Tuesday 30 March, 2021, 14:00 – 15:30
This session explores various human-nonhuman encounters that emerge in digital space.
Discussant: Dr Maan Barua, University of Cambridge
Jennifer Dodsworth, University of Oxford:
The Herdwick sheep is unknowingly central to many alternate visions of the Lake District National Park in the United Kingdom. They are a charismatic (Lorimer, 2014) cultural emblem to local rural communities who value most their long held traditions of pastoral upland sheep farming. They are the villain in conservation accounts which render Cumbria’s landscape “a sheepwrecked wasteland” (Monbiot, 2017). They are a commodified and stylised souvenir in the form of cuddly ‘Herdy’™ toys, clothing and giftware; a “cuddly soft power” (Buckingham, David and Jepson, 2013) emissary for the tourists of the Lake District’s international visitor base. These contrasting perspectives were unevenly ‘United by Herdy’ when, in 2015, the Lake District embarked upon a tourist-centred campaign to become an UNESCO World Heritage cultural landscape. The site of this encounter was digital: a visual social media campaign which heavily utilised the Herdy brand, and stuffed ‘Little Herdy’™ toys to raise awareness and funds for the nomination, reached over 9 million people during nearly two years. In this paper, I outline the complex contemporary role of Herdwick sheep in the physical/digital ‘#LakeDistrict’. I evaluate the strategies and impact of their inclusion in a tourist-centric #LakeDistrict on pastoral multispecies identities, and begin to tentatively experiment with ways to move from a passive incorporation of the Herdy™ towards an imperfect yet lively collaboration with ‘Object Sheep’. The project aims to uncover a more rural, more local, more-than-human perspective of the landscape. Together with a semi-feral Herdwick gimmer, I explore how we might share alternative accounts of the Herdwick’s existence through a novel (if gimmicky) emerging engagement with the Instagram #LakeDistrict: @fellssheepcam.
Jenny is a PhD student in cultural geography at the University of Oxford. Her research interests are focused around digital media, political ecology, and perceptions of more-than-human rural landscapes. Her thesis focuses on digital identities in, and imaginations of, the Lake District National Park within the social media platform Instagram. She also works as an RA for the European research project contracts2.0, which aims to develop novel contract-based approaches to incentivise farmers for the increased provision of environmental public goods.
Lauren Drakopulos, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill
Cleo Woelfle-Erskine, University of Washington
Robert M. Anderson, University of Washington:
Normative assumptions about the value of nonhuman life––that (some) nonhuman lives are intrinsically valuable for what that provide to humans––often constrain the lives and futures of other species, as in the case of exploitation for human consumption and entertainment or through habitat destruction and anthropogenic climate change. Efforts to mitigate the impacts humans have on nonhuman beings (e.g. conservation) have their own material effects on nonhuman life, and are limited by the same assumptions which produced the outcomes they are intended to correct. Increasingly the digital has become a mediator in shaping the affective relationships between humans and nonhuman beings, including plants, fungi, microbes and the lands, waters, and geophysical processes that conspire with living beings to produce ecosystems. However, digital technologies play an ambivalent role in multispecies relations with their potential to exact harm or foster relations of care, or often, a messy mix of the two. From the replacement of live circus elephants with holograms to address animal welfare concerns, to the use of LiDAR scans to understand forest dynamics for conservation, digital technologies make present the absence of embodied animals in a reconfiguration of multispecies futures. We analyze several brief case studies of digitally mediated multispecies relations to ask: How do digital (re)creations of animal life and their habitats generate caring or affective relations between human and nonhuman animals? What transformative work might these technologies do in the world, and what relationships of power and anthropocentrism do they challenge and/or leave intact? What speculative futures and ways of knowing might these technologies manifest? While the ubiquity of animal use often renders animals and the embodied effects of human impact invisible, so too are digital technologies increasingly invisibilized through their proliferation. And yet, digital technologies might also make visible the traces of loss, care, and harm that characterize multispecies relationality
Lauren Drakopulos’s research examines how technology and Big Data are impacting how we come to know, care about and govern nature. Her current work focuses on emerging conservation monitoring technologies in oceans and fisheries. Lauren is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Geography at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
Cleo Woelfle-Erskine’s research focuses on ecological and social dimensions of human relations to rivers and their multi-species inhabitants. He facilitates collaborative research in partnership with Indigenous and frontline communities. His book Underflows: transfiguring rivers, queering ecology is forthcoming from University of Washington Press.
