an interview with James Dunk
This week, morethanhumanworlds interviews James Dunk, a Research Fellow in the School of Humanities and Sydney Environment Institute at the University of Sydney. A historian of psychology and medicine, James' research explores the way that ecological crises since the mid-twentieth century have produced planetary imaginaries. His book Bedlam at Botany Bay won the Australian History Prize at the New South Wales Premier’s History Awards, and his articles have been published in History of Psychology, Rethinking History, History Australia, and The New England Journal of Medicine. His writing on the environment, mental health and history also appears in Australian Book Review and Griffith Review.
Hello, Jamie, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. To get us started, could you tell us how you became interested in the relationship between mental and planetary health and illness, personally and/or professionally?
I chanced upon mental illness when I knew very little about it, but even then I could see a glimpse of how psychological disorders pit the interior world of the mind against the indicators of exterior realities, and I was fascinated. I’ve come to see mental health fields as constituted by a very broad range of cultural patterns, social forces, formal and interpersonal politics, and conceptions of the human self and the cosmos. I’m interested in the way these are filtered and fashioned, uneasily and unevenly, into health systems and services, but also in the dynamics that always exist between these services and all the underlying commitments. I’ve traveled a circuitous route to my current work, but there is a through line of attending carefully to human efforts to flourish, and be whole, in the face of catastrophe.
I think historical training tends to encourage historians to be deeply invested in the world-as-received, rather than to search for fundamentals or universals. The world we have received, the planet I realized I was living in during my training, is Earth, an immensely complex living system caught in the grips of the Anthropocene. In this era of rapidly increasing anthropogenic alterations across the biosphere as well as beneath and above it, I find it difficult, as a historian, to avoid the claims of the present, and so I have been drawn towards contemporary histories which illuminate the relations between humans and the planet. Planetary health is one historical formation – a recent, Western, modern set of ideas and practices that encompass profound concepts powerfully expressed in Indigenous and other non-Western knowledges, as well as quite recent technologies and approaches, like cybernetics and systems ecology. Planetary health is committed to preserving human health and the health of ecosystems in the Anthropocene. Thinking about mental health and illness from a planetary health perspective involves asking questions about the relationship between the human psyche and planetary systems, and so it brings these underlying dynamics into the foreground and challenges aspects of the biomedical, anthropocentric model which still pervades our social structures.
Your award-winning book, Bedlam at Botany Bay (NewSouth, 2019), offers a history of the mad and of madness in the colony of New South Wales, Australia. What is it about madness that makes it a particularly generative lens for rethinking the processes and effects of settler-colonialism?
Well, madness very nearly made at least one colonial governor rethink settler colonialism himself. In April 1828, Ralph Darling, governor of the penal colony of New South Wales, asked that anyone who had experienced ‘any temporary aberration of mind’ not be sent out to the penal colony. An upstanding member of the Legislative Council – the colony’s proto-parliament – had ended his own life, and then Darling’s preferred replacement had just tried to end his. The governor was bewildered. ‘If there is nothing in the climate which induces in colonists absolute derangement,’ he wrote, ‘there is undoubtedly something peculiar, which affects the spirits and produces extraordinary depression.’
Madness is an excellent lens for thinking about settler colonialism. It’s hard to say with confidence that there was more mental illness coursing through Parramatta or the Rocks than the streets of London or the factories of Leeds, or indeed any other part of the world, Anglophone or otherwise, but there were definitely distinctive qualities in the way it manifested in settler colonies, and in the way others dealt with it. Some would-be colonizers and merchants stumbled into madness themselves, articulating the delusions built into the colonial mindsets and at the foundation of every colonial project. And this delusion, or derangement (we slip here between metaphor and something more cutting) was written also through all the administrative prose which knit the empire together: appoint that one, remind this one, et cetera et cetera, cajoling and demanding and distributing violence and organizing theft. But because, as Patrick Wolfe clarified, invasion is a structure, not an event, that derangement cannot be contained in archives and records – not even close. It continues to characterize settler colonial nation states, not unlike the ‘great derangement’ of which Amitav Ghosh writes – powerful, vast mechanisms with which we are not easily able to come to terms.
Erich Fromm expanded on the fleeting thought offered by Sigmund Freud, that an entire society might become pathological. All illness is socially and culturally constructed (thinking of Susan Sontag and Charles Rosenberg) but mental illness and disorder, which are deeply entwined with communicative breakdown between the parts of a person and between a person and society, are even more clearly and deeply the work of powerful social and cultural forces acting through time – the work of history. All of this means that attending to the recorded ravings and delusions of colonists, and the way madness was accounted for and tended to, offers entry not only to the subterranean parts of the colonial project as it manifested in the past, but to the continuing presence of these effects – the persisting mechanics of invasion.
You are currently working on a research project titled “At a loss for words of loss” in collaboration with a group of scholars located across Australia, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. What are the aims and objectives of this collaborative project, and to what extent do they draw upon interdisciplinary research methodologies?
