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A feminist approach to the Anthropocene

4 August 2020
By Susan Wyndham, SSSHARC Journalist in Residence
Feelings are not an obvious tool in the intellectual processes of academic research. Yet Dr Astrida Neimanis uses “feel-ed work” in her study of the relationship between people and water. She is writing a book with the ambiguous working title The Feeling of Water and, yes, she cares how the earth’s waters feel as a result of human activities.

That’s a simple way of describing the complex, creative, multidisciplinary work Astrida Neimanis does at the University of Sydney, where she is a senior lecturer in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies, and a key researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute.

In an interview with the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC), she explained her thinking at the intersection of feminist theory and environmental humanities.

As an undergraduate student in Canada, Neimanis became interested in gender studies – “in our human bodies as sites of violence and pleasure, and where laws and regulations get played out, and media through which we take in the world, respond to the world and archive the world; bodies as complex social, material, affective, cultural things”.

Her PhD research in the early 2000s brought in environmental questions. She began to think about the water that makes up 80 percent of the human body as the same water that makes up rivers and oceans that suffer from pollution, climate change, hypoxia and acidification.

“The click moment for me  – it sounds obvious but it was a radical click – was when I started to understand that our bodies were not separate or different from the environment around us. We are absolutely continuous with the environment.

“How does environmental ethics become a different question when you start understanding your human self as a material body, as a political, economic, cultural entity, as something of the very same environment?”

Water has a long memory

Neimanis moved to Sydney in 2015 to take up her position, her first full-time permanent job after working at the University of Toronto, the London School of Economics and smaller universities in Canada. As a result the book she is writing draws on Australia as well as her Canadian birthplace and her Latvian ancestral home.

In her proposal for The Feeling of Water, she writes about water as a repository of “human discards and dumped desires”. Water holds and dissolves material pollutants and “remains of submerged imperial and colonial pasts that continue to flood the present”, such as slave trade, drowned refugees, militarisms and sinking island nations. “Like any archive, waters remember, and waters forget.”

She tells the stories of three main geographical sites: World War II chemical weapons dumped in the Baltic Sea off Gotland Island; the industrial waste from Canada’s steel industry that has polluted a wetlands area of Lake Ontario, and the effects of mining on microbial life in groundwaters of Western Australia, Northern Queensland and the Sydney region.

The Australian chapter is not empirical as others are, she explained, but relies on existing scientific findings in hydrogeology, ground water geology, environmental assessments. The fieldwork in this case has been to visit places affected by mining and to experience the “above-ground feeling”.

Her neologism “feel-ed work” refers to her personal encounters with the places she observes and “stories” in words and photographic images. As well as physical fieldwork, she uses a spectrum of methods that includes critical readings of artworks, poems, theoretical texts, scientific documents, government reports and signs. Rather than starting with a hypothesis and making orderly progress in archives, she has to invent research methods and go where they lead her. Collaboration is also central to her practice.

Gender studies scholars “are really good integrators”, Neimanis said. “Although my work spans climate science to marine biology to fine art and literature and social justice, there’s no way I could claim expertise in all those fields. What I’m good at is starting with a case study and saying, what happens if we start to open up this thing, this place or this event and see all of the different strands that go into making it what it is?”

For example, her chapter about chemical weapons reaches into oceanography and marine science, histories of war, militarism and colonialism, and “literary imaginaries of the ocean as an unknown or as an abyss that has led us to believe that we could just dump things there and they would disappear”. She brings in feminist theory and philosophy to think about how Western theories of time separate past, present and future; she disputes ideas about human exceptionalism that come from Western post-Enlightenment and Judaeo-Christian traditions.

A striptease with a message

In 2018 Neimanis and Jennifer Mae Hamilton, a scholar in feminist environmental  humanities at the University of New England, organised a SSSHARC Retreat, the third in a series of similar events they’d run over several years on “Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene”.

This one focused on the question of desire: “what do feminist understandings of desire bring to the question of climate catastrophe? What do we want as political citizens in terms of change? What do we want as capitalist consumers, where we want our cake and we want to eat it too?”

Feminist environmental humanities has roots in 1970s ecofeminism and other aspects of feminism, and is not just an add-on to the male-dominated field of environmental humanities, Neimanis said.

“All of this feminist work – what it means to care for people who are dependent on you, like children or the elderly; or what it means to have desire and attraction towards not ‘proper objects’, to love nature or love animals or to queerly love all sorts of things; critiques of capitalism and colonialism that come out of a feminist trajectory – all these things present a different way of looking at environmental crisis.”

