Rhizomatic Public Environmental Humanities Work

Theories, Practices, Publics from Nuestro South, USA

Laura Barbas Rhoden

Rhizomatic Public Environmental Humanities Work: Theories, Practices, Publics from Nuestro South, USA Public environmental (post)humanities, for me, implies dynamic relationality, and so my talk centers on the rhizomatic public environmental (post)humanities work of our network. Our work involves labors of perceiving, elevating, co-creating; including, affirming, reflecting; of deciphering responses and wayfinding in nuestro South (USA). The task before me here is to share the conditions, processes, and labors that have given rise to our suite of place-based, public research projects; our social impact network; and the means by which we, like rhizomatic plants, have found new spaces to live and shape.

Thanks in advance for your comments. I welcome all feedback and questions, and am especially interested in thoughts you have about how to foster democratic, equity-oriented, and decolonial practices within the public environmental humanities. And if you’re engaged in doing that kind of work, I’d love to know what’s happened as you’ve worked with others to shift the locus of perspective and enunciation in knowledge-creation away from the academic/institutional and into co-created spaces?

13 replies on “Rhizomatic Public Environmental Humanities Work”

One of the things that caught my ear in this presentation is the metaphor of “rhizome”, which is about connectedness and spreading out, versus Bethany’s use of a “gathering” and “convening” which are about grouping together (contra spreading out). I’m wondering what the relationship between spreading and gathering is for you. How do those approaches differ and what are their affordances and limitations?

Thanks, Dolly, for the question. From my perspective, convening, gathering, spreading, and connecting all have a place in transition/change work. By using the metaphor of the rhizome, I mean to signal a distributed (and relational) agency important in transition/change work (specifically, transitions to ways of being/knowing/doing that are less destructive than those that predominate in our current reality). I’m very much in agreement with the thinking of Arturo Escobar on emergence as important in transitions, and emergence being dependent “on a mix of interacting, dynamic processes” and occurring “on the basis of a multiplicity of local actions that, through their (largely unplanned) interaction, give rise to what to an observer appears to be a new structure” (p. 152, Designs for the Pluriverse). In this CSDS virtual platform, we’ve gathered together in response to the call to convene facilitated by Bethany and the PPEH team. And at the same time, in Bethany’s opening remarks, I hear words describing and celebrating a rhizomatic spreading of the work of Data Refuge. I hear suggestions of rhizomatic hydraulic politics in Dominic’s descriptions of resident engagement in Greenspoint, in addition to references to the convening and gathering of the hydraulic politics of Brays Bayou.

And finally, I’ll add that for me, rhizomatic ways of being/knowing/doing often feel in tension with ways of being/knowing/doing in institutional structures and cultures (and brush up against the limits of language that defines and regulates roles in these spaces).

Thanks so much, Laura, for sharing your incredible work with the world. I’m wondering how you think about articulating your postionality in relation to your work – how do you balance transparently situating yourself with not taking up too much space in the collaborations you undertake? I would love to benefit from your brilliant thoughts!

Thanks, April, for the kind words. You’re setting the bar high for my reply, as I learn a lot from listening to you!

So the short answer to “how do you balance transparently situating yourself with not taking up too much space in the collaborations you undertake?” is that it’s a dance, and sometimes when you move from one space to the next, the beat changes, and you don’t get it right, and though it feels awful, I think it’s ok. it’s what happens when we move across cultures.

Now I’ll take up space mapping an answer onto the quotidian: with my students, I’m fairly transparent about my positionality, parts of which I share in a bio on course pages. On our Alianza steering team, we know a lot about each other’s stories, and there is camaraderie, trust, and laughing reference to parts of our identities. In the space of our network convenings & FB page, I and other white collaborators work intentionally not to be in the foreground. I committed early on to doing behind-the-scenes work (managing listservs, agendas) as long as our facilitators wanted, so that the most visible and heard people would be Latinx collaborators. Among us, we do have an informal standing agreement that if there is something hard that needs to be said in a public space, I’m on call to say it if they want. With regard to the research I’ve referenced here, it’s helped that the locus of agency in ideating it has been in places in the community, or co-created, “what if,” spaces of dialogue. So, the institutional, higher ed “we” has been asked because of skills or tools we can bring to the work, and who we all are emerges as we do it. Finally, when I’m out locally with people who don’t know me, I try first to listen and find some point of connection — it’s often that I grew up in the South or have kids in public school or I speak Spanish. The Cypriot part of my identity I don’t reference much b/c most people in the US are completely unfamiliar with the history, and it occupies a lot of space to try to explain. The times I share my positionality more often now are in academic spaces, and especially when I talk about public scholarship. It’s important to me, with the privileges and positions I have, to signal that we bring ourselves into what we do, and doing it shapes who we become.

Laura, thank you so much for taking the time to offer this thorough and thoughtful reply! I so appreciate everything you say here, but the part where you write “if there is something hard that needs to be said in a public space, I’m on call to say it if they want,” I am thinking with especially – thinking about how to scaffold our organizations’ delegation of responsibilities toward harm reduction. Thank you!

Thank you, April, for putting words to a question that had been forming in my mind and thank you Laura for your thoughtful and transparent answer to navigating your position within your organization and community.

