Remaking the Arts through Ecocritical Digital Humanities

Amanda Starling Gould's picture

“The critical mind, if it is to be relevant again, must devote itself to the cultivation of a stubborn realism” Latour[1]

In her keynote for the Digital Humanities (DH) conference in 2014, Bethany Nowviskie challenged listeners to think about how their scholarship might change when confronted with the ecological challenges, the stubborn realities Latour speaks of above, of the Anthropocene. Nowviskie wonders whether the digital humanities, in all of its broad forms, should embrace larger temporalities and pursue an active, engaged praxis that connects technology, the environment, and the “ethical conditions of our vital here-and-now.”[2]

Ecocritical digital scholarship is, I propose, a viable response; it can intervene to produce what Nowviskie calls a “capacious” thinking capable of addressing Anthropocene-age challenges by operating simultaneously across scales, disciplines, and institutions. As public, global, accessible work, the ecocritical digital humanities can translate human-environmental issues into digital interventions that can meaningfully cultivate change through outreach, participation, education, and organization. Ecocritical DH can thoughtfully tend to the urgent arts-and-humanities question of how we might live in digitally-enhanced, environmentally-depleted Anthropocene habitats.

Though the field is small, there are admirable ecocritical digital projects coming out of universities and research labs around the world. Ecocritical digital work comes in the form of digital archives, digital activism, digital data, and digitally-based research projects.[3] The critical data-saving post-Obama North American #DataRefuge project has humanists rallying to archive critical climate and environmental data from United States government websites. Projects like Climate Stories NC, 100 Views of Climate Change, @everydayclimatechange, and Postcards from Climate Change capture climate stories from people across the globe. Carl Sack’s #NoDAPL Map plots indigenous cultural areas alongside governmental geographic areas and oil pipeline sites. Researchers at the University of British Colombia and Yale, among others, have developed augmented reality projects that educate and compel users to initiate more sustainable behaviors. Mark Sample’s @Shark_Girls turns a pair of location-pinging OSEARCH sharks, Mary Lee and Katharine, into literary swimmers. In Jennifer Gabrys’s Citizen Sense work, humans become digital sensors using their smart phones and/or small DIY electronics to record, access, and engage environmental data. In so doing, they gain access to a sixth sense—one digitally mediated by technological devices—that moves environmental data from an abstract, and often unseen, concept to a concrete experience of embodiment. Projects like Soil Selfies and FutureCoast combine the mediated digitality of Mark Sample’s sharks with the human involvement of Gabrys’s citizen science projects to create wholly new experiences of human-nature relation.

Other ecocritical DH projects digitize and archive historical environmental media, map the overlaps between poverty and pollution, provide public updates on air and water quality, illustrate the relationship between environmental and human health, and elicit public participation in local pro-environmental activities.[4] This work can also be easily brought into the classroom. In my Duke University “Global Ecological Humanities” course, my students are digitally mapping climate solutions, are using digital social media to engage in global eco-activism, and are building DIY solar-powered cellular phone chargers from recycled parts to illustrate how they might reduce their trace and reclaim the digital-environmental narrative.

Ecocritical digital projects reconfigure our perceived contingencies. They re-narrate, through digital tools and hands-on practice, the stories we tell about humans, nature, and technology. Ecocritical digital work recognizes our technospheric condition and disturbs it, positively, by reconfiguring the problem—wasteful carbon-heavy digital use—into its solution using digital tools to ‘obtain a yield’ (as borrowed from Permaculture) through education, outreach, participation, and cultivation of new flows of behaviors with the (eco)system. Ecocritical DH gives us a spongier digital-material humanities, one that absorbs the full force of our interconnections, and leads us toward knowledge-production tailored to the concerns of our emerging Anthropocenic humanities.

This response is adapted in part from my book project Digital Environmental Metabolisms: An Ecocritical Project of the Digital Environmental Humanities.

[1] Latour, 2004, 18.

[2] Nowviskie, Keynote.

[3] It is also ideally self-reflexive while performing its work: it is aware of its ecological footprint and acknowledges its role in environmental Anthropogenic/technogenic destruction.

[4] See, for instance, U Penn’s Da/um project, Imagine Us 2040, lexiconofsustainability.com, Digital Detroit, The Asthma Files, Environhealthsense.org, EnviroAtlas, See too the recent PMLA 131.2 (2016)‘s section on Ecological Digital Humanities edited by Jeffrey Jerome Cohen and Stephanie Lemenager.