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Aesthetic Education for the Anthropocene

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Austral summer on the Antarctic Peninsula. Eight of us climb out of our zodiac onto the shore of Petermann Island. This place dazzles and overwhelms the senses. The luminous blue icebergs, granite streaked pink with penguin guano, the weakly green cryoplankton spread across the snow. Antarctica is not the white continent of popular imagination. And it isn’t quiet either. The plangent groans of glaciers crawl across the landscape, reverberating through our bodies. Gentoo penguins squawk atop their stone nests, staring helplessly skyward at the skuas eying their young. We are unwelcome, unneeded guests.

On this rare day of sunshine and calm winds, Antarctica is at its most spellbinding. I snap several dozen pictures before turning my camera back onto the bay where our boat idles in the sea. When we arrive in Ushuaia days later, I sort through my trove of photographs, looking specifically for the batch from Petermann Island. With the pixels, I want to conjure again the feel of the place before the visceral memory of it wanes; I want to re-experience the very moment when I became attached to a landscape. As I click through the photo archive on my laptop, I find that image of our boat, but notice something quite different from my memories of enchanting wildness. Rising up from the ship’s funnel is a sooty column, a scarcely visible trace of fossil fuels coloring the sky before disappearing from view. How had this part of the scene escaped my vision?  And how could I not have considered in that moment that my attachment formation was of course entangled with the very fossil capitalism that imperils Antarctica and its more-than-human inhabitants?[1] 

Petermann Island CarbonThese are neither new questions nor new bewilderments. Our colleagues in the Energy and Environmental Humanities, like our comrades in activist movements, have pushed us to think more precisely about the relationships among culture and energy, affective experience and political economy. The aim of much of that work is to revolutionize how we see, think, and act in the midst of climate breakdown. What aesthetic forms allow us to comprehend and to tell the stories of the places we inhabit and the beings with whom we share these places? What cultural and critical lexica might help us articulate the effects we have on them and describe how they affect us? I’ve been working on a new book that thinks through these questions in terms of attachment: or, the mechanisms by which we connect to things, beings, and places.  Theories of attachment sprawl across developmental psychology, geography, sociology, environmental psychology, and critical theory, all of which have helped me pinpoint what we mean when we talk about attachments. For now, it is enough to say that attachment is not reducible to affect. Attachment formation requires a way of interpreting our contact and relation with other things as much as it designates emotional or affective response; attachments, then, are mobile sets of concepts, perceptions, evaluative judgments, and affects. I follow Sara Ahmed’s thinking on attachments as inherently political and potentially transformational: attachments, in her words, “open up different possibilities for living,” and they are foundational for constructing and sustaining collectives: they form a “we,” however tentative or provisional, that imagines and antagonizes for more just worlds.[2] I want to know quite precisely how and when do we form attachments to nonhuman nature. Under what conditions are attachments made and unmade, intensified or diminished?  What visualities and narrative forms compete to help make, sustain, or alter those attachments?

These tangled threads of ecology, affect, and capital are not unique to the twenty-first century, even if they now appear to have a different urgency in this boundary event we call the Anthropocene. In his 1929 short essay “On Form and Subject-Matter,” Bertolt Brecht identified petroleum’s multifaceted effects on social, economic, and political life as an aesthetic and educational challenge. He writes: “Petroleum resists the five-act form; today’s catastrophes do not progress in a straight line but in cyclical crises.”[3] Brecht believed aesthetic experimentation would bend towards “paedagogics,” giving art a more direct role in disclosing and intervening in the social forms brought to life by resource extraction. Art, he thought, could, “comprehend the new subject-matter” and then “shape the new relations” (Brecht, “On Form,” 29).

