Karma Waltonen: Holding Up a Mirror to Us
What is the work of the university system? Producing knowledge? Burdening students with a lifetime of loans to default on? Building massive apartment style dorms and cafeterias with Chick-fil-A and Papa Johns to choose from? Knowledge production is theoretically our answer, though most universities have turned to for-profit business models. These models put pressure on professors to regularly publish scholarship while taking on administrative and teaching duties that crowd out time for writing and research. Following the business model of high productivity, many professors are forced away from working on the frontiers of their fields and, rather, write and train students to write unreadable “scholarship.” But these obstacles do not stop academics from adding readable material to their knowledge fields and finding new ways to do so.
We discussed the role of academic journals and academic writing with Karma Waltonen, English professor at UC Davis, writer, blogger, and editor of Margaret Atwood Studies.
With a visible expansion of academic journals in recent years, it is clear enough that journals are a popular form of discourse. Academic training, especially in graduate school, is geared toward knowledge production, lending itself to the journal form. Yet most of what is written and read in journals generally stays within academic circles. Do you find this problematic at all? What is your view of the role of the academic journal and knowledge production in the 21st century?
I think we definitely have an issue with academic knowledge tending to stay in academic circles. On the other hand, though, everything written is written for a specific audience--and specialists writing to specialists is part of how specialized knowledge can propagate. Still, I think it's important for us to better honor academics who write and educate outside of journals. Part of our problem is that we only reward one type of writing--for one type of audience. But surely those of us who reach even larger audiences by taking our work out into the world deserve recognition too.
I conceive a strip-miner to be a model exploiter, and as a model nurturer I take the old- fashioned idea or ideal of a farmer. The exploiter is a specialist, an expert; the nurturer is not. The standard of the exploiter is efficiency; the standard of the nurturer is care. The exploiter's goal is money, profit; the nurturer's goal is health—his land's health, his own, his family's, his community's, his country's. Whereas the exploiter asks of a piece of land only how much and how quickly it can be made to produce, the nurturer asks a question that is much more complex and difficult: What is its carrying capacity? (That is: How much can be taken from it without diminishing it? What can it produce dependably for an indefinite time?) The exploiter wishes to earn as much as possible by as little work as possible; the nurturer expects, certainly, to have a decent living from his work, but his characteristic wish is to work as well as possible. The competence of the exploiter is in organization; that of the nurturer is in order—a human order, that is, that accommodates itself both to other order and to mystery. The exploiter typically serves an institution or organization; the nurturer serves land, household, community, place. The exploiter thinks in terms of numbers, quantities, "hard facts"; the nurturer in terms of character, condition, quality, kind.Wendell Berry from The Unsettling of America
Photograph, EXSIZ, 2011 by Shannon Ebner
In the spatial sense, the grid states the autonomy of the realm of art. Flattened, geometricized, ordered, it is antinatural, antimimetic, antireal. It is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature. In the flatness that results from its coordinates, the grid is the means of crowding out the dimensions of the real and replacing them with the lateral spread of a single surface. In the overall regularity of its organization, it is the result not of imitation, but of aesthetic decree. Insofar as its order is that of pure relationship, the grid is a way of abrogating the claims of natural objects to have an order particular to themselves..."Rosalind Krauss from her article Grids in the journal October
On January 1st, New York-based artist and designer Ben DuVall relaunched his personal website as an experiment—inverting the typical utility of an artist or designer’s site as an archive of past work and remaking it as an “anti-archive.” Gone was Ben’s personal portfolio and in its place was something much more spare and direct. Removed from the constraints of a market-based approach to design or art, the space was reconfigured so that it could become a kind of performance in its own right.
Practically, Ben’s new site is a frame for one piece of content that changes daily. When the 24 hours is up, the piece is removed and can only be accessed from “the Anti-Archive custodian.” All work must be uploaded on the day that it is live on the site so the content stays firmly anchored in the present—charting somewhat in real time the currents of Ben’s creative output. This setup encourages the viewer to focus on the content that is directly in front of them while at the same time inviting them to forget the earlier work that preceded it.
What follows is a discussion with Ben about the nature of this project and the issues surrounding its making. Please excuse any shift in tone to 'interviewer.' Though I count Ben as a good friend, it's hard not to slip into a pseudo-journalistic style, especially for someone not trained in the art. Only true journalists and savants seem to escape it—one by going through it and the other by completely bypassing it.
It's kind of hard to believe that you've been running (operating?) your site as an anti-archive for almost half a year now—that's a lot of unarchived content. How are you feeling about the project at this point in its process?
