Q&A with Luke Fischer: Exploring modes of interdisciplinary research in the environmental humanities

SEI’s Knowledge Translation Officer talks to poet, writer, and philosophy scholar, Luke Fischer, about his interdisciplinary research which seeks to synthesise poetic modes of understanding and philosophical thinking about the world, including the environment.

Photo by Janet Laurence in Aceh Fauna and Flora Int Elephant Camp , Exhibited After Eden Sherman Foundation for Contemporary Art

Luke Fischer explains that a task of the environmental humanities is to engage in interdisciplinarity, which can work to overcome the various issues presented by the Anthropocene.

Anastasia Mortimer: What role has the environment played in both your philosophy and your poetry?

Luke Fischer: My philosophical work is mostly transdisciplinary and focused on how poetry and art can deepen our vision of the world, including the environment. In my monograph on the German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke and phenomenological philosophy The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems I argue that Rilke’s poetic vision facilitates an overcoming of dualism (between self and world, inner and outer, mind and nature, etc.) and focus especially on his perception of animals. Rilke was inspired by the visual arts and had a practice of observing things with deep attentiveness. His animal poems (‘The Panther’ is the most famous example) grew out of this contemplative perception, which he imaginatively intensified through poetic language. In this poetic vision, the animal no longer appears as an indifferent other or as an automaton (as Descartes conceived animals) but as a distinctive, animate being. Poetry of this kind mediates insight into animal worlds and expands human awareness of non-human others.

Another significant academic interest is European Romanticism and especially the poetry and scientific thought of Goethe. One of the key tasks within the environmental humanities (and sciences) is the cultivation of genuine interdisciplinarity (as environmental issues are cultural, scientific, ethical, and political problems which cannot be adequately addressed by any one discipline). In an introduction to a special issue of the Goethe Yearbook (2015, co-authored with Dalia Nassar) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ I explained how Goethe remains a significant role model for the unification of poetry and science. Goethe applied poetic capacities in his scientific research and expressed scientific insights in his poetry. His science is thus poetic and his poems convey genuine epistemic insights into nature. Goethe also regarded art as a human expression of the same principles that are at work in organic nature and thus referred to art as the ‘spiritual organic’. He saw a deep continuity between culture and nature and articulated a vision that can help to inspire a future in which human culture exists in harmony with the environment, in contrast to the immensely destructive impact of our current society.

A third area of research that is key to my philosophy and poetry is the nature of metaphorical language. I hold the view that certain kinds of metaphors can reveal a deep interconnectedness within the diversity of nature as well as between the human and the other-than-human (this will be the subject of my paper at the symposium ‘The Nexus of Life: Ecological Crisis and Creative Understanding’).

I have mentioned the above areas of research as they also inform my poetry. I have written many poems about animals and the environment, and continuities between nature and art, as well as poems that critique the destructiveness of modern society. My poetry explores imaginatively and aesthetically the same concerns as my research. My poetic writing is also informed by a wide reading of contemporary poetry as well as environmental philosophy, ecocritical theory and ecopoetics

AM: How can poetry advance our understanding of the environment, and allow us to address the issues of the Anthropocene?

LF: Here I can only intimate a few ways in which poetry can respond to the issues of the Anthropocene––to this new geological epoch in which humanity is directly responsible for the alteration of the earth’s ecosystems (in predominantly destructive ways) on a vast scale (mass extinction of species, deterioration and destruction of habitats, climate change, etc).

To begin with, I think we need to ask the question, why are we so willing to act in destructive ways towards the environment?

Since the time of the modern scientific revolution, an image has gained ground of nature (this is directly connected to the reductionist program of modern science) as no more than a complex inanimate mechanism (Descartes is paradigmatic here in his conception of animals as automatons and humans as the exclusive bearers of [rational] souls). This view of nature contrasts strongly with earlier visions of nature within the Western tradition (as animate and endowed with a religious or mythical significance) as well as views of the environment within Indigenous cultures. If nature is no more than an inanimate mechanism, there seems little reason to have a direct ethical concern for it, just as I do not bear moral responsibilities towards my laptop.

I have moral concerns for human others because I regard them as autonomous persons. Similarly, poetry that awakens us to the sentience, wisdom, and agency of the more-than-human world can help to expand our ethical concerns beyond the realm of the human. It can deepen our affective relationship to the environment and contribute towards the development of a genuinely ecological conscience (in contrast to a ‘shallow ecology’ that is only concerned for the environment in so far as it benefits human survival).

