Australia’s newly elected Liberal Coalition has proposed to redirect funding away from “ridiculous” humanities research projects. This post argues for their importance and outlines what positive social and environmental contributions such projects make to Australia.
Yesterday, the Liberal Coalition—Australia’s conservative party—was elected to lead the country for the next three years. Emeritus Professor of Science at Griffith University bluntly states that the Coalition’s “direct action” proposal “will be disastrous for the environment if it carries [it] out”. Eminent Australian Environmental Humanities researcher, Deborah Bird Rose, has also eloquently spoken of the “bad news”:
“The election results here in Australia are not good news for wildlife, ecosystems that have sustained minimal human impact, and all the human beings who research, rescue, love, care for, and defend animals, plants and ecosystems that are at risk.”
Of the risks the Coalition poses to environmentally-oriented humanities scholars are ridicule and a disregard for the valuable contribution they make to understanding …
1) how the ways we see ourselves as actors in the world impacts upon how we relate to and act upon the world, and
2) how to encourage people’s engagement and understanding of ecological issues so as to intervene in our “increasingly ridiculous […] addiction to waste”.
That last quote deliberately twists the opening line of the Liberal Party’s media release, “Ending more of Labor’s Waste”, which states that “A Coalition Government, if elected,
will crack down on Labor’s addiction to waste by auditing increasingly ridiculous research grants”. Among the projects Jamie Briggs, Liberal MP, holds up as “ridiculous” in this press release are a study into identity politics and a study into how urban media can best be used to respond to global climate change.
Brigg’s asserts that such projects waste taxpayer dollars because they “do little, if anything, to advance Australians research needs”, and, perhaps more importantly from Briggs’ point of view, because they speak about concepts and use words that he doesn’t understand “leave taxpayers scratching their heads”.
Given that the Coalition’s front bench is populated by those “still in denial about the science [of climate change]”, for Briggs, funding a project that accepts climate change science, as does the urban media art study he notes, probably wouldn’t seem to advance the research needs of Australians. But unfortunately, Briggs would be wrong—about the science and the value of the media project.
My own PhD research sits at the intersection of the two projects Briggs thought fit to foreground as exemplars of “ridiculous research”, so his comments pack a particularly personal punch. Nonetheless, while I don’t hold much hope to be able to “justify” the validity of my project to every (especially future) Australian taxpayer, given the Coalition’s commitment to reducing critical thinking training in primary and secondary education (there’s a push by education adviser Kevin Donnelly to return to a “chalk ‘n’ talk” pedagogy and institute “a white armband sanitised approach to the teaching of history ignoring Indigenous Australia and the contribution of workers to our development in favour of a famous (rich white) man approach”), I’ll have a crack at doing so here.
My research considers the way identity politics, as influenced by the mass media, impacts upon someone’s ecological agency (think here of a person’s carbon footprint) and the role that art plays in prompting, reinforcing or challenging people’s ecological agency. Let me slow this down a little with some definitions and explanations.
Identity politics (def): “Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of social groups identified mainly on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation”. For example, identity politics considered from the point of view of gender might discuss how social expectations about the “proper” way a man should act influence the ways men actually act: in Australia, whether or not a guy is keen on beer or footy, in many social circles there is social pressure on him to drink lots of beer and profess his love of footy in order to “prove” his masculine identity to those around him.
In my project I consider identity politics from what might be called an “eco” perspective. In particular, I use the ideas of Environmental Philosopher Val Plumwood to look at how various areas of culture have been implicated in supporting the belief that humans are the rightful masters of the environment and need not worry about the impact of its despoliation on us because we have unlimited powers to control it. This belief legitimates the exploitation of the environment by humans because it makes it seem as if nature exists only to satisfy humans’ wants and needs. The environment is seen to be a slave that is there to fulfil the wishes of its human master. This belief also rests on the denial that humans rely upon the environment to survive. As Gregory Bateson neatly puts it: “the organism that destroys its environment destroys itself”. Humans are terribly mistaken if they believe that they exist outside the environment that sustains them (but unfortunately this seems to be the prevailing view).
Mass Media (def): communication via print, radio, cinema, television and internet. Mass media is an important channel through which identity politics are communicated. For example, the link between identity politics and mass media from the point of view of gender might consider how the repeated image of women cooking and cleaning in ads, soap operas and films reinforces a social expectation that cooking and cleaning is the special province of women. A woman who conforms to this expectation is seen as appropriately “feminine” and one who does not is seen as not only unfeminine by abnormal.
