MORETHANHUMAN MATTERS

An interview with Jamie Wang

Our guest this week is Jamie Wang, a writer, poet, and PhD candidate in Environmental Humanities in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Jamie’s research explores sustainability practices and technological sustainable solutions in the context of urban natures, housing development projects, transportation, water infrastructure, and urban agriculture. It critically rethinks the relations and tensions of planetary pressures, ecological modernisation, and imagined futures for human and non-human life in large metropolises, with a geographic focus on Singapore. Across her research and creative endeavors, Jamie is also interested in collaborative and sustainable story-making towards the opening of other kinds of possible futures. Jamie’s academic research has been published in Cultural Studies Review and her creative works can be found in Voice & Verse Poetry Magazine, Overland Literary Journal, Mascara Literary Review and Cha: An Asian Literary Journal.

       Hello, Jamie, and thanks for joining me at morethanhumanworlds.com. Could you tell us how you came to be interested in ecological development and sustainable technologies, and how the more-than-human sits within these two intersecting themes? 

 

Thank you very much inviting me, Sophie. It is an absolute honor to be here and to have this conversation with you. I am a huge fan of your work and your commitment to the Marind people of Indonesian West Papua, among whom you do your research. My interest in urban sustainability and technological sustainable solutions are seeded in questions around justice, my ambivalence about the fascinating and troubled urban space, and my anxiety concerning the gross inequalities magnified in unevenly developed and dense environments. I am deeply interested in understanding how humans and technology might be part of possible solutions, but I am equally concerned with the dangers and limitations of how (some) humans impose themselves on others and on the broader environment through technology. In the face of the escalating effects of climate change, the development of sustainable and liveable cities is gaining further traction. Yet, I find that when a flourishing eco-futuristic urban imaginary is enacted, it is often driven by a specific and narrow version of sustainability that is tied to both high-tech and persistent economic growth. Who are the select humans and non-humans benefiting from this imagining? What else is diminished or backgrounded in this process?  

 

A central aspect of my research is eco-modernisation. The central tenet of the theory is that continuous technological development can overcome environment crises while also continuing the path of development. Although the theory originated in a small group of European countries in the 1980s, it has been gaining a stronghold in many parts of Asia in the past few years, coupled with strong central State planning mechanisms. Singapore is an exemplary case. This city-island-state is known for its economic success, its authoritarian one-party government, its manicured green environment, and its recent pursuit of the cachet of the world’s leading sustainable and liveable city. Singapore's model of sustainable urban living embodies the particular kind of techno-driven sustainability that I described above. To me, one of the key issues in imagining a sustainable and liveable city - materially and semiotically - is that definition and measurement can end up performing a labor of exclusion - one further enabled by the politics of invisibility. This in turn can result in environmental issues being further more disguised, with insidious effects. 

 

More-than-human beings are my guides and central to think with as I seek to locate the various storylines that flesh out the issues above and their consequences, and to re-imagine other possible ways of living in urban environments. For example, with the rise of diverse forms of eco-cities and calls for greener cities, how should cities and their human residents prepare for co-existence with the more-than-human? How might we live with others, even if sometimes, and quite often, uncomfortably? How might our way of interacting with more-than-human beings allow for more spontaneous growth? In urban environments and elsewhere, nature does not exist in the singular. Nor can we assume that we understand the natures around us. Instead, we need to critically reflect on, and contest, which natures come to the fore (here, I am thinking in particular with Aidan Davison). What, for instance, are considered "suitable" urban natures in sustainable and liveable cities, and for whom? Foregrounding the more-than-human helps to reveal the profound disconnection and illogic of many taken-for-granted urban sustainability practices and to confront challenging questions. It also teaches us that multiplicity is not  mere synchronization or enforced harmony. Rather, multiplicity entails being prepared for conflicts and grappling with the prospect of living uncomfortably in increasingly co-inhabited spaces. 


