subject-object dualism” (p.101), she focuses on scientific and artistic work by Tim Senden and Melissa Smith on the dissolving of snails in acidic ocean waters. [1] As Alaimo makes clear, although only 22 seconds long in black and white and without an overbearing soundtrack, the original video of “a spinning, spiral, white shell, its edges dissolving into a transparent cloud… nonetheless make[s] claims on [its] viewers, seducing us to mobilize concern in scale-shifting modes” as “the empty shells suggest that the animals did not survive, but they also may invite viewers to take up residence there, within the precarious abodes” (p.110). Admittedly the audience numbers might not be record breaking, but its effect could nevertheless be more in-depth and enduring than that of Avatar.

An equally small-scale alternative is given by artist Natalie Jeremijenko, who, in her “small-scale participatory public experimentation” amongst others uses mussels to not only study water quality but also through the gathered data, generate music. Her MUSSELxCHOIR was shown amongst others during the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale thus reaching a larger audience with a sensitive contribution.

Alaimo’s essay and the interview with Jeremijenko are part of nine thought-provoking contributions to Anthropocene Feminism. The volume fits, just like Affective Ecologies, in a series of recent and upcoming literature that address the Anthropocene era and its devastating effect on our environment. Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble (2016), in which she introduced her own version of the Anthropocene calling it the Chthulucene, set an important tone and it is no surprise that she is referenced throughout this volume. The link to a proper feminist turn, with feminism now being in its third and seemingly strongest if not confirmative wave, is motivated amongst others by the fact that feminism always had strong relations with earth-thinking beyond boundaries. As Rosi Braidotti makes clear in her contribution, ‘Four Theses on Posthuman Feminism’, feminism over the past 30 years has gone through a strong development that started with Haraway’s Manifesto for Cyborgs in the mid-1980s as a result of which feminism made a move away from being a humanism. Instead the decentering of Anthropos and the emphasis on bios led from the 1990s to the posthuman. Braidotti here introduces “an activist embrace of zoe: nonhuman life” (Braidotti, 2017, p.30) as a ruling principle, which eventually turns sexuality into “a force beyond, beneath, and after gender” (p.21). Posthumanist feminist theory in Braidotti’s view “stresses the productive aspects of vital materialism, that is to say, a generative notion of complexity” (p.38) with difference or differing at the heart of it.

Where Braidotti claims at the beginning of her essay Michel Foucault as “a master of high antihumanism” (p.22), Lynne Huffer in her essay, “Foucault’s Fossils: Life Itself and the Return to Nature in Feminist Philosophy,” makes an even stronger case to study his work in light of the Anthropocene and the question of ethics surrounding it. Huffer, after a reflection on renaturalising and denaturalising movements in the work of respectively Elizabeth Grosz and Judith Butler, turns to Foucault for his “historically contingent, emergent conception of life” in which “the materiality of the traces of the past”, including “the fossilized traces of nonhuman lives” becomes essential in our understanding as individuals, population and possible geomorphic force (p.67).

Apart from the references to Haraway and Barad, Foucault is the most cited, not explicitly feminist scholar in this collection. Elizabeth Povinelli in her essay ‘The Three Figures of Geontology’ equally uses his biopolitics as a starting point and expands it.

The volume and its title originate from the 2014 spring conference at the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. As Richard Grusin, former director of C21, makes clear in his introduction “the concept of the Anthropocene has arguably been implicit in feminism and queer theory for decades, a genealogy that is largely ignored, or, worse, erased, by the masculine authority of an institutional scientific discourse that now seeks to name our current historical moment the Anthropocene” (Grusin, p.viii). The conference and this volume introduce the category anthropocene feminism as an experiment to formulate a possible in-depth answer to the period we are experiencing via a range of responses that cover a wide variety of backgrounds. But as Grusin states, it is only a starting point that he hopes will lead to a larger discussion. It is certainly a volume that due to its richness I will no doubt regularly return to and use as a point of reference.

Notes:

[1] Available on https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=48qrlTFqelc and https://vimeo.com/70832194.