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Two Tools to Think Ecologically

smartinez's picture

Selena Martinez


Paper #13



            Before the conversation on contact zones began this semester, I assumed that I had a complete understanding on what it meant to be actively engaged in relationships with others. Yet, through readings such as Vaster than Empires and More Slow and Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene, two important factors I failed to fully acknowledge were realized. The first one is how empathy can extend to other life forms other than humans. And the second is how animation can explain a topic that appeals to human characteristics that would otherwise go unnoticed. These functions let us take a step back from this dominance we’ve claimed as residents on Earth and allow us to examine the relationship without hierarchies present through an emotional appreciation.

Living our everyday lives now in the 21st century leaves busy people like me, a full-time college student with a few options when it comes to thinking ecologically. This often times results with a weaker connection with the environment because our day is formatted to finish the immediate tasks at hand and does not always remind us of the other relationships we are involved in. In Vaster than Empires and More Slow, Ursula Le Guin writes, “…you’ve learned to ignore it, to the point where you might even deny it exists. However, Mr. Osden, being an empath, feels it.” (150) In this science fiction piece, Osden reflects the empathy that is absent on the ship amongst his colleagues. Unlike the others, his existence is directly tied to all life forms by allowing him to be emotionally susceptible. While this may not apply in reality to humans, it is one important trait that we do not fully embrace. Through practice, this decision we’ve made to ignore our empathy towards others or rather allow them to remain limited to only the people, things, or situations we come in immediate contact with further reduces our understanding of the environment around us. What Osden presents is another way of seeing through another way of being. If we are able to allow ourselves to be slightly vulnerable to what these objects are feeling, a new frame of reference is awakened. However being empathetic to the environment does not mean that one must conform to appeal to another’s situation. Le Guin goes on to write, “If your empathetic power really makes you share Andrew’s misery, why does it never induce the least compassion in you?” (158) Regardless of how mutual the feeling may be, empathy does not mean that compassion must be triggered. While the word compassion may carry a positive connotation, if it were applied in each situation, productivity may not arise. Empathy allows one to see both sides of the table and refrain from a limited perspective which in this case is very important for ecological intelligence to grow because it allows more information to be taken into consideration.

Like empathy, animation also serves as another medium to further analyze the environment. In Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene, Bruno Latour presents various examples of animating the Earth to voice the severity of the state it is in. He writes, “The best we can hope for is to stick to a new sort of jus gentium that would protect us against one another and against what James Lovelock has called “the revenge of Gaia”. (5) Instead of simply stating the attention that should be drawn to a CO2 fact followed by the possible consequences, he instead acknowledges Gaia and the revenge that humans now need protection from. By personifying the Earth, the aftermath is no longer just dangerous, it becomes a personal matter. Simply by naming the Earth, like when one adopts a pet, a human like quality is developed. The revenge that Gaia now seeks encourages the audience to inquire on the situation. And the fact that humans need protection creates a barometer of how severe this revenge may be. This animation allows us to see more than just our actions against Gaia, it lets us be more aware of our interactions on this playing field called life.

Empathy and animation are two tools of many that strengthen more our emotional intelligence as well as our ability to see through many frames of reference. While it is easy to remain in routine and not be fully engaged with what the environment is experiencing, the reality is that we can only survive and flourish by being aware of this interconnectivity. The more heightened our senses are in terms of understanding creates new forms of media to be able to better inform others on other ways of thinking ecologically.

Work Cited

Latour, Bruno.  "Agency at the Time of the Anthropocene." New Literary History 45, 1 (Winter 2014): 1-18.

LeGuin, Ursula. "Vaster than Empires, and More Slow." The Wind's Twelve Quarters: Short Stories.  New York: Harper and Row, 1975. 148-178.


Anne Dalke's picture

Some talking notes, from our final writing conference
We celebrated your repeated generation, throughout the semester, of great ideas, really pushing the envelope in terms of asking, and then pursuing, good questions. We also noted that your own particular voice seemed to have disappeared in your most recent paper, which sounded as if it had been written from some sort of distant, “objective” place that wasn’t located, didn’t give a sense of you as the author of these ideas. We also agreed that your final revision should be of paper #9, Hanging Out with Nature’s Friends, because it turned aside from confronting history’s ghosts…

Some reading notes on this paper:
* “I” reappears! Yay!
* You name the problem of y/our focusing always on “ immediate tasks” and “immediate contacts,” and so losing sight both of the longer term and of the larger contact zone.
* You celebrate empathy as “bringing more information into consideration,”
* but also acknowledge that it doesn’t necessarily result in compassion.
* You explore y/our resistance to being “emotionally susceptible,”
* and Latour’s counter-suggestion: animation.
 I’m not quite sure I understand (how you understand) the relationship between what you call “the two tools” of empathy and animation….