Composting “Theory in the Mud” Walkshop (#changethedate)

by Jennifer Hamilton

Today is the “Australia Day” Public Holiday. Writing on a public holiday is probably common for work-addled academics, but I generally try to observe such days off. Today, however, is an exception. There is an active campaign down here to change the date of our national holiday. Change the Date (http://indigenousx.com.au/why-we-need-to-change-the-date-of-australia-day/) is a campaign for symbolic recognition of the colonial past and present in this country. One of the ways in which people are participating in it, beyond appending the hashtag to images of themselves at protests, is to refuse to respect the holiday. My friend has opened his bike shop and placed a note outside as to why it is open, for example. I am writing this blog post.

26th January is our national day of “celebration”, but it also happens to be the date that the First Fleet arrived from England and assumed ownership of Cadigal Land. The area first taken is now known as Circular Quay. These are parts of Sydney likely familiar to those who have not even been to Australia. The now iconic lures for international visitors—the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge—are on either side of the bay where the fleet first anchored. That we celebrate Australia Day on this date is, each year, a reminder of the ongoing colonial project that is the modern nation, and the failure of generations of settler Australians and their representatives in government to really, materially acknowledge the atrocities that were (and are still being) committed in the name of nation building. Many indigenous people call it invasion day and survival day; in solidarity, I call it that too.

The visibility of my going to work would have very little impact on the Change the Date campaign. I work in a quiet, lonesome office on a very quiet floor of a large building. But, with my partner and son at the park, I take this opportunity to make a small statement in honour of #changethedate by writing up reflections on the COMPOSTING “Theory in the Mud” walkshop which occurred one week ago, as a small act of refusal to participate in celebration or the holiday.

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Last year, Astrida Neimanis and I wrote a piece on this blog summarising the symposium “Hacking the Anthropocene” (https://theseedboxblog.wordpress.com/2016/06/30/what-was-hacking-the-anthropocene-or-why-the-environmental-humanities-needs-more-feminism/).  We were arguing, along with many others, that the term “Anthropocene” carries forward many conceptual issues that the Environmental Humanities scholarship is working hard to challenge and counter. We are especially interested in and troubled by the way it homogenizes humanity as one singular, causal agent in planetary transformation and the way it reiterates the nature/culture divide by suggesting that humanity is a discrete actor on top of the earth. “Hacking” was an event that aimed to counter these narratives, and we are developing another iteration of this symposium for May this year. One of the other ways in which we are trying to consistently critique and contest fraught methods for storying the world is through the reading-cum-research group COMPOSTING Feminisms and Environmental Humanities (https://compostingfeminisms.wordpress.com/), which we founded in late 2015.

To kick-start our activities for 2017, we went on a hike in a part of Dharawal country now known as the Royal National Park to a place known as Olympic Pool. Astrida was lead-composter and set the theme for the day as “Theory in the Mud”. It stemmed from the following quotation from Donna Haraway’s Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene: “I work with and in SF [speculative fabulation, science fiction, science fact, speculative feminism, soin de ficelle] as material-semiotic composting, as theory in the mud, as muddle.” After reading the book, I would say that Haraway has a refined methodology in order to navigate her mud, muddle, trouble, but do we know how to wade through ours?

image1-olympic-pool

Olympic Pool

The walkshop was conceived as a day of perambulatory thoughtfulness on this question; in practice, each participant was asked to bring their own 1-3 minute response to the conceptual prompt. Associate Professor Lee Wallace, from Gender and Cultural Studies at USYD and welcome moonlighter in the COMPOSTING group, is working on a project on gay marriage. She brought a story of Hollywood heterosexual marriage as facilitated by rainstorms (complete with low-fi Powerpoint presentation).

image2-lee-wallace-sharing-her-thoughts

Lee Wallace sharing her thoughts

A PhD Student from the same department, Lisa Heinze, contributed by reading her own poetry. Artist Tessa Zettel read emails from a time where she was reading Haraway while pickling with a large group of Artists. She told us of being turned down by Duke University Press when she requested they donate a copy of Staying with the Trouble to their free radical theory library. Dr Undine Sellbach from Macquarie University regaled us with tales of difficult domestic labours and accidentally composting potatoes. Astrida read from Tess Lea’s Darwin, a biography of Australia’s most northern city famously hot, famously storm ravaged. She points to Lea’s introduction of the concept of “thermal moralism”, a term connoting one’s pride in the capacity to endure extreme heat. Artist and PhD Candidate at UNSW’s school of Art and Design, Pia van Gelder, brought along a small gadget, revealing the audio life of the water through a little DIY machine. Annie Wu, PhD Candidate in Human Geography at USYD read out a poem by former East Timorese President Xanana Gusmao, which links to her project exploring trade relations in the area. Independent Scholar Sumugan Sivenasan read from Paulo Tavares’ “Nonhuman Rights” (LINK: https://creativeecologies.ucsc.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/196/2015/10/Tavares-NHR_Forensis.pdf) and was thinking

about soil as evidence and the plaintiff in emerging fields of earth jurisprudence.

I talked about cancer and death, and my intellectual understanding of the need to be of the earth, in the mud, but my desperate desire to transcend the earthly condition when confronted with my own mortality.

image3-myself-sharing-my-thoughts-over-lunch

Myself sharing my thoughts over lunch

Taken as a whole, the day was really a bit of a muddle, with each contribution’s relation to the loftier objectives of COMPOSTING likely only evident to those actively forcing connections. What was useful about the day, as a workday rather than just a social occasion, was that it made space for a risk of putting something “out there” that was not necessarily considered valid research: rotting potatoes on a dining room table, an email with a recipe from a mother, and a personal fear. And in opening up space to discuss these things as one meanders through trees and wades through water, rather than sitting in an air-conditioned office, insulated from the weather.

image4-the-group-at-karloo-pools-before-heading-back-to-the-train

The Group at Karloo Pools before heading back to the train

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After writing this I headed to the Yabun Festival (https://yabun.org.au/ ), where I heard Kev Carmody sing his famous song, “From Little Things Big Things Grow” which he co-wrote with Paul Kelly. It is a song about Vincent Lingiari a groundbreaking Aboriginal Land Rights activist. I ran into Eve Vincent who co-edited Unstable Relations: Indigenous people and environmentalism in contemporary Australia (Perth: UWA Press, 2016). And thought about ways in which the fight for a different kind of country can continue in 2017.

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