Thinking about your discussion above the Dolly and wanted to chime in:
One vernacular, pedestrian way which helps me think about how gatherings and convenings might differ from rhizomatic spread centers on affect and intentionality. I think of “gathering and convening” as occuring with intention (sometimes, but not always purpose-driven). This movement is purposeful, often motivated by need/want/desire. I think of spread (or even sprawl) as purpose-driven to be sure, but without intentionality, and thus missing the elements of care and affect I see in a gathering.
This musing brings me to the question I wanted to ask which is about the very neutral tone and language you choose to present the work of Alianza Spartanburg (which I so very admire, as I think you know, but I wanted to re-iterate :). How does the somewhat flat affect help/hinder Alianza to grow communities of care? Clearly relations of trust (and I imagine warmth) allow the board to gather together…

Yes, thanks, Bethany, the considerations of affect and register (and also agency) come up often among both our Alianza team members (N=11) and our student-faculty research team.

One comment on the convening/gathering/spreading/sprawling continuum — there’s a synergy, I think, between the care work of gathering and convening (which conveys, I agree, both intentionality and agency) and the care work of co-creating the conditions by which change becomes possible (which also involves agency but de-centers it), and there is overlap. Our group tends to select language that tilts more to the “co-creating conditions by which change becomes possible” for two reasons: (1) it’s a bit disruptive in our local context in that it directs attention to the substrates that permit/constrain different possibilities (and away from any one convening person/entity) and, (2) it makes it more difficult for our work to be co-opted by incorporation into structures that replicate the status quo (especially around dynamics of power associated with race/ethnicity/class). We’ve seen co-opting happen to others and then function to inoculate a particular space against change.

On the affect and register questions, whew, yes! for our Alianza team members those are areas for frequent critical reflection. Much of our work is disruptive, and we’re cognizant that if it moves at a pace or in a tenor that engenders a backlash, our team, even most members of our wider network, won’t likely be the ones who feel the repercussions. They’ll fall squarely in the lives of those with whom we’d like to create new conditions for thriving, like out of status individuals, or DACA holders. A second factor regarding affect and register selection I think is cultural in two senses. The first is that we’re constantly moving among tropes and types that are limiting to people of color, we don’t want to replicate them, and clinical language can be useful because it allows for labeling tropes, types, and processes in ways that tend not raise to defenses. The second cultural dimension is that many of us are from cultures in which there are modes of expression used for/with those in the trust group, like extended families, and others marked by a fair amount of reserve for those not yet in the trust group or in the “trust space” (like a home).

So, in terms of a consideration of affect, you’re absolutely right, our steering team meetings are full of teasing and laughter, and they are super unfiltered, and team members often remark they feel like that’s the one space they can be fully who they are, which is amazing and wonderful (and also kinda sad with regard to what else is out there!). Our convenings are often called “warm,” “welcoming,” “full of positive energy.” (I think we see people who’ve come as having accepted an invitation into a trust space and the reciprocity starts happening, and it’s really powerful). In the speaking events we (student researchers, faculty researchers, Alianza team members) accept, I’d describe those as person X of Y identity (or perceived identity) entering a organizational/institutional cultural space, figuring out how to awaken feelings around commonalities, and then trying to expand the space for dialogue and the range of interlocutors. One omnipresent consideration, in everything really for the Alianza steering team and also the student researchers, are the dynamics of power and privilege around the awakening and expression of emotions in different spaces where we interact. (Probably 100% obvious in all I’ve expressed above, but I’ll go ahead & label it!)

I second, Stephanie. Thank you all for this searching, crucially important exchange on modes of community, change, and the role of affects in care and change work.

Thank you, Laura, for this window into your practice as a scholar and community member in Spartanburg. I’m wanting to take up the questions above re: the figure of the rhizome and the rhizomatic (against and with notions of gathering and convening) specifically in relation to the bilingual and translational aspects of your work. It seems to me that cultural and linguistic encounter can function as catalysts for the kind of change work you describe as rhizomatic, but that translation might also constitute an essential tool in the gathering and trust-building work. Could you reflect a bit on how you and your team negotiate the movement across and between languages and how that aspect of the work figures into your understanding of de-colonial practice?

Meg, thank you for that observation and question. 100% hearty agreement that linguistic and cultural encounter functions as a catalyst for change work in our context! I sometimes think we’re a study in edge effects and the possibilities of new worlds happening in those boundary/contact spaces.

Translation (everything from words to socio-political worlds) is a certainly, for us, an essential tool in gathering (data, people) and trust-building work (the kind that signals to others that their agency is welcome and not rejected in a space). Having a sense of the lifeworlds immigrants have left behind (and the words and concepts whose roots are in those lifeworlds), and also having the panoramic views ones has as a cultural studies and language scholar, informs the way I understand certain aspects of our work, and the conversations Araceli Hernández-Laroche, Natalia Valenzuela Swanson, and I have about these topics are rich ones. I think it’s important to note that our steering team members have lived their lives in a number of different countries and have life experiences on four continents, so even among ourselves we’re constantly in both a translational and definitional space that’s clarifying and challenging at the same time.

Perhaps the single most useful concept (from my perspective) for reflecting on the kind of emplaced socio-political work we do is the notion of the coloniality of power (Aníbal Quijano), how its logics and operations long outlive the colonial moment, politically defined. I’d say our work is aspirationally decolonial – we see, very much, the coloniality of power at work in hierarchies of knowledge and value, in landscapes/regions where we live (and from which some of us have relocated or been expelled), in institutions that employ us and fund us, and we want to be part of the effort of bending local work toward decolonial practices.

Just a quick comment to Laura, Bethany, and Dolly-This particular thread regarding rhizomes, gatherings, affects, intentionality has been extremely rich for me. Thanks for the time you put into it, and thank you for the presentation, Laura!