- Breaking Down What MattersWelcome to compostings
This issue of Resilience features the first installation of a new series called compostings. Two at a time, the essays in this series will explore concepts that influence how we think about our myriad relationships with our animate and inanimate nonhuman others.
They will do so, for example, by reflecting on unwieldy and polysemous concepts in a way that appreciates their complexity. Will Abberley's essay on biological mimicry starts off the series in this spirit. Based on the assumption that insects and plants intentionally disguise themselves to trick predators, the idea of protective mimicry at first seems to derive from an anthropocentric bias. Yet mimicry undermines the human/animal binary, Abberley argues, as it frames animals as interpretive agents rather than passive machines. Probing the entanglement of mimicry with intentionality, anthropomorphism, umwelt, and finally empathy, he shows that this concept challenged the growing discourse of scientific objectivity and rejection of anthropomorphism already in the nineteenth century.
The compostings series also emphasizes transcultural flows in environmental thinking. Jonathan Beever's essay points out a historical connection between American conservationist Aldo Leopold and Estonian-born biologist Jakob von Uexküll. Beever identifies a pivotal shift in Leopold's developing thought about the moral value of the natural world. Arguing that Leopold's ethical attention turns from the biotic whole to living individuals, he links this change to the intellectual influence of Uexküll, which he then shows in Leopold's private and public writing. [End Page 60]
Literature is central to both Beever and Abberley's explorations. When approaching the individual/whole dichotomy as an ethical problem, Beever turns to the iconic "green fire" passage in A Sand County Almanac (1949); Abberley traces the anxieties about mimicry in Tomas Belt's The Naturalist in Nicaragua (1874). On a subordinated level, both essays reflect on the Uexküllian notion of umwelt from a particular disciplinary perspective—ethics and literary studies. The essays thus come together in an unexpected way, which creates a productive synergy that I hope will also emerge from future compostings.
In "An Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" Bruno Latour praises the term compositionist for the variety of connotations it imports, and among those is the "pungent but ecologically correct smell of 'compost,' itself due to the active 'de-composition' of many invisible agents."1 If compostings decompose concepts in order to reassemble them in different form, the series responds to Latour's call to cultivate compositionism as a successor to nature and as an alternative to critique.2 In Latour's words,
It is a really mundane question of having the right tools for right job. With a hammer (or a sledge hammer) in hand you can do a lot of things: break down walls, destroy idols, ridicule prejudices, but you cannot repair, take care, assemble, reassemble, stitch together.3
A heartfelt thank you to the first contributors for breaking down and reassembling what matters to them!
Michaela Castellanos is a PhD candidate in English at Mid-Sweden University in Sundsvall, Sweden. Her main areas of academic inquiry are animal studies and the environmental humanities. Her current research project is concerned with representations of cetaceans in contemporary American popular culture. She is the current webinar coordinator for the European Association for the Study of Literature, Culture, and the Environment (easlce) and the European editor of Resilience: A Journal of the Environmental Humanities.
1. Latour, "Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" 473–74.
2. Latour, "Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" 477.
3. Latour, "Attempt at a 'Compositionist Manifesto,'" 475. [End Page 61]