Tag Archives: Environment

Stephanie Dabrowski On Nature and Connectedness in A Monster Calls

The Concept of Nature and Connectedness in Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls – Stephanie Dabrowski

The term “Nature” has famously been described by Raymond Williams as “one of the most complex words in the English language” (in “Post-Secular” 287). This is an observation enforced by Lorraine Datson and Fernando Vidal’s assertion that “nothing even approximating a full-dress account of the multiple meanings and histories of the word ‘nature’ and its cognates (or lack thereof) [is to be found] in other languages”, emphasising instead the significance of the term’s “varied and complex meanings” (5). The value of this term lies precisely in this complexity as it becomes emulative of the character of humankind’s relationship with the natural world it occupies, a relationship more than ever in need of interrogation since the onset of modernity and particularly in consequence of the current ecocrisis. Significantly, the word ‘environment’ which has come to supersede ‘nature’ as the term of choice since the onset of this crisis obscures much of the meaning that was once inherent in the conception of the natural world. Various literary critics have focused on the significance of the loss of the word nature, citing in particular its coincidence with the disenchantment of the natural and the consequent exploitative practices that have led to the plight of the environment (see Marx). Within this context literature emerges as an important tool not only for drawing attention to specific environmental concerns and powerful imaginings of the future consequences of such practices but, moreover, as a forum for reconnecting with some of the lost meaning previously intrinsically connected to the concept of nature. One such literary example is Patrick Ness’s young adult novel A Monster Calls which, although not primarily concerned with environmental issues, evokes interesting thoughts on nature by embodying it as an ancient, shape-shifting monster which comes walking in the modern day world in the form of a yew tree. The monster, which comes to help an isolated thirteen-year-old boy, Conor O’Mally, confront his feelings about losing his mother from cancer in the absence of any other familial or social support, can be argued to represent a return to older mythic relations with nature as well as highlighting the disconnectedness which pervades modern society, a disconnectedness from nature which extends to a lack of connection between people.

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Conspicuous Destruction

– Dr Megan Jones

When we think of waste, we imagine opportunities missed, lives ruined or environments polluted. “What a waste” we say, and we mean despair, destruction, desolation. Eliot’s clean, austere lines, the “vacant lots” of the dying city, shape our words in the throat. Rarely does waste conjure economies of affect or resilience, or the possibilities of forging counter-publics. For Achille Mbembe, the neo-liberal pursuits of post-apartheid South Africa have exacerbated the production of poor bodies as socially elided detritus, set adrift in no-man’s lands between the spectacle of consumption and rigorously defended privatization. In a landscape of excess —excess wealth, excess consumerism, excess security— the poor are rendered admissible, and so they remain below the horizon of social visibility. But what are the ways in which we think about waste as a means of articulation? How might waste offer opportunities to pressurise the distribution of wealth and well-being in South Africa and beyond?

I want to linger briefly on recent images of waste surfacing in urban communities in Mumbai and Johannesburg. Go to Youtube and watch Nandos’ recent ads, and you’ll see how the company has appropriated the stylings of izikhothane, a youth practice emerging from Johannesburg’s townships. Izikhothane’s participants, mostly men, burn expensive clothes and designer goods in a display of apparent indifference to the commodity. The idea behind this performance of wastefulness is that one has so much, one needs nothing—we might call it conspicuous destruction. Responses in the media and public discourse online have been scandalised; how dare people with so little behave in this way. What the responses miss is how practices like izikhothane push for a presence in the public domain and resist invisibility. Is there is a limit to which modes of consumption are able to provide their practitioners with agency? Yes, of course. Its appropriation by Nandos signals exactly the triumph of exchange value. Burning clothes and cars will not shift structures of power and privilege. Nonetheless, the reaching for presence that izikhothane attempts has rich symbolic and psychic value.

Refuse and Refuge

Published last year, Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers charts the difficulties endured by the Hussain family in the slum of Annawadi, located next to Mumbai’s expanding international airport.  The airport is a sleek symbol of India’s economic successes; the inhabitants of Annawadi survive by picking through its piles of discarded junk. On one level, the book is about the vast inequalities shaping the city’s spaces and the social and political injustices this often produces. Yet there is another facet to these lives lived through and in waste. The focaliser of the book is the Hussain’s eldest son, Abdul, who makes a living as a collector and seller of waste. Let’s not sentimentalise: Abdul dreams of escape from the slum’s desperate conditions – filth, disease, crowding, persecution by the authorities. But waste is also the site of his resilience and aspiration, is a cage and a refuge. Thus Boo asks us to read the inhabitants of Annawadi not only as victims but also as actors, and the waste-filled landscapes of their homes as home.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers

The value of waste

– Dr Tilla Slabbert

Ten years ago I moved to a small coastal village in the Western Cape where I now live within walking distance from the beach. One of the rituals that came to form part of my life is a diligent gathering of washed-up and discarded garbage whenever I walk the dogs. For most of these years, my immediate neighbour was a seventy something Dutch man who immigrated to South Africa in the late 1950s. I say was, because he sadly passed away less than a year ago. Jan was a real character; a positive and vibrant man who managed to banish one’s own fears of growing older. A true raconteur, he could capture his audience with colourful anecdotes, always ending on a humorous note. He used to laugh heartily at his own jokes. Two years ago, Jan and his wife sold their house and moved to another part of town. In packing up—and to my great disgust—he promptly dumped a load of unwanted waste across the road amongst the fynbos; in the vicinity of one of the footpaths leading to the beach. Broken garden tools, old buckets, a huge fifty gallon drum, and other junk littered the area. My partner and I later removed most of the garbage, but the drum, filled with bags of dog poop, we left behind for the time being, intending to collect it at a later stage, once the stench has faded a little.

Life carries on, one postpones, and after a few months the drum was covered by the resilient vegetation.  Two weeks after his birthday, and the day before his death, I had the honour of hugging Jan’s tall but faded body for the final time.

Recently the municipality removed some of the rooikrans in the neighbourhood and the hacking once again exposed the drum. It now lay rusted and eroded. Walking past it the other day, I thought: Jan is gone, the drum remains. I suddenly realised how self-righteous and selfish one can be when you become selective about what seems precious. Inorganic waste supposedly outlives humans, but could it not serve a purpose when it unearths nostalgia about those no longer visible? Or does it merely become valuable because it has been aestheticized by time? Once it has acquired a kind of weathered appearance, faintly resembling its previous form, like the murky outlines of a memory. The reflection brought another of Jan’s tales to mind.

During his youth on their farm in Holland, he was kicked in the face by a horse, losing all his teeth; he ended up wearing dentures before he turned twenty. On his arrival in South Africa (by ship), he was so pleased with the sight of Cape Town in the distance that he cheered madly, knocking his own dentures from his mouth. The set promptly plonked overboard and disappeared beneath the waters of Table Bay. As I stood staring at the rusty drum, I imagined hearing the teeth clicking with muffled laughter, lolling about somewhere at the bottom of the Atlantic. I envisaged them covered with nettle and sea slugs or swaying gently beneath the flux of oceanic silt: out of sight. On the other hand, perhaps there is a sea nymph somewhere on a rock, grinning widely and knowingly at those huge fishing trawlers, harvesting their loot.


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First reading of 2013 – The Natural Contract (1990) by Michel Serres

the-natural-contract

Welcome back to the members of our reading group. The first reading for 2013 consists of two chapters from Michel Serres’ book, The Natural Contract (1990). If any of our blog readers know Serres’ work or has read this book specifically, share you thoughts in the comments below.

Here is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

“Global environmental change, argues Michel Serres, has forced us to reconsider our relationship to nature. In this translation of his influential 1990 book Le Contrat Naturel, Serres calls for a natural contract to be negotiated between Earth and its inhabitants.

World history is often referred to as the story of human conflict. Those struggles that are seen as our history must now include the uncontrolled violence that humanity perpetrates upon the earth, and the uncontrollable menace to human life posed by the earth in reaction to this violence. Just as a social contract once brought order to human relations, Serres believes that we must now sign a “natural contract” with the earth to bring balance and reciprocity to our relations with the planet that gives us life. Our survival depends on the extent to which humans join together and act globally, on an earth now conceived as an entity.

Tracing the ancient beginnings of modernity, Serres examines the origins and possibilities of a natural contract through an extended meditation on the contractual foundations of law and science. By invoking a nonhuman, physical world, Serres asserts, science frees us from the oppressive confines of a purely social existence, but threatens to become a totalitarian order in its own right. The new legislator of the natural contract must bring science and law into balance.

Serres ends his meditation by retelling the story of the natural contract as a series of parables. He sees humanity as a spacecraft that with the help of science and technology has cast off from familiar moorings. In place of the ties that modernity and analytic reason have severed, we find a network of relations both stranger and stronger than any we once knew, binding us to one another and to the world. The philosopher’s harrowing and joyous task, Serres tells us, is that of comprehending and experiencing the bonds of violence and love that unite us in our spacewalk to the spaceship Mother Earth.”