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Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Nature writing: ethnography, travel literature, and literary ethnography (2)

 

Writing near the Tagus River, Portugal, by Pedro Simōes. Wikimedia commons.

The editorial introduction to the section of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (9th ed., 2016) that contains “Ethnographic and Naturalist Writings” calls the former “literary ethnography” (instead of travel literature, the normal term) and in so doing suggests that in some sense the latter (i.e., nature writing) is also ethnographic. To be sure, the writings of natural historians are descriptive and may be systematic and scientific, just as anthropological ethnography is. But, strictly speaking, the idea of an “ethnography” of plants and animals is a misnomer. Why? Because ethnography's root “ethnos” refers to human beings. Yet what happens when the boundaries between human and more-than-human blur? Is an ethnography of nature possible?
    Nature writing is not to be confused with scientific writing about nature. Scientific writing about nature is fact-based, descriptive, often reductionistic, concerned chiefly with structures and functions, parts and wholes. The parts of a plant, how they work together, how a plant grows, that sort of thing. Animal behavior as it is observed. Science writing like this can be found in biology textbooks and in reports on experiments in journals such as Science and Nature. Nature writing, on the other hand, is, in the words of Richard Mabey, editor of The Oxford Book of Nature Writing, an attempt to “portray the life of nature in prose”—not so much how a plant grows, but to convey, somehow, the “life” of the plant, what it is, or is like, for the plant to be alive: in Mabey’s words, both the plant’s “kindredness and otherness” to human life (1995, vii). Nature writers you may be familiar with include Barry Lopez, Gary Snyder, Annie Dillard, Daisy Hildyard, and Peter Matthiessen. Some scientists have also tried their hand at nature writing: Lewis Thomas, Aldo Leopold, and E. O. Wilson, for example. The tradition of nature writing in English also includes earlier writers like John Muir, John Burroughs, Henry David Thoreau, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Gilbert White. 
    Nature writing is a “quest for the essential characteristics and boundaries of being human” (Mabey, ibid.). It is often lyrical and conjectural. It is, certainly, literary. Still, the idea that nature writers are also doing something like ethnography is intriguing. That is, when they write about plants and animals to probe those “essential characteristics” of being human, they must, to some degree, anthropomorphize non-human nature. To take the most obvious example, birds are said to “sing.” A scientist—that is, a behavioral ecologist—may use the term birdsong but only as a placeholder for the sounds that birds make in order to communicate with one another. Behavioral ecologists such as Richard Dawkins have taken pains to deny any aesthetic component in birdsong—that is, any possibility that birds are singing for their own pleasure. Nature writers, on the other hand, take pleasure in the possibility that birds sing not just for practical purposes—to attract a mate, to sound alarm calls, and so on—but also for their own enjoyment. One might point out that birdsong is not parsimonious: a bird will appear to “sing its heart out” for a long time, surely longer than seems necessary to frighten an enemy, attract a mate, sound an alarm, or otherwise announce its presence in the neighborhood. In anthropomorphizing birdsong, nature writers are in effect trying to understand the “native’s (i.e., the bird’s) point of view”— which, beyond mere detailed, “thick” and systematic description, is one of the most important aims of ethnography, as anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski expressed it more than 100 years ago. Certain non-Western beliefs about nature also play into the idea that it has something in common with ethnography. Indigenous social groups whose view of nature is what Viveiros de Castro has termed “perspectivism” do not exactly anthropomorphize animals but, rather, consider that like humans they have consciousness, intentions, feelings, and undergo experience; and that, like humans, they have social lives in groups not unlike human groups. In short, this Indigenous perspective, which can be found in traditional ecological thought among Native groups in the Americas, does not need to anthropomorphize because it views animals as kindred, not other. Ethnography from this perspective would not need to overcome the barriers that science throws up by denying inner lives to plants and animals.
    Of course, the Norton Anthology editor’s category, “literary ethnography,” is separate from “naturalistic writings”; yet to juxtapose them in the same space does suggest the systematic and descriptive (ethnographic) approach to nature which has been characteristic of certain natural historians in their taxonomic activities—Linnaeus, for example, or Darwin for that matter. Yet until early in the 20th century most natural historians in their “naturalistic writings” mixed objective, scientific taxonomy of particular species with lyrical, anthropomorphic descriptions of animal lives, often in the same entry. In nineteenth-century books about bird species, for example, natural historians took pains to classify, determine prevalence, and describe size, coloring, shape, habitat, range, reproductive habits, nests, seasonal activities, etc. but they also added anecdotes thought to typify what was characteristic of that particular species, as well as conjectures about inner lives while sometimes imputing motives and feelings to individual birds whose behavior was described. Moreover, they represented bird species' songs either in mnemonic syllables, or in musical notation. In the twentieth century musical notation gave way to sound spectrograph representations of birdsong, but while objectivity and precision were gained, the reader’s ability to sing back the song from musical notation was lost. The same precision and objectivity is apparent in twentieth-century bird identification guidebooks such as Peterson’s and Sibley’s. Yet there is no shortage of lyrical nature writing about birds and other animals in contemporary literature; indeed, it’s a very popular literary genre—not only in writing but also in films and television shows that attempt to portray animal lives.
    As more and more plant and animal species are endangered, or threatened by extinction, due to human encroachment on habitat, global heating, and so forth, a sustainability/conservation component inevitably enters nature writing, often accompanied by a combination of sentiment if not sentimentality, along with a sense of emergency. But there is a truth to this component, regardless of the perspective: Western science, nature writing, or perspectivism. For Western science, nature provides ecosystem services for human beings; for naturalists, nature reveals the porous boundaries between the human and more-than-human; and for Indigenous perspectivists, nature reveals life’s universal kinship.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Keeping Track of Writing Projects -- End of 2022

Scholar with his books. Gerbrand van den Eeckhout (17th c.)

 

An update to keep track of my writing projects has become an annual event. Since the last update, on Dec. 31, 2021, which writing projects have progressed, which have been published, and which have seemingly stagnated? On my academia.edu page and also in my twitter profile @jefftoddtiton I suggest that readers who want to know the answer to the question “What research and writing are you working on?” come to this blog to find out. Here is the list:

1. “Ethical Considerations for Ethnomusicologists in the Midst of Environmental Crisis.” In August, 2020 I’d finished this essay for a book in progress edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond called the Routledge Companion to Ethics and Research in Ethnomusicology. Routledge published the book a few months ago, and it's available from Routledge and other sources. I'm hoping that in a year it will be available in paperback at reasonable price.

2. A short essay on musical icons, introducing a section of a book entitled Social Voices: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe.  I finished up the essay in the spring of 2021. The book is in production now and scheduled for publication by the University of Illinois Press in 2023.

3. “Eco-trope or Eco-tripe? Music Ecology Today.” I completed this chapter in 2021. It’s for the book edited by Aaron S. Allen and myself, Sounds, Ecologies, Musics. I also co-wrote the Introduction with Aaron. The book contains thirteen essays written from diverse ecological perspectives, by scientists, scholars, environmental activists, and musicians, each concerned with music, sound, nature, culture and the environment in a time of environmental crisis. Since I wrote about it in my blog entry a year ago, it received a positive external review from Oxford's referees and has just been put into production at Oxford, with expected publication toward the end of 2023.

4. “The Sound Commons and Applied Ecomusicologies.” This is an article co-authored by Aaron Allen, Taylor Leapaldt, Mark Pedelty, and myself, for The Routledge Companion to Applied Musicology, edited by Chris Dromey. I completed my section (on my concept of the sound commons) of the article in 2019, and the others followed with their sections; we revised in 2020 and sent the manuscript to Chris, who returned it with suggested revisions in the spring of 2021. We responded to those and revised yet again, and sent them back to Chris. The book is in the latter stages of production and should be available in the spring of 2023. I'm hoping that a year later it will be available in paperback at reasonable price.