 

       In a recent article published in Cultural Studies Review, you unsettle some taken-for-granted, velocity-charged, and human-centered approaches to urban movement and highlight the need to craft new possibilities for a more inclusive and flourishing kind of urban movement. Could you tell us about the ethnographic fieldwork upon which this piece is based and what, in your view, a more inclusive form of urban development might look like? 

This article takes as its ethnographic setting the intersection between a cross-island underground train line, earmarked to cut beneath Singapore’s largest remaining reserve, and an ecological bridge spanning a six-lane highway and intended to restore animal movement within the same reserve. Among the various field activities I undertook for this piece, one involved visiting, or more accurately, getting as close as allowed to the bridge. Prior to this visit, I had tried to encounter the bridge in different ways: viewing its aerial images in front of my computer, reading articles about it, and interviewing the relevant personnel. I had also passed underneath it as a passenger in a moving vehicle. Yet, what helped significantly in shaping my thinking was seeing the bridge in person at a closer distance, as well as the path I took to get there. At the time of my visit to Singapore, the bridge was not open to humans. So as not to trespass in the restricted area or disturb the animals that that might have been looking for their way to the bridge, I moved towards the edge of the reserve where it met the road. That way, I could view the bridge front-on and without obstructions. There were no signs in the reserve indicating directions. Often, it was noises from the highway that acted as my guide. There were times when I had to get really close to the ground and move around on all fours as the bushes were overgrown. I imagined myself as a civet assuming its steps, moving carefully but also somewhat aimlessly.

 

Seeing the bridge up close hit me in a visceral way. Without the shielding offered by the steel-

structure of a car, the noises and vibrations were unbearable. I felt anxious and uncomfortable.

I was intensely aware of how the whole environment trembled as it endured the velocity of

non-stop traffic, including heavy trucks. At that point and later on, I couldn’t help thinking

about what this experience would be like for potential animal users, whose habitats have been

fragmented for decades as a result of the construction of the highway. Perhaps they would now

only rely on this bridge to connect to the other side of the forest. I learnt from my interviews with

local conservationists that many animals, and particularly the shy ones, would probably never make

it to the ecological bridge. And yet this same bridge has been heavily promoted as a site that

exemplifies Singapore’s  commitment to sustainability and as a viable urban solution. I think the

bridge itself is marvellous in that it represents a kind of hope and respect for contingency. But it

is important not to forget that these green infrastructures are ultimately the consequence of some

of the broken movements caused by desires for humans’ own mobility and drive for velocity.

Remembering this may prevent this type of ecological path from being used as an “ethical bypass

(Franklin) for further other development work.

 

What makes this case ironic is that a new underground railway, positioned as a sustainable movement option,will run underneath the same reserve. This project was granted full approval in December 2019. The transport authority pledged the implementation of comprehensive mitigation methods for potential ecological damages. And yet re-imagining more inclusive and democratic urban transportation, I believe, demands that we respect  unknowability. The significance of ecological damages is often undermined because of the fact that their impacts are categorized as unknown or unpredictable. This speaks to a prevailing bias of epistemic certainty in humans’ ability to mitigate environmental risks through engineering. Many cities around the world have outlined the need to further expand transportation infrastructure as a particular version of human-centric sustainable mobility. I think it is important and urgent to trouble some of the taken-for-granted ways in which we approach urban mobilities. This includes challenging the premise that mass transit, which privileges human comfort, automatically equates to sustainable movement. A more inclusive form of urban movement would attend instead to the various mobilities, and their interplays, that are required to sustain diverse entities. It would emerge as a more ‘difficult’ and less straight-forward practice, yet at the same time one that is more supportive of permeable, ethical, and imaginative ways of moving. 

        As well as a doctoral candidate, you are also a writer and poet. In what ways do poetry and literary writing inform your academic research and vice versa, and how does the medium and form of poetry in particular enable other ways of thinking and expressing more-than-human worlds?

