Post-Harvey Think Tank

Fountain - July 15, 2018

In the 2018-19 academic year, graduate students from the University of Houston (UH) and Rice University (Rice), led by John Mulligan in the Humanities Research Center (HRC), undertook the critical, constructive task of identifying specific areas in which the humanities can contribute to the short, medium, and long-term efforts to adapt to these problems and move beyond the problematics that led us to this point. Participants presented work in their areas of expertise, and outside speakers contributed their own imaginative reformations of art, theory, and disciplinary humanistic knowledge.

The group's final, interdisciplinary white paper is currently under review for consideration as a special edition of a journal. While the complete papers cannot be made public for the time being, the abstracts are available below. Please contact with any questions.

Joe T. Carson (Rice)

"The Theatre of Climate Change; or, Mold Humanities"
This essay argues that experimental theatre and performance offers a unique mode of reflecting on the humanities’ understanding and theorization of the environmental consequences of climate change. Theatre provides an embodied translation and presentation of environmental humanistic inquiry for the public. Drawing on Bertolt Brecht’s theory of alienation and multimedia experimental theatre practices, I devised and mounted a climate change performance in December 2018 that explored the imagery of a moldy Christmas. This interactive performance made strange our traditional habits of celebrating the holidays, asking: what is the moldy afterlife of culture? What does it mean to integrate mold with performance and how does mold become a poignant metaphor for culture we wish no longer held on to us? In the spirit of making strange, throughout the academic year, I also worked with students from local high schools in Houston exploring methods of recreating scenes from Hurricane Harvey through the practice of image theatre. The intersection of theatre practice and environmental thinking ponders the limits of human forms of representation in ways that textual mediums cannot.

Marley Foster (UH)

"The Art of Living with Our Damaged Planet"
In post-Hurricane Harvey Houston, this essay intervenes in the fields of aesthetic and ecological theory. Through the analysis of several art installations that have taken place in Houston in the past year, I develop a theory of relational, pliable, and embodied aesthetic acts called “imaginative matterings” – pulling from such scholars as Timothy Morton, Stacy Alaimo, Donna Haraway, Deborah Bird Rose, and Michael Gardiner. As I develop what it means to create art that has a politically aware deployment of aesthetics, I argue that our tendency to criticize rather than to imagine, coupled with the melancholia that comes with an awareness of ecological collapse, breeds a toxic combination when we critique consumerism through the framework of critiquing pleasure. Rather, it is through acts of what I have theorized as “imaginative mattering” that pleasure can be re-centered outside of capitalism, creating space for pleasurable, ecologically-minded, imaginative solutions to our current state of climate crisis.

Kevin MacDonnell (Rice)

"Hydrological Citizenship After Hurricane Harvey"
The devastating social and ecological consequences of the grey infrastructure paradigm are on full display in the Gulf Coast’s most populous city, Houston. A city whose very existence is contingent upon the global capital flows engendered by the oil and gas industry established around the Port of Houston during the twentieth century, the infrastructure of Houston has been developed with little regard for the ecosystemic needs of the surrounding environment (Kaplan, 1983). The low-lying marshland upon which the Houston metropolitan area was established is not capable of supporting the city’s sprawling housing developments and 1,200+ mile highway system (Kahn, 2006). And putting even more stress on the overburdened ecosystem is the fact that the 22 distinct watersheds found within Harris County’s municipal limits have factored very little into urban planning efforts as Houston’s infamous lack of zoning laws have enabled decades of overdevelopment that has crippled the region’s hydrological systems (Shelton, 2018). As a result, local forms of citizenship and identification with place have been determined without relation to regional ecosystems. Grey infrastructure—freeways, strip malls, and parking lots—supporting the oil and gas industry have been built over Harris County’s intricate watershed complex, progressively destabilizing the regional environment to ensure the proliferation of the American petro-state (LeMenager, 2014; Mitchell, 2011).

Joshua Gottlieb-Miller (UH)

"Future-Facing Folklore"
From post-Hurricane Harvey Houston, this essay intervenes in the emerging fields of emergency preparedness and disaster management. Sociologists, anthropologists, and psychologists have rightly pointed out how disaster survivors are marginalized in recovery efforts, and they discuss the need for novel, participatory recovery methods. Following the example of Surviving Katrina and Rita in Houston—an original program of survivor-survivor ethnography and storytelling—I argue that novel, participatory recovery begins with survivors empowered in the very process of understanding and documenting the disaster they suffered. Working from the scholarship of folklorists Carl Lindahl, Pat Jasper, and Kate Parker Horigan, I encourage scholars of disaster to consider survivor-survivor storytelling both as a research methodology and simultaneously as one way to address the problems they identify for community rebuilding that leaves survivors behind. After discussing the many benefits of survivor-survivor storytelling, I develop what it means to be a survivor in our particularly disastrous times, and I argue that we need to expand our conceptions of survivorship and storytelling to build resiliency in neighborhoods before, rather than after, the next particularly brutal climate crisis event.

Lesli Vollrath (UH)

"Shared Vulnerability: Rethinking Human and Non-human Bodies in Disasters"
Although the PETS Act was passed in 2006, there is more critical work to be done to improve the emergency response for animals during disasters. The PETS Act acknowledges the lives of companion species but does nothing to protect wildlife and livestock. Creating intersections between the fields of Animal Studies, Nineteenth-Century Literature, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, this essay argues for an ethics of “shared vulnerability” towards animals during disaster emergency response. Building from Anat Pick’s work on vulnerability in the field of Animal Studies and Cora Diamond’s work in philosophy, I define shared vulnerability as the human responsibility to acknowledge that animal bodies, like human bodies, are vulnerable during times of disaster. To carry out an ethics of shared vulnerability, humans must admit the violence they enact on animals and alter their course of behavior by improving animal lives with direct action, efficient planning, or implementation of protection measures during disasters. After analyzing an example of shared vulnerability in Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’s nineteenth-century novel A Story of Avis (1877), I turn to news stories about human responses to animals during Harvey, in Houston and other areas of Texas, to consider what an ethics of shared vulnerability entails.
Following the essay, I have included an interview with Salise Shuttlesworth, Director of the Friends For Life shelter in Houston and lead organizer of the cohabitated shelter at the George R. Brown during Harvey, which was the first of its kind.