Q&A: Alaimo Mulls Humanity, Nature

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Professor Stacy Alaimo (English) is one of the leading academics in the field of ecocriticism. Her book, Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self, looks at issues of trans-corporeality and post-humanism. On Oct. 27, Alaimo will attend the International Association of Environmental Philosophers conference in Eugene, Ore., where a special session will be devoted to responses to her book.

COLA Communications Intern Charlotte Whiteley sat down with Alaimo to talk about the impact of her book and her continuing research in environmentalism.

Q: What sorts of issues does your book Bodily Natures: Science, Environment, and the Material Self deal with?

A: The book addresses what it means to think of the human body as physically and substantially interconnected with the material world. What it does to ethics, what it does to politics, what it does to conceptions of the human, what it does to environmentalism. How does trans-corporeality affect us?  The term means ‘across the body’: it is the idea that the human body isn’t self-contained. The body is a site where all sorts of substances and forces are crossing through it. It connects each person to the physical environment. This connects us to all sorts of issues to do with social justice, environmentalism, animal health and food. All sorts of things cross through our bodies; this means that we are both physically vulnerable but also responsible to other beings.

My inspiration came from all of the different activist groups that talk about issues with chemicals, the various sorts of environmental activists that are focussed on toxins. I think about these issues in my daily life: what’s safe? What’s not safe? How do you know? This changes how you move around in the world. You begin to think through the fact that there are all sorts of harmful and invisible substances that you’re coming into contact with, manufactured chemicals, substances that are alien to life itself.

Q: How did you research your book?

A: I do research very widely on literature, environmental movements and activism. I also read very widely, so research came from all sorts of different groups. I pulled a lot of different things into Bodily Natures: feminism, ecocriticism, philosophy, disability studies and racism.

Greenpeace did a mercury campaign, where you cut a piece of your own hair, and you mail your sample back to them. Then, their scientists test it and analyze it to see how much mercury you have in your body. I find that very interesting, because it’s an activist group, but it’s asking you to physically give them a piece of your body to analyze. When you get your results, they tell you how much mercury you have and they tell you how it would affect your health. They give you information about issues surrounding mercury; how to avoid it and the political aspects of how we can get mercury out of the environment. I thought that was a really interesting activist campaign, because it involves each person’s physical body. It leads you to look at mercury in a physical and personal way, how it affects your health, and as well as this in a political way.

Q: What has been the reaction to Bodily Natures on the academic level as well the public one?

A: There are a couple of different things. I’ve been very happy with the academic reception of the book. I am responsible for creating a new field within ecocriticism that deals with materiality. More widely, I am also someone who has created the concept of ‘New Materialism,’ which is a theory about how humanities and philosophy can engage with the material world. The book has had a really strong impact on academics in a lot of different fields. Not just in English studies, but really across the humanities and even the social sciences. It’s one that got a reward for ecocriticism, and is being honored at the International Association for Environmental Philosophy.

People who read the book start thinking of the world differently, what it means to have a body that’s part of an environment that is threatened and toxic. How the ideas of your own health and environmentalism and the lives of other creatures and other people all become entangled. I would like people to leave with a much more complicated sense of who they are, what sort of ethical and political entanglements arise from their material reality. I’ve done special sessions with undergraduates; most people will say after they read the book that they really do experience the world and their bodies really differently. They might be frightened; they might feel that everything is very weird and strange when you look at the physical world that way. So the book has had a very powerful impact on not just schools of academics and theories, but on undergraduates and other ordinary people.

Q: What sort of things do you do to be conscientious of the environment?

A: I am a vegetarian, and I eat mainly organic food. We don’t use any chemicals at home if we can help it. I really try to avoid as many contaminates as I possibly can. We lead a very green healthy life. We have rain water collection barrels, we compost, I try to grow my own vegetables in the garden and I drive a hybrid car. My family is very environmentally conscious in our daily lives.

Texas has been generally behind on environmental issues. But UT Arlington has a very thorough sustainability program. The university has made all sorts of progress in that area. It’s amazing how much the university did in such a short period of time. The issue is that this region of the country doesn’t have such a strong environmental conscience. But that is changing. In my neighbourhood we have a bike movement, many people have their own backyard chicken coops; we have Urban Acres, community-supported agriculture (CSA). There are a number of environmental student groups on campus; there is an environmental student group, a vegan society, so there is progress.

Q: How are our ethical systems flawed? How can we alter our everyday routine to instigate a positive change to our environment?

A: I am one of many people now that think our ethical system is flawed because we are humanist – all we think of is human beings. Traditionally, within a western concept, western religion, western philosophy and culture we tend to think of ethics as confined only to issues that would harm humans. Now, with the creation of post-humanist philosophy, environmental ethics and animal studies many people are trying to expand our understanding of ethics. This includes ecosystems and animals, so that we look at our environment more broadly. Something as abstract as climate change demands a kind of ethics that looks at everything you do.

One of the issues of my book is trans-corporeality. It means that all sorts of things that you wouldn’t normally consider as an ethical matter become an ethical matter. How much you drive your car, because of climate change, is suddenly an ethical issue. One of the undergrads that I met when doing a university lecture was disheartened that I didn’t include a food chapter. But that is because food is such a huge issue right now that it should have its own book. It leads you to look at what food you buy, if you buy your pears from New Zealand, or locally. Everything to do with food becomes an ethical issue. It becomes really difficult for people to make a lot of these decisions. Sometimes you don’t have all the information you need, and it’s a lot of pressure.

Q: You are currently writing and researching for your new book Sea Creatures and the Limits of Animal Studies. What issues does it discuss?

A: I look at how people can receive animals that are so different from humans, that are so far away and that live in another ecosystem entirely. I look at how we can have any sort of responsibility for those creatures. I question what it would take in terms of environmentalism to establish feelings of responsibility and awareness for them. Post-humanist views in animal studies break down barriers between people and animal studies. They look at dogs, dolphins, and other primates, and use those as a means to break away feelings of being widely different to animals. If we look at more removed animals from humans, there is a feeling of being disconnected with these creatures. Internationally environmental scientists use aesthetic images to get people interested in these beings. It’s such a strange thing to have new creatures brought up from the bottom of the sea — they become aesthetic objects.

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