“Planetary Poetics”: What is it?

SEI Key Researcher, Ann Elias reflects on the recent Planetary Poetics workshop presented by The Institute of Advanced Studies, University College London, in collaboration with the Sydney Environment Institute.

Photo by Nathan Anderson on Unsplash

It was the third day of a workshop titled Planetary Poetics at University College London, and the speakers were from the Institute of Advanced Studies at UCL and the Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. Someone asked: ‘what do we mean by “the planetary”? Someone else asked: ‘what do we mean by “poetics”’? ‘And, by the way, who is “we”?’

The Anthropocene, climate change, the scale of the planetary, and the politics of planetary aesthetics were the basis from which speakers at Planetary Poetics explored history, literature, visual art, visual culture, geography, and philosophy. Chaired with insight and precision by the Institute’s Director, Tamar Garb, the workshop sought points of interaction and dialogue. But the ocassion was more than this – it was an outward looking event with a shared agenda about transformative thinking, ethics, about academic work as action, philosophy as politics, and the public relevance of the humanities in a posthuman era.

Rosi Braidotti launched the workshop with a Keynote address in UCL’s Darwin Lecture Theatre. Elliptical, humorous, warm, provocative and riveting, Braidotti challenged the audience to invent new ways of thinking, and to abandon the Vitruvian Man and other symbols of a humanist worldview that excludes so many other humans from the notion of ‘we’. Braidotti, instead, proposed affirmative posthuman ethics for sustainable futures on a planetary scale. Blue Humanities, Green Humanities, Environmental Humanities, Animal Studies, Human-Animal Studies, Eco-Feminism, Eco-Art History, and more: Rosi Braidotti’s slides listed the proliferation of humanities-based, interdisciplinary fields of study to show how the Humanities has shifted from a set of white, western, human-centred academic disciplines to a set of ethical and critical studies inclusive of human and non-human entities.

The decision to begin a workshop on the environmental humanities with a thinker and activist like Rosi Braidotti was inspired. For two days, papers in different fields of the Humanities interrogated the inclusive and exclusive ‘we’, the state of planetary catastrophe as represented in art and literature, especially in relation to climate change, the question of human control over ‘nature’ and others (but also the forces that exceed human control), messages about the planetary offered by the poetics of water, the song of the nightingale, by anxieties about parenthood induced by climate, by the alterity of oceans, and by the management of everyday aspects of climate by cities.

Projects and practices of clear public utility and engagement were among the papers presented at Planetary Poetics: an Australia Research Council project led by Iain McCalman of SEI, and Kirsten Wehner, that investigates and documents the everyday experiences of Anthropocenic change by people living in rural and coastal communities; a documentary film, by Mark Kaplan, titled Village versus Empire, set on Jeju Island off the coast of the Korean Peninsula, where an invasion by a US naval base has caused tragic ecological and social damage to a UNESCO natural heritage site. The film has the potential to reach, affect, and influence thousands of people.

In the face of environmental urgency should the arts and humanities respond by becoming more instrumental, more public-oriented, and less about autonomous practice? But poetry is not a luxury; dreaming is not a luxury – more than once was the question raised about utility compared with the ‘uselessness’ of art and the imagination in the context of a planet in crisis. The workshop papers concluded with a presentation by Briony Fer who talked about art and the history of detail, which she also related to the theme of art and crisis. What is the fate of art in an instrumental culture determined by climate? Can the small, marginal details of a painting, the introspective moments of the artist, which already benefit humanity through intellect, innovation and beauty, also contribute to the fight against climate which is planetary in scale?

Ann Elias is Associate Professor in Art History at the University of Sydney. Research interests include: camouflage as a military, social and aesthetic phenomenon; flowers and their cultural history; coral reef imagery of the underwater realm. Books include Camouflage Australia: art, nature, science and war (2011), Useless Beauty: flowers and Australian art (2015), and Coral Empire: Underwater oceans, colonial tropics, visual modernity (submitted to Duke University Press). Her extensive research on camouflage involving Australian artists and scientists in the Second World War was recently aired in an ABC television documentary produced by Johnny Morris, titled Deception by Design. She is a Key Researcher with the Sydney Environment Institute, a serving member of the International Committee of the College Art Association of America, and International Liaison for the Art Association of Australia and New Zealand.