Conceptualizing the Humanities and the Environment

By Carrie Stokes (’12)

In this year’s Humanities Institute interdisciplinary faculty seminar,  Human Dimensions of the Environment and Sustainability, Wake Forest scholars in religion, environmental studies, history, English, interdisciplinary humanities, and biology are working together to examine critical issues at the intersection of the humanities and environmental studies. They are also laying the groundwork for a new project that will address the relationships between space, place and community identity, as well as environmental awareness in the region.

Humanities Institute Director Mary Foskett poses that this kind of interdisciplinary research is “helping us take a fresh look at the knowledge bases that dictate and shape our interaction with the environment, as well as those that may be key in identifying new strategies and avenues for response.”

Jumpstarting these on-campus dialogues was a Humanities and the Common Good lecture by Karen Pinkus, Professor of Italian and Comparative Literature at Cornell University on Thursday, September 20, 2012 titled “No Return: The Humanities Confronts Climate Change.”  Dr. Pinkus addressed the questioned of what the humanities can contribute to a solution for climate change and inquired if and how film, art and literature should be expected to reflect on what is arguably the most profound crisis facing human existence.

No Return: The Humanities Confronts Climate Change

Professor Karen Pinkus of Cornell University lectures on the role of the humanities in confronting climate change

Pinkus’ talk challenged the roles being asked of the humanities that are threatening to undermine the essence of the disciplines, “as if humanists could translate science into a language for the public, while, perhaps, writers might translate science into convenient or digestible narrative fictions and artists might lament familiar ecosystems lost. As if the humanities, as a discipline, was, essentially, good journalism.”  Rather than providing a concrete alternative to this misguided direction, Pinkus instead introduced a new dialogue about climate change and the humanities.  She argued that an awareness of climate change presents a path of no return for humanists, because understanding what we are confronting fundamentally alters the lens through which we should be reading and engaging all forms of literature.  Even as we consider how the humanities can help us address climate change, climate change is profoundly impacting the questions the humanities ask and challenging us to rethink the relationships between concepts like time, nature, and the human.  According to Pinkus, it is in this midst of this distinctly humanistic endeavor that the humanities may discover how it can most impact a solution to climate change.

Assistant Professor of Religion and faculty seminar convener, Lucas Johnston, served as a respondent to Pinkus' talk.

While on campus, Pinkus also spent time with participants in the Humanities Institute interdisciplinary faculty seminar on sustainability and the environment.  Two seminar participants, Assistant Professor of Religion, Lucas Johnston and Assistant Professor of English, Judith Madera served as respondents to Pinkus’ talk.  David Phillips, Associate Professor in Interdisciplinary Humanities and seminar participant, served as moderator for a closing Q&A session.

Karen Pinkus’ lecture was in coordination with a weeklong series of events hosted by various campus departments leading up to JAMAZON, a performance by the Wayne Shorter Jazz Quartet, the opening concert of Secrest Artist Series 2012/13 season on Thursday night.

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