Cecilia Asberg, Prof Dr, is Guest professor of science & technology studies, gender and environment, KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm
About the Author
Cecilia Åsberg, Prof Dr, is Guest professor of science & technology studies, gender and environment at KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, and since 2015 Full Professor in Gender Studies (and chair of Gender, Nature, Culture) at Linköping University, Sweden. Her thing is bringing art and science to the very interdisciplinary humanities, and transformative insights to people. Åsberg is the founder and director of the lively, extra-disciplinary research group, The Posthumanities Hub since 2008, and founding director of the Seed Box, the Swedish national Environmental Humanities research programme (2013-2017). She is Fellow of the Rachel Carson Centre at Ludvig Maximilian University in Munich and an avid international networker, teacher and knowledge broker. Since her PhD (the first PhD exam awarded in Gender Studies in Scandinavia) on genetic sciences, gender and the genetic imaginary, she has pioneered new humanities formats in Sweden, like feminist posthumanities and environmental humanities. Recent publications include: Cecilia Åsberg & Marietta Radomska (2021) Environmental Violence and Postnatural Oceans: Low-Trophic Theory in the Registers of Feminist Posthumanities in Violence, Gender and Affect (eds Marita Husso et al); Cecilia Åsberg (2020) “A Sea Change in the Environmental Humanities”, Ecocene: Cappadocia Journal of Environmental Humanities; “Checking in with Deep Time” (2020) with Christina Fredengren, in Deterritorializing the Future (Open Humanities Press); a special issue on toxic embodiment in journal Environmental Humanities (Duke UP), edited with Olga Cielemecka (2019), and the Springer anthology A Feminist Companion to the Posthumanities (2018), edited with Rosi Braidotti.
A wealth of contemporary speculative practices on how to deal with life, death, and co-existence on a planet haunted by pandemics, mass species extinctions, climate change, and rampant societal injustice are currently circulating, in public — in academia, in art, and in activism. Existential concerns, what the humanities are well-equipped to handle, and new insights are sought after in public. So how can the humanities respond well? For instance to the normative notions of the human that make some people more killable than others (like the elderly COVID-patients in Swedish nursing homes, black men in the US, born or unborn girls in very poor communities, refugees in camps, indigenous environmental activists in the global South). How can the humanities make themselves, to use a term from Donna Haraway, respons-able for how a ‘normative human’ has also shaped the planet into such an inhabitable or even toxic place for many others? One answer, a well-trodden path by now, are the feminist posthumanities, and how they together (as environmental humanities, medical humanities, decolonial humanities, queer humanities, technohumanities, posthuman or multispecies humanities) question the exclusions and inclusions made in the name of the human and the humanities. Here theory meets practice, science meets art, and a transformational sense of humanity meets the people.
The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty; not knowing what comes next.
Ursula K. Le Guin
This is a time wide open to new exchanges, new synergies and formations of knowledge. A wealth of contemporary speculative practices on how to deal with life, death, and co-existence on a planet haunted by pandemics, mass species extinctions, climate change, and rampant societal injustice are currently circulating, in public — in academia, in art, and in activism. Existential concerns, what the humanities are well-equipped to handle, and new insights are sought after in public. Boosted by social movements (like Greta Thunberg’s Fridays for Future-movement), science has for instance never exhibited more societal relevance and collaborative will on a global scale than in the present. In view of the intensity of COVID-19 research, we witness its public performance and the agenda-setting work of science on a daily basis across many media. Science and knowledge are back in flavor, while their actual contesting practices sometimes scare and confuse citizens, perhaps more than ever. Climate science has boldly presented humanity, not just with warnings but with ultimatums: change climate policy and practice now or change the environment irreparably on this planet in as few as ten years. It is now or never. Everything is changing, everything is in question, even humanity, it seems: So how about the humanities? How can the humanities respond to the normative notions of the human that make some people more killable than others (like elderly COVID-patients in Swedish nursing homes, black men in the US, born or unborn girls in very poor communities, refugees in camps, indigenous environmental activists in the global South). How can the humanities make themselves, to use a term from Donna Haraway, respons-able for how this ‘normative human’ has also shaped the planet into such an inhabitable or even toxic place for many others? One answer, a well-trodden path by now, are the feminist posthumanities, and how they together (as environmental humanities, medical humanities, decolonial humanities, queer humanities, technohumanities, posthuman or multispecies humanities) question the exclusions and inclusions made in the name of the human and the humanities. Here theory meets practice, science meets art, and a transformational sense of humanity meets the people.
