(Um)Weltschmerz: An Exercise in Humility and Melancholia

Conference Report (7–20 October 2018, Munich)

Nearly three years to the day after the Marie Curie ENHANCE ITN’s official kick-off  in Munich, a final conference titled (Um)Weltschmerz: An Exercise in Humility and Melancholia marked the official end of the program. After three years of intensive collaboration, the wide variety of academic disciplines and topics of the twelve doctoral researchers of ENHANCE came together in a four-day conference. The title (Um)Weltschmerz, a conjunction of Umwelt (environment) and Weltschmerz (the suffering of being in the world)—and a play on the recent term solastalgia—connotes the emotions felt for changing environments that were explored in this conference from a variety of perspectives.

(Um)Weltschmerz, conceived of as an invitation to reflect on the deep ties that connect human beings’ social, cultural, and emotional lives to their changing environment(s), was held from 17–20 October 2018 in Munich. With events at several locations (the Deutsches Museum, the Rachel Carson Center, LMU Munich, and the Rio Filmpalast), this event asked how the humanities and social sciences can frame and problematize discussions of socio-environmental change. The conference was jointly organized by the Munich-based doctoral candidates in the ENHANCE network (Eveline de Smalen, Claire Lagier, Vikas Lakhani, and Jeroen Oomen) with generous support from staff at both the Rachel Carson Center and the Deutsches Museum—Andreas Jünger and Sabine Bärmann especially need to be lauded for their tireless efforts.

(Um)Weltschmerz Conference 2018
The organizers of the conference. From left to right: Jeroen Oomen, Eveline de Smalen, Vikas Lakhani, and Claire Lagier. Photo: Adam Sébire.

Rather than seeking answers, (Um)Weltschmerz aimed to raise the following questions: How can we repoliticize debates about science and environment in a constructive way? What changes when we frame environmental issues in terms of justice? Are there secular ethical imaginaries that can connect the past and future in nuanced ways, beyond techno-optimism, collapsology, and calls to turn our backs on science and industry? What does climate change mean for communities on different ends of power asymmetries, and how are we to deal with it collectively in a supposedly post-truth world? What role do historiographies, museums, and political economies of media and technology play in public narratives of possible futures?

Wednesday October 17, 2018

After a short opening ceremony in the Deutsches Museum’s Center for New Technologies, (Um)Weltschmerz began with an introduction into the virtual reality exhibition that a majority of ENHANCE doctoral fellows contributed to with short 3D videos of their fieldwork locations. The exhibition was planned by de Smalen, Lagier, Lakhani, and Oomen, coordinated by Lagier, curated by the Deutsches Museum’s Virtual Reality Lab staff, and its clips were edited by Miriam Remter and Felix Remter of Munich-based video production company Primate Visions. Additionally, the exhibition included a video-based art installation by artist Adam Sébire. With film locations ranging as widely as Brazil, Bulgaria, Iceland, India, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United States, this exhibition aimed to give visitors a sense of the immense complexity and variety of different environmental concerns and interactions that are at play in the environmental humanities.

(Um)Weltschmerz Conference 2018
(Um)Weltschmerz Conference 2018. Photo: Adam Sébire

Immediately after the opening of this exhibition, which remained available for the entirety of the conference, Erik Swyngedouw, professor of geography at the University of Manchester, gave a provocative keynote. He claimed that much academic work and terminology around environmental topics, in spite of its clear political relevance, does not politicize but rather depoliticizes environmental discussions. He suggested that many scholars—and academic concepts such as the Anthropocene—might limit and obscure meaningful political action, rather than facilitate it.

Thursday October 18, 2018

The second day of (Um)Weltschmerz was less explicitly focused on outward engagement, but rather on the development of young scholars into authors of published books. In a full-day workshop facilitated by Vikas Lakhani, several experts, senior scholars, and publishing editors alike discussed strategies for writing and publishing engaging books to an eager audience consisting of the ENHANCE PhD students and 11 selected applicants. The workshop then broke up into several smaller groups to discuss the participants’ pre-circulated book proposals,

Two public events were also included in the day’s program. The Rachel Carson Center’s lunchtime colloquium, the weekly lecture-series of its fellows, was turned into a forum of discussion for what the environmental humanities can offer to the public debate on environmental consciousness and degradation. The discussion brought together environmental philosopher and ENHANCE board member Serenella Iovino, ecocritic Robert Emmett, and video producers Miriam and Felix Remter. In the evening, the RCC’s Green Visions film series showed the documentary film The Anthropologist at Rio Filmpalast, followed by a discussion with the film’s main protagonist, Susan Crate, to a large audience of conference participants and interested citizens.

Friday October 19, 2018

In the Center for New Technologies of the Deutsches Museum, conference participants convened for two panel discussions. The first one brought together social psychologist Wändi Bruine de Bruin, geographer Wolfram Mauser, and anthropologist Werner Krauss to discuss different takes on climate change perceptions and their implications. The second panel drew on the perspectives of environmental historian José Augusto Pádua, scholar and activist May-Britt Öhman, and political scientist Irina Velicu to address the present-day permanence of (neo)colonial practices and imaginaries. Both panels introduced lively discussions, and served to show how every particular perspective and lens on an issue is inherently limited. It became clear that only by combining different perspectives can there be any semblance of a complex and fruitful approach to these issues.

(Um)Weltschmerz Conference 2018
Robert Bullard giving a captivating keynote. Photo: Adam Sébire.

This need for the inclusion of unexpected and marginalized perspectives was driven home in a forceful and compelling way by the week’s second keynote speaker, Robert Bullard. Professor Bullard, considered by many to be the “father of the environmental justice movement” described how his research had shown the systematic racism at play in the United States in distributing environmental risks and pollution. Bullard chronicled his long struggle for environmental justice in a mere 45 minutes, expressing his firm hope that a new generation of all creeds was waiting in the wings to take over from his generation. Perhaps anomalously in the context of the environmental humanities, Robert Bullard’s presentation was incessantly hopeful for the future and optimistic about the generations of students and high school students that seem ready and eager to continue his fight.

Saturday October 20, 2019

The last day of the conference included two panel discussions and one last keynote. The morning session brought together professionals working at the intersection of NGOs, social movements, and official governments. Economist Mihir Shah, city administrator and grassroots organizer Xavi Pié, and WWF Russia organizer Elena Feditchkina Tracy shared insights from their experience working on socio-environmental issues in undemocratic contexts and grassroots democracy initiatives.

After this first session, pioneer STS professor Sheila Jasanoff gave the final keynote. She spoke about the need for humanistic thought and care for the relationship between humans and their environment. She argued that the relationship between the sociotechnical world of the human and its nonhuman environment should be far more intimately considered. By juxtaposing narratives of technological inevitability and technophobia, Jasanoff suggested that an alternative approach should not reject technological systems as such, but rather its inevitability, realizing that science and technology are deeply human affairs, shaped and reshaped by changing imaginations of environment and technology.

(Um)Weltschmerz Conference 2018
Sheila Jasanoff giving a thought-provoking final keynote

The conference was brought to a close by a panel of scholars and professional practitioners in the field of science and media. It included Elisabeth Abergel, STS scholar, Sara Penrhyn Jones, documentary film-maker, Maria Gunther, senior science editor for Swedish daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter (one of the ENHANCE ITN’s partner institutions), and Andrea Geipel, a science communication specialist and member of the Deutsches Museum’s new Virtual Reality Lab, who discussed the role of the media in a post-truth age, and how this could and should relate to environmental concerns.

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