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morethanhuman matters

an interview with Alejandro Ponce de León


This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews Colombian editor and writer Alejandro Ponce de León. Alejandro describes his editorial practice as weaving words, code, and images to grasp forms of relation shaping who—and where—we are. The stories he tells are attentive to the land he comes from —the Cauca River basin in southwestern Colombia, a bioregion that has undergone significant environmental change over the past five decades. Alejandro is the founder of Humanidades ambientales, an online collective space that fosters dialogues about the environmental humanities across the Americas. In his free time, Alejandro enjoys cycling, sipping coffee, writing speculative games, and —more recently— learning how to draw. Alejandro is also finishing a Ph.D. degree in Cultural Studies at the University of California, Davis.

Hello, Alejandro, and thanks for joining me at To get us started, could you tell us how you became interested in the intersections of technoscience, environment, and culture?


Hi Sophie – thanks for inviting me. This question about formations, origins, and beginnings is one that I very much like. But, to get there, I'll take a little detour. For the last few weeks, I have been obsessively asking myself –seriously–, when do we know we are in the middle of something? Call it a situation, an event, the beginning or end of a relationship, the time to change your old computer, or just feeling you need to get out of the house to catch a breath. When do we really know that something is different? That the now-here is also a then-there?


I don't have an answer, but I'm trying to follow intuition as a way to answer your question. To become interested —to say that you or I are interested in this or that—, begins with a felt acknowledgment that we are in the middle of something, that we have already been meddling with stuff that now demands our full attention. An art of meddling that is also an art of middle-ing; or maybe becoming interested is a way of orienting yourself towards whatever your body, affections, and dispositions are already in, forcing you to take it seriously –that felt something else.


I find this question of the middle as central to many things – from understanding your own psychosis to tracing planetary forces shaped by and shaping our existence. Ethnography is a good example. It requires some skills in noticing —or a machine of interest production, if you are applying for external funding— which unfolds through an attunement with those engagements your body is already responding to. You have to be standing, listening, getting bored, celebrating, making friends, enemies, drinking coffee, etc., for several months before you can actually say that you are interested in this or that cultural form, ritual, politics, ethics, or whatever your body/mind has been mingling with. Noticing interests, I feel, comes to me at moments when a critical mass, momentum, density, or condensation is reached; moments that tilt how and why we express ourselves. It is when you are already in the middle. That's what I feel.


That said: marking beginnings depends on how we attend to our middle-ings. During the pandemic, I went through my family album and found a very candid photo of myself as a child riding a bicycle, in a rural region of Colombia – the place I call home. Although I grew up in a city, I spent my weekends with my grandfather—then a property manager—on his visits to his bosses' estates. That's where this photo was taken. These estates were strikingly beautiful. Some portions were native forests; others were dedicated to cattle ranching. I look cheerful in the picture, presumably taken shortly after Christmas – the bike seems very new.


Yet what caught my attention about this image is the backdrop. In the middle of this potentially picturesque background, stands a massive mechanical irrigation system. Why was this included in the frame? Did no one notice it, or was it part of the intended composition? Did I, the subject in the frame, decide it? These systems arrived in the region in the early eighties and nineties, marking a significant infrastructural transformation that turned the Cauca Valley into one of the most expansive plantation systems in the hemisphere. Within a decade, those pastures transformed into sugar cane plantations, prompting an overhaul in the ecology and economy of the places my grandfather and I visited. What was once picturesque and vibrant would be forced into a new identity—the systematic production of sugar, biodiesel, paper, and many other commodities that the sugarcane plant affords.

The forces in that photograph remain with me and are at the core of my writing. Nearly three decades later, I write about those lands, waters, cows, and irrigation systems. I also write about the people present during this transformation: those who were hesitant, those who suffered losses, those who participated in hopes of a bright future, and those who saw an economic opportunity. In that capacity, my work can also be read as a reflection of the affective and cultural structures I grew up with and enjoyed: familial, full of joy but also the inherent bitterness of rural Colombian life, which was always a crossroads between technological development and environmental transformation. The landscape my writing tries to capture is the one I experienced during my visits, the ranches that became plantations.  I'm still that child on the bike, a visitor, an observer. What changed, I feel, has much to do with what I said earlier about interest and attention—being immersed in something to the extent that it becomes so dense you need to change your trajectory, awaken your curiosity, or realign your perspective.