Our destructive attitudes are connected to a human alienation from the natural world. In order to overcome this alienation, it is not only important that we transform what we think about nature, we also need to transform how we think about and engage with the environment. It is in the latter respect that I think poetry and art are especially important (I am critical of the view that seems quite prevalent in the environmental humanities, in which the purpose of art is treated as little more than that of popularising scientific understanding and of promoting environmental campaigns). In my philosophical writings, I have argued that modes of scientific inquiry and the conceptual thought articulated within philosophy and the humanities often tend to regard their subject matter as a detached and indifferent object. In contrast, poetry facilitates a participative form of understanding. It does not convert its subject into an indifferent object; rather it enables an imaginative and affective participation in its subject. Thus poetry can foster a non-alienated understanding of the environment. (For the above reasons, it was important to me that artists and poets participate in ‘The Nexus of Life’ in addition to academics from various disciplines.)

On a more melancholy note, poetry has a long history of providing meaningful consolation in the face of tragedy, suffering, and oppression. It will no doubt both continue in this role and expand its scope in relation to the loss and devastation that are entailed by the Anthropocene.

In a poem content cannot be separated from form (whether one writes formal or free verse). In my own poetics I hold to the view of the organic form of the work of art (as I previously mentioned in relation to Goethe). The creative process of artistic formation and the completed work of art respectively resemble the living processes of nature (think, for instance, of embryogenesis) and the integrity of an organism (which is more than the sum of its parts). Poetry––the linguistic work of art––of this kind is attuned to the principles at work in the living and holistic processes of nature (including the holism of ecosystems), and embodies in a poetic form the ideal of a culture in harmony with life on earth.

The global ecological crisis calls for a fundamental revolution in our whole relation to and understanding of life (and death) on earth. Through its metaphorical and linguistic inventiveness, its participative mode of understanding, its affective resonance, and its aesthetic form poetry can play a significant role in reimagining the environment and our connection to non-human others.

AM: Do the challenges of the Anthropocene require us to reimagine the concept of ‘life’, and how can poetry assist us in this task?

LF: Now more than ever we are becoming aware of the interdependence of all life on earth and the dependence of living beings on the health of habitats and ecosystems. Due to the scale and severity of the anthropogenic impact on the earth, we are also much more aware than previously of the fragility of ecosystems, of the delicate equilibrium of life. (The title of the upcoming symposium ‘The Nexus of Life’ indicates this interdependency.) The very concept of the Anthropocene also contains a new understanding of the forms that human life has assumed since the period of the Industrial Revolution (according to some views the Anthropocene began around this time). We now know that human behaviour has the power to alter life on earth to an extent that was previously unimagined. Our ethical awareness and our responsibility towards the diversity of life must expand accordingly.

In a more basic biological sense, I think that we still do not adequately understand what life is. Tendencies towards genetic reductionism and overly simplistic accounts of evolution (according to Neo-Darwinian principles of random mutation and natural selection) have made us assume that the formative, transformative and holistic processes of life (think of the growth and development of a plant, insect metamorphosis, embryogenesis, the evolution of species, the complex integrity of a healthy organism and its resistance to dissolution and death, etc.) can be understood in terms of their elementary parts and factors (genes, for instance). In contrast, I think that life on earth resembles a symphony (or a great poem) more than a computer program (with genes as its code). Just as a symphony cannot be appreciated through considering its notes in isolation and Homer cannot be understood through dividing the text of The Odyssey into separate words (or further into phonemes), life cannot be apprehended through isolating its components (however fundamental we might conceive them to be); rather, it must be interpreted as a dynamic, interrelating whole. Poetic language can, I think, help to attune us to the generative poetry or poiesis of life.

Luke Fischer is a poet, philosopher, and scholar. His books include the poetry collections A Personal History of Vision (UWAP Poetry, 2017) and Paths of Flight (Black Pepper, 2013) and the monograph The Poet as Phenomenologist: Rilke and the New Poems (Bloomsbury, 2015). He co-edited a special section of the Goethe Yearbook (2015) on ‘Goethe and Environmentalism’ and is currently co-editing a volume of essays on the philosophical dimensions of Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus (Oxford University Press). He has received various honours and awards for his poetry and scholarship and he frequently convenes poetry and music events. He is an honorary associate of the philosophy department at the University of Sydney. For more information see: www.lukefischerauthor.com

Luke Fischer joined the Sydney Environment Institute for The Nexus of Life: Ecological Crisis and Creative Understanding – a symposium hosted by The Faculty of Arts Collaborative Research Group ‘Concepts and Theories of Life’ in association with Sydney Environment Institute & the Department of Anthropology. Click here for details on this past event.