5. “Ecojustice and Ontological Turns: a Response to Marshall and DeAngeli.” This was part of an E-seminar that the Ecomusicology Review has been conducting in the fall of 2021 within the ecomusicology Google Group. Kimberly Marshall and Emma DeAngeli wrote an essay to which Sebastian Hochmeyer responded, whereupon they wrote a rejoinder. Mark Pedelty followed with a second response. Aaron Allen asked me if I too would respond, and so I wrote a brief response, starting with my reaction to a disagreement between Marshall and DeAngeli on one hand, and Hachmeyer on the other, over the relevance of the so-called ontological turn in anthropology to the project of social justice. Rather than take sides, I proposed that ecojustice would resolve the disagreement by including social justice in the larger framework of relationality and by extending reciprocity and respect to all living beings, not just humans. This is congruent with the writings of Indigenous scholars such as Robin Kimmerer and Zoe Todd in past dozen years or so as well even though they don’t use that term. Aaron intends for all these to be published in the Ecomusicology Review, though I’m still not sure when.

6.  An essay on music and sustainability that I wrote as an invited forward for the book Music, Communities, Sustainability, edited by Huib Schippers and Anthony Seeger, was published this year by Oxford University Press. 

7. My essay "Sustainability and a Sound Ecology," the latest published description of my sound ecology project, was kindly translated into Spanish by Chilean musicologist Mauricio Valdebenito, and published in El oído pensante, vol. 10, no. 1, 2022, pp. 131-156. It can be downloaded from the journal's website, here. The English version had already been published in my book Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays (Indiana University Press, 2020). 

8. Earlier this year Robert Baron, on behalf of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society, invited me to contribute an essay to a forthcoming issue of the Journal of American Folklore, to be derived from my oral presentation on folklife, heritage and environment for the American Folklore Society webinar on "Heritage, Folklore, and the Public Sphere" on March 10, 2021. I completed the essay (a little more than 10,000 words) in August, and then revised it a little in response to suggestions from Robert and also from Mary Hufford and returned it to Robert Baron at the end of October. Its title is "Folklife, Heritage, and the Environment: A Critique of Natural Capital, Ecosystem Services, and Settler Ecology." It's to go into a future issue of the Journal with a group of other essays related to the topic of heritage, folklore, and the public sphere. I have no timeline yet on publication.

9. I continue to work on my book-length manuscript, A Sound Ecology.

Among the lectures and seminars I gave during this past year, one in particular was memorable: an invited video lecture for the Festival El Aleph, in Mexico City. The festival was organized by CulturaUnam with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and broadcast on TV UNAM. I was one of three scholars from the US invited to present at this festival, a hybrid (partly online, partly in-person) extravaganza that unites science with art and music by means of lectures, workshops, and performances by scientists, scholars, artists and musicians. The theme this year was sustainability and environment, and I was asked to speak about my sound ecology project. The Festival recorded the lecture over Zoom in March, and then broadcast it during the festival itself, on May 25. I was pleasantly surprised to find, when I began watching the broadcast itself, that Festival producers had located video footage and inserted it, intercutting with my "talking head" so as to illustrate the ideas that I was discussing. The result was that instead of seeing a talking head on the screen for 45 minutes, the viewer saw the lecture intercut with a variety of illustrative video clips that made the presentation more interesting to watch and listen to. I'm grateful to the producers for doing this. I was, also, told by several friends and colleagues who saw it, that it was the clearest and best explanation of my sound ecology project to date. As it happens, it can still be seen from the Festival website, via this link in case anyone reading this blog entry would like to take a look.

Wednesday, November 30, 2022

Ethnography, travel literature, and literary ethnography (1)

Find the frog in vernal pool. Spring 2022. Photo by Jeff Titon.

 I was interested to see, in the first volume of the ninth edition of the Norton Anthology of American Literature (2016), a section with the heading Ethnographic and Naturalist Writings (Vol. 1, pp. 641ff). The section’s introduction begins, “Broadly defined, the genre of literary ethnography is the written description of peoples, cultures, and societies. . . . Virtually all of the earliest ‘American’ literature offers instances of ethnographic and naturalist writing, as the sustained European encounter with the Americas that begin in 1492 provided writers with a treasure trove of new material” (641). My interest was piqued, first of all, by the use of the word ethnography outside of the anthropological/ethnomusicological/folkloristic context in which I know it. Inside that context, although ethnography is defined as the written description of the culture, or some aspects of the culture, of a social group, it is not regarded primarily as literature or even as a literary genre. Instead, it aspires to be systematic, its reliability grounded and guaranteed by thorough documentation. Systematic ethnographic descriptions to a certain extent resemble inventories--these are the ways the group thinks of kinship relations; these are their laws and traditions; this is how their government is organized; these are their rituals and ceremonies; that sort of thing. This kind of ethnographic description is later used as evidence for cultural analysis, cultural comparisons, and cultural histories. 

Yet when ethnographers become narrators, portraying as much as describing, telling anecdotes based on their personal encounters, anecdotes that encapsulate the meanings and offer grounds for interpretation--not analysis--of this or that cultural behavior, then our tales take on literary qualities, because they exhibit such things as individual characters, settings and scenes, point-of-view and narrative reliability. But because truth-telling is our goal, it would be highly unusual for any ethnographer, narrating in the first person, to present themself as an unreliable narrator and impossible to offer up an ethnography as fiction, unless it were meant as satire or comedy--in which case, the audience would need to be let in on the ruse sooner or later. Or not; there are some famous exceptions, such as Carlos Castaneda's once-popular narrative ethnographies on the teachings of a Mexican shaman he called Don Juan.

I was, also, curious about the deliberate juxtaposition of ethnographic and naturalist writings in this section, suggesting that describing “peoples” is, or at least was, during the early European colonization of the Asian, African, and American continents, not altogether different from describing esoteric plants and animals. Such a juxtaposition also reflects empire, but is it a recognition of similarities in these literatures, "ethnographic" and naturalistic, of the 17th and 18th centuries? Or might it reveal a residual settler colonialism in the Anthology editors' thinking? More on that in a later blog post. Third, I was struck by the Anthology editors' apparent reluctance to use the accepted term "travel literature" to describe this kind of writing. Travel literature is an ancient genre; portions of Herodotus' history fall into this category, while perhaps the 13th-century Travels of Marco Polo is the most famous example, both from a period that predates European colonialism. Anthropology, and to some extent ethnomusicology and folklore, have a history of ambivalence toward travelers' accounts of exotic lands and peoples; on the one hand, they may contain new information that makes a genuine contribution to knowledge; on the other, the travelers are amateurs after all and therefore their observations cannot be taken at face value. Indeed, as the 20th century wore on, professional, advanced degreed anthropologists increasingly got out of their studies and into the "field," traveling themselves to the field sites where the peoples lived whose cultures they wished to describe. They thought of themselves as scientists, and made a distinction between themselves and the untrained amateurs, tourists whose observations were haphazard, their judgments subjective and often prejudiced; whereas these scholar-scientists considered themselves objective documentarians and analysts pursuing knowledge in a thorough, systematic, unbiased and objective fashion. 

