- Eben Kirksey
- Eben Kirksey studies the political dimensions of imagination as well as the interplay of natural and cultural history. He has published two books with Duke University Press—Freedom in Entangled Worlds (2012) and Emergent Ecologies (2015)—as well as one edited collection: The Multispecies Salon (2014).
Ph.D. 2008 UC Santa Cruz
M.Phil. 2003 University of Oxford
B.A. 2000 New College of Florida
Currently he is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Princeton University hosted Dr. Kirksey as the 2015-2016 Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor and he previously served as Program Head (Convener) of Environmental Humanities at UNSW Sydney.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
What is the Environmental Humanities?
A conversation with Thom van Dooren originally published in the new electronic journal, http://environmentalhumanities.org/
What kind of research and teaching do you do in the Environmental Humanities?
I am trained in the traditions of anthropology—a discipline that Alfred Kroeber regarded as “the most humanistic of the sciences and most scientific of the humanities.” In dialogue with lively conversations in the environmental humanities, my research is aimed at pushing animals, plants, and microorganisms from the margins of anthropology—where they were once just treated as part of the landscape, as food, or as symbols—into the foreground, alongside humans.
Along with Stephan Helmreich, I have chronicled the emergence of multispecies ethnography—a new approach to anthropology centering on how a multitude of organisms’ livelihoods shape and are shaped by political, economic, and cultural forces. Lately my own research has focused on modest biocultural hopes that are emerging amidst apocalyptic tales about environmental destruction. I study nomadic creatures that are constantly getting inside and disrupting the worlds of others, and then escaping into the cosmos, into the unknown beyond particular worlds.
Currently I have an appointment in Environmental Humanities at UNSW so all of my current teaching is situated in relation to this emerging transdisciplinary field. My course on “Tactical Biopolitics” explores how bioartists, who use living matter to grow works of art, are beginning to expose and rework dominant approaches to managing life. The phrase “tactical biopolitics” is a creative misappropriation of terms by these practitioners. Drawing on the traditions of “tactical media”, which combines cheap devices and diverse apparatuses with a Do-It-Yourself (DIY) ethos, bioartists are tinkering with technoscience to make surprising ecological interventions. Another course that I am teaching, on “Environment, Sustainability and Development”, considers entanglements among political, economic, and ecological systems.
Why does the world need the Environmental Humanities?
The Environmental Humanities promises to break down the foundational divide between nature/culture that has partitioned off different domains of scholarship in the contemporary academy. Earlier approaches to understanding natural-cultural hybrids, along the lines outlined by Bruno Latour, were relentlessly anthropocentric—they privileged the role humans in building networks. Non-human agents and actors, in Latour’s lexicon, only joined society when they were locked into place by humans—entrepreneurial agents of interessement (enlistment). Up and coming Environmental Humanists are pushing past the human exceptionalism underpinning Latour’s Actor Network Theory. Following Susan Leigh Star, this new generation of scholars is recognizing that “non-human” is like “non-white”, it implies the lack of something. Approaches to Environmental Humanities are pushing past the anthropocentrism of earlier generations, moving beyond human exceptionalism, while avoiding the trap of anthropomorphism.
Developing ways of knowing that are appropriate to specific species promises to move past flat conceptions of the environment. Previous generations of anthropologists, environmental historians, and students of cultural studies have treated the landscape as a backdrop for human agency and action. Engaging in this sort of work is necessarily partial in the double sense of this word—it is limited in its scope of knowledge and also situated with respect to the existential struggles of the individual organisms and populations that are concerned. Rather than promoting an awareness of “the environment”, writ large, work in the Environmental Humanities is engaging in culture jamming—disrupting popular conceptions of “natural harmony” to think about the messy tactics and ethics of living with significant others in the world.
What role do you see this journal playing in the emergence of this field of scholarship?
The Environmental Humanities journal is well situated to play a curatorial role in gathering together emergent scholarship in the field. Curators inherit their tactics from the Latin word curatus, they are the “ones responsible for the care.” “Thinking care,” in the words of María Puig de la Bellacasa, is “a vital affective state, an ethical obligation and a practical labour.” Responsible care for Environmental Humanities might look towards the recent past and the future. Looking towards the past might involve taking inventory of inherited intellectual resources so that the journal might serve as a portal and a clearing house. A good place to start with this curatorial project might be with the Editorial Board—asking key members to offer up links to electronic copies of their existing publications that are relevant to Environmental Humanities. Caring for younger scholars, looking towards the future in cultivating a new generation of researchers who will come to publish their work in the journal, will involve much more practical labour. Periodic virtual events, Environmental Humanities Salons, might be opportunities to bring the past and the future into the present—to bring senior scholars into conversation with emerging intellectuals.
KIRKSEY, S. E. 2012 "Thneeds Reseeds: Figures of Biocultural Hope in the Anthropocene" in G. Martin, D. Mincyte, and U. Münster (eds.) Why Do We Value Diversity? Rachel Carson Perspectives vol 9: 89-94.
In the News
In September 2010 Eben testified before the U.S. Congress about massacres in West Papua.
He joined Indonesian investigative reporter Andreas Harsono in 2008 to publish "Criminal Collaborations", a peer-reviewed article about Indonesian military involvement in the murder of two Americans. This research started a lively discussion in the Indonesian media and sparked a series of media articles in publications such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the International Herald Tribune. Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! invited Eben to discuss this research on her news show.