The big question of our time, especially across the lively fields of the humanities, concerns action, what to do when all forms of action seem tainted, contaminated, and impure. What are the possibilities for considerate actions of co-existential care, concern and curiosity in such a situation? What type of engagement might guide the relevant humanities in this era of loss, degradation, and polarization where options are increasingly hard to fathom? Is there even hope in futures-to-come at all, in this age of the Great Acceleration? If so, how can we carefully involve ourselves in such futures? Can we, as scholars of the interdisciplinary humanities, extend planetary care and situated insight without risking something ourselves?
My answer to this, here, is no. Risk we must. The humanities needs to be as responsive to change as the world it purports to, and thus must welcome the risks of change. For instance the risk of losing disciplinary purity when many societal stakeholders set the agenda. So I affirm that we have to take these risks of impurity, for instance:
- juggle academic capitalism and neo-liberal agendas to the best of our change-academia-from-within capacity in collaborative practices with anti-capitalist movements, and with our widest tongue-in cheek smile as we, from within, transform the system we are part of – this as some of the best changes have come from within the belly of the beast;
- open the floodgates to diversity, a diversity of scholars and critical interests for the purpose of decolonizing the humanities; use as often as possible the unpopular “f-word” (as in feminist) in our practices (feminist posthumanities in my case) to explain the rich diversity of scholarship behind or contesting this term. While the gender-hating waxes and wanes in public discourse, we explain with care what that critical tool box of feminist theorizing does for us analytically; or,
- do human and more-than-human humanities in the very demanding registers of inter- (if not post-)disciplinary arts and sciences, and do gender, more-than-gender or way-beyond-gender research for strategic purposes, and still, always risk failing.
If we consider worlds within the world, death is the certainty we can hold on to mentally, in order to cope with all the uncertainties of worlds perishing and new ones emerging. But there is a lot of liveliness, play and sociability in-between, even after death too, and we need to cater to that liveliness, I suggest, with more fervor. Territorialism within the humanities and social science is not what will help us as diverse communities, linked together in various ways. For us, in the more-or-less feminist communities of interdisciplinary humanities scholars working on various topics (such as bio- and eco art in critical liaison with practices of life sciences and death studies, creative AI or multispecies ethics and the threats to biological diversity, oceanic studies and sustainability), we have found feminist posthumanities a fruitful platform for collaboration and theoretical debate. It is not necessarily an easy way to attract research funding in a very disciplinary academic landscape (in Sweden), but it assists us in formulating our relevance to local and global settings, to find support with each other, and to stay relevant as feminist posthumanities aims to capture a changing reality.
In fact, the recent surge of wildly irreverent forms of humanities (like, gender humanities, environmental humanities, chemical humanities, geohumanities, decolonial humanities, arts of sustainability, or multispecies humanities) testify already, as Rosi Braidotti would say, to an embarrassment of riches within critical thought. Cultural transformations is nothing new to human kind, so the new humanities tries to respond as adequately as they can to fast and interlinked changes in the present. Such societally tethered humanities also manifests as a great will to contribute transformative insights to society, to collaborate, to change the world, to take action, and also to some degree, to both narcissism and the need to diffract a new self-image of the actual, living humans of the humanities. Then again, there are in the humanities (and humanity) still many subjects and embodied subjectivities that yet have not been given much attention. Much is still to be learnt and unlearnt. Perhaps especially when it comes to recognizing colonized thought from various indigenous communities, such as the Sami scholars in Sweden.
More importantly, this groundswell in the humanities is simultaneously doing and undoing the humanities. It testifies to that thing, to paraphrase Ursula LeGuin, that makes not only life, but also good and relevant forms of the humanities, possible. Namely, permanent and intolerable uncertainty, the fact that we cannot know what comes next. Dealing with uncertainty, is key to the thriving of lively humanities. And for this we need the knowledges and insights from history, eco- and anti-racist critique, from feminist philosophy, literature, art, and science and technology studies as much as those from the horse’s mouth (the medical, biological and engineering researchers themselves, for instance, or equine participants). The ‘post’ of posthumanities is for us doing feminist posthumanities not a matter of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, but of reinventing and recalibrating humanities analytics for the situation and locality at hand. There is a serious lesson in Adrianne Rich’s “politics of location”, and we are still learning to think with place (and unlearning bad habits) along critical geohumanities, decolonial and indigenous perspectives, such as those of Zoe Todd, May-Britt Öhman or Kim TallBear. We need to let the field, the site in question, the inhabitants or locals give shape to the knowledge produced, be they human, less-than-human, all-too-human, or nonhuman. Otherwise, the knowledge will forever remain irrelevant to them and their world. This testifies to the urgency, and practical usefulness, of situated knowledges, as Donna Haraway formulated it. From that epistemological vantage point (situated humanities?) a surge of methodological innovations is seen within the human and more-than-human humanities, contributing to such approaches as field philosophy, multispecies ethnography or policy-changing research interventions.