This conception of ethnography as a scientific endeavor began to unravel during the period of the great social movements of the latter 1960s and early 1970s, and by 1990 or so many cultural anthropologists, if not archeologists and linguists, had largely abandoned the idea that their methodology was ever scientific in the sense of the ideal that it was impersonal, objective, unbiased, and replicable. (Of course, critics of science also claimed that objectivity was a myth in all scientific endeavor, even natural science.) Indeed, in the face of post-colonial independence movements, cultural anthropologists began to realize that their field was part of the legacy of empire; that in many cases access to "other" cultures in faraway lands was possible (and relatively safe) only because of the protection of colonial governments. And in the 1980s, cultural anthropology (and, a little later, ethnomusicology) became a locus for debates over such things as cultural appropriation and theft; the relevance of post-structuralist thinking; and of course the literary qualities of narrative ethnography--and whether narrative ethnography was fiction, or whether it was only "like" fiction. It was in the context of these old debates--advanced but never settled--that I first pondered the term "literary ethnography" and its application to the literature of travel and exploration written by European explorers and colonists in the New World beginning in the late 15th century. I'll say more about these topics in a subsequent blog post.



Monday, October 24, 2022

Ecological Imaginaries 2

 

Crabapple tree of many colors, Oct. 22, 2022. Photo by J. T. Titon
 

“Ecological imaginaries” is but one kind of imaginary, but in the past ten years this idea has become increasingly useful as ecology in all senses of the word gains traction. A bit of background is in order before introducing two more ecological imaginaries. Imaginaries are ideas, not things; they are social products of a collective human imagination. Like myths, they are believed in; they are thought to be true, or they deserve to be made so. An example is the idea of “the rule of law.The best known imaginary is the “social imaginary,” i.e., the network of ideas that individuals in a particular social group have about their society, what it is, how it operates, and how one should behave as a member of that society—the rules, principles, laws, values and the assumptions that people believe (imagine) govern their social interactions, and their meanings. For Jürgen Habermas, it was “the massive background of an intersubjectively shared lifeworld.”

Benedict Anderson’s concept of the “imagined community” has been influential among folklorists, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. Anderson was thinking primarily of an imagined socio-political community, often based in ethnic, regional, and racial ties. So, for instance, a nation such as "England" or "the United States" when regarded as a whole, integrated society embodies an imagined community. The idea of the folk community, as a comparatively undifferentiated, pre-industrial, peasant or Indigenous social group, with its ancient customs and oral traditions, and their performance as expressive culture, is another example of a social imaginary. A more recent example of a social imaginary is the community invoked by the phrase "Christian nationalism." 

In the previous post I’ve identified four ecological imaginaries all related to beliefs about nature: pastoral, the “land of Cockaigne,” untrammeled wilderness, and self-regulation (organicism and the balance of nature). Here I will identify two more among many others. The first is Lorraine Code’s identification of an ecological imaginary (as she calls it) which attempts “to enact principles of ideal cohabitation,” or living together. Code views this “ecological imaginary” as based in the ecological principle/assumption of interdependence (or what others have called relationality and reciprocity) among living beings, a principle that, for example, I have called an ecological rationality (Titon 2013) and invoked more specifically in my sound ecology project, in which this interdependence is both signaled and secured by co-presence through sonic connections (Titon 2015, 2021). Code’s project is ongoing and difficult to summarize on account of numerous digressions—one might say the same thing about sound ecology—whereas she is incisive in her description of the social imaginary of “mastery” (Val Plumwood’s term) and the “autonomous individual”: “The instituted social imaginary of the affluent white western-northern world is one of taken-for-granted availability and access: a way of life where individual self-reliance is a virtue [positioned so as] to achieve their ‘goals’ and fulfill their ‘needs.’ Such needs are said to be natural, the sine qua non of a viable human life; scarcity is temporary and contingent: it can and should be ‘fixed’” (Code 2010, 30). Mastery involves control over the self and control over others: political mastery, and mastery over the external world; and thus they require management.

The second ecological imaginary I would add here is that of scientific realism, a set of assumptions based in the idea that the external world has an existence apart from our human perceptions of it, and that it is knowable by means of a series of epistemic operations, perhaps the most familiar being the so-called “scientific method” of inductive reasoning: observation, hypothesis, experiment, measurement, and conclusion. Scientific realism acknowledges organic wholes but proceeds towards functional analysis by means of reducing wholes to constituent parts, and parts to their constituent parts, and so on, studying the structures of those components and their interactions. The science of ecology appears to have always contained both the ecological imaginary of ecological rationality biased toward intersubjective understanding, organic holism, interrelation, balance, and interdependence; and the ecological imaginary of an objective and reductive scientific method, currently in favor among ecological scientists, that portrays nature as in continual flux, subjected to frequent disturbance and without an overall tendency, absent human interference, toward climax equilibrium and natural balance.

All six of these ecological imaginaries reflect Western intellectual history. There are additional perspectives. Folk, Indigenous, and non-Western social groups have their own ecological imaginaries, their own particular ideas concerning nature and the socio-political world. Earlier this year in this blog I wrote about “settler ecology,” prompted by an intervention from Kyle Powys Whyte from an Indigenous perspective. The diversity of environmentalisms is based in diverse ecological imaginaries.

References

Code, Lorraine. 2010. “Particularity, Epistemic Responsibility, and the Ecological Imaginary.” Philosophy of Education 2010: 23-34.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2013. “The Nature of Ecomusicology.” Música e Cultura: revista da ABET 8, 8-18.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2015. “Exhibiting Music in a Sound Community.” Ethnologies 37 (1): 23-41.

Titon, Jeff Todd. 2021. “Sustainability and a Sound Ecology.” In Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, 254-276. Bloomington: Indiana U. Press.

Friday, September 30, 2022

Ecological Imaginaries 1

The Land of Cockaigne, painting by Pieter Bruegel the elder, 1567

     Our Diverse Environmentalist Research Team faculty seminar will be discussing aspects of the topic “ecological imaginaries” starting in November. Each of us is to prepare some thoughts on this concept which has many possibilities. Here are four that occur to me immediately. There are some others I want to investigate, but this will be a start.

    1. Pastoral as ecological imaginary. This is the Arcadian tradition, in which humans live in harmony with and in nature. Literally of course it evokes shepherds and their flocks in the countryside, but symbolically pastoral does a great deal of work in the Romantic traditions of literature and philosophy, whether in German naturphilosophie or the poetry of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads. Thoreau’s Walden is usually regarded as pastoral, and the ecocritic Leo Marx worked American pastoral into an explanation of American intellectual history and its ambivalence toward industrialism. This Romantic ambivalence is also responsible, of course, for the concept of “folk,” das volk, as an uneasiness with modernism—not just industrialism, but also economic rationality ("economic man") and reductionist Western science.
    2. Related to pastoral and a projection of “folk” is the ecological imaginary of the “Land of Cockaigne,” a medieval alternative universe of pleasure and plenty, a utopian paradise of license. The 13th century French poem portrayed a land where people did not have to work, goods were freely available, game gave itself up to hunters, fish leapt out of the water and into the cooking kettle, and people never aged or died. There are some parallels with visions of the Christian heaven here. A 20th-century song, “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” expresses the ecological imaginary of Cockaigne as a hobo’s paradise where hens lay soft-boiled eggs, trees leaf out in cigarettes, and lakewater is whiskey. That song was composed by “Haywire Mac” Harry McClintock around the turn of the 20th century and first recorded by him in 1928. Since that recording it has become widely sung and known in variant forms, even appearing in a 2005 Burger King commercial.
    3. A third ecological imaginary is the idea of untrammeled wilderness, wild nature untouched by human intervention. The Romans had a word for this, res nullius, which they distinguished from res commones (commons, things that by their nature could not be owned, such as the air mantle and the oceans), res publicae (public things, owned by the state, such as roads and bridges), and res privatae (private things). Res nullius (no one's things) was a kind of terra incognita; it was conceived of as that part of the world that had not (yet) been “captured” by human beings. Wild nature is not peaceful nor is it pastoral; as Colonial Governor William Bradford wrote in 1640 of Massachussetts when the first European settlers came, that the land was filled with “wild beasts and wild men.” But this is of course a frontier imaginary; the “wild men” had been transforming the land for millennia by hunting, farming, fishing, burning to clear the land, and so on. Thoreau thought he had experienced “untrammeled nature” when, as he relates in The Maine Woods, he became frightened while descending Maine’s Mt. Katahdin and was surrounded by the rocky landscape that looked to him untouched by humans—it might as well have been the far side of the moon as far as he was concerned.
    4. A fourth ecological imaginary, related to the first two, is the notion of a self-regulating or balanced nature, or the ecosystems of the world as organic wholes, most recently expressed on a planetary scale by Lovelock and Margulis’ concept of Gaia. Although the idea of a balance of nature can be found in Greek thought, Gilbert White’s The History of Selborne, and of course in the Romantic philosophical and literary traditions, as well as pastoral, it has also captivated a number of ecological scientists and is usually expressed in concepts such as “climax” or “equilibrium.” Related to holism and organicism, it is not currently in fashion, but for much of the last century it vied with its opposite, the idea that the normal state of nature was not equilibrium but rather disturbance, flux and change until in the century’s last few decades it was largely abandoned. But this is not to say that balances do not exist in nature; they do: but the idea that nature overall and absent the hand of human intervention (itself as much a fantasy as Hobbes’ idea of a “state of nature”) tends toward balance is not widely believed by ecological scientists today. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Efficiency or curiosity? A few words on liberal education

