Spiders, trouble, students, decentering…

I am the TA (teaching assistant) on a rather excellent course called ‘Wildlife in the Age of Humans’.  It’s a delight to be a) engaging with cool ideas b) helping smart students engage with cool ideas.

The latest seminar was on ‘conviviality’.  The lecture had dealt with scorpions coming up through shower grates and what to do about it, troublesome baboon troops in Cape Town and penguins in Sydney.  The students were asked to do some reading (most had) and then we gathered. This powerpoint tells a bit about the conversation that ensued (but obvs, no names).

Started out with this meme

spider four memes

I gave everyone one vote, and the bottom right one was a clear winner (it’s also my favourite).

I then asked their attitude to spiders-in-da-house, giving the options
Who is ‘contract out the squashing’?
Who is ‘do the squashing myself’?
Who is ‘catch and release’?
Who is ‘meh, welcome’?

Most everyone was a ‘catch and release’ person.

The task that had been set was

Read the articles and focus on how borders figure in these accounts and the type of politics they give rise to in relation to conviviality and co-habitation.
What type of practices is this “conviviality-paradigm” suggesting? Will conviviality be a borderless world?
How can we understand “affective ecologies” as something that moves beyond human-centric forms of nature conservation and conviviality?
You should all be able to present 2-3 observations from one or all three of the articles

I asked for volunteers to read out each of the three. I made sure we were all on the same page about the word ‘conviviality’ (it’s a less common word than you’d think. I forgot to give Illich a shout out. Doh!)

A couple could give a definition of affective (to do with emotions) and I had someone read out this quote I’d found –

“Affective Ecology is a new branch of ecology concerned with emotional relationships between human beings and the rest of the living world. The basic instinct that guides the evolution and maturation of a well-tuned relationship with the living world seems to be biophilia, our innate tendency to focus upon life and life-like forms and, in some instances, to affiliate with them emotionally (The Biophilia Hypothesis). ”

http://www.biourbanism.org/biophilia-and-gaia-two-hypotheses-for-an-affective-ecology/

I then showed, without sound, the first minute of this

And pointed back to the earliest lecture, on Romantic notions of nature. I threw in some comments about neoteny and anime, because I was showing off could.

I asked for any French speakers – there were none, so pointed out that monstre means ‘to show’ and its where we get both the words demonstration and monster – the latter being something that shows us something (about ourselves) that we’d rather not see, not acknowledge.  I have a reputation for throwing in the pop culture references, so went this time for “The Tempest”,  Some people had seen it, but not recently to recall the plot, so  gave a super quick recap and explained that you can do a convincing coloniality-reading of it.  Prospero’s  “This thing of darkness, I acknowledge mine” got a quotecheck.

Then, finally, (it was now quarter past the hour), on to … working in pairs for a few minutes, generating thoughts on baboons, scorpions and penguins.  Someone had to leave at half past the hour, so  let her choose.  We went with scorpions.  Good discussion about where in a house they appear, senses of vulnerability and violation etc.

Showed this from a very reliable news source.

spider sitting on shower wall

 

Then useful discussions about penguins (charismatic, harmless, how to balance their needs and the tourism dollar – some robust opinions!).  This, on Australia, led to some discussion of the acclimatisation societies and the introduction of species to Australia because Shakespeare (him again!) had name-checked them, and how this had stopped because of the economic damage.   One student noted (perceptively!) how much of the contacts between Old World and New were shaped by powerful white men going off what they’d read in the Bible or whatever.  I threw in a brief (and probably inaccurate) bit on Aristotle and the Great Chain of Being,

We had a bit on baboons and their moral agency (debatable) and what they would do if they lived near such troops.

Time was moving on, and I wanted to throw some Haraway in (as always). First  I asked them about McDonalds and the touchscreen thing – turns out, bacteria get everywhere, eh? Some new about it, all were grossed out.

So, the Haraway. I had someone read out the quote. Which quote? This quote (and I pointed out beforehand that some unkind souls, referring to the repetition in the latest book, feel it should have been called ‘Staying with the Tedium’.)

‘Staying with the Trouble’ insists on working, playing and thinking in multispecies cosmopolitics in the face of the killing of entire ways of being on earth that characterise the age cunningly called ‘now’ and the place called ‘here.’

Nobody could guess at unpacking it (it’s not as bad as Butler though), so I gave a push on what ‘play’ is about – finding your capacities, how you affect the world, are effected by it etc- then what cosmopoliticss are (and yes, Godwin’s Law blah blah, I talked about the Nazis and their hatred for rootless cosmopolitans).  There were really good comments then on the killing of entire ways of being (victories, defeats, negotiations) and the meaning of the word cunningly.  [See an account from a tutorial last academic year].

Time almost up, so then suggested that further decentering of humans could be seen in two concepts

Symbiont /ˈsɪmbɪɒnt,ˈsɪmbʌɪɒnt/

Noun an organism living in symbiosis with another.
Holobionts are assemblages of different species that form ecological unitsLynn Margulis proposed that any physical association between individuals of different species for significant portions of their life history is a symbiosis. All participants in the symbiosis are bionts, and therefore the resulting assemblage was first coined a holobiont by Lynn Margulis in 1991 in the book Symbiosis as a Source of Evolutionary Innovation.[1] Holo is derived from the Ancient Greek word ὅλος (hólos) for “whole”. The entire assemblage of genomes in the holobiont is termed a hologenome.

And recommended, if they wanted their worlds turned upside down –

  • Tsing, A. 2015. The Mushroom at the End of the World
  • Tsing, et al. 2017. Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene
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