As I wrote one of my comprehensive examination papers during the winter of 2005, I found myself gathering together examples of scholars who claimed that another 'language' was needed in order to represent the many voices of 'nature'. It was not until near the end of this writing that I realized the irony of what I (and they) were doing: using the dominant language (and form) to argue that we need a different one. While writing about this need for a different language was helpful, it has only been by letting go of my conceptual and reasoned consciousness that I have been able to engage new(old) languages in the process of my doctoral work. It was then that I could conduct research with non-human Others and engage in research/representation that "create[s] space for the 'voices' of 'nature' to be more audible ..." (Russell, 2005, p. 439).

If we need a language that provides spaces for the voices of the more-than-human, then I must write beyond dominant Western ontological assumptions and the limitations of linear text.

Much of what is contained in this dissertation – in content as well as in form – is in response to the dilemmas raised by authors in the paper below which was written in preparation for my comprehensive examination papers and later presented at the American Educational Research Association Annual General Meeting in Montreal, April, 2005. Sections of that (slightly edited) original essay appear below.


ESSAY: Researching (with) non-human Others: what about words and thoughts that blossom out of limbs? 

Starting out
I want to acknowledge that my research aims to be of an activist sort, and that one of its aims is to challenge the very existence of a human/nature binary. Given the limitations of language and what appears to be limited ‘access’ to voices of non-human Others, how might I proceed with research about and with them? And, if the separation of human bodies from landscapes is indeed "an artifact of discourse" as Bronwyn Davies claims, (2000b, p. 18), are there ways I might, through my research/representation, work to disrupt this artifact?

Jumping in
I would like to jump in with Laurel Richardson’s question: "How can we use our skills and privileges to advance the cause of the non-privileged?" (Richardson, 1997, p. 58) when the non-privileged, the Other that is the focus of my concern, is animate Earth.  In this opening piece, I pose many more questions than answers, but feel that this asking of questions is important. For in doing so, I am at least making visible anthropocentric discourses which continue to support humans as the unmarked norm (Kirby, 1994) against which all Others are measured, as well as the ways in which the privileging of the discursive rational mind can normalize the human subject. This constant reinscription of anthropocentrism makes it difficult for humans to move beyond myth and metaphor in their attempts to "participate in the creative reconstruction of a language which foregrounds our kinship with nature" (Gough, 1991, p. 40).

I wish then, to challenge complicity (see Lather, 2001, footnote 2, p. 199) in research that excludes non-human Others; to flip things round and privilege, for moments at least, a form of research/representation that engages with voices of the more-than-human world in research conversations.

Giving voice to the ‘voiceless’ – or researching our own reflection?
Social science research has often aimed to "give voice to the voiceless", however, given the intersubjective nature of knowledge production and the claim that all voices are partial, multiple and contradictory (Ellsworth, 1989), any attempts to give voice to non-human Others are particularly rife with difficulty. Yet those difficulties should not preclude attempts to do so (Cole, 2002; Fudge, 2002; Russell, 2005), and should also acknowledge that many non-Western cultures often struggle less with such dilemmas, except when they meet up with colonial mindsets (see Wallis 1999; Young & Goulet, 1994).

A brief perusal of some of the language engaged to talk about nature highlights the extent of the challenges of "encountering the [non-human] ‘other’ in all its complexity" (Fawcett, 2000, p. 140). It seems as though words currently used to "speak nature," limit the ways in which we can "think nature" and experience our embodied enmeshment with it (see Davies 2000b; Davies & Whitehouse, 1997, 2000; Haraway, 2000, 2008; Somerville, 1999; Whitehouse, 2000, 2002). Language is limited by imagination and imagination is limited by language.

For instance, David Abram’s (1996) replacement of the commonly used "non-human" with the phrase "more-than-human" challenges our tendency to put humans at the center and everything else at the margins.  Yet as Leesa Fawcett (2000) points out, the phrase is still problematic since it continues to use humans as the comparative measure and simply flips the hierarchical human/nature binary with the word "more." Fawcett prefers to use the terms "humans" and "others" as a reminder of the shared oppressions between "some humans and most of 'nature'" (p. 137), resulting in the phrase "non-human Others". Hilary Whitehouse’s (2000) references to "organic and mineral bodies" (p. 4), or animal, vegetable and mineral bodies, are simultaneously helpful and problematic. While her phrase disrupts the human/nature binary by reminding me that my body is included in, not outside of this list, her words still produce categories – in this case ones constructed by a scientific discourse which has historically worked to separate and categorize, fix meanings and establish hierarchies (Harding, 1991).

Some of these ideas are taken up by Aboriginal scholar Peter Cole (2002) who reminds us that "rationalist scientist discourses" have produced humans as separate from other beings. He writes:

we were   and are   not speci/fic/ally different from salmon
steelhead    rainbow   silver trout   oolichan   sturgeon dolly varden
until we all started sprouting    latin nomenclature
becoming reductively subsumed into rationalist scientist discourses. (p. 455)

Cole also suggests that not only English words, but also rules of "correct usage" are productive; he claims they distance and separate him "from my connection with the earth   and its natural rhythms" (p. 449). Donna Haraway (1991a) echoes some of his thoughts, claiming that "grammar is politics by other means," and "the pronouns embedded in sentences about contestations for what may count as nature are themselves political tools, expressing hopes, fears, and contradictory histories" (p. 3). I would add that ways I am able to re-present research data, and ways in which readers are able to engage with it, has the potential to disrupt or reinscribe this separation (see Cole, 2002).

Limited by language
Am I ready to listen for, and acknowledge, the wisdom of non-human Others among the "rising tide of voices" represented in research (Lincoln & Denzin, 2005, p. 1115, italics in original)? How can I challenge complicity of research in silencing those voices and limiting my ability to hear them? Can I re-animate research in ways the include voices of both humans and more-than-human Others? Can this be a both/and text?

