Ant meets ANT: A gathering on “media ecologies”

By Kimberly Coulter

Earlier this summer I visited Heidelberg as a panelist for the “Media Ecologies” event  hosted by anthropologist Carsten Wergin. The aim: to discuss how concepts from digital and environmental humanities could “foster a more sustainable engagement with human and other-than-human spheres in a globalized world in crisis.” This held potential for broad interpretation.

While the crisis is indisputably an environmental one, its framing in terms of “ecologies” goes beyond what is commonly regarded as the natural environment. Implicit in this framing is Bruno Latour’s relational ontology approach, which encourages the examination of the material and conceptual relationships among human and nonhuman actors/actants, the “assemblage thinking” or actor-network theory (ANT) that represented a paradigm shift in my field, human geography, and related fields in the 2000s.  Ecology, Latour writes, is a “new way to handle all the objects of human and non-human collective life…Nature is here considered as what assembles all entities into one whole” (“To modernize or to ecologize?”1998: 249 incl. fn.). Media ecologies, it follows, may illuminate not only such relationships, but also the mediated nature of connections, representations, and engagement opportunities. Still a broad brief.

Yet in the panelists’ reflections on practice, the focus congealed: each of the five panelists was engaged in some way in projects at the intersection of digital and environmental humanities. Addressing the event’s aim to “foster sustainable engagement,” we described ways we have witnessed digital or environmental humanities succeeding (destabilizing paradigms, allaying fears, cultivating diplomacy, and amplifying serendipity) or failing (reinforcing power, fueling anxiety, or stoking resentment).

Haidy Geismar, director of the Digital Anthropology program at University College London, drew attention to projects’ community engagement and political effects. In one example of a digital archival object, a Maori cloak scanned like a landscape and presented as being of a place—maybe even placelike—found more resonance within its aboriginal community than a common 3D digital simulacrum. Such sensitivity is endangered, she cautioned, when universities focus on technical skills at the expense of critical ones, pointing to a polemical article alleging that digital humanities hype is being exploited to displace progressive projects. Geismar called for a reclaiming of “digital anthropology” by academic Anthropology, to safeguard it against anti-interpretive and uncritical applications.

As a practitioner working to engage both scholars and publics outside academia, I spoke on how digital media enhances (and complicates) environmental understanding through access, aggregation, and discovery in Ant Spider Bee and the Environment & Society Portal. We have observed that by facilitating unexpected connections, digital tools amplify serendipity. The Portal offers three tools for such discovery; I showed early iterations of the Portal’s (freshly updated) timeline and described what we learned about the importance of usability.

Werner Krauss of CliSAP, the excellence cluster on “Integrated Climate System Analysis and Predication” at the University of Hamburg, looking back at his work in light of (Latour’s) “diplomacy,” the ability of an anthropologist to speak well to someone (i.e., a research subject) about something that really matters to that person (2013). As a participant observer in a world of climate science, he has engaged in diplomacy himself, publishing his discursive exchanges with climate skeptics in the blog he co-edits, Die Klimazwiebel.

Together, Christophe Leclercq and Donato Ricci of the Science Po médialab described the ambitious Latour project which they managed and designed. “Inquiry into Modes of Existence” (AIME), funded by the European Research Council, developed a protocol to investigate what our mode of existence has been, if not modern. In contrast to ANT tracing of networks, this protocol follows “connectors” that “provide those networks with their specific tonalities.” Through a digital platform, some 200 “co-enquirers” were invited to collaboratively document an  interim report by Latour and, through comments and marginalia, inquire into discrepancies between Moderns’ experience and their accounts of it. This application of DH tools (the participation platform) was then analyzed by tracing “clues, anomalies, and understanding.” The project fell short, however, in cultivating correspondence with contributors, as platform use and terms of attribution for contributions were unclear. Contributors did, however, receive invitations to events like the final exhibition Reset Modernity!, a parallel project which, perhaps due to its more accessible and established format, succeeds in disorienting a broader audience.

In a “globalized world in crisis,” it is easy to become paralyzed. Yet by sharing our successes and failures, and acknowledging the anxieties and efforts that underlie them, we can become more aware of our true goals and more mindful about our engagements as we reach for them. It was a delight for me to participate and—especially—to benefit from the engagement of an insightful public. Remarkably, it was the only time I have witnessed an audience member respond in improvised song. Prof. emer. Fletcher DuBois, reflecting on Francis Bacon’s ant and Latour’s ANT, calls on us to “be the bee”:

Audio clip of his spontaneous song used with generous permission of Prof. emer. Fletcher Ranney DuBois, who can also be found on Spotify.

The event “Media Ecologies” took place at the University of Heidelberg on 2 June 2016.

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