Neimanis and Hamilton invited a group of artists and scholars from many disciplines – anthropology, philosophy, English, art and design, gender and cultural studies – including world experts, early career researchers and PhD students to spend three days in round-table discussions in the Blue Mountains, followed by a one-day public event on campus.

Participants at the the SSSHARC Retreat on “Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene”.

Participants at the the SSSHARC Retreat on “Feminist, Queer, Anticolonial Propositions for Hacking the Anthropocene”. Credit: Astrida Neimanis.

Participants sent in a piece of writing on their chosen topic, which the group read and workshopped. Topics ranged from sheep farming and hedgehogs to artworks about the ocean. They condensed the “incubated” ideas into 10-minute performances for an audience of about 100 people.

“It was electric,” said Neimanis. “What was really exciting was the conversation between the different pieces, and though they were about very different things we were able to find the through lines and present a whole set of connected questions to an audience in a live format.”

One presenter sang an impromptu song. Performance artist Betty Grumble did a halftime show with striptease. Neimanis was a little nervous about the reaction of senior academics. But one of them told her the academy needed more such events to allow people to engage with abstract questions such as climate change emotionally as well as intellectually – and with a few laughs.

Launch of the special issue of the journal Australian Feminist Studies, titled What do we Want? Feminist Environmental Humanities.

Astrida Neimanis (left), next to Jennifer Mae Hamilton at the launch of the special issue of the journal Australian Feminist Studies, titled What do we Want? Feminist Environmental Humanities. Credit: Astrida Neimanis. 

Neimanis judged the retreat a success for the participants, who found it meaningful and inspiring, and in collective and individual academic output. She and Hamilton edited a collection of essays by six participants for a special issue of the journal Australian Feminist Studies, titled What do we Want? Feminist Environmental Humanities. Her own article became the basis for a chapter in her book.

The body as the site of climate catastrophe

In 2019 Neimanis received another grant from SSSHARC for an Ultimate Peer Review of her draft manuscript, The Feeling of Water. This program supports Sydney University scholars who have a piece of potentially landmark research to invite an international expert to critique the work in writing and in private and group discussion on campus.

She brought Professor Macarena Gomez-Barris, a sociologist who is chairperson of Social Science and Cultural Studies and director of the Global South Center at the Pratt Institute in New York. Gomez-Barris is one of a few senior scholars globally whose work brings feminist, queer and decolonial perspectives to environmental issues. The two women met at a US conference and saw the overlaps in their interdisciplinary work on water.

Professor Macarena Gómez-Barris, Director of the Global South Center and Chairperson of the Department of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute

Professor Macarena Gómez-Barris, Director of the Global South Center and Chairperson of Social Sciences and Cultural Studies at Pratt Institute. Credit: Pratt Institute.

“It’s an amazing opportunity to have an eminent scholar in your field look at your work in progress and provide feedback,” Neimanis said. She appreciated Gomez-Barris’s advice “at both the granular level, like don’t bother talking about this point, and at the more overarching level, giving me a few ways of understanding the whole project that I hadn’t seen before.

“For example, she suggested the phrase, ‘I think what you’re doing here is looking at the body as the site of climate catastrophe’ and I said, ‘Yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing but I never would have thought that’. An outside reader who’s experienced enough can give you these little frames for understanding the whole project that you’re just too close in to see.”

For the two-hour roundtable discussion, Neimanis invited eight colleagues to read two chapters and each give a 10-minute summary of their comments after Gomez-Barris spoke for half an hour. They included academics in geography, environmental humanities and art, a nonacademic artist, and three early career researchers.

“I felt it was an opportunity to mentor junior scholars in what putting a book together looks like. It was really great because not everybody agreed.”

Working to finish her manuscript as bushfires gave way to the COVID-19 pandemic, Neimanis said: “All of a sudden there is definitely a greater interest in my work. I don’t feel lucky, because we’re all going through this horrendous experience together. But I do think it underscores a need for philosophical, literary arts-based perspectives on climate change and environmental catastrophe.

“What precipitated the idea that we were immune from what happens to environments around us? This isn’t just a scientific question but it has a lot to do with our social and cultural imaginary, and what we understand humans to be.”

“Hacking the Anthropocene III: What Do We Want?” took place on May 18, 2018 at the Women’s College, University of Sydney.

Macarena Gomez-Barris gave an Ultimate Peer Review of The Feeling of Water by Astrida Neimanis at the University of Sydney on June 28, 2019. 

This article is part of the 2020 SSSHARC series on how the humanities and social sciences can help us see the world in new ways.

Susan Wyndham

Susan Wyndham. Credit: Nicola Bailey.
Inaugural SSSHARC Journalist in Residence

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