But Marxist writers were not the only ones who understood that the cultural terrain was one site where those new relations might take shape. The extractive industries made advances in this area quite early. In her sharp essay on oil companies and British documentary film, Mona Damluji writes that “petroleum companies have a fundamental role in shaping our collective imaginaries of the modern world.”[4] At this point, they have worked for more than a century to ensure fossil fuels engender forms of life we deem desirable and, in the end, find inevitable. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Standard Oil commissioned a statue memorializing Colonel Edwin Drake, America’s first oil man. Ross Barrett’s analysis of the monument reveals that it was part of an early ongoing battle over “the symbolic practices and cultural representations” of oil.[5] As other visual artists documented well blowouts, abandoned towns, and despoiled landscapes, Standard Oil pushed for a statue that would weave contemporary oil production into the very fabric of Western civilization, tying its liquid commodity ever tighter to the gifts of modernity that people would come to desire and, eventually, deem ordinary.

Shell Oil gambled on the potential of modernist art to shape those relations in its own interests. During the 1930s, Shell partnered with Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Paul Nash, Len Lye, John Betjeman, Graham Sutherland, Edward McKnight Kauffer and others to generate art that might formulate attachments between the transformative power of oil and two seemingly incompatible temporalities: the ever new and constant now of modernity, and the romantic, timelessness of the British countryside. Vanessa Bell’s pointillist rendering of Alfriston for the “See Britain First on Shell” poster series is among the most memorable of the bunch. A stream leads through a meadow to a line of trees; the village rises on the left and is formally complemented by the curvature of a hill on the right side of the painting. There are no cars or roads. And that’s the point. Attachments to a place and to all of its cultural and ideological significations are enabled and made possible by petroleum powered transport.[6] Carbon modernity is how we see, not what we see. Those relics of Shell’s foray into art as public relations—posters, postcards, films, lorry advertisements—still travel in and out of museums. It’s hard to determine what sort of affective response they engender in contemporary viewers.  How do they make us feel? They could quite easily evoke a longer history of greenwashing, or what Mel Evans has called artwashing; perhaps they also crystalize the easy compatibility between modern art forms and modern energy forms.[7] Campaigns like Shell’s imagine fossil fuels as a condition of possibility for aesthetic objects and experiences. As Jennifer Wenzel, Imre Szeman, Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson, Stephanie LeMenager, Macarena Gómez-Barris, and many others have shown us, modern cultures emerge from and develop within culture of energy.[8] Aesthetic modernity is fossil modernity.

My archive for this book that I’m calling Unnatural Attachments is largely composed of contemporary works, but I’ve been operating with Brecht’s notion that artworks can comprehend our unfolding planetary crisis and help shape new relations. I have tried to think alongside artists and artworks to develop, however impossibly, a mode of analysis and critique that isn’t extractive or coercive. As I have spoken with artists and activists, and spent hours reading, looking, and listening to works that entice and, at times, exhaust my own abilities to make sense of them, the project itself has shifted from where it began. I have tried to allow the objects of analysis to move my questions and my thinking to other places, conceptually and physically. One of those places is Louisiana.

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It won’t be news to many readers that the crossings of art and activism, of fossil fuels and life, are rich and complex in Louisiana. It is a state that is also known by the names of environmental catastrophes: Hurricane Katrina, Deepwater Horizon, Cancer Alley, and Bayou Bridge, to name only a recent few. While researching the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, I stumbled upon the work of Brandon Ballengée. I found his series Ghosts of the Gulf, a collection of stained specimens that have been directly harmed by the disasterThose bewitching images haunted me. I sat with them for several days before reaching out to Ballengée. In May 2017 I flew down to Louisiana to learn more about his aesthetic research and to see the effects his work generated when displayed in various settings.

Ballengée is often described as an eco-artist or a bio-artist, but those categories fail to pin down who he is or what he does. He has expertise and training in both biology and art; he has published research on amphibian deformities in The Journal of Experimental Zoology and exhibited his artwork all over the world. His research into missing and deformed species has generated a stunning and ever expanding corpus of artworks about extraction, multispecies interdependency, and biodiversity loss. During his artist residencies, he reaches out to the local communities and organizes what he calls “eco-actions,” or some form of site specific involvement with local ecosystems. Participants are invited to become citizen-scientists, and, often, use the data and the materials they gather to assemble their own artworks.

