Learning to Fail: On Teaching Resilience, Empathy and Embodiment
That we are living in worlds profoundly altered by human influence is no longer a speculative issue. The implications of environmental change and its storied manifestations are, borrowing the words of Ian Baucom and Matthew Omelsky in the introduction to their recent edited collection, Climate Change and the Production of Knowledge, “deeply connected to what it means to be human on earth in the twenty-first century.”
By combining literary, ecocritical, and media techniques with a mindfulness of the environment, my manuscript-in-progress, Digital Environmental Metabolisms: An Ecocritical Project of the Digital Environmental Humanities, contributes to the urgent task of re-orienting media theory toward environmental concerns. It is informed by the premise that, in our present Anthropocenic age defined by humans acting as a geophysical force, human bodies, cultural technologies, and the earth are intersecting material practices. I argue this intersectionality is neither cyborgian nor posthuman, as some media scholars insist, but is something far more natural: it is a metabolic relationship wherein each system is inherently implicated in the perpetuation of the others.
Unlike those who contribute to what may be called an emerging environmental media theory through subfields like media archaeology or political history, I offer several practical and methodological interventions, including Permaculture and Ecocritical Digital Humanities, that are capable of moving us toward more sustainable digital practice and a more robust Anthropocene Humanities. I offer avenues for making meaningful change within our classrooms, our communities, and our daily lives.
Digital Environmental Metabolisms opens with a chapter that asks how an environmental humanities perspective, one that takes seriously the physical environmental aspects of digital media’s infrastructure, can contribute to the reconfiguration of media theory’s most prominent frameworks by drawing attention to the discourses that prevent a robust environmental media studies. My second chapter argues we must re-story digital materiality to help narrate unseen relationships and articulate alternate Anthropocene futures. It re-figures the environmental metaphors already present in media theory (e.g. the Cloud, Atmospheric Media, Media Ecology) to embed them concretely within their earthly material contexts. My third chapter brings these physical realities to bear on cultural critique by looking at how environmentally-focused digital artworks can challenge our digital-material (hi)stories and provoke new figurations of the complex relationship between humans and the environment. My final chapter proposes Permaculture—a profoundly interconnected set of ethical design principles that I borrow from natural farming—and Ecocritical DH as models for sustainable scholarly practice.
This Digital Metabolisms research has so far generated five conference presentations, a handful of less-formal talks and classroom visits, two gallery exhibitions, one automated Twitter bot, one 3D-printed creature, and three refereed publications, including a multi-modal collaborative essay on research practice.
My next project is a critical study of global public discourse, emerging digital technologies, and performative social activism vis-à-vis my twinned concerns of human and environmental health and sustainability. This ongoing research project investigates the intersections of the health humanities, the environmental humanities, and narrative communication/media theory. It is imperative we better understand how emerging digitally-mediated storytelling and communication tools, whether they be social apps or wearable biometric devices or virtual reality installations, can alter cultures, bodies, and behavioral patterns. As with all of my research, this book project, tentatively titled Communicating Practice, is an interdisciplinary exploration of the visible intersections of media materiality, social reflexivity, cultural rhetoric, digital narrative, and the environment. It asks how media(ted) communications infect our notions of bodies, health, the environment, and the (metabolic) interconnections between them. It puzzles through how we might use digital tools to cultivate public humanities—and public service humanities—projects that expand our work beyond the academy. Communicating Practice takes up the two propositions that digital environmental humanities work can humanize health and environmental issues and that stories and creative communication techniques can help us design healthier, more sustainable, and more equitable environmental futures.
In light of recent declarations that we are indeed living in the age of the Anthropocene, today more than ever we need multidisciplinary models for thinking critically about our own personal responsibilities and ethical commitments as citizens involved in planetary-scale ecological systems. A lifetime won’t be enough time, Wendell Berry says, to restore the earth, but using our lifetimes to help it mend is something we can all begin today.