by Jeroen Oomen
“What is the environmental humanities?” is a question that typically pops up whenever I care to explain that ENHANCE, the doctoral training network I am part of, stands for Environmental Humanities for a Concerned Europe. And in all honesty: I don’t quite know. Nor do my colleagues, nor do our professors. What the environmental humanities is, is much debated and undecided. To some, it is a new discipline of scholarship, it is “seeking to un-discipline and de-institutionalise modes and means of research,” to “sensitively respond to the need for new forms of engagement and expression called forth by the often destructive, at times regenerative, complexities of human-non human entanglements within the anthro/capitalocene.” Others, me among them, would argue that environmental humanities are just humanities disciplines with an environmental focus. And, I might add, they run the risk of finding themselves caught in a web of politically correct and jargonistic terminology. As one of the guests of the Stories of the Anthropocene festival related to me, “we academics often find immensely difficult ways of expressing what (local) people already know.” I suspect that the debate over what environmental humanities is, and what it should do, will continue indefinitely, and will eventually be decided institutionally rather than by consensus. Even among the 12 ENHANCE PhD students there are vast differences of opinion—as it should be, I would be inclined to say.
But frankly, I don’t really care what the “environmental humanities” is exactly. I (personally) don’t need it to become a separate academic discipline, or to define the ground upon which it treads. What I need it to do is simply be relevant. To my mind, the environmental humanities is duty bound to find a balance between the obvious and the obscure: how to be relevant without being too simple, how to be thorough without getting bogged down by “jargonistic terminology,” and how to be insightful rather than just sound clever.
I, like many in this program with me, have made it my personal goal to find a way to make my research speak as more than just an academic exercise. Academia (and academics) should not be removed from society, nor should its terminology be so obscure that the exact message is accessible only to fellow (humanities) scholars—or even, as I often find to be the case, only accessible to those working on a similar topic. With academic work often being only for the benefit of other academics or, even worse, solely for the benefit of our own careers, isn’t public skepticism about “us,” “those humanities,” warranted?
An urgent and powerful revitalization of my own commitment to relevance resulted from a visit to the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. While not strictly academic, the Biennale, sadly ending soon, neatly found its own answer to this question of relevance. Erudite, well-informed, and openly political, it takes its mission statement “reporting from the front” very seriously. Asking their participants to explore how architecture can be used to improve lives around the world, and, particularly, how to do so within reasonable bounds of resource use, the Biennale boasted many different visions of what makes places “liveable.” As is embedded within the core set-up of the Biennale, this resulted in a wide variety of different opinions and submissions. Naturally, not everything could be good, and not everything can be mentioned here. However, two observations are warranted. First, absolutely no punches were pulled. Both the organizational pavilion and the majority of the national submissions were openly political—and often provocative or controversial.
The German pavilion, for example, consisted of an urgent call for humanity in the face of the many refugees coming into Germany.
It outlined the benefits (and the lack of risks) connected to immigration in poignant photographs and short texts. The Danish sent a stunningly intellectual call for revisiting thoughts about how we design cities and what should be important. The Dutch submission highlighted the inherent irony of building enclaves for peacekeeping troops in regions where virtually no sustainable architecture is available to the local population. The Japanese showed a myriad of possible ways to optimally use space. By far the most cutting and impressive exhibition, however, was the “Reporting from the Front” exhibition organized by the Biennale’s committee itself.
Again, the range of topics treated within that exhibition is too broad to be extensively discussed here, but some examples merit being mentioned. As a whole the exhibition stretched “reporting from the front” from strikingly direct and literal to highly abstract and speculative. To me, its highlight was the “architecture of conflict” exhibition, which showed how an architectural research bureau in London was able, on the basis of video material and satellite images, to redraw a minute-to-minute map of Israeli strikes in Gaza. It was a scathing indictment of Israeli war crimes—a one-minute walk away from the Israeli pavilion—backed up by several other cases of investigative architecture in other parts of the globe. Other interesting parts of the exhibition confronted more sustainable building (the frontline of architectural design) about the irony that “once settlements protected us from nature. Today nature is our shelter from urban tension.”
Secondly, the Biennale connected craft with intellect, intellectuality with accessibility, and politics with design. Although it made no concessions in terms of complexity—the complexity of issues seemed to be a recurrent theme—the Biennale never retreated into a world of obscurity that was so abstract that one felt lost. Quite the opposite: it wielded its knowledge as a tool, and was all the richer and more powerful for it.
As a formative discipline, I imagine it is in the nature of architecture to be an optimistic, creative field of human endeavor. Perhaps I was too inclined to equate this to an unreflexive belief in the power of building, in the power of human creativity and progress. I was wrong. The architecture biennale represented a diversity and reflexivity far greater than I typically see within the humanities. Yes, there was progressive thinking, but there was criticism and reflection too. Architecture can be used for good and bad, and both takes found a place here. Actual disagreement seemed to be celebrated rather than dismissed. Awareness didn’t need to come in the form of overanalyzing and oversimplifying the many ills of our world dating back to modernity. It didn’t just call for rejecting practices, it offered up solutions.
By virtue of its being architectural, the centrality of materiality, the awareness of how material circumstances—both the deceptively simple and the incomprehensibly complex—shape all our lives was infused into the very core of the Biennale. Balancing between optimism and pessimism, between hope, anger, fear, and responsibility, it was the Anthropocene, and it felt like a call for all of us to not only be aware, but to also be political and pragmatic. And optimistic! To me, it awakened an incipient awareness: this is what I should be aiming for. This is what all of us should be aiming for. What use is our research if no-one reads it? What good are our “insights” if they are clouded by obscurity, by difficult words for difficult people? And what in the end is the goal of environmental humanities—or humanities as a whole for that matter—if not to actively incite people to reflect and change?
In the end, to me it comes down to this: do we just want a blossoming academic field, do we want to enter the ivory tower of academia, or do we want more? I vote more.