University of Minnesota-Duluth, the library
 

A few days ago I read about a man I'd met at an event five years ago, a man who asked me why it was that education in the humanities wasn't more efficient? We were sitting at the head table at a luncheon to be followed by an award ceremony. I replied by asking him what he did for a living before he assumed his present position as Chair of the Board of Regents of the University of Minnesota, my graduate school alma mater. He said he had been director of an electric utility company in Duluth. I replied, saying I understood how important efficiency was in electrical production, distribution and consumption. But in a liberal education, intellectual curiosity is the opposite of efficient. Curiosity takes time, time to formulate questions, time to explore, to go up blind alleys and then double back, ponder possible answers, pause among different interpretations of similar phenomena, to wonder at metaphor and leave room for feelings. I wasn't sure he agreed, but he didn't press the matter. We finished our lunch, and the event continued to a conclusion. 

Now five years later his photograph has just appeared in a news story in The Chronicle of Higher Education. I recognized him at once. The story was not complimentary. It seems that he was a candidate for the position of Interim Chancellor of the University of Minnesota at Duluth. He had resigned from the Board of Regents to throw his hat in the ring only a day before the deadline to apply. Five others had applied for the job, but he was the only one interviewed; and then the search committee recommended him for it. Apparently the President of the flagship Twin Cities campus (Minneapolis-St. Paul) had at the last minute urged him to apply. For a number of reasons, the situation seemed fishy to a former Governor of the state, another regent, and a law professor, who claimed that this man ought not to be confirmed as Interim Chancellor because of a conflict of interest. The situation has since escalated. It reminded me of the embattled Chancellor of the University of Maine system, recipient of three no-confidence votes from faculty at three branches of the university, including the flagship campus in Orono. As I write, no decision has yet been made. Interestingly, one of his defenders on the search committee argued that his experience as a utility company executive showed that he was well-prepared and qualified to succeed as the head of a university. As for the Chancellor of the University of Maine system, his contract was just renewed, but for one year only; and before being hired as Chancellor, he had served as Governor of the State of Connecticut. 

Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Festival El Aleph lecture: A Sound Ecology


      Last November I accepted an invitation to offer an internet (virtual) lecture in the academic component of the Festival El Aleph, which ran this month of May between the 19th and the 29th. The Festival, sponsored by the National University of Mexico, is a major ten-day event that includes live presentations, podcasts, along with television, radio, and internet components and that features music, theatre, dance and artistic presentations along with scientific and scholarly lectures and demonstrations. All of this is intended to bring together the frontiers of the arts and sciences. In this year, 2022, the theme was Planetary crisis, with particular emphasis on ecology and environment. Most of the presentations came from Latin American scholars, scientists and artists; it was an honor to be one of only three lecturers from the United States.

     After preparing my 50-minute lecture, a summary for the general public of my sound ecology project, I delivered it in advance to the Festival via Zoom, last March. They recorded my presentation (in English), letting me know that they would prepare Spanish subtitles, and that it would be broadcast over the internet on May 25th. I watched it then along with the others, and to my surprise and delight found that not only had the Festival provided subtitles, they had also found and edited into it numerous still photos and video clips to provide background illustrations for what I was talking about. Instead of the usual "talking head" presentation, this was far more interesting visually. Friends and colleagues who watched it told me that it was, also, the clearest and most inviting presentation of my project that they've yet encountered. (My first presentation, at an earlier stage of the project, was in 2015; the latest written presentation is the last chapter of my book, Toward a Sound Ecology: New and Selected Essays, published by Indiana University Press in 2020.) 

     As of this writing, the Festival still has my "sound ecology" lecture on its website and ready for streaming. All are invited to see it, at this link:

https://culturaunam.mx/elaleph2022/eventos-2022/una-ecologia-del-sonido/


Saturday, April 30, 2022

Settler Ecology and Natural Rights

Whanganui River. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 

      This blog entry follows on from my July 31, 2021 blog entry on Environmental Sustainability, Personhood, Legal Rights, and Indigenous Ecological Knowledges. Here I frame the matters under consideration in terms of settler ecology and add some new ideas and information. Elsewhere I’ve written that because natural rights doctrine (the human right to life and liberty) derives from nature, then self-evidently nature possesses these same rights. The counter argument is that human beings are exceptional in having consciousness, agency, language, etc. But this human exceptionalism is under challenge from neurobiologists, behavioral ecologists, and philosophers, not to mention animal rights activists and scientists who study plant intelligence and communication. Take, for instance, the 2012 Cambridge (University) Declaration on Consciousness, in which several prominent scientists declared that “Convergent evidence indicates that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness.”
    If, then, more than human living creatures have consciousness, agency, language (gestural as well as sonic), and so on, it would appear that Western ways of thinking must grant them at least a moral right to life and liberty. Do other living beings—not only human beings—similarly have a legal right? What are the advantages and disadvantages to positioning animals (and possibly plants, and indeed entire ecoystems) within the modern, Euro-American legal framework of rights and obligations (duties) that largely derive from the social contract and justice theories that began during the Enlightenment? What is the relationship between such a rights regime for the environment and settler ecology? What possibly more desirable alternatives are available?
    At least since Christopher Stone’s provocative book Should Trees Have Standing (originally published in 1972)--that is, legal standing--nature’s natural rights have been invoked in the US to protect environmental features such as endangered species, landforms, and ecosystems against encroachment from developers. That is an application of ecojustice, and it is represented by a dissenting strain, neither colonialist nor extractivist, within US settler ecological thought: one that runs through Henry David Thoreau and Aldo Leopold to contemporary conservation biologists and environmental activists. Town governments in Pennsylvania, for example, have passed ordinances granting legal rights to certain landforms in order to prevent fracking. They argued that if US law grants legal rights based on “personhood” to corporations, which corporate “persons” may have some kind of collective agency and intentionality, but lack consciousness, then landforms and ecosystems may also be considered persons and be granted similar rights. The latest example of such a lawsuit is occurring in Florida, where plaintiffs have gone to court on behalf of a threatened ecosystem, Lake Mary Jane, in an effort to stop work on a nearby housing development. Needless to say, the fracking corporations quickly sued the Pennsylvania town governments, and the judges in the state courts ruled in their favor. Whether the same fate awaits Lake Mary Jane remains to be seen.
    Rights regime suits have been effective in some instances outside the US, however. Ecuador and New Zealand are cases in point, where ecosystems such as the Whanganui River, and mountains have been granted the right to be respected and largely left alone. In those cases, the claims have been made not exclusively within a Euro-American legal framework of rights and personhood, but rather also by giving weight to Indigenous people’s beliefs concerning the rights and sentience of non-human natural beings, which requires thinking of them not as objects (as Western science does) but as subjects—that is, as living beings with their own forms of subjectivity, agency, consciousness, etc. In Ecuador, rights of nature are enshrined in its Constitution. That is not settler ecology. 

