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Affective Habitus: New Environmental Histories of Botany, Zoology and Emotions

affective habitusDate: 19-21 June, 2014
Venue: Humanities Research Centre, ANU
 Keynotes included: Tim Collins, Tom Griffiths, Eileen Joy, Michael Marder (remotely), John Plotz, Elspeth Probyn, Ariel Salleh, Will Steffen (remotely), Wendy Wheeler, Linda Williams and Gillen D'Arcy Wood.

About Affective Habitus

Affective Habitus was the fifth biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature, Environment & Culture, Australia and New Zealand (ASLEC-ANZ); an Environmental Humanities collaboratory with The ARC Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; and a Minding Animals International partner event.

Download Conference Program


Watch Keynote Lectures

CHE has made a selection of keynote papers from Affective Habitus publicly available, and we invite you to share in the wealth of scholarship that this conference produced. All keynote abstracts are listed below.



Keynote Abstracts:

Ariel Salleh: The Vicissitudes of an Earth Democracy

Even as we face the global crisis, an Earth on fire, the role of water goes unacknowledged. Yet it is water that joins Humanity and Nature, mind and body, subject and object, men, women, queers, children, animals, plants, rocks, and air. Water carries the flow of desire, nourishes the seed, sculpts our valleys, and our imaginations. As water joins heaven and Earth, it steadies climates. But the Promethian drive to mastery, militarism, mining, manufacture, steals water, leaves deserts in its wake. More than peak oil, we face peak water. What kind of ecotheory will turn this Anthropocene around? Who embodies the deep flow of resistant affect that Adorno and Kristeva find in non-identity? Can the universities give us theory that is guided by this logic of water? Or are our canons and cognitions still too embedded in the commodities and objects of fire? While life on Earth falls into Anthropocenic disrepair, a global bourgeois culture promotes ad hoc action as policy and pastiche as style. Timothy Morton's recent essay 'The Oedipal Logic of Ecological Awareness' is provocative in this respect. In response, we ask: What does the hybrid politics of ecological feminism say about affect and the dissolution of old binaries like Humanity versus Nature? How does its embodied materialism translate into an Earth Democracy? Whose affective habitus can nurture nature's agency - indigenes, mothers, peasants? Whose common labour skills reproduce the unity of water and land?

Elspeth Probyn: Affecting an oceanic habitus

It is now widely known that the oceans and their inhabitants are in trouble. Ocean acidification, pollution, climate warming, and the fact that in their desire to live near the sea, people are loving coastlines to death. But it is overfishing that generates the most concern. Often this plays out in blanket condemnation of fishing and fishers at the cost of a framework that recognises the delicacy of bringing together the human and the nonhuman. In this paper I argue that how we care or don’t for the organisms we eat, the environments in which they live, and the humans that catch them is very much a question of habitus. I explore the affective realm of the oceanic, which for millennia has been a source of awe, wonder and fear for humans. This affective realm needs to be animated if we are to frame a compelling mode of sustaining fish and humans.

Gillen D'Arcy Wood: The Return of Climate Pessimism: The Ghost of the 1810s 

The massive eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia in 1815 produced waves of extreme weather across the globe, throwing human communities into chaos. The climate emergency of the 1810s likewise affected popular views of climate, particularly in the United States, where a prevailing ideology of climate optimism gave way to anxiety and misgiving. The insurgent climate pessimism of the 1810s offers an illuminating historical precedent for the increasing climate chaos and direful climatic rhetoric of the 2010s, where climate optimism, properly called “denialism,” has been revived as a highly ideological formation dedicated to the principle of economic growth and the protection of entrenched power.

John Plotz: Emotional Intelligence, Darwin-style: The Work of Feeling in an Era of “Objectivity”

Darwin’s thinking about how emotional expressions work both as accounts of inward states and as deliberate messages to others is highly complex, and lies at the core of his struggle (throughout the 1860s and early 1870s) to explain the role of animal behavior, thought, and feeling in evolutionary processes. On the one hand, he notices expressions of emotions as objective features to be explained; on the other, he crucially insists that any complete account of animal (and human) behavior must also explain how such expressions are comprehended and responded to by those around them.

Darwin’s work can, therefore, be clearly distinguished from  “objectivity”  espoused by critics such as  D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson, whose On Growth and Form savages Darwin for seeking explanations for animal behavior in such complex signaling systems rather than in straightforward physical properties of the materials that make up animal bodies. However, Darwin’s notion that emotions (including the sense of beauty) help animals make sense of their environs is also entirely distinct from the kind of emotive intuitionism (beauty is simply inexplicably transcendentally grounded) that motivates Ruskin’s memorable assault on Darwin.

