Category Archives: Movement

Ways of Water

by Kim De Wolff

If you google “Maya Khosla” you will find an Indian poet living in America, the co-director of the Turtle Diaries film project, and a Senior Field Biologist. And you will likely be impressed to learn that they are all one and the same person. In her seminar, “Ways of Water, Lives of Those Who Depend On It,” Maya Khosla demonstrated this accomplished breadth in a presentation of prose, poetry and film surrounding her work on sea turtles. Both project and approach reach across divides between researchers and publics, science and art. In what follows I pull out three themes that emerge in and from her work that help us grapple with questions about the practice of being interdisciplinary in a time of ecological crisis.

  1. Communicating “More Than” Science

Though trained as a biologist, Khosla explicitly leaves space for something “more than” science. She writes that arribada, “defies logic, and to some extent, defies scientific understanding,” and deploys scientific concepts as poetic metaphors. The ecotone, for example, as transition area between two bioregions, between land and sea; and as a kind of transcendent boundary space, something bigger and older than humans, than science. The project assumes a natural world that sometimes exceeds our capacities to understand it, and demonstrates a commitment to environmental communication that requires more than the conveyance of measured facts. This stands in contrast to approaches that privilege scientific understanding alone; it is a kind of resistance against the tendency to reduce problems in the word to matters of scientific accuracy (This is an interesting contrast to our first presenter of the seminar, Emmanuel Vincent, who emphasized accuracy and/as credibility as crucial components in climate change science communication).

Like all interdisciplinary endeavors, however, there are tensions between ways of making and sharing knowledge. In an interview, Khosla acknowledges this outright, pointing to the delicate balance between science and values and pushing toward a broader set of questions: what are the relationships between ways of knowing, caring, and acting? Does accuracy matter if it precludes action? Is awareness enough?

  1. Making Ourselves Present

Another way we can think about these tensions is by looking at the variations in writing styles between two short pieces. The Arribada article, for example, leans more toward the conventions of science or environmental writing. It presents a phenomenon in the world: the wonders of turtles coming to nest; a threat to this continuing as returning turtle numbers decline; and the researchers trying to understand it all. The author, as the researcher-writer is a mostly outside observer, describing what is happening on the beach. The article is written in past tense, and even draws on bits of passive voice.

Where the Arribada article opens with images of turtles and turtles alone, the fieldnotes article in Flyways begins with the writer herself very much present: she is “shin-deep” in ocean and turtles and darkness. It is unapologetically written in first person, opening with a declarative sentence that effectively says: “I am here.” Where the Arribada article gives a sense of how the beach looks, here we get a sense of how it feels: little claws digging into human skin and grains of sand that stick to everything; the excitement of scientists and the rubbery smell of baby turtles. The writing is far more emotional, and the author so very human: someone who hopes and cares and struggles and fails. This is perhaps best encapsulated by the devastating moment where a night of successfully leading baby turtles toward the sea by flashlight, ends in the daylight revelation of just how many more remain disoriented and exposed.

Faith. Doubt. Failure. All of these things, of course, are not standard fare in natural science writing where they would be seen to undermine the project of sharing objective knowledge. When and why do we write ourselves in and out of our work? What disciplinary or generic conventions and politics are enacted as we make ourselves and our experiences of research, of interpretation, of emotions, present or not?

  1. From Awareness to Global Change

My final big point returns to the question of the ‘how’ of rasing awareness. Sea turtles are an example of what biodiversity and science and technology scholars (among others) call Charismatic Megafauna: the kinds of species more likely to get attention from publics and policymakers than others. They tend to be large, cute mammals with big eyes. Think pandas, baby harp seals, polar bears. Anything that makes a good plush toy. Like their furry counterparts, a turned around baby turtle being torn apart by a crow – has the capacity to elicit urgent emotional responses in a way that the slow and dispersed effects of ocean acidification cannot. There’s no question, that these are effective strategies for raising awareness, and in the case of organizations like Greenpeace, significant funding. In theory, this funding is then used to protect whole ecosystems.

Yet, as poster-creatures for the ocean, charismatic species like turtles are more likely to be studied, protected and positioned prominently in environmental campaigns than say, the blobfish. Which, if you haven’t seen one, looks like a sad-faced melting pile of pink slime . In response, we could simply adopt the blobfish as our mascot, like the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (Yes, that is for real). But this kind of thinking still leads toward single species-specific problems and solutions. You can see this in the last question asked by the interviewer from Flyways: what can we do to save the turtles?

My final question, then, (and it is a big one) is how do we move from awareness to global change? From having more people on beaches with flashlights to turtle populations that do not need human intervention to thrive. And how do we move from saving specific turtles to addressing the much broader challenges – of climate change, of inequality, of capitalism – at the root of the threats themselves? I do not have the answers – but if it is turtles all the way down, then turtles are an excellent place to start.

Troubadours and the Production of Early Chicano Literature

by Dorie Perez

Pulling from a historically oral tradition, Chicano Literature sought to create and analyze texts of the Chicano cultural output that advanced during the social movements of the 1960s and into the 21st Century. Attempts to codify the literature of Chicano Studies into its own canon often sought to legitimize its study by turning oral tradition into the written word, the medium used most by the Humanities. This process of making “legible” work from Chicano scholars previously unrecognized by the academy framed such work as both cultural expertise and political argument.

