This post by Caroline C. Evan Abbott is the twelfth in a series asking how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected, or might affect, research, writing, and scholarly work in the environmental humanities.
As early career, white, millennial academics are hearing the call (and being called upon) to participate in active conversations on antiracism as well as mental health and productivity in the age of COVID-19, the advocacy our quarantine lives have called for needs to extend to our writing and our relationship to the environments with which it interacts. We must make space for academic contributions which recognise and challenge Kyriarchal systems — a term coined in the early nineties by feminist divinity scholar Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, which seeks to unite in definition the systems of global dominance, among them, white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and capitalism under a common umbrella.
The environmental humanities, ecocritical, and Anthropocene researchers fall under a wide, intersectional umbrella which is never far from a unifying fact: the environments we research are overwhelmingly connected to the imperial and post-imperial; the colonial and post-colonial. Dane Kennedy speaks of the “benefits of empire” without speaking specifically to the Anthropocentric intersections which provided those benefits. The collective “we” of the field, for all its “NiCHEs,” are still reaping the “benefits” of the Victorian World. Even in my most attentive approaches to unsettling as a white scholar, I toil to disentangle colonial legacies: acknowledging the profitability of thought-work related to these fields at this moment in history is part of our anti-racist work.
The legacy of Kyriarchy in the environments we explore is reflected in the environmental humanities and across all its subfields in ways our writing risks tacitly supporting — so it is our writing that must change. At even the most fundamental level, a not-insubstantial majority of academics in this very intersectional field continue to self-identify the historical period of their chief interest not by geologic age, but by the reign of its white monarch. Victorian. Edwardian. Outdated tests designed to weed out applicants like the GRE and GRE subject tests continue to gate-keep higher education in ways which perpetuate a fallacy of quantifiable intellect as rooted in white supremacy as was phrenological study. When white scholars accord with the inflexibility of Kyriarchal baselines for the survival of our own work, or we are forced to by editors who fear for theirs, we shut the door on BIPOC researchers from shaping the literary landscape.
White environmental humanities writers can successfully be traitorous to an unjust system by shifting traditional approaches in ways which directly subvert neurotypical, white-dominated standards of critical writing. In an already-intersectional field, examples of radical approaches range in type and variety, from the incorporation of new media, such as infographics in academic work, to the use of social media to disperse academic media and discourse to public audiences. As most academics — either by choice or necessity — are taking quarantine work and life at a day-by-day pace, the result of these efforts alone have sustained the progressive conversations in academic circles which allow reflective space for incremental progress towards radical change.
In our field, true change is not possible without a writer’s change in relationship with the environment, and in unprecedented conditions, this means something different for every writer. For me, in the wake of wanting academic work, of wanting to combat white silence and keep fresh in the process (and in the vacancy of the work I had planned to be doing right now), these forms of intersectional work have been of tremendous benefit in practice of these greater, theoretical goals. I found my way back to two long-form, highly intersectional projects with which I have had relative success working at an incremental pace and which I otherwise may have never prioritised. Perhaps the most intersectional — involving the restoration and use of a late 19th century camera to document women’s roles in shaping cultural landscape — has figuratively and literally forced my critical eye to commit to viewing environmental history through a different perspective.
When we reach the “new normal” of a post-COVID-19 society, I hope we do not forget how much our reliance on each other has been to the benefit of our experience writing within it. I hope also that we never make the mistake of assuming a “new normal” is by default a post-George society: a post-Chantel society, a post-Rodney King society as if they never existed or their deaths have been suitably avenged by a tweak here or there to a system which has robbed them of life. I hope instead our world might become, permanently, a post-glamorizing-John-Ruskin society; a post-gender-essentialism society. An imperfect, but trying society. In that future, we will need ecofeminism. We will need to continue queering ecofeminism. We will need writing which reflects it. And, since researchers are predicting COVID-19 will never truly leave us — and since, frankly, neither will Kyriarchy — we will continue to need to keep each other as close as we have been throughout the distance which has gripped our world.
Feature Photograph: “Repair.” Photo Credit: Caroline C. Evans Abbott