A few years ago, Ballengée and his family left Brooklyn, his studio there, his job at the School of Visual Arts, and relocated to Arnaudville, Louisiana. Arnaudville is a small town of about 1100 residents; nearly 40% of the residents speak Cajun French. Like so many areas of oil-rich Louisiana, Arnaudville is poor. The per capita income is just under $13,000, placing it below the state average which itself ranks fourth lowest in the nation. On a humid spring day, Brandon walks me through the land around his house that has now become Atelier de la Nature. On first glance, it looks wild, unorchestrated by human hands. Brandon points to where they have planted vegetables, fruits, and herbs in patches; over there, he says, is a place to attract frogs, the creatures he has loved since his childhood in Ohio. As he points to half-standing buildings he tells me they will house spaces for artist residencies or function as environmental education centers.  I start to see it with him. This place isn’t abandoned or overgrown; it’s an experiment to live alongside nature, to invite it in without domesticating it, without turning it to account. For a moment, it is hard not to think of those old avant-garde utopian aspirations to make life itself a work of art.

From his home in Cajun country and his postdoctoral position in the Icthyology Lab at LSU, Brandon has continued his investigations into those ecosystems that have been affected by the 2010 oil spill and its lingering aftermath. One of Brandon’s ongoing projects is a portable museum called Crude Life, which he has created in collaboration with LSU Icthylogist Prosanta Chakrabarty and Florida based artist Sean Miller.Crude Life

Crude Life pulls together specimens from the Gulf of Mexico directly affected both by climate change and the 2010 oil spill. The portable museum of dead and preserved animals is built from old sea chests, some of which are made from wood salvaged in the aftermath of hurricanes. Contained within are those preserved and stained specimens that I first found so discomfortingly enchanting—Gulf silversides, a Texas clearnosed Skate, an African Pompano, seahorses, insects, birds, amphibians, and much more. The red stain adheres to bone and the blue to cartilage, rendering these dead specimens hauntingly beautiful. They are accompanied by feathers, fossils, anatomical drawings, miniature toys, and other natural historical ephemera.

Gulf Silversides
Fig. 3. Gulf Silversides.
Texan Clearnosed Skate
Fig. 4. Texan Clearnosed Skate.
African Pompano
Fig. 5. African Pompano.

There are two ways this project enables attachment. Because Crude Life travels to multiple locations it enacts various configurations between the economic and ecological realities of the Gulf coast and its sites of presentation; it has been exhibited around the country at universities and public schools, at art and science museums, at bars and breweries, at piers where fishermen gather, and at the Louisiana State Senate as part of a testimony on the lingering effects of the 2010 oil spill. Second, these chests fit squarely within the long history of the curiosity cabinet and replicate many of the cabinet’s formal features—symmetry, order, miniaturization and magnification, juxtaposition. Like the earliest cabinets from the late sixteenth century, Crude Life blurs the boundaries between art and science as it enchants objects with wonder; its assemblage of materials stimulates analogical and comparative imaginations as it slots objects among like and unlike.

The formal arrangement of these specimens, though, does not replicate the logic of accumulation, possession, and mastery of the sixteenth- and seventeeth-century cabinets, so many of which were filled with objects of imperial plunder. Those cabinets evoked wonder at the display and containment of objects taken from other parts of the world; they signaled the dual mastery of capture and categorization. If Crude Life maintains the formal features of what we must recognize as an imperialist aesthetic, its aesthetic effects and politics pull in a different direction. These cabinets invite the viewer to see loss, to encounter the relics and debris of extractive capitalism in its more direct forms of harm—oil spills—and the slower, more diffuse form of climate change. Crude Life doesn’t dispense with wonder, but transforms its effects from pleasure and enchantment to something akin to ecological grief. By evoking wonder at the ongoing loss of nonhuman nature, Crude Life makes legible our entanglement with extraction and its multiple casualties; it also enables us to see, to experience those interrelations as something other than ordinary, as something worth preserving.