Sunday, March 27, 2022

Leo Marx, an Appreciation of a Pioneering Eco-Critic

 

Leo Marx, at Amherst College

      In college I studied American literature with Leo Marx (1919-2022), who died last week, aged 102. He also became my senior year honors thesis advisor. More than any of my other professors, he influenced my choice to go to graduate school. Leo had, in my junior year, published a book, The Machine in the Garden, which gained him a reputation among his peers as one of the foremost literary critics of his generation. The book’s thesis was original: that canonical American authors and painters, particularly in the last half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th, responded both positively and negatively to the growing dominance of industrial technology and the desire for material wealth by creating, through their arts, fictional alternatives, literary or visual portraits of American culture that drew on the pastoral literary tradition in a metaphorical way. Or, in the case of Henry David Thoreau, here was someone who didn't just write pastoral but for two years lived it, at Walden Pond, before returning to civilized life in Concord to write his masterpiece, Walden. American environmentalism may also be viewed through this lens of nature as American pastoral, and as a result Leo is now considered an early eco-critic. I might not have thought about Thoreau and sound had I not read, in Leo’s literature class, about the shrieking, belching train that became a symbol of the industrial transformation of pastoral America, in the “Sounds” chapter of Walden. Leo's mind and his way with literary, social, and political ideas is well illustrated in a video made in the early 2000s (amazingly, when he was near to 90 years old) of a lecture he gave at MIT on Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, the American Myth, and the invasion of Iraq.
       I graduated from Amherst College in 1965. Leo and I stayed in touch for about twenty years thereafter. In 1972, when I'd just begun teaching at Tufts University, Leo was briefly in the public eye (and on the front page of the New York Times) when he was joined by many others from the College, including its president, John William Ward, to block the entrance at Westover (Massachusetts) Air Force Base, protesting the Vietnam War. Leo, Bill Ward, and hundreds of faculty and students were arrested for doing so. In 1977 Leo left Amherst for MIT, to become a professor in their newly-formed interdisciplinary program in science, technology, and culture. One of my classmates who also knew him at Amherst said that Leo told him he was feeling that the town and College were too far away from the cultural and political mainstream. The move to MIT would bring him closer to where he decided that he wanted to be. He had spent 20 years living in a pastoral New England town, teaching in an idyllic liberal arts college where we, the students, having left our familiar homes, lived in a pastoral retreat ourselves, in a privileged educational and social, rural college community, before we entered the real world (as it then was called). Leo finally left Amherst's pastoral for the city of Boston. In so doing he showed, literally, what he had claimed in his book, that the pastoral worked better as a symbolic field than as a permanent habitation; yet his interest in the idea of American pastoral never departed. He retired in 1990 but continued teaching in the MIT program as a senior lecturer, until stopping at last in 2015 at the age of 94. Whether he felt that he had a better perch there than at Amherst I never knew.   
       Leo had, also, been a pioneering scholar in the field of American Studies. Although he was not among the field's very founders, he was one of the founders' first students; and he soon became their friend and colleague. Their project, undertaken chiefly in the period from the latter part of the New Deal to the Vietnam War, was to examine the supposedly unique character and history of the United States as a democratic society and nation. They often did so by analyzing the cultural and historical meanings of themes like “the American dream,” or the Westward expansion of the frontier, or slavery and emancipation, women’s suffrage, the meaning of free speech, or immigration and the “melting pot.” They examined historical and contemporary responses to facts of importance to the development of American culture—New England Puritanism, for example, or cotton plantations and textile mills—and found in them symbols expressing both affirmation and despair over the past, present and future of the United States. However, the post-Vietnam War generation of American Studies scholars—my generation—did not think that Leo’s generation had gone far enough in exposing the violence and suppression in American history and culture: genocide of the Indigenous inhabitants of the United States; colonialist exploitation and transformation of the continent; continuing, institutionalized racial, ethnic, class, and gender discrimination; an increasingly imperialist foreign policy; and so on. Indeed, Leo’s generation was (wrongly, I think) attacked as believers in and therefore defenders of the American experiment as a whole. They did believe in the possibility of America, but they were critics of American society and well aware that its promise had yet to come close to being realized.  

American pastoral: The Lackawanna Valley (George Innes, c 1855).
 

      Leo spent some time fighting a rear-guard action on behalf of his generation’s “myth-symbol school” of American Studies, as it had come to be called (after Henry Nash Smith’s 1950 book, Virgin Land, on the American West as myth and symbol). Although he summed up his defense in a 2003 article in the Boston Review, he had also been busy as an eco-critic, following the path he charted in The Machine in the Garden into further studies in literature, technology, and the environment. He found like-minded scholar-activist colleagues in the environmental movement. Today ecomusicologists and environmental humanists recognize him more for his eco-criticism and pioneering work in studying the impact of technology on American culture, than for his participation in the development of the American Studies movement.
       Recently I watched an oral history interview that an Amherst professor and former colleague did with Leo, as part of the Friends of the Amherst College Library series. Leo was then in his early 90s and seemed a little bored on that occasion, but now and again he revealed some things that I hadn’t realized about him. I had known that he taught at the University of Minnesota during the heyday of its American Studies program; in fact, he steered me there for my graduate studies. But I hadn’t known that Minnesota denied him tenure. He did not say why, nor did it seem to trouble him. Fortunately for him, and for Amherst College, he found a home there directly after leaving Minnesota. Leo also spoke about his role as a catalyst in the College’s anti-Vietnam War protests. He said some of the more conservative faculty members thought of him as a troublemaker.

Leo Marx in 1985; photo by Jerome Liebling
       We also had a few other things in common besides Minnesota, I realized, when he spoke in the interview about the transition he had to make when he went from Amherst, a liberal arts college where he taught undergraduates exclusively, to MIT, where he was suddenly responsible for the professional training and future careers of graduate students. I made a similar transition about ten years later, moving from teaching (mainly) undergraduates at Tufts, to directing the PhD program in ethnomusicology at Brown. I don’t know if Leo made the transition easily. I know I didn’t. Leo did speak about the difficulties he had teaching undergraduates at MIT who were already well into their scientific specialties. I didn’t have that problem at Brown; I had a different one. I didn’t like the ways in which the professional concerns of the PhD students in our ethnomusicology program often made it inadvisable for them to follow the paths where their intellectual curiosities were taking them, to explore avenues of learning that were exciting but probably would not have a career payoff. It took me some time to reconcile to that, and to realize more completely my own responsibilities to the students’ careers.
       Although it has continued as an interdisciplinary field, American Studies fragmented in the 1980s and 1990s into a series of subjects: studies in social history, labor history, American minorities, race and gender studies, and so forth, effectively abandoning the idea that there was anything unique or unifying about American culture. In today’s even more polarized America, the belief that there is, or was, such a thing as a process of Americanization that resulted in, or was moving towards, a common culture, appears quaint—or, possibly, the kind of nostalgia that a segment of the population feels for a once-great America, but as Leo and his generation of scholars showed, its myths and symbols revealed it to be much more of a complex mixture of hope and despair, than a land of liberty and justice for all.  

