This post by Trang Dang is the first in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.
Just before the British government imposed a nationwide lockdown in response to increasing COVID-19 cases, I attended a science lecture titled ‘Humankind Versus Microbes: Who is Winning the War of Antimicrobial Resistance?’ delivered by Dr Mary Phillips-Jones at the University of Nottingham. Dr Phillips-Jones did not exactly assert that humankind would win this war, but implied that it would be able to get ahead of viruses and combat them. One of the reasons for her confidence was that the “exploitation of genomics” through Amazon ants, marine sponges, and Komodo dragons provide possible ways of identifying new classes of antibiotics. I asked her whether these animals would be affected once their natural resistance to bacteria is extracted from their body parts and developed into drugs. Dr Phillips-Jones said “yes.”
Despite the current ecological crisis, the conventional human perception of animate and inanimate nonhumans as passive entities subject to anthropogenic exploitation is still prevalent in academia, an environment where respected studies and especially writing in the environmental humanities is disseminated. This anthropocentric attitude that is still lurking in multiple cultural theories, including posthumanism and speculative feminism, and in climate fiction, such as the MaddAddam trilogy (2013) by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven (2014) by Emily St. John Mandel. In light of COVID-19, this article provides context for speculating about whether, and if so, how this global pandemic would radically change traditional human perception of nonhumans and the future writing of environmental humanities.
Emerging in the late twentieth century, posthumanism emphasises the entanglement of humans, nonhumans, and technology, and endeavours to dismantle anthropocentrism.[i] Nevertheless, this cultural theory “grants the human (and the humanities) a continued critical role of reading and meaning.”[ii] For instance, in an attempt to scrap “the humanistic vision of ‘Man’ as the measure of all things,” Rosi Braidotti assigns humans the responsibility to reconstruct their subjectivity suitable for rethinking their interrelationships with nonhumans and other humans on a planetary scale.[iii]
Another cultural theory treading the same path is speculative feminism. Drawing roots from posthumanism, this contemporary theory asks us to “reassess and take stock of our skills in reading context, and ‘reading out of context,’” including the material, cultural, and socio-political, and to question “what kind of material-semiotic world-making practices are at stake and for whom would such a symbiosis of bodies and meanings matter.”[iv] But humans have been doing precisely this, determining what matters and what not, and the result has been disastrous to nonhuman worlds. Given the persistent focus on humans’ survival rather than that of nonhumans, which is blatantly seen in Dr Phillips-Jones’s lecture, the questions speculative feminism wants us to ask risk reasserting human sovereignty.
The importance that cultural theories like posthumanism and speculative feminism place on human subjectivity, knowledge, and imagination demands a rewriting of the environmental humanities that emphasises the interconnectedness between humans and nonhumans and that challenges the former’s superiority over the latter. Climate fiction attempts to achieve the same goals by stressing the human resilience that always allows them to bounce back and thrive. Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy portrays a global pandemic that wipes out most of the population and leaves few resources for those who survive to regain ground. Nevertheless, with great knowledge and survival skills these human scavengers are able to adapt to their new life and rebuild civilisation. Along the way, Atwood performs a charitable act of extending humanist values, such as human sense of ethics and empathy, to genetically engineered nonhuman animals. Although this theme does not apply to Mandel’s Station Eleven, the novel similarly describes a swine flu pandemic that devastates the world and destroys most of humanity. Yet, what is left of this humanity is still capable of emerging from the wreckage and starting anew.
Having discussed the anthropocentric attitude in cultural theories and climate fiction, the rest of this article takes on the questions of whether, and if so how, COVID-19 might change this attitude and the future writing of the environmental humanities. As an optimist, I answer “yes” to the first question. Some people, however, might object, citing the Pestilence, the Spanish Flu, and many more pandemics, out of which humans have survived and triumphed, and from which they have told great tales about human strength and adaptability, seen for instance in the birth of the Renaissance.[v] Nonetheless, I have grounds on which to speculate and support my claim. The first is that despite many anthropocentric studies out there, an increasing number of scholars and writers, such as Timothy Morton, Shumon Hussain, and Jeff VanderMeer, have tried to engage with, and write, environmental humanities from a nonhuman perspective. Second, generations of young people have become more conscious of the environmental crisis and power structures that threaten to snatch their future. Third, situated in the uncertain climate of the Anthropocene, where humans have increasingly acknowledged their destructive imprint on planet Earth, COVID-19 only heightens this growing ecological awareness. Infiltrating every corner of the globe, the pandemic forces humanity to face its inessential position in environmental history, and realise that it can never win the war with microbes.
Microbes have already changed the way we currently live and perceive
them. And they have already been changing the way we put our thoughts about
environmental humanities onto paper.