2019-2020 Annual Topic: Elements

Elements

2019-20 Topic for the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities
Topic Director: Nikhil Anand
Assistant Professor of Anthropology

railroad bridge over the Schuylkill River

Across diverse intellectual traditions four elements--fire, water, earth and air--have been understood as central to the composition of both the human character and of the world.  Various elemental theories seek to map peoples to climates and so to their “right” places, where their dispositions and surroundings would be in balance. Recent events reveal a world where any pretense of balance is no longer tenable. Today each element is dramatically refigured through large scale alignments of capital, technology, and labor.

As the biosphere, geosphere and atmosphere collapse under the accreted wastes of the Anthropocene, the age of humans, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities takes up Elements as our 2018-19 annual topic. With scholars, artists and public researchers, we are asking: How might we reimagine and remake worlds amidst the changing elements? How might we take “the human element” into account? And, how might we recompose worlds amidst the proliferation of environmental crises now underway?

“Wild” fires in the anthropogenic landscapes of California today disable the technological forces that seek to control them.  Climate change has destabilized rainfall patterns, causing critical shortages of water for human and non-human life in many parts of the world.  Other parts of our earth are irrevocably terraformed by the debris of mines, wells, and waste.  And fossil-fuel emissions, a side-effect of our carbon-based energy systems, have both destabilized the climate, and made the air in many global cities toxic to breathe. Amidst the differential mobilities of resources and people compelled by the crises of climate, capital, and colonialism, we are revisiting the elements.

Elements make history at a variety of temporal and spatial scales, even as they are made and unmade by them. Rather than imagine elements as prior to history, or irreparably contaminated by it, we explore elements as social-semiotic assemblages that join materiality and meaning.  Elements, like cultures, might best be thought in the plural.  Never on their own, they are found with human and nonhuman others, emerging through and with human projects to imagine, make visible, and govern them.

But elements also exceed the powers of humans to apprehend them. They are simultaneously figure and ground for the stories we tell. They transform each other: fire transforms earth to air; its particles precipitate water to fall from the sky. They are the stuff of perpetual motion, running in and out of human projects to control them. Elements refuse to be encompassed by reason and won’t be contained by origin stories. They demand to be imagined, called into being, and inhabited in new ways. They are also the stuff of dreams and magic—and they can activate new political possibilities.

In 2019-20, the Penn Program in Environmental Humanities undertakes an ambitious year-long public conversation focusing on the elements.  From the debris of Cartesian dualisms of the natural and social, of science and art, and of the non-human and human, we will ask how we might reimagine, renew and repair the elements. How might different practices of sensing and data gathering, knowing and storytelling be brought to bear on the elements?  How do different social groups perceive the qualities of earths, of fires, of waters and earths?  How might we think with indigenous, raced, gendered and classed others to live differently with elements in everyday life?  Might a rethinking of the elements precipitate new ways to rethink the singularity of the human and the ways humanity is gathered and sorted? To reconsider the composition and mutability of the elements, we suggest, is to generate new attention to the situated ways in which differentiated non/ human bodies are read, sensed and addressed.

The 2019-20 PPEH series on Elements, will host workshops, salons and events that reimagine the elements that compose our worlds.  We will host artists, scientists, policy makers, story tellers, and ethnographers to learn about emergent, multi-sensory modes of imagining, making, and living with these enduring ephemera in the contemporary moment. We hope you will join us in this elemental work.

February, 2019

Nikhil Anand, Topic Director

Bethany Wiggin, Director, Penn Program in Environmental Humanities


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