Yeah, today is day 142, so about a month away from half a year. It's funny that you mention time, because so much of the work has ended up dealing with time, somewhat independently from the anti-archive concept. I've become really fascinated with video timecodes and timestamps, which arose from some work I was doing with film subtitles, but now those have branched out into some drawings and artist books. So it's something that I'm thinking about a lot, the pretty obvious references that pop into my head a lot are On Kawara and Christian Marclay, Kawara from the art-as-life standpoint and Marclay from his mining found material in the service of some kind of overwhelming or meditative (sublime?) effect.
The most important thing to me, which lies somewhere between success and failure, is that producing so much, even if it's just a quick few minute sketch, has helped me to pick up some threads between different aspects of my work that I was confused about how they fit together before. I have an extremely hard time working in series, which the site has forced me to do, first of all with everything I upload as a meta-series and even within the smaller series that show up along the way. Since I can't think of something totally original every day, I'm forced to revisit some older work or use it as a launch point.
Some day the earth will weep, she will beg for her life, she will cry with tears of blood. You will make a choice, if you will help her or let her die, and when she dies, you too will die.
- John Hollow Horn, Oglala Lakota, 1932
The particular kind of wonder elicited by environmental crises and the ecosystems that humans develop in response is one of the consistent overarching themes of environmental science fiction. Those themes invariably flow from and then back into an engagement with politics and how they influence society, both now and in the potentialities of the future. Eric C. Otto, an Associate Professor of Environmental Humanities at Florida Gulf Coast University, understands well the issues surrounding environmental science fiction and the strands of critique associated with the genre. In his book Green Speculations, Otto looks at how science fiction (sf) critiques the human values associated with environmental ruin. In conversation, Otto carefully points to a future that involves reckoning with disaster and thoughtfully mobilizing human ingenuity against that disaster.
- Joseph Hurtgen
In Green Speculations, you discuss the role of wonder in sf's descriptions of human ecosystems. The sense of wonder is often inspired by technosocial responses to ecological disaster and climate change in sf--for example, Kim Stanley Robinson's flooded New York City in 2140. What does it mean that flooded cities are entering the sf megatext? Is this an admittance of environmental defeat? How do you read these new science-fictional ecosystems?
The question of human-created, “artifactual” wonder and non-human, “natural” wonder was something I really grappled with in writing Green Speculations. And I continue to grapple with, for example, the fact that my emotions upon flying over the Grand Canyon for the first time equated to my emotions upon flying over Manhattan for the first time (i.e., tears, and a silent expletive). Both places are indeed awe-inspiring, yet they are radically different ecologically and historically. (Not to mention I was in a heavier-than-air flying machine!)
Environmental sf complicates the question and meaning of wonder, because at the same time it is concerned with human impact on the non-human world, its authors also imagine some pretty “Manhattan-esque” (if you will) responses to, and engagements with, ecology. We can’t say environmental sf wants to return us to a lost nature and restore wonder in the Rachel Carson sense, but we also can’t say it wants to solve environmental issues with wondrous technology. Instead, the “new science-fictional ecosystems” seem to be the most genuine narrative responses to a global situation where human ingenuity has impacted ecosystems but can also be thoughtfully mobilized to reverse or minimize this impact (e.g., permaculture).
Does science fiction imagine human-induced ecological disaster because it is admitting defeat? I don’t think so. There are sf stories featuring flooded cities, extinct and exploited species, overpopulation, drought, toxic waste, and more, and I think writers are telling these stories (1) to remind us that we’re not there yet, and relatedly, (2) to urge us to avoid moving toward these futures by being more thoughtful about the artifacts we create (i.e., technologies, economies, etc.).
Photograph from ‘Dogs Chasing Cars in the Desert’ by John Divola
Speed is simply the rite that initiates us into
a nostalgic desire for forms to revert to immobility, concealed
beneath the very intensification of their mobility. Akin to the
nostalgia for living forms that haunts geometry
Jean Baudrillard from America
rhythmic procession of days
digital memory, knowledge coming and going
logic of rock and roll:
thanks to heroic self-sacrifice to psychedelia, I hallucinate drug-free
echoes of radio static: neurons, cells, cell-like biota,
zoetropic aurality, recognition of self, mirror staging,
dissociative panic, stirrings of uncertainty, prefigurations
the feeling that, no, this isn’t life is it?
life in the woods, life in skyscrapers, life at home
sirens on roadways as loud as sirens in dreams