Darwin’s attention to the complexity of how emotional expression functions as a signal to others also allows us to compare his work in revealing ways to the arguments for environmentalism put forward by Reginald Marsh in his influential 1864 Man and Nature: Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action,  the work that is often credited with first formulating the concept of an “anthropocene era.” In ways that have revealing parallels to Darin’s exploration of  how emotions are made sense of by those who witness their expression. Marsh explores what it would take for humans to grasp (not only to know but also to feel) that their actions have not only intended but also unintended consequences.

Linda Williams: It’s About Time:  Ocean acidification, affective ecosemiotics and the pivotal role of the longue durée.
Drawing on sources from biosemiotics, the arts and materialist phenomenology, this paper selects three specific geographical locations as spatial correlatives of both human histories and the lives of tiny marine invertebrates.  The first locale is a cultural artefact in the Museum of Natural History in London. The second, an unnamed point in the cold waters of the Great Southern Ocean between 50° and 60° parallels south. And the third resides in the human body itself.

These three sites provide a way of exploring the affective contours of the human histories of the oikos: as house or dwelling place, with the marine œcologies of phytoplankton and zooplankton. The worlds of other such nonhuman beings (as conceived by Von Uexküll) may at first seem unfamiliar, yet they are, so to speak, inside us, if only as ancient biological blueprints or fragmented material memories.

For Merleau-Ponty the world of the flesh is an inchoate condition of what he calls chiasmic space: a space of origins, immanent inversions, and ancient symbiotic conduits between the worlds of millions of creatures. Chiasmic phenomenology extends ontologically across all species and into deep, sedimentary models of time in ways that evoke a powerful sense of being at home in the world.  Yet the folds of chiasmic space also transfigure human and non-human worlds through the perpetual compulsion of violent predation, and now by extension: anthropogenic extinction. Thus the vast longue durée of the regenerative power of the world’s oceans is now subject to a bio-political regime that may yet bring about its demise over the relatively minute period of one, two, or perhaps three human generations.

Eileen Joy: Post/Apocalyptically Blue

This talk is an attempt to think about depression as a shared creative endeavor, as a trans-corporeal blue (and blues) ecology that would bind humans, nonhumans, and stormy weather together in what anthropologist Tim Ingold has called a meshwork, where “beings do not propel themselves across a ready-made world but rather issue forth through a world-in-formation, along the lines of their relationships.” In this enmeshment of the “strange strangers” of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology, “[t]he only way out is down” and art’s “ambiguous, vague qualities will help us to think things that remain difficult to put into words.” It may be, as Morton has also argued, that while “personhood” is real, nevertheless, “[b]oth the surface and the depth of our being are ambiguous and illusory.” And “still weirder, this illusion might have actual effects.” I want to see if it might be possible to cultivate this paradoxical interface (literally, “between faces”) between illusion and effects, especially with regard to feeling blue, a condition I believe is a form of a deeply empathic enmeshment with a world that suffers its own “sea changes” and which can never be seen as separate from the so-called individuals who supposedly only populate (“people”) it. Through readings in both the contemporary and medieval post-apocalyptic archive (the novels Wittgenstein's Mistress by David Markson and Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson, the films Red Desert and Safe, and the Old English elegies "Seafarer" and "Wanderer"), I want to question whether depression, sadness, melancholy -- feeling blue -- is always only taking place within the interior spaces of individually-bounded forms of sentience and physiology, or is it in the world somehow, a type of weather or atmosphere, with the becoming-mad of the human mind only one of its many effects (a form of attunement to the world’s melancholy)? Could a more heightened and consciously attuned sense of the emanations and radio signals of “blue” sensations, feelings, and climates enable constructive interpersonal, social, and other blue collaborations that might lead to valuable modes of better advancing “into / the sense of the weather, the lesson of / the weather”? Here, there is no environment, only fluid space (from tears to rain to oceans and everything in between) and in Ingold’s formulation (following Andy Clark), everything leaks. Themes of exile, and of moving through and inhabiting furnished and unfurnished worlds (where life is played out upon the either hostile or hospitable surfaces of the crust of the earth), although powerfully attractive in Western cultural narratives, perhaps break down under the pressure of the fact that everything is always already an “intimate register of wind and weather.”

Michael Marder: The Sense of Seeds (participating remotely)

In this talk, Marder approaches the spatial and temporal meaning of seeds as the vehicles for preserving and augmenting life. He will focus, in particular, on the possibility of an almost indefinite delay in germination and the idea of sprouting as “excrescence,” or outgrowth. Marder concludes by showing how “seed” erases the distinctions between the singular and the plural, between plant and animal subjects, as well as between the catalysts for interpreting and the interpreted material.

