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Futures of Nature [za Johannesburg]

You are invited to apply for a place in the 2012 Session of the Johannesburg Workshop in Theory and Criticism (University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa). The 2012 Session, Futures of Nature, is part of a drive within the humanities to reframe the disciplines and critical theory in light of the environmental emergency that is said to endanger most species on the planet, including our own.

We will reflect on some of the major challenges relating to the contemporary conditions and the long-term sustainability of life on Earth. Ours is an age characterized by the indelible imprint of human activity on the Earth’s climate, its geology and its conditions – a process which may lead to the planet’s becoming inhospitable to human life. It is also an era that blurs the distinction between human history and culture and the Earth’s natural history and material composition.

We will reflect on a position long held by environmental activists, but now demanding urgent political and intellectual attention, that humans are a species alongside other species, one whose survival is threatened by its own behaviour. If to survive the ecological crisis means to work out new ways to live with the Earth, then a different mode of humanity is required. The extent to which these new modes of humanity are prefigured in contemporary arts, technology and aesthetics will be assessed.

The JWTC was founded in 2008 as a place for experimenting with theory in the global South. Our goal is to open questions that are fundamental to contemporary aesthetic, philosophical, political, literary, ethnographic and ethical inquiry – questions that potentially point to new paths for critical theory at the interface of local and global circuits.

Our audience is a new generation of local and international scholars who locate their work beyond the model of area studies; are willing to challenge naturalized conventions of interpretation and are eager to bring about a renewed dialogue among the disciplines with a view to a transformed critical theory landscape.

The 2012 programme will span ten intensive days of lectures, seminars, public events, exhibitions and performances. It will also include explorations of Afropolitan Johannesburg.

We encourage to apply both faculty, postdocs and senior post-graduate students in the humanities, social sciences and critical studies in law, media, health, ecology, technology, design, architecture, urban studies and the arts. We also encourage applications beyond the academy in cases where applicants have a strong interest and capacity for social theory.

The deadline for applications is March 25, 2012. Admissions to The Workshop are announced on April 5, 2012.

Tuition fees have been broken down in sliding categories in order to insure a financial scheme that accommodates global resource inequities.

The Convenors for the 2012 Session are: Kelly Gillespie, Julia Hornberger, Achille Mbembe and Leigh-Ann Naidoo.

A few broad concerns will animate the 2012 Session:

The being-in-common of humans and ‘non-humans’

The privileging of human existence as determining the actual and possible qualities of both thought and being has been the object of philosophical critique. So too have been the nature/culture divide and the opposition between an instrumentalist attitude towards nature and what has been taken to be the ‘nature worship of the primitive’.

Yet skepticism – a belief/doubt dualism – seems to still plague ecological thought. A discourse of limits, ecological critique has become a target for appropriation by opposed and contradictory political positions. All of these raise larger epistemological questions concerning the final knowability of nature and the extent to which we can access it directly. How do we extricate ourselves from the skepticisms tugging at (if not produced by) the schisms between faith, belief and doubt? What would a rethinking of the humanities, critical theory, architecture, city planning, the arts, or knowledge itself look like beyond the subject-object dualism that separates humans from plants, animals and objects? Is a different mode of humanity possible – a mode that would render us newly constituted beings in a newly constituted world?

Oil, capital and democracy

As a growth-consumption machine, capitalism is impossible to reconcile with finite environment. Today’s global economy is deeply dependent upon, and embedded into, cheap oil and natural gas. Western industrial democracies and countless other political regimes are built around the plentiful production or supply of oil and gas which power virtually all movement of people, materials, foodstuffs and manufactured goods, and indeed capital itself. As threats to oil suppliers rise, Western powers have been prepared to resort to more extreme measures in the name of securing supply: technologically, fracking (hydraulic fracturing) enables deeper drilling but at increased risk of uncontainable deep sea leaks and heightened occurrence of earthquakes in areas unrelated to tectonic plates. The 2012 Session will explore the histories of capital and democracy in terms of the changing natures of nature and the forms of energy consequently available to it at any given historical moment.

Catastrophes and disasters

Catastrophes and disasters have usually been thought of discretely as either natural or socio-political events. While the catastrophic character of politically prompted events – genocidal wars, ethnic cleansing, epidemics, etc. – are often analogized by naturalistic representation., large ‘acts of God’ have been rationalized as being beyond the socio-political. But this distinction is fast being undone, bringing to ‘catastrophe’ an older critique of the impossibility of separating the natural from the cultural. How do we account for the dramatic speeding up of the rate of change in natural processes when the time lines of nature are converging with those of society in a mutual lockstep? To what extent does the apocalyptic force us to grasp the collective through its possible extinction, or to think the world through our absence? How would a future in which humans have disappeared look like? How will the thoroughgoing deterioration of the Earth and of nature signal the end/reformulation of social and political forms?

Bio-extraction and bio-wealth

One of the most salient questions in contemporary life is how the biological is being given new forms, denominated, stored, accumulated and turned into new forms of property. The genome of plants, animals and micro-organisms are now transformable and transactable in ways that were heretofore unimaginable. Bio-banking itself is increasingly directed at human DNA, human tissue, human embryos and human stem cells. As debates about patenting life itself rage, a new round of bio-extraction is under way. We will assess recent challenges to conceptions of nature, biology, technology and life and inquire into the extent to which new developments in life-science produce new possibilities of exploiting nature.

Alternative economies and the urbanization of nature

The cumulative threat to humanity and the Earth arises from the existing relations of production; from the ways in which products are consumed or wasted and how surplus is appropriated and distributed. The 2012 Session will reflect on what “alternative economies” might look like and how a commons might be produced and sustained. What are currently the kinds of economic activities and modes of consumption that offer possibilities of livelihood and well-being beyond the global purview of growth and boundless consumption inherent to capitalist rule? If the concept of “community” is to be extended beyond the human species, how can “the economy” be represented as a tangled space of negotiated interdependence between humans and non-humans?

Furthermore, the ecological crisis and the enlargement of the scales of territorial design are requestioning the project of urbanism, the future of architecture, landscape and infrastructure design and the relations between design, life sciences and the natural world. In the age of climate crisis and natural resource scarcity, what novel options for urban design and urban living are worth considering? What experiments are currently under way in art, technology and aesthetics to face down the conditions of degradation and disaster?


Mar 25, 16:06
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