Here Be Monsters

On Not-Quite Theorizing Interdisciplinarity
in Arts and Climate Change

In my last post, I talked about interdisciplinarity as an “and” through which students and researchers of arts and climate change can reach beyond the limitations of their disciplines in search of new and more sustainable ways of thinking, making, and living. In this post, I’m going to focus on the theories that hold such “ands” in place – although whether it is really possible to devote a post entirely to theory when such courses are constantly trying to resist the separation of one form of knowing from another is another matter.

Or perhaps I should put it this way: how do we theorize what does not want to be theorized? The collection of essays Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet: Ghosts and Monsters of the Anthropocene, edited by Anna Tsing – a highly interdisciplinary text that features on many reading lists – provides a useful starting point:

In the indeterminate conditions of environmental damage, nature is suddenly unfamiliar again. How shall we find our way? Perhaps sensibilities from folklore and science fiction – such as monsters and ghosts – will help. While ghosts … help us read life’s enmeshment in landscapes, monsters point us toward life’s symbiotic entanglement across bodies…. Against the conceit of the Individual, monsters highlight symbiosis, the enfolding of bodies within bodies in evolution and in every ecological niche. In dialectical fashion, ghosts and monsters unsettle anthropos, the Greek term for “human,” from its presumed center stage in the Anthropocene by highlighting the webs of histories and bodies from which all life, including human life, emerges. Rather than imagining phantasms outside of natural history, the monsters and ghosts of this book are observable parts of the world. We learn them through multiple practices of knowing, from vernacular to official science, and draw inspiration from both the arts and sciences to work across genres of observation and storytelling. [pp 3-4]

In the West, the Enlightenment tradition predisposes us to categorize all that cannot be categorized as monstrous. Tsing, however, reclaims the monster’s resistance to categorization as a vital tool in both critically engaging with the complexity of the climate crisis and imagining beyond it.

It is exactly this sort of “monster thinking” that underpins the Department of Environmental Studies at Wofford College in South Carolina, where Kaye Savage teaches an Art & Earth course:

We’re rooted in the notion that no environmental problems are single-faceted: it’s everything from who’s in the room to how we understand what the problem even is. How do we place our values in understanding how the problem came about?

Savage paints the tangled complexity of the problem as a source of intellectual and creative excitement, not the failure it might appear to be from a discipline-bound point of view. The courses in the department encourage students to investigate such questions by conducting research not only in the classroom but in the field and a purpose-built “lab,” thus transforming the interdisciplinary aspects of the course from something abstract – having to read different texts or search different sorts of databases, for example – to something they can experience with their whole body. The aim, says Savage, is to provide them with the opportunity to experience different modes of maintaining focused attention on a problem.

This attention, argues Savage, is of crucial value in itself: “It could be going out in the field and counting trees, another way is to look carefully and sketch; it could be thinking about a problem broadly so as to include the global, social and economic aspects. This is something that is lacking in society in general, I think.” The attention, or noticing, that Savage’s courses foster crosses not merely from one discipline to another but from theory to practice; it is, then, a praxis.

Min Hyoung Song, who teaches Climate Fiction at Boston College in Massachusetts, and is heavily involved in their Environmental Humanities program, placed a similarly strong emphasis on what we do and don’t notice and why:

That conversation is often regulated by a lot of specific social rules. Teaching a course on climate change and the arts helps to shed light on these dynamics, to consider what these rules are, what happens when we break them, and what new rules might enable. The focus on the arts also helps to make a topic that feels far off and abstract more immediate and visceral, so that climate change is something that’s happening now and all around us. 

Noticing the rules that regulate what can and can’t be noticed is the first step towards reaching for new rules. In her oft-cited book Staying with the Trouble, Donna Haraway advocates for “making kin” across species. Here, Song seems to suggest that making kin between abstract and intellectual knowledge on the one hand, and affective, bodily knowledge on the other, is what will foster both critical and creative responses to the contemporary moment’s climate-related blind spots.

Evelyn O’Malley, for whom the texts by Anna Tsing and Donna Haraway are touchstones in her Theatre for a Changing Climate course at the University of Exeter, UK, encourages students to notice the difficulty of this sort of noticing: “I’m trying to get students to look at how we can keep on looking at and engaging with the trouble of the present, rather than getting lost in projected futures and either an Edenic or horrific past.” When she first started teaching this course, she thought that students not being able to grasp the scientific information would be a crucial problem. However, she quickly found this was far from the case:

I was confronted with a cohort that already had a decent grasp and was politically engaged. It became less a matter of trying to extract the truth of the data from specific plays or performances and more about learning to see how they function, as discourses, to impede or progress real world effects for people who are on the receiving end of climate change. Yet I also tried to constantly travel back to the science and ask whether it’s true or not. It felt important to have conversations with [scientific] experts about those things that touched at the edges of their roles.

O’Malley’s theory is a monster theory in that it is constantly breaking rules and boundaries and, in doing so, gives students a panoramic view of how change happens and the roles that each discipline, and its constituent theoretical underpinnings, play in such a change. 

For John Wills, who teaches on Inviting Doomsday: US Environmental Problems in the Twentieth Century at the University of Kent, UK, one of the main benefits of interdisciplinarity is that it highlights the fact that the rigid separation of disciplines is a myth. “The environment,” he argues, … “should be taught as part of history as a matter of course, but it’s mostly left out as a factor. I’m trying to decenter humans from the historical stage; we’re not the lead actors on stage. We need to broaden what history is.”

The real monster is, perhaps, the Enlightenment itself. Willis’s course, like so many others mentioned here, seeks to illuminate some of the damage done by the Western intellectual fantasy of humanity’s exceptional separation from the rest of the planet – of a world that can be neatly ordered, controlled and colonized – which, paradoxically, has created all kinds of environmental destruction that is in itself quite monstrous.

Interdisciplinarity, in its varied forms, is at once a dismantling and a reaching for something that can’t quite be named. How, then, can it be taught, particularly in institutions which are (perhaps necessarily) rigidly categorized and ordered? How can teachers help students to step into spaces of uncertainty and difference? These are some of the questions I will be asking in my next post, which will focus on pedagogy.

This article is part of our series on Arts & Climate in Higher Education.


Clare Fisher is a novelist, short story writer, and researcher based in Leeds, UK. She is the author of All the Good Things (Viking, 2017) and How the Light Gets In (2018). Her work has won a Betty Trask Award and been longlisted for the International Dylan Thomas Prize and the Edgehill Short Story Prize. She is studying for a practice-led PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Leeds and teaches Creative Writing at Goldsmiths College and Queen Mary University of London. She can be found on Twitter at @claresitafisher.

3 thoughts on “Here Be Monsters

  1. It’s occurring to me that the Enlightenment might indeed be the problem, privileging a way of thinking that not only separates humanity from the rest of the planet but also centers whiteness as a locus of entitlement and ownership. The effort to overturn this thinking (as well as the social structures it has engendered), as it is currently occurring on the U.S. cultural stage will, if it succeeds, benefit our social relations as well as our planet. Thanks for working to connect the threads.

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