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“A Poetics of Climate Change”–Abstract from ASLE-Juneau 2012

2012 July 13

Dale Jamieson, perhaps the foremost climate ethicist in the world today, has asked why the humanities have been slow to respond to the crisis of climate change (Critical Inquiry 2008). In this paper, I argue that the reason most humanists have been silent is that problem-oriented approaches have dominated the discourse and study of climate change. The urgency of climate destabilization has energized empirical research, technological innovation, and policy discussions. Climate ethics, the primary field through which the humanities have engaged climate change, has focused on questions of mitigation and adaptation, offering the resources of the philosophical tradition to negotiate questions of distributive justice. Within this problem-solving framework, the humanities–especially literature, art, and cultural productions–are viewed as a form of propaganda: the question is how art can persuade people to live more sustainably. I argue that the question “How can the humanities help to solve the problem of climate change?” is the wrong question. Instead, drawing on the work of Judith Butler, I argue that the humanities needs to pose questions about mourning, responsibility, witness, and hospitality, and that these questions will open up a new way of thinking about and responding to climate change.

In the first part of my paper, I focus on Roni Horn’s installation The Library of Water as an example of memorial and mourning for the worlds we are losing, revealing what Rob Nixon calls the “slow violence” of climate change (2011). Following my reading of The Library of Water, I turn to the “Second Line” tradition from New Orleans as an example of mourning that calls for witness to injustice and hospitality to those displaced by climate change.

Janet Fiskio, Oberlin College

2 Responses leave one →
  1. smonani permalink
    July 15, 2012

    Thanks Janet. I greatly enjoyed your talk in Juneau, and am glad to see the abstract here.

    For those interested in concepts of environment and mourning, this cfp and subsequent publication should also be of interest:

  2. srust permalink*
    July 18, 2012


    Can’t believe I missed this! We got to meet Dale when he was here in Eugene during the 2010-11 when the law school dedicated it’s focus to climate change concerns. Mourning, witness, responsibility, and hospitality are indeed ethically charged words that can be deployed with tremendous force and give a strong sense of direction to our work.

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