Tuesday, February 1, 2022

Settler Ecology 3: Kyle Powys Whyte's Cultural Ecology


        Kyle Powys Whyte (2018) uses the term "settler ecology" in a somewhat different sense. By "settler ecology" he does not refer to the science of ecology. Rather, he means what geographers call human geography and anthropologists call cultural ecology, in reference to a people's attitudes toward nature as expressed in how they affect and live in the habitat of the place(s) where they reside. For Whyte, settler ecology is expressed in Euro-American colonialist and extractivist land settlement patterns in the New World, their means of obtaining food, clothing, and shelter; their relationships with other and former inhabitants of the places they occupy; and their material culture and built environment as can be seen historically and in traveling today throughout the North American agricultural and industrial landscape. Whyte is interested in the Euro-American settler colonialist human geography that dominated the natural world and transformed it while committing the violence that disrupted and altered the lives of Indigenous peoples who were living on that land when the Euro-Americans arrived in the New World. Invoking cultural ecology in this way, Whyte turns upside down the early 20th century anthropologists' concept of cultural ecology, with its residue of cultural evolutionism from so-called primitive to civilized as shown in adaptations from nomadic hunting, gathering, herding and horticulture to settled agriculture. Instead, Whyte employs cultural ecology to show how maladaptive “civilized” adaptations are to the natural environment and its inhabitants. Whyte's analysis goes further than an environmental history of settler empires (Griffiths and Robin 1997) in that he identifies certain features of a people's onto-epistemology that partially explain their resulting adaptations. To what extent is Whyte's "settler ecology" similar to and different from my usage of the same term, where I anchor the expression of this onto-epistemology in Euro-American ecological science's concept of "ecosystem services?"

References:

Tom Griffiths and Libby Robin, Ecology and Empire: Environmental History of Settler Societies. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1997.

Kyle Powys Whyte, "Settler Colonialism, Ecology, and Environmental Justice." Environment and Society: Advances in Research 9 (2018): 125-144.  

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Settler Ecology 2

Old apple trees in new snow. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, 2006.

    The concept of natural capital signals the introduction of an ecological, conservationist economics that injects sustainability considerations into productivity, growth and development. This ecological economics differs from mainstream economics, which conceives of natural resources rather differently--as "land" and not as capital. Traditionally, capital is defined as the stock of materials—equipment, buildings, supplies—used to produce goods and services. A defining characteristic of capital is that it is used to produce not only goods and services but also additional capital. Land, in the traditional view, represents the abundant inputs to production that nature provides: these include trees, mineral deposits, water and wind.

     Ecological economists take a different view. Considered as capital, natural resources are, like other forms of capital, limited. They also represent the Earth's life support systems. These limitations, as well as the consequences of their use (and abuse), must therefore be factored into cost/benefit analyses. Peter Neill, director of the World Ocean Observatory, defines natural capital as “the stock of renewable and non-renewable natural resources—energy, plants, animals, air, wind, water, soils, and minerals that must be included in any benefit analysis of production, its actual cost, and its real consequence for human benefit worldwide, all now mostly overlooked and left out of the equation” (1). 

     Mainstream (i.e., neo-classical) economists do consider natural resources in the costs of production, but not as a brake upon productivity and growth. “It appears that our ability to conserve these resources is growing more rapidly [due to technological advances] than their supplies are dwindling,” writes the Harvard professor who authored the most widely used introductory economics textbook in the US (2). Given this perspective, it is unsurprising that mainstream economists continue to look for technological solutions to problems such as global warming, habitat destruction, and species extinction. Ecological economists, on the other hand, claim that these problems can be better understood and addressed when natural resources are considered natural capital and factored into cost/benefit equations. In this way ecological economics represents an advance over mainstream economics. 

     And yet the concept of natural capital remains an expression of settler ecology. 

 

(1) Neill, Peter. 2021. “The Ocean as Natural Capital.” Working Waterfront 35 (2): 17.

(2) Mankiw, N. Gregory. 2012. Principles of Economics. 6th edition. Mason, Ohio: South Western Cengage Learning.

Friday, January 7, 2022

Settler Ecology 1

Bingham Canyon Copper Mine, 1942, courtesy Wikimedia Commons


     What is the relationship between settler colonialism and settler ecology? At first glance it might be thought that because ecology is the study of nature as a whole, ecologists would not be in the business of exploiting nature for the purpose of empire. But Indigenous scholars--Vine DeLoria and others who have followed in his footsteps--have indicted Western science for its role in aiding and abetting colonialism and empire. More: Kyle Powys Whyte explicitly identifies settler colonialism as an expression of settler ecology. What is the basis for this claim? It will require a few entries to explore this theme. Moreover, is ecology uniform? Or are there many ecologies, and even within ecological science, are there different, even opposing, schools of thought? Is there an ecology that is opposed to settler colonialism?

     In its most literal sense, settler ecology refers to the Euro-American science of ecology. Ecology has been defined from the outset as the scientific study of the relations among organisms and the environment (originally, the inorganic and organic environment; in more modern terminology the biotic and abiotic environment). Connotatively, however, because the adjective settler implies a people who settle and colonize a geographical place, it implies a colonial and extractive attitude toward the land and its inhabitants. In this sense it resonates with a dominant strain within contemporary ecosystem ecology that finds its characteristic expression in “ecosystem services” (nature's contribution to people). Nature, conceived as ecosystems, is regarded as resource capital, the stock of goods and services that nature provides for human beings. As the 2018 IPBES (Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) Report for the Americas delineates it, these resources include energy, and the raw physical, chemical and biological materials (including plants and animals) for making food, clothing, medicine, the built environment, industrial and consumer products of all kinds, and so on. Ecologists speak of natural capital, and ecological economists employ complex cost/benefit equations to predict and implement sustainable uses of natural capital that prevent its falling below carrying capacity, or the resource amounts necessary to reproduce and maintain a continuing sufficiency of supply.

     Viewing nature as capital is not the only strain within Euro-American ecological science, however. If we look at the history of ecology from its beginnings in Haeckel's pioneering definitions of oikologie in the 1860s, we find that most scientists have regarded their enterprise as a so-called pure science; that is, as the study of relationships in nature rather than the management of those relationships. That said, ecological scientists have not hesitated to act as outside consultants to industry, government, and other institutions concerned with the environment when asked to do so, something that they in fact encouraged after World War II. Advocacy, on the other hand, has been regarded by the majority as out of bounds for ecological scientists who believe that it compromises the otherwise presumably objective, unbiased and disinterested stance that a scientist must embody if their opinions are to be believed. On the third hand, a minority of ecological scientists have ventured into advocacy and some have ventured directly into management of natural resources. I shall have more to say about that in later posts. For now, suffice to say that Euro-American ecological scientists do not present a united front, and that the "settler" attitude (colonialism, extractivism) toward nature does not apply to the majority who consider themselves students of nature, not managers. Nor does it apply to an "arcadian" strain within ecology, one that can be traced back to Gilbert White, Henry David Thoreau, and John Muir in which scientific reductionism is suspect while philosophical holism is prominent. This arcadian strain is sometimes disparaged as "Romantic" and idealistic, and it is (wrongly in my opinion) identified with settler colonialism and empire.

