Knowledge integration and aesthetic experience in the climate crisis

13 April 2022
We sit down with Michael Stratford Hutch, SEI’s inaugural Iain McCalman Honours Fellow, to hear about their Honours research on the “praxial rift” between knowledge and action in response to the climate crisis.

Emma Holland: Michael, you’re the first recipient of the Iain McCalman Honours Research Award, in partnership with the Chau Chak Wing Museum. What will you be researching?

Michael Stratford Hutch: My Honours research centres on something I’m calling the “praxial rift” between knowledge produced about the climate crisis and the integration of this knowledge through appropriate responses to it. The factors that produce this rift intensified particularly during the Enlightenment, since which the empiricist project has progressively imposed an evidential regime that dominates the academy, our education systems, and much of our culture more broadly. This regime was forcibly propagated by means of colonial and imperial forces, furthering the causes of industry and enabling rampant material extraction for capital, necessitating the objectification, taxonification, and externalisation of nature. Indeed, one can identify a general attitude of “sense without sensuality” throughout the last three centuries of Western intellectual history. This effective exile of affect has produced a stultifying hegemony, that continues to be weaponised against vulnerable communities worldwide, particularly Indigenous peoples. 

There is a wealth of high-quality scholarship that critiques our post-Enlightenment knowledge system and the array of violent stratagems it underpins. This work has revealed in detail how an evidential epistemology contributes to the intractability of the very crisis it seeks to model and address. Absent from much of this literature, however, is consideration of how aesthetic experience, specifically of and within environments, moderates the rift between evidence and integration. Furthermore, traditional formulations of aesthetics as disinterested, contemplative and noninteractive with morality and epistemology are insufficient for this task. There is a compelling opportunity here for new scholarship that revitalises (environmental) aesthetics via explorations of how it might be applied to the praxial rift as I conceive it.

This effective exile of affect has produced a stultifying hegemony, that continues to be weaponised against vulnerable communities worldwide, particularly Indigenous peoples.

In laying the groundwork for my thesis, I have started to trace an alternative lineage of aesthetics scholarship, using Baumgarten’s original definition of “the science of sensory cognition” as an initial starting point. Reading Schiller’s letters on the necessity of aesthetic education for moral action has been particularly generative for considering how a revitalised (environmental) aesthetics could improve flows between evidence and integration. I am specifically interested in applying such an aesthetics to a case study engaging the Chau Chak Wing Museum in its capacity as an institution of aesthetic education, and therefore as a significant leverage point in changing the systems that co-produce the praxial rift.  

How will you be integrating access to the Macleay Collections into your research? And what are your thoughts on how history can inform thinking about the future in a warming world?

I intend to bring the objects and specimens of the Macleay Collections into productive dialogue with the revitalised framework I have mentioned. This work involves an investigation into how both the processes and artefacts of ethnography, natural history, science, historic photography, and museology have contributed to the binarisation of nature-humanity. It also requires asking how this split reinforces and is reinforced by the evidential regime, through documentation, analysis, taxonomy, categorisation and objectification. 

Beyond these more descriptive and analytical tasks, what interests me is synthesising historical and contemporary research to identify opportunities and strategies by which institutions of aesthetic education can mitigate or unravel the separative effects of the evidential regime. How might established practices be modulated or subverted, and how might the historical-material wealth of these institutions be employed to encourage a relationality among humans, non-humans, and their environments, whereby the praxial rift can be addressed?

Grounding my work in the historical-material is a way to engage consciously with the reconstructive processes inherent in scholarship and other endeavours. Doing so provides the gravitational centre(s) necessary to navigate the complexity of a world that is progressively more uncanny and incongruous, let alone warm. The narratological forces central to our cognitive evolution, social lineages, and cultural traditions influence us whether we are aware of them or not. I am trying to work in acknowledgement of this point and note that it is probably beyond my capacities to ever have a ‘full picture’, though I have come to see this improbability as generative when people work in alignment with it.

I have a strong suspicion the future is inaccessible in the ways we often want it to be, especially when it comes to how we might ‘solve’ the climate crisis. I am much more interested in how working to understand the co-production of the present by historical-material forces can enable us to pay attention to and care for the systems, practices and relationships whose complex interactions are ‘worldbuilding’, that is, making our world.

How might established practices be modulated or subverted, and how might the historical-material wealth of these institutions be employed to encourage a relationality among humans, non-humans, and their environments, whereby the praxial rift can be addressed?

What do you hope this research will contribute to society?

I hope to contribute to a growing body of work cultivating greater appreciation of our lived experiences as embodied, affective and aesthetic. Doing so provides far more effective avenues for understanding and intervening in the systems we must reckon with now and in the coming decades. I hope to involve key stakeholders external to the Sydney Environment Institute and Chau Chak Wing Museum, perhaps in forms co-extensive to my written thesis such as events or talks. I want to make sure that whatever I work towards is communicated and integrated in as many forms as is necessary for my purposes outside of just the academy or other institutions.

What interested you in applying for Honours with the Sydney Environment Institute, and this Award in particular? 

What primarily interests me about the SEI is its explicitly collaborative and multidisciplinary approach to research across the environmental humanities, social sciences and beyond. I think that far too often the environmental is seen as an optional add-on of sorts, rather than a relationality integral to life and therefore intellectual endeavour. This peripheralisation of the environmental proves catastrophically harmful to life on our planet and points to the fact that transforming systems of harm simply cannot be achieved without cross-disciplinary collaboration. The SEI’s work engaging and integrating academic work within its wider communities aligns with my own intention for scholarship to be oriented towards human flourishing and ‘paying it forward’. 

The support and opportunities offered by the Award attracted me to apply. Receiving help with the costs of research, having the possibility of mentorship with SEI scholars, being able to contribute to Institute events and research projects, and being included in the Institute’s global networks all constitute significant investments in an emerging scholar, and I am deeply honoured and appreciative to be seen as meriting that. 

Aside from research, what are your interests and passions?

My go-to off-day activities are second-hand shopping, walking/hiking around, playing sport with friends, a good video game session, or practising whatever new skill I am working on at the time (right now I am trying to get my fluency in French back). Lately, I have been enjoying a slow and safe return to spending time with friends and with the communities of which I am a part — the return of live music in particular has been so energising, if a little fraught in places. Mostly I am just keen to get out of the house more, especially after a few months of health issues, and all the rain and mould.

Michael Stratford Hutch (they/them) was born and raised on unceded muwinina land in nipaluna, lutruwita and now lives and works on unceded Gadigal and Wangal lands in Eora. They completed a combined Bachelor of Science and Bachelor of Arts in 2021, majoring in neuroscience, linguistics and philosophy. Michael is the inaugural recipient of the Iain McCalman Honours Award in 2022, with an Honours thesis developing under the supervision of Dr Dalia Nassar.

Michael has a professional background in facilitating interfaces between communities and arts organisations and has worked for nationally and internationally regarded organisations, including the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA), MusicNSW, Parramatta’s Arts and Cultural Exchange (ACE), the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the Powerhouse Museum, the Sydney Theatre Company, and the Sydney Opera House. 

Outside of organisational work, Michael leads the Eora-based co-operative Midheaven, which is devoted to platforming forward-thinking, mutative and compelling work by local emerging artists. 

Their own interdisciplinary work has been featured in galleries such as Firstdraft in Sydney, in literary journals and publications such as Island Magazine and Runway Arts, and at numerous live music venues across nipaluna and Eora. 

Header image: two sand banks drone view by Jonathan Safa via Unsplash.