Problematizing Anthropocentrism: open-ended reflections on the challenges and contributions of Environmental Humanities Methodologies for empirical research

by Maria Langa

Environmental Humanities’ search for alternative methodologies tries to get away from our anthropocentric view of the world, as well as anglo-euro-centric or male-centric or any other perspectives that would seem to inevitably produce, reproduce and socialize a type of knowledge which represents and perpetrates dominant power relations. A difficult challenge indeed. However, as I will argue in the present post, I believe that in the attempt “to challenge the habitual anthropocentric gaze” (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010, p. 525) we may have become tangled up in an endless quest for infinite microscopical complexity. By taking a step further from the mere recognition of the scientific fact of our complex entanglement with the environment, many authors in the field confuse an anthropocentric view that revolves around human navel-gazing and justifies an instrumental exploitation of both the human and the non-human, one that is a cultural and social construction (its most relevant material dimension comes about as a product of the former), with the inherent, impossible to deny or disregard, humanity of the researcher and human or non-human objects of study.

This discussion is difficult to engage with without having to go into ontology and the philosophy of immanence, because the first argument against my previous statement would be that the a priori difference between researcher and object of study or between human subject and environment is already setting my critique on the wrong foot. It is not my intention to engage in this discussion in the present post, it will only be mentioned in relation to the task at hand, namely to reflect about my first introduction to Environmental Humanities methodologies, which was accurately enough related to the senses, especially visual, and the more-than-human. For that purpose, then, when I refer to the inherent humanity of the researcher, I am referring precisely to the limits of our knowledge as humanities and social sciences researchers and its consequences.

In my eyes, approaches that collapse the difference between epistemology and ontology (cf. Karen Barad in Alaimo (2010)) and between nature and culture (cf. Alaimo (2010), Heyward (2010), Hultman &Lenz Taguchi (2010)) oblige the researcher to account for a very broad spectrum of dimensions (from atoms to the universe of meaning) and narrow down the studied phenomena as much as possible, which leads either to a very detailed and overly-complexed description of a very small and limited portion of reality or an eternal digression through all kinds of networks. At the same time the philosophy of immanence (cf. Karen Barad in Hultman & Lenz Taguchi (2010) and Alaimo (2010)) prevents the researcher from actually asserting any proposition about that reality.

Ontology and epistemology are not thought about separately because they are not related but it relates to the need of understanding the limits of scientific knowledge. Ontology refers to what is in the world, not in the world as such but in the one created by and relevant to the research being conducted. Epistemology reflects upon what and how can we know about this world. If we collapse the analytical difference between them we forget the limits of scientific knowledge, that we cannot know everything that there is in this world and also through what lens we approach the phenomena we are studying. If what is there in the world is the same that can be known and how we approach it, then we are saying that the researcher can know everything there is and therefore it becomes an even more anthropocentric, human-empowering statement. With this I do not mean to assume that scholars employing this onto-epistemology (cf. Karen Barad in Alaimo (2010)) believe there are no limits to their knowledge, but that by merging them their research process may be in danger of at least seemingly disregard them by not clearly stating them.

One such limit, a basic one, is the impossibility of viewing the world from an other´s (any other) perspective, of accessing that experience firsthand. We cannot as much attain this in everyday life than in research and we cannot access the firsthand experience of Cup Corals (cf. Heyward (2010)) more than we can that of another human. Language and common experiences make the latter much more accessible, if only second, third or fourth hand. The same stands for our material interconnectedness at a microscopy level, our senses fall very short for that as well and we can only rely on natural sciences´ accounts that have been attained in a no less anthropocentric manner.

Therefore, when we say we intend to “do intellectual work that matters not only to humans, but to the more-than-human world” (Alaimo, 20010, p. 71) is it not also anthropocentric? How can we know that it “matters”, in those terms, for the non-human beings? Why would we assume it does? We can assert that it matters for our research to strive towards the goal of producing knowledge that can have positive consequences for the more-than-human world either through its results, its process or in changing human instrumental view of the non-human (and also of other humans, for that matter), but we cannot assert that human knowledge production in itself “matters” as such for them.

Turning it the other way around, what is the relevance of describing the molecular or even atomic composition of matter for social science or humanities researcher? How is it that it affects a given social phenomena? For instance, how is it that the composition of the sand affects a girl playing in a sandbox (cf. Hultman & Lenz Taguchi (2010))2? We can conclude that the given characteristics of the sand dispose the girl to play with it in particular ways. What is it that this fact helps us to explain on its own? And first and foremost… what is it that we are trying to explain? I believe this whole discussion boils down to the last question.

Karen Barad, quoted by Stacy Alaimo (2010), writes that matter “is not little bits of nature, or a blank slate, surface, or site passively awaiting signification” (p. 69). Not many social sciences or humanities scholars today would disagree with that statement, and neither do I. However, another thing that most of us can agree upon as well is that people do assign meaning to matter. Researchers who say that matter matters assign meaning to matter. The fact that social researchers are preoccupied with human meaning making, does not necessarily imply that their approach assumes matter is or should be a “blank slate” for human inscription” (Alaimo, 2010, p. 69) nor that materiality is irrelevant. When Alaimo (2010) writes that we need to seek to “account for the ways in which nature and environment, as material forces, act, interact, and profoundly affect cultural systems, texts, and artifacts” (p. 71), the question that comes to my mind is how, through what mechanisms do they affect each other and what are the consequences for empirical research. I also disagree with the conclusion that, because nature and culture are entangled, this directly leads to decree the impossibility to analyze them separately. Even when we “(a)cknowledge the agency of the more than human world” (Alaimo, 2010, p. 72) it is also about assigning meaning to the more-than-human.