The change we need, as much as the change we get, is the change that comes from within worlds, from the encounters that ensue. Action needs to be taken from within too, within a world that can never again be divided into irrelevant categories such as nature or culture. Nothing is natural anymore, and everything is made (as in artificial and as in exposed). The task of locally practiced, situated humanities is to story, critique and make sense of such postnatural exposures. In such work, we need to be ready to get our hands dirty, leave our comfort zones and engage with the synergies of knowledge at our feet.
In this moment, due to a virus, we are living through a transformative response that exhibits how very swiftly things could be done very differently. In this particular pandemic practice, which is the doing of a political ecology, there are a million threats to lives and to democracy at large, but also grains of hope, and agency. Succinctly, Arundhati Roy (2020) describes the pandemic as a portal, a gateway to an involuntary re-visioning of the world we inhabit:
Whatever it is, coronavirus has made the mighty kneel and brought the world to a halt like nothing else could. Our minds are still racing back and forth, longing for a return to “normality”, trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture. But the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.
At times of great emergency and fast action, like in the present situation, we need slow, uneasy theory alongside pointed knowledge practices for the transformations that transport us outside our comfort zones. If this outbreak, like others before it and those coming after, can be traced back to our cruel treatment and confinement of nonhuman animals, such as those at Chinese wet markets or Swedish chicken farms (examples abound everywhere in the world), let us now abandon it! As Roy stated: Nothing could be worse than a return to normality. What we need is more knowledge (a light burden) and pointed practice on those, still largely unfamiliar, human and nonhuman powers, and how they process the world with us in it. Such insights also need to pervade the interdisciplinary humanities. In fact, this changes everything for the practices we have come to term feminist posthumanities in the last 12 years of doing environmental humanities at the intersection of feminist science studies and local communities. And let me underline, taking on board more-than-human and nonhuman forces does not mean throwing the critical analytics of human power differences (such as feminist, eco-critical or decolonial thought) overboard. Quite the contrary; it hones those skills of understanding environed embodiment/embodied environment and mitigates the politics of exclusion/inclusion, always asking “cui bon” (who benefits)?
Thus, this cannot be the kind of territorial humanities that drags the carcasses of disciplinarity, of prejudice (even hate), and dead ideas behind us. Let us affirm the generative differences between our approaches and not engage in trench-wars of any kind, and playfully enjoy that there is so much to learn in worlds of uncertainty and in an uncertain world. This new post-epidemic form of modest, situated humanities needs to be open-ended, bio-curious and ready to engage across modern divides of nature and culture, disciplines, universities, academic and everyday life, and across national boundaries. It needs insights from the many humanities, the many arts and sciences, co-existing with non-academic knowledge practices, to stay societally relevant. Knowledge is always a light burden, variously situated and available to the reimagining of the world that now must ensue in the light of climate change and mass species extinction, political polarization and global pandemics. This is the new humanities, welcoming you warmly, together as we are, for a short while.
 Ripple, W.J., Wolf, C., Newsome, T., Galetti, M. Alamgir, M., Crist, E., Mahmoud, I, Laurence, W, and 15,364 scientists signatories from 184 countries (2017) “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: A Second Notice”, BioScience: Viewpoint, Dec 2017, vol.67, no 12:1026-1028; Lenton, T.M., Rockström, J., Gaffney, O., Rahmstorf, S., Richardson, K., Steffen, W., and Schellnhuber, H.J. (2019) “Climate tipping points – too risky to bet against”, Nature: Comment, Nov 28, vol 575: 592-595.
 Will Steffen, Wendy Broadgate, Lisa Deutsch, Owen Gaffney, and Cornelia Ludwig, “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: the Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1, (2015): 81–98.
 Haraway, D. J. (1991) “Situated Knowledges”, in Siminans, cyborgs, and women: The Re-invention of Nature, London, New York: Routledge.