Sooo...given the limitations of language and ‘access’ to voices of the more-than-human world, how then, might I proceed with my research in environmental education? And, as I mentioned above, if the separation of human bodies from landscapes is indeed "an artifact of discourse" which continues to produce humans as dominant and nature as Other, are there ways I might be able to both make visible and disrupt these discourses and the structures, power relations and forms of research/representation that hold them in place?

Ways out of the maze?

Lost in the inability to speak without reinscribing the very power relations I wish to challenge, I turn to McKenzie’s (2005b) notion of validity for a possible way out of the maze. If we understand research "as a political intervention that seeks to challenge, even as it constitutes or reproduces" and assess research validity "not in terms of truth-telling, but in relation to the role the research plays in maintaining or disrupting power relations in society" (p. 11), then how might I – or can I – challenge the power relations embedded in a human/nature binary, a binary that, despite my best intentions, I continually reproduce as I speak of and try to represent the more-than-human? Could nurturing the imagination prevent us from "reduc[ing] the unknown subjectivity of an ‘other’ being to the limited range of our own experiences" (Fawcett, 2000, p. 140)? Is imagination enough given the power relations at play?

Many, including Deborah Britzman, Bronwyn Davies, and Donna Haraway, suggest the process of languaging the world is very much a process of producing categories that we constantly work to maintain (see Britzman, 1995; Davies, 2000a; Haraway, 1991a, 2000; Schick, 2000a). Haraway (2000) claims that a critical point is to challenge these categories and maintain instead, the "very potent join between fact and fiction, between the literal and the figurative or tropic, between the scientific and the expressive" (p. 50). Much of Haraway’s work (e.g. the creation of the Cyborg, merging of the word "nature-culture," (1991a, and more recently, the Companion Species Manifesto, 2003 and When Species Meet, 2008), attempts to disrupt categories and bridge boundaries, particularly the discursively produced divide between fleshy and cultural worlds. Some suggest that non-expository or non-linear writing disrupts category maintenance imposed by dualistic thinking and rationalist thought (see Somerville, 1999, 2004; Davies, 2000b; Hurren, 2000; Richardson, 2002a). Different forms of writing have been proposed as a way to challenge the regulatory processes of conventional academic prose (Gough & Price, 2004) that frequently marginalize non-rational (Richardson, 2002a), non-linear (Nolan, 2005) and, significantly here, non-human voices (Cole, 2002; Bell & Russell, 2000; Fawcett, 2000; Jensen, 2004; Russell, 2005). Poetry, for instance, may allow us to see beyond the limitations of "social scientific conventions and discursive practices" (Richardson, 2002a, p. 877; see also, Hurren, 2000; Nolan, 2007) and be able to engage the imagination in ways that, as Fawcett (2000) hopes, might extend our conceptions of the more-than-human world. Yet, while conceptions may be extended, access to the Other remains mediated.

Some, however, are not content with Western words and talk of the need for different alphabets or languages. Noel Gough (1991) calls for a "creative reconstruction of language which foregrounds our kinship with nature" (p. 40) and Janette Turner Hospital (1995, 1996) calls for "a different kind of alphabet, a chlorophyll one, a solar one," a language that "has to exist outside established language forms because they’ve just not served the purpose of communicating" experiences in the space between landscape, body and thought (cited in Davies, 2000b, p. 237). In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram (1996) suggests that perhaps it is the phonetic alphabet that has distanced us in the West from the sensual world, and he wonders whether, in becoming subjects, we may be bypassing a "sensory reciprocity" with the animate earth and self-reference only within a human loop of language (p. 187). In other words, in looping around and around in words, the animate earth is missed altogether (as a doctoral student, there are lots of times I feel this is definitely the case!). Perhaps it is this "missing" that prompts Hilary Whitehouse (2002) to lament the difficulty she has encountered "singing" her country, and has encouraged Rishma Dunlop (2002) to search for "a tawny grammar…a language that is semiotic, deep below the surface of words" (p. 24). (Both of these researchers wrote these words in reference to their doctoral dissertations.)

As an alternative to the constraints of a language built from phonetic symbols, Abram (1996) suggests attempting to remain open and responsive to a "‘language’ [that] remains as much a property of the animate landscape as of the humans who dwell and speak within that terrain" (p. 139). If we affirm the more-than-human world as animate, he suggests, our words might be able to emerge from a reciprocity with it. Abram (2000) goes on to claim that this responsiveness would require a shift in the way we speak and suggests "that I speak more as a body than a mind – that I identify more with this breathing flesh (this skin and these hands and this ache in the gut) than my culture generally allows, and that I let my words and my thoughts blossom out of my limbs" (p. 168).  But what, I ask, might words and thoughts that blossom out of limbs look like?

... Rather than reproducing and reifying previous dominant discursive formations of nature or human/nature relations, is there a kind of work that can open up tiny windows of possibility through which to see, experience, and just maybe, act differently? Perhaps we need to, as Bringhurst (2002) suggests, look beyond human language and acknowledge that "the languages of words are not the only kind of human language, and the languages spoken by humans are only a small subset of language as a whole" (p. 13; see also, Abram, 1996; Abram & Jardine, 2000; Armbruster, 1998; Bell, 1997; Bell & Russell, 2000; Cole, 2002; Evernden, 1992; Fawcett, 2000; O'Riley, 2003; Russell, 2005). And perhaps this kind of work might just open up a space where we might begin to (re)cognize the "necessary guidance that herons and toads have to offer" (Abram, in Abram & Jardine, 2000, p. 168).


© Mary Jeanne (M.J.) Barrett, 2009
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