As empowering for nature this perspective is and how important the political consequences of this are, I still have trouble grasping what is it that this approach helps us to explain on empirical research. Neither the case of multispecies ethnography about reproductive investigations of Cup Corals (Hayward, 2010)3 nor the attempt of analyzing photographic material from a non-anthropocentric point of view (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010)4 are, in my opinion good examples of the input of conducting research in such manner. In the first case, we learn how these beings (a species of Cup Corals) are treated when they are being studied, how the scientist imposes a heteronormative sexuality to them and a few descriptions of anecdotal experiences of the author. The theoretical framework and methodology are obscurely related to the empirical material through ambiguous language use which makes it difficult for me to clearly understand her methodological approach and techniques of analysis.

The second case (Hultman and Lenz Taguchi´s article (2010)) is even more striking. Departing from Karen Barad´s philosophy of immanence, the author´s non-anthropocentric visual analysis describes in a few pictures how on a material level the children are “becoming with” the matter of the things they are playing with. This description is not more than a few statements of biological or physics facts drawn from the same theory to explain how the kids and the ropes, chains, sand, plastic buckets, etc. are in “intra-action” (cf. Karen Barad, quoted by Hultman & Lenz Taguchi (2010)). Conveniently enough, of course, there is no way to actually perceive this “intra-actions”. The role of the photographer that took the pictures is completely disregarded in this analysis, as if it was in any way important to the fact that our attention while looking at the picture is attracted to the children, especially considering that she/he was requested to “take images of the children in action” (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010). Why is this not relevant for the analysis? How is it that this is not methodologically important or in any way problematized? I could not understand what were the authors trying to explain through the pictures and I do not understand how this reading of visual data actually makes a contribution to educational research. But most importantly I think that it is methodologically obscure.

For example, the authors state that “Looking at this photograph, we cannot hope to know about her as a separate entity; her inner maturity, competences or flaws. This is, as Barad suggests, because: “Existence is not an individual affair” (Hultman & Lenz Taguchi, 2010, p. 531). I would think that first and foremost (even looking pass the idea that we cannot identify the girl as a separate entity, which could be problematized on its own) we cannot know the girl´s maturity, competences or flaws because the nature of the empirical material would never allow for us to know in the first place. Finally, this article suffers from some internal contradictions. For researchers to whom materiality is so important, not mentioning the pictures´ material or immaterial (if digital) characteristics is striking. At the same, whilst they argue for the importance of not engaging on an a priori statement of “difference between male and female identities” (Hultman and Lenz Taguchi, 2010) in their analysis of the pictures they insist on referring to the children as “girls”, when there would have been no need for such differentiation for the analysis in this perspective.

My limited experience in the field has not yet allowed me to fully grasp the benefits or contributions of such perspectives. On the other hand, however, I do consider Nicholas Mirzoeff´s (2014) perspective useful for rethinking inquiries on aesthetics. Even if he does not give proper credit to Walter Benjamin, to whom his ideas are deeply indebted to (this is a subject matter for another blog post), his understanding of the construction throughout Modernity of a particular kind of dominant visualization embedded in our sensorium and the way he analyzes historical paintings in relation to the modern industrial cities, provides interesting lines of thought that can inspire or inform many research proposals on the field of aesthetics.

This thoughts on my first taste of Environmental Humanities methodologies are an open book, surfacing many questions. I hope that this rich field for discussion can be developed during our meetings or through this media I have the honor to inaugurate for the Environmental Humanities Methodology course. I hope as well the reading of this reflections has inspired critical thoughts, questions and all kinds of new engagements with this works, there is no better way to commit to the learning process than through open discussion and collaboration.

Bibliography

Hayward, E. (2010). FINGERYEYES: Impressions of Cup Corals. Cultural Anthropology, 25(4), 577–599. http://doi.org/10.1111/j.1548-1360.2010.01070.x

Hultman, K., & Lenz Taguchi, H. (2010). Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual data: a relational materialist methodological approach to educational research. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 23(5), 525–542. http://doi.org/10.1080/09518398.2010.500628

Mirzoeff, N. (2014). Visualizing the Anthropocene. Public Culture, 26(2 73), 213–232. http://doi.org/10.1215/08992363-2392039

 

PhD Candidate, Sociology Department, Uppsala University in collaboration with The Seed Box.

2 In their article Challenging anthropocentric analysis of visual data: a relational materialist methodological approach to educaional research (2010), Hultman and Lenz Taguchi put forward a relational materialistapproach which seeks to analyze photographic material of children at play focusing on how they emerge in their relations to the non-human world. This research aims to contribute to the field of education by proposing a perspective where the world is not reduced to a social world and the researcher pays attention to the child´s relation to things in pre-schools and schools as well as his/her emergence on a continuum flowing field of material relations as opposed to imposing on her/him a delimited identity. How does this relate to learning processes or teaching practices, for example, is not spelled out in the article. The authors of this article describe a picture of a girl playing in a sandbox in terms of how the girl and the sand “pose questions” and recognize each other and come into being in this relational field (cf. Hultman &Lenz Taguchi (2010)).

3 In FIngeryeyes: Impressions of Cup Corals (2010), Eva Heyward presents her concept of “fingeryeyes” to describe how the different senses are entangled in inter-species encounters. To tackle this she refers to her research at the Long Marine Laboratory in Santa Cruz, California, conducted through multispecies ethnography influenced by phenomenological traditions and feminist/queer theories. She analysis through sensorial experiences the research on the reproduction of a species of Cup Corals.

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