Recently, a person I admire told me that we don't own time; instead, we belong to it. This idea, in a very witchy way, strikes me as being very true and resonates with me, especially when considering how research questions and interests come to us – their origins. My sense is that I am through the curiosities that I follow, finding their ways to express, connect, emerge, and relate. My interest in technology, society, and the environment is a vital pulse that expressed itself when I encountered very generous people who encouraged me to pay attention to my own life. I owe much to my first doctoral advisor, Javier Auyero, who also introduced me to C. Wright Mills' 1959 classic "The Sociological Imagination." A productive essay in many ways. As a notion, the sociological imagination names a mode of knowing that enables us to grasp the relation between history and biography as "its task and its promise." Auyero's work, which thoughtfully attends to the experiences of toxicity and environmental injustice in Argentina by exploring the interplay between the personal and the structural, between places and their dwellers, and between material conditions and lived realities, effectively engages with Mills' framework. His work moved me and taught me how to think about experiences of environmental violence as something both deeply personal and always exceeding local conditions.


I also had the fortune of learning from very generous anthropologists whose words and thoughts always invite me to cultivate some sense of awe. From Katie Stewart, I learned to pay attention to fleeting moments as instances of composition. Marisol de la Cadena's invitation to not knowing – really radical, almost a way of unknowing oneself – and Andrea Ballestero's sense of wonder towards that which we think is in front of us, have all profoundly influenced me.


You describe your practice as “speculative” and “propositional” – centred upon and centring the power of stories in communicating different modes of sensing our entanglements in a more-than-human world. What different genres and methods for storying has your practice brought you to engage with in the course of this endeavour?


I am a political scientist by training, and I experiment with the terms that define my profession. This doesn't mean I adhere to the methodological conversations among my peers—I've also written code, run regressions, and conducted nested analyses—but rather, that I am probing with forms that disrupt or reconfigure the distribution of what is sensible, sayable, thinkable about life in common. These experimental disruptions take form through my editorial work and writing, and I am committed to some forms of language activism as a way to bring vitality back to words – and not the other way around.


While I engage in various genres, I would define my approach using a Spanish term: "ensayo." In English, "ensayo" translates to "essay," a rather loose term to define a piece of writing that presents an author's argument. But in Spanish, "ensayo" is also the first-person present indicative form of the verb "ensayar," meaning to try out, to rehearse, to test. Thus, "ensayos" are modes of proving, exploring, and proposing.


Post-colonial thinkers in Latin America have been superb essayists. People such as Alejo Carpentier, Octavio Paz, José Martí, Eduardo Galeano, and Germán Arciniegas have poetically played with form as a way to explore trying topics such as mestizo identity, baroque modernity, infrastructural legacies of colonialism, center-periphery relations, and more. In that capacity, "ensayos" are inherently speculative—not a means to escape reality, but to envision-through-writing alternative modes of togetherness. This resonates well with the still-recent speculative moment in cultural studies, which is my other disciplinary inheritance. One of the sentences that move me the most in Donna Haraway’s book, Staying with the Trouble (Duke University Press, 2016), is: "It matters what stories make worlds, what worlds make stories." Haraway's proposition captures very well the gesture I find in the gerund "ensayar"—the practice of articulating an argument while experimenting with different forms, infusing language with life, and creating new ways of expressing communal vitality. The essayist's task and promise, then, is a playful exploration of "what if?" situations, pushing words to ignite our collective imagination and prompting us to envision unexpected ways of living together.