     To some extent the settler connotation aligns Euro-American ecology with the conservation movement’s doctrine of wise use (of resources), a doctrine identified with Gifford Pinchot in the early 20th century who advocated it in connection with forest sustainability by means of selective harvesting and other forms of stewardship. This doctrine can be seen as a precursor of ecosystem services. In the history of the conservation movement, Pinchot’s doctrine of wise use is contrasted with John Muir’s arcadian doctrine of set-asides, which is to say remote land that is left alone as natural wilderness, for the preservation of plant and animal species, to be used by humans only for contemplation and very light recreation such as hiking and canoeing. As we shall see, there were some ecologists who advocated for preservation of remote lands not for aesthetic contemplation or light recreation, but as natural areas to be left alone so that ecologists could study them over time.

Friday, December 31, 2021

Keeping Track of Writing Projects -- end of 2021

Scholar interrupted at his writing, by Gerrit Dou, c. 1635

    It’s been more than a year since I took stock of the research and writing projects I’ve been working on. Which of them has been completed, which are published, which are still in progress, and what are the new ones? On my academia.edu page I suggest that readers who want to know the answer to the question “What are you working on?” come to this blog to find out. It’s a question that academics often ask of each other when getting together for conversation at conferences. For the past couple of years, though, most conferences have been virtual; and the times when that question could be asked and answered diminished as conferences became far more focused on presenting information in organized sessions, with little time for ordinary conversation.
    Last October, then, I mentioned a few essays that were completed but not yet published, and a few more that remained incomplete.
    1. “Ethical Considerations for Ethnomusicologists in the Midst of Environmental Crisis.” In August, 2020 I’d finished this essay for a book in progress edited by Jonathan Stock and Beverley Diamond called the Routledge Companion to Ethics in Ethnomusicology, to be published by Routledge. Then on October 23, 2020 I presented a brief portion of the chapter, virtually, at a roundtable at the annual conference of the Society for Ethnomusicology. On September 23, 2021 I received an email from Jonathan Stock saying that the editors were still waiting for a few more authors who agreed to write essays for the book to complete them—more than a year after the deadline—and that those of us who, like me, had finished up could expect to hear from the editors during the weeks ahead if they had any questions or concerns. That was the last I heard. It is not unusual for authors to go a few months beyond deadline in projects such as this one, but to go more than a year beyond it is uncommon. It is also a problem, in the sense that the other authors’ contributions become dated the longer publication is delayed. This is an issue that Aaron Allen and I also faced as editors of our book, Sounds, Musics, Ecologies. We have thirteen contributors, and each of them met the deadline. More on that book later in this post.
    2. “Ethnography in the Study of Congregational Music.” This was a chapter on doing ethnographic fieldwork, with special attention to prospects and problems with ethnography in religious music-cultures. I’d been asked to write it in 2015; completed it in 2016; but no doubt some contributors went well beyond the deadline. I did not see my copyedited chapter until September of 2020. Having waited four years to get to this point, I was given 7 days to attend to any questions from the copyeditor, and make any alterations. This is typical of scholarly book publishing and the way publishers treat contributors to edited books: wait, wait, wait, wait, then hurry up. At any rate, the book (Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives) was published in February, 2021. It has not yet been reviewed in any scholarly journals, to my knowledge.  
    3. “A Sound Economy.” This essay was an expansion of one of the four topics of my “sound ecology” project. It was written in 2017 as a chapter for a book entitled Transforming Ethnomusicology, edited by Beverley Diamond and Salwa El-Shawan Castelo-Branco. The book contains essays based on many of the presentations from the 2015 “Transforming Ethnomusicology” conference in Limerick, Ireland, including mine. Oxford University Press published this book at last in two volumes, in March of 2021. It has not yet been reviewed in any scholarly journals, to my knowledge. If ethnomusicology was being transformed in 2015 to a more politically engaged scholarship, signaled by this conference, it was even more radically transformed and re-oriented in 2019-2020 by a series of anti-colonialist, anti-racist upheavals in the membership of the Society for Ethnomusicology.
    4. “An Ecological Approach to Folklife Studies, Expressive Culture, and Environment.” This article was published in September, 2021 by the University of Illinois Press in Performing Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Ecological Change, edited by John McDowell, Katherine Borland, Rebecca Dirksen, and Sue Touhy.
    5. “Earth Song: Music and the Environment.” This short essay, written for an Alexander Street Press curriculum accompanying albums featuring music and environment, was completed in 2019 and remains in production at the Press, as far as I know.
    6. A “response” chapter based on my presentation for an online conference at Dartmouth College, entitled “The Power of Song: The Cultural Politics of Singers Around the Globe,” which took place in December, 2020. This was changed by the book’s editor to an introductory essay for a section of the book on musical icons. I finished up the chapter last spring and revised it a little in response to the book editor’s suggestions. As far as I know, the book manuscript is now with the publisher.
    7. “Eco-trope or Eco-tripe? Music Ecology Today.” I completed this chapter earlier this year. It’s for the book edited by Aaron Allen and myself, Sounds, Ecologies, Musics, under contract with Oxford University Press. We have all the revised chapters from our contributors and, after receiving various other things from them such as cleared permissions, illustrations, contracts, and so forth, we are about to send the entire manuscript to Oxford University Press for their  external review process.