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There is little time to preserve much of what we are losing. We creep ever closer to, and perhaps in some cases have traversed, the thresholds or tipping points that will make the planet unlivable. For many of us, alarm about climate change has become the norm. A clap of mute panic seizes me when I read my five-year-old son a book about a species he won’t get to live with. We talk about vanishing coasts and coming shorelines in the American South where I grew up and where he is developing his own attachments.  

But as researchers and teachers, operating from a mood of endless emergency works counter to the slow, patient thinking that can prepare us for the urgencies that unfold almost daily. We might ask, like Brecht, how we, in our various positions as educators, researchers, and activists, can “shape the new relations.” As humanists, we could do worse than recommit to and insist upon those disciplinary practices that are routinely under threat from right-wing cultural forces and overpaid neoliberal administrators: close reading, attention to aesthetic particulars, decolonizing historical and theoretical knowledges, diversifying our cultural archives, and developing more precise ways of linking cultural activity to economic and natural systems across varying scales. We will need to sustain and amplify richly collaborative thinking and activism for us to, as Donna Haraway would say, stay with the trouble, to carve out forms of livability that can ensure human and nonhuman flourishing on this changed planet. Aesthetic education for the Anthropocene should help us comprehend the capitalist system that has altered the Earth system. It should also help us imagine and form attachments to post-capitalist ecologies that are worth fighting for.

With Brandon Ballengée in the Atelier de la Nature. Photo by Drew Katchen
Fig. 6. With Brandon Ballengée in the Atelier de la Nature. Photo by Drew Katchen.


Thanks to Debra Rae Cohen and Nathan Hensley for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft.  Images of Crude Life are used with permission of the artist. 

[1] The ecotourism company that operated our study abroad trip to Antarctica cultivated an attachment to place as part of its business model.  They specifically want their customers to become what the larger Antarctic tourism industry calls “ambassadors,” or people who experience Antarctica, form an attachment to it, and return home with some sense of its unique, precarious place in the Earth system and advocate for it.  This is, of course, the ethical supplement to an extractive capitalist enterprise.

[2] Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 178.

[3] Bertolt Brecht, “On Form and Subject-Matter,” in Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic, ed. and trans. John Willett (New York: Hill and Wang, 1964), 29–31, 30.

[4] Mona Damluji, “The Image World of Middle Eastern Oil,” in Subterranean Estates: Life Worlds of Oil and Gas, ed. Hannah Appel, Arthur Mason, and Michael Watts (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2015), 147–64, 147.

[5] Ross Barrett, “Picturing a Crude Past: Primitivism, Public Art, and Corporate Oil Promotion in the United States,” in Oil Culture, ed. Ross Barrett and Daniel Worden (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 47–68, 64.

[6] In “Interwar Petro-Modernism,” her brilliant talk from MSA 2018, Nicole Rizzuto shows how the Shell guidebooks developed an “auto-mobilic, ethnographic gaze” that allowed readers, and presumably travelers, to view “an authentic England inaccessible to those who must travel en masse in what is designated a residual form of transit, the train.” 

[7] Mel Evans, Artwash: Big Oil and the Arts (London: Pluto Press, 2015).

[8] See, among many others, Jennifer Wenzel, “Petro-Magic-Realism: Toward a Political Ecology of Nigerian Literature,” Postcolonial Studies 9, no. 4 (2006): 449­–64; Sheena Wilson, Imre Szeman, and Adam Carlson, “On Petrocultures: Or, Why We Need to Understand Oil to Understand Everything Else,” in Petrocultures: Oil, Politics, Culture, ed. Sheena Wilson, Adam Carlson, and Imre Szeman (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017), 3–19; Stephanie LeMenager, Living Oil: Petroleum Culture in the American Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Macarena Gómez-Barris, The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).