The Center for Humanities’ final seminar for the Fall 2014 semester was led by Manuel M. Martín-Rodríguez who presented his paper “Of Modern Troubadours and Tricksters: the Upside-Down World of José Inés García”. Martín-Rodríguez writes of the work of Chicano scholars in the 1980s to reclaim their discipline’s written past by doing literary “recovery,” looking for the beginnings of a Chicano movement found in works previously ignored in the development of the canon. Thus, literary histories of previous scholarship are vital to work to shift the analysis of academic literature away from its Eurocentric focus. The medium of such critique was the novel and social history, yet other genres such as poetry, letters and humor are where social commentary from the fringes are best received.

Understanding poetry as a medium – short pieces with big impact – is central to the analysis of José Inés García, whose work has been virtually ignored by Chicano scholars. In the vein of recovery and through the poetry, Garcia’s work is identified by Martín-Rodríguez as significant to the development of Chicano literature, voicing issues of identity and social tension that would serve as the core ideas of subsequent Chicano authors. This recovered history is remarkable – very few copies of García’s work exist. Other poets like Bartolo Ortiz and José Díaz from the same time frame (early 20th Century) often used self-publishing to produce their work, sold door-to-door by authors eager to seek an audience within their own community. The entrepreneurial schemes to get their work read and published show the innovative ways in which this early cohort sought recognition. Calling himself “El trovador moderno,” or the modern troubadour, García’s writing extended to journalism. He edited El Progreso and La Cronica, local Spanish-language newspapers in the American South West.

The inversions that make José Inés García’s work so compelling are contextual as well as literary; García suffered an accident in mid-life, leading to permanent blindness that did not hinder his work as editor, translator and poet in New Mexico. He was also raised Protestant in an ethnic enclave of New Mexico, something of an outlier in traditionally Catholic Hispanic circles. His winking inversions continue in his focus on trickster figures, a literary trope used often to make light of intercultural tensions and difference. The transformation of gender roles happening during a time of social upheaval also captured his attention, producing several works that play on themes of gender. Given such topics, the early date of such work remains significant in its analysis of social change. Martín-Rodríguez was able to capture this recovery, adding to scholarship on forgotten figures central to Chicano Literature’s literary corpus and style.

“Unquiet Women” and the Act of Subversion

by Dorie Perez

The subtle differences between the terms inversion, subversion and perversion, presented by seminar discussant Matthew Kaiser, are usually glossed over in speech, terms used interchangeably to mean “othering” or change as a process of fragmentation. The idea of inversion as a movement, often smaller-scale acts than violent political upheaval, is an interesting take on social change and something Susan Amussen presented in her analysis of Early Modern historical works in late September 2014.

Amussen presented what will be one chapter of a book tentatively called “Turning the World Upside Down: Gender, Culture and Politics in Early Modern England,” which builds on the work of her late husband, the historian David Underdown. Continuing the topsy-turvy theme of the Merced Seminar in the Humanities series for Fall semester 2014, she writes of “unruly women” and other deviants who dared to challenge convention in Elizabethan England. “Mannish-women and womanish-men,” patriarchs that failed to uphold their place as lord and master, among other kinds of usurpation of male authority were targets of John Swetnam, a pamphleteer in 1640s England whose social critique often morphed into full-scale misogyny. Pamphlets were the blog post of their era, read and responded to by intellectuals of all stripes; Swetnam’s back and forth argument with other writers, including quite a few female intellectuals, has held up as an example of the transhistorical tension between idealized expectations of womanhood and the subversive play of gender politics in an increasingly changing world, continuing today unabated.

The global social politics of the Early Modern era were present in the Shakespearean play The Taming of The Shrew (1592), a prime example used in Amussen’s analysis of subtle inversions of gender roles that fueled a discourse of inversion from within a dichotomized world of male/female, rich/poor, and young/old – dichotomies first discussed by Mikhail Bahktin in Rabelais and His World (1965). A royal (or rather, royal-adjacent) sex scandal involving the dissolution of Frances Howard’s marriage to the Earl of Essex in 1613 and subsequent remarriage to the Earl of Somerset fueled fears of subversive female comportment, especially when the perversions of witchcraft were said to be involved. Witchcraft, excessive interest in fashion and makeup, as well as sexual desire, were acts by women to subvert their roles at home, in the streets and at Court. Dress was the process by which identity was encoded, and through that signification, the inscription of idealized roles and behaviors. Any subversive activities strayed into the grey area between the normative and empirical Woman, according to a Foucauldian analysis, destabilizing social norms by way of inversion, perversion and subversion.

Dress, and therefore, womanhood, came under intense scrutiny in the Jacobean literary landscape, where any sense of otherness – foreign silks, mystical allusions, ostentatious luxury- was regulated by social stratification. Yellow hoods, and the color itself, were the sign of prostitutes and other fallen women, using the identifiers of the day as an inverted ladder to another social role available to them. The gender boundaries Amussen analyzes are clearly bounded entities regulated by social interaction and royal decree, yet somehow simultaneously inverted on a daily basis in regular acts of autonomy. They, in turn, set the stage for social relationships and tensions that then spill into the geopolitical arena. Amussen’s analysis ultimately concerns these genre-crossing “disorderly women” and their “failed patriarchs,” by whom social norms were transgressed, even as they worked to upkeep them.