 

Before I answer this Sophie, I must confess that I have not written much poetry in the past year. I am desperately looking forward to reading and writing more poems and essays after submitting my Ph.D. thesis, as I now have a large repertoire of materials. But to return to your question, I think that these divergent forms of writing - academic, poetic, literary - share many essential elements in common. They advocate certain ideas and seek connections between multiple realities. They are motivated by curiosity and grounded in ethics and responsibility. For me, poetry, literary writing, and critical articles are all means to re-imagine and open up space for more possible lives. Perhaps the difference for me is that I am able to indulge in negative space more freely in poetry and creative writing - to incorporate the unsaid and deliberate absence. In academic research, I am trained to lay things out with more clarity, to be more precise, and to do more work in terms of unpacking ideas, theories, and concepts. 

 

Poetry is energetic, forceful, and less apologetic (this is entirely a personal perspective, many academic writing pieces are also provocative). Sometimes, writing poems is a more direct way for me to respond to my emotions and to my thinking. Writing poems can take me to a liminal space, allowing me to settle and to suspend. The historical, social, cultural, and political knowledge I have gained through research (academic or not) has helped me to improve my poetry and literary writing, to garner more force, and to honor the topic I am writing about in different ways, particularly at the refining stage. I am still learning how to integrate these modes of writing - in other words, how to be both performative and informative in my writing. 

 

I think poetry and some forms of literary writing are very hospitable to dialogic and carnivalesque narratives, which can be incredibly useful in thinking with and about more-than-human worlds. Such narratives also help in capturing/visualising/expressing a multiplicity of relations and subverting existing hierarchies. Some poetic techniques are particularly great in depicting the vibrancies of the more-than-human world. For example, I am thinking, very crudely, of rhythm and movements, forms of poems and shapes of the more-than-human, defamiliarization and cyborgs. Having said this, storying has been increasingly deployed in academic writing, and particularly in the field of the Environmental Humanities. Deborah Bird Rose, Thom van Dooren, and many other scholars' academic work is grounded in haunting and incredibly rich stories. I am also a big fan of Stephen Muecke’s fictocritical writing, which moves between various forms of writing fluidly. 

       Finally, Jamie, what advice would you give to young scholars interested in studying more-than-human worlds? 

 

I worked in finance and IT for a decade before returning to undertake a Master of Arts in literature, which led to my current PhD project. In my initial research proposal, I did not attend to more-than-human worlds carefully. My commitment to re-imagining a more-than-human city grew from my desire to explore how a city could be more just and sustainable. As I started my work, I quickly realized that the more-than-human was central to my research topics. It is impossible to tell a meaningful story about urban development or to examine environmental issues without weaving in the storylines of the more-than-human. In other words, I cannot intervene in human-centred, high-tech, capitalist modes of urban development without foregrounding more-than-human beings. 

 

So my advice here is less for scholars who have already committed to more-than-human

worlds, than for ones who may have not yet have given much thought to more-than-human

worlds in their work so far. Thinking of and with the more-than-human should be foregrounded,

or at a minimum, seriously considered in most research topics. The more you try to make

more-than-human worlds visible, or let them take the lead in your stories, the more clarity you

may find in the many complicated and paradoxical issues you are grappling with. 

 

In addition, I have found discussing my research with people who do not work in the same field as me, or who are not necessarily passionate about my topics or about more-than-human worlds, to be of great help. These conversations have very much tested my understanding and knowledge of my own work. They are also great in reminding me to make my presentations more interesting and engaging. Finally, we all learn in different ways. For me, coming at this project from a very different professional background, I am indebted to my supervisors and to the colleagues I have met along the way. Hopefully, you too will be lucky enough to find supervisors, mentors, and colleagues whose work, thinking, and ethics touch you - people who guide you patiently and at the same time allow you to navigate your own path. 

“A more inclusive form of urban movement attends to the various mobilities and interplays required to sustain diverse entities. It may emerge as a more ‘difficult’ and less straight-forward practice, yet at the same time one that is more supportive of permeable, ethical, and imaginative ways of moving.

“It is impossible to tell a meaningful story of urban development or to examine environmental issues without weaving in the storylines of the more-than-human.”

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