Tim Collins: Art and Environmental Change

Twenty years ago Tim Collins and Reiko Goto left San Francisco California for Pittsburgh Pennsylvania; they were overwhelmed with the plethora of post-industrial problems in that place. With this move, they began to realize that the complexity inherent in the environmental issue and its material conditions pushes the artist (and potentially the field) to new levels of activity and purpose. This talk will focus on their thinking about artwork as an interface between people and natural systems and art as a correspondence with the vitality and agency of living things.

The artists will refer to Nine Mile Run (1997-2000), 3 Rivers – 2nd Nature (2000-2006) and Eden3 (2008 ongoing). They will talk about art making as an evolution of subjectivity that demands theory when faced by seeming intractable problems. They will discuss experimental planning work that intended to make a small contribution to the emancipation of living things.  Followed by a body of sculptural work that that uses technology and sound to explore the aesthetic experience of photosynthesis while seeking an empathic relationship between humans and trees. They will close with an overview of current work in Scotland that examines the form of a remnant Caledonian pine forest. What it means to engage a forest impacted by three centuries of conflicted land uses, and the challenges of establishing a discourse about future aesthetic virtues, as art.

Tom Griffiths: Earthing History

It is both awful and awe-inspiring that we are living through the years when we are defining a new geological epoch of our own making.  To declare humanity a geological force on a planetary scale and to name an epoch ‘the Anthropocene’ is to see humans as a species among other species across deep time.  Such a leap of science and the imagination requires new cultural histories that give meaning to that perspective – narratives of the Earth, of life and extinction, and of humans among other living organisms.  What do such ‘big histories’ look like, and what emotions do they generate and call upon?  How do the humanities reach across such gulfs of time?  And what kinds of intimate social and ecological histories of place and belonging might we need now more than ever?

Wendy Wheeler: A Feeling for Life: Biosemiotics, the Objects of Meaning and the Growth of Imagination and Knowledge

In a world in which to be alive is to be alive to meanings, in which habitus is the semiotic umwelt of every species of organism, whether bacterium, fungus, plant or animal, habit is the mode of organic being which stabilises sign relations. With this realisation, many of the old distinctions are overcome while interesting new ones are discovered. This talk will discuss the fundamental concepts of biosemiotics, and note the ways in which they transform modernity’s dualist conceptions of mind and body, culture and nature, realism and idealism, along with the gene-centrism of the biological Modern Synthesis, first described by Julian Huxley in 1942, and now departing, which secretly perpetuated the essence/appearance metaphysic. But if the new biosemioticly orientated developments in biology transform our understanding of the natural world, and of the nature of life and heritability, they also imply a difference of emphasis in what we understand evolution to be. All organisms have a kind of ‘aboutness’, a feeling for living which makes them makers, and something akin to imaginative seeds. In this we can see the beginnings of human habitation. Metaphor, too, along with story, is a matter for all evolution’s creatures. Our own poetic life begins to emerge from the habits of nature. The final part of the talk will thus discuss a biosemiotic account of both natural and literary imagination and knowledge.

Will Steffen: Welcome to the Anthropocene (participating remotely)

The term “Anthropocene” originated nearly 15 years ago as a scientific concept describing a proposed new geological epoch for planet Earth. The concept grew from the global change research community, which has documented the many changes to the planetary environment – climate change and more – that are being driven by human activities. The evidence suggests that the Earth System is being pushed out of the 11,700-year stability domain during which human societies have developed agriculture, villages and cities and more complex civilisations. Although confined largely to the natural science community for its first decade, the concept of the Anthropocene has now attracted a rapidly growing amount of attention from the social sciences and the humanities around such issues as equity and responsibility. The future trajectory of the Anthropocene has yet to unfold, but already some interesting trends are emerging. These include the rise of large countries like China, India, Brazil and South Africa; the hyper-connectivity of the global economic system contributing to shocks such as the Global Financial Crisis; and the continuing destabilisation of the climate system and the loss of biodiversity. The ultimate question surrounding the trajectory of the Anthropocene is whether it will lead to a new peak in human well-being or whether we are headed for a global collapse. 

Conference organizers

Tom Bristow, Charles Dawson, Grace Moore, John Ryan, Linda Williams, Josh Wodak.

Affective Habitus Conference was dedicated to the memory of our founding director Philippa Maddern, a wonderful thinker, scholar, leader and friend. She was an enthusiastic supporter of this conference from its beginning, and we were moved today to listen to "Against the grain: Reading the ‘Book of Nature’ in the European Middle Ages," a lecture she gave on 30 September 2009 at UWA. We enjoyed listening to her rich voice and language, brilliant turn of phrase and elegant thinking; as always she set the standard high.

Image Credit: Bestiary and various theological texts. Ms. Royal 12Cxix. British Library, London. 13 century illuminated manuscript presented to the British Museum by George II in 1757.