But to write in such a manner, I'm constantly trying to suspend habits of belief in terms of how one must propose arguments, letting words flow poetically, with energy and vibrancy, allowing them to form relations that may be, at times, unexpected. It requires practice. Daily formal experimentation is a primary means of achieving this –I'm just a rookie—, as well as finding inspiration in the work of creative people who are constantly pushing boundaries and opening spaces for political transformation through their craft. Fred Moten, Clarice Lispector, and Cristina Rivera Garza are on my current reading list. Recently, I was deeply moved by M. NourbeSe Philip's Zong!, a book-length poem entirely composed of words from a legal report detailing the mass murder of Africans aboard a slave ship in the late eighteenth century. I also find inspiration in a less-explored speculative medium: storytelling games. Everest Pipkin's game The Ground Itself offers a method to collectively narrate the planet's life—soil, rocks, plants—without human centrality. Avery Alder's The Quiet Year challenges players to narrate a community's struggles after civilization's collapse.


For me, words and sentences are always political, propositional, and speculative interventions. If being alive today is an inherently ambiguous and risky endeavour, then we need to take more conceptual and formal risks in our attempts to delineate, explain, or challenge it. This might require reimagining our work beyond conventional forms in academic articles or books, pushing us to write in ways that compel our readers to feel, explore, and come together through unexpected propositions. I want to reimagine writing as a very witchy practice of re-relating: through words, sounds, spells, and gestures, we are able to capture our reader's attention, breathe life into their porous self, move passions, and reorient or disorient bodies.


In 2020, you founded La Plataforma Latinoamericana de Humanidades Ambientales (The Latin American Platform for Environmental Humanities). What brought you to create this collective space for dialogue and discussion, and what methodological, artistic, or conceptual insights have you gleaned in the process?


Humanidades Ambientales is a project very close to my heart. My collaborators and I imagine it as a way to build generous and affectively charged scholarship that promotes resilience through collective thinking-feeling. The idea sparked when I invited a group of Latin American colleagues, most of them interested in affect theory and new materialisms, to read some key works on the botanical turn on cultural studies. Starting as a small group, we met via Zoom to share our impressions of the works we read. As you might remember, there was a global demand for online educational content when the pandemic began. We hadn't intended to go in that direction, but we had an interesting topic, and a museum in Colombia, Museo La Tertulia, expressed interest in us being part of their virtual programming. We accepted the invitation, and in just a few months, the group had grown to a hundred people.


At that point, someone suggested inviting historian Jason W. Moore, the author of our then-current read, to join our discussion. I sent Jason one of the most honest fan mail I've ever written, and he graciously accepted my invitation. His participation, offered at no cost to a Spanish-speaking audience, felt like something extra-ordinary. We recorded this conversation and made it available for free on our website. I am deeply grateful to Jason, as his lively engagement helped us shape and propel our project forward. The format – reading a book  or article and inviting the author for a discussion – also proved effective and has since then allowed for generously spirited conversations with many other scholars. That first year brought us several generous thinkers who believed in our project, including Arturo Escobar, Giovanni Aloi, Kristina Lyons, Marisol de la Cadena, Gisela Heffes, and Micha Rahder.


Today, Humanidades Ambientales is more than a reading group. We're a collective of six editors producing environmental humanities content in Spanish, as a way to build connections towards, across, and around environmental thinking in the Americas. Humanidades Ambientales has also become a platform — and by this, I mean a common space that offers visibility to those who want to share their practice and thinking. We have a blog, host two virtual meeting spaces, facilitate writing groups, lead editorial projects, dabble in science fiction, and recently, we have begun supporting academic conferences. We aim to continue expanding this network throughout the Americas in the next few years.


As editors, we are constantly learning from the plant life around us, drawing parallels between their proliferation of forms and our modes of engaging in language activism. I believe that the poetical interventions we foster through our work serve as our way of re-imagining the narratives of planetary life. At the same time, such fostering helps us identify the multiple genealogies of environmental thinking in Latin America, and trace the contours of a common space that is attentive to our histories and experiences. We're not looking to translate the Environmental Humanities as a conversation occurring in the Global North. Our focus isn't theorizing Thoreau's Walden anymore. Instead, we are trying to capture natural forces that break through the urban fabric, through the lettered city and its languages. We follow the vital decompositions that serve as the ontological basis of the Latin American experience, and we try to capture it through territorialized concepts, notions, languages, and poetical practices that, in many cases, are indigenous to our lands.



