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Going beyond the “ecological turn” in the humanities

Going beyond the “ecological turn” in the humanities

ecological turn

Photo by Aaron Vasintjan.

There’s a story about the time when Michel Foucault was accompanying his colleague, Jacqueline Verdeaux, on a car trip through the Italian Alps. As tourists do, they would often get out of the car at lookout points to observe some beautiful landscape. As biographer Didier Éribon tells it, the philosopher would then almost immediately walk back to the car, grumbling, “my back is turned to it”.

Whether this was just an example of Foucault’s cynical, dry humor or actually reflected his lack of concern for environmental issues is up for debate. Nevertheless, it’s almost impossible to imagine any major intellectual today “turning their back” to the environment. While such concerns often took a backseat in 19th and 20th century humanities, these days, even the most modest dinner-table political argument will carry an ecological thread.

Thomas Homer-Dixon’s prediction that “ecology will be the master science of the 21st century” is perhaps a bit excessive, but already carries some weight of truth. It may not be a “master”, but its influence in the humanities is now unavoidable—thinkers like Slavoj Zizek, Donna Haraway, and Bruno Latour are celebrated precisely because they are able to put environmental crises into thoughtful perspective. Today, it seems like every humanities conference call-out starts with the sentence “In the era of the Anthropocene…” and the dish isn’t complete without a few servings of “materiality”, “non-human”, “nature-culture”, and “oikos”.

This “ecological turn” in the humanities could be academic fashion—to be forgotten within a decade.

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