In my project I consider the role of mass media in harnessing and manipulating our desire to “fit in with” and “keep up with” our social group—who approve or disapprove of the ways we live up to socially accepted identity norms—by encouraging us to display our identity through the items we acquire. The idea of “keeping up with the Jones’” is relevant here. As is the subtle, yet crucial, difference between these two answers to the question: “what kind of mobile do you own?” 1. “I have an iphone” 2. “I am an iphone person”. The second proclaims that the person proudly wears their possession of an iphone as an ID badge, presumably to cash in on the “coolness” associated with the company’s brand. Their having and using an iphone is an integral part of who they think they are and what it tells the world about them. The link between this and environmental despoliation is pretty straight-forward: in order for a person to display their identity through the products they acquire, they have to buy particular identity-defining (typically branded) products. Given that companies keep changing and/or improving their products, people need to keep consuming more of their products (to help re-affirm their identity). This process drives the cycle of mass-production, mass-consumption and mass-waste.
(Eco)Art (def): not an easy one to define! Let me go with art referring to something (a thing or an event) that challenges its audience’s sense of their reality and that calls the audience to question how they understand reality and their place in it. In the case of eco-art this might mean drawing the audience’s attention to particular features of the spaces they inhabit and traverse. For example, Australia artist, Catherine Clover, uses sound clips and digital images from her field recordings and photography of “the quotidian, the common” in her installations to draw attention to “our changing relationship with nature, and in particular, other animals” in her art installations. Apart from it being a valuable experience in and of itself, taking the sounds and sights of “nature” and placing them in “unnatural” places like buildings and churches helps prompt audiences to look for or to look afresh at the “nature” that exists in their own everyday environments. An “ah-ha” insight of sorts that can be the catalyst for all kinds of environmentally-oriented thoughts and actions: what kinds of animals are in my environment? Are they different from season to season, year to year? Do I interact with them? What are responsible ways to interact with them? Why are they in this urban space? What/where is their native habitat? Were they driven away from it? Why? Etc.
In my project I think about how literature can prompt similar environmental thoughts. In particular, I look at science fiction and future dystopian worlds where mass media and consumerism have contributed to the ascendency of a particularly egregious me-centred identity. This me-centred consumer culture has brought humanity to the brink of climate catastrophe, but it also prevents the majority of humans from realising the precariousness of their environmental position. Luckily, for the humans that inhabit the fictitious worlds I analyse, there are some characters who have insight into the folly and fate of humanity. This leads them to engage in actions that involve them reconceiving their relationship to their environment. These actions prompt the other characters to question how they see and relate to the world, averting the imminent catastrophe.
This is how I’ve come to interpret the narratives I analyse, and trust me it’s is pretty interesting stuff.
But the broader questions that my project addresses are …
1. How do environmentally-orientated interpretations of fictional worlds impact upon how readers interact with and understand their own lived reality? (I’m working on theorising this now—note to Briggs, theories frame policies and actions, so they’re useful—and Darko Suvin’s notion of ideological estrangement seems to be quite appealing to me. Put simply, ideological estrangement requires the reader recognising the differences between the world and worldview presented in the book and world and worldview of the reader’s reality. According to Suvin, this prompts the reader to re-evaluate their lived reality in comparison to the fictional reality).
2. What would prompt a reader to interpret a text from an environmentally-oriented point of view in the first place? (Again, I’m working on theorising this now, but the increasing prevalence of environmental science, marketing of “green” technologies and products, and, of course, the “Carbon Tax” in the media landscape means that the environment seems to be something that continually “plays on the mind”: readers can no longer leave their physical world behind and escape into the imaginative world of the book without thoughts of climate change, loss of biodiversity, acidification of the oceans, etc. creeping in).
In The Ecological Thought Timothy Morton argues: “Reading poetry [or science fiction] won’t save the planet. Sound science and progressive social politics will do that. But art can allow us to glimpse a being that exist beyond or between our normal categories”. And in those glimpses of what the world could be, may very well lay the key to transforming how we understand the world and our place within it—giving us the political will to support sound science and re-orientate our cultural values. Given the scope and potential for positive cultural change that research projects into identity politics and urban media promise, it is Briggs’ proposal to direct funding away from such research that comes to look “increasingly ridiculous”.