Afterimage‘s recent relaunch with the University of California Press integrates the journal’s legacy of contemporary arts and media criticism with an expanded commitment to scholarly essays. As part of this mission, the editorial team wanted to approach the journal as a unique venue for academics to respond to urgent issues by more regularly publishing curated forums called dossiers. For the the most recent dossier, the editors decided to tackle the most profound challenge we face on a global scale: environmental disaster. We invited dossier editors Lucas Hilderbrand and James Nisbet to discuss the and intersections of visual culture and ecological thinking.
Lucas Hilderbrand: Let’s start our conversation with the issue of timing, which structures and complicates any consideration of the climate crisis. There has been persistent forecasting of how long we have left to prevent climate catastrophe. There have been perpetual delays in action on a large scale given what we’ve known for years. There’s the everyday temporality of crisis as new heat records, natural disasters, and extinctions get reported. And then there’s the challenge of producing and publishing work timely to this moment. How do you sustain scholarship in a field that is largely responding to what is so often understood as an emergency? How do you keep this work relevant, as things seem to be ever developing?
James Nisbet: There’s so much to dig into here, but that speaks to the bigger picture, right? Climate crisis is such a massive issue—in scales of time, geography, population—that it’s hard to sustain meaningful spaces of conversation in a zone more specific than data visualization and more robust than day-to-day experience. The vital interdependence of climate, health, and justice have been relatively slow to emerge in ecocritical scholarship of the last few decades, but are erupting in real time in the world in which we live. A year ago, when we sent out the prompt for this dossier, I think it seemed to both of us that a groundswell had taken place in the ways that climate and social history were being discussed, and the range of responses we invited to this dossier might further articulate these new directions of thinking.
LH: The perpetual environmental crisis seems to come in and out of focus as other crises have eclipsed it in immediate urgency and media attention. Yet both the pandemic and systemic racial violence, to name the most prominent examples, intersect with the climate crisis and further expose shared structural problems. I’ve struggled with sustaining focus of any kind during the epidemic, and this also resonates with the challenges of sustaining attention to the multi-scalar emergencies we’re facing. What kind of work would you like to see visual studies scholars develop, moving forward? What emerging work are you excited about?
JN: That’s so true. Just this morning I was reading a series of international reports circulated by Subhankar Banerjee at the University of New Mexico about how closely the current pandemic is tied to ecological practices encompassing agriculture, habitat diversity, and travel, among so much else. Thinking ecologically always brings the challenge of looking broadly at interconnection, but also concretely, too, where it’s not enough to say “everything is interconnected,” because we also need to unpack the real implications of that insight. As far as emerging scholarship is involved, it’s been refreshing to see in recent years how much ecocritical perspectives have become less specialized. Ecocriticism first appeared in the ’90s to address the role of natural environments in literary texts, and its transition into the study of visual culture initially followed the same relatively narrow track, not to mention being mostly contemporary in orientation. What excites me about what’s happening in the field right now is the structural way that ecological thinking is working its way into the broader analysis of visual culture. This means thinking about the role of environment and climate in historical studies, but even more so through an increasing realization that climate, environmental justice, biodiversity, and public health are not topics for a dedicated wing of scientific or humanistic research, or just for people who do “ecocriticism.”
LH: Yes. The recent work that I’ve found most exciting is doing that kind of capacious work. For example, Jairus Victor Grove’s Savage Ecology: War and Geopolitics at the End of the World (2019) presents a historical gut-punch to demonstrate that the leading political and economic powers chose escalating perpetual war over addressing climate change decades ago. Kathryn Yusoff’s A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018) is also really insightful in its exploration of environmental racism. I am also intrigued by Melody Jue’s Wild Blue Media: Thinking Through Seawater (2020), which is more conceptual in reimagining what we can even consider as “media.” The work that has resonated for me has been revelatory in offering really grounded political histories of the crisis or has introduced new paradigms. I’ve generally been far less compelled by the strain of ecocriticism that reads representions of nature or weather. I feel like this climate crisis matters too much to reduce it to questions of textuality. What I appreciate about our contributors is that, in paying attention to the visual, the mediated, and the representational, these frameworks become lenses to think through questions beyond the texts.
JN: It sounds like we’re describing two aspects of the same general development—of scholarship that has engrained ecological insights into the very fiber of critical analysis and that views environments as vehicles for probing questions that exceed the appearance or experience of nature. The authors in our dossier do indeed offer a timely and provocative set of responses to shaping this next wave of research.
Beginning with the current September 2020 issue, Afterimage will publish a section of peer-reviewed feature articles in every quarterly issue. Please see the journal’s Call for Papers for more information. Afterimage‘s international editorial board is reviewing submissions on an ongoing basis and welcomes submissions for peer review at any time. If you have comments, ideas, or proposals concerning peer review or any aspect of the publication, please contact Afterimage‘s editor at email@example.com.
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