You teach a range of courses and workshops – from speculative composition to data sense and exploration, all the way through to science and politics in agriculture, technology, and society. I’m curious to know what kinds of environment-focused interests, cares, or concerns stand out among your student cohorts?


My teaching practice focuses on exploring topics that I'm also curious about. I enjoy learning from and with my students, fostering some sense of shared wonder and curiosity. As a kid, I would spend countless hours teaching myself stuff: the mechanics of car engines, how to paint toy soldiers, or the architecture of the Titanic. I loved exploring encyclopaedias and would often read entries before bed. In Colombia during the nineties, information wasn't readily accessible as it is today, and I had to rely on adults, librarians or teachers, to point me to the right resources. Nowadays, however, we're flooded with information and expertise, and anyone with the privilege of having access to the internet can find virtually any content in just a few seconds – if we know what and where we are looking for. Thus, I don't want to teach classes that are about content distribution, or that the main argument is to expose students to novelty. They can do that by themselves if they want to. I design courses that cultivate skills that help students think, practices that ignite curiosity, and foster a desire for learning and doing something else once the course ends.


I don't believe in final essays that are shelved and forgotten after submission. My classes and workshops are student-centric, focusing on a research, writing, or composition project of their choosing. I want students to study something they are passionate about, so I begin my classes with introspection exercises, prompting students to explore their interests, motivations, problems, or concerns. This can be challenging for some who are not used to being at the centre of their learning experience. But effective pedagogy stems from personal experiences, so it must address issues that truly matter to students. I can't force a student's interest; all I can do is offer tools that help explore the connection between the biographical and historical dimensions of a topic. The rest of the course unfolds through detailed guidelines in which students explore compositional forms. This goes from crafting research questions to developing their own notions and thinking about the structure of each paragraph. I want them to be attentive to words, as a way of attending to thought, as a way of attending to the world they live in. Paraphrasing Haraway once again: it matters what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions.


And so, the interests, cares, or concerns my students grapple with in their projects, are the ones that affect them, their communities, and their peers. I want them to turn my course into a personal exploration, as the things they worry about are very much historical and planetary: the ecological costs of their future professional careers, the impact of hyper-connectivity on global health, and the politics of public surveillance, among others. I also learn a lot from them. I have encountered projects that taught me to think about my world differently, such as a report on the technology that measures the air we breathe in San Francisco Bay or another on the political economy of pet adoption during the pandemic. So, in essence, my classes aim to intertwine spatiotemporal scales, moving students to see themselves as part of larger processes and  their practices –and their writing— as actions or inactions that matter in the way these processes unfold.



Finally, what advice would you give to scholars and students interested in studying morethanhuman worlds?


Writing matters. If there's magic in words, it's in their ability to transform us, to stir our imagination. At times of global and planetary catastrophes, we need new ways of languaging life that capture the historical through the personal, "ensayos" that are speculative and propositional, middle-ings between here-now and there-then. In writing, form could strive to be honest with the ideas we feel are moving us, to capture bodily densities. Such a proposition stands against a style of writing that equates conceptual work with theory, and that confuses disciplinary traditions with mysticism. It is both serious and playful, but surely attentive to the vital forces which we are writing with.


I want to end this thought with a very provocative line from Clarice Lispector's work, Água Viva: "I don't want to have the terrible limitation of those who live merely from what can make sense. Not I: I want an invented truth."

"To become interested—to say that you or I are interested in this or that—begins with a felt acknowledgment that we are in the middle of something, that we have already been meddling with stuff that now demands our full attention."

"I want to reimagine writing as a very witchy practice of re-relating: through words, sounds, spells, and gestures, we are able to capture our reader's attention, breathe life into their porous self, move passions, and reorient or disorient bodies."

"As editors, we are constantly learning from the plant life around us, drawing parallels between their proliferation of forms and our modes of engaging in language activism."

"Writing matters. At times of global and planetary catastrophes, we need new ways of languaging life that capture the historical through the personal, "ensayos" that are speculative and propositional, middle-ings between here-now and there-then."

"My classes aim to intertwine spatiotemporal scales, moving students to see themselves as part of larger processes and understand their practices—and their writing—as actions or inactions that matter in the way these processes unfold."

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