Noticing the number of new lexicons and glossaries for the Anthropocene that were appearing, I decided to ask, with my philosophy colleague Anik Waldow, what work these words were doing. Some of them are ambitious words naming, or renaming, whole swathes of history: contorted and violent words recalling the violence they reference – not only Anthropocene but technocene, wasteocene, plantationocene, manthropocene. And there are more elegant names: cthulucene, eremocene, the ecozoic era. The lexicons are brought forth, almost, by the new eras, as if new vocabularies were needed to describe and dissect their constituent parts, and being needed became immanent. There are new words, built from pieces plucked from ancient languages, but also old words, dredged up from distant memory or ‘borrowed’ by the late-capitalism Anglocene from cultures designated as other. All the words, familiar or dissociative, seem to be gathered and deployed to steady each other in post-industrial, post-local, post-human time.
In the project we wanted to gather a group of scholars from various disciplines and to spend time with these lexicons and each other across the course of a year – participating in slow, relational scholarship which, we hoped, would lead organically into a series of written pieces that were reflective and considered. It was planned deliberately as a disciplinary adventure, since we ourselves could not say which disciplines were best placed to analyse these language projects. And so we issued a nebulous call and gathered a wonderful set of scholars from literary theory, art history, design, ecopoetry, philosophy and history, and have been thinking together about the power of language to collapse time and space and to draw imagined communities around shared vocabularies. And also about the limits of language in these ambitions. We listen and wait and respond, and when we write it will be iterative and recursive as we find our own vocabulary for what we want to notice and share. It is a little project but it has already proven therapeutic for many of us, as well as affording a chance to experiment with different kinds of thinking, speaking, and writing.
At the University of Sydney, you have taught a range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses on themes including Australian history, histories of medicine and public health, psychiatric history, and environmental history. In this process, what have you learned about the environment-related interests, questions, and concerns of students today?
Teaching across different programs and institutions, I’ve often nudged existing courses in a range of fields towards environmental and ecological questions. I have worked with students through more-than-human urban histories, ecological imperialism and the Columbian exchange, and disease ecology. Where this was sometimes oblique, even surreptitious, and it could occasionally be difficult to convince students that other species or ecosystems were relevant to the histories they were expecting, it is has become a quite different challenge – how to prevent ecological concerns overpowering the curriculum. The present is exerting a strong and anxious power over the way we approach the past. I believe that similar trends are manifesting across the breadth of subjects in the humanities, social sciences and elsewhere. The current generation of undergraduate students has never known a stable climate; students are intimately acquainted with ecological breakdown and collapse. The challenge in teaching history now is to find ways of engaging clearly and directly with these pressing concerns, while also carving out space to engage with historical actors on their own terms – to avoid a very particular kind of Anthropocene anachronism. The Anthropocene itself is a revisionist historical project, insisting that we correct an enormous, unseen anachronism. It demands that we look back and re-assess virtually all of our narratives, and the assumptions behind them, with a sharper view to carbon budgets and broader extractive, exploitive processes. Already important themes in many of our disciplines, they take on a new power to reorganise our thoughts and judgements.
Finally, Jamie, what advice would you give to scholars interested in studying human-environment relations?
I’ll be brief, since I still feel new to more than human worlds and in need of guidance myself. I think those who are setting out in these areas should aim, from the beginning, to go beyond critique, to revel in play, and to practice humility. I doubt that pure critique has ever been much of a social good, but with climate and other ecological crises looming, we should be aiming always to be contribute to the world, to build and create and nurture rather than only analyse and critique. Most of us would subscribe to this in theory, but it calls for carrying through into seminars and lectures, peer review of every kind, and the way we speak and write. The language of care is one the great strengths of the environmental humanities.
As we shoulder the burden of these crises, and enter worlds of grief and anxiety, it will always be necessary to play. We need to live and be as well as think and work, and play of all kinds revives us individually and joins us to each other. Play can be a brilliant form of intellectual work, not pretentious or onerous, but restorative and hopeful. Playing draws all our theory and critical practice, our history and prediction, into a lively engagement with the present moment and those others – human or not – with whom we share it. And I think despite these high-minded words we simply need to be humble, since none of our disciplines, none of our paths, none of our faiths or rituals or therapies or vocabularies is equal to the task at hand. This means we need to listen to each other, to be fundamentally open to learning and growing, and very often to defer to other ways and ideas. Then to walk carefully, in company, and sometimes joyfully, into whatever comes next.
"Madness is an excellent lens for thinking about settler colonialism."
"We issued a nebulous call and gathered a wonderful set of scholars from literary theory, art history, design, ecopoetry, philosophy and history, and have been thinking together about the power of language to collapse time and space and to draw imagined communities around shared vocabularies. ."
"The language of care is one of the great strengths of the environmental humanities."