    All of those writings were either in progress or completed and waiting for publication at the end of October, 2020. Three were published; the four remaining are completed and awaiting publication. Since October 2020 I’ve also taken on some new projects, some lecturing, and some writing:
    8. “Public Folklore, Heritage, and Environmental Sustainability” was a lecture that I gave for the American Folklore Society on March 10, 2021 at the invitation of the Society Fellows. It was part of a webinar with a follow-up “salon” that I led, with the welcome assistance of Rory Turner and Mary Hufford. About six weeks ago the Society Fellows asked me to turn it into an article for a special issue of the Journal of American Folklore, and I agreed. In my lecture I spoke about experiential knowledge mediated by cultural tradition, and how this can become folklife, or cultural heritage. I went on to discuss the difficulty of accounting for the kind of cultural heritage that rests in local, experiential knowledge about the environment, in the various policy documents that guide international planning for wise and sustainable uses of environmental resources, such as the 2005 UN Millennium Assessment Report on Ecosystems and Human Well-being and its more recent manifestation in the 2018 UN Regional Assessment for the Americas report from the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or IPBES for short. I asked what are the consequences of thinking of folklife and the environment as natural capital, providing ecosystem services that include cultural heritage, whose financial worth must be measured? Should public folklorists and other heritage practitioners endorse and work within this predominant contemporary policy paradigm, one that considers the environment to consist primarily of economic assets, with measurable market values that enter into cost-benefit analyses during resource allocation planning and decision-making? Or, to reprise an old theme in this blog, do we have built into the assumptions and mechanisms of these assessments a confusion of economic value with cultural values?
    9. “The Place of Music in the Social World: Whose Music? Whose Social World?” This was a public lecture I was invited to give on September 29 to a group of ethnomusicologists in Europe, for a lecture series on ethnomusicology that was based in Geneva, Switzerland. Although I would have loved to travel to Geneva on their invitation, the August return of COVID-19 in the form of the delta variant made this impossible and so I delivered the lecture virtually. I spoke about my sound ecology project and my proposal to consider the place of sound in the social world of all living beings.
    10. “Adaptations: Confronting Climate Change Amidst COVID-19.” The City University of New York held a week-long conference early in October 2021, on “Responses to Music in Climate Change.” I was asked to give a brief presentation on a roundtable with other scholars in ecomusicology: Aaron Allen, Denise Von Glahn, and Holly Watkins among them. I spoke for about ten minutes about the effects of COVID-19 and the perceptions of climate change among two marginalized religious groups that I’ve visited in and written about for many decades, the independent Baptist congregation in Virginia’s northern Blue Ridge, and the Old Regular Baptists of southeastern Kentucky. I was the only panelist whose presentation was based on ethnographic fieldwork, and yet most of it was fieldwork conducted by telephone on account of COVID-19 and the inadvisability of travel. I already knew about the Blue Ridge group’s ideas concerning climate change, because when I last visited them, in 2016, the subject arose and we discussed it. In essence this group of evangelical fundamentalists agrees that the climate emergency is real and that human beings are the cause of global warming, but they don’t believe that God will let His people or the Earth perish. I wrote about this in the Afterword to the 2nd edition of Powerhouse for God, published in 2018. But to prepare for the presentation I had to find out about how COVID-19 was affecting both groups, and how the Old Regular Baptists I knew were responding to climate change, via phone calls. Being there in person would have been much better, but even so I felt that because I’d known the people I spoke with for many years, that telephone fieldwork in this case was an acceptable option. Still, I wished for in-person visits and look forward to seeing them again when it becomes possible.
    11. A panel discussion in Music4ClimateJustice stream to accompany the COP-26 conference on the climate emergency, in Glasgow, Scotland, early in November, 2021. Warren Senders asked me and two other ecomusicologists, Jennifer Post and Mike Silvers, to talk about our work in ecomusicology and climate change for about an hour as part of an AV stream broadcast to the delegates at COP-26. I chose to talk about sonication, or bumblebee pollination of flowers in the nightshade family, such as those of tomatoes, and blueberries; and the damage that global warming is doing to bumblebees. For those who don’t know, these flowers hold their pollen inside their closed-up anthers, making it inaccessible except to pollinators like bumblebees who can pry them apart. In this case the bumblebee vibrates its wings and body, making its characteristic buzzing sound; and this buzz pollination vibration opens up the anther when the bee lies atop it, whereupon the bee is able to bathe itself in the pollen.
    12. “The Sound Commons and Applied Ecomusicologies.” This is an article co-authored by Aaron Allen, Taylor Leapaldt, Mark Pedelty, and myself, for a book in musicology edited by Chris Dromey and to be published by Routledge. This article has already been in progress for a few years. In it, I start off by explaining my idea of the sound commons and its application to applied ecomusicology, at least in theory; then Mark and Taylor discuss one case-study application of the sound commons, and Aaron Allen discusses another. Aaron has been spearheading this joint effort; I’ve just been doing my part when asked. I completed my section of the article in 2019, and the others followed; we revised in 2020 and sent the manuscript to Chris, who returned it with suggested revisions last spring. We responded to those and revised yet again, and the last I heard, Aaron was collating the changes as of last July with the intent of returning the article to Chris once more.
    13. “Ecojustice and Ontological Turns: a Response to Marshall and DeAngeli.” This was part of an E-seminar that the Ecomusicology Review has been conducting in the fall of 2021 within the ecomusicology Google Group. Kimberly Marshall and Emma DeAngeli wrote an essay to which Sebastian Hochmeyer responded, whereupon they wrote a rejoinder. Mark Pedelty followed with a second response. Aaron Allen asked me if I too would respond, and so I wrote a brief response, starting with my reaction to a disagreement between Marshall and DeAngeli on one hand, and Hachmeyer on the other, over the relevance of the so-called ontological turn in anthropology to the project of social justice. Rather than take sides, I proposed that ecojustice would resolve the disagreement by including social justice in the larger framework of relationality and by extending reciprocity and respect to all living beings, not just humans. This is congruent with the writings of Indigenous scholars such as Robin Kimmerer and Zoe Todd in past dozen years or so as well even though they don’t use that term. Aaron intends for all these to be published in the Ecomusicology Review, though I’m not sure when. I expect that Marshall and DeAngeli will reply to Mark and to me before it all sees the light of publication.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Doing DERT at the American Folklore Society Conference

 

Apple orchard atop Tanner's Ridge, Page Co., VA. Photo by Jeff Todd Titon, 1979.

     Despite COVID-19 academic conferences haven’t let up. Instead, they’ve either gone entirely online or become hybrid, partially online and partially in-person. The American Folklore Society annual conference was hybrid, spanning the week of Oct. 18-25, in person in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and online from wherever the participants happened to be at the time. I was in Maine, part of a roundtable forum with others who were in Indiana, Maryland, and Ohio. John McDowell, folklorist from Indiana University’s Folklore Institute, put it together to showcase publication of a recent book, Performing Environmentalisms: Expressive Culture and Ecological Change, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press. The book grew out of a conference at Indiana University in the spring of 2017, sponsored by Indiana’s DERT group, the Diverse Environmentalist Research Team, based in the university’s folklore and ethnomusicology department. Although invited, I was unable to participate in the conference because I was scheduled for arthroscopic knee surgery at the same time. Later I was invited to contribute an essay to the book anyway, and to that end I decided to revisit a colloquium talk that I presented to the folklore department at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1984, which I entitled “Toward an Ecological Paradigm for Folklife Studies,” and again in a condensed version before the American Folklore Society, in 1986. I never tried to publish it; rather, I relied on some of it for a chapter of my book, Powerhouse for God (2018 [1988]), which focused on the folklife of mountain farming in the northern Blue Ridge Mountains from 1850 until the coming of the Shenandoah National Park to the area. The families living on what would become Park land were displaced—that is, kicked out—by the federal government which exercised eminent domain and attempted to resettle the families elsewhere, an experiment that, like others in Appalachia, failed. Nonetheless, the story of the families who lived there, I found, by looking at the household-by-household agricultural census, as well as courthouse records, wills, probate inventories, genealogies, trial transcripts, and local histories, was different from the prevailing narrative of these Appalachian mountaineers as a backward and impoverished population in a “land that time forgot.” In fact, the evidence revealed that these farming families were succeeding in the nineteenth century until around 1900 when a series of disturbances to their mountain agricultural ecosystem reduced them to the poverty in which they were found by government agents and journalists in the 1920s as plans for the Park were developing. Those disturbances included a blight that killed the chestnut trees, robbing the mountain families’ pigs of an important, and cost-free, food source, namely chestnut mast. Overpopulation was another problem, along with the coming of the railroad which enabled corporations from outside the region to buy timber rights and undertake large-scale timber harvesting. This left the land far more vulnerable to flooding and made farming far more difficult. In contemporary ecological terminology we would say that the ecosystem regime had achieved a degree of stability in the second half of the nineteenth century but that this series of disturbances took it to a tipping point in which the regime changed to a different and far less desirable ecosystem, one in which it was no longer possible for mountain families to make a living from farming in this area.
    For the colloquium, the AFS paper, and the book, I was content to leave the story there, trying to underline the point that the Appalachian hillbilly stereotype was contradicted by the evidence; and that rather than settling into poverty this population was reduced to it. But for the DERT essay, after encouragement from John McDowell, I decided to add a section in which I presented and interpreted several performed narratives, spoken by the last generation of mountain farmers, about what it was like to try to make a living after the regime change. And in the DERT presentation for the AFS forum last October, I revisited my ecological approach to folklife in light of these additional narratives, and then related it to what we now think of as traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), in this case the knowledge that enabled the mountain farming ecosystem to flourish and provide a living for families who lived there in the nineteenth century. But this ecosystem was unsustainable in the face of the pressures of modernization and development, and vulnerable to environmental disasters such as the chestnut blight.
    I also spoke, at the end of this presentation, about an issue that has concerned me now for many years; namely, the roles of TEK and IEK (Indigenous ecological knowledges) in the discourses surrounding environmental as well as musical and cultural sustainability. But I will leave that for a later blog entry.