Robert M. Anderson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Geography at the University of Washington. His current research examines the controversy and conflict over the return of wolves to the Pacific Northwest, exemplary of his broader interests in cultural and political dimensions of biodiversity conservation and ecological restoration.
Alexander Soete, University of Amsterdam
Stephanie Hobbis, Wageningen University
Geoffrey Hobbis, University of Groningen:
The Lau-speakers of Malaita, Solomon Islands, hunt dolphins for their teeth. Used as traditional currency and part of a broader, long-standing approach to sustainable marine resource management, the future of the hunt is uncertain and this uncertainty is intrinsically entwined with processes of anthropogenic climate change and social media spectacles. The habitat of the dolphins is threatened by a confluence of factors beyond the control of the Lau such as rising sea levels and temperatures, coral bleaching and industrial fishing. The responsibilities for climate change, and the processes of global capitalism that drive it, are located well beyond this least developed state on the margins of global capital and geopolitics. Yet, Solomon Islanders feel the more dramatic effects of climate change such as the loss of their land, resources and the sociocultural practices linked to both. Based on a systematic ‘scraping’ of Malaitan and Solomon Islands Facebook forums, grounded in fifteen months of classically conceived longitudinal ethnographic fieldwork, this project investigates the digital mediation of the dolphin hunt and the dynamic digital ecology in which it exists. Moral uncertainties are common, with local tradition and western ideals clashing, especially among Malaitans themselves. The debates surrounding the dolphin hunt provides an entrée to teasing out how competing visions for sustainability are negotiated within global inequalities and how Nature 2.0 conservation discourses recreate the very system that precipitated the current environmental crisis.
Alexander Soete is a master’s student in New Media & Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam. Having interned with organizations such as UNEP and IPBES, his focus has been on nature’s mediation and its engagement online. His interest lies with sustainability and ocean conservation, specifically in the Asia-Pacific region.
Stephanie and Geoffrey Hobbis are anthropologists who have spent the last decade researching digital transformations in Solomon Islands. Stephanie, an Assistant Professor with the Sociology of Development and Change Group, Wageningen University, focuses on the everyday politics of infrastructural development. Geoffrey, an Assistant Professor with the Centre of Media and Journalism Studies, University of Groningen, explores emerging trends in indigenous digital cultures and societies. Their research can be found in journals such as Ethnos,Oceania and Anthropological Forum, and in Geoff’s monograph, The Digitizing Family: An Ethnography of Melanesian Smartphones (Palgrave, 2020).
Ben Platt, University of Cambridge:
Alex Garland’s Annihilation (2019) manifests a digital ecology in its content, material substrate and affective form. An adaptation of Jeff VanDerMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, Garland captures the dissolution Humanist schema in mesmerising and often uncanny form. Human and nonhuman genetic code refract and mutate within the liminal zone of Area X to foreground the interconnectivity that subsists biological life. Interconnectivity is not only a diegetic element, however. It also forms the basis of post-cinematic production. The films VFX producer, Andrew Whitehurst, employed specific production methods to reiterate ecological principles. Mandelbrot’s fractal geometry was one such method: a mathematical principle that dictates a geometric system – the fractal – in which each point infinitely and recursively interacts with every other point. Whitehurst used a fractal lens in conjunction with VFX software to produce petroleum like effects, crystalline landscapes and nebulous geomorphic clouds which condense biochemical mutation. By placing diegesis into conversation with digital production, Annihilation foregrounds itself as an outcome of the very same processes of relationality that subsist biological life. It might therefore be conceived of as a type of ‘reflexive eco-cinema’ that renders palpable the systemic operation contemporary media ecologies and their entwinement with biophysical rhythms. Being disseminated via the post-cinematic media platform Netflix, Annihilation draws this abstract entwinement into spectatorial space – in what Deleuze might term a block of affect – opening space for the viewer to reflect upon their extended subjectivity through questions of interconnectivity and incomprehensibility.
Ben is a cultural and historical geographer at the University of Cambridge primarily interested in the political and aesthetic operation of ecological landscape urbanism. Working between the materiality of ‘nonhuman labourers’ and their mediation, his work looks to identify ‘environmental’ forms of power and ways in which novel human